“Where are we going?” Donner asked as they stepped around the occupants of the hallway, most in a half-slumber. Jo kept walking. “Jo? Are you okay?”
Jo stopped. “No.”
Donner hesitantly touched Jo’s shoulder. “What’s going on?”
“Robert Ferris was my classmate, a year my senior. He had enough credits to graduate, but he had delayed his own graduation to take Batesworth’s ARCH course. He and Erik were Batesworth’s right hands: Erik was the TA, Robert was … honestly, I think Robert was there to make Batesworth look good.“ Jo tried not to sob. “Robert and I had a lot of chats around the fire in those first few weeks. Random stuff. Movies, food, the places we would build after graduation, places we wanted to visit. He was almost like an older, awesome brother.
“After Block 2 collapsed, Robert was the one who realized that the ARCH was in worse shape than we’d thought. He’s the one who started digging the tunnels. Robert had the plans, knew the schedule, designed the tools. If he were still the one running the project, we’d have moved out of here by now.”
“So what happened? Why … why are you … why is this happening?” asked Donner. “What’s going on?”
“No lo sé.” Jo continued walking.
Donner followed quickly. “Jo?”
“I … I don’t know,” Jo spat, not turning around. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why it happened.”
Jo stopped as they entered Block 9. She looked down the hallway towards their destination. She could see others heading in the same direction. “Robert raped and nearly killed a girl.” Whether or not Donner made any sound, Jo didn’t recognize. “That’s what we were told. He’d snapped. Gone crazy. He was in the tunnels, they found him standing over her with her torn clothes and a bloody hammer. They beat him almost to death.”
“I—,” Donner shuddered. “I’m … sorry.”
“It wasn’t you,” said Jo quietly. “It wasn’t him,” she added.
“He didn’t do it. I know he didn’t.”
“Because,” Jo snapped. “Because. Because we let a friend down. And we’re all going to suffer for it.”
They walked down the hallway until they got to the door of an unmarked room at the south-eastern edge of Block 9, one of only a handful of rooms in the ARCH had held no occupants. It was a room not originally conceived in anyone’s plans for the building, one no-one had ever wanted to build, prayed that it was never to be used. But every time the banshee screamed, the room would serve its purpose.
“Go back to the greenhouse,” said Jo, opening the door.
“I’ll wait,” said Donner.
“You shouldn’t,” she said, entering the room.
The room was roughly rectangular, with the far wall being a divider between the inner room and an outer space that opened into the outside. Robert stood against the divider, his wrists chained to a loop on the wall that kept him from moving in any direction. His shirt had been wrapped around his head, and gagged him from speaking. On either side of him were two large men with large spears, both pointed towards Robert’s torso. One of the spears had already made a mark, a cut deep enough to cause a trickle of blood to seep down Robert’s side, and to keep Robert from struggling.
Jo stepped up to Robert. She reached out to untie the shirt from his head and found the spear in her face. “¿Cuál es su problema?”
“Director’s orders,” said the large man with the pointy stick.
“Director?” Jo asked. “We don’t have a ‘director’.”
“The guy in charge,” said the other spear-wielder.
“The only thing he’s in charge of is the shit between his ears,” Jo muttered, just loudly enough that Robert heard. Jo could see the spasming of a laugh. “I’m sorry, Robbie. I tried to convince them that this was really, really stupid. Even if … even if you had done … something, which I don’t believe, we need you. We need you now more than ever. The Council’s gone to hell. Batesworth is so full of his own delusions that he’s letting Carl do anything he likes.” She let out a short chuckle of derision. “If anyone is a director,” she spoke loudly enough for the two guards to hear clearly, “it’s this guy. It’s a shame you’re too stupid to see it.”
“Whatever, get back!” said the first guard, swinging his spear precariously close to Jo’s head.
“I’m going to see that you spend a lot of time fixing toilets,” she growled as she stepped back against the wall.
“Someone’s in a bad mood,” said a pleasant voice in Jo’s ear.
Jo instinctively leaped away and turned to see the voice’s owner. “Dawn!” Jo cursed. “Stop doing that!”
Dawn giggled. “Sorry, I can’t resist a good scare. You know me!”
