Broken Silence

Submitted into Contest #142 in response to: Write about somebody who likes to work in silence.... view prompt


Fiction Science Fiction Speculative

“It isn’t silence that bothers me. It’s the noise.”

“Why is that?”

“Because it usually means something’s gone wrong.”

The man sitting across the table from me gives me a look, like he’s still wondering whether to believe me or not. This interview has lasted for hours, and it isn’t the first one I’ve been through.

“I’m sorry this process is so involved,” he says, as if sensing my thoughts. “But you have to understand the gravity of the situation, the importance of this job. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the future of mankind might depend on you.”

I nod, shrug. Try not to dwell on what’s at stake. I mean, the world is literally about to end, and I’ve got a chance to be part of its new beginning. I think I can take a few weeks of interviews and evaluations. After all, I’m just the kind of person they’re looking for.

The man shuffles the papers lying on the table in front of them, glancing down at them, then back at me. “You do understand the… unique conditions under which you’ll be working, right?”

“I do.” Isolation. Interment. I’ll essentially be buried alive. Locked in what they’re calling a Redundant Contingency Data Storage Facility. A secure server farm, loaded with a compendium of human knowledge. My job will be to keep it functional, maintain the systems, and ensure that the data is retrievable when… if… whatever civilization is left needs it.

And I have to do it alone.

Again, the man glances down at his papers. “And you have no issues with those conditions? I see you have no remaining family, no listed contacts. No friends, close acquaintances. Pets.” He looks up at me. “No one to miss, really.”

I nod again. It’s just the way I’ve always lived. I prefer to be left alone, not bothered. During the psychiatric evaluations, the shrinks labelled it a borderline sociopathy disorder. I simply don’t have it in me to care about other people. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m not concerned over the looming annihilation of most of the human race, the ones who won’t find room in the shelters when the rocks fall. It’s really sad. But my… disorder… can benefit them. Limitations on space, water and air purification, power demands, all force a single-technician policy. One person per facility. So, yeah, I’m perfect for this job.

“And you understand that we can’t say how long you’ll be down there,” the man continues. “We’ve run simulations, projections, but we don’t know. It could be months, years. Even decades. I mean, Earth is going to intercept with a fragmented interstellar asteroid within the next year.” He shrugs. “Our best experts can only guess at how long the surface will remain uninhabitable.”

“I understand.” I could spend the rest of my life alone, in other words. Well, I’ve spent most of it so far that way. Doesn’t bother me.

“Well,” the man picks up the sheaf of papers, squares them on the table, then slips them into a folder. “You meet all the requirements. You’ve completed all the training, passed all the tests.” He sighs. “You’re in. You’ll receive your assignment tomorrow and be in position within a week. If you have anything to do, anyone to speak to…”

“Thank you, sir, but it’s fine. I’m ready.”

The man stands, holds out his hand. “Then good luck.”

I rise and shake his hand, the gesture stiff and awkward. “Thank you, sir.”

There’s never been any talk about pay or benefits. It’s been understood that my only reward for taking part in this project is my own survival. I’ll have everything I need to live out my life, deep underground, with nothing but machinery and silence for company.

I can hardly wait.


The first noise to break the silence in years is a faint buzzing.

Bzzz, bzzz, bzzz.

It just… starts. One minute, the silence is as complete as ever. All I’ve heard since the Facility was sealed has been my own breathing, the beating of my own heart. And now… bzzz, bzzz, bzzz.

It scares me. My mouth goes dry and my heartbeat picks up. Adrenaline spikes, making me feel hot, flushed, short of breath.

What is that sound? Where is it coming from? What’s gone wrong?

I’ve been down here three years, eighty-two days, and nine hours. Right from the first, I established a routine. I rise at 0600, perform a maintenance check on every system: the server banks, the coolant systems, the air purification systems, the power plant. I do the recommended physical and mental exercises after that, keeping mind and body in shape to fulfill my duty. I eat three square meals a day, comprised of rehydrated rations, like I’m an astronaut drifting through space.

And I read. A lot. I have other pastimes, but I’ve always enjoyed reading the most. The data in storage is all in text format, to save space. For me, having access to everything ever written is like a dream come true. Too bad it took the end of the world to get it.

For over three years, I’ve lived in happy isolation, alone with the silence.

And now this noise.

Bzzz, bzzz, bzzz.

It isn’t really loud, just a faint, nagging sound, echoing in what should be silence. I can hear it from anywhere in the Facility, all five small rooms of my living space, the short corridor linking to the massive server space, and even in the entrance area where I don’t go unless I have to.

I move from room to room, walking softly, trying to track down the noise. Yesterday’s diagnostic checks didn’t turn up anything abnormal. Green lights across the board. So what is this noise.

Bzzz, bzzz, bzzz.

Hmmm. It gets fractionally louder as I pass an air vent opening. So it’s probably part of the purification and airflow system. I hurry to the nearest access panel, pull it open. Sure enough, the noise gets louder.


