DONALD COULDN’T FEEL his toes. His feet were bare and had yet to thaw. They were bare, but all around him were boots. Boots everywhere. Boots on the men pushing him through aisles of gleaming pods. Boots standing still while they took his blood and told him to pee. Stiff boots that squeaked in the lift as grown men shifted nervously in place. And up above, a frantic hall greeted them where men stomped by in boots, a hall laden with shouts and nervous, lowered brows. They pushed him to a small apartment and left him alone to clean up and thaw out. Outside his door, more boots clomped up and down, up and down. Hurrying, hurrying. A world of worry, confusion and noise in which to wake.
Donald remained half asleep, sitting on a bed, his consciousness floating somewhere above the floor. Deep exhaustion gripped him. He was back to aboveground days, back when stirring and waking were two separate things. Mornings when he gained consciousness in the shower or behind the wheel on his way into work, long after he had begun to move. The mind lagged behind the body; it swam through the dust kicked up by numb and shuffling feet. Waking from decades of freezing cold felt like this. Dreams of which he was dimly aware slipped from his grasp, and Donald was eager to let them go.
The apartment they’d brought him to was down the hall from his old office. They had passed it along the way. That meant he was on the operations wing, a place where he used to work. An empty pair of boots sat at the foot of the bed. Donald stared at them numbly. The name ‘Thurman’ wrapped around the back of each ankle in faded black marker. Somehow, these boots were meant for him. They had been calling him Mr Thurman since he woke up, but that was not who he was. A mistake had been made. A mistake or a cruel trick. Some kind of game.
Fifteen minutes to get ready. That’s what they’d said. Ready for what? Donald sat on the double cot, wrapped in a blanket, occasionally shivering. The wheelchair had been left with him. Thoughts and memories reluctantly assembled like exhausted soldiers roused from their bunks in the middle of the night and told to form ranks in the freezing rain.
Sensation and awareness gathered. Donald could feel the dent in the mattress the size and shape of another’s body. This depression left behind by another tugged at him. On the wall behind the door, a crater stood where the knob had struck, where the door had been flung open. An emergency, perhaps. A fight or an accident. Someone barging inside. A scene of violence. Hundreds of years of stories he wasn’t privy to. Fifteen minutes to get his thoughts together.
There was an ID badge on the bedside table with a bar code and a name. No picture, fortunately. Donald touched the badge, remembered seeing it in use. He left it where it was and rose shakily on creaky legs, held the wheelchair for support and moved towards the small bathroom.
There was a bandage on his arm where the doctor had drawn his blood. Dr Wilson. He’d already given a urine sample but he needed to pee again. Allowing his blanket to fall open, he stood over the toilet. The stream was pink. Donald thought he remembered it being the colour of charcoal on his last shift. When he finished, he stepped into the shower to wash off.
The water was hot, his bones cold. Donald shivered in a fog of steam. He opened his mouth and allowed the spray to hit his tongue and fill his cheeks. He scrubbed at the memory of poison on his flesh, a memory that made it impossible to feel clean. For a moment, it wasn’t the scalding water burning his skin — it was the air. The outside air. But then he turned off the flow of water and the burning lessened.
He towelled off and found the overalls left out for him. They were too big. Donald shrugged them on anyway, the fabric rough against skin that had lain bare for who knew how long. There was a knock at the door as he worked the zipper up to his neck. Someone called a name that was not his, a name scrawled around the backs of the boots lying perfectly still on the bed, a name that graced the badge sitting on the bedside table.
‘Coming,’ Donald croaked, his voice thin and weak. He slid the badge into his pocket and sat heavily on the bed. He rolled up his cuffs, all that extra material, before pulling the boots on one at a time. He fumbled with the laces, stood, and found that he could wiggle his toes in the space left behind by another.
Many years ago, Donald Keene had been elevated by a simple change in title. Power and importance had come in an instant. For all his life, he had been a man to whom few listened. A man with a degree, a string of jobs, a wife, a modest home. And then one night, a computer tallied stacks of ballots and Donald Keene became Congressman Keene. He became one of hundreds with his hand on some great tiller — a struggle of hands pushing, pulling and fitfully steering.
It had happened overnight, and it was happening again.
‘How’re you feeling, sir?’
The man outside his apartment studied Donald with concern. The badge around his neck read
‘Still groggy,’ Donald said quietly. A gentleman in bright blue overalls raced by and disappeared around the bend. A gentle breeze followed, a stir of air that smelled of coffee and perspiration.
‘Are you good to walk? I’m sorry about the rush, but then I’m sure you’re used to it.’ Eren pointed down the hall. ‘They’re waiting in the comm room.’
Donald nodded and followed. He remembered these halls being quieter, remembered them without the stomping and the raised voices. There were scuff marks on the walls that he thought were new. Reminders of how much time had passed.
In the comm room, all eyes turned to him. Someone was in trouble — Donald could feel it. Eren led him to a chair, and everyone watched and waited. He sat down and saw that there was a frozen image on the screen in front of him. A button was pressed and the image lurched into motion.
