Second Shift: Order
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He scanned the horizon for the city—had to work his way around the tower to find it. From there, he aimed forty-five degrees to the left. He had studied the maps to make sure, but now that he was there, he realized he could’ve done it by memory. Over there was where the tents had stood, and here the stage, and beyond them the dirt tracks through the struggling beginnings of grass as ATVs buzzed up the hillside. He could almost smell the food that’d been cooking, could hear the dogs barking and children playing, the anthems in the air.
Donald shook off thoughts of the past and made his time count. He knew there was a chance—a very good chance—that someone was sitting at breakfast in the cafe. They would be dropping their spoon into their reconstituted eggs right then and pointing at the wallscreen. But he had a head start. They would have to wrestle with suits and wonder if the risk was worth it. By the time they got to him, it would be too late. Hopefully, they would simply leave him.
He worked his way up the hillside. Movement was a struggle inside the bulky suit. He slipped and fell several times in the slick soil. When a gust of wind hammered the landscape, it peppered his helmet with grit and made a noise like the hiss of Anna’s radio. There was no telling how long the suit would last. He knew enough of the cleaning to suspect it wouldn’t be forever, but Anna had told him that the machines in the air were designed to attack only certain things. That was why they didn’t destroy the sensors, or the concrete, or a proper suit. And he suspected his silo would only have proper suits.
All he hoped for as he labored up the hill was a view. He was so obsessed and determined to win this that he never thought to look behind him. Always ahead. Slipping and scrambling, crawling on his hands and knees the last fifty feet, until finally he was at the summit. He stood and staggered forward, exhausted, breathing heavily, remembering the bombs in the air and Anna pulling him back to safety, back to hell.
Not this time. He reached the edge and looked down into the adjacent bowl. There, a concrete tower stood like a gravestone, like a monument to Helen. She was buried below, and while he could never go to her, never be buried alongside her, he could lie down beneath the clouds and be close enough.
He wanted his helmet off. First, though, his gloves. He tugged one of them free—popping the seal—and dropped it to the soil. The heavy winds, heavy enough that he found himself leaning into them, sent the glove tumbling down the slope. The grit in the heavy breeze stung his hand. The peppering of fine particles burned like a day on a windy beach. Donald began tugging on his other glove, resigned to what would come next, when suddenly he felt a hand grip his shoulder, and he was yanked back from the edge of that gentle rise, that hard-fought and pleasant view.
Donald stumbled and fell. The shock of being touched sent his heart into his throat. He waved his arms to free himself, but someone had a grip on his suit. More than one person. They dragged him back until he could no longer see Helen’s resting spot.
His screams of frustration filled his helmet. Couldn’t they see that it was too late? Couldn’t they leave him be? He flailed and tried to lunge out of their grip, but he was being pulled down the hill, back toward Silo 1.
When he fell the next time, he was able to roll over and face them, to get his arms up to fend for himself. And there was Thurman standing over him—wearing nothing more than his white coveralls. Dust from the dead earth gathered in the old man’s gray brow.
“It’s time to go!” Thurman yelled into the heavy wind. His voice seemed as distant as the clouds.
Donald kicked his feet and tried to move like a crab back up the hill, but there were three of them there. All in white, squinting against the ferocity of the driving wind and pelting soil. And they were, none of them, pleased.
“Nooo!” Donald yelled, as they seized him again. He tried to grab rocks and fistfuls of soil as they pulled him along by his boots. His helmet knocked against the lifeless pack of dirt. He watched the clouds boil overhead as his fingernails were bent back and broken in his struggle for some purchase.
By the time they got him to the flats, Donald was spent. They carried him down a ramp and through the airlock where more men were waiting. His helmet was tossed aside before the outer door fully shut. Thurman stood in a far corner and watched as they undressed him. The old man dabbed at the blood running from his nose. Donald had caught him with his boot.
Erskine was there, Dr. Henson as well, both of them breathing hard. As soon as they got his suit off, Henson plunged a needle into Donald’s flesh. Erskine held his hand and seemed sad. A darkness like death spread through Donald’s veins.
