As Mary Winter lay on the ground there wasn’t any pain, yet she was certainly on the brink of death. The assault on Damon Rudolph’s compound had been a disaster, but the details of how he turned the tables were hazy. During her twenty years in the Army she’d gone into many missions doubting the sanity of her superior officers, but this mission was too hastily thrown together. Rudolph was a megalomaniac attempting to establish a kingdom within the United States. They knew his militia was well armed; they were prepared for that. The vortex he activated that soundlessly pulled them off their feet into darkness — that was unlike anything she’d ever seen in the world.
For a moment, the trauma melted away as she saw the face of her ten-year-old son, Stephen. That’s when darkness was overcome by a powerful light from above. She didn’t go to church or have a clear conception of God, but she wasn’t a disbeliever either. It seemed fortuitous that she held out some faith as the heaven’s opened above her. The idea suddenly dawned that she might be crumpled at the bottom of some pit, or wherever that machine had spit her out. The light from above started to swirl and then she was looking at a forest scene through bubble wrap.
Winter didn’t expect heaven to be a forest, so logic dictated she had merely been thrown outside by the machine. As she looked up at the trees, the thoughts of heaven vanished, and she focused on the trees in. “This flora isn’t native to Tennessee,” she said to nobody in particular. Her view of the trees was blocked as Corporal Phil Biggs stood over her. She recently chose Biggs to join her Black Aces unit from a lengthy list of candidates. He was in his early twenties, had seen a reasonable amount of action, but got on her nerves. Although, she had to admit, he held up his end during the firefight. He just didn’t show respect; within the military, respect was everything.
“Wakey, wakey, major,” said Biggs with a goofy grin.
Bigg’s cavalier attitude annoyed her, but the fact that he was conscious before her really was unsettling. Leading an elite unit as a female meant she had to be tougher than every guy she encountered. Being barely on the good side of forty and dropped into this mess made her think it might be time to take a desk job. She couldn’t remember enough details of the assault to know if her own failings led to whatever was going on. On the other hand, her estranged husband, Jesse, walked out on her when she refused to move to desk duty a year ago. If having partial custody of her son didn’t get her out of the field, feeling a bit old wouldn’t do it either. Nothing else would fulfill her. She was born to be a warrior.
Biggs moved a bit to the left and Winter noticed a huge circling “bird” high overhead. The veneer of control evaporated as she took in the monster with its 20-foot wingspan. After her jaw hung slackly for an impossibly long time, she finally said, “What in god’s name is that?”
Biggs pointed out another of the creatures perched in a nearby tree. “With all your experience, you’ve never seen a pterodactyl?”
Her orderly lifetime of military service crashed down as she stared at animal in the tree. She was enthralled by the creature. The “bird” didn’t feel the same as it disinterestedly stretched its head down to gnaw an itch on its reedy let.
Lieutenant Michael Spratt’s voice rang out from behind, surprising the pair. “I only took paleontology for a semester, but I’ve read my share of books on dinosaurs. That’s a member of the pterosaur family, but you can tell it’s a Pteranodon because of the extended fourth finger jutting from the wing. Quetzalcoatlus also has the fourth finger but its wing span is about fifty percent larger than Pteranodon.”
Winter was relieved her African American second-in-command was none the worse for wear. It was odd to see the thickly muscled Spratt sitting cross-legged, nonchalantly smoking a cigarette. Of course he was the oddest soldier she’d ever served with. On his off hours, he was the King of the Geeks, but he was a literal killing machine when on the job. Winter smiled warmly. “I don’t know if I agree, but I’m glad you’re alright.”
“Sorry for being out of action, but I must’ve taken a bad fall,” said Spratt.
Biggs said, “Experience must not count for everything, since we’re in the same frying pan.
Spratt ignored Biggs and gazed at the dinosaurs. “I always wanted to see a dinosaur, but this is not right.”
Biggs didn’t like anyone to have the last word. He said, “Anyone notice the sun is in the east and, umm, the west as well? Dinosaurs and two suns is more than,” he mocked Spratt’s deep voice, “not right.”
Talk of the sun ended as the perched creature sprung into the air and flapped powerfully to join its friend. Winter’s confidence shattered as leaves cascaded down around them. Now was not the time to show Spratt and Biggs how terrified she was. “No more talking, recon the perimeter, but don’t leave my line of sight.”
Winter felt better to be in motion. She believed that focus, procedure, and training could carry any day. The United States Army’s regulations had never let her down. She was relieved the “birds” had flown off. She had no interest in talking about the irrational, but contrary to her normal manner Winter started rambling. “There’s clearly an explanation for freak occurrences of the light and those odd birds.”
Biggs scoffed from across the clearing, “Didn’t Mr. Wizard just say they were dinosaurs?”
Spratt shrugged since he agreed with Biggs, but would never undermine Winter’s authority.
Winter said, “Dinosaurs. Are. Extinct!”
