"This is all your fault," Mai complained for the dozenth time as they wandered through the woods. "If you'd stayed close to camp like you were told, we wouldn't be in this mess."
"You were as far from camp as I was," Ruby reminded her.
"Yeah, well, I've had survival training."
Ruby scoffed. "Really? Did your training include how to fight a wild pig-monster? You ran, just like me."
"I would have been smart enough not to go tromping around its nest. What did you do? Hug its puppies?"
It was useless to argue with Mai. Ruby stopped on the trail and took in their surroundings. They'd been searching for a way around the cliffs back to their own camp. After wandering for an hour, they'd lost the cliffs, the river, and any sense of direction. The woods were too thick to see which way the sun moved.
Mai took a look around, threw her arms up in frustration and sat on a rock, defeated.
"Why don't you use that survival training of yours to find us a way back to camp," Ruby said.
Mai flashed her a venomous glare. "I wouldn't have to if you hadn't pushed me off the cliff."
"I didn't touch you. You jumped after me."
"Who taught you survival training, anyway?"
"My grandfather," Mai said.
"Well, he did a lousy job."
Ruby took one more look around. There were no landmarks, no sign of other people, nothing. Her eyes fell to Mai. Mai's haughty facade had crumbled into a look of abject despair. She stared down at her hands.
Ruby regretted her angry tone, even if Mai had it coming.
"Maybe we should stay here," Ruby said. "The colonel will send someone to find us before long. If we stay put, we can't get any further from camp than we are now."
Mai scoffed. "Send who? I don't know if you've noticed, but we don't exactly have any Daniel Boone's in our gang of refugees. If they send a search party, the search party is gonna get as lost as we are."
She was right. Over the past few days, most of their party had done little more than complain and injure themselves. They were in sad shape. Yes, they had the old hunter Zeke and the colonel. They could handle themselves in the wilderness, but they had their hands full keeping the rest of the survivors alive.
Ruby took another look around. Beside her, a gnarled oak tree provided a low branch for easy climbing. The tree appeared to be taller than most. Ruby pulled herself up on the limb and climbed.
"What are you doing?" Mai groaned.
"Trying to get some perspective." Ruby pulled herself higher.
If she could reach the top, she might at least see the waterfall and get a sense of how far off they were. It took five minutes to find a way up to the highest branches.
"What do you see?" Mai called up to her.
"Nothing much yet," Ruby said. "But at least I can see the mountains, and..."
"What is it?"
Ruby stared up in wonder. "Holy crap."
Ruby didn't know how to describe what she saw. Were those mountains? She'd never seen anything like them. They were tall and narrow, like massive jagged skyscrapers of rock. Three spires of gnarled granite stretched up so high they faded into the blue of the sky.
Ruby described what she saw to Mai.
"That's great," Mai said. "But what about the waterfall and the cliff? "Do you see anything useful?"
Ruby didn't want to take her eyes off the rocky spires. Another "hey" from Mai startled her back to the task at hand. The tops of trees were a jagged carpet of green. The forest followed a sharp incline towards the mountains. There was no sign of the waterfall, but judging from the direction they'd come, she guessed where it might be.
"I think I see where we went wrong," Ruby called to Mai.
Mai didn't answer.
Ruby waited, an icy dread creeping up her arms. Had a wolfboar attacked Mai? She would screamed if that had happened. The wolfboars themselves were far too noisy during an attack to escape her notice.
"Mai?" Ruby called, a little fear creeping into her voice.
Maybe Mai had gone off to relieve herself. But she wouldn't have gone far. Ruby climbed down a few feet and scanned the area. She thought she saw movement below. She descended careful now, wishing she hadn't shouted. She still had a height advantage if a predator was down there. She'd get a good look at the situation and decide if she...
Her foot slipped on the next branch. Ruby lost her grip and plummeted. Leaves and narrow branches scraped up her sides as she flailed to find purchase on the tree. Her foot slammed sideways onto a broad limb. She almost collapsed sideways, but caught herself on another limb. She held herself that way for a moment, breathing hard. Leaves rained around her.
Ruby gazed around. She was on the bottom limb now. As she scanned around, her eyes fell on a stranger.
The woman was tall, thin, muscular, with gray skin and a narrow mohawk. Her elfin face jutted upwards. Her eyes were proud, her jaw set with determination.
"Uh, hello," Ruby said.
The woman raised a black tube to her lips. Ruby felt a sting in her shoulder. Her hands lost their grip on the branch, and a gray shroud of confusion close around her. Her last sensation was the ground rising to meet her.
