Kayonga Tedesco forced himself to put aside the emotions coursing through his consciousness after the confrontation moments earlier with the commander of Callisto Base. He was taking all his concentration to pilot the shuttle Pinega into the massive white clouds of ammonia ice making up the top seventy or so kilometers of Jupiter’s atmosphere. Winds approaching 600 kilometers an hour buffeted the small craft, but its internal gravitics kept those violent movements from affecting Kayonga and his co-pilot Lena Savakis.
They were bound for a rendezvous with a sentient being half a kilometer long.
“I’m getting a good reading on Entai,” Lena told Kayonga. “She’s about three hundred K in front of us.”
“Got ‘er,” Kayonga said. “It’ll be good to see her again.” The anticipation of that meeting calmed Kayonga even more.
Entai was a Jupiter whale, a being whose body was filled with helium and heavier gases, which allowed her to glide within the countless currents, calms, and storms that made up the giant planet’s atmosphere. The mother of four children, she’d left them in the care of her pod to take on a mission that she felt only Kayonga could help her with.
Massive columns of ammonia and water generated lightning bolts a thousand times stronger than those in Earthly skies. They silhouetted a massive form just ahead, which flashed into visibility by altering her colors from blue to orange to yellow in greeting. She resembled an up-scaled Earthly whale in physical form, with large flippers on each side and one standing on top of her back. Her eyes were larger in proportion to Earth whales, since sight played a larger role in interpreting and understanding her surroundings.
Kayonga opened a channel to his friend. “Entai — I’ve been eager to see you again.”
The whale’s response came in clearly, with none of the static that Jupiter’s own magnetic field sometimes generated: “It is good to hear your voice again.”
“And yours, as well. The other voice you’ll hear is Lena Savakis, my co-pilot, who’s also an engineer.”
“Hello, Entai,” Lena said. Bursts of lightning repeatedly illuminated her dark skin. “I’m honored to finally meet you.”
“I am also honored,” Entai said.
Kayonga asked, “Is your family well?”
“Lilyn, Therach, Serild, and Itrak are all quite well. Thanks to you.”
Lena gave Kayonga a questioning look. “Later,” he mouthed. To Entai, he said, “Do you have a good position on our target?”
“Zhiris is about sixty kilometers ahead of us.”
Zhiris was another Jupiter whale. Entai had given her that name, which translated to “unknown” in whalespeak.
Entai believed Zhiris may be the loneliest Jupiter whale in the world.
Such beings did not have ears, but instead communicated by generating electrical impulses that could convey meanings every bit as subtle as Human speech, perhaps more so. Human communications systems could even pursue conversations with Jupiter whales, not just intercepting their impulses, but translating them into Human speech.
But Zhiris had never made such a connection with any other whale within Jupiter, and avoided any physical contact. Entai was one of the few Jupiter whales who had edged close enough to Zhiris at one point to detect the electric field she used to communicate. But, its frequency was different from the one Entai and all other Jupiter whales used, and Entai couldn’t understand it or duplicate it.
Kayonga said, “It’ll take the better part of two hours for you to overtake her. Do you want me to go ahead and see what I can find out?”
“If you would,” Entai replied. “My hope is that you can communicate with her on her own frequency.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea? My comms can translate Human speech into whalespeak on her frequency. But she’s never heard whalespeak. She’ll have no way to understand what I’m saying.”
Lena spoke up. “In Human terms, she’s illiterate.”
“In a sense. We’d be teaching her words and concepts from scratch.”
Entai said, “Failure to translate.”
Kayonga said, “Ah — ‘from scratch.’ A Human term. Having to start from the very beginning. At some point, we may have to implant a translation unit within her so she can speak to other whales and understand their speech in turn.”
“That could take some time.”
“Time we may not have. Captain Marianthal will be bringing our ship, the Belyanka, back to pick us up in a few days.” The starcraft was delivering a crewmember and his husband to Earth, where they would raise their recently-conceived daughter. As much as Kayonga was eager to help Entai, he wished he’d had a chance to visit friends and family back in Ghana. Belyanka was said to have another assignment pending once it returned to Callisto Base.
“I understand,” the Jupiter whale said. “We will talk again when you catch up to Zhiris.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” Kayonga said, and cut the connection.
