Staying busy was the only way Ruby could keep her mind off the dream she'd had the night before. She knelt by the stream in the ravine behind her apartment building—a ravine that had not existed yesterday. Ruby dipped an empty plastic milk jug in the clear pool just upstream from a tiny waterfall. She could carry four jugs up the hill at a time. She'd need to figure out a system for carrying more.
Beyond the calming burble of the waterfall, Ruby heard nothing but silence. No sound of traffic, no distant hum of cars on the freeway, no constant factory whir from the furniture plant down on Buchanan Avenue, nothing.
No birdsong either. In a forest so thick, Ruby would have expected at least a few birds, perhaps the hum of insects. All had abandoned this place. She knew why. Nature itself rejected the cocoon that sat at the heart of what remained of Rapid City, South Dakota.
She capped the last milk jug, raised two jugs in each hand, and carried them back up the path. As Ruby ascended, Mai, her neighbor, descended with her own jugs.
"Hey," Ruby said.
Mai didn't respond, didn't even look at her.
Ruby watched her. "Did you see the moon last night? Sky Cola. What the heck is—"
Mai pushed past, nearly knocking Ruby down. "Don't talk to me."
Ruby's face flushed with growing anger. "There's not many of us left. We might as well be friends."
Mai didn't turn. She stooped beside the stream and uncapped a jug.
Ruby watched her for a moment. Obviously Mai was upset by everything. Was she still clutching to the old high school social caste system? I'm popular, and you're beneath me. The pecking order had ruled Ruby's life only yesterday. But what was the use of it now?
By the time Ruby emerged from the woods, she'd worked herself up into a bitter rage. She didn't need old enmities to further complicate her life.
She trudged out onto the short remnant of what was once Pine Street. At the intersection lay a rough campfire circle. Two men worked by the fire, one stirring a large pot of stew, the other building the fire under a second pot, this one for boiled water. A third pot lay on the pavement beside them. Ruby dropped her milk jugs and began filling it.
"... I don't even want to talk about it," one of the men said, a red-bearded mid-twenties guy.
"But you did have the dream?" said the second man, dark hair, bushy eyebrows. "I asked Andy, and he said he had the same dream I had. The sky caught fire, the earth shattering like a lightbulb, big chunks of land mass thrown into the sky, lava erupting through, and—"
"I said I don't want to talk about it," said red beard.
"So you did have the dream," acknowledge Eyebrows.
Red beard gave him a withering glare as he stirred the stew.
Mister Big Eyebrows turned to Ruby. "What about you? Did you dream about the world blowing up last night?"
Ruby emptied her third water jug.
"You did, didn't you?" Eyebrows said.
She didn't want to discuss her dreams or the moon or anything. She reached for the fourth jug.
"We'll, did you dream it?"
"My mother didn't come home last night," Ruby muttered.
"My mother didn't come home, our whole town is gone, there's a mountain over there that looks ready to fall on us, there's no electricity, no phone, no nothing, and there's only thirty people left in the entire world as far as we know, one of whom is going to die of a car crash soon because there's no hospital for her."
Once Ruby's last jug was empty, she stood up, turned and pointed. "And then there's that thing," she said, nodding at the hazy cocoon that had consumed half her apartment building.
"What's your point," asked Eyebrows.
"We've got bigger problems than bad dreams."
Eyebrows nodded. "Yeah, we've got problems, but we've got no explanation for what's happened to us. And if we're all having the same dreams..." he shrugged. "Maybe that can help explain what's going on."
Ruby screwed the lid back onto the last milk jug. Her shoulders slumped. "Rats."
"I dreamt about rats."
He frowned, his bushy eyebrows drawing together. "Huh."
Ruby gathered her milk jugs for another trip.
"You're wrong about one thing," Eyebrows said.
"There are other people out there," he explained. "The colonel said so. He said Zeke—he's the guy that lives in that house over on the other side of Pine—he's got one of those ham radios, and he's been finding all kinds of chatter out there."
"There's more people?" Ruby's breath caught..
Eyebrows nodded. "Most of the people he contacts don't speak English. The colonel said they don't speak any language he's ever heard, but he's talked to a guy in French and another two in English. We're not alone."
"Do they know what has happened to... everything?" Ruby asked.
Eyebrows shrugged. "The colonel said it was confusing. They talked like they were from places that didn't exist, made up names, made up countries. One guy said he's now in the middle of a swamp filled with... well, he described them as frog people."
"So, there's people out there, but they either speak gibberish or they're just plain insane." Ruby turned away.
"What's sane anymore?" He called after her. "This whole situation is insane."
She decided to walk the long way around her building. She'd avoid another encounter with Mai and she'd get a close-up look at the cocoon.
It hovered a few inches above the ground. She hadn't noticed that before. She wasn't the only one who saw the figure at the cocoon's center, but she appeared to be the only one willing to stand close to it.
The strip of grass under her feet was brittle yellow now. When she'd stood here yesterday, it had been vibrant green.
She studied the hazy mystery. Its edges still evaded definition, and its spherical shape was only discernable from a distance. The wall of the apartment that faced it appeared withered now. The pictures of Mrs. Luntz's grandchildren faded beyond discernment, yellowed and cracked. Much of the glass had shattered.
The churning wisps of gray withdrew within the sphere for a moment. The eyes of the man within glowed red. She couldn't tell whether he gazed at her or if it were only her imagination.
"Are you responsible for this?" Ruby asked the figure inside the cocoon. "Do you know where my mother is?"
A hand fell on her shoulder. "Miss Tanner."
She was more angry than startled. She spun around and found herself staring up at the colonel. Lt. Colonel Jeb Martin, retired, who lived in a first-floor apartment. He was tall, had a receding hairline and a granite, weather-beaten face that could still be gentle when necessary.
He shook his head. "It's best not to dwell on the cocoon right now. You should keep busy."
That had been the colonel's remedy for everyone. People needed to be busy. They needed to inventory the handful of buildings that remained of Rapid City, They needed to organize scouting parties. They needed to set up a perimeter in case there were enemies out there. And of course, they needed clean drinking water.
"What do you think it is?" Ruby asked.
The colonel shook his head. "I've got no data to make a guess. Joe Farson thinks we're in some kind of parallel world. That thing dragged us here."
Ruby pondered this. "That would mean Rapid City is still there—that the whole world we know is unchanged, and we've just moved."
"That's one possibility."
"Then what if we destroy this thing? Could we go back home if we blew it up?"
"Like I said, I have no data. You might be right. On the other hand, this cocoon may be our only way back to the rational world."
Ruby frowned. "It doesn't feel like a way back. It feels... dark."
The colonel nodded. "It does have a—"
One of the pictures of Mrs. Luntz's grandchildren fell, crashing onto the lip of what was once her apartment floor, then toppled over onto the ground below where its glass shattered. A section of wall toppled after it, the concrete falling free of the rebar and shattering on the ground beside the cocoon.
"I think it's getting bigger," Ruby said.
Her eyes moved from the cocoon back to the apartment building. She found Dennis there, standing at the edge of the second floor walkway, gazing down at the center of the hazy orb.
He didn't answer. He appeared to be whispering, nodding with reverent awe.