Lukas sensed something was wrong before he slotted the headphones into the jack. The red lights above the servers throbbed red, but it was the wrong time of day. The calls from Silo 1 came like clockwork. This call had come in the middle of dinner. The buzzing and flashing lights had moved to his office and then to the hallway. Sims, the old Security chief, had tracked Lukas down in the break room to let him know someone was getting in touch, and Lukas’s first thought was that their mysterious benefactor had a warning for them. Or maybe he was calling to thank them for finally stopping with the digging.
There was a click in his headset as the connection was made. The lights overhead stopped their infernal blinking. “Hello?” he said, catching his breath.
“Who is this?”
Someone different. The voice was the same, but the words were wrong. Why wouldn’t this person know who he was?
“This is Lukas. Lukas Kyle. Who is this?”
“Let me speak to the head of your silo.”
Lukas stood up straight. “I am the head of this silo. Silo eighteen of World Order Operation Fifty. Who am I speaking to?”
“You’re speaking to the man who dreamed up that World Order. Now get me the head. I have here a… Bernard Holland.”
Lukas nearly blurted out that Bernard was dead. Everyone knew Bernard was dead. It was a fact of life. He had watched him burn rather than go out to clean, watched him burn rather than allow himself to be saved. But this man didn’t know that. And the complexities of life on the other end of that line, that infallible line, caused the room to wobble. The gods weren’t omnipotent. Or they didn’t sup around the same table. Or the one who called himself Donald was more rogue than even Lukas had believed he might be. Or — as Juliette would claim if she were there — these people were fucking with him.
“Bernard is… ah, he is indisposed at the moment.”
There was a pause. Lukas could feel the sweat bead up on his forehead and neck, the heat of the servers and the conversation getting to him.
“How long before he’s back?”
“I’m not sure. I can, uh, try to get him for you?” His voice lilted at the end of what shouldn’t have been a question.
“Fifteen minutes,” the voice said. “After that, things are going to go very badly for you and everyone over there. Very badly. Fifteen minutes.”
The line clicked dead before Lukas could object or argue for more time. Fifteen minutes. The room continued to wobble. He needed Jules. He would need someone to pretend to be Bernard — maybe Nelson. And what had this man meant when he said he had dreamed up the World Order? That wasn’t possible.
Lukas hurried to the ladder and raced down. He grabbed the portable radio from the charging rack and scrambled back up the ladder. He would call Juliette on his way to tracking down Nelson. A different voice would win him some time until he could sort this out. In a way, this was a call he’d always expected, someone wanting to know what in the hell was going on in their silo, but it had never come. He had expected it, and now it took him by surprise.
“Jules?” He reached the top of the ladder and tried the radio. What if she didn’t answer? Fifteen minutes. And then what? How bad could they really make it for them in the silo? The other voice — Donald — had tossed around dire and vacuous warnings from time to time. But this felt different. He tried Juliette again. His heart shouldn’t be pounding so. He opened the server room door and raced down the hall.
“Can I call you back?” Jules asked, the radio in his palm crackling with her voice. “I’ve got a nightmare down here. Five minutes?”
Lukas was breathing hard. He dodged around Sims in the hallway, who spun to watch him go. Nelson would be in the Suit Lab. Donald squeezed the transmit button. “Actually, I could use some help right now. Are you still on your way down?”
“No, I’m here. Just left the kids with my dad. I’m heading to Walker’s to get a battery. Are you running? You’re not coming down here, are you?”
Deep breaths. “No, I’m looking for Nelson. Someone called, said they need to speak to Bernard, that there would be trouble for us otherwise. Jules — I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
He rounded the bend and saw that the door to the Suit Lab was open. Strips of seal tape fluttered around the jamb.
“Calm down,” Juliette told him. “Take it easy. Who did you say called? And why are you looking for Nelson?”
“I was going to have him talk to this guy, pretend he’s Bernard, at least to buy us some time. I don’t know who’s calling. It sounds like the same guy, but it’s not.”
“What did he say?”
“He said to get Bernard, said he was the one who dreamed up Operation Fifty. Dammit, Nelson’s not here.” Lukas glanced around the workbenches and tool cabinets. He remembered passing Sims. The old Security chief had clearance to the server room. Lukas left the Suit Lab and rushed back down the hall.
“Lukas, you aren’t making any sense.”
