The grass is purple in that valley. And the sky is green. That’s how you will know that you have reached the entrance to the vault.
I never really expected those words from an ancient myth to guide me on this failed expedition. And it was failed because even if I found the vault, even if I managed to enter it and lay my eyes on what lay within, I would never find my way out again.
Everyone who might have helped me find my way out of the puzzle I was in was gone. No, they weren’t gone. I was gone.
I was a goner.
So why would I keep going…?
It didn’t seem like a fool’s mission three months ago, this wandering into the deep unknown. Despite all our misgivings about plunging into a newly discovered spatiotemporal anomaly, the expedition seemed like it would be worth it. It seemed like an adventure I could handle when I was firmly wrapped in Landy’s arms under a blue sky, standing on green grass.
“I’m telling you, it follows the magical unicorn ratio,” Landy said. She grinned. “And now that we have that figured out, we can overcome the one major obstacle—the one that used to be impossible and now is actually probable—making it into and through the anomaly.”
George sighed. “First of all, the M.U.R is still theoretical. Second, even if you’re right, you’ll have to tell us how exactly, you are applying it to actual pratical navigation through the Gib anomaly.”
The few others in the room waited a few breaths.
“And third?” I asked.
George rolled his gaze around the room. “Why does there have to be a third?”
I shrugged. “It seemed as if you were building up to another point.”
“Third,” George said, holding three of the fingers of his right hand up, “stop calling it ‘magical unicorn,’ that’s just a placeholder name that one guy’s daughter came up with. Fourth, we don’t have to do everything boss wants us to do. He’s not paying us enough, is he?”
“Hazard pay doesn’t currently cover existential horror,” Landy said.
George waved a hand out and gestured toward her. “There you go.”
But I knew that Landy was already committed.
“We’ve done simulations,” she said. “And we’re ready to send in a probe.”
“And if that probe gets lost, you’re still going to make us go in, aren’t you?” George crossed his arms and sat back, peering at Landy.
Landy straightened her shoulders and sniffed. “I’m not going to make anyone do anything. But if we manage to get through that anomaly and get to that vault, even if there’s nothing inside, these are monumental firsts. Every one of us would be set for life.”
“There is no vault,” George said. “It’s a fool’s mission.” He unfolded his arms and pointed at her. “You are a fool, Mirkland.”
“A brave and brilliant fool,” I added.
Landy twitched up a brow, as her grin turned into a smirk. “What does that make you guys, then, for following me?”
Also fools, I thought as I remembered that day, sitting in a cozy cafe. I took another sip from the dwindling supply of water in my thermos.
Sometimes being right was worse than being wrong.
Landy was right about the magical unicorn ratio and the simulations. George was able to use them to steer us in and through the anomaly. Spacetime bent and twisted and looped all around us. Miniature dimensions bubbled out and popped into oblivion around us. We tried to describe it in our logs, records, and personal journals. But our perceptions were too limited. Landy believed that if we had had the eyes to see, we would have seen colors we’d never seen before, beyond the expected spectrum. We would have heard unique sounds, felt the forces of the weird physics within the anomaly.
There were other places on Earth, other waters, that bore the distinctions of being strange and haunted places, places where ships and aircraft vanished without a trace, places so hard to navigate that people would get lost and die of thirst (or even fright) if not found.
Compared to some of those places, the Gib anomaly was relatively new. People didn’t start talking about it until the early twentieth century, and even then, objective records of its location and existence were rare.
There were only the stories and the legends. Creation myth type stuff that a later scholar translated into something of a science fiction story. The myths supposedly came from an island civilization somewhere in the South Pacific that died out when the island slowly sunk and the surviving people boated to other islands. Their civilization scattered, the survivors became absorbed into the societies and cultures of their new homes.
Explorers and divers later found scarce records in the sunken ruins of the island (most of their storytelling had been oral anyway). The myth spoke of other worlds, but those worlds were described as “orbs in the distant dark of the sky.” In other words, planets in deep space. Some conspiracy theorists even believed that the stories were historical. That a figure described in many of the myths was a real person, a “man from the orbs” who then ended up on Earth, on that very island. Being treated kindly by the people after he was found, half-dead and starving, washed ashore, he came to admire them and trust them. He came to trust them enough to tell them his story.
Long ago, when the region of space we now inhabit was young, when stars were still blazing to life, this man’s people began to colonize the many planets in the region. Our sun and its circle of planets was yet to be born.
