Shift, p.6
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       Shift, p.6

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
 
Page 6

 

  The pill rattled in the plastic. Troy took the cup and tossed the pill down. He swallowed it dry, grabbed his tray and tried not to hold up the line. Searching for a seat, he caught the heavyset man watching him. Everyone in the facility seemed to think Troy was in charge, but he wasn’t fooled. He was just another person doing a job, following a script. He found an empty spot facing the screen. Unlike that first day, it no longer bothered him to see the scorched world outside. The view had grown oddly comforting. It created a dull ache in his chest, which was near to feeling something.

  A mouthful of potatoes and gravy washed away the taste of the pill. Water was never up to the task, could never take away the bitterness. Eating methodically, he watched the sun set on the first week of his first shift. Twenty-five more weeks to go. It was a countable number phrased like that. It seemed shorter than half a year.

  An older gentleman in blue overalls with thinning hair sat down diagonally across from him, polite enough not to block the view. Troy recognised the man, had spoken with him once by the recycling bin. When he looked up, Troy nodded in greeting.

  The cafeteria hummed pleasantly as they both ate. A few hushed conversations rose and faded. Plastic, glass and metal beat out a rhythmless tune.

  Troy glanced at the view and felt there was something he was supposed to know, something he kept forgetting. He awoke each morning with familiar shapes at the edges of his vision, could feel memories nearby, but by the time breakfast came, they were already fading. By dinner, they were lost. It left Troy with a sadness, a cold sensation, and a feeling like a hollow stomach – different from hunger – like rainy days as a child when he didn’t know how to fill his time.

  The gentleman across from him slid over a little and cleared his throat. ‘Things going okay?’ he asked.

  He reminded Troy of someone. Blotchy skin hung slightly loose around his weathered face. He had a drooping neck, an unsightly pinch of flesh hanging from his Adam’s apple.

  ‘Things?’ Troy repeated. He returned the smile.

  ‘Anything, I suppose. Just checking in. I go by Hal. ’ The gentleman lifted his glass. Troy did the same. It was as good as a handshake.

  ‘Troy,’ he said. He supposed to some people it still mattered what they called themselves.

  Hal took a long pull from his glass. His neck bobbed, the gulp loud. Self-conscious, Troy took a small sip and worked on the last of his beans and turkey.

  ‘I’ve noticed some people sit facing it and some sit with their backs to it. ’ Hal jerked his thumb over his shoulder.

  Troy looked up at the screen. He chewed his food, didn’t say anything.

  ‘I reckon those who sit and watch, they’re trying to remember something,’ Hal said.

  Troy swallowed and forced himself to shrug.

  ‘And those of us who don’t want to watch,’ Hal continued. ‘I figure we’re trying our best to forget. ’

  Troy knew they shouldn’t be having this conversation, but now it had begun, and he wanted to see where it would lead.

  ‘It’s the bad stuff,’ Hal said, staring off towards the lifts. ‘Have you noticed that? It’s just the bad stuff that slips away. All the unimportant things, we remember well. ’

  Troy didn’t say anything. He jabbed his beans, even though he didn’t plan on eating them.

  ‘It makes you wonder, don’t it? Why we all feel so rotten inside?’

  Hal finished up his food, nodded a wordless goodbye and got up to leave. Troy was left alone. He found himself staring at the screen, a dull ache inside that he couldn’t name. It was the time of evening just before the hills disappeared, before they darkened and faded into the cloud-filled sky.

  7

  2049

  Washington, DC

  DONALD WAS GLAD he had decided to walk to his meeting with the Senator. The rain from the week before had finally let up, and the traffic in Dupont Circle was at a crawl. Heading up Connecticut and leaning into a stiffening breeze, Donald wondered why the meeting had been moved to Kramerbooks of all places. There were a dozen superior coffee houses much closer to the office.

  He crossed a side street and hurried up the short flight of stone steps to the bookshop. The front door to Kramer’s was one of those ancient wooden affairs older establishments hung like a boast, a testament to their endurance. Hinges squeaked and actual bells jangled overhead as he pushed open the door, and a young woman straightening books on a centre table of bestsellers glanced up and smiled hello.

