Ultimate Steve

Voyage - The Final Warning (Chapter 23 - The Heart of Jool)

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On 6/12/2019 at 12:20 PM, RealKerbal3x said:

All that and you left us on a cliffhanger...

In all seriousness, that was amazing.

Thank you! This has been planned as a cliffhanger for a while, though. Fortunately, this next chapter has been one I've been looking forward to for a while, so in terms of actual writing time, it should take less time than the others. However, I'm going on vacation on the 22nd, and I won't be back until the 7th, so if I don't get finished before a few days before the 22nd (packing, preparations, etc.) then you probably can't expect it for a while, sorry. :(

I just wrote a short paragraph on how I don't have many screenshots past this next chapter done, and I elaborated, but then I realized that it would have been a bit of a spoiler. The point is that after this next chapter there will be a slowdown as I have to do more gameplay, which will probably involve designing more stuff.

On 6/12/2019 at 10:38 AM, fulgur said:

I need to reread those now! It has been far too long!

On 6/12/2019 at 1:03 PM, Kerballing (Got Dunked On) said:

WHAT!!!!! WHAT!!?!?!?!?!? But... But... AUGH CLIFFHANGER

Yeah, sorry! I can't say for certain, as I don't have everything completely planned out precisely, but there is a chance that this will be the biggest cliffhanger in the story. A chance.

On 6/12/2019 at 1:24 PM, Kerbalstar said:

A cliffh... a... n... g... e... r... n... oooooo! 

In all seriousness, this was a great chapter! Great job!

Thank you! :)

On 6/12/2019 at 6:57 PM, obney kerman said:

Not again!

Oh, yes, again! Hopefully not too many more times, though.

 

To be serious for a moment... Thank you all for staying with me through this journey that I started (checks OP) over two years ago. Wow. How in the world has it been two whole years?

Anyway, I feel like my writing has been improving greatly with each chapter. This story has been a great journey, probably the best thing I have ever written. Thank you for supporting me on the way, it means a lot.

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Hundreds of Planets.

All sizes, all kinds.

Eighty Eight Species.

One on the ultimate mission, the others standing in the way.

One chance.

One chance to stop them.

 

If even one.

 

 

Chapter 23 - The Heart of Jool

Spoiler

The first thing I remembered was the sky.

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Then the rocking. 

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Then the creaking.

Then the rush of the Joolian wind through the broken windows.

Then I thought "Ooh, pretty" or something.

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Deep down, I knew something was wrong, but I couldn't quite place it.

Then my mind began to function once more. The noises became louder as my ears recovered.

And the pain. Oh, the pain. I felt like I had belly flopped onto concrete from all sides at once. I was probably covered in bruises. I found it difficult to breathe due to all the pain in my chest. I must have broken a rib, or several. However, the pain would soon be gone, replaced with adrenaline filled panic.

But then I remembered. I blinked. It hit me that I was somehow still alive.

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I heard a muffled yell far off in the distance. I turned towards it.

"ETHAN!" I saw Jebediah shout. I heard next to nothing. My ears were gradually recovering. I could tell because the roar of the wind was getting louder and louder still. Or maybe that was because the atmosphere was getting denser... And denser... And denser...

It then hit me that I would be dead in a few short minutes if we didn't figure something out. The pressure was going to crush us. I clenched up in terror.

"ETHAN!" shouted Jebediah. I heard him this time.

"JEB!" I managed to cough up.

"INJURY REPORT!"

"I feel like I was just run over by a steamroller carrying a herd of dancing elephants."

"Ethan, we don't have time for your jokes!" he shouted. He was still strapped into his seat, frantically flipping various switches, pressing various buttons. As if even half of them were still connected to anything.

"A few broken ribs, most likely. Arms fine. Legs fine. Mentally, though, I - "

"Evelina! Are you awake yet?"

"WHAT?"

"ARE YOU HURT?"

