The void was shockingly silent.
Olivia Sun could hear the whirring and humming from various pieces of equipment, but it was strangely muted compared to what she remembered. She was sitting in the cargo bay of Explorer Two, with the unconscious Ruby Rose next to her. Ruby’s breathing was slow, but steady, and her chest rose and fell in a normal rhythm.
Outside the craft, Ronin was busy making visual inspections of the vehicle. His silence since leaving the cabin had been concerning, but he finally spoke through the radio, the crackling of the static finally breaking the eerie silence.
“Well, do you want the good news or the bad news?” he asked.
“Good,” she responded. “Only good.”
“The vehicle isn’t badly damaged. I think, if we can get it off the ground, we can keep it in the air. We have a good environmental seal in the cabin, but we know it’s a slow seal, so we need time to let it happen or we’ll pass out like Ruby.”
Olivia frowned at his words. Just yesterday, Ruby had saved their lives by flying Explorer Two into the docking bay of a massive spaceship, known only as the Traveler. The brave piloting had required her full attention, and she had no time to put on her pressurized helmet. She had suffered from mild hypoxia during the event. As soon as they landed, Olivia went to work on stabilizing the air pressure in the cabin.
The prognosis was good, but Ruby still hadn’t woken from the ordeal. It was hard to know, at least without any medical equipment, if the young woman was going to have any lasting complications from the event.
“She’ll be alright,” Ronin chimed in, breaking Olivia’s thoughts. “We got her oxygen, and she’s showing signs of good health. Let her sleep. The air is pressurized out here, by the way, so it’s safe for now. Come outside and let’s talk.”
Olivia stayed with Ruby a minute longer, but finally stood and exited the vehicle so that she could join Ronin outside. It felt good to stretch her legs again, and she took the long way around the vehicle to reach his side.
“Look up there,” he said, pointing as she approached.
She followed his hand and nearly gasped. The interior of the Traveler had not been impressive so far. It appeared to be nothing more than a massive hangar with plenty of storage bays, no doubt each filled with supplies that would be transferred on and off the World Ship.
Up high in the air, however, the side of the Traveler was translucent. It gave a clear view of the empty void beyond, and Olivia was suddenly struck with its vastness… its absolute emptiness… and its beauty. White streaks swirled past the windows, lighting up the darkness as the Traveler zipped through the depths of space.
“It really is,” Ronin agreed.
“It’s so much more than I imagined.”
He nodded. “You can’t help but feel that way the first time you see it.”
“What does Thresher have to do with all this?” she asked, still looking out at the darkness beyond the translucent hull of the Traveler. “What does his story have to do with… this?”
Ronin hesitated. It was clear he had something he needed to say, but he was having trouble figuring out how to start. Olivia had long determined that there was more to Ronin than he was letting on, but she had never assumed it to be quite so grand.
“Okay,” he finally started. “Thresher and I… we’re not from your World Ship.”
“It’s not so shocking to hear it,” Olivia said. “Not now, anyway.”
“Not out here,” Ronin said, tapping his visor. “Let’s talk inside.”
The pair returned to Explorer Two, checked on Ruby’s vitals once more, and then Ronin collected his thoughts and started to tell Olivia a story that she knew would be difficult to hear. The view of the void she had just witnessed… everything was different now, and Ronin was in the middle of it.
“Your World Ship, officially designated W-S-Three-Six-Zero-Nine, is where your story begins,” Ronin started. “For Thresher and I, that story begins on another World Ship. Our home was officially designated W-S-Two-Two-Nine-Six. Like you, we just called it home. We didn’t see it any different from any other place one might live.”
“So the Book of the Travelers… Thresher’s agenda… is this all about your old home?”
“Is that where we’re going?” she asked. “Is Thresher taking us to his home?”
Ronin shifted uncomfortably. “He is.”
“It’s not a short story,” Ronin said.
“I have nowhere else to be,” Olivia replied.
He looked at her for a long moment and then nodded. “Fair enough. The truth be told, I was born and raised on WS2296. I didn’t come out of a Core. Where I came from, the Core was a legend, a relic of the past that no longer served a purpose. There were those who spoke highly of it, some even worshiped it, but it wasn’t active.”
“Did your World Ship look like ours?”
“No. We had a town, oceans, woods… all the stuff you have, but it was a different layout on our World Ship. There was a different feel to it, but the building blocks were the same. The only major difference was our society. We had multiple cities, cultures, and even civilizations. An entire area of our World Ship had sailors and tall ships with big sails. Another part had hovercraft and advanced technology.”
“So how did you get from there to here?”
“Our society began to exploit the World Ship systems. We diverted resources to projects that we liked, ignored power drains, experimented with forcing the Travelers to explore the stars rather than mine asteroids…”
“You broke the automation?”
Ronin nodded. “The World Ship tried to warn us. It began behaving erratically, trying to collect reserves and overwrite our interruptions. By the time we realized the damage we had done, there was no real way to reverse it. It was a system-wide cascading failure, and over time, the system crashed. The World Ships just started… dying.”
“So, you fled from the disaster and ended up on our World Ship?”
“Not exactly,” Ronin said, his voice sounding sad. “I was sent, alone, to ride a Traveler, find another home for our people, and return. I left my friends and family, confident I could find them refuge.”
“It took you to our World Ship?”
“It took me to an asteroid first. I modified its flight plan, finding a nearby World Ship in the process. It brought me there thanks to my meddling. What I found was a paradise. There were no citizens on your World Ship at the time. It was a promised land, all that we could ever need.”
