Shift, p.49
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       Shift, p.49

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
Page 49


  Jimmy wasn’t ready. His palms were slick on the gun, his heart racing. This was one of those things expected and expected. Expected so hard, with so much fervour and concentration, like blowing up a plastic bag over and over, watching it stretch out big and thin in front of your eyes, knowing it was about to burst, knowing, knowing, and when it comes, it scares you as if it’d never been expected at all.

  This was one of those things. The door opened further. There was a person on the other side. A person. And for a moment, for the briefest of pauses, Jimmy reconsidered a year of planning, a calendar of fear. Here was someone to talk to and listen to. Someone to take a turn with the screwdriver and hammer now that the can opener was broke. Someone with a new can opener, perhaps. Here was a Project Partner like his dad used to—

  A face. A man with an angry sneer. A year of planning, of shooting empty tomato cans, of ringing ears and reloading, of oiling barrels and reading – and now a human face in a crack in the door.

  Jimmy pulled the trigger. The barrel leapt upward. And the angry sneer turned to something else: startlement mixed with sorrow. The man fell down, but another was pushing past him, bursting into the room, something black in his hand.

  Again, the barrel leapt and leapt, and Jimmy’s eyes blinked with the bangs. Three shots. Three bullets. The running man kept coming, but he had the same sad look on his face, a look fading as he fell, crumbling just a few paces away.

  Jimmy waited for the next man. He heard him out there, cursing loudly. And the first man he’d shot was still moving around, like an empty can that danced and danced long after it was hit. The door was open. The outside and the inside were connected. The man who had opened the door lifted his head, something worse than sorrow on his face, and suddenly it was his father out there. His father lying just beyond the door, dying in the hallway. And Jimmy didn’t know why that would be.

  The cursing grew faint. The man out in the hallway was moving away, and Jimmy took his first full breath since the door had beeped and the light had turned green. He didn’t have a pulse; his heart was just one long beat that wouldn’t stop. A thrumming like the insides of a whirring server.

  He listened to the last man slink away, and Jimmy knew he had his chance to close the door. He got up and ran around the dead man who had fallen inside the server room, a black pistol near his lifeless hand. Lowering his gun, Jimmy prepared to shoulder the door shut, when the thought of tomorrow, or that night, or the next hour occurred to him.

  The retreating man now knew the number. He was taking it with him.

  ‘Twelve-eighteen,’ Jimmy whispered.

  He poked his head out the door for a quick look. There was a brief glimpse of a man disappearing into an office. Just a flash of green overalls, and then an empty hall, impossibly long and bright.

  The dying man outside the door groaned and writhed. Jimmy ignored him. He pulled the gun against his arm and braced it like he’d practised. The little notches lined up with each other and pointed towards the edge of the office door. Jimmy imagined a can of soup out there, hovering in the hall. He breathed and waited. The groaning man on the other side of the threshold crawled closer, bloody palms slapping a spot of floor. There was that ache in the centre of his skull, an ancient scar across his memories. Jimmy aimed at the nothingness in the hallway and thought of his mother and father. Some part of him knew they were gone, that they had left somewhere and would never return. The notches dropped out of alignment as his barrel trembled.

  The man by his feet drew closer. Groans had turned to a hissing. Jimmy glanced down and saw red bubbles frothing on the man’s lips. His beard was fuller than Jimmy’s and soaked in blood. Jimmy looked away. He watched the spot in the hallway where his rifle was trained and counted.

  He was at thirty-two when he felt fingers pawing weakly at his boots.

  It was on fifty-one that a head peeked out like a sneaky soup can.

  Jimmy’s finger squeezed. There was a kick to his shoulder and a blossom of bright red down the hall.

  He waited a moment, took a deep breath, then pulled his boot away from the hand reaching up his ankle. He placed his shoulder against a door hanging dangerously open and pushed. Locks whirred and made thunking sounds deep within the walls. He only heard them dimly. He dropped his gun and covered his face with his palms while nearby a man lay dying in the server room. Inside the server room. Jimmy wept, and the keypad chirped happily before falling silent, patiently waiting for yet another day.



