It took longer than 30 minutes to reach the destination. In fact, an hour had passed when they finally saw the two recon vehicles that Sergeant Fletcher had left behind. As they approached, she remembered how she had ordered the vehicles to turn around to face F.O.B. That move cost time the squad could have used to escape the portal. And now look at the “getaway cars” just sitting there. Unnecessary. Stupid. But how was she to know?
“I’m glad to see some wheels,” Tytanis said.
“Huh?” Sergeant Fletcher snapped as she was pulled back into the present. “Oh. Yeah. Well, they’re more like lockers right now.”
“How’s that?” he asked,
“They’re just holding supplies,” she replied.
She opened a hatch and pulled out a backpack. She handed it to Tytanis.
“Side pocket. Canteen. Drink,” she said as she pulled out a second backpack. Tytanis did as he was instructed. She wouldn’t admit it to herself, but she took pleasure in his unquestioning obedience in that moment. She continued to pretend not to appreciate the exchange as she pulled out supplies. She checked her ammunition.
“You want a rifle?” she asked. “You need any ammo?”
“Nope. I’m good,” smiled Tytanis holding up his laser pistol. He pointed at a gauge on the side. Sergeant Fletcher didn’t exactly know what that meant but didn’t care enough to ask.
“So where are those dart things?” asked Tytanis.
“I don’t know,” she replied.
“Where is this portal?” he asked. She did not immediately reply to this, just breathed heavily as she secured the vehicle.
“It doesn’t look like it’s there,” she finally said as she put her hands on the front of the vehicle. She hopped up on the hood, stepped up to the top, and pulled out a pair of binoculars. To her frustration, the extra height added little to her visual range. Tytanis climbed the other vehicle, careful to avoid the gun mount, and cupped his hands over his eyes.
“How can you see through all these trees?”
“There are binoculars in your backpack,” she replied, not looking at him. Tytanis didn’t move, however.
“Woah!” he said and Sergeant Fletcher turned to see. Tytanis was looking in the opposite direction. She could see it – deep in the trees – a clearing – much larger – but with a discoloration, the same discoloration: the disturbance; the portal back to her squad! It wasn’t in the same spot but it surely looked like the same flavor as before.
“That’s it!” she cried as she hopped down to the hood then to the ground.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yes, come on!” she shouted.
As Tytanis jumped from the vehicle, Sergeant Fletcher bounded across the road and into the woods. He chased after her though he was clearly not used to navigating the rugged terrain. Despite his normal nimbleness, he was clumsy over roots and around ferns.
“Hey!” he shouted. “Wait up!”
Sergeant Fletcher heard his call. Something in it was annoying and she had to fight the urge to ignore it. What was it, this feeling? It reminded her of her squad members – Wilson and Miller – but why? Why was this so familiar? Surely, they never called out like this. Did they? But it wasn’t just the calling out – it was also this place, among the trees of home and the act – of approaching the clearing. Deja-vu? Why? What was it about the clearing? When the squad was approaching the first clearing, Wilson and Miller were visibly nervous. Could that be it? They were obvious in their attempt to signal to stop. She had sensed it but ignored it. Their behavior annoyed her then and this “calling out” annoys her now. But could it be? Could it be that they were calling out to her just as Tytanis is calling out to her now? Had she let them down?
“Thanks,” Tytanis said as Sergeant Fletcher waited. She nodded and as they progressed, stayed behind him. They were about another 40 paces away from the portal.
“You’re doing great, Tytanis,” she said. She didn’t know why she said it – she certainly didn’t believe it, at least not compared to her – but something felt right about doing so.
“Thanks,” Tytanis said and something about that satisfied Sergeant Fletcher. She didn’t know why and it sparked a sense of dread in her. But why? The feeling was quickly tamped down as she approached the portal.
It was much bigger than the first one. This clearing was huge – nearly a quarter-mile in diameter. Tytanis was the first to get to the tree line.
“Halt,” said Sergeant Fletcher. Tytanis stopped and looked back with urgency but there was none. He just watched as she slowly approached the tree line.
