Elias Branch chugged the last of his chai tea latte. Smacking his lips, he crumpled the cup and tossed it onto the trash collection on the floorboards. A flutter of yellow caught his eyes. His neighbor’s bold script stared back at him from the sticky note. You’ve got this.
Eli smiled. His neighbor Adrienne didn’t know what his big project was, but she supported his dreams. Friends did that. After sticking the note to the dash, he climbed out of his vintage Volvo. Behind him, a siren demonstrated the Doppler effect as an ambulance raced along Interstate-Seventeen. Hinges creaked under the coating of Bondo when he slammed the car door.
With shoulders hunched against the winter wind, Eli hugged his late father’s suit jacket against his lanky frame. The belt buckle dug into his belly, and his feet slipped inside the oversized dress shoes. He would have been better off looking for a suit at Goodwill. But that would have cost money and still wouldn’t have impressed his billionaire godmother/benefactor.
He ignored the itch between his shoulder blades caused by thinking about Godmother Strattor. He understood why she covered herself from head to toe. She’d barely survived the third-degree burns, and even her money couldn’t restore her former carefully preserved looks.
But why was she riding his ass about opening the portal to a new world now? He was only a year behind and five million dollars over budget. In the beginning, she had assured him neither the money nor the timeline mattered—only the result. Guess things had changed.
He hustled across the street and up the sidewalk to the middle of the trio of rundown office buildings. Leaves rustled in the bushes, gathering in clumps in the desert landscaping. The pungent scent of paint filled the air, and blood-red droplets froze mid-drip from the new gang tag on the vintage ’70’s block building.
The ancient sun-reflecting film coating the windows flaked off in bronze chips while shortening, elongating or bloating his reflection like a funhouse mirror. What would the world think when they learned of the gateway to another world? Would they learn of his shoe-string lab, with no rules and all risks? He never spoke to Godmother about what they would do after he stabilized the portal.
If he stabilized it.
He was so close, too close. Eli crossed his fingers then brushed them down his pinstriped trousers. No need to rely on superstition. He’d run the models in the simulations and double-checked the math. The program should work.
Today, he would open a portal to another world, a habitable world if NASA’s scientists were right.
And tomorrow, he and Godmother Strattor would pick and choose who would colonize a new planet. A world humanity wouldn’t fuck up like they had this one. A world where people like his neighbor could avoid painful memories.
Maybe he should check his calculations one last time? The test wasn’t until ten. He had two hours to run another simulation and verify the math. He swiped his badge across the black card reader near the door and then pressed the buzzer, allowing the biometric reader to confirm his identity.
The lock clicked, and he twisted the handle.
Muffled voices slammed against him as he stepped inside the empty reception area. The hair on the back of his neck stood up in alarm. No one should be here. He worked alone. He always worked alone. The only intrusions into his sanctuary were conference calls and web meetings.
No one showed up in person.
His hand dipped into his pocket and clutched the cellphone. Should he call 9-1-1 and report the break-in?
A shadow drifted across the window cut into the door to his lab.
The bastards were inside his lab. Blood roared in his ears. They could be stealing his stuff. He glanced left then right. Motherfucker. The reception area was empty. Not even a dust ball to set on fire and toss at the thieves. But there was a fire extinguisher right inside the door.
He could use that bad boy to craft a weapon—perfect for suffocating someone with the foam, crushing their skull with the torpedo-shaped body, or snapping their bones as the extinguisher rocketed into them. Or all three if he could get to the five extinguishers scattered around his lab.
Stepping out of his hard-soled dress shoes, he tiptoed across the scratched linoleum.
The door opened as he approached.
A trim Asian woman in a scarlet blazer and matching trousers peered at him through her oversized glasses. Her cherry blossom lips parted when she spied him.
He skidded to a stop. He knew the thief, no, not a thief. Ms. Onomi was Godmother’s personal assistant.
“Mr. Branch.” Her impossibly long lashes nearly brushed her lenses as she blinked at his bare feet then his shoes abandoned in the middle of the room. “Ms. Strattor had to move up the appointment due to an emergency. That won’t be a problem, will it?”
Eli shrugged then shook his head. “No. Of course not.”
Not that it was really a question, nor did Godmother or her PA really expect anything other than acquiescence to the demand. It was all part of the Golden Rule—she who had the gold made the rules.
