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Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 6

Batesworth decides to see for himself what’s going on in the tunnels

Batesworth rifled through a small pile of book-sized blackboards on his desk, the collected reports of his team. Overused, the blackboards had a permanent whitish haze, making some of the marks hard to read. The handwriting of some made the process all the more aggravating. That his eyeglass prescription was three years too far gone didn’t help. The reports varied in length from a short checklist of activities in Francis’ group, to the triple-columned list of “to do” items on Jo’s. Erik’s report was fairly standard, reporting the estimated population with known births and deaths, the current available work force, water supply status, and sustenance ratio. 

Many years previous, the sustenance ratio had been a grocery list, the things they would get from the Safeway in Page, the nearest town. The start of the semester, the hope of discovery and challenge and learning. Batesman whimpered unconsciously as his memories drifted to a lifetime earlier. The grocery list had become a scrounging list, then the inventory of the greenhouse. When that had gotten too depressing to read, Robert had suggested a simple mathematical ratio, a number that would help keep people alive. 

Alive. Surviving. Existing. But not living. Life under the ARCH’s roof was little more than biological processes. No-one got enough food. There were simply too many people. Three basic food sources, no animal protein, and no oils or fats. The greenhouses were producing beyond capacity, what was coming out wasn’t even fully grown. Life had to be restrained, keep the population from getting any bigger. These were the unwritten notes in Erik’s report, ones that had long since been understood by the Council and no longer required explanation. 

Batesworth tossed Erik’s notes onto the pile and sighed resignedly, staring blankly at the wall. Hopelessness and apathy grew like a mould. 

He looked over at the wall that contained the tunnel maps, a drawing on a large piece of cardboard from a toilet paper box. The tunnels started at the lower decks of Blocks 4 and 6, on the north side. Two large entrances, each running into the North Rim and branching out into a grid, would provide enough space for everyone in the ARCH, and over time, much more comfort and stability. Even the frequent rock slides offered less concern than the constant battering the ARCH received. “If only they would move faster,” Batesworth muttered. “Dammit, Jo.” 

Grunting, Batesworth stood and marched out of his small office, passing Erik’s vacant desk, into the hallway, and headed immediately down a narrow and steep flight of stairs into the lower levels, one of the many sets the Engineers used to move quickly around the ARCH. Level 3 was a hive of activity, as it usually was near the tunnel entrance. Two streams of people, one entering and one exiting entered, the shift apparently having changed. Batesworth slipped into the line, his relatively fine clothing standing out abruptly from the thin and hole-ridden apparel of the workers. Those entering were just as quiet as those leaving, the only difference being a more pronounced shuffling of feet departing the tunnels. 

Batesworth had only ever gone a dozen feet into the tunnels before, always with Carl, to ensure lights were on and work was proceeding. Batesworth only knew the tunnels from the maps he had on his wall. The maps, however, were enough for him to know that he had to pass two hallway junctions before turning left. The tunnels were roughly three people wide, and high enough that even the tallest of people would still have a head’s room above them. Only a few paces in, however, Batesworth quickly found himself Batesworth nodding appreciatively, knowing that the extra headroom was due to be filled with electrical lines, water supply lines, and air ducts. Admiring the work, he paid less attention to where he was.  

The walls were rough, as one would expect for a rush job — polishing could come in time, when the current crisis was over — though it still showed respect for the material. The light red sandstone had been well-worked, the faces fairly flat, and the lines in the hallway seemed to be reasonably straight. He’d seen the tunnels bored by massive machines, so straight that you could fire a laser down them and not see a single deformation. He’d also seen the perfection of Sacsayhuamán, ancient stone walls where couldn’t pass a piece of paper between the stonework. Given the few surveying tools they had, the crude implements they’d had to build, the lack of skills and training, Batesworth couldn’t help to smile at the work. 

“If the Faculty could have seen this,” he said. Two of the passing workers looked oddly at him. “These hallways will serve survivors for … generations. Can you imagine that?” The workers shook their heads slowly. “Ancient civilizations built many underground cities that survived hundreds of years without failure, surely these will be a wonder for future archeologists. Imagine what they’ll think of us. Maybe these will be a monument like the Mayan cities, or the Egyptian pyramids.” The workers looked blankly, blinked, and resumed their path into the tunnels. “I think they will. They will remember us.” Batesworth passed his hand over the stone. “I must remember to ensure that we carve our names in here. A plaque. Professor Richard Batesworth, founder of…,” he looked around him, “Batestown? Batesville. The Batesworth Colony!”  

