Back in his office, he closed the door and leaned back against it for a moment. His shoulders stuck to his coveralls with the light sweat worked up from the swift walk. He took a few deep breaths before crossing to his desk and resting his hand on his copy of the Order. The fear persisted that they’d gotten it all wrong. How could a room full of doctors plan for everything? Would it really get easier as the generations went along, as people forgot and the mad whispers from the original survivors faded?
Troy wasn’t so sure. He looked over at his wall of schematics, that large blueprint showing all the silos spread out amid the hills, fifty circles spaced out like stars on an old flag he had once served. It was an underground metropolis of sunken skyscrapers, of people completely cut off from one another and from the barren world.
A powerful tremor coursed through Troy’s body: his shoulders, elbows, and hands twitched. He gripped the edge of his desk until it passed. Opening the top drawer, he fished through his pens until he found a red marker. He crossed to the large schematic, the shivers still wracking his chest.
Before he could consider the permanence of what he was about to do, before he could consider that this mark of his would be on display for every future shift, left to glare down at those who manned this rudderless desk, before he could consider that this may become a trend, an act taken by the other silo Heads, a shared mark of their collective failure, he drew a bold ‘X’ through Silo 12.
The marker squealed as it was dragged violently across the paper. It seemed to cry out with a distant and mournful voice.
Troy blinked away the blurry vision of the red X and sagged to his knees. He bent forward until his forehead was against the tall spread of papers, old plans rustling and crinkling as his chest shook, not with shivers, but with sobs.
With his hands in his lap, shoulders bent with the weight of another job he’d been pressured into, the pills shrinking away from the force of his sadness, Troy cried. He bawled as silently as he could so those across the hall wouldn’t hear.
In one fist, he clutched the cap from the red marker. In the other, the marker itself, uncovered, tip pressed into his damp palm, spread a stain across his flesh the color of blood.
2049 • RYT Hospital, Dwayne Medical Center
Donald had toured the Pentagon once, had been to the White House twice, went in and out of the Capitol building a dozen times a week, but nothing he’d seen in D.C. prepared him for the security around RYT’s Dwayne Medical Center. The process hardly made the hour-long meeting with the Senator seem worthwhile.
By the time he passed through the full body scanners leading into the nanobiotech wing, he’d been stripped, given a pair of green medical scrubs to wear, had a blood sample taken, and had allowed every sort of scanner and bright light to probe his eyes and record—so they said—the infrared capillary pattern of his face.
Heavy doors and sturdy men blocked every corridor as they made their way deeper and deeper into the NBT wing. When Donald spotted the Secret Service agents—who had been allowed to keep their dark suits and shades, he saw—he knew he was getting close. A nurse scanned him through a final set of stainless steel doors. The nanobiotic chamber awaited him inside.
Donald eyed the massive machine warily. He’d only ever seen them on TV dramas, and this one loomed even larger in person. It looked like a small submarine that had been marooned on the upper floors of the RYT, or maybe some kind of time machine from a sci-fi flick. Hoses and wires led away from the curved and flawless white exterior in bundles. Studded along the length were several small glass windows that brought to mind the portholes of a ship.
“And you’re sure it’s safe for me to go in?” He turned to the nurse. “Because I can always wait and visit him later.”
The nurse smiled. She couldn’t be out of her twenties, had her brown hair wrapped in a knot on the back of her head, was very pretty. “It’s perfectly safe,” she assured him. “His nanos won’t interact with your body. We often treat multiple patients in a single chamber.”
She led him to the end of the machine, which Donald thought was shaped like a Tylenol capsule. He could imagine a giant bursting its fist through the wall, plucking the chamber up, and popping it in his mouth. There was a locking wheel on the very end of this massive pill. The nurse gave it a spin, and a hatch opened with a sticky, ripping sound from the rubber seals and a slight gasp of air from the difference in pressure.
“If it’s so safe, then why is that thing so thick?”
