Shift, p.57
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         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
Page 57

 

  ‘Thurman,’ he said, glancing up.

  Donald started and glanced down the hall, looking for someone else.

  ‘Any progress with eighteen?’

  ‘I, uh . . . ’ Donald tried to remember. ‘Last I heard, they’d breached the barrier in the lowest levels. The head over there thinks the fighting will be over in a day or two. ’

  ‘Good. Glad the shadow is working out. Scary time not to have one. There was this one time on my third shift I think it was when we lost a head while he was between shadows. Helluva time finding a recruit. ’ Eren leaned back in his chair. ‘The mayor wasn’t an option; the head of Security was as bright as a lump of coal; so we had to—’

  ‘I’m sorry to interrupt,’ Donald said, pointing down the hall. ‘I need to get back to—’

  ‘Oh, of course. ’ Eren waved his hand, seemed embarrassed. ‘Right. Me too. ’

  ‘—just a lot to do this morning. Grabbing breakfast and then I’ll be in my room. ’ He jerked his head towards the empty office across the hall. ‘Tell Gable I took care of myself, okay? I don’t want to be disturbed. ’

  ‘Sure, sure. ’ Eren shooed him with his hand.

  Donald spun back to the lift. Up to the cafeteria. His stomach rumbled its agreement. He’d been up all night without eating. He’d been up and empty for far too long.

  94

  2345

  • Silo 1 •

  HE WAS PUSHING the time limit by letting her eat an hour early, but it was difficult to say no. Donald encouraged her to take small bites, to slow down. And while Charlotte chewed, he brought her up to date. She knew about the silos from orientation. He told her about the wall screens, about the cleaners, that he had been woken because someone had disappeared. Charlotte had a hard time grasping these things. It took saying them several times until they became strange even to his ears.

  ‘They let them see outside, these people in the other silos?’ she asked, chewing on a small bite of biscuit.

  ‘Yeah. I asked Thurman once why we put them there. You know what he told me?’

  Charlotte shrugged and took a sip of water.

  ‘They’re there to keep them from wanting to leave. We have to show them death to keep them in. Otherwise, they’ll always want to see what’s over the rise. Thurman said it’s human nature. ’

  ‘But some of them go anyway. ’ She wiped her mouth with her napkin, picked up her fork, her hand trembling, and pulled Donald’s half-eaten breakfast towards her.

  ‘Yeah, some of them go anyway,’ Donald said. ‘And you need to take it easy. ’ He watched her dig into his eggs and thought about his own trip up the drone lift. He was one of those people who had gone anyway. It wasn’t something she needed to know.

  ‘We have one of those screens,’ Charlotte said. ‘I remember watching the clouds boil. ’ She looked up at Donald. ‘Why do we have one?’

  Donald reached quickly for his handkerchief and coughed into its folds. ‘Because we’re human,’ he answered, tucking the cloth away. ‘If we think there’s no point in going out there – that we’ll die if we go – we’ll stay here and do what we’re told. But I know of a way to see what’s out there. ’

  ‘Yeah?’ Charlotte scraped the last of his eggs onto her fork and lifted them to her mouth. She waited.

  ‘And I’m going to need your help. ’

  They pulled the tarp off one of the drones. Charlotte ran a trembling hand down its wing and walked unsteadily around the machine. Grabbing the flap on the back of a wing, she worked it up and down. She did the same for the tail. The drone had a black dome and nose that gave it something like a face. It sat silently, unmoving, while Charlotte inspected it.

  Donald noticed that three of the other drones were missing – the floor glossy where their tarps used to drape. And the neat pyramid of bombs in the munitions rack was missing a few from the top. Signs of the armoury’s use these past weeks. Donald went to the hangar door and worked it open.

  ‘No hardware?’ Charlotte asked. She peered under one of the wings where bad things could be attached.

  ‘No,’ Donald said. ‘Not for this. ’ He ran back and helped her push. They steered the drone towards the open maw of the lift. The wings just barely fitted.

  ‘There should be a strap or a linkage,’ she said. She lowered herself gingerly and crawled behind the drone, worked her way beneath the wing.

  ‘There’s something in the floor,’ Donald said, remembering the nub that moved along the track. ‘I’ll get a light. ’

  He retrieved a flashlight from one of the bins, made sure it had a charge and brought it back to her. Charlotte hooked the drone into the launch mechanism and squirmed her way out. She seemed slow to stand and he lent her his hand.

