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Novels Science Fiction

The Banshee: Chapter 17

Jo tries to cope with death while trying to do her job.

Jo stared at the dark orange shape, neither able to truly recognize what it was or what it should look like. She picked it up slowly, turning it over carefully as if too sudden a movement might cause it to explode. 

“What do you think?” asked Donner. They were sitting against the reservoir, the commotion of the previous hour having died away and activities returning largely to normal. “Does it look okay?” 

“Where… where does this go?” Jo asked. 

“That’s the support mount,” said Donner. “It would go up there,” he pointed about ten feet off the ground at a point marked with a piece of chalk. “I carved it so it would fit the eye of the girder,” he pointed to the girder lying on the ground. “The one we got from Block 3 will fit perfect.” 

“How…” Jo held out the block and tried to visualize it being in place with the girder coming out towards the reservoir wall. “How did you get the angle?” The shackle on the mount was not orthogonal to the plate, and tilted to the side. 

“Rope,” said Donner. “I tied it off at the mark, and brought it down to the shackle on the wall.” He pointed to the dull grey metal shackle on the wall, held in place with a pair of metal rods poking out of the holes. “Phil brought it down this morning while we were on the … while we were … um …”

“We were on the roof,” Jo finished. 

“Sorry,” Donner mumbled. 

“Don’t be,” said Jo. “You had nothing to do with … that.” 

“I was there,” said Donner. “I saw what happened.” He reached out and tapped Jo’s knee. “And I’m here. I can’t be like them,” he waved towards the gardeners, “I can’t speak Spanish, and I’m definitely not as good at this stuff as you are, but I want to help.” 

A small smile returned Donner’s words. “Thanks, Donner.” 

“Hey, what are assistants for, right?” he smiled back. 

“You’re a friend,” said Jo. “And they’re in short supply right now.” 

They smiled at one another for a moment, then each picked up a cube of orange wax. Silently, they started to work on the next set of molds that were needed for the second girder. Their knives, stubby and thin from too many sharpenings, whittled away at the blocks, slowly revealing the shapes that would eventually be cast in metal. Flick by flick, little bits of orange filled the ground in front of them. 

The field of orange in front of Jo was more bare than Donner’s. Her knife moved with less certainty, less need, removing small flecks; Donner produced pieces easily the size of his finger with every swipe. Jo looked absently at her block of wax, the knife tracing and retracing the shape to be, the shape locked inside, begging to be freed, its carver unaware her actions were fruitless. 

A twist of the blade plunged the knife down, burying it so it couldn’t move forward. Jo humphed and tried to move it again. She struggled and pushed, swearing under her breath. The knife buried up to its handle was stuck. Jo pulled hard at the handle, the knife initially refusing to budge, somehow sensing the next moments. Unable to stop, Jo tugged and wiggled and grunted and pushed and kicked the knife free. She changed her grip, the blade moving from being out of her  hand by the thumb, to protruding from her fist near her pinky finger. She plunged the knife into the block with a frustrated scream. She pulled the knife out, and repeated. Again and again, she stabbed at the block, the dark orange turning a lighter hue with each gouge, Jo’s voice becoming a shredded howl echoing in the greenhouse.

Donner caught her hand before she plunged the knife again. Jo didn’t resist as he carefully pried the knife from her hand and tossed it away. Her voice contracted and sucked inward into a wail, then to a soft sobbing. Donner gingerly lowered Jo’s arm, pushed the wax block away, and wrapped his arms around Jo.


“This looks like shit,” said Jo, holding the shape in her hand. It had taken Donner and Jo several hours to carve Jo’s block into the shackle that was needed. Whereas Donner’s mounting bracket — a far similar shape — was smooth, Jo’s was haggard with remnants of her stabbing fit.

“Once it melts, the outside shape will hold, right?” said Donner. “These little marks won’t show up.” 

“Still looks like shit.” 

“So long as it holds, that’s all we need, Jo,” Donner asked assuredly.

Jo looked at Donner. “Thanks. Really. I, uh, I couldn’t have done this without you Donner. Any of this.” 

