The wind howled. It blew from all directions, putting sand and dust in any corner or crevice that hadn't already received an allotment. The sand drifted in small dunes, until the dunes pressed into a barrier, forcing them to slither about to find a new route. It piled up, flattening out a landscape that had once been revered for its rocky sharpness, it's harsh reliefs.
There were few refuges. These occurred where the winds blew more in a steady direction, creating a leeward draught that functioned to draw sand away. A kind of a dry oasis in a storm of sand. At the leading edge of the ARCH's canyon home, the wind wrapped around a four hundred foot precipice, creating an eddy in the wind. In that space, there was a large crack in the rock. Deep inside, there lay a woman.
Jo bolted upright to sitting and immediately regretted the motion, as her head suddenly registered a 217-degree shift laterally in combination with her near-90 degree vertical rotation. Her inner ear declared an abrupt independence and Jo slid onto her side, landing in a pile of fine dust. She coughed profusely before slowly propping herself up on her hands. Her head sagged as her body fought to re-annex her rogue vestibular system, producing a few waves of nausea.
After a half an hour, Jo manage to move without either falling over, or experiencing a crippling need to try vomit out her otherwise empty stomach. Her vision was slightly blurry, though it was still sharp enough to see the damage on her limbs: multiple bruises and scratches, a partially twisted ankle, a strained wrist, a possibly fractured left forefinger, most of her arm banged and carved into red-flecked streaks, her ass ached horribly, and there were two huge goose eggs on her head. She sat in the dust and flexed her hands to see if they even worked properly.
“Sorry, Kelly, looks like I took all the luck with me,” she muttered to the cave.
Jo stood carefully, with one hand on the wall for reassurance. It was dim where she lay, the light having scattered its way into the cave from its narrow opening a couple of dozen feet away. A pair of huge boulders, a few feet apart from one another, formed a small barrier, keeping the noise, wind, and sand at bay. She walked around the waist-high rocks, closer to the mouth, closer to the everlasting storm outside.
The wind whipped at Jo's hair, flinging it around. But it was only the wind — there was hardly any sand at all. Jo needed only to squint to keep the specks out. There wasn't much to see. The land outside was reddish and sandy, like every other part of the canyon that she had ever seen. Visibility wasn't more than a dozen feet in any direction. The mouth of the cave, still several feet away, was riddled with large rocks that looked like they'd broken off from higher up the cliffs. The entrance swooped up sharply into a tight peak, the side flaring out to about twice the width of the chasm behind it.
She stood, looking out into the desolation. “So much for luck,” she said.
Movement caught her attention, near the left side of the cave's entrance. She squinted again, hoping that it might clear up her vision. It emerged from the sand, moving at an unnaturally low height from the ground, as if it's legs had been cut off above its knees, its head was twisted almost a quarter turn from vertical, like the shape was trying to put its ear close to the ground. It was a few more moments before could see that it was a sheep, an animal she had never seen before in her life, but somehow knew that despite its motion, was dead.
Then Jo saw that the sheep was being dragged by a large cougar. She whipped behind one of the rocks before the large cat saw her and decided that a two-course meal would be appropriate. She huddled for nearly a minute before decided that the cougar didn't have any plans that involved her. Slowly, Jo peeked around the edge of the rock, and saw the cougar using its huge, clawed paws and sharp white teeth to make quick work of the sheep's belly. Tufts of wool skipped about in the breeze. The tawny animal purred loudly as it ripped pieces of mutton free from their former host, licking its chops after ever few bites.
Jo stopped paying attention to the cougar, and looked more closely at the sheep, noting a blue mark on its haunches. She looked back at the cougar, which despite the wind looked like any picture of a mountain lion she'd read about in books.
A pair of hands suddenly pulled her back and flipped her around. One clapped over her mouth, the other formed into a single finger moved in front of a pair of lips to indicate silence. The lips and hands were owned by Robert Ferris.
Jo nodded curtly. Robert slowly backed away, indicating that Jo should stay down, and then moved back inside the cave. Jo stared at her banished friend, then slowly got up and followed him. Some distance further past where she had woken was a small fire, over which was suspended a small metal bowl on sinew ropes. In the bowl was water, and what looked like roots. He squatted over it, gently stirring with a stick. He nodded to her silently and motioned her to sit.
“Don't worry, the cougar won't come back here. It doesn't smell us, we're downwind. It usually stays only around the entrance,” Robert explained.
“Usually,” Jo nodded slowly.
