The world looked just as it should: baby blue skies blanketing a sea of pointy trees. At least this was what Sergeant Irene Fletcher thought. Her world was among the spruce, fir, larch and other conifers spreading from horizon to horizon. Each tree stood tall, sturdy, and proud – saluting the atmosphere like men reporting for duty. They adhered to a strict hierarchy of things, these trees. They were predictable and they were useful and they showed no fear.
Sergeant Fletcher’s mind circled around these notions as she sat in the back of one of three reconnaissance vehicles. Each one of these “recon” vehicles was painted in olive drab and armed with a machine gun mount. The small convoy barreled down a dirt road, which had been carved among the hills and valleys of the vast coniferous forest.
“Permission to speak freely?” asked the driver. Sergeant Fletcher was pulled from her thoughts. She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply then slowly exhaled.
“Permission granted,” she replied.
“You really think they crossed the border?” he asked.
“Who else could it be?” she snapped.
“I don’t know,” Miller replied. “But it’s not like them, not like this.”
“New tactics,” she offered. “How else could it be explained?”
“Well,” Miller started. “Maybe it wasn’t anyone. You know, maybe it’s some natural event.”
“Like what?” she asked, rather cross.
“I don’t know,” he started. “A sinkhole?”
“Where are the trees?” she replied. “Why is there grass? Sinkholes don’t remove trees and replace them with patches of grass.”
With the case closed, she settled in to return to her thoughts.
“Yeah,” Miller continued, drawing her attention again. “But people don’t do that either – not out here, not like this. Maybe it’s something else – a phenomenon of sorts.”
“What, like aliens?” she laughed. “Why spend time contemplating the unlikely?”
“Yeah but,” he started but was cut off.
“Let me share some advice with you, private,” Sergeant Fletcher continued, not waiting for a reply. “All of life can be broken down to three things: objectives, hierarchies, and resources. That’s it.”
“Okay?” he replied.
“You keep that in mind then you can stop worrying about folly concepts,” she said.
“What about people?” he chuckled.
“What?” she asked.
“You know, like you and me,” he said. “Where do people fit in to life?”
“Resources, Private Miller,” she replied.
“Oh?” he laughed.
“That’s not a bad thing,” she explained. “It’s our duty. You’re a resource and I’m a resource, too. As long as we’re useful and predictable, the hierarchy will be able to achieve successful objectives. The only difference between you and I is that I’m higher up in the-”
“Food chain?” he offered.
“Hierarchy,” she corrected.
“Oh,” he said with a smile.
“You should respect the hierarchy, Private Miller,” lectured Sergeant Fletcher. “It ensures order. It mitigates chaos – a streamlined way to systemize the messiness of communication, relationships, and politics.”
“Sarge, we’re getting close,” interrupted a call over the commlink. “Over.”
“Roger that,” replied Sergeant Fletcher. “Park as close to the disturbance as you can. But do so, so we’re facing F.O.B. Over.”
“Sir. Yes sir,” came the response. “Over.”
“See, Miller?” said Sergeant Fletcher as she leaned back. “Effective communication all thanks to the hierarchy.”
“I suppose,” he replied.
Back in her seat, she moved her head almost birdlike as she repositioned to see out a small window. Sergeant Fletcher preferred to be called just that: Sergeant Fletcher but her squad referred to her as “Sarge.” While an informal nickname would normally needle at the no-nonsense strategist, she often confused efficient communication as proof of her efficient leadership and the abbreviated, monosyllabic “sarge” validated her craving for concision.
Once the three vehicles parked, the squad secured the perimeter, rifles hung low and ready.
“Miller, Wilson: in front,” Sergeant Fletcher said. “Lewis, Lopez: flank. Chang? You’re with me: rear. Spread wide.”
As the soldiers moved into position, Sergeant Fletcher used a friendlier voice on the commlink. It was the voice she needed to rehearse as a requirement for the only soft skills course she had ever been enrolled in.
