Categories
The Soundtrack of my Life

Get Off My Cloud by The Rolling Stones

I’ve written about my trip to the Soviet Union before. It was, for me, a highly transformational experience. It was the first time I’d ever travelled outside of North America, it was the furthest I’d ever been from my family, it was a to a part of the world where I didn’t speak the language or understand the culture, and I was given freedoms from supervision that … well, luckily I never got in any real trouble.

By 1989, I’d flown many times. I’d flown to Saskatchewan to visit with my mom’s family, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia on family trips, Florida on a few occasions to visit with my grandmother and her sister and go to Disney World. I had yet to fly over an ocean, nor cross any more than two time zones. (Technically not true, I went three time zones to Victoria, BC when I was a wee babe, but I have zero memory of that and I probably slept the entire time anyway, so I’m not counting it.)

Going to the Soviet Union put me eight hours over the Atlantic, arriving in Helsinki for a lengthy stopover before going into Moscow. Some 20 hours of transit from the time I entered Pearson International in Malton (identifiable as “YYZ” on your luggage tags) before I walked about in Moscow. I had never travelled so far for so long.

Before leaving, I had made the effort to compile some music to listen to. I had my ghettoblaster, my dad’s record player, and a couple of cords to connect them. All I needed to do was find some songs to put on tape so I’d have enough listening material to go along. (I also had a new copy of Prince’s Batman soundtrack, which I played repeatedly, and would trade way while in Leningrad.)

While riffling through a record collection in the basement, skipping past the rather large set of classical albums, I found a near-mint condition copy of December’s Children (And Everybody’s) [by] The Rolling Stones. It still had the plastic wrap on the record sleeve, though the plastic had been opened. When asked whose record it was, both of my parents steadfastly denied it was them. I still suspect it was my mom’s.

Until that point, I had heard (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction on the radio countless times (thank you, Top 40 rock stations) and I knew Jumpin’ Jack Flash thanks to CHCH TV’s Hilarious House of Frightenstein, so I was familiar with The Rolling Stones. The timing of me finding December’s Children and my impending flight to the Soviet Union is, now, bizarrely fortuitous and weirdly coincidental, because of the first song on Side B: Get Off My Cloud.

Although I didn’t relate to the majority of the lyrics (that and between the low-quality audio recording’s distortion combined with Jagger’s voice, I couldn’t understand most of it), I locked onto the lines “Hey, you, get off of my cloud / Don’t hang around ’cause two’s a crowd”.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was becoming an introvert, something that wasn’t really clear to me until years later. Something about telling people “this is my space, bugger off!” stuck with me, gave me a kind of confidence. Add to that the fact that there’s clouds in the sky that I was about to fly through, and the song got regular play on my headphones for years to come.

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 11

“Where are we going?” Donner asked as they stepped around the occupants of the hallway, most in a half-slumber. Jo kept walking. “Jo? Are you okay?” 

Jo stopped. “No.” 

Donner hesitantly touched Jo’s shoulder. “What’s going on?” 

“Robert Ferris was my classmate, a year my senior. He had enough credits to graduate, but he had delayed his own graduation to take Batesworth’s ARCH course. He and Erik were Batesworth’s right hands: Erik was the TA, Robert was … honestly, I think Robert was there to make Batesworth look good.“ Jo tried not to sob. “Robert and I had a lot of chats around the fire in those first few weeks. Random stuff. Movies, food, the places we would build after graduation, places we wanted to visit. He was almost like an older, awesome brother.

“After Block 2 collapsed, Robert was the one who realized that the ARCH was in worse shape than we’d thought. He’s the one who started digging the tunnels. Robert had the plans, knew the schedule, designed the tools. If he were still the one running the project, we’d have moved out of here by now.” 

“So what happened? Why … why are you … why is this happening?” asked Donner. “What’s going on?” 

“No lo sé.” Jo continued walking. 

Donner followed quickly. “Jo?” 

“I … I don’t know,” Jo spat, not turning around. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why it happened.” 

“What happened?” 

Jo stopped as they entered Block 9. She looked down the hallway towards their destination. She could see others heading in the same direction. “Robert raped and nearly killed a girl.” Whether or not Donner made any sound, Jo didn’t recognize. “That’s what we were told. He’d snapped. Gone crazy. He was in the tunnels, they found him standing over her with her torn clothes and a bloody hammer. They beat him almost to death.” 

“I—,” Donner shuddered. “I’m … sorry.” 

“It wasn’t you,” said Jo quietly. “It wasn’t him,” she added. 

“Huh?” 

“He didn’t do it. I know he didn’t.” 

“So why—“

“Because,” Jo snapped. “Because. Because we let a friend down. And we’re all going to suffer for it.” 

They walked down the hallway until they got to the door of an unmarked room at the south-eastern edge of Block 9,  one of only a handful of rooms in the ARCH had held no occupants. It was a room not originally conceived in anyone’s plans for the building, one no-one had ever wanted to build, prayed that it was never to be used. But every time the banshee screamed, the room would serve its purpose.

“Go back to the greenhouse,” said Jo, opening the door. 

“I’ll wait,” said Donner. 

“You shouldn’t,” she said, entering the room.  

The room was roughly rectangular, with the far wall being a divider between the inner room and an outer space that opened into the outside. Robert stood against the divider, his wrists chained to a loop on the wall that kept him from moving in any direction. His shirt had been wrapped around his head, and gagged him from speaking. On either side of him were two large men with large spears, both pointed towards Robert’s torso. One of the spears had already made a mark, a cut deep enough to cause a trickle of blood to seep down Robert’s side, and to keep Robert from struggling.  

Jo stepped up to Robert. She reached out to untie the shirt from his head and found the spear in her face. “¿Cuál es su problema?” 

“Director’s orders,” said the large man with the pointy stick. 

Director?” Jo asked. “We don’t have a ‘director’.” 

“The guy in charge,” said the other spear-wielder. 

“The only thing he’s in charge of is the shit between his ears,” Jo muttered, just loudly enough that Robert heard. Jo could see the spasming of a laugh. “I’m sorry, Robbie. I tried to convince them that this was really, really stupid. Even if … even if you had done … something, which I don’t believe, we need you. We need you now more than ever. The Council’s gone to hell. Batesworth is so full of his own delusions that he’s letting Carl do anything he likes.” She let out a short chuckle of derision. “If anyone is a director,” she spoke loudly enough for the two guards to hear clearly, “it’s this guy. It’s a shame you’re too stupid to see it.” 

“Whatever, get back!” said the first guard, swinging his spear precariously close to Jo’s head. 

“I’m going to see that you spend a lot of time fixing toilets,” she growled as she stepped back against the wall. 

“Someone’s in a bad mood,” said a pleasant voice in Jo’s ear.

Jo instinctively leaped away and turned to see the voice’s owner. “Dawn!” Jo cursed. “Stop doing that!” 

Dawn giggled. “Sorry, I can’t resist a good scare. You know me!” 

“You pick the worst times for that,” muttered Jo. “What are you doing here?” 

“Francis sent me,” sighed Dawn, “to be his witness.” 

“He isn’t coming?” Jo balked. 

“No,” grumbled Dawn. “Francis and Carl are working on Batesworth’s orders, so they’re apparently ‘all tied up’.” 

“Of course they are. Consign their friend to his death, don’t have the cojones to see it through.” 

“I don’t want to see this through,” said Dawn. “Robert’s … this can’t be happening.” 

“It shouldn’t be happening. Carl was so quick to damn Robert, he should be here.” 

“Apparently they’re on strict orders.” 

“From who, Batesworth?” asked Jo.

“You didn’t hear?” asked Dawn. Jo shook her head. “Batesworth appeared in the tunnels a couple of days ago.”

“That, I know,” said Jo. 

“He wasn’t happy about the lack of progress.” 

“He’s not happy about anything right now,” Jo muttered.

“Well, Batesworth marched in about a half hour ago and ordered Carl to start moving people in today!” 

“Today?!” Jo gasped. She looked up at the ceiling. “Dios mío, I think he actually listened for a change!” 

“Carl and Smiley agreed. Then Carl freaked out to Francis.” Dawn leaned in close and whispered. “Francis told me that there’s no way they’ll do it.” 

“Wait, you mean they can’t do it, or won’t do it?”  

“I don’t know. I don’t know what they’re doing,” Dawn sighed.

“Gah. Some men,” muttered Jo. 

“Speaking of which,” said Dawn, glancing across the room. 

The door had opened and in stepped Professor Batesworth, wearing his Stanford ceremonial robe: black, with red fabric on the sleeves past the elbows and in stripes down the front. He wore his eight-sided black cap. The attire stood out sharply against everyone else’s, as Batesworth had taken great care to keep the regalia in pristine shape. No-one had ever discovered why Batesworth had felt the need to take the regalia out into the middle of the desert. 

