Robert found Jo sitting near the entrance to the cave, watching the wind whipping past, the sand scraping against the rocks like some horizontal, dry waterfall. The winds were strong, but there was no Banshee, only a distant reminder floated along with the grains of sand. She sat, cross-legged, staring at some point that seemed well beyond their current visibility. She was straight-backed, her hands resting on her knees.
“Hey,” he said, approaching.
“Hey,” she replied. “I can’t hear her here.”
“The Banshee? That came from the ARCH, a natural harmonic with the wind. The sound doesn’t carry very far.” He sat down next to her. “How’d you sleep?”
“Once the cramping died down, not too badly, actually.” Jo rolled her head around her shoulders, but continued to look out. “You?”
“About the same,” said Robert. “I don’t entirely sleep. I haven’t in years. It’s a hard habit to break. Besides, with the cougars out there, I’m not sure I want to sleep too deeply.”
“Good point,” she said.
Robert sat down next to her. “Are you meditating?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
“Oh.” He tried to follow her gaze, but the sand was obstinate in its transparency.
“Why haven’t you tried to go back?” Jo asked. She still hadn’t changed her stare.
“I got thrown out?” he said slowly. “Remember?”
“Yeah,” she said.
“Well, there you go.”
“So you gave up.” It was a less a statement than an attack.
Robert spun to stare at Jo directly. “How would going back do me any good?”
“It was never about you. You’re an Engineer, Robert—“
“I was an Engineer,” he said.
“You are an Engineer,” said Jo, turning to him. “You rescued me from out there. You could have just left me to die.”
“You’re my friend,” he said.
“I threw you out, Robert. I was there. You didn’t know which way I’d voted. You had every right to just let me rot. But you brought me in here, nursed me back to health. You made sure I drank. You fed me. It would have been easier to just let me die. You protected me.” She leaned over and touched Robert’s knee. “You’re an Engineer, Robert. You never stopped being one.”
Robert’s lips buckled against one another. “Thanks for believing me.”
“I’m sorry anyone ever doubted you.”
“I can’t go back, Jo. You know that. What would people think if they knew I was there?”
“There’s over thousands of people in there. No-one sees every face and barely even notices the ones they do see. You could have hidden. You could have lived out your life without any of us knowing you’d come back,” said Jo.
Robert waved his head about. “Maybe. Even if I could get up there. With these winds, it’s just not possible.” He ran his hand gently over his belly, feeling the ridges of his ribs underneath the thinned fabric.
“You could have gone through Block 2,” Jo continued. “There’s lots of—“
“Enough, Jo!” Robert said loudly, nearly shouting. “You can’t save everyone!”
“Yes, I can!” Jo cried back. “I have to!”
“Not everyone is worth saving.”
“They threw you out Robert. Doesn’t that bother you? They made you responsible for a crime that never happened!”
“Maybe it did.”
“What? Robert, you’re not that kind of person,” said Jo, “you didn’t—“
“Can you prove I didn’t?”
“I… what are you saying? You said … did you assault that woman?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t remember,” corrected Jo.
“Because they beat you nearly to death.”
“Because I was drinking.”
Jo went silent a moment. “¿Qué?” she said quietly.
“I was drinking the disinfectant.”
“There’s rules against—“
“Every one of those rules has been broken, they mean nothing!” Robert shouted. “Rich made rules so he could feel like he was still a professor. You had no idea how many people drank that stuff.”
“How could you?” Jo whispered.
“Because I’m Robert the Great. Robert the Wise. Robert the Savior,” he spat. “How many times did you—,” he thrust his finger at Jo, “— put me on a pedestal, Jo? How many times did you truck me out as the guy who could do it all? ‘Robert designed the ARCH to last a hundred years’, ‘Robert’s got a plan to get us all into tunnels’. You have any idea how much pressure you put on me? I wasn’t allowed to fail! One mistake, we’re all dead. I couldn’t handle the stress.” He slumped into a pile of himself. “I still can’t. I’ll live out what’s left of my life,” his voiced quietened, “outside of the ARCH.”
