The Soundtrack of my Life

Always Something There To Remind Me by Naked Eyes

A lot in my generation grew up with music compilations, basically a form of Top 10 lists committed to albums. One of mine — I think I only had two or three — was Star Tracks, by that pantheon of the compilation album, K-Tel.

K-Tel, for those of us who remember it, was a record label that did compilations, often brilliant ones, the commercial equivalent of a mixtape. I got the tape — yes, cassette — for Christmas, the same year I got my first personal cassette player.

The Soundtrack of my Life

Modern Love by David Bowie

What’s the first song you loved? A song you would stop everything you’re doing to listen to, tell people to hush so you could hear clearly, memorize every word? For me, Modern Love became a desire, even a bit of an obsession.

By the time the song was released in 1983, I had finally possessed my own radio, a Panasonic RX-5150 “portable” radio (it needed six D-cell batteries, which would only last an hour or so) with AM, FM, and shortwave(!) bands, and a single cassette deck. I could receive any radio station in the area, and my favourite was CHUM FM, one of the stations that played popular music (I wouldn’t discover other FM mainstays until I got to high school years later).

My “stereo” was how I would learn to make mixtapes. Because of its single tape deck, I couldn’t dub from other tapes (it did have an auxiliary input from another tape deck, but the only one I could use — my sister’s red deck — was usually out of reach). So, like countless others, I learned to dub from the radio.

My tape deck had a feature my sister’s deck didn’t: a pause button. I could lock the tape’s motion, start the record, and wait until the right song started. And radio made you wait. I listened to a lot of songs that way, waiting for the ones I wanted to record. And in 1983, that was Modern Love. Numerous times I missed the song, or worse, let the pause go too late and missed the first guitar scratch and the song wasn’t complete.

Actually, worse than that was the radio edit version of the Modern Love. Once I’d heard the full album version, it became a mission to find the proper song and commit it to my (very slowly) growing library. Why not buy the full album and avoid the issue? Mostly, a lack of funds — I was on my own to purchase music, and back in the day you had the buy entire albums, so unless you were sure about the whole thing, you didn’t. That habit would remain with me for years until I had a job … the rule went decidedly out of the window and my music collection exploded.

The day I finally captured the full album version of Modern Love was like winning an Olympic event. I played and replayed the song at least a dozen times, loving every beat, every tone. I imagined myself with Bowie, on-stage (despite having crippling stage fright at the time), belting out a duet (I would not sing aloud until I met my close, musical friends in high school).

And then, it passed out of my interest. I wasn’t quite a Top 10 junkie, but I was beholden to the radio and other things became more important for a time. I recorded over the song, and over those songs, and over and over until the tape was so full of hiss and distortion that it was useless. But I never forgot the song or how it made me feel.

By the time was buying entire albums for single tracks — it was now the age of the CD — Bowie’s Let’s Dance has gone out of print. You can debate me all you like on this, but in the early-to-mid 1990s, you could not find a single current issue album in Ottawa, even at the stores that carried all the Japanese imports. For years I hunted until, buried in a used CD store in the Byward Market, tucked into a black plastic cover, I finally got my hands on the whole thing. I quickly returned to my rented bedroom, plunked in the disc with all the care of handling Victorian era crystal, and let Modern Love walk beside me forever more.

What makes love modern? I don’t know if that’s what Bowie was posing in the song — goodness knows I’ve read the lyrics enough times to guess, they’re fairly cryptic — and it’s a question I’ve weighed many times throughout my life. And, to a degree, has been a caveat or a footnote in my relationships: what should a modern relationship look like? The stereotypes of the Atomic Age, briefly revisited in the 80s, are given way to a different expectation, where modern love is not the one of yore.

Or at least that’s how I’ve seen it. Be different. Be good. I wish that’s how my modern life was like, here in 2020, but the last few years of #MeToo and its effects — not to mention my own experiences as a father of two girls — makes the idea of Modern Love even more of a challenge than ever before.

The Soundtrack of my Life

Freeze-Frame by The J. Geils Band

The extent of my musical awareness more or less ended with ABBA when I was around 9 or 10. Without real knowledge of music or what was out there, I had very little understanding — all my musical exposure came via my parents, who listened to classical or talk radio. Not much for the nascent music listener.

One day, my cousin Erica arrived with a cassette tape by The J. Geils Band. Erica is my oldest (and to a 9-10 year old, also my wisest) cousin, which meant the four of us (my sister and I, Erica, and her sister Lauren) stole downstairs with the portable tape player to listen to Forbidden Music.

Okay, no, it wasn’t Forbidden. Very little seemed verboten in my family’s house, it’s mostly that since we had so little exposure to much of anything beyond what CFRB 1010 played (read: precious little), this might as well have been planning an uprisal.

