Shift, p.47
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       Shift, p.47

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
Page 47


  The reports were a welcome distraction while he awaited the sunrise and his food. Here was a story about a cleaner who had been a sheriff, though not for long. One of the top reports in her folder was from the current head of eighteen, a memo on this cleaner’s lack of qualifications. Donald read a list of reasons this woman should not be given a mantle of power, and it was as though he were reading about himself. It seemed the mayor of eighteen – an old woman called Jahns, a politician like Thurman – had wrangled this woman into the job, had recruited her despite the objections. It wasn’t even clear that this Nichols, a mechanic from the lower levels, even wanted the job. In another report from the silo head, Donald read about her defiance, culminating in a walk out of sight and a refusal to clean. Again, it felt all too familiar to Donald. Or was he looking for these similarities? Isn’t that what people did? Saw in others what they feared to see or hoped to see in themselves?

  The hills outside brightened by degrees. Donald glanced up from the reports and studied the mounds of dirt. He remembered the video feed he’d been shown of this cleaner disappearing over a similarly grey dune. Now the panic among his colleagues was that the residents of eighteen would be filled with a dangerous sort of hope – the kind of hope that leads to violence. The far graver threat, of course, was that this cleaner had made it to another facility, that those in another silo might discover they were not alone.

  Donald did not think it likely. She couldn’t have lasted long, and there was little to discover in the direction she had wandered. He pulled out the other folder, the one on silo seventeen.

  There had been no warning before its collapse, no increase in violence. The population graphs appeared normal. He flipped through pages of typed documents from various division heads downstairs. Everyone had their theory, and of course each saw the collapse through the lens of their own expertise, or attributed it to the incompetence of another division. Population Control blamed a lax IT department. IT blamed a hardware failure. Engineering blamed programming. And the on-duty comm officer, who liaised with IT and each individual silo head, thought it was sabotage, an attempt to prevent a cleaning.

  Donald sensed something familiar about the breakdown of silo seventeen, something he couldn’t place. The camera feeds had gone out, but not before a brief view of people spilling out of the airlock. There had been an exodus, a panic, mass hysteria. And then a blackout. Comm had placed several calls. The first had been answered by the IT shadow, seventeen’s second-in-charge. There was a short exchange with this Russ fellow, questions fired from both ends, and then Russ had broken the connection.

  The follow-up call had gone unanswered for hours. During this time, the silo went dark. And then someone else picked up the line.

  Donald coughed into his handkerchief and read this unusual exchange. The officer on duty claimed the respondent sounded young. It was a male, not a shadow or the head, and he had asked a flurry of questions. One stood out to Donald. The person in seventeen, with only minutes left to live, had asked what was going on down on level forty.

  Level forty. Donald didn’t need to grab a schematic to check – he had designed the facilities. He knew every level like the back of his hand. Level forty was a mixed-use level with half to housing, a quarter to light agriculture, the rest to commercial. What could be going on down there? And why would this person, who must’ve been at the limits of survival, care?

  He read the exchange again. It almost sounded as though the young man’s last contact had been with level forty, as if he’d just spoken with them. Maybe he’d come from down there? It was only six levels away. Donald imagined a frightened boy storming up the stairwell with thousands of others. News of an opened airlock, of death below, people chasing upward. This young man gets to level thirty-four, and the crush of people is too much. IT has already emptied. He finds his way into the server room—

  No. Donald shook his head. That wasn’t right. None of that felt right. What was it about this that nagged him?

  It was the blackout. Donald felt a chill run up his spine. It was the number forty. It was the silo, not the level. The report trembled in his hands. He wanted to jump up and pace the cafeteria, but all he had was the germ of a connection, the hint of an outline. He fought to connect the dots before the ideas melted away, disturbed by a rush of adrenalin.

  It was silo forty he had spoken with. The boy had found himself at the back of seventeen’s comm station. He didn’t know it was a silo calling at all. That would be why he’d called it a level and had wondered what was happening down there. This blackout, this lack of contact, it was just like the silos Anna had been working on.


