by Mary E. Lowd
The cockpit of Brighton’s Destiny popped open with a hiss like a tin can of sparkling clam juice. Jenny overbalanced and tumbled out of the hatch, tangling herself in feathered limbs on her way down to plop on the damp silver sand.
The wet sand smeared across the faceplate of Jenny’s helmet, obscuring her view of the raptor fledglings as they righted her and began manhandling her spacesuit-clad limbs, moving her around like a poseable doll. Their screeches and chirrups terrified Jenny at first — they sounded like they were screaming at her. But as they jostled her around, examining their new toy from every angle, Jenny pulled herself together enough to remember that the computer in her helmet had some basic sound processing and AI algorithms. Captain Cod had installed them in all the spacesuits, thinking they might be useful for spy activities. They hadn’t been. But it might be able to analyze the raptor speech and develop a translation — at least, if it listened to them long enough.
“Computer, record exterior sounds,” Jenny said. “Search for patterns; try to parse for language.” It was a long shot, but it sure would help to be able to talk to these little birds of prey. Big birds of prey. They might be small compared to the raptors Kipper had described, but they were plenty big enough. Jenny hoped the raptor chicks would want to keep her a secret from any adults. She didn’t need any raptors bigger than these around. Especially if Ordol came to.
Jenny was going to need Ordol’s help to repair Brighton’s Destiny, and that meant she couldn’t have him dying of fright as soon as he woke up. She needed to get these big baby bird-lizards who were man-handling her under control before he saw them.
Step one: get their talons off of her. That would be easy if she weren’t wearing a clunky spacesuit, and the gravity weren’t making her feel so damn heavy. Otters are usually quite good at slipping away. Instead, Jenny had to settle for turning on the external speakers on her helmet and saying, “Hey! Put me down you feathered fools!”
The raptor chicks may not have understood, but their orange eyes looked startled. One of them, with feathers colored like tree-bark, took its talons off of Jenny’s space-suited arm and stepped away. Its long, feathered tail swished behind it.
The other two watched the first with their talons still gripping Jenny’s arm and one of her legs. Emboldened by the first raptor’s response, though, Jenny shook herself free. She wobbled to her feet, struggling against the unfamiliar gravity. It was probably similar to Earth’s gravity, but lately, she was used to the light gravity on Europa. Finally, she found her footing.
“That’s better,” Jenny said, backing away from the raptors. With frustration, she realized she was also backing away from the refuge of her spaceship and toward the lapping waves of the green ocean.
The three little raptors screeched and clucked at her, sounding like angry chickens. Jenny didn’t know if they were angry, or they just sounded angry. Either way, it was distressing and disconcerting.
The raptor with feathers like tree-bark stepped toward her. It was wearing simple, green clothing over its torso and legs. The other two raptors had lighter feathers — one of them had a downy white patch on its forehead and wore dark blue clothing; the other was a mottled tawny hue, like Earth sand, and wore shades of gray. Jenny decided to think of them as Tree Bark, White Patch, and Sandy.
Jenny held her space-suited paws up, palms open, trying to gesture for them to give her space. Meanwhile, she continued backing away until she felt her boot splash against the edge of a lapping wave. She couldn’t back up much farther. Fortunately, the raptors had stopped following her and instead stood staring at her with orange eyes, heads tilted.
Jenny pointed at the ship and then herself. After a beat, she pointed at the raptors and gestured to her side, away from herself and the ship. They seemed to understand and backed away from both her and Brighton’s Destiny.
“That’s better,” Jenny said.
The raptors looked at each other when she spoke. Jenny wondered what her words sounded like to them. Then Tree Bark screeched at her. The computer in her helmet still had no translation. It would take a lot of data for it to get anything. She needed to keep them talking.
So as Jenny approached Brighton’s Destiny again — carefully keeping her body turned towards the raptors; she didn’t feel safe turning her back to them — she told them about everything she was doing, hoping it would inspire them to talk back.
“I’m going to approach my spaceship now. It’s broken, and I need to fix it. I need to figure out how bad the break is… whether I can fix it…” Jenny passed the open hatchway and walked along the length of the wing to where the metal was torn and bent, the end of the wing dangling down at a dastardly angle. “It’s bad,” Jenny said, reaching a paw up toward the break. The ship had settled at such an angle on the beach that the broken metal hovered just above Jenny’s head. Where the wing should have risen straight outward, reaching at an even slope toward the sky, it bent downward at a nearly right angle, burying the end of the wingtip, with its thruster, into the sand. “Very bad.”
The raptors chirruped and squawked at each other. Either Jenny was getting used to their screechy voices, or they actually sounded less angry. She watched them closely during their interchange, wondering whether her helmet computer would ever be able to tell her what they were saying. Eventually, White Patch bobbed its head, turned, and darted off inland.
