Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 1

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 nine 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. 

“¡Maldito!” Jo panicked, half-falling off the cot. She struggled with the light, banging it rapidly, desperately. Light leaked out weakly. “¡Ánimo!…” 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. 

“¡Mierda!” 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. The owner of the beard was Erik Larsen, the second most senior Engineer. “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.” 

“Pero no podías terminar el trabajo,” Jo muttered, knowing even if he heard her comment, he wouldn’t understand. 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 you know I don’t fit in the suit,” Erik answered.

“Oh, cariño, it’s a good thing you love me!” Jo replied, punching Erik in the shoulder. 

“What?”

“It’s a good thing you called me!” she yelled over the wind. “Why me, anyway?”

“It’s already been open too long and the patch’s bent! What do you 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, ¡dámelo!” 

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. “Gilipollos,” she muttered to herself. 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. 

“No es perfecto,” 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 didn’t you call for backup?!” 

Bob shook his head. “I didn’t think it would—“ 

“That’s right, Bob, you didn’t think. ¡Nunca piensas! 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.” 

“A girl can dream, right?” Jo winked. Erik gently 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.

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 2

I have a bit of an odd affinity for the Spanish language. I’m by no means fluent, so I apologize for anything I’ve mucked up. For those of you non-Spanish speakers, I suggest Google Translate.


“¡Hola, Anita!” Jo yawned as she walked into the greenhouse. It was a massive space that ran the width of the ARCH and nearly its length. Dozens of rows of plants produced green leaves and shoots, the ARCH’s food supply. It was the only space in the ARCH that had bright lighting, supported by a dwindling number of lightbulbs stacked near the edges. The greenhouse lay at the lowest levels of the ARCH, nearest to the water supply, furthest from the intense vibrations that came from the storms. The sounds of trickling water were everywhere, as pipes diverted the small, dammed outlet across the growing space. It was also the coolest part of the ARCH, though only by a few degrees from the temperatures above. 

“¡Jo!” Anita cried happily. “¿Dónde estabas? ¡Ha sido siempre desde su última visita!” Anita was a smaller woman than Jo and easily a decade older. She, like the rest of the gardeners, wore deeply-soiled overalls, the same ones they had been wearing when they’d stumbled into the ARCH so many years earlier. The remaining gardeners looked up and waved intermittently at Jo. 

“Estuve aquí la semana pasada,” Jo said defensively, waving back at the others. 

“Como he dicho, ‘para siempre’,” Anita smiled. “Tú no visita suficiente.” 

“Lo siento. Estoy ocupado hasta allí. ¿Sabes, me quedo con todos nosotros con vida?” 

“Nope. No tengo ni idea de lo que se siente,” said Anita, holding a clump of asparagus in her hand.

Jo laughed. “¿Más espárragos? No es de extrañar este lugar apesta tanto.” 

Anita wagged her finger. “¡Sólo si tú huele!” 

“¿No podéis crecer más brócoli?” Jo suggested. “¡Su sabor es mejor, y no huele!”

Anita threw her hands towards Jo. “No eres el único que se quejó, ya sabes. Creo que he oído una queja al menos dos veces a la semana. Pero ¿sabe usted cuánto tiempo se tardó en llegar los espárragos para crecer? Pasaron dos años antes de poder cosechar un solo cultivo. Podríamos cambiar, pero si no crecemos lo suficiente, la gente de hambre.”

Jo held her hand up to stop the tirade. “¡Lo sé! Lo sé! Me has dicho que una docena de veces.” 

“Entonces deja de preguntarme por qué crecemos espárragos,” Anita smirked. “Es una buena cosa para comer. Al igual que las hongos.” 

“Ugh,” moaned Jo. “Odio hongos.” 

“La última vez que lo comprobé, que no tenéis ningún ganado, y lo que necesita para obtener su proteína de alguna parte.” 

“Mataría por un burrito,” grumbled Jo. “Incluso un muy malo.” 

“Coma más patatas. Usted necesita la energía.” 

Jo laughed. “Confía en mí, yo como mi ración más rápido que nadie. Me gustaría comer cuatro raciones más, si alguien me dio la oportunidad.” 

“Oh!” Anita snapped her fingers, and walked over to a low bench at one side. “¡Oye ven aquí!”

Jo walked over to Anita. “Por favor, dime que es una planta de hamburguesas.” 

“Es mejor,” said Anita. “Es un pimiento.” 

“¿Ah sí?” exclaimed Jo. “¿Que tipo?” 

“No sé aún,” said Anita. “He encontrado una semilla en el fondo de un contenedor de hace unas semanas. Ni siquiera estaba seguro de si sería brotar. Si tenemos mucha suerte, va a ser un habanero. Extraño a picante.” 

“Estás soñando. Será una dulce. Espera y verás,” said Jo. 

Anita pushed her friend gently. “¡Eres un pesimista!” 

“Si yo fuera un pesimista, yo diría que ‘no se moleste’, porque el techo se derrumbe y estaremos muertos para mañana. Soy realista. Considere que una buena cosa,” said Jo. She walked over to a large metal beam that came out of the floor, running up through the ceiling. “¿Has oído el alma en pena de anoche?” she asked. 

“¿Que no lo hizo? Usted debe venir aquí, Jo. Se envió escalofríos hasta ahora por mi columna vertebral que yo pensé que iba a saltar fuera de mi piel,” said Anita. 

Jo looked closely at a thin string with a plumb bob, attached to the beam near the ceiling. At the bottom, the beam had deviated so that the line overlapped the beam. Jo pulled her tape measure from her belt, and held it out against the line. “Dios mío,” she whispered. “Two more centimeters.” 

“Oh-la, chick-os!” announced a scraggly-looking man, in deep blue coveralls bearing patches of a dozen colors, bounding through the greenhouse doors. 

“¡Dios mío!” muttered Jo. “Phil, learn to speak Spanish properly. You’re embarrassing yourself, and making me look bad.” 

“Meh,” dismissed Phil. “Why can’t they learn English?” 

“I’m sure they could,” said Jo. “But perhaps you’ve forgotten — again — that they’re all hispanic, as are more than half of the residents? You’re in the minority, Phil.”

“Minority, shminority!” he snorted. “English is the superior language.” 

“Intente aprenderlo,” Jo muttered. Anita burst out laughing.

“Huh?” Phil asked.

“Nothing,” said Jo. “What’s up?” 

“You’re late,” said Phil, starting back towards the door. 

Jo looked confused. “Late?” She closed her eyes and sighed loudly. “Dammit. Sorry, last night threw me off. I’ll be right there!” She waved at Anita as she ran after Phil. “¡Hasta luego!” 


“Sleeping in again?” said Professor Richard Batesworth as Jo entered the Council room. Batesworth’s rusty-white beard bristled. He kept it, like his similarly-coloured hair, well trimmed and short. He was the only one of the engineers not to wear work clothes, preferring a series of short-sleeved button-up shirts, and at least one of his dozen pairs of shorts. They were the black ones, for a change. 

“You know me, sleep the day away,” replied Jo. She took her seat at the table, next to Erik. 

The Council room was barely able to hold a small battered circular table that had once been a shade of beige, with six mismatched chairs surrounding it tightly. The walls of the room were plastered in ARCH schematics, all of them appended, amended, and marked up, indicating the extensive additions and changes the ARCH had experienced over its short lifetime. Several of them had pieces of yarn and string stuck to them, showing paths and borders and supply lines. A bare lightbulb hung from wires in the middle, casting hard shadows on the walls.  

“Thanks for the hand again, Jo,” said Erik, who sat to Professor Batesworth’s right. Erik’s blonde hair was tied tightly in the back to keep out of his face. 

Jo nodded. “You don’t keep me around for my looks,” Jo said wryly.

“That’s for sure,” said Carl Young, another of the people at the table. He was on Batesworth’s left. Carl’s hair was as dark as Jo’s, and his eyes were nearly the same. 

“Carl,” Batesworth cautioned, casting a firm stare. After a moment, he picked up a small chalkboard and looked at the notes. “Okay, let’s keep this short. So… who?” 

The question had been asked hundreds of times, and it was never easy to answer. Heads remained still, but eyes cast about the room’s occupants. As with so many times before, all the eyes eventually turned towards Jo. “A young woman,” said Jo quietly. “She threw herself from a balcony into the Atrium. Amazingly, no-one else was hurt.” 

“Stress, again?” asked Batesworth. 

“Probably,” said Jo. Erik and Bateworth both nodded.  

“One less mouth,” said Francis Porter. He was next to Carl. His light brown hair was kept to a few millimetres of his skull, which when combined with his duties working the forges most of the day, lent the appearance of a dark fuzzy ball. 

“Real sympathetic, Frank,” Erik said. Francis glared back at Erik. 

“Look, I know we didn’t get a lot of sleep last night,” said Batesworth, “but let’s keep this civil, please?” 

“Sorry, Rich,” said Erik. “Let’s continue.” 

“As I was going to say,” said Professor Batesworth, looking briefly at Jo, “our population is down by one. I’ve learned there’s a birth due any day, so we’re pretty much status quo. Anyone else know different?” Heads around the table shook. Batesworth wiped the slate and put it down. “Still no contact on the radio. Erik?” 

Erik looked at his small chalkboard. “We had a breach at the top of Block 1 last night. A pretty big one, too. Jo helped Bob to patch it. I think Block 4’s roof might have buckled, but we can’t get to it to check until the wind dies down.” Erik put his board down and scratched his head absently. “I’m a little worried about the structural integrity—“

“You should be,” said Jo.

“Wait your turn!” snapped Carl.

Erik ignored Carl. “That sounds ominous.” 

“I was looking at the main struts just before the meeting,” said Jo. “Nineteen millimeters.” 

Erik whistled. “You’re sure?” He immediately waved off the impending reply. “No, of course you’re sure.” 

“That’s under Block 4, isn’t it?” asked Francis. “It would explain the roof.”

“Yes,” confirmed Batesworth. “Can we reinforce it?” 

Carl tried to answer. “No—“

“If we can steal a couple of beams from one of the collapsed areas, we might be able to weld them into a brace to keep it from shifting any more,” said Jo. 

“Hey!” Carl shouted. “Can you wait—“

“If we wait, the ARCH collapses. So, no, no I can’t,” snapped Jo. She and Carl burned at each other. 

Batesworth ignored the two and turned to another man. “And with that update, Smiley, we’re hoping you’ve got good news.”

Gerald “Smiley” Holland, seated next to Jo, wasn’t an Engineer. He knew a few things about digging holes and keep them from caving in, which had made him the de facto Tunnel King. His head had a near-permanent ring from his hardhat’s band, his face and bone-white hair were perpetually caked in bits of rock and sand. He preferred being in the tunnels, which kept him from the uncomfortable meetings in the uncomfortable room with the uncomfortable people. “Well,” he said, running his hand over his head, scattering debris on Jo and Francis. “We could be better.” 

“We know, Smiley. How long until we can move in?” asked Batesworth. 

“Well…,” Smiley twitched. “Two, maybe three months.” 

“Three months?!” Jo blurted. “You said it would only be a week two days ago! We’re patching holes almost every day, now. You were supposed to be done last month! We’ve got a two centimeter deviation on a main support that could bring down Block 4, and maybe Blocks 6 and 8. We’re out of time, Smiley!” 

