HMAS Sovereign has breached the asteroid belt, chasing the Russians to the mysterious Planet X, but this is also a mission of exploration. Their first stop is Jupiter, King of Planets and Destroyer of Comets.
Many onboard feel Jupiter’s mighty pull, and their intuition has nothing to do with its great magnetic field. Jupiter has much to reveal, including an inner core that all the scientists on Earth insist cannot exist, and a type of life that’s the most incredible yet—the most legendary of creatures.
Already sensing he’s on the trail of something incredible, Nathaniel Stone has to ask whether this beast is an element of the same puzzle. Has it been created for a specific purpose? He may never know the answer if he doesn’t survive getting up close and personal, yet the draco may be the key to the very thing he’s looking for.
Deep in Jupiter’s core, there’s a trap, and no one sets a trap unless there’s something worth protecting. No stranger to suspicion, Nathaniel Stone is about to demonstrate the luck of the Irish and a willingness to sacrifice his self-respect for the good of the mission.
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CAUGHT IN AN UNEXPECTED pull the captain made the only decision possible. They’d hoped to descend lower before setting the right trajectory for entry through the outer atmosphere, but a hasty discussion had all agreeing that it was better to compensate and head on in. They were betting on much—that the approaching storm which would catch their tail end acted like any on Earth, and that above or below there would be a quiet zone. The sight was almost as amazing as Jupiter itself—the outer hull of Sovereign glowing as those on board fought to overcome the forces that all at once tried to pull the ship apart, drag it into a downward spiral, and yet throw it back out into the aether itself—all these energies at once making the haul shudder and scream.
The ship flared under duress, first amber, then red, then white. Sovereign began to shriek even as the captain made adjustments, shouted orders, battled to keep the ship on tack. The ship’s screeching could be heard but also felt, and not only in the way the vessel juddered. Beneath this there was a sensation, akin to a vibration so deep it shivered through Theobald’s bones and teeth. Someone made the sign of the cross and the captain wouldn’t have been surprised if the civilian complement throughout the ship was doing the same. The crew… Well, one or two might want to, but they were trained for this.
Whether the pleas worked or the events were merely happenstance, the moment Sovereign breeched the outer atmosphere was evident by the ship gathering speed. The colours of the outer glow changed and the squealing ceased, although the ship continued to shudder and groan. Perhaps they could avoid the storm below them yet.
One man was heard to say, “well, we’re out of that,” when a flash of white struck across the bow. It was gone in an instant before the captain could correct their course.
“Damage reports,” he snapped, and the information began to pour in. Even as he catalogued the cost to the ship and crew, he looked towards the forward window to see what horrors awaited them next.
Lightning flashed in long, fragmented streaks so close and from so many directions as to almost form a crosshatch—a net that might fall upon Sovereign any moment and lay waste to life aboard if not the ship itself. Penetrating the outer rim of the atmosphere seemed to focus the wrath of the planet in this one spot.
Fanciful notion, and untrue if only in the sense that if such an act of vengeance was possible, Jupiter had a number of ways to exert its full force, all of which would wipe them out as a man might swot a fly.
Still, the only noun suitable for what presented itself through the viewing ports was anger. Rolling thunderheads approached in great dark banks. The situation on board Sovereign was not difficult to imagine—those without a task that could in anyway help, clinging to the vessel as hard as they clung to hope. Barked orders were as good as anticipated and obeyed almost before the captain uttered them.
They could not hear the wind outside, but did not need to listen to know that if it had a voice, it howled. Darkness descended as if trying to smother them, then cleared as the ship dropped several layers down, making stomach’s heave and the crew retch.
One of the men said, “Captain, did you see…?” to which the captain snapped, “A storm? Yes, I’m not blind, man. It’s a ferocious one. Well, what is it that could be more important right now?”
“N-Nothing, sir, Captain, sir.”
ON THE BRIDGE, SEAMAN Roberts gasped, forgetting to carry out the captain’s barked command as the cloud beside him began to swirl as though boiling. Lightning zapped jagged white lines through the seething mass, the blue and white broken by red flashes that made the clouds appear licked by flames.
The crewman had heard of the volcanic activity on Io. Was it possible that they were diving down into a field of lava? He was about to shout out for the captain when the clouds parted. Something large, moving faster than he would have thought possible, rushed towards him, leaving him with the impression of something hard and craggy, a flash of colour, and a row of teeth—if teeth could be the same length as the height of a full-grown man.
Vaguely he was aware of his name being called. He shook himself out of his shock long enough to make the necessary instrument changes. As the hull continued to scream in protest, his concentration was once more taken up with duty and performance of the task at hand.
When he had a chance to think, he decided he had to be mistaken. What he’d seen was just a rock. This place had spooked him, and while there might be room in the universe for giant ants that could communicate, of the creature he thought he’d seen there was no chance. Being out in the aether was bad enough, but what he’d imagined went against everything he believed in of Heaven, and transported him to Hell itself. Another glance outside revealed only the turbulent upper atmosphere of Jupiter. He’d mistaken what he’d seen or not seen a thing. Hardly surprising when even now they groaned their way though noxious gases far out in the universe where he was sure man was never meant to tread. He’d say not a word or he’d spend the rest of the journey locked up somewhere having been labelled a mad man.
Roberts set his mind to following orders, grateful that he’d realised his error before causing himself any embarrassment.
The absence of rain made the storm eerie, though they were drenched in fury. Although the captain fought to keep them on some kind of course and out of the worst, the ship hit pockets where the wind spun them around as if they were a toy played with in the hands of a child. At times the wind was so fierce it grabbed them in its fist and shook them as if it wished to bully them apart.
Lower. They had to go lower. Fortunately, those on board were aware of this, and Roberts anticipated and responded to corresponding orders.
As they dropped, he was sure he was not the only one to suffer several more heart stopping minutes where nothing prevented his internal organs leaping into his throat along with the bile of hopelessness and the desire to be sick. He was better than to react to this, but training and experience appeared to have no care in the selection process of those affected.
One man who had already looked green for some minutes paled, turning as grey-white as the storm clouds, leaned over to spew. Another was fast off the mark and shoved a bag under his face. Roberts swallowed involuntarily, afraid he would be next and, despite keeping his delusions to himself, would suffer some indignity by being taken ill.
(c) Sharon Bidwell, all rights reserved.