Shift, p.46
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       Shift, p.46

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
Page 46


  On the sixth night of being alone, unable to sleep, Jimmy tried to make himself drowsy by flipping through the book on the desk labelled Order. It was a strange read, each page referencing other pages, and filled with accounts of all the horrible things that could happen, how to prevent them, how to mitigate inevitable disasters. Jimmy looked for an entry on finding oneself completely and utterly alone. There was nothing in the index. And then Jimmy remembered what was in all the hundreds of metal cases lining the bookshelf beside the desk. Maybe there was something in one of those books that could help him.

  He checked the small labels on the lower portion of each tin, went to the Li–Lo box for ‘loneliness’. There was a soft sigh as he cracked the tin, like a can of soup sucking at the air. Jimmy slid the book out and flipped towards the back where he thought he’d find the entry.

  Instead, he came across the sight of a great machine with large wheels like the wooden toy dog he’d owned as a kid. Fearsome and black with a pointy nose, the machine loomed impossibly large over the man standing in front of it. Jimmy waited for the man to move, but rubbing it, he found it just to be a picture like on his dad’s work ID, but one so glossy and vivid in colour that it looked to be real.

  Locomotive, Jimmy read. He knew these words. The first part meant ‘crazy’. The second part was a person’s reason for doing something. He studied this image, wondering what crazy reason someone would have of making this picture. Jimmy carefully turned the page, hoping to find more on this loco motive—

  He screamed and dropped the book when the page flopped over. He hopped around and brushed himself with both hands, waiting for the bug to disappear down his shirt or bite him. He stood on his mattress and waited for his heart to stop pounding. Jimmy eyed the flopped-open tome on the ground, expecting a swarm to fly out like the pests in the farms, but nothing moved.

  He approached the book and flipped it over with his foot. The damn bug was just another picture, the page folded over and creased where he’d dropped it. Jimmy smoothed the page, read the word locust out loud, and wondered just what sort of book this was supposed to be. It was nothing like the children’s books he’d grown up with, nothing like the pulp paper they taught with at school.

  Flipping the cover over, Jimmy saw that this was different from the book on the desk, which had been embossed with the word Order. This one was labelled Legacy. He flipped through it a pinch at a time, bright pictures on every page, paragraphs of words and descriptions, a vast fiction of impossible deeds and impossible things, all in a single book.

  Not in a single book, he told himself. Jimmy glanced up at the massive shelves bulging with metal tins, each one labelled and arranged in alphabetical order. He searched again for the locomotive, a machine on wheels that dwarfed a grown man. He found the entry and shuffled back to his mattress and his twisted tangle of sheets. A week of solitude was drawing to a close, but there was no chance that Jimmy would be getting any sleep. Not for a very long while.



  • Silo 1 •

  DONALD WAITED IN the comm room for his first briefing with the head of eighteen. To pass the time, he twisted the knobs and dials that allowed him to cycle through that silo’s camera feeds. From a single seat, he had a view of all of the world’s residents. He could nudge their fates from a distance if he liked. He could end them all with the press of a button. While he lived on and on, freezing and thawing, these mortals went through routines, lived and died, unaware that he even existed.

  ‘It’s like the afterlife,’ he muttered.

  The operator at the next station turned and regarded him silently, and Donald realised he’d spoken aloud. He faced the man, whose bushy black hair looked as though it’d last been combed a century ago. ‘It’s just that . . . it’s like a view from the heavens,’ he explained, indicating the monitor.

  ‘It’s a view of something,’ the operator agreed and took a bite of a sandwich. On his screen, one woman seemed to be yelling at another, a finger jabbed in the other woman’s face. It was a sitcom without the laugh track.

  Donald worked on keeping his mouth shut. He dialled in the cafeteria on eighteen and watched its people huddle around a wall screen. It was a small crowd. They gazed out at the lifeless hills, perhaps awaiting their departed cleaner’s return, perhaps silently dreaming about what lay beyond those quiet crests. Donald wanted to tell them that she wouldn’t be coming back, that there was nothing beyond that rise, even though he secretly shared their dreams. He longed to send up one of the drones to look, but Eren had told him the drones weren’t for sightseeing – they were for dropping bombs. They had a limited range, he said. The air out there would tear them to shreds. Donald wanted to show Eren his hand, mottled and pink, and tell him that he’d been out on that hill and back. He wanted to ask if the air outside was really so bad.

