The Reluctant Fortress - Part One - Fiction - By Michael Palisano -









In Memory
Sean Pettibone



The Reluctant Fortress

I was completely alone, walking beneath a strangely serene night sky. Somehow, it had snuck up from behind me and completely consumed the desert without warning, its nocturnal power obscuring everything beneath its enveloping arms and dominant legs. Looking upward from the ground, everything below felt smaller, greatly diminished. I was lost, wandering below in the darkness. I had become a rapidly shrinking figure that seemed to grow even smaller with each diminishing step. There seemed to be no way of navigating through the darkness. My tentative steps felt inadequate to the task. I decided to stop fighting the unstoppable forces of the night that had conspired against and stymied my efforts. I stood alone against the night, and allowed the journey to succumb, figuring that holding onto it would be a better idea than panicking, letting the decision to hold off until I could be more effective and forge ahead usefully. Unable to find a path, I found myself unexpectedly paralyzed at that point, unable to chart a way forward. I felt the wind begin to pick up, blowing directly in my direction,. I could feel its drifting motion somehow holding the world in place. I scanned for familiar places but couldnít quite see enough to make any progress. The ground surrounding me was flat and unremarkable in all directions, I was lost in an endless desert. No signals or beacons were present. Without any kind of device to aid my journey, I would have to rely on other techniques.
My immediate surroundings didnít present many options and I knew Iíd have to find some other way. For some reason. I thought of another direction and began to look above my position. Everything was unmistakably dark at first, but then I noticed something I hadnít anticipated. When I looked closely and examined their positions, something seemed out of the ordinary. While it was apparent at first,, the clusters of stars seemed jumbled and out of place. I didnít recognize any constellations in the skies flickering above. They seemed to be growing in number some faintly resembling the normal patterns but some seemed to have moved into positions that didnít usually occur.. The longer I looked, the more everything felt scrambled and out of place.

It would be difficult to navigate using them in their unusual constellations. I spun around and looked towards the opposite direction, hoping there would be something there to point me in a direction, but the unrelenting darkness prevented me from finding anything there, either. I thought of the man Iíd encountered, and his sudden disappearance didnít make me feel any better. It felt like I had been abandoned, left alone out there, for some reason I couldnít begin to understand. Looking closer towards the skies, it felt that the stars were slowly, inevitably slipping farther into the night, pushing away from the world. Squinting and focusing on their movement, it seemed that they were converging on a single location, gradually coming together for some unknown reason.
I observed them for a few minutes, hoping to decipher their reasoning and tracing their paths, anticipating how theyíd come back and wondering how different they acted from what I was accustomed. Normally, static and firm, the small lights had come to life, pulsing with a strange energy and movement that seemed to have brought them to life. This instability was exciting, but also a little frightening. I watched nervously, not knowing the reasons why they were acting that way, what had caused them to change positions so rapidly and most of all, the most unsettling question, I had no idea what the unusually pronounced movements in the skies far above my head meant. The speed and intensity in the constellations and arrangements only intensified. I looked back down and my immediate surroundings seemed to have begin reacting, after some delay.

I began to feel the ground beneath me shake and roll. It began gently at first but the land began to gasp and sway, choking and coughing in waved in response to the stars above. The pulses began to intensify, unsettling the ground even further. I looked above and saw the points begin to slide into one another. At first, the collisions seemed to be brief and minor, touching the edges, but still only contacting the sides of one another. As I watched, the stars began to come into closer proximity and they began crashing into each other, forming explosions that reverberated. Red and orange sparks began to occur, and their collisions became more frequent.

The ground began swirling and kicking up waves of sand that blew through my position. Erratically caving and building in eventual circumstances, where the land had completely changed. It was no longer flat, with unexpected drops and inclines forming faster than anyone could keep up. There would be no obvious path forward from that point. I decided to stand in place and let the surroundings change as they coalesced with the stars. The ground continued to undulate, spin and sway but not enough to break my focus or knock me off balance. I would deal with the altered landscape later, deciding to maintain my focus on the stars. I watched them closely, only occasionally pausing to rub the sand from my eyes. Maintaining my position took some effort, and the most difficult task was resisting the temptation to run from the unknown forces surrounding me, I had no idea whether my situation was malevolent, but I had no choice. It felt like some kind of fate had brought me there and I was determined to find the answers, Iíd travelled for a long time and decided to stand in place, despite having no idea what all the commotion in the unraveling constellations far above were leading to.

It felt like I was stuck in place, mesmerized by the rapidly fluctuations of the stars unable to draw myself away from them. Underneath me, the sands swirled around in rapid waves. Unsettling as all this was. I was able to maintain my focus and decided not to let its distractions prevent me from reaching ahead. Taking a deep breath, I felt the sharpness in the air, its coarseness and strangeness was something I hadnít expected to feel. Deciding to take a few steps forward, I cautiously moved ahead without much to go on aside from my instincts and premonitions. It took a lot of effort to go against the wind and it seemed to make an effort to thwart my progress. Failing to stop me, it seemed to settle for slowing me down. I began buttressing myself, I planted each foot firmly into the sand, steadying myself against the pressure.

