Second Shift: Order
Page 19

 Hugh Howey

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Donald nodded a sympathetic hello. He turned and looked through the door across the hall where a man in white sat behind a similar desk. The puppeteer. It was a wonder people didn’t trip on the strings.
Thurman spoke to the man in white, who got up from his desk and joined them in the hall. Here was one who seemed to know that Thurman was in charge. Tiers of puppets.
Donald followed the two of them to the comm room, leaving the balding man at his old desk to his game of solitaire. He felt a mix of sympathy and envy for the man, this captain at a rudderless wheel. Sympathy and envy for those who don’t remember. As they turned the corner, Donald thought back to those initial bouts of awareness on his first shift. He remembered speaking with a doctor who knew, and having this sense of wonder that anyone could cope with such knowledge. And now he saw that it wasn’t that the pain grew tolerable or the confusion went away. Instead, it simply became familiar. It became a part of you. It was a nasty scar that still flared up now and then but that you lived with.
The comm room was quiet. Heads swiveled as the three of them entered. One of the operators hurriedly removed his feet from his desk. Another took a bite of his protein bar and turned back to his station.
“Get me Eighteen,” Thurman said.
Eyes turned to the other man in white, who waved his consent. A call was patched through. Thurman held half a headset to one ear while he waited. He caught the expression on Donald’s face and waved the operator for another set. Donald stepped forward and accepted it while the cable was slotted into the receiver. He could hear the familiar beeping of a call being placed, and his stomach fluttered as doubts began to surface. Finally, a voice answered. A shadow.
Thurman asked him to get Mr. Wyck, the silo Head.
“He’s already coming,” the shadow said.
When Wyck joined the conversation, Thurman told the Head what Donald had found, but it was the shadow who responded. The shadow knew the one they were after. He said that they were close. There was something in his voice, some shock or hesitation, and Thurman waved at the operator to get the sensors in his headset going. Suddenly, it was a Rite of Initiation they were conducting. This shadow became Thurman’s target, and Donald watched a master at work.
“Tell me what you know,” he said. Thurman leaned over the operator and peered at a screen that monitored skin conductivity, heartbeat, and perspiration. Donald was no expert at reading the charts, but he knew something was up by the way the lines spiked up and down while the shadow spoke. He feared for the young man. He wondered if someone would die then and there.
But such was not Thurman’s intent. Within moments, he had the boy speaking of his childhood, had him admitting to this rage he harbored, a sense of not belonging, the need to act up and lash out. He spoke of a childhood that seemed both ideal and frustrating, and Thurman was like a gentle but firm drill sergeant working with a troubled recruit: tearing him down, building him back up.
“You’ve been fed the truth,” he told the young man. “And now you see why it must be divvied out carefully or not at all.”
“I do.”
The shadow sniffed as though he were crying. And yet: the jagged lines on the screen formed less precipitous peaks, less dangerous valleys.
Thurman spoke of sacrifice, of the greater good, of individual lives proving meaningless in the far stretch of time. He took that shadow’s rage and redirected it until the work of being locked up for months with the Legacy was distilled down to its very essence. And through it all, it didn’t sound as though the silo Head breathed once.
“Tell me what needs to be fixed,” Thurman said, after their discussion. He laid the problem at the shadow’s feet. Donald saw how this was better than simply handing him the solution.
The shadow spoke of a culture forming that overvalued individuality, of children that wanted to get away from their families, of generations living levels apart and independence stressed until no one relied on anyone and everyone was dispensable.
The sobs came. Donald watched as Thurman’s face tightened, and he wondered again if he was about to see a death ordered, a young man put out of his misery. Instead, the white-haired general, this senator of another time, released the radio for a moment and said to those gathered around, simply, “He’s ready.”
And what started as an inquiry, a test of Donald’s theory, concluded this boy’s dose of the Legacy and his Rite of Initiation. A shadow became a man. Lines on a screen settled into steel cords of resolve as his anger was given a new focus, a new purpose. His childhood was seen differently. Dangerously.