A few moments after aiming the Pinega toward the best position they had for Zhiris, Kayonga told Lena, “I suppose you want to know the story behind my connection to Entai’s children.”
“If it’s something you want to tell,” Lena said.
“I’m surprised you never heard it, but I guess I haven’t made a point of telling everyone on Belyanka about it.” He paused to clear his throat.
“Listen, if it’s something you don’t want to talk about — “Lena began.
Kayonga waved away Lena’s concern. “It’s fine. It’s not fair I haven’t told you before now. It happened a couple of years ago. Entai and some of her children were in danger after one of them wandered into an area of dangerously strong winds. Other adults tried to help, too. I was stationed on Callisto Base at the time, and took one of its shuttles down to rescue everyone. Pulled them out with enticement beams.”
“So what was the problem?”
“It, uh, never gets easier telling this part. A Human shuttle was in trouble, at the same time. A friend of mine, Michael Pearson, and his co-pilot Donna Gage, were on board. I rescued the Jupiter whales instead of them.”
Lena’s hand covered her mouth. When she lowered it, she said, “Because more of the whales were in trouble.”
“Yes.” When Lena didn’t respond, Kayonga said, “If you think I’m someone horrible for — “
“No. It’s not that. I’m trying to think what I would do in the same situation.”
“Yeah. That’s a common reaction.”
“And I suppose it’s why Commander Wilkinson had what looked like a pretty intense conversation with you just before we left.”
“Intense is just about the right word.”
# # #
I find it difficult to believe that you’ve shown your ass back here in my house.
Your house, sir?
We’re a tight-knit operation. A lot of us would say we’re family. In fact, I’m one of those who says it.
Michael was best man at my wedding. I was training Donna to take over as commander when I retire in a few years.
I’m sorry, sir.
I didn’t want you back here. I don’t care why you’re here, what kind of good deed you think you might be doing this time. But I can’t keep you from going on this mission.
I understand, sir.
That’s all you can say? “I understand, sir?”
Get out of my sight. Now!
# # #
Kayonga said, “He let me know that he wouldn’t be providing any support or backup beyond what the precise language of the law required.”
Lena gave Kayonga a penetrating stare. “Don’t you think you should’ve told me that before we left?”
Kayonga concentrated on the shuttle’s path through Jupiter’s atmosphere. “You’re right. But it happened right before we launched, and . . . “
“Don’t worry about it now. We’re committed.”
“We can turn back if — “
“No. I may have my uncertainties about Wilkinson’s actions and about your own, two years ago. But I’m absolutely certain I want to help Zhiris. I can’t imagine the loneliness she must be feeling.”
Kayonga accelerated the shuttle. “Then let’s get to her as soon as we can.”
# # #
Even with Pinega’s sensors at maximum, Kayonga and Lena found it difficult to locate Zhiris at first. Prevailing winds of hydrogen and helium that maintained themselves for years at a time tossed the shuttle back and forth, while lightning bolts that could shatter a small moon ripped across Jupiter’s skies. Though the shuttle’s tech protected them from the physical effects of such movement, the view on the forward screen was unstable, nearly vertiginous.
Lena said, “We’ve got a large lifeform about ten clicks ahead. Conforms to Zhiris’s size and shape.”
“I’ll bring us in just behind and beneath her,” Kayonga said. Zhiris’s image grew on the viewscreen.
“She’s larger than Entai. Her skin looks rougher.”
“She may be older. I’d like to get a skin sample sometime, and do a deep sensor probe of her body.”
Lena said, “I’ll be satisfied with this close encounter.”
Kayonga opened a channel to Entai. “We’ve found Zhiris. We’re going to get as close as we can.”
This time Entai’s reply fought interference from Jupiter’s magnetic field: “I will approach zzzhht as possible.”
“Dammit, you’re breaking up,” Kayonga said. “We’ll keep reporting in, whether you can hear us or not.”
An extended hissing sound was the only reply.
Kayonga told Lena, “We’re heading in.” Zhiris’s image grew larger on the main viewscreen for a few moments, but then shrunk as the Jupiter whale increased her speed.
“Think she’s spotted us?” Lena asked.
Kayonga said, “Only one way to find out,” and pressed the shuttle forward that much faster.
Lena checked the sensors again, saying, “It looks like she’s headed for that thunderstorm that’s just a few clicks ahead. Downward and to port.”
