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Wool, Page 2

Hugh Howey

Page 2


  Suddenly, Holston saw himself through Jahns’ eyes, saw a broken man sitting on a worn bench, his skin gray 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 onto, 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 anymore.

  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.

  “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 to himself.

  “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 broke it.

  “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 prisoners 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. There was a reflexive obstinacy. 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 veil of lies.

  “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, agonizing 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 gray, 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 only been subdivided 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 villainous 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 judgment, 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 toward 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 plowed a path through the paperwork at his feet, putting the files back in stacks as he worked his way toward 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 this 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 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 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 were 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 to release 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.