“Where are we going?” Jo asked, as Robert guided her into the depths of the cave.
Jo had to crouch a little, though not as much as Robert, to stay below the narrow top of the crevice. The walls looked like they should be rough, but were smoothened to the touch. Like the rest of the cave, there were random bits of rock strewn over the floor, forcing the both of them to walk at a slow pace so they could see with the dim fire Robert held in front of him. The shadows leaped into the blackness before and behind them, their footfalls echoing dimly off the erratic surfaces.
Robert didn’t reply, instead leading Jo around a variety of corners before winding up at the shore of a small underground pond. The roof was riddled with tiny stalactites, dripping into water so clear it was almost hard to tell that it was even there. He motioned to the pond, and handed Jo a cup. “Get it in you,” he smiled.
Jo didn’t argue, snatched the cup from his hand, and washed the dust from her mouth. The water was slightly salty and had a bite to it that reminded Jo of tasting minerals in one of her college classes. She drank four cups before finally handing the container back to Robert. Then she belched, the sound ricocheting like a grenade in the small space.
“Disculpe,” she smiled, “y gracias.”
“I’m fairly sure this isn’t the best water for us given the salts in it, but death by dehydration is not something I want to experience,” said Robert. He drank two cups in quick succession.
“I some how knew you’d survive,” Jo said, sitting down at the edge of the pond. The ground drew in water, quickly wicking into her pants; she realized that she had never recovered her underwear from Erik’s office. “You’re the one who found this canyon, you’re the one who found the spring, the one who managed to get the asparagus to grow, the one who found Smiley and started the tunnels—“
Robert tried to brush it away by waving his hand. “I didn’t do all that.”
“Yes, you did, Robert,” said Jo. “You showed us how. Without you, we’d have been blown away out there on the scrublands.”
“I had a lot of help,” he said, “and support from people like you. Without that, we couldn’t have done anything.”
“You would have survived,” smiled Jo, indicating the tunnel and water with her hand. “You know how. I always admired that about you.”
“You … I didn’t know.”
Jo’s stomach interjected.
“Hunger is going to a challenge for you,” said Robert. “There’s not a lot here.” Robert crawled over to one side of the pond, and picked up a handful of whitish spidery tangles. “These help.”
“Those were the roots in the soup?” Jo asked.
Robert handed her one. “It’s nothing fancy. The roots are edible, the rest of the plant isn’t. There’s enough nutrients in one of those to cover about half your vitamin needs for a day.” Jo turned the root over in her hands several times. “It’s not the tastiest thing in the world—“
“I’ll say,” she muttered.
“—but you won’t die of malnutrition.”
“Just starve to death,” said Jo. “There’s no way there’s enough calories in there to keep you going.”
“No,” said Robert. He stood, and lifted his worn shirt. His ribs popped through his skin. “Not even close. If you don’t supplement with other things, you’ll waste away.”
Jo eyed him cautiously. “Like what?”
“Whatever scuttles by, you don’t question it. You eat it.”
“Qué asco,” Jo winced. “Seen any cows, lately?”
Robert chuckled. “Nothing that large. Just the two cougars.”
“One male, one female. I’m not sure if they’re mates or not, I’ve never seen them together. I think they come to the cave because it’s a good shelter. But they never go far inside and never come at the same time. At least, not that I’ve seen.”
“What about the sheep?” asked Jo.
“Until yesterday, I hadn’t seen a sheep before down here,” said Robert. “That cougar must’ve brought it from somewhere else.”
“Do sheep go feral?” Jo pondered. “Maybe there’s a herd of them up there?”
Robert shook his head. “It was healthy. It’s being taken care of. It was domesticated.”
Jo struggled against her false hope. “But… it could just be taking care of itself…?”
“Did you see its coat?”
“It was trimmed. Maybe a month ago, at the most.”
Robert leaned in. “Someone sheared it. That doesn’t happen naturally.”
