Shift, p.58
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       Shift, p.58

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
Page 58


  Solo tore a page from one of the boring articles in the Ri–Ro book and folded it into a tent. The silo, he thought, belonged to the insects in many ways. Wherever the bodies were gathered, the insects swarmed in dark clouds. He had read up on them in the books. Somehow, maggots turned into flies. White and writhing became black and buzzing. Things broke down and changed.

  He threaded lengths of string into the folded piece of paper to give something to hang the weight on. This was when Shadow would normally get in the way, would come and arch his back against Solo’s arm, step on whatever he was doing, make him annoyed and make him laugh at the same time. But Shadow didn’t interrupt.

  Solo made small knots in the string to keep them from pulling through. The paper was doubled over across the holes so it wouldn’t tear. He knew well how things broke down. He was an expert in things he wished he could unlearn. Solo could tell at a glance how long it’d been since someone had died.

  The people he’d killed years back had been stiff when he moved them, but this only lasted a while. People soon swelled up and stank. Their bodies let off gasses and the flies swarmed. The flies swarmed and the maggots feasted.

  The stench would make his eyes water and his throat burn. And the bodies would soon grow soft. Solo had to move some bodies on the stairs once, tangled where they lay and difficult to step over, and the flesh came right apart. It became like cottage cheese he’d had back when there was still milk and goats to get it from. Flesh came apart once the person was no longer inside, holding themselves together. Solo concentrated on holding himself together. He tied the other ends of the strings to one of the small metal washers from Supply. Chewing his tongue, he made the finest of knots.

  String and fabric didn’t last either, but clothes stayed around longer than people. Within a year, it was clothes and bones that were left. And hair. The hair seemed to go last. It clung to bones and sometimes hung over empty and gazing sockets. The hair made it worse. It lent bones an identity. Beards on most, but not on the young or on the women.

  Within five years, even the clothes would break down. After ten, it was mostly bones. These days, so very long after the silo had gone dark and quiet – over twenty years since he’d been shown the secret lair beneath the servers – it was only the bones. Except for up in the cafeteria. The rot everywhere else made those bodies behind that door all the more curious.

  Solo held up his parachute, a paper tent with little strings fastened to a tiny washer. He had dozens and dozens of bits of string lying in tangles across the open book. A handful of washers remained. He gave one of the strings on his parachute a tug and thought of the bodies up in the cafeteria. Behind that door, there were dead people who wouldn’t break down like the others. When he and Shadow had first discovered them, he’d assumed they’d recently passed. Dozens of them, dying together and piled on one another as though they’d been tossed in there or had been crawling atop the others. The door to the forbidden outside was just beyond them, Solo knew. But he hadn’t gone that far. He had closed the door and left in a hurry, spooked by the lifeless eyeballs and the strange feeling of seeing a face other than his own peering back at him like that. He had left the bodies and not come back for a long time. He had waited for them to become bones. They never had.

  He went to the rail and peered over, made sure the piece of paper was tented, ready to grab the air. There was a cool updraught from the flooded deep. Solo leaned out beyond the third-level railing, the fine paper pinched in one hand, the washer resting in his other palm. He wondered why some people rotted and others kept going. What made them break down?

  ‘Break down,’ he said aloud. He liked the way his voice sounded sometimes. He was an expert in how things broke down. Shadow should’ve been there, rubbing against his ankles, but he wasn’t.

  ‘I’m an expert,’ Solo told himself. ‘Breaking down, breaking down. ’ He stretched out his arms and released the parachute, watched it plummet for a moment before the strings went taut. And then it bobbed and twisted in the air as it sank into the dwindling depths. ‘Down down down,’ he called after the parachute. All the way to the bottom. Sinking until it splashed invisible or got caught up along the way.

  Solo knew well how bodies rot. He scratched his beard and squinted after the disappearing chute, then sat back down and crossed his legs, the knee torn completely out of his old overalls. He mumbled to himself, delaying what needed to be done, his Project for the day, and instead tore another page from the shrinking book, trying not to think about yet another carcass that would soon dwindle with time.