“Such a show off,” whispered Dawn. 

Batesworth walked to the middle of the room, followed by Erik. Erik looked despondently towards Jo. Batesworth unnecessarily cleared his throat, everyone else in the room already having given him their attention. Batesworth scanned the room, not really meeting with anyone else’s gaze. He produced a slate scrawled with a script — Batesworth never did anything official without a script — and held in front like a town crier.  

“Robert Ferris, you stand before your peers, convicted by the tribunal for the crimes of sexual assault and battery.” Immediately, Robert started grunting and groaning through the gag. Batesworth ignored the sound and spoke louder. “While these crimes carried harsh punishments in the World That Was, those of us who remain are unable to live with your blight.”

“‘Blight?’” Jo exclaimed. “This is wrong, Professor.” 

Batesworth ignored Jo and continued. “The Council has conferred and we hereby condemn you to banishment. You will leave the ARCH, never to return. You will live in the wild to the best of your ability. We leave you with a day’s rations, your clothing, and a knife. May God have mercy on your soul.” 

Robert’s muted screams hit a crescendo, screaming through his shirt, a series of roars and half-gags that would likely have been some kind of denunciation of Batesworth and the Council, and possibly all of humanity, had Robert been able to articulate himself. He was swiftly muted by a whack on the head by one of the spear-holders, Jo whimpered on his behalf. The room fell painfully quiet. There was at worst only a low lone whistle, the banshee apparently having gone to sleep. The outer walls, normally rattling in the winds, offered only a periodic rumble. Batesworth nodded and a door on the divider was opened. The two other guards lowered their poles at Robert, while Erik unhooked the chain that held Robert in place. Robert immediately tried to struggle, until he felt the dagger point under his chin. Surrounded by the pointed poles, he growled a final time, and went through the doorway. A small sack with the rations and the knife clinked in next to him. In a quick motion, Erik removed the chains and the door closed. 

A heartbeat later, coherent yelling began, along with the mad pounding on the door as Robert tried to break free. “I’m innocent! I didn’t do anything!! This isn’t justice, this is murder!” 

“Erik,” said Batesworth calmly. Erik nodded painfully and reached for a lever next to the door. 

“WAIT!” Jo’s voiced ricocheted around the room. Erik’s hand stopped. “You can’t do this! We can’t do this! Professor Batesworth, this is wrong. What happened was wrong and we can’t change that, but we can change this. We can stop this from becoming even more of a tragedy. Please, for what good is left, we need to stop and rethink this before you regret it!” 

“Your assumption, Ms. De Leon,” Batesworth said barely over his shoulder, “is that there is anything you say is worth hearing.” He looked towards Erik. “Now.” 

“Erik, please, no!” Jo pleaded. Erik looked at Jo, at his hand, at Batesworth, and back to Jo. His hand vibrated in indecision. 

“Now, Erik!” Batesworth demanded. “For the good of the ARCH!” 

There was a scraping sound, followed by two shrieks — one in the outer room, one in the inner room — the sound of things sliding and desperate clinging, then only the buffeting of wind. Erik pushed forth on the handle. The buffeting stopped. Erik opened the door again, revealing that the room’s occupant had departed. 

Dawn was holding Jo, who had collapsed to the floor. Jo’s eyes were trained on the empty space, her eyes vacant and wide. “Murderers,” she whispered. 

 Batesworth tucked his slate away no differently than at a Council meeting, turned, and walked out of the room, the two guards following. Dawn helped Jo to her unsteady feet, holding her for every ounce of support. Erik stood in the corner next to the handle, staring alternately between his feet and Jo. The wind whipped around beyond the walls, lightly rattling the hull plates. Beyond that, there was still a faint yelling, and the sound of rocks hitting the outer door. Jo stared at the door as if it could answer her unspoken question. 

“Jo,” said Erik softly. He stood next to her, gently placing his hands on her face. “Jo?” 

“It’s not right,” she said. “None of it.” 

“I know. I … it doesn’t make sense to me. Robert wasn’t the sort. He was strong.” 

“He was stronger than all of us,” said Jo, still staring at the door.

“Was he?” Erik asked. “I mean, we all like to think we’re unstoppable. But we all have our breaking points. Maybe he reached his.” 

“¡Dáme un respiro!” Jo protested. “You know Robert! Did he ever seem upset to you? Did he even ever have a bad day? Robert was having fun with all of this! It was a challenge, a game to him. And he played it better than anyone.” 

Dawn released her hold of Jo, and Erik took over, holding Jo tight. “Or maybe he just suffered in silence and kept the brave face for the rest of us. He was the guy who smiled at a disaster. He was the one who’d giggle at the terrible hands in poker, knowing he was just going to annoy us with it. He was—“

Jo broke away from Erik. “Stop saying ‘was’! He’s not dead, Erik! He’s still alive! He’s out there! Right! Now!” she stabbed her hand towards the outer wall. 

Erik slumped. “Don’t think I don’t know that, Jo. I pulled the handle. I dumped my friend outside. We decided to let him go.” 

“No, I didn’t decide. The rest of you did,” Jo snarled. She marched towards the door. 

“Jo! Wait!” Erik called.

“I need to go fix something,” she said as she spun through the doorway. 

Donner had been waiting patiently outside. He backed against the wall as Jo burst through the door; she didn’t acknowledge him as she roared past in angered silence. He quickly sprang after her as she turned the corner, as eager to stay with her as she was to distance herself from the events she’d witnessed. Donner wisely chose not to say anything to her until they were halfway into the Atrium, and she stopped. 

“Are you okay?” he asked. 

Jo wheeled around, ready to tear off something vital. The futility of the instinct caused her to spring right back around. 

Donner took an unconscious step backward. “I’m sorry.”

Even with her back to him, even over the droning of the Atrium and the wind, Donner heard: “You didn’t do anything.” 

“I can still empathize,” he said. “Even if I don’t understand what happened.” 

Jo’s head sagged, her shoulders shook in great hops. Then she suddenly threw out her arms, raised her head, and emitted a sound that the ARCH’s inhabitants usually only heard coming from the outside. It was deep, and powerful, and mournful, and vengeful. The Atrium fell nearly silent except for the sound of a thousand eyes following the screech to its source. The source didn’t care. She walked off solemnly, leaving Donner behind. 

She wanted to run, wanted to hide. She wanted to disappear. But in the ARCH, there were no places to hide, no places to be alone. There was always someone within an arm’s length of you, a paper thin barrier between your thoughts and someone else’s. And so Jo descended into the greenhouse, where the arms were more involved with creating and sustaining life. 

Categories
The Soundtrack of my Life

The Reflex by Duran Duran

Ah, 1984… wait, I mean 1985! Popular radio in Canada being what it is — what is has been a very long time, certainly modeled after the United States — tends to play chart-topping songs for a long time, sometimes too long and too much, to the point where you come to loathe and despite not only the song, but the artist as well. Duran Duran strayed into that territory for me due to overplay, notably of The Reflex.

Categories
The Soundtrack of my Life

Peter Gunn by the Art of Noise

I couldn’t tell you when or how or where I first heard of the Art of Noise. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume it was from watching MuchMusic, which had shows like The New Music that frequently played things that didn’t qualify as Top 40. I assume, since I can’t remember any other way, this is when I first heard the mixed bag of sounds that somehow became a tune, the hallmark of Art of Noise’s oeuvre.

Sometime in late 1984 or early 1985, I became aware of a program called SEVEC: the Society for Educational Visits and Exchanges in Canada. The general premise was to mix English-speaking kids with French-speaking kids to try and bridge the ever-widening gap between English Canada and Quebec. (Yes, French is spoken elsewhere. This was an attempt to cross-culture, keep Canada whole. I’ll defer with the rest of the political reasoning…) Somehow, which I most likely blame on my paternal grandmother for her penchant to travel, I managed to get myself involved along with a number of schoolmates, and in July of 1985, we went to live for two weeks in Quebec City.

I don’t remember how many of us there were, though I think about 7 or 8 of us went from E.J. James School, all of us in the same grade. Sadly, I lost track of nearly all of them, save for Alison, who despite living in Australia somehow fell within a network of friends from high school. (Alison also helped me verify the year we went to Quebec City, which after 35 years, was getting a little hard to remember clearly.)

I was partnered with Stefan, whose father worked for the Quebec government and was fully bilingual; none of the rest of the family spoke English well, so I was forced to put as much effort into my French as I could. I ate and slept at their apartment, and Stefan would come to Oakville two weeks later to stay with my family.

