It didn’t take long for Tytanis to catch up to her. Moments before she was unraveling and now she had turned as hard as steel. He was not sure if he had done something wrong and it was impossible to tell by looking at her.
“So?” he asked. “Uh, you okay?”
“No,” she replied.
“Oh,” he said.
“But I’m on board with your plan,” she added. Then her voice brightened a bit, even became jovial. “You do come up with good ideas.”
She remembered the failed charge through the minotaur battle and sharply added: “Sometimes.”
He started to reply but a loud commotion drained their focus. A high-pitched humming with a low oscillating undertone was growing louder and the wind picked up. The voice of Nyvorlas was heard over the sound – in the distance. She was at the portal, yelling something about getting back.
“Come on!” said Sergeant Fletcher and she ran through the woods, arming herself. Tytanis did the same.
As they approached the tree line, two things were immediately discernable: the portal was significantly smaller than before and a battle was ensuing. The portal was now as wide as a two-lane highway. It was still a quarter mile away; however, and the path to it was blocked by a large vehicle that filled half the distance. The vehicle was a flying ship – but it looked bizarre – like an ornately carved wooden sled with structures on the deck. The structures comprised of a temple and obelisk pillars – neon lights were inlayed in some of the seams.
“Capture them and take ‘em aboard!” came a decrepit shout. “Let’s have a little fun tonight, boys!”
The figure was dressed in a long overcoat and tricornered hat and his face and hands were wrapped in ancient gauze. The crew he talked to, about 12 strong, were variations of sailors, bandits, and priests – all of them mummified. They scattered about – each of them out for the hunt.
“The portal is closing,” said Tytanis.
“I know,” replied Sergeant Fletcher. “Not our priority now.”
“No?” he asked.
“Stop these creeps,” she said. “Save the others.”
“You got it,” Tytanis said, with a smile.
“They don’t know we’re here,” she continued. “Let’s use that to our advantage.”
Tytanis withdrew his blades and turned toward the conflict. His loyalty to her command was becoming evident.
“And Tytanis?” she said. He turned to face her.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she said, “with me.”
“Where else would I be?” he said, with a grin. “Let’s go get ‘em – Sarge.”
And then he was gone – he ran into the open, trailing an unsuspecting group of enemies. As he did, Sergeant Fletcher carefully considered the name he used: “Sarge.” He was sincere when he said it. Despite this, and despite his growing loyalty, he didn’t know its true meaning – the weight it carries in the hierarchy. How could he? She maneuvered her way inside the tree line, meandering toward the front of the ship.
As she made her way through the trees, she sized up a line of enemy skulking along the ship, preparing an assault on the three investigators. Beyond them, she saw the light blue patch of sky among the brilliant azure. That color in that patch of atmosphere looked so dull in comparison – but it was the sky that belonged to her home. The portal was going to close soon and she would need to run fast if she was going to get to it in time. Tytanis: so reckless was he, but brave. He would be fine here on his own. He was a survivor.
Sergeant Fletcher took careful aim at the enemies – these mummified sailors. She was angry now. Angry that they were in her way – blocking her from her home. A rage stormed within her at these creeps for blocking the pathway to the world that-until today–had been the only one she had ever known. But it wasn’t just that – it was their ignorance – their obliviousness to the world in which she was born and for which she was built. It’s a place where she was a “Sergeant,” a title that carried weight to those in that world; a place that honored duty and order. It was a world she longed to live in forever. They didn’t know or care or respect the hierarchy and it fueled an ire in her she had never felt before.
She spread an array of bullets along the line of enemy and they dropped before they even knew what was going on. The disrespecting specters had been vanquished but Sergeant Fletcher raged on – and was in fact even more angered. She proceeded to the portal and thought of Tytanis – who also was ignorant and oblivious to the hierarchy. But this didn’t anger her. Why is that?
He is a warrior and has spirit. He might not have understood what it meant to belong to a world before today but he has morals, structure – a semblance of a hierarchy. He was out there now, sneaking up on fiendish enemies and assassinating them to protect strangers, to protect good people. Swordplay was his specialty and rarely did he get to use it in a world of laser pistols and motorcycles. He would fit in here, better than he would ever know. While two of the ancient mariners had pounced on Father Montgomery, Tytanis stabbed one and decapitated the other. He freed Father Montgomery of his bindings and together, they teamed up to battle others. Tytanis fit in here. He fit into the hierarchy of this place.
