The VSS Freedom was a new breed of ship. In the years since the Verital Intergalactic Alliance had been formed and unity brought to all Terran planets, space travel had become progressively more luxurious. Gone were the bare-bones shuttles and cramped supply vessels, as life and travel among planets had become so commonplace that humans had the freedom to place emphasis on the journey—rather than the destination—once again. Ships had become appropriately vast, building up enough square footage to not only accommodate hordes of communing humans, but to entertain them as the ship sailed through the void.
The Freedom was no exception to this trend. From either side, it resembled a smooth, slender needle, gliding between the stars. The sleekness of its design belied its size, which was immense. Its head was encircled by an elegant centrifuge, showing the designer’s old-fashioned style—the necessity of a designated centrifuge had disappeared centuries ago, ever since anti-grav paneling had been invented. However, there was still something comforting about that retro touch, especially in the black depths of space.
Certainly, Trad Crewe of Pandora thought so. He could still recall the swooping sensation that had filled his guts when he first clapped eyes on the Freedom, stretched out on the loading dock. He was forced to replay in his mind the whole whirlwind of insanity that had been the start of his career. The VIA’s exploratory division had progressed at an exponential rate since its formation, and Trad had followed it for as long as he could remember, with an odd sense that, even as a child, he was pursuing his destiny. By the time he collected his diploma from Pandora Academy and registered his interest in participating in a mission of exploration, the division had grown into a formidable intellectual gestalt, deploying manned missions to parts unknown in all directions. Somehow, Trad had been selected as scientific advisor to Captain Lykus of the Freedom, and he hadn’t stopped pinching himself until he climbed aboard.
At which point, reality came crashing down upon him.
As long as Trad had been aboard the Freedom, he tried to come to terms with his own background, which he rapidly realized was a very sheltered one. Brought up as he was in a cocoon of academia, he hadn’t realized the degree to which anti-intellectual snobbery was still a prominent force in the world, which was why he was currently sitting in the caf, smiling his way through a barrage of insults from his shipmates.
“Face,” growled one, causing the ship’s computer interface to shimmer into existence beside him. “Why don’t you bring us another round in here?”
“And the brain-box can have my share,” yelled another. “It’ll be fun to watch the computer short-circuit.”
A roar fo laughter went up, and Trad kept his face neutral. The interface gave a nod, causing its projection of blonde hair to fall forward in a cascade of light, and then winked out of existence. The manufacturers of the ship’s internal computer had evidently felt that crewmembers would feel more comfortable directing commands to something that looked like another living being. This interface’s external features could be customized, and predictably, the crew had commandeered the properties menu and altered the interface to suit their preferences. As a result, the interface presented as a nubile golden-haired creature, with pronounced musculature and a way of standing that immediately brought sex to mind. In Trad’s view, he allowed that it was going to be a long voyage and there were few faces among the crew which could be called attractive. At the same time, he did find it interesting that the same group of individuals which disdained him for being smart could summon up enough smarts to make sure they had something pretty to look at as they sailed through the black.
There was a whirring noise from the walls of the caf as the ship’s internal computer processed the request. Trad dreaded the end result—refilled mugs for the entire crew. This was not least distaste for the alcohol itself, which was unpleasant enough. For the duration of the five weeks that had so far elapsed on the voyage, Trad had tried to figure out the actual derivation of the alcohol that was served to the crew and had come up consistently blank. The rest of the food was easy enough to figure out. Sur-dairy or sur-ham or even sur-veggies, they were all compounds of processed proteins, combined with different vitamin supplements and artificially colored to curb the initial gag reflex. A bit pointless, Trad thought, since his first encounter with a sur-carrot had had him running for the sick bay—much to the delight of the crew. Trad, for his part, defied anyone alive to eat without gagging something that looked like a carrot but felt like warm bologna.
However, the alcohol eluded him, and so partially for that reason, he avoided it. The other half of the reason lay with its galvanizing effect on the crew. Every night, they were allowed four pints each—drinking culture on Pandora being what it was—but Trad couldn’t help but think it was excessive.
“What I can’t understand,” drawled the second man, “is how a pipsqueak like that survived on Pandora for so long. Can’t take booze without toppling, can’t throw a punch to keep his head, can’t even skin a damn cat. The aliens say that humans can survive anything, and by Got I think they might be right.”
