The speed of sound through steel is over 13,000 miles per hour, nearly seventeen times faster than the speed of sound through air. This is why Erik and Jo — lying together in an exhausted, sweat- and sex-infused heap — heard the the soul-shattering sound of girders bending in ways they dearly wished were physically impossible at the same time that they felt the immense wrenching of the ARCH’s structure. The sound was abruptly followed by metallic crashing, the unmistakeable crinkling of rigid structures being crushed, accompanied by the blood-draining screeching of people in various stages of dying.
They were on their feet before the first wave of vibration had waned.
“Shirt!” Jo shouted as she hastily yanked her bra over her head; it came sailing across the room a second later.
“Underwear?” Erik asked, holding the white panties aloft.
“Later!” Jo replied, already pushing her feet into her boots while buckling up her pants.
The two of them burst from the Engineer’s Office, nearly wedging themselves in the doorway. Erik fell back by a half-step, but didn’t lose pace with Jo. Another massive salvo sent the floor out from under them, echoed with a wretched rending of iron. They stumbled, catching each other and managing to miss the floor. They slowed only long enough to exchange worried glances, then ran harder and faster.
The door to the hallways beyond blew open when they unlatched it as a tsunami of people washed over them to get away from the disaster beyond. Jo clung to the door, while Erik hooked an arm through the doorway and around the other side to keep himself from being pulled away with the stampeding survivors. After a few moments, they managed to pull their way through the throng, and squeezed themselves out into another hallway.
The hallway was so full that only Erik could see where to go, being taller than most. He lashed onto Jo, Jo reciprocating with a strong grip on his forearm. She pushed while he pulled, together shouting at everyone trying to flee to make room. But even Jo’s powerful voice was drowned out by the collective crying of the masses. Person by person by person they inched along the hallway, finally reaching an access to the atrium. Long before they could see the damage, they could smell it. Dust. Sand. The outside.
“Mierda…” Jo’s voice caught in her throat.
“Oh my god,” Erik cried softly.
A section of the Block 4 roof, a hundred and fifty feet wide, and at least half of that in length had peeled open, collapsing into the heart of the atrium, like some great hand had punched straight down through a sheet of aluminum foil. Sand was pouring in from one corner, where a dune had formed above. The hole gaped like a ragged mouth caught in mid-scream, the fallen section reduced to a jagged wave, partially pierced by the bunk racks that it had mostly squashed.
Crying and wailing came from all around, much of it muffled by the twisted metal girders and plates. Bodies were everywhere, some whole, some not, most bleeding if not already bled out. A few still moved, though some were clearly in their last moments. Most of the able occupants had already fled to the outlying spaces, a few remaining behind to help.
“Find Kelly!” Jo said, as she started to job towards a small group of people standing at the edge.
“I’ll get Francis to get his crew out here!” Erik shouted, heading to the workshop.
“We need Kelly, first!” Jo argued. “Once she’s out here, we can get Frank!” Erik grumbled something, then changed direction and disappeared.
Jo approached the group. There were about thirty, mostly men and about nine or ten women. “Is anyone hurt?” They all either said “no” or shook their heads. “Good.” She circled roughly two dozen. “You’re coming with me. I know you’re scared, but right now there are a lot of people who need your help. Follow me.” She pointed to the rest. “I need you to clear that area,” she pointed to a space that had bits of debris, but was otherwise protected under the roof, “so we triage the wounded. Got it? Go!” She took a few steps and turned. No-one had moved. “NOW!!” Nearly everyone in earshot lurched. The group split, most bolting out to Jo and the rest starting to clean the floor, before Jo said anything else.
She directed the rescuers to go around behind the crumpled part of the roof, where it still attached to the structure above, resembling a frozen waterfall. Her instructions were simple: check everyone for signs of life. If the person was alive, try to get them out to safety. If they weren’t, cross their hands over their chests and close their eyes. The first few victims went slowly, until numbness took hold and the group managed to move more quickly.
Kelly arrived, looking beaten herself. She carried whatever she could in her small duffel bag, which amounted to some twine, some sticks, and her stethoscope.
“Kelly!” shouted Jo. “Díos, are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Kelly reassured her. “I hit the damn door when the building jolted. Almost knocked me out, but I’m fine. You?”
“I was … downstairs,” Jo replied. “The dead are crossed, the living are starting to pile up over there,” said Jo, indicating three people laying in a row, a fourth being brought over.
“Thanks!” said Kelly, starting to run to the wounded. “Let me know if there’s anyone else in there who needs help!”
Jo rushed off, diving into the cave-in, with a whispered hope that she could do some good. Almost immediately, she was met with three bodies, each with their arms crossed over their chests. One of them, presumably a woman, had her head crushed under a girder. A man had been nearly bifurcated vertically. Another man impaled. The blood and sand formed into a thick, sticky red mud. The air stank of iron, stinging at her tongue, burning her nostrils. Jo fought back the urge to vomit, before realizing she hadn’t eaten.