“I heard you screaming,” said Robert. “It sounded like you passed right by the cave entrance, going downhill. You must've hit a part of the outcrop, I found you on the ground. I thought you'd died, but you were still breathing, so I brought you back up here. I found a piece of rope in your mouth.” Robert finished, asking a question.
Jo reached up and touched the corners of her mouth, which felt raw and sore. The skin was cracked and scabbed. “They gagged me.”
“You must've bitten through it,” he commented.
Jo bit a couple of times, and noticed that her teeth didn't seat properly. Something was out of alignment. “Ugh.”
“How're you feeling?” Robert asked.
Jo instinctively felt her arms and head. “Okay… I guess.” There was an awkward pause, and she felt a need to inspect lower down.
“I didn't do anything,” he said, picking out the root from the pot. He broke off a small piece, chewed a moment, and put the rest of the root back in.
Jo said the only thing she could think of. “Oh.”
“You don't believe me,” he nodded. “That's okay. I don't blame you.”
“I do,” said Jo. “I … you said you were framed. How?”
Robert sat back, and leaned his arms over his knees. “What do you know of my supposed crime?”
“Uh, well, I was told that you'd … um … beaten and raped a woman.” She felt much warmer than she cared. “I never believed it,” she added quickly. “Not you. No way. That sheep is more dangerous.” She jerked her thumb towards the entrance.
“So you don't know.”
“The truth? I don't think so. The trial was a sham.”
“Rich went along with it?” asked Robert. Jo nodded soberly. “Bastard never even talked to me.” He sighed and sat heavily. “Let me guess,” Robert mused, “you were set up for murder, right? I mean, I could see them accusing you of other things, but murder has a way of galvanizing people against you really quickly.”
Jo gasped. “S-sí.”
Robert shook his head ruefully. “You got in the way,” he explained. “You rocked the boat, or discovered something you weren't supposed to see. You had to be eliminated.”
“They who?” asked Jo.
“Do you really need to ask?”
“Uh huh. Who else?”
“Gary. He's been Carl's right hand forever. Probably Dylan, too.”
“Frank?!” Jo balked. “But… Dawn…!”
“Dawn's not involved. Why do you think she was reduced to Carl's errand girl? That was to keep her in the dark.”
“In the dark for what? What's going on? Why the hell did all of this happen?” Jo searched her thoughts. “Did they kill Erik??”
Robert's head snapped up. “Erik?”
“They…” Jo sniffed, and wiped a tear. “Carl told me he killed him. He used my multitool.” She dug out the handheld set of tools from her pocket. The tears formed a stream from her eyes. “They mashed his face,” she sobbed. “And blamed me!”
Robert looked straight at Jo, unmoved. Slowly, he extended a hand and placed it on Jo's knee. Jo flinched at the touch. He quickly retracted it. “Sorry. I…”
“Esta bien,” Jo whispered and snuffled. “I… I, uh…” She closed her eyes and threw back her head. “I can't believe this is happening.”
“I'm sorry, Jo. I am. You really loved him.”
Jo wiped away more tears. “How… how did you know?”
“Because I saw the way you looked at him, even if he didn't. It wasn't respect or admiration, it was adoration. You wanted to be with him. I remember watching you in those god-awful Council meetings when Batesworth was going off on the need for proper structural reviews. You just kept staring.”
“I thought I hid it,” Jo smiled slightly.
“Did he ever know?” he asked.
“Yeah, we … he … I told him,” she said quietly. “They used it against me, didn't they?” she sniffed.
“They framed you,” Robert said. “It's a good thing Rich is still there or they'd…” His voice trailed off. The look on Jo's face conveyed a novella of detail. “It's only been … ten days? What's happened?”
Jo swallowed hard, wiping away the wetness from her eyes. “Rich is dead, accidental electrocution.” She blinked. “Actually, it might not be.”
Robert slumped. “He was murdered, too?”
“M-maybe. He touched a panel in the electrical room that had been intentionally shorted,” said Jo. “Someone wanted someone else dead.”
“Rich and Erik. And you banished,” Robert whistled. “They really are going to run the place.”
“If it doesn't fall down first,” said Jo. “The roof collapsed in the atrium.”
“Was that an accident, too?”
“No se. The whole structure's been shifting. We'd only just put in some girders in the greenhouse to keep it from slipping more. It … it could have been an accident.”
“How many rooms have they tunneled out?”
“Not nearly enough. We'll be lucky to get half the people in there right now.”
