(The story so far: Alice, a lowly insurance agent, finds herself on a highly forbidden trip through an uncharted desert with Jack (captain), Arbuck (gunslinger) and Marie (cook). Out of nowhere, Marie starts screaming…)
The floating rock
Everyone stopped in their tracks and turned towards Marie. She was standing between them, third in line. Arbuck, who was sleepwalking, bumped into her. Disgusted by the smell coming from his mouth, Marie pushed him away from her.
Alice immediately was on her toes and scouted the horizon, but there was nothing to be seen. “What is it?”, she asked.
“The sun is gone!”, Marie shrieked.
Jack immediately looked up. Alice gave Marie a closer look. The cook had goose bumps on her normally immaculate skin. That was because she was standing in a shadow. A very local shadow, mostly round, and about three meters in diameter.
“It’s just a cloud, Marie”, Alice said. “Just step out from under it.”
“I can’t!”, Marie cried. Alice and Jack eyed her critically.
“Fine. See for yourself.” She took a step forward. For a split second, the scorching sun shone on her skin; then, the shadow gave chase and repositioned itself firmly on top of Marie.
Alice and Jack would have loved a bit of cooling down – after all, they had had nothing but sun for days on end now. Especially Alice, who had freckles and flaming red hair, would have welcomed a chance to stop looking like a boiled lobster.
Jack looked at Marie with a frown. He thought for a second. Then a grin appeared onto his face. “A domesticated shadow. Cool!” He rushed forward, jumped into the shadow and landed into the cool sand next to Marie. Immediately, the shadow pulled its dark tip away from Jack. Jack groaned angrily, grabbed hold of Arbuck and leaned the snoring gunslinger into the circle. It responded just the same: by sticking closely to Marie. It appeared the shadow only wanted to cover her.
Jack put Arbuck back into the sand and leaned into him, lost in thought.
“I’ll never get a tan now”, Marie said disappointedly. This was nonsense, of course, as she had been getting nothing but gorgeously tanned for three days now.
Alice, meanwhile, covered her forehead to block out most of the sun and looked up. She stared at the strange shape floating in the sky, then back down, blinked to adjust to the change in sunlight, and looked at the crew. “Oddly thick cloud.”
Jack frowned and looked up, leaning all the way backwards into Arbuck. His mouth fell ajar like a little kid looking for adventure. “That’s not a cloud.”
“Whatever it is, get it off of me”, said Marie.
“We can’t”, said Jack. “Because it’s a floating rock.”
Alice shook her head. “Rocks don’t float, Jack.”
“They do here!”, Jack exclaimed.
Alice rolled her eyes. They’d had this discussion countless times. From day one, Jack had been convinced magical powers were at work in the desert. And as much as Alice tried to convince him there was no such thing as magic, especially not desert magic, it never quite stuck.
“I don’t care if it floats or not”, Marie groaned. “I just want my sun back. Hey Arbuck, can you shoot it down?”
Arbuck responded with a loud snore.
“Useless as always”, said Marie.
“A flying rock, how about that…” Jack had a boyish grin on his face. He leaned further back into Arbuck. The gunslinger was now standing in the sand leaned back at a forty-five degree angle.
“Rocks don’t fly, either.”
“You can’t be sure”, said Jack.
“You can be quite sure”, Alice said.
Jack pushed Arbuck as far back as his drunk body would allow. Alice was just about to ask why he didn’t just tip over when she noticed something around his feet. It was a wooden frame.
“What’s that?”, she asked.
Jack let go. Arbuck toppled forwards like a domino block and crashed face-first into the sand. His feet flung upwards and dragged the frame from the sand. Only it wasn’t a frame.
It was a ladder.
As Alice pulled the snoring cowboy out of the sand and placed him neatly in an upright position, Jack started pulling the ladder out of the sand. The ladder rose; first, above his head, then twice the size and then three times his length, with no end in sight. After a few seconds Marie jumped in to help. Together, they pulled and pulled for at least three minutes, until finally, they could hear a silent thud. The top spokes had bumped into the flying rock, at least six hundred feet up in the air. Marie stepped aside again; Jack got out into the sun. Swaying left and right trying to balance the never-ending ladder, he raised it a final couple of meters higher and then leaned it against the floating rock.
Alice pointed at the base of the ladder, which was still sticking deep inside the sand. “How long do you think it goes on for?”
Jack shrugged. “Does it matter? It’s high enough.” He placed his right hand on one of the spokes. Immediately, Alice grabbed the hand and pulled it off. “Hold on. What are you doing?”
“There’s a floating rock in the sky and we got a magical endless ladder”, Jack shrugged.
“Rocks don’t float. But whatever it is, it could be dangerous”, Alice said.
“Relax”, Jack answered and started climbing. Alice watched, groaning as the captain disappeared up into the air and into the sunlight. “Well then, I guess we wait”, she said, but as her eyes veered back down to the base of the ladder, she could see Arbuck climbing the ladder as well.
“Now you’re awake!?”, she cried.
Arbuck cocked his head over towards her. His eyes were firmly closed. A line of drool dripped from the corner of his mouth. He was still sleepwalking – only vertically.
Marie wanted to step towards the ladder, but Alice stopped her. “No! You stay down.”
“Why? It’s my rock.”
Alice shook her head. “If that ladder moves one inch, it’ll tip.”
“Oh”, Marie admitted, “Good point.”
Alice grabbed hold of the ladder and pulled herself upwards. “Stay here.”
“In the shadow”, Marie grumbled.
“Might do you good”, said Alice. “I think I see some sunburn on your shoulder.”
Marie shrieking in the background, Alice started climbing.