The unrelenting wind continued unabated, but couldnít stop me from going forward. With each step, I gained confidence and momentum, until I was making what felt like progress, through the valleys and thick drops until I had gotten away from the worst portion of the storm. I paused for a moment and looked back upwards towards the skies. The stars continued their elaborate motions and movements, crashing into one another, swinging past one another, colliding merging and exploding. Their sparks and explosions converging and devouring themselves in unpredictable patterns. It was unnerving to watch, and I had to look away after a few minutes. Fearing Iíd be consumed by their motions. I resumed looking straight ahead, searching for any signs in the night. I walked forward, carefully tracing my steps, trying to keep track of where Iíd been, approximating a path ahead. I had no idea what was waiting for me at the end of the journey, and I had no idea if the effort would be worthwhile but felt there was no other option.

With each step, the resistance I faced seemed to lessen, and I began to feel that I was finally getting somewhere. Despite their best efforts, the dark, chaotic skies above and the dangerous land beneath werenít going to defeat me. After fighting for each step, its defenses seemed to start breaking, and I was able to walk with increasing speed and confidence. I began to feel the wind subside, though only slightly and sporadically initially. Walking faster seemed to drive the energy out of the atmosphere, paradoxically calming it down. I paused and looked up to see a strange and unexpected sight emerge unexpectedly out of the corner of my eye.
Looking toward the horizon, I saw a strange break of light beginning to appear on the far side, stretching only for a short length.

Unmistakably, the long night was starting to subside, the first glimpse of sun had begun to peer over the distant mountains, slowly shaping themselves over the narrow peaks. At last it established an entry, building a rising presence. I looked back towards the swirling stars, catching them in their frenzied collisions, knowing the patches of light would gradually expand to obscure their movements. Focused on their reaction, I watched them slowly subside, merging with the early morning light. They began to slow down and fade from view, quietly returning to their fixed positions. Slowly merging into the waiting daylight, they seemed to vanish beneath the unfolding blue blanket, returning to rest, patiently awaiting the arrival of another night.

Relieved, I waited as dawn broke the spell that seemed to have broken out in the atmosphere. I didnít quite comprehend what exactly had occurred out there, but understood that there would be another time to explore the strange phenomenon. I looked towards the expanse of sand and surface ahead of me and waited for the sun to expand its reach. Each minute grew brighter than the last until the light encroached everywhere, revealing things I couldnít see in the darkness. I quickly moved towards the distant mountains, where I felt I should go. As I walked further, my vision was again impeded, not by darkness. Instead the main obstacle were the relentless streaking, waves of heat coming directly from the intensifying sun. its bright glare seemed to strengthen without pause, until it became nearly impossible for me to see what was in front of me.

There was nowhere to shield myself and I had to look downward to relieve the pressure from my eyes. This took a surprising amount of effort but I was able to compensate for the surge of light, though it took awhile for me to adjust to the sudden change. I looked upward at the deep, endless blue sky for some cover, but there wasnít even the smallest hint of a cloud. I was completely exposed with nothing around, not even a single tree, brush or rock, to provide cover. The intensifying light brought alongside heat that quickly burned and broiled the surface, My feet suddenly felt the pressure, each step singed as I navigated the hot sands. Each step grew longer and more difficult. My efforts seemed to be working against me. The harder I walked, the more it seemed to increase the heat.

I tried to keep on a narrow path, but the landscape only grew increasingly feverish and brutal as I walked forward aimlessly. It was unrelenting, baking the sand, burning the sand until it seemed permanently baked into place, its hardened forms becoming increasingly rigid and immovable. My feet began to recoil from the harsh surface, resisting my efforts to stay in place for any length of time. It felt like I was going to melt into the ground if I rested. I had one way out of the situation. The only chance was to get to the mountain before the fiery desert sun consumed me.

I began walking at a quicker pace, trying to outlast the sun but my efforts began to feel worthless. It began to feel almost like running in place - no matter how much I tried, it seemed that I was getting nowhere. Looking up, I took a gaze into the distant skies, trying to find some sign that I was headed in the right direction. Nothing I did seemed to make any difference, and after awhile, I began to walk slower, almost moving in place. The sun only seemed to be getting hotter, the skies brighter, its glaring reflection the sand burning my eyes. Iíd almost lost my sense of direction, the heat and burning light conspired to throw me off the path. In the distance, the mountains seemed to slip further away, nearly melting under the relentless heat.

