That feeling of security—bordering on righteousness—stayed with Trad all the way out of the crypt. It bore him upwards toward Frisha, and didn’t waver even during the decompression stops that Mack insisted on taking. (“I know time is limited, Your Honor,” she had written to the impatient chieftainess, “But we’re no good to you if we get pressure-sick. I hope you understand.”)
The feeling was still strong as they made their way up to the top of a tower, from which emanated a beam of violet light, so bright that it looked almost white. As they swam closer, Trad saw that the light stretched all the way up to the surface of the moon. His guess as to what it was for was confirmed when they arrived. Ruia turned to address them. “This is one of the repurposed ice cannons,” she said. “One of several placed strategically across the land. This is where you entered—if you’ll cast your gaze upwards?”
Squinting, Trad did as he was told. Somewhere in the haze of bright light, he could make out a dark shape. The White Rabbit.
“We decreased the intensity of the beam in order to let you in,” Ruia continued, and then added, “Otherwise, you wouldn’t have survived the impact.”
Trad shivered slightly, contemplating the possibility.
“We have a crew at work trying to recover it,” she said. “Unfortunately, we won’t be able to repair it in time for you to use it on your mission. I must, therefore, ask you to pay very close attention, because what I’m asking you to do is highly dangerous, but it will allow you to complete your mission and save my people.”
Trad nodded, feeling his heart swell with courage. Beside him, he could feel Mack nod, too. I’ve come this far, he thought, recklessly. How hard could this be?
Ruia beckoned to a couple of bystanding mermaids. They began fiddling with something stowed deep in an alcove in the wall, before rolling it out into the open. It was vaguely cubic in shape, with round windows on all sides that protruded outward, like the eyes of a fish.
“This is a patrol pod,” said Ruia. “They enable us to monitor the outer crust. One of our scouts was using this when he saw you coming. These should enable you to board the oncoming ship and sabotage their arrival.”
Trad examined the box. It looked sturdy enough, if a bit primitive. He was sure it would provide adequate protection from the void. There was, however, one question that bothered him, and he reached for the tablet to ask it.
“How does it move?”
Ruia looked at him blankly. “Move?”
Trad elaborated. “I don’t see any place for an engine or thrusters. How does it get to the surface?”
Ruia smiled, which Trad had never seen her do before. On one hand, the fact that this race could smile was comforting, even charming in and of itself. On the other hand, the smile itself, comprised as it was of an alien face and—he shuddered—far too many teeth, the effect was quite unsettling, made more so by her next words.
“You misunderstand, Emissary Trad. The pod itself does not travel. It forms a protective barrier around you, so that when you emerge from the pod, you are impervious to outward forces. This way, you can travel through the void safely.”
Trad nodded slowly, though the gesture was almost unconscious. He stared at the pod, though his eyes had nearly ceased to see. The sense of righteous courage, which had buoyed him up all the way from the crypt of the Lunar Vikings, abandoned him, leaving in its place a dark, enveloping sense of horror.
In a moment of pure irony, his words to Ruia in the crypt came back to him. We want to help stop the invaders. We’re prepared to do whatever it takes. Whatever your orders are, we will obey.
If he had been able to summon a will to move, he could have kicked himself.
Suddenly, there was a hand on his arm. Trad nearly jumped out of his skin, but it was just Mack. She looked grave, but not nearly as terrified as Trad would have liked. It’s fine if she does this all the time, he thought. But does she have to be so damn casual about it?
Mack gestured for the tablet again and began writing. “How do we find the ship? And how do we steer ourselves toward it?”
“For that, you will have to rely on us,” said Ruia.
She picked up two spherical objects and gave one to Mack and the other to Trad. It was bizarrely organic-feeling, but Trad could sense a vibration in his fingertips that told him there was some sort of internal power source. “These lodestones have their natural counterparts,” said Ruia. “They will repel each other with strength as great as you wish to apply. You will both have spotters here under the surface. They will sense you as you move your lodestones, and they will shift theirs in turn, propelling you where you need to go.”
“What about pressure sickness?” Mack asked.
“You can slow and even stop your journey as you choose, by communicating to your partner through the lodestone. We can calibrate the pods to adjust themselves to the correct pressure.”
“And what if we overshoot the mark?” Mack wrote, a slight tremor in her hands. “Can you pull us back down?”
“Yes. Compress the lodestone three times with your forelimbs, and your spotters will reverse the polarity. As this is a rather time-sensitive issue, however, I do ask that you do your best to strike the mark true on the first attempt.”
