Explorer Two banked just as Olivia had hoped, and it veered right into the path of the blip on their radar. The course adjustment had been so fast that their pursuer didn’t have a chance to dodge. The two vehicles collided with a mix of sound, sight, and smell.
The console in the cockpit lit up with a million warnings and alarms, but none of that would matter as long as they stopped Thresher from reaching the Travelers.
“How are we?” Olivia asked Ruby over the radio.
“Still airborne,” Ruby answered. “The structural improvements they made after Explorer One are holding up. I think it just saved our lives.”
“You could have warned the guy in the back,” Ronin spoke up. “What did we hit?”
“Sorry,” Olivia said, checking her radar. “The other ship is still up too. We’ll need to catch them if we’re going to—”
“A blinding light erupted in the Garage. It was so bright that it pierced the tinted windows of the Explorer Two cockpit with the full force of a burning sun. It spiraled out of their view a moment later, and Ruby saw that the source was some kind of beacon directly above the White Traveler.
“I think I know which one he wants,” she said. “Orders?”
“Match their course and speed. Pursue them.”
“With our damage, I doubt we can catch him,” Ruby said. “Shouldn’t we retreat?”
“Bulkhead is sealed,” Ronin answered. “Right now that Traveler is preparing to depart, which means in a minute the bay doors to the void are going to open to let it out. If we’re in here when that happens—”
“We’ll be ejected into said void?” Ruby asked.
“You guessed it.”
“Adjusting our heading to intercept enemy trajectory. We’ll be close behind, but we can’t overtake.”
“That’s okay,” Ronin said. “Just get us close.”
Ruby powered the ship’s engines and pulled in behind Thresher’s ship. She could see that it was the same vessel that visited their town over a year ago. It still looked large to her, but it was far less intimidating when she was flying in her own ship.
“Flight path shows us colliding with the Traveler,” Ruby reported. “Are you seeing this?”
“I am,” Olivia confirmed. “Ronin?”
“No, I know what he’s doing. Ruby. No matter what the ship’s computer says, stay the course.”
Ruby didn’t respond right away.
“Do as he says,” Olivia commanded.
“Roger that,” Ruby confirmed.
There was a massive groan that rumbled through the Garage. It reverberated to the ship’s hull, and Ruby took a deep breath to try and calm herself.
The enormous bay door of the Garage began to open, and as soon as it did, the atmospheric pressure started to drop. Explorer Two had been designed with atmosphere in mind, so the sudden change caused the ship to wobble and shake.
“Steady,” Olivia said calmly. “Stay on them.”
Ruby heard the pressure alarms sounding as Explorer Two tried to pressurize what atmosphere it had left.
“Engage envira-suits,” Olivia called out. “I’ll get your helmet, Ruby.”
“No,” Ruby shouted. “You stay strapped in. Too much turbulence.”
“The ship isn’t pressurizing fast enough,” Olivia said.
“If you get knocked around, I don’t get a helmet anyway,” Ruby countered. “I’ve got this.”
The ship jostled again and lifted Ruby from her seat a bit. The air was thinner now, which meant less lift, so Explorer Two wanted to fall. She pushed the throttle to gain altitude, but that also gave them forward motion.
“Oh no,” she mumbled, realizing her mistake too late. “Brace for impact!”
They collided against Thresher’s ship with enough force to knock its tail end into the air. As it groaned and scraped along the hull of Explorer Two, Ruby focused on one thing… staying on target. She could hear Olivia telling her something, but a ringing in her ears was overpowering the other sounds.
Come to think of it, she felt pretty light-headed too.
“Ruby!” Olivia called her again, louder this time. “The Traveler is opening its own bay. STAY ON TARGET!”
“Right… stay on target…”
Her mind was getting fuzzy, but she saw it. A door had opened, and Thresher’s ship, now practically being pushed by Explorer Two, hurtled past it and into the belly of the Traveler itself. Ruby found it all rather entertaining. She was in a ship, which had just flown into a ship, which was docked inside of a ship… she laughed.
“RUBY! LAND THE SHIP!”
Thresher’s ship lifted away, and Ruby was sobered by the sight of an approaching metal wall. Her instincts took over, and for a glorious moment Ruby watched her body work while her mind only reeled.
“Reverse thrusters,” she announced. “Landing gear down. Hold on! It’s going to be bumpy!”
The red lights around her began to blur and glisten. She wasn’t sure how long it had been since she had taken a breath, so she tried that. Good. She could still breathe.
The altimeter reached zero.
Explorer Two came down with a thud, skidding along the metal floor of the Traveler’s interior. Ruby felt the ship stop, then stop again, then stop again, and she realized they’d only stopped once, but her oxygen deprivation was causing her to feel things in slow motion.
“Welcome aboard,” she mumbled over the radio. “We hope… you…”
Darkness swallowed her mind.
At the Grid, everyone was scrambling. The folks at Launch Control were shouting back and forth, trying to get control of Explorer Two’s last known position, while the engineering team frantically tried to figure out how they lost control of the Garage bulkhead. In Mission Control, back in town, Elsie saw the endless stream of data coming through and felt helpless. She had never truly understood how Olivia must have felt when they lost Explorer One, and her hubris had blinded her.
In an instant, none of it mattered.
“We can’t open the bulkhead,” someone finally shouted.
