One thing that Trad had failed to contemplate as he was flying through the void was his physical state when/if he managed to board the Freedom once more. In his own defense, the “if” part of that consideration was a much bigger priority, as far as he was concerned. However, somewhere in the back of his subconscious, even as he was actively terrified for his life, he had come to the conclusion that, when he did transition back to breathing air after hours of breathing liquid, the act of transition itself would be incredibly painful.
And so it was. Trad didn’t fully know how long he spent kneeling on the floor of the corridor, expelling what felt like—and what probably was—gallons of liquid from his system. He knew how vulnerable he—and especially Mack—were, sitting ducks in a wide-open corridor. However, the thought of Mack’s or his own possible capture barely registered as a blip on his list of priorities. At that moment, allowing his body to jerk spasmodically as his lungs rejected the perfluorocarbon that had kept him alive for the past several hours was the most important thing to do. He did make a token effort to keep quiet.
Eventually, it was over. Trad slowly came back to reality, lying in a puddle of violet liquid. He could see Mack close by, still retching gently. Gathering the last of his strength, he stirred himself over to her and gave her back a few feeble pats. He wasn’t sure how much good it did her, but he was fairly certain it was better than nothing.
Sooner than he expected, she was sitting up again, wiping the drool from her chin and breathing hard. “Brainbox,” she croaked, “Do you know how to tell if you’ve just had an amazing adventure?”
Trad tried to reply, but his throat was too rusty for speech, so he settled for a shake of the head. Mack fixed him with a look, and Trad saw the beginning of her trademark mad grin stealing across her face.
“If you don’t ever want to do it again once it’s over.”
With that, she pulled him into an embrace. Trad was surprised, but he found himself clutching her back. If he had any doubts about whether or not he trusted her, they had evaporated into the void through which they had just floated. A delayed reaction to the peril he had just experienced caused a sudden sob to rise in his throat, but he forced it down and pulled away from her.
“So what do we do now?” he asked.
Mack took a deep breath and released it slowly. When she realized Trad was waiting for her to reply, she said, “Sorry, I’m just enjoying the fact that I can breathe air again. Right, let’s go.”
With that, they staggered to their feet and made their way down the corridor, as stealthily as they could manage. “Do you have any idea what time it is?” Mack whispered.
“None,” Trad replied. “You?”
“Nope. My internal clock is dead. Space mermaids and a trip through the black’ll do that for you. Okay, so what we’ll do is make it so that the Europans will actually have a fighting chance when this bird touches down.”
“And how do we do that?”
“Two-pronged attack, brainbox. Disable all weapons, and then disable steering and brakes. Crash the bastards into the ice and then leave them at the mercy of the mermaids.”
“But,” said Trad slowly, “The Freedom is a research vessel. It doesn’t have any…”
He trailed off as he saw Mack starting to give him one of her pitying expressions.
“Of course,” he interrupted himself. “The Freedom has weapons. Of course it does.”
“Too right, boy. And we’ve got to find them. Any notion of where they might be?”
Trad paused to think. He remembered the hundreds of storerooms he had come across during his search for Mack’s hiding place, and he was overwhelmed with the enormity of their task, and with how little time they had to accomplish it.
“Wait a second,” said Mack suddenly. “Didn’t you say there was a massive computer somewhere on this boat?”
“Yeah,” said Trad. “Probably to start recording the new history of Europa. Post colonialization,” he added bitterly.
“But that doesn’t make any sense,” said Mack. “The Freedom is supposed to be the conquering force—the first wave, right? Why would they give one heave-ho about recording history? They just want to focus on not-dying in the coming battle, while leaving just enough Europans alive so the VIA has someone left to subjugate at the end of the day.”
“So you’re saying…”
“The computer isn’t real. It’s a weapons cache, disguised as advanced tech.”
Trad considered this. “Honestly, it makes sense,” he said.
“I didn’t ask if it made sense. I know I’m right. Now where, please, is this computer?”
Bored of contemplating the void, Penner Trunk turned away from the window and looked listlessly around his room. Comfortable as it was, six weeks in captivity and total isolation—except for the ghost-dog Lykus—was enough to make him sick at the sight of the wall paneling.
For lack of anything better to do, he crossed the room to his desk and began shuffling through various documents on his tablet. Half a lifetime’s worth of research, and it didn’t even seem to belong to him anymore. It was all in the service of Lykus and his so-called betters.
He passed a hand over his face, feeling indescribably old. It disgusted him—at age twenty-two, he felt nearly ready to climb into his grave. All because of one misjudged paper in the wrong journal.
In next to no time, Mack and Trad found the computer room. As they walked in and heard the giant box’s mechanical hum, Trad began to have doubts about Mack’s brilliant theory. It sure looked like a computer, and it sounded like one. Was there any possible way…?