“Dunno what to tell ya, Jo. It’s hard work,” Smiley shrugged. “We had two major collapses yesterday, and there’s been damage to a lot of the shoring. The sandstone’s not too bad, but the shale’s hard to deal with. We have to get in there, clean out the unstable parts and replace all the braces. And there’s a fault in there—“

“Can we move into the finished areas?” asked Batesworth.

Carl shook his head. “Not yet, it’s still too dangerous. The upper levels are fine, but if the lower section collapses, a lot of people could be hurt.” 

“What if we put in more workers to help?” asked Batesworth. 

“It’s already tight in there. We’ve got every pickaxe swinging and anyone not on the face is hauling muck,” said Carl grimly.  

“Alright,” sighed Batesworth. “Francis?” 

“We’re turning out shoring as fast as we can. We’re running short on useable materials, though. We’ll salvage what we can from the cave-ins, but unless we can get some more old decking, we’re going to have to spend more time breaking down larger pieces like girders,” Francis reported. “We were focusing on putting shoring together. If you want pickaxes, we can do pickaxes…”

“But without shoring, there’s no point in tunnelling faster,” finished Jo. Francis nodded. “I need beams, then. And I need to inspect all the other main struts to make sure they’re not bending too much, either.” 

“Your team can’t handle it?” sneered Carl.

“I’m sure they could,” replied Jo calmly. “But you stole them all for tunnelling.” 

“Jo, your priority is to do inspection. Let’s make sure we don’t have any other surprises. Erik, I need you to cover Jo’s emergency shifts in the meantime,” said Batesworth. “Francis, see if you can step up the shoring production. The sooner we get the hallway bracing repaired, the sooner we can get some more pickaxes, and the better off we’ll be. Carl, focus on shoring the tunnels. And Smiley, let’s focus on that fault. I want to make sure we’re not going to shear off a few thousand tons of rock.” 

“Yup,” said Smiley, standing up. “If I ain’t needed for nothin’ else?” Smiley asked. Seeing no further question, he continued out the door. 

“Now, then,” said Batesworth with a heavy breath after Smiley was gone, “to the matter of our convicted rapist. We need to discuss his punishment.”

“Banishment,” Carl said plainly.

Cabrónes,” Jo hissed. “Robert’s one of us! He built this place, helped us all to survive. He sat at this table. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t even be here. All of us owe him our lives, and we’re going to treat him like trash?!”

“We know, Jo,” said Erik, before Carl could open his mouth. “But Robert was caught and convicted.“

“And nearly beaten to death,” said Jo, glaring at Carl. “Isn’t that punishment?”

Erik continued. “I don’t like this any better than you do, but you have to respect the tribunal’s decision. The General population made that call, Jo, not us, it was a fair process.” 

“I’m against it,” said Jo, glaring at Carl. 

“Why is that, Jo?” asked Batesworth. 

She looked towards her mentor. “You know why! It’s a death sentence, nothing survives out there! You put him outside and he’s as good as dead. I know … the trial said he did it. And if … if … he did, then, okay, he should be punished. This isn’t right, it’s too extreme. And we still need him, Rich. We don’t have enough people. Robert’s the one who got us this far. If he … what he did was terrible, but…” Jo trailed off. “It’s just that…” 

“We get it, Jo,” said Erik. “None of us,” he glanced at Carl, “are taking this lightly. But we don’t have the ability to confine dangerous people, let alone rehabilitate them.” 

“I know,” said Jo irritably. “How did we end up being being executioners? We act like we own the place…”

“We do,” growled Carl.

Erik intervened. “So what are we to do with convicts? We’ve talked about this a lot before—“

“But it wasn’t one of us before,” Jo protested.

“We shouldn’t be held to a different standard,” said Batesworth. “People view us fairly poorly as it is.” 

Erik continued. “We can’t confine people for years, even if the ARCH could stand for a century. Those tunnels are even smaller than the ARCH. We can’t have them them running around free. What if he relapses? Can you live with that?” 

Jo gritted and ground her teeth. 

“I think we can assume Jo will stay with her vote,” said Batesworth. “And as Erik’s noted, I’m afraid I must also cite our previous decisions. I agree with Carl: banishment. All those in favour?” Only Jo didn’t raise her hand. “Then it’s decided. Banishment will take place tomorrow.” He took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Is there any other matters we need to discuss?” Everyone except Jo shook their heads; Jo remained motionless. “Alright. You know your tasks, let’s get back to them. Jo, if you can remain a moment?” Once everyone else had left, Batesworth stood and walked around to Jo, sitting on the table next to her. “I don’t like the decision any more than you do, Jo.”

“You just sentenced Robert to his death, Rich. You didn’t even blink.” 

“For God’s sake, Jo, I’m a teacher, not an executioner—“

“Then why are you acting like one?!” Jo screeched. She immediately retreated into her chair. 

“We’ve got a few thousand people in here who need to know that there is some kind of safety—“ 

“I get it, Rich!” Jo snapped. “Sorry. I … I’m just so damned tired. I feel trapped in here, and I’m terrified this place is going to collapse any minute. We need Robert. I know that the tribunal found him guilty—“ 

“But you don’t believe he did it.” 

“Do you?” 

“It’s not my position to—“ 

“¡Por el amor de Cristo! Stop being so damned cold, Rich! He was one of your friends! You’re actually allowed to take a side on this! And don’t give me that maldita crap about leaders being impartial.” 

Batesworth sighed and hung his head. “Like I said, Jo, I don’t like it any better than you. Robert … he betrayed us … Betrayed me.” 

“So you believe them.” 

“I have to believe in our justice. We gave it a fair trial.” 

“What part of it was fair? Robert was unconscious throughout the whole thing. He couldn’t even defend himself!” 

“We were facing a potential riot, Jo!” Batesworth’s irritation reverberated in the small room. “Either we managed the problem or we’d have had even more deaths. We weren’t given an option.” 

“That doesn’t mean he has to die.” 

“We have to be impartial. We banished rapists before. We can’t stop now just because Robert was one of us.” 

“We’re going to suffer for it. We need him. The tunnels are taking forever to build. And Carl…!” Jo snorted. “I swear, Rich, I’m gonna kill him if he keeps this up!” 

“You’re easily as much of a pain in the ass as he is, y’know,” Batesworth smirked. “You also believe you’re superior to him, which doesn’t help.” 

“I am superior to him,” Jo retorted. “The guy is useless with a hammer, Rich, and you know it. Ask the man to get a screwdriver and he’ll ask you where the orange juice is.”

Batesworth laughed. “Be that as it may, you need to meet me halfway on this, okay? At least until the tunnels are done.” Jo stood up and grumbled noncommittally. “Do what you can for the main struts. Beg, borrow, and steal. See if you can keep a roof over us for a few more weeks,” he said, placing his hand on Jo’s shoulder. “I have faith in you.” 

“Don’t worry about me. Put your faith in Smiley.” 

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 3

Jo stamped around the bottom level of the ARCH for over two hours, checking each of the support beams, measuring any deviation. She stamped up and down the stairs. She stamped through hallways and through the Atrium. She stamped and stamped and stamped as if the force of her feet into the floor would somehow suck away her frustration and anger. It gave her shin splints. 

Three of the main supports in Block 4 were deformed enough to be worrisome, the worst being two centimeters out of vertical. Supports in the other blocks were also showing deviation, all in the same direction. Several of the floor beams were starting to show signs of structural strain, and she had found a floor panel with a previously unnoticed buckling from shearing forces as one part of the ARCH moved in reference to another. 

These discoveries had led to Jo standing at the bottom of Block 2, looking up to the rooftop. Block 2 had been one of the habitation structures, filling a vertical space that ran from the ARCH’s hull at the top, along slope of the canyon that cradled the ARCH, to the floor where the support beams had been driven into the rock. Block 2 had been just like Blocks 1 and 3, until an avalanche on the canyon wall a year earlier had sent a series of large boulders into Block 2’s roof, caving it in, and smashing through a dozen floors. The breeches had been horrific, killing eighteen people and wounding over a hundred. The damage had been so bad that Block 2 was abandoned entirely, the walls sealed off, every salvageable item taken. All that remained was the superstructure. The roofline had been restored solely to prevent the winds from damaging the ARCH’s from the inside. 

Jo stood on top of one of the boulders, looking up through the shattered shaft to the rattling roof above. She wore a pair of ski goggles to keep out the persistent sand, and scanned the structures to find anything that she could permanently borrow. Her eyes darted to the roof every time there was a sound. With the motorcycle suit allocated to Erik’s repair team, Jo was left with only the hope that the wind wouldn’t tear open another hole and blast the skin from her bones. 

The scavengers had done their job: hardly anything remained in Block 2 that couldn’t have been reused elsewhere, or melted down. Running her hands through the sand, all Jo could find was the old bolt or a short length of wiring. The only significant things left in the space were the heavy beams that rose from the canyon’s floor, up through the Block, branching out into a tree trunk-like support structure for desks and the outer hull, keeping the ARCH’s frame rigid and anchoring the massive structure in place. The beams were some of the few things in the ARCH that hadn’t been entirely cobbled together, I-beams scavenged from an incomplete building in Tuba City. 

Attached to the beams were girders that kept the sides from falling inwards. Unlike the beams, the girders were inventions of purpose: tubular steel that had been welded together for lightness and strength, no two girders were alike, though they all followed the same basic pattern. 

“Todo lo que necesito es uno de esos,” she muttered to herself, her eyes following the girders that radiated out from the main beams. She hopped off the boulder and went from beam to beam, studiously looking at each one. Each beam and its girders were a work in minimalist architecture, one that would have likely resulted in violating several building codes with the lack of proper reinforcements, though Architecture Review would have declared the design “an evolution in thinking about height and volume, opening a compact space into the lightness and freedom”. “Bingo,” said Jo, and started climbing up the frame as if it were a jungle gym, easily scaling three floors in a few moments. She climbed to a point where a girder spanned across a twenty-foot space between beams.  She looked down. Below her was a pit of rock and sand. 

Clinging to the beam, she pressed her ear to the girder, pulled out her ball peen hammer from her belt, and struck the girder three times. Even over the howling winds that went unmuffled, the clear ringing of the girder showed no fracture to the metal. Jo pulled out a wrench, reached around underneath for the massive bolts that held it to the strut, felt for the wrench to slide over the nut, and hammered the wrench until the nut came loose. She repeated the process seven more times, and pulled all but one of the bolts loose, mostly freeing the girder from the first beam. Climbing back down the beam, she switched to the second one and went to the other end of the girder, removing all the bolts. Despite the force of gravity on such a heavy object, the twenty-foot girder refused to budge. Using her hammer, she whacked at the girder, slowly inching it from its resting point. As it finally slid off the mounting plate, it dangled, then twisted as its remaining connection resisted the movement. If OSHA had still existed, someone would have had an apoplectic fit watching Jo kick the girder sideways. Almost immediately, there was loud, screeching protest as the final bolt tried to hang onto several hundred pounds of steel that really wanted to rest on the rocky floor. The bolt’s head experienced a catastrophic failure, launching from the bolt’s shaft, right into Jo’s forehead. The girder pounded to the pit’s boulder-covered floor.

