Perhaps the game’s numbing powers were why it existed at all, why someone had spent the effort to create it, and why subsequent heads had kept it hidden away. He had seen it on Merriman’s face during that elevator ride at the end of his shift. The chemicals only cut through the worst of the pain, that undefinable ache, some grave injury none of them could remember. But lesser wounds resurfaced. The bouts of sudden sadness had to be coming from somewhere.
The last few cards fell into place while his mind wandered. The computer had shuffled for a win, and Troy got all the credit for verifying it. The screen flashed Good Job! in large block letters, the color morphing in a mesmerizing and psychedelic pattern. It was strangely satisfying to be told this by a homemade game—told that he had done a good job. There was a sense of completion, of having done something with his day.
He left the message flashing and glanced around his office for something else to do. There were amendments to be made in the Order, announcements to write up for the Heads of the other silos, and he needed to make sure the vocabulary in these memos abided the ever-changing standards.
He messed up himself, often calling them bunkers instead of silos. It was difficult for those who had lived in the time of the Legacy. An old vocabulary, a way of seeing the world, persisted despite the medication. He felt envious of the others, those who were born and who would die in their own little worlds, who would fall in and out of love, who would keep their hurts in memory, feel them, learn from them, be changed by them. He was jealous of these people even more than he envied the women of his silo who remained in their long-sleep lifeboats—
He stopped himself from going there. The drugs helped. Instead of rushing to the bathroom to cry, he started a new game, a new shuffle, and began flipping through the deck. At times, his hand shook and he had to switch to the other. He remembered something the doctor had said, but that doctor was already gone. Troy didn’t feel like meeting the new doctor. Not yet.
There was a dull patch on the spacebar under his thumb, a place where the luster of the plastic had been worn away. Troy wondered how many shifts ago the game had been made. How many thumbs had ticked away the time, click, click, click? Then he had a sinister thought: maybe none of his predecessors had come up with the game at all, but it had always been there, planted by the shrinks who knew the numbing effect it would have.
There was a knock on his open door. Troy looked up and saw Randall, who worked across the hall in the psych office, standing in the doorway. Troy waved him inside with one hand and minimized the game with the other. He fidgeted with the copy of the Order on his desk, trying to look busy, which is what he suspected everyone else was doing.
“I’ve got that beliefs report you wanted.” Randall waved a folder.
“Oh, good. Good,” Troy took the folder. Always with the folders. He was reminded of the two groups that had built that place: the politicians and the doctors. Both were stuck in a prior era, a time of paperwork. Or it was possible that neither group trusted any data they couldn’t shred or burn?
“The head of Silo 6 has a new replacement picked out and processed. He wants to schedule a talk with you, make the induction formal.”
“Oh. Okay.” Troy flipped through the folder and saw typed transcripts from the communication room about each of the silos. He looked forward to another induction ceremony. Anything he had already done once before filled him with less dread. When he knew the process, the algorithm, all he had to do was reshuffle and flip through the cards. He preferred to avoid the new things and spend more time with the old.
“Also, the population report on Silo 32 is a little troubling.” Randall came around his desk. He licked his thumb before sorting through the reports, and Troy glanced at his monitor to make sure he’d minimized the game. “They’re getting close to the maximum and fast. Doc Haines thinks it might be a bad batch of birth control implants. The Head of 32, a Biggers, here we go—” Randall pulled out the report. “He denies this, says no one with an active implant has gotten pregnant. He thinks the lottery is being gamed or that there’s something wrong with our computers.”
“Hmm.” Troy took the report and looked it over. Silo 32 had crept above nine thousand inhabitants, and the median age had fallen into the low twenties. “Let’s set up a call for first thing in the morning. I don’t buy the lottery being gamed. They shouldn’t even be running the lottery, right? Until they have more space?”
“That’s what I said.”
“And all the population accounts for every silo are run from the same computer.” Troy tried to not make this sound like a question, but it was. He couldn’t remember.
“Yup,” Randall said, bailing him out.
“Which means we’re being lied to. I mean, this doesn’t happen overnight, right? Biggers had to see this coming, which means he knew about it earlier, so either he’s complicit, or he’s lost control over there.”
“Okay. What do we know about Biggers’s second?”
“His shadow?” Randall hesitated. “I’d have to pull that file, but I know he’s been in place for a while. Before our shifts.”
“Good. I’ll speak with him tomorrow. Alone.”
“You think we should replace Biggers?”
Troy nodded grimly. The Order was clear on problems that defied explanation: Start at the top. Assume the explanation was a lie. Because of the rules, the recipe book, he and Randall were talking about a man being put out of commission as if he were busted machinery or a batch of cookies that didn’t come out right.
“Okay, one more thing—”
The thunder of boots down the hallway interrupted the thought. Randall and Troy looked up as Saul bolted into the room, his eyes wide with fear.
“Saul. What’s going on?”
The communications officer looked like he’d seen a thousand ghosts.
“We need you in the comm room, sir. Right now.”
Troy pushed away from his desk. Randall was right behind him.
“What is it?” Troy asked.
Saul hurried down the hallway. “It’s Silo 12, sir.”
The three of them ran past a man on a ladder who was replacing a long light bulb that had gone dim, the large rectangular plastic cover above him hanging open like a doorway to the heavens. The mechanic watched them race by, an expression on his face like, What’s the hurry?
Troy found himself breathing hard as he struggled to keep up. His fingers were tingling, his toes numb.
“What about Silo 12?” he huffed.
Saul flashed a look over his shoulder, his face screwed up with worry. “I think we’re losing it, sir.”
“What, like contact? You can’t reach them?”
“No. Losing it, sir. The silo. The whole damn thing.”