“You pick the worst times for that,” muttered Jo. “What are you doing here?”
“Francis sent me,” sighed Dawn, “to be his witness.”
“He isn’t coming?” Jo balked.
“No,” grumbled Dawn. “Francis and Carl are working on Batesworth’s orders, so they’re apparently ‘all tied up’.”
“Of course they are. Consign their friend to his death, don’t have the cojones to see it through.”
“I don’t want to see this through,” said Dawn. “Robert’s … this can’t be happening.”
“It shouldn’t be happening. Carl was so quick to damn Robert, he should be here.”
“Apparently they’re on strict orders.”
“From who, Batesworth?” asked Jo.
“You didn’t hear?” asked Dawn. Jo shook her head. “Batesworth appeared in the tunnels a couple of days ago.”
“That, I know,” said Jo.
“He wasn’t happy about the lack of progress.”
“He’s not happy about anything right now,” Jo muttered.
“Well, Batesworth marched in about a half hour ago and ordered Carl to start moving people in today!”
“Today?!” Jo gasped. She looked up at the ceiling. “Dios mío, I think he actually listened for a change!”
“Carl and Smiley agreed. Then Carl freaked out to Francis.” Dawn leaned in close and whispered. “Francis told me that there’s no way they’ll do it.”
“Wait, you mean they can’t do it, or won’t do it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what they’re doing,” Dawn sighed.
“Gah. Some men,” muttered Jo.
“Speaking of which,” said Dawn, glancing across the room.
The door had opened and in stepped Professor Batesworth, wearing his Stanford ceremonial robe: black, with red fabric on the sleeves past the elbows and in stripes down the front. He wore his eight-sided black cap. The attire stood out sharply against everyone else’s, as Batesworth had taken great care to keep the regalia in pristine shape. No-one had ever discovered why Batesworth had felt the need to take the regalia out into the middle of the desert.
“Such a show off,” whispered Dawn.
Batesworth walked to the middle of the room, followed by Erik. Erik looked despondently towards Jo. Batesworth unnecessarily cleared his throat, everyone else in the room already having given him their attention. Batesworth scanned the room, not really meeting with anyone else’s gaze. He produced a slate scrawled with a script — Batesworth never did anything official without a script — and held in front like a town crier.
“Robert Ferris, you stand before your peers, convicted by the tribunal for the crimes of sexual assault and battery.” Immediately, Robert started grunting and groaning through the gag. Batesworth ignored the sound and spoke louder. “While these crimes carried harsh punishments in the World That Was, those of us who remain are unable to live with your blight.”
“‘Blight?’” Jo exclaimed. “This is wrong, Professor.”
Batesworth ignored Jo and continued. “The Council has conferred and we hereby condemn you to banishment. You will leave the ARCH, never to return. You will live in the wild to the best of your ability. We leave you with a day’s rations, your clothing, and a knife. May God have mercy on your soul.”
Robert’s muted screams hit a crescendo, screaming through his shirt, a series of roars and half-gags that would likely have been some kind of denunciation of Batesworth and the Council, and possibly all of humanity, had Robert been able to articulate himself. He was swiftly muted by a whack on the head by one of the spear-holders, Jo whimpered on his behalf. The room fell painfully quiet. There was at worst only a low lone whistle, the banshee apparently having gone to sleep. The outer walls, normally rattling in the winds, offered only a periodic rumble. Batesworth nodded and a door on the divider was opened. The two other guards lowered their poles at Robert, while Erik unhooked the chain that held Robert in place. Robert immediately tried to struggle, until he felt the dagger point under his chin. Surrounded by the pointed poles, he growled a final time, and went through the doorway. A small sack with the rations and the knife clinked in next to him. In a quick motion, Erik removed the chains and the door closed.
A heartbeat later, coherent yelling began, along with the mad pounding on the door as Robert tried to break free. “I’m innocent! I didn’t do anything!! This isn’t justice, this is murder!”
“Erik,” said Batesworth calmly. Erik nodded painfully and reached for a lever next to the door.
“WAIT!” Jo’s voiced ricocheted around the room. Erik’s hand stopped. “You can’t do this! We can’t do this! Professor Batesworth, this is wrong. What happened was wrong and we can’t change that, but we can change this. We can stop this from becoming even more of a tragedy. Please, for what good is left, we need to stop and rethink this before you regret it!”
