He wiped his forehead. Sweat was still beading up from the handful of miles he’d gotten in before the machine broke. Fishing around in the toolbox Jones had loaned him, he found the flathead screwdriver and began levering the chain back onto the cog.
Chains on cogs. Chains on cogs. He laughed to himself. Wasn’t that the way?
“Excuse me, sir?”
Troy turned to find Jones, his chief mechanic for another week, standing in the gym’s doorway.
“Almost done,” Troy said. “You need your tools back?”
“Nossir. Dr. Henson is looking for you.” He raised his hand, had one of those clunky radios in it.
Troy grabbed an old rag out of the toolbox and wiped the grease from his fingers. This felt good, working on something, getting dirty. It was a welcome distraction, something to do besides checking the blisters in his mouth with a mirror or hanging out in his office or apartment waiting to cry again for no reason.
This was what he was supposed to be doing, not leading or being in charge. He was supposed to be the guy coiling the ropes, not the captain.
He left the bike and crossed to his shift mechanic to accept the radio. Troy felt a wave of envy for the older man. He would love to wake up in the morning, put on those blue denim coveralls with the patches on the knees, grab his trusty toolbox, and work down a list of repairs. Anything other than sitting around while he waited on far worse things to break.
Squeezing the button on the side of the radio, he held it up to his mouth.
“This is Troy,” he said.
The name sounded weird coming out of his own mouth. He didn’t like saying his own name, didn’t like hearing it. He wondered what Dr. Henson and the shrinks would say about that.
The radio crackled. “Sir? I hate to disturb you—”
“No, that’s fine. What is it?” Troy walked back to the exercise bike and grabbed his towel from the handlebars. He wiped his forehead and saw Jones eyeing the disassembled bike and scattering of tools. The mechanic looked like a starving man gaping at a buffet. When he lifted his brows questioningly, Troy waved his consent.
“We’ve got a gentleman in our office who’s not responding to treatment,” Dr. Henson said.
Jones knelt by the bike. He slid his hands inside the machine’s cavity like a surgeon reaching into an open abdomen.
A blast of static, and then Dr. Henson continued: “It looks like another deep-freeze. I’ll need you to sign the waiver.”
Jones glanced up from the bike and frowned at this. Troy rubbed the back of his neck with the towel. He remembered Merriman saying to be careful handing these out. There were plenty of good men who would just as soon sleep through all this mess than serve their shifts.
“You’re sure?” he asked.
“We’ve tried everything. He’s been restrained. Security is taking him down the express right now. Can you meet us down here? You’ll have to sign off before he can be put away.”
“Sure, sure.” Troy rubbed his face with his towel, could smell the detergent in the clean cloth cut through the odor of sweat in the room and the tinge of grease from the open bike. Jones grabbed one of the pedals with his thick hands and gave it a turn. The chain was back on the cog, the machine operational again.
“I’ll be right down,” Troy said before releasing the mic. He handed the radio back to Jones, and the two men exchanged frowns. Some things were a pleasure to fix. Others weren’t.
The express had already passed when Troy reached the lifts; he could see the floor display racing down. He pressed the call button for the other one and tried to imagine the sad scene playing out below. Whoever it was had his sympathies.
He shook violently, blamed it on the cool air in the hallway and his damp skin. A ping-pong ball clocked back and forth in the rec room around the corner, sneakers squeaking as players chased the next shot. From the same room, a television was playing a movie, the sound of a woman’s voice. When the ball stopped, the score was called out.
Looking down at his feet, Troy felt self-conscious about his shorts and tee shirt. The only semblance of authority he really felt was lent by his coveralls, but there was no time to ride up and change.
The lift beeped and opened, a conversation inside falling silent. Troy nodded a greeting, and two men in yellow said hello. The three of them rode in silence for a few levels until the men got off on forty-four, a general living level. Before the doors could close, Troy saw a bright ball skitter across the hallway, two men racing after it. There were shouts and laughter followed by guilty silence when they noticed Troy.
