There was a long moment of swelling silence before anyone moved. The enormous mermaid floated in place, zir tail flicking lazily back and forth to maintain zir equilibrium. Zir face did not betray a single flicker of emotion. Trad longed to look to Mack for a sign that all was well, but he didn’t dare take his eyes off the mermaid. He could feel the eyes of the others on him, and he knew with a strange cold clarity that his life depended entirely on the outcome of the next few seconds.
He felt Mack begin to move next to him. He guessed she was trying to sign their peaceful intentions once again, but he could tell by the mermaids’ impassive expressions that it wasn’t working. Suddenly, the big mermaid before them waved zir staff through the water. Trad almost flinched but checked himself just in time. The gesture was not threatening.
“You cannot speak aloud, it seems.”
The voice of the mermaid was startlingly loud, but not in a way to which Trad was accustomed. He seemed to feel it, rather than hear it, a physical presence buzzing against his eardrums. In was not an unpleasant voice, with a mild lilt that he was accustomed to associating with human women. “Answer me this,” the mermaid continued. “Do you intend harm on my people?”
Trad hazarded a sideways glance at Mack. She was wearing an expression he had never seen before: serious, and utterly guileless. Matching the mermaid’s gaze without a trace of fear, she shook her head.
This gesture, at least, was recognized. A wave went through the assembled crowd as postures relaxed. Whatever threat Trad and Mack might still pose, it was not immediate.
Another question came. “Is the rest of your crew still aboard your vessel?”
Another shake of the head. This time, Trad joined her. Even in circumstances as strange as these, he hated to be left out of the conversation.
“Did they expire on impact?”
At this, Mack hesitated, and—uncharacteristically—looked to Trad for an idea. Trad shrugged.
A sudden frisson of tension rippled through the crowd. When the mermaid spoke again, her voice was sharp.
“Are they in position for an ambush?!”
Mack whipped hastily around and shook her head frantically.
“How can I believe you?” the mermaid demanded.
Mack hesitated, and then spread her hands wide before her, gazing at the mermaid without agenda or hope. Trad’s stomach clenched with dread.
“Do you have a crew?” asked the mermaid, in a voice that was suddenly soft. “Or is it just the two of you?”
This time, Mack nodded while holding up two fingers. Trad followed suit.
“But I don’t understand how this could be,” said the mermaid. “Your presence here troubles me, as it has the potential to upend life as we know it. I must have your story—and in full.”
As if on cue, a smaller mermaid appeared behind the large one. Her resemblance to the large mermaid was enough that Trad inferred that she was also female. She looked young, but had the slightly manic look of a person who frequently burned the candle at both ends, which was apparent even despite her strange features. She was carrying a box as she swam, clearly intending to deliver it to the leader, but before she could do so, another mermaid intercepted her. This one looked scruffier than any of the others assembled—Trad hazarded a guess that this one was male—and carried himself with a self-important air that put Trad in mind of a classical hero, one that rode four-legged beasts across sunset-drenched fields. He took the box abruptly out of the hands of the younger mermaid and presented it to the leader, who seemed unaware of the drama that unfolded behind her. Struck by sudden sympathy, Trad tried to catch the young mermaid’s eye, but she looked resolutely ahead of her, observing the scene.
Meanwhile, the leader handed the box to Mack. Swimming closer, Trad could see that it was long and flat, about the size of an average tablet. Mack cast a puzzled look at Trad, who shrugged back.
“It’s a bioslate,” said the large mermaid. “Touch the membrane with your finger, and luminescent plankton will follow the head from your touch. You can use it to write.”
Trad felt, rather than heard, Mack’s gasp as she did as the mermaid instructed. A glowing purple trail appeared as she traced her finger along the membrane, lingering long after the stroke was finished. Catching her eye, Trad saw that she was grinning from ear to ear, enchanted by the new technology. Even he had to admit that he was impressed.
“I don’t suppose they’re into electronics around here,” he signed.
Mack shook her head in agreement, and then began composing her message. In plain, printed Common, it read:
WE COME IN PEACE. THERE ARE INVADERS COMING TO THIS MOON. WE ARE HERE TO WARN YOU AND ALLOW YOU TO ARM YOURSELVES.
Mack finished the message and held it up for the leader to read. I hope these people can read, Trad thought.
His worry was immediately dismissed as a shock wave went through the assembled crowd. The sound of outraged and fearful voices made a terrific cacophony. Trad winced. Through the chaos, he could see the mermaid who had been slighted by her superior. She didn’t seem afraid—just angry.
Finally, the leader raised all four appendages and called for order. “My people! Please, remain calm.”
When ordered was restored, the leader addressed Mack once more. “What are you called, traveler?”
Mack scribbled on the screen once more. “Mack Tosh, Your Honor. And this is my associate, Trad Crewe.”
“A step up from being a prisoner,” Trad signed, more for his own benefit than hers, but the wry look in her eye told him she had seen it and understood.
“Very well,” said the leader. “Emissaries Mack and Trad, my name is Ruia, chieftainess of the colony Frisha and protectorate of Jotera. I believe your story and thank you both for your bravery. I bid you both come with me.”
With that, the crowd disbanded. The minor officials and guards departed, leaving Ruia alone with Trad, Mack, and the two mermaids who had shared the altercation over the tablet. Mack, handing the tablet over to Trad, signed, “Less than a quarter of the day done, and we’re already in with the boss. Not bad for a rookie and a pirate, eh?”
“Don’t say that,” Trad signed back, trying to juggle the tablet as he did so. “That always means something’s about to go south.”
Meanwhile, back on the Freedom, Captain Lykus was making his daily pilgrimage down to the very end of the larboard fin and reflecting on patience. Mainly, he was thinking how blessed he was to have such an overabundance of patience, or else the void would have been augmented by several frozen corpses.
He arrived at a certain door—the very one Trad had been forbidden from entering on a certain afternoon—and entered without knocking.
Inside, Penner Trunk sat on a cot. The holoscreen that normally hid his face had been turned off, revealing the fading bruises and burns that revealed his recent past.
“What now?” he growled.
“Now,” said Lykus, “I want you to tell me why nobody remembers dealing with our red herring. I placed a very specific order that I wanted to see him sailing past my window several hours ago, and yet I haven’t seen any such thing. For a man of your considerable education, I imagine this question should be fairly easy to answer.”