The White Rabbit had started life as an ordinary shuttle, but over the years, Mack Tosh had souped it up to meet the demands of her vagabond lifestyle. Mainly, these upgrades consisted of modifying the fuel intakes, so that she didn’t have to spend her days sling-shotting among one group of close-clustered planets. In addition to the hell-for-leather shuttle functions, the White Rabbit could now also explore the universe at a relatively sane pace.
Mack, however, had no use for such a function at that moment. She was thanking her lucky stars that she had the foresight to plunder the Freedom’s fuel reserves while she had been skulking through its back corridors. She hadn’t been anywhere near the danger zone, true, but she hadn’t factored in an emergency trip to Europa with a VSA stooge tagalong, either.
Although, she thought, I may have to amend the stooge bit. Even stooges are supposed to have a faint idea of what the hell is going on.
Trad, beside her, was grappling with his crumbling world. He was mostly silent, but she still caught a few scattered words. “Mermaids,” he muttered. “Secret…five negative digits…how in the ‘verse…”
Finally, Mack had had enough. “If you stay tuned,” she said broadly, “All your questions will be answered soon. In fact,” she added, as the proximity alarm began to chirp, “Sooner than you think. We’re nearly there.”
The ship’s computer sensed the little moon long before it was noticeable by the human eye, but Europa came into view soon enough. Trad’s description of it as a giant floating snowball was, at first glance, very apt. The reflected light of distant stars lit it with an almost ghostly white glow. Unlike most uninhabited moons, this one had very few craters or scarifications. Instead, the surface was slick and glossy, a fact which became more and more apparent the closer they came to it.
“So, have you come up with a plan yet?” asked Trad, laying on heavy sarcasm.
“Fly to Europa,” said Mack, unperturbed. “Make contact with the mermaids, tell them Lykus is on his way, tell them to arm up, stay and fight if necessary.”
“Yes. Europa’s a rich planet, brain-box,” she said. “All kinds of juicy minerals and tradeable goods in that snowball of yours. Not to mention a whole new race of humanoids to exploit. And Lykus is going to strip that moon of all it’s worth and be damned to the mermaids. All for the glory of the VSA.”
“Boy, think! Didn’t you ever wonder why that ship was so big? Why there was so much food on board, but rations were so slim? What that massive databank was for?”
Something very painful was happening in Trad’s brain.
“You weren’t on a research expo, boyo,” she said, her tone more gentle than he was expecting. “You were on a colonizing mission.”
Trad looked at her helplessly. He didn’t know what to say.
“Sorry,” said Mack finally.
The word floated out like a snowflake and melted against the blaster wound she had created in his mind. Trad shook his head and shoved his painful thoughts aside. I’ll deal with all of this later, he thought. Forcing himself into the present, he asked, “So what happens when we get there? We park the ship and knock on the frozen crust?”
“Firstly,” said Mack, “We are not doing anything. You’re still my prisoner, and therefore have no independent agency. I am the only one allowed to do anything in here. Secondly, Europa has no atmo whatsoever. Disembarking without protective gear—which I don’t currently have—would be massively unwise.
“Thirdly,” and Trad’s heart sank as he heard the grin in her voice, “You may have noticed that, despite being only eight LMs away from our destination, I have not slowed down.”
It took Trad’s brain a slow moment to catch up with his instincts. He heard himself give a sick-sounding groan as he recalled what Mack had told him about the mermaids, in conjunction with his own research. Astrolunar humanoid pesceforms…a colony under the moon’s crust…crust consisting of frozen elements of relatively light density…oh no…
“Oh, no,” he said aloud.
“Oh, yes,” Mack crowed.
“You are not crashing this ship on a moon full of mermaids!”
“No one’s ever said that before,” she laughed.
“Damnit, you’re going to kill us!”
“What could that accomplish?”
“They’ll know someone’s coming, won’t they?”
Mack shook her head, as though at a bad joke. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
Trad’s howl was lost in the roar of the engine as Mack gave it one final push toward their destination.
Siffa couldn’t remember having a worse afternoon. She hadn’t slept well the night before and had foregone breakfast in favor of getting a jump on her afternoon reports—the result of which was that her hunger was compounded by a raging caffeine headache. This would have added up to a rotten day, even by normal standards. But this was the day that Boro—the newbie, who had barely unfurled his tail—had come to her with the news that an unidentified object was on a collision course with Europa.
Fortunately, the object was still far enough away that Siffa had enough time to put a brief together and notify her superiors. At roughly fifteen minutes before Mack and Trad were due to make landfall on Europa, Siffa was giving an audience to none other than Ruia, the high-chieftainess, along with her two direct superiors, Cloris and Jamus, fighting not to let the discomfort of her headache show on her face.
If the situation hadn’t been so grave, Siffa might have been able to take pleasure in it. She had never had any kind of audience with the high-chieftainess and hadn’t ever really expected to until her retirement from the force. Since this wasn’t a matter open to the public, the meeting was held in a small antechamber just off the main greeting hall. The chieftainess had also eschewed the customary ceremonial cape. Her high hairstyle—known commonly as a “conch”—glittered with precious stones, as did the chains that criss-crossed across her chest and down her four limbs. She floated in place as Siffa’s boss outlined the essence of her report. Her only motion was a slight, steady rippling of her tail, keeping herself in place while she listened.
Finally, she spoke. “What is the status of the arsenal?”
Cloris, Jamus’ boss, answered before she could. “Strong enough, Your Honor. We could defend ourselves easily. It’s a small vessel, after all.”
“Why defend ourselves at all?” Jamus—Siffa’ boss—sounded bewildered, and his voice seemed too loud for the room. For such a senior supervisor, it had always amazed Siffa that he was so quick to lose his cool. “Just let the thing crash on its own—the upper crust is thick enough to withstand a collision from a ship that size.”
“Maybe,” said Cloris. “Or maybe not. The speed at which they’re traveling is remarkable. They may generate enough force to break through.”
“And even if they don’t,” said Ruia, her voice soft, but very firm, “They will bring others with them. If history has taught us anything, it’s that scouts bring swarms. With your support, officers, I intend to open the crust.”
Cloris and Jamus were too stunned to speak for a moment. Jamus was the first to recover. “Your Honor,” he croaked, “Forgive me, but…”
He floundered for a moment, trying to find the politest way to express himself. “I fail to see the wisdom behind that,” he said finally.
After a couple of beats, during which Chieftainess Ruia leveled a cool stare in his direction, he added meekly, “Could you enlighten me, please?”
The chieftainess moved to the window and looked out. Siffa wondered how often she cast her eyes over the colony, and what crossed her mind whenever she did.
“Scouts bring swarms,” she repeated, more to herself than to anyone else in the room, “If we let this ship crash, it will become a conspiracy. But if we allow these travelers to land safely…”
Jamus started making noises again, but the chieftainess talked smoothly over him.
“Captain Siffa,” she said, “How big is this ship, would you say?”
There was silence, as Siffa and her superiors worked through their mutual surprise at Siffa being addressed by the chieftainess. “My best estimate, Your Honor?”
Siffa took the lack of reply as her cue to continue. “About a length by a length and a half. Give or take a ripple.”
“Commander Jamus,” said the chieftainess, as Siffa relaxed into the background once more, “This ship is tiny, hardly large enough to pose an immediate threat to us. Moreover, this may be an emergency shuttle. There may be innocent beings aboard, in need of a safe place to land and refuel. We may be isolationists, commander, but we are not monsters.”
Jamus still looked as though he had a lot to say, but Siffa couldn’t see any way that he could get away with saying it. The chieftainess had made up her mind. “Cloris,” she said, “I want you to go to the icemakers and tell them to slow their production by…let’s say twenty percent. You say they’re headed for the leeward district?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“Then tell them to narrow their focus on that point. Two lengths all around, to be safe.”
She turned to Jamus and Siffa. “I would like you both,” she said, “To accompany me to greet the newcomers. You will both be on my right side, past the official guard.”
At Jamus’ and Siffa’s bewildered expressions, she gave a brief smile. “This isn’t a military operation,” she said. “But I’d still rather be safe than sorry. You two know as much as any of us about these travelers.”
“With respect, Your Honor, that’s not saying much,” Siffa blurted.
Jamus threw a sharp look in her direction, but the chieftainess was unperturbed. “You have twelve knots to sort out whatever remaining business you have at mission control. My retinue will arrive to escort you to my chambers then. Is that agreeable to you both?”
Siffa and Jamus nodded deeply, and with that, they were dismissed.
Jamus yammered at her all the way back to mission control, but Siffa barely heard a word he said. Clearly, she had entered the next phase of her career without even trying, and depending on the outcome of this day, Jamus might find he had very little to say to her going forward.
Still, she thought grimly, The thought of the colony being under attack by aliens rather takes the joy out of everything.
Europa was so close to the shuttle, it nearly filled the windscreen. The reflected starlight was nearly blinding, and Trad could see a telltale glitter across the surface that indicated that it was not smooth but made up of an irregular crystalline structure.
Such details filtered wanly through the smokescreen of his terror. Mack had not slowed down one bit, and they were officially on a collision course with the moon that Trad had been so looking forward to studying. Strangely, he felt no urge to scream. He simply sat in silence as the White Rabbit hurtled toward its fate. A foolish thought was circulating through his brain: I knew I should have taken a gap year after graduation.
“Wait a minute,” said Mack suddenly, pulling Trad out of his morbid ruminations. “What’s that thing?”
Trad squinted ahead at the glowing white moon. At first, he saw nothing unusual—other than his imminent demise—but gradually, he became aware of a discoloration on the planet’s surface, which definitely had not been there before. It spread, darkening gray over blinding white, like a drop of ink spilled on paper.
“Maybe it’s just our shadow?” Trad suggested.
“Don’t be soft,” said Mack. “We’re not that big.”
She turned to him, a wide grin on her dark face. “You know what this means, boy?”
Trad shook his head.
“We’re not going to die,” she said. “Well, at least not in the next two minutes.”
Trad would have found this reassuring, if the following thirty seconds had been enough time for reassurance to make its way from his ears to his brain, and then to the knotty pit of his stomach. As it was, he only had time for one last garbled chain of thought—ending with What does she know that I don’t?—before the White Rabbit slammed with full force into the surface of Europa.