“That stuff’s awful,” he said.

“Yeah.” Troy looked around the office, his post for the next six months. The place, he figured, had aged quite a bit. Merriman, too. If he was a little grayer from the past six months, it was hard to tell, but he had kept the place in order. Troy resolved to extend the same courtesy to the next guy.

“You remember your briefing?” Merriman shuffled some folders on his desk.

“Like it was yesterday.”

Merriman glanced up, a smirk on his face. “Right. Well, there hasn’t been anything exciting the last few months. We had some mechanical issues when I started my shift but worked through those. There’s a guy named Jones you’ll want to use. He’s been out a few weeks and is a lot sharper than the last guy. Been a lifesaver for me. He works down on sixty-eight with the power plant, but he’s good just about anywhere, can fix pretty much anything.”

Troy nodded. “Jones. Got it.”

“Okay. Well, I left you some notes in these folders. There have been a few workers we had to deep-freeze.” He looked up, a serious expression on his face. “Don’t take that lightly, okay? Plenty of guys here would love to nap through their shifts instead of work. Don’t pull that trigger unless you have to.”

“I won’t.”

“Good.” Merriman nodded. “I hope you have an uneventful shift. I’ve got to run before this stuff kicks in.” He took another fierce swig, and Troy’s cheeks sucked in with empathy. “Man, that shit’s awful.”

He walked past Troy, slapped him on the shoulder, and started to reach for the light switch. He stopped himself at the last minute and looked back guiltily, nodded, then was gone.

And just like that, Troy was in charge. His bladder nearly emptied at the thought.

“Hey, wait!” He glanced around the office, hurried out, and caught up with Merriman, who was already turning down the main hall toward the security gate. Troy jogged to catch up.

“You leave the light on?” Merriman asked.

Troy glanced over his shoulder. “Yeah, but—”

“Good habits,” Merriman said. He shook his thermos. “Form them.”

A heavyset man hurried out of one of the offices and labored to catch up with them. “Merriman! You done with your shift?”

The two men shared a warm handshake. Merriman smiled and nodded. “I am. Troy here will be taking my place.”

The man shrugged, didn’t introduce himself. “I’m off in two weeks,” he said, as if that explained his indifference.

“Look, I’m running late,” Merriman said, his eyes darting toward Troy with a trace of blame. He pushed the thermos into his friend’s palm. “Here. You can have what’s left.” He slapped the man on the arm and turned to go. Troy followed along.

“No freakin’ thanks!” the man called out, waving the thermos and laughing.

Merriman glanced at Troy. “I’m sorry, did you have a question?” He passed through the turnstile with a click and a metallic thunk. Troy followed. The guard never looked up from his tablet.

“A few, yeah. You mind if I ride down with you? I was a little...late with my orientation. Sudden promotion. Would love to clarify a few things—”

“Hey, I can’t stop you. You’re in charge.” Merriman jabbed the call button on the express.

“So, basically, I’m just here in case something goes wrong?”

The elevator dinged open. Merriman turned and squinted at Troy almost as if to gauge if he was being serious.

“Your job is to make sure nothing goes wrong.” He stepped into the elevator. Troy followed. Gravity loosened its grip as the car raced downward.

“Right. Of course. That’s what I meant.”

“You’ve read the Order, right?”

Troy nodded. For a different job, he wanted to say.

“Just follow the script. You’ll get questions from the other silos now and then. I found it wise to say as little as possible. Just be quiet and listen. Keep in mind that these are mostly second and third generation survivors, so their vocabulary is already a little different. There’s a list of forbidden words in your folder.”

Troy felt his head spin. When the elevator slowed and put some weight on his feet, he felt another bout of dizziness and nearly sagged to the ground. He was still incredibly weak.

The door dinged open. He followed Merriman down a short hallway, the same hallway he had emerged from hours earlier. The doctor and his assistant waited in the room beyond, preparing an IV. The doctor looked curiously at Troy as if he hadn’t planned on seeing him again so soon, if ever.

“You finish your last meal?” the doctor asked, waving Merriman toward a stool.

“Every vile drop of it.” Merriman unclasped the tops of his coveralls and let them flop down around his waist. He sat and held out his arm, palm up. His back was bent with apparent exhaustion, the hair on his chest grayer than on his head. Troy saw how pale Merriman’s skin was, the loose tangle of purple lines weaving past his elbow. He tried not to watch the needle go in.

“I’m repeating my notes here,” Merriman told him, “but you’ll want to meet with Victor in the psych office. He’s right across the hall from you. There’s some strange things going on in a few of the silos, more fracturing than we thought. Try and get a handle on that for the next guy.”

Troy nodded.

“We need to get you to your chamber,” the doctor said. His young assistant stood by with a paper gown. The entire procedure looked very familiar. The doctor turned to Troy as if he were a stain that needed scrubbing away.

Troy backed out the door and glanced down the hall in the direction of the deep-freeze. The women and children were kept there, along with the men who couldn’t make it through their shifts. “Do you mind if I—?” There was a tug in that direction that he couldn’t define. Merriman and the doctor both frowned.

“It’s not a good idea—” the doctor began.

“I wouldn’t,” Merriman said. “I made a few visits the first weeks. It’s a mistake. Let it go.”

Troy stared wistfully down the hallway. He wasn’t exactly sure what he would find there, anyway.

“Get through the next six months,” Merriman said. “It goes by fast. It all goes by fast.”

Troy nodded. The doctor shooed him away with his eyes while Merriman began tugging off his boots. Troy turned, gave the heavy door down the hall one last glance, then headed the other direction for the lift.

