Old stories told by the first few deep solar system travelers never could recount the immensity of the giant storm that is Jupiter. I remember the televised interviews with the most famous travelers, the ones who survived radiation leaks or gravity slips. They spoke of the planet's beauty, but never its size. It's impossible for the human mind to begin to comprehend the vast swaths of sheer roiling hurricanes and furious auroras that fill the monotonous emptiness all around. Jupiter is unspeakably big. It tosses moons nearly the size of our own Earth around like marbles and dwarfs them like the god it's named for. It dwarfs us now too, looming ever closer, one red eye peering at us accusingly. God, it looks nearly alive now. Sentient and full of wrath.
Io is coming up on the starboard side.
It's just a speck against the banded gales encircling the lumbering Jovian at first, a tiny pebble braving the radiation that whips around our craft this instant. It screeches and howls, daring us to step outside for just a second. It would kill the whole crew in an instant. Radiation is a cruel and merciless barrier to life. It is why the entirety of the first crew sent to Europa came back with untreatable cancer and horrible burns, and why colonies of people live, ant-like, under huge icy barriers that act as their version of a hull. The only life the probes found on Europa was a hundred kilometers down, floating in the high-pressure global seas. Microbes, rudimentary shellfish, and nothing else.
Radiation is the reason we are here in the first place, using Jupiter's gravity well as a slingshot to get us to Saturn. More specifically, Titan. The colonies there are aboveground in the friendly Saturnian skies, with towers high up in the methane atmosphere so as to receive sunlight for their solar panels. Titan is a world shrouded in darkness, its thick atmosphere blocking all but one percent of the sun. It wasn't the fact that the air was so thick one could strap on wings and fly, or even the vast hydrocarbon seas that made Titan so valuable, though. It was the small organisms, somewhere between plant and animal, which produced a layer of oxygen lying close to the surface. Real, breathable oxygen! All humans needed to supply was the heat, gathered from the solar panels, to survive without a suit. Titan, to humans, is a friendly world.
Not so Io. Jupiter's closest moon is much closer to our spacecraft now. Through the thick, tiny window of the cockpit I can make out its brilliant mottled surface. Jupiter's persistent tug on one side of the unfortunate moon has caused it to erupt its sulfur onto the surface long ago, turning it into a violently beautiful mosaic of chaotic yellow lava flows and ridged orange terrain. Io is seeped in radiation strong enough to kill any known life. And from here, it looks like the hell its conditions predict. Faint jets are visible now, looking like hairs streaming out of the surface. Volcanic plumes, I realize. There are four hundred active volcanoes scattered across the surface, more even than the inner system planets.
I hear a grunt and look to my copilot, concerned. He shakes his head. "Never thought it'd look like that. I mean, you read the facts in the handbook they give you, but being there is something else. And one thing they didn't prepare us for was the silence. You look at planets like those and you expect them to roar or something. No, though, they're absolutely silent. It's terrifying." He shudders. "I can almost feel the radiation around us. It's making me feel a bit queasy, to be honest."
A prolonged silence. I want to comfort him, to tell him it's only a biological reaction and he's only getting nervous, but I can feel it too. It's not radiation. It's terror.
The metal walls around us audibly creak, making jolts of fear scurry down my spine. The gravity well is deep here. Deep, of course, is relative, as the sinking of our three dimensions into the fourth causes the gravity well. Our craft, shaped like a pyramid, is built to resist the tidal forces of Jupiter up to a point only one hundred kilometers above the surface. Triangles are the best shapes to use when experiencing strong forces, many experiments found. Four walls can collapse sideways, but a triangle will hold its shape until the very walls snap. It's not nearly as comforting as it should be, not now. Not when the people contained within that pyramid can hear the walls themselves start to bend. Tidal forces ruined Io and are not to be challenged.
