by Mary E. Lowd
Jenny and Ordol landed Brighton’s Destiny lightly atop the Europa base. It touched down like a lonely whirligig maple seed that had spun its way improbably down through an arctic sky to the surface of an iceberg, a small stretch of cold land, floating on Europa’s choppy gray ocean.
Wind whipped through the hatch when Jenny broke the seal. The door swung aside, and Jenny climbed out of the ship. Ordol followed her, clambering over the flat ground like a basket of snakes slithering together in a complicated knot. The sky above them was clear and bright with stars. Jupiter hung low on the horizon, where it should be — far away, rather than under Jenny’s paws.
The atmo-dome loomed ahead of Jenny like a giant soap bubble on the surface of this iceberg. It was built from a filmy, plastic material, and its airlock jutted out of it like the entrance to an igloo. It only took a few moments for the airlock to cycle, and Jenny was relieved to be able to pull off her space helmet. She could see through the filmy plastic that everyone on the base was gathered around the airlock waiting for her and Ordol. She signed for her octopus co-pilot, “See? I kept my promise. I got you home.”
Ordol’s eyes stared up at her enigmatically, slightly magnified by the bulbs of glass-like spacesuit around them, but he raised a few tentacle tips and made a very small sign — literally, it meant, “Yes, you did.” To Jenny, it felt like the equivalent of a curt nod of acknowledgement.
They’d been through enemy lands together. They were partners.
The inner door of the airlock opened to reveal a surprising scene: streamers and colorful lights hung from the curved ceiling of the atmo-dome, strung in decorative, scalloped patterns; barrels and crates were set out like tables, sporting intricate spreads of snacks and appetizers; and all the otters, cats, and dogs on the base crowded around, smiling and grinning unabashedly.
They were in the middle of a war — a war they might be losing — but one of their own had come home. A friend who they’d thought they’d lost — a hero and a leader — had come home.
“Welcome back, Base Commander.” Admiral Mackerel held out a paw, but instead of waiting for Jenny to shake it, he seemed to change his mind and pulled her into a tight embrace. “We thought we’d lost you.” Then he stepped back and said grimly, “The raptors repaired their satellites in a matter of hours. It was a good try, but it didn’t take.”
Jenny translated the admiral’s words into signs for Ordol. She felt like the admiral expected her to say something in response, but she had no words — only a ball of bitter disappointment roiling deep in her belly. After all that danger, all that risk… nothing. She’d assumed the streamers and lights, the party atmosphere, had been a celebration of their success. But it was only a celebration of her own return.
Admiral Mackerel said, “The empress wanted to cancel the party, but I think we need it even more now.” He leaned close and whispered, “You did right, ordering them to prepare it. In the darkness, we need a little light.”
After that, Jenny was passed from one hug to the next until all of her fellow Barracuders, a couple of the navy otters, and even one of the Howard dogs had given her a welcome home embrace. One by one, the otters knelt down to sign their thanks and welcomes to Ordol as well. Though, as soon as the octopus could, he slithered his way through the crowd to the elevator platform and descended into the watery depths of the base. Jenny couldn’t blame him. He’d been away from his natural atmosphere, stuck inside that clingy spacesuit for far too long.
Even so, she was sorry that he was missing the welcome home party. The Persian empress and the Howard dogs had done an excellent job of following her orders while she was gone — the snacks were clever concoctions of canned tuna, dehydrated milk, and other goods that must have been stored securely enough to survive the Persian colony’s submersion under the rising Europa oceans. They’d even rigged up some sort of stereo system, and bouncy, fun music vibrated in the air.
It felt surreal to listen to a puppy band howling out inane lyrics about sunsets and California beaches inside an atmo-dome under the watchful face of Jupiter. But the Howard dogs danced like they’d never heard the word shame, shaking their hips, wagging their tails, and bobbing their heads until their ears flopped. They looked hilarious — most of them had clearly never danced on a moon before. Their rhythmic shakes and shimmies threw them too high due to the low gravity, and they fell too slowly to match the beat of the music. Their dancing was exuberant, but wildly out of sync.
Otters aren’t usually slow to join a party, but most of the otters here were navy officers, on deployment and still in their starched, stiff uniforms. Even so, they began swaying and swinging their rudder tails too. Several of the otters clearly had experience dancing in low gravity — Destry and Amoreena were especially deft-footed, flipping themselves into complicated somersaults and double-steps with their flipper feet.
The Persian cats — ex-empress and members of her cabinet — sat around the edges, watching the merriment with their perpetual snub-nosed frowns. Somehow, they looked happy anyway. How could anyone be unhappy in the face of such canine buffoonery and lutrine skill?
