Second Shift: Order
Page 17

 Hugh Howey

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Cam was gone, of that he felt certain. How many others? A twinge of guilt accompanied the sick thought that the fallen would have to be carried up to the farms in plastic bags. Someone would have to do that job, and it wouldn’t be a pretty one.
He shook this thought away as he got within a level of Dispatch. Tears streamed down his face and mixed with the sweat and grime of the long day’s descent. He bore bad news. A shower and clean clothes would do little to alleviate the weariness he felt, but there would be protection here, help in clearing up the confusion about the blast. He hurried down the last half flight and remembered, perhaps due to the rising ash that reminded him of a note he’d torn to confetti, the reason he’d been chasing after Cam in the first place.
Rodny. His friend was locked away in IT, and his plea for help had been lost in the din and confusion of the explosion.
The explosion. Cam. The package. The delivery.
Mission wobbled and clutched the railing for balance. He thought of the ridiculous fee for the delivery, a fee that perhaps was never meant to be paid. He gathered himself and hurried on, wondering what in the depths was going on, what kind of trouble his friend might be in, and how to help him. How, even, to get to him.
The air grew thick and it burned to breathe as he arrived at Dispatch. A small crowd huddled on the stairway. They peered across the landing and into the open doors of one-twenty-two. Mission coughed into his fist as he pushed his way through the gawkers. Had the wreckage from above landed here? Everything seemed intact. Two buckets lay on their sides near the door, and a gray fire hose snaked over the railing and trailed inside. A blanket of smoke clung to the ceiling; it trailed out and up the wall of the stairwell shaft like water from a giant faucet defying gravity.
Mission pulled his ‘chief up over his nose, confused. The smoke was coming from inside. He breathed in through his mouth, the fabric pressing against his lips and lessening the sting in his throat. Dark shapes moved inside the hallway. He unsnapped the strap that held his knife in place and crossed the threshold, keeping low to stay away from the smoke.
Eli, one of the senior dispatchers, met him in the hall. He had a basket of scorched paper in his hands, a mournful look on his face. The floors were everywhere wet and squished with the traffic from deeper inside. It was dark, but cones of light danced around like fretful things.
“Look what you’ve done,” Eli cried to Mission. “Look what you’ve done.”
Mission hurried past him and toward the flashlights. The smoke was thicker, the water on the floor deeper. Bits of pulp worth saving floated on the surface. He passed one of the dormitories, the sorting hall, the front offices.
Lily, an elder porter, ran by in slaps and spray, recognizable only at the last moment as the beam from her flashlight briefly lit her face. There was someone lying in the water, pressed up against the wall. As Mission approached and a passing light played over the form, he saw that they weren’t lying there at all. It was Hackett, one of the few dispatchers who treated the young shadows with respect and never seemed to take delight in their burdens. The glimpse Mission got revealed half a face recognizable, the other half a red blister. Deathdays. Lottery numbers flashed in Mission’s vision.
“Porter! Get over here.”
It was Morgan’s voice. The old man’s cough joined a chorus of others. The hallway was full of ripples and waves, splashes and hacks, smoke and commands. Mission hurried toward the familiar silhouette, his eyes burning.
“Sir? It’s Mission. The explosion—” He pointed toward the ceiling.
“I know my own shadows, boy.” A light was trained on Mission’s eyes, a physical lash of sorts. “Get in here and give these lads a hand.”
The smell of cooked beans and burnt and wet paper was overpowering. There was a hint of fuel behind it all, a smell Mission knew from the Down Deep and its generators. He had lugged a massive filter once that reeked of this. And there was something else: the smell of the bazaar during a pig roast, a foul and unpleasant odor.
The water in the main hall was deep. It lapped up over Mission’s halfboots and filled them with muck. Drawers of files were being emptied into buckets. An empty crate was shoved into his hands, cones of light swirling in the mist, shapes moving and kicking up splashes, his nose burning and running, tears on his cheeks unbidden.
