To Trad’s credit, it only took him a minute or so to adjust to the extreme G-force to which he had suddenly been subjected. The natural toughness for which humans were renowned throughout the universe had saved him, and the trip shifted from being terrifying to merely uncomfortable.
Once he was reasonably sure he wasn’t going to expire in the next several minutes, he turned his attention to Mack, who was piloting the shuttle at warp speed with the ease and professionalism that he would have expected of a pirate. With a noticeable yet minor amount of effort, she cast her eyes sideways and grinned at him. “Alright there, brain-box?” she asked. “Not bad for your first time in a shuttle, eh?”
Trad would not be charmed or mollified. “Since I don’t seem to be about to die anytime soon,” he spat, “Could you explain why in bloody—”
“Why you’re safe in here with me instead of back in that floating disaster? Well, remember how I told you not to trust that Lykus character?”
“No,” he said peevishly. “I don’t take orders from pirates.”
“Well, you should,” she retorted. “They’re not all as nice as me, and they don’t enjoy being second-guessed by the likes of you.”
Trad tried to think of a cutting reply, but before he could get the words together, she was talking again.
“Turns out you should have listened to me from the first, green-gills. In fact, you should never have signed on to that crew—should have kept piddling around back on bloody Polyphemus.”
“Because,” said Mack, “That man Lykus is so shady, when he goes to Castollox, he’s got four shadows instead of two. That’s why.”
“Says the pirate who mooched off my crew for who knows how long, who kidnapped me on this rust-bucket—”
“Who ate my sandwich?!”
“First of all,” said Mack loudly. “When we first met, you called me a stowaway. What did I say to you?”
Trad let his hands drift up, then smack pointedly down on his thighs. “You said you were a pirate.”
“Exactly,” said Mack. “Because it’s the truth. I’ve been honest with you from go—I promise you cannot say the same for Lykus.
“Second of all,” she continued, before Trad could protest, “I ate your sandwich. Yes. You’ve got a cushy research job straight out of Prometheus Academy—”
“Whatever! And I’m a professional outlaw who doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from, and who has to scrounge off VSA ships just to stay alive. So yeah. Shoot me. I ate your sandwich.
“And third of all,” she finished, “If I hear you dishonor the White Rabbit one more time, you’ll be choking on stardust before you can say ‘lemon.’ Understand?”
“White Rabbit?” Trad’s head was buzzing. The only comeback he could muster was, “Shuttles don’t have names.”
“This ain’t just another shuttle.”
Mack cast him another sideways look, before turning her attention back to the controls.
“And where exactly are we going? You never said.”
“Europa. And we need to haul, because if Lykus beats us there, the whole planet’s going to be stone-cold screwed into forever.”
“The history of Europa has been a source of long-term fascination for me, almost to the point of obsession.”
This sentence wouldn’t have surprised Trad at all, given that it came from Penner Truck, Pandora’s foremost expert on Europa and Trad’s primary source for his own research. What would have surprised him was the fact that Trunk was addressing the crew of the VSS Freedom, mere minutes after Trad had been abducted by the pirate Mack Tosh. He was the blond man that Trad had mistaken for the first mate, who had kept himself secluded from the rest of the crew, and who was now addressing that crew in flat, emotionless tones.
“I consider it my life’s work,” he continued, “Which, given that so little is known about it, has made my life rather difficult.”
At this point, Trunk cast an unreadable glance at Lykus, who met it squarely, before turning back to the crew.
“But now,” he continued, “My association with the VSA has allowed me to find greater scope and means for my research, and my discoveries—and your assistance on this mission—will have profound ramifications, not only for the VSA, but for the universe as a whole.”
“What are you talking about?” Trad demanded. “Europa is a big ball of ice—even if Lykus is as bad as you say—which I’m not saying I believe in the slightest—”
“He’s worse,” retorted Mack. “And Europa’s not just a ball of ice, so don’t try to sell me that VSA nonsense.”
“Europa’s core temperatures register in five negative digits,” said Trad loudly. “Surface temperatures don’t climb much higher. Europa is a giant floating snowball, end of!”
Mack was quiet for a long moment. Trad turned toward her, and saw her expression was puzzled.
“You really don’t know,” she said finally.
Her voice was very soft.
Mack was quiet again. Trad’s better nature told him to let her gather her thoughts, but he ignored it. “If you’re really a pirate, don’t I have the right of parlay? Tell me what’s going on!”
“Parlay?” She snorted. “What century is this?”
“Previous research on Europa has been superficial,” said Trunk, “If not downright negligible. Scientists have examined surface temperature, atmospheric composition, core temperature, and mineral deposits, and then left it at that.”