Jenny stripped off the rest of her spacesuit and stowed it behind one of the improvised crate tables. It would be easier to dance without a bulky spacesuit on, and she could feel the wiggles and jiggles working through her long spine in response to the music. It had been a hard mission, and she hadn’t been at all sure she would survive. She was ready to dance. But before she could join the mass of jumping, jiving furry bodies — one of the navy otters had even wrapped his short arms around the Howard dachshund’s long waist and launched into a breath-taking and incongruous slo-mo waltz! — Felix grabbed her paws. She thought he was going to dance with her, but instead he pulled her away from the dancing crowd.
Felix led Jenny to the edge of the party but not entirely away from it. He turned his back squarely away from everyone and started signing with his paws, holding them close to his chest so only she could see. “We have to make a decision. I haven’t told the Admiral, because I don’t…” His paws faltered, and he started the phrase again. “I don’t trust him with something this… big.”
“What is it?” Jenny asked aloud, figuring the question was bland on its own, and her voice was unlikely to carry over the pulsing noise of the party. Whatever Felix had to say, he must be awfully worried about being overheard if he wouldn’t risk speaking it aloud even amidst all this chaos, chatter, and music.
“I can stop the raptor fleet,” he signed.
For a moment, Jenny was elated, but Felix wouldn’t be acting so secretive and scared if there weren’t a catch. “…but?”
Felix’s face showed all the emotion, all the torment that would have been in his tone of voice if he were speaking. His paws hurried on in a rush, signing, “Everything started working when we flooded the base — all the controls came online, and I’ve been studying them, but I don’t understand them. I don’t know what this base is supposed to do, but it’s powerful. Very powerful. I can’t use it the way it’s supposed to be used — not yet — I don’t even know what that way is. But… I know I can cause it to start building up energy in the core of Jupiter. It would take weeks… all the time we have left. The fleet would be nearly to Earth. But…”
“What would take weeks?” Jenny signed, keeping her paws close, feeling too afraid herself now to commit her own thoughts to voice.
“We could destroy Jupiter. The whole planet.”
The gravity of his statement took a moment to sink in. Then the world did a somersault in Jenny’s mind. “Are you serious?” her paws flung wide with the signs, carefulness falling to the wayside. She could hardly understand how she and Felix were having this conversation. They were Jolly Barracuders — otters who flirted with piracy and chased down every chance for fun in the Solar System. They weren’t warriors deciding whether to commit genocide.
And yet, Jenny and Ordol had been fighting for their lives. Otter ships had been destroyed by raptor vessels — no chance for mercy, no bargaining, no diplomacy. Otter lives lost. And cats. The Persian colony had been attacked mercilessly. Jenny didn’t know how many Persians had been lost before the Jolly Barracuda had saved the survivors.
“This is too big to trust to the navy,” Felix signed. “I needed to bring it to you.”
Jenny looked up at the sky. Jupiter’s marbled face was hazy through the plastic atmo-dome ceiling. It was big. Bigger than Earth. Destroying it was more than genocide — it was restructuring the solar system. “Would it be safe?” Jenny signed. “For Earth. Would it throw off Earth’s orbit or… I don’t know… Would it hurt Earth?”
“No,” Felix signed. “I’ve run the numbers over and over again. “Jupiter would crumple in on itself. It would start out slow, but the effect would cascade. Earth would barely notice.”
“We could threaten the raptors,” Jenny signed. “Not do it; just threaten to.”
“We could,” Felix signed. “But that would give them a chance to stop us, and they might succeed.” He frowned, whiskers downturned and dark eyes serious. “If we want to do this, we need to start now.”
Jenny put a paw to her collar and felt the empty place where her Jolly Barracuda sailing pin used to be. All she could think about was that stupid gold ornament in the talons of a baby raptor. Not a baby. A child who was old enough to make a choice, and who had chosen to save Jenny and Ordol. Jenny had made a promise to that raptor. She had said, “Maybe someday.”
Way, way down beneath the quagmire of toxic gases that looked like cheerful creamsicle clouds, there was at least one raptor who believed raptors and otters could be friends, that maybe someday they could visit each other peacefully.
“We can’t destroy Jupiter,” Jenny signed.
Felix looked relieved.
For a moment, Jenny was relieved too. The decision was made and over. But then the true weight of it came crashing down on her: she had a chance here to stop the raptors once and for all, and she was passing it up. Any animal they killed from here on out would be blood on her paws, because she could have stopped them. At an astronomical cost perhaps, but still — stopped them.
She needed a better alternative, and she needed it weeks ago. “Felix,” she signed, not feeling up to fighting the blare of the music with her voice. “I need you to walk me through everything you’ve learned about this base.” She looked around at the party, feeling sad that she was about to join Ordol in skipping it. But there would be other parties. At least, there would be other parties if she could find a way to use this base to protect Earth and all otter-kind from the raptors. “And I need you to do it now.”
Jenny strode straight to the elevator platform without a single look back at the merriment, and Felix followed her. The two otters strapped on breathing masks and descended into the depths of the ancient octopus base, hoping to learn the secrets of the ancient octopuses.
Continue on to Chapter 26…