Jo laid on her bed and stared at the dully-lit ceiling, her lamp flickered unthreateningly. The winds were rising, the shrill harmonics of the banshee emerging like a creature from a foaming sea. The sense of pointless doom lingered from her conversation with Erik, punctuated by the shrieks from the wind. Was the banshee taunting her? Was it reminding her of a near-miss? Reyes wasn't happy with the judgement, even less with the punishment. Had she been out for blood? Would she have demanded banishment? The thought sent a chill through Jo, despite the stagnant heat. Rescuing José Yerbin had been the first time she'd been in the sandstorms unprotected, the first time she'd seen their ferocity without the suit to protect her. Jo sat up in bed, clutching her chest, and tried to stop the feeling that someone was standing on top of her. She breathed heavily and deeply a few times before the sensation passed.
What if we're the last, Erik? The last humans? Then who had been the woman on the hill? Did she live up there? There had only ever been four banishments from the ARCH and all of them had been men. Was she someone who wanted in? She hadn't looked desperate for help, or even remotely upset. She'd waved back like … she was dreaming. And even though she'd seen the storm coming, she hadn't panicked like everyone else.
Jo lay back down, gently, just in case she needed to leap back up again.
Erik had defended her. He'd sidestepped the glaring faults in her thought process and reactions. He could have easily brought up the fact that she hadn't brought the suit up, just in case the wind picked up. He could have said that she hadn't bothered to get ropes, even if just to help crossing the roof. He could have faulted her for leaving the roof unsupervised. Sure, Dawn was there, but Dawn was never a supervisor — she was book smart when it came to structural engineering; her expertise was with electrical. Not that Jo was any expert in structure, for that matter, she'd nearly flunked the class.
Batesworth had played the judge, like he always did. In a way, he was the best impartial judge there was: he saw himself being above everyone else, anyway, so he didn't really feel attachment to anyone. It was a wonder he hadn't completely lost himself in the ARCH. He'd lost his family, his career, and no-one was going to remember any of his achievements — they'd all been destroyed during armageddon. There would be no permanent monuments to his name.
Yet, somehow, he'd pressed forward in the ARCH. Jo didn't know how. She wasn't sure anyone knew how. Jo blinked, realizing for the first time that she herself had no clue what drove her forward. Existence? Presence. Being. There were many synonyms for their state, all of them being the antonym for “death”. There was no betterment of human life, no preservation of the environment, no new discoveries. Nearly the equivalent of being blown back to the Dark Ages, with only the knowledge of metallurgy, electricity, and mechanics to really differentiate them from the serfs of old.
And Jo was now a serf. She had lost her privileges. She wasn't on the Council anymore. No more priority ration. She still had the keys to the Engineering spaces, but that was of little real benefit beyond her access for maintenance. The only reason she still had her cot is that Batesworth had forgotten that she'd had any room to speak of, Reyes simply didn't know, and Erik had conveniently overlooked it.
The banshee hit a crescendo and the structure vibrated like a washing machine on its spin cycle. Jo looked at her pager. It hadn't gone off. The roof repairs seem to have at least paid a benefit, rather than being a painful deficit of life.
She got up, and pulled on her clothes and boots. There wasn't any point in pretending to try to go sleep.
The hallways were mostly awake, even if its eyes were mostly closed. Somewhere off in the atrium, a baby wailed in harmony with the wind. For a moment, Jo said a prayer and thanked Whomever for … well, whatever it was that kept people from procreating. It wasn't fair to bring a child into this world, not now, not before there was at least some sense of security. The ARCH was a deathtrap, not a place for people to have comfort or safety or peace or … anything beyond not dying.
How had the parents even had sex in the first place? Apart from the privacy for intimacy, there was the general lack of desire. Everyone complained about it. There was something about being in the ARCH that seemed to neuter without the finality of surgery. Too many people, the constant droning, the fear of the banshee, the food, the smell, the fact that nearly every woman had turned to the same cycle… Jo shook her head. She couldn't even remember the last time she'd had sex. She was fairly sure it had been somewhere out in the desert one night, shortly after the class had erected ARCH 1. There'd been a party … who had she gone out with?
Ten years. Jo twisted her neck around, and tried to forget how tired she felt. She was sleepy, but couldn't sleep; hungry, but could never eat enough; exhausted and never got enough rest; worried and without…
Jo rested on a railing on the stairwell, looking into atrium. It moved restlessly, creaks coming from every direction as people tossed in their bunks. The floors were covered with those unable to find a place to sleep, and others padded around, stuck in same torpor as Jo.
She felt old, far older than her body's age. A decade under the roof, a decade of forced labor and fear. A decade of poor food and threshold dysentery. Her skin was dry, her hair a constant mess.