2049 • Savannah, Georgia
Donald wasn’t one for napkins, but he obeyed decorum by shaking the folded cloth loose and draping it in his lap. Each of the napkins at the other settings around the table had been bent into a decorative pyramid that stood upright amid the silverware. He didn’t remember the Corner Diner having cloth napkins when he was in high school. Didn’t they used to have those paper napkin dispensers that were all dented up from years of abuse? And those little salt and pepper shakers with the silver caps, even those had gotten fancier. A dish of what he assumed was sea salt sat near the flower arrangement, and if you wanted pepper, you had to wait for someone to come around and crack it on your food for you, a service Donald refused to view as an upgrade.
He started to mention this to his wife, thinking Helen would find it funny, and saw that she was still gazing wistfully past him at the other booth. Donald turned in his seat, the original vinyl that had survived outdatedness and returned to chic squeaking beneath him. He glanced over at the older couple sitting in the booth where he and Helen had sat on their first date.
“I swear I asked them to reserve it for us,” Donald said.
His wife’s gaze drifted back to him.
“I think they might’ve gotten confused when I described which one it was.” He stirred the air with his finger. “Or maybe I got turned around when I was on the phone.”
She waved her hand. “Sweetie, forget about it. We could be eating grilled cheese at home and I’d be thrilled. I was just staring off into space.”
Helen unfolded her own napkin with the delicate care Donald admired her for. It was almost as if she were studying the folds, seeing how to piece it back together, how to return a disassembled thing to its original state. The waiter came over in a bustle and filled their glasses with water, careless drips spotting the white tablecloth. He apologized for the wait, and then left them to wait some more.
“This place sure has changed,” he said. He glanced at the menu and would’ve had a stronger reaction to the prices had D.C. not inoculated him against dollar signs.
“Yeah. It’s more grown-up,” his wife said.
They both reached for their waters at the same time. Donald smiled and held his glass up. “Fifteen years to the day that your father made the mistake of extending your curfew.”
Helen smiled. She tapped her glass against his, the ring of expensive crystal sonorous and pretty. “To fifteen more,” she said.
They took sips.
“Hell, in another fifteen years, if this place keeps up, we won’t be able to afford to eat here anymore.”
Helen laughed. Donald could imagine the crystal blushing at the sound. She almost hadn’t changed a bit since that first date. She was like the Senator that way, ageless but without the medical assistance. Or maybe it was because the changes were so subtle. It wasn’t like coming to a restaurant every five years and seeing the leaps all at once. It was how siblings aged rather than distant cousins.
“What’re you thinking about?” she asked him.
Donald set down his glass. “Just how beautiful you are.”
“If it’s work on your mind, I understand.”
“No, really, I was sitting here thinking of how unbelievably gorgeous you look tonight.”
He tried to catch their waiter’s attention, but the aproned man didn’t even glance their way as he weaved between the crowded and noisy tables.
“You fly back in the morning?”
“Yeah, but to Boston. I have a meeting with the Senator. Hey, were you thinking of a glass or do you wanna split a bottle?” He looked up from the wine list.
“Let’s stick with a glass. I’m still not comfortable letting the car drive at night. You heard about Wendy, right?”
“Yeah, but I heard she was the one driving.”
Helen frowned. “She told me it was the car. And why are you meeting in Boston?”
He waved his hand. “He’s having one of those nano treatments of his. I think he stays locked up in there for a week or so at a time. He still somehow gets his work done—”
“Yeah, by having his minions go out of their way—”
“We’re not his minions,” Donald said, laughing.
“—to come kiss his ring and leave gifts of myrrh.”
“C’mon, it’s not like that.”
She laughed. “I’m only kidding. I just worry that you’re pushing yourself too hard. How much of your free time are you spending on this project of his?”
A lot, he wanted to say. He wanted to tell his wife how much time he was devoting to this, how grueling the hours were, but he knew what she would say. And so he protected the Senator and said, “It’s not as time-consuming as you’d think.”
He sipped his water, wishing he had someone to vent to.
“Really? Because it seems like it’s the only thing I hear you talking about. I don’t even know what else it is you do.”
Their waiter came by with a platter full of drinks and said it would be just a moment longer. Helen studied the menu.
“I’ll be done with my portion of the plans in another few months,” he told her. “And then I won’t bore you with it anymore.”
“Honey, you don’t bore me. I just don’t want him taking advantage of you. This isn’t what you signed up for. You decided not to become an architect, remember? Otherwise, you could’ve stayed home.”
Her gaze drifted over his shoulder again; Donald turned to see if the booth had emptied. He and Helen hadn’t even ordered their drinks yet—surely it wouldn’t be too late to ask if they could move. But the older couple was still sitting there, eating their food, eyes on their plates. Maybe they’d been together so long they no longer needed to talk to each other.
“Baby, I want you to know—” He turned back around. “This project we’re working on is—”
“It’s really important, I know. You’ve told me, and I believe you. And then in your moments of crippling self-doubt, you admit that your part in the entire scheme of things is superfluous anyway and will never be used.”
Donald forgot they’d had that conversation.
“I’ll just be glad when it’s done,” she said. “They can truck the fuel rods through our neighborhood for all I care. Just bury the whole thing and smooth the dirt over and stop talking about it.”
This was something else. Donald thought about the phone calls and emails he’d been getting from the district, all the headlines and fear mongering over the route the spent rods would take from the port as the trucks skirted Atlanta. Every time Helen heard a peep about the project, all she could likely think of was him wasting his time on it rather than doing his real job. Or the fact that he could’ve stayed in Savannah and done the same work. But wasn’t this all part of his elected duties? It had all begun to blend together.