The impact on Jo’s forehead was beyond what would elicit a mere “ow”, but not so strong that it also elicited blood. It strong enough that Jo’s sense of balance declared a mistrial and her grip on the beam slacked and she wobbled on her feet. Half-aware that something was very wrong, she tried to cling more tightly to the beam. Her foot’s came to rest on what her jumbled memory had thought to be a mounting plate, but wasn’t, her foot completely missed what wasn’t there, and her body’s momentum sheared her grip from the beam. She saw the ceiling fall further away in slow motion. She envisioned her imminent collision with the girder she had just freed. She closed her eyes, deciding she didn’t really want to see her own death. 


Jo opened her eyes and saw a ceiling. At least, she thought it was a ceiling. She blinked a few times, and slowly the details cleared up. It wasn’t the ceiling of Block 2; this one was much, much closer to her head. She blinked again, and tried to lift her head. She found it bound to the … bed? … that she laid upon. She couldn’t turn to either side, and her hands and feet were also tied down. She did her best to not panic. “Hello?” she called. Her throat was sore and dry. “Is anyone there?” 

“Doctor!” yelled a man’s voice. Jo couldn’t see who it was, and he didn’t come into view. 

A moment later, a middle-aged woman wearing cracked eyeglasses and a too-worn blue medical cap appeared over her head. “Hello, Jo!” 

Jo breathed in relief. “Hey, Kelly. Am I glad to see you!” 

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to see you. It’s only been a few days,” said Kelly dryly. She reached down and pulled out Jo’s chart, a small blackboard, from the side of the bed.

“Muy divertido,” Jo smirked. 

“You should count yourself lucky,” said Kelly. “That was one hell of a fall.”

I don’t remember landing. I remember falling.”Jo took a deep breath. “How bad is it?” 

Kelly snorted. “Honestly, the only reason that you’re held down is because I wanted to make sure you didn’t roll off the bed onto the floor before I had a chance to check you out. Otherwise, you’re the luckiest shmuck in the place. From what I understand, you landed on a sand pile, right in the middle of two boulders. If you’d been an inch in any other direction, it’d probably have been lights out.” Kelly put the chalkboard back. “What the hell were you doing up there, anyway?” 

Though it took a moment of humming to reboot her memory, Jo replied: “Looking for spare parts.” 

Kelly looked at Jo with a concern for her own life. “That doesn’t sound good.” 

Jo tried to shake her head and found it still bound to the table. “It could be better,” said Jo. “How about you let me out of this?”   

Kelly reached around and undid the strap holding Jo’s head in place, then undid her hands and feet. “Okay, try sitting up. But slowly, okay?”

Jo braced herself with her hands, and carefully pushed herself until she was sitting upright. 

“How’s it feel?” asked Kelly, flicking a light in Jo’s eyes, one at a time.

“Um… okay?” Jo replied. She cringed at the bright light, which felt like it was piercing the back of her skull.

“No optic damage,” said Kelly. “Roll your head around,” she instructed. “Slowly.” Jo did as she was told. “Anything hurt? Neck, shoulders, back?”  

“I don’t think so.” 

“How many fingers?” asked Kelly, holding up her hand. 

“Three.” 

“Good. Can you read the bottom line?” Kelly held up a card with various sizes of text. 

“Copyright 2001 The Milwaukee Corporation.” 

Kelly laughed. “If you can read the mice type, you’re fine.” She pulled out the papers and quickly jotted a few notes. “Anything else feel sore?” 

Jo moved her limbs, breathed deeply a few times. “Just the back of my neck. And I’ve got a bit of a headache.” 

“The girl falls a storey, misses having her brains turned into jelly, and all she has is a headache,” muttered Kelly. She felt the back of Jo’s head carefully. “Anything sore back here?” 

“Nope,” said Jo. “I wish you had some aspirin, though.” 

“Don’t we all,” agreed Kelly. She tapped Jo’s knees with a small rubber hammer. Jo’s knees jerked stereotypically. “Well, near as I can tell, you got off scot-free. No so much as a bruise. Stop keeping all our luck for yourself. Share the wealth, will ya?” 

“I guess I was born lucky,” Jo laughed lightly. 

Kelly shook her head. “Honey, you’d have to have a whole herd of horseshoes up your ass to explain how you’ve managed to not be killed so many times. You haven’t even had so much as a broken toe! The only thing you do when you come in here is,” Kelly jabbed her finger into Jo’s chest as she spoke, “waste my time!” 

“Better your time than my life?” Jo offered. 

Kelly pursed her lips. “Don’t tempt me.” 

“Well, thank you all the same, Kelly. I’m glad to know it’s nothing more serious,” said Jo. “Though I do have to ask … how’d I get here? I’ll assume I didn’t walk.” 

“Him,” said Kelly, indicating the man standing to one side. The man was thin, and young. His clothes, a long-sleeved red shirt rolled to his elbows and blue jeans, hung from him. He looked like he was in trouble for something. “He’s been here since he brought you in. That was about three hours ago, in case you were wondering.”

Jo looked at the man, and registered nothing. “Um. Thank you,” she said. “How…?”

“I heard the girder crash. I was afraid there was a collapse,” he said. “I went to look.” 

“Most people run away when something falls apart,” said Jo.

“I … um, I thought I could help,” the man said quietly. 

“Well, you did,” said Kelly.  

“What’s your name?” Jo asked. 

“Donner Vasquez,” he replied with a nod.

“Gracias, Donner. Estoy en deuda con usted,” she said.

“Uh, sorry?” 

“Ah, ¿no habla español?” she asked. 

“I’m … um, I don’t speak Spanish.” 

“If you’re done introducing yourselves, I need the bed space!” said Kelly.

“Oh no. More tunnelling injuries?” asked Jo. 

“Always,” said Kelly. “I swear they must just stand there and wait for rocks to fall on them. I’ve already seen four of them this morning, which means there should be another one coming any minute.”

“They’re in the best hands,” said Jo, giving Kelly a quick hug.

“They’re in the only hands,” smiled Kelly. “Just do me a favor?” 

“Anything.” 

“Get some help before you do something that stupid again.”  

Jo nodded. “I will. Thanks, Kelly.” 

“Thank him, not me. He kept you from being buried alive,” said Kelly, as she left. 

Jo shot a look at Donner. “What?”

“The, uh, girder shook loose a lot of sand,” he explained. “I had some trouble getting you out of it.”

“I see,” Jo nodded solemnly. “And, uh, how did you do that?”

“Well, I figured that climbing into the sand would likely get me in the same trouble. So I found a metal pole, made a hook, and pulled you out.” 

“‘Made a hook’,” Jo repeated. “Just out of curiosity, Donner, what’s your work assignment?”

“General laborer,” he sighed. “Whatever needs doing.” 

Jo hopped down carefully from the bed. Holding onto the edge, she took a few tentative steps. Everything felt otherwise fine. “Are you on shift?” she asked as she walked around the tiny room. 

“Uh, yeah,” he said worriedly. 

“Don’t worry. Tell Bonnie that if she doesn’t give you a good ticket, I’m gonna kick her ass. Tell her Jo said so,” she grinned. 

“Oh… okay,” he said. “Thanks.” 

“No, thank you, Donner. You saved my life. I hope I can return the favor at some point.” 

“Well, I won’t be falling into pits of sand, if I can help it,” Donner laughed lightly. 

“You’d better not,” said Jo, giving Donner a quick hug. “Okay, go. Keep your rations.” 

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 4

“Something I can help you with, Jo?” asked Bateworth, walking out of his office. Professor Batesworth’s private office and quarters, the Council room, and a lounge connecting the other two rooms formed the entirety of the Engineer’s Office. The lounge had once been just that: a place to gather, to relax. The couches had long since been given away, the walls stripped of anything important, all but one of the lights removed and reused. In place of comfort were the ever-present sleeping racks, full with the night shift. Opposite the door to Batesworth’s office was Erik’s small desk, covered in old papers that were reused repeatedly in different colored inks to the point of illegibility, and the pile of small chalkboards. Jo was hovering over the cramped desk, overflowing with small chalkboards. She was picking them up and reviewing each. 

“Any idea where Erik is?” she asked, not looking away from the notes. 

“Somewhere,” Batesworth shrugged. “If he’s not covering your emergency shift, he’s probably looking into the things that came in overnight, or dealing with all that,” he gestured to the pile of boards. “He could be anywhere.”

“And judging by these, it looks like everywhere,” said Jo, tossing down the last of the boards in her hand. “You know you lean on Erik too much.” 

“We all do,” said Batesworth. “We’d be lost without him.” 

“I wish he still had a pager.” 

“I wish we had enough hardware for that. I’m amazed they’ve lasted as long as they have.” 

Jo snorted. “I’ll see if I can find him.” 

“What’s eating you, Jo?” asked Batesworth. 

Jo rolled her head and looked at Batesworth. “You know what’s eating me, Rich. You shouldn’t have to ask.” 

“You’re right, it would be easier to ask what’s not eating you.” 

“That’s not funny.” 

“It wasn’t meant to be, Jo. You’re letting every little thing get to you. You’ve been like this for—“

“Since Robert was attacked and accused of rape.” 

“I was going to say a couple of days ago, but you’re right, about then.” Batesworth folded his arms. “Your problem is that you think you know all the answers. You think you know what’s best for us. You disagree with our direction, you argue with areas you have no experience with, you piss off Carl, call Francis by the wrong name just to annoy him, and ignore my advice. You’re an average engineer, at best, and you see yourself as better than all of us, combined. With you, the sky is always falling.”

“The sky is falling, Rich! It’s literally landing on our heads! You keep forgetting because you haven’t picked up so much as a hammer in two years! You hide in this office and believe all is well! You’re being told lies on a daily basis and take it as truth. I know more about this place than anyone else because I’m the one keeping it from falling down!”  

“You trusted in Robert too much,” he grumbled. 

“You hated that Robert created the Council!”

“He didn’t create it, he got all of you to gang up on me, forcing it like the Magna Carta!” Batesworth’s voice reverberated in the room. One of the Engineers on the nearby bunks grunted and rolled over.

“Because you want to be Professor Batesworth! You want the control like you had at the university. That was a decade ago, Rich. The world has changed, but you haven’t! Robert was right about one thing — you can’t control them!” She angrily shot a finger towards the population above them. “They’re not students, and they don’t recognize your authority. Hell, they barely recognize us as it is!” 

“You’re the problem, you know. All of you. The petty arguments, the grandstanding, the pandering. It feels just like those accursed faculty meetings, only with less accomplished people.” Batesworth glared at Jo. “But here we are. Last I checked, we operate as a collective, meaning we agree on how we operate.” 

“You should be more of a leader. You’re letting the clowns run the circus.” 

“And what are you in that analogy?” 

“The bruja who has to clean up after you idiots.” She stormed out of the office.


It was an hour before Jo found Erik in the kitchen, a huge room nearly in the middle of the ARCH, at one end of the Atrium. Like the rest of the ARCH, the kitchen had been assembled from whatever scrounged scrap could be found, coming to hold a large selection of humanity’s history of cooking implements. There were a dozen large sinks for rinsing dirt from vegetables, which arrived by hand, were scrubbed by many hands, and handed off to still more hands at ten long prep tables, where those hands quickly diced up potatoes, mushrooms, and asparagus. Almost two centuries’ of stoves ringed the room, almost all converted to fuel-burning as spare parts dwindled — did what they could to made the vegetables more palatable. Erik’s nose was buried in the back of the last functioning electric oven.

