We’ve got a special extended excerpt of Wool by Hugh Howey, out now from Simon & Schuster and Century Random House in the UK.
What would you do if the world outside was deadly, and the air you breathed could kill? And you lived in a place where every birth required a death, and the choices you made could save lives—or destroy them.
This is Jules’s story.
This is the world of Wool.
PART 1 – HOLSTON
The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do. While they thundered about frantically above, Holston took his time, each step methodical and ponderous, as he wound his way around and around the spiral staircase, old boots ringing out on metal treads.
The treads, like his father’s boots, showed signs of wear. Paint clung to them in feeble chips, mostly in the corners and undersides, where they were safe. Traffic elsewhere on the staircase sent dust shivering off in small clouds. Holston could feel the vibrations in the railing, which was worn down to the gleaming metal. That always amazed him: how centuries of bare palms and shuffling feet could wear down solid steel. One molecule at a time, he supposed. Each life might wear away a single layer, even as the silo wore away that life.
Each step was slightly bowed from generations of traffic, the edge rounded down like a pouting lip. In the centre, there was almost no trace of the small diamonds that once gave the treads their grip. Their absence could only be inferred from the pattern to either side, the small pyramidal bumps rising from the flat steel with their crisp edges and flecks of paint.
Holston lifted an old boot to an old step, pressed down, and did it again. He lost himself in what the untold years had done, the ablation of molecules and lives, layers and layers ground to fine dust. And he thought, not for the first time, that neither life nor staircase had been meant for such an existence. The tight confines of that long spiral, threading through the buried silo like a straw in a glass, had not been built for such abuse. Like much of their cylindrical home, it seemed to have been made for other purposes, for functions long since forgotten. What was now used as a thoroughfare for thousands of people, moving up and down in repetitious daily cycles, seemed more apt in Holston’s view to be used only in emergencies and perhaps by mere dozens.
Another floor went by – a pie-shaped division of dormitories. As Holston ascended the last few levels, this last climb he would ever take, the sounds of childlike delight rained down even louder from above. This was the laughter of youth, of souls who had not yet come to grips with where they lived, who did not yet feel the press of the earth on all sides, who in their minds were not buried at all, but alive. Alive and unworn, dripping happy sounds down the stairwell, trills that were incongruous with Holston’s actions, his decision and determination to go outside.
As he neared the upper level, one young voice rang out above the others, and Holston remembered being a child in the silo – all the schooling and the games. Back then, the stuffy concrete cylinder had felt, with its floors and floors of apartments and workshops and hydroponic gardens and purification rooms with their tangles of pipes, like a vast universe, a wide expanse one could never fully explore, a labyrinth he and his friends could get lost in for ever.
But those days were more than thirty years distant. Holston’s childhood now felt like something two or three lifetimes ago, something someone else had enjoyed. Not him. He had an entire lifetime as sheriff weighing heavy, blocking off that past. And more recently, there was this third stage of his life – a secret life beyond childhood and being sheriff. It was the last layers of himself ground to dust; three years spent silently waiting for what would never come, each day longer than any month from his happier lifetimes.
At the top of the spiral stairway, Holston’s hand ran out of railing. The curvy bar of worn steel ended as the stairwell emptied into the widest rooms of the entire silo complex: the cafeteria and the adjoining lounge. The playful squeals were level with him now. Darting bright shapes zagged between scattered chairs, playing chase. A handful of adults tried to contain the chaos. Holston saw Donna picking up scattered chalk and crayon from the stained tiles. Her husband Clarke sat behind a table arranged with cups of juice and bowls of cornflour cookies. He waved at Holston from across the room.
Holston didn’t think to wave back, didn’t have the energy or the desire. He looked past the adults and playing children to the blurry view beyond, projected on the cafeteria wall. It was the largest uninterrupted vista of their inhospitable world. A morning scene. Dawn’s dim light coated lifeless hills that had hardly changed since Holston was a boy. They sat, just as they always had, while he had gone from playing chase among the cafeteria tables to whatever empty thing he was now. And beyond the stately rolling crests of these hills, the top of a familiar and rotting skyline caught the morning rays in feeble glints. Ancient glass and steel stood distantly where people, it was suspected, had once lived aboveground.
A child, ejected from the group like a comet, bumped into Holston’s knees. He looked down and moved to touch the kid – Susan’s boy – but just like a comet the child was gone again, pulled back into the orbit of the others.
Holston thought suddenly of the lottery he and Allison had won the year of her death. He still had the ticket; he carried it everywhere. One of these kids – maybe he or she would be two by now and tottering after the older children – could’ve been theirs. They had dreamed, like all parents do, of the double fortune of twins. They had tried, of course. After her implant was removed, they had spent night after glorious night trying to redeem that ticket, other parents wishing them luck, other lottery hopefuls silently praying for an empty year to pass.
Knowing they only had a year, he and Allison had invited superstition into their lives, looking to anything for help. Tricks like hanging garlic over the bed that supposedly increased fertility, two dimes under the mattress for twins, a pink ribbon in Allison’s hair, smudges of blue dye under Holston’s eyes – all of it ridiculous and desperate and fun. The only thing crazier would have been to not try everything, to leave some silly seance or tale untested.
But it wasn’t to be. Before their year was even out, the lottery had passed to another couple. It hadn’t been for a lack of trying; it had been a lack of time. A sudden lack of wife.
Holston turned away from the games and the blurry view and walked towards his office, situated between the cafeteria and the silo’s airlock. As he covered that ground, his thoughts went to the struggle that once took place there, a struggle of ghosts he’d had to walk through every day for the last three years. And he knew, if he turned and hunted that expansive view on the wall, if he squinted past the ever-worsening blur of cloudy camera lenses and airborne grime, if he followed that dark crease up the hill, that wrinkle that worked its way over the muddy dune towards the city beyond, he could pick out her quiet form. There, on that hill, his wife could be seen. She lay like a sleeping boulder, the air and toxins wearing away at her, her arms curled under her head.
It was difficult to see, hard to make out clearly even back before the blurring had begun anew. And besides, there was little to trust in that sight. There was much, in fact, to doubt. So Holston simply chose not to look. He walked through that place of his wife’s ghostly struggle, where bad memories lay eternal, that scene of her sudden madness, and entered his office.
‘Well, look who’s up early,’ Marnes said, smiling.
Holston’s deputy closed a metal drawer on the filing cabinet, a lifeless cry singing from its ancient joints. He picked up a steaming mug, then noted Holston’s solemn demeanour. ‘You feeling okay, boss?’
Holston nodded. He pointed to the rack of keys behind the desk. ‘Holding cell,’ he said.
The deputy’s smile drooped into a confused frown. He set down the mug and turned to retrieve the key. While his back was turned, Holston rubbed the sharp, cool steel in his palm one last time, then placed the star flat on the desk. Marnes turned and held out the key. Holston took it.
‘You need me to grab the mop?’ Deputy Marnes jabbed a thumb back towards the cafeteria. Unless someone was in cuffs, they only went into the cell to clean it.
‘No,’ Holston said. He jerked his head towards the holding cell, beckoning his deputy to follow.
He turned, the chair behind the desk squeaking as Marnes rose to join him, and Holston completed his march. The key slid in with ease. There was a sharp clack from the well-built and well-maintained inner organs of the door. The barest squeak from the hinges, a determined step, a shove and a clank, and the ordeal was over.
Holston held the key between the bars. Marnes looked down at them, unsure, but his palm came up to accept it.
‘What’s going on, boss?’
‘Get the mayor,’ Holston said. He let out a sigh, that heavy breath he’d been holding for three years.
‘Tell her I want to go outside.’
The view from the holding cell wasn’t as blurry as it had been in the cafeteria, and Holston spent his final day in the silo puzzling over this. Could it be that the camera on that side was shielded against the toxic wind? Did each cleaner, condemned to death, put more care in preserving the view they’d enjoyed on their last day? Or was the extra effort a gift to the next cleaner, who would spend their final day in that same cell?
Holston preferred this last explanation. It made him think longingly of his wife. It reminded him why he was there, on the wrong side of those bars, and willingly.
As his thoughts drifted to Allison, he sat and stared out at the dead world some ancient peoples had left behind. It wasn’t the best view of the landscape around their buried bunker, but it wasn’t the worst, either. In the distance, low rolling hills stood a pretty shade of brown, like coffee mash with just the right amount of pig’s milk in it. The sky above the hills was the same dull grey of his childhood and his father’s childhood and his grandfather’s childhood. The only moving feature on the landscape was the clouds. They hung full and dark over the hills. They roamed free like the herded beasts from the picture books.
The view of the dead world filled up the entire wall of his cell, just like all the walls on the silo’s upper level, each one full of a different slice of the blurry and ever-blurrier wasteland beyond. Holston’s little piece of that view reached from the corner by his cot, up to the ceiling, to the other wall, and down to the toilet. And despite the soft blur – like oil rubbed on a lens – it looked like a scene one could stroll out into, like a gaping and inviting hole oddly positioned across from forbidding prison bars.
The illusion, however, convinced only from a distance. Leaning closer, Holston could see a handful of dead pixels on the massive display. They stood stark white against all the brown and grey hues. Shining with ferocious intensity, each pixel (Allison had called them ‘stuck’ pixels) was like a square window to some brighter place, a hole the width of a human hair that seemed to beckon towards some better reality. There were dozens of them, now that he looked closer. Holston wondered if anyone in the silo knew how to fix them, or if they had the tools required for such a delicate job. Were they dead for ever, like Allison? Would all of the pixels be dead eventually? Holston imagined a day when half of the pixels were stark white, and then generations later when only a few grey and brown ones remained, then a mere dozen, the world having flipped to a new state, the people of the silo thinking the outside world was on fire, the only true pixels now mistaken for malfunctioning ones.
Or was that what Holston and his people were doing even now?
Someone cleared their throat behind him. Holston turned and saw Mayor Jahns standing on the other side of the bars, her hands resting in the belly of her overalls. She nodded gravely towards the cot.
‘When the cell’s empty, at night when you and Deputy Marnes are off duty, I sometimes sit right there and enjoy that very view.’
Holston turned back to survey the muddy, lifeless landscape. It only looked depressing compared to scenes from the children’s books – the only books to survive the uprising. Most people doubted those colours in the books, just as they doubted purple elephants and pink birds ever existed, but Holston felt that they were truer than the scene before him. He, like some others, felt something primal and deep when he looked at those worn pages splashed green and blue. Even so, when compared to the stifling silo, that muddy grey view outside looked like some kind of salvation, just the sort of open air men were born to breathe.
‘Always seems a little clearer in here,’ Jahns said. ‘The view, I mean.’
Holston remained silent. He watched a curling piece of cloud break off and move in a new direction, blacks and greys swirling together.
