Jo and Robert lay slumped against a wall, leaning together, wedged among a group of people sound asleep in the west side of Block 4. Above them, the Banshee sounded angrier than usual, her wails sliding over the surface like a fast-moving shark, with added guttural growls to make up for the lack of visible teeth, thoroughly pissed at having lost a pair of victims.
Neither Jo nor Robert noticed. They had found a peaceful rest that only the utterly spent ever felt.
The watch bell, barely missed during the atrium roof collapse, rang, waking Robert from his slumber. Jo was already awake.
“Morning,” he grunted. “How’re you feeling?”
“Sore,” said Jo, touching her leg gingerly. It had bruised terribly from the beating it had received, already turning a grotesque shade of purply-green. Amazingly, the skin hadn’t broken. “I can barely feel part of my leg.”
“Do you think you can walk on it?” he asked.
“No se,” she replied. Using the stirring room as an excuse, Jo used the wall as a brace, pulling herself to standing. The leg ached, throbbed lightly, but otherwise offered little sensation. “I can barely feel the floor under my feet.”
“Nerve damage, maybe,” said Robert, looking at it carefully.
Robert stood and looked at Jo. “Holy shit!” he said a little too loudly. He inspected Jo’s head. “That sand did a number to you.”
“You, too,” said Jo quietly. “You’re torn up bad.”
“We’re alive, though, right?”
The woken started to move out of the room, heading into the hallway. “Let’s stay in the crowd,” Robert said quietly. “If we stay here we might make ourselves conspicuous.” They followed the others out the door into hallway, lined with still-sleeping people. “Was there a population explosion after I left?”
“The atrium roof collapsed,” said Jo. “They probably had nowhere else to go.”
“I’m willing to bet Carl’s probably kicked everyone out.”
They followed the crowd as walked in a round-about route to the dining hall. Jo noticed that nearly every movement of her leg lent to more than a few questions of its reliability. The slow march came to a near-halt, moving exceptionally slowly. And there were hundreds of people ahead of them.
“Dining hall,” whispered Robert.
“I know,” said Jo. “Should we get out of line?”
“Conspicuous,” said Robert. “Besides, I could use some food.”
Two people came rushing down the hall in the opposite direction. Jo recognized only one of them: Phil. Neither of the people slowed, going right past Jo and Robert and everyone else without so much as a glance.
“Engineers,” snorted the woman behind them.
“Edna,” cautioned another woman.
“What?” the first woman demanded. “Like they even know we exist. They only care about getting more rations than the rest of us!”
Jo felt the urge to debate, but quickly fought it down. Jo and Robert exchanged a glance of understanding and silence.
“They keep a roof over our heads,” said the second woman.
“No, we keep the roof over our heads. They just take credit for it!”
Slowly and painfully, Jo and Robert kept pace with their equally unnoticed comrades-in-waiting. After a while, Jo started to lean on Robert’s shoulder, the numbness in her foot causing a surprising amount of discomfort considering she couldn’t feel anything. Like everyone else in line, they kept quiet, speaking only periodically.
“We used to bypass this every day,” whispered Jo as quietly as she could to Robert. “I never realized how long people had to wait. No wonder they resent us.”
Soon they could smell food: asparagus, potatoes, and mushrooms; though it was still nearly twenty minutes of shuffling before they reached the front of the line. As they moved slowly along the edge of the dining hall, they could see the people at the long tables coming and going, some eating quickly, others prodding their food as if to ensure it weren’t about to attack them.
“Why haven’t I noticed this before?” she whispered to Robert.
“Because you’re an Engineer. We never saw the trees in the forest.”
Jo noticed a little girl, who was smiling and laughing as she ate her meal. She toyed with her asparagus spears like swords, the mushrooms became little soldiers riding atop their potato horses. Her parents smiled as broadly as she did, and encouraged the carefree moment.
“Cara feliz, malos tiempos,” said Jo.
“Ration?” asked the clerk.
