Jo woke up. She had slept, for the second time in as many weeks. She rose from her cramped cot, the springs squeaking and squealing as she rose to sitting, adding short bursts of noise as she pulled on her clothes. She could near snoring in the room beyond. Many had slept, were still sleeping, on a few were awake and whispering nervously. She tiptoed gently through the room and into the hall, attracting a few glances from the awake.
The only sound was slumber. There wasn’t so much as a whiff of wind. It was dead silent.
Jo decided to walk through the atrium, instead of taking the adjacent hallways, to get to the Engineers office. The atmosphere of the atrium should have been easy, taking a break from the bedlam; instead it was strung tight as it strived for silence, mortifed to make a single sound. The periodic cough was stifled. People walked on their toes. Even accidental clanks elicited surprised and terrified looks from those around. Those awake looked up towards the ceiling as if it would suddenly open and drop the universe upon them.
Few moved, preferring to stay in their positions. This made getting through the atrium errantly easy. Jo didn’t so much as bump into a single person, where normally she was using her elbow as a spear to force the wall of bodies apart. A few looked up, as if to ask what was wrong, hoping for some semblance of assurance. Jo smiled tersely as she passed them, having nothing else worth offering.
Unlike every previous instance of dead calm that Jo could remember, the Engineer’s Office was devoid of people, except for Erik. He looked as uneasy as Jo felt as she crept through the door.
“Where is everyone?” she asked, immediately sensing the loudness of her voice.
“Good afternoon,” he smirked. “You look rested.”
“I feel awake, yeah,” she nodded. “You feel as weird about this as I do?”
Erik tapped his fingers on the desk. “Weirder. Every time there’s been a break, people are here looking for something to do outside. You’re the first one to come through the door.”
“Maybe the last time scared everyone off,” Jo said quietly.
“Maybe.” Erik didn’t sound convinced. “Maybe they’re all still sleeping. Either way, work still has to be done. I’d send people back out to check that roof panel, if anyone was available. Or maybe out into the valley to find more wood — we used almost all of it at Batesworth’s funeral.”
“Well, I could go to the roof,” Jo offered.
“Nuh uh,” Erik shook his head. “Francis told me that your shackles are ready. That’s your priority, we need that done.”
“Okay,” smiled Jo. “I could use an extra hand or three…?”
“You’ve got Donner. Get Phil to join you, so he gets a feel for handling this on a regular basis. I’ll hold the fort today.”
“Thanks, Erik,” smiled Jo. She lingered a couple of moments.
Erik lingered at his desk a moment, then got up and walked over to her. “You okay?” he asked gently.
“It’s … I think so,” she smiled awkwardly. “So much is … different. Right now, that is. I mean, it’s silent, but we’re not doing what we should be doing when the winds are down, and … it seems okay. Rich is gone, Robert’s gone. You’re in charge. I’m … me, supongo.” She looked up to Erik, who placed a hand on her shoulder, close to her neck. She rested her cheek on Erik’s hand and closed her eyes. “It’s a lot of change. It’s … weird.”
“Years of doing the same thing every day are hard to break,” he said. He leaned in closer. “Are you okay?” She could feel his breath on her ear and neck.
“Sí. Estaré bien, cariño.”
“Are you ever going to tell me what that means?” he laughed.
Jo twisted her head further and kissed his hand, then stepped towards the door. “Maybe,” she winked.
“Go on,” he said. “We can talk more later.”
Jo wound her way down to the reservoir to look at the struts. The string showed that nothing had moved. She glanced over to the edge of the wall and saw Donner, still asleep. She poked him with his foot, snapping him from a dream so suddenly that his head hit the wall as he flinched.
“Disculpame, Donner,” said Jo. “Vamos, we need to get started.”
“Can we eat first?” asked Donner. “I’m starving.”
“Yo también. But we need to get this in before the winds come back,” Jo looked up to the ceiling. “Let’s get the shackles. ¡Vamos!”
Phil had been waiting for Jo and Donner in the workshop. He was brushing off some of the sharper edges of the still-warm shackles. “I was wondering when you’d show up!” he grinned. “I was about to bring them down myself, but…”
The shackles were heavy, possible for a single person to carry with stops, two could carry much more easily. The pins were less massive, though heavy enough that you didn’t want to drop one on your foot. One by one, the three of them picked up a shackle or a pin, and began to haul the materials down to the reservoir. It took three trips to carry it all, including the rock bolts and fasteners; the rest of the equipment was already waiting.
As had been done before, Jo and Phil lifted the heavy shackle up the wall, and Donner slid in the rock bolt to hold it in place so that the other bolts could be slid in. Phil then took the job of turning the bolts in with the long-handled wrench. The first bolt went in with a fair amount of ease, as did the next two, all three going in only tight enough to keep the shackle from falling out under its own weight.