This man, whom the island people called by a name whose meaning has become lost, Waetiowe, was born on one of those early planets. He was neither poor nor rich. He was neither bright nor dull. He was neither brave nor timid.
Waetiowe decided to become a sailor, and he joined the corps of explorers who sailed the oceans of space between the various planets of the nearby systems. Waetiowe came to love sailing. He would collect tokens from the different places he visited. At first, they were humble tokens. But soon, he was collecting treasures so precious that he hid them from his fellow sailors, so that they would not steal the treasures for themselves. This, he did by finding a special place along a path that his ship often took. He put all his treasures in a great chest and floated that chest among the scattered boulders, rocks, and pebbles that belted the space around one of his favorite stars.
The treasure was hidden well, but not well enough. It was found by the sailors of a rival ship, and it was claimed. When Waetiowe discovered the theft, he lamented to his fellow shipmates. He wept and he raged, and he implored them to join him in chasing down the thieves and recovering his treasure. And his fellow sailors were sympathetic at first, for he seemed so heartbroken that they believed his chest of treasures must surely contain more than precious elements. Surely it must have contained remembrances of his family, letters from a lover, or tokens from childhood friends. When they discovered that the chest was only full of trinkets, they comforted him with assurances that he could rebuild his store of treasure in due time, and they jested that he should hide it better in the future.
Waetiowe was shocked. After all the years he had spent laboring on the ship, after all that he had sacrificed for his fellow sailors, how could they deny him his request? He went to the captain of his ship and made his case. If his fellow sailors would not help him willingly, perhaps they could be made to do so by their captain. But the captain too refused Waetiowe, placing a kind but firm hand upon the younger sailor’s shoulder.
They sailed on, toward a region of space that they had never before explored. And every moment that passed, Waetiowe grew more and more bitter, and more and more angry. He watched and he plotted. But it was not against the thieves who had taken his treasure that he plotted. It was against the allies whom he believed had betrayed him.
As they sailed onward, none thought it strange that Waetiowe kept his own company. For he rarely cavorted with them. Some of them began to realize how dear his lost treasure was to him. Their captain offered the sailors every chance to earn and gain riches, and riches are what Waetiowe had filled his treasure chest with, so the sailors had deemed it would not be long before Waetiowe recovered his treasure. And they deemed it was not worth making an enemy out of a rival ship—and whatever allies that ship might have. But they realized that to Waetiowe, those treasures truly were as dear as tokens from loved ones would be to any other sailor.
So unbeknownst to Waetiowe, his fellow sailors went to their captain with a request on his behalf. And unbeknownst to them, Waetiowe’s bitterness against them festered.
A day came when the captain announced that they would be stopping soon, and that he had a surprise for them all. Waetiowe decided his chance for vengeance had come. On the eve of their stopping, when the sailors enjoyed their evening meal, he sprung his trap.
Upon his signal, a small number of the crew turned against the rest. They rose up and attacked the sailors who stood at their duties, the sailors who sipped on their soup in the galley, the sailors who slept in their cabins. Some resisted, and they were knocked down, and if they did not stay down, they were slaughtered, for the numbers of the mutineers were small. They had to quickly impress upon the crew their resolve. They had to impress upon their captain and officers their strength and their relentlessness. They took the captain and officers prisoner.
Waetiowe named himself the new captain of the ship, and he knew that he must be a ruthless captain as he noted the angry and betrayed looks upon the faces of his fellow sailors. They reflected the very look he had upon his face when they had betrayed him. He told them so, and when he did, one of the officers scoffed at him. Waetiowe motioned for one of his men, one of the mutineers whose minds he had poisoned, to cut down the officer. The captain cried out, but the officer was killed before the eyes of all. Waetiowe could show no mercy, or his men would be easily overrun. But if the sailors feared for the lives of their fellows, for the lives of their captain and officers, the loyal fools would not resist.
Waetiowe gave a speech then of how he was betrayed and how a few of the mutineers were betrayed by a captain and officers who did not serve the sailors under their command as well as those sailors served them.
The first officer interrupted them, and all held their breath, expecting that he too would be killed, as his fellow office had been. But Waetiowe let him speak.
Waetiowe had cracked his world in two. He stood between the sailor he had been and the mutineer he had just become. And when the first officer spoke, the words he spoke slid between that crack and shattered Waetiowe’s world altogether.
The first officer implored Waetiowe to look outside of the ship to where they had come.
