The cavern was still mostly in shadow—light through water being what it was—but the scene was all the more impressive for the darkness. There was a deep gully that carved its way around the perimeter, too deep to make out the bottom. In the center of the cavern was a stand of rock, with a strange grouping of carved stones around it. They all looked to be roughly the same size, and even through the gloom, Trad could see that they were all covered in intricate carvings. He had a sour feeling in the pit of his stomach, and he wasn’t sure why, but he knew it had something to do with the stones.
As if in response to his unasked question, Mack tugged on his sleeve. When he caught her eye, she signed one word: “Coffins.”
Well, that explains that, thought Trad, as his skin crawled involuntarily.
“This tomb,” said Ruia, her voice flat despite the immensity of the room, “belongs to the crew of the NNN Freya, who we call the StarMen.”
Mack clutched at his sleeve again, but didn’t start signing. Ruia, seeing this, paused to allow Mack to write on the tablet. Trad, curious, read over her shoulder.
“I have heard of the Freya before, Your Honor. Out in the black, they are known as the Lunar Vikings. But, forgive me, I had thought they were just part of a legend.”
“They made their voyages a very long time ago, Emissary Mack. Long enough that their travels have passed forever into the realm of legend. This is where their legend ends, though nobody away from Europa knows it.”
Ruia performed a brief ritual—or that’s what Trad guessed it was—a stationary dance that involved smooth sweeping motions with each of her tentacles. The ritual ended, she passed over the chasm that separated their party from the crypt. Trad tried to keep his guts under control as he witnessed her passing. Logically, he knew that the powers stopping the chieftainess from being sucked into the chasm were the same ones that kept him from crumpling into a heap where he floated next to Mack. However, the primate portion of his brain demanded to be heard and filled his system with adrenaline and dread.
That’s a long way down, his limbic system moaned. Oh hell, that’s a long way down.
He was so busy in guesstimations of how deep the chasm must be that he didn’t realize at first that two escorts were winding their tentacles around his upper arms. Forgetting himself, he fought back for a brief moment, and then forced himself to relax. They haven’t hurt you yet, he thought.
Seeing his struggle from across the chasm, Ruia called back, “Let my guards escort you across, Emissary Trad. Only the initiated may pass over unscathed.”
Trad wondered how this superstition had been constructed. He also wondered, as tentacles bound themselves tight around his arms and bore him forward across the chasm, if he would survive the journey. Looking to his right, he saw that Mack was similarly bound and her face carefully blank. Catching his eye, she signed, “We’ll float anyway, yes?”
“Here’s hoping,” Trad signed back.
He forced himself not to look down as their escorts bore them across the chasm, though his head ached with the effort. He could almost swear the water got colder as he swam, though he knew that was probably his mind playing tricks on him. He could imagine the ground falling away from his feet, opening up into endless black, almost as deadly and inscrutable as the void…
He kept his eyes open and focused on the island. Now, more than ever, he couldn’t afford to go to pieces.
Finally, they reached the other side. Trad relaxed as the tentacles of his escorts unwound themselves from his arms. He began treading water again, but cautiously, for fear he accidentally drifted backward across the chasm. Beside him, he could see that Mack was doing the same, looking remarkably unruffled. I guess, he thought, when you’ve been a pirate long enough, things like this stop impressing you. Wonder if I’ll ever get like that…
He abruptly stopped thinking, alarmed at himself. Since when have I wanted to be a pirate?
Ruia, apparently satisfied that he and Mack had gotten their bearings, began to speak. “Many generations ago,” she intoned, “Travelers came to this planet. They splashed down into our oceans—ruining their ship—but they survived, and we—curious and unknowing—went to greet them.”
There was a ripple of movement out of the corner of his eye. Turning, he saw that Mack’s posture had changed, as much as treading water would allow. Her face had become a mask of disdain, and she rolled her eyes at him when she caught him looking at her.
“I’ve heard this tale before,” she signed.
Trad nodded. He had, too, and was suddenly overcome by a wave of guilt. He had signed on to a similar mission, one whose ultimate goal would have been to colonize this planet and subjugate these people. True, he hadn’t known that that was the true mission. But what if Mack hadn’t landed on his ship and abducted him? Would he have had the nerve to stand up to Lykus and the rest of the crew? Or would he have ignored his conscience for the sake of his career?