“I know, I know. Hey, I’ll call you back. I need to catch Sims—”
He jogged down the hallway. Offices flew past, most of them empty, workers who had transferred out of IT or those at dinner. He spotted Sims turning a corner toward the security station.
The Security chief peered back around the corner, stepped into the hall, and studied Lukas as he ran at him. Lukas wondered how many minutes had passed, how strict this man was going to be.
“I need your help,” he said. He pointed to the server room door, which stood at the junction of the two halls. Sims turned and studied the door with him.
Lukas entered his code and pushed the door open. Inside, the lights were back to throbbing red. No way it’d been fifteen minutes already. “I need a huge favor,” he told Sims. “Look, it’s… complicated, but I need you to talk to someone for me. I need you to pretend to be Bernard. You knew him well enough, right?”
Sims pulled up. “Pretend to be who?”
Lukas turned and grabbed the larger man’s arm, urged him along. “No time to explain. I just need you to answer this guy’s questions. It’s like a drill. Just be Bernard. Tell yourself that you’re Bernard. Act angry or something. And get off the line as quickly as you can. In fact, say as little as possible.”
“Who am I talking to?”
“I’ll explain afterward. I just need you to get through this. Fool this guy.” He guided Sims to the open server and handed him the headphones. Sims studied them as though he’d never seen a pair. “Just put those over your ears,” Lukas said. “I’m going to plug you in. It’s like a radio. Remember, you are Bernard. Try to sound like him, okay? Just be him.”
Sims nodded. His cheeks were red, a bead of sweat running down his brow. He looked ten years younger and nervous as hell.
“Here you go.” Lukas slotted the cord into the jack, thinking that Sims was probably even better for this than Nelson. This would buy them some time until he could figure out what was going on. He watched as Sims flinched, must’ve heard a greeting in the headphones.
“Hello?” he asked.
“Confident,” Lukas hissed. The radio in his hand crackled with Juliette’s voice, and he turned down the volume, didn’t want it overheard. He would have to call her back.
“Yes, this is Bernard.” Sims talked through his nose, high and tight. It sounded more like a man doing a woman’s voice than a fair approximation of the former silo head. “This
“Okay?” Lukas hissed.
Sims held the headset out to Lukas. “He wants to speak to you. I’m sorry. He knows it isn’t him.”
Lukas groaned. He tucked the radio under his arm, Juliette’s voice tiny and distant, and pulled on the headset, slick with sweat.
“You shouldn’t have done that.”
“Bernard is… I couldn’t reach him.”
“He’s dead. Was it an accident, or was he murdered? What’s going on over there? Who’s in charge? We’ve got no feeds over here.”
“I’m in charge,” Lukas said. He was painfully aware that Sims was studying him. “Everything is just fine over here. I can have Bernard call you—”
“You’ve been talking with someone over here.”
Lukas didn’t respond.
“What did he tell you?”
Lukas glanced at the wooden chair and the pile of books. Sims followed his gaze, and his eyes widened at the sight of so much paper.
“We’ve been talking about population reports,” Lukas said. “We put down an uprising. Yes, Bernard was injured during the fighting—”
“I have a machine here that tells me when you’re lying.”
Lukas felt faint. It seemed impossible, but he believed the man. He turned around and collapsed into the chair. Sims studied him warily. His Security chief could tell that things weren’t right.
“We’re doing the best we can,” Lukas said. “Everything’s in order over here. I am Bernard’s shadow. I passed the Rite—”
“I know. But I think you’ve been poisoned. I’m very sorry, son, but this is something I should have done a long time ago. It’s for the good of everyone. I truly am sorry.” And then, cryptically and softly, almost as if to someone else, the voice uttered the words: “Shut them down.”
“Wait—” Lukas said. He turned to Sims, and now they looked helplessly at one another. “Let me—”
Before he could finish, there was a hissing sound above him. Lukas glanced up to find a white cloud billowing down from the vents. An expanding mist. He remembered exhaust fumes like this from long ago, back when he was locked inside the server room and the people in Mechanical tried to divert gas to choke him out. He remembered the feeling that he was going to suffocate inside that room. But this fog was different. It was thick and sinister.
