“Mavisford 5 to Mavisford 6. Do you copy? Send reinforcements immediately.”
This was the eighth attempt – it seemed to be of no use. She put the receiver back in its holster and returned her gaze to the road. The recon vehicle was racing toward forward operations base. As Sergeant Fletcher leaned forward, watching the environment with one eye, she wiped a single tear from the other. With no one around to judge her and alone with her thoughts, her inhibition started to wane.
Due to the mountainous terrain, the road was not always level and would descend valleys and climb cliff sides. As the recon vehicle climbed one such cliff side, something caught Sergeant Fletcher’s eye. Off to her right, down in the valley – among an ocean of conifers, there was a clearing, round in shape. Another “disturbance!” It was much wider than the one that engulfed her squad but it looked very different. It was darker, much darker – as if she was looking straight through all the world’s ground and atmosphere – straight into outer space itself. As she got to the apex of the hill, an object – a spaceship – appeared from the clearing.
At this, Sergeant Fletcher let out a gasp. The road twisted around, down the other side of the hill. She turned her head back quickly for another look at the object, but it was out of view. When she turned her head back to the road, she gasped again.
The road she was bounding down was no longer dirt, but paved – she was somehow driving not down an access road in a coniferous mountain, but down an offramp in a desolate downtown area. Where there were once trees, lining the road, stood skyscrapers and street lights. With the midday sky in her side-view mirror, ahead of her – and above her – it was a cloudy night sky; but the neon lights of the town were bright – bright enough to make certain parts of the environment look like day.
She slammed on the breaks. She had to. Not just because of her desire to get out of what she assumed to be a “disturbance”, but also because the curve of the offramp was too severe. The vehicle lurched as the wheels gripped the road, but it was still going too fast. Sergeant Fletcher whipped the steering column to the left and the vehicle responded – but it wasn’t quick enough. The broad side of the recon vehicle hit the guard rail, broke through it, and continued into the air. It flipped as it fell and landed upside-down on the street below, about a ten-foot drop.
Sergeant Fletcher was strapped in by her waist and shoulder. A little slow to understand what had happened, her ears were ringing. She had hit her head against the left interior of the vehicle but luckily, her helmet did its job. She looked down, which was usually up, placed a hand on the ceiling for support and unlatched her belt. She crumpled to the ground, a small amount of blood dripping on to her hand. It came from her nose. Helmets can’t protect everything.
She started to assess the situation, specifically the interior of the vehicle. She cursed as she realized she could not flip it back. Then she remembered what was waiting outside – the disturbance. Panic struck as she pictured the shrinking patch of trees. She needed to flee and quick. She grabbed her rifle and a backpack and climbed out of the vehicle.
She didn’t take time to look around at the grimy environment – she didn’t think she’d have time. She had to sprint for at least a block – maybe two – in order to get onto the offramp – then race up it to get back to the disturbance that would take her back home – back to where she belonged.
So, she didn’t have time to look around. But if she did have time, or if she had stopped to take the time to look, she may have seen him standing in the alley across the street – watching her. As she sprinted by him, he stealthily followed, hiding among the shadows. Two swords were strapped to his back and pistols at his hips. Perhaps, if she took a second to scan the environment, she would have seen the neon lights reflecting off the studs of his leather jacket.
Sergeant Fletcher raced down the trash strewn sidewalk, a brick wall to her left supported the offramp as it slowly descended toward her level. On her right, across the street, the buildings were tall, concrete, and derelict. The traffic lights did not work at the first intersection she passed. She continued forward but stole a glance down the street she crossed. The street was long, polluted with dingy offices and apartments for at least a mile. However, what caught her attention was a small gang of motorcyclists. They had neon lights in the undercarriage – shining the concrete below in green. She returned her focus and maintained her quick pace. She needed to get to the disturbance. There was no way of telling how small it had become at this point. She picked up her pace. It was the only exit to her world and she could not imagine existing without it.
