The jolt of impact was strong enough to knock Trad senseless, and for a brief moment, he believed that he had actually died. However, with each passing second, he came back to himself a little more. He could feel the tug of gravity—true gravity, not a simulation—pulling him forward in his seat, straining against the seatbelt. They had landed on Europa after all.
When he finally realized that Mack’s prediction was true, and their collision with Europa hadn’t killed them after all, his dazed feeling gave way to one of extreme annoyance. He knew he ought to be glad to be alive, but he almost would rather have been dead than to owe his life to the harebrained hunch of an obnoxious pirate.
After making sure that he was physically unhurt, he turned to the pirate in question. She was slumped over the controls, her mass of curly hair obscuring her face, motionless. Feeling concerned despite himself, Trad wheezed, “Mack? Are you alright?”
At the sound of her name, she stirred and gave a slight groan. “Damn seatbelts,” she cursed, before shooting him a victorious grin from under the black cloud of her hair. “What did I tell you, brainbox? Nothing to worry about.”
“So, I take it you understand why we’re not dead?” Trad asked. “We crash into a ball of ice at thirty LMs per hour, and we’re still alive—how does that work?”
“Not a hundred percent on that one yet,” she replied. “I’ve got a theory, but I won’t tell you in case I’m wrong. You don’t get to be smarter than me just yet.”
Shifting in her seat as she checked herself for injuries, she then turned her attention to the instruments. “I wouldn’t bank on much of an atmosphere,” Trad couldn’t stop himself from saying.
“Oh, give me a break,” she bit back. “We’ve bypassed the outer crust by a wide margin. Have a look at this.”
Trad leaned forward in his seat and saw that she was pointing at the pressure gauge. At first, Trad thought his eyes were deceiving him, but even a hard rub didn’t change what they saw. “Fifty miles?” he croaked.
“Give or take,” Mack replied. “This gauge is a little old. I keep meaning to replace it, but barometers are just the darndest things to come by.”
The ship gave a sudden lurch, as if some immense force was trying to shove it back into space. Trad froze and locked eyes with Mack, his dislike and distrust of her gone in the face of his fear. “What was that?”
Before she could answer, the ship gave an almighty groan and shifted painfully, obviously against physical resistance. Trad felt himself settling back into his seat as the force of gravity on his body shifted its focal point. Eventually, the movement stopped, but his terror had not abated.
“I’m not sure,” said Mack. “Current, maybe. It must be pretty vicious if any life forms are meant to be down here. What with the ice shell and no atmo…”
As she spoke, her hands flew over the control panel. Trad watched as menu after menu flickered across the screen. “What are you after now?”
“Chemical composition. We need to see how dead we’ll be when we open the hatch.”
“We’re here to warn the space mermaids that there’s a government-funded psychopath on his way to enslave them all,” she said sharply. “And no one has ever said that before. Now shut up and let me concentrate.”
With bad grace, Trad did as he was told. He watched her cycle through the ship’s readouts, drumming his fingers and wishing he had never left Pandora.
“That can’t be right,” muttered Mack suddenly.
“What?” said Trad, less sarcastically than he had intended.
Mack didn’t reply, but stood up from the pilot’s seat. She was so short that she didn’t need to stoop as she made her way to the hatch. It was half-buried under boxes of provisions, which she shifted aside. “Be a lamb and make sure the plasma safety is engaged, will you?” she said over her shoulder.
“Because otherwise, water is going to rocket up into the ship and take my head off when I open this hatch,” she snapped. “Also, because I’m your captor and I said so.”
“Because your death would be such a tragedy,” Trad groused, even as he hunted for the safety button.
“Too right it would. The ‘verse would collapse into singularity without me. Safety on?”
With that, she pulled open the hatch.
As she had predicted, the safety kept the waters of Europa from following the path of least resistance into the ship. Trad, his curiosity getting the better of him, emerged from the copilot’s chair to see what awaited them.
