Ruby Rose had already shuttled one group of the survivors to the Traveler and was en route for her next pickup when she got a transmission from Thresher aboard the Hammerhead. It just showed a number, which she knew was the percentage of power left before the World Ship would go dark.
By her calculations, the ship was losing a percent point every ten minutes, which meant they had less than half an hour before the barrier failed. They had at least one more pickup each before they could depart, which meant they would need at least two hours.
Thresher had informed her about Ronin’s plan to distract the creature, but he hadn’t elaborated beyond that, which meant that either he didn’t think the plan was a good one, or he wasn’t sure what the plan was at all. Either way, there was no point in thinking about it now. She knew her plan.
They had all decided it together.
All or none.
No other option.
“We’re coming in hot on landing. Hit the main road and pop open the back. It’ll take a few minutes to be ready. We can stack a little more tightly than the last run, but we don’t want it so cramped that we can’t keep it in the air. The repulsors have been under load for hours now, and I don’t want to have a burnout at high altitude.”
“Roger that,” Michael said. “I’m going to do some cooling operations that we use on the Hammerhead while you get everyone loaded. I think that’ll keep us in the air a bit longer.”
“Awesome. We appreciate it.”
Ruby checked her watch again and grimaced. She wanted to believe she could do this, to believe that she would soon be on her way back home to the safety and comfort of her own World Ship, where Johnathan would be waiting for her and she could finally eat a decent meal.
She took a moment to collect herself and then focused on the prize.
“Okay. Touchdown in 3…2…1…”
Ronin had been trying to figure out the barrier mechanism to no avail. Every circuit he pulled or breaker he switched had no impact on the doorway. The humming orange barrier continued to block them no matter what he did.
Olivia was looking at more practical options. Was there a switch somewhere, or a button to press? The sleek black surface of the building felt like a strange mixture between metal and stone. It was definitely foreign in nature. Nothing on the World Ship looked or felt like this material. Every new detail about this whole situation added a new layer of mystery to an already overly confusing situation.
As her mind started to wander from her task, her hand drifted over the handle of an ornate weapon, and it moved. She stopped there, taking notice of the blade, and realized it wasn’t actually all that ornate at all.
It was a real weapon, with a strange crystal energy blade unlike anything she’d seen.
She took a firm grip on the handle, then pulled on it with a mighty tug. The sword dislodged and slid out of the resting place. As it was removed, there was an audible hum that faded. The glowing orange barrier dimmed slightly.
“I think I found it,” she said, shocked.
Ronin saw the blade in her hand and then noticed another one on the far side of the stairs. He marched over to it and took a hold of the handle, but it didn’t budge when he pulled. He wiggled it slightly, and there was a small amount of give, but it still wouldn’t come out.
“This has to be it,” he grumbled. “Come and help me.”
“Right,” she said, setting the other sword down. “I’m on it.”
The two of them wiggled the blade several more times, then together, they hoisted with all their might until the weapon dislodged and slid free from the base. Unlike with the last weapon, this one created an electric shower of energy that sparked around the chamber. When it faded, the orange barrier disappeared, and the doorway opened up to reveal passage inside.
“We did it,” Ronin said, sounding surprised.
“As soon as the energy barrier fails, the Yunai will come for its body. I know it. We need to run as fast as we can, hopefully fast enough to catch a ride out of here.”
Ruby was still waiting for the repulsors to hit an acceptable temperature range when the timer on her instrument panel sounded. She shot straight up, looking around, but the lights had not gone out, and the world did not appear to be ending.
“What’s going on?” she asked, poking her head out of Explorer Two. “I thought that was it? Aren’t the lights supposed to go out?”
“The barrier failed,” Thresher replied from the ground, still helping fill up the last of the Hammerhead. “The Yunai will be coming soon.”
“How fast does it travel?”
“At night it moves through shadow like lightning. In the light it’s much slower.”
“So it’s time for us to go.” she said. “We still need one more trip.”
“It’s too late,” Thresher said, pointing down the road.
Ruby turned to look and saw it, standing in the shadow, a creature of total darkness, like a shape cut out of inky black paper. It loomed there, moving quietly toward them. She wasn’t sure if everyone else felt it, or if it was just fear gripping her, but the air went cold all around her.
Then, she heard it speak.
“Don’t you worry, my dear,” it whispered, the voice sending more chills down her spine as it uttered each word. “Come and follow where I go. I can give you everything. You will be safe under my control, just let me in…”
“No!” she yelled. “NO!”
The voice repeated, louder. It was growing closer, she was sure it had her.
Then, it stopped.
Like knives in her ears it screeched. “The door is open!”
A moment later. It was gone.
“Ruby! Ruby, are you okay? Stay with us!”
She heard Thresher’s voice echoing around her as she came back around. It was like she had been dunked into a pool of icy water and was only now pulled back to the surface.
She slipped from the top of Explorer Two, and she was certain she would crash to the ground, but she felt someone catch her with a crushing thud.
