‘Hello?’ Steph said nervously.
In a voice dripping with evil, Matt said: ‘Welcome to hell.’
Before Steph could flee, Brian’s voice cut through the semi darkness: ‘Hey, Steph! You made it,’ and he lifted the light to better illuminate them. She let out a deep breath and walked over to them, punching Matt as she went.
‘Ah, Jesus! That bloody hurt.’
‘How can you joke, now? Where the hell are we? What is this place, Brian?
‘Ssh. Okay, just follow me. Hopefully it’s daytime over here. I don’t really know how the weather and all that works, so fingers crossed. Come on.’
They followed him in silence, and when at last they rounded the corner and saw the light at the end, they couldn’t resist the urge to overtake him. Matt ran ahead of the others. Brian walked slowly in their wake, content to watch them stop at the entrance, taking it all in. When he stepped up beside them, they’d all fallen silent again. The absence of sun made it hard to tell if it was day or night, but it was easy enough to see by the bright stars, and the light in sky had the tincture of a summer sunrise. It was pleasantly warm, the air hanging over all of them like a blanket. Matt stood on the very brink, frozen in time. He felt paralysed, but his heart was slamming in his chest. Looked down at his feet, as if to make sure his body was really here with the rest of him. Slowly, his eyes traced upwards, first to the steep slope dropping away before him, then on to the wide fields below, the strange plants, the massive sparkling lake, and finally to the sky.
‘This is…’ Elyse trailed away, lost for words.
‘Is this real?’ Dale said. He had a confused expression on his face, as though he was still convinced that Brian was just playing some elaborate magic trick on them.
‘Not everything’s a trick, Dale,’ Brian said.
‘You drugged us, didn’t you?’ Matt said.
‘Ever heard of a drug that gives all the takers the exact same hallucination at the exact same time?’ Brian said.
Just as Brian had done the day before, they spent a long time standing and staring out over the wilderness, taking it in, coming to terms with it.
Elyse was the first to speak. ‘I want to read that book,’ she said, her voice trembling.
Brian laughed. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll all get to read it, once we go back. By the way, you didn’t give me a chance to mention the time difference.’
‘What time difference? You mean like a time zone?’ Matt said, staring up at the brilliant sky.
‘Sort of. Basically, time flows differently in all the worlds. I already worked it out in this one – it’s thirty to one, just about. So for every hour we spend in this place, two minutes passes back home. And we’ve so far been here…’ he flipped out his phone and glanced at the screen. ‘Eighty seconds, Earth time. At least I have, for you lot it’s more like forty.’
‘How is this possible?’ Dale said.
‘Look, we could sit here all day talking about it, guys. Is that what you want to do?’
‘Hell no,’ Matt said, standing up and looking down at the blue lake far below. ‘I want to go for a swim.’
They navigated the tall steppes easily enough, and began the hike through the boulder strewn field at the foot of the mountain. Brian was in front, and all of them had their knives out, partly to hack at the long grass and partly because with every step away from the mountain, they felt more and more vulnerable.
‘Brian, are you sure there’s nothing… dangerous out here?’ Steph said at one point.
‘Of course I’m not! This is the first time I’ve been down here, remember?’ he saw the expression on her face. ‘I mean, I didn’t hear or see anything before, and I was sitting up there for a long time, you know. You’d think if there were monsters or whatever around, I’d have heard them howling or something, right?’
After half an hour of walking, the knives were tucked away and they spread out, becoming more relaxed. Matt scrambled to the top of one of the boulders and started jumping from one to the next, laughing with joy. The feeling of surrealism was dropping away. He was in another world. He was in another world, not earth, not the milky way – a whole other universe. He paused to let the others catch up and took in a deep breath. The air was so thick it was he was eating it. It smelled of soil and dry stone and green leaves. The sound of small waves hitting the sand reached his ears. He had never felt so alive. ‘We’re almost there!’ he called down to them.
Sure enough, they reached the lake five minutes later, the boulders turning to small rocks and pebbles and finally sand, stretching into the misty distance in a vast crescent beach. Small waves lapped at the shore, and the dark forest of black and white trees lined the far end.
‘Holy Christ I’m hungry. Let’s eat,’ Matt said, dumping his backpack on the ground without waiting for a reply. No one argued anyway, and a few minutes later they all had their lunches out, sitting cross legged in the sand. When they were done, Matt took off his shirt and walked over to the water while the others got up and walked idly along the beach.