* * *
Heavy wooden poles lined up before her. A mat of straw beneath her face, scratching her cheek. She pushed herself up, instantly awake.
"About time you woke up," Mai's voice said behind her.
Ruby took in the new surroundings. The wooden poles formed broken walls. She was in an outdoor jail, a thick thatched mat of briars and leaves above her. A straw mat covered the floor of the cell.
The jail stood in a broad clearing the size of a football field. A dozen or more wooden huts surrounded them, each suspended above the surface, resting upon tall tree stumps or built around living trees.
A handful of people moved about them, each with gray skin, dressed in clothing that looked both primitive and elaborate. The women wore what might have been leather, but of a variety so soft and refined, they wore it tied like sarongs, both as skirts or dresses, each painted with looping patterns of vivid color. The men were mostly shirtless, their hair long, drawn back into ponytails. They walked, they carried water, they labored on crafts and tools. All of them cast frequent glances at the two prisoners in their jail.
At last, Ruby turned to Mai. "How long have we been here?"
Mai shrugged and scowled. She turned away.
"What's wrong with you?" Ruby asked.
Mai didn't move.
"I suppose you think this is my fault?"
That earned Ruby a disdainful glance. Mai turned away again.
An hour passed. Ruby watched the gray-skinned people go about their labors. Two men carried a dead wolfboar into the tiny village, stopping beside a broad fire pit. Ruby spotted the red fletching of the arrow that protruded from the creature's flank. It was the same wolfboar that had chased Ruby and Mai over the cliff. Ruby watched them make preparations but turned away when the men began cutting the wolfboar down the middle of its belly.
Mai watched them sullenly. Ruby turned to her. "Who do you think saved us from the wolfboar? It wasn't any of these people."
Mai didn't look at her.
"I didn't see him. He certainly wasn't one of our group."
When Mai refused to speak, Ruby threw her hands up in surrender. She tucked her knees against her chest and stared away towards the trees. Her clothing was dryer, but everything that touched her skin was damp. She wanted to change into fresh clothing. She wanted a hot shower.
After a while, she fished in her jacket pockets. In one, she found her cell phone. She'd carried it with her always, occasionally turning it on to see the last text message from her mother. "Put on a pot of soup. I'll be home at 7. Love you Ruby Tuesday."
There were a few photos as well from a trip to Yellowstone a few months back. Her mother grinning with her in a selfie, her brother Dennis smiling beside Old Faithful. It was all she had left of her family since Dennis had refused to leave that wretched cocoon.
Ruby's phone was dead. The dip she'd taken in the pool by the waterfall had ruined it. Now she had nothing of her family. Tears threatened at the corners of her eyes. She put her hands to her face and sat quietly.
When the spell of grief had passed, she reached into her other pocket. There she found the box with the doll. She examined it. "Fixie" the box proclaimed.
"You carry a doll with you?" Mai said with a scoff. "Oh, Tanner, that's so pathetic."
Ruby ignored her. She studied the elaborate doll, its wings, its goggles, its tiny face. It must have been worth a fortune to some doll collector once. And on the doll's foot, she spotted what might have been a small toggle switch.
Curious, she opened the top of the box. Did it do something when you switched it on? Ruby imagined some Tickle Me Elmo action, or maybe it said something stupid. Math class is tough. Let's go shopping. Even if it once had a function, Ruby doubted it would work now. The dip in the pool most likely ruined it.
"Is this really the time to play with dolls?" Mai said.
"I thought you weren't talking to me."
"But this is so stupid."
"Shut up, Mai."
Ruby pulled out the doll. It was light, its surface solid and unyielding as steel, nothing like the molded plastic she'd expected. How could something so light do anything at all?
With a fingernail, she flipped the tiny switch on the leg. Nothing happened. She'd expected as much.
Tiny LEDs flashed in each of the doll's eyes. Ruby nearly dropped it. The doll made a noise like a tiny machine powering up. Its eyelids fluttered, Its wings burst into motion against Ruby's palm. The doll leapt into the air.
"Holy shit," Mai exclaimed.
The doll rose and darted around the cage like a hummingbird, taking stock of the straw, the bars, and everything around them. It paused for a moment over the useless cellphone that Ruby had laid on the straw. It abruptly zipped upward and hovered in front of Ruby for a moment. Its tiny face grinned with animation. It winked, saluted, and darted away through the bars out of sight.