“This may be enemy territory. This may be a trap. Keep your wits about you. Let’s move.”
With that the squad marched forward, swallowed by the forest. From the road behind them and for miles and miles (in nearly every direction), there was nothing but the trees. Well, in almost every direction. Straight ahead (at about a ten-minute walk), there was a clearing (the “disturbance” as Sergeant Fletcher referred to it). This was not just any clearing, it seemed to contain a haze. Well, not exactly a haze, more like a discoloration – as if someone had put up a photo filter over that part of the forest – only it wasn’t a photo, of course. It was difficult to discern what exactly was being perceived when looking at it so, in turn, it was hard to describe. Not one to worry about verbose descriptions, Sergeant Fletcher coined it as the “disturbance” and that was that.
On the front line, Miller and Wilson were quickly approaching the disturbance – perhaps only 25 more steps? 30? 35? It was hard to gauge while walking. And with each step, a tension seemed to stir. Whatever curiosity Miller had about the sunlit disturbance was incrementally eroded with every impact of boot to earth. Each stomp vexed with further apprehension. The enemy – the North Okeechee (referred to as “Noiks” by the squad) – had been known to set up devious traps. Clearing out a small pocket of trees and burying land mines didn’t exactly fit their offensive profile, but that didn’t stop Miller from thinking about it. Besides, inventing novel ways of killing each other was always a part of warfare.
As the squad got closer to the disturbance, Miller and Wilson would risk more than a few looks back to Sergeant Fletcher, permitting her plenty of opportunity to offer a new command like “Stop” or “Halt” or “Wait” but she was silent. Miller and Wilson knew “unless told otherwise” to keep moving – and they did just that (of course) but it didn’t prevent them from subtly signaling concern. Just before the edge of the forest, as they looked back one last time, Miller and Wilson caught each other’s gaze. The moment was brief but before they unlocked eyes, they had signaled to one another that they were “in this together”.
However, they weren’t necessarily in it together. It was Miller – well, part of Miller (his leg, specifically) – who was the first to cross the threshold. A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead as his knee and thigh were exposed to the quirky light. His left boot made contact with the soft grass and loamy dirt beneath. The explosion he had been fearing (the one from the trap the Noiks had placed in this clearing) destroyed most of his body – or at least it would have if it had happened. But it didn’t. Not with that step. It was his right boot that next connected with the earth and as it did, the weight of his whole body was pressed into it, applying enough force to trigger the buried device of which was packed with enough explosive compound to throw his painful dying corpse high into the air. But, again, it didn’t happen. Each step slowly proved that these devices did not exist. Perhaps this isn’t a trap by the Noiks? As he continued forward, each successful step became less tense than the one before and the sudden surprise he felt at the level of his own relief nearly became euphoric. Never had he been happier that the ground remained just ground.
Wilson was next to cross into the clearing, more curious than afraid, he looked to the sky which was bright and blue. But that’s not exactly right – it was blue, sure, but it was not just any blue. It was a magnificent version of it – a hue he was convinced that he’d never seen before. He could hear Miller taking in a deep breath and he did so himself. The air was very different in the clearing; and, like everything else about this place, it wasn’t easy to describe why. It was extremely refreshing and perhaps a little sweeter.
By now, every member of the squad had entered the clearing – each of them experiencing the same sensations as Miller and Wilson. Sergeant Fletcher made no new commands so the squad continued forward, up a grassy incline. As she marched, she seemed to eyeball the area with the same amount of strict scrutiny she used when inspecting the barracks for specks of dust: obvious signs of laziness and inefficiency. Her judgement of the clearing was interrupted when Miller spoke into his commlink.
“Sarge, I,I- You gotta see this! This doesn’t make any sense!”
“Halt,” said Sergeant Fletcher. “Hold positions.”
