Shift, p.54
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       Shift, p.54
 

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
Page 54

 

  There was a knock on his door.

  ‘Who is it?’ Donald asked, his voice not sounding like his own.

  The door opened a crack. ‘It’s Eren, sir. We’ve got a call from eighteen. The shadow is ready. ’

  ‘Just a second. ’

  Donald coughed into his handkerchief. He rose slowly and moved to the bathroom, stepping over two trays of old dishes. He emptied his bladder, flushed and studied himself in the mirror. Gripping the edge of the counter, he grimaced at his reflection, this man with scraggly hair and the start of a beard. He looked half crazed, and yet people still trusted him. That made them crazier than he was. Donald smiled a yellowing smile and thought of the long history of madmen who remained in charge simply because no one would challenge them.

  Hinges squealed as Eren poked his head in the door.

  ‘I’m coming,’ Donald said. He stomped across the reports, leaving a trail of footprints behind, and a bloody palm print on the edge of the counter.

  ‘They’re calling the shadow now, sir,’ Eren said to him in the hall. ‘You want to freshen up?’

  ‘No,’ Donald said. ‘I’m good. ’ He stood in the doorway, struggling to remember what this meeting was about. A Rite of Initiation. He remembered those, thought it was something Gable would handle. ‘Why am I needed again?’ he asked. ‘Shouldn’t our head be conducting this?’ Donald remembered being the one to conduct such a Rite on his first shift.

  Eren popped something into his mouth and chewed. He shook his head. ‘You know, with all that reading you’re doing in there, you could bone up on the Order a bit. It sounds like it’s changed since the last time you read it. The ranking officer on shift completes the Rite. That would normally be me—’

  ‘But since I’m up, it’s me. ’ Donald pulled his door shut. The two of them started down the hall.

  ‘That’s right. The heads here do less and less every shift. There have been . . . problems. I’ll sit in with you though, help you get through the script. Oh, and you wanted to know when the pilots were heading off shift. The last one is going under right now. They’re just straightening up down there. ’

  Donald perked up at this. Finally. What he’d been waiting for. ‘So the armoury’s empty?’ he asked, unable to hide his delight.

  ‘Yessir. No more flight requisitions. I know you didn’t like chancing them to begin with. ’

  ‘Right, right. ’ Donald waved his hand as they turned the corner. ‘Restrict access to the armoury once they’re done. Nobody should be able to get in there but me. ’

  Eren slowed his pace. ‘Just you, sir?’

  ‘For as long as I’m on shift,’ Donald said.

  They passed Gable in the hall, who had three cups of coffee nestled in a web of fingers. Gable smiled and nodded. Donald remembered fetching coffee for people when he was head of the silo. Now, that was near enough all the head did. Donald couldn’t help but think his first shift was partly to blame.

  Eren lowered his voice. ‘You know the story behind him, right?’ He took another bite of something and chewed.

  Donald glanced over his shoulder. ‘Who, Gable?’

  ‘Yeah. He was in Ops until a few shifts back. Broke down. Tried to get himself into deep freeze. The duty doc at the time talked him into a demotion. We were losing too many people, and the shifts were starting to get some overlap. ’ Eren paused and took another bite. There was a familiar scent. Eren caught him watching and held out something. ‘Bagel?’ he asked. ‘They’re fresh baked. ’

  Donald could smell it. Eren tore off a piece. It was still warm. ‘I didn’t know they could make these,’ he said, popping the morsel into his mouth.

  ‘New chef just came on shift. He’s been experimenting with all kinds of stuff. He—’

  Donald didn’t hear the rest. He chewed on memories. A cool day in DC, Helen up to visit, had the dog with her, drove all the way from Savannah. They walked around the Lincoln Memorial a week too early for the cherry blossoms, but there were still spots of colour dotted here and there. They had stopped for fresh bagels, still warm, the smell of coffee—

  ‘Put an end to this,’ Donald said, indicating the rest of Eren’s bagel.

  ‘Sir?’

