The town firehouse wasn’t in the best shape. It had been largely unused since the town was originally discovered. There had always been plans to reorganize the interior as dwellings for new citizens, but with the expansion beyond the main street, the demand for homes here had dropped, and the building had been left alone.
It was the perfect place for the Protectors.
Flynn Brickshelm headed to the back of the station as the heavy doors of the building creaked open. Rayland Walsh pushed them aside, letting the morning light pour into the main space. A dusty vehicle sat in the main opening, looking like it belonged to another time.
“You have big plans for this place?” Rayland asked as he came over.
“The biggest,” Flynn replied. “It’ll be a beacon for the citizens. I want anyone to feel like they can come here for help. We’re the guards for the town, but only if they need us.”
“You have done good work since taking the helm,” Rayland said. “I wish I could convince you to keep your organization centered at Town Hall.”
“Say no more,” Rayland grumbled. “People don’t trust me. You need distance.”
“Your words, not mine.”
“Regardless, I support you, as does the rest of the council.”
Flynn allowed himself a smile in response. “Thank you, Rayland. I mean it.”
“Try to remember it,” Flynn said pointedly. “I may need your support some time.”
Flynn spent a few hours sifting through the supplies and materials that the building had to offer. There was a green playing table that he could use as a desk and a kitchen where people could cook or eat. It would come in handy for Protectors on duty.
He noticed a silver pole that could be used to reach the ground floor. His childish instincts took over almost immediately, and he grabbed the pole and slid down to the bottom floor with great delight. When his feet hit the ground he laughed aloud. On that note, he decided it was time to go and quickly stepped outside, where he collided with Bryan Steeles.
“Whoa!” he said, straightening up. “Bryan!”
“So sorry to intrude,” Bryan said calmly, standing up. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything?”
“No, of course not. What can I do for you?”
Bryan looked around for a moment, clearly nervous.
“I’m alone,” Flynn confirmed for him.
“Ah,” Bryan said, relieved. “I won’t waste time. I am worried about William Everett.”
“Money,” Bryan explained. “He’s funneling lots of bank notes through his accounts.”
“He’s doing a lot of infrastructure projects. Could it be—”
“I am familiar with Everett’s work,” Bryan interrupted. “There is more happening. He is building something big somewhere.”
“Have you asked Elsie about it?”
“Elsie is in his pocket,” Bryan grumbled. “He pays her a fair bit each week.”
Flynn frowned. He could tell that Bryan was seriously bothered by all of this, even if it didn’t seem like that big of a deal from where he was standing. Of course, Flynn understood that Bryan had been through a great ordeal in recent months, what with the fight between Rayland and Olivia. He decided the best way to help Bryan would be to put his fears to rest.
“Okay. Bryan, I will get to the bottom of this for you. If I find anything nefarious, I will report back to you and the council. You have my word.”
Bryan smiled and then shook Flynn’s hand. “Thank you. It means a great deal.”
On the roof of Mission Control, Elsie Lamarr was checking in on one of her favorite projects. The pilot that had fallen from the Upper Levels, named Ronin, had been working rather diligently to get his small vessel up and running again. Elsie had given him a lot of freedom in his work, and it sounded like it was paying off.
“Well?” she asked. “Do they work?”
At the other end of the roof, Ronin stepped out of his ship and offered her a casual shrug. “They’re definitely power crystals,” he confirmed. “Not sure if they’re powerful enough. We’ll need more samples.”
Before she could respond, the door to the roof swung open, and Elsie turned to see Flynn Brickshelm coming her way. She was happy for the friendly face, though she still didn’t know why Flynn wanted to talk to her.
“Good to see you, Elsie,” he greeted, noticing Ronin as well. “You too, Ronin.”
“Ignore me,” Ronin said.
“Is that alright?” Elsie asked. “Or does he need to head inside?”
Flynn waved a hand dismissively. “He’s fine. Nice hair by the way. Blonde?”
“It was time for a change. What can I do to help you, Flynn? If you’re here about the helicopter, you’ll be pleased to know the tail rotor is repaired and it’s back in service.”
