Olivia Sun adjusted her position atop a seat she had crafted from the piles of money in the bank vault. The large safe had been her prison for a few days now and, so far, the only thing she had determined was that poor Bryan Steeles was worse off for it.
“Do either of you need another bathroom break?” he called to them from the bank’s lobby.
“Not me,” she replied, glancing to her cellmate. “What about you?”
The black haired man, Ronin, shook his head lazily. “Nope. I’m good.”
“Great,” Bryan’s voice echoed. “Well, let me know when you do. Try to line it up for me though, it’s not great fun having to take you in turns.”
“Our apologies,” Olivia said sarcastically. “We do hate to inconvenience you.”
Bryan grumbled in the distance, but she couldn’t hear what he was saying.
She felt a little guilty. It wasn’t his fault she had decided to go against Rayland. Now he was stuck babysitting her on top of the pilot that had crashed here not so terribly long ago.
“You know,” Ronin spoke up, as if he knew she had thought of him. “I’m still curious to hear how you ended up in here with me. Last I saw, you were one of the top dogs.”
She cracked a smile. “I stole a helicopter.”
Ronin gave her a nod, looking impressed. “You probably should have flown away in it?”
“A fair critique. Next time I’ll think it through.”
There was silence for a moment, then Ronin shifted.
“What has you stealing heavy machinery?” he asked.
Before she could answer, the heavy vault door of the bank started to swing open. Standing on the other side was none other than Rayland Walsh. He looked different, like some of his age lines had retreated to reveal a more youthful face beneath. He seemed both more alive, and more angry.
“She stole a helicopter,” Rayland started, answering Ronin’s question as he stood there looking at the pair, “because she is following an altruistic, but misguided, goal of rescuing one of her explorers.”
“It’s not misguided,” Olivia replied. “You know more than anyone else. The last time this happened, we promised ourselves it wouldn’t happen again.”
“Comparing the loss of David Nash to the Icarus incident is a bit of a stretch,” Rayland countered. “It has been some time since David went missing and he has yet to—”
“He is in danger up there,” she interrupted. “You want me to abandon him. Just because you’re comfortable with the idea that you won’t have to look him in the face again doesn’t make it any different. Dead or not. We’re leaving him behind.”
“Excuse me,” Ronin asked, taking advantage of the short pause. “Who did you abandon?”
“You’re not part of this conversation,” Rayland replied dismissively.
“Rayland,” Olivia continued, ignoring Ronin as well. “The rescue mission will happen. Putting me in here hasn’t changed that.”
“Actually, that’s why I’m here,” Rayland said with a slight smirk. “It appears I may have a way to stop it after all, thanks to you. I am confident it won’t come to that, because once you understand the situation you will also realize you have no choice here.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Your team of explorers procured a weapon while investigating the crash site at Willow Creek Farms. It was determined to be a missile, with an operational explosive warhead.”
Both Ronin and Olivia’s eyes went wide.
“Are you suggesting you would shoot down Explorer Two?” Olivia questioned.
“I will do whatever I must to protect my citizens. Thresher represents a very real danger to our town. He gave us clear instructions not to return to the Upper Levels, and I will keep my word.”
“By shooting down Explorer Two?”
“I would hope it will not come to that. Unfortunately, their safety isn’t in my hands,” Rayland explained, angrily. “This is on you now. You can stop all of this nonsense. Call off your people in the Grid and we can have a peaceful conclusion, right now. I’m not the bad guy here, Olivia.”
“I’ll need time to consider this… offer.”
Rayland furrowed his brow, but then nodded ever so slightly. “Please, for all of our sakes, don’t take too long.”
When Rayland had vanished back the way he came, Bryan closed the door most of the way and left the two prisoners in peace.
“You know he’s right,” Ronin quickly spoke up.
“What do you think happens when your ship flies to the Upper Levels?”
“We locate David Nash and return home. No one has to know.”
“Thresher will know,” Ronin said flatly.
“He’s a threat then, this Thresher?”
“It’s… complicated. Have I mentioned you look shockingly familiar to someone I once knew?”
“Don’t change the topic.”
“Topic?” Ronin asked. “You mean Thresher? Like I said… complicated.”
“What’s complicated is you bringing missiles down here,” Olivia snapped angrily.
“Are you changing the subject?” Ronin asked sarcastically.
“Did you shoot down Explorer One?”
Ronin’s smiled vanished. Olivia expected him to clam up, but instead, Ronin nodded slightly and said, “I considered it.”
“Why?” she asked.
Ronin closed his eyes for a moment and then nodded, seemingly more to himself than to her. “Your ship had come close to the Upper Levels before. I knew it wouldn’t end well if you made it all the way up. Thresher hadn’t noticed yet, or at least I didn’t think he had. Regardless, you were a threat to everything I have established up there, and you were in danger of exposing yourself to Thresher. So yeah, when I was out there that day… when I saw your ship heading straight for us… I considered blasting you out of the sky.”
“So, why didn’t you?”
“I got distracted,” Ronin replied. “One of Thresher’s patrols was coming, and I was worried if they saw me I’d draw their attention to your ship. We got into a fight, I got hit. Our ships run on power crystals, which you figured out, but mine was damaged. I was barely keeping my ship in the air and just happened to cross paths with your people as I was going down. They were higher than I expected, and I was lower than I planned. You know the rest.”
“So, if you hadn’t been distracted… would you have really shot down our people?”
He shifted uneasily. “I guess we’ll never know.”
