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









In Memory
Sean Pettibone



The Reluctant Fortress (part two)

I heard them closing in, their pulsating yells growing increasingly loud with each step. I stood with her, paralyzed with fear, unable to move. I expected her to run but she didnít move an inch. Instead she stood in place, and seemed to anticipate their arrival. The noise became nearly unbearable, the ground beneath us began to shudder under the pressure. I crouched downward, frightened of the assault to come, and tried to protect myself. It didnít seem like she could protect me from them. I could see their shapes rising in the distance, growing increasingly large until they seemed to stretch towards the horizon. I squinted my eyes and tried not to look, but their presence was unavoidable. I knelt down lower but this only placed me closer to the unstable ground. I took another deep breath, the air had grown dangerous, its unsettled waves went right through us. I walked towards her, attempting to hide under the shield she created. It didnít seem like it would do any good. The seemed to grow ever larger and more numerous, converging just over the horizon. I heard them screaming and screeching at one another in malicious tones. As they drew closer, I made out their outlines, terrifying forms began to emerge in the distance. Their slithering, swirling motions increasing in ferocity and threat with every moment.

I was sitting directly beneath her, but the artificially cold draft I felt only made us stand out more, making us easy targets. The came ever closer, loudly proclaiming their triumph at having located and ensnared their prey. I wondered how she would counter their pending assault. She stood calmly above me, serenely watching as they circled towards us. Their screams and yells began to subside, replaced by a strange hissing noise that registered an unsettling force, disturbing the boiling airways. This made it more difficult for us to track them or anticipate their movements, She extended her arms outward and took out her machine. Enabling the scanner function, she traced their positions and waited patiently for their next move, They remained at a distance, but there was no way of knowing when they would make their final strike. All we could do was wait, she didnít seem to have a plan for fighting back. Sensing my increasing fear, she took the mysterious machine and pointed it towards the opposing direction, aiming for the horizon directly behind us, She began scanning and exploring the surroundings until sheíd circled our position with its array of lasers. Her tactics were somewhat strange and it wasnít immediately apparent what she was trying to do or what her purpose was.

It didnít appear that her machine would do much good against any significant attack. She waved it around some more, creating light that flowed around us in ever widening circles. She spun it faster and with increasing velocity. After a few minutes, the motions and its burst of light seemed to frighten them momentarily, it was something they hadnít expected. They retreated a few steps and went into a defensive position. Their imminent onslaught was delayed and they moved away from us, pushed back by fear. I waited patiently but became increasingly aware of the danger. I stood still, but was frightening, knowing that any safety was only temporary, I watched them carefully. After the shock of her initial motion wore off, they slowly regrouped, maintaining a distance from us. I watched them, gradually reforming their attack lines. Encroaching from the horizon, the brutal sun still burned brightly overhead. They seemed to replenish their energy, extending their bodies upwards. This renewed energy gave them renewed focus,, and their movement towards our position increased. Their arms began waving wildly at their side, They began to contact and collide each other and spin out. It looked like they had over-done it, and they seemed to lose control as they regained power. I watched nervously as the creatures seemed to go off their mission, looking around at one another searching for direction and focus. It took awhile, but they regained their equilibrium after a few chaotic moments, refocusing their assault in our direction. She didnít respond much to all the commotion, keeping her composure. I waited for them to unleash a final attack on us, but their threat remained somehow distant from us. It seemed that they simultaneously wanted to observe us from a safe distance but also didnít seem as afraid of her as they had been in the aftermath of her initial response.

