Trad had always had a bit of a problem with recognizing faces. Unless there was something particularly remarkable about someone’s features, they all tended to blend together in his memory. When he signed on to the Freedom, he had been relieved to find that everyone wore color-coordinated uniforms and nametags.
The crewman standing in the doorway wore a green uniform, which signified that he was a member of the engineering division, and his nametag said FEOMAN. Despite the fact that his face was one of the most unremarkable faces Trad had ever seen, he felt certain that he would remember it for the rest of his life.
Somewhere in the distance, the alarm was silenced.
There was a slow moment where Mack, her face expressionless, walked toward Feoman. Her arms were loaded with—Trad was relieved to notice—the last box of weapons. Feoman watched her approach with a similarly blank face, reaching almost casually for the comm on his belt.
Abruptly, Mack gathered the box in her arms and heaved it at Feoman with considerable force. Feoman lost his footing and fell back, and Trad was by Mack’s side with his hand clasped in hers before Mack had finished shouting, “RUN!”
They sprinted down the corridor, trying to put as much distance as they could between themselves and Feoman, even as they heard him shouting into his comm. “Stowaways! High alert! Stowaways on L16, possibly armed! Requesting backup!”
Trad didn’t have any idea where they were going, and he was certain Mack didn’t either. “Supply closet,” he wheezed. “One hallway over.”
Taking the corner at a sprint, they found the closet. Ducking inside, Trad was instantly overwhelmed with the smell of industrial cleaner. It was dark enough that he couldn’t see Mack’s face in front of him, but he could still feel her hand clasped tight in his. “We cleaned out all the weapons,” she said, so swiftly that Trad almost couldn’t understand her. “They still have the one box, but that’s not going to do them any good. The Europans have got the numbers, and if we do our job alright, they’ll have the element of surprise. All we have to do is crash this bird into the shell. Where are the nav systems on this thing?”
“Bridge,” said Trad, and then, talking determinedly over her, “but it’s no good trying anything from there—that’s where Lykus is most of the time. There’s a backup nav system at the end of the labbord fin—or there ought to be. Best bet is to override the main system.”
“Good. You do that, and—”
“I’ll distract them. Give you enough time—”
Trad took a breath through his teeth. “If they catch you, they will shoot you on sight. Pirates don’t have any rights to fair trial—not in the black. But I’m a member of this crew and a Pandoran citizen. At the very least, they’ll have to do a fair amount of paperwork before they execute me. I’ll go out and draw them away, and you play doctor on the nav system. Good?”
Mack hesitated, half a beat longer than Trad thought was strictly necessary. “Good,” she said finally. “I—good.”
“I’ll tell you after. I promise.”
Trad couldn’t help himself. “Plans make the Universe laugh,” he said, quoting the old proverb.”
“The Universe can laugh all it damn well wants. I promise.”
Trad heard Mack’s other hand grasp the door.
Trad nodded in the dark. “Let’s go, you dirty pirate.”
There was a clunk as the door shot open. Momentarily blinded by the light of the corridor, Trad blundered forward in the precise opposite direction as Mack. He waited as long as he dared before looking back. As he saw the tail end of her white scarf whip around a corner, he began bellowing at the top of his lungs.
Later on, he was never able to remember exactly what he shouted. He was vaguely aware of his mouth forming words—most of them insults toward his captain and crew—but to Trad, they just sounded like noise—a wordless cry of desperation and defiance, brought on by having faced death more times than he had ever wanted to, and by feeling more alive than he had in his entire life.
He kept shouting even as he was discovered by his former crewmates. He kept shouting even as he was incapacitated and pinned roughly against a wall. Finally, one of them socked him twice in the back with two meaty fists, which knocked the wind out of him. Dumbstruck and limp with pain, he let himself be bound and pulled away from the wall. They propelled him down the corridor, exchanging rough banter and taking pot shots at him, but for once, their words didn’t register. Trad’s ears were ringing, and his heart hammered in his chest. He thought of the mermaids, depending on them to win this coming war. His back ached, his head spun, and his lips were turned up in a smile.
“Cap’s gonna stick his shoes on before his socks, you just watch,” growled a voice to his left.
Not if I can count on Mack, Trad thought. If I can count on anyone, it’s her.
Mack didn’t worry about being discovered as she made her way to the end of the labbord fin. Five weeks of clandestine thievery aboard this ship—as well as a few good years of honest piracy—had given her the skills she needed to travel undetected. She didn’t worry about hacking the nav system, either—it was a VIA standard AstroTrak layout with a four-stage encryption override—what was complicated about that? The only thing that worried her was that Trad hadn’t seemed quite sure of himself when he said “labbord fin.” If he was mistaken, she’d have to find it out on her own, which would take time she knew she didn’t have.
“Brainbox, don’t fail me now,” she muttered as she sprinted down the corridor as quietly as she was able. “You made it through the void in a bubble—surely you can remember the layout of a bloody ship.”
The last bit was directed as much to herself as to the absent Trad.
At last, she turned a final corner and saw a monitor built into the wall. Swearing with relief under her breath, she skidded to a halt and poked at the screen to wake it up, swearing again as the system took on an extra half-second to wake up. Mack forced herself to slow down as she scrolled through menu after menu, the encryption breaking down with every press of her fingers. Her shoulders were tensed in anticipation of a blow from a fist or blast from a stun-gun, and the faces of Ruia and the rest of the Europan mermaids were fresh in her mind. So braced was she for imminent violence that the quiet cough behind her nearly stopped her heart. She caught herself before she made a bad keystroke and whirled around, ready to fight.
A young man with curly blond hair was standing in the corridor, with the exhausted and satisfied look of a man who had just broken out of jail.
“Crashing the ship?” he said.
“Trying to,” she replied.
