Olivia had just finished off a delicious beef and veggie combo that tasted better than anything she’d ever experienced in her life. It had been risky at first, particularly because she didn’t know half of the vegetables that Anton listed when he handed the meal to her. Despite her initial skepticism, everything tasted like bliss. If the food was an orchestra, all of the pieces were playing the right notes.
She took a deep drink from a bottle of water and then looked expectantly at Anton as he was finishing his own meal. He took his time, smiling at her between bites, leaning back, then forward, then back again. Right when she thought she might lose her mind, he let out a long sigh and smiled. “So,” he said, patting his gut. “Let’s recap.”
Olivia was ready. “Our World Ship was launched a very long time ago. You were a member of the team responsible for getting things set up. After flying through a debris field, you found out repairs would take centuries. Your team chose two members to use the Core so they could return to life over and over again. You were one of the members, and the other was Rayland Walsh, someone I know personally. I know Rayland has his secrets, but I never believed he’d have something like this behind it all.”
“He doesn’t,” Anton said. “He’s not like me.”
“What? You just said—”
“I just said we were copied to the Core,” he clarified. “It’s true that we had templates created for our bodies, but as you are probably aware, the Core does not allow the transfer of memories from one body to the next. When Rayland or I passed away, all of our experiences, our knowledge, would be lost. A new and younger version of ourselves would have to start fresh. We’d continue learning what they could from our companion, hopefully still alive, and the cycle would continue until the repairs were complete.”
“All that data lost,” Olivia scoffed. “Surely you knew that wouldn’t work?”
“It was our only choice at the time. I was the first to go. My journal said I made it past eighty-five. When I passed, my memories were lost. I woke, unaware of my prior self, and with only the maximum allotment of information that the Core allows. I had the basics of engineering, but that was about it.”
“So you had to start all over, and you’d lost a part of yourself.”
“I had my prior self’s journal, which helped a lot, but the ramp up was much longer than any of us expected. When Rayland died, many others on the Deployment team had already passed as well. There were even fewer individuals left that could help Rayland get up to speed. By the time I died the second time, it was just the two of us left. My third iteration arrived from the Core, and Rayland did the best he could to catch me up, but it became clear that he had also not learned all there was to know. We concluded very quickly that the plan would barely last a few lifetimes before we would be completely removed from the knowledge we needed.”
“So how did you solve this problem?” she asked.
“My greatest creation. I called it the Eternal Mind. It was, for lack of better terminology, a server that we built. We could upload our entire memory before we died. It was like a computer system backup, and it updated passively, always keeping a record of our minds. I spent an entire lifetime creating it, and another figuring out how to carry the knowledge over. This slowed our progress on the repairs of the World Ship, but it was our only hope. The data helped, but there was still too much parsing… too much manual transference of knowledge that had to occur. I would have to bypass the Core programming and force it to give my new copy the entire backup of memories. It seemed impossible, but the framework was in place. Every citizen does get some information that’s copied over, such as your names and your special focus areas. I just needed to expand the ruleset.”
“I assume you figured it out,” she said, looking out at the garden. “We’re here.”
“I did, though it had its caveats.”
“When I had my solution in place, I realized we would have to upload updated templates to the Core. By now, I was an aging man. Rayland was older, and his health was on the decline. I knew I had a couple of decades, but my companion wouldn’t make it another cycle. If I updated his template, he’d be doomed to centuries of illness and repeated deaths. The template is a carbon copy of your current state. If you are sick with a virus, the Core will bring that virus along for the ride. There was no way around it. I made a copy of myself, despite my age, and I let Rayland die with no memories to retain.”
Olivia felt sad. “So Rayland lost his memories? Why didn’t you update his template when he came back?”
“I intended to do so,” Anton said. “Then, I died too. That changed everything.”
“Well, for one, the bypass worked. The first iteration of the man sitting here with you was truly born. Even now, I carry all of my history from that moment on. I had my memories from my prior life, all ready to go, but the unexpected price of my victory was that I also carried the nightmare of my death. I remembered it all, Olivia. The painful breaths, the struggle to hold on… darkness swallowing you up in the final moments and the agony and despair that gnaws at your very soul until the end. I had no one to sit with me, to remember me. It was slow, painful, and utterly alone. I knew what it felt like to die, and I would feel that again, and again, until the World Ship was repaired. I knew immediately I would never pass that curse on to another being, no matter the supposed benefits.”
