The Laser Fiction - A Portentous Retreat (Part Two)









In Memory
Sean Pettibone



A Portentous Retreat
(Part two)

There was an unexpected seriousness to her eyes that I wasn't expecting. I waited for some signal or sign, but she didn't say anything. I looked around and wondered what was happening. I thought, for those precious few minutes on the swings, that it all might have been an unpleasant mirage. The quiet seemed to surround us, but I knew it was deceptive. I could feel their presence nearby and knew that I needed to maintain the quiet, so as not to alert them. She carefully moved a few steps away from me and headed towards the ocean. Signaling me to follow, I took a few steps in that direction and looked nervously over the water. It was calm, the waves seemed to have subsided, the flowing currents beneath barely budging. We walked a little bit closer, and I tried to avoid stepping on anything that might even make the slightest noise, even stepping on a rock or hitting a stray piece of splintered wood would make too much noise, alerting them to our presence.

I looked back towards her and she kept walking at a steady pace. I followed for a few minutes, walking behind her until she arrived at what felt like a safe place. She stood there for a moment, then decided to survey the surroundings. Extending her hand, she pulled me back towards her, until I was right beside her. I tried not to get ahead of her, despite everything I'd been through, she still seemed to have more experience. Instead, I let her take the lead. We stood there and let the atmosphere sink in. At first, I was unsettled by the lack of movement. We could have been sitting ducks, unsheltered from any potential attack. Standing there seemed like a bad idea, leaving us completely vulnerable without a sense of where we could run to. She didn't seem concerned by this and instead continued to stand defiantly, unafraid of what might be lying in wait nearby.

Standing alongside her gave me a strangely renewed sense of confidence. I wasn't able to put it to use at that moment, but I had survived a few encounters and had a sense that I'd be able to keep up with anything that might come my way. I took a few steps away from her and tried to make my own place but she quickly followed me. She didn't seem to share my fear and took my arm once more into her hand, clutching tightly onto me to make sure I didn't interfere with her pace. Before I knew it I was standing behind her; somewhat impatiently. I tried to walk ahead but she quickly saw this and told me to stand back. I did so reluctantly, but she didn't want me to get in the way. We waited for what seemed like an inevitable confrontation.

It didn't seem like the best strategy to find ourselves standing on the beach, completely exposed, without much of a plan. There was an odd calmness about her and she looked like she knew what she was doing. I closed my eyes and took another deep breath, attempting to calm myself down, and it seemed to work, my lingering fears began to subside as the warm air soaked in. She remained at a distance, seeming to float a little above the situation, not wanting to get too involved. I decided to look towards the waterway and scanned the horizon. I wasn't exactly sure what I was looking for, but came to the conclusion that there just might be a boat or a vessel headed in our direction. I waited for something to appear on the horizon, listened for any sign of an engine, a glimpse of sails of some kind. The waters stood still, undisturbed by any unexpected intruders of either malevolent or salient type. I walked a few feet away to get a better angle on things, but there was no sign that anything was coming to our rescue, but nothing threatened us, either. It was a strange situation, and it seemed that we'd entered a kind of stasis, where nothing was going to change significantly. I looked back towards her direction and noticed an unexpected change in her demeanor.

She directed her energy towards a specific area, beyond the outer banks of the beach, just above its low-water line. I followed along as she walked position down the shoreline. As we drew closer, her hands began to point towards a seemingly odd formation of rocks. She began zeroing in towards the location. We moved quickly and, before I realized what happened, we were downwind at a significant remove. At that point, I could barely distinguish the outlines of the piers and swing sets from the embedded coastline landmarks. We stood out, placing ourselves, at the permeable boundary between sand and water. The soft sand was damp and moist, but our feet were still grounded somehow. It slowed me down a little bit; I had to be extra careful to avoid rocks and other things. She continued without much of a pause and continued pushing forward. She led the way until we finally reached the end of the beach. At that point, the shoreline narrowed until we were surrounded by the ocean on three sides. After rushing there, she finally came to a rest and looked around. It felt safer on the edge of the water, but the location wasn't entirely secure. If we were attacked or threatened there was nowhere else to go. Standing behind her, I watched the sea nervously, and wondered where the mysterious boat and its enigmatic captain had gone. I wanted to ask, but knew that she wasn't going to tell me. I watched the eerily calm waves lap silently around us and wondered why she had brought me there. Minutes passed and we stood there silently, there wasn't a sign or signal to be seen or heard. Perhaps, going there was a mistake, maybe she wasn't infallible after all.

