Ruby Rose was busy flying Explorer Three across the Lower Level as fast as Elsie would allow. The engines hummed quietly behind them, and she was confident she could push them much harder without so much as a pressure change, but no one was going to take any risks on this mission.
“So, we’ve moved another two dozen,” Flynn Brickshelm said from his seat next to her. “That’s one of… I dunno… too many trips.”
They had just finished another round trip to the Garage. They were in the middle of a full-scale citizen evacuation, and this vehicle was one of the fastest ways to move people across the World Ship. Most of the high-priority citizens had already been moved to the Traveler, so now they had started using Explorer Three as a ferry for others. For Ruby, this was actually her second time running through the hoops of an evacuation, so she wasn’t feeling nearly as stressed as Flynn. The situation was shockingly similar to helping dozens of refugees escape from Ronin’s World Ship. She just hoped it wasn’t going to end the say way.
While Flynn was busy looking over pages of handwritten notes, Ruby noticed a flashing light from his console. She leaned over a bit to get a better look, which caused him to glance at it as well. “What is that?” she asked.
“Hey!” he said, pushing her back over. “Eyes ahead!”
“Calm down,” she replied. “No one is up here with us. No one is going to run into us up here, you know?”
“Experience tells me not to be so sure,” Flynn grumbled, checking his console. “It wouldn’t be the first time someone decided to cross our path.”
“Right,” Ruby said, realizing Flynn had indeed collided with another craft years ago. “What are the odds that would happen a second time?”
“I’m not keen to find out.”
“So, what is the warning?”
“Harmonic radiation issue,” Flynn said, putting down his notes and picking up a small book that could be used to interpret readings and callouts on the console. “This can’t be right. The sensor must be off.”
“Why do you say that?”
“It’s just… it’s too high.”
Ruby squinted as the lighting started to change. “Is that you?” she asked. “It’s getting brighter?”
Flynn didn’t respond. He didn’t have to say anything. The sky was already getting blindingly bright, and shadows were being cast downward. Ruby gasped at the realization that something was happening in the Upper Level.
“Can you get a visual?” Flynn asked, clearly making the same conclusion.
“Yeah,” she said, turning Explorer Three ever so slightly to get a better look at the opening between the Lower and Upper Level. They could only see a white light erupting from the entire Upper Level. It looked so bright they couldn’t even stare directly at it.
“Flynn, what am I looking at?”
His words were silenced when Explorer Three was suddenly slammed by a shockwave. The force tossed their vehicle like it was a toy floating in a violent bathtub.
“Major Turbulence,” Ruby reported. “Vehicle is responding within normal ranges. We’re riding it out. Hold on, Flynn.”
Flynn was about to acknowledge when the panel in front of him suddenly went blank. The sound of the engines died out, and for a brief moment, silence filled the cockpit. “Did we just lose power?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “Full system shutdown. The main computer is… rebooting now.”
Flynn’s training took over. “Primary controls on several systems are completely unresponsive. Switching over to backup controls.” He followed protocol, swapping the main computer over to a backup that had been off unless of a complete system failure. A redundant system that would hopefully take command. The system blinked a few times, then whirred to life. The engines sputtered, reignited, and quickly after the repulsor hums filled the cockpit once more.
“Flight controls are back online,” Ruby reported. “I can keep us in the air.”
“Good. I’m working on other systems.”
“Are we okay?” Ruby asked, clearly shaken.
“Thank goodness for redundancy,” he replied, checking over his list of systems.
“What caused that?”
“Something in the Upper Level. The network is going wild with chatter in the Grid. Temperatures have skyrocketed in the Upper Level. They are saying it was a massive fireball or an explosion of some kind. It’s consistent with what Geoffrey described would happen if his plan worked..”
“Do you think…”
“No point in guessing,” Flynn answered the unfinished question.
“How do we confirm it?” she pressed.
“We can’t. We have to wait for either Geoffrey or Ronin to chime in and tell us that everything worked. Until then, all we can do is—”
He paused as a sound crackled through their ship’s speakers.
“Is that them?” Ruby asked, quickly listening in. The static came in bursts, definitely like someone was talking, but they couldn’t make it out. Explorer Three’s computers quickly isolated the signal and started to dial in and strengthen their connection.
“External temperatures are rising,” Ruby said, sounding more panicked. “Something is wrong. We should—”
“Ruby, it’s going to be okay. Focus on the task at hand.”