“So Rayland’s memories are lost each time he passes away, just like the rest of the citizens?”
Anton nodded. “I was envious of his escape, but I knew at least one of us had to carry the burden. The World Ship needed us, and I had a job to do. I refocused myself on the ship’s repairs, always getting smarter, always remembering where I left off and what I could do next. To ease the pain of my death and lighten the nightmares, I found it more efficient to reset myself when I was on the decline. I chose quick and easy options, of course, things that left little time for memories. Some of them worked, others only left new horrors for me to relive.”
“How long did it take?” Olivia dared to ask.
Anton furrowed his brow, thinking for a moment. “It took about eleven hundred years. We oversaw every repair we could manage on the World Ship. When the waters were seeded with fish, I started a hobby of making my way to the flowing rivers for fishing trips. Rayland never cared for it, but it helped me keep my peace. Years and decades blurred together, and I dare say I lost myself to madness many times. Rayland was always there to help with that. He carried me through a lot of dark days. His resolve never wavered, and each time he reset I was gifted with a younger man who wanted to help as eagerly as the last time.”
“I… I can’t believe this,” Olivia stammered. “All of this… for what?”
“For them,” Anton said, gesturing to the city all around. “If we had not overseen the repairs, we would never have repaired the the World Ship. This vessel would have drifted off into oblivion, lost like so many others.”
“So you did it all? You built our town? You prepared us for our arrival?”
“As the last century came to its close, I became excited for the future. The job would be done, I would die one more time. The final death. I would be released from this cycle. I moved Rayland Walsh’s Core entry to the general population. When he died, he was put in the queue to be part of the seeding group. He would live his life like the rest of you, and he would likely never know the hero he had been.”
“You didn’t do the same for yourself?”
“No, no. At the time, I was resigned to die. I carried so much… history. I had died so many times, I knew the signs, I knew my own mortality too well. It was time to go.”
“What changed your mind?” she asked. “I mean, you’re here, right?”
“To be frank, Olivia Sun, that’s your parents’ fault,” Anton replied, grinning slightly.
“World Ship Two-Two-Nine-Six,” he said flatly. “It changed everything.”
“Obviously I’ll need context,” Olivia said, her pulse quickening. This was what she’d come here to learn. This was the story he needed to know.
“It was an event that was supposed to be rare. The World Ship training never bothered to talk about the idea of interacting with another World Ship. In fact, the only time you heard about something like this was when people told you how impossible it was. Whatever the case, no matter the odds, during our repairs, our World Ship had drifted from its original trajectory. As a result, we crossed the path of another World Ship.”
“Believe it or not, World Ships can communicate with one another, and if done properly, they can even move supplies back and forth using Travelers. It was part of an earlier design, long abandoned, but still deep within the functionality of the World Ships. By now, I was older than any man had the right to be, and I had learned more about this World Ship than perhaps even the original designers. I created a plan. I sent on of my Travelers to that World Ship to request the supplies I needed to expedite my repairs. It would return with what I needed, and the repairs would take a tenth of the time to locate and source the materials from space.”
“That’s where it all went wrong,” Olivia said. “My people?”
“Ronin,” Anton nodded. “He hitched a ride on my Traveler and came back to our World Ship. He wanted a home for his people. His population, your population, was dealing with an apocalypse. Your World Ship was dying, far beyond repair. So Ronin wanted to come and destroy this World Ship instead. I said no without hesitation. I had no intention of ruining my plan, not after a thousand years of work. I felt pity for Ronin, but there was nothing I could do. I promised him that he could return to his World Ship when my Traveler went for more supplies. He was never hostile toward me, but I had sentenced his loved ones to death. He spent his time hear pleading with me, but he never threatened to simply do it.”
“How long did it take for him to get back?” Olivia asked. She had heard this story, or at least Ronin’s side of it, but hearing Anton’s recollection helped make it more real… and more tragic.
“It took about a year before the Traveler was ready to go for more supplies. He left, still hopeful he could save his people. Unfortunately, by the time he returned to his home it was too late. His World Ship was shutting down, and as a result its Grid ordered my Traveler to depart immediately. Ronin was forced to choose between staying to die, or coming back empty handed. He chose to return here, and he came back to me as a different man. He had no time to really search for survivors. He had done what he could, but they were gone. We know now that he missed many survivors, but he couldn’t have saved them if he’d tried.”