Io is huge in the window now, and it's only minutes away from the long burn we'll have to make in order to slingshot out of Jupiter's grasp. I shift in my seat and try to forget how uncomfortable the burn is going to be. G-forces upward of 3G, they said. And of course the spacecraft is going to be in manual mode. The simulators trained all of us for this down on Earth, how to keep from passing out as the blood rushes to your feet, how to hold the joystick motionless as the acceleration pushes you backwards into your seat. But out here, millions of miles from a hospital and no way to pause this and restart, with angry Jupiter arcing overhead and Io below in turmoil, everything is different. We have one shot.
"Burn initiating in 30 seconds," drones the onboard AI from a set of overhead speakers. My heart rate begins to noticeably pick up. I run over the statistics in my mind. Thirty previous flights to Titan, including the one only a few days before us, and not a single failure. Some close calls, sure, but no craft of this design had ever fallen into the gravity well to be destroyed upon contact with Jupiter. We shouldn't even come close enough to be subjected to the heat of atmospheric entry. Good thing, too, because this craft wasn't built for that. We would rendezvous with a shuttle above the surface of Titan. Extra weight during the burn would weigh us down.
"Burn in ten seconds. Handing over manual control of the Zarmina now." Zarmina. What an odd name choice for a ship. Zarmina was the unofficial name given to the exoplanet Gliese 581g, a planet residing within the star's habitable zone. Just right for life, the experts agreed, until one of them proved it had never existed. An eccentric orbit masquerading as an extra planet. Pretty name, but nonetheless futile. I grasp the joystick, beads of crystalline sweat forming on my forehead. The red timer on the monitor hits zero and I am heaved backwards into the padding of my seat—
Everything is blurred. The spacecraft jolts and vibrates around me, the overworked metal buzzing with the energy from the explosion at the back. The leviathan above us shakes and quivers, bright splotches of color lacing its edges as the blood is forced from my retinae. Io is falling away below us as my shaking hands hold the joystick steady, guiding the tiny pyramid on a path plotted by the AI to use as much of the gravity as possible. Everything is spinning, spinning—my hand starts to slip off the grip wound around the joystick and I force myself to hold on. And somewhere in the corner of my oxygen deprived brain a panic alarm goes off. Something is wrong, very wrong. How could I not have seen it?
If Io is sinking below us, we are falling up directly towards Jupiter.
We are too far into the gravity well.
Terror sets in and instinctively my hand slips from the joystick. The burn begins to slow to a halt as the fuel, meant to propel us out of Jupiter's hold, runs out. No matter now, as there must have been a fundamental error in the AI's calculations. Radiation? It's been known to fry electronics before. We're falling now, starting to pick up speed towards Jupiter. No amount of fuel would propel us out of its gravity now. I look over to my copilot. Not a word from him. The high G forces of the burn must have knocked him out. It's better that way, I guess. He won't ever know the terrifying heat of the atmosphere, the wrenching screams of the metal torn apart—But I will! I'm going to burn up, I'm going to die—
And a calm begins to set in.
Our craft tilts until it's facing the red eye, no longer angry but triumphant. One would think everything would be noise right now, there would be a crescendo or some kind of satisfying finale, anything to signify the end. Instead there's silence, pierced only by the creaks and shudders of the metal surrounding me, growing more intense by the moment. And out there, only silence. We are closer to the tops of the thunderheads that mean the end of all things for life of any kind than any other human in all of history. They are a color only slightly more vibrant than old blood and limitless in their ridged detail. There is so much detail, I see for the first time. Storms within storms, currents of air cutting the clouds into twisting, undulating bars. Tiny streaks of darker colors grow in my field of vision into the vast oceans they are. The giant's parting gift. They are beautiful.
A warning alarm for external hull heat sounds. I shut it off.
The cloud-tops grow and grow in the tiny window until my field of view is nothing but Jupiter, the beautiful death and destruction obscuring everything but itself.
The metal is screaming now on all sides, the view from the window beginning to turn red as a craft not meant to hit an atmosphere slams into the densest one known at speeds only meant for space. Everything is the noise, the crescendo, I had wanted before, except now I do not want the song to end. The music swells,
deafening, smoke beginning to fill the cockpit now,
the clouds I am hurtling into obscured by red-
this is the end I never wanted-