The Banshee, Chapter 29

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The tunnels were full, more than any corner of the ARCH had ever been. Everyone sat in whatever space they could find, side-to-side, back-to-back, their legs overlapped on one another's, just so they weren't cramped up in balls. It was hot, stuffy, damp, dusty, and largely quiet, save for the odd cough. Only those near the entrance could hear the winds, or the rattling of the ARCH's broken structure.

Jo was one of them. She sat at the entrance of the tunnel, her knees tucked under her chin and her arms wrapped around her legs, staring out into the mostly-vacated ARCH. A rough count had suggested that almost a third of the ARCH's population had stayed in place. Whether those people were alive or dead couldn't be known.

She listened for the sounds of failure, for something to snap and cause the entire building to slip away. Instead, it was a more like the sound an old car with loose parts would make when idling. That was all she could hear over the shrill howl as the wind skated over the huge tear in the roof. She couldn't see the atrium from where she sat, the hallways winding and curving away. She could only guess at what had happened since, having heard some additional collapsing a few hours earlier.

Erik had set a simple rule: no-one was to leave the tunnels. He had been adamant, the point of looking squarely at Jo when he spoke. Jo had said nothing at Erik's proclamation, nor had she asked him in private afterwards, as he'd gone off to yell at Carl again for being obstinate about access to one of the tunnels.

Jo rocked back and forth, staring at the empty, unmoving hallways, wondering why she was sitting, doing nothing.

Because Erik had said so.

Jo rolled her head. Listening to Erik's orders felt like listening to Batesworth's. Except Erik's request was more about safety than superiority. She loathed taking orders. A brief glimpse of the previous night reminded her that some orders had their benefit. She smiled to herself. The sex had been probably more desperation than pleasurable, though it had allowed her to say aloud the things that she had kept within for so long, her personal Hoover Dam bursting apart and flooding out years of desire.

Sex. With Erik. She sighed. It was unfulfilling.

She thought about love, the feeling more than the act, the comfort more than the pleasure. Was that what Erik was? Comfort? He was the only one who had treated her with enough respect to allow her to be heard. Erik had said nothing afterwards, his doped grin having locked up his mouth. He hadn't left afterwards, did that mean he'd wanted to be there? Did he love her back?

Jo sighed again. Two years of university, ten years under the roof. What had changed? A few stolen moments, a couple of orgasms. Erik's orders might as well had been from days before: stay put, don't go out. She rubbed at a stab of regret that seemed to form under her sternum. Put down, sidelined by the person she trusted. The person she'd wanted, the one she fell for but had never hit bottom. Affection fleeted away like Henry had in the wind. Who had the previous night been about? Not Erik. She could have just as easily stolen moments from Donner. It had all been about herself. The sex, the repairs, the push for Council, the debates with Carl, the demand for a team to handle repairs, the work expanding the ARCH. A decade of work. It had all been for herself. Professor Batesworth's class had been for herself. Getting into Stanford had been for herself. Working herself to the bone for a scholarship had been for herself.

Had she fallen? Was she still falling? The previous night — now weighing on her without any sleep — almost seemed like one of her dreams: a wonderful thing to remember, shattered in an instant as reality reasserted its unfairness.

Silence slowly poured over her. The creaks and the howls continued, but for a short time, there was peace in her mind. There was no answer, no question, no doubt, no worry. The only thing missing was “no hesitation”. And that arrived a heartbeat later.

Jo stood up, and walked back into the ARCH.

The last time Jo had walked through empty halls of the ARCH was during the construction of the various blocks. There had never been a time since when the halls had been completely empty. She moved at her normal pace through the hallway, which was slow and measured, a habit developed to avoid stepping on sleeping limbs. The floors were empty, Jo's mind simply hadn't adapted to the newness of the situation.

She pulled out her goggles as she got closer to the atrium, the winds carrying grains of sand beyond the hole in the huge dome. She wrapped a thin scarf over her mouth and nose to keep out the dust, and held her hands against her ears to shield herself from the sound.

The roof's collapse had ceased, laying in a crumpled heap on the floor. Jo expressed a modicum of satisfaction: the floor had held against a traumatic event, even if the roof hadn't. For an instant, the view looked positively serene, the sand blowing in through the hole like a Courier and Ives snowstorm, settling onto the broken remains like new-fallen snow on a cold winter's day. Not that Jo had ever experienced such a scene. Growing up in Southern California, all she had known was heat, wind, rain, firestorms, and earthquakes. (She was taken by the thought that she actually missed feeling the latter.) The scene she thought of was idyllic, mythical. She had seen snippets in pictures and films. She had never even held snow in her hands.

Somewhere, under the winkled metal and sand, lay the man who had died in her hands. The little girl whose arms she had crossed. Countless other lives that had been blinked away. Jo wished she hadn't thought of that, of the lost souls.

She looked at the damage, studying its appearance. She looked at the girders at the ceiling, trying to spy any indication of additional failures. The struts that extended from the ground seemed straight, despite the brutal forces that had torn down the roof. She cocked her head as she looked at some of the girders. It was hard to tell through the dust and sand, and the scratches on her googles, if the girders had bent, broken, sheared. The winds fought against her, however, and she retreated back into the hallways.

The level below had minor damage, all things considered, with only a few places where girders had punctured the floor above. She then headed down to the lowest level, to see if the damage had cascaded down.

