They call it the doorway to heaven. The rest of us call it the doorway to hell.
I don’t know exactly when it opened; the Army spread so much misinformation about it that ordinary citizens like me have no idea what the true story is.
All I know for sure are two facts. It’s a wormhole to another world – a door to a different place.
And it’s calling me. It’s been calling me my entire life. Long, long before news of the wormhole hit the public, I dreamt of that other land.
It beckoned me from childhood, shadowing my every step, chasing through my every dream. And today, it will finally catch up to me.
Sergeant Mark Sheppard
Another day, another ridiculous request.
I don’t know why I kept up with them. Okay, I do – my superiors told me to go through with them, and I was a loyal little Army brat. Plus, considering the current situation with the realm on the other side of the wormhole – X4 90, or Xandia, as they called themselves, we had to keep the Othersiders happy.
Shit, Othersiders. Even though I’d been part of the special military taskforce who restricted and controlled transport through the wormhole for three years now, sometimes it still hit me like it had the very first day I’d found out about the door.
Once upon a time, humanity had thought it was alone. It had always been wrong. Out there, connected through a network of wormholes, was another realm.
I could fondly remember over five years ago when I’d been nothing more than a brat in the Academy and the news had hit. Though the top brass had known about it for a full 50 years before that, it had finally got out, as the portal had grown so large, even the top military might in the world hadn’t been able to hide it from view.
Now everyone knew about it.
Though the Othersiders weren’t exactly aliens – as they didn’t come from another planet, but another dimension – it was close. Close enough that it had changed everything. Or it should have changed everything.
I’d grown up on a steady diet of sci-fi films as a kid, and I knew what was meant to happen on first contact. The world was meant to freak out, lose its shit, riot, and then change. You know, deep-seated, meaningful social change. The kind of change that would finally get rid of inequality and man’s lust for grabbing the resources of others.
But it hadn’t changed.
Sure, the media’s favorite topic was the portal, and politicians around the world vied for control of it, but that was it. To the common man, the portal was an incredible fact, but nothing that would change their day-to-day lives.
It had changed mine, though. Three years ago, when I joined the Taskforce, after half a year of specialized training, I’d been allowed to go to the Otherside.
I’d seen the footage, read the reports, and known what to expect. But actually going through the portal? It was indescribable. Firstly, the process of walking through a stable wormhole to another dimension was just… nuts. Excuse me if my words have abandoned me, but that’s honestly the only way to describe it. It feels like you’re being torn apart, ripped to shreds, then re-knitted again all in a few precious seconds. And that happens to me every time I have to switch posts from Earth back to Xandia.
Which is what I had to do this morning. I’d been given another unreasonable request by Lady Tallet of the Zentaria Royal Family to buy her yet another set of Tahitian pearls.
That’s why I was right now standing in line at a seriously expensive jewelry store, in full dress uniform, trying not to smile too uncomfortably as the rich hoi polloi around me looked at me suspiciously from over the tops of their diamonds and gold.
Me? I just brought up a hand, flattened my hair again, grabbed my wallet, and kept playing with the hard plastic of the military credit card that would furnish dear Lady Tallet with another set of pearls.
The military would do anything to keep the Zentaria Royal family on-side. Why? One word. Resources. Of the mineral variety.
The other realm was an untapped Earth. Kind of like our planet would be if we hadn’t stripped it away through millennia of mining. All the gold, all the precious metals, all the rare earth elements – all the coltan, the lithium, the uranium – it was all still there. And it was ours for the taking.
And Xandia’s mineral resources were only the beginning. Their true wealth lay in Candarian Ore – a metal that plain didn’t exist on Earth but one that had the potential to completely change our technological evolution. Of all the resources the Xandians had, Candarian was the one they held onto the tightest. We’d only just managed to get our hands on some samples over the past several years, and they’d blown our scientists’ minds. Get enough Candarian, or so the theory went, and Earth’s clean energy crisis would be a thing of the past.
Heck, if you believed some of the ancient Xandian scriptures, Candarian was just the beginning. Scratch deep enough under the surface of Xandia, and there was yet more magic for the tacking.
So we played nice. The military did everything conceivable to keep the ruling family of Zentaria on-side.
As a loyal representative of the Army, I had to play nice too. So I smoothed a smile on my face as soon as the lady at the counter dealt with her final customer.
“Here for the special order?” She let her gaze tick down my dress uniform.
I pulled out my card. “They called ahead?”
“They always do.”
Thankfully she was quick and efficient and had the pearls boxed up as soon as she could. Which meant I could get out of that stuffy store and onto the street beyond before I lost my nerve and started to question if jewelry errand-boy was the job I’d signed up for when I’d decided to serve my country.
It was a blisteringly hot day, and the only reason I was being forced to wear a full dress uniform was that this was official business. Hell, I was even being forced to wear my hat. Though I’d taken it off in the store out of politeness, I had to cram it back on my head the moment I was out on the street.
I’d even been a good, dutiful little soldier boy and straightened my pin. Both were requisite branding when it came to the Portal Taskforce. It was part of the UN’s attempts to keep the portal front and center in people’s minds. Part of their attempt to show everybody that we were winning – that we were safe, and that we were getting everything out of the portal that we needed.
As I looked around the street, casting my glance over the various pedestrians as they chatted on their phones and drove past in their cars, I kind of wondered what the point was.
When the portal had first been discovered – or at least made public – it had been done so with the promise that this would change everything. They’d said there’d be a quantum leap forward in human technology, but that promise hadn’t come to fruition.