Synth keyboards, rock drums, electric guitar power chords. To a kid weened on a steady diet of classical (which to this day, I likely don’t appreciate as much as I should because I heard it to the point where I don’t hear it anymore), this was the auditory equivalent of a first dropping of LSD.

I’m not going to sit here and wax poetic about J. Geils’ artistry or their impact on music history, etc. Because it wasn’t about the band, the Freeze-Frame album, or even the eponymous song. It’s that this particular point was when I realized that there was, truly, something else out there.

I remember dragging my mother into the record store in Oakville Place (I remember where it was, though I can’t remember the name), and begged her to buy me the Freeze-Frame album on cassette tape (I didn’t have my own record player yet, and our old Mickey one had long since been donated). I remember the guilt as we left the store, tape in hand, feeling like I’d betrayed my upbringing in music, that what I liked wasn’t what my mother liked. In my mind, I was being rebellious.

That tape was played to destruction, no amount of careful retentioning with a pencil would ever repair the kinks that came from the periodic bung-ups when static cling causes the tape to roll into the wheels. It would eventually be replaced by a CD, then a digital download, until (now) it sits somewhere in the cloud.

That first exposure still remains with me, the feeling of awakening that I hope to find with any aspect of my life.

Interestingly, the song ended up providing more meaning for me later on, as I started to gain a love of photography. More than a few times, especially when I’m on vacation with my family and happen to capture them in the act of whatever, I’ll hear the opening of the song as the moment is captured in the camera, and the montage of my life in music continues.

The Soundtrack of my Life

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

No, this is not here because “ever list needs a Christmas song” (and, really, that’s very much a Christian perspective, why not a Hanukkah song, or something Hindu or Islamic?), this is here for another, very important reason: my father.

Despite my pantheistic statement above, I grew up in a “Christmas Christian” household, and even then, our celebrations were devoid of any religious aspects, except for grace at the Christmas dinner table when my Anglican grandmother attended. Where the lines blurred was with Christmas music.

I don’t know if it was because the wealth of secular Christmas holiday music had yet to arrive when I was a kid (certainly, there wasn’t much on the radio back then, other than Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) or just that my family didn’t listen to anything else. I do recall, however, the grinding-click of my father’s six CD changer (loaded in a cartridge that was no small feat to load and unload without getting fingerprints on discs), popping in the music from King’s College, Cambridge.

When he was young, my father had been in the local church’s choir. He was known for his ability to sing Christmas music quite well, to the point where he acquired the nickname “Deacon” at work. One of his favourite times of the year was Christmas, because it gave him the excuse to pull out the choir music and turn the volume up. In particular, I remember him singing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

My sister and I debate on whether or not this was his favourite Christmas song — or even his favourite album to play — but I remember it all the same. I remember him being in the kitchen making sausage rolls, belting out the song as if he were in the choir itself, vibrato and all. It is one of my most cherished memories of being a kid at Christmas, moreso than presents or the snow or maybe even the cookies (though, food is a tough one to overcome).

This was my introduction to choir music and to church organs, for which I’ve also got a certain appreciation. It led to me (along with significant cajoling from my friends) to joining the high school choir in my final year, and why I still love Christmas music.

But this song still holds a particular place for me. My father died nearly 20 years ago. Every Christmas, I ensure this song gets played at least once. Every Christmas, I will stop what I’m doing when this comes on, and think of my father, of the Christmases past, of the massively loud family (and extended family) dinners, of the joy. I usually cry, not in sadness — for the love that was always there, and still is all these years later.

The Soundtrack of my Life

Super Trouper by ABBA

For a while, liking this song was stigmatic. That was the disco backlash of the 80s and the rise of synth pop and rock and roll and peer pressure “EW YOU LIKE ABBA?!”. Of course, today, ABBA is (rightfully) regarded as being a pillar of pop music. I no longer get strange looks when Waterloo (which features prominently on my regular playlists) echos across the bus from my earbuds.

This was probably the first song I actively listened to on cassette (yes, I’m that old), first on a red Panasonic player, which I think was my sister’s, though I had a habit of stealing it frequently until I got my own ghetto blaster.

Some 80s design was actually pretty timeless.

I don’t know what it was about Super Trouper (which I kept wanting to spell “Souper”, because why “Trouper”? — because it’s the name of spotlights used in concerts, a thing I just learned about!), but the song stuck with me. I played the entire Super Trouper album front-to-back over and over and over until my mother took the tape away (can’t say I blame her), and Super Trouper (the song) remained the one with me.

I remember sitting at my desk, which my father built as part of my wardrobe (having lost my closet to a bathroom renovation), listening to this while … presumably reading, as I don’t think I had homework at the time. There was something about the harmony between Anni-Frid and Agnetha during the chorus, with Björn and Benny providing their baritone “troup-pah-pah”, creating a choral effect that I totally didn’t understand at the time and wouldn’t for many years to come.

