Olivia Sun stood in front of Town Hall overlooking a large group of citizens from the top of the entry stairs. Rayland Walsh was located on her immediate right with Flynn Brickshelm next to him. To Olivia’s left was Elsie Lamarr. She stood with Ruby Rose on her right. Together, the group took up most of the space on the stairs.
Gathered before them was the largest collection of citizens Olivia had ever seen in one place, aside maybe the first celebration after Explorer One’s maiden voyage. Unfortunately, they were not here to celebrate. It felt more like a funeral. Everyone out there had been summoned at the request of Johnathan Davis. He had assured each and every one of them that the confusion looming over town would be dispelled.
The morning light was still young, and the glow of the fake sun felt warm and comforting to Olivia. She hadn’t considered how much of her time had recently been spent inside small and poorly lit rooms, away from the artificial sun. It felt good to be here now, and she was ready to help put an end to the chaos she had created.
As she stood there, she saw Johnathan approaching, standing in front of them and facing the crowd directly, not on the stairs at the podium, but on the ground at the same level as the crowd.
“Thank you all for coming,” John announced. “Despite the trepidation, I am here to assure you that today is a good day. Today, despite the events that have unfolded in our town over the last few weeks, I am proud to tell you that your town council stands united once more. In an act of good faith, I have asked that everyone take a moment to give the citizens a full understanding of how we have reached our resolution. I am thankful to both the members here today for speaking, and to our citizens for taking the time to listen. We will begin with our Mayor, Rayland Walsh.”
There was some uneasy shifting in the audience as the Mayor took his place.
“Greetings everyone,” he said, his voice cracking ever so slightly. “I suppose I will begin with the elephant in the room. When a flying ship, shaped like a predator, arrived in town and threatened us, I panicked. I let fear take root in my mind, and it did not bring out the best in me. When I closed Mission Control, I was overreacting, and when Olivia resisted my decision, I misjudged her intent. I understand that my actions played a great part in how we got to where we are today. For that, everyone, I am deeply sorry.”
Olivia scanned the audience. No one seemed particularly happy, but she didn’t see anyone pulling out the pitchforks or torches just yet.
“Today,” he continued. “This town council will take the first steps toward resolving the issues that were brought to light by our recent tensions. First and foremost, Olivia Sun has been cleared of all accusations that were made against her during the tension we shared. Second, Leonard Calgray has stepped down from our town militia, and Flynn Brickshelm has volunteered to step in and oversee the efforts to protect our town. Most importantly, the town council has agreed to reopen Mission Control and resume our efforts to learn and explore.”
A few citizens started to clap, probably those that supported Olivia’s missions, but it was a start. He nodded, slowly, and finished up. “With that, I will turn over the podium to Olivia Sun.”
Olivia took her place at the podium again and looked out at the crowd, trying to make eye contact with as many of them as she could.
“Citizens,” she said, her voice loud and clear. “I am here today, first and foremost, to tell you that I am sorry for my actions. In my attempts to better understand and research this place we call home, I chose to put my own interests ahead of those who strive to make and maintain a peaceful life in town. I disobeyed the will of the town council and, in doing so, I sowed distrust through our population. I am forever indebted to you all for remaining civil and undivided despite the recent tension.”
The crowd looked rather surprised by her words, so she figured she might as well finish up.
“In short, despite Mayor Rayland Walsh and the town council agreeing to forgive me for everything that has happened, I cannot yet forgive myself. That is why, beginning immediately, I have asked Elsie Lamarr to take my place as leader of Mission Control.”
There it was. The citizens offered up applause, not because of her, but because of her resignation. They were getting a real resolution, not just an apology or empty promises. They couldn’t trust her anymore. That was clear. For her to step down gave them peace.
It hurt for her to to fall on this metaphorical sword, but she understood how she got to this point. So, she turned and gestured for Elsie to take her place. Elsie, looking reluctant, stepped up.
As she approached, Olivia turned to the crowd once more. “Elsie Lamarr stepped up in a time of crisis and proved to us all that she could support the Explorer Missions while equally dedicating herself to working with the council to resolve our internal issues. It is my honor to see her take my place, and I hope everyone expresses the same level of gratitude that I feel.”
The applause continued, now louder, and Elsie took her place at the podium to soak it all in. As she had a few moments to revel in the announcement, Olivia slipped back and returned to her place with Rayland at her side.
“A noble sacrifice,” Rayland whispered, looking at her. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“I disagree,” Olivia said. “The town needs unification and a fresh start. You and I can say we forgive each other, but they know that’s not the case. Rayland, you nearly brought down your own government by accident. Meanwhile, I was jailed, escaped, and threatened to launch an Explorer Mission that could invoke the wrath of an enemy we don’t fully understand. The citizens aren’t stupid. We lost their trust. Look at the praise they’re heaping on Elsie right now. You and I will never have that again.”
Rayland scoffed. “If you’re suggesting I resign, you will be disappointed. I stood in defense of the citizens. Sure, the militia is too much. I acknowledge that, but it has been dealt with. Not one citizen suffered because of me.”
Olivia offered him a simple shrug. “You gotta do you, Rayland Walsh.”
Rayland rolled his eyes.
“Speaking of which,” she added, “whatever happened to Leonard?”
Rayland was silent for a moment, then grunted. “Flynn relieved him of duty, officially, and he’s been wallowing in his home ever since. We’ll have to deal with him, of course, but not right now. He knows he is beat.”
The sudden cheering of the crowd interrupted their conversation, and they both returned their focus to Elsie as she was speaking.
