He looked down at his phone, saw that he had a dozen emails waiting for him, and decided to ignore them until morning. Rubbing his eyes, he tried to will himself to not feel sleepy, to think clearly. He shook the mouse to stir his monitors. They could afford to nap, to go dark a while, but not him.
When they blinked to life, a wireframe apartment sat in the middle of his new screen. Donald spun the wheel on his mouse and watched the apartment sink away and a hallway appear, then dozens of identical wedge-shaped living quarters squeeze in from the edges. The building specs called for a bunker that could house five to ten thousand people for at least a year. Donald approached the task as he would any design project. He imagined himself in their place, a toxic spill, a leak or some horrible fallout, a terrorist attack, something that might send all the facility workers underground where they would have to stay for weeks or months until the area was cleared.
The view pulled back until another floor appeared above and below, still zooming out, layers sandwiched like cake, empty floors he would eventually fill with storerooms, hallways. There were entire other floors and mechanical shafts left empty for Anna—
His door opened—the soft knock came after. Donald’s arm jerked so hard his mouse went skidding off the pad and across his desk. He sat up straight, peered over his monitors, and saw Mick Webb grinning at him from the doorway. Mick had his jacket tucked under one arm, tie hanging loose, a peppery stubble on his dark skin. He laughed at the startled expression that must’ve been plastered across Donald’s face and sauntered across the room. Donald fumbled for the mouse and quickly minimized the AutoCAD window.
“Goodness, man, you haven’t taken up day-trading, have you?”
“Day-trading?” Donald leaned back in his chair.
“Yeah. What’s with the setup?” Mick walked around behind his desk and rested a hand on the back of his chair. An abandoned game of FreeCell sat embarrassingly on the smaller of the two screens.
“Oh, the extra monitor.” He minimized the card game and turned in his seat. “I like having a handful of programs up at the same time.”
“I can see that.” Mick gestured at the empty monitors, the wallpaper of cherry blossoms framing the Jefferson Memorial.
Donald laughed and rubbed his face. He could feel his own stubble, had forgotten to eat dinner. His stomach had moved right past the empty grumbles and into clenched-fist territory. Surprisingly, he could still hear Margaret in the next room talking on the phone. How much extra work was the distraction of this project costing his secretary? It had been only a week, and already he was a wreck.
“I’m heading out for a drink,” Mick told him. “You wanna come?”
“No, I’ve got a little more to do here.”
Mick clasped his shoulder and squeezed until it hurt. “I hate to break it to you, man, but you’re gonna have to start over. You bury an ace like that, there’s no coming back. C’mon, let’s get a drink.”
“I can’t.” Donald twisted out from his friend’s grasp and turned to face him. “I wasn’t sitting here playing solitaire, man, I was working on those plans for Atlanta. I’m not supposed to let anyone see them. It’s top secret.”
For emphasis, he reached out and closed the folder on his desk. The Senator had told him there would be a division of labor and that the walls of that divide would need to be a mile high.
“Ohhh. Top secret.” Mick waggled both hands in the air. “I’m working on the same project, asshole.” He waved at the monitor. “And you’re doing the plans? What gives? My GPA was higher than yours.” He leaned over the desk and stared at the taskbar. “AutoCAD? Cool. C’mon, let’s see it.”
“Oh, c’mon, Donny. You tell me your secrets, and I’ll tell you mine.”
Donald laughed. “No way. Look, even the people on my team aren’t going to see the entire plan. Neither will I.”
“No, it’s how shit like this gets done. You know how they built the ISS. Each country worked on its own module, and then they hooked them together afterward.”
Mick scoffed. “And then it came down in the Pacific.”
“Yeah, on purpose. And you don’t see me prying into your part in all this.”
Mick waved a hand dismissively. “Whatever. What you’re doing is boring, anyway. Now grab your coat. Let’s go.”
“Yeah, okay.” Donald patted his cheeks with his palms, trying to wake up. “I’ll work better in the morning.”