They seemed intimidated by her mysterious laser machine initially, but its neutralizing effect was short-lived, the effect on the creatures was transitory. Slowly, they regained their energy and began closing im, reforming their lines of attack. Cutting in diagonal lines, they began to grow increasingly aggressive, swirling and waving their long bodies in increasingly threatening motions. I watched her and she seemed strangely serene, not intimidated by them in the slightest. The assembled creatures let out another collective scream that seemed to go right through us. I cowered again, and found myself crouching behind her, hoping that there was some way should would be able to save us. I knew not to look at them directly but it was unavoidable as they closed in. I had tried to avoid eye-contact as much as possible, and regretted it when they slipped through my defenses. When I did catch a glimpse of their appearance, it only increased my fear. They had strange, alien eyes that seemed that they could see right through us. As they came closer, I saw how tall they were, their slithering bodies welded together unnaturally, each segment inexorably connected, giving their skin an intimidating glare. Their arms extended outward like long tentacles, their sharp claws cutting through the air. When they stood together, they created a wall, that summoned a collective force, like an impenetrable line nothing would escape from. It seemed that nothing could defeat them. When they came together and lined up in together, they formed a frightening, inescape fortresses, writhing and screaming, building a wall to surround us. We seemed to have fallen into their trap, victims of their scheme. She decided not to provoke them further and placed her machine at her side and turned it off. It seemed to work in reducing the threat that she might have posed, at the very least, it effectively doused the angry fires burning in their eyes.

This seemed to calm the creatures down temporarily, but the respite didnít last. They stood in place and seemed to decide to wait for us to make another move. For several nervous minutes we stood at an impasse, neither side moving forward or retreating. I stood behind her and waited for her next movement. Taking the machine in her hand, she began adjusting its position, turning its dials and experimenting with different configurations. None of her efforts seemed to make a difference. While she was distracted with the machine, the pursuers moved closer and began encircling our position. Some began strafing towards our side, while others seemed to slide behind the leaders. They formed a series of long barricades, I watched them close in and block any escape routes we have had. We stood in place but the strategy seemed to backfire, making us completely vulnerable. As they converged, they seemed to regain their anger and began growling and screeching, puncturing the uneasy silence. She motioned for me to stand and not run away from the attackers. We stood together as the came in ever closer. I felt their bodies pounding against the ground as they converged on our position. I watched for her to respond but she stood silently, remaining largely in place, I wondered what she was waiting for.

Their sharp crowns became more menacing with each step. I could see them shining under the sun, shimmering blades cutting at sharp angles across their heads. It wouldnít take long for them to come within striking distance. I felt my heart skipping and stuttering as they drew towards us. I took her hand and stood beside her. They slowed down almost to a crawl as they worked inward, Before I knew what was happening, they had us completely surrounded. There was no way we would be able to escape. I saw their arms begin to extend towards our direction. Each one covered in sharp rows of tightly-wound knives. They slid into place and began sharpening themselves on each other, cutting their paths, readying their final thrust in our direction. I had to close my eyes but I could hear them clasping against one another, screeching across the surface and headed straight towards us, without the slightest deviation in direction. I sensed their arms extending directly in front of us, their sharp knives beginning to strike towards us. They stopped just short, coming right at us, breaching the outer sides of our barrier. I felt their hot arms extending into our cold barrier then extending directly over our heads. Their arms swooped down, brushing less than an inch above our heads and my heart stopped. They began chopping at the air, circling above us quickly. I took another deep breath and prepared for the worst. I looked back towards her but she seemed almost unnaturally calm as they closed in. I thought maybe she had accepted our fate as inevitable and decided not to fight them any longer.

As they made their final preparations and completed the last stage of their terrifying assault, I crouched down into the ground and she joined me, covering me with her black cloak. This only seemed to enrage them and they began chomping their teeth even harder, coming down towards our level with increased velocity. I waited for them to chomp on us but something seemed to hold them back. I heard their teeth biting just above my head, their jaws thrusting and shoving just above us. I opened my eyes for half-a-second and saw what seemed like endless rows of sharp incisors right in front of me, ready to consume anything in their path. They wailed and screamed and I had to close my eyes as the pressure became almost unbearable. They came in even closer, and their arms began to swat at the fabric of our shelter, hitting us rapidly with unrelenting movements. Squeezing together, their extensions began to wrap around our cloak. They were nearly ready, it would be only a few seconds before they would completely consume us.I prepared for the worst and felt my breathing stop. There was a sudden loud screeching sound that signaled the end of the battle, but it lasted longer and was louder than any of their other assaults.

