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Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 27

A note to the reader: This is a particular long chapter.

Oh, and it has explicit sex.

The first shift bell had rung as Jo headed towards the Engineer’s Office. Once upon a time, she had recognized ‘first shift’ as ‘midnight’, but somewhere along the way, they’d all forgotten about the time on a clock. 

The hallway was quiet, the Office was still open, with the sole light being on in Erik’s newly-inherited room. The Office was otherwise empty. Erik was staring at a small pile of chalkboards, flipping between them in a robotic manner. 

Jo rapped on the doorframe. “Hey.” Erik jolted, dropping two of the blackboards. “Disculpame.” 

“No, it’s okay,” he muttered and picked them up. One of them had smudged crossing over his leg. He twisted it around to see if made any more sense. “Oh well,” he sighed, and tossed it back onto the floor, in a pile of similar boards. 

“You look stressed,” said Jo. 

“I always wondered how Rich did this every day,” said Erik, slumping into the chair. He motioned for Jo to come in. She plopped into one of the three utterly mismatched and threadbare chairs in front of the desk. “Today, I think I figured it out.” 

“Oh? What was his secret?” 

Erik shook his head in disbelief. “I’m pretty sure he just tuned people out. He picked up the key words, proselytized, and sent them on their way. It’s the only way I can see him having put up with this bullshit day after day.” 

“Are you going to try that tomorrow?” Jo smirked. 

“I’m tempted to try it now,” Erik mock-sneered in return. “You look like you’ve had quite the day, too.” 

“It’s done,” Jo cheered half-heartedly. “Thanks to Phil, we got all the brackets in and the girders pinned. It should keep the bend in the structure steady for a while.” 

Erik leaned forward. “How long, do you think?”  

Jo let out a strained sigh. “I dunno. We don’t have any of measuring the load, so it’s hard to know how much tension everything is under. For all I know, one of those girders could snap tomorrow, and boom.” 

“You put it all together, so I have faith it’ll hold more than long enough. And probably a lot longer, once we get all these people out of here. That alone will remove over eight hundred tons of mass on the structure. Who knows, the ARCH could last another decade.” 

“If we don’t tear it to shreds, first,” she countered, “which we will. We’ll gut this place for every bit of value we can.”

Erik nodded. “True. It’ll be sad to see her go.” 

Jo threw her hands up. “¡Finalmente! Someone who agrees with me!” She looked at Erik. “Are we too attached?” she asked. 

Erik blinked at the question. “Attached to … each other?” 

Jo blinked at the question. “The ARCH,” she said unsuredly 

“Oh, yeah,” he stammered. “Yeah, I think we are. But you were the star student: you took everything seriously and passionately. Rich always said you were the best one he had.” 

“Really?” she asked quietly. “I mean, like, really? You’re not just saying that?” 

Erik held up a Scout’s salute. “If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’!”

“I never knew that,” she said. “He never mentioned it in any reviews.” 

“You know Rich. He never said what he really felt. Sometimes I think he was so cold that he could have refrigerated this place.” 

“Too bad,” Jo murmured. “Ice cubes would’ve been nice to have.” 

Erik burst out laughing. “While you’re at it, wish for some fine scotch!” 

“I never liked scotch. The flavor was too strong.” 

“You were a shots girl, weren’t you?” Erik grinned. 

“Yeah, you know that!” she exclaimed. 

“I do?” 

“¡Dios mío!” Jo feigned shock. “You don’t remember that joint in Page?” 

“Page,” Erik repeated. “Page … Page … I remember a night when we all went to Page. Some idiot suggested we do a bar crawl.” 

“Me,” said Jo proudly. 

“I remember the second place, some country and western roadhouse, right?” 

“Tsk, tsk,” Jo tutted. “That was the first place.”

“What?!” Erik blurted. “No way!” 

“I think you downed four shots of tequila in about ten minutes. I thought you were going to pass out before we left.” 

“Tequila?” he asked. Erik got up from his new desk and walked out to his old desk.

“I think that’s what got you up on stage for karaoke,” Jo continued. “You do a pretty decent Crocodile Rock, y’know…” 

Erik dug out a key and unlocked one of the drawers. He rummaged around for a moment and Jo heard the distinct sound of a full glass bottle hitting a smaller glass object. Erik returned a moment later with a squarish bottle containing a dark amber liquid. He slapped down a shot glass in front of Jo on the desk. 

Jo felt her jaw drop. “Is that … ¿¡añejo?!” 

“Sí,” Erik replied in his very best Spanish accent. “I brought this with me to celebrate our last night at the ARCH before returning to class. I almost forgot I had this in the drawer.” 

Jo stared at the bottle, not noticing that she had almost salivated onto the floor. “And what is this occasion?”

Erik twisted the glass cap until it popped free and poured into the glass. He plunked down a second glass in front of him and poured again. “Well, I could go with celebrating you saving our asses again, but that’s getting kind of old, don’t you think?” he winked. “How about … to Professor Batesworth. Without him, we’d all be dead right now.” 

“I’ll give you that his course took us away. But we saved ourselves.” 

“Er, okay,” Erik nodded. “What, then?”

Jo popped up to standing. “A nuestros amados muertos,” she said, holding up her glass. We smiled at Erik. “To our beloved departed.” 

Erik stood and matched her stance. “Our beloved departed.” 

They each nodded and threw the contents back in a single motion. Erik was the first to cough, followed by Jo a moment later. Both of them steadied themselves on the desk, clearing their throats. 

“Wow,” Jo said hoarsely. 

“Wow,” Erik echoed. 

“How old is that?” Jo asked, picking up the bottle. “¡Dios mío! This is nearly twenty years old!” 

“Is that why it burns so much?” Erik gasped. 

“No, cariño,” said Jo, pouring two more glasses, “that is because we haven’t had a drop of booze in a decade. By the third shot, you’ll see why this stuff is like gold!” 

Third shot? I thought we were just having one?” 

“Oh, come on, you can’t put this out and not expect to have at least a couple of drinks!” Jo pleaded. 

Erik grimaced. “Alright.” He poured out again and picked up his glass. “What are we drinking to this time?” 

Jo held her glass aloft. She cleared her throat again, though more for drama than any biological need, and said as clearly as she could: “We are Engineers. In our profession we take deep pride. To it we owe solemn obligations. Since the Stone Age, Human Progress has been spurred by the Engineering Genius. Engineers have made usable Nature’s vast resources of Materials and Energy for Humanity’s Benefit. Engineers have vitalized and turned to practical use the Principles of Science and the Means of Technology. Were it not for this heritage of accumulated experiences, our efforts would be feeble. As an engineer, we pledge to practice Integrity and Fair Dealing, Tolerance, and Respect, and to uphold devotion to the standards and dignity of our profession, conscious always that our skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making best use of the Earth’s precious wealth. As an engineer, we shall participate in none but honest enterprises. When needed, our skill and knowledge shall be given without reservation for the public good. In the performance of duty, and in fidelity to our profession, we shall give the utmost.” 

Erik whistled. “Impressive. I completely screwed up the Pledge. Oh, and you got the plurality wrong — it’s supposed to be ‘I’, not ‘we’, but otherwise you nailed it.” 

“I was referring to us. You and me. ‘We’,” she grinned. 

“I got that.” 

“Drink.” 

The shots went back as quickly as the first. 

“Ohhhhh,” sighed Jo, her head tilted back. “Maldito that’s good,” she purred. 

Erik stared at his glass, then looked at Jo. “It is?” 

“Really, chico? Why did you buy that if you don’t even like it?” 

“Well, I… um, well, I thought that…” 

“You thought the chicas would dig a guy with good hooch?” Jo smirked. Erik blushed and shrugged. “Well, I do. A lot. Thanks for the booze,” she smiled. “Hopefully that’ll keep my shoulders from rebelling in the morning.” 

“Long for power tools, huh?” Erik commented. Jo levelled a knowing stare. “Oh, uh, that’s not… I meant drills, I mean, what I meant—“ 

Jo walked over to Erik, and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “You’re too uptight, Erik. You should drink more of that,” she said. “Sleep well. I’ll see you in the morning.” She turned to the door, and bent to the side. There was an audible pop in her shoulder. “Oh, yeah, I’m definitely gonna feel that in the morning.” She rolled the shoulder as she headed to the door. 

“Er, uh, Jo?”

Jo stopped and turned. “Mmm?”  

“I, uh, I can rub that out for you. Y’know, if you want.” Erik blushed again. 

“Really? That’s awfully sweet of you,” she smiled. “But I doubt those little office fingers of yours can make a dent in this mess.” 

“I dunno,” Erik said. “Rich was a regular customer. And I assure you, his back was a nightmare.” 

Jo eyed Erik for a few moments. “Alright, let’s see what you can do.” As she walked back into the room, Erik flipped a chair without armrests around, and motioned Jo to sit. She straddled it backwards, her chest pressing into the seat back, her arms hung loose at her sides. She felt his hands resting on her shoulders, pressing lightly at first, but then squeezing through her shirt, stretching out her trapezius. 

It was a double-hit of intense pain, the muscles having been held under tension for so long, and a massive rush of endorphins as Erik’s deft fingers snapped things back into places they hadn’t been for a long time. Jo let out a low staccato growl.

Erik’s hands stopped. “You okay? Did I hurt you?” 

“Más. Por favor.” Jo tried not to beg too hard. “This hurts, but it feels soooo good.”

“You haven’t had a good rub down in a long time,” said Erik, as he felt around her shoulder blades.

Jo laughed, though when combined with her body’s reaction to the massage, came out more of a yelp. “I’ve been a bit busy…” Erik found a nexus of tightness and pressed the pad of his thumb in a tight swirl. There was almost a popping, and Jo’s shoulder twitched and went slack. This time she shrieked, which quickly dropped off to a relieved and contented, almost guttural sigh, and she stretched out further in the chair. “That,” she whispered. “Do that again.” 

“Those girders really did a number on you,” Erik commented as he pressed into more of Jo’s upper back. He ran a thumb down both sides of Jo’s spine. She shivered and hummed. “Hey, I thought of something for your tension problem.” 

“I think you’re doing something for my tension problem,” she said warmly. 

“I meant your girders. You could put in a tension gauge.” 

“Hmm,” Jo hmm’ed absently. “You’re thinking too much…” 

“No, really. All you need is an oil-filled cylinder with a pressure gauge, and a long rod. Attach them at opposite ends. If the gauge shows a change…” 

“So, you’re suggesting I insert a long rod into a cylinder to worry less?” she asked slyly. “I take that back… I’m beginning to like how you’re thinking.”

“Uh…,” Erik’s voice wavered. He found another knot just under the edge of Jo’s scapula. He dug his fingertips in, and slowly untangled the twists. 

“Ohhhhhhh,” Jo moaned softly. “Where did you learn to do this?” 

“My ex, actually. She was a massage therapist.” 

“I envy her,” Jo grunted as Erik twanged one of her levators. “Ow!” 

“Oops, sorry,” said Erik. “Actually, she hated getting massages. Go figure. But Rich liked them. I think that’s how I got to be his TA.” 

“Huh, and here I thought it was sexual favors.” Erik intentionally pinched her shoulder. “OW!” 

“Yeah, well, being his TA wasn’t any fun, let me tell you. He was patronizing, demanding, he expected you to know his thoughts, and being his TA meant I had to know more than all his undergrads,” he muttered. “You have any idea how hard it is to know more than all of you? I was a terrible student, so I had to study all the time. I think my only saving grace was that I was better than most at keeping all you kids ordered and in line.” 

“Yeah,” Jo groaned as Erik smoothed out her rhomboideus. “You were Mr. Organization. We all knew that. That’s what we liked about you. And you weren’t a polla about it, like Jeff.” 

“You … you saw that?” he asked. “I thought I’d kept that a secret,” he lamented. 

Jo giggled. “Eres adorable cuando usted actúa inocente.”

Erik rubbed her shoulders softly and leaned in behind her. His hands trembled. “Usted es bella cuando usted es condescendientes.” 

Jo turned slowly and looked at Erik. Her smile curled at the edges, her lips fuller than normal. “I think we need another drink, cariño. And between us, it’s ‘tu’, not ‘usted’.” 

Erik looked back down at Jo. He went to the bottle, poured out two more glasses, and handed one to Jo. His hand shook. “I know what ‘cariño’ means,” he said with a bit of warble. 

“Good,” Jo smiled demurely. “So what are drinking to?” 

Erik held up his glass, opened his mouth … “Uh…” He stared at the wall. “Um…”

Jo stood and came to him. “A nosotros,” she said, and clinked his glass. 

“Yeah, I … I like that,” he said softly, with a slight smile. They drank without breaking eye contact. “Another?” 

Jo leaned in closely, brushing his beard with her cheek, and whispered into his ear. “Por favor.” 

Erik reached around behind him, fumbling across the desk for the bottle, unwilling to look away. “You were right.” 

“About?” 

“The, uh, tequila,” he said, wrapping his hand around the bottle’s neck. He raised it to pour into Jo’s glass. “It does taste pretty good.” The bottle shook so terribly that he splashed the liquor over Jo’s hand and onto her sleeve. “Shit!” 

“Here,” said Jo, and gently took the bottle and Erik’s glass. She poured the glasses and handed his back. “It’s a shame we don’t have any lime or salt.” 

“Yeah?” Erik’s hand shook so badly he started to spill. 

“Ever done body shots?” she winked. Erik gulped and nearly spilled his drink. Jo took his hand in hers. “¿Nervioso?” 

“S-sí.” 

“¿Porque, cariño? No te voy a morder … duro.” 

Jo stepped closer to Erik. Still holding his hand, which held the glass, she tipped it up to his mouth. Even with her steadying hold, some dribbled onto his cheek, down into his beard, and down onto his neck. Jo grinned deviously, leaned in, and nuzzled the base of his neck where it met his shoulder. She felt his carotid artery pulse rapidly. She inhaled deeply. He gasped when she then extended her tongue and gently licked away the liquid.

Backing away, she studied Erik’s appearance, his face caught somewhere between ecstasy and shock. “You’re due for a shower,” she remarked. 

“Y-yeah,” he stammered. “S-sorry. I’m n-not due until t-t-tomorrow.” 

“I’m not scheduled for a few more days. I’m probably worse,” she sighed. “This tired body needs a wash.” She stretched it slowly out in front of him. 

“I-it’s too b-bad we d-don’t let p-people shower t-together,” Erik tried to smile, only his face kept trying to spasm. “Y-y’know, save w-water?” 

Jo slugged back her shot and put down the bottle and glasses. She draped her hands around Erik’s shoulders and came a hand span away from him. She could feel his body vibrating. “I’d like that,” she whispered. “You’d make a great back scrubber.” She leaned in and pressed her lips against his. It was soft and simple, just enough movement to register it as more than a friendly action. After a few breaths, she pulled away. The kiss hadn’t calmed Erik’s excitement. He shook nearly everywhere. 

“I’ve wanted to do that for a long time,” she said softly. She wanted to see past his hazel eyes, but they were too caught up in the mass panic of hormones. 

Erik stuttered, wrestling with himself to say anything. “R-really?”

“You never noticed?” she asked. “You honestly thought I needed your help for those assignments in 382?” 

“I-I was your T-TA,” he shook. 

She held his hand to his face and shh’ed softly. “Ya no.” She kissed him again, drawing him in tightly, her hand behind his head. Slowly and abruptly, she could feel Erik’s hands around her waist. She felt a sigh come from a place she’d worried long dead. Her jaw moved, his moved to match. It was harder, more powerful, even a little desperate. His whiskers danced across her lips, releasing tiny jolts with each tickle. 

Jo could feel herself fall, that wonderful sense when you let go of your fears and worries, when you leap for the moment to sink like a stone, surrounded by all the emotions and desires you’ve kept locked away for so long. She longed to be lost in the flood, wanting nothing more than the moment to be eternal. 

Erik broke away first. Jo tried to follow. “I don’t know,” he panted. “I’m … Chair,” he continued, “we shouldn’t … what will the others think?” 

Jo’s expression was bordering on bliss. She reached up and gently touched his lips with her fingers, brushed at his beard. His eyes had stopped their rapid jiggling. She took his hand in her other one, it had stopped shaking. Her eyes were soft. She felt younger than she had in years. “They’ll be jealous.” She cupped her hand behind his head and drew them together again. 

