“Sheriff, this is crazy talk. You’re not in your right mind.”
“Believe me, I wish that were true,” he says, but he’s smiling back at her. Bright and untroubled, like he hasn’t since Mary died.
Ellen plants her hands on her hips and tries hard not to think about how, right this moment, he looks like her friend again. Like the man Mary fell in love with, the guy Bill would’ve followed right to the surface of the earth, if he’d asked.
“Come on,” she says. “You don’t have to do this. It’s just me and you in here. Nobody else has to know. You’ll take a couple weeks off, we’ll get you some counselling. I’m willing to forget these last five minutes ever happened.”
He shakes his head. “My mind’s made up, Mayor.”
“Sheriff. John. Don’t make me do this.”
“I’m sorry, Ellen. I truly am.” He at least has the grace to look like he means it. “I want to go outside.”
“The hell are you doing still down here, boy?”
Dean keeps his eyes on the soldering iron in his hand. Focuses on the clatter of Mechanical setting up for another day, the corridor outside echoing with chatter as the morning shift takes over, and does his best to tune out Bobby’s voice.
“I know you heard me.”
He grits his teeth. “I got work to do.”
“You got a month’s worth of vacation chits you never use and young legs’ll get you to the up tops in a day, is what you got. Now if you won’t get up there and pay your respects to your old man, at least go pay him mine.”
“It ain’t a funeral, Bobby, it’s an execution.” Dean replaces the soldering iron, eyes narrowing behind his safety goggles. “What d’you want me to do, stand shoulder to shoulder with all the vultures hanging around up there for a look through their clean shiny viewscreen and not punch anybody in the goddamn face?”
“Only choice you got, unless you want to be next out that door.”
Dean scowls. “They won’t get it, anyway.”
“You think he’ll refuse to clean? Nobody ever has.”
“Yeah, well. I know my dad.” He swallows, looks at his hands. “Least, I thought I did.” That last part’s a mutter under his breath, spoken mostly to himself.
Bobby catches it, though—of course he fucking does—and he manoeuvres his chair up to the bench, fixing Dean with a Singer Special cut the bullshit look. “You’re angry. I get that. Hell, I’m angry—at your old man, much as anybody else.” He pauses then, and there’s this flicker of distance in his eyes, and oh, crap. Dean knows what he’s gonna say next before it comes out: “You got every right to be angry. But you don’t get up there and say your goodbyes while you got the chance, you will never stop regretting it.”
Because Dean has never really thought about it before, never tried to piece the timeline together. He only has the vaguest childhood memories of Bobby out of his chair, and the idea of Bobby anywhere outside of the down deeps doesn’t quite compute. But.
Bobby had his accident the year after Karen was sent to cleaning. He could’ve followed the crowds to the up tops. Could’ve watched her walk out through that door into the toxic air, strained to catch one last glimpse of her face through the visor as she wiped the viewscreen clean. Could’ve memorised the place where she fell—had some kind of a marker to remember her by, the way other families have stunted apple trees planted in the mids, the way Dean has a dip in the ground outside that Dad pointed to on the viewscreen, just once, with a shaky finger and said, that’s where your mom is.
But Bobby didn’t. The dead weight of it is there in his voice, in the slump of his shoulders, and it’s what tells Dean that he’s lost the argument.
“Get outta here,” Bobby tells him. “I may not be your caster anymore, but I will still kick your ass right up to the mids if I find you back here tomorrow, legs or no legs.”
Dean lets out a sigh, shoves his goggles up over his head. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, alright, I’m gone.”
He takes one of the radios he’s been fixing up in his off hours with him, snagging a couple spare components out of the latest box of deliveries on his way out. Hey, he’s gonna need something to take his mind off things tonight, when he inevitably gives up on sleeping. Maybe Bobby’s right, maybe he’s gotta do this, but that doesn’t mean it’s gonna bring him any peace. After all, he already knows what he’ll see.
One more person Dean loves, turning his back and walking away.
Benny’s over on the other side of the section, by the look of things giving one of the new shadows an earful about not putting her tools away properly. Dean isn’t in the mood for conversation with anyone right now, so instead of going over he raps his fist against the silo wall where it rings hollow, their usual way of getting attention across the noise, and points upstairs to indicate he’s cutting out early.
