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Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 23

Unable to do anything else while Donner’s on trial, Jo decides to do a little investigation of her own.

Jo was banned from the tribunal. She had protested. Erik had argued. Reyes had humphed. And Bob had blocked the door, keeping Jo from being even within earshot of the closed door. Jo wasn’t worried that Dawn or Donner wouldn’t get a fair trial; as much as Reyes tended to be harsh, Erik tended to be light, and Erik had agreed to put Bonnie on the Tribunal instead of Francis or Carl. Where Bob’s priorities fell was another matter and it wasn’t clear if his findings would be biased, but somehow Jo’s gut said not to panic. 

Still, she couldn’t sit in the hallway outside the Engineer’s Office. Being unable to listen or act on anything she heard led her to pacing a short distance in front of the door for a few minutes before finally marching off to keep her mind occupied doing something else. 

Jo went to the stairs to head down to the greenhouse to talk with Anita. Only when she got to the bottom, she stopped. With a terse sigh, she climbed back up to the hallways. But what to do? The inability to talk to either Donner or Dawn, or Erik for that matter, closed off most of her readily available sources of information. While the gardeners were always a welcome distraction, they worried about food, not about structures or electrical circuits… 

The answer to Jo’s need to investigate came like a break in the clouds. 

The breaker room looked the same as she had last seen it. An odor that was a conglomerate of copper, hamburger, sulphur, and plastic still hung in the room, coated onto the boxes and wires and railings and floor. Jo tried not to think of where the smells had come from and focused instead on what had happened. Or possibly had happened. The room had been purged of evidence, and repairs already conducted to keep the place functioning. 

What had Batesworth been doing? Why had he come into the room in the first place? Had he come into fix something? Had a light gone off? Jo thought carefully about how she had seen Batesworth the day before, trying to replace his corpse with a mental mannequin. She walked to where he had been found. He had been standing, his muscles having been seized into place, keeping him upright. One hand was on a railing, the other on the panel box. The panel box that Dawn had removed. 

The one that Phil had taken to the shop to be recycled. 

Jo ran to the workshop, as fast as one could run through a place with completely overcrowded spaces. The door to the workshop was closed and locked. Jo knocked on the door three times, getting no answer. Having no key to the door, Jo pulled out her multitool. 

Separating it into two parts, Jo unfolded two very thin rods, one on each section. What the rods were originally intended to do had long since been forgotten; they were now whatever they needed to be. She inserted both into the lock and quickly started to rake the tumblers. She jiggled one rod while pressing down with the other. She listened intently for the sounds of something giving way. Fortunately, everything in the ARCH was loose after so many years of use, and locks were no different. A clicking, combined with a turning of the tumbler, revealed her success. 

She entered quietly and carefully, thinking about the act she was carrying out. Why was she sneaking around, anyway? She had as much of a right to be there that Francis did, after all. Except for the supposed demotion, anyway. Her privileges were gone. She was still an Engineer, but Francis would certainly be angry with her breaking into the workshop “without reason”. Would he care if she said she was looking for the panel box? Francis would bring it up in Council. The others would push to have Jo restricted even further, or kicked out altogether. She closed the door carefully and relocked it.

The workshop was deserted. Jo could feel heat from the smelter, which was roaring up to its next job. She darted over to the collected piles of scrap metal, most of which looked like it had come from outside, but was unable to find the panel box. She checked the other shelves and cubbies, in the chance it had been stored in a different location. The box was nowhere to be seen. 

The small door on the side with the heavy bolt attracted Jo’s attention. She had seen Francis exit the door a few days earlier. The lock was old and worn, like the bolt that had kept the workshop door closed. She pulled out her multitool again. Though a bit more stubborn than the main door’s lock, it could not resist Jo’s technique and soon popped open. 