  Hope. That’s what this was. Dangerous hope. He watched the people in the cafeteria staring at the wall screen and felt a kinship with them. This was how the gods of old got in trouble, how they ended up smitten with mortals and tangled in their affairs. Donald laughed to himself. He thought of this cleaner with her thick folder and how he might’ve intervened if he’d had the chance. He might’ve given her a gift of life if he were able. Apollo, doting on Daphne.

  The comm officer glanced over at Donald’s monitor, that view of the wall screen, and Donald felt himself being studied. He switched to a different camera. It was the hallway of what looked like a school. Lockers lined either side. A child stood on her tiptoes and opened one of the upper ones, pulled out a small bag, turned and seemed to say something to someone off-camera. Life going on as usual.

  ‘The call’s coming through now,’ the operator behind them said. The man with the sandwich put it down and sat forward. He brushed the crumbs off his chest and switched his view of two women arguing to one of a room full of black cabinets. Donald grabbed a pair of headphones and pulled the two folders off the desk. The one on the top was two inches thick. It was about the missing cleaner. Beneath that was a much thinner folder with a potential shadow’s name on it. A man’s voice came through his headphones.


  Donald glanced up at his monitor. A figure stood behind one of the black cabinets. He was pudgy and short, unless it was the distortion from the camera lens.

  ‘Report,’ Donald said. He flipped open the folder marked Lukas Kyle. He knew from his last shift that the system would make his voice sound flat, make all their voices sound the same.

  ‘I picked out a shadow as you requested, sir. A good kid. He’s done work on the servers before, so his access has already been vetted. ’

  How meek this man. Donald reckoned he would feel the same way, knowing his world could be ended at the press of a button. Fear like that puts a man at odds with his ego.

  The operator beside Donald leaned over and peeled back the top page in the folder for him. He tapped his finger on something a few lines down. Donald scanned the report.

  ‘You looked at Mr Kyle as a possible replacement two years ago. ’ Donald glanced up to watch the man behind the comm server wipe the back of his neck.

  ‘That’s right,’ the head of eighteen said. ‘We didn’t think he was ready. ’

  ‘Your office filed a report on Mr Kyle as a possible gazer. Says here he’s logged a few hundred hours in front of the wall screen. What’s changed your mind?’

  ‘That was a preliminary report, sir. It came from another . . . potential shadow. A bit overeager, a gentleman we found more suited for the security team. I assure you that Mr Kyle does not dream of the outside. He only goes up at night—’ The man cleared his throat, seemed to hesitate. ‘To look at the stars, sir. ’

  ‘The stars. ’

  ‘That’s right. ’

  Donald glanced over at the operator beside him, who polished off his sandwich. The operator shrugged. The silo head broke the silence.

>   ‘He’s the best man for the job, sir. I knew his father. Stern sonofabitch. You know what they say about the treads and the rails, sir. ’

  Donald had no idea what they said about the treads and the rails. It was nothing but stair analogies from these silos. He wondered what this Bernard would say if the man ever saw a lift. The thought nearly elicited a chuckle.

  ‘Your choice of shadow has been approved,’ Donald said. ‘Get him on the Legacy as soon as possible. ’

  ‘He’s studying right now, sir. ’

  ‘Good. Now, what’s the latest on this uprising?’ Donald felt himself hurrying along, performing rote tasks so he could get back to his more pressing studies.

  The silo head glanced back towards the camera. This mortal knew damn well where the eyes of gods lay hidden. ‘Mechanical is holed up pretty tight. They put up a fight on their retreat down, but we routed them good. There’s a . . . bit of a barricade, but we should be through it any time now. ’

  The operator leaned forward and grabbed Donald’s attention. He pointed two fingers at his eyes, then at one of the blank screens on the top row, indicating one of the cameras that had gone out during the uprising. Donald knew what he was getting at.