If I can credit any one song for setting the foundation of my love of music, this is likely it. It’s because of Super Trouper that many of the other songs in the Soundtrack of My Life are there, and I might even go so far as to suggest why I have an appreciation for (good) pop music.

The Soundtrack of my Life

Popcorn by Hot Butter

Oh lordy, the 70s, you evil, fickle decade filled with tunes that will haunt me until my dying day. Especially those that were played in elementary school.

Every day, from Kindergarten until Grade 3 at Maplegrove Elementary School in Oakville, Ontario (I think, I don’t recall this after I ’rounded the corner of the hallway into Grade 4), we had morning announcements over the PA system that also included calisthenics. Or at least, something resembling calisthenics. I think this was an initiative of the Board of Education (whether mandated by the Province of Ontario, I have no idea) that required all children to … well, move.

Let’s face it, most kids in my era sat on their butts all day listening to lectures and being told how stupid they were. (Totally not speaking from experience. Nope. Nuh uh.) So someone had the bright idea that the day should start off with 10 minutes of listening to music and doing stretches and exercises that … did … well, something.

Anyway, two songs that stood out for me during this were Tony Orlando’s Tie A Yellow Ribbon, a song that meant zip to any of the kids in the room, nor do I think a single one of us ever bothered to listen to it outside of the school. The other was an instrumental called Popcorn.

The funny thing is, I didn’t know the name of this song for over twenty years. For two decades, I knew the tune, it would periodically pop up (no pun intended) in movies or TV shows (or commercials), and I would think back to those days in my horrific yellow and brown-stripped turtleneck shirt, swinging my arms about and bending to my toes (which, for six year olds, isn’t remotely a challenge).

I can’t help but think of the strangeness that I remember so very little from those early academic years, save for struggling with reading, my (still) horrific handwriting (I had to use one of those stupid triangular pencil grips to correct my habits, which I proudly still have today — the bad habits, that is, not the grips), ‘rithmatic (and ye gods was I bad at that, always getting help from Christine N., the smartest kid in the class, who wondered how I didn’t know what a “baker’s dozen” was), and the music that came over the PA system every morning.

The Soundtrack of my Life

John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt

While I could go back to the things I heard on my parents’ radio, they tended to listen to CFRB 1010, which was mostly chatter and not music. However, I don’t remember a lot of it mostly because if the radio wasn’t on, there wasn’t a lot of music in the home I grew up in, not until I got older, anyway.

When I was a child, my sister and I shared (inasmuch as children share anything) a Mickey Mouse-branded record player (yes, I’m old enough to have owned 45s). We had a small pile of child-friendly records obtained from various resources, including one record (the name of which I’ve long forgotten, nor can I find any image in Google that reminds me) released by Disney that contained this song.

Now as much as I would like to actually identify any other song on this record — for my first song in this list, it is ironic that this is one I don’t like — I can’t recall any. It’s likely because I didn’t like this song that I remember it far too clearly for my own good. (To be fair, we had other Disney records, such as the one that offered the soundtrack of Disneyland, including the themes from Pirates of the Caribbean (the ride, not the movie), Haunted Mansion, Country Bears Jamboree, and the music from the various parades. But that was my parents’ record, and it remained in their collection (which I would, years later, raid and discovery they had far cooler music that they actively disowned for whatever reason).

We had other 45s as well, such as the first Smurfs record, which included a song called “Little Blue Boat”, which I also disliked, but listened to because … well, when you’re a kid and all you have is a few records and no (direct) access to a radio, you get what you get.

And so these songs, played endlessly, remain in my head, despite all efforts and music genres to try and scrub them out.

The Soundtrack of my Life

The Soundtrack of my Life

From the moment we are born, we hear music. It comes in a plethora of forms, natural and human-made, and all of it adds to the tapestry of our individual lives. No two people share exactly the same taste in music, though we can all appreciate music for what it is: feeling beyond what we are in any given moment.

There is no way to name every piece of music I have heard throughout my life and I would be supremely doubtful of anyone who said they could. Maybe if you lived in a small village where all music is played by those villagers and taught amongst them without outside influence. Idyllic, maybe, but woefully limiting to me.

If my life were to be translated to film, what songs would you hear as the various scenes played out? These are the ones that have stuck with me and what they mean to me.

Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 6

Batesworth rifled through a small pile of book-sized blackboards on his desk, the collected reports of his team. Overused, the blackboards had a permanent whitish haze, making some of the marks hard to read. The handwriting of some made the process all the more aggravating. That his eyeglass prescription was three years too far gone didn’t help. The reports varied in length from a short checklist of activities in Francis’ group, to the triple-columned list of “to do” items on Jo’s. Erik’s report was fairly standard, reporting the estimated population with known births and deaths, the current available work force, water supply status, and sustenance ratio. 

