“It’s not possible.”
Olivia didn’t know what else to say. “The data is there, Admiral.”
Admiral Bainbridge looked over the information she had brought back. He had begrudgingly used the one computer terminal in the town hall to review what she claimed. She kept it simple for him, so she highlighted the series of alerts that the computer displayed.
“These warnings are clear. The World Ship mainframe is attempting to keep this vessel alive as long as possible by dismantling areas that cannot maintain power. It then consumes those raw materials to generate enough energy to continue the process. Admiral, you have a few weeks, maybe a month,” she explained. “There is no saving this World Ship. The damage was done a long time ago. You helped slow the inevitable, but that’s all you accomplished.”
“No,” he snapped. “I refuse to accept that.”
“It doesn’t matter what you accept,” she replied. “The World Ship is systematically dismantling itself, trying to keep us alive as long as it can. It’s trying to give you time to organize an evacuation, which you need to start right now.”
“This is a trick.”
“If I wanted to trick you I could have just created fake alerts that would have sounded the alarms in this section of the ship. I’m not cruel, Admiral. I went to fix your quakes, as we agreed, and then I saw there was no use. The vibrations you keep feeling are coming from the dismantling process. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing to be done.”
“I refuse to hear this,” Bainbridge roared. “Get out of my office!”
Olivia came out of Town Hall, and Ronin was by her side in a second. He looked at her with an eager expression, but she only shook her head in response.
“Were you able to reach Ruby?” he asked under his breath.
“No,” she answered. “I got distracted by the fact that this World Ship is dead and everyone here is in grave danger.”
Ronin looked shocked. “What?”
“The World Ship is in some kind of survival mode. It’s rerouting all of its energy into keeping its power systems online, but seeing as it has a lot of dead weight, it’s systematically cutting away parts of itself. Before long there won’t be anything left.”
“It’s… killing itself?”
“No,” she replied. “Think of it like cutting away dead tissue so that the rest can heal. The system is working as intended, but it’s losing more power than it’s generating. Without constant resupplies from the Travelers, it’s fighting a losing battle.”
“What did Bainbridge say?” Ronin asked.
“He wouldn’t hear it,” she said. “He was angry. In time, he might understand, but time isn’t something we have to spare.”
“How long do we have?”
“Weeks,” she said. “The World Ship is prioritizing this section of the ship as secondary.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Weird right? It kept referring to the imminent failure of the Yunai Containment System. I know that creature we saw in the woods was scary, but I can’t…”
She looked over her shoulder and saw Ronin was frozen in place.
“Hey, you okay?”
He looked at her like he’d just been told devastating news.
“What is it?” she pressed.
“The Yunai,” he said, his voice cold. “If the containment fails… none of us will make it out of here alive.”
She tilted her head in confusion. “That monster we saw in the woods is that dangerous?”
“We need the containment system to keep us safe. Without it, the Yunai could take any one of us, and we cannot let that creature leave this World Ship. How long did the system say we have before the system fails?”
“I don’t know,” she answered. “I didn’t know what the warning was, so I ignored it.”
“We don’t have time to wait anymore,” he said. “We have to evacuate.”
“The Admiral said—”
“I’m done waiting for Bainbridge,” Ronin replied, stepping away from Olivia and toward the Hammerhead. “Come on, we’re putting a stop to this madness.”
One of the Admiral’s men saw Ronin approaching the Hammerhead and rushed to intercept. He got between them and the ship, then held his weapon, an old musket of some kind, pointing it right at Ronin’s chest.
“We don’t have time for this,” Ronin said loudly. “Step aside.”
“I can’t do that,” the soldier replied. “Stand down, Ronin.”
“You’re going to have to shoot me, soldier.”
“I don’t want to hurt anyone. Just do as—”
Ronin rushed forward with a speed Olivia had not expected. He tackled the soldier, knocking the gun away as it fired harmlessly into the air. The two hit the ground with a crash, and despite Ronin’s surprise, the soldier seemed to be gaining the upper hand.
Olivia, realizing the opportunity was hers, rushed over and picked up the musket. She scrambled to figure out how it reloaded, but when she felt like she had it figured out she pulled back the hammer and yelled at the two of them. “Stop it!”
They froze in place, both of them looking at the armed woman.
“Enough of this,” she growled. “Get up.”
The two separated and stood up, both of them dusty and wounded.
“What is going on here?!” Admiral Bainbridge’s voice boomed as he came out to see the commotion.
Olivia turned the weapon to face him, and he stopped mid-stride, holding his hands up ever so slightly to show that he was unarmed. “Careful now,” he added. “No one needs to be getting shot out here.”