  2331 – Year Twenty

  • Silo 17 •

  THERE HAD BEEN items Solo spent days and weeks searching for. There had been some things he’d needed that had consumed his hunts for years. Often, he found useful things much later, when he needed them no longer. Like the time he had come across a stash of razors. A great big bin of them in a doctor’s office. All the important stuff – the bandages, medicine, the tape – had long ago been snagged by those fighting over the scraps. But a bin of new razors, many of the blades still shiny, taunted him. He had long before resigned himself to his beard, but there had been times before that when he would’ve killed for a razor.

  Other times, he found a thing before he even knew he needed it. The machete was like that. A great blade found beneath the body of a man not long dead. Solo had taken it simply so nobody else would have the murderous thing. He had locked himself below the server room for three days, terrified of the sight of another still-warm body. That had been many years ago. It took a while longer for the farms to thicken up where the machete became necessary. By then, he had taken to leaving his gun behind – no longer any use for it – and the machete became a constant companion, something found before he knew he needed it.

  Solo set the last of the parachutes free and watched as it narrowly missed the landing on level nine. The folded paper vanished out of sight. He thought of the things Shadow had helped him find over the years, mostly food. But there was one time when Shadow had run off with a mind of his own. It was on a trip down to Supply when Shadow had raced ahead and had disappeared across a landing. Solo had followed with his flashlight.

  The cat had mewed and mewed by a door – Solo wary of another pile of bodies – but the apartment had been empty. Up on the kitchen counter, twirling, pawing at a cabinet full of little cans. Ancient and spotted with rust, but with pictures of cats on them. A madness in Shadow, and there, with a short cord plugged into the wall, a battered contraption, a mechanised can opener.

  Solo smiled and gazed over the rail, thinking on the things found and lost over the years. He remembered pressing the button on the top of that gadget the first time, how Shadow had whipped into a frenzy, how neatly the tops had come off. He remembered not being impressed at all with the food in the cans, but Shadow had a mind of his own.

  Solo turned and studied the book with the torn pages, feeling sad. He was out of washers, so he left the book behind and reluctantly headed down to the farms. He was off to do what needed to be done.

  Hacking at the greenery with his machete, Solo marvelled that the farms hadn’t long ago rotted to ruin without people around to tend them. But the lights were rigged to come on and off, and more than half of them still could. Water continued to dribble from pipes. Pumps kicked on and off with angry buzzes and loud grumbles. Electricity stolen from his realm below was brought up on wires that snaked the stairwell walls. Nothing worked perfectly, but Solo saw that man’s relationship to the crops mostly consisted of eating them. Now it was only him eating. Him and the rats and the worms.

  He carried his burden through the thickest plots, needing to reach the far corners of the farm where the lights no longer burned, where the soil was cool and damp, where nothing grew any more. A special place. Away from his weekly trips to gather food. A place he would come to as a destination rather than simply pass because it wa
s along the way.

  Leaving the heat of the lights, he entered a dark place. He liked it back here. It reminded him of the room beneath the servers, a private and safe place where one could hide and not be disturbed. And there, scattered among other abandoned and forgotten tools, a shovel. A thing he needed right when he needed it. This was the other way of finding things. It was when the silo was in a gifting mood. It wasn’t a mood the silo got into often.

  Solo knelt and placed his burden by the edge of the three-railing fence. The body in the bag had gone into that stiff phase. Soon it would soften. After that—

  Solo didn’t want to think after that. He was an expert in some things he’d rather not know.

  He collected the shovel and scampered over the top rail – it was too dark to hunt for the gate. The shovel growled and crunched through the dirt. He lifted each scoop into the air. Soft sighs and little piles slid out. Some things you found just when you needed them, and Solo thought of the years that had passed so swiftly with his friend. He already missed the way Shadow rubbed on his shin while he worked, always in the way but clever enough not to be stepped on, coming in a flash whenever Solo broke out in a whistle, there at just the right time. A thing found, before he even knew he needed it.