Jo’s heart leaped painfully. “¡¿Qué?!”
“Uh huh,” he said, “someone — somewhere out there — was taking care of that sheep.”
“People are alive…,” Jo whispered. “More than just us…”
“That’s what I’m guessing. Y’know, unless sheepdogs figured out how to use sheep shearers, anyway.”
“We need to find them! We need to let them know we’re down here! There’s ten thousand people who need rescuing!” Jo was nearly bouncing with excitement. “Forget the tunnels, we can be outside again!” Robert looked at Jo like she’d spawned a few more arms. “What?”
“Are you insane?” he asked.
“You can’t go out there!” said Robert. “In that wind, you’d be dead before you got five steps out the door.”
“You survived,” said Jo.
Robert slumped, then slowly pulled his shirt over his head. The skin that Jo had seen in the room before Robert’s ceremonious exit from the ARCH was caked with blotchy, dark red scabs. Some had already come off, leaving behind the angry pink new skin.
“¡Dios mío!,” said Jo. She shrank a little, and asked quietly: “Is that from when you … when we threw you out?”
“Yeah,” said Robert, carefully putting his shirt back on. “When I fell off the ramp, I lost my grip on my shirt. The wind took it pretty much clear to the other side. I was so pissed I threw rocks at the ARCH’s walls for about an hour.”
“I heard you doing that. Perdoname, Robert.”
“I was lucky that I found this cave so I could make it through the first night. Searched for three days before I finally found my shirt. I was on my way back to the cave when the winds came back. I wrapped the shirt around my head, and … well, you’ve seen the rest.”
“Perdoname,” Jo repeated, her eyes moistening.
“You’re not responsible, Jo—“
“Yes I am! I was on the Council, Robert! We’re the ones who decided to banish you!”
“Did you vote to banish me?” he asked calmly.
“No,” she said quietly.
“Well, there you go. You didn’t throw me out. And since you’re now here with me…”
Jo’s stomach growled fiercely, the sound echoing in the small chamber. She looked down, then looked up sheepishly. “Heh, sorry. I guess I’m a bit hungry.”
“I can make some more root soup…?” Robert picked up a handful of the root clumps and held them out. Jo winced audibly. “Look, you need to eat something.”
“Like what?” she asked. “That soup isn’t enough. How are you surviving on this?”
“A couple of small lizards,” said Robert. “I’ve even managed to catch a couple of mice. I would love to catch a ground squirrel, or better yet a jackrabbit.” He sighed and sat on a rock against the wall. “But it’s been mostly insects.”
Jo cringed. “Ugh. Really?”
“Hey, don’t knock it. You can do a lot worse than a couple of beetles for breakfast.”
Jo felt her root soup starting to come back up. “¡Basta! I’m not ready for that.”
“Give it a few days. You’d be surprised at how quickly you change your mind,” said Robert glumly. “Oh, but don’t try to eat the centipedes unless you break their heads off first.”
Jo had to clamp her hand over her mouth. She swallowed heavily for a few moments before opening her mouth again. “Another word, and you’ll be eating that cup.”
Robert grinned mischievously.
“See, now that’s the Robert I know,” Jo jabbed her finger towards him. “The twit who’d sit to the side and make everyone squirm!”
“Old habits,” he explained. “It’s good to not be forgotten,” he said, smiling thinly.
“I don’t suppose that cougar left anything of the sheep?” asked Jo.
“They’ll only leave the skin and bones,” said Robert. He snapped up at a thought. “Though I could make some bone broth! That’ll do us both wonders. After the wind dies down, we’ll find some more wood, I don’t have enough to do a long boil.”
“Ah,” said Jo. Her stomach growled again. “Is there enough wood for making more root soup?”
“Yeah,” said Robert, standing up. He’d barely taken a step when he spied something moving in a shadow. “Don’t move.”