“A bloody waste,” someone said, as the fog settled over him.
“Look at this mess.”
Erskine placed a hand on Donald’s cheek as Donald drifted deeper into the black. His lids grew heavy and his hearing distant.
“Be better if someone like you were in charge,” he heard Erskine say.
But it was Victor’s voice he heard. It was a dream. No, a memory. A thought from an earlier conversation. Donald couldn’t be sure. The waking world of boots and angry voices was too busy being swallowed by the mist of sleep and the fog of dreams. And this time—rather than with a fear of death—Donald went into that darkness gladly. He embraced it hoping it would be eternal. He went with a final thought of his sister, of those drones beneath their tarps, and all that he hoped would never be woken.
Ring around the silo.
No one knows what I know.
Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down!
Mission felt buried alive. He fell into an uncomfortable trance, the bag growing hot and slick as it trapped his heat and exhalations. Part of him feared he would pass out in there and Joel and Lyn would discover him dead. Part of him hoped.
The two porters were stopped for questioning on one-seventeen, a landing below the blast that took Cam. Those working to repair the stairwell were on the lookout for a certain porter. Their description was part Cam, part Mission. Mission held deathly still while Joel complained of being stopped with so sensitive and heavy a load. It seemed that they might demand the bag be opened, but there were some things nearly as taboo as talk of the outside. And so they were let free with a warning that the rail was out above and that one person had already fallen to their death.
Mission fought off a coughing fit as the voices receded below. He wiggled his shoulders and struggled to cover his mouth to muffle the sound of his throat being cleared. Lyn hissed at him to be quiet. In the distance, Mission could hear a woman wailing. They passed through the wreckage from hours earlier, and Joel and Lyn gasped at the sight of an entire landing torn free from the stairwell.
Above Supply, they carried him into a restroom, opened the bag, and let him work the blood back into his arms. Mission peed and took a few sips of water. He assured the others that he was fine in there. Yes, it was hot, he told them. All three of them were damp with sweat, and there was a very long way to go. Joel especially seemed weary from the levels climbed thus far, or perhaps from seeing the damage wreaked by the blast. Lyn was holding up better but was anxious to get going again. She fretted aloud for Rodny and seemed as eager to get to the Nest as Mission.
Mission looked at himself in the mirror with his white coveralls and his porter’s knife strapped to his waist. He was the one they were looking for. He drew his knife and held a handful of his hair. It made a crunching noise, like biting into celery, as he sawed through a clump close to his scalp. Lyn saw what he was doing and helped with her own knife. It hurt in a good way and made his head tingle. Joel grabbed the trashcan from the corner to collect the hair.
It was a rough job, but he looked less like the one they wanted. Before putting his knife away, he cut a few slits in the black bag, right by the zipper. He peeled off his undershirt and wiped the inside of the bag dry before throwing the shirt in the trashcan. It reeked of smoke and sweat, anyway. Crawling back inside, helping with the straps, they zipped him up and carried him back to the stairway to resume their ascent. Mission was powerless to do anything but worry.
He ran over the events of a very long day. Things had happened that morning that felt like they must’ve taken place yesterday. He remembered getting up early to watch the clouds brighten over breakfast. He had visited the Crow and delivered her note, had then lost a friend, and now was heading back to the Nest. The exhaustion of it all caught up to him. Or perhaps it was the lack of sleep from the fight the night before or the gentle swaying of the bag. Whatever the cause, he found himself sliding into unconsciousness.
He didn’t sleep so much as cease to be for a while. Time marched along without him.
When he startled awake, it felt but a moment later. His coveralls were damp, the inside of the bag slick again with condensation. Joel must’ve felt him jerk to consciousness, as he quickly shushed Mission and told him they were coming up on Central.
Mission’s heart pounded as he came to and remembered where he was, what they were doing. It felt difficult to breathe. The slits he had cut were lost in the folds of the plastic. He wanted the zipper cracked, just a slice of light, a whisper of fresh air. His arms were pinned and numb from the straps around his shoulders. His ankles were sore from where Lyn was hoisting him from below.
