羊毛战记 Part 2 Proper Gauge 8
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  Part 2
  Proper Gauge
  Her knitting needles rested in a leather pouch in pairs, two matching sticks of wood, side by side likethe delicate bones of the wrist wrapped in dried and ancient flesh. Wood and leather. Artifacts likeclues handed down from generation to generation, innocuous winks from her ancestors, harmlessthings like children’s books and wood carvings that managed to survive the uprising and the purge.
  Each clue stood as a small hint of a world beyond their own, a world where buildings stoodaboveground like the crumbling ruins visible over the gray and lifeless hills.
  After much deliberation, Mayor Jahns selected a pair of needles. She always chose carefully, forproper gauge was critical. Too small a needle, and the knitting would prove difficult, the resultingsweater too tight and constricting. Too large a needle, on the other hand, would create a garment fullof large holes. The knitting would remain loose. One would be able to see straight through it.
  Her choice made, the wooden bones removed from their leather wrist, Jahns reached for the largeball of cotton yarn. It was hard to believe, weighing that knot of twisted fibers, that her hands couldmake of it something ordered, something useful. She fished for the end of the yarn, dwelling on howthings came to be. Right now, her sweater was little more than a tangle and a thought. Going back, ithad once been bright fibers of cotton blooming in the dirt farms, pulled, cleaned, and twisted intolong strands. Even further, and the very substance of the cotton plant itself could be traced to thosesouls who had been laid to rest in its soil, feeding the roots with their own leather while the air abovebaked under the full glory of powerful grow lights.
  Jahns shook her head at her own morbidity. The older she got, the quicker her mind went to death.
  Always, in the end, the thoughts of death.
  With practiced care, she looped the end of the yarn around the point of one needle and crafted atriangle-shaped web with her fingers. The tip of the needle danced through this triangle, casting theyarn on. This was her favorite part, casting on. She liked beginnings. The first row. Out of nothingcomes something. Since her hands knew what to do, she was free to glance up and watch a gust ofmorning wind chase pockets of dust down the slope of the hill. The clouds were low and ominoustoday. They loomed like worried parents over these smaller darting eddies of windswept soil, whichtumbled like laughing children, twirling and spilling, following the dips and valleys as they flowedtoward a great crease where two hills collided to become one. Here, Jahns watched as the puffs ofdust splashed against a pair of dead bodies, the frolicking twins of dirt evaporating into ghosts, solidplayful children returning once more to dreams and scattered mist.
  Mayor Jahns settled back in her faded plastic chair and watched the fickle winds play across theforbidding world outside. Her hands worked the yarn into rows, requiring only occasional glances tokeep her place. Often, the dust flew toward the silo’s sensors in sheets, each wave causing her tocringe as if a physical blow were about to land. This assault of blurring grime was difficult to watchat any time, but especially brutal the day after a cleaning. Each touch of dust on the clouding lenseswas a violation, a dirty man touching something pure. Jahns remembered what that felt like. Andsixty years later, she sometimes wondered if the misting of grime on those lenses, if the bodilysacrifice needed to keep them clean, wasn’t even more painful for her to abide.
  Mayor Jahns turned away from the sight of the dead hills cradling her recently deceased sheriff.
  She turned to find Deputy Marnes standing by her side.
  “Yes, Marnes?”
  “You asked for these.”
  Marnes placed three manila folders on the cafeteria table and slid them toward her through thescattered crumbs and juice stains of last night’s cleaning celebration. Jahns set her knitting aside andreluctantly reached for the folders. What she really wanted was to be left alone a little longer to watchrows of knots become something. She wanted to enjoy the peace and quiet of this unspoiled sunrisebefore the grime and the years dulled it, before the rest of the upper silo awoke, rubbed the sleepfrom their eyes and the stains from their consciences, and came up to crowd around her in their ownplastic chairs and take it all in.
  But duty beckoned: she was mayor by choice, and the silo needed a sheriff. So Jahns put aside herown wants and desires and weighed the folders in her lap. Caressing the cover of the first one, shelooked down at her hands with something between pain and acceptance. The backs of them appearedas dry and crinkled as the pulp paper hanging out of the folders. She glanced over at Deputy Marnes,whose white mustache was flecked with the occasional black. She remembered when the colors werethe other way around, when his tall, thin frame was a mark of vigor and youth rather than gauntfragility. He was handsome still, but only because she knew him from long ago, only because her oldeyes still remembered.
  “You know,” she told Marnes, “we could do this different this time. You could let me promoteyou to sheriff, hire yourself a deputy, and do this proper.”
  Marnes laughed. “I’ve been deputy almost as long as you’ve been mayor, ma’am. Don’t figure onbeing nothing else but dead one day.”