A beautiful cloud of glittering green and shimmering purple expanded around the ship. It appeared to be a nebula, but the first officer said it was not a nebula, but a haven. One that they had found for him, for Waetiowe. They would not—could not—recover the treasure he had lost, but when he amassed more treasures, he would have a safer place to keep them. For the cloud before them was a strange place, a place that only one other ship had visited and returned from, though others had ventured in. It could not be mapped. It could not be traversed. No ship had ever passed through it, but could only go around. For within that cloud were twists and turns, unlike an ordinary maze. There were invisible corners, doors that appeared and vanished, and did not look like doors, or like anything at all. Time ran backwards, forwards, sideways, and no ways. They had sent a scout ahead to make a rudimentary map of the entrance to this cloud. But the captain had aimed to stay and map it for themselves. All the ship’s sailors might find their own nooks to hide their most precious treasures. And the first nook they found, they would assign to Waetiowe.
At this revelation, Waetiowe was silent. He was silent for so long that the captured sailors began to glance among themselves. The mutineers grew uneasy, fearing that their prisoners would have time to turn against them and retake the ship. One of them stepped forth and told Waetiowe that there was only one thing they could do. The maze was a great gift, for within it they could hide their treasures, but they could also hide their misdeeds. For it was vast enough and mysterious enough to hide the bodies of any who would not turn their allegiance toward their new captain.
Waetiowe woke from his trance then, the trance in which he saw the many paths before him. He could surrender to his captain and beg mercy. He could slaugther the captain and all sailors who were loyal to him. He desired neither course. He could no longer be a wreteched sailor under the thumb of his commanders. But he had not turned so bitter and hateful that he would see his fellow sailors cut down. His heart now sickened at the deaths of those who had already fallen at the swords of his allies. He had not wanted bloodshed.
He had only wanted justice.
In his twisted reckoning, the course that he took next was right and just. Waetiowe gave all the sailors a choice, to be loyal to him, or to stay loyal to their old captain. To those who claimed to shift their loyalty to him, he gave their first order. He made them put all the others onto the ship’s small escape boats, and cast them adrift into the labyrinthine cloud. Waetiowe believed he had been merciful, for he had left them alive.
It was only when he and his mutineers began to explore the cloud, safely anchored to a moon outside of it, so they could follow a path back, should they become lost, that Waetiowe began to see that the fate to which he had left his old captain and crew was not merciful at all, but horrible. He had set them adrift with enough provisions to last a long while, long enough for him to explore the rest of the cloud, leave, and reach a distant region, where no one would know who he was. By the time the captain and crew escaped the cloud, Waetiowe would be strong enough to fight them if they came after him, but he resolved that they would not dare it, for he would become fearsome and elusive. But he came to realize that his old captain and crew would never find their out of the cloud, that shimmering green-and-purple puzzle.
From that day, Waetiowe was no longer a sailor, or even a mutineer. He was a pirate. He did not collect treasures. He stole them. He raided foreign shores. He pillaged other ships.
Over time, he amassed treasures upon treasures, and he would hide those treasures in a vault that he had built and placed within a secret corner of the mysterious cloud that he called the “purple puzzle.” The puzzle’s location was no secret. But its solution was, and it was known only to Waetiowe. None knew how and why this was. Some said it was because he had fed the hungry being that lived in the cloud with the bodies and souls of his fellow sailors, and the being had told him the secrets of its home.
Even during his time, there were those who dared to search for this vault. Waetiowe never chased away or punished those who tried. He did not have to, for any who made it out of the cloud alive at all, were forever changed. They could not give a name or shape to the terrors they had encountered. They would only say that no treasure was worth the price of entering such a place, a place that shimmered so prettily from the outside, and was so wrong, so far beyond unnatural on the inside. Some even believed that there was no vault, or if there was, it was empty. Or filled only with the spirits of those poor souls whom the pirate had killed during his raids and pillaging.
When Waetiowe was finally captured by the authorities, he was interrogated, but he never gave up the location of the vault. He did say that if ever they found where he hid it, they’d never get to the vault itself. He’d set too many traps in the puzzle, and the puzzle itself, even without the traps, would keep people out. It was always changing, and only he had figured out the pattern, though even he had difficulty finding the vault.
It’s said that his final words were a taunt, for he named his vault’s hiding place, but he seemed to be describing what everyone already knew about, the mysterious cloud.