If she hadn’t been so busy yelling she might have heard the rustle from the trees beyond. In the time it took for Winter to think, “I’m dead” a giant dinosaur burst from the shadows. The beast hissed as it charged across the eight-feet that separated it from her. She reacted contrary to training and cringed as her end encroached. She felt the spit from it splatter her as the gaping jaws moved within inches. Even as the reaper encroached, she refused to believe it was a
The staccato cadence of an M4 pierced the air. The head of her attacker erupted, and it collapsed to the ground in fitful death throes. As if her unit being accosted wasn’t enough, Winter was embarrassed yet again as the thrashing tail smashed her to the ground. For the first time since basic training the wind was knocked from her. Lying on the ground attempting to catch a breath, she felt like a baby that needed a doctor’s slap to truly join the world. Finally, sweet air made it to her lungs just as Spratt reached down. She grabbed his hand and tried to repress the quiver in her soul, “Thanks, Mike.”
Spratt shook his head. “I didn’t down that nasty.”
Winter couldn’t believe she had been rescued like a damsel in distress. She looked at Biggs and barely whispered, “Thanks.”
Biggs only seemed interested in the dead animal. “Just killed me a T-Rex!”
Spratt chimed in, “That’s no Tyrannosaurus. Way too small.”
Biggs gave the dinosaur a kick. “This thing’s gotta be thirty feet long! Since when is that
Spratt nodded in ascent. “By comparison, yes. What I’m really talking about is girth.”
Biggs smirked as he said, “You know it’s all about the girth.”
Spratt ignored Biggs as he went on, “Average height for the two is similar, but a T-rex weighed three times as much as an Allosaurus.”
“Let’s put the semantics of which one aside.” He looked at Winter and winked. “Still think there’s no such thing as dinos, miss?”
Winter took a deep breath before saying anything. She wanted to beat Biggs near to death, but she owed her life to him. These men would be looking for poise and decision-making from a sound mind, she had to reassert command or she was done. Winter’s time at West Point didn’t give her a single hint on how to deal with transportation to a strange locale infested with monsters. “Clearly we’ve been abducted to…”
Biggs scoffed. “Where, Skull Island?”
Winter hated Biggs’s humor and how it breached military etiquette, but she decided it wasn’t the time to follow strict regulations. A bit of humor might keep the boys frosty even if it pissed her off. “Let’s try and be logical.”
Biggs threw his arms up in disgust. “Captain, it may sound crazy but you remember the tapestry becoming a vortex, don’t you?”
Winter barked, “Gather the supplies. We’re moving in ten!”
* * *
The supply check hadn’t gone well. They only had two M4s, a sidearm and knife each, eight hand grenades, a satchel of C-4, and one med-kit. Each had a full canteen, but absolutely no other provisions. The forest offered plentiful food and water possibilities, but the potential for poisoning gave her pause.
As they moved through the uneven terrain, no further dinosaurs made an appearance. Winter knew they had to conserve ammo, so her biggest fear was a messy firefight with a herd of bloodthirsty animals. She couldn’t help thinking they were drugged by Rudolph and the dinosaurs were figments of her imagination. If this wasn’t a nightmare, then the only possibility was that vortex was a doorway to somewhere…else. When medicated out of her mind was the uplifting option, the hand basket was dropping into hell.
Winter was pleased Biggs had stopped the senseless chatter. She didn’t like much about him, but he had shown one skill that made up for the troublesome aspects: improvisation in a firefight. From what she’d seen, Biggs had the guts and physical prowess to be a hero. That was something she respected above all else. As her mind wandered, Winter wasn’t really focused on their forward march through the forest. Again the hammering thoughts took away her natural radar for danger. She was taken completely unaware by the next bit of bad luck that dropped down like a dozen giants. In fact, it was a dozen giants.
In a blink, the trio was surrounded by the group of surly armored men. Somehow, even with their military issue, they had been outflanked by a group with crossbows, swords, and other archaic weapons. Thus proving the axiom that superior positioning could win out against a far better armed team. Being outnumbered four-to-one and the creatures averaging seven-feet in height, further weighed the odds in their opponents’ favor. The giants wore tunics in earthen colors that were adorned with feathers, large pieces of bark, and other natural material. There weren’t any manufactured goods worn by this bunch.
The tallest of the giants stepped forward – he was probably eight-foot in height. He swung his sword in a downward motion. It didn’t take a genius to understand that he wanted them to drop their weapons. He followed up with a sentence of guttural words that made no sense to Winter. She was fluent in twelve languages and could passably speak another fourteen. Whatever he was saying, it didn’t sound as if its root was based in any of the twenty-six languages in which she was familiar.
Biggs couldn’t hold in his excitement. “We shooting our way out of here, sir?”
Winter knew they might blast through, but they’d surely be severely injured, maybe even mortally. Maybe it wasn’t necessary to drop the weapons; perhaps it would suffice if they simply lowered them. Winter answered coolly. “Don’t do anything without my order!”
Spratt and Biggs both nodded their acknowledgement.
“I bet I can bluff our way out of this with our weapons.”
“You can’t.” The big man spoke English cleanly without the hint of an accent. “Unlike my brethren, I speak your filthy language.”
Winter smiled. “Then you and I can come to an understanding.”
The lead giant spoke with a commanding tone leaving no doubt to his intentions. “You will drop your evil pieces now, or this conflict will end with our trees splattered by your blood.”