Her mind came back to her, the sound in her ears cleared, and she was back on main street in town, looking at Thresher and Michael, two individuals that had thrown themselves to break her fall. They both grimaced and growled as she climbed off of them.
“You okay?” Thresher asked.
“Thanks to you,” she replied. “Are you okay?”
He grumbled again as she helped him to his feet. “Ask me again tomorrow.”
“What happened to me just then?”
“The Yunai had you,” Thresher said. “It let you go, though, then bolted right past us and down toward the old lake. I assume that means Ronin bought us the time we need.”
“We can’t risk any more trips,” Ruby said. “We need everyone on these ships on this run. We’re going to have to squeeze together, but we can make it work.”
Thresher nodded. “I can’t argue with that. Let’s load it up, everyone! Go, go, go!”
As Ronin and Olivia made their way back to the lift, Olivia noticed that he was still carrying one of the crystal blade weapons that they had pulled free earlier. He saw her staring at the weapon and made an expression of innocence.
“We should keep one of these, yeah? Momentos?”
She was about to answer when a terrifying cry echoed from the lift ahead of them. They waited only a moment before the shadowy creature arrived. It came into the chamber, rushed right past them, ignoring them completely, and vanished down the black hallway where the orange barrier had been before.
“I don’t know about you,” Ronin said. “I would rather not stay here to find out what happens next.”
“Agreed,” she replied.
They ran the remaining distance to the lift, then climbed in and activated it, quickly shooting back up the path they had used earlier. The elevator ride seemed to go much faster on the way back, but Olivia wasn’t sure if that was her own perception of time or simply a better speed on the return.
Either way, they soon stopped where they had started, and Ronin tossed the crystal blade up out of the hole in the floor and then helped Olivia climb out before crawling up himself.
“Not far now,” he said happily. “Hopefully they haven’t left without us.”
“Hopefully,” she repeated.
They rushed outside of the facility and jumped in the ground vehicle. With the pedal to the floor, Ronin rushed back the way they had come, driving up and out of the lakebed, honking his horn the entire way. When they crested the hill, he was overjoyed to see the Hammerhead just lifting off, and Explorer Two right behind.
The problem was, the ship’s engines were full power and they couldn’t possibly hear the horn on Ronin’s vehicle.
Olivia stood up and started waving her arms wildly, but the Hammerhead shot away, and Explorer Two was starting to turn away too.
“No,” Olivia yelled. “Not like this!”
Ronin let off the gas, and the vehicle slowed in the street.
“They’re gone,” he said. “It’s too late.”
Ruby had just finished the last check and she was definitely concerned about the heat levels on the repulsors, but at this point she didn’t have much choice. She took a deep breath and put her hand on the throttle when she heard a woman from the back yelling at her.
“There’s another two!”
“What?” she asked, looking back.
“Down in the square. There are two other people!”
Ruby looked to Michael and he shook his head.
“We have to,” she said.
“We can’t,” he replied.
“It’s all or none,” she said firmly. “Right?”
There was silence for a moment, then another voice from the back chirped up. “All or none! Get them and let’s get out of here!”
Ruby smiled and nosed the craft back down toward the ground. Explorer Two was working overtime, but it was glorious. She reminded herself that if she did manage to get back home she needed to write a love letter to the engineers that helped build the ship.
They dropped from the sky and stopped short of landing. She couldn’t power down the engines now or she feared she might not get them back online again. She saw from the cockpit window that Ronin and Olivia understood, driving up beside the wing and clamoring to get on.
She pressed a button that opened the cargo doors and waited until someone in the back yelled up to her. “We got them!”
“Close the door,” she said to Michael. “I’m focusing on keeping us in the air.”
He nodded and did as she said, then he looked out of the cockpit and his eyes went wide.
“What?” she asked, looking up. She saw it almost immediately. There was a massive eruption of dirt and debris from the dry lakebed. Out of the cloud, a black and red creature zoomed out, coming directly toward them.
“Time to go!” she shouted.
Explorer Two spun around and started lifting away from town. The creature, no doubt the Yunai’s physical body, landed atop Town Hall, and looked up at them with a menacing stare. Ruby wasn’t interested in hanging around, so she threw the throttle to full power and charged them toward the Traveler as fast as she could.
“Radio ahead to Thresher. Tell him to get the Traveler moving. That thing is going to be right behind us.”
“Right,” Michael said.
Ruby watched her radar, but nothing was showing up. She wondered if the creature hadn’t chased them after all. Perhaps, having retrieved its physical body, this Yunai thing was content to rule over what was left of this dying World Ship.
She wasn’t so sure she believed it, but it helped her focus on the main task.
“Thresher here,” his voice echoed over the radio. “You guys okay?”
“Better than okay,” she replied. “We’ve got Ronin and Olivia. We also have a hostile coming right behind us. We seem to be faster, so we’re putting some distance between us, but we need a fast getaway.”
“If I program the Traveler to leave too soon, the bay door will close and you won’t be able to get through,” Thresher said.