The grass is purple in that valley. And the sky is green. That’s how you will know that you have reached the entrance to the vault.
Waetiowe was put to death, but he did not die. He escaped, and was pursued. He was attacked, and when his ship began to sink through the vast ocean of space, his pursuers saw that there was no haven in sight, and they left him to die as his first crew died, thirsting, starving, stranded.
He fell through the sky. He fell to Earth. Into the the South Pacific. He managed to swim to a shore, or perhaps was washed ashore. And there he was found by a people who gave him a treasure that he had not known in a long, long while and did not deserve.
They gave him mercy.
And that was why he gave them his story, even the ugliest parts of it. It was the only treasure he had left.
For the longest time, Waetiowe’s story—about phenomena in space that the people of the now-sunken island would not have known about—was thought to be tainted by the biases of modern translations. Scholars could not be sure about the meaning and origin of the myth.
Then, we made a discovery. We call it the Gib anomaly, and it is incomprehensible to researchers. In the early days, it was impenetrable. All we could do was map its margins. And trying to pass through it was a risky endeavor. Ships that sailed through before the anomaly was identified never made it through. It was known among those who traversed that part of the world, that it was best to go around.
This discovery made us re-evaluate what the story of Waetiowe actually meant. Was he human after all? Just a human sailor who became a pirate and terrorized the seas? Was all the cosmic imagery metaphorical, or inserted by careless translators of records we no longer possessed? Were there legends and spooky stories about this anomaly, this strange region that lay on the ocean and shimmered with a green and purple fog? Was that fog the result of weird global weather patterns combined with rare atmospheric phenomena? And more intriguing still…was there a vault somewhere inside of this anomaly?
We still don’t have every corner of our own planet mapped. It’s possible to get lost in a regular maze, tunnels of old cities that lie beneath new, and haunted mansions with unexplored wings and rooms that have remained untouched for centuries. It was conceivable that there was no real anomaly at all. According to Waetiowe, spacetime bent and folded in on itself. Dimensions appeared and vanished. Strange particles came floating out only to wobble out of existence. But what if all of that was the result of a translation of a translation of a partial record? What if the frustrating gaps in the alien pirate’s story were filled in with the imagination of explorers who heard the story from islanders with aging memories, and who saw some hints carved on the stones of the sunken isle?
Current research suggests there may be something to the anomaly after all. A phenomenon we have never encountered before. A disruption in the expected patterns of space and time. Caused by what, we don’t know. Formed how, we don’t know. But some believe there is a pattern within the disruption, a pattern that follows a newly defined mathematical ratio.
Landy thinks it’s conceivable that the original story of the space sailor-turn-pirate is true. That Waetiowe was an alien, a criminal among his own people, but gentle in his last days with the humans who rescued him from the ocean of water after he fell from the ocean of space. Maybe he’d had a near-death experience as he fell and repented of his crimes.
But even though he lived a peaceful life on Earth, his longing for his treasures did not leave him. He was the one who knew that purple puzzle best. He had mapped it, at least as much as he or anyone could. Maybe he found a way to bring it with him. To build a bridge between the nebulous cloud of purple and green to his new home, so he could find his vault again.
Landy believes it was his lust for treasure that once again doomed those around him, who had only treated him with kindness and fairness. There are no records of this. But there is evidence that the isle on which Waetiowe lived should still lie above water to this day. It should not have sunk, and no one can figure out why it did. Landy believes that Waetiowe sailed on the oceans of Earth and found his way back to the vault, and he sailed back to the isle, his ship laden with treasure, thinking he was bringing good fortune to new friends. But something other than treasure followed him back to the isle. Something Waetiowe himself had never understood. He had accepted that the puzzle showed its secrets and solutions to him. He had never questioned why. He had never given credence to the stories of a conscious and living being within the cloud. To him was just a strange region of space.
“We’ll never know the real story, Wyatt,” Landy said on the night before we left for the expedition. “We have to accept that. For all we know, we got someone’s skewed version and this Waetiowe was actually a hero.”
I shrugged. “Or he could have been both, hero to some, pirate murderer to others.”
“We’re probably not the only complicated species in the cosmos,” Landy agreed.
I gazed up at the indigo night sky, sparkling with stars. It looked so full and vibrant. I was thankful that I would never really understand how disturbingly vast and empty the spaces were between those stars. “So we’re actually seriously accepting that he was an extraterrestrial?”
“We’re keeping our options open.”
