As far as kidnappings went, this one wasn’t the worst.
Olivia had been escorted, quite comfortably, through the streets of the Sentret district without any major issues. They had even picked up a bowl of noodles for the pair after they heard her stomach loudly rumbling. Anton had mentioned that this area of the city was patrolled by a gang known as the Dragons of Sentret. He had originally assured her that they had no interest in them, but it definitely seemed like it now. While they walked, the pair that was doing the escorting chatted lightheartedly and laughed, but Olivia was paying attention, and so were they. Whenever she made any kind of sudden movement, the pair stiffened, ever so slightly.
They weren’t going to give her a chance to run.
That was fine. Anton didn’t seem interested in running anyway. In fact, the older man had actually pulled out a small book of number puzzles and was keeping himself entertained as they walked through the streets.
She had just finished off her meal, another winner in her book, when her escorts came to a halt in front of a strange looking building. “Come on,” one of them said.
The building looked like it might be a museum. It housed beautiful antiquities, including what appeared to be very old historical objects, but there were no displays to explain the pieces, or signage, or really any particular order to it all.
More importantly, all of these objects had to be fake. The World Ship was old, Anton had told her that much, but the population, the cities and history, it was all relatively young. It was impossible for any of these to be real historical objects.
“Welcome!” a voice spoke, echoing in the room. “What an unexpected surprise. Well, not entirely unexpected. Tell me, how do you like my collection?”
Olivia looked around, but the room was empty, save Anton and the two escorts. She gave Anton a glance and he just shrugged. She gave the room a look once more, and that was when she saw someone step out into view.
He was young, not much older than her, she suspected. He had a wide smile and looked like someone that most anyone would be happy to call their friend. He was dressed in a white suit, and held some kind of antiquated radio or… communicator… in one hand as he approached.
“You must be Olivia Sun,” he said. “My name is Karushi Sona. I’m the leader of the Dragons of Sentret. I am the one charged with keeping the Sentret district safe.”
“I’m honored to meet such a prestigious figure,” Olivia said, perhaps a little sarcastically.
“Of course,” he replied, missing it entirely. “I’m sorry you found your way to me in such a manner. Our part of Danketsu is a welcoming area. I heard you have already spent time at our lovely park. I hope it was as tranquil and calming as we intended.”
“It was,” she started, but then paused. “I’m sorry, you said Danketsu?”
Karushi nodded. “Ah, right, some folks just call it the Hub. Our glorious leader originally called the city Danketsu, but over time the more modern name stuck. Here in the Sentret district, we honor tradition.”
“I see,” she said, glancing around the room. Her eyes settled on a black piece of material. When the young man saw what she was looking at, his smile grew even wider. “Have you ever seen a piece of dark metal before?”
“Dark metal?” she asked, stepping closer to the object.
“That’s right. Incredibly dense material. Nearly indestructible. You’ve probably seen it before. The entire Core of the World Ship is encased in this stuff to keep it safe from intrusion. The outer hull of a World Ship uses it in many places too, to protect from environmental damage, and to block radiation.”
“How did you get it?” she asked, fascinated by what she was seeing. The Explorers in the Lower Level had, indeed, seen the dark material that surrounded the Core. They had tried, and failed, to collect even the smallest samples for study. Yet here an entire chunk of the material sat, ready for research, but locked away in this… place.
“It came from a different World Ship,” Karushi said, still smiling. “We believe refugees brought it here after fleeing from their own vessel.”
She suddenly understood, and spun around to see these relics with a whole new understanding. They changed from knicknacks to treasure troves of potential knowledge. The very idea of other cultural pieces that had migrated here was astounding. She wondered if she might find a way to get her hands on even just one of the pieces that she saw here.
“You recently traveled to another World Ship, correct?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, smiling back at him. “Word travels fast here.”
He nearly jumped with joy. “Ah, how exciting! Tell me, did you bring back anything unique!? Surely you found at least some invaluable treasure?”
Olivia immediately thought of the glowing crystal blade that Ronin had brought back from the Yunai’s containment chamber. They had studied it extensively since returning, but besides it being an energy infused crystal blade, they had nothing to show from it.
“I did,” she said, deciding honesty was the best policy, in case this man already knew about the blade anyway. “A weapon of a unique design.”
This filled Karushi with even more excitement. “Wonderful! Someday you’ll have to allow me to see it. Just to hold it in my hands… wonderful.”
“I don’t mean to sound rude,” she said, daring to press this forward. “The truth of the matter is Anton and I were in the middle of something at the park. I don’t mean to sound eager to leave this discussion, but why are we here?”
Karushi’s smile faded, just for a moment, then returned, and he nodded a few times as though he had just remembered something. “Of course. I will explain. Come, let’s speak about this in my office.”