“If you program it to leave too late, we’re going to have a Yunai coming with us.”
“I’ll make it,” Ruby said confidently. “I promise.”
“Okay. What’s your ETA?”
“Transmitting our data now, based on current telemetry.”
“Got it. I’m triggering our departure now. Cross your fingers, Ruby Rose.”
The Hammerhead reached the Traveler with ample time to spare. Thresher flew it to the designated landing area where dozens of other survivors were already huddled together. As the ship set down he quickly pulled up the radar. There was nothing he could do now but watch and hope that the Traveler didn’t leave them behind. He had already decided, if the bay doors started closing without them, he would halt the departure.
All or none.
He waited with anxiety eating him alive.
It felt like hours passed.
The Traveler finished its undocking procedure, and the massive vessel began to move, ever so slowly, away from the dock. The bay doors started to close, designed to seal up just after the Traveler reached the darkness of the void.
“Are they going to make it?” Bainbridge asked.
“They’ll make it,” Thresher replied. “They have to make it.”
He put his hand over the abort sequence, just in case.
The radar lit up. It was Explorer Two, and they were closing in fast.
“She’s going to get them all killed. Can she come in that fast?”
“I don’t know,” Thresher said. “If anyone can, I bet it would be her.”
They watched as the bay doors were halfway closed now, they held their breath, hoping and praying as a white streak zipped through the tiny opening and immediately started a sharp bank and thrust maneuver to arrest some of their speed.
“This is Explorer Two,” Michael’s voice spoke over the radio. “We’re all aboard. Alarms like crazy in here, but I think we’re okay.”
“Music to my ears,” Thresher said. “We’re nearly clear.”
The radar lit up again. Another object was moving in fast.
Thresher saw it was moving much slower than Explorer Two. His panic started to fade.
Before the blip could get any closer, the Traveler slipped out of the World Ship docking bay and into the void of space.
The Traveler engines kicked in, and they watched as the World Ship started to shrink, slowly at first, and then rapidly enough that it was gone from view in only a minute. Finally, the Traveler initiated its fast travel procedure, and the light of distant stars stretched into lines as they zipped by.
“I can’t believe it,” Thresher said. “We did it.”
The engines caught fire. Twice.
Even still, the mission was done. Ruby set Explorer Two down about a hundred feet away from the Hammerhead, and they started unloading the survivors in an orderly fashion. Michael and Ruby waited until everyone else was off before they stepped out, and when she got to the ground she was immediately tackled by Ronin and Olivia.
“You’re the hero of the story,” Olivia said cheerily. “You saved our bacon!”
“She’s right,” Ronin added. “We wouldn’t be here without you.”
“There will be enough hero stories out of this adventure to fuel our World Ship mythology for years to come,” Ruby said, smiling widely. “I’m just glad we got everyone out of that mess.”
“Uh,” Michael said, looking at the blade in Ronin’s hand. “What is that?”
“Keepsake,” Ronin replied. “A little souvenir from my first father and daughter outing.”
“Father and daughter?” Ruby asked.
“It’s a long story,” Olivia said, looking at Ronin. “One we can figure out together when we get back home.”
“Agreed,” Ronin replied. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a rival I need to see.”
PHOTO: Ruby, Olivia, and Ronin talk excitedly.
Shifting through the crowd, Ronin made his way to where Thresher was monitoring their progress. He looked restless, but Ronin knew that was because he never liked being the hero of the narrative, which he definitely was today.
“Thresher,” he started. “I owe you an apology.”
“You don’t say?” Thresher prodded.
Ronin held up his hands in surrender. “I was wrong. I can’t tell you how sorry I am for not letting you come back to our home. These people, all of them, owe their lives to your absolute commitment.”
“I suppose the double-edged sword cuts both ways,” Thresher countered. “I don’t know what dangers I put the other World Ship in by stealing one of their Travelers. I have a reckoning coming when we get back, but I’ll own it, whatever it might be.”
“Well, I imagine that everyone here will vouch for you, even if you went a little overboard.”
Thresher smiled, ever so slightly, and then let out a long sigh. “Honestly, I’m just ready for a rest.”
Ronin laughed. “Now we’re talking.”
“It’ll be a day or two,” Thresher added, serious again. “We should figure out food rations and get things in line. The last thing we need right now are people fighting over food.”
“All work and no play,” Ronin said. “Alright. You’re right, of course. Let’s get to it. I’ll have Ruby add whatever resources she has to your own. I’m sure we can make it work for now.”
“Thank you for the apology. I didn’t make it easy for you, but I am thankful nonetheless.”
Ronin gave him a small nod and then continued back toward Explorer Two.
Thresher looked around at all of the people they had rescued. The people that he had rescued. He was sure there would be arguments made that his actions were reckless, and he would likely face imprisonment, but he had saved his people. He had done what others thought impossible, and he was proud.
“Okay,” he said to himself. “Food. Let’s sort some food.”