He shook himself out of his reverie, determined to pay attention to Chieftainess Ruia’s story. After all, it was the very least he could do.
To his surprise, the initial explorers—the Vikings—hadn’t actually intended any harm to the Europans. They had merely happened upon the little moon in search of a place to resupply.
“In those days,” Ruia said, “Our borders were unguarded, and the ocean was open to the stars. We met the strangers peacefully, and they returned that peace unto us. We shared what resources were useful to them, and they in turn shared news of the outer worlds, and taught us about travel through the stars.”
From there, a warm friendship had blossomed between the Europans and the nomadic Vikings, a friendship which prospered for many years, until…
“Disaster,” said Ruia. “It is not a hammer or a clenched fist. It is a blight that spreads slowly and invisibly across the land. Inconvenient, and then taxing, and then, when it is too late to prevent the outcome, fatal. The Vikings were friendly, but unfortunately talkative. They shared their knowledge of our whereabouts with everyone with whom they came into contact, and eventually we were overrun with visitors from across the galaxy. Some of them were friendly, as the Vikings were. Others seemed to view this planet, and its inhabitants, as the galaxy’s gift unto them—a thing they could own and from which they could profit.
“In the face of this predation, we maintained our integrity and our autonomy, despite near-constant pressure from innumerable, faceless, would-be colonizers. Eventually, however, we were forced to escalate our opposition from a stand to an all-out siege, and then finally to a war. Many of my people lost their lives—my great-grandparents were among their number. We were presented time and again with unconditional terms of surrender. Our chieftain at the time refused to take them, though the war nearly wiped us out of existence. To surrender—to incorporate ourselves into their alliance—would have meant our extinction as surely as by mortal death.”
Trad suddenly felt a sharp pinch on his upper arm. His exclamation of pain being lost in the water, he jerked his head toward Mack, from whom the pinch had originated.
“What now?” he signed.
“She said her great-grandparents were killed in the war,” she replied. “What happened four generations ago? Remember?”
Trad thought, and then shrugged. Mack gave him a cold stare, and then an apologetic gesture to Ruia, who had paused in her story and was watching the two of them quizzically.
“Please continue, Your Honor,” Mack wrote.
“At the time,” said Ruia, “Our primary weapon was the base cannon, which drew power from Europa’s heart. It had the power to form ice projectiles from the surrounding water. One of the Viking scientists discovered that it would be possible to recalibrate the cannon in a way that allowed it to stream upwards, creating a solid shield of ice around the entire planet. To those enemies that remained, we gave them a choice: surrender peacefully and assimilate to the best of their ability or die.”
From the expression on her face, Trad guessed that most of them had chosen the second option. He felt a shiver of terror as he tried to imagine himself in that position, having to choose between death and a lifetime in a hostile world, with no chance of ever returning home. Which would he choose?
Mack was scribbling on the tablet again. “What happened to the Vikings?”
“To their credit, they fought on our side,” said Ruia. “Though they were not the direct cause of the war, they still bore some responsibility for it. Any onus they were under to us was repaid in full by the bravery of their actions in our defense. They rest in state forevermore, here.”
Ruia gestured with all four of her limbs to the sarcophagi arranged through the cavern, and Trad’s stomach jolted.
They’re here, he said, though the words were lost in the water. The Lunar Vikings of legend, all buried here on a forgotten little moon that he had been hired to destroy. He didn’t know which feeling was stronger in him: horror or guilt.
Seized by a sudden impulse, he reached for the tablet and began scribbling, Mack grabbed at his sleeve, trying to stop him, but he brushed her away and defiantly held up his message for the assembled party to see.
“We want to help stop the invaders, Your Honor. We are prepared to do whatever it takes. Whatever your orders are, we will obey.”
Ruia nodded her approval. Turning aside, Trad saw that Mack was giving him a quizzical look. He raised an eyebrow at her, to which she gave an ironic little round of applause.
She didn’t think I had it in me, thought Trad. She thought I’d just beg for mercy. Well.
“I am glad that you say so, Emissary Trad. The time has come to act swiftly, and what I have planned for the two of you is not for the faint of heart. Do I have your solemn vow that you will obey my orders faithfully?”
Trad and Mack took their turns giving their affirmatives on the tablet. Trad’s stomach was churning, but strangely, he felt no fear. For the first time in a long time, he knew beyond doubt that he was doing the right thing.