Elsie Lamarr had a problem.
Well, she had a list of problems… a list that was growing each day.
Right now, at this moment, her biggest problem was literally staring her right in the face. A young woman with brown hair and an unmistakable smile.
Elsie couldn’t help but feel like she was looking at a living memory.
This woman was an identical copy of Ruby Rose.
Not the Ruby Rose that had just vanished in the Garage days ago, but Ruby Rose as she had looked when she arrived from the Core many years ago. Elsie held a piece of paper in her hand, the same piece of paper that this young woman had used to write her name. It was definitely Ruby’s handwriting.
There was no mistaking it.
“Hello… Ruby Rose,” Elsie started, struggling to sound relaxed. “My name is Elsie Lamarr. I’m the Operator of this facility. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Has anyone spoken with you about your current location?”
Ruby shook her head in response. “Nope. I woke up in a white room, followed a hallway, then got picked up by some nice folks that said they could explain everything. I liked the flying part, by the way. It was pretty invigorating to be so high up, you know? Also, I don’t want to step on any toes around here, but I noticed the pilot was making a few mistakes in his—”
“Yes,” Elsie interrupted. “I have heard the flight can be a bit jarring for new arrivals. Tell me, do you remember anything from before your time in the white room?”
Ruby shook her head. “To be frank, m’am, I was hoping you might be the one telling me.”
Else frowned, but quickly masked it with a fake smile. “Ah well, that’s very normal.”
Ruby’s smile suddenly vanished, and she scooted to the edge of her seat. “Wait. Am I a prisoner? Did I like… did I commit some terrible crime in the past and then get put into some kind of future sleep prison and now it’s time for my parole or are—”
“Ruby, Ruby,” Elsie said, gesturing her arms in a motion that conveyed slowing down. “You are not a prisoner. You are a full citizen of this World Ship, and you will soon find yourself free to wander as much as you please. We just have some protocols that we run through when someone new arrives from the Core.”
“The white room where you woke up,” Elsie explained.
“In the meantime, if there is anything I could do for you, you are welcome to ask.”
“Can I have some food?” Ruby inquired. “Like… real food. These ration bars are no good, and they taste like cardboard wrapped in leaf trimmings.”
Elsie couldn’t help but smile. “Of course. We can get your favorite soup from Oliver’s.”
“My favorite?” Ruby asked. “Do I have a favorite?”
Elsie shunned herself internally and smiled externally. “I meant to say my favorite. I’m afraid it was a slip of the tongue. I’ll get some food sent your way as soon as I can. If you need anything else, just call for someone to come help.”
Ruby looked as content as any other citizen, despite her circumstances, nodding happily as Elsie stepped out the door. “I’ll call if I need anything!” she said cheerily as the door closed. “It was nice to meet you, Elsie!”
The door closed with a click, and Elsie took a deep breath. After becoming the leader of the Explorers, Olivia had briefed Elsie on the Core, the mysterious case of Flynn, and the expectation that it would happen again someday.
If someone was lost on the World Ship, the Core would replace them.
Elsie had assumed she wouldn’t be dealing with this problem for years to come. The relative safety of the World Ship had made her complacent, and after the loss of Ruby Rose in the Garage, she had been made acutely aware of the complications that the Core would introduce to her world.
Internally, her heart was happy to see Ruby Rose, clearly alive, sitting right in front of her like nothing had happened in the last several years. Her mind already assaulted her with feelings of guilt about it. This Ruby was not her Ruby. Maybe…
No. She stopped, took another deep breath, and swallowed her emotions. This was not the time to be getting lost in sentimentality or the greater wonderings of individuality. The World Ship had more problems for her to attend. This Ruby problem was at the bottom of her list.
Johnathan Davis had requested transport to the Grid immediately following the news of Explorer Two’s disappearance. He had hoped there was more to the story. He had hoped that Elsie would be waiting for him with at least a small sliver of hope for him to hold onto, but his arrival brought him no such satisfaction.
Ruby Rose was gone.
His love. His life.
They had talked about the dangers, of course, but talking about something like this was not the same as experiencing it. How could talking prepare someone for this devastating truth? No, he was a wreck, and he didn’t know what to say or do to change his feelings.
Elsie met with him only briefly, and the news she had shared did little to temper his emotional state. She told him they had a new arrival. She told him that it was another Ruby Rose.
Not his Ruby, but someone very much like her.
Elsie was flying to town to meet with the council, so she asked him to avoid meeting the new arrival for now. He agreed without question, lying on the spot so that she would leave him here on his own.
When she was gone, he immediately went to seek the new arrival out.
