Shift, p.52
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       Shift, p.52

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
 
Page 52

 

  He started up. There was a general store on nineteen, just below his home. He would check there for batteries, though he feared most useful things would have been consumed by now. The garment district would have overalls, though. He felt sure of that. A plan was forming.

  Until a vibration in the steps altered it.

  Jimmy stopped and listened to the clang of footsteps. They were coming from above. He could see the next landing jutting off overhead, one turn around the central post. It was nearer than the landing below. So he ran, rifle clattering against the jugs tied to his makeshift backpack, boots clomping awkwardly on the treads, both fearful and relieved not to be alone.

  He yanked the doors open on the next landing and pulled them to, leaving a small crack. Pressing his cheek against the door, he peered through the gap, listening. The clanging grew louder and louder. Jimmy held his breath. A figure flew by, hand squeaking along the railing, and then another figure close behind, shouting threats. Both were little more than blurs. He remained in the darkness at the end of a strange and silent hall until the noise faded and he could feel things creeping across the tile towards him, hands with claws reaching through the inky black to tangle up in his wild and long hair, and Jimmy found himself back on the landing in the dull green glow of emergency lights, panting and not knowing what to believe.

  He was alone, one way or the other. Even if people survived around him, the only company one found was the kind that chased you or killed you.

  Upward again, listening more closely for footfalls, keeping a hand on the rail for a vibration, he spiralled his way past the water plant on thirty-two, the dirt farm on thirty-one, past sanitation on twenty-six, keeping to the green light and aiming for the general store. The muscles in his legs grew warm from the use, but in a good way. He passed familiar landmarks, levels from another life with an accumulation of wear and a tangle of wires and pipes. The world had grown as rusty as his memory of it.

  He arrived at the general store to find it mostly bare, except for the remains of someone trapped under a spilled stand of shelves. The boots sticking out were small, a woman’s or a child’s. White ankle bones spanned the gap between boot and cuff. There were goods trapped underneath the shelf alongside the person, but Jimmy felt no urge to investigate. He searched the scattering of items on the other shelves for batteries or a can opener. There were toys and trinkets and useless things. Jimmy sensed that many a shadow had fallen over those goods. He saved his flashlight by sneaking out in the darkness.

  Searching his old apartment wasn’t worth the juice either. It no longer felt like home. There was a sadness inside that he couldn’t name, a sense that he had failed his parents, an old ache in the centre of his mind like he used to get from sucking on ice. Jimmy left the apartment and continued up. Something still called to him from above. And it wasn’t until he got within half a spiral from the schoolhouse that he knew what it was. The distant past was reaching out to him. The day it all began. His classroom, where he could last remember seeing his mother, where his friends still sat in his disordered mind, where if he remained, if he could just go back and sit at his desk and unwind events once more, they would have to come out differently.

  84

  2318 – Year Seven

  • Silo 17 •

  JIMMY KEPT HIS flashlight powered up as he made his way to the classroom. There was no going back, he quickly saw. There, in the middle of the room, lay his old backpack. Several of the desks were askew, the neat rows snapped like broken bones, and Jimmy could see in his mind his friends rushing out, could see the paths they took, could watch them spill towards the door. They had taken their bags with them. Jimmy’s remained and lay still as a corpse.

  A step inside, the room aglow from his flashlight, he felt Mrs Pearson look up from a book, smile and say nothing. Barbara sat at her desk, right by the door. Jimmy remembered her hand in his during a class trip to the livestock pens. It was on the way back, after the strange smells of so many animals, hands reaching through bars to stroke fur and feather and fat, hairless pigs. Jimmy had been fourteen, and something about the animals had excited or changed him. So that when Barbara hung back at the end of the corkscrew of classmates making their way up the staircase and had reached for his hand, he hadn’t pulled back.

  That prolonged touch was a taste of what-might-have-been with another. He brushed the surface of Barbara’s desk with his fingertips and left tracks through the dust. Paul’s desk – his best friend’s – was one of those that had been disturbed. He stepped through the gap it left, seeing everyone leaving at once, his mother giving him a head start, until he stood in the centre of the room, by his bag, completely alone.