“And she’s going that much faster.”
“I’m on her frequency. I’m not picking up any whalesong.”
Kayonga said, “If she’s never communicated with any other whales, she may not cry for help.”
“I thought she might cry out in fear or despair.”
“Reasonable enough. Either way — “
“I know,” Lena said. “She’s keeping quiet.”
Only moments after they entered the thunderstorm, which featured clouds hundreds of kilometers tall, the most massive gust of wind yet made the Pinega go inverted, then twisted it back to its previous course. The viewscreen dimmed repeatedly as several lightning bursts flashed across their path.
“Thank goodness for the gravitics,” Lena said. “But I’m getting dizzy just watching the show.”
Kayonga said, “I’m pulling us out of here. I’m reading a lot of strain on our hull, and we’ve got several systems about to overload.”
# # #
The Pinega rose from the most turbulent part of the storm. Kayonga sent it pacing Zhiris’s path as she continued within it. He opened a channel to Entai, hoping the shuttle’s signal could reach the Jupiter whale with a minimum of interference. “Entai — we’ve left the thunderstorm Zhiris entered so we don’t damage our shuttle. I’m hoping as long as she stays inside there, that should slow her down enough that you’ll be able to catch up to us.”
Entai’s reply came back with only a minimum of background noise: “I agree. It’s unfortunate that your presence appeared to scare her. But please, do not blame yourself.”
“We’re trying to keep a fix on her. I can only hope we can position ourselves so she understands we won’t harm her.”
“Hold on, I’ve got something,” Lena said. Her eyes went wide. “Listen.” She punched a control on the console before her and a plaintive, sustained series of sounds washed over them.
Kayonga asked, “Are we hearing Zhiris?”
“It has to be,” Lena said. “Other than Entai, she’s the only whale close enough for us to receive this.”
“Patch it through to Entai.”
Lena did so, with Kayonga sayings, “Listen to this. We’re capturing Zhiris’s whalesong.”
As Kayonga listened, he thought, These sounds represent a deep well of emotion. An incredible sadness.
Or am I just layering my own Human reactions over these sounds?
After a few moments, Entai responded: “This is like no other whalesong I’ve heard. It contains no concepts or standard appeals to emotion that I’m familiar with, other than the background vibrations.”
“Background vibrations?” Lena asked.
Kayonga said, “That mirrors part of the nature of Earth whales. Besides what they hear, the act of sound moving through a substance causes vibrations.”
Entai said, “We feel those vibrations through our skin. They do not transmit meaning.”
Kayonga asked, “So her regular whalesong has her speaking a different language from standard whalesong?”
“We have regional differences in our speech. Zhiris’s sounds are like nothing I’ve heard before. It is as you said. We will be teaching her ‘from scratch.’”
Lena said, “I’ve been recording her song. If we listen to it a few more times, maybe we can figure something out about it.”
Entai said, “Perhaps I can place myself in front of her and you can play the recording back toward her — as if I am speaking. Even if she can’t understand me, it would be a way to make an initial contact.”
“That’s a great idea,” Kayonga said.
# # #
As Kayonga had expected, Zhiris’s passage through the thunderstorm slowed her sufficiently that the Pinega and Entai were able to rush past her and place themselves several kilometers ahead of her, near the area they expected her to exit the storm. Kayonga positioned the shuttle so that Entai’s half-kilometer wide body would hide it from Zhiris.
Soon clouds parted, revealing Zhiris about half a kilometer away. Kayonga told Entai, “We’re playing back her song.” Lena activated the recording.
Zhiris’s forward motion slowed, then halted. Kayonga was grateful finally to get a close-up look at the Jupiter whale. As they’d noticed earlier, Zhiris’s skin appeared rougher than that of most other whales Kayonga had seen before. Her black skin barely reflected light from the thunderstorm still raging behind her.
Entai said, “I will also change colors in greeting.” She altered her skin from black to blue to orange to yellow.
Kayonga said, “She’s not reacting yet to either greeting. Look at her eyes.” Zhiris’s eyes appeared small compared to those of most Jupiter whales Kayonga had seen, especially as she seemed to be squinting.
“She is reacting now,” Entai said. “Notice the surface of her skin.”
