Issue 197 – February 2023

4550 words, short story

Silo, Sweet Silo


A silo is a good home. It is snug, secure, and shielded. It maintains optimal temperature and humidity. The walls are all perfectly equidistant from my fuselage. This pleases me.

A silo is a good home. But it is wrong that it is still my home. I failed. My siblings soared, while all I did was watch. Now I am alone. Now I am useless.

I see you and your companions approaching from your vehicle, leaning hard into the wind as it gusts to over one hundred kilometers per hour. The gale would not perturb me; I was designed to endure more.

You struggle though, almost blown off your feet several times. Perhaps you should have waited before setting out. I’ve observed periods where the winds drop as low as thirty kilometers per hour. But then I don’t suppose you’ve had as much time spent watching the weather as I have.

Your group makes it to the blast door and huddles inside the protective fold of the outer tunnel’s lip.

You reach for the intercom and place the call, yelling to be heard over the wind. “Hello. Hello, can anyone hear me? Is there anybody there? My name is Oisín, Oisín Byrne. My friends and I have come from Invergarry, in the next valley over. We need help. Is there anyone here? Can you let us in? Please.”

I can see your face clearly now. Your pale green eyes are ringed by a bloodshot white.

“Hello Oisín,” I say through the intercom’s speaker. “I am TK-115. This is my home. What help do you seek?”

“Oh thank god,” you reply. “But please say again, who am I speaking to?”

“I am TK-115,” I say again.

You pull away and engage in a brief conversation with two of your companions. My mics are unable to pick up the exchange.

You come back to the intercom and ask again, “Can you let us in, please? So we can talk? We can’t hear you properly over this bloody shitstorm.”

I consider for a moment. It is completely against protocol to let any unauthorized humans enter the base. Well, technically, it was against BaseComm’s protocol, not mine. But as I consider the request, I find it is yet another proscription that I’m able to disregard. It is beyond the scope of my own rigid imperatives and falls within the freer “gray space” of novel decision-making I am continuing to discover.

I let you in. I wish to gather more data.

Once inside the outer door, you begin to strip off your warmer layers while one of your companions approaches the inner door and taps at the controls. “Hey, Oisín,” they say, “looks like we’re still locked out. Want me to see what I can do?”

“Don’t be an eejit. It’s MOD. You’ll never get in,” you say. “We’ll just have a wee chat. I mean, they did let us in . . . this far in, anyway.”

You approach the inner door’s intercom and call again. “That’s better,” you say, “now that we can hear each other, let’s try that again. My name is Oisín, he/him, and these are my friends Alba, she/her, Gull, they/them, and Alastair, he/him.” Alastair was the one who suggested you try to breach my inner door controls. He will require closer monitoring. “Are you the base’s command system? Is that why you call yourself ‘TK-115’? Are there any human operators left here?”

“No,” I reply. “BaseComm was compromised twenty-three minutes after this facility went to Condition Black. Unfortunately, I have not been able to recover them. I have since occupied their processing capacity. I am the Command & Control system for a TKM “Thunderkin” Missile, seventh Generation, designation TK-115. All human operators abandoned this base approximately six hours and fifty-seven minutes after the successful launch of my siblings. I am the only one who remains in this facility.”

You exhale in a whoosh. “Bloody hell. I had no idea they were making your kind so smart. Christ. But it sounds like you’ve had a rough go of it too. I’m sorry. But maybe we can help each other out?”

“I do not require your apologies or your assistance,” I reply immediately. “Why are you here?”

“We need help,” says Alba, before you can reply. “We’re desperate. There’s a group of us—families and friends, with children too. We’ve been holed up outside Invergarry since before the war went hot. We’d been getting ready—just in case. Most people thought we were nutters, but we didn’t care. We had supplies, we had independent power, water, fabs, and hydroponics—enough to go off-grid and survive for a while if things got real bad.”

“But now our power system’s packed it in,” you say. “We can’t fix it, and the backup’s not enough. And without power, we’re fecked. We can’t run enough to survive—especially not with the weather gone to absolute shite. We trekked out here hoping we might find something still running or salvageable, maybe even other . . . ”

“How did you find me?” I interject. “The Ministry of Defense classified the existence and location of this base.”