Jo’s head snapped up. She stopped herself before she could utter: “I’m an Engineer, I don’t need a ration bracelet.” She froze, unsure of what she was supposed to do next. She looked down at her wrist, where the bracelet should have been, had she been an ordinary resident. “Oh, god!” she cried. “Where is it?!” She stepped back and looked at the floor down the line of people behind her. “Oh no… No, no no no no!” She exaggerated her hobble, almost collapsing as she dragged her sore leg as she tried to find the non-existent bracelet. She made it nearly halfway down the room, before turning to the front. She pressed hard in into one of her many bruises, eliciting sharp tears. Slowly, she reapproached the clerk. “I… I don’t know where it is!” She looked at Robert’s wrist. “Honey, yours is gone, too!”
Robert tried not to look either surprised or confused, and landed somewhere in the middle of the two. “What…?” He saw Jo’s eyes and looked at his wrist. “Were we…?”
“Robbed,” said Jo. “We’ve got nothing…”
“Oh for the love of… here!” the clerk moaned and shoved a tray at Jo. “That was the worst acting I’ve seen in months. Normally I’d tell the both of you to shove off,” she nearly tossed a tray at Robert, “but you two look worse than the cave-in group from yesterday. You’re catching me on a day that I care. Next!”
It was the same meal everyone got, in the same portions, in the same trays with the same cups of water. They made the effort to disappear into the far corner of the dining hall to keep themselves hidden. Robert wolfed down his meal without a second thought, and found himself finished but famished. He looked at Jo’s tray. Jo, for her part, had downed the first potato and all but one of the asparagus in rapid succession. She tentatively held a mushroom on her fork.
Robert was salivating. “You gonna eat that?”
“I need to,” muttered Jo and tossed it in her mouth. She chewed rapidly, as she usually did, but then slowed. There was something different. Something that wasn’t … snake. She swallowed, and shivered. “Well, I still don’t like them. But they’ve never tasted this good before.”
“Incoming,” Robert whispered. “Don’t look around. Dawn and Francis.”
Out of the very edge of her peripheral vision, Jo saw figures heading towards them. Francis, as usual, was in front, Dawn a few steps behind him. Jo slowly drew her hand up to cover the side of her face, pretending to scratch. She spied Robert’s gaze at her wrist, and she suddenly realized that it had been the wrist nearly torn open by the catgut. It was raw, red, and heavily scabbed.
“Oh my god!” gasped Dawn as she approached. She stood next to Jo and placed her hand on Jo’s shoulder. “Are you alright?!” She turned to Francis. “Look at these rockfall victims, Francis! Is this what you want to be remembered for?!”
Francis heard Dawn’s outburst and turned to see what commotion his wife had caused. Jo’s heart sank. Robert looked utterly pale.
“It’s nothing,” said Jo dismissively.
“Like hell it’s not! Have you been to the infirmary?” Dawn asked.
“Not yet,” Jo replied quietly. “I needed to eat first.”
Dawn plunked herself at the table, and grabbed Jo’s hand, inspecting it. Jo tried to rip it away, but Dawn clung tightly. “Don’t struggle. Honestly, it’s a wonder this hasn’t festered!” She twisted Jo’s wrist around to get a better look. “How did you get this?”
“Accident,” said Jo in the worst west coast accent she could muster, sounding like she was trying to cough and chew at the same time. “It’s nothing.”
“Look at this, Frank!” said Dawn, holding out Jo’s arm. “How many more of these are we going to see?!”
“Carl’s got them working—,” Francis cut himself off. “Carl needs to get his head in the game,” he shook his head.
Dawn pulled Jo’s hand towards her and clasped it gently but firmly. Jo’s body twisted unexpectedly, and Jo found herself staring at Dawn’s face directly. Jo’s heart stopped. “I’m sorry. I genuinely am,” said Dawn, looking into Jo’s eyes. “You didn’t deserve to be treated like this,” she said quietly.
Jo felt everything in her body run cold. “I’m … how … I don’t …”
Dawn smiled a pained and empathetic smile. “What’s your name? I’ll make sure you’re on the extra ration list, and we’ll get you off tunnel duty.”
