The night air was cold. In the darkness, glints of light played across the dazzling snowflakes that were quickly showering the town square with a coat of white. Most of the main lighting in the area had already gone out, which left only the colorful strings that adorned the front porches of the various buildings to illuminate the snowfall. Grace Phillips stood in front of the fire station, looking around and enjoying the sight. It was calm tonight, as calm as it would get before the big rush for the celebration of Union Day. A year ago they had celebrated the return of the Traveler. The vessel had come home loaded with refugees from a distant World Ship. The poor souls had lost everything, and William Everett had taken great care to see to it that folks had a place they could call home. Winter Village, the snow and atmosphere were synonymous with jubilation to many people. So, while the actual date of the Traveler’s return had come and gone, William Everett had set the anniversary a few months later, aligned with a time of the cycle when it was most likely to snow in Winter Village. William was always looking for a way to stir up excitement in town, and Union Day was looking like another winner. The trains scheduled to arrive in the morning would be loaded to capacity with visitors from Town, the Frontier, and rumors suggested that even a few bigwigs from the Hub in the Upper Level might attend.
Grace was ready.
All the security was in place, helpers were marked and trained with directions, and the normally excited mood here seemed to be peaking toward a new level of… jolly.
A strong breeze cut through the square and Grace felt it through every layer of clothing she’d put on, so she decided it was time to retreat. She stepped back inside, but before she could close the door, she felt… shaking. She froze in place, and it was obvious. The windows in particular vibrated ever so slightly. Then, a distant boom rumbled in the sky. She turned back outside, looking up into the inky black, but she saw nothing there. Finally, the power flickered and blinked out. She was suddenly enveloped in the dark and she felt a wave of anxiety hit like a ton of bricks. A million scenarios launched in her mind all at once.
Had there been an Explorer mission near here? Was the village under attack?
The lights returned. Silence in the night air persisted.
Grace stood, surveying the landscape, trying to see something, but as time stretched on, nothing else happened. The power stayed, the air was quiet, and aside from a few confused citizens poking their heads out their doorways, it was like nothing had happened at all. Grace took note of the time and decided she should report the incident to William.
As always, he picked up on the third buzz.
“Grace?” he asked, his voice raspy. “What is it?”
“An incident, Sir.”
“What’s the situation?”
“Not sure. Power surge of some kind that knocked out the lights for a moment. There was a sound similar to an explosion in the sky, but I don’t see anything… I’m not sure what just happened to be honest.”
“Hmm… Well, you know what? I’m sure it was nothing.”
Grace chuckled, ignoring the man’s sarcasm. “Right, of course. It’s never nothing. Where should I start? Would the Explorer’s Group know?”
“I’m serious, Grace,” Everett pressed. “It’s probably nothing. You get back to sleep. Nothing to worry about.”
“Mr. Everett, something just knocked out our power. It was out for over ten seconds. Union Day is coming up and we can’t have anything causing problems for us. Wouldn’t you agree?”
William groaned, she heard shifting bed sheets over the call. “Look. I’ll call up the Explorer Group tomorrow and make sure Commander Lamarr has an eye on our situation. Promise. Right now you need to get some rest. It’s late and we’ve got a busy week.”
The call ended without a farewell.
Grace felt surprised. That wasn’t characteristic of William Everett, no matter when she’d interacted with him, and this wasn’t the first time she’d reported in late at night. Of course, William had been under mounting pressure lately, with his own status as Mayor, a town to run, and at least a dozen business ventures to oversee. Maybe all of these responsibilities were starting to get to him. The veneer of the carefree business man couldn’t last forever, but she wondered if that was only her own dark thoughts. William had never been anything more than kind and caring. She had woken him from a bad dream, perhaps, yes that sounded good.
Tomorrow she’d followup with the Explorer Group. They monitored energy usage across the entire World Ship, so it wouldn’t be difficult to put this to rest and move on with Union Day preparations. She solidified that resolve, held fast to it, and passed out on the couch.
The morning sunlight brought the next morning with an unusually cold chill in the air. There was more snow in the forecast, but Grace wasn’t thinking about the weather. She ate her breakfast while looking over local power logs around Mount Machina. When she was certain that folks at the Grid had settled into their work routine, she went ahead and called in to see if she could reach anyone. She used a special access code on the call that was given to her by Flynn Brickshelm in Town. That worked wonders. Before she knew it she was being routed through special channels.
She was especially surprised when Commander Elsie Lamarr answered.
Grace nearly panicked. She was on the line with Elsie Lamarr! The Commander of the entire Explorer Group. This kind of situation wasn’t supposed to happen, not for people like Grace. Elsie smiled, looking a little awkward, waiting for Grace to speak.
“Can I help you, Protector Phillips?” Elsie finally asked, prompting the conversation.