“Then, you couldn’t get home?” Olivia guessed.
“My modification to the flight plan had caused the Traveler to do some kind of self-diagnostic. It wasn’t going anywhere. I waited and I waited, but the days turned to weeks, then months, and I began to lose hope. It took almost a year, but the Traveler finally finished, and I was able to take control and return home. When I arrived, however, the World Ship was almost completely shut down. Lights were out, power was minimal, and most importantly, I couldn’t find any signs of survivors. The entire population of the World Ship was gone. I made it all the way back to my home, and there I found my last communication with my family. My wife left me all her research, the final piece to fully controlling the Travelers.”
“She hoped you might find it one day,” Olivia mused.
“I used it to take full control of the Traveler. I waited in town for a few days, but it became apparent that there was no one there. I eventually lost all hope and used the Traveler to return to WS3609.”
“How does your story merge with ours?”
Ronin laughed at her question. “Always curious,” he said. “There was a man on your World Ship, an elderly fellow named Anton. He saved me, put me into cold storage, and I eventually woke up, just like you or any of your other citizens.”
“That explains a lot, but how does Thresher fit into all of this?”
“Thresher lived on WS2296 too. After I departed and never returned, Thresher assumed I had abandoned the doomed World Ship for my own safety. At some point, he also boarded a Traveler, hoping to follow me through the void. Eventually, he ended up on WS3609 with me. When he finally found me, he demanded that I return home. I tried to tell him our World Ship was lost, but he wouldn’t hear it. He just couldn’t bring himself to accept it. Ever since then, I have fought Thresher for the Book of the Travelers. I knew if he took the book, he would steal one of the ships and leave your World Ship in grave danger.”
“Wait. Why is our World Ship in danger?” Olivia asked.
“Didn’t you hear what I just said? Without the Traveler, your ship can’t keep up its repairs, its production, or anything really. It runs out of resources, and by extension, so does its crew.”
“Why didn’t you just destroy the book?” she asked, looking angry. “Why leave it for him?”
Ronin frowned. “It was the last thing my wife ever gave me… I couldn’t do it.”
Olivia wanted to be angry, but it melted away and left her with only pity.
“Fine,” she said flatly. “If our World Ship is in danger, the solution is simple. We have to reclaim this Traveler from Thresher and get back home. It’s easy enough, right? We arrive at your old World Ship, Thresher leaves, and we steal the Traveler back.”
“The problem is that we need the Book of the Travelers. I don’t have the systems memorized, Olivia. The process for taking control of the automated controls is complex. I need Scarlett’s notes to do it properly.”
Scarlett. Olivia’s mind swirled at the word.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes… Scarlett was your wife?” she asked.
“Right. Yes. Sorry, Scarlett did all the research.”
“Fine. Okay. So we go and get the book,” Olivia amended. “It’s here on the Traveler right now. Thresher would have used it to take control of the Traveler. If we find him, we find the book, and then we can use it to go home.”
“Thresher had guards and weapons. We have neither.”
“So what do you suggest?” she asked. “Are we giving up?”
He shook his head. “No. If we’re going to our old World Ship, then there might be another way for me to get what we need. My wife kept meticulous records when it came to her research. If she backed it up or stored it on one of the ship systems… we can get it from there. There may be files on her laptop… anything… we can try to find it there.”
“So what’s the plan?” Olivia asked.
“Okay,” Ronin said, still sorting it out in his head. “We wait until we reach my old World Ship. Then, we head over to my old town and dig through my wife’s files. I’m confident that she would have left something behind, even if it’s just a draft. We use that to take control of the Traveler, break from the World Ship, and go back to your home.”
“What about Ruby?”
Ronin shrugged. “What about her?”
“Yeah,” a groggy voice said behind them. “What about me?”
Olivia had never felt such joy flood through her system. “Ruby?! Oh thank goodness!”
“What happened?” Ruby asked, sounding unsurprisingly tired. “Last thing I remember I was flying a ship?”
“We’ve got a bit of explaining to do,” Olivia admitted. “All is well. Let’s break out our best dehydrated potatoes to celebrate.”
Ruby chuckled. “Oh boy.”
Olivia and Ronin had just finished explaining the events following Ruby’s daring landing when there was a shift in the gravity aboard Explorer Two. The group rushed to look out of the front cockpit, and then they saw that the void outside of the Traveler had changed. The darkness of space became much brighter, and where Olivia had only seen shadows before, she now saw a bright sky blue.
“What’s happening?” she asked.
“We’re here,” Ronin replied. “We need to get strapped in. The docking procedure is super automated, but with a dead World Ship I don’t know how smooth the landing will be.”
“You heard him, Ruby,” Olivia said. “Everyone to their seats, helmets locked.”
“We’ll have to move pretty quickly,” Ronin added, grabbing some of his equipment from one of the consoles. “I don’t know how long the Traveler will be allowed to stay docked on our World Ship. We may have to move fast.”
“Right,” Olivia grumbled. “Okay, setting parameters.”
“We’re going to have to go on foot,” Ronin chimed in again. “We okay with that?”
Olivia didn’t look convinced.
“We can’t risk flying the Explorer Two,” Ronin said. “I may not be able to reopen the Traveler docking bay.”
Reluctantly, Olivia nodded. “If you think this is the best option, then I support you.”
Ronin flashed a smile and started putting on his suit. “It’s going to be great.”
“Okay folks,” Olivia announced as she got into her seat and strapped in. “Prepare for the Traveler docking procedure… whatever that might entail!”