“They say time changes all things…”
Jonathan Davis read over the first line, read over it again, and then grumbled to himself as he crumpled the paper and tossed it aside. He needed to send out a newsletter to the people. They were expecting to hear from him, particularly in these strange days, but he didn’t even know where to begin.
The mind can only take so much… that’s what he figured.
Arriving here from the Core was a mysterious and complex experience for any citizen. The physical side of it, where you woke up in a white room, and the mental side of it, where you realized that you had no memories of the past. A fresh arrival would scoff at the very idea of living a normal life in this absurdity, and yet, almost every single citizen had done just that.
Things were normal here.
People drank coffee at Oliver’s restaurant. They visited friends and talked about the weather. Some people were even starting families. Despite the madness of their reality, this town, and all those that lived here, had carved out a pleasant existence.
That was the problem.
Over time, their vision had blurred at the edges. They had ignored the mystery. But now this reality was serving up too many mysteries for one little town to handle.
First, a family showed up from the Core. That’s where most of the citizens were saying it all went wrong. William and Amy Everett and their little girl Elizabeth. They too had no memories, but they were family. They had a bond that no one else here shared.
That was the first taste of trouble.
The loss of Explorer One was difficult to process next. No one in town had experienced a loss since arriving here. Everyone had lived blissfully ignorant of the notion that lives might someday vanish.
Then, the arrival of April, a pregnant citizen about to have a baby.
It had been a blessing and a curse.
Everyone in town was exposed to the miracle of new life, but the newborn’s arrival also shook the very foundation of what the town had come to know.
So far, every citizen, even the Everett family, had a name when they arrived.
April’s daughter did not.
Right on the heels of this reality-altering experience, however, came the worst possible event. A mysterious man named Thresher showed up in town with a flying ship more advanced than anything any citizen had ever seen.
The veil of normal life was instantly ripped away.
They were all immediately reminded of the truth.
This life wasn’t normal.
In the days that followed, everyone was in a trance. What could possibly be done to help them process all of this new information? It was insane to think that the citizens could get past this… that they could move on with pretending life was normal.
But, then the days turned to weeks, and no more threats came to town.
No more danger loomed overhead.
No more mysteries jumped out to surprise the township.
At least, on the surface, things were returning to normal. There were plenty of things in motion behind the scenes… decisions being made and authority being exercised, but most citizens did not see any of that. Honestly, Jonathan had no desire to look behind that curtain. Right now, the people needed something good to think about.
That good thing was the town’s very first naming ceremony.
Outside of Town Hall, Olivia and Rayland stood with April in front of them, her infant child cradled in her arms as she smiled at them both.
“Have you decided on the name?” Rayland asked, a pleasant grin on his face.
“I have,” she replied. “We will call her… Dawn.”
“A new dawn for us all,” Rayland said, contemplating the choice. “I admire it.”
“Most people will be here to hear the name announced,” Olivia said. “They need any distraction we can give them, so we thank you for volunteering to let us make this… a spectacle.”
“I’m glad to help,” April said. “I’m sure Dawn will be proud of this day too.”
“The first to be named,” Rayland said proudly. “A title no one else will ever hold.”
April looked down at her child and Olivia was pleased with the joy that the two seemed to share with one another. She looked to Rayland and her own joy immediately evaporated. Walking up to them was Leonard Calgray, a man that Olivia had quickly learned to dislike with a passion.
“Is security in place?” Rayland asked Leonard, noticing and ignoring Olivia’s disgruntled look. “This will be our first big public event since the visit.”
“Oh, sure. I’ve got my people on the lookout. Rooftop scoping and all that. The town militia won’t let you down, Mayor Walsh.”
The town militia, as Leonard called it, was no more than a bunch of militant goons, as far as Olivia was concerned. They’d formed up after Thresher’s visit and swore to protect the citizens of town no matter the cost. Leonard had become their de facto leader and helped organize them into a mostly coherent organization. Still, Olivia wasn’t convinced of their value to this society. Clearly detecting her lack of interest, Rayland and Leonard stepped away to speak.
“How many do we have on lookout?” Rayland asked. “I want maximum visibility in case we need to retreat.”
“Just my two best,” Leonard said, gesturing toward the top of a nearby building. “We have it all sorted out.
“Can they avoid looking so prominent? Rayland asked. “It might put people at unease having them look down like that.”
“Nonsense. They’ll feel safer knowing we have a system in place.”
“Or scared that the system is needed.”
“The system is needed,” Leonard countered. “You saw that ship, Rayland.”
“Thresher also said he was not a threat and gave us back one of our people.”
“So you trust the hook-handed captain?”
The mayor frowned. “No, but I saw his arsenal. Our militia won’t—”
“Peace of mind,” Leonard said, cutting him off. “That’s what we need.”
“You’re the militiaman,” Rayland said, signaling defeat.
“Thank you. Now, speaking of all that stuff. What about the prisoner?”
Rayland shrugged. “Still not talking.”
“And his spaceship?”