Now, as he stood at the door of the holding area, he wondered if he should follow through with his plan. He wasn’t a fool. He, like Elsie, knew that the Ruby Rose inside the room beyond him was not the same woman that had kissed him farewell just a few days before, but his grief was a powerful force, and he opened the door, stepping inside to see the young woman that Elsie had warned him about.
Sure enough, there she was… Ruby.
As he had been warned, she didn’t just look different, she looked entirely different. Her hair was in the ponytail she used to wear all the time, her face and eyes seemed younger, brighter, maybe even a bit naive.
Despite how much she looked like her, John felt his hope sinking.
“Hello,” he said, his voice shaking as he spoke. “My name is Johnathan Davis.”
“Ah, great,” Ruby said, jumping from her seat and approaching him. “I assume you’re the one to talk to about food? I am starving, so at this point, I’ll take just about anything. Do you have any kind of non-meat options?”
“I… uh… what?”
“The woman I spoke with before, Elsie was her name, she said she’d get me some soup or something. I assumed that’s why you were here?”
“Oh, um… not exactly,” John replied. “I was coming to ask if you might want to talk—”
“No no,” Ruby interjected. “I’m done talking for now. Feed me, and then we can talk.”
“Okay, sure,” John nodded. “Food. We can do that. How about cheesecake?”
Ruby looked confused for a moment, but then her eyes lit up. “Yes! Cheesecake? Oh, wow, that was cool. Until you said that word, I didn’t know what a cheesecake was, you know? Then, as soon as you mentioned it, it was like I just… knew.”
“It’s knowledge that’s stored in the brain,” John said. “I knew you liked cheesecake, so that seemed like a good place to start. Chef Layfayette makes some each week.”
Ruby squinted at John, really glowering at him. “How did you know I liked cheesecake?”
“Who doesn’t like cheesecake?” John asked.
“No, one time is odd. Two times is too much. Elsie said I had a favorite soup earlier. She backpedaled, played it off as a mistake, no big deal. Then you come in here, and suddenly you know I like cheesecake too?”
John was fully panicking. He was not the right person to be fielding these questions, but he couldn’t just lie to her, not after all this chaos. He thought about simply running out of the room, but the last thing he wanted was to stir up a conspiracy theory in Ruby’s mind.
“Look,” he said at last. “The truth is…”
The door behind the pair swung open, and John spun around to see Flynn Brickshelm walking in with a slim computer in his hands. He smiled warmly at them both and crossed between their line of sight so that Flynn’s back was blocking John from seeing Ruby.
“Hey there, Ruby. My name is Flynn Brickshelm. I’m the man with the answers! I bet you’re glad to hear that. To answer your first and most important question, I present you with… your informational dossier.”
He flipped the computer open to reveal a file with Ruby’s photo and a bulleted list of information flowing beneath it.
“We’ve got information on your hobbies, foods, allergies… you name it,” he continued. “In fact, considering your current lack of situational awareness, I’m pretty sure this file knows more about you than… you.”
Ruby looked shocked. “How did you get that information?”
“A great question, and one that we can answer once we have you on your way to your assigned home.”
“That’s right,” Flynn said. “You’ll meet lots of new people and make plenty of friends. I can’t wait to give you more details about it.”
“Okay…” she said, clearly skeptical.
“I know it’s a bit overwhelming,” Flynn assured her. “New arrivals always have that feeling. We all know how it feels. After all, we were all new arrivals once too!”
Flynn looked over his shoulder at John and offered him a warm, but firm, expression. It was clear that there was a plan in motion and John was not involved. Flynn didn’t say anything to him directly, but his face said it all just fine.
“Well,” John said calmly. “It sounds like they’ve gotten you sorted out here, so I’ll be on my way. If you have any questions, Ruby, I’m sure they’ll get it resolved. It was nice meeting you.”
“You too,” Ruby said, smiling at him. “See you around, maybe?”
“Maybe,” John said, suddenly optimistic. “I mean, definitely.”
The town council had already taken their places at the large table in Town Hall when Elsie finally stepped off the elevator and rounded the corner. A few of them greeted her with forced smiles, but the majority looked as she had expected… concern-etched faces all around.
“I’ll start right away,” she said, stepping to the edge of the table. “So far, we do not see reason to assume we are in any grave danger.”
A palatable fear lifted off the shoulders of several council members.
“So, what caused the problem?” Bryan Steeles asked. “How did a simple mission into an unexplored section of the World Ship turn into a literal end-of-the-world scenario?”
“We only have pieces of the full story, but we believe that a vital component of the World Ship might have been stolen by the individual known as Thresher.”
“Thresher?” Nancy Rizzo asked. “Is that the scary guy that flew in here a year or so ago with the big shark vehicle thing?”
“The one and the same,” Elsie confirmed.
“What exactly did he steal?” Nima Patel asked.