“Here, here,” someone said, urging him forward. They warned him not to touch the filing cabinet. Piles of paper went into the crate, heavier than they should be. Mission didn’t understand the rush. The fire was out. The walls were black where the flames must’ve licked them with their orange tongues, and the grow plots along the far wall where rows of beans had run up tall trestles were all ash. The trestles stood like black fingers, those that stood at all.
The porter beside him, Mission couldn’t see who, cursed the farmers before leaving with a load. Amanda was there at the filing cabinet, her ‘chief wrapped around her hand, managing the drawers as they were emptied. The crate filled up fast. Mission spotted someone emptying the wall safe of its old books as he turned back toward the hallway. There was a body in the corner covered in a sheet. Nobody was in as much of a hurry to remove that.
He followed the others toward the landing, but they did not go all the way out. The emergency lights in the dorm room were on, mattresses stacked up in the corner. Carter, Lyn, and Jocelyn were spreading the files out on the springs. Mission unloaded his crate and went back for another load. He asked Amanda what had happened, if this was retribution of some sort.
“They came for the beans,” she said. She used her ‘chief to wrestle with another drawer. “They came for the beans, and they burned it all.”
Mission took in the wide swath of damage. He recalled how the stairwell had trembled during the blast, still saw the bodies falling and screaming to their deaths. Something was going on. The months of small violences had ramped up like a switch had been flipped. He wasn’t convinced that this was about the beans at all.
“So what do we do now?” Carter asked. He was a powerful porter, in his early thirties where men find their strength and have yet to lose their joints, but he looked absolutely beat. His hair clung to his forehead in wet clumps. There were black smears on his face, and you could no longer tell what color his ‘chief had been. All signs that he had been present for and had fought back the fire.
“Now we burn their crops,” someone suggested.
“The crops we eat?”
“Just the upper farms. They’re the ones that did this.”
“We don’t know who did this,” Morgan said.
Mission caught his old caster’s eye. “In the storehouse,” he said. “I saw— Was that—?”
Morgan nodded. “Hendricks. Aye.”
Carter slapped the wall and barked profanities. “I’ll kill ‘em!” he yelled.
“So you’re . . .” Mission wanted to say Lower Chief, but it was too soon for that to make sense.
“Aye,” Morgan said, and Mission could tell it made little sense to him as well.
“People will be carrying whatever they like for a few days,” Joel said. He coughed into his palm while Lyn looked on with concern. “We’ll appear weak if we don’t strike back.”
Mission had other concerns besides appearing weak. The people above thought a porter had attacked them. And now this with the farmers, so far from where they’d been hit the night before. Porters were the nearest thing to a roaming sentry, and they were being knocked out by someone, purposefully he thought. There were all those boys being recruited into IT. It wasn’t computers they were being hired to fix. It was something else.
“I need to get home,” Mission said. It was a slip. He meant to say Up Top. He worked to unknot his ‘chief. The thing reeked of smoke, as did his hands and his coveralls. He would need to find another color to don. He needed to get in touch with his friends.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Morgan asked. His former caster seemed ready to say something else as Mission tugged the ‘chief away. Instead, the old man’s eyes fell to the bright red whelp around Mission’s neck, the stain of a rope’s embrace.
“I don’t think this is about us at all,” he said. “I think this is bigger than that. A friend of mine’s in trouble. He’s at the heart of all that’s going wrong. I think something bad is going to happen to him or that he might know something. They won’t let him talk to anyone.”
“Rodny?” Lyn asked. She and Joel had been two years ahead of him, but they both knew he and Rodny from the Nest.
He nodded. “And Cam is dead,” he told the others. He explained what’d happened on his way down, the blast, the people chasing him, the gap in the rails. Hands covered gaping mouths. Someone whispered Cam’s name in disbelief. “I don’t think anyone cares that we know,” Mission added. “I think that’s the point. Everyone’s supposed to be angry. As angry as possible.”