But Sergeant Fletcher was not for this world, not like Tytanis. No! The idea infuriated her. She was from a world of strict order; one that rewarded people based on skill – a pure meritocracy. She was the most athletic, the best shot, a master of self-discipline. It was a world that properly promoted those who proved their battle worthiness. A world that rewarded her for her flawless execution of the rules; rules she knew how to follow. It was a world where a “rank” meant something real and concrete. A logical order where higher ranks equated to superior mastery of abilities and lower ranks demanded a need for authority; a world that respected the hierarchy.
But here? There was just chaos. Even now, as Sergeant Fletcher ran toward the portal, a large brutish figure wrapped in poorly-aged bandages and sporting a peg leg knocked Tytanis on his rear and was going in for the kill. But Father Montgomery – a seemingly timid and harmless clergyman – was reciting a speech from a book, projecting beams of light from his outstretched hand. The beams burned holes right through the hulking enemy. This was unexpected. This was chaos. This was not how the hierarchy worked. It is not how labels work. This was illogical. The injustice of it all was frustrating. It was maddening.
Sergeant Fletcher reflected upon this as she jogged closer to the portal. That patch of dull blue sky at its height represented a world where enemies had profiles and territories had borders and the good guys always wore your colors. The enemies had names like Noiks and terms made sense in that world: people were units, tasks had objectives, communication was concise. The order of things provided a slick structure of knowledge of who and what you were dealing with. The portal was closing to a world where all chaos had been systemized; broken down into precise protocols, efficient commands, and strictly defined terminology. Everything Sergeant Fletcher had ever believed in was in that world and the portal to it was slipping away – but not completely gone – not if she sprinted at full speed. And that is what she did. And still her rage burned red hot.
Contrarily, Tytanis was out there, riding the chaos. He and Father Montgomery caught up to support Nyvorlas and Rachel. Rachel, the odd woman with the complicated monocle, who fired her equally complicated looking pistol. The shots that it produced zoomed and whirled around corners to find her enemies: two mummified bandits loading a net into a cannon. Her bullets impacted the enemies, dispersing a cloud around them. They fell over, heavily sedated, and Nyvorlas ran up to them to finish the job with a decorative dagger.
Sergeant Fletcher shot two of her own enemies: deceased swashbucklers on the hunt. They were also the last obstacle between she and the portal and it looked like, yes – she would make it. She would actually make it! Praise the hierarchy! The portal to the world that was hers – a world of perfect order. But the rage inside her intensified. When she would step through, she would know. She even knew it now – that the world couldn’t be the same since these portals broke the hierarchy.
But that wasn’t the entire truth. No. It wasn’t at all. Now that she saw that she could make it to the portal, she started to question it all and for the first time in a long time, her anger started to wane.
The thing she realized as she approached the ever-shrinking patch of familiar pine trees was that the world of controlled chaos she so dearly loved never even existed. She realized now that this need for efficiency and labeling was part of who she was at her core. Her whole identity had been wrapped up in the hierarchy but the hierarchy was only part of her identity; she imparted her structure upon the world but was blind to the asynchrony of it. But no longer. For the first time, she considered that her success may not have been based on her merits but on her understanding of how the merit process worked. A man-made structure that only worked among those who upheld such a structure. And if this is true than what would happen to her without the hierarchy? How can she exist outside it? Then she thought of Tytanis – he had a hierarchy about him. And it hit her. It hit her harder than a club to the back. Had she been so wrong about everything? That hierarchies are not objective?
She stood there at the edge – the portal was as wide as a doorway and merely a single footstep away. She made it. She would hop across the threshold into her world and she’d never look back. She would just enter her world. It was just right there – a single step.
But she couldn’t shake the idea of subjective hierarchies. Or perhaps “mobile” hierarchies? Tytanis would have a better word for it. But she couldn’t have known what happened to him now. Three pirate priests summoned a great skeletal serpent – about 20 feet long. Blades were ineffective against it, as Tytanis discovered, and it ended up knocking him off his feet. He did not land gracefully at all, his body remained motionless. The complicated pistol proved to be just as useless so Rachel did what she could do to distract the creature while avoiding harm. She did so to give Father Montgomery time to preach his eldritch sermon. Nyvorlas also knew a little magic and was casting her own attacks but they were unaware of hidden summoners who started to launch spells of their own.