“Right. Apologies. Big fan.”
Elsie’s awkward smile turned into a more comfortable one. “A fan of the Explorer Group?”
“Of you, actually,” Grace replied. “I’ve admired your work, our fortitude… everything really.”
“I appreciate the kind words. How can I help you today?”
“It’s about the power levels here around Mount Machina. We’ve had an incident with a few outages and I was hoping the Grid might be able to shed some light on that.”
Elsie nodded. “Yeah, I see what you’re talking about. We keep a log of any anomalies and review it each morning. It looks like it’s right on par with the other drains…”
“Other drains?” Grace asked.
“Yeah. We checked in on them a while ago with William Everett. He said it was nothing to worry about. Looks like they’re happening pretty regularly, originating from the property of one… Lady Seda Kuna… is that a person?”
“It is, yes.”
“William wasn’t very forthcoming on this, Protector Phillips. I take it you’re going to investigate a little more fully?”
“You’ll let us know if there is something… more… going on?”
“That’s good to hear,” Elsie said. “I’ll update you directly if anything new shows up on our end.”
“Thank you, Commander Lamarr.”
Elsie acknowledged and ended the call. Before Grace could react, the device started to buzz again. She checked to see William was calling her back. In fact, she’d missed two calls from him while she’d been talking to Elsie. Perfect.
“Grace!” he said happily when she finally answered. “Where have you been?”
“Just checking in with a friend,” she fibbed, feeling guilty at the lie. “What’s up?”
“Well, I just got off the phone with Elsie Lamarr over at the Explorer Group…”
Grace’s stomach twisted in knots. “You did?”
“Yeah. I checked out your incident. Elsie says it was nothing to worry about. Just a fluke.”
“She said that? Like, just now?”
“Yeah,” he replied cheerily. “I called you right after talking to her. So there you have it. There’s nothing wrong. There’s nothing to worry about. So you focus up on Union Day and don’t waste another moment thinking about a little power outage. I can’t stay on, I have some meetings to attend, but call me if you need me.”
The call ended and Grace was left in silence.
William Everett had just lied to her.
Never in all her days would she have believed it. The feeling of nausea hit like a ton of bricks to the stomach. Why would William cover up something like this? Who could she turn to now? There had to be an answer, so before she was going to throw William to Elsie and the Explorer Group, she had to find out the truth. She took a few deep breaths to calm herself down and then reached for her communicator.
She dialed the only person she might be able to trust.
Geoffrey Thell. Thresher.
Two hours later, Geoffrey was sitting on the worn out couch in the Winter Village Fire Station. Grace had filled him in on everything he knew while she frantically searched more of the local power logs for anything that he felt she might have missed.
“You know, Grace,” he said, resting his head on his right hand, propped by his elbow, slowly scrolling through his own pile of energy readings. “When you said you wanted to visit with me I thought we might be doing something a little more fun than reviewing energy logs.”
Grace frowned, then handed him a cup of hot chocolate and smiled warmly as he pretended to be falling asleep.
“I didn’t know who else to call,” she admitted. “There is something going on with Lady Seda Kuna, and William Everett is covering it up!”
“William Everett is the strangest man I know,” Geoff replied. “That being said, there’s no way he’s up to something sinister here.”
Grace nodded in agreement. William wasn’t the villain. No, he was being coerced. “I’m not worried about William. I’m worried about Lady Kuna and her experiments. William got in over his head with her.”
Geoffrey frowned, but didn’t speak. Grace knew she’d hit a soft spot with that one. Lady Kuna and Geoffrey had worked together on their old World Ship. They had both been considered troublemakers. She was about to apologize when Geoffrey’s face changed. He smiled and pointed at the screen. “There we go.”
“Here in the logs,” he said, pulling her closer so that she could see better. As he did, their shoulders touched and Grace suddenly felt nervous. She liked being this close to him. She leaned into it as much as she dared, forcing herself to stay on topic. The spreadsheet in front of her wasn’t very thrilling, but Geoffrey had started to highlight a few of the rows.
“See?” he pressed. “The energy readings happened in a pattern. All of them only last a minute at the most, all of them put a major load on the power here in Winter Village, and every single one of them originates from the property of Lady Seda Kuna. That information, coupled with the sonic boom you heard last night, means I know exactly what these two are doing.”
“That’s evidence, right?” Grace asked. “Surely we could go to William with this.”
“Oh no, we’re going to the source,” Geoffrey said, standing up and walking over to get his coat. “Are you ready for a little drive?”
“There’s only a few days before the Union Day Celebrations. We need to confirm what it is they are up to. If not now, then when?”
Grace pushed back her nerves. Geoffrey was right. She was this town’s protector. She had a job to do. She walked over and grabbed her coat as well.
