First Shift: Legacy
A Silo Story by Hugh Howey
2110 • Beneath the hills of Fulton County, Georgia
Troy woke inside a coffin. He awoke to confinement, to a sheet of frosted glass before his face, dark shapes moving on the other side. He tried to lift his arms to beat on the glass, but they were too weak to respond. He tried to scream, but could only cough. The taste in his mouth was foul. His ears rang with the clank of heavy locks, the hiss of air, the squeak of hinges long dormant.
The lights overhead were bright, the hands on him warm. They helped him sit while he continued to cough. Someone had water. Pills to take. The water was cool, the pills bitter. He fought down a few gulps while memories flooded back. Scenes from nightmares. The feeling of deep time and yesterdays mingling together. He shivered. The pills hit his gut, and the memories faded.
A paper gown. The sting of tape removed. A tug on his arm, a tube pulled from his groin. Two men helped him out, steam rising around him. His legs were like a foal’s, working at birth but not well. Rows and rows of coffins full of the living stretched toward distant walls. The ceiling was low, the suffocating press of dirt felt above. All that dirt and the dead. So many years had passed. Anyone he cared about would be gone. Everything gone. The pills were bitter in his throat.
He would have collapsed, but the men caught him, lowered him to the ground, a paper gown on shivering skin.
Memories came flooding back, raining down like bombs, awareness exploding in his mind. Knowledge.
Troy sobbed into his palms, an empathetic hand resting on his head, the two men giving him time. They didn’t stop him. Didn’t rush the process. Here was a courtesy passed from one waking soul to the next, something all the men sleeping in their coffins would one day understand.
2048 • Washington D.C.
There were signs that the tall glass cabinets had once served as bookshelves. Little things like hardware on the shelves that dated back centuries while the hinges and the tiny locks went back no more than a few decades. More glaring was the choice of cherry to frame the glass doors while the cases themselves had been built of oak. Someone had attempted to remedy this with a few coats of stain, but it all stood out to his trained eyes.
What Congressman Donald Keene was seeing were the signs of a great purge, some kind of gradual and forced migration. Over time, the Senator’s waiting room had been slowly stripped of its obligatory law books and decorative tomes until only a few refugees remained. These beleaguered survivors huddled quietly in the dim corners of the glass cabinets, their spines laced with cracks, old leather flaking off like sunburnt skin. The rest of the books—all their kin—were gone. In their place stood an impressive collection of trophies and mementos gathered from a lifetime of service.
While the other freshmen chattered and paced, all of them waiting for their appointments with the Senator, Donald admired the contents of the case. He peered through the glass while one of his fellow Representatives prattled on about the CDC, the poor man’s nerves practically hanging out of him in a tangle.
“—did you know they even have a detailed response and readiness guide in the event of a zombie invasion? Can you believe that? You know, in case the undead take over one day, something goes wrong with our brains and all we can think about is eating each other—”
Donald studied a collection of photographs, the Senator with the last four Presidents, and laughed to himself. It was the same pose and handshake in each, the same staged backgrounds with windless flags and oversized seals. The Senator himself hardly changed. He seemed entirely unfazed by the passing of the decades. He was like some statue that these men from history books paused to have their photo taken with.
“I know, right? It’s hilarious, but think about it. Why would the CDC have this field manual, unless—”
Donald didn’t bother to correct the congressman from the twelfth district. What he’d been laughing at was the mental image of the Senator dressed up like a clown and sitting on a bench outside of a McDonald’s. Here was this plastic and innocuous statue that the most powerful men in the world pulled over to have their pictures taken with.
“—it’s stuff like, that everyone should have a baseball bat in there with your flashlight and candles, you know?”
On another shelf, a military uniform had been carefully arranged, a Lego-brick wall of medals resting on the chest, the arms carefully folded so the gold bands on the cuffs featured predominately. A collection of decorative coins rested in a wooden rack beside the uniform, colorful artifacts from the Senator’s more recent tours of Iran. The two arrangements were like bookends on two wars in the same country, one the Senator battled through and one he had fought to prevent.
