Helen nodded. She was giving him a chance, a slim one. But he could tell she really wanted to go call someone. Her mother, a doctor, his mother.
“It’s like when we discovered radiation, okay? The first thing we thought was that this would be a cure, a medical discovery. X-rays, and then people were taking drops of radium like an elixir—”
“They poisoned themselves,” Helen said, “thinking they were doing something good.”
She seemed to relax a little. “Is this what you’re worried about?” she asked him. “That the nanos are going to mutate and turn on us? Are you still freaked out from being inside that machine?”
Her worry had turned to sympathy, her fear melting into compassion. Donald remembered the call he’d made after his meeting in the RYT, how he’d been freaking out and acting hysterical from his claustrophobia and an attack of the heebie-jeebies.
“No, nothing like that. I’m talking about how we looked for medicinal uses first, then ended up building the bomb. This is the same thing.” He paused, hoping she would get it. “I’m starting to think we’re building them, too. Tiny machines, just like the ones in the nanobaths that stitch up people’s skin and joints, only these would tear people down. And they would be able to unstitch anything.”
Helen didn’t react. Didn’t say a word. Donald realized he sounded crazy, that every bit of this was already online and in podcasts that radiated out from lonely basements on lonely airwaves. The Senator had been right. Mix truth and lies and you couldn’t tell them apart. The book on his coffee table and a zombie survival guide were the same things.
“I’m telling you they’re real,” he said, unable to stop himself. “They’ll be able to reproduce. They’ll be invisible. There won’t be any warning when they’re set loose, just dust in the breeze, okay? Reproducing and reproducing, this invisible war will wage itself all around us while we’re turned to mush.”
Helen was a statue. She was a pier withstanding the tide. He knew what was happening, could see it from the outside like an observer. She was waiting for him to finish, for him to stop crashing against her, and then she would call her mom and ask what to do. She would call Dr. Martin and get his advice.
Donald started to complain, could feel the anger welling up, and knew that anything he said would confirm her fears rather than convince her of his own.
He looked around the room, around the house that was becoming more and more foreign to him. The table beside the front door was different. He hadn’t noticed that when he entered.
“Is there anything else?” she whispered. She was looking for permission to leave and make her phone calls, to talk to someone rational.
Donald felt numb. Helpless and alone. He felt like crying but knew that would seal the deal.
“The National Convention is going to be held in Atlanta.” He wiped at the bottoms of his eyes, tried to make it look like weariness, like the strain of travel. “The DNC hasn’t announced it yet, but I heard from Mick before I got on the flight. The Senator wants us there, is already planning something big.”
He turned to Helen, saw that she was blurry, knew his eyes must be shining from holding back the madness. “The Senator wants us both there, okay?”
“Of course, baby.” She rested her hand on his thigh and looked at him like he was her patient, or some kind of invalid.
“And I’m going to ask that I spend more time down here, maybe do some of my work from home on weekends, keep a closer eye on the project.”
“That’d be great.” She rested her other hand on his arm. The concern on her face was of icy calmness, that pier riding out the tide. What he thought he knew seemed to crumble; the secrets burning in his blood began to temper. Donald felt himself on the verge of sobbing.
“I want us to be good to each other,” he said. “For whatever time we have left—”
“Shh, baby, it’s okay.” She wrapped her arm around his back and shushed him again, trying to soothe him.
“I love you,” she said.
He wiped at his eyes.
“We’ll get through this,” she told him.
Donald bobbed his head. “I know,” he said. “I know we will.”
The dog grunted and nuzzled her head into Helen’s lap, could sense something was wrong. Donald scratched the pup’s neck. He looked up at his wife, tears in his eyes. “I know we will,” he said again, trying to calm himself. “But what about everyone else?”
