Trad seemed to have entered some sort of dreamlike, alternate reality, where the rules he had come to accept and abide by no longer applied. So far, he preferred this reality to his usual one. Everything seemed more vague, and soft around the edges. He was aware of his body only in the barest, most abstract sense, a feeling which had eluded him since childhood. Somewhere outside of his body, there was a high-pitched humming sound—not unpleasant, but consistent—and his entire world was swaddled in treacley darkness.
Distantly, he realized he was quite happy.
Little by little, a faint corona of light appeared at the corners of his vision. He tried to blink but found he could not. Against his will, the darkness began to morph before him, manifesting into a series of loosely-defined shapes. There was a purpose to them—a pattern that he knew he ought to comprehend—and the fac that he could not comprehend it irritated him. The high-pitched humming seemed to be ebbing away. There was a new noise—garbled and irregular, too deep for him to understand. He became aware of his eyebrows as he furrowed them in vexation.
Please go away, he thought.
Outside of Trad’s malaise, Mack shook her head. “Not going anywhere, Trad boy. Not until you can track my finger. Now track it, dammit.”
Trad mumbled something indistinct, his eyes still unfocused.
“You kiss your mother with that mouth?” Mack joshed, trying to inject some levity into the moment. She was tempted to give him a shake, but knew that it would be a bad idea. Instead, she gripped his arm tight enough to turn her knuckles white. “Come on, Traddy, come back to me.”
“Ow,” said Trad vaguely.
Mack dropped his arm like she’d been shocked.
“’Nd don’t call me Traddy,” he added. “Ever again.”
Slowly, effortfully, Trad raised himself from his slump, relying heavily on the wall behind him to do so.
“Do you know where you are?” Mack asked, still brandishing her finger. “Do you know what’s happening?”
“Freedom. Saving mermaids.”
“Who’s the President-in-Chief?” asked Trunk.
“I hate him,” said Mack automatically.
“Sofa ‘King’ Mutch?” Trad managed.
“And he’s back,” said Mack, breathing a deep sigh. “Brilliant. Don’t scare me like that, brainbox—my heart can’t take it.”
“Gimme a break,” he shot back, tracking her finger at last. “Pirates don’t have hearts.”
Mack laughed more than the line deserved, such was her relief. Trad frowned. “What’s happened to the ship? Did it crash?”
“Well, we’re not moving, and something sure made a hell of a noise. We haven’t left the cabin yet.”
“Oh,” said Trad, his heart filling with sudden warmth.
“Don’t flatter yourself. We just came back to ourselves a bit ago. If you had snoozed for half a second longer, we’d have been gone like bloody Sol 3.”
“Fair enough,” said Trad, abashed but knowing she didn’t mean it. “Anyway, now that we’re all awake, should we go see what’s up?”
“Couldn’t have put it better myself. Mr. Trunk, you with us?”
“Yeah…yes,” said Trunk, with marked hesitation.
Mack raised an eyebrow. “Something you want to share with the class?”
Trunk shook his head forcefully. “It’s nothing. Let’s do it.”
Shrugging, Mack got to her feet and held out her hand for Trad, who took it and pulled himself up. His head threatened to fog up again, but he forced himself to stay focused. He had no idea what was going to happen next, and he wanted to be awake for it when it did.
Together, the three of them clambered out from behind the desk. The cabin was in shambles, and Trad was filled with gratitude for the solidity of their desk. Mack was checking the sensor by the door. “Cabin pressure is stable,” she said, and without further preamble, she tugged the door open.
“No use hanging around, eh?” she said. “Let’s see how screwed we are.”
The Freedom was in a sorry state. The emergency lights along the floor had activated, bathing the hallway in an eerie green glow. The silence that yawned in the absence of the ship’s engine made Trad immensely uncomfortable. Trying to summon his courage, he took a step out into the corridor—and was promptly launched forward about ten meters farther than he anticipated. By the time he crashed to the floor, he managed to stop yelling and—head still buzzing with the fight-or-flight reflex—he turned back to Mack and Trunk.
“Art-grav’s on the blink,” he managed, slightly hysterically. “Watch your step.”
Mack and Trunk took his advice, stepping gingerly out into the corridor. Mack was laughing, but Trad didn’t mind. What was there to mind, considering everything? Who knew what was waiting for them on the bridge? They might as well laugh now.
The ship somehow seemed much bigger than it ever had before—bigger even than when Trad had prowled through it on his solo mission to find Mack’s hiding place. Had that really only been a few days ago? Mack’s laughter eventually subsided and they walked in silence, trying not to run afoul of the glitching art-grav.
At last, they reached the bridge. Trad went to open the door, but Mack pushed him to the side and pressed her ear to it, rapping it gently with her knuckles. “Place is flooded,” she said, almost to herself. “Good thing these doors open out. Stand back.”
Trad and Trunk did as they were told, and Mack braced herself as best she could before giving the door one, massive push. Violet water crashed past them, nearly touching the ceiling. Trad, Trunk, and Mack pressed themselves against the corridor wall and managed to keep their feet under them. Eventually, the water sunk down to about knee-height, but Trad knew it would rise again soon.
“The Freedom’s not long fo this world,” said Mack, echoing his thoughts. “Best go while the going’s good.”
Stepping high through the water, they entered the bridge. The place was almost unrecognizable, as every fixture had been smashed and torn asunder. Trad had expected to see a gaping hole in the front screen, but instead, there was a series of smaller holes, through which water gushed. The crew was nowhere to be seen, and Trad could tell that they hadn’t disappeared without a fight.
Mack quickly found the largest of these, tying her hair back again as she went. “Come on, then,” she called over her shoulder. “We’ve got a hero’s welcome waiting for us—let’s not be late.”