‘You get your pick for dinner,’ the mayor said. ‘It’s tradition—’
‘You don’t need to tell me how this works,’ Holston said, cutting Jahns off. ‘It’s only been three years since I served Allison her last meal right here.’ He reached to spin the copper ring on his finger out of habit, forgetting he had left it on his dresser hours ago.
‘Can’t believe it’s been that long,’ Jahns murmured to herself. Holston turned to see her squinting at the clouds displayed on the wall.
‘Do you miss her?’ Holston asked venomously. ‘Or do you just hate that the blur has had so much time to build?’
Jahns’s eyes flashed his way a moment, then dropped to the floor. ‘You know I don’t want this, not for any view. But rules are the rules—’
‘It’s not to be blamed,’ Holston said, trying to let the anger go. ‘I know the rules better than most.’ His hand moved, just a little, towards the missing badge, left behind like his ring. ‘Hell, I enforced those rules for most my life, even after I realised they were bullshit.’
Jahns cleared her throat. ‘Well, I won’t ask why you chose this. I’ll just assume it’s because you’d be unhappier here.’
Holston met her gaze, saw the film on her eyes before she was able to blink it away. Jahns looked thinner than usual, comical in her gaping overalls. The lines in her neck and radiating from her eyes were deeper than he remembered. Darker. And he thought the crack in her voice was genuine regret, not just age or her ration of tobacco.
Suddenly, Holston saw himself through Jahns’s eyes, a broken man sitting on a worn bench, his skin grey from the pale glow of the dead world beyond, and the sight made him dizzy. His head spun as it groped for something reasonable to latch on to, something that made sense. It seemed a dream, the predicament his life had become. None of the last three years seemed true. Nothing seemed true any more.
He turned back to the tan hills. In the corner of his eye, he thought he saw another pixel die, turning stark white. Another tiny window had opened, another clear view through an illusion he had grown to doubt.
Tomorrow will be my salvation, Holston thought savagely, even if I die out there.
‘I’ve been mayor too long,’ Jahns said.
Holston glanced back and saw that her wrinkled hands were wrapped around the cold steel bars.
‘Our records don’t go back to the beginning, you know. They don’t go back before the uprising a century and a half ago, but since then no mayor has sent more people to cleaning than I have.’
‘I’m sorry to burden you,’ Holston said dryly.
‘I take no pleasure in it. That’s all I’m saying. No pleasure at all.’
Holston swept his hand at the massive screen. ‘But you’ll be the first to watch a clear sunset tomorrow night, won’t you?’ He hated the way he sounded. Holston wasn’t angry for his death, or life, or whatever came after tomorrow, but resentment over Allison’s fate still lingered. He continued to see inevitable events from the past as avoidable, long after they’d taken their course. ‘You’ll all love the view tomorrow,’ he said, more to himself than the mayor.
‘That’s not fair at all,’ Jahns said. ‘The law is the law. You broke it. You knew you were breaking it.’
Holston looked at his feet. The two of them allowed a silence to form. Mayor Jahns was the one who eventually spoke.
‘You haven’t threatened yet to not go through with it. Some of the others are nervous that you might not do the cleaning because you aren’t saying you won’t.’
Holston laughed. ‘They’d feel better if I said I wouldn’t clean the sensors?’ He shook his head at the mad logic.
‘Everyone who sits there says they aren’t gonna do it,’ Jahns told him, ‘but then they do. It’s what we’ve all come to expect—’
‘Allison never threatened that she wouldn’t do it,’ Holston reminded her, but he knew what Jahns meant. He himself had been sure Allison wouldn’t wipe the lenses. And now he thought he understood what she’d been going through as she sat on that very bench. There were larger things to consider than the act of cleaning. Most who were sent outside were caught at something, were surprised to find themselves in that cell, their fate mere hours away. Revenge was on their mind when they said they wouldn’t do it. But Allison and now Holston had bigger worries. Whether or not they’d clean was inconsequential; they had arrived here because they wanted, on some insane level, to be here. All that remained was the curiosity of it all. The wonder of the outside world beyond the projected veil of the wall screens.
‘So, are you planning on going through with it or not?’ Jahns asked directly, her desperation evident.
‘You said it yourself.’ Holston shrugged. ‘Everyone does it. There must be some reason, right?’
He pretended not to care, to be disinterested in the why of the cleaning, but he had spent most of his life, the past three years especially, agonising over the why. The question drove him nuts. And if his refusing to answer Jahns caused pain to those who had murdered his wife, he wouldn’t be upset.
Jahns rubbed her hands up and down the bars, anxious. ‘Can I tell them you’ll do it?’ she asked.
‘Or tell them I won’t. I don’t care. It sounds like either answer will mean the same to them.’
Jahns didn’t reply. Holston looked up at her, and the mayor nodded.
‘If you change your mind about the meal, let Deputy Marnes know. He’ll be at the desk all night, as is tradition . . .’
She didn’t need to say. Tears came to Holston’s eyes as he remembered that part of his former duties. He had manned that desk twelve years ago when Donna Parkins was put to cleaning, eight years ago when it was Jack Brent’s time. And he had spent a night clinging to the bars, lying on the floor, a complete wreck, three years ago when it was his wife’s turn.
Mayor Jahns turned to go.
‘Sheriff,’ Holston muttered before she got out of earshot.
‘I’m sorry?’ Jahns lingered on the other side of the bars, her grey, bushy brows hanging over her eyes.
‘It’s Sheriff Marnes now,’ Holston reminded her. ‘Not Deputy.’
Jahns rapped a steel bar with her knuckles. ‘Eat something,’ she said. ‘And I won’t insult you by suggesting you get some sleep.’
Three Years Earlier
‘You’ve gotta be kidding me,’ Allison said. ‘Honey, listen to this. You won’t believe this. Did you know there was more than one uprising?’
Holston looked up from the folder spread across his lap. Around him, scattered piles of paper covered the bed like a quilt – stacks and stacks of old files to sort through and new complaints to manage. Allison sat at her small desk at the foot of the bed. The two of them lived in one of the silo condos that had been subdivided only twice over the decades. It left room for luxuries like desks and wide non-bunk beds.
‘And how would I have known about that?’ he asked her. His wife turned and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. Holston jabbed a folder at her computer screen. ‘All day long you’re unlocking secrets hundreds of years old, and I’m supposed to know about them before you do?’
She stuck out her tongue. ‘It’s an expression. It’s my way of informing you. And why don’t you seem more curious? Did you hear what I just said?’
Holston shrugged. ‘I never would’ve assumed the one uprising we know about was the first – just that it was the most recent. If I’ve learned one thing from my job, it’s that no crime or crazy mob is ever all that original.’ He picked up a folder by his knee. ‘You think this is the first water thief the silo’s known? Or that it’ll be the last?’
Allison’s chair squealed on the tile as she turned to face him. The monitor on the desk behind her blinked with the scraps and fragments of data she had pulled from the silo’s old servers, the remnants of information long ago deleted and overwritten countless times. Holston still didn’t understand how the retrieval process worked, or why someone smart enough to come up with it was dumb enough to love him, but he accepted both as truth.
‘I’m piecing together a series of old reports,’ she said. ‘If true, they mean something like our old uprising used to take place regularly. Like once every generation or so.’
‘There’s a lot we don’t know about the old times,’ Holston said. He rubbed his eyes and thought about all the paperwork he wasn’t getting done. ‘Maybe they didn’t have a system for cleaning the sensors, you know? I’ll bet back then, the view upstairs just got blurrier and blurrier until people went crazy, there’d be a revolt or something, and then they’d finally exile a few people to set things straight. Or maybe it was just natural population control, you know, before the lottery.’
Allison shook her head. ‘I don’t think so. I’m starting to think . . .’ She paused and glanced down at the spread of paperwork around Holston. The sight of all the logged transgressions seemed to make her consider carefully what she was about to say. ‘I’m not passing judgement, not saying anyone was right or wrong or anything like that. I’m just suggesting that maybe the servers weren’t wiped out by the rebels during the uprising. Not like we’ve always been told, anyway.’
That got Holston’s attention. The mystery of the blank servers, the empty past of the silo’s ancestors, haunted them all. The erasure was nothing more than fuzzy legend. He closed the folder he was working on and set it aside. ‘What do you think caused it?’ he asked his wife. ‘Do you think it was an accident? A fire or a power outage?’ He listed the common theories.
Allison frowned. ‘No,’ she said. She lowered her voice and looked around anxiously. ‘I think we wiped the hard drives. Our ancestors, I mean, not the rebels.’ She turned and leaned towards the monitor, running her finger down a set of figures Holston couldn’t discern from the bed. ‘Twenty years,’ she said. ‘Eighteen. Twenty-four.’ Her finger slid down the screen with a squeak. ‘Twenty-eight. Sixteen. Fifteen.’
Holston ploughed a path through the paperwork at his feet, putting the files back in stacks as he worked his way towards the desk. He sat on the foot of the bed, put a hand on his wife’s neck, and peered over her shoulder at the monitor.
‘Are those dates?’ he asked.
She nodded. ‘Just about every two decades, there’s a major revolt. This report catalogued them. It was one of the files deleted during the most recent uprising. Our uprising.’
She said ‘our’ like either of them or any of their friends had been alive at the time. Holston knew what she meant, though. It was the uprising they had been raised in the shadow of, the one that seemed to have spawned them – the great conflict that hung over their childhoods, over their parents and grandparents. It was the uprising that filled whispers and occupied sideways glances.
‘And what makes you think it was us, that it was the good guys who wiped the servers?’
She half turned and smiled grimly. ‘Who says we are the good guys?’
Holston stiffened. He pulled his hand away from Allison’s neck. ‘Don’t start. Don’t say anything that might—’
‘I’m kidding,’ she said, but it wasn’t a thing to kid about. It was two steps from traitorous, from cleaning. ‘My theory is this,’ she said quickly, stressing the word theory. ‘There’s generational upheaval, right? I mean for over a hundred years, maybe longer. It’s like clockwork.’ She pointed at the dates. ‘But then, during the great uprising – the only one we’ve known about till now – someone wiped the servers. Which, I’ll tell you, isn’t as easy as pressing a few buttons or starting a fire. There’s redundancies on top of redundancies. It would take a concerted effort, not an accident or any sort of rushed job or mere sabotage—’
‘That doesn’t tell you who’s responsible,’ Holston pointed out. His wife was a wizard with computers, no doubt, but sleuthing was not her bag, it was his.
‘What tells me something,’ she continued, ‘is that there were uprisings every generation for all this time, but there hasn’t been an uprising since.’ Allison bit her lip.
Holston sat up straight. He glanced around the room and allowed her observation to sink in. He had a sudden vision of his wife yanking his sleuthing bag out of his hands and making off with it.
‘So you’re saying . . .’ He rubbed his chin and thought this through. ‘You’re saying that someone wiped out our history to stop us from repeating it?’