As they headed to the back of the room, the pair of escorts remained near the front. Olivia wondered if they were supposed to follow, but no one corrected them, so she went with the flow.
Karushi’s office looked like another room in this strange museum. More items were displayed, and his ornate desk looked like it had come off a sailing ship. She thought of Admiral Bainbridge and how much he would like a desk just like that.
When everyone was comfortable, Karushi looked at the pair, but his eyes gravitated toward Anton. “I’ll cut to the chase,” he started, leaning back in his chair as he spoke. “There’s an offer that has been extended to me by someone named Michael Jonas. He is willing to provide a substantial amount of money, and all I have to do is deliver Anton Mertens to a specific location outside of Danketsu. Obviously, he doesn’t know that I have Anton Mertens living in the Sentret district, but by now he’s suspicious of it. I suspect the offer is bait to make me reveal my hand.”
“I have been thankful for your protection,” Anton said, his voice grave and tired, very different from the friendly manner he’d used when speaking with her in the park. “I hoped that I could remain here indefinitely. I find the Sentret district to be… home.”
“Oh, I’m not sending you away,” Karushi replied.
Anton looked up, clearly surprised, his voice returning to normal. “You aren’t?”
“No, not when I’m just getting to the good part.”
“What do you mean?” Olivia asked.
Anton sighed. “You’ve been eavesdropping on our conversation.”
“Bingo,” Karushi replied. “I am floored. I mean, I knew you had a history, Anton. I knew Ronin did too, but you two never were ones to elaborate on your backstories. When you went into your self-imposed exile months ago, I was happy to have you here. I have watched your every move, every action… but frankly, you are a boring old man.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint.”
“Then, I heard about you,” Karushi said, turning to Olivia. “There’s a woman with pizzazz! You are out flying vehicles, commanding missions, even inciting insurrections against your own government!”
Olivia felt a rush of heat in her cheeks. Karushi knew far too much.
“I knew I had to meet you,” he continued. “So, when I found out you were coming to the Upper Level, I was already planning my introduction. Of course, then I found out that David Nash was going to be keeping you under lock and key, and don’t rat me out, but a certain someone mentioned you might be looking for Anton.”
Olivia frowned. “The only person I told was Thresher. You talked to Thresher?”
Karushi laughed. “We’re old pals. I wasn’t a huge fan of his take charge action, but we both pursued the ideals of the World Ships beyond our own. Thresher was the one that opened my eyes to the universe.”
“I trusted him,” she growled.
“Whoa, the anger is misplaced,” Karushi said, holding up his hands. “Look! Thresher said you wanted to find Anton, and I made that happen!”
“The problem was Anton was in hiding, and I couldn’t just reveal that I knew where he was. I had to steer things in the right direction. I found out Micahel Jonas was going to try getting you to leave your police friends, and if he succeeded, I was going to sweep in and borrow you for a bit.”
“You mean two different people tried to kidnap me?” Oliiva asked.
“What are the odds?” Karushi replied. “I don’t know what Michael planned, but you ended up running from the whole confrontation thing, so I told my guys to chase you along. It worked better than I could have planned it. I just had to get you on a certain alley. I knew Anton wouldn’t let a defenseless citizen be chased without a confrontation.”
He turned to Anton and gave him a lopsided grin. “You owe the Chen boys an apology, by the way. That zap put them on the ground for hours.”
“I’d do it again,” Anton grumbled. “They were being unkind.”
“Right. Right. The point is that you, Olivia, ended up with Anton. All I had to do from there was listen in! The secrets he spilled to you are more amazing than anything I could have ever known. Wow. You have seen so much, old man. My respect for you knows no bounds.”
“So why tell us all of this?” Olivia asked, feeling frustrated. “Why come and capture us? You had everything set up and you were learning so much. You could have just left us in that garden!”
“Ah, well that’s the problem. Michael Jonas, and whoever he’s working for, they’ve practically scoured the city for you and Anton, and the Sentret district is the last mark on their hunt. I had to get you out of public view.”
“So now what?” Olivia asked.
Karushi gestured to the pair of them, waving his hand back and forth like the answer was obviously in front of them. “Now, you keep going!”
Olivia and Anton were silent for several moments. Karushi’s smile faded, only a small fraction of it, and he squinted. “Is it because I’m in the room?”
“You were… gonna tell me about my story,” Olivia started, feeling incredibly awkward with Karushi just sitting at his desk looking at them. “Maybe, all things considered, you could tell both of us, instead of just me?”
Anton looked at Karushi, and Olivia realized the older man looked… nervous. Olivia turned to Karushi, realizing he was no longer smiling. She felt her body instinctively tensing, and she forced herself to relax.