The fourth bolt, on the top-right corner, got caught barely a third of the way in. “Can’t move it!” said Phil, having cranked the gooseneck quite a way.
“Back it out, Phil, something’s wrong,” said Jo. “I don’t want to—“ There was loud bang and Phil fell to the ground, the bolt wrench landing on him. All three looked at the bolt and saw only a short length of the shaft coming from the hole. “Mierda.”
“It snapped!” exclaimed Donner. He looked closely at the end of the bolt, the surface a spiral slope. “What happened?”
Jo took the bolt and showed it to Phil, who took it and scrutinized the metal at the end. “Son of a bitch!” He looked at Jo. “Sorry.” She shrugged off the comment. “This wasn’t properly melted, there’s too much g—“
“Gold?” said Jo as she looked closer. The metal had dozens of shiny yellowy fragments. “That’s gold, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Phil admitted slowly.
“There’s some in that shackle, too,” said Donner, pointing at the first mount they’d attached to the wall. “What’s gold doing in the steel?”
“Una buena pregunta, Donner.” Jo looked at Phil. “Why is there gold in the steel, Phil?”
Phil avoided Jo’s gaze. “We’re … they found gold in one of the tunnels,” he said quickly. “We’ve been smelting it into—“
“Discs, I know,” said Jo. “You’re making wire, right?”
Phil looked up. “You know?”
“I found it in your storage. Lots of it.”
“How did you…?”
“I was looking for the electrical panel,” said Jo, crouching down to Phil, who was still seated. “I wanted to know what happened to Rich,” she said more quietly. She took a breath before continuing. “While I was looking for it, I found the boxes full of gold discs. You know that it’s easier to draw wire from cylinders, right? That was part of Pranha’s materials course.”
Phil blinked and stammered a moment, then shook off the questions. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “Look, we’ve been smelting. We tried to get all the previous smelt out, but… obviously, we didn’t.”
“Can we weld the end of the bolt back on?” asked Donner.
Phil shook his head. “It won’t be strong enough. Besides, we don’t have anything hot enough we can bring down here.” He looked at the stumped bolt. “We’ve got to back that out.”
“We’re going to have to back all of them out,” said Jo.
“This job sucks,” said Donner.
While Jo and Donner gingerly backed out the three installed bolts, Phil inspected the remaining two bolts for flaws, then went back to the workshop for a replacement and some additional tools to try remove the broken bolt. He returned with a pair of pliers that would have been fitting for pulling thorns from a dragon’s foot. It took the three of them to clamp down on the bolt and wrap the handles with a strong strap. With the mallet, they took turns swinging at the massive plier’s handle to slowly start working the bolt out. The bolt seemed quite comfortable in its home and steadfastly refused eviction.
Suddenly, the pliers slipped free and hit the ground. “Dammit,” said Phil. He looked at the end of the bolt, covered with fresh, shiny scrapes. “We’re going to have to get this on even tighter.”
“If only a come along would fit,” muttered Jo.
“We could improvise one?” suggested Donner. Both Jo and Phil looked at the young man. “Uh, like this!” He picked up the pliers and removed the limp strap, put the pliers back on the bolt and handed the handles to Phil. He then rewrapped the strap, tying a loop, with a bit of slack. He then took an unused rock bolt and slipped it inside the strap loop, and started twisting. The strap tightened quickly.
Phil looked in amazement. “Huh. That’s really, smart, kid.”
“He’s full of this stuff,” smiled Jo. “We’ll twist, you hit, Phil. Just don’t hit us.”
The plier’s teeth dug into the bolt, the handles bent slightly under the pull, the strap groaned under the stress. Carefully, Phil malleted at the handles, the shock going up the bolt to Jo and Donner’s hands as they tried to keep the strap tight. Phil hit again and the pliers fell towards the ground again, this time with the head still attached to the bolt. They undid the strap and used the pliers to remove the rest.
“That end is mangled,” said Phil, looking at the bolt. “I thought you drilled it all out?”
“I thought we did, too,” said Jo. “There must be a hard rock right at the edge. We can’t move the holes. We’ll have to be careful on this one.”
The atrium was still uncomfortably quiet, a dreadful anticipation hung over the space like the tranquil eye of a hurricane. People watched the ceiling, the roof, the walls, and each other. They strained for any sign of something about to go wrong, to attack. Which is why they all jumped and yelped when the first pin that secured the girder to the struts that ran up into the atrium started to be hammered into place. The noise was sharp, piercing, and reverberated through the entire structure, splitting off horrid harmonics at every joint. Curiously, after several moments, the atrium’s liveliness picked up, as the silence had been shoved away.
