Second Shift: Order
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“Porter!” someone yelled from above.
Mission carefully slid to the edge of the sloping and bent steps. He held the railing where it had been torn free. It was warm to the touch. Leaning out, he studied the crowd fifty feet above him at the next landing. They were swinging the fire hose, trying to get it inside the busted door. But there was no landing rail to snag the nozzle on anymore, no one to grab it. Again, someone yelled something about a porter. Mission didn’t know what was expected of him. He hadn’t shadowed for this. The nozzle swung wildly a dozen feet away. Did they expect him to reach it? To swing over and douse that mad pulse in the heart of the burning earth?
Someone pointed when they spotted him leaning out, spotted the ‘chief around his neck.
“There he is!” a woman shrieked, one of the mad-eyed women who had staggered past him as he hurried down, one of those who had survived. “The porter did it!” she yelled.
Mission froze, uncomprehending, even as the stairway thundered and clanged with a descending mob. The loosened treads beneath his feet shook. He reached for the inner post and clung to it for a moment. Across the smoke-hazed void, a figure appeared at the hole in the earth. Someone was alive inside level one-sixteen. A man with his undershirt pulled up over his mouth stared across at Mission with wide, horror-filled eyes.
Mission turned and ran. He stumbled downward, a hand on the inner post, watching for the return of the railing. So much had been pulled away. The stairs were unstable from the damage. He didn’t know why he was running beyond that he was being chased. It took a full turn of the staircase for the railing to reappear and for him to feel safe at such speeds. It took just as long to realize that Cam was dead. His friend had delivered a package, and now he was dead. He and others. One glance at his blue ‘chief, and someone above thought it’d been Mission who’d made the delivery. It very nearly had been.
Another crowd at landing one-seventeen. Tear-streaked faces, a woman trembling, her arms wrapped around herself, a man covering his face, all looking up or down beyond the rails. They had seen the wreckage tumble past. Mission hurried on. Lower Dispatch was all that lay between him and Mechanical that he might call haven. He hurried there, his mind still grasping for a handhold that’d been wrenched away. A violent scream approached from above and came much too fast.
Mission startled and nearly fell as the wailing person flew toward him. He waited for someone to tackle him from behind, but the sound whizzed past beyond the rail. Another person. Falling, alive and screaming, plummeting toward the depths. The loose steps and empty space had claimed one of those chasing him.
He quickened his pace, leaving the inner post for the outer rail where the curve of the steps was broader and smoother, where the force of his descent tugged him against the steel bar. Here, he could move faster. He tried not to think of what would happen if he came across a gap in the steel. He ran, smoke stinging his eyes, the clang and clamor of his own feet and that of distant others, not realizing at first that the haze in the air wasn’t from the ruin he had left behind. The smoke all around him was rising.
If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.
Donald’s breakfast of powdered eggs and shredded potatoes had long grown cold. He rarely touched the food brought down by Thurman and Erskine, preferring instead the bland stuff in the unlabeled silver cans he had discovered among the storeroom’s vacuum-sealed crates. It wasn’t just the matter of trust—it was the rebelliousness of it all, the empowerment that came from foraging, from taking command of his own survival. He stabbed a yellowish-orange gelatinous blob that he assumed had once been part of a peach and put it in his mouth. He chewed, tasting nothing. He pretended it tasted like a peach.
Across the wide table, Anna fiddled with the dials on her radio and sipped loudly from a mug of cold coffee. A nest of wires ran from a black box to her computer, and a soft hiss of static filled the room. It was noise to Donald, but Anna squinted at a set of speakers and tilted her head like an animal with a higher sense. She seemed capable of listening to the indiscernible.
“It’s too bad we can’t get a better station,” Donald said morosely. He speared another wedge of mystery fruit and popped it into his mouth. Mango, he told himself, just for variety.