“Tell them,” Olivia said angrily. “Tell them the truth about the World Ship.”
“I don’t know what you think you saw at the Grid,” Bainbridge started. “I only know what I can see, what I can touch, and this World Ship isn’t dead to me.”
Olivia was about to argue, but then the ground began to shake, just as it had before, but this time with an increased ferocity that literally knocked the citizens off their feet. The artificial lighting in the sky flickered, like the sunlight dropping in and out, and massive dust clouds were suddenly kicked up all around them.
The noise, the dust, and the intense shaking all lasted for several minutes. Olivia abandoned the gun to try and get a better grip on something that could stabilize her, but as she watched the trees being shaken from the ground she knew her best bet was to stay away from anything tall. As she moved closer to the center street, she saw the first building shake itself to pieces, noting that it was the abandoned toy shop and Ronin’s old home.
Then, it stopped.
There was a strangely powerful silence that hung in the air after the quake. No one said anything or even attempted to move. It was like they were all waiting for another dramatic quake to finish them off.
After a minute of waiting, everyone started to cautiously relax.
“Okay,” Olivia said, struggling to get on her feet. “We’re leaving. All of us.”
Admiral Bainbridge had recovered as well, and looking at him, she saw only sorrow in his eyes. He nodded ever so slightly and then turned toward Town Hall, a building that had, surprisingly, survived the quake. “Go then,” he said as he walked away. “Save yourselves.”
The citizens of town were quick to take up Olivia’s offer once they had the Admiral’s blessing. She had as many of them as possible stuff inside the Hammerhead in short order. From her calculations, they’d have to make several trips back and forth from the Traveler, so with Thresher back in the pilot seat she waved farewell and sent him on his first run. He could inform Ruby Rose of the situation in person, and she could use Explorer Two to help with the evacuations.
Thresher was just about to take off when Ronin stopped him and whispered something in his ear. The exchange was short, but it was clear Thresher wasn’t pleased with what he heard. Still, he waved Ronin away and went back to his controls.
As his vehicle lifted into the air, Olivia couldn’t help but feel like they were back on the right path. If they could save these people, power up the Traveler, and get back home, everything would be okay.
They could do this.
“Come on,” Ronin said, interrupting her hopeful thinking. “We need to access a data panel and find out what’s happening with the Yunai containment.”
He rushed over to one of the Admirals’ prized vehicles. “It’s not a short trip. We need to move fast.”
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“My old office,” Ronin answered. “Let’s roll.”
The pair rode in silence for most of the trip. Olivia had a million burning questions in her mind, but now was not the time or place for any of it. Ronin’s face was stoic, but she could see the small etches of fear there too. She would be of no help to him if she distracted him with childish questions about the World Ship or their safety.
The vehicle reached the watery edge of the marsh, and Ronin started driving down into what looked like an old lakebed. They rounded a large corner, and Olivia was shocked to see a bright yellow building in the distance.
“What is that place?” she asked.
“The Guardians called it their home base,” Ronin answered. “I have one just like it back on your World Ship. It used to be underwater, but since the water drained away, well, here it is.”
“Come on. I wired a direct connection to the Grid through this building. With any luck it’ll still be operational.”
“You mean we could have just come here instead of trying to convince the Admiral to take me to the Grid?”
Ronin chuckled. “You and Thresher never gave me a chance to help with the plan, remember? Besides, this was always my backup in case we needed to try and organize another escape.”
They pulled up in front of the building, and Olivia couldn’t help but be impressed.
“Come on,” he said. “No time to waste.”
Ruby Rose sat on the wing of Explorer Two, kicking her feet and checking her radio transmission once again. She had hoped to hear something from Ronin and Olivia by now. It had been nearly two weeks since they left. She had a few days of ration bars left, and then she would be forced to start searching for them in a race against her food supply.
She had never really considered the idea of actually starving out here.
The thought disappeared as she heard the familiar hum of repulsors buzzing through the air. She looked up to the open bay door on the Traveler and saw the Hammerhead zip inside. It slowed almost instantly, lowering itself toward the Explorer Two and making her panic.
She was spotted!
She jumped off the wing and tried to review her options. She could hide in the cockpit, or even try to start the engines before…
“Hey,” someone shouted. She looked up and saw a man with blond hair and a glowing hook for a hand. He had a casual grin on his face and he lowered the Hammerhead to the ground. “We’re here to help. It’s time to go home.”
“Yeah, but we’ve got to get everyone out of here. There’s over a hundred, so we need your ship to help too.”
Ruby could see others crammed in the vehicle with this man, who she assumed was Thresher, and she realized she believed him.
“Yeah, alright. It’s nearly ready to go, I just need a hand. We can make it happen.”