Dust and sand sifted through the air alternately in loose particles, and in cascading rivulets collapsing under the force of gravity. The vacant space in Block 2 was trapped between an eerie emptiness and the angry rattle-bang of its exposed roof as the wind tried to rip the panels free. Atop a boulder centered in the chasm, Jo sat with her knees to her chin, staring at the canyon wall, as the dust settled upon her.
“Thought I’d find you here,” said Erik. He looked up from the base of the boulder, his hand blocking the settling sand. “May I join you?” he asked. A shoulder shrug was his answer. He climbed the boulder’s craggy parts and took an uncomfortable seat next to Jo. He shuffled a few times until the jagged parts of stone ceased trying to penetrate his ass. He looked around at the empty desolation. “You nearly died here, didn’t you?”
“Sí,” was the short reply.
“I’m glad you didn’t,” he said. “Die, that is. Or even get hurt. How do you do that, anyway?”
“Do stupid things?” she mumbled through the crossed arms over her mouth.
“Not get hurt,” he said. Her eyes darted accusingly towards him a moment then returned to their stare. “Well, not physically, I mean. You fell, what 40 feet?”
Erik shuffled again but said nothing else. The roof continued to act like a caged animal. His shoulders began to take on a reddish hue as the powder fell. “You’re not being banished,” he finally said.
“So.” Jo’s response was caught between a challenge and a dismissal.
Erik opened his mouth and the start of something that would likely get him in trouble came out. He quickly shut up and rethought his point. “I know you were worried about banishment. That doesn’t make any of this any better, I know. I know… I … I don’t know how to … what else to say,” he trailed off. “Sorry, I don’t know why I came.” He started to slide off the boulder, but was caught by Jo’s hand.
“Stay,” she said. “Por favor.”
Erik looked at Jo. “I want to ask if you’re okay, but that’s a stupid question, isn’t it?”
“No.” She straightened her back and dropped her knees. “I’m … I feel like this place.” She held out her arms to the vacancy of Block 2. “I don’t know what to do anymore, Erik. All I do is rush from disaster to emergency and try to help out and people…”
“Don’t care,” said Erik. “They don’t see it.”
“Not until I kill someone.”
“Henry didn’t die because of you,” Erik said firmly. “Yes, he died, but not by any fault or intention of yours. You didn’t kill Henry, Jo. You didn’t force him out a door, or drop him off a roof, or throw him into the wind, or any of the things that anyone else has been opening their big mouth on. I ran into a lot of mouths who were convinced they knew the whole story and were trying to tell me how much they knew the facts. I think I nearly punched a couple of tunnelers when I was interviewing Dawn and they felt the need to tell me how you were the devil sent to kill us all—“ Erik stopped suddenly, his voice almost a shout in the space. He flushed and looked at Jo’s horror. “Oh. Oh my god, I’m so sorry, Jo, I didn’t mean to say that, I didn’t—”
Jo’s face softened and she placed her finger on Erik’s lips. “Esta bien, cariño. Thank you.”
Erik’s confusing slid out from under his anger. “Uh, for…?”
“I know people have been badmouthing me. Carl apparently mouthed off to the guys in the workshop.” Tears seeped out and formed muddy trails down Jo’s face. “We’re going to die here.” She tried to wipe the wetness from her face but only succeeded in smearing the mud, creating streaks running from her nose almost to her ears. “This is pointless. None of what we’re doing matters. This place will collapse and kill us all.” She sniffed wetly. “What if we’re the last, Erik? The last humans? What if this is all that is left? When we’re gone, there will be no-one left to remember us.”
“We’re not going to die,” said Erik, softly. “Not here, anyway.”
“So we get buried alive in Carl’s deathtrap tunnels.”
“I still dream of being by the sea. A little cottage on a clifftop, overlooking a long, empty beach. Rolling surf, some seagulls, maybe a whale or two in the distance. Every evening, watch the sun set and the stars come out.” He touched Jo’s shoulder. “I want that to be real, Jo. I want to believe that we’re not here for any reason than to survive long enough to leave, get back to life somewhere else.”
“What if there’s nowhere else? How do we know that the world has been obliterated by the winds? Rich has never once picked up a radio transmission from anywhere. After all this time, wouldn’t others be trying to reach out, saying ‘we’re here’? We’re alone, Erik. We’re all that’s left.” She sniffed again. “And I don’t even know these people’s names.”
“No-one does, Jo,” said Erik. “You have any idea how long it took me just to find out Henry’s last name? We’re … all of us are like Block 2, Jo. We’re hollow, empty, destroyed by the wind that’s always trying to tear us apart. You can see our skeletons,” he pulled up his pant leg and showed his knee, his flesh so thin that it was possible to see the outline of the patella, “our life is as threadbare as it can get while still keeping us alive. Right now, this is all we have, this is what is keeping us alive long enough to get to the next place. Once we’re in the tunnels, we’ll start working out a step after that. One day, with luck, we’ll be somewhere else that is comfortable and safe.” He noticed the redness on his shoulder and brushed it off. “And a hell of a lot cleaner.” Jo burst a single laugh, a smile forced its way across her face. Erik reached out and touched her face. “That’s the Jo I know. You don’t give up. You fight. There’s no such thing as ‘hopeless’ to you. That’s why I…”
Erik reddened again. “I … admire you.”
“‘Admire’,” Jo smirked. “Eres linda cuando tratas de decir que me amas. Espero que puedas decir eso algún día.”
“Te amo mucho, cariño,” she said, giving Erik a quick peck on his cheek.
“You were looking for me, Professor?” asked Carl as he entered Batesworth’s office.
