They’d just escaped a geyser that inexplicably erupted from the ocean of the geologically inactive Europa, when Chad–the guy who loved beer, women and life, and wore a t-shirt that read “mate,” a pathetic double entendre of self-definition and favourite pastime–sitting unnaturally erect and white, announced that he was going to kill them all by having the ship trapped in the gravitational pull of Jupiter and burning it up in its thick atmosphere.
He held a small packet in his hand. ‘Stay where you are. Trudder, you switch the ship to manual. If you don’t do all as told, I’m going to use this. Your choice.’
‘What’s that?’ Chastity asked hardly audibly.
‘c-jcjoloolc-,’ Ms Trudder replied.
‘The Europan equivalent of TNT,’ said Sarah instead of the guide. ‘They use it in mines to blow the rock up into manageable pieces.’
‘Yes,’ Ms Trudder confirmed without looking up. ‘You’re a very clever lady, Ms Brown. I – I just want to say I’m glad you’re here. Of course I don’t mean that-’
‘Cut the crap and do it!’ Chad snapped.
‘How harmful is that thing?’ John asked, still holding the hand of his elderly wife.
‘Not very bad out of water,’ Ms Trudder continued, as if Chad wasn’t there at all. ‘But it releases a toxic gas. So I guess it’s pretty dangerous after all.’ Her voice was calm and reassuring. Somehow she seemed prepared. ‘Chad–that’s your first name, right? I hope you don’t mind me addressing you like that, but you know, right, that you’ll also die?’
‘Of course I know. Now switch the pilot to manual and change the coordinates, or I’m setting this thing off.’ And with that, he flicked a red handle protruding from the device.
‘Don’t! Please…’ Chastity whimpered. ‘Why do you want to kill us?’
John jumped to his feet. ‘Isn’t there a radio on this damn thing? We can’t just sit here and let him do whatever he wants!’
‘The old man’s right,’ Chad said, pointing the device at Ms Trudder. ‘Switch off the radio. No tricks. I’m not that dumb. Now stand up and do it. And you,’ he said to John, ‘you just sit down, or you’re dead with your pretty wife.’
John slowly sat down again. Ms Trudder rose, and with Chad right behind her, walked to the controls. The red panic button was flashing leisurely in the middle of the panel.
‘You touch that button, and you know what happens. They say the gas isn’t quick. It’s a slow, painful, but certain death.’
With hands slightly shaking, she pushed the main radio switch to the off position, and disconnected the autopilot. Its voice boomed into the cabin.
‘Manual control activated. Good-bye.’
‘This is the ship speaking,’ said another, synthesized voice. ‘Route has been deleted. Please give new destination.’
‘Fourty-four, thirty-two, seventeen,’ Chad said.
‘Give us a little time to say good-bye,’ Ms Trudder begged him.
‘And alert the universals. No. Enter the code.’
‘What was it again?’
Chad did not reply.
‘I’m sorry, what are the coordinates?’
Ms Trudder heard a thump behind her. It was Chad. He fell flat on his back, dropping the c-jcjoloolc-, which slid on the floor to the rear end of the cabin. Sarah jumped up and grabbed it before it hit the wall.
It was John who had the gun.
‘I got him in the leg. He should be all right if we have something to dress the wound.’
But Chad wasn’t screaming. He didn’t seem to notice the pain. ‘You desecrated our city and abused our buildings,’ he murmured under his breath. ‘You deserve to die.’ Lying in a puddle of water, he slowly closed his eyes. The puddle grew, and the water soaked his clothes.
Don went over to the body, bent down, and checked the pulse.
‘I think he’s dead,’ he said.
‘But I only shot him in the leg!’ John protested. ‘That couldn’t have killed him!’
‘And he’s not bleeding. It’s just water coming out of him,’ Ms Trudder murmured, then she suddenly raised her voice. ‘Ahem! Well, I guess I’ll switch everything back on again.’ She was already tweaking the controls when Sarah stood up with the c-jcjoloolc- in her hand.
‘Stop right there, Trudder. Get away from that.’
Ms Trudder held her hands up in the air. ‘What now?’
‘I’m finishing what that dumbass started.’
‘That! Over there! The bloody idiot who couldn’t tell a spaceship from a snow globe!’
‘You mean you’re going to kill us like Chad?’
But Sarah did not reply.
‘All right,’ Ms Trudder continued, ‘what do you want me to do?’
‘Get to the back. Over there. Not just you, everyone. Come on, people. Get up and move! Oh, and John, I have my middle finger on the security lock. If you shoot me as well, this thingy here automatically takes care of the rest.’
‘But, but…’ Charlotte started, ‘I thought you and me, I mean…’
‘Sorry, sweetie. This is important. Something you wouldn’t understand, you see?’
‘What’s important?’ Ms Trudder asked like a negotiator with her hands still in the air. The five of them flocked together in a corner, and Sarah stood triumphantly in the middle.
‘Oh, you haven’t figured it out, Ms Brains, have you?’
‘No,’ Ms Trudder replied, trying to sound as submissive as possible.
‘Oh God, you’ve spent ages on this moon, and you don’t know shit about it! You and your mates! What’s important? I’ll tell you. C-ui-’, she gurgled, and spat out a mouthful of water. Don looked at the others. Sarah wiped her mouth and continued. ‘Europa’s important. The Sphere’s important. It should’ve been left empty! That’s how it’s used. But no, you and your dumbfuck friends had to put an office in there.’
‘And? What else?’ Ms Trudder inquired as if they were chatting away above two steaming cuppa.
