Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 3

Jo stamped around the bottom level of the ARCH for over two hours, checking each of the support beams, measuring any deviation. She stamped up and down the stairs. She stamped through hallways and through the Atrium. She stamped and stamped and stamped as if the force of her feet into the floor would somehow suck away her frustration and anger. It gave her shin splints. 

Three of the main supports in Block 4 were deformed enough to be worrisome, the worst being two centimeters out of vertical. Supports in the other blocks were also showing deviation, all in the same direction. Several of the floor beams were starting to show signs of structural strain, and she had found a floor panel with a previously unnoticed buckling from shearing forces as one part of the ARCH moved in reference to another. 

These discoveries had led to Jo standing at the bottom of Block 2, looking up to the rooftop. Block 2 had been one of the habitation structures, filling a vertical space that ran from the ARCH’s hull at the top, along slope of the canyon that cradled the ARCH, to the floor where the support beams had been driven into the rock. Block 2 had been just like Blocks 1 and 3, until an avalanche on the canyon wall a year earlier had sent a series of large boulders into Block 2’s roof, caving it in, and smashing through a dozen floors. The breeches had been horrific, killing eighteen people and wounding over a hundred. The damage had been so bad that Block 2 was abandoned entirely, the walls sealed off, every salvageable item taken. All that remained was the superstructure. The roofline had been restored solely to prevent the winds from damaging the ARCH’s from the inside. 

Jo stood on top of one of the boulders, looking up through the shattered shaft to the rattling roof above. She wore a pair of ski goggles to keep out the persistent sand, and scanned the structures to find anything that she could permanently borrow. Her eyes darted to the roof every time there was a sound. With the motorcycle suit allocated to Erik’s repair team, Jo was left with only the hope that the wind wouldn’t tear open another hole and blast the skin from her bones. 

The scavengers had done their job: hardly anything remained in Block 2 that couldn’t have been reused elsewhere, or melted down. Running her hands through the sand, all Jo could find was the old bolt or a short length of wiring. The only significant things left in the space were the heavy beams that rose from the canyon’s floor, up through the Block, branching out into a tree trunk-like support structure for desks and the outer hull, keeping the ARCH’s frame rigid and anchoring the massive structure in place. The beams were some of the few things in the ARCH that hadn’t been entirely cobbled together, I-beams scavenged from an incomplete building in Tuba City. 

Attached to the beams were girders that kept the sides from falling inwards. Unlike the beams, the girders were inventions of purpose: tubular steel that had been welded together for lightness and strength, no two girders were alike, though they all followed the same basic pattern. 

“Todo lo que necesito es uno de esos,” she muttered to herself, her eyes following the girders that radiated out from the main beams. She hopped off the boulder and went from beam to beam, studiously looking at each one. Each beam and its girders were a work in minimalist architecture, one that would have likely resulted in violating several building codes with the lack of proper reinforcements, though Architecture Review would have declared the design “an evolution in thinking about height and volume, opening a compact space into the lightness and freedom”. “Bingo,” said Jo, and started climbing up the frame as if it were a jungle gym, easily scaling three floors in a few moments. She climbed to a point where a girder spanned across a twenty-foot space between beams.  She looked down. Below her was a pit of rock and sand. 

Clinging to the beam, she pressed her ear to the girder, pulled out her ball peen hammer from her belt, and struck the girder three times. Even over the howling winds that went unmuffled, the clear ringing of the girder showed no fracture to the metal. Jo pulled out a wrench, reached around underneath for the massive bolts that held it to the strut, felt for the wrench to slide over the nut, and hammered the wrench until the nut came loose. She repeated the process seven more times, and pulled all but one of the bolts loose, mostly freeing the girder from the first beam. Climbing back down the beam, she switched to the second one and went to the other end of the girder, removing all the bolts. Despite the force of gravity on such a heavy object, the twenty-foot girder refused to budge. Using her hammer, she whacked at the girder, slowly inching it from its resting point. As it finally slid off the mounting plate, it dangled, then twisted as its remaining connection resisted the movement. If OSHA had still existed, someone would have had an apoplectic fit watching Jo kick the girder sideways. Almost immediately, there was loud, screeching protest as the final bolt tried to hang onto several hundred pounds of steel that really wanted to rest on the rocky floor. The bolt’s head experienced a catastrophic failure, launching from the bolt’s shaft, right into Jo’s forehead. The girder pounded to the pit’s boulder-covered floor.