The words worked. Ruby nodded, then checked the radio signal. There was still static, but it was getting louder and coming through more clearly as the ship’s antenna focused on isolating the strongest waves.
“Mayday! Mayday!” a female voice suddenly blared over the speakers as Explorer Three got a good lock. “This is Captain Knight. Is there anyone out there!?”
“It’s an airship of some kind,” Flynn said, checking their radar. “They’re above us, coming down from the Upper Level.”
“Hello Captain Knight,” Ruby responded. “This is Explorer Three. What is your emergency?”
“Full loss of power on our flight systems. The redundant navigator is shot as well. We’re basically in a powerless glide and losing altitude too fast. Mechanical controls suffered damage from the shockwave and heat.”
“We have located your position,” Flynn chimed in. “Getting visuals now. Ruby, go ahead and deviate course to match the trajectory on their vehicle.”
Ruby nodded and kicked the throttle, rocketing them across the Lower Level with greater speeds and control than any of the previous Explorer vehicles. It felt good to finally give the engines a chance to show their potential.
It was faster than anything Ruby had flown before.
She held steady until they intercepted the signal, then aligned them and made visual contact with the vehicle. It was some kind of glider design, similar to the Explorer Three, but lacking any rocketry or higher altitude mechanics.
“Are you from the Hub?” Ruby asked over the radio.
“Don’t know what that is,” Captain Knight replied. “My name is Captain Starla Knight. We’re from Sanctuary, which is a part of the World Ship you’ve never visited. Right now we’re about to drop out of the sky, so maybe we can talk about origin stories after we get to the ground… assuming you have a plan to help us?”
“Right,” Ruby said. “Flynn, do we have a plan?”
Flynn nodded, bending and looking up and down, then checking some numbers on one of his displays. “Yeah. I have a plan. We’re going to carry them down.”
“Uh, Flynn, that thing has to be twice our size. Are we sure we can carry it?”
“It’s larger than us, yes, but weight and structural integrity are nothing in comparison. If we play our cards right, we can just get under them… then use our repulsors to slow them down. If we increase the weight we’re holding a little bit at a time we can probably hold them.”
“Probably,” Ruby repeated. “I don’t like hearing that. If we can’t hold them, won’t we get crushed by the weight?”
Flynn offered a simple nod. “The other option is that we let them drop.”
Ruby groaned. “Right. Okay. What do I do?”
“First, go ahead and open the cargo doors. The system will reject the request, but you can override it with your user code. We’re going to use those doors to try and help cradle the bottom of their vehicle.”
“Okay. Easy enough,” Ruby said, entering the command, waiting for the rejection, then authorizing it anyway as Flynn told her. The ship responded with a series of groans, then the doors started to open. She watched the progress through one of the monitoring cameras in the cargo bay. The doors wobbled and bent against the force of the winds outside, but the hinges held, and the doors opened all the way. The cargo bay had just been retrofitted with tightly packed chairs, loosely bolted to the floor, to fit as many folks as they could. The wind carried all of those away within seconds of being exposed.
“Alright,” Flynn said, looking pleased with the results. “Angle us toward the aircraft and get underneath. We’re going to want to let them put some of their weight on us, while still using their own wings to generate some lift.”
“On it,” Ruby confirmed. “Moving now.”
“You still with us, Captain Knight?” Flynn asked.
“I am,” the Captain answered. “I’ve got someone on board that wants to thank you for your efforts out there.”
“Hey, Flynn,” Olivia’s voice came through the radio loud and clear. “Fancy meeting you up here, yeah?”
Flynn and Ruby looked at one another with shock. “Olivia?”
“Long story,” Olivia offered. “What’s the plan? Please tell me you aren’t winging it with some instant idea that popped into your head?”
“Of course not,” Flynn lied. “I have a great plan. In fact, tell Captain Knight to bring the vehicle down on a tiny angle, maybe a few inches per second. Nothing shocking.”
“Ruby,” Flynn added. “Line us up so that the middle of the aircraft, the part where their wings meet, sets down in our landing bay.”
“Oh,” Ruby grumbled. “Is that all? Easy.”
“No time to be smarmy.”
“Our tail wings aren’t going to survive this, I suspect.”
“It won’t matter,” Flynn assured her. “Once we have our cargo in place, we’re going to pump the repulsors to full and slow our momentum.”
“What?” Ruby and Olivia asked in unison. “Total standstill?”
