As the Intrepid’s repulsors hummed, the vehicle rested inches above the water’s surface. Ronin was working with the vehicle’s main cockpit open, allowing the warm ocean air to sweep through and wash him with humidity and salt. He’d always loved the feel of that warm breeze, and it had long ago made him feel small, so small, and free to experience the life that was intended for them here aboard the World Ship.
In front of him, the massive bulkhead leading to section 09 of the World Ship’s Upper Level loomed like a mocking deity. Their entire future was unfolding on the far side of this doorway, and yet there was almost no way to truly get through it. The people of the Grid had tried initiating another power cycle, but the bulkhead hadn’t budged. Right now, several members of the Explorer’s Group were taking turns using the amethyst crystal blade to cut through the thick metal panels. They hoped to carve a path through the bulkhead that would be large enough to allow the Intrepid passage. Ronin was skeptical, but he didn’t have a better plan.
Next to him, the energy readings on a small monitor continued to show the levels of crystal radiation that permeated the bulkhead. It was incredibly faint, but it was there. On the other side of this metal wall was a power source of unlimited potential… and a monstrous mechanical creature had wormed its way inside, beyond his reach. After all the work and sacrifice, he was helpless again.
He hadn’t felt this way in a long time, and now that it filled his mind again he wondered if he could survive it all again. Would he be able to watch another World Ship die? Could he lose his child… again?
His headset crackled on the dashboard of the cockpit, and Ronin thankfully turned his attention toward the sound. While the ship-wide communication system still hadn’t come back online in this area of the World Ship, there were other solutions in place. The two-way radios still worked just fine, and the Hub had been happy enough to coordinate their plans thus far.
Unfortunately, the radio frequencies needed to be adjusted rather frequently as power fluctuations still riddled this area. The crackling cleared up as Ronin toyed with the radio in his hand, and eventually, he got a pretty clear sound.
“Ronin. Come in.” Geoffrey’s voice was steady, and solid, though the radio made it sound higher in pitch than usual. “Are you with me, Ronin?”
“I’m here,” Ronin answered, looking briefly at the team of workers that were handing off the blade so a fresh recruit could continue the work of cutting. “Not a lot of progress on our end, if that’s why you’re calling.”
“I’m bringing the Hammerhead,” Geoffrey said. “Stay tuned.”
The radio blipped off. Ronin sighed and gave a shout from where he was seated. The workers turned to him, confused, and then he warned them of the approaching ship. They all grabbed onto the bulkhead just as the wind started to pick up.
The Hammerhead was a large vehicle, and the repulsors that carried it through the air made a lot of wind when they were fired at full throttle, which was something Geoffrey had a great interest in doing as frequently as he could. The wind blasted the bulkhead as the giant vehicle rapidly slowed its descent until it gently touched down on the water’s surface and began to power down. Inside the hole of the bulkhead, Ronin heard a few workers shouting, though he wasn’t sure if it was good shouting or bad. Next to the Intrepid, the Hammerhead was one impressive vehicle. Ronin had spent years hunting the elusive vehicle during his youthful adventures, and the man that had once been named Thresher. He would have never believed that he’d be standing next to the ship one day, much less considering himself an ally to the pilot.
The main cockpit door of the Hammerhead started to lift open, and Ronin saw Geoffrey removing some of his gear as he started to climb toward the front of the craft where he could get a better look at Ronin. They weren’t far apart, no more than ten feet by now. Ronin saw Geoffrey was still wearing his energy crystal hook, and it glowed as he used it to prop himself up. No one on this World Ship could produce something like that, or these vehicles either. Ronin and Geoffrey were relics of a dead empire, and they’d brought their curse to bear on this world too.
“What bad news did you bring?” Ronin finally asked.
“No bad news today,” Geoffrey replied. “I have a solution.”
“A plan, anyway,” Geoffrey clarified. “It’s insane, Ronin, I’ll give it that.”
“Three Evercrystals,” Geoffrey stated. “One in that section of the World Ship, and two more out here. One powered the Hammerhead. The other…” He held up a small container, glowing with bright light.
