The Banshee, Chapter 21

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“What do we do?” someone asked. It was probably Bonnie, but Jo didn't look to confirm. It didn't matter. They were all on the floor, partly having their strength sapped by the sudden news, partly to avoid the overpowering stench.

“We have to get the lights back on,” said someone else.

“How? We don't know what's wrong in there! The Professor died from it! I don't want to die from it!”

“We can't see where we're going. We can't grow food without light, and we can't cook the food without heat. We've got to fix what went wrong.”

“It's dangerous!”

“You want us all to suffer because you're scared?”

“Yes, I'm scared! You should be, too!”

“Woman up, the both of you!”

“I am a woman! I'm perfectly fine—“

“Then stop wimping out!”

Nearly everyone was shouting in short order. Jo just stared at her light, still sitting on the floor aimed at the ceiling. The batteries were slowly starting to die again, the hallway dipping deeper into darkness. No-one else seemed to notice. Jo wanted to get the light, wind it up again, keep the light going. But she couldn't move.

The banshee cackled.

“What's going on?!” boomed Erik's voice. He had finally arrived from wherever he had been. The hallway went silent.

“Batesworth is dead,” someone finally said.

Erik's voice was a hoarse whisper. “What?”

“He was electrocuted,” Jo whispered.

Erik carefully stepped around his seated comrades, and looked around the door. He gagged, and swung back into the hall. “Oh, god!” He slid down the wall to the floor. “How…?”

“We don't know,” said Phil. “He was already dead when Jo opened the door.”

“What do we do?” the same person asked again.

Erik swallowed. “Uh…” He fought for purpose, for an action. “Um.” He fought against his mind's wish to collapse. “We've got to get the power back on.” He finally said.

“See, I told you!” someone sneered.

“Shut up!” another shouted.

“Quiet!” Erik hissed. “We've got to get the power back on. We can't survive without electricity. We need to fix whatever broke … whatever killed the Professor. We … uh … we have to get in there. That means we need to remove his body.” Everyone went quiet, knowing what would come next.

“You mean … dump it?” Jo asked. There were few things you could do with a corpse in the ARCH. There was no available land for a graveyard, burial outside was nearly impossible due to the winds, there was no freezer to preserve remains.

“No,” said Erik, shaking his head in the dimming light. “We can't. Not him. We need to bury him. A memorial to his work. To this place.”

“Where? In the greenhouse?” someone balked. Someone else restrained a gag.

“We can't go outside!”

“The tunnels? We could seal him up at one end…”

Someone snorted. “I don't want to be near that, do you?”

Derision turned to shouting turned to name-calling. The hallway reverberated with argument, fingers thrown in the long, dim shadows, the shapes turning into a legion of demons swarming around the deceased. They stood, close to one another, yelling and fighting, all trying to usurp the decision to their favor.

Jo, still seated, raised her hand. It remained up, barely lit, for over a minute before someone noticed. They quietened, as did the person next to them. The hush spread out like ripples in a pond until everyone waited for Jo to speak. When the last person went silent, she lowered her hand.

“Block 2,” said Jo. “I know just the spot.”

Removing Batesworth's body had taken several strong people with stronger stomachs. His flesh had been burned, his body effectively cooked by the voltage that had surged through the wiring. Pieces of it had stuck to the railing he had been gripping, his hair had shed like pieces of charred paper. Their senses, long accustomed to a vegan diet, also had difficulty processing the scent of flesh.

Opting not to announce the accident to the ARCH's population, the Engineers squirrelled Batesworth's corpse to the lowest levels before taking it over to the base of Block 2. Using some scraps of wood and sticks that had been scrounged from outside, they made torches, lighting the way to Block 2 and allowing the other Engineers trapped in other parts of the ARCH to follow. Other torches were left in the atrium on the opposite side to turn curious eyes from following the funeral procession.

The drag lines from Jo's body, where Donner had saved her from the sand, were still plainly visible. It took over an hour of continuous digging by four people — mostly to keep sand from falling back — to excavate a three foot deep hole; they could dig no deeper before hitting more rock. While they dug, Smiley chipped away on one of the boulders. Jo and Dawn built a small fire with sticks and scraps of wood to give off enough light for them to assemble.

“Should we make a coffin?” asked Bob, as the gravediggers stood over their work. “I mean, he shouldn't be buried just like this … right?”

“We don't have the material,” said Jo.

“We should at least cover him with a sheet,” Phil offered.

“You have one handy?” asked Erik. Phil shook his head. “We'll cover him with sand before bringing the others in. They don't need to see him like this.” He looked at his mentor. “I wish we hadn't.”

Professor Batesworth was laid in the grave, his body covered with sand, before the rest of the Engineering team was brought in. Their shadows danced along the rough walls of Block 2, swaying like palm trees in an evening breeze. They assembled around the memorial, taking a moment to see what Smiley had carved into the rock:

“Here lies Professor Richard Batesworth, Founder of the ARCH, Saviour of Souls”, and the date: “Died September 22, 2031”.

There was a discomfort beyond the funeral, beyond the sting of death. They shuffled in the sand, rustling their hands in their pockets.

“How old was he?” came a voice. It was Donner. “Shouldn't there be a birth date?” The discomfort became palpable.

“We don't know when he was born,” said Erik. “Not even his birthday.”

The only sound was the Banshee above, and the crackling of the small and dying fire. There wasn't a sniffle, not a single sob or sigh.

“Someone should say something,” whispered Dawn.

All eyes turned to Erik. He didn't have to look to know, nor did he have to feel the begging stares. He clasped his hands and thought back to every obligation, calling, wedding, funeral, cotillion, graduation, baptism, confirmation, eucharist, bris, bar and bat mitzvah he'd ever attended. For a moment, his history went as blank as the rock before him: only the death that had just occurred.

“Professor Batesworth was my teacher for many years, as he was for many of you. He was our mentor, our guide. His vision has allowed us to survive,” Erik said, his voice echoing in the high walls of Block 2's empty shell. “I wish I could tell you more about him. But I can't. He was a private man, who tried to lead a private life, even here. I saw him more than most, but even then it was always professional.” Erik humphed and smiled. “He was always professional. He refused to be anything else. He gave me my ring and reminded me of its importance, its meaning. To him, it was everything.” Erik looked around at the group. “And, maybe, that's what has really kept us alive.”

The tiny fire kept burning, kept smouldering, until after a few more minutes, only the glowing embers cast a painfully weak light. “We need to get the power back on,” said Erik quietly.