Many years previous, the sustenance ratio had been a grocery list, the things they would get from the Safeway in Page, the nearest town. The start of the semester, the hope of discovery and challenge and learning. Batesman whimpered unconsciously as his memories drifted to a lifetime earlier. The grocery list had become a scrounging list, then the inventory of the greenhouse. When that had gotten too depressing to read, Robert had suggested a simple mathematical ratio, a number that would help keep people alive. 

Alive. Surviving. Existing. But not living. Life under the ARCH’s roof was little more than biological processes. No-one got enough food. There were simply too many people. Three basic food sources, no animal protein, and no oils or fats. The greenhouses were producing beyond capacity, what was coming out wasn’t even fully grown. Life had to be restrained, keep the population from getting any bigger. These were the unwritten notes in Erik’s report, ones that had long since been understood by the Council and no longer required explanation. 

Batesworth tossed Erik’s notes onto the pile and sighed resignedly, staring blankly at the wall. Hopelessness and apathy grew like a mould. 

He looked over at the wall that contained the tunnel maps, a drawing on a large piece of cardboard from a toilet paper box. The tunnels started at the lower decks of Blocks 4 and 6, on the north side. Two large entrances, each running into the North Rim and branching out into a grid, would provide enough space for everyone in the ARCH, and over time, much more comfort and stability. Even the frequent rock slides offered less concern than the constant battering the ARCH received. “If only they would move faster,” Batesworth muttered. “Dammit, Jo.” 

Grunting, Batesworth stood and marched out of his small office, passing Erik’s vacant desk, into the hallway, and headed immediately down a narrow and steep flight of stairs into the lower levels, one of the many sets the Engineers used to move quickly around the ARCH. Level 3 was a hive of activity, as it usually was near the tunnel entrance. Two streams of people, one entering and one exiting entered, the shift apparently having changed. Batesworth slipped into the line, his relatively fine clothing standing out abruptly from the thin and hole-ridden apparel of the workers. Those entering were just as quiet as those leaving, the only difference being a more pronounced shuffling of feet departing the tunnels. 

Batesworth had only ever gone a dozen feet into the tunnels before, always with Carl, to ensure lights were on and work was proceeding. Batesworth only knew the tunnels from the maps he had on his wall. The maps, however, were enough for him to know that he had to pass two hallway junctions before turning left. The tunnels were roughly three people wide, and high enough that even the tallest of people would still have a head’s room above them. Only a few paces in, however, Batesworth quickly found himself Batesworth nodding appreciatively, knowing that the extra headroom was due to be filled with electrical lines, water supply lines, and air ducts. Admiring the work, he paid less attention to where he was.  

The walls were rough, as one would expect for a rush job — polishing could come in time, when the current crisis was over — though it still showed respect for the material. The light red sandstone had been well-worked, the faces fairly flat, and the lines in the hallway seemed to be reasonably straight. He’d seen the tunnels bored by massive machines, so straight that you could fire a laser down them and not see a single deformation. He’d also seen the perfection of Sacsayhuamán, ancient stone walls where couldn’t pass a piece of paper between the stonework. Given the few surveying tools they had, the crude implements they’d had to build, the lack of skills and training, Batesworth couldn’t help to smile at the work. 

“If the Faculty could have seen this,” he said. Two of the passing workers looked oddly at him. “These hallways will serve survivors for … generations. Can you imagine that?” The workers shook their heads slowly. “Ancient civilizations built many underground cities that survived hundreds of years without failure, surely these will be a wonder for future archeologists. Imagine what they’ll think of us. Maybe these will be a monument like the Mayan cities, or the Egyptian pyramids.” The workers looked blankly, blinked, and resumed their path into the tunnels. “I think they will. They will remember us.” Batesworth passed his hand over the stone. “I must remember to ensure that we carve our names in here. A plaque. Professor Richard Batesworth, founder of…,” he looked around him, “Batestown? Batesville. The Batesworth Colony!”  

Batesworth snapped from his daydream and looked around him. The hallways formed a grid of blocks — as square as could be done given the geology of the North Rim — that would one day form rooms: homes for families, lounges, small halls (Smiley had cautioned against large ones), kitchens, and so forth. The blocks closest to the entrance had already been dug out, and looked ready for lighting and ducting. He went into one to see for himself. It was dark, damp, and lifeless. “Note to self: make sure Francis and Erik start infrastructure installation.”  

A sense of validation came over him, and Batesworth started looking down hallways, and checking the state of the blocks. The next few blocks were the same as the first. Ultimately, Batesworth counted a dozen that were move-in ready, save for the lighting and air. He began to wonder just how long they had to wait before they could move people in. Then he remembered something Carl had mentioned in a previous report: the toilets. The tunnels had reached the other side of the point six months earlier, which Smiley had used for a tailings drop. Carl had deferred the toilets until the second and third levels of tunnels had been bored out, eliminating most of the tailings, and allowing them to build the toilets over the tailings holes. 