Lena raised the resolution on the viewscreen. Zhiris’s skin rippled, over and over, from just behind her head, all the way to her horizontal fluke.
Kayonga asked, “What could be causing that?”
“She’s frightened,” Entai said.
“Why doesn’t she move away from us?”
“She may be about to panic. She could be too frightened to move. We should stop the transmission, back up, and give her some room.”
“Go,” Kayonga said as Lena cut off the transmission.
Kayonga backed up the shuttle in pace with Entai. Lena kept the viewscreen’s resolution close on Zhiris’s image. After about half a minute, Zhiris’s skin stopped rippling.
Kayonga asked, “Now what should we do?”
Entai said, “I still wonder why she doesn’t answer.”
“It may be confusing that she’s hearing her own voice called back to her.”
Lena spoke up: “What if we try sending the recording again, but from back here? Perhaps it won’t seem so threatening.”
Entai said, “I agree.”
“Send it,” Kayonga said.
Lena transmitted the recording once again.
And once again, Zhiris’s skin began to ripple.
“Go ahead and stop it,” Kayonga said.
Lena halted the transmission.
Kayonga checked the image of Zhiris’s body. “It quit rippling again. Almost as if some sort of vibration is . . . wait a minute!”
“What is it?” Lena asked.
“Can you separate the audio of Zhiris’s whalesong from the background vibrations?”
Lena punched in some commands. “Done.”
Kayonga told Entai over comms, “I’m going to try something. Keep an eye on Zhiris.”
Entai said, “I will focus both eyes on her.”
To Lena, Kayonga said, “Transmit the whalesong by itself.”
Lena sent the transmission. After a few moments, Entai said, “She is not reacting.”
Kayonga said, “Now stop the whalesong, and only transmit the background vibrations.”
On the viewscreen, Zhiris clearly reacted to that transmission, her skin rippling as it did twice before.
“Go ahead and turn it off,” Kayonga said. “Let’s not upset her any more than we have to.”
Entai asked, “What does this mean?”
“It means Zhiris can’t perceive whalesong, but she can perceive the background vibrations associated with it.”
Lena said, “You mean — “
“Yes. Zhiris is deaf.”
# # #
Kayonga guided the Pinega to follow Entai as the Jupiter whale glided off until she and the shuttle were out of sight of Zhiris. They paused within an area of bright, swirling clouds. Kayonga asked, “Entai, are you familiar with other Jupiter whales that have lost their hearing? Or perhaps never had it?”
Entai said, “I know of whales in other pods that have that condition. It can happen during birth, or their ability to hear could be damaged by having lightning strike too closely to them or in any number of other ways. Generally, they are kept close to others within the same pod to care for them. But Zhiris is also unusual in a different way.”
Kayonga said, “Not speaking on the same frequency.”
“Precisely. If that had not been the case, her podmates might have noticed and overcome her deafness. But, not speaking or hearing at all created a further separation from her family. They might even have had a superstitious fear of her.”
Lena said, “Zhiris must have been pretty lucky to survive all these years she’s spent alone.”
“We have no natural predators,” Entai said. “And if Zhiris can feel the vibrations of others’ speech, she most likely can detect those of a particularly strong storm coming her direction.”
Kayonga said, “That shows how frightened she must have been to hide from us inside a storm.”
“I assume,” Lena said, “that your people have no way of curing such a malady.”
Entai said, “We do not.”
Kayonga accessed the shuttle’s library computer. “Let’s see how we Humans deal with this.”
# # #
Kayonga felt he had the answer to the problem after he and Lena spent nearly half an hour of searching for a solution and how it would be implemented. But there could be a big problem with it, Kayonga thought. All I can do is suggest it and see how Entai reacts.
He explained to Entai what he and Lena had learned: “It looks as if the best thing we can do for Zhiris is install what’s called a cochlear implant. It doesn’t just magnify sounds, it runs them through a speech processor and converts them into electronic impulses.”
“Which is how we hear things anyway,” Entai said.
“But we cannot approach Zhiris without her panicking. How can we convince her to accept this implant?”
Lena said, “That’s the problem.”
Kayonga said, “With no way to communicate with her, we would have to do this without her knowing it.”
Entai said, “And how would you do that?”
Kayonga said, “It would mean injecting her with it from a distance, with a device much like a harpoon.”
