Samantha Valentine brushed her hair to keep her bangs from her eyes. She was on her normal bench, not far from the bank, and one of the newest arrivals was sitting next to her with a completely blank look. She checked her notes for his name.
He had arrived just two weeks ago, so he had been one of the first she called about the Explorer One incident. He hadn’t even known that the mission was taking place, but before she could get off the radio, he asked her to visit with him. She always wanted to be supportive, so she agreed right away. Being new here was hard enough… finding out about the accident and being new could be overwhelming to anyone.
When she arrived at the usual meeting spot outside of the bank, she saw that Leonard had already taken a seat. She took her place and offered him a smile. “How are you feeling today, Leonard?”
“Just call me Leo.”
“Okay then, Leo. How are you doing?”
Leo turned to look her in the eyes. He stared at her for a moment and then he started to shake his head, like she had let him down.
“What?” she asked.
“You know, this facade you all play at, it’s impressive.”
“You calling to check in on me about some explorer mission,” he said flippantly. “Like I might feel scared or concerned or whatever. This whole place is absurd.”
Samantha was about to lose it. This man dared to meet with her so that he could challenge their whole society? If anything was absurd, it was him. Before opening her mouth to say as much, she caught herself, and took a deep breath to regain her calm.
“Okay,” she said. “Let me ask you a question.”
“Sure,” Leo replied. “Shoot.”
“What would you do differently?”
Samantha liked to ask this question to all of the doubters that arrived. It was true the town might have its flaws, and perhaps required a bit of suspension of disbelief for all the pieces to mesh, but it worked. Once confronted with this reality, some people grumbled or mumbled, but they saw the truth.
Except, that’s not what happened with Leo.
“You know,” he started, “I reckon I’d try to take control. Not a mayor or benevolent leader, but full on ruler… like an Emperor or something. I’d abuse my power substantially, as long as I could, and when everyone finally revolted against me I would watch them burn me with pride in my eyes. I’d go down as a revered figure of history rather than some loser on a bench.”
Samantha didn’t know how to respond.
In all of the time since her arrival she had never heard more vitriol or dangerous dialogue come from the mouth of a single citizen. To simply be seated at the same bench as this man was terrifying… exhilarating… inspiring.
“So, tell me, she said, pretending not to be impressed. “Have you discovered your skill?”
Leo chuckled. “I thought you might never ask. I was worried I’d have to keep it.”
He lifted his left hand and revealed a large bill, a bill just like the one she had in her pocket. She gasped as she checked to find it missing.
A genuine feeling of awe passed over her. She reached across and took it back from him. She had set it down on her left side when they had taken a seat. He would have had to have moved like lightning to take it without her knowing.
That was a skill, indeed.
“How did you discover this talent?” she asked.
“It started with a hot dog, if you can believe it. Just swiped a few bucks from the tip jar to pay for my own food. It was so natural, like I’d done it a million times before.”
“Well, I think it’s safe to say you’re the only thief in these parts.”
“Aw, shucks,” Leonard replied. “You flatter me.”
“I should report you to the mayor,” she added.
Leo frowned. “Ah, come on now, Samantha. I thought we had some kind of patient and doctor confidentiality or something?”
“We do,” Samantha replied. “Though I’m not an actual therapist, so I don’t think that means much anyway.”
“Look,” Leo said, looking a little concerned. “I’m not a big fan of a public trial or any of that. I stole some hot dogs and candy bars. I’m just a fan of a little chaos. I’m not your big town crook or anything.”
A dark idea took root in Samantha’s heart.
She gave Leo a wicked smile. “Do you want to be?”
Leo raised a brow. “What’s that?”
“You want power?” she asked. “I wouldn’t mind some of my own. What do you say?”
“I say I’m interested,” Leo replied. “You got any ideas in particular?”
“How would you like to become the wealthiest person in the entire town?”
“I’m on board,” Leo said, scooting closer to her. “How do we make it happen?”
Samantha stood and took a few steps around the corner. He followed her and when she gestured casually to a nearby door, Leonard understood. “The bank?”
“Patience,” she told him. “I have things to arrange, but if you’re as good at burglary as you have made yourself out to be, then I think I have a plan that will put you and I on top of this brave new world.”
“You sure you want to risk burning it all down with me?” he pressed. “Someone proper like you?”
“My friend, if you deliver on your end, I’ll bring the matches.”
Leonard Calgray wandered off a few minutes later.
Samantha had to slow her heart and regain her composure. She had never met someone like him before, and his ideas had sparked something deep within her. She wanted what he wanted. A freedom from fear. A desire for power. She knew it; she had known it all along. That’s why she had saddled herself with Rayland Walsh in the first place. She had expected him to carry her to the top, but he had failed her, and now he seemed sympathetic to Olivia Sun.
Rayland was no longer useful to her.