The man’s holding-forth provoke another round of cruel laughter. Trad had noticed that this man considered himself a philosopher. He would have liked the man a lot more if so many of his remarks weren’t at his expense. In the beginning, Trad had labored under the delusion that he could somehow win over the Freedom’s crew. He had suspected that they would most likely be a bunch of burly roughnecks with little to no respect for his chosen profession—a suspicion which had proven to be correct—but he still foolishly thought that he would somehow be able to earn their respect. Maybe with a sudden display of wit, or maybe he could save all their lives with some obscure bit of know-how. That’s how it happened in stories, so why couldn’t it happen in real life?
Unfortunately—from Trad’s perspective—no such near-death experience had presented itself in the past five weeks. And as for wits, it seemed that the crew of the Freedom much preferred the kind of wits that didn’t come with astrogeology degrees attached to them. And really, Trad reasoned as another loud joke about his masculine inadequacies sailed through the room to general applause, it wasn’t as if their insults came from a place of genuine malice—just boredom. They had all been stuck in a tin can together for five weeks by that point. He knew they must have been starved for entertainment, and he was just the most easily accessible fall guy. It was one thing for him—he had his research and reports to distract him, and they were stimulating enough. It wasn’t his fault that the rest of the crew only had the ship to look after.
“And tell us honestly, boy,” said the philosopher with a mock-serious face. “The first time you blacked out—did you cry?”
The crew laughed. Trad grimaced. He hadn’t blacked out—been so far in space that there was no dominant light visible from any star or planet—before shipping out with this crew, and the experience wasn’t something he cared to dwell on. But he hadn’t cried—he’d been too terrified for that.
At that moment, the captain entered the room, and the atmosphere changed as thought someone had flipped a switch. Captain Lykus tended to affect groups of people the way wolves affected herds of sheep, and it seemed to Trad as though he rather enjoyed it.
The comparisons between Lykus and a wolf didn’t stop at mannerisms. The captain had the lean, hungry, cunning look of a predator, and Trad was sure he could freeze small animals with terror without trying. He tried not to let the same fear affect him, reasoning that Lykus was just a man, after all. Not just a man, but one that was worthy of respect. He was a shrewd captain who had been leading successful expeditions in and out of the black since he was child. But there was still no denying that the eyes of Captain Lykus had stared deep into the void, and Trad suspected that he had left some part of himself behind when he did.
The room stayed hushed until Lykus had seated himself and pulled the tab on the table. This signaled the computer that he was present and ready for his ration, which came along with the second round the crew had ordered. Gradually, the talk returned to normal again, but nobody started back in on Trad. Whether they truly understood or not, the crew seemed to sense that Trad was of particular value to the captain, and they didn’t dare abuse him in Lykus’ presence.
After a decent amount of time, Lykus turned his void-heavy eyes on Trad and said, “You’ve got your presentation coming up soon.”
His voice was measured and quiet. Trad had never heard it rise to a shout or drop to a whisper for as long as he’d been on the ship.
“Yes, sir. Two days from now, sir.”
He had long ago learned that the captain met displays of modesty with stony silence. He supposed he understood. Those who worked in the black couldn’t have time for gray areas or non-explicit answers.
“The materials you’ve got—they’re good enough?”
Lykus must have hard the reticent tone in his voice, since he chuckled into his mug. But Trad didn’t get the sense that Lykus was impatient with him, which he appreciated. After all, it wasn’t his fault the subject of their mission was so blasted vague.
“It’s late,” said Lykus suddenly. “You’ve got second watch. Might want to turn in.”
Trad nodded and got up with a final “yes, sir.” He’d just as soon leave—the caf was never fun, with his crewmates in their cups and his captain staring through them all to the void through which they sailed. He big goodnight to the room at large and was met with a reluctant growl. Trad wondered if they would take the sudden appearance of the captain as a future allowance to make up for lost time abusing him.
If they do, he thought bitterly, it won’t make much difference to me.
As Trad made his way through the labyrinth of corridors, his mind wandered to his presentation. Lykus having mentioned it brought it to the front of his thoughts once again, and he was torn between anticipation and anxiety. On one hand, he wasn’t looking forward to standing in front of the crew’s collective indifference and speaking into a vortex of silence. On the other hand, Europa was his specialist subject, and he loved to take any opportunity he could to talk about it.
Europa was their destination, a tiny moon of a distant gas giant called Mors Nova. Europa, as far as anyone could tell, was comprised entirely of frozen elements—an icy spheroid floating in space. The remarkable-but-true thing about Europa was that, as far as anyone could tell, it was solid ice with no known carbon-based core, and its proximity to Mors Nova should have melted it long ago. Trad had used his dissertation as a chance to discuss several theories by the pre-eminent Europa expert Penner Trunk, and he guessed that this was part of the reason why he had been selected for this mission. No one had ever mounted a manned expedition to Europa before, and despite the inconvenience of the trip, Trad still couldn’t help but feel a thrill of excitement when he remembered that he was about to be a major part of history.
