“Something I can help you with, Jo?” asked Bateworth, walking out of his office. Professor Batesworth’s private office and quarters, the Council room, and a lounge connecting the other two rooms formed the entirety of the Engineer’s Office. The lounge had once been just that: a place to gather, to relax. The couches had long since been given away, the walls stripped of anything important, all but one of the lights removed and reused. In place of comfort were the ever-present sleeping racks, full with the night shift. Opposite the door to Batesworth’s office was Erik’s small desk, covered in old papers that were reused repeatedly in different colored inks to the point of illegibility, and the pile of small chalkboards. Jo was hovering over the cramped desk, overflowing with small chalkboards. She was picking them up and reviewing each.
“Any idea where Erik is?” she asked, not looking away from the notes.
“Somewhere,” Batesworth shrugged. “If he’s not covering your emergency shift, he’s probably looking into the things that came in overnight, or dealing with all that,” he gestured to the pile of boards. “He could be anywhere.”
“And judging by these, it looks like everywhere,” said Jo, tossing down the last of the boards in her hand. “You know you lean on Erik too much.”
“We all do,” said Batesworth. “We’d be lost without him.”
“I wish he still had a pager.”
“I wish we had enough hardware for that. I’m amazed they’ve lasted as long as they have.”
Jo snorted. “I’ll see if I can find him.”
“What’s eating you, Jo?” asked Batesworth.
Jo rolled her head and looked at Batesworth. “You know what’s eating me, Rich. You shouldn’t have to ask.”
“You’re right, it would be easier to ask what’s not eating you.”
“That’s not funny.”
“It wasn’t meant to be, Jo. You’re letting every little thing get to you. You’ve been like this for—“
“Since Robert was attacked and accused of rape.”
“I was going to say a couple of days ago, but you’re right, about then.” Batesworth folded his arms. “Your problem is that you think you know all the answers. You think you know what’s best for us. You disagree with our direction, you argue with areas you have no experience with, you piss off Carl, call Francis by the wrong name just to annoy him, and ignore my advice. You’re an average engineer, at best, and you see yourself as better than all of us, combined. With you, the sky is always falling.”
“The sky is falling, Rich! It’s literally landing on our heads! You keep forgetting because you haven’t picked up so much as a hammer in two years! You hide in this office and believe all is well! You’re being told lies on a daily basis and take it as truth. I know more about this place than anyone else because I’m the one keeping it from falling down!”
“You trusted in Robert too much,” he grumbled.
“You hated that Robert created the Council!”
“He didn’t create it, he got all of you to gang up on me, forcing it like the Magna Carta!” Batesworth’s voice reverberated in the room. One of the Engineers on the nearby bunks grunted and rolled over.
“Because you want to be Professor Batesworth! You want the control like you had at the university. That was a decade ago, Rich. The world has changed, but you haven’t! Robert was right about one thing — you can’t control them!” She angrily shot a finger towards the population above them. “They’re not students, and they don’t recognize your authority. Hell, they barely recognize us as it is!”
“You’re the problem, you know. All of you. The petty arguments, the grandstanding, the pandering. It feels just like those accursed faculty meetings, only with less accomplished people.” Batesworth glared at Jo. “But here we are. Last I checked, we operate as a collective, meaning we agree on how we operate.”
“You should be more of a leader. You’re letting the clowns run the circus.”
“And what are you in that analogy?”
“The bruja who has to clean up after you idiots.” She stormed out of the office.
It was an hour before Jo found Erik in the kitchen, a huge room nearly in the middle of the ARCH, at one end of the Atrium. Like the rest of the ARCH, the kitchen had been assembled from whatever scrounged scrap could be found, coming to hold a large selection of humanity’s history of cooking implements. There were a dozen large sinks for rinsing dirt from vegetables, which arrived by hand, were scrubbed by many hands, and handed off to still more hands at ten long prep tables, where those hands quickly diced up potatoes, mushrooms, and asparagus. Almost two centuries’ of stoves ringed the room, almost all converted to fuel-burning as spare parts dwindled — did what they could to made the vegetables more palatable. Erik’s nose was buried in the back of the last functioning electric oven.
“I hope you unplugged that,” said Jo, walking to the unit. The sides had long since disappeared for scrap, leaving behind an appliance that looked vaguely robotic.
“You know me, I always put my hands where they don’t belong,” Erik replied, not looking up.
“Oh, cómo desearía que lo hicieras,” Jo remarked.
Jo smiled wistfully. “Just wondering why this one doesn’t run on fuel.”
“Well, we haven’t quite burned this one out yet— come on, you little turd!”
