Helen cleared her throat. “So—” She hesitated. “Was Anna at the job site today?”
She peered over the lip of her sweating glass, and Donald realized, in that moment, what his wife was really thinking when the CAD-FAC project and the fuel rods came up. It was the insecurity of him working with her, of being so far away from home. And he completely understood and sympathized with his wife’s discomfort.
“No.” He shook his head. “No, we don’t really see each other. We send plans back and forth. Mick and I went, just the two of us. He’s coordinating a lot of the materials and crews—”
The waiter arrived, pulled his black folio from his apron, and clicked his pen. “Can I start you off with drinks?”
Donald ordered two glasses of the house Merlot. Helen declined the offer of an appetizer.
“Every time I bring her up,” she said, once their waiter had angled off toward the bar, “you mention Mick. It’s like you’re trying to change the subject.”
“Can we not talk about her?” Donald folded his hands together on the table. “I’ve seen her once since we started working on this. I set it up so that we didn’t have to meet, because I knew you wouldn’t approve. I have zero feelings for her, honey. Zilch. Please. This is our night.”
“Is working with her giving you second thoughts?”
“Second thoughts about what? About taking on this job? Or about being an architect?”
“About...anything.” She glanced at the other booth, the booth he should’ve reserved.
“No. God, no. Honey, why would you even say something like that?”
The waiter came back with their wine. He flipped open his black notebook and eyed the two of them. “Have we decided?”
Helen opened her menu and looked from the waiter to Donald. “I’m going to get my usual,” she said. She pointed to what had once been a simple grilled cheese sandwich with fries that now involved fried green heirloom tomatoes, Gruyère cheese, a honey-maple glaze, and matchstick frites with tartar.
“And for you, sir?”
Donald allowed his eyes to roam the menu. The conversation had him flustered, but he felt the pressure to choose and to choose swiftly.
“I think I’m going to try something different,” he said, picking his words poorly.
2110 • Silo 1
Silo 12 was collapsing, and by the time Troy and the others arrived, the communication room was awash in overlapping radio chatter and the smell of sweat. Four men crowded around a comm station normally manned by a single operator. The men looked precisely how Troy felt: panicked, out of their depth, ready to curl up and hide somewhere. And for whatever reason, it had a calming effect on him. Their panic was his strength. He could fake this. He could hold it together.
Two of the men wore sleepshirts, suggesting that the late shift had been woken up and called in. Troy wondered how long Silo 12 had been in trouble before they finally came and got him.
“What’s the latest?” Saul asked an older gentleman who was holding a headphone cupped to one ear.
The gentleman turned, his bald head shining in the overhead light, sweat in the wrinkles of his brow, his white eyebrows high with concern. “I can’t get anyone to answer the server,” he said.
“Give us just the feeds from 12,” Troy said, pointing to one of the other three workers. A man he had met just a week or so ago pulled off his headset and flipped a switch. The speakers in the room buzzed with overlapping shouts and orders. The others stopped what they were doing and listened.
One of the other men, in his thirties, Troy recognized him from the cafeteria, cycled through dozens of video feeds. It was a chromatic channel-surf of chaos. There was a shot of a spiral staircase crammed with people pushing and shoving. A head disappeared, someone falling down, presumably being trampled as the rest moved on. Across the crowd, eyes were wide in fear, jaws clenched or shouting.
“Let’s see the server room,” Troy said.
The man at the controls typed something on his keypad. The crush of people disappeared and was replaced with a still view of quiet cabinets, each machine upright, the crystal-like precision and rigidity of the layout slightly warped by the wide angle of the lens. The server casings and the grating on the floor throbbed from the blinking overhead lights of an unanswered call.
“What happened?” Troy asked. He felt unusually calm. He was less nervous now with a disaster unfolding than he had been moments ago losing at solitaire.
“Still trying to determine that, sir.”
A folder was pressed into his hands. A handful of people gathered in the hallway, peering in. News was spreading, a crowd gathering. Troy felt a trickle of sweat run down the back of his neck, but still that eerie calmness, that resignation to this statistical inevitability.
A desperate voice from one of the radios cut through the rest, the panic palpable:
“—they’re coming through. Dammit, they’re bashing down the door. They’re gonna get through—”
Everyone in the comm room held their breath, all the jitters and activity ceasing as they listened and waited. Troy was pretty sure he knew which door the panicked man was talking about. It should have been made stronger. A lot of things should have been made stronger.
“—I’m on my own up here, guys. They’re gonna get through. Holy shit, they’re gonna get through—”
“Is that a deputy?” Troy asked. He flipped through the folder. There were status updates from the IT Head of Silo 12. No alarms. Two years since the last cleaning. The fear index was pegged at an eight the last time it had been measured. A little high, but thankfully not too low.
“Yeah, I think that’s a deputy,” Saul said.
The man at the video feed looked back over his shoulder. “Sir, we’re gonna have a mass exodus.”
“Their radios are locked down, right?”
Saul nodded. “We shut down the repeater. They can talk among themselves, and that’s it.”
Troy fought the urge to turn and meet the curious faces peering in from the hallway. “Good,” he said. The calm was eerie. The priority in this situation was to contain the outbreak: don’t let it spread to neighboring cells. This was a cancer. Excise it. Cut the tumor free. Don’t mourn the loss. It was just meat. It wasn’t the whole body.
The radio crackled:
“—they’re almost in, they’re almost in, they’re almost in—”
Troy tried to imagine the stampede, the crush of people, how the panic had spread. He remembered waking up in that god-awful cryopod some months ago, remembered the cold in his bones, the long nightmare still trapped behind the lids of his eyes. The Order was clear on not intervening, but his conscience was muddled. He held out a hand toward the radioman.
