Second Shift: Order
Page 2

 Hugh Howey

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“Tell her I’ll hold you down while she does it,” Mission said, laughing. “Buzz me through?”
There was a wider gate to the side for wheelbarrows and trolleys. Mission didn’t feel like squeezing through the turnstiles with the massive pump strapped to his back. Frankie hit a button, and the gate buzzed. Mission pushed his way through.
“Whatcha haulin’?” Frankie asked.
“Water pump from Winters. How’ve you been?”
Frankie scanned the crowds beyond the gate. “Hold on a sec,” he said, looking for someone. Two farmers swiped their work badges and marched through the turnstiles, jabbering away. Sweat dripped from Mission’s nose. Frankie waved over someone in green and asked if they could cover for him while he went to the bathroom.
“C’mon,” Frankie told Mission. “Walk me.”
The two old friends headed down the main hall toward the bright aura of distant grow lights. The smells were intoxicating and familiar. Mission wondered what those same smells meant to Frankie, who had grown up six levels down near the fetid stink of the water plant. Perhaps this reeked to him the way the plant did to Mission. Perhaps the water plant brought back fond memories, instead.
“Things are going nuts around here,” Frankie whispered once they were away from the gates.
Mission nodded. “Yeah, I saw a few more stalls had sprouted up. More of them every day, huh?”
Frankie held Mission’s arm and slowed their pace so they’d have more time to talk. There was the smell of fresh bread from one of the offices. It was too far from the bakery for warm bread, but such was the new way of things. Probably ground the flour somewhere deep in the farms.
“You’ve seen what they’re doing up in the cafe, right?” Frankie asked.
“I took a load up that way a few weeks ago,” Mission said. He tucked his thumbs under his shoulder straps and wiggled the heavy pump higher onto his hips. “I saw they were building something by the wallscreens. Didn’t see what.”
“They’re starting sprouts up there,” Frankie said. “Corn, too, supposedly.” They stopped by the public restrooms. The sound of a loud flush on the other side of the wall flicked a switch inside Mission’s bladder and made him need to go.
“I guess that’ll mean fewer runs for us between here and there,” Mission said, thinking like a porter. He tapped the wall with the toe of his boot. “Roker’ll be pissed when he hears.”
Frankie bit his lip and narrowed his eyes. “Yeah, but wasn’t Roker the one who started growin’ his own beans down in Dispatch?”
Mission wiggled his shoulders. His arms were going numb. He wasn’t used to standing still with a load—he was used to moving. “That’s different,” he argued. He tried to remember why it was different. “That’s for climbing food.”
Frankie shook his head. “Yeah, but ain’t that hypercritical of him?”
“You mean hypocritical?”
“Whatever, man. All I’m saying is everyone has an excuse. We’re doing it because they’re doing it and someone else started it. So what if we’re doing it a little more than they are? That’s the attitude, man. But then we get in a twist when the next group does it a little more. It’s like a ratchet, the way these things work.”
Mission glanced down the hall toward the glow of distant lights. “I dunno,” he said. “The mayor seems to be letting things slide lately.”
Frankie laughed. “You really think the mayor’s in charge? The mayor’s scared, man. Scared and old.” Frankie glanced back down the hall to make sure nobody was coming. The nervousness and paranoia had been in him since his youth. It’d been amusing when he was younger; now it was sad and a little worrisome. “You remember when we talked about being in charge one day?” Frankie asked. “How things would be different?”
“It doesn’t work like that,” Mission said. “By the time we’re in charge, we’ll be old like them and won’t care anymore. And then our kids can hate us for pulling the same crap.”
Frankie laughed, and the tension in his wiry frame seemed to subside. “I bet you’re right.”
“Yeah, well, I need to go before my arms fall off.” He shrugged the pump higher up his back.
Frankie slapped his shoulder. “Yeah. Good seeing you, man.”
“Same.” Mission nodded and turned to go.