‘Or worse.’ She reached out and held his hand with both of hers. Her face had deepened from seriousness to something more severe. ‘What if the reason for the revolts was right there on the hard drives? What if some part of our known history, or some data from the outside, or maybe the knowledge of whatever it was that made people move in here long, long ago – what if that information built up some kind of pressure that made people lose their marbles, or go stir crazy, or just want out?’
Holston shook his head. ‘I don’t want you thinking that way,’ he cautioned her.
‘I’m not saying they were right to go nuts,’ she told him, back to being careful. ‘But from what I’ve pieced together so far, this is my theory.’
Holston gave the monitor an untrusting glance. ‘Maybe you shouldn’t be doing this,’ he said. ‘I’m not even sure how you’re doing it, and maybe you shouldn’t be.’
‘Honey, the information is there. If I don’t piece it together now, somebody else will at some point. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’ve already published a white paper on how to retrieve deleted and overwritten files. The rest of the IT department is spreading it around to help people who’ve unwittingly flushed something they needed.’
‘I still think you should stop,’ he said. ‘This isn’t the best idea. I can’t see any good coming of it—’
‘No good coming from the truth? Knowing the truth is always good. And better that it’s us discovering it than someone else, right?’
Holston looked at his files. It’d been five years since the last person was sent to cleaning. The view of the outside was getting worse every day, and he could feel the pressure, as sheriff, to find someone. It was growing, like steam building up in the silo, ready to launch something out. People got nervous when they thought the time was near. It was like one of those self-fulfilling prophecies where the nerves finally made someone twitch, then lash out or say something regretful, and then they’d find themselves in a cell, watching their last blurry sunset.
Holston sorted through the files all around him, wishing there was something in them. He would put a man to his death tomorrow if it meant releasing that steam. His wife was poking some great, overly full balloon with a needle, and Holston wanted to get that air out of it before she poked too far.
Holston sat on the lone steel bench in the airlock, his brain numb from lack of sleep and the surety of what lay before him. Nelson, the head of the cleaning lab, knelt in front of him and worked a leg of the white hazard suit over Holston’s foot.
‘We’ve played around with the joint seals and added a second spray-on lining,’ Nelson was saying. ‘It should give you more time out there than anyone has had before.’
This registered with Holston, and he remembered watching his wife go about her cleaning. The top floor of the silo with its great screens showing the outside world was usually empty for cleanings. The people inside couldn’t bear to watch what they’d done – or maybe they wanted to come up and enjoy a nice view without seeing what it took to get it. But Holston had watched; there was never any doubt that he would. He couldn’t see Allison’s face through her silver-masked helmet, couldn’t see her thin arms through the bulky suit as she scrubbed and scrubbed with her wool pads, but he knew her walk, her mannerisms. He had watched her finish the job, taking her time and doing it well, and then she had stepped back, looked in the camera one last time, waved at him, then turned to walk away. Like others before her, she had lumbered towards a nearby hill and had begun climbing up, trudging towards the dilapidated spires of that ancient and crumbling city just visible over the horizon. Holston hadn’t moved the entire time. Even as she fell on the side of the hill, clutching her helmet, writhing while the toxins first ate away the spray-on linings, then the suit and finally his wife, he hadn’t moved.
Nelson slapped his ankle. Holston lifted his foot and allowed the tech to bunch the rest of the suit around his shins. Looking at his hands, at the black carbon undersuit he wore against his skin, Holston pictured it all dissolving off his body, sloughing away like flakes of dried grease from a generator’s pipe while the blood burst from his pores and pooled up in his lifeless suit.
‘If you’ll grab the bar and stand—’
Nelson was walking him through a routine he’d seen twice before. Once with Jack Brent, who had been belligerent and hostile right up to the end, forcing him as sheriff to stand guard by the bench. And once with his wife, whom he had watched get ready through the airlock’s small porthole. Holston knew what to do from watching these others, but he still needed to be told. His thoughts were elsewhere. Reaching up, he grabbed the trapeze-like bar hanging above him and pulled himself upright. Nelson grabbed the sides of the suit and yanked them up to Holston’s waist. Two empty arms flapped at either side.
‘Left hand here.’
Holston numbly obeyed. It was surreal to be on the other side of this – this mechanical death-walk of the condemned. Holston had often wondered why people complied, why they just went along. Even Jack Brent had done what he was told, as foulmouthed and verbally abusive as he’d been. Allison had done it quietly, just like this, Holston thought as he inserted one hand and then the other. The suit came up, and Holston thought that maybe people went along with it because they couldn’t believe it was happening. None of it was real enough to rebel against. The animal part of his mind wasn’t made for this, to be calmly ushered to a death it was perfectly aware of.
There was a tug at the small of his back, and then a noisy zipping sound up to his neck. Another tug, another zip. Two layers of futility. The crunch of industrial Velcro over the top. Pats and double-checks. Holston heard the hollow helmet slide off its shelf; he flexed his fingers inside the puffy gloves while Nelson checked over the dome’s innards.
‘Let’s go over the procedure one more time.’
‘It’s not necessary,’ Holston said quietly.
Nelson glanced towards the airlock door leading back to the silo. Holston didn’t need to look to know someone was likely watching. ‘Bear with me,’ Nelson said. ‘I have to do it by the book.’
Holston nodded, but he knew there wasn’t any ‘book’. Of all the mystic oral traditions passed through silo generations, none matched the cult-like intensity of the suit makers and the cleaning techs. Everyone gave them their space. The cleaners might perform the physical act, but the techs were the people who made it possible. These were the men and women who maintained the view to that wider world beyond the silo’s stifling confines.
Nelson placed the helmet on the bench. ‘You got your scrubbers here.’ He patted the wool pads stuck to the front of the suit.
Holston pulled one off with a ripping sound, studied the whorls and curls of the rough material, then stuck it back on.
‘Two squirts from the cleaning bottle before you scrub with the wool, then dry with this towel, then put the ablating films on last.’ He patted the pockets in order, even though they were clearly labelled and numbered – upside down so Holston could read them – and colour-coded. Holston nodded and met the tech’s eyes for the first time.
He was surprised to see fear there, fear he had learned well to notice in his profession. He almost asked Nelson what was wrong before it occurred to him: the man was worried all these instructions were for naught, that Holston would walk out – like everyone in the silo feared all cleaners would – and not do his duty. Not clean up for the people whose rules, rules against dreaming of a better place, had doomed him. Or was Nelson worried that the expensive and laborious gear he and his colleagues had built, using those secrets and techniques handed down from well before the uprising, would leave the silo and rot to no purpose?
‘You okay?’ Nelson asked. ‘Anything too tight?’
Holston glanced around the airlock. My life is too tight, he wanted to say. My skin is too tight. The walls are too tight.
He just shook his head.
‘I’m ready,’ he whispered.
It was the truth. Holston was oddly and truly very much ready to go.
And he remembered, suddenly, how ready his wife had been as well.
Three Years Earlier
‘I want to go out. I want to go out. Iwanttogoout.’
Holston arrived at the cafeteria in a sprint. His radio was still squawking, Deputy Marnes yelling something about Allison. Holston hadn’t even taken the time to respond, had just bolted up three flights of stairs towards the scene.
‘What’s going on?’ he asked. He swam through the crowd by the door and found his wife writhing on the cafeteria floor, held down by Connor and two other food staff employees. ‘Let her go!’ He slapped their hands off his wife’s shins and was nearly rewarded by one of her boots to his chin. ‘Settle down,’ he said. He reached for her wrists, which were twisting this way and that to get out of the desperate grips of grown men. ‘Baby, what the hell is going on?’
‘She was running for the airlock,’ Connor said through grunts of exertion. Percy corralled her kicking feet, and Holston didn’t stop him. He saw now why three men were needed. He leaned close to Allison, making sure she saw him. Her eyes were wild, peeking through a curtain of dishevelled hair.
‘Allison, baby, you’ve gotta settle down.’
‘I want to go out. I want to go out.’ Her voice had quietened, but the words kept tumbling out.
‘Don’t say that,’ Holston told her. Chills ran through his body at the sound of the grave utterances. He held her cheeks. ‘Baby, don’t say that!’
But some part of him knew, in a jolting flash, what it meant. He knew it was too late. The others had heard. Everyone had heard. His wife had signed her own death certificate.
The room spun around Holston as he begged Allison to be quiet. It was like he had arrived at the scene of some horrible accident – some mishap in the machine shop – to find a person he loved wounded. Arrived to find them alive and kicking, but knowing at a glance that the injury was fatal.
Holston felt warm tears streak down his cheeks as he tried to wipe the hair from her face. Her eyes finally met his, stopped their fevered swirling and locked on to his with awareness. And for a moment, just a second, before he could wonder if she’d been drugged or abused in any way, a spark of calm clarity registered there, a flash of sanity, of cool calculation. And then it was blinked away and her eyes went wild again as she begged to be let out, over and over.
‘Lift her up,’ Holston said. His husband eyes swam behind tears while he allowed his dutiful sheriff-self to intervene. There was nothing for it but to lock her up, even as he wanted no more than room enough to scream. ‘That way,’ he told Connor, who had both hands under her twisting shoulders. He nodded towards his office and the holding cell beyond. Just past that, down at the end of the hall, the bright yellow paint on the great airlock door stood out, serene and menacing, silent and waiting.
Once in the holding cell, Allison immediately calmed. She sat on the bench, no longer struggling or blabbering, as if she’d only stopped by to rest and enjoy the view. Holston was now the writhing wreck. He paced outside the bars and blubbered unanswered questions while Deputy Marnes and the mayor handled his procedural work. The two of them were treating Holston and his wife both like patients. And even as Holston’s mind spun with the horror of the past half-hour, in the back of his sheriff brain, where he was always alert for the rising tensions in the silo, he was dimly aware of the shock and rumours trembling through walls of concrete and rebar. The enormous pent-up pressure of the place was now hissing through the seams in whispers.
‘Sweetheart, you’ve gotta talk to me,’ he pleaded again and again. He stopped his pacing and twisted the bars in his hands. Allison kept her back to him. She gazed at the wall screen, at the brown hills and grey sky and dark clouds. Now and then a hand came up to brush hair out of her face, but otherwise she didn’t move or speak. Only when Holston’s key had gone into the lock, not long after they had wrestled her in and shut the door, did she utter a single ‘don’t’ that had convinced him to remove it.
While he pleaded and she ignored, the machinations of the looming cleaning gyred through the silo. Techs rumbled down the hallway as a suit was sized and readied. Cleaning tools were prepped in the airlock. A canister hissed somewhere as argon was loaded into the flushing chambers. The commotion of it sporadically rumbled past the holding cell where Holston stood gazing at his wife. Chattering techs went dreadfully silent as they squeezed past; they didn’t even seem to breathe in his presence.
Hours passed and Allison refused to talk – behaviour that created its own stir in the silo. Holston spent the entire day blubbering through the bars, his brain on fire with confusion and agony. It had happened in a single moment, the destruction of all that he knew. He tried to wrap his brain around it while Allison sat in the cell, gazing out at the dismal land, seemingly pleased with her far worse status as a cleaner.
