Rayland Walsh scoffed at the letter he held. William Everett sent dire warnings from Mount Machina. It appeared temperatures across the World Ship were rising, likely as part of the continual power fluctuations and other oddities that had arisen after the loss of the Traveler.
Elsie Lamarr had informed the town council these changes would continue, and she had also warned them that no one in the Grid really had any idea of how impactful the changes would be for the citizens in town.
At first it was just the artificial sunlight. It had grown dimmer in the sky, though not enough to make it feel dark outside… just… less bright. It had been shelved as no more than a minor nuisance that the citizens could ignore. Then the power in town started suffering from blackouts. It might just be a streetlamp one night, or the entire street, but it showed no predictability, which made preparing for it useless.
With all this chaos spreading around, to get a letter from William Everett complaining about the lack of snow on the mountain? If that wasn’t enough to make one grumpy, William had also amended a title to his signature…
Mayor William Everett of Winter Village.
The thought was absurd. There was one council and one mayor. The very thought of trying to divy up the land and build separate towns was insane. If anyone knew how quickly small rivalries could turn into full-blown enemies it was Rayland Walsh.
He’d have to have a word with William, when the so-called Mayor arrived from his washed out village. For now, he was going to have to focus his attention on rationing out flashlights and checking in with Bryan at the bank to get the latest reports on their dry food storage.
“Excuse me, Mr. Walsh?”
Rayland looked up to see a young woman, not someone he immediately recognized, standing with a crumpled piece of paper and what looked like the remnants of tears streaking down her cheek.
“Hello? How may I help you?” he asked.
“I got a letter,” she started. “I’ve been in town for a few days, visiting a friend. My husband is out on the frontier, out near the Willow Creek homesteads. He wrote me a letter, Mr. Walsh… he said the water is rising and the home was swallowed by the river. He’s written to tell me we’ve… we’ve lost everything.”
“Willow Creek?” Rayland asked. “He said it’s flooding?”
“According to my husband, yes.”
Rayland was a proud man. He didn’t like to express fear or concern in the face of danger, and he definitely didn’t want to upset this woman any more than she already was. He reached for his radio and looked up with a smile. “Well, don’t you worry. We’re going to sort this out, right now. You have a seat just outside while I make a few calls. I understand you’re scared, but I promise you, we’ll set it right.”
The woman nodded nervously and backed out of his office door. He stood and gently closed it before snapping the radio to his face and dialing in Willow Creek Farms.
“Katherine?” he asked aloud. “Come in?”
There was only static.
Katherine Willow never left her radio. Not once.
Rayland switched his channel over to Elsie’s official frequency. “Lamarr?”
Elsie’s voice came back strong and clear. “What is it, Walsh?”
“We have a problem out at Willow Creek. I don’t know how bad, but it’s high priority.”
Elsie gave an audible sigh. “I can send a scout and the rescue helicopter. Do you have any information on what’s happening? Is it a farming accident or—”
“Flooding,” Rayland said, his eyes looking at the note from William and contemplating the melting snow from the mountain… “maybe a lot.”
The situation at Willow Creek Farm was worse than Elsie could have anticipated. Her scout pilot captured some photos of Katherine’s farm, but the entire property was nearly under water. The levels had risen fast, too, with the powerful current devastating her corn crops and pushing everything against the small home she had made for herself.
Elsie’s lead pilot, Scott Baker, was reading the report to her, and the town council, now.
“Most of the citizens were able to evacuate, but there are a few people unaccounted for and we’re not sure if…”
“There are no confirmed losses yet,” Elsie interrupted. “We have the rescue copter scanning the river for survivors.”
“Why did this happen?” Bryan Steeles asked, looking to Elsie. “What does this have to do with the ship’s power levels?”
Elsie shook her head. “We don’t know. Our knowledge of the Upper Level is nearly nonexistent. What we determined, so far, is that there is a kind of levee system that controls the water cycle on this World Ship. At some point after the Traveler departed, the levee system released a large amount of water, which has naturally made its way down through Willow Creek. It passes from there through the Lower Level, eventually traveling through another bulkhead levee system and into the Garden. We’re not sure what happens from there, other than we assume natural water cycle behavior takes place, evaporating the water where it’s collected and recycled back into the Upper Level water supply.”
“This torrent of information means nothing,” Rayland grumbled. “What matters is that Willow Farms, our largest producer of food, just got washed away in an unanticipated flood. Bryan, what does this mean for our food supply?”
“Well, in the short term, we’re fine. We have plenty of dry goods and food that we can consume in the coming weeks. Unfortunately, we don’t have a system for long-term storage of surplus, which means most of our stock will spoil long before we can eat it. If you recall, this was the scenario that prompted us to try and power the Pantry before—”
“I’ve had enough lessons about the inner workings of the World Ship,” Rayland snapped.
“Right,” Bryan replied. “Well, to answer the question. Without a quick return to normal production levels, our town will absolutely suffer severe food shortages. We already have some scouting photos on where we can start new farms, but we’re going to have to start rationing our stock… right away.”