Jo reached out and touched Robert’s foot. “No, mi amigo. You don’t deserve this. I was with you drunk before, and you definitely didn’t hurt me.” She said as softly as she could over the wind. “I’m sorry if I made you feel like you were the one we all needed. You just seemed to always be the one with the answer we trusted. You loved the challenge of surviving in the ARCH. You were the only one who never lost hope. Remember when Block 3 collapsed halfway through construction? You smiled, picked up a girder, and started over. When we decided to tear out four levels to build the atrium? You were the first out out there with a cutting torch. I still remember when you said we were going to build the tunnels. I thought you were joking from how giddy you were acting. None of that was a life-altering challenge for you. It was a game to you. You were never happier than when someone told you something was impossible. You made it your mission to prove them wrong. Like when Carl told you there was no way you make a dent in that rock without a ton of dynamite? When he laughed at you because you walked up to the face with a flimsy-looking pickaxe? And you broke off a huge piece that nearly broke his foot?”
Robert sat up slowly, a thin smile breaking the moroseness. “Carl yelled for an hour.”
“Don’t give up,” said Jo, bringing him close. “You’re better than this, Robert. And if you stay out here, you might as well just be telling Carl that he has your blessing to keep doing the things he’s doing.”
Robert sighed heavily. “What do you want me to do, Jo? I’m stuck here, and so are you.”
“No, I’m not,” she said firmly. “We just need to think of a way to get back in there.”
“Don’t forget the wind,” Robert reminded her.
“That’s not the part that worries me,” she said.
Robert raised an eyebrow. “Then… what does worry you?”
“Los lacayos de Carl,” she muttered, resuming her distant stare. “There’s enough of them to be trouble, and Carl’s done a good job surrounding himself with loyalty. Even if we do get in, getting to Carl is going to be hard.”
“‘We’?” Robert asked.
“Yes, Robert, ‘we’,” said Jo affirmatively. “I’m not leaving you out here to dine on snakes and avoid cougars. You don’t deserve this.” She looked out into the blasting sand. “No-one did,” she added, turning to Robert. “Besides, I’m pretty sure that I can’t do this alone. And I’m going back, no matter what.”
“Revenge?” Robert asked.
“A bit,” Jo admitted. “Also vengeance, for what they did to Erik. But most of it is just me being really colérico about how he’s putting so many lives at risk for his petty greed.”
“You know what they say about vengeance, right?” Robert asked. “‘She who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for her enemy and one for herself’.” He smiled again and looked at Jo. “Just make sure one of them isn’t mine.”
“Does that mean you’re coming?” smiled Jo.
Robert grinned. “I miss the asparagus.”
“How far away are we?”
“About a mile and a half,” said Robert.
“So we have to travel a mile and a half through a sand blaster,” she said. “How much shelter do you think we could find?”
“As I remember from our surveys, not much. Boulders here and there, but nothing that’ll keep us out of the wind.”
“Oh, what I would do for a big sheet of aluminum!” She looked to Robert. “You didn’t happen to find—?”
He shook his head. “The scroungers who were out last time got everything.”
“Too bad they didn’t banish you with the suit,” Robert joked.
“That would have made my departure a lot less painful,” said Jo. She reached for the bumps, still prominent on her head.
Robert caught a glimpse of a whitish tuft underneath the sand near the entrance. He cocked his head slightly and stared at it for several moments. “Wolf,” he said.
Jo’s head snapped around like a radar array. “Where?”
“There,” he said, pointing to the remains of the sheep’s carcass, barely visible under the sand.
“I thought that was a sheep?”
Robert’s grin was back. “A wolf in sheep’s clothing.” He walked to the edge of the cave’s entrance, took a deep breath, and lunged quickly into the blast, grabbed at the wool still sitting above the blowing sand, and pulled hard. The wind lashed at his back, tearing at his shirt and pants. He cringed to keep his neck as sheltered as possible, but there was little place he could hide anything exposed. The sand weighed down the skin and it barely moved. Jo picked up on Robert’s plan a few seconds later and leaped up to assist. Together, with some difficult, they managed to heave in a collection of skin and bones into a calmer part of the entrance.
“Thanks,” said Robert, coughing out little clouds of dust. He then let out a slow aching groan, as he ran his hands up his lower back. They came out with small spots of blood. He felt his neck. “That hurt…” He tried to turn unsuccessfully. “How bad is it?”