2110 • Silo 1
Troy needed to see a doctor. Ulcers had formed in both sides of his mouth, down between his gums and the insides of his cheeks. He could feel them like little wads of tender cotton embedded in his flesh, little puckers of numbness. Between breakfast and dinner, he alternated. In the morning, he kept the pill tucked down on the left side. For supper, he squirreled it away on the right. On either side, it would burn and dry out his mouth with the bitter bite of the medicine, but he would endure it.
He rarely employed napkins during meals, a bad habit he had formed long ago. They went into his lap to be polite and then went on his plate when he was done. Now he had a different routine. One quick small bite of something, wipe his mouth, spit out the burning blue capsule, take a huge gulp of water, swish it around.
It was a dereliction of duty, he knew. He was the captain of a creaking ship long at sea, and here he was tonguing a loose tooth and refusing to swallow his daily allotment of lime. The scurvy was taking him and he was letting it, even though this placed the others at risk. He knew this and felt bad about it, but he couldn’t will himself to do anything else.
The hard part was not checking to see if anyone was watching while he spit it out. He sat with his back to the wallscreen and went through this process while he imagined eyes in white coveralls drilling through the side of his head.
But he didn’t look. He chewed his food. He remembered to use his napkin occasionally, to wipe with both hands, always with both hands, pinching across his mouth, staying consistent. He smiled at the man across from him and made sure the pill didn’t fall out. The man’s gaze drifted over Troy’s shoulder as he stared at the view.
Troy didn’t turn to look. There was still the same draw, the same compulsion to be as high as possible, to escape the suffocating depths, but he no longer felt any desire to see outside. Something had changed.
He spotted Hal at the next table over—recognized his bald and splotchy scalp. The old man was sitting with his back to Troy. Troy waited to catch his eye, but Hal never turned to look.
He finished his corn and worked on his beets. It had been long enough since spitting out his pill to risk a glance toward the serving line. Tubes spat food; plates rattled on trays; one of the doctors from Victor’s office stood beyond the glass serving line, arms crossed, a wan smile on his face. He was scanning the men in line and looking out over the tables. Why? What was there to keep an eye on? Troy wanted to know. He had dozens of burning questions like this; answers sometimes rose toward the surface, but they skittered away if he trained his thoughts on them.
The beets were awful.
He ate the last of them while the gentleman across the table stood with his tray. It wasn’t long before someone took his place. Troy looked up and down the row of adjoining tables. The vast majority of the workers sat on the other side so they could see out. Only a handful sat like Hal and himself. It was strange that he’d never noticed this before.
In the past weeks, it seemed patterns were becoming easier to spot, even as other faculties slipped and stumbled. He cut into a rubbery hunk of canned ham, his knife screeching against his plate, and wondered when he’d get some real sleep. He couldn’t ask the doctors for anything to help, couldn’t show them his gums. They might find out he was off his other meds. The insomnia was awful. It was as though his body had grown scared of the dreams that awaited. He might doze off for a minute or two, but deep sleep eluded him. And instead of remembering anything concrete, all he had were these dull aches, these bouts of sadness, the feeling that something was wrong, that he’d known what was going on a week ago, maybe even a month ago, but no further back than that.
He chewed on this thought and his ham both. He caught one of the doctors watching him. Troy looked down the table and saw men shoulder to shoulder on the other side, empty seats lined up across from them. It wasn’t long ago that he wanted to sit and stare, mesmerized by the gray hills. And now he felt sick when he caught even a glimpse; the view brought him close to tears. He eyed the corner of the room where he knew a camera was hidden. Troy had an idea of what they were looking for. They were looking for signs of remembrance.
He stood immediately with his tray, then worried he was being transparent. Obvious. The napkin fell from his lap and landed on the floor, and something skittered away from his foot.
Troy’s heart skipped a beat. He bent and snatched the napkin, hurried down the line, looking for the pill. He bumped into a chair that had been pulled back from the table, felt all eyes on him, the sailors watching their captain dance drunkenly across the deck, losing his mind, teeth falling out and clattering away.
