Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:
No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure
by Maggie Gibbs
Illustrations by Emily Ruf
Chapter Twelve: Lost in Space-Time
Through some unspoken agreement, all of us disperse to be alone with our thoughts. But after a few brief, stunned moments of calm, once I’m finally past the treeline of the forest and out of sight, my thoughts begin to bombard me.
We have, somehow, left our world in a magic pink bubble and been brought or sent somewhere—another planet? dimension? time? wouldn’t suck to know these things—and at least one of our numbers has completely lost her mind. And while Tristan seems confident that he knows where to get us out of here, he doesn’t seem to have any ideas on how. Other than the smallish bag that hangs permanently across my body and under my arm, we’ve got nothing but the clothes on our backs. It’s getting dark.
And to top it all off with a massive pain in my ass, fucking Bradley is here.
All in all, I’ve had better days.
The imminent problem (other than Bradley) is this: Wherever Tristan’s sprawling metal contraption sent us, it hadn’t bothered to join us on the trip. I’m no evil genius—at least not one with practical experience—but by my reckoning, since we’re in the goddamn middle of the goddamn wilderness, it is going to be pretty much impossible for Tristan to MacGyver a new machine, or Mark Watney one or whatever.
Basically, we may as well be on Mars.
At least it isn’t winter, thank you sweet little baby Jesus. It’s just as warm here as it had been in Myrick, even warmer under the tree cover; the sticky dank scent of it promises thick humidity and a million mosquitoes. I’m already not looking forward at all to having to sleep outside on the goddamn ground, which it doesn’t take a mad scientist to see is what’s coming next, and I have no idea what we’d do if it was the middle of the bloody winter.
Jesus goddamn Christ and now I’m swearing in British.
Okay, Addie, come on. Identify the problem, think it through. And for fuck’s sake, stop freaking out.
Problem number one: Whether we’re heading into the woods or staying right here in the clearing, we’re going to need some basic protection against wild animals—not to mention other equally deadly things, like dehydration. If there’s dew in the morning, we’ll be alright, but it’s going to be a rough night until then; I’m already parched from being stressed and frantic, and we haven’t even had to walk anywhere yet. But what do we have for protection? As far as I know, not a real weapon between us. My companions don’t seem the conceal-and-carry type.
Thanks to my perma-bag, I am a walking convenience store, but not all of us had been so lucky. Nate looks to have nothing but a handkerchief and a Swiss army knife (some lumberjack), and Tristan had been carrying absolutely nothing. Duc had been wearing a sweatshirt and his light puffy jacket—he’d donated his sweatshirt to Tristan, surprising no one—in addition to that pendant and chain of his, if he’s still wearing it, and whatever he might have had in his pockets. And Bradley . . .
I crane my neck to peer around the tree I’m slumped against and there he is: standing across the clearing, wearing his customary leather bomber jacket, faded jeans, and self-satisfaction. And he’s looking directly at me.
I shoot daggers at him that warn of unspeakable pain if he should dare to approach, then break eye contact, trying to look purposeful by rifling through my bag. My eyes stray to my favorite secret pocket, and I consider a quick smoke—but when a corner of plastic catches my eye, I realize I do have a purpose, a real one.
For the first time in this whole fiasco, I almost smile.
I slide back to my side of the tree, firmly out of Bradley’s line of sight, and hold the little blue compass up in front of me to inspect it. It may be more child’s toy than serious tool, and the dinky penlight that came with it is good for late-night reading at best, but it’s still perfectly functional—I used to use it constantly when my dad first gave it to me, practicing my skills by spinning in circles until I was dizzy, then using the compass to orient myself toward home.
I hadn’t played that game in years, but the compass had lived in my bag for as long as I’d had it. Now, I’m legitimately delighted to give my dad’s gift a purpose again.
I hold the compass perpendicular to the ground, turning in a slow arc to align the plastic pieces. Let’s see—if north is this way, then the direction Tristan’s finger had indicated was 23 or 24 degrees.
I cup my hands against the sun and peer into the distance as far as I can, which equals approximately twenty feet, where my vision is blocked by a thick tangle of trees. The woods around my own Myrick had been plentiful, but tame, domesticated by walking paths and poop stations and commemorative benches. Here, writhing green vines drape over bushy branches thicker than my entire body, and long-dead trees in various states of decay drape over them and lie under them and biodegrade around them, white flaps of mushroom rippling their surfaces like gills.
I tear my gaze from the tangled jungle to look across the clearing again. You couldn’t actually see the bluffs from outside No Dragons Press, but only because the buildings across the street were too tall and close together; the intervening terrain was pretty flat, and without the buildings, the view of the bluffs should be pretty much uninterrupted.