The metal doors squeezed shut on the brief glimpse of lower and more normal lives.
With a shudder, the lift sank deeper into the earth. Troy could feel the dirt and concrete squeezing in from all sides, piling up above. Sweat mixed with more sweat and so remained hidden. He was coming out of the other side of the medication, he thought. Every morning, he could feel some semblance of his old self returning, and it lasted longer and longer into the day.
The fifties went by. The lift never stopped on the fifties. Emergency supplies he hoped would never be needed filled the corridors beyond. He remembered parts of the orientation time, back when everyone had been awake. He remembered the code names they came up with for everything, the way new labels obscured the past. There was something here nagging him, but he couldn’t place it.
Next were the mechanical spaces and the general storerooms, followed by the two levels that housed the reactor. Finally, the most important storage of all: the Legacy, the deep sleep of men and women in their shiny coffins, the survivors from the before, the sailors asleep in their bunks.
There was a jolt of gravity as the lift slowed, a ding, doors trembling open. Troy heard a commotion in the doctor’s office, Henson barking commands to his assistant. He hurried down the hallway in his gym attire, sweat cooling on his skin.
When he entered the ready room, he saw an elderly man. It was Hal—Troy recognized him from the cafeteria, remembered speaking with him the first day of his shift and several times since. Hal was being restrained on a gurney by two men from Security. The doctor and his assistant were fumbling through cabinets and drawers, gathering supplies.
“My name is Carlton!” Hal roared. He seemed to be coming out of a fog, looked dazed like he had just woken up from a stupor. Troy assumed they would’ve had him under control to get him down the lift, wondered if he had broken free or come to. Hal’s thin arms flailed while unbuckled restraints dangled from the flat table and swayed from the commotion. Henson and his assistant found what they needed and gathered by the gurney. The Security guys grunted with effort. Hal’s eyes widened at the sight of the needle the assistant was holding; the fluid inside was a blue the color of open sky.
Dr. Henson looked up and saw Troy standing there in his exercise clothes, paralyzed and watching the scene. Hal screamed once more that his name was Carlton and continued to kick at the air, boots slamming against the table. The two Security men jerked with effort as they held him down.
“A hand?” Henson grunted, teeth clenched as he began to wrestle with one of Hal’s arms.
Troy hurried to the gurney and grabbed one of the man’s legs. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the Security officers and wrestled a boot while trying not to get kicked. Hal’s legs felt like a bird’s inside the baggy coveralls, but they kicked like a mule’s. His skinny arms stirred the air while one of the officers worked a strap across his thighs. Troy leaned his weight on Hal’s shin while a second strap was flapped over.
“What’s wrong with him?” he asked. His concerns about himself swiftly subsided in the presence of true madness. Or was this where he was heading?
“Meds aren’t taking,” Henson said.
Or he’s not taking them, Troy thought.
The medical assistant used his teeth to pull the cap off the sky-colored syringe. Hal’s wrist was pinned. The needle disappeared into his trembling arm, the plunger moving bright blue into his pale and blotchy flesh.
Veins, already purple with effort, deepened in hue.
Troy cringed at the sight of sharp steel being stabbed into Hal’s jerking arm—but the power in the old man’s legs faded immediately. Everyone seemed to take deep breaths as he wilted into unconsciousness, his head drifting to the side, one last incomprehensible scream fading into a moan, and then a deep and breathy exhalation.
“What the hell?” Troy wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. He was dripping with sweat, partly from the exertion but mostly from the scene of madness, from feeling a man go under like that, sensing the life and will drain from his kicking boots as he was forced asleep. His own body shook with a sudden and violent tremor, gone before he knew it was coming. The doctor glanced up and frowned.
“I apologize for that,” Henson said. He glared at the officers, directing his blame.
“We had him no problem,” one of them said, shrugging.
Henson turned to Troy. His jowls sagged with disappointment. “I hate to ask you to sign off on this—”
Troy wiped his face with the front of his shirt and nodded. The losses had been accounted for—individual losses as well as silos, spares stocked accordingly—but they all stung.
