It didn’t take long for Jo to find the right place, as what few lights existed were all on. The deck wasn’t bright — there were very few bright places outside of the greenhouses — and a quick questioning of one of the hallway occupants said that Donner had been there. She followed a trail of similar questions, each leading Jo down a few hallways to the toilets, which had been reported out-of-service though had not yet been fixed. Normally sanitation ranked higher on the list of things needing repairs, however Block 6 had an disproportionate number of nyctophobics. She found him hunched over a hole in the floor, the bowl having been removed.
The washroom was like most in the ARCH: large, with as many toilets as could be installed in the space. Washrooms were generally dark, damp, dank, dingy, with a varying levels of disgusting, and the menace of dysentery. There were no dividers between the toilets, no toilet paper, with only a constantly-running tap that dripped into the toilet’s tank to rinse one’s hands. On the wall near the door was a small tank with pure alcohol, the only available disinfectant. (Making the alcohol was one task everyone clamored for, as sampling the “test” distillant was a rare privilege. Anyone caught drinking the disinfectant — either during or shortly thereafter — was assigned tunnel duty for a month.)
Every washroom stank. Cleaning washrooms had been a difficult task since the ARCH had gone through its rapid expansion, and the refocusing of efforts into digging tunnels had almost entirely removed cleaning as a regular duty. Thus the nature of humanity to frequently miss the large, nominally white target had led to an unwhitening of the target and a perpetual hazard on the floors, which went stale and sometimes fermented. Were that the only insult, it would have been sufficient. The injury for well over half the ARCH’s population came from the thiols in the 2-dithiolane-4-carboxylic acid present in nearly everyone’s urine. There were some who interchangeably held the world record for shortest time in the washrooms. The penalty for urinating anywhere else was to be put on cleaning duty.
Donner hadn’t heard Jo’s approach, being utterly focused on the problem he had discovered. Instead, she stood and watched. He was on his knees, his pants wet from the thigh-down, his shirt splattered with things that would come back to haunt him later. He had an eight- or nine-foot long piece of heavy-gauge wire, which looked like it had been wound, unwound, and rewound many times. He was slowly pushing the wire into the hole, giving the wire a careful twist, then pulling it out a ways before repeating the movement. It was several times before he grunted: “Gotcha!” and drew out what could only look like a thick glob of brown that only horror writers would find appealing. It exited the hole with a sickly sucking pop, followed by a gurgling. Donner reeled back from a burp and held back his breakfast. He spied Jo at the toilet doorway. “Oh. Uh, hi!”
“Having fun?” asked Jo.
“Yeah, who doesn’t like fishing stuff out of a sewer?” he smiled weakly. He held out the glob at the end of his wire. “I think it was a shirt. What do I do with this?”
“That’s probably why someone flushed it. They figured we’d deal with it downstream,” said Jo. “I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t just try to wash it at their next rinsing, though.” She dug into one of the pockets in her pants, and pulled out a much-used plastic bag. “Here. We’ll toss it in Frank’s forge later. Hopefully it burns well.” Garbage was rare in the ARCH. Everything was needed, and nothing went to waste. “Need any help getting that back together?”
“No, I got it,” said Donner. He replaced the wax ring, and returned the toilet bowl to its place, bolting it down. He turned the tap on that started refilling the tank, ran the long wire under the water to clean off the mess, then his hands, and carefully wrapped the wire around his forearm. He slathered his arms from nearly the shoulder-down with the disinfectant, instantly shivering as the alcohol boiled off. In the arid heat, the rest of him would be dry within the hour. He was pushed out of the way by several women desperate to use the newly-vacated toilets.
“You work quickly,” Jo noted.
Donner shrugged his shoulders. “No time for dawdling, right?”
“Bonnie thinks you’ve disappeared,” Jo admonished.
“Well, one of the people in the hall said the toilet was broken, so I thought I should…,” he trailed off. “I should’ve checked in, right?”
