“When Helen gets here, I want you to come down to the state tent and see me, okay?”
Donald pulled out his phone and checked the time. “You know I’m supposed to be at the Tennessee tent in an hour, right?”
“There’s been a change of plans. I want you to stay close to home. Mick is going to cover for you over there, which means I need you with me.”
“Are you sure? I was supposed to meet with—”
“I know. This is a promotion, trust me. I want you and Helen near the Georgia stage with me. And look—”
The Senator turned to face him. Donald peeled his eyes away from the last of the unloading buses. The rain had picked up a little.
“You’ve contributed more to this day than you know,” Thurman said.
“The world is going to change today, Donny. You deserve this.”
Donald wondered if the Senator had been skipping his nanobath treatments. His eyes seemed dilated and focused on something in the distance. He appeared older, somehow.
“I’m not sure I understand—”
“You will. Oh, and a surprise visitor is coming. She should be here anytime.” He smiled. “The national anthem starts at noon. There’ll be a flyover from the 141st after that. I want you nearby when that happens.”
Donald nodded. He had learned when to stop asking questions and just do what the Senator expected of him.
“Yessir,” he said, shivering against the cold.
Senator Thurman left, and the sound of the rain on Donald’s umbrella shifted with the new bombardment from above. Turning his back to the stage, Donald scanned the last of the buses and wondered where in the world Helen was.
2110 • Silo 1
Troy walked down the line of cryopods as if he knew where he was going. It was just like the way his hand had drifted to the button that had brought him to that floor. There were made-up names on each of the panels. He knew this somehow. He remembered coming up with his name. It had something to do with his wife, some way to honor her, or some kind of secret and forbidden link so that he might one day remember.
This all lay in the past, deep in the mist, a dream forgotten. Before his shift there had been an orientation. There were familiar books to read and re-read. That’s when he had chosen his name.
A bitter explosion on his tongue brought him to a halt. It was the taste of a pill dissolving. Troy stuck out his tongue and scraped it with his fingers, but there was nothing there but a memory of forgetting. He could feel the ulcers on his gums against his teeth but couldn’t recall how they’d formed.
He walked on. Something wasn’t right. These things weren’t supposed to come back. He pictured himself on a gurney, screaming, someone strapping him down, stabbing him with needles. That wasn’t him. He was holding that man’s boots.
Troy stopped at one of the pods and checked the name. Helen. There was something wrong. His gut lurched and groped for its medicine. He didn’t want to remember. That was a secret ingredient: the not wanting to remember. Those were the parts that slipped away, the parts the drugs wrapped their tentacles around and pulled beneath the surface. But now, there was some small part of him that was dying to know, some shard that wanted to rise up through the dark and murky waters. It was a nagging doubt, a feeling of having left some important piece of himself behind. And if the only way to resurface was to bob up as a corpse, this part of him didn’t mind. It was willing to drown the rest of him for the answers.
The frost on the glass wiped away with a squeak. He didn’t recognize this person, but he was close to remembering. He tried the next one.
What had the orientation been about? How to do new jobs. Some of them already knew, were prepared. Troy had spent two years studying for a similar job. Different but similar. He should have been the head of a single silo, not all of them. This was too much.
He remembered packed halls of people crying, grown men sobbing, pills that dried their eyes. Fearsome clouds rose on a videoscreen, a view of the outside, of what they’d done. The suffering and the medicine were caustic together. They made people forget. Troy remembered thinking the bombs were useful more for their fear than the harm they contained. They were a prop. Flesh for the forgetting, for the medicine to sink its teeth into.
The women were put away for safety. That’s how the deep-freeze was explained: like lifeboats, women and children first.
Troy remembered. It wasn’t an accident. He remembered a talk in another pod, a bigger pod in the shape of a pill, about the coming end of the world, about making room, about ending it all before it ended on its own.
A controlled explosion. Bombs were sometimes used to put out fires.
He remembered clouds pushed aside by other clouds. Decoys. The machines were already in the air. He could taste them on his tongue, remembered urine the color of charcoal.