“No, it’s not the helicopter. I’m here about William Everett.”
Elsie frowned. “What has he done now?”
“I was hoping you might tell me,” Flynn said.
“I’m not his keeper.”
“No,” Flynn agreed. “Your team, however, does have eyes on almost all of the Lower Levels.”
Elsie rolled her eyes. “Fine. Yes, that’s true, but I don’t know anything about Everett.”
“Listen, Elsie, I know William is paying you substantial funds. Are you hiding—”
“Choose your next words carefully,” Elsie said, her voice stern. “I will not tolerate accusations of blackmail or bribes.”
“I’m not accusing you of anything. I’m asking a question. Why is he paying you?”
“We made a deal,” she answered. “I have a contract. He asked me to keep my teams away from Mount Machina, and in exchange for the inconvenience he offered me funding for other missions.”
“Why Mount Machina?” Flynn asked.
“I don’t know,” Elsie replied. “You’ll have to ask him yourself.”
“So you don’t know what he’s doing up there?”
Elsie looked annoyed. “What did I just say?”
Flynn got the message. “Alright. Thanks for the information.”
“If you do go see him,” she added, “ask him how long he will be. I do want to get my people back into the mountain sooner than later.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Flynn said.
“Uh huh,” she mumbled, her attention back to Ronin’s work. “Bye, Flynn.”
The dusty vehicle that had been stored inside the firehouse was Flynn’s ticket to reach Mount Machina. He had already cranked it up once and knew it worked. The drive would take a while, but he was looking forward to getting out of town and having a chance to breathe again. He hadn’t really had any time away from main street since he had been returned by the man named Thresher.
He had some supplies and food, but he would need to stop by the corner garage for fuel. He made a quick list of a few other items to pick up and then got on his way. The truck bounced and rocked on an ancient suspension, but the engine sounded smooth, and the tires had plenty of tread, so he felt comfortable with the plan by the time he started pumping gas in the tank.
He stepped inside the store to grab some spare parts, in case the truck broke down for this reason or that. He had just picked out the last tire nut when he heard his name.
“Flynn? Flynn Brickshelm?”
He turned to face the voice and saw a woman there with large sunglasses and a leather jacket. He recognized her immediately. Her name was Grace Philips. He hadn’t met her, not in person, but he had reviewed her file from Rayland back when he started his Protectors. She had applied to join, but he had decided she wasn’t a good fit.
“Hey, Grace,” he said, hoping that showing some familiarity might help ease any tension.
“You know my name?” she asked, looking surprised.
“I do,” he answered honestly. “You were a person of interest… from Leonard.”
She frowned. “Not the reason I want to be known.”
“It’s in the past,” Flynn assured her.
“That’s good to hear. I wanted to talk to you, actually.”
“Yes. I wanted to talk about the Protectors.”
Flynn tried not to grimace. “Right. Well, you know, I’m about to head out on a bit of a drive. It might take me some time to get back. If you want—”
“No, I understand,” she started. “I won’t waste your time.”
Flynn wasn’t without sympathy. Grace had joined up with a man named Leonard Calgray months ago. Leonard had promised to keep the town safe and secure. He’d nearly caused a civil war instead.
“You know what?” he asked. “Are you busy? I have room in the truck for another.”
She stopped in her tracks. “Like, me go with you?”
“Yeah. You want to talk, right? No better time than on a long drive.”
She nodded energetically. “Yes. Thank you. Yes.”
“Well come on then,” he said. “Let’s get moving.”
The first leg of the trip to Mount Machina was spent in awkward silence. Flynn was giving everything he had to get control of the old truck he was driving. After all, it had a lot of unique characteristics, like an inability to slow down when he pressed the brake. Meanwhile, the shifter liked to stick at low gear, there was a rattling sound that vibrated through the cabin, and the suspension was less than useless.
Overall, not a smooth ride.
Eventually, though, he felt like he was getting a grip on it.
“So,” he finally probed. “You wanted to talk?”
