An hour after the colonel left, the warrior chief Devick motioned for Ruby to follow her back down into the village. They passed the pen of the reptilian creatures Ruby had seen earlier, birdlike, but green-brown with dinosaur faces. She wondered if Devick would make her care for the animals. Instead, they continued up the hill. To Ruby's dismay, they headed straight for the practice field where Ruby had watched the warriors perform their morning fight rituals.
"I'm not much of a fighter," Ruby said.
Devick said nothing. She stopped at a straw mat, sat cross-legged, and motioned for Ruby to do the same.
"More meditation? Are you kidding me?"
Devick motioned again. The fixed look in her eyes made it clear she would not tolerate disobedience.
The following hour involved Ruby clumsily following Devick's example. After a few minutes of silence, Devick began breathing rapidly. As Ruby mimicked her, Devick spoke a few words, pointing at Ruby's stomach, then at her own. Devick's stomach pumped vigorously as she breathed. Ruby tried to follow.
Next, Devick led her in a series of stretches that would have broken a contortionist's back. Devick planted her forearms on the mat while her legs dangled up over her head. She performed side stretches that would have folded Ruby in half if she could do them. Ruby felt like a clumsy toddler next to this warrior.
Devick drew a spear from a tall basket and tossed it to Ruby. Ruby fumbled it. Devick rolled her eyes and motioned for her to pick it up.
Ruby held the spear, testing its weight. It was heavy wood with a head of what looked like chipped granite. She almost didn't see Devick as she ran at Ruby. Ruby raised the spear. Devick dodged around it with ease and swung her arm around, stopping with her thumb poised a millimeter from Ruby's left eyeball. Ruby flinched back and raised the spear.
Training was grueling. Devick showed Ruby moves, then attacked while Ruby practiced her defense. After an hour, Devick called for a boy of about twelve to continue the practice. Devick left, leaving Ruby to learn.
An hour into the training, the Fixie returned. It zipped out of the trees and stopped in front of Ruby. This distraction would have left her open to an oncoming attack from the boy, but at the sight of the Fixie, he cried out and ran.
"Hello, Fixie," Ruby said, dropping the spear and rubbing her arm.
The Fixie stood at attention mid-air and gave an exaggerated salute.
"Where have you been?"
The Fixie laid two hands aside her cheek and pantomimed sleep.
"Sleep, huh? How does that work for you? Were you recharging your batteries?"
The Fixie nodded.
"How long do you have to sleep? How long can you stay awake?"
The Fixie held out her hands, moving them up and down opposite each other as if she were a scale.
Ruby considered this. "It depends on how much you have to do, right?"
The Fixie nodded again.
"So, what do I call you?"
The Fixie shrugged. She pointed at Ruby.
"I have to name you?"
The Fixie nodded vigorously.
"Does that mean I'm your boss?"
The Fixie shrugged and nodded.
"Well, I guess I'll call you 'Fixie.'"
The Fixie's face screwed up with exasperation.
"No? I guess not. I wouldn't want to be called 'human'. Could I call you... I don't know. Skylar."
The Fixie raised an eyebrow.
"Well, you fly around. Skylar has 'Sky' in it. I think it works."
The Fixie considered this. She nodded.
"So, Skylar, I'm afraid I didn't read the owner's manual on Fixies. Is there anything I need to do to keep you... um... operational?"
Skylar shook her head. She pulled a screwdriver from her pocket and pointed it at her own head.
"You fix yourself."
"Well, I don't have anything else for you to fix right now. I'm sure I'll need help once we get back to my own camp. Could you stay close in case I need you?"
A man approached, followed closely by the boy who had been sparring with Ruby. He spotted the Fixie and froze.
Ruby leaned closer to Skylar. "And try to stay out of sight. You frighten the natives."
