by Mary E. Lowd
Jenny and Ordol were suited up and ready in Brighton’s Destiny, but the two-man Whirligig vessel was still parked on the floating roof of the Europa base. The Imperial Star-Ocean Navy otters and their five ships were already in low-orbit, but Ordol hadn’t even powered the Whirligig’s engine up yet.
Jenny couldn’t start the vessel without him. Too many of the controls were designed to be used by an octopus on the shoulders of a biped. Jenny couldn’t see Ordol’s eyes with him perched on her shoulders — but she could see the color of his tentacles through his translucent spacesuit. His flesh was bone white. He was terrified.
“What are we waiting for down there?” Admiral Mackerel’s voice came over Jenny’s suit radio. His words were echoed visually on one of the spaceship’s readouts, translated from voice to text — a nice feature Amoreena had rigged up for them.
Jenny translated the words into Swimmer’s Sign with her paws as well, “Hey, buddy, what’re we waiting for?”
Shivers of blue passed over Ordol’s tentacles. When the blue waves settled down, leaving his flesh white again, he signed, “I don’t want to go back.”
“You’re not going back,” Jenny signed. “You’re never going back. Not really. We’re just swooping past, lasers flaring. No stops. Then straight back here.”
Ordol’s tentacles hung limply, draped over Jenny’s shoulders. Their color didn’t even change. He was clearly unconvinced.
Jenny couldn’t imagine what he was feeling; what demons he was struggling with. She’d been a free otter her whole life, and she was afraid of flying into the raptors’ den. What if they were shot down? Left spiraling into the crushing depths of Jupiter to die? Or they could be captured… Jenny had no idea what the raptors would do with a captured otter.
She had a pretty good idea of what they’d do with Ordol — return him to their aquariums of captive octopi who lived in a cage until their very physical autonomy was robbed of them by a neural interface.
Was that worse than death? Ordol’s terror suggested it might be.
“I won’t let them capture us,” Jenny signed. “We’ll kamikaze rather than be taken captive.”
Jenny thought she saw a slight orange tint flush Ordol’s tentacles.
“Okay?” she signed.
The orange shade of Ordol’s tentacles grew stronger but blotchy. And he still looked very pale. “Okay.” He reached out with his two foremost tentacles and powered up the Whirligig’s engine.
“No more waiting, Admiral,” Jenny said into her suit radio. “We’re on our way.” The ground fell away in the windows as Brighton’s Destiny soared upward.
“Glad to hear it,” Admiral Mackerel replied. “Since you have the tracker set up on your computer, you take the lead.”
“Aye, aye, Admiral.”
Usually, Jenny loved take-off; she loved any part of flying where they went really, really fast. She looked forward to it like a home-cooked fillet of fresh caught salmon glittering with lemon-butter sauce. But now the rush of speed felt like a long anticipated feast turned to ashes in her mouth. She took no joy from flying toward Jupiter this time.
At Brighton’s Destiny’s top speed, it was a three hour flight from Europa to the outer atmosphere of Jupiter — a length which felt better suited to a road trip filled with rambling conversations and silly games than a stealth mission filled with tense silence.
The energy beams powering the raptor fleet originated in Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, but they were passed around the massive girth of the planet by a series of orbital relay stations so that they never lost contact with the departing fleet despite Jupiter’s rotation. Admiral Mackerel and Jenny had agreed that it was too ambitious to attack the primary source.
They intended to knock out as many relay stations as they could before the raptors caught up with them, starting with one that was about a third of the way around Jupiter from Europa right now. By skipping past the closest relay stations — the ones on the side currently facing Europa — Jenny hoped to increase the chances that their attacks would be mistaken for natural disasters. That might buy them time.
On Brighton’s Destiny’s tracking display, the relay stations were simple red dots placed at regular intervals over the blue surface of Jupiter, connected by red lines representing the energy beams being routed from the Great Red Spot. Although the relay stations were distributed all around Jupiter, they were far too small to see until Brighton’s Destiny had nearly arrived at the first target.
By the time they were close enough to see the first relay station directly, Jupiter’s face filled the viewscreen behind it. The small satellite was no larger than Brighton’s Destiny, just large enough to capture and reroute the energy beam from the Great Red Spot. Jenny thought it looked like a dead spider, lying on its back with its long legs folded over it, floating on a puddle of melted creamsicle.