“I hope you unplugged that,” said Jo, walking to the unit. The sides had long since disappeared for scrap, leaving behind an appliance that looked vaguely robotic.  

“You know me, I always put my hands where they don’t belong,” Erik replied, not looking up. 

“Oh, cómo desearía que lo hicieras,” Jo remarked. 

“Huh?” 

Jo smiled wistfully. “Just wondering why this one doesn’t run on fuel.”

“Well, we haven’t quite burned this one out yet— come on, you little turd!” 

“What happened?” 

“The fuse shorted. I’m trying to get the junction out, but the clip holding it in is in a really awkward place,” he grunted, pulling a wire free. 

Jo looked over Erik’s broad shoulders. His scent wafted powerfully, though no less pungently than Jo’s. “Y’know, it might be easier if you just pulled the stove out completely…” 

“I know, I know,” said Erik testily. “I was hoping this would be quick and I wouldn’t lose an hour doing this.” 

“Uh huh.” Jo looked around at the tools and parts scattered around the oven door. “And how long have you been at this?” 

Erik’s mumbled, though Jo could just pick out the sounds “an” and “hour”. “There,” he said confidently. “That should do it.” He stood back, and turned on the stove’s controls. The light on the front lit up, and a moment later the element started to glow. He looked carefully at the hardwired connection. He held his hand close to check. “Yep, that’ll do it.” 

“Nice work!” Jo complimented. “Glad to see you’re actually useful,” she winked. 

“Hey, I’m good for something around here,” Erik defended himself, turned the stove off, and proceeded to reattach the parts he’d removed. “I’ll assume you’re not here just to see me?” 

Jo smirked for a moment, then coughed. “I want to reinforce the beam in Block 4 with a girder. I just need help getting one prepped and moved.”

“You found one?” 

“More or less,” said Jo. “It wasn’t doing anything.” 

“You’ve already disconnected it and sent it to the ground,” Erik sighed exasperatedly. “Hopefully that doesn’t come back to bite us. Well, get your team to…” He stopped. “Sorry, that was stupid.” He shook his head. “I really wish we hadn’t agreed to reassign your team.” 

You wish?” Jo guffawed. “You have any idea of what I’ve been through this morning?” 

Erik looked up. Jo’s complaints were almost as frequent as the grains of sand that fell constantly from the roof, though they were usually just something for her to say. This was different. “You okay?” 

“You’re concerned!” she smiled. “I’m touched!” 

Erik placed a hand on her shoulder. “No, really, are you okay?” he repeated. 

“Yeah, I’m fine. I took a tumble,” Jo shrugged her shoulders, passing off the incident as nothing more than someone having pushed her over. “Got knocked out for a few hours, apparently.” 

“Knocked out?!” blurted Erik. He dropped his screwdriver and carefully gripped Jo by the shoulders. “Oh my god, are you alright?!”

“Relax, cariño!” smiled Jo, tapping Erik gently on his face with her hand. “Kelly cleared me.” 

“You’re sure?” he asked pointedly. 

“Yes, I’m sure. So is Kelly!” she said.

“Okay.” Erik let out his breath. “Don’t scare me like that.” 

“You really do care?” asked Jo.

“Of course,” he replied, more matter-of-factly. “You know more about fixing this place than anyone else. We’re kind of screwed without you.” He looked up and winked. 

Jo mouthed the words “screw you” while shaking her head. “Do I get my help or not? Can I get a couple back from tunnelling?”

“You heard Smiley. They’re going to be busy for a while. If they can’t get those tunnels built quickly enough, and you’re right about those supports—“

“I am.”

“—a lot of people are… you know.” 

Jo sighed, staring at the ceiling. “I can’t fix things fast enough on my own, Erik. Can I take some of Frank’s—?” 

Erik laughed as he picked up his screwdriver. “Right. You go try. I’ll bring the popcorn.” He turned back to the stove.

“I miss popcorn,” moaned Jo. “Well, what about getting someone for at least a couple of hours?” 

“Why don’t you just snag a couple of hands from the population? You don’t need anyone skilled, right?” asked Erik, as he reattached a safety cover.

“Neither does Carl! He should take from population and give me my people back!” she snapped. 

“He does, Jo!” Erik was nearly whining. “You know he has most of them on a constant rotation in and out of the tunnels. If they’re not digging, they’re shovelling. If they’re not shovelling, they’re mucking. If they’re not mucking, they’re probably sleeping.”

“And we’re still not in there?!” Jo squawked. “Am I the only one who thinks this is fishy? All those people and we’re no further ahead than a month ago.” 

Erik turned around. “Look, I know you’re overworked, and it’s definitely a problem.” He rolled his head a few times in thought. “Let me see what I can dig up with the rotation, okay? Maybe … maybe I can free someone up. C’mon.” He took a step before turning to the kitchen staff. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. Er, I mean, retorno en lagunas minute-os.” He grumbled, and mumbled. “Shit, I know I got that wrong…”

Jo spun around as they walked out. “Él regresará en unos minutos,” she smiled. The kitchen staff nodded and returned to their work.

They weaved through the dining hall, adjacent to the kitchen, that held a few hundred at a time at long rows. Neither the hall nor the kitchen never closed, the lineup to eat never ended, the greenhouses constantly produced. And it was never enough. Every person in the room was underfed, underdressed, underslept. Every eye looked sunken and dull, every expression exhausted. Even the endless energy of children was in drought conditions. Everyone noticed Erik and Jo as they walked through to the hallways beyond. The main hallway was the dining line, where those off-shift waited their turn to eat. The line was typically quiet and only moved as spaces in the dining hall became available. The line rippled and swirled as Erik and Jo passed, both making room and passively acosting the two Engineers, half-whispered curses following.  

Jo barely looked at any of the people. It wasn’t a callous effort, it was a result of time and overburden. It was no different than getting a burn: at first, it seared and stung, you swore in pain and did everything you could to heal. With enough time, even though the burn might still be visible, you noticed it less and less, until finally you forgot it was there. The faces, once clear and painful, had blurred into an endless meaningless stream of beings, all trapped under the same roof, all struggling to survive one more day. Jo didn’t know if any of them were grateful for being in the ARCH, desperate to flee, ready to snap under the strain of so many others around them, or like herself, simply numb. 

The Engineer’s Office was one of the few places devoid of the crush. Erik marched to his desk and rifled through the slates. He then glanced at the larger chalkboard mounted on the wall next to his desk, which recorded the locations of every Engineer. 

“Well, unless I’m wrong, you have the options of either Bob—“

Jo gagged. “Mierda.” 

“—or Chad.” 

Jo groaned. “That’s not much better.” 

“I don’t know what to tell you, Jo. They’re the only ones not on shift right now, other than them,” he said, jerking his thumb to the sleeping people. He knew, as Jo did, that waking anyone up without an emergency was going to be asking for serious trouble later on. “Getting anyone else is going to start a fight. And you know how that’ll end up,” said Erik, jerking his thumb again, this time towards Batesworth’s office. 

Jo grumbled. “It doesn’t do us any good to put all our good people digging tunnels if the rest of us are buried alive!” 

Erik held up his hands, and motioned Jo to keep her voice down. “I know, I know. I hate to tell you this but all we have left is general labor,” he said. “The last time I talked to Bonnie, we’ve had lots looking for work, and I’m pretty sure some of them would love the change from tunnel duty.” 

“General labor?” Jo’s head snapped up. The back of her neck twinged in response and she fought off the groan. “Can I ask for someone specifically?” 

“Uh, sure, I guess. You got a name?” 


“Hey Bonnie,” said Jo, sidling up to a tiny woman who looked barely into her teens. Bonnie was one of Erik’s team, one of Jo’s classmates, and one of only three female Engineers. She was stumped over a pile of names written on broken bits of slate, which were arranged on a large table, gridded off into boxes. Bonnie Xi was the general laborers’ manager: she was the one that decided who did what and when, based on ever-changing pile of things that needed doing with equally-varying levels of urgency. The majority of the labor pool usually ended up in tunnelling work, leaving a few to deal with the less important needs of the ARCH. 

“Huh?” Bonnie muttered and looked up. “Oh, hey, Jo,” Bonnie acknowledged unenthusiastically. “What’s up?” 

“Trying to find someone who might be in the pool today,” said Jo. 

Bonnie raised an eyebrow without breaking from her task. “You want to steal one of mine?” 

“More like ‘borrow’ for a short while,” Jo said. “I just need some help repairing the struts, and I can’t do it alone.”

“Uh huh,” Bonnie uttered, returning to her grid. “Lopez! Fullerman! Jimenez! Yeung! Keller!” Half a dozen people put up their hands. “Yeung, Robert!” Bonnie corrected, and one hand dropped. “Tunnels.” The four men and two women groaned. “I know, that’s what I got.” Bonnie looked back to Jo. “Name?” 

“Vasquez, Donner.” 

Bonnie scanned her table. “Vasquez… I saw that name… where did I put her…?” 

“Him,” corrected Jo.

“Whatever. It’s a name and a body,” Bonnie muttered. “Ah, here. Supposed to be fixing a light in Block 6, Level 4. That was an hour ago. So either he’s gotten lost, or he’s incompetent, like everyone else around here.” Bonnie sighed. “Tanner!” A woman who looked barely able to stand rose from her seat on the floor. “Can you carry a 30 lb load?” Bonnie asked hesitantly. The woman shook her head slowly. “Thanks. Uh, Wilson?” A sturdy man stood up. “Same question.” The man nodded. “Greenhouses. You’re on delivery.” The man nodded and trotted off.

“Assume he’s done, Bonnie,” said Jo reassuringly. “I’m going to steal him for a couple of days. Erik said it was okay with him.” 

“Erik always sides with you,” Bonnie grumbled, and put Donner’s name into a grid square marked: “Stolen”. 

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 5

It didn’t take long for Jo to find the right place, as what few lights existed were all on. The deck wasn’t bright — there were very few bright places outside of the greenhouses — and a quick questioning of one of the hallway occupants said that Donner had been there. She followed a trail of similar questions, each leading Jo down a few hallways to the toilets, which had been reported out-of-service though had not yet been fixed. Normally sanitation ranked higher on the list of things needing repairs, however Block 6 had an disproportionate number of nyctophobics. She found him hunched over a hole in the floor, the bowl having been removed. 

The washroom was like most in the ARCH: large, with as many toilets as could be installed in the space. Washrooms were generally dark, damp, dank, dingy, with a varying levels of disgusting, and the menace of dysentery. There were no dividers between the toilets, no toilet paper, with only a constantly-running tap that dripped into the toilet’s tank to rinse one’s hands. On the wall near the door was a small tank with pure alcohol, the only available disinfectant. (Making the alcohol was one task everyone clamored for, as sampling the “test” distillant was a rare privilege. Anyone caught drinking the disinfectant — either during or shortly thereafter — was assigned tunnel duty for a month.) 