Trad followed her, still not quite able to believe that the whole adventure was nearly over. “Don’t worry about holding your breath,” he said to Trunk, abruptly remembering that he was still there. “The water is really just—”
“Perfluorocarbon,” Trunk finished. “Yes, I know.”
“Right.” Unbelievable though it was, Trad found himself blushing. “Pre-eminent Europan scholar. You know that. Right.”
Without further ado, the three of them slipped through the hole and into the waters of Europa once more.
Trad’s last moments on Europa blurred into each other in his memory, a fact which he resented but couldn’t do anything about. He supposed it was either due to the trauma of impact kicking in again or simply fatigue creeping into his brain. He did remember a conversation with Chieftainess Ruia, which mainly consisted of her thanking them profusely for their assistance in saving Europa from invasion. They had assured her—through the phytoplankton tablet—that they were happy to help and relieved that the Europans could continue to live in peace and secrecy. Trad spent most of the conversation trying to ignore the furious glares of his former crewmates. Lykus, for his part, didn’t spare him a glance. He floated in place, staring off into the middle distance, for all the world oblivious to the heavily-armed mermaids that surrounded him.
Naturally, the Freedom’s crew would be held as prisoners for the rest of their days. Since Europa wasn’t part of the VIA, they had no obligation to report themselves—not to mention no right or inclination to declare war. For all that, Ruia assured them all that the prisoners would be treated with dignity and care for as long as they lived.
“And they will be buried with their ancestors, the Lunar Vikings,” she added, surprising Trad and Mack. “They are intrepid astronauts, after all. Though they tried to make war on us, we bear them no grudge.”
“A bit more than they deserve, I say,” Mack signed to Trad, which was overshadowed by Trunk suddenly seizing the tablet and scribbling. From the degree of his fervor, Trad realized that Trunk had only just learned that Europa was the final resting place of the Lunar Vikings.
“You’re welcome to tour the crypt yourself,” said Ruia after reading his message. “Before you depart with Emissaries Mack and Trad.”
At this, Trunk hesitated before scribbling anew. Mack and Trad leaned over his shoulder to see what he wrote. “Actually, Your Honor, I wanted to ask your permission to stay. The study of Europa has been my life’s work, and it’s cost me my career and my reputation. If you would allow me to make a new home here, I would never want another.”
Ruia considered him impassively before replying. “I will review the matter with my council. Speaking off the record, I think you could play a valuable role here—perhaps you could serve as a mediator between us and these outlanders.”
“Any use I could be to you would be an honor,” Trunk replied. His face remained impassive, but Trad saw a certain smugness around his eyes when he looked at Lykus.
It was decided that the chief council would call an emergency session to vote on Penner Trunk’s bit for asylum. After the vote, there would be a ceremony to honor Mack, Trad, and Trunk for their roles in saving Europa. While they waited for the final verdict, Mack and Trad were given leave to visit the White Rabbit, which was astonishingly closed to being completely repaired.
“It’s amazing, really,” Trad had said, once they were back aboard and had expelled the Europan waters from their lungs once more. “I’ve been around these ships my whole life, and I couldn’t tell you the first thing about how to fix them. These people know exactly what they’re doing, and they’ve hardly seen any in their lives.”
“I guess it’s not about knowing the ships,” said Mack, shaking out her wet hair. “It’s about knowing how to fix things when they go wrong.”
Some movement through the hatch caught his eye. Looking down, he saw Sifa, the mermaid who had helped him with his pod—what felt like a lifetime ago. Catching his eye, she gave a toothy grin and waved a tentacle in greeting, before disappearing under the ship.
Belatedly, he realized that Mack was still talking. “…get you back to Paramus.”
“Dammit, Mack, Pandora,” he replied, before he realized what she was talking about. “Wait, we’re going back to Pandora?”
“Well, yeah,” she said. “You’ve still got a life there, don’t you?”
“Mack, any life I had there was smashed to bits along with the Freedom. In the unlikely event that Lykus didn’t send a mayday before the crash, someone will eventually notice the fact that I’m the only part of this mission that survived—including the ship. I’m a pirate now, same as you.”
Mack was silent for a moment. “Supposed you’re right,” she said finally, and then, “How does it feel?”
“Weird. Kind of dangerous.”
“You get used to it,” she said, with one of her wide grins. “It is easier if you’ve got company.”
“I bet,” he replied, and then abruptly remembered the conversation they’d had while tossing weapons through the Freedom’s windows, the one that had been interrupted. “Why don’t you have company?” he asked.
Mack was quiet again, before saying, without looking at him, “That’s a story for another time. I know we’ve just risked our lives together to save a moon’s worth of space mermaids, but that’s not quite enough to unlock this backstory.”
“How many more near-death adventures will I have to complete, then?” he asked.
“Didn’t have anyone else in mind.”
Mack considered him, before apparently coming to a decision. “Why don’t we play it by ear” she said at last. “You never know, the pirate’s life may not be for you after all.”
“You never know,” he echoed, feeling himself suddenly start to grin.
Suddenly, he felt his body beginning to shut down, the day’s extraordinary events catching up with him at last. “Well, as first mate of this vessel,” he managed, slumping back in the copilot’s chair, “I move we get some shut-eye before the ceremony.”
“Steady on,” said Mack, sinking into her own chair. “You can’t just elect yourself first mate. Let’s start you off as cabin scrub and then see how things go.”
Trad laughed, too exhausted to protest.
“But the motion is sound,” she continued. “To sleep, then.”
With that, Mack Tosh and Trad Crewe fell dead asleep in their chairs. In a few hours, they would wake and bid farewell to the mermaids. And after that, the wide, wide Universe awaited.