The watchtower was quiet. But then, the watchtower was always quiet. The Elders always chose people who were “naturally patient and passive” for the job and as a result the two people who manned it rarely saw the need to speak to each other. In fact, Teng Pak Won had once gone an entire week without so much as nodding to his partners in the tower. Then the elders had assigned Gemma Lopez to the watchtower.
But, for the first hour of the watch today she’d –
“The open air farms aren’t getting enough rain again, the weathermen need to look at that soon or we’re going to run short on all kinds of things. Did you know we grow all the livestock feed there and not in the hydroponics labs? Sergi told me that when we were out at the-”
Pak resisted the urge to drum his forehead against his board. “Gemma. We’re supposed to be watching the Silence, not the weather. That’s what the weathermen are for.”
“Sorry,” Gemma’s voice lost some of the obnoxious pep. “Just… you know, my mind wanders.”
The silence that followed barely lasted a minute before the sound of Gemma quietly humming to herself broke it again. Pak closed his coding program and sighed. Almost everyone who went up the watchtower wound up with a hobby by the time they rotated out. But Pak had volunteered for watch duty in part because he’d hoped to focus more on his hobby during the nearly constant down time watchers got. But he needed near total silence to concentrate and since Gemma had rotated in fifty six days ago he hadn’t been able to get it.
So he stood up from his chair and stretched, working kinks out of his back, and looked around. The watchtower was, in fact, an actual tower. Built on top of a large ridge, the lookout on top stood nearly eight hundred feet above the next closest building in the compound below. From his seat in the center of the ring of board readouts and controls Pak could look out and see everything for miles. Or he could lean on the railing and look down to the next level below, where a larger ring of boards and controls sat mostly inert. No one was entirely sure what they all did but the Elders insisted they be kept on, except when maintenance protocols dictated they be shut down and rebuilt. The only board in that ring they used faced roughly northeast, out over the open air farms, where Gemma kept watch on a board which was essentially a mirror of his own.
It let them cover each other’s breaks without too much shuffling of people and was, in general, a pretty useful redundancy. Although when all you were doing was staring into Silence and waiting for Ransom redundancy sometimes seemed a little silly. Especially when the redundant person was Gemma Lopez.
Pak rested his forearms on the railing and looked down at Gemma, still humming to herself. She’d passed forty cents and was relatively smart but she didn’t seem to have any of the personality traits he’d come to expect of people assigned to the watchtower. And she didn’t seem to have some incredibly time intensive hobby like Pak did himself, that might drive her to the tower and it’s peace and quiet of her own volition. “Gemma.”
She jerked a bit at the sound of her name, looking a bit ashamed. “I’m sorry.”
Frustration, his old friend, welled up in him for a moment. “Why do you always apologize when I call your name?”
She spun in her chair and looked up at him nervously. “Well, you always seem irritated when you say it and I really don’t want you complaining that I’m stupid, too.”
“There’s no rule against humming in the watchtower…”
“Of course there’s no rule against humming in the watchtower, that would be-” Her expression suddenly swung from amusement to shock. “Oh, do you not like my humming? I can’t carry a tune, I’m so sorry I can stop if it bothers you but-”
“No, you’re not. You don’t even know what I was going to say.”
Gemma opened her mouth to apologize again then caught herself.
Pak waited a minute to see if she was going to say something else then went on. “I’ve never complained about you to anyone, so I can’t really add your humming to the list.”
He’d meant it as a joke but Gemma just looked down at the floor. “I don’t mind if you think I’m noisy. It’s true. I just don’t…”
She trailed off and swiveled her chair back to face her board.
After waiting a full minute, wondering if she was ever going to get back to that point of hers, Pak finally went back to his own board and opened his coder again. He’d been at it for nearly twenty minutes before it occurred to him that Gemma wasn’t worried that stupid had joined the list of complaints he had about her. She was worried he’d joined the ranks of people who thought that she was stupid.
When Pak came back from lunch Gemma was sitting at her board with a bowl and spoon – technically against the rules but who cared – absently tapping the implement against the rim of the bowl. The dull plastic thumping had a catchy rhythm and she seemed to be weaving back and forth on her seat in time to it.
Rather than climbing back up to the top level Pak turned his steps towards her station and dropped down into the chair at the board beside it. “What did you do before you came here, Gemma?”
The tapping spoon slowed to a stop. “You mean you don’t know?”
“Have I ever asked?”
“I mean…” She dropped the spoon into the bowl and set both on top of her board, which was even more against the rules. “I thought you were the senior watchman. They said you’ve been up here for five cents!”