The impact on Jo’s forehead was beyond what would elicit a mere “ow”, but not so strong that it also elicited blood. It strong enough that Jo’s sense of balance declared a mistrial and her grip on the beam slacked and she wobbled on her feet. Half-aware that something was very wrong, she tried to cling more tightly to the beam. Her foot’s came to rest on what her jumbled memory had thought to be a mounting plate, but wasn’t, her foot completely missed what wasn’t there, and her body’s momentum sheared her grip from the beam. She saw the ceiling fall further away in slow motion. She envisioned her imminent collision with the girder she had just freed. She closed her eyes, deciding she didn’t really want to see her own death. 


Jo opened her eyes and saw a ceiling. At least, she thought it was a ceiling. She blinked a few times, and slowly the details cleared up. It wasn’t the ceiling of Block 2; this one was much, much closer to her head. She blinked again, and tried to lift her head. She found it bound to the … bed? … that she laid upon. She couldn’t turn to either side, and her hands and feet were also tied down. She did her best to not panic. “Hello?” she called. Her throat was sore and dry. “Is anyone there?” 

“Doctor!” yelled a man’s voice. Jo couldn’t see who it was, and he didn’t come into view. 

A moment later, a middle-aged woman wearing cracked eyeglasses and a too-worn blue medical cap appeared over her head. “Hello, Jo!” 

Jo breathed in relief. “Hey, Kelly. Am I glad to see you!” 

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to see you. It’s only been a few days,” said Kelly dryly. She reached down and pulled out Jo’s chart, a small blackboard, from the side of the bed.

“Muy divertido,” Jo smirked. 

“You should count yourself lucky,” said Kelly. “That was one hell of a fall.”

I don’t remember landing. I remember falling.”Jo took a deep breath. “How bad is it?” 

Kelly snorted. “Honestly, the only reason that you’re held down is because I wanted to make sure you didn’t roll off the bed onto the floor before I had a chance to check you out. Otherwise, you’re the luckiest shmuck in the place. From what I understand, you landed on a sand pile, right in the middle of two boulders. If you’d been an inch in any other direction, it’d probably have been lights out.” Kelly put the chalkboard back. “What the hell were you doing up there, anyway?” 

Though it took a moment of humming to reboot her memory, Jo replied: “Looking for spare parts.” 

Kelly looked at Jo with a concern for her own life. “That doesn’t sound good.” 

Jo tried to shake her head and found it still bound to the table. “It could be better,” said Jo. “How about you let me out of this?”   

Kelly reached around and undid the strap holding Jo’s head in place, then undid her hands and feet. “Okay, try sitting up. But slowly, okay?”

Jo braced herself with her hands, and carefully pushed herself until she was sitting upright. 

“How’s it feel?” asked Kelly, flicking a light in Jo’s eyes, one at a time.

“Um… okay?” Jo replied. She cringed at the bright light, which felt like it was piercing the back of her skull.

“No optic damage,” said Kelly. “Roll your head around,” she instructed. “Slowly.” Jo did as she was told. “Anything hurt? Neck, shoulders, back?”  

“I don’t think so.” 

“How many fingers?” asked Kelly, holding up her hand. 

“Three.” 

“Good. Can you read the bottom line?” Kelly held up a card with various sizes of text. 

“Copyright 2001 The Milwaukee Corporation.” 

Kelly laughed. “If you can read the mice type, you’re fine.” She pulled out the papers and quickly jotted a few notes. “Anything else feel sore?” 

Jo moved her limbs, breathed deeply a few times. “Just the back of my neck. And I’ve got a bit of a headache.” 

“The girl falls a storey, misses having her brains turned into jelly, and all she has is a headache,” muttered Kelly. She felt the back of Jo’s head carefully. “Anything sore back here?” 

“Nope,” said Jo. “I wish you had some aspirin, though.” 

“Don’t we all,” agreed Kelly. She tapped Jo’s knees with a small rubber hammer. Jo’s knees jerked stereotypically. “Well, near as I can tell, you got off scot-free. No so much as a bruise. Stop keeping all our luck for yourself. Share the wealth, will ya?” 

“I guess I was born lucky,” Jo laughed lightly. 

