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         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
 
Page 55

 

  He thought he could hear the shadow gulp. ‘What I think?’ Lukas asked.

  ‘Everyone has ideas,’ Donald said. ‘Are you suggesting you don’t?’

  ‘I think it was something we saw coming. ’

  Donald was impressed. He had a feeling this young man knew the answer and simply wanted confirmation. ‘That’s one possibility,’ he agreed. ‘Consider this . . . ’ He thought how best to phrase it. ‘What if I told you that there were only fifty silos in all the world, and that we are in this infinitely small corner of it?’

  On the monitor, Donald could practically watch the young man think, his readings oscillating up and down like the brain’s version of a heartbeat.

  ‘I would say that we were the only ones . . . ’ A wild spike on the monitor. ‘I’d say we were the only ones who knew. ’

  ‘Very good. And why might that be?’

  Donald wished he had the jostling lines on the screen recorded. It was serene, watching another human being clutch after his vanishing sanity, his disappearing doubts.

  ‘It’s because . . . It’s not because we knew. ’ There was a soft gasp on the other end of the line. ‘It’s because we did it. ’

  ‘Yes,’ Donald said. ‘And now you know. ’

  Eren turned to Donald and placed his hand over his mic. ‘We’ve got more than enough. The kid checks out. ’

  Donald nodded. ‘Our time is up, Lukas Kyle. Congratulations on your assignment. ’

  ‘Thank you. ’ There was a final flutter on the monitors.

  ‘Oh, and Lukas?’ Donald said, remembering the young man’s predilection for staring at the stars, for dreaming, for filling himself with dangerous hope.

  ‘Yessir?’

  ‘Going forward, I suggest you concentrate on what’s beneath your feet. No more of this business with the stars, okay, son? We know where most of them are. ’

  90

  2327 – Year Sixteen

  • Silo 17 •

  JIMMY WASN’T SURE how the algebra worked, but feeding two mouths was more than just twice the work. And yet – it felt like less than half the chore. He suspected it had to do with how nice it was to provide for something besides himself. The satisfaction of seeing the cat eat and of it growing used to him made him relish meals and travel outside more often.

  It had been a rough start, though. The cat had been skittish after its rescue. Jimmy had dried himself off with a towel scavenged two levels up, and the cat had acted insane as he dried it off after. It seemed to both love and hate the process, rolling around one minute and batting at Jimmy’s hands the next. Once dry, the animal had blossomed to twice its wet size. And yet he was still pathetic and hungry.

  Jimmy found a can of beans beneath a mattress. The can wasn’t too rusty. He opened it with his screwdriver and fed the slick pods to the cat one at a time while his own feet thawed, tingling like electricity the entire time.

  After the beans, the cat had taken to following him wherever he went to see what he might find next. It made the hunt for food fun, rather than a never-ending war against his own growling stomach. Fun, but also lots of work. Up the staircase they went, him back in his boots, the cat silently pawing behind and sometimes ahead.

  Jimmy had learned early on to trust the cat’s balance. The first few times it rubbed itself against the outer stanchions, even twisting itself beyond them and back through as it ascended the steps, Jimmy nearly had a heart attack. The cat seemed to have a death wish, or just an ignorance of what it meant to fall. But he soon learned to trust the cat even as the cat began to trust him.

  And that first night, as he lay huddled under his tarp in the lower farms, listening to pumps and lights click on and off and noises he mistook for others in hiding, the cat tucked itself under his arm and curled against the crook his belly made when his legs were bent and began to rattle like a pump on loose mounts.

  ‘You were lonely, huh?’ Jimmy had whispered. He had grown uncomfortable but was unwilling to move. A cramp had formed in his neck while a different tightness disappeared from deep in his gut, a tightness he didn’t know was there until it was gone.

  ‘I was lonely too,’ he had told the cat softly, fascinated by how much more he talked with the animal around. It was better than talking to his shadow and pretending it was a person.

  ‘That’s a good name,’ Jimmy had whispered. He didn’t know what people named cats, but Shadow would work. Like the shadows in which he’d found the thing, another spot of blackness to follow Jimmy around. And that night, years back, the two of them had fallen asleep amid the clicking pumps, the dripping water, the buzzing insects and all the stranger sounds deep within the farms that Jimmy preferred not to name.