“In short, our World Ship uses two large vessels, which we call Travelers. These vessels come and go from our World Ship to gather raw materials and resources that are then used to keep our home in working order. They might drag in frozen comets for water, or asteroids for iron… things along those lines.”
“You’re telling us that Thresher stole a massive interstellar vehicle?” Rayland inquired.
“So how does Explorer Two play into this?” Bryan asked, shifting uncomfortably.
“Unfortunately, we believe that Thresher used the Explorers to gain access to the Garage so that he could complete this theft. When he attempted to escape in his new vessel, the Garage went on lockdown. Explorer Two and her crew would have been trapped there when the Garage opened to the void. It’s unlikely they could have survived. The atmospheric change would have likely pulled them out of the World Ship, and temperatures within the Garage reached incredibly low levels while the exterior doors were open.”
“This is unfortunate,” Rayland piped up from his seat. “I had hoped vindication would taste a little sweeter. I’m sorry for your losses, Elsie.”
“As am I,” she replied.
Nima raised a hand, waiting her turn, and when Elsie motioned, she looked concerned, but nodded and took a deep breath. “I suppose someone needs to say it. We’ve heard rumors that the World Ship has been behaving erratically since the… theft.”
“They are more than rumors,” Elsie confirmed. “The World Ship has responded negatively to the loss of the Traveler. The power levels dropped, then spiked, and various changes are occuring all throughout the ship-wide systems.”
“You said you do not think we are in danger?” Nancy asked.
“Not at this time.”
“What gives you that confidence?”
“The Grid has not thrown out any critical errors, no warnings of power shortages, supply constraints, or anything that would give us reason to be alarmed. At this time, our best guess is that the World Ship has an automated process that it follows in the event one of these Travelers doesn’t return.”
“Is there any concrete information you can share?” Bryan asked.
“Honestly? No. There’s still a lot we don’t understand about the World Ship. The changes to our living conditions may be minimal, but we can’t say for sure.”
It was so disheartening to admit it, but she was being honest.
They just didn’t know.
She couldn’t assure them of their safety or tell them she would make it right.
She had never felt more helpless than she did right now.
When Flynn Brickshelm stepped out from his meeting with Ruby, he immediately spotted Johnathan Davis waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs. He couldn’t help but offer a loud and pointed sigh as John approached him.
“Listen,” John said. “I need—”
“You don’t need anything,” Flynn responded. “I had hoped Elsie would be perfectly blunt with you about this, John. That young woman in there doesn’t know you. She doesn’t have feelings for you, and she doesn’t know a damn thing about the mess of emotions that you’ve got wound up in your chest.”
“That’s not fair,” John snapped. “If Ruby is going to come to town, she’ll need friends who know her and can help her transition into her old life.”
“She doesn’t have an old life. In addition to that, she’s not going to town at all. It’s already worked out, John. She is going with David Nash to the Hub.”
“What?” John asked, his voice expressing true shock. “You can’t. Ruby belongs here.”
“No, she doesn’t,” David countered. “Ruby Rose, pilot of the Explorer Two mission to the Garage, belonged here. The girl inside that room is not the same person.”
“You don’t know that,” John grumbled. “We don’t know how the Core works, or how—”
“We do know,” Flynn said. “Me more than most.”
John realized he had overstepped. He backed off that point, but he didn’t yield from his mission. “She has friends here,” he said, his voice sounding desperate. “We will miss her!”
“Walk me through this,” Flynn said, giving John a moment. “What exactly do you see happening when you parade this woman through town? Do you lie to everyone and tell them that she survived the mission? Do you tell the truth? Will you explain that she’s just a copy of someone we all knew? How does this Ruby get to live a life at all? Will you be telling her each and every day what she should or shouldn’t do, or like, or want?”
“I haven’t thought about the specifics, obviously…”
“Obviously,” Flynn echoed. “We already talked it through with David. There’s a whole city in the Upper Level that Ruby will get to explore. She’ll be a new face to every citizen there, so she has no baggage from the life of someone who came before her. She’ll have a fresh start there, John, and that’s what she deserves.”
“What if she doesn’t like it?”
“You and I both knew the old Ruby very well. If this young woman is anything like her, then you and I both know she’s going to love it there.”
“I just… I want what’s best.”
“I know you do,” Flynn said. “This is the right path. Our Ruby left big shoes to fill. I wouldn’t want that young woman to feel like she lived in the shadows of a former self. It wouldn’t be right to her or anyone in her position.”
“You’re right, of course,” John said, fighting back his emotions.
“It’s hard, I understand,” Flynn added, offering John some support. “It’s going to be okay. Not right away, maybe not for a long time… but eventually, it’ll be okay.”