Thresher’s incursion left a mark on the Hub.
Two full days had passed, and the shellshock that settled on the citizens was heavy. There was almost no one out and about anymore. The streets were bare, and the vendors hid inside their shops, only emerging when they felt a sale was pending.
David tried to help get the spirits up in the city. He explained over several radio broadcasts that Thresher had obtained a book, and that there was no need to fear his return, but hearing something like that… and believing it, was difficult.
He continued to scour Ronin’s journals, hoping he might have some better insight into what it was that Thresher hoped to accomplish, but he was still coming up empty. It was infuriating to be so blind, but he had finally hatched a plan.
He knew that Ronin was alive down there in the Lower Level. Thresher might have blocked their communication on the ship-wide system, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t physically communicate.
All he needed was a ship.
“If you’re saying you’re going to take our last defensive vehicle and fly away, then you have got to be kidding me,” Annie said as she took a step back from the Intrepid. “We’ve put everything into getting this thing back in the air. After what happened with Thresher, the people need to see that we are here to protect them.”
The Intrepid had originally been a submarine, but thanks to Ronin, it had long ago been modified to take to the skies, the water, or anywhere else it might need to go.
“I can bring Ronin back,” David said firmly. “If anyone knows what Thresher is doing, it would be Ronin.”
“Not necessarily,” Annie said, pointing to the far corner of the dock. “You have a visitor.”
David followed her finger and nearly gasped when he saw Anton standing there.
“Miss me?” the older man asked.
“Anton!” David shouted, rushing over to his friend. While Anton looked tired, and dirty, he somehow seemed more youthful too. “I’m so glad to see you alive. Where have you been?”
“Hard to explain,” Anton said, his voice dry. “Come on. Help me sit down while Annie gets me a drink. We need to talk.”
David nodded, helping Anton over to a seat and waiting for Annie to come back with a cup of water. Anton took it, thanked her, and downed the entire thing in one swig. He handed it back to Annie with a grin. “I’m going to need a lot more.”
“Right,” she said. “I’ll just stop what I’m working on and—”
“Alright, alright,” Anton said. “I can get it.”
Annie nodded, satisfied, and picked up her tools to continue working on the Intrepid, though she was obviously eager to listen in as well.
“Anton,” David said, feeling anxious. “I don’t know if you’re aware, but Thresher has the book. He took it, and I don’t know where he’s gone.”
“Right,” Anton said. “I suppose this means you didn’t find my body?”
“We… wait… what?”
Anton’s question was so absurd it stopped David’s thoughts in their tracks. He looked at the elderly man, puzzled, and waited for an explanation.
“David, I died a few days ago.”
Annie had given up on the idea of working. She just stood there with David now, equally bewildered by Anton’s words. David scratched his head and tried to understand. “Anton, you’re not making a lot of sense here.”
Anton sighed. “You’ve probably never experienced it. Right. You see, David, the Core is more than you might realize. It’s an advanced cryogenic and biological development system. I don’t think I can really break it down for you too much in the limited time we have here, but basically everyone on this World Ship is a genetic copy of a base template… think of it as a reprint of their prior selves.”
“A copy? Are you saying we’re all clones?”
“Not exactly,” Anton tried to clarify. “A clone is a fresh human that is created using someone’s existing DNA. While they are genetically identical, they’re grown fresh. It would take years to even begin to see a resemblance, and their human experiences would change them immensely. No, the Core uses a type of technology that… kinda builds a replica of the original. Each crew member’s template was captured at an exact moment in life, recorded, and eventually printed.”
“That’s why we don’t have memories…” David mused.
“Precisely. We have machines that attempt to imprint as much data about the crew member as we can, such as skills that are valuable to the World Ship, but not everything can be carried over. It’s a bit much to explain in one sitting, if I’m honest.”
David was starting to feel woozy about this revelation, so much so that he had to lean over and hold one of the moorings on the dock. “So, I’m not me?”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
Anton shrugged. “There’s plenty of reasons. In the case of the World Ships, we couldn’t afford to have a crew that would have to be raised from infancy. The initial seeding of the populations were meant to be the printed citizens, all aged to adulthood, and ready to take on their lives. The original goal, of course, was to retain your memories and imprint what we classified as your consciousness back onto the new mind, but we didn’t master it until it was far too late. The most personal data a citizen learns from the Core is their name.”
“How can you know all of this?” David asked. “If you have no memories…”
“I’m a scientist. I was one of the scientists working on the Core aboard this very World Ship. I kept at it, every day, until I finally figured it out… the transfer of memories to the new individual in the Core. Of course, by then I was an old man, almost exactly as old as you see me now. I copied my genetic template, implemented the memory transfer, and when I died a new copy of my template was created with my memories in place.”
“So… you died?”
“To be frank, I’ve died a few times now,” Anton said with a chuckle. “Most recently, at Thresher’s hands.”
“He killed you?”
“He knew I’d come back. He was delaying me.”