“It’s the only option.”
“Can’t we just glide them down?” Ruby asked.
“No,” Flynn replied. “They’re losing lift too fast. The weight is going to shift. If we don’t get them balanced and slowed, they’re going to nose down and there will be no stopping them.”
“If this doesn’t work, it’ll burn out the repulsors,” Ruby said. “We’ll crash too.”
Flynn looked at her to show that he was fully aware of that. She hesitated, realizing that the only other option really was to just save themselves and let the aircraft fall to the ground.
“Right,” she said. “Total standstill.”
Flynn was looking out the small port between the cockpit and cargo bay. He watched as the large aircraft approached, getting closer and closer until it finally touched against the bay doors of Explorer Three. He had been forced to silence most of the diagnostic and proximity alarms, but at least a few new ones started beeping as the vehicle slowly pressed its weight against them.
“Contact!” he shouted.
Ruby acknowledge, then started to increase power to the repulsors. The two vehicles pushed into one another. Metal scraped and bent, while the cargo bay doors were pushed beyond their limits and started to buckle and snap. Thankfully, the hinges continued to hold, and since the aircraft’s own hull was thin, pieces of the doors started to poke and pierce the craft above. Flynn had been hoping for that. The doors had become a kind of anchor point, hopefully hooking into the other vehicle’s hull enough to stop it from ripping away too easily. He checked the monitoring camera to see how the process was going, but the image had gone offline once the bulk of the aircraft above came to rest against the very spot where it had been mounted.
Ruby didn’t say anything. Her mind was focused on the increasing weight, the repulsor’s power, and the inevitable moment that the two would collide and this whole experiment would come to a deadly conclusion.
Soon enough, they reached an equilibrium, and their vehicles started to slow down. Explorer Three suddenly groaned, and the pair heard several loud pops and vibrations echo through the cockpit as the smaller vehicle did its best to hold the weight of the aircraft on its back.
“Speed is decreasing,” Ruby said, trying to stay calm. “It’s working. We’re slowing down. Our repulsors are working at full power, but they’re doing it. Temperatures are higher than I’d like, but they’re not overheating. I… I think we’re going to be okay.”
Flynn didn’t respond. He was too busy looking over the numbers, the outputs, the sensors, and most importantly, the battery backup for the repulsors. Everything was green. The system was working, and despite all the alerts on his diagnostic panel, Explorer Three was still flight-capable.
They had done it.
“Ruby,” he spoke up. “You have control?”
“I do,” she confirmed.
“I’m going to call Elsie and tell the folks at the Grid what happened. We’ll need a rescue helicopter and major assistance. Do you have the coordinates for our touchdown point?”
“I can calculate that now,” she replied. “It’s a large flat area to the south of the Frontier homesteads.”
While Flynn used his communicator to call the Grid, Ruby checked the radio and connected with their new friends above. “Captain Knight, Olivia, how’s the crew up there?”
“Impressed,” Captain Knight replied. “Ace flying.”
“Thanks. My name is Ruby Rose, by the way.”
“Starla Knight,” the Captain responded. “I’m one of the chief pilots from Sanctuary. I’ve got two passengers on board. You knew the one named Olivia, how’s that?”
“She’s from the Lower Level,” Ruby replied. “My question is… how did she end up with you, and how have I never heard about Sanctuary?”
“She’ll have to answer that first one, but I can tell you that you haven’t heard of Sanctuary because of my second passenger, Scarlet Sun. She kept our section of the Worldship sealed off to prevent any unwanted contact.”
“Don’t take it personally,” Starla added. “Scarlet never trusts anyone. Until a few months ago, even I didn’t know there was more to the WorldShip than our own little section. I suspect a lot will change now.”
“Yeah, I guess so…”
“Hey, uh, did you guys see what happened up there? Do you think the Yunai caused that explosion?”
“No,” Starla said. “No, Ronin caused it. He took that thing out. There is no way anything survived a blast like that.”
Ruby felt joy and sorrow at the words. She had been given a full dossier on Ronin, Olivia, the Yunai… she knew the stakes, and she knew the cost. She also knew that meant Olivia had just lost a loved one, a feeling that almost no one on this Worldship really understood.
“Go ahead and get everyone settled into a seat and restrained,” Ruby said, changing the topic. “It’ll get bumpy when we start the final approach, but hopefully it won’t cause any of us undue discomfort.”
“Roger that, Captain Rose. Thanks again!”