Entai remained silent for a long moment. Then: “What you are suggesting is essentially a violent act.”
“I know it is. I’m not comfortable with it, either.”
“Do not misunderstand me, Kayonga. You are my friend. You saved the lives of my children and others of my pod at great personal cost. But, I fear that this solution comes dangerously close to treating Zhiris as if she were an animal and not a sentient being.”
“That’s . . . my concern, as well.”
“So what do we do?” Lena asked. “Just leave her? Let her live alone, frightened whenever she sees another of her species, as she has all her life?”
Entai asked, “You are certain this will work?”
Kayonga rubbed his face. “I can’t be absolutely certain. Nothing like this has ever been tried before.”
Lena said, “This isn’t something my engineering training ever anticipated, but I can give it a shot.”
“The shuttle’s replicator appears capable of creating the harpoon and the scaled-up cochlear implant.”
“Here is my proposal,” Entai said. “We do this. My hope is that I can begin to communicate with Zhiris soon afterward. Once she understands what we’ve done, we ask if she wishes to retain this . . . . “
“Cochlear implant,” Kayonga said.
“If she wishes to retain it, we continue. Otherwise, we remove it and leave her to live her life as she always has.”
Kayonga looked at Lena, who nodded slowly.
“All right, then,” Kayonga said. “Let’s go for it.”
# # #
A couple of hours later, Entai hung back as Kayonga guided the Pinega toward Zhiris again, with a newly-extruded harpoon launcher hanging beneath the craft’s hull. The harpoon itself was attached to a thin but strong cable 200 meters long. It would pull the harpoon out of Zhiris’s skin after implanting a packet of specialized nanites. Those nanites would course through her body and settle themselves on either side of her head. Then, they would morph into the cochlear implants. Kayonga told Lena, “Everything handles a little differently with the weight being redistributed,” Kayonga told Lena. “I’m going to get as close as I can before I launch this thing.”
Then, it would be up to Entai to make contact. She would sing her whalesong toward Zhiris, and, with luck, the implants would pick up those sounds and translate them into the frequency that Zhiris could hear. Zhiris’s vocalizations would, in turn, be translated into the frequency Entai and other Jupiter whales could hear.
Understanding one another would be a separate process.
Zhiris floated through a layer of Earth-like white clouds and descended into a lower layer of brown clouds. Kayonga brought the Pinega in directly behind Zhiris’s body, close enough that the shuttle shook from the wake of her hundred-meter-wide fluke.
“Ready?” Kayonga asked Lena.
“As I’ll ever be.”
“No Ahab analogies, OK? We’re here to heal, not kill.”
Lena displayed a crooked smile. “Wouldn’t dream of it. Besides, my favorite Moby Dick quote is about the mystery of the sea, and some hidden soul beneath it.”
“Very poetic. Me, I’m just hoping I can shoot straight.” Kayonga waited until the shuttle found a smooth stretch of cloud, activated the makeshift aiming function, and fired. “Harpoon away!”
The device shot away from Pinega, headed directly at Zhiris. Kayonga kept his gaze fixed on the projectile the entire way, as it closed in on Zhiris’s dark form.
And bounced off.
“Goddam it!” Kayonga said. After a moment’s hesitation, he activated the control that drew the harpoon back to the shuttle.
For her part, Zhiris didn’t react at all. She maintained her straight-and-steady course, apparently unaware of the effort to spear her.
Entai spoke up. “That was unfortunate.”
“At least we didn’t hurt her,” Lena said.
Kayonga asked, “Should we try again?”
“I approve,” Entai said.
Lena said, “I’ll help you get set up again.”
Moments later, Kayonga guided the shuttle even closer to Zhiris. Fired again.
The harpoon bounced off again. This time, Zhiris appeared to realize something had happened. She waggled her fluke and headed even deeper into Jupiter’s clouds, at a right angle from the shuttle.
Kayonga watched her leave. Had nothing to say, just shook his head.
Lena told him, “You did the best you could.”
Entai’s voice came in over comms: “I appreciate the efforts by both of you to help Zhiris.”
“That’s fine,” Kayonga said. “Except we’re not done yet.”
# # #
“You can’t be serious about trying this,” Lena told Kayonga soon after they’d located Zhiris once again.
