The Banshee, Chapter 18

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Jo lay on her cot, staring at the cracked paint on her ceiling, her mind turned cinema replaying the same scene. A light shrill undulated over the howling wind, an echo of a death. Someone had died because of her. She knew his name: Henry. Like countless others in the ARCH, Jo knew nothing about him, if he had any family, where he had come from, or even where he'd worked. So many had come to the ARCH to be saved. So many banshees, so many dead. Young and old, strong and feeble, healthy and sick, the banshee had never discriminated and took randomly. Henry was another name on a memorial that would never be built.

A loud bell, a pair of girders welded together in a crude tuning fork, suspended from the roof in the middle of the atrium, rang dissonantly against the wind's chorus. The shift bell rang every eight hours, in one, two, or three tones, indicating the shift number. Jo rose as did several in the room beyond, pulled on her pants and shirt, trudged down the hallway with others to pass through the toilet on the way to the dining hall. As she turned the corner and saw the lineup, she was unable to bring herself to get anything to eat, her empty stomach steadfastly warning her that food was not welcome. As others flowed around her, Jo stared into the distance. Jo was about to face her first tribunal.

As a member of the Council, Jo had participated in a few tribunals, taking the role of Lead Engineer when Erik was unwilling. She had heard the arguments, seen the evidence, considered the impacts, passed judgement. The first time had been deep nerves and near panic, the worry about false accusation and condemning the innocent. The second time, experience took root and helped her through the debates. By the fourth trial, the cold calculation of pro and con had regulated every question and response, and things seemed so much easier. There was no doubt the same methodical logic awaited as she approached the Council room.

Batesworth was already present, as was Erik. They nodded as Jo entered, Batesworth wordlessly indicating the seat Jo was to take. There were four seats, each spaced equidistant from the others. Batesworth and Erik remained standing for several more moments, until an older woman, a little wrinkled with some white in her otherwise black hair entered the room. Jo nodded at Agatha Reyes, the elected representative of the ARCH whom she'd met on previous trials. Reyes bore the scratches of scars of someone who had spent a lot of time in the tunnels, including a slightly limp from a rockfall. Reyes took the fourth chair; Batesworth and Erik then sat.

“This tribunal comes to order,” announced Batesworth. “I, Richard Batesworth, Leader of the ARCH—“

“I've asked you to stop using that,” said Reyes. “It's the worst form of classism.”

“Ms. Reyes,” Batesworth sighed, “we represent the three parts of the ARCH—“

“There is no one Leader,” Reyes said. “There is the People, and there are the Engineers.”

“Yes, and in a proper governance, there is a titular leader to—“

“What, lord over us?”

Even ensconced in her cloud of doom, Jo rubbed her face to fight off a rising smirk.

“Could we go with Elected, Engineer, and Founder?” Erik asked. “We did that last time.”

“And as I have said—“ Batesworth caught the glare from Reyes. “—we will need this properly documented at a different time,” he muttered. “Joanna de Leon, you have been accused of gross negligence that lead to the death of Engineer Apprentice Henry Pelton. Before we begin with this assessment, do you disagree with this accusation?”

“No,” Jo said quietly.

“Very well,” said Batesworth. “Each of us have conducted interviews with the people who were present on the roof at the time, and we have taken these insights into account.” Batesworth turned to Reyes. “I call upon Ms. Reyes for the popular opinion.”

‘Popular',” Reyes snorted. “I talked with ten people, all of whom confirmed that Ms. de Leon had interrupted an impromptu Engineer meeting two days ago, and ordered twenty people outside. Eight of them went to the roof. The rest went out onto the valley floor. Both the crews on the roof and valley floor were unsupervised. Several saw Ms. De Leon distracted by something on the hill several times, not paying attention to the crews and their work. And she did not track the weather closely enough, leading to Mr. Pelton's death. It is my opinion that, as an acting supervisor, Ms. de Leon was responsible for everyone's actions and should have stayed on the roof and kept close watch on the conditions. Though I'm sure whatever it was that she went off to do was important, it could not have been more important than people's lives. And when one of them was swept away due to her negligence, she chose to let a man die, rather than try to save him. It is the popular,” she glared at Batesworth for emphasis, “opinion that Ms. de Leon doesn't have the ability to lead. We believe she should be stripped of her privileges and put into the general population.”

“Thank you, Ms. Reyes,” said Batesworth through his teeth. “Mr. Larsen, what is the Engineer opinion?”

