by Mary E. Lowd
Jenny had no hope. Only a fluttery, heart-pounding feeling in her chest that alternated between manic exhilaration and bleakest panic. She didn’t want to die panicking. So she clung hard to the feeling of excitement: she was seeing things no otter had ever seen before!
…granted… mostly those things just looked like flat orange mist blocking the window, darkening to a dull brown as her ship fell farther and farther into the crushing atmosphere…
Jenny tried not to think about words like “crushing.” Instead, she watched for the brief breaks in the mist when she could see the Jovian cloudscape stretch out before her. Bolts of lightening arced between the clouds.
Jenny felt like she was falling through the levels of hell.
No. It was exciting. Science! Discovery! Death!
Ordol’s tentacles squeezed tightly around Jenny’s shoulders, and it felt like a hug. Jenny squeezed his tentacles back, hugging her alien companion to her. He’d been a good partner. He wasn’t a bad bloke to die with.
Jenny closed her eyes, despair crushing her. There was that word again: crushing.
No, no, if she only had minutes left to live — perhaps thirty or so until the ship imploded from the increasing pressure or burst into flame from the soaring temperatures — she couldn’t close her eyes.
She opened them again and saw shadows moving among the clouds, shapes that looked almost like balloons or blimps. Were they raptor ships? Lifeforms native to Jupiter’s cloudscape? Hallucinations in the mind of a scared otter?
Jenny stared intently at the clouds, and she thought for sure the blimp-shapes had trailing fronds, like they were some form of gigantic Jovian jellyfish. The idea felt soothing. She was falling into an ocean. And it was growing darker and darker as they fell.
Jenny began to think about what would be the most comfortable way to die. It was a subject she’d never thought about before. She hadn’t done any research. But she figured that she’d be better off fiddling with her spacesuit’s air supply to see if she could put herself to asleep than waiting for the darkness outside to finally — and violently — mangle Brighton’s Destiny around her.
Though she didn’t relish either option.
Before Jenny could bring herself to mess with the very air she was breathing, she realized that the clouds outside were growing light again. At first, she thought it was a trick of the mind — an excuse to avoid taking responsibility for her inevitable death.
But as the minutes passed, the darkness lifted.
It didn’t matter. Dark or bright, the end would be violent, horrible.
Jenny was about to turn down her oxygen level, when a burst of tingles, like static electricity, passed through her entire body.
And the clouds cleared.
What had happened? This couldn’t be right: Jenny saw a planet before them, silhouetted against a softly glowing, pale yellow sky. For a moment, Jenny thought she was looking at Earth — her home world, flashing before her eyes as she died.
But no, this world was really here inside the heart of Jupiter. A planet within a planet. And they were plummeting toward it.
As Jenny’s eyes adjusted to the yellow glow that was above and all around, she could make out clouds spread like white lace across the planet beneath her. A diadem of emerald isles crowned a face of blue under the veil of white lace. It was perfect and beautiful.
And rushing toward Brighton’s Destiny much too fast.
“We need to slow down,” she signed, praying that Ordol was still conscious and had some ideas. “We’re going to crash.”
Ordol’s tentacles stirred. Jenny could feel him shifting his weight on her shoulders, and then he signed in her field of vision, “You want to land? Down there?”
“That’s the idea,” Jenny signed, looking for some sign that Brighton’s Destiny had an emergency parachute system or something. “You know, so we don’t die.”
Ordol’s tentacles rolled up like fern fronds in tightly furled fiddleheads. He wasn’t going to remind Jenny that she’d promised they’d die rather than be captured. He didn’t have to. She remembered. But they weren’t being pursued, and they had an entire planet laid out before them. There must be somewhere they could land and hide.
And Jenny didn’t want to die.
Fortunately, their Whirligig Class vessel agreed with her. It didn’t have an emergency parachute system, but it did have an auto-pilot guided landing system powered by micro-thrusters. As soon as the ship’s sensors detected their imminent crash landing, the vessel itself took measures to survive. Brighton’s Destiny shielded itself with a force field, oriented itself for high wind drag and optimal crash positioning, and deployed internal cushioning mechanisms to protect its piloting team.
