In later life, when Trad looked back on the two weeks between his ill-fated presentation and his arrival on Europa, he remembered more than anything else the sensation of his throat becoming rusty from lack of use, as he moved throughout the ship in near-perfect silence. People spoke to him, and he answered them—briefly—but he spent almost all of his time and energy looking for Mack’s hiding place.
The longer he looked, the more he became convinced, not only that Mack was the greatest pirate in the black, but that she had appeared on the ship specifically to torment him. As hard and long as he searched, he couldn’t see how she could possibly have secreted herself anywhere on the ship.
Granted, the ship itself was vast. It had originally been constructed as a pleasure liner, but when the Europa project passed through the planning stages, it was repurposed as an exploration and research vessel. All the luxury items it would have possessed were stripped in favor of large amounts of specialist equipment. This gave Trad at least a shadow of an excuse to poke around the ship. If anyone took issue with him flitting from room to room, he could always pretend to be checking that all the equipment was in full working order—never mind that he was an astrogeologist, and that there were plenty of actual engineers on board to accomplish this task for him.
To his surprise, however, the crew found very little fault with this practice. Perhaps they found a hands-on approach easier to understand than meticulous research, or perhaps they cared just as much about his investigation as they cared about anything else he did. Either way, the result was that he ended up becoming more familiar with the intricacies of the Freedom than he had originally planned, and found his own respect deepening for the craft that had borne him so far through the black.
The ship itself was shaped vaguely like a V, with two long tails and a bulbous head in front. Each tail contained an even balance of living quarters and cargo storage, and the head was proudly embellished with its old-fashioned centrifuge. Since anti-grav had been a fact of life for nearly twenty years by that point, the centrifuge was not strictly necessary, but the retro touch was a hangover from its original luxury-liner intentions. The centrifuge was home to the bridge, the caf, and the captain’s quarters. The idea was that the captain need never be too far away from the seat of command. With that in mind, Trad felt safe ruling out the centrifuge as a possible hiding place, but he was still bothered by Mack’s sudden, casual presence there, after the disgrace of his presentation, as well as her unnaturally quick disappearance afterward.
He considered the possibility that she had leapt out of a window. After all, gone were the days of plate glass and paranoia. These days, windows were covered in reinforced plasma shell, which was virtually unbreakable, and greatly reduced the need for cumbersome airlocks. A person could pass straight through the plasma and out into the void, without putting anyone but themselves at risk. But no, Trad thought. Plasma or not, it’s still void out there. She’d need a respirator and goggles at the very least.
Resigned, Trad busied himself with examining the rest of the ship, looking for anywhere a pirate could potentially squirrel herself away from hard-tempered astronauts on government credit. At the end of two weeks, Trad was forced to consider two equally disturbing things. The first was defeat. The second was the fact that Mack may have been right to caution him about his mission. After a thorough examination of the ship, Trad couldn’t help but think that there was more afoot than was explicitly stated on his employment papers.
To begin with, Trad struggled to understand the sheer number of rations on board. The crew was not exactly starving, but by Trad’s calculations, they could certainly afford to eat more than they were allowed. At the rate they were going, they would have almost a year’s worth of food-stock left by the time they reached Europa.
The second odd thing Trad observed was in a cargo hold on the labbord side of the ship. On the day he discovered that particular room, he felt as though he had stumbled into a thousand-year-old sci-fi movie. It was a massive databank, almost as big as the room that contained it. Trad didn’t dare touch it, but he guessed that at least five zetabytes of information could have been stored there, with room to spare. What could possibly require that much memory? He wondered.
Coincidentally, he happened to notice the third strange thing on the very day that everything else went south. Granted, “day” was an arbitration in and of itself—especially out in the black—but as far as Trad’s internal clock was concerned, it was not quite midday. He had finished his morning tasks and then wandered down the labbord corridor, trying not to think about where else Mack could possibly be hiding. It took some time to get all the way down to the labbord fin, and Trad walked past cargo hold after cargo hold, wondering why all that storage space was necessary, and what exactly he had signed up for after all.
At last, he reached the end of the fin. The corridor was cut off by a final doorway, this last cargo hold making up the very tip of the fin. He reached out for the handle, and nearly jumped out of his skin when a harsh voice spoke over his right shoulder.
“Out of bounds, brain-box.”
Trad whirled around. It was the man Lykus had been talking to during his presentation, the one he had assumed was the mate, and whom he had also assumed—from his round, cherubic face—that he was as unaccustomed to deep voyages as Trad was himself. However, standing in such close proximity to him, Trad couldn’t help but think twice. There was fire in the mate’s eyes, and a perpetual twitch around the jaw that indicated a secret fierceness barely held in check.
“Can I help you, sailor?” he said.
Trad was startled but forced himself to rally. He had been interrogated on this mission more than once, and he had figured out the best way to get around it. All he had to do was stand up straight, smile blandly, and let the silence build. Eventually, the interrogator would become too uncomfortable and then supply an excuse of their own. Trad’s relationship with the crew being what it was, almost all the provided reasons were extremely unflattering, but he couldn’t care. His honor—if he had any left by this point in the voyage—was a small price to pay to solve this mystery.
Trad adopted his pose and bland smile, and waited for the mate to dismiss him. To his surprise, the mate didn’t follow the script, but simply stared imperiously, waiting for Trad to explain himself. Trad felt himself start to flush. He knew that he had waited too long to give a plausible excuse—anything he said now would sound like a lie. But he couldn’t just keep standing silently. He had to say something. Without fully knowing what was going to come out of his mouth next, he began to say, “As a matter of fact—”
Partly to his relief, the mate waved him off. “Cap’s given strict orders that this section’s off-limits. Didn’t you know?”
“No,” said Trad, speaking with total honesty for the first time in weeks. “I hadn’t heard anything about that.”
“Well, you’ve heard it now,” said the mate forcefully. “So you’ve no call to be down here anymore.”
Trad opened his mouth to argue, but thought better of it. If this area was so heavily monitored, it was unlikely that Mack would make it her home base.
Unless Lykus has known about her from the beginning, he thought, as he slunk away down the hall. Yeah, that’s likely.
And so Trad returned to his office, dejected and finally ready to admit defeat. And so he was for the next several hours, until the alarm sounded.
Mack Tosh was feeling perfectly content, with herself and with her life, such as it was. She had managed to fleece an immense VSA ship of everything she had been lacking, having only been spotted by one solitary sailor, and one so low in the pecking order that he didn’t even have the guts to call for an inquiry. Now it was her last day aboard, before she could finally cast off from the floating VSA cesspod and get lost in the black once more.
Mack glanced at her watch. The best thing about robbing Vessies, she had learned long ago, was that their crews always kept to clockwork schedules. Having made her home on the Freedom for as long as she had, she could say with absolute certainty that Captain Lykus would not return to his office for another twenty minutes. He always spent precisely two-and-a-half hours patrolling the ship, ending at the very tip of the labbord fin. One minute to inspect every room and hold, finishing with five extra minutes at the fin, followed by the long journey back. Why this was so, she had no idea, and even less inclination to figure out. All she cared about was the fact that she had a twenty-minute window before she was caught red-handed. She planned to spend fifteen of those minutes raiding Lykus’ pantry.
Finding a sur-protein sandwich that was only one day past the best-by date, Mack kicked back in the captain’s chair, put her feet up on his desk, and began eating. Sur-protein was bland at the best of times, but the mix had been seasoned with something sharp and pleasantly spicy. Mack guessed there was a clandestine tub of mustard hidden somewhere, and grimaced. Vessies. They were all the same.
Finishing the sandwich, she ran her fingers carefully over the front of her shirt, hunting for fallen crumbs. It wouldn’t do to let Lykus find them. As she straightened up and put her feet back on the floor, she knocked Lykus’ holo-display askew, and she immediately set about straightening it.
That was the moment—the incidental decision—that changed Mack and Trad’s lives forever. She had no real need to straighten the holo-display, all things considered. She was minutes away from casting off in her own ship, leaving nothing behind but the wild tales of the cub scientific officer. But long habits forced her to remove all evidence of her presence from the surroundings she invaded, and so she straightened Captain Lykus’ holo-display for him, and so changed the course of her destiny, and Trad Crewe’s destiny.
Lykus’ holo-display—by another stroke of chance—happened to be turned to the voyage itinerary. As she nudged it back into place, Mack’s eyes fell on the current date, and then traveled down, into the future. Shock gave way to horror, which in turn gave way to rage.
Out loud, she said, “Oh, hell no.”
It was not the emergency alarm that blared through the ship, but it was still loud and harsh enough to make Trad jump in his seat. It was immediately followed by the cool voice of the ship’s interface. “All hands to the bridge. The captain wishes to make an address. All hands, please report to the bridge.”
Trad looked back at his notepad, where a trail of increasingly detailed doodles was all he had to show for the day’s work. He was so depressed about not being able to find Mack’s hiding place—and his continued isolation among the crew—that he almost couldn’t summon the energy to get up from his desk. Out in the hall, he could hear footsteps tramping past his closed door, and occasional knocks and shouts as the crew roused their fellows from sleep. No one knocked on Trad’s door. Maybe they figured he was already on the bridge with the captain—Oh, come on, admit it. They just don’t give a damn.
At last, Trad heaved himself up from his chair. By the time he left his office, the corridor was almost empty. In no particular hurry, he shuffled after his crewmates, feeling a distinct lack of curiosity about what the special address could be. He thought back to the way he had felt at the start of the voyage, so excited and hardly able to believe his good luck. What’s happened to me? And what’s going to happen to me once this voyage is finally over? How can I do this again?
Without warning, a hand grabbed his elbow and spun him around. The sight of Mack standing before him was enough to shake him out of his malaise, but it quickly turned into anger.
“What now?” he snapped.
“We have to go,” she said. “We have to get off this ship and go now.”
“My shuttle’s all set to go,” she continued, as if he hadn’t spoken. “With any luck, we’ll be there in an hour’s time—they’ve all still got another day to go, at least.”
Without another word, she spun around and raced away down the hall. Trad stood frozen for a split second, before his anger overtook his shock and he raced after her.
In later life, Trad liked to imagine that he would have eventually caught up with her, even if she hadn’t stopped abruptly in the middle of the corridor, right next to a side window, through which the faint glimmers of stars were just visible. As it was, that was exactly what she did, causing Trad to almost run into her. Recovering himself, he cursed and snarled at her, “Alright, I’ve had about enough! What is going on—”
But Mack wasn’t listening. Straightening the white scarf around her throat, she reached for the edge of the window and somersaulted straight out, into the void.
Trad could only stand there, dumbstruck. He was tempted to pinch himself, sure that at any moment, he would wake up, back in his bunk once more. Maybe he would be back on Pandora, at the Academy. This voyage had been way too bizarre overall…
Mack’s face materialized through the window. “Haul yourself on in, lackbrains,” she hissed. “Clock’s ticking.”
Trad looked at her, feeling synapses firing reluctantly in his overstressed brain. There was the woman’s face, suspended in pitch-black void, framed by disrupted currents of plasma. But behind her, where her body should have been floating—blue and frozen in the crushing vacuum of space—there was nothing.
“Move it!” she snapped, and drew back.
Trad weighed his options, and then gave a sudden mental shrug. He knew that if he let this mystery pass unquestioned, the scientist in him would regret it to the end of his days. Ignoring his instincts, which screamed at him to stay away from the window and the deadly void behind it, he reached out and poked an experimental hand through the plasma barrier.
It was not a pleasant sensation. The electric currents that maintained the integrity of the window bashed repeatedly into his skin from every angle. The construction of the window effectively prevented those currents from treating him as a new conductor, but even so, there was a certain amount of discomfort in blocking an immense tide of electricity from its rightful destination. Despite this, Trad felt remarkably healthy for a man who was milliseconds away from becoming an amputee. Granted, he had never felt the vacuum of space on his bare skin before, but he guessed that it would be a great deal more painful than A/C.
He pulled his hand back. It looked as it always had—not blue or frozen or dead. He flexed his fingers, and they responded instantly.
He looked around him. The corridor was deserted, the rest of the crew probably having reported to the bridge. Steeling himself, Trad bent forward, reached through the window, and pulled himself out of the VSS Freedom and the world he knew.