“How did he know that you’d come back?” David asked.
“Thresher and Ronin have a story to tell, one that runs right into my own. In time, maybe we’ll have a nice dinner and I’ll talk you through it. Unfortunately, that’s not where we are right now. We should be focusing on the book. If he has it, then he’s already on the next step of his plan, and it might doom this World Ship if he is successful.”
“Doom the World Ship?” How?”
“By stealing a Traveler and using it to return to his World Ship.”
“What is a Traveler?”
“They’re massive vessels that work as part of our World Ship’s maintenance system. Most World Ships have at least two, but sometimes more. They’re designed to automatically come and go from the World Ship. They collect raw materials, fuel, food, or whatever requirements the World Ship might have. They aren’t designed to interface with the populace of a World Ship, and if they are compromised, a World Ship can run out of the supplies it needs to function.”
“So, how does Thresher fit into all of this?”
“The Travelers are capable of flying massive distances. In other words, with the right programming, the vessel could be hijacked and piloted to another World Ship… in Thresher’s case, he wants to return to his own World Ship.”
“Doesn’t the Traveler have protections against that?”
“Oh, dozens of failsafes were put in place so that no one could ever do that.”
“So… the Book of the Traveler…”
“That book is an all-in-one guide to bypass those failsafes and modify the programming of a Traveler for personal use,” Anton confirmed. “With that in hand, Thresher can steal a traveler from our World Ship and leave us here with a crippled supply line.”
“Why would Thresher doom us like that?” David asked. “It’s unlike him.”
“I can’t answer that question,” Anton admitted. “All I know is that we have to stop him. If we don’t, our world could literally come to an end.”
“What will he do now?” David asked. “What’s his next move?”
“The Traveler is docked in a part of the World Ship called the Garage. If he wants to steal one, he’s going to have to override the safety mechanisms and open the bulkhead to access it from the Lower Level.”
“Okay, fine,” David said. “So we stop him from overriding the safety.”
“There’s only one place on the World Ship where he could access that functionality.”
“Don’t tell me,” David grumbled. “The Grid?”
“The Grid,” Anton confirmed.
David felt his stomach twist in knots. “My friends are in danger.”
“I doubt he’ll go to your town. The—”
“You don’t understand,” David said. “We have people at the Grid. If he’s going there, he is going to run into them. I have to warn them.”
David was up in an instant and rushing toward the Intrepid. Annie, who had listened to everything Anton said, still wouldn’t budge.
“You have to let me go,” David pleaded. “Didn’t you hear Anton? If I don’t stop Thresher, there will be no World Ship to protect. You won’t need the Intrepid anymore, because it’ll be too late for any of us.”
“Trevor has ordered this ship to stay right here. I’m charged with its repair.”
“Annie,” Anton said calmly. “David is right. The Intrepid is our best chance of stopping Thresher before he destroys all that Ronin and the Guardians work to protect.”
“I won’t let you leave here with this ship,” Annie said flatly. For a brief moment, David wondered if he would have to fight her for control of the ship, but then she gave a heavy sigh and shook her head. “Not without me, anyway.”
“I can’t ask you—”
“You don’t have a choice,” she replied. “This thing is running on hopes and dreams. If you have any plan of staying in the air long enough to reach the Grid, I’ve got my work cut out for me.”
“Thank you, Annie.”
“Well, come on then. Let’s go save the world.”
David jumped up in an instant, climbing into the Intrepid’s cockpit and starting the flight checklist. He hadn’t actually flown the Intrepid before, but he hoped that his time in the simulator would be enough to get them to the Lower Levels.
“Anton, when Trevor gets back on the Ulysses… tell him what you told us.”
“I will,” Anton assured her. “Now go, we’ve wasted too much time already.”
The engines on the Intrepid roared to life, and David did his best to adjust their trajectory with a smooth motion. Instead, the flying ship jerked hard to the left as he pulled on the controls. Annie braced herself in the hallway and yelled a few obscenities in his direction.
“Sorry,” he said. “It’s going to be bumpy.”
“Yeah, well let’s try to make it down there alive, yeah?”
He pressed forward, and the Intrepid darted free from its bay, shooting out over the water. He took one final twist of the controls and flew them low over the Hub, the engines blaring so no one would miss them zooming overhead.
“Why the low pass?” she asked.
“Just to let everyone know we’re out here. To show them that we’re protecting them.”
Annie smiled. “Nice.”
“Now, we’re moving fast toward the plateau where Flynn and I crashed with Explorer One. Once we’re there, how do we go about reaching the Lower Levels?”
Annie shrugged. “Jump?”
“Will the repulsors be able to catch us?” David asked.
She flashed a smile. “Oh ye of little faith.”
“Is that a yes?” he pressed.
Annie only laughed.
David wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be comforting, but he knew they had no choice. If Thresher was going to the Grid, he had to warn his friends. He double checked his time estimates and grimaced. “Hang in there, guys. Help is coming.”