Troy wiped another frost-covered sheet of glass. The sleeping form in the next chamber had eyelashes that glittered with ice. She was a stranger. He moved on. It was coming back to him. His arm throbbed. The shakes were gone.
Troy remembered a calamity, but it was all for show. The real threat was in the air, invisible. The bombs were to get people to move, to make them afraid, to get them crying and forgetting. People had spilled like marbles down a bowl. Not a bowl, a funnel. And the air had erupted on cue, invisibly. Someone explained why they were spared. He remembered a white fog, walking through a white fog. The death was already in them. Troy remembered a taste on his tongue metallic.
The ice on the next pane was already disturbed, had been wiped away by someone recently. Beads of condensation stood like tiny lenses warping the light. He rubbed the glass and knew what had happened. He saw the woman inside with the auburn hair that she sometimes kept in a bun. This was not his wife. This was someone who wanted that, wanted him like that. The name meant nothing. The name was a reminder to them both.
Troy turned toward the voice. The night shift doctor was heading his way, weaving between the pods, coming for him. Troy clasped his hand over the soreness on his arm. He didn’t want to be taken again. They couldn’t make him forget.
“Sir, you shouldn’t be in here.”
Troy didn’t answer. The doctor stopped at the foot of the pod. Inside, a woman who wasn’t his wife lay in slumber. Wasn’t his wife, but had wanted to be.
“Why don’t you come with me?” the doctor asked.
“I’d like to stay,” Troy said. He felt a bizarre calmness. All the pain had been ripped away. This was more forceful than forgetting. He remembered everything. His soul was cut free. His body was a shell, a walking pod, nothing inside but the cold. The important parts were soaring up, now. Soaring up that straw shoved deep into the dirt—
“I can’t have you in here, sir. Come with me. You’ll freeze in here.”
Troy glanced down. He had forgotten to put on shoes. He curled his toes away from the floor...then let them settle.
“Sir? Please.” The young doctor gestured down the aisle. Troy let go of his arm and saw that things were handled as needed. No kicking meant no straps. No shivering meant no shots.
He heard the squeak of hurrying boots out in the hallway. A large man from Security appeared by the open vault door, visibly winded. Troy caught a glimpse of the doctor waving the man down. They were trying not to scare him. They didn’t know that he couldn’t be scared anymore. That part of him had drowned. Their medicine had killed it.
“You’ll put me away for good,” Troy said. It was something between a statement and a question. It was a realization. He wondered if he was like Hal—like Carlton—if the pills would never take again. He glanced toward the far end of the room, knew the empties were kept there. This was where he would be buried.
“Nice and easy,” the doctor said.
He led Troy toward the exit; he would embalm him with that bright blue sky. The pods slid by as the two of them walked in silence.
The man from Security took deep breaths as he filled the doorway, his great chest heaving against his coveralls. There was a squeak from more boots as he was joined by another. Troy saw that his shift was over. Two weeks to go. He’d nearly made it.
The doctor waved the large men out of the way, seemed to hope they wouldn’t be needed. They took up positions to either side; they seemed to think otherwise. Troy was led down the hallway, hope guiding him and fear flanking him.
“You know,” Troy told the doctor, turning to study him. “You remember everything, don’t you?”
The doctor didn’t turn to face him. He simply nodded.
This felt like a betrayal. It wasn’t fair.
“Why do you get to remember?” Troy asked. He wanted to know why those dispensing the medicine didn’t have to take some of their own.
The doctor waved him into his office. His assistant was there, wearing a sleepshirt and hanging an IV bag bulging with blue. Troy had disturbed their sleep—just as they had once disturbed his.
“Some of us remember,” the doctor said, “because we know this isn’t a bad thing we’ve done.” He frowned as he helped Troy onto the gurney. He seemed truly sad about Troy’s condition. “We’re doing good work, here,” he said. “We’re saving the world, not ending it. And the medicine only touches our regrets.” He glanced up. “Some of us don’t have any.”
The doorway was stuffed with Security. It overflowed. The assistant unbuckled Troy’s coveralls. Troy watched numbly.