“Let me speak to him,” Troy said.
Heads swiveled his way. A crowd that thrived on protocol sat stunned. After a pause, the receiver was pressed into his palm. Troy didn’t hesitate. He squeezed the mic.
The man with the bald and perspiring head cycled through video feeds, then waved his hand and pointed to one of the monitors. The floor number “72” sat in the corner of the screen, and a man in silver coveralls lay slumped over a desk. There was a gun in his hand, a pool of blood around a keyboard.
“That’s him?” Troy asked.
The video operator wiped his forehead and nodded.
“Sheriff? What do I do?”
Troy clicked the mic. “The sheriff is dead,” he told the deputy, surprised by the steadiness of his own voice. He held the transmit button and pondered this stranger’s fate. It dawned on him that most of these people thought they were alone in the universe. They had no idea about each other, about their true purpose, and Troy was a god staring down at an anthill. There was another colony a pace away, but the two would never cross. And now he had made contact, a voice from the clouds.
One of the video feeds clicked over to a man holding a handset, the cord spiraling to a radio mounted on the wall. The floor number in the corner read: “1.” Troy’s connection to this deputy became even more real.
“You need to lock yourself in the holding cell,” Troy radioed, seeing that the least obvious solution was the best. It was a temporary solution, at least. “Make sure you have every set of keys.”
He watched the man on the video screen.
The entire room, and those in the hallway, watched the man on the video screen.
The door to the upper security office was just visible in the warped bubble of the camera’s view. The edges of the door bulged outward because of the lens. The center of the door bulged inward because of the mob outside. They were beating the door down. The deputy didn’t respond. He dropped the microphone and hurried around the desk. His hands shook so violently as he reached for the keys that the grainy camera was able to capture it.
The door cracked along the center. Someone in the comm room drew in an audible breath. Troy wanted to launch into the statistics. He wanted to explain the cancer analogy. He had studied and trained to be on the other end of this, to lead a small group of people in the event of a catastrophe, not to lead them all.
Maybe that’s why he was so calm. He was watching a horror that he should have been in the middle of, that he should have lived and died through.
The deputy finally secured the keys. He ran across the room and out of sight. Troy imagined him fumbling with the lock on the cell as the door burst in, an angry mob forcing their way through the splintered gap in the wood. It was a solid door, strong, but not strong enough. It was impossible to tell if the deputy had made it to safety. Not that it mattered. It was temporary. It was all temporary. If they opened the doors, if they made it out, the deputy would suffer a fate far worse than being trampled.
“The inner airlock door is open, sir.”
Troy nodded. The cancer had probably metastasized in IT, had spread from there. Maybe the Head—but more likely his shadow. Someone with override codes. Here was the curse: a person had to be in charge, had to guard the secrets. Some wouldn’t be able to. It was statistically predictable. He reminded himself that it was inevitable, the cards already shuffled, the game just waiting to play out.
“Sir, we’ve got a breach. The outer door, sir.”
“Fire the canisters now,” Troy said.
Saul radioed the control room down the hall and relayed the message. The view of the airlock filled with a white fog.
“Secure the server room,” Troy added. “Lock it down.”
He had this portion of the Order memorized.
“Make sure we have a recent backup just in case. And put them on our power.”
Those in the room who had something to do seemed less anxious than the others, who were left shifting about nervously while they watched and listened.
“Where’s my outside view?” Troy asked.
The mist-filled scene of people pushing on one another’s backs through a white cloud was replaced with an expansive shot of the outside, of a claustrophobic crowd scampering across a dry land, of people collapsing to their knees, clawing at their faces and their throats, a billowing fog rising up from the teeming ramp.
No one in the comm room moved or said a word. There was a soft cry from the hallway. Troy shouldn’t have allowed them to stay and watch. What was the point?
“Okay,” he said. “Shut it down.”
The overweight man shimmering with sweat fumbled with his keypad. Someone coughed into their fist. The view of the outside went black. There was no point in watching the crowd fight their way back in, no reason to witness the hills while they were coated in those who managed to make it that far.
“I want to know why it happened.” Troy turned and studied those in the room. “I want to know, and I want to know what we do to prevent this next time.” He handed the folder and the microphone back to the men at their stations. “Don’t tell the other silo Heads just yet. Not until we have answers for the questions they’ll have.”
Saul raised his hand. “What about the people in 12?”
“The only difference between the people in Silo 12 and the people in Silo 13 is that there won’t be future generations growing up in Silo 12. That’s it. Everyone in all the silos will eventually die. We all die, Saul. Even us. Today was just their day.” He nodded to the dark monitor and tried not to picture what was really going on over there. “We knew this would happen, and it won’t be the last. Let’s concentrate on the others. Learn from it.”
There were nods. Saul wiped his brow, then the seat of his pants.
“Individual reports by the end of this shift,” Troy said, feeling for the first time that he was actually in charge of something. “And if anyone from 12’s IT staff can be raised, debrief them as much as you can. I want to know who, why, and how.”
Several of the exhausted people in the room stiffened before trying to look busy. The gathering in the hallway shrank back as they realized the show was over and the boss was heading their way.
Troy felt the fullness of his position for the first time, the heavy weight of responsibility. There were murmurs and sidelong glances as he headed back toward his office. There were nods of sympathy and approval, men thankful that they occupied lower posts. Troy strode past them all. He turned the corner, dodging the man on the ladder, who had moved a few fixtures down to replace another bulb.
More will go out, Troy thought. For all their careful engineering, there was no way to make a thing infallible. The best they could do is plan ahead, stockpile spares, not mourn the dark and lifeless cylinder as it was discarded and others were turned to with hope.