Thick dust tumbled and swirled across the view, making it difficult to see. Clouds flew past in unruly sheets. But there, through the gaps, a figure in a bulky suit could be seen on a forbidding landscape, picking their way up a gentle swell, heading away from the camera. It was someone outside.
He wondered if this was
‘This was earlier this morning,’ Eren said.
Donald nodded and tried to calm himself. This wasn’t him on the screen. They didn’t know who he was. A surge of relief washed over him, a stark contrast to the nerves in the room and the shouts and hurrying boots in the hallway. Donald remembered being told that someone had disappeared over a hill when they’d pulled him from the pod. It was the first thing they’d told him. This was that person on the screen. This was why he’d been woken. He licked his lips and asked who it was.
‘We’re putting a file together for you now, sir. Should have it soon. What we do know is that there was a cleaning scheduled in eighteen this morning. Except…’
Eren hesitated. Donald turned from the screen and caught the Ops head looking to the others for help. One of the operators — a large man in orange overalls with wiry hair and headphones around his neck — was the first to oblige. ‘The cleaning didn’t go through,’ the operator said flatly.
Several of the men in boots stiffened. Donald glanced around the room at the crowd that had packed into the small comm centre, and he saw how they were watching him. Waiting on him. The Ops head looked down at the floor in defeat. He appeared to be in his mid thirties, the same age as Donald, and yet he was waiting to be chastised. These were the men in trouble, not him.
Donald tried to think. The people in charge were looking to
‘What direction were they heading?’ he asked, his voice a whisper. The others held perfectly still so that the rustle of their overalls wouldn’t compete with his words.
A man from the back of the room answered. ‘In the direction of seventeen, sir.’
Donald composed himself. He remembered the Order, the danger of letting anyone out of sight. These people in their silos with a limited view of the world thought that they were the only ones alive. They lived in bubbles that must not be allowed to burst. ‘Any word from seventeen?’ he asked.
‘Seventeen is gone,’ the operator beside him said, dispensing more bad news with the same flat voice.
Donald cleared his throat. ‘Gone?’ He searched the faces of the gathered. Foreheads creased with worry. Eren studied Donald, and the operator beside him adjusted his bulk in his seat. On the screen, the cleaner disappeared over the top of the hill and out of view. ‘What did this cleaner do?’ he asked.
‘It wasn’t her,’ Eren said.
‘Seventeen was shut down shifts ago,’ the operator said.
‘Right, right.’ Donald ran his fingers through his hair. His hand was trembling.
‘You feeling all right?’ the operator asked. He glanced at the Ops head, then back to Donald. He knew. Donald sensed that this man in orange with the headphones around his neck knew something was wrong.
‘Still a bit woozy,’ Donald explained.
‘He’s only been up for half an hour,’ Eren told the operator.
There were murmurs from the back of the room.
‘Yeah, okay.’ The operator settled back into his seat. ‘It’s just… he’s the Shepherd, you know? I pictured him waking up chewing nails and farting tacks.’
Someone just behind Donald’s chair chuckled.
‘So what’re we supposed to do about the cleaner?’ a voice asked. ‘We need permission before we can send anyone out after her.’
‘She can’t have gotten far,’ someone said.
The comm engineer on the other side of Donald spoke up. He had one half of his headphones still on, the other half pulled off so he could follow the conversation. A sheen of sweat stood out on his forehead. ‘Eighteen is reporting that her suit was modified,’ he said. ‘There’s no telling how long it’ll last. She could still be out there, sirs.’
This caused a chorus of whispers. It sounded like wind striking a visor, peppering it with sand. Donald stared at the screen, at a lifeless hill as seen from silo eighteen. The dust came in dark waves. He remembered what it had felt like out there on that landscape, the difficulty of moving in one of those suits, the hard slog up that gentle rise. Who was this cleaner, and where did she think she was going?
‘Get me the file on this cleaner as soon as you can,’ he said. The others fell still and stopped their whispering arguments. Donald’s voice was commanding because of its quietude, because of who they thought he was. ‘And I want whatever we have on seventeen.’ He glanced at the operator, whose brow was furrowed by either worry or suspicion. ‘To refresh my memory,’ he added.
Eren rested a hand on the back of Donald’s chair. ‘What about the protocols?’ he asked. ‘Shouldn’t we scramble a drone or send someone after her? Or shut down eighteen? There’s going to be violence over there. We’ve never had a cleaning not go through before.’
Donald shook his head, which was beginning to clear. He looked down at his hand and remembered tearing off a glove once, there on the outside. He shouldn’t be alive. He wondered what Thurman would do, what the old man would order. But he wasn’t Thurman. Someone had told him once that people like Donald should be in charge. And now here he was.
‘We don’t do anything just yet,’ he said, coughing and clearing his throat. ‘She won’t get far.’
The others stared at him with a mixture of shock and acceptance. There finally came a handful of nods. They assumed he knew best. He had been woken up to control the situation. It was all according to protocol. The system could be trusted — it was designed to just