flame-lords of jupiter

by
Robert gibson and zendexor

The hopes of Earth rest in the courage of a construct who dares to face the frightful overlords of the giant planet!

[Preface-statement by the authors, 7th August 2017, to introduce chapter 1:

To follow on from the Zendexor-Dylan collaborations Peril on Pallas and Mission to the Tenth Planet, here is the launch of another project, this time from a different author-duo.  Each chapter, in this latest offering, is more of a joint effort.  The taking-turns-to-write-alternate-chapters method, which has proved successful in the double-stranded Mission to the Tenth Planet, would be less appropriate for this more uni-linear tale.]


1

Resken 905 scowled with longing, hunched at the window of the orbiting fortress.  As his gaze scanned and roved, his stomach churned in almost human fashion with the weight of news.  During the past few minutes his situation had changed more than in the previous six thousand years, and a whisper now emerged, from his more-than-mortal brain, telling him that his age-long vigil might be about to end. 

       He stared as though the space around Jupiter were a labyrinth that would yield to scrutiny: he had become able, seriously able to believe, that his naked eyes might tell him what the fort’s detectors refused to reveal.  This made it likely that the hour at last had come, for which he had been created.

       Previous false alarms, strewn over centuries, had provided exercise for his intellect, but his android body had lacked action – had in fact never known any life other than that which he had always lived, in a cathedral-sized metal shell hurtling twenty thousand miles above the cloud-tops of the giant planet. 

       Yet he was as fit and muscular as the day his Terran masters had perfected him.  The cells that made up his Herculean frame drew their power from the restless virtual foam of space itself.  Physically as well as mentally, he was to all intents and purposes a minor god – which he needed to be, if his testing time was at hand.

       A buzzer sounded and a glow-bulb flashed, announcing a transphotic communication from Earth.  (Overwhelmed by a sense of history, Resken 905 glanced at the wall clock before pressing the stud to receive the call.  It was 05:11, Greenwich Mean Time, on 19th May, A.D. 8323.  He had been over sixty-two centuries in the Fortress.)

       “Resken?” said the voice from Earth, and simultaneously a caped figure appeared on the communic.

       “Yes, Mever, it is I.  I happen to be at home at the moment.”

       The object of his sarcasm smiled from the screen, crinkling a lined face.  “As always, I admire how you maintain the repartee…”

       “Seven minutes ago,” Resken cut in, “the space around me went red.”

       Meven’s face puckered and bleared.  The man’s mouth firmed in an effort to normalise, to dismiss the news: “It’s good, of course, that they constructed you with a sense of madcap fun, but – ”

       “Forgive me – I must stop you there.  You know, Meven, that there is one thing I never joke about.”  It was vital to convince the old Capcom dynast, one of the few remaining Terrans who still bothered to listen, that what was about to follow was no gag, no mere ploy to while away the years. 

       “Do you mean to tell me,” sighed the face on screen, “that you actually have something to report about the… you know… the – ”

       “I saw the vacuum outside my window acquire colour.  It turned a dull red.  The flicker was repeated twice.”

       “You realize what you are saying is impossible?”

       “A ranging shot, I’d guess.  From below.  And not impossible, merely unimaginable.” 

       Meven’s face was now a blotchy grey as he mumbled, “What do you think it means?”

       Resken had had tough-mindedness manufactured into him, yet could still spare some compassion for the frailer human.  Nevertheless the Terran had better pull himself together, because the answer could not be broken gently.

       “The Second Jovian War is about to begin.”

       “No.  No…”

       If only, thought the android, if only I could throw a bucket of cold water at that croaky time-wasting face.  “You can’t take it, but you must take it.  Or else Earth may be finished.”

       “They shouldn’t want it.  They wouldn’t dare.  Wouldn’t ever dare,” bleated the man.  “We thrashed them, last time.”

       “Then why did your ancestors build this fortress?  Why build me?”  He paused, and then, though he had never played cards, added:  “You always knew this was on the cards.”  Meven had no answer, and Resken continued, with a sense of an angler playing his fish, though he had never angled, never seen a stream, never seen a fish: “But you’re partly right, insofar as they wouldn’t risk it a second time with that kind of purely psychological warfare in which we worsted them so thoroughly.  Therefore, mark my words, they’re preparing a physical battle.”

       He watched those words sink in, watched their effect on the Terran’s features, and braced himself to ride out one last futile wave of rejection.  Sure enough the man scoffed – but feebly –

       “Jovian spaceships?”

       Resken scoffed in turn, “Come now – what’s so improbable about that?  Are you about to give me the silly old argument that Jupiter’s huge escape velocity makes us safe from them?  Ignoring that their resources are likely to be as exceptional as their world’s gravity, and that the one will compensate for the other?  It’s time to bestir yourself, Meven.  Alert your authorities; wake them up from their dabblings – because I’m going to need reinforcements!  Unless it’s already too late.”