Lukas pulled his undershirt over his mouth and yelled for Sims to come with him. They both dashed through the server room, dodging between the tall black machines, avoiding the cloud where they could. They got to the door that led out to IT, which Lukas figured was airtight. The red light on the panel blinked happily. Lukas didn’t remember locking the door. Holding his breath, he punched in his code and waited for the light to turn green. It didn’t. He punched it in again, concentrating, feeling lightheaded from not enough air, and the keypad buzzed and blinked at him with its red and solitary eye.
Lukas turned to Sims to complain and saw the large man peering down at his palms. His hands were covered in blood. Blood was pouring from Sims’s nose.
Juliette cursed the radio and finally let Walker have a try. Courtnee watched them both with concern. Lukas had come through a couple of times, but all they’d heard was the patter of boots and the hissing of his breathing or some kind of static.
Walker examined the portable. The radio had grown needlessly complex with the knobs and dials he’d added. He fiddled with something and shrugged. “Looks okay to me,” he said, tugging on his beard. “Must be on the other end.”
One of the other radios on the bench barked. It was the large unit he’d built, the one with the wire dangling from the ceiling. There was a familiar voice followed by a burst of static: “Hello? Anyone? We’ve got a problem down here.”
Juliette raced around the workbench and grabbed the mic before Walker or Courtnee could. She recognized that voice. “Hank, this is Juliette. What’s going on?”
“We’ve got… ah, reports from the Mids of some kind of vapor leak. Are you still in that area?”
“No, I’m down in Mechanical. What kind of vapor leak? And from where?”
“In the stairwell, I think. I’m out on the landing right now and don’t see anything, but I hear a racket above me. Sounds like a ton of traffic. Can’t tell if it’s heading up or down. No fire alarm, though.”
It was another voice cutting in. Juliette recognized it as Peter. He was calling for a pause in the chatter so he could say something.
“Go ahead, Peter.”
“Jules, I’ve got some kind of leak up here as well. It’s in the airlock.”
Juliette looked to Courtnee, who shrugged. “Confirm that you have smoke in the airlock,” she said.
“I don’t think it’s smoke. And it’s in the airlock you added, the new one. Wait. No… that’s strange.”
Juliette found herself pacing between Walker’s workbenches. “What’s strange? Describe what you’re seeing.” She imagined an exhaust leak, something from the main generator. They would have to shut it down, and the backup was gone. Fuck. Her worst nightmare. Courtnee frowned at her, was probably thinking the same thing. Fuck, fuck.
“Jules, the yellow door is open. I repeat, the inner airlock door is wide open. And I didn’t do it. It was locked just a bit ago.”
“What about the smoke?” Juliette asked. “Is it getting worse? Stay low and cover your face. You’ll want a wet rag or something—”
“It’s not smoke. And it’s inside the new door you welded up. That door is still shut. I’m looking through the glass right now. The smoke is all inside there. And I… I can see through the yellow door. It’s wide open. It’s… holy shit—”
Juliette felt her heart race. The tone of his voice. She couldn’t remember Peter ever uttering a cuss word in all the time she’d known him, and she’d known him through the worst of it. “Peter?”
“Jules, the outer door is open. I say again, the outer airlock door is wide open. I can see straight through the airlock and to… what looks like a ramp. I think I’m looking outside. Gods, Juliette, I’m looking straight outside—”
“I need you to get out of there,” Juliette said. “Leave everything as it is and get out. Shut the cafeteria door behind you. Seal it up with something. Tape or caulk or something from the kitchen. Do you read?”
“Yes. Yes.” His voice was labored. Juliette recalled Lukas telling her something bad was about to happen. She looked to Walker, who still had the new portable in his hand. She needed the old portable. She shouldn’t have let him modify the thing. “I need you to raise Luke,” she said.
Walker shrugged helplessly. “I’m trying,” he said.
“Jules, this is Peter again. I’ve got traffic heading my way up the stairs. I can hear them. Sounds like half the silo. I don’t know why they’re heading this way.”
Juliette thought of what Hank had said about hearing traffic on the stairwell. If there was a fire, everyone was supposed to man a hose or get to a safe level and wait for assistance. Why would people be running
“Peter, don’t let them near the office. Keep them away from the airlock. Don’t let them through.”
Her mind whirled. What would she do if she were up there? Have to get in there with a suit on and shut those doors. But that would mean opening the new airlock door. The new airlock door! It shouldn’t be there. Forget the sign of smoke, the outside air was now attached to the silo. The outside air—
“Jules— I… I can’t stay here. Everyone’s acting crazy. They’re in the office, Jules. I… I don’t want to shoot anyone— I can’t.”