“Nice,” said Penner Truck. “Want some help?”
By the time Trad arrived at the bridge in the arms of his captors, he had begun to feel almost normal again—that was to say, awkward, wrong-footed, and almost certain he was about to be sick. He guessed it was a bit too much to hope that the last twenty-four hours had been enough to imbue him with new confidence and disregard for authority, but the reality of it disappointed it all the same. The comments from the crew regarding his imminent demise didn’t help, and as much as he believed that Mack could save the Europans and foil Lykus’ plans, he had a bit more confidence that Lykus could kill him before Mack could intervene.
Lykus wasn’t on the bridge when Trad arrived, which the crew seemed as an invitation to abuse their captive. Trad, his brain numb and buzzing, found himself pushed back and forth, slapped and spit upon. Vaguely, he thought that he ought to fight back, but his fear and sense of self-preservation got in the way. He had the sensation of being on the verge of disintegrating, as if the only thing holding his molecules together was his will, which was growing weaker by the second.
Just keep it together until Mack comes through, he told himself. Mack will take care of it all.
At that moment, Lykus came onto the bridge. Trad could sense his presence before he actually saw him—a pocket of silence seemed to be making its way through the crowd, which grew calmer by the second. By the time Trad could actually see him, passing through the crowd like a hot knife through butter, the numb buzzing in his brain had transformed into genuine fear.
Why do I do this? Why would I sacrifice myself? Have I gone insane?
Lykus, as ever, remained quiet for a few, measured seconds before addressing the room at large. When he did speak, the tone of his voice was exactly the same as it might have been at an ordinary debriefing. Trad was surprised at the realization that, in the day or so since he had last heard it, he had almost forgotten what Lykus’ voice sounded like.
“I must say, I’m a little relieved to see you,” said Lykus. “When I didn’t see your frozen corpse floating past my cabin window, I thought that a certain crewman had grievously failed in his duties.”
Lykus didn’t give away the crewman in question, but a shuffling movement behind him told Trad that the hulk of a crewman who currently had their hand tight around his elbow was the one in question. He felt an almost-uncontrollable urge to vomit.
“Fortunately,” Lykus continued, “Here you are, just a day later, destroying government property, in the company of a known pirate. I would have had to doctor the captain’s logs if I had followed through with the original plan, but this is much, much simpler.”
The crewman’s hands tightened around his arm.
“I hereby sentence you to summary execution,” said Lykus. “It might have been a pleasure serving with you, Crewman Trad. Do you have any final words to say on your behalf?”
Trad opened his mouth, not entirely sure of what he was about to say but intending it to be unpleasant. Suddenly, the ship gave an almighty lurch and the entire assembled crowd was knocked asunder. Trad, propelled by the weight of his captors, fell to the floor completely, but managed to free himself in the confusion. Scrambling to his feet, he saw that every one of the instrument panels had gone dark, except for the navigation panel. Trad could see, even at a distance, that the ship had accelerated wildly, and that they were now on a collision course with Europa.
She did it. Every cell in his body was shot through with adrenaline. She hacked the system and saved the Europans.
She’s doomed the ship.
“On balance,” said Mack, as Penner Trunk ran through the ship’s navigation module with practiced ease, “I probably could have figured this out on my own.”
“I have no doubt,” said Trunk, in the soft tones of someone only giving half a mind to his words. “We are on a time crunch, and I have had five-odd weeks in captivity to figure out all the back doors.”
“True,” said Mack, waving a careless hand. “But I don’t want you walking away with the idea that you’re a better sneak-thief than I am. You only get one chance to make a first impression, after all.”
“Are you always this flippant in moments of crisis?” Trunk asked as he shut down the menu and logged out of the interface. As he turned to her, Mack gave him a wide, piratical smile.
“My good sir,” she said, “It’s the only way a body can survive in the black.”
“Well, brace yourself,” said Trunk. “New nav protocols should take—”
His words were cut off as the ship heaved. By sheer luck, the two outlaws managed to stay on their feet. Bracing herself against the wall, Mack said, “Thank the Unseen Brilliance for bored prisoners.”
“Technically, I’m the chief science officer,” said Trunk.
Mack gaped at him, momentarily struck dumb.
“Wait,” she stammered. “You’re…”
Trunk held out his hand. “Penner Trunk,” he said. “Foremost expert on astrolunar humanoid pesceforms and press-ganged scientific consultant.”
Mack gripped his hand. “Mack Netoya Tosh,” she said. “Space pirate.”
The moment was derailed by echoing footsteps clattering toward them. Trunk and Mack braced for combat, but relaxed when they realized it was Trad. It took a moment for them to realize what he was shouting at them.
“Brace! Take cover! We’re going to crash!”
“Into the suite,” she ordered, tightening her grip on Trunk’s hand and grabbing Trad above the elbow as soon as he was near enough. “Come on!”
They piled into Trunk’s rooms and pushed the door shut.
“Desk!” Mack barked.
As one, they grabbed the imitation-mahogany desk, and as one they gave silent thanks that it wasn’t bolted to the wall. With the strength borne of desperation, they tugged it across the room, sending Trunk’s various notes and tablets cascading to the floor. Finally, they pulled it nearly to the opposite wall—the one closest to the bridge—with just enough of a gap for their three bodies to fit through.
They ducked into the hollow of the desk, where the chair was meant to be tucked. It was a tight fit, but the three of them knew they wouldn’t have to endure it for long—one way or the other.
“Everybody brace!” Mack ordered at last.
“Mack!” said Trad, much too loudly. There was something he had to say, before the inevitable.
“Whatever happens next, thank—”
There was a crash, so loud it seemed to tear at the fabric of reality. Trad could never have imagined such a sound, if he lived to the end of the Universe. His body lurched, and his world went white.