Batesworth snapped from his daydream and looked around him. The hallways formed a grid of blocks — as square as could be done given the geology of the North Rim — that would one day form rooms: homes for families, lounges, small halls (Smiley had cautioned against large ones), kitchens, and so forth. The blocks closest to the entrance had already been dug out, and looked ready for lighting and ducting. He went into one to see for himself. It was dark, damp, and lifeless. “Note to self: make sure Francis and Erik start infrastructure installation.”  

A sense of validation came over him, and Batesworth started looking down hallways, and checking the state of the blocks. The next few blocks were the same as the first. Ultimately, Batesworth counted a dozen that were move-in ready, save for the lighting and air. He began to wonder just how long they had to wait before they could move people in. Then he remembered something Carl had mentioned in a previous report: the toilets. The tunnels had reached the other side of the point six months earlier, which Smiley had used for a tailings drop. Carl had deferred the toilets until the second and third levels of tunnels had been bored out, eliminating most of the tailings, and allowing them to build the toilets over the tailings holes. 

Batesworth followed a cart up a ramp to the second level, to find it was much the same as the first: tunnels laid in a grid, a few lights, walls were rough, and people moving muck out of the tunnels. It was dusty and the pickaxe hits echoed against the irregular surfaces into a blur of sound. Batesworth couldn’t help cough. He looked around to find his bearings, and was about to head off in the direction of the work office, where he expected to find Carl, when a wall caught his eye. It wasn’t a rock wall. It was a wall made from fabric, covered in enough dust and rock that it almost looked like a rock wall, and would have easily been mistaken at a glance as such, had it not been for the person walking through it. And perhaps even a person walking through it might not have attracted Batesworth’s attention, but the guard standing near it — wielding a rifle — certainly did. 

“Excuse me,” said Batesworth, approaching the guard. The man jolted at Batesworth’s approach and fumbled with his rifle. “Where did you get that?” Batesworth asked, pointing at the gun. 

“Uh, Carl?” said the sandy-haired man, who looked barely old enough to shave. It wasn’t exactly a question. “He told me to keep unauthorized people out.” 

“‘Unauthorized’? Is this a dangerous area?” asked Batesworth. “Is this the fault?” 

“Fault?” the guard asked. 

“Let me talk with Smiley,” said Batesworth, pushing his way past the guard. The guard reached out and tried to grab hold of Batesworth’s wrist. Batesworth pulled his hand free and wheeled towards the young man. “Do you know who I am?!” he demanded. The young man’s head moved, though neither as a nod nor a shake. Batesworth continued past the cloth draped over the hallway’s entrance. 

The hallway beyond bore little resemblance to the hallways Batesworth had already seen. This one was erratic and raw, widened far beyond pattern, and it extended far into the hill in a weaving line. The lights were far brighter than in any other part of the tunnels, and there were easily three times more people at work than in the rest of the tunnels, combined. They were all hunched against dozens of individual faces, as if the tunnel was trying to expand in all directions at once. Only they weren’t working with the determination of other tunnellers, they were focused and desperate, as if searching for something. 

“Has anyone seen Smiley?” Batesworth asked loudly. Several of the nearest tunnellers stopped, looked at Batesworth, one gasped audibly. Batesworth recognized a few faces as people who had been assigned to Engineering teams. A few talked amongst themselves, pointing both at Batesworth, and something further back. Batesworth cleared this throat. “Where is Smiley?” he demanded. 

The commotion had reached far down the hallway, as Smiley raced forward to meet Batesworth. “Professor!” Smiley’s face looked drained, his eyes wide. “What are you doing here?”

“Checking on the tunnelling progress,” said Batesworth. “What other possible reason could I have?” 

“It’s, uh, not safe for you to be in here!” said Smiley, fidgeting. “You, uh, you should leave!” 

Batesworth raised his eyebrow. “Why?” 

“The, uh, rock!” said Smiley, and jabbed his finger towards the jagged ceiling. “We’ve had rockfalls all morning. I’ve got the team taking out the unstable parts!” Smiley waved towards the dozen or people within three paces of where he stood. Some of them waved back nervously. 