“Listen to me. The vapor. It’s the argon, isn’t it?”
“It… maybe. Yeah. It looked like that. I only saw it fill the airlock the once, when you went out. But yeah—”
Juliette felt her heart sink, her head spin. Her boots no longer touched the floor as she hovered, empty inside, numb and half-deaf. The gas. The poison. The seal missing from the sample canister. That fucker in Silo 1 and his threats. He’d done it. He was killing them all. A thousand useless plans and schemes flitted through Juliette’s mind, all of them hopeless and too late. Far too late.
She squeezed the mic to answer Peter, and then realized the voice was coming from Walker’s hands. It was coming from the portable radio.
“Lukas,” she gasped. Her vision blurred as she reached for the other radio.
“Jules? Goddammit. My volume was down. Can you hear me?”
“I hear you, Lukas. What the hell is going on?”
Juliette heard clangs and bangs.
“I’m okay. I’m okay. Shit. Is that blood? Okay, gotta get to the pantry. Are you still with me?”
Juliette realized she wasn’t breathing. “Are you talking to me? What blood?”
“Yeah, I’m talking to you. Fell down the ladder. Sims is dead. They’re doing it. They’re shutting us down. My stupid nose. I’m going in the pantry—” The feed turned into static.
“Lukas? Lukas!” She turned to Walker and Courtnee, both watching with wide and wet eyes.
“—no good. Cam’t geb recebtion in there.” Lukas’s voice was garbled as though he were pinching his nose or holding back a sneeze. “Baby, you’ve gotta seal yourselb off. Can’t stob my nose—”
Panic surged through Juliette. Shutting them down. The threats of ending them with the push of a button. Ending them. A silo like Solo’s. Maybe a second flitted by, two seconds, and in that brief flash she recalled him telling her stories of the way his silo fell, the rush up top, the spilling out into the open air, the bodies piling up that she had waded through years later. All in an instant, she was transported back and forth through time. This was Silo 17’s past; she was witnessing the fall of that silo as it played out in her home. And she had seen their grim future, had seen what was to come of her world. She knew how this ended. She knew that Lukas was already dead.
“Forget the radio,” she told him. “Lukas, I want you to forget the radio and seal yourself in that pantry. I’m going to save as many as I can.”
She grabbed the other radio, which was tuned to her silo. “Hank, do you read me?”
“Yes—?” She could hear him panting. “Hello?”
“Get everyone down to Mechanical. Everyone you can and as fast as you can. Now.”
“I feel like I should be going up,” Hank said. “Everyone is storming up.”
“No!” Juliette screamed into her radio. Walker startled and dropped the other radio’s microphone. “Listen to me, Hank. Everyone you can. Down here. Now!”
She cradled the radio in both hands, glanced around the room to see what else she should grab.
“Are we sealing off Mechanical?” Courtnee asked. “Like before?”
Courtnee must’ve been thinking about the steel plating welded across security during the holdout. The scars of those joints were still visible, the plating long gone.
“No time for that,” Juliette said. She didn’t add that it might all be pointless. The air could already be spoiled. No telling how long it took. A part of her mind wanted to focus on all that lay above her, all that she couldn’t save, the people and the things as well. Everything good and needed in the world that was now out of reach.
“Grab anything crucial and let’s go.” She looked to the two of them. “We need to go right now. Courtnee, get to the kids and get them back to their silo—”
“But you said… that mob—”
“I don’t care about them. Go. And take Walk with you. See that he gets to the dig. I’ll meet you there.”
“Where are you going?” Courtnee asked.
“To get as many others as I can.”
The hallways of Mechanical were strangely devoid of panic. Juliette ran through scenes of normalcy, of people walking to and from their shifts, trolleys of spare parts and heavy pumps, a shower of sparks from someone welding, a flickering flashlight and a passer-by tapping it with their fist. The radio had brought word to her ahead of time. No one else knew.
“Get to the dig,” she shouted to everyone she passed. “That’s an order. Now. Now. Go.”
There was a delayed response. Questions. Excuses. People explained where they were heading, that they were busy, that they didn’t have time right then.
Juliette saw Dawson’s wife, Raina, who would’ve been just coming off shift. Juliette grabbed her by the shoulders. Raina’s eyes widened, her body stiffened, to be handled like that.