Every day while we were in Quebec, we would all get together for various activities, ranging from pure fun (a visit to a waterpark, for example) to pure educational (a visit to the Plains of Abraham, where the French lost to the British, and thus the control of the nascent Canada). Every day we would mingle in groups, trying to simultaneously live up to the expectations of the program, and run away from our respective partners to stay with our Ontario friends. (Admittedly, I don’t recall the Quebecois kids ever doing this. Sadly, I think it was just us snobbish Ontarioans.)

Every night, I had to listen to music to fall asleep, a habit I picked up a year earlier, in an effort to calm my hyperactive mind that loved to stray into various thoughts that could keep me up all night. One of the many tapes I listened to while in my bed in Stefan’s room was Art of Noise’s In Visible Silence. The second song on side two was Peter Gunn. I had to learn to play the music at such a low level that it wouldn’t bother Stefan when he was trying to sleep.

In case you’ve never heard it before, it’s an instrumental, there are no lyrics. It’s actually the theme from a late 1950s TV series (of the same name), which I’ve never seen nor know anything about. And while I know most of the tune quite well, it’s the interlude that starts around 1:08 in the track, where the harsher sounds give way to an almost dreamlike sequence that runs for about 15 seconds before the next drum beat.

During those 15 seconds, I feel SEVEC, old memories of being in in Quebec City, snippets of events and places we went and things we did, of faces long gone. Perhaps it’s still a dream, one I cling to not because of a particularly happy moment or because of unfulfilled desires, but solely of memory, and the feeling of my first carefree youth away from home.

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 10

The drill was a dulled metal fingernail inexorably tearing apart manufactured stone, which slowly oozed out of the hole as a trickle of water mixed the dust into a slurry. The concrete, for it’s part, did all it could to bind the drillbit with chunks of rock and prevent progress. The four arms at the other end of the drill pulled against the wheel turning the gears that provided the torque, or pushed against a long lever that provided the forward force pushing the bit ever further into the reservoir wall. Every forty or so turns, the wheel would stop and the water level was checked. Every few minutes, hands would change between turning and pushing. The drillbit moved steadily inwards, millimeter by millimeter. When finally a depth was reached, marked by a clamp on the drill bit, the wheel was reversed, the drill pulled back, and a rest began.  

It took nearly two hours to bore out the first inch-wide, twenty four inch-deep hole, another two for the second, the third was a four-hour slog due unmixed aggregate binding the bit.

“How many more do we have to do?” groaned Donner. 

“Just one,” replied Jo, between gulps of water. 

“Yay.” 

“On this side,” she added. 

“Ugh. Do I get an extra ration again?” Donner asked. 

“Yeah,” replied Jo. “But that ain’t gonna help how much you’re gonna hurt tomorrow!” she cheered, adding a soft punch to his shoulder. 

“Ow.” 

“Vamos, let’s get this aligned for the last hole.” 

Already being aligned for the bracket, they only needed to lower the drill head a few inches until the tip of the worn bit pressed into the carefully etched markings on the concrete where the bracket would be mounted. The wheel started turning, the lever pressed forward, the scraping continued. 

“Can I … ask a question?” panted Donner on the wheel. 

“You just did,” grunted Jo. 

“Does that ever … get funny?” 

“Nope,” Jo laughed. 

“How did you … build this place … with tools this bad?” 

Jo laughed again from a place of experience and pain. “Kid, they weren’t always this bad. Remember when I said we ran out of gasoline?” Jo didn’t wait for Donner’s exhausted reply. “We had all the tools, all the things we needed. That was a long, long time ago.” 

“Did you know … this many people … would come?”

“Here? We were never supposed to be here,” said Jo. 

The wheel stopped. “Huh?” 

“I’m an Engineering student,” Jo reminded Donner. “We came out here for a course project.” Donner was caught somewhere between breathless and dumbfounded. “Keep turning,” she said spinning her finger around. Donner grunted and started turning again. “CEE 387A at Stanford,” Jo explained, “known as Arid Research Configurable Habitation.“

“ARCH,” breathed Donner.

“¡Sí! Back in ’07 Stanford hired Batesworth to create a new course that would teach techniques for living in a warming Earth. He was some structural genius, responsible for enough bridges to run from LA to Jersey. It was meant to be part practical and part research. That’s how Batesworth got his PhD, by the way, on the backs of his students’ work.” 

Donner looked up. “He … cheated off you?” 

“No, I wasn’t in his class until 2014. But there’s no way he could have gotten a doctorate without all the work his students did. And they did a lot.”

“They built this place?” 

Jo shook her head. “Maybe we should switch places.” Donner quickly let go of the wheel. Jo released the lever and took up turning while Donner pushed. “The ARCH we’re in now wasn’t the first ARCH. Every year Batesworth ran his course, he’d take the students out to a place about 20 miles northeast of here, on Navajo land. He had a deal with them that they could keep the buildings after the students were done. Every year, a new ARCH, a new design, a new challenge. There we were, middle of nowhere, just a geodesic dome on flat ground, surrounded by dry brush, snakes, scorpions, jack rabbits, and the odd coyote. Days were scorching and the nights were freezing. We learned fast.” 

“So how’d you get here?” Donner grunted as he pushed. 

Jo turned the wheel a few moments. “That’s a longer story,” she finally said and stopped turning. She took a bucket and refilled the water tank. 

“We got time,” said Donner.

“Yeah,” Jo agreed, wiped her forehead, and resumed cranking. “We’d gone to Page to get some supplies. We were supposed to be self-sufficient, but Carl no puede agregar para salvar su estúpida vida—“ Jo caught her breath. “Discúlpame. Carl didn’t get enough food. We’d hoped to be in and out before Batesworth realized his students had screwed up … but Page was a disaster area. Sirens were everywhere, cops were out, people screaming, breaking windows, stealing shit. We drove back down the 98 so fast I thought the truck might fly apart. By the time we got back, Batesworth had already heard the news, all over the radio.” 

“Armageddon.” 

“Whatever it was,” muttered Jo. She looked at Donner. “You know we still have no idea what actually happened?” She shook her head. “We waited a couple of weeks for the craziness to die down. No-one knew we were out there, except for the Reservation, and they left us alone. When we went back to Page …” Jo took in a shuddered breath. “You would swear someone had bombed the place. Barely anything left. People came out of the woodwork, thinking we’d come to rescue them. They begged us to take them with us.” 

“You took them with you?” asked Donner. 

“We tried to tell them that we were living out in the desert, that we had very little to live on, and were looking for supplies. We thought we’d told them how bad we had it, and they’d leave us alone. Apparently, we were way better off than them. Twenty RVs, dozens of cars. A few hundred people. We had a small town almost overnight. And then the first winds came: rolled two RVs and tore a strip off our roof. The next day, the wind nearly destroyed the place. We were already in a losing battle. We used the RVs as wind breaks to keep the structure upright until the wind stopped so we could make repairs.” 

“But you had no supplies, did you? No way to make repairs with what you had. You … you couldn’t have just made due? You had to have found more … stuff.” 

“Exacto,” Jo stopped cranking to fill the water tank again. “We hit every town between here and Flagstaff. Every thing we could find that wasn’t bolted down came back with us.” 

“But … what about all the people? Where they come from?”

“Well, how did you find out?” asked Jo. “Did your group follow us one time?” 

“No, we didn’t see the ARCH until it was here. And by then, there were already thousands living here.” 

“Everywhere we went to find supplies, we found people. Then we found more who were fleeing Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, Vegas, SoCal, even Texas. Conditions had gotten so bad there that they all ran. We couldn’t stop them from following us like perros callejeros.” 

“How did you end up here, then?” asked Donner. 

“The ARCH we originally built could hold maybe a couple hundred, tops. We bolted on everything we could to make more space. People lived ten to a car, thirty to an RV. We needed to expand the ARCH. But the winds were so strong we couldn’t actually assemble anything. There was much dust in the air that blackout conditions were common. Sand dunes started to cover some of the vehicles. We didn’t know what to do. Then we found a hiker one morning, barely alive, who’d been blown across plateau from the Grand Canyon. When he recovered, he told us that the winds weren’t as bad in the valleys. That’s when Robert had the brilliant idea to move us here.”

“Who’s Robert?” asked Donner.

Jo stopped turning and leaned on the crank wheel. “Robert was…” She took a drink of water. “¿Cómo digo? Do you remember the best kid in your school? The one everyone liked? They were smart, one of the best basketball players, helped all the teachers?” 

Donner smiled uneasily. “Yeah.” 

“That was Robert. More than that. He was Professor Batesworth’s dream student. When we were trying to set up our tents on the first night, Robert was sketching out the structure we would build in the sand. When we were trying to erect the first structure, Robert had us do it in such a way that automatically roughed in plumbing and electrical space. We finished the project in nearly half the time because of his vision. Dios mío, Carl lo odiaba por eso. When we came here, Robert convinced us to build multiple Blocks, not just one. He’s the one who said we had to dig tunnels if we really wanted to survive. He pulled practical jokes all the time, tied bootlaces together, left snap-traps. He made the gardens grow. And he was so malditamenta misterioso, never telling us where he came from or what his parents did. He’d up and disappear without warning, sometimes for days.” Jo laughed almost resentfully. “Like one morning, after talking with the hiker? Robert took a motorbike and rode off into the wind. We thought he’d gone suicidal. He returned that night with a plan to move the ARCH to a safer place.”

