Initially, Spratt had considered it his responsibility that they had lost all of their gear. Then he thought about it some more and decided there was plenty of fault to go around. They were highly trained members of the Army, yet they allowed a swarm of giants to surround them. Spratt wasn’t even willing to take all the blame for failing to get their things back from the giants. Seriously, who sends a guy that worked at Medieval Times into a sword fight? It was like asking a person that sings in the shower to front a rock band.
The “men” they had just faced may not have been aliens, but they certainly were other-worldly. Not even an NBA team had so many over-sized individuals. If that wasn’t enough tipoff they were on a different world, then the twin suns that hung directly overhead sure were. He thought back to Winter’s theory that an “occurrence of the light” was the cause for the two suns. As far as he knew, excepting ample drug use or heavy drinking, nothing could make you see more than one sun.
He assumed the others realized they were on another world, in a different dimension, or somewhere perhaps supernatural. Still, he kept his beliefs to himself. In a combat situation, nobody wanted to sound like they were cracking under the pressure. He toyed with the idea that he was drugged by Rudolph and fighting to break free of a nightmare. With truly dizzying logic, his internal counter argument was that he’d never dreamed about wondering if he was drugged into a dream-like state. Rational thinking told him he must be drugged, but his bones said this was real. He decided there would be plenty of time to analyze later. When it came down to it, he hoped they’d find somewhere safe to rest or he would wake up out of this infernal nightmare.
Spratt thought that when they got back he could write a book about this adventure, but who would believe a New Jersey boy fought for his life in a world with dinosaurs and sword-toting giants. Then again, some might say it wasn’t too much more adventurous than staying alive in some of Jersey’s malls. Medieval Times, the US Army, and certainly nothing else in his middle class upbringing prepared him for this kind of existence.
His young adult years were misspent and almost led to a wasted life. Eventually, he matured and a fulfilling career was what he needed. His grandfather overcame racism and set down heroic military footsteps that inspired him to be more than a louse. There was something else beyond his grandfather, although he never quite understood what. It was almost as if there was a pull showing him where he needed to be. Never once did he tell anyone about that pull. He might not have gotten into the Army if he mentioned paths or invisible forces. That kind of talk would have gotten him a section-eight before he’d even been inducted. Now he wondered if that pull was real. He decided it was just one more thing he wouldn’t mention to the others.
The forest was dense with large trees but most of the smaller growth was trampled flat. This area seemed to get a lot of foot traffic of one kind or another. Spratt wasn’t sure if it was dinosaurs or some other creatures, but it worked as an almost road through the forest. Most importantly it made the going fairly easy. That was helpful since he was overcome with weariness. They became conscious a few hours ago, but there was no way to tell how long before that they’d had a proper rest. He was certain it was nearly twenty-four hours which had to change.
“It sure is pretty in Middle Earth,” said Biggs.
Spratt was relieved at Biggs’s wisecrack. It somehow made it easier on his wracked psyche when someone else was willing to admit they appeared to be living-the-fantasy. Spratt replied, “Thought you said we were on Skull Island, kiddo.”
With logical conviction Winter said, “There’s no proof we are anywhere but Tennessee.”
“Begging the Major’s pardon,” Biggs may have spoken the words, but his apology was hollow, “them two suns say otherwise.”
At last, Winter visibly lost her cool, “Are you really going to step out of line with me?”
Biggs shook his head. “No, sir. Just hate to see my commanding officer acting naïve.”
Spratt hoped this wouldn’t escalate and divide their group. He pondered what he could do to alleviate the situation. Was it time to jump in on Biggs’s side? The Army had worked to get him to follow orders above all else, and he’d always done so without question. Falling in line with the commanding officer was his duty, but for the first time it didn’t seem correct. Biggs simply mirrored his own thinking. Winter ignoring the insane but probable would not keep them alive. Of course, he knew siding with Biggs could cause his career to disappear faster than Earth’s glaciers.
“What about those dinosaurs we ran into, Major?” Biggs threw his hands up in frustration, “Or were they just special effects in Spratt’s wet dreams?”
Winter shrugged, “Today’s been out of the ordinary, but nothing makes me believe we’ve been transported to some savage land.”
A vibration caught his attention and suddenly the bickering and name calling wasn’t important. “Both of you shut up!” Spratt was shocked by his own outburst, but not the piercing gaze Winter shot his way. He’d surely have a strike on his record, but he wasn’t a lemming. The hell if he would jump off a cliff without a thought. “Sir,” he added with a subservient tone. Winter’s gaze softened a bit, “Listen!”