“So, nothing more to do for now. I’m sure he’ll talk soon enough.”
When Olivia noticed Rayland stepping away from Leonard, she moved to intercept him. She had been trying to pin him down for a moment for a while now and he’d always come up with an excuse. She knew his schedule today. She would talk to him without an easy escape.
“Rayland,” she said calmly as she intercepted his path. “Now is a great time for us to talk about Explorer Two.”
Rayland gave a long and heavy sigh. “We have already talked about this. No new missions are authorized. I won’t allow it.”
“You and I both know the risks here,” Olivia said quietly. “David Nash is still alive up there, but if that changes you’re going to have more questions from the citizens and they are already on edge.”
“If that changes, we already have a contingency in place. Do we not?”
“We do,” she admitted. “An untested plan.”
“Meanwhile, if we send another ship up there on a rescue mission, we run the risk of triggering multiple scenarios that we cannot control. We could lose the rescue team, we could aggravate Thresher and provoke his return, or we could end up with another failed mission and nothing to show for it. None of those work out well for the town.”
“We owe it to David to get him home,” Olivia said firmly.
“You’re letting your emotional attachment to David override better judgement,” Rayland replied. “Listen, I get it. He was an important person to you, but it’s been weeks since the Explorer One mission went down and all signs point to David being alive somewhere. Hopefully, it remains that way. Right now I cannot allow us to risk our safety for a potentially suicidal rescue mission. That’s the end of the discussion.”
“For now,” Olivia said. “I’m not done making my case.”
“For now, then,” Rayland said, rubbing his eyes.
Before Olivia could say anything else, Rayland heard his name being called and turned to see Katherine Willow coming his way. She was the owner of Willow Creek Farms and due to her knowledge of everything that went down after the Explorer One mission, she considered herself one of the important citizens now. Whenever she came to town she tried to rub shoulders with the Main Six. Most of them had no issue. Doctor Caleb had taken a liking to her in particular, but Rayland found her voice to be irritating and her continual banter to be unnecessary.
“How’s our Mayor doing these days?” she asked as she reached his side. “Working hard?”
“I like to think so,” he replied. “Of course, I’m…” his voice trailed off as he looked for Olivia and realized she had already fled the scene, leaving him with no escape. “What can I do for you?” he asked as she surrendered to her.
“Your little goon squad has set up a checkpoint at the town’s edge,” Katherine said, her pleasant misdemeanor dropping instantly. “At first it was a cute little annoyance, but now your Leonard friend is confiscating some of my goods and keeping them for himself. I’m not a fan of that kind of behavior, Mr. Mayor.”
“Of course not, who would be?”
“So, do you have some kind of leash on your thugs, or do they get free run of the place?”
“Excuse me?” Rayland asked, clearly offended. “They’re not thugs.”
“They’re not angels,” Katherine countered. “You need to make it stop, Rayland.”
“He’s just trying to keep everyone safe. The militia—”
“Get it in check, Walsh, or I’m going to set up my own farmer’s market outside of town and everyone is going to have to come to me for their food. Is that what you want?”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“He isn’t just swiping an ear of corn here or there, Rayland. He took an entire crate. It impacted Oliver’s menu and you and I both know he sold that stuff on his own little black market.”
“Fine,” Rayland said, his voice hushed. “I’ll admit that Leonard has been a bit excessive in his use of power as the militia leader. I will get everything sorted out as soon as we are done with the naming ceremony today.”
“So, no more stolen goods?”
“I promise,” Rayland assured her. “No more.”
“Alright then,” she said. “I’ll put this behind me. For now.”
“I thank you immensely,” Rayland said, suppressing his sarcasm.
The naming ceremony was lethargic for many people, Olivia included. Since the very first day that she had arrived from the Core, a rule had been set in motion. You wake with a name, you write it down, and that is your name forever more. No one had questioned it, no one had cared, but it was a law written in stone that could not be undone.
Dawn, the first to be named, had escaped that law.
There would be more to come, more babies and new names.
Someday the Core would no longer be the source of the citizen population. It would be the hospital, with Nima Patel and Caleb Vann leading the way.
As little Dawn was held up for the audience to wave and cheer on one more time, Olivia slipped away and started back to Mission Control. She knew and understood everything that Rayland had said. In a way, she believed the very same things that he believed. The threats and dangers that lurked in the upper levels were more real now than ever before. While the one named Thresher had promised to leave them be, she knew that returning to the upper levels could potentially break that promise. It was logical, for the town’s safety, to ignore the upper levels and to leave David Nash as MIA for as long as he lived.
Still, she couldn’t bring herself to do it.
She couldn’t leave him behind.
She would never leave anyone behind.
As she stepped into Mission Control she saw Ruby Rose standing near the doorway with a look of expectation. When Olivia got close to her she waited for the young woman to speak up.
“Well?” Ruby asked. “What’s the verdict?”
“We keep working on Explorer Two,” Olivia said, handing the project sheet to Ruby as she walked. “We keep working… in secret.”