Eliana’s heart was pounding. Her fingers were losing color in the iron grip of her sister’s hand. They were both strapped into their crash seats, as if they were still in the helicopter with Mama, rising out of Tel Aviv a lifetime ago, when Naomi had bribed a friend from the IDF to evacuate them as the city fell. Maybe they had just never stopped careening through the air.
What sounded like inflatable pontoons wheezed to life below their feet, and the gees of their ascent gave way to the undulating heaves of the Mid-Atlantic. She tried not to think about the fact that they had just been atomized, or folded through spacetime, or whatever happened when you went through the Portal.
A digital voice gently commanded them to “Please stay seated,” but Naomi was already up and walking over to the computer screens that were flickering to life. Lights brightened and their dim submersible revealed its meticulous design, all rounded corners and safety icons. “A retrieval crew has been dispatched and will contact you soon. Welcome to Earth.”
“Well, that’s friendly,” Maya said from another seat across from her.
But on the screens, Naomi was staring at a panorama of steel. An armada of ships lined the horizon: military cruisers, superyachts, cargo vessels, and small personnel transports buzzing around the scene like flies. Helicopters circled silently, because there was no sound on the video feed and the walls of the transport were literally airtight. “These guys?” Naomi tapped the screen, “Maybe not so friendly.”
A patrol boat with familiar, black-suited soldiers soon puttered up to the transport before drifting out of the camera’s view. A loud knock sounded on the transport’s doors, and Eliana desperately glanced around for somewhere to hide.
Naomi cracked open the door and leaned into a column of blinding sunlight. “Hiya, boys. Some party you’re having out here.”
There was the rustling of guns and body armor outside. Eliana slowly unclipped her buckle, locking eyes with Maya as they both prepared to dive to the floor or bite someone in the neck or whatever was about to happen. She watched Naomi’s hands for a signal, or imminent ninja moves, but her sister just gave a resigned “Hmm,” and beckoned them over to the sunlit door.
When Eliana peeked around her big sister, she saw one of the goons had removed his helmet to grin at them and wave. “Zeke Goodman,” Naomi introduced.
The muscular dark-skinned man was quite large and seemed to wobble the boat as he stepped forward with a bow. Sweat beading over his skin, he explained, “That new outfit I started working for? Turns out they work for your boss, Emmerich. So, I’m here to give you a ride, you know, as co-workers.”
“Funny, I never saw you at the cafeteria.” Naomi deadpanned, then turned to Eliana and Maya, “We did some work together a while back. He’s an asshole.”
Zeke looked affronted, then stared right at Eliana, “You must be the sister. Did Naomi tell you she hired me to break into your apartment after you left?”
“I specifically told you not to break into her apartment.”
He shrugged and motioned for them to join them in the boat. Naomi went first, rocking the streamlined hull before helping Maya and Eliana down from the transport. Zeke exchanged some hushed words with Naomi, but Eliana just watched the bright yellow shipping container recede into the distance. Besides the sky blue jumpsuits they were wearing, it was the only material evidence of their time on Themis.
The boat slid up and down the waves, charting a course between the towering hulls of two military vessels whose flags Eliana craned her neck to identify: the white crescent of Turkey and the familiar stars and stripes of her adopted homeland. Behind the armed front of the warships, a smattering of yachts and commercial ships came into view.
Assessing the mercenaries seated beside her, Eliana thought it wouldn’t take much to push them overboard. She gave a suggestive look to Naomi, trying to suggest the idea with her eyes. But her sister shrugged. She probably had a better plan. Their little boat pointed its nose toward one of the largest pleasure vessels: a gray-white behemoth finished with graceful curves and glass.
Pulling up alongside the monstrous ship, some less armored personnel secured their vehicle to a docking platform and helped them aboard. Eliana was keenly aware of the assault rifles held by Zeke and his team, but noted their attention was mostly focused on Naomi, who they regarded like a wild animal. The elder Raz, for her part, seemed to be taking in a hundred facets of their situation and returning the men’s steely gazes.
