A strong salty breeze, strangely warm for this time in the evening, swept over the large open deck of the Ulysses while it plowed through the ocean waters of the Upper Level. The winds were with the vessel today, pushing them ahead at over fourteen knots, the fastest that the ship had moved since it was put into service. The crew of sailors cheered on the helmsman and encouraged more from the ship, rocking back and forth as the waves below lifted and dropped them again and again.
For Olivia, the thrill of the trip was exhilarating. By now, Olivia Sun was a seasoned explorer. She had flown in rocket ships, flying machines that levitated, and she had even traveled off of this World Ship to explore the depths of the void itself. In all of those adventures, she had pushed boundaries and seen things that very few others ever would. Somehow, standing on a wooden sailing ship gave her that same feeling. It wasn’t as fast, or as daunting, but this adventure was still unique. It still carried her toward the unknown, and she was happy to have this new journey at her fingertips.
“Captain! Dead ahead!”
Olivia turned to see one of the sailors pointing off the ship’s bow. She looked in that direction, noticing what looked like a massive white wall breaking the clouds in the distance.
“I see it,” a firm voice answered the young sailor. Captain William Bainbridge arrived on deck, looking out across the water where many others had turned to look as well. William wore an older design uniform, though it had likely been made only weeks before this voyage. It was an homage to his younger years, and Olivia respected that.
“Is that the one we’re looking for?” another sailor asked.
“No,” the Captain replied, pointing toward the ship’s bow. “We’re still sailing toward our main target. That bulkhead leads to another section of the World Ship.”
“Is it sealed as well?” Olivia asked.
“Aye,” Bainbridge responded. “All three bulkheads on this end of the sea are sealed tight. We’re just here to investigate.”
“If we can’t get through the bulkhead, what are we here to investigate?”
Bainbridge smiled. “All in good time.”
The Captain turned to the helmsman and gestured slightly toward the starboard side of the vessel. “Veer us a bit away from the edge, Edwards. We don’t want to get caught in the spirals.”
“The spirals?” Olivia inquired.
“I’m no scientist, but folks in the Hub said it’s something to do with water filtration. There’s an immense undercurrent near the edges where the sea meets the World Ship’s interior bulkheads. Rumor is it could pull down a loaded ship like ours, so best to avoid it if we can.”
“Did you have anything like that on your World Ship?” Olivia asked.
Bainbridge shrugged. “Not that I ever witnessed, but there were stories of such places in folklore. It’s possible I just never found them. Regardless, we should reach the far bulkhead by nightfall. We’ll anchor there and I’ll brief the science crew on what it is we’re looking for out here.”
“Aye aye,” Olivia replied.
“Good. Are you coming to dinner tonight?” he asked.
“Good,” he said, nodding. “Good good.”
Bainbridge started on his path across the deck, shouting orders when needed, and complimenting when he could. Olivia was pleased to see the man’s spirits had lifted from the defeated and lost soul that she had rescued. Coming to the Upper Level had been the start of a new life for him, and it suited him well.
After the sun had set, Olivia made her way below deck to the Captain’s quarters. It wasn’t exactly roomy, but there was no wasted space. The Ulysses had been designed between two worlds. The technology on this World Ship had dictated a wooden hull and primitive sailing equipment, but the one who built the ship had come from a different World Ship, one where technology had created unique opportunities. There was a weak electrical generator on board and a few creature comforts that were only found on more modern vessels.
Bainbridge didn’t care for any of that, but he’d come to terms with the fact that this strange hybrid of old and new was what gave the Ulysses its unique identity. Instead, he’d begrudgingly accepted the vessel for what it was, an extension of his own soul… someone adrift, not really from here, but not really from there either.
When she stepped inside, she found the Captain staring over his maps, looking at them with a furrowed brow. Next to the maps, however, was a device that she had never seen before. It beeped, then buzzed, and Bainbridge grumbled to himself before he looked up and noticed Olivia had arrived.
He quickly pocketed the device and looked toward his open door.
“Didn’t think to knock?” he asked.
“It was open,” she said, raising arms in surrender. “I’m just here for the food.”
Bainbridge sighed, seemingly calming himself. “Of course. I don’t mean to be accusatory. The latch on that door has been broken since we left port.”
“I can take a look at it tomorrow,” Olivia said casually. “No dinner yet?”
“Not yet. Sawyer said he’ll bring it in soon.”
“Good. I suppose I’m going to ask the obvious question…”
Bainbridge rolled his eyes. “It’s an instrument used to detect a special type of ionizing radiation.”
Olivia was shocked. Not just that Bainbridge had such an instrument, but that he comprehended and said half of the things that just came out of his mouth. The look on his face meant he found her reaction rather offensive.
“I do know some things,” he added.
“I know some things too,” Olivia said. “Harmful radiation on this World Ship should only be emitted from the engines and other vital systems that are kept at the far tail of the vehicle, behind the Garden, even. You’re not going to find it here.”
Bainbridge raised a brow. “And yet…”
He pulled the device from his pocket and switched it on. A small crackling sound, incredibly faint, and the tiniest nudge of the needle on the small device measurement screen. He held it there for her to see, then switched it off again and placed it back in his pocket.
