“So much for appealing to his humanity!” said Robert as he and Jo raced after Carl.
“I had to try!” said Jo.
“I could have stabbed him and saved us all a lot of trouble!” said Robert. “And I would have felt a lot better for it!”
“Hindsight doesn’t help us now!” Jo retorted.
“Neither does him running away and finding a real guard!”
“I thought you got rid of the guards?!”
“Mostly. I’m sure they’re around some—“ Robert crumpled as a long piece of angle iron smashed him on the head. His body looked like it was breaking apart while remaining in one piece as he fell onto the floor and into a sandpile.
“Robert!” Jo whipped to his side. She saw the metal flying again and she bolted to the side, scooping up the spear from Robert’s limp hands. She got up and lunged towards Carl, who was scattering up a pile of wreckage. “What is your problem?!”
“You!” he shouted back. “You’ve always been my problem, Ms. Star Pupil!”
Jo’s face broke into a silly surprised smile. “Are you kidding me?! This is about school?”
“This is about how Batesworth liked you better!”
Jo gaped. “You murdered him because you were jealous?!”
“Robert was on your side!” said Carl, picking his way down to the floor again, away from Jo. “Erik was in your back pocket. And Batesworth! He never refused any stupid idea that came to your head!”
Despite the seriousness, Jo could not contain the laughter. “Bateworth put you and I on the same level!” Jo gasped. “He hated the both of us!”
“Bullshit!” Carl shouted. “He was always defending you!”
“He defended the work, Carl. He hated my attitude.”
“No, Carl, just you. Because I saw through your bullshit!” shouted Jo. “You were a terrible student. You’re a worse Engineer!”
“Once I get another guard, we’ll see if you sing the same song!” Carl sneered and turned to run. He skidded having barely started and looked at Robert, who rubbed his head.
“Hit me once, shame on me,” Robert grumbled. “Hit me twice…”
Carl looked at his options. Going back up the pile of debris wasn’t just difficult, it was dangerous. There were too many sharp edges, too many places to get caught. Going toward Robert was likely to go poorly. Thus he bolted right at Jo, his knife slashing as he went. Even with the sound of the wind, Carl could hear Robert already behind, negating any possible retreat. Jo was initially surprised by Carl’s attack, but quickly drew her own smaller knife and dug herself in for the hit. Carl then twisted suddenly, hopping over the edge of a bedframe and ran back down one of the paths they had all come along. Robert was half a breath behind Carl, with Jo right behind Robert.
Carl tried to follow the footsteps in the sand, trying to find his way back out. The prints Carl and Robert had left on the way in colluded with Jo’s original random pattern and quickly Carl found himself boxed in a corner, the framing rising several feet over his head. He turned as Robert rushed him. The knife fell from his hand at the sight of the incoming spear point. He clutched desperately, blindly, at anything behind him.
“Robert!” Jo shouted. Robert came to a sliding stop a body length from Carl. “Don’t hurt him.”
“Why not?!” Robert shouted, not taking his eyes off Carl. “He owes me. He owes you. He doesn’t deserve anything else.”
“We aren’t the judge or jury, Robert. It’s not for us to decide,” Jo reminded him.
“Those were Rich’s rules!” Robert said.
“No, Robert,” said Jo, “they were yours. You’re the one who convinced Rich to have a Council, to conduct tribunals. You brought civilization here. Don’t let this pedazo de mierda ruin your civility.” Jo could hear Robert’s strained breathing. “Por favor, amigo. Por su humanidad.”
“Él no merece tu compasión,” said Robert. “No se le debe nada.”
“¿Qué te hace eso, entonces? No eres un asesino, Robert, eres un sobreviviente. Sobrevivir a esto! Muéstrale que eres más digno.”
“He never spared you or I any dignity.”
“Be better.” Robert remained trained on his prey, his spear unwavering. He felt Jo’s hand on his shoulder. “Please.”
Robert blinked away a dry tear. He dropped the spear point and unraveled his stance. “Fine.” He looked to Jo. “But if he even thinks of trying anything—“
“CARL!” Jo screamed
Carl had wrapped his hand around a smooth handle. Not even knowing what he held, he lunged at Robert and swung whatever he’d happened to grab. His arm was slow to react, the weight of his acquisition holding back his motion. Forcing himself to react, he drew up his strength and swung what turned out to be a sledgehammer. The swing missed Robert, the shift in mass shot Carl forward, slamming him into his target instead. Robert stumbled backwards, falling into Jo, sending the both of them to the floor. Carl gathered his balance and strength and heaved the sledgehammer up with confidence, then swung it towards Robert’s head. Not seeing the chunk of iron coming toward him, Robert might have died, had Jo not kicked Robert in the shoulder. The hammer slammed into the floor, rattling Robert and Jo, and the wreckage around them.