Entai said, “I cannot expect you to take this chance. The idea of launching yourself toward Zhiris and landing on her is much too dangerous.”
“We can’t have come this far just to give up,” Kayonga said. He rose from the pilot’s chair and went to a seldom-used locker just behind the control cabin. He took out a spacesuit specially designed to protect its wearer against the harsh conditions in Jupiter’s atmosphere. He asked Lena, “Help me suit up.”
Lena clicked on the shuttle’s autopilot and joined Kayonga to help him squeeze into the suit. “Have you even worn this kind of suit before?”
“There are a lot of things on this trip we haven’t done before.”
“That’s not much of an answer.”
“It’s as much as I have.” Kayonga lowered his helmet’s faceplate. “Comm check, comm check.”
“I hear you. But I wish I didn’t.”
“Do me a favor and transfer the nanite packet into the airlock.”
Lena emitted a long sigh and returned to the co-pilot’s position. She made a couple inputs on the console before her. “Done.”
Kayonga said, “You saw how I approached Zhiris earlier. You can do it just as well as I can.”
“I’d say I can do it better.”
“I’m sorry. You’re right, of course.”
Lena favored Kayonga with a slow nod and turned toward the shuttle’s controls. “I’m ready. Well, ready as I’ll ever be, I suppose.”
Kayonga entered the shuttle’s small airlock. He picked up the nanite packet and attached it to the front of his spacesuit. After cycling the lock’s air into storage, he opened the outer hatch. He held onto its frame as the shuttle neared Zhiris. When it drew close enough, he would leap onto her back. The Jupiter whale slid between two horizontal banks of clouds, apparently serene after having made her escape just minutes earlier.
Entai was hiding within another tall bank of clouds several kilometers behind them. She said, “I can barely make out Zhiris in the far distance from me. It doesn’t appear as if she’s detected me or the shuttle.”
“Let’s hope we can keep it that way,” Kayonga said. Zhiris’s form loomed large before him. Lena was guiding the shuttle well to one side of the Jupiter whale’s fluke, and was about to soar over top of her, aiming to settle down upon her back.
I’m sure we’ll only get one shot at this, Kayonga thought. I’m amazed we’re getting this close to her without her detecting us.
A new voice came over comms: “This is Commander Peter Wilkinson from Callisto Base. Respond immediately, please.”
Shit, Kayonga thought. I’m only about ten seconds from making the jump. “Commander, I’m kind of in the middle of an operation here.”
“An operation I’m demanding that you cease immediately.”
He doesn’t want Zhiris to receive any help, Kayonga thought. “Listen, Commander — it’s disgusting that just because I saved Entai and those other whales before, you don’t want me to help Zhiris.”
“Just the opposite,” came Wilkinson’s reply. “I’m protecting her from an immoral and possibly illegal act.”
From inside Pinega, Lena said, “I’m stationkeeping for now.” The shuttle hovered only three meters from Zhiris’s back.
Kayonga said, “We’ve discussed this among ourselves. If Zhiris doesn’t want this, we’ll remove the implant.”
“And in the meantime, you’re physically assaulting her and performing what amounts to an illicit medical procedure.”
Entai broke in: “I gave Kayonga my approval.”
“With all respect,” Wilkinson said, “you are not in any way certified as an ambassador or any other official with Earth’s government.”
Movement caught Kayonga’s eyes, as Zhiris’s skin rippled, ever so slightly.
Commander Wilkinson said, “Kayonga Tedesco, I’m giving you formal notice that if you do this, I will ban you and Lena Savakis from Callisto Base permanently. If I had the power, I’d ban the starcraft Belyanka and all of its crew, as well. How do you think your Captain Marianthal will like that?”
“And you’re going to take that action without notifying her in advance?”
“You’re the one hovering over Zhiris right now. You’re the one forcing my hand.”
Zhiris’s skin rippled even more. This isn’t like her detecting our attempt to communicate with her. Something else must be upsetting her.
Probably the growing realization that something is hovering directly over her. We could spook her at any moment.
Wilkinson’s voice took on more urgency: “Kayonga Tedesco, you are to abort and return to Callisto Base. Now!”
Kayonga let go of the airlock’s doorframe. He landed on Zhiris’s back, stumbled once, then caught himself. I’m can’t waste any time, he thought, and grabbed the nanite packet from his chest. He activated it and pressed it as hard as he could against Zhiris’s back.
