The Banshee, Chapter 39

2668 words (about 9 minutes to read)


Dawn stood near the northern tunnel entrance. Shortly after arriving at the workshop, she had laid into Francis in a way he had never thought possible, threatened to emasculate most of the men, and might have thrown Gary in the smelter had he not been bound and unconscious, hanging from the wall outside the door where he had once left Donner. The ARCH's slide send waves through the rock, causing a partial cave-in in the backend of the workshop, and panic among the workers. Dawn wrested authority from her husband and sent out everyone in search of survivors.

Behind Dawn were a few of the survivors, once again crammed into every possible space in the tunnels. Some were injured, some of them dying. Coughs came from several places, fitful and polite, clearing and cautioning, as everyone waited for news of a next step.

The lighting flickered and pulsed as the remaining battery charge waned, the main electrical supply having been severed as the ARCH's roof had shifted. The air fans were cranked with hand power, the stale stench of the ARCH wafting out from deep inside the manmade caverns.

“What's the news?” Dawn asked as Phil, Robert, Jo, and a handful of other Engineers approached. None of them looked hopeful. “That good, huh?”

“We've lost most of the anchors in the canyon walls,” said Robert. “There's almost nothing to kep the rest of the structure from slipping down over itself.”

“The lower struts are bent, the cross members are bent, the floor girders are bent…,” said Phil, rhyming off all the things he'd investigated.

“Between the two of you, we've got nothing left structural, right?” asked Dawn.

“Nope,” said Phil.

“What's keeping it all up?” asked another Engineer.

“Sheer force of will,” Jo laughed.

“Can we fix it?” asked an Apprentice.

Dawn shook her head. “We'd need a fleet of cranes up on the ridge to pull all this back into shape. We're lucky it hasn't completely collapsed.” She turned to Phil. “Can we get into the greenhouse?”

Phil looked sullen. “I don't think so. The ceiling buckled all through there. I had to climb down the stairs to even get in the area.” He took a deep breath. “Even if we could, it looks like the reservoir wall broke open.” There were a number of gasps. “There's not much water left, the creek is running free down the canyon.”

Dawn's gaze dropped to the floor. “Just to be clear: we've lost our water supply and we've probably lost our food supply. That's what you're saying, Phil?”

“Uh, yeah, I guess,” he said.

There was a long pause before someone swore. A few others grunted in agreement.

“Where's Smiley?” asked Dawn.

“Checking out the rockface,” said Robert, jerking his thumb up the canyon. “He's worried that shifting might push the fault.”

“Can someone go find him, please?” asked Dawn. “I want to know if we're going to have to get everyone out of the tunnels that we just got them all into.”

“And go where?” asked someone else. “Where can we go? The wind is up! We go out there, we'll all die.”

Robert nudged Jo. Jo looked at him and saw the unspoken idea. She nodded. “We leave the canyon,” said Jo.

Once the deathly silence died down, Dawn spoke: “I know you're serious, Jo. You're going to have to guide us through this one.”

“Robert and I survived in a cave a few hundred yards down the canyon—“

“We can go there!” came a shout, followed by a few others.

“—WHICH WON'T HOLD MORE THAN A FEW PEOPLE!” Jo shouted above everyone else. “While we were there, we saw a cougar. It had killed and was eating a sheep.” She held up her hand before someone else spoke up. “A domesticated sheep, probably got loose and wandered off. How it got down here, we don't know. But someone took care of it, and it couldn't have come too far.”

The deathly silence continued.

“We can't stay here,” said Robert. “Our only hope right now is to get out before it's too late. We won't last long without food or water. Jo and I will go north. It's the only direction that sheep could have come from. If we're lucky, we'll figure out where it came from.”

“And if you're unlucky?” asked Phil.

“At least you'll know which way not to go.”

The sky was barely a discernible beige above blackness when Jo and Robert climbed their way up the canyon to the top. The wind fought against them, desperate to keep them from rising out of the gorge. They leaned into the gale and stepped forward carefully until they were many paces beyond the edge.

Jo waved at Robert, indicating a sense of “now, what?” Robert confidently pointed northwards. The ground sloped east to west, almost featureless save for low bumps marking where stands of trees had stood, cut down for lumber a decade earlier, the stumps worn down by the sand. In the middle of the slope was a level space about thirty feet wide that wound, following the contour of the terrain. Robert picked a line in the middle of the space and started walking; Jo followed closely.

