The colony of Frisha, which was where they had made contact with the native Europans, was the largest on Europa and was the seat of the consortium of chiefexes from across the moon. This was all according to Chieftainess Ruia’s description, as she and her retinue escorted Mack and Trad through the town toward a mysterious destination. It all sounded fairly impressive, but as far as Trad was concerned, the place was hideous. He wasn’t proud of it, but his perceptions of beauty had been shaped on Pandora, where a city’s beauty was determined by the degree to which it differed from the natural landscape. Though he had mostly snored his way through his humanities courses, one idea had stuck with him: the mark of true civilization was the ability to build a home that worked in contrary to the will of nature.
Frisha, by contrast, resembled nothing more than a series of glows, emanating from the natural rocky landscape. There were no gardens, as far as he could see—all vegetation seemed to grow wild among (and in some cases, upon) the semi-hidden dwellings they passed. The effect was somewhere between a cheap haunted house and an abandoned campground, and Trad was surprised at the degree to which he was not unnerved by it all. He supposed it was partially due to his brain being saturated by perfluorocarbons (they seemed to have a much higher oxygen content than he was used to, and the effect was very relaxing). The other part of his calm state—he knew but hated to admit—was due to Mack swimming beside him. He didn’t know when her presence had stopped being infuriating and started being comforting, but he was grateful for the comfort all the same.
He didn’t know what would happen once they completed their mission—or if they would complete it at all—and getting speared to death by angry space mermaids was still very much on the cards, not to mention the possibility of suffering a fatal case of decompression sickness. But Trad, for once, knew better than to worry about something that wasn’t currently happening to him. He kept up his pace with Mack and their escorts and tried to ignore the feeling of mermaid eyes following them as they passed.
He was just considering the inconvenience of being unable to swim and communicate with Mack at the same time when he felt a nudge on his shoulder. Looking around, he saw that Mack had scribbled something on the tablet Ruia had given them.
“How much do you think the public knows about us?”
Trad shook the tablet, dispelling the glowing words, and managed to scribble a reply while keeping his legs in motion. “I think they’re learning more and more the longer we’re here.”
In the following few minutes, Trad realized he was more right than he’d thought. With every stroke they took, more mermaids seemed to emerge from the rocks to stare at them as they passed. A few tried to keep pace with them, but they were quickly dissuaded by the Chieftainess and her entourage. The rest of them merely gathered around the thoroughfare suggested by their path, silently observing. Mack tugged the tablet out of his hands and scribbled, “Don’t you wish you could go talk to them?”
Trad had been wishing nothing of the kind, but he could see wistfulness plainly written across her face. There was an energy and a curiosity in her attitude that Trad hadn’t felt or encountered since his early days at the Academy. He never expected to see it embodied in a pirate, but there it was. He experienced a sudden rush of affection for his one-time captor and current…companion.
Finally, the party stopped in its tracks. Trad guessed they were on the outskirts of the colony, though the colony seemed to consist mainly of outskirts to begin with. They were facing an enormous mountain, with an apparently natural-hewn cave that led deep into its center. Ruia turned to Mack and Trad and addressed them.
“Your bravery in your journey is noted, and your motives appear to be honorable. If what you tell us is true, then the invaders must be stopped. Your ship is trapped in the ice, and it would take more time than we possess to release and repair it. Therefore, in order for you two to be able to help us, we must journey into the past, and we must do something that has not been done since the days of my ancestors.”
Mack was busy with the tablet once more. “We’re prepared to help in any way we can, Your Honor,” she wrote. Trad nodded his agreement.
“Good,” pronounced Ruia, and she turned to the cave, but Mack gave a brief, nervous wave to get her attention. With an apologetic look, she scribbled again on the tablet.
“Do we have to journey any deeper than this, Your Honor? Our species becomes physically ill when subjected to extreme changes in pressure.”
Ruia looked unsurprised. “It is only a bit farther, Emissary, and only very slightly deeper. This place was constructed with aliens in mind.”
With that, she led the way into the cave. There was no time for Trad and Mack to do more than share an inquisitive glance before they were compelled to follow in her wake. Trad’s brain, however, was swarmed with questions. How do they know about decompression sickness? How much contact have they had with the outer galaxy? And why, if they know so much about us, has the VIA never heard of them until now?