“Move the ARCH? This place is huge!” Donner protested. 

“Remember, it was only Block 1 at the time. One of Batesworth’s project mandates was that anything we build had to be easily raised and torn down. So that’s what we did. We got everything that could roll back on the roads and drove through sandstorms to the North Rim. Took us nearly eighteen hours to drive a hundred and twenty miles. We lost two cars along the way. We rebuilt the ARCH as Block 1, adding Blocks 2 and 3 to house all the extra people who had come along. We thought we’d just wait out the season, wait for the weather to change, and break for the coast. We figured it was a better option than staying here.” She stopped and looked at Donner. “That’s when you arrived here, ¿sí? How did you find out about the ARCH?” 

“I have no idea,” shrugged Donner. “We were in the Kaibab when we got texts that…” Donner trailed off. “My parents … they, uh, texted me. ‘We love you very much. Remember us.’” Donner withheld a sob. “A lot of the kids got messages like that. The cell signals all went dead a few moments later.” Donner wiped his eye, leaving a streak of thin mud where the dust mixed with his tears. “Mr. Hobart, our, uh, teacher, said it was only temporary and we’d be fine. We were supposed to go home a week later … but we couldn’t. Our homes were—“ Donner choked. Jo handed him a cup of water. “Thanks.” He took a shuddered breath. “Mr. Hobart teacher didn’t know what to do. We wandered, looking for food. Finally we decided to go north. We got to Tuba City when the bus ran out of gas.” 

Jo gasped. “You were stuck there? That place was un infierno.” 

“It wasn’t that bad. By the time we got there, there was nothing except a lot of people, a lot of cars and trucks. Then somebody heard about a shelter someone had built on the North Rim. We scrounged gas from every vehicle we could find. The bus must’ve held a couple hundred.” Donner stared blankly. “Somehow, we got here.” 

“We tore that bus apart,” Jo recalled. “It think the chassis made up the support of Block 7.”

“I remember a helicopter, too.” 

Jo laughed. “Oh, that. That guy was crazy. I’m amazed he made it here.” She looked at the drill. “Come to think of it, the motor ended up in the drill rigs.”  

The two fell silent. Jo continued to look at the drill. Donner looked at the wall, then the girder, the the struts. Not far away, the gardeners harvested.  

“How do you do it?” asked Jo.

“Do … what, me?” 

“You’re happy,” said Jo. “How…?” 

Donner blinked, his head slowly slipped to one side and his vision trailed off to an indistinct point. “I’ve never thought about that. I … never thought about being anything. I … just am.” He looked at Jo. “You’re not, are you?” 

Jo sighed. “Jo, it’s hard enough being a woman in this place, never mind doing what I do.” She sat down hard on the ground. “You saw the guy in the nice shirt?” 

“Yeah.”

“That’s Batesworth. He’s a gilipollas.” 

“A what?” 

“An asshole,” growled Jo. “He’s the Chair of Engineers, the one in charge. He hides in his little office believing he’s responsible for all the decisions. He acts like he’s still a professor, lords his professional certification over us. Meanwhile the rest of us run on our own trying to keep this place alive. That is one cabrón we can do without. He was here to inspect our work.”

“He didn’t like it.”

“He doesn’t like anything that’s not done to spec. But the specs never envisioned a place like this.” 

“Jo!” called Erik from near the stairs.

“¿Que?” Jo yelled back.

“It’s time!”  

“Joder,” Jo muttered. 

“Who’s he?” asked Donner. 

“Erik. Kind of the second guy in charge.” 

“Is he a gilly-poy-ass, too?” 

“Gracias a Dios, no,” said Jo, getting up. “Take a break, Donner.” 

“What’s going on?” 

Jo stopped in her tracks and blew out a breath. “Remember the Robert I told you about?” 

“The really smart guy?”

“We’re going to kill him.”

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 9

“The bolts seem to be holding,” said Smiley. “Though I’d like to give it a day to make sure there ain’t more shifting.” 

“I’m not keen on using that tunnel for rooms,” added Carl. “If there’s any more instabilities beyond just the fault…”

“I ain’t seen faults do that before, but I ain’t an engineer like y’all,” Smiley smiled. 

“We’re supposed to be expanding down that side, getting more rooms. Are you telling me we can’t expand down there?” Batesworth asked. 

Smiley looked at Carl. “Not yet. Not until we’ve done some tests. Could you imagine if we found a fault that loosens the upper half of the arm?” Carl answered. “We’d lose our ability to build the third level.”

Batesworth raised a finger. “That reminds me. When I was yesterday I couldn’t help notice that the ramp to the third level ends at a blind wall. Have we not even put a pick into the third level yet?”

“Not there,” said Smiley. “We were gonna start, but the fault’s not far from that wall. We didn’t want to tunnel there. We had to build a ramp down the south end.” 

“Inconvenient,” muttered Batesworth. “How many on the third level are ready?” 

“None,” said Carl. “We had to pull everyone for the fault.” 

“That’s going to cut down on the number of rooms we’ll have available,” said Batesworth. “Erik, have we run the numbers on how many rooms we need?” 

Erik didn’t look at his notes. “We need eighty rooms just to get everyone in there, two hundred for us to be not packing in like we are right now.” 

“You have nearly two thousand people in there at any given moment, Carl!” Jo protested. “If they’re not digging rooms, what are they doing?!” 

“Shoring, mostly,” said Francis. “We don’t have jigs so it takes a few people per section.” 

Batesworth nodded. “I saw them. They’ve made quite a bit of progress. I think they would be better suited to installing infrastructure, however. Air and light.”

“There ain’t many rooms we can do that,” said Smiley. “Once the shorin’s in, we can deal with the lights and air. Otherwise we gotta tear it out. No sense in lights if the ceilin’s unstable.”

“We have sixteen rooms roughed and ready,” said Carl. “No wiring or air yet.” 

“Those need ventilation or people will suffocate,” said Batesworth. “How soon until we have that?” 

“Thirty feet are good to go in now,” said Francis. “But the intake and exhaust are in use for the second level.” 

“Can we branch them for the first level?” asked Erik. 

“We had this exact conversation two days,” grumbled Jo. “Erik’s had the room count for weeks, Rich, and you ask it like we’ve never thought of it before. We know the fault is a problem but we’re not tunneling anywhere else, so there’s no more rooms. Frank’s team has stopped and started ducting so many times because of priority changes that hardly any of it is done. Based on your own numbers, Carl, we should have had the first and second levels complete.”

“We’ve been over this exact conversation, too!” shouted Carl.

Jo glared at Carl. “How many people did you see in the fault tunnel, Rich?” 

“I didn’t count them,” said Batesworth. “There were quite a few, though.” 

“And guarded?” added Jo.

“Safety!” Carl retorted. “Or did your friend Kelly not mention how many she’s seen because of collapses?” 

“¡Díos mio!” Jo rolled her head, praying something would unwind.

“Pretty sure God’s not going to help us,” said Francis. 

“To Jo’s point, though, are we able to move anyone into the first level?” asked Erik. 

“Today,” said Carl. “Once the ducting is in. It won’t be complete, but there should be enough air.” He looked at Jo. “We’ll branch the intake and make sure there’s an exhaust.” 

Batesworth nodded. “Excellent. Erik, can you—“ 

“Move the Atrium first,” said Jo. Batesworth looked annoyed. “Yes, Rich, I know you want to move people from Blocks 5 and 6, but those two areas are fine. The Atrium needs to be emptied. We need the metal from the bedframes.” 

“Hey, I have an idea,” said Carl, “why doesn’t Jo tell us about her progress so we can interrupt her constantly?” 

“Carl!” Erik warned. “Enough.” He turned to Batesworth. “We’ve talked about doing Blocks 5 and 6 before, and we came to the conclusion that taking people from Blocks 7 and 8 was better so we could start stripping the structure for spare parts.” He turned to Carl. “That said, we’ve also talked a lot about doing this in Atrium, because removing all those people would remove a lot of the weight. Which, as I understand,” he turned to Jo, “is turning into a bigger problem. How’s our slippage?” 

“Unchanged, today,” said Jo. “But up higher, it’s bad.” 

“Explain,” said Batesworth.   

“We found a couple of mounting points in Block 3 that have given way entirely, more than ten centimeters in two spots. That’s probably what’s caused the deformation under Block 4,” explained Jo.

“You fixed it,” Carl stated. 