Their footsteps dug into the loose sand, catching on a firmer surface underneath. The sand blasted their helmets and scoured their suits, making only physical contact the only way to attract each other's attention. They plodded ahead slowly, following the steadily brightening flatness as it led away from the canyon. The route seemed to twist to the left then back to the right, alternating again until the terrain slipped into a shallow valley. The valley's sides rose and fell, channeling the wind upon them in bursts, knocking them periodically from their feet. Each time, they rose and continued.

After nearly two hours of walking, the valley fell away to a wider plain. The bumps that had characterized the deforestation rose taller, though still significant blunted from their original forms. The winds lessened and walking became less strenuous and progress came much more quickly. They approached a large mound slightly taller than them. Looking at it briefly, Robert held his hands over his head, peaking his fingers. The mound had once been a structure, house-like. He dug into the leeward side, removing the sand until he touched the wood that had once formed the North Rim Entrance Station. Jo dug in as well and they both dug out enough sand until they could sit in relatively calm.

Taking a break, they took out a bottle of water from a sack Jo had slung over her shoulder and drank cautiously. They each took a potato, one of a dozen they had managed to salvage from the greenhouse. The raw potato crunched loudly in their heads as they gulped it down, each hoping their meagre provisions would be enough.

Their walk was a gamble. Somewhere to the north was a farm that raised sheep. They had no map, no compass, no known bearings. The flat strip was the road that led from the North Rim to Kanab, a route they had not traversed since all the vehicles had been cannibalized for the ARCH's structures and supports. The sheep could not have come far without severe injury from the winds, nor was the sheep well-suited to long distance travel. Robert had estimated a maximum of 50 miles — any longer and it was possible that they would not be able to return.

The brightness continued as they continued, the sunlight only enough to cast a hazy, dim shadow. The wind's direction became more erratic as the terrain flattened back out again, its force lessening.

The hours plodded on, their feet weary. Twelve hours after starting off, they approached another set of ruins, ones that Jo recognized before Robert — the remains of the Kaibab Plateau Vistor Center, including the inn and service station. The wind was still strong, but light enough that they could take off their helmets.

“Y'know, this is almost comfortable!” Robert shouted, then sneezed. “Except for the dust, anyway!” He sneezed again.

“I could do without all the sand in my underwear,” Jo yelled back, silently thankful that she'd managed to retrieve them from the Engineer's Office. She took a sizeable bite out of a third potato. “How much farther do you think we have to go?”

“We're about forty miles out, give or take. If we take the fork here and head towards Fredonia, we might get lucky.”

“You mean we won't die.”

“Hopefully.” He popped in the last bite of his potato. “I'd suggest we rest longer, but that light isn't going to last. You have your lamp?”

“Sí. Winding and walking is hard, though.”

Robert patted his head and rubbed his belly. “Can't be that hard.” Jo stuck out her tongue, then put on her helment.

It was dark only two hours later. Jo's lamp provided at best a feeble glow and they lost track of the road several times, each time having to walk back to where the road was lost, scratching at the surface, and trying again. Progress slowed, as did the wind.

And then, it was still. It was quiet, the wind was gone.

Jo pulled off her helmet and looked around. It was dark, but it was much easier to see without the scratched visor over her eyes. She tapped Robert and indicated it was safe. He removed his helmet, sniffed the air, and sneezed.

Jo gasped. “Robert!” She pointed wildly into the sky. Her knees wobbled and she fell to her bum. “¡Estrellas! Stars!! Dios mío, I thought I'd never see them ever again.”

“They're still there,” Robert said, somewhere between admiration, relief, and knowledge. He looked around at the horizon. Much of it was hidden behind the terrain to the east and south, but the northwest was wonderfully dark, at the edge of the starlit sky. He noticed another light below the stars. “Jo!” He reached down and tapped her. “Look!” She took his hand and stood up, and followed his pointed hand to a flickering dot.

The didn't move, frozen in disbelief.

“It's fire,” Jo said unsuredly.

“It's the wrong color for fire,” said Robert. “That more orange. That's white.”

“Electric light,” whispered Jo. “Other people.” Their breathing quickened. “We should go!” Jo took a step, but was held back by Robert.

“That's at least another twenty miles, Jo.”


“I want to be there as badly as you do. We need to rest.”