And now that they were five weeks in to the voyage—and outside the “safety window” for mechanical malfunctions—Trad was called upon to explain the essence of the mission to the crew. Not that they’d care, he knew, but he resolved not to take it personally when the time came. It was his job to talk and it was their job to listen. If they didn’t feel the need to do their job, then it wasn’t his fault.
There were times during the voyage where Trad felt as though he might lose his mind from sheer loneliness, and then there were times like this, when his loneliness transmuted into a warm feeling of perfect contentment. He had embarked on the next phase of his career, and it was shaping up beautifully. He was exactly where he was supposed to be, doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing. For once in his life, he really had nothing to worry about.
However, as he swung open the door to the cupboard of an office that was his privilege as chief scientific officer, he realized that he did have something to worry about after all.
His office was about half the size of his assigned room at Pandora Academy, which hadn’t been exactly roomy to begin with. He made do, however—the desk folded away and there was even a second foldaway table which he used as bunk on the nights when the crew was particularly boisterous. He had maps and sheets full of notes pinned up on the walls, where he could examine them at his ease. And at that very moment, there was someone bent over his desk, rifling through his pen cup.
For a moment, Trad was too shocked to address the situation. Instead, he stood frozen, watching as the stranger rummaged through his things. Finally, he managed a sort of choking sound, which made the stranger spin around and look up. She instantly adopted a pose of cool detachment with the timing and ease of a professional actress.
“Please forgive this intrusion,” she said, in a robot’s modulated tones. “You have interrupted this ship’s interface during a routine inspection. Please exit the room. My inspection will terminate shortly.”
“You’re not the interface,” said Trad shortly.
“Please, Crewman 6415—” she began, but Trad cut her off.
“You know my call number because it’s pasted on my tablet,” he said, pointing at the tablet where it lay on his desk. “And I know you’re not the interface, because…”
“Let me guess,” she said, her act dropping and her voice becoming rougher and more human as she spoke. You’ve got some blondie, pretty-looking thing as your Face, am I right?”
“Well, that,” he said rudely. “And also…”
He reached into his pocked, pulled out a spare bolt that he had stepped on earlier that day, and threw it at her. As he suspected, it bounced off her. The stranger looked down at the place where the bolt had struck her, and then shrugged.
“Fair enough,” she said. “Good thinking.”
There was a moment’s silence, while Trad waited for her to explain herself. Finally, he lost his patience. “What the hell are you doing here?” he shouted. “And who the hell are you?”
Quicker than he would have thought possible, the stranger darted around him and closed the office door in the middle of his shout. Situated as she was between Trad and the door, she gave him a shove backward, further into the room.
“What are you screaming for?” she demanded. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
“You’re…a stowaway!” Trad almost choked on his indignation. “You’re stealing—those are government documents on my desk, and you’re—”
“A stowaway? How dare you?” she said. “You’re implying I voluntarily shipped out on this sundae of a boat? Not likely! And I’m not interested in your oh-so-important documents or your everlasting government. I only came in here for this.”
She held up something white and plastic. In the shock of the encounter, it took a moment for Trad to realize that she was holding his mapping compass.
“But if it’s really that important to you,” she continued in a martyr’s tone, “then I guess you can have it back. I’ll just filch someone else’s.”
She slapped the cheap compass against his limp palm and turned to go, firing one last shot over her shoulder. “For what it’s worth, my name is Mack, and I’m a pirate. You’ll probably never see me again, so you can rest easy, sailor—I’ll be gone before you know it.”
With that, she pulled the door open and disappeared into the hallway. Instinctively, Trad made to follow her, but to his surprise, the corridor was completely empty. He looked for any signs of where she might have gone—loose panels or the disappearing whip of her scarf—but there was nothing. He was totally alone.
With nothing better to do, he went back into the office, though he didn’t pull the door closed behind him. He was almost tempted to write off what had just happened as a sudden delusion. Space sickness, perhaps—he had never gone more than a couple of hours without being in natural atmo before—or maybe the crew’s theories about his lack of alcohol consumption were coming true after all. But deep down, Trad knew that the stranger—Mack—was real. And now, even though he had felt so calm and content only minutes before, Trad had landed in the middle of a problem he had no idea how to solve.