The first thing he saw was a metal floor, upon which he was lying prone. It was cold, which didn’t surprise him. It was also solid and entirely real, which did surprise him.
By all logic, he knew, he should be floating through the void, rapidly dying. And yet, here he was, confused but very much alive.
The second thing he saw was a scrap of white cloth, which swung toward him and caught him directly in the eye. Hissing in discomfort, he looked up and saw that the cloth was Mack’s scarf, which was looped around her neck as it always was, like an ancient fighter pilot’s uniform. Her face above the scarf, framed by helter-skelter black curls, was impatient.
“When someone tells you to haul ass,” she snapped, “Is that always when you decided to break out your turtle impression?”
“No,” Trad replied, trying to match her matter-of-fact tone. “Only when I hear it from sandwich-stealing pirates.”
“Any other day, I’d give you that. But right now, I need you to can the sass and pull your feet in here. They’ll be frozen stumps in T-minus fifteen, otherwise.”
Trad looked back, and realized that the plasma windows were forming rings of disrupted energy around his ankles. Slightly embarrassed, he pulled his legs through the window, hoping that no one on the Freedom had walked down the corridor at that moment. Curling his knees under him, he raised himself up into a crouch, since the ceiling was too short to allow his full height.
They were in what looked like a shuttle. He recalled the Freedom’s shuttles from when he made the mandatory safety tour when he first signed on. Ten in all, five on each side. Cramped and uncomfortable, but packed with high-density fuel, they were designed to get a lot of people very far away from a foundered ship as quickly as possible.
This shuttle was even smaller than the Freedom’s and seemed to only have room for one person—maybe two, if the other held their breath. All excess space was crammed with crates. Trad could make out a couple of labels: DAIRY, PROTEIN, VITAMIN c. Easier to make out were the crisp VSA stamps on every single crate.
My god, thought Trad. She really is a pirate.
“Strap in, already,” said Mack, shoving at a pile of odds and ends, which shifted to reveal a co-pilot’s chair. “The window’s closing fast.”
“What window?” Trad said, because it was the most convenient question to mind, and then all the rest of his questions came tumbling out in quick succession. “What’s going on here? What’s this shuttle—why is it attached—why am I here in the first—?”
He might have finished the last question, but he ended up losing his voice and his balance at the exact same moment. Mack, evidently bored of him, had disengaged the shuttle from the side of the Freedom, floated it out gently into the void, and then engaged the thrusters in the exact moment that Trad said “first.”
Trad fell back like he’d been shot. The pile of crates stopped him from smashing his head on the floor, but instead, something sharp slashed across his face, just at the corner of his eye. He yelled and swore and struggled to a semi-upright position. He didn’t expect any sympathy from Mack, and in this she seemed happy to oblige. “Suck it up, boyo,” she said, in the semiautomatic tone of someone doing something complicated while trying to explain herself at the same time. “Where we’re going, I’m guessing they’ll be light in first aid—and sympathy for colars.”
Trad had intended to let her comment slide—after all, he didn’t need to prove his bona fides as an adult to a lowly space pirate—but the last word stung him enough to demand a response. “Colars,” as an abbreviated version of “colonists,” was a slur used mainly by anarchists and the members of the Planetary Independence League. Anarchists, he had no problems with—they were harmless enough, considering none of them really had the wherewithal to topple anything bigger than a Jenga tower. PILs, on the other hand…
“Look,” he said, “I suppose you feel very strong and independent out here, in this rust-bucket of a shuttle. I suppose you think you don’t reap any significant benefits from the VSA and that your life would only change for the better if it were disbanded. But I’m willing to be there are a few things you haven’t considered outside of your little PIL echo chamber. Want to know what they are?”
It was an old, well-practiced argument Trad was using, and he was very proud of it. He had demolished more than one baby-PIL with it in his days at the Academy. Even here, in this strange situation, flying farther and farther away from where he was supposed to be, he felt the familiar flicker of pleasurable smugness that had seen him through his student days as well as a decent pair of shoes.
But as usual, Mack didn’t seem to want to play along with his expectations. “Watch who you call a PIL,” she said, still in the same mild, distracted tone. “Because if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s that. Buckle up, if you don’t mind—you’re no good to me if your brains are splattered over my upholstery.”
When Trad didn’t immediately snap to, she turned to face him. “Now would be best,” she barked.
Surrendering himself to the moment, Trad did as he was told, but decided to get one last jab in as he did so. “So, am I your prisoner now? I can tell you, you won’t get much for me in the way of ransom. I’ve got no family to speak of, and everyone on that ship wouldn’t care if I dropped dead tomorrow.”
“Well, bang goes my plan B,” she said, flipping console switches all the while. “But don’t fret. Plan A hasn’t faltered yet. If it does…you can go right back to that lot if you want to. No hard feelings.”
“What exactly is Plan A?” Trad was completely lost.
Mack spared him a look, one that Trad couldn’t quite read. “I’m not sure yet,” she said. “But I’m sure it’ll come to me soon enough.”
With that, Mack thrust the shuttle into overdrive.
Thanks to his having lived a relatively charmed life up to that point, Trad had never been in a shuttle except on student field trips and safety drills. In both cases, the shuttles he entered were disengaged from flying functions and completely stationary. The most commonly cited bit of advice about shuttle safety, however, concerned their speed. “Shuttles are meant to be used in emergencies,” he was told. “And in emergencies, it’s always best to move fast.”
Trad had taken that advice at face value—after all, it did make sense. However, he was still unprepared for the unique force that slammed him so suddenly against the copilot’s seat that it felt as though he had traveled in time as well as space.
Bloody Isaac Newton, was Trad’s only thought as the craft, piloted by an anti-establishment pirate, rocketed away from the only life he had ever known.
Not one single member of the Freedom’s crew commented on the absence of their scientific officer, a fact which would not have surprised that officer had he known it. The crew had assembled on the bridge, per Captain Lykus’ orders, and were waiting—as patiently as they were able—for enlightenment to come.
Finally, Lykus spoke up. “I would appreciate,” he said, in slow, distant way, “A degree of flexibility on your parts. We have entered a new phase of this voyage, and it’s time for me to share some new information with you.”
Lykus paused until the muttering died away. He had known the crew would not enjoy being liked to or misled, but he was confident that the second part of his announcement would go smoothly. “You know that we are on a mission to Europa,” he continued. “You’ve been told that this is an exploratory mission, meant solely to bring the outer reaches of the universe to our people back home. You’ve also been made aware that Europa is a frozen desert, completely devoid of what any person would call life.”
Lykus let the pause ride, and then continued. “Based on research that’s been gathered over the course of the last year, we have found that we were wrong. Now is the time for me to inform you of your true mission.”
Lykus turned and gestured to the man standing off to his side. He had a round face, and his hair was blond and very curly.
“This is the source of our new research,” said Lykus. “Please give him your full attention.”
With a face absolutely devoid of expression, the man that Trad had mistaken for the first mate stepped forward and addressed the crew.