“Here it comes!”
David Nash swept his arms up to catch the crate that had been heaved over the side of a small fishing boat. There were more lobsters and a hefty crate of iced fish, which would all be stored for the next ship that would soon arrive to transport the goods into Section Twelve. That was, as far as David could tell, the location of the Hub. The Hub was the topic of many different conversations around the fishing store. From the sound of it, this location was most likely the Upper Level’s version of town.
“You didn’t drop any did you?” Anton’s voice called from the boat. “No spills, Nash!”
“No spills,” David replied, setting down the crate and sliding it along the dock.
The shipment today was small. A fishing crew on a rather modern looking boat had managed to pull in far more than they expected and had brought the excess to Anton for shipment to the Hub. Like everyone else that David had met since coming here, the fishermen were kind and overly pleasant… like… jolly.
At this point, David wasn’t sure how much time had passed since Explorer One crashed. The days had blurred together and what he might think to be weeks was only days, or vice versa. What he did know, was that he had not seen or heard from any of those that had taken him prisoner, neither sharks nor guardians. He hoped that would remain the case for a long time.
“Nash!” Anton shouted. “We need more ice!”
“Alright,” David yelled. “I’ll get some more of the crates we have ready.”
David walked to the rear of the building and picked up the first empty crate. The island, surprisingly, had electricity. Anton was constantly making ice for packing fresh fish when they arrived. On days like today they preemptively prepared packed crates that could be quickly filled with new supplies.
As he lifted the first crate and made his way back to the dock, he heard one of the fishermen let out a long whistle, a sound David recognized as a symbol of admiration. He stepped up and saw that everyone was looking to the north, out across the water.
There, he spotted a massive vessel cutting across the ocean.
“That’s a big ship,” he said casually. “Is that a tall ship?”
“Aye,” Anton said, his voice slowed. “That’s the Ulysses… one of a kind.”
“Never seen her out this far beyond the fog,” one of the fishermen said. “Bad omen if you ask me.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it too much,” Anton said, a smirk appearing on his face. “I sent word we had a large shipment of goods for the Hub. It only makes sense they’d send their biggest ship to carry it home.”
“If you say so,” the fisherman said warily.
“Nash,” Anton said, turning toward the store. “Can I borrow you for a moment?”
“Of course,” David replied.
The two stepped away from their visitors, and Anton took one last look at the approaching vessel before he gave David his full attention. “You say you were held in an underwater laboratory?” he asked.
“So, Trevor and Michael know you then? They know your face and your name?”
“All of the above.”
“They wouldn’t take the Ulysses out of Section Twelve without protection from the Guardians. That means there’s a good chance one if not both of those boys are on that ship.”
“Is there a boat I could escape on?” David asked. “Perhaps the fishermen—”
“No, if we shuttle you off with those fishermen they’ll know something is up and take you right to over to turn you in. You’ll have to stay here. Thankfully, I have a plan for these scenarios. If you’d do me a favor, find that red and black outfit that you washed up in. We’ll want to get that out of sight too. I’ll finish up with our guests and get you sorted before the Ulysses arrives.”
“You don’t have to do this,” David said, stiffening a bit. “I don’t want to risk you getting in trouble because of me. I am thankful for all the aid and comfort you’ve provided, but I don’t—”
“Get on, laddy,” Anton said, grinning ever so slightly. “Your altruism is appreciated, but unnecessary. I’m not concerned about myself.”
“Very well. Thank you, Anton.”
It took a few extra minutes for Anton to get the fishermen on their way. They had suggested waiting around to see the Ulysses up close, but thankfully Anton had convinced them to be on their way before its arrival. Once they left, Anton met up with David and laid out his plan. The fishing store, as it now operated, had originally been built as an outpost for explorers leaving the Hub. Behind the shop, hidden between the sand wall and the dock boards, there was an area where radio equipment and emergency supplies could be stored. In this case, David would be stored too. It was a tight fit, to be sure, but David was thankful that this time he wasn’t being forced into a pit by a captor, but ushered into a corner by a friend.
As David was settling in and trying to get comfortable, Anton handed him a small plastic container full of grilled fish leftovers from dinner the night before.
“I don’t know how long they’ll take,” Anton said. “Figured a snack might be nice.”
“You’re too kind,” David replied.
“They have taken anchor off the coast and they’re sending a smaller boat over now. I’m going to meet them on the dock. Don’t come out unless it’s an emergency. I’ll get you when the coast is clear. If they stay for longer than a day I will find a window to bring you some fresh water and bottles for… stuff.”
“Stay tight, Nash.”
The first hour in hiding was rather tense. It felt similar to playing a game of hide and seek, but where being found by the seeker meant inevitable imprisonment. Every creak of wood and every banging sound above made him jump ever so slightly. He expected to be discovered at every moment.
After the second hour, however, when it started to settle in that the visitors were not here to capture him, David started to relax. There wasn’t a lot of sound above, so he wasn’t sure how many visitors had come to the store. His leg was starting to cramp rather painfully, so he decided he might be able to shift it just a bit without making any noise. He lifted and bent his knee just a bit and felt the rush of relief as fresh blood flowed through his shin. He started to lower the leg again and bumped his foot against something in a crate. He saw a flash of red light and then heard static.