Donald studied the coins more closely. The numbers and slogans on each one seemed to represent deployed groups or battalions, he wasn’t sure which. His sister would know. She was over there somewhere. Despite the ridiculous odds, he scanned a group photo for her, checking the faces above the sand-colored fatigues, all those smiles a long way from home—
“—you think the CDC knows something we don’t? I mean, forget weaponized anthrax, imagine legions of biters breaking out all over the place—”
Above the Army photograph hung one from the Navy, the Senator standing on the deck of a ship with a group of men and women in their pressed uniforms, more smiles on warring faces. The ship may have been underway; the Senator’s feet were planted wide, a breeze lifting his white hair, giving him a fierce mohawk—or perhaps the tuft of a cockatiel. Above the group, stenciled white paint on gunmetal gray read: USS The Sullivans.
“Are you nervous about this?”
Donald realized he’d been asked a question. His focus drifted from the collection of photographs until he found the reflection of the chatty congressman from Atlanta in the glass.
“Of zombies?” He laughed. “No. Can’t say that I am.”
The young man took a step closer. “No, of meeting him.” He dipped his chin at the shrine to the Senator’s many years and forms of service.
The door to the reception area opened, bleeps from the phones on the other side leaking out.
Donald turned away from a piece of shrapnel, a purple heart, a note from a wounded soldier expressing his undying thanks. An elderly receptionist stood in the doorway, her white blouse and black skirt highlighting a thin and athletic frame.
“Senator Thurman will see you now,” she said.
Donald patted his fellow freshman on the shoulder as he stepped past.
“Good luck,” the man stammered.
Donald smiled. He fought the temptation to turn and tell the man from the twelfth district that he knew the Senator well enough, that he had bounced on the man’s knee back when Donald was a toddler, but he was too busy concealing his own nerves to bother. This was different. He stepped through the deeply paneled door of rich hardwoods and entered the bleeping and blaring inner sanctum. This wasn’t like passing through a foyer to pick up a man’s daughter for a date. This was the pressure of pretending to meet as colleagues, when what Donald felt like was that same toddler from his bronco-knee days.
“Through here,” the woman said. She guided Donald between pairs of wide and busy desks, a dozen phones blasting in those short bursts that sounded more medical than senatorial. Young men and women in suits and crisp blouses double-fisted receivers while seeming to remain calm. Their bored expressions suggested that this was a normal workload for a weekday morning. It wasn’t like the world was coming to an end.
Donald’s hand habitually reached out and brushed the edge of one of he desks. Mahogany. Each one was nicer than the desk in his new office. As was the decor: The thick carpet, the massive crown molding, the antique tiled ceiling, the light fixtures. Everything was nicer, more opulent in the Senate. The Dirksen building was the House of Lords compared to Rayburn and Donald’s own House of Commons.
At the end of the buzzing and bleeping room, a matching door opened and disgorged Mick Webb, who had met with the Senator first. Mick didn’t notice Donald at all, was too absorbed by the open manila folder he held in front of him.
“Did it go well?” Donald stopped in front of his somewhat college friend and fellow freshman, the Representative from the third district.
Mick looked up and snapped the folder shut. He tucked it under his arm and nodded. “Yeah, yeah. Sorry we ran long.” He smiled. “I guess he loves me best.”
Donald laughed. He didn’t fall for the bait. “No problem. And hey, don’t wait around. I’ll see you back at Rayburn.”
“Sure thing.” Mick nodded and returned to his folder. Donald squeezed his arm and heeded the impatient glare from the Senator’s receptionist. She waved him through the door before thumping it tight on all the bleeping, blaring, and chattering outside.
“Congressman Keene.” Senator Thurman stood from his chair and stretched out his hand. He flashed that familiar smile, the one Donald knew as much from photos and film as from his childhood. Despite his age, the Senator was trim and fit. He seemed ready to take off and run a half marathon in his suit and tie.