Batesworth followed a cart up a ramp to the second level, to find it was much the same as the first: tunnels laid in a grid, a few lights, walls were rough, and people moving muck out of the tunnels. It was dusty and the pickaxe hits echoed against the irregular surfaces into a blur of sound. Batesworth couldn’t help cough. He looked around to find his bearings, and was about to head off in the direction of the work office, where he expected to find Carl, when a wall caught his eye. It wasn’t a rock wall. It was a wall made from fabric, covered in enough dust and rock that it almost looked like a rock wall, and would have easily been mistaken at a glance as such, had it not been for the person walking through it. And perhaps even a person walking through it might not have attracted Batesworth’s attention, but the guard standing near it — wielding a rifle — certainly did. 

“Excuse me,” said Batesworth, approaching the guard. The man jolted at Batesworth’s approach and fumbled with his rifle. “Where did you get that?” Batesworth asked, pointing at the gun. 

“Uh, Carl?” said the sandy-haired man, who looked barely old enough to shave. It wasn’t exactly a question. “He told me to keep unauthorized people out.” 

“‘Unauthorized’? Is this a dangerous area?” asked Batesworth. “Is this the fault?” 

“Fault?” the guard asked. 

“Let me talk with Smiley,” said Batesworth, pushing his way past the guard. The guard reached out and tried to grab hold of Batesworth’s wrist. Batesworth pulled his hand free and wheeled towards the young man. “Do you know who I am?!” he demanded. The young man’s head moved, though neither as a nod nor a shake. Batesworth continued past the cloth draped over the hallway’s entrance. 

The hallway beyond bore little resemblance to the hallways Batesworth had already seen. This one was erratic and raw, widened far beyond pattern, and it extended far into the hill in a weaving line. The lights were far brighter than in any other part of the tunnels, and there were easily three times more people at work than in the rest of the tunnels, combined. They were all hunched against dozens of individual faces, as if the tunnel was trying to expand in all directions at once. Only they weren’t working with the determination of other tunnellers, they were focused and desperate, as if searching for something. 

“Has anyone seen Smiley?” Batesworth asked loudly. Several of the nearest tunnellers stopped, looked at Batesworth, one gasped audibly. Batesworth recognized a few faces as people who had been assigned to Engineering teams. A few talked amongst themselves, pointing both at Batesworth, and something further back. Batesworth cleared this throat. “Where is Smiley?” he demanded. 

The commotion had reached far down the hallway, as Smiley raced forward to meet Batesworth. “Professor!” Smiley’s face looked drained, his eyes wide. “What are you doing here?”

“Checking on the tunnelling progress,” said Batesworth. “What other possible reason could I have?” 

“It’s, uh, not safe for you to be in here!” said Smiley, fidgeting. “You, uh, you should leave!” 

Batesworth raised his eyebrow. “Why?” 

“The, uh, rock!” said Smiley, and jabbed his finger towards the jagged ceiling. “We’ve had rockfalls all morning. I’ve got the team taking out the unstable parts!” Smiley waved towards the dozen or people within three paces of where he stood. Some of them waved back nervously. 

“Is that why so many people are in here?” asked Batesworth. “I was looking around, and a lot of the other hallways aren’t nearly as long as this one. Why aren’t we spreading tunnellers out more?” Smiley smiled toothily, which was an achievement, as he didn’t have that many left. He glanced around frantically. “Smiley, isn’t there a way we can distribute these people to more effective locations? This tunnel seems more than long enough to me. If we get people working on the other locations, we can move people from the more critical parts of the ARCH,” Batesworth pressured. 

“Well, uh, I’m not sure … that is, I mean, these walls are still unstable, and … uh … if we stop working on them, and they collapse…” Smiley went quiet. 

“Is there a problem, Professor?” came Carl’s voice from behind. Batesworth spun to find his student. “You should be wearing a hardhat in here, sir.” He handed Batesworth a blue one that was a size too small. 

“Why are we focusing so much attention on this tunnel?” Batesworth asked. “This is long enough. We can worry about its appearance later. I want you to move these people into other tunnels and get them finished!” 

“We can’t yet, Professor,” said Carl. “This is where the fault lies. We need to know how far it goes. These people are digging to find the edges so we can work around them.” 

“Do you need all of these people?” Batesworth persisted. “We have many hundreds of people—“ 

“Would you rather we stop and risk a massive cave-in with everyone in here?” asked Carl. 

Batesworth stopped. He looked at Carl, then looked down the tunnel. “Either you have no idea where the fault is, or we’re in the middle of it. Show it to me.” 

“What?” asked Carl and Smiley. 

“Show me the fault. I want to know what it looks like,” said Batesworth. “I want to see it.” 