“Visual confirmation of target acquired,” said one of the navy otters over the radio. The voice was so sudden, so surprising, in Jenny’s ears after the hours of silently watching Jupiter grow on the viewscreen that she startled and jumped in her seat. Her motion bumped Ordol, but his tentacles kept deftly working the controls. Only a brief flush of yellow over his skin showed that he’d noticed her movement at all.
Officers from the other four ISON ships chimed in to agree that they could see the target relay station now. Then the captain of the Riptide, a civilian otter named Krysantha, said, “Are we gonna shoot it down or what? We’ve come an awfully long way, and I’m not hearing any orders to fire.”
As far as Jenny knew, her Whirligig Class vessel had no weapons. It seemed to be some sort of scout ship. Its tracking systems, however, were perfect for leading the strike team directly to the relay stations and warning them if there were any other raptor vessels nearby. All they’d had to do was break Brighton’s Destiny’s homing signal, so it could fly silently.
Basically, Jenny and Ordol were only along on this mission to be guides and stool pigeons, spying on the raptors. So for this part, Jenny sat back and watched.
After another few moments, during which the dead spider of a satellite grew larger on the viewscreen, Admiral Mackerel’s voice came over the radio: “Fire at will.”
The Riptide fired guided missiles at the relay station, but the dead spider glowed red and exploded before they even hit.
“Woah,” Jenny said. “Was that the new ISON proton beam?”
“Five of them,” Admiral Mackerel answered. “Invisible but deadly.”
“I guess I should have saved my asteroid-smashers,” said Captain Krysantha. “Remind me never to go up against the navy.”
“Remind yourself,” Admiral Mackerel said. “On to the next one?”
“Leading the way,” Jenny said, cooperating with Ordol to adjust the course of Brighton’s Destiny. As per their plan, she didn’t lead the strike force to the next closest relay station. They skipped past several. By randomly skipping relay stations — instead of attacking them in order — they hoped to keep their presence secret from the raptor forces for even longer.
The otter strike force knocked out a dozen more relay stations easily. It was slow work — twenty minutes of flying for every fifty seconds of proton beam explosions. They’d already done a full day’s work. They’d have to disable at least forty, maybe fifty, relay stations to effectively diminish the power beam zinging the raptor fleet toward Earth. Still, Jenny could have kept it up all night, knowing that they were doing something to make Earth safer. If only Brighton’s Destiny’s computer screens hadn’t lit up with ominous chatter on the raptor wavelengths…
“Can you read what those messages say?” Jenny signed to Ordol. She had a suspicion before he even began signing from the way his tentacles drained of color.
“The raptors have figured out that the explosions aren’t natural,” he signed. “Thirteen is too many to be a coincidence. They’re looking for us.”
Jenny said into her suit radio: “They’re on to us.” She also signed a translation with her paws for Ordol. “We’re harder to predict if we keep up our random pattern. Harder to predict is harder to find.”
Captain Krysantha snorted. “Unless they post guard ships at every relay station.”
“With three hundred relay stations?” Admiral Mackeral sounded skeptical. “I don’t think so. We still have time. Keep leading the way, Base Commander.”
“Aye, aye,” Jenny said, but she was worried about Ordol. His tentacles had turned a bluish-gray. To him, she signed, “We’ll be okay. I promise.”
Brighton’s Destiny led the ISON ships and the Riptide to five more relay stations, but with each exploding spider of a satellite, Jenny worried more about the cryptic raptor messages streaming across her ship’s computer screens and the darkening blue of Ordol’s tentacles. There had to be a better way. They would never knock out all three hundred of the relay stations this way — they might not even knock out enough to make a difference. The raptor vessels were sure to find them soon, and sure enough, as they approached their next target, a cluster of red dots converged around it on the tracking screen. Raptor vessels — a dozen of them.
Jenny and Ordol rerouted their strike team towards a different relay station, but they had to fly past three more potential targets before they found one that was undefended by ominous red dots.
All the while, Jenny wracked her brain for a better plan. Splitting up was a bad idea; none of the otter ships could track the raptor vessels like Brighton’s Destiny could. Attacking the original source of the energy beams in the Great Red Spot was a suicide mission.
Wasn’t it? They didn’t have blueprints for it, and even if they did, it was too much to hope that it had a single central weakness that could be exploited by a ragtag strike team of six otter ships and a stolen Whirligig scout. Definitely too much to hope.
Jenny wasn’t any good at not hoping. “Ordol,” she signed, “do you know anything about the source of the energy beams? Is it a mothership of some sort? Can we access blueprints for it on this ship’s computer banks?”
