Flynn Brickshelm had claimed some lofty goals when he became the leader of the Protectors. He had made it his mission to remind the citizens of town that they could depend on one another, even if they didn’t always get along. The road had been rocky at first, but everything he had set out to do had come to fruition in this moment.
“Come and get it y’all!” Katherine Willow called aloud.
He looked to see her standing at the end of several tables that had been setup at the side of the road outside of the fire station. Hundreds of citizens were scattered through main street, many of them refugees that had been forced to flee from their homes due to the flooding or changes in the World Ship’s temperature.
Their arrival could not have been better received. Any and all citizens that could pilot vehicles had gone to help transport any injured back here. Caleb Vann and Nima Patel set up a medical area near town hall, while Oliver and Nancy handled food distribution at the diner and restaurant. Others brought out blankets, snacks, extra clothing, and anything else that someone might need.
No one was fighting. No one was territorial.
The citizens were in danger, and they had united to aid one another.
It was as simple as that.
Flynn stepped over to where Katherine was distributing her first bowl of Oliver’s famous soup. The weary traveler, still wearing muddy shoes, thanked her graciously and stepped along to find a seat.
“I can’t thank you enough for all the supplies,” he said to her. “After everything you lost, to know you would donate what little was left… it’s inspiring.”
“I hope so,” she said, grinning wide. “I’m going to need the goodwill of others when the rations kick in.”
Flynn ignored her macabre humor for the time being. “Speaking of the food supply, have you had a chance to view the scouted areas for new farmland?”
She nodded, handing out another bowl of soup. “Oh yeah. It’ll do fine, but the water is already receding around the creek, from what I heard. If that’s the case, we might be able to salvage some of the land.”
“We don’t know how regularly this will happen,” Flynn reminded her.
“A fair point, but we don’t know it won’t flood even more next time,” she countered.
“No, you’re right. We need to diversify our farming operations across more of the frontier. We were moving in that direction, before all this went down.”
“Well, the next time around we can get it right,” she said, giving him a wink. “It’s going to be okay, Flynn. Just look at these people working together. I wouldn’t have believed it.”
“I would have,” he said proudly.
“A true visionary,” she said with a playful rolling of her eyes. “Get over here and help me feed these folks. No one can work on an empty stomach!”
Flynn’s efforts in town were going quite well, but the heavy use of vehicles had put Elsie on edge. They had a lot of fuel reserves, for now, but the World Ship was no longer producing fuel for them. In fact, it had stopped producing a lot ever since it lost one of the two Travelers.
The mystery was finding out why this happened.
After all, the resources appeared to be stockpiled in the logs. In fact, the World Ship seemed quite capable of providing them with their normal resources for a very long time even with only one Traveler at their disposal. The ship was behaving erratically. The latest theory about the massive power generators in the levees was that more water had been allowed through to generate more power, not less.
It was like the World Ship was working on something, but the best guess they had on any of it were a few system readouts that appeared to report “RESTORING OPERATIONS.” The problem was that so many operations had gone offline, such a restoration could literally mean anything.
“What are you up to?” she pondered aloud, tapping her pen on the computer desk.
Elsie heard a buzzing sound nearby and reached to pick up a small rectangular device that David Nash had gifted to her before he departed. At the time he said it was useless, but he told her to keep it close, as it would soon work again.
It looked like now was the time.
She held it up, and the flat surface showed an image of David’s face. She pressed a green button, and it connected to a video feed of David Nash himself.
“Now this is cool,” she said, looking at the device in wonder. “What is this?”
“Shipwide video and audio,” David replied. “It’s called the Shipwide Communication System, or SCS for short. Anyone with these communicators can call and talk to anyone else anywhere on the World Ship. Thresher had control of it for ages, but with him gone, Annie and I got it working in no time. We’re limited on the devices at the moment, and the World Ship won’t produce anymore for us while it’s in lockdown like this. You can program standard radios to utilize the ship’s internal antenna, but it’s not quite as cool. I’ll get Annie to run through it with one of your engineers when you have the time.”
“Are you apprised of our latest dilema?” Elsie asked, ignoring his babbling. “The levees in the Upper Level sent tons of water rushing through Willow Creek. We’re lucky no one was seriously injured. We really could have used your help with rescue operations.”
“The water level change here has had impacts too, though nothing so severe. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there to help. Is there anything we can do to assist you now?”
“I need answers,” she replied. “I’m running blind, Nash.”
“I am working on that,” David said. “Elsie, there is a man up here that knows way more than any of us when it comes to the World Ship. I’m having a hard time getting information out of him, but he’s our best chance at fully understanding our situation.”
“How is that possible?” Elsie asked. “What makes this person so special?”
“He has all of his memories,” David answered. “All of them.”
Elsie was shocked.
In all of this chaos and confusion, she had at least gained one positive, albeit dark, truth. With Ronin, Thresher, and Olivia all lost to the void, all of the mysteries that loomed over them had been lost as well. The questions about manifests, flying vehicles… it was all over. Whatever secrets they had carried went with them into the darkness of space.
Now, David was here with a new batch of secrets.
“Am I to assume that this… Anton… has memories that include a working knowledge of the World Ship beyond what we have already unraveled?”