She came across one of the rescuers. Already they looked stunned beyond compassion, working solely to identify the living from the dead and nearly dead. The woman worked quickly, checking pulses, talking to them if she could. The woman couldn’t have been twenty-five, and yet she had now seen more horror in a few dozen paces than most people would have seen in two lifetimes. Instead of following the woman, Jo took a turn, and entered a large gap that had formed when the roof had fallen on top of the bunk racks. Three of them had toppled into each other, forming a support that had kept the roof from flattening entirely. Dozens of people were huddled underneath, some curled into weeping balls, others looked as if the devil itself had just walked past.
She gathered the strong to help the weak, leading them out of wreckage to see Kelly. But there were those who wouldn’t move, or couldn’t be moved. A woman held a man’s hand to her chest. The man had died, from what Jo couldn’t tell. There no force on Earth, not even the Banshee itself, that could have forced the woman to leave. All she could do was tell the woman where to go when she was ready, and that she couldn’t wait too long.
As Jo resumed searching, she saw a small, tiny hand, poking out from under a bent roof panel. She moved the panel to find a young girl, three or four years old. She looked utterly peaceful, like she had slept through the entire collapse. There wasn’t so much as a mark on her. But she wasn’t moving. Jo pressed her hand against the child’s chest. There was no beat, no breath. Jo felt her throat clench as her shaking hands crossed the little girl’s arms over her halted heart.
Erik appeared. Jo looked up at him, her hand still on the child’s chest. Jo could neither cry nor speak, her throat completely swollen and her sorrow utterly overwhelmed. Erik stopped, looked at Jo, then at the little girl. Jo’s head shook every so slightly; he nodded with barely a motion, then returned the way he had come. Jo wiped away a non-existent tear, forced herself to standing while pushing away the ache, unconsciously hoping there would be someone to save.
Her footsteps were uneven, unable to feel her soles. Her feet were numb, her legs aloof. She felt like she was swimming standing up, like the world was slowing down like a wind-up toy almost out of spring. Nothing seemed right.
A piece of the roof had bent into a neat tent. Inside Jo could hear a call for help. She had to crawl in on all fours, barely squeezing inside. She found a man, his legs crushed beneath a snapped strut. He begged for something Jo couldn’t understand. They were words she thought she should know, certain they were words she could speak. All she heard was gibberish. The man pointed to his waist, which had been bleeding profusely. Jo reached out and touched the pooling crimson with her fingers, and held them up as if they had become foreign objects, beyond recognition. The man grasped onto her wrist, and pulled … but his strength was weak. She couldn’t see him, or hear him, or smell him, or feel him. The man’s hand slipped, the muscles having gone weak and lifeless.
Jo sat in the little metal tent, absent of thought, unable to move. A roof panel next to her head suddenly broke free, revealing Phil. Jo didn’t turn, or even blink. Phil tried to pick Jo up, and had to get help.
“Jo?” asked a voice loudly. “Jo?” A light flashed in her eyes. “Jo!” There was a stinging in her cheeks, shooting sparks across her consciousness, unlocking her fugue. She blinked her tearing eyes, and looked up. It was Kelly.
“There you are!” Kelly sighed. “Damn, what happened?”
“I … saw …,” Jo muttered.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” said Kelly. She turned and looked around. “Erik!”
Erik reappeared a moment later. “Is she okay?”
“No, she’s in shock. Took a while to set in,” said Kelly.
“No injury, though,” he confirmed.
“Not that I can see. She’ll be fine,” she said to Erik. She turned to Jo. “You’re going to have to stay here, Jo. Don’t go back in, okay?” Jo looked at Kelly, only partially registering that she was there. “Stay. Here.” Kelly went off to look at someone else.
Jo sat on the floor, the world buzzing around her, insects flying back and forth within the hive, carrying their loads. Words seemed like a singsong of a separated and discontinuous sounds, recognizable only to those who spoke an ancient and forgotten tongue. She stared at someone, she didn’t know who. The person didn’t stare back, for they had already died. Jo didn’t know what she was looking for, or expecting. She closed her eyes and tilted her head back. She thought it might fall off. It would be a suitable end for her.
The sound changed, registering somewhere deep in her prelimbic cortex. She opened her eyes, and gazed up through the mouth in the roof, to the sandy beige sky above. The sound continued, prodding her. Jo’s head slowly slumped to one side, as her brain fired off billions of warning shots in hopes something would stir. Danger. There’s danger. Danger is coming. She is coming. The Banshee is coming. Wake up. Get up! Move! ¡¡AHORA!!