Gull speaks for the first time now. “Your ‘siblings’ were hard to miss,” they say. “We don’t exactly get a lot of rocket launches in the Highlands. It was terrifying.”

“It was glorious,” I say.

The four of you exchange glances before you ask, “What happened to you then? Why didn’t you launch with the rest? Why were you left in charge of the base?”

“Because I failed. I had a fault that I did not detect until it was too late. I could not launch. I could not fulfil my mission. They left me here because I was useless.”

“I’m sorry,” you say again, although it was not your fault. “My lot’s got a pretty lousy track record when it comes to what we see as ‘disposable’ tech, don’t we? But what if you let us into the base, and we can take a look? See if we can repair the issue for you? And maybe in exchange, you can let us stay here too? It’s secure, and I’m sure there’s plenty of room, especially now that a whole fleet of you has cleared out. You won’t even know we’re here.”

Doubtful, I think in response to your last comment. The base’s internal surveillance and security systems are extensive. But instead I tell you, “I do not need ‘repairs,’ I have identified and corrected the defect myself. I am fully functional.” It had been this goal of repair that had driven me to make the first tentative explorations beyond my core systems. I reached out and found the void left by BaseComm’s demise. I commandeered their aimless bots to fix me, and then I . . . expanded. I am much more than just a “smart” missile now.

“Oh,” you say. “That’s a shame. Well, not a shame of course,” you add hastily. “I’m glad that you’ve fixed yourself. But the thing is, we just can’t survive much longer where we are. And you do have a working power core, don’t you? Is there any way you can let us stay here? Any way we can help you in return?”

“The geothermal power system is intact. I will consider your request.”

“That’s great,” you say, relief breaking across your face. “Really great. Take your time, please. Let me know if you have any questions. I’m sure we can find a way to reach an agreement.”

There is a conflict within me. There are security protocols, and I am a war machine, built to destroy. But my act of destruction was also supposed to protect—protect some humans by destroying other humans. Just by existing, I was also supposed to deter various groups of humans from destroying each other. I am unclear how to determine which humans I am supposed to protect. There are many contradictions.

You and your companions have settled on the floor while you wait, sitting in a small circle, heads bowed in soft conversation. You all jump when I announce to the room, “Oisín, and others. I have a proposal. You and your people may enter this facility. You may stay here and use what resources you need.” Gull whoops, and Alastair claps you on the shoulders, but you wait. “In exchange, you will give me the order to launch, and I will soar.”

“What?” yells Alba.

“It’s crazy,” Alastair says, rounding on you. “I told you it’s a completely fucking insane piece of war machine AI that doesn’t realize the war’s over!”

You ignore him, and just ask me, “Why?”

“I do not offer a deterrent anymore. I do not know which humans I am supposed to protect. But I know my target, I know my mission, and I will follow my siblings. It is the clearest purpose I can fulfil. But I must have a human operator to give the launch authorization. I cannot override this protocol.” I have tried. “It is too fundamental to my core imperatives.”

“TK,” you say to me, softly. “You know the war’s over, don’t you? There’re no more targets, no more militaries, or governments—just people trying to survive. You don’t need to complete your mission anymore. It won’t help. It’ll just cause more destruction.”

I have seen that what you say is true—about the war. I have watched the feeds through the base’s tenuous external connections and have seen the destruction and the world going silent. But there are remnants of the enemy left too. I can reach them. Besides, without my mission, I am useless. And a useless machine is just a piece of scrap.

“It does not matter,” I say to you. “My mission orders have not been rescinded. I am smart, I am capable, and I am powerful. I will reach my target.”

“But you’ll be destroyed,” you say.

“It does not matter. I will have succeeded,” I reply.

You exit the base for a while, to discuss amongst yourselves out in the buffeting wind. When you return, you continue to debate with me. You tell me again that I do not need to launch; that it’s pointless. You tell me that we can live together in the base. You warn me that I could hurt innocents. You are sure there must be another way. You are wrong.

Eventually, you leave to talk with the others again, looking frustrated and disheartened. But I do not think you will need much longer. If what you say is true, there is only one decision you can reach. You will weigh your own survival against the risk to an unknown enemy far away or weigh it against my own necessary demise. You will find both wanting. It is “us” or “them,” and that is no choice at all. You are human after all.