If White Patch was going to get their parents, then Jenny didn’t have much time.
Maybe she could hide Brighton’s Destiny…
Jenny looked at the scrub brushes along the shore line — they were like the tops of palm trees, sticking out of the silver sand, all spiky. No shelter there. But maybe, if she could reseal the hatch, it would be possible to push Brighton’s Destiny into the waves and hide it under the surf.
Of course, that would require distracting Tree Bark and Sandy who were still staring at her quizzically. She’d also need to figure out a way to shove a five-ton spaceship over fifty feet of sand.
Yeah, this was a bad plan.
What she needed was an invisibility shield.
Or to not be deep inside the heart of Jupiter with a broken spaceship and a deathly-scared, unconscious co-pilot who knew way more about their spaceship than she did.
For that matter, these young raptors might know more about a Whirligig Class vessel than Jenny did. At any rate, they knew more about how to drag it across the sand: White Patch returned to the beach astride a long-necked, wrinkle-skinned, camo-colored quadruped, stomping like its legs were tree trunks. It looked like a small brontosaur. Wearing a saddle and bridle. And White Patch was swinging a rope with a hook on the end like some sort of dinosaur cowboy. All White Patch needed to complete the image was a ten-gallon hat on its feathered, avian head.
To hell with her promise — this was far too interesting to do anything other than go along for the ride.
Jenny watched Tree Bark take the end of White Patch’s rope and loop it around her spaceship’s broken wing. Tree Bark secured one end of the rope with the hook; White Patch secured the other end by tying it to the mini-brontosaur’s saddle. Then White Patch pulled the reigns and turned the brontosaur back toward inland.
Brighton’s Destiny might have weighed five tons, but the little brontosaur was strong. Dragged behind the prehistoric workhorse, Brighton’s Destiny scuffed its way across the sand, smashed through the scrubby bushes, and left a skid track of torn grass and scraped dirt all the way across a field.
Jenny watched in awe, following slowly behind. She tried to keep some space between her and Tree Bark and Sandy, but she could tell it was an illusion. The raptors were her size and built for running. And they didn’t have cumbersome spacesuits on. The two of them were clearly herding her along with them, unwilling to lose part of the treasure they’d found on the beach.
They had the spaceship; they needed to keep the accessory-spaceman with it.
White Patch and the brontosaur pulled Brighton’s Destiny all the way through a field where a herd of huge duck-billed, hunch-backed hadrosaurs grazed on spikey grasses. One of the hadrosaurs lifted its head and leaned back into an upright position to watch Jenny pass by. It towered over her, chewing contemplatively as its glassy eyes watched the strange procession through its field.
Were these the dinosaur version of cows? Jenny wondered.
On the far side of the field, White Patch navigated both the brontosaur-steed and spaceship-in-tow through a stand of pine trees. Tiny knee-high protoceratops with horned noses and crested heads scurried about beneath the trees, but they didn’t move like wild animals, disappearing at the commotion. No, they scattered, flocked, regrouped, and watched with beady eyes. Several of them followed after White Patch on the brontosaur or approached Tree Bark and Sandy, almost as if they were hoping for treats.
Feeling giddy, Jenny wondered if these were the dinosaur version of chickens. Otters didn’t keep cows or chickens, but Jenny knew enough about ancient human and modern canine practices to recognize the similarity to how the hadrosaurs and protoceratops were behaving.
There was an entire pre-historic ecosystem here. Except, it wasn’t pre-historic. She hadn’t travelled through time. This was all happening right now in the modern space age. On Jupiter. Inside Jupiter.
It was a modern Jovian eco-system. It just happened to involve dinosaurs.
The modern, space-age quality of the current era struck home with the next sight: a structure between the trees that looked like a mechanical giant redwood tree, looming upward from a round base and gleaming of brassy metal, textured like bark, with occasional outstretched branches. It was an impressive, futuristic structure even by otter standards.
As White Patch approached the mechanical redwood, a cavernous sliding door opened at its base. Lights flickered on inside, illuminating a room filled with a disarray of foreign looking tools and equipment. It looked like a very large garage workshop, and it had enough space in the middle for White Patch to ride the brontosaur all the way in, drag Brighton’s Destiny all the way in as well, and then maneuver around until the brontosaur was back on the side of the room with the door.
White Patch unhooked the rope tied to Brighton’s Destiny, dismounted the brontosaur, and then offered the lumbering beast a talon-full of blue grasses. The brontosaur huffed happily and arched its long neck down until it could chomp up the grasses.