  The cafe, Donald saw, was packed with men and women in business suits sipping from white porcelain cups. There was no sign of the Senator. Donald started to check his phone, see if he was too early, when a Secret Service agent caught his eye.

  The agent stood broad-shouldered at the end of an aisle of books in the small corner of Kramer’s that acted as the cafe’s bookshop. Donald laughed at how conspicuously hidden the man was: the earpiece, the bulge by his ribs, the sunglasses indoors. Donald headed the agent’s way, the wooden boards underfoot groaning with age.

  The agent’s gaze shifted his way, but it was hard to tell if he was looking at Donald or towards the front door.

  ‘I’m here to see Senator Thurman,’ Donald said, his voice cracking a little. ‘I have an appointment. ’

  The agent turned his head to the side. Donald followed the gesture and peered down an aisle of books to see Thurman browsing through the stacks at the far end.

  ‘Ah. Thanks. ’ He stepped between the towering shelves of old books, the light dimming and the smell of coffee replaced with the tang of mildew mixed with leather.

  ‘What do you think of this one?’

  Senator Thurman held out a book as Donald approached. No greeting, just the question.

  Donald checked the title embossed in gold on the thick leather cover. ‘Never heard of it,’ he admitted.

  Senator Thurman laughed. ‘Of course not. It’s over a hundred years old – and it’s French. I mean, what do you think of the binding?’ He handed Donald the book.

  Donald was surprised by how heavy the volume was. He cracked it open and flipped through a few pages. It felt like a law book, had that same dense heft, but he could see by the white space between lines of dialogue that it was a novel. As he turned a few pages, he admired how thin the individual sheets were. Where the pages met at the spine, they had been stitched together with tiny ropes of blue and gold thread. He had friends who still swore by physical books – not for decoration, but to actually read. Studying the one in his hand, Donald could understand their nostalgic affection.

  ‘The binding looks great,’ he said, brushing it with the pads of his fingers. ‘It’s a beautiful book. ’ He handed the novel back to the Senator. ‘Is this how you shop for a good read? You mostly go by the cover?’

  Thurman tucked the book under his arm and pulled another from the shelf. ‘It’s just a sample for another project I’m working on. ’ He turned and narrowed his eyes at Donald. It was an uncomfortable gaze. He felt like prey.

  ‘How’s your sister doing?’ he asked.

  The question caught Donald off guard. A lump formed in his throat at the mention of her.

  ‘Charlotte? She’s . . . she’s fine, I guess. She redeployed. I’m sure you heard. ’

  ‘I did. ’ Thurman slotted the book in his hand back into a gap and weighed the one Donald had appraised. ‘I was proud of her for re-upping. She does her country proud. ’

  Donald thought about what it cost a family to do a country proud.

  ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I mean, I know my parents were really looking forward to having her home, but she was having trouble adjusting to the pace back here. It . . . I don’t think she’ll be able to really relax until the war’s over. You know?’

  ‘I do. And she may not find peace even then. ’

  That wasn’t what Donald wanted to hear. He watched the Senator trace his finger down an orna
te spine adorned with ridges, bumps and recessed lettering. The old man’s eyes seemed to focus beyond the rows of books.

  ‘I can drop her a line if you want. Sometimes a soldier just needs to hear that it’s okay to see someone. ’

  ‘If you mean a shrink, she won’t do it. ’ Donald recalled the changes in his sister around the time of her sessions. ‘We already tried. ’

  Thurman’s lips pursed into a thin, wrinkled line, his worry revealing hidden signs of age. ‘I’ll talk to her. I’m familiar enough with the hubris of youth, believe me. I used to have the same attitude when I was younger. I thought I didn’t need any help, that I could do everything on my own. ’ He turned to face Donald. ‘The profession’s come a long way. They have pills now that can help her with the battle fatigue. ’

  Donald shook his head. ‘No. She was on those for a while. They made her too forgetful. And they caused a . . . ’ He hesitated, didn’t want to talk about it. ‘. . . a tic. ’

  He wanted to say tremors, but that sounded too severe. And while he appreciated the Senator’s concern – this feeling as if the man was family – he was uncomfortable discussing his sister’s problems. He remembered the last time she was home, the disagreement they’d had while going through his and Helen’s photographs from Mexico. He had asked Charlotte if she remembered Cozumel from when they were kids, and she had insisted she’d never been. The disagreement had turned into an argument, and he had lied and said his tears were ones of frustration. Parts of his sister’s life had been erased, and the only way the doctors could explain it was to say that it must’ve been something she wanted to forget. And what could be wrong with that?