“Your assumption, Ms. De Leon,” Batesworth said barely over his shoulder, “is that there is anything you say is worth hearing.” He looked towards Erik. “Now.”
“Erik, please, no!” Jo pleaded. Erik looked at Jo, at his hand, at Batesworth, and back to Jo. His hand vibrated in indecision.
“Now, Erik!” Batesworth demanded. “For the good of the ARCH!”
There was a scraping sound, followed by two shrieks — one in the outer room, one in the inner room — the sound of things sliding and desperate clinging, then only the buffeting of wind. Erik pushed forth on the handle. The buffeting stopped. Erik opened the door again, revealing that the room’s occupant had departed.
Dawn was holding Jo, who had collapsed to the floor. Jo’s eyes were trained on the empty space, her eyes vacant and wide. “Murderers,” she whispered.
Batesworth tucked his slate away no differently than at a Council meeting, turned, and walked out of the room, the two guards following. Dawn helped Jo to her unsteady feet, holding her for every ounce of support. Erik stood in the corner next to the handle, staring alternately between his feet and Jo. The wind whipped around beyond the walls, lightly rattling the hull plates. Beyond that, there was still a faint yelling, and the sound of rocks hitting the outer door. Jo stared at the door as if it could answer her unspoken question.
“Jo,” said Erik softly. He stood next to her, gently placing his hands on her face. “Jo?”
“It’s not right,” she said. “None of it.”
“I know. I … it doesn’t make sense to me. Robert wasn’t the sort. He was strong.”
“He was stronger than all of us,” said Jo, still staring at the door.
“Was he?” Erik asked. “I mean, we all like to think we’re unstoppable. But we all have our breaking points. Maybe he reached his.”
“¡Dáme un respiro!” Jo protested. “You know Robert! Did he ever seem upset to you? Did he even ever have a bad day? Robert was having fun with all of this! It was a challenge, a game to him. And he played it better than anyone.”
Dawn released her hold of Jo, and Erik took over, holding Jo tight. “Or maybe he just suffered in silence and kept the brave face for the rest of us. He was the guy who smiled at a disaster. He was the one who’d giggle at the terrible hands in poker, knowing he was just going to annoy us with it. He was—“
Jo broke away from Erik. “Stop saying ‘was’! He’s not dead, Erik! He’s still alive! He’s out there! Right! Now!” she stabbed her hand towards the outer wall.
Erik slumped. “Don’t think I don’t know that, Jo. I pulled the handle. I dumped my friend outside. We decided to let him go.”
“No, I didn’t decide. The rest of you did,” Jo snarled. She marched towards the door.
“Jo! Wait!” Erik called.
“I need to go fix something,” she said as she spun through the doorway.
Donner had been waiting patiently outside. He backed against the wall as Jo burst through the door; she didn’t acknowledge him as she roared past in angered silence. He quickly sprang after her as she turned the corner, as eager to stay with her as she was to distance herself from the events she’d witnessed. Donner wisely chose not to say anything to her until they were halfway into the Atrium, and she stopped.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
Jo wheeled around, ready to tear off something vital. The futility of the instinct caused her to spring right back around.
Donner took an unconscious step backward. “I’m sorry.”
Even with her back to him, even over the droning of the Atrium and the wind, Donner heard: “You didn’t do anything.”
“I can still empathize,” he said. “Even if I don’t understand what happened.”
Jo’s head sagged, her shoulders shook in great hops. Then she suddenly threw out her arms, raised her head, and emitted a sound that the ARCH’s inhabitants usually only heard coming from the outside. It was deep, and powerful, and mournful, and vengeful. The Atrium fell nearly silent except for the sound of a thousand eyes following the screech to its source. The source didn’t care. She walked off solemnly, leaving Donner behind.
She wanted to run, wanted to hide. She wanted to disappear. But in the ARCH, there were no places to hide, no places to be alone. There was always someone within an arm’s length of you, a paper thin barrier between your thoughts and someone else’s. And so Jo descended into the greenhouse, where the arms were more involved with creating and sustaining life.