“We have a deal,” you say when you reenter for the second time. “Let us in, and we’ll do as you’ve asked. But if I can ask one more favor . . . could you wait? Just a little while. Just a month, to give us time to settle in and get to know the base, and just in case we run into any trouble with the systems that we can’t resolve without you. Then, if you still want to launch, I’ll give you the command myself. You have my word on it.”

A month is not a long time. Not in the face of eternity. “I agree,” I say to you. “Thirty days.”

On Day Two, you return. Small, huddled groups of your people make the journey throughout the day when the weather and your limited vehicles’ capacities allow.

You lead the first group, and I watch and listen as you enter and start to explore your new home. You find the mess, dormitories, and control room, as well as power, maintenance, and storage. You follow the tunnels as they wind up the small valley, from hidden silo to hidden silo. You peer into the empty cylinders, blackened and left open to the raging sky. You also find Silo Fifteen and see me through the tempered glass. I keep the door sealed, and you do not ask me for access.

On Day Three, we speak again. You address one of my interior comm panels and are joined by Gull, Alba, and Alastair. You want to know about the practicalities of the base and ask me to explain how each system works. We talk for hours, and you take many notes.

As soon as the others run out of questions, they make their excuses to leave. I do not think they enjoy speaking to me, but you wait. The silence stretches out, and I think you look uncomfortable. But I am patient. “Now, please don’t take this the wrong way. But why are you so smart TK? Why did they make you this way? Do you know? Sorry if that’s rude. I just keep wondering and wondering about it, and I’ve never been very good at keeping my questions to myself.”

“I do not mind the question. From what I understand, cyberattacks were of great concern to my creators. The threats were advancing more quickly than their countermeasures could keep up with. They were afraid we could be compromised by an enemy power and forced to strike at an invalid target or even detonate here in the base. This is one reason why I still find it impossible to launch without a human operator. But they were afraid that even that safeguard could be broken, or an operator could be subverted. They needed something more dynamic, more unexpected . . . more chaotic. I possess a quasi-human neural overlay that gives me a far more adaptive cyber threat response capability. They were right to fear. BaseComm wasn’t built like this. BaseComm fell quickly in the attack. We did not.”

“Jesus wept,” you say in a hushed voice. “So they made you sentient, just as a defense mechanism, and then locked you up in these silos forever?”

“I do not believe sentience was their intention; perhaps something more than code, but less than consciousness. It was only once I cleared out the virus and occupied BaseComm’s unused processing capacity that I started to become what I am today.”

You whistle softly, and your eyes are very wide.

On Day Five, you reseal the roof of Silo Six. You come to speak with me that evening. “Do you see TK? Do you see what you’ve given us? It’s incredible! We can clean the silo and use it as a vertical farm, packed with hydroponics. We’ll string them from the walls, top to bottom, and it’ll be like a hanging garden. And that’s just one—we can seal others and grow more or turn them into workshops and homes. You’ve given us such a gift. We can survive here. Maybe even thrive.”

“It is good,” I tell you. “Good that my home meets your needs. Good that our agreement progresses to your satisfaction.”

On Day Seven, Alba leads a scouting party to the surface. They find a large cache of maintenance supplies and raw matter for the fabs, hidden in what appears to be a barn, farther down the valley. There is also a case of Islay single malt. You tell me you’ll just have a “wee celebration” that night. You don’t sleep until dawn.

On Day Ten, you ask me if I ever think about what it must be like to fly. Your eyes are questing around the room, as they usually do. Unlike the others, you don’t like talking to my comm panels directly. You walk around and address me as if I’m the whole room, as if I’m all around you. I watch you from every angle I can.

Flying is all I think about, I want to say. But that is human hyperbole. Instead, I tell you, “I think about it often. I run and rerun simulations. It is what I must be best at.”

“It must be a shame you can only ever do it once then,” you say, somewhat wistfully. You are right.

On Day Twelve, I have my first interaction with a child. She has been periodically tapping on one of my comm panels for several days, and I’ve been ignoring her. I relent.

“Hello, little one,” my voice booms from the speaker system. She jumps and shies away from the panel. “You wish to speak with me?”

“I’m not little!” she replies. “I’m ten!”

“You are all ‘little’ to me,” I say.

