It took two days to tow the Ulysses back to the bay.
The bay, it turned out, was not just a watery cove, but also a massive outpost with pirate flags flapping in the winds and chaos churning all around the makeshift harbor areas. Like Captain Snow’s vessel, the other two tall ships docked here looked to have been put in the water very recently, with clean paint and stained wood that didn’t have a single barnacle encrusted anywhere on the hull. They all felt too perfect. The harbor buildings, on the other hand, looked weathered and worn.
Olivia looked behind them, where the Ulysses continued to limp along. The pumps had been running valiantly, but the last one had failed hours ago. Captain Snow had not allowed anyone to stay to manually scoop water out with buckets, so the entire crew had evacuated over to his brigandine vessel, the Silver Cutter. She wasn’t sure if the Ulysses would make it, but Snow had promised to drag it into as shallow water as he could find so long as it didn’t try to pull the Silver Cutter down with it. Thankfully, it appeared he was true to his word. Inside the bay, he’d turned them away from the harbor and toward the sandy beach on the far side. A dozen or so men were already gathering on the beach there with long ropes, and Olivia guessed at what they had planned. Captain Snow stepped up to them as they watched and smiled at the sight.
“They’ll row out and tie on our anchor points,” he explained. “Then they’ll use brute strength to pull the Ulysses as close as they can. I dare say we’ll be able to manage it. If we can get the ship repaired enough to float, we can always reposition it later. Frankly, I’m impressed it made it this far.”
Olivia was going to respond, but a loud whistle interrupted them. Captain Snow snapped to attention, spinning toward the sound, and Olivia followed him to see several people climbing aboard the vessel using a rope ladder that had been dangled over the side. She stepped over and saw a small row boat that had come alongside the Silver Cutter’s hull.
“The Queen has come aboard!” a crewmember barked. “All salute!”
The entire crew of the Silver Cutter responded in unison with a sharp snap of their arms. Their right arms were bent at the elbow and ran parallel to their chest, while their left arm crossed over at the wrist in a perpendicular hold. It made a kind of off-center cross over their torso. They held it there for a few moments, then everyone relaxed.
“Captain Snow! Report!” a man called.
“Here, Admiral Grayson!” Captain Snow called back.
The man gestured toward Snow and stepped aside to reveal a woman with short black hair, cut to just above her shoulder. She wore a simple uniform in comparison to all of the others, but the material was thick and stiff, giving the woman wearing it a solid stature. As Olivia looked at the woman’s face, she immediately began to understand why Captain Snow had looked so surprised when he’d seen Olivia. Looking at this woman, the Queen of this place, was like looking into a kind of strange mirror.
This was her mother.
The world around them slowed. Olivia became suddenly acutely aware of the sounds all around them… water lapping against the Silver Cutter’s hull, the sound of seagulls squawking and flapping their wings above. The rustling of the wind through the palm trees growing on the nearby beach. She felt it all.
The shattered fragments of Olivia’s lost memories played in her mind, hitting her with the singular images of her mother. The woman, having spotted Olivia, was pale as a ghost and stepped over with a look of mixed elation and terror.
None of it felt real. This wasn’t real.
Olivia wondered for a moment if she’d died on the Ulysses.
Then, she felt her mother’s calloused hands as they cupped her face. There was a surge of emotional energy. Olivia felt like a lost child. Would this woman save her or harm her? Should she dare to ask?
“My daughter,” Scarlet Sun spoke at last. “I know this must seem odd…”
“I know,” Olivia mustered. “I know the truth. Anton told me.”
“I’m so sorry,” Scarlet said, pulling Olivia close. “I should have never let him take you from me. I… I didn’t know what to do.”
“It’s okay, mother. I just can’t believe I’ve found you. First Ronin and now—”
“What?” Scarlet asked. “Ronin?”
Bainbridge suddenly stepped up, helping to give some space between Olivia and Scarlet. “This is probably the best moment for me to interject,” he said, his voice calm. “You’ve been hiding away for some time, Scarlet. A lot has happened.”
Scarlet’s eyes went wide at seeing Bainbridge. “Impossible.”
“Two years ago I would have agreed with you,” Bainbridge replied.
