For all those who find themselves well and truly alone.
IN 2007, THE Center for Automation in Nanobiotech (CAN) outlined the hardware and software platforms that would one day allow robots smaller than human cells to make medical diagnoses, conduct repairs and even self-propagate.
That same year, CBS re-aired a programme about the effects of propranolol on sufferers of extreme trauma. A simple pill, it had been discovered, could wipe out the memory of any traumatic event.
At almost the same moment in humanity’s broad history, mankind had discovered the means for bringing about its utter downfall. And the ability to forget it ever happened.
FIRST SHIFT – LEGACY
Beneath the hills of Fulton County, Georgia
TROY RETURNED TO the living and found himself inside a tomb. He awoke to a world of confinement, a thick sheet of frosted glass pressed near to his face.
Dark shapes stirred on the other side of the icy murk. He tried to lift his arms, to beat on the glass, but his muscles were too weak. He attempted to scream – but could only cough. The taste in his mouth was foul. His ears rang with the clank of heavy locks opening, 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, his breath clouding the chill air. Someone had water. Pills to take. The water was cool, the pills bitter. Troy fought down a few gulps. He was unable to hold the glass without help. His hands trembled as memories flooded back, scenes from long nightmares. The feeling of deep time and yesterdays mingled. He shivered.
A paper gown. The sting of tape removed. A tug on his arm, a tube pulled from his groin. Two men dressed in white helped him out of the coffin. Steam rose all around him, air condensing and dispersing.
Sitting up and blinking against the glare, exercising lids long shut, Troy looked down the rows of coffins full of the living that stretched towards the distant and curved walls. The ceiling felt low; the suffocating press of dirt stacked high above. And the years. So many had passed. Anyone he cared about would be gone.
Everything was gone.
The pills stung his throat. He tried to swallow. Memories faded like dreams upon waking, and he felt his grip loosen on everything he’d known.
He collapsed backwards – but the men in the white overalls saw this coming. They caught him and lowered him to the ground, a paper gown rustling on shivering skin.
Images returned; recollections rained down like bombs and then were gone.
The pills would only do so much. It would take time to destroy the past.
Troy began to sob into his palms, a sympathetic hand resting on his head. The two men in white allowed him this moment. They 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 rise to discover.
And eventually . . . forget.
THE TALL GLASS trophy cabinets had once served as bookshelves. There were hints. Hardware on the shelves dated back centuries, while the hinges and the tiny locks on the glass doors went back mere decades. The framing around the glass was cherry, but the cases had been built of oak. Someone had attempted to remedy this with a few coats of stain, but the grain didn’t match. The colour wasn’t perfect. To trained eyes, details such as these were glaring.
Congressman Donald Keene gathered these clues without meaning to. He simply saw that long ago there had been a great purge, a making of space. At some point in the past, the Senator’s waiting room had been stripped of its obligatory law books until only a handful remained. These tomes sat silently in the dim corners of the glass cabinets. They were shut in, their spines laced with cracks, old leather flaking off like sunburned skin.
A handful of Keene’s fellow freshmen filled the waiting room, pacing and stirring, their terms of service newly begun. Like Donald, they were young and still hopelessly optimistic. They were bringing change to Capitol Hill. They hoped to deliver where their similarly naive predecessors had not.
While they waited their turns to meet with the great Senator Thurman from their home state of Georgia, they chatted nervously among themselves. They were a gaggle of priests, Donald imagined, all lined up to meet the Pope, to kiss his ring. He let out a heavy breath and focused on the contents of the case, lost himself in the treasures behind the glass while a fellow representative from Georgia prattled on about his district’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
‘—and they have this detailed guide on their website, this response and readiness manual in case of, okay, get this – a zombie invasion. Can you believe that? Fucking zombies. Like even the CDC thinks something could go wrong and suddenly we’d all be eating each other—’
Donald stifled a smile, fearful its reflection would be caught in the glass. He turned and looked over a collection of photographs on the walls, one each of the Senator with the last four presidents. It was the same pose and handshake in each shot, the same background of windless flags and fancy oversized seals. The Senator hardly seemed to change as the presidents came and went. His hair started white and stayed white; he seemed perfectly unfazed by the passing of decades.
Seeing the photographs side by side devalued each of them somehow. They looked staged. Phoney. It was as if this collection of the world’s most powerful men had each begged for the opportunity to stand and pose with a cardboard cut-out, a roadside attraction.
Donald laughed, and the congressman from Atlanta joined him.
‘I know, right? Zombies. It’s hilarious. But think about it, okay? Why would the CDC even have this field manual unless—’
Donald wanted to correct his fellow congressman, to tell him what he’d really been laughing about. Look at the smiles, he wanted to say. They were on the faces of the presidents. The Senator looked as if he’d rather be anyplace else. It looked as if each in this succession of commanders-in-chief knew who the more powerful man was, who would be there long after they had come and gone.
‘—it’s advice like, everyone should have a baseball bat with their flashlights and candles, right? Just in case. You know, for bashing brains. ’
Donald pulled out his phone and checked the time. He glanced at the door leading off the waiting room and wondered how much longer he’d have to wait. Putting the phone away, he turned back to the cabinet and studied a shelf where a military uniform had been carefully arranged like a delicate work of origami. The left breast of the jacket featured a wall of medals; the sleeves were folded over and pinned to highlight the gold braids sewn along the cuffs. In front of the uniform, a collection of decorative coins rested in a custom wooden rack, tokens of appreciation from men and women serving overseas.
The two arrangements spoke volumes: the uniform from the past and the coins from those currently deployed, bookends on a pair of wars. One that the Senator had fought in as a youth. The other, a war he had battled to prevent as an older and wiser man.
