Elsie Lamarr stood with David Nash, looking across the table at all of the town council. They wore a variety of expressions, but none of them looked like the ones that the pair had hoped for after their exciting revelation.
David Nash had shown up at the Grid a week ago. He carried with him a digital copy of Ronin’s notes on the Travelers, including how to operate them as Thresher had done. At first glance, the data seemed like it would take ages to understand, but with the combined minds at the Grid, the effort took a matter of days.
The moment their work culminated in a solution, Elsie had called the town council together. The meeting had been unexpected, and it was quite brief. David simply explained they now had the ability to take control of the Travelers, as Thresher had done, and if they so desired it, a team could be sent on a mission to retrieve the Traveler that was stolen from them.
The silence had lasted longer than it had taken for David to speak.
“Okay, let’s start with the simple question,” Nancy Rizzo finally spoke up. “If losing one Traveler caused our sunlight to fade, the valley to flood, and increased our internal temperatures, what is going to happen when we lose the second Traveler?”
“There will be negative impacts in the short term,” Elsie confirmed. “The dam will likely increase the output of its generators again, resulting in more flooding around the Lower Level. Our situation will not improve in any way, but our data shows that citizens in town will be safe until the Traveler returns.”
“There’s an ‘if’ you’re omitting,” Rayland suggested. “You mean to say, if the Traveler returns.”
“With all due respect, we have the variables. We know how it works. We—”
“You know nothing with any degree of certainty,” Nima Patel interjected. “You have come to us with a mission of great importance before, and we lost that mission. Olivia was also forced to learn this simple truth. No matter what you think you know, it is clear that you do not have all of the data to make these conclusions.”
Elsie bit her tongue.
“I think we’re missing the larger question,” Bryan said, clearly trying to change the topic. “What I would like to know, Elsie, is what happens to our World Ship if we do not send our second Traveler on this mission?”
“Nothing,” she answered. “The simple answer is that nothing happens. Our World Ship has stabilized its power levels and appears to be focusing on its intended programming.”
“When a World Ship suffers the loss of a Traveler, it builds a new one.”
“So… the World Ship is building a replacement Traveler?” Bryan asked.
“What is the purpose of this meeting then?” Rayland pressed, sounding annoyed.
“Our engineers estimate it will take the World Ship about four years to complete the construction of the replacement Traveler,” Elsie explained. “If we authorize our retrieval mission, we can have it back in a few days.”
“I’m with Nima,” Nancy said, her voice sounding sad. “I hate to reject the idea, Elsie, but four years of living lean beats risking everything on a guess… no matter how educated that guess might be. It’s too risky.”
“Under normal circumstances, I would agree,” Elsie said, aiming now for their humanity. “It has come to our attention, however, that Olivia, Ronin, and Ruby Rose may still be alive.”
“How is that possible?” Flynn inquired.
“One of our contacts from the Upper Level had a hunch. David Nash presented the idea to me, and I was able to pull positional data together to make my conclusion.”
“You’ll have to elaborate,” Bryan said.
“We track our exploration vessels using unique identifiers. They communicate through the Ship Wide Network, so the Grid always knows where they are with almost no delay in position. When Explorer Two entered the Grid, that data was still being broadcast. We lost signal of the radio when the bulkhead was sealed, but not the tracker. It continued transmitting to the World Ship, and we were able to go back and look at that data. At first, Explorer Two accelerated directly toward the activated Traveler. It did this until it began a rapid deceleration. When it stopped, the positional data placed it directly where the Traveler was located.”
“So they flew… into the Traveler?”
“We believe so. The data goes on to show them departing from the Garage. We originally assumed this was a result of them getting pulled into the void, but then they began accelerating away from the ship. Our last ping shows they travelled a distance that would be impossible using the engines on Explorer Two.”
“Why didn’t you show us this data sooner?” Nancy asked.
“It was irrelevant at the time. We assumed they were errors or miscalculations. It wasn’t until David Nash arrived that we finally realized what we were seeing.”