It was not an encouraging sight. Beyond the blue haze of stimulated plasma, Trad could see nothing but darkness. The prospect of having to make any sort of contact with it filled him with implacable dread. Mack, meanwhile, was busy with her hair. With grim determination, she bullied her thick curls into a knot at the back of her head with an elastic band she had produced from somewhere. This done, she brushed him aside and knelt in front of the hatch.
“What are you doing?”
“I got the weirdest readout on the chemical comp of these waters,” said Mack. “I’ve never seen anything like it before. There’s only one way to find out if it’s accurate.”
She leaned forward over the hatch. In a panic, Trad grabbed her shoulder and forced her back. In return, she gave him a sharp look.
“We’ve had this conversation before, son,” she warned.
“You are not going to stick your face in there!”
“Oh, now he’s concerned.”
“There are safer ways of testing the waters, you…”
“This is the fastest way. We’re burning daylight here, as they say on the rich-people planets. Anyway, if the readout is accurate, I have nothing to worry about.”
“And if it’s wrong?”
Mack gave him a sudden, soft smile. “Then I really won’t have anything to worry about anymore. Now move.”
Helplessly, Trad watched as Mack leaned over the hatch and pressed her face through the plasma, into the dark water below. Instantly, her body tensed up. Trad felt an almost uncontrollable urge to pull her back into the ship—pirate or not, she was the designated driver—but he resisted. The longer he watched, the more it seemed that she wasn’t actually in any distress. Rather, Trad guessed, the tension was the result of surprise. At what, he couldn’t guess.
The seconds ticked by, each one slower than the last. Trad kept his eyes fixed on Mack’s shoulders, waiting to see if they suddenly went slack. Suddenly, Mack emerged, trailing purple-tinged water as she did. She coughed violently, and more water gushed out of her mouth and nose. Trad, his compassion getting the better of him, began slapping her on the back, frantically trying to remember his first aide training. To his surprise, Mack waved him away impatiently.
“Stop hitting me, damn it, I’m fine! This is—” she gulped for breath “—the most amazing thing—I would never have believed—this is incredible!”
She wiped a mixture of water and drool away from her chin and fixed Trad with a rapturous smile. “Perfluorocarbon!” she declared.
“No kidding?” said Trad, absolutely none the wiser.
“Come on, you’re the brains of this outfit! You’re telling me you don’t know about perfluorocarbons?”
“I’m an astrogeologist,” said Trad, spreading his hands defensively. “Not a biochemist.”
“Oh, why do I even boether? Perfluorocarbons are rich in oxygen—richer than humanoid-standard atmo, even. They’re totally safe to breathe!”
“I’ve heard about them before,” she continued, more to herself than her prisoner. “Mostly in novels and stuff. Who would have thought—Europa of all places…”
“Wait—this makes no sense,” Trad interjected. “Human lungs aren’t equipped—”
“God’s sake, man! You sat there watching me gulp the stuff for a good five minutes—five minutes, by the way, that we will never see again—and you’re telling me I ought to be dead?”
Trad opened his mouth to argue back but thought better of it. He was a scientist, after all, and no self-respecting scientist would ever deny tangible evidence just because he personally did not understand it. Instead, he said, “How’s the temperature?”
“Considering we’re trapped in a big ball of ice? Pretty balmy, actually.”
“Kinetic energy of the currents must have something to do with it,” Trad muttered.
“Oh, now he decides to flex the mind-muscle,” Mack griped, but Trad ignored her.
“So, what, do we just start swimming around, waiting for a mermaid to show up?”
Mack opened her mouth to reply, but before she could say anything, a light burst through the open hatch. Tinged purple and blue from the water and the safety, it was still nearly blinding. That, coupled with the shock of its appearance, was enough to send the pair reeling back, away from the hatch. Mack recovered first. Edging close to the hatch once more, she inclined her head toward it, taking care to shield her eyes from the light.
“Can you hear something?” she asked.
Trad edged closer to the hatch and listened intently. At first, all he could hear was the rush of the current and the electric hum of the safety, but as he listened, he could make out a third, more irregular sound, which sounded remarkably like…
“Someone’s trying to talk to us,” said Mack, echoing Trad’s thoughts.
“We’d probably hear them better if we were underwater,” said Trad. “Water’s an excellent sound conductor, but…”
“Well, get your head in there, then,” said Mack impatiently. “I already took my turn.”
Trad looked down at the hatch, still lit up from an unknown source. Steeling himself, he leaned forward and pressed his face through the safety, into the alien waters below.
The buzz of the safety against his face was uncomfortable, so he pushed in up to his neck to get it over with. He had intended to hold his breath—partly to spite Mack and partly because the entirety of his being rebelled against the idea of trying to inhale water. However, the shock of the water against his face was so great that he was forced to inhale out of sheer instinct. The sensation was not pleasant. Water, pulled by the suction force of his own lungs, began to gush into places where water was never meant to be. His hands scrabbled involuntarily at the edges of the hatch, pride battling against primal survival instincts. This was stupid—he really was going to die here, all on account of his own idiocy.
Suddenly, he felt a hand on his back, right between his shoulder blades. Mack, he thought, and then, She’s pushing me in. She’s forcing me down.
But no, there was no pressure, only warmth, and despite himself, Trad was comforted by the firm touch. A sudden, animalistic sense of trust and loyalty overwhelmed him. She had upended his whole life and cast into uncertainty all that which he had believed to be fact, but she was not trying to kill him. She was trying to help him.
In that moment of perfect trust, Trad realized that he was actually nowhere near drowning. True, the sensation of his lungs filling with liquid was repellant, and despite Mack’s assessment of the temperature, the water was shockingly cold, but his brain ticked along steadily, neurons firing as sharply as ever, and his heart beat on, oblivious to the incredible situation. In fact, the longer he breathed, the calmer he seemed to feel, before he almost didn’t want to go back into the shuttle, because he knew the transition would be so unpleasant.
And that’s when he heard the voice.
His ears being permeated with alien water, he could now hear the message that was being broadcast. It was a short message, relayed in several different languages, none of which he could understand. He was just gathering himself to break through the safety and report back to Mack when the message played in Common.
“Will the commander of the vessel please disembark. If you are peaceful, we shall hold congress with you peacefully.”
The words were strange—old-fashioned—but their meaning was quite clear. With some reluctance, Trad braced himself on the sides of the hatch and pulled himself back through the safety and into the shuttle. After a few moments of coughing, all the fluid was expelled from his system and he found he could breathe normally once again. Mack—who had slapped his back for him as heartily as he had slapped hers—was eager for news. “Did you hear it? What are they saying?”
“They want us to come out,” croaked Trad. “They’re not ready for a fight, but it sounds like they won’t hesitate if we mean them harm.”
“Well, that’s something.” Mack sounded pleased. “So they speak Common, then?”
“Yeah, but really old-fashioned Common. Sounded like a period drama down there.”
“Well, an isolationist society,” Mack reasoned. “It’s amazing they speak it at all. Well then, let’s not waste any more time. Get the insulation gear on.”
Mack stepped over the hatch and began rummaging through the stacks of supplies, muttering and swearing under her breath. Before long, she made a triumphant noise and emerged with two thick insulation suits.
“Tell me you’ve seen these before,” she said.
“Yeah,” said Trad, slightly nettled. He had, after all, trained with them before he could ship out with the Freedom. “But it’s not a vacuum down there.”
“No, but it is brisk. We can’t help these people if we die of hypothermia. Get it on.”
With some difficulty, given the tight space, Trad wiggled into the insulation suit. It was a shade too big for him, but nothing that would threaten his life—as long as he stayed away from the void. He looked across at Mack, who was adjusting her gloves and looking remarkably nonchalant.
“Do this often, do you?” he asked.
Mack caught his eye and gave a faint smile. “In general, yeah,” she said. “In particular? This would be a first. You wanna take the lead?”
“I thought I was your prisoner?”
“Ah, quite right.”
With that, Mack swung her legs through the hatch and sunk down through the water. Trad, feeling his heart hammering against his ribs, hastened to follow. His last thought before he slid down into the waters of Europa was, This is one hell of a way to live your life.