“Come on,” she added. “We can take the new truck.”
The drive to Lady Kuna was an interesting one. When the young woman had built her home, with William’s help, it was one of the only structures this far out from the train station at. The flood of refugees from World Ship 2296 had changed the landscape here, as William welcomed most of the survivors with open arms and free housing. Many folks estimated that over half of all of the refugees had ended up in Winter Village, while the rest were scattered between the Frontier, Town, and the Hub in the Upper Level.
All of this meant big changes here in Winter Village. The new homes for one, but the new business as well, with shops opening and creative individuals coming to craft and sell their wares. Usually, when folks thought of the general population on a World Ship, they assumed everyone was a scientist or an engineer, but more citizens had shown gifts in creative fields too. There were a handful of potters, jewelers, and even a few musicians now.
Winter Village was seeing the biggest boon, but the truth was the entire landscape of the World Ship was changing. It was evolving from a small town vibe to a thriving cityscape. Just a year ago, the trip to Lady Kuna’s house would have been mostly untraveled mountain side, and now over half of it was on a paved road.
“Does all the change concern you?” she asked aloud as they went. Geoffrey was in the passenger seat, not looking particularly engaged in anything, and he jumped a little bit when she spoke.
He seemed to chew on her words for a few moments, then shook his head.
“Why not?” she pressed.
“You’re doing it differently. There’s careful deliberation in your expansion. This World Ship is in better care than ours was, and you’ve got centuries of wisdom to help keep everyone on the right path.”
“Remind me to tell you about Anton Mertens,” Geoffrey said, smiling at her, then pointing straight ahead. “Focus up. Looks like we’ve got trouble.”
Grace looked forward, toward Lady Kuna’s property, and she frowned when she saw the young woman standing at her front door, next to none other than William Everett.
“What do we do?” she asked.
“They’ve spotted us now,” Geoffrey replied. “Might as well press into it.”
She groaned, but did as he said, driving into Lady Kuna’s yard and stepping out of the vehicle to come around and face the pair.
Grace felt like she might be sick. She felt nervous to be here, but something deeper inside pressed her forward. There was dishonesty in the air, and it had no place in Winter Village. She planned her discussion point, introducing her situation and why she had been led to come out here. In truth, maybe having William here would…
“How many are you building?” Geoffrey shouted, jumping out of Grace’s truck and marching toward Lady Kuna’s house.
“Excuse me?” William asked as Grace scrambled to chase after her friend.
“You heard me,” Geoffrey grumbled, getting close enough to lower his voice. “How many are you building?”
William looked angry. He looked angrier than Grace had ever seen him look. Until this moment, she might have convinced herself that William couldn’t be angry, but this confrontation with Geoffrey had changed him. Grace was about to pull Geoffrey back, when William’s anger seemed to break to disappointment. He lowered his glare and sighed.
“Just the one.”
“I trusted you,” Geoffrey said, his voice rising again. “Just one. For how long? Then it’ll be two, three, and maybe an entire fleet?”
“And you?” Geoffrey added, turning to Lady Kuna. “You’re helping him power it?”
Seda Kuna nodded, looking rather delighted. “Yeah. Actually, since you’re here I was wondering if I might be able to ask you about the mechanics…”
“Not now,” William interjected. “Geoffrey. Before we let this go any farther… can I please just show you what I’m working on?”
Geoffrey paused, then allowed himself to calm down and nodded. “Fine.”
“Good. Okay. Grace, you might as well come to, since you clearly couldn’t wait.”
She raised a brow. “What?”
“Come on,” William said. “Let’s all go around back.”
As they walked around the edge of Lady Kuna’s home, William Everett said nothing to Grace or Geoffrey. Geoffrey stepped back to fall in line with Grace, and she nudged him to get his attention. When he looked at her, she gave him an expression of annoyance. He frowned, then offered her a shrug.
They rounded the last corner to face the back yard, and when they did, Grace was immediately confused. In the middle of a clearing she saw only a bright red… sleigh. Large cables were running from the sleigh, and computer stations were set up around it, monitoring it, but there was nothing particularly sinister here.
William turned to face them, then gestured as the large red sleigh and his expression clearly demonstrated that he was just as frustrated with them as they had been with him only moments before. He looked to Grace. “My dear friend, I’ve had enough of these episodes to write a memoir. Every time something strange happens in Winter Village, you all assume I’m up to no good. Every time. I’m stealing power crystals or I’m building secret factories. Grace, you’ve been around long enough and explored several of them. Has I ever been a man to lead you down the wrong path?”
“No,” she answered, her voice quiet.
“Yet when I tell you not to worry, when I tell you it’s okay, you go and rile up Geoffrey!?”