“It’s important to note,” David added. “The moment Ruby Rose and Explorer Two left the range of the World Ship network, the Core activated to create a new Ruby Rose.”
“This is circumstantial at best,” Rayland stated. “Is it not possible that Explorer Two simply crashed in the Garage, and as it was pulled into the void it began to accelerate away from our ship? Do you have anything more than guesses layered upon guesses?”
Elsie frowned. “I don’t know if that’s fair.”
“Is he wrong?” Nima pressed. “Can you tell us beyond a reasonable doubt that your theory is the one that actually occurred?”
“Beyond a doubt,” Elsie said firmly. “Too many data points line up for this to be considered a theory. You must understand, we’ve double-checked the data.”
“Okay,” Flynn said. “We can all accept your conclusion, I think. So, you mentioned that the ship decelerated very quickly before stopping aboard the Traveler. Can you tell me, Elsie, was it a landing or a crash?”
“You understand that people survive crashes,” Elsie said, her voice on edge.
“I do,” Flynn said, remaining calm. “I am just asking. Do you feel like—”
“They were moving fast,” Elsie answered. “They slowed very quickly, and their momentum was arrested in a fashion similar to a crash landing.”
“So how do we know if they survived?” Nancy asked.
“Ruby Rose,” David answered. “The Core did not activate to create a new Ruby Rose when Explorer Two stopped aboard the Traveler. The activation happened later, when Explorer Two left the World Ship network range. We verified the logs from the Grid. The moment they were too far away, the World Ship determined she was gone and made a new one.”
“This indicates that Ruby Rose was alive at the time of their departure,” Elsie added.
“So, assuming all of this is true, what are you suggesting?” Bryan inquired.
“We have a clear mission ahead of us,” Elsie answered. “We take our Traveler, we find our friends and the stolen vehicle, and we return them here. The World Ship will be restored, our lives can get back to normal, and we can put this whole affair to bed.”
“Or, we build a monument to the brave souls we lost,” Rayland countered. “We honor them as best we can, and we begin to build our future. In four years, a new Traveler will be activated, and the World Ship can get back to its fully operational status.”
Elsie remained stoic in the face of Rayland Walsh. The last thing she wanted was to fall victim to the same mistakes that Olivia had made when she was in a similar position. She looked at the council members, she held back what she really wanted to say, and she only nodded in agreement to his statement.
“Three lives of great value,” Bryan said. “I made the mistake of choosing sides when we last faced a crisis like this. My instinct is to tell Rayland he’s a heartless monster and give my support to Elsie. If it was only personal, I would do just that. The problem is, I can’t help but feel like we have a path forward and a secure future if we hunker down and stop launching missions that seem to cause us only more trouble. I am forced to agree with Rayland. We should not do this mission.”
“I thank you for your… support,” Rayland said, looking at Nancy Rizzo. “If we’re divided on this, then it will be a vote of the council. Let’s have it from each of you.”
Nancy remained silent, looking at Elsie, then Rayland. He noticed her hesitation and moved on to the next one. “Flynn?”
“You know I support it,” Flynn said. “Heck, I’ll pilot the mission.”
“I am firmly against it,” Nima added. “I understand the value of human life, and I understand that there are hundreds of people on this World Ship that need that Traveler. If there is any hope of our survival over the next four years, it comes with that vessel.”
“So that makes two on the council voting for mission approval, counting Elsie, and three voting against it,” Rayland confirmed. “Nancy, what do you say?”
She looked at them, clearly anxious about the topic. She shook her head ever so slightly and then placed her hands on the table. “You know, I came here to talk about food,” she started. “These kinds of critical decisions were not something I thought I would face with regular occurrence. When you came to us months ago with the mission to the Garage, I felt confident that you had calculated the risks involved and knew the best path forward. I didn’t want to stop your goals or get in the way. I felt like you knew best. Right now, Elsie, I don’t feel that way. So, if I am to follow my heart, I do not support this.”
“Four to two,” Rayland said, clearly attempting to suppress a smile. “There will be no mission to reclaim our Traveler. The debate ends here, Elsie, do you understand and accept this?”