“The fuse shorted. I’m trying to get the junction out, but the clip holding it in is in a really awkward place,” he grunted, pulling a wire free.
Jo looked over Erik’s broad shoulders. His scent wafted powerfully, though no less pungently than Jo’s. “Y’know, it might be easier if you just pulled the stove out completely…”
“I know, I know,” said Erik testily. “I was hoping this would be quick and I wouldn’t lose an hour doing this.”
“Uh huh.” Jo looked around at the tools and parts scattered around the oven door. “And how long have you been at this?”
Erik’s mumbled, though Jo could just pick out the sounds “an” and “hour”. “There,” he said confidently. “That should do it.” He stood back, and turned on the stove’s controls. The light on the front lit up, and a moment later the element started to glow. He looked carefully at the hardwired connection. He held his hand close to check. “Yep, that’ll do it.”
“Nice work!” Jo complimented. “Glad to see you’re actually useful,” she winked.
“Hey, I’m good for something around here,” Erik defended himself, turned the stove off, and proceeded to reattach the parts he’d removed. “I’ll assume you’re not here just to see me?”
Jo smirked for a moment, then coughed. “I want to reinforce the beam in Block 4 with a girder. I just need help getting one prepped and moved.”
“You found one?”
“More or less,” said Jo. “It wasn’t doing anything.”
“You’ve already disconnected it and sent it to the ground,” Erik sighed exasperatedly. “Hopefully that doesn’t come back to bite us. Well, get your team to…” He stopped. “Sorry, that was stupid.” He shook his head. “I really wish we hadn’t agreed to reassign your team.”
“You wish?” Jo guffawed. “You have any idea of what I’ve been through this morning?”
Erik looked up. Jo’s complaints were almost as frequent as the grains of sand that fell constantly from the roof, though they were usually just something for her to say. This was different. “You okay?”
“You’re concerned!” she smiled. “I’m touched!”
Erik placed a hand on her shoulder. “No, really, are you okay?” he repeated.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I took a tumble,” Jo shrugged her shoulders, passing off the incident as nothing more than someone having pushed her over. “Got knocked out for a few hours, apparently.”
“Knocked out?!” blurted Erik. He dropped his screwdriver and carefully gripped Jo by the shoulders. “Oh my god, are you alright?!”
“Relax, cariño!” smiled Jo, tapping Erik gently on his face with her hand. “Kelly cleared me.”
“You’re sure?” he asked pointedly.
“Yes, I’m sure. So is Kelly!” she said.
“Okay.” Erik let out his breath. “Don’t scare me like that.”
“You really do care?” asked Jo.
“Of course,” he replied, more matter-of-factly. “You know more about fixing this place than anyone else. We’re kind of screwed without you.” He looked up and winked.
Jo mouthed the words “screw you” while shaking her head. “Do I get my help or not? Can I get a couple back from tunnelling?”
“You heard Smiley. They’re going to be busy for a while. If they can’t get those tunnels built quickly enough, and you’re right about those supports—“
“—a lot of people are… you know.”
Jo sighed, staring at the ceiling. “I can’t fix things fast enough on my own, Erik. Can I take some of Frank’s—?”
Erik laughed as he picked up his screwdriver. “Right. You go try. I’ll bring the popcorn.” He turned back to the stove.
“I miss popcorn,” moaned Jo. “Well, what about getting someone for at least a couple of hours?”
“Why don’t you just snag a couple of hands from the population? You don’t need anyone skilled, right?” asked Erik, as he reattached a safety cover.
“Neither does Carl! He should take from population and give me my people back!” she snapped.
“He does, Jo!” Erik was nearly whining. “You know he has most of them on a constant rotation in and out of the tunnels. If they’re not digging, they’re shovelling. If they’re not shovelling, they’re mucking. If they’re not mucking, they’re probably sleeping.”
“And we’re still not in there?!” Jo squawked. “Am I the only one who thinks this is fishy? All those people and we’re no further ahead than a month ago.”
Erik turned around. “Look, I know you’re overworked, and it’s definitely a problem.” He rolled his head a few times in thought. “Let me see what I can dig up with the rotation, okay? Maybe … maybe I can free someone up. C’mon.” He took a step before turning to the kitchen staff. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. Er, I mean, retorno en lagunas minute-os.” He grumbled, and mumbled. “Shit, I know I got that wrong…”
Jo spun around as they walked out. “Él regresará en unos minutos,” she smiled. The kitchen staff nodded and returned to their work.
