“Are we on Themis?” the woman at the far end of the transport asked hesitantly. Duncan thought she couldn’t be much older than the undergrads he taught back at the university.
“No,” he laughed. “The Portal isn’t on Grand Bahama island. We’re on the Pegasus.” He assumed they were familiar with the freighter, where they were now stowed, within a highly retrofitted shipping container. He pictured the dozens of other containers around them, containing electric keyboards, armchairs, post-it notes — a silent galaxy of boxes within boxes where human breath and conversation were utter anomalies.
Duncan examined the other passenger in the transport, the tall woman with steely eyes who was pointing a gun at him. “We are about to deport,” he explained. “In about 15 hours, I will be leaving the ship and this planet. So you had better get out.” The two women exchanged a look, and Duncan felt the ship’s engine thrum to life far below them.
The gun’s muzzle gently touched his forehead, and its owner asked, “Where is the Portal?”
“I honestly don’t know… exactly,” he cringed, “But I’m scheduled to arrive there, like I said.”
The woman raised the weapon to strike him, but her companion leapt forward and stayed her hand. “Naomi, stop! Let me talk to him.”
Strapped into his cushioned seat, he felt like a child watching squabbling parents as they all drifted out to sea. The younger woman leaned down to face him: glasses, dark hair, bronze skin slicked with tropical sweat. “Mr. Tupper, I know how carefully your company has been hiding the location of the Portal — I’ve been trying to find it for two years now. But my friend is just looking for her sister.” She gestured at her companion, Naomi, who was scouring the windowless room as they spoke. “Eliana Raz, one of the latest Pioneers.”
“I’m not involved in Pioneer selection,” he replied, “but you can’t go to Themis if you haven’t been selected. That’s the whole point of Merits.”
The frightening one, Naomi, glanced at him skeptically, “Are you going to stop us?”
“No offense,” the younger one continued, “but you weren’t selected for your Merits, were you? You think you can just be in charge of a planet because you were the first to set foot there? That’s some fifteenth century bullshit.”
“Look,” he really wished they’d be rational, “I helped write the Resolution of Themis, and nobody is ‘in charge’ there. It’s a decentralized socialist democracy.”
The young woman raised an eyebrow, “I would love to ask you more about that, but let's see if we can reach an agreement that results in my friend putting away her gun.”
Duncan nodded. “Yes, you certainly can’t have that on Themis.”
Finally grasping the reality of their trajectory, the young woman nervously called back to her colleague, “Hey, we’re not really trying to go through the Portal, are we?”
“Is it a one way trip?” Naomi asked Duncan, who shrugged, before replying to the younger woman, “Seems like a good way for me to find Eliana, and for you to get your story.”
“You’re a reporter?” Duncan groaned. “I really can’t let you do this. It’s imperative that the location of the Portal stay hidden. It would be chaos if the public found out.”
“But it would be fair!” she protested. “How can you claim that your new society is democratic if you’re controlling the population like some kind of eugenics program?”
He thought that Lydia would probably like this reporter; they shared a certain passion for dissent and justice that years of academic minutia had desensitized him to. Perhaps this stowaway could offer a valuable perspective on the problems in Betaville, but he was hesitant to facilitate such a drastic break in protocol. He could surely explain to the Colonists that these women held him at gunpoint. But then what? He imagined what these unruly women might do on Themis with a gun.
“Alright,” he raised his hands slowly, “I’m going to get up from this chair and we can talk about this in a civilized manner.” He held out his hand, “But you have to give me the gun before I can even entertain the possibility of bringing you to the Portal.”
Waves slapped against the ship’s hull as they stared at each other. Naomi handed him the gun. “I don’t need this to hurt you.”
“See that’s the crux of the matter,” he said delicately, as he unbuckled the safety harness around his chest, holding the gun like a museum curator with a rare artifact. “The selection process is partly based on genetic diversity,” he nodded to the reporter, “but this is not the kind of behavior we’re selecting for.”