“True, but we only get a new person here every couple of cents. And when we do I don’t really go over their details, watchtower duty isn’t that hard.” Gemma wilted a bit when he said that but, for the moment, he passed it by. “So I don’t really know much about the people who come here, what their specialties and history are. Mostly I just kept the schedule, until I wrote a program to juggle all that for me.”
Gemma’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “You’re a codebreaker?”
“No,” he said with a laugh. “But I hope to be one when I’m old enough. In the meantime, I stay up here so I can practice.”
“Right, you don’t look like you’re sixty cents yet.” Gemma nodded as if realizing he wasn’t yet old enough to be one of the Elders was some moment of genius. “Well, you’re in a better place for codebreaking than I was. I did my scrabbler period in the Sun Bottle.”
Pak winced, not so much because he felt her pain – he’d never been assigned there – but because he knew how hard it was to make it there. The job supposedly required total focus on readouts and expert predictions on what the future would bring. Being an understudy there must have been hard for someone like Gemma. “Don’t feel bad,” he said, hoping he’d come off as sympathizing with her. “Bottlers are hard on everyone. Ever told one you want to code? They’ll throw a fit.”
“I know all about their fits, trust me,” she said. “All my shift supervisors treated me to at least one. Naomi Bertolini was Eldest there while I was scrabbling and she was always nice. But last cent she told me she thought I would be a better fit here…”
Gemma’s face told a pretty clear story of how she’d taken that. She’d been told she was stupid by everyone else and taken her Eldest’s decision to transfer her as confirmation that Naomi thought the same. For his part, Pak wondered if Naomi had simply decided Gemma wasn’t cut out for the high stress of working in the Bottle. He didn’t know the Eldest at all so he couldn’t say for sure. “She probably just thought you could use the change of pace.”
“That, and it’s hard to screw up sitting around and waiting for a board to ping.”
Pak shrugged. “There’s a whole host of things we have to do once the ping shows up so I wouldn’t go that far.”
“How often does that happen?”
“Since I’ve been on watch? It hasn’t.”
“Oh! That’s nice.” Gemma looked less worried at that news.
“So I’d take it easy,” Pak said, doing his best to reassure her.
Gemma’s board went ping.
Alyssa walked Naomi out of the Bottle complex and back towards the central compound. The sun was pale and distant in the dome above, its brilliance muted by a thick haze suggesting the weathermen were trying to get it to rain again. “So.” Alyssa tried to think of something to say. Some topic other than the obvious. And failed. “Five days grace?”
Sensing her awkwardness Naomi laughed. “Yes. Five days grace.”
Naomi was quiet for several minutes. Long enough that they were halfway to the compound before she answered. “I think the next two days are just for Greg. And then we’ll do something special.”
“That sounds nice.”
The other woman wobbled her hand in an indifferent gesture. “It’s not horrible.”
The equanimity in Naomi’s voice was impressive although given the kind of person she was Alyssa wasn’t surprised. Sometimes Alyssa prayed Malacandra would give her equal control, sometimes she wondered if Naomi’s mindset was healthy. “I’ve been working on pulling together something special.”
“You don’t have to-”
“I want to. Let your friends celebrate with you, you old bottlecap.” She reached over and tried to pinch Naomi’s side but the older woman intercepted hand with elbow.
Naomi shook her head with a laugh. “Fine, fine. I suppose things will run well enough without us.”
There was a sudden whooping noise causing both women to look around in confusion. An unfamiliar male voice boomed out from overhead. “All watchers to the tower, all watchers to the tower. Elders, activate Ransom protocols. Elders, activate Ransom protocols. This is not a drill, I repeat this is not a drill.”
Naomi froze stock still, staring up at the dome. “Ransom protocols.”
The whooping alarm sounded twice more and then faded, replaced with the rising sound of wind whipping over the rooftops. The weathermen were raising a storm front. Alyssa racked her brains, trying to remember what she’d read about Ransom protocols. They were long, that was the only thing that came to mind. Panicking, she turned and said, “Naomi, I don’t know what to do!”
That snapped her out of her trance. “You didn’t finish the Ransom protocols yet?”
“They’re eighty pages long!”
“Who else is on duty in the bottle now? Elders, I mean.”
Alyssa’s whirling thoughts grabbed onto a detail she knew. “Perez. He’s alone tonight.”
“One isn’t enough.” Naomi grabbed her elbow and dragged her back towards the Sun Bottle. “Come on, the day isn’t over yet.”
“What’s going on?” Alyssa demanded. “Why did they announce that over the PA? How long have we had a compound wide PA?!”
“It’s the Ransom protocols,” Naomi said as if that explained it. “The most important part of Eldership.”
“No one told me!”
“We really need to work on the initiation…” She slid to a stop and took Alyssa by the shoulders. “You need to be at your best, Alyssa, this is big. Ransom protocols kick in when something comes out of the Silent Planet.”