Thurman gave this young man his first order. Mr. Wyck congratulated the boy and provided his freedom. And later, as Donald and Thurman rode the elevator back toward Anna, Thurman declared that this Rodny would make a fine silo Head. Even better than the last.
That afternoon, Donald and Anna worked to restore order to the war room. They made it ready in case it was called upon during a future shift. All their notes were taken off the walls and filed away into airtight plastic crates, and Donald imagined these would sit on another level somewhere, another storeroom, to gather dust. The computers were unplugged, all the wiring coiled up, and these were hauled off by Erskine on a cart with squeaky wheels. All that was left were the cots, a change of clothes, and the standard issue toiletries. Enough to get them through the night and to their meeting with Dr. Henson the following day.
Several shifts were about to come to a close. For Anna and Thurman, it had been a long time coming. Two full shifts. Almost a year awake. Erskine and Henson would need a few weeks to finish their work, and by that time the next Head would come on, and the schedule would return to normal. For Donald, it had been less than a week awake after nearly a century of sleep. He was a dead man who had blinked his eyes open for but a moment. Just a peek, and now back again.
Something told him his dreams would be different this time. There might still be a mountain of skulls to climb, but some of those bleached skulls with their empty sockets would now have names. Names gleaned from a database. Families that may or may not survive the great reset of Silo 18. Some that would die so that others might live.
He thought of them as he took his last shower, as he brushed his teeth, took his first dose of the bitter drink so that no one would think anything was amiss. But Donald didn’t plan on sleeping or dreaming. To him, this deep freeze was worse than death. Not only did it carry him farther and farther from Helen, whisking him through the years while she returned to dust, the deep freeze was a false sleep that could only be filled with nightmares and only be disturbed by tragedy.
If he went back to sleep, they would never get him up again. He knew that. Unless things were so bad that he wouldn’t want to be woken anyway. Unless it were Anna once more, lonely, wishing for company, and willing to subject him to abuse in order to get it.
That wasn’t sleep. That was a body and a mind stored away. There were other choices, more final ways out. Donald had discovered this resolve by following a trail of clues left behind by Victor, and he would soon arrive at the man’s same fateful conclusion.
He walked a final lap amid the guns and drones. He touched the wings beneath the tarps, and finally retired to his cot. He thought of Helen as he lay there listening to Anna sing in the shower one last time. And he realized the anger he had felt for his wife having lived and loved without him was now gone. It had been wiped away by his guilt for coming to find solace in Anna’s embrace. And when she came to him that night, straight from the shower with water beading on her flesh, he could not be strong. They had the same bitter drink on their breath, that concoction that prepped their veins for the deep sleep, and neither of them cared. Donald succumbed. And then he waited until she had returned to her cot and her breathing had softened before he cried himself to sleep. And in that sleep, he discovered no doubts about the voyage he had planned for the following day.
When he woke, Anna was already gone, her cot neatly made. Donald did the same, tucking the sheets beneath the mattress and leaving the corners crisp, even though he knew the sheets would be mussed as the cots were returned to their rightful place in the barracks. He checked the time. Anna had been put under during the early morning so as not to be spotted. He had less than an hour before Thurman would come for him. It was more than enough time.
He went out to the storeroom and approached the drone nearest the hangar door. Yanking the tarp off sent a cloud of dust into the air. Donald coughed and covered his mouth. He waved his hand in the air, then dragged out the empty bin he had stuffed under one of the wings. He opened the low hangar door and arranged the tough plastic bin so that it was slightly inside the lift. He lowered the door onto the bin to keep the small hangar propped open.
Opening the adjacent door, he hurried down the hallway, past the empty barracks, and pulled the plastic sheet off the station at the very end. His explorations had recently turned from discovery into experimentation. Flipping the plastic cover off the lift switch, he threw it into the up position. The first time he’d done this, the door to the lift would no longer open, but he could hear the platform rumbling upward on the other side of the wall. It hadn’t taken long to figure out a solution.
Replacing the plastic sheet, he hurried down the hall. He could still taste the bitter prepping agent in his mouth and wished he’d been able to avoid drinking that. It would be a horrible final taste.
