Matt stood up, shaking, and wiped his hands over his face. He wasn’t aware that he was crying until he felt the wetness on his skin, and he looked at his muddy palms, surprised.
‘This really is paradise.’ Steph stepped up beside him. Dale was still on all fours, retching and sobbing. Matt knew exactly how he felt – his whole body was in shock.
They were on a grassy hill on an island in the middle of a sparkling ocean. Other islands were visible on the horizon, but the one they were on could have been a continent for all they knew – there was no visible end to it. Even so, they didn’t have to look long to see everything they needed to see, and to know exactly where to find Zindel.
At the foot of the hill they were on there was a narrow bridge of sand that connected them to the mainland. Much of what they could see was jungle, but there was what looked like a primitive fishing village on the shore, and from where they were standing they could see the wooden houses (most on stilts), stretching well past the tree line. A hundred or more boats were scattered out in the sea nearby, and small figures – they looked a lot like humans – were moving around on the docks and walkways. To the left, another steep hill rose from the trees, terminating in a series of cliffs. At the top of these, built with vision but not much skill, was an enormous house, and it was so normal looking, so Earthly compared to the strange round topped huts, that it could only belong to Zindel himself.
‘Hey, check out the sun,’ Steph said. Matt looked up and saw what looked like a white, pockmarked circle hanging in the sky, more like a moon than a sun. It was bright, but he could look directly at it without any pain, and yet the warmth from it was deep and pleasant, like settling under a warm blanket on a cold night. ‘Nice. Kinda weird,’ he said.
Dale came up beside them on trembling legs and stared dubiously down at the village. ‘I know they’re probably good people and all,’ he said, ‘but maybe we should just avoid them.’
‘Yeah,’ Steph said. ‘Just in case. He has to be in that house up there, doesn’t he?’
‘If he’s still alive,’ Dale said. Neither of them replied to that, nor did any of them move. Matt felt painfully visible to the people down in the village, but still he hesitated. The place was paradise, sure, but if they’d learned anything from their travels it was that real paradises were as rare as gold, and much harder to find. Perhaps such a place didn’t exist at all.
‘This is our last chance, guys,’ Matt said. ‘We go up to that house, see if we can find him, but if he’s dead or he’s not around, that’s it, isn’t it? No Zindel, no way to close the door for good, no Earth. At least not for a long time.’ The others said nothing at first. They were thinking, like Matt, of what they would do if that were the case. Go back for their families, maybe – although Matt’s father had been bitten – he was sure of it. Maybe he’d already done something, hit his mother and infected her, too. Brian and Elyse would be beyond help, but at least their end would be comparatively easy.
‘Screw it,’ Dale’s thick voice interrupted his thoughts. He pushed past Matt and started off down the slope. ‘Let’s just find out one way or the other, okay? I’m sick of mysteries and magic.’
Steph’s hand slid into Matt’s and he glanced at her. Her face was grim, but she nodded and forced a smile, and he gave her one back. It wasn’t as hard as he thought, in this sunny place. If it doesn’t work, she can stay here with me. There’s always that. They started after Dale.
It took less than half an hour of walking through the thick green grass, but Matt was already getting a feeling of urgency as Dale stepped up to a wonky doorway and knocked on the wooden frame as loud as he could. Who knew what the time difference between this place and earth was? If Zindel was still alive here it had to be a slow world, which meant that time was whizzing by on Earth. Steph must have been thinking the same thing, because she leaned in and said: ‘Let’s be quick. We can’t look for him too long if he’s not here.’
No sooner were the words out of her mouth than the door slid gently aside, not fitted with hinges but in a kind of clay track along the floor. Dale stood aside, no doubt intimidated by the huge figure that stood before them, and so Matt was the one he saw first. His lined, light blue eyes settled on him from under a mane of grey hair and then widened slightly. ‘My God,’ he said. ‘My God.’
Arthur Zindel was a good three inches taller than Matt, who was almost six feet himself, and had the wide, thick build of a lumberjack. The only break in that image came in the form of a pair of delicate glasses – one cracked lense – balancing on his nose, and the accent, the Oxford English of a 1930s gentleman. His clothes were made of dirty, sewn leather and he reeked of sweat and soil.
‘We… We read your book, Mr. Zindel,’ Matt said, sounding like a schoolboy talking to a principal. He cleared his throat. ‘I mean, we came here to find you, because there’s some bad stuff happening on Earth. We thought you could fix it.’
‘Earth.’ He repeated the name as though he hadn’t heard it in a very long time, and finally shook himself, blinking. ‘You’re from Earth.’ He was staring at them as though they were aliens. ‘Yes, well, of course you are. Right. Come in, all of you.’ And a moment later he was gone from the doorway.
‘Uh,’ Dale looked uncertainly back at them, shrugged his shoulders, and entered the house, and Matt and Steph followed once again. Matt was supressing a smile. He’s alive! He’s still alive and we found him! Shit, we did it!
