(Once again pushing the definition of “short story” to the length of two whole posts! This one goes up a little late, mainly because I’m still not back in the rhythm of things after my vacation and the length once again took me by surprise. I needed most of today to get the story edited and ready to go. Hope you enjoy!)
Galen Grant awoke in the manner he was accustomed – face down on the cold, hard ground with an armed man looming over him.
It was the middle of the night and it was a different armed man than usual, so at least his hosts had gotten creative in their treatment of him. Galen rolled over on his back, pushing the thin animal skin blanket that was failing to keep him warm to one side, and took a closer look at his new friend. It was hard to tell how tall he was, given that he was currently bending down and poking him with the hilt of his sword, but his weathered brown coat, long sandy hair and tailored pants suggested something.
Galen thought it over carefully, twice, then nodded to himself.
“You’re not local, are you?”
The new man laughed quietly. “Not exactly, no. Hopefully you’ll stay relaxed, by the by, or the locals might take an interest in our little meeting here.”
Galen sat up, frowning a little. “You speak Celt. Definitely not local.”
“Yes.” The stranger rocked back on his heels and tilted his head to one side. “Are you interested in why I’m here?”
There was no one else in the tent, which would have been inconvenient since it was a really small tent, so Galen arrived at the obvious conclusion. “I guess it must be to talk to me.”
“Yes it is,” the brown coat said, nodding slowly. “You’re far from home, Mr. Grant. This world isn’t your home.”
“Yeah, I figured as much when I couldn’t get cell service.” Galen sat up and dusted off his denim shirt. After two months on the open plains there were holes in several places and it smelled worse than the city in summer but it did more to keep him warm than the thin linen undershirt. It was all he’d had when he slipped through to wherever this place was, where the people lived in tents on the open flats, electricity was a thing you only saw during storms and the locals had grabbed him and wouldn’t let him go.
He had no idea what any of them were saying, either, so the reason he was so unpopular remained a mystery. The stranger prodded him with the hilt of his sword again. “Hey. You paying attention?”
Galen jumped slightly. “Sorry. What?”
“There are some people outside who want to talk to you.” He nodded towards the back of the tent, not to the entrance, so it probably wasn’t the locals. “Want to see them? Or would you rather stay.”
Go with him.
“I guess I better come along.” Galen got to his feet and patted himself down. He’d had a dataphone in his pocket when he’d slipped out of his home and into whatever this place was but the charge had died weeks ago and he was pretty sure it was broken. Still he’d taken some video of the place and that might be worth something. His house keys were long gone, as was most of the change in his pockets, which the locals had confiscated. His wallet still had its contents except for the driving license. The picture had prompted his captors to take it, or so he thought.
The man in brown watched as Galen collected his things, a strange smile on his face. “Do you always do what you’re told?”
“Huh?” A blank look.
“I think you’re a little too trusting, that’s all.”
Galen turned that over in his mind a few times. “Do you not want me coming along?”
The stranger tapped his finger to his temple once or twice. “I wasn’t talking about me, although it certainly applies. Come on. Showing you the way is part of the message.”
When he decided to move the other man could really move, Galen decided. They went past the usual guard, who would normally be waking him up in a few hours, unconscious at the entrance to the tent. Then the brown coat quickly led him through the camp in a twisting, circuitous route that avoided the central camp fire and most of the more important looking tents. Galen hadn’t been outside since he arrived but it looked like a lot more people had shown up after he was captured.
But they never saw any of them on their way through the camp. Whoever this stranger was he was running circles around the natives.
It was about ten minutes after they got out of camp when the grass under their feet suddenly seemed to stretch into a blur and jerk under their feet. Brown coat kept his feet effortlessly but Galen fell flat on his back and started to slide. Then something wrapped around his waist and they were flying through the air. A moment later they landed, light as a feather, and the world around him, which still had the pattern of grass but grass that had been painted on a giant, lizardlike cardboard cut out, turned glowing and see-through. A second later Galen was standing on top of a plateau of rock about twenty feet above the rest of the grasslands with the man in brown and two newcomers.