He backtracked across the lobby and stepped into his shoes. His heels burned as they rubbed the leather, but what were a few blisters compared to a life-changing event?
Ms. Onomi opened the door and waved at him to precede her.
Eli nodded as he passed. The doofus reflected in her oversized glasses bobbed his head. The anti-static mat squished under his feet as he entered his lab. Metal trusses divided the open ceiling into silver quadrants, and high-tech, sound-proof insulation lined the walls. Four-inch power cables snaked across the sealed concrete pad and plugged into the three metal rings forming a sphere on the black dais in the center of the space.
His nose twitched with the distinct odor of ozone and motor oil. His electronics were too sensitive for greasing, but he never could figure out where that smell came from. He pushed a flap of black hair out of his face. And speaking of mysteries. Where had Godmother Strattor and her PA come from? His beater car had been the only one in the parking lot. Godmother usually traveled with an entourage requiring three cars since she claimed the different seat styles aggravated her tender skin and made sitting uncomfortable.
Eli rolled his shoulders. Speaking of uncomfortable… He faced her. “Godmother, you are looking as trim as always.”
In a flutter of a jet veil, she dipped her head then limped across the cement to stand in front of the glistening metal sphere. Her long designer dress swayed across her polished ebony shoes with her uneven gait.
Stuffing his hands inside his pockets, he joined her. Gone were the warm hugs she used to greet him. Their last touch had been when he’d caught her as she’d stumbled upon leaving the burn unit. He could still hear her cry of agony nearly six months later. Godmother had always been a strong, active woman. Now he knew despite her sturdy frame, her strength wasn’t skin deep. The damage had been too severe, but at least she had survived.
She stroked a gloved hand down the portal’s rib and sighed.
“How are you feeling?”
She faced him. The veil shifted.
Eli spied the blunted nose and sharp cheekbones. Her features didn’t look too bad, considering her face had nearly melted.
She held out a trembling hand.
He brought his own up to meet hers to save her the display of weakness.
“I must say the thought of seeing your project in action has lifted my spirits.” Her words scratched the air like a smoke-stained whisper.
He leaned in, lowering his voice as if sharing a secret. “Today, we make history.”
Habitable world or not, they would be the first. He crossed his fingers on both hands then hooked his thumbs, repeating the gesture she’d taught him as a child.
She patted his arm. “We don’t need luck, my boy. I know you will succeed.”
“But a little luck wouldn’t hurt.” He grinned as he completed their well-rehearsed lines. He would succeed. If not today, then another day. For her. She may not be healthy enough to settle the alien world they would eventually find, but she could visit it.
Ms. Onomi cleared her throat.
Eli shook himself free of the future’s spell. There was work to do. A test to pass. “I understand you have a pressing appointment today, so let’s get this party started.”
He held out his arm, offering Godmother support to reach the couch in the corner behind a bullet resistant screen.
She set her gloved hand on his arm and shuffled beside him. “Is it dangerous?”
Ms. Onomi glanced up from her iPhone, no doubt checking schedules and making sure Godmother kept her activities on track. The PA glanced at the sofa and its screen, to the sphere, then back again before locking eyes with him and cocking an eyebrow.
Eli patted his godmother’s hand. “Don’t worry, a plume of energy won’t shoot out like on Stargate.”
More’s the pity. He would have liked something with a little more pizzaz.
“That’s a shame.” She stopped next to the liquid nitrogen dewar strapped to a metal pan he had bolted to the floor. The contraption looked like R2D2 with a metal halo. “What are these for?”
“To super-cool the metal. It reduces friction and allows the ribs of the sphere to move fast enough to reach event horizon critical mass.”
Godmother sighed. “Pity. It would’ve been cool to have it as a special effect, like fog rolling in.”
Eli smiled, knowing his design allowed enough nitrogen to leak, to create a more suspenseful atmosphere. “It’s a little of that, too.”
Leaning close, she whispered in his ear. “I won’t tell.”
He ducked his head to hide his red cheeks.
Godmother stopped next to Mission Control—the ring of monitors and mainframes he’d connected to run the gate. “I think I would like a bird’s eye view.”
Her gloved fingers bit into his arm as she pulled him into the center of Mission Control.
Eli hissed at the pain shooting up his arm.
Godmother released him, then perched on the ergonomic chair he’d designed and spun in a lazy circle.