Was this hope? Was this their future? The bottom of the fall from grace, a pause in time until a rebuild could begin? No-one knew. Philosophers were few, and generally unwanted. Reality was too harsh for people to be asking “what if?” when there were a few hundred thousand pounds of metal and sand waiting to crush you. Patience was as thin as everyone's worn-out clothing.
Was it hopeless? Jo looked out into the atrium, and in a rare moment, tried to see individuals, instead of the collected masses. A child sat, awake and upset, but not crying. He didn't seem to want anything, though it was clear he wasn't happy. He looked about, though seemingly not to look for anything in particular.
A man stumbled about, his leg injured and wrapped with an old shirt. His clothes were a dusty red, as was his hair. A miner, a tunneller, a victim of a rockfall, who hadn't showered since his injury.
A blonde-haired woman had curled up next to a balding man, against the back of one of the sleeping racks. She had her hand wrapped over his chest. A sense of security, of familiarity, of togetherness, with a touch of desperation.
Jo looked down at the people around her on the stairwell landing. They were the same faces, the same looks, the same feelings. Why had she not seen it all before? Maybe she had, but not recognized it. Or she didn't want to. Focus on the work: build the ARCH, repair what's broken, keep the ship afloat at all costs.
Mistakes hurt. They came in different shapes and severities, but they all hurt. Given, she didn't feel remotely as bad about changing a light for one that was defective, as opposed to leading someone to their doom. Even the small ones stung, and those stings built up over time.
She'd let someone die.
The thought kept coming back. It hadn't been a mistake, it had been a deliberate action. She had chosen not to try and save a life. Reyes had been right; Erik had avoided mentioning anything. He had protected her.
Above, the banshee wailed into a sudden scream.
The lights flickered and across the atrium, darkness swallowed everything. Jo frantically dug into her pants, searching for the light. With shaking hands, she managed to turn it on. The batteries were low and the glow was dim. She unfolded the handle and wound frantically until the darkness abated around her. Only then did she realize that the blackout had caused everyone else to be concerned, the sounds of cries and moans from around the atrium and within the hallways.
“A light!” said several voices from deep in the blackness. “What's going on?” said a few more. “Who's that? Are they here to help?” A few children cried for their parents.
Feeling her stability returning, Jo slowly started to descend the stairs, picking her way around several people who begged her to stay with her light. She could hear others moving around out of view. The structure of the ARCH creaked as the wind howled. The floors clanked as people tried to find their way in the impenetrable dark, followed shouts as they tripped and fell on the unseen. Even though the atrium was a massive open space, it felt like she was falling into a black funnel, coming every closer to its narrow and confining tip.
“Jo!” called a voice from somewhere ahead of her. It echoed amidst the other voices, making it difficult to determine who it was, or even the person's sex. The voice, however, offered a destination and support, urging her to move more quickly. It was only a few moments before she nearly landed in Phil's arms, which were outstretched so Phil could avoid such collisions.
“Phil!” breathed Jo. “How'd you know it was me?”
“You're the only one who carries a light,” he snarked in the dark. “The power's out all over. I think a main breaker must've tripped.”
Jo felt cold, even in the heat. “Great, another one.”
They hustled through the hallways, as quick as they could given the increasing crush of people who were also searching for light, until they were tucked into one of the Engineering hallways. They wound more quickly, following the sounds of other voices, all of whom seemed to be headed to the same place.
As they rounded the final corner, the voices all began to stop. In their stead was an apprehensive murmuring and the sound of retching. Phil sniffed tentatively. “Is someone cooking … beef?”
“When was the last time you saw meat, Phil?” asked someone else further ahead. “That's not beef. Can't you smell the hair? The ozone?” Both Jo and Phil froze. They could smell it. It was strong.
“Who… who is it?” asked Jo.
“Don't know,” said another voice, “don't have a light.”
Even though Jo couldn't see them, she knew every eye was trained on her. She walked slowly to the breaker room, but could only stare at the handle, knowing that inside, someone had died. “Um, anyone else want to look?” she asked. There was no offer. Jo wanted to take a deep breath to steady herself, but the stench was so strong near the door that she didn't dare. The keys were in the lock, keys she already recognized. She pushed the door open slowly, and shone her light just past the door's edge. The door had to open the entire way before she could make out anything that wasn't a wire, conduit, railing, or box. It wasn't hard to determine which had been human. Jo gasped and dropped her light. It landed on the floor, bounced once, and tipped up on its end, casting its light upwards onto Jo's face.
“Who is it?” someone asked.
There was no mistaking the body. The greyed, though singed hair; the well-kept, though partly-melted clothing. Jo's eyes swelled and she coughed at the sulphurous smell. She stumbled out of the room, and fell against the hallway wall.
“Who?!” asked someone else.