Matt took a few steps into the water and stood waist deep. It felt cool, refreshing. It was clear as tap water. The light from the stars made the water sparkle almost blindingly. He wondered how clear it would be if he ducked under and opened his eyes.
‘How’s the water?’ Brian called.
‘Nice! Really clear. I can see everything.’
‘Any fish?’ Dale asked.
‘No, nothing. Not even shells.’
Matt thought about that for a second. No shells, no fish. In fact, he hadn’t seen or heard the slightest sign of life since they’d arrived. Not so much as a chirping cicada or a mating call or a bird. Weird.
He waded a little deeper, relishing the icy water on his skin, and then deeper still, until the sandbank disappeared beneath his feet and he was treading water. Soon he couldn’t hear the others at all and he floated on his back for a few minutes, imagining that he was alone out in the middle of the ocean, far from everything. He smiled at the stars.
But there is something disconcerting about very deep water, even when it is crystal clear. He could feel the depth of it beneath him like a physical presence, a menacing abyss that wanted to suck him in. His feet tingled. Perhaps the life on this planet was all submarine? Perhaps it was all carnivorous, too? Uneasy, he sucked in a deep breath and decided to take a look underwater and then get the hell out of here. He ducked under.
The first thing that struck him was the sheer emptiness. Just as he feared, the bottom was out of sight. The water simply became bluer and bluer until it was pitch black, and in all that immense space, there was nothing at all. He swivelled back to face the beach and saw the sandbank drop off some way behind him in a sheer cliff. No coral, no small fish, just rock and sand, all the way down. He flapped his arms and pushed himself further down, turning slowly until he was looking back out towards the middle of the lake, and that was when he saw it.
Just an impression of movement at first, but it caught his eye and he fixed on it, and a moment later it began to take shape. It was impossible to tell how far away it was without landmarks of any kind, but in water this clear it had to be distant indeed to be so vague. Just a shape at first, a blackness in the blue that was growing larger. No, not growing larger, coming closer. All of a sudden he was very conscious of how far away from the shore he was. The black thing was taking shape now and growing still larger. It was immense. There were fins, and a pointed nose. No eyes that he could see, but there was the impression of a forked tail, swaying left to right the way a shark’s did.
It was when he saw the mouth, that enormous, perfectly round mouth, opening in a featureless black face, that his panic took over. He kicked up to the surface and swam for shore, mindless with it. He had never moved so fast in all his life, his arms and legs hitting the water so hard it stung his skin, every muscle in his body burning within seconds. Still, he was moving so painfully slowly the water might have been made of mud. He had no breath to scream, no breath at all, and no thoughts besides the image of that mouth growing wider and wider, the impression of the body behind it so vast it could have outweighed a bus.
The others were watching him now, curious, and someone – Brian maybe – called out, but he heard nothing. He kicked on and on, his feet still tingling with that horrible sensation so that he was certain he was going to feel a strong tug – you never felt the pain at first – and then his legs would be gone and dark red waves would come crashing over his head.
And then he touched sand. He launched himself out of the water as hard as he could, running until he was all the way out and then sprinting up the beach until he reached them, where he collapsed on all fours, choking out water. Their laughter faded away when they saw his face and they crowded around him. ‘Matt, are you okay?’ Steph said. ‘What happened?’
Instead of answering, he turned over on his back and stared at the lake, but he saw nothing. Nothing, that was, except for a series of very large waves coming in to shore, from about the place the sandbank had ended. They hit a few seconds later and the water came rushing so far up the beach it touched Brian’s toes. He was staring out at the water. ‘What the hell was that?’ he said.
‘I have no idea,’ Matt said between breaths. He was shaking so badly he didn’t trust himself to stand up. ‘I have no idea. But I’m not going in there ever again.’
They all looked at each other, and at last Steph said: ‘Well, guess that answers your question, Dale. There’s your life.’
Dale nodded, looking out at the water. ‘Not really the answer I was hoping for,’ he said.
But besides Matt’s close encounter, which served to make him significantly less adventurous that day, they saw no other signs of life until, making their way slowly down the beach in search of a good campsite, Steph pointed at the sky and said, ‘I see birds!’
They all looked and sure enough, a flock of black feathered birds glided swiftly through the air above the lake to their right. They watched them for a time, until the flock reached the land and soared over the forest. Then, moving with a singular mind much like a school of fish, they circled once and then dove sharply into the middle of the jungle. Brian and the others watched for a few minutes, but didn’t see them rise again.