  Donald thought about the note she had left, asking Thurman to wake her. She was asleep below. She would know what to do. She should’ve been woken and put in charge, not him. He gathered the reports and papers and put them back into the proper folders. Workers were beginning to arrive from the lifts. The smell of reconstituted eggs floated out from the kitchen, the swinging doors pumping the aroma with the traffic of the bustling food staff, but Donald had forgotten his hunger.

  He glanced up at the wall screen. Would anyone on shift right now know of silo forty? Maybe not. They wouldn’t have made the same connection. Thurman and the others had kept the outbreak a secret, didn’t want to cause a panic. But what if silo forty was still out there? What if they’d contacted seventeen? Anna said the master system had been hacked, that silo forty had hacked them. They had cut several facilities off from silo one before Anna and Thurman had been woken to terminate them all. But what if they hadn’t? What if this silo seventeen wasn’t destroyed? What if it was still there, and this cleaner had stumbled into the bowl to find—

  Donald had a sudden urge to go see for himself, to stroll outside and dash up to the top of the hill, suit be damned. He left the wall screen and headed towards the airlock.

  Perhaps he would need to wake Anna, just as Thurman had. He could set her up in the armoury. There was a blueprint for doing this from his last shift, only he didn’t have anyone he could trust to help. He didn’t know the first thing about waking people up. But he was in charge, right? He could demand to know.

  He left the cafeteria and approached the silo’s airlock, that great yellow door to the open world beyond. The outside wasn’t as bad as he had been led to believe. Unless he was simply immune. There were machines in his blood that kept him stitched up when he was frozen. Perhaps they had kept him alive out there. He approached the inner airlock door and peered through the small porthole. The memory of being in there struck him with sudden violence. He tucked the two folders under his elbow and rubbed his arm where the needle had bitten into his flesh long ago, putting him to sleep. What was out there? The light spilling through the holding cell bars flickered as a dust cloud passed, and Donald realised how strange it was that they had a wall screen in silo one. The people here knew what they’d done to the world. Why did they need to see the ruin they’d left behind?


  Unless the purpose was the same as for the other silos. Unless it was to keep them from going outside, a haunting reminder that the planet was not safe for them. But what did they really know beyond the silos? And how could a man hope to see for himself?



  • Silo 1 •

  IT TOOK A few days of planning and building up the nerve for Donald to make the request, and a few days more for Dr Wilson to schedule an appointment. During that time he told Eren about his suspicions of silo forty’s involvement. The flurry of activity launched by this simple guess quickly consumed the silo. Donald signed off on a requisition for a bombing run, even though he didn’t quite understand what he was signing. Little-used levels of the silo – levels familiar to Donald from before – were reawakened. Days later, he didn’t feel the rumble or the ground shake, but others claimed to have. All he found was that a new layer of dust had settled over his thin
gs, shaken loose from the ceiling.

  The day of his meeting with Dr Wilson, he stole down to the main cryopod floor to test his code. He still didn’t fully trust the disguise offered by his loose overalls and the badge with someone else’s name on it. Just the day before, he had seen someone in the gym he thought he recognised from his first shift. It put him in the habit of slinking instead of strutting. And so he shuffled down the hall of frozen bodies and entered his code into the keypad warily. He expected red lights and warning buzzes. Instead, the light above the Emergency Personnel label flashed green, and the lock clanked. Donald glanced down the hall to see if anyone was watching as he pulled the door open and slipped inside.

  The little-used cryochamber was a fraction of the size of the others and only one level deep. Standing inside the door, Donald could picture how the main deep freeze wrapped around this much smaller room. This was a mere bump along great walls that stretched nearly out of sight. And yet it contained something far more precious. To him, anyway.

  He picked his way through the pods and peeked in at the frozen faces. It was difficult to remember being there with Thurman on his previous shift, hard to recall the exact spot, but he eventually found her. He checked the small screen and remembered thinking it didn’t matter what her name was, saw that there wasn’t one assigned. Just a number.

