I woke to the slow, creaking opening of the door, and the wind against the walls of the silo. The old man led me down the winding stairs and outside into the night.
“It’s cold.” My first words since waking.
“You’ll get used to it. I was freezing the first couple weeks.”
We stood in the dark, at the top of a hill surrounded by long-abandoned farmland. The silo was the only building left. In the daylight, we would be able to look out over empty fields that stretched for miles. That night we stared out into nothingness.
There was a small bunker near the base of the silo, built into the ground. The old man opened the door and led me down. The narrow stairwell opened into a small, bare room, decorated only with monitors depicting the hilltop up above. There was only one chair.
He showed me the slot in the wall where our rations appeared every twenty-four hours. One small vial of serum, taken by injection, provided the necessary vitamins, nutrients, and antibodies. We walked through the control room and past the storage room. He showed me how to refuel the silo and recharge the infrared shield.
We went back outside and sat around the fire. A pile of wood and a bucket of water guarded the grass behind us. Under the shadow of the silo, the old man spoke of his life, of sixty years of waiting. He told me little that I had not known, had not expected. As he talked, his voice would drop down to a whisper, and the sound of the wind on metal threatened to drown it out completely and leave me alone in the dark.
I did not ask how long he had left. The knowledge that he had awakened me loomed over us, a dominant feature of the hilltop.
“So you saw the bunker. And you used the bathroom. Everything else was covered in the training, really.”
The wood burned down. The coals were red when the old man suddenly doused the fire and knocked me off the log. I heard it too. We lay still in the grass, heads turned slightly to the side, facing each other. I could hear his heartbeat, pulsing wildly like my own.
Slowly, carefully, two enormous ships moved across the sky, flashing spotlights on the ground, back and forth over the grass. The clothes we wore had been chosen for this. Dirt and the smell of grass pressed against my nose, and minutes felt like hours. The two ships advanced toward us, one nearly in line with where we lay on the ground, the other about a quarter mile to the south, in the direction my feet were pointing. When the ship that was closest to us passed overhead, the noise was deafening.
They reached the bottom of the hill and stopped, hovering. We watched, our breath caught in our throats, as the bottoms of both enormous spacecraft opened, completely synchronized. Out of each dropped a small flying saucer. The two miniature pods met up and flew with speed that neither parent ship could have possessed. Straight toward us.
“Run!” hissed the old man. It was a figure of speech. Instinctively, we both stayed on the ground, heads down, crawling quickly toward the bunker. The old man opened the hatch and we slipped down below, shutting the door behind us without making a sound.
After a minute of waiting at the top of the steps with our hearts pounding, we snuck down the stairs to watch the scene outside on the monitors. The two saucers had reached the silo. One rotated around the building, slowly, while the other scanned the field.
Then they were gone, flying back toward the two great motherships, which opened once more to accept them. We stayed in the bunker, staring at the screens before us as the ships began to move again, receding into the night. It would have been safe now to rebuild the fire, but we sat in silence.
Finally, I asked the old man, “Have they come before?”
“Once. Forty years ago. Before that, I think it’d been over two hundred. There’s a logbook around here somewhere.”
“I know.” I was silent for a moment. “I didn’t expect it to be like that.”
“No.” His voice was soft. “I don’t see how you could have.”
The silence in the underground room was deafening in the absence of wind against metal.
We stayed underground until the sun began to rise. When we opened up the bunker door and climbed back onto the surface, the barren landscape around us felt exposed. Vulnerable. We sat back on the logs we had abandoned, now covered in a thin layer of dew.
The old man looked at the fire, staring down into the wet, black coals. “I’m sorry if I startled you when I woke you up. That was the hardest part. Last night. Bringing you back into the world. You won’t have an easy life. I didn’t.”
I nodded. I didn’t know what to say. The sun was climbing up in the sky and the shadow of the great tower was growing longer, stretching out down the hill toward the empty fields below.
He stood up from his log and looked at me. There was a sense of finality in his words. “I think I’ll go lie down for a while.” He walked slowly to the bunker and opened the lid.
“Wait,” I called out. He turned. “Thank you.”
He looked at me for a moment, then nodded. He turned back to the bunker and descended to his final resting place.
I wanted to call out again, to ask him to sit and wait with me a little longer. But we didn’t have the rations for two watchmen. The calculations had been thorough. Our resources had been stretched as thin as they could go. The old man had done his duty. The least I could do was respect his privacy and leave him to die as he had lived.
The old man had spoken truly – there was no way I could be prepared for this. But there was no other choice, for any of us. The enemy had made a mockery of our technology. Automated surveillance was never an option.
I turned my gaze up from the bunker to look up at the silo. Sixty years per person, and I am number two thousand one hundred and twenty-two of ten thousand.
I will serve out my term, and then wake up number two thousand one hundred and twenty-three. One day, the world will be safe again for our species to live as a civilization. But until then, the fate of humanity rests with us, the people of the silo.