Every washroom stank. Cleaning washrooms had been a difficult task since the ARCH had gone through its rapid expansion, and the refocusing of efforts into digging tunnels had almost entirely removed cleaning as a regular duty. Thus the nature of humanity to frequently miss the large, nominally white target had led to an unwhitening of the target and a perpetual hazard on the floors, which went stale and sometimes fermented. Were that the only insult, it would have been sufficient. The injury for well over half the ARCH’s population came from the thiols in the 2-dithiolane-4-carboxylic acid present in nearly everyone’s urine. There were some who interchangeably held the world record for shortest time in the washrooms. The penalty for urinating anywhere else was to be put on cleaning duty.   

Donner hadn’t heard Jo’s approach, being utterly focused on the problem he had discovered. Instead, she stood and watched. He was on his knees, his pants wet from the thigh-down, his shirt splattered with things that would come back to haunt him later. He had an eight- or nine-foot long piece of heavy-gauge wire, which looked like it had been wound, unwound, and rewound many times. He was slowly pushing the wire into the hole, giving the wire a careful twist, then pulling it out a ways before repeating the movement. It was several times before he grunted: “Gotcha!” and drew out what could only look like a thick glob of brown that only horror writers would find appealing. It exited the hole with a sickly sucking pop, followed by a gurgling. Donner reeled back from a burp and held back his breakfast. He spied Jo at the toilet doorway. “Oh. Uh, hi!” 

“Having fun?” asked Jo.

“Yeah, who doesn’t like fishing stuff out of a sewer?” he smiled weakly. He held out the glob at the end of his wire. “I think it was a shirt. What do I do with this?” 

“That’s probably why someone flushed it. They figured we’d deal with it downstream,” said Jo. “I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t just try to wash it at their next rinsing, though.” She dug into one of the pockets in her pants, and pulled out a much-used plastic bag. “Here. We’ll toss it in Frank’s forge later. Hopefully it burns well.” Garbage was rare in the ARCH. Everything was needed, and nothing went to waste. “Need any help getting that back together?” 

“No, I got it,” said Donner. He replaced the wax ring, and returned the toilet bowl to its place, bolting it down. He turned the tap on that started refilling the tank, ran the long wire under the water to clean off the mess, then his hands, and carefully wrapped the wire around his forearm. He slathered his arms from nearly the shoulder-down with the disinfectant, instantly shivering as the alcohol boiled off. In the arid heat, the rest of him would be dry within the hour. He was pushed out of the way by several women desperate to use the newly-vacated toilets. 

“You work quickly,” Jo noted. 

Donner shrugged his shoulders. “No time for dawdling, right?” 

“Bonnie thinks you’ve disappeared,” Jo admonished. 

“Well, one of the people in the hall said the toilet was broken, so I thought I should…,” he trailed off. “I should’ve checked in, right?” 

“Don’t worry, kid. If something needed fixing, kudos to you for fixing it. It would have just ended up on Bonnie’s list and annoyed her, anyway,” Jo smiled. “I want to talk to you about something.” Jo walked down the hallway, Donner followed.

“What do you need?” he asked. 

“That hook you made to fish me out of the sand,” said Jo, “where’d you get the idea?”

“Um, well, I guess kind of from this,” said Donner, indicating the wire wrapped around his arm. “Just that I needed a bigger one.” 

“Ingenious,” nodded Jo. “You seem like a handy guy.” 

“I guess so,” he blushed. 

Jo looked hard at him for a moment. “Did you have any hobbies?” she asked. “Y’know, before this.”

“I used to skateboard with my friends,” he said unhelpfully. “It’s … uh, hard to have any hobbies around here.”

Jo laughed. “You ever make anything? Like a skate ramp?” 

“Um, well, I built a treehouse,” he offered.

Jo’s eyebrows peaked. “Really? What did you make it out of?” 

“Some scrap wood my dad had lying around,” he said. “An old window. I found tin sheeting in an alley. I made the roof from that!” He got more excited. “And I was going to put some lights in it, but my dad didn’t want me to use live electricity.” 

“Why’d you build it?” 

“My kid brother wanted a place where he could pretend to be an astronaut,” he said quietly. 

“What block does your family live in?”

“They didn’t make it. I was on a high school camping trip to Kaibab when…,” Donner wrung his hands. 

Jo put her hand on Donner’s shoulder. “Lo siento, Donner. I’m sorry.” Donner smiled grimly. Jo looked thoughtfully at the boy. “You’re resilient, a survivor. It’s done you well. Let’s see if you can do more. Vamos.” 

Jo led Donner through the packed hallways. The droning of people melded with the droning of the wind outside, creating a sound that would be familiar to Tibetan monks. They walked out into the atrium, which bustled like a tight Moroccan souq, only without the stalls of spices and silver, or feral cats. The yelling punctuated the preternatural monotonic chant like sparse Braille dimples on a large page. Winding through the dense crowd was a challenge for one person, trying not to lose track of the person in front of you required a sharp elbow and a strong pair of feet. Donner struggled to stay with Jo, nearly losing her rounding a corner of sleeping racks. Yelling for her to slow down required a voice far more powerful than Donner possessed. They weaved through the pressed crowd to another door in the far corner of the atrium, somewhere between Blocks 1 and 3. Jo produced a key and unlocked the door, holding it open to Donner, and blocking anyone else trying to enter. She locked the door behind them. The sound was markedly quieter. Inside was a narrow spiral stairwell that descended, though Donner could not tell how far. Jo started down, Donner close behind. The stairs curved so quickly that Donner had to duck to not hit his head on the stairs above him. Very quickly, Donner lost track of how many times he’d gone around in a circle and could not tell how far they were going down. 

“Where are we going?” he asked. 

“Down,” said Jo. 

“Uh, yeah,” Donner mumbled. “What’s down there?” 

“Call it a ‘test’,” she replied. 

They reached the bottom of the stairs and Jo opened another door. There was a gust of dampness as the air was drawn out from the greenhouse. Jo retraced her steps from that morning, walking past the large concrete wall that extended up the valley’s slope towards Block 1. The wall went up to the ceiling, some dozen feet up, and another fifty or so feet further downhill. A pair of stairs took them from the doorway to the valley floor, which had a path emblazoned from the stairs, along the concrete wall, to a path at the end. Donner cringed at the brightness from the rows of grow lights, Jo waved to the dozens of people tending to endless rows of asparagus shoots and potato leaves. Some people were harvesting, some were fertilizing, some were reseeding, and others carrying off the harvest to be cooked and served. As Donner’s vision adjusted to the brightness, he saw the large white struts that erupted from the floor like curiously-shaped primer-painted trees. 

Jo walked around the corner of the concrete wall, Donner trying to stay right behind her. He was, however, suddenly distracted by the explosion of pipes from near the base of the concrete wall, two of which ran downhill, two that ran up into the floor above, and four more that seemed to run to one side, then straight out, eventually intersecting with the ceiling. A myriad of smaller pipes all branched out from some of the pipes, most of which ran to piping overhead, and down to small nozzles above the plants. He nearly tripped over one of the pipes trying to keep up with Jo. She stopped at one of the great primer-painted struts. Donner nearly drove himself right into it, not watching where he was going. 

“Welcome to the greenhouse,” said Jo. 

“Oh. I wondered if that’s what this was. Where are we?” asked Donner, still looking around. 

“West end of Block 4,” said Jo. “At the bottom, of course.” She turned around, looking downhill. “Level 1 of Block 4 starts just over there. Block 8’s just over there, Block 6 is down at the end of Block 4.” 

“Right,” nodded Donner. He looked more comfortable. “I’m not used to seeing it from this side. Hey, can I ask a question?” 

“You just did,” Jo joked. Donner looked back blankly, missing Jo’s humor. “Shoot.” 

“Why are they called ‘blocks’, anyway? They’re all domes.” 

“I’m impressed, most people don’t know that they’re domes,” said Jo. “We didn’t name them ‘blocks’. All anyone sees are the walls, so they look more like blocks, and that’s what everyone called them,” Jo explained. 

“It’s just so … odd. I mean, the blocks aren’t even the same shape or size!” Donner exclaimed. 

“Does it really matter?” asked Jo. “This place isn’t about consistency or design. All this place does is keep people alive. And people naturally form neighbourhoods. Once we got enough city folk in here, the term ‘block’ was inevitable.” 

“Ah,” said Donner, unconvinced. 

“You’ve never been to a city, have you?” asked Jo. 

“I went to Flagstaff a few times with my parents,” said Donner. 

“Hmm,” hmm’ed Jo. “Not quite the same as a big city. You’ll just have to trust me on this one.”

“What’re those pipes?” asked Donner, pointing back towards the concrete wall. 

Jo raised an eyebrow. “You tell me.” 

“Water?” asked Donner. “It looks like it would be water. You dammed the creek, right? And those pipes take water up to the rest of the ark? It’s mostly gravity fed, right?” Donner was smiling.

“For a kid who didn’t graduate high school, you’re pretty smart,” smirked Jo. “Let’s see if you can solve this one.” She slammed her hand on the strut. It thumped dully. “What’s this?” 

“Uh, one of the supports for the ark?” 

ARCH,” Jo corrected. “Arid Region Configurable Habitation.” 

“Oh! Really? Everyone says it’s pronounced ‘ark’,” said Donner. “That kind of makes more sense, you know, with all of these people?” 

“‘Two-by-two’, I know,” nodded Jo. “You wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve heard that.” She slapped her hand on the strut again. “This?” 

“Oh, sorry. Um. One of the supports for this block. It runs up, and branches off at points so you can … what happened to this one?” asked Donner, looking at a slight warp in the strut, which caused the entire thing to bend slightly downhill. “That’s not good, is it?” 

“You’ve got a good eye. I needed a tape measure to see that.” 

“It should be straight. I mean, it should be straight, right? If this leans any more, the stress could snap the … and bring down … and we would … oh boy!” Donner realized. “How do we fix it?” Donner asked. Then he snapped his fingers. “We could get another strut, and attach it to the concrete wall! That’s got to be buried, what, six feet down? It runs back really far up the hill! It’s a good anchor!” 

“Yeah, I’m so stealing you from Bonnie,” Jo laughed. “Just out of curiosity, what were you planning to do after high school, Donner?” 

“Uh, well, I had thought about going to work in my dad’s shop,” he admitted.

“You’re about to get a crash course in engineering,” Jo announced. “Well, at least the kind we do around here.” 

Donner looked slightly stunned. “But, uh, I’m not an engineer?”

“¡No hay problema!” Jo smiled. “Neither am I.” 

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 6

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.” 

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 7

I’m not normally a fan of montages without a really good soundtrack, but writing more than a single chapter about this really did not interest me.


There was no part of Donner’s face that did not scream ‘bewildered’. “What do you mean you’re not an Engineer?” 

“Technically, I’m just a student,” said Jo. “Like you, I never graduated. I don’t have a degree, I don’t have a professional designation. That doesn’t stop me from trying to do better around here. It shouldn’t stop you, either.” 

“Oh… okay.”

“Now, any thoughts on how we’re going to attach your beam to the concrete wall?” asked Jo. 

Donner went over to the wall and looked at it. He peered down the side and jogged along the wall until it was short enough for him to look over the top. There was barely a body width between the top of the wall and the ceiling. The water inside was black, the top winking with light in the ripples. He dropped back down and returned to Jo. 

