Shift, p.50
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       Shift, p.50

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
 
Page 50

 

  He passed crates sorted by date, by silo, by name. There were cross-cuts between the shelves, narrow aisles wide enough for the carts used to haul blank paper and notebooks out and then bring them back in weighing just a little more from the ink. With relief from his claustrophobia, Donald left the shelves and found the far wall of the facility. He glanced back over his shoulder at how far he’d come, could imagine all the lights going out at once and him not being able to pick his way back to the lift. Maybe he would stagger in circles until he died of thirst. He glanced up at the lights and realised how fragile he was, how reliant on power and light. A familiar wave of fear washed over him, the panic of being buried in the dark. Donald leaned against one of the lockers for a moment and caught his breath. He coughed into his handkerchief and reminded himself that dying wouldn’t be the worst of things.

  Once the panic faded and he’d fought off the urge to sprint back to the lift, he entered the rows of lockers. There must’ve been thousands of them. Many were small, like post office boxes, six or so inches to a side and probably as deep as his arm judging by the width of the units. He mumbled the number from Anna’s note to himself. Erskine’s would be down here as well, and Victor’s. He wondered if those men had any secrets squirrelled away and reminded himself to come back and check.

  The numbers on the lockers ascended as he walked down one of the rows. The first two digits were far from Anna’s number. He turned down one of the connecting aisles to search for the correct row and saw a group that started with 43. His ID number started with 44. Perhaps his locker was near here.

  Donald imagined it would be empty, even as he found himself honing in on his ID number. He had never carried anything from shift to shift. The numbers marched in a predictable series until he found himself standing before a small metal door with his ID number on it, Troy’s ID number. There was no latch, only a button. He pressed it with his knuckle, worried it might have a fingerprint scanner or something equally deserving of his paranoia. What would someone think if they saw Thurman looking in this man’s locker? It was easy to forget the ruse. It was similar to the delay between hearing the Senator’s name and realising Donald was the one being spoken to.

  There was a soft sigh as the locker cracked open, followed by the squeak of old and unused hinges. The sigh reminded Donald that everything down there – the bins and tubs and lockers – was protected from the air. The good, normal air. Even the air they breathed was caustic and full of invisible things, like corrosive oxygen and other hungry molecules. The only difference between the good air and the bad air was the speed at which they worked. People lived and died too quickly to see the difference.

  At least they used to, Donald thought as he reached inside his locker.

  Surprisingly, it wasn’t empty. There was a plastic bag inside, crinkled and vacuum-packed like Thurman’s. Only this bag read Legacy across the top rather than Shift. Inside, he could see a familiar pair of tan slacks and a red shirt. The clothes hammered him with memories. They reminded him of a man he used to be, a world he used to live in. Donald squeezed the bag, which was dense from the absence of air, and glanced up and down the empty aisle.

  Why would they keep these things? Was it so he could emerge from deep underground dressed just as he had been when he arrived? Like an inmate staggering out, blinking and shielding his eyes, dressed in outdated fashion? Or was it because storage was the same thing as disposal? There were two entire levels above this one where unrecyclable trash was compacted into cubes as dense as iron and stacked to the ceiling. Where else were they supposed to put their garbage? In a hole in the ground? They lived in a hole in the ground.

  Donald puzzled over this as he fumbled with the plastic zipper at the top and slid the bag open. A faint odour of mud and grass escaped, a whiff of bygone days. He opened the bag further, and his clothes blossomed to life as air seeped inside. There was an impulse to change into his old clothes, to pretend that his world wasn’t gone. Instead, he decided to shove the bag back into the locker – and then a glimmer caught his eye, a flash of yellow.

  Donald dug down past his clothes and reached for the wedding ring. As he was pulling it out, he felt a hard object inside the slacks. He palmed the ring and reached inside again, felt around, squeezed the folds of his clothes. What had he been carrying that day? Not his pills. He’d lost those in a fall. Not the keys to the ATV, Anna had taken those from him. His own keys and wallet had been in his jacket, had never even made it beneath the earth to orientation—

  His phone. Donald found it in the pocket of his slacks. The heft of the thing, the curve of the plastic shell, felt right at home in his hand. He returned the bag to the locker, tucked the wedding ring into the pocket of his overalls, and pressed the power button on the old phone. But of course it was dead. Long dead. It hadn’t even been working properly the day he’d lost Helen.

