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       Shift, p.53

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
Page 53


  Baskets in one egg. That wasn’t how the saying went. Donald leaned back in the chair, and one of the light bulbs in Dr Wilson’s desk lamp flickered. Bulbs were not meant to last so long. They went dark, but there were redundancies.

  One egg. Because what would they do to each other if more than one were allowed to hatch?

  The list.

  The reason it all fell together for Donald so easily was because he already knew. Had always known. How could it be otherwise? They had no plan, these bastards, of allowing the men and women of the silos to go free. No. There could be only one. For what would they do to each other if they met hundreds of years hence on the hills outside? Donald had drawn this place. He should’ve always known. He was an architect of death.

  He thought about the list, the rankings of the silos. The one at the top was the only one that mattered. But what was their metric? How arbitrary would that decision be? All those eggs slaughtered except for one. With what hope? What plan? That the differences and struggles among a silo’s people can be overcome? And yet the differences between the silos themselves was too much?

  Donald coughed into his trembling hand. He understood what Anna was trying to tell him. And now it was too late. Too late for answers. This was the way of life and death, and in a place that ignored both, he’d forgotten. There was no waking anyone. Just confusion and grief. His only ally, gone.

  But there was another he could wake, the one he’d hoped to from the beginning. This was a grave power, this ability to bestir the dead. Donald shivered as he realised what the Pact truly meant, this pact between the madmen who had conspired to destroy the world.

  ‘It’s a suicide pact,’ he whispered, and the concrete walls of the silo closed in around him; they wrapped him like the shell of an egg. An egg never meant to be hatched. For they were the most dangerous of them all, this pit of vipers, and no world would ever be safe with them in it. The women and children were in lifeboats only to urge the men of silo one to keep working their shifts. But they were all meant to drown. Every last one of them.


  2323 – Year Twelve

  • Silo 17 •

  SOLO DIDN’T SET out one day to plumb the silo’s depths – it simply happened. He headed off towards fabled Supply in search of batteries or a can opener and found instead a battleground strewn with bones and bolts. Searching the tall shelves and the darkened corridors beyond, he found a second flashlight, even better than batteries. The flashlight had been left on, was warm to the touch, and it took several moments to realise what this meant. Solo had fled from Supply with a vow never to return. He ran downward, hurrying, chased by ghosts, until his boots splashed into cold water.

  Solo started and lost his grip on the rail. He slid, fought for balance and fell to one knee, water soaking him up to his crotch, his rifle slipping off his shoulder, his bag getting wet.

  Cursing, he struggled to his feet. Water dripped from the barrel of his rifle, a stream of liquid bullets. His overalls were freezing cold and clung to his skin where they’d gotten soaked.

  ‘Stupid,’ he said. He retreated up a step and watched the agitated surface settle. The silo was full of water. Peering through the murky surface, he saw that the stairs spiralled out of sight and into the dark depths. Solo watched where the water met the railing and waited to see if the flood was rising. If so, it was far slower than he could tell.

  One of the doors on level one-thirty-seven moved back and forth with the waves his splashing had caused. The water was two feet or more above the level of the landing. It was that high inside the door as well. The entire silo was filling up with water, he thought. It had taken years for it to get this high. Would it go on for ever? How long before it filled his home up on thirty-four? How long before it reached the top?

  Thinking of slowly drowning elicited a strange sound from Solo’s mouth, a noise like a sad whimper. His clothes dripped water back to where it had come from, and then Solo heard the whimpering sound again. It wasn’t coming from him at all.

  He crouched down and peered into the flooded level, listening. There. The sound of someone crying. It was coming from inside the flooded levels. It sounded like an infant.

  Solo peered down at the water. He would have to wade through it. The dim green lights overhead lent the world a ghostly pallor. The air was cold, and the water colder.

  He retreated up the steps and left his heavy pack on one of the dry treads. The cuffs of his overalls were soaked. He rolled them up over his calves, then began unknotting the laces of his boots.