“You took the Hub’s power crystal?”
“They offered it willingly. Karushi Sona sends his regards, by the way.”
“So instead of the Yunai having one Evercrystal, you plan to give him all three of them? I’m afraid I’m not following.”
“This particular crystal is going to get us inside that bulkhead,” Geoffrey said, pointing at the hole the workers had been cutting. “The Explorer’s Group in the Lower Level has done some calculations. If we rig this crystal to explode, the blast will rip the bulkhead to shreds, assuming we plant it in there real good.”
“When you said the plan was insane, I assumed there was at least a little bit of sarcasm involved.”
“It doesn’t stop there,” Geoffrey continued. “The second Evercrystal is the key to our success. As far as we can figure, the Yunai’s mechanical body needs to house the crystal to draw its power. So, while we were talking about blowing up the bulkhead from the inside out, one of the engineers asked why we couldn’t do the same to the Yunai.”
“The answer being that we have no way—”
“Hold your questions until the end,” Geoffrey said with a grin. “A small device, using radio frequency identification, has been carefully embedded into the crystal casing of the second Evercrystal. All we have to do is get the Yunai to take it. Once he gobbles it up, or whatever he does, we detonate. The crystal will be inside the Yunai’s dark metal exoskeleton. The blast should utterly destroy everything inside.”
“What good is defeating the Yunai if no one is left standing?” Ronin asked. “Geoffrey, you’re talking about detonating two Evercrystals. The detonation of an impure crystal leveled an entire city back on our World Ship. What do you think will happen here?”
“According to estimates?” Geoffrey mulled it over for a moment. “Elsie Lamarr said total loss of the Upper Level plateau, likely significant damage to Sections Zero-Eight and Zero-Nine. It could take decades to recover from it all. Alternatively, if the Yunai isn’t stopped, this World Ship is dead.”
Ronin winced. “Assuming all of this somehow works, how do we get from here to there? The Yunai isn’t chasing after your special bait crystal, it’s going after the one behind that wall.”
“We blow the hold open, then charge through,” Geoffrey said. “Hopefully we will intercept the Yunai before it reaches the third crystal. I daresay that—”
An alert sounded from Ronin’s console. A moment later, the same alert sounded from Geoffrey’s. Ronin checked his energy readings and felt a wave of panic. The level of harmonic radiation was increasing.
“Is that a spike?” Geoffrey asked.
“Hasn’t changed since I started monitoring it. It’s still going up. Not by a small amount either.”
“What does that mean?”
Ronin looked at the bulkhead. “The crystal is moving.”
“Well, then we should—”
A thunderous sound echoed from the bulkhead, working its way from the water’s surface high into the sky above. Then, a horrible metal groan vibrated so intensely it made Ronin’s teeth hurt.
The workers inside the bulkhead hole ran out in a tangled panic. The last one out still carried the amethyst crystal blade. As they rushed to the safety of their boat, the small platform they’d attached to the bulkhead started to break away. Ronin instinctively pulled at the controls of the Intrepid, and the vehicle responded instantly, moving across the water’s surface and giving the panicked workers something to grab onto as the platform sank.
The Intrepid stayed as the workers carefully moved to their boat. The last man, the one with the blade, carefully handed the weapon around the side of the cockpit until Ronin could grab it. He shouted a thank you to Ronin and then jumped onto the boat as well. They tore off at full speed as they’d been ordered to do if anything happened around the bulkhead.
By now, the vibration had become rhythmic, and Ronin saw that the hole in the bulkhead had started moving farther away from him. The massive doorway was opening. He looked to Geoffrey, who simply shrugged in response. It was too loud to shout at one another now, so Ronin closed his canopy and picked up his headset.
“Good news about the bulkhead,” Geoffrey said over the radio.
“Is it good news?” Ronin asked. “Or did the Yunai already get what it wanted?”
“Only one way to find out. We should head inside.”
The energy readings were climbing significantly now, which Ronin assumed was because the bulkhead was allowing a flood of radiation to escape, but the spike had started before the door had started to open.