“Can’t breathe,” he gasped.
The others shushed him. But there was a pause, an end to the swaying. Someone fumbled with the bag over his head, a series of tiny clicks from a zipper lowering a dozen notches.
Mission sucked in cool gasps. The world resumed its swaying, boots striking the stairs in the distance—a commotion somewhere above or below, he couldn’t tell. More fighting. More dying. He saw bodies spinning through the air. He saw Cam leaving the farm sublevels just the day before, a coroner’s bonus in his pocket, no thought of how little time he had left for spending it. No thought from any of them how little time they had left to spend anything.
They rested at Central Dispatch. Mission was let out in the main hallway, which was frighteningly empty. “What the hell happened here?” Lyn asked. She dug her finger into a hole in the wall surrounded by a spiderweb of cracks. There were hundreds of holes like them. Boots rang on the landing and continued past.
“What time is it?” Mission asked, keeping his voice down.
“It’s after dinner,” Joel said. It meant they were making good time.
Down the hall, Lyn studied a dark patch of what looked to be rust. “Is this blood?” she hissed.
“Robbie said he couldn’t reach anyone down here,” Mission said. “Maybe they scattered.”
Joel took a sip from his canteen. “Or were driven off.” He wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
“Should we stay here for the night? You two look beat.”
Joel frowned and shook his head. He offered Mission his canteen. “I think we need to get past the thirties. Security is everywhere. Hell, you could probably dash up with what you’ve got on the way they’re running about. Might need to clean up your hair a bit.”
Mission rubbed his scalp and thought about that. “Maybe I should,” he said. “I could be up there before the dim-time.” He watched as Lyn disappeared into one of the bunk rooms down the hall. She emerged almost immediately with her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide.
“What is it?” Mission asked, pushing up from a crouch and joining her.
She threw her arms around him and held him away from the door, buried her face into his shoulder. Joel risked a look.
“No,” he whispered.
Mission pulled away from Lyn and joined his fellow porter by the door.
The bunks were full. Some lay sprawled on the floor, but it was obvious by the tangle of their limbs—the way arms hung useless from bunks or were twisted beneath them—that these porters weren’t sleeping.
They discovered Katelyn among them. None of them could abide seeing her like that, which cemented Mission’s plan to dash up on his own. Lyn shook with silent sobs as he and Joel retrieved Katelyn’s body and loaded her into the bag. Mission felt a pang of guilt to think that it was nice how small Katelyn was. Awful porter thoughts.
They were securing the straps and zipping her up when the power in the hallway went out, leaving them in the pitch black. They groped for one another, even the light spilling through the doors leading out onto the landing suddenly gone.
“What the hell?” Joel hissed.
A moment later, the lights returned but flickered as though an unsteady flame burned in each bulb. Mission wiped the sweat from his forehead and wished he still had his ’chief.
“If you can’t make it all the way tonight,” he said to the others, “stop and stay at the waystation and check on Robbie.”
“We’ll be fine,” Joel assured him.
Lyn squeezed his arm before he went. “Watch your steps,” she said.
“And you,” Mission told them.
He hurried toward the landing and the great stairway beyond. Overhead, the lights flickered like little flames. A sign that something, somewhere, perhaps was burning.
He hurried upward amid a fog of smoke and rumor, and Mission’s throat burned from the one, his mind from the other. An explosion in Mechanical was whispered to have been the reason for the blackout. Talk swirled of a bent or broken shaft and that the silo was on backup power. He heard such things from half a spiral away as he took the steps two and sometimes three at a time. It felt good to be out and moving, good to have his muscles aching rather than sitting still, to be his own burden.
And he noticed that when anyone saw him, they either fell silent or scattered beyond their landings, even those he knew. At first, he feared it was from recognition. But it was the Security white he wore. Young men just like him thundered up and down the stairwell terrorizing everyone. They were yesterday’s farmers, welders, and pumpmen—and they brought order with their strange and dark weapons.