  Jahns nodded. One of the things she loved about having Marnes around was that his thoughtscould be so black as to make hers shine gray. “I fear that day is rapidly approaching for us both,” shesaid.
  “Truer than true, I reckon. Never figured to outlive so many. Sure as sin don’t see me outlivingyou.” Marnes rubbed his mustache and studied the view of the outside. Jahns smiled at him, openedthe folder on top, and studied the first bio.
  “That’s three decent candidates,” Marnes said. “Just like you asked for. Be happy to work withany of them. Juliette, I think she’s in the middle there, would be my first pick. Works down inMechanical. Don’t come up much, but me and Holston …” Marnes paused and cleared his throat.
  Jahns glanced over and saw that her deputy’s gaze had crept toward that dark crook in the hill. Hecovered his mouth with a fist of sharp knuckles and faked a cough.
  “Excuse me,” he said. “As I was sayin’, the sheriff and me worked a death down there a few yearsback. This Juliette—I think she prefers Jules, come to think of it—was a right shiner. Sharp as a tack.
  Big help on this case, good at spotting details, handling people, being diplomatic but firm, all that. Idon’t think she comes up past the eighties much. A down-deeper for sure, which we ain’t had in awhile.”
  Jahns sorted through Juliette’s folder, checking her family tree, her voucher history, her currentpay in chits. She was listed as a shift foreman with good marks. No history in the lottery.
  “Never married?” Jahns asked.
  “Nope. Something of a johnboy. A wrencher, you know? We were down there a week, saw howthe guys took to her. Now, she could have her pick of them boys but chooses not to. Kind of personwho leaves an impression but prefers to go it alone.”
  “Sure seems like she left an impression on you,” Jahns said, regretting it immediately. She hatedthe jealous tone in her own voice.
  Marnes shifted his weight to his other foot. “Well, you know me, Mayor. I’m always sizing upcandidates. Anything to keep from bein’ promoted.”
  Jahns smiled. “What about the other two?” She checked the names, wondering if a down-deeperwas a good idea. Or possibly worried about Marnes’s having a crush. She recognized the name on thetop folder. Peter Billings. He worked a few floors down in Judicial, as a clerk or a judge’s shadow.
  “Honestly, ma’am? They’re filler to make it seem fair. Like I said, I’d work with them, but I thinkJules is your girl. Been a long time since we had a lass for a sheriff. Be a popular choice with anelection comin’ up.”
  “That won’t be why we choose,” Jahns said. “Whoever we decide on will probably be here longafter we’re gone—” She stopped herself as she recalled having said the same thing about Holston,back when he’d been chosen.
  Jahns closed the folder and returned her attention to the wallscreen. A small tornado had formed atthe base of the hill, the gathering dust whipped into an organized frenzy. It built some steam, thissmall wisp, as it swelled into a larger cone, spinning and spinning on a wavering tip like a child’s topas it raced toward sensors that fairly sparkled in the wan rays of a clear sunrise.
  “I think we should go see her,” Jahns finally said. She kept the folders in her lap, fingers likerolled parchment toying with the rough edges of handmade paper.
  “Ma’am? I’d rather us fetch her up here. Do the interview in your office like we’ve always done.
  It’s a long way down to her and an even longer way back up.”
  “I appreciate the concern, Deputy, I do. But it’s been a long while since I’ve been much past thefortieth. My knees are no excuse not to see my people—” The mayor stopped. The tornado of dustwavered, turned, and headed straight for them. It grew and grew — the wide angle of the lensdistorting it into a monster much larger and more fierce than she knew it to actually be—and then itblew over the sensor array, the entire cafeteria descending into a brief darkness until the zephyrcaromed past, retreating across the screen in the lounge and leaving behind it a view of the worldnow tainted with a slight, dingy film.
  “Damn those things,” Deputy Marnes said through gritted teeth. The aged leather of his holstersqueaked as he rested his hand on the butt of his gun, and Jahns imagined the old deputy out on thatlandscape, chasing the wind on thin legs while pumping bullets into a cloud of fading dust.
  The two of them sat silent a moment, surveying the damage. Finally, Jahns spoke.
  “This trip won’t be about the election, Marnes. It won’t be for votes, either. For all I know, I’ll runagain unopposed. So we won’t make a deal of it, and we’ll travel light and quiet. I want to see mypeople, not be seen by them.” She looked over at him, found that he was watching her. “It’ll be forme, Marnes. A getaway.”
  She turned back to the view.
  “Sometimes … sometimes I just think I’ve been up here too long. The both of us. I think we’vebeen anywhere too long …”
  The ringing of morning footsteps on the spiral staircase gave her pause, and they both turnedtoward the sound of life, the sound of a waking day. And she knew it was time to start getting theimages of dead things out of her mind. Or at least to bury them for a while.
