As Explorer One pressed ever higher, David double and triple checked their height while Flynn continued to let them climb. The main engines had a fair amount of thrust, but they still weren’t even halfway to the upper levels.
“We’re at about forty percent fuel reserves,” Flynn said. “I’m going to cut main engines in case we need to make any big adjustments during landing.”
“Roger. Do it.”
“Cutting in three… two… one.”
The sudden lack of propulsion made both David and Flynn buck against their restraints. Their airspeed slowed, then started dropping, but the repulsors appeared to be holding them at the same altitude. The batteries that powered the repulsers were large and heavy, but they had plenty of juice. It was estimated that they could keep things powered for several hours at full drain. David checked the indicators just to be sure.
“Things are holding.”
Can you reach Mission Control?” Flynn asked.
David shook his head. “Nothing so far.”
“Try the emergency wavelength. It should give us better range.”
The cockpit was suddenly filled with immense static that caused Flynn to rip off his headset and manually plug his ears. “What is that?”
“Not sure. Some kind of feedback. It’s probably a rebroadcast of the Grid’s emergency frequency. I’m having trouble locking it down.”
“Well it’s loud, isn’t it?”
The static started to clear and a pattern was emerging within the broadcast. Beeping and clicking sounds in a sequence, which repeated twice, then changed to something else.
“This doesn’t sound like our broadcast,” Flynn said.
“It’s distorted,” David explained. “It’s probably a mix of signal dispersion and our weak antenna. Like when our radios sound all garbled and weird inside the Core.”
Flynn glanced at a few of his console readouts while David figured out how to tone down the volume on the broadcast. Everything was still green across the board… everything except their battery power indicators, which were now dropping by the second.
“Uh,” he stammered. “David, check battery levels on your end?”
David was silent for a moment and then grunted. “Going down fast.”
“Yeah,” Flynn said. “Something is wrong.”
“I’ll isolate the drain.”
“Sounds good. In the meantime, I’m going to start taking us down. We can’t risk being up this high when the repulsers go out.”
“Agreed,” David said, typing furiously. “Get us back home.”
Olivia had waited over ten minutes for any word from Explorer One. The fact that those two had strayed from the official test plan was infuriating. The fear that something might have gone wrong gnawed at her mind while there was nothing from their end.
“We’re going to have to consider they suffered an anomaly,” she finally said aloud.
There were murmurs around the room from the engineers and visitors, but she didn’t hold back. “We can start by sending out the helicopter for visual indicators of any potential… landing sites.”
“Don’t you mean crash sites?” Samantha asked, her voice shockingly cold.
“Flynn is an extremely talented pilot,” Ruby piped up. “If they lost the repulsers it would be up to him to land. He could do it. He did it in the simulators at least three times. If she said landing sites then she means landing sites.”
Olivia was grateful for Ruby’s kindness, but Samantha had been right. While Explorer One was built to land like an airplane, the design was untested and required a fair amount of airspeed to maintain lift. It would be very difficult to land. Still, after an endorsement like that, some of her hope that the ship could land without power was restored.
“Ruby, I assume you’re okay flying out and—”
“Of course,” Ruby said, still giving a dirty look in Samantha’s direction. “I’ll go find them if they are down.”
“Good. We can focus on the first—”
“…One… Explorer… One… this is David Nash… reporting in. Can you hear me?”
There was an audible sigh of relief, not just from Olivia, but all of those in Mission Control. Suddenly, everyone was back at work, reestablishing connections with the vessel and trying to get a better reading of the situation.
“We read you, Nash,” Olivia answered. “What’s your status?”
“Coming back down. We’re on track, though we are losing battery power at an alarming rate. We think we can land it, but it’s going to be close. Flynn might have to glide it in the last bit.”
“Can we harvest energy from anywhere else?” Olivia asked her team.
“Cut off life support and monitoring systems,” one responded. “They’re low enough now they don’t need it.”
“It’s still bright out. Disable landing and exterior lighting.”
“Are you hearing all that?” Olivia asked.
“Yup,” David replied. “Executing now. It is definitely helping.”
Several alarms started sounding from one of the consoles in Mission Control, but the engineer at the station was quick to calm everyone down. It was a false alarm triggered by the sudden lack of life support, at least according to the computers.
“Okay,” Flynn reported. “We are in good shape. I think we’re going to land just fine. Coming in on our final approach. Nothing to it.”
“Explorer One, this is Mission Control. The ship is yours. See you on the ground.”
Flynn was adjusting the ailerons one last time as the battery levels dipped into the single digits. He was nervous, for sure, as losing the power meant losing the repulsors and any of the automated hydraulics. A small backup battery system tied to the essential systems would keep them moving with limited mobility, but Flynn hadn’t flown in those conditions before.