She waited for a few more minutes, and began looking for something. Not finding it, she apparently decided that it wasn't the right place. She turned and walked back toward me and stood once more at my side. She didn't grab my arm that time and instead let me stand in place. I wondered what her plan was, and couldn't quite understand what she was up to. I decided to look carefully at the ocean once more and detected an unexpected shift in the water. Slowly, it began to take on a rolling motion, the waves submerging beneath each other, slowly building into stronger forms before dispersing, then forming new currents that became increasingly pronounced. The waves strengthened, bringing longer tides with higher crests whose heights became increasingly visible. After a few minutes, the sea surrounding us was roiling in itself, the water becoming increasingly threatening. She seemed to notice the sudden burst of energy, and prompted her to yell out to me unexpectedly. I couldn't make out her exact words, but instinctively realized that she was warning me.

She waved towards the water, seeming to have seen something out of the ordinary. I walked over carefully and examined its waves and currents but couldn't quite understand what she was trying to tell me. I watched closely as she pulled out her mysterious machine. It was larger and thicker than the one I'd assembled, with a greater array of buttons and switches on its surface. Spring to life, it burst out with an array of colors and unfocused light, scattered and diffused at first until its energy eventually resolved itself, converged and finally formed a singularly powerful, unmistakable beam of light. Its energy focused on a singular area just beyond the edge of the water.

She kept the beam focused on the section until its energy began to build, creating what seemed to resemble a small door, though its surface seemed unstable and somewhat tentative. It resembled a rough sketch that needed to be filled in. Keeping her energy steady, she maintained her position, unyielding to the increasing strength and power. She quickly and steadily filled in the structure's outline until it began to gradually solidify, becoming more stable with each passing moment. I stood back always and watched its assembly with a mixture of trepidation, I walked closer, inching towards the door until I felt its energy pulsating outward. It grew stronger, and increasingly powerful until the energy focused inside couldn't be contained within its transient structure.

Its unearthly energy began to seep from the core; it leaked outward until its waves began to roil the surface beneath us, causing the ground to shake and shift. She didn't stop aiming her device at it and the continued energy became increasingly untethered. As the beam's concentrated force and accumulated power grew stronger, the coordinated burst of energy began to glow. The doorway's energy quickly grew brighter until it was almost blinding in its intensity. It was difficult for me to see what was happening at first, but there was unmistakable movement as its sides began to widen gradually. Maintaining her focus, the energy from her machine transferred an ever-increasing amount of energy until it finally seemed to stabilize. She took the machine down for a moment and looked it over. It had grown significantly, and there was still plenty of residual energy but it still didn't seem complete. Despite all of this, the door still looked unstable. Holding the machine in her hand, she examined its dials and motioned for me to step forward. Looking over her shoulder, I could see that it had spent up a lot of its energy and now looked to be somewhat under-powered. There wasn't much that left for her to work with and it seemed that she needed assistance.