Bubblegum pink and squishy, a viscous fluid squirted out of nozzles and encased the two pilots like they were airmail packages wrapped up in so much bubble wrap inside the cockpit. Jenny watched their final approach through a filmy pink glaze.
Pink islands expanded, revealing pink mountains, valleys, and even the pink grids and lines of cityscapes, all of them spinning furiously around as the Whirligig class vessel spun downwards. Jenny muttered under her whiskers, pleading with whatever Programmer God had designed her ship’s auto-pilot that they not land in the middle of a city. She couldn’t keep her promise to Ordol as easily in a city with raptors everywhere.
Her prayers were answered as Brighton’s Destiny veered away toward a pink coastline. The auto-pilot was probably designed to avoid areas of dense population for the safety of the cities’ inhabitants, but Jenny was profoundly grateful to her ship, even if it was trying to spare the lives of her enemies rather than to aid her in avoiding falling into their feathered talons.
The ground rushed upward, spinning, and the thin line of pink beach between the purple ocean and burgundy land widened into a ribbon and finally to an actual tract of land. Oh starfish. Jenny squeezed her eyes shut as the reality struck her: the crash was only moments away.
The bouncing, spinning, wobbling wind turbulence of plummeting abruptly broke and was replaced by the rebounding whiplash of…
When Jenny opened her eyes next, she was still dizzy, and every part of her otter body ached. She didn’t know if it had been seconds or minutes. Or longer. But what the hell? Why was everything… pink? Had all the blood vessels in her eyeballs ruptured? Was that a thing? Or… horrific thought… had Ordol somehow exploded all over everything?
Jenny tried to reach her paws up to her face, but her spacesuit gloves and helmet got in the way and the viscous cushioning gel dragged on her every move. Oh, that’s right. Jenny remembered the nozzles, shooting cushioning gel at her.
The pinkness all around her was probably the only reason she was still alive. Thank the heavens for pink!
No matter how much Jenny owed to the pink goo embracing her, she was still glad when Brighton’s Destiny ka-thunked and the nozzles began sucking the cushioning gel back up with a slurping sound loud enough to hear through her space helmet. Nice mechanism, Jenny thought. She had become quite fond of this little ship. She supposed she’d be fond of anything that had just saved her life.
“I sure hope we can fix you,” Jenny said, voice raw. Had she been screaming as they crashed? She didn’t remember, but her throat sure felt like she had.
The pink goo drained away, restoring the world to its real colors — which no otter had ever seen before. Jenny looked on the heart of Jupiter from inside her mangled little ship, and she felt like she’d fallen into an alternate reality.
The sky was overcast, pale yellow light shining behind streaks and banks of amber clouds. The sand on the beach was gunmetal gray with sparkles of silver, and the ocean was such a deep blue it was nearly green.
How could those amber clouds be the other side of Jupiter’s swirling bands of orange? There wasn’t supposed to be another side — just noxious gas, thicker and thicker, darker and darker, down, down, down.
Yet, here she was.
The heart of Jupiter. Cor-Jovis — that’s what she’d call it.
Strange and bizarre as her situation might be, Jenny still had to face practical matters. With the pink goo drained down to mere puddles under her boots, she was able to move again, but when she did, her arms and long back ached. Also, she realized that the side of the ship’s cockpit was much too close on the left… and… buckling at a strange angle on her right. She pressed the controls to open the hatch, and it chucka-chucka-whirred a few times, managing to open only a crack, before giving up.
She’d have to force the hatch open manually. Ordol was strong and might be a big help with that, but… where had he gone?
Jenny realized with a start that his tentacles were no longer wrapped around her. She remembered back to her insane fear that he’d exploded and flirted with it again. Then she saw the tentacles squished into the corner of the cockpit behind her feet.
Octopi always looked weird and squishy, so Jenny wasn’t sure if she should be worried. She reached a gloved paw down, gingerly, to touch him.
