Mick patted his shoulder in gratitude as Donald nodded. He turned and merged with the line heading through the security office’s inner door, and Donald felt like he was seeing one of the thousands of rendered walk-throughs he’d performed in AutoCAD. It helped to imagine this. He wasn’t below the earth and concrete at all—he was in his office on Capitol Hill. He was at his desk, working his mouse, sending his bodiless avatar through his blueprints one final time. So when he gasped for air, he imagined the window behind his desk was open, the sounds of D.C. traffic wafting through on the fresh breeze—
Mick led him toward the central shaft. Donald slid his imaginary mouse forward and followed. They passed through the cafeteria, which was being used. It made sense. Workers sat at tables and ate off plastic trays, taking a break. The smell of food drifted from the kitchens beyond. Donald laughed. He never thought they’d be used at all. At least they would have this one go. Again, it felt like the convention had given this place a purpose. It made him happy. He thought of the entire complex devoid of life one day, all the workers milling about outside storing away nuclear rods, Atlanta buzzing with its everyday routine, while this massive building, a skyscraper that would have touched the clouds had it been above ground, would sit perfectly empty, plunged into the dirt like a forgotten needle.
Down a short hallway, the tile gave way to metal grating, and a broad cylinder dove straight through the heart of the facility. Anna had been right. It really was worth seeing. He really had wimped out.
They reached the railing of the central shaft, and Donald paused to peer over. The vast height made him forget for a moment that he was underground. On the other side of the landing, a conveyor lift rattled on its gears while a never ending series of flat loading trays spun empty over the top. It reminded Donald of the buckets on a waterwheel. The trays flopped over before descending back down through the building.
The men and women from outside deposited each of their containers onto one of the empty trays before turning and heading back out. Donald looked for Mick and saw him disappearing down the staircase.
He hurried after, his fear of being buried alive chasing him.
His shoes slapped the freshly painted stairs, the diamond plating keeping him from skidding off in his haste. He caught up with Mick as they made a full circuit of the thick inner post. Tupperware containers full of emergency supplies—supplies Donald figured would rot, unused—drifted eerily downward beyond the rail as Donald raced to match Mick’s pace.
“I don’t want to go any deeper than this,” he insisted.
“Two levels down,” Mick called back up. “C’mon, man, I want you to see.”
Donald numbly obeyed. It would’ve been worse to make his way out alone.
At the first landing they came to, a worker stood by the conveyor with some sort of gun. As the next container passed by, he shot its side with a flash of red, the scanner buzzing. The worker leaned on the railing, waiting for the next one while the container continued its ratcheting plummet.
“Did I miss something?” Donald asked. “Are we still fighting deadlines? What’s with all the supplies?”
Mick shook his head. “Deadlines, lifelines,” he said.
At least, that’s what Donald thought his friend said. Mick seemed lost in thought.
They spiraled down another level, ten more meters of reinforced concrete between, thirty-three feet of wasted depth, all according to idiotic specifications that he knew all too well.
The next landing looked the same as the last. A young woman stood there with her scanner, two Tupperware containers stacked up by her feet. Her gun buzzed as she targeted the next one rumbling down the line. A good-looking young man came out of a pair of hinged doors and grabbed the top container. The two shared a few words while Mick grabbed the open door and waved Donald through.
Donald knew the floor. And not just from the plans he’d drawn. They had toured a floor like this in the factory where it had been built.
“I’ve been here before,” he told Mick.
Mick nodded. He waved Donald down the hallway until it made a turn. Mick picked one of the doors, seemingly at random, and opened it for Donald. Most of the floors had been pre-fabbed before being craned into place. If that wasn’t that exact floor the two of them had toured, it had been one of the many just like it.
Once Donald was inside, Mick flicked on the apartment’s overhead lights and closed the door. Donald was surprised to see that the bed was made. Stacks of linen were piled up in a chair. They could be in a tiny hotel room in New York City or Tokyo, and he wouldn’t know the difference. Mick grabbed the linens and moved them to the floor. He sat down and nodded toward the foot of the bed.
Donald ignored him and poked his head into the small bathroom. “This is actually pretty cool to see,” he told his friend. He reached out and turned the knob on the sink, expecting nothing. When clear water gurgled out, he found himself laughing.
“I knew you’d dig it once you saw it,” Mick said quietly.
Donald caught sight of himself in the mirror, the joy still on his face. He tended to forget how the corners of his eyes wrinkled up when he smiled. He touched his hair, sprinkles of gray even though he had another five years before he was over that proverbial hill. His job was aging him prematurely. He had feared it might.
“Amazing that we built this, huh?”
Mick was still waiting for him to sit. Donald turned and joined his friend in the tight quarters. He wondered if it was the work they’d been elected to perform that had aged them both or if it had been this one project, this all-consuming build.
“I appreciate you forcing me down here.” He almost added that he would love to see the rest, but he figured that would be pushing it. Besides, the crews back in the Georgia tents were probably looking for them already.
“Look,” Mick said, “there’s something I want to tell you.”
Donald looked at his friend, who seemed to be searching for the words. He glanced at the door. Mick was silent. Donald finally relented and sat at the foot of the bed.
“What’s up?” he asked.
But he thought he knew. The Senator had included Mick in his other project, the one that had filled Donald’s head with nuttiness and had driven him to the doctor. Donald thought of the thick book he had largely memorized, the last years spent reading little else. Mick had been doing the same. And he’d brought him there not just to let him see what they’d accomplished, but to find a spot of perfect privacy, a place where secrets could be divulged. He patted his pocket where he kept his pills, the ones that kept his thoughts from running off to dangerous places. He considered offering one to Mick.
“Hey,” Donald said, “I don’t want you saying anything you’re not supposed to—”
Mick looked up, eyes wide with surprise.