‘—yeah, it sounds crazy, I know, but do you know what rabies does to a dog? I mean, what it really does, the biological—’
Donald leaned in closer to study the decorative coins. The number and slogan on each one represented a deployed group. Or was it a battalion? He couldn’t remember. His sister Charlotte would know. She was over there somewhere, out in the field.
‘Hey, aren’t you even a little nervous about this?’
Donald realised the question had been aimed at him. He turned and faced the talkative congressman. He must’ve been in his mid-thirties, around Donald’s age. In him, Donald could see his own thinning hair, his own beginnings of
‘Am I nervous about zombies?’ Donald laughed. ‘No. Can’t say that I am. ’
The congressman stepped up beside Donald, his eyes drifting towards the imposing uniform that stood propped up as if a warrior’s chest remained inside. ‘No,’ the man said. ‘About meeting him. ’
The door to the reception area opened, bleeps from the phones on the other side leaking out.
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 the congressman from Atlanta on the shoulder as he stepped past.
‘Hey, good luck,’ the gentleman stammered after him.
Donald smiled. He fought the temptation to turn and tell the man that he knew the Senator well enough, that he had been bounced on his knee back when he was a child. Only – Donald was too busy hiding his own nerves to bother.
He stepped through the deeply panelled door of rich hardwoods and entered the Senator’s inner sanctum. This wasn’t like passing through a foyer to pick up a man’s daughter for a date. This was different. This was the pressure of meeting as colleagues when Donald still felt like that same young child.
‘Through here,’ the receptionist said. She guided Donald between pairs of wide and busy desks, a dozen phones chirping in short bursts. Young men and women in suits and crisp blouses double-fisted receivers. Their bored expressions suggested that this was a normal workload for a weekday morning.
Donald reached out a hand as he passed one of the desks, brushing the wood with his fingertips. Mahogany. The aides here had desks nicer than his own. And the decor: the plush carpet, the broad and ancient crown cornicing, the antique tile ceiling, the dangling light fixtures that may have been actual crystal.
At the end of the buzzing and bleeping room, a panelled door opened and disgorged Congressman Mick Webb, just finished with his meeting. Mick didn’t notice Donald, was too absorbed by the open folder he held in front of him.
Donald stopped and waited for his colleague and old college friend to approach. ‘So,’ he asked, ‘how did it go?’
Mick looked up and snapped the folder shut. He tucked it under his arm and nodded. ‘Yeah, yeah. It went great. ’ He smiled. ‘Sorry if we ran long. The old man couldn’t get enough of me. ’
Donald laughed. He believed that. Mick had swept into office with ease. He had the charisma and confidence that went along with being tall and handsome. Donald used to joke that if his friend wasn’t so shit with names, he’d be president someday. ‘No problem,’ Donald said. He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. ‘I was making new friends. ’
Mick grinned. ‘I bet. ’
‘Yeah, well, I’ll see you back at the ranch. ’
‘Sure thing. ’ Mick slapped him on the arm with the folder and headed for the exit. Donald caught the glare from the Senator’s receptionist and hurried over. She waved him through to the dimly lit office and pulled the door shut behind him.
‘Congressman Keene. ’
Senator Paul Thurman stood from behind his desk and stretched out a hand. He flashed a familiar smile, one Donald had come to recognise as much from photos and TV as from his childhood. Despite Thurman’s age – he had to be pushing seventy if he wasn’t already there – the Senator was trim and fit. His Oxford shirt hugged a military frame; a thick neck bulged out of his knotted tie; his white hair remained as crisp and orderly as an enlisted man’s.
Donald crossed the dark room and shook the Senator’s hand.
‘Good to see you, sir. ’
‘Please, sit. ’ Thurman released Donald’s hand and gestured to one of the chairs across from his desk. Donald lowered himself into the bright red leather, the gold grommets along the arm like sturdy rivets in a steel beam.
‘Helen?’ Donald straightened his tie. ‘She’s great. She’s back in Savannah. She really enjoyed seeing you at the reception. ’
‘She’s a beautiful woman, your wife. ’
‘Thank you, sir. ’ Donald fought to relax, which didn’t help. The office had the pall of dusk, even with the overhead lights on. The clouds outside had turned nasty – low and dark. If it rained, he would have to take the underpass back to his office. He hated being down there. They could carpet it and hang those little chandeliers at intervals, but he could still tell he was below ground. The tunnels in Washington made him feel like a rat scurrying through a sewer. It always seemed as if the roof was about to cave in.
‘How’s the job treating you so far?’
‘The job’s good. Busy, but good. ’
He started to ask the Senator how Anna was doing, but the door behind him opened before he could. The receptionist entered and delivered two bottles of water. Donald thanked her, twisted the cap on his and saw that it had been pre-opened.
‘I hope you’re not too busy to work on something for me. ’ Senator Thurman raised an eyebrow. Donald took a sip of water and wondered if that was a skill one could master, that eyebrow lift. It made him want to jump to attention and salute.
‘I’m sure I can make the time,’ he said. ‘After all the stumping you did for me? I doubt I would’ve made it past the primaries. ’ He fiddled with the water bottle in his lap.
‘You and Mick Webb go back, right? Both Bulldogs. ’
It took Donald a moment to realise the Senator was referring to their college mascot. He hadn’t spent a lot of time at Georgia following sports. ‘Yessir. Go Dawgs. ’
He hoped that was right.
The Senator smiled. He leaned forward so that his face caught the soft light raining down on his desk. Donald watched as shadows grew in wrinkles otherwise easy to miss. Thurman’s lean face and square chin made him look younger head-on than he did in profile. Here was a man who got places by approaching others directly rather than in ambush.
‘You studied architecture at Georgia. ’
by Hugh Howey / Science Fiction & Fantasy / Short Stories / Literature & Fiction have rating 5.3 out of 5 / Based on32 votes