  Donald placed the phone in his pocket out of habit, the sort of habit that time could not touch. He felt the ring in his pocket and pulled it out, made sure it still fitted, and thought of his wife. Thoughts of Helen led to thoughts of Mick and her having children together. Sadness and sickness intermingled. He stuffed his clothes deep into the locker and shut the door, took the ring off and slipped it into his pocket with the old phone. Donald turned and headed off in search of Anna’s locker. He still had to get the tech’s personal items as well.

  As he tracked down their lockers, something nagged at him, some connection, but he couldn’t work out what.

  Off to one side, there was a patch of the storeroom still in darkness, a light bulb out, and Donald thought of silo forty and the spread of darkness on a previous shift. Eren had brought an end to whatever was going on over there. A bomb had caused dust to shiver from overhead pipes. And now his deep mind whirred and made deeper connections. Something about Anna. Some reason he’d been drawn to his locker. He wrapped his hand around the phone in his pocket and remembered why she’d been woken the last time. He remembered her expertise with wireless systems, with hacking.

  In the distance, a light went out with a pop, and Donald felt the darkness closing in on him. There was nothing down here for him, nothing but awful memories and horrible realisations. His heart pounded as it began to come together, a thing he dearly wanted to disbelieve. His phone hadn’t worked properly the day the bombs fell; he hadn’t been able to contact Helen. And then there were all the times before when he couldn’t reach Mick, the nights he and Anna had found themselves alone.

  And now they’d been left alone again, in this silo. Mick had changed places with him at the last moment. Donald remembered a conversation in a small apartment. Mick had given him a tour, had taken him down into a room and said to remember him down there, that this was what he wanted.

  Donald slapped one of the lockers with his palm, the loud bang drowning out his curse. This should’ve been Mick over here, freezing and thawing, going steadily mad. Instead, Mick had stolen the domestic life he often teased Donald for living. And he’d had help doing it.

  Donald sagged against the lockers. He reached for his handkerchief, coughed into it, imagined his friend consoling Helen. He thought of the kids and grandkids they’d had together. A murderous rage boiled up. All this time, blaming himself for not getting to Helen. All this time, blaming Helen and Mick for the life he’d missed out on. And it was Anna, the engineer. Anna who had hacked his life. She had done this to him. She had brought him here.

  80

  2345

  • Silo 1 •

  DONALD RETRIEVED THE items from the other two lockers as if in a dream. Numb, he rode the lift back down to Dr Wilson’s office and dropped off the reactor tech’s personal effects. He asked Dr Wilson for something to help him sleep that night and paid careful attention to where the pills came from. When Wilson left for the lab with his samples, Donald helped himself to more of the pills. Crushing them up, he added two scoops of the powder and made a bitter drink.
He had no plan. His actions followed robotically one after the other. There was a cruelness in his life that he wished to end.

  Down to the deep freeze. Pushing a loaded-up wheelchair ahead of him, he found her pod effortlessly. Donald traced a finger down the skin of the machine. He touched its smooth surface warily, as if it might cut him. He remembered touching her body like this, always afraid, never quite able to give in or let go. The better it felt, the more it hurt. Each caress had been an affront to Helen.

  He pulled his finger back and held it in his other hand to stop some imaginary bleeding. There was danger in being near her. Anna’s nakedness was on the other side of that armoured shell, and he was about to open it. He glanced around the vast halls of the deep freeze. Crowded, and yet all alone. Dr Wilson would be in his lab for some while.

  Donald knelt by the end of the pod and entered his keycode. Some small part of him hoped it wouldn’t work. This was too great a power, the ability to give a life or take it. But the panel beeped. Donald steadied his hand and turned the dial just as he’d been shown.

  The rest was waiting. Temperatures rose, and his anger faded. Donald retrieved the drink and gave it a stir. He made sure everything else was in place.