  He listened for the cry again. It did not come. He wondered if he would be braving the wet and cold for something he’d imagined, for another ghost who would disappear as soon as he paid it any mind. He dumped the water out of his boots before setting them aside. He pulled off his socks – his big toe poked through a hole in one of them. He squeezed and twisted these, then draped them across the railing to dry.

  He left his bag four steps above the waterline and thought he heard the baby cry again. He was enough years old to have a baby, he thought. He did the maths. He rarely did this maths. Was he twenty-six? Twenty-seven? Another birthday had come and gone with no one to remind him.

  He stepped into the water and waded towards the door, his feet shocked half numb from the cold. The colourful film on the surface swirled and mixed and flowed around the stanchions that held up the landing rail. Solo paused and peered beyond the landing. It seemed strange to be so high off the bottom of the silo and see this fluid stretching out to the concrete walls. If he were to fall over, would the water slow his plummet to the bottom? Or would he bob on the surface like that bit of trash over there? He thought he would sink, so he shuffled his feet cautiously. Something silver flashed beneath the grating, but he thought it was just his reflection or the dance of the metallic sheen on the surface.

  ‘You better be worth this,’ he told the ghost of some baby down the hall.

  He listened for the ghost to call back, but it was no longer crying. The light beyond the doors fell away to blackness, so he pulled his flashlight out of his chest pocket and turned it on. The layer of rippling water caught the beam and magnified it. Waves of light danced across the ceiling.

  ‘Hello?’ he called out.

  His voice echoed back to him. He played the light down the hall, which branched off in three directions. Two of the paths curved around as if to meet on the other side of the stairwell. It was one of the hub-and-spoke levels. Solo laughed. Bi for ‘bicycles’. He thought of that entry and realised where the words hub and spoke came from.

  There was a cry. For certain, this time, or he truly was losing his senses. Solo spun around and waited. Silence. The whisper of ripples as they crashed into the hallway wall. He picked his way in the direction he’d heard the noise, throwing up new waves with the push of his shins. He floated like a ghost. He couldn’t feel his feet.

  It was an apartment level. But why would anyone live down here with the waters seeping in? He paused outside a community rec room and dispelled pockets of darkness with his flashlight. There was a tennis table in the middle of the room. Rust reached up the steel legs as if the water had chased it there. The paddles were still on the warped surface of the rotting green table. Green for grass, Solo thought. The Legacy books made his own world look different to him.

  Something bumped into his shin and Solo started. He aimed his light down and saw a foam cushion floating by his feet. He pushed it away and waded to the next door.

  A community kitchen. He recognised the layout of wide tables and all the chairs. Most of the chairs lay on their sides, partly submerged. A few legs stuck up where chairs had been overturned. There were two stoves in the corner and a wall of cabinets. The room was dark; almost none of the light from the stairwell trickled back this far. Solo imagined that if his batteries died, he would have to grope to find his way out. He should’ve brought the new flashlight, not
his old one.

  A cry. Louder this time. Near. Somewhere in the room.

  Solo waved his flashlight about but couldn’t see every corner at once. Cabinets and countertops. A spot of movement, he thought. He trained his light back a little, and something moved on one of the counters. It leapt straight up, the sound of claws scratching as it caught itself on an open cabinet above the counter, then the whisking of a bushy tail before a black shadow disappeared into the darkness.


  2323 – Year Twelve

  • Silo 17 •

  A CAT! A living thing. A living thing he need not fear, that could do him no harm. Solo trudged into the room, calling, ‘Kitty, kitty, kitty. ’ He recalled neighbours trying to corral that tailless animal that lived down the hall from his old apartment.

  Something rummaged around in the cabinets. One of the closed doors rattled open and banged shut again. He could only see a spot at a time, wherever he aimed the flashlight. His shins brushed against something. He aimed the beam down to see trash and debris floating in the water. There was a squeak and a splash. Searching with the flashlight, he saw a V of ripples behind what he took for a swimming rat. Solo no longer wanted to be in that room. He shivered and rubbed his arm with his free hand. The cat made a racket inside the cabinet.