  ‘I am all alone,’ he said. ‘I am solitude. ’

  His lips were dry and stuck together. They tore apart when he spoke as if opened for the very first time.

  Approaching his bag, he noticed that it had been gutted. He knelt down and tossed open the flap. There was a scrap of plastic that his mom had used and reused to wrap his lunch, but his lunch was long gone. Two cornbars and an oatmeal brownie. Amazing how he remembered some things and not others.

  He dug deeper, wondering if they’d taken much else. The calculator his father had built from scratch was still in there, as were the glass figurine soldiers his uncle had given him on his thirteenth birthday. He took the time to transfer everything from his makeshift bag to his old backpack. The zipper was stiff, but it still worked. He studied the knotted overalls and decided they were in worse shape than the ones he had on, so he left them.

  Jimmy stood and surveyed the room, sweeping his flashlight across the chaos. On the blackboard, he saw someone had left their mark. He played the light across the scene and saw the word fuck written over and over. It looked like a string of letters like that, fuckfuckfuckfuck.

  Jimmy found the erasing rag behind Mrs Pearson’s desk. It was stiff and crusty, but the words still came off. Left behind was a smear, and Jimmy remembered the happy days of writing on the board in front of the class. He remembered writing assignments. Mrs Pearson complimented him on his poetry once, probably just to be nice. Licking his lips, he fished a nub of old chalk from the tray and thought of something to write. There were no nerves from standing before the class. No one was watching. He was well and truly all alone.

  I am Jimmy, he wrote on the board, the flashlight casting a strange halo, a ring of dim light, as he wrote. The nub of chalk clicked and clacked as he made each stroke. It squeaked and groaned between the clicks. The noise was like company, and yet he wrote a poem of being alone, a mechanical act from bygone days:

  The ghosts are watching. The ghosts are watching.

  They watch me stroll alone.

  The corpses are laughing. The corpses are laughing.

  They go quiet when I step over them.

  My parents are missing. My parents are missing. They are waiting for me to come home.

  He wasn’t sure about that last line. Jimmy ran the light across what he’d written, which he didn’t think was very good. More wouldn’t make it better, but he wrote more, anyway.

  The silo is empty. The silo is empty. It’s full of death from pit to rim.

  My name was Jimmy, my name was Jimmy. But nobody calls me any longer.

  I am alone, the ghosts are watching, and solitude makes me stronger.

  The last part was a lie, he knew, but it was poetry, so it didn’t count. Jimmy stepped away from the board and studied the words with his flickering flashlight. The words trailed off to the side and dipped down, each line sagging more than the last, the letters getting smaller towards the end of each sentence. It was a problem he always had with the blackboard. He started big and seemed to shrink as he went. Scratching the beard on his chin, he wondered what this said of him, what it portended.

  There was a lot wrong with what he’d written, he thought. The fifth line was untrue, the one about nobody calling him
Jimmy. Above the poem, he had written I am Jimmy. He still thought of himself as Jimmy.

  He grabbed the stiff rag he’d left in the chalk tray, stood before his poem, and went to erase the line that wasn’t right. But something stopped him. It was the fear of making the poem worse by attempting to fix it, the fear of taking a line away and having nothing good to put in its place. This was his voice, and it was too rare a thing to quash.

  Jimmy felt Mrs Pearson’s eyes upon him. He felt the eyes of his classmates. The ghosts were watching, the corpses laughing, while he studied the problem on the board.

  When the solution came, it brought a familiar thrill of arriving at the right place, of connecting the dots. Jimmy reached up and slapped the dusty rag against the board and erased the first thing he’d written. The words I am Jimmy disappeared into a white smear and a tumbling haze of powder. He set the rag aside and began to write a truth in its place.

  I am Solitude, he started to write. He liked the sound of that. It sounded poetic and full of meaning. But like poetry was wont to do, the words had a mind of their own; his deep thoughts intervened, and so he wrote something different. He shortened it to two little neat circles, a swerve, and a slash. Grabbing his bag, he left the room and his old friends behind. All that remained was a poem and the call to be remembered, a mark to prove he’d been there.