Grace had removed her large sunglasses now that the artificial light was beginning to fade from overhead. She looked thoughtful, as though she wanted to choose her words carefully. “Yes. Flynn, I want to be a Protector,” she started. “It’s very important to me that I have this opportunity.”
He scoffed. “You used a firearm on our helicopter.”
“A criminal was absconding with our only way to transport people from the Core. From where I stood, Olivia Sun was putting the lives of every citizen below her own agenda. I had to act. You can’t tell me that I made the wrong call.”
“I can,” Flynn countered. “The militia was a mistake on every level.”
“I agree. The militia was a mistake, but protecting people is not. That’s why you are continuing the Protectors. I want to help people too.”
“It’s hard for me to hear your words,” Flynn said dismissively. “I don’t know that you can tell me you want to help people after attempted murder.”
“What?” Grace asked, offering an incredulous stare. “Murder? Is that what you think?”
“Well, you did shoot at the helicopter.”
“I shot at the tail rotor,” she said angrily. “The helicopter has a fiberglass rotor, a few bullets in the right place and I would have disabled it. Ruby is a skilled pilot. She would have landed in a hurry, but they would have survived, and the helicopter would have been repaired.”
“What if it had gone wrong?” Flynn asked.
“I knew the risks,” she countered. “When I saw I couldn’t hit the rotor, I stopped firing.”
“No, you listen,” she continued. “I made a mistake. I own that. I won’t, however, allow this notion that I was running around trying to hurt people. Leonard played a lot of us. If you let me join the Protectors I can make things right. I can prove I’m not a villain.”
“You don’t have to prove anything,” Flynn said. “I can take you at your word. That doesn’t mean that I’m eager to put you in a position of authority back in town. Most of the citizens only know you as the person that shot a gun.”
Grace frowned. It was clear she hadn’t considered that part.
He was about to give her at least some level of encouragement, when he caught sight of a dust cloud up ahead with a large object near its center. He squinted, trying to focus on the object, and Grace must have followed his gaze.
“What is that?” she asked. “It looks like… a crane?”
“Let’s find out,” Flynn said, pressing the gas and driving them closer. As they pushed through the growing cloud of dust, the shape of the machine came into better view. It was a crane alright, with its big arm and control room sitting on top of a large train car. The car was resting on a metal track, which trailed off into the distance toward the mountain. The crane was picking up new pieces of track and lowering them onto the ground as other vehicles and workers worked to level and clear the path for the incoming tracks.
As they were getting closer, Flynn saw one of the large construction vehicles moving to block his path, forcing him to slow down the truck as quickly as they could. When the old fire truck finally rolled to a stop, Flynn was out of the driver’s seat and moving to confront the crew. As he approached, he saw one of the largest construction workers approaching him. He didn’t look intimidating, or threatening, so Flynn decided to engage.
“Can I help you?” the large worker asked.
“You can,” Flynn replied, calmly. “I’m with the Protectors, from back in town. I’ve been sent to investigate—”
“That’s well and good, Protector, but you’re not cleared to be in this work zone.”
“On what authority?”
“William Everett’s orders.”
“Right,” Flynn said. “I assume this train track is coming down off Mount Machina?”
The worker looked shocked. “What?”
“I’m here to investigate William Everett,” Flynn said, putting emphasis on William’s name.
The worker frowned. “Give me a minute, will ya?”
Flynn shrugged. “Sure. I’ve got all the time in the world.”
It became apparent rather quickly that “one minute” was a metaphor.
It had been several hours since the bulky worker had told Flynn to wait and nothing had come of it. He had expressed his disappointment, and they had assured him that he would soon have answers, but it certainly wasn’t happening at any great haste.
“So, how long do we wait?” Grace asked, after glancing at her watch yet again.
“Until they tell us something,” Flynn responded. He was resting in a comfy chair in the break area that the workers had built for themselves to use when they weren’t working on the train tracks. “I won’t be leaving without answers.”
“And if they don’t offer any answers?”
“We’ll see,” he amended.