Without hesitation, she walked up the 50 yards between her and the front line. Upon reaching the peak, she saw what Miller and Wilson were looking at. The clearing didn’t end as expected. It went on for miles and miles and miles – but it wasn’t just a grassy hillscape. From here, the path dipped down into a deep valley of crags and jagged rocks, and in the distance (about a 20-minute walk), there was an old stone tower topped with a brilliant emerald flag marked with a perfect black diamond in the center. Beyond the tower lay a vast desert and even further still – close to the horizon – sunlight bounced off snowcapped mountains.
“How is this possible?” asked Sergeant Fletcher.
“Sarge, that’s not the weirdest part,” said Wilson. “Look.”
Sergeant Fletcher looked at Wilson who was looking back in the direction they had come. As she turned she could see the other squad members below (on the hill side), the grassy path they had walked up, and then the pine forest from which they came. But it wasn’t the same forest! The trees – they were the same suggesting that they were from the same forest – but the forest itself was reduced from a vast sea of pine to a small patch – no bigger than the clearing they walked into. Beyond the forest, were hills and a visible ocean with sailing ships and a port town – none of it matching the terrain as it should. Peculiar still, the round area of forest from which they came had a discoloration to it – as if the forest was now the “disturbance”.
“This – this cannot be the work of the Noiks!” she said. “What is going on here?”
“Uh, we got company!” Miller barked. Wilson and Sergeant Fletcher spun around to see something large near the tower. It was galloping toward the squad, a plume of dust trailing behind. From this distance, it appeared to be a bull – but it had to be as big as a tank and its body seemed shiny – metallic. Even from this distance, the ground vibrated with the heavy pounding from its bulky hooves.
“Fall back! Follow me!” Sergeant Fletcher screamed and they hesitated only enough to let her pass to lead the way. She noticed that the forest, while not terribly far away, seemed smaller than just moments ago. This was odd and perhaps ominous, but since the goal was to get to it as quickly as possible, pondering it didn’t much matter. The pressing issue – though still not worth worrying about – was the bull which was faster than they were. Despite the severe incline, the beast was still able to reach the top of the hill before the squad could make it to the forest. The ground shook tremendously now with the metallic creature racing down the hillside, toward them, toward the clearing – which seemed to be just a small patch of trees now.
Sergeant Fletcher was the first to cross the threshold. She was always a star athlete and secretly took pride in being first. In that moment she would think how it wasn’t shameful to outrun her squad – especially since she planned on turning to cover them. She was leading them – showing them the way, exuding bravery and strength. But her thoughts quickly turned to doom as she realized that the vibrations had completely quelled – there were no more monstrous galloping noises. She turned on a dime, arming herself with her rifle as she did, aiming and standing as still as possible – despite her heavy breaths.
But there was nothing. Well, there were trees – but that was the problem – not just the fact that she was alone but that trees stood where the clearing once was. No more clearing. No more stone tower with the emerald flag. No more metallic bull. But also, no more squad. The others were nowhere in sight.
Sergeant Fletcher broke her pose and scanned the area in bewilderment. She called out for her squad members, pausing to listen for responses. “Miller!” “Chang!” “Lopez!”
They were right behind her, weren’t they? What happened? This can’t be a joke, could it? As infuriating as a joke would be, it certainly would be appreciated to the alternative. But this was too elaborate to be a joke. But this was also physically impossible and couldn’t be real. Unless it’s a dream. Is this a dream? She was positive it wasn’t but she tested her senses to be sure. But ultimately, none of this made sense.
She tried to reach them on her commlink. “Lopez, copy.” “Chang? Copy?” “Miller! Where are you! Copy!”
She was only a five-minute walk away from the recon vehicles but she wouldn’t go until she was convinced that this situation was real. She continued to call out, pausing only to question the reality of the situation and contemplate the next step. Eventually, Sergeant Fletcher left, taking one of the recon vehicles back to forward operations base to attempt to radio in reinforcements.