* * *
The man continued training Ruby. Spear fighting, hand to hand combat, and a slow meditative dance that Ruby guessed was the Vayna version of Tai Chi. Ruby clumsily followed all his moves. By mid-afternoon, she was exhausted. When he left her, she laid down on the mat and fell asleep.
When she awoke, the sky had the golden glow of early evening. No one was nearby. She waited, wondering if they had more in store for her. Distant voices conversed down towards the fire pit.
Her whole body was stiff. Her arms felt like limp noodles. She shuffled down the hill, uncertain if she'd make it all the way to the others.
At the fire pit, the villagers ate from long platters. More meat, vegetables and a fruit that looked like pink apples. They stole glances at Ruby as she approached.
Professor Gordon jumped up from a log. "Miss Tanner, I see you've survived your training for the day."
"Barely," she grumbled.
The meal was simple and delicious. As they ate, the professor quizzed Ruby on all she knew about the changes in the world. He was most interested in the cocoon that had appeared where half of her apartment building once stood. "I should like to see this phenomenon," he said. "It sounds extraordinary."
"It's a little scary," Ruby said. "Most of my neighbors wouldn't go anywhere near it."
"I was too curious to be afraid. And my brother... well, he's still back there. He refused to leave."
She glanced up at the darkening sky. Once again, she saw the distant shape of a huge winged creature. "Do you see that?" she asked, pointing.
The professor nodded. "Most disconcerting. They've been up there every evening and early each morning for the past week."
"According to a friend of mine, they're dangerous. They abduct people in the night."
Professor Gordon looked horrified. "Abductions?"
"That's what I've been told."
"I should discuss this with Devick immediately," he said, jumping to his feet. He wandered off into the dark to find the warrior chief.
Soon after, a young woman stood up next to a barrel-sized drum beside the fire and began a strong, thrumming beat with her fist. Ruby knew what came next. Others soon took up their own instruments and added their own parts to the rhythm.
I am not going to jump up and act like an idiot, she told herself. She had control. She'd keep her seat and watch the others.
The rhythm this evening was different than the night before. The beat was faster and more complex. A chant rose up, those on one side of the fire calling "Aye—aye-eee-aye" while those on the other side of the fire answering with a " Cha-ha-chacka-chacka-cha-ha ha. "
Ruby didn't realize she herself had joined in the chant until she found that she was standing, swaying to the rhythm. She slammed her mouth shut, sat and folded her arms. She tried to ignore the growing cacophony around her.
The woman to the left of Ruby stomped her foot. She stood, swaying like a tree in a gentle breeze, her arms moving softly, then with increasing vigor. At first glance, this soft motion contradicted the vigorous rhythm, but as Ruby watched, she recognized the harmony. The woman's movement answered a question posited by the song. The firelight flickered across the woman's body, its own rhythm becoming a part of the overall song.
Others stood and danced. Ruby felt the rhythm in her bones. It channeled up into her core, filling her with light and colors. It pushed through her muscles, breaking down their resistance to its spell. Soon, Ruby found herself powerless against the rhythm. She rose like a flower pushing up to the sun, her arms were blooming petals. She swayed, she swirled, she exploded like fireworks. She felt no fear of making a fool of herself. Through the rhythm, she connected with everyone around her. They were all one now—a single, complex dance. They were more motion than material.
One woman across the fire leaped into the air, moving like a graceful marionette. She leapt higher and higher, side to side. Finally, she leapt at least six feet in the air and stayed there. This might have been a shock to Ruby a minute before. Now it was a natural part of the flow. Ruby's own feet left the ground. She continued to sway as she ascended, the firelight tickling her arms and legs as she moved.
The woman across the fire soared ten feet in the air, circling above the rest. She gave an exultant cheer. Those chanting below her cheered back. The rhythm decayed and then redoubled, the energy rising through this communal celebration.
At the apex of her ascent, the floating woman screamed. A huge creature lurched out of the darkness, its wings flapping. Its claws reached out and snatched the woman out of the air.
The dragon riders had come.