“That’s why,” the young woman was saying, “I have decided, in agreement with the town council, that we will not launch any further missions to the Upper Levels. Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to explore. Our home is a vast place, full of new and exciting opportunities. Today is a day of transition, so I’ll wait to present more on our future plans, but know that there is much we can and must do if we want to prosper and grow as a people.”
Again the crowd cheered.
“Not a bad speech,” Rayland said.
“Not at all,” Olivia agreed.
“Now,” Elsie added. “I’d like to introduce one last change coming to our town. The new leader of the militiamen and a beloved member of the Explorers, Flynn Brickshelm!”
As Elsie stepped down, Flynn made his way to the podium. He looked nervous, but in many ways, excited.
“Citizens,” he said, his voice proud. “The truth is, our world is changed. The impact that our discovery in the Upper Levels has had runs deeper than we ever could have imagined. It changed the way we look at our town, and it made us ask ourselves if we’re truly safe here. The answer, my friends, is that true safety will only come from unity. We must stand together as a community. Not as a unit of one, but as a town of many. We must be explorers, scientists, doctors, artists, and yes, even politicians. As we move forward, we are one.”
He paused for a moment, but the crowd didn’t look ready to applaud.
“Today, I assume the lead role in protecting this town. Our militia, as Rayland Walsh called it, will no longer be guard against evil. I will not prepare us for a fight that we don’t have to have. Instead, I will seek to protect this town from any dangers and resolve them before they become a problem. In the weeks ahead, I plan to lay out my idea for how this group of protectors will look, but I stand with one truth today. No matter the location, be it town, the frontier, or even if you’re living down at the Grid, we are all on the same side. Our bond will be our greatest strength. Thank you all for your time, and I look forward to helping in any way that I can.”
As Flynn stepped down, the citizens went bananas. Their cheers and clapping nearly drowned out every other sound on the street.
Olivia couldn’t help but smile.
She could see John nearby, and he offered her a nod and smile.
As the individuals stepped down, citizens came forward to say hello, shake hands, and talk with everyone around them. This event signaled the end of the fighting, of the separation, and Olivia felt a real weight lifting off her chest.
Everything was still going to be okay.
Meanwhile, far above town, in the Upper Levels, there was something far more sinister afoot. In the confines of his quiet hiding place, known as the “Shark Cave”, Commander Thresher was reviewing a long thread of numbers and data points. He looked carefully at each number, studying it down to the very last decimal and trying to find a difference… some indicator of a change.
Unfortunately, the search offered up nothing of value. Like always.
He stepped over the rear of one of the vessels that was hidden here and ran his glowing hook across the metal as he thought. He heard the groan of the access hatch that led out of the room and looked to see another one of his officers coming to him. They would tell him something he already knew, or at least he assumed it. There were few times these days when he wasn’t ahead of the plan.
“Commander Thresher, Sir?”
It was Junior Officer Keolo Stanton. He could tell by the kid’s panicked voice.
“What is it?” Thresher asked, turning to face the young man.
“We cleared the area as requested. We took out the vehicle classified as Submarine Zero-Three. We’ve captured two individuals. The leader of the pair is named Michael Willim.”
“Secure the vessel. Give the subordinate survivor a life vest and rations, then send them to the surface. I’m sure they’ll have friends coming along to collect them soon. Bring Michael back to me. He has information that is critical to our success.”
“Very good, sir.”
“With that over, Section Eleven is all but ours,” Thresher added. “Spread the fleet, and begin mapping the entire section from top to bottom. I don’t want one grain of sand going untouched. In the meantime, begin some underwater probes for launch into Section Twelve.”
“Sir, aren’t we confident that the Hub is located in Section Twelve?”
“We are,” Thresher replied.
“So why are we not pushing forward?”
“Have you ever been in Section Twelve, Keolo?”
The junior officer shook his head.
“That area of the ship is a mystery. It is covered in a thick fog. The water is dark. On top of that, our sensors go haywire from interference whenever we try to go in there. Ronin built his haven in there for a reason. It’s easy to protect. We can’t move forward with our plan until we have an exact location. Do you understand?”
Keolo nodded. “I do.”
“Good. Now, is there anything else?”
“Yes, one more thing. We captured activity on the Shipwide Communication System.”
Thresher raised a brow. “Internal activity? Are you sure?”
“We verified,” Keolo replied. “One communication sent via Ronin’s network.”
“Did we intercept it?”
Keolo nodded. “We did.”
“Let me hear it.”
Keolo did as ordered and played the message. Thresher listened to everything with great focus. He learned that Ronin was still alive… so the one named Olivia had lied. That was unfortunate, but not surprising. Still, he had all the information he needed now. His plan would work and the poor souls in the Lower Levels had helped make it happen. He couldn’t help but smile at the thought.
“Sir?” Keolo asked, clearly confused. “Why does this message elicit a smile?”
“David Nash was the man we found at the underwater lab. If he’s communicating through Ronin’s radio system, with enough power to reach his home, then that means he made it to the Hub.”
“So now he is beyond our reach,” Keolo said. “How is this beneficial?”
“Don’t worry,” Thresher said. “You don’t need to understand yet. Your focus remains the same. Seize control of Section Eleven and start mapping everything.”
“Of course,” Keolo replied, giving a quick nod.
“The pieces are falling in place now,” Thresher said, more to himself than Keolo. “The town will open the door. The Hub will provide the book. Then, when we have what we need, the Traveler will be ours.”