Ruby lowered her binoculars minutes, but she remained standing with not a word on her lips. John could see that she had started to shake and a tear was sliding down her cheek. In the sky above, John didn’t need binoculars to see the streaks of white vapor and black smoke that lingered in the place where Explorer One had just been.
Ruby didn’t seem interested in moving from her spot, so John decided it would be best not to bother her. She had become strong friends with Flynn and David and she wasn’t a fool. It was clear to see from here that there was little chance they had survived.
As he waited inside the camper he heard a familiar beep from the large radio that Ruby carried around with her everywhere she went. He fished around for it for a few moments before he found it buried under some dirty socks.
He switched it on and answered as Ruby had taught him. “Go for John Davis.”
“Davis,” Olivia’s voice crackled through the radio. “Do you have eyes on Explorer One?”
“Only what’s left of it,” he said. Large vapor cloud and a few debris trails.”
“Does it look like a complete breakup or just partial damage?”
“Honestly,” John said, “from here it looks like a total disintegration. There only appear to be a few debris trails, though.”
“The helicopter is on a mission to the Core. We’re blind at Mission Control right now. You’re our best eyes and ears on this. Can you isolate one of the large debris trails and make your way to it when it… lands?”
John saw Ruby had lowered her binoculars and was wiping away her tears.
“Yeah,” he said. “We can do that.”
“As soon as the helicopter returns from the Core we can send that to help as well.”
The call ended and John turned back to Ruby. She reached him, collapsed into his arms, and began to sob heavily. He closed his grip on her and held her there, rocking. As he held her, he took note of the largest debris cloud. When Ruby had some time to mourn, he would tell her, and they would head east.
Rayland stood from his desk and stepped out onto the balcony where he had heard the voice calling his name. He looked down the main street and didn’t see anyone, but then he looked straight down and saw Samantha Valentine.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Have you not been listening to the chatter?” she asked.
He frowned. He had not been monitoring the radio, which was something he normally enjoyed, particularly during Olivia’s explorer missions. He shook his head to answer her question and she gave him a look of disappointment.
“Explorer One,” she said. “It’s gone. Olivia had them lock the doors.”
“Mission Control?” he asked.
She nodded. “Yup.”
That was protocol, he knew, whenever there was a crisis in Mission Control. No one would be allowed to come or go until they had isolated the anomaly, or failure point, and Olivia would see to it that protocol was followed.
“I’ll call her immediately.”
The mayor stepped back inside his office and grabbed one of the many radios that he had lying around. Most of them monitored a specific channel, each one assigned to an individual, such as William Everett or Ruby Rose. In this case, he grabbed the one assigned to Olivia’s channel and beeped twice, a simple signal that he was calling.
Thankfully, she answered without delay. “Yes, Rayland?”
“The cinema doors appear to be locked. What’s going on over there?”
“Do you remember when you promised to pledge your support to me?” Olivia asked.
“I do. I will. Tell me, what has happened?”
“We have reason to believe that Explorer One suffered critical damage and has broken up or crashed.”
Rayland gasped. He hadn’t expected to gasp, but the strong emotion of losing two citizens was clearly more powerful than he had considered. Flynn Brickshelm and David Nash had been two upstanding citizens and Flynn had been one of the first. Losing him would dig up the past… a past he wanted to ignore.
“Have you sent the helicopter to the crash site?”
“The helicopter left to retrieve a new arrival hours ago,” Olivia explained. “We have a ground team en route to the site now. We’re still assessing the situation. We don’t expect any debris to land near the populated areas.”
“Of course,” Rayland said. “How do we want to address this publicly.”
“A number of fans were observing the mission,” she said. “I suspect the news is already spreading through the community. We can have John give a detailed statement in his newsletter. As to the immediate situation, I defer to your people skills, Rayland.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
“I appreciate that,” she said, her voice sounding tired. “Mission Control will remain locked until we have had a chance to review all our data from this morning. We are still confused about the cause of the incident.”
“Keep me updated. I’m here if you need me.”
Rayland switched off his radio and leaned forward, ever so slightly, in his chair. Ever since he had become mayor, he had been planning for this eventuality. Honestly, he was surprised that Olivia’s team had made it eleven missions before they finally botched something. He didn’t blame her directly; this was the nature of such risky business.
Still, she had made a mess, and now it was time for him to clean it up.
Keeping the community functioning would be his highest priority. Many of the citizens had grown accustomed to the explorer missions and the data, images, and even the feeling of security that they brought. Losing Explorer One would make people feel concerned, certainly, but it wouldn’t undo all that he had worked so hard to build.
He swapped radios, returning Olivia’s to the desk while picking up the one set to Samantha Valentine’s channel. Like before he sent two quick beeps to let her know that he was calling. She too answered immediately.
“How can I help?” she asked.
“We have a PR situation to deal with. The rumors are true. Explorer One is gone. From what I understand, the news is already public and spreading. We need to get ahead of this before it gets destructive.”