That’s when she heard them – engines roaring like jets. She pushed herself even further. There was still another block to go before she could enter the ramp. Two motorcycles passed her with a roar and she thought she may have been done for. But no. Not yet. The riders continued but stopped at the intersection ahead and slowly positioned themselves. A trap? But that was only a minor concern as a third motorcyclist had slowed down enough to ride next to her, keeping pace.
“Hey there, bunny!” called the male rider. There was sinister in his voice. “You a little lost?”
Sergeant Fletcher did not like being called “bunny.” She especially did not like the way that he said it. She assumed that he was a lowlife and she wanted to tell him so. But the fear of a closing clearing was enough to contain her rage. She forced herself to ignore him as she maintained her top speed. She could sense that another motorcyclist was directly behind her. Her ears were red-hot and she felt exposed in her green garb and helmet, sticking out among these freaks and outnumbered at least four-to-one; all of them mounted, to-boot. She wouldn’t go down without a fight but the odds were against her. “Just keep running. Get as close as you can,” she thought.
“I said, ‘Hey there, bunny!’” the parallel rider said again. “Hello! Are you deaf, lady?”
As he said that, he veered closer to her, his face near hers. The next intersection was about fifteen or twenty paces away at this point but the forth-coming trap was complete. The motorcyclists ahead had parked, wheel-to-bumper from the corner wall, forming a chain. She’d have to go out into the street to get around them and by then it would be too late, she’d be boxed in. Her plan to “get as close to the disturbance as possible” cost her valuable breathing room – she needed range. The plan had to be aborted fast but she was already surrounded by a wall and two enemies. She would need to make her own breathing room.
That’s when Sergeant Fletcher spun around and started running backwards. As she did, she flipped her rifle off safe and engaged the motorcyclist behind her. Taking several bullets in the chest and head, the rider fell off the bike and laid motionless. As the parallel rider started hollering and engines started roaring, Sergeant Fletcher ran forward, toward the intersection she had passed – where the gang had originated.
Before she could get there, she was being shot at – laser rounds whizzed by her head. She zigged and zagged on her way to the intersection. Once she got to the corner, she would use the building as cover, kneel and engage the enemies as they came. But that didn’t happen. Instead, she was pushed to the ground by something heavy against her back. Luckily her pack had absorbed some of the blow but she was winded. As she fell, she could see the assailant as they continued down the road on the motorcycle. He had a club.
She tried to get up but stumbled. She felt pressure on her upper arm. Someone pulled her to her feet. With her free hand she unsheathed the combat knife at her waist and swung toward the enemy’s gut. The knife struck flesh. It wasn’t as good of a connection as she would have liked, but under these circumstances, it was better than nothing. On the other hand, it turned out that her victim wasn’t one of the motorcyclists – it was a stranger with dark skin and silver hair. He had two swords at his back.
The stabbed man, let go of her arm. He winced but his focus was not on her or the wound – he had an arm extended toward the oncoming bikers. This hand appeared metallic and held a laser pistol which he used to blast at one of the two riders but missed. Without hesitation, Sergeant Fletcher followed suit and fired at them with her rifle. Both riders fell from their vehicles.
“Who are you?” Sergeant Fletcher managed.
“Doesn’t matter. Go!” said the stranger. He turned to face the clubbed rider that knocked Sergeant Fletcher to the ground. But the motorcyclist had turned a corner off in the distance and was out of sight. “Go! I’ll take out these freaks!”
Sergeant Fletcher did not wait. The clearing may already be closed and then what would happen? Would she be stuck here in this dark place that smelled of motor oil and trash? And then what? The hierarchy was clearly not upheld here. The hierarchy would have kept this place in shape. No. Best not to think of that right now. Best only to run.
But then she heard the engines – not just from one bike, but several – in the distance. She turned to see that a much larger motorcycle gang was entering the street. Their speed would outmatch hers by the time she got up the ramp – if she didn’t get shot first. She needed another way, a faster way. She needed speed! She ran to the nearest motorcycle, heart pumping with adrenaline. She lifted it and sat upon it but the technology was unfamiliar – dials and displays had bizarre shapes – and her heart sank. She looked up and saw the stranger – who stood facing the oncoming gang.