Kelly shook her head. “Honey, you’d have to have a whole herd of horseshoes up your ass to explain how you’ve managed to not be killed so many times. You haven’t even had so much as a broken toe! The only thing you do when you come in here is,” Kelly jabbed her finger into Jo’s chest as she spoke, “waste my time!” 

“Better your time than my life?” Jo offered. 

Kelly pursed her lips. “Don’t tempt me.” 

“Well, thank you all the same, Kelly. I’m glad to know it’s nothing more serious,” said Jo. “Though I do have to ask … how’d I get here? I’ll assume I didn’t walk.” 

“Him,” said Kelly, indicating the man standing to one side. The man was thin, and young. His clothes, a long-sleeved red shirt rolled to his elbows and blue jeans, hung from him. He looked like he was in trouble for something. “He’s been here since he brought you in. That was about three hours ago, in case you were wondering.”

Jo looked at the man, and registered nothing. “Um. Thank you,” she said. “How…?”

“I heard the girder crash. I was afraid there was a collapse,” he said. “I went to look.” 

“Most people run away when something falls apart,” said Jo.

“I … um, I thought I could help,” the man said quietly. 

“Well, you did,” said Kelly.  

“What’s your name?” Jo asked. 

“Donner Vasquez,” he replied with a nod.

“Gracias, Donner. Estoy en deuda con usted,” she said.

“Uh, sorry?” 

“Ah, ¿no habla español?” she asked. 

“I’m … um, I don’t speak Spanish.” 

“If you’re done introducing yourselves, I need the bed space!” said Kelly.

“Oh no. More tunnelling injuries?” asked Jo. 

“Always,” said Kelly. “I swear they must just stand there and wait for rocks to fall on them. I’ve already seen four of them this morning, which means there should be another one coming any minute.”

“They’re in the best hands,” said Jo, giving Kelly a quick hug.

“They’re in the only hands,” smiled Kelly. “Just do me a favor?” 

“Anything.” 

“Get some help before you do something that stupid again.”  

Jo nodded. “I will. Thanks, Kelly.” 

“Thank him, not me. He kept you from being buried alive,” said Kelly, as she left. 

Jo shot a look at Donner. “What?”

“The, uh, girder shook loose a lot of sand,” he explained. “I had some trouble getting you out of it.”

“I see,” Jo nodded solemnly. “And, uh, how did you do that?”

“Well, I figured that climbing into the sand would likely get me in the same trouble. So I found a metal pole, made a hook, and pulled you out.” 

“‘Made a hook’,” Jo repeated. “Just out of curiosity, Donner, what’s your work assignment?”

“General laborer,” he sighed. “Whatever needs doing.” 

Jo hopped down carefully from the bed. Holding onto the edge, she took a few tentative steps. Everything felt otherwise fine. “Are you on shift?” she asked as she walked around the tiny room. 

“Uh, yeah,” he said worriedly. 

“Don’t worry. Tell Bonnie that if she doesn’t give you a good ticket, I’m gonna kick her ass. Tell her Jo said so,” she grinned. 

“Oh… okay,” he said. “Thanks.” 

“No, thank you, Donner. You saved my life. I hope I can return the favor at some point.” 

“Well, I won’t be falling into pits of sand, if I can help it,” Donner laughed lightly. 

“You’d better not,” said Jo, giving Donner a quick hug. “Okay, go. Keep your rations.” 

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 4

“Something I can help you with, Jo?” asked Bateworth, walking out of his office. Professor Batesworth’s private office and quarters, the Council room, and a lounge connecting the other two rooms formed the entirety of the Engineer’s Office. The lounge had once been just that: a place to gather, to relax. The couches had long since been given away, the walls stripped of anything important, all but one of the lights removed and reused. In place of comfort were the ever-present sleeping racks, full with the night shift. Opposite the door to Batesworth’s office was Erik’s small desk, covered in old papers that were reused repeatedly in different colored inks to the point of illegibility, and the pile of small chalkboards. Jo was hovering over the cramped desk, overflowing with small chalkboards. She was picking them up and reviewing each. 

“Any idea where Erik is?” she asked, not looking away from the notes. 

“Somewhere,” Batesworth shrugged. “If he’s not covering your emergency shift, he’s probably looking into the things that came in overnight, or dealing with all that,” he gestured to the pile of boards. “He could be anywhere.”

“And judging by these, it looks like everywhere,” said Jo, tossing down the last of the boards in her hand. “You know you lean on Erik too much.” 