The first was a tall, lanky man in denim, jeans and jacket both more patches than original fabric, his eyes still glowing faintly with chameleon light. He was easy to identify. The other was an equally tall, powerfully built woman wearing a sleeveless top, loose around the collar but fairly formfitting everywhere else, and a skirt that hid most of her legs without looking hard to move in. Galen couldn’t identify her as quickly but the necklace of small square metal plates she wore finally put him on the right track.
The woman gently took the jewelry out of his hand and pushed him a half step back. Galen smiled and said, “You’re Momma Bear, aren’t you? And the Alligecko. Did you two come all the way out here for me? I’m honored. Aren’t you guys a bit far from home?”
“Far from home?” The lady asked, one eyebrow arched in picture perfect incredulity. “Is that all you have to ask us?”
“Well, like I said, it’s not every day you have honest to goodness superheroes picking you up but-”
“Not to interrupt,” the brown coat said, “but I’ve fulfilled my end of the deal, so I’ll be on my way.”
Both Momma Bear and the Alligecko stopped long enough to give a solemn nod to the strange man, who turned and left as soon as they had acknowledged him. In two steps he seemed to be fading from view, by the end of the third he was gone entirely. Galen decided it was more than a little creepy.
The three that remained stared at the empty spot where the fourth had been for a minute, then the Alligecko slapped Galen on the back and said, “So now you know where we all went to get our powers. Time to show you how to get back.”
“Wait.” Galen scratched at his head in befuddlement. “This is where superheroes and supervillains get their powers?”
“It is,” Momma Bear said. “In fact, you’ve been here for a while, right? One should have attached itself to you by now. Why didn’t you get away from the Vishnu on your own?”
“Oh.” Galen shook his head slowly. “I guess I hadn’t noticed. How did you know I was there? Did they tell you?”
“The Vishnu? No. They don’t like people like us for some reason.” The Alligecko shrugged. “They’ve never felt like explaining and most of us try to avoid them. But there’s a guy called Clairvoyance who hangs out on this side of things and watches for people from our side when they come through. He’s good at it, though I’m not sure how he does it. We try and collect them, show ’em the ropes, so the Vishnu don’t get too many of us.”
Galen shoved his hands in his pockets and looked at the two of them. Both were kind of famous back home. Saved people from disasters, caught petty criminals, occasionally battled supervillains. The Alligecko’s lizardlike aura and camouflage abilities made him the darling of the ninja-chic crowd, while Momma Bear’s aura of raw power earned her fans of all stripes. Lots of people wanted find out how to wield the powers of an auratouched superhero. But even if he had been one of them, Galen might have reconsidered if he knew it made you talk crazy. “Can you run all this by me again?”
Momma Bear took him by the elbow and lead him to the edge of the plateau. “Tell me, my friend, do you know where we are?”
“Look like the Great Plains of Western Louisiana. Kinda far from Italy no matter how you slice it,” Galen said, glancing at Momma. “Mexico’s not such a log way off, though I’m not sure why Alligecko’s so far north either.”
“You’re close but not entirely right,” the Alligecko said, the giant, glowing, toothy reptilian aura that his name came from springing up around him and slipping noiselessly down the side of the bluff to the ground below. Though he was making no attempt to hide the shape of the spectral creature was still obscured, like a fog bank, hard to make out clearly even though it glowed slightly in the dark of night. It reared up on it’s hind legs, serpentine body stretching a good twenty feet upwards so that its upper shoulders were even with the top of the plateau and its massive head was even with Galen’s.
The Alligecko spread its arms, stubby in comparison to its body but still long enough that Galen could lay his head in the palm of one hand and his feet wouldn’t quite reach the elbow of the other arm, and gestured to encompass the world from the ground below to the sky above. “This is not our home. It’s a different world, my friend. Little here is like you would expect. The shape of the land, perhaps. But beyond that? Everything you know is wrong.”
“Things are different here,” Momma said, taking up the train of thought. “There’s an entirely different energy at work in this world. I wish we could explain it better but really we can’t. The closest word for it is magic, though I’m not sure that’s what the locals call it. There are thin places between here and home, and sometimes we stumble through to this place. And then the magic finds us, and we take a little of it home with us.”
“I get stumbling through,” Galen said. “But what makes getting back so hard?”