“It would take a different kind of drug to touch what we know,” the doctor said. He pulled a clipboard from the wall. A sheet of paper was fed into its jaws. There was a pause, a silent moment of comedic irony, and then a pen pressed into Troy’s palm.
Troy laughed as he signed off on himself. This reminded him of his last job: the insane pretending to be sane, the world run from an asylum, a fetid swamp.
“Then why me?” he asked. “Why am I here?” He had always wanted to ask this of someone who might know. These were the prayers of youth, but now with a chance of some reply.
The doctor smiled and took the clipboard. He was probably in his late twenties. Troy was a handful of years shy of forty. And yet this man had all the wisdom, all the answers.
“It’s good to have people like you in charge,” the doctor said, and he seemed to genuinely mean it. The clipboard was returned to its peg. One of the Security men yawned and covered his mouth. Troy watched as his coveralls flopped to his waist. A fingernail makes a distinct click when it taps against a needle.
“I’d like to think about this,” Troy said. He felt a sudden panic wash over him. He knew this needed to happen, but just five more minutes to think about it. Five more minutes alone with his thoughts, to savor this brief bout of comprehension. Five minutes before his brain was turned off. He wanted to sleep, certainly, but not quite yet.
The men in the doorway stirred as they sensed Troy’s doubts, could see the fear in his eyes. The image of Hal’s boots slamming the gurney returned.
“I wish there was some other way,” the doctor said sadly. He rested a hand on Troy’s shoulder, guided him back against the table. The men from Security stepped closer. Their faces were sleepy, but Troy could tell they’d seen this before. They knew he was about to lash out, about to go mad.
There was a prick on his arm, a deep bite without warning. He looked down and saw the silver barb slide into his vein, the bright blue pumped inside.
“I don’t want—” he said.
There were hands on his shins, his knees, weight on his shoulders. The heaviness against his chest was from something else.
A burning flowed through his body, chased immediately by numbness. They weren’t putting him to sleep. They were killing him. Troy knew this as suddenly and swiftly as he knew that his wife was dead, that some other person had tried to take her place. He would go into a coffin for good this time. And all the dirt piled over his head would finally serve some purpose.
Darkness squeezed in around his vision. He closed his eyes, tried to yell for it to stop, but nothing came out. He wanted to kick and fight it, but more than mere hands had a hold of him, now. He was sinking. Cast off his own ship and into the cold waters. He would sink forever to the bottom. That’s how long it would take for him to get there.
His last thoughts were of his beautiful wife, but the thoughts made little sense—they were the dreamworld invading.
She’s in Tennessee, he thought. He didn’t know why or how he knew this. But she was there—and waiting. She was already dead and had a spot hollowed out by her side just for him.
Troy had just one more question, one name he hoped to grope for and seize before he went under, some part of himself to take with him to those depths. It was on the tip of his tongue like a bitter pill, so close he could taste it—
But then he forgot.
2052 • Above Silo 1
The rain finally let up just as warring announcements and battling tunes filled the currents of air above the teeming hills. While the main stage was prepped for the evening’s gala, it sounded to Donald as though the real action was taking place at all the other states. Opening bands ripped into their sets as the buzz of ATVs subsided to a trickle, all the busy little ants holing up in their nests.
It felt vaguely claustrophobic to be down in the bottom of the bowl by the Georgia stage. Donald felt an unquenchable urge for height, to be up on the ridge where he could see what was going on. It left him only imagining the sight of thousands of guests arrayed across each of the hills, picturing the political fervor in the air everywhere, the gelling of like-minded families celebrating the promise of something new.
As much as Donald wanted to celebrate new beginnings with them, he was mostly looking forward to the end. He couldn’t wait for the convention to wrap up. The weeks had worn on him. He looked forward to no more stifling hot porta-potties with their chemical stench. No more meals neatly portioned out in little cardboard boxes with disposable plasticware in tiny baggies. No more bunking up in trailers that still smelled faintly of the men and women who had muddied Fulton County with their sweat and toil.