The elevator doors of Town Hall opened while the familiar chime alerted the occupants of its arrival. The conference room had been a frequent stop for John before he stepped down from his duties as Press Secretary for the town council. After his departure from the role, he had not expected to find his way back into this room unless he won the mayoral election against Rayland Walsh.
The community vote was still several weeks away.
Instead, Rayland had invited John here tonight, which was strange enough, but when he stepped inside, he found it was the entire council at the table, as well as Ruby, and the man known across the World Ship as Thresher.
“What have I stumbled into?” John asked, hoping that this wasn’t a stunt by Rayland to get him in trouble with the council.
All the members looked up at him with smiles or nods of welcome, so they weren’t shocked by his presence. Rayland must have informed them he was coming. That was a good thing, right?
“I’m glad you could make it,” Rayland started. “You haven’t missed much.”
John frowned. “I hate to sound foolish, but I’m not sure why I am here.”
Rayland smiled. “You’re running for mayor. If you win the election, you’ll be here quite often. There is a crisis brewing, and I’d like you to be a part of the council team while we solve it. I don’t see what it could hurt.”
“We’re all in agreement,” Nancy Rizzo added, gesturing from John to the conference table. “You’re experienced with the council and the World Ship already. Having one more individual around for this won’t hurt.”
John contemplated that, then moved to the table and took his seat. His mind was swirling with political plots and conspiracies, but for the moment it seemed like Rayland was just asking him for help. That didn’t explain why Ruby was here, or the man that nearly destroyed everything….
“Are we ready to begin?” Elsie asked, sounding agitated. “Are there any other attendees that I should wait for?”
“No,” Rayland said. “This is everyone.”
“Good. Now, as I have been informing you, our World Ship is currently experiencing damage to internal systems within several interior bulkheads. We have isolated the source, and Geoffrey has confirmed our worst fear.”
“Worst fear?” Nima Patel, the town doctor, asked. “What is our worst fear?”
“The damage is being caused by a mechanical creature,” Ruby Rose answered without a prompt, causing everyone to turn and look at her. “The people of World Ship Two-Two-Nine-Six called it a Yunai. It chased us while we fled with the refugees of that World Ship. We assumed we had escaped it, but it’s here now.”
“There’s a mechanical creature crawling in our walls?” Nima asked. “A robot?”
“Biomechanical,” Geoffrey spoke up. He stepped closer to the council and let his hand rest at his side while he placed a glowing energy hook on the table with an intentional thud. Most of the citizens hadn’t seen Thresher’s prosthesis, or at least not up close. The hook had been crafted from a single energy crystal and charged so that it would glow long after Thresher had passed. Most folks that saw it were captivated, and he liked to use it as a way to grab and hold attention when needed. He let the silence hang in the air for a moment, before continuing. “The Yunai are spiritual entities. They exist outside of our physical realm, at least as far as we can tell. As they don’t have physical bodies to inhabit, they use whatever they can find here. They could force themselves into our physical bodies, controlling us, but it’s taxing for them. Instead, they eventually developed and created these biomechanical machines to control.”
“So, it’s a living machine,” Nima surmised. “What about intelligence?”
“It’s intelligent. The Yunai think and understand like us. A simple animal seeks to feed itself, survive, and populate. The Yunai are far smarter and far older than anything we can comprehend.”
“So the power outages are because of this Yunai?” Nancy asked.
“Correct,” Elsie answered. “The Yunai has snaked its way into the interior bulkheads of the World Ship. It appears to be both hiding from us, and also pursuing something of interest.”
“What could it be after?” Rayland asked.
Elsie pursed her lips, then looked at Geoffrey. “Care to explain?”
Geoffrey nodded. “On our World Ship, most exploration required ample power supplies, especially if you were going away from the World Ship’s power supply. Our people developed power crystals, and we continued to refine the technology until we finally created something called the Evercrystal.
“The crystal holds immense energy, releasing it over time to be utilized by whoever wants it. A single Evercrystal could provide this place with power for decades. They were incredibly hard to produce, and only three of them were ever created successfully.”