His ruminations were interrupted by a scrape of metal and plastic. Mack had removed one of the side panels of the computer with a grunt of triumph. “Feast your eyes, boy,” she said softly.
Joining her, Trad saw that the hollow body of the computer was filled with dozens of crates of weapons.
“Well,” said Mack into the sudden vortex of silence. “I do love it when a hunch pays off. Let’s get started, shall we?”
Trunk didn’t care for computers much. He appreciated the fact that his life was easier when he used them, but he never felt at home with them, unlike some of his hacker contemporaries. After six weeks of forced labor and imprisonment on the Freedom, Trunk considered his successful hacking of the ship’s mainframe as proof of his full and irreversible transformation into a true outlaw. When the government derails your life in pursuit of its own corrupt ends, he reasoned, it’s hard to feel like you’ve got much of anything to lose.
He scrolled through menu after menu—not looking for anything in particular but taking a certain perverse pride in the fact that he could do it. For a few moments he flicked through various feeds on the closed-circuit security cameras, which were placed at strategic points throughout the ship. He had already flicked away from one particular feed before he realized what he saw. Frantically, he pulled the feed back up and stared.
It was that young man—something Crewe, he thought—who he had been forced to scare away from his prison. He was accompanied by a woman, whom Trunk was positive was not a member of the crew. They were hauling crates out of a storeroom and pushing them through the window, out into the void.
Before he could fully wrap his head around what he was seeing, he recalled something he’d seen on the feed right after this one. Flicking back to it, he saw Lykus walking down the corridor, on a collision course with Crewe and his companion. Lykus didn’t seem to be any the wiser about what was going on, and Trunk realized he had the power to keep it that way.
For all this time, said Trunk, frantically scrolling back through the menus for an alarm to sound, I never thought to hope for pirates.
It took them a bit of time, but eventually they found a rhythm. One by one, they picked up box after box of weaponry and hauled it out of the room. There were no windows in the computer room, so instead they heaved the boxes, one by one, out the hall window and into the void.
“There aren’t sensors on these windows, are there?” Mack asked. “I mean, the captain isn’t getting notifs about a bunch of hull breaches in this sector, is he?”
“I honestly couldn’t tell you,” said Trad. “I hope not,” he added, with more bravado than he felt.
They continued in silence for a while, until Trad couldn’t stand it anymore and began to cast around for small talk. Mack, however, beat him to it, as usual. “What kind of reception is waiting for you back on Pandora?” she asked.
It took Trad a moment to realize that she’d gotten the name of his home planet right for the first time since they’d met. “Nothing spectacular,” he said, shifting a heavy box in his arms. “I haven’t got much family left, to be honest.”
“An orphan?” she asked.
“No, nothing so glamorous. We’ve all just…stopped talking to each other. We share a planet—most of us—and that’s really it.”
Mack was quiet for a moment, for which Trad was grateful. The box in his arms was so heavy, he couldn’t have mustered a reply if he’d tried. He managed to stumble forward and dump the box out the window. He watched it drift slowly away and out of sight.
Finally, Mack said, “That’s too bad. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” said Trad, meaning it. “I wasn’t cut out for families.”
For the next little while, they worked without speaking. Trad’s arms ached, twenty-four hours’ worth of stress and extreme physical exertion threatening to catch up with him. Finally, he caught his breath enough to ask, “What about you?”
“Was wondering when you’d ask,” she replied, the irony in her voice strong, but gentle.
She didn’t continue from there, and Trad paused in his work to mop his sweaty brow. “Too personal?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “Just trying to remember the last time anyone wanted to know.”
“Bloody hell,” muttered Trunk. His fingers were a blur over the touch screen s he found his way through the system to the menu he was seeking. Even as he selected it and pulled up the command, he wondered, “Is there even any point?”
He shrugged, for the benefit of no one. “It’s not like there’s anything else to do.”
He pressed the command key, and from far away, somewhere else on the ship, an alarm began to sound.
Trad and Mack stopped in their tracks at the sound of the alarm.
“Is that it?” Mack asked, surprisingly calm. “Are we screwed?”
Trad nearly said yes, but then his brain caught up with his panic.
“No,” he said. “If they knew we were here, the alarm would be going off in this room. Someone else must be screwed.”
“Well, that gives us a bit more of a window, at least,” Mack replied. “Let’s make the most of it.”
As they got back to work, Trad asked, “So, are you going to tell me your story, then?”
“Well, if you really want to know…”
Mack trailed off. Trad, thinking it was another one of her jokes, paused in his work to look at her. She, however, seemed to be elsewhere, even as she hauled crate after crate from the computer shell to the window, and heaved them, one by one, into the void. Finally, she spoke.
“For your own sake,” she began, “I hope you’re not picturing anything tragic—orphanages, abuse, falling in with ne’er-do-wells—or anything like that.”
