If Olivia passed out back on her own World Ship, she might have opened her eyes to a brightly lit room, Doctor Caleb Vann asking if she felt alright, and flowers from concerned citizens that heard of her distress.
Unfortunately, this was not her World Ship.
She opened her eyes to see a thin, clearly famished man in a dated uniform. He did smile when he saw that she was looking at him, but instead of asking how she felt, he quickly shuffled out of the doorway.
She moved her arms, and they responded sluggishly. She knew from the muscle cramps that she had been asleep longer than she would have liked. Still, she felt somewhat rested and ready to further discuss the supposed revelations that had been thrown at her feet.
“Hello?” she asked. “Anyone out there?”
“Ma’am,” the soldier said, stepping back into the room. “I was just calling the Admiral to let him know you’re awake.”
“Would that be the older man we met before I collapsed?”
The soldier nodded.
“What’s your name?”
“Me? Oh, I’m.. uh… Roger.”
“Roger. It’s nice to meet you, Roger.” She sat up and felt a pounding inside her head that gave her a momentary pause. “What’s with the uniform?”
“Standard issue,” Roger said, straightening up a bit. “The Admiral requires that they be worn whenever we’re on official Imperial duty.”
“They look uncomfortable.”
“They are,” Roger said with a stifled laugh.
There was a beep from outside of her room, and the soldier disappeared again for a moment. She thought about calling after him, but he returned in short order. “The Admiral says he’s good to see you. We need to head to Town Hall.”
“Alright,” she said. “Let’s go.”
“The soldier nodded, then pulled a rifle from outside the doorway and gestured for her to leave. Her eyes went wide, but he smiled warmly. “Standard issue.”
“Great,” she replied. “Just great.”
Ronin and Thresher were already in the room with the Admiral when she arrived. They weren’t there as guests, however, and it was clear that neither of them was pleased with the situation where they had ended. Olivia was escorted in by Roger, who took a place at the door and waited there.
“Welcome back to the waking world, Olivia,” the older man said as she entered.
“Good to be back,” she said, glancing at Ronin. He looked on edge, but his face was calm and determined. “I didn’t mean to check out back there.”
“A big revelation like that can be hard to handle,” the man replied. “I didn’t realize it was a secret. I overstepped my bounds. How about we start again, shall we?
“I’d appreciate it.”
“Very good. My full name and position is Fleet Admiral William Bainbridge, leader of the Imperial Navy from Providence Bay. I am now seen as the sole leader to the survivors of this entire World Ship, and my purpose in this endeavor is to keep my people safe.”
There was a long moment of silence after his conclusion. Olivia waited, but the Admiral added nothing, so she assumed it was her turn now.
“My name is Olivia Sun. I am a humble explorer from World Ship 3609. I have travelled here at great risk to our people and our home. My only purpose is to leave your home in peace and return to my own.”
Bainbridge offered a heavy sigh.
“Is there a problem?” Olivia asked.
“Of course there’s a problem,” Bainbridge said. “You cannot ignore your past, child. I do not know if you do so willingly or ignorantly, but the outcome is the same.”
“I understand you have some confusion—”
“Silence,” Bainbridge snapped. “I used to sit at the same dinner table as you, Olivia. You were just a child then, no older than three. Your mother and I worked together for a brief time before she decided to take her chances out there among the stars.”
Ronin shifted in his seat, but Olivia ignored it.
“Admiral Bainbridge?” she asked. “How many others are on this World Ship?”
The Admiral looked at her, and she didn’t see aggression in his face. Instead, he looked more confused than anything. It was clear that this scenario, whatever it might be, was not what he had expected.
“I suspect there are about a hundred left,” he answered.
She nodded, trying to wrap her head around this situation. “I was told that this World Ship was dead, and that everyone had either perished or fled. It is clear that I was misinformed. Can you tell me what happened here?”
The Admiral looked at Ronin, and his face shifted to one of anger. “When Ronin left to find us another home, most of the citizens waited, continuing in their wasteful lifestyles while the world around them was stressed to the breaking point. I tried to warn them. I tried to explain that there was a natural order to our world and we were breaking it with our endless meddling.”
“Can you elaborate?”
Bainbridge laughed. “Elaborate?!” Have you seen that flying monstrosity outside?”
“The Hammerhead?” Olivia asked.
Geoff, the real name of the man you call Thresher, was a bold Imperial officer. He had a bright future ahead of him in the navy, but he was called to the corruption that Ronin spread like a disease. He went from polishing cannons and flintlocks to piloting airships and waging war with his foes. All the while he drained our World Ship of its precious resources faster than it could supply.”
“Surely you didn’t kill a World Ship by overproducing goods?”