“Halt?” he asked. “Did you just give me a military command?”
“Sorry,” she said, flatly. She continued to stare at the clearing, “Just a habit.”
“What are you doing?” he asked. “Why aren’t we going in?”
She motioned as if she were to speak but she was focused on the light in the clearing, the soft grass. Tytanis stepped forward and stood next to her. He studied her face and then started to investigate the atmosphere, too. He strained his face to sense what she was detecting and was surprised when she stepped inside the clearing, unannounced. She breathed in the air – refreshing and sweet. She looked up at the sky – a color blue she had only ever seen one other time in her life, which was earlier that day.
“Come on!” she shouted. “This is it! This is the world!”
Tytanis stared at her wondrously.
“But you already told me it was – back at the road,” he argued. “What’s gotten into you?”
But she had already started to run and he had no choice but to follow. Luckily, the ground was tame enough that he could keep up but he was somewhat overwhelmed with all the sensations: the brightness, the sweetness in the air, the songs of birds. It was somewhat taxing, despite its beauty.
By the time he had completely caught up, she had stopped.
“No, this isn’t right,” Sergeant Fletcher said. Tytanis had looked around, the ground sloped downward into what appeared to be a swamp.
“Well, we came from that way, right?” Tytanis asked as he looked back. Behind them was the patch of pine trees from Sergeant Fletcher’s world and beyond that was what appeared be more conifer trees but of a different variety.
“Yeah, I know,” she replied. “But there wasn’t this sort of area here – it’s supposed to lead to an ocean with a city. And back that way? There wasn’t a forest. Where the recon vehicles would be – that area? It’s just all different.”
“Oh,” he said. “So, this isn’t that world?
“I don’t know,” she said. “The air and sky are identical – no question – and so is this grass. It’s got to be the same grass, right?”
“Maybe? Not much grass where I’m from,” he said. “Seems like regular grass to me.”
She kept walking, westward, up a path that led through some trees. The ground slowly inclined here and there were hills not too far away.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“Higher ground,” she replied. “There’s a clear hilltop over here and I want to see the area.”
Sergeant Fletcher marched through the woods, much slower than before, more cautious. Due to this, Tytanis could keep up with her and they traversed the mounds together, ever on the incline.
“You think we’re out too far?” Tytanis asked.
“We haven’t reached the hilltop yet,” she replied, never slowing down.
Tytanis paused to look back. The portal was still visible through the trees, but only barely.
“There’s no trail here,” he said as he caught up to her. “Aren’t you worried about getting lost?”
“Nope,” she replied. “I have a gift for direction.”
They approached a natural clearing where large boulders marked the foot of the destined hill.
“Hurry!” whispered Sergeant Fletcher as she armed herself. The urgency in her voice was unmistakable this time and Tytanis followed her quickly as she made for the boulders.
“What?” he whispered and she motioned him to keep his mouth shut. They hid behind the rocks and silently listened. He heard them – voices – quiet at first but they slowly became audible.
“-find it fascinating that we can all speak the same language, is all,” came a female voice.
“Yes, I wondered about that,” replied a male voice. “I thought that maybe, and this may sound absurd-”
“After today’s discoveries?” replied the female voice. “No idea is too outlandish.”
“Well,” said the male voice. “What if we actually weren’t speaking the same language but somehow are able to comprehend the intention?”
“My,” said the female voice. “I’d argue that your theory would contradict my experience, especially if we are still able to misinterpret each other. Though I must concede that if my ability to sense experiences was distorted? Perhaps misunderstanding could also be part of the distortion, am I right?”
“Yes!” replied the male voice. “I hadn’t thought it out as well as you, but yes, that would–“
“Keep quiet, you two!” hushed a second female voice. “We’re getting close and I don’t know what’s going to pop out of this thing.”