“No station is the best station,” she said, referring to her hope that the towers of Silo 40 and its neighbors would remain silent. She had tried to explain what she was doing to cut off unlikely survivors, but little of it made any sense to Donald. A year ago, supposedly, Silo 40 had hacked the system. It was assumed to have been a rogue Head of IT. No one else could be expected to possess the expertise and access required of such a feat. By the time the camera feeds were cut, every fail-safe had already been severed. Attempts to terminate the silo were made, but with no way to verify them. It was apparent these attempts had failed when the darkness began to spread to other silos.
Thurman, Erskine, and Victor had been woken according to protocol, one after the other. Further fail-safes proved ineffective, and Erskine worried the hacking had progressed to the level of the nanos, that everything was in jeopardy. After much cajoling, Thurman had convinced the other two that Anna could help. Her research at M.I.T. had been in wireless harmonics; remote charging technology; RFIDs; the ability to assume control of electronics via radio.
She’d eventually been able to commandeer the collapse mechanism of the afflicted silos. Donald still had nightmares thinking about it. While she described the process, he had studied the wall schematic of a standard silo. He had pictured the blasts that freed the layers of heavy concrete between the levels, sending them like dominoes down to the bottom, crushing everything and everyone in-between. Stacks of concrete fifty feet thick had been cut loose to turn entire societies into rubble. These underground buildings had been designed from the beginning so they could be brought down like any other—and remotely. The insight that such a fail-safe was even needed seemed as sick as the solution was cruel.
What now remained of those silos was all hiss and crackle, a chorus of ghosts. The silo Heads in the rest of the facilities hadn’t even been told of the calamity. There would be no red Xs on their schematics to haunt their days. The various Heads had little contact with each other as it was. The greater worry was of panic spreading.
But everyone in Silo 1 knew. Victor had known. And Donald suspected it was this heavy burden that had led him to an unspeakable escape rather than any of the theories Thurman had offered. Thurman was so in awe of Victor’s supposed brilliance that he searched for purpose behind his madness, some conspiratorial cause. Donald was verging on the sad realization that humanity had been thrown on the brink of extinction by insane men in positions of power following one another, each thinking the others knew where they were going.
He took a sip of tomato juice from a punctured can and reached for two pieces of paper amid the carpet of notes and reports surrounding his keyboard. The fate of a silo supposedly rested on something in these two pages. They were copies of the same report. One was a virgin printout of something he’d written long ago about the fall of another silo. Donald barely remembered writing it. And now he had stared at it so long, the meaning had been squeezed out of the ink. It had become like a word that, repeated, devolves into mere sound.
The other copy was of the notes Victor had scrawled across the face of this report. He had written his notes with a red pen, and someone upstairs had managed to pull just this color off in order to make both versions more legible. By copying the red, however, they had also transferred a fine mist and a few splatters. These marks were gruesome reminders that the report had been atop Victor’s desk in the final moments of his life.
That could mean anything or nothing, Donald thought. In fact, after three days of study, he was beginning to suspect that the report was nothing more than a scrap of paper. Why else write across the top of it? And yet Victor had told Thurman several times that the key to quelling the violence in Silo 18 lay right there. He had argued strongly for Donald to be pulled from the deep freeze, but hadn’t been able to get Erskine or Thurman to side with him. So this was all Donald had, a liar’s account of what a dead man had said.
Liars and dead men—two parties unskilled at dispensing truth.
The scrap of paper with the red ink and rust-colored bloodstains offered little help. There were a few lines that resonated, however. They reminded Donald of how horoscopes were able to land vague and glancing blows, which gave credence to all their other feints.
“The One who remembers” had been written in bold and confident letters across the center of the report. Donald couldn’t help but feel that this referred to him and his resistance to the medication. Hadn’t Anna said that Victor spoke of him frequently, that he wanted him awake for testing or questioning? Other musings were vague and dire in equal measure. “This is why,” Victor had written. Also: “An end to them all.”
Did he mean the why of his suicide or the why of Silo 18’s violence? And an end to all of what?