Who knew how many more Tahitian pearls I’d have to buy to get our hands on more samples of Candarian?
There was another option – we could just take it. Earth’s military might far outstripped that of the Othersiders.
And there was a big damn technicality.
Though the majority of Xandians led a relatively simple life compared to humans, there were glaring exceptions.
Your average Xandian had a roughly agrarian lifestyle centered around farming and trade.
Their gods, however, did not.
Yeah. I just said gods. Once upon a time, I’d been a religious man. Then I’d met them. They looked roughly the same as an average Xandian, but they had… Christ, how do I put this without sounding like an imaginative kid?
They had powers.
Super strength, agility, quick healing, extreme physical resilience – you name it. They also had strange powers that couldn’t be explained.
So while technically Earth could just assault Xandia and take what we want, their gods were a wild card we couldn’t estimate. Though we’d tried to study them, they were strictly off limits. You’d see them walking through a crowded marketplace or off in the distance in one of the Royal palaces, but never up close.
There was a standing reward out for any military officer who could get close enough to a god to figure out how they worked.
Until that happened, Earth would have to play by Xandia’s rules.
And there was a bucket-ton. They were a highly superstitious race. I wasn’t talking black cats and broken mirrors, here – I was talking demons and myths. You couldn’t shake the hand of a Xandian if yours were cold – cold hands meant you’d been infected with demon breath. You couldn’t speak if you had a stutter – a stutter meant an evil spirit had hold of your tongue.
That was just the beginning. The list of Xandian rules was so extensive, every person sent from Earth was given a pocketbook of them they had to keep on them at all times.
Those were just the small rules. The big rules were even more insane.
It was forbidden to drag the sun from the sky.
It was forbidden to wake up the sleeping Goddess of Death.
And it was forbidden to bring Pandora home.
Though the first two didn’t make any sense, that last one at least struck a chord.
Pandora was no transliteration mistake – it was the same word as the ancient Greek. It was the same damn myth too. To the Xandians, if Pandora was ever brought home, she would open a box of all that was bad, evil, and forbidden. She would unleash the demons of Xandia upon the world once more, and the realm would be swallowed up.
Though I usually didn’t believe in coincidences, this one got to me. By all accounts, the portal hadn’t opened 50 years ago – it had only been found then. So it technically was within the realm of possibility that other humans had wandered into Xandia before, and maybe they could have brought their knowledge of Greek myths with them. Yet there was a problem with that theory – the primary portal gate was a full kilometer above international waters in the Indian Ocean.
Just thinking about the sheer possibilities gave me a headache, and I yanked a hand up, pressed it across my brow, and tried hard to massage away the pain.
That’s when my phone rang.
I picked it up, not even bothering to look at the screen. “I’ve got the damn pearls. Keep your shirt on. Have you set the coordinates for the sub-portal?”
“You always sound so grumpy in the morning,” Cadet Sparks commented with a lilting laugh.
“That’s because I am grumpy. How are the negotiations with the Vandax going?”
“Badly. I tell you, the more we negotiate with the Othersiders, the savvier they get. If you believed the reports 15 years ago, they were nothing but primitives.”
I growled. I hated that word. “Then we came along, screwed them over for their minerals, and they eventually got wise. It happens, Sparks. And it’s their right to demand adequate compensation for loss of material wealth.”
Wherever Sparks was, I swear she was rolling her eyes at me.
So I just set my teeth into a grim line. “How about that sub-portal, though? Is it up? I was told by Colonel Ventari that these pearls are an integral part of negotiations with the Zentaria family.”
“They are, they are. And we’ve got a sub-portal opening up in a secure transport station in the middle of the city. You don’t need me to guide you there, do you, Shep?”
“I’ve been there thousands of times; I think I’ll be fine,” I said grumpily.
“You should try to catch a bit of beauty sleep before you go see dear Lady Tallet. She’ll be disappointed if you’re this gritty.”
“Had to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to transport over here and buy these damn pearls. Lady Tallet can take me as I am.”
Sparks let out a significant laugh. “I’d be careful, Sergeant – she’ll take you up on that offer.”
I winced. Once upon a time I’d liked to think that my life had been complicated. Five years ago before I’d found out about the existence of the Othersiders, I’d thought there’d been too much on my plate. From shifting family relations to growing up as the son of a decorated general, there’d always been too many machinations for me to juggle.
Now I was right in the middle of two frigging realms. If I thought my life had been complicated then, I could now appreciate that I’d been nothing but naïve.
Now the whole goddamn world was complicated. Because now the world was two.
Turning off the phone and returning it to my pocket, I rubbed my face and made an automatic beeline for the security station. There were several in the city, but only one big one. My team and I referred to it as the train to oblivion. Though that wasn’t the technical name of the continent on the Otherside, it was close. They called it Oblevia. We called it oblivion.
Humans always love a shortcut, after all.
And that right there – looking for shortcuts – summed up everything to do with Earth relations with the Otherside.
Before I could descend too far into my twisting thoughts, I heard a siren.
It wasn’t that unusual – this was a big city. But it was a loud siren.
A second later?
A second later there was an explosion.
Not close enough that it threw me onto the road and blasted my eardrums to smithereens, but close enough that I ducked down instinctively and shifted toward a parked car.
With my heart in my throat, I turned, and I saw a plume of smoke rising over the city.
Everyone began to scream and run in the opposite direction.
I tucked the pearls under my arm and ran toward the smoke.
I wouldn’t get there fast enough.