“You two seem to be having trouble, so let me see if I can jump start the conversation,” Karushi said, his tone calmer, but clearly less friendly than it had been moments ago. “I’ll tell you about a young man who had dreams of an object that is unlike anything anyone has ever seen. It haunted his dreams, for years, like a memory that appeared in his mind even during the middle of the day.”
Olivia frowned. She knew what he was talking about, not the object, but the memories. The dreams that haunted her with visions of the past.
“Then, one day, the young man actually found the object. It had been cast aside, because no one wanted it or knew what it was, and the boy was none the wiser. It was, in every way, nothing more than a useless relic. But to the boy, because it’s in his mind, he knew it must be special.”
“Karushi…” Anton’s voice sounded tired.
“I was that young boy. Almost every piece in my collection is a relic brought here from other World Ships. I’ve found a few others like me; people with brief flashes of their old lives. In fact I dare say I’m sitting in the room with one now.”
His eyes fell on Olivia, and she squirmed in her seat.
“Is it true?” he asked. “You’re not from this World Ship, are you?”
“It is true,” she admitted.
“A pattern emerges,” Karushi said, clapping his hands together.
“That’s enough,” Anton said.
“Oh, we’re not done,” Karushi replied. “Not until—”
“It was me!” Anton’s voice was louder than expected. Olivia jumped from the sudden outburst, and even Karushi seemed surprised by the volume. “I’m the one that did this to you. Both of you. All of you!”
Silence lingered in the air.
“Progress,” Karushi said at last. “The truth… or at least a piece of it.”
Anton looked like he had turned into another person. The kind and energetic old man had suddenly been replaced by something frail and weak. Olivia was shocked by the revelation, but her mind raced at the thought of learning the truth about her memories and her past.
“Anton, I need to know,” she said. “Forget Karushi. Forget all of it. Just tell me, what happened? When did I get to this World Ship? Why do I have flashes of memories? I am so close to knowing the story, please don’t take that away from me.”
Anton turned to look Olivia in the eyes, his face looked pale, as though he wasn’t looking at her, but some kind of ghostly being instead.
“Very well,” he said at last. “The answers to your questions, all of your questions, begin with the arrival of the Beacon of Light.”
Karushi shifted in his seat, getting comfortable. “I’m ready.”
“Fifteen years had passed since I dealt with Ronin and Thresher,” Anton said. “They had long been stored in the Core, and the World Ship was nearly finished with its repairs. I was so close to the end that I was counting the days, marking a wall in the Grid with each passing cycle. One step closer to the end. I had lost myself in my own personal reverie, perhaps I had lost my mind, I don’t know. Rayland had passed away, and I had moved him to the seeding population, so he would not return. It was just me and an empty world, humming along in the void.
“Then one day, I got a notification that the World Ship was receiving a docking command. I tried to override it, obviously, but I was locked out of the system before I could get it done. Whoever was coming knew how to operate the World Ship, perhaps even better than I did. The Garage opened, one of our Travelers undocked to make room, and then this massive, hulking hunk of junk Traveler flew right in and docked. It was unsightly. The paint had long burned away on the front half of the ship, panels had been removed, repaired, or at least hacked together, and there were swaths of brilliant colors splashed all over the rest of the exterior. Looking at it, I wondered how it had managed to fly at all.
“I had very little time to react. As it finished docking, large doorways opened and smaller vehicles began to empty out, flying from the Traveler to the bulkhead that would bring these intruders into my World Ship. They were like a flock of insects, coming to destroy all that I had built.
“I tried to vent them into the void, but someone blocked my command. The bulkhead safety protocol was overridden, and almost immediately they were inside. They knew the layout of our World Ship, they moved in a close formation, darting straight for the Grid. They were coming to take over my home.”
Anton sighed heavily. The recollection of the memory seemed almost painful for him, like he had to open his mind to thoughts he had buried away long ago.
“Invaders came here?” Olivia asked. “What did you do? Did they claim the Grid?”
Anton smiled slightly at the question. “No, They managed to take control of the large-scale equipment, such as bulkheads. The smaller details, like the many many bots that repair this World Ship, were still under my control. As they reached the Grid, I issued a warning. If they attacked me, they would face the wrath of a thousand bots. I would simply fly the bots into the crowd, like missiles with no warheads. They weighed over a hundred pounds, and weapons or not, that weight crushing down on someone’s head would put an end to them in an instant. That was when their leader stepped forward and told me they wanted to negotiate. I don’t think she knew it was just me at the time. I’m glad for her ignorance there, because I think it saved my life.”
“Who?” Olivia asked. “Who was their leader?”
“Scarlet Sun,” he replied. “Your mother.”