by Mary E. Lowd
The red dots on the viewscreen began to converge. Each dot represented a raptor vessel headed straight for them and ready to end their lives. Or worse. Suddenly, the metal hull of Brighton’s Destiny felt paper thin to Jenny.
Ordol’s tentacles, sheathed in their clingy, transparent spacesuit, wrapped tightly around Jenny’s shoulders, trembling violently.
“I can’t pilot this ship without you!” Jenny signed, between tugging at the tentacles that were now crushing her shoulders in a way that she was sure would strangle her if her neck weren’t protected by a rigid space helmet. “And I definitely can’t pilot this ship if you crush me with your freakishly strong arms! LET GO!”
Ordol was clearly stronger than Jenny, and her spacesuit gloves felt clumsy against his pure-muscle arms. But her entreaties and yanking must have got through to him, because his tentacles began to loosen and relax.
“Don’t let them take me,” he signed with quivering, pale tentacle tips.
“I won’t,” Jenny signed. “Now fire up those engines, and let’s get out of here.”
The rest of the otters in the strike force chattered over the radio, coordinating their plans as the red dots converged. They planned to flee in formation, rotating positions to give their proton beams a chance to recharge while keeping a nearly continuous volley on any pursuers. But they all had weapons. Brighton’s Destiny was some sort of science or scout vessel with no weapons as far as Jenny or Ordol could tell. So as far as Brighton’s Destiny was concerned, the plan boiled down to: hide in the middle of the other vessels, and hope they offered enough defense.
“No disrespect, Admiral Mackerel,” Jenny said, “but Brighton’s Destiny is raptor designed. If we make a break from the team now, before the raptors catch up to us, they won’t even know we’re with you.”
“Understood,” Admiral Mackerel said, his voice somber. “I wish we could offer you greater protection.”
Jenny wished that too. “We’ll see you back on Europa,” she said. “Be safe.”
Jenny punched the right thruster, and Brighton’s Destiny spun away from the formation of otter vessels like a whirligig seed falling from a maple tree. This seed had a long way to fall. Jenny looked down at the creamsicle clouds, hoping they’d find some shelter there. Then she looked back at the five ISON vessels like sand dollars and the conical Riptide, tiny dark shadows over the stars. Not tiny enough. The red dots on her screen were still heading for them.
And then the raptor vessels were more than dots — giant armored shapes zoomed past Brighton’s Destiny. Black behemoths blocked the stars on Jupiter’s horizon. Ordol’s tentacles quivered on Jenny’s shoulders. She began to make a reassuring sign — then their little Whirligig Class vessel spun out of control. One of the raptor vessels had flown by too close, unaware of them, and clipped their left wing. Jenny saw the metal wing twisting, brokenly through the side window — still attached, but totally useless. Even if the thruster still worked like that, firing it would simply finish tearing off the broken wing.
They were going down.
“Holy hell,” Jenny swore through her whiskers, making sure not to activate the radio. She didn’t need to distract the others. Admiral Mackerel was going to have a hard enough time getting the rest of the strike force back to Europa without wasting time on a hopeless rescue mission.
“Well, I promised I’d take us on a suicide dive rather than let them catch us…” Jenny said, still speaking only to herself. For Ordol she signed, “If I find us somewhere to land or maneuver us into a stable orbit, can you fix that wing?”
Well, that was simple.
They really were going down. And they were going to keep going down. All they could do without the thruster on the broken wing was spin.
Jenny took a deep breath and signed, “Let’s find out what the heart of a gas giant looks like. I’ll bet you twenty clam chews it’s the most beautiful thing we see for the rest of our lives.” She leaned into the fall, accelerating Brighton’s Destiny faster and faster in a downward spiral towards the swirling orange clouds.
As they grew closer, the roiling orange took on depth and texture. An entire alien landscape was rising to meet them in shades and swirls of cinnamon, peach, tangerine, and apricot. Jenny could see pinnacles and valleys, mountains and castles, as if they’d been carved out of ice cream. She could imagine landing their ship — crashing their ship — and then getting out to explore.
But those weren’t mountains or castles. They were clouds. Immaterial vapor.
And they offered no refuge. Nowhere to land and wait for rescue. The clouds yielded to the falling Whirligig vessel like so much mist. When the atmosphere of hydrogen and helium closed around them in a roar of wind and flames, Jenny shouted, “Yeehaw!” and raised her fisted paws triumphantly.
If they were going down, it might as well be the ride of her life.
Continue on to Chapter 14…