“Shh!” Robert went ramrod still and didn’t blink for nearly a full minute. Then, with a motion that didn’t seem possible from a man so gaunt, Robert shot his hand down, and returned with a three foot long, sandy-colored snake with diamond-shaped blotches on its back. It snapped about wildly, its rattle’s mode set to ‘thoroughly pissed’.
Jo scrambled backwards and landed in the pond. “¡QUE CARAJO!”
“What’s the matter?” Robert asked innocently. “It’s just a rattlesnake.”
Jo was having none of it. “Just a rattlesnake? Aren’t they … poisonous?”
“Very,” Robert nodded. The snake agreed, flaring its fangs. “However, there is a way around that.” He pulled out his knife, held it to the back of the snake’s head, and in a swift, clean stroke, swiped the head clean off, landing it on the floor near the wall opposite Jo. The rest of the body, surprised at the sudden decapitation, thrashed about for a few moments.
“That was… gruesome.”
“Well, it’s either that, or risk being bitten. And you don’t want to get bitten by a rattlesnake,” he said. “Incidentally, don’t touch the head. The venom’s still powerful and its reflexes are still powerful enough to break the skin.”
“Santo mierda, there is no maldito way I’m going anywhere near that!”
Robert hummed to himself as he started to walk back towards the campfire. Jo stared at the severed snake head for a few moments, then — her eyes levelled on the immobile head — slowly picked up what was left of the torch and followed.
“So, uh, what are you going to do with that?” asked Jo as she caught up.
Robert turned around. In one hand was the snake, and in the other, the snake’s skin. Jo dropped the torch, nearly putting it out.
“¡Mierda!” she carefully picked up the torch and blew gently to bring it back to life. She returned her questioning gaze to Robert.
“You’re hungry, right?” he asked. “Well…?”
Jo’s appetite wanted to beat a hasty treat to anywhere else. Her stomach, however, argued in favor of potential food, irrespective of its source or appeal. “I… guess…”
Robert used his knife, quickly scooping out the former snake’s guts onto the ground next to the fire. Then he draped the limp meat over the frame that stood over the fire. He lowered it down as low as he could without putting the meat in the weak flames. “We’ll give it about a half an hour. That should do.”
“Is it safe to eat?” asked Jo.
Robert waved off the concern. “Oh yeah, there’s no venom in the meat.”
“Have you eaten snake before?” Jo asked.
Robert squatted next to the fire, and watched the cooking meat with care. “When I was about twelve, my mom got transferred to Dugway.”
“Ah, si, the base brat. You did a circuit between Dugway, Vandenburg, and Corpus Christi. You lived out of your Star Wars suitcase until you were a teenager.”
“Yeah,” said Robert surprisingly. “New base, new kids, new friends, new enemies, it’s the way it always went. We had a neighbour—“
“Finney,” said Jo, her mind piecing together an old memory.
Robert looked Jo. “Finney,” he confirmed slowly. “My dad said he was Special Forces.”
“But Finney wouldn’t ever say what branch he was with,” added Jo.
“How do you know that?” asked Robert.
“You told me.”
Robert looked confused. “I… told you that?”
“Yeah, one night about a week after we’d finished the first ARCH. We were at a campfire and you were telling stories—“
“I remember a bottle…”
“—and you talked about Finney.”
“Are you sure?” asked Robert slowly, his memory slowly rebooting.
“He took you survival camping!“
“Hold on,” said Robert. “When did I tell you that? I never told anyone all that.”
“Yes, you did!” said Jo. “He had a big dreamcatcher tattoo, right here,” she said, indicating her right shoulder. “You said that’s why you got yours.”
In the fire light, Jo saw Robert blink. “I’ve only ever shown one person that tattoo,” he said slowly. His eyes drifted as he desperately tried to find the missing dusty piece in puzzle of his memory. “That night … the stories … I went off into the dark with …”
“That was you?!” they both squawked. Their voices echoed rapidly in the cavern, followed immediately by a shrill laughter.