The room beyond the door was larger than Jo had expected for such a small portal, measuring roughly fifteen feet by four feet, going well into the rockface. Every wall was a heavy shelf, leaving only a narrow space in the middle. The shelves were nearly filled with old crates, which refused to budge when she tried to move them, and clinked when jostled. She opened the lid to one of them, reached in and pulled out a small metal coin that glinted a bright yellow even in the low light of the room. “¿Que es esto? ¿Una moneda? ¿Por que tienes monedas, Frank?” She pocketed the coin and replaced the lid. She searched the other shelves, looking for the panel box. The variety of stocked items quickly blurred as her urgency rose: tools, wire, metal bars, wood blocks, blobs of mould wax, fabric, broken blades, crucibles, mismatched and heavily patched gloves, face shields, helmets. 

The workshop doors clanged as they were being opened. Jo burst from the small room, quickly closing the door. There wasn’t time to slide the bolt back and lock it. She paused only long enough to decide whether to go back into the room and hide, and not know if she was going to be found, or hide behind something else. As someone came through the doorway, the decision became moot and Jo dived behind the only thing large enough to shield herself: the smelter. 

The smelter was a large machine, easily able to hide two or three people behind it, mounted on heavy triangular frames that allowed the cauldron to pivot. The cauldron was roughly tear-shaped, with the thin end blunted, being an opening for loading and unloading. The cauldron roared as great fans blew in air to heat the insides and form a protective layer to keep the molten metal from melting out the sides. The unit produced horrific heat. Even with her shirt shielding her face, it felt like it was burning like a blowtorch. 

Several people walked into the workshop. The smelter blocked almost all view, which kept Jo hidden but also kept her from seeing who had arrived. She carefully turned and peered around the side, and caught glimpses of Francis, Phil, Bob, two other Apprentices on Francis’s crew … and Carl. Each of them had carried a large plastic bin, which they heaved onto one of the tables. Even though the roar of the smelter’s blowers had drowned out most of the sound, she could feel the thumping through the floor. Whatever they held, it was heavy. 

They talked about something. Whatever it was, she couldn’t hear. And try as she may, Jo couldn’t read lips. Then Francis pointed to the small room she had left unlocked. The others turned. Despite her skin boiling, she felt frozen. Then Francis pointed to the smelter and everyone turned again. Jo disappeared behind the machine and bumped into something. It hadn’t been attached to the smelter, as it moved when she hit it. She glanced around, and spied the panel box that had been removed from the breaker room. She shuffled on her hands and knees to face it. 

Suddenly, the smelter moved, its electric motors whirring as it tilted the massive cauldron down. Peering just underneath, Jo saw a mould being kicked into place. Someone was wearing heavy protective clothing — at least from the knees down, which was all she could see — and positioning things carefully. The base of the cauldron, carrying the duct work for the blowers, started to press Jo into the wall as it came closer and closer. The ducts were heavy and glowed a dull red from the heat. Jo could feel her skin wanting to burn and blister and her clothes were painfully hot. She could smell her hair starting to singe. The cauldron slowly stopped and the mould was adjusted. The motors whirred again, lowly, and the cauldron crept further horizontal, then dipped just beyond horizontal. 

A thin stream of bright liquid poured down into the mould, a shiny, glowing reddish-yellow. The pour lasted only a moment or two before the cauldron was tipped back up, and returned to its former position. The mould was pulled away with a rod. Jo spun around again and tried to peer around the corner. Sweat was pouring over her face, and seeing anything clearly was difficult. She could see Francis, dressed in his protective clothing, and Carl looking into the mold, nodding appreciatively. The others had apparently left. 

Carl said something, Francis responded and started to remove his protective clothing, putting it on the table next to the crates. Then the two of them headed back towards the door and left. Jo waited only a moment before diving back out from behind the smelter, falling flat onto the floor. For the first time in years, she felt genuinely cold. Still not wanting to get caught being in the workshop, she couldn’t enjoy the feeling for long. She rolled up, and … paused. 

She wanted to look at the panel box, her reason for being in the workshop. But her curiosity begged her to look at whatever it was that had been poured in the mold, and what had been brought in the crates. Her paranoia won, and she first checked to make sure the door was locked. She could at least hear it being turned, and would hopefully gain a few seconds to hide again if someone returned. 

Curiosity came next, starting with the crates. They were filled with what looked like dirt: small rocks, bits of dried soil, flecks of quartz. She sifted her hands through it, unable to parse why they’d bothered to bring such junk to the workshop. 