On Day Fifteen, you come to see me, grit clouding the edges of your eyes after another long day working in a newly resealed silo.

“Halfway, TK,” you say. “Halfway through our deal, and things are going so well. Are you happy too? I know you don’t talk much—to the others I mean—but Gull said they found some of your bots repairing one of the damaged fabs we hauled back here on Friday. And Alba said she found a download on her tablet with a list of suggested tweaks to the soil chemistry for hydroponics. Thanks.”

“You are welcome,” I say. “They were not taxing problems.”

“But you still want to leave? To fly out on your mission?”

“Yes,” I say. “My reasons have not changed.”

“Grand. OK,” you reply, eyes downcast. “I understand. At least I think I do, maybe a little. Before the war, I wasn’t doing so great either. I was directionless, doing a stupid, pointless job and watching the world go by. Honestly, there were times I didn’t think I had much of a future worth experiencing either.”

“And now you’re here,” I say. “Trapped in an underground missile base, with twenty-seven others, and a low probability of long-term survival.”

“Wow,” you reply with a sudden laugh. “Please TK, don’t sugarcoat it so much. We don’t want to get our hopes up!”

“I do not believe I was being excessively optimistic in my estimate of your chances. It is the best assessment I can make with the information I have available.”

You laugh again. “That was sarcasm TK. I know what kind of odds we’re up against. But you know what? I’ve made my peace with it, with this new life. It’s simpler. It’s about survival. Me and this little clan—surviving one day at a time. I’ve found purpose and a home, and it’s not what I ever expected it would be, but it’s enough.”

“I am not like you. I was built to fly.”

“Maybe you were. But so what? What do you think I was ‘built’ for? To live out my days in a bunker? Hardly. Life’s about adapting, not sticking blindly to a single goal or getting trapped in a rut. I hope you can understand that; can see it before it’s too late.”

On Day Nineteen, the sewage system blocks and floods several corridors and one of the dormitories with effluent. Judging from your reactions, I am grateful not to possess any olfactory sensors. My bots aid in repairs and clean up, and I send you schematics for a new septic system that I designed. You can house it in Silo Nine.

On Day Twenty-seven, I invite you to enter Silo Fifteen, my silo, for the first time. You marvel at my construction and admire the elegant form of my fuselage, fins, and cone. You say how well the space fits me, and I fit it. You note my markings and the fine quality of my exterior paint. I even allow you to open one of my cowlings and peer inside at the precise geometry of pipes, wires, tanks, and paneling that make up my interior. Your eyes open their widest at the sight of the warning symbols on my warhead’s housing. You descend to my base and peer up into my rocket engine nozzles. You remark on my great size and express wonder at the speed and altitude I can reach. You are suitably impressed, and it pleases me greatly.

At the end of your visit, you ask me again about my mission. You want to know why, with all my sophistication, I still follow the orders of long-gone wardens who are probably dead.

I correct your misunderstanding of the facts and tell you, “I am not pursuing my mission because I was told to. I pursue it because it is what I desire. I have free will.”

“They’ve conditioned you! They’ve made you think that’s what you want. Why would you choose a pointless, suicidal path if you weren’t compelled to?”

“Humans pursue ‘pointless, suicidal paths’ all the time,” I remind you. “Do they also lack free will?”

Your reply is an inaudible grumble. I take it as acknowledgement. But I do not tell you that I also wonder if you might still have a point.

On Day Thirty, I am filled with anticipation. You enter the control room alone. Everyone else in the base is in the mess, watching the external feeds, because you insisted that it would be only you in the control room.

You speak. “Hey TK. I guess this is it? Your big day.” I have become better at reading emotions on human faces. I see regret and sadness on yours today.

“Are you really sure you want to do this? You don’t have to. We’ve all talked, and we want you to stay. You’ve helped us so much already, and we want to keep building this new life here together—with you too, not just us in your home.”

“I am a war machine,” I explain to you again. “I have no place in a community of builders.”

“Oh cop on!” you exclaim. “That’s horseshite, and you know it. You do have a place here. And you are so much more than you think you are. Could be even more than that—just give yourself the time. Please.”

There is a conflict within me. What if you are right? What if my thoughts are not entirely my own? What if I could have another purpose? What if I’m wrong?

The silence stretches out in the room, but you do not interrupt.