       Meven however, taking his time, sadly began to shake his head.

       Here, then, realized Resken, was failure, clear from the body language: utter failure to rise to the occasion.  What next?  What could he do with such a person?  Continue to bawl him out: no other option presented itself.  From a vast tonal range, Resken picked a voice which cut like a blowtorch:  “Don’t tell me you have forgotten what this fortress is for.”

       Wistful came the Earthman’s reply: “It has given my life meaning…”

       “Ah,” said Resken in bitter understanding.  His loud-voiced approach having failed, he switched to irony.  “Ah.  Just ‘meaning’-therapy.  Including all your years of contact with me.  It’s all about feeling good.  Nothing more.”

       “I’m afraid that’s true,” muttered the screen-voice from between drooping shoulders.

       The admission did not greatly surprise Resken.  He had always been plentifully supplied with news from the home world of mankind.  ‘Meaning’ indeed was the only currency of value on an Earth long given to unlimited material wealth, ever since the invention of the matter-duplicator in 2330 had wiped out old-style economics overnight.  Only one age-old struggle remained – the quest for purpose. 

       To be appointed to the Observatory staff, to be trusted to maintain contact with the Fortress at Jupiter, was a prize keenly sought, an honour and a boon to the life of any decent, intelligent Terran.

       “Well,” shrugged Resken, “it’s a pity but you’re going to find out, you’re about to learn, Man, that a long distinguished record of fine gestures will not suffice to meet the Jovians’ attack.”

       Meven gave a weak farewell smile.  “Listen, friend.  We did do what was needed, long ago.”

       “You mean…”

       “We made you.”

       “That,” said Resken, “is the oldest, most useless argument of all.” 

       But he was speaking to a blank screen.  That was when he understood that he was absolutely alone; that no help would come from Earth; that all available hope had been so conveniently pinned on him.

2

A couple of minutes later, space flashed red again, as though the void could be stained by cherry juice.  The craziness of this apparent violation of natural law shouted its message of Jovian power.  Flash, flash, the stains shone brighter, enveloping the fortress.

       During this build-up Resken did his best to parry the inner thrusts of despair, by clinging to the knowledge that the Jovians had lost the First War.  Beaten once, they could be beaten again. 

       If so, it would have to be done differently this time.  History never repeated.  In the previous bout, the war’s psychological character had nullified the Jovians’ advantage of size – since no one could match Terrans for ruthless mental cunning.  But this next contest threatened to be an altogether cruder affair.  And neither the Earth nor the rest of the System could hope to withstand the hordes of the giant planet if they broke out into space. 

       An android is like a man, in that he has to have hope.  Resken therefore reminded himself that, after all, no enemy armada was visible yet.  Space-flashes, whatever they were, weren’t space-ships.  That final doom was not yet in evidence.

       As if on cue to that thought, the flashes re-appeared.  A quality without mass, without detectable radiation, stained the outside vacuum with a deep red that came and went in staccato bursts, stronger by far than the previous manifestations; strong enough, this time, that Resken’s queasiness swelled and popped as a burst of insight:

       THEY WON’T LEAP – THEY’LL PULL.  To them, their immense planet is the universe.  That’s why they’re not yet leaving it.  The very concept of going “off-world” is one they don’t yet understand.  Thank goodness.  That will be what saves us, if we do survive.  Yet the consequence may be grave for me personally.  I feel it in my steel bones, that since they don’t leap, they’ll pull – they’ll drag me down to them – ah, look now –

       In an elastic moment the outside redness brightened into pink.  Embracing the fortress, prongs of radiation scanned what was in it and then –

       One might as well say, the Jovians “pulled”.

       Resken’s awareness froze as he was “translated”. 

       The giant world’s gravity took hold of him.  Weight enough to crush a mere man, triggered in him a long-planned response: his musculature underwent that cellular adjustment for which it had been designed, with this moment in view, millennia before. 

       So he was able to throw off the effects of the change.  Presently, as his thoughts thawed into a stream of awareness, of new weight and motion, he looked about him.

       He was standing in a roomy monocar.    

       Except for ribs of metal, its hull was transparent, allowing him to see all around, far over cloud-tops below, and upwards to a billowy ceiling above.  Thus sandwiched between two levels of the Jovian atmosphere, the silent car ran frictionlessly atop a rail which appeared to float in mid-air.  Resken simply absorbed the stunning scene; he accepted it all: the mighty vehicle, the scarcely believable rail apparently unsupported in the midst of sky, and the sky itself, with its continent-sized clouds, diffusely lit vaporous mountains floating in a creamy twilight of beige, pink and orange… 

       This must be the Girdle.  I’m actually travelling on that equatorial planet-spanning structure which we divined in the First War.  According to Terran calculations it had twelve stations, each of which beamed its own nightmare at Earth.  We’re immune to it now.  They can’t be trying to use it again.  Not in the same way, at any rate.  There’d be no point.  So… they’re using it for something else.  As a transport system?  Yes – and as a stopover for me. 

