Shift, p.9
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       Shift, p.9

         Part #2 of Silo series by Hugh Howey
 
Page 9

  ‘That’s what I said. ’

  ‘And all the population accounts for every silo are run from the same computer. ’ Troy tried not to make this sound like a question, but it was. He couldn’t remember.

  ‘Yup,’ Randall confirmed.

  ‘Which means we’re being lied to. I mean, this doesn’t happen overnight, right? Biggers had to see this coming, which means he knew about it earlier, so either he’s complicit, or he’s lost control over there. ’

  ‘Exactly. ’

  ‘Okay. What do we know about Biggers’s second?’

  ‘His shadow?’ Randall hesitated. ‘I’d have to pull that file, but I know he’s been in place for a while. He was there before we started our shifts. ’

  ‘Good. I’ll speak with him tomorrow. Alone. ’

  ‘You think we should replace Biggers?’

  Troy nodded grimly. The Order was clear on problems that defied explanation: Start at the top. Assume the explanation is a lie. Because of the rules, he and Randall were talking about a man being put out of commission as if he were broken machinery.

  ‘Okay, one more thing—’

  The thunder of boots down the hallway interrupted the thought. Randall and Troy looked up as Saul bolted into the room, his eyes wide with fear.

  ‘Sirs—’

  ‘Saul. What’s going on?’

  The communications officer looked like he’d seen a thousand ghosts.

  ‘We need you in the comm room, sir. Right now. ’

  Troy pushed away from his desk. Randall was right behind him.

  ‘What is it?’ Troy asked.

  Saul hurried down the hallway. ‘It’s silo twelve, sir. ’

  The three of them ran past a man on a ladder who was replacing a long light bulb that had gone dim, the large rectangular plastic cover above him hanging open like a doorway to the heavens. Troy found himself breathing hard as he struggled to keep up.

  ‘What about silo twelve?’ he huffed.

  Saul flashed a look over his shoulder, his face screwed up with worry. ‘I think we’re losing it, sir. ’

  ‘What, like contact? You can’t reach them?’

  ‘No. Losing it, sir. The silo. The whole damn thing. ’

  11

  2049

  Savannah, Georgia

  DONALD WASN’T ONE for napkins, but he obeyed decorum by shaking the folded cloth loose and draping it in his lap. Each of the napkins at the other settings around the table had been bent into a decorative pyramid that stood upright amid the silverware. He didn’t remember the Corner Diner having cloth napkins when he was in high school. Didn’t they used to have those paper napkin dispensers that were all dented up from years of abuse? And those little salt and pepper shakers with the silver caps, even those had gotten fancier. A dish of what he assumed was sea salt sat near the flower arrangement, and if you wanted pepper, you had to wait for someone to come around and crack it on your food for you.

  He started to mention this to his wife, and saw that she was gazing past him at the booth behind. Donald turned in his seat, the original vinyl squeaking beneath him. He glanced back at the older couple sitting in the booth where he and Helen had sat on their first date.

  ‘I swear I asked them to reserve it for us,’ Donald said.

  His wife’s gaze drifted back to him.

  ‘I think they might’ve gotten confused when I described which one it was. ’ He stirred the air with his finger. ‘Or maybe I got turned around when I was on the phone. ’

  She waved her hand. ‘Sweetie, forget about it. We could be eating grilled cheese at home and I’d be thrilled. I was just staring off into space. ’

  Helen unfolded her own napkin with delicate care, almost as if she were studying the folds, seeing how to piece it back together, how to return a disassembled thing to its original state. The waiter came over in a bustle and filled their glasses with water, careless drips spotting the white tablecloth. He apologised for the wait, and then left them to wait some more.

  ‘This place sure has changed,’ he said.

  ‘Yeah. It’s more grown-up. ’

  They both reached for their waters at the same time. Donald smiled and held his glass up. ‘Fifteen years to the day that your father made the mistake of extending your curfew. ’

  Helen smiled and tapped her glass against his. ‘To fifteen more,’ she said.

  They took sips.

