Written for INFUZEmag.com.
“Candidates, seekers, and dreamers. You have travelled far, prevailed over many challenges, and proven yourselves worthy.
“Thousands tried to reach this place, but only the five of you remain. Each equally noble, equally capable, equally ready for what lies ahead. You know the risks. As the entire world watches, you will each make your final attempt. We still do not know where it came from or where it leads to. We know merely that it was sent to us.”
A gentle breeze brushed across his face as Zak fought the urge to yawn, as the speaker — the Commissioner — paused his speech for dramatic effect, before finishing with:
“For only one… can open the Door.”
Zak had heard this phrase thousands of times now, yet despite himself, the magnitude of this moment caught up to him and his heart quickened once more. For years, Zak had dreamed of reaching this place. He could still remember how it all began on A-Day, as they called it.
The day the Door arrived on Earth. In a lovely courtyard in Ecuador, a few hundred feet away from a monument standing on the Equator, a massive, monolithic structure had simply appeared. Over five stories tall, its flat, metallic sheen gleamed brightly enough to be seen for miles away. Yet scientists had never identified exactly what its molecular structure was composed of.
The Door’s enormous archway was rounded in a giant semi-circle at its top, and along that frame, in more than a dozen languages, were engraved the words:
WILL OPEN FOR ONE
ON THE THIRD SUMMER SOLSTACE
Everyone had assumed that “the third summer solstace” meant the third one after A-Day. Like the rest of the world, Zak was immediately captivated by it. Where had it come from? Where did it lead to? Was it sent by another race? Was it conjured into existence by magic?
Zak nervously shifted his feet as the impeccably-dressed young Commissioner continued his meticulously prepared speech. Zak still had no idea how this young guy before him had been chosen to oversee the Doorway Project, as it had been dubbed via international council, and he really couldn’t bring himself to care. He was here to get close to the Door, and maybe, if he was worthy enough, to open it.
The Commissioner droned on at a podium erected mere feet from the artifact’s threshold. Zak’s mind wandered as he glanced at his four competitors who stood two a piece on either side of him, shoulder to shoulder, all five facing the Door.
There was Samora, the South African woman, who never stopped smiling. Niklas, the severe German man who seemed incapable of smiling. Ilsa, the Swedish, blonde, and requisite “pretty face” competitor. And Peng Rui Bai, the astonishingly brilliant, elderly Chinese man.
Zak was the only one among them not carrying the responsibility of representing his country. Though born in the United States, he’d been a drifter his entire life, galloping off from one exciting place to another, determined to see every nook and cranny the world had to offer.
He harbored the secret hope that this might give him an edge over the others. After all, who better to take the ultimate plunge into the unknown than a man who’d never settled down?
“The time is upon us, at last,” the Commissioner said with great reverence. “Would the five candidates please step forward?”
Zak’s heart fluttered again as he took four steps forward, matching the others. All of them now stood within teen feet of the Door; it was closer than anyone — aside from the Project’s council and a handful of scientists — had ever been.
He had to fight the urge to rush forward and throw his shoulder against the Door with all his might. But would that open it? The question of how the Door would be opened had often filled his thoughts in the wee hours of the morning. When would the Commissioner explain it?
Of course, that thought only entered his mind when the more dominant one managed to step aside, however briefly. What is beyond the Door? Who would send such a thing to humanity, and why?
“Each of you will be given twelve minutes — no more and no less — to make your attempt,” the Commissioner explained. “If you fail to open the Door, you will be dismissed from the Project. Assuming you survive the attempt, of course.”
“But, sir?” It was Samora, raising a hand with a question. The gathered crowd of thousands, along with the millions that watched via television and Internet around the globe, dropped their whispers to nothingness, all still and silent in anticipation of what Samora would interrupt this momentous occasion to dare ask.
“Yes?” the Commissioner replied, straightening his tie and trying to mask a slight frown.
“How do we open the Door?”
I can’t believe she asked that! What a preposterous thing to blurt out!
Yet it was the very question on the mind of every single person on the planet. How could it not be asked?
“Hadn’t you guessed by now?” the Commissioner replied with an arched brow. “That is precisely what we are all here to discover.”
“You mean,” Zak suddenly cried, “you don’t know how we open it?” In all this time, it had never occurred to him that it would be up to the competitors to figure this out. He had assumed that they would all be given the same instructions, each try their hand, and the Door would allow whichever one of them it deemed most worthy, to enter.
“Of course not,” the Commissioner replied. “The Door has been examined by the greatest minds this world has to offer. Though clearly technological in origin, no moving parts have been detected within the structure, nor any sort of control mechanism.
“Simply put, we have no idea how it is to be opened. Perhaps you are to simply nudge it. Maybe it reads the fingerprints on your palm, or the retinas in your eye. Possibly there is a controller device, hidden where only one of you can find it. Or perhaps you simply walk into it. It is a profound mystery, but we believe one of you will solve it this very hour. And then the world will know.”
“But I thought ‘only one can open it’?” Zak replied.
“Open it, yes. But we believe that once open, we can keep it open indefinitely, so that any who wish to, may enter in.”
Zak was thunderstruck. This had never occurred to him, either — that more than the “one” who opened it would be allowed to pass through the Door and learn its secrets.
He watched in stunned silence as Samora was first up to make her attempt. She walked all the way around it, ran her fingers all across its smooth, cold surface. She tried pressing her entire body into the Doorway, then just one hand. After twelve minutes of this, her time was up.
The crowd cheered her anyway as the Commissioner quietly directed her out of the immediate area. Next up was Niklas, the German. He tinkered around for the first six minutes, using some small tools he had brought along in his pockets, and tried prying the Door open. When that failed, he stood before it defiantly, hands on his hips, and strained his eyes and his brain in the direction of the archway, as if trying to will the Door to open.