  ‘Hey, sis. ’

  His fingertips sang against the glass as he rubbed the frost away. He recalled their parents with sadness. He wondered how much Charlotte knew of this place and Thurman’s plans before she came here. He hoped nothing. He liked to think her less culpable than him.

  Seeing her brought back memories of her visit to DC. She had wasted a precious furlough on campaigning for Thurman and seeing her brother. Charlotte had given him a hard time when she found out he’d lived in DC for two years and hadn’t been to any of the museums. It didn’t matter how busy he was, she’d said. It was unforgivable. ‘They’re free,’ she told him, as if that were reason enough.

  So they had gone to the Air and Space Museum together. Donald remembered waiting to get in. He remembered a scale model of the solar system on the sidewalk outside the museum entrance. Although the inner planets were located just a few strides apart, Pluto was blocks away, down past the Hirshhorn Museum, impossibly distant. Now, as he gazed at his sister’s frozen form, that day in his memory felt the same way. Impossibly distant. A tiny dot.

  Later that afternoon, she had dragged him to the Holocaust Museum. Donald had been avoiding going since moving to Washington. Maybe it was the reason he avoided the National Mall altogether. Everyone told him it was something he had to see. ‘You must go,’ they’d say. ‘It’s important. ’ They used words like ‘powerful’ and ‘haunting’. They said it would change his life. They said this – but their eyes warned him.

  His sister had pulled him up the steps, his heart heavy with dread. The building had been constructed as a reminder, but Donald didn’t want to be reminded. He was on his meds by then to help him forget what he was reading in the Order, to keep him from feeling as though the world might end at any moment. Such barbarisms as that building contained were buried in the past, he’d told himself, never to be unearthed or repeated.

  There had been remnants of the museum’s sixtieth anniversary still hanging, sombre signs and banners. A new wing had been installed, cords and stakes holding up fledgling trees and the air scented with mulch. He remembered seeing a group of tourists file out, dabbing at their eyes and shielding themselves from the sun. He had wanted to turn and run, but his sister had held his hand and the man at the ticket booth had already smiled at him. At least it’d been late in the day, so they couldn’t stay long.

  Donald rested his hands on the coffin-like pod and remembered the visit. There had been scenes of torture and starvation. A room full of shoes beyond counting. Walls displayed images of naked bodies folded together, lifeless eyes wide open, ribs and genitals exposed, as mounds of people tumbled into a pit, into a hole scooped out of the earth. Donald couldn’t bear to look at it. He had tried to focus on the bulldozer instead, to look at the man driving the machine, that serene face, a cigarette between pursed lips, a look of steady concentration. A job. There was no solace to be found anywhere in that scene. The man driving the bulldozer was the most horrific part.

  Donald had shrunk away from those grisly exhibits, losing his sister in the darkness. Here was a museum of horrors never to be repeated. Mass burials performed with the opposite of ceremony, with complete apathy. People calmly marched into showers.

  He had sought refuge in a new exhibit called Architects of Death, drawn to the blueprints, to the promise of the familiar and the ordered. He’d found instead a claustrophobic space wallpapered with schematics of slaughter. That exhibit had been no easier to stomach. There was a wall explaining the movement to deny the Holocaust, even after it had happened.

  The array of blueprints had been shown as evidence. That was the purpose of the room. Blueprints that had survived the frantic burnings and purges as the Russians closed in, Himmler’s signature on many of them. The layout of Auschwitz, the gas chambers, everything clearly labelled. Donald had hoped the plans would give him relief from what he saw elsewhere in the museum, but then he had learned that Jewish draughtsmen had been forced to contribute. Their pens had inked in the very walls around them. They had been coerced into sketching the home of their future abuse.

  Donald remembered fumbling for a bottle of pills as the small room spun around him. He remembered wondering how those people could have gone along with it, could have seen what they were drawing and not known. How could they not know, not see what it was for?

  Blinking tears away, he noticed where he was standing. The pods in their neat rows were alien to him, but the walls and floor and ceiling were familiar enough. Donald had helped to design this place. It was here because of him. And when he’d tried to get out, to escape, they had brought him back screaming and kicking, a prisoner behind his own walls.
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