15.Escape from Planet B
Swirls of plant matter bubbled like enormous Petri dishes. Each algae pool offered a new take on the color green and a new assault on Maya’s sense of smell: dank compost, seaweed, a pleasant surprise of lemongrass, followed by the brimstone wallop of rotten eggs. Water-input pipes extended back towards the sea, but she hastily followed a snarl of cables and tubing that ran to a glorified tool shed on the periphery of Research Station 2. It seemed like the best hiding place.
Maya opened the door with a creak and stepped into what might have looked like a laboratory if the lights were on. As it was, she barely spotted the shovel as it swung at her from the shadows, ducking and slipping on the tile floor as the shovel crashed into a receptacle of safety goggles with a plastic crunch. She looked up at Eliana Raz, who was holding the shovel and panting with the same crazed nerves that had gripped Maya ever since the shooting started.
“Blue suit, blue suit!” Maya cried, pointing at the artless jumpsuit she had been issued by the colonists. “I come in peace.”
Eliana dropped the shovel. “You…” She dropped the shovel and panicked at the loud clang. “Shit!”
“It’s okay, there’s nobody out there.” Maya stood up and closed the door, examining the younger Raz in the dusty light of the sole window. Where Naomi was muscular and wound tight as a bear trap, Eliana’s features were softer and relaxed. Approaching the window and scanning for danger outside, her steps were liquid and precise like someone padding around in pajamas.
Eliana looked at her quizzically, frizzy dark hair covering her face as she tilted her head. “What’s going on out there?”
“Someone came through the Portal,” Maya began, “with a lot of guns… and they’re raising hell, in what I assume will be a successful takeover.” She forced an empathetic smile. “Seems like y'all didn’t include a defense strategy in your founding Resolution. I don’t know the details, but honestly I’m just here to see how you’re doing — and I guess sop up the preliminary shovel attack.” Maya stepped slowly back to the door, “Somehow my job in all this is professional mediator,” and swung it open to reveal Naomi leaning in the door frame like an old rancher.
“Hi Ellie,” she nodded.
Eliana hesitated. “Is it the people you work for?”
“I think so,” Naomi scowled. “But it’s not my place to brutalize a fancy commune. My job is to protect my little sister.”
And Eliana enveloped her in a tidal wave of a hug. “You’re an asshole, but I’m really glad you’re here,” the younger sister confessed. “I missed you and I miss everyone back on Earth, and I miss the birds and the junk food and the movie theaters.” She looked out the door to the whorls of pondscum dotting the landscape. “I gave it all up to come here and my stupid biopower isn’t even working.”
“Yeah, it doesn’t smell great,” Maya added.
Naomi was impassive as always, “We’re going back through the Portal.”
“And—” Maya raised a finger, “—we’re going to tell the world that Agipan’s emigration plan is bullshit and everyone should stop letting an app control their lives. Did you know Park didn’t create the Portal?” she asked Eiliana, “Is that common knowledge around here?”
“No… I didn’t even know where it was until the day I went through. But if people lose faith in their Merits, won’t that plunge things into chaos?”
“Not if we give them a better option,” Maya enthused. “Park says that the emigration targets are inflated and the Lottery is basically a ploy to get people to manipulate behavior on Earth.”
Naomi shrugged. “It doesn’t matter anymore. These new arrivals might have already exposed Agipan and torpedoed their claim back on Earth.”
An explosion boomed in the distance, and Maya tried to console Eliana, who had been trembling and overwrought even before the revelation that she had participated in a global scam. “Look, I spent most of this morning talking to Duncan about operations here. It’s an incredible place, and I want everyone on Earth to be able to live like this.” Maya reached for Eliana’s hand. “If you help me, we can build a thousand Betavilles and give everyone access to smart city tech, the emissions monitoring and capture systems, the energy quotas—your biopower.”
“Even if we had the resources to do that,” Eliana was thinking fast, “I can only help with the last part. We’d need Agipan’s manufacturing plans and the algorithms that run things here.”
Maya grinned. “Duncan said—”
“That your algae work brilliantly on Earth,” Naomi interjected. “I’m sure you could tell us why, but he said it was a game changer. So we’ve got that, and a stack of notes that Maya took this morning while Duncan was giving away secrets left and right.” She was clearly trying to button up the conversation and Maya wondered why. “We need to go.”
She took the hint, and the three of them collected some notes and ephemera from the lab, and then Eliana set the whole place on fire. “Even if it’s not working perfectly,” she explained, “I don’t want these people having technology they’ve taken by force. They’ll have to negotiate with the colonists if they want to stay alive here.” Armies of microalgae immolated in their own off-gases as the circular pools outside the lab became fiery cauldrons. The whole place would survive as gigabytes and pages in her backpack. A vision for a better world that they carried away, shadows darting ahead of them toward the sea.