“She didn’t rile me up,” Geoffrey rebutted. “I got myself riled up when I realized you were building repulsor engines. I let you borrow the schematics of the Hammerhead in good faith that you wouldn’t replicate the technology. Now I know you went ahead with the research anyway. I’ll admit… I didn’t realize you were planing to build a flying… sleigh.”
“Isn’t it marvelou?” William beamed, stepping away from the and losing the sense of anger that had been hanging around him since their arrival. “I’ve built it for Union Day. The Winter King is going to fly over Town Square and throw out toys and candy to all the gathered people. Ah, there’s going to be music and excitement!”
Geoffrey shook his head. “The power of a mad scientist and you’re building kid’s rides.”
“Oh? Yes…yes of course! Why else would I care about your flying machine?” William said with that old familiar smile returning to his face. “I wanted to recreate it here. Think of the excitement folks will have when the Winter King comes zooming over their heads?!”
“So what does this have to do with the power outages?” Grace asked.
“Geoffrey didn’t explain?” William asked. “Every time we take off and land, the draw of the repulsor engine uses up too much power. We’ve nearly solved that issue now.”
“That’s right,” Lady Kuna said, smiling. “Thanks to William loaning me a power crystal, I’ve been able to research and refine our own crystal enrichment process! We should have a crystal with enough juice to make this sleigh wireless, assuming we can get it to takeoff.”
Grace groaned, turning to William. “You gave her a power crystal?! After she stole it from you?”
William shrugged ever so slightly. “She’s one of the best scientists we’ve got.”
“She keeps her discoveries for herself,” Geoffrey grumbled. “For you too, I suppose.”
William rolled his eyes dramatically. “There it is again. See? Are you so eager to make me a villain? You know I’m not the bad guy, right? I build towns and help spread cheer. I’m the best thing this World Ship has in the joy department.”
“In our defense,” Grace suggested. “You do always seem to be tied up in shady situations.”
“Like hiring a mutineer as my town’s protector? By taking in the notorious Thresher when some folks wanted to see him jailed away? By offering a young scientist on the wrong path a better alternative? I’d have thought you better than to throw stones in a glass house, Ms. Phillips.”
William’s words stung, and she stepped back as the realization hit her. Of course William always seemed to be on the verge of another bad behavior. He was constantly surrounding himself with broken and “bad” individuals, giving them a chance to build themselves up the right way.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I should have never doubted you. When you said that you’d spoken to the Grid, and your story contradicted my own…”
William suddenly nodded as if understanding Grace’s position. “You caught me in a lie,” he said more calmly. “I suppose that makes more sense. My friend that is my fault, and I suppose that only goes to show you that honesty is the best policy. You’re the Winter Village Protector. I should have kept you apprised of our work, but I had hoped to keep this secret so you’d get to experience one of my surprises this year. I can accept that if I’d been truthful, we wouldn’t have had to deal with this escalation.”
“Well, you can rest assured,” Grace said firmly. “I’m a William Loyalist now. I won’t doubt you any more, if you’ll still have me.”
William’s jovial smile returned and he patted Grace on the back. “Now now, you were just doing your job. There’s no need to beat yourself up about it. I’ll keep you in the loop on any more shenanigans, I promise.”
“I suppose if you’re just using the technology to build flying sleighs, I might be able to lend a helping hand,” Geoffrey spoke up. “I know what’s causing the power draw on takeoff and landing. It was a common problem in the early designs of our own flyers. I can work with Lady Kuna and have it sorted in a few hours.”
“Really?” William asked, sounding genuinely pleased. “You’d offer up more secrets? I thought I was going against your wishes, or the wishes of Ronin at least.”
“I’m not Ronin,” Geoffrey said. “You already made the tech. I’m just helping improve on it a little bit. Besides, the application here is for a sleigh. As long as you aren’t planning to scale it up to a fleet of flyers, I can’t see the harm.”
“Your help is always appreciated,” Lady Kuna said excitedly.
“Wonderful,” William said with a grin. “I’ll consider this all a happy Union Day miracle!”
“Seriously though,” Geoffrey added. “This whole Winter King thing… flying around… hurling presents at children as he passes overhead? It’s going to need some refinement or it’s never going to stick.”
William took personal offense to that, breaking into an explanation at least three hours long about the details of the Winter King, which included detailed story ideas that William was already sourcing to a publisher in Town. As he further broke down his study groups, Grace found herself admiring this man’s sheer will to press on with new ideas and innovations. William Everett really was a step above the rest.
As Geoffrey started explaining his own knowledge of the advanced mechanics of flight machines, and Lady Kuna joked about the acceleration of a magical sleigh powered by crystals, Grace realized that Winter Village might be changing, but it was still the same. Magical sleighs and the Winter King was just another day here… and she loved it.