Trad shook his head, sensing that now was not the time to make a joke.
“I also hope you’re not imagining me as having been born to this life. I am not a top-of-the-class graduate from Space Piracy Institute and Trade School.”
“That, I actually would believe,” said Trad, feeling the atmosphere relax. “I’d imagine you got a double first in sarcastic commentary and survival skills.”
“Survival skills was actually just my second,” Mack quipped.
“Oh, I figured. I just thought I’d be generous.”
“Oh, piss off.”
Trad laughed, realizing as he did that this was their first genuinely friendly interaction. Considering she had kidnapped him less than twenty-four hours before, he considered that to be nothing less than incredible.
“So what really happened?” he asked. “How did you get here?”
“Honestly, there are times I wonder myself,” she answered. “My childhood was aggressively normal. I had the correct amount of parents, a handful of perfectly functional siblings, and I went to a series of admirably bland schools, culminating in an unremarkable eight-term stint at Hartwell Uni.”
“You went to Hartwell?” Trad was taken aback. “That’s not a bad school!”
“You know it, then?”
“I know of it.”
“Then how do you know it’s not bad?”
Trad paused in his work and looked at her, wondering what expression would be on her face. By her smirk, he realized that she was just toying with him again.
“Really, it was fine,” she said. “Nothing to complain about. And I spent eight terms not complaining and made it all the way to graduation day until finally, something came up.”
Mack paused to pick up a particularly heavy box. With a series of grunts, she hauled it out to the hallway and shoved it out the window. In the distance, the alarm continued to wail. Trad hoped it was enough interference to keep them safe while their worked.
“The morning of graduation,” Mack continued, “I got a message from a friend of mine. She and I had grown up in the same town, but she was considerably fancier than me. She was one of the Molotovs of Hartwell.”
Trad dropped his crate painfully on his foot. “The Molotovs?” he exclaimed hoarsely.
“Yessir. Ace Molotov was my best friend. Lady Ace, I called her. She was far less snooty than you’d expect a space princess to be, that’s for sure. Anyway, she sent me this message. Apparently, King Mutch had fallen out of love with one of her fathers, and decided that her entire family was now considered a nest of traitors to the VIA.”
“King…You mean the President-in-Chief, Sofalamus Mutch?”
“Sofa “King” Mutch, that’s the man. Surely you know about his infamous mood swings.”
Trad came up blank.
“Well,” said Mack mildly. “I guess that makes me fancier than you. Who saw that coming?”
“What do you mean, ‘mood swings?’”
“Well, from time to time Mutch gets it into his head that one government official or another is conspiring against him. And whenever that happens, life tends to get pretty scary for whomever it is that he is scared of.”
“And he got scared of Ace?”
“One of her fathers, technically. But you know what they say about the inexorable pull of gravity.”
“It drags everything in its well toward inevitable oblivion?”
“Exactly. So Ace had to make a run for it. Ace and her fathers—all four of them—and her kid sister. And I was the only one on a world close enough to help them.”
“Wow. I mean…what did you do?”
“Well, in a surprising turn of events, I didn’t actually graduate from the academy.”
“I thought the ceremony was just a formality.”
“No, you don’t understand. One of my instructors pulled me aside and told me I couldn’t graduate because he had registered my grade in his class as an incomplete because he thought I hadn’t turned in a homework assignment. Honestly, I don’t even know if he was right or not—especially now, it was so long ago. Either way, he said I’d have to take the class again before I could graduate.”
Trad clicked his tongue in sympathy. “That’s rotten.”
“Rotten for him, you mean. I had just gotten the call from Ace when he came over and laid that on me, and I was so distraught that the last thing on my mind was the stupid ceremony. So…I don’t think I even said good-bye. I just went outside and found his cruiser. He had one of those newish models that you start with a password. I guessed his birthday and had broken atmo before anyone realized what was going on—including me.”
Trad was silent for a long time, trying to process everything he had just heard. Eventually, Mack seemed to realize that a response from him was not forthcoming, so she continued her story. “By some miracle, I made it around the blockade Mutch had set up around their house. Beginner’s blind luck, I guess. I piled everyone in and we set off, but then I realized I had no place to take them. Their home was out, and I had just committed grand theft astro on my own planet, so I couldn’t go back there. In the end, we just ended up wandering—for ages. Eventually, I upgraded to the Rabbit, and I’ve been on my own pretty much ever since.”
At last, Trad mustered up a question. “What happened to them?” he asked. “Ace and her family.”
Mack stopped in her tracks and signed audibly. Trad stopped too, out of respect, and waited for her answer.
“Knew our luck’d run out eventually,” she said.
Trad braced himself for tragedy…and then realized that Mack’s eyes were focused on a point behind him. Looking over his shoulder, he felt his stomach drop.
“Oh,” was all he could manage to say.