That’s when Tytanis and Sergeant Fletcher saw them. Walking past their hiding spot were three people, each one more peculiarly dressed than the previous. The woman in front was dressed in what appeared be a stylish but antiquated leather outfit. Her pale face was wrapped by auburn hair, but pointy ears poked through the strands. A feathered hat topped her head.
Behind her, the other woman had a dark complexion. She wore a fancy dress-shirt and pants, separated by a corset and belts for tools and a complicated-looking gun. Raven black hair billowed from under her bowler hat which was accented by a brass stem that held an equally complicated looking multi-lensed monocle.
A young man with a tan complexion walked next to her. He kept his dark hair short and sported a black dress-shirt which extended down to a robe. His collar was split in the front to reveal a white rectangular inlet. A chain draped around his neck with a talisman.
When all three had passed them unnoticed, Sergeant Fletcher stepped out from the hiding spot.
“Freeze!” she called, aiming her rifle at them. Tytanis copied her in motion.
The three turned to face her. The one with the pointy ears brandished a crossbow and pointed it toward Sergeant Fletcher.
“Put your hands where I can see them and no one will get hurt,” Sergeant Fletcher continued. The man put his hands up immediately and stood in front of the group.
“Please. Don’t hurt us,” he calmly pleaded. “We’re on a most important mission.”
“Get back, Monty,” commanded the woman with pointy ears as she muscled her way to the front, her crossbow slung to the side.
“I represent these two,” she continued. “What do you want?”
“Are you from this world?” asked Sergeant Fletcher.
“I am,” replied the representative. “They are not.”
“Who are you?” asked Sergeant Fletcher. “What are you?”
The representative stared from Sergeant Fletcher to Tytanis and back again.
“My name is Nyvorlas,” she replied. “Normally I’m a – let’s say, uh, merchant by unusual means, eh? But today is no normal day, right? I’m guiding these two toward the gate.”
“Gate?” repeated Sergeant Fletcher.
“You mean the portal?” asked Tytanis.
“Yes, that’s right,” said the man. “I’m Father Montgomery and this is Rachel.”
“So, you two are from the same world?” asked Tytanis.
“Oh, no,” said Rachel. “My world was full of optimism and advanced technology, and unfortunately, it sounds like Father Montgomery comes from a place full of darkness, of things that could make you go crazy.”
“Yes, she’s somewhat correct,” said Father Montgomery, softly. “Now would you please lower your weapons? We are not a threat, I assure you.”
Tytanis lowered his firearm but Sergeant Fletcher did not.
“Do you know of a stone tower?” she asked, ignoring the plea.
“A what?” asked Nyvorlas.
“A stone tower bearing a bright green flag with a black diamond in the center,” continued Sergeant Fletcher. Nyvorlas’s expression went from confusion, to sass, to curiosity.
“Perhaps guarded by a large metal bull?” Sergeant Fletcher added.
“How could you know about that?” Nyvorlas asked, eyes widened. Sergeant Fletcher marched up to Nyvorlas, gun raised. As she did, the man called Father Montgomery positioned himself between the two, hands outstretched to protect her.
“Where is it?” Sergeant Fletcher demanded.
“Please,” started Father Montgomery. “There is no need for violence. I’ve only met this woman not but two hours ago but despite whatever she has done in her past, she is a good person.”
Tytanis stepped forward and placed his hand upon Sergeant Fletcher’s shoulder.
“Hey. Partner,” he said kindly. Hearing him say that word in front of these strangers made her cringe but she held her composure as he continued. “Easy, huh? They aren’t threatening us.”
Sergeant Fletcher stared into Father Montgomery’s eyes. She took in his fear. She slung her rifle over her shoulder as she slinked away in a huff.
“She lost her squad in one of these portals,” Tytanis explained. “Earlier, when this all started.”
“Oh child,” said Father Montgomery as he approached her to comfort. “I am sorry to hear this.”
“I didn’t lose them,” said Sergeant Fletcher, flatly. She dodged Father Montgomery’s advances. “I led them in there and they got stuck when we withdrew.”
“Ha. You left them behind?” mocked Nyvorlas. “Pft! Figures.”
