By Robert Runte
The moment he stepped through the portal, Eric realized he must have punched in the wrong code. He whirled, reaching for the keypad to try again, but there was no keypad, and no portal. He was standing on the shore of a lake, nothing in front of him except a tiny, weirdly-forested island about a hundred meters away.
He took a deep breath to collect himself—then realized he shouldn’t have assumed an oxygen atmosphere.
Not that holding his breath was a viable plan, if the portal were really gone.
Every time one used a portal, the Gate paused for the automated safety announcements, but after the twentieth time, who was really listening? Eric thought there was something about flotation devices and an emergency recall button—but you don’t have access to those if the portal itself were missing, so . . . now what?
At least there was oxygen to breathe: the air smelled vaguely pine-like. And a yellow sun, so wavelengths he could see in. The colors seemed almost normal.
He cast about for wherever destination the portal must have served, but his eyes kept coming back to that odd clump of trees on the little island. There weren’t any buildings or landmarks, or other trees for that matter, in sight.
He had the growing sensation that the trees were watching him. Well, the tall orange one, second on the left. Its ‘head’ slowly tilted as it regarded Eric with what felt like a mixture of astonishment and curiosity.
The others hadn’t noticed him yet; they were all staring off towards the opposite shore. A narrow reddish tree turned in slow motion to look at whatever the others were all staring at, saw Eric instead.
Atmosphere must have hallucinogenic elements, Eric decided.
Then there were two thick, pale-yellow snakes hovering in front of Eric, their five stubby tentacles stretching forward as if to grab him. Hallucination or not, Eric skittered away.
A head in a bubble helmet popped out of thin air to join the snakes.
“What are you playing at?” the woman demanded. “Get back here!”
The phrase “rescuers, in their distinctive orange environmental suits . . .” floated up into Eric’s consciousness from some inattentive memory.
Tentacled snakes having thus morphed into rescue-suit arms, Eric said, “I thought your suits were supposed to be orange.”
“They’re orange in Earth light,” she said. “Let’s go!”
“No, wait,” Eric said, gesturing toward the island. “Those trees are sentient.”
“Are you a certified first-contact specialist?” she demanded. “No? Then get your ass out of there.”
“I’m not imagining it,” Eric insisted. “I know what I saw.”
“The Grand Council,” his rescuer whispered. “Why there’s a portal here in the first place. An unobtrusive, invisible one. But time moves slowly for trees, so they won’t notice you—if we leave now.”
“Those two have already seen me,” Eric said, pointing.
“Surely you’re mistaken,” the woman said, frantically motioning with her eyes over her shoulder—which Eric interpreted as her telling him they were being recorded. “Though if you think there’s any possibility of cultural contamination. . .”
“Ah,” said Eric, now recalling the part of the safety briefing describing the six-week quarantine imposed on any wayward traveler violating protocols involving first contact situations. “Didn’t notice me, I meant!”
“Right,” said the woman. “Please step into the rescue area.”
Eric stepped briskly forward into her suit’s waiting arms, careful not to see the increasing number of shocked expressions from the forest, or the branches pointed in his direction.