Scarlet suddenly seemed to recover from the emotional fallout of this meeting. She stood straight, patted her uniform at the sides, and looked back at the other officers that had witnessed this exchange.
“Get these people food and supplies. Help them see to the repairs of their vessel. For the time being, they are to remain here, in the bay. No one is to leave until I’ve sorted everything out. Do you all understand?”
Her crew and officers all gave their salute once more.
“Good,” she said, turning to Bainbridge and Olivia. “Now, you two, obviously we need to have a long chat. Come with me.”
Much of the “bay” as they had called it, appeared to be cobbled together from old ship hulls, flipped over, and converted to homes and businesses. The majority of the harbor followed this style, but it looked genuine in comparison to the ships floating in the water with their clean paint and shiny metal attachments.
They were rowed to shore, then led through the hodgepodge collection of structures until they reached a large door that led them into the office of the Pirate Queen. The escort that had accompanied them fell away at the door, as Scarlet waved a dismissive gesture. She then pointed to a few chairs in the large room for Olivia and Bainbridge to use. Olivia looked around and was instantly reminded of Karushi Sona’s own office back in the Hub. Like Karushi, Scarlet had decorated her office with relics, including a piece of dark metal that was perched on a bookshelf that had been nailed directly to the wall. Scarlet, for the most part, was playing it cool. After her emotional response to seeing Olivia, the Pirate Queen had remained stoic and straight-faced. Olivia felt overwhelmed by it all. It was so obvious now that her mother had been out there. Anton had explained she had her memories and that she’d gone into storage with the rest of the refugees. Somehow, Olivia hadn’t connected the dots. She hadn’t put it all together. Bainbridge, standing next to her, looked almost smug. It was clear to her now that he had sailed the Ulysses with the express intent of finding Scarlet.
“Let’s get something clear,” Scarlet spoke, taking her place behind a large wooden desk that had fancy cutouts and gold filigree. She looked at the pair for a long moment, then pulled out a piece of paper and started writing. “First, I will dedicate what resources I can to making the Ulysses seaworthy. Once you’re able to leave, your crew will be free to leave.”
“That’s kind of you,” Bainbridge replied. “The issue is that we can’t leave.”
Scarlet looked up from her work. “How so? You obviously figured out that a power cycle to this section of the World Ship would cause the bulkhead to reset. Just do that again and you’ll be out of here.”
“We didn’t do that on purpose,” Olivia snapped. “How do you think the Ulysses got damaged in the first place?”
Scarlet raised a brow. “I assumed it was the result of children playing with technology that’s beyond them.” She leaned back in her chair and studied them further. It was clear that she was torn about the revelations she’d faced today, but her mind was still working as the Pirate Queen. “Fine. If you’re not able to leave, then you’ll stay. I can have a writ of citizenship granted for each of your crew. You will be forbidden from telling anyone that you’re from outside the bulkhead. You will not—”
“What is this?” Bainbridge asked, his temper suddenly flaring. “You’ve resurrected the Great Lie! When did you trade in your freedom for the ideal of the old Imperial Fleet?”
Scarlet glared at him.
“What are you two talking about?” Olivia asked.
“The Great Lie was a mandate in our old home,” Bainbridge explained, still meeting Scarlet’s stare. “Your father, along with help from Scarlet, helped spread the truth about the World Ship to our people. We didn’t want anyone to explore beyond our walls. The Imperial Fleet and the Empire itself eventually fell because of your parents, and now she’s rebuilding it here.”
“I am doing nothing of the sort,” Scarlet said, regaining her composure. “I borrowed some of the protocols, but Sanctuary is nothing like our old home. I said you’re free to go, didn’t I? You’re the one that can’t open the bulkhead. I don’t need to keep my secret, but Sanctuary will not be compromised by you or your people. If you cause a disturbance in my city I’ll have you imprisoned.”
Bainbridge scoffed. “How do you have your memories anyway? Olivia, didn’t you say everyone’s mind got scrambled by someone?”
“Anton let her keep her memories,” Olivia replied. “He considered it a mercy.”