  I am Solo.

  85

  2345

  • Silo 1 •

  DONALD STEERED THE empty wheelchair back to Dr Wilson’s office. A damp blanket was draped over the armrests and dragged across the tile. He felt numb. His dream that morning had been to give life, not take it. The permanence of what he’d done began to set in, and Donald found it difficult to swallow, to breathe. He stopped in the hallway and took stock of what he’d become. Unknowing architect. Prisoner. Puppet. Hangman. He wore a different man’s clothes. His transformation horrified him. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he wiped them away angrily. All it took was thinking of Helen and Mick, of the life taken from him. Everything leading up to that point in time, to him awakening in that silo, had been someone else’s doing. He could feel parted strings dangling from his elbows and knees. He was a loose puppet steering an empty wheelchair back to where it belonged.

  Donald parked the chair and set the brakes. He took the plastic vial out of his pocket and considered stealing another dose or two. Sleep would be hard to come by, he feared.

  The vial went back into the cabinet full of empties. Donald turned to go when he saw the note left in the middle of the gurney:

  You forgot this.

  —Wilson

  The note was stuck to a slender folder. Donald remembered handing it to Dr Wilson along with the reactor tech’s belongings. The trip to the other two lockers had been a blur. All he could remember was clutching his phone, facts coming together, realising that Anna had played Mick and Thurman to engineer a last-minute switch that made no sense, that could only happen with a daughter bending her father’s ear. Thus his life had been stolen away.

  The folder had been in the locker Anna had mentioned to her father in the message. It seemed inconsequential now. Donald balled up the note from Dr Wilson and tossed it in the recycling bin. He grabbed the folder with the intention of staggering back to his cot and searching for sleep. But he found himself opening it up instead.

  There was a single sheet of paper inside. An old sheet of paper. It had yellowed, and the edges were rough where bits had flaked off over the years. Below the single-spaced typing there were five signatures, a mix of florid and subdued penmanship. At the top of the document, boldly typed, it read: RE: THE PACT.

  Donald glanced up at the door. He turned and went to the small desk with the computer, placed the folder by the keyboard and sat down. Anna’s note to her father had the same words in the subject line, along with Urgent. He had read the note a dozen times to try and divine its meaning. And the number in the note had led him to this folder.

  He was familiar enough with the Pact of the silos, the governing document that kept each facility in line, that managed their populations with lotteries, that dictated their punishments from fines to cleanings. But this was too brief to be that Pact. It looked like a memo from his days on Capitol Hill.

  Donald read:

  All—

  It has been previously discussed that ten facilities would suffice for our purposes, and that a time frame of one century would perform an adequate cleanse. With members of this pact both familiar with budget under-runs and how battle plans prove fruitless upon first firing, it should surprise no one that facts have changed our forecast. We are now calling for thirty facilities and a two-century time frame. The tech team assures me their progress makes the latter feasible. These figures may be revisited once again.

  There was also discussion in the last meeting of allowing two facilities to reach E-Day for redundancy (or the possibility of holding one facility back in reserve). That has been deemed inadvisable. Having all baskets in one egg is better than the danger of allowing two or more eggs to hatch. As it is a source of growing contention, this amendment to the original Pact shall be hereby undersigned by all founding persons and considered law. I will take it upon myself to work E-shift and pull the lever. Long-term survivability prospects are at 42 per cent in the latest models. Marvellous progress, everyone.

  —V

  Donald scanned the signatures a second time. There was Thurman’s simple scrawl, recognisable from countless memos and bills on the Hill. Another signature that might be Erskine’s. One that looked like Charles Rhodes, the swaggering Oklahoma governor. Illegible others. There was no date on the memo.

  He read over it again. Understanding dawned slowly, full of doubts at first, but solidifying. There was a list he remembered from his previous shift, a ranking of silos. Number eighteen had been near the top. It was why Victor had fought so hard to save the facility. This decision he mentioned in the memo, pulling the lever. Had he said something about this in his note to Thurman? In his admission before he killed himself? Victor had grown unsure of whether or not he could make some decision.
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