Winter took a moment to listen, and it wasn’t long before her eyes lit with recognition. “Sounds like a herd of cattle.”
Spratt visited a cousin in Texas one summer when he was a teenager. The sound was similar to the cacophony from his uncle’s cattle drives. He could see a massive cloud of dust coming in the direction they were heading, and it was too wide to avoid. “We’ll be trampled if we go against the tide!”
Biggs and Winter looked upwards at the same time. Spratt didn’t bother pausing and just started climbing. Within seconds, they were far above the ground. It probably wasn’t necessary to climb too high, but there were plenty of strong branches so they continued to rise. Spratt had been in the lead, but Winter kept climbing after Spratt was willing to stop. As they reached the thinner branches near the canopy, Spratt feared the limbs wouldn’t support their weight. He didn’t want to bark at his commander twice in his career, let alone moments apart. Thankfully, Winter finally stopped her ascent.
The tree reached higher than most in the area, so the height offered Spratt a remarkable view of the surroundings. Logic be damned, there was no arguing the two suns were staring him down like the bulging eyes of a crazed killer. In the distance, he could make out what must be their destination, Kiro. The village lay at the base of a jade mountain at the entrance to a lush valley. Between the suns and the emerald sheen of the mountain he had to pull his gaze to the village itself. Smoke wafted from some chimneys, but there weren’t signs of any type of combustion or steam engine. The homes were wooden huts with thatched roofs built mostly on lower ground but several structures were fortified into the mountain itself. The people appeared pre-industrial but were clearly smart enough to construct effective sentry points that could spy an attack from any direction. He marveled that these people had built their village not only at the base of a mountain, but at the entry to a canyon, and the edge of a forest. Using three natural defenses showed their craftiness.
Spratt moved his gaze from the background to foreground and was reminded why he made like Tarzan in the first place. The cloud of dust sent up by the creatures was easily a half-mile wide, and the beasts were close enough to see. As was de rigueur for the day, they were unlike any animals he’d seen before. He did give a soft sigh of relief that they weren’t dinosaurs. There were hundreds of bovine-esque creatures, which were twice the size of any cattle he’d seen in Texas. They were wise to ascend, but he wondered if the trees could hold against such an onslaught. Even if the trees didn’t topple, he feared the tumult would dislodge them from their perch.
The animals may have been moving like a tidal wave through the forest, but they weren’t out of control. Much like the drives he’d seen in Texas, half a dozen riders were herding the cattle without any control issues. Other than their clothing, the riders didn’t look much different from him. They wore tunics made of animal skin and held long spears. Spratt had some control issues of his own, though, as he had to digest the fact that the riders were astride winged horses. He could actually feel the flap of the giant wings as the first herder flew past. Occasionally, a rider would swoop down and prod one of the beasts to assert authority and keep the herd moving in the proper direction.
It was stunning to Spratt that the men looked like men and the horses really were just horses, you know with the exception of having giant wings. As one of the horses flew by its rider locked eyes with Winter. Spratt’s muscles tightened as he prepared to spring across the gap and defend his commander. Winter met his gaze and stared flabbergasted at the man perched on the winged horse. The rider didn’t appear to find it strange they clung to the uppermost branch of a tree. Perhaps this was the normal way inhabitants escaped being trampled. The rider winked and tipped a small animal skin hat in a seemingly chivalrous manner. Without saying a word, he guided his mount away with the herd.
Biggs held the trunk of the tree with one hand and leaned out to follow the herd as it passed into the distance. After a few moments he turned and couldn’t hold in his excitement. “Well, isn’t it nice that Perseus got married, had some kids, and bought a herd of whatzisis.”
Spratt unpeeled his eyes from the receding pack and joked back to Biggs. “You keep saying you aren’t a geek, but that was a Clash of the Titans reference!”
Biggs quipped, “Yeah, I was thinking Greek mythology rather than a crappy film.”
The craziness of the day washed over Winter, and she closed her eyes and leaned back against the tree. Spratt gave his commander a moment to gather her thoughts. They might not know where they were anymore, but he certainly knew where they weren’t. Winter was the most rational person he knew. He couldn’t imagine what all this upset was doing to her internally.
After taking the moment afforded her, Winter snapped into action. “Judging by the diurnal motion of the sun,” she emphasized the singular, “We have about an hour of light, so we’re moving double-time. Then it’s by the book. We’ll approach Kiro at dusk and make an accurate threat assessment before attempting contact.”