A soft laugh. “You’ll be fine.” She waved him toward the hatch. “There’ll be a slight delay and a little buzz after I seal this door, and then the inner one will unlock. Just spin the wheel and push to open.”
“I’m a little claustrophobic,” Donald admitted.
God, listen to himself. He was an adult. Why couldn’t he just say he didn’t want to go in and have that be enough? Why was he allowing himself to be pressured into this?
“Just step inside please, Mr. Keene.”
A Secret Service agent in the corner smiled. Donald wanted to ask him why he didn’t step inside as well if he was so brave.
The nurse placed her hand on the small of Donald’s back. Somehow, the pressure of a young and pretty woman watching, not to mention the asshole in the corner, was stronger than his abject terror of the oversized lozenge packed with its invisible machines. He wilted and found himself ducking through the small hatch, his throat constricting with panic.
Why didn’t they give him a mask? They should’ve given him a mask. Or would the nanos pass right through it? How small were they? He tried to remember how many zeros there were in a nanometer as the door behind him thumped shut, leaving him in a small curved space hardly big enough for two. The locks behind him clanked into the jamb. There were tiny silver benches set into the arching walls on either side of him. He tried to stand up, but his head brushed the ceiling. Donald reached for the handle on the inner door, torn between seeking the larger space inside the pill and his fear of the tiny machines that awaited him there.
An angry hum filled the chamber—the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. The air around Donald felt charged with electricity. He wondered if it was to kill any strays. He looked for an intercom, some way to communicate with the Senator through the door so he didn’t have to go any further. It felt like he couldn’t breathe; he needed to get out. There was no wheel on the outer door. Everything had been taken out of his control—
The inner locks clanked. Donald lunged for the door and tried the handle. Holding his breath, he opened the hatch and escaped the small airlock for the larger chamber in the center of the pill.
“Donald!” Senator Thurman looked up from a thick book. He was sprawled out on one of the benches running the length of the long cylinder. A notepad and pen sat on a small table; a plastic tray held the remnants of dinner.
“Hello, sir.” He said this with the minimal parting of his lips.
“Don’t just stand there, get in. You’re letting the buggers out.”
Against his every impulse, Donald stepped through and pushed the door shut, and Senator Thurman laughed. “You might as well breathe, son. They could crawl right through your skin if they wanted to.”
Donald let out his held breath and shivered. If he’d been alone, or with anyone else, he would’ve performed his where-did-the-insect-go? dance, which entailed flapping his arms and stomping around the room until he was sure the creature was no longer on him. It may have been his imagination, but he thought he felt little pinpricks all over his skin, bites like Savannah’s no-see-ems on summer days.
“You can’t feel ’em,” Senator Thurman said. “It’s all in your head. They know the difference between you and me.”
Donald glanced down and realized he was scratching his arm.
“Have a seat.” Thurman gestured to the bench opposite his. He had the same color scrubs on and a few days’ growth on his chin. Donald noticed the far end of the capsule opened onto a small bathroom, a showerhead with a flexible hose clipped to the wall. Thurman swung his bare feet off the bench and grabbed a half-empty bottle of water, took a sip. Donald obeyed and sat down, a nervous sweat tickling his scalp. A stack of folded blankets and a few pillows sat at the end of the bench. He saw how the frames folded open into cots but couldn’t imagine being able to sleep in this little coffin.
“You wanted to see me, sir?” He tried to keep his voice from cracking. The air tasted metallic, a hint of the machines on his tongue. He could picture them there with their little legs and claws, roaming about.
“Drink?” The Senator opened a small fridge below the bench and pulled out a bottle of water.
“Thanks.” Donald accepted the water but didn’t open it, just enjoyed the cool against his palm. “Mick said he filled you in.” He wanted to add that this meeting felt unnecessary.