“Get to the classroom,” Juliette told her. “Get your kids, get all the kids, and get them through the tunnel. Now.”
“What the hell’s going on?” someone asked. A few people jostled by in the narrow passageway. One of Juliette’s old hands from first shift was there. A crowd was forming.
“Get to the fucking dig,” Juliette shouted. “We’ve got to clear out. Grab everyone you can, your kids, anything you think you need. This is not a drill. Go. Go!”
She clapped her hands. Raina was the first to turn and run, pushing herself through the packed corridor. Those who knew her best leapt into action soon after, rounding up others. Juliette raced toward the stairwell, shouting as she did for everyone to get to the other silo. She vaulted over the security gates, the guard on duty looking up with a startled “Hey!” Behind her, she could hear someone else yelling for everyone to follow, to get moving. Ahead of her, the stairway itself trembled. She could hear welds singing and loose struts rattling. Over this, she could hear the sound of boots stomping her way.
Juliette stood at the bottom of the stairwell and peered up through that wide gap between the stairs and the stairwell’s concrete wall. Various landings jutted out overhead, wide bands of steel that became narrow ribbons higher up. The shaft receded into darkness. And then she saw the white clouds like smoke higher up. Maybe from the Mids.
She squeezed the radio.
“Hank, come back.”
The stairway hummed with the harmonics of heavy but distant traffic. Juliette stepped closer and rested a hand on the rail. It vibrated, numbing her hand. The clanging of boots grew louder. Looking up, she could see hands sliding down the rail above her, could hear voices shouting encouragement and confusion.
A handful of people from the one-thirties spilled down the last turn and seemed confused about where to go next. They had the bewildered look of people who had never known that the stairway ended, that there was this floor of concrete below their homes. Juliette yelled at them to head inside. She turned and shouted into Mechanical for someone to show them the way, to let them through security. They stumbled past, most of them empty-handed, one or two with children clutched to their chests or towed behind, or with bundles cradled in their arms. They spoke of fire and smoke. A man shuffled down, holding a bloody nose. He insisted that they should be heading up, that they should all be heading up.
“You,” Juliette said, grabbing the man by the arm. She studied his face, the crimson dripping from his knuckles. “Where are you coming from? What happened?” She indicated his nose.
“I fell,” he said, uncovering his face to talk. “I was at work—”
“Okay. That’s fine. Follow the others.” She pointed. Her radio barked with a disembodied voice. Shouting. An unholy din. Juliette moved away from the stairs and covered one ear, pressed the radio to the other. It sounded vaguely like Peter. She waited until he was done.
“Can barely hear you!” she yelled. “What’s going on?”
She covered her ear again and strained for his words. “—getting through. To the outside. They’re getting out—”
Her back found the concrete of the stairwell. She slid down into a crouch. A few dozen people scampered down the stairs. Some stragglers in the yellow of Supply joined them, clutching a few things. Hank arrived, finally, directing traffic, shouting at those who seemed eager to turn back, to head in the other direction. A handful of people from Mechanical came out to help. Juliette concentrated on Peter’s voice.
“—can’t breathe,” he said. “Cloud coming in. I’m in the galley. People pouring up. Everyone. Acting crazy. Falling over. Everyone dead. The outside—”
He gasped and wheezed between every other word. The radio clicked off. Juliette screamed into the handset a few times, but she couldn’t raise him. Gazing up the stairwell, she saw the fog overhead. The smoke pouring out into the stairway seemed to thicken. It grew more and more dense as Juliette watched, horrified.
And then something dark punched through — a shadow amid the white. It grew. There was a scream, a terrible peal as it flew down and down, past the landings, on the other side of the stairwell, and then a thudding boom as a person slammed into the deck. The violence of the impact was felt in Juliette’s boots.
More screams. This time from those nearby, those dozens spilling down the stairwell, the few who had made it. They crawled over one another in a dash for Mechanical. And the white smoke, it descended down the stairwell like a hammer.
Juliette followed the others into Mechanical — she was the last one through. The arms on one of the security gates had been busted backward. A crowd surged over the gates while some hopped sideways through the gap. The guard who was meant to prevent this helped people down on the other side and directed them where to go.