He wasn’t sure it would come to that.
He just wasn’t sure it wouldn’t, either.
“Should we lower wheels?” David asked from the back.
“Not yet,” Flynn replied. “If we lose power we’re going to slow down fast and I don’t want the wheels slowing us down more. We shouldn’t need them if the batteries hold out.”
Outside of the cockpit, he could see the main platform where he would land if the repulsers allowed it. Below that, on the floor level, he saw a makeshift runway that had been designed for an emergency landing without the repulsers.
He still had eight percent battery. He opted for the platform.
“It’s going to slow down fast,” he announced as he pushed the nose down and brought them in over the Grid’s superstructure.
Explorer One responded perfectly and they lowered straight down to the platform. He brought it in faster than he probably should have, but then threw the throttle back and lifted hard on the nose. The repulsers whirred with energy and, aside from a brief scraping of metal as the main engines scraped the platform, the Explorer One stabilized over the landing area and then lowered to the ground with a gentle touchdown.
The battery was still at two percent when Flynn shutdown the flight system.
“Mission Control. Explorer One has landed.”
The entire cinema erupted into wild applause.
Olivia closed her eyes and a smile spread across her face. The mission had returned home, not without issues, but safely and in sound shape. What was more, they had collected data. Real data. The temperature of the air at high altitudes within the world ship, aerial photography from a stable platform, and who knows what else they had stirring up in the equipment loaded aboard the vessel.
This was real exploration.
“Hey, check it out!”
Olivia’s reverie was broken by the engineers that were peering out a window to the street below. She stepped over to see what they were looking at and was surprised to find citizens in the street, many of which were cheering and applauding. They had heard the news of the successful mission and they were genuinely excited for what had unfolded.
She noticed that Rayland had also stepped over and was looking out at the people below. He too was smiling, and when he made eye contact with her he gave a slight nod of acknowledgement. It wasn’t much, but she hoped it meant he saw the value in all of this. There was more to the world ship than just this little town, and they needed to find out as much as they could, for their own survival.
The initial reports from the Grid started to flow in a few hours later. By then, almost everyone had emptied out of the cinema to relax and have food or celebrate with friends and family. Olivia had remained with a few select engineers to start reviewing data. As the pages were coming out, it became apparent that there was nothing of any particular excitement. The temperatures were all mostly the same at high altitude as they were down low. This meant the world ship likely had climate controls for both the upper and lower levels, which was already considered a bygone conclusion.
The repulsers had behaved exceptionally, so they weren’t to blame for the energy drain on the batteries, but the batteries themselves had shown no signs of damage or incorrect functionality, which meant the problem had come from somewhere else.
“Alright,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “I admit we’re not going to find a gold nugget of data tonight. It’s probably time to head home.”
The engineers gathered their things and left without question, happy to call it a night. So now the only two left in the room were Olivia and John. John had stayed to document. He had already told her that he would create a newsletter to cover the mission from within Mission Control. The citizens would have a field day with it, according to him. She had doubted that, at first, but now trusted he might be right. At least, based on the cheering outside after the landing.
“Busy day,” John said as he finally packed away his notes. “You coming?”
“Soon,” she said. “Just need to get a few things in order.”
“You did good today,” he said, unexpectedly. “This was a big success.”
She cracked a smile and looked over at the young writer. He had messy brown hair and a thin face. She had taken a liking to him after they first met, but she had never thought he would prove so valuable to her cause. Without him, without his newsletter, she wasn’t sure they would have been able to pull of this mission today.
“I meant to thank you again today,” she said now. “For all that you’ve done to help.”
“Think nothing of it.”
“It means a great deal to everyone on the Explorer Team. We needed someone like you to help us connect with the community. Now we have.”
“All is well,” he said casually.
It was in that moment, that Olivia realized something. The feeling nearly shocked her and she stood silently for a long moment before she asked. “What did you say?”
“Uh, all is well,” he replied. “I say that sometimes when—”
“Of course, my apologies. Now, it’s late. You should be on your way, John.”
“Right, sorry. I’ll slip out.”
“Thank you. Have a good night.”
John nodded and headed down the stairs. She waited until she heard him leave the front door of the cinema before she grabbed a piece of blank paper off one of the station desks and scrawled three words on it:
All. Is. Well.
She looked at it, tried to focus, and she realized that it wasn’t just Deja Vu, or a misplaced thought. She had experienced a memory. Not just a recent memory, but one from a long time ago.
One from before she woke up on the world ship.
She took a deep breath, picked up the paper, and shredded it to pieces.