It’s one of the fans. Something’s wrong with it. I quickly follow the maintenance instructions that were drilled into me during training. I disable the fan, remove it from its housing, inspect it. I find that the motor belt has slipped, worn a groove on the rotator track. A simple fix. I replace the belt and the damaged part, put the unit back together. Holding my breath, I turn it back on.

It works. Blessed silence returns.

I sigh in relief. Everything is back to normal.


Other problems crop up as the years pass. Other strange noises intrude on my safe, comfortable little world.

A loud clanking and thumping put my heart in my throat late one morning. I couldn’t imagine what could cause such a racket. I ran from one end of the facility to the other, imagining everything from earthquakes to an invasion by a horde of mutant moles.

It turned out the problem was pretty serious: a failed coolant pump in the server farm. I found it quickly, however, before the linked unit could overheat, causing damage and possible data loss. All it took was a part replacement, and everything was fine. Disaster averted. Silence restored.

One time, a hydraulic line in the entrance chamber developed a leak. Some sort of pressure problem. The dripping kept me awake for an entire sleep cycle, tossing and turning in worry, wondering what it could be. Had the outer shell of the Facility been damaged? Would the entire place be flooded?

But no. It was just a little leak. I wasn’t too happy about where it happened. I hate going to the entrance chamber, with its heavy machinery, its sole purpose being to provide access to the facility, in the event that someone contacts me and gives the all clear.

As I work, I think about the purpose of this machinery. Eventually, it’s supposed to unseal the Facility, allow outside access. Someone is supposed to contact me, tell me that the world has recovered, humanity resurfaced, and the data I’ve so carefully preserved is needed. I maintain a constant radio link, an open dedicated frequency. One day, I’m supposed to receive a signal. It hasn’t come yet.

Funny. The one sound I’m supposed to hear eventually, the one that might be a good thing, and I never hear it. No, the radio link to the surface has been silent for… a little over twenty years now. I wonder if it will ever come. But I guess I don’t really care.

It only took a few minutes to fix the leak, restore proper pressure. The drip stopped. Silence returned.


I stand in the center of my living space, listening to a new and frightening sound. It’s a tapping, faint and rhythmic. Like two pieces of metal hitting each other. Not loud, but persistent.

I don’t know how long I stand there, wondering what that noise is, waiting for it to stop. Hoping it will stop. It doesn’t.

The sound isn’t like any of the other sounds over the years. I can’t even guess what’s causing it. I’ve had to fix or replace almost every part of the facility over the fifty-six—fifty-seven?—years I’ve been down here. I’ve actually learned to identify a malfunction or failing equipment by the sound. But this one… this one I haven’t heard before.

Finally, I force myself into motion. I go from room to room, listening intently, trying to find where it’s loudest. I rule out my living quarters, the corridors, the server farm. With a feeling of dread, I head for the entrance chamber. I don’t know what in there would make such a noise, but I need to find out. I need to fix it, make the noise stop. Bring back the silence.

In the entrance chamber, I move slowly from one end to the other. I run my gaze over the massive machines, the lifts and tracks, the gears and pistons. All of it still and silent for so long, waiting to perform a function I’m now certain they’ll never need to. The door will stay shut forever, even after I die, even after every other system down here fails. No one ever contacted me. No one ever gave the all clear. No one survived. I’m the last person alive, and soon enough I’ll be gone, too. Then there will be nothing but silence.

Then I realize that the tapping gets louder the closer I get to the entrance. I feel a fear stronger than any I’ve felt since that first noise, all those years ago. Heart hammering, I approach the sealed entrance. There’s no mistaking it: the sound is coming from the door. Through the door. There’s something—someone—on the other side.

I pause, struggling for breath. Then I notice the pattern in the noise. I’ve read about this. Morse code. I listen carefully.

All clear. Open door. All clear. Open door.

I stagger back from the door, shaking my head in disbelief. Denial. This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. I was supposed to be contacted by radio. There were supposed to be passwords and procedures. This is a trick. There’s something dangerous out there, trying to trick me into letting it in.

I won’t do it. I won’t open the door. I’ll wait. Ignore the noise. Sooner or later, it’ll go away. I’ll be left alone again. Silence will return.

I’ve turned away, intending to go to the farthest end of the Facility, to wait there for the sound to stop, when a new thought grips me.

Someone out there might need me. Might need help. Might need the information I’ve preserved, kept safe all these years. Who knows? The last remnant of civilization might be on the other side of that door, desperately needing the data I have in here, ready to start rebuilding, if they just knew how.

How can I know what to do? I’ve been alone for so long, lost in the silence. I just don’t want to be bothered. I just want to continue to be left alone. What can any of it matter anymore? Why not just let everything end, let it all slip into perfect silence?

I shuffle over to the controls, my old, frail body responding slowly to my thoughts. I can open the door with the touch of a button. Or I can walk away, ignore that plea coming from the other side of the door, and never know what might be out there.

My hand hovers over the controls.

What should I do? Should I turn away? Should I remain alone, safe and content?

Or should I finally break my silence, once and for all?

April 21, 2022 14:44

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