“And what if there is some intelligent and evil super-entity in the anomaly that can only be appeased by blood sacrifice?”
“I’m hoping that’s a metaphor,” Landy said, “that the being only exists in the story to dole out final justice to someone who had managed to escape it. Because in real life he probably lived happily ever after until the island sunk. And that doesn’t sit well with our human sense of fairness.”
“I hope you’re right, because if you’re not and that thing comes after me, my angry ghost is coming straight for you.”
She laughed then and said, “Deal.”
And we clinked our bottles and stared up at the sky, sitting on George’s porch on a warm summer evening.
I pushed the thought of that night aside now. It was too much to think about that moment of safety and serenity and contentment, of being anchored in a reality that I knew and loved, the indigo night sky, the stars, twinkling gently, far and friendly.
The stars in this place don’t twinkle. They pulse, not rhythmically, but spastically. The sky is dark but tinged with maroon. It should be pretty, but it just looks…it just presses on me.
The “orbs in the distant dark in the sky,” I have to find them, so I can find the ship, my ship.
I wasn’t trying to remember the stories for sentimental reasons. I was trying to remember so that I could use them as guideposts to help me, to help me get through the maze, to help me figure out the puzzle.
But I didn’t have the navigation system with me. The one that could calculate the magical unicorn ratios and guide me through the bends and twists and flips of the anomaly. Without it I would never find my way out, at best. At worst, I might get my head stuck in a pocket dimension. Maybe my skin would be seared or pierced by strange exotic particles zooming around me and through me.
We had all made it through the first obstacle, the Gib anomaly itself. We found the orbs. Our boss was right. The mythical orbs that some people thought had referred to planets actually described an atmospheric phenomenon that—much like the aurora borealis—only occurred in certain locations on the planet, our planet. We guided our ship through the anomaly. And soon, we spotted land. We weighed anchor and took a boat to shore. We came prepared, we had a digital link from the boat to the ship, and just in case, a long rope connecting both. Even if we lost sight of our ship, we could find our way back. And the ship could find its way out of the anomaly using the modified navigation system, and we had no fewer than four people aboard who knew the system well enough to fix it, two of whom stayed aboard. We had come ashore on what appeared to be, not an island, but a continent, judging by the limited range of the sensor drones.
So we made camp, and the next day, we began to explore. We wondered if we were in the vault then, or if the vault was still somewhere on land. We didn’t detect any more spatial and temporal anomalies, but on that very first day, less than a mile away from camp, we began to encounter obstacles. George said that they were traps, his traps. Waetiowe’s. They were normal things at first, a covered pit or a swinging tree trunk triggered by a tension rope.
Then a fog rolled in and we got nervous. We turned back, and nothing more happened that day. The next day, we made sure the weather was clear and there was no fog in sight. We sent our drones ahead, half a dozen, and a few of them just vanished.
We went to check it out, four of us together. George, Landy, Sylas, and me. We kept in touch with the camp the whole time, checking in every five minutes, joking about how we’d have to be quick if any of us needed to relieve ourselves and check in on time. There was no fog. There was no darkness. Sylas walked a few meters ahead of us within full sight of all three of us, and he just vanished. We told him to stop where we was, not knowing if he could hear us. We reported back to camp. We slowly approached the spot where he had vanished. Landy tossed a twig at the space. The twig arced and landed on the ground. We tried a few more twigs and rocks. None of them vanished. We called Sylas’s name. He gave no answer. We redirected one of our scouting drones to return and scour the area for him. It found nothing.
Our field instruments weren’t sophisticated enough to check for pocket dimensions or strange particles. We hadn’t gone too far inland. Landy decided to return to camp and get a larger team together to search for Sylas. She also decided to call the whole thing off. We would find Sylas, and we would leave immediately.
There was agreement from those in the camp. They would alert the ship to make ready. We would rotate the remaining drones, so that at least a few were searching while the others recharged.
George, Landy, and I took a final glance at the empty space where Sylas had been standing, our guts twisting in regret and fear. We slowly headed west toward the camp.
We never made it back.
At first, I couldn’t tell if George and Landy were the ones who vanished, or if I was the one who vanished. Maybe that’s what happened to Sylas. He took a step and turned around and the three of us were gone. Maybe he tried to contact the camp to let them know he’d lost us, and that was when he realized that he was the one who was lost.