“You don’t need to say anything, Mick. Assume I know what you know.”
Mick shook his head sadly. “You don’t,” he said.
“Well, assume it anyway.” He waved his hands like an umpire calling a runner safe at the plate. “I don’t want to know anything.”
“I need you to know.”
“I’d rather not—”
“It’s not a secret, man. It’s just...I want you to know that I love you like a brother. I always have.”
The two of them sat in silence. Donald glanced toward the door. It was uncomfortable, that moment, but it somehow filled his heart to hear Mick say it.
“Look—” Donald started.
“I know I’m always hard on you,” Mick said. “And hell, I’m sorry. I really do look up to you. And Helen—” Mick turned to the side and scratched at his cheek. “I’m so damn happy for the two of you.”
Donald reached across the narrow space and squeezed his friend’s arm.
“You’re a good friend, Mick. I’m glad we’ve had this time together, the last few years, running for office like idiots, building this—”
Mick nodded. “Yeah. Me too. But listen, I didn’t bring you down here to get all sappy like this.” He reached for his cheek again, and Donald saw that he was wiping at his eyes. “I had a talk with Thurman last night. He—a few months ago, he offered me a spot on a team, a top team, and I told him last night that I’d rather you take it.”
“What? A committee?” Donald couldn’t imagine his friend giving up an appointment, any kind of appointment. “Which one?”
Mick shook his head. “No, something else.”
“What?” Donald asked.
“Look,” Mick said, “when you find out about it, and you understand what’s going on, I want you to think of me right here.” Mick glanced around the room. There were a few breaths of complete silence punctuated by drips of water from the bathroom sink.
“If I could choose anywhere to be, anywhere in the coming years, it would be right down here with the first group.”
“Okay. Yeah, I’m not sure what you mean—”
“You will. Just remember this, all right? That I love you like a brother and that everything happens for a reason. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. For you or for Helen.”
“Okay—” Donald smiled. He couldn’t tell if Mick was fucking with him or if his friend had consumed a few too many Bloody Marys from the hospitality tent that morning.
“All right.” Mick stood abruptly. He certainly moved as though he were sober. “Let’s get the hell out of here. This place gives me the creeps.”
Donald laughed. Mick threw open the door and flicked off the lights.
“Wimping out, eh?” Donald called after his friend.
Mick punched him in the arm as the two of them headed back down the hallway. The young man from earlier passed by with a tub in his hands. Behind them, they left the small, random apartment in darkness, its little sink dripping. And Donald tried to sort out how he’d gotten turned around, how the Tennessee tent where he’d cut the ribbon had become the one from South Carolina. He almost had it, his subconscious flashing to a delivery of goods, to fifty times more fiber optic than he needed, but the connection was lost.
Meanwhile, containers loaded with supplies rumbled down the mammoth shaft. And empty trays rattled up.
2110 • Silo 1
Troy woke up in a fog. He lifted his hands and groped in front of his face, expecting to find the chill of icy glass, the press of domed steel, the doom of a deep-freeze. Instead, his hands waved in empty air. The clock beside his bed came into focus. It was a little after three. The PM light was unlit. He had the grogginess and headache of a hangover, the midnight confusion of sleeping with the flu, the hours meaningless in the wake of some sudden fever.
He sat up, the springs of his bed squeaking. He had on a pair of gym shorts, couldn’t remember changing the night before, couldn’t remember going to bed. There was something else he needed to remember and couldn’t. Planting his feet on the floor, he rested his elbows on his knees, sunk his head into his palms, and sat there a moment. His entire body ached. There was something he was supposed to be doing.
After a few minutes slipped by, he dressed himself in the dark, buckling up his coveralls. Light would be bad for his headache. It wasn’t a theory he needed to test.
The hallway outside was still dimmed for the evening, just bright enough to grope one’s way to the shared bathrooms and not a watt more. Troy stole down the hall, not needing to pee, and headed for the lift.
He hit the “Up” button, hesitated, wasn’t sure if that was right. He pressed the “Down” button as well.
It was too early to go into his office, not unless he wanted to fiddle on the computer. He wasn’t hungry, but he could go up and watch the sun rise. The late shift would be up there drinking coffee. Or he could hit the rec room and go for a jog. That would mean going back to his room to change.
The lift arrived with a beep while he was still deciding. Both lights went off, the up and the down. He could take this lift anywhere.
Troy stepped inside. He didn’t know where he wanted to go.
The elevator doors closed. It waited on him patiently. Eventually, he figured, it would whisk off to heed some other call, pick up a person with purpose, someone with a destination. He could stand there and do nothing and let that other soul decide. He could just go along for the ride.
Running his finger across the buttons, he tried to remember what was on each level. There was a lot he’d memorized, but not everything he knew felt accessible. He had a sudden urge to head for one of the lounges and watch TV, just let the hours slide past until he finally needed to be somewhere. This was how the shift was supposed to go. Waiting and then doing. Sleeping and then waiting. Make it to dinner and then make it to bed. The end was always in sight. There was nothing to rebel against, just a routine, until the now faded into the past, and the future wilted and died.
The elevator shook into motion before he could decide. Troy jerked his hand away from the buttons and took a step back. The elevator didn’t show where they were going. It felt like they had started down.
Only a few floors passed before the lift lurched to a halt. The doors opened on a lower apartment level. A familiar face from the cafeteria, a man in reactor red, smiled as he stepped inside.
“Morning,” he said.
The man turned and jabbed one of the lower buttons, one of the reactor levels. He studied the otherwise blank array, turned, and gave Troy a quizzical look.
“You feeling okay, sir?”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah.”
Troy leaned forward and pressed sixty-eight. The man’s concern for his well-being must’ve had him thinking of the doctor, even though Henson wouldn’t be on shift for several hours.