Ruby thought about correcting Starla, then let it slide. She set down the radio and smiled at the thought of such a title. Captain Rose had a nice ring to it anyway.
The ride to the bottom of the Lower Level was going well enough. Flynn’s voice had changed tone about ten times while he was talking with Elsie Lamarr, which made Ruby feel anxious about everything, but at this moment she tried to think of the positives. They had saved people’s lives today, and if Starla Knight’s opinion was accurate, the Yunai was likely gone.
When Flynn finally ended his call and returned to his copilot seat, Ruby was looking at him with wide eyes. He frowned at her in response.
“How bad?” she asked.
“Where to start,” he replied. “Elsie said sensors have burned out, radiation is a concern, the temperature is already mucking up weather systems and creating thick fog all along the divide between the Upper and Lower levels, so we can’t get a look at anything using visual or cameras. All the sections in the Upper Level have gone into lockdown. There’s no word from Ronin or Geoffrey yet, but we knew the plan involved something along these lines. We just didn’t know how… destructive it would be.”
“What about outside of the blast zone? How is Town?”
“Town is fine for now, but this vessel, no matter how big or open, is still a container, and the heat that’s spreading has to go somewhere.”
“One thing at a time,” Ruby said. “Let’s get on the ground. We need to assess the damage and make sure Explorer Three is still operational for the evacuations.”
“Speaking of which,” Flynn replied. “Time to make it happen.”
The altimeter had passed the point of no return, and their speed hadn’t decreased enough. Ruby looked over the systems and saw that they’d need to push up the repulsor levels beyond the safe operating levels. From their testing, anything over the safe levels would eventually burn out the repulsor tech. The more they pushed, the faster the temps would peak.
“Keep an eye on acceleration and get ready to ramp up the repulsor systems when we hit the minimum safe approach distance. The speed is going to decrease pretty rapidly for this last part. Make sure the folks up top know what’s coming.”
Ruby called up Captain Knight and let her know of their plan, then marked the altimeter so that a single alarm would trigger when they passed below five hundred feet. The ground radar was working now, and Ruby quickly identified an area that appeared to be fairly level. The visual confirmation made her chuckle.
“What’s so funny?” Flynn asked.
“We’re going to land in the fields at Willow Creek Farm.”
“Isn’t that where Ronin crashed?”
Ruby nodded. “That’s why I’m laughing.”
“Oh,” Flynn said. “I guess that is funny.”
“Alert. Five Hundred Feet.”
The alarm put Ruby into a deep concentration. For a long moment, the two of them didn’t dare speak. A second altitude warning sounded at four hundred, and Ruby snapped her hand down, throwing full power to the repulsors.
The ship started to slow its descent. Above them, they heard Explorer Three’s frame protesting from the sudden addition of weight as energy was transferred between the two vehicles. Despite the protest, the vehicle seemingly held together.
“Almost there,” Ruby said. “Are we slow enough?”
Flynn checked their vertical speed. Twelve feet per second. “Too fast.”
“Ramping up repulsors,” Ruby announced, spinning a dial.
The hum of the machines vibrated the craft, and the vertical speed halved in a few seconds. It felt like they’d been pressed into their seats, but they soon adjusted to the deceleration. Flynn saw the speed reach a safe zone for normal weight landing, but they were carrying an entire aircraft on their back. “Slower!”
Ruby responded with more power.
“Alert. One Hundred Feet.”
The diagnostic screen alerted a temperature spike in the right wing’s repulsor. Flynn didn’t bother to tell Ruby. There was little that she could do now. Pulling back on the power would just increase their speed. They were invested now.
“Alert. Fifty Feet.”
The vibrations through Explorer Three grew intense. The diagnostic panel was starting to shake so strongly that Flynn couldn’t read the screen. The number of temperature alerts started to increase, with each repulsor reporting the same.
“Contact in ten!” Ruby shouted.
The seconds ticked by like minutes. The smell of hot electronics started to fill the cockpit. Flynn saw their speed dip below four feet per second, then they hit the ground. The force of the impact rocked the vehicle, and Explorer Three’s protests finally turned into riots. The sound of metal cracking and tearing was so loud that Flynn thought there might have been an explosion. The landing gear buckled from the increased weight, and it gave out a few seconds after taking the impact. The vehicle slid downward as the gear collapsed, and the aircraft on top of them came down with them, once again buckling the cargo bay and tail of the Explorer Three.