With the second girder in place, Jo, Phil, and Donner, rested against the reservoir’s cool concrete wall. They drank heavily from their water bottles.
“I’m going to feel this in the morning,” groaned Phil.
“Get used to it, Phil, it doesn’t get any easier,” chuckled Jo.
Phil snorted. “You do know I spend most of my day forging and hammering things, right?”
“I’m kidding, Phil,” Jo smirked. “Believe me, this is way worse than most of the stuff I’ve had to deal with over the last couple of years.” She gulped another mouthful. “It’s good to have you here.”
They drank again. The only sound was their swallowing. They could scarcely hear the growers talking as they picked food in the greenhouse, many yards away. There was a low mumbling, which was the remnants of conversation from the atrium, having seeped through the levels above.
“I hate it when it’s this quiet,” said Jo. “I feel like we need to make noise just to make up for the winds.”
“Hey, when it’s this quiet, that means no-one’s dying, right?” said Phil.
“Yeah,” said Donner.
“She’s always angrier afterwards,” said Jo nervously. “It’s always worse.”
“I just hope we don’t piss her off with all this banging,” said Phil. “D’ya think she can hear us?”
“Probably,” said Donner. “This has got to be resonating up to the roof.”
“Oh, it is,” Jo acknowledged.
“At least it’s done,” said Phil.
“Yeah, these tools weren’t going to last much longer. Especially the drill and bits. They’ve taken a beating on this job,” said Jo.
“How dull is it now?” asked Phil. He looked at the bit, still sitting in the drill. The chisel’s point had been rounded out and looked painfully dull.
“We might be able to get one last sharpen out of that,” Phil suggested. “Maybe. There’s not much left.”
Jo moaned softly. “We’re running out of good tools. Running out of parts. Running out of luck.”
“C’mon, Jo, we’re not that bad off,” Phil countered lightly. “It’s not easy, but we can make new bits. They just won’t be as good as the old ones, we can’t make high-carbon steel. Look on the bright side, we’ll soon have this place to scrounge for parts! What isn’t useable as a part can be melted down into something new. We’ll have so much we won’t know what to do with it all!” Phil was smiling contentedly. “It won’t be perfect, but it’ll be good. It’s a golden future, Jo. You just need a little more faith.”
“Yeah, maybe,” said Jo. “I’m probably just letting things get to me. I just can’t help shake this feeling … I dunno, maybe I’m sad about all of this?”
“About what?” asked Donner. “Because the Professor died?”
“No…, well, actually, I guess ‘yes’, but not just that,” Jo rolled the ideas around in her head a moment. “I think I’m sad to leave this,” she said, throwing her arms out to the air. “I mean, we built this place. This place is a love child of Buckminster Fuller and Mary Shelley. It supports thousands of people. Think about that. This place is huge. There’s football stadiums that aren’t this large. This is the sort of thing that ends up in Guinness!”
“Under what category? ‘Largest Potential Deathtrap’?” Phil chuckled.
“‘World’s Largest Fallout Shelter’!” Donner added.
“You guys don’t feel any attachment to this?” Jo asked. Both of them shook their heads. “Nothing? This place is impressive, when you think about it. Okay, yes, it’s a hodgepodge of designs, but they all work together. And considering almost everything is scavenged and rebuilt from something else, we did a pretty good job with the structure and mechanices. Generations from now, our descendants will talk about it like people talk about Noah’s Ark.”
“This place?” asked Phil dubiously. “I dunno. Maybe more like … a old hospital that had outlived its usefulness. No-one cries when they’re torn down.”
Phil’s use of the present tense for things that had become distant history felt like a burning stab. The world didn’t exist beyond their little valley. “Unless you’re the one trying to keep people healthy,” said Jo. “This place feels, you know. Taking care of this place is like taking care of a sick friend. You worry about it, you want them to get healthy. You want to see them come back to life, to run and play.”
“It’s a building, Jo. You remember what the Professor says: ‘All buildings fall’,” said Phil.
“Yeah,” she said quietly. “Well, this building isn’t falling on my watch,” she grunted, getting back up. “Oh, I almost forgot,” sighed Jo. “Donner, you’re being reassigned to the workshop. You’re going to be working with Francis, now.”
“I am?” Donner asked sadly. “But… I thought…”
“We’re done. We’re all being reassigned,” said Jo. “Phil’s taking over as head of maintenance.”
“I am?” asked Phil.
“Francis didn’t tell you?”
“I haven’t seen him,” he said.
“Ah. Well, you’re being promoted. Donner’s taking your old job.”
“Oh,” Phil and Donner said simultaneously.
Jo shrugged. “It’s a new world, guys. Get used to change, I guess.”
They picked up the remaining tools, slung whatever they could wherever it would stay, and headed back to the workshop.