“We all do,” said Batesworth. “We’d be lost without him.” 

“I wish he still had a pager.” 

“I wish we had enough hardware for that. I’m amazed they’ve lasted as long as they have.” 

Jo snorted. “I’ll see if I can find him.” 

“What’s eating you, Jo?” asked Batesworth. 

Jo rolled her head and looked at Batesworth. “You know what’s eating me, Rich. You shouldn’t have to ask.” 

“You’re right, it would be easier to ask what’s not eating you.” 

“That’s not funny.” 

“It wasn’t meant to be, Jo. You’re letting every little thing get to you. You’ve been like this for—“

“Since Robert was attacked and accused of rape.” 

“I was going to say a couple of days ago, but you’re right, about then.” Batesworth folded his arms. “Your problem is that you think you know all the answers. You think you know what’s best for us. You disagree with our direction, you argue with areas you have no experience with, you piss off Carl, call Francis by the wrong name just to annoy him, and ignore my advice. You’re an average engineer, at best, and you see yourself as better than all of us, combined. With you, the sky is always falling.”

“The sky is falling, Rich! It’s literally landing on our heads! You keep forgetting because you haven’t picked up so much as a hammer in two years! You hide in this office and believe all is well! You’re being told lies on a daily basis and take it as truth. I know more about this place than anyone else because I’m the one keeping it from falling down!”  

“You trusted in Robert too much,” he grumbled. 

“You hated that Robert created the Council!”

“He didn’t create it, he got all of you to gang up on me, forcing it like the Magna Carta!” Batesworth’s voice reverberated in the room. One of the Engineers on the nearby bunks grunted and rolled over.

“Because you want to be Professor Batesworth! You want the control like you had at the university. That was a decade ago, Rich. The world has changed, but you haven’t! Robert was right about one thing — you can’t control them!” She angrily shot a finger towards the population above them. “They’re not students, and they don’t recognize your authority. Hell, they barely recognize us as it is!” 

“You’re the problem, you know. All of you. The petty arguments, the grandstanding, the pandering. It feels just like those accursed faculty meetings, only with less accomplished people.” Batesworth glared at Jo. “But here we are. Last I checked, we operate as a collective, meaning we agree on how we operate.” 

“You should be more of a leader. You’re letting the clowns run the circus.” 

“And what are you in that analogy?” 

“The bruja who has to clean up after you idiots.” She stormed out of the office.


It was an hour before Jo found Erik in the kitchen, a huge room nearly in the middle of the ARCH, at one end of the Atrium. Like the rest of the ARCH, the kitchen had been assembled from whatever scrounged scrap could be found, coming to hold a large selection of humanity’s history of cooking implements. There were a dozen large sinks for rinsing dirt from vegetables, which arrived by hand, were scrubbed by many hands, and handed off to still more hands at ten long prep tables, where those hands quickly diced up potatoes, mushrooms, and asparagus. Almost two centuries’ of stoves ringed the room, almost all converted to fuel-burning as spare parts dwindled — did what they could to made the vegetables more palatable. Erik’s nose was buried in the back of the last functioning electric oven.

“I hope you unplugged that,” said Jo, walking to the unit. The sides had long since disappeared for scrap, leaving behind an appliance that looked vaguely robotic.  

“You know me, I always put my hands where they don’t belong,” Erik replied, not looking up. 

“Oh, cómo desearía que lo hicieras,” Jo remarked. 

“Huh?” 

Jo smiled wistfully. “Just wondering why this one doesn’t run on fuel.”

“Well, we haven’t quite burned this one out yet— come on, you little turd!” 

“What happened?” 

“The fuse shorted. I’m trying to get the junction out, but the clip holding it in is in a really awkward place,” he grunted, pulling a wire free. 

Jo looked over Erik’s broad shoulders. His scent wafted powerfully, though no less pungently than Jo’s. “Y’know, it might be easier if you just pulled the stove out completely…” 

“I know, I know,” said Erik testily. “I was hoping this would be quick and I wouldn’t lose an hour doing this.” 

“Uh huh.” Jo looked around at the tools and parts scattered around the oven door. “And how long have you been at this?” 

Erik’s mumbled, though Jo could just pick out the sounds “an” and “hour”. “There,” he said confidently. “That should do it.” He stood back, and turned on the stove’s controls. The light on the front lit up, and a moment later the element started to glow. He looked carefully at the hardwired connection. He held his hand close to check. “Yep, that’ll do it.” 