“Oh, hey, Mish.”
He stopped and looked back.
“You gonna see the Crow anytime soon?”
“I’ll pass that way tomorrow,” he said, assuming he’d live through the night.
Frankie smiled. “Tell her I said hey, wouldja?”
“I will,” Mission promised.
One more name to add to the list. If only he could charge his friends for all the messages he ran for them, he’d have way more than the three-hundred eighty-four chits already saved up. Half a chit for every hello he passed to the Crow, and he’d have his own apartment by now. He wouldn’t need to stay in the waystations. He could ask Jenine to marry him. But messages from friends weighed far less than dark thoughts, so Mission didn’t mind them taking up space. They crowded out the other. And Lord knew, Mission hauled his fair share of the heavier kind.
It would’ve made more sense and been kinder on Mission’s back to drop off the pump before visiting his father, but the whole point of hauling it up was so his old man would see him with the load. And so he headed into the planting halls and toward the same growing station his grandfather had worked and supposedly his great-grandfather, too. Past the beans and the blueberry vines, beyond the squash and the lurking potatoes. In a spot of corn that looked ready for harvest, he found his old man on his hands and knees looking how Mission would always remember him. With a small spade working the soil, his hands picked at weeds like a habit, the way a girl might curl her fingers in her hair over and over without even knowing she was doing it.
His old man turned his head to the side, sweat glistening on his brow under the heat of the grow lights. There was a flash of a smile before it melted. Mission’s half-brother Riley appeared behind a back row of corn, a little twelve-year-old mimic of his dad, hands covered in dirt. He was quicker to call out a greeting, shouting “Mission!” as he hurried to his feet.
“The corn looks good,” Mission said. He rested a hand on the railing, the weight of the pump settling against his back, and reached out to bend a leaf with his thumb. Moist. The ears were a few weeks from harvest, and the smell took him right back. He saw a midge running up the stalk and killed the parasite with a deft pinch.
“Wadja bring me?” his little brother squealed.
Mission laughed and tussled his brother’s dark hair, a gift from the boy’s mother. “Sorry, bro. They loaded me down this time.” He turned slightly so Riley could see, but also for his father. His brother stepped onto the lowest rail and leaned over for a better look.
“Why dontcha set that down for a while?” his father asked. He slapped his hands together to keep the precious dirt on the proper side of the fence, then reached out and shook Mission’s hand. “You’re looking good.”
“You too, Dad.” Mission would’ve thrust his chest out and stood taller if it didn’t mean toppling back on his rear from the pump. “So what’s this I hear about the cafe starting in their own sprouts?”
His father grumbled and shook his head. “Corn, too, from what I hear. More goddamn up-sourcing.” He jabbed a finger at Mission’s chest. “This affects you lads, you know.”
His father meant the porters, and there was a tone of having told him so. There was always that tone. Riley tugged on Mission’s coveralls and asked to hold his porter knife. Mission slid the blade from its sheath and handed it over while he studied his father, a heavy silence brewing. His dad looked older. His skin was the color of oiled wood, an unhealthy darkness from working too long under the grow lights. It was called a “tan,” and you could spot a farmer two landings away because of it, could pick them out by their skin like burnt toast.
Mission could feel the intense heat radiating from the bulbs overhead, and the anger he felt when he was away from home melted into a hollow sadness. The spot of air his mother had left empty could be felt. It was a reminder to Mission of what his being born had cost. More was the pity that he felt for his old man with his damaged skin and dark spots on his nose from years of abuse. These were the signs of all those in green who toiled among the dead. And this was where his father would have Mission work as well, if it were up to him.
While his father studied him and Riley played with the knife, Mission flashed back to his first solid memory as a boy. Wielding a small spade that had in those days seemed to him a giant shovel, he had been playing between the rows of corn, turning over scoops of soil, mimicking his father, when without warning his old man had grabbed his wrist.
