“I think it's ready,” said Robert. It took nearly a full day for the catgut to harden. As Robert had expected and promised, the stiffened material pulled the seams shut. “I think it'll hold until we get to the ARCH.”
Jo picked up the hide, feeling its stiffness in her hands. They'd sewn in three large loops of catgut so she could keep the sheepskin in front of her, facing into the wind. She wrangled her hands through the near-solid straps, and took a few steps to practice hiding behind it. She walked to the cave entrance, took a few steps into the wind, and then came back in. “Funciona,” she said. She put it down on the ground and the two walked back into the cave to the pond, each drinking as much as they could.
“No,” said Robert, “but let's go anyway.”
“Para mañana, cenamos en el infierno.”
The threshold from still to full-force gale was narrow, only a couple of feet. The sheep had been quite a bit smaller than Jo or Robert, so they had to crouch down to hide behind the skin's protectiveness. Almost immediately, the wind tried to push Jo over. Robert leaned into Jo and kept her upright. Robert tapped Jo on the shoulder, a sign to moved forward. In her crouched position, it meant wrapping the hide over the top of her head to try prevent the wind from scooping onto their backs, and under their shirts. The wind buffeted the hide wrapped to her hands, pushing hard at her wrists. The skin wrapped around her sides, blocking her entire view of where they were going. Robert tried to look behind him, to see if he could orient himself based on the outcroppings that protected the cave's entrance.
Taking a proper step was nearly impossible. Moving their legs forward one at a time under the wind's pressure proved to be impossible. Instead, they resorted to shuffling them a quarter step at a time. The action had the side-effect of nearly burying their feet in the sand, forcing them to pick up their feet every few steps to climb back on top.
And so they went: shuffleshuffleshuffleshuffleshufflelift, shuffleshuffleshuffleshuffleshufflelift, shuffleshuffleshuffleshuffleshufflelift.
It wasn't long before their mouths were dry of the water they had drank, their lungs felt like they were filling with dust. The hurricane lashed the insides and outsides of their ears. They felt like they should be drenched in sweat, though the arid air whisked away moisture before it neared the surface. So parched and burdened, they kept shuffleshuffleshuffleshuffleshufflelifting. Their quadriceps ached with the micromovements, the arches of their feet felt like they would crack as they rolled over the loose, shifting soil.
A burst of wind nearly toppled Jo, Robert nearly lost his balance as her back pushed into the hand he'd kept there. Trying to keep herself vertical, she fell slightly forward, coming to land on her knees. Robert tucked in behind her. Closer to the ground, the winds weren't quite as powerful, and they could get a few moments' rest before trying forward again. They checked behind them to ensure they was going in a straight line.
They saw the outcroppings almost as clearly as when they had left.
“¡Vete al demonio!” spat Jo. “¡No me rendiré, madre puta!” she shouted towards the wind. “You hear me?!” She looked back at Robert. “How the hell do the cougars make it down here without getting torn to shreds? One of them dragged that sheep!”
Robert looked thoughtful. “Good point. They must have found a route along the bluff.”
“Think we can find it?” she asked.
“It's worth a try! Head towards the very edge of the canyon wall!”
Like crabs, they side-shuffled to the side until their shoulders hit rock. Almost immediately, the wind caught the edge of the edge of the hide and tried to steal it away. It took both Robert and Jo clinging to it to keep the skin down. As they wrestled, Robert's foot slipped, and the two of them landed on the ground.
“That's how they did it!” Jo cried. “The cougars stayed down low. The wind gradient is a lot lower here! That's why I couldn't see the cougar at first!”
“Looks like we have to crawl our way up there,” Robert shouted over the wind.
They tried crawling one behind the other for a short distance; the sheepskin's length wasn't enough, and Robert quickly found his rear far too exposed to the winds. They changed so that they were side by side, each with a wrist through a loop, their shoulders pressed tightly against one another. Their sides were more exposed, but once they were against the wall, the wind had less of an effect. Thus they moved forward: inside hands, outside hands, inside hands, outside hands, inside, outside, inside, outside… A few feet at a time, pressing into the wind.
The first rock they reached was small enough for them to slide over like wooly amoeba. The next one, however, was the size of three people and loomed over them. It did offer them a buffer from the steady pressure against them, so it became a welcome rest. The stop was short, owing to neither food nor water to consume, and they rounded the blunted edge of the rock. The wind snapped around behind them, pulling up the hide like Marilyn's dress over a subway grate. Blinded and exposed, they tumbled while desperately trying to pull the protective cover back over them.
The sand scratched at their faces, burned at their necks, clawed at their legs. Even with the sheepskin's stiffness, the hide still managed to twist, requiring them to spin around until they were face into the wind again, and pulled the skin back overtop. They collapsed into the rough surface of rock and sand, gasping and aching at the sudden intake of pain.
They backed up until they found a doldrum where the winds were erratic, and then carefully turned and moved forward again. Just beyond the calmer space was a fierce, straight-on tempest that ground their progress from feet to bare inches. The ground had been stripped of finer particles, leaving cracked rocks and stones in their path. They frequently had to stop to scrape away enough protrusions for them to land their hands safely; their knees suffered through the worn fabric of their pants.
A crosswind shot through an unnoticed gap in the canyon wall like a sucker punch, throwing Jo into Robert. Robert's right arm crumpled under the shock and he fell sideways, causing Jo to flip over top of him. They landed on their backs, the sheepskin underneath them. The cyclone delighted in its race over their faces.