  ‘If this place keeps up, we won’t be able to afford to eat here in fifteen years,’ Donald said.

  Helen laughed. She had barely changed since that first date. Or maybe it was because the changes were so subtle. It wasn’t like coming to a restaurant every five years and seeing the leaps all at once. It was how siblings aged rather than distant cousins.

  ‘You fly back in the morning?’ Helen asked.

  ‘Yeah, but to Boston. I have a meeting with the Senator. ’

  ‘Why Boston?’

  He waved his hand. ‘He’s having one of those nano treatments of his. I think he stays locked up in there for a week or so at a time. He still somehow gets his work done—’

  ‘Yeah, by having his minions go out of their way—’

  ‘We’re not his minions,’ Donald said, laughing.

  ‘—to come kiss his ring and leave gifts of myrrh. ’

  ‘C’mon, it’s not like that. ’

  ‘I just worry that you’re pushing yourself too hard. How much of your free time are you spending on this project of his?’

  A lot, he wanted to say. He wanted to tell his wife how gruelling the hours were, but he knew how she would react. ‘It’s not as time-consuming as you’d think. ’

  ‘Really? Because it seems like it’s the only thing I hear you talking about. I don’t even know what else it is you do. ’

  Their waiter came past with a tray full of drinks and said it would be just a moment longer. Helen studied the menu.

  ‘I’ll be done with my portion of the plans in another few months,’ he told her. ‘And then I won’t bore you with it any more. ’

  ‘Honey, you don’t bore me. I just don’t want him taking advantage of you. This isn’t what you signed up for. You decided not to become an architect, remember? Otherwise, you could’ve stayed home. ’

  ‘Baby, I want you to know . . . ’ He dropped his voice. ‘This project we’re working on is—’

  ‘It’s really important, I know. You’ve told me, and I believe you. And then in your moments of self-doubt, you admit that your part in the entire scheme of things is superfluous anyway and will never be used. ’

  Donald had forgotten they’d had that conversation.

  ‘I’ll just be glad when it’s done,’ she said. ‘They can truck the fuel rods through our neighbourhood for all I care. Just bury the whole thing and smooth the dirt over and stop talking about it. ’

  This was something else. Donald thought about the phone calls and emails he’d been getting from the district, all the headlines and fear-mongering over the route the spent rods would take from the port as the trucks skirted Atlanta. Every time Helen heard a peep about the project, all she could likely think of was him wasting his time on it rather than doing his real job. Or the fact that he could’ve stayed in Savannah and done the same work.

  Helen cleared her throat. ‘So . . . ’ She hesitated. ‘Was Anna at the job site today?’

  She peered over the lip of her glass, and Donald realised, in that moment, what his wife was really thinking when the CAD-FAC project and the fuel rods came up. It was the insecurity of him working with her, of being so far from home.

  ‘No. ’ He shook his head. ‘No, we don’t really see each other. We send plans back and forth. Mick and I went, just the two of us. He’s coordinating a lot of the materials and crews—’

  The waiter arrived, pulled his black folio from his apron and clicked his pen. ‘Can I start you off with drinks?’

  Dona
ld ordered two glasses of the house Merlot. Helen declined the offer of an appetiser.

  ‘Every time I bring her up,’ she said, once their waiter had angled off towards the bar, ‘you mention Mick. Stop changing the subject. ’

  ‘Please, Helen, can we not talk about her?’ Donald folded his hands together on the table. ‘I’ve seen her once since we started working on this. I set it up so that we didn’t have to meet, because I knew you wouldn’t like it. I have no feelings for her, honey. Absolutely none. Please. This is our night. ’

  ‘Is working with her giving you second thoughts?’

  ‘Second thoughts about what? About taking on this job? Or about being an architect?’

  ‘About . . . anything. ’ She glanced at the other booth, the booth he should’ve reserved.

  ‘No. God, no. Honey, why would you even say something like that?’

  The waiter came back with their wine. He flipped open his black notebook and eyed the two of them. ‘Have we decided?’