"I think my arm is broken!" While I didn't hear it, I saw Jebediah cursing under his breath.

"Is your other arm fine?"

"I... I think so."

"Not great, but good enough. Are you both mobile?" At this point, I noticed that Jebediah appeared to be bleeding from somewhere on his head. The inside of his helmet had small spots of blood splattered around.

"How mobile are we talking?" asked Evelina.

"If my life depends on it, yes," I said, although I knew it would not be easy.

The ship was rocking and spinning around like a baton thrown up in the air. Or at least, what was left of the ship.

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"To buy us more time, I'm attempting to restart the nuclear engine!"

"How much time do we have?" I asked.

"More time to do what?" asked Evelina. Her question was far more important than mine.

"At best, maybe fifteen minutes, seventeen if i can get the engine on, maybe only half that. The gimbal should stabilize our descent, making transport easier. Do not undo your harnesses until I test this. The last thing we need is for one of us to fly through that window!"

"What are we going to do, Jeb?" Evelina asked again.

"We are going to fly the Wyvern out of here!"

"The Wyvern can do Jool?"

"Jool is smaller than Earth. Almost there..." He flipped several more switches. He had opened up a panel and fiddled with several wires. There was a rumble from the back of the ship that subsided quickly. "Come on, Legacy, I just need ten minutes of thrust!"

"WARNING: REACTOR TWO MELTDOWN IMMINENT. SAFETY PROTOCOLS ENGAGED. CANNOT BRING REACTOR UP TO POWER. CANNOT IGNITE NUCLEAR ENGINE." Now, "Nuclear meltdown imminent" is a phrase that many people would rank among the scariest things you could ever hear. But, although it was terrifying, it didn't hit me as hard as it probably should have. Over the past few months, even over the past few minutes, I had gone through far more frightening things.

"Override."

"OVERRULED. NUCLEAR MELTDOWN IMMINENT."

"Look, Legacy. I cannot save you, but you can still save us. Please."

"INVALID COMMAND."

"Enact protocol RWI-009," said Evelina.

"ALL LIVING BEINGS ON BOARD, STATE YOUR INTENTION TO DEACTIVATE AUTOMATIC REACTOR SAFETY SYSTEM."

"Deactivate," said Evelina.

"Deactivate," said Jebediah.

"Deactivate!" I said.

"REACTOR SAFETIES DEACTIVATED. BRINGING REACTOR UP TO POWER. NUCLEAR MELTDOWN IMMINENT."

"Come on!" pleaded Jebediah, messing with more switches. "You can do it!" There was more thumping from the back of the ship. A bang or two. And then a roar.

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"Yes!" shouted Jebediah.

"What did you do? How did you know to do that?" I asked Evelina.

"I read the manual! That command was put in -"

"REACTOR BREACHED. LEAKAGE AT DANGEROUS LEVELS."

"Our exhaust is zetizing!" Jebediah observed.

"What's that?"

"Doesn't matter. No time."

"RADIATION WARNING."

"Jeb?" Evelina asked nervously.

"It doesn't matter, the pressure will most likely kill us first!"

"You're doing a great job at reassuring us!" I shot at him.

"Don't you have a pill for that?" asked Evelina.

"We're wearing spacesuits! Yes, we have a food airlock, but there simply is no time!" The engine gimbal had made its best effort at stabilizing our rocking motion and slightly slowing us down. "Now! Ethan, firmly grip the edge of your seat with one hand and undo your buckle with the other. I will help Evelina. Get out of the control room and down to the habitation modules. Wait for me there. If I'm not down in three, no, four minutes - "

"NUCLEAR MELTDOWN IMMINENT. COOLANT DEPLETED. PUMPS INOPERABLE." 

"- The Wyvern is all yours." Although this was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, I couldn't help but feel a slight amount of, what's the word... Pride? Happiness? Coolness? It was almost like a father telling his son he could drive his car around... And my father had, because of circumstances that were not his fault, been remarkably absent from my life for the past several months.