“Nice work!” Jo complimented. “Glad to see you’re actually useful,” she winked. 

“Hey, I’m good for something around here,” Erik defended himself, turned the stove off, and proceeded to reattach the parts he’d removed. “I’ll assume you’re not here just to see me?” 

Jo smirked for a moment, then coughed. “I want to reinforce the beam in Block 4 with a girder. I just need help getting one prepped and moved.”

“You found one?” 

“More or less,” said Jo. “It wasn’t doing anything.” 

“You’ve already disconnected it and sent it to the ground,” Erik sighed exasperatedly. “Hopefully that doesn’t come back to bite us. Well, get your team to…” He stopped. “Sorry, that was stupid.” He shook his head. “I really wish we hadn’t agreed to reassign your team.” 

You wish?” Jo guffawed. “You have any idea of what I’ve been through this morning?” 

Erik looked up. Jo’s complaints were almost as frequent as the grains of sand that fell constantly from the roof, though they were usually just something for her to say. This was different. “You okay?” 

“You’re concerned!” she smiled. “I’m touched!” 

Erik placed a hand on her shoulder. “No, really, are you okay?” he repeated. 

“Yeah, I’m fine. I took a tumble,” Jo shrugged her shoulders, passing off the incident as nothing more than someone having pushed her over. “Got knocked out for a few hours, apparently.” 

“Knocked out?!” blurted Erik. He dropped his screwdriver and carefully gripped Jo by the shoulders. “Oh my god, are you alright?!”

“Relax, cariño!” smiled Jo, tapping Erik gently on his face with her hand. “Kelly cleared me.” 

“You’re sure?” he asked pointedly. 

“Yes, I’m sure. So is Kelly!” she said.

“Okay.” Erik let out his breath. “Don’t scare me like that.” 

“You really do care?” asked Jo.

“Of course,” he replied, more matter-of-factly. “You know more about fixing this place than anyone else. We’re kind of screwed without you.” He looked up and winked. 

Jo mouthed the words “screw you” while shaking her head. “Do I get my help or not? Can I get a couple back from tunnelling?”

“You heard Smiley. They’re going to be busy for a while. If they can’t get those tunnels built quickly enough, and you’re right about those supports—“

“I am.”

“—a lot of people are… you know.” 

Jo sighed, staring at the ceiling. “I can’t fix things fast enough on my own, Erik. Can I take some of Frank’s—?” 

Erik laughed as he picked up his screwdriver. “Right. You go try. I’ll bring the popcorn.” He turned back to the stove.

“I miss popcorn,” moaned Jo. “Well, what about getting someone for at least a couple of hours?” 

“Why don’t you just snag a couple of hands from the population? You don’t need anyone skilled, right?” asked Erik, as he reattached a safety cover.

“Neither does Carl! He should take from population and give me my people back!” she snapped. 

“He does, Jo!” Erik was nearly whining. “You know he has most of them on a constant rotation in and out of the tunnels. If they’re not digging, they’re shovelling. If they’re not shovelling, they’re mucking. If they’re not mucking, they’re probably sleeping.”

“And we’re still not in there?!” Jo squawked. “Am I the only one who thinks this is fishy? All those people and we’re no further ahead than a month ago.” 

Erik turned around. “Look, I know you’re overworked, and it’s definitely a problem.” He rolled his head a few times in thought. “Let me see what I can dig up with the rotation, okay? Maybe … maybe I can free someone up. C’mon.” He took a step before turning to the kitchen staff. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. Er, I mean, retorno en lagunas minute-os.” He grumbled, and mumbled. “Shit, I know I got that wrong…”

Jo spun around as they walked out. “Él regresará en unos minutos,” she smiled. The kitchen staff nodded and returned to their work.

They weaved through the dining hall, adjacent to the kitchen, that held a few hundred at a time at long rows. Neither the hall nor the kitchen never closed, the lineup to eat never ended, the greenhouses constantly produced. And it was never enough. Every person in the room was underfed, underdressed, underslept. Every eye looked sunken and dull, every expression exhausted. Even the endless energy of children was in drought conditions. Everyone noticed Erik and Jo as they walked through to the hallways beyond. The main hallway was the dining line, where those off-shift waited their turn to eat. The line was typically quiet and only moved as spaces in the dining hall became available. The line rippled and swirled as Erik and Jo passed, both making room and passively acosting the two Engineers, half-whispered curses following.  