“No,” said Jo. “The mount point is gone entirely, the girders can’t be put back in. So I took the fallen girder to—“ 

“You removed a structural girder?!” Francis blurted, surprising himself. “But… you take that out, there’s nothing preventing more slippage!” 

“Are you out of your mind?” Carl added. 

Jo tongued her teeth a moment. “Finished?” she asked, not waiting for a response. “I took the girder to the reservoir to use it as a brace to hold the structure underneath. We need to get the weight down to prevent more slippage.” She sat back in her chair. “Unless, Carl, you want to give me back my team so we can prep the upper levels for a refit,” she looked to Francis, “and you give me priority in your shop so we can recut the girders so they’ll fit in the spaces.” She looked to Batesworth. “But we’d only be stopping the top sections of the ARCH from slipping. We’re already seeing the middle part slipping independently. We’ve got a triple layer shit cake, Rich, and no amount of skewering and bolts is going to keep it from falling apart. If we keep the middle sections from sliding downhill, we might last long enough to get out of here.” 

“Is that your professional opinion?” asked Carl.

Batesworth held up his hand to Jo’s impending response and nodded to Carl. “That’s a good idea, Carl. I am the only one here with certification.” He looked to Jo. “You said I hadn’t picked up a hammer in two years. Prove to me you know what you’re doing. I want you to show me. Everything.” 


“How did this happen?” Batesworth yelled over the sound of the wind battering the roof. He pointed at the shattered mount on the rock face at the edge of Block 3. Erik picked at the rock with a screwdriver. 

“How many tons is this place, Rich? A couple hundred?” Jo replied. 

“What?” Batesworth craned to hear Jo’s response. 

“How heavy is the ARCH?” Erik called towards Batesworth, not looking away from the rock.

Batesworth shook his head. “I have no idea. Didn’t you keep records?” 

“Sure,” said Jo. “And they’re all useless. All those drawing on the Council walls mean nothing anymore! We don’t know how much metal we put into this place, and we’ve scavenged so much of the original structures that we don’t even know where it all is!” 

Batesworth looked around at the bare bones of the space. “I feel like I’ve never seen this before.” 

“You haven’t!” said Jo. “You’ve barely been out of Block 1. When was the last time you looked at the Atrium?” 

“This morning, on my way to break—“ 

“You saw the space peripherally as you walked through it!” Jo challenged. “I mean look, as in examine, understand! None of us look at it anymore.” 

“You do,” said Erik, rejoining Batesworth and Jo. “Every day. You know what’s going on in the ARCH. You’re the only one who does. It’s not fair to suggest the rest of us can, too.” He turned to Batesworth. “That mount was always going to fail. The rock was unstable less than a couple of inches in.” He swept his arm along the rockface. “It’s probably like that all the way down the side.” 

“Who built this section?” Batesworth demanded. 

“It doesn’t matter, Rich! What’s done is done!” said Jo. 

“Every failure tells us something about how to do something better!” said Batesworth. 

“Dammit, Rich, the classroom is gone!” Jo shouted. “Stop trying to be the teacher! We need to get people out of there before this gets worse!”  

Erik stepped in between them. “Jo, tone it down. Professor, I think Jo’s right. The number of emergency repairs has been increasing steadily. There’s going to be a serious structural failure.” 

“Have you both forgotten what you are?” Bateworth demanded. “Engineers do no talk about imminent failure, they talk about remediation! You’ve given up, you refuse to adapt! This is not what I’ve taught you!”

“¡Cómo te atreves!” Jo shrieked. “All I’ve done for months is adapt! All I’ve done is keep fighting! All I’ve done is try to keep this place standing long enough to keep people alive! You seem to think that this is a static building, one of your grand monuments! This is a house of cards, Rich, you know we never built this place to code, we didn’t even give the concrete time to cure properly. This place was built on hope and prayers and we’re still praying. This place needs more maintenance than we can provide, and we’re losing this battle. We will lose this battle, Rich, there is nothing we can do to stop it at this point! All we can do is slow it down.” 

Batesworth looked at Jo. Dust fell from a roof girder and handed on his head, scattering to his shoulders. He brushed it off. “Show me how you’re slowing it.”   


Batesworth shook his head. “Two centimeters.” 

“Twenty-two millimeters,” corrected Erik, using a tape measure. “This is more than you reported yesterday. When did that happen?” 

“I’m not sure,” said Jo, “but it’s increasing constantly. Me and Donner have been getting all this in place for bracing the struts.” Jo waved her hands towards the girders and the drill, its bit still embedded in the reservoir wall. Donner looked up from his seat on the floor bolting together a mounting plate and waved. “If we’re lucky, we’ll have this put together before something else slips.” Jo looked at Batesworth. “But we need Frank to help, Rich. If he stalls any more, something’s going to give and a lot of people will get hurt.” 

Batesworth uh-huhed while he looked at the strut that ran up through the ceiling, following the lines of the cross members. “We had more structural support,” he said, his fingers pointing to beams that no longer existed. “Where did all of this go?” 

“We took them for the newer blocks,” said Erik. “Everything that wasn’t directly holding something up went to building more space.” 

“I didn’t allow that,” said Batesworth. “I’d never have allowed that.” 

“It wasn’t up to you,” said Jo.

“Batesworth looked alternately between Erik and Jo. “I have final authority, here. I didn’t approve of this. You went against my direct orders and put this facility at risk.” 

“Professor, that’s not a fair statement—“ 

“Es estupido,” said Jo. “If we hadn’t taken all of these, we wouldn’t have Blocks 7 through 10. Three thousand people who wouldn’t have a home.” 

Batesworth continued. “It’s not safe to have this without cross-bracing. No wonder the structure is slipping. There isn’t a single building code in the United States that would allow this to have been done.” He turned to Jo. “And you’re allowing it. This is a failure of engineering, this is why there are so many people at risk. You’re constantly criticizing Carl for being slow to prepare the tunnels, but from what I can see you just want him to hurry up so no-one else will see your shoddy work. If you had your professional certification, I’d be revoking it!” 

“¡Hijo de las mil putas!” Jo spat. Several of the growers within earshot gasped. “You’re going to stand there and tell us that saving the lives of thousands means less than your precious standards?!” 

Batesworth simply answered: “Yes”, then walked towards the stairs. 

“That’s it. I’m going to kill him,” Jo said as she watched Batesworth leave.

“Let me talk to him, Jo,” said Erik, placing his hand on her shoulder. “Maybe I can … talk some sense into him.” 

Jo rested her cheek on his hand. “Oh, cariño, I don’t think you could change his mind with a hacksaw and an ice cream scoop.” Donner quietly wretched. 

“How much more work do you have here?” 

Jo rhymed off her TODO list: “More holes, we need the brackets forged, get the girders in place.” She let go of Erik’s hand. “If we’re lucky, three days.” 

“I’ll go talk with Francis, make sure his team is ready,” said Erik, and headed towards the stairs. 

“Te amo,” said Jo. 

Erik turned back. “Huh?” 

“Later,” smiled Jo and returned to the drill.

Categories
The Soundtrack of my Life

Dare To Be Stupid by Weird Al Yankovic

Sunday evenings. CHUM FM 104.5. The Sunday Funnies with Rick Hodge. In my adolescence, this was discovery. This is where I was exposed to the comedy greats: George Carlin, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, Robin Williams, (He Who Can No Longer Be Named But Hawked Jell-O), and so much ridiculous music that I still hold multiple choruses in my head (“Fish Heads”, “Dead Puppies”, “Shaving Cream”, “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haa!”, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah (A Letter from Camp)”, and a personal favourite, “Daffy Duck’s Rhapsody”). Curiously, I do not recall any Monty Python, which I wasn’t formally introduced to until I worked at Black’s Camera in Trafalgar Village when I was in high school.

It was through this Sunday visit to the Altar of Comedy that we were introduced to Dr. Demento. While the Sunday Funnies tended to play more of the stand-up comedy, Dr. Demento tended to play songs. And his favourite person to play was his own discovery: Weird Al Yankovic.

I remember the first song: Another One Rides The Bus, a Queen parody. Sounding it might have been recorded in a bathroom stall, it brought levity to what was sometimes the seriousness of rock n’ roll.

Levity. Seriousness. C’mon, I wasn’t even 10 years old. I would have laughed milk out my nose if I’d been drinking it.

Weird Al would become a fixture on Sundays, the radio turned up just a little bit more when he came on. When I found out I could buy his albums, I did. And I continued to do so, every single album that followed (until all of his albums ended up on streaming services, anyway).

Of all the songs he did, parody and original, absolutely obscure and Top 10-charting (which, when you think about it, still shows not only how good he is, but how much we all appreciate parody), my favourite is the eponymous song from his Dare To Be Stupid album.

