Olivia and Rayland stood in front of Town Hall.
In front of them was a massive and, honestly, rather sinister-looking vehicle. The cockpit, painted with eyes and a mouth, had opened to reveal a figure. This new arrival stood, leapt from the side of the vehicle, and landed in the street.
It was a male, from the looks of it, wearing a black suit with a yellow belt and some kind of insignia emblazoned upon the chest. He reached his right hand over to adjust a hook that had clearly replaced his left hand.
That wasn’t his only physical alteration, either. His face had a scar that ran over one of his eyes and his hair was tousled and unkempt. He leaned to the right slightly, then back to the left, and took a casual step toward the others.
“Greetings,” he said, his voice gruff and worn. “I come in peace.”
“Hello,” Rayland said, stepping ahead of Olivia. “My name is Rayland Walsh. I’m the mayor of this town. You must excuse our tense appearance. We haven’t seen anything quite… uh… like your ship before.”
“Ah, this little thing?” the gruff man asked, looking to the vehicle. “This ol’ girl has been around a long time. Though, not around these parts, I admit.”
“Speaking on that,” Rayland asked. “What brings you to our humble home?”
“Straight to the point,” the man said. “I can appreciate that. Well, there are two things really. The first is to retrieve something that belongs to us. We have been looking for it for a while now and thankfully, we’ve finally found it.”
“Something of yours is here?” Rayland questioned. “I don’t think—”
“The second objective,” the man continued, his voice a little more firm than before, “is to return that which we believe belongs to you.”
Olivia stepped next to Rayland. “You have something of ours?”
“Someone more like it,” the man said as he turned toward the back of the vessel and let out a loud whistle. A side door opened and Olivia felt a flood of relief. A second man emerged, pulling a third. The third wore the familiar flight suit they used for Explorer One.
A moment later, that relief turned to concern.
The survivor’s head was covered and their hands were bound.
“What’s the meaning of this?” she asked.
“The restraints were just for our safety,” the man added. He lifted his hook and the second individual pulled the bag off to reveal Flynn Brickshelm. They then cut the restraints and nudged him forward toward Olivia.
“He was wounded when we found him,” the man added. “We patched him up. You’ll want to have your doctor look at the leg, though. We’re not exactly experts.”
Olivia waited for Flynn to reach her and then helped him get his footing. It was clear that he was still struggling to stand on his wounded leg.
“We thought the poor boy might want to come on back home,” the man continued. “He wouldn’t tell us where he was from, which made the task a bit more difficult, but then we picked up the signal of our power crystal, so we decided to follow it. I assume you know that it led us right here… well, a little to the right.” He looked to the front of Mission Control and Olivia knew that there would be no lying to these people.
“We’re thankful that you returned Flynn to us,” she said, staying honest. “We did find the crystal you’re talking about. It appeared to have powered a small ship, one that collided with our own vessel and caused it to crash.”
“The crash that we fished your friend from?” the man surmised.
“Well, the crystal was stolen from us,” he explained. “A bad man that injured quite of a few of my people in his act of thievery. You didn’t happen to find him in the crashed ship?”
Olivia reconsidered. One little lie might not hurt.
“We found a pilot,” she answered. “It was… quite grizzly. He didn’t survive.”
“Now that’s a shame,” he replied. “Of course, that’s a lesson to be learned. It’s a dangerous world out there. People get their due in the end. All that being said, of course, we’ll take that crystal and be out of your hair right away.”
“I’m certain we can get it for you,” Rayland said. “Right, Olivia?”
Olivia shook her head.
The man in black frowned. Rayland looked shocked.
“We appreciate your kindness,” Olivia started, “but that crystal and the small ship that it powers are our only way to reach the upper levels. We have someone up there still and we need to find them.”
“Really?” the man in black asked, looking to Flynn. “There was a second one of you up there? If your man had let me know, I would have looked for him before coming all the way down here.”
“He was being safe,” Olivia said. “As you said, it’s a dangerous world.”
The man smiled. It was a lazy smile, like he was both mildly amused and annoyed by the situation. “Listen, I’m not without compassion here, but those crystals are pretty crucial to our continued operations. I’m going to have to insist you return it to me right away. I promise you that we’ll find your missing person, if they are alive, and I’ll bring them to you safe and sound just like I did with the first one.”
Olivia glanced at Rayland and saw that he was losing his mind. It was clear that she should give them what they wanted, but she wasn’t ready to surrender. “I just want to be sure—”
“Lady,” the man in black said now, as his friend stepped over to join him. “I’m not really asking, if you get my meaning…”
Olivia thought of what Ronin asked her earlier.