They were brought to a sparse cabin that had been prepared with towels and refreshments, like a bizarre conference meeting where you got patted down for weapons and contraband. During all of that, one of the men found a notepad on Maya, which he passed to Zeke. “Ooh, this looks like some important notes about the colony, huh?” He said, shoving it into his own pocket. “Afraid that’s mine now.”
Maya sullenly joined Eliana at a table of snacks and water bottles before nestling into a plush sofa. They both sat there, staring blankly, like castaways returning to society. It had only been 24 hours since her companions’ arrival on the beach, though she couldn’t be certain; her watch had gone haywire during the transit.
Zeke leaned against the cabin’s doorway. “When you’re ready,” he said patronizingly, “I’ll take ya to the man upstairs.”
Eliana wanted more than anything to stay ensconced in the blankets, to watch this surreal scene play out like a movie. Surely Naomi was about to launch into action. But instead, the older Raz nodded and the three of them followed Zeke’s heavy bootsteps down the hallway.
They made their way from the functionary bowels of the ship to its sumptuous upper decks, passing through a two-story parlor lined with integrated sofas and bejeweled with chandeliers. Gold railings curved along stairs to a sprawling interior balcony. A varnished dining table waited to seat twenty or more but stood deserted as a pre-dawn hotel lobby. The next hall took them past a kitchen, where the maillard sizzle of red meat and the smell of fried garlic assaulted her senses. She had been a vegan for close to a decade, but the tempting smells mingled with salty diesel air and Clorox residue to deliver a welcome home bouquet of unwanted memories. The next hallway had azure carpets that looked as if they had just left the factory, and shimmering glass murals on the wall backlit with shifting auroras. A seductive excess compared to the spartan rooms of Betaville.
Their stormtrooper guide led them onto an open deck, where a salty breeze whipped through Eliana’s hair. Some well-dressed passengers were huddling around cocktail tables and staring at the huge ships. As their group passed by, the socialites stared at them like trespassing beggars, or maybe prisoners being led to execution. There was a splash as a young man dove into a swimming pool that had no right to exist on top of an ocean. He waved to a beautiful woman lounging nearby, who reluctantly put down her phone and champagne to slide gracefully into the water. This occurred just ahead of them, and as Zeke turned a corner, Naomi casually snagged the woman’s phone from the chaise. Eliana’s pulse quickened. Hope bubbled up inside her, as she prayed her sister could conjure another miracle escape like the one on Themis. But Naomi glanced down at the phone and threw it into the ocean. “Locked,” she muttered.
Up another flight of stairs, they reached the top-most deck and Zeke unlocked a door with a thumb scan. Inside was a bewilderment of mirrors and light. Bronze lamps cast a warm glow on pillow-lined sofas that wrapped along curvilinear walls. The floor was white marble with a round rug anchoring clusters of glass tables and ottomans. Everything was mirrored in a reflective ceiling etched with constellations and centered around a glowing oculus. A floor-to-ceiling window dominated the far wall, but the room’s occupant was looking at an array of screens. A grizzled old man who could only be Alvar Emmerich glanced away from a spirited video conference with what appeared to be the President of the United States and a pageant of stern men.
Maya yelped and exchanged a look with Naomi before smuggly crossing her arms. With a wave from Emmerich, the screens all zapped to black.
Zeke motioned them inside while Emmerich paced forward, running a hand through his gray hair, slicked back and luscious in a way that suggested chemical witchcraft. He wore a linen jacket over a tieless button down. Nothing too formal here, just an international invasion force to oversee.
As Naomi brushed past Zeke, she feinted towards him and elicited a panicked defense from the henchman, who fumbled to raise his gun in such close quarters. Hope surged in Eliana’s body, readying for a fight. But Naomi just laughed at her old colleague.
“Naomi.” Emmerich chastised. “Would you all like a drink? Do they have alcohol… over there?”
Her sister frowned at the old man. “You followed me from Freeport?”
“Straight to business then,” Emmerich shrugged.
“Nah,” Zeke said, joining the conversation uninvited. “I followed you from California.”