“The wall’s pretty thick at this part, I’m guessing, to hold back the pressure,” he said, tapping the end of the wall. “It’s too high for us to attach anything on top, even if we could get up there. I think we’d need to mount it here at the base, then run it up to the support.” Donner tilted his head as he looked. He backed into the corner of the water tank and looked back at the bent beam. “Uh. But that won’t be a square attachment, so we’ll have to … um …” He looked at the next strut, and then the one next to that one. “They’re all bent,” he said. “Uh. Wow, this is … not good.” 

“Nope. That’s why we’ve got to do something before it gets worse.” 

“We’re going to need more beams,” said Donner. “Three more. Maybe five.” 

“Oh?” asked Jo innocently. “What do you have in mind?” 

“Well, if we run one from each of the outer two supports, and anchor them at the corners, we can then run two more from the anchors to the centre support. If we can get more beams, we can link the three together to stop any lateral shift.” 

“I’m impressed, Donner, that’s good analysis. Though I don’t think we’ll need to worry about lateral shift. We are in a valley, after all.” 

Donner wheeled around. “Huh?” Jo was pointing to the rock wall at the sides. “Oh! Right, yeah. Good point.” 

“For someone who’s never taken a basic structural engineering course, you’ve got a good instinct. Better than some of the other Engineers, too.” She took a long look at Donner. “I think you need to see something. Vamos.” Jo led Donner down to the very sides of the structure, where the Blocks had been anchored to the rock walls. Various supports had been mounted to the rock walls, embedded in concrete mountings, bound in with bolts. Cracks forming in a number of the trusses, and gaps starting to form where the blocks had been connected. Bolts had sheared and many more were bent. Three had broken loose, and a fourth had pulled part of the wall with it. Donner let out a sound somewhere between a begging dog a hopeless gasp. 

“What are thinking?” asked Jo. 

“Well, um… okay, promise you won’t take this the wrong way?” he asked. 

“Right and wrong depends on your point of view,” Jo admonished, and then cringed. “Sorry, that was pure Batesworth there.” She shook her head. “Anyway, spit it out.” 

“Well, I thought I the ARCH was … well, good. Everything you’ve shown me says we’re in a lot of trouble,” he said quietly. 

“We are in trouble,” Jo confirmed. “Big trouble.” Jo sighed heavily and folded her arms over her chest. “Look, we can’t tell everyone that the ARCH is going to collapse imminently. Can you imagine the panic?” Donner nodded curtly. “This is inevitable: the entire structure is slipping downhill. And it’s taking everyone with it.”


“UGH!” Donner groaned as they set the girder down next to the concrete water tank. “That was way too much work.” 

“What,” Jo panted, “moving from Block 2 to Block 1 then to Block 3 so we could go down a level then back to Block 1 to get into Block 4 at a reasonable point wasn’t in your plans?” She chuckled. “Could’ve been worse. We almost had to go down to Block 7.” 

“If you hadn’t had everyone move out of the way in the Atrium…,” Donner rubbed his sore hands. “You can yell really loud,” he added. 

“My abuelita called me ‘Ruidosa’ for a reason.” She looked at Donner’s expression. “It means ‘loud one’ in English.” Donner smiled faintly. “Oh, come on, kid,” Jo heaved, as she rested against the wall, “this was the easy one!” 

Donner cast Jo an uncomfortable look. “‘Easy’?”  

“Yeah. Now we have to figure out where to get three more of these!” she grinned. 

Donner slouched, hastening his discomfort. “Um. That doesn’t sound good.” 

“Nope. This place was built minimalist. We didn’t have a wealth of materials, so we built only as much as we had. Whatever redundancy there is comes from the original geodesic designs. We’re not exactly going to be tripping over these,” said Jo. 

“So, uh, where do we look?” 

Jo looked at her junior. “If you had to choose…?” 

A moment, Donner resembled an animal caught in a bright light’s glare. Slowly, his gear shifted, and the blankness dissolved to serious thought. It was short thought, however, as Donner lacked deep knowledge of the ARCH’s architecture. “Well, if it were me, I’d say Block 2, as it’s collapsed.” He saw Jo’s frown. “Buuut I’m guessing that there’s not much left?” Jo nodded. “Um, well, maybe the north side of Block 3…,” he thought. Jo grimaced. “Is it as bad as those trusses we saw earlier? It is, isn’t it. So, um, Block 1?” Jo shrugged. “Nine?” Jo shook her head. “Anywhere?” 

Jo laughed. “You were right with Blocks 3 and 1. They’re probably our best bets, even with the damage. So why there?” 

Donner pondered. “They’re the highest up, so they have the least load to bear?” 

Jo wagged her head side to side. “Yes and no,” she said. “Those are the highest blocks, but they also bear a fair amount of sand and rock that’ve fallen on the roof. However, they’re also the oldest of the blocks, and we overbuilt them while learning how to build them better. There’s a few places we might be able to rejig things and not cause any problems. Big ones, anyway.” 

Donner looked like a deer again. 

“Think of it this way,” said Jo, “if you had to build another treehouse, what would you do differently?” Donner brightened up and was about to start into the design he’d been rethinking for a few years. Jo held up her hand. “You get my point,” she said. “So imagine the things you could remove from your first one, or change around, and still get the same result.” 

“Gotcha,” Donner nodded. 

“So, Block 1 or Block 3, you choose,” she said, getting up. 

“Um. 3?”


At the edge of Block 3, where it met the canyon’s walls, one of the struts that had held the structure in place lay on the floor. It’s mounting point had fractured and the strut had simply flopped down without being noticed. 

“I’m betting that’s one reason for the slippage,” said Jo, inspecting the other end. “Probably ten centimeters of scraping along here. This is definitely not good.” 

“This is going to sound stupid,” Donner started, “but if this broke here, what’s to keep it from breaking when we attach it to the reservoir?” 

“Nothing,” said Jo flatly. “It’ll be under way more stress down there than it was up here.” Donner looked like he was going to speak again. “We’re not trying to make a permanent repair, Donner. We just have to make sure that the ARCH stays up long enough to get people out of it. Reattaching this isn’t going to help as much. We need to keep the deformation lower down under control long enough to get everyone out of here. That’s what it is to be an Engineer.”  

“Um. I thought you said you weren’t an Engineer?” asked Donner. 

Jo smiled at Donner. “Ah, you were listening! I’m an Engineer by mere fact that I was in the original group. In fact, only Professor Batesworth is a real engineer.” 

“Is that why you’re the government, too?” he asked. 

“That’s a longer story,” said Jo.  

Donner looked at the fallen strut and then at the rock wall. “How long until the tunnels are done?” he asked. 

Jo tried not to look despondent, however Donner’s face betrayed her own expression. “Not soon enough,” she said quietly. “You’ve seen what danger we’re in. If it were up to me, I’d move people into the tunnels today. We’d be safer in there. But the tunnels aren’t ready, so we’re at the mercy of time and physics.” She leaned in close to Donner and locked her gaze with his. “You’re an Engineer now, Donner. Being an Engineer means having to keep some things secret.” 

“Or people might panic,” he added. Jo nodded. “You can trust me.”

She clasped him on his shoulder. “Donner, I have had no doubts since the moment I met you.” 

Donner blushed and looked down to the ground. “Thanks.” 

“Hey, you don’t get to thank me. I owe you a few billion, first.” 

“Yes, ma’am,” he nodded.

“And none of this ‘ma’am’ crap. My name is ‘Jo’. Don’t ever call me anything else, okay?” 

“Okay.” 

Jo released her hold on Donner. “Right! We need to find three more girders. You go look at the two that were further down on this side and I’ll check out Block 1. If we’re lucky, we might be able to make off with them, too. Oh, and see if you can find a path to get the girders back. I want to avoid having to cut anything.” 


“I haven’t… climbed that much… … … ever,” Donner panted as he leaned against the concrete wall of the reservoir. “Why couldn’t you have built straighter floors?!” 

Jo laughed. “Oh, we tried. It’s hard to build a straight floor when the basement keeps going down on a slope!” Jo coughed and spat a browny-beige ball of phlegm. “I don’t think I’ve inhaled that much dust before.” 

“So how do we get the other girders out?” asked Donner. “This one was the only one in Block 1 we could even get at. The ones in Block 3 look good, but we’ll have to cut walls, move supports, and we’d have to go through the Atrium. There’s not a single straight line in the place.”  

Jo grunted. “There’s gotta be a way. There’s always a way. We need think outside our comfort zone.” She facepalmed and moaned softly. “Sorry, that’s another Batesworthism. I’ve been listening to him for too long.” 

“Outside,” Donner repeated. “Can we get the girder outside?” 

Jo stared at the young man incredulously. She felt a welling of ‘are you out of your mind?!’ that was intercepted by a ‘wait a minute’, which gave enough time for ‘what if?’ to get a word in. “Well… Those girders were fairly close to the roofline. Assuming we could get outside without getting killed, it might work…” She paused and thought it through a bit more. “Take it out, drag it to the edge of Block 6 and drop it to the ground. Then we go right up the canyon floor into the greenhouse.” She looked at Donner. “You’re nuts,” chuckled Jo, “and you’re right. That’s the best way. And probably the only way.” 

“We just have to wait for the wind to die down,” said Donner. “Whenever that’ll be.” 

“Let’s hope we don’t need it before then,” said Jo. “In the meantime, we can get these two mounted, and at least start the work. If we do the outside ones, it might buy us some more time.” 

“So how do we mount them?” asked Donner.

“You’ll love this.” Jo got up and walked over to a canvas covered mound just at the side of the floor. Had she not gone directly to it, anyone could have ignored it as a pile of something unimportant. She pulled off the canvas tarp to reveal a heavy-looking iron skeleton. It had four large legs holding it up, a set of strong bars that linked each set of legs, forming a bench. In the middle of the bench, suspended on a two-axis gimbal, was a banged-up dull metallic box on rails, roughly the size and shape of a medium-sized garbage can. Out of one end came a long twisted metal drill bit. At the side was a large wheel with a crank handle. She slapped her hand on the box, which offered only a thin thump in response. “Fantástica, ¿eh?”

Donner winced. “What is that?”

“It’s hand-powered rock borer. I had to steal this from Carl when he wasn’t looking.” She smiled broadly. “They used these in mining back in the day.”

“What, the day of the dinosaurs?? This thing is ancient!” Donner protested. He approached it like someone would a stunned badger. “How are we supposed to use this?”    

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, kid, but we ran out of gasoline a long time ago. And without a pneumatic pump, all we got is our own two hands. Ever wonder why most of the Engineers are so buff?” Jo flexed to emphasize her point. Her shoulders bulged, her arms went taut. But the effect was held back by her gauntness. 

“I wondered why you took the heavy end going down the stairs,” breathed Donner, looking back at the girder they’d just brought down.  

“Gimme a hand, this sucker takes two people just to drag it,” said Jo, and grabbed hold of the legs on one side. Together, with considerable grunting on both parts, they scraped the legs across the floor until the drill frame was against the corner edge of the reservoir. It took another half hour to proper line up the drill so it would be square with the wall face, and not accidentally puncture the reservoir’s wall.

“Now what?” panted Donner. 

“Pointless question,” said Jo as she poured water into a tank. “You’re just avoiding taking the first shift on the crank.” 