“Working on a Saturday. Now that’s the college spirit!” The slap on his back jolted Donald to his senses.
“Yeah, actually, it’s not. Just let me save my work and shut this down.”
Mick laughed. “Go ahead. I’m not looking.” He made a loose web of fingers over his face, his eyes bugging through the gaps. Donald pointed across the room and waited until his friend had moved behind the monitors. He saved his work and shut his computer down.
When he stood, his desk phone rang with full blasts rather than the chirping bursts of having been patched through—someone with his direct line. Donald reached for it and held up a finger to Mick.
Someone cleared their throat on the other end. A deep and rough voice apologized. “Sorry, no.”
“Oh.” Donald glanced up at Mick, who was checking out the spines on his bookshelf. “Hello, sir.”
“You boys going out?” Senator Thurman asked.
Donald swallowed and turned toward the window. “Excuse me?”
“You and Mick. It’s a Friday night. Are you hitting the town?”
“Uh, just one drink, sir. Catch up with a college buddy, you know?”
What Donald wanted to know was how the hell the Senator knew Mick was there. He decided his receptionist must have taken the call and told Thurman to try him direct.
“Good. Tell Mick I need to see him first thing Monday morning. My office. You, too. We need to discuss your first trip down to the job site.”
Donald waited, wondering if that was all.
“You boys will be working closely on this moving forward.”
“Good. Of course.”
Mick turned and jerked his head toward the door. Donald held up a finger again.
“As we discussed last week, there won’t be any need to share details about what you’re working on with other project members. The same goes for Mick.”
“Yessir. Absolutely. I remember our talk.”
“Excellent. You boys have a good time. Oh, and if Mick starts blabbing, you have my permission to kill him on the spot.”
There was a breath of silence, and then the hearty laugh of a man whose lungs were much younger than his years.
“Ah.” Donald watched Mick lift the plug from a decanter and take a sniff. “Okay, sir. Good one. I’ll be sure to do that.”
“Great. See you Monday.”
There was a click. The Senator had hung up before Donald could force himself to laugh. As he returned the phone to its cradle and grabbed his coat, his new monitor remained quietly perched on his desk, watching him blankly.
2110 • Silo 1
Troy’s beat-up plastic meal tray slid down the line behind the splattered sheet of glass. Once his badge was scanned, a measured portion of canned string beans fell out of a tube and formed a steaming pile on his plate. A perfectly round cut of turkey plopped from the next tube, the ridges still visible from the tin. Mashed potatoes spat out at the end of the line like a spit wad from a child’s straw. Gravy followed with a well-aimed squirt.
Behind the serving line, a man in white coveralls with a white beard stood emotionless, hands clasped behind his back. He didn’t seem interested in the food. He watched the workers as they lined up for their meals, apparently more keen on them.
When Troy’s tray reached the end of the line, a young man, also in white and probably not out of his twenties, arranged silverware and napkins by the plate. A glass of water was added from a nearby tray tightly arranged with them. The final step was like a ritualized handshake, one Troy remembered from the months of orientation: a small plastic shot glass was handed over, a pill rattling in the bottom, a blurry blue shape barely visible through the translucent cup.
The gentleman ahead of Troy accepted his tray and cup. Tilting his head back, he shook the plastic cup, and the blue blur skittered a short hop past his lips. The man took a quick sip of water before grabbing his tray and finding a place to eat.
Troy shuffled into place.
A young grin. Perfect teeth. Everyone called him sir, even those much older. It was discomfiting no matter who it came from.
The pill rattled in the plastic. Troy accepted the cup and tossed it down. He swallowed it dry, grabbed his tray, and tried not to hold up the line. Searching for a seat, he caught the man with the white beard watching him. Everyone in the facility seemed to think Troy was in charge, but Troy wasn’t fooled. He was just another person doing a job, following a script. Sometimes, he wondered if anyone sat at the end of the line or if it was all a big circle of confusion.
He found an empty spot facing the view. Unlike that first day, it didn’t bother him to see out. He found it comforting. He remembered a man crying on the lift that same day, wondered if that fellow was feeling better now.