It was after dark when she finally spoke, after her last meal had been silently refused for the final time, after the techs had finished in the airlock, closing the yellow door and retiring for a sleepless night. It was after his deputy had gone for the night, patting Holston on the shoulder twice. What felt like many hours after that, when Holston was near to passing out in fatigue from his crying and hoarse remonstrations, long after the hazy sun had settled over the hills visible from the cafeteria and lounge – the hills that hid the rest of that distant, crumbling city. In the neardark left in the holding cell, Allison whispered something almost inaudible: ‘It’s not real.’
That’s what Holston thought he heard. He stirred.
‘Baby?’ He gripped the bars and pulled himself up to his knees. ‘Honey,’ he whispered, wiping the crust from his cheeks.
She turned. It was like the sun changing its mind and rising back over the hills. To acknowledge him gave him hope. It choked him up, causing him to think this had all been a sickness, a fever, something they could have Doc write up to excuse her for everything she’d uttered. She’d never meant it. She was saved just by snapping out of it, and Holston was saved just by seeing her turn to him.
‘Nothing you see is real,’ she said quietly. She seemed calm of body even as her craziness continued, condemning her with forbidden words.
‘Come talk to me,’ Holston said. He waved her to the bars.
Allison shook her head. She patted the cot’s thin mattress beside her.
Holston checked the time. It was long past visiting hours. He could be sent to cleaning just for doing what he was about to do.
The key went into the lock without hesitation.
A metallic click rang out impossibly loud.
Holston stepped inside with his wife and sat beside her. It killed him to not touch her, to not wrap her up or drag her out to some safe place, back to their bed where they could pretend it had all been a bad dream.
But he didn’t dare move. He sat and twisted his hands together while she whispered:
‘It doesn’t have to be real. Any of this. None of this.’ She looked to the screen.
Holston leaned so close he could smell the dried sweat from the day’s struggle. ‘Baby, what’s going on?’
Her hair stirred with the breath from his words. She reached out and rubbed the darkening display, feeling the pixels.
‘It could be morning right now and we’d never know. There could be people outside.’ She turned and looked at him. ‘They could be watching us,’ she said with a sinister grin.
Holston held her gaze. She didn’t seem crazy at all, not like earlier. Her words were crazy, but she didn’t seem to be. ‘Where did you get that idea?’ he asked. He thought he knew, but he asked anyway. ‘Did you find something on the hard drives?’ He’d heard that she had run straight from her lab towards the airlock, already barking her madness. Something had happened while she was at work. ‘What did you find?’
‘There’s more deleted than just from the uprising,’ she whispered. ‘Of course there would be. Everything is deleted. All the recent stuff, too.’ She laughed. Her voice got suddenly loud and her eyes lost focus. ‘Emails you never sent me, I bet!’
‘Honey.’ Holston dared to reach for her hands, and she didn’t pull away. He held them. ‘What did you find? Was it an email? Who was it from?’
She shook her head. ‘No. I found the programs they use. The ones that make pictures on the screens that look so real.’ She looked back to the quickening dusk. ‘IT,’ she said. ‘Eye. Tee. They’re the ones. They know. It’s a secret that only they know.’ She shook her head.
‘What secret?’ Holston couldn’t tell if this was nonsense or important. He only knew that she was talking.
‘But now I know. And you will too. I’ll come back for you, I swear. This’ll be different. We’ll break the cycle, you and me. I’ll come back and we’ll go over that hill together.’ She laughed. ‘If it’s there,’ she said loudly. ‘If that hill is there and it’s green, we’ll go over it together.’
She turned to him.
‘There is no uprising, not really, there’s just a gradual leak. Just the people who know, who want out.’ She smiled. ‘They get to go out,’ she said. ‘They get just what they ask for. I know why they clean, why they say they won’t but why they do. I know. I know. And they never come back, they wait and wait and wait, but I won’t. I’ll come right back. This’ll be different.’
Holston squeezed her hands. Tears were dripping off his cheeks. ‘Baby, why are you doing this?’ He felt like she wanted to explain herself now that the silo was dark and they were all alone.
‘I know about the uprisings,’ she said.
Holston nodded. ‘I know. You told me. There were others—’
‘No.’ Allison pulled away from him, but it was only to make space so she could look him in the eyes. Hers were no longer wild, as before.
‘Holston, I know why the uprisings took place. I know why.’
Allison bit her lower lip. Holston waited, his body tense.
‘It was always over the doubt, the suspicion, that things weren’t as bad out there as they seemed. You’ve felt that, right? That we could be anywhere, living a lie?’
Holston knew better than to answer, to even twitch. Broaching this subject led to cleaning. He sat frozen and waited.
‘It was probably the younger generations,’ Allison said. ‘Every twenty years or so. They wanted to push further, to explore, I think. Don’t you ever feel that urge? Didn’t you when you were younger?’ Her eyes lost focus. ‘Or maybe it was the couples, newly married, who were driven to madness when they were told they couldn’t have kids in this damned, limited world of ours. Maybe they were willing to risk everything for that chance . . .’
Her eyes focused on something far away. Perhaps she was seeing that lottery ticket they had yet to redeem and now never would. She looked back at Holston. He wondered if he could be sent to cleaning even for his silence, for not yelling her down as she uttered every one of the great forbidden words.
‘It could even have been the elderly residents,’ she said, ‘cooped up too long, no longer afraid in their final years, maybe wanting to move out and make room for the others, for the few precious grandchildren. Whoever it was, whoever, every uprising took place because of this doubt, this feeling, that we’re in the bad place right here.’ She looked around the cell.
‘You can’t say that,’ Holston whispered. ‘That’s the great offence . . .’
Allison nodded. ‘Expressing any desire to leave. Yes. The great offence. Don’t you see why? Why is that so forbidden? Because all the uprisings started with that desire, that’s why.’
‘You get what you ask for,’ Holston recited, those words drilled into his head since youth. His parents had warned him – their only precious child – never to want out of the silo. Never even to think it. Don’t let it cross your mind. It was instant death, that thought, and it would be the destruction of their one and only.
He looked back at his wife. He still didn’t understand her madness, this decision. So she had found deleted programs that could make worlds on computer screens look real. What did that mean? Why do this?
‘Why?’ he asked her. ‘Why do it this way? Why didn’t you come to me? There has to be a better way to find out what’s going on. We could start by telling people what you’re finding on those drives—’
‘And be the ones who start the next great uprising?’ Allison laughed. Some of the madness was still there, or maybe it was just an intense frustration and boiling anger. Perhaps a great, multi-generational betrayal had pushed her to the edge. ‘No thanks,’ she said, her laughter subsiding. ‘I wiped everything I found. I don’t want them to know. Damn them if they stay here. I’m only coming back for you.’
‘You don’t come back from this,’ Holston said angrily. ‘You think the banished are still out there? You think they choose not to come back because they feel betrayed by us?’
‘Why do you think they do the cleaning?’ Allison asked. ‘Why do they pick up their wool and set to work without hesitation?’
Holston sighed. He felt the anger in him draining away. ‘No one knows why,’ he said.
‘But why do you think?’
‘We’ve talked about this,’ he said. ‘How many times have we discussed this?’ He was sure all couples whispered their theories when they were alone. He looked past Allison as he remembered those times. He looked to the wall and saw the moon’s position and read in it the night’s hour. Their time was limited. His wife would be gone tomorrow. That simple thought came often, like lightning from stormy clouds.
‘Everyone has theories,’ he said. ‘We’ve shared ours countless times. Let’s just—’
‘But now you know something new,’ Allison told him. She let go of his hand and brushed the hair from her face. ‘You and I know something new, and now it all makes sense. It makes perfect sense. And tomorrow I’ll know for sure.’ Allison smiled. She patted Holston’s hand as if he were a child. ‘And one day, my love, you will know it, too.’
The first year without her, Holston had waited, buying into her insanity, distrusting the sight of her on that hill, hoping she’d come back. He’d spent the first anniversary of her death scrubbing the holding cell clean, washing the yellow airlock door, straining for some sound, some knock, that would mean the ghost of his wife was back to set him free.
When it didn’t happen, he began to consider the alternative: going out after her. He had spent enough days, weeks, months going through her computer files, reading some of what she had pieced together, making sense of half of it, to become half mad himself. His world was a lie, he came to believe, and without Allison in it he had nothing to live for even if it were truth.
The second anniversary of her departure was his year of cowardice. He had walked to work, the poisonous words in his mouth – his desire to go out – but he had choked them down at the last second. He and Deputy Marnes had gone on patrol that day with the secret of how near he’d come to death burning inside of him. That was a long year of cowardice, of letting Allison down. The first year had been her failure; last year had been his. But no more.
Now, one more year later, he was alone in the airlock, wearing a cleaning suit, full of doubts and convictions. The silo was sealed off behind him, that thick yellow door bolted tight, and Holston thought that this was not how he’d thought he’d die, or what he had hoped would become of him. He had thought he would remain in the silo for ever, his nutrients going as the nutrients of his parents had: into the soil of the eighth-floor dirt farm. It seemed a lifetime ago that he had dreamed of a family, of his own child, a fantasy of twins or another lottery win, a wife to grow old with—
A klaxon sounded on the other side of the yellow doors, warning everyone but him away. He was to stay. There was nowhere else for him to go.
The argon chambers hissed, pumping the room full of the inert gas. After a minute of this, Holston could feel the pressure of the air as it crinkled the cleaning suit tight around his joints. He breathed the oxygen circulating inside his helmet and stood before the other door, the forbidden door, the one to the awful outside world, and waited.
There was a metal groan from pistons deep within the walls. The sacrificial plastic curtains covering the interior of the airlock wrinkled from the pressure of the built-up argon. These curtains would be incinerated inside the airlock while Holston cleaned. The area would be scrubbed before nightfall, made ready for the next cleaning.
The great metal doors before him shuddered, and then a shaft of incredible space appeared at their joint, widening as the doors withdrew into the jamb. They wouldn’t open all the way, not like they were once designed to – the risk of invading air had to be minimised.
An argon torrent hissed through the gap, dulling to a roar as the space grew. Holston pressed close, as horrified at himself for not resisting as he’d previously been perplexed by the actions of others. Better to go out, to see the world one time with his own eyes, than to be burned alive with the plastic curtains. Better to survive a few moments more.
As soon as the opening was wide enough, Holston squeezed through, his suit catching and rubbing at the doors. There was a veil of fog all around him as the argon condensed in the less pressurised air. He stumbled forward blindly, pawing through the soft cloud.
While still in that mist, the outer doors groaned and began closing. The klaxon howls behind were swallowed by the press of thick steel against thick steel, locking him and the toxins out while cleansing fires began to rage inside the airlock, destroying any contamination that leaked its way inside.
