The docking procedure Ronin was worried about came and went without any real surprises. The Traveler slowed considerably, eventually flying into a large bay, and finally came to a full stop within a new habitat. The area surrounding the Traveler, however, looked nothing like the Garage back home. Instead, it appeared far closer to the Garden.
“Okay,” Ronin said as he unbuckled his restraint. “The first part is done. Now we just need to get from the docking bay to my hometown. It shouldn’t be too difficult, assuming a few of my old things are still in place. Go ahead and gather up any and all light emitting devices.”
“What? Why?” Olivia asked.
“Part of our trip takes us through the Woods. It’s a part of the ship like your Garden.”
“You remember George?” Ronin asked.
“I do,” Olivia replied, thinking of the large reptilian creature she had seen back home.
“This World Ship has a George too, but we called it the Yunai. It’s not something you want to run into out there, but if we do, we’ll need lights to distract it.”
“George is a dinosaur, right?” Ruby asked from behind the pair. “Why lights?”
“The Yunai isn’t a dinosaur,” Ronin answered. “The point is, we bring lights.”
Outside of Explorer Two, the group was preparing for their journey when they heard the familiar sound of repulsor engines in the air. Ronin and Oliva looked around until they spotted Thresher’s Hammerhead vehicle zooming overhead. It darted toward one of the massive panels on the side of the Traveler, and they watched as the panel silently slid open, allowing the vehicle to make a quick exit.
They disappeared in the distance.
“Where is he going?” Olivia asked.
“I wish I knew,” Ronin answered. “Hopefully we can avoid him for this trip.”
“Guys,” Ruby spoke up, her face buried in data logs. “I want to stay here.”
Olivia turned to Ruby and frowned. “Why would we do that?”
“I think I can get Explorer Two off the ground,” she answered. “It’ll take time, but time is all we’ve got.”
“I really think we should stick together on this one,” Oliva said.
“We have trackers on,” Ruby pushed. “If I get the ship online I can fly right to you, pick you up, and we can be on our way. This is the right call.”
Olivia looked to Ronin, and he just shrugged. “She’s got a point.”
“Alright,” Olivia relented. “She can stay and work on the ship. If you get it up and working, contact us before you come flying out on some daredevil mission, yeah?”
Ruby chuckled. “Of course.”
The trip from the Traveler to WS2296 was more arduous than Olivia initially expected. She spent most of the way huffing and puffing, reminding herself that if she made it back home in one piece she was going to sync up with the physical trainer that Elsie had all the Explorers work with these days.
Their first hurdle came quickly enough. They had to climb up the large wall of the Traveler to reach the massive doorway that they had entered through. Ronin took the lead, climbing dangerously high, finding an anchor point, and then extending a rope down for her to quickly climb. She was thankful for his help. She very much doubted that she could have made the climb without his guidance.
At the top, the massive doorway opened for them just as it had for the Hammerhead. She was curious how it decided they were worthy of attention, since they were so small, but she didn’t have the luxury of time to investigate further. Instead, she rushed along to catch up with Ronin, who had already started working on the first anchor point to lower them down to the ground below.
The first thing she realized was that the Traveler had not docked in a landing bay like the Garage, as she had originally thought. It was definitely a bay-like structure, meant for the massive vehicles, but wild vegetation grew just beyond the open doors.
“What is this place?”
Ronin, busy tying a rope, looked around for a moment. “Oh yeah, so like I said earlier, our World Ship is a different design. The controlled environments and living areas are all at the center of a disk-shaped structure. The entire area is surrounded by the Woods.
“So we’re in the Woods?”
“Kinda. There’s a shielding around these bays that keeps the botanical area sealed off from the void, but they’re not clearly separated like your Garage.”
“So how do we cross the Woods?”
“That’s the real question, isn’t it?” he said as he finished with his rope. “Hopefully the answer is right down by the river.”
The pair walked together through the Woods, and it became obvious that something had gone wrong here. The plants and trees here were varied shades of brown, and each footstep was filled with the sound of crunching from the dried leaves beneath their feet. The massive trees loomed overhead, some of them large enough that an entire town could fit inside, but their limbs were barren of foliage, and they creaked like dried kindling.
It was exactly as Ronin had said. There was no life here.
She followed him until he reached a large river, the water flowing with a deep blue color and soothing sound that betrayed the lifeless scene around them.
“Hopefully…” he mumbled, looking around. “Ah, yes! Here it is!”
He pulled some leaves away from a pile of debris and revealed an impressive boat beneath the coverage. He quickly climbed aboard and started messing with various controls.
“How did you know about this?” Olivia asked.
“I left it here,” Ronin answered. “I left this years ago. The power crystal is shot, but everything looks in good order. If we can get to the shrimp shack I can probably replace it and have us up and running again. Thankfully, the current flows right toward town.”