Naomi led them through the brush to avoid the main road. At one point, the elder Raz stopped them with a raised hand, and they all hid in a muddy ditch while some sort of dune buggy drove by in a cloud of dust. When they eventually peeked their heads over a ridge by the beach, the enormous Portal shimmered through tall stands of grass, but it was no longer the only massive object on the waterfront. Maya silently gestured at Naomi to ask what the hell they were looking at.
The black globe of the Portal still hovered just offshore, but the pier that had previously reached out to it like a gangway ended in midair now, jagged and smashed by the new arrival to the landscape: a metal tower that was angled up out of the shallow water, awkwardly leaning against the pier and billowing smoke from one end.
“Shortfin Barracuda,” Naomi said, as if it was obvious. “Good thing they didn’t use nuclear, I guess.”
Tilting her head, Maya identified the black cylinder as a bit more than half of a large submarine. Its hull was cut steeply on the bias, revealing the interior structures like a sectional illustration animated with sparks and fire.
“Does the Portal do that?” Maya asked incredulously, glancing back to the actual submarine that was cleanly sliced through.
Naomi pursed her lips, “It’s weight probably shifted once its bow was no longer in the water. The rear half was suspended in the Atlantic ocean, and this part fell down through the air…” Maya imagined the slow aquatic groan of the sub as it lurched between worlds, tilting toward vertical and getting sliced in two by the Portal’s edge. How many people inside watched the walls fracture open as an invisible blade plunged toward them?
“That means the landing party might be smaller than intended. Look.” Naomi pointed at the pier, which extended from the beach up and ended raggedly just short of the undulating black orb. “Our transport is still there.”
Their bright yellow shipping container rested on the pier, lonesome and out of place.
“So what, we drive that thing back through the Portal?” Maya asked. “If that’s the only way out, they’ll be guarding it for sure. Plus the pier is broken! How will we get it into the Portal if we’re inside?”
Eyes darting rapidly, Naomi surveyed the beach between them and the welcome ramp — as Maya had initially thought of it. It wasn’t so welcoming now that black-suited figures patrolled the sandy beach and other bodies lay scattered around the landscape like driftwood. Naomi closed her eyes and thought for half a second, then started along the hillside toward the beach, keeping her head low. “Follow me.”
They kept parallel to the water. While she was hunched down, Maya spotted a blue salamander-like thing with long eye stalks staring back at her. She stopped dead in her tracks, and Eliana bumped into her from behind. “Squeemo,” she noted casually. “Let’s move.”
When they caught up with Naomi, she was lying prone against a grassy dune, the pier close by on the other side. “There’s two right on the other side,” she whispered, “and two more guarding the transport.” She pointed ahead to a gnarled tree stump, though Maya wondered if it was technically a tree — it looked hairy. “You two move up there and wait for my signal. When I say so, make some noise.”
Maya had several questions, but the mercenary straightened up and walked over the hillside with her hands raised and the gun tucked in the back of her pants. “Hey,” she heard Naomi call out, “I’m with you guys!”
Eliana shot a glance at Maya. “Is she?”
“No,” Maya shook her head, “I’m pretty sure.” She nodded at the fuzzy tree thing and they crept towards it. Boots crunched through sand towards the sound of Naomi’s voice. “I work for Alvar Emmerich. He sent me ahead to gather intel.”
A voice exclaimed, “What? Did you hear anything about that?” And as his companion uttered his last syllable, they heard two quick shots and the slump of bodies hitting sand.
Risking a glance over the hill, Maya verified that it was Naomi who had done the shooting and watched as she sprinted toward the fallen soldiers and wrenched a very large assault rifle out of one’s hands and swung it toward the pier, where more figures were descending with shouts.
Maya was very close to the pier now, and she observed the patchwork of buckles and gadgets that adorned the soldiers’ uniforms. They were as geared up as any American soldier she’d seen in news photos, but instead of dusty camo the ensemble was jet black. Pounding down the ramp, their faces hid a sliver of confusion. Were they just overly muscular dudes working their jobs? They were people like her, Maya knew, but in their outsized smart uniforms and dark silhouettes, her lizard brain saw danger and she was afraid.
From over the ridge, Naomi shouted, “Now!”
Exchanging a look with Eliana, Maya wanted nothing more than to keep hiding. But she saw the fear in Eliana’s face and the smoke rising from the colony, and she knew it had to be done. Maya stood up and ascended the ridge.
The black-clad soldiers looked at Naomi, but Maya towered over them on the hill, swept with memories of the attack in D.C. and the throttled body of Maureen Donovan. She had forgotten the details of the innumerable shootings and military actions she had watched on her phone, but she became aware of a steady undercurrent of suffering that had always been there. It blossomed into a torrent of rage toward the people who threw away their names and faces in order to enlist in the anonymous churn of death. Without them, the systems of power that killed her planet wouldn’t have been so invincible. Without guns and clubs, any ruler was vulnerable to the masses, but Earth had always had too many guns.