Oblivious to all of this, Sergeant Fletcher was instead watching the sky. Her heart was racing as the final patch of dull blue atmosphere fizzled out, leaving the brilliant azure sky blemish-free. And she exhaled as it happened, not realizing her breath had been held. It was done. The portal had closed without her inside. And she still breathed. And she still felt. And she still was. She was! She was her and she belonged to ‘her hierarchy.’ She would bring it with her and she would own it – not the other way around! The place that closed off before her was only her birth world – and sure – it may not have been a cesspool, as Tytanis called his – but she now knew how it could feel for him to shrug it off. It was liberating, absolutely freeing; independence pure and prime. But she also felt an extreme sense of connection; one she never felt in all the world – in all the universe – in all the dimensions – as she did to Tytanis in that moment. Her whole being seemed to beam with the feeling of oneness.
No longer a sergeant, Irene Fletcher turned on her heels. She jogged toward the ship. Would it be too late? Urgency, more potent than ever, filled her being. This was it. She chose this path and if her detour to the portal brought peril to Tytanis – or any of the allies – she would not live it down. Run! She dropped her backpack. She sprinted hard. She saw three enemies – pirate priests crouching around the corner of the leg of the ship. They were exchanging fire with someone out of view.
She unloaded her rifle and the mystic corpses fell, dropping their ancient staffs. She rounded the corner wide, to see what was going on. But, apparently it was over. Just like that. With the summoners perished, the giant serpent was no match for Father Montgomery and Nyvorlas’s magic. The enemies had been vanquished – even the one with the long coat and tricornered hat was slumped over two other corpses – body full of crossbow bolts.
She scanned the area and saw Nyvorlas, Rachel and Father Montgomery, but she couldn’t see him. Father Montgomery and Rachel ran to a body on the ground. But surely it wasn’t –? But it was. Tytanis was laying, motionless. She rushed to them.
“Nice of you to show up,” said Nyvorlas. She was picking through the bodies, looking for valuables.
“Is he alive?” asked Irene.
“No,” said Father Montgomery and Irene’s heart trembled. Father Montgomery placed his hands on Tytanis’s chest.
“But he will be,” he said. “In time.”
“How?” she asked. “When?”
His hands produced a bright light which seeped into Tytanis’s body.
“I’ll explain later,” said Father Montgomery, “but he’s nearly there now.”
Tytanis opened his eyes.
“We get ‘em?” he asked.
“Indeed, we prevailed,” replied Father Montgomery with a smile. “Someone is eager to see you.”
Tytanis looked up at Irene.
“Sarge!” he said, as Father Montgomery helped him to his feet. “We did it! We saved them, just like you ordered.”
She stared at him, overwhelmed with emotions – a frantic mix of relief and guilt and fear and joy. But, above all, she had composure. Her recent liberation – her ownership of her hierarchy gave her uncanny strength.
“You did most of the saving,” she replied.
“We just brought you back from the dead,” said Nyvorlas, not stopping her scavenging. “So, let’s watch the who-saved-whom talk.”
“The dimensional gate has closed!” cried Rachel.
Irene felt a wave of guilt wash over her for this was news not new to her.
“I’m sorry,” Tytanis said to her. “About the portal.”
“I’m not sure you should be,” she said and smiled. She would eventually tell him how she tried to go there alone and he would forgive her. But she would not do it here. “It’s okay, really.”
“But your friends?” asked Father Montgomery. Irene looked at him but didn’t say anything. Should she feel guilty for not pursuing the squad she had just mourned?
“What I mean to say is,” started Father Montgomery, embarrassed. “Is thank you for your help in saving us. I know how important your friends were to you and-”
“Don’t worry about it,” replied Irene. “I know what you meant.”
“Well child,” replied Father Montgomery. “You’re welcome to join us in our pursuit, if you’d have us.”
“What?” protested Nyvorlas. Irene and Tytanis looked at each other, Tytanis smiled.
“Yeah,” Irene replied. “Consider us as part of the team.”
“Welcome aboard!” said Rachel, who was eyeing up the ship.
“I don’t believe this!” said Nyvorlas, now fully at attention.
“You can’t deny that they were useful,” said Father Montgomery.
“If you say so,” said Nyvorlas as she went back to her treasure hunting.
“First order of business?” asked Irene.
“Well, I don’t know,” said Father Montgomery. “It took us a couple hours just to get to this gate.”
“What about this ship?” asked Irene. “It flies, doesn’t it?”
“Oh yeah,” said Rachel.
“You say that with confidence,” said Irene. “Is it from your world?”
“No,” started Rachel. “But I’m sure I can figure out.”
“Is that so?” asked Irene. “Are you some sort of genius?”
“No,” Rachel replied. “It’s a flying vessel that uses the same crystal-to-steam system as the ones I work on at home.”
She patted the instruments in her tool belt as she spoke.
“And you can fly it?” asked Father Montgomery.
“I’m more of a builder and tinkerer,” said Rachel.