At Mack’s words, the attendants began preparing the pod. If Trad had been relying on gravity to keep himself upright, his rubbery limbs would have left him in a heap already. He hoped that his trembling hands weren’t noticeable through the water. Casting his eyes around, trying to appear nonchalant, he caught the gaze of a nearby mermaid, who was standing at ease near the door. Something in his expression must have given away his inner turmoil, because she gave him a searching look before swimming over to float next to him. Trad braced himself for humiliation—he knew that whatever she (he was fairly certain the being was a she) was bout to say, it wasn’t going to be quiet. Whispering didn’t work underwater.
“Icebergs,” she said, as loudly as she had feared. “I remember the first time I went up in one of those. It was all I could do to keep hold of my lodestone. It didn’t help that there was this ancient helping me get into the pod, telling me all these tales of death and disaster. I was praying like a maniac before I had even traveled ten lengths! I was sure I was never going to come back down again.”
Trad knew he ought to pepper her with technical questions, but all he could manage was a shaky scribble: “Is there anything I can do if something goes wrong?”
She reached out toward him with one of her tentacles, wrapping it around his arm just above the elbow. The weirdness of the sensation passed relatively quickly, leaving him with a sense of surprising calm.
“Nothing is going to go wrong,” she said, slowly and deliberately. “Or my name isn’t Sifa Claradotter. I’ve been a pod-spotter for five cycles now, and I have never lost a scout. You’re in safe arms, Emissary—you can rely on me.”
She held up a smooth stone, similar to the one he clutched in his hot fist, and he realized that she was going to be his spotter. His stomach still writhed with nerves, but he tried to force himself to relax. She knows you. She knows what she’s doing. She won’t let you die.
“Steady now, Emissaries Mack and Trad,” said Ruia suddenly, making Trad jump. “Your pods are ready.”
Somehow, Trad managed to paddle over to the nearest pod, his limbs numb with mortal dread. Shelving his pride, he shot an imploring look at Mack, who was climbing into her pad with a curious lack of affect. When she caught his eye, she didn’t make the sort of glib expression he had come to expect from her in intense moments. Instead, she met his gaze gravely, and Trad wasn’t sure whether he felt more terrified or less.
At least we’re on equal footing, he thought. For once.
Mack was signing something. Trad gestured for her to repeat herself. “Best of luck, brain-box,” she said, and hesitated before adding, “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I dragged you into this mess.”
Trad waved his hands dismissively, but didn’t elaborate. His thoughts were far too complicated for words or gestures. While it was true that he had never feared death more than at this moment, he couldn’t regret being pulled out of his former life and into this moment, especially how that he had met the inhabitants of this little moon, had spoken with them and learned their history. Ruia had welcomed them into the colony on faith, despite the disasters that outsiders had wrought in the past. She trusted that he and Mack would do right by her colony. And Sifa, who had been so kind and reassuring to him, held his life in her hands. And now, he was about to float through space in a pressurized sphere of perfluorocarbon and intercept his former employers in a bid to stop them from colonizing an alien moon and subjugating an alien race. If he died in the attempt, he would at least have lived an interesting life.
Of course, he still fervently hoped he wouldn’t die. As interesting as his life had been, there was still lots more of it that he wanted to experience.
The door of the pod sealed around him with a dull thud. Trad’s heart began to race. He could hear sounds emanating from the pod, which he could not contextualize into any kind of sound he had heard before. He could see a sort of haze in the middle distance. He supposed that the outer shell was being super-heated in order to allow them to travel upwards. Instinctively, he tucked himself into a tight fetal ball and clutched the lodestone tightly in his fist. He wasn’t sure to what he addressed his prayers, but they echoed in his head, and his heart was behind every one.
Please let me do this right. Please don’t let me die for nothing. Please let me survive this.
He closed his eyes for one brief moment, and that brief moment almost cost him his life. When he opened them again, he was already nearly three meters above the pod and gaining altitude with every second. Overcome by sudden panic, he squeezed his lodestone and waved frantically at Mack, who was drifting upward in her own pod. Fortunately, she had her eyes open and squeezed her lodestone as well. For a few heart-stopping milliseconds, Trad thought his pod was still sailing upward—he couldn’t feel himself moving, after all—but then saw that the ground had stopped dropping away from him, and breathed a watery sigh of relief.
Fervently hoping that his calculations were correct, Trad began counting slowly, trying to gauge how long they needed to stay in one place to avoid decompression sickness, while glancing upward and trying to determine when the next stop would have to be. And there was I, sleeping through my marine biology lessons in my first year, he thought ruefully, all the while keeping the count steady.
Finally, it was time to move on. Trad gave a sign to Mack and released his lodestone. Strangely, it was a difficult thing to make himself do. Part of him wanted to stay there, suspended in his bubble. He knew he couldn’t, but he also knew that the alternative was carrying out the plan and sailing into the void.
You can do this, Crewe, he exhorted himself. You said you would. Get on with it.