Maya screamed. She waved her arms and shouted at the men below her, words blowing down into the sea like hail, “Hey assholes!” she felt her vocal cords shred. “Go back to your big broken phallus and leave us the fuck alone! You thick-headed fascist shitweasels should have stayed on Earth.”
They whirled around to look at her, beholding a petite shadow against the sky gesticulating furiously. She kept screaming at them, noticing for the first time that Eliana was next to her doing the same. Then the men were struck from the side by a withering storm of bullets that drowned out her howling.
Maya heaved for breath as Naomi strolled along the water’s edge. “Thanks for the distraction.” She helped Eliana down the sandy ridge and looked up at Maya, “Shitweasels, huh?”
From atop the knoll, Maya could see smoke rising from the crystalline structures of Betaville and more black uniforms sweeping through its sunny boulevards. “Let’s get out of here,” she said to Naomi.
The transport was just as they’d left it: lemon yellow, sea-worn, and pungent with the briny aroma of another ocean. Luckily it was unlocked and Eliana even knew which switches to hit to power the thing up. “They gave me a crash course back on Earth,” she explained while Naomi circled the transport’s exterior.
As familiar humming sounds filled the transport, one of the screens flashed: ERROR: No network connection. “Well that’s okay, right?” Maya asked. “We just need to get the box into the giant sphere.”
Naomi appeared in the doorway. “That’s going to be a little tricky given the damage to the pier.” She glanced over her shoulder and flashed them an uncharacteristic smile. “But I’ve got an idea. Strap in and leave the door open,” she ordered, and then jogged down the ramp towards the shore.”
Muttering the steps of some tedious but critical procedure, Eliana paced around the transport tapping keys and tightening straps before joining Maya in the row of padded chairs. Maya’s heart pounded and her fingers shook as she wrangled the industrial buckles and straps around her blue jumpsuit, but luckily the harness was designed to be used by just such a panicked idiot.
They just sat there staring at gray bulkheads, waiting. “What do you think she’s doing?” Eliana asked.
Maya shook her head, “Beats me. Could be more murdering. Could be some kind of computer fu. She’s got a lot going on.”
“Tell me about it.” Eliana studied Maya through their respective head support cushions. “I always assumed my sister hung out with corporate sleazebags and second amendment nuts. You’re not what I expected.”
Before she could form a reply, Maya’s nerve-addled brain was distracted by a sound growing in the distance — or really, sounds plural: there was a steady vacuum-like hum, but also the now-familiar ratatat of assault rifles. Both grew louder as Maya strained forward to peer out the open doors of the transport.
Racing toward them was one of the sleek dune buggies they had seen earlier, slamming through patches of grass and bouncing over the landscape. Two more rose over the hill behind it, and Maya could see men standing in those trying to hold their rifles steady as they let loose a hail of bullets. Hunkered in the driver’s seat of the lead vehicle and flooring the acceleration until the electric motor whined like a taut piano wire, was Naomi Raz.
The sound of bullets punching into sand escalated in pitch as the cars drew near. They were so close that Maya could see Naomi’s flinty expression as she clutched the steering wheel and braced for impact. It seemed suicidal, but there was no time to think as the car smashed into the open end of the transport with a plasticky crunch. Half-deformed and outsized by the hulking shipping container, the dune buggy’s wheels continued to spin and somehow the transport began sliding forward.
Naomi had already unbuckled and grabbed onto the rollbars of the open car, pistoning her legs over the dashboard like a gymnast and launching herself onto the hood. She wasted no time leaping into the transport and finding cover from the bullets that followed. The pursuing vehicles had stopped further down the ramp, and as the transport continued to slide gracefully away from them, Maya could see the glimmering steel bearings that the transport had been sitting on. Like a fine-tuned assembly line, the transport ramp was designed to minimize the weight of the upgraded shipping container by rolling it along a surface of metal spheres: tiny kin to the gargantuan orb they were sliding toward.
Sparks flickered from the buggy’s wheels as the transport accelerated. Maya and Eliana had scrunched their legs up and tried to sink into the wall-mounted chairs to avoid incoming bullets, but Naomi was still crouched by the door waiting for something — a lull in the shooting as the men reloaded, and Naomi sprang up to pull the doors shut, latching them with an air-tightening shunk. And then she floated briefly into the air, staggering, as the transport crested over the broken lip of the pier, Maya’s stomach lurching like the first drop of a roller coaster.
On the display screens, a nightmarish zoom into the maelstrom of the Portal was the only perspective they had of their brief flight before the whirling aurora of light engulfed the cameras and Maya once again felt the room sliding through itself and her inner ear spinning endlessly.