Jo coughed again. “Tanner,” she said. “Brenda Tanner.”
“Don’t worry, Brenda. Eat up, see the infirmary, and get some rest,” said Dawn. “I’ll make sure Bonnie knows you’re off the list today.” She let go of Jo and stood. She looked over at Robert and let out a wrenched sigh. “I’m… so sorry. You both need to rest. Are you together?”
Robert nodded shortly. “Yeah. I’m … Rob.” Jo cast a panicked glare.
“I’m going to eat, if that’s okay with you?” Francis said, starting to head further down the table.
“Fine!” Dawn shot back, then looked back at Robert. “Tanner? Rob Tanner?” she asked. Rob and Jo both nodded. “I’ll talk to Bonnie. Go to the infirmary, please.” She waited for another nod, then followed Francis. “You need to get Carl to close off that damned tunnel.”
“That’s not my problem,” Frank said.
“You know what is your problem? Eating alone!” shouted Dawn. “I’m going to take this to Donner, he probably hasn’t eaten. When are you idiots going to let him go?!” Dawn headed towards the exit and out of earshot; Francis opted not to add any other points of view.
It was several seconds before either Jo or Robert spoke.
“Did she not see us?!” Robert blurted. “She knows us!”
Jo needed several more moments for her heart to start beating again. “Knew,” she said quietly. “She knew us. You and I are dead, right? Right now, I barely recognize you. And if I look as bad as you—“
“If I had seen you like this outside the cave, I wouldn’t have known it was you.”
“Dawn said she was bringing Donner food. And asked if they were going to let him go. What are they doing to him?”
“Who’s Donner?” asked Robert.
“After you, my best friend.” She quickly tossed in the rest of her meal. “Bam’off!”
Jo and Robert made it to within a dozen feet of the workshop door when Jo suddenly stopped, spying a body chained to the rock wall, its face bruised and blackened, hands tied to a loop over its head. For a moment, Jo felt death again, until she saw the shallow movement of its chest. Jo bolted to the body’s side.
“Donner!” said Jo, clasping the boy on shoulders. The body acknowledged the name, and tried to move. Its eyes were closed, the rest of it so weak it could barely move.
“Please,” Donner mumbled, “no … more.”
“Donner, it’s me! Jo!”
Donner’s head stuttered upwards, his left eye engaged in an epic fight between muscle and swelling, cracking barely enough to expose a bloodied sclera beyond. “Can’t. Dead.”
“They’ll wish I was!” said Jo. “What did they do to you?!”
“Punish,” he uttered.
“Your,” he panted, “friend.”
“They beat you for being my friend?” Jo asked. Donner moaned. “Who? Carl?”
Donner shook his head once.
Donner shook his head weakly.
“Anyone else?” Jo asked.
“Do you remember who?”
“I’m sure Gary will,” grumbled Jo and started to fiddle with the lock on the chains.
“Jo, someone’s coming,” Robert said quickly. “I think it’s Dawn.”
Jo gritted her teeth. “I’ll be back, Donner.” She bolted off with Robert and laid against the wall on the other side, looking like everyone else in desperate need of space.
The footsteps came up towards the workshop door, stopping at Donner. “Those assholes,” said a despondent voice, clearly Dawn’s “Why are they picking on you?” There was a sound of something going into water, then water falling back into a container. “I don’t know if this is helping or not, but—“ She fell silent as she felt a blade against her carotid artery.
“Let him go,” growled Jo.
“I can’t. I don’t have the key.”
“My—my husband. I think.”
“Who…” Dawn carefully tried to turn her head as not to cut herself. “Only one person ever called him that…” The blade pulled back and Dawn noticed it was the blade’s spine, not the edge that was against her skin. She looked into the same face she’d seen in the dining hall. “Jo?”
“Slut!” Dawn’s eyes suddenly flooded and she leaped at Jo, wrapping her arms around her. “How the hell are you alive?!” she wept. “How are you here?” She pulled back and saw a man sitting next to Jo. There was a logical moment. “Robbie?” Dawn looked apprehensive. She found the knife point aimed back at her.