He had inquired about weapons, which was something that the town did not have. The man in black that had escorted Flynn out, however, was holding a combat knife, and it appeared the large vehicle might be armed with some kind of speargun.
She did get his meaning.
“Of course,” she said aloud. “We’ll get the crystal right away.”
The man in black appeared to relax. “That’s wonderful news.”
She used her radio to call Mission Control and had the engineers bring the crystal. They sent one individual, who nervously brought the crystal out to them in the street.
“Okay,” she said, turning to the man in black. “Here you are.”
The man in black waved his hook forward. The second individual stepped over and pulled an orange container from the vehicle, then brought it over to where they were standing.
“Just set it in there,” he said, gesturing to the box.
The engineer nodded and stepped over, placing the crystal within.
“Wonderful,” the man in black said. “Now, with all that business concluded, I’m afraid we must be on our way. We have many things that require our attention, so we’re always on the move.”
“We completely understand,” Rayland chimed in. “You must keep moving.”
“I’ll find your person,” the man added. “When I do, I’ll make sure I get him right back to this lovely place… unharmed.”
“We’re grateful for your kindness,” Rayland said.
“What’s the fellow’s name?”
“David Nash,” Olivia said.
“David,” the man in black echoed. “Good to know.”
He started to climb back into the cockpit, but stopped for a moment and looked past Rayland to Olivia. “I don’t reckon I need to worry about you crashing anymore of your ships in the upper levels?”
“No,” she said honestly. “You don’t.”
“That’s what I like to hear. You all stay safe, now.”
As the man in black disappeared inside the vessel, the repulsors began to hum and the street began to rattle as the ship’s power amplified, lifting it from the ground. It turned slowly, just missing both Mission Control and the bank, before it slowly crawled back down main street, clearly lingering to let the citizens get a good look.
Then, it began to accelerate forward, away from town, until it had shrunk to the size of a speck on the horizon.
There was silence in town. No one dared to move.
It lasted for several minutes before someone finally gave in.
They rushed out into the street, and many started straight toward Town Hall.
Rayland looked to Olivia and she frowned. “I suppose it’s time to address this.”
At the front entrance of the town hall, Rayland Walsh took his place overlooking the citizens of his town. All of them were gathered here in fear and panic from the events that had just unfolded. They hadn’t been expecting any of this, which made the whole thing so much harder to address. He didn’t even know where to begin, but he knew that these people were looking to him to make things right.
“Citizens,” he said aloud. “I want everyone to take a deep breath. I understand what you saw today was difficult to understand. Believe me, we’re all in the same boat. Thankfully, I can tell you that the situation that unfolded today has ended with positive results. Flynn Brickshelm has been returned to us by a group of people that we had not yet had the honor to meet.”
There was murmuring in the crowd and an uneasy shift in stance from several attendees.
“I understand this is big news. I won’t deny it. Our horizons are expanding and each day we’re learning new things about the place that we call home. Last week we didn’t know there were others out there, and this week we do. Long ago, when it was only the main six, we did not know that this ship had a town. Then, we did. Our paradigm has shifted before, and it must shift again in light of new developments. Obviously, there will be changes. There will be things that we must all adapt to as we begin to pivot our attention to this new world, but we must also not lose hope or fear that all is lost. We have adapted before. We will adapt again.”
Olivia stepped up now and Rayland stood back, appearing grateful for her appearance.
“The mayor is right,” she said loudly. “We began our exploration missions for this very reason. To seek out and discover the secrets that this massive ship has to offer. Today we learned a secret that will change everything. In the days, months, and years to come, that knowledge will alter how we live, but it will not stop us from living.”
If the pair had been expecting applause, they were disappointed.
John stepped out, replacing them on the steps, and he looked out at the throngs of people that had gathered in the aftermath of today’s event.
“What those two forgot to add,” he said, “is that I am going to be here every step of the way. From now on, the newsletter will be here to keep you apprised, not just of what’s going on, but what we’re planning to accomplish, with explanations about everything we learn along the way. I know I’ve been absent since the Explorer One incident. I know that many of you felt left out by everything that has happened. I understand. We all do. It won’t happen again. So, for tonight, go home. Cook dinner. Continue on as you have since you arrived here. You are safe. We will protect you.”
There was a long time after John had spoken where the citizens lingered around Town Hall as though they thought the mayor might return to speak to them again. Soon enough, though, they realized the inspirational speeches were over. By the time the sun set, the streets were clear once more.
No one in town slept comfortably that night… nor would they for many nights after that.
Change had come.