  • Silo 1 •

  AROW OF FAMILIAR clipboards hung on the wall in Dr Wilson’s office. Donald remembered scratching his name on them with mock ceremony. He remembered signing off on himself once, authorising his own deep freeze. There was a twinge of unease at the thought of signing those forms right then. What would he write? His hand would shake as he scribbled someone else’s name.

  In the middle of the office, an empty gurney brought back bad memories. A fresh sheet had been tucked military crisp on top of it, ready for the next to be put to sleep. Dr Wilson checked his computer for the next to be woken while his two assistants prepped. One of them stirred two scoops of green powder into a container of warm water. Donald could smell the concoction across the room. It made his cheeks pucker, but he took careful note of which cabinet the powder came from, how much was spooned in, and asked any question that came to mind.

  The other assistant folded a clean blanket and draped it over the back of a wheelchair. There was a paper gown. An emergency medical kit was unpacked and repacked: gloves, meds, gauze, bandages, tape. It was all done with a quiet efficiency. Donald was reminded of the men behind the serving counter who laid out breakfast with the same habitual care.

  A number was read aloud to confirm who they were waking. This reactor tech, like Donald’s sister, had been reduced to a number, a place within a grid, a cell in a spreadsheet. As if made-up names were any better. Suddenly, Donald saw how easily his switch could’ve taken place. He watched as paperwork was filled out – his signature not needed – and dropped into a box. This was a part of the process he could ignore. There would be no trace of what he had planned.

  Dr Wilson led them out the door. The assistants followed with their wheelchair full of supplies, and Donald trailed behind.

  The tech they were waking was two levels down, which meant taking the lift. One of the assistants idly remarked that he had only three days left on his shift.

  ‘Lucky you,’ the other assistant said.

  ‘Yeah, so be easy with my catheter,’ he joked, and even Dr Wilson laughed.

  Donald didn’t. He was busy wondering what the final shift would be like. Nobody seemed to think much past the next shift. They looked forward to one ending and dreaded seeing another. It reminded him of Washington, where everyone he worked alongside hoped to make it to the next term even as they loathed running for another. Donald had fallen into that same trap.

  The lift doors opened on another chilled hall. Here were rooms full of shift workers, the majority of the silo’s population-in-waiting spread out across two identical levels. Dr Wilson led them down the hall and coded them through the third door on the right. A hall of sleeping bodies angled off into the distance until it met the concrete skin of the silo. ‘Twenty down and four over,’ he said, pointing.

  They made their way to the pod. It was the first time Donald had seen this part of the procedure. He had helped put others under, but had never helped wake anyone up. Storing Victor’s body away was something altogether different. That had been a funeral.

  The assistants busied themselves around the pod. Dr Wilson knelt by the control panel, paused, glanced up at Donald, waiting.

  ‘Right,’ Donald said. He knelt and watched over the doctor’s shoulder.

  ‘Most of the process is automated,’ the doctor admitted sheepishly. ‘Frankly, they could replace me with a trained monkey an
d nobody would know the difference. ’ He glanced back at Donald as he keyed in his code and pressed a red button. ‘I’m like you, Shepherd. Only here in case something goes wrong. ’

  The doctor smiled. Donald didn’t.

  ‘It’ll be a few minutes before the hatch pops. ’ He tapped the display. ‘The temperature here will get up to thirty-one Celsius. The bloodstream is getting an injection when this light is flashing. ’

  The light was flashing.

  ‘An injection of what?’ Donald asked.

  ‘Nanos. The freezing procedure would kill a normal human being, which I suppose is why it was outlawed. ’

  A normal human being. Donald wondered what the hell that made him. He lifted his palm and studied the red splotchiness. He remembered a glove tumbling down a hill.

  ‘Twenty-eight,’ Dr Wilson said. ‘When it hits thirty, the lid will release. Now’s when I like to go ahead and reset the dial, rather than wait until the end. Just so I don’t forget. ’ He twisted the dial below the temp readout. ‘It doesn’t stop the process. It only runs one direction once it starts. ’

  ‘What if something goes wrong?’ Donald asked.

  Dr Wilson frowned. ‘I told you. That’s why I’m here. ’

  ‘But what if something happened to you? Or you got called away?’

