Second Shift: Order
Page 6

 Hugh Howey

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Thurman shook his head. “Whatever’s happening out there, we need to understand it. And there’s someone here who . . . who thinks you may have stumbled onto the answer. A few questions, and then we can put you back under.”
Back under. So he wasn’t going to be out for long. They woke him to take his blood and to drill into his mind, and then back to sleep. Donald rubbed his arms, which felt thin and atrophied. He was dying in that pod. Only, more slowly than he would like.
“We need to know what you remember about this report.” Thurman held it out. Donald waved the thing away.
“I already looked it over,” he said. He didn’t want to see it again. He could close his eyes and see people spilling out onto the dusty land, a cloud of killing mist, the people that he had ordered dead, more people being trampled inside.
“We have other medications that might ease the—”
“No. No more drugs.” Donald crossed his wrists and spread his arms out, slicing the air with both hands. “Look, I don’t have a resistance to your drugs.” The truth. He was sick of the lies. “There’s no mystery. I just stopped taking the pills.”
It felt good to admit it. What were they going to do, anyway? Put him back to sleep? That was the answer no matter what. He took another sip of water while he let the confession sink in. He swallowed.
“I kept them in my gums and spat them out later. It’s as simple as that. Probably the case with anyone else remembering. Like Hal, or Carlton, or whatever his name was.”
Thurman regarded him coolly. He tapped the report against his open palm, seeming to digest this. “We know you stopped taking the pills,” he finally said. “And when.”
Donald waved his hand. “Mystery solved, then.” He finished his water and put the empty glass back on his tray. It felt good to have that out in the open.
“The drugs you have a resistance to are not in the pills, Donny. The reason people stop taking the pills is because they begin to remember, not the other way around.”
Donald studied Thurman, disbelieving.
“Your urine changes color when you get off them. You develop sores on your gums. These are the signs we look for.”
“There are no drugs in the pills, Donny.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“We medicate everyone. There are those of us who are immune. But you shouldn’t be.”
“Bullshit. I remember. The pills made me woozy. As soon as I stopped taking them, I got better.”
Thurman tilted his head to the side. “The reason you stopped taking them was because you were . . . I won’t say getting better. It was because the fear had begun leaking through. Donny, the medication is in the water.” He waved at the empty glass on the tray. Donald followed the gesture and immediately felt sick, even though he didn’t believe him. The suspicion was enough.
“Don’t worry,” Thurman said. “We’ll get to the bottom of it.”
“I don’t want to help you. I don’t want to talk about this report. I don’t want to see whoever it is you need me to see.”
He wanted Helen. All he wanted was his wife.
“There’s a chance that thousands will die if you don’t help us. There’s a chance that you stumbled onto something with this report of yours, even if I don’t believe it.”
Donald felt the weight of the soil piled on them both. He glanced at the door to the bathroom, thought about locking himself inside and forcing himself to throw up, to expunge the food and the water. But it was an insane thought. Maybe Thurman was lying to him. Maybe he was telling the truth. A lie would mean the water was just water. The truth would mean that he did have some sort of resistance. Either way, there was nothing—and everything—to fear.
“I barely remember writing the thing,” he admitted. And who would want to see him? He assumed it would be another doctor, maybe a silo head, maybe whoever was running this shift.
He rubbed his temples, could feel the pressure building between them. Maybe he should just do this thing and go back to sleep, back to his skull-filled dreams. Now and then, he had dreamed of Helen. It was the only place left to see her. With this thought, his resistance crumbled like thousand-year-old bones.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll go. But I still don’t understand what I could possibly know.” He rubbed his arm where they’d taken the blood. There was an itch there. An itch so deep it felt like a bruise.
Senator Thurman nodded. “I tend to agree with you. But that’s not what she thinks.”
Donald stiffened. “She?” He searched Thurman’s eyes, wondering if he’d heard correctly. “She who?”
The old man frowned. “The one who had me wake you.” He waved his hand at the bunk. “Get some rest. I’ll take you to her in the morning.”
He couldn’t rest. How could he rest? The hours were cruel, slow, and unknowable. There was no clock to mark their passing, no answer to his frustrated slaps on the door. Donald was left to lie in his bunk and stare at the diamond patterns of interlocking wires holding the mattress above him, to listen to the gurgle of water in hidden pipes as it rushed to another room. He couldn’t sleep. He had no idea if it was the middle of the night or the middle of the day. The weight of the silo pressed down. The world was his bunkmate. It lay still as death in the bed above him.
When the boredom grew intolerable, Donald eventually gave in and looked over the report a second time. He studied it more closely. It wasn’t the original; the signature was flat, and he remembered using a blue pen. A red marker for the big X on the map and a blue pen for the reports. He was pretty sure.
He skimmed the account of the silo’s collapse and his theory that IT heads shadowed too young. His recommendation was to raise the age. He wondered if they had. Maybe so, but the problems were persisting. There was also mention of a young man he had inducted, a young man with a question. His grandmother was one of those who remembered, much like Donald. Like Hal or Carter or whatever his name had been. Donald had suggested in the report that entertaining one question from inductees might be a good idea. They were given the Legacy, after all. Their cruel test was a severe application of the truth. Why not show them, in that final stage of indoctrination, that there were more truths to be had?
It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but Donald remembered being a mess when he wrote the report. Maybe it had been his own questions, his own need for answers, that had driven him to suggest this.
The tiny clicks of a key entering a lock. Thurman opened the door as Donald folded the report away.
“How’re you feeling?” Thurman asked.
Donald didn’t say.
“Can you walk?”
He nodded. A walk. When what he really wanted was to run screaming down the hallway, to kick things over and punch holes in walls. But a walk would do. A walk before his next long nap.