  ‘And you’re sure this lift’ll work?’ She brushed hair, still wet from the shower, off her face.

  ‘Very sure,’ Donald said. He led her down the hall, past the barracks and bathrooms. Charlotte stiffened when he led her into the piloting room and pulled back the plastic sheets. He flipped the switch on the lift controls. She stared blankly at one of the stations with its joysticks, readouts and screens.

  ‘You can operate this, right?’ he asked.

  She broke from her trance and stared at him a moment, then nodded her head. ‘If they’ll power up. ’

  ‘They will. ’ He watched the light above the lift controls flash while Charlotte settled behind one of the stations. The room felt overly quiet and empty with all those other stations sitting under sheets of plastic. The dust was gone from them, Donald saw. The place was recently lived in. He thought of the requisitions he’d signed for flights, each one at considerable cost. He thought of the risk of them being spotted in the wall screens, the need to fly deep in the swirling clouds. Eren had stressed the one-use nature of the drones. The air outside was bad for them, he’d said. Their range was limited. Donald had thought about why this might be as he’d dug through Thurman’s files.

  Charlotte flicked several switches, the neat clicks breaking the silence, and the control station whirred to life.

  ‘The lift takes a while,’ he told her. He didn’t say how he knew, but he thought back to that ride up all those years ago. He remembered his breath fogging the dome of his helmet as he rose to what he had hoped might be his death. Now he had a different hope. He thought of what Erskine had told him about wiping the earth clean. He thought about Victor’s suicide note to Thurman. This project of theirs was about resetting life. And Donald, whether by madness or reason, had grown convinced that the effort was more precise than anyone had rights to imagine.

  Charlotte adjusted her screen. She flicked a switch, and a light bloomed on the monitor. It was the glare of the steel door of the lift, lit up by the drone’s headlamp and viewed by its cameras.

  ‘It’s been so long,’ she said. Donald looked down and saw that her hands were trembling. She rubbed them together before returning them to the controls. Wiggling in her seat, she located the pedals with her feet, and then adjusted the brightness of the monitor so it wasn’t so blinding.

  ‘Is there anything I can do?’ Donald asked.

  Charlotte laughed and shook her head. ‘No. Feels strange not to be filing a flight plan or anything. I usually have a target, you know?’ She looked back at Donald and flashed a smile.

  He squeezed her shoulder. It felt good to have her around. She was all he had left. ‘Your flight plan is to fly as far and as fast as you can,’ he told her. His hope was that without a bomb, the drone would go further. His hope was that the limited range wasn’t preprogrammed somehow. There was a flashing light from the lift controls. Donald hurried over to check them.

  ‘The door’s coming up,’ Charlotte said. ‘I think we’ve got daylight. ’

  Donald hurried back over. He glanced out the door and down the hall, thinking he’d heard something.

  ‘Engine check,’ Charlotte said. ‘We
’ve got ignition. ’

  She wiggled in her seat. The overalls he’d stolen for her were too big, were bunched around her arms. Donald stood behind her and watched the monitor, which showed a view of swirling skies up a sloped ramp. He remembered that view. It became difficult to breathe, seeing that. The drone was pulled from the lift and arranged on the ramp. Charlotte hit another switch.

  ‘Brakes on,’ she said, her leg straightening. ‘Applying thrust. ’

  Her hand slid forward. The camera view dipped as the drone strained against its brakes.

  ‘Been a long time since I’ve done this without a launcher,’ she said nervously.

  Donald was about to ask if that was a problem when she shifted her feet and the view on the screen lifted. The metal shaft vibrated and began to race by. The swirling clouds filled the viewscreen until that was all that existed. Charlotte said, ‘Lift-off,’ and worked the yoke with her right hand. Donald found himself leaning to the side as the drone banked and the ground came briefly into view before all was swallowed by thick clouds.

  ‘Which way?’ she asked. She flicked a switch and the terrain below stood out by radar, by something that could pierce the clouds.

  ‘I don’t think it matters,’ he said. ‘Just straight. ’ He leaned closer to watch the strange but familiar landscape slide by. There were the great divots he had helped create. There was another tower down in the middle of a depression. The remnants of the convention – the tents and fairgrounds and stages – were long gone, eaten by the tiny machines in the air. ‘Just a straight line,’ he said, pointing. It was a theory, a crazy idea, but he needed to see for himself before he dared say anything.