It was deep, passionate. The feeling of a decade of pondering and planning and secret promises all blooming at once was enough to send tears streaming from the corners of both of her eyes. This. Please, this. 

Erik’s mouth moved from her lips, slowly across her chin, and towards her neck. Jo raised her head, allowing Erik access to the once-soft and tanned front, now pale and scarred. She forgot about the hundreds of tiny sand scratches, the wounds from flying bits of whatever that had been caught in the wind. All the mattered were his lips, soft and warm, tracing down under her chin, nuzzling and pulling at her flesh. She let her head hang back, her eyes closed dreamily. 

Erik had to stoop slightly, being a bit taller than Jo, and dropped his hands to her hips as he traced the outline of her larynx with his mouth. Jo released a deep sigh, and let her hands drag lightly across his shoulders. She could feel his muscles moving under his shirt. She felt like she should be purring. 

Coming to Jo’s clavicle, Erik began to follow it out to her shoulder. He twisted slowly behind her, kissing over the top of her shoulder, until he returned to her neck. With one hand, he gently pulled Jo’s long hair over her shoulder, exposing the nape. He brushed it with his nose, and again with his beard. Jo shivered again. He placed his lips into the space just under the back of her ear, and resumed his gentle and slow movement. He could feel Jo’s pulse racing, her muscles trembling. He wrapped his arms around her waist. Jo lazily positioned her head so Erik could easily move up and down her neck. She then moved her head around to the other side, Erik following suit. 

She reached down and clasped her hands over his. She squeezed them gently, and rubbed her fingers between the ridges of his knuckles. Then she picked one of them up, and drew it up to her breast. Erik didn’t resist, and cupped her bosom. Jo suddenly wished she hadn’t been wearing her ancient sports bra. Even with the confinement, her nipple stiffened and pressed against Erik’s fingers through the fabric. He squeezed gently between two fingers, she gasped. She reached for his other hand and moved it to her other breast. 

She started to want to cry out, to embrace the euphoria. But she was only beginning. Tingles ran from her neck to her waist, her breasts swelled, her groin flushed, her knees wanted to wobble. Her breaths were shallowing, her urges rising. She reached behind her, finding Erik’s thighs. She stroked the rough, thinning fabric, slipping her hands behind and pulling him in tighter. She felt the stiffening bulge in the cleft of her bum. She rocked her hips gently as she pulled, eliciting a soft grunt from Erik. 

She took his hands, and moved them together over her chest, intertwined his fingers with hers, and undid a button on her shirt. She moved them down to the next button, and the next. Erik unbuttoned the rest without further prompting. 

Jo took a couple of steps forward. As she did, Erik pulled back on the shirt. The pale blue fabric slid effortlessly over Jo’s shoulders and dropped to the floor. Her black bra had lost some of its spring through years of wear, but still hugged her slim torso. She turned, sliding her feet out of her boots in the same motion, and with her hands clasped behind her back, picked up the shirt with her toes and flung it to the side. She sauntered back, her hips writhing side to side. Erik’s face was a bright red, burning through his beard, and she could feel his heat as she leaned up to kiss him again. As she did, she started to undo his shirt, from the bottom up. With the top button undone, she slowly spread her hands over his muscular shoulders, and pushed the shirt off. 

Underneath was a tangle of darker blond hair, sowed with a few grey ones. She ran her fingers down his chest, letting the curly strands drift over her skin. She slowly wrapped her hands over his side, and pulled herself closer again. His warm skin pressing against hers felt divine, she could feel the ripples of the taut muscles in his back easily. She felt his hands caressing the small of her back, brushing over the tops of her pants. He slow dragged his splayed fingertips up her back, drifting to her shoulders, and then down again. She thrust herself closer, wrapping a leg around his, pressing her pelvis against his. The two of them moaned softly as their tongues entangled. 

Erik’s fingers rose up Jo’s back a second time, the tips catching on the edge of her bra. She offered no resistance as the fingers dug under, and then carefully lifted the stretchy fabric up. She pulled back, and flipped the front from her breasts, while he pulled it over her head and off of her arms. Jo posed with a coy smile, her hands above her slightly-turned head, and one of her legs outstretched. 

“Ta da!” she sang. 

“Gosh, you’re beautiful,” Erik breathed. 

“‘Gosh’? Did you just say ‘gosh’??” Jo blurted. 

“N-no,” Erik blushed again. “I, uh… um…” 

Jo slid forwards to him again, picked up his hands and intertwined his fingers with hers. “It’s okay, cariño. I won’t be upset by whatever is on your mind.” 

“This is going to sound stupid,” he said sheepishly. 

“Tell me,” she whispered. “Por favor.” 

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I’ve fantasized about this,” he said quickly. “Sorry if that sounds creepy.” 

“So have I,” she whispered and stepped closer to him. “A lot. For a long time.” She pulled herself into him, and kissed. 

Letting go of his hands, she reached down to Erik’s rear, and tucked her hands under the waistband. Erik’s belt didn’t let her hands go in any further than her metacarpals. “Oh, this won’t do,” she mumbled as she kissed him, and with her fingers still under the fabric, moved them to the front. She flicked the end of the belt from the loops, and tugged the buckle open. As she slowly drew the belt from the buckle, she rubbed the base of her thumb against the stiffness that was so eager to escape its confinement. Like most people’s pants, they were old, and too large for Erik’s underfed frame; the belt was the only thing keeping them in place. Jo gave them a slight tug at the side, and they slowly slipped over Erik’s hips, down his thighs, to the floor. 

Jo’s hands danced across the outside of Erik’s legs to his waist, always touching skin. Most men had given up underwear during a fabric drive. She slowly skipped across to the front, and brushed her fingers up the shaft of his erect penis. Erik gasped. “Relax, cariño. No te voy a morder … duro.” 

“You said that before,” he breathed. “What does it mean?” 

Jo giggled. “You’ll find out.” She wrapped her arms around him, pressed her head into his chest, and inhaled deeply. Then she took as large a handful of his glutei as she could grasp. Then she backed away again, resuming her magical pose. With one hand, she pointed towards her own belt buckle. With the other hand, she deftly undid it. With a few wiggles of her hips, her pants slid heavily to the floor, aided by the various tools she kept in her pockets. 

“White?” Erik raised his eyebrow in surprise. “How have… those look brand new!” 

“A girl’s gotta take care of her things, you know,” Jo purred. “Should I make some kind of disparaging comment about you taking care of me—?” 

Erik swooped in, bend down and scooped Jo up, one arm under her knees, the other under her arms. He kissed her deeply, her arms wrapping around his neck. He moved to the desk and used one of his feet to shove it clean; dozens of slates clattered to the floor. He laid her down gently. 

Jo gasped. “Oh! That’s cold!” she laughed. She stretched out, her arms over her head, her back arched. Erik held her legs up. “I feel like a 50s pinup girl.” 

Erik parted her legs gently, just wide enough for him to slip his head between, and kissed her ankle softly. He turned his head and kissed the other. He moved down towards her calf, its definition clear through the softer skin of her leg. He moved across and kissed the other calf. Kiss by kiss, he slowly moved down the calves towards her thighs, alternating side to side. His hand brushed the outsides of her legs, from her ankle to her waist. He felt the thin, silky fabric of her panties. He tried not think about how she had managed to keep them so pristine for so long.

Jo hung her hands over the edge of the old wooden desk as Erik tickled his way along her legs. Every part of her tingled, her skin rippled with goose pimples. At her knees he tickled underneath; his hands traced around her upper thighs. As he passed, she bent her legs, dabbing her heels on his back as he descended bit by bit by bit. Jo writhed on the desk as he crept ever closer to her joy, desperately wanting to pull him in, while desperately wanting the feeling to never end. 

“I love those little office fingers of yours,” she buzzed.

His nose slid along the panty’s gusset, slick with excitement. Jo moaned softly and fought terribly against her urges. Erik grew small, creamy circles with the very tip of his tongue. His hands slid slowly up Jo’s sides. He exhaled softly, his hot breath washing over her groin. Jo bit down on her lip, and tasted a drop of blood. He pressed his lips against the damp fabric, like a butterfly on a delicate flower. She rolled her hips towards his mouth, but he drew back, chuckling. 

“Atormenta,” she hissed. She reached down to find his head, but found his hands instead, blocking her route. She grasped his hands, and tried to pull, but he refused to budge. 

His lips returned, fuller and firmer, mapping the contours of the flesh below. He nibbled as he went, slowly circling between her legs. She clamped with her hands, and let out a thin, low moan. His tongue drew a slow, strong line from her perineum to just beyond her clitoris. 

“Off,” Jo begged in a hoarse breath, and let go of Erik’s hands.

She felt fingers slip underneath the band of her panties, and gently tug. She rolled side to side to assist, and felt the wet fabric skip across her legs to disappear she cared not where. Her anticipation was rewarded as she felt the dimpled wetness of a tongue slip between the parted folds. Jo shuddered with a shattering sigh. 

Jo could barely breathe, her heart raced, her body flooded with so much stimulation that she could almost feel herself shake. She reached down with her hands, and felt the curls of Erik’s hair. Daydreams from her classes raced through her thoughts, of moments they never had, of things she wished she’d done, of them on the greens in a thunderstorm, her room filled with candles and flowers, in front of a shocked class. 

She wanted to cry. She wanted to wail. She wanted to release years of pent-up and forced down dreams, to be the woman she’d wanted to be, and for a few moments, not the one she had become. Deep inside, she felt the rush coming. She felt a sense of panic starting to rise, as well: as much as she wanted this, she also wanted Erik. 

With her hands, she carefully scooped him from between her labia. He looked up and rose, she tugged him forward. He stroked her skin, from her thigh, over her hip, across her belly, slowly over her breast, up her neck, until his palm rested on her cheek. She pressed her head into it, and tugged on his sides. She felt his firmness slide over her, the heat radiating so powerfully that it was all she could do to not gulp. Her throat felt dry, her palms were wet, and she couldn’t wait. Slowly, achingly, he slid back and forth several times. She rocked her hips as he pulled back, and suddenly years of waiting were rewarded. Again, and again, and again. 


Somewhere in the ARCH, someone stirred from their slumber. They looked around, confused, certain that, for a moment, they’d heard the banshee. Except that it had come from inside the ARCH, and she sounded far too happy.

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 28

The speed of sound through steel is over 13,000 miles per hour, nearly seventeen times faster than the speed of sound through air. This is why Erik and Jo — lying together in an exhausted, sweat- and sex-infused heap — heard the the soul-shattering sound of girders bending in ways they dearly wished were physically impossible at the same time that they felt the immense wrenching of the ARCH’s structure. The sound was abruptly followed by metallic crashing, the unmistakeable crinkling of rigid structures being crushed, accompanied by the blood-draining screeching of people in various stages of dying. 

They were on their feet before the first wave of vibration had waned.

“Shirt!” Jo shouted as she hastily yanked her bra over her head; it came sailing across the room a second later.

“Underwear?” Erik asked, holding the white panties aloft. 

“Later!” Jo replied, already pushing her feet into her boots while buckling up her pants. 

The two of them burst from the Engineer’s Office, nearly wedging themselves in the doorway. Erik fell back by a half-step, but didn’t lose pace with Jo. Another massive salvo sent the floor out from under them, echoed with a wretched rending of iron. They stumbled, catching each other and managing to miss the floor. They slowed only long enough to exchange worried glances, then ran harder and faster. 

The door to the hallways beyond blew open when they unlatched it as a tsunami of people washed over them to get away from the disaster beyond. Jo clung to the door, while Erik hooked an arm through the doorway and around the other side to keep himself from being pulled away with the stampeding survivors. After a few moments, they managed to pull their way through the throng, and squeezed themselves out into another hallway. 

The hallway was so full that only Erik could see where to go, being taller than most. He lashed onto Jo, Jo reciprocating with a strong grip on his forearm. She pushed while he pulled, together shouting at everyone trying to flee to make room. But even Jo’s powerful voice was drowned out by the collective crying of the masses. Person by person by person they inched along the hallway, finally reaching an access to the atrium. Long before they could see the damage, they could smell it. Dust. Sand. The outside

“Mierda…” Jo’s voice caught in her throat. 

“Oh my god,” Erik cried softly. 

A section of the Block 4 roof, a hundred and fifty feet wide, and at least half of that in length had peeled open, collapsing into the heart of the atrium, like some great hand had punched straight down through a sheet of aluminum foil. Sand was pouring in from one corner, where a dune had formed above. The hole gaped like a ragged mouth caught in mid-scream, the fallen section reduced to a jagged wave, partially pierced by the bunk racks that it had mostly squashed. 

Crying and wailing came from all around, much of it muffled by the twisted metal girders and plates. Bodies were everywhere, some whole, some not, most bleeding if not already bled out. A few still moved, though some were clearly in their last moments. Most of the able occupants had already fled to the outlying spaces, a few remaining behind to help. 

“Find Kelly!” Jo said, as she started to job towards a small group of people standing at the edge. 

“I’ll get Francis to get his crew out here!” Erik shouted, heading to the workshop. 

“We need Kelly, first!” Jo argued. “Once she’s out here, we can get Frank!” Erik grumbled something, then changed direction and disappeared. 

Jo approached the group. There were about thirty, mostly men and about nine or ten women. “Is anyone hurt?” They all either said “no” or shook their heads. “Good.” She circled roughly two dozen. “You’re coming with me. I know you’re scared, but right now there are a lot of people who need your help. Follow me.” She pointed to the rest. “I need you to clear that area,” she pointed to a space that had bits of debris, but was otherwise protected under the roof, “so we triage the wounded. Got it? Go!” She took a few steps and turned. No-one had moved. “NOW!!” Nearly everyone in earshot lurched. The group split,  most bolting out to Jo and the rest starting to clean the floor, before Jo said anything else. 

She directed the rescuers to go around behind the crumpled part of the roof, where it still attached to the structure above, resembling a frozen waterfall. Her instructions were simple: check everyone for signs of life. If the person was alive, try to get them out to safety. If they weren’t, cross their hands over their chests and close their eyes. The first few victims went slowly, until numbness took hold and the group managed to move more quickly. 

Kelly arrived, looking beaten herself. She carried whatever she could in her small duffel bag, which amounted to some twine, some sticks, and her stethoscope. 

“Kelly!” shouted Jo. “Díos, are you okay?” 

“Yeah,” Kelly reassured her. “I hit the damn door when the building jolted. Almost knocked me out, but I’m fine. You?” 

“I was … downstairs,” Jo replied. “The dead are crossed, the living are starting to pile up over there,” said Jo, indicating three people laying in a row, a fourth being brought over. 

“Thanks!” said Kelly, starting to run to the wounded. “Let me know if there’s anyone else in there who needs help!” 

Jo rushed off, diving into the cave-in, with a whispered hope that she could do some good. Almost immediately, she was met with three bodies, each with their arms crossed over their chests. One of them, presumably a woman, had her head crushed under a girder. A man had been nearly bifurcated vertically. Another man impaled. The blood and sand formed into a thick, sticky red mud. The air stank of iron, stinging at her tongue, burning her nostrils. Jo fought back the urge to vomit, before realizing she hadn’t eaten. 

She came across one of the rescuers. Already they looked stunned beyond compassion, working solely to identify the living from the dead and nearly dead. The woman worked quickly, checking pulses, talking to them if she could. The woman couldn’t have been twenty-five, and yet she had now seen more horror in a few dozen paces than most people would have seen in two lifetimes. Instead of following the woman, Jo took a turn, and entered a large gap that had formed when the roof had fallen on top of the bunk racks. Three of them had toppled into each other, forming a support that had kept the roof from flattening entirely. Dozens of people were huddled underneath, some curled into weeping balls, others looked as if the devil itself had just walked past. 

She gathered the strong to help the weak, leading them out of wreckage to see Kelly. But there were those who wouldn’t move, or couldn’t be moved. A woman held a man’s hand to her chest. The man had died, from what Jo couldn’t tell. There no force on Earth, not even the Banshee itself, that could have forced the woman to leave. All she could do was tell the woman where to go when she was ready, and that she couldn’t wait too long. 

As Jo resumed searching, she saw a small, tiny hand, poking out from under a bent roof panel. She moved the panel to find a young girl, three or four years old. She looked utterly peaceful, like she had slept through the entire collapse. There wasn’t so much as a mark on her. But she wasn’t moving. Jo pressed her hand against the child’s chest. There was no beat, no breath. Jo felt her throat clench as her shaking hands crossed the little girl’s arms over her halted heart.