  They were nearly at the bend in the hall that led to the comm room. ‘I don’t want this chef experimenting any more. Have him stick to the usual. ’

  Eren seemed confused. After some hesitation, he nodded. ‘Yes, sir. ’

  ‘Nothing good can come of this,’ Donald explained. And while Eren agreed more strenuously this time, Donald realised he had begun to think like the people he loathed. A veil of disappointment fell over Eren’s face, and Donald felt a sudden urge to take it back, to grab the man by the shoulders and ask him what the hell they thought they were doing, all this misery and heartache. They should eat memory foods, of course, and talk about the days they’d left behind.

  Instead, he said nothing, and they continued down the hall in quiet and discomfort.

  ‘Quite a few of our silo heads came from Ops,’ Eren said after a while, steering the conversation back to Gable. ‘I was a comm officer for my first two shifts, you know. The guy I took over for, the Ops head from the last shift, was from Medical. ’

  ‘So you’re not a shrink?’ Donald asked.

  Eren laughed, and Donald thought of Victor, blowing his brains out. This wasn’t going to last, this place. There were cracked tiles in the centre of the hall. Tiles that had no replacement. The ones at the edge were in much better shape. He stopped outside the comm room and surveyed the wear on this centuries-old place. There were scuff marks low on the walls, hand-high, shoulder-high, fewer anywhere else. The traffic patterns on the floors throughout the facility showed where people walked. The wear on that place, like on its people, was not evenly distributed.

  ‘I believe they’re waiting on us, sir. ’

  Donald looked away from the scuff marks to Eren, this young man with bright eyes and bagel on his breath, his hair full of colour, an upturn at the corners of his mouth, a wan smile like a scar of hope.

  ‘Right,’ Donald said. He waved Eren inside the comm room before following behind, stepping dead centre like everyone else.

  89

  2345

  • Silo 1 •

  DONALD FAMILIARISED HIMSELF with the script while Eren plopped into the chair beside him and pulled a headset on. The software would mask their voices, make them featureless and the same. The silo heads need not know when one man went off shift and another replaced him. It was always the same voice, the same person, as far as they were concerned.

  The shift operator lifted a mug and took a sip. Donald could see something written on the mug with a marker. It said: We’re #1. Donald wondered if whoever wrote it meant the silo. The operator set the mug down and twirled his finger for Donald to begin.

  Donald covered his mic and cleared his throat. He could hear someone talking on the other end of the line as a distant headset was pulled on. There was a script to follow for the first half. Donald remembered most of it. Eren turned to the side and polished off the bagel guiltily. When the operator gave them the thumbs-up, Eren gestured to Donald to do the honours, and all Donald could think about was getting this over with and getting down to that empty armoury.

  ‘Name,’ he said into his mic.

  ‘Lukas Kyle,’ came the reply.

  Donald watched the graphs jump with readings taken from the headset. He felt sorry for this person, signing on to head a silo rated near the bottom. It all seemed hopeless, and here Donald was going through the motions. ‘You shadowed in IT,’ he said.

  There was a pause. ‘Yessir. ’

  The boy’s temperature was up. Donald could read it on the display. The operator and Eren were comparing notes and pointing to something. Donald checked the script. It listed easy questions everyone knew the answers to.

  ‘What is your primary duty to th
e silo?’ he asked, reading the line.

  ‘To maintain the Order. ’

  Eren raised a hand as the readouts spiked. When they settled, he gave Donald the sign to continue.

  ‘What do you protect above all?’ Even with the software helping, Donald tried to keep his voice flat. There was a jump on one of the graphs. Donald’s thoughts drifted to the news of the pilots gone from his space, a space that he felt belonged to him. He would get through this and set his alarm clock. Tonight. Tonight.

  ‘Life and Legacy,’ the shadow recited.

  Donald lost his place. It took a moment to find the next line. ‘What does it take to protect these things we hold so dear?’

  ‘It takes sacrifice,’ the shadow said after a brief pause.

  The comm head gave Donald and Eren an okay signal. The formal readings were over. Now to the baseline, to get off script. Donald wasn’t sure what to say. He nodded to Eren, hoping he’d take over.

  Eren covered his mic for a second as if he was about to argue, but shrugged. ‘How much time have you had in the Suit Labs?’ he asked the shadow, studying the monitor in front of him.

