This is the first chapter from a book I’ve been writing for … um … carry the three … well, since I came up with the idea in my last year of university. I’ll publish a chapter every week.
Warning: This story is not for children.
Joanna Maria de Leon stared up at her bedroom ceiling in the dim light. It hadn’t always been her bedroom. It was once her closet. A wonderful walk-in closet for her various outfits … or the ones she had dreamed of having, anyway. It had been a luxury, one afforded to her because she was allowed to design her own room. Not that she’d had the room to herself for very long. The ARCH’s population had swelled so quickly that she had moved into the closet, her last real possession, her one privilege for being an Engineer. She was the only one who clung to her entitlement, the others had given up theirs for a small bunkhouse a few levels down.
Sleep never seemed to come when the Banshee wailed. Even buried deep inside the ARCH, a half-dozen levels below the outside, there wasn’t an escape from the sound. The low frequencies reverberated through every empty space, the higher ones seemed to find a way to attenuate through the structure itself. Though only a shadow of the sound near the outer hull, even in her room the booming scream was more than enough to steal away any sense of rest.
The paint was cracked and peeling. No, make that peeled. What little of the original paint that remained had long since been covered with the reddish-beige dust that covered almost everything. What had the colour been? Teal? No, it had been something more exotic … Green Tea! That small can she’d found abandoned in the Lowe’s outside of Kingman. Aesthetics mattered back then. How many years? Six? No, maybe seven now. If only Behr knew their paint wouldn’t hold up to this kind of punishment.
She laid spread-eagled on her thin and worn cot in a vain attempt to ward off the endlessly oppressive heat. She wore only her underwear and a thin top so old and stained that she couldn’t remember its original color. Her long, wavy, and thoroughly untamed black hair spilled over one end of the cot, tied in a simply pony tail, to keep her neck and shoulders free and cool. She always felt like she was swimming in her own perspiration.
Dust drifted imperceptibly in the stagnant air, illuminated only by her small hand lamp. Without the light, the room would be dead black, like the room beyond her thin door, and the hallways beyond that. Working lights were a commodity more valuable than gold. Vibrations shook loose more fine sand and gypsum from large cracks in the ceiling. Everyone slept with a cloth over their nose and mouth, at least when anyone could sleep. The light flickered. Jo fumbled around for the lamp, slapping it twice on the floor to reseat the battery. The room went black.
“Dammit!” Jo panicked, half-falling off the cot. She struggled with the light, banging it rapidly, desperately. Light leaked out weakly. “Come on!…” She massaged the casing to wedge it on tighter. A final solid thud against the floor returned the light to near-full intensity. Jo slumped against the wall, sighing. She picked up the little light like a delicate flower and held it to her chest.
Over the sound of her own panting in her ears, beyond wailing that leaked from every surface, she heard a steady beeping. She picked up her pants from the floor and rustled through the pockets. She pulled out her Nokia 3310, its cracked and worn case hidden under layers of duct tape. She could barely make out the numbers “13” and “1” through the scratches on the screen.
“Shit!” She quickly pulled on the patched beige cargo pants, followed by a threadbare pale blue button-up long-sleeved shirt. She tried to avoid aggravating the thinning areas, so she wouldn’t have to patch or darn the holes. She picked up her pair of too-large work boots, and with boots and light in hand, darted out of the room.
What had formerly been her bedroom was, like nearly every other room in the ARCH, a bunkhouse. A dozen three-tiered frames housed nearly seventy, and nearly every space on the floor was occupied. Some organized themselves strategically, keeping the space for them and their families. Others lay randomly. Some looked like they’d been poured into what little space remained. Jo picked her way carefully, but quickly, towards the room door, the work light showing the way.
She took the stairs two steps at a time. Only a floor up, the stairwell walls opened up into the atrium, a soccer field-sized common space that was filled with more semi-sleeping residents. The bunks rose high into the atrium, welded from countless pieces of scrap, each tower holding at least a hundred. The Banshee’s wailing screeched through the space in near-visible waves. Within two flights from the top, the stairwell was empty. Up there, the wind roared like an immense colony of upset seabirds.
Jo quickly put on her oversized boots and tied them as tightly as she could, and raced down the empty hallways. Entering the top floor of Block 1, she paused and craned her hearing, even though she cringed at the powerful sound. Over the roar, she could hear a higher-pitched tone, sort of like someone blowing over the mouth of a broken beer bottle. Turning around until she could get a direction, she strained to hear the volume rise and fall.