Carl looked at Smiley. Smiley looked at Carl. “Okay,” said Carl. “Smiley, take him to the gap.” 

Smiley nodded, and they went deeper into the tunnel, around a slight bend. Batesworth could see the tunnel continue farther, heading slightly uphill. Smiley stopped at one side and moved a few people away. He pointed at the corner of the ceiling where it met the wall. “See that?” 

Batesworth looked up. There was a crack in the ceiling, at least as wide as his head, that extended well beyond the lights’ ability to illuminate. Batesworth looked down at the floor. There was no corresponding mark. “How far up does it go?” 

“We don’t know,” said Carl. “We’re not sure how long it is, either.” 

“But it stopped here,” said Batesworth, pointing to the floor. “That’s got to say something.” 

“We think so,” said Carl. “But we want to be sure before we have another cave-in.” 

Batesworth looked at Smiley. “Can you use rock bolts?”

Smiley smiled. “Yeah,” he said slowly. 

“Get Francis to make as many as you need. I want this secured by the end of the week, and I want these people moved out into the other tunnels tomorrow!” Batesworth ordered. “I want the first level prepped so we can start moving people in next week.” 

Carl moved between Batesworth and Smiley. “But, sir, we can’t—“ 

“I mean it, Carl! Enough! This will hold,” said Batesworth. 

Carl continued. “Professor, you said yourself that you don’t know much about mining—“

“And as I recall, that wasn’t part of your curriculum, either,” said Batesworth sternly. “I know enough from building bridges that a rock bolt will do wonders for stabilizing things like this. Get it done, now. I’ll replace you with Jo, if I have to.” 

Carl gritted his teeth. “We need at least two weeks. I don’t think we can move any faster.” 

Tomorrow, Carl! I want those tunnels finished. You can have five people running the drills to get the rock bolts in place, and that’s it. Erik will make sure those assignments happen. Don’t argue with me on this. I’ve been lenient until now, but I’ve had enough. I understand your concerns, but there’s a point at which someone else will overrule you. That time is now, and that someone is me. Get this cleaned up and ready.” 

“Yes, sir,” said Carl loudly. He glanced at Smiley. “We’ll take care of this problem.” 

“Good. Let me know if Francis gives you any trouble with the request,” Batesworth added. 

“I doubt he will, Professor,” said Carl. 

“I’ll see you at the next Council meeting,” said Batesworth and handed his hardhat back to Carl. “Smiley,” he nodded to the other man, turned, and returned down the tunnel. 

Smiley looked at Carl. “Now what do we do?” 

“You heard the man,” said Carl. “We fix the problem.” 

Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 5

It didn’t take long for Jo to find the right place, as what few lights existed were all on. The deck wasn’t bright — there were very few bright places outside of the greenhouses — and a quick questioning of one of the hallway occupants said that Donner had been there. She followed a trail of similar questions, each leading Jo down a few hallways to the toilets, which had been reported out-of-service though had not yet been fixed. Normally sanitation ranked higher on the list of things needing repairs, however Block 6 had an disproportionate number of nyctophobics. She found him hunched over a hole in the floor, the bowl having been removed. 

The washroom was like most in the ARCH: large, with as many toilets as could be installed in the space. Washrooms were generally dark, damp, dank, dingy, with a varying levels of disgusting, and the menace of dysentery. There were no dividers between the toilets, no toilet paper, with only a constantly-running tap that dripped into the toilet’s tank to rinse one’s hands. On the wall near the door was a small tank with pure alcohol, the only available disinfectant. (Making the alcohol was one task everyone clamored for, as sampling the “test” distillant was a rare privilege. Anyone caught drinking the disinfectant — either during or shortly thereafter — was assigned tunnel duty for a month.) 

Every washroom stank. Cleaning washrooms had been a difficult task since the ARCH had gone through its rapid expansion, and the refocusing of efforts into digging tunnels had almost entirely removed cleaning as a regular duty. Thus the nature of humanity to frequently miss the large, nominally white target had led to an unwhitening of the target and a perpetual hazard on the floors, which went stale and sometimes fermented. Were that the only insult, it would have been sufficient. The injury for well over half the ARCH’s population came from the thiols in the 2-dithiolane-4-carboxylic acid present in nearly everyone’s urine. There were some who interchangeably held the world record for shortest time in the washrooms. The penalty for urinating anywhere else was to be put on cleaning duty.   

Donner hadn’t heard Jo’s approach, being utterly focused on the problem he had discovered. Instead, she stood and watched. He was on his knees, his pants wet from the thigh-down, his shirt splattered with things that would come back to haunt him later. He had an eight- or nine-foot long piece of heavy-gauge wire, which looked like it had been wound, unwound, and rewound many times. He was slowly pushing the wire into the hole, giving the wire a careful twist, then pulling it out a ways before repeating the movement. It was several times before he grunted: “Gotcha!” and drew out what could only look like a thick glob of brown that only horror writers would find appealing. It exited the hole with a sickly sucking pop, followed by a gurgling. Donner reeled back from a burp and held back his breakfast. He spied Jo at the toilet doorway. “Oh. Uh, hi!” 