Naomi snorted. “You’re bringing people. You’re going to get anger, selfishness, and all the other sins as well.”
“Humans have selfishly abused our homeworld,” Duncan explained. “We’ve built regimes on suffering and inequality, and most people can’t simply forget the only system they know. They’re too violent and egotistical to be trusted with a second try on Planet B, as they call it.”
He finally stood up, but Naomi came over and shoved him back into the seat, “I’ll show you violent and egotistical—” but the reporter intervened again.
“Look, she’s worked up about her family situation. I’m with the Washington Bulletin. I was at the Senate hearing where Park was attacked; I think the CIA or someone was behind that.” She sat down next to him with a heaving sigh. “They’re after us too, and we’ve been through hell to get here, so can you just help us out? Or I think eventually my friend here is going to break my fingers in order to break your fingers.” Her smile somehow distracted him from that graphic image.
“The CIA?” Duncan raised an eyebrow.
“Well, something like that. The Capitol Police just watched during the attack, and someone’s been on my trail ever since. Someone who’s not afraid to kill.”
“I suppose I can tell Mr. Park about it when I get there.”
“He’s on Themis?” she considered. “Okay. Take us with you. My Merits are pretty close to selection grade, and Naomi is out-of-the-park on the skills front. She’s like some kind of hacker-genius soldier of fortune.”
Duncan raised the other eyebrow. “Soldier?”
Naomi pointed at a big countdown on one of the screens, “Looks like fourteen hours and change until we arrive at our destination, but don’t hold your breath for my life story.” Her eyes narrowed enough to make Duncan wince. “What happens when we get there?” she asked, “Is anyone coming to extract you from this… thing?”
Duncan had invested years of his life in designing and protecting the society on Themis. His plans were hammered into alien soil and growing in fields on the other side of the galaxy; he was reasonably sure these stowaways weren’t going to cause all of that to come tumbling down. Plus he didn’t particularly want to arrive on Themis unconscious and bleeding from whatever interrogation this madwoman had in store for him. “This transport is going directly into the Portal,” he gestured at the additional seats lining the wall, “so get comfortable.”
|* * *
It was very quiet inside the transport. The walls were insulated and airtight, which meant that the main evidence of their journey was the regular heaving of the ship and the unnatural distress to Duncan’s inner ear. Otherwise, they could have been in a basement office somewhere, as the three of them maintained the uncomfortable boredom of coworkers during the following hours, politely looking away whenever someone had to use the vaguely frightening toilet in the corner of the transport.
Naomi studied the monitoring systems onboard the transport, with Duncan nervously watching over her shoulder. Some Agipan techs had given him a tutorial that morning, but right now the vehicle was just sitting motionless on a pile of shipping containers. Everything would be totally automated when they reached the departure point.
The young woman, Maya, paced the length of the room nervously, peppering him with questions about the Portal.
“I don’t know how it works,” he admitted. “I don’t even know its exact location. It’s somewhere out here in the Atlantic Ocean, but I didn’t even know that until a few days ago.”
After he left Cedar Ridge, there had been a rigorous onboarding process that involved medical assessments, legal consultations, and a stern talking to from a man who reminded him of his high school gym teacher. Only then had he been put on a high-speed train and informed of the unlikely method of transport they were now undertaking.
“I do know that the Portal works,” he assured Maya, “and it does scramble electromagnetic waves like they say. There’s no communication between worlds apart from physical travel.”
“And how do we get back?” Naomi asked.
“This transport will be sent back through for reloading sometime next week.” He shook his head, “I don’t know, this still seems like a bad idea. We’ve tried so hard to regulate immigration to Themis. It’s not just the people; we evaluate the books and media that people want to bring, family photos, clothing, you name it!” He spoke with his hands as if he was back in the classroom, “Once people are on the other side, they’re free to make their own choices, of course. The Resolution outlines an ideal society designed by experts the world over, but things will naturally evolve in the colony over the years... and centuries. That’s why it’s essential to limit the ingredients that get added to that process at the beginning. Bigotry, inequality, unfettered capitalism — those won’t even be memories for the next generation.”