Erik appeared. Jo looked up at him, her hand still on the child’s chest. Jo could neither cry nor speak, her throat completely swollen and her sorrow utterly overwhelmed. Erik stopped, looked at Jo, then at the little girl. Jo’s head shook every so slightly; he nodded with barely a motion, then returned the way he had come. Jo wiped away a non-existent tear, forced herself to standing while pushing away the ache, unconsciously hoping there would be someone to save. 

Her footsteps were uneven, unable to feel her soles. Her feet were numb, her legs aloof. She felt like she was swimming standing up, like the world was slowing down like a wind-up toy almost out of spring. Nothing seemed right. 

A piece of the roof had bent into a neat tent. Inside Jo could hear a call for help. She had to crawl in on all fours, barely squeezing inside. She found a man, his legs crushed beneath a snapped strut. He begged for something Jo couldn’t understand. They were words she thought she should know, certain they were words she could speak. All she heard was gibberish. The man pointed to his waist, which had been bleeding profusely. Jo reached out and touched the pooling crimson with her fingers, and held them up as if they had become foreign objects, beyond recognition. The man grasped onto her wrist, and pulled … but his strength was weak. She couldn’t see him, or hear him, or smell him, or feel him. The man’s hand slipped, the muscles having gone weak and lifeless. 

Jo sat in the little metal tent, absent of thought, unable to move. A roof panel next to her head suddenly broke free, revealing Phil. Jo didn’t turn, or even blink. Phil tried to pick Jo up, and had to get help. 

“Jo?” asked a voice loudly. “Jo?” A light flashed in her eyes. “Jo!” There was a stinging in her cheeks, shooting sparks across her consciousness, unlocking her fugue. She blinked her tearing eyes, and looked up. It was Kelly. 

“There you are!” Kelly sighed. “Damn, what happened?” 

“I … saw …,” Jo muttered. 

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” said Kelly. She turned and looked around. “Erik!”

Erik reappeared a moment later. “Is she okay?” 

“No, she’s in shock. Took a while to set in,” said Kelly. 

“No injury, though,” he confirmed. 

“Not that I can see. She’ll be fine,” she said to Erik. She turned to Jo. “You’re going to have to stay here, Jo. Don’t go back in, okay?” Jo looked at Kelly, only partially registering that she was there. “Stay. Here.” Kelly went off to look at someone else. 

Jo sat on the floor, the world buzzing around her, insects flying back and forth within the hive, carrying their loads. Words seemed like a singsong of a separated and discontinuous sounds, recognizable only to those who spoke an ancient and forgotten tongue. She stared at someone, she didn’t know who. The person didn’t stare back, for they had already died. Jo didn’t know what she was looking for, or expecting. She closed her eyes and tilted her head back. She thought it might fall off. It would be a suitable end for her. 

The sound changed, registering somewhere deep in her prelimbic cortex. She opened her eyes, and gazed up through the mouth in the roof, to the sandy beige sky above. The sound continued, prodding her. Jo’s head slowly slumped to one side, as her brain fired off billions of warning shots in hopes something would stir. Danger. There’s danger. Danger is coming. She is coming. The Banshee is coming. Wake up. Get up! Move! ¡¡AHORA!!

Jo blinked. She blinked again. And she saw the sky starting to darken. A light cloud of sand blew in through the massive hole. She slowly stood up, still looking out the hole. The top of the cliff was just visible, the hard, sandblasted rock in contrast to the torn edges of the ARCH’s roof. And there, on the top of the cliff, looking down on Jo, was the woman in white. 

Jo’s voice filled the remains of the atrium. “STORM APPROACHING!!” The screams and yells came a half-breath later. 

“Everyone to the tunnels!” Erik shouted. “Go to the tunnels!” 

Like someone flicking on a light, Jo burst further into the atrium, repeating Erik’s orders. She ran through the debris and destruction, calling out for anyone to leave, to run. She managed to nearly circumnavigate the hole before the winds picked up, blowing across the sharp edges of the hole, creating a brutally deep whistle that pounded her ears. Almost everyone else had already fled to the north. Jo swooped in to pick up a stumbling victim and helped carry them out. 

The space beyond was packed, not a single person was moving. Jo transferred her load to someone else, and tried to push herself forward to find the problem. But she couldn’t move, no-one could. Without asking, she climbed up on a larger man’s shoulders, and saw that the crowd had rounded a bend, but wasn’t moving. They appeared to be trapped at the tunnel entrance. 

“Can you lift me?” she called out to the people around. They all looked back at the arrogant woman who had demanded she be put first. “I’m an Engineer! They’re holding us up at the tunnel entrance. I can order them to let us through!” 

Whether or not the crowd believed her ended up being inconsequential, as it only took a few people to start carrying Jo over their heads, passing from person to person, before she was sailing rapidly to the front. She very nearly soared into the air when the crowd suddenly ended at a line of guards, all armed with the sharpened metal poles. Instead, Jo made a fairly undignified landing on her posterior. 

One of the guards tried to pick her up and throw her back into the crowd. Expecting the motion, however, Jo was prepared, and whipped around behind the guard, pressing her multitool’s corkscrew into the man’s neck. He shouted appropriately. 

“Let them through!” Jo ordered. 

One of the other guards spoke up. “Carl said we weren’t—“

CARL’S NOT THE ONE IN CHARGE!!” Jo shrieked. The crowd’s sudden silence was overpowering. One of the guards dropped his pole. “The ARCH is collapsing. Let them through!” 

“But—“ 

“I’m about to order them to trample us to get past. You decide!” she shouted. The guards looked at the crowd, who had clearly heard Jo’s statement, looked at each other, and rapidly raised their staffs and stood to the side. The crowd rushed past, knocking Jo and her prisoner to the ground. She struggled to get back up on her feet, and found herself swept into the tunnels for safety. She took refuge in a pocket in one of the walls. She looked down at her hand, which had erupted in pain, and saw the gash. She quickly tore off a piece of her shirt and wrapped it around the bleeding. It was only then she noticed that the injury had likely come from the loss of her multitool. 

She couldn’t see the floor, she could barely see the walls with the crush of bodies spreading past her. It wasn’t long before the spaces to one side were full, and people had to press in further. The first level was going to fill quickly, she knew, and it wouldn’t be long before the second and third levels would experience the same problems. Someone else knew it too, and he wasn’t happy. 

Carl was yelling, though exactly what he was yelling couldn’t be heard above the crowd. He was shoving his way through, screaming at the entrance. “I told you! Don’t let them in!!” 

Only a dozen yards away, Jo knew that she couldn’t carry out an effective argument. Nor could she move from her temporary prison against the wall. But she didn’t have to: Erik appeared from the entrance, walking right into Carl’s face. He said something calm to Carl, exactly what she couldn’t hear. 

“These are my tunnels!” Carl bellowed back. A few people passing by looked painfully at him, but continued on towards refuge. 

Our tunnels!” Erik corrected, almost as loudly. “We have been building these for our protection. And right now, they’re needed, whether you like it or not, your Highness.” 

Carl wasn’t deterred. “So long as I’m the tunnelling lead—“ 

“So long as I’m the Chair, which you agreed to, you will follow my direction!” Erik jabbed his finger right into Carl’s sternoclavicular joint. “I don’t care if you don’t like it, this is the way it’s going to be. Now get your whiny ass up there and make room. This is no longer a tunnelling exercise, this is a fucking rescue!” 

Carl sneered, muttering something unheard to everyone except Erik. Erik flushed, muttering something back. For a few tense seconds, Jo was certain someone was going to throw a punch. However, Carl turned in a snap and drifted away with the crowd. Erik blew out a relieved breath, and pressed himself into the wall, to let people past. He encouraged everyone to keep moving, to find a spot until things settled down. He then looked around, to see who was there, and who wasn’t. It only took him a moment to spy Jo. 

“Are you okay?” he mouthed silently. 

Jo barely shook her head. She wasn’t okay. Not remotely. 

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 29

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

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

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

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

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

Because Erik had said so. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jo stood up, and walked back into the ARCH.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 30

“We need to move some of these people out,” said Jo. She stood in one of the intersections of the second level of tunnels, talking with Carl, Smiley, and Francis. It was a tight conversation, the four of them barely able to find space to stand amongst the throng of people that hummed like a relaxed herd of seals.  

“Finally!” Carl exclaimed.  

“Did Erik approve this?” asked Smiley. He garnered a harsh look from both Carl and Francis. 

Jo shook her head. “Not yet. It’s dangerous to have this many people in here, someone’s going to get hurt. We have to thin out who’s in here, get them into the safer parts of the ARCH until we tunnel at least another level. I think we can agree on that?” 

Carl nodded. “Yeah. Exactly. So how many can we put back?” 

“There’s, what, nearly five thousand in the atrium at any moment?” 

“Give or take,” said Francis. “I think I counted around that the last time I looked.” 

“You did a full circuit of the ARCH?” asked Carl. “What does it look like?” 

“The atrium’s shot. About a quarter of the roof went down. The side end is fine, but it’s almost impossible to breathe in there, without the noise. Fortunately, that’s about as far as the damage got: only Block 4 is really affected, and only the atrium. The lower decks are fine, and with the doorways to the atrium sealed, we can easily get back into the greenhouse, kitchen, dining hall, toilets, and the workshop. We can spread people out around the ARCH, and keep some in here. Once the rooms are carved out, we can set up racks in here.”

“So we can move almost half of everyone in here,” said Carl, sweeping his arms. 

“Ish,” added Jo. “Enough at least to make things here less cramped. And then we can worry about fixing the roof.” 

“Really?” asked Francis. “Why bother?” 

“Time,” said Jo. “We’re nowhere near ready for the population in here. The longer we keep the ARCH up, the longer we have to get things ready. We might not put anyone back in the atrium, but we’ve got to keep the hole closed so the wind and sand doesn’t do any more damage.” 

Carl nodded. “The longer we have, the more time we have to tunnel—“ 

“We need to tunnel quickly, Carl. I’m not talking about weeks or months. I’m saying days or hours. That roof collapse was out of nowhere. I can’t actually tell you how it happened. My gut says there was no reason for it to fall. That means we have a critical problem, why I think we don’t have long. But we can’t keep everyone in here. We need food harvested, our waste processing is out there, our core infrastructure is all out there. We’re not ready in here. Not yet.” 

Carl nodded again. “I won’t argue.” 

“Bueno,” Jo said cautiously, studying Carl. “Let’s move out who we can for now.” 

“How quickly can we have additional tunnel space?” asked Jo, looking at Smiley. 

Smiley looked awkwardly at Carl for a moment. “Eh, two weeks?” 

Jo mulled the time. “How many can we get into a tunnel?” 

“With or without rooms?” asked Carl.

“How long does it take to dig out a room?” asked Jo.

“A couple of days, depending on the rock,” said Smiley.  

“How many rooms are we supposed to have on each level?” Jo asked. 

“Eighty,” Smiley said slowly. 

“Eighty,” Carl confirmed. 

“How … how do we get everyone out of there and in here?” asked Jo. “That’s not enough space!” 

“We’ve got some ideas,” Carl said quickly. “Can we move people out now? We need to get digging.” 

Jo nodded. “Sí. I’ve barricaded the atrium from the tunnel entrance, so we can move people out into the other blocks. I suggest we get the gardeners, kitchen staff, and delivery staff back on duty, get people eating again.” 

“I think we should move the wounded out, too,” said Carl. “They’re not doing well in here. Is the infirmary intact?” 

“Kelly will have to approve it, but structurally it seems okay,” said Jo. 

“So we’re agreed?” Carl asked. 

“Not exactly,” said Bonnie, hopping around people to join the group. “I’m not sure I want to go back in there.” 

Carl groaned. “Bonnie, this is a Council call.” 

Bonnie snorted. “You’re a person short. Where’s Erik? He’s the Chair now, he should be making a final decision, right?” None of the Council moved. Jo rubbed her fingers together and tried not to stare too intently at the floor. “Really? You’re going to act like you didn’t hear me?” 

“It’s not that, Bonnie,” said Francis. “What do you want us to do?” 

Bonnie folded her arms. “Oh, I dunno, maybe find him and involve him?”

“We have been looking for him!” Carl grumbled. “He’s nowhere in the tunnels, and no-one’s seen him in the ARCH.” 

“He went looking for Jo, last I heard!” said Bonnie, glaring at Jo. “A repeat of the other night?” she asked. Jo blushed, but said nothing. 

Smiley frowned. “A repeat of what?” 

Francis ignored Smiley’s question. “Well, where is he, Jo?” 

“I dunno,” Jo answered quickly. 

“Yeah, that sounds believable,” Bonnie said. “Out with it!” 

Francis piped up next. “Sorry, Jo, but this is kind of important. Where did you last see him?” 

Jo shook her head in refusal. “I don’t want to talk about it.” 

Carl shook his head in disbelief. “This isn’t a ‘want’, Jo. This is a ‘need’. Where’s Erik?” he asked sternly.

“You’re not in charge,” Jo snapped. 

“Neither are you!” he returned. “And you’re acting like it. Now, where is Erik?” 

“I don’t care,” Jo grumbled. “And I don’t want to talk about it.” 

“They had a fight,” Bonnie mused. “Big one too, I’d wager.” 

Jo’s eyes flared. “Shut up! It’s none of your business.” 

Bonnie stepped around Francis, and stood toe-to-toe with Jo. “It is my business when you refuse to help. Your little lover’s quarrel is getting in the way of getting things done. I don’t know what you two talked about, and I really don’t care. What I do care about is talking to him, now.”

Jo gritted her teeth. “I don’t—“

“What are you hiding?” Bonnie demanded. 

“I’m… nothing!” Jo balked.

Bonnie snorted again. “You’re hiding something. You don’t want to talk about it. And we don’t care what it is. Erik is needed here, now, regardless of your stupid ego.” 

Ego? How the hell—“ 

“You strut around here like you own the place, you went to Batesworth when you didn’t get your way, you argued with everyone because it had to be your way, and no-one else’s. You never listened to anyone else’s opinion, and god forbid someone said you were wrong,” Bonnie snarled. “So stow it, missy. Your attitude isn’t winning anyone here today!” 

Carl looked half-admirably and half-astonished at Bonnie. He nodded slowly, and looked at Jo. “Bonnie’s right. Enough’s enough. Now.” 

Jo looked at all the others. They all looked back at her. The wall behind her suddenly felt far too close for comfort. “The last time I saw him was in the greenhouse,” she muttered. “We had a fight. That was three hours ago. I don’t know where he is now.”

Carl scratched his head. “Alright, we’ll have to just deal with it for now.” He looked at Bonnie. “Okay?” 

“Whatever,” Bonnie shrugged. 

“Jo, can you get the gardeners going?” asked Carl. “I’ll talk to Kelly. Bonnie, find the kitchen staff and get them running. Then let’s have everyone who wasn’t living in the atrium back to their rooms, and we’ll sort out what’s left.” The group nodded, and broke up. 

Jo found Anita and the gardeners in a corner on the third level. They had left the greenhouse, each carrying a plant, in the event of complete catastrophe. “Es el momento de volver,” she said.  

“¿Estas seguro?” asked Anita. “Yo no quiero estar ahí abajo si algo más se reduce de nuevo.”

“Creo que sí. El efecto invernadero no sufrió daños, y el RAMC es estable por ahora,” Jo explained.

“Eso suena como ‘tal vez’ para mí,” said Anita. 

Jo held her hands together. “Lo sé. Odio preguntar esto, pero te necesitamos ahora mismo. Todos nosotros. Sin ustedes, nos morimos de hambre.” Jo took Anita’s hands in her own.  Sé que usted no se siente seguro. Si yo fuera usted, no me siento seguro, tampoco. Tú me conoces, Anita. Usted sabe cómo trabajo, tú sabes que yo quiero para mantener a todos a salvo. No voy a pedir que te vayas. No quiero hacerlo, y me odiaría por hacerlo. Yo no le pido que vaya, si yo pensaba que estaría en peligro. Es seguro. Confía en mí. ¿Por favor?”