“I’ll start reaching out to any of my patients that expressed an interest in the missions. If they can express their concerns to me, maybe I can put some of the panic to rest.”
“Excellent,” Rayland said. “I’ll draft a statement to broadcast and—”
Rayland’s radio started to beep, six beeps in a row… that meant it was someone from his recently formed agriculture team.
“Take it,” Samantha said. “It might be someone that saw the incident.”
“Good call. I’ll be in touch soon.”
He switched off Samantha’s radio and picked up yet another. This one was assigned to his own private channel, and he answered it as soon as it was paged again.
“This is Mayor Walsh,” he said calmly. “How can I assist?”
“Ah, hello. This is Katherine Willow. I’m the owner of Willow Creek Farms.”
“Oh, yes, hello Katherine. So good to hear from you. What can I do to help?”
“I’m calling in about the explorer mission. I suppose you’ve heard about it already, being the mayor and all.”
“Indeed,” he said, sounding saddened. “Terrible situation.”
“Right,” Katherine said. “Well listen, I’m calling to report some wreckage.”
“Wreckage. I mean, it looks like a spaceship crashed out here or something.”
Rayland panicked a bit. Olivia had said there shouldn’t be any debris near the populated areas. Perhaps he was hearing something that she needed to hear too.
“Could you give me a moment?” he asked. “I just want to include someone on the call.”
He fiddled with the radio for a moment and pinged Olivia’s channel.
“Olivia,” he said when she joined. “I think Katherine has important information.”
“Go on?” Olivia said.
“Right,” Katherine said, sounding slightly irritated. “I was just telling Rayland that I’ve got a wrecked spaceship on my land.”
“You mean Explorer One?” Olivia asked. “It made it—”
“No,” Katherine said, sounding more annoyed now. “It isn’t our spaceship.”
“Okay, hold tight,” Olivia said. “I’ll have someone en route right away. Don’t approach—”
“We’re past that, honey,” Katherine said. “I already went to have a look. That’s why I’m calling you. It’s not just the crashed ship. It’s the person that was inside it.”
“Are you saying you found… a body?”
“Not a body,” she clarified. “He’s alive. Just unconscious.”
Olivia and Rayland were silent for a long moment.
“We’re sending someone your way right now,” Olivia said, breaking the silence.
“Great,” Katherine said. “I’ll be here.”
The farmer dropped from the channel and Rayland didn’t need to hear anything else. He pinged yet another individual, Caleb Vann, and waited for the doctor to answer.
“I just heard,” the doctor said when he joined the conversation. “Are they alive?”
“Unlikely,” Olivia said, her voice sounded cold.
“So what can I do to help?” Caleb asked.
“We need you to take a trip to Willow Creek Farms. I’ll explain more soon.”
The camper rolled to a stop less than thirty feet from the crash site.
Though, it wasn’t so much of a crash site, as it was a debris field.
“I don’t see the fuselage,” Ruby said, wiping fresh tears from her face as she looked at the pieces that littered the area. “There isn’t enough here.”
“There,” John said, pointing ahead, “that’s the wing.”
Sure enough, partially buried in the ground from the impact, the burned husk of the left wing rested, still largely one piece. Not far away from there, the high altitude radio antenna was shattered on the ground, and the left belly fuel tank had been thrown a dozen feet beyond that.
“Here’s the left repulsor,” Ruby said, pointing to some more chunks of debris.
“Okay, so we have the wing. We knew they lost the wing. Where is the ship?”
“This doesn’t make sense,” she said. “It should be somewhat close. They couldn’t have made it far once this happened, right?”
John shrugged. “Could Flynn keep it in the air without a wing?”
Ruby furrowed her brow. “Maybe?”
“Well, let’s mark this site and figure out where we should look from here. Assuming Flynn could stay in the air, he would have headed for the Grid. We can drive that way and—”
John was interrupted by the three beeps on Ruby’s radio, which indicated Olivia was calling them. He took a deep breath and answered it. “John here.”
“What did you find?” Olivia asked. “Anything?”
“Tell the team in Mission Control they were right. We found the left wing.”
“What about the rest of it?”
“Nothing yet. We are thinking maybe Flynn made it farther east near the Grid?”
“If that’s the case it’ll be faster for me to send a few members from the Grid to search the far eastern area. I have another mission for you. We got a call from Willow Creek Farms. They said a ship crashed there and there are wounded. We’re sending Caleb to help, but I’d like you two there as well.”
“Willow Creek is west of here,” John said. “How did—”
“Our data shows Explorer One collided with an object. That object was traveling in a westerly direction. I hope that clarifies things.”
“It does,” he replied. “We’re on it.”
“Thank you both,” Olivia said. “Report back when you know more.”
John turned off the radio and started for the camper. Ruby, still struggling to compose herself, followed behind him while looking one last time at the severed wing on the ground.