Erik looked at Batesworth, then at Reyes, before turning to Jo. Upon meeting her eyes, he stiffened and reddened, his mouth opened and closed without sound. Jo mouthed “it's okay” to him. He nodded. “As you may recall, Professor Batesworth, that morning was chaotic. There were nearly forty people in the office, which made it impossible to hear or be heard. You and I were attempting to figure out work assignments with everyone arguing their priorities, when Ms. de Leon arrived and shouted us all down. I believe that is the interruption that Ms. Reyes referred to?” Reyes nodded. “Ms. de Leon then asked for five volunteers to come with her to the roof, and said we needed another ten to scrounge the canyon floor for anything we could use. Neither you nor I objected.” Batesworth nodded. “For whatever reason, Ms. De Leon's actions got twenty-one volunteers, of which nine went to the roof. The remainder were sent to the canyon and told to bring back anything remotely useful. Given the conditions at the time, no-one thought to ask for any other instructions. Ms. De Leon went to the roof gave the volunteers clear instructions on how to walk safely, and stay away from sand traps. With them was Dawn Porter, an Engineer, who had experience with roof repairs and oversaw much of the activity there.” Erik took a deep breath before continuing, taking a quick glance at Reyes. “Ms. de Leon's ulterior motive was to obtain a girder, which she was planning to use to brace the main struts under Block 4, which are showing serious deviation.”

Reyes' eyes shot open. “What?!”

“Ms. Reyes,” said Batesworth calmly, “you will remember that this is a closed session, and anything you learn here must be kept secret.”

“That sounds like the ARCH is collapsing!!” Reyes shouted at Batesworth, who didn't react. “Is it?!”

“It is moving,” said Erik. “Ms. De Leon recognized the problem and is working to prevent further slippage.”

“How dare you keep that from us!” shouted Reyes.

“Agatha!” snapped Batesworth. Reyes' eyes burned in response. “There are plans to keep everyone safe. That is why the Engineers exist.”

“You should have told us,” Reyes growled.

Batesworth signed annoyedly. “To what end? Would that improve our situation at all? What we would have is mass panic. That is why you weren't told.”

“Your classist distrust of us is sickening.”

Batesworth ignored the insult. “Erik, please continue.”

Erik nodded. “Jo— Ms. de Leon was moving girders to secure the struts and minimize further shifting. This is why Dawn Porter was charge. In addition to Ms. Porter, there were two other people with prior roof experience. Ms. de Leon and her assistant, Donner Vasquez, were working for roughly two hours to open a hole in the roof, move out the girder, close the hole, transfer the girder to the east side of the ARCH, and then move the girder to its current resting place under Block 4. They returned to the roof immediately afterwards. At that time, there was a near-accident on the roof, where volunteer Phyllis Bell slipped and fell into a sand pit. Ms. De Leon and her assistant were instrumental in helping Ms. Bell out of the pit, who was unharmed. I am told that Ms. Porter looked regularly for the weather conditions, which were calm and stable. I arrived on the roof about that time to inform Ms. de Leon that the people she'd taken to do repairs were being ordered to return to their scheduled shift work. She expressed her concern that she needed more time. I indicated that until Engineer Carl Young had finished discussions with you, Professor,” Erik nodded towards Batesworth, “she could continue to work. I then left. The wind started about two minutes later, by the time I had entered the atrium.”

“And this is when Mr. Pelton died?” asked Batesworth.

“Yes,” Reyes and Erik both replied.

“He was swept away in the wind,” said Reyes.

“Did Ms. de Leon make any effort to warn anyone?” asked Batesworth.

“As I understand, yes, she did,” said Erik. “She saw the storm approaching and called for everyone to get off the roof. Most of the people were fairly close to the door, and got inside before the wind picked up. However, Mr. Pelton and his partner, José Yerbin, were around the back of Block 8. It's nearly a thousand yards back to the door.”

“She let them get too far away from safety. They should have been secured with ropes,” said Reyes.

“They got within fifty yards of the door before the wind got too strong,” Erik continued. “Ms. de Leon ordered them to lay down. This is how Mr. Yerbin survived. However, Mr. Pelton did not lay down quickly enough and was blown off his feet. He rolled out of sight, several hundred yards away. Ms. de Leon tied a rope around herself and went out to retrieve Mr. Yerbin. Both of them sustained severe scrapes from the blowing sand. By the time Mr. Yerbin was safe, however, the sand was blowing so hard that it would have been fatal for anyone to go back out without protection.”