In many ways, the cycle of violence in Silo 18 was no different than what took place elsewhere. Beyond being more severe, it was the same waxing and waning of the mobs, of each generation revolting against the last, a fifteen- to twenty-year cycle of bloody upheaval.
Victor had left reports behind about everything from primate behavior to the wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. There was one report that Donald found especially disturbing: it detailed how primates came of age and attempted to overthrow their fathers, the alpha males. It told of chimps that committed infanticide, males snatching the young from their mothers and taking them into the trees where their arms and legs were ripped, limb by limb, from their small bodies. Victor had written that this put the females back into estrus. It made room for the next generation.
Donald had a hard time believing any of this was true. He had a harder time making sense of a report about frontal lobes and how long they took to develop in humans. Maybe this was important to unraveling some mystery. Or perhaps it was the ravings of a man losing his mind, or a man discovering his conscience and coming to grips with what he’d done to the world. Or maybe it was because of Silo 40, from watching impotently while his grand and twisted plans crumbled into ruin.
Donald studied his old report and Victor’s notes and saw the same bit of nothing. Anna thought a people could be saved by what the report contained. Thurman was impatient to terminate the silo now before the violence spilled to some neighbor. Donald was reminded of his story, of having killed a man to save others. He thought about how bombs were used to douse fires, nukes used to end wars, fires to fight fires. He wanted no part of such a decision.
And so he searched. He fell into a routine that Anna had long ago perfected. They slept, ate, and worked. They emptied bottles of scotch at night one burning sip at a time and left them standing like factory smokestacks amid the diagram of silos. In the mornings, they took turns with the lone shower that adjoined what seemed an executive’s office. Or a general’s office. Anna would be brazen with her nakedness, Donald wishing she wouldn’t be. Her presence became an intoxicant from the past, and Donald began to confabulate a new reality in his mind: He and Anna were working on one more secret project together; Helen was back in Savannah; Mick wasn’t making it to the meetings; Donald couldn’t raise either of them because his cell phone wouldn’t work.
It was always that his cell phone didn’t work. Just one text getting through on the day of the convention, and Helen might be down in the deep freeze, asleep in her pod. He could visit her the way Erskine visited his daughter. They would be together again once all the shifts were over.
In another version of the same dream, Donald imagined that he was able to crest that hill and make it to the Tennessee side. Bombs exploded in the air, frightened people dove into their holes, a young girl sang with a voice so pure. In this fantasy, he and Helen disappeared into the same earth. They had children and grandchildren and were buried together.
Dreams such as these kept him sane as he slept and haunted him when he woke. They haunted him when he allowed Anna to touch him, to lay in his cot for an hour before bedtime, just the sound of her breathing, her head on his chest, the smell of alcohol on both their breaths, reminding him of college days. He would lay there and tolerate it, suffer how good it felt, her hand resting on his neck, and only fall asleep after she grew uncomfortable from the cramped quarters and moved back to her own cot.
In the morning, she would sing in the shower, steam billowing into the war room, while Donald returned to his studies. He would log onto her computer where he was able to dig through the files in Victor’s personal directories. He could see when these files had been created, accessed, and how often. One of the oldest and most recently opened was a list with all the silos ranked. Number 18 was near the top, but it wasn’t clear if this was a measure of trouble or worth. And why rank them to begin with? For what purpose?
He also used Anna’s computer to search for his sister, Charlotte. She wasn’t listed in the pods below, not under any name or picture that he could find. But she had been there during orientation. He remembered her being led off with so many others and being put to sleep. And now she seemed to have vanished. But where?
So many questions. He stared at the two reports, the awful sound of hissing ghosts leaking from the radio, and the weight of all the earth above him driving him mad. And he began to suspect that Silo 1 had certain fail-safes as well, that the lift took too long between levels, that a press of concrete hovered over all their heads that none of them could see. Such was his fear and his hope, two wildly different emotions that became difficult to distinguish as Donald followed Victor’s messy trail. He began to wonder, if he followed this dead man too closely, if perhaps he would reach the same fateful conclusion in the end.