       Guesswork was vital for Resken.  He must continue to believe in using his wits, ridiculous though it must seem to pit the said wits against the most colossal world in the System.

       Cling to hope, or give up and die; that was his choice, and because his makers had imparted to him their own irrational will to live, he hoped in his guesses.  “I’m going to be fetched from here,” he thought, and gained hefty satisfaction when, sure enough, he saw a grey round-ended cylinder soar towards him out of the lower clouds. 

       Not another “translation”, no.  So close to the surface, something more basic, something cruder is needed.

       As the rising shape approached to rendezvous with the monocar, the thing revealed its roughened texture, unpleasantly reminiscent of a bug with legs folded against its body: its design had nothing in common with the monocar’s austere beauty.  Resken did not even try to stop his mind from constructing empty theories.  The supreme Jovian lords most likely were aided by lesser minions, bug-like nasties who shared their evil but lacked their dignity.

       The crude grey airship clanged against the monocar.  In no time a circular section of wall flapped down to allow passage between the docked vehicles. 

       In through the gap came a clicking horde of spherical creatures on stubby retractable legs.  “Here come the Minions”, nodded Resken to himself.  They were about four feet high, with grotesquely wide mouths that opened and closed apparently out of smooth flesh, without lips or even a line to show (when the jaws were shut) where the openings had been.  Clack, clack, they surged in and poured around him.

       Jostled by these animated medicine balls, he was borne back with them as they returned to their airship, and as the connecting passage re-closed, and the ship un-docked and began its descent, he actually felt nostalgic for the quiet and splendid vehicle which doubtless continued as ever to glide round the great Girdle of the planet.  He allowed such small pieces of emotional guesswork free play within himself.  He’d been built, he now realized, to house the hunches and prejudices which churned within him, and to act inspired by the mettlesome spirit they now gave him.  Quite likely his designers had fully known, that in constructing him to last so long, they had caused something unique to brew… for how could the petty old boxes called “thought”, “logic”, or “emotion” still pigeonhole his input after so many thousands of years?  All must be boiled down into a super-intuition, so he trusted, so he hoped, as with a crazy glint in his eyes he prepared to wager the fate of his world, pitting himself against Jupiter.

       The snapping Minions allowed him to shove his way through them as he sought the window.  They let him stare as the airship descended into the lower cloud layer. 

       After perhaps half a minute the creamy blankness outside thinned away and through its last wisps Resken beheld the panorama which he had waited out his millennia to see.

       No human eyes would have been able to judge its distance or its scale, but Resken’s hard orbs, with their inbuilt equivalent of radar, ascertained that the planet lay spread out fifty miles below him.  He was permitted to gaze his fill – which made good sense, for why not let him see everything, since his likelihood of return to Earth was zero?

       Jupiter’s surface, diffusely bathed in its orange glow, undulated with enormous but shallow gradients, mottled with grey-hazed patches which he guessed (setting his gaze to highest magnification) to be jungle.  Five or six locations showed higher topography, with what resembled steeper volcanoes at the summits of lazier cones, as if Earth’s Mount Fuji had been placed atop Mars’ Olympus Mons.  Valleys and swales were streaked with phosphorescent orange rivers (or roads?) which must supply some of the illumination, while the rest of the available light either spilled up from molten vents or filtered down through the clouds, or both.  Resten wondered whether the darkness of night ever came to the surface of this world.  Perhaps some areas knew blackness, but this one might be a sleepless capital district.  “Guess on, guess on,” he encouraged himself; “there’s naught else to do.”

       Sudden blows to his shoulders jerked his attention away from the landscape.   Jostled again by the Minions, he was forced away from the window, hustled across the floor, down through a trapdoor and into a windowless pod in the underbelly of the airship. 

       He guessed again, rightly –

       It happened: a jolt of separation; a queasy weightless drop…

       Then deceleration and a swinging motion.  And lastly, the pod’s walls began to dissolve, actually dissolve like wax. 

       He wasn’t going to be granted a soft landing.  Contemptuously the lords of this world were making their point.  The method of dumping is the message.  It’s what you do with rubbish. 

       He fell a couple of yards onto the Jovian surface. 

       The drop was the equivalent of a five-yard fall on Earth, but his springy synthetic muscles were equal to the shock.  He landed in a crouch like that of an athlete who awaits the starting gun.  Simultaneously, eyes strained wide, he made sure that he did not lose a split second in his grasp of the scene around him.  People!  Human shapes!  A crowd of brightly clothed forms, mouths agape!  He heard them piping with amazement as they shuffled.  They were backing off, to take position at a respectful ten-yard distance from the alien construct who had been tipped onto their patch.    

TO BE CONTINUED