It took me a second to realize that the loud screaming noise wasnít coming from the assembled creatures. Instead, it felt like it was coming from a distance. At first, I couldnít place where it was coming from or what its source was. The unexpected intrusion seemed to startle the assailants and they froze in place just as they were about to complete their task. A few moments passed and another scream penetrated the air, it was louder and menacing, aimed directly at the assembled forces. It seemed to resonate and echo through the air, disrupting the plans that had come into play. We stood and watched them attempt some form of response. They seemed confused, their arms waving frantically at one another. It looked like they were trying to figure out what was happening, but couldnít comprehend what exactly it was. Eventually, the assembled forces fell apart, their focus and intent shattered in an instant. In a panic, they began splitting apart, severing their attack lines and spinning in confusion until openings began to emerge. She pulled at my arm and pointed towards an opening in their formation. This unexpected distraction gave us an opportunity to break free of their clutches, We quickly darted out from the trap, running between two of the attackers as fast as we could until we reached a safe distance.

After a few minutes of running, we had traversed far enough that we could rest for a moment. I was afraid to look back towards them, but she trained her eyes back on the assemblage. Pointing and scanning in their direction, her machine began collecting information about them. The machine didnít seem to indicate where the loud yelling had come from, but it must have been powerful and frightening enough. The creatures remained frightened and disoriented, pacing nervously, trying to find their composure. There was another loud yell that hit them even closer, roiling the landscape, catching them off balance to the point where they nearly crashed into each other. There was another short interval of calm before another yell was heard. This one seemed to completely overwhelm them, causing any residual fear in them to dissipate immediately. The final yell seemed to broach any residual fight they had in them. It looked like they were completely defeated. Their movements shuttered until they were nearly still. It was like they had been cast under some kind of spell. It was strange to see them in that position. The monsters seemed to be almost bowing before an unknown, yet undeniably superior force. It seemed strange how suddenly things had reversed. We had waited for them to resume their attack on us, knowing we wouldnít be forgotten for long. It seemed that they were the ones under assault. From who or what wasnít clear, but I knew we probably didnít want to encounter whatever it was. Another loud yell wrecked the provisional calm. I knew we had to get out of there as quickly as possible, with probably be a short window for us to escape.

She maintained a serene calm and distance throughout the confrontation, seeming to observe the whole encounter without fear. I waited for her plan to emerge but she didnít let me join in the knowledge. Instead she pulled her laser device and began scanning towards the desert floor just beyond the attackers. I something moving towards them but couldnít quite make out what it was at first, As the figure drew closer, it seemed to going in a straight line towards them, relentlessly moving towards the quarry. The forces began moving once more, jostling and rolling around, anticipating the arrival of some unknown enemy but with no clear way to respond. The figure moved closer and yelled one last time, underlining his dominance, shaking the surroundings and sending the group cowering inward. The converged to form a closed circle that regained its shape quickly; this time however, the forces were apparently protecting themselves, reacting to the motions from an outside threat.

As the figure moved closer, I recognized the manís shape immediately. He still wore his sharply-cut business suit, with its odd lines and sharp folds. It seemed that he had located us, somehow reading the signals she had sent. Despite being dwarfed in stature, he seemed to tower over the mechanized monsters and dealt with the without fear. As her drew closer, his steps became increasingly confident. His shoulders seemed to deflect the heat. He didnít seem the slightest bit hesitant in approaching them and looked completely beyond reach of their attacks. His shadow seemed to grow longer while, his figure expanded in height. We watched as he came even closer, his feet standing defiant against them. He walked towards them without a trace of fear, until he was within range of them. I saw their metal skin shining under the hot sun, and they suddenly looked vulnerable and frightened, their power suddenly drained and fear inexplicably diminished.

He seemed impervious to the dangerous creatures, unafraid of their rabid attacks, raging tempers and long sharp arms. Their eyes looked almost docile as he approached them. He looked them over and surprisingly, he looked seemed disappointed in them, not angry or frightened. I watched them look towards the ground and they seemed to avoid coming into direct contact with his eyes. He reached their outer perimeter and they parted, allowing him to pass through. He stood in their center and took out another loud yell, which took them completely by surprise. After recovering from the shock, he pointed towards us and waved his arms around until they understood what theyíd done wrong. They bowed their heads in shame. After a few minutes, they began to slink away from him, pulling in all directions, quietly dispersing under the horizon. The slid beneath the desert sun until they seemed to vanish, disappearing beneath the desert floor as quickly as theyíd arrived. The stillness that followed was unsettling, they had evaporated from sight - it was like none of it had ever happened. I looked towards her and she didnít seem terribly upset by the situation, but her focus had turned towards the mysterious figure standing alone on the other side of the conflation. He seemed a bit out of place out there, casting a solitary shadow of the surface, looking a bit lost against the vast expanse surrounding him. She eyed him carefully, watching for any signs of threat. He didnít move and watched us, keeping his distance from us while not budging from his position. The two of them took measures of the other, not revealing what they may have concealed from each other, but there was an odd connection between them I couldnít quite understand.