“What’re friends for?” Donner said, not really a question. “Let’s go get these cast. The sooner we have real parts, the sooner we can get these put in.” 

“You’re starting to sound like me,” Jo said as they started towards the stairs. “I wish I sounded like me.” 

“You will,” said Donner. 

Up the stairs and down the hallways and into the Atrium they went, creeping around the various sleeping figures while the roof rattled far above, sand falling and drifting in the still air. The workshop door was closed, as usual, and Donner pounded for attention. The slot slid open and Donner held up the blocks.

“We need these cast!” he said proudly. 

“Who are you?” asked the eyes. 

Donner stepped back to reveal Jo. “I’m with Jo.” 

The eyes glared. “Come to throw us off the roof, too?” 

“That’s not funny,” said Donner. 

“She killed a guy,” the eyes accused. 

“Someone died in the wind,” said Donner soberly. He looked the eyes carefully. “Did you know him?” 

“No.” 

“How many people have died here?” 

“What?” 

“How many people have died in the ARCH?” asked Donner. 

“I don’t—“

“And you don’t know most of them,” said Donner. “How many have died in the tunnels?” Donner stepped right to the eyes, looking squarely at them. “Do you know any of them? Does the guy running the tunnels catch shit for it?” The slot slammed shut.

“Donner, I’m not sure—,“ said Jo.

“It’s not fair that they pick on you when so many others are hurt and killed in the tunnels. They’ve singled you out!” 

Jo nodded. “Sí.” 

The workshop door opened. Donner looked at Jo, then both went through. Phil waited for them on the other side. 

“Hey Jo,” said Phil quietly. “The, uh, guys are…” 

“Being assholes!” Donner shouted. “It was an accident!” 

“Donner, don’t,” Jo cautioned. “Phil, we need these cast. Rapido. Can you get these in?” 

“I dunno,” Phil said, glancing over his shoulder towards the roaring smelter. “They’re finishing up a pour. I think we can get these to you in a few hours. That good enough?” 

Jo nodded. “Yeah.” 

“You okay, Jo?” asked Phil. Jo looked at Phil with a blank expression. “Was it an accident?” Jo didn’t react.

“It was,” said Donner. “I saw it all. She tried to save him. Jo wanted to go back out and bring him back. But the wind was too strong and there was no safety suit.” 

Phil glanced around him and leaned in towards Jo. “I’m sorry, Jo. Carl came in here, and … well, you know. I believe what he,” Phil nodded towards Donner, “said. I believe you tried. I’ll … I’ll see if I can get the guys here to believe, too.” 

Jo wiped away a tear and nodded. “Gracias, Phil.” 

“C’mon, Jo,” said Donner, pulling gently on her arm. “You need to get some rest.” 


Jo slept in the greenhouse, tucked around the side of the reservoir. The fitful sleep was interrupted multiple times by her own sudden shrieks and cries, bolting upright to realize her whereabouts, then coaxed back to sleep by Donner, who barely slept himself. Donner retrieved the heavy metal mounts from the workshop, one at a time, lugging them slowly through the atrium, down the hallways and (very carefully) down the stairs. The sound of the second, heavier one, woke Jo from her light slumber. 

Jo came around the corner of the reservoir to find Donner crumpled against the wall, heaving. His hands, despite wearing some borrowed heavy gloves, were bloodied from the rough edges of the shackle having torn into his flesh.

“Díos mio!” Jo cried and went to him. “Are you okay?” 

“Me? Yeah,” Donner said panting. “These things are heavy.” 

“Your hands!” 

“Yeah, the edges are a bit rough.” 

“Es mi culpa.”

“I’ll live,” said Donner. “Give me a minute and we can get this first one in place.” 

“Bueno.”

With the gloves doubled over, she dragged the shackle to its point on the wall, and the mounting bracket to its strut. Throwing a rope though a strut nearly twenty feet up, she tied the mounting bracket and pulled it up to its approximate height up the strut and tied it off. By the time she was finished, Donner was lifting the shackle up the wall to align with the holes. It took both of them, with significant grunting and more than a few curses in two languages to fit the first rock bolt into a corner, dangling the shackle by its corner.   