“JO!” a voice barely penetrated the noise. She wheeled around to see a tall man with curly blond hair, and a scruffy beard. In the absence of razors, nearly every man in the ARCH had a beard. “I’m sorry we paged—!”
Jo wasn’t in the mood to banter. “Where’s the breech?”
The man jerked his thumb over his shoulder, spun and marched off. Jo followed quickly. He led her to a portable wall, around a corner. A shorter, mostly bald man was staring through a heavily-scratched Plexiglas window. “What’s it look like, Bob?” Jo shouted.
“It’s a big one!“ he yelled. “Nearly killed me getting the patch in there.”
“But you couldn’t finish the job,” Jo muttered, knowing he wouldn’t hear her comment. She peered through the portal herself. Inside, the dim lights built into the other side of the portable wall illuminated the hallway beyond. She couldn’t see far for a warping haze that spun and twirled: sand, caught in a violent wind that had broken through a tear in the roof. “So why couldn’t you get the patch in place?” she asked.
“Bob’s screwed it up, and I’m still nursing a sprained wrist!” Erik answered.
“Cariño, you’ve been stringing that along for a month!” Jo replied, punching Erik in the shoulder. “You’re on shift, it’s your responsibility!” Yelling at Erik had only made her feel better, Erik was too tall to fit in the protection suit, anyway.
“Why do you think I called you? Whaddya want me to do, Jo, let the roof cave in?” Erik shouted back. “I can’t do it!” He shifted his eyes to Bob. “And you know…!”
She knew. “Alright, you big baby! Gimme the suit!”
Bob threw her the motorcycle suit. It had seen far too many jobs, and its heavy patches were kept in place with old duct tape, tar, and too much prayer. The coloring was long since been scratched off, leaving behind the thinning dull tan leather. Jo slipped into the heavy pants, pulling the cuffs tight over her boots and pulling the belt as tight as she could. The long, heavy welding gloves went through the jacket’s sleeves with difficulty. Bob buttoned the jacket’s cuffs for Jo, and did up the front of the suit. He did up the collar, and then wrapped a long, tattered cotton scarf around her neck a half-dozen times before putting on the helmet. The clear visor was easily as scratched as the wall’s Plexiglas window.
“You good?” yelled Erik, slapping Jo on the helmet. Jo did a few bends and twists to ensure she had her mobility. Unable to yell back through all the padding, she nodded.
Jo picked up the rivet gun, check to make sure it was well-loaded, and clipped it to a ring at the bottom of the jacket. The rivet gun was an invention of necessity. Pop rivets required a 1/8” hole, which the gun itself could not make. Bound to the rivet gun, mounted ninety degrees from the rivet gun itself, was an ancient battery-powered drill with a long 1/8” bit. A good riveter could drill the hole in about three seconds, and bind the rivet in about another three seconds. A bad riveter usually got hurt when the patch was blown free before it was anchored.
Erik and Bob went over to the door, and took a hold of a long pole to the left of the door’s hinge. She stepped to the door and looked at Erik and Bob. They pulled back hard on the pole, and the door ached inwards to the hallway beyond the wall. Immediately, a hurricane blew through the doorway, nearly blasting Jo off her feet. She leaned forward, and grasped the edge of the doorway, and pulled herself forward. She wedged herself between the door and the wall, then banged the door twice with her fist. Erik and Bob let go of the handle, and the door slammed shut with the force of the wind. Jo was thankful that the helmet had drowned out the storm, though it still sounded like a hundred whistles of every size were being blown all at once.
The hallway already had several inches of sand, and it was collecting quickly. The roof had a large hole; a piece of the hull had been torn free. The outside storm was expressing its anger through a jagged hole the size of a kitchen table. The trailing edge was bent outwards, the wind shrieked as it raced over the metal’s edge. The sky beyond was a lifeless pitch dark, but Jo always felt she could see something staring back. With a shiver, she went back to the wall, and pounded three times, then three times again. It was followed by two beats.
“Oh, come on!” She snorted, and repeated her pounds. Two responded. “Assholes,” she muttered to herself. I wish we still had mikes. She turned and looked at the battered drywall lifter that was positioned under the hole. Bob had laid out sandbags on its support to keep it in place, yet it still rolled in the thrashing breeze. She looked around to see where Bob’s mistake had ended up. In the corner against the portable wall, she found the patch under a forming dune.