The room was originally intended to be a honeymoon suite. It consisted of three apartments that, despite the spartan repurposement for the government mission, retained their luxurious bones. However, even the memory of original luxury was lost in the atmosphere of creeping despair that had settled in since the start of the voyage, and the fact that it was located at the very tip of the labbord fin—which was probably intended to make the place feel romantic and cozy—only added to the sense of isolation and festering rage.
A jail cell is a jail cell, thought Penner Trunk. No matter how big it is.
He pretended to hunt through the piles of papers on his desk for a stylus, avoiding Captain Lykus’ creepy staring eyes. Finding one, he straightened up again. “I can’t imagine why you waited so long to tell me about this,” he said, taking care to keep his tone neutral. “Seems to me we could have done this at the beginning, with all the other paperwork.”
“I had to make sure you weren’t going to double-cross me,” said Lykus. “And to that point, you still haven’t answered my question. Where is Trad Crewe?”
“No idea,” Trunk replied coldly. “I haven’t seen him in days.”
To Trunk’s annoyance, Lykus latched on to the word. “Days? The presentation was five weeks ago. Had you seen him since?”
Trunk sighed. “Yes, if you want to know. He was wandering around back here a couple of days ago.”
“Did he speak to you?”
“Did he tell you what he was doing down here?”
“Well, no, since that would have required speaking.”
“Did you speak to him?”
There was a pause, which Trunk felt no need to alleviate. They might have gone on staring at each other forever, but Lykus’ desperation finally trumped his patience. “Well?” he demanded. “What did you say to him?”
Trunk turned his gaze to the ceiling. “I told him this area of the ship was out of bounds—per your orders—and that he’d better shove off back to his own patch.”
He felt like adding a disdainful “sir” to the end of his phrase but decided not to. Even sarcasm took too much effort these days.
Lykus looked hard at him for another long moment, before nodding. “Let’s hope all that was true,” he said, as he turned to leave.
“I have to say,” said Trunk, unable to stop himself, “For a man who hasn’t been double-crossed by me, ever, your lack of trust is astounding.”
Lykus turned his void-heavy eyes back to Trunk for what was obviously meant to be a pregnant pause. “If I hear of any more strange goings-on, Doctor,” he said, slowly and deliberately, “I’ll be back to tell you about them. I expect you’ll do the same for me. We’re partners, after all, yes?”
Lykus turned on his heel and swept out of the cabin. Trunk took a deep, slow breath, cursed softly and deliberately for a few moments, and then strode across the room to gaze out the portal. For some reason, he had always imagined space to be brighter, the scattered stars turning the deadly void into glittering enchantment. After all, hadn’t the legends of space sirens sprung up to explain the tendency of black-sick sailors to fling themselves from their ships into icy, airless death? Space was supposed to be as magical as it was deadly.
All Trunk saw, as he gazed through the portal, was black.
“Come on, brainbox,” he heard himself mutter. “If you’re going to mutiny, do it right. For all our sakes.”
The caves were warmer than the surrounding area. Trad guessed that had something to do with the insulation the rocks provided, while on Pandora, caves were cooler for being shielded from the sun. They were just as dark as Pandoran caves, however, and Trad was just wondering how far they were expected to go in pitch-black when Ruia broke away from the party and drifted to the cave wall. He noticed a vein of paler rock, running into the darkness of the cave. Ruia ran one of her tentacles along the vein from top to bottom. The effect was immediate: a ripple of light burst from the cave wall and followed the vein deep into the mountain. Ruia drifted to the other side of the entrance and repeated the process. The cave was now illuminated with violet light, stretching far into the distance. Trad felt Mack clutch at this hand. He looked over at her, ready to start explaining about bioluminescence, but she wasn’t looking at him. Her face was split in an incredulous grin, utterly transfixed by the sight before her. Catching his eye, she pulled her hand away from his and signed, “Bet you never saw anything like that on Pyrrhus, yes?”
Trad agreed with her too much to correct her. “Forward, everyone,” commanded Ruia, and forward they went.