“Okay,” Anita nodded with a grim smile. She waved to the others, who all started to head out of the tunnels. Almost immediately, a wave of clapping and cheering followed them, and they saw every starting to smile, brightness coming back to their eyes. Normally tucked away from view, none of the gardeners spent much time away from the greenhouses, except for sleeping. By the time they left the tunnels, they all walked a little taller. The kitchen staff, as unrecognized as the gardeners, received nearly the same reaction when they left a few minutes later. Normalcy, it seemed, would come back soon. 


The winds were inside; the Banshee was inside. 

Jo stood at the other end of the atrium, away from the hole, studying it.  There had to be a way to repair it. They had built it once before, out of scrap bits and a lot of willpower. There was nothing stopping them from doing it again. Except for the wind. And the wind had an awful lot to say. 

“¿No has matado a suficientes personas?” Jo asked of the wind. “¡Esta es mi casa! ¡El hecho de que hayas llegado a nuestra fiesta no significa que puedas quedarte! ¡Eres un invitado no invitado!” The sand continued to swirl about in its own conversation, unaware of the animate being’s admonishment. 

She felt the thumping coming from behind before she could hear it. She smiled and turned: “Look, Erik, I’m sorry for earlier, it’s just that—“  She blinked. “Sorry, I thought you were Erik. 

Donner looked terrible. His face had the look of someone with urgent bad news. “Jo! You need to hide!” 

Jo’s face scrunched. “What? Why?” 

“They think you killed him!” he blurted. 

Jo’s blood froze, knowingly.“Killed who? Who’s dead?!” 

Donner froze. He hadn’t expected her to not know. 

She grabbed him by the shoulders and shook. “Who died, Donner??” Jo’s voice panicked. 

Donner replied. He was so quiet that the hurricane at the other end of the room stole the sound before it had even left his mouth. Jo heard enough for panic to spread from her voice to the rest of her. Her response barely left her lips.

Running was only possible in areas that had been evacuated, immediately slowed by clusters of people returning to the ARCH. She pushed through, careened off of walls and open structures, caught herself on exposed ridges and edges, and even fell a flight of stairs, all in the urgent need to get to the greenhouse. 

The gardeners were outside, huddled in a group. They whimpered, cried, and consoled one another. A few sat in shock. She rushed up to them. “¿Donde?”

They looked back in horror. Jo wasn’t certain if it had been the horror of the event, or of they had seen something in herself. One of them pointed inside the greenhouse, and whispered: “Allí”.

Bursting through the barriers, Jo immediately drew the attention of Kelly, who was perched over something shrouded behind a row of potato plants, and Carl, who stood beside Kelly. The look on Kelly’s face was enough to convey the news. Carl preferred more direct means: “Stop her!” 

Gary appeared to one side, and Dylan to the other. Jo darted before they could grab her. She ran through an asparagus patch to avoid them, jumped over a row of potato plants, and rounded a water barrel. Gary gave up after the first few paces, Dylan followed Carl’s hand signals to come in around to prevent Jo from escaping. 

Not that she was going to try. 

When she saw the body, all strength went from her legs, her momentum sent her flying to the ground. The small stones that formed the floor of the greenhouse dug into her palms, reopening her scarcely bound wound. Jo didn’t notice, she had gone numb. Her jaw trembled, her heart banged erratically, her eyes wanted to fly from their sockets, her ears heard nothing but the sound of blood draining from her skull. A strained, squeaky whisper eked from deep within, a piece of her soul rushing free from herself to join the one to which it had bonded. 

“No…”

Erik’s body lay next to the potato plants, effectively shielding it from anyone not venturing far enough into the greenhouse to see it. His head would have been facing Jo’s direction, if it hadn’t the appearance of having been imploded. She couldn’t see his eyes, but there was no mistaking the beard, or the shirt. His blood had poured all over the ground, and even the floor’s ability to soak up spills had been taxed with Erik’s demise. 

Gary and Dylan appeared at Jo’s side, forcing her to the ground. 

“Why?!” Jo cried. “Whyyyyyyyyyyyyy?!” 

“Jo,” Kelly started calmly. “It’s not good for you to be here. You need to leave.” 

“Please! I want to know what happened!! Who did this?!” 

“You did,” said Carl, calmly. “Your little performance there is pretty good, but we don’t give out Oscars anymore.” 

“Fuck you!!” Jo screeched. “I didn’t kill him!!” 

“Huh,” muttered Carl. He squatted down next to Erik’s smashed corpse and prodded a bloody clump with a gardening spade. “You know what this is?” He didn’t expect — or wait for — an answer. “It’s a neat little gadget, with all sorts of little tools … and knives. Like the one that apparently slashed Erik’s throat. He bled out. But you know that, of course.” 

Jo’s sorrow had retreated, hiding in the corner as its darker sibling, fear, took hold. “What is that?” She already knew. Fear had already told her how everything was about to unfold. And fear was having a heyday. 

Carl looked at the blob thoughtfully. “You don’t recognize it? Hmm, maybe all that blood does make it a bit difficult. I suppose that happens when it starts to dry from being out for so long—“ 

“It’s mine,” whispered Jo. It had been more of a question than a statement, meant mostly to confirm the script her fear had been reading out to her. 

Kelly tried to look Jo in the eyes. “Jo, you don’t have—“ 

“Yours,” Carl nodded. 

“I lost it in the rush to get into the tunnels,” she said, holding up her bloodied palm. Kelly immediately grabbed it, and wrapped a torn cloth over the wound. 

“I see,” Carl mused. “Convenient. And the argument you had with him? How bad was it? Did he accuse you of being abrasive and arrogant? Did he hurt your feelings?” 

Jo’s face flipped into fight. “I swear I’m gonna—“ Gary shoved Jo down hard.

“Kill me?” Carl finished. “I wouldn’t doubt it. You did a pretty good job on your boyfriend. I wonder how he looked when you stabbed him. I wonder if all the love you exchanged ran as brightly as his blood.” 

Jo screamed. She screamed in protest. She screamed in anger. She screamed in anguish. She screamed to be heard. She screamed to be freed. She screamed in fear. She screamed against nature. She screamed against humanity. She screamed to be saved. She screamed to kill. She screamed so powerfully that she thought that her vocal cords would shear. She screamed so long that she worried her lungs might collapse. She screamed so perfectly that four nearby glass panes in the greenhouse shattered. 

When Jo had finally ran out of breath, Carl motioned for Gary to tie Jo’s hands behind her back, and wrap another rope around her head, and through her mouth. “Get her out of here,” he said lowly. Gary and Dylan hauled Jo to her feet. She struggled against then, and tried to kick them. Carl walked up swiftly and socked her across the temple with his fist. 

As Jo’s head flopped about in a daze, Carl came close. “You know, I talked with José after Henry had died. He had an interesting thought,” Carl said. “He told me that the Banshee isn’t outside. She’s right here, with us. You never get hurt, have you noticed that? You’re always the one who escapes death. That’s because you are death. You bring it with you. Everyone who’s died here has been around you, or near you. You killed Henry. You killed the Professor. And now you’ve killed Erik. Well, it stops now.” He leaned in close to her ear. “We’re putting you outside, where you belong.”

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 31

Jo awoke alone in a room that she wished she hadn’t known: a round room with two doors, at the south-eastern edge of Block 9, on Level 1. The rope that had been put in her mouth remained. Her hands and feet were bound also with rope. She could hear the winds outside, just as harsh and shrill as they had been in the atrium. She realized she had no idea how long she’d been out. It was a brief moment of freedom from reality, which flooded back in a reeling rush. 

Erik was dead. Someone had killed him. He’d been stabbed with her multitool, his face beaten in. And those were the things she remembered, images nearly burned into her retinas. She suddenly wished she’d remained unconscious. Her eyes teared up. Without others around, her body finally unwound, her emotions laying themselves out in their rigidity, heaviness, and pain. She dissolved in grief, and wept wholly and deeply. Her eyes ached, her heart swelled, her gut teared, her throat knotted. 

Jo let her head thump into the floor. She could feel her invisible wings, the ones she had used to wrap around the ARCH to protect it, moulting bare. Like a fall leaf, she could feel herself crinkle as the sap drained away, her colour wash out, and finally dry and crumble. The great echoes of her life’s meaning had dulled to a muted tone that huddled in the recesses of her withering soul. 

She cried long and hard, unable to stop. She felt like she was six years old again, each sob spurring another in a self-repeating motion. It could have been an hour, it could have been a day, Jo let the tears flow and the sorrow embrace her like an iron maiden. 

Carl walked into the room, followed immediately by Dylan and Gary, and the same two large Engineers that never seemed to put down their pointed poles. Carl sauntered over to Jo, and squatted next to her. 

“Comfortable?” he smiled. Jo let loose with a string of curses that she couldn’t get past the rope in her mouth. “I thought so,” he said after she stopped. He stood and backed up a few paces. “Well, then shall we get on this with this?” 

Jo suddenly realized that she hadn’t been chained there as prisoner. She started screaming through the rope while trying to stand, but her feet were strung to her hands. She tried to bite through the rope, talk around it. Every sound flowed together into a long multisyllabic vowel. 

“Oh, your tribunal?” Carl asked, innocently. “We had it already. We found you guilty. And we’re sentencing you right now. No sense in delaying the horror, right?” 

Jo felt her blood drain. She tried to yell again. She looked at Donner and did her best to plead with him. Donner’s expression was terrible. 

“Yes, we know the wind is still strong,” Carl nodded. “But we can’t wait for it to die down again. For all we know, it might never stop. And we can’t keep such a horror like you around. What would the population say?” Jo jerked at her ropes, rolled hard against them. “I’d say I was sorry,” said Carl, looking at Jo thoughtfully, “but I’m not. Personally, I can’t wait until you’re out that door.” 

Carl snapped his fingers, and the two guards pulled Jo’s arms up behind her back. It was hard enough to elicit a muffled scream as the joints twisted unnaturally in their sockets. They dragged her over to the outer door, which Gary opened. Jo glared at Gary, who returned the gaze with a smile and a wave. The guards threw Jo into the room and pressed her face down into the floor.  

“Now, as I recall, everyone banished gets a knife,” said Carl as he walked into the room. The two guards pressed their points into Jo’s chest and thigh, keeping Jo in place. Carl produced the multitool in his hand, rinsed a little of Erik’s blood, but still stained. “Thanks for letting me borrow this.” He tucked it into Jo’s pants. He leaned in closer to Jo’s face. “You really did a number on him. When I found Erik in the greenhouse, he was really upset. He told me that he’d been an ass to you and how you’d punched him. Hell, the idiot damn near nearly cried on my shoulder. It’s probably why he didn’t see the knife before I slit his throat.” 

Jo snapped forward with a restrained shriek, trying to hit Carl with her head, but Carl moved out of the way. The spears plunged into Jo’s shoulder and leg, drawing blood and raising a sound equal to the one outside. As she struggled, she felt something heavy hit the ground in front of her. She looked for the sack she clearly hadn’t seen thrown in … but it wasn’t a sack. It was heavy, soft, slightly bigger than herself. It smelled of dirt and death.

Jo screamed. Even through the rope, it was clear. In the small room, the sound echoed painfully. Her ears split from the ringing.  

“I thought you would have liked this, Jo?” Carl yelled through the doorway. “Did you not want to buried with your lover?” He laughed. “Any final words?” he asked. 

“HUH HOO!” 

The floor dropped out from under Jo’s body, as it tilted to a forty-five degree angle downwards. She tried to cling to anything in dear life, but gravity performed its duty, and sucked Jo down. Erik’s body slid down the ramp next to her, ending nearly eight feet above the ground. 

The gale swept in as Jo slid from the ARCH’s protection and immediately scoured her eyes. She slammed her eyes shut and tried vainly to free her hands. She felt her feet leave the end of the ramp. She flipped over onto her back, hoping to catch the edge of the ramp before she went over, but she was travelling too quickly for her hands to seize anything. She cracked one eye to see where she was headed. All she saw was Erik’s remains sliding off the end. 

The force of the wind slammed her with an invisible sledgehammer, and pressed almost all the breath from her chest. It kicked up her legs, which flung up so quickly that it slammed her head into end of the ramp as she left it. She didn’t fall straight to the ground, instead being thrown a few body lengths down the slope of the valley floor. She lost the remainder of her breath crashing into sandblasted rocks. Sand raced into her open mouth, as the rope kept her from closing it.

The sand was only a momentary matter, as the wind picked Jo up like a tumbleweed, and threw her further down the hill. She gained speed so quickly that she became unable to determine direction or orientation. Then the ground seemed to disappear, and she felt the sensation of flying. She struggled to open her eyes, and saw glimpses of the immense rock walls that surrounded the ARCH, the beige sky, the mottled ground. 

The last thing Jo saw was a large outcropping of rock, which got frighteningly larger at every glimpse as she spun erratically. She knew she was heading towards it, and at the speed she was moving, she had little doubt that she was going to die. 

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 32

The wind howled. It blew from all directions, putting sand and dust in any corner or crevice that hadn’t already received an allotment. The sand drifted in small dunes, until the dunes pressed into a barrier, forcing them to slither about to find a new route. It piled up, flattening out a landscape that had once been revered for its rocky sharpness, it’s harsh reliefs. 

There were few refuges. These occurred where the winds blew more in a steady direction, creating a leeward draught that functioned to draw sand away. A kind of a dry oasis in a storm of sand. At the leading edge of the ARCH’s canyon home, the wind wrapped around a four hundred foot precipice, creating an eddy in the wind. In that space, there was a large crack in the rock. Deep inside, there lay a woman. 

Jo bolted upright to sitting and immediately regretted the motion, as her head suddenly registered a 217-degree shift laterally in combination with her near-90 degree vertical rotation. Her inner ear declared an abrupt independence and Jo slid onto her side, landing in a pile of fine dust. She coughed profusely before slowly propping herself up on her hands. Her head sagged as her body fought to re-annex her rogue vestibular system, producing a few waves of nausea. 

After a half an hour, Jo manage to move without either falling over, or experiencing a crippling need to try vomit out her otherwise empty stomach. Her vision was slightly blurry, though it was still sharp enough to see the damage on her limbs: multiple bruises and scratches, a partially twisted ankle, a strained wrist, a possibly fractured left forefinger, most of her arm banged and carved into red-flecked streaks, her ass ached horribly, and there were two huge goose eggs on her head. She sat in the dust and flexed her hands to see if they even worked properly. 

“Sorry, Kelly, looks like I took all the luck with me,” she muttered to the cave. 

Jo stood carefully, with one hand on the wall for reassurance. It was dim where she lay, the light having scattered its way into the cave from its narrow opening a couple of dozen feet away. A pair of huge boulders, a few feet apart from one another, formed a small barrier, keeping the noise, wind, and sand at bay. She walked around the waist-high rocks, closer to the mouth, closer to the everlasting storm outside. 

The wind whipped at Jo’s hair, flinging it around. But it was only the wind — there was hardly any sand at all. Jo needed only to squint to keep the specks out. There wasn’t much to see. The land outside was reddish and sandy, like every other part of the canyon that she had ever seen. Visibility wasn’t more than a dozen feet in any direction. The mouth of the cave, still several feet away, was riddled with large rocks that looked like they’d broken off from higher up the cliffs. The entrance swooped up sharply into a tight peak, the side flaring out to about twice the width of the chasm behind it. 

She stood, looking out into the desolation. “So much for luck,” she said. 

Movement caught her attention, near the left side of the cave’s entrance. She squinted again, hoping that it might clear up her vision. It emerged from the sand, moving at an unnaturally low height from the ground, as if it’s legs had been cut off above its knees, its head was twisted almost a quarter turn from vertical, like the shape was trying to put its ear close to the ground. It was a few more moments before could see that it was a sheep, an animal she had never seen before in her life, but somehow knew that despite its motion, was dead.  

Then Jo saw that the sheep was being dragged by a large cougar. She whipped behind one of the rocks before the large cat saw her and decided that a two-course meal would be appropriate. She huddled for nearly a minute before decided that the cougar didn’t have any plans that involved her. Slowly, Jo peeked around the edge of the rock, and saw the cougar using its huge, clawed paws and sharp white teeth to make quick work of the sheep’s belly. Tufts of wool skipped about in the breeze. The tawny animal purred loudly as it ripped pieces of mutton free from their former host, licking its chops after ever few bites. 

Jo stopped paying attention to the cougar, and looked more closely at the sheep, noting a blue mark on its haunches. She looked back at the cougar, which despite the wind looked like any picture of a mountain lion she’d read about in books. 