Grace opened her mouth to offer another argument, but before she could manage it, there was a familiar sound in the air that Flynn immediately identified as a train whistle blowing in the distance. He had no memory of it until now, but once it was there, it was like he had known it all along. He shook off the surreal feeling that came with unlocking a memory and stood up to confirm the source of the sound. The train was chugging their way with white steam pouring out of the chimney stack.
“I’ve never seen a train like that one,” Grace said. “Looks… old.”
Flynn smiled. He was surprised by the ornate decorations on the train and the cars it was pulling. They were designed with a mix of red, black, and green liveries. It looked awkward here, in the plains of the Lower Levels, but there was an itch of familiarity that echoed in his mind.
The train was slowing by the time they saw it, and it came to an eventual stop no more than a hundred feet from where the last piece of track rested. Flynn stood and started walking toward it while Grace jumped up to follow. As they approached, a door on the train’s caboose popped open, and Flynn was not surprised to see William Everett step out. He had a big smile on his face when he emerged, waving to the workers and immediately chatting up a storm with the bulky worker that had confronted Flynn.
“Fine progress,” Flynn overheard as he closed in. “We’ll be ready in time. I am confident.”
“Ready for what?” Flynn said, signaling his arrival.
“Flynn Brickselm!” William exclaimed excitedly. “You’re just the man I wanted to see. I know you’ve been busy, and so have I, obviously. You’re doing great work back in town. I know my family is fond of your efforts. It’s an inspiration after that row between Olivia and Rayland.”
“I’m thankful for the praise,” Flynn admitted. “I wish that was why I was here.”
“Trouble afoot?” William asked. “I hope nothing too nasty?”
“I won’t waste your time, Everett. We need to talk about Mount Machina.”
William’s smile faded a bit, but only for a flash. “I had hoped Elsie might keep it off the radar a bit longer, but I can’t blame you for doing your job. Yes, let’s talk about it. In fact, better than that, I’ll just show you. You and uh… who is this?”
Flynn realized he hadn’t introduced Grace. He thought of a proper introduction, but he hesitated at the idea that William might know her past. The last thing he wanted was concern from William, so he opted for a different approach. “This is an eager citizen that has asked to be a Protector. I brought her along to see what it’s like.”
“That is wonderful,” William said happily, shaking Grace’s hand energetically, clearly not interested in further discussion. “She should come too. Absolutely.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Flynn suggested. “Now that you’re here, I’m sure we could just talk about the—”
“Words will not cut it,” William announced. “No, you must witness it!”
“I won’t hear it,” William interrupted him again. “I insist you come with me. If you want your answers, you have only one choice.”
Flynn looked to Grace, and she offered him a smile. “It could be fun,” she said.
“That’s the spirit!” William replied. “Yes! Great fun. Come on.”
Flynn felt the last bit of fortitude slipping away. He nodded slowly and agreed. “Okay.”
It took some time to get the train ready for the trip back to Mount Machina. Flynn left the fire truck at the worker area, and they promised him it would be waiting there when he got back. All in all it was nearly sunset when Flynn finally took his seat aboard the train as it pulled away from the construction zone.
William had excused himself just before they left, heading to the front of the train to speak with the engineer, leaving Flynn and Grace alone in the train car as they watched the artificial sunlight fading away.
The pair rode in silence for quite some time, with darkness taking hold as they rolled across the miles of tracks that William Everett had put down all over the Frontier. Flynn wondered how he had managed to keep his activities quiet, but he suspected the answer was lots of money.
“Our very own train,” Grace said at last, sounding excited. “It’s so surreal.”
“It’s something,” Flynn agreed.
“Come on, this is cool,” she pressed. “Admit it.”
Flynn relented. “Yeah, alright. It’s pretty cool.”
“There is something familiar about the color scheme too, don’t you think?”
Flynn gave a slow nod. “I agree. I’m not sure what it is.”
“It’s just so… cozy,” she added. “I feel a kid just thinking about it.”
“Wait. Do you see that?” Grace asked, standing and rushing to the window of the train car. She looked over her shoulder at Flynn, and he followed her, looking outside until he finally realized what he was looking at. The white specks in the air were meaningless to him… until they suddenly weren’t.
“That,” he grumbled, “is William Everett’s secret.”