She felt like the truth to that answer was that he had already determined he couldn’t pull the trigger, but this pilot was a hard one to read, so she decided to let it go at that. He hadn’t shot them down… that was good enough for now.
Unfortunately, her mind was filled with theories and questions about the missile that she had foolishly transported to town. It hadn’t been tested, so she wasn’t sure if it was even live, or how Rayland planned to activate and fire it, but it was still a very real danger.
“So, assuming my honesty gets rewarded, it’s your turn.” Ronin said, popping her thoughts and leaving her confused.
“You mentioned abandoning someone,” he said. “Tell me about that.”
“Secrets aren’t kept by sharing them with strangers,” she replied.
“You tell me your secret, and I’ll let you in on one of mine,” he proposed.
“I doubt you have—”
“I have been outside of this World Ship,” he said flatly. “Now, it’s your turn.”
“You can’t be serious,” she said. “If you—”
“Tell me your secret, then I’ll tell you more of mine.”
At first she scoffed, but as she leaned back in her money chair, she couldn’t help but think of how rewarding it might feel to finally tell someone the truth that had been buried so far back in her history.
“Very well,” she said, shifting in her bills. “The main six is really seven.”
Ronin raised a brow. “Juicy. Go on.”
“When I arrived from the Core, I was the first. Flynn was the second, so on and so forth until there were six of us. For a while after that, there was no one else. Flynn and I got into a pattern of flying around and exploring the World Ship. That’s how we discovered the town.”
“So, where does the seventh person fit in?”
“Flynn was always adventurous. He pushed harder than me. If there was an opening, he wanted to explore it. One day, he noticed a massive bulkhead doorway had started to open. It went to a part of the ship we had never seen before. As it opened, we discovered the ship wasn’t pressurized beyond the door, and it started causing all kinds of pressurization issues here in the Lower Levels. We didn’t know what to do. Flynn decided he’d go inside and close it from the other side. He figured it might force a reset, like a simple switch.”
“I assume it worked?”
“It did,” Olivia replied. “The door closed, but we couldn’t get it open again. We didn’t have enough data on how to operate things. Flynn was trapped on the far side in a chamber without air. We started trying to figure it out, but we were causing more harm than good. We hoped the room had pressurized once the door closed, but we couldn’t confirm it. Eventually we admitted to ourselves we couldn’t do anything… he was lost.”
Ronin frowned. “I’m sorry. I know what it’s like to lose people.”
“It was,” Olivia said flatly. “Or, it would have been, except before any of us could really get a chance to grieve, Flynn stepped out of the Core, a fresh arrival.”
“I’m not following,” Ronin said.
“Flynn arrived from the Core. Again. He had no memories of his sacrifice, or of having ever been on the World Ship with us. It was like he had been reset to day one. We didn’t know if it was our Flynn, somehow saved and restored by the ship, or if it was some kind of copy. It didn’t matter, really. We told him what happened and then, as more citizens started to arrive, we decided to keep the truth about the Core a secret for as long as we could.”
“And in all these years since you haven’t lost another person?” Ronin asked.
“It feels unfair to Flynn… the one we left on the other side of that door. He gave everything for us and we just adopted the new Flynn and forgot his legacy.”
“So that’s why you’re so focused on David?”
“I don’t want to find him in the Core. I don’t want to always wonder about his fate.”
“So the rescue is as much for you as it is for him.”
Olivia shrugged. “I suppose.”
“Well, you’ve got a problem on your hands. If Rayland has my missile there’s no reason to assume he can’t use it. I had it fueled and armed with a real warhead.”
“I was afraid that was the case,” she replied. “I’ll have to figure out what comes next.”
Just down the street from the bank, Jonathan Davis was resting on a bench. The air was cooler that it had been in a while, which had made him start contemplating how the world ship’s temperature regulators worked in the first place.
Before he could lose himself in that thought, however, he felt a tap of someone’s hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see Bryan Steeles standing there, his face pale.
“Hey Bryan,” Johnathan said cheerily, his face falling flat when he got a look at the banker’s expression. “Is everything okay?
Bryan shook his head. “I overheard Rayland Walsh talking to Olivia in the vault. John, he threatened to shoot down Explorer Two if they try to launch the mission.”
The news was shocking for John. He knew Rayland was at odds with the explorers, but surely openly suggesting the ultimate doom of multiple citizens would be met with a fair amount of resistance.
“Did he say he intends to shoot it down?”
“He was careful in how he worded it. I think he’s trying to muscle Olivia into cancelling the mission. It’s kind of being framed as if he has to do it, then it’s really Olivia’s fault.”
“Well, did she agree to cancel?”
Bryan shook his head.
John frowned. He had not gone to see Olivia since she’d been sent to jail. He blamed her for getting Ruby involved in the helicopter heist. She had clearly overstepped her position and it had cost her freedom. He thought about expressing these concerns with Bryan, but it was clear that the banker had his own mixed emotions about the entire situation.
“I need your help,” Bryan added. “You’re the only one with direct connections to the two people that are causing all of this madness.”
John hadn’t considered that before, but he realized it was true. He had more power in this situation than most of the citizens in town, including some of the Main Six. Thinking on that, his own personal responsibility began to weigh on his mind. “Of course I will help,” he said, his rage subsiding slightly. “Let’s start with Olivia. I am the town’s resource for news. An interview with Olivia on the subject will get me into the vault and I can go from there.”
Bryan nodded, clearly relieved. “Thank you, John.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” John replied. “I don’t even know if I can help.”