The corner had been folded back into a loop, rendering it impossible to rivet without pulling out the bend. Jo looked around at what still remained in the hallway. The hallway, long abandoned, had been stripped down to the struts that once held the walls for the adjacent rooms, and the main beams that held up the roof itself. Even in their heyday, the rooms had been nothing more than storage. Wrestling the table-sized patch from the sand was relatively easy, compared to gripping it against the wind that was determined to pry it free again. Almost immediately, the sheet slid through the heavily-taped fingers of her gloves, and Jo had to throw herself onto the metal to keep it from being whipped away. Immediately, she understood what had happened to Bob: he had let go, the sheet had slammed into the portable wall, and bent around. The dent was plainly visible.
Keeping the sheet low to the ground, she pulled it over to the side of the hallway, and hooked the bent part over the edge of a strut. Using the wind as an extra pair of hands, she managed to straighten the sheet enough that she could attach it. From the struts to the lift jack was a challenge. Even dragging the sheet across the floor as low as she could was difficult. The sheet constantly fought against her, yearning to fly.
The lift jack was an old drywall lifter that had been modified to deal with hull repairs. It still lifted flat panels to the roof, only it did so using a pressurized ram, putting a panel in place in the blink of an eye, and held it there.
Jo pulled a sandbag from the jack, and placed it on the end of the sheet to keep it down. Using a shovel, she scooped as much sand as she could around the jack, then slid on the patch. The sheet quickly began to rattle like a caged animal desperate to break free. Jo quickly dug through the sand under the panel, pulled the pin free from the trigger’s safety mechanism, and pressed down on the handle. The result was a slamming of the aluminum sheet into the ceiling with a WHAM! that temporarily drowned out the wind.
Before the sheet had hit the top, Jo had already pulled out the rivet gun and loaded the first rivet. She whipped out a short stool and popped the first rivet in before the patch’s abrupt contact had stopped echoing. She had the third and fourth rivets in before you could count to five. It would be another twenty minutes before she was happy enough with the seal to back away, and lower the lift from its position. The patch was far from perfect — the bent edge refused to flatten — so there was still a wicked shrieking from the gale trying to force its way in.
Sand scratched at Jo like a army of cat claws. She returned to the door, and pounded on it once. A moment later, the door creaked open, and she walked out.
“Well,” Jo groaned as she pulled off the helmet. “It’ll hold, but we’ll need another patch to seal it properly.” She pulled off the scarf, dumping several handfuls of sand onto the floor. “Did you try to go hang-gliding with that, Bob?”
“That thing nearly killed me!” Bob yelled, his hand thrown in the direction of the now-secured patch.
“No, your own stupidity nearly killed you!” Jo retorted. “Perhaps you didn’t notice the tornado in there? You can’t carry a sheet that big. Why the hell didn’t you call for backup?!”
Bob shook his head. “I didn’t think it would—“
“That’s right, Bob, you didn’t think. You never think! One day, you’re going to hurt someone by not thinking!” Jo yelled. “And it had better not be me!”
“Hey!” Erik leaped in between them. “Enough, the both of you. Thank you, Jo,” Erik said as calmly as he could, despite still having to shout above the sound. “How many rivets did you have to put in?”
“About forty. Easily twenty too many, but I wanted to try get that corner down as much as I could,” said Jo.
“You’ve probably got a couple of loose ones in there?” Erik asked, peering through the window.
“Yeah,” Jo confirmed, taking off the jacket and pants. She shook out another handful of sand. “There’s at least a couple that missed the hull.”
Erik turned to Bob. “Go get another patch. And get Dylan to give you a hand. Let’s make sure that’s going to hold.”
Bob glared at Erik. “But—!”
“No buts! We should have called up Dylan in the first place,” said Erik. He looked to Jo. “Hell, we probably should’ve just gotten her out of bed to start with.”
“So can I go?” asked Jo. “I was trying to get some sleep.”
“No you weren’t,” Erik smiled ruefully. “No-one is.”
“Yeah, well, a girl can dream, right?” Jo winked. Erik slapped her on the shoulder as she turned back down the hallway towards the stairs.
The return trip was less hurried than the one up, though Jo didn’t dawdle to get away from the noise. If there was any advantage to the emergency, it had been to assault Jo’s senses, and returning to the relative quiet of her closet-room was enough for her to try to slip into a light sleep for a couple of hours. As she lay back down on her cot, she stared up at the ceiling. It was coming. It always did.
A scream. A cry for help. A wail. Jo didn’t leap out of bed, knowing already what it was. The crowd had already formed at the stairs. Jo had to push her way up into the Atrium. Not ten paces from the stairway was the prone form of a young woman, about the same age as herself. Her long, black hair formed a hair around her head, mixed with the pooling blood. There was no way for her offer sympathy. It always happened.
The Banshee always screamed when someone was about to die.