by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, February 2018
The heart of the gas giant was the key. Arellnor had traveled from one star system to another; at every stop, she’d traded her vehicle — first her trusty shuttle for a star-hopper, then that for a space mecha-suit and finally back to another shuttle. She’d altered her appearance, buying gene-therapy or cosmetic-sculpting every chance she got. She barely remembered what she’d been originally — some sort of space frog? Today, she was a burly antelope-like alien; her fingers were rough and hard, and antlers rose from her head like spires. None of it had been enough. They were still chasing her.
Arellnor might barely remember herself, but she remembered why they were after her. That was burned into her heart: an image of flowers and branches, the queen of a race of photosynthetic aliens. Doripauli had loved her once, and Arellnor — no matter what else she had become — loved the delicate creature of blossoms and vines still.
But Doripauli had been wrong, and Arellnor had defied her. She had freed the sproutlings. Now with everything left of her empire, Doripauli pursued Arellnor; her centurions would stop at nothing, and Arellnor had but one choice left.
The gas giant’s creamy amber clouds swirled beneath the shuttle, and with a final deep breath, Arellnor began the shuttle’s descent, hoping the rumors she’d heard were true. This was her only way out.
Wisps of gold streamed past the shuttle’s windows, thickening and darkening. Tawny cirrus clouds gave way to puffy cumulous masses. Would Doripauli’s fleet follow her into the gas giant or wait for her to emerge? Did they know why Arellnor was here? It didn’t matter; Arellnor wasn’t coming back, and they could never catch her in time.
Lightning flashed in the murky umber clouds, and after its brightness, everything left was dark. The shuttle was too deep now for sunlight to reach it through the thick soupy layers of atmosphere. Soon she would know if she was finally safe or ultimately caught.
Sparkles shimmered in the dark, shining off the edges of the clouds. The sparkles grew and resolved, forming the shape of fins. Eerie gas giant denizens, fish-like and fluid, floating through the clouds in the distance. The shuttle barreled downward, and the shimmery fishes followed it, swarming and flocking. Arellnor should have felt relief — the rumors were true — but all she felt was numb.
The radio crackled to life in Arellnor’s shuttle, and a voice spoke in chiming tones: “On behalf of her highness Queen Doripauli, we command you to turn yourself over.”
Arellnor’s resolution faltered — she pictured returning to Doripauli in her current ungulate form; the queen’s soft green vines would twine around Arellnor’s spear-like antlers; her purple eye-flowers would flutter, and her leaves would brush gently against Arellnor’s short brown fur. Except, that wouldn’t happen.
Arellnor would be executed. Perhaps without even seeing the queen. Doripauli looked frail and floral, but her heart was as hard as stone.
Her heart. Arellnor nearly laughed at the thought. How had she ever thought Doripauli had a heart? Her vines and branches didn’t have a circulatory system like Arellnor’s. No matter how much Arellnor’s outer features had changed — slimy smooth amphibious skin, coarse folds of blubber, or bushy long fur — her heart had always beat the same inside.
Why had she ever loved a fickle flower? And why did it have to be one who was so powerful? Yet Arellnor loved Doripauli still. If she could have gouged out that part of her heart, she would have. Instead, all she could do was hope for escape to a universe where her wounded heart could heal in peace.
The school of gas giant fish spiraled around the shuttle; their bioluminescence sparkling like fireworks. Arellnor heard another voice, but it didn’t chime over the radio. Words echoed like a chorus singing inside her antlered head: “You are here for the portal.” It was a question and it wasn’t. The gas giant fish knew.
“Yes.” Arellnor whispered the word to herself inside the shuttle, but that was enough. The school of fish heard her, and they spiraled faster.
“We don’t know where it goes,” the chorus of fish sang. Their sparkles blurred together as they swam in circles, blending into a single glowing whirlpool of light. “It leads to a different universe every time.”
Arellnor didn’t care. She would leave behind everything in this universe; she only wished she could leave herself behind too.
Without another moment of hesitation, Arellnor piloted the shuttle into the shimmering whirlpool of light. As the glow engulfed her, she mouthed a silent ‘thank you’ to the chorus of fish and prepared to discover her life all over again, starting over in an entirely new universe.