Ms. Onomi pursed her lips as she strode to the corner and grabbed one of the rolling chairs next to the couch. Her knuckles flashed white from her death grip on the backrest as she pushed the chair toward Mission Control. “Perhaps you would be so kind as to move the protective screen over.”
“It’s not really necessary. I—”
“Of course, it is,” Ms. Onomi snapped. “Otherwise, you would not have it. Now, move the screen. Please.”
Resisting the urge to salute at her command, he shuffled across the room. His hard soles slapped the cement until he kicked them off. They bounced against the wall then fell to the floor. He padded to the screen he’d fabricated from bullet-resistant glass and old cubicle walls. Stuffing his blanket, pillow, and change of clothes into a bin wedged between the sofa and wall, he planted his bare feet on the cement and pushed on the protective screen.
Metal chittered against the concrete as the barrier’s legs slid forward. He huffed and puffed, throwing his weight against it. Inch by inch, he moved the screen in position between Mission Control and the gate. Breathing heavy, he leaned over and shoved the base’s bolts into the latch on the floor and locked the screen in place.
Ms. Onomi double-checked the bolts before dusting her hands on her pencil skirt. She jumped when her phone buzzed. Swiping it on, she hustled away as she answered the call.
Godmother scooted to the side.
Eli stepped into the center of Mission Control and reached for his mouse. His hand closed around empty space. How the heck did the mouse get all the way to the top of his desk by the phone? If he didn’t know better, he’d say his lab was haunted. Instead, there was probably a more prosaic answer. He glanced at his godmother, who stared at her personal assistant.
They had been here before him. He released a slow sigh through clenched teeth then picked up his mouse and pad, moving them back to their proper positions.
Into her cell, Ms. Onomi cursed someone’s misbegotten ancestors in Japanese, then turned on her six-inch stilettos and promised to assist someone’s impending seppuku.
Glad he wasn’t on the woman’s shit list, Eli stabbed his computer power button. He shifted to the right and double-checked the connections to the sequence of mainframes beneath his curved desk.
“Fine.” Ms. Onomi ground out.
The tiny hair on the back of Eli’s neck stood on end. Nothing was fine when a woman said fine in that tone.
Ms. Onomi’s eyes narrowed behind her glasses. “But you can only speak to her for five minutes.” The PA crossed to Godmother. “The trust’s lawyers are on the phone. There’s a problem. Again. And only you can solve it. Again.”
Her words were terse as if the lawyer’s interruption was a personal failure.
Godmother chuckled and held out her gloved hand for assistance standing. “Sometimes, it is good to be the boss.”
Eli felt her gaze through the veil. He turned as the workstation booted up.
“How long?” Godmother hated speaking on the phone, especially if she was repeating instructions.
Eli held up two fingers then answered aloud for the benefit of the lawyers waiting to speak with her on the phone. “Two minutes.”
Nodding, Godmother stalked toward the couch—back ramrod straight in anger and her limp barely noticeable. “You have one minute to state your case. Then I will give you the solution you should have thought of before disturbing me.”
Tuning out the ass-chewing, Eli shifted the keyboard closer then typed in his password. How could his workstation have gotten so messed up?
Ms. Onomi glanced over her shoulder at her employer before slinking closer to Eli. She bit her bottom lip. Her straight white teeth stood in stark contrast to her cherry lipstick. “Eli.”
“Hmm.” He scrubbed a hand down his face. She wasn’t flirting with him. He wasn’t going to inherit more than a few million from Godmother’s estate. Somewhere out there, she had an oversized fiancé who could wrestle an elephant and win. Or snap him in half.
And that was nothing compared to what Godmother would do to him for screwing her staff. He kept his attention on his keyboard.
Shifting into his peripheral vision, Ms. Onomi ran a scarlet fingernail down the edge of the left Mission Control panel. Tracing the ‘T’ in the word Toran, she shifted his mouse over to prop her hip on his desk. “Toran. That’s an interesting name.”
“Passage or portal.” Removing her glasses, she bit the right earpiece and smiled at him. “Don’t look so surprised. It is an Asian word.”
“Yes, of course.” But from India, not Japan. Then again, it was about the entrance to a Buddhist temple. And many Japanese practiced Buddhism. He just hadn’t taken her as the religious type.
“I guess Stargate was already taken.”