“Of course,” he said. This was his job, right? Sign this. Say these words. Follow the script. It was a joke. They were all reading lines from a play none of them could remember. But he was beginning to. He could feel it.
Henson shuffled through a drawer of forms while his assistant unbuckled Hal’s coveralls. The men from Security asked if they were needed, checked the restraints a final time, and were waved away. While their boots faded toward the lift, one of them laughed out loud over something the other said, already back to joking.
Troy, meanwhile, lost himself in Hal’s slack face, the slight rise and fall of his old and narrow chest. Here was the reward for remembering, he thought. This man had woken up from the routine of the asylum. He hadn’t gone crazy; he’d had a sudden bout of clarity. He’d cracked his eyes and seen through the mist.
Troy tucked his hands in his armpits and tried to remain calm, to remain detached. He didn’t want Henson to see his trembling hands or suspect that he’d had glimpses as well.
A clipboard was procured from a peg on the wall, the right form shoved into its metal jaws. Troy was handed a pen. He scratched a name, but it didn’t feel right. What was this meaninglessness with a pen when a needle had already bit a man’s flesh? This wasn’t the deed, these forms and ink. The deed was on a table with a slack jaw and drooping lids.
He handed the clipboard back and watched the two doctors work; he wondered if they felt any of what he felt. What if they were all playing the same part? What if each and every inmate in this asylum was concealing the same doubts, none of them talking because they all felt utterly and completely alone?
“Could you get that one for me?”
The medical assistant was down on his knees, twisting a knob on the base of the table. Troy saw that it was on wheels. The assistant nodded toward Troy’s feet.
“Of course.” Troy crouched down to free the wheel. He was a part in this. It was his signature on the form. It was him twisting the knob that would free the table and allow it to roll down the hall.
With Hal under, the restraints were loosened, his coveralls peeled off with care. Troy volunteered with the boots, unknotting the laces and setting them aside. There was no need for a paper gown—that was for the modesty of the awake. An IV needle was inserted and taped down; Troy knew it would plug into the pod. He knew what it felt like to have ice crawl through his veins.
When Henson told them everything was ready, Troy helped guide the foot of the table, the assistant doing most of the pushing. They followed the doctor out the door and down the hallway, past the room Troy had woken up in, past his empty and waiting coffin, and further down toward the room that sang out to him most nights, the room he had wanted to visit that first day of his shift, the room that lay full of some forgotten misery that didn’t want to be remembered. It was a room for the long-sleeping, and it tugged on his gut similar to how the cafeteria yanked on his soul. It was no wonder he felt torn apart living and working in the numb space in between: there was something at either end of the building calling out to him, some hurt too strong to recall but impossible to ignore.
They brought the gurney to a halt outside the reinforced steel doors of the deep-freeze. Troy studied the doors. They seemed familiar. He seemed to remember speccing something similar for a project once, but that was for a room full of machines. No, computers. Shards of the past came back, slid like ghost ships through the mist.
The keypad on the wall chirped as the doctor entered his code. There was the heavy thunk of rods withdrawing into the thick jamb and the hiss and sigh of an unbreathing room as it cracked its mouth.
“The empties are at the end,” Henson said, nodding into the distance.
Troy steered while the assistant pushed. Wheels squeaked and squealed, their echoes filling this inner sanctum. Troy felt guilty about the noise, even though the sleep in that room could not be so easily disturbed.
Rows and rows of gleaming and sealed beds marched by. The gurney and the three men seemed to stand still while the pods drifted past. Troy felt numb. He was out of his own body as a memory returned. The room was chilly. His eyes fell to the readout screens on the bases of each pod. There were green lights solid with life, numbers showing the chill of the frozen, no space needed for a pulse or heartbeat, first names only, no last, no way to connect these strangers to their legacy. No way to connect them to what they’d done.
Cassie, Catherine, Gabriella, Gretchen.
Gwynn. Halley. Heather.