Now she was going to run the show and Leonard would be the instrument to her success… in time.
Right now, she had a job to do. She had pieces to put in place, people to manipulate.
And she knew right where to start.
She picked up her radio and sent her signal to her next caller.
He answered on her second attempt.
“Hello? Samantha?” Bryan Steeles answered. “What’s up?”
“Oh Bryan, it’s just terrible,” she said, feigning her emotions. “I know you have been following the explorer missions and this had to hurt. Do you want to talk about it?”
“I wouldn’t want to intrude on your schedule,” he said.
“You could never,” she replied. “I’m always here for you.”
“Well, if that’s the case, I could use a shoulder to lean on.”
“I thought so, dear. Come on down and talk to me. I’m at the bench already.”
Bryan agreed and ended the transmission.
She had always tried to keep Bryan in her pocket. The key to gaining power in town now revolved around the official currency used by the community. The only source for that currency was the town’s bank. Bryan Steeles was the only soul with access to the vault where the money was stored.
Soon enough, that money would be hers.
In Mission Control, the data review continued unabated.
Most of the engineers had dark circles under their eyes and at least one has surrendered to the call of sleep. A few of the others had managed to survive on coffee, but that was soon running dry and without unlocking the doors, their supply would be exhausted.
“Anything new?” Olivia asked as she made the rounds to each station. She had just reached flight control and both of them were leaning back with pens shoved in their mouths.
“It’s conclusive,” Engineer Maxwell reported. “The equipment didn’t fail. The atmospheric conditions didn’t change, and the pilot was right on track with planned trajectory. This was an external impact on Explorer One. It had enough velocity to shear of the left wing, which is why all the systems failed.”
“This also explains the communication drop out and the debris found by Ruby Rose,” the second, Aeronautical Engineer Robert Silva, added.
“Seems reasonable,” Olivia said, biting at her thumbnail. “So where is Explorer One?”
“That all depends on Flynn Brickshelm,” Robert answered.
“Thank you for your work, gentlemen.”
She stepped away from them and over to the communications station. “Any word from our search team at the Grid?”
“They said nothing showed up on their proximity alerts. They are doing a ground team search, but honestly, no signs of Explorer One.”
“Any word from the helicopter team yet?”
“Negative,” the engineer replied, trying not to sound concerned.
A new problem was developing for the team. The helicopter usually took up to six hours to traverse the Core, pick up new arrivals, and return to town. It had nearly been twelve hours since they had departed for this latest mission. There was still nothing. She had no time to worry yet. If they hadn’t returned in the next day, she would add them to the crisis list.
“What about the new vehicle Ruby is working on?” she asked. “Has Ruby finished that?”
“No, we’re not expecting that to be flight ready for some time.”
She closed her eyes for a moment, and then decided her team had suffered enough.
“Okay everyone,” she said aloud as she moved back to her own station. “I’m taking the building off lockdown. We have the report on what happened and we are exhausting all opportunities to find our missing vessel. While we wait for those leads to develop, I encourage everyone to head home, get some rest, and if needed, reach out to Samantha for someone to discuss this with from an emotional angle.”
No one said anything. They all just started to stand and shuffle out.
They had been through a lot, and honestly, it could still get much worse.
Olivia forced those negative thoughts to the back of her mind and took a seat at her station to start researching possible trajectories of the Explorer One once it had lost its wing.
She needed to know where it had gone.
Rayland watched from his office window as Olivia’s engineers and explorer team finally poured out of Mission Command. They looked exhausted, but they still held one another or patted each other on the back as they separated and headed to their own homes for rest.
By tomorrow, most of the people in town would be talking about the failed mission. They would likely be scared, no doubt worried about what the future held. What would come from all of this? Could they trust the leadership?
He knew he was going to need to temper the emotional responses of the citizens.
In short, they were going to need some good news.
Earlier, sitting at his desk, he had reviewed the blueprint from William Everett. The plans for the diner that Rayland had shot down before. The townspeople no doubt wanted something new and fresh. He contemplated it for a few moments, then he snatched up the roll and decided to call William.
Explorer One had enabled people to reach beyond town. It had given them the comfort to stretch their legs, go for a drive, and start to build homes around the lower levels… out on the Frontier as they liked to call it.
That was how he would turn this into a positive event.
He could show his commitment to the Frontier.
He sent his two beeps to William and waited for the young man to answer.
“This is William Everett. What can I do for you, Rayland?”
“Your diner,” Rayland said bluntly. “Do you still want it?”
“Uh, I do, but is it the right time, considering what I’m hearing right now?”
“More now than ever,” Rayland said. “We’ll announce soon.”
“Are you sure?”
Rayland was certain. “Come on down to the Town Hall tomorrow and we’ll talk through it. This is going to be a big thing for everyone, William. Not just you or me. Everyone.”