The Banshee, Chapter 7

2421 words (about 9 minutes to read)

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?”


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.”