Taking a deep breath, the hot air felt ever more oppressive, its snarling, swirling dust filled the air, making it difficult to maintain my balance. The air seemed to evaporate, and even the ground began to shudder beneath the pressure. I felt its rays, burning right through me, they became overwhelming in their assault - there was no way I could withstand the incinerating attacks. I walked further towards the horizon, desperately trying to find some relief but there was no to be had. It seemed that I had fallen into a trap with no possible escape. I consigned myself to the impossible task ahead of me, hoping against all evidence that Iíd be able to find my way through. In a fit of frustration, I stomped my feet on the ground in protest, to no real effect. The sun ignored me and only seemed grow more defiant, even burning brighter somehow. I stood and waited for a moment, and looked around me. I was surrounded by a seemingly endless breadth of sun and sand, there was no way out. I felt my energy draining, despite my efforts and it felt that I would collapse and sink beneath the sand. I would vanish out there, disappearing beneath the desert sand.

I closed my eyes and imagined all the things that had happened and wondered how I had been stupid enough to find myself in this position - trusting things that didnít exist, waiting for something that would never happen. I felt my mind drift into the past, trying to remember some technique that I might have used in the past that would help me persevere through the sandstorm. I remembered the angled lines Iíd drawn in the ground during my encounter with that mysterious man and decided to mark a change in direction.

I walked at a diagonal direction in a choppy, erratic parallel that roughly matched the distant peaks. There was some change in the landscapes, which didnít seem as harsh. I moved closer, towards them, hoping their shadows would offer some protection. Moving at the different angle gave me some relief, I was no longer directly under the sun, and seemed to lessen their intensity. I paused to give my feet a bit of a rest and took a deep breath. It felt a little lighter, though the air was still dense and heavy, choking on the dust, there was a change. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, half out of relief and half from exhaustion.

My mind wandered briefly and I has a vision of a stranded, isolated boat, marooned on a sandbar, unable to move. I saw its masts turning under a cruel wind, its sails blowing with no apparent purpose, It was strange to see something like that emerge suddenly without warning right in the middle of the desert. I walked closer and continued towards its position, moving towards its center.

As I walked towards the boat, it seemed to burn up, the heat was relentlessly overcoming any resistance. I came close enough to nearly touch the edge of its outer wall. I extended my hand towards its wooden planks when it evaporated almost instantaneously. At the same time, I felt something on my back. I couldnít quite place what it could have been at first, and it took me a few moments to realize what was happening It took a minute or so for me to realize who it was, but the presence was unmistakable. After figuring it out, I didnít even need to look around and see. She was tapping me on the back, attempting to drag me out of my waking slumber.

The boat vanished from view nearly as quickly as it had appeared. In its place, two shadows covered the burning sound in front of us. One taller and slimmer than the other, both intersecting, overlapping one another, sliding inside and out as the moved under the sun. I felt her draw closer towards me until she held my arm, slowly sliding her fingers down until she had my smaller right hand firmly in her grasp. I felt a strange cooling sensation driving upwards, ending on my shoulders. There was a protective layer that seemed to repel the hot sun, reflecting its energy back into the sky.

She didnít need to move much farther and we stood in place, distinctly involved in some kind of strange effort. Combined in some kind of unfathomable construction, we began to form a protective shield, keeping the heat at bay. Gradually, our positions combined and she moved from behind me until we were standing side-by-side. It seemed that we had become a force all our own. I was nervous at first, and it took me awhile to work up the courage to look at her. She hadnít changed and her expression didnít reveal much of what she was up to. Before I could speak, she began to apologize. It had been a long time but she had been travelling when she bumped into some old friends. She didnít know that I was in such a troubling position but was glad I had stomped on the ground to alert them to the danger I was facing.

I wondered who she was talking about. There didnít seem to be anyone around, there was nothing for many miles. I tried to explain my encounter I'd had with the strange man, but was afraid of upsetting or angering her. I decided to keep it to myself. I was greatly relieved that she was there for me when I needed her and didnít want to lose sight of her or make her abandon me there. She pulled out one of her strange machines and carefully surveyed the surroundings, methodically scanning in several directions until she seemed to focus on a section north and east of our position. She didnít tell me what she was looking for but I knew it was important. Pulling me along with her, almost shoving me to keep up, she became impatient. She shook my arm a few times when I started falling behind, finally letting me go so she could move ahead.

I was determined to maintain a steady momentum and stumbled to stay with her as she moved effortlessly ahead. It seemed she was looking everywhere, unrelenting in her attention and focus. I didnít understand what she Waa doing but after chasing several false positives, a direction finally began to emerge. She held out her machine, turned its dials, scanned the ground and began to eliminate portions of the surroundings. As she moved away, the protection she offered began to fray and disentangle. I began to feel the hot sun on my back begin to burn through again. It took some effort but I finally managed to move back underneath her shield, It was at that point when she finally began to uncover the proper course.