“You were not forthcoming about your trip to America, my dear,” Emmerich explained. “Mr. Goodman was kind enough to inform me of your plans, and I thought it suitable to bring him on as a second pair of eyes. Things get so tricky with family.” His German accent made the consonants prickle. He raised his voice. “You concealed the fact that the Pioneer you were following was your sister. You failed to report the Agipan source in that commune, or whatever led you to Florida and beyond. I could not let such an opportunity slip away.”
“I got to that hippy lady first, of course.” Zeke beamed. “But that bitch put up a fight and I didn’t get much out of her.”
Naomi looked up at the mirrored ceiling in exasperation. “He’s a blunt instrument,” she said to Emmerich. “You should have trusted me. I called you from Freeport didn’t I?”
Emmerich glowered, before asking, “How goes the invasion on Themis?”
He didn’t know. Without communication through the Portal, they were the first people to return to Earth since the submarine crashed between worlds. Did the invasion team even have a plan for a return trip? Emmerich had no clue that Naomi had killed a slew of his men. Maybe this could work out after all.
Naomi was clearly thinking this through as well. “Your submarine had a rough landing,” she announced, “maybe send a smaller one next time.”
“And the colonists?” Emmerich asked.
Naomi pursed her lips. “They put up a fight. I joined your men once I realized who sent them, but they wanted to send someone back to report in. I was the only one who knew how to pilot the transport.”
“We’ll need a full report of the geography beyond the Portal.” Emmerich nodded, walking over to a desk and tapping a few keys on a laptop. “The Americans have a plan to lower a cable from the surface to begin a continuous schedule of personnel and cargo deployment.”
“So you’re working for them now?” she observed.
Emmerich laughed and gestured dismissively out the window. “Does a dog work for its own tail?” Eliana wondered if that sounded better in German. “I paid for half of these ships, in concert with some other men of stature. These governments have drained their coffers trying and failing to maintain life on a boiling planet. Dikes, housing, power… There’s only so much production capacity. Workers are tired, they’re ready to give everything to Agipan. So the politicians were only too happy to turn against Oliver Park if it meant they could maintain the old power of their states.”
“Does the world know about the Portal?” Maya spoke up.
“That it’s out here? In the Bermuda Triangle?” Emmerich mused. “The world’s best navies are circled up in the middle of nowhere. I suspect the word is out. Agipan cannot keep the Portal secure by force, so their business model will dissolve, and we won’t bother with this performative algorithm for a moment longer.”
Maya didn’t flinch. “That’s actually not what I meant. Park didn’t create the Portal — it’s some kind of cosmic enigma that could collapse at any moment.”
The old man was finally without a reply, so the young reporter pressed on, “Park lied about the planet too. It’s small and bereft of land. The billions of people hoping to emigrate? There isn’t room for them all.”
“So,” Emmerich said thoughtfully, “the price for admission will be even higher,”
“You’re charging admission to escape a burning building,” Maya observed.
“As opposed to Park?” Emmerich scoffed. “He wanted to administer a quiz. People burn either way.” He muttered angrily, then turned to Naomi with a smile, as if shuffling through emotions randomly. “Let’s make a deal.” Shutting his laptop with a click, he walked back over to Naomi. “You clearly have an unrivaled perspective on all this. I should throw you and your sister overboard, but after our history together… I would like to trust you. I don’t have a lot of trust these days, and I could use help managing the pretense of international diplomacy while securing operations on two planets.”
Naomi gazed out the window. The horizon oscillated up and down with the waves. “Why should I?”
Emmerich let out a short bark of laughter. “The money, of course. Name your price! You can have this ship, if you like. Or go back through the Portal, and I will have the best of Earth’s finery shipped to you for your offices.”
Naomi looked not to her, but to Maya. The taste of vomit slowly rose in Eliana’s mouth as she realized Naomi was actually considering the offer.
“I’d want to take these two back to the U.S. first,” Naomi finally said.
Emmerich frowned. “You and I both know reporters do not keep secrets.”