“Come on!” Sergeant Fletcher yelled.
He turned toward her, eyes wide.
“Can you drive this thing?” she asked, backing up in the seat.
“Yeah. Yes, I can!” he said, enthusiastically. He gritted his teeth and jogged to her.
“I’ll take you to the portal!” he said as he mounted the motorcycle.
Sergeant Fletcher paused at this word, “portal” but was pulled back to reality when he revved the engine. Laser rounds flew past them from the approaching gang.
“Hold on!” said the stranger. Sergeant Fletcher grabbed the man by his waist, feeling him wince as she did. Her hand was soaked in wetness, which turned out to be blood from the stab wound.
“Sorry,” she said though if he responded she did not hear as they sped away from the oncoming enemy. Once they made it to the intersection, Sergeant Fletcher saw more gang members coming from the right – they were closer and gaining speed. It wouldn’t be long before they caught up but the stranger was slowing down. This wasn’t good. Could it be? Is it possible that he was with them the whole time? That he was delivering her to them? If so then she’d only have moments to jump off and run. But the stranger had only slowed the motorcycle down to maneuver around the corner of the offramp. Laser rounds whizzed by them as he gunned it up the offramp.
Sergeant Fletcher couldn’t see the full disturbance from where she was, though she now realized “portal” was a better word since it would take her home. Even though she couldn’t see trees or mountains from where she sat, she could see a small patch of blue sky among the dark clouds. It was a patch of sky she recognized and her heart filled with hope. To her left, on the other side of the wall that separated the ramp from the street, the original motorcycle gang, 20 members strong, was driving the opposite way, to join the additional pursuing motorcyclists who started to enter the offramp.
Sergeant Fletcher looked at the broken guard rail as they sped past by the scene of her accident, riding over her skid marks that curved around the severe bend. They were so close but trees were not visible as the portal was now only as wide as the road itself. In that circular patch was dirt road, but beyond it was more concrete pavement which spread to a desolate highway that had caved in about a quarter mile ahead. From this direction, at this height, she could see that the city went on for miles and miles – a whole world of grime and grit. The motorcyclists were now speeding up the offramp now but it seemed that they’d only be an issue if they weren’t able to make it through the portal. And if not? Then what? Would they turn around and fire? Would they jump the chasm? Would they stop and try to climb down on foot? She decided not to worry about that yet and allowed herself to close her eyes and hold on to the stranger tight.
She didn’t see it but she felt it. She could smell it. The concrete turned to dirt and the motorcycle handled differently. The air was more breathable. She opened her eyes to sunlight and conifers and dirt. She whipped her head back – just in time to see the patch of night sky close behind them. The portal had closed. She patted the stranger in the back quickly and he brought the vehicle to a stop.
“The portal closed!” Sergeant Fletcher said.
The stranger walked the vehicle backwards and turned toward the direction they had come. He motioned to get off and he parked the motorcycle. Together they walked to the apex of the hill, weapons drawn – but the only thing on the other side was the dirt road descending a hill.
“Well,” he said. “That’s that I guess.”
“I’m sorry,” Sergeant Fletcher replied, though she wasn’t sure if she was as sorry about his loss vs. bringing him – this stranger who was outside the hierarchy – into her world.
“I’m not exactly sure you should be,” he said. “Unless you mean for stabbing me.”
“Ugh,” she replied. Now he’s on about that? Of course, she stabbed him – it made sense to do so. Best to transition into a different subject. “Yeah. Sorry about that. But your home?”
“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “That place I left – that home – is a cesspool. You’ve only seen part of it, right? It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Sergeant Fletcher could not agree more – it was indeed a cesspool – and if this stranger could see that his world was a mess then maybe he believed in it after all, believed in the hierarchy.
“It’s nothing like this place,” he said as he looked around at her world. “Where are we, anyway?”