If you’ve never heard the song, it’s in the style of Devo, another musical act formed of those with an architecture education. This became my anthem in the mid-80s, as I realized I wasn’t a normal kid — I didn’t like sports, I read Time Life series on geology and earth chemistry and space science, I watched the news (amongst the staples of GI Joe and Transformers and Thundercats, of course), and could pull of a spot-on impression of Fozzie Bear. I was the weird kid.

It’s a message I learned to embrace more and more as life went on, too. Don’t tow the middle line, feel free to go over it and do something unusual, off the wall, even risky. Dare to not be normal. Perhaps not quite to the point of letting bedbugs bite, but I have been bit by the hand that feeds me, and I’m damned sure my girls end up being cowboys. Er, cowgirls.

Sometimes, being stupid is smarter than being normal.

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 8

The winds continued to blow well into the night, the shrill howling no less present throughout the ARCH. Residents attempted to sleep through the din, most of them in some semblance of consciousness. The dining hall was nearly empty despite the imposed insomnia, most staying with their sleeping arrangements for fear they’d lose a prime spot if they moved. Jo and Donner had no lines to bypass, and went straight to the front for their meal ration. The clerk looked at Jo and nodded, Jo picked up a tray and continued. Donner held up his wrist, showing the metal bracelet with the number ‘2’ stamped on it. 

The clerk, an elderly woman with thick glasses, frowned. “This ain’t second shift,” she said in a gravelly drawl. 

“I was working with—“ 

“This ain’t second shift!” the woman repeated. “Skedaddle!” She waved Donner off. 

Jo double-backed with her tray. “He’s with me.” 

“D’I look like I care?” asked the woman, still glaring at Donner. “This ain’t second shift!”

Jo positioned herself between Donner and the clerk. “Madre, necesito que haga mi trabajo para mantenerte con vida. El está comiendo conmigo. Ahora. ¿Entiendes?”

The clerk looked at Jo. “¿Por qué es especial?”

“Porque me salvó la vida.”

The clerk nodded and waved Jo along. As Donner tried to pass, she held out her hand and stopped him. “Y’ save her life?” 

Donner nodded curtly. “Yes, ma’am.” 

“And y’ helpin’ her?” Donner nodded. “Doin’ what?” 

“Um, moving girders and drilling holes. Whatever Jo needs me to do.” 

“Yer her pack horse.” Donner looked at Jo, who shrugged her shoulders and offered a “don’t look at me” expression. Donner looked back at the clerk, who thrust out a second metal bracelet. “Don’ lose this,” she said. “Y’ gonna need ev’ry bite y’ can get.” 

“Thank you.” Donner bowed slightly. 

“Don’ thank me,” the clerk shook her head, moving a small rock with a number from one bin to the next. “Thank God y’ still alive, and th’ White Lady f’ not comin’ f’ yer soul.”

Donner walked off after Jo, who had already gotten her rations and was headed for the long makeshift benches where everyone sat to eat. Most of the people were parents with their younger children who were also unable to sleep, helping them eat their rations. A few were the token elderly, a handful of folks past their seventies who had, so far, managed to duck the Banshee’s gaze. 

Jo picked at her mushrooms and asparagus. All but one half of one of her potatoes had long since disappeared. Donner sat down next to her. “Mushrooms are barely edible when they’re drowned in melted mozzarella, pepperoni, peppers, and anchovies, layered over spicy tomato sauce on a thick, doughy crust. But raw on a plate?” She moved them around. “I’m sure there was something in the Geneva Convention against this.” 

“Hey, Jo, what’s with the clerk?” asked Donner. The clerk made sure that people didn’t get their rations before they were supposed to, ensuring a steady use of foodstuffs, and that people didn’t get more than their allotted share. They also dictated who got single or multiple rations — residents on hard labour often got multiples to keep up their energy. One did not argue with the clerks. “What did you tell her?” 

“I needed you and that if she didn’t let you in, I would do something drastic,” said Jo. She looked around to see if anyone wasn’t going to eat their potatoes. But everyone did. When all you got was three potatoes, eight spears of asparagus, and ten mushrooms per ration, you ate everything. Fights broke out over a leftover chunk. She prodded the mushrooms again. 

“What’s the White Lady?”

Jo looked up from her fungus. “She mentioned the Lady?” 

“Yeah. What’s that?” 

“A legend. The North Rim is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a woman who died here a hundred years ago, looking for souls to take with her. She screams when the winds are blowing really hard.” 

“I thought that was just the wind going over the surface of the ARCH?” 

Jo smiled. “Might be. Might not be. Who knows, Donner? We’re trapped inside an aluminum box. We can’t see what’s on the outside.” 

“Other than certain death?” Donner asked. 

“Trust me, kid, there’s a lot of things out there that’ll kill you,” she muttered, turning over the mushrooms for the tenth time. 

“You don’t like mushrooms?” asked Donner, tossing his down in a few swift strokes. 

“Hate ‘em,” she said. She held her two-tined fork like a shiv. 

“You need to eat them!” Donner admonished. “You need your protein!” 

“You sound like Anita,” muttered Jo. 

“Who’s Anita?” 

“One of the gardeners. She and her team grow all this food. We’d be starving to death without it. You saw them when we were taking the girders down next to the reservoir.” 

“Oh, right!” said Donner. His face contorted as a thought crossed through. “How do they grow mushrooms down there?” 

Jo looked at Donner like he’d just spawned another head. “Seriously? Where do you think mushrooms come from?” 

“Um… well, I know they used to grow in forests?” 

Jo sat back, insofar as one could sit back while sitting on a bench. “And in the absence of a forest?” 

Donner thought. “Dirt?” he asked, with a heavy layering of “I don’t know”. 

“A rich compost,” stated Jo. Donner stared back. “Think about it. Where are we going to get compost in here?” Jo waved her arms about at their scrap material surroundings. 

“Leftovers?” Donner was grasping, and missing. 

Jo frowned. “You ever seen a leftover here?” Donner shook his head. “So, think about it. What goes into a compost?” 

“Dirt.” 

“And…?” 

“Organic material?” Donner said slowly.

“Like…?”

“Uh… the tops of the potato plants?” 

Jo rested her head in her hands. “Yes, and what else?” 

Donner sounded like he knew, and was actively trying not to say it. Jo looked up at him over her fingertips imploringly. “Manure?” he suggested cautiously. 

“Good,” Jo nodded. “And where do we get manure?” 

Donner definitely knew the answer, and definitely didn’t want to say it. “Cows?” 

Jo frowned heavily. “When was the last time you saw a steak?” she asked exasperatedly. “Maldición, I could kill for a hamburger right now.”  

“It can’t be…,” Donner moaned. “You’re joking, right?” 

“The toilets have gotta go somewhere!” Jo declared, with a heavy dose of “well, duh!”. Donner cringed. Jo clapped Donner on the back. “If it’s any consolation, all the crap’s so heavily mixed in with dirt that you can’t even really notice the smell,” she lied. Donner didn’t look convinced. “And you wonder why I don’t like mushrooms,” she smirked. 

“Now I don’t like them,” moaned Donner. 

“You still need to eat ‘em, though,” said Jo, staring at hers. “It just sometimes takes me a while to get the will.” 

“Do you want my asparagus?” Donner proffered a spear. “I think I’ve lost my appetite.” 

“Thanks, but I’ve got enough,” said Jo. “It chases the flavor of the mushrooms away.” To demonstrate the point, she heaved the mushrooms in, chewed lightly twice, swallowed hard, then shoved the spears and chewed vigorously, swallowed, and shivered. “Bleah!” 

“You think too much about your food,” Donner commented.  

Jo finished shivering. “My mama and abuelita brought me up on food. It was the centre of my family’s life. We all cooked together, we all ate together. Food was important, so it had to be done right. You could taste the love,” she mourned. “This? This is a crime against humanity.” 

“It keeps us alive.” Donner shrugged. “Barely, anyway. We probably don’t get enough.” 

“We don’t. There’s too many people. You and I need about 1,400 calories a day for the work we do. We’re lucky to get a thousand. There’s a lot of people who don’t get even that.” Jo sighed. The greenhouse wasn’t big enough and couldn’t grow food fast enough. Rations were kept as light as possible. Everyone was underweight. 

“Yeah, I’ve noticed,” said Donner. He shoved in a mushroom and chewed. “It’s too bad we can’t grow soy beans,” he said between swallows. “Those would be better than this.” 

Jo thought back to her first year at Stanford and the meagre contents of her fridge. “Try eating tofu for more than three days in a row.”

“We could get oil from them. Fry some of this for a change. And lubrication! Imagine how much better things would work if we could keep them greased! And we could eat the beans steamed, too. Ever had—“

“Edamame, yeah. Not really my thing. Either way, it doesn’t matter, since we don’t have soy beans. All we have is what we have.” 