“Pretty much.” Eli’s skin burned. He’d been drunk when he’d told her his dreams of exploring alien worlds like Colonel Jack O’Neill then kissed her. She hadn’t protested at the time, but her boyfriend was another matter two days later. Eli had tasted drywall for a month after being shoved head-first through the wall. No way in hell would Eli have the best day of his life also be the last day he breathed.
Godmother waved her arm in anger. A gesture wasted on the lawyers on the other end of the phone.
“Everything all right, over there?”
Godmother chopped the air with her arm in annoyance.
Sorry he cared. Eli clamped his lips together then fished a coin-shaped jump drive out of his pocket. The edges lit up when it recognized his fingerprints on the center. His skin prickled with the sensation of being watched, and he glanced up.
Tilting her head, Ms. Onomi focused on Godmother. “She’s changing the beneficiaries of her trust.”
Eli dropped the jump drive in its concealed slot on the desk and plugged it into the computer. His monitor blinked, then slowly data streamed down as the drive took control. “They should be accustomed to her frequent changes. There’s always some new idea that could save the world.”
The Strattor family fortune was built on fossil fuel products like plastic, gas, fracking, and coal. Now that Godmother controlled the trust, she used the money to try to undo the damage fossil fuels had inflicted on the planet.
Or to escape to another world.
“Everyone wants to save the world, don’t they? The survival instinct is powerful.” Ms. Onomi shrugged and settled her glasses on her nose. “But, I’m surprised you aren’t concerned about being cut out of her trust.”
“Godmother set me up with my own trust after my parents died.” Not that it was common knowledge. Hell, no one knew about it. He planned to use the funds to pay for his new life on a new world. He met her eye. “I never expected to inherit anything else.”
A password prompt filled the screen.
“You really are an unusual person, aren’t you, Eli?”
He shrugged and typed in his password. The cellphone in his pocket vibrated, alerting him that someone had accessed his network. He tugged it out and opened his app to see the randomly generated code to confirm his identity.
Ms. Onomi frowned. “You are not very trusting. How many more codes do you need to enter?”
“That was the last one.” The screen cleared then the mainframe briefly welcomed him before replacing the words with images of galaxies he’d downloaded from NASA’s website. The cursor blinked near a text box, asking for his destination. “Now, I just need the updated coordinates of our target planet.”
God forbid, they opened a portal into empty space. Just the thought made his teeth itch. Thankfully, Godmother had contacts at NASA who always sent the latest M-class world coordinates they’d discovered.
“I can help you with that.” Ms. Onomi patted her skirt then glanced at Godmother.
“I believe you need this.” Joining them, Godmother held out the phone.
“Thank you, Ms. Strattor.” Ducking her head, Ms. Onomi swiped open the phone, thumbed through a few screens, then set her smartphone on the table next to his keyboard. A string of X-Y-and Z-coordinates marched across the front.
He almost had the numbers memorized from the last trial. Not that the coordinates should change much on a day-to-day basis.
Ms. Onomi helped Godmother to the spare chair and positioned it just outside of Mission Control but behind the safety screens. “Are you ready?”
The computer crunched the numbers and asked him to verify the coordinates.
He typed in ‘yes’ then tapped enter.
<Engage Toran?> appeared on the screen.
Godmother gripped her gloved hands in her lap.
After highlighting <yes>, Eli slid the keyboard toward her. “Want to do the honors?”
“Yes,” she rasped and tapped enter.
Eli held his breath. A second passed, then two. At three, the screen relayed that it was knocking on the portal. Liquid nitrogen vented from the dewars and fogged the three titanium circles forming the sphere in the room’s center. Metal creaked as it was super-cooled. The interior ring began to turn. The middle and outer ribs followed. Soon all three spun, picking up speed as the cold fog rolled across the floor.
A red progress bar appeared on the screen—five percent. Seven percent At ten percent, the progress bar turned yellow. At fifteen percent, a gray ball of energy twinkled in the center of the sphere. The laboratory lights flickered.
Ms. Onomi planted her hands on the desk and leaned forward. “How will we access the Toran if the sphere’s ribs are moving?”
The progress bar reached the halfway point.
Farther than he’d gone before. The rest was uncharted territory. The bar kept climbing. The lab fell dark, leaving the hiss of nitrogen and the grumble of metal rings to fill the space. He blinked and the ox-blood emergency lights flickered on.