  The pattern of depressions ended in the distance. The clouds thinned occasionally, giving him a true glimpse of the ground. Donald strained to see beyond the bowls when Charlotte let go of the throttle and reached for a bank of dials and indicators. ‘Uh . . . I think we have a problem. ’ She flipped a switch back and forth. ‘I’m losing oil pressure. ’

  ‘No. ’ Donald watched the screen as the clouds swirled and the land seemed to heave upward. It was too early. Unless he’d missed some step, some precaution. ‘Keep going,’ he breathed, as much to the machine as to its pilot.

  ‘She’s handling screwy,’ Charlotte said. ‘Everything feels loose. ’

  Donald thought of all the drones in the hangar. They could launch another. But he suspected the result would be the same. He might be resistant to whatever was out there, but the machines weren’t. He thought of the cleaning suits, the way things were meant to break down at a certain time, a certain place. Invisible destroyers so precise that they could let loose their vengeance as soon as a cleaner hit a hill, reached a particular altitude, as soon as they dared to rise up. He reached for his cloth and coughed into it, and had a vague memory of workers scrubbing the airlock after pulling him back inside.

  ‘You’re at the edge,’ he said, pointing to the last of the silos on the radar as the bowl disappeared beneath the drone’s camera. ‘Just a little further. ’

  But in truth, he had no idea how much further it might take. Maybe you could fly straight around the world and right back where you started, and that still wouldn’t be far enough.

  ‘I’m losing lift,’ Charlotte said. Her hands were twin blurs. They went from the controls to switches and back again.

  ‘Engine two is out,’ she said. ‘I’m in a glide. Altitude oh-two-hundred. ’

  It looked like far less on the screen. They were beyond the last of the hills now. The clouds had thinned. There was a scar in the earth, a trench that may have been a river, black sticks like charred bones that stuck up in sharp points like pencil lead – all that remained of ancient trees, perhaps. Or the steel girders of a large security fence, eaten away by time.

  ‘Go, go,’ he whispered. Every second aloft provided a new sight, a new vista. Here was a breath of freedom. Here was an escape from hell.

  ‘Camera’s going. Altitude oh-one-fifty. ’

  There was a bright flash on the screen like the shock of dying electrics. A purplish cast followed from the frying sensors, then a wash of blue where once there was nothing but browns and greys.

  ‘Altitude fifty feet. Gonna touch down hard. ’

  Donald blinked away tears as the drone plummeted and the earth rushed up to meet the machine. He blinked away tears at the sight on the monitor, nothing wrong with the camera at all.

  ‘Blue—’ he said.

  It was an utterance of confirmation just before a vivid green landscape swallowed the dying drone. The monitor faded from colour to darkness. Charlotte released the controls and cursed. She slapped the console with her palm. But as she turned and apologised to Donald, he was already wrapping his arms around her, squeezing her, kissing her cheek.

  ‘Did you see it?’ he asked, his voice a breathless whisper. ‘Did you see?’

  ‘See what?’ Charlotte pulled away, her face a hardened mask of disappointment. ‘Every gauge was toast there at the end. Blasted drone. Probably been sitting too long—’

  ‘No, no,’ Donald said. He pointed to the screen, which was now dark and lifeless. ‘You did it,’ he said. ‘I saw it. There were blue skies and green grass out there, Charla! I saw it!’

  95

  2331 – Year Twenty

  • Silo 17 •

  WITHOUT WANTING TO, Solo became an expert in how things broke down. Day by day, he watched steel and iron crumble to rust, watched paint peel and orange flecks curl up, saw the black dust gather as metal eroded to powder. He learned what rubber hoses felt like as they hardened, dried up and cracked. He learned how adhesives failed, things appearing on the floor that once were affixed to walls and ceilings, objects moved suddenly and violently by the twin gods of gravity and dilapidation. Most of all, he learned how bodies rot. They didn’t always go in a flash – like a mother pushed upward by a jostling crowd or a father sliding into the shadows of a darkened corridor. Instead, they were often chewed up and carried off in invisible pieces. Time and maggots alike grew wings; they flew and flew and took all things with them.
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