Donald crossed the dimly lit room and accepted the hand that had clasped that of so many Presidents. “Good to see you, sir.” As his fist was pumped up and down, he imagined flash bulbs popping and expensive cameras clicking wildly. He almost turned to the side and forced a smile, thinking the Senator would get the joke at once. He resisted the urge and comported himself with dignity, remembering that he wasn’t here to date the man’s daughter, but serve alongside him.
“Please, sit.” Thurman let go of his hand and waved at one of the chairs across from his desk. Donald turned and lowered himself into the bright red leather, the gold grommets along the arm like sturdy rivets in a steel beam.
“Helen? She’s great. Back in Savannah. She enjoyed seeing you at the reception.”
“Thank you, sir.” Donald tried to force himself to relax, which didn’t help. It was dark in the room, even with the overhead lights on. The clouds outside had turned nasty—low and dark. If it rained, he would have to take the tunnel back to his office. He hated the tunnel. They could carpet it and hang those little chandeliers at intervals, but he could still tell that he was below ground, which made him feel like a rat scurrying through a sewer.
“How’s the job treating you so far?”
“The job’s good,” he answered. “It’s busy, but good.”
He thought about asking how Anna was doing, but the door behind him opened, allowing the discordant cries of the phones to enter. The thin receptionist delivered two bottles of water. Donald thanked her, twisted the cap off, and saw that it had been pre-opened just like at that fancy steakhouse the PAGW group had taken him to.
“Not too busy to work on something for me, are you?” Thurman raised one eyebrow. Donald took a sip of water and wondered if that was a skill one could master, that eyebrow lift. It was effective as hell.
“Oh, I can make the time,” he said. He felt like a cadet in front of a staff sergeant. The military aura around the Senator had not dimmed from changing into a suit. “After all the stumping you did for me? I doubt I would’ve made it past the primaries.” He held the water bottle in his lap. When he crossed his legs, he became self-aware of his brown socks and his black pants. He lowered his foot back to the ground and wished Helen had stayed in D.C. longer.
“You and Mick Webb go back, right? Both Bulldogs.”
It took Donald a moment to realize the Senator was referring to their college mascot. He didn’t spend a lot of time at Georgia following sports. “Yessir. Go Dawgs.”
He sure hoped that was right.
Senator Thurman smiled. He leaned forward so that his face caught the light spilling from the lone floor lamp. Donald could see the shadows catch in wrinkles otherwise easy to miss. The man’s lean face and square chin looked younger straight-on than it probably did from the side. Here was a man who likely got places by approaching them directly rather than in ambush.
“You studied architecture there, didn’t you?”
Donald nodded. It was easy to forget that he knew Thurman better than the Senator knew him. One of them grabbed far more newspaper headlines than the other. “That’s right. For my undergrad. I went into planning afterward when I realized I could do more good writing laws for people than drawing boxes to put them in.”
He winced to hear himself deliver the line. It was a pat phrase from grad school, something he should’ve left behind with crushing beer cans on his forehead and ogling asses in skirts. He wondered why he and the other congressional freshmen had been summoned all at once. When he got the call, he figured it was a social visit. When Mick bragged about his own appointment, Donald figured it was some kind of formality or tradition. But now he wondered if this was just a power play, a chance to butter up the Reps from Georgia for those times when the Senator would need a particular vote in the lower and lesser house.
“How good are you at keeping secrets?” the Senator asked. He reached for his bottle of water.
Donald’s blood ran cold. He forced himself to laugh off the nerves.
“I got elected, didn’t I?”
Senator Thurman smiled. “And so you probably learned the best lesson there is about secrets.” He raised his plastic bottle. “Denial.”
Donald nodded and took a sip of his own water. The Senator leaned back in his chair.
“That’s the key. The secret sauce. The truth is gonna get out—it always does—but it’s gonna blend in with all the lies.” The Senator waved a hand in the air. “You just have to deny each and every one with the exact same vigor. Let those websites and blowhards who profess to care about the truth confuse the public for you.”
“Yessir.” Donald didn’t know what else to say. This seemed like a strange conversation to be having. He took another gulp of water.
“Tell me, do you believe in aliens?”