Finally, she came to rest and looked back towards me. Sliding the machine back into her pocket she extended her hand again, taking me firmly and marking the place where we stood by stomping on the ground with an uncharacteristically defiant kick. She waited patiently, it felt like something would happen, but nothing noticeable occurred. There was no immediate reaction, the unforgiving desert was unmoved by our efforts, its atmosphere not registering the smallest difference. She stood there silently for what seemed like an eternity. She seemed lost, just like I had been, I watched her quietly walk forwards then stop, caught by indecision. I took the opportunity to run towards her position but decided to keep a safe distance as not to get in her way. It seemed that we were both lost. Neither of us apparently knew what to do or where we were heading.

I watched her closely but she didnít reveal her plan, at least not initially. She stood defiant against the rapidly brightening, intractable landscape, dark features of her outfit and flowing hair, enmeshed together, her movements shadowed across the ground, creating a self-contained fortress within her immediate perimeter. I walked behind the dragging shadow she left in her wake. I stood inside and felt an unexpectedly cool reprieve. I felt like I was hiding beneath a cloud somehow protected, under guard by an inexplicably icy force. The heat seemed unable to harm me. Its fiercest attacks unable to pierce her guard. I sensed the heat rappelling downward, only feet away from our position, yet there seemed to be an unbreachable gap it couldnít seem to cross. She walked carefully, slowly towards some unknown point ahead. Straddling my feet, carefully trying not to slip out of her protective layer, I patiently trailed behind, hoping she would allow me to catch up and stand at her side. As we walked, the desert heat began to coalesce, its forces intensifying, while heating rapidly. Our surroundings began to melt under the punishing heat, until their shimmering, burning outlines became visible. I saw their steaming currents form large rivers, evaporating into the air, combining into rivers, relentlessly flowing upward.
With no clouds within view, the heats currents began ascending into the atmosphere unimpeded. I noticed that something seemed strange. Everything in the atmosphere burned and wilted beneath the relentless sun, but she walked forward without a trace of fear or hesitation, largely unconcerned. I walked a little closer and felt a strange sense of invulnerability. As I walked, my feet seemed to rise above the hot sand. I could sense a path ahead of us forming, the ground seemed to cool, unexpectedly, It felt strangely icy, and I slipped on the surface. In a strange way we were floating above the ground, both impervious to the escalating danger.

The atmosphere surrounding us looked like it was about to consume itself, the ground wilted under the unrelenting heat, sand dunes buckling and melting. She continued on her journey with the unmistakably confident strides of someone who knew where she was going, oblivious to the raging inferno building around us. It only seemed to make her go faster, and after a few minutes, she was almost running towards the center of the desert. I tried but it became difficult for me to keep up, and I tried to yell at her to slow down, but she wasnít going to be defeated.

She waved her machine towards me and it began to shake and growl, releasing a stream of focused beams of light towards the sky. Instead of melting, it seemed be invigorated, rejuvenated by the trapped billowing energy. She paused and locked it scanner in place, capturing a few streams of heat for later. I waited in her shadow and watched her fingers carefully. The machine was angled so I couldnít see what she Waa doing. She waved me forwards and began walking then running against the desert, and began running in sharply angled lines, making it difficult for me to anticipate her movements.

Before realizing what occurred, I'd slipped noticeably behind her pace but quickly found a rhythm that would allow me to maintain a steady momentum. I reminded myself of techniques that had worked previously and began to anticipate what I needed to do. Our new tactics seemed effective, lessening the pressure I felt while also making us harder to locate. I felt the accumulated heat subside, it was no longer burning through my shoes. It was a relief to find myself protected, at least temporarily, from its assault. I stayed back a bit and watched what she was doing, still not completely sure why or how sheíd been able to locate me so quickly and save me from vanishing beneath the sand. I was no longer lost in that isolated place, my situation wasnít so desolate, but I still couldnít comprehend what her motivations were.
After walking a bit further towards the mountains she finally decided to take a rest and stopped to survey our surroundings. She looked around and seemed satisfied by our progress. Sheíd defied the attacks from the raging heat, unwilling to succumb to the hostile atmosphere and had finally sprinted the remaining space towards the destination. As we arrived, the machine responded in an unexpected way. Its beams of light flickered on and off, before dissolving completely into the night.

I looked for an explanation but before she could explain what was happening, the machine released a shrieking, piercing alarm that unsettled the atmosphere. She took the machine, folding its edges into itself until it was a quarter of its original size and shoved inside her pocket. She turned to me and grabbed my hand, sharply. The alarm grew even louder. Her grip tightened, and I nearly fell as the ground rolled and shook beneath our feet. It began slowly but quickly intensified until it nearly knocked us off our feet. in the distance, I heard what seemed like a growling noise but it grew louder until it became a loud angry roar, heading straight for our position. We were no longer alone.

(Continue to part two)