Trad Crewe was an intelligent young man. He had graduated in the top tenth percentile from the Academy and had achieved scholastic honors of all kinds. He had completed his training for the Freedom with distinction, and he had managed to survive for five weeks in the void without getting himself killed, maimed, or disgraced. He prided himself on his keen powers of observation and was accustomed to being among the cleverest people in any given room.
None of those things were able to provide explanation as to why, when Trad descended through the White Rabbit’s hatch and was promptly sent tumbling head-over-heels through chilly Europan waters, he was surprised that such a thing had happened. Through his shock and panic, a single clear thought emerged: Oh, right. The current. Should have remembered that.
Fortunately, before he was pulled too far away from the shuttle, he smacked into something hard and cumbersome, which made a muffled, harsh noise when struck. Gathering himself through the tumult, he realized that it was Mack he had collided with. Relieved that they hadn’t lost each other, he focused his eyes on hers and grabbed her shoulders firmly. Realizing what he was trying to do, she grabbed his shoulders and pushed them in a direction that, at least to Trad, felt like downward. Trad didn’t allow himself to think about the impossibility of their task, forcing himself instead to focus on the cardinal rule of escaping riptides: swim perpendicular to the force of the water. For how long? He didn’t dare guess.
Abruptly, he realized he had been instinctually holding his breath. The sensation of water filling his lungs was still painful and wrong-feeling, but it did make the task easier. Once they had turned themselves upside down, he and Mack struck out as one against the current. Every stroke was a struggle, but Trad didn’t slow his pace. Mack matched him stroke for stroke, gripping him so hard it was painful. He didn’t know how long they struggled, but the pressure of the current went away as abruptly as it had come. They were suddenly floating in calm waters, which felt even colder than before, and Trad felt secure enough in his equilibrium to stop swimming altogether. Beside him, he could feel Mack pause as well.
More out of comfort than necessity, Trad righted himself and looked to Mack, who was floating in the pale violet water, looking pensive. Finally, she opened her mouth to say something, but her words were lost. Evidently, though they wouldn’t die of lack of oxygen, verbal communication would be impossible between them. Realizing this, Mack began to sign instead. “I think we share blame on that one,” she said.
“For once, I agree,” he replied.
“How far did we get pushed?” she wondered aloud, before looking back where they had com. Trad looked too, and had the sense that, if she had been able to speak, Mack would have been swearing violently. The White Rabbit was barely visible in the distance. They could see the searchlight still pointed at it and could still hear the message being played in one foreign language after another. Turning back, Mack signed, “I guess we’re swimming again.”
“After you,” Trad replied.
The insulation suit did a remarkable job of keeping the chill of the water out of his bones, but his face, unprotected as it was, stung from the cold. He didn’t worry—As long as my core is insulated, I should be fine—but it was small comfort as his face smarted and stung.
Gradually, the novelty of swimming through freezing, breathable water wore off, and Trad began to take in his surroundings. Though visibility was limited, what he could see through the purple haze of the water was astounding. If I had stayed on the Freedom, would I have ever seen this? The surface of the moon was glowing, lit up like a massive city, and Trad realized, with a fresh wave of astonishment, that they were indeed swimming over a city—or at least, a large colony of some kind. He didn’t know how many beings lived there—or how they managed to harness the power of light under the water—but he could practically feel their energy, and as strange as his situation was, he found that his breath came faster out of sheer excitement.
What kind of reception are we going to get? Will we be able to complete our mission? These questions became background noise to the wonder that was singing in Trad’s mind. Eventually, they got close enough to the White Rabbit that it made sense for them to start swimming down again. Trad had planned to avoid the searchlight, but Mack evidently didn’t share his opinion. Swimming directly into the violet beam, she paused, squinting down at the source of the light, and began signing something. Her gestures were large and purposeful, and Trad realized she was trying to communicate with whoever was in control of the searchlight.
“We are peaceful,” she said. “We are explorers. We are messengers. We want to talk to you.”
Her message complete, Mack turned back to him and beckoned. Trad swam toward her, now understanding what she was trying to do. They need to see us coming, or they might get scared and open fire. Or whatever it is mermaids do.
They began their journey downward, their eyes screwed up against the blinding searchlight. Trad suddenly felt his ears pop, and a new, worrying thought occurred to him: What about decompression sickness? The insulation suit was designed to protect his body from just such a problem, but only if the headpiece was intact, which it was not. Mack, noticing that his pace had slowed, looked back. Trad gestured to his ears and made a questioning gesture. Mack nodded, gave for the first time in their brief acquaintanceship.
“Nothing we can do,” she signed eventually. “Fortunately, we won’t need to go much deeper. Look.”
They were indeed almost to the top of the tower, from which the searchlight emanated. From there, it was just another twenty meters to the ocean floor. Trad’s heart thumped in his chest when he saw several moving figures surrounding the searchlight, becoming more and more distinct the closer they swam.
Interstellar cultural exchange being what it was, the image of a mermaid within the gestalt of sentient life was a little unclear. Even so, Trad had a few notions of what mermaids were supposed to look like: fish tails, long flowing hair, rudimentary clothing fashioned from native materials, and so forth. As a result, of his unconscious biases, Trad was at once enchanted and deeply unsettled by the creatures that inhabited Europa. The top halves of their bodies were humanoid, and the bottom halves were piscine, but only in the barest suggestions of the terms. Their torsos were gray, with violet undertones that might or might not have been a trick of the light. They were covered in an intimidating layer of plate armor, which appeared to be part of their physiognomy, and which sent Trad’s scientist brain reeling. Their hair was universally cropped short—Trad imagined that this was more out of convenience than a fashion statement. To an individual, they had large, muscular frames, and even as the currents buffeted them, they gave the impression that they would not abandon their posts unless and until they chose to do so. Trad’s stomach lurched as he considered their tails. These were not the frivolous-looking appendages featured in children’s cartoons. The closest comparison Trad could comfortably make was with giant sharks, those mythical killing machines from the depths of human history, who—legend had it—swam with thick, tireless tails, and a hide that could slice a human’s skin to ribbons with ease. In addition to two arms, each mermaid also sported four tentacles—two on each side—which looked remarkably prehensile, as well as incredibly strong.
Without realizing what he was doing, Trad slowed his pace until he was half a length behind Mack, his limbs going numb with fear. Mack, noticing his disappearance from her side, glanced back at him, rolled her eyes, and increased her pace. Nettled, Trad forced himself to catch up. Oh, what the hell am I doing?
It was strange to enter the city from above, Trad thought, his mind recalling the story of Peter Pan as he drew level with the tower. Not sure of proper etiquette, he righted himself at the moment when it seemed most bizarre to still be upside-down and noticed with relief that Mack picked the same moment.
His relief was short-lived when he saw the largest, most terrifying-looking mermaid glide toward them. Zhe—considerations of bio-sex were buried under a metric ton of animal fear in Trad’s mind—was at least two and a half meters in length and half a meter wide at the waist, and zhe held a long staff with the ease of one who didn’t require a weapon in order to kill.
Oh…what the hell am I doing?