“That’s practically a residual reading,” Olivia said. “You might be picking up the smallest wave of excess radiation.”
“No,” he replied. “Only out here. It gets stronger, Olivia, as we sail to the far bulkhead. If we turned around now, within a few hours this instrument would be silent once more. There’s something out here.”
“On the other side of the sealed bulkhead?” Olivia asked.
“I suspect that’s the case,” he said, nodding in agreement. “Your engineer, Elsie Lamarr, explained that the World Ship’s bulkheads are designed to seal in the case of a disaster. In the Upper Level, there are three major bulkheads that have all been sealed, but the World Ship shows no major damage.”
“Anton never said the World Ship was damaged,” Olivia added. “He said it was odd, but assumed it must have been a malfunction.”
“Elsie also said you have never managed to open the bulkheads.”
“We never managed it from the Grid,” Olivia admitted. “We always theorized we might be able to manually open them from somewhere in the Upper Level, but obviously other things kept getting in our way.”
“So,” Bainbridge surmised. “Either the World Ship was damaged, but made no note of the damage, and sealed the bulkheads as part of its standard protocol, or…”
Olivia frowned. “Do you think someone could have intentionally closed them?”
“That’s the question in my mind,” he said, pursing his lips. “Unfortunately, I doubt you or I will be able to get inside to find out.”
“So, why sail the Ulysses all the way out here?” Olivia asked.
“Two reasons,” he answered. “First, I love sailing, and this seemed like a good way to get out and have a good adventure. Two, I like to learn as much as possible about something, even if I know from the start that I’ll likely never fully understand it.”
Olivia smiled. “I’m proud to hear that.”
Bainbridge chuckled. “Now, assuming we—”
There was a buzzing sound from the map table, and Bainbridge quickly snapped up a black rectangle that was rattling around. It was one of the ship-wide communicators, devices that allowed the citizens to use both video and voice to reach each other anywhere the ship’s network reached, which was pretty much everywhere. They’d made the heavy wireless radios a thing of the past, and Olivia was thankful for that. Unfortunately, not everyone had these communicators, as they had produced very few of them after discovering their existence. Only Bainbridge had one on the Ulysses, which he only cared to use in emergency situations.
“Bainbridge reporting,” the Captain answered formally.
“At ease, Captain,” the calm voice of David Nash responded.
“What can we help you with, Officer Nash?”
“Nothing, Captain. I’m just checking in. I wanted to see how the maritime adventure was going. You’ve been on radio silence since you left.”
“Technology spoils the mood,” Bainbridge answered, a grin forming.
“I’m sure. Listen, I did want to share some news. The Grid has been reporting some energy fluctuations in the Upper Level, namely out where you are sailing. The engineers think it’s an electrical surge of some kind, but keep an eye out, just in case.”
“Hi, David,” Olivia said, making her presence known.
“Hey,” his voice grew more excited. “How’s sailing been? Ready to come back to the Hub yet?”
“The ocean is impressive, David. You should get your sea legs figured out and come out here with us sometime.”
“I’ve seen it,” Nash replied. “No thanks.”
“We’re thankful for the update, David,” Bainbridge butted back into the conversation, looking at Olivia with a raised brow. “I’ll let the two of you chat another time. We’re on duty, after all.”
“Ah, right. Feel free to call and report back from time to time, Bainbridge.”
The Captain disconnected the device and set it back down on the map table just as a knock sounded on the door. The pair turned to see a man in a white apron standing at the threshold with a silver platter in his hands.
“Who’s hungry?” he asked with a smile.
Dinner aboard the Ulysses was always fantastic.
The ship’s cook, a man Olivia only knew as Sawyer, prepared vegetables and boring grains in ways that made one wonder if he was cheating with technology somehow.
This latest meal was no different, a medley of dried meats and vegetables doused in savory oils and spices. Olivia went through two helpings in no time at all, while Bainbridge did as he always did during their evening meals.
Not about their trip, or about anything current.
He told her stories of the old days when he was a Fleet Admiral and sailed on a galleon twice the size of the Ulysses. When Olivia’s father, a man named Ronin, had been a troublemaking teen, showing up to meddle in things far beyond anyone’s understanding. It was a time when things made sense for the Captain.
Olivia loved to hear the tales.
She loved to get a peek at the lives her parents lived.
She could lose herself in the food, the fading daylight, and Bainbridge’s long moments of elated reverie. It was almost like visiting an old family member, at least, that’s how she assumed it felt.
By the time he finished his latest tale, the sky outside was a pale orange. The stars, fake stars, would soon brighten in the sky, and they’d take note of the positional changes from the night prior.
Sailors were a kind of engineer, Olivia concluded.
Then, the Ulysses rumbled.
“What was what?” Olivia asked. “The engines?”
“No,” Bainbridge said. “Come on.”
They both jumped up and ran out on the ship’s deck. Others had come out of their bunks and were looking out at the water. They had sailed close to the far end of the Upper Level, the final bulkhead loomed massive on the horizon, not more than a mile or so in the distance.
“Captain?” a worried sailor asked. “What was that?”
The water, the sea itself, vibrated as the Ulysses shook again.
“Everyone! Brace the ship! Prepare for anything!”
As everyone started to move, the stars flickered, and the world around them suddenly plunged into darkness.