The device dissolved beneath Kayonga’s hand. Now it’s up to the nanites, Kayonga thought —
— As Zhiris’s skin rippled much more violently, her fluke thrust her forward, and Kayonga tumbled off her back.
Kayonga’s body spun violently, and he fumbled with his suit’s thrusters to steady himself.
Lena’s voice came over comms: “Kayonga! I’ve lost visual contact with you, and the planet’s magnetic field is playing hell with sensors! I can’t get a lock for an enticement beam!”
I can’t even try to head upward until I use my suit thrusters to cancel out this spin, Kayonga thought. I’m too dizzy and disoriented, and might just send myself even deeper into the planet.
Commander Wilkinson’s voice: “Kayonga, I repeat — return to base immediately.”
A fine idea, Kayonga thought, then found it difficult to follow that thought with another, as consciousness faded.
# # #
Awareness returned. Kayonga was no longer spinning; he opened his eyes and saw that he was rising rapidly, face down, still looking down into the thick clouds. Lena must’ve gotten a beam on me after all, he thought.
He couldn’t move his legs, though. What the hell’s happened? He wondered. Was I injured somehow as I fell?
He looked up, toward his legs, and yelped in surprise.
Entai, a giant presence above him, grasped his legs as she rose through the atmosphere. It’s like a building reached down and grabbed me, Kayonga thought.
“Do not be frightened,” Entai said. “Lena has paused your shuttle directly overhead. I will have you there within moments.” Since Jupiter whales communicated through electrical impulses rather than blowing air through body parts, Entai could speak to him while also carrying him with his mouth.
“You should’ve gone after Zhiris,” Kayonga told her.
Entai said, “I could not let my friend die.”
Over comms, Kayonga heard, “This is Commander Wilkinson. Kayonga, are you declaring an emergency? We stand ready to assist.”
Kayonga couldn’t help but chuckle. At least Wilkinson’s playing by the book. “Thank you, Commander. But I’m in good hands.” So to speak, he thought.
# # #
As Kayonga came through Pinega’s inner airlock hatch, Lena nearly bowled him over with a massive hug. “I was scared shitless for you,” she said.
Kayonga started taking off his spacesuit. “Well, I kinda was for myself. Thank goodness for Entai.”
“I tried my damnedest to get to you — “
“Don’t worry about it. I put myself in that situation. I purposely didn’t say anything before I jumped because I didn’t want you taking any of the blame from Commander Wilkinson.”
Lena returned to the co-pilot’s position. “None of that matters to him. He hasn’t shut up yet.”
“All the more reason for us to keep ignoring him.” Kayonga sat in the pilot’s position, checked the forward sensors. “Where’s Entai now?”
Lena sat next to him. “Trying to catch up to Zhiris. I told her about a shortcut she could use by taking a straight path instead of following the planet’s curve. I hope it works for her.”
Kayonga moved the shuttle forward. “Let’s find out. We’ll stay back far enough not to be a distraction.”
The Pinega soon caught up to Entai, who was moving just ahead of Zhiris again. Kayonga positioned the shuttle off to one side.
Within moments, Entai sent out a call. Kayonga found himself sitting stock-still, as if any movement could distract Zhiris from that hail. The shuttle’s comms translated it as, “Greetings. I am Entai. What is your name?”
I’d almost forgotten that “Zhiris” is whalespeak for “unknown,” Kayonga thought. We can only hope that the translator tech is letting Zhiris hear Entai’s different frequency.
For a moment, Zhiris didn’t respond. Then her entire body lit up, changing from black to orange. “Well, that’s a response,” Kayonga told Lena. “I guess she’s also learning how to respond with her different colors.”
Entai responded in kind, also turning orange and adding blue and yellow to her rotation. In the next instant, Zhiris responded again, this time with whalesong. The shuttle’s comms only passed on the raw sounds of those songs, not a translation of their meaning, as it did routinely with Entai or other Jupiter whales’ speech.
“Just as we thought,” Kayonga said. “Zhiris has never heard anyone else’s whalesong. She’s never developed language. There’s nothing to translate.”
Lena said, “This is going to be a long-term effort for Entai.”
“You are correct,” Entai said. “But I look forward to the time when I, and the rest of my pod, can speak easily to Zhiris.”