She finally had enough and began walking in his direction. Reluctantly at first, her tentative steps fell close together; she didnít want to give up too much ground. He watched her warily and turned his eyes towards me. I wondered what he had in mind for us. I waited for her to signal me that it was alright to proceed. She moved forward a bit further toward his direction. At first, I didnít move but was somewhat relieved when she turned back, looked at me and waved me to come and I followed carefully behind. I didnít want to leave the relative safety we had, but she seemed to know what she was doing. The other figure began to walk towards us in response. At first, he was hesitant, cautiously moving towards her but, not wanting to alarm her, walking at a measured pace. She responded by going a little faster and walking with increased energy. He decided, for some unknown reason, that she wasnít a threat and began to walk quickly. It took some effort for them to connect and they hesitated until they were in close proximity.

Looking into each otherís eyes without speaking, they pulled out their machines in near simultaneous reflexive motions. They began spinning the dials on their machines, not looking at the surface. I walked closer to see what they were doing. Both of the machines began to light up in alarm and give off strange sounds. They pointed the machines towards the skies and shot thin lasers upward into the sun. This seemed to energize both devices, which began to glow in a strange orange hue. She placed hers at her side and he did the same. She looked up and pointed the machine towards his location, extended it outward and shot a narrow beam of blue light, forming a focus beam that became a laser right in front of him. He responded by doing the same to her position, its green glow, lighting her position with his machine, too. None of it seemed to have much to do with helping us escape. They waved their machines around repeatedly, searching for a good location, with no visible effect for their efforts. It seemed that all of it had been for nothing. We had gone through all of that, yet remained trapped in the middle of the desert with no apparent way out of there.

After struggling in vain to find some path forward, there seemed to be nothing happening. The tried looking in most of the surrounding areas, but nothing they did seemed to work. The desert was a mysterious guardian and wasnít going to give up its secrets to us easily. They tried scanning virtually everywhere to little effect. Finally, they looked at each other in frustration and annoyance. They waved their machines at each other, in near desperation. As the machines came in close quarters with each other, they seemed to respond positively, glowing and beeping rapidly,seemingly activating some hidden force and power they shared only with each other. They noticed this response and the both of them nearly immediately reached an unspoken understanding. Both decided to implement a different approach. The quickly stopped whirling around separately, ceasing their counter-motions. The technique wasnít working, the diffused energy was too weak, spread thin in different directions. There was no way it would work if they were working in opposing directions. Instead, the two of them attempted working together.

They began syncing their lasers until they were scanning the same areas simultaneously. Without saying a word to each other, it seemed like they had both arrived at the same conclusion. They scanned the horizons, looked towards the mountains and everywhere they thought looked promising. It took awhile but they finally seemed to reach a promising spot. They looked up and gave each other an excited look when the machines started beeping in unison. Aiming both machines at the same spot, their combined forces caused a sudden burst of energy, accompanied by a loud thunderous bang. The immediate area reacted almost instantaneously shaking and pulling apart. Despite their excitement, they were able to maintain a steady focus. After a minute, the energy began to expand until it formed what looked like a strange door. We began to walk towards it, and its dimensions grew larger, revealing an elaborate shape. The three of us walked closer and the outlines of a large boat began to emerge. At first, only the bottom portion of its cabin was visible, then the other sections formed. As we drew closer, its masts and accompanying sails began to rise from the surface. The focused energy solidified the vessel and it seemed to become increasingly real. I looked below and saw a strange, flowing river begin to flow beneath it. Finally, a long wooden plank appeared and gradually extended from the boatís middle until connecting to the ground.