  Thurman rested a hand on Donald’s arm. ‘Trust me on this,’ he said quietly. ‘I’ll talk to her. I know what she’s going through. ’

  Donald bobbed his head. ‘Yeah. Okay. I appreciate it. ’ He almost added that it wouldn’t do any good, could possibly cause harm, but the gesture was a nice one. And it would come from someone his sister looked up to, rather than from family.

  ‘And hey, Donny, she’s piloting drones. ’ Thurman studied him, seemed to be picking up on his worry. ‘It’s not like she’s in any physical danger. ’

  Donald rubbed the spine of a shelved book. ‘Not physical, no. ’

  They fell silent, and Donald let out a heavy breath. He could hear the chatter from the cafe, the clink of a spoon stirring in some sugar, the clang of bells against the old wooden door, the squeal and hiss of milk being steamed.

  He had seen videos of what Charlotte did, camera feeds from the drones and then from the missiles as they were guided in to their targets. The video quality was amazing. You could see people turning to look up to the heavens in surprise, could see the last moments of their lives, could cycle through the video frame by frame and decide – after the fact – if this had been your man or not. He knew what his sister did, what she dealt with.

  ‘I spoke with Mick earlier,’ Thurman said, seeming to sense that he’d brought up a sore topic. ‘You two are going to head down to Atlanta and see how the excavation is going. ’

  Donald snapped to. ‘Of course. Yeah, it’ll be good to get the lay of the land. I got a nice head start on my plans last week, gradually filling in the dimensions you set out. You do realise how deep this thing goes, right?’

  ‘That’s why they’re already digging the foundations. The outer walls should be getting a pour over the next few weeks. ’ Senator Thurman patted Donald’s shoulder and nodded towards the end of the aisle, signalling that they were finished looking through books.

  ‘Wait. They’re already digging?’ Donald walked alongside Thurman. ‘I’ve only got an outline ready. I hope they’re saving mine for last. ’

  ‘The entire complex is being worked on at the same time. All they’re pouring are the outer walls and foundations, the dimensions of which are fixed. We’ll fill each structure from the bottom up, the floors craned down completely furnished before we pour the slabs between. But look, this is why I need you boys to go check things out. It sounds like a damned nightmare down there with the staging. I’ve got a hundred crews from a dozen countries working on top of one another while materials pile up everywhere. I can’t be in ten places at once, so I need you to get a read on things and report back. ’

  When they reached the Secret Service agent at the end of the aisle, the Senator handed him the old book with the French embossing. The man in the dark shades nodded and headed towards the counter.

  ‘While you’re down there,’ Thurman said, ‘I want you to meet up with Charlie Rhodes. He’s handling delivery of most of the building materials. See if he needs anything. ’

  ‘Charles Rhodes? As in the governor of Oklahoma?’

  ‘That’s right. We served together. And hey, I’m working on transitioning you and Mick into some of the higher levels of this project. Our leadership team is still short a few dozen members. So keep up the good work. You’ve impressed some important people with what you’ve put together so far, and Anna seems confident you’ll be able to stay ahead of schedule. She says the two of you make a great team. ’

  Donald nodded. He felt a blush of pride – and also the inevitability of extra responsibilities, more bites out of his ever-dwindling time. Helen wouldn’t like hearing that his involvement with the project might grow. In fact, Mick and Anna might be the only people he could share the news with, the only ones he could talk to. Every detail about the build seemed to require convoluted layers of clearance. He couldn’t tell if it was the fear of nuclear waste, the threat of a terrorist attack or the likelihood that the project would fall through.
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