She squeezed one of his tentacles lightly.
He stirred. Briefly. At least, that meant he was alive. It didn’t look like he planned on being conscious any time soon. Jenny would need to figure out a way to force the ship’s hatch open without him, so she could start assessing the damage.
She leaned out of her seat, twisting her long spine until she could press her paws against the hatch. It was difficult enough to maneuver in such a small space before it had been deformed by the crash. Now she felt like she was performing some exotic new form of acrobatics. Except the extreme version, where her life depended on them.
She did not want to die trapped in a broken spaceship, only inches from an alien beach on a planet that no otter had even known existed until she crashed on it. No. She wanted to explore that beach.
And repair her spaceship.
And get the hell out of here before any raptors found her and took Ordol back to his life of enslavement that she’d promised to keep him safe from.
Scratch, scruffle, skree-each — the sound of talons, scrambling against Brighton’s Destiny’s contorted metal hull. With horror, Jenny realized it was already too late. Raptors had found them. She could feel the hatch rumble and vibrate under her suited paws, and then she saw orange eyes stare through the crack where the hatch had tried to open.
The eyes were round and wide, but they glared from under a severe brow of speckled brown feathers. Their gaze felt heavy, and Jenny’s breath caught in her throat, freezing her like a mouse under the appraising, murderous stare of a bird of prey.
The eyes disappeared and were replaced by feathered talons, prying and straining at the hatch. Another pair joined, and then another. There were at least three raptors out there.
Suddenly, Jenny felt like Brighton’s Destiny was a sardine can, and she was the tasty snack inside that those raptors wanted to spread on crackers.
If she was going to be a snack, then she’d at least give the raptors food poisoning. Jenny reached for the thruster controls. She could see the thruster on the left wing through the ship’s windows; it was twisted around so badly that its exhaust was aimed right at the hatch of the ship. Firing it now would blast away the raptors scrabbling to get in.
It would also further damage the ship, and possibly fry Jenny and Ordol as well. Given the contorted shape of the hull, Jenny knew she couldn’t assume it would offer its usual protection from sudden, extreme heat.
At least then, Jenny supposed, she would have kept her promise to Ordol, not to let him fall into raptor talons again. She was ready to press the button, when suddenly the scrabbling feathered talons disappeared.
After an eerie moment of silence, Jenny clambered up to stand on her seat so that she could get a higher angle for looking out of the side window. From that angle, she could see the owners of the orange eyes and talons bobbing up the beach, toward the scruffy shrubs at the edge of the sand.
They weren’t what she expected.
From Kipper’s description, she’d expected jet black shiny feathers on towering beasts, several times her height with angular heads and limbs — not to mention colorful plumes on their elbows and the back of their heads.
These raptors were shaped right, but they looked to be about Jenny’s size. Their feathers were neither dark nor colorful. Nothing so striking. They were muted even — soft and speckled, colored in downy shades of brown and white.
Then Jenny realized: she was looking at fledglings. These were raptor children, not fully grown.
As she watched the three fledglings, she found her fear of them receding. They bobbed along the beach, for all the world like any children, searching for shells or driftwood. Of course, when they found long pieces of driftwood and began bobbing back her way, Jenny saw that their talons, gripping the driftwood looked terribly sharp, and their narrow feathered muzzles housed fearsome teeth.
They might be young, but they had the powerful bodies of birds of prey. Yet, those bodies were not saddled with the electronic collars containing the neuro-tech necessary to hijack Ordol’s nervous system. His fear of raptors didn’t concern their claws or teeth. These young raptors could kill him, but they couldn’t enslave his nervous system to their own, turning his tentacles into their tentacles. A fate worse than death. Or so Ordol seemed to believe.
Jenny wouldn’t be breaking her promise to keep him safe, as long as she kept him away from adult raptors. Or so she rationalized.
Basically, she’d rather bet on life.
When the young raptors wedged their driftwood levers into the narrow opening of the hatchway, Jenny leaned her weight against them, helping to pry the door open.
Continue on to Chapter 16…