Donner poked at his remaining asparagus spear, like it might spring to life.

“Can we join you?” a woman sat down next to Jo rather forcefully. Her long, curly blonde hair was dutified tied behind her head.

“Hola, Dawn,” said Jo. “How’re the tunnels today?” 

“Carl,” replied Dawn. 

“Carl,” groaned Jo.

“Carl?” asked Donner. 

“Who’s he?” Dawn asked Jo, thumbing at Donner. 

“Donner, this is Dawn, one of the Engineers,” said Jo. “Donner’s been helping me make repairs.” 

“No offense, Donner, but you’re about, what, fifty pounds wet? How do you keep up with one?” Dawn thumbed at Jo.

“Te quiero también,” said Jo, sticking out her tongue. 

“Bitch,” Dawn replied. 

“Perra.” 

“Slut.”

“Puta.” 

When Dawn saw Donner’s eyes, she burst out laughing, Jo following. “Oh, Donner, honey, don’t worry. Jo’s practically my sister.” 

“We’ve been doing this since…,” Jo trailed off as her face fell. “A long time.” 

“Too long.”

They sat in silence several moments before Donner spoke again. “So you work in the tunnels?” asked Donner.

“‘Work’ is a matter of subjectivity,” muttered Dawn. “I’m just a clerk.” 

“She’s Carl’s secretary,” Jo said quietly, looking around. “Dawn’s one of the best structural engineers we have. She was almost graduated! But Frank—“ 

“Francis,” Dawn corrected automatically.

“—made her ‘help’ Carl, instead of doing real work.” 

“Why?” 

“Francis is my husband. He didn’t want me to get hurt.” Dawn rolled her eyes for emphasis.

“That’s … that doesn’t … it doesn’t seem right.” 

“It’s not,” said Jo and Dawn together. 

“So why do you agree?” asked Donner. “You can say what you want to do, right?” 

Jo and Dawn looked at each other, a glance that only they knew. “I could,” said Dawn. “But I agree that the tunnels are a priority and unless someone manages the work properly, they won’t get done in time.” 

“Carl’s supposed to be the project manager for the tunnels,” said Jo. “But he couldn’t manage a suntan without getting burned.” 

“So why not make Dawn the project manager?” asked Donner. There was silence. “Did I say something wrong?” 

“No,” said Dawn. “Welcome to the Patriarchy.” 

“Dawn!” called Francis as he neared with his food tray. “Come on.” 

“I’ll be right there,” she replied. “Just talking with my friend that I haven’t seen in three days.” 

Donner sounded like he was about to speak, Jo cut him off with a motion of her hand. “We’ll catch you later.” As Francis passed, Jo nodded towards him. “Frank.” Francis merely grunted and continued as far down the bench as he could go, Dawn following. 

“Why does she do what they tell her to do— that sounded really dumb, sorry,” said Donner. 

“Tienes razón,” said Jo. “She shouldn’t. But Dawn does the same thing we all do: do what it takes to survive.” 

Categories
The Soundtrack of my Life

Rockit by Herbie Hancock

Born in the 70s, I was truly a child in the 80s: the music, the style, the culture. A period I simultaneously lament having left and one I warn my children of. Sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll pervaded nearly every part of what the 80s was in the early part, overturned by the pendulum of morality as the Right overtook in the face of “think of the children”.

I was one of those kids, and by and large, people overthought. But that’s another story.

As I entered my middle grades, 7 and 8, it was clear that elementary school and it’s relative innocence was being pried out of my hands. “Late bloomer”, perhaps. I definitely did not grow up as quickly as my scholastic compatriots (an element that led to cluelessness, a complete lack of understanding of the fairer sex, and some bullying to boot), but I tried.

I absolutely never understood the appeal with Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, much to my terror of being left out, and left behind.

But music? That I got. I couldn’t tolerate some of it (thank you, Top 40 stations that continue to murder hit tunes to the point I loathe the opening notes), but I got it. And some went that little extra, to twig something in me that I would t appreciate for many years to come.

When Herbie Hancock burst into my scene, it was through a Pee-Wee-esque video featuring robotic mannequins that danced to the heavily-synth melody. The visuals were beyond me, but the music wasn’t. I didn’t know why and I wouldn’t grasp the importance until a decade later when I first heard Maiden Voyage.

Jazz. Pre-rock, if you will, music in a form that steadfastly refuses to stick to the notes written on paper. Improvisational, evolutionary, jazz gave me a wildly different view of what music was, or could be. Jazz taught me why live music shouldn’t sound like what was committed to an album, why musicians are true artists and not machines who play the same notes, never varying, always reinventing, rediscovering Jazz told me the lifeblood of sound and the breadth of human achievement.

That’s not to say I am a musician. I’ve tried, can’t play a damned thing. I blame an organ teacher from when I was a kid. As bad as she was, it never killed my love for music, at least. Nor does it take away my love for it.

Rockit came out at the type of breakdancers, of baggy pants, hyper-colours, keytars, and sunglasses beyond reason. None of those things would ever enter my life directly, but because of my age and the culture that bore me, they’re ingrained in me. I remember a classmate, Trevor, who was by far the most popular kid and could detonate a piece of cardboard on the floor.

Me? Class clown. Class joke. The geek.

But both of us — all of us — met on that strange music that gave us one of the definitive tunes of the 1980s, one that would open me to Herbie’s later and earlier works, the works of other artists beyond the Top 40 core, and more likely, to the friends I would one day have. And still have.

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 7

I’m not normally a fan of montages without a really good soundtrack, but writing more than a single chapter about this really did not interest me.


There was no part of Donner’s face that did not scream ‘bewildered’. “What do you mean you’re not an Engineer?” 

“Technically, I’m just a student,” said Jo. “Like you, I never graduated. I don’t have a degree, I don’t have a professional designation. That doesn’t stop me from trying to do better around here. It shouldn’t stop you, either.” 

“Oh… okay.”

“Now, any thoughts on how we’re going to attach your beam to the concrete wall?” asked Jo. 

Donner went over to the wall and looked at it. He peered down the side and jogged along the wall until it was short enough for him to look over the top. There was barely a body width between the top of the wall and the ceiling. The water inside was black, the top winking with light in the ripples. He dropped back down and returned to Jo. 

“The wall’s pretty thick at this part, I’m guessing, to hold back the pressure,” he said, tapping the end of the wall. “It’s too high for us to attach anything on top, even if we could get up there. I think we’d need to mount it here at the base, then run it up to the support.” Donner tilted his head as he looked. He backed into the corner of the water tank and looked back at the bent beam. “Uh. But that won’t be a square attachment, so we’ll have to … um …” He looked at the next strut, and then the one next to that one. “They’re all bent,” he said. “Uh. Wow, this is … not good.” 

“Nope. That’s why we’ve got to do something before it gets worse.” 

“We’re going to need more beams,” said Donner. “Three more. Maybe five.” 

“Oh?” asked Jo innocently. “What do you have in mind?” 

“Well, if we run one from each of the outer two supports, and anchor them at the corners, we can then run two more from the anchors to the centre support. If we can get more beams, we can link the three together to stop any lateral shift.” 

“I’m impressed, Donner, that’s good analysis. Though I don’t think we’ll need to worry about lateral shift. We are in a valley, after all.” 

Donner wheeled around. “Huh?” Jo was pointing to the rock wall at the sides. “Oh! Right, yeah. Good point.” 

“For someone who’s never taken a basic structural engineering course, you’ve got a good instinct. Better than some of the other Engineers, too.” She took a long look at Donner. “I think you need to see something. Vamos.” Jo led Donner down to the very sides of the structure, where the Blocks had been anchored to the rock walls. Various supports had been mounted to the rock walls, embedded in concrete mountings, bound in with bolts. Cracks forming in a number of the trusses, and gaps starting to form where the blocks had been connected. Bolts had sheared and many more were bent. Three had broken loose, and a fourth had pulled part of the wall with it. Donner let out a sound somewhere between a begging dog a hopeless gasp. 

“What are thinking?” asked Jo. 

“Well, um… okay, promise you won’t take this the wrong way?” he asked. 

“Right and wrong depends on your point of view,” Jo admonished, and then cringed. “Sorry, that was pure Batesworth there.” She shook her head. “Anyway, spit it out.” 

“Well, I thought I the ARCH was … well, good. Everything you’ve shown me says we’re in a lot of trouble,” he said quietly. 

“We are in trouble,” Jo confirmed. “Big trouble.” Jo sighed heavily and folded her arms over her chest. “Look, we can’t tell everyone that the ARCH is going to collapse imminently. Can you imagine the panic?” Donner nodded curtly. “This is inevitable: the entire structure is slipping downhill. And it’s taking everyone with it.”


“UGH!” Donner groaned as they set the girder down next to the concrete water tank. “That was way too much work.” 