“No,” Bainbridge agreed. “The need for more machines, for more modernization, fueled our people to begin exploring the delicate systems that make our ship work. They started tinkering with the Travelers, harvesting materials from the Woods… they couldn’t be stopped.”
“So what was the breaking point?”
“Our World Ship lost a Traveler in an unfortunate experiment, one operated by your mother and father, no less. Without the Traveler to provide materials, our World Ship couldn’t repair its systems, or maintain itself. Over time it started to break down, and these resource mongering fools didn’t do anything to stop it. They refused to scale back or change their ways, until eventually it just started… dying.”
Olivia turned to Ronin, looking for something in his expression that might tell her the Admiral was lying, but his shame was clear. The story was true.
“So people fled?” she asked.
“First they sent Ronin,” Bainbridge said, pointing at him. “He had no control over the Traveler or its destination, so it was a shot in the dark. When he didn’t come back, we thought it was over. Your mother raised you here, on this very World Ship, until you were nearly four years old. Then, when she had finally given up on Ronin and her home, she decided the only option left was to take the final Traveler and flee. Those of us that remained stood against her. We wanted to stay here, and we knew that the last Traveler might be our only chance at salvation. There was a standoff. The town grew divided, but eventually Scarlett took her supporters and left.”
“You’ve been here ever since?” she asked.
Bainbridge looked at Ronin again, then his eyes locked on her own. “I took the role of leader to all those that remained, and I made them swear a pledge to abandon all electrical technology. I wanted nothing to drain our World Ship of the supplies it needed to survive. We initially travelled back to my home, a section of this ship known as Providence Bay. I found only ruin there. The oceans were drained, life had ceased, and in my moment of desperation I turned to this place. Ronin’s precious city became my home too.”
“So you’ve just been… what… waiting to die?”
“What? No!” Bainbridge said angrily. “My dear, don’t you understand? It worked! Since Ronin’s technology abusing allies left, our World Ship has been healing itself. Each and every day our situation improves. The water is returning, the plants are growing, our daylight is brighter now than it has been in years, and we have even found animals wandering in the wild again. We are on the path to recovery!”
“That’s marvelous news,” Olivia said, genuinely happy to hear it. “To be frank, from the stories I had been told, I expected nothing but ruined wastelands. To know that you’ve survived this turmoil is heartwarming. That being said, I don’t see any reason for us to remain here. There’s no need for guns or kidnapping, either.”
“If only it were that easy,” Bainbridge replied, looking to Thresher for a moment, then focusing back on her. “Olivia, you must understand the value of the prize that you have brought to me.”
“What? Ronin and Thresher?”
“He means the Traveler,” Thresher said, his voice rising. “I brought it here, not her. Bainbridge, that vessel doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to—”
“In my earliest days, I hunted pirates,” Bainbridge said, interrupting Thresher. “These pirates used to steal things of value from the Empire, and when I would ask them why, they always told me… survival. They weren’t bad people, they were just misunderstood. At the time I didn’t believe them, but now I see their plight. If I let that Traveler leave this World Ship, I would be causing myself, and the other survivors, a great deal of a setback. The work that the Traveler could do to aid our repair effort cannot be emphasized enough.”
“At what cost?” Olivia asked. “Admiral, the Traveler belongs to another World Ship. If you don’t let us return to it, then you’re dooming another population to the doom that you have experienced. They didn’t ask for that or bring it upon themselves.”
“I’m afraid I have nothing else to say on this matter,” Bainbridge replied. “Obviously, the Hammerhead will be dismantled, and the red crystal power supply it has will be used to boost the World Ship’s own energy.”
Thresher stepped forward and one of the soldiers raised their rifle.
“Stay put,” Bainbridge said to him. “I assume the Hammerhead still uses one of the infamous red power crystals?”
Thresher didn’t speak.
The Admiral stared at Thresher, but the two did not speak. Finally, he turned his attention back to Olivia. “Have you seen the red power crystals?”
She shook her head. “No, I have not.”
“Incredibly rare,” he added. “They only made a few. Their production came at a great cost, of course. The energy required to charge the crystal was immense. Unlike a normal power crystal, the ones forged in the deepest part of our World Ship turned famously red when charged. Some of the citizens mocked their color, saying they were stained with the blood blood of our home.”
“That’s… awful,” Olivia said.
“Well, now we can undo those heinous acts. The red crystal from the Hammerhead will be more than enough energy to reboot many of the World Ship’s systems. Meanwhile, the addition of the Traveler means fresh resources and a way to begin rebuilding what we lost.”
“What will happen to us?” she asked. “Are we prisoners?”
“All of you, including Ronin, will be allowed to live here as citizens of this fine collective, assuming you can behave. Otherwise, I will be sending you down the river to face darkness unlike you’ve ever seen.
Olivia didn’t need to be reminded of the creature that had grabbed her mind that night. She shuddered at the thought.