“Right,” Ronin said with a sigh. “We can probably—”
Ronin heard the radar indicator go off and instantly felt fear gripping his soul. An object was in the range of his detection system, and it was moving very fast. The object was nothing more than a vague shape on the screen, but it was large enough to be the Yunai. Ronin started powering the only weapon system the Intrepid had, old mining lasers that had been converted into a kind of light blaster. If was about to go up against the Yunai, he wouldn’t stand a chance against the dark metal exoskeleton, but he also knew nothing was perfect. There had to be a weakness, and Ronin would find it, or die trying.
Ronin’s eyes moved to the detector.
A second object appeared. This new one was not far behind the first.
“You see what I see?” Geoffrey asked from the radio.
“Am I looking at two Yunai?”
“No. Something else is happening. Target the approaching objects and get some kind of visual. They’re closing fast. We need to know what’s going on.”
“Working on it. The Hammerhead has a lock already. Getting a long-distance visual in a second… now.”
The image appeared on the Intrepid’s display, and Ronin wasn’t sure what to think. The object was a pink and white vehicle, designed much like the old jet planes that had ferried people through the skies back on his own World Ship.
“Is that one of ours?” Geoffrey asked.
“I…I don’t know.”
“Well, let’s lock trajectories, match, and intercept. Whoever they are, they’re being followed, and I have a sneaky suspicion I know who it is.”
The two vehicles came to life. Their repulsors thrummed as they rose into the sky. The objects were approaching rapidly enough that they’d actually need to intercept them here in the Upper Level plateau. While they started to build speed, the second object reached visual range. Ronin wasn’t surprised by the creature, not as much as Geoffrey was from the sound of the words he spoke when he saw it.
The massive Yunai was an awe-inspiring thing to see. Its body was made of biometals and advanced electronics, all interwoven and guarded by a shimmering exoskeleton of pure dark metal. It would be frightening enough to know it was a robotic beast, but knowing that inside that shell was some kind of spiritual entity only made the whole prospect seem worse.
His emotions surged in his mind again. This was his fault. He’d been the one that had unlocked the Yunai. If he had stuck to the protocol of his forebears, the creature never would have escaped his old home.
Then, a burst of static caused him to curse and nearly throw off his headset.
“Was that you?” Geoffrey growled, having heard it as well.
“No,” he replied, checking his console. “I think someone is scanning the frequencies. Hopefully, it’s our new friends on that flying machine.”
He worked his controls on the radio, sweeping through his own frequencies until he found the static again, then he focused his signal strength and felt a shock of excitement as the static gave way to a clear voice that was repeating something. He waited for a pause, and then it started again.
“Mayday. Mayday. This is Captain Starla Knight aboard the Albatross. We are four persons and one highly potent power crystal. Broadcasting for all potential receivers. A dangerous creature is in pursuit and gaining. We require immediate support!”
Ronin pinged Geoffrey, who dialed in on the same frequency.
“Albatross, this is the Intrepid. We hear you and are moving to intercept your location. You are crossing the section bulkhead threshold and we’ll adjust to joining your trajectory soon after.”
“Glad to hear a friendly voice,” Captain Knight replied. “We’re trying one more thing. Stay with us if you can.”
Ronin saw the bulkhead door slow, stop, then reverse course. The massive door was closing again, and the two objects on the radar were cutting it close.
“Is this what you’re trying?” Ronin asked.
“Hold tight!” Captain Knight shouted.
Ronin watched in awe as the large flying vehicle leaned onto its side, slipping through the rapidly closing bulkhead with very little room to spare. The Intrepid was already accelerating to run alongside the aircraft, and for a split second, Ronin thought they might have pulled it off. If the Yunai was trapped by the bulkhead, they’d have time to figure out a better plan.
Unfortunately, a streak of dark metal zoomed through the narrowing gap as the door moved into its final locking position. The Yunai had made it through without issue, and the chase was still on.
“Captain Knight,” Ronin asked. “Is the Evercrystal still in your possession?”
“It is,” the captain replied. “We were hoping to fly to the Lower Level, throw the Evercrystal on a Traveler, and blast it into the void. If we’re lucky, the Yunai might even go after it.”