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 8

The winds continued to blow well into the night, the shrill howling no less present throughout the ARCH. Residents attempted to sleep through the din, most of them in some semblance of consciousness. The dining hall was nearly empty despite the imposed insomnia, most staying with their sleeping arrangements for fear they’d lose a prime spot if they moved. Jo and Donner had no lines to bypass, and went straight to the front for their meal ration. The clerk looked at Jo and nodded, Jo picked up a tray and continued. Donner held up his wrist, showing the metal bracelet with the number ‘2’ stamped on it. 

The clerk, an elderly woman with thick glasses, frowned. “This ain’t second shift,” she said in a gravelly drawl. 

“I was working with—“ 

“This ain’t second shift!” the woman repeated. “Skedaddle!” She waved Donner off. 

Jo double-backed with her tray. “He’s with me.” 

“D’I look like I care?” asked the woman, still glaring at Donner. “This ain’t second shift!”

Jo positioned herself between Donner and the clerk. “Madre, necesito que haga mi trabajo para mantenerte con vida. El está comiendo conmigo. Ahora. ¿Entiendes?”

The clerk looked at Jo. “¿Por qué es especial?”

“Porque me salvó la vida.”

The clerk nodded and waved Jo along. As Donner tried to pass, she held out her hand and stopped him. “Y’ save her life?” 

Donner nodded curtly. “Yes, ma’am.” 

“And y’ helpin’ her?” Donner nodded. “Doin’ what?” 

“Um, moving girders and drilling holes. Whatever Jo needs me to do.” 

“Yer her pack horse.” Donner looked at Jo, who shrugged her shoulders and offered a “don’t look at me” expression. Donner looked back at the clerk, who thrust out a second metal bracelet. “Don’ lose this,” she said. “Y’ gonna need ev’ry bite y’ can get.” 

“Thank you.” Donner bowed slightly. 

“Don’ thank me,” the clerk shook her head, moving a small rock with a number from one bin to the next. “Thank God y’ still alive, and th’ White Lady f’ not comin’ f’ yer soul.”

Donner walked off after Jo, who had already gotten her rations and was headed for the long makeshift benches where everyone sat to eat. Most of the people were parents with their younger children who were also unable to sleep, helping them eat their rations. A few were the token elderly, a handful of folks past their seventies who had, so far, managed to duck the Banshee’s gaze. 

Jo picked at her mushrooms and asparagus. All but one half of one of her potatoes had long since disappeared. Donner sat down next to her. “Mushrooms are barely edible when they’re drowned in melted mozzarella, pepperoni, peppers, and anchovies, layered over spicy tomato sauce on a thick, doughy crust. But raw on a plate?” She moved them around. “I’m sure there was something in the Geneva Convention against this.” 

“Hey, Jo, what’s with the clerk?” asked Donner. The clerk made sure that people didn’t get their rations before they were supposed to, ensuring a steady use of foodstuffs, and that people didn’t get more than their allotted share. They also dictated who got single or multiple rations — residents on hard labour often got multiples to keep up their energy. One did not argue with the clerks. “What did you tell her?” 

“I needed you and that if she didn’t let you in, I would do something drastic,” said Jo. She looked around to see if anyone wasn’t going to eat their potatoes. But everyone did. When all you got was three potatoes, eight spears of asparagus, and ten mushrooms per ration, you ate everything. Fights broke out over a leftover chunk. She prodded the mushrooms again. 

“What’s the White Lady?”

Jo looked up from her fungus. “She mentioned the Lady?” 

“Yeah. What’s that?” 

“A legend. The North Rim is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a woman who died here a hundred years ago, looking for souls to take with her. She screams when the winds are blowing really hard.” 

“I thought that was just the wind going over the surface of the ARCH?” 

Jo smiled. “Might be. Might not be. Who knows, Donner? We’re trapped inside an aluminum box. We can’t see what’s on the outside.” 

“Other than certain death?” Donner asked. 

“Trust me, kid, there’s a lot of things out there that’ll kill you,” she muttered, turning over the mushrooms for the tenth time. 

“You don’t like mushrooms?” asked Donner, tossing his down in a few swift strokes. 

“Hate ‘em,” she said. She held her two-tined fork like a shiv. 

“You need to eat them!” Donner admonished. “You need your protein!” 

“You sound like Anita,” muttered Jo. 

“Who’s Anita?” 

“One of the gardeners. She and her team grow all this food. We’d be starving to death without it. You saw them when we were taking the girders down next to the reservoir.” 

“Oh, right!” said Donner. His face contorted as a thought crossed through. “How do they grow mushrooms down there?” 

Jo looked at Donner like he’d just spawned another head. “Seriously? Where do you think mushrooms come from?” 

“Um… well, I know they used to grow in forests?” 

Jo sat back, insofar as one could sit back while sitting on a bench. “And in the absence of a forest?” 

Donner thought. “Dirt?” he asked, with a heavy layering of “I don’t know”. 

“A rich compost,” stated Jo. Donner stared back. “Think about it. Where are we going to get compost in here?” Jo waved her arms about at their scrap material surroundings. 

“Leftovers?” Donner was grasping, and missing. 

Jo frowned. “You ever seen a leftover here?” Donner shook his head. “So, think about it. What goes into a compost?” 

“Dirt.” 

“And…?” 

“Organic material?” Donner said slowly.

“Like…?”

“Uh… the tops of the potato plants?” 

Jo rested her head in her hands. “Yes, and what else?” 

Donner sounded like he knew, and was actively trying not to say it. Jo looked up at him over her fingertips imploringly. “Manure?” he suggested cautiously. 

“Good,” Jo nodded. “And where do we get manure?” 

Donner definitely knew the answer, and definitely didn’t want to say it. “Cows?” 

Jo frowned heavily. “When was the last time you saw a steak?” she asked exasperatedly. “Maldición, I could kill for a hamburger right now.”  

“It can’t be…,” Donner moaned. “You’re joking, right?” 

“The toilets have gotta go somewhere!” Jo declared, with a heavy dose of “well, duh!”. Donner cringed. Jo clapped Donner on the back. “If it’s any consolation, all the crap’s so heavily mixed in with dirt that you can’t even really notice the smell,” she lied. Donner didn’t look convinced. “And you wonder why I don’t like mushrooms,” she smirked. 

“Now I don’t like them,” moaned Donner. 

“You still need to eat ‘em, though,” said Jo, staring at hers. “It just sometimes takes me a while to get the will.” 

“Do you want my asparagus?” Donner proffered a spear. “I think I’ve lost my appetite.” 

“Thanks, but I’ve got enough,” said Jo. “It chases the flavor of the mushrooms away.” To demonstrate the point, she heaved the mushrooms in, chewed lightly twice, swallowed hard, then shoved the spears and chewed vigorously, swallowed, and shivered. “Bleah!” 

“You think too much about your food,” Donner commented.  

Jo finished shivering. “My mama and abuelita brought me up on food. It was the centre of my family’s life. We all cooked together, we all ate together. Food was important, so it had to be done right. You could taste the love,” she mourned. “This? This is a crime against humanity.” 

“It keeps us alive.” Donner shrugged. “Barely, anyway. We probably don’t get enough.” 

“We don’t. There’s too many people. You and I need about 1,400 calories a day for the work we do. We’re lucky to get a thousand. There’s a lot of people who don’t get even that.” Jo sighed. The greenhouse wasn’t big enough and couldn’t grow food fast enough. Rations were kept as light as possible. Everyone was underweight. 

“Yeah, I’ve noticed,” said Donner. He shoved in a mushroom and chewed. “It’s too bad we can’t grow soy beans,” he said between swallows. “Those would be better than this.” 

Jo thought back to her first year at Stanford and the meagre contents of her fridge. “Try eating tofu for more than three days in a row.”

“We could get oil from them. Fry some of this for a change. And lubrication! Imagine how much better things would work if we could keep them greased! And we could eat the beans steamed, too. Ever had—“

“Edamame, yeah. Not really my thing. Either way, it doesn’t matter, since we don’t have soy beans. All we have is what we have.” 

Donner poked at his remaining asparagus spear, like it might spring to life.

“Can we join you?” a woman sat down next to Jo rather forcefully. Her long, curly blonde hair was dutified tied behind her head.

“Hola, Dawn,” said Jo. “How’re the tunnels today?” 

“Carl,” replied Dawn. 

“Carl,” groaned Jo.

“Carl?” asked Donner. 

“Who’s he?” Dawn asked Jo, thumbing at Donner. 

“Donner, this is Dawn, one of the Engineers,” said Jo. “Donner’s been helping me make repairs.” 

“No offense, Donner, but you’re about, what, fifty pounds wet? How do you keep up with one?” Dawn thumbed at Jo.

“Te quiero también,” said Jo, sticking out her tongue. 

“Bitch,” Dawn replied. 

“Perra.” 

“Slut.”

“Puta.” 

When Dawn saw Donner’s eyes, she burst out laughing, Jo following. “Oh, Donner, honey, don’t worry. Jo’s practically my sister.” 

“We’ve been doing this since…,” Jo trailed off as her face fell. “A long time.” 

“Too long.”

They sat in silence several moments before Donner spoke again. “So you work in the tunnels?” asked Donner.

“‘Work’ is a matter of subjectivity,” muttered Dawn. “I’m just a clerk.” 

“She’s Carl’s secretary,” Jo said quietly, looking around. “Dawn’s one of the best structural engineers we have. She was almost graduated! But Frank—“ 

“Francis,” Dawn corrected automatically.

“—made her ‘help’ Carl, instead of doing real work.” 

“Why?” 

“Francis is my husband. He didn’t want me to get hurt.” Dawn rolled her eyes for emphasis.

“That’s … that doesn’t … it doesn’t seem right.” 

“It’s not,” said Jo and Dawn together. 

“So why do you agree?” asked Donner. “You can say what you want to do, right?” 

Jo and Dawn looked at each other, a glance that only they knew. “I could,” said Dawn. “But I agree that the tunnels are a priority and unless someone manages the work properly, they won’t get done in time.” 

“Carl’s supposed to be the project manager for the tunnels,” said Jo. “But he couldn’t manage a suntan without getting burned.” 

“So why not make Dawn the project manager?” asked Donner. There was silence. “Did I say something wrong?” 

“No,” said Dawn. “Welcome to the Patriarchy.” 

“Dawn!” called Francis as he neared with his food tray. “Come on.” 

“I’ll be right there,” she replied. “Just talking with my friend that I haven’t seen in three days.” 

Donner sounded like he was about to speak, Jo cut him off with a motion of her hand. “We’ll catch you later.” As Francis passed, Jo nodded towards him. “Frank.” Francis merely grunted and continued as far down the bench as he could go, Dawn following. 

“Why does she do what they tell her to do— that sounded really dumb, sorry,” said Donner. 

“Tienes razón,” said Jo. “She shouldn’t. But Dawn does the same thing we all do: do what it takes to survive.” 

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 9

“The bolts seem to be holding,” said Smiley. “Though I’d like to give it a day to make sure there ain’t more shifting.” 

“I’m not keen on using that tunnel for rooms,” added Carl. “If there’s any more instabilities beyond just the fault…”

“I ain’t seen faults do that before, but I ain’t an engineer like y’all,” Smiley smiled. 