Shelving his fear, he kept his eyes on his surroundings. He distracted himself with annoyance that there was no way of exactly measuring their depth and that they had only his mental acuity to rely on for the duration. They traveled on, making their occasional stops, Trad keeping a constant count in his head, while checking in to see if he could feel any signs of decompression sickness coming on. Not that he knew what to look for, exactly, but he was sure something would manifest.
Sooner than he would have believed possible, they arrived at the ice shell. The White Rabbit was still there, looking very much the worse for wear. There were a few mermaids darting around it, and Trad’s heart swelled with the realization that they were trying to fix it. I’ve got to save them, he thought. They deserve peace.
He counted the way through one last decompression stop, to be safe. When it was over, he caught Mack’s eye and nodded. She nodded back. There was nothing else either of them could do. Trad relaxed his grip on the lodestone and was borne up through the hole in the crust. He forced himself not to close his eyes, wondering if he would feel it when they entered the void, wondering if the pod would hold. His fingers were cupped loosely around the lodestone and he willed himself not to drop it. His fingers were numb, and his head was spinning. Any second now…
He didn’t feel a thing, not even a change in temperature. His eyes staring straight ahead, he watched the shell of his pod break free from the waters of Europa in a single, gentle motion, like a rising moon. Almost before he could blink, he was floating free of the water, suspended and rising through the void. Dimly, he realized his own detachment from the moment. It was as if he had left his body at the same moment he left Europa, and he was watching himself from the outside, floating in ether.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something moving. It was Mack in her pod, rising steadily with him. Her white scarf swirled in the violet water, and her hair—gathered as it was at the back of her head—bobbed gently in place. Her face, half-lit by reflected starlight, was upturned and transported with wonder. Following her gaze, Trad was confronted with the vastness of space before him.
There was a phrase Trad had heard once—it was a complicated one in a long-dead language, the exact phrasing of which he could never remember—but it had something to do with a feeling of combined fear and amazement and gratitude, a feeling so immense it could reduce rational beings to tears. Some said that this feeling was most commonly experienced by those who had some brush with the divine. Trad didn’t know if the expanse of void before him qualified for divinity, but he knew it was vast, ancient, and dying before his very eyes. The stars he could see in the immeasurable distance glimmered coldly through the rippling shell of his pod, and Trad had never felt smaller in his life.
With a jolt, Trad saw something else in his periphery. Squinting through the film of his bubble, he gasped, It was the Freedom, gliding through the black, bearing down toward Europa. He looked back at Mack, waiting for orders, and she didn’t disappoint. Waving her free hand, she pushed the lodestone in front of her, as far as she could reach, in the direction of the Freedom. Trad copied her and felt the bubble shift its trajectory. He imagined Sifa down on the moon’s surface, moving her own lodestone in response to his push. He didn’t know if it was really Sifa down there but thinking of her on the other end of this hair-raising venture was more comforting that picturing a faceless mermaid.
Onward through the void they sailed. Trad even found that his fears of a frozen, blood-boiling death had diminished, if only slightly. They were now close enough to the Freedom that he could make out its call sign printed on the side. Just a bit further, and they would be able to squeeze their way through a plasma window and into the ship’s (relative) safety.
Trad shivered, suddenly and with great violence He didn’t remember feeling the temperature inside the bubble drop, but suddenly it was as though he was trapped in a ball of ice—a miniature Europa of his own. Puzzled, he thrust out the lodestone once again—and realized that he couldn’t hold it at arm’s length anymore without stretching his hand into the void.
His bubble was shrinking.
His stomach clenched with sudden panic, and he stared helplessly at Mack. Her expression showed that she was experiencing the same problem. These damn things have never been this far out in space before, he realized. They’re disintegrating.
Paralyzed with terror for a split second, Trad didn’t realize that his arms, without his conscious thought, had shot out in front of him, shaking but strong. His bubble drifted on toward the Freedom, but not close enough to touch a window.
I’m not going to make it. Oh god, I’m not going to make it.
Desperately, he jerked the lodestone forward and back. He had no idea if that would work, but he had no other ideas. To his surprise and relief, the bubble responded, drifting closer to the ship. Trad looked for Mack and found her, drifting close, but not close enough to hit the window.
Here goes nothing.
With a deep, watery breath, he timed himself and reached his hand through his bubble just as Mack’s bubble bumped into his. He almost thought he could feel an icy ring around his wrist, but he told himself he was imagining it and concentrated on Mack’s grip on his hand. She met his gaze squarely and nodded. This was it.
With a pump or two more of the lodestone, Trad’s bubble made contact with the Freedom’s window. He reached his arm through and hooked his hand around the window ledge. For once, he gave thanks to the lack of gravity in space. He swung himself into the Freedom, his bubble disintegrating as it made contact with the internal atmo, and Mack falling in behind him. Collapsing on the floor, which was soaked with the remains of his pod, Trad found that for once, he didn’t have a single thought in his head.