“I assume we need this?” Donner produced a long pole with a goosenecked socket. Jo nodded and Donner fitted the socket over the end of the rock bolt. Initially just twisting the pole, the gooseneck attachment became more prominent as the bolt tightened into the hole, the pole swaying out to the sides with every rotation, until half-turns were the only possibility, the both of them pulling hard on each twist. They left the bolt with a quarter inch of space remaining. 

“One down, five to go,” said Donner, picking up another bolt. They slid the shackle along the way, pivoting on the one bolt, and tapped another bolt into the opposite corner. The pole was attached, and the twisting ballet resumed. One by one, all six bolts were put in. 

“Why didn’t we,” Donner panted while Jo downed a large bottle of water, “tighten them?” 

“Binding,” Jo burped. “If we’d tightened too soon, the bolts might have pulled the shackle too much and the other bolts wouldn’t get in properly.” 

“Oh,” Donner nodded. “I think I get it.” 

“Oh, you’ll get it the first time you bind something and have to undo all the bolts to fix it.”

Following a zig-zag pattern, Donner and Jo tightened each bolt until it was flush with the shackle, and the shackle was pulled as tightly into the wall as possible. Jo climbed up on top of it and gave a good jump, not so much as causing a speck of dust to fall. “Que hará.” 

“Now the strut?” asked Donner, looking up at the dangling bracket. 

“Sí,” said Jo. 

“And how do we get up there?” 

“Ladder.” 

Donner looked at Jo. “Not ‘ladders’?” he asked, stressing the plurality.

“Ladder,” Jo reiterated. “We’ve got one that’ll reach. I’ll go get it.” 

The ladder, a foldable model acquired years earlier while scavenging through nearly-abandoned towns, had seen much abuse. Unfolded, its top came to just above the point at which the bracket would wrap around the strut. 

“It says load limit of 250 pounds,” said Donner, reading what was left of a label stuck inside one of the legs. He looked at the erected ladder with trepidation. “You want both of us to go up there?” 

“We need three hands at least,” said Jo, tucking a wrench in one pocket, and bolts in the other. “I can’t weigh more than a hundred.” She glanced over Donner, who despite his height was much skinnier. “I’d give you maybe the same.”

“Yeah, but this ladder is beat up.”

“Well, if you’d stop eating all those donuts, we wouldn’t have a problem,” smirked Jo.

“God, I miss donuts.” 

Jo went up the ladder first and secured the top with the end of the rope that also held the bracket in the air, simultaneously adjusting the bracket’s position so that it aligned exactly with where it needed to be. She then wrapped the rest of the rope around her waist and swung around the strut so that she straddled the strut, her feet on the third rung down from the top. “¡Vamos!” she called to Donner, waving him up. Donner checked the large rocks at the base of the ladder, holding the feet in place, then slowly crawled his way to the top. 

With his weight on the ladder, Donner was the lucky one who got to hold up the rear of the bracket so that Jo could push through the bolts with one hand — the other holding herself onto the strut — until the back was held enough in place for Donner to use a hand to turn on the nuts. With the bracket held just enough in place, Donner blissfully descended the ladder again to hold the base, while Jo swung back around to the ladder side again. With a slight tap of the hammer to move the bracket back down to match the mark on the strut, Jo tightened the bolts, then descended back down, the rope still tied around her waist. 

“Girder?” Donner asked. 

“Girder,” said Jo. 

“How do we get this thing in place?” 

“We’ll lift up the top with the rope—“ 

“Is it strong enough?” Donner asked, looking at the dingy, frayed twists. 

“Let’s hope so,” said Jo. “Once the top is up, we’ll attach the bottom,” she pointed to the shackle in the wall, “then attach the top.” 

“This would be so much easier with more people,” Donner commented.

“Then we get to do it all over again!” Jo smiled dryly, pointing at the opposite end of the reservoir, which sat waiting for the next bout of work to begin. 

Donner slumped. “Not funny.”