‘Weird,’ Steph said.
‘Must have found something to eat,’ Brian said.
Still unable to shake the memory of that gaping mouth, Matt suggested they set up high on the beach and make a bonfire. Dale, certain that Brian had meant to trick them in the park, had even brought a pack of raw sausages, hoping they could fry them up on the public barbeque so the whole outing wasn’t a total waste of time. They stuck them on sticks and cooked them over the open fire, and little by little Matt felt his terror drip away.
It was all too easy to lose track of time in this world, but Brian kept an eye on his phone, converting every hour they spent into Earth time. It hardly seemed to matter. They’d have to return out of sheer hunger and thirst long before they’d be missed at home. The lake looked pristine, but none of them were about to drink water in a strange world, even if they seemed alright breathing the air.
They used Brian’s knife to cut more logs from the trees that lined the shore, and pretty soon they had a bonfire the size of a car blazing on the beach. After that, all their fears were forgotten along with the rest of their lives and they danced around it shouting like tribesman, drunk on their adventure, until they were too tired to go on and just sprawled in the sand around it, talking and laughing.
They were so lost in their joy and excitement that they didn’t see the man who stood and watched them from the tree line. Even if they glanced that way, they may never have seen him. His skin was white as the tree bark and he was so emaciated that his bony limbs were like branches. His eyes were wide, maybe three times the size of theirs, and his mouth was similarly huge, black gums sporting sharp teeth that were spaced wide apart.
He held a leaning sapling for support with one hand, his other grasping a tall spear sunk, and watched them. Had he seen them with food, or had there been few enough of them that he thought he could hunt them, he’d have done more than watch, but as it was he was too weak. He doubted he could hunt anything now, except with traps, and those came up empty nowadays, except for the occasional infected vermin.
His vision, once so perfect he could have seen an insect crawling through the sand on the opposite shore of the lake, now swam before him, showing him flashes of things that weren’t there. For a moment he was convinced the Aliens he saw at the fire had come over to look at him and he reached out to them, silently begging for help. Then he blinked and came back to his senses. They were lying in the sand, babbling occasionally in a strange language.
There was no time for this. He needed to check the other traps and scout the far side of the mountain before he returned. He’d tell the others later, and maybe they’d send hunters to the beach with him tomorrow, to see if the Aliens were infected and whether they were edible. He vanished into the forest, weak but ever hopeful. Tomorrow would be better.
Their eyelids began drooping as the fire burned low, but none of them really wanted to leave. ‘Should we go?’ Steph asked. ‘I mean, after that shark thing… We don’t know what lives out in that forest.’ They thought about it for a minute, and Matt shuddered at the thought of that pointed head and that wide mouth on something with arms and legs. He didn’t like that notion at all.
‘I dunno,’ Brian said. ‘We all got our knives, right? And that thing was way out in the lake. If there was life out here, we’d hear it or see some sign of it, wouldn’t we? I mean, listen.’
They fell silent for what felt like a long time, but there were no ominous howls or growls or animal calls. Nothing but the soft wind, the crackle of the fire and the sound of small waves skimming the sand. It was the kind of silence you expected from a desert, not a lush forest. Strange, yes, but there was no sense of danger. There was nothing out there.
‘It’s so lonely,’ Elyse said, settling back into the sand, head resting on her hands. ‘I love it here. I think we should stay.’
And so they did. Warmed by the fire, they fell asleep one by one. Matt and Steph were the last to go, staring up at the star streaked sky.
Brian woke first, jerking awake as raindrops hit his face, strikingly cold. At some point, black clouds had rolled in from over the forest. Beside him, the fire sputtered and hissed madly, and Elyse rolled in the sand nearby, rubbing her eyes. ‘Hey!’ Brian shouted, pulling his phone from his pocket. ‘Wake up, guys! Damn.’
‘What? Where the hell are we?’ Steph mumbled, dragging herself onto all fours.
Matt jumped to his feet moments after he woke, panicked. ‘What’s the time? Brian, what’s the time on Earth?’
Brian did the math quickly, then double checked his phone, then let out a sigh. ‘It’s alright,’ he said, getting to his feet. ‘It’s only two over there. We could stay here three more days and be fine.’
‘Yeah, I’m not that keen on it, to be honest,’ Dale said, helping Steph to her feet and rubbing sand out of his hair. ‘It’s been amazing, man, but I still feel sick. And I’m hungry.’
‘Yeah, lets…’ Brian paused and the others looked at him, curious. ‘Did anyone else hear that?’