“One of them is in the Hub,” Elsie picked up the conversation. “Ronin’s vessel, the Intrepid, was powered by one of the Evercrystals, and he used it to power his sprawling settlement. The second continues to power the Hammerhead, which is Geoffrey’s vessel that we likely all remember…”
“The shark-shaped attack vehicle?” Bryan Steeles asked. “Yeah, we remember.”
“This doesn’t answer the question,” John spoke up. “If the creature is going to the Hub, why would—”
“We were as perplexed as you are now,” Elsie said, cutting him off. “Until I was recently informed that the third power crystal may have made its way to our World Ship decades ago.”
“Where is it?” John asked.
“If assumptions are to be believed, the remaining Evercrystal is located in Section Nine of the Upper Level. This location is almost directly above the Garage and aligns with the trajectory of the Yunai’s movements.”
“Section Nine?” Rayland asked. “Didn’t your people come to me about Section Nine ages ago?”
“That’s right,” Elsie answered. “We initially believed that a section of the World Ship had sustained significant damage, resulting in the entire area becoming uninhabitable. We confirmed this information using several sources, as best we could, and moved on. When the bulkhead that sealed Section Nine off from the rest of the World Ship was recently triggered, however, the ship’s readings indicated normal levels of breathable air and stable atmospheric pressure. In short, Section Nine is fine.”
“What does this mean to us?” Rayland asked.
“We believe there is a third population group aboard the World Ship like we discovered with the Hub in the Upper Level. This population group sealed themselves off from the rest of the World Ship and has lived in secrecy for an undisclosed amount of time. They likely use an Evercrystal to supply power without tapping into the Grid.”
“The Yunai is tied to this somehow?” Flynn asked, sounding confused. “Why would the creature go after some undisclosed population group? Why not come for the other two Evercrystals?”
“We can’t say for sure why the creature chose the path it did,” Elsie mused. “Perhaps it understands that we’re closed off from this Evercrystal, or maybe the energy signatures give off different wavelengths that we don’t fully understand.”
“Okay,” Nima summarized, placing her hands on the table. “So, a giant mechanical monster is carving a path through our World Ship to get to a power crystal. Why? What does it need a power crystal for in the first place?”
“Energy,” Nima guessed. “The Yunai is a machine, right? So an Evercrystal is like a lifetime battery.”
Geoffrey nodded. “That’s right.”
“What powers it right now?” Bryan asked. “Is that how we defeat it? Perhaps it’s running out of power? If we can just keep it away from the Evercrystals long enough then it won’t be able to sustain its body.”
Geoffrey shrugged. “That I can’t say. My interactions with the Yunai were long before it claimed this mechanical body. I can say that keeping it away from the Evercrystal must be our priority.”
“So what’s the plan?” Nima asked. “Elsie, your people always have a plan.”
“We have agreed to let Geoffrey take his vehicle, the Hammerhead, and attempt to engage with the creature in the Upper Level. His primary goal will be to stop the Yunai from obtaining the Evercrystal, no matter the cost. He plans to rendezvous with the Intrepid. Ronin and Geoffrey will coordinate an attack on the Yunai using their advanced technology. They stand a far better chance than anything we can throw at it.”
“That seems like a bold move,” Rayland said. “Any chance it will work?”
Geoffrey shrugged again. “We’re going to try every trick we know, but I can’t honestly tell you that we can defeat this thing. It might smack us out of the sky without any difficulty. We’re running blind. That’s why the second part of the plan matters so much.”
“The second part?” John asked.
“Yes. Concurrently to their engagement in the Upper Level,” Elsie continued, trying to avoid letting Geoffrey’s blunt response linger. “I need the council to approve the beginning of a ship-wide evacuation order. If the Yunai cannot be stopped, we will need to get our citizens off this World Ship until we can decide our next move.”
The room went silent.
John had to assume he misunderstood. “Did you seriously just tell us we need to initiate a ship-wide evacuation?”