“Having fun?” asked Jo.

“Yeah, who doesn’t like fishing stuff out of a sewer?” he smiled weakly. He held out the glob at the end of his wire. “I think it was a shirt. What do I do with this?” 

“That’s probably why someone flushed it. They figured we’d deal with it downstream,” said Jo. “I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t just try to wash it at their next rinsing, though.” She dug into one of the pockets in her pants, and pulled out a much-used plastic bag. “Here. We’ll toss it in Frank’s forge later. Hopefully it burns well.” Garbage was rare in the ARCH. Everything was needed, and nothing went to waste. “Need any help getting that back together?” 

“No, I got it,” said Donner. He replaced the wax ring, and returned the toilet bowl to its place, bolting it down. He turned the tap on that started refilling the tank, ran the long wire under the water to clean off the mess, then his hands, and carefully wrapped the wire around his forearm. He slathered his arms from nearly the shoulder-down with the disinfectant, instantly shivering as the alcohol boiled off. In the arid heat, the rest of him would be dry within the hour. He was pushed out of the way by several women desperate to use the newly-vacated toilets. 

“You work quickly,” Jo noted. 

Donner shrugged his shoulders. “No time for dawdling, right?” 

“Bonnie thinks you’ve disappeared,” Jo admonished. 

“Well, one of the people in the hall said the toilet was broken, so I thought I should…,” he trailed off. “I should’ve checked in, right?” 

“Don’t worry, kid. If something needed fixing, kudos to you for fixing it. It would have just ended up on Bonnie’s list and annoyed her, anyway,” Jo smiled. “I want to talk to you about something.” Jo walked down the hallway, Donner followed.

“What do you need?” he asked. 

“That hook you made to fish me out of the sand,” said Jo, “where’d you get the idea?”

“Um, well, I guess kind of from this,” said Donner, indicating the wire wrapped around his arm. “Just that I needed a bigger one.” 

“Ingenious,” nodded Jo. “You seem like a handy guy.” 

“I guess so,” he blushed. 

Jo looked hard at him for a moment. “Did you have any hobbies?” she asked. “Y’know, before this.”

“I used to skateboard with my friends,” he said unhelpfully. “It’s … uh, hard to have any hobbies around here.”

Jo laughed. “You ever make anything? Like a skate ramp?” 

“Um, well, I built a treehouse,” he offered.

Jo’s eyebrows peaked. “Really? What did you make it out of?” 

“Some scrap wood my dad had lying around,” he said. “An old window. I found tin sheeting in an alley. I made the roof from that!” He got more excited. “And I was going to put some lights in it, but my dad didn’t want me to use live electricity.” 

“Why’d you build it?” 

“My kid brother wanted a place where he could pretend to be an astronaut,” he said quietly. 

“What block does your family live in?”

“They didn’t make it. I was on a high school camping trip to Kaibab when…,” Donner wrung his hands. 

Jo put her hand on Donner’s shoulder. “Lo siento, Donner. I’m sorry.” Donner smiled grimly. Jo looked thoughtfully at the boy. “You’re resilient, a survivor. It’s done you well. Let’s see if you can do more. Vamos.” 

Jo led Donner through the packed hallways. The droning of people melded with the droning of the wind outside, creating a sound that would be familiar to Tibetan monks. They walked out into the atrium, which bustled like a tight Moroccan souq, only without the stalls of spices and silver, or feral cats. The yelling punctuated the preternatural monotonic chant like sparse Braille dimples on a large page. Winding through the dense crowd was a challenge for one person, trying not to lose track of the person in front of you required a sharp elbow and a strong pair of feet. Donner struggled to stay with Jo, nearly losing her rounding a corner of sleeping racks. Yelling for her to slow down required a voice far more powerful than Donner possessed. They weaved through the pressed crowd to another door in the far corner of the atrium, somewhere between Blocks 1 and 3. Jo produced a key and unlocked the door, holding it open to Donner, and blocking anyone else trying to enter. She locked the door behind them. The sound was markedly quieter. Inside was a narrow spiral stairwell that descended, though Donner could not tell how far. Jo started down, Donner close behind. The stairs curved so quickly that Donner had to duck to not hit his head on the stairs above him. Very quickly, Donner lost track of how many times he’d gone around in a circle and could not tell how far they were going down. 

“Where are we going?” he asked. 

“Down,” said Jo. 

“Uh, yeah,” Donner mumbled. “What’s down there?” 

“Call it a ‘test’,” she replied. 