The pill. He found it and scooped it up with his napkin, the tray teetering dangerously in his palm. He stood and composed himself; a trickle of sweat itched his scalp and ran down the back of his neck. It seemed like half the room had stopped eating to watch him. Everyone knew. Knew he was losing his mind.
He turned and walked toward the water fountain. It took an iron force of will to not glance up at the cameras or over at the doctors. He was losing it, he knew. Growing paranoid. Just a little over a month left on this shift. He could do it.
Trying to walk naturally with so many eyes on him was impossible. He rested the edge of his tray on the water fountain, stepped on the lever with his foot, and topped up his glass. This was why he had gotten up: he was thirsty. He felt like announcing the fact out loud. He wasn’t crazy. He was like them. He couldn’t remember anything.
Returning to the tables, Troy squeezed between two other workers and sat down facing the screen. He balled up his napkin, felt the blue kernel hidden within its folds, and tucked it between his thighs. A bite of ham remained. He picked up his fork and jabbed it. He sat there, facing the screen, but he didn’t dare look.
2051 • Washington D.C.
The fat raindrops on the canopy outside De’Angelos sounded like rhythmless fingers tapping on a drum. The traffic on L Street hissed through puddles gathering against the curb, and the asphalt that flashed between the cars gleamed shiny and black from the streetlights. Donald shook two pills out of a plastic vial and into his palm. Two years on the meds. Two years completely free of anxiety, gloriously numb.
He glanced at the label and thought of his sister, then popped them in his mouth and swallowed. He was sick of the rain, preferred the quiet cleanliness of the snow. But another winter had been too warm for any chance of that.
Keeping out of the foot traffic flowing through the front doors—umbrellas jostling against umbrellas—he cradled his cell phone against his ear and listened patiently while his wife urged Karma to pee.
“Maybe she doesn’t need to go,” he suggested. He dropped the vial into his coat pocket and cupped his hand over the phone as the lady beside him wrestled with her umbrella, water flicking everywhere.
Helen continued to cajole Karma with a raft of words the poor dog didn’t understand. These were their conversations of late. Nothing real to say, disjointed daily routines, babbling about the trivial amid long silences. “But she hasn’t been since lunch,” Helen insisted.
“She didn’t go somewhere in the house, did she?”
“She’s four years old.”
Donald forgot. Lately, time felt locked in a bubble. He wondered if his medication was causing that or if it was the workload. Whenever anything seemed...off anymore, he always assumed it was the medication. Before, it could have been the vagaries of life; it could have been anything. Somehow, it felt worse to have something concrete and new to pin it on.
On the other end of the line, Helen pleaded with the dog. There was shouting across the street. Donald looked up to see two homeless men yelling at each other in the rain, squabbling over a piece of cardboard or a bag of tin cans or some personal offense from the day before. He watched morosely as more umbrellas were shaken and more fancy dresses flowed into the restaurant. Here was a city charged with governing all the others, and it couldn’t even take care of itself. These things used to worry him more. He patted the capsule in his jacket pocket, a comforting twitch he’d developed.
“She won’t go,” his wife said exhaustedly.
“Baby, I’m sorry I’m up here and you have all that to take care of. But look, I really need to get inside. We’re trying to wrap up final revisions on these plans tonight—”
“How is everything going with that? Are you almost done?”
A file of taxis drove by, hunting for fares, fat tires rolling across sheets of water like hissing snakes. Donald watched as one of them slowed to a stop, brakes squealing from the wet. He didn’t recognize the man stepping out, coat held up over his head. It wasn’t Mick.
“Huh? Oh, it’s going great. Yeah, we’re basically done, maybe a few tweaks here and there. The outer shells are poured, and the lower floors are in—”
“I meant, are you almost done working with her?”
He turned away from the traffic to hear better. “Who, Anna? Yeah. Look, I’ve told you. We’ve only consulted here and there. Most of it’s done electronically.”
“And Mick is there?”
Another cab slowed as it passed by. Donald turned at the sound of squealing brakes, but the car didn’t stop.