Holston found himself at the bottom of a concrete ramp, a ramp that led up. His time felt short – there was a constant reminder thrumming in the back of his skull – hurry! Hurry! His life was ticking away. He lumbered up the ramp, confused that he wasn’t already aboveground, so used as he was to seeing the world and the horizon from the cafeteria and lounge, which were on the same level as the airlock.
He shuffled up the narrow ramp, walls of chipped concrete to either side, his visor full of a confusing, brilliant light. At the top of the ramp, Holston saw the heaven into which he’d been condemned for his simple sin of hope. He whirled around, scanning the horizon, his head dizzy from the sight of so much green!
Green hills, green grass, green carpet beneath his feet. Holston whooped in his helmet. His mind buzzed with the sight. Hanging over all the green, there was the exact hue of blue from the children’s books, the white clouds untainted, the movement of living things flapping in the air.
Holston turned around and around, taking it in. He had a sudden memory of his wife doing the same; he had watched her awkwardly, slowly turning, almost as if she were lost or confused or considering whether to do the cleaning at all.
Holston reached down and pulled a wool pad from his chest. The cleaning! He knew, in a dizzying rush, a torrent of awareness, why, why. Why!
He looked where he always assumed the tall circular wall of the uppermost silo floor would be, but of course that wall was buried. All that stood behind him was a small mound of concrete, a tower no more than eight or nine feet tall. A metal ladder ran up one side; antennae bristled from the top. And on the side facing him – on all the sides he saw as he approached – were the wide, curving, fisheye lenses of the silo’s powerful cameras.
Holston held out his wool and approached the first. He imagined the view of himself from inside the cafeteria, staggering forward, becoming impossibly large. He had watched his wife do the same thing three years ago. He remembered her waving, he had thought at the time for balance, but had she been telling him something? Had she been grinning like a fool, as wide as he was grinning now, while she remained hidden behind that silver visor? Had her heart been pounding with foolish hope while she sprayed, scrubbed, wiped, applied? Holston knew the cafeteria would be empty; there was no one left who loved him enough to watch, but he waved anyway. And for him, it wasn’t the raw anger he imagined many might have cleaned with. It wasn’t the knowledge that they in the silo were condemned and the condemned set free; it wasn’t the feeling of betrayal that guided the wool in his hand in small, circular motions. It was pity. It was raw pity and unconstrained joy.
The world blurred, but in a good way, as tears came to Holston’s eyes. His wife had been right: the view from inside was a lie. The hills were the same – he’d recognise them at a glance after so many years of living with them – but the colours were all wrong. The screens inside the silo, the programs his wife had found, they somehow made the vibrant greens look grey, they somehow removed all signs of life. Extraordinary life!
Holston polished the grime off the camera lens and wondered if the gradual blurring was even real. The grime certainly was. He saw it as he rubbed it away. But was it simple dirt, rather than some toxic, airborne grime? Could the program Allison discovered modify only what was already seen? Holston’s mind spun with so many new facts and ideas. He was like an adult child, borne into a wide world, so much to piece together all at once that his head throbbed.
The blur is real, he decided, as he cleaned the last of the smear from the second lens. It was an overlay, like the false greys and browns the program must use to hide that green field and this blue sky dotted with puffy white. They were hiding from them a world so beautiful, Holston had to concentrate not to just stand still and gape at it.
He worked on the second of the four cameras and thought about those untrue walls beneath him, taking what they saw and modifying it. He wondered how many people in the silo knew. Any of them? What kind of fanatical devotion would it take to maintain this depressing illusion? Or was this a secret from before the last uprising? Was it an unknown lie perpetuated through the generations – a fibbing set of programs that continued to hum away on the silo computers with nobody aware? Because if someone knew, if they could show anything, why not something nice?
The uprisings! Maybe it was just to prevent them from happening over and over again. Holston applied an ablative film to the second sensor and wondered if the ugly lie of an unpleasant outside world was some misguided attempt to keep people from wanting out. Could someone have decided that the truth was worse than a loss of power, of control? Or was it something deeper and more sinister? A fear of unabashed, free, many-as-you-like children? So many horrible possibilities.
And what of Allison? Where was she? Holston shuffled around the corner of the concrete tower towards the third lens, and the familiar but strange skyscrapers in the distant city came into view. Only, there were more buildings than usual there. Some stood to either side, and an unfamiliar one loomed in the foreground. The others, the ones he knew by heart, were whole and shining, not twisted and jagged. Holston gazed over the crest of the verdant hills and imagined Allison walking over them at any minute. But that was ridiculous. How would she know he’d been expelled on this day? Would she remember the anniversary? Even after he’d missed the last two? Holston cursed his former cowardice, the years wasted. He would have to go to her, he decided.
He had a sudden impulse to do just that, to tear off his helmet and bulky suit and scamper up the hill in nothing but his carbon undersuit, breathing in deep gulps of crisp air and laughing all the way to his waiting wife in some vast, unfathomable city full of people and squealing children.
But no, there were appearances to keep, illusions to maintain. He wasn’t sure why, but it was what his wife had done, what all the other cleaners before him had done. Holston was now a member of that club, a member of the out group. There was a press of history, of precedent, to obey. They had known best. He would complete his performance for the in group he had just joined. He wasn’t sure why he was doing it, only that everyone before him had, and look at the secret they all shared. That secret was a powerful drug. He knew only to do what he had been told, to follow the numbers on the pockets, to clean mechanically while he considered the awesome implications of an outside world so big one couldn’t live to see it all, couldn’t breathe all the air, drink all the water, eat all the food.
Holston dreamed of such things while he dutifully scrubbed the third lens, wiped, applied, sprayed, then moved to the last. His pulse was audible in his ears; his chest pounded in that constricting suit. Soon, soon, he told himself. He used the second wool pad and polished the grime off the final lens. He wiped and applied and sprayed a final time, then put everything back in its place, back in the numbered pouches, not wanting to bespoil the gorgeous and healthy ground beneath his feet. Done, Holston stepped back, took one last look at the nobodies not watching from the cafeteria and lounge, then turned his back on those who had turned their backs on Allison and all the others before her. There was a reason nobody came back for the people inside, Holston thought, just as there was a reason everyone cleaned, even when they said they wouldn’t. He was free; he was to join the others, and so he strolled towards that dark crease that ran up the hill, following in his wife’s footsteps, aware that some familiar boulder, long-sleeping, no longer lay there. That, too, Holston decided, had been nothing more than another awful pixelated lie.
Holston was a dozen paces up the hill, still marvelling at the bright grass at his feet and the brilliant sky above, when the first pang lurched in his stomach. It was a writhing cramp, something like intense hunger. At first, he worried he was going too fast, first with the cleaning and now with his impatient shuffling in that cumbersome suit. He didn’t want to take it off until he was over the hill, out of sight, maintaining whatever illusion the walls in the cafeteria held. He focused on the tops of the skyscrapers and resigned himself to slowing down, to calming down. One step at a time. Years and years of running up and down thirty flights of stairs should make this nothing.
Another cramp, stronger this time. Holston winced and stopped walking, waiting for it to pass. When did he eat last? Not at all yesterday. Stupid. When did he last use the bathroom? Again, he couldn’t remember. He might need to get the suit off earlier than he’d hoped. Once the wave of nausea passed, he took a few more steps, hoping to reach the top of the hill before the next bout of pain. He only got another dozen steps in before it hit him, more severe this time, worse than anything he’d ever felt. Holston retched from the intensity of it, and now his dry stomach was a blessing. He clutched his abdomen as his knees gave out in a shiver of weakness. He crashed to the ground and groaned. His stomach was burning, his chest on fire. He managed to crawl forward a few feet, sweat dripping from his forehead and splashing on the inside of his helmet. He saw sparks in his vision; the entire world went bright white, several times, like lightning strikes. Confused and senseless, he crawled ever upward, moving laboriously, his startled mind still focused on his last, clear goal: cresting that hill.
Again and again, his view shimmered, his visor letting in a solid bright light before it flickered away. It became difficult to see. Holston ran into something before him, and his arm folded, his shoulder crashing to the ground. He blinked and gazed forward, up the hill, waiting for a clear sight of what lay ahead, but saw only infrequent strobes of green grass.
And then his vision completely disappeared. All was black. Holston clawed at his face, even as his stomach tangled in a new torturous knot. There was a glow, a blinking in his vision, so he knew he wasn’t blind. But the blinking seemed to be coming from inside his helmet. It was his visor that had become suddenly blind, not him.
Holston felt for the latches on the back of the helmet. He wondered if he’d used up all his air. Was he asphyxiating? Being poisoned by his own exhalations? Of course! Why would they give him more air than he needed for the cleaning? He fumbled for the latches with his bulky gloves. They weren’t meant for this. The gloves were part of his suit, his suit a single piece zipped up twice at the back and Velcroed over. It wasn’t meant to come off, not without help. Holston was going to die in it, poison himself, choke on his own gases, and now he knew true fear of containment, a true sense of being closed in. The silo was nothing to this as he scrambled for release, as he writhed in pain inside his tailored coffin. He squirmed and pounded at the latches, but his padded fingers were too big. And the blindness made it worse, made him feel smothered and trapped. Holston wretched again in pain. He bent at the waist, hands spread in the dirt, and felt something sharp through his glove.
He fumbled for the object and found it: a jagged rock. A tool. Holston tried to calm himself. His years of enforcing calm, of soothing others, of bringing stability to chaos, came back to him. He gripped the rock carefully, terrified of losing it to his blindness, and brought it up to his helmet. There was a brief thought of cutting away his gloves with the rock, but he wasn’t sure his sanity or air would last that long. He jabbed the point of the rock at his armoured neck, right where the latch should be. He heard the crack as it landed. Crack. Crack. Pausing to probe with his padded finger, retching again, Holston took more careful aim. There was a click instead of a crack. A sliver of light intruded as one side of the helmet came free. Holston was choking on his exhalations, on the stale and used air around him. He moved the rock to his other hand and aimed for the second latch. Two more cracks before it landed, and the helmet popped free.
Holston could see. His eyes burned from the effort, from not being able to breathe, but he could see. He blinked the tears away and tried to suck in a deep, crisp, revitalising lungful of blue air.
What he got instead was like a punch to the chest. Holston gagged. He threw up spittle and stomach acid, the very lining of him trying to flee. The world around him had gone brown. Brown grass and grey skies. No green. No blue. No life.
He collapsed to one side, landing on his shoulder. His helmet lay open before him, the visor black and lifeless. There was no looking through the visor. Holston reached for it, confused. The outside of the visor was coated silver, the other side was nothing. No glass. A rough surface. Wires leading in and out of it. A display gone dark. Dead pixels.
He threw up again. Wiping his mouth feebly, looking down the hill, he saw the world with his naked eyes as it was, as he’d always known it to be. Desolate and bleak. He let go of the helmet, dropping the lie he had carried out of the silo with him. He was dying. The toxins were eating him from the inside. He blinked up at the black clouds overhead, roaming like beasts. He turned to see how far he had got, how far it was to the crest of the hill, and he saw the thing he had stumbled into while crawling. A boulder, sleeping. It hadn’t been there in his visor, hadn’t been a part of the lie on that little screen, running one of the programs Allison had discovered.