“So we’re going to ride a boat?” she asked.
“Surely there’s a… safer route?”
“No, not on foot. The river keeps us clear of any animals.”
“What about the uh… Yunai?”
Ronin pursed his lips. “We’ll deal with that when the time comes. You have the lights?”
“Good. Now, help me push this out into the river.”
The light in the Woods had been dim from the start, but within a few hours of pushing off into the river, the lighting had nearly faded. Ronin was using a large stick to poke and prod at the riverbed, slowly shoving the boat this way or that as it carried along with the current.
Up ahead, Olivia could see a large bulkhead, not unlike the ones back home.
“Is that our entry point?”
“Yes indeed,” he replied. “There’s a small hole cut out for ships to pass through.”
“Once we’re inside the habitat, how long—”
Olivia heard a whisper, off near the shore, and she snapped to look in that direction. Without any real light, she could see nothing more than darkness, but as she scanned the edge of the water she heard it again. Yes, definitely a whisper… louder this time.
“Did you hear that?” she asked aloud.
“Hear what?” Ronin asked, his voice serious. “Olivia, what did you hear?”
“A whisper,” she replied, her eyes still scanning the darkness. “It’s somewhere…”
Olivia heard Ronin moving, fishing around as though he was searching for something in their supplies, but she couldn’t stop searching… she couldn’t stop focusing. The whisper came again, and this time it sent a chill along her spine.
“Oliviaaaaa,” it spoke. The voice sounded quiet, innocent, like a child.
“Who are you?” Olivia asked, louder, still desperately searching for the source of the voice. “I can’t see you.”
The boat began to pass under one of the massive branches above, and with it the last of the light vanished. As soon as the darkness passed over them, the temperature around Olivia plummeted. Her heart began to race, and she realized she was struggling to move at all. It was like she had become frozen with fear.
Then, much to her terror, the shadows themselves began to move around her like a living creature, the darkness was alive.
It encroached from all sides, and she felt its icy grip moving in.
“Don’t you worry, my dear,” the shadow’s voice whispered. “Come and follow where I go. I can give you everything you have ever wanted… just let me in. You will be safe under my control. You must let me in.”
Olivia tried to resist, but she couldn’t stop it.
It drew closer, and she was suddenly sure it was in her mind… in her thoughts.
Then, there was a blinding blast of bright light, and in an instant, the voice was gone, the chill evaporated, and Olivia stood on the deck of the boat, her mind her own.
She spun to see Ronin hoisting a lantern that he had found.
Her body relaxed, like she had been released from some kind of horrifying grip, and she collapsed, breathing heavily as suppressed panic bubbled its way to the surface.
“What was that?” she asked, her words broken by her gasps.
“That,” Ronin replied flatly, “that… was the Yunai.”
“Are we safe?” she asked.
“So long as the lights stay on,” he answered. “We just need to pass through the bulkhead. There’s a shield there that the Yunai can’t get through.”
“Anything I can do to help move us along?” she asked, eyeing the glowing lights.
“Sure,” he said, handing her a long stick. “Push us along.”
As they arrived at the bulkhead, Ronin warned her that they would feel a slight sensation, like static energy, as they passed through the shield. Assuming it was still up, they would be safe. The sensation, while strange, was a welcome one.
It meant that… thing… couldn’t get them now.
“The shrimp shack isn’t far from here,” he explained. “The owner liked to keep it close to the shield so that the various folks could stop in for some food before continuing down the river or moving into other sections within the habitat. We just need to find a power crystal there, and then it’s a few hours to town.”
“Cool,” Olivia replied, her voice hollow.
“That caught you off guard, I assume?”
“You said you had a creature like George. I was expecting a dinosaur, not a haunted terror from the shadows.”
“I’m sorry,” Ronin said, scratching his head. “The Yunai isn’t the easiest creature to describe, and I was hoping to avoid it completely. We’ll equip the boat with some more lights before we head back across.”
“It spoke to me,” Olivia continued. “I heard a voice.”
“You heard something,” Ronin replied. “Let me guess…. It told you that you’d be safe under its control, something like that?”
“It says that to every person it meets. We don’t know why, but we do know that if it takes control of someone, they’re as good as gone.”
“What does it want? Why is it on your World Ship?”
“These are all great questions, none of which I can answer.”
Olivia felt the burning desire for information igniting in her chest. She looked back the way they had come and couldn’t help but wonder what mysteries lurked in the shadows of this World Ship. The mission ahead was vital, and their survival depended on it, so she swallowed the curiosity and focused herself on their current task.
As if being rewarded for her focus, Ronin snapped a finger and pointed ahead.
“There we have it,” he said proudly. “Chuck’s Shrimp Shack, worse for wear, but almost exactly as I remember it. Let’s hope they have what we need.”
Olivia nodded and then stood at his side. “How can I help?”