He drops in to see Lisa before he heads up, lets her know he’s not gonna swing by tonight like he was planning, promises to bring Ben a fresh tomato from the mids on his way back down. She’s a smart chick, luckily enough—doesn’t try to soothe him with platitudes, just sends him on his way with a murmur of understanding.
Then he makes his way to the vast central staircase, gets his head down, and climbs.
Climbing’s a bitch. Dean isn’t in bad shape, but he hasn’t made a trip like this in maybe two years—not since Dad made it abundantly clear that he didn’t want Dean’s help, and Sammy made it even clearer that he didn’t want anything to do with either of them—and by the time he’s out of the down deeps, his legs are aching and he’s starting to wish he’d brought an extra water canteen. A couple middle-aged porters, carrying a double load of faulty parts back up to Supply, trot past him at a breakneck pace, and just looking at them makes Dean’s lungs hurt.
That’s okay, though. When he stops on One-Forty to fill up, and Jody in the security station gives him a wave, he can pretend like he’s out of breath to avoid her commiserations.
Late afternoon, Dean stops off in the mids, goes looking for Pam. There’ll be hell to pay if he avoids her, he knows—plus, he figures she’s one of the few people he could stand to be around right now, has enough honesty and enough black humour in her that she couldn’t come out with a cliché if she tried.
The farms are peaceful, the light of the growlamps showing soft and green through the vegetation, the low background hum of hydroponics a constant. He finds Pam on her knees in the soil near the back of her plot, trowel in hand. She gets to her feet as she hears him approach, smiles.
“Dean Winchester,” she says, before he’s even opened his mouth to greet her.
He shakes his head. “I don’t know how you do that.”
“You know what they say. You lose one sense, you develop others.” She wiggles her fingers in what Dean figures is supposed to be a spooky gesture. “Second sight.”
He manages a laugh, though it’s half-assed. “I ain’t buying it.”
Pam’s face softens, the brightness of her smile turning down a couple notches. “I heard the news. Figured you’d show up.”
“Yeah.” Dean heaves a sigh. If Pam hears it, she’s kind enough not to look like she does. “Came to see if I could scrounge up something to eat. Fair exchange, of course. I got the chits—unless there’s anything round here needs fixing? Save you calling Maintenance.”
Pam just nods and says that a few of them are gonna be eating in a half hour or so, and there’s a sprinkler in the corner that isn’t working, so Dean can keep himself busy with that while he waits. He grabs a ladder and gets on it willingly, glad for something to occupy his mind after most of a day on the stairs. Climbing’s hard on the legs, sure, but it’s easy on the brain in a way Dean doesn’t need right now, the rhythmic mindlessness of it giving him way too much time to turn over old grievances and what ifs and should’ves in his head. He focuses hard on the task, willing away all the crap he’s been thinking about during the climb, and then he fixes up a loose cover on a vent that doesn’t seem to be doing anything, and by the time he’s done, one of Pam’s coworkers is poking her head between two rows of beans, telling them they better haul ass if they don’t want to go hungry.
They squeeze themselves in on the end of one of the long communal tables. It’s noisy, and Pam dives right on into the chatter, gesturing energetically with her fork as she argues with a neighbour about the best temperature for growing strawberries. Dean keeps quiet, mostly, eats and lets the shop talk wash over him, paying just enough attention for it to keep his mind off more important things.
He’s standing in line to wash up afterwards when Pam comes up beside him and squeezes his shoulder.
“Becky says she’ll watch my plot for a couple nights,” she tells him. “I’ll climb with you.”
Honestly, Dean isn’t sure he wants the company. Part of him—okay, most of him—just wants to be left the fuck alone right now. On the other hand, there’s still that whole thinking thing he really doesn’t want to do.
He doesn’t say any of that. He cracks a smile. “Yeah, yeah,” he says. “You just wanna come get drunk with Ellen, don’t you?”
Just for a second, Pam looks like she might contradict him, say something serious. Then she smirks, says, “You got me. Get your things, I’ll be ready in fifteen.”
“Sure,” Dean says. He watches her go.