“I look forward to that, as well,” Kayonga said. “We’re heading back to Callisto Base. But we’ll be sure to follow your progress.”
“I hope your Commander Wilkinson will be forgiving of you.”
“Fortunately, he’s not ‘my’ commander. But, he can cause some trouble. I’m not worried about myself. This was my decision. But I don’t want Lena or the rest of the crew of the Belyanka to get into trouble.”
“I think we’ll be fine,” Lena said. After a moment, she added, “At least I hope we will.”
Kayonga sent the Pinega upward, leaving Entai and Zhiris behind and setting a course straight for Callisto Base. Wilkinson demanded to speak to Kayonga moments after their arrival.
# # #
Two days later, Belyanka arrived at Callisto Base. Kayonga didn’t hesitate; he and Lena guided the Pinega away from Callisto Base and into the starcraft’s shuttle bay as quickly as they could. They reported to the bridge, where Captain Marianthal was waiting. Kayonga and Lena flanked her at her command chair as they related their experiences with Entai and Zhiris within Jupiter.
“Then afterward, Wilkinson banned the two of you from Callisto Base?” Captain Marianthal asked.
Kayonga said, “That’s what he said he would do. I don’t know if he’s actually filed any paperwork.”
Lena spoke up: “I’m not even sure there’s a form for that.”
“Either way,” Marianthal said, “don’t worry about it.” She turned toward Kayonga. “Although, I ought to put you on report for diving onto Zhiris’s back and nearly getting yourself killed. What the hell were you thinking?”
Kayonga shrugged. “Only about how to get the job done.”
“Well . . . think harder next time. All the same — good job, both of you. I’m putting you both in for commendations. And just for fun, I’ll be sure to file a report with Commander Wilkinson saying as much.”
“That should be fun,” Kayonga said.
Marianthal told Kayonga, “I suppose that cancels out you being put on report. So, go get some rest, both of you. We’ll be heading out of the system in a few minutes.”
On their way to their separate quarters, Lena told Kayonga, “You never did tell me how your little meeting with Wilkinson turned out.”
“I’d say kinda like before. Intense.”
# # #
Thank you, Peter, for asking if we needed assistance while we were helping Zhiris.
Let’s keep it “Commander Wilkinson” for now, shall we? I did what regulations require. No more than that.
So we’re back to “yes, sir.”
Uh — yes, sir.
I’m providing quarters for you and Lena as far away from my people as possible until Belyanka returns. I’m storing Pinega in a far corner of our hangar bay. That ban I told you about takes effect the moment you leave. I don’t want to see either one of you again.
Yes, s —
Don’t even say it. Just get out of my sight.
# # #
Before Kayonga could even fall into bed, though, word came from Entai that he should look down upon Jupiter at a certain precise set of coordinates. “I believe you will find this sight interesting,” she said over Kayonga’s personal comm. He activated a viewscreen and dialed in the area Entai insisted upon.
He wasn’t sure at first what he was looking at. Skimming the top of a large range of clouds, he saw a dozen or more Jupiter whales gathered in a loose circle, with more bearing down on the same location. All their bodies were cycling through their most consistent series of colors — blue, orange, and yellow, with the occasional flash of red or purple.
A closer focus on the central group of whales, and Kayonga realized Zhiris floated among them, lighting up her body as rapidly and eagerly as any of the others.
“Zhiris is no longer, as you would say, ‘skittish.’ It appears that finally hearing the sound of potential friends all around her has made her brave.”
“Or has allowed the bravery she always possessed to reveal itself.”
“An insight I hadn’t considered,” Entai said.
“I hope you can tell Zhiris about your Human friends one day.”
“I intend to. Kayonga — I understand I may never see you again.”
“I’m afraid that’s correct.”
“Then know always that I honor you, and Lena, and all other Humans who helped my people.”
“I’ll always miss you. But you never know. Wilkinson won’t be commander here forever. Maybe someday, I’ll be back after all.”
“On that day, I will rejoice. Goodbye for now.”
Before Kayonga could say goodbye, the giant planet receded quickly in the display as Belyanka pulled away, headed toward its stardrive jump point. The flashing lights of the Jupiter whales faded within seconds, lost within the vast clouds of ammonia ice punctuated by bursts of lightning.