“I need time to think,” Morgan said. “To plan.”
“I don’t know that there is much time,” Mission said. He told them about the new hires at IT. He told Morgan about seeing Bradley there, about the young porter applying for a different job.
“What do we do?” Lyn asked, looking to Joel and the others.
“We take it easy,” Morgan said, but he didn’t seem so sure. The confidence he displayed as a senior porter and caster seemed shaken now that he was a chief. It was how knees got wobbly when that last bit of weight went onto a heavy load.
“I can’t stay down here,” Mission said flatly. “You can have every vacation chit I own, but I’ve got to get up-top. I don’t know how, but I have to.”
Before he went anywhere, Mission needed to get in touch with friends he could trust, anyone who might be able to help, the old gang from the Nest. As Morgan urged everyone on the landing back to work, Mission slunk down the dark and smoky hallway toward the sorting room, which had a computer he might use. Lyn and Joel followed, more eager to help Rodny than to clean up after the fire.
They checked the monitor at the sorting counter and saw that the computer was down, possibly from the power outage the night before. Mission remembered all those people with their broken computers earlier that morning at IT and wondered if there would be a working machine anywhere on five levels. Since he couldn’t send a wire, he picked up the hard line to the other Dispatch offices to see if they could get a message out for him.
He tried Central, first. Lyn stood with him at the counter, her flashlight illuminating the dials and highlighting the haze of smoke in the room. Joel splashed among the shelves, moving the reusable sorting crates on the bottom higher up to keep them from getting wet. There was no response from Central.
“Maybe the fire got the radio, too,” she whispered.
Mission didn’t think so. The power light was on and the thing was making that crackling sound when he squeezed the button. He heard Morgan splash past in the hallway, yelling and complaining that his workforce was disappearing. Lyn cupped her hand over her flashlight. “Something is going on at Central,” he told Lyn. He had a bad feeling.
The second waystation he tried up-top finally won a response. “Who’s this?” someone asked with none of the formality nor the jargon radio operators were known for.
“This is Mission. Who’s this?”
“Mission? You’re in big trouble, man.”
Mission glanced at Lyn. “Who is this?” he asked.
“This is Robbie. They left me alone up here, man. I haven’t heard from anybody. But everyone’s looking for you. What’s going on down there?”
Joel stopped with the crates and trained his flashlight on the counter.
“Everyone’s looking for me?” Mission asked.
“You and Cam, a few of the others. There was some kind of fight at Central. Were you there for that? I can’t get word from anyone!”
Mission told him to calm down, which seemed an unfair thing to expect when he could hardly think straight himself. “Robbie, I need you to get in touch with some friends of mine. Can you send out wires? Something’s wrong with our computers down here.”
“No, ours are all kind of sideways. We’ve been having to use the terminal up at the mayor’s office.”
“The mayor’s office? Okay, I need you to send a couple of wires, then. You got something to write with?”
“Wait,” Robbie said. “These are official wires, right? If not, I don’t have the authority—”
“Damnit, Robbie, this is important! Grab something to write with. I’ll pay you back. They can dock me for it if they want.” Mission glanced up at Lyn, who was shaking her head in disbelief. He coughed into his fist, the smoke tickling his throat. They should be moving, not explaining this to someone else.
“All right, all right,” Robbie said. “Who’m I sending this to? And you owe me for this piece of paper because it’s all I have to write on.”
Mission let go of the transmit button to curse the kid. Joel laughed from behind the sorting stacks. Composing himself a moment, Mission thought about who would be most likely to get a wire and send it along to the others. He ended up giving Robbie three names, then told him what to write. He would have his friends meet him at the Nest, or meet each other if he couldn’t make it there himself. The Nest had to be safe. Nobody would mess with the school or the Crow. Once the gang was together, they could figure out what to do. Maybe the Crow would know what to do. The hardest part for Mission would be figuring out how to join them.