“What,” Jo panted, “moving from Block 2 to Block 1 then to Block 3 so we could go down a level then back to Block 1 to get into Block 4 at a reasonable point wasn’t in your plans?” She chuckled. “Could’ve been worse. We almost had to go down to Block 7.” 

“If you hadn’t had everyone move out of the way in the Atrium…,” Donner rubbed his sore hands. “You can yell really loud,” he added. 

“My abuelita called me ‘Ruidosa’ for a reason.” She looked at Donner’s expression. “It means ‘loud one’ in English.” Donner smiled faintly. “Oh, come on, kid,” Jo heaved, as she rested against the wall, “this was the easy one!” 

Donner cast Jo an uncomfortable look. “‘Easy’?”  

“Yeah. Now we have to figure out where to get three more of these!” she grinned. 

Donner slouched, hastening his discomfort. “Um. That doesn’t sound good.” 

“Nope. This place was built minimalist. We didn’t have a wealth of materials, so we built only as much as we had. Whatever redundancy there is comes from the original geodesic designs. We’re not exactly going to be tripping over these,” said Jo. 

“So, uh, where do we look?” 

Jo looked at her junior. “If you had to choose…?” 

A moment, Donner resembled an animal caught in a bright light’s glare. Slowly, his gear shifted, and the blankness dissolved to serious thought. It was short thought, however, as Donner lacked deep knowledge of the ARCH’s architecture. “Well, if it were me, I’d say Block 2, as it’s collapsed.” He saw Jo’s frown. “Buuut I’m guessing that there’s not much left?” Jo nodded. “Um, well, maybe the north side of Block 3…,” he thought. Jo grimaced. “Is it as bad as those trusses we saw earlier? It is, isn’t it. So, um, Block 1?” Jo shrugged. “Nine?” Jo shook her head. “Anywhere?” 

Jo laughed. “You were right with Blocks 3 and 1. They’re probably our best bets, even with the damage. So why there?” 

Donner pondered. “They’re the highest up, so they have the least load to bear?” 

Jo wagged her head side to side. “Yes and no,” she said. “Those are the highest blocks, but they also bear a fair amount of sand and rock that’ve fallen on the roof. However, they’re also the oldest of the blocks, and we overbuilt them while learning how to build them better. There’s a few places we might be able to rejig things and not cause any problems. Big ones, anyway.” 

Donner looked like a deer again. 

“Think of it this way,” said Jo, “if you had to build another treehouse, what would you do differently?” Donner brightened up and was about to start into the design he’d been rethinking for a few years. Jo held up her hand. “You get my point,” she said. “So imagine the things you could remove from your first one, or change around, and still get the same result.” 

“Gotcha,” Donner nodded. 

“So, Block 1 or Block 3, you choose,” she said, getting up. 

“Um. 3?”


At the edge of Block 3, where it met the canyon’s walls, one of the struts that had held the structure in place lay on the floor. It’s mounting point had fractured and the strut had simply flopped down without being noticed. 

“I’m betting that’s one reason for the slippage,” said Jo, inspecting the other end. “Probably ten centimeters of scraping along here. This is definitely not good.” 

“This is going to sound stupid,” Donner started, “but if this broke here, what’s to keep it from breaking when we attach it to the reservoir?” 

“Nothing,” said Jo flatly. “It’ll be under way more stress down there than it was up here.” Donner looked like he was going to speak again. “We’re not trying to make a permanent repair, Donner. We just have to make sure that the ARCH stays up long enough to get people out of it. Reattaching this isn’t going to help as much. We need to keep the deformation lower down under control long enough to get everyone out of here. That’s what it is to be an Engineer.”  

“Um. I thought you said you weren’t an Engineer?” asked Donner. 

Jo smiled at Donner. “Ah, you were listening! I’m an Engineer by mere fact that I was in the original group. In fact, only Professor Batesworth is a real engineer.” 

“Is that why you’re the government, too?” he asked. 

“That’s a longer story,” said Jo.  

Donner looked at the fallen strut and then at the rock wall. “How long until the tunnels are done?” he asked. 

Jo tried not to look despondent, however Donner’s face betrayed her own expression. “Not soon enough,” she said quietly. “You’ve seen what danger we’re in. If it were up to me, I’d move people into the tunnels today. We’d be safer in there. But the tunnels aren’t ready, so we’re at the mercy of time and physics.” She leaned in close to Donner and locked her gaze with his. “You’re an Engineer now, Donner. Being an Engineer means having to keep some things secret.” 

“Or people might panic,” he added. Jo nodded. “You can trust me.”

She clasped him on his shoulder. “Donner, I have had no doubts since the moment I met you.” 

Donner blushed and looked down to the ground. “Thanks.” 

“Hey, you don’t get to thank me. I owe you a few billion, first.” 

“Yes, ma’am,” he nodded.

“And none of this ‘ma’am’ crap. My name is ‘Jo’. Don’t ever call me anything else, okay?” 

“Okay.” 

Jo released her hold on Donner. “Right! We need to find three more girders. You go look at the two that were further down on this side and I’ll check out Block 1. If we’re lucky, we might be able to make off with them, too. Oh, and see if you can find a path to get the girders back. I want to avoid having to cut anything.” 


“I haven’t… climbed that much… … … ever,” Donner panted as he leaned against the concrete wall of the reservoir. “Why couldn’t you have built straighter floors?!” 

Jo laughed. “Oh, we tried. It’s hard to build a straight floor when the basement keeps going down on a slope!” Jo coughed and spat a browny-beige ball of phlegm. “I don’t think I’ve inhaled that much dust before.” 

“So how do we get the other girders out?” asked Donner. “This one was the only one in Block 1 we could even get at. The ones in Block 3 look good, but we’ll have to cut walls, move supports, and we’d have to go through the Atrium. There’s not a single straight line in the place.”  

Jo grunted. “There’s gotta be a way. There’s always a way. We need think outside our comfort zone.” She facepalmed and moaned softly. “Sorry, that’s another Batesworthism. I’ve been listening to him for too long.” 

“Outside,” Donner repeated. “Can we get the girder outside?” 

Jo stared at the young man incredulously. She felt a welling of ‘are you out of your mind?!’ that was intercepted by a ‘wait a minute’, which gave enough time for ‘what if?’ to get a word in. “Well… Those girders were fairly close to the roofline. Assuming we could get outside without getting killed, it might work…” She paused and thought it through a bit more. “Take it out, drag it to the edge of Block 6 and drop it to the ground. Then we go right up the canyon floor into the greenhouse.” She looked at Donner. “You’re nuts,” chuckled Jo, “and you’re right. That’s the best way. And probably the only way.” 

“We just have to wait for the wind to die down,” said Donner. “Whenever that’ll be.” 

“Let’s hope we don’t need it before then,” said Jo. “In the meantime, we can get these two mounted, and at least start the work. If we do the outside ones, it might buy us some more time.” 

“So how do we mount them?” asked Donner.

“You’ll love this.” Jo got up and walked over to a canvas covered mound just at the side of the floor. Had she not gone directly to it, anyone could have ignored it as a pile of something unimportant. She pulled off the canvas tarp to reveal a heavy-looking iron skeleton. It had four large legs holding it up, a set of strong bars that linked each set of legs, forming a bench. In the middle of the bench, suspended on a two-axis gimbal, was a banged-up dull metallic box on rails, roughly the size and shape of a medium-sized garbage can. Out of one end came a long twisted metal drill bit. At the side was a large wheel with a crank handle. She slapped her hand on the box, which offered only a thin thump in response. “Fantástica, ¿eh?”

Donner winced. “What is that?”

“It’s hand-powered rock borer. I had to steal this from Carl when he wasn’t looking.” She smiled broadly. “They used these in mining back in the day.”

“What, the day of the dinosaurs?? This thing is ancient!” Donner protested. He approached it like someone would a stunned badger. “How are we supposed to use this?”    

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, kid, but we ran out of gasoline a long time ago. And without a pneumatic pump, all we got is our own two hands. Ever wonder why most of the Engineers are so buff?” Jo flexed to emphasize her point. Her shoulders bulged, her arms went taut. But the effect was held back by her gauntness. 

“I wondered why you took the heavy end going down the stairs,” breathed Donner, looking back at the girder they’d just brought down.  

“Gimme a hand, this sucker takes two people just to drag it,” said Jo, and grabbed hold of the legs on one side. Together, with considerable grunting on both parts, they scraped the legs across the floor until the drill frame was against the corner edge of the reservoir. It took another half hour to proper line up the drill so it would be square with the wall face, and not accidentally puncture the reservoir’s wall.

“Now what?” panted Donner. 

“Pointless question,” said Jo as she poured water into a tank. “You’re just avoiding taking the first shift on the crank.”