So I must have been the one who was lost, because I couldn’t contact camp. I couldn’t summon a drone. I sent up a flare. I stayed in place for a while, but I couldn’t handle sitting still for long, feeling the daylight slipping away.
I made my way west, toward the shore, even knowing that I wouldn’t find the camp or the ship, I wanted to see the shore to see a chance of leaving the place.
In my thoughts, I cursed the name of Waetiowe. The villain who had killed and doomed his own people, killed and doomed the islanders who gave him haven, and now had killed and doomed my friends and me.
I made it back to shore, and there was no camp and no ship. There was no Sylas, or George, or Landy.
I wished I could be in the angry stage of being lost. The one where I march along the shore, cursing Waetiowe out loud and challenging him to show himself and face me. I had a feeling I would never get to that stage. I’d been feeling a quiet, self-pitying panic all the way to the shore. I looked up at the sky, the blue, cloudless sky. It should have comforted me. I’ve always found comfort looking up at the sky.
But I thought I saw a tinge of green in the blue.
There didn’t seem to be any animals on the isle. I didn’t hear any birds, any chirping insects, no hissing, no growls. No chattering of primates. I was at once relieved that I wouldn’t have to deal with some vicious or venomous animal and troubled that there didn’t seem to be anything else alive in the place except the inanimate trees and bushes.
I don’t know why I made the decision to carry on with the mission. Maybe the empty shore and the empty sky made me nervous. I wanted the cover of the woods. So I made my way back into them. I was already lost. I was already dead. Maybe I could do something with the time I had left. Maybe I could find some other way to save myself.
I wandered on with a constant twisting in my gut. I was afraid that they were all dead. That they had been sucked into other dimensions. My only morbid hope was that if I kept moving, maybe I would end up in one of those dimensions with them. Then at least I would not be alone. My only sick and twisted hope was that I might end up in the same dimension Landy was in. But only if she was alive. And intact.
The sky began to darken, and the pulsing stars appeared.
I began to wonder things. What if I wasn’t in another dimension after all, but still on Earth? The anomaly twisted space and time. What if I had wandered not to another world, not another dimension, but another time? What if it was the very same island that Waetiowe had found himself on? I thought about his name, and I thought about my name. Waetiowe. Wyatt. What if I’m the one the legend spoke of? What if I was about to be rescued by the islanders, and I told them the story of Waetiowe, who I now hated, who had brought me to them, and they misunderstood and thought I was telling them about myself? What if I was stuck in a time loop?
Evening came and a light fog settled on the forest floor. I latched onto the hopeful part of my crazed reverie. The part where the islanders rescued me. The part where I would not be alone but surrounded by people, by fellow human beings, who would feed me, take me to shelter.
Maybe I could learn to live in the distant past. Maybe once I recovered myself, they could help me figure out a way back to my native time.
I stopped walking. I was so tired. I hadn’t taken a sip of water in a while. I had to get a hold of myself. I had to think logically. Figure out when and where I really was.
The fog streamed around my feet. I followed it and found a hollow in a tree where I nestled. The full moon was out and there was enough light to see by. Exhaustion won out over fear, and I fell asleep.
When I woke, the fog was sitting heavily on the ground, enveloping the bottom half of my body as I slept sitting up. It was strange. The fog didn’t feel cold or wet. It seemed to shimmer slightly in the morning light. I stretched, suffered some cramps, and shook off the grogginess of a restless night of sleep. I’d had dreams. Dreams of home. Of my friends.
I took a few sips of water. My thermos had more left than I’d thought it did. It was half full. Still, I had to find a stream or a puddle at least, very soon. The sunlight, filtered through the thick canopy of the forest, was tinged a bright green. The fog at my feet was streaming again, in one direction, and again, I followed it.
The fog led me out of the forest, and as I emerged, I gasped.
The sky above was green.
A few yards from the edge of the forest was a gentle drop that led into a valley.
And the grass in the valley was purple.
I heard a crunch, like someone stepping on leaves. I whipped around and looked behind me. And I gaped again. The fog was streaming back, back in the direction I’d come from, and it was thicker and seemed to surge and undulate, like waves of water. Some of the surges rose up into tall columns that took the shapes of figures with heads and limbs, moving away from me. The fog was vanishing into the forest.
I don’t know why, but I waved at it. My faculties were not composed enough for me to even try to understand what I was I seeing. I just felt like waving.
And as the fog rolled away, I thought a tuft of it waved back at me.