“Don’t dig there,” his father had said with an edge to his voice. This was back before Mission had witnessed his first funeral, before he had seen for himself what went beneath the seeds. After that day, he learned to spot the mounds where the soil was dark from being disturbed. He learned to study the way those same mounds gradually sank and leveled out as the worms carried off what lay beneath.
“They’ve got you doing the heavy lifting, I see,” his father said, breaking the quiet. He assumed the load Mission had begged for was instead assigned by Dispatch. Mission didn’t correct him.
“They let us carry what we can handle,” he said. “The older porters get mail delivery. We each haul what we can.”
“I remember when I first stepped out of the shadows,” his dad said. He squinted and wiped his brow, nodded down the line. “Got stuck with potatoes while my caster went back to plucking blueberries. Two for the basket and one for him.”
Not this again. Mission watched as Riley tested the tip of the knife with the pad of his finger. He reached to take back the blade, but his brother twisted away from him.
“The older porters get mail duty because they can get mail duty,” his father explained.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mission said. The sadness was gone, the anger back. “The old ports have bad knees is why we get the loads. Besides, my bonus pay is judged by the pound and the time I make, so I don’t mind.”
“Oh, yes.” His father waved at Mission’s feet. “They pay you in bonuses and you pay them with your knees.”
Mission could feel his cheeks tighten, could sense the burn of the whelp around his neck.
“All I’m saying, son, is that the older you get and the more seniority, you’ll earn your own choice of rows to hoe. That’s all. I want you to watch out for yourself.”
“I’m watching out for myself, Dad.” He nearly added: It isn’t like I have anyone else.
Riley climbed up, sat on the top rail, and flashed his teeth at his own reflection in the knife. The kid already had that band of spots across his nose, those freckles, the start of a tan. Damaged flesh from damaged flesh, father like son. And Mission could easily picture Riley years hence on the other side of that rail, could see his half-brother all grown up with a kid of his own, and it made Mission thankful that he’d wormed his way out of the farms and into a job he didn’t take home every night beneath his fingernails.
“Are you joining us for lunch?” his father asked, sensing perhaps that he was pushing Mission away. A change in subjects was as near to an apology as the old man dared.
“If you don’t mind,” Mission said. He felt a twinge of guilt that his father expected to feed him, but he appreciated not having to ask. “I’ll have to run afterward, though. I’ve got a . . . delivery tonight.”
His father frowned. “You’ll have time to see Allie though, right? She’s forever asking about you. The boys here are lined up to marry that girl if you keep her waiting.”
Mission wiped his face to hide his expression. Allie was a great friend—his first and briefest romance—but to marry her would be to marry the farms, to return home, to live among the dead. “Probably not this time,” he said. And he felt bad for admitting it.
“Okay. Well, go drop that off. Don’t squander your bonus sitting here jawing with us.” The disappointment in the old man’s voice was hotter than the lights and not so easy to shade. “We’ll see you in the feeding hall in half an hour?” He reached out, took his son’s hand one more time, and gave it a squeeze. “It’s good to see you, Son.”
“Same.” Mission shook his father’s hand, then clapped his palms together over the grow pit to knock loose any dirt. Riley reluctantly gave the knife back, and Mission slipped it into its sheath. He fastened the clasp around the handle, thinking on how he might need it that night. He pondered for a moment if he should warn his father, thought of telling him and Riley both to stay inside until morning, to not dare go out.
But he held his tongue, patted his brother on the shoulder, and made his way to the pump room. As he walked through rows of planters and pickers, he thought about farmers selling their own vegetables in makeshift stalls. He thought about the cafe growing its own sprouts. He thought of the plans recently discovered to move something heavy from one landing to another without involving the porters.
Everyone was trying to do it all in case the violence returned. Mission could feel it brewing, the suspicion and the distrust, the walls being built. Everyone was trying to get a little less reliant on the others, preparing for the inevitable, hunkering down.