Godmother oohed at the effect. “What happens now?”
“The ribs will lock in place once the wormhole has stabilized. You should be able to just walk through.”
Lights twinkled as the tiny ball spread into an ocean blue puddle in the center. Gray waves rippled toward the outer rings, but the wormhole wasn’t stable. Yet. They passed the sixty percent mark. He crossed his fingers and his thumbs.
Godmother held up her crossed fingers as well, then focused on the ever-widening puddle.
The outermost ring locked in place—the planet had been located. He glanced up and gave Godmother a thumbs-up. The bar reached sixty-five percent. The puddle widened and thinned, stretching like warm taffy to fill the innermost ring.
Eli struggled to breathe. It was working. Really working. His world narrowed to the sphere as the weight of expectation countered the effervescent hope buoying him.
The progress bar froze at seventy-five percent.
His fingers spasmed. Was that it? Had he come so far only to fail? He raised his hand. The bar jumped to eighty then eighty-five percent. Teal, aqua, and silver rippled through the puddle as it lapped at the second ring.
At ninety percent, the middle ring stopped moving. The innermost ring quickly followed. The puddle now stretched across all three rings, completely filling the interior.
<Connection made. Checking stability.> Flashed on the monitor.
Eli’s heart drummed in his ears. Would it collapse? Or would it hold? His throat tightened, preventing him from speaking the thought and jinxing the project.
The portal’s surface flattened into a silvery mirror.
Godmother rose from her chair. With her fingers still crossed, she straightened, drawing upon her excitement to stand tall. She tore her gaze from the portal. “You did it.”
The computer monitor confirmed the good news. <Toran stable.>
Pixelated confetti rained down over the words.
“I did it. I did it.” He fist-pumped the air.
Ms. Onomi stepped closer to the portal. “Can we just go through?”
“No. Not yet.” Leaning over, Eli opened the drawer. Pens rattled inside as he removed a wing-shaped controller.
He pressed the power button. Buzzing filled the air, then two military drones lifted off from the repair station in the corner. The whine of their rotors increased in pitch as they zoomed toward the portal.
“What are you doing?” Godmother snapped. Her voice was strong and rough.
“We need to see if we can breathe over there or if we’ll bake. The drones will tell us.” He guided the drones closer to the mirrored surface of the portal. They bobbed like drunken birds in hurricane-force winds. Damn, he hadn’t counted on his excitement affecting his flying skills.
Godmother and Ms. Onomi exchanged a look before Godmother nodded. “Naturally, we need to check the atmosphere. It’s hard to think of trifles when we just made history.”
Ms. Onomi raised her phone and aimed it at the portal.
Eli pressed his lips together to prevent him from asking her to stop recording the event. This was a moment in history. It should be recorded. The portal shimmered, darkening in the center. He blinked, but the black spot remained. He kept the drones hovering, then reran the system check.
<Stable.> Despite the computer’s analysis, the dark blob grew and stretched, resembling a human silhouette.
No. No, it couldn’t be. Yet, they’d selected the planet because it could support life. Eli’s mind unspooled with possibilities.
Ms. Onomi raised her finger and pointed to the spot. “That looks like a human.”
“Or humanoid,” Godmother rocked back and forth in her seat before rising. “Maybe someone is trying to come through and look at us. One without the foresight to think of a drone.”
Eli froze. The drones dipped. First contact. Was it going to happen here in an industrial park, in an unsanctioned lab? Goosebumps raced across his skin.
A hand came through first. An arm soon followed—slim, hairless, and resembling a human woman’s. A body emerged.
He forgot to breathe.
The stout figure wore a black dress and had a coral red and white cameo at her throat. Sensible heels encased her feet. Gray roots appeared through her brown dyed tight curls.
Eli blinked then sucked air into his lungs. She was still there. He rubbed his eyes. It couldn’t be.
Ms. Onomi whispered. “She looks human.”
The apparition locked eyes with Eli. “Elias. I knew if anyone could contact me, it would be you, my darling son.”
He shook his head as the woman approached. Closer. Closer. He made out the scar on her cheek from when she was a toddler. Noted the violet color of her eyes. Yet, his brain couldn’t reconcile the two. It just couldn’t be. She looked like his mother, acted like his mother.
But his mother was dead.
He and Godmother had buried her more than five years ago.