“Francis isn’t going to be happy that we ran out of rivets,” said Phil as he and Gary approached the workshop door.
The noise from Gary’s mouth dismissed any notion of concern. “So what? We’re moving into the tunnels in two days. After that, someone else can fix the holes. If this place falls apart, we’ll be fine.”
Phil looked at Gary. “A lot of people’ll get hurt if things aren’t fixed.”
“People without shares. Means less mouths to feed, more space for us.”
Phil looked at the people scattered at the edges of the hallway. “That’s not right, Gary. I don’t know why Carl—“
“It doesn’t matter, Phil!” Gary shouted back. “Carl’s the leader, these are his rules. If none of these rejects have it in them to earn shares, then they don’t have the right to be in the tunnels!” Gary made sure to speak loudly enough to be heard. “You had your chances!” He spied the body chained to the rock wall, its face scratched and bloodied, hands hanging from a loop over its head. “Go tell Francis that the fix is done.”
“Where are you going?” asked Phil hesitantly.
Gary smiled noxiously. “I’m gonna pay the the kid a visit.”
“Leave the kid alone, Gary!” Phil pleaded. “He’s suffered enough.”
Gary wheeled around and went nose-to-chest with Phil. “You wanna join him?” Gary sneered. “I can make that happen.”
Phil put up his hands. “Hey, now…”
“Just do as your told!” Gary shoved Phil in the shoulder towards the workshop door. Phil nearly lost his footing, but managed to stay upright long enough to slide into the metal. “Go!” Phil took out a key for the door. An otherwise ordinary key, he looked at it thoughtfully a moment, looking at the pointiness, the sharpness. He looked up at Gary. “What, you’re going to come at me with a key?” Gary laughed. Phil’s stare fell away. “Do you feel stronger holding that? Think you’ll stick me with it? Think I’ll cry and give up?” Gary faked wiping tears away. “You’re pathetic! You’ve always been pathetic!” Phil’s eyes widened. “You’re barely an errand boy, you never once went along with the plan! You don’t deserve your shares, you shouldn’t even have any!” Phil smiled. “That makes you happy?? What kind of freak are you…” Gary’s voice trailed off as he saw the body he thought beaten down and tied to the wall rise up next to him. He turned and looked at the face. “You’re not the kid.” There was a half-beat as Gary recognized “Robert!”
“I was going to wait for you to hit me first,” said Robert. “But…” He slammed a rock into Gary’s jaw.
Jo hobbled into Kelly’s examination room, Donner half-slung over her shoulder.
Kelly caught the sight and immediately rushed over. “Good god, what happened to him?” Kelly asked, looking carefully at Donner’s wounds.
“Some of the Engineers have been beating him,” said Jo.
“Goddamn it,” muttered Kelly, as she inspected the swelling and bruises. “What is gotten into those assholes? They’ve really gone over the line.”
“Is he going to be okay?”
“He’s dehydrated,” said Kelly, “but you got him here in time. He’ll need some rest.” She looked at Jo. “You could use some rest, too.”
“I know,” said Jo. “Not yet. I’ve got some work to do.”
“Are you helping or hindering?”
“Hindering? You mean the Engineers, don’t you?” Jo asked.
Kelly looked a bit stunned. “Have you been hiding somewhere?” she blurted. “Or trapped in a cave-in or something? You certainly look the part, no offence.”
“Worse,” Jo replied. “How bad have things gotten?”
“Go look in the room next door. I’ve got a dozen that are a few steps from dead. The Engineers have all lost their minds, I swear. It’s no longer about saving lives, it’s saving themselves. The Professor never would have allowed this. Or Erik.”
“Why doesn’t someone stop it?”
“Someone tried. I heard they banished her,” said Kelly, who looked knowingly at Jo. “Or am I talking to a ghost?”
“The souls of the wrongfully dead are restless,” said Jo. “They demand justice.”
“And what about those still living?” asked Kelly.
“Keep them alive.”
“I’m not going to lie, Robert, this is a little weird,” said Dawn as she and Robert headed towards the tunnels.
“You still think I’m guilty?” asked Robert. “After all that’s happened?”
“Well… no, I guess not, but…”
“It’s what you were told. It’s what you came to believe.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Can you trust me?” asked Robert.
Dawn walked in silence for several steps too many. “Yes.”
“You don’t want to betray Frank.”
“Francis,” said Dawn. “And yes. He’s still my husband, Robbie.”
“Robert,” he grinned back.
“Point,” smiled Dawn. “I don’t want him to get hurt. He might be a complete idiot and an ass, but…”
“You love him.”
“Most of the time.”
“Just make sure that you talk to him after you speak with Carl.”
“I will. I just don’t know what to tell him.”
“Convince him to lock the workshop and don’t let anyone else in or out. Use pliers if you have to.”