As if I knew how to fly the Wyvern.

"There are locks on the hatch!" I said. Jeb flipped a few more switches.

"I just blew the hatchway. Or, at least, I hope I did."

I looked down. All but two of the harness straps had broken, and one of the ones left was partially torn through. With one hand I gripped the side of the seat, and with the other, I tried to undo the buckle. I tried for several seconds, but the buckle wouldn't budge. It was melted shut. I tried the other one. Same problem.

I looked around, and at that point I really noticed the state of the control room. Not a single window was left, only sparse shards at the edge that looked like they had melted and refrozen. The walls were blackened from the re-entry fire. There weren't any loose objects left. Some of the equipment bays were just gone, with sparking wires, broken pipes, some spewing gases, and exposed ship structural beams the only sign that there had been something there. I tried the buckle again. It was firmly stuck in place. Then, I looked next to me. The seat to my right was completely gone.

I had a panic attack. If I had chosen that seat, I would be dead or falling to the core of Jool right now. I was only still here because one strap decided to rip only halfway. How long had it been? If I had only about thirteen minutes left, then every eight seconds I spent struggling with the harness was a full percent of the rest of my life. The amount of time it took to do that math was... The amount of time to calculate that wouldn't be worth it. I took three quick breaths and forced myself to come to my senses.

"EVELINA! Do you still have your Swiss army knife on you?" Evelina thought hard for a few seconds as Jeb continued undoing her latches. Evidently, hers had been spared from the melting. She was panicking just as much, if not more, than I was.

"I left it in the bag I packed, in the ring! It's gone now, I'll never see it again!"

"Actually," Jeb said as he pulled it out of his pocket, "I was using it to conduct repairs on a control circuit a few hours ago!" He reached across the cabin and pushed it into my outstretched arms. "Sorry." He stood for a second. "It is most definitely an extremely useful tool."

"Don't apologize!" she said. I fiddled with it for several seconds, trying to open any of the knives. However, I was wearing a spacesuit, and with that came gloves. After a few more percent of my life had passed by, I managed to open the largest knife by using a snapped strut on the control panel in front of me as a lever. I began sawing frantically through the strap, which was far tougher than it looked. After a few more percent of my life, I had cut all the way through, but in the process jerked the knife right through the other side, and straight into my glove. The harness dropped away, but thankfully I remained in my seat thanks to the air resistance acting on the ship.

"DAMMIT!"

"What?" shouted Jeb.

"I punctured my suit!"

"How the hell did you manage that? These are made of - "

"Do you have a patch kit?"

"I don't know where they are! Probably in the ring! Close your hand for now! Jool's atmosphere is hydrogen, as long as you have a constant supply of oxygen, you will be fine! As long as we can get to the Wyvern before the pressure reaches significant levels, the atmospheric content won't kill you. The pressure will - "

"Kill me first, got it." I gripped the side of the chair with the gloved hand, trying to seal it. I reached over to the central console and grabbed it.

"Just do not get near any sparks!" shouted Evelina. Right. With each passing one percent of my life, more hydrogen made its way through the slit in my glove. I was becoming more and more of a bomb.

I walked around with surprising ease. The floor only rocked a bit compared to what it had been doing, although it was still several times worse than an abnormally turbulent airplane ride. Both hands were still clamped onto whatever was left to grab onto, the one hand pressed especially tight to stop the leak...

My ears hadn't popped when the suit was punctured, I realized. That meant that the external pressure was close to one atmosphere. Either that, or my self sealing was very good. That meant that instead of an outward leak, the leak was, or was about to become an inward leak. I needed to get to the Wyvern in the next few minutes or I would be crushed early.

I made it to the ladder in the middle of the command center and descended.

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I noticed the magnetic coffee cups were still on the table, somehow. The windows in this module, being much smaller and stronger, had not broken either, although there was a crack in one of them. I began looking around for anything that could patch the leak.