“Don’t worry, kid. If something needed fixing, kudos to you for fixing it. It would have just ended up on Bonnie’s list and annoyed her, anyway,” Jo smiled. “I want to talk to you about something.” Jo walked down the hallway, Donner followed.
“What do you need?” he asked.
“That hook you made to fish me out of the sand,” said Jo, “where’d you get the idea?”
“Um, well, I guess kind of from this,” said Donner, indicating the wire wrapped around his arm. “Just that I needed a bigger one.”
“Ingenious,” nodded Jo. “You seem like a handy guy.”
“I guess so,” he blushed.
Jo looked hard at him for a moment. “Did you have any hobbies?” she asked. “Y’know, before this.”
“I used to skateboard with my friends,” he said unhelpfully. “It’s … uh, hard to have any hobbies around here.”
Jo laughed. “You ever make anything? Like a skate ramp?”
“Um, well, I built a treehouse,” he offered.
Jo’s eyebrows peaked. “Really? What did you make it out of?”
“Some scrap wood my dad had lying around,” he said. “An old window. I found tin sheeting in an alley. I made the roof from that!” He got more excited. “And I was going to put some lights in it, but my dad didn’t want me to use live electricity.”
“Why’d you build it?”
“My kid brother wanted a place where he could pretend to be an astronaut,” he said quietly.
“What block does your family live in?”
“They didn’t make it. I was on a high school camping trip to Kaibab when…,” Donner wrung his hands.
Jo put her hand on Donner’s shoulder. “Lo siento, Donner. I’m sorry.” Donner smiled grimly. Jo looked thoughtfully at the boy. “You’re resilient, a survivor. It’s done you well. Let’s see if you can do more. Vamos.”
Jo led Donner through the packed hallways. The droning of people melded with the droning of the wind outside, creating a sound that would be familiar to Tibetan monks. They walked out into the atrium, which bustled like a tight Moroccan souq, only without the stalls of spices and silver, or feral cats. The yelling punctuated the preternatural monotonic chant like sparse Braille dimples on a large page. Winding through the dense crowd was a challenge for one person, trying not to lose track of the person in front of you required a sharp elbow and a strong pair of feet. Donner struggled to stay with Jo, nearly losing her rounding a corner of sleeping racks. Yelling for her to slow down required a voice far more powerful than Donner possessed. They weaved through the pressed crowd to another door in the far corner of the atrium, somewhere between Blocks 1 and 3. Jo produced a key and unlocked the door, holding it open to Donner, and blocking anyone else trying to enter. She locked the door behind them. The sound was markedly quieter. Inside was a narrow spiral stairwell that descended, though Donner could not tell how far. Jo started down, Donner close behind. The stairs curved so quickly that Donner had to duck to not hit his head on the stairs above him. Very quickly, Donner lost track of how many times he’d gone around in a circle and could not tell how far they were going down.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“Down,” said Jo.
“Uh, yeah,” Donner mumbled. “What’s down there?”
“Call it a ‘test’,” she replied.
They reached the bottom of the stairs and Jo opened another door. There was a gust of dampness as the air was drawn out from the greenhouse. Jo retraced her steps from that morning, walking past the large concrete wall that extended up the valley’s slope towards Block 1. The wall went up to the ceiling, some dozen feet up, and another fifty or so feet further downhill. A pair of stairs took them from the doorway to the valley floor, which had a path emblazoned from the stairs, along the concrete wall, to a path at the end. Donner cringed at the brightness from the rows of grow lights, Jo waved to the dozens of people tending to endless rows of asparagus shoots and potato leaves. Some people were harvesting, some were fertilizing, some were reseeding, and others carrying off the harvest to be cooked and served. As Donner’s vision adjusted to the brightness, he saw the large white struts that erupted from the floor like curiously-shaped primer-painted trees.