I remembered the machine I had made out of the pieces I'd found scattered and assembled, into a rough approximation of what she managed. It didn't work or even respond in any significant way but, there wasn't much for me to lose. I took it out of my pocket and waved it around, attempting to build something outside the elevated door. Attempting to make something, I tried tracing the light in the sky. I tried creating different patterns but nothing seemed to work. I took several additional swings around the horizon, with sharper motions and smaller patterns, but there was still no response. The machine gave nothing in return. I'd spent so much time building it, but when I needed most, it completely failed to add anything to the nearby area. If she was even aware of my efforts, it wouldn't be much of a surprise if she dismissed them as a complete waste of time. A kid playing with his toy, nothing really important. After several minutes of waving it around, I gave up on it, realizing that it wasn't going to get us anywhere. I had a sense of shame and embarrassment, I was just acting but she was purposefully working on creating a space for us. All I had in its place was a limp offering that did little to help out. I gave it a few more whirls around, tried moving its useless buttons around, spun its dials and held it at different angles. None of this made any difference, and I decided somewhat reluctantly, that there was nothing more that I could do. I'd have to find other ways to help.

I put the machine back in my pocket, carefully placing it deep inside so it wouldn't get damaged. It didn't seem to interrupt her as she continued to reinforce the doorway until it stabilized. My eyes were drawn back to the main task at hand. I noticed that the door she had carefully designed had become somewhat more stable, as she moved the machine to an elongated position, extending its beam directly into its center, aiming squarely at its middle. After a few minutes, it seemed that she'd reached a blockage. It seemed that its construction was completed, but wasn't traversable. There was a lock she couldn't open. Her machine's energy had slowly diminished, until there was just enough left to keep things in place, but there wasn't enough power left to go further. There seemed to be an uncharacteristically stubborn obstacle preventing her from unlocking the door, but it wasn't immediately clear what that was.

She paused for a minute and tried to figure out what was happening. Perplexed by the stoppage in front of her, she did something I wasn't expecting. She walked towards me and pointed at my pocket, motioning me to remove the machine from its hiding place. At first, I was taken aback that she had even noticed what I was doing, let alone managed to find significance in the stupid little thing I had build as a toy, not thinking it would actually be useful. I started to remove the haphazardly constructed device from its protective layers when there was a sudden roar in the distance. It pierced the serene atmosphere, instantly shook the ground, disrupted our concentration but didn't take me entirely by surprise. I knew almost immediately what that deafening, terrifying sound was. They'd found us.

The creatures circled around, tearing at the edges of the tall trees, until they converged on our position. Then, they angrily shook their arms, snatched at their teeth and stomped the ground. All at once, it seemed they’d located what they were seeking all along. Triumphantly, they excitedly pounced downward. Their combined force shook the ground and created an instantly unsettling sensation that quickly hit our position. It caused the surface to shake and roll until the wave hit directly underneath our position. Taken off balance for a second, she took a minute to regain her balance then moved in closer towards me. She took her hand from her side and firmly stated that I needed to give her the device immediately. I quickly withdrew it and gave it to her. She examined it quickly. She seemed to know what the symbols on it meant, though their meaning remained elusive to me. Waving it around, she began turning its dials and pressing its buttons. She pulled it upwards, examined its construction and surface thoroughly until she was satisfied with its appearance and function. I didn't completely understand what she was going to do with it, but I had an idea what she was planning.

I realized that it would be better not to interrupt her. It was apparent she knew what she was doing. She walked quickly towards the glowing portal and pulled my machine out, extending it into the door. It sat there for a minute or so, without causing any reaction. It didn't seem to have any real effect, and I wondered what its purpose might have been. Without warning, it began to spin around and twist, seemingly on its own. It levitated a bit, then bent upwards and down, until it was aimed at a sharp angle, until it was nearly positioned at a straight vertical angle. Purposefully, the machine ramped up its energy and began to flood the doorway. It moved to another position and repeated the maneuver, jumping around like it had a mind of its own. Throughout, I began to understand this was far from an automatic approach. I wasn't exactly sure what she could have done that brought it to life, but I wasn't entirely surprised that she found a way to infuse it with a remarkably powerful burst of energy. I looked towards the doorway in front of us and it seemed to have withstood the assault, though it seemed to have been pushed slightly off-balance by their terrifying, inescapable screeches.