“I agree with John,” Rayland said, shifting in his chair. “We can’t just flee our home because of this situation. Surely we can fight this Yunai?”
“The Yunai has a dark metal exoskeleton,” Ruby said, joining the conversation. “I provided a great deal of intelligence from what we saw on the other World Ship. The Yunai moves faster than any vehicle we’ve produced in the Lower Level, and it has nearly impenetrable armor. It could walk down the main street and we wouldn’t be able to do a single thing to stop it.”
“An evacuation is a stack of high-risk operations piled on top of one another,” Bryan said, talking aloud but not really to any one person. “How many can we take on a Traveler? How do we—”
“Operation Exit Strategy,” Elsie interrupted. “The effort was put into planning almost as soon as we took on the refugees from world ship two-two-nine-six. While the original scenario revolved around power loss or catastrophic damages, the result is the same. We need to get everyone off this World Ship until we can figure out what comes next.”
Rayland scoffed. “Elsie, the very notion that we can evacuate all of our citizens is absurd. Operation Exit Strategy was a public relations project meant to calm the citizens that were hearing World Ships could die. It wasn’t meant as a real-world solution. You know this. I know this.”
“Regardless of our chances of success, we need to be ready,” Elsie repeated. “I am not one for insurrection, but as my predecessor once proved, I can have the Explorer Group act without council approval if I must.”
“Please, that won’t be necessary,” Flynn said, looking around the room. “I have helped Elsie with preparations around Operation Exit Strategy. I’ve seen the work they’ve put in and I endorse it. I recommend that the council allow this. The best scenario is that Geoffrey and Ronin can defeat the Yunai. We celebrate and come back home. No harm done.”
“The worst case scenario?” Nima Patel asked, her voice sounding hollow.
“We cross that bridge if we get to it,” Flynn replied.
The entire room was filled with anxiety that threatened to swallow them. This discussion, ranging from mysterious sections of the World Ship to monsters that could end life, to abandoning their homes, was the most devastating meeting that they had ever held.
“Fine. If there are no objections, the council is in agreement,” Nancy said, eyeing for anyone to speak up. No one said a word. “Good. We do as Elsie said. Prepare an evacuation and hope for the best in the Upper Level.”
As the council members departed, John remained at the stairs of the front door and watched them go. The sun had faded hours ago, so it was relatively dark, with the street lamps lighting up the main road.
Geoffrey walked with Elsie, already discussing what would come next. John only heard a small part of it, but there was clear intent for a fast and aggressive confrontation with the creature.
More importantly, John stepped over to Flynn, who was already talking with Ruby Rose about the decision in the meeting.
“A full evacuation?” Ruby had just asked, only now absorbing the full extent of what happened upstairs. “Like, we’re loading people up and taking them to the Garage?”
Flynn nodded calmly. “We’ve talked about this with Elsie plenty since you returned with Explorer Two from the other World Ship. The system is in place, but we haven’t even rolled out a testing phase. Our first attempt is going to be the real deal.”
“Can we pilot a Traveler?” John asked.
“We have an entire crew trained according to the Book of the Travelers. The issue is real-world execution. Doing all of this in simulation is nothing compared to reality. Right now, Geoffrey is still the only one that’s personally handled a trip aboard a Traveler, and he’s also the only one that’s going to be able to fight the Yunai. If we’ve learned anything from this crisis it is that we’re unprepared.”
“Still, reality offers us no alternatives,” Ruby said, her face growing stern. “We only get one shot at this so we have to do it right the first time. End of story.”
John respected her determination, even if he didn’t feel as optimistic.
Flynn grunted, then turned toward the main street, where Mission Control had more lights on than usual for this time of night. “Come on, Ruby. I don’t think we’ll be sleeping anytime soon.”
Ruby blew a kiss to John, then she and Flynn marched into the night, leaving John by himself. He wished he was half as brave as those two. He only hoped he’d be brave enough to face whatever awaited them now.