Jo looked at the distant light, willing herself to leap the distance in an instant. “Bueno. Tienes razón.” She looked around them. For the first time, she noticed that there was scrub brush. She walked over to it and touched it. She quickly took off a glove a felt the firmness of the short, stubby leaves. Gravity seemed to double, triple, quadrule, and her weight of her heart crushed her into the ground. “It was all a mistake.”

“Jo, come on,” Robert picked her up. “There's a shelter over there. For the night.”

Jo awoke not to the banshee, her pager, or the shift bell. It was a song, a particularly loud one. Her eyes blinked open to bright, direct sunshine which she instinctively shielded from her eyes. She rose from the stone bench on which she had laid to witness a landscape of low scrub and small trees, perched on the edge of rise that fell away to the west across a wide plain before running into a distant mesa. The aged gray asphalt of the road they had walked on curved away, turning into a hard line that ran northwest across the plain. The song came again and Jo looked to see a small bird perched on the top of the shelter's worn, but intact roof.

“Rock wren,” whispered Robert.


“It's a bird common to the southwest. I used to know them all. It's a called a ‘rock wren'.”


“It's beautiful.”

“The bird?”


Jo wanted to agree but found her mind wildly trying to avoid processing the imagery, the warmth of the unfiltered sun, the smell of trees and soil, the bird call. All of it was beyond her comprehension, beyond her experience, beyond her belief. She wanted to put the helmet on and shelter herself. She found Robert's arms around her.

“Hey, you alright?”

Jo realized she was shivering. “I… I don't know.” She looked at Robert and saw her own terror in his eyes. “I'm not ready for this.”

“Me, neither.” A determined grimace crossed his face. “Which is why we're going to do it, anyway.” He reached down and picked up the sack of provisions. “It's going to be a much easier walk than yesterday.” He started out of the shelter. Jo remained frozen in place. “Jo, you can do this. We need to do this.”

“So much…”

Robert took Jo gently by the hand. “One year or one hundred, it doesn't matter. We're alive, Jo. There's a lot of people depending on us to keep them alive, too.”

“I can't fix this.”

“No, you can't. This is a hole that we'll bear for the rest of our lives. You can press on. Move beyond this, into this. Look at the life that's here. That's hope, Jo.”

“Hope,” she said. It felt hollow and formless like fog, not the sturdy shell that had given her shelter for so long. There was only blue sky above.

“We can do this.” Robert tugged gently on her hand. “You can save everyone.”

“Para todos,” whispered Jo.

“Para todos,” Robert echoed.

They wandered down the concrete path to the exposed asphalt. As they approached a parking pullout, they saw a figure, dressed all in flowing off-white robe from a hood all the way to the ground that rippled gently in the morning breeze. The figure looked away from them and turned only when Jo gasped.

“Oh, hello,” said the figure. It was a woman, younger-looking than Jo or Robert, with dark hair. She pulled back her hood. “Sorry, I was…” The woman looked at them, then looked around. “How did you get here?” She pointed to their worn motorcycle suits.

“We walked,” said Robert, and pointed south.

The woman's face fell. “You're from the canyon! You walked all the way in that wind?”

Robert and Jo looked at each other. “Yeah,” they said.

“What were you doing there?”

“Surviving,” said Jo quietly.

The woman gasped. “In that metal building?”

“You're the woman on the cliff,” said Jo. “I waved at you.”

The woman nodded. “I had never seen anything like that before. I didn't know what you were doing. Is that some kind of mining operation?”

Jo shook her head sullenly. “No.”

“It's a long story,” said Robert. “Where are you from?”

The woman pointed to the northwest. Along her direction, they spied a pickup truck and trailer parked at the roadside. “Out that way, near Fredonia. We've got a sheep farm.”

“Blue mark, looks like a backwards question mark on a line?” asked Robert.

“Yes,” the woman said slowly. “How do you—“

“We saw one of your sheep.”

“I wondered if they made it that far. Stupid animals. That why I was there, looking for them. The fence broke and we lost the entire herd. Took us a week to find most of them.”

“Did you walk all the way there?”

“I followed the footprints,” said the woman. “About twenty were here. I went further down the road, found a few more along the way, saw more footprints, followed them.”

“Saved by the sheep,” Jo smiled.

“We need your help,” said Robert.

“Anything I can do,” said the woman.

“We have a lot of people who need rescue,” said Jo, “quickly.”

“How many?” asked the woman.

Jo felt the warmth of the sun on her face, feeling it like for the first time. She closed her eyes and faced the brightness with a smile. “All of them.”