She remained strangely calm given the circumstances, her demeanor unchanged by the seemingly unstoppable foes approaching us rapidly. The thundering herd of monsters grew louder as they approached, their fury intensifying. She focused on the portal, unwilling to be distracted by their menacing shrieks. I waited for her to signal what to do next, but she seemed to be ignoring me. Instead, she maintained her energy as the doorway began to further stabilize under her watch. I turned around and was immediately frightened by what I saw. Their sharp crowns began to materialize in the distance, they seemed to be getting taller as they grew near, devouring the atmosphere, which each relentless step. Their apparent hunger was tangible. We were sitting directly in their path, and there was no way we could stop them. I turned back towards her and saw that the doorway seemed that it had finally reached its complete form and was now glowing consistently. She turned around and looked back toward me, motioning me to join her. She turned and looked beyond me. The creatures were closing in on us, there was no time left. Looking back at the doorway, she stood for half a second to examine them, somewhat surprised by their unexpected ferocity. She took her hand out, extended it towards mine and quickly held it firmly in her grasp. Pulling me towards the doorway, she started to jump but waited for half a breath. She wasn’t entirely sure what exactly was on the other side of the door.

Taking advantage of our transient weakness, one of the creatures jumped, screeched at us and pounced, until it was only a half-dozen feet behind us. This made my stomach fall into my feet and I froze in place in terror. The massive, screaming creature punched the ground, causing a large impact that shook the entire surface. It was a terrifying attack that simultaneously caused us to lose our balance while destroying any facade of protection that distance might have provided. Its aggression seemed to catch her off guard and it took a minute for her to regain her composure. Rebounding and getting back on balance, she was defiant and stood her ground. She seemed unbowed as she faced the ravenous creatures. They responded with increasing agitation. They assembled into formation quickly, standing aside one another, completely surrounding us. Without much effort, they’d closed off any routes of escape. They snarled, shrieked and cut their teeth. The circle tightened around our position there was nowhere we could escape to. Their bodies twisted and moved in closer until I could feel them breathing heavily, anxiously awaiting the signal to move in for the strike.

We had no time to think, but she found enough to examine the situation. We had to get out of there quickly. There wasn't a chance for us to hide beneath a cloak and it probably wouldn’t have fooled them again, especially at such a close range. Luckily, there was another plan. She pulled her machine out and held it in the air. She pressed a few of its buttons and it let out a massive burst of a supernaturally luminous blue color. This filled the surroundings with bright light and caused a loud bang. It had the effect of distracting and stunning the creatures but also seemed to drain the device of any residual energy. We wouldn’t have another chance to escape and would have to retreat quickly before they resumed their assault. The confrontation was held at bay. They wandered around shocked, and stopped clawing at us for a fortuitous moment, their attention drawn to the explosion. She didn’t hesitate, and took advantage of the distraction she created. She ran towards the doorway and forcefully grabbed my arm along the way. We quickly ran towards the quickly diminishing portal and jumped into its opening, pulling me alongside her with surprising velocity.
It felt like we were running at a thousand miles an hour as we passed through the door. The pressure was immense and powerful but we managed to pull through. The heat diminished rapidly, replaced by a sudden sensation of cold. Before I realized what was happening, I sensed that we were plunging into the unknown. It felt like the ground beneath us had fallen away, with no surface beneath our feet. This was more frightening in some ways than the attack. I looked towards her and she didn’t seem nearly as afraid as I was. We fell downward for several additional seconds. Slowly, our descent slowed until it felt like we were gliding downward. I took a moment and looked at the rapidly darkening and deepening atmosphere. It looked alien and empty, its layers of clouds permeating and cascading to create a state unlike any I’d experienced. At once dark and bright; both opaque and transparent, the enveloping clouds formed layers that were simultaneously protective and restrictive. We’d reached relative safety, but wouldn’t be leaving in the near future.

