by Mary E. Lowd
The pale glow of Jupiter lit the moon’s watery surface. Europa’s recently melted ocean reflected the gas giant’s ruddy face back at itself, broken by ripples where Brighton’s Destiny disturbed the water on takeoff.
The dark metal V-shape of the two-man spaceship skimmed over the ocean before veering upward in a sharp climb out of Europa’s gravity well. Spacesuit clad paws eased off on the throttle, and Brighton’s Destiny leveled off into a smooth arc toward Jupiter.
Jenny’s otter heart ached to twirl the little ship in spins and loop de loops, but her octopus co-pilot insisted that she needed more practice with the basics of piloting a Whirligig Class vessel first. It hardly seemed fair. The ship, shaped like a two-winged maple seed, was clearly built for spinning. The very name Whirligig begged Jenny to lean on the left thruster and pirouette the ship until Ordol, perched on her shoulders, flailed his tentacles in dizziness. But Jenny restrained herself.
Tentacles sheathed by the clingy, clear fabric of a cephalopoidal spacesuit waved and writhed in Jenny’s peripheral vision, working the controls that she couldn’t reach. The ship had been designed for a biped and an octopod, working together symbiotically. In this case, the biped was an otter. Jenny was still getting used to the design.
Ordol lowered two of his tentacles into the center of her field of vision. He twisted the tendril tips of them, forming the Standard Swimmer’s Signs to say, “Let’s swing around Io. You need practice maneuvering at high speeds.”
Jenny’s whiskers lifted in a smile, brushing against her space helmet’s faceplate. It wasn’t loop de loops, but flying fast would do. She signed with her paws, “No argument here!” Then she pressed down on the throttle and felt the vibration of the thrusters roar in response. The whole ship moved around her, pressing against her back as it shoved her faster and faster toward Io, a small round shadow visible against Jupiter’s ruddy face.
The two celestial bodies — gas giant and volcanic moon — were paintings from the same palette in different styles. Io’s jagged surface roiled with molten lakes and sulfurous plumes as it grew in the viewscreen. Behind Io, Jupiter’s creamsicle clouds slid and swirled past each other, smooth and serene. A timeless god, circled by a restless servant.
As they flew toward Io, Ordol’s tentacles continued to work in Jenny’s peripheral vision, running scans and taking readings. The ship’s computer displayed the results in a language Jenny couldn’t yet read. Sharp angular letters clustered erratically into words — or so Jenny assumed — and scrolled senselessly across the computer screens arranged beneath the central viewscreen.
The sight of the alien language made it impossible for Jenny to forget: this ship was stolen. They had disabled the homing signal to hide it from the original owners, but it was stolen nonetheless.
Ordol could read the writing, at least, a little of it. He’d been a slave to the aliens who’d built the ship, before it was renamed Brighton’s Destiny; the aliens who wrote the inscrutable language that filled its screens and who still enslaved the rest of his people.
Jenny signed, “I’m going to practice veering to the left and right.”
Ordol acknowledged her plan with a sign made by a single tentacle: “Okay.”
Jenny fired the thrusters on the right, pushing Brighton’s Destiny leftward and Io off-center on the viewscreen. The ship continued on its new arc until she cancelled the leftward momentum with a blast from the left thrusters. She overshot and repeated the process several times, causing the ship to swerve on a wiggling course — Io wobbling on the viewscreen — until she managed to straighten the ship’s momentum out. Once again, Brighton’s Destiny flew true, straight toward Io.
Jenny whooped at her success. She knew Ordol couldn’t hear, so she repeated the sentiment with her fisted paw raised in a victorious gesture.
Ordol signed, “Now see if you can do it faster.”
They were nearly halfway to Io. Jenny practiced three times before she could no longer resist: she leaned on the left thruster until Brighton’s Destiny corkscrewed its entire way through a barrel roll.
Ordol’s tentacles fluttered rapidly, too fast for Jenny to understand his signs, but she could read the anger in his movement.
The blood rushed to Jenny’s rounded ears; she felt ashamed for upsetting her co-pilot. “I’m sorry,” she signed, and then she did her best to straighten out their course as fast as possible. However, Ordol’s continued signing flustered Jenny, and she felt herself losing control of the ship. Brighton’s Destiny veered wildly away from Io, and then nosed back toward it, wibble-wobbling in an erratic course.
More and more frustrated, Jenny slammed her paws against the ship’s control board. She raised them and signed, “Stop! Stop it! I can’t understand you when you sign that fast, and I’m trying to fix it.” As she signed, Brighton’s Destiny barreled away from Io onto a course more directly toward Jupiter.
Creamsicle clouds filled the viewscreen. The soft shades of orange were marred by flecks of black. A fleet of enemy vessels had assembled between Jupiter and Io, and Brighton’s Destiny was barreling right toward them.
Jenny realized that her octopus co-pilot wasn’t angry with her; he was scared out of his mind by the sight of the ships of his former slavers. “I’m getting us out of here,” Jenny signed. Then she leaned hard on the throttle, pushing Brighton’s Destiny into the sharpest corner it could make. Jenny didn’t worry about straightening their course out perfectly this time; she just aimed their little ship away from Io.
When Europa was securely in the center of the viewscreen and the fleet of enemy vessels was safely behind them, Jenny signed, “I don’t think they saw us, and they can’t possibly catch up to us before we get back to the base.” The energy shield around Europa would protect them. “You’re safe.”
Ordol’s tentacles calmed down, wrapped around Jenny’s shoulders, and squeezed the otter in a hug.
But Jenny was still worried. There were plenty of other targets in the solar system less protected than the Europa base. After months of quiet, it was time to warn everyone: the raptors were on the move.
Continue on to Chapter 2…