Pam knew his parents, when they were younger, same as Ellen did, and Bobby. She’s a couple years younger than the rest of them, not old enough to have been involved in any of what went down, but she remembers. Dean’s pretty sure of that. He also knows—from experience—that trying to get any information about the old days out of any of them is about as much use as banging your head against the silo wall, but he wonders. Maybe he might find a clue in there somewhere, this time around. People get nostalgic at funerals, right?
“Move it along, kid. Some of us got work to do.” Dean realises he’s gotten to the front of the line.
He shakes himself, scowls, and sets to scrubbing his plate. This isn’t a funeral. He’s gotta keep reminding himself of that. And maybe he doesn’t want a clue.
They make camp on Twenty-Five, shortly before midnight. The guy manning the security station scowls at them when they start to set up, looking like he’s just itching to get over there and move them on, but doesn’t say anything. Not like they’re gonna be cluttering up his landing for long, anyway. They’ll be up early for the final climb to the up tops, ready for the cleaning at the break of dawn.
It doesn’t make much sense to Dean, the way the people up top run their lives by the schedule of an outside world they aren’t really a part of. Outside isn’t a thing you think about much in the down deeps. It feels like another world. Living up here, though, with it always in view but never close enough to touch, watching the light change out there, knowing the surface is just a little way above your head—yeah, it’d be hard to forget about it.
Maybe that’s what made Dad crazy. Being able to just look out there anytime he wanted and see where Mom—
Dean frowns, shoves the thought down. Lets himself be distracted by Pam rummaging in her pack, producing a small tin of dried dark green and two tin mugs, which she holds out to him.
“Go get some hot water,” she tells him. “We need the sleep.”
The scowling guy on the security station looks to have gone home for the night, when Dean gets over there. He’s been replaced by a different guy—younger, good-looking in a way Dean might notice in more than passing if this was a different day—who he soon charms into letting them have a canteen of hot water and a couple shots of the whiskey stashed away in the desk drawer.
He and Pam sit and drink in companiable silence. You’ve got to hand it to Pam—she may like to talk, but when it comes down to it, she knows what quiet is, and when it’s necessary.
But even with the quiet and the tea and the alcohol, Dean isn’t sleepy. When Pam turns in early, pulling her sleeping bag up over her head, he still feels restless. He gets to his feet and makes his way over to the stair rail, leaning out over it, staring down into the depths to where his eyesight runs out and the staircase and the people dissolve into darkness. Up here, the silo turns quiet at night, most of the sections manned by skeleton crews. It oughta be peaceful. Only, looking out makes him think about how far buried in that blackness the down deeps are, and how Dad won’t ever see them again, and in the end he turns away, trying to tamp down on the sick feeling in his gut.
He ends up pulling Bobby’s radio out of his pack, sitting up with a flashlight nestled in the crook of his arm while he tries to finish fixing the damn thing. He fixes in the spare receiver he grabbed earlier and switches it on, which earns him a brief crackle of white noise. Life, even if it’s life with nothing to say for itself.
Dean peers at the inside of the radio again. Funny, but the receiver he’s fitted doesn’t look exactly like the ones they normally use for their radios down in Mechanical. It’s hard to tell, with only his flashlight and the shitty emergency lighting on the stairs to see by, but it looks like there’s a different component number on there. He shrugs, fits on the back of the radio, and tries again.
Then, somewhere deep within the white noise, indistinct with it, somebody says, Hello?
It’s enough to startle him, in the quiet sleeping dark of the up tops at night. Just hello—no name, no floor number. It sounds far away, like a ghost hanging somewhere in the ether. Dean stares at the radio for a second before he presses the button and speaks into it.
“Hey,” he says, and then he hesitates. Answering with your last name is normal practice. But Winchester is pretty well known around the silo right now, and not in a good way, and there is no universe in which Dean is up for discussing that with some random stranger. “Name’s Dean,” he says, at last. “Up on Twenty-Five. You?”
Another wash of static, a stutter of chopped-off consonants. Then the flat crackle of dead air.
“Hey,” Dean says, again. He pulls the back off the radio and fiddles with the receiver again, which does nothing. He takes out the transmitter and replaces it, even shakes the damn thing a little, but his ghost stays gone.