Jo barely looked at any of the people. It wasn’t a callous effort, it was a result of time and overburden. It was no different than getting a burn: at first, it seared and stung, you swore in pain and did everything you could to heal. With enough time, even though the burn might still be visible, you noticed it less and less, until finally you forgot it was there. The faces, once clear and painful, had blurred into an endless meaningless stream of beings, all trapped under the same roof, all struggling to survive one more day. Jo didn’t know if any of them were grateful for being in the ARCH, desperate to flee, ready to snap under the strain of so many others around them, or like herself, simply numb. 

The Engineer’s Office was one of the few places devoid of the crush. Erik marched to his desk and rifled through the slates. He then glanced at the larger chalkboard mounted on the wall next to his desk, which recorded the locations of every Engineer. 

“Well, unless I’m wrong, you have the options of either Bob—“

Jo gagged. “Mierda.” 

“—or Chad.” 

Jo groaned. “That’s not much better.” 

“I don’t know what to tell you, Jo. They’re the only ones not on shift right now, other than them,” he said, jerking his thumb to the sleeping people. He knew, as Jo did, that waking anyone up without an emergency was going to be asking for serious trouble later on. “Getting anyone else is going to start a fight. And you know how that’ll end up,” said Erik, jerking his thumb again, this time towards Batesworth’s office. 

Jo grumbled. “It doesn’t do us any good to put all our good people digging tunnels if the rest of us are buried alive!” 

Erik held up his hands, and motioned Jo to keep her voice down. “I know, I know. I hate to tell you this but all we have left is general labor,” he said. “The last time I talked to Bonnie, we’ve had lots looking for work, and I’m pretty sure some of them would love the change from tunnel duty.” 

“General labor?” Jo’s head snapped up. The back of her neck twinged in response and she fought off the groan. “Can I ask for someone specifically?” 

“Uh, sure, I guess. You got a name?” 


“Hey Bonnie,” said Jo, sidling up to a tiny woman who looked barely into her teens. Bonnie was one of Erik’s team, one of Jo’s classmates, and one of only three female Engineers. She was stumped over a pile of names written on broken bits of slate, which were arranged on a large table, gridded off into boxes. Bonnie Xi was the general laborers’ manager: she was the one that decided who did what and when, based on ever-changing pile of things that needed doing with equally-varying levels of urgency. The majority of the labor pool usually ended up in tunnelling work, leaving a few to deal with the less important needs of the ARCH. 

“Huh?” Bonnie muttered and looked up. “Oh, hey, Jo,” Bonnie acknowledged unenthusiastically. “What’s up?” 

“Trying to find someone who might be in the pool today,” said Jo. 

Bonnie raised an eyebrow without breaking from her task. “You want to steal one of mine?” 

“More like ‘borrow’ for a short while,” Jo said. “I just need some help repairing the struts, and I can’t do it alone.”

“Uh huh,” Bonnie uttered, returning to her grid. “Lopez! Fullerman! Jimenez! Yeung! Keller!” Half a dozen people put up their hands. “Yeung, Robert!” Bonnie corrected, and one hand dropped. “Tunnels.” The four men and two women groaned. “I know, that’s what I got.” Bonnie looked back to Jo. “Name?” 

“Vasquez, Donner.” 

Bonnie scanned her table. “Vasquez… I saw that name… where did I put her…?” 

“Him,” corrected Jo.

“Whatever. It’s a name and a body,” Bonnie muttered. “Ah, here. Supposed to be fixing a light in Block 6, Level 4. That was an hour ago. So either he’s gotten lost, or he’s incompetent, like everyone else around here.” Bonnie sighed. “Tanner!” A woman who looked barely able to stand rose from her seat on the floor. “Can you carry a 30 lb load?” Bonnie asked hesitantly. The woman shook her head slowly. “Thanks. Uh, Wilson?” A sturdy man stood up. “Same question.” The man nodded. “Greenhouses. You’re on delivery.” The man nodded and trotted off.

“Assume he’s done, Bonnie,” said Jo reassuringly. “I’m going to steal him for a couple of days. Erik said it was okay with him.” 

“Erik always sides with you,” Bonnie grumbled, and put Donner’s name into a grid square marked: “Stolen”. 

Categories
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.” 

Categories
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.” 

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

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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.

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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.