by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, January 2018
Evban flapped her mechanical wings joyously, dipping and swooping through New Jupiter’s soupy pink-and-gold clouds. Her whiskers tickled against the glassy bubble of her breathing-helmet, and her long tail streamed out behind her. She’d drifted away from the flock of avian aliens. Their organic wings were broader and stronger than her little mechanical ones, but she knew her friends would come back for her before the space shuttle returned for them all.
Evban spiraled downward, toward the crushing heart of the gas giant. The clouds changed shape as she flew; wispy yellow cirrus clouds gave way to puffy auburn cumulus. In the distance beneath her, a purple nimbus cloud loomed, flashing with jagged lines of lightning.
Her avian friends wouldn’t be safe in a cloud like that, but Evban’s mechanical wings were coated with electrical dampeners that would shield her from the lightning. Perhaps while her friends, with their strong organic wings, were flying fast and far in the upper clouds, Evban could have an adventure to tell them about in that amethyst storm cloud. She folded her wings in close and dove.
Maybe it was in her mind, but Evban felt her fur prickle with electricity as soon as the purple cloud closed around her. It was dark, and her eyes took a moment to adjust while she winged blind. Then shapes appeared in the darkness; frilly finned fish-like shapes, swimming through the cloud she was flying through.
Cautiously, Evban edged towards one of the fish-shapes. It was many times larger than even the largest of her avian friends, and when she got close enough, Evban could see that its skin was amorphous or translucent. She could see through the edges of it, almost as if her eyes were playing tricks on her in the dark. Were her eyes playing tricks on her?
Lightning flashed, and the purple billows of the cloud glowed. In the momentary light, the fish-shape crystallized, and Evban saw herself reflected in its large eyes. Its wide round mouth moved, swallowing or speaking — Evban wasn’t sure, but she imagined a voice in her head saying, “Go high,” except that it was more of a concept than actual words.
Before Evban could decide whether to heed the gas giant alien’s advice, lightning flashed again. This time, Evban saw herself reflected in its large eye without her helmet or wings on: simply a small mousy alien, floating alone in the clouds of New Jupiter. Another flash, and her reflection was no longer alone: she was surrounded by her large litter of siblings, back in their burrow on her homeworld. She was shocked by the detail of the image — each one of her dozens of siblings, actually as they would be now, years older than when she’d last seen them.
The flashes of lightning came faster and brighter, each one pulling her deeper into a story unfolding in the fish alien’s eye. She aged, she danced, she played, she mated and raised her own litter of mousie kittens — all in the fish’s eye — and each of her children aged, danced, played, mated and raised their own litters of mousie kittens, again and again, generations of her family growing and dying in the eyes of an alien fish.
Evban grew so mesmerized by the vision, she forgot to flap her wings and began falling deeper into New Jupiter’s dark purple clouds. The fish followed her, watching her closely, mirroring her fractally expanding lives in its unblinking eye. Finally, centuries since she’d heard them before, the fish’s words echoed in her mind again, “Go high!”
This time, Evban shook herself through the eons and flapped her mechanical wings as hard as her little arms could. The fish’s mouth opened beneath her as she rose higher and higher through the cloud. All of her lifetimes fell away, and Evban became convinced the gas giant fish would eat her. Her entire existence reduced to a single chase scene: could she outfly the alien fish?
When Evban burst free of the nimbus cloud, her head began to clear. She checked the readings on her wrist-monitor: the gases in the purple cloud had psycho-active elements in them. Had the fish known? Had there been a fish at all?
Evban saw the flock of her friends in the distance, helmet bubbles around their heads and broad wings flapping strongly toward her. She had wanted to regale them with her adventures, but when she thought about the secret lifetimes she’d lived on her homeworld inside the fish’s eye, she decided to keep them to herself.
“How’s our little mousie?” the closest bird, a long-legged crane-like Ululu cawed. “You haven’t been swallowed whole by the clouds of New Jupiter?”
Evban thought of the fish and said, “Or maybe I have been, but I came out alive.”