Jo rolled hard to her right, pushing herself on top of Robert's chest. “Roll right!!” Jo shrieked over the wind, and continued her motion. Robert rolled immediately, and they landed on their bellies again, the hide flapping over their heads once more. Both of them coughed terribly and struggled for breath. “You okay??” Jo yelled.
“No!!” Robert shouted back.
It was that just over four hours after starting, that they collided with the edge of the ARCH as its outer wall burst from the canyon floor. Above them, across the roof, came a sound Jo hadn't heard in days. The shrill shrieking of the Banshee rolled down the curved surfaces of the ARCH like an avalanche. It washed over them, and raced down into the valley.
“I wish I could say I missed that sound,” shouted Jo, shivering at the screeching despite the padding in her ears.
“Now what?” asked Robert.
Jo shouted back: “We have to go up!”
“UP?! You mean, over the roof?!”
“You got any better ideas?” she asked.
“What about the overflow? It's a thinner part of the outer wall…”
“Aside from the stench, neither of us would fit into that pipe! The pipe is too narrow for me, let alone you! There's at most a six inch gap for us to squeeze through!”
“You're making that up!” he shouted. “You don't know that!”
“Yes, I do!” she retorted. “I've been on maintenance for two years, Robert! I know every crack in every joint in every dark corner!”
Robert stared painfully at Jo. “If we fall off the roof, we're going to get hurt.”
“If we fall, we're probably going to die.”
They plastered themselves to the ARCH's outer wall, and felt for the bumps in the canyon wall. Finding her first solid grip with her hand, Jo found a foothold, and pulled up. She hauled Robert up behind her as she went. He tried to scamper up the incline and find a place to hold on. Then Jo quickly ascended again, passing Robert, and found a new hold. She pulled him up, held, and continued. They quickly reached a point at which the wind had a far stronger effect.
Jo reached down with her free hand and dug out her multitool. Using her teeth to hold the tool, she unfolded the knife, and shoved the blade into one of the thin gaps between the roof panels. Seeing the idea, Robert followed suit, and held himself in place. He grinned at Jo, she grinned back, and they continued their way up the side.
Once they'd crested the point where gravity's pull had waned and only the wind fought to push them off, they spread themselves out lower, their bellies pressed as firmly into the ARCH's surface as they could manage. Then, using the knives to help anchor them down, pulled themselves slowly over the building's skin. They slunk along like a pair of snakes under a blanket caught in a hurricane. They kept the leading edge of the hide tucked under them, gripping it with their inner hands as they inched forward. Sand snuck through every gap, crack, and seam it could find, attacking them randomly.
Though greatly overpowered by the sounds around them, Jo felt one of the sinew repairs snap under the strain, and a tear reopened next to her leg. She could feel the hot poker-like stabbing of the wind. There was another cracking, and the tear got longer, running all the way down to the trailing edge. The skin broke free and started snapping against her. Jo howled in pain, and urged Robert to move faster.
They rounded the dome of Block 8, and Robert could feel a crack in the roof, the slope bending down inwards. “STOP!” he shouted.
“We need out of the wind!” Jo screamed back.
“I'm about to fall!” Robert yelled. “There's a hole here!”
“You go first!” Jo shouted back. “This will hurt, but if you can crawl over the edge and grab a girder, you can get under the roof!” Jo's leg was starting to go numb. She could feel wetness. She refused to look. Instead, she reached under the slapping sheepskin, and started pushing. “Get moving!!”
Robert unlooped his hand from the hide, pushed out with his hands and found the edge of the roof. His fingers felt like they were under a belt sander as he pulled himself from under skin, and over to the edge. Sand pelted right into his scalp and tore at his face. He pulled himself until he was able to stare down into the floor several stories below. A broken girder protruded nearby, which he grasped and shook hard. Being stable enough, he hooked his right leg over the lip, and wound it into another girder. Letting the wind push him into the lip of the hole, he pulled himself under and into the structure.
Jo shifted herself under the skin so that the ripped edge stopped hitting her. Her leg felt as if someone had stabbed a dozen knives into it and then twisted them all quarter turns in each direction. She felt a double-thump under her, and assumed it meant Robert was inside. She followed his path to the edge.
She paused as she started to pull her hand from the skin's catgut loops. Damaged or not, she couldn't try to climb inside with it still attached to her — it would obscure her vision and its surface could catch more than enough wind to throw her off balance. Jo tugged her hand against the tough sinew, when the wind caught the hide and sucked it away, the leading edge flipped up, slapping her from the chin to the forehead, splitting her nose and tearing her cheek. Sparks flew into her vision and blood rushed into her sinuses, the dried catgut tore into her wrist with savage fury, ripping the skin clean open. Sand scraped at every exposed part of her body. Adrenaline shot through her systems like lightning and she lost her grip on everything, feeling herself start to slide along the roof. She screamed as she felt safety slip away.
An iron grip slammed into her wrist. Jo blinked and saw Robert at the edge of the hole, his head haloed by the blasting sand. With both hands, he heaved Jo forward and through the hole, dropping her the floor. He slipped back inside, nearly falling. Trickles of blood seeped down his arms, the back of his head looked like it had been shorn with a belt sander.
“You okay?” he called over the wind.
“I am now,” she said. “Looks like I owe you again.”