Next the three raptors screeched at each other for a while, presumably working out their plans for their new treasure. The brontosaur was unfazed by their screeching, but Jenny felt like cowering in a corner, under one of the work tables. If juvenile raptors with downy fuzz and funny fawn-like speckling could be this scary, she could see why Ordol, Kipper, and Trugger all claimed the adults were downright terrifying.
Still, Jenny reminded herself, she was wearing a spacesuit that would give her significant protection if they attacked her.
Suddenly, the screeching stopped. White Patch grabbed a computerized tablet from a work bench and shoved it into Sandy’s talons before taking the brontosaur by the reigns and leading it outside. Tree Bark began examining the broken, bent wing of Brighton’s Destiny, and Jenny felt a well of possessive, protectiveness inside her. Before she could step forward to put herself between the juvenile raptor and her ship — her only way out of this planet and back home — Sandy scribbled something on the computerized tablet and held it out for Jenny to see.
On the glossy tablet screen, Jenny saw a sketchy rendering of Brighton’s Destiny with its broken wing. Once Sandy saw that Jenny’s attention was on the screen, the raptor scribbled another picture next to it — an unbroken Whirligig Class vessel — with an arrow-like symbol between them. Sandy squawked and then gestured with a free talon at Tree Bark and Brighton’s Destiny.
“You’re going to fix my vessel?” Jenny asked. Her own voice sounded small, high-pitched, and reedy next to the raptors’ screeches.
Sandy squawked again, and this time, the computer in Jenny’s helmet translated the sound, speaking in a melodic but artificial otter voice: “Yes.” A moment later, the computer added, “There is an eighty percent chance of inaccuracy. Other possible translations include: no.”
Jenny would have laughed, but she didn’t think she’d be able to stop. Ever. She would laugh herself to death if she let herself see the humor in her situation. So instead, she set her jaw and did her best Admiral Mackerel impression — it was time to be a very serious otter.
“Yes,” she repeated and heard the computer translate through her external speakers into the same squawk Sandy had made a moment ago. At least, whether that squawk meant ‘yes’ or ‘no,” Jenny was agreeing with the raptor. To make her feelings as clear as possible — which probably wasn’t clear at all — Jenny pointed at the picture, Tree Bark, and then Brighton’s Destiny like Sandy had a moment ago.
Apparently, the sound of a raptor-squawk coming from the spaceman’s helmet was very interesting, because suddenly Jenny had three raptors staring closely at her with their glaring orange eyes. She had no idea how they’d all surrounded her so fast, but the suddenness of their closeness made her mammal heart race.
“Wait, stop–” Jenny said as the raptors poked and pushed at her. Talons traced along the seams of her suit. Orange eyes stared her down. Jenny’s ears filled with a cacophony of voices as the raptors screeched at her, and the helmet computer doubled everything by translating Jenny’s own words into more screeching and the raptors’ words into confusing, stilted sentences surrounded by computer disclaimers of uncertainty and even more confusing alternate translations like, “Green is now! Five before under. What want fortitude?”
If that was what Jenny was hearing, what nonsense was the computer translating her own words into for the raptors?
In spite of all the confusion — or perhaps because of it — the raptors and Jenny somehow came to a vague understanding: the raptors would back off, giving Jenny more space. In turn, Jenny would get something off of the ship before leaving it for Tree Bark to fix.
The something that Jenny needed to get off of the ship was Ordol. She couldn’t leave him alone, and — if she understood correctly, which was anyone’s guess — White Patch and Sandy planned to take her up to a higher level of the mechanical redwood structure while Tree Bark worked on her broken ship.
Jenny climbed back into Brighton’s Destiny and gathered up Ordol into her arms. His unconscious mass of space-suited tentacles was unwieldy, like trying to carry a… No, it wasn’t like trying to carry anything. It was carrying an unconscious octopus. And that is quite enough.
With her precious, awkward bundle trying continually to slide out of her arms, Jenny backed out of the spaceship and left it for Tree Bark. She followed White Patch and Sandy out of the cavernous work space. They led her around the outside of the mechanical redwood to the other side where a much smaller door slid open.
The room inside was small, and when the door slid shut behind White Patch, Sandy, and Jenny, it was transparent. It hadn’t been transparent from the outside, and Jenny realized it must be the same material Kipper had told her about from the raptor mothership, high up in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Opaque on one side; transparent on the other.
Without any sound to warn Jenny, the small room began to rise, quite quickly. The forest floor fell away, and Jenny watched tree branches pass by outside the transparent doorway until they’d risen higher than the treetops.
Then she looked out at the Jovian sky — roiling orange and glowing gold. The raptors on either side of her with their downy feathers and orange eyes that mirrored the orange sky looked like they belonged here. This was their home. Whether or not they’d originally emigrated from Earth millions of years ago, they belonged here now.
Jenny, however, had never felt farther away from home.
Continue on to Chapter 17…