“But you can’t edit society like a computer program,” Maya argued, “Some of those flaws are just human nature, and besides, how can you rule out bias when you’re judging what's good and bad? You're bound to make simplifications and subjective calls.”
“Agipan has data on seven billion users. People share their daily activities and desires, and the algorithm makes an unbiased assessment. In five years, the population and resources brought through the Portal have been successfully regulated. People in Betaville are free to build a new society precisely because we’ve divorced them from the mistakes of history.”
Naomi laughed. “How long has any group of people been successfully regulated? People will get sick of your Resolution eventually, or you’ll see that those undesirable qualities are buried deeper within us than you think.”
“I suppose any of us could bring unwelcome baggage into the machinery of Themis, but do try and leave those things behind. This is your chance to be someone new.” Duncan sat down and gestured at the seats next to him, “You should buckle up.”
They fastened their straps as something clanged outside the container; the screens around them lit up. They felt the container lurch into the air and tilt dramatically. Maya looked around nervously, “What’s happening?”
Duncan held onto his straps tightly. “We’re going overboard.”
The room jostled and accelerated downwards, punching through the surface of the ocean —
— and then slowing to a more graceful descent as the transport whirred to life.
“Our trajectory should drop us essentially on top of the Portal, but the transport has thrusters to guide us in.” He saw that Maya’s face was white with panic. “It’s all automated,” he assured them.
The countdown showed only minutes left, and some of the displays switched to video feeds of whorling bubbles and sea life as they drifted
“Well I guess there’s no turning back now.” Maya said to Naomi, who was staring blankly ahead like the soldier she was. Duncan had hoped there would never be soldiers on Themis.
Periodic jets of air guided their descent. The only other sounds were the hum of air circulation and the groaning metal as they were gripped by
as if the Earth didn’t want to let them go.
“Almost there,” he whispered, though they were all staring at the same countdown.
The monitors showed a cosmos of floating particles that faded into darkness.
A point of white light on one screen began to glow brighter
until the illumination washed over the cabin like a sunrise
It looked like a round hole punched in the display screen; a disc so bright the camera’s exposure quickly threw the rest of the ocean into blackness.
Even in the weird light they could make out other submersibles encircling the Portal, small drones that parted
and merged back into formation as they passed, to
continue guarding the radiant sphere
As they got closer, Duncan could see that the Portal shimmered with webs of light, drifting like smoke around its surface and flickering like the static behind eyelids.
When the Portal grew to occupy the entire video display, the camera recalibrated and he could see that it wasn’t pure white at all. Suddenly he was looking at waves, as if from above the surface of a different sea. The perspective of the waves shifted as the transport descended, positioning itself for a forward launch instead of a downward plummet until he was looking at
a beach .
A final push from the transport’s thrusters turned the video display into static
He felt his stomach crawling up his throat to escape —
like he was being turned inside out
like he had stood up too quick
and was falling
The transport slammed onto a hard surface and drifted forward a ways before coming to a halt. Duncan opened his eyes and saw a pool of vomit on the floor in front of him. He unbuckled his straps and stood up. His footsteps took him further than expected, thanks to the reduced gravity, or maybe he was just eager to escape the windowless tomb he had been encased in for nearly a full day.
He heard Maya and Naomi following behind him, but practically forgot about them as he opened the door and breathed in the air. He knew the chemical composition of the planet’s soil and the genealogy of its native lifeforms; he had drifted to sleep staring at photos of Themesian sunsets, but never known the smell of the air until now: chilled and brittle like a deserted farmhouse.
“Welcome!” someone cried from the gray sands of the beach. Three men were beaming at him and waving, their blue jumpsuits identical to his, but faded and worn.
Then their smiles withered and Duncan felt the stowaways standing in the door behind him. Maya peered around his shoulder, “So does this planet have a bathroom that doesn’t look like a garbage disposal?”