Gliding downward, we descended though an invisible path until we hit the surface, which felt strangely soft, cushioning the impact as we landed on our feet. She pulled out her machine once more and it gave off a beep, followed by another quick burst of energy and light. It wasn’t nearly as strong as the previous one, and it didn't seem to have the duration or strength of the one she just unleashed. Its energy quickly dissolved, leaving us in near-complete darkness. We had only the light from a distant, extraneously-sighted moon. Before we could walk two steps into the void, were assailed by a sudden draft of exceptionally frigid, unwelcoming wind. I heard something that resembled a door slamming, far above us. There was a second boom, but the creatures were too late. The doorway above us was closed permanently, its outline dissolved until it disappeared completely, vanishing into the night sky. The portal vanished instantly, making it impossible for anything to follow us. We’d escaped their clutches without having to expend undue energy fighting them. Instead, we slipped away, blocking their pursuit effortlessly. I was somewhat surprised by how she’d managed to stay so calm in the face of their assault. Perhaps, she knew ahead of time what they were planning. It was incomprehensible. She didn’t seem afraid of the monstrous creatures at all. I couldn’t quite understand how she took control of the situation. I couldn’t precisely comprehend how she was able to escape their grasp effortlessly. She knew more about the malicious creatures than I did. Most importantly, we were safe, at least for the time being.

The cold wasn’t entirely unpleasant, there was a sense of safety that came though the frigid blast immediately. In a strangely logical sense, the cold air offered protection from the snarling, fiery creatures that had, until minutes earlier, been pursuing us with unrelenting ferocity. Its crisp, clean embrace helped dislodge the fear that had been so overwhelming only a few minutes earlier. It took longer than expected to adjust and get my bearings in the changed environment. The cold filtered downward, quickly permeating my body. It was quickly unrelenting in its frozen grip, I couldn’t shake the chill. It didn’t seem to bother her for some reason. It was eerily quiet, in a way that I wasn’t expecting. It seemed that it had been dark there for an extended period, stretching back an unknowable time. Walking at a consistent, careful pace over intangible, tundric surroundings It felt strangely intrusive. It felt like the ground itself hadn’t been disturbed in a long time, It felt that it was inexorably frozen in time.

Inexorably we continued onward, where everything seemed cold, almost completely frozen beneath layers of ice, encased in an eternal nocturnal winter without warmth or light. I looked around and saw nothing that I recognized. There were none of the familiar landmarks or any places that I remembered from our previous encounters. There was a vast expanse of darkness that felt like it went on forever. I waited for her to lead the way but she paused to soak it all in, or at least to take a breath after our successful escape. It seemed that it had taken more energy than I had thought initially, and she needed to take a rest. I walked beside her, finally able to catch up. I noticed that her demeanor no longer felt as distant as it had before. She seemed to relax slightly, and her defensive posture wasn’t quite as pronounced. She kept her motivations and techniques carefully guarded. She began scanning the surroundings carefully, looking for any potential threats. I stood back a bit and observed her carefully. It was better for me to stay out of her way, so I decided to stay in the background while she searched for anything that might be lurking in the night.

It wasn’t exactly clear what specific threat we faced, but apparently it was tangible in her mind. She motioned for me to move close in towards her. I wondered what she was up to but then realized what she wanted. She took my machine out from her pocket and examined it carefully. She became curious about its markings and looked at them closely. Their origins were mysterious and unknowable for me, but she seemed to recognize a few of the symbols and letters on it. She held it closer and began spinning some of its dials, seemingly at random. It took a minute to recalibrate and synchronize, but after a short period, it began to glow and buzz. She held it up towards the sky and it came back to life. She held it firmly in her hand and began to focus its light beam until it reached an unspecified equilibrium. Pointing it upward towards the sky, she began scanning the eastern horizon where’d we’d escaped from, in an attempt to locate any potential intruders. There were no visible signs of any attackers, but that didn’t mean nothing was out there. It wasn't clear that there might have been something waiting out of view.