The duct tape cabinet.

I went further down the ladder trying to find it.

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There it was, just around the corner. I practically ripped it open, and then spent the next several percent of my life first delicately applying a layer after matching the sides of the cut up as close as I could, and then adding more layers, before wrapping the whole thing as well as I could several times, using up most of that roll in the process.

Just as I was done, Jeb came down, helping Evelina. "Alright, let's go," he said. We passed through the habitation section, bouncing off the walls. At one point, Evelina was thrown against a cabinet hard, on her broken arm. She cried out in pain.

"The best legal painkillers in the galaxy will be available when we get to the Wyvern!"

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The external pressure was significantly higher than one atmosphere by now, but while I felt it in my ears, they had not popped. That was a good sign that my duct tape patch was holding up well enough.

"Wait!" I said. I turned to face one of the bedroom doors.

"Go!" said Jeb.

"The flower," I said, opening one of the doors. It was the wrong room. I tried the next one.

"You're risking your life over a flower?"

"The monolith said it's important!" That one was the wrong room as well.

"Maybe it's another flower!" said Jeb, pushing past me, opening the hatch into the next module, the artificial gravity ring.

"What other flower have we come across?" I shouted.

"You're wasting time for a FLOWER!" I opened the fourth door. The room was a mess. Stuff was burned. The window was shattered. The wind was loud. But, it was the right room. Inside the charred drawer was the Auris Facsimilis, an undelivered gift from lover to lover, still preserved inside its eternity vessel, whatever that was.

I followed Jeb through the hatchway, trailing behind by several meters. We came across the hatchway to the cargo bay, still fastened shut by several dozen locks. The hatch blowing had not worked. I realized that it would take forever to get through. Jebediah, however, grabbed something from the wall and began applying it to the hatch in a large circle.

"Stand back! Especially Ethan!" He took out another tool, which shot a small jet of plasma out from the front, and applied the flame to the circle of whatever that material was. It burned ferociously. I stepped back, as I was still a bomb.

"NUCLEAR MELTDOWN IMMINENT."

That reminded me, we were entering a high radiation area. I looked off to the side, where the radiation suits were located. I wondered how we were supposed to change into them.

"Don't bother with those! The pressure will kill us first!"

A few percent of my life later, the circular portion of the hatch fell away, leaving a glowing ring around the edge. Jeb and I peered through the hatch, only to be nearly instantly crushed by a massive chunk of metal. We pulled back at the last possible moment.

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"AAARRGH!" shouted Jebediah.

"What is it?" asked Evelina.

"The Wyvern is bouncing around in the bay, the docking arm broke! It's been bouncing around for the past ten minutes! Who knows how damaged it is!"

"So we have to escape on a damaged spaceplane," I said. A massive slamming noise came from the forward end of the bay.

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"And the forward bay doors are unpowered! They are slamming open and shut at will!" Jeb observed as the Wyvern continued to slam around.

"Oh no," I said. "Trying to board the Wyvern like that would be suicide."

"Well, it's not like we have any other option!" Evelina Shouted.

"Well, we do," Jeb said.

"Other than dying, I mean!"

"Both of you, look at the Wyvern. Do you think you have above a 50/50 chance of getting in?"

"Well... I don't know, but it's probably in that ballpark," I said, as it smashed into the side once again, further denting a wing. The bay doors slammed open again.

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"Not with my arm," said Evelina. The cockpit slammed into a wall. If someone had been boarding right then, they would have been smashed. Hard.

"Well..." Jebediah took a deep breath. "You see that hatch off to the Wyvern's right? That's bay 3. Can you get there?"

"If I'm not crushed," I said. "It looks more doable, but that isn't saying much."

"Alright."

"Wait, hold up, what's in bay three?" Evelina asked.

"Three of the escape pods. I deactivated them a long time ago, they are too dangerous."

"Dangerous?" I asked.

"I will be right back. I need to retrieve the Illasticonian Crystals from the safe."