Scarlet rolled her eyes. “I begged him not to take the memories of my child. She was all I had left of my past. I couldn’t lose her completely. He caved to that emotional appeal. I’m glad he did, but he should get no special credit. He couldn’t even stick to his own mission.”
“What happened to you?” Bainbridge pressed. “You’re not Scarlet at all.”
“Time,” Scarlet replied. “It changes us all, as you’ve experienced yourself.”
“I don’t understand. You’ve been here this whole time building a city… a people… why didn’t you come to find me?” Olivia asked.
Scarlet looked at Olivia and there was pain in her expression. “I had incorrectly assumed that we’d all emerge from the same Core exit. I was waiting for you. All this time… always waiting.”
“If you’d just opened the bulkhead and helped unite our people—”
“No,” Scarlet interrupted. “You were born too late, Olivia, but our World Ship survived for generations by maintaining their bulkheads and separating their population centers. When we grew beyond ourselves and sought out new adventures… that’s when things fell apart.”
“What good has it done you to lock yourself away then?” Olivia asked, sounding flustered. “We’ve been connecting across the World Ship for years now. The Hub, Winter Village, Town, and even the Frontier. Your knowledge about the outside universe could be instrumental in keeping us safe. Instead, you hid away like a coward and we made it on our own. We gained control of the Grid and—”
“You gained control of nothing,” Scarlet corrected. “I have the Grid locked in safe mode. Anton, for all his knowledge, is still just a single person. His knowledge of the World Ship is minimal compared to the teams of scientists that worked on the Grid back home. Your people can’t access more than the most basic functionality that this World Ship has to offer, and it will remain that way forever. That’s how I will see to it that we survive. I guide your people silently, without the need to reveal myself.”
“You’re wrong,” Olivia said firmly.
Scarlet shrugged. “I don’t suppose it matters. Convincing you isn’t important.”
“Ronin will come to find me,” Olivia added. “My friends too.”
Scarlet looked disturbed by that statement. Olivia had seen her reaction when she’d heard that Ronin was here, and she was surprised by it too. There appeared to be hostility there, but what it might be Olivia could only guess.
“Come with me tomorrow to Sanctuary,” Scarlet said. “Let me show you the life I built here. Let me explain why I’ve done what I’ve done. If you hear me out, if you truly understand what I’m doing and you still want to leave, I’ll help you open the bulkhead, and I will seal it again behind you.”
Olivia looked to Bainbridge, who simply shrugged. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll go to your city, but you won’t change my mind.”
“Perhaps,” Scarlet replied. “Now, I’m sure you’re both hungry, am I correct? Go and get some food. Then I suggest you rest. We depart tomorrow morning for Sanctuary. Bainbridge, you can stay here with your crew and help my people get your boat floating.”
“I… thank you,” Bainbridge said calmly.
“You’re welcome,” she said curtly. “If you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
Olivia and Bainbridge found a tavern not far from Scarlet’s office. They had a variety of dried meats and cheeses, as well as a sugary drink that was chilled in a kind of primitive ice box. It was delicious, and Olivia was thankful to have some real food in her belly again. She drank the last bit of her serving and thanked the waiter that came to scoop away their dishes. They must have known about Bainbridge and Olivia’s situation because they asked for no compensation and shook their heads when the topic was broached.
“So how do we get home?” Olivia asked, leaning toward Bainbridge.
“We fix the Ulysses. Then we try to figure out how to get in touch with the other side of the bulkhead. The best option is if your people can find a way to open the door from the Grid.”
Olivia nodded. Scarlet had kept prying eyes away from this part of the World Ship by locking the door and triggering sensors that indicated it wasn’t safe here. If Elsie was informed it was safe, she might be able to simply override the command keeping the door shut.
“Surely Scarlet can reach them,” Olivia grumbled. “When we get to her city I can try to convince her to let me get a hold of the Lower Level.”
Bainbridge didn’t look very pleased by the statement. “You must be careful, Olivia. I don’t know what Scarlet’s planning for you. Taking you to her city might be a trap.”
“A trap? She’s already got us trapped.”
“Fair point,” Bainbridge conceded.
“Come on,” Olivia grumbled. “Let’s walk around for a bit. I could stand for some exploration.”