When they arrived in the forest, there was nobody there. There were plenty of doors, though. In a rough circle around the original door, the one that was theoretically closed, there were about ten others carved in the surrounding trees, and no way of telling which one Matt and Steph were in, or for how long they were likely to be there. It didn’t matter. Elyse used the time to tell Brian everything.
‘They want to lock us away somewhere?’ he said, when she told him about her last conversation with Steph. ‘No way! Look what happened in the last world. It’s a death sentence. Better off leaving us here, we can hole up somewhere and just wait it out.’
She gave him a cold look, and he took a step back. ‘What?’
‘Look at yourself, Brian.’
Of course, he didn’t have to. His torn body said everything. ‘You’re losing your mind,’ she said, ‘And so am I.’
‘If we let them lock us away, Elyse… You really think that’s a good idea, the way we are?’
She didn’t flinch. Hands in her pockets, hair over her shoulder, she told him the way it was, like always. ‘If they don’t lock us away, we’re going to hurt someone.’
He opened his mouth to tell her that was absurd, that it wasn’t as though they were a couple of puppets dancing around, that if he didn’t want his hand to pick up a knife and cut someone it wouldn’t – and then he thought of the kid on the bench. How much of my thoughts are still mine, anyway? So he said nothing, just took her hand in his and stood there with her, waiting.
They couldn’t have stood for more than a minute when one of the doors clicked open and Steph and Matt stepped through. They closed the door behind them and Matt looked up, noticing them for the first time.
‘You guys look like hell,’ Brian said. It was true. Matt seemed to have lost about five kilos, his face was pale and full of tiny scratches, his hair a bird’s nest; Steph had a similar sickly look and she had a gash on one arm that was crusted over with dried blood. She gave a tiny smile at the sight of Brian but didn’t come near him. She looked afraid.
‘Man am I glad to see you guys,’ Matt said, slapping Brian on the shoulder and forcing a smile of his own. ‘You would not believe the places we’ve been.’
Brian looked around at the doors, trying to count them all and then seeing that some trees had as many as three carved into their trunks, some only big enough to crawl through. ‘I can imagine.’
‘Believe me,’ Matt said. ‘You can’t.’
‘Did you get your blood test?’ Steph asked, but Elyse shook her head. She glanced at Brian, and it occurred to him she was about to tell them where he’d been and what he’d been doing. He spoke before she could answer. ‘There’s no time for that. Me and Elyse gotta get out of here soon. As in, today.’
Steph and Matt exchanged worried glances. ‘What do you mean? What happened?’ she said.
‘It doesn’t matter. Have you guys found a place yet? Anywhere decent, it doesn’t matter. We just need to be away from… Earth.’
But Steph looked at the ground and Matt shook his head. ‘It’s not that easy, man. I mean, half the places are deadly. Just stepping in places and looking around, we’ve almost been eaten like five times, crushed once, drowned a couple, and I almost fell out of a tree like a hundred meters tall.’
‘They can’t all be like that, though?’ Elyse said. ‘Why would all of them be so hostile?’
‘No, it’s not all of them. Those were the bad ones. We found a couple that were really barren, but they were both fast worlds. You two would probably be long dead by the time we figured anything out on this end.’
‘So what are the slow worlds, then? There has to be something, right?’ Brian asked.
Another worried glance. They didn’t say anything.
‘What? Come on.’
‘There is the last one, the one we just came from,’ Matt said. ‘It was a slow world.’
Matt shrugged and looked at his feet, and in the end it was Steph who came out and said it. ‘It’s dying. We think it’s an apocalypse.’
‘You think it’s – what?’
‘An apocalypse,’ she said again. ‘The door opens up in this big valley, mountains and canyons everywhere like a desert. We couldn’t see any life around, but there were a bunch of really tall trees in the distance and Matt said he could see a river, but it looked like a mirage to me.’
‘Okay, what about the apocalypse thing?’
‘The sky,’ Matt said slowly, ‘is full of rocks.’
‘He means meteors, or comets or whatever they’re called,’ Steph said. ‘We thought they were stars at first, because they were so bright, but then Matt saw they had these tails on them and we realised they were comets, coming in through the planet’s atmosphere. Hundreds of them.’
‘Thousands,’ Matt said.
‘Yeah, maybe thousands. Some of them were really big, too.’
‘Oh, man.’ Brian was staring at the door they’d just come through. If a meteorite crashed into that door, would the force of it break through to earth or was it impossible for anything to cross over as long as it was locked?
‘Come on, guys,’ Elyse said. ‘You’re kidding, right? That’s the best world? None of the others were better than a bloody apocalypse?’
Matt shrugged. ‘Half of ‘em were fast worlds. More than half, even. Then there were all the ones with horrible monsters in them, and suffocating gases. There was this giant castle one we thought could work, but then we explored a little further and…he shuddered. ‘I’m gonna have nightmares about that one.’
‘The apocalypse world is twenty to one, guys,’ Steph said. ‘It’s the best we’ve found so far. Plus, the comets were still, you know, far away – ish. I would have given them a few days to hit at least, which could translate to like, months of Earth time.’
‘Far away – ish?’ Brian said. He looked from her to Matt, and though they didn’t reply, his heart sank quickly. They meant it. They really meant it.
‘That’s the best world you’ve got?’
‘There must be better ones out there, I guess, but…’ Matt shrugged. ‘We won’t find them without looking for who knows how long. And I gotta be honest, Brian, I’ve risked my life more times in the past twenty four hours than most people do their whole lives.’
‘He’s right, Brian,’ Elyse said quietly beside him. She took his hand in his and squeezed gently. ‘It’s time to go.’