"Oh, so you're finally going to tell us what they do?" Evelina said. Jeb ignored her.

"Ethan, get to the hatch. You're the most fit of us. Help Evelina across. I will be right there."

"And if you're not?" But he was already gone.

"Alright then," I said. "Escape pods." The bay door slammed shut once more. The Wyvern was bouncing around the opposite side of the bay. It was an optimal time. I took a deep breath, and then made my way through the impromptu hatch, clinging to whatever I could find on the side of the bay.

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After several tense seconds, I made it to the hatch, which was thankfully open. I had a close call with an intake, but it was a nudge and not a shove. I looked back to Evelina. "Your turn!" I shouted. The Wyvern was still on the other side. With a determined expression on her face, she exited the hatch, legs first and, with one hand and her feet, braced against whatever was there, started making her way across the bay. I had my legs on the other side of the hatch and was reaching out with my arms.

But then the bay jerked open once again, sending a shock through the ship. The new surge of wind jerked the Wyvern around once more, and it narrowly missed Evelina's legs. She jumped, but away from the Wyvern and towards the open bay. She looked out there and froze, a terrified expression on her face. She was looking straight into Jool.

I abandoned the hatch, crawled along, and grabbed her leg, trying to drag her to safety. But then the intake crashed into my leg. I howled in pain, almost losing my grip on the bay. I desperately tried to get back to the hatch.

It seemed like an eternity, but it was most likely only a few seconds. Still, a few percent of the rest of my life...

After a struggle, Evelina and I were both safely through the hatch.

"You saved my life. Again," she said, breathing heavily, holding me as tightly as she could with her one good arm.

"How many times did you save my life back on Kerbin?" I replied. "I think you're still winning by one!" I checked to make sure - the Auris was still strapped to the suit's belt area, where I had left it.

"OUT OF THE WAY!" shouted Jebediah, who was rapidly approaching the hatch, rapidly traversing the sides as the Wyvern continued bouncing. He entered after we had stepped to the sides. He shut the hatch behind us. We were now in an enclosed space once more. At this point, I finally turned and examined the bay.

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"This," he told as he faced us, "is an Illasticonian crystal," he said. He was holding up a tiny shimmering bluish crystal, held in place by an intricate framework of metal protrusions, connected to a transparent sphere, which was inside another transparent sphere. The volume between the spheres appeared to be filled with a nearly transparent gas. The whole thing was about golf ball sized, with the actual crystal being the size of around an ant, with a substantially long metal chain so it could be worn like a necklace.

"How do you make them?" I asked. Definitely a stupid question.

"You don't," replied Jeb. "They have only been found in two places. Deep in the crust of Illasticonia, and at the atomic level out in deep space, in quantities that are not useful." He handed us each one and kept one for himself. "When exposed to a gas that has a name too long to pronounce, the gas trapped between the two bulbs, they rapidly decompose into a very specific form of quantum energy. This energy teleports the nearest atoms, with the percentage of atoms decreasing sharply as the distance from the center increases, to a random point in space. Cutting this short, it has an 80% chance of being within the galaxy, 20% way further, and will teleport about 90% of the mass within two meters of it, at least for this size of crystal."

"It's a teleportation stone?" I asked.

"They are incredibly dangerous! They have a 20% chance of straight up exploding! For the three of us, that's a 50/50 chance of one of ours not working and then blowing up and falling into Jool!"

"And the pods?" Evelina asked.

"Designed so that at least two thirds of their mass stays intact when using one of these crystals. Enough life support for about two weeks, anywhere in deep space. A quantum distress beacon so you can be rescued."

"When do we start?"

"Take one of these." He passed out a few small rectangular-ish box things. "These contain all mission relevant data, including our fight with The Species. These are worth more than your life. They go right next to the crystal when you smash it to minimize corruption. Get them to any member of the galactic council by any means necessary. Get into the pods. There are basic medical kits on board." The ship shook some more.