I turned around and made my way down into the valley. The grass was a dark and rich purple, royal purple, Landy would call it. And the thought of her made my heart ache.
The grass was fragrant too. It smelled like…something like lavender and bluebells. Fresh and soothing.
I walked a little ways into the valley, actually savoring the soft grass underfoot and the fragrance, not too overpowering, and the soft breeze that had started, when I noticed something ahead. Something lying on the grass.
I walked cautiously then, and as quietly as I could, until I realized what I was seeing. Then I dashed ahead, forgetting not to be reckless.
I dropped to my knees beside the figure of the man lying face down in the grass. Actually, his face was turned to the side, to my side. His familiar and welcome face. His beautiful freckled face. I held my breath as I shook him gently and called his name.
And when Sylas groaned and propped himself up, speaking my name in a croaky voice, it was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard in my life. I laughed out loud, and I startled him with a hug that was far too tight. It had only been a day. But it had felt…longer.
Above Sylas’s head, I saw another familiar sight. I ignored all of Sylas’s questions as I pulled him to his feet. I clasped his upper arm with one hand, and put my other hand firmly on his shoulder.
And I guided him toward the orbs in the not-so-distant sky several yards away from us.
Nothing seemed to change as we stepped past the orbs. The grass was still purple. The sky was still green. Except, just above the visible horizon ahead, the sky looked tinged with blue, and the grass just below it, I could swear it was a dark green.
I didn’t even think about trying to contact the camp or the ship. I was scared to. I was scared that they still wouldn’t answer. I wanted to get to that blue sky first. Sylas stopped asking questions and followed my lead, or rather, walked beside me. I didn’t let go of him. I didn’t want us to be separated by so much as a step.
The closer we got to the opposite edge of the valley, the more of the sky turned blue, the more the purple of the grass gave way to green. We climbed up the other side of the valley, and just as we entered the forest on the other side, we heard the crashing of waves.
It wasn’t a forest we had entered. It was just a brief expanse of trees that gave way to a sandy shore, and in the distance, we saw three black dots that signified our camp.
Before we took another step, I turned on our communicators and we reported our position to relieved cheering. Everyone else was in camp or on the ship and accounted for. I reported my nervousness about encountering another trap between where Sylas and I were standing and where the camp was. We hadn’t explored this side of the island before Sylas vanished.
We kept our channels open. We took careful step after careful step. And I was resolved that if we found ourselves back in that other dimension, or that other time, or wherever we had ended up, I would know what to do. I would follow that friendly fog that I was now certain was made up of the ghosts of Waetiowe’s enemies, who now watched over any hapless wanderers that made their way into the purple puzzle.
People threw their arms around Sylas and me. I savored every hug. Our ship’s captain asked Landy one more time if she was sure she wanted to abort the expedition, considering we had found our man safe and sound. He reminded her that if we went back now, with the bare minimum observations we had gathered thus far, there would be hell to pay with our boss.
Landy was sure.
I allowed myself an exhale when our boat reached the ship. I stayed awake and alert and on deck while the ship navigated through the Gib anomaly, keeping my eye on the sky.
Sylas didn’t remember much. He did remember realizing that everyone else was gone. He heard a crash in the forest and called out, thinking it might be us running to him. Within seconds, a thick fog rolled in. The next thing he remembered was me shaking him awake in the valley of purple grass.
It wasn’t until we were through the anomaly and out on the open ocean, back in contact with the outside world, that I dared to speculate on Sylas’s experience. I hadn’t heard anything. I wondered if something dangerous had been coming his way, if the friendly fog had swirled around him to protect him. Maybe he’d fallen asleep in it and it had carried him to the valley.
Landy watched me with worry in her eyes when I spoke. Much as I loved spooky stories, I didn’t believe in them. Now I was acting as if ghosts and mystical sentient fogs were real.
Sylas’s audio recorder had been on, but we heard nothing on it when he played it. We would analyze the audio further when we got home.
When they judged that Sylas and I seemed all right, Landy and George asked us if we’d seen the vault since we’d gotten so close. We were gathered on deck under a half-moon. A seagull flew by, and though I’ve never been a fan of that particular bird, I blew it a kiss and wished it a safe journey.
“As far as I’m concerned,” I said. “We found the vault. And we didn’t just find it, we passed through it. It was the doorway.” I glanced at Sylas. “And the treasure beyond was home.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Landy said.
And we all raised our glasses to the star-filled indigo sky.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel.