The day of Trad’s presentation arrived, and Trad had never felt more unprepared. The time he would have spent putting his notes together and praying not to make an embarrassment of himself in front of the crew, he instead spent on hunting for evidence of Mack, the self-proclaimed pirate.
He hadn’t gone to the captain or anyone else about her, partly because he never liked to spend any more time with Lykus or his shipmates than he absolutely had to, and partly because—despite being treated as the ship’s unofficial jester—he was first and foremost a scientist. It went against the grain to present any claim without evidence, and so far, all he had on his side were his word and the compass she hadn’t stolen. He knew he needed to go to Lykus with far more than that.
He had thought about going to see the mate, but was unsure of where to find him. The mate had remained elusive throughout the entire five weeks—in fact, Trad was almost tempted to believe that he had never seen him before—and as such, Trad felt more comfortable with the idea of telling him about his encounter with the pirate. However, in order to find the mate, he knew he would have to ask Lykus where to find him, and Lykus might start asking leading questions, and it would all lead back to where he didn’t want to be: in the position of telling Lykus that there might be a pirate aboard the ship.
As a result, he had spent the next few days with his eyes skinned, looking for any indication that there was one more living being on the ship than there was supposed to be. What he found, however, was disappointing. Nothing at all seemed out of the ordinary, nobody reported missing or stolen tools, and nothing in the ship’s daily life seemed disrupted in any way. Trad almost began to believe that he had made the whole thing up. After all, Mack had said she was a pirate. Granted, he had never met a pirate before, but surely a real pirate would be a bit more tight-lipped about their profession.
Regardless of his search, Trad still had a presentation to deliver. Lack of preparedness aside, he was looking forward to having the stupid thing over and done with. He had almost expected to have to endure taunts about his nerves or lack thereof from the crew, on top of everything else, but they never mentioned it, and that made Trad feel—if possible—worse. It was one thing having to get up and speak to people who didn’t like you. It was another to speak to people who didn’t care.
With great reluctance, Trad reported to the bridge. The rest of the crew was already assembled, looking very reluctant to be there. Trad gathered his notes tighter in his arms and went to the podium that had been set up for him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Captain Lykus deep in conversation with a man Trad had never seen before. This, he assumed, was the elusive first mate, whom none of the crew had ever seen before. Trad couldn’t help but think that the mate—who was round in the face and had a noodly mass of blond curls on his head—looked remarkably soft for a first mate on a voyage like this. Heartened by the presence of another neophyte, Trad could feel the knot in his stomach unclench slightly.
Eventually, Lykus raised his ands for order. The crew, who were beginning to fidget, fell silent as Lykus stepped forward and stared through the room. “Well,” he said finally, “You all know why you’re here, so listen up. Mr. Crewe, take it away.”
The crew turned its collective, indifferent eyes on Trad, who inwardly shrugged and resigned himself to the inevitable. “As you all know,” he began, pausing to clear his throat, “We are on a mission to Europa. Europa is the twelfth moon of the gas giant Mors Nova, and is comprised of various frozen elements…”
As he talked, Trad found it easier and easier to ignore the glazed expressions in front of him and focus on his subject. He knew that his presentation wasn’t the greatest—no professor would give him a high grade for it—but he also know that not a single member of his audience cared either way. Even Lykus was indifferent. As Trad talked, Lykus kept his head bent toward the mate, with whom he was having a tense, if inaudible, conversation. Whatever the subject was, the mate didn’t seem happy.
In future years, when Trad looked back on this day, he tried to pinpoint where it had all gone wrong, but he could never find the right trigger. He was speeding through something irrelevant about gaseous emissions, when a crewmember suddenly spoke up. “That’s all well and good,” she said, in a tone that implied nothing of the kind, “But what are we going to do about the thief aboard?”
Trad faltered into silence, feeling a new swell of nerves. Had other people encountered the stranger, too? Was he going to get his evidence after all?
“You’re a fine one to talk about thieves,” growled another, an absolute hulk of a human being. “Where’s the wrench you nabbed from me two days ago?”
“What wrench?” sneered the first. “I haven’t seen any of your kit since we blacked out.”
“You’re a liar and a thief, then!”
The first shouted in outrage, and the whole room fell into chaotic accusations and challenges. Trad stood at his podium, as fully aware of his own uselessness as he had ever been. He looked over at Lykus and the mate, wondering why neither was doing anything to restore order. As the violence in the room increased, so did the tension between the two. The mate attempted to brush Lykus off once or twice, but Lykus would not be denied. Bending down to speak in the shorter man’s ear, Lykus delivered what seemed to be the parting shots, before sending the mate on his way.
Before the mate took his leave, he paused in the doorway and looked back at Trad with a look of fury that Trad had never received from any living being. He was shocked, as he had never even seen the mate before, let alone given him a reason to hate him. Before he could think to follow the mate out of the room and question him, the mate disappeared, and he became suddenly aware that Lykus was standing right next to him and had fixed his staring eyes on the crew, who began to calm down almost immediately on recognizing his presence. With practiced ease, Lykus waited until the room was completely silent before he addressed them all.
“I want you all to know,” he began, in a voice as soft as death, “that I am aware of all these goings-on. Personal belongings have been disappearing at an alarming rate, and so far, no one has stepped forward to claim responsibility.
“For the sake of setting the record straight,” he continued, fixing his gaze upon each crewmember in turn, “How many of you have lost something?”
In the flash of a moment between the question being asked and the crew’s hands all rising as one, Trad realized that he was in a very awkward position. He was the only person in the crew not to have been robbed, and he was the only person who knew the identity of the thief. He knew that the truth of the second fact was unlikely to divert the suspicion that would inevitably arise on account of the first. With that in mind, Trad committed his first act of mutiny toward his captain and his first act of treason against his government: he raised his hand and molded his face into an expression of mingled outrage and confusion, in which his confidence was very low indeed.
Fortunately, Lykus’ probing eyes didn’t linger on him as they swept over the crowd. “Well,” he said slowly, “if that’s the state of things, then it’s the state of things. You may all rest assured that I will personally be monitoring security from this point on, and that the culprit—when found—will find themselves wishing they’d put their shoes on before their socks.”
The violent expression—which referred to the tendency of rookie astronauts to take their respirators off before the airlock was cleared for safety—seemed to settle the crew. Whether it was squeamishness over the thought of such an unpleasant death or trust in Lykus, or some combination of the two, order was restored and Trad resumed his speech.
However, the momentary pause did not result in Trad gaining himself a willing audience at last. If anything, the crew seemed more eager than ever for Trad to stop talking. There was a gleam in their eyes that Trad had come to associate with alcohol, and he sighed inwardly, wishing himself back in his office. Seeming to sense his thoughts, Lykus stood up once more as Trad paused for breath and said, “That’s all great work, son, and we appreciate it. Do you have anything else to add to that?”
Seeing the lifeline for what it was, Trad seized it with both hands. “No, sir. That was pretty much everything,” he said, trying not to visibly sag with relief.
“Well, I wanted to have a few more words with this lot before EOD,” said Lykus, taking the front of the room once again. “Why don’t you go ahead to the caf? Get a round in before we finish here.”
From the subaudible drone that rose from the crew, Trad could guess how Lykus’ gesture had been taken by the crew, and the damage to his already patchy reputation if he were to actually accept it. Not wanting to complicate things any further—and wondering how he had managed to get himself into this mess—Trad saluted his captain, nodded to his crew, packed up his things, and left.
As he left the room and made his way back to his office, he found himself wondering—once again, and darkly—whether he ought to have just stayed on Pandora after graduation. Why had he been so eager to ship out? He could have afforded a gap year, and they were a lot more common than people pretended they were anymore. He recalled conversations he’d had with seasoned astronauts who were positively addicted to their travels. They spent as little time as possible on land, and occupied that time with impatience to get back out in the black. Trad could only assume that those particular sailors had managed to luck themselves into crews that suited them, and serve under captains who weren’t void-fodder dressed in human suits.
Or maybe this life just isn’t for me, he thought gloomily.
“If you don’t mind my saying so,” said a sudden, soft voice, “That was one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Trad nearly jumped out of his skin. So wrapped up was he in his own stupid ruminations that he had walked right past the stranger—Mack, the self-proclaimed pirate. She had insinuated herself between the support beams of the corridor, nearly invisible, except for the glow of her white scarf.
“I mean, not just the presentation,” she continued, in such a by-the-way tone that Trad felt himself flush with rage. “Though that was bad enough. It was hard to tell who wanted o be there less—the crew or you. And then, all those claws-out accusations of theft? Sheesh! I give this lot two days—tops—before going completely space-mad.”
Trad forced himself to keep silent as the stranger rambled on. Her reappearance—and the face that she had been close enough to the action to witness his speech, together with the crew’s reports of theft—proved that she was real, and he decided to commit every aspect of her to memory, to make his report to Lykus.
Despite her unfavorable self-comparison to the ship’s interface, she was quite pretty herself. Her hair was wild and dark, and she had an eccentric, almost savage demeanor. Her clothes were old and very worn, apart from a white scarf she wore around her neck, which looked almost new. He remembered the scarf from the first time they’d met—it gave her the look of a “flying ace,” the ancient race of warriors from humanity’s past.
“But seriously,” she continued, “You’re a soft-looking individual, my man—what made you want to take up with riff-raff like this? You can’t be having any kind of good time, surely.”
Looking back, Trad was never sure whether it was Mack’s sudden appearance or her apparent telepathy that set him off. Either way, the next think he was aware of was grabbing the scarf around her neck and pulling her face toward his.
“Who are you?” he demanded. “Why the hell are you here?”
His sudden attack seemed to break the smug mask that she had worn since the moment they had met. A palpable chill rolled off of her and a hard look came into her eyes. She moved away from the wall only slightly, but the anger behind the movement seemed to become a force of its own, and Trad felt compelled to let go. Mack took a step forward, and Trad found himself forced to step back to give her room.
“I don’t think that just happened,” she said, slowly and deliberately. “I sure hope it didn’t, anyway. And I hope it never happens again.”
Her eyes burned into his, and Trad was compelled to look down at his feet, his hands dropping from the scarf to hang at his sides.
“That’s better,” she said, and the forcefield around her seemed to recede somewhat, as her mouth twitched into a smirk. “Now, how have you been since we last saw each other?”
Trad was still too unnerved by her sudden anger to summon up any for himself, despite the degree to which he wished he could, but the thought of matching her new playful demeanor turned his stomach. Instead, he opted for a detached, indifferent tone, which was slightly off-set by the tremor in his voice. “I was under the impression that I’d never see you again. Isn’t that what you said the other day?”
“So I did,” she allowed. “And so I thought at the time. But as it happens, I actually have a couple of things to tell you.”
“Is one of them that you’re sorry for putting me in this rotten position?” he snapped.
“You have been stealing from every last bugger on this ship—except me,” he snarled, anger coming at last. “Got that? Everyone except me has had things disappear on them. Do you see how that makes me look?”
“Well, and there I was thinking I was doing something nice for you,” she drawled. “Next time, I promise to rob you blind. How’s that?”
Before Trad could retort, she continued, “First of all: You shouldn’t trust that Lykus. He’s a bad ‘un, for sure.”
Trad blinked. “What are you talking about?”
“Your captain. Know him? Tall, grizzly, got the eyes of someone who will kill again?”
“He is not—! Captain Lykus is a legend! He’s been blacking out since Pandora was terraformed. He’s run the gambit between Juno and Nara four times without a scratch!”
“And here’s me, standing here so impressed,” she said. “Whatever. I know the VSA and I know the kind of people who run ships like these. You’re a smart kid—watch out for yourself.”
“Thanks very,” Trad said, realizing all at once the pointlessness of his arguments. What did he care whether she agreed with him or not? “Is that all?”
“As it happens, no.”
Mack leaned in close and braced her hands on his shoulders. “I want to tell you…that I’m sorry I ate your sur-dairy sandwich that you were saving in your office. Although, at this point, I think you ought to thank me for it. See? Now you’re not the only one who hasn’t been robbed anymore!”
With a comet-bright grin, Mack slapped him roughly on his shoulders and strode away. “You can follow me if you like,” she called over her shoulder. “You’ll never find me anyway.”
Full of righteous indignation, Trad sprinted after her, but he had barely advanced three steps before she suddenly side-stepped through the corridor wall and disappeared.
Trad stopped in his tracks. For a moment, he was sure that his eyes were playing tricks on him. Surely, she was just around the corner. She couldn’t have passed through solid metal. But there was no sound of footsteps, and the corridor was deserted. Numbly, Trad drew level with the place where Mack had disappeared and pressed his hand against the wall. It was cold, metallic, and infuriatingly solid.
“Well,” Trad muttered to thin air. “This is...vastly unprecedented.”
When he got back to his office, there was no trace of his sur-dairy sandwich anywhere.