Jo shook her head laughing. “I … wow, I feel bad that I didn’t remember it was you. Though now I can’t figure out how I didn’t remember.”
“Me, neither,” said Robert. They were both silent for an uncomfortable moment before Robert spoke again. “Was it any good?”
“It’s weird how this all suddenly floods back.”
“I don’t think it was bad,” Jo giggled. Robert smiled and blushed. He prodded the snake with his finger. “One weekend, Finney offered to take me camping. My dad thought it was great idea. I think my mom just about had a heart attack. We went way off into the back country. When we set up camp that night, he surprised me by saying he hadn’t brought any food.”
“Dios mío… That couldn’t have gone over well,” said Jo.
“I think I cried for the first hour. Finney either didn’t notice, or pretended he didn’t. He built a fire, and then disappeared. I was about to panic when he shows up, throws a skunk and a snake next to the fire. He made it sound like this was the plan all along, and I was excited to be there.”
“And you weren’t.”
“Oddly, I was starting to,” he said.
“Even with the skunk?”
“Once he descented it, anyway,” said Robert. He turned the snake over. The smell of cooking meat wafted strongly about Jo’s senses. She swallowed at the mere thought of having meat again.
Robert continued. “He said the skunk was the main course, and the snake was a required appetizer.”
“That doesn’t really sound like much of an option…”
“That’s what I thought at first. But it was either that, or starve. And I wasn’t too keen on starving. When you get hungry enough, you’ll eat just about anything,” he said.
“I’m not eating bugs. No way!”
“Give it a few days.” Robert turned the snake again, and pulled off a small piece. “So how hungry are you?”
Jo’s stomach growled in response. “What it said, I guess.”
Robert held out a piece of snake. “Try a small piece first. I can tell you that it tastes like a mild chicken.”
“Quiero pollo,” said Jo, taking the small piece in her hand as if it were a biological hazard.
“Now imagine you’re eating you’re eating a really tough piece of beef,” Robert offered.
Jo looked at the meat pinched between her fingers, and its cook. “That’s not helpful.” Jo took a deep breath and lobbed it into her mouth. True to Robert’s words, the meat did in fact taste like chicken, if someone had diluted the flavour in about a pint of water. And while the texture required a fair bit of chewing, she found it went down rather well.
“¿Más?” he asked.
“¡Por favor!” She picked away at the piece of snake, pulling out the meat between the ribs with her fingers.
“Well, that wasn’t a lot of food,” said Jo, licking her fingers, “but it was lot more fulfilling than the mushrooms I’ve forced down.”
“It’s really more of a rattlesnack…”
Jo snorted. Then she guffawed. A smile ripped across her face, followed by a distinct titter, which lead to another snort, a restrained bark, and then all-out laughter. She laughed until she had trouble breathing. She laughed so hard her abdominals clenched. Her hilarity rang up and down the length of the cave. Robert sat and smiled.
“You really needed that, didn’t you?” Robert asked as Jo finally started to wind down.
She wiped tears from her eyes. “Oh sí, mi amigo,” she said. “I missed those terrible jokes.” She looked at the bones, discarded onto the fire, crackling in the heat. The glow of laughter, even the highly emotional situational kind, faded quickly. “Still, that was another creature. It was just minding it’s own business…”
“I wouldn’t worry about it. That snake was old, maybe ten years. It led a good life. Think about where it was living — it wasn’t having any trouble finding food. And if it mated, I’m sure there are lots of other snakes out there with its genes. They’ll live long, good lives, too. Besides, I would worry more about yourself.”
Jo looked worried. “Why…? I thought you said it wasn’t poisonous!”
“The meat wasn’t, no. Your body, on the other hand, doesn’t remember meat. Omnivore or not, you’ve been eating vegan for the last decade. Your guts have to remember what to do with animal protein.”
Jo looked despondently at Robert. “You knew this was going to happen? And you let me do it, anyway?!”
Robert smiled mischievously. “Hey, what are friends for?”