The crew, which had been getting increasingly bored from minute one, perked up abruptly at Trunk’s next words.
“As a result, Europa’s secrets have lain dormant for centuries. Until now.”
“You’re telling me you don’t even know what your own mission is?”
Mack stared incredulously at Trad, who felt his temper flare again, but didn’t know how to respond to such a comment. He was used to his competency being questioned—it was part of the curse of being a young, highly-ranked officer—but Mack seemed to have bypassed skepticism and gone to outright disbelief.
“The whole reason I took you was an effort at sabotage,” she said finally. “I thought, well, how far are they likely to get without their scientific advisor? Only to find out you don’t even know what you’re supposed to be advising them on!”
“Well then,” Trad erupted finally. “If you know so bloody much, then why don’t you tell me?”
The crew had fallen silent in a way that Trad would have thought only possible through alcohol or sleep. In this case, neither of those things was present. Instead, a projected image on the fore window had captured the complete attention of the assembled crowd.
The image was grainy, in a way which was rarely seen outside of thousand-years-old images taken in the very infancy of the photograph. Trunk was explaining how this had something to do with the refraction of the moon’s icy crust, but the crew was no longer paying attention to his words.
The image, unfocused though it was, was unmistakably that of—
“A mermaid,” breathed someone, and the rest of the crew murmured agreement.
“Strictly speaking,” said Trunk, sensing he was losing control of the room, “The term ‘mermaid’ is inaccurate. A more accurate description…”
“Astrolunar humanoid pesceforms?”
Trad was thunderstruck.
“Space mermaids,” said Mack. “Keep up, will you?”
“Are you telling me I signed on with one of those wacko, deep-government programs who try to chase down myths and conspiracy theories?”
“Oh, space mermaids are totally real,” said Mack. “You can find them all over the place, apparently, but I can’t speak to that. What I can speak to is the massive colony that your man Penner Trunk found on Europa last year.”
“My man…Penner Trunk? You’ve heard of him, then?”
“Well, heard of him. I saw him once or twice, rattling through that ship of yours.”
“You’ve seen him too—remember that meeting I eavesdropped on?”
“Is there an echo in here? God. Penner Trunk. He’s listed in the ship’s log as your CO. On the short side, round face, hair like a bowl of noodles. Hello?”
“No, that’s…the mate. We never really saw him—I don’t think I ever knew his name.”
Mack threw a hard look in his direction. “Skating lightly over the fact that you never even knew your own mate’s name,” she said slowly, “This guy Trunk was listed in the ship’s log as the chief scientific officer, which would definitely make him your CO. Please don’t say what again, you heard me just fine.”
Trad was silent, trying to gather his thoughts. Every one of his primary instincts rebelled against what Mack was saying. There was no possible way he could have served for any length of time—let along seven weeks—without knowing either his prime mission directive or his own commanding officer. It wasn’t like he was some cotton-brained government stooge who trusted his superiors blindly. He was a man of science—a man of sense. Why, therefore, would he have ended up in this situation—willingly abducted by a self-proclaimed pirate, who claimed to have evidence that his entire mission—and therefore his entire career—was built on a lie?
“You’re wrong,” he said simply. The words felt like some sort of last-ditch attempt. A grenade thrown at a cannon.
Mack didn’t look at him again, but her voice was sad. “You’ll find out,” she said. “Sooner than either of us would like.”
Somewhere at an indeterminate point in the void, Mack was explaining the truth to a disbelieving Trad. At a different indeterminate point, Captain Lykus had dismissed Penner Trunk from the bridge and was in the process of explaining to his loyal crew the true nature of their mission. Far away from both of those points—floating conspicuously in the black—was Europa, the icy moon of Mors Nova, a heretofore overlooked piece of astral real estate. Despite the fact that two ships were headed straight for it—both with definite intensions for the residence of the little moon—neither of them could have imagined that they were expected.
Boro, who was halfway through his third watch duty, shot into his supervisor’s office as if he’d been launched from a cannon. His supervisor, Siffa, eyed him warily, waiting to soothe the newbie for his overreaction.”
“I’ve just been out on astral,” said Boro, unnecessarily.
“Yes?” said Siffa.
“Out in the black,” said Boro, desperately trying to make himself understood. “Two ships, one big and one small. They have intentions, boss.”
Siffa blanched. Of all things, she hadn’t been prepared for intentions.
Nodding at Boro, she reached for her com. “All hands, report to main office,” she intoned. “All hands to main office.”
With a sinking heart, she began drafting a notice to the chief. After so many years of peace and isolation, it looked like chaos was about to break loose.
She should have known it would happen on her watch.