Tytanis stepped forward to confront her and Father Montgomery quickly got between them, just as he did before.
“What did you say?” demanded Tytanis. Nyvorlas made her eyes as wide as possible and stuck her tongue out.
“It’s okay, Tytanis,” said Sergeant Fletcher with renewed energy. “She’s not wrong. It was my fault. It made sense at the time, but she’s right. I aim to find them immediately.”
Tytanis backed down and Father Montgomery relaxed.
“Nyvorlas?” called Sergeant Fletcher, as she headed up the hill. “Can you show me which direction we need to go?”
Nyvorlas’s face warped with layers of confusion. She glanced at Rachel who nodded her on.
“Uh, you misunderstand, lady,” Nyvorlas began. “That tower is somewhere deep in the southern continent.”
Sergeant Fletcher stopped walking.
“Well?” asked Tytanis. “Where are we now?”
“Uh, we’re in the northern continent of Uberott,” Nyvorlas said. “It would take months to travel there by foot – maybe even a year. But you wouldn’t survive – especially since you’d have to cross the vast Sayhd Mornovo desert.”
Sergeant Fletcher turned around to stare. Her face was full of disgust but she didn’t say anything.
“And even if you did do all of that,” Nyvorlas continued. “The tower belongs to Warlo, a powerful sorceress – crazed with cosmic knowledge. I don’t know what kind of people you left behind, but if they’re anything like you, then they didn’t have a chance against her or her bull.”
Sergeant Fletcher returned her stare out to the southern sky. Rifle slung over her shoulder, backpack full, she cradled herself in her arms.
“It’s a wonder how you survived,” Nyvorlas continued. “I would have called you a filthy liar had you been from this world and the day been like any other. But there’s no way you couldn’t be you, know what you know, and not be telling the truth.”
Silence fell upon them as they waited for a response but Sergeant Fletcher just stood there, facing the southern sky, motionless.
“So,” started Rachel after some time. “We’re investigating that dimensional gate for study. I don’t mean to be hasty, but our goal is lofty and time is precious.”
No one responded verbally but bodies began to move. Nyvorlas and Rachel meandered toward the portal. Father Montgomery lingered, watching as Tytanis approached Sergeant Fletcher.
“Monty!” called Nyvorlas. With great reluctance, Father Montgomery retreated to join the two women.
Tytanis got close to Sergeant Fletcher and her body twisted in his direction. He instinctively embraced her and felt her tremble into his chest. She was too upset to maintain composure. Her emotion was too much in this moment. The hierarchy had failed her and she defaulted to a more primitive consolation: she needed to feel the embrace – the embrace of a comforting parent.
“Hey,” he said, softly. “It’s okay. What does she know? Your squad is fine.”
Sergeant Fletcher held Tytanis close, though he was no longer Tytanis in that moment. He was a summoned apparition-turned-tangible; a man made of memories.
“I just,” she said as she absent-mindedly teased the hem of his musty undershirt with her fingers. “I just never told them.”
“Hey,” he replied, nervously. He innately rubbed her upper arms. “It’s okay. We’ll find them. You can tell them then.”
“They just never knew,” she said, suddenly withdrawing from him – the illusion broken. Her strength returning. She faced the southern sky. “I was so cold – thought I had to be. How could they know?”
“What if?” asked Tytanis, as he approached her. “What if we go back through the portal and wait by those vehicles? The lockers?”
Sergeant Fletcher did not respond to his approach this time; she was fully regaining her composure and would not permit another embrace. She just stared, her eyes glistening in the late afternoon sun. She was nearly finished mourning her squad.
“If two of these portals appeared around there and led to the same world,” he continued. “Then a third might appear there, too. It might get us closer. Right?”
“Yeah,” she replied, flatly. She wiped her eyes as she turned toward the way they had come and started to walk. Tytanis stood there for a moment, somewhat confused. He watched her as she made her way out of the clearing and into the woods. He didn’t linger long, convinced that she would have left him there otherwise.