The last twenty floors are an easy climb, but they make it in silence. Dean didn’t hear another peep from his radio ghost, but he hasn’t slept, either. Even with the luxury of fresh fruit from Pam’s plot on offer, he couldn’t stomach breakfast. His back aches from the hard floor.
None of those things is why he feels his feet dragging as they reach the up tops.
The foot traffic thickens around them as they climb, most of it heading up. Going to watch the cleaning.
The faces around them are mostly solemn, but the quiet’s broken by snatches of gossip, snacks being shared around between groups of climbers, kids balanced on their parents’ shoulders being reassured that yes, after this, they really will get their first clear glimpse of the outside world. It’s the first cleaning in years, after all; the viewscreen’s been thick with grime since most of these kids were born.
The serious expressions—they’re just custom, like wearing black to the funeral of someone you didn’t really know. Beyond that, this is an occasion, it’s fucking Christmas to most of the silo. It’s that undercurrent of excitement that really buoys these people up. Dean can feel it all around him, in the bodies crowding the stairs and the voices that echo up through the space. It crowds in on him, rubs up against the raw edges of his loss and his anger until his shoulders are a stiff line and he wants to start throwing punches. He doesn’t see anyone he recognizes in the throng—which, good, because no way in hell could he be held responsible if he did. Once in a while, though, someone will turn and catch his eye, and he’ll see them take in his grimness and silence, maybe the resemblance to Dad in his face, and look away quickly.
He doesn’t look at them. He keeps climbing.
By the time they reach the cafeteria, they have to push their way through. Normally, Dean would let Pam go first—easier to let people’s politeness do the work of parting the crowd—but today he doesn’t have time for that. He bulldozes his way through, ignoring the string of aggrieved ‘Hey!’s he leaves in his path, and Pam grabs onto his arm and follows behind.
He spies Ellen, standing off to the side, near the airlock doors. Her arms are folded over her chest and she’s standing stiffly upright, her face drawn. She looks like she hasn’t slept in a while.
Which, yeah. She damn well shouldn’t. Dean’s about to head over there—though he doesn’t know what he’ll say, whether it’s gonna come out as a plea or just a string of recriminations—when he realises who’s standing next to her and comes to an abrupt stop, Pam stumbling into his side.
“Shit,” he manages, turning to look at her. “Sorry.”
“No problem, hon,” Pam says. She turns her face in his direction, and although she can’t see what he’s looking at, after a moment, she says, “So, that handsome brother of yours is up here, huh?”
Keeping it light, like always, but then most of the time she doesn’t actually need to say the important shit out loud.
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, he is.”
Sam looks as grim-faced as Dean feels. He’s dressed in IT white, neat and clean, not a rip or a smear of grease to be seen on him. His hair’s gotten longer. Next to him is a blonde girl, also in white, who Dean doesn’t recognise. She’s pressed close into Sam’s side, her arm curled through his in a gesture of reassurance.
Not that there’s much for anyone to feel reassured about right now.
“So come on,” Pam says to him, and she’s off before he has a chance to protest, winding her way through the crowd—sparser back here; everybody’s jostling for a look at the goddamn viewscreen down front—so that Dean has to quicken his pace to keep up.
She makes straight for Ellen once they get close enough to hear her voice, and Dean gets left standing on the edge of the little group, awkward, staring. Sam half turns and double-takes as his eyes land on Dean, and for a moment the awkward silence between them drowns out the cafeteria noise.
It’s Sam who breaks it. “I didn’t think you’d come,” he says, quietly.
Dean just looks back at him for a moment, then looks down. “Yeah,” he admits. “Me neither.”
“Let me guess.” Sam almost-smiles, small and pained. “Bobby threatened to kick your ass so hard your grandkids would have bruises?” His voice sounds unsure, heavy with the two years of absence between them, like he’s not sure he’s allowed to say this kind of shit anymore.
Any other time, Dean wouldn’t be sure about that either. He’d have things to say—a lot of things to say. He probably still does. But Sam’s standing there right in front of him, Sam’s talking to him like he doesn’t actually hate that Dean’s here, and he can’t. Not right now.
He meets Sam’s eyes, lets his expression soften. “Something like that,” he says.