Ronin knew that plan was foolhardy. They hadn’t prepared a Traveler for departure, and the Yunai was dangerously close to overtaking them already. By the time they flew to the Lower Level, they’d be ripped from the sky.
“Even if that plan were to work,” Geoffrey chimed in, “We’d still have the Yunai to deal with in some fashion or another. Folks, your best bet is to fly as fast as possible to the Upper Level plateau and dive for the Lower Level. Ronin and I have a plan to put an end to this.”
There was some scuffling on the radio, then Starla’s voice was replaced.
“What’s the plan?”
“Olivia?!” Ronin shouted. “Is that you?”
“Alive and well,” she replied.
Ronin’s emotions swirled. He felt instant joy at the news of his daughter’s safety, and also an immense dread about the creature that was chasing her.
“Keep flying,” Ronin said. “We’ve got a plan. We’ll all talk about it once this is resolved. Keep flying toward the Lower Level. No stops, no hesitations.”
“What are you going to do?” Olivia asked again.
“Fight,” Ronin answered.
He pulled on his controls, slowing the Intrepid and bringing it around to face the approaching Yunai. The Intrepid kept up a good pace, but the goal was to let the Yunai overtake him, and it did so easily. He wasn’t sure how the creature would react to his presence, but he assumed it would be aggressive.
Instead, the Yunai seemed indifferent. It flew alongside him, not really taking notice at all. Even when Ronin increased his speed to match the Yunai, it didn’t react at all. He pondered that for a moment then decided to take a more direct approach.
The Intrepid had long ago been built to locate and collect power crystals that grew along the ocean depths of his old World Ship. It used a pair of hydraulic arms to accomplish that task. While the equipment was old, it was still functional. He activated them, lowering them into place, then reached out and did what seemed only natural.
He grabbed the monster with both robotic arms.
The Yunai reacted violently. It twisted away from his grip, spinning and slowing itself considerably. The Intrepid, holding tight, went along for the ride, and suddenly turned in the wrong direction while Ronin was tossed around in the chaos.
Despite the Yunai’s violent reaction, the hydraulic arms held fast.
Unfortunately, they weren’t strong enough to puncture the dark matter exoskeleton. Up close, Ronin took a moment to study the Yunai’s body, trying to spot any weak areas or joints in the exoskeleton. If he could just locate an exposed wire or some kind of—
The Yunai lurched, and its mechanical tail sliced right through the Intrepid’s left hydraulic arm. The ship’s console began flashing with alerts of damage to the hydraulic system, pressure on the right arm, and all sorts of screens that Ronin was forced to ignore. Before he could think of how to properly react, the same tail sliced through the right arm as well. The Intrepid, suddenly free again, spun away from the creature in a violent motion with enough force that Ronin felt lightheaded. He steadied the ship as fast as he could, but the response was sluggish.
He checked the diagnostic control board, swiping through warning after warning until he saw the problem he’d hoped to avoid. Two of the ship’s repulsors were offline. Both of them were located on the ship’s left side. He quickly commanded the repair sequence to give priority to their flight systems. It responded with angry tones, but Ronin was finally forced to ignore them and continue with a manual override.
“Come on ol’ fella,” he grumbled while he struggled against the controls, continuing to slow his spiral as the ship dipped ever lower. “Hold together.”
He noted that the speed of his drop was slow enough to survive the impact, assuming he could maintain his velocity. He looked back out of the cockpit and saw that the Yunai had returned to ignoring him, instead turning its attention back on the original pursuit. He had delayed the creature for a few minutes, but it wasn’t enough time. The jet plane wouldn’t last forever, and if the Yunai got the power crystal, it was over.
As the Intrepid continued descending, Ronin wrenched the controls as best as he could and sent more power to other repulsors to keep his ship in the sky. He had to get over there and help them.
Then, over his radio, he heard Geoffrey. “You good, Ronin?”
”I’ve been better,” he replied.
“Good. Stay alive. I’ll take care of the Yunai.”