Donald nearly lost the water out of his nose. He covered his mouth with his hand, coughed, and had to wipe his chin. The Senator didn’t budge.
“Aliens?” Donald shook his head and wiped his palm on his thigh. “Nossir. I mean, not the abducting kind. Maybe someplace faraway. Wait, why?”
Suddenly, he wondered if this was a debriefing. Why had the Senator asked him if he could keep a secret? Was this some kind of security initiation?
“They’re not real.” Donald watched the Senator for any twitch. “Are they?”
The old man smiled. “That’s the thing. If they are or they aren’t, the chatter out there would be the same. Would you be surprised if I told you they were very much real and that I’m best friends with one?”
“Hell yeah I’d be surprised.”
“Good.” The Senator slid a folder across the desk. Donald held up a hand.
“Wait. Are they real or aren’t they? What’re you trying to tell me?”
Senator Thurman laughed. “Hell no they’re not real.” He took his hand off the folder and propped his elbows on the desk. “Have you seen how much NASA wants to spend to fly to Mars and back? No way we’re getting to another star. And they sure as hell aren’t coming here. Why would they?”
Donald didn’t know what to think. Which was a far cry from how he’d felt a minute prior. He eyed the folder. It looked like the one Mick was carrying. “This is denial, right?” He studied the Senator.
“No. This is me telling you to stop watching so many science fiction flicks. In fact, why is it you think those eggheads are always dreaming of colonizing some other planet? You have any idea what would be involved? It’s ludicrous.”
Donald shrugged. He twisted the cap back onto his water. “Same reason we settled this country,” he said. “It gets crowded somewhere, so we start dreaming of finding some room.”
“Well, there’s two ways to go about that.” The Senator pointed. “Take the folder. I’ve got something I’d like you to work on.”
Donald leaned forward, left his bottle on the leather inlay of the formidable desk, and took the folder.
“Is this another bill to read? Something coming through committee?” He tempered his hopes, not daring to dream he’d get to co-author anything his first year. Opening the folder, he tilted it toward the lamp to better read.
“No, nothing like that,” Thurman said. “This is about CAD-FAC.”
Donald nodded. The preamble about secrets and conspiracies suddenly made sense. The containment and disposal facility at the center of the Senator’s energy bill would one day house most of the world’s spent fuel rods. Or, it was going to be the new Area 51 because the aliens had begun to breed like rabbits. Or, it was where the next big bomb was being built. Or, they were tunneling to the center of the Earth before the core melted down. Or, the Libertarians were going to be rounded up and locked away for buying one too many guns at Walmart. Take your pick.
“Yeah, I’ve been getting some calls from my district,” Donald said. He didn’t mention the ones about the Lizard People or the magnetic pole flip-flopping. “I think you already know that privately I’m behind the facility one hundred percent.” He laughed. “I mean, I’m lucky I didn’t have to vote on it, but someone had to finally offer up their backyard, right?”
“Precisely.” Senator Thurman took a long pull from his water, and Donald noticed for the first time that this office didn’t reek of old cigar smoke, wasn’t infused with the stench of pipe tobacco, aged leather, expensive whisky, and the other smells of deal-makings he’d nosed in offices back at Rayburn. Hell, despite Helen’s scented candles, his own office still stank like the eight-term Representative he’d ousted in the primaries, who had voted on the energy bill.
Thurman leaned back in his chair and cleared his throat. “This facility is going to be a boon to our state, Donny. Do you mind if I call you that? Or have you started going by Donald, now?”
“Either’s fine,” he lied. He opened the folder in his lap and flipped the cover letter from one side to the other. The colorful drawing he found underneath struck him as being out of place. Odd, but intimately familiar.
“You’ve heard how many jobs the bill created overnight?” Thurman snapped his fingers. “Forty thousand, just like that. A lot will be from your district, a lot of shipping. Of course, now that it passed, our less nimble colleagues are grumbling that they should’ve had a chance to bid on the facility—”
“I drew this,” Donald said, pulling out the sheet of paper, not hearing a word the Senator was saying. He showed it to Thurman as if the man would be surprised to see that it had somehow snuck into his folder. He wondered if this was his daughter’s doing, some kind of joke or little hello from Anna.