Ronin had wanted to stay and search for survivors, but if he had let the Traveler go, he would have been left there forever. Maybe he would have survived. Maybe, if he found Admiral Bainbridge… but the desolation he had seen sent him retreating to his last chance of survival. Olivia wondered if she would have stayed, braved death to know beyond a doubt that she was alone…
She felt sorry for him… for her father… for Ronin.
“His return, you know by now, was not the end of the story,” Anton continued, pulling her attention back to him. “Thresher, Ronin’s enemy, followed him back here, and the two of them began fighting one another with their technology and their desperation. They started causing damage to my ship. I had to put a stop to it. I tried keeping them separated, but that only made the fighting more intense. Finally, I called Ronin and made a deal with him. He wanted Thresher captured, alive and unharmed, and I agreed to help. In exchange, he would let me put him in cold storage, a type of cryogenic chamber that the deployment team used. Together we lured Thresher into a trap. We captured him and I was true to my word. I locked them both away in cryogenic pods. They would be released when the population seeding process began.”
“I guess that explains our age difference,” she mused. “Ronin was frozen away while I was growing up out there somewhere.”
“That’s right. It was a small hiccup, but one I had managed well. Thresher and Ronin were not put inside the Core as a template. Their actual physical bodies were locked away. I worried how they would behave when they were returned to the population, but I dared not question it now. Instead, I focused on finishing the repairs and closing the final chapter on my long existence.”
“Yet again,” Olivia mumbled. “I know you’re here. What changed your mind?”
Anton smiled. “Again I say, your parents are to blame.”
“What do you mean?” Olivia asked, frustrated.
“I thought the story of unwelcome guests was over, but there was one more Traveler that showed up years later. This one, however, didn’t just have a few lone adventurers… it had survivors… refugees. Among that crew was a woman. She led them as a kind of Captain. She was your mother. She brought a child with her. Olivia Sun. She brought you here.”
She was silent for a few moments, really letting his statement settle in.
This was the truth she’d waited so long to hear. This was the final revelation that would give her the bigger picture that no one had been able to give her before. The truth of her own origins, the truth of her past. Anton would, once and for all, tell her what she wanted to know.
“Okay,” she said. “Tell me what happened once we got here.”
“Unfortunately…” Anton mumbled, his expression shifting from mild amusement to a deep contemplation. “We are going to have to wait.”
His brows furrowed, and his eyes darted around the garden. Olivia followed his looks and she saw he was checking the exits. It was then that she understood what he was referencing. There were people blocking each exit, just one at each opening. They might have been mistaken for visitors, but they all stood the same way. They had their arms crossed, and they were all staring her way.
There were another two approaching casually, and a third had already reached them. They were all very well dressed, maybe even a bit over the top, Olivia mused. There was no doubt that they had come here for a reason. No one visited a park dressed like that… definitely not three people.
“Who are they?” Olivia asked, panic welling up inside. “Are we in danger? Do we need to fight? Should we run?”
“No,” Anton said. “Running would be futile. Fighting would be foolish.”
“Well?” she pressed.
“The Dragons of Sentret,” Anton answered. “I guess they are interested in us.”
“Hello there,” one man said, his voice calm and in no way threatening, or even intimidating. “Are you Anton Mertens and Olivia Sun?”
“Who’s asking?” Olivia asked, trying to mask her own anxiety.
“Who do you think?” the man asked, suppressing a laugh. “Come on.”
“We will come… peacefully,” Anton said, his voice calm, steady, but clear.
“We’re not interested in anything violent,” the man said with a scoff. “We’d be the laughing stock of other districts, beating up an old man and a Lower Level tourist.”
“Of course,” Anton said. “It was a foolish thought from a scared elder.”
The man rolled his eyes. “Alright. Come on, you two. Let’s move along.”
Olivia tensed when the man reached for her, but he sensed her trepidation and stepped back without grabbing her. He gestured toward the exit instead of using any force. Anton got up, brushed himself off, and smiled warmly at her. “Come along, nothing to fear.”
She looked at the people guarding the exits, she looked at the man in the suit that was confronting her, and she nearly laughed in Anton’s face. There was plenty to fear, and she was neck deep in it. Still, she swallowed as much of that fear as she could, took a deep breath, and walked alongside Anton. She was terrified of what would come next, but under the fear, she realized she was mostly just angry that she still hadn’t heard the story she wanted to hear.