They rode the elevator in silence. Donald noticed Thurman had scanned his badge before pressing one of the shiny buttons, level fifty-four. Its number stood bright and new while so many others had been worn away. There was nothing but supplies on that level if Donald remembered correctly, supplies they weren’t supposed to ever need. The lift slowed as it approached a level it normally skipped. The doors opened on a cavernous expanse of shelves stocked with instruments of death.
Thurman led him down the middle of it all. There were wooden crates with “AMMO” stenciled on the side, longer crates beside them with military designations like “M22” and “M19” that Donald recognized as being guns. Not that he knew what those guns looked like or how to operate them, but he had been to movies, and like any other young boy he had known what to call his stick while he fired imaginary bullets at his friends.
More shelves with armor and helmets, with supplies, some boxes unlabeled. And beyond the shelves, tarps that covered bulbous and winged forms that he knew to be drones. UAVs. His sister had flown them in a war that now seemed pointless and distant, part of ancient history. But here these relics stood, oiled and covered, waiting, both proud and paranoid, confident and reeking of grease and fear.
Beyond the drones, Thurman led the way through a murky dimness that made the wide storehouse seem to go on forever. Donald padded quietly behind, fearful of waking these demon sentinels, this aviary that promised hell-rain from the skies.
At the far end of the wide room, a hallway leaked a glow of light. An arrangement of offices, a wall lined with filing cabinets spotted with dots of rust, not greased like the other things. And in one wide room, the sounds of paper stirring, a chair squeaking as someone turned. Thurman rapped his knuckles on the doorframe. Donald rounded the corner and saw, inexplicably, her sitting there.
He remained frozen in the doorway. Anna sat behind a huge conference table ringed with identical chairs. She looked up from a wide spread of paperwork and a computer monitor. There was no shock on her part, just a smile of acknowledgment and a weariness that the smile could not conceal.
Her father crossed the room while Donald gaped. Thurman squeezed her arm and kissed her on the cheek, but Anna’s eyes did not leave Donald’s. The old man whispered something to his daughter, then announced that he had work of his own to see to. Donald did not budge until the Senator had left the room, the armory swallowing an old soldier’s footsteps.
She was already around the massive table, wrapping her arms around him. Donald sagged into her embrace, suddenly exhausted. She was whispering things, the sing-song tunes of placating mothers, the there-theres and shushes. It took this to inform Donald that he was shaking. He felt her hand come down the back of his head and rest on his neck, his own arms crossing her back like a spring-loaded habit. Here was why women didn’t pull shifts. Here was a truth the shrinks knew. Donald could feel himself grow both weak and bold. He had dangerous thoughts of giving in and more dangerous thoughts of lashing out. Here was the love and violence in the hearts of men, all for their women.
“What’re you doing here?” he whispered. Did she not know the danger? The disruptive power of her gender? And what weakness was this of a father to wake a child in the middle of a storm?
“I’m here for the same reason you are.” She pulled back from the embrace. “I’m looking for answers.” She stepped away and surveyed the mess on the table. “To different questions, perhaps.”
Donald finally saw what the table was, what the room was. A familiar schematic—a grid of silos—covered the table. Each silo was like a small plate, all of them trapped under the glass. A dozen chairs were gathered around. It was a war room, where generals stood and pushed plastic models and grumbled over lives lost by the thousands. He glanced up at the maps and schematics plastered on the walls. There was an adjoining bathroom, a towel hanging from a hook on the door. A cot had been set up in the far corner and was neatly made. There was a lamp beside it sitting on one of the wooden crates from the storeroom. Extension cords snaked here and there, signs of a room long converted into an apartment of sorts.
Donald wanted desperately to fall into the cot. He looked to Anna, made sure she was still there, and in a disturbed corner of his mind he thought this meant Helen must also be somewhere that he could wake her. Life, death, sleeping, rising, the passage of time, the workings of his own mind—all of it was soft and without meaning.
He turned to the nearest wall and flipped through some of the drawings. They were three layers deep in places and covered in notes. It didn’t look like a war was being planned. It looked like a scene from the crime shows that used to lull him to sleep in a former life.
“You’ve been up longer than me,” he said.
Anna stood beside him. Her hand lighted on his shoulder like a bird, and Donald felt himself startle to be touched at all.
“Almost a year, now.” Her hand slid down his back before falling away. “Can I get you a drink? Water? I also have a stash of scotch down here. Dad doesn’t know half the stuff they hid away in these crates.”
Donald shook his head. He turned and watched as she disappeared into the bathroom and ran the sink. She emerged, sipping from a glass.
“What’s going on here?” he asked. “Why am I up?”
She swallowed and waved her glass at the walls. “It’s—” She laughed and shook her head. “I was about to say it’s nothing, but this is the hell that keeps me out of one box and in another. It doesn’t concern you, most of this.”
Donald studied the room again. He could feel the dark halls of shelves and crates stretching back toward the elevator. A year, living like this. He turned his attention to Anna, the way her hair was balled up in a bun, a pen sticking out of it. Her skin was pale except for the dark rings beneath her eyes. He wondered how she was able to do this, live like this.
There was a printout on the far wall that matched the table, a grid of circles, the layout of the facilities. A familiar red X had been drawn across what he knew to be Silo 12 in the upper left corner. There was another X nearby, a new one. More lives lost while he slept. Thousands screaming while in his nightmares he could make no sound. And in the lower right-hand corner of the grid, a mess that made no sense. The room seemed to wobble a bit as he took a step closer.
“What happened here?” he asked, his voice a whisper. Anna turned to see what he was looking at. She glanced at the table, and he realized that her paperwork was scattered around the same corner of the facility. The glass surface crawled with notes written in red and blue wax.
“Donny—” She stepped closer. “Things aren’t well.”