The house had the appearance, from the outside, of being a shoddily built manor, the work of an overly ambitious architect. Inside, it was an oversized Viking longhouse, and nothing more. It was maybe three storeys tall, but there was only a ground floor and a very high ceiling, no stairs, all floorboards, two glassless windows. In fact, Matt realised, as he took a seat on a thick tree stump with the others, it was very similar to the clubhouse they’d built themselves, if they’d had more time and fewer creature comforts from Earth. There was the fireplace, complete with a small gap in the roof to disperse smoke and a barbeque spit across it. A tall handmade bookshelf in one corner, packed with dusty volumes. A large barrel of water in the opposite corner, and another barrel of something black. A wooden cup, a frying pan, and a sharp stone knife sat atop one barrel, and a thick spear leaned against the wall there. Beneath one of the windows was a handmade table, on top of which were piles of exercise books and hundreds of pens.
‘I’m going to have to start making my own pencils and paper, unfortunately,’ Zindel said, but the others weren’t listening. All three of them pushed passed him and crowded around the water barrel. Ignoring the cup, they brought handful after handful of surprisingly cold water to their mouths, almost moaning in pleasure. He watched them and then laughed. ‘Of course, you must have come through Pandemonium! Drink all you want, please. I pray I never see that nightmare place again.’
When they were satisfied at last, they moved to join him, sitting down on the stumps in the corner that served as chairs. He scrutinized them so keenly that Matt began to feel uncomfortable, though he didn’t blame him. He hadn’t seen human beings for a long, long time.
‘I’ve only got ten working pens left and there are lots of folk down in the village keen on having them as a gift. They’ve never seen such things as pens and paper,’ he said, eventually. They didn’t reply and he fixed them all with a steady, ancient gaze. ‘But of course, you’re not here to hear about this world, are you?’
‘No, Mr. Zindel,’ Matt said, bringing his attention back to those wide blue eyes. ‘We need your help, really badly.’
‘And there’s not a whole lot of time,’ Steph said.
Zindel closed his eyes and nodded. ‘I’m sorry, it’s just so strange to hear the old tongue again, and speak it. The language here is musical, too, but… I missed this. And other humans. I’m already rambling.’ He stopped short and sat up straighter, fixing on Matt again. ‘Tell me everything.’
And so they did. It was surreal, sitting in a tight circle in this other world, talking to a man they’d never met about such horrible, unbelievable things and having him accept them without question. When they finished, he was rigid in his seat, one hand planted on his knee and a look of deep concern on his face. There was a short silence, and he glanced from one to the other.
‘Well… I was about to say I couldn’t believe it, but then I’m hardly one who can say things like that anymore, considering I literally wrote the book on it. Still, I never would have believed such destruction was possible. That a world so close to Earth, so accessible, could cause so much damage.’
No one replied: all were thinking of what kind of horror was yet to be caused – what kind of things were happening even as they spoke.
‘But you say you closed the door?’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ Matt said. ‘We were all there for it. Brian said he did everything you did in the book, and we all read it and it looked right.’
‘Oh. What did he do, then? Tell me exactly.’
‘First he broke the key – ’
‘You’re sure it was the right one?’
‘Yeah, we only had one. He broke the key and then he cut himself and said the word, Claudo I think, and that was it. That was all you did, anyway.’
Zindel said nothing.
‘So?’ Steph said. ‘What did we miss?’
But the old man was shaking his head, slowly. ‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘You missed nothing. That was all there was to it.’
‘It can’t be!’ Matt said. ‘It can’t be all there was to it – the door didn’t close! We could still see the outline, and the parasites didn’t die at all, they just kept spreading.’
‘I don’t know what to tell you,’ Zindel said quietly. ‘I still remember closing that door all those years ago. I did everything you just told me, and three days later the beast was dead and the door was closed for good. The outline and the keyhole disappeared the moment I said the word.’
Deathly silence greeted these words, but it was the look on Zindel’s face that said it all for Matt. He was pale, aged with fear. The implications were sinking in now. His eyes darted from Matt’s forearms to Dale’s eyes, checking for black veins or recent scars. Is that all he cares about? His bloody paradise?
‘What about the books?’ Dale asked at last, nodding at the bookshelf in the far corner of the house. ‘Don’t they say anything? Where did you find out about how to close a door in the first place?’
Zindel shook his head absently. ‘I lost the original volumes a long time ago,’ he said. ‘But it doesn’t matter. I’m certain, absolutely certain, that you closed the door.’
‘But we can still see the outline!’ Steph said.
‘Then I am also certain that the door is still open. It doesn’t make any sense. I cannot understand it at all.’ He stood up suddenly, paced the room and stood in front of the book shelf. They watched him, breathless. The whole of earth hung on this one man, and whether he could answer this one question.
‘Mr. Zindel – ’
‘You can call me Arthur. Since we’re contemplating the end of a world I think we can use each other’s first names.’
‘Okay,’ Matt went on, ‘Arthur, maybe there’s more than one way to open the door?’
‘Absolutely not,’ he replied. ‘The original material was clear. There has only ever been and will only ever be one way.’