Juliette threw herself over and hurried through the crowd toward the bunkroom where the kids had been put up. Someone was clattering around in the break room as she passed, hopefully looting needed things.
The bunkroom was empty. She assumed Courtnee had already gotten there. No one was getting out of Mechanical, anyway. And it was probably already too late. Juliette doubled back down the hall and headed for the winding stairs that penetrated the levels of Mechanical. She surged with a packed crowd down to the generator room and the site of the dig.
There were piles of tailings and chunks of concrete studded with rebar around the oil rig, which continued to bob its head up and down as if it knew the sad ways of the world, as if depressedly resigned to what was happening, as if saying: “Of course. Of course.”
More tailings and rubble from the dig formed piles inside the generator room, everything that hadn’t yet been shoveled down the shaft to mine six. There was a scattering of people, but not the crowds Juliette had hoped. The great crowds were likely dead. And then a fleeting thought, an urge to laugh and feel ridiculous, the idea that the smoke was nothing, that the airlock up top had held, that everything was okay and that her friends would soon rib her about this panic she had caused.
But this hope vanished as quickly as it came. Nothing could cut through the metallic fear on her tongue, the sound of Peter’s voice telling her that the airlock was wide open, that people were collapsing, Lukas telling her that Sims was dead.
She pushed through the crowd pouring into the tunnel and called out for the children. Then she spotted Courtnee and Walker. Walker was wide-eyed, his jaw sagging. Juliette saw the crowds through his eyes and realized the burden she had left Courtnee with, the challenge of dragging this recluse once again from his lair.
“Have you seen the kids?” she yelled over the crowd.
“They’re already through!” Courtnee yelled back. “With your father.”
Juliette squeezed her arm and hurried into the darkness. There were lights flashing ahead — the few who had battery-powered torches, those with miner’s hats on — but between these beams were wide swaths of pitch black. She jostled with the invisible others who materialized solidly out of shadow. Rocks clattered down from the piles of tailings to either side; dust and debris fell from the ceiling, eliciting shrieks and curses. The passage was narrow between the rows of rubble. The tunnel had been made for a handful of people to pass through, no more. Most of the massive hole bored through the earth had been left full of the scraps the digging had generated.
Where logjams formed, some people attempted to scamper up and along the tops of these piles. This just pushed heaps of dirt and rock down on those between, filling the tunnel with screams and curses. Juliette helped dig someone out and urged everyone to stay in the center, not to shove, even as someone practically climbed over her back.
There were others who tried to turn back, afraid and confused and distrusting of this dark run in a straight line. Juliette and others yelled for them to continue on. A nightmare formed of bumping into the support beams hastily erected in the center of the tunnel, of crawling on hands and knees over tall piles from partial cave-ins, of a baby crying at the top of its lungs somewhere. The adults did a better job of dampening their sobs, but Juliette passed by dozens crying. The journey felt interminable, as if they would crawl and stumble through that tunnel for the rest of time, until the poisonous air caught them from behind.
A jam of foot traffic formed ahead, people shoving at each others’ backs, and flashlight beams played over the steel wall of the digger. The end of the tunnel. The access door at the back of the machine was open. Juliette found Raph standing by the door with one of the flashlights, his pale face aglow in the darkness, eyes wide and white.
She could barely hear him over the voices echoing back and forth in the dark shaft. She made her way to him, asked him who had already passed through.
“It’s too dark,” he said. “They can only get through one at a time. What the hell is going on? Why all the people? We thought you said—”
“Later,” she told him, hoping there would be a later. She doubted it. More likely, there would be piles of bodies at both ends of this silo. That would be the great difference between 17 and 18. Bodies at both ends. “The kids?” she asked, and as soon as she did, she wondered why with all the dead and dying she would concentrate on so few. The mother she never was, she suspected. The primal urge to look after her brood when far more than that was in peril.
“Yeah, quite a few kids came through.” He paused and shouted directions to a couple who didn’t want to enter the metal door at the back of this digger. Juliette could hardly blame them. They weren’t even from Mechanical. What did these people think was going on? Just following the panicked shoutings of others. Probably thought they were lost in the mines. It was a wild experience even for Juliette, who had scaled hills and seen the outside.
“What about Shirly?” Juliette asked.
He aimed his torch inside. “Saw her for sure. I think she’s in the digger. Directing traffic.”