  That was years ago. Now, cat hair and beard hair gathered together in the spines of the Legacy books. Jimmy trimmed his beard while he read about snakes. The scissors made crunching noises as he pinched a load of hair, held it away from his chin and hacked it off with the dull shears. He sprinkled most of the hair in an empty can. The rest drifted down among the pages, large swoops of meddling punctuation mingling with hair from the cat, who kept walking back and forth under his arms, arching his back and stepping across the sentences.

  ‘I’m trying to read,’ Jimmy complained. But he put down the scissors and dutifully stroked the animal from neck to tail, Shadow pressing his spine up into Jimmy’s palm. He meowed and made that grumbling sound as if his heart were going to burst and begged for more.

  Tiny claws clenched into little fists and punctured a photo of a corn snake, and Jimmy guided the animal towards the floor. Shadow lay on his back with his feet in the air, watching Jimmy carefully. It was a trap. Jimmy could rub his belly for only a moment before the cat would suddenly decide he hated this and attack his wrist. Jimmy didn’t understand cats that well, but he’d read the entry on them a dozen times. One thing he hated to learn was that they didn’t live as long as humans. He tried not to think of that day. On that day he would go back to being Solo, and he much preferred being Jimmy. Jimmy talked more. Solo was the one with the wild thoughts, the one who gazed over the rails, who spat towards the Deep and watched as his spit trembled and tore itself apart from the wild speeds of its racing fall.

  ‘Are you bored?’ Jimmy asked Shadow.

  Shadow looked at him as though he were bored. It was similar to the look that said he was hungry.

  ‘Wanna go explore?’

  The cat’s ear twitched, which was enough of a sign.

  Jimmy decided to check up top again. He had only been once since the days went dark, and just for a peek. If there was a working can opener in the silo, it would be there. An end to crusty screwdrivers and slicing his hands on roughly opened lids.

  They set out after lunch with a short break at the farms. When they got to the cafeteria, they found it perfectly silent and glowing in the green cast from the stairwell. Shadow scampered up the last steps alone, intrepid as usual. Jimmy headed straight for the kitchen and found it a looted wreck.

  ‘Who took all the openers?’ he called out to Shadow.

  But Shadow wasn’t there. Shadow was off to the far wall, acting agitated.

  Jimmy ranged behind the serving line and sorted through the forks, eager to replace his usual one, when he heard the mewing. He peered across the wide cafeteria hall and saw Shadow rubbing back and forth against a closed door.

  ‘Keep it down,’ Jimmy yelled to Shadow. Didn’t the cat know he’d only bring trouble making such a racket? But Shadow wasn’t listening. He mewed and mewed and scratched his claws at the door and stretched until Jimmy relented. Jimmy hurried through the maze of upturned chairs and crooked tables to see what the fuss was about.

  ‘Is it food?’ he asked. With Shadow, it was almost always food. His companion was drawn to meals like a magnet, which Jimmy had come to find quite handy. Approaching the door, he saw the remnants of a rope looped around the handle, the years r
educing it to tatters. Jimmy tried the handle and found it unlocked. He eased it open.

  The room beyond was dark, none of the emergency lights lit like at the top of the stairwell. Jimmy fumbled for his flashlight while Shadow disappeared through the cracked door, his tail swishing into the void.

  There was a startled hiss just as the flashlight came on. Jimmy paused, a boot nearly through the door, as the cone of his flashlight fell upon a face staring up at him with open and lifeless eyes. Bodies shifted against the door, and an arm flopped out against his foot.

  Jimmy screamed and fell backward. He kicked at the pale and fleshy hand and called for Shadow, who came screeching out the door, fur standing on end. There was the taste of metal on Jimmy’s tongue, a rush of adrenalin as he scrambled to get the door shut. He lifted the limp arm and shoved it back inside, the clothes disintegrating at his touch, the flesh beneath whole and spongy.

  Open mouths and curled fingers were the last things he saw. Piles of bodies, as fresh as the morning dead, frozen where they’d crawled over one another, hands reaching for the door.

  Once it clicked shut, Jimmy began sliding tables and chairs against the door. He created a huge tangle of them, tossing more chairs on top of the pile, shivering and cursing beneath his beard while Shadow spun in circles.

  ‘Gross, gross, gross,’ he told Shadow, whose hair had not yet settled. He studied his barricade against the piles of dead and hoped it would be adequate, that he hadn’t let out too many ghosts. The remnants of old rope swayed on the door’s handle, and Jimmy thanked whomever had kept these people at bay.