  Helen opened her menu and looked from the waiter to Donald. ‘I’m going to get my usual,’ she said. She pointed to what had once been a simple grilled cheese sandwich with fries that now involved fried green heirloom tomatoes, Gruyère cheese, a honey-maple glaze and matchstick frites with tartar.

  ‘And for you, sir?’

  Donald looked over the menu. The conversation had him flustered, but he felt the pressure to choose and to choose swiftly.

  ‘I think I’m going to try something different,’ he said, picking his words poorly.

  12

  2110

  • Silo 1 •

  SILO TWELVE WAS collapsing, and by the time Troy and the others arrived, the communication room was awash in overlapping radio chatter and the stench of sweat. Four men crowded around a comm station normally manned by a single operator. The men looked precisely how Troy felt: panicked, out of their depth, ready to curl up and hide somewhere. It had a calming effect on him. Their panic was his strength. He could fake this. He could hold it together.

  Two of the men wore sleepshirts rather than their orange overalls, suggesting that the late shift had been woken up and called in. Troy wondered how long silo twelve had been in trouble before they finally came and got him.

  ‘What’s the latest?’ Saul asked an older gentleman, who held a headphone to one ear.

  The gentleman turned, his bald head shining in the overhead light, sweat in the wrinkles of his brow, his white eyebrows high with concern. ‘I can’t get anyone to answer the server,’ he said.

  ‘Give us just the feeds from twelve,’ Troy said, pointing to one of the other three workers. A man he had met just a week or so ago pulled off his headset and flipped a switch. The speakers in the room buzzed with overlapping shouts and orders. The others stopped what they were doing and listened.

  One of the other men, in his thirties, cycled through dozens of video feeds. It was chaos everywhere. There was a shot of a spiral staircase crammed with people pushing and shoving. A head disappeared, someone falling down, presumably being trampled as the rest moved on. Eyes were wide with fear, jaws clenched or shouting.

  ‘Let’s see the server room,’ Troy said.

  The man at the controls typed something on his keypad. The crush of people disappeared and was replaced with a calm view of perfectly still cabinets. The server casings and the grating on the floor throbbed from the blinking overhead lights of an unanswered call.

  ‘What happened?’ Troy asked. He felt unusually calm.

  ‘Still trying to determine that, sir. ’

  A folder was pressed into his hands. A handful of people gathered in the hallway, peering in. News was spreading, a crowd gathering. Troy felt a trickle of sweat run down the back of his neck, but still that eerie calmness, that resignation to this statistical inevitability.

  A desperate voice from one of the radios cut through the rest, the panic palpable:

  ‘—they’re coming through. Dammit, they’re bashing down the door. They’re gonna get through—’

  Everyone in the comm room held their breath, all the jitters and activity ceasing as they listened and waited. Troy was pretty sure he knew which door the panicked man was talking about. A lone door stood between the cafeteria and the airlock. It should have been made stronger. A lot of things should have been made stronger.

  ‘—I’m on my own up here, guys. They’re gonna get through. Holy shit, they’re gonna get through—’

  ‘Is that a deputy?’ Troy asked. He flipped through the folder. There were status updates from silo twelve’s IT head. No alarms. Two years since the last cleaning. The fear index had been pegged at an eight the last time it’d been measured. A little high, but not too low.

  ‘Yeah, I think that’s a deputy,’ Saul said.

  The man at the video feed looked back at Troy. ‘Sir, we’re gonna have a mass exodus. ’

  ‘Their radios are locked down, right?’

  Saul nodded. ‘We shut down the repeaters. They can talk among themselves, but that’s it. ’

  Troy fought the urge to turn and meet the curious faces peering in from the hallway. ‘Good,’ he said. The priority in this situation was to contain the outbreak: don’t let it spread to neighbouring cells. This was a cancer. Excise it. Don’t mourn the loss.

  The radio crackled:

  ‘—they’re almost in, they’re almost in, they’re almost in—’

  Troy tried to imagine the stampede, the crush of people, how the panic had spread. The Order was clear on not intervening, but his conscience was muddled. He held out a hand to the radioman.

  ‘Let me speak to him,’ Troy said.
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