She squeezed Raph’s arm, looked back at the writhing darkness of shadowy forms behind her. “Make sure you get through,” she told him, and his pale face nodded his consent.
Juliette squeezed into the queue and entered the back of the digger. Cries and shouts rattled within like children screaming into empty soup cans. Shirly was at the back of the power plant, directing the shuffling and shoving mass of people through a crack in the darkness so narrow that everyone had to turn sideways. The lights that’d been rigged up inside the digger to work the tailings were off, the backup generator idle, but Juliette could feel the residual heat from it having been run. She could hear the clicking of metal as it cooled. She wondered if Shirly had been operating the unit in order to move the machine and its power plant back toward Silo 18. She and Courtnee had been arguing over where the digger belonged.
“What the hell?” Shirly asked Juliette when she spotted her.
Juliette felt like bursting into tears. How to explain what she feared, that this was the end of everything they’d ever known? She shook her head and bit her lip. “We’re losing the silo,” she finally managed. “The outside’s getting in.”
“So why send them this way?” Shirly had to yell over the clamor of voices. She pulled Juliette to the other side of the generator, away from all the shouting.
“The air is coming down the stairwell,” Juliette said. “There’s no stopping it. I’m going to seal off the dig.”
Shirly chewed on this. “Take down the supports?”
“Not quite. The charges you wanted rigged up—”
Shirly’s face hardened. “Those charges are rigged from the other side. I rigged them to seal off
“Well, now all we
“You’re not going to—” Shirly started.
“I’ll make sure the last of them get through. There were a few dozen behind me. Maybe another hundred.” Juliette grasped her old friend’s arms. She wondered if they were still friends. She wondered if there was still that bond between them. She turned to go.
Shirly grabbed Juliette’s arm, the radio falling and clattering to the floor. Juliette tried to yank free.
“I’ll be damned,” Shirly shouted. She spun Juliette around. “I’ll be goddamned if you’re leaving me to this, in charge of this. I’ll be goddamned—”
There were cries somewhere, from a child or an adult, it was impossible to tell. Just a cacophony of confused and terrified voices echoing in the packed confines of that great steel machine. And in the darkness, Juliette couldn’t see the blow coming, couldn’t see Shirly’s fist. She just felt it on her jaw, marveled at the bright flash of light in the pitch black, and then remembered nothing for a while.
She came to moments or minutes later — it was impossible to tell. Curled up on the steel deck of the digger, the voices around her subdued and far away, she lay still while her face throbbed.
Fewer people. Just the ones who’d made it, and they were moving on through the bowels of the digger. She had been out for a minute or two, it seemed. Maybe longer. Much longer. Someone called her name, was looking for her in the black, but she was invisible curled up on the far side of the generator in the shadow of shadows. Someone called her name.
And then a great boom in the distance. It was like a sheet of three-inch steel falling and banging next to her head. A great rumble in the earth, a tremor felt right through the digger, and Juliette knew. Shirly had gone to the control room and had taken her place. She had set off the charges meant to protect her old home from this new one. She had doomed herself with the others.
Juliette wept. Someone called her name, and Juliette realized it was coming from the radio near her head. She reached for it numbly, her senses scrambled. It was Lukas.
“Luke,” she whispered, squeezing the transmit button. His voice meant he was outside the steel locker, the airtight pantry full of food. She thought of Solo surviving for decades on those cans. Lukas could too, if anyone could. “Get back inside,” she said, sobbing. “Seal yourself off.” She cradled the radio in both hands and remained curled up on the deck.
“I can’t,” Lukas said. There was coughing, an agonizing wheeze. “I had to… had to hear your voice. One last time.” The next bout of coughing could be felt in Juliette’s own chest, which was full to bursting. “I’m done, Jules. I’m done…”
“No.” She cried this to herself, and then squeezed the radio. “Lukas, you get inside that pantry right now. Lock it and hold on. Just hold on—”
She listened to him cough and struggle to find his voice. When it came, it was a rattle. “Can’t. This is it. This is it. I love you, Jules. I love you…”
The last was a whisper, barely more than static. Juliette wept and slapped the floor and screamed at him. She cursed him. She cursed herself. And through the open door of the digger, a cloud of dust billowed in on a cool breeze, and Juliette could taste it on her tongue, on her lips. It was the dry chalk of crushed rock, the remnants of Shirly’s blast far down the tunnel, the taste of everything she had ever known… dead.