‘And the library. Removing all the coils…’
‘Sorry,’ interrupted Chastity, as Jon wiped the moist off his forehead. ‘Did you say the sphere is used? I thought…’
‘You think too much,’ Sarah snapped. ‘Especially for someone of your hair.’
‘Oh just cut that and get on with it!’ Jon gurgled. ‘Look at what they’ve done to the Palace! Putting candies in the Throne, and building toilets over the entrance!’
‘What on earth happened to you, dear?’ Augusta asked, looking at Jon as if she’d never seen him before. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Of course I am!’ Jon shouted, pointing the gun, without even looking, at his wife. ‘Excuse me…’ and he blew his nose into a tissue that immediatel turned into a handful of pulp with the fluid that flowed out of the orifices.
‘Entrances?’ asked Charlotte, feeling less and less in danger as the situation around her started to become farcical. ‘Those wormholes in the palace were entrances? But for whom?’
‘For the Europans,’ Ms Trudder replied. ‘They are very flexible and swift. They can be thin like a thread, going through the narrowest gaps, but can also be strong and powerful.’
‘But they aren’t able to move with anything in their way, can they?’ Don asked.
‘No,’ Sarah replied quickly as the conversation was getting out of her hands. ‘They’d knock everything over. That’s why everything’s supposed to be empty and smooth. You know what you idiots call the Great Exhibition is? Hm?’
‘A warehouse,’ said Augusta, burying her face in her furrowed, shaky hands. Her voice sounded empty but reassured.
‘Exactly. They brought there all the stuff they didn’t need. And you thought it was an exhibition.’
Surprised, Jon looked at his wife. ‘How do you know?’
Augusta slowly looked up. Her face was covered in tears.
‘But what do they look like?’ Charlotte asked. ‘And how come I’m the only one who doesn’t seem to know a thing about all this?’
Ms Trudder raised her arm, and extended her index finger towards the girl. A small droplet of water glittered under her nail. ‘What do we look like? We’re formless. We’re the movement. We’re the water that flows, and the force that keeps the world in motion.’
Charlotte wiped her forehead. When she replied, her voice was calm. ‘You don’t need to tell me that, u-c-nojc-. I thought you’d go for the tall one.’
‘Five minutes until gravitational lockdown,’ announced the ship. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot already glared through the windows.
‘What’s going on?’
‘I did set the course to hurl the ship into Jupiter,’ replied Ms Trudder. ‘That’s how I wanted to kill you. I mean them.’
‘I just wanted to shoot them all,’ laughed what used to be John.
‘I also wanted to use c-jcjoloolc-,’ said Sarah’s body, taking another box of the explosive out of her bag, ‘but obviously cjl-ujoiol had the same idea. I guess he thought the gas would be too slow, that’s why he went for that hijacking thing.’ She glanced at Ms Trudder. ‘I guess you got there first.’
Ms Trudder’s eyes surveyed the whole group. ‘So we’re all…?’ They looked at each other uneasily. She continued. ‘So we’re all here to destroy the intruders?’
The expression darkened on John’s face. ‘It seems so, yes.’
They saw Sarah cursing silently. ‘Damn! I’ve come here to do away with them all.’
‘So have we, I guess,’ the thing in Ms Trudder said. ‘Can we get who was inside that Chad together?’
‘ cjl-ujoiol will be all right if we get back under the crust again.’
‘Four minutes to gravitational lockdown,’ said the ship, as emotionlessly as if it was announcing tomorrow’s tidal forecast. Ms Trudder jumped to the controls, and pulled a lever.
‘OK, where should we go?’
‘Home,’ John said.
‘No,’ interposed Sarah. ‘We came here to give our lives to the cause. We can’t go home. We’d look ridiculous.’
‘There’s no cause any more. They’re dead, sugarplum,’ Charlotte said in a down-to-earth manner.
Sarah got impatient. ‘You don’t get it. It’s the principle. If you set out to sacrifice yourself for the protection of your planet, you can’t just go home and say mission accomplished.’
‘For jovesake we’re drifting!’ yelled Ms Trudder. ‘Make up your minds!’
‘Well, I‘m not going home.’
olol was not very good at controlling John, but he managed to turn his head toward the girl. ‘Look here, cjoii-oi, it’s even better if you could defeat the enemy without having to sacrifice yourself. It shows how pathetic they are. They need you down there.’
‘A pathetic enemy?’ Sarah shrieked. ‘Is a fucking victory over a bunch of nitwits supposed to be more heroic than over an enemy that can actually fight? You think that’s going to make me feel better?’
‘She might be right,’ Charlotte said. ‘We can’t let them know that we were so dumb to get into each and every one of them to get rid of the rest.’
‘Well, I want to go home,’ olol replied. ‘And if I can, I want to save cjl-ujoiol, too. Look at that puddle! How can you just stand there and not want to do something about him?’
‘He’s the lucky one,’ Sarah replied. ‘He got what he wanted. I didn’t.’
‘Well, if you’re not coming home, you can just step outside and evaporate.’
‘If she opens the lock, we’re all going to evaporate,’ noted Ms Trudder.
Don was just sitting at the back. He was grateful that they seemed to have forgotten him. He didn’t want to kill anyone. Hi didn’t even want to hurt anyone. Let alone die.
He wondered whether he’d also been overtaken by an Europan. And then he wondered how much time he had left to find out. Having no idea what to do, he just sat there counting the seconds until the point when the engines of the ship would be too weak to fight against the gravitational pull of the gas giant.
His shoes somehow began to feel strange. Forcing his finger inside the vamp he found out why. His socks were soaking wet.