Biggs joked, “Hope there’s a Holiday Inn!”
* * *
Spratt detested the anarchy growing in his gut. He sensed Winter was losing her grip, which was a terrifying thought. Nothing could be done right now, but she bore watching. He did agree with Winter’s decision that dusk was the opportune time to approach Kiro. Their strange clothing wouldn’t seem so out of the ordinary with the encroachment of night. If this town was like most places Spratt had visited, then society’s seedier element would be prowling the streets after sundown, and in their current state, they should fit right in. He wondered what communication was going to be like since their run-in with the giants showed that English was frowned upon.
Winter led the way as they exited the cover of the forest and were greeted by a cobblestone path. “Things are about to get much more normal,” Winter said this in a way that sounded like she was trying to convince herself.
The village was still a half-mile ahead, but the path was surrounded on both sides by a corral with twenty-foot high wooden lattice. Spratt wondered if this was where the cattle had originated.
Spratt peered inside the left hand corral, but the darkening sky made it hard to see much of anything. Biggs and Winter joined him in studying the corral. As had become normal, the unexpected snuck up on them and could have killed them all. Distracted by an empty pen, they didn’t hear the approach of a mammoth creature the size of a polar bear in the other corral. All three turned as one and got tangled in each other’s flailing. In his haste to get away, Biggs tripped over Winter and thumped onto the ground. They all gawked at a shaggy, brown-furred, bi-pedal creature. Spratt first thought it was a bear, but it walked wholly on two legs.
“Don’t anyone call it a bear. That’s Big Foot,” stammered the prone Biggs.
Spratt marveled, once again, as he peered into the creature’s eyes. It might be mostly monster, but there was a touch of humanity in those eyes. Spratt didn’t break eye contact with the massive, but soulful beast. He said, “It looks like some type of missing link between man and animal.”
The monster stood stock still and watched them intently. The only motion was its chest moving with steady breathing. Even though the beast posed no immediate threat, the group was shaken. With a helping hand from Spratt, Biggs grunted with exhaustion as he stood up, “I almost wish it would try to kill us. It’s so creepy just standing there looking at us.”
Winter added, “Whatever it is, I’m just glad it’s on the other side of that fence.”
Biggs said, “Did you get demoted to Captain Obvious, Major?”
Spratt noticed the look of rage return to Winter’s eyes and quickly chimed in. “We need a break.”
The rage in Winter’s eyes quickly melted to exhaustion. She spoke in the commanding tone that still made him want to follow wherever she led, “We should have it soon enough,” with that Winter was off without another word.
Spratt took one last look at the creature. It certainly had the appearance of what Big Foot was reported to look like. The beast continued to stare intently as they departed. With another monster in the rearview, Spratt focused on Kiro. Dozens of men, women, and children hustled about a wide variety of mostly agricultural tasks. These were everyday people with ingenuity and talent. The quaint village seemed somewhat prosperous as there was ample food, water, and shelter. If they could be understood, perhaps some rest, nourishment, and most importantly, answers, would be forthcoming. Many ideas formed in Spratt’s mind, but he decided to find out his commander’s intentions, “What’s your plan?”
“Let’s make contact with someone who understands us.” She appeared more at ease in this locale. Speaking with almost normal folk didn’t seem such a daunting task after dealing with dinosaurs, giants, flying horses, and Big Foot. “We need food and a real rest or we’re going to start making mistakes.”
Biggs didn’t hide his mocking tone, “Start making mistakes? Every choice you’ve made has been a disaster…”
The fire returned to Winter’s eyes as she’d clearly had enough of Biggs’s condescending. Spratt knew what was coming, and he would curse himself afterwards for not being fast enough to defuse the situation.
With one skillful motion, Winter swept Biggs’s legs which sent the junior officer crashing to the cobblestones. She pounced like a cat, straddling him and pressing her forearm firmly upon his windpipe. “That’s enough disrespect for one day, soldier!” she spit the last word out like the vilest of curses.
Biggs tried to speak but the words coming through his restricted vocal cords were nothing but a gasp.
Unfortunately the incident caught the attention of the villagers. Before Spratt could issue a warning or pull Winter off Biggs, they were engulfed by the people. The pissing match was over as the two were pulled apart by the swell. The crowd surged around him and he soon lost sight of his mates. Nobody paid him any mind, but that wasn’t much consolation. As his comrades were led off by the masses, Spratt realized their bad day was nothing compared to the cataclysm evening brought.