He hoped Merriman was right. Jabbing the button to call the express, he tried to imagine his entire shift flashing by. And the one after that. And the next one. Until this insanity had run its course.


2049 • Washington, D.C.

Time was flying by for Donald Keene. Another day had come to an end, another week, and still he needed more time. It seemed the sun had just gone down when he looked up and it was past eleven.

Helen. There was an adrenaline rush of panic as he fumbled for his phone. He had promised his wife he would always call before ten. Tapping her picture on the home screen, he felt a guilty heat wedge around his collar. He imagined her sitting around, staring at her phone, waiting and waiting.

It didn’t even ring on his end before she picked up.

“There you are,” she said, her voice soft and drowsy, her tone hinting more at relief than anger.

“Sweetheart. God, I’m really sorry. I totally lost track of time.”

“That’s okay, baby.” She yawned, and Donald had to fight the infectious urge to do the same. His jaws cramped from the effort.

“You write any good laws today?” she asked.

He laughed and rubbed his face. “They don’t really let me do that. Not yet.” His jaw and neck felt constricted from the swallowed yawn. “I’m mostly been staying busy with this little project for the Senator—”

He stopped himself. Donald had dithered all week on the best way to tell her, what parts to keep secret, what was classified. He glanced at the extra monitor on his desk. Anna’s perfume was somehow frozen in the air, still lingering a week later.

Helen’s voice perked up: “Oh?”

He could picture her clearly, had a sudden satellite image of their neighborhood outside of Savannah, the roof of his house cut away like in a CAD rendering, Helen in her nightgown, his side of the bed still immaculately made, a glass of water within her reach. He missed her terribly. The guilt he felt in spite of his complete innocence made him miss her all the more.

“What does he have you doing? It’s legal, I hope.”

“What? Of course it’s legal. It’s...some architectural stuff, actually.” Donald leaned forward to grab the finger of gold scotch left in his tumbler. “To be honest, I’d forgotten how much I love the work. I would’ve been a decent architect if I’d stuck with it.” He took a burning sip and eyed his monitors, which had gone dark to save the screens. He was dying to get back to it. Everything fell away, disappeared, when he could lose himself in the drawing.

“Sweetheart, I don’t think designing a new bathroom for Mr. Thurman’s office is why the taxpayers sent you to Washington.”

Donald smiled and finished the drink. He could practically hear his wife grinning on the other end of the line. He set the glass back on his desk and propped up his feet. “It’s nothing like that,” he insisted, his mouth burning. “It’s plans for that facility they’re putting in outside of Atlanta. Just a minor portion of it, really. But if I don’t get it just right, the whole thing could fall apart.”

He eyed the open folder on his desk. His wife laughed sleepily and yawned.

“Why in the world would they have you doing something like that?” she asked. “If it’s so important, wouldn’t they pay someone who knows what they’re doing?”

Donald laughed. “Hey, that hurts. And besides, I’m really good at this—”

“I’m sure you’re wonderful at it.” His wife yawned again. “But you could’ve stayed home and been an architect. You could work late here.”

“Yeah, I know.” Donald remembered their discussions on whether or not he should run for office, if it would be worth them being apart. Now he was spending his time away doing the very thing they’d agreed he should give up. “I think this is just something they put us through our first year,” he said. “It’s like hazing us with busywork. It’ll get better. And besides, I think it’s a good sign he wants me in on this. He sees the Atlanta thing as a family project, something to keep in-house. And he actually took notice of my work at—”

“Family project.”

“Well, not literally family, more like—” This wasn’t how he wanted to tell her. It was a bad start. It was what he got for putting it off day after day, for waiting until he was exhausted and tipsy.

“Is this why you’re working late? Why you’re calling me after ten?”

“Baby, I lost track of the time. I was on my computer—” He looked to his glass, saw that it held the barest of sips, just the golden residue that had slid down the tumbler after his last pull. “This is good news for us. I’ll be coming home more often because of this. I’m sure they’ll need me to check out the job site, work with the foremen—”

“That would be good news. Your dog misses you.”

Donald smiled. “I hope you both do.”

“You know I do.”

“Good.” He tried to fish those last drops out of his glass, was too tired to get up and pour another. “And listen, I know how you’re gonna feel about this, and I swear it’s out of my control, but the Senator’s daughter is working on this project with me. Mick Webb, too. You remember him?”

Cold silence. Donald peered into his empty glass.

“I remember the Senator’s daughter,” Helen said.

Donald cleared his throat. “Yeah, well, Mick is doing some of the organizational work, securing land, dealing with contractors. It’s practically his district, after all. And you know neither of us would be where we are today without the Senator stumping for us—”

“What I remember is that you two used to date. And that she used to flirt with you even when I was around—”

Donald laughed. “Are you serious? Anna Thurman? C’mon, honey, that was a lifetime ago—”

“I thought you were going to come home more often, anyway. On the weekends.” He heard his wife let out her breath, the phone rub against her cheek. “Look, it’s late. Why don’t we both get some sleep? We can talk about this tomorrow.”

“Okay. Yeah, sure. And sweetheart?”

She waited.

“Nothing’s gonna come between us, okay? This is a huge opportunity for me. And it’s something I’m really good at. I’d forgotten how good at it I am.”

A pause.

“There’s a lot you’re good at,” his wife said. “You’re a good husband, and I know you’ll be a good congressman. I just don’t trust the people you’re surrounding yourself with.”

“I understand. But you know I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”

“I know.”

“Okay. Look, I’ll be careful. I promise.”

“Hm. Now that’s one thing you aren’t all that great at. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Sleep tight. I love you.”

She hung up before he could ask what she’d meant. What wasn’t he good at? Being careful? Or keeping promises?