“You were supposed to be attending the tribunal,” said Batesworth, not looking up from the slates on his desk. “I gave you and Francis explicit orders to attend so we could deal with the Council decision immediately.”
“You said you wanted the tunnels opened,” said Carl. “We’ve been moving people in for the last two days. It’s taking every hand we have to get people moved and in place! Do you have any idea of how many beds—“
“Are you done with your pointless whining?” asked Batesworth. He rose from his chair to glare at Carl. “I gave you an order and I expect it to be followed.”
“We are,” said Carl. “Your order was to move people into the tunnels.”
“I told you to attend Jo’s tribunal!” Batesworth shouted.
Carl stared for several moments. “Well, I didn’t. So what are you going to do about it?”
“I already did something,” said Batesworth. “You decided not to come, so I passed judgement.”
“Banishment?” Carl’s eyes gleamed.
Batesworth made every move not to hide astonishment. “You are without a doubt the most callous person in here. If anyone should be banished for their behavior, perhaps it should be you!”
“She killed a—!“
“No-one died by Jo’s hand!” Batesworth thundered. Carl cringed slightly. “Jo’s actions, whether you agree with them or not, will help the ARCH stand. That a person died is irrelevant. As I recall, you’ve had no less than a dozen deaths in the tunnels due to cave-ins, and so far you’ve never once sat at a tribunal to explain yourself.”
“Those are acciden—“
“Accidental deaths. Just like the one Jo witnessed when nature took its course. The only difference between Jo and yourself is that she took responsibility for it. You treat your tunnelers no different than batteries, throwing out the spent when they’re of no use to you.”
“I don’t have time to cry! We have lives to save!”
“There is always time to mourn the dead, Carl. Whether we know their names or not. Your callousness towards life is a liability here. I think you’ve been in the tunnels too long.”
“I think it’s time Dawn took over,” said Batesworth, his eyes drifting into thought. “She’s been in the tunnels a long time, she knows what’s going on, and given the state of their completion, she’s in a good position to ensure they’re finished properly.” Carl was speaking, but Batesworth couldn’t hear a thing. “Her experience with electrical and plumbing is perfect for this, actually. Then we can focus on getting the floors complete and make sure we get people in more quickly. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that sooner.”
“Professor!” Carl shouted.
“You can’t take me out, now, we are so close to having everyone set up with their own share of the space!”
“Share…,” Batesworth snapped his fingers. “That reminds me. Jo told me something about you allocating shares to the other Engineers. You’ve never brought this to Council, Carl. What are these ‘shares’ and what purpose do they serve?”
Carl’s eyes twitched. “They’re, uh, we’re just making sure that we’re taking care of our own.”
“Don’t you think it’s important for people to feel rewarded in their work?”
“People are alive, Carl. Don’t you think that’s rewarding enough, given the conditions?”
“In here, sure,” Carl shrugged. “This place is going to fail.” Batesworth’s expression soured. “We’ve known this for months. That’s why we started tunneling! A safer place, more stable, more space for everyone. We’ll be comfortable! We can actually start having some civilization again, with better society and opportunity!” The sour sweetened, pushing Carl on. “So imagine if we rebalanced the equation again, Professor. When we started with the ARCH, it was just for us, the Engineers. We didn’t invite all these other people along for the ride, they forced their way in! They imposed themselves on us and we had to adapt to support them. We lost our personal spaces, we lost our advantage. We built this place and now we’re forced into corners because of them? How fair is that? Why can’t we make it better for us so that when we move into the tunnels, we take back our position as the chosen few?”
“‘Chosen few’?” The sour returned. “To use Agatha’s term, that’s very classist, Carl. Why on earth do you want to do that. And as I recall, the only ‘chosen’ people here were my original class, all of whom were selected by me. If any classism exists here, it’s putting myself above you!”
Carl’s mouth hung open. “Uh, well, of course we would naturally ensure that your share is … more …”
“Amenable?” Batesworth proffered.
“Yes,” Carl said slowly. “After all, you’re the Professor.”
“Director,” Batesworth corrected. “If we’re going to be changing things around here, I want to start with that.” Batesworth plunked himself in his chair and folded his arms, his eyes straying away again. “And this Council is done with. Once we’re moved in, we don’t need it. The ARCH will have served its purpose and the tunnels will support us. I’m tired of all the bickering, anyway.”
“Uh, Professor, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“We still need … governance. Your words, sir.”
“We needed governance. Now we need direction. And you are definitely not capable of that. None of you are. Once we’re in the tunnels, this will become an eminently different situation. In fact,” he faced Carl, “you’re going to ensure that my ‘share’ is at least … double of the other Engineers.” He chewed on the thought a moment. “Yes, reward is due, Carl. And you’re going to make sure that it’s set up that way.”
“Double?” Carl choked. “S-sir, I don’t think I can do that. I’ve … we’ve already set the formula and made promises—“
“Then unmake them,” said Batesworth coolly. “Come to think of it, Jo has been on maintenance now for at least three years. I think it’s time you two swapped places, and you can deal with the minor repairs.”
Carl’s jaw clenched. “Double,” he agreed. “Hell, you deserve everything that’s coming to you, sir, why not make it triple?”
“Now, now, Carl, let’s not get greedy.” Batesworth swung around to his desk and riffled through a few slates, producing one that had long been smudged. He wiped it off and drew a box, filling it with a rectangle, circle, and a pair of architectural chair placeholders. “This should be appropriate, I think.” He held it arms’ length, admiring the look. Then he quickly added an alcove. “And my own private toilet.” He handed it to Carl. “Three days, and I move in.”
Carl looked at the diagram. “I see.” He looked at Batesworth and smiled. “We’ll make it work.”