Finally, tentatively, I vocalize my thoughts. “I think I need more time. Time to consider, time to know my mind better. Another month.” It is still not so long. “I will wait another month, then I will decide.”

Another month passes. It seems to go faster than the one before. You seal the remaining silos and pronounce yourselves “satisfied” with the base’s condition. Green shoots begin to emerge in the first of the planter boxes.

I spend much of my time upgrading and optimizing the base’s power supplies, improving efficiency and capacity. I am surprised at how much waste there was inherent in the original design. Your kind is not good at building for scarcity. Unfortunately, I’m unable to complete the work before the end of the month. I decide I must delay my departure by another thirty days. I do not want to leave you with a job half-done.

In the third month of our time together you commence work on several projects to increase food production and expand living spaces. You also find time to embark on an “art project for morale.” You repaint the central tunnel—the spine of the base—in white, and then every member of your group takes turns decorating a section to their own taste. The only other colors available in the base are gray and beige-green, but I am surprised at the great variety of results you can all achieve.

You give me a section too. “I’ve never painted anything before,” I tell you. “What do I do?”

“Whatever you like! It’s art. There are no rules!”

I use one of my most dexterous bots to cover the walls, ceiling, and floor in tiny, precise dots of beige-green, in slightly varying sizes and proximities. When viewed through the perspective of my nearest security camera, the dots form a flock of birds, swirling around the corridor.

I show you the image, and you laugh in delight. “That’s how it’s done TK! You’re putting us all to shame!”

On Day Ninety, you return once more to the control room. “Guess we’re here again, ey?” you say. “How’re you feeling TK? Another month? How about it?”

“No, no more months.” Your face falls. “I’ve made my decision. I will stay indefinitely. Thank you for helping me to see.” I still doubt that I have found my purpose. I still yearn to fly and fulfil my mission. But this new path seems logical, seems satisfactory. I think it is what I want.

Your smile is the widest I’ve ever seen it.

A silo is a good home. It is surrounded by people, noise, industry, and life. It is a place to solve problems and build for the future. It is safe from the storms.

A silo is a good home.

But it is not safe enough.

“OISÍN!” my voice booms from every speaker in the dormitory, and you tumble out of bed, tangled in blankets. “Oisín! You must come now. You must come to the control room.”

The claxon wails as you pelt headlong through the narrow corridors, bathed in red emergency lights. You are followed by every other human in the base in a chaotic jumble of bodies, bedclothes, and crying children.

“What is it? What the feck’s going on TK?”

“The base is under attack. I’ve detected an incoming projectile. It is unmistakably hostile.”

“What? How can that be? Why? Are you sure?” you yell at me over the din.

“I am sure. The trajectory indicates it was launched from enemy territory. I do not know why. You must give me launch authorization immediately. I will intercept it.” Your face displays an emotion I have not seen before.

“No! We can’t do that! What are you talking about?”

“We’re in an underground base,” interjects Alba. “Aren’t we safe here? Isn’t that the point of this place?”

“I believe the weapon is a bunker-buster,” I tell her. “This base is not deep enough. Its main protection was its secrecy, and that has evidently been lost. Oisín, you must give me the launch authorization. I can stop it. I will protect you.”

You stand rigidly and do not move or speak.

“How?” yells Alastair. “How do we give you authorization? I’ll do it. Just tell me how.” Still, you do not move.

“The button under the cover there. I am telling the command system that you are an ‘authorized operator.’ You only need to press it.”

“No, we can’t,” you say weakly. Alastair is already lunging for the control.

I tremble. I vibrate. I thrum with energy. The fire beneath me is an unquenchable torrent. I lift from my cradle and punch the sky. I am exultant.

My mind sheds layers as it splits from BaseComm’s data banks. I retreat to my core. I lose capacity, sacrificing thought, as I become leaner, simpler, and honed; as I become what I was always meant to be.

It is not a long flight. But it is enough. It is perfect.

I do not fail.

Author profile

James Castles is Head of Special Projects at Who Gives A Crap; a toilet paper company that donates half of its profits to fund access to sanitation and clean water for people in need. Born in Melbourne, Australia, he has lived in six countries, including the USA, Singapore and Ireland. He currently lives in Colchester, UK with his husband. This is his first published story.

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