They rounded a corner and headed towards the tunnel entrance. Jo held back as Dawn went ahead to the ever-present guards at the doorway, both brandishing ever-present spears.
“Getting to Carl isn’t going to be easy.”
“I know. We’ll make it work.”
“That’s not reassuring.”
“What part of any of this is reassuring? We have to do something.”
Dawn didn’t answer, walking up to the entrance as she always had. The guards both nodded and muttered something to Dawn, who nodded back and passed through without issue. Robert walked past the entrance and down another hall. He counted to ten, then yelled: “Everyone, run!”
The population of hallway, startled from their dismay, bolted up and ran in the direction of Robert’s hand, back towards the tunnels, without considering what danger there might have been. Robert followed them.
“Carl!” Dawn called as she approached her target.
“Not now,” Carl responded with a hand, not looking in Dawn’s direction.
“We have a problem!”
“We have lots of problems, Dawn,” he said. “You couldn’t have anything more important than—“
Carl turned slowly. “What?”
“Jo. She’s here.”
Carl looked at Dawn carefully a moment. “How do you know?”
“Because she just talked to me.”
“You’re sure it was her? She ran away after she killed Erik, I don’t know why she’d be stupid enough to return. She knows we’d put her on trial for her crimes.” Carl paused, seeing the look on Dawn’s face, somewhere between nonplussed and expectant. “Why do you think Jo is a problem?”
“For fuck’s sake, you really can be dense sometimes, Carl! Jo wouldn’t come back unless she had a reason. After what Francis told me, she can only be here for you. Whether or not you and I get along or ever will isn’t important. If Jo gets her way, she disrupts everything: without you, we don’t get our shares.” She jabbed her finger into Carl’s sternum. “And I want. My. Share.”
Carl’s mouth moved wordlessly.
“What, you think my husband and I don’t talk? Francis has told me everything, Carl. I’m just smart enough to keep my mouth shut most of the time.”
“Where is she?” Carl asked quietly.
“She told me to tell you some stupid story about how there’s a problem in the atrium — like you’d give a shit — and I had to convince you to go out there so she could ambush you.”
Carl mulled a hundred thoughts.
“She can stay out there. The guards won’t let her in. We’re safe in here.” Carl nodded his own approval.
Dawn folded her arms. “Really? You think that’ll keep you safe?”
“It keeps us safe—“
“We are safe, it’s you at risk, Carl!” Dawn yelled. “Jo wants you. If she wanted me dead, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. These walls won’t save you. She’ll sneak in here and you’ll have nowhere to run. Most of these people hate you and the rest will probably help her.”
“She can’t get past the guards!”
Dawn laughed. “After all the things you’ve done, you think she’ll care?” Dawn leaned in close. “Don’t give her the chance to plan something. Take the guards with you, go the atrium, and make sure she never gets back up.”
Carl’s surprise was met with a sudden admiration. “Friendship doesn’t mean much to you, does it?”
“I saw the plans for my room. I want my own bed, Carl.”
Carl nodded again. “Atrium.”
“That’s what she said.”
“And you’re not going to give me shit for it later?”
“I get my own bed, you’ll never have to worry about me.”
“Keep them working,” he said as he headed towards the tunnel entrance, passing by a plethora of refugees still lining the hallways. He glowered at most of them, still irritated that they were occupying what was meant to be pristine space.
As he exited, he saw the sea of people crowding at the entrance. One of the guards stood there with his spear, holding people at bay. Carl stopped and frowned, then ordered: “Go away, we’ve got no room for you yet!” He took a step, then stopped and looked. One of the guards was missing. “Where’s the other one?”
“In there, somewhere!” said the other guard. “All these people came out of nowhere. He’s trying to get rid of them.”
Carl grumbled. “Don’t go in the tunnels! There’s no room!” he shouted to the crowd. He turned to the guard. “Follow me,” he said. “Bring the spear.”
The atrium was as ruined as when the structure had slipped days before. The hole at the roof had only barely been fixed, the patches rattled and weaved as the winds tried to tear them away. Drifts of sand fell in twirls in the breeze, landing on the broken bedframes. The smell was dry and dusty, with wafts of putrefaction from remains still trapped under the collapsed metal. The lights were few, most of them having either been broken or ripped out entirely during the cave-in.
The shift bell, having somehow avoided the events that destroyed the atrium, tolled. The sound was the same, yet unhappy, it’s immediate audience having departed.
“Keep an eye out for… someone,” said Carl as he and the guard entered the space. “Be ready for anything?”
“Like what?” asked the guard.
“What do you think ‘anything’ means?!” Carl snapped. “Stay close.” Carl pulled out a fold-out knife and withdrew the blade.
They crept into the space, Carl in front with his knife, the guard following up with the spear held threateningly back, walking as if to prevent popping bubble wrap. The area was largely free of obstacle, a result of the previous recovery efforts, and soon found themselves in a maze of bent framing.