“You’ve got some explaining to do,” said Jo. “Why is Donner like that?”
“Carl,” was Dawn’s short reply.
“He seems to be behind a lot of things,” said Jo.
“He said…,” Dawn tried twice to say something.
“Carl told you that Jo killed Erik, didn’t he?” asked Robert. “He also told you I was a rapist, too. And that Batesworth was a fool.” Dawn looked wide-eyed at Robert. “Did he say Donner was to blame for the roof caving in?”
“Jo,” Dawn said. “He said her repairs were faulty.” Dawn sat heavily on the ground. ”And Donner was partly to blame.”
“What do you think?” asked Jo, pulling the knife away.
“I…,” she looked at Robert again.
“Do you have shares?” asked Jo.
“Do you know where they came from?”
Dawn nodded. “Francis told me it was to make sure the workshop would have enough space in the tunnels,” said Dawn, distrusting her own words. She looked at Jo and Robert, then to Donner. “They locked me in a tunnel so I wouldn’t see what was happening,” she said, adding with a heavy breath: “Those fuckers!” She looked at Robert. “You found out, didn’t you? They tried to kill you, they couldn’t finish the job, so left you to die. But you recovered so they invented the rape. There never was one.” Dawn looked at Jo. “They killed Batesworth, too, I’ll bet.”
“Carl killed Erik,” Jo said quietly. “He told me just before he dumped me outside.”
Dawn eyes could have cast a red glare in the darkest of spaces. “When I find Frank I’m going to make him wish he’d never met me.” She stood and started marching towards the dining hall. “And when I find Carl—!”
Jo raced after her and pulled her back. “Dawn, wait!”
“Look what they’ve done!” Dawn shouted. “I’m gonna… I don’t know what I’m gonna do, Jo, but it’ll involve Frank’s nuts, and … PLIERS!”
“¡Espera, chica!” pleaded Jo. “Aside from Gary and Dylan, how many people do Carl’s bidding?”
Dawn looked at Jo for a moment. “The guards. A couple of other Engineers, some of the Apprentices, some of the tunnelers. Why?”
“What about Francis, or Smiley?” asked Robert. “Are they under Carl’s thumb?”
“Smiley is Smiley, he just wants to dig,” said Dawn. “Carl needs Francis, but Francis is too fucking dumb to realize it.”
“Funny you should use that word, ‘dumb’,” said Jo. “One translation into Spanish literally means ‘without words’. Frank’s been quick on words when it backs up Carl’s position, but hasn’t a thought of his own when it comes to challenging Carl’s viciousness. Like it or not, Frank supports Carl. He helped Carl banish Robert, it was his metal that shorted the panel that killed Batesworth, and for all I know, Frank assisted in killing Erik.”
“No,” Dawn said, “not Frank. He couldn’t. He’s an idiot, but he’s not Carl.”
An echo of metal wrenching loose rattled through the hallways, followed immediately by the piercing shriek of wind breaking through the ARCH’s hull.
“Oh no,” moaned Dawn. “Breech.”
“Yep,” said Jo, turning to look at the workshop door. “Which means Phil’s going to be coming out any minute.”
The three of them dispersed, Jo and Robert retaking the places along the wall, Dawn went back to tending Donner. A moment later, the workshop door flung open and two people burst out: Phil and Gary. They raced past, Gary spitting on Donner as they went. Jo waited for the door to close before she sat up again.
“Now what?” asked Dawn. “What do we do?”
“We need to get Donner to a doctor,” said Robert.
“They’ll see he’s gone! They’ll suspect me,” said Dawn.
Jo looked upwards. “Can’t you hear it, Dawn? The Banshee is coming. People are going to die.”
Dawn looked noticeably cold, despite the ever-present heat. “Die?” she asked quietly. “Who’s going to die, Jo?”
“Dawn, how much do you really want to do something about this?” asked Robert.
“Do you want to play a game?” he grinned.