Rayland Walsh leaned back in his chair. As he did, a loud creak echoed from the base of his seat, filling his office. He had grown accustomed to the sound over time, but his guest, William Everett, looked rather annoyed every time he heard it.
Rayland had invited William here to discuss the progress of the vehicle repair center that would be built at the edge of town. The council was eager to get some kind of garage up and running now that so many citizens were using vehicles to come and go from town.
Instead of a quick status update, however, Rayland had been blindsided with a proposal for a new restaurant to be paired with the garage, an entirely new building with a unique design… one that William had not cleared with the council.
“So this,” he asked, looking over the plans, “is a new restaurant of some kind?”
“Exactly. It’s designed to produce food quickly, unlike our current options, so that people can pop in for a quick bite. I don’t know if you’ve tried one of Nancy Rizzo’s burgers, but they’re amazing and she can have them done in minutes.”
“Why exactly do our citizens need fast food?” Rayland asked.
“Some people aren’t super eager to eat at a sit down restaurant,” William explained. “It’s an alternative to our current setup. Like I said, Nancy really likes the idea of being able to serve the community.”
“Yes, of course,” Rayland replied as he placed his hands atop his desk and crossed them together. “I didn’t miss the pun, either, but I’m not sure we’re quite ready to jump on yet another project for town. We already have the garage in progress and we’re still building houses both in here and beyond.”
“We need a new place for people to get food anyway,” William pressed. “Oliver already has a line at his restaurant every day, and the bakery we have is nice, but it offers little in the way of getting real meals to people.”
“I agree, William. We just need the resources. When we finish the garage we can revisit the idea for your restaurant, okay?”
William frowned, but nodded and began rolling up his drawings.
“Now,” the mayor said, trying to change the subject, “how have you been doing? Are your wife and daughter settled in okay?”
“As well as can be, I assume,” William answered. “It has been hard, all things considered.”
Rayland gave his best compassionate smile. “I understand your plight.”
“I doubt that,” William countered. “The stares we get…”
Rayland raised a brow. “When you’re the only old person in an entire town, people tend to gawk at least a little bit. In time, they get acclimated to something being different. Finding a whole family in the Core was just a bit of a shocker for everyone.”
“That’s what Beverly told me,” William admitted. “It doesn’t help much in the moment.”
“Especially not for your daughter,” Rayland surmised. “I’m sorry.”
“Not much to be done about it. I just wish… I wish she wasn’t alone.”
“She has her mother and father,” Rayland said. “That’s more than most of the townsfolk will ever have.”
William smiled ever so slightly. “That’s true.”
“Let’s go camping,” Johnathan Davis said sarcastically to himself as he wrestled with the steering wheel in his hands. “We can take the caaaaamper.”
“Enough of your sass,” Ruby Rose said from the passenger seat of their vehicle. “We’re almost there!”
The vehicle rolled over another heavy set of rocks and John bumped uncomfortably.
“I’m not sure if we’ll get to the top of Mount Machina before Explorer One does its big fuel burn.”
“We’ll make it,” Ruby assured him.
As they were driving, far above them, Explorer One was busy pressing higher into the sky.
This was the ship’s eleventh mission to date, and they had been working furiously to map out areas of the lower levels, which most people were now calling the Frontier. As a part of these missions, Explorer One had been given several upgrades, including new fuel tanks and an extra powerful antenna.
Ruby had been following the missions closely, and she loved to go over them with John every chance she could get. “You know,” she was saying, “if they can high enough, they’re going to launch a radio transmitter with energy panels that can bounce messages to the upper levels. I’m hoping that we can get a good look of all that from the top of the mountain. Did you remember the camera?”
“I did,” John replied.
The camera Ruby was referencing had been a lucky find from the warehouse. John had spent a lot of time helping Ruby hunt down parts and supplies for the exploration missions, and along the way the camera had been discovered. He wasn’t a professional photographer by any measure, but a few nice shots of Explorer One would look great in his next newsletter.
The camper hit another bump that jostled John enough to make him slip. Before he could fall from his seat, Ruby snagged him and helped him get his grip.
He looked at her and she smiled at him. Their hands stayed touching for a few brief moments before she let go and said, “Please be careful.”
John nodded and got back in his seat, this time strapping in. The camper had already been equipped with offroad tires and four wheel drive, which made it the perfect candidate for these kinds of climbs. John, however, was not built for it. He had a touch of motion sickness, and he was quickly becoming aware that he had a fear of heights.
They were driving right up the side of the mountain, and as their camper leaned more and more, John started debating when he’d have to stop and let Ruby go on ahead.
Soon enough, thankfully, things started to level out.
“This should make a good spot,” Ruby said as John stopped the camper and unbuckled.
John was happy to hear it.
Mission Control was absolutely buzzing today. Olivia had already taken her seat while other engineers were chatting with one another. All of the mission parameters were in the green, and after nearly a dozen missions, most of the team had become comfortable with how Explorer One acted and behaved.