‘Listen.’ They were silent, but there was nothing besides the sizzle of the dying fire and the falling rain on the trees. And then it came again, louder this time. A wail, not quite a wolf’s howl or a lion’s roar but something in between, low and savage, more chilling than the rain. Whatever made it was big, that was for sure. It came from somewhere in the forest.
‘Let’s go home,’ Steph said. No one argued.
They collected their bags and trekked back through the field of boulders to the mountain, and by the time they reached the shelter of the cave they were all drenched and shivering. Dale and Elyse were the worst, their noses running and throats sore. Still, despite this unpleasant end to their bizarre holiday, none of them could stop smiling.
Brian unlocked the door and they all stepped back out into the forest they’d left so long ago. The sun was shining but the air was crisp and cold compared to the other world – though at least it wasn’t raining. They stood for a while, absorbing the rays of sunlight. Elyse put an arm around Brian and smiled at him. ‘That was amazing,’ she said.
‘Hell yeah,’ Matt said seriously. ‘Listen, man, I want to read that book.’
Brian pulled it out of his backpack and handed it to Elyse. ‘She asked first.’
‘Just pass it on when you finish. We all have to read it. There’s lots of stuff in there we might need if we keep exploring.’ He glanced around at them. ‘You do all want to keep going, right? I mean, it’s amazing, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah,’ Steph said. ‘Creepy, though, right? The thing Matt saw, and that weird howl?’ ‘We’ll be careful,’ Brian said.
‘I think we should make rules,’ Dale said quietly. ‘To make sure we don’t… a lot of stuff could go wrong, right? We should make rules.’
‘Like, no one goes there unless we’re all there. Either all of us, or none of us.’
Brian nodded. ‘Yeah, sounds reasonable.’
‘And also, we always carry food, water, and weapons. And no one talks about it to anyone else. No one else can know about it.’
‘The second rule of World Club is…’ Matt said, but no one laughed.
‘And only one world at a time,’ Brian added.
They looked at him, confused. ‘I mean, it’s possible to open lots of doors, in this world and others. But that would be dangerous, wouldn’t it? To have too many, anything could come out, or go in, keys could get lost. I dunno, it seems dangerous, right?’
‘You can just make these? That easily?’ Dale said.
‘Yeah. But I don’t think we should. If we decide to leave a world, we should close the door before we explore another one, you know? One at a time.’
‘How do you close doors?’ Elyse asked.
Brian thought back, then nodded slowly. ‘I’m pretty sure you just snap the key and say… I forget the word but it’s in the book. Easy. Zindel – the guy that wrote it – he only ever had to do it once, and apparently once they’re closed you can’t reopen them.’
‘I guess it doesn’t matter, no one can open it without the key.’
‘Exactly. Which, by the way, I’m keeping.’
‘Can you make copies?’ Steph asked.
‘I… don’t think so. He never mentions anything like that. Feel free to try, but I’m keeping this one. Besides, we’ll always be going together, right? I’m not that keen on wandering around in there alone.’
Matt nodded, and then broke out in a tired grin. ‘I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t think we’ll ever want to close this world. I know it was creepy, but… wasn’t it…’
‘Beautiful?’ Elyse finished. ‘Yeah.’
‘I mean, think of the possibilities,’ he went on. ‘We can built a fort or a treehouse or something in the forest for safety, make a cool house for ourselves, hang out there whenever we want, as long as we want. We could have a week long holiday every weekend. A month long one! No rules, no cops, no one at all but us. With a beach right there, bonfires whenever we want, endless places to explore. Jesus, think about it!’
‘Guys, I really gotta get home, I’m dying here,’ Dale said, running a hand under his nose.
‘Yeah, alright. I’ll see you guys at school tomorrow,’ Brian said. ‘Everyone up for this next weekend? Start building our mansion?’
‘Hell, why not tomorrow?’ Matt said.
‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ Steph said.
‘Well… Think about it. We still age at the normal rate, don’t we? So if we spend like twelve hours over there per day, we’ll be, like, thirty before the end of high school. Right?’
Brian nodded reluctantly. ‘The woman has a point,’ he said. ‘We should pace ourselves. Why don’t we limit it to, say, one day per week?’
‘I’m up for that.’
‘Who’s up to party on the beach Saturday night?’
There was a subdued but cheerful round of nods and grins that warmed Brian’s heart and filled him with joy all over again. The Worlds are our oysters, he thought, and laughed out loud.