Thurman nodded. “He did. Met with him yesterday. He’s a solid boy.” The Senator smiled and shook his head. “The irony is, this class we just swore in? Probably the best bunch the Hill has seen in a very long time.”
“The irony?” Donald pressed the cool plastic water bottle against his wrist, where his mind was playing tricks on him with imaginary bug bites.
Thurman waved his hand, shooing the question away. “You know what I love about this treatment?”
Practically living forever? Donald nearly asked.
“It gives you time to think. A few days in here, nothing with batteries allowed, just a few books to read and something to write on, it really clears your head.”
Donald kept his opinions to himself. He didn’t want to admit how creeped out the procedure made him, how terrifying it was to be in that room right then. He hated hospitals in general, always feared he would catch something. Knowing that tiny machines were coursing through the Senator’s body, picking through his individual cells and making repairs, grossed him out. Supposedly, your urine turned the color of charcoal once all the machines shut down. He wondered if that would be true for him, just sitting there and breathing the same air.
He trembled at the thought.
“Isn’t that nice?” Thurman asked. He took in a deep breath and let it out. “That quiet?”
Donald didn’t answer. He realized he was holding his breath again.
Thurman looked down at the book in his lap, then lifted his gaze and studied Donald for a few breaths.
“Did you know your grandfather taught me how to play golf?”
Donald laughed. “Yeah. I’ve seen the pictures of you two together.” He flashed back to his grandmother flipping through old albums. She had this weird thing about printing the pictures off her computer and stuffing them in books. Said they became more real once they were displayed like that.
“You and your sister have always felt like family to me,” the Senator said.
“Well, I appreciate that, sir.” Donald cracked the cap on his water and took a sip. The Senator had definitely been locked up too long. He remembered a night in college when Mick had gotten sloshed and “opened up to him.” It was uncomfortable. A small vent in the corner of the pod circulated some air, but it still felt warm in there.
“I want you in on this project,” Thurman said. “All the way in.”
Donald swallowed. “Sir. I’m fully committed, I promise.”
Thurman raised his hand and shook his head. “No, not like—” He dropped his hand to his lap, glanced at the door, then at one of the small portholes. “You know, I used to think you couldn’t hide anything anymore. Not in this age. It’s all out there, you know?” He waggled his fingers in the air. “Hell, you ran for office and squeezed through that mess. You know what it’s like.”
Donald nodded. “Yeah, I had a few things I had to own up to.”
The Senator cupped his hands into a bowl. “It’s like trying to hold water and not letting a single drop through.”
Taking another sip from his bottle, Donald nodded.
“A president can’t even get a blow job anymore without the world finding out.”
Donald’s confused squint had Thurman waving at the air. “Before your time. But here’s the thing, here’s what I’ve found, both overseas and in Washington. It’s the unimportant drips that leak through. The peccadilloes. Embarrassments, not life and death stuff. You want to invade a foreign country? Look at D-Day. Hell, look at Pearl Harbor. Or 9/11. Not a problem.”
“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t see what—”
Thurman’s hand flew out, his fingers snapping together as he pinched the air. Donald thought for a moment that he meant for him to not interrupt, to keep quiet, but then the Senator leaned forward and held the pinched pads of his fingers for Donald to see, like he had snatched a mosquito.
“Look,” he said.
Donald leaned closer, but he still couldn’t make anything out. He shook his head. “I don’t see, sir—”
“That’s right. And you wouldn’t see it coming, either. That’s what they’ve been working on, those snakes.” His eyes unfocused for a moment, then snapped back to Donald. “You know what Nobel invented?”
The question came from nowhere. Donald tilted his head in confusion.
“You know, the peace prize guy.”
“Um, dynamite?” Donald wondered where this was going, if the Senator had been cooped up too long.
“TNT, right. You ever think that’s funny, the man behind a prize for peace coming up with something so destructive?”
“I think it’s because it saved so many lives, sir. At first. Weren’t they using something worse for a while?”