Thurman nodded. “Yes, well, it needs more detail.”
Donald studied the old drawing and wondered what he meant by that, what sort of test this was. He remembered the drawing. It was a last-minute project for his biotecture class his senior year. There was nothing unusual or amazing about it. His professor had given him a B, the red ink still standing in contrast to the overlapping streaks of blue that colored the sky. With an impartial eye, Donald would give the project a C+. It was spare where his classmates had been bold, utilitarian where he could’ve taken risks. Green tufts jutted up from the roof, a horrible cliché. Half the building was cut away to reveal the interspersed levels for housing, working, and shopping. Such a staid structure was difficult to imagine ever being funded. He couldn’t see such a boring edifice rising from the deserts of Dubai alongside the new breed of self-sustaining ‘scrapers that were actually being built. He certainly couldn’t see what the Senator wanted him to do with it, other than maybe light it on fire.
“More detail.” He repeated the Senator’s words to himself, flipping through the rest of the folder.
“Hm.” Thurman sipped from his bottle.
“This looks like a job proposal.” Donald studied a list of requirements written up as if by a prospective client. Words he had forgotten he’d ever learned caught his eye: interior traffic flow, block plan, HVAC, hydroponics—
“You’ll have to lose the sunlight.” Senator Thurman’s chair squeaked as he leaned over the desk. He moved Donald’s sweating bottle to a coaster and wiped the leather dry with his palm.
“No, forget about it.” He waved his hand, obviously meaning the circle of moisture left by Donald’s bottle.
“No, you said sunlight.” Donald held the folder up. “What exactly are you wanting me to do?”
“I would suggest those lights like my wife uses.” Thurman cupped his hand into a tiny circle and pointed at the center. “She gets these tiny seeds to sprout in the winter, uses bulbs that cost me a goddamned fortune.”
“You mean grow lights.”
Thurman snapped his fingers. “And don’t worry about the cost. Whatever you need. I’m also going to get you some help with the mechanical stuff. An engineer.”
Donald flipped through the folder. Something had already caught his eye. There wasn’t a dollar symbol or an itemized budget to be found.
“What is this for? And why me?”
“This is what we call a just-in-case building. Probably never get used, but they won’t let us store the fuel rods out there unless we put this bugger nearby. It’ll be a place for facility employees to go in the event of an attack or a leak or something. You know, like a shelter. And it needs to be perfect or this project of ours will be shut down faster than a tick’s wink. Just because our bill passed and got signed doesn’t mean we’re home free. There was a project out West that got okayed decades ago, scored funding, but eventually fell through.”
Donald knew the one he was talking about. A containment facility buried under a mountain. The buzz on the Hill was that this project in Georgia had the same chance of success.
“I’ve got Mick working on something related. You two will need to collaborate on a few things. And Anna is taking a break from her post at M.I.T. to lend a hand.”
“Anna?” Donald fumbled for his water, his hand shaking.
“Of course. She’ll be your lead engineer on this project.”
He took a gulp of water and swallowed loudly.
“There’s a lot of other people I could call in, sure, but this project can’t fail, you understand? It needs to be like family.” Senator Thurman interlocked his fingers. “If this is the only thing you were elected to do, I want you to do it right. It’s why I stumped for you in the first place.”
“Of course.” Donald bobbed his head. All of this was confusing. Studying the drawing in his lap, he felt the pressure of doing one job he was inadequately trained for melt away, only to be replaced by a different job that seemed equally daunting.
“Wait. Why the grow lights?” he finally asked.
Senator Thurman reached for his bottle and polished it off, the plastic crinkling in his fist. He smacked his lips and turned to toss the vessel into his blue recycling bin. His profile, Donald saw, was every bit as chiseled and handsome as any other angle, had barely changed in all the years he’d known him.
“Because, Donald, my dear Congressman from the first district of Georgia. This building I want you to design is going to go below ground.”