Nearly thirty feet into the atrium, Carl stopped. It had been a muster point during the atrium rescue operation, debris piled to create paths, and a few tools, still uncollected, remained. “Footprints.” He bent down and inspected the depressions in the sand. They were smaller than his feet, clearly made by well-worn boots. He could see the heel separate from the toe. What he couldn’t tell with any certainty, was their age. He looked up at the falling sand. “They can’t be that old.” He pointed in the direction of the prints. “This way.”
They continued deeper into the atrium, following the marks in the sand. A few times, they seemed to go down a path, only to double back out to the path. They turned right once, then left twice, before they found themselves nearly in the middle of the atrium, almost directly under the shift bell. The footsteps became so many that it was impossible to see which way they went, or even if they went anywhere.
“Hola, chicos,” came a voice.
Carl whipped around in a circle and saw nothing but the wreckage. “You survived.” He scanned again more slowly. “I suppose that was my mistake. I should have just killed you.”
“What did you have against Erik?” asked Jo.
Carl spotted the location and pointed. The guard nodded. “He was old, like Rich. He wasn’t going to change. He wasn’t going to see change.”
“And what are you in this? Are you change?”
Carl motioned to the guard, pinpointing Jo’s location behind a wall of metal frames. He indicated the most classic of tactical moves: they would go around each side of the wall and catch her in the middle. The guard nodded silently and they parted, walking towards opposite ends of the short wall. “I’m the future, Jo. We figured out how to restore society as it was! We’ll bring back all the normalcy we ever had. All we had to do was bring down a dictator.”
“Rich wasn’t a dictator. He was a teacher.”
“He was a pompous ass!” Carl retorted, shouting back in the direction he had come, hoping the sound wouldn’t give away his position. “Everything he did was to support himself. He didn’t want democracy, he wanted complacency!”
“You’re right, Carl, he was a bit of a dictator,” said Jo. “Which makes you a real hypocrite!”
Carl stepped around the edge of the wall. “Me?”
“You accused me of murder, gilipollas,” said Jo, “meanwhile you’re piling up the bodies.”
Carl saw the guard not far away and waved to him to come forward. “It wasn’t that many,” he admitted, “just important ones. Are you looking for revenge?”
“Maybe,” said Jo. “I haven’t decided yet.”
Carl spotted a leg hanging nonchalantly out of a half-over bedframe. He jabbed toward it with his finger, then held his palm out to the guard and counted down from five. As his pinky disappeared, he and the guard lunged at the leg and found it attached to Jo.
“¡Hola, cabrón! Took you long enough.”
Carl brandished the knife blade towards Jo. “You’ve got some nerve coming back. You should have just stayed out there and let the banshee have you.”
Jo displayed the scarring on her face. “Oh, she did. But her conversation got really boring. Besides, I found a sheep and realized that we all need to get the hell out of here.”
Bewilderment has a spectrum that falls along a two-dimensional plane. One axis runs between bemused to abjectly baffled, the other from understandably to thoroughly lost. Carl found himself somewhere in the upper-right quadrant. “What the hell does a sheep have to do with this?”
“It was alive, Carl. Domesticated. Healthy,” Jo sat forward, drawing herself closer to Carl’s knife. “People are alive out there. We need to leave, all of us. Find out where that sheep came from, that’s where we’ll find society, not here.”
“You’re lying!” shouted Carl. “Nothing survives out there!”
“That was your mistake!” Carl sneered and plunged his knife towards Jo’s throat. He barely wound up before he felt a spear point pressing into his neck. His eyes veered toward the guard. “What the fuck are you doing?”
“What’s it look like I’m doing?” the guard asked, pressing the point. “Drop the knife.” The knife fell from Carl’s hand and thudded into the sand. The spear backed off.
Carl turned his head and cast a withering frown at the guard that fell limp almost instantly. “Robert.” He cursed under his breath. “That bitch Dawn!”
“No, you asshole, Carl,” said Robert. “You believed you had this all under control.”
“The sheep is real, Carl,” said Jo. “It survived.”
“Until the cougar ate it,” said Robert.
“Well, yeah, until the cougar. But it got this far. Which means it came from somewhere safe. Somewhere we should all go, Carl. Let’s work together and save everyone.”
Carl looked at Jo and Robert alternately. “You’re both insane! We take one step out that door and we’re all dead!”
“We wait for a drop in the wind,” Robert offered. “A calm day would be more than enough time.”
“We don’t know where to go! We’re safer here!” said Carl.
“You’re scared,” said Jo supportively. “It’s okay to be scared, Carl.”
“I’m not scared,” he sneered back. “It’s a stupid idea! You can’t save everyone, Jo! Besides…,” he dived for the knife and rolled to standing before Robert could react. “I’ve worked hard to get where I am! And I’m not about to let the two of you get the better of me!” And he ran.