“Is Smiley running the tunnels?” asked Robert.
“Gotta admire the guy, he twisted everything his way.”
“What do you mean?”
Robert lay back into the cave wall. “Did you get shares?”
Jo shook her head slowly. “How do you know about those?”
“Carl came to me a few months ago after we started tunnelling. He was talking about making sure that the Engineers got what was due: our own spaces, making sure we kept our place in the world. He tried to convince me that we should give out shares, making sure the Engineers had the most so we could have our choice.”
“You ever tell anyone?”
Robert snorted. “I should have. But I brushed off Carl, told him he was being elitist. The idea was bad enough, trying to find something to represent a share was pointless. What were we going to use, rocks?”
“Then they found gold,” said Jo quietly.
“They told you?”
“I found it. They've been stockpiling it. I thought it might be for making wire for lighting.”
“Hmm,” Robert shook his head. “No.”
“Those are the shares, aren't they? The gold coins?”
Robert spat a laugh. “Carl created his own monetary system. Labor for gold. You tunneled, you got gold. You get enough gold, you could buy a room.”
“Buy a room? But … those weren't for sale! They're for everyone, to save lives!”
“Carl didn't care about saving lives. He just wanted to control the place. He wanted it his way.”
“I always knew Carl didn't like the Council or how he never got his way, but … there's no way he could do this without their support.” Jo looked hard at the fire. “Francis is on Carl's side, isn't he?”
Robert nodded. “Francis was in on the shares early on, mostly because Carl needed his turned into coins. Francis liked the idea of less work, and fewer people taking his stuff.”
“It's not his stuff—!”
Robert looked at Jo and Jo trailed off. “His storeroom isn't for him.”
“You've only seen the stuff Francis wants you to see. He has another storeroom somewhere with all sorts of stuff in it.”
“Like what?” asked Jo.
“Blocks of pig iron, barrels of oil and gasoline, sheets of glass, rolls of fabric. I even saw a couple of guns.”
“W-what?” Jo whispered. “Guns? Fuel? Raw materials? We could have… so many people… You've actually seen all of this?”
“There's a hatch in the floor of the workshop, under one of the tables. It's really hard to see. I opened it once by mistake when I was moving a girder across the floor. Carl caught me replacing the hatch cover after I'd climbed out. He tried to act all cool and curious, and asked if I'd seen anything. I said ‘no', of course. I told him that the floor panel had come loose and I was putting it back. I'm sure that put me on his watch list right then and there.”
“And Carl's in control, now,” she said.
“With you and me thrown out, Erik and Rich dead, there's no-one left on the Council who didn't side with Carl. They were all in his pocket.”
“Even Smiley?” asked Jo. “I mean, I thought he was always a fair guy…”
“Yeah, I don't know about Smiley,” said Robert. “I always got the sense that he did things because he was told to do them, not because he agreed with them.” He shook his head.
Robert started to answer and stopped. His lip rolled a moment before he spoke again. “I don't know. Dawn and I got along fine and we never talked about and of this. But she is married to Francis, so…” He sighed again. “Not that it matters anymore, not where we are.”
“Where are we, anyway? Is this anywhere near the ARCH?”
“Yeah, it's a few hundred yards up the valley,” said Robert, pointing through the cave wall towards the ARCH's location. He saw the look on Jo's face. “You're not thinking of going back?”
“I want to help,” said Jo.
“You want revenge,” Robert corrected.
“Engineers help, Robert. It's what we do.”
“It's what we did, Jo. We can't help anymore. We're not in control,” said Robert, hanging his head. “We never were, you know. Nature didn't want us to have control. We've been fighting her for years just to survive. And it turns out we were wrong.”
“Wrong? How are we wrong by trying to save lives?” asked Jo.
“You saw them,” said Robert, pointing towards the mouth of the cave. “Out there, right now. Two animals. Both of them healthy. From everything we know of the Banshee, they shouldn't even exist at this point. So how are they still able to survive? We failed.”
“How can you say that? The Robert I know doesn't run away from a problem. The Robert I know smiles in a disaster and makes the problem run in fear!”
“The Robert you knew isn't me,” he said, standing up. He motioned to the small pot on the fire. “That's a root soup. It's not the most flavorful thing, but it's got a lot of nutrients. It'll keep your strength up. Stay here by the fire.” He walked towards the entrance of the tunnel. “Get some rest.”
“Where are you going?” Jo asked.
“To watch the wind. It's about the only thing to do around here.”