“Johnson,” she said, calling out to one of the engineers. “Can we get David on the line?”
“Already on it.”
The morning routine was holding steady. The last few missions had extended the time Explorer One could remain airborne. The longest duration on a single trip was seventy-two hours now. With the addition of more fuel tanks and a long range antenna, the ship was proving to be quite capable.
“Gooooood morning,” the voice of David Nash echoed in the control room. “How is everyone doing this lovely morning?”
“We are well,” Olivia answered. “How are things up there?”
“Repulsers are holding steady. We took more photos of the lower levels yesterday too. I have the transmitter checked and ready for deployment this morning. Hopefully we are a go?”
“Roger that,” Olivia confirmed. “Let us get some final readings and then we’ll have you guys aim for the ceiling.”
As she went to work looking over the latest logs, she couldn’t help but feel proud of what they had accomplished in such a short time. Explorer One had originally been a prototype design. It was proof of concept, only to be used a few times while Explorer Two was being constructed. Thanks to modifications from various engineers, however, the small vessel was helping map the entire lower levels while they continued working on the next launch vehicle.
The photos had proven invaluable. Knowing what was out there made citizens feel more comfortable with living in and outside of town, which made everything easier for everyone.
Meanwhile, now that the explorers felt they understood the lower levels, it meant they could focus on other parts of the ship that they had long ignored.
Olivia was still wary of what might await them out there, especially after David and Flynn had approached her about a powerful signal that had bombarded the Explorer One on its very first mission. The knowledge it had granted the explorers was monumental, but it would take time to pay off. The data had to be parsed and interpreted to be fully understood. Olivia had placed a talented engineer on that job. Elsie Lamaar was eager to prove her talents, and finally having a way to understand more about the ship they lived on would be critical to their survival.
Of course, that was all in the future. Right now, the mission at hand was Explorer One.
“Alright,” Flynn’s excited voice echoed in Mission Control. “We are ready to begin final altitude burn before transmitter deployment. This is going to be awesome.”
Olivia looked to her team and they all gave quick signals with thumbs up or green lights.
“We are all clear in Mission Control,” Olivia announced. “Go on your mark.”
The Explorer One cockpit was a bit cramped.
It only had room for the pilot, while the secondary passenger remained seated in the cargo bay, with a special harness and terminal that was used for performing studies and experiments. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked for now.
“How are you back there, David?”
“I’m fine,” Nash replied. “I’ll be glad when we’re in Explorer Two.”
Flynn agreed. He couldn’t wait to pilot Explorer Two, but he knew that mission was still some time away.
“All systems are go,” David Nash reported. “You going to push us all the way?”
“I’m going until our tank runs dry.”
“Good. The closer we get to the Upper Level Plateau, the easier it will be to land the transmitter.”
“Well, let’s get on with it then!”
Flynn gripped his controls and checked the power levels to make sure he was ready for main ignition. All lights were green. He cracked a smile and hit the throttle.
The force of the engines pushed hard against Flynn’s chest and he made sure to push the thrusters to max power over time rather than all at once. At the same time, he took the repulsers offline to save battery as they weren’t needed for these sharp climbs.
The ship’s vibrations grew in strength with every second the engines burned.
Flynn was keeping an eye on his readings as they went. He didn’t want to push Explorer One too hard.
“Initiating final pitch adjustment,” he said. “Ten seconds to end burn.”
Everyone in Mission Control was waiting as Flynn reported progress.
The fuel burn wasn’t new. They had done that enough that no one was really concerned. The exciting part of this big finale would be the transmitter. When the burn was finished, Flynn would level the ship, power the repulsers, and hold steady. Then, David would launch the transmitter from the payload bay and pilot it to the “Upper Level Plateau”, or the ULP. The ULP was a large flat area of the Upper Levels that the engineers had chosen as a landing site..
Once the transmitter was deployed, it could be used to bounce signals from both town and any airborne vessel, which would open the possibilities for communication between levels for more advanced missions sent up later.
“We’re getting a proximity alert,” one of the engineers reported. “Incoming object! Fast!”
In a split second, three engineering stations went red.
“Whoa whoa,” someone called out, “multiple hydraulic failures on the left wing!”
“Fuel readings just went haywire!”
Olivia stood and called out to the group. “One at a time, people! Comms. Go.”
“Total signal loss! We can’t reach them.”
Olivia felt her heart pounding. “Hardware. Go.”
“Complete system failure on left hydraulics before signal loss. I… I think they lost the wing.”
“No guesses. Only facts,” Olivia said. “Radar. Go.”
“Limited visibility without Explorer One signal. Possible impact on left wing.”
Olivia closed her eyes and held back her visceral reaction. Instead she said, “Okay, someone lock the doors. Explorer One has suffered an anomaly.”