The Banshee, Chapter 2

3080 words (about 11 minutes to read)

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.”