The struts she, Donner, and Phil had secured to the reservoir had remained upright, their deviation from vertical hadn't so much as budged. The reservoir's concrete showed some cracking at one corner, but the bracket plate remained flush against the wall. She smiled again, pleased not only with the work, but with the timeliness of the repair. One more day, and the disaster might have been complete.* *

“I spread my luck around, Kelly,” she said.

“Too bad you didn't get any common sense in return,” said Erik, rounding the reservoir wall from the stairs. “I thought I was clear: stay in the tunnels?”

“Yeah, you were,” Jo replied. “And I did. I just got tired of waiting. I needed to know how badly we were off.”

Erik ignored her reason. “You could have been hurt.”

“Uh huh,” Jo agreed. She turned and started walking towards the greenhouse.

“‘Uh huh'? That's all you have to say?” he balked. “You put yourself at risk, Jo! You made me come after you! You put *me *at risk!”

“You didn't have to come,” Jo retorted, opening the greenhouse door. “I didn't force you to come down here.” She stopped before entering. “How did you know I was down here, anyway?”

“You left footprints in the sand,” Erik explained. “And I'm not done being angry with you for disobeying me!”

Jo had barely made it two steps into the greenhouse. She turned and yelled through the patchwork of glass, plexiglas, corrugated fibreglass, resin sheeting, car windows, and other various materials that made up the walls of the greenhouse. “‘Disobeying' you?! What am I to you, a child? I'm an Engineer, dammit! I built this place! It's my maldita job to make sure it stays up! And I'm sure as hell not following any arbitrary, jackass rule you set just because you're now the one in charge. You used to argue against Rich doing the same thing!!”

“Well maybe I didn't understand his reasons before,” Erik explained, following Jo into the greenhouse. The rows of asparagus were in various states of growth, a new crop clearly ready for picking.

Jo crossed her arms. “And you do now, after two days?”

“I didn't say I understood them entirely,” he admitted. “Still, going in without someone else to help was a mistake!”

“It was my mistake to make. I knew the risks when I came in here,” she said, checking another strut further in the greenhouse.

“So you made the decision,” Erik commented, as he drew near her. “And what if you had been hurt? What if you had died? You know how badly we need you, Jo. If you were to die…”

“Te amo, cariño,” she put her hand on his face and smiled, “but you don't own me. And you definitely don't own my passions. And they demand I check the structural integrity.”

“Your passions are something else,” he said. “I don't think the winds change that much…”

Erik had thought he was being gracioso. He thought that their recent connection had allowed them to better understand one another. Erik had failed entirely to recognize that such closeness lent more to critical review than it did tacit acceptance. This fact was brought to his attention by Jo's palm, which even through the padding of his beard, delivered a sharp thak!

“Don't mock me,” growled Jo. “And don't you ever mock my intentions, no matter how trivial you think they are.” Her eyes burned through Erik's skull. “You know what I've done, what I've been willing to do, to keep everyone alive here. I've fought for this every day for years. Every. Damn. Day. I've made no room for anyone else — let alone myself — just so we can all survive. And you have the cojones to suggest that I'm … flighty?”

Erik twitched. “I wasn't mocking you—“

“Really?! ‘Cuz that's exactly what it sounded like!”

“I thought we had something,” said Erik quietly.

“We did,” said Jo flatly, “tequila, and some laughs.”

“So you have no other… nothing for me?” he asked.

“Of course I do,” she sympathized, “but I have a job to do, Erik. You gave it to me. And those tunnels are now packed with people who are going to starve.”

“How can you care so much?” asked Erik.

“Because I always have. I lost everyone I ever cared about. So I'm caring for those I never knew.”

“It's noble,” Erik nodded, “but it's foolish. You can't save everyone. There's too many. You'll kill yourself trying to be everything to everyone.”

“You can't tell me how to live my life.”

“I can keep you from ending it too soon.”

“How are you going to stop me?” Her jaw was out, she leaned forward, her eyes wide.

Erik stood, staring at a woman that until only a few minutes before, he thought he loved. “I had hoped I could just ask you to come back,” he sighed. “Instead, I have a horse I have to lead to water.” Jo's teeth gritted. “I'm the fool, here. I thought we had something, but you … you used me. You got your jollies, and now you plan to hold my balls so you can do whatever you want. That is what you're doing, aren't you? You think my feelings for you are going to give you free reign! I have enough problems with Carl as it is, never mind that the dome collapsed, killing who knows how many! The last thing I need is you pulling a princess move like this! I can't believe I stuck my neck out for you. I should have just left you were you were, reporting to me directly, where I could tell what to do, and where you could go!”

“You want to tell me where to go?” Jo asked quietly. She didn't let Erik answer. With reflexes she didn't believe she had, she connected an instinctively-balled fist into the bridge of Erik's nose, sending him stumbling backwards. He tripped on the edge of a garden bed, and landed on his back. Blood poured out of his nose. “You can go to hell. I've spent more than enough time to know where I belong. And it's not under your, or anyone else's thumb. You don't order me around, Erik. No-one does. Rich didn't, you don't, no-one will. I earned the right to be here, and I continue to earn it every day.”

Erik struggled to his feet, the pain sending massive sparks through his vision, offsetting his balance. Blood poured down his shirt. “What the hell is wrong with you?!”

Jo's stood prepared, her hands already balled into fists. “Are you going to push me, cariño, or do we have to keep going?”