“Huh.” Sam pauses for a moment. “Well, I—”
The door opens.
The murmur of the crowd gets louder, and faces turn in their direction, necks craning as people wrench their attention away from the viewscreen for a second.
The heavy airlock door opens upward, and a white-suited figure ducks into the canteen. He’s wearing a cleaning suit—a precaution, because he’s not going any further than the airlock—but when he pulls off his helmet, Dean recognises his face. Victor Henriksen, Dad’s deputy. They’ve been working together for near enough a decade, now—since Dean was old enough to shadow in Mechanical and Dad left for the up tops. Dean’s met him a couple times, and judging by the way he nods to Sam, they’re on speaking terms.
Henriksen’s face is grim. He doesn’t look like a guy just doing his job. He looks like a guy burying a friend.
Somehow, that just makes Dean even angrier. It’s like Ellen’s pinched expression, even the way Sam’s just standing there. Like they’re not the ones enforcing this fucked-up law. Like they have no choice.
Henriksen turns to Ellen first. “Mayor,” he says. “We’re ready to go.”
Ellen closes her eyes and lets out a sigh. Mutters something under her breath than Dean can’t make out, but that makes Pam place a hand on her shoulder and give it a squeeze. Ellen looks up, then.
“Okay,” she says, too quiet for the finality of it. “Okay.”
It’s only then that Henriksen turns back to the rest of them. “Sam,” he says. “Dean. Look. I—”
“Save it,” Dean tells him savagely. “You tell me how sorry you are, I swear to God you’re gonna have to arrest my ass right here.”
Henriksen has the good grace to ditch his apology, at least. But, “You know we would’ve stopped it if we could,” he says. “We all would. If he hadn’t gone against the Order on record—”
“Screw the Order,” Dean says, “Chrissakes, change the Order.” He turns to Ellen, feels his voice crack, turn pleading. “You guys are the goddamn authorities here, you’re his friends—”
“Dean,” he can hear Sam saying behind him. “Dean, listen, it’s not—” But Dean isn’t listening to him, because then somebody else is calling his name.
He turns around, and there he is, looking over Henriksen’s shoulder.
“Dean,” he says, his voice threading through the noise of the crowd and finding its way to Dean. It holds him there, immobilized. “Dean,” he says, again. “It’s okay, son. I’m gonna be fine.”
He’s smiling. There’s this light in his eyes, and Dean can only ever remember seeing him look like that once before. He was little, Sammy barely more than a baby. Mom hadn’t been dead a year, and that was when Dad found her papers.
Dean hadn’t understood what it meant, then. He’d been happy because Dad was happy; that was as far as it went. He hadn’t known that Dad was gonna disappear, or as good as. Spend hours sitting up late into the night after work, run off to the up tops for days on end, eventually take the job up there just so he could have access to the records of everybody sent to cleaning in the last fifty years. He hadn’t known that he and Sammy were gonna end up fending for themselves more often than not, that Bobby was gonna take care of them more often than Dad did, in the end. He’d just seen Dad smiling, for the first time since the night they came for Mom—and that had been enough.
Dad’s smiling at him now, and he doesn’t know what to say, how to make sense of it.
He just knows it’s not enough.
And then it’s too late. Dad’s pulling the helmet of his cleaning suit back on, raising a hand to wave goodbye, and Dean has no time to ask any of his questions, to say any of the things he’s carried up with him from the down deeps. The door shudders and begins to ascend, and the eyes of the crowd are turning back to the viewscreen.
They’re just gonna stand there and watch. For all the human drama unfolding in front of them, they’re just gonna watch.
Dean can’t do that. Maybe he thought he could come up here and act like it was a damn funeral, like Dad was already gone. Maybe he would’ve managed it if he hadn’t seen Dad’s face, hadn’t heard him speak. But he can’t. He just fucking can’t. The door closes, and the desperate finality of it breaks something in him, makes everything he’s been keeping dammed up since he heard the news come flooding out.
Before he even really knows what he’s doing, Dean’s throwing himself against the door.
“If none of you are gonna do anything,” he gets out, “I will.” It’s harsh in his throat, feels more like a gasp for breath than a statement.