But that was assuming local features would be at all the same, that this world and the one we came from exhibit the same topographic characteristics. Had the geographic layout diverged prior to the ancient glaciers that had carved out my own little place in the world? Had they ever been one to begin with? Were they even on the same time scale?
Impossible to guess, and equally impossible to ponder anymore right now. The real question is: What lies in that direction that has Tristan so firmly convinced it’s the right one?
A chain of worlds . . .
I tuck the compass carefully back where I found it and close my eyes, trying to orient myself without any external cues screwing it up, but I can’t help an odd feeling in my stomach that has nothing to do with the fact that it’s well past dinner time. Something—other than the obvious—feels very wrong about this.
If this is our world, there are some fundamental differences in the landscaping. I could understand that the No Dragons Press building doesn’t exist in this one, but shouldn’t we be standing on this world’s corresponding location? Okay: based on where everyone was standing when we first arrived, the building had been there, behind where Tristan sits looking dejected, Duc close enough to him for the sort of aloof comfort young men give each other while pretending they’re not.
So Madison Street and its short row of houses and small apartment buildings would be more or less behind me, and just past the buildings, the bluffs should be . . .
But there are no bluffs.
Either the cliffs, the bones of this world have crumbled, or they never existed here in the first place. Or we aren’t anywhere near the site of the No Dragons Press building at all.
Or maybe there simply isn’t any such corresponding location.
Which means we have no idea where we are.
Set phasers to bonkers.
When the back of my neck begins to tingle, I angle my head to the right, casually surveying the tangle of woods with masked scrutiny. I generally scorn the more woo-woo brands of pseudoscience—which as far as I’m concerned is basically all of them, unless that’s how we’re measuring our current predicament—but as personal anecdotes go, because of my less than legal lifestyle choices, I have definitely honed an ability to sense when I’m being watched, or at least being paid a special interest to, and it is that sense that is firing off a warning, clear as day.
Could my experience perhaps be made up of mostly false positives? Sure. But placebo effect or not, this sixth sense of mine has saved me from not a few certain tangles with local law enforcement.
But here, in the conspicuous absence of bored, small-town cops looking to establish their authority . . . what could be triggering this feeling?
Jumpy. Stop it.
I shake my head, considering the trees themselves. Then I turn back to consider the trees in the other direction.
And almost run into Bradley.
“Addie,” Bradley says from somewhere above me, “there’s something I need to—”
“Don’t touch me,” I warn him darkly, stumbling away from him before his familiar warmth has a chance to soften me in any way.
He’d raised his hands to steady me, and now he drops them in resignation and lifts his eyes to mine.
I spin away from him, avoiding his gaze. Then, surprising myself as much as him, I spin back, spearing him with my eyes and stabbing a finger into his chest.
“Listen,” I demand, my voice low but fast, efficient. “I don’t know what the fuck you were trying to pull by leaping into whatever you thought you were seeing, but you had no right, no right, to spy on me, or follow me around, or whatever you were doing. Or to—to avoid this. This conversation.”
He casts his eyes down, and this minor victory runs through me like a current, sparking something new inside me.
“I know this is so not the right time for this, or the right place, or even the right world, but just—”
I stop to catch my breath, taking in his reaction. It’s like all of my words are injuring him individually, poking little holes in him one by one.
But the pent-up anger at him being here isn’t even the worst part. It’s just that I’ve wasted so much time.
“Look, I know there are bigger things to worry about right now, and I know we’re all in the same boat here. Just . . . just . . .” I sigh again, gesturing helplessly. “Just stay the fuck away from me, Bradley.”
I do not look at his face. I simply turn and storm away.
And walk straight into Tristan.
He’s the one to stumble backward this time, not surprisingly. Upon recovery, he blinks at me. He’s flanked by Nate and Duc, cutting off my escape. “Good. You’re done. I think we should—”
“Will you just shut up,” I snap, then I barrel forward anyway along my original trajectory, scattering the group like bowling pins, trying to keep my face hidden from the people all around me. Tears prick the backs of my eyelids as I watch myself lash out, weapons drawn, a tiny plastic action figure against the entire universe.
But I can’t stop. I can’t turn around and face Bradley, and I can’t look at the disapproval on Duc’s face, or Nate’s pity, and I sure as fuck can’t handle whatever wounded look Tristan’s face must have contorted into by now.
So I keep charging, stomping into the woods and feeling like the world’s biggest moron, and hoping to whatever deity this world might have created that this time, no one comes after me.