A pair of hands suddenly pulled her back and flipped her around. One clapped over her mouth, the other formed into a single finger moved in front of a pair of lips to indicate silence. The lips and hands were owned by Robert Ferris. 

Jo nodded curtly. Robert slowly backed away, indicating that Jo should stay down, and then moved back inside the cave. Jo stared at her banished friend, then slowly got up and followed him. Some distance further past where she had woken was a small fire, over which was suspended a small metal bowl on sinew ropes. In the bowl was water, and what looked like roots. He squatted over it, gently stirring with a stick. He nodded to her silently and motioned her to sit.

“Don’t worry, the cougar won’t come back here. It doesn’t smell us, we’re downwind. It usually stays only around the entrance,” Robert explained. 

“Usually,” Jo nodded slowly. 

“I heard you screaming,” said Robert. “It sounded like you passed right by the cave entrance, going downhill. You must’ve hit a part of the outcrop, I found you on the ground. I thought you’d died, but you were still breathing, so I brought you back up here. I found a piece of rope in your mouth.” Robert finished, asking a question. 

Jo reached up and touched the corners of her mouth, which felt raw and sore. The skin was cracked and scabbed. “They gagged me.” 

“You must’ve bitten through it,” he commented. 

Jo bit a couple of times, and noticed that her teeth didn’t seat properly. Something was out of alignment. “Ugh.” 

“How’re you feeling?” Robert asked. 

Jo instinctively felt her arms and head. “Okay… I guess.” There was an awkward pause, and she felt a need to inspect lower down. 

“I didn’t do anything,” he said, picking out the root from the pot. He broke off a small piece, chewed a moment, and put the rest of the root back in. 

Jo said the only thing she could think of. “Oh.”

“You don’t believe me,” he nodded. “That’s okay. I don’t blame you.”

“I do,” said Jo. “I … you said you were framed. How?” 

Robert sat back, and leaned his arms over his knees. “What do you know of my supposed crime?” 

“Uh, well, I was told that you’d … um … beaten and raped a woman.” She felt much warmer than she cared. “I never believed it,” she added quickly. “Not you. No way. That sheep is more dangerous.” She jerked her thumb towards the entrance.  

“So you don’t know.” 

“The truth? I don’t think so. The trial was a sham.” 

“Rich went along with it?” asked Robert. Jo nodded soberly. “Bastard never even talked to me.” He sighed and sat heavily. “Let me guess,” Robert mused, “you were set up for murder, right? I mean, I could see them accusing you of other things, but murder has a way of galvanizing people against you really quickly.” 

Jo gasped. “S-sí.” 

Robert shook his head ruefully. “You got in the way,” he explained. “You rocked the boat, or discovered something you weren’t supposed to see. You had to be eliminated.” 

“They who?” asked Jo. 

“Do you really need to ask?” 

“Carl.” 

“Uh huh. Who else?” 

“Gary. He’s been Carl’s right hand forever. Probably Dylan, too.”

“And Frank.” 

“Frank?!” Jo balked. “But… Dawn…!”

“Dawn’s not involved. Why do you think she was reduced to Carl’s errand girl? That was to keep her in the dark.” 

“In the dark for what? What’s going on? Why the hell did all of this happen?” Jo searched her thoughts. “Did they kill Erik??” 

Robert’s head snapped up. “Erik?” 

“They…” Jo sniffed, and wiped a tear. “Carl told me he killed him. He used my multitool.” She dug out the handheld set of tools from her pocket. The tears formed a stream from her eyes. “They mashed his face,” she sobbed. “And blamed me!”  

Robert looked straight at Jo, unmoved. Slowly, he extended a hand and placed it on Jo’s knee. Jo flinched at the touch. He quickly retracted it. “Sorry. I…”

“Esta bien,” Jo whispered and snuffled. “I… I, uh…” She closed her eyes and threw back her head. “I can’t believe this is happening.” 

“I’m sorry, Jo. I am. You really loved him.” 

Jo wiped away more tears. “How… how did you know?”

“Because I saw the way you looked at him, even if he didn’t. It wasn’t respect or admiration, it was adoration. You wanted to be with him. I remember watching you in those god-awful Council meetings when Batesworth was going off on the need for proper structural reviews. You just kept staring.” 

“I thought I hid it,” Jo smiled slightly. 

“Did he ever know?” he asked. 

“Yeah, we … he … I told him,” she said quietly. “They used it against me, didn’t they?” she sniffed.

“They framed you,” Robert said. “It’s a good thing Rich is still there or they’d…” His voice trailed off. The look on Jo’s face conveyed a novella of detail. “It’s only been … ten days? What’s happened?” 

Jo swallowed hard, wiping away the wetness from her eyes. “Rich is dead, accidental electrocution.” She blinked. “Actually, it might not be.” 

Robert slumped. “He was murdered, too?” 

“M-maybe. He touched a panel in the electrical room that had been intentionally shorted,” said Jo. “Someone wanted someone else dead.” 

“Rich and Erik. And you banished,” Robert whistled. “They really are going to run the place.” 

“If it doesn’t fall down first,” said Jo. “The roof collapsed in the atrium.” 

“Was that an accident, too?”

“No se. The whole structure’s been shifting. We’d only just put in some girders in the greenhouse to keep it from slipping more. It … it could have been an accident.” 

“How many rooms have they tunneled out?” 

“Not nearly enough. We’ll be lucky to get half the people in there right now.” 

“Is Smiley running the tunnels?” asked Robert. 

“Carl.” 

“Gotta admire the guy, he twisted everything his way.” 

“What do you mean?” 

Robert lay back into the cave wall. “Did you get shares?” 

Jo shook her head slowly. “How do you know about those?” 

“Carl came to me a few months ago after we started tunnelling. He was talking about making sure that the Engineers got what was due: our own spaces, making sure we kept our place in the world. He tried to convince me that we should give out shares, making sure the Engineers had the most so we could have our choice.” 

“You ever tell anyone?” 

Robert snorted. “I should have. But I brushed off Carl, told him he was being elitist. The idea was bad enough, trying to find something to represent a share was pointless. What were we going to use, rocks?” 

“Then they found gold,” said Jo quietly.

“They told you?” 

“I found it. They’ve been stockpiling it. I thought it might be for making wire for lighting.” 

“Hmm,” Robert shook his head. “No.” 

“Those are the shares, aren’t they? The gold coins?”

Robert spat a laugh. “Carl created his own monetary system. Labor for gold. You tunneled, you got gold. You get enough gold, you could buy a room.” 

Buy a room? But … those weren’t for sale! They’re for everyone, to save lives!” 

“Carl didn’t care about saving lives. He just wanted to control the place. He wanted it his way.” 

“I always knew Carl didn’t like the Council or how he never got his way, but … there’s no way he could do this without their support.” Jo looked hard at the fire. “Francis is on Carl’s side, isn’t he?”

Robert nodded. “Francis was in on the shares early on, mostly because Carl needed his turned into coins. Francis liked the idea of less work, and fewer people taking his stuff.” 

“It’s not his stuff—!”

Robert looked at Jo and Jo trailed off. “His storeroom isn’t for him.” 

“You’ve only seen the stuff Francis wants you to see. He has another storeroom somewhere with all sorts of stuff in it.” 

“Like what?” asked Jo.

“Blocks of pig iron, barrels of oil and gasoline, sheets of glass, rolls of fabric. I even saw a couple of guns.” 

“W-what?” Jo whispered. “Guns? Fuel? Raw materials? We could have… so many people… You’ve actually seen all of this?” 

“There’s a hatch in the floor of the workshop, under one of the tables. It’s really hard to see. I opened it once by mistake when I was moving a girder across the floor. Carl caught me replacing the hatch cover after I’d climbed out. He tried to act all cool and curious, and asked if I’d seen anything. I said ‘no’, of course. I told him that the floor panel had come loose and I was putting it back. I’m sure that put me on his watch list right then and there.” 

“And Carl’s in control, now,” she said. 

“With you and me thrown out, Erik and Rich dead, there’s no-one left on the Council who didn’t side with Carl. They were all in his pocket.” 

“Even Smiley?” asked Jo. “I mean, I thought he was always a fair guy…” 

“Yeah, I don’t know about Smiley,” said Robert. “I always got the sense that he did things because he was told to do them, not because he agreed with them.” He shook his head. 

“Dawn?” 

Robert started to answer and stopped. His lip rolled a moment before he spoke again. “I don’t know. Dawn and I got along fine and we never talked about and of this. But she is married to Francis, so…” He sighed again. “Not that it matters anymore, not where we are.” 

“Where are we, anyway? Is this anywhere near the ARCH?” 

“Yeah, it’s a few hundred yards up the valley,” said Robert, pointing through the cave wall towards the ARCH’s location. He saw the look on Jo’s face. “You’re not thinking of going back?” 

“I want to help,” said Jo. 

“You want revenge,” Robert corrected. 

“Engineers help, Robert. It’s what we do.” 

“It’s what we did, Jo. We can’t help anymore. We’re not in control,” said Robert, hanging his head. “We never were, you know. Nature didn’t want us to have control. We’ve been fighting her for years just to survive. And it turns out we were wrong.” 

“Wrong? How are we wrong by trying to save lives?” asked Jo. 

“You saw them,” said Robert, pointing towards the mouth of the cave. “Out there, right now. Two animals. Both of them healthy. From everything we know of the Banshee, they shouldn’t even exist at this point. So how are they still able to survive? We failed.” 

“How can you say that? The Robert I know doesn’t run away from a problem. The Robert I know smiles in a disaster and makes the problem run in fear!” 

“The Robert you knew isn’t me,” he said, standing up. He motioned to the small pot on the fire. “That’s a root soup. It’s not the most flavorful thing, but it’s got a lot of nutrients. It’ll keep your strength up. Stay here by the fire.” He walked towards the entrance of the tunnel. “Get some rest.” 

“Where are you going?” Jo asked. 

“To watch the wind. It’s about the only thing to do around here.” 

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 33

“Where are we going?” Jo asked, as Robert guided her into the depths of the cave. 

Jo had to crouch a little, though not as much as Robert, to stay below the narrow top of the crevice. The walls looked like they should be rough, but were smoothened to the touch. Like the rest of the cave, there were random bits of rock strewn over the floor, forcing the both of them to walk at a slow pace so they could see with the dim fire Robert held in front of him. The shadows leaped into the blackness before and behind them, their footfalls echoing dimly off the erratic surfaces. 

Robert didn’t reply, instead leading Jo around a variety of corners before winding up at the shore of a small underground pond. The roof was riddled with tiny stalactites, dripping into water so clear it was almost hard to tell that it was even there. He motioned to the pond, and handed Jo a cup. “Get it in you,” he smiled.

Jo didn’t argue, snatched the cup from his hand, and washed the dust from her mouth. The water was slightly salty and had a bite to it that reminded Jo of tasting minerals in one of her college classes. She drank four cups before finally handing the container back to Robert. Then she belched, the sound ricocheting like a grenade in the small space. 

“Disculpe,” she smiled, “y gracias.” 

“I’m fairly sure this isn’t the best water for us given the salts in it, but death by dehydration is not something I want to experience,” said Robert. He drank two cups in quick succession. 

“I some how knew you’d survive,” Jo said, sitting down at the edge of the pond. The ground drew in water, quickly wicking into her pants; she realized that she had never recovered her underwear from Erik’s office. “You’re the one who found this canyon, you’re the one who found the spring, the one who managed to get the asparagus to grow, the one who found Smiley and started the tunnels—“

Robert tried to brush it away by waving his hand. “I didn’t do all that.” 

“Yes, you did, Robert,” said Jo. “You showed us how. Without you, we’d have been blown away out there on the scrublands.”  

“I had a lot of help,” he said, “and support from people like you. Without that, we couldn’t have done anything.” 

“You would have survived,” smiled Jo, indicating the tunnel and water with her hand. “You know how. I always admired that about you.” 

“You … I didn’t know.” 

Jo’s stomach interjected. 

“Hunger is going to a challenge for you,” said Robert. “There’s not a lot here.” Robert crawled over to one side of the pond, and picked up a handful of whitish spidery tangles. “These help.” 

“Those were the roots in the soup?” Jo asked. 

Robert handed her one. “It’s nothing fancy. The roots are edible, the rest of the plant isn’t. There’s enough nutrients in one of those to cover about half your vitamin needs for a day.” Jo turned the root over in her hands several times. “It’s not the tastiest thing in the world—“ 

“I’ll say,” she muttered. 

“—but you won’t die of malnutrition.” 

“Just starve to death,” said Jo. “There’s no way there’s enough calories in there to keep you going.” 

“No,” said Robert. He stood, and lifted his worn shirt. His ribs popped through his skin. “Not even close. If you don’t supplement with other things, you’ll waste away.” 

Jo eyed him cautiously. “Like what?” 

“Whatever scuttles by, you don’t question it. You eat it.” 

“Qué asco,” Jo winced. “Seen any cows, lately?” 

Robert chuckled. “Nothing that large. Just the two cougars.” 

Two?

“One male, one female. I’m not sure if they’re mates or not, I’ve never seen them together. I think they come to the cave because it’s a good shelter. But they never go far inside and never come at the same time. At least, not that I’ve seen.” 

“What about the sheep?” asked Jo.

“Until yesterday, I hadn’t seen a sheep before down here,” said Robert. “That cougar must’ve brought it from somewhere else.” 

“Do sheep go feral?” Jo pondered. “Maybe there’s a herd of them up there?”  

Robert shook his head. “It was healthy. It’s being taken care of. It was domesticated.” 

Jo struggled against her false hope. “But… it could just be taking care of itself…?” 

“Did you see its coat?” 

“Yeah…” 

“It was trimmed. Maybe a month ago, at the most.” 

“Trimmed?” 

Robert leaned in. “Someone sheared it. That doesn’t happen naturally.” 

Jo’s heart leaped painfully. “¡¿Qué?!

“Uh huh,” he said, “someone — somewhere out there — was taking care of that sheep.” 

“People are alive…,” Jo whispered. “More than just us…” 

“That’s what I’m guessing. Y’know, unless sheepdogs figured out how to use sheep shearers, anyway.” 

 “We need to find them! We need to let them know we’re down here! There’s ten thousand people who need rescuing!” Jo was nearly bouncing with excitement. “Forget the tunnels, we can be outside again!” Robert looked at Jo like she’d spawned a few more arms. “What?”

“Are you insane?” he asked. 

“About?” 

“You can’t go out there!” said Robert. “In that wind, you’d be dead before you got five steps out the door.” 

“You survived,” said Jo. 

Robert slumped, then slowly pulled his shirt over his head. The skin that Jo had seen in the room before Robert’s ceremonious exit from the ARCH was caked with blotchy, dark red scabs. Some had already come off, leaving behind the angry pink new skin. 

“¡Dios mío!,” said Jo. She shrank a little, and asked quietly: “Is that from when you … when we threw you out?” 

“Yeah,” said Robert, carefully putting his shirt back on. “When I fell off the ramp, I lost my grip on my shirt. The wind took it pretty much clear to the other side. I was so pissed I threw rocks at the ARCH’s walls for about an hour.” 

“I heard you doing that. Perdoname, Robert.” 

“I was lucky that I found this cave so I could make it through the first night. Searched for three days before I finally found my shirt. I was on my way back to the cave when the winds came back. I wrapped the shirt around my head, and … well, you’ve seen the rest.” 

“Perdoname,” Jo repeated, her eyes moistening. 

“You’re not responsible, Jo—“ 

“Yes I am! I was on the Council, Robert! We’re the ones who decided to banish you!” 

“Did you vote to banish me?” he asked calmly. 

“No,” she said quietly. 

“Well, there you go. You didn’t throw me out. And since you’re now here with me…” 

Jo’s stomach growled fiercely, the sound echoing in the small chamber. She looked down, then looked up sheepishly. “Heh, sorry. I guess I’m a bit hungry.” 

“I can make some more root soup…?” Robert picked up a handful of the root clumps and held them out. Jo winced audibly. “Look, you need to eat something.” 

“Like what?” she asked. “That soup isn’t enough. How are you surviving on this?” 

“A couple of small lizards,” said Robert. “I’ve even managed to catch a couple of mice. I would love to catch a ground squirrel, or better yet a jackrabbit.” He sighed and sat on a rock against the wall. “But it’s been mostly insects.” 