Jo scrambled to her feet and tried to tackle Carl. Seeing Jo’s approach, Carl dodged, still holding onto the hammer’s handle. Missing Carl’s body, Jo stumbled and fell in a slow arc into debris. She saw a skewer formed from a cross-brace seem to rise to meet her. Jo threw out her hand to block it, instead piercing the soft part between the metacarpals of her thumb and forefinger, running straight through. Jo screeched and tried to push herself off, only driving her hand further down the rod. The action moved the pointed end away from more vital parts of her chest, allowing herself to crash into the pile without further injury.
The sledgehammer flew again, this time for Jo. Unable to scramble backup, she tried to roll out of the way. The hammer glanced off her shoulder blade and dug itself into the tangled metal. Jo completed her roll as far as she could, her hand twisted and locked onto the skewer. Crying in pain, she tried to untwist her hand and remove it.
Robert threw himself at Carl and managed to separate him from his weapon. Carl barely saw Robert’s charge and was only able to turn to face Robert before being pushed downwards. Carl’s rear caught on a stumped support, catapulting him over, and throwing Robert further; Robert sailed free of Carl and landed headfirst into a sand pile. Carl scrambled to get back to his feet, grunting at the slash into his lower back.
Jo, now free of the skewer, ran for the sledgehammer to get it away from Carl. She gripped the handle and pulled, but the head was firmly stuck in the tangles. She took the handle with both hands, one smearing blood, and tried to pull. Carl slammed himself into Jo, and her grip slipped from the spilled blood. She flew backwards from the combined efforts of herself and Carl, and landed hard on the floor. Carl wrenched the hammer free, and came at Jo.
“I’m done with you,” he growled as he approached. He swung the hammer back, then with both arms brought it forward with every ounce of fury and hatred he had sewn into himself over the previous decade.
As the hammer head passed the halfway point, Carl’s shoulder was shoved hard by Robert. Carl’s balance was lost again and he stumbled to keep it. The hammer swung wide, missing Jo entirely. Carl’s forward momentum from the push combined with the hammer’s mass threw him into another debris pile. But unlike the other piles, this one was formed around one of the support struts that held up the ARCH’s roof.
The head struck the strut with a considerable CLANG that rattled the roof panels and caused the shift bell to warble. Had that been the only effect of the hammer hitting the strut, Carl would like have resumed his attack. However, that same strut was one of the struts that Jo had been repairing, extending from the atrium all the way to the floor of the canyon. From the side of the strut there was a girder that Jo and Donner had attached, which had connected to a shackle in the reservoir wall. With the partial collapse of the atrium’s roof days before, the ARCH’s structure had slid, putting considerable strain on the girder and the shackle mount. The hammer strike sent a wave of resonance down the strut, into the girder, and into the shackle.
The metal that had made up the shackle, as Jo had previously identified, was impure, laced with gold that had not been properly removed from the smelter. The vibration combined with the stress caused the metal to fracture where the gold failed to bond with the steel.
The shackle exploded.
The shift from the strut snapping back to a shape demanded by material physics was pronounced, causing additional vibrations along other girders and to other struts. The second shackle, which had similar defects, also failed, causing a second wave of vibrations to cascade about the structure. Multitudes of crunch-crackles echoed from the edges, where the anchors that went into the rock walls finally broke free.
A lurching sensation gripped the three as several main struts, still anchored to the canyon floor, bent and sheared at their bases, causing them to tilt steeply in a downhill direction, bringing the rest of the ARCH with it. Still a rigid structure, far more solid than the tenuous support of a card house, floors began to slide transversely, rending orthogonal s angles into the diagonal.
The shift bell rang wildly, desperate to cling to its place hanging from the ceiling. But the movement of the ARCH and ceiling’s inability to hold itself together offered no solace. In a final toll, the bell broke free and plummeted to the atrium floor.
Carl, having fallen to his back, had watched the bell’s final moments. Especially the moment as the bell hurtled towards him, and one of the tines of the fork impaled Carl through the chest in a heavily muted tone.