  ‘Let’s go,’ he said, and Shadow swished against his leg for comfort. There was no view to see on the wall screen, no food or tools of any use. He’d had quite enough of up top, which suddenly felt crowded to the walls with the dead.

  91

  2327 – Year Sixteen

  • Silo 17 •

  BESIDES FOOD, SHADOW had a nose for trouble. A nose for causing it. Jimmy woke one morning to an awful screeching sound, a pathetic and plaintive hiss spilling down the corridor. Jimmy had climbed the ladder half asleep to find Shadow stuck near the top rung. He didn’t know how the cat had got there, and the cat didn’t know how to get down. Jimmy released the hatch over their heads and threw it aside. He watched as Shadow clawed up the metal mesh behind the ladder, his back pressed against the rungs, and scampered over the top.

  Two mornings later, the same thing happened, and that’s when Jimmy decided to leave the hatch open all the time. He was sick of opening and closing it as he came and went, and Shadow liked being able to explore the server room whenever he liked. There hadn’t been any fighting in a long time and the great steel door still winked red.

  Shadow loved the servers. Most times, Jimmy would find him up on server number forty, where the metal was so hot that Jimmy could barely touch it. But Shadow didn’t mind. He slept up there or peered over the edge at the ground far below, watching for bugs on which to pounce.

  Other times, Jimmy found him standing in the corner where that man he’d shot all that time ago had wasted away. Shadow liked to sniff the rust stains and touch his tongue to the grating. It was for these freedoms that the hatch remained off. And this was how, when the power went out big-time, the bad men got inside. This was how Jimmy woke up one morning with a stranger standing over his bed.

  The outage had woken him in the middle of the night. Jimmy slept with the lights on, keeping the ghosts at bay. He even liked a little of the radio static to fill the room, so he couldn’t hear any whisperings. When the silence and darkness hit at once with a loud thump, Jimmy had started awake and scrambled for his flashlight, stepping on Shadow’s tail in the process. He waited for the lights to come on, but they remained off. Too tired to think what to do, he went back to sleep, both hands wrapped around his flashlight, Shadow curling up warily against his neck.

  The noise of someone coming down the ladder was what stirred him later. Jimmy was dimly aware of a presence in the room. It was a sensation he often felt, but this presence seemed to change the way the silence bounced around, the way even the noise of his breathing echoed. He opened his eyes to find a flashlight shining down on him, a man standing at the foot of his bed.

  Jimmy screamed, and the man pounced as if to silence him. A bearded snarl of yellowed teeth caught the beam of light, and then the arc of a steel rod.

  There was a flash of pain in Jimmy’s shoulder. The man hauled back to hit him again with his length of pipe. Jimmy got his arms up to protect his head. The pipe cracked him on the wrist. There was a screech and a hiss by his head, and then a darting black shape amid the shadows.

  The man with the pipe screamed and dropped his flashlight, which doused itself in the bedsheets. Jimmy scrambled away, his mind unable to come to grips with a person in his home. A person in his home. The fear of years and years became real in an instant. He had loosened his precautions. All the venturing out. Slack, slack, he told himself, crawling on his hands and knees.

  Shadow let out an awful screech, the noise he made when his tail got stepped on. A howl of pain followed. Jimmy felt anger rise up and mix with his fear. He crawled towards the corner, banged into the desk, reached for where it should be propped—

  His hands settled around the gun. It’d been years since he’d fired it. Couldn’t remember if it was even loaded. But he could still swing it like a club if he had to. He cradled it against his shoulder and waved the barrel through the pitch black. Shadow screeched again. There was a thump of a small body hitting something hard. Jimmy couldn’t breathe or swallow. He couldn’t see anything but the dim glow of light rising up from the folds of his bed.

  He pointed the barrel at a patch of blackness that seemed to move and squeezed the trigger. There was a blinding flash of light from the muzzle, a roar that filled the small space to the seams. In that brief strobe flashed the searing image of a man whirling towards him. Another wild shot. Another glimpse of this stranger in Jimmy’s space, a thin man with a long beard and white eyes. And now Jimmy knew where he was, and the third shot did not zing. Its impact was lost in screams. The screams filled the darkness, and then a final shot put an end to even these.
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