"Damnit Gene! Where the hell are you!" Dennis waved the flashlight through the dark line of trees, its beam vanishing into the darkness. It would briefly light up a tree or bush, but no sign of his companion.
He ran his fingers through his hair and tried to think. This trip had started out a disaster and had only gotten worse. He'd make the mistake of telling Gene that he'd camped a few times as a kid and that was enough. He'd shown up at the door with a carload of camping equipment, some modified palm computer and a promise to forget about the hundred bucks that Dennis owed him if he went to the mountains immediately. When Dennis still resisted, he threatened to tell his parents the real reason he'd flunked calculus. That was followed by an angry shouting match, Dennis being dragged to the mountains in late fall with a storm front moving in.
Gene tried to explain the urgency on the trip up. He was a graduate student in physics with a theory about a new discovery, some strange off shoot of chaos theory that seemed to prove the existence of not only other dimensions, but that travel between them was possible. "I've seen them, detected them, might even have created a small one but it collapsed in a nanosecond," he explained breathlessly as he drove up the hills. "They've all been tiny, almost infinitesimally tiny up to now, a couple atoms. Biggest I've seen was about the size of a protein molecule. But this!" he said tapping the computer on the dashboard, "This is my Nobel prize!"
He rambled on about his discovery, a gateway between the universes he found triangulating some strange readings from different study sites. Gene was convinced that it was the largest natural formation yet, large enough to move small objects through. "Think about it," he said more than once, "Exchanging with other races, hole new contacts! Ideas, art, maybe even going though the gates themselves!"
He had a crazed, slightly glazed look in his eye and Dennis didn't even try to question him about it. There wasn't much chance he would understand anyway. It was clear that he was only along for his hazy camping experience. Gene had at least enough sense not to die in the woods.
Or so it had seemed.
"Idiot goes wandering off in the middle of the damned night, what the hell am I supposed to do..." muttered Dennis as he poked his head over a couple more bushes. He didn't like this at all. Gene had insisted on going off trail, way off trail, looking for whatever his stupid little GPS unit was pointing at. The sun had already set an hour before he finally convinced the single minded prick that they had to stop. No sooner did Dennis step away from the campsite for firewood did Gene disappear into the night.
Shivering in his coat, Dennis swung the flashlight around, "Gene! Where the hell are you!" I'm going to kill him, he thought, Bastard drags me out into the middle of nowhere and disappears. I'm going to kill the little... There weren't any sheer rock walls around here, but it only takes tripping over a root to kill you. Easy enough in the night like this.
His thoughts trailed off as he spotted something that was reflecting his light. "Gene?" he asked, but got no response. He started walking closer and then realized that he wasn't seeing a reflection, but it was something that seemed to be glowing a little. As he got closer, he couldn't believe what he was seeing. It was a window into daylight.
He stared at it for a few minutes, unable to move. It was almost like someone had hung a lighted poster of the forest in the middle of the air, but it looked real. There were trees, dead leaves and even hints of a blue sky when he looked. It was a good four feet tall and about three wide, intersecting with the forest floor and going below God knew how far. The edges were a little indistinct, it was as if it blended into the night. It seemed somehow ephemeral and solid at the same time.
Slowly, Dennis walked around to the other side expecting to see the same scene, but save for a little light that illuminated this patch of woods he didn't see the same thing. It was as if the other side didn't exist. "Oh my God, what is this?"
Gene's Nobel, that's what it was. A gateway to another dimension, another world, that was large enough to admit a man.
Dennis rolled his eyes and shook his head, he suddenly knew exactly where Gene was. He walked around to the front and cupped his hands around his mouth, "Gene! Get back here right now! Gene!" He waited a few minutes then called again. The idiot had no experience in the woods at all, no idea that if you get turned around in an unfamiliar forest you could walk in the wrong direction and never find your way back.
For a moment, Dennis hoped that his friend hadn't been so stupid, that he was only lost and hadn't stepped blindly though this gateway. That's when his flashlight caught a glimpse of the branch on the ground next to the gate, so freshly broken off a nearby sapling that it still glistened with sap. He stuck a branch through to make sure it was safe, then went himself. thought Dennis.
Even as he was calling his friend every name in the book, Dennis picked up the branch and prepared to do the same thing. He already knew that he was going to have to go in after him. With luck he would just be able to stand at the other end of this gate and shout, let Gene home in on his voice. He thrust the branch through and watched carefully. The only thing that seemed at all different was that the sun was now shining on it directly, but the leaves and wood hadn't changed.
Still cautious, Gene slowly stuck his hand through the gate, expecting only to feel the warmth of the sun. There was instead a mild tug on his hand that caught him off guard, he hadn't felt it with the branch but it seemed to gently pull his hand in past the wrist. It was in that split second that he realized it wasn't his hand anymore, the sun was now shining on some animal's paw.
"Jesus!" he screamed as he yanked his arm back into the night. He grabbed a flashlight and shined it on his hand, flexing the fingers to make sure they worked right, and that they were still human. He looked once again at the gateway and suddenly knew what must have happened: Gene had leapt through and been altered somehow.
A violent shudder passed through his body and something inside Dennis snapped. Clutching his flashlight, he raced off into the night, his mind intent only on getting away from here.