Jo looked at his back. The scabs that had been there were gone, torn free in the abrasive wind. New scratches had formed, likely from smaller bits of rock carried along. His neck looked raw, but otherwise unbroken. “I’ve seen a lot worse than this. I’m sure it stings like hell, but it’s not bad.”
“Feels bad,” he said. He ached again.
Then he got down on his knees, and tried to stretch out the desiccating skin, peeling the bones free where they had dried on. He searched with his fingers through the dark red splotches of dried meat and blood. The skin was all in one piece, though the cougar had done quite a bit of damage, creating holes and large tears. He hummed thoughtfully.
“I dunno,” he said. He tugged gently on the hide in a few places, then held it up. The skin folded about on itself in a fuzzy, bloodied tangle. “This would let so much sand through…” He looked at Jo. “And no, I don’t have any needle and thread, so don’t ask.”
Jo had already started picking through the bones and scrap that had come along with the carcass. Amongst it was a drying brown lump that looked like large noodles all bundled up. She tried to pull it apart. She caught a whiff of feces. “Is this what I think it is?”
Robert examined the lump. “If you think its guts, you’ve got a good eye.” He picked it up and turned it over in his hands. “Yeah, if we wet this up, we might be able to sew some of those rips together. It won’t be perfect—“
“It’ll be good enough,” said Jo. “I assume you know how to do this…?”
“Let me tell you about the pants I had to sew together with the leftovers of a few groundhogs…”
They dug a hole further back into the cave, deep enough to almost bury the lump. Next to it they placed the hide, wool side down. Then they took turns carrying water from the pond, and pouring it alternately onto the lump and the hide. Over the course of several hours, the lump slowly expanded, revealing its structure: parts of the stomach, bits of the upper intestines, and most of the lower intestines. The hide softened, and the rough edges uncurled.
The smell was becoming overwhelming. The carcass had already long since began to rot, and it had been only the drying effect of the wind that had kept the smell away. Sheltered and wet, the stench of decaying flesh and half-filled guts filled every crevice within the cave. Jo’s snake snack started to object in terrible ways.
“I may never eat meat again,” she burped.
The stomach was cut in almost a spiral, to create a long, thin string. The upper intestines ended up being too mangled for any real use, so it was thrown back outside. The lower intestines, being the real treasure, were drawn out straight, scraped down using the backs of their knives, then cut into thin strips. With the strings ready, they quickly set to cutting small slits down the lengths of all the tears.
Starting with the largest of the tears, they took the slippery and foul-smelling catgut, and started sewing the holes up. At Robert’s direction, the strings weren’t pulled taut, as the drying action of the catgut would solve that problem, and he didn’t want to make the skin curl back up again. As the parts were sewn, they placed heavy rocks to keep the skin in place.
It was many hours before the work was done, and the patched hide lay flat on the cave floor. Frankenstein himself could not have done a better job, had he been handed a mauled and decayed corpse, and told he could only stitch it back together with whatever he could find inside of it.
The sheep’s bones were broken open with rocks, the shards boiled in water for several hours along with the roots. The roots took quite a bit more time to boil down to a consistency where they could be readily eaten. The broth, however, was strong and delicious, and provided the both of them with a powerful infusion of nutrients that neither of them had consumed in many years. It was well into the evening before they finally ate, and into the night before they’d finished.
“How long until the hide is good to use?” Jo asked.
“A few hours, at least,” said Robert. “Why, are you in a rush?”
“You mean, how badly do I want to kill Carl?” Jo asked.
Robert tried to recoil. He tried to show surprise. He tried to be a Good Human and tried to demonstrate some kind of revulsion for the nonchalant disposal of a human life. But he couldn’t. His anger and frustration roiled under his veneer, jumping up and down like a petulant child demanding every crumb of his attention.
“Probably more than I’ve thought about it,” he said quietly. “You have good reason. Definitely more than me.”
Jo tried to recoil. She had spoken out of spite, out of anger. She hadn’t expected anyone — certainly never a man who had never shown any kind of malice — to share her thoughts. The lingering feeling of Erik’s last touches skipped across her skin, her last words with him stung at her soul, her knuckles crackled at their last contact. She looked down at the sheepskin, and felt a strange kinship with the tears the cougar had imparted. She looked at their haphazard stitching, and touched her chest, wondering if she could ever be made whole.