Ruby's frozen fingers bled. The craggy rocks above looked like jagged knives of stone to her oxygen deprived mind. Icy wind burned her face as she climbed.
She wouldn't last much longer. The cold would leech the life out of her if the lack of oxygen didn't finish her first. When she had landed on this pinnacle of rock high above the land, the cold thin air had been uncomfortable. Now it was excruciating, and she had to move.
She could have taken her chances, jumping off the edge of the pinnacle into the vast darkness below, hoping her parachute would carry her somewhere safe. But there was light above on a higher plateau at the top of the pinnacle. The rim of the cliff above glowed with white promise. Could she find safety there? Maybe there was someone up there who could help. Shivering, she had shoved the parachute in a wad back into its pack, slung it on her shoulder and started her climb. Now she wasn't sure she would live to reach the top.
She probed the rocky wall with her fingers, looking for a place to grip. Once she found a firm handhold, she pulled herself upwards. The rock gave way, crumbling aside. She slipped and nearly fell backwards, catching herself at the last second on another ledge only a centimeter wide. Ruby groaned, pressed her chattering teeth together and drew herself up again. She found firm footholds and paused, breathing heavy, nearly hyperventilating. The air gave her no strength.
I should have let the dragon take me , she thought. Of all the places to send me, Skylar, why this horrible place?
She was dying. Ruby closed her eyes and tucked her head down. She could rest. Go to sleep. It would be so easy.
"No," she demanded. Her voice felt far away, but she mustered the strength to draw herself upwards once more.
Above, light glinted off the rocky ledge. That was the top. If she reached that ledge, she'd see what lay beyond.
Ruby rose three more feet, the top now just inches from her fingertips. She reached upwards, and her fingers caught white light. She wiggled them to make sure it wasn't an illusion. To her surprise, her fingers felt warmth there. Was she delirious? Had the sting of frostbite—
A head appeared above her, silhouetted by the light. Ruby flinched back, losing her only grip on the rock face. Weightless fear bloomed in her chest as she toppled backwards. As a hand gripped around her wrist, Ruby's eyes grew dim and consciousness shrank back into an inky void.
* * *
Warmth. It was the first sensation she recognized. Ruby lay in a warm cocoon, her arms tucked against her chest, her legs stretched out in comfort.
She didn't want to open her eyes. She wanted to remain in that warm embrace forever.
Tic tic tic tic . It came from somewhere nearby. Her eyes fluttered open to find a plastic alarm clock on a nightstand.
For a tantalizing moment, she thought she was back in her own bed, sleeping in on a Saturday morning in Rapid City, not a care in the world. Never mind that the alarm clock and the nightstand were unfamiliar. It was too delicious a thought not to embrace. She sighed.
Ruby rolled to her right side. On the wall hung a poster. A man in a broad brimmed hat lurching forward screamed into a microphone, a guitar player with a wild white mane standing behind him, his head thrown back in ecstasy. The caption on the poster read Bo Mulligan and the Empty Gestures .
She'd never heard of the band. She sat up and scanned the room. A messy bedroom, tangled clothes strewn across the floor—men's clothes. A pair of boxer shorts hung from an open dresser drawer. Ruby sat up and found herself wearing an enormous blue t-shirt. Her own clothing was nowhere in sight.
She tugged the blankets up to her neck and cradled them there. "Hello?"
There was no reply. The door was open, but she heard nothing from outside. The space beyond the door looked cavernous.
Ruby slid out of bed, careful to keep the T-shirt down to her knees. She didn't want to think about how she'd gotten this way. She tiptoed around the piles of clothes and stopped at the door. Outside on the floor, she found her sneakers and the parachute pack, but the rest of her clothes weren't there.
She couldn't make sense of the room beyond. It was big and round and white, the ceiling a broad dome, its apex at least thirty feet above her, with a wide slot running along its center. Around the perimeter of the room were cabinets and doors. A bathroom lay to her left, followed by a kitchen area. A coffee machine burbled on the counter.
Suspended above her, dominating the center of the room was a huge column of white with metallic fittings and gadgets along its length. It took Ruby a moment to realize what it was—a telescope. She was in an observatory. A platform beneath the telescope held a desk, a bank of controls and a wide screen suspended above. A giant of a man sat facing away from her, his rounded shoulders slumped over a laptop, typing, his messy black hair obscuring his face.
"Hello," Ruby said.
The man ignored her.
"Excuse me," Ruby said.
"Did you take my clothes? Hey!"
The man spun around, startled. "What? Oh!" He stood. "You're—you're that girl."
He was younger than she'd expected. Around college age, but balding a bit at the front. "Yeah, um, did you sleep well? You've been out half the day."
"Where are my clothes?"
She plucked at the front of the T-shirt. "This is not mine. Where are my clothes?"
"Uh, oh, yeah. They're in the dryer. They should be good to go now, but you'll probably want a shower before—"
"You had no right to undress me. Who the hell do you think you are?"
"Wait, what? Oh, me?"
"I..." He scratched at his cheek. "I didn't do that. That was Hera."
"Hera," she repeated.
"I didn't touch you," he said, raising a hand. "Swear to God. I slept on the couch last night."
She had no reason to believe him, but he seemed surprised to see her. As her indignation evaporated, she felt exposed beneath his confused gaze. "Where... um. Where is the dryer?"
Before he could speak, a door burst open and daylight streamed in. A young woman in a green cape stood in the doorway, her clothing colorful, her hair done in dreadlocks tied together at the crown of her head. A thin black implant hung beneath her left eye, a red LED shining at its center. She spotted Ruby.
" Oh, sei ," she cried. She ran towards Ruby, stopped in front of her and fell to her knees. She raised her hands in a gesture of supplication. The girl spoke a string of unintelligible gibberish, then fell forward, bowing, her hands pressed against the floor before her.
"That's Hera," the big man said.