“Usually it’s not, most places you can slip through one way will let you back the other. But the Vishnu,” the Alligecko jerked it’s head in the direction of the camp they’d left recently, “and some other groups who don’t like visitors from other worlds keep an eye on the crossing points in their territory and grab people who come through them.”
“We know where most of them are and keep an eye on them so people don’t get caught that way,” Momma Bear added, “but sometimes old ways close and new ways open. That’s one reason we need to get home as soon as possible. You need to show us how you got here so someone can start watching it and keeping people from crossing that way.”
“Yeah. Two months camping in tents isn’t much fun when you are expecting it.” Galen laughed. “Worse when you aren’t. The voices don’t help much, either.”
Momma gave him a weird look. “Voices?”
Unfortunately Galen wasn’t quite done with camping yet. Although tents weren’t involved he still spent another two nights sleeping on the ground as they made their way to the “hard way” home. Along the way the other two spent a lot of time trying to get Galen to find the aura that had attached to him. Both Momma Bear and the Alligecko showed him their own, the ways they focused it and called it to life. But Galen couldn’t find any such power within himself, he just heard voices. And he knew better than to say anything about them.
By the end of the trip both were upset with him, which wasn’t a fun feeling. The Alligecko and Momma Bear were world famous, after all, and it didn’t make much sense to expect him to be up to their standards just because he fell into a different world, did it?
The worst part was sneaking into the compound. This was the “hard” part of the “hard way”, a long, tortuous trip in the shadows of buildings, timed to get them past guards and make sure no one caught them. The whole place was crawling with people in creepy white coats of all different cuts. Everyone, men and women, wore enough jewelry that they jangled quietly when they walked and they were armed like they’d just stepped out of the weirdest Renaissance Fair ever. Wicked hooks that were sharp on both sides, spears with large, flat blades and brass colored gauntlets with all kinds of nasty nubs and spikes on them, he wasn’t sure how people could fight with them but he knew he didn’t want to find out.
You shouldn’t be here. You need to leave.
Worst was the voice. Very insistent, that, kind of distracting when he was sneaking past people who might take “getting medieval” very literally. But, though they gave him some annoyed looks, his two guides managed to see him safely through. Finally they arrived at a building that was little more than a dome about twenty feet high in the center and twice as wide at the base.
A single door led inside. There was a large rectangle in the center of the door with two triangle, points downwards, on either side of the lower half. It took a second but Galen realized it was probably supposed to be a chair of some sort.
Don’t go in!
Galen started slightly. “Um…”
“Quietly,” the Alligecko whispered. That had been his favorite word for the last hour.
“I know. But did you hear that?”
A frown creased the thin man’s face. “Hear what?”
“Singing,” Momma Bear said, pressing her ear to the door. “Beautiful singing.”
That wasn’t what he’d meant but it was something. The three of them clustered by the door, which Momma had cracked open just a bit. Sure enough the sound of someone singing a beautiful tenor solo in Russian was pouring out. “Wonderful,” the Alligecko whispered. “There’s never been a guard before.”
Guarded forty nine times over.
“How many times have you done this?” Galen asked.
“Four,” Momma answered, pushing the door open a little further and carefully sliding a small mirror through it. Light poured out as Galen peered through the crack and saw something breathtaking.
There was what looked like the beginning of a spiral ramp going up the inside of the dome. It wasn’t possible to see much beyond that but even the small part of the dome that he could see was full of dozens of thing, glowing slivers of energy, as if the air was full of floating panes of glass. Fascinated, Galen reached out to touch one that was drifting just in front of the open doorway.
As soon as his finger touched it the pane of light bounced away with a horrible crashing noise then vanished from existence. With it went most of the light from inside inside the dome. Alarms were sounding all across the compound and feet were running in their direction. Momma Bear shoved the door all the way open and Galen could finally see the goal of their trip. It was a crackling circle of pale purple energy covered in constantly shifting shades of light and dark. In front of it stood a single man with a spear. Backlit as he was Galen couldn’t make out many details other than that he wore the ubiquitous white coat, appeared to have blonde hair and the panes of light in the room now clustered around him like a flock of chicks. And he knew they were there.
Run! Run now!
But the Alligecko grabbed his arm and pulled him forward into the darkened room.Fiction Index Part Two