A scoop of potatoes and gravy washed away the bitter taste of the pill. Mere water was never up to the task. Eating methodically, he watched the sun set on the first week of his first shift. Twenty-five more weeks to go. It was a countable number. It felt much shorter than half a year. Switching to days, he had one hundred seventy-six remaining. That seemed like a lot. How one framed things really mattered.
An older gentleman sat down diagonally across from him, polite enough to not block the view. Troy recognized the man, had spoken with him once by the recycling bin. When the gentleman looked up, Troy nodded in greeting.
The cafeteria hummed with a pleasant sound. Plastic, glass, and metal beat a rhythmless tune. A few hushed conversations rose and faded. Troy spent a lot of time gazing past the rotting debris and up at the hills.
Breakfast and dinner were his favorite hours. Lunch was delivered to his office, which left him trapped in the middle of the building. He didn’t like the middle. There was nothing calling to him there. It was a place of being torn between two longings—the hard-to-define urge to unbury himself in the cafeteria, and a darker beckoning that called to him from below.
There were things he was supposed to know, but he kept forgetting. He awoke each morning with them in his vision, could feel memories taking shape, but by breakfast they were fading. By dinner, they were dull aches. It left Troy with a general sadness, a cold sensation, and a feeling like a hollow stomach—different from hunger—like rainy days as a child when he didn’t know what to do with his time. It was the pain of a chronic boredom mixed with the discomfort of time wasted.
He scraped the last of his potatoes off his tray. The gentleman across from him slid over a little and cleared his throat. Troy glanced up and slid the potatoes off the fork with his teeth, his arms erupting in gooseflesh from the sound and taste of metal scraping on enamel.
The old man smiled. “Things going okay?” he asked.
He reminded Troy of someone. Blotchy skin hung slightly loose around his face. He had the drooping neck, that pinch of flesh hanging from his Adam’s apple that made old people look like they were melting.
“What things?” Troy asked. He returned the smile and looked back to his plate. The knife was superfluous. Hardly any weight with the edge of his fork, and an unnatural bite of turkey slid off from the rest.
“Anything, I suppose. Just checking in. I go by Hal.” The gentleman lifted his glass. Troy did the same. It was as good as a handshake.
“Troy,” he said. He supposed to some people it still mattered what they called themselves.
Hal took a long pull from his glass. His neck bobbed, the gulp loud. Self-conscious, Troy took a small sip and worked on the last of his beans and turkey.
“I’ve noticed some people sit facing it and some sit with their backs to it.” Hal jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
Troy looked up at the screen. He chewed his food, didn’t say anything.
“I reckon those who sit and watch, there’s something they’re trying to remember.”
Troy froze. He swallowed and forced himself to shrug.
“And some of us who don’t want to see, I figure we’re trying our best to forget.”
Troy swallowed the last of his water, had rationed poorly. He still had a few bites of beans left. Something told him they shouldn’t be having this conversation.
“It’s the bad stuff,” Hal said, staring off toward the elevators. “Have you noticed that? It’s just the bad stuff that slips away. Anything that don’t matter all that much just sits there.”
Troy jabbed his beans even though he didn’t plan on eating them.
“It makes you wonder, don’t it?”
Looking up at the screen, Troy saw that the hills were almost invisible. They were turning the same color of darkness as the evening and cloud-filled sky.
“Makes you wonder why we all feel so rotten inside.” Hal took a bite of his potatoes.
Troy watched the man chew, jowls quivering. He eventually scraped the green beans off his fork, looked down at them, then jabbed them a second time.
2049 • Washington, D.C.
Donald was glad he had decided to walk to his meeting with the Senator. The rain from the week before had finally let up, and the traffic in Dupont Circle was at a crawl. As he skirted the park and left Johns Hopkins behind—the sidewalks there packed with young men and women in scrubs, both hands wrapped around their Starbucks—he saw in the circle’s traffic a metaphor for the city.