He failed as well.
Zak’s turn came, and he found his hands shaking as he stepped forward and reached up at long last to touch the Door. He wanted to embrace it, to internalize it, to somehow make it a part of him. But he felt the pressure of the ticking clock and ran out of ideas. Devastated, he was escorted away into the crowd, while only a handful of onlookers cheered.
Clearly, he wasn’t the popular favorite.
Ilsa tried caressing the door, running her fingers along the engraved letters across the arch. Then she did something that made the entire crowd laugh out loud and then boo and hiss: she kissed it.
Peng merely stepped forward and sat before the Door, cross-legged. He appeared to be meditating, though later he would tell the press that he had been doing complex calculations in his head, in the hopes that the Door would recognize his intellect and grant him access.
The hour came and went, and all five candidates had failed. Quite uncertain of what to do next, the Commissioner called the proceedings to a close and vowed to meet with the Doorway Project council immediately, to determine if there had been some kind of error in reading and understanding the inscriptions.
Zak found his way back to the nearby hotel where the selection committee had housed him and his fellow competitors. He passed by the four others at one point, arguing loudly in the hotel lounge over what must have gone wrong. But he kept walking, until he reached his room, where he collapsed on his bed.
His tears ushered him into unconsciousness.
Zak awoke long after dark that night, and flipped on the television. Every network was airing news specials about the Doorway Project’s failure to open the artifice. The competitors were demonized, the Project was scrutinized, and the Commissioner was ostracized. The Door itself was called a twisted hoax meant to drain the world of goodwill and money.
Zak wandered to his second story window, where he could see the Door, reflecting the moonlight. It stood all alone in the night, long since abandoned by the spectator throng and apparently, the Project council as well. In fact, the entire courtyard was utterly… deserted. All alone it sat.
Zak gasped and glanced at the digital clock by his bed.
He wasted no time; he ran out on the balcony adjacent to his room, to avoid Project security downstairs, and climbed down a drainage pipe to the ground below. He landed with a gentle whoosh and ran through the darkness for the Door as fast as his legs would carry him. He approached the electric fence that had been placed around the courtyard and climbed a nearby tree to get over it.
His thoughts returned to the inscription…
WILL OPEN FOR ONE…
“Who goes there! Halt!” screamed an angry male voice from behind. He knew it would be the Project’s security detail, who monitored the round-the-clock perimeter around the Door’s courtyard to ensure no one tainted or sabotaged the mysterious device.
“STOP RIGHT THERE!!” another voice shouted, and then there were footsteps falling fast somewhere behind him. Zak thought he might have heard the sound of gun safeties being clicked off.
“If you approach the Door, you will be shot dead!” an authoritative voice announced. But it was still far behind, like all of the other sounds. He had too much of a lead, he could only pray it was enough, that they would be unable to get close enough to the Door before he reached it…
It was twenty feet away now, and he could almost feel it. The wind rushed through his face and his dark hair, and there were dogs barking in the distance to his rear, but he thought only of the Door and this one, last chance at achieving the impossible, seeing something no one else had ever seen…
He stretched out his hand as he neared the door. His fingers only inches from the door, there was suddenly a light brighter than any he had ever seen, and he thought for a moment that perhaps he’d been shot in the head. But then he saw that the Door was the source of the light.
In the next second, the security men watching would see only the light flash out, and Zak swallowed by it.
Zak stared out in wonder.
Around him was a place like nothing he had ever seen, like nothing that could ever be described in words. It was a place of delight, beauty, mystery, and awe, full of colors beyond the spectrum, sounds to both please and terrify, and smells of every kind.
The very ground he stood on seemed to glow. As he was noticing this, a very old man approached him, leaning on a wooden cane that looked like a tree branch. He wore overalls and a red flannel shirt, as well as a straw fedora atop his snow white head.
“Welcome,” the old man croaked, wheezing for breath and leaning heavily on the cane.
“Where is this?” Zak asked, jaws wide with amazement.
“You have come,” the old man replied, “to the center.”
“The center of what?”
“Of everything.” Zak thought he detected a grin buried amid the withered man’s features.
“Meaning what? Does this place have a name?”
“It goes by many names. Atlantis. Narnia. Never-Never Land. Outer space. The center of the earth. A galaxy far, far away. Everyone calls it something different, but it is a real place — as substantial as the air you breathe. You are standing on the most priceless land in the universe. The most fertile soil in all of creation.”
“I don’t understand. Why am I here? And what does it mean?”
“As a very wise man once wrote, it means that your arrival does not herald the end of this story, but the beginning of all others. From here, the greatest adventures have yet to be born into existence. But this is a precious, innocent place. It requires the presence of a Caretaker. You listened, followed, and refused to fail. My time has faded. You are the Caretaker, now.”
Somehow, Zak knew. Untold possibilities filled his mind, and he knew them to be all of the great stories still waiting to be written.
The old man began to stoop until he was on one knee, and Zak helped him lower to lay on his back. “Protect this place! Keep it safe! Without it, life would falter and end. Guard this treasure, this repository, with everything you hold dear to you, so that it will always be available to the makers, the creators, and the dreamers. And one day, another will come to take your place.”
“I will,” Zak found himself saying. “I promise.”
The old man took a final breath and closed his eyes before mumbling just above a whisper.
“The Door always knows who to choose,” he said as Zak held his dying hand. “I can see in you that it chose rightly, once again. You have been an adventurer all your life. Now, you are the adventure.”
Copyright 2007 ©Robin Parrish. All rights reserved.