“There’s also the point of the refugees,” Nancy Rizzo chimed in. “There were easily a hundred people living out near Willow Creek, not to mention however many of Everett’s people are coming from the Winter Village.”
“Everett’s people?” Rayland asked. “He doesn’t have people.”
“Right,” Nancy corrected. “Apologies.”
“It’s quite alright,” he said, calming himself. “I don’t mean to be aggressive.”
“There’s a matter of fuel, too,” Elsie added. “Without the World Ship producing more, our helicopters and drones will only be powered for so long. We’re working with David Nash for a more permanent solution using power crystals, but we’re not ready for testing yet.”
“We should allocate as much as we can to moving refugees and farming equipment,” Bryan said, looking over a few notes. “We can probably sort something out, but that is assuming the World Ship doesn’t throw any more curveballs at us.”
“Is there any hope on that front?” Rayland asked, looking back to Elsie. “Do we have any idea what else might be coming?”
“It’s hard to say. We could have been prepared for the rising water levels if we had known to look for the warning signs. The truth of the matter is that we’re woefully inexperienced with the World Ship systems. We’re trying to figure it out, but I can’t stress enough how unprepared we are for this kind of event. If Olivia’s exploration missions—”
“Let’s stop there,” Flynn Brickshelm interrupted Elsie before her anger got the best of her. She nodded, holding back her frustration, while Flynn looked around at all the council members.
“We know what we need to do,” he said, his voice loud and clear. “We are focusing on a crisis at Willow Creek. Our job is to get every single citizen back to town, safe and sound. We need clear heads for the task ahead, so for those of you that can, I’d recommend a nice sleep before the influx of refugees. For everyone else, get your heads back to the task. We can reconvene when the town’s safety has been secured. Are we in agreement on this?”
“Agreed,” the council said in unison.
Flynn stood from his chair and nodded. “We’ll get through this. I promise.”
Johnathan Davis appreciated the confidence that Flynn broadcast when he would speak. There was never an idea of ill intent or sinister motives. When it came to Flynn, his word was as good as a guarantee.
It was the rest of the council that concerned him.
Rayland Walsh was an arrogant leader that worried more about his position as Mayor than the safety of the citizens from Winter Village. Bryan saw the citizens as data on a spreadsheet, and his empathy was limited to statistical understanding. Elsie Lamarr was so busy hiding in Olivia’s shadow that she couldn’t see the light of day anymore.
No, John had lost hope in the town council.
Their reckless leadership had caused almost every single problem they were facing now, and still they sat at a big table making decisions that were completely disconnected from the citizens waiting outside.
Most of the town had yet to learn of the flooding, or the refugees. In fact, the vast majority of John’s readers had been asking him to follow up with information about the missing Explorer Two mission. They were largely clueless to the dangers that were openly discussed here.
He decided he couldn’t remain silent any longer.
“Before you all get up and leave here,” he said angrily. “I think we need to have a real talk about what is going to happen over the next six hours. The citizens here in town are clueless to the flood, to the loss of the Traveler, even to the real fact that Explorer Two is never coming back. Unless you plan on telling them something, they’re going to be so shell shocked by the wave of chaos that they’ll be no use to anyone!”
The room was silent.
Finally, Nancy spoke up. “What should we do? John, you’re the voice of the citizens, how can we communicate what we know without causing destructive panic? Should we start with the loss of the three brave souls in the Garage? Should we tell them Olivia Sun is gone? Or do we lead with the flooding and the destruction of our food supply chain? Which of these should we speak on before the sick and injured arrive from Willow Creek?”
In an instant, John’s anger and aggression faded. He stood there, looking at Nancy and the others with eyes that were no doubt glistening from the pain and anger that he felt bubbling within his mind. He understood the panic and the confusion these council members felt, and it hurt him to fear what might happen if he told the truth… but the answer remained the same.
“All of it,” he said, choking back a few tears. “Tell them everything. Make sure they understand the gravity of the situation we are going through. When they feel that same panic in their bones that you already feel, then we can tell them how we’re going to make it right. The weight of this moment demands nothing less than total honesty and transparency. We cannot withhold this information. We cannot leave them uninformed. If we’re going to face this darkness, then we must face it united under the banner of truth.”
John wasn’t sure what he expected, but the council members looked at one another for a long while before Rayland stood from his chair and shrugged. “John, we trust you. You’ve guided us through some of the most stressful events this town has seen. We all have our reservations about sharing the depth of our situation with the general citizens… but you make a compelling argument. Should we vote on the matter, or do we all agree on this?”
“He’s right,” Bryan said. “Let’s take the honest road this time. Keeping secrets didn’t win us any love last time.”
“Alright then,” Rayland said, looking back at John. “Should we draft something for you, or would you like to handle it?”
This was not what John had expected. He wanted Rayland to fight. He wanted all of them to tell him he was wrong so that he could lash out at them with the anger and grief he had been holding inside. In an instant, that anger became fear, and then that fear solidified into resolve.
“We can draft it together,” he proposed. “All as one.”
“A good idea,” Flynn said proudly. “All as one.”
“Very well then,” Rayland said. “We better get started.”