“We’re supposed to be expanding down that side, getting more rooms. Are you telling me we can’t expand down there?” Batesworth asked. 

Smiley looked at Carl. “Not yet. Not until we’ve done some tests. Could you imagine if we found a fault that loosens the upper half of the arm?” Carl answered. “We’d lose our ability to build the third level.”

Batesworth raised a finger. “That reminds me. When I was yesterday I couldn’t help notice that the ramp to the third level ends at a blind wall. Have we not even put a pick into the third level yet?”

“Not there,” said Smiley. “We were gonna start, but the fault’s not far from that wall. We didn’t want to tunnel there. We had to build a ramp down the south end.” 

“Inconvenient,” muttered Batesworth. “How many on the third level are ready?” 

“None,” said Carl. “We had to pull everyone for the fault.” 

“That’s going to cut down on the number of rooms we’ll have available,” said Batesworth. “Erik, have we run the numbers on how many rooms we need?” 

Erik didn’t look at his notes. “We need eighty rooms just to get everyone in there, two hundred for us to be not packing in like we are right now.” 

“You have nearly two thousand people in there at any given moment, Carl!” Jo protested. “If they’re not digging rooms, what are they doing?!” 

“Shoring, mostly,” said Francis. “We don’t have jigs so it takes a few people per section.” 

Batesworth nodded. “I saw them. They’ve made quite a bit of progress. I think they would be better suited to installing infrastructure, however. Air and light.”

“There ain’t many rooms we can do that,” said Smiley. “Once the shorin’s in, we can deal with the lights and air. Otherwise we gotta tear it out. No sense in lights if the ceilin’s unstable.”

“We have sixteen rooms roughed and ready,” said Carl. “No wiring or air yet.” 

“Those need ventilation or people will suffocate,” said Batesworth. “How soon until we have that?” 

“Thirty feet are good to go in now,” said Francis. “But the intake and exhaust are in use for the second level.” 

“Can we branch them for the first level?” asked Erik. 

“We had this exact conversation two days,” grumbled Jo. “Erik’s had the room count for weeks, Rich, and you ask it like we’ve never thought of it before. We know the fault is a problem but we’re not tunneling anywhere else, so there’s no more rooms. Frank’s team has stopped and started ducting so many times because of priority changes that hardly any of it is done. Based on your own numbers, Carl, we should have had the first and second levels complete.”

“We’ve been over this exact conversation, too!” shouted Carl.

Jo glared at Carl. “How many people did you see in the fault tunnel, Rich?” 

“I didn’t count them,” said Batesworth. “There were quite a few, though.” 

“And guarded?” added Jo.

“Safety!” Carl retorted. “Or did your friend Kelly not mention how many she’s seen because of collapses?” 

“¡Díos mio!” Jo rolled her head, praying something would unwind.

“Pretty sure God’s not going to help us,” said Francis. 

“To Jo’s point, though, are we able to move anyone into the first level?” asked Erik. 

“Today,” said Carl. “Once the ducting is in. It won’t be complete, but there should be enough air.” He looked at Jo. “We’ll branch the intake and make sure there’s an exhaust.” 

Batesworth nodded. “Excellent. Erik, can you—“ 

“Move the Atrium first,” said Jo. Batesworth looked annoyed. “Yes, Rich, I know you want to move people from Blocks 5 and 6, but those two areas are fine. The Atrium needs to be emptied. We need the metal from the bedframes.” 

“Hey, I have an idea,” said Carl, “why doesn’t Jo tell us about her progress so we can interrupt her constantly?” 

“Carl!” Erik warned. “Enough.” He turned to Batesworth. “We’ve talked about doing Blocks 5 and 6 before, and we came to the conclusion that taking people from Blocks 7 and 8 was better so we could start stripping the structure for spare parts.” He turned to Carl. “That said, we’ve also talked a lot about doing this in Atrium, because removing all those people would remove a lot of the weight. Which, as I understand,” he turned to Jo, “is turning into a bigger problem. How’s our slippage?” 

“Unchanged, today,” said Jo. “But up higher, it’s bad.” 

“Explain,” said Batesworth.   

“We found a couple of mounting points in Block 3 that have given way entirely, more than ten centimeters in two spots. That’s probably what’s caused the deformation under Block 4,” explained Jo.

“You fixed it,” Carl stated. 

“No,” said Jo. “The mount point is gone entirely, the girders can’t be put back in. So I took the fallen girder to—“ 

“You removed a structural girder?!” Francis blurted, surprising himself. “But… you take that out, there’s nothing preventing more slippage!” 

“Are you out of your mind?” Carl added. 

Jo tongued her teeth a moment. “Finished?” she asked, not waiting for a response. “I took the girder to the reservoir to use it as a brace to hold the structure underneath. We need to get the weight down to prevent more slippage.” She sat back in her chair. “Unless, Carl, you want to give me back my team so we can prep the upper levels for a refit,” she looked to Francis, “and you give me priority in your shop so we can recut the girders so they’ll fit in the spaces.” She looked to Batesworth. “But we’d only be stopping the top sections of the ARCH from slipping. We’re already seeing the middle part slipping independently. We’ve got a triple layer shit cake, Rich, and no amount of skewering and bolts is going to keep it from falling apart. If we keep the middle sections from sliding downhill, we might last long enough to get out of here.” 

“Is that your professional opinion?” asked Carl.

Batesworth held up his hand to Jo’s impending response and nodded to Carl. “That’s a good idea, Carl. I am the only one here with certification.” He looked to Jo. “You said I hadn’t picked up a hammer in two years. Prove to me you know what you’re doing. I want you to show me. Everything.” 


“How did this happen?” Batesworth yelled over the sound of the wind battering the roof. He pointed at the shattered mount on the rock face at the edge of Block 3. Erik picked at the rock with a screwdriver. 

“How many tons is this place, Rich? A couple hundred?” Jo replied. 

“What?” Batesworth craned to hear Jo’s response. 

“How heavy is the ARCH?” Erik called towards Batesworth, not looking away from the rock.

Batesworth shook his head. “I have no idea. Didn’t you keep records?” 

“Sure,” said Jo. “And they’re all useless. All those drawing on the Council walls mean nothing anymore! We don’t know how much metal we put into this place, and we’ve scavenged so much of the original structures that we don’t even know where it all is!” 

Batesworth looked around at the bare bones of the space. “I feel like I’ve never seen this before.” 

“You haven’t!” said Jo. “You’ve barely been out of Block 1. When was the last time you looked at the Atrium?” 

“This morning, on my way to break—“ 

“You saw the space peripherally as you walked through it!” Jo challenged. “I mean look, as in examine, understand! None of us look at it anymore.” 

“You do,” said Erik, rejoining Batesworth and Jo. “Every day. You know what’s going on in the ARCH. You’re the only one who does. It’s not fair to suggest the rest of us can, too.” He turned to Batesworth. “That mount was always going to fail. The rock was unstable less than a couple of inches in.” He swept his arm along the rockface. “It’s probably like that all the way down the side.” 

“Who built this section?” Batesworth demanded. 

“It doesn’t matter, Rich! What’s done is done!” said Jo. 

“Every failure tells us something about how to do something better!” said Batesworth. 

“Dammit, Rich, the classroom is gone!” Jo shouted. “Stop trying to be the teacher! We need to get people out of there before this gets worse!”  

Erik stepped in between them. “Jo, tone it down. Professor, I think Jo’s right. The number of emergency repairs has been increasing steadily. There’s going to be a serious structural failure.” 

“Have you both forgotten what you are?” Bateworth demanded. “Engineers do no talk about imminent failure, they talk about remediation! You’ve given up, you refuse to adapt! This is not what I’ve taught you!”

“¡Cómo te atreves!” Jo shrieked. “All I’ve done for months is adapt! All I’ve done is keep fighting! All I’ve done is try to keep this place standing long enough to keep people alive! You seem to think that this is a static building, one of your grand monuments! This is a house of cards, Rich, you know we never built this place to code, we didn’t even give the concrete time to cure properly. This place was built on hope and prayers and we’re still praying. This place needs more maintenance than we can provide, and we’re losing this battle. We will lose this battle, Rich, there is nothing we can do to stop it at this point! All we can do is slow it down.” 

Batesworth looked at Jo. Dust fell from a roof girder and handed on his head, scattering to his shoulders. He brushed it off. “Show me how you’re slowing it.”   


Batesworth shook his head. “Two centimeters.” 

“Twenty-two millimeters,” corrected Erik, using a tape measure. “This is more than you reported yesterday. When did that happen?” 

“I’m not sure,” said Jo, “but it’s increasing constantly. Me and Donner have been getting all this in place for bracing the struts.” Jo waved her hands towards the girders and the drill, its bit still embedded in the reservoir wall. Donner looked up from his seat on the floor bolting together a mounting plate and waved. “If we’re lucky, we’ll have this put together before something else slips.” Jo looked at Batesworth. “But we need Frank to help, Rich. If he stalls any more, something’s going to give and a lot of people will get hurt.” 

Batesworth uh-huhed while he looked at the strut that ran up through the ceiling, following the lines of the cross members. “We had more structural support,” he said, his fingers pointing to beams that no longer existed. “Where did all of this go?” 

“We took them for the newer blocks,” said Erik. “Everything that wasn’t directly holding something up went to building more space.” 

“I didn’t allow that,” said Batesworth. “I’d never have allowed that.” 

“It wasn’t up to you,” said Jo.

“Batesworth looked alternately between Erik and Jo. “I have final authority, here. I didn’t approve of this. You went against my direct orders and put this facility at risk.” 

“Professor, that’s not a fair statement—“ 

“Es estupido,” said Jo. “If we hadn’t taken all of these, we wouldn’t have Blocks 7 through 10. Three thousand people who wouldn’t have a home.” 

Batesworth continued. “It’s not safe to have this without cross-bracing. No wonder the structure is slipping. There isn’t a single building code in the United States that would allow this to have been done.” He turned to Jo. “And you’re allowing it. This is a failure of engineering, this is why there are so many people at risk. You’re constantly criticizing Carl for being slow to prepare the tunnels, but from what I can see you just want him to hurry up so no-one else will see your shoddy work. If you had your professional certification, I’d be revoking it!” 

“¡Hijo de las mil putas!” Jo spat. Several of the growers within earshot gasped. “You’re going to stand there and tell us that saving the lives of thousands means less than your precious standards?!” 

Batesworth simply answered: “Yes”, then walked towards the stairs. 

“That’s it. I’m going to kill him,” Jo said as she watched Batesworth leave.

“Let me talk to him, Jo,” said Erik, placing his hand on her shoulder. “Maybe I can … talk some sense into him.” 

Jo rested her cheek on his hand. “Oh, cariño, I don’t think you could change his mind with a hacksaw and an ice cream scoop.” Donner quietly wretched. 

“How much more work do you have here?” 

Jo rhymed off her TODO list: “More holes, we need the brackets forged, get the girders in place.” She let go of Erik’s hand. “If we’re lucky, three days.” 

“I’ll go talk with Francis, make sure his team is ready,” said Erik, and headed towards the stairs. 

“Te amo,” said Jo. 

Erik turned back. “Huh?” 

“Later,” smiled Jo and returned to the drill.

Categories
Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 10

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.”