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Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 10

Donner gets a history lesson of the ARCH, and of Robert.

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

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

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

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

“Yay.” 

“On this side,” she added. 

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

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

“Ow.” 

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

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

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

“You just did,” grunted Jo. 

“Does that ever … get funny?” 

“Nope,” Jo laughed. 

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

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

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

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

The wheel stopped. “Huh?” 

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

“ARCH,” breathed Donner.

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

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

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

“They built this place?” 

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

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

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

“We got time,” said Donner.

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

“Armageddon.” 

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

“You took them with you?” asked Donner. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s Robert?” asked Donner.

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

Donner smiled uneasily. “Yeah.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I remember a helicopter, too.” 

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

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

“How do you do it?” asked Jo.

“Do … what, me?” 

“You’re happy,” said Jo. “How…?” 

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

“A what?” 

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

“He didn’t like it.”

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

“Jo!” called Erik from near the stairs.

“¿Que?” Jo yelled back.

“It’s time!”  

“Joder,” Jo muttered. 

“Who’s he?” asked Donner. 

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

“Is he a gilly-poy-ass, too?” 

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

“What’s going on?” 

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

“The really smart guy?”

“We’re going to kill him.”