Jo blinked. She blinked again. And she saw the sky starting to darken. A light cloud of sand blew in through the massive hole. She slowly stood up, still looking out the hole. The top of the cliff was just visible, the hard, sandblasted rock in contrast to the torn edges of the ARCH’s roof. And there, on the top of the cliff, looking down on Jo, was the woman in white.
Jo’s voice filled the remains of the atrium. “STORM APPROACHING!!” The screams and yells came a half-breath later.
“Everyone to the tunnels!” Erik shouted. “Go to the tunnels!”
Like someone flicking on a light, Jo burst further into the atrium, repeating Erik’s orders. She ran through the debris and destruction, calling out for anyone to leave, to run. She managed to nearly circumnavigate the hole before the winds picked up, blowing across the sharp edges of the hole, creating a brutally deep whistle that pounded her ears. Almost everyone else had already fled to the north. Jo swooped in to pick up a stumbling victim and helped carry them out.
The space beyond was packed, not a single person was moving. Jo transferred her load to someone else, and tried to push herself forward to find the problem. But she couldn’t move, no-one could. Without asking, she climbed up on a larger man’s shoulders, and saw that the crowd had rounded a bend, but wasn’t moving. They appeared to be trapped at the tunnel entrance.
“Can you lift me?” she called out to the people around. They all looked back at the arrogant woman who had demanded she be put first. “I’m an Engineer! They’re holding us up at the tunnel entrance. I can order them to let us through!”
Whether or not the crowd believed her ended up being inconsequential, as it only took a few people to start carrying Jo over their heads, passing from person to person, before she was sailing rapidly to the front. She very nearly soared into the air when the crowd suddenly ended at a line of guards, all armed with the sharpened metal poles. Instead, Jo made a fairly undignified landing on her posterior.
One of the guards tried to pick her up and throw her back into the crowd. Expecting the motion, however, Jo was prepared, and whipped around behind the guard, pressing her multitool’s corkscrew into the man’s neck. He shouted appropriately.
“Let them through!” Jo ordered.
One of the other guards spoke up. “Carl said we weren’t—“
“CARL’S NOT THE ONE IN CHARGE!!” Jo shrieked. The crowd’s sudden silence was overpowering. One of the guards dropped his pole. “The ARCH is collapsing. Let them through!”
“I’m about to order them to trample us to get past. You decide!” she shouted. The guards looked at the crowd, who had clearly heard Jo’s statement, looked at each other, and rapidly raised their staffs and stood to the side. The crowd rushed past, knocking Jo and her prisoner to the ground. She struggled to get back up on her feet, and found herself swept into the tunnels for safety. She took refuge in a pocket in one of the walls. She looked down at her hand, which had erupted in pain, and saw the gash. She quickly tore off a piece of her shirt and wrapped it around the bleeding. It was only then she noticed that the injury had likely come from the loss of her multitool.
She couldn’t see the floor, she could barely see the walls with the crush of bodies spreading past her. It wasn’t long before the spaces to one side were full, and people had to press in further. The first level was going to fill quickly, she knew, and it wouldn’t be long before the second and third levels would experience the same problems. Someone else knew it too, and he wasn’t happy.
Carl was yelling, though exactly what he was yelling couldn’t be heard above the crowd. He was shoving his way through, screaming at the entrance. “I told you! Don’t let them in!!”
Only a dozen yards away, Jo knew that she couldn’t carry out an effective argument. Nor could she move from her temporary prison against the wall. But she didn’t have to: Erik appeared from the entrance, walking right into Carl’s face. He said something calm to Carl, exactly what she couldn’t hear.
“These are my tunnels!” Carl bellowed back. A few people passing by looked painfully at him, but continued on towards refuge.
“Our tunnels!” Erik corrected, almost as loudly. “We have been building these for our protection. And right now, they’re needed, whether you like it or not, your Highness.”
Carl wasn’t deterred. “So long as I’m the tunnelling lead—“
“So long as I’m the Chair, which you agreed to, you will follow my direction!” Erik jabbed his finger right into Carl’s sternoclavicular joint. “I don’t care if you don’t like it, this is the way it’s going to be. Now get your whiny ass up there and make room. This is no longer a tunnelling exercise, this is a fucking rescue!”
Carl sneered, muttering something unheard to everyone except Erik. Erik flushed, muttering something back. For a few tense seconds, Jo was certain someone was going to throw a punch. However, Carl turned in a snap and drifted away with the crowd. Erik blew out a relieved breath, and pressed himself into the wall, to let people past. He encouraged everyone to keep moving, to find a spot until things settled down. He then looked around, to see who was there, and who wasn’t. It only took him a moment to spy Jo.
“Are you okay?” he mouthed silently.
Jo barely shook her head. She wasn’t okay. Not remotely.