They reached the bottom of the stairs and Jo opened another door. There was a gust of dampness as the air was drawn out from the greenhouse. Jo retraced her steps from that morning, walking past the large concrete wall that extended up the valley’s slope towards Block 1. The wall went up to the ceiling, some dozen feet up, and another fifty or so feet further downhill. A pair of stairs took them from the doorway to the valley floor, which had a path emblazoned from the stairs, along the concrete wall, to a path at the end. Donner cringed at the brightness from the rows of grow lights, Jo waved to the dozens of people tending to endless rows of asparagus shoots and potato leaves. Some people were harvesting, some were fertilizing, some were reseeding, and others carrying off the harvest to be cooked and served. As Donner’s vision adjusted to the brightness, he saw the large white struts that erupted from the floor like curiously-shaped primer-painted trees. 

Jo walked around the corner of the concrete wall, Donner trying to stay right behind her. He was, however, suddenly distracted by the explosion of pipes from near the base of the concrete wall, two of which ran downhill, two that ran up into the floor above, and four more that seemed to run to one side, then straight out, eventually intersecting with the ceiling. A myriad of smaller pipes all branched out from some of the pipes, most of which ran to piping overhead, and down to small nozzles above the plants. He nearly tripped over one of the pipes trying to keep up with Jo. She stopped at one of the great primer-painted struts. Donner nearly drove himself right into it, not watching where he was going. 

“Welcome to the greenhouse,” said Jo. 

“Oh. I wondered if that’s what this was. Where are we?” asked Donner, still looking around. 

“West end of Block 4,” said Jo. “At the bottom, of course.” She turned around, looking downhill. “Level 1 of Block 4 starts just over there. Block 8’s just over there, Block 6 is down at the end of Block 4.” 

“Right,” nodded Donner. He looked more comfortable. “I’m not used to seeing it from this side. Hey, can I ask a question?” 

“You just did,” Jo joked. Donner looked back blankly, missing Jo’s humor. “Shoot.” 

“Why are they called ‘blocks’, anyway? They’re all domes.” 

“I’m impressed, most people don’t know that they’re domes,” said Jo. “We didn’t name them ‘blocks’. All anyone sees are the walls, so they look more like blocks, and that’s what everyone called them,” Jo explained. 

“It’s just so … odd. I mean, the blocks aren’t even the same shape or size!” Donner exclaimed. 

“Does it really matter?” asked Jo. “This place isn’t about consistency or design. All this place does is keep people alive. And people naturally form neighbourhoods. Once we got enough city folk in here, the term ‘block’ was inevitable.” 

“Ah,” said Donner, unconvinced. 

“You’ve never been to a city, have you?” asked Jo. 

“I went to Flagstaff a few times with my parents,” said Donner. 

“Hmm,” hmm’ed Jo. “Not quite the same as a big city. You’ll just have to trust me on this one.”

“What’re those pipes?” asked Donner, pointing back towards the concrete wall. 

Jo raised an eyebrow. “You tell me.” 

“Water?” asked Donner. “It looks like it would be water. You dammed the creek, right? And those pipes take water up to the rest of the ark? It’s mostly gravity fed, right?” Donner was smiling.

“For a kid who didn’t graduate high school, you’re pretty smart,” smirked Jo. “Let’s see if you can solve this one.” She slammed her hand on the strut. It thumped dully. “What’s this?” 

“Uh, one of the supports for the ark?” 

ARCH,” Jo corrected. “Arid Region Configurable Habitation.” 

“Oh! Really? Everyone says it’s pronounced ‘ark’,” said Donner. “That kind of makes more sense, you know, with all of these people?” 

“‘Two-by-two’, I know,” nodded Jo. “You wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve heard that.” She slapped her hand on the strut again. “This?” 

“Oh, sorry. Um. One of the supports for this block. It runs up, and branches off at points so you can … what happened to this one?” asked Donner, looking at a slight warp in the strut, which caused the entire thing to bend slightly downhill. “That’s not good, is it?” 

“You’ve got a good eye. I needed a tape measure to see that.” 

“It should be straight. I mean, it should be straight, right? If this leans any more, the stress could snap the … and bring down … and we would … oh boy!” Donner realized. “How do we fix it?” Donner asked. Then he snapped his fingers. “We could get another strut, and attach it to the concrete wall! That’s got to be buried, what, six feet down? It runs back really far up the hill! It’s a good anchor!” 

“Yeah, I’m so stealing you from Bonnie,” Jo laughed. “Just out of curiosity, what were you planning to do after high school, Donner?” 

“Uh, well, I had thought about going to work in my dad’s shop,” he admitted.

“You’re about to get a crash course in engineering,” Jo announced. “Well, at least the kind we do around here.” 

Donner looked slightly stunned. “But, uh, I’m not an engineer?”

“¡No hay problema!” Jo smiled. “Neither am I.”