  ‘Not much, sir. Bernar— Uh, my boss, he’s wanting me to schedule time in the labs after, you know . . . ’

  ‘Yes. I do know. ’ Eren nodded. ‘How’s that problem in your lower levels going?’

  ‘Um, well, I’m only kept apprised of the overall progress, and it sounds good. ’ Donald heard the shadow clear his throat. ‘That is, it sounds like progress is being made, that it won’t be much longer. ’

  A long pause. A deep breath. Waveforms relaxed. Eren glanced at Donald. The operator waved his finger for them to keep going.

  Donald had a question, one that touched on his own regrets. ‘Would you have done anything differently, Lukas?’ he asked. ‘From the beginning?’

  There were red spikes on the monitors, and Donald felt his own temperature rise. Maybe he was asking something too close to home.

  ‘Nossir,’ the young shadow said. ‘It was all by the Order, sir. Everything’s under control. ’

  The comm head reached to his controls and muted all of their headsets. ‘We’re getting borderline readings,’ he told them. ‘His nerves are spiking. Can you push him a little more?’

  Eren nodded. The operator on the other side of him shrugged and took a sip from his #1 mug.

  ‘Settle him down first, though,’ the comm head said.

  Eren turned to Donald. ‘Congratulate him and then see if you can get him emotional. Level him out and then tweak him. ’

  Donald hesitated. It was all so artificial and manipulative. He forced himself to swallow. The mics were unmuted.

  ‘You are next in line for the control and operation of silo eighteen,’ he said stiffly, sad for what he was dooming this poor soul to.

  ‘Thank you, sir. ’ The shadow sounded relieved. Waveforms collapsed as if they’d struck a pier.

  Now Donald fought for some way to push the young man. The comm head waving at him didn’t help. Donald glanced up at the map of the silos on the wall. He stood, the headphone cord stretching, and studied the several silos marked out, the one there with the number ‘12’. Donald considered the seriousness of what this young man had just taken on, what his job entailed, how many had died elsewhere because their leaders had let them down.

  ‘Do you know the worst part of my job?’ Donald asked. He could feel those in the comm room watching him. Donald was back on his first shift, initiating that other young man. He was back on his first shift, shutting a silo down.

  ‘What’s that, sir?’ the voice asked.

  ‘Standing here, looking at a silo on this map, and drawing a red cross through it. Can you imagine what that feels like?’

  ‘I can’t, sir. ’

  Donald nodded. He appreciated the honest answer. He remembered what it felt like to watch those people spill out of twelve and perish on the landscape. He blinked his vision clear. ‘It feels like a parent losing thousands of children all at once,’ he said.

  The world stood still for a heartbeat or two. The operator and the comm head were both fixated on their monitors, looking for a crack. Eren watched Donald.

  ‘You will have to be cruel to your children so as not to lose them,’ Donald said.

  ‘Yessir. ’

  Waveforms began to pulse like gentle surf. The comm head gave Donald the thumbs-up. He had seen enough. The boy had passed, and now the Rite was truly over.

  ‘Welcome to Operation Fifty of the World Order, Lukas Kyle,’ Eren said, reading from the script and taking over from Donald. ‘Now, if you have a question or two, I have the time to answer, but briefly. ’

  Donald remembered this part. He had a hand in this. He settled back into his chair, suddenly exhausted.

  ‘Just one, sir. And I’ve been told it isn’t important, and I understand why that’s true, but I believe it will make my job here easier if I know. ’ The young man paused. ‘Is there . . . ?’ A new red spike on his graph. ‘How did this all begin?’

  Donald held his breath. He glanced around the room, but everyone else was watching their monitors as if any question was as good as another.

  Donald responded before Eren could. ‘How badly do you wish to know?’ he asked.

  The shadow took in a breath. ‘It isn’t crucial,’ he said, ‘but I would appreciate a sense of what we’re accomplishing, what we survived. It feels like it gives me – gives us a purpose, you know?’

  ‘The reason is the purpose,’ Donald told him. This was what he was beginning to learn from his studies. ‘Before I tell you, I’d like to hear what you think. ’
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