Jo cringed. “Ugh. Really?” 

“Hey, don’t knock it. You can do a lot worse than a couple of beetles for breakfast.” 

Jo felt her root soup starting to come back up. “¡Basta! I’m not ready for that.” 

“Give it a few days. You’d be surprised at how quickly you change your mind,” said Robert glumly. “Oh, but don’t try to eat the centipedes unless you break their heads off first.” 

Jo had to clamp her hand over her mouth. She swallowed heavily for a few moments before opening her mouth again. “Another word, and you’ll be eating that cup.” 

Robert grinned mischievously.  

“See, now that’s the Robert I know,” Jo jabbed her finger towards him. “The twit who’d sit to the side and make everyone squirm!” 

“Old habits,” he explained. “It’s good to not be forgotten,” he said, smiling thinly. 

“I don’t suppose that cougar left anything of the sheep?” asked Jo.

“They’ll only leave the skin and bones,” said Robert. He snapped up at a thought. “Though I could make some bone broth! That’ll do us both wonders. After the wind dies down, we’ll find some more wood, I don’t have enough to do a long boil.” 

“Ah,” said Jo. Her stomach growled again. “Is there enough wood for making more root soup?” 

“Yeah,” said Robert, standing up. He’d barely taken a step when he spied something moving in a shadow. “Don’t move.” 

“Don’t… why?” 

“Shh!” Robert went ramrod still and didn’t blink for nearly a full minute. Then, with a motion that didn’t seem possible from a man so gaunt, Robert shot his hand down, and returned with a three foot long, sandy-colored snake with diamond-shaped blotches on its back. It snapped about wildly, its rattle’s mode set to ‘thoroughly pissed’. 

Jo scrambled backwards and landed in the pond. “¡QUE CARAJO!” 

“What’s the matter?” Robert asked innocently. “It’s just a rattlesnake.” 

Jo was having none of it. “Just a rattlesnake? Aren’t they … poisonous?” 

“Very,” Robert nodded. The snake agreed, flaring its fangs. “However, there is a way around that.” He pulled out his knife, held it to the back of the snake’s head, and in a swift, clean stroke, swiped the head clean off, landing it on the floor near the wall opposite Jo. The rest of the body, surprised at the sudden decapitation, thrashed about for a few moments. 

“That was… gruesome.”

“Well, it’s either that, or risk being bitten. And you don’t want to get bitten by a rattlesnake,” he said. “Incidentally, don’t touch the head. The venom’s still powerful and its reflexes are still powerful enough to break the skin.” 

“Santo mierda, there is no maldito way I’m going anywhere near that!”

Robert hummed to himself as he started to walk back towards the campfire. Jo stared at the severed snake head for a few moments, then — her eyes levelled on the immobile head — slowly picked up what was left of the torch and followed. 

“So, uh, what are you going to do with that?” asked Jo as she caught up. 

Robert turned around. In one hand was the snake, and in the other, the snake’s skin. Jo dropped the torch, nearly putting it out. 

“¡Mierda!” she carefully picked up the torch and blew gently to bring it back to life. She returned her questioning gaze to Robert. 

“You’re hungry, right?” he asked. “Well…?” 

Jo’s appetite wanted to beat a hasty treat to anywhere else. Her stomach, however, argued in favor of potential food, irrespective of its source or appeal. “I… guess…” 

Robert used his knife, quickly scooping out the former snake’s guts onto the ground next to the fire. Then he draped the limp meat over the frame that stood over the fire. He lowered it down as low as he could without putting the meat in the weak flames. “We’ll give it about a half an hour. That should do.” 

“Is it safe to eat?” asked Jo.

Robert waved off the concern. “Oh yeah, there’s no venom in the meat.” 

“Have you eaten snake before?” Jo asked.

Robert squatted next to the fire, and watched the cooking meat with care. “When I was about twelve, my mom got transferred to Dugway.”

“Ah, si, the base brat. You did a circuit between Dugway, Vandenburg, and Corpus Christi. You lived out of your Star Wars suitcase until you were a teenager.” 

“Yeah,” said Robert surprisingly. “New base, new kids, new friends, new enemies, it’s the way it always went. We had a neighbour—“

“Finney,” said Jo, her mind piecing together an old memory.

Robert looked Jo. “Finney,” he confirmed slowly. “My dad said he was Special Forces.”

“But Finney wouldn’t ever say what branch he was with,” added Jo. 

“How do you know that?” asked Robert. 

“You told me.” 

Robert looked confused. “I… told you that?”

“Yeah, one night about a week after we’d finished the first ARCH. We were at a campfire and you were telling stories—“ 

“I remember a bottle…”

“—and you talked about Finney.” 

“Are you sure?” asked Robert slowly, his memory slowly rebooting. 

“He took you survival camping!“ 

“Hold on,” said Robert. “When did I tell you that? I never told anyone all that.”  

“Yes, you did!” said Jo. “He had a big dreamcatcher tattoo, right here,” she said, indicating her right shoulder. “You said that’s why you got yours.”

In the fire light, Jo saw Robert blink. “I’ve only ever shown one person that tattoo,” he said slowly. His eyes drifted as he desperately tried to find the missing dusty piece in puzzle of his memory. “That night … the stories … I went off into the dark with …”

“That was you?!” they both squawked. Their voices echoed rapidly in the cavern, followed immediately by a shrill laughter. 

Jo shook her head laughing. “I … wow, I feel bad that I didn’t remember it was you. Though now I can’t figure out how I didn’t remember.” 

“Me, neither,” said Robert. They were both silent for an uncomfortable moment before Robert spoke again. “Was it any good?” 

“It’s weird how this all suddenly floods back.” 

“Yeah.” 

“I don’t think it was bad,” Jo giggled. Robert smiled and blushed. He prodded the snake with his finger. “One weekend, Finney offered to take me camping. My dad thought it was great idea. I think my mom just about had a heart attack. We went way off into the back country. When we set up camp that night, he surprised me by saying he hadn’t brought any food.” 

“Dios mío… That couldn’t have gone over well,” said Jo. 

“I think I cried for the first hour. Finney either didn’t notice, or pretended he didn’t. He built a fire, and then disappeared. I was about to panic when he shows up, throws a skunk and a snake next to the fire. He made it sound like this was the plan all along, and I was excited to be there.” 

“And you weren’t.” 

“Oddly, I was starting to,” he said. 

“Even with the skunk?” 

“Once he descented it, anyway,” said Robert. He turned the snake over. The smell of cooking meat wafted strongly about Jo’s senses. She swallowed at the mere thought of having meat again.

Robert continued. “He said the skunk was the main course, and the snake was a required appetizer.” 

“That doesn’t really sound like much of an option…” 

“That’s what I thought at first. But it was either that, or starve. And I wasn’t too keen on starving. When you get hungry enough, you’ll eat just about anything,” he said. 

“I’m not eating bugs. No way!” 

“Give it a few days.” Robert turned the snake again, and pulled off a small piece. “So how hungry are you?” 

Jo’s stomach growled in response. “What it said, I guess.” 

Robert held out a piece of snake. “Try a small piece first. I can tell you that it tastes like a mild chicken.” 

“Quiero pollo,” said Jo, taking the small piece in her hand as if it were a biological hazard. 

“Now imagine you’re eating you’re eating a really tough piece of beef,” Robert offered. 

Jo looked at the meat pinched between her fingers, and its cook. “That’s not helpful.” Jo took a deep breath and lobbed it into her mouth. True to Robert’s words, the meat did in fact taste like chicken, if someone had diluted the flavour in about a pint of water. And while the texture required a fair bit of chewing, she found it went down rather well.

“¿Más?” he asked. 

“¡Por favor!” She picked away at the piece of snake, pulling out the meat between the ribs with her fingers. 

“Well, that wasn’t a lot of food,” said Jo, licking her fingers, “but it was lot more fulfilling than the mushrooms I’ve forced down.” 

“It’s really more of a rattlesnack…” 

Jo snorted. Then she guffawed. A smile ripped across her face, followed by a distinct titter, which lead to another snort, a restrained bark, and then all-out laughter. She laughed until she had trouble breathing. She laughed so hard her abdominals clenched. Her hilarity rang up and down the length of the cave. Robert sat and smiled. 

“You really needed that, didn’t you?” Robert asked as Jo finally started to wind down. 

She wiped tears from her eyes. “Oh sí, mi amigo,” she said. “I missed those terrible jokes.” She looked at the bones, discarded onto the fire, crackling in the heat. The glow of laughter, even the highly emotional situational kind, faded quickly. “Still, that was another creature. It was just minding it’s own business…” 

“I wouldn’t worry about it. That snake was old, maybe ten years. It led a good life. Think about where it was living — it wasn’t having any trouble finding food. And if it mated, I’m sure there are lots of other snakes out there with its genes. They’ll live long, good lives, too. Besides, I would worry more about yourself.” 

Jo looked worried. “Why…? I thought you said it wasn’t poisonous!” 

“The meat wasn’t, no. Your body, on the other hand, doesn’t remember meat. Omnivore or not, you’ve been eating vegan for the last decade. Your guts have to remember what to do with animal protein.” 

Jo looked despondently at Robert. “You knew this was going to happen? And you let me do it, anyway?!” 

Robert smiled mischievously. “Hey, what are friends for?” 

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 34

Robert found Jo sitting near the entrance to the cave, watching the wind whipping past, the sand scraping against the rocks like some horizontal, dry waterfall. The winds were strong, but there was no Banshee, only a distant reminder floated along with the grains of sand. She sat, cross-legged, staring at some point that seemed well beyond their current visibility. She was straight-backed, her hands resting on her knees. 

“Hey,” he said, approaching. 

“Hey,” she replied. “I can’t hear her here.” 

“The Banshee? That came from the ARCH, a natural harmonic with the wind. The sound doesn’t carry very far.” He sat down next to her. “How’d you sleep?” 

“Once the cramping died down, not too badly, actually.” Jo rolled her head around her shoulders, but continued to look out. “You?” 

“About the same,” said Robert. “I don’t entirely sleep. I haven’t in years. It’s a hard habit to break. Besides, with the cougars out there, I’m not sure I want to sleep too deeply.” 

“Good point,” she said. 

Robert sat down next to her. “Are you meditating?” he asked. 

“No,” she said.

“Oh.” He tried to follow her gaze, but the sand was obstinate in its transparency. 

“Why haven’t you tried to go back?” Jo asked. She still hadn’t changed her stare. 

“I got thrown out?” he said slowly. “Remember?” 

“Yeah,” she said. 

“Well, there you go.” 

“So you gave up.” It was a less a statement than an attack. 

Robert spun to stare at Jo directly. “How would going back do me any good?” 

“It was never about you. You’re an Engineer, Robert—“ 

“I was an Engineer,” he said. 

“You are an Engineer,” said Jo, turning to him. “You rescued me from out there. You could have just left me to die.” 

“You’re my friend,” he said. 

“I threw you out, Robert. I was there. You didn’t know which way I’d voted. You had every right to just let me rot. But you brought me in here, nursed me back to health. You made sure I drank. You fed me. It would have been easier to just let me die. You protected me.” She leaned over and touched Robert’s knee. “You’re an Engineer, Robert. You never stopped being one.” 

Robert’s lips buckled against one another. “Thanks for believing me.” 

“I’m sorry anyone ever doubted you.” 

“I can’t go back, Jo. You know that. What would people think if they knew I was there?” 

“There’s over thousands of people in there. No-one sees every face and barely even notices the ones they do see. You could have hidden. You could have lived out your life without any of us knowing you’d come back,” said Jo.

Robert waved his head about. “Maybe. Even if I could get up there. With these winds, it’s just not possible.” He ran his hand gently over his belly, feeling the ridges of his ribs underneath the thinned fabric. 

“You could have gone through Block 2,” Jo continued. “There’s lots of—“ 

“Enough, Jo!” Robert said loudly, nearly shouting. “You can’t save everyone!” 

“Yes, I can!” Jo cried back. “I have to!” 

“Not everyone is worth saving.” 

“They threw you out Robert. Doesn’t that bother you? They made you responsible for a crime that never happened!” 

“Maybe it did.” 

“What? Robert, you’re not that kind of person,” said Jo, “you didn’t—“ 

“Can you prove I didn’t?”

“I… what are you saying? You said … did you assault that woman?” 

“I don’t know.” 

“You don’t remember,” corrected Jo. 

“No.” 

“Because they beat you nearly to death.” 

“Because I was drinking.” 

Jo went silent a moment. “¿Qué?” she said quietly.

“I was drinking the disinfectant.” 

“There’s rules against—“ 

“Every one of those rules has been broken, they mean nothing!” Robert shouted. “Rich made rules so he could feel like he was still a professor. You had no idea how many people drank that stuff.”

“How could you?” Jo whispered. 

“Because I’m Robert the Great. Robert the Wise. Robert the Savior,” he spat. “How many times did you—,” he thrust his finger at Jo, “— put me on a pedestal, Jo? How many times did you truck me out as the guy who could do it all? ‘Robert designed the ARCH to last a hundred years’, ‘Robert’s got a plan to get us all into tunnels’. You have any idea how much pressure you put on me? I wasn’t allowed to fail! One mistake, we’re all dead. I couldn’t handle the stress.” He slumped into a pile of himself. “I still can’t. I’ll live out what’s left of my life,” his voiced quietened, “outside of the ARCH.”  

Jo reached out and touched Robert’s foot. “No, mi amigo. You don’t deserve this. I was with you drunk before, and you definitely didn’t hurt me.” She said as softly as she could over the wind. “I’m sorry if I made you feel like you were the one we all needed. You just seemed to always be the one with the answer we trusted. You loved the challenge of surviving in the ARCH. You were the only one who never lost hope. Remember when Block 3 collapsed halfway through construction? You smiled, picked up a girder, and started over. When we decided to tear out four levels to build the atrium? You were the first out out there with a cutting torch. I still remember when you said we were going to build the tunnels. I thought you were joking from how giddy you were acting. None of that was a life-altering challenge for you. It was a game to you. You were never happier than when someone told you something was impossible. You made it your mission to prove them wrong. Like when Carl told you there was no way you make a dent in that rock without a ton of dynamite? When he laughed at you because you walked up to the face with a flimsy-looking pickaxe? And you broke off a huge piece that nearly broke his foot?” 

Robert sat up slowly, a thin smile breaking the moroseness. “Carl yelled for an hour.” 

“Don’t give up,” said Jo, bringing him close. “You’re better than this, Robert. And if you stay out here, you might as well just be telling Carl that he has your blessing to keep doing the things he’s doing.” 

Robert sighed heavily. “What do you want me to do, Jo? I’m stuck here, and so are you.” 

“No, I’m not,” she said firmly. “We just need to think of a way to get back in there.”

“Don’t forget the wind,” Robert reminded her. 

“That’s not the part that worries me,” she said. 

Robert raised an eyebrow. “Then… what does worry you?”

“Los lacayos de Carl,” she muttered, resuming her distant stare. “There’s enough of them to be trouble, and Carl’s done a good job surrounding himself with loyalty. Even if we do get in, getting to Carl is going to be hard.” 

“‘We’?” Robert asked. 

“Yes, Robert, ‘we’,” said Jo affirmatively. “I’m not leaving you out here to dine on snakes and avoid cougars. You don’t deserve this.” She looked out into the blasting sand. “No-one did,” she added, turning to Robert. “Besides, I’m pretty sure that I can’t do this alone. And I’m going back, no matter what.” 

“Revenge?” Robert asked. 

“A bit,” Jo admitted. “Also vengeance, for what they did to Erik. But most of it is just me being really colérico about how he’s putting so many lives at risk for his petty greed.” 

“You know what they say about vengeance, right?” Robert asked. “‘She who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for her enemy and one for herself’.” He smiled again and looked at Jo. “Just make sure one of them isn’t mine.” 

“Does that mean you’re coming?” smiled Jo. 

Robert grinned. “I miss the asparagus.” 


“How far away are we?” 

“About a mile and a half,” said Robert. 

“So we have to travel a mile and a half through a sand blaster,” she said. “How much shelter do you think we could find?” 

“As I remember from our surveys, not much. Boulders here and there, but nothing that’ll keep us out of the wind.” 