“She performs repairs on the roof, doesn't she?” Reyes demanded. “Why didn't she retrieve the suit, and then go out after Mr. Pelton?”

“An excellent question,” said Batesworth. “Is there anything else, Mr. Larsen?”

“In discussions with Francis Porter, the workshop manager, Ms. de Leon's actions resulted in the acquisition of several hundred pounds of materials we can reuse for maintenance. Dawn Porter reported that weaknesses in the roof's structure were found and repaired, which I have also verified. I can also add that the first girder added under Block 4 is in place and deformation on that strut has not changed. In my opinion, it is not clear that had anyone else spoken up that would would be able to say the same. That her decisions were supported implicitly by the other Engineers is important — no-one prevented her from carrying out those actions. We deeply regret Mr. Pelton's death as a result of those decisions, but it is worth noting that Ms. de Leon was adamant that roof work was dangerous, and all Engineers are aware that going outside is very risky.”

Batesworth looked at Jo. “You've heard the opinions of the Populous and the Engineers. Do you have anything you wish to add?”

“I…” Jo gulped, the words retreated back. She shuffled in the heavily-worn seat, her chest heaving. Every facial muscle was engaged in a battle for expression, locked in an awkward stalemate with one another. She rubbed her throat and coughed lightly. She cleared her throat. “I wish things had happened differently. I wish I'd seen the storm sooner. I wish I had a longer rope.” She shook her head. “I wish we weren't here.”

“You regret what you did?” asked Batesworth.

Jo fought the knee-jerk reaction to respond, because she would have said “yes” without having actually thought it out. “No,” she said softly. “I can't.” Reyes gasped. Jo met Reyes's shock. “Because what I did will keep us all alive, at least for a while longer. Long enough that we'll be safe.” Slowly, she felt a light brighten inside her darkness. She saw the landscape of her means, the color of its end. “I don't like being responsible for someone's death. It's not something I want to carry for the rest of my life.” She looked up, and especially at Reyes. “But if that choice saves more lives than the one we lost, then it's a responsibility I will take.” Reyes nodded curtly.

Batesworth hummed for a few moments. “I think, Ms. de Leon, it's fair to say that we will not absolve you of this accident.” He looked around and saw the nodding of both Erik and Reyes as confirmation. “You understand what happened, and that your decisions led to someone's death. However, it was an accident and was not demonstrative of any malicious or premeditated intent. You are also remorseful of the event and its consequences.” Erik sighed quietly. Reyes continued to nod.

“Therefore,” Batesworth announced, “we find you innocent of the charge of murder, and must conclude that if there is any guilt, it's from accidental manslaughter.” Erik groaned slightly.

Reyes looked at Batesworth. “What are you doing?”

“Ms. De Leon, we cannot debate that your actions contribute to the whole, giving us at least another day upon this Earth. We would be foolish to consider banishment, but you must still face punishment for your inactions.”

“Richard! We do not pass sentencing at tribunals!” Reyes barked. “Stop immediately!”

“We have the ability to provide a recommendation that the Council may hear,” said Batesworth without breaking his gaze at Jo. “As the Council is currently without a member, we are going to provide a final judgement to expedite our needs.”

“This is not—!”

“Please, Agatha, let me finish,” said Batesworth. “Ms. De Leon, you are hereby removed from Council, though you will stay an Engineer. It will be made clear to everyone what happened, that you take responsibility for your actions. Further incidents where you attempt to take lead, however well-intentioned they may seem, will be immediately dismissed and any attempt to argue will incur further penalties. You will continue to report for maintenance issues, but you will report exclusively to Mr. Larsen for your assignments.” He turned to Reyes. “Is that acceptable, Ms. Reyes?”

“This is not justice,” said Reyes. “You're sweeping a problem under a rug.”

“And what would you do, Agatha? Remove her entirely from supporting the roof over our heads? Allow more to be injured because Ms. De Leon is unable to react as swiftly?” Batesworth asked. “I have sat in many disciplinary meetings, they rarely end with everyone getting what they wish.”

Reyes grumbled and glared at Jo. “We'll be watching.”

“I'll take that as agreement.” Batesworth turned to Erik. “And you, Mr. Larsen?”

“I agree,” said Erik, restraining a slight smile.

Batesworth stood. “Then this tribunal is adjourned.”