“No, if you’ll excuse me, I’m rather busy today.” The Admiral headed to the door and left, closing it behind him with enough of a thud to rattle the frame a bit. The three sat in silence for a time before Thresher stood up and headed toward the door. “I imagine you two have some catching up to do, so I’m going to look around a bit.”
Olivia waited for him to leave as well, and then she took a seat next to Ronin.
“Well?” she asked.
“Well what?” he countered.
“I’m not your daughter, right?” she pressed. “I mean, we’re practically the same age!”
“When I was sent on my last mission, Scarlett was pregnant. I never met my child. The Traveler took me to a World Ship that was beautiful, and seemingly uninhabited, but it wouldn’t bring me back.”
“Why didn’t you just make it?”
“We didn’t know how at the time,” Ronin explained. “I just had to wait it out. I had found paradise for my people. It was lush and bright and ready for new arrivals, but the days turned to weeks… the weeks to months…”
“I’m so sorry.”
“When it did finally leave, I was taken back to a desolate and lifeless home. I searched the entire World Ship, from top to bottom, trying my best to find the loved ones I had left behind, but there was… no one. The only thing my wife left for me was the Book of the Traveler. It was all the data needed to pilot the vehicle, which meant I didn’t have to wander any longer.”
“So what did you do?” Olivia asked.
“I eventually boarded the Traveler and flew back to paradise, but the life had been drained from my soul. I was lost.”
“How does Thresher fit into all of this?”
“A year or so after I had come back, Thresher arrived on his own Traveler. I initially approached him with joy that someone had come. I thought he might be here to rescue me and to take me to my loved ones. Instead, I learned he had come for revenge. I was forced to fight for my life.”
“That’s how the conflict between you two started?”
Ronin nodded. “Thresher had planned to simply end me, but he eventually learned I had the Book of the Traveler. He had been wandering in the Void aboard a Traveler and I had the key to getting him back to his home. I tried to tell him it was pointless to return, but he wouldn’t hear it. I was smart enough to know he couldn’t be allowed to take a Traveler from our paradise world, so I refused to help. He decided he would take it by force. Our fighting drew the attention of the single crew member living on that World Ship. His name, Anton Mertins, might sound familiar to you.”
“I have,” she replied. “David Nash spoke of him, too. I had no idea he was someone of such importance. I thought he owned a bait shop.”
“That’s his cover story,” Ronin said with a laugh. “No, Anton was a kind of Keeper for the World Ship. When Thresher and I began fighting he grew worried we might cause damage to his vessel. Up until then, he had intended to let me live and die without interfering, but Thresher forced his hand. Anton captured us and demanded to know our stories. He took pity on us, me especially, and told us he couldn’t fix our past, but he could give us a new future.”
“He put you in the Core?”
“That’s right. He explained the World Ship wasn’t ready for a population yet, but that he was working on it. Something had gone wrong, but he was making it right. He put us both into cold storage. Eventually, we woke up and tried to start over. Anton had hidden away our ships, but we eventually found them. Thresher never stopped trying to escape, to get back to his home, and we never could repair the wounds of our old lives. Deep down he knew Anton had the Book of the Travelers, but he couldn’t wrest it from him. Eventually he left the population and started his own thing. That was before we even settled and built the Hub in the Upper Level.”
“What happened next?”
“You’re witnessing it. Thresher and I clashed until he eventually found the book and used it to steal a Traveler.”
“Okay, so that’s your story. Now, how could I be your daughter?” she asked again. “That part doesn’t make sense. After all, we’re the same age, if not a few years apart.”
“I don’t know,” Ronin admitted. “I could have been in deep freeze for decades…”
Olivia frowned. “All the while, your daughter would have aged…”
“The narrative fits,” he admitted.
“So then, does that mean my mom came to my World Ship too?”
Ronin shrugged. “If what Admiral Bainbridge said is true, then Scarlett left our old World Ship with you and plenty of other survivors. If you made it to 3609, there’s no reason to assume that she isn’t there too.”
“I’m not satisfied,” Olivia said calmly. “There’s more to the story. There is more data to collect and understand. Anton will be able to fill the gaps, and honestly, who wouldn’t want to meet someone with such a collective amount of knowledge? I feel like I am close to understanding things, Ronin. I have memories of my mother… I’m certain of it. If I came to 3609, then Anton must have put me in storage too, he’ll know the truth.”
“Listen,” Ronin started. “If you are my daughter. I feel there—”
“Not yet,” she said, suddenly feeling emotional. “None of that here. We have a goal. We need to get off this ship and save our friends. Okay?”
For the first time since she arrived, he met her eyes. “Okay. Escape first. Emotions later. We aren’t going to be able to ask Anton anything if we don’t find a way to get out of here. So, you got any ideas?”