Winter matched the giant’s powerful tone. “What if we just start shooting?”
The giant pointed upward and gave a smile that showed off a set of teeth badly in need of a dentist.
Winter looked upward to see at least a dozen more men and women perched with crossbows. Any wrong move and they’d be riddled with crossbow bolts.
“If you drop your weapons now, I promise we will not kill you,” intoned the giant, “but I will not ask again.”
Winter lowered her head slightly in defeat. “Lay ‘em down, boys.”
As much as it pained them, their weapons were dropped to the ground. Several giants swiftly cleaned out all their supplies, and left them with nothing but their uniforms.
The lead giant spoke. “Now, I will give you a chance to win your lives.”
“Who are you people,” asked Winter.
“I am Jabari of the Zola. You need not know more.”
A sword was thrown out from the crowd and landed at Winter’s feet.
Jabari raised a mighty fist. “Take up the sword and meet me in a contest of steel.”
Biggs spoke out of turn. “That doesn’t seem very fair.”
Jabari scoffed. “You are in our territory, so fair is not an alternative.”
Winter tried to take back control of the situation. She looked first at Jabari then turned to Spratt. “You used to work for Medieval Times, correct?”
Spratt gave Winter the most disbelieving look she’d ever seen. “Uh…yeah.”
“Then you are the most qualified of us to take up the sword.”
“I was a knight for a year, during college. I used a sword for the production, but…”
“This is the proper path. Step up, Spratt,” commanded Jabari.
Winter knew it was a ludicrous decision, but it was their best option. Spratt was as good as they would get with a sword. Perhaps he could defeat an eight-foot giant. Mostly she hoped these men weren’t killers.
Spratt exhaled heavily then reached down and grabbed the sword. The other giants immediately fanned out into a circle. They pushed Winter and Biggs to the side, which left Jabari standing with Spratt in the center of the hastily formed circle. The Zola began tapping the tips of their swords on various armored parts of their bodies. The constant tapping lent a surreal musical backdrop to the proceeding.
Other than the tapping, the giants were utterly still. Winter thought they were almost in awe of the events, and couldn’t help but wonder if she was missing something. This was yet another preposterous addition to the most improbable of days.
Biggs yelled, “The bigger they are, buddy!”
Biggs’ shout overtook the tapping for a moment. Each of the giants looked over at Biggs for a second, apparently slightly unnerved by his voice.
Perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing to throw off the natives a bit, thought Winter. She shouted, “You got this!”
Spratt looked at Winter as he took measure of the sword’s weight, first with his left hand, on to his right, and back to the left. Other than the sheen of perspiration sprouting beneath his hairline, he appeared as serene as Buddha.
The men circled one another looking for an opening in their opponent’s defense. Winter looked on and thought the giant underestimated Spratt since he had an advantage in height, weight, and reach. David can beat Goliath, she thought wistfully.
Winter knew Spratt would try to end the battle quickly. They been together for a number of years and he was always a straight ahead kind of guy. It didn’t seem to her like a bad plan to go straight at the giant and cut him down to size, so to speak. As Winter expected, Spratt lunged with the sword, but Jabari sidestepped with impossible speed. The giant brought his weapon down exceptionally hard. Instead of severing flesh, though, he only smashed the sword from his diminutive opponent’s hand.
Spratt was incredulous at his swift disarming. He began to reach down and retrieve the sword, but again Jabari’s reflexes were blazing fast. Before he’d barely moved, the giant’s own sword was at his throat.
“Any further attempt and all three of you die,” mocked Jabari.
Winter, sensed impending death for Spratt, and tried to charge in and break up the melee but two Zola grabbed her arms. She grunted with exertion trying to break free of the men holding her, but it was no use. “You can’t just slaughter us,” she screamed.
Jabari laughed with a momentous guffaw. “That’s the furthest thing from the next occurrence. Leave our forest via the west, and do it with haste.”
Biggs ignored the chain of command and asked a question. “May we have our weapons?”
Winter could barely gather any words at the moment, so she couldn’t hold it against him for being more with it than she was.
A faint smile crossed Jabari’s face. “Don’t push your luck, boy. I give you your lives, and nothing more.”
Biggs was ready to continue the argument, but Winter touched her hand to his shoulder. Thankfully, he grew silent.
Jabari continued speaking as if the interruption by Biggs hadn’t occurred. “Two hours travel west will bring you to the village of Kiro. There you may find your way in our world.”
Winter had to take Jabari’s word, but she still had questions. “Why did you say world? Where are we?” Her mind again went to the Rudolph’s strange weapon. She couldn’t accept it was a portal.
Jabari smiled with a genuineness that seemed out of place. “I know you will find your way here. For now, my part is through.”
Winter tried again. “Perhaps you can…” She stopped mid sentence because the words were useless.
Jabari turned and moved through the circle, and the other Zola wordlessly followed their leader. Even the giants high above had moved off with nary a sound. The mystery was deepening, and the results thus far were not good. Yet, for some reason, Winter felt answers and, perhaps something greater, were not far in their future.