Olivia, Ruby, John, and Caleb were standing in the doctor’s office.
In front of them, resting in a chair, was the pilot from the crashed ship.
He had been revived less than an hour ago, and had been drinking water nonstop ever since. He didn’t seem bothered by their presence and offered up no information about who he was or from where he came. His only statement so far was to declare that he had the mother of all headaches.
Rayland had been called as well, but he had yet to show up.
“Alright, I think we’ve had enough,” Olivia finally said after the pilot downed his fifth glass of water. “We have questions. We need answers.”
The pilot looked at her and gave a smirk. “Answers. From me?”
“Yes, from you.”
The man sat up straight, but then lifted his hand to his head and grimaced.
“Now this… this is a bad headache,” he said, his voice shockingly casual for his situation. “I’ve had some bad ones, ya know, but I can feel my brain right now.”
“We’re not playing games,” Olivia said, her voice rising. “I have people that are in danger and you might—”
“People are always in danger,” the man replied. “You should know that. What’s your name? Are you the leader down here?”
Olivia looked like she could kill with her stare. “You are not in the position—”
“Alright, calm down! My name is Ronin,” he said, cutting her off again. “We’re not adversaries, you and I, so we don’t need to start this relationship pretending that we are.”
“I have my doubts about that,” Olivia replied.
“Why?” he asked.
“We can start with the missile attached to your ship.”
“Ah, that. Right.”
“You shot down our ship. Why?”
“First of all, no,” Ronin said. “I didn’t shoot your ship down. I collided with it midair. That’s the reason I crashed.”
“You hit Explorer One?” Ruby asked.
“Big white shuttle? Yeah,” he replied. “Not intentionally. I tried to veer, but it happened too fast. Did your friends in the other ship survive our little… impact?”
“We don’t know,” Olivia answered. “They went missing.”
“The ship never crashed here,” Ruby explained. “We think they made it to the upper levels.”
“Oh no,” Ronin said. “That’s not good.”
“Why?” Olivia asked.
“Hard to explain,” he answered. “Lots of stuff. None of it is good. Tell me, do you have my ship? I call it the Sprinter.”
“Good. Where is it?”
“That’s unimportant,” Rayland Walsh said, stepping through the doctor’s office door and having clearly heard the question. “What matters is that it’s safe.”
“Yeah well, that means you might not be safe. Did you find a crystal with the ship?”
“Yes,” Rayland replied, taking control of the conversation. “We assumed it to be a power crystal of some sort. It was damaged, so there’s no power left.”
Ronin nodded. “Sure sure. Okay. So, please tell me you fools didn’t bring an unstable power crystal back to your home. You didn’t do that. Right?”
“We did that,” Ruby mumbled.
“Of course you did,” the pilot said, wiping his face with his hands. “Alright. That’s fine. They haven’t come here yet, so it’s just a blip on the radar to them. Okay, new plan. We charge up the unstable crystal and I’ll zip right on out of your hair. Should be able to lure back anyone that might be looking for me too.”
John tilted his head. “We already said the crystal was damaged.”
“A crack means the energy leaks out, but it doesn’t mean it can’t hold a charge long enough to get the Sprinter back to the upper levels. If we move fast I can be gone before anything else bad comes your way.”
“No,” Olivia said. “I can’t let you go without—”
“If I don’t leave, you’re going to have bigger problems than you can possibly imagine.”
Olivia didn’t seem interested in Ronin anymore. She turned to John. “Go and tell the engineers at Mission Control to move the crystal to the Grid for now.”
“No no,” Ronin said. “That’s not what you should do!”
“I’ll take care of it,” John replied. “Ruby and I… uh… where’s Ruby?”
Olivia spun around the room and saw that Ruby was gone.
“She left a minute ago,” Rayland said, pointing to the door. “Right after he said the bit about charging up the crystal.”
Olivia frowned. “Oh no.”