They weaved through the dining hall, adjacent to the kitchen, that held a few hundred at a time at long rows. Neither the hall nor the kitchen never closed, the lineup to eat never ended, the greenhouses constantly produced. And it was never enough. Every person in the room was underfed, underdressed, underslept. Every eye looked sunken and dull, every expression exhausted. Even the endless energy of children was in drought conditions. Everyone noticed Erik and Jo as they walked through to the hallways beyond. The main hallway was the dining line, where those off-shift waited their turn to eat. The line was typically quiet and only moved as spaces in the dining hall became available. The line rippled and swirled as Erik and Jo passed, both making room and passively acosting the two Engineers, half-whispered curses following.
Jo barely looked at any of the people. It wasn’t a callous effort, it was a result of time and overburden. It was no different than getting a burn: at first, it seared and stung, you swore in pain and did everything you could to heal. With enough time, even though the burn might still be visible, you noticed it less and less, until finally you forgot it was there. The faces, once clear and painful, had blurred into an endless meaningless stream of beings, all trapped under the same roof, all struggling to survive one more day. Jo didn’t know if any of them were grateful for being in the ARCH, desperate to flee, ready to snap under the strain of so many others around them, or like herself, simply numb.
The Engineer’s Office was one of the few places devoid of the crush. Erik marched to his desk and rifled through the slates. He then glanced at the larger chalkboard mounted on the wall next to his desk, which recorded the locations of every Engineer.
“Well, unless I’m wrong, you have the options of either Bob—“
Jo gagged. “Mierda.”
Jo groaned. “That’s not much better.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Jo. They’re the only ones not on shift right now, other than them,” he said, jerking his thumb to the sleeping people. He knew, as Jo did, that waking anyone up without an emergency was going to be asking for serious trouble later on. “Getting anyone else is going to start a fight. And you know how that’ll end up,” said Erik, jerking his thumb again, this time towards Batesworth’s office.
Jo grumbled. “It doesn’t do us any good to put all our good people digging tunnels if the rest of us are buried alive!”
Erik held up his hands, and motioned Jo to keep her voice down. “I know, I know. I hate to tell you this but all we have left is general labor,” he said. “The last time I talked to Bonnie, we’ve had lots looking for work, and I’m pretty sure some of them would love the change from tunnel duty.”
“General labor?” Jo’s head snapped up. The back of her neck twinged in response and she fought off the groan. “Can I ask for someone specifically?”
“Uh, sure, I guess. You got a name?”
“Hey Bonnie,” said Jo, sidling up to a tiny woman who looked barely into her teens. Bonnie was one of Erik’s team, one of Jo’s classmates, and one of only three female Engineers. She was stumped over a pile of names written on broken bits of slate, which were arranged on a large table, gridded off into boxes. Bonnie Xi was the general laborers’ manager: she was the one that decided who did what and when, based on ever-changing pile of things that needed doing with equally-varying levels of urgency. The majority of the labor pool usually ended up in tunnelling work, leaving a few to deal with the less important needs of the ARCH.
“Huh?” Bonnie muttered and looked up. “Oh, hey, Jo,” Bonnie acknowledged unenthusiastically. “What’s up?”
“Trying to find someone who might be in the pool today,” said Jo.
Bonnie raised an eyebrow without breaking from her task. “You want to steal one of mine?”
“More like ‘borrow’ for a short while,” Jo said. “I just need some help repairing the struts, and I can’t do it alone.”
“Uh huh,” Bonnie uttered, returning to her grid. “Lopez! Fullerman! Jimenez! Yeung! Keller!” Half a dozen people put up their hands. “Yeung, Robert!” Bonnie corrected, and one hand dropped. “Tunnels.” The four men and two women groaned. “I know, that’s what I got.” Bonnie looked back to Jo. “Name?”
Bonnie scanned her table. “Vasquez… I saw that name… where did I put her…?”
“Him,” corrected Jo.
“Whatever. It’s a name and a body,” Bonnie muttered. “Ah, here. Supposed to be fixing a light in Block 6, Level 4. That was an hour ago. So either he’s gotten lost, or he’s incompetent, like everyone else around here.” Bonnie sighed. “Tanner!” A woman who looked barely able to stand rose from her seat on the floor. “Can you carry a 30 lb load?” Bonnie asked hesitantly. The woman shook her head slowly. “Thanks. Uh, Wilson?” A sturdy man stood up. “Same question.” The man nodded. “Greenhouses. You’re on delivery.” The man nodded and trotted off.
“Assume he’s done, Bonnie,” said Jo reassuringly. “I’m going to steal him for a couple of days. Erik said it was okay with him.”
“Erik always sides with you,” Bonnie grumbled, and put Donner’s name into a grid square marked: “Stolen”.