“Accept it, yes,” she said. “I do not understand it.”
“You do,” Rayland countered. “Deep down, under your loyalty to Olivia Sun, you understand the risks you are willing to take for just a few citizens, endangering us all with the hopeful dream of saving them. It is noble that you care so deeply for your friends, but it is selfish that you give them so much of your—”
“Enough,” Flynn Brickshelm interrupted. “The vote stands, and that’s the end of the discussion. If you wish to have further talks about the selfish nature of a man, Mayor Walsh, I would be happy to continue that at our next meeting.”
Rayland went silent. “I apologize for my words,” he squeaked.
Elsie was impressed with Flynn’s show of force, and it was good to know that someone could keep the Mayor in check when the time called for it. She could pretend that this meeting hadn’t gone the way she expected, but the truth was she knew they would never support the plan. It was as dangerous as they feared, and honestly Elsie wasn’t sure she could muster the support amongst the Explorers even if the council had agreed.
“I believe this concludes our topic for this evening,” she said. “Are there any other questions?”
No one spoke up, so she nodded. “Thank you all for your time. I have some work to do, and David will need to be on his way soon.”
“Of course,” Rayland said. “We’re dismissed.”
“Can I ask, Elsie, is this topic why only the council was invited tonight?” Nancy asked.
Elsie frowned, but nodded. “I suspect John would have had a lot of strong opinions about this meeting, and since I assumed the council would vote against the plan… I didn’t want John to lose any more faith in the people standing in this room.”
“Cold,” Rayland said. “Also, very intelligent. He could have stirred up the whole town against us overnight. ”
“I agree,” Elsie said, folding her notebook. “Good evening, everyone.”
“It’s not too late,” David said as he started priming the Intrepid for their trip back to the Grid. “We have the commands. We can slip right in there and take the Traveler…”
“No,” she answered, despite her desire. “I watched the chaos Olivia created when she rebelled against the council. She did it for the right reasons, but she was still in the wrong. The fallout from that was bad enough, but if we take the Traveler, who knows what could happen while we’re away? I can’t be the harbinger of doom, even if it’s not permanent. Besides, there might be another David Nash and Elsie Lamarr running around to deal with when we get back.”
“I suppose that’s fair,” he said. “How about a change of pace, then?”
“How so?” she asked.
“A quick trip up to the Hub,” he proposed. “You’re an Explorer, right? You could have a look at places that no one else has seen. We can be there and back in a few days.”
“I can’t possibly take time right now. We’re clearly in the midst of a crisis here.”
“You can make it a work trip, if you want,” he said with a smile. “Our people have food, tons of fish, and we’d be happy to help organize some help. I heard your council talking about food shortages and other things. Let us help.”
“Us,” she said. “You were one of us once.”
“In the years to come, maybe we will all be us again,” he replied.
Elsie pursed her lips. She wasn’t the best candidate for a mission to the Hub, not if she was going to discuss logistics and humanitarian causes. She thrived on collecting data, not organizing it or discussing it with those outside of her work group.
Then, she had an idea.
“Bryan Steeles… and Johnathan Davis,” she said. “We should take them both.”
“John? Are you sure?” David asked.
“John is a master of communication. He’s able to tell people things that someone like myself or Olivia just… can’t. If we are going to interface on some kind of diplomatic level with the Hub, he’s the only candidate.”
“What about the Ruby situation?” David pressed.
“It’s a big city, right. Surely we can keep two people from crossing paths?”
“Fair enough,” he said. “So, John comes with us. Why are we bringing Bryan?”
“He’s our numbers guy,” she answered. “If anyone knows how much food we’re going to need, and when we’re going to need it, it’s Bryan. He’s all about financials, too. I’m confident the citizens of the Hub will want some kind of compensation for their supplies.”
David nodded. “That makes sense. Okay. Let’s circle around and get them on board.”
Elsie felt invigorated. A humanitarian mission would help her mind, and if she was lucky, it might even help her forget the pain she felt in her heart… the pain of being forced to let go of a situation she simply could not control.
“Yes,” she echoed. “Let’s get started.”