  “We’ll go down and get us a proper gauge of this Juliette, you and me. Because sometimes, sittinghere, looking out on what the world makes us do—it needles me deep, Marnes. It needles me straightthrough.”
  They met after breakfast in Holston’s old office. Jahns still thought of it as his, a day later. It wastoo early for her to think of the room as anything else. She stood beyond the twin desks and old filingcabinets and peered into the empty holding cell while Deputy Marnes gave last-minute instructions toTerry, a burly security worker from IT who often held down the fort while Marnes and Holston wereaway on a case. Standing dutifully behind Terry was a teenager named Marcha, a young girl withdark hair and bright eyes who was apprenticing for work in IT. She was Terry’s shadow; just abouthalf of the workers in the silo had one. They ranged in age from twelve to twenty, these ever-presentsponges absorbing the lessons and techniques for keeping the silo operational for at least onegeneration more.
  Deputy Marnes reminded Terry how rowdy people got after a cleaning. Once the tension wasreleased, people tended to live it up a little. They thought, for a few months at least, that anythingwent.
  The warning hardly needed saying—the revelry in the next room could be heard through the shutdoor. Most residents from the top forty were already packed into the cafeteria and lounge. Hundredsmore from the mids and the down deep would trickle up throughout the day, asking for time off workand turning in holiday chits just to see the mostly clear view of the world outside. It was a pilgrimagefor many. Some came up only once every few years, stood around for an hour muttering that itlooked the same as they remembered, then shooed their children down the stairs ahead of them,fighting the upward-surging crowds.
  Terry was left with the keys and a temporary badge. Marnes checked the batteries in his wireless,made sure the volume on the office unit was up, and inspected his gun. He shook Terry’s hand andwished him luck. Jahns sensed it was almost time for them to go and turned away from the emptycell. She said good-bye to Terry, gave Marcha a nod, and followed Marnes out the door.
  “You feel okay leaving right after a cleaning?” she asked as they stepped out into the cafeteria.
  She knew how rowdy it would get later that night, and how testy the crowd would become. It seemedan awful time to drag him away on a mostly selfish errand.
  “Are you kidding? I need this. I need to get away.” He glanced toward the wallscreen, which wasobscured by the crowds. “I still can’t figure what Holston was thinking, can’t reckon why he nevertalked to me about all that was going on in that head of his. Maybe by the time we get back, I won’tfeel him in the office anymore, ’cause right now I can’t hardly breathe in there.”
  Jahns thought about this as they fought through the crowded cafeteria. Plastic cups sloshed with amix of fruit juices, and she smelled the sting of tub-brewed alcohol in the air but ignored it. Peoplewere wishing her well, asking her to be careful, promising to vote. News of their trip had leaked outfaster than the spiked punch, despite their hardly telling anyone. Most were under the impression thatit was a goodwill trip. A reelection campaign. The younger silo residents, who only rememberedHolston as sheriff, were already saluting Marnes and giving him that honorific title. Anyone withwrinkles around their eyes knew better. They nodded to the duo as they passed through the cafeteriaand wished them a different sort of unspoken luck. Keep us going, their eyes said. Make it so my kidslive as long as me. Don’t let it unravel, not just yet.
  Jahns lived under the weight of this pressure, a burden brutal on more than knees. She kept quietas they made their way to the central stairwell. A handful called for her to make a speech, but thelone voices did not gain traction. No chant formed, much to her relief. What would she say? That shedidn’t know why it all held together? That she didn’t even understand her own knitting, how if youmade knots, and if you did it right, things just worked out? Would she tell them it took only one snipfor it all to unravel? One cut, and you could pull and pull and turn that garment into a pile. Did theyreally expect her to understand, when all she did was follow the rules, and somehow it kept workingout, year after year after year?
  Because she didn’t understand what held it together. And she didn’t understand their mood, thiscelebration. Were they drinking and shouting because they were safe? Because they’d been spared byfate, passed over for cleaning? Her people cheered while a good man, her friend, her partner inkeeping them alive and well, lay dead on a hill next to his wife. If she gave a speech, if it weren’t fullof the forbidden, it would be this: that no two better people had ever gone to cleaning of their ownfree will, and what did that say about the lot of them who remained?
  Now was not the time for speeches. Or for drinking. Or for being merry. Now was the hour ofquiet contemplation, which was one of the reasons Jahns knew she needed to get away. Things hadchanged. Not just by the day, but by the long years. She knew better than most. Maybe old ladyMcNeil down in Supply knew, could see it coming. One had to live a long time to be sure, but nowshe was. And as time marched on, carrying her world faster than her feet could catch up, MayorJahns knew that it would soon leave her completely behind. And her great fear, unspoken but dailyfelt, was that this world of theirs probably wouldn’t stagger very far along without her.