She suddenly felt pride for two things: her world and the hierarchy. If he was a man of structure, then this was a chance to appeal to that – and test him.
“This is Access Road 3 which runs parallel to the northern border of the Mavisford territory,” said Sergeant Fletcher, as she stiffened up. The stranger didn’t respond at all. She wasn’t sure what reaction she would have preferred but felt like he wasn’t going to give it. She loosened up a little bit, cautiously watching him. “We’re on the colony planet Ryduel in the L75 star system.”
“Oh. Okay. Sounds lovely, um?” the stranger was fishing for her name. There was a hint of slime to it – almost like the words were dipped in whatever it was that made that motor oil and trash smell from his world. Best to respond with hierarchy-speak.
“Sergeant Fletcher, of Mavisford command, Patrol 65,” she said as she stiffened again. “My squad and I patrol these parts-”
She meant to say more but stopped suddenly, remembering the metal bull and the clearing – it all seemed so long ago – almost like a dream – but it had only been a few hours and this stranger from an alien world, like the bull, was here as proof that it had indeed not been a dream.
“Well, my name is Tytanis,” said the man as he offered his hand for a shake. “Part time mercenary, part time vigilante.”
Sergeant Fletcher cringed at the words “mercenary” and “vigilante.” This man was clearly not of the hierarchy. How foolish of her to have considered the idea. She looked at his extended hand with disdain, but then she saw past it – at the dark blood from her stabbing. Her face relaxed and she took his hand.
“Thank you for your help back there,” she said, meeting his eyes with her own. Perhaps she’ll need to dispatch him later but for now, he deserved a thank you.
“Think nothing of it,” he said. “You see, that gang is a rival of mine. They’re nothing but dregs who terrorize good people. I’m sure if your enemy were harassing someone, you’d come to their aid, too.”
She thought of the filthy Noiks and considered them terrorizing this tall dark man before her – with his silver hair and spiked leather jacket. Despite his odd appearance, she affirmed that any enemy of the Noiks would indeed be and ally to her. Perhaps he has his own hierarchy, one that might even parallel hers.
“Besides” Tytanis said. “You helped me, too. Didn’t expect you to come back like that. Grateful you did.”
Sergeant Fletcher nodded, and straightened up. Perhaps his hierarchy is a product of the world he was in. The man didn’t have a choice where he was born, after all. But now here he is, in her world – all because of that portal.
“You called that disturbance a portal,” she blurted out. “How did you learn about these things?”
“Oh – yeah. Portals,” Tytanis replied. “Well, they started popping up throughout the city, – well, um on my world? I guess? I’ve seen at least two of those portals before you – uh – fell out of yours.”
He chuckled at this. Sergeant Fletcher just stared, non-blinking.
“This is the first time I had gone through one myself. Each of the ones I’d seen been different – different locations in the city and leading to different worlds – one of them opened to reveal what looked like ‘webs from hell’. A city block had gone from ‘buildings and streets’ to ‘trees and cobwebs’ and these creepy spider people came out and scattered before the portal disappeared. I didn’t bother to investigate that one any further.”
Sergeant Fletcher looked from Tytanis and down the road to the western horizon.
“My squad is trapped in one of those portals,” she said, morose.
“Webs from hell?” he asked.
“No! Not there,” she barked, but she was quick to ease up. “It’s like this world, kind of. But they are in danger. Do these portals open up again?”
“I haven’t seen it happen yet but I suppose it’s possible?” he pondered. “They’ve only just started happening today – at least where I’m from. Maybe they won’t ever appear again? Maybe this is the new normal? I don’t know.”
“Wait!” she snapped. She turned to him and approached. “When you said ‘investigate,’ I assumed you knew more, that these originated with tech from your world – isn’t that how you found me?”
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to give the wrong idea,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s right to say I found you. I think no matter which direction I ended up looking, one of them portals was bound to pop up. I just happened upon yours just as you happened upon mine.”