On the roof of Mission Control, Ruby quickly pulled the power crystal from inside the small yellow ship and placed it near the battery packs. She heard what the pilot had said about the power. She could transfer energy from the batteries to the crystal and use that to power the ship. The batteries were already up here, so she just needed to use plain old jumper cables to send the energy from the battery to the crystal.
It would be just like jumping a car.
She looked up and saw John rushing toward her.
“Don’t do it!” he yelled. “The pilot said—”
“He said it can go to the upper levels and back,” she shouted. “That means we can help our friends. We have to do this, John.”
She didn’t wait for his response. She slammed the red power button and sparks started to fly from the batteries, causing her and John to shield themselves. There was a loud ringing in the air, similar to the sound a champagne glass makes when someone runs a wet finger around the rim. It echoed in the air for a moment, and then it faded away just as quickly as it had come.
The crystal, which had started to glow for a moment, returned to its normal appearance.
“No!” she yelled. “Why didn’t it work?”
Just then, a few engineers burst through the door behind John. Olivia stepped through with them and gestured toward the crystal on the ground. One of the engineers rushed over and wrapped the crystal up before carrying it back inside.
“We’re taking this to the Grid once the helicopter gets here,” she announced. “Ruby, we’ll talk about your actions later.”
After the small detour, Rayland had Caleb bring the pilot to the town hall, where he and the others could continue their conversation from before. When they had taken their seats, it was clear to see that Rayland was the most frustrated with Ruby’s actions.
“I assume the girl will be properly disciplined?” he asked.
“We’ll sort it out in time,” Olivia said. “Now, can we get back to the main question?”
“Right,” Ronin spoke up, currently sitting next to Caleb. “The question was how fast you need to leave. The answer is, of course, that it is far too late.”
“Stop joking around,” Olivia snapped.
“Not joking,” Ronin replied. “Listen, the power crystals give off a unique energy reading. It isn’t hard to track. Once they find it, they’re coming for it. We are all in grave danger. Do you have any weapons in this town?”
“Your crystal didn’t work,” Olivia said.
Ronin frowned. “Are you just not listening?”
As Olivia and Rowan continued to argue, John leaned against the wall of the town hall and closed his eyes for a moment, trying to think of how he was going to help Ruby. As he rested his head, however, he felt a subtle vibration that gave him pause. He ignored it at first, but it continued to get stronger, deeper, until he finally realized that the building was almost shaking. He turned around, curious if they were experiencing an earthquake, and peeked outside.
What he saw coming toward them was enough to blow his mind.
“Uh, guys,” he stammered. “You should see this.”
When someone arrived from the Core, their first view of the town’s main street was a great normalizer. They could take comfort in the small trees that grew along the sidewalk, the grates that covered the storm drains, and the little benches that were always available. If someone wanted to, they could easily forget about the fact that this town was not normal.
Everything about the town begged for normalcy.
All of which only made the approaching vessel in the air more ominous.
As panicked citizens watched, the massive vehicle slowed its approach, hovering just high enough to see the rooftops of all the buildings. It glided right down the main road, slowly approaching the town hall. It was black and red, with a colored glass front that had eyes and teeth painted on it, a face that gave the whole thing a shark-like appearance. At the rear were several spinning engines that helped push it forward while large repulsors hummed beneath the hull to keep it afloat.
People started to flee in every direction. Some of them rushed into nearby buildings, looking to hide from the machine. Others stood frozen in place, allowing the ship to float right over their heads as it continued down the road.
It reached the junction where the town hall stood and slowed to a halt.
By now, everyone inside of the town hall had made their way to the front entrance of the building where the ship had arrived. Olivia took the lead of the group, though Rayland was right there with her. At the doorway, Samantha and John stayed. Behind them, Rowan made sure to remain completely out of sight.
For a moment, nothing happened. They stood there, looking up at the craft, and then it began to lower to the ground. The repulsors began to quiet, while the propellers at the back of the ship stopped spinning.
It set down on the road with barely a sound.
Then, there was the familiar hiss of hydraulics, and the front cockpit began to lift open…