“Is that why so many people are in here?” asked Batesworth. “I was looking around, and a lot of the other hallways aren’t nearly as long as this one. Why aren’t we spreading tunnellers out more?” Smiley smiled toothily, which was an achievement, as he didn’t have that many left. He glanced around frantically. “Smiley, isn’t there a way we can distribute these people to more effective locations? This tunnel seems more than long enough to me. If we get people working on the other locations, we can move people from the more critical parts of the ARCH,” Batesworth pressured. 

“Well, uh, I’m not sure … that is, I mean, these walls are still unstable, and … uh … if we stop working on them, and they collapse…” Smiley went quiet. 

“Is there a problem, Professor?” came Carl’s voice from behind. Batesworth spun to find his student. “You should be wearing a hardhat in here, sir.” He handed Batesworth a blue one that was a size too small. 

“Why are we focusing so much attention on this tunnel?” Batesworth asked. “This is long enough. We can worry about its appearance later. I want you to move these people into other tunnels and get them finished!” 

“We can’t yet, Professor,” said Carl. “This is where the fault lies. We need to know how far it goes. These people are digging to find the edges so we can work around them.” 

“Do you need all of these people?” Batesworth persisted. “We have many hundreds of people—“ 

“Would you rather we stop and risk a massive cave-in with everyone in here?” asked Carl. 

Batesworth stopped. He looked at Carl, then looked down the tunnel. “Either you have no idea where the fault is, or we’re in the middle of it. Show it to me.” 

“What?” asked Carl and Smiley. 

“Show me the fault. I want to know what it looks like,” said Batesworth. “I want to see it.” 

Carl looked at Smiley. Smiley looked at Carl. “Okay,” said Carl. “Smiley, take him to the gap.” 

Smiley nodded, and they went deeper into the tunnel, around a slight bend. Batesworth could see the tunnel continue farther, heading slightly uphill. Smiley stopped at one side and moved a few people away. He pointed at the corner of the ceiling where it met the wall. “See that?” 

Batesworth looked up. There was a crack in the ceiling, at least as wide as his head, that extended well beyond the lights’ ability to illuminate. Batesworth looked down at the floor. There was no corresponding mark. “How far up does it go?” 

“We don’t know,” said Carl. “We’re not sure how long it is, either.” 

“But it stopped here,” said Batesworth, pointing to the floor. “That’s got to say something.” 

“We think so,” said Carl. “But we want to be sure before we have another cave-in.” 

Batesworth looked at Smiley. “Can you use rock bolts?”

Smiley smiled. “Yeah,” he said slowly. 

“Get Francis to make as many as you need. I want this secured by the end of the week, and I want these people moved out into the other tunnels tomorrow!” Batesworth ordered. “I want the first level prepped so we can start moving people in next week.” 

Carl moved between Batesworth and Smiley. “But, sir, we can’t—“ 

“I mean it, Carl! Enough! This will hold,” said Batesworth. 

Carl continued. “Professor, you said yourself that you don’t know much about mining—“

“And as I recall, that wasn’t part of your curriculum, either,” said Batesworth sternly. “I know enough from building bridges that a rock bolt will do wonders for stabilizing things like this. Get it done, now. I’ll replace you with Jo, if I have to.” 

Carl gritted his teeth. “We need at least two weeks. I don’t think we can move any faster.” 

Tomorrow, Carl! I want those tunnels finished. You can have five people running the drills to get the rock bolts in place, and that’s it. Erik will make sure those assignments happen. Don’t argue with me on this. I’ve been lenient until now, but I’ve had enough. I understand your concerns, but there’s a point at which someone else will overrule you. That time is now, and that someone is me. Get this cleaned up and ready.” 

“Yes, sir,” said Carl loudly. He glanced at Smiley. “We’ll take care of this problem.” 

“Good. Let me know if Francis gives you any trouble with the request,” Batesworth added. 

“I doubt he will, Professor,” said Carl. 

“I’ll see you at the next Council meeting,” said Batesworth and handed his hardhat back to Carl. “Smiley,” he nodded to the other man, turned, and returned down the tunnel. 

Smiley looked at Carl. “Now what do we do?” 

“You heard the man,” said Carl. “We fix the problem.”