  The doctor tugged his earlobe, thinking. ‘I would advise putting them back under until I could get to them. ’ He laughed. ‘Of course, the nanos might just fix what’s wrong before I could. As long as you dial the temp back down, all you have to do is close the lid. But I don’t see how that could come up. ’

  Donald did. He watched the temperature tick up to twenty-nine. The two assistants prepped while they waited for the pod to open. One had a towel set aside, along with the blanket and the paper gown. The medical kit sat in the wheelchair, the top open. Both men wore blue rubber gloves. One of them peeled off a strip of tape and hung it from the handle of the wheelchair. A packet of gauze was pre-emptively torn open, the bitter drink given a vigorous shake.

  ‘And my code will start the procedure?’ Donald asked, thinking of anything he might be missing.

  Dr Wilson chuckled. He placed his hands on his knees and was slow to stand. ‘I imagine your code would open the airlock. Is there anything you don’t have access to?’

  A glove was snapped. The hatch hissed as the lock disengaged.

  The truth, Donald wanted to say. But he was planning on getting it soon enough.

  The lid popped open a crack, and one of the assistants lifted it the rest of the way. A handsome young man lay inside, his cheeks twitching as he came to. The assistants went to work, and Donald tried to make note of every little part of the procedure. He thought of his sister in a hall above him, lying asleep, waiting.

  ‘Once we get him up to the office,’ said Dr Wilson, ‘we’ll check his vitals and take our samples for analysis. If they have any items in their locker, I send one of the boys to retrieve them. ’

  ‘Locker?’ Donald watched as a catheter was removed, a needle extracted from an arm. The tape and gauze were applied while the man in the pod sucked from a straw, wincing from the bitterness as he did so.

  ‘Personal effects. Anything set aside from their previous shift. We retrieve those for them. ’

  The assistants helped the man into the paper gown, then grunted as they lifted him from the steaming pod. Donald moved the medical kit and steadied the wheelchair for them. The blanket was already laid out across the seat. While they settled the man into place, Donald thought of the bag marked Shift left on his bed, the one with Thurman’s personal effects in them. There had been a small number marked on the bag similar to the one in Anna’s note. That number in the note wasn’t a date at all.

  And then it hit him. Locket was a typo. He tried to picture where the R and T were on a keyboard, if this was a likely mistake. Had she meant to say locker instead?

  The confluence of clues cut through the chill in the room, and for a moment, the idea of waking his sister was forgotten. Other sleeping ghosts were whispering to him, clouding his mind.



  • Silo 1 •

  DONALD HELPED ESCORT the groggy man up to the medical offices while one of the assistants stayed behind to scrub the pod. Not caring to see Dr Wilson take his samples, Donald volunteered to go and grab the tech’s personal items. The assistant gave him directions to one of the storage levels in the heart of the silo.

  There were sixteen levels of stores in all, not counting the armoury. Donald entered the lift and pressed the worn-out button for the storeroom on fifty-seven. The reactor tech’s ID number had been scribbled on a piece of paper. The number from Anna’s note to Thurman was vivid in his mind. He had assumed it was a date: 2 November 2039. It made the number easy to recall.

  The lift slowed to a stop, and Donald stepped through the doors and into darkness. He ran his hand down the bank of light switches along the wall. The bulbs overhead sparked to life with the distant and muted thunks of ancient transformers and relays jolting into action. A maze of tall shelves revealed itself in stages as the lights popped on first in the distance, then close, then off to the right, like some mosaic unmasked one random piece at a time. The lockers were in the very back, past the shelves. Donald began the long walk while the last of the bulbs flickered on.

  Cliffs of steel shelves laden with sealed plastic tubs swallowed him. The containers seemed to lean in over his head. If he glanced up, he almost expected the shelves to touch high above, to meet like train tracks. Huge swathes of tubs were empty and unlabelled, he saw, waiting for future shifts to fill them. All the notes he and Anna had generated on his last shift would be in tubs like these. They would preserve the tale of silo forty and all those unfortunate facilities around them. They would tell of the people of silo eighteen and Donald’s efforts to save them. And maybe he shouldn’t have. What if this current debacle, this vagabond cleaner, was his fault in some way?
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