“You want to attack the source?” Ordol signed, his tentacles moving slowly.
“I want to take everything out in one blow. BAM. We’re done. Know what I’m saying?”
The blue-gray of Ordol’s tentacles flushed turquoise. “If there are blueprints for anything on these computers, I don’t know how to find them.” He kept signing, telling Jenny about the ship’s computer, and the color in his tentacles drained back to a pale version of his more usual orange tone. Telling her about the computer seemed to soothe him, but Jenny had stopped processing what he was telling her.
If she wanted to knock the whole system out in one blow, maybe it didn’t have to be done from the source. She signed with her paws and said over the radio, “Could we overload one of these relay stations instead of destroying it? Some sort of feedback loop?”
Captain Krysantha said over the radio, “Setting off a domino effect that knocks out all the other relay stations without us having to fly to them? I like it.”
“So we can do it?” Jenny said excitedly.
“No idea,” Captain Kyrsantha said. “But I do like it.”
Admiral Mackerel and the commanders of the other ISON ships argued for a while about whether it could be done, until Jenny was ready to give up hope. They clearly had no ability to overload a relay station — only desire to do so.
But then Ordol signed, “We’ll need to get very close to the relay station.” His signs were small, tentative. But his color was still good.
“Very close?” Jenny signed. “To do what?”
“To transmit the code I’ve written.” His signs were larger, more confident. “It will spread from relay station to relay station, and then it will cause them to target all the energy they’re rerouting to the same relay station. One after another. Until they’re all destroyed.”
Jenny’s heart beat fast. That was more like it! “How close?” she asked, saying the words before she remembered to sign them.
“How close for what?” At least five different otters asked the question at once, but Jenny wasn’t listening with her ears, only her eyes.
Ordol signed, “Ten meters.”
She signed, “For how long?”
“Not long.” His tentacles had flushed pink with excitement Or at least, adrenaline. “A fly-by is fine.”
“Will it blow up right away?” Jenny signed, afraid that Ordol might really be planning a suicide run.
She was infinitely relieved when he signed, “I’ve written a delay into the program. That will give us time to fly away.”
She breathed the words, “Thank goodness,” and signed the words, “You’re my hero. Let’s do this.” Then she spoke up, loud enough to break through the clamoring voices on the radio of all the other otters, desperate to know what was going on, and said, “At the next clear target, Brighton’s Destiny will do a close fly-by and transmit a… special package to the relay station. Hold your fire, but cover us. If our plan works, we’ll be done here and everyone can head home. Got it?”
Silence replaced the clamor. It lasted long enough to make Jenny nervous. Then Admiral Mackerel said, “We’ve got your back. Let’s smash this clam.”
Jenny grinned to hear Admiral Mackerel sound like more than a humorless navy officer.
The otter vessels flew in formation — the five ISON vessels, flat and round like sand dollars, fanned out behind the wide-winged Brighton’s Destiny. The conical Riptide, like a steampunk conch shell flying through space, brought up the rear. But when they got to the relay station, Brighton’s Destiny peeled away from the others.
Up close the relay station’s mechanical legs looked less creepy than a dead spider’s. They looked cold and soulless. It was a simple machine designed to redirect an energy beam. Nothing more. Void of malice. Yet terribly dangerous. Jenny shivered. “Are you ready to upload?” she signed.
“Uploading now,” Ordol answered. His color still looked good and orange. “And… done.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Jenny said and signed. “I’m waaaay ready to get back to Europa.” The relay station passed by on the viewscreen, too close for comfort, and began to recede behind Brighton’s Destiny.
“No,” Admiral Mackerel said. “We need to see if it worked.”
He was right. And yet Jenny knew they were on borrowed time. The raptors were going to catch up with them. “Okay,” she said. “But let’s not stay next to this relay station. Let’s fly on to the next one — if our plan works, they’ll all blow up. And if we keep moving, it gives us a better chance of staying hidden.”
Admiral Mackerel agreed to her plan. The next relay station was hard to spot — it still appeared on Brighton’s Destiny’s tracking screen as a bright red dot, but the leggy dead spider had been replaced with a loose cloud of rubble.
The navy otters whooped over the radio, but Jenny saw what they couldn’t.
A cloud of red dots on the tracking screen, coming from every direction, coming closer. They’d been found.
Continue on to Chapter 11…