  ‘Here, kitty,’ he said with less gusto. Reaching into his breast pocket, he pulled out one of his ration bars and tore the packaging off with his teeth. Taking a stale bite for himself, he chewed and held the rest out in front of him. The silo had been dead for twelve years. He wondered how long cats lived, how this one had made it so long. And eating what? Or were old cats having new cats? Was this a new cat?

  His bare feet brushed through something beneath the water. The reflection of the light made it difficult to see, and then a white bone broke the surface before sinking again. There was a loose jumble of someone’s remains around his ankles.

  Solo pretended it was just trash. He reached the cabinet that was making all the noise, grabbed a handle and pulled it open. There was a hiss from the shadows. Cans and rotting boxes shifted about as the cat retreated further. Solo broke off a piece of stale bar and set it on the shelf. He waited. There was another squeak from the corner of the room, the sound of water lapping at furniture, a stillness inside the cabinet. He kept the flashlight down so as not to spook the animal.

  Two eyes approached like bobbing lights. They fixed themselves on Solo for a small eternity. He began to seriously wonder if his feet might fall off from the cold. The eyes drew closer and diverted downward. It was a black cat, the colour of wet shadow, slick as oil. The piece of ration bar crunched as the cat chewed.

  ‘Good kitty,’ he whispered, ignoring the scattered bones beneath his feet. He broke off another small piece of the bar and held it out. The cat withdrew a pace. Solo set the food on the edge and watched as the animal came forward more quickly this time. The next piece, the cat took from his palm. He offered the last piece, and as the cat came to accept it, Solo tried to pick it up with both hands. And this thing, this company he hoped would do him no harm, latched on to one of his arms and sank its claws into his flesh.

  Solo screamed and threw up his hands. The flashlight tumbled end over end in the air. There was a splash as the cat disappeared. A shriek and a hiss, a violent noise, Solo fumbling beneath the water for the dull glow of the light, which flickered once, twice, then left him in darkness.

  He groped blindly, seized a solid cylinder and felt the knobby ends where the leg sockets went into the hip. He dropped the bone in disgust. Two more bones before he found the flashlight, which was toast. He retrieved it anyway as the sound of frantic splashing approached. His arms were on fire; he had seen blood on them in the last of the spinning light. And then something was against his leg, up his shin, claws stinging his thighs, the damn cat climbing him as if he were the leg of a table.

  Solo reached for the poor animal to get its claws out of his flesh. The cat was soaked and hardly felt bigger around than his flashlight. It trembled in his arms and rubbed itself against a dry patch of his overalls, mewing in complaint. It began to sniff at his breast pocket.

  Solo held the animal with one forearm across his chest, making a perch, and reached inside his pocket for the other ration bar. It was perfectly dark in the room, so dark it made his ears ache. He ripped the package free and held the bar steady. Tiny paws wrapped around his hand, and there was a crunching sound.

  Jimmy smiled. He worked his way towards where he thought the door might be, bumping through furniture and old bones as he went, Solo no more.



  • Silo 1 •

  DONALD’S APARTMENT had transformed into a cave, a cave where notes lay strewn like bleached bones, where the carcasses of folders decorated his walls, and where boxes of more notes were ordered up from archives like fresh kill. Weeks had passed. The stomping in the halls had dwindled. Donald lived alone with ghosts and slowly pieced together the purpose of what he’d helped to build. He was beginning to see it, the entire picture, zooming out of the schematic until the whole was laid bare.

  He coughed into a pink rag and resumed examination of his latest find. It was a map he’d come across once before in the armoury, a map of all the silos with a line coming out of each and converging at a single point. Here was one of many mysteries left. The document was labelled Seed, but he could find nothing else about it.

  Donald could hear Anna whispering to him. She had been trying to tell him something. The note in Thurman’s account, she was trying to say, had been left for him. So obvious now. She could never be woken, not a woman. She needed him, needed his help. Donald imagined her piecing all of this together on some recent shift, alone and terrified, scared of her own father, no one left to turn to. So she had taken her father out of power, had entrusted Donald, had switched him with another man for the second time and had left him a note to wake her. And what did Donald do instead?
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