“It… someone… there was an override of our override.”
“One of the Travelers received an unauthorized departure command. The World Ship attempted to reject it, but then accepted it. Once the departure was given a green light, the Garage sealed itself to protect the rest of the Lower Level.”
“That’s what it says,” the engineer replied. “It says the request was unauthorized.”
“What does that even mean?” Elsie asked.
The open radio suddenly buzzed with static. Elsie felt a spike of hope. Maybe it was all just a false alarm. Maybe the Garage hadn’t opened, Explorer Two was fine, and all of this was going to be a big joke in a few weeks.
“Is that them? Is that Explorer Two?”
“Come in Mission Control, this is David Nash aboard the Intrepid. Do you read?”
Elsie was at a complete loss of words. “Uh… yes. This is Mission Control.”
“Good. I’m bringing the Intrepid in for a landing at the Grid immediately. I have the answers you need, and with some help, we might be able to get that bulkhead open again. Do you understand and agree?”
Elsie nodded vigorously, then remembered she was on a radio call. “Of course. Yes. You’re authorized to land at the Grid immediately.”
“Roger. Talk soon.”
The radio call ended, and Elsie turned to her assistant. “Get the helicopter ready. I need to get to the Grid. Call—”
“Doctor Lamarr?” a young engineer stood from her station. “I’m getting a confirmation that the Garage door has opened. One of the Travelers departed from Bay Zero. All health monitors and signals have ended for the crew of Explorer Two, as well as the ship’s main transponder.”
Elsie knew what the engineer was implying, and she refused to hear it. “The bulkhead is thick, and we know it blocks signals. They could very well be on the other side of that door and we wouldn’t get a reading. Right now, our priority shifts to rescue and recovery. You all heard the call we just got. David Nash has returned from the Upper Level, and it appears he is offering help. It’s unexpected, to say the least, but I have to pursue any options we can get. For now, everyone maintain your posts, monitor the situation, and report anything directly to me. Understood?”
The room of engineers agreed, some verbally, some with a nod.
“Thank you,” she replied.
“Doctor Lamarr?” someone asked. “Should we lock the doors?”
Elsie shook her head. “No. Until you hear anything else directly from me, we are an active mission. This is not over until we know more. Stay strong, people. Stay strong.”
“There’s something else,” another individual spoke up. “I’m getting readings of power levels decreasing all over the World Ship.”
“Me too,” another echoed.
“Systems are going into… hibernation?”
Elsie took a deep breath and tried to remain as calm as she could. “What systems? Are we losing anything vital?”
“No. All critical systems are still functioning, but we’re losing a lot of backups and other redundancy systems. I don’t understand what’s happening.”
“I think I do,” Elsie said. “Keep monitoring the situation. Report to me if anything pertaining to our livelihood is directly impacted. Do you understand?”
“Elsie,” her assistant said, having returned. “The helicopter is ready.”
The trip to the Grid was agonizing. The Explorers continued to report new problems with the World Ship as it appeared to be shutting down a variety of systems and controls. Entire sections of the Grid had stopped responding, lights were turning off randomly, and the artificial wind that had once blown in the Lower Level was now still.
As she landed, she couldn’t help but stare at the yellow and black vessel that was parked where Explorer Two usually sat. It looked similar in design to the small ship Ronin had crashed in long ago, but at a larger scale.
She stepped out as the helicopter blades slowed, and when the alien ship’s cockpit began to open, she was relieved to see David Nash inside.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” she said, trying to be happy for this moment.
“I didn’t get here fast enough,” David said, ignoring her greeting.
“I hope you can at least explain some of what is happening?” Elsie inquired.
“I can,” he answered. “We’ll just—”
“Elsie,” someone called from the helicopter. She spun around to see the pilot starting the blades up again. Her assistant was rushing over. “It’s the Core. It’s shutting down too.”
“I see. So, where is the pilot going?”
“Well, before it shut down, it sent us a citizen.”
The assistant held up a screen, one that had been put at the Core for better visual identification of new arrivals. Elsie already knew who she was going to see, but when she saw Ruby’s face on the screen, it still sent a painful shiver down her spine.
“Go and get her,” Elsie said. “We’ll sort it out soon.”
“What’s that about?” David asked.
“A low concern at the moment,” she answered. “I’m sure you’re aware of our situation.”
“I am,” David replied. “What were you guys doing in the Garage?”
Elsie paused. “Excuse me?”
“Why did you go into the Garage?”
“It was your idea,” Elsie said, shocked. “You told us about the power station!”
Then, without further explanation, it all made sense. David understood why Thresher had blocked the ship-wide system at the Hub. Getting to the Grid would have meant fighting his way through the town’s citizens. He had come up with another plan, manipulating the Explorers to open the Garage for him instead.
“That wasn’t me,” David said through clenched teeth. “Thresher played us.”
“I don’t… what… oh no…” Elsie’s voice drifted. Thresher had sent them the data on how to open the Garage. He had convinced them it was a good idea, all the time pretending to be David Nash. He had used them to get what he wanted, and they had suffered because of it. She held back her emotions as best she could and took a deep breath of air. “Okay. Fine. What’s done is done,” she started. “We can only focus on here and now. So help me get the Garage open again so I can try to save my people… if there’s anyone left to save.”