“I don’t have the full picture yet, but if what he says is true, he’s one of the original engineers that built the Core.”
She was silent for a long time. “Does this help our current situation?”
“I don’t know,” David admitted. “That’s what we’re going to find out.”
“So, nothing else on your end then?”
She heard David sigh, and then he fumbled with his device for a moment. “Elsie, there might be a way to get our Traveler back.”
Elsie removed her glasses, putting her hand to the bridge of her nose, then taking a deep breath and trying not to panic. “Okay, go slow. Tell me everything.”
Johnathan Davis looked out at the busy street in town and allowed himself the briefest moment of happiness. He couldn’t help but think of Ruby at this moment, and he was glad to feel like he had done something she could truly be proud about.
“The hero of the hour,” Flynn’s voice broke John’s thoughts, and John smiled at him as he walked over. “I admit I was skeptical, John, but this is amazing.”
“Honesty works,” John replied.
The council, despite their concerns, had taken John’s advice and informed everyone about the danger that they were facing. They had responded with a slight panic at first, as anyone might, but then the questions started to focus on the right points… they asked when the refugees would arrive, could they do anything to help, how would they solve the problems… things that made even Flynn feel like shedding a thankful tear.
“It’s what she would have wanted,” John said quietly.
Flynn chucked. “That’s the truth. First she would have wanted to fly the chopper right into the flood waters. Heck, she’d have already started planting a garden on the roof of the firehouse by now. I can hear her voice, you know, telling me we gotta have enough vegetables before the rationing kicks in.”
John laughed too, for a moment, but then frowned again as reality gripped him. “I think,” he started. “Once we get through this crisis, I am going to ask David Nash to take me to the Upper Level.”
“I see,” Flynn said, his voice more serious. “Listen, John. We all miss her. I know you two had a relationship, but we were all very close to Ruby. We know what you’re experiencing, on some level.”
“Do you, though?”
“Yes,” Flynn said calmly. “I worked with Ruby every day. She believed in my Protectors when others weren’t ready to give it a chance. I trained her to fly Explorer One. When I was lost in the Upper Level, she wrote me letters, and delivered them to my apartment, all because she wanted me to read them when I got back. That kind of person is unique in our lives, no matter the romance. She was my friend, and I miss her very much.”
“I’m sorry. I know I’m not the only one hurt.”
“If you leave us, we lose another friend,” Flynn added. “You’re a pillar here, John.”
“So they say.”
“Look in front of you,” Flynn said, gesturing to the people gathered. “This is you.”
“This is Ruby’s influence on me,” John countered.
“The point remains… without you… this wouldn’t have happened.”
John nodded. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
Flynn shrugged. “Sure.”
“Do you think you and your… predecessor… were a lot alike?”
Flynn didn’t say so, but he had thought a great deal about this very question for years. To know that his identical self had once existed, then been lost, making room for him to take their place? Was he even really him? Yes, that was a question that never left his mind.
“I imagine that we were very similar at the moment we left the Core,” he answered, carefully stating his response. “Life, however, takes us all in different directions. The Flynn that came before me arrived just after Olivia. They helped shape one another, not from familiarity, but from a rivalry. In truth, Olivia once told me that she didn’t care much for Flynn, but she had a deep respect for his loyalty to the citizens. That Flynn was dominant, too. He had arrived before all the others, so he saw himself as a leader. He didn’t take advice from Bryan, or Oliver, and he was reckless, just like I am known to be… but his behavior was unchecked.”
“So you don’t think you’re the same person?”
“I don’t,” Flynn answered honestly. “When I arrived, I saw the others as the leaders. I immediately began to heed their wisdom and advice. I saw Olivia as a protective ally, not as a rival, and advice she gave to me I took with the utmost trust.”
“You are still Flynn though.”
“I am, and he was too. We were the same person, but not the same individuals. Our choices, our opportunities, and even our world view morphed in response to our stimuli. The core of our character likely remained the same. For example, I am still fiercely loyal to the safety of our citizens. I might not rush headfirst into danger, as I’ve learned from the others around me to search for all possible solutions, but I’d still protect them no matter the cost. You said a minute ago that all of this is because of Ruby. She led you, John, and you have changed as a result of her.”
“So, my Ruby Rose really is gone, forever?”
“In that sense, yes,” Flynn admitted. “As much as it pains me to say.”
“Do you think, someday, I might be able to be friends with Ruby, the way Olivia was friends with both you and the other Flynn?”
“Maybe,” Flynn answered, patting John on the shoulder. “First, you have to let the wounds heal. You lost someone close to you, someone you loved. If you really want to have a friendship with Ruby Rose, you’ll have to learn to separate your loss from the woman here now. If you start a friendship in the interest of rekindling something more, then you’ve already doomed it to fail. Olivia and Flynn weren’t the best of friends. When I arrived, the relationship she had with me was considerably closer. If you meet with Ruby, you will need to start much further apart.”
John didn’t say anything else. He just nodded and then looked again at the people gathered here in town. He wanted to see Ruby again, he knew that, but there was a crisis here that required his help.
“Thank you,” he added at last. “It means a lot.”
“Always,” Flynn replied. “I’ll always be here to listen, John, if you need it.”