After a few additional pulses of energy had infused the ship, it seemed to fill in around the edges, Its surface appeared to become increasingly solid. I could see its sails begin to flow with the wind, and it started rocking back and forth responding to the onrush of water suddenly underneath. The two of them waited a few minutes as the beams of light from their machines infused the boat with additional energy. Finally, they walked towards it and stood at the bottom of the walkway. She seemed hesitant to board the boat, but he walked right on board, like nothing out of the ordinary had occurred, despite everything we had just witnessed. He took his place in the center of the boat, grabbed its steering wheel and waved for us to join him. I was a bit nervous and held back, keeping myself a bit removed. The boat resembled a strange desert mirage and I wasnít sure how stable or safe it would be. He began waving towards us to join him. This was enough to reassure her, She jumped into action, decided not to hold off any longer and walked quickly towards the mysterious vesselís relative safety.

We had a chance to get out of a dangerous situation and she wasnít going to let it pass us by. She walked back towards me, grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the boat. We stood together but I finally decided to take the lead and went first, climbing onto the wooden planks. The waters were running quickly and the planks were shifting, but I was able to jump over them easily. My feet landed right into the boat. I stood nervously It seemed a little unsteady at first as the increasingly strong waves buffeted its sides. Before I knew it, she was standing directly behind me. Her trust in the boatís stability made me feel better, at least temporarily. I felt the ship begin to shake and moan as it retracted is planks. The man began to spin the steering wheel, shifting its direction and we began to sail out of harmís way. We were moving quickly, the flowing water carrying us towards relative safety, heading far from the unrelenting heat and its hidden dangers. I couldnít escape the fear that, beneath a deceptively calm desert surface, something malicious was watching us. I couldnít shake the reality that there were clandestine eyes lurking, hidden from view, their presence obscured by the heat of an unrelenting sun. They were lying in wait, waiting for the right moment to attack. I realized they were lurking silently beneath the tranquil sands all along. Unknown to me, they watched everything we did, tracing our every step, waiting until we were most vulnerable before moving in with an unstoppable, ferocious attack

The worst part was realizing, despite my perceptions, that I was never truly alone out there. My heart sank a I looked back on the now quiet desert and thought of the fears and danger that we encountered as while traversing its vast, deceptively empty expanse. I was at a loss, attempting to comprehend how I had gotten there, all the things that had conspired against us before we managed to escape. I thought of the mass of creatures weíd encountered, and how they were able to locate us out there, seemingly arriving without warning. I looked above at the mass of sails that had begun to blow stronger with each moment, propelling us further away. I saw the mysterious man in the suit, having seen too much, looking like he was hanging onto the steering wheel for sheer survival. He turned and spinned it manically, trying to get us out of danger as fast as possible. He stood stiffly against the wind, moored to the ground, desperately trying to keep control of the vessel. His suit had become ruffled and wrinkled under the pressure, giving him an uncharacteristically erratic appearance. I watched his fingers closely and it seemed that they were still shaking from fear while desperately spinning the wheels while keeping an eye out for unexpected calamity.

I took a deep breath, attempting to calm my nerves, Relief arrived almost immediately as I felt the salt-water begin to permeate the atmosphere, both cooling and reassuring. It didnít last long. Uncertainty returned when I looked above and saw a newly decompressed sun hovering above us in the sky, but could no longer trust its benevolence. I had to look away from its gaze and saw her move toward safety under the sails. She seemed to share my misgivings, and I watched her standing guard beneath them, She nervously began gazing out over the strangely tranquil water. She wasnít relaxed, either and seemed ready for something else to happen. She carefully pulled out her machine, recalibrated its dials and began scanning the over and through the ocean waves. She looked to be anticipating the appearance of any adversaries lurking in our path. I was relieved that we had managed to break free from their trap but everything else still worried me. There was still much I didnít understand surrounding our predicament. On the surface, everything was calm, the boat was moving forward unimpeded but there was something beneath the surface kept me from completely relaxing. My fear remained, undiminished by the safety sheíd provided me during their nearly unstoppable onslaught. Despite escaping imminent danger, I knew our safety wasnít permanent. I still felt their malignant eyes trained on us, focused and fixated, ready to strike without warning. Despite our narrow escape and safe passage, I knew weíd see them again.

- Michael Palisano