‘What if it’s the parasite?’ Steph said. She was pale, and her voice shook as she went on. ‘I mean, some parasites are pretty resilient on Earth, and these ones are efficient enough to have taken over a whole other world. What if the door closing just wasn’t enough to kill them? Like maybe they were too adaptable to die. Maybe that world wasn’t even their original world in the first place, but some other universe they infected from somewhere else.’
Before she’d finished, Arthur Zindel had closed his eyes and bowed his head, and Matt saw him give a slight nod, as if it all makes sense. ‘I fear,’ he said, ‘that Stephanie is most likely correct.’
‘But you said, you said anything in another world when the door is closed dies without the connection! You’re supposed to know.’ Matt was standing up. He was furious, as though Zindel was the one at fault.
The old man turned to him, now looking every inch of his hundred odd years, his initially gigantic body seeming smaller, hunched under the weight of his guilt. ‘When I began my journeys,’ he said. ‘I was only a young man, like yourself. I was playing with things I never understood, and everything I learned I learned from my own experiences, from travelling, and most of all from almost dying in a hundred horrific ways and somehow surviving. I was the first man on earth – that I know of – to actually travel to another world. You see the author of the original material was a theorist, and believed that he was studying the devil’s work. He killed himself, and I believe he tried to destroy the book. In other words, Matt, the only difference between you and I is that I’ve lived longer, and seen more horror than you. You should never have come here, any of you. You’re wasting time.’
‘Wasting time?’ Matt said. ‘Time to do what? To go home and bury our families?’
‘To save them, if you can,’ Zindel answered. ‘Bring them here, but only if they do not have the parasite. If anyone does, I’m afraid I’ll have to have them executed. The people here are innocent, and that parasite has cost enough already.’
‘Oh, so no worries, then?’ said Matt. ‘My parents are both written off, then. And so are two of my friends, and oh, yeah, the rest of the fucking world.’
Zindel looked down at the floor, and it seemed as though he might topple over any second. ‘It is a tragedy,’ he said, so quietly none of them could hear. ‘And I admit it is all my fault. All I can offer you is this place, my home. Save who you can and come back here – it’s all you can do.’
The rage flowed out of Matt as if through cracks in in a dam wall. He shook his head, not trusting himself to speak.
‘We should get going, guys,’ Dale said in his calm, quiet voice. Matt felt Steph’s hand on his shoulder.
‘This world can be your home,’ Zindel said. ‘If things really are as bad as you say, Matt, perhaps you shouldn’t go back at all. Stay here and never go back. Or find a new world from here. It wouldn’t be bad. I know it looks like… well not the pinnacle of civilisation, but I’ve never been anywhere more perfect than this. I hunt with the people in the village twice a week, and fish and swim in the ocean almost every day. The islands and the jungles here are bursting with life. The tribes rarely fight because there is so much of everything. It is a paradise. You’d never have to go back.’
‘It’s not going to happen,’ Matt said, taking a step towards the door.
‘Wait, please! How is Diana?’
Matt gritted his teeth. ‘I don’t know, go ask her yourself.’
‘Won’t you tell her, bring her here?’
‘Bring her yourself, you’re the great traveller!’
‘It’s madness to go back,’ Zindel replied, and his voice was a little harder. ‘I can find the answer, somewhere in the books I have here. I’m sure of it. It will just take time. Please, stay, help me.’
‘You’ll have to look without us,’ Steph said, pulling Matt away before he could open his mouth again. ‘If you find anything, there might still be time.’
Zindel said nothing to that, and Matt finally turned with the others to go. ‘Thanks anyway,’ he heard Dale say behind him, but there was no reply. They left the ramshackle building and its lonely occupant and stepped out into a warm wind. Dark clouds drifted across an otherwise perfect blue sky. They headed up the hill in silence, looking at their feet rather than the large boulder from which they’d emerged and its doorway.
Only when they reached the top of the hill, and Matt had pushed the little stone chip into the keyhole, did the weight of it all settle on them. Matt’s anger had held his tears at bay, but at the thought of returning home and seeing his fanatic, wide eyed father and scared mother, they came at last and he swiped at them impatiently. When he turned, he saw the other two looking as bad as he felt.
‘I guess that’s it, then,’ Dale said. He looked ten years older than he was. Tears were pouring out of Steph’s eyes but she made no move to wipe them away. ‘Brian and Elyse…’ she said, and swallowed.
‘Listen, guys,’ Dale said. ‘It’s not over yet, okay? There’s something there we’re not seeing. Zindel too – we didn’t give him that much time to think, after all, did we? He might think of something later on. Or we might.’
Matt gave his friend a small smile and slapped him on the shoulder. ‘Yeah, man. Soon as we get back, we’ll do some research of our own, and round up anyone we can who’s not infected, in case we gotta run after all. Yeah, it’s not over.’
But the moment he turned away from them and swung open the thick stone door, the smile disappeared from his face and the tears came fresh. It wasn’t over, only, deep in his heart, he knew there was no hope. One by one, they climbed through the narrow doorway and once again entered the screaming tunnels of Pandemonium.