“It’s okay,” Maya jumped in, “I wanted to find the Portal in order to help people on Earth. It never sat right with me that Park just decided he knew best — that he could choose how to save a planet.” She clenched her fists, and Eliana felt her jaw tightening in unison. “I wanted to expose his secret, and let humanity figure out what to do with the Portal together.”
“Humanity has never excelled at togetherness,” Emmerich scoffed.
“Now that everyone knows where the Portal is, I can’t break that story.” Maya admitted, avoiding Eliana's incredulous stare to lock eyes with Emmerich. “So you’re worried about what? That I’ll tell people a billionaire is pulling the strings of world leaders? That story won't even make a ripple. Here’s my idea: keep the lottery running. I won’t tell anyone that Themis is the size of Cleveland, and you can take control of the selection program, even if you just let your stupid rich friends go through the Portal.”
“Why?” Emmerich asked, curiously.
“Because it’s working,” Naomi replied, exchanging a nod with Maya.
Were they both going along with this? Eliana had felt such a connection with the reporter, but maybe she had been too hopeful about Maya, who continued to unspool this maddening thesis: “The Lottery has incentivized sustainability on Earth. Even if it’s not enough to reverse the climate collapse, it’s good enough.”
“No!” Eliana couldn’t keep quiet a moment longer. “We can’t let this asshole destroy everything we built on Themis! People like him will overconsume and stamp out the native life there, just like they’ve done on Earth.”
Maya put a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll work with him. Themis was always going to have to negotiate with Earth. Now that we know how small the new world is, that’s going to be even more important.” She squeezed her shoulder, looking up at Eliana over the rims of her glasses, trying to persuade her with perfectly shaped eyebrows. “Trust me.”
“But his men killed my friends on Themis!”
She drew away, but Naomi followed. “Ellie,” she said solemnly, “This is the only way you’re leaving this boat. This is the only way I can protect you.” Eliana was holding back tears, weakly slamming a fist into Naomi’s chest as her sister held her.
“People will continue to earn Merits,” Maya continued, bargaining with herself. “The Lottery has already pushed the world toward clean energy. The colony—” she looked at Eliana, “was never going to work. That’s what Naomi tried to tell Duncan. Even with a blank slate, humans are still… like him.” She nodded at Emmerich, who was probably wearing ten thousand dollars just on his wrist. He shrugged at their scrutiny of him, and Eliana thought it summed up the cursed perspective of his breed perfectly. The planet was dying, people were starving, desperate for salvation, and the answer from the rich and powerful was just a tailored suit shrugging. He seemed amused by their argument, like they were squabbling children incapable of real impact.
“Give me a helicopter,” Naomi said. “I’ll take them back to shore and be in touch about next steps.”
The old man considered it, then turned to Zeke. “Go with them. Make sure Naomi can keep these two quiet.” He walked back to his panoply of screens. “It’s good to have you back, Raz.”
The walk to the helipad was a muted blur, as Eliana stared at her feet and blood coursed through her head. She couldn’t believe her sister had let her down— again; that she really was just a hired hand for the archaic elite. Maya held her hand while the helicopter’s blades whined to life. Shadows crept along the water as the sun set behind warships.
Naomi sat next to Zeke, joking about something or other as they took off toward the dying light. She watched the waves racing below and wondered what was happening in Betaville.
A wheezing impact shook her to attention, and she looked up. Maya gently placed a hand on her chest to keep her seated. From the cockpit, there came more alarming sounds: heavy slaps, the smooth zip of seatbelts, and a gagging cough that shifted into a wet thud. Gravity vanished for a moment as the helicopter plunged sharply. She saw Naomi wrestling into the pilot’s seat, a blast of wind, and then the black-suited form of Zeke Goodman sailing by her window into the twilight.
Eliana was thrust back into her seat as they climbed back to a normal relationship with the horizon. From the front seat, Naomi produced one of those striped flotation rings and tossed it out the window. Turning around, she gave Eliana a thumb's up, which she was too exhausted and hesitant to return. The propellers thundered overhead and her sister smiled hopefully.
“So,” Maya leaned over, shouting to be heard, “You ready to go to Duncan’s house?”