She carefully walked around the perimeter and retraced her steps until she encountered a group of what appeared to be walls of icy sharp, decidedly unwelcoming bushes, their branches held perfectly in place against the frigid atmosphere. Their rigid branches remained firmly in place even when she walked by, unmoved by her motion. I watched her navigate the territory without making much effort. It seemed like we were traversing an alien and strange landscape but, it was familiar territory for her. She knew exactly where she was going, so I followed without questioning the destination. I wondered if she had brought me there on purpose, and what her reason might have been. The cold ground beneath her looked oddly unmoored, seeming to answer only to itself. It seemed indifferent to our presence, not reacting to our presence in the usual manner. Strangely, she grew increasingly confident with each step, undeterred by anything in her path.

After walking for what felt like forever, we received a respite from following the intractable journey, taking us away from the deceptively invisible path. We arrived at a cluster of thick, sharp bushes. Alone, we walked through them until we finally arrived at our destination. I had to take a half-step back, not quite believing what I was seeing. After all that effort, we'd come to discover a strangely familiar clearing. It was a startling sight, an echo of a place that I hadn’t expected to see again. There it was, right in front of me, seemingly undisturbed by time, shimmering like a transparent ghost, seeming to visualize in flawless reconstruction, arriving from nowhere, unaffected by all that had transpired in its wake. It quietly shimmered beneath the moon, its contours tranquil and serene, the frozen lake was perfectly formed, exactly the same as I remembered it from our earlier encounters. It wasn't clear how much time had passed, perhaps it was another strange mirage. Maybe another one of her strange games. The lake bed was unnaturally smooth and pristine, it looked like no one had skated on it since we left.

I was afraid to venture further but there was no hesitation on her part. She walked right onto its surface and headed straight for its center, seemingly unafraid that she might slip or fall through the ice. I was a bit reluctant to join her. I didn’t have my skates with me and wasn’t expecting to dance with her again. She waited for me, standing quietly in the darkness and began motioning impatiently for me to join her. I took a few nervous steps, walking carefully across its surface, trying to maintain my balance on its slippery surface. After regaining my balance, I achieved a tentative equilibrium that wasn't destined to last long. She lurched forward, grabbed on and swung me around in a half-circle until we faced straight on. There was no escaping her unrelenting gaze. Pulling me closer, she looked around nervously to make absolutely sure no one was listening. I looked into her eyes, wondering what they might portend. There was something about her demeanor that I hadn’t detected previously. She evoked severity and finality with reluctance that I wasn’t prepared for. I reached out my hand and she grasped mine, gripping me with a startling strength that felt dark and cold. I awaited her next move anxiously yet she hesitated despite the serene surroundings.

Taking provisional cover beneath the overpowering, strangely tranquil moonlight, she pulled me alongside her and stood back a little from the center of the lake. She grasped my hands in hers and took a deep breath. She began to speak but whispered in a quiet deliberately measured tone. Her voice was nearly inaudible underneath the diminishing wind, I knew this wasn't she wanted overheard by anyone. She looked at me and asked me where I'd disappeared to. I didn't know how to explain and stumbled into an incomprehensible, somewhat vague explanation. This didn't seem to satisfy her completely, but it seemed that there was something more on here mind. She took out the machine, unfolded it carefully, letting it open fully into its undiminished form. She looked at it closely, examining it for imperfections. She effortlessly read the previously indecipherable symbols on its side and didn't seem to find anything damaged or broken. She held it close at her side, until it was nearly parallel to the ground. It began to glow in a manner that I'd never seen before, illuminating the ice beneath her with an supernatural green hue. Every step closer made the light intensify, it began glowing brighter with each step. She pulled it upward and held it aloft and asked me where I'd found it. I told her about the scattered pieces and the disconnected clues that led me there. None of my it seemed to make sense when I said it out loud, but somehow this explanation seemed acceptable to her. She took it in her hands and twisted it around until it folded back into its previous form, returning to its clandestine state. It was easier to hide and she slipped it underneath her cloak. She'd been looking for her lost machine for a long time and wasn't going to lose it again.

- Michael Palisano