“Oh, what I would do for a big sheet of aluminum!” She looked to Robert. “You didn’t happen to find—?” 

He shook his head. “The scroungers who were out last time got everything.” 

“Maldito.”  

“Too bad they didn’t banish you with the suit,” Robert joked. 

“That would have made my departure a lot less painful,” said Jo. She reached for the bumps, still prominent on her head.  

Robert caught a glimpse of a whitish tuft underneath the sand near the entrance. He cocked his head slightly and stared at it for several moments. “Wolf,” he said. 

Jo’s head snapped around like a radar array. “Where?” 

“There,” he said, pointing to the remains of the sheep’s carcass, barely visible under the sand. 

“I thought that was a sheep?” 

Robert’s grin was back. “A wolf in sheep’s clothing.” He walked to the edge of the cave’s entrance, took a deep breath, and lunged quickly into the blast, grabbed at the wool still sitting above the blowing sand, and pulled hard. The wind lashed at his back, tearing at his shirt and pants. He cringed to keep his neck as sheltered as possible, but there was little place he could hide anything exposed. The sand weighed down the skin and it barely moved. Jo picked up on Robert’s plan a few seconds later and leaped up to assist. Together, with some difficult, they managed to heave in a collection of skin and bones into a calmer part of the entrance. 

“Thanks,” said Robert, coughing out little clouds of dust. He then let out a slow aching groan, as he ran his hands up his lower back. They came out with small spots of blood. He felt his neck. “That hurt…” He tried to turn unsuccessfully. “How bad is it?” 

Jo looked at his back. The scabs that had been there were gone, torn free in the abrasive wind. New scratches had formed, likely from smaller bits of rock carried along. His neck looked raw, but otherwise unbroken. “I’ve seen a lot worse than this. I’m sure it stings like hell, but it’s not bad.” 

“Feels bad,” he said. He ached again. 

Then he got down on his knees, and tried to stretch out the desiccating skin, peeling the bones free where they had dried on. He searched with his fingers through the dark red splotches of dried meat and blood. The skin was all in one piece, though the cougar had done quite a bit of damage, creating holes and large tears. He hummed thoughtfully. 

“I dunno,” he said. He tugged gently on the hide in a few places, then held it up. The skin folded about on itself in a fuzzy, bloodied tangle. “This would let so much sand through…” He looked at Jo. “And no, I don’t have any needle and thread, so don’t ask.” 

Jo had already started picking through the bones and scrap that had come along with the carcass. Amongst it was a drying brown lump that looked like large noodles all bundled up. She tried to pull it apart. She caught a whiff of feces. “Is this what I think it is?” 

Robert examined the lump. “If you think its guts, you’ve got a good eye.” He picked it up and turned it over in his hands. “Yeah, if we wet this up, we might be able to sew some of those rips together. It won’t be perfect—“ 

“It’ll be good enough,” said Jo. “I assume you know how to do this…?” 

“Let me tell you about the pants I had to sew together with the leftovers of a few groundhogs…”


They dug a hole further back into the cave, deep enough to almost bury the lump. Next to it they placed the hide, wool side down. Then they took turns carrying water from the pond, and pouring it alternately onto the lump and the hide. Over the course of several hours, the lump slowly expanded, revealing its structure: parts of the stomach, bits of the upper intestines, and most of the lower intestines. The hide softened, and the rough edges uncurled.

The smell was becoming overwhelming. The carcass had already long since began to rot, and it had been only the drying effect of the wind that had kept the smell away. Sheltered and wet, the stench of decaying flesh and half-filled guts filled every crevice within the cave. Jo’s snake snack started to object in terrible ways. 

“I may never eat meat again,” she burped. 

The stomach was cut in almost a spiral, to create a long, thin string. The upper intestines ended up being too mangled for any real use, so it was thrown back outside. The lower intestines, being the real treasure, were drawn out straight, scraped down using the backs of their knives, then cut into thin strips. With the strings ready, they quickly set to cutting small slits down the lengths of all the tears. 

Starting with the largest of the tears, they took the slippery and foul-smelling catgut, and started sewing the holes up. At Robert’s direction, the strings weren’t pulled taut, as the drying action of the catgut would solve that problem, and he didn’t want to make the skin curl back up again. As the parts were sewn, they placed heavy rocks to keep the skin in place. 

It was many hours before the work was done, and the patched hide lay flat on the cave floor. Frankenstein himself could not have done a better job, had he been handed a mauled and decayed corpse, and told he could only stitch it back together with whatever he could find inside of it. 

The sheep’s bones were broken open with rocks, the shards boiled in water for several hours along with the roots. The roots took quite a bit more time to boil down to a consistency where they could be readily eaten. The broth, however, was strong and delicious, and provided the both of them with a powerful infusion of nutrients that neither of them had consumed in many years. It was well into the evening before they finally ate, and into the night before they’d finished. 

“How long until the hide is good to use?” Jo asked. 

“A few hours, at least,” said Robert. “Why, are you in a rush?” 

“You mean, how badly do I want to kill Carl?” Jo asked. 

Robert tried to recoil. He tried to show surprise. He tried to be a Good Human and tried to demonstrate some kind of revulsion for the nonchalant disposal of a human life. But he couldn’t. His anger and frustration roiled under his veneer, jumping up and down like a petulant child demanding every crumb of his attention. 

“Probably more than I’ve thought about it,” he said quietly. “You have good reason. Definitely more than me.” 

Jo tried to recoil. She had spoken out of spite, out of anger. She hadn’t expected anyone — certainly never a man who had never shown any kind of malice — to share her thoughts. The lingering feeling of Erik’s last touches skipped across her skin, her last words with him stung at her soul, her knuckles crackled at their last contact. She looked down at the sheepskin, and felt a strange kinship with the tears the cougar had imparted. She looked at their haphazard stitching, and touched her chest, wondering if she could ever be made whole.

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 35

“I think it’s ready,” said Robert. It took nearly a full day for the catgut to harden. As Robert had expected and promised, the stiffened material pulled the seams shut. “I think it’ll hold until we get to the ARCH.” 

Jo picked up the hide, feeling its stiffness in her hands. They’d sewn in three large loops of catgut so she could keep the sheepskin in front of her, facing into the wind. She wrangled her hands through the near-solid straps, and took a few steps to practice hiding behind it. She walked to the cave entrance, took a few steps into the wind, and then came back in. “Funciona,” she said. She put it down on the ground and the two walked back into the cave to the pond, each drinking as much as they could.  

“¿Listo?” 

“No,” said Robert, “but let’s go anyway.” 

“Para mañana, cenamos en el infierno.”

The threshold from still to full-force gale was narrow, only a couple of feet. The sheep had been quite a bit smaller than Jo or Robert, so they had to crouch down to hide behind the skin’s protectiveness. Almost immediately, the wind tried to push Jo over. Robert leaned into Jo and kept her upright. Robert tapped Jo on the shoulder, a sign to moved forward. In her crouched position, it meant wrapping the hide over the top of her head to try prevent the wind from scooping onto their backs, and under their shirts. The wind buffeted the hide wrapped to her hands, pushing hard at her wrists. The skin wrapped around her sides, blocking her entire view of where they were going. Robert tried to look behind him, to see if he could orient himself based on the outcroppings that protected the cave’s entrance. 

Taking a proper step was nearly impossible. Moving their legs forward one at a time under the wind’s pressure proved to be impossible. Instead, they resorted to shuffling them a quarter step at a time. The action had the side-effect of nearly burying their feet in the sand, forcing them to pick up their feet every few steps to climb back on top. 

And so they went: shuffleshuffleshuffleshuffleshufflelift, shuffleshuffleshuffleshuffleshufflelift, shuffleshuffleshuffleshuffleshufflelift. 

It wasn’t long before their mouths were dry of the water they had drank, their lungs felt like they were filling with dust. The hurricane lashed the insides and outsides of their ears. They felt like they should be drenched in sweat, though the arid air whisked away moisture before it neared the surface. So parched and burdened, they kept shuffleshuffleshuffleshuffleshufflelifting. Their quadriceps ached with the micromovements, the arches of their feet felt like they would crack as they rolled over the loose, shifting soil. 

A burst of wind nearly toppled Jo, Robert nearly lost his balance as her back pushed into the hand he’d kept there. Trying to keep herself vertical, she fell slightly forward, coming to land on her knees. Robert tucked in behind her. Closer to the ground, the winds weren’t quite as powerful, and they could get a few moments’ rest before trying forward again. They checked behind them to ensure they was going in a straight line. 

They saw the outcroppings almost as clearly as when they had left. 

“¡Vete al demonio!” spat Jo. “¡No me rendiré, madre puta!” she shouted towards the wind. “You hear me?!” She looked back at Robert. “How the hell do the cougars make it down here without getting torn to shreds? One of them dragged that sheep!” 

Robert looked thoughtful. “Good point. They must have found a route along the bluff.” 

“Think we can find it?” she asked. 

“It’s worth a try! Head towards the very edge of the canyon wall!” 

Like crabs, they side-shuffled to the side until their shoulders hit rock. Almost immediately, the wind caught the edge of the edge of the hide and tried to steal it away. It took both Robert and Jo clinging to it to keep the skin down. As they wrestled, Robert’s foot slipped, and the two of them landed on the ground. 

“That’s how they did it!” Jo cried. “The cougars stayed down low. The wind gradient is a lot lower here! That’s why I couldn’t see the cougar at first!” 

“Looks like we have to crawl our way up there,” Robert shouted over the wind. 

They tried crawling one behind the other for a short distance; the sheepskin’s length wasn’t enough, and Robert quickly found his rear far too exposed to the winds. They changed so that they were side by side, each with a wrist through a loop, their shoulders pressed tightly against one another. Their sides were more exposed, but once they were against the wall, the wind had less of an effect. Thus they moved forward: inside hands, outside hands, inside hands, outside hands, inside, outside, inside, outside… A few feet at a time, pressing into the wind. 

The first rock they reached was small enough for them to slide over like wooly amoeba. The next one, however, was the size of three people and loomed over them. It did offer them a buffer from the steady pressure against them, so it became a welcome rest. The stop was short, owing to neither food nor water to consume, and they rounded the blunted edge of the rock. The wind snapped around behind them, pulling up the hide like Marilyn’s dress over a subway grate. Blinded and exposed, they tumbled while desperately trying to pull the protective cover back over them. 

The sand scratched at their faces, burned at their necks, clawed at their legs. Even with the sheepskin’s stiffness, the hide still managed to twist, requiring them to spin around until they were face into the wind again, and pulled the skin back overtop. They collapsed into the rough surface of rock and sand, gasping and aching at the sudden intake of pain. 

They backed up until they found a doldrum where the winds were erratic, and then carefully turned and moved forward again. Just beyond the calmer space was a fierce, straight-on tempest that ground their progress from feet to bare inches. The ground had been stripped of finer particles, leaving cracked rocks and stones in their path. They frequently had to stop to scrape away enough protrusions for them to land their hands safely; their knees suffered through the worn fabric of their pants. 

 A crosswind shot through an unnoticed gap in the canyon wall like a sucker punch, throwing Jo into Robert. Robert’s right arm crumpled under the shock and he fell sideways, causing Jo to flip over top of him. They landed on their backs, the sheepskin underneath them. The cyclone delighted in its race over their faces. 

Jo rolled hard to her right, pushing herself on top of Robert’s chest. “Roll right!!” Jo shrieked over the wind, and continued her motion. Robert rolled immediately, and they landed on their bellies again, the hide flapping over their heads once more. Both of them coughed terribly and struggled for breath. “You okay??” Jo yelled. 

“No!!” Robert shouted back. 

“Me, neither!!” 

It was that just over four hours after starting, that they collided with the edge of the ARCH as its outer wall burst from the canyon floor. Above them, across the roof, came a sound Jo hadn’t heard in days. The shrill shrieking of the Banshee rolled down the curved surfaces of the ARCH like an avalanche. It washed over them, and raced down into the valley. 

“I wish I could say I missed that sound,” shouted Jo, shivering at the screeching despite the padding in her ears. 

“Now what?” asked Robert. 

Jo shouted back: “We have to go up!” 

UP?! You mean, over the roof?!” 

“You got any better ideas?” she asked. 

“What about the overflow? It’s a thinner part of the outer wall…” 

“Aside from the stench, neither of us would fit into that pipe! The pipe is too narrow for me, let alone you! There’s at most a six inch gap for us to squeeze through!” 

“You’re making that up!” he shouted. “You don’t know that!” 

“Yes, I do!” she retorted. “I’ve been on maintenance for two years, Robert! I know every crack in every joint in every dark corner!” 

Robert stared painfully at Jo. “If we fall off the roof, we’re going to get hurt.” 

“If we fall, we’re probably going to die.” 

They plastered themselves to the ARCH’s outer wall, and felt for the bumps in the canyon wall. Finding her first solid grip with her hand, Jo found a foothold, and pulled up. She hauled Robert up behind her as she went. He tried to scamper up the incline and find a place to hold on. Then Jo quickly ascended again, passing Robert, and found a new hold. She pulled him up, held, and continued. They quickly reached a point at which the wind had a far stronger effect.  

Jo reached down with her free hand and dug out her multitool. Using her teeth to hold the tool, she unfolded the knife, and shoved the blade into one of the thin gaps between the roof panels. Seeing the idea, Robert followed suit, and held himself in place. He grinned at Jo, she grinned back, and they continued their way up the side. 

Once they’d crested the point where gravity’s pull had waned and only the wind fought to push them off, they spread themselves out lower, their bellies pressed as firmly into the ARCH’s surface as they could manage. Then, using the knives to help anchor them down, pulled themselves slowly over the building’s skin. They slunk along like a pair of snakes under a blanket caught in a hurricane. They kept the leading edge of the hide tucked under them, gripping it with their inner hands as they inched forward. Sand snuck through every gap, crack, and seam it could find, attacking them randomly. 

Though greatly overpowered by the sounds around them, Jo felt one of the sinew repairs snap under the strain, and a tear reopened next to her leg. She could feel the hot poker-like stabbing of the wind. There was another cracking, and the tear got longer, running all the way down to the trailing edge. The skin broke free and started snapping against her. Jo howled in pain, and urged Robert to move faster. 

They rounded the dome of Block 8, and Robert could feel a crack in the roof, the slope bending down inwards. “STOP!” he shouted. 

“We need out of the wind!” Jo screamed back. 

“I’m about to fall!” Robert yelled. “There’s a hole here!” 

“You go first!” Jo shouted back. “This will hurt, but if you can crawl over the edge and grab a girder, you can get under the roof!” Jo’s leg was starting to go numb. She could feel wetness. She refused to look. Instead, she reached under the slapping sheepskin, and started pushing. “Get moving!!” 

Robert unlooped his hand from the hide, pushed out with his hands and found the edge of the roof. His fingers felt like they were under a belt sander as he pulled himself from under skin, and over to the edge. Sand pelted right into his scalp and tore at his face. He pulled himself until he was able to stare down into the floor several stories below. A broken girder protruded nearby, which he grasped and shook hard. Being stable enough, he hooked his right leg over the lip, and wound it into another girder. Letting the wind push him into the lip of the hole, he pulled himself under and into the structure. 

Jo shifted herself under the skin so that the ripped edge stopped hitting her. Her leg felt as if someone had stabbed a dozen knives into it and then twisted them all quarter turns in each direction. She felt a double-thump under her, and assumed it meant Robert was inside. She followed his path to the edge. 

She paused as she started to pull her hand from the skin’s catgut loops. Damaged or not, she couldn’t try to climb inside with it still attached to her — it would obscure her vision and its surface could catch more than enough wind to throw her off balance. Jo tugged her hand against the tough sinew, when the wind caught the hide and sucked it away, the leading edge flipped up, slapping her from the chin to the forehead, splitting her nose and tearing her cheek. Sparks flew into her vision and blood rushed into her sinuses, the dried catgut tore into her wrist with savage fury, ripping the skin clean open. Sand scraped at every exposed part of her body. Adrenaline shot through her systems like lightning and she lost her grip on everything, feeling herself start to slide along the roof. She screamed as she felt safety slip away. 

An iron grip slammed into her wrist. Jo blinked and saw Robert at the edge of the hole, his head haloed by the blasting sand. With both hands, he heaved Jo forward and through the hole, dropping her the floor. He slipped back inside, nearly falling. Trickles of blood seeped down his arms, the back of his head looked like it had been shorn with a belt sander. 