Holston reached out and touched the object before him, the white suit flaking away like brittle rock, and he could no longer support his head. He curled up in pain from the slow death overtaking him, holding what remained of his wife, and thought, with his last agonising breath, what this death of his must look like to those who could see, this curling and dying in the black crack of a lifeless brown hill, a rotting city standing silent and forlorn over him.
What would they see, anyone who had chosen to watch?
PART 2 – PROPER GAUGE
Her knitting needles rested in a leather pouch in pairs, two matching sticks of wood, side by side like the delicate bones of the wrist wrapped in dried and ancient flesh. Wood and leather. Artefacts like clues handed down from generation to generation, innocuous winks from her ancestors, harmless things like children’s books and wood carvings that managed to survive the uprising and the purge. Each clue stood as a small hint of a world beyond their own, a world where buildings stood aboveground like the crumbling ruins visible over the grey and lifeless hills.
After much deliberation, Mayor Jahns selected a pair of needles. She always chose carefully, for proper gauge was critical. Too small a needle, and the knitting would prove difficult, the resulting sweater too tight and constricting. Too large a needle, on the other hand, would create a garment full of large holes. The knitting would remain loose. One would be able to see straight through it.
Her choice made, the wooden bones removed from their leather wrist, Jahns reached for the large ball of cotton yarn. It was hard to believe, weighing that knot of twisted fibres, that her hands could make of it something ordered, something useful. She fished for the end of the yarn, dwelling on how things came to be. Right now, her sweater was little more than a tangle and a thought. Going back, it had once been bright fibres of cotton blooming in the dirt farms, pulled, cleaned, and twisted into long strands. Even further, and the very substance of the cotton plant itself could be traced to those souls who had been laid to rest in its soil, feeding the roots with their own leather while the air above baked under the full glory of powerful grow lights.
Jahns shook her head at her own morbidity. The older she got, the quicker her mind went to death. Always, in the end, the thoughts of death.
With practised care, she looped the end of the yarn around the point of one needle and crafted a triangle-shaped web with her fingers. The tip of the needle danced through this triangle, casting the yarn on. This was her favourite part, casting on. She liked beginnings. The first row. Out of nothing comes something. Since her hands knew what to do, she was free to glance up and watch a gust of morning wind chase pockets of dust down the slope of the hill. The clouds were low and ominous today. They loomed like worried parents over these smaller darting eddies of windswept soil, which tumbled like laughing children, twirling and spilling, following the dips and valleys as they flowed towards a great crease where two hills collided to become one. Here, Jahns watched as the puffs of dust splashed against a pair of dead bodies, the frolicking twins of dirt evaporating into ghosts, solid playful children returning once more to dreams and scattered mist.
Mayor Jahns settled back in her faded plastic chair and watched the fickle winds play across the forbidding world outside. Her hands worked the yarn into rows, requiring only occasional glances to keep her place. Often, the dust flew towards the silo’s sensors in sheets, each wave causing her to cringe as if a physical blow were about to land. This assault of blurring grime was difficult to watch at any time, but especially brutal the day after a cleaning. Each touch of dust on the clouding lenses was a violation, a dirty man touching something pure. Jahns remembered what that felt like. And sixty years later, she sometimes wondered if the misting of grime on those lenses, if the bodily sacrifice needed to keep them clean, wasn’t even more painful for her to abide.
Mayor Jahns turned away from the sight of the dead hills cradling her recently deceased sheriff. She turned to find Deputy Marnes standing by her side.
‘You asked for these.’
Marnes placed three manilla folders on the cafeteria table and slid them towards her through the scattered crumbs and juice stains of last night’s cleaning celebration. Jahns set her knitting aside and reluctantly reached for the folders. What she really wanted was to be left alone a little longer to watch rows of knots become something. She wanted to enjoy the peace and quiet of this unspoiled sunrise before the grime and the years dulled it, before the rest of the upper silo awoke, rubbed the sleep from their eyes and the stains from their consciences, and came up to crowd around her in their own plastic chairs and take it all in.
But duty beckoned: she was mayor by choice, and the silo needed a sheriff. So Jahns put aside her own wants and desires and weighed the folders in her lap. Caressing the cover of the first one, she looked down at her hands with something between pain and acceptance. The backs of them appeared as dry and crinkled as the pulp paper hanging out of the folders. She glanced over at Deputy Marnes, whose white moustache was flecked with the occasional black. She remembered when the colours were the other way around, when his tall, thin frame was a mark of vigour and youth rather than gaunt fragility. He was handsome still, but only because she knew him from long ago, only because her old eyes still remembered.
‘You know,’ she told Marnes, ‘we could do this different this time. You could let me promote you to sheriff, hire yourself a deputy, and do this proper.’
Marnes laughed. ‘I’ve been deputy almost as long as you’ve been mayor, ma’am. Don’t figure on being nothing else but dead one day.’
Jahns nodded. One of the things she loved about having Marnes around was that his thoughts could be so black as to make hers shine grey. ‘I fear that day is rapidly approaching for us both,’ she said.
‘Truer than true, I reckon. Never figured to outlive so many. Sure as sin don’t see me outliving you.’ Marnes rubbed his moustache and studied the view of the outside. Jahns smiled at him, opened the folder on top, and studied the first bio.
‘That’s three decent candidates,’ Marnes said. ‘Just like you asked for. Be happy to work with any of them. Juliette, I think she’s in the middle there, would be my first pick. Works down in Mechanical. Don’t come up much, but me and Holston . . .’ Marnes paused and cleared his throat.
Jahns glanced over and saw that her deputy’s gaze had crept towards that dark crook in the hill. He covered his mouth with a fist of sharp knuckles and faked a cough.
‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘As I was sayin’, the sheriff and me worked a death down there a few years back. This Juliette – I think she prefers Jules, come to think of it – was a right shiner. Sharp as a tack. Big help on this case, good at spotting details, handling people, being diplomatic but firm, all that. I don’t think she comes up past the eighties much. A down-deeper for sure, which we ain’t had in a while.’
Jahns sorted through Juliette’s folder, checking her family tree, her voucher history, her current pay in chits. She was listed as a shift foreman with good marks. No history in the lottery.
‘Never married?’ Jahns asked.
‘Nope. Something of a johnboy. A wrencher, you know? We were down there a week, saw how the guys took to her. Now, she could have her pick of them boys but chooses not to. Kind of person who leaves an impression but prefers to go it alone.’
‘Sure seems like she left an impression on you,’ Jahns said, regretting it immediately. She hated the jealous tone in her own voice.
Marnes shifted his weight to his other foot. ‘Well, you know me, Mayor. I’m always sizing up candidates. Anything to keep from bein’ promoted.’
Jahns smiled. ‘What about the other two?’ She checked the names, wondering if a down-deeper was a good idea. Or possibly worried about Marnes having a crush. She recognised the name on the top folder. Peter Billings. He worked a few floors down in Judicial, as a clerk or a judge’s shadow.
‘Honestly, ma’am? They’re filler to make it seem fair. Like I said, I’d work with them, but I think Jules is your girl. Been a long time since we had a lass for a sheriff. Be a popular choice with an election comin’ up.’
‘That won’t be why we choose,’ Jahns said. ‘Whoever we decide on will probably be here long after we’re gone—’ She stopped herself as she recalled having said the same thing about Holston, back when he’d been chosen.
Jahns closed the folder and returned her attention to the wall screen. A small tornado had formed at the base of the hill, the gathering dust whipped into an organised frenzy. It built some steam, this small wisp, as it swelled into a larger cone, spinning and spinning on a wavering tip like a child’s top as it raced towards sensors that fairly sparkled in the wan rays of a clear sunrise.
‘I think we should go see her,’ Jahns finally said. She kept the folders in her lap, fingers like rolled parchment toying with the rough edges of handmade paper.
‘Ma’am? I’d rather us fetch her up here. Do the interview in your office like we’ve always done. It’s a long way down to her and an even longer way back up.’
‘I appreciate the concern, Deputy, I do. But it’s been a long while since I’ve been much past the fortieth. My knees are no excuse not to see my people—’ The mayor stopped. The tornado of dust wavered, turned, and headed straight for them. It grew and grew – the wide angle of the lens distorting it into a monster much larger and more fierce than she knew it to actually be – and then it blew over the sensor array, the entire cafeteria descending into a brief darkness until the zephyr caromed past, retreating across the screen in the lounge and leaving behind it a view of the world now tainted with a slight, dingy film.
‘Damn those things,’ Deputy Marnes said through gritted teeth. The aged leather of his holster squeaked as he rested his hand on the butt of his gun, and Jahns imagined the old deputy out on that landscape, chasing the wind on thin legs while pumping bullets into a cloud of fading dust.
The two of them sat silent a moment, surveying the damage. Finally, Jahns spoke.
‘This trip won’t be about the election, Marnes. It won’t be for votes, either. For all I know, I’ll run again unopposed. So we won’t make a deal of it, and we’ll travel light and quiet. I want to see my people, not be seen by them.’ She looked over at him, found that he was watching her. ‘It’ll be for me, Marnes. A getaway.’
She turned back to the view.
‘Sometimes . . . sometimes I just think I’ve been up here too long. The both of us. I think we’ve been anywhere too long . . .’
The ringing of morning footsteps on the spiral staircase gave her pause, and they both turned towards the sound of life, the sound of a waking day. And she knew it was time to start getting the images of dead things out of her mind. Or at least to bury them for a while.
‘We’ll go down and get us a proper gauge of this Juliette, you and me. Because sometimes, sitting here, looking out on what the world makes us do – it needles me deep, Marnes. It needles me straight through.’
They met after breakfast in Holston’s old office. Jahns still thought of it as his, a day later. It was too early for her to think of the room as anything else. She stood beyond the twin desks and old filing cabinets and peered into the empty holding cell while Deputy Marnes gave last-minute instructions to Terry, a burly security worker from IT who often held down the fort while Marnes and Holston were away on a case. Standing dutifully behind Terry was a teenager named Marcha, a young girl with dark hair and bright eyes who was apprenticing for work in IT. She was Terry’s shadow; just about half of the workers in the silo had one. They ranged in age from twelve to twenty, these ever-present sponges absorbing the lessons and techniques for keeping the silo operational for at least one generation more.
Deputy Marnes reminded Terry how rowdy people got after a cleaning. Once the tension was released, people tended to live it up a little. They thought, for a few months at least, that anything went.
The warning hardly needed saying – the revelry in the next room could be heard through the shut door. Most residents from the top forty were already packed into the cafeteria and lounge. Hundreds more from the mids and the down deep would trickle up throughout the day, asking for time off work and turning in holiday chits just to see the mostly clear view of the world outside. It was a pilgrimage for many. Some came up only once every few years, stood around for an hour muttering that it looked the same as they remembered, then shooed their children down the stairs ahead of them, fighting the upward-surging crowds.