  ‘Any idea how they knew about the cameras?’ he asked. ‘You know we’re blind over here from one-forty down, right?’

  ‘Yessir. We . . . I can only assume they’ve known about them for a while. They do their own wiring down there. I’ve been in person. It’s a nest of pipes and cables. We don’t think anyone tipped them off. ’

  ‘You don’t think. ’

  ‘Nossir. But we’re working on getting someone in there. I’ve got a priest we can send in to bless their dead. A good man. Shadowed with Security. I promise it won’t be long. ’

  ‘Fine. Make sure it isn’t. We’ll be over here cleaning up your mess, so get the rest of your house in order. ’

  ‘Yessir. I will. ’

  The three men in the comm room watched this Bernard remove his headset and return it to the cabinet. He wiped his forehead with a rag. While the others were distracted, Donald did the same, wiping the sweat off his brow with a handkerchief he’d requisitioned. He picked up the two folders and studied the operator beside him, who had a fresh trail of breadcrumbs down his overalls.

  ‘Keep a close eye on him,’ Donald said.

  ‘Oh, I will. ’

  Donald returned his headset to the rack and got up to leave. Pausing at the door, he looked back and saw the screen in front of the operator had divided into four squares. In one, a roomful of black towers stood like silent sentinels. Two women were having a row in another.



  • Silo 1 •

  DONALD TOOK HIS notes and rode the lift to the cafeteria. He arrived to find it was too early for breakfast, but there was still coffee in the dispenser from the night before. He selected a chipped mug from the drying rack and filled it. A gentleman behind the serving line lifted the handle on an industrial washer, and the stainless steel box opened and let loose a cloud of steam. The man waved a dishrag at the cloud, then used it to pull out metal trays that would soon hold reconstituted eggs and slices of freeze-dried toast.

  Donald tried the coffee. It was cold and weak but he didn’t mind. It suited him. He nodded to the man prepping for breakfast, who dipped his head in reply.

  Donald turned and took in the view splayed across the wall screen. Here was the mystery. The documents in his folders were nothing compared to this. He approached the dusky vista where swirling clouds were just beginning to glow from a sun rising invisibly beyond the hills. He wondered what was out there. People died when they were sent to clean. They died on the hills when silos were shut down. But he had survived. And as far as he knew, so had the men who had dragged him back.

  He studied his hand in the dim light leaking from the wall screen. His palm seemed a little pink to him, a little raw. But then, he had scrubbed it half a dozen times for the last few nights and each morning. He couldn’t shake the feeling that it had been tainted. He pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket and coughed into its folds.

  ‘I’ll have potatoes ready in a few minutes,’ the man behind the counter called out. Another worker in green overalls emerged from the back, cinching an apron around his waist. Donald wanted to know who these people were, what their lives were like, what they were thinking. For six months, they served three meals a day, and then hibernated for decades. Then they did it all over again. They must believe they were heading somewhere. Or did they not care? Was it a case of following the tracks laid down yesterday? A boot in a hole, a boot in a hole, round and round. Did these men see themselves as deck hands on some great ark with a noble purpose? Or were they walking in circles simply because they knew the way?

  Donald remembered running for Congress, thinking he was going to do real good for the future. And then he found himself in an office surrounded by a bewildering tempest of rules, memos and messages, and he quickly learned just to pray for the end of each day. He went from thinking he was going to save the world to passing the time until . . . until time ran out.

  He sat down in one of the faded plastic chairs and studied the folder in his pink hand. Two inches thick. Nichols, Juliette was written on the tab, followed by an ID number for internal purposes. He could smell the toner from the newly printed pages. It seemed a waste, printing out so much nonsense. Somewhere, down in the vast storeroom, supplies were dwindling. And somewhere else, down the hall from his own office, a person was keeping track of it all, making sure there were just enough potatoes, just enough toner, just enough light bulbs, to get them through to the end.

  Donald glanced over the reports. He spread them out across the empty table and thought of Anna and his last shift as he did so, the way they had smothered that war room with clues. He felt a pang of guilt and regret that Anna so often entered his thoughts before Helen could.
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