“You okay?” he called over the wind. 

“I am now,” she said. “Looks like I owe you again.” 

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 36

Jo and Robert lay slumped against a wall, leaning together, wedged among a group of people sound asleep in the west side of Block 4. Above them, the Banshee sounded angrier than usual, her wails sliding over the surface like a fast-moving shark, with added guttural growls to make up for the lack of visible teeth, thoroughly pissed at having lost a pair of victims. 

Neither Jo nor Robert noticed. They had found a peaceful rest that only the utterly spent ever felt.

The watch bell, barely missed during the atrium roof collapse, rang, waking Robert from his slumber. Jo was already awake. 

“Morning,” he grunted. “How’re you feeling?” 

“Sore,” said Jo, touching her leg gingerly. It had bruised terribly from the beating it had received, already turning a grotesque shade of purply-green. Amazingly, the skin hadn’t broken. “I can barely feel part of my leg.” 

“Do you think you can walk on it?” he asked. 

“No se,” she replied. Using the stirring room as an excuse, Jo used the wall as a brace, pulling herself to standing. The leg ached, throbbed lightly, but otherwise offered little sensation. “I can barely feel the floor under my feet.” 

“Nerve damage, maybe,” said Robert, looking at it carefully. 

“Maybe.”

Robert stood and looked at Jo. “Holy shit!” he said a little too loudly. He inspected Jo’s head. “That sand did a number to you.”

“You, too,” said Jo quietly. “You’re torn up bad.” 

“We’re alive, though, right?”

The woken started to move out of the room, heading into the hallway. “Let’s stay in the crowd,” Robert said quietly. “If we stay here we might make ourselves conspicuous.” They followed the others out the door into hallway, lined with still-sleeping people. “Was there a population explosion after I left?” 

“The atrium roof collapsed,” said Jo. “They probably had nowhere else to go.” 

“The tunnels?” 

“I’m willing to bet Carl’s probably kicked everyone out.” 

They followed the crowd as walked in a round-about route to the dining hall. Jo noticed that nearly every movement of her leg lent to more than a few questions of its reliability. The slow march came to a near-halt, moving exceptionally slowly. And there were hundreds of people ahead of them. 

“Dining hall,” whispered Robert. 

“I know,” said Jo. “Should we get out of line?” 

“Conspicuous,” said Robert. “Besides, I could use some food.” 

“Yo tambien.” 

Two people came rushing down the hall in the opposite direction. Jo recognized only one of them: Phil. Neither of the people slowed, going right past Jo and Robert and everyone else without so much as a glance. 

“Engineers,” snorted the woman behind them. 

“Edna,” cautioned another woman. 

“What?” the first woman demanded. “Like they even know we exist. They only care about getting more rations than the rest of us!” 

Jo felt the urge to debate, but quickly fought it down. Jo and Robert exchanged a glance of understanding and silence. 

“They keep a roof over our heads,” said the second woman. 

“No, we keep the roof over our heads. They just take credit for it!” 

Slowly and painfully, Jo and Robert kept pace with their equally unnoticed comrades-in-waiting. After a while, Jo started to lean on Robert’s shoulder, the numbness in her foot causing a surprising amount of discomfort considering she couldn’t feel anything. Like everyone else in line, they kept quiet, speaking only periodically. 

“We used to bypass this every day,” whispered Jo as quietly as she could to Robert. “I never realized how long people had to wait. No wonder they resent us.” 

Soon they could smell food: asparagus, potatoes, and mushrooms; though it was still nearly twenty minutes of shuffling before they reached the front of the line. As they moved slowly along the edge of the dining hall, they could see the people at the long tables coming and going, some eating quickly, others prodding their food as if to ensure it weren’t about to attack them. 

“Why haven’t I noticed this before?” she whispered to Robert. 

“Because you’re an Engineer. We never saw the trees in the forest.” 

Jo noticed a little girl, who was smiling and laughing as she ate her meal. She toyed with her asparagus spears like swords, the mushrooms became little soldiers riding atop their potato horses. Her parents smiled as broadly as she did, and encouraged the carefree moment. 

“Cara feliz, malos tiempos,” said Jo. 

“Ration?” asked the clerk. 

Jo’s head snapped up. She stopped herself before she could utter: “I’m an Engineer, I don’t need a ration bracelet.” She froze, unsure of what she was supposed to do next. She looked down at her wrist, where the bracelet should have been, had she been an ordinary resident. “Oh, god!” she cried. “Where is it?!” She stepped back and looked at the floor down the line of people behind her. “Oh no… No, no no no no!” She exaggerated her hobble, almost collapsing as she dragged her sore leg as she tried to find the non-existent bracelet. She made it nearly halfway down the room, before turning to the front. She pressed hard in into one of her many bruises, eliciting sharp tears. Slowly, she reapproached the clerk. “I… I don’t know where it is!” She looked at Robert’s wrist. “Honey, yours is gone, too!” 

Robert tried not to look either surprised or confused, and landed somewhere in the middle of the two. “What…?” He saw Jo’s eyes and looked at his wrist. “Were we…?” 

“Robbed,” said Jo. “We’ve got nothing…” 

“Oh for the love of… here!” the clerk moaned and shoved a tray at Jo. “That was the worst acting I’ve seen in months. Normally I’d tell the both of you to shove off,” she nearly tossed a tray at Robert, “but you two look worse than the cave-in group from yesterday. You’re catching me on a day that I care. Next!” 

It was the same meal everyone got, in the same portions, in the same trays with the same cups of water. They made the effort to disappear into the far corner of the dining hall to keep themselves hidden. Robert wolfed down his meal without a second thought, and found himself finished but famished. He looked at Jo’s tray. Jo, for her part, had downed the first potato and all but one of the asparagus in rapid succession. She tentatively held a mushroom on her fork. 

Robert was salivating. “You gonna eat that?”

“I need to,” muttered Jo and tossed it in her mouth. She chewed rapidly, as she usually did, but then slowed. There was something different. Something that wasn’t … snake. She swallowed, and shivered. “Well, I still don’t like them. But they’ve never tasted this good before.” 

“Incoming,” Robert whispered. “Don’t look around. Dawn and Francis.” 

Out of the very edge of her peripheral vision, Jo saw figures heading towards them. Francis, as usual, was in front, Dawn a few steps behind him. Jo slowly drew her hand up to cover the side of her face, pretending to scratch. She spied Robert’s gaze at her wrist, and she suddenly realized that it had been the wrist nearly torn open by the catgut. It was raw, red, and heavily scabbed.

“Oh my god!” gasped Dawn as she approached. She stood next to Jo and placed her hand on Jo’s shoulder. “Are you alright?!” She turned to Francis. “Look at these rockfall victims, Francis! Is this what you want to be remembered for?!” 

Francis heard Dawn’s outburst and turned to see what commotion his wife had caused. Jo’s heart sank. Robert looked utterly pale. 

“It’s nothing,” said Jo dismissively. 

“Like hell it’s not! Have you been to the infirmary?” Dawn asked. 

“Not yet,” Jo replied quietly. “I needed to eat first.” 

Dawn plunked herself at the table, and grabbed Jo’s hand, inspecting it. Jo tried to rip it away, but Dawn clung tightly. “Don’t struggle. Honestly, it’s a wonder this hasn’t festered!” She twisted Jo’s wrist around to get a better look. “How did you get this?” 

“Accident,” said Jo in the worst west coast accent she could muster, sounding like she was trying to cough and chew at the same time. “It’s nothing.” 

“Look at this, Frank!” said Dawn, holding out Jo’s arm. “How many more of these are we going to see?!” 

“Carl’s got them working—,” Francis cut himself off. “Carl needs to get his head in the game,” he shook his head. 

Dawn pulled Jo’s hand towards her and clasped it gently but firmly. Jo’s body twisted unexpectedly, and Jo found herself staring at Dawn’s face directly. Jo’s heart stopped. “I’m sorry. I genuinely am,” said Dawn, looking into Jo’s eyes. “You didn’t deserve to be treated like this,” she said quietly. 

Jo felt everything in her body run cold. “I’m … how … I don’t …” 

Dawn smiled a pained and empathetic smile. “What’s your name? I’ll make sure you’re on the extra ration list, and we’ll get you off tunnel duty.” 

Jo coughed again. “Tanner,” she said. “Brenda Tanner.” 

“Don’t worry, Brenda. Eat up, see the infirmary, and get some rest,” said Dawn. “I’ll make sure Bonnie knows you’re off the list today.” She let go of Jo and stood. She looked over at Robert and let out a wrenched sigh. “I’m… so sorry. You both need to rest. Are you together?”  

Robert nodded shortly. “Yeah. I’m … Rob.” Jo cast a panicked glare.  

“I’m going to eat, if that’s okay with you?” Francis said, starting to head further down the table. 

“Fine!” Dawn shot back, then looked back at Robert. “Tanner? Rob Tanner?” she asked. Rob and Jo both nodded. “I’ll talk to Bonnie. Go to the infirmary, please.” She waited for another nod, then followed Francis. “You need to get Carl to close off that damned tunnel.” 

“That’s not my problem,” Frank said. 

“You know what is your problem? Eating alone!” shouted Dawn. “I’m going to take this to Donner, he probably hasn’t eaten. When are you idiots going to let him go?!” Dawn headed towards the exit and out of earshot; Francis opted not to add any other points of view. 

It was several seconds before either Jo or Robert spoke. 

“Did she not see us?!” Robert blurted. “She knows us!” 

Jo needed several more moments for her heart to start beating again. “Knew,” she said quietly. “She knew us. You and I are dead, right? Right now, I barely recognize you. And if I look as bad as you—“

“If I had seen you like this outside the cave, I wouldn’t have known it was you.” 

“Dawn said she was bringing Donner food. And asked if they were going to let him go. What are they doing to him?” 

“Who’s Donner?” asked Robert. 

“After you, my best friend.” She quickly tossed in the rest of her meal. “Bam’off!” 


Jo and Robert made it to within a dozen feet of the workshop door when Jo suddenly stopped, spying a body chained to the rock wall, its face bruised and blackened, hands tied to a loop over its head. For a moment, Jo felt death again, until she saw the shallow movement of its chest. Jo bolted to the body’s side.

“Donner!” said Jo, clasping the boy on shoulders. The body acknowledged the name, and tried to move. Its eyes were closed, the rest of it so weak it could barely move. 

“Please,” Donner mumbled, “no … more.” 

“Donner, it’s me! Jo!” 

Donner’s head stuttered upwards, his left eye engaged in an epic fight between muscle and swelling, cracking barely enough to expose a bloodied sclera beyond. “Can’t. Dead.” 

“They’ll wish I was!” said Jo. “What did they do to you?!” 

“Punish,” he uttered.

“Why?”

“Your,” he panted, “friend.”  

“They beat you for being my friend?” Jo asked. Donner moaned. “Who? Carl?” 

Donner shook his head once.

“Frank?!” 

Donner shook his head weakly.

“Phil?” 

Shake. 

“Gary?” 

Donner half-shrugged. 

“Anyone else?” Jo asked. 

Nod. 

“Do you remember who?” 

Shake. 

“I’m sure Gary will,” grumbled Jo and started to fiddle with the lock on the chains.

“Jo, someone’s coming,” Robert said quickly. “I think it’s Dawn.” 

Jo gritted her teeth. “I’ll be back, Donner.” She bolted off with Robert and laid against the wall on the other side, looking like everyone else in desperate need of space. 

The footsteps came up towards the workshop door, stopping at Donner. “Those assholes,” said a despondent voice, clearly Dawn’s “Why are they picking on you?” There was a sound of something going into water, then water falling back into a container. “I don’t know if this is helping or not, but—“ She fell silent as she felt a blade against her carotid artery.

“Let him go,” growled Jo. 

“I can’t. I don’t have the key.” 

“Who does?” 

“My—my husband. I think.” 

“Frank?” 

“Who…” Dawn carefully tried to turn her head as not to cut herself. “Only one person ever called him that…” The blade pulled back and Dawn noticed it was the blade’s spine, not the edge that was against her skin. She looked into the same face she’d seen in the dining hall. “Jo?” 

“Perra.” 

“Slut!” Dawn’s eyes suddenly flooded and she leaped at Jo, wrapping her arms around her. “How the hell are you alive?!” she wept. “How are you here?” She pulled back and saw a man sitting next to Jo. There was a logical moment. “Robbie?” Dawn looked apprehensive. She found the knife point aimed back at her. 

“You’ve got some explaining to do,” said Jo. “Why is Donner like that?” 

“Carl,” was Dawn’s short reply. 

“He seems to be behind a lot of things,” said Jo.

“He said…,” Dawn tried twice to say something. 

“Carl told you that Jo killed Erik, didn’t he?” asked Robert. “He also told you I was a rapist, too. And that Batesworth was a fool.” Dawn looked wide-eyed at Robert. “Did he say Donner was to blame for the roof caving in?” 

“Jo,” Dawn said. “He said her repairs were faulty.” Dawn sat heavily on the ground. ”And Donner was partly to blame.”

“What do you think?” asked Jo, pulling the knife away. 

“I…,” she looked at Robert again. 

“Do you have shares?” asked Jo. 

“Y—“

“Do you know where they came from?”

Dawn nodded. “Francis told me it was to make sure the workshop would have enough space in the tunnels,” said Dawn, distrusting her own words. She looked at Jo and Robert, then to Donner. “They locked me in a tunnel so I wouldn’t see what was happening,” she said, adding with a heavy breath: “Those fuckers!” She looked at Robert. “You found out, didn’t you? They tried to kill you,  they couldn’t finish the job, so left you to die. But you recovered so they invented the rape. There never was one.” Dawn looked at Jo. “They killed Batesworth, too, I’ll bet.” 

“Carl killed Erik,” Jo said quietly. “He told me just before he dumped me outside.” 

Dawn eyes could have cast a red glare in the darkest of spaces. “When I find Frank I’m going to make him wish he’d never met me.” She stood and started marching towards the dining hall. “And when I find Carl—!” 

Jo raced after her and pulled her back. “Dawn, wait!” 

“Look what they’ve done!” Dawn shouted. “I’m gonna… I don’t know what I’m gonna do, Jo, but it’ll involve Frank’s nuts, and … PLIERS!” 

“¡Espera, chica!” pleaded Jo. “Aside from Gary and Dylan, how many people do Carl’s bidding?” 

Dawn looked at Jo for a moment. “The guards. A couple of other Engineers, some of the Apprentices, some of the tunnelers. Why?” 

“What about Francis, or Smiley?” asked Robert. “Are they under Carl’s thumb?” 

“Smiley is Smiley, he just wants to dig,” said Dawn. “Carl needs Francis, but Francis is too fucking dumb to realize it.”

“Funny you should use that word, ‘dumb’,” said Jo. “One translation into Spanish literally means ‘without words’. Frank’s been quick on words when it backs up Carl’s position, but hasn’t a thought of his own when it comes to challenging Carl’s viciousness. Like it or not, Frank supports Carl. He helped Carl banish Robert, it was his metal that shorted the panel that killed Batesworth, and for all I know, Frank assisted in killing Erik.” 

“No,” Dawn said, “not Frank. He couldn’t. He’s an idiot, but he’s not Carl.” 

An echo of metal wrenching loose rattled through the hallways, followed immediately by the piercing shriek of wind breaking through the ARCH’s hull. 

“Oh no,” moaned Dawn. “Breech.” 

“Yep,” said Jo, turning to look at the workshop door. “Which means Phil’s going to be coming out any minute.”

The three of them dispersed, Jo and Robert retaking the places along the wall, Dawn went back to tending Donner. A moment later, the workshop door flung open and two people burst out: Phil and Gary. They raced past, Gary spitting on Donner as they went. Jo waited for the door to close before she sat up again. 

“Now what?” asked Dawn. “What do we do?”

“We need to get Donner to a doctor,” said Robert. 

“They’ll see he’s gone! They’ll suspect me,” said Dawn.

Jo looked upwards. “Can’t you hear it, Dawn? The Banshee is coming. People are going to die.”

Dawn looked noticeably cold, despite the ever-present heat. “Die?” she asked quietly. “Who’s going to die, Jo?” 

“Dawn, how much do you really want to do something about this?” asked Robert. 

“A lot.”

“Do you want to play a game?” he grinned.