  • Silo 1 •

  DONALD’S BOOTS ECHOED in the lower-level shift storage, where thousands of pods lay packed together like gleaming stones. He stooped to check another nameplate. He had lost count of his position down the aisle and was worried he’d have to start over again. Bringing a rag to his mouth, he coughed. He wiped his lip and carried on. Something heavy and cold weighed down one pocket and pressed against his thigh. Something heavy and cold lay within his chest.

  He finally found the pod marked Troy. Donald rubbed the glass and peered inside. There was a man in there, older than he seemed. Older than Donald remembered. A blue cast overwhelmed pale flesh. White hair and white brows possessed an azure tint.

  Donald studied the man, hesitated, reconsidered. He had come there with no wheelchair, no medical kit. Just a cold heaviness. A slice of truth and a desire to know more. Sometimes a thing needed opening before closure was found.

  He bent by the control pad and repeated the procedure that had freed his sister. He thought of Charlotte up in the barracks as he entered his code. She couldn’t know what he was doing down there. She couldn’t know. Thurman had been like a second father to them both.

  The dial was turned to the right. Numbers blinked, then ticked up a degree. Donald stood and paced. He circled that pod with a name on it, the name of a man they’d turned him into, this sarcophagus that now held his creator. The cold in Donald’s heart spread into his limbs while Thurman warmed. Donald coughed into a rag stained pink. He tucked it back into his pocket and drew out the length of cord.

  A report from Victor’s files came to him as he stood there, roles reversed, thawing the Thaw Man. Victor had written of old experiments where guards and prisoners switched places, and the abused soon became the abuser. Donald found the idea detestable, that people could change so swiftly. He found the results unbelievable. But he had seen good men and women arrive on the Hill with noble intentions, had seen them change. He had been given a dose of power on this shift and could feel its allure. His discovery was that evil men arose from evil systems, and that any man had the potential to be perverted. Which was why some systems needed to come to an end.

  The temperature rose and the lid was triggered. It opened with a sigh. Donald reached in and lifted it the rest of the way. He half expected a hand to shoot out and snatch his wrist but there was just a man lying inside, still and steaming. Just a man, pathetic and naked, a tube running into his arm, another between his legs. Muscles sagged. Pale flesh gathered in folds of wrinkles. Hair clung in wisps. Donald took Thurman’s hands and placed them together. He looped the cord around Thurman’s wrists, threaded it between his hands and around the loops of cord, then cinched a knot to draw the loops tight. Donald stood back and watched his wrinkled eyelids for any sign of life.

  Thurman’s lips moved. They parted and seemed to take a first, experimental gasp. It was like watching the dead become reanimated, and Donald appreciated for the first time the miracle of these machines. He coughed into his fist as Thurman stirred. The old man’s eyes fluttered open, melted frost tracking from their corners, lending him a degree of false humanity. Wrinkled hands came up to wipe away the crust and Donald knew what that felt like, lids that wouldn’t fully part, that felt as though they’d grown together. A grunt spilled out as Thurman struggled with the cord. He came to more fully and saw that all was not right.

  ‘Be still,’ Donald told him. He placed a hand on the old man’s forehead, could feel the chill still in his flesh. ‘Easy. ’

  ‘Anna—’ Thurman whispered. He licked his lips, and Donald realised he hadn’t even brought water, hadn’t brought the bitter drink. There was no doubting what he was there to do.

  ‘Can you hear me?’ he asked.

  Thurman’s eyelids fluttered open again; his pupils dilated. He seemed to focus on Donald’s face, eyes flicking back and forth in stunted recognition.

  ‘Son . . . ?’ His voice was hoarse.

  ‘Lie still,’ Donald told him, even as Thurman turned to the side and coughed into his bound hands. He peered at the cord knotted around his wrists, his expression confused. Donald turned and checked the door in the distance. ‘I need you to listen to me. ’

  ‘What’s going on here?’ Thurman gripped the edge of the pod and tried to pull himself upright. Donald fished into his pocket for the pistol. Thurman gaped at the black steel as the barrel was levelled on him. His awareness thawed in an instant. He remained perfectly still, only his eyes moving as he met Donald’s gaze. ‘What year is it?’ he asked.
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