“Wasn’t meant to be,” said Jo, tying off the end of the girder around the outside of the eye. “C’mon…” 

The rope whizzed and wheezed as Jo and Donner used their collective weight to pull the girder from the ground. Eventually reaching a point above the mounting bracket on the strut, they tied the rope off, then lifted the other end of the girder on top of the shackle mounted on the reservoir wall. They wiggled the eye of the girder repeatedly, but it steadfastly refused to fall into the slot. 

“Mierda,” muttered Jo.

“I think I goofed on the measurements,” said Donner. “That ruler is weird.” 

“I don’t think it was the ruler,” said Jo. “We calculated for contraction. But something’s odd with this alloy.” She crouched down and looked closely at the shackle. She scratched at the surface. “Phil mention anything about what this is made of?” 

“Um, no, he didn’t say. Why?” 

“This doesn’t look like steel,” she said, taking a wrench and scratching heavily. The dull outside gave way to a shinier interior. “Malditos. Did those morons dump bronze in there?” 

“Bronze?” 

“There’s a yellowy metal mixed in. A little bit, but it didn’t mix properly.” 

“So…?”

“You ever bake a cake?” asked Jo.

“Yeah, long time ago,” said Donner. “I miss cake, too.” 

“You ever mix it so badly that you saw chunks of flour?” 

“No, but my brother did that with pancakes once. Grossest pancakes I ever ate.” Donner stuck out his tongue to the memory.

“Same thing happens in metals. You don’t mix it right, you can have structural issues.” She scraped at another section. The same flecks appeared. “I really hope it’s only at the outsides.” She looked up at the strut. “We don’t have time for them to do it again.” She shook her head. “Espero que esto funcione.” She walked over to a large metal mallet sitting on the ground and heaved it up. 

“What’s that for?” asked Donner.

She pointed the mallet at the girder. “One way or another, that’s going in. Hold it in place, will you?” Donner held the girder such that the eye was aligned with the slot. Jo wound up and drove the mallet’s head onto the edge of the two inch-thick eye. Barely budging, it rang loudly, causing several of the gardeners to jump in surprise. 

“¡Disculpame!” Jo called back sheepishly. “Esto será ruidoso.” 

Jo wound up again and drove the mallet back down, with similar results. After three more swings, she held the mallet out to Donner. They switched places, and he swung four times. On the fourth hit, Jo could see that the edge of the eye had peeled against the shackle slightly, enough that the eye had dipped about an eighth of an inch into the slot. Nodding, she reached out for the mallet and they swapped places. Swing, bong. Swing, bong. Swing, bong. Switch. Swing, bong. Swing, bong. Swing, bong. Swing, bong. Switch. Slowly, the bong reverberated less and became more of a bonk, and the eye slipped more and more into the slot. About two-thirds of the way in, however, the eye became irretrievably stuck and refused to move any further. 

“What do we do?” asked Donner. 

“No se.” 

“Don’t say what?” 

“¡NO SE!” Jo shouted. “IT MEANS ‘I DON’T KNOW’!” Donner cringed. Jo cringed as well and shook her head. “I’m… sorry, Donner. I’m so sorry. I’m…” 

“I know,” Donner said quietly. 

“No,” said Jo. “You don’t know. That’s not your fault. It’s mine. I’m … I’m tired. I’m exhausted. I’m a murderer.” Donner moved to speak and Jo immediately threw out her hand. “Don’t. It’s what happened. I’m wrong. I’ve made a mistake.” She looked at the eye-shackle union. “Two mistakes. And I can’t … I just can’t. I can’t do this anymore. This place is beating me.” She whacked the eye with the mallet. “It keeps beating me.” She whacked it again. “It thinks it can get the better—,“ she slammed the mallet into the eye, “—of me! It does it again—,” whack, “—again—,whack, “—again—,” wham, “—y otra vez, su maltida—,” WHAM, “—PINCHE—“, WHAM, “—HIJO DE PUTA!” She drove a furious slap into the eye, and the girder suddenly shifted an entire inch, nearly fitting exactly where it needed to be.  

“Huh,” said Donner. “At least it’ll be a tight fit.”