He fumbled in a panic, trying to remain quiet and also trying to get his hands on whatever was causing the sudden noise. He got a grip on it, and even in the dark he recognized the shape and weight of the standard radios that he had used back in town. This radio was set to channel zero, and the static wasn’t too loud. He lowered the volume more, just to be sure, and then he curiously flipped the channel on the radio.
The first few channels were blank, either more static or total silence, but just when he was about to stop, he flipped it over to channel nineteen and heard the clear and audible voice of Anton. He stopped on the channel and wondered if he should just turn it off now and pretend he hadn’t heard anything. He didn’t want to betray Anton’s trust.
Of course, Anton was not a foolish man. He had left a radio down here with David, and now he was on the radio, talking to people, broadcasting his conversation for anyone to hear.
David decided he was supposed to listen.
“So, you’re telling me Discovery Lab is gone?” Anton was asking.
“The lab, sub zero-one, and sub zero-two.”
Trevor. David knew that voice all too well. He was one of the two that had taken him captive and kept him in the pit.
“What about Thresher’s fleet. Surely he’s taken losses as well?”
“We took down the Barracuda, but the flagship is still out there.”
“So what’s left on our end?”
“At this point, we’re running defense patrols with zero-zero and supply shipments with zero-three. They’ve both had skirmishes and need repair. If we don’t do something soon, the sharks are going to take Section Eleven.”
“Has Thresher shown any interest in negotiations?” Anton asked.
David heard Trevor scoff. “Negotiate?”
“If it’s true Thresher has the advantage, we need to figure out how we can shift the balance back in our favor. You said the ships need time to be repaired. If we try to have talks with Thresher, it could buy us some time to regain lost ground.”
“Or he lures us out for negotiations and then destroys our last defenses. Ronin was clear, Anton, that we’re not to trust anything Thresher does or says.”
“That’s true,” Anton admitted. “Though, Trevor, I would remind you that Ronin is gone. His guidance will only last for so long. The time is coming where you are going to have to step out of his shadow and lead the others.”
“I’m not a leader,” Trevor said, his voice suddenly shaky. “Ronin may not be gone forever.”
“You confirmed sub zero-one crashed in the Lower Levels, did you not?”
“I did,” Trevor assured him. “I did not, however, confirm Ronin’s death. I have checked the data over a hundred times. Ronin was alive and operating the vessel all the way to his crash landing. It’s entirely possible he survived.”
“Thresher reported the inhabitants below confirmed his death.”
“Secondhand information,” Anton mused. “You think they might have been lying?”
“I don’t know. Honestly, I think the best solution is to go down there and find out.”
“An interesting idea.”
“We had a prisoner,” Trevor continued. “He was a survivor of an exploration mission that was sent up here from a town. I had hoped to use him to find Ronin, but Thresher destroyed our facility and took the prisoner. If we got to the Lower Levels now, I don’t know where to find their town. I’d be looking for ages, and every minute we are gone is another minute the Hub would be in danger.”
“If you’ve been listening,” Anton said loudly, clearly not to Trevor. “You can come out.”
David hesitated for a moment, but then did as Anton said.
The door to the room below the store popped open, and he climbed out to reveal himself to both Anton and Trevor.
Trevor’s eyes went wide. “You!”
“Me,” David replied.
“I assume this is the prisoner?” Anton asked.
“How did you get away from Thresher?” Trevor questioned, ignoring Anton.
“Thresher ordered I be returned home,” David answered. “I boarded the Barracuda and we were on our way when one of your people attacked and destroyed it. I was lucky to survive the blast at all. After that, Anton took me in and nursed me back to health.”
“Anton,” Trevor said, turning from David. “This is wonderful news! We can take this prisoner back to his home and he can ask them what really happened to Ronin.”
“I’m not a prisoner,” David said angrily.
Trevor stopped, looking rather confused. “What?”
“Trevor,” Anton said. “David has told me things…”
“Yeah,” David spoke up. “I told him how you kidnapped me, kept me in a pit, and then tried to kill me with your attack.”
Trevor turned his head to the side and closed his eyes.
“I assume this is all true?” Anton asked.
Trevor looked ashamed. “I’m not proud of my decisions at the lab. We should have treated you better, I admit. I was overwhelmed at the time, with Ronin’s disappearance and your sudden arrival. I didn’t know what you were or why you had shown up. I am sorry for my hostility.”
“A simple sorry won’t cut it,” David said angrily.
“What if he takes you home?” Anton asked.
“Just so he can get what he wants?”
Anton frowned. “I don’t know if that’s possible.”
“Look, Anton, you’ve been nothing but kind to me since I washed up on your beach. If it were simply up to me, I’d tell Trevor that I’d rather die up here than help him accomplish his own selfish goals.”
“There’s more?” Anton asked.
“I do want to go home,” David added. “If that means showing Trevor the way… I’ll do it.”
“We’re grateful for your help,” Anton said. “Do you agree, Trevor?”
Looking at the man now, David suddenly saw just how young Trevor really was. He was practically a child, perhaps only now reaching true adulthood. For a brief moment, some of his aggression was tempered by the vulnerability that he saw.
“We have a deal,” Trevor said firmly. “I’ll take you home. We’ll find Ronin.”
David extended a hand and Trevor reached out to take it. They shook, seemingly aware of this gesture and its meaning, despite their apparent differences.
David didn’t even think about it. He just wanted to go home.