She turned her attention to the mold, still sitting on the floor. It was still hot, radiating out the heat that had melted whatever it was that had been poured into the mold. Inside, she saw a bright yellowy metallic surface, which had started to loose some of its lustre as it cooled. She remembered the coin she had taken from the small room. She dug it out of her pocket, and saw it clearly in the brighter light of the workshop. There was no mistaking what she held. ¿Oro?”A thought crossed her mind and Jo returned to the crates, digging through two of them before finding a tiny little yellow nugget. “Están extrayendo oro.” 

They found gold in the tunnels, presumably. Gold was an excellent conductor and could be spun into wires. With copper in such short supply and the need for a lot more wiring, it made sense. It would be a strangely luxurious resource to use, but it would be effective. The coins would be a convenient way of storing the gold before being worked into something thinner. And given the historical value of the commodity, the security was understandable. Jo nodded to herself. “Buena idea, Frank.” 

Curiosity sated, Jo returned to the panel box. In the brighter light, it was easier to see the melted and burned plastic, the pieces of wire that had nearly exploded under the severe voltage. Ground zero, where the arcing had been most severe, seemed to almost come from the back of the box. She tried to pull out some of the breakers to get a better look, but the ones blocking her view were fused right into the box’s distribution frame. She flipped the box over, in hopes the back might have melted off. 

It hadn’t. Instead, she found a rough hole, looking almost torn open, about three inches square. She peered through the back and saw the rails on which the breakers were mounted, which were heavily distorted from heat. A thick mass of shiny copper laid across four of the breakers, effectively connecting them into a single unit. Had that been the source?  

Jo flipped the box back over and saw bits of material caked to the surface of the melted breakers. She was about to pick some of it away when she realized what it was: parts of Batesworth’s hands. The outline of a handprint was clearly visible. It had been his right hand, the outline showing the clear gap where his engineer’s ring had been. She followed the outline to figure out where the forefinger had been. The breaker had been melted away, but it was clear that Batesworth had been attempting to reset something when he’d been killed. She flipped the panel back over again and matched up the shorted breakers with the one Batesworth had touched. It was then she realized that the short would only have taken effect if the breaker was turned back on.

Opting not to run, Jo returned to the breaker room casually, as if she were going about her regular duties. Opening the door to the breaker room, she nearly ran right into Erik, who was in the act of exiting the room. “Erik!” she blurted, jumping. “What are you doing here?” 

Erik looked at Jo. “I should ask the same thing.” 

Jo looked at Erik. She closed the door behind her. “I’m trying to find out who sabotaged the panel,” she said quietly.

“So am I,” said Erik.

“You are? But, how—“ 

“Dawn said she’d found it during her investigation,” said Erik, “but didn’t say anything with everyone around. She told me that she’d found a heavy wire at the back of the panel before Phil took it away. She didn’t get a chance to look at it closely, but she thought it might be the cause.”

“It was.” 

“What? How do you know that?”

“I broke into the workshop,” Jo confessed. “I looked at the panel box. I found the same thing. It looked like someone put it there with a hatchet.” 

“You broke in?”

“No-one was there and I didn’t have a key!” Jo protested. “I didn’t want to wait. Besides, it looked like they were hiding it from everyone.” 

Erik breathed annoyedly. “I hope you weren’t seen.” 

“I don’t think so,” said Jo. “I’m sorry, Erik, but I didn’t want Dawn and Donner to be in trouble for this.” 

Erik put his hands on Jo’s shoulders. “It’s alright. I’m just … this is a tough time, and I’ve had everyone coming to me for everything.” 

Jo clasped her hand gently on Erik’s face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I wish I could help.” 

“Just try to stay out of trouble?” Erik smirked. “Dawn and Donner have been acquitted, by the way,” he added. “Phil testified that the wiring was proper when he saw it the night before. Even Agatha was convinced.” 

“Someone sabotaged the box,” said Jo. 

“The question is ‘why’.” 

“Yeah,” said Jo. She looked at Erik. Outside, the winds continued to howl. “It looks like the banshee had help.” The cyclone protested the suggestion.