They paused for a second and all became quiet. Sergeant Fletcher looked off to the side of the road. What good was this stranger now? He didn’t know anything more to help her get her squad back and he was a lousy shot. He was quickly becoming an invalid resource. The silence was broken by a sonic boom. Military aircraft flew overhead from the direction of F.O.B. toward the direction of the clearing.
“What is it?” Tytanis asked.
“M-Dart Fours!” Sergeant Fletcher replied. “Reinforcements!”
She started to jog back to the motorcycle and then remembered the alien technology. As a resource, Tytanis had become important again.
“They got my call!” she yelled. “Come on!”
“Where are we going?” Tytanis replied as he trotted behind her.
“To rescue my squad!” she replied, mounting the back of the motorcycle. She looked up at him expectantly. Tytanis paused about 5 paces from her. He was leaning forward as if he might move, but a look of concern flooded his face. He remained like that, then rocked back on his feet, standing at ease. Sergeant Fletcher stared at him as the world became quiet again. What is he doing?
“What?” Sergeant Fletcher asked.
“It’s just. Hmm,” Tytanis started. “How do I put this? Let’s say I go with you, and we rescue your squad? What happens to me?”
“To you?” Sergeant Fletcher asked. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Tytanis paused, face now in an awkward grimace. Sergeant Fletcher dismounted the motorcycle. He was probably worried about being exterminated, this stranger from outside the hierarchy. Perhaps that’s the kind of behavior that would be expected in his world?
“Do you think we are going to turn on you?” she asked.
“No,” Tytanis laughed. “I mean, maybe? I have no idea what to expect.”
This was eating up precious time and who did he think he was anyway? What choice would he really have if she put a gun to his head? He wasn’t exactly battle-worthy. He just jumped through a portal and now he’s worried about consequences?
“You just callously drove into a portal that led to a completely foreign world,” started Sergeant Fletcher, incredulously, “Maybe even a different universe!”
“So?” he replied.
“So now you suddenly care about your future?” she asked.
“Hey – this is all happening a little fast is all,” Tytanis replied. “This is the first I’ve had a moment to breathe. I’m kind of processing things here.”
“Now? Why now?” Sergeant Fletcher asked. She threw her arms in the air. There was no response. She thought of the squad and the ease of their followership. She imagined a portal to them was open right now. She needed him to drive her out and she needed to think of something quick. Hierarchy. What would the hierarchy permit?
“How about this?” she said, standing up straight, with an arm bent into the air. “I hereby deem you an ‘ally to the cause’. The Mavisford Command officially welcomes a treaty with you.”
Tytanis stared at her for a moment then his eyes trailed off to the horizon, hesitant. She waited but it was obvious he was not interested and she loosened up with a sigh. She thought of how she had marched her squad into the clearing, how they obeyed her efficient words – and a surprising chill ran down her spine. Hierarchy wouldn’t work on this man. What else? Oh! She could change her tone, referring to the friendlier one she rehearsed in that soft skills training she had once.
She was about to speak but inspiration took hold. There was one other thing that she spontaneously remembered from that same training. Something she had thought she’d never need, something she had thought was trivial at the time but now considered its value. She looked at Tytanis and for the first time, mentally took him in – consciously saw him as a person. Her body slackened and she exhaled.
“Okay, Tytanis. Look. I can’t offer you anything more than a partnership – I have your back, you have mine. You’re an independent force – an equal,” she paused for a second as he turned to face her. “But I have a mission and I need you right now.”
“Okay, Ms. Fletcher,” he said, approaching the motorcycle. “You got a deal.”
“Call me Sarge,” she replied, as she mounted the motorcycle. To her, Ms. Fletcher sounded neither efficient nor concise.
“Won’t be doing no such thing,” he said as he joined her. She did not appreciate this – especially after a clear and direct request.
“What? Why not?” she snapped. Tytanis revved the engine.
“Equals. Remember?” he barked over the sound. She looked off into the distance, her face fixed like she was solving a riddle. What has she done?
“Hold tight!” he yelled. The motorcycle started to move and as quick as shock could fill her face, she cinched herself around his waist, just in time.