Terry was left with the keys and a temporary badge. Marnes checked the batteries in his wireless, made sure the volume on the office unit was up, and inspected his gun. He shook Terry’s hand and wished him luck. Jahns sensed it was almost time for them to go and turned away from the empty cell. She said goodbye to Terry, gave Marcha a nod, and followed Marnes out the door.
‘You feel okay leaving right after a cleaning?’ she asked as they stepped out into the cafeteria. She knew how rowdy it would get later that night, and how testy the crowd would become. It seemed an awful time to drag him away on a mostly selfish errand.
‘Are you kidding? I need this. I need to get away.’ He glanced towards the wall screen, which was obscured by the crowds. ‘I still can’t figure what Holston was thinking, can’t reckon why he never talked to me about all that was going on in that head of his. Maybe by the time we get back, I won’t feel him in the office any more, ’cause right now I can’t hardly breathe in there.’
Jahns thought about this as they fought through the crowded cafeteria. Plastic cups sloshed with a mix of fruit juices, and she smelled the sting of tub-brewed alcohol in the air, but ignored it. People were wishing her well, asking her to be careful, promising to vote. News of their trip had leaked out faster than the spiked punch, despite hardly telling anyone. Most were under the impression that it was a goodwill trip. A re-election campaign. The younger silo residents, who only remembered Holston as sheriff, were already saluting Marnes and giving him that honorific title. Anyone with wrinkles in their eyes knew better. They nodded to the duo as they passed through the cafeteria and wished them a different sort of unspoken luck. Keep us going, their eyes said. Make it so my kids live as long as me. Don’t let it unravel, not just yet.
Jahns lived under the weight of this pressure, a burden brutal on more than knees. She kept quiet as they made their way to the central stairwell. A handful called for her to make a speech, but the lone voices did not gain traction. No chant formed, much to her relief. What would she say? That she didn’t know why it all held together? That she didn’t even understand her own knitting, how if you made knots, and if you did it right, things just worked out? Would she tell them it took only one snip for it all to unravel? One cut, and you could pull and pull and turn that garment into a pile. Did they really expect her to understand, when all she did was follow the rules, and somehow it kept working out, year after year after year?
Because she didn’t understand what held it together. And she didn’t understand their mood, this celebration. Were they drinking and shouting because they were safe? Because they’d been spared by fate, passed over for cleaning? Her people cheered while a good man, her friend, her partner in keeping them alive and well, lay dead on a hill next to his wife. If she gave a speech, if it weren’t full of the forbidden, it would be this: that no two better people had ever gone to cleaning of their own free will, and what did that say about the lot of them who remained?
Now was not the time for speeches. Or for drinking. Or for being merry. Now was the hour of quiet contemplation, which was one of the reasons Jahns knew she needed to get away. Things had changed. Not just by the day, but by the long years. She knew better than most. Maybe old lady McNeil down in Supply knew, could see it coming. One had to live a long time to be sure, but now she was. And as time marched on, carrying her world faster and faster than her feet could catch up, Mayor Jahns knew that it would soon leave her completely behind. And her great fear, unspoken but daily felt, was that this world of theirs probably wouldn’t stagger very far along without her.
Jahns’s walking stick made a conspicuous ring as it impacted each metal step. It soon became a metronome for their descent, timing the music of the stairwell, which was crowded and vibrating with the energy of a recent cleaning. All the traffic seemed to be heading upward, save for the two of them. They jostled against the flow, elbows brushing, cries of ‘Hey, Mayor!’ followed by nods to Marnes. And Jahns saw it on their faces: the temptation to call him sheriff tempered by their respect for the awful nature of his assumed promotion.
‘How many floors you up for?’ Marnes asked.
‘Why, you tired already?’ Jahns glanced over her shoulder to smirk at him, saw his bushy moustache twisted up in a smile of his own.
‘Going down ain’t a problem for me. It’s the going back up I can’t stand.’
Their hands briefly collided on the twisted railing of the spiral staircase, Jahns’s hand trailing behind her, Marnes’s reaching ahead. She felt like telling him she wasn’t tired at all, but she did feel a sudden weariness, an exhaustion more mental than physical. She had a childish vision of more youthful times and pictured Marnes scooping her up and carrying her down the staircase in his arms. There would be a sweet release of strength and responsibility, a sinking into another’s power, no need to feign her own. This was not a remembrance of the past; it was a future that had never happened. And Jahns felt guilty for even thinking it. She felt her husband beside her, his ghost perturbed by her thoughts—
‘Mayor? How many you thinking?’
The two of them stopped and hugged the rail as a porter trudged up the stairs. Jahns recognised the boy, Connor, still in his teens but already with a strong back and steady stride. He had an array of bundles strapped together and balanced on his shoulders. The sneer on his face was not from exhaustion or pain, but annoyance. Who were all these people suddenly on his stairwell? These tourists? Jahns thought of something encouraging to say, some small verbal reward for these people who did a job her knees never could, but he was already gone on his strong young feet, carrying food and supplies up from the down deep, slowed only by the crush of traffic attempting to worm up through the silo for a peek of the clear and wide outside.
She and Marnes caught their breath for a moment between flights. Marnes handed her his canteen, and she took a polite sip before passing it back.
‘I’d like to do half today,’ she finally answered. ‘But I want to make a few stops on the way.’
Marnes took a swig of water and began twisting the cap back on. ‘House calls?’
‘Something like that. I want to stop at the nursery on twenty.’
Marnes laughed. ‘Kissin’ babies? Mayor, ain’t nobody gonna vote you out. Not at your age.’
Jahns didn’t laugh. ‘Thanks,’ she said, with a mask of false pain. ‘But no, not to kiss babies.’ She turned her back and resumed walking; Marnes followed. ‘It’s not that I don’t trust your professional opinion about this Jules lady. You haven’t picked anything but a winner since I’ve been mayor.’
‘Even . . . ?’ Marnes interrupted.
‘Especially him,’ Jahns said, knowing what he was thinking. ‘He was a good man, but he had a broken heart. That’ll take even the best of them down.’
Marnes grunted his agreement. ‘So what’re we checkin’ at the nursery? This Juliette weren’t born on the twentieth, not if I recall—’
‘No, but her father works there now. I thought, since we were passing by, that we’d get a feel for the man, get some insight on his daughter.’
‘A father for a character witness?’ Marnes laughed. ‘Don’t reckon you’ll get much of an impartial there.’
‘I think you’ll be surprised,’ Jahns said. ‘I had Alice do some digging while I was packing. She found something interesting.’
‘This Juliette character still has every vacation chit she’s ever earned.’
‘That ain’t rare for Mechanical,’ Marnes said. ‘They do a lot of overtime.’
‘Not only does she not get out, she doesn’t have visitors.’
‘I still don’t see where you’re going with this.’
Jahns waited while a family passed. A young boy, six or seven probably, rode on his father’s shoulders with his head ducked to avoid the undersides of the stairs above. The mother brought up the rear, an overnight bag draped over her shoulder, a swaddled infant cradled in her arms. It was the perfect family, Jahns thought. Replacing what they took. Two for two. Just what the lottery aimed for and sometimes provided.
‘Well then, let me tell you where I’m going with this,’ she told Marnes. ‘I want to find this girl’s father, look him in the eyes, and ask him why, in the nearly twenty years since his daughter moved to Mechanical, he hasn’t visited her. Not once.’
She looked back at Marnes, saw him frowning at her beneath his moustache. ‘And why she hasn’t once made her way up to see him,’ she added.
The traffic thinned as they made their way into the teens and past the upper apartments. With each step down, Jahns dreaded having to reclaim those lost inches on the way back up. This was the easy part, she reminded herself. The descent was like the uncoiling of a steel spring, pushing her down. It reminded Jahns of nightmares she’d had of drowning. Silly nightmares, considering she’d never seen enough water to submerge herself in, much less enough that she couldn’t stand up to breathe. But they were like the occasional dreams of falling from great heights, some legacy of another time, broken fragments unearthed in each of their sleeping minds that suggested: We weren’t supposed to live like this.
And so the descent, this spiralling downward, was much like the drowning that swallowed her at night. It felt inexorable and inextricable. Like a weight pulling her down combined with the knowledge that she’d never be able to claw her way back up. They passed the garment district next, the land of multicoloured overalls and the place her balls of yarn came from. The smell of the dyes and other chemicals drifted over the landing. A window cut into the curving breeze blocks looked through to a small food shop at the edge of the district. It had been ransacked by the crowds, shelves emptied by the crushing demand of exhausted hikers and the extra post-cleaning traffic. Several porters crowded up the stairs with heavy loads, trying their best to satisfy demand, and Jahns recognised an awful truth about yesterday’s cleaning: the barbaric practice brought more than psychological relief, more than just a clear view of the outside: it also buttressed the silo’s economy. There was suddenly an excuse to travel. An excuse to trade. And as gossip flowed, and family and old friends met again for the first time in months or perhaps years, there was a vitality injected into the entire silo. It was like an old body stretching and loosening its joints, blood flowing to the extremities. A decrepit thing was becoming alive again.
She turned to find Marnes almost out of sight around the spiral above her. She paused while he caught up, watching his feet as he hurried.
‘Easy,’ he said. ‘I can’t keep up if you take off like that.’
Jahns apologised. She hadn’t been aware of any change in her pace. As they entered the second tier of apartments, down below the sixteenth floor, Jahns realised she was already in territory she hadn’t seen in almost a year. There was the rattle here of younger legs chasing along the stairwell, getting tangled up in the slow climbers. The grade school for the upper third was just above the nursery. From the sound of all the traffic and voices, school had been cancelled. Jahns imagined it was a combination of knowing how few would turn up for class (with parents taking their kids up to the view) plus how many teachers would want to do the same. They passed the landing for the school, where chalk games of Hop and Square-Four were blurred from the day’s traffic, where kids sat hugging the rails, skinned knees poking out, feet swinging below the jutting landings, and where catcalls and eager shouts faded to secret whispers in the presence of adults.
‘Glad we’re almost there, I need a rest,’ Marnes said, as they spiralled down one more flight to the nursery. ‘I just hope this feller is available to see us.’
‘He will be,’ Jahns said. ‘Alice wired him from my office that we were coming.’
They crossed traffic at the nursery landing and caught their breath. When Marnes passed his canteen, Jahns took a long pull and then checked her hair in its curved and dented surface.
‘You look fine,’ he said.
He laughed. ‘And then some.’
Jahns thought she saw a twinkle in his old brown eyes when he said this, but it was probably the light bouncing off the canteen as he brought it to his lips.
‘Twenty floors in just over two hours. Don’t recommend the pace, but I’m glad we’re this far already.’ He wiped his moustache and reached around to try and slip the canteen back into his pack.