  When the lid sighed open, Donald slid his fingers into the crack and lifted it the rest of the way. He reached inside and carefully removed the tubing from the needle in Anna’s arm. A thick fluid leaked out of the needle. He saw how the plastic valve on the end worked, and turned it until the dripping stopped. Unfolding a blanket from the back of the wheelchair, he tucked it around her. Her body was already warm. Frost dripped down the inner surface of the pod and collected in little channels that served as gutters. The blanket, he realised, was mostly for him.

  Anna stirred. Donald brushed the hair off her forehead as her eyes fluttered. Her lips parted and she let out a soft groan filled with decades of sleep. Donald knew what that stiffness felt like, that deep cold frozen in one’s joints. He hated doing this to her. He hated what had been done to him.

  ‘Easy,’ he said as she began to grope the air with shivering limbs. Her head lolled feebly from side to side, murmuring something. Donald helped her into a sitting position and rearranged the blanket to keep her covered. The wheelchair sat quietly beside him with a medical bag and a Thermos. Donald made no move to lift her out and help her into the chair.

  Blinking and darting eyes finally settled on Donald. They narrowed in recognition.

  ‘Donny—’

  He read his name on her lips as much as heard her.

  ‘You came for me,’ she whispered.

  Donald watched as she trembled; he fought the urge to rub her back or wrap her in his arms.

  ‘What year?’ she asked, licking her lips. ‘Is it time?’ Her eyes were now wide and wet with fear. Melting frost slid down her cheeks.

  Donald remembered waking like this with his most recent dreams still clouding his thoughts. ‘It’s time for the truth,’ he said. ‘You’re the reason I’m here, aren’t you?’

  Anna stared at him blankly, her mind in a fog. He could see it in the twitch of her eyes, the way her dry lips remained parted, the processing delay he knew well from the times they’d done this to him, from the times they had woken him.

  ‘Yes. ’ She nodded ever so slightly. ‘Father was never going to wake us. The deep freeze—’ Her voice was a whisper. ‘I’m glad you came. I knew you would. ’

  A hand escaped from the blanket and gripped the edge of the pod as if to pull herself out. Donald placed a hand on her shoulder. He turned and grabbed the Thermos from the wheelchair. Peeling her hand from the lip of the pod, he pressed the drink into her palm. She wiggled her other arm free and held the Thermos against her knees.

  ‘I want to know why,’ he said. ‘Why did you bring me here? To this place. ’ He looked around at the pods, these unnatural graves that kept death at bay.

  Anna gazed at him. She studied the Thermos and the straw. Donald let go of her arm and reached into his pocket. He pulled out the phone. Anna shifted her attention to that.

  ‘What did you do that day?’ he asked. ‘You kept me from her, didn’t you? And the night we met to finalise the plans – all the times Mick missed a meeting – that was you as well. ’

  A shadow slid across Anna’s face. Something deep and dark registered. Donald had expected a harsh defiance, steel resolve, denials. Anna looked sad instead.

  ‘So long ago,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘I’m sorry, Donny, but it was so long ago. ’ Her eyes flitted beyond him towards the door as if she were expecting danger. Donald glanced back over his shoulder and saw nothing. ‘We have to get out of here,’ she croaked, her voice feeble and distant. ‘Donny, my father, they made a pact—’

  ‘I want to know what you did,’ he said. ‘Tell me. ’

  She shook her head. ‘What Mick and I did— Donny, it seemed like the right thing at the time. I’m sorry. But I need to tell you something else. Something more important. ’ Her voice was small and quiet. She licked her lips and glanced at the straw, but Donald kept a hand on her arm. ‘Dad woke me for another shift while you were in the deep freeze. ’ She lifted her head and fixed her eyes on him. Her teeth chattered together while she collected her thoughts. ‘And I found something—’

  ‘Stop,’ Donald said. ‘No more stories. No lies. Just the truth. ’

  Anna looked away. A spasm surged through her body, a great shiver. Steam rose from her hair, and condensation raced down the skin of the pod in sudden bursts of speed.

  ‘It was meant to be this way,’ she said. The admission was in the way she said it, her refusal to look at him. ‘It was meant to be. You and me together. We built this. ’
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