There was twisting metal, cracking glass, and a few shouts from Ruby, but then everything finally went still. A few quiet groans and pops from severed power lines were all that remained. The air was quiet, and there was no visible sign of any fires.
“Emergency protocols are in motion,” Ruby reported, gathering her thoughts. “I’ve cut power to the engines and secured the power banks. None of the battery systems seem to have been compromised.”
Flynn acknowledged, then entered his command code and initiated his own protocol. It was time to jump ship.
He authorized the emergency door, and it blew off with the safety bolts in the hinges, a new design after the crash of Explorer One. “Evacuation is authorized. Ruby Rose, you go first. I’m right behind.”
Ruby removed her harness and moved to the door, with Flynn coming right behind. The two of them climbed out, then got a few feet away before turning around to get a look at the scene.
“She’s done,” Ruby said, her eyes surveying the damage. “Another Explorer vehicle is gone too soon.”
Flynn grunted in agreement. He was scanning the vehicle on top of Explorer Three. The fuselage of the jetplane still looked solid, despite the damage at the bottom where it had collided with the cargo bay doors. Near the front of the craft, a door had just opened. It slid to the side to reveal a woman with black hair, wearing a white uniform, and looking down at them with a face of… amusement.
“Captain Knight, I presume?” Flynn asked.
“The one and only,” she answered. “Hell of a catch. We’re coming down. We’ve got a rope ladder we can use.”
Flynn and Ruby waited as the rope ladder was dropped out of the doorway, and the three passengers climbed down, one at a time. The first was Olivia Sun, a sight for sore eyes. The second was an older woman, also with black hair, and a face that looked shockingly familiar. Behind her was another woman who introduced herself as Alicia Reyes, and last but not least was Starla Knight, the Captain. Starla shook hands with her rescuers and then quickly set off with Alicia to check the damage from the outside.
Olivia embraced Flynn, then Ruby. She looked happy to see them, though her eyes were red and she looked like she had been crying for some time. “Hey guys,” she said through a forced grin. “Small world, eh?”
“I am so glad to see you,” Ruby said, hugging Olivia again. “You went on that science expedition and then… oh, we thought you were gone.”
Flynn turned his attention to Captain Knight as she finished her walk. She stepped back, also taking time to appreciate the scene, then turned to Flynn and offered him a wide smile. “Thanks for the assist up there,” she said. “I’ll admit I did not think we were going to survive that. Monster chases and energy explosions are outside my wheelhouse.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Flynn replied. “You did a great job bringing this jetplane down without power.”
“Yeah,” Starla agreed, turning to look toward the Upper Level. “Not too bad. I just hope it was worth it.”
The bright white light that had blinded them earlier was dimming into a darker orange glow. It was like a star had been set ablaze, and Flynn realized the intense emotions that everyone must be feeling. Star was from the Upper Level. For all she knew, her home had just been obliterated. Meanwhile, if Ronin hadn’t come back by now… “I’m sure the other sections were protected by their bulkheads,” he said to Starla, trying to sound hopeful.
“One can hope,” Starla replied. “I don’t know. Scarlet seems to agree.”
“Scarlet?” Flynn asked.
“Yeah, Scarlet Sun,” Starla replied. “I suppose you’ll have to introduce yourself later. That’s Olivia’s mom. She’s in shock, I suspect. There’s some serious family drama going on.”
Flynn understood. “Of course.”
“There they are!” Ruby shouted, pulling everyone’s attention.
She was pointing to the horizon, where a black dot in the sky was getting closer. It was the rescue copter from the Grid. Flynn felt a wave of exhaustion sweep over him. All of this had been exhilarating, but that helicopter in the distance meant his shift was only beginning. Many of the citizens on the World Ship had been moved to the Traveler by now, and without Explorer Three, that task would become even more daunting, especially with the events that had just unfolded. He looked at Scarlet Sun, who was embracing Olivia, and he decided he’d wait to speak to them later. There were too many other concerns.
“Alright, Ruby,” he said, turning to her instead. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
Ruby nodded then stole a glance toward Olivia. “What about them?”
“We’ll get them back to Town,” Flynn said. “Once we—”
“No,” Olivia spoke up. “No, I want to help. Ronin did his best and until we know if it was enough, we need to keep moving. Take us to the Grid so we can help.”
“Are you sure?” Ruby asked.
“I’m at your command, Ruby,” Olivia said proudly. “Let me help.”