‘Here,’ Jahns said. She took the canteen from him and slid it into the webbed pouch on the rear of his pack. ‘And let me do the talking in here,’ she reminded him. Marnes lifted his hands and showed his palms, as if no other thought had ever crossed his mind. He stepped past her and pulled one of the heavy metal doors open, the customary squeal of rusted hinges not coming as expected. The silence startled Jahns. She was used to hearing the chirp of old doors up and down the staircase as they opened and closed. They were the stairwell’s version of the wildlife found in the farms, ever present and always singing. But these hinges were coated in oil, rigorously maintained. The signs on the walls of the waiting room reinforced the observation. They demanded silence in bold letters, accompanied by pictures of fingers over lips and circles with slashes through open mouths. The nursery evidently took their quietude seriously.
‘Don’t remember so many signs last time I was here,’ Marnes whispered.
‘Maybe you were too busy yapping to notice,’ Jahns replied.
A nurse glared at them through a glass window, and Jahns elbowed Marnes.
‘Mayor Jahns to see Peter Nichols,’ she told the woman.
The nurse behind the window didn’t blink. ‘I know who you are. I voted for you.’
‘Oh, of course. Well, thank you.’
‘If you’ll come around.’ The woman hit a button on her desk and the door beside her buzzed faintly. Marnes pushed on the door, and Jahns followed him through.
‘If you’ll don these.’
The nurse – Margaret, according to the hand-drawn tag on her collar – held out two neatly folded white cloth robes. Jahns accepted them both and handed one to Marnes.
‘You can leave your bags with me.’
There was no refusing Margaret. Jahns felt at once that she was in this much younger woman’s world, that she had become her inferior when she passed through that softly buzzing door. She leaned her walking stick against the wall, took her pack off and lowered it to the ground, then shrugged on the robe. Marnes struggled with his until Margaret helped, holding the sleeve in place. He wrestled the robe over his denim shirt and held the loose ends of the long fabric waist tie as if its working was beyond his abilities. He watched Jahns knot hers, and finally made enough of a mess of it for the robe to hold fairly together.
‘What?’ he asked, noticing the way Jahns was watching him. ‘This is what I’ve got cuffs for. So I never learned to tie a knot, so what?’
‘In sixty years,’ Jahns said.
Margaret pressed another button on her desk and pointed down the hall. ‘Dr Nichols is in the nursery. I’ll let him know you’re coming.’
Jahns led the way. Marnes followed, asking her, ‘Why is that so hard to believe?’
‘I think it’s cute, actually.’
Marnes snorted. ‘That’s an awful word to use on a man my age.’
Jahns smiled to herself. At the end of the hall, she paused at a set of double doors before pushing them open a crack. The light in the room beyond was dim. She opened the door further, and they entered a sparse but clean waiting room. She remembered a similar one from the mid levels where she had waited with a friend to be reunited with her child. A glass wall looked into a room that held a handful of cribs and bassinets. Jahns’s hand dropped to her hip. She rubbed the hard nub of her now-useless implant, inserted at birth and never removed, not once. Being in that nursery reminded her of all she had lost, all she had given up for her work. For her ghosts.
It was too dark inside the nursery to see if any of the small beds stirred with newborns. She was notified of every birth, of course. As mayor, she signed a letter of congratulations and a birth certificate for each one, but the names ran together with the days. She could rarely remember what level the parents lived on, if it was their first or second. It made her sad to admit it, but those certificates had become just more paperwork, another rote duty.
The shadowy outline of an adult moved among the small cribs, the shiny clamp of a clipboard and the flash of a metal pen winking from the light of the observation room. The dark shape was obviously tall, with the gait and build of an older man. He took his time, noting something as he hovered over a crib, the two shimmers of metal uniting to jot a note. When he was done, he crossed the room and passed through a wide door to join Marnes and Jahns in the waiting room.
Peter Nichols was an imposing figure, Jahns saw. Tall and lean, but not like Marnes, who seemed to fold and unfold unsure limbs to move about. Peter was lean like a habitual exerciser, like a few porters Jahns knew who could take the stairs two at a time and make it look like they’d been expressly designed for such a pace. It was height that lent confidence. Jahns could feel it as she took Peter’s outstretched hand and let him pump it firmly.
‘You came,’ Dr Nichols said simply. It was a cold observation. There was only a hint of surprise. He shook Marnes’s hand, but his eyes returned to Jahns. ‘I explained to your secretary that I wouldn’t be much help. I’m afraid I haven’t seen Juliette since she became a shadow twenty years ago.’
‘Well, that’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about.’ Jahns glanced at the cushioned benches where she imagined anxious grandparents, aunts, and uncles waited while parents were united with their newborns. ‘Could we sit?’
Dr Nichols nodded and waved them over.
‘I take each of my appointments for office very seriously,’ Jahns explained, sitting across from the doctor. ‘At my age, I expect most judges and lawmen I install to outlive me, so I choose carefully.’
‘But they don’t always, do they?’ Dr Nichols tilted his head, no expression on his lean and carefully shaven face. ‘Outlive you, I mean.’
Jahns swallowed. Marnes stirred on the bench beside her.
‘You must value family,’ Jahns said, changing the subject, realising this was just another observation, no harm meant. ‘To have shadowed so long and to choose such a demanding line of work.’
‘Why do you and Juliette never visit? I mean, not once in almost twenty years. She’s your only child.’
Nichols turned his head slightly, his eyes drifting to the wall. Jahns was momentarily distracted by the sight of another form moving behind the glass, a nurse making the rounds. Another set of doors led off to what she assumed were the delivery rooms, where right now a convalescing new mother was probably waiting to be handed her most precious possession.
‘I had a son as well,’ Dr Nichols said.
Jahns felt herself reaching for her bag to procure the folders within, but it wasn’t by her side. This was a detail she had missed, a brother.
‘You couldn’t have known,’ Nichols said, correctly reading the shock on Mayor Jahns’s face. ‘He didn’t survive. Technically, he wasn’t born. The lottery moved on.’
‘I’m sorry . . .’
She fought the urge to reach over and hold Marnes’s hand. It had been decades since the two of them had purposefully touched, even innocently, but the sudden sadness in the room punctured that intervening time.
‘His name was going to be Nicholas, my father’s father’s name. He was born prematurely. One pound eight ounces.’
The clinical precision in his voice was somehow sadder than an outpouring of emotion might have been.
‘They intubated, moved him into an incubator, but there were . . . complications.’ Dr Nichols looked down at the backs of his hands. ‘Juliette was thirteen at the time. She was as excited as we were, if you can imagine, to have a baby brother on the way. She was one year out from shadowing her mother, who was a delivery nurse.’ Nichols glanced up. ‘Not here in this nursery, mind you, but in the old mid-level nursery, where we both worked. I was still an intern then.’
‘And Juliette?’ Mayor Jahns still didn’t understand the connection.
‘There was a failure with the incubator. When Nicholas—’ The doctor turned his head to the side and brought his hand halfway to his eyes, but was able to compose himself. ‘I’m sorry. I still call him that.’
Mayor Jahns was holding Deputy Marnes’s hand. She wasn’t sure when or how that had happened. The doctor didn’t seem to notice or, more likely, care.
‘Poor Juliette.’ He shook his head. ‘She was distraught. She blamed Rhoda at first, an experienced delivery nurse who had done nothing but work a miracle to give our boy the slim chance he had. I explained this. I think Juliette knew. She just needed someone to hate.’ He nodded to Jahns. ‘Girls that age, you know?’
‘Believe it or not, I remember.’ Jahns forced a smile and Dr Nichols returned it. She felt Marnes squeeze her hand.
‘It wasn’t until her mother died that she took to blaming the incubator that had failed. Well, not the incubator, but the poor condition it was in. The general state of rot all things become.’
‘Your wife died from the complications?’ It was another detail Jahns felt she must have missed from the file.
‘My wife killed herself a week later.’
Again, the clinical detachment. Jahns wondered if this was a survival mechanism that had kicked in after these events, or a personality trait already in place.
‘Seems like I would remember that,’ Deputy Marnes said, the first words he’d uttered since introducing himself to the doctor.
‘Well, I wrote the certificate myself. So I could put whatever cause I wanted—’
‘And you admit to this?’ Marnes seemed ready to leap off the bench. To do what, Jahns could hardly guess. She held his arm to keep him in place.
‘Beyond the statute of limitations? Of course. I admit it. It was a worthless lie, anyway. Juliette was smart, even at that age. She knew. And this is what drove her—’ He stopped himself.
‘Drove her what?’ Mayor Jahns asked. ‘Crazy?’
‘No.’ Dr Nichols shook his head. ‘I wasn’t going to say that. It’s what drove her away. She applied for a change in casters. Demanded to move down to Mechanical, to enter the shop as a shadow. She was a year too young for that sort of placement, but I agreed. I signed off on it. I thought she’d go, get some deep air, come back. I was naive. I thought the freedom would be good for her.’
‘And you haven’t seen her since?’
‘Once. For her mother’s funeral, just a few days later. She marched up on her own, attended the burial, gave me a hug, then marched back down. All without rest, from what I’ve heard. I try to keep up with her. I have a colleague in the deep nursery who will wire now and then with a bit of news. It’s all focus, focus, focus with her.’
Nichols paused and laughed.
‘You know, when she was young, all I saw was her mother in her. But she grew up to be more like me.’
‘Is there anything you know that would preclude her from or make her ill-suited for the job of silo sheriff? You do understand what’s involved with the job, right?’
‘I understand.’ Nichols looked over at Marnes, his eye drifting to the copper badge visible through the open, shoddily tied robe, down to the bulge of a pistol at his side. ‘All the little lawmen throughout the silo have to have someone up top, giving commands, is that it?’
‘More or less,’ Jahns said.
Marnes cleared his throat. ‘She helped us with an investigation once—’
‘Jules? She was up here?’
‘No. We were down there.’
‘She has no training.’
‘None of us have,’ Marnes said. ‘It’s more of a . . . political office. A citizen’s post.’
‘She won’t agree to it.’
‘Why not?’ Jahns asked.
Nichols shrugged. ‘You’ll see for yourself, I suppose.’ He stood. ‘I wish I could give you more time, but I really should get back.’ He glanced at the set of double doors. ‘We’ll be bringing a family in soon—’
‘I understand.’ Jahns rose and shook his hand. ‘I appreciate you seeing us.’
He laughed. ‘Did I have a choice?’
‘Well, I wish I’d known that sooner.’
He smiled, and Jahns saw that he was joking, or attempting to. As they parted company and walked back down the hallway to collect their things and return the robes, Jahns found herself more and more intrigued by this nomination of Marnes’s. It wasn’t his style, a woman from the down deep. A person with baggage. She wondered if his judgement was perhaps clouded by other factors. And as he held the door for her, leading out to the main waiting room, Mayor Jahns wondered if she was going along with him because her judgement was clouded as well.