He grabs the handles, heaves pointlessly at the door, hard enough that he wrenches something in his shoulder and winces in pain. It gives Henriksen a window to get in his way, steer him away from the door.
Dean fights him, snarls at the guy. “Get outta my way. Get out of my way, open that fucking door.” And then magic words occur to him. If he says them, they’re gonna have to stop it, right? Just for the moment, while they arrest him. Give him the chance to figure something out. There isn’t another set of words with more power here. “I want to go—”
“Dean.” It’s Sam’s voice that stills him. Sam’s hand on his shoulder, Sam grabbing his arm and pulling him back from Henriksen and the door.
There are curious faces turning towards them, the commotion drawing attention back from the viewscreen, and it takes a full-strength Mayor Harvelle Death-Glare to quell the rising hum of voices.
“Dean,” Sam says again, softer. His eyes are wide, pleading, and suddenly it’s like every argument they’ve ever had in their lives, like the last two years never happened. “Dean. Please. There are things you don’t know. Don’t do this.”
Dean looks from Sam to the door and back in bewilderment. “You’re gonna tell me,” he says, and it comes out sounding like a question even though he doesn’t mean for it to be one.
“Yeah,” Sam says. “I’m gonna tell you everything. Promise.” He still has hold of Dean’s arm, like he’s afraid Dean is gonna make a break for the door again if he lets go. Dean knows he won’t, though. He feels winded. He’s fragmenting, up inside his head, scrabbling for pieces of what he knows and failing to make any fucking sense out of them. There are things you don’t know. And Dad’s smile.
He opens his mouth to demand an explanation, now, but then there’s a noise that feels like it should shake the cafeteria walls.
The outer door, opening.
Everything stops. Even Sam’s hand on his shoulder goes slack as all eyes turn to the screen. Dean could make a run for it now and nobody would stop him. He doesn’t. He’s as rooted to the spot as everybody else, and the viewscreen draws him in like a magnet.
After an agonizingly long moment, Dad appears in the bottom-right corner of the viewscreen. He emerges from the exit ramp slow, encumbered by the bulky cleaning suit—and then he stops dead, looking all around him. Dean’s heard it said that everybody does that, which is weird, because it isn’t like there’s much out there to see. Just rubble, dead ground, and dead people—lumps in the dusty earth that mark the spots where previous cleaners fell.
Dean’s eyes land on that dip in the ground, independent of anything his brain might be telling them to do. Mom. He wonders if Dad’s looking at the same spot. What he’s seeing, out there.
Dad seems to gather himself, then; takes a step forward and then another, lurches a little to his right.
Away from the viewscreen.
Dean’s heart thuds in his chest as a murmur ripples through the cafeteria. He was right. Dad isn’t going to clean.
Dad stops, then. He crouches, peers down at the dip in the ground. At something behind it. And Dean knows. But Dad doesn’t linger. He straightens up and starts forward, stepping over the something like it’s nothing. He veers further away from the silo, making for the bank that circumscribes its view of outside. Stumbles over something Dean can’t see, but makes it to the foot of the bank and starts to climb.
Dean can’t help the tension that grips him, the catch of breath in his throat. Because—shit. What if—what if Dad’s okay? It’s been years since the last cleaning. Maybe things have changed. Maybe it’s finally safe out there. Maybe Dad’s gonna be the guy who finally gets to see outside, for real.
He should be, Dean thinks. If there’s the slightest fucking ghost of a chance that it’s safe out there—Dad should be the one to find out about it. He’s dedicated his whole damn life to finding out, hasn’t he? Never had time for anything else. But if it’s true, if it’s true, then maybe that’s—not right, or just, or okay, but something. Something Dean can live with.
Dad is halfway up the bank when he stumbles.
He falls a couple feet, picks himself up and tries again. But he’s off-balance, now. Dean can see him struggling to get a foothold; hears Sammy suck in a breath beside him; Ellen mutter something that might be a curse or a prayer under her breath, a tremor in her voice.
Dad scrambles further up the bank. Stumbles again. And again.
This time he goes down.
This time he doesn’t get up.
There’s a flurry of movement visible, through the blur of the viewscreen; a cloud of dust goes up where he fell. But then he rolls back down the bank.
His body comes to rest at the foot of it, and there it stays.