He turned off the light in the hall and shut the door. The other bin was pulled out from under the drone’s left wing. The contents had been assembled and arranged carefully. Donald stripped and tossed his clothes under the drone. He pulled out the thick plastic suit and sat down to work his feet into the legs. The boots went on next, Donald being careful to seal the cuffs around them. Standing up, he gripped the dangling shoelace stolen from an extra boot. The end had been tied to the zipper on the back of the suit. He pulled it over his shoulder and tugged upward, hand over hand, like he’d seen surfers and divers do. He made sure the zipper went to the top before pulling the gloves, flashlight, and helmet from the bin.
The helmet went on before the gloves, as the latches were difficult to operate. After tugging on the second glove, he did one final check of the suit to be sure everything was properly sealed. Satisfied, he closed the bin and slid the container back under the wing before covering the drone with the tarp. There would only be a single trunk out of place when Thurman arrived. Victor had left a mess to discover. Donald would hardly leave a trace.
He crawled inside the lift on his belly, pushing the flashlight ahead of him. He could hear the motor inside straining against the pinned bin to move upward, a whirring like an angry hive of bees. Turning on the flashlight, he took a last look at the storeroom, braced himself, then kicked the plastic tub with both boots.
It budged. There was a scraping sound. He kicked again, and the lift shook from the violence. Just a few more inches. A last kick, and he barely got his boots back inside in time. There was a thunderous racket as the door slammed shut, a bang like an explosion, and then he felt the shudder of movement. Cables rattled and sang above. The flashlight jittered and danced. Donald corralled the loose flashlight between his mitts and watched his exhalations fog the inside of his helmet. He had no idea what to expect, but he was causing it. For once, he was the agent of change. He was going somewhere by choice.
The ride up took much longer than he anticipated. There were moments when he wasn’t sure whether or not he was still moving. His body told him several times that he was in fact heading back down, that he had changed direction. He grew worried that his plan had been discovered, that the misplaced bin had led them to his tracks in the dust, that he was being recalled. He urged the lift to hurry along.
His flashlight gave out. Donald tapped the cylinder in his mitt and worked the switch back and forth. It must’ve been on a weak charge from its long storage. He was left in the dark with all the sensation of a man beneath the sea on a moonless night, no way of knowing which way was up nor down, whether he was bobbing or sinking, rising or drowning. All he could do was wait. And again, he knew that this was the right decision. There was nothing worse than being trapped in the darkness, unable to do anything more than wait. This final time would mark the end of his suffering.
Arrival came with a jarring clank. The persistent hum of the motor disappeared, the ensuing quiet haunting. There was a second clank, and then the door opposite the one he’d entered slowly rose. A metal nub on the floor the size of a fist slid forward on a track that linked up with a groove outside. Donald scrambled after this nub, seeing how the drone might be guided forward.
He found himself in a sloping launch bay. He hadn’t known what to expect, thought maybe he’d simply arrive above the soil on a barren landscape, but he was in a shaft. A dim light grew stronger. Above him, up the slope, a slit was opening. Beyond this slit, Donald spotted the roiling clouds he knew from the cafe. They were the bright gray that came with a sunrise. The doors at the top of the slope continued to slide apart like a maw opening wide.
Donald crawled up the steep slope as quickly as he could. The metal car in the track stopped and locked into place. Donald hurried, imagining he didn’t have much time. He stayed off the track in case the launch sequence was automated, but the nub never moved, never raced by. He arrived at the open doors exhausted and perspiring and managed to haul himself out.
The world spread out before him. After a week of living in a windowless chamber and decades of sleeping in a virtual grave, the scale and openness were inspiring. Donald felt like tearing off his helmet and sucking in deep breaths of non-confinement. The oppressive weight of his silo imprisonment had been lifted. Above him were only the clouds.
He stood on a round concrete platform. Behind the opening for the launch ramp was a cluster of antennas. He went to these, held onto one of them, and lowered himself to the wide ledge below. From here it was a scramble on his belly, trying to hold onto the slick edge with bulky gloves, and then a graceless drop to the dirt.