“I bet Tytanis here can fly it,” said Irene. Tytanis was marveling at the symbols embedded in the side of the ship.
“I can drive anything!” he replied with gusto – though his tone quickly changed to hesitation. “If I know how it works.”
“I can teach you!” said Rachel. “I mean, as long as it’s okay with Father Montgomery.”
“Well,” said Father Montgomery. “A vehicle of this nature would make travel much easier.”
“Tytanis, will you go up with her?” asked Irene. “Cover each other in case there’s any trouble?”
“You got it, Sarge,” he said.
“Please,” she replied. “Call me Irene.”
“Won’t be doing no such thing,” he said, and winked at her. Before Irene could stop him, he turned and walked up to Rachel, extending his metallic hand for a shake.
“Rachel, is it?” he asked. “My name is Tytanis.”
“I’m pleased to meet you,” she said, taking his hand for inspection. They started to board the ship. “I have so many questions about you.”
“My child,” beckoned Father Montgomery to Irene. “May I ask you a direct question?”
“I prefer that you only ask me direct questions,” she replied.
“Are you?” he started. “Are you planning on going to that tower?”
“Ha!” replied Nyvorlas who was pretending not to listen.
“I wasn’t,” replied Irene. “But I would like to, eventually. On my own, of course.”
“I think we should all go there,” replied Father Montgomery.
“Monty!” said Nyvorlas. “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“But Nyvorlas,” protested Father Montgomery, “You said it yourself – this sorceress has been empowered with knowledge of the cosmos.”
“She’s also an insane killer,” Nyvorlas said. “With powerful hunting forces.”
“I’ve encountered great evil before,” said Father Montgomery. “Sometimes facing evil is the only way to prevent it.”
“So, you’re okay with going there?” asked Irene.
“As long as we study dimensional gates on the way,” he said.
“Agreed,” said Irene.
“And you?” he asked Irene. “Is there anything you’re concerned about, my child?”
“Yes – that,” snapped Irene, then she caught herself and toned it down. “I’d prefer it if you didn’t call me child.”
“Of course, Sergeant Fletcher,” he said, and he turned to board the ship.
Irene paused at those words coming from his mouth but was interrupted before she could follow up.
“Well, well, well, Monty,” said Nyvorlas. “Looks like you have all the help you’ll need; so, I guess if you pay me now I’ll be on my way.”
“There’s still a need for you,” pleaded Father Montgomery. “Please join us.”
“I don’t see how – you already have your silver haired protector and your bossy leader,” she replied, perhaps with more bite than intended.
“Well,” said Irene. “There is something else we need.”
“Hmph,” replied Nyvorlas. “And what would you possibly need from me?”
“Well, you’ve lived here your whole life – you know this world,” started Irene. “And it sounds like you know the pitfalls, too. Who better to navigate us than you?”
“A navigator?” mocked Nyvorlas. “You’ll have to do better than that.”
Irene drew a breath and then looked deeply at Nyvorlas, in the way that she learned in that soft skills class, so long ago.
“An advisor then?” chimed in Father Montgomery. “An advisor to me and the crew?”
“Nice try,” said Nyvorlas. “That’s better than ‘uck’ navigator, but no dice.”
“Ah,” said Irene, with dramatic flair. “Ambassador Nyvorlas, would you please join us on this excursion? Your insight into this world would be most valuable.”
“Now you’re talking my language!” she said and repeated the title, “Ambassador Nyvorlas- Yes, a girl of my taste could get used to that.”
Irene and Father Montgomery shared a smile.
“But I’m not calling you Sergeant or whatever,” replied Nyvorlas.
“Fine. Call me Irene,” Irene replied. Nyvorlas considered it but then a funny look came over her face.
“Eh, on second thought,” she started. “Ambassadors of my caliber only associate with people of title.”
“As you wish,” said Irene. “I trust we will be able to accommodate your tastes.”
“Thank you, Sergeant,” Nyvorlas replied, as she started to board the ship. Then she looked back at Irene. “And I trust that we will get along famously.”
And they would – in good time.
But for now, they all worked to explore and learn the ship. Night fell on them as they finally lifted off the ground. They would soar great distances: over land and water at first, and eventually through dimensional gates and beyond. Irene Fletcher – referred to as Sergeant Fletcher by some, and as Sarge by others – found her squad at last, despite it not being the one she had originally lost. But she also found something more – she found her world – a way to navigate the chaos. Wherever the adventures steered them, no matter which dimension they’d enter – Irene was with them, leading her squad, and never second guessing her ability to own her hierarchy.