Jo walked around the corner of the concrete wall, Donner trying to stay right behind her. He was, however, suddenly distracted by the explosion of pipes from near the base of the concrete wall, two of which ran downhill, two that ran up into the floor above, and four more that seemed to run to one side, then straight out, eventually intersecting with the ceiling. A myriad of smaller pipes all branched out from some of the pipes, most of which ran to piping overhead, and down to small nozzles above the plants. He nearly tripped over one of the pipes trying to keep up with Jo. She stopped at one of the great primer-painted struts. Donner nearly drove himself right into it, not watching where he was going.
“Welcome to the greenhouse,” said Jo.
“Oh. I wondered if that’s what this was. Where are we?” asked Donner, still looking around.
“West end of Block 4,” said Jo. “At the bottom, of course.” She turned around, looking downhill. “Level 1 of Block 4 starts just over there. Block 8’s just over there, Block 6 is down at the end of Block 4.”
“Right,” nodded Donner. He looked more comfortable. “I’m not used to seeing it from this side. Hey, can I ask a question?”
“You just did,” Jo joked. Donner looked back blankly, missing Jo’s humor. “Shoot.”
“Why are they called ‘blocks’, anyway? They’re all domes.”
“I’m impressed, most people don’t know that they’re domes,” said Jo. “We didn’t name them ‘blocks’. All anyone sees are the walls, so they look more like blocks, and that’s what everyone called them,” Jo explained.
“It’s just so … odd. I mean, the blocks aren’t even the same shape or size!” Donner exclaimed.
“Does it really matter?” asked Jo. “This place isn’t about consistency or design. All this place does is keep people alive. And people naturally form neighbourhoods. Once we got enough city folk in here, the term ‘block’ was inevitable.”
“Ah,” said Donner, unconvinced.
“You’ve never been to a city, have you?” asked Jo.
“I went to Flagstaff a few times with my parents,” said Donner.
“Hmm,” hmm’ed Jo. “Not quite the same as a big city. You’ll just have to trust me on this one.”
“What’re those pipes?” asked Donner, pointing back towards the concrete wall.
Jo raised an eyebrow. “You tell me.”
“Water?” asked Donner. “It looks like it would be water. You dammed the creek, right? And those pipes take water up to the rest of the ark? It’s mostly gravity fed, right?” Donner was smiling.
“For a kid who didn’t graduate high school, you’re pretty smart,” smirked Jo. “Let’s see if you can solve this one.” She slammed her hand on the strut. It thumped dully. “What’s this?”
“Uh, one of the supports for the ark?”
“ARCH,” Jo corrected. “Arid Region Configurable Habitation.”
“Oh! Really? Everyone says it’s pronounced ‘ark’,” said Donner. “That kind of makes more sense, you know, with all of these people?”
“‘Two-by-two’, I know,” nodded Jo. “You wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve heard that.” She slapped her hand on the strut again. “This?”
“Oh, sorry. Um. One of the supports for this block. It runs up, and branches off at points so you can … what happened to this one?” asked Donner, looking at a slight warp in the strut, which caused the entire thing to bend slightly downhill. “That’s not good, is it?”
“You’ve got a good eye. I needed a tape measure to see that.”
“It should be straight. I mean, it should be straight, right? If this leans any more, the stress could snap the … and bring down … and we would … oh boy!” Donner realized. “How do we fix it?” Donner asked. Then he snapped his fingers. “We could get another strut, and attach it to the concrete wall! That’s got to be buried, what, six feet down? It runs back really far up the hill! It’s a good anchor!”
“Yeah, I’m so stealing you from Bonnie,” Jo laughed. “Just out of curiosity, what were you planning to do after high school, Donner?”
“Uh, well, I had thought about going to work in my dad’s shop,” he admitted.
“You’re about to get a crash course in engineering,” Jo announced. “Well, at least the kind we do around here.”
Donner looked slightly stunned. “But, uh, I’m not an engineer?”
“¡No hay problema!” Jo smiled. “Neither am I.”