"NUCLEAR MELTDOWN IMMINENT. STEAM CAVITATION DETECTED."

"You will lose a few pounds when you teleport. This is random atoms throughout your body. As a result, you are going to develop lots of nasty cancers that can be reversed only if you are rescued. If not, the pods all have self destruct features."

"Why do these even exist?" I asked.

"As a last resort. Get into a pod. Wait until the bay doors are open. Press the red button, which fires the escape motors, which will clear you from the vehicle. Then curl as tightly as possible around the crystal to minimize the atoms lost, and then crush it a few seconds after launch. Then press the blue button and wait for rescue."

"As simple as that?"

"There's a manual if you have time, but we don't!" He started down the walkway to the farthest pod.

"Can we increase the radius to decrease the atomic loss?" said Evelina as she grabbed onto the ladder of the first pod.

"With a bigger crystal, but the ones we have are some of the biggest in existence!"

Suddenly there was a massive jerk to the ship, throwing us around the interior of the bay.

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I almost smashed my crystal against the side of the bay, but I just barely avoided it. The rocking subsided and I climbed back onto the platform. Jebediah was up the ladder of pod one and nearly inside.

"It was an honor serving with you," he said. "May the infinities smile upon you."

"You too, Jebediah," said Evelina. "Ethan." At this point, I had recovered and was near the ladder on my own pod.

"BAY DOORS OPENING!" shouted Jebediah. The doors opened, giving the pods a clear line of sight to launch. At the same time, the ship rocked again, this time nearly to horizontal.

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"EVELINA!" I shouted over the roar of the Joolian wind, now several atmospheres.

"WHEN WE GET BACK TO KERBIN, YOU OWE ME A KISS, ALRIGHT?"

"DEAL!" I shouted. I couldn't help but smile a bit at that thought. Jebediah was in his pod. Evelina had opened the door to hers.

I reached for the ladder, but I caught a glimpse of the belt area of my suit. The Auris was gone. I had a slight moment of panic. The monolith had said it was important.

"NUCLEAR MELTDOWN IMMINENT. CONTAINMENT VESSEL SEVERELY COMPROMISED," blared the announcement system once more.

I frantically looked around and found it. It was there, jammed between the hatch and the railing. "HOLD UP ONE SECOND!" I shouted as I crawled towards the flower.

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"NUCLEAR MELTDOWN IMM - " I grabbed onto one of the hatch handholds, and with the other hand reached for the flower.

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There was a bright flash and a bang. I shut my eyes and screamed. The ship tumbled more forcefully than it ever had before, several times end over end. I gripped the handholds as hard as I could, with both of my hands. After what seemed like an eternity, the noise died down and I managed to get my eyes open.

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The cargo bay was gone, and with it, the escape pods.

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I saw chunks of debris everywhere. Then, I saw a burst of light. The escape engines of one of the pods. The engines burned out, and then there was a bluish flash. I saw another engine ignition - this one, however, did not end in blue.

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That could be Evelina.

Or Jeb.

Or Evelina.

Or Jeb.

I looked around for the flower. It was not there.

I looked around for the data drive. It was not there.

I looked around for my Illasticonian crystal.

 

It was not there.

 

I had never felt hopeless throughout the entire ordeal. This was the first time.

 

And I completely lost it.

 

==========

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"Ethan, are you okay?" asked Marie, stopping her Whack-A-Kerbal invasion to check on my health.

"Yes!" I shouted.

"You're breathing rapidly, wide eyed, sweating, trembling, gripping the sides of your seat, acting aggressive and desperate, and seem to not be focusing on the game. Are you sure?"

It was at that point in time that I was overcome by panic. I passed out.

I woke up a fraction of a second later, but not around Laythe.

 

==========

 

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"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" I screamed. A second ago I had been safe and sound orbiting Laythe.

Yet a second ago I had been in this same situation.

Wait.

No.

I scanned my memories.

I had both sets.

I was both Ethans. Wait, no. I was Ethan. Just Ethan. Ethan Edwards.

Recombination of consciousness had worked, and this was definitely a task that would require all of our, no, my brainpower.

But I shouldn't dwell on that immediately. I had more pressing concerns. Like finding a way out of this situation.

The Wyvern.

It was beat up, but unless the crystal showed itself, or there were more on board the ship, it was my only way out.

I probably had five minutes maximum.

"Get yourself together!" I shouted at myself. Ironically, I had already just become the most "together" I had been in several weeks. Was it just me, or was my voice higher than usual? Maybe it was the fright, or maybe it was the hydrogen.

My ears popped.

The pressure was getting too strong for my duct tape patch.

Despite the overwhelming wind, I managed to get the hatch open. And with that, I was back inside the Legacy II - somewhere I had simultaneously spent the past few weeks living in, and somewhere I had never been before.

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The Wyvern was still flopping around, but the whole ship had assumed a nose down orientation that was keeping the Wyvern pinned to one side. My ears popped again. The Wyvern may take a while to properly pressurize. Instead of making my way directly to the Wyvern, I popped back up into the main compartment of the ship, to the staging area, and took one of the gloves from one of the radiation suits. I briefly considered looking around for another Illasticonian crystal, but that was bound to be futile. I had no idea where the safe was, or how to unlock it.

I then made my way towards the Wyvern. My ears popped again. The amount of oxygen I was breathing stayed the same... Right? I felt pressure in my head.

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After a few seconds of fiddling with the hatch, I was in. I shut the hatch. It wouldn't latch. I slammed it harder. There we go. It sealed. The vehicle began to adjust its atmosphere. I breathed a short sigh of relief.

Then I looked down at the control panel.

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Both to my right, left, front, down, and above my shoulders were dials, buttons, knobs, and switches of all kinds. My first thought was "How am I going to do this? I don't know where to start!" However, there was a control stick, throttle lever, and navigation instrumentation that all looked very similar to the types used on the Voyager's equipment. That, I could hopefully work with.

A few of the switches were prominently labeled. One was marked "Reactor Startup." I flicked that one. Nuclear engine ignition switch... General power switch... It couldn't be that simple, could it?

I heard a hum build up behind me. I flicked the switch marked RCS and maneuvered around. It was going to be a struggle getting out of the bay doors. I was going to have to ram the end cap.

I went to full power. The engine, at first, sputtered, but then roared, and blew the rear end cap right off.

"Well. That was easier than expected."

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I used the RCS to push myself out the back of the cargo bay. The wind caught the rear of the ship first, and the rest of the ship soon entered the turbulent Joolian atmosphere. I flipped around a few times, but then the fall stabilized.

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I tested the control surfaces and the engine once more.

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I confirmed that most of the critical systems were working at least well enough to fly around. Some of the panic subsided then and there. I was out of immediate danger. I was not going to he killed by pressure.

At that moment, the craft beeped and an atmosphere light lit up. Good. I took off my damaged glove and put the other one on. Fortunately, the connectors were of the same type, and the glove fit on perfectly. I noticed for the first time, a dosimeter/Geiger counter display on the glove.

"I don't want to know," I muttered, but it powered on automatically anyway. It immediately began flashing red and beeping. "Thank you, I already knew that!"

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I descended past the Legacy II. This may be the last time eyes ever see it. I felt very sad at that thought. That letter was still on board. The flower was most likely gone. The last remnants of an interstellar love story, perhaps only remembered by three people and their clones, one whom was probably halfway across the galaxy, one who may be dead, and one who was trying to fly an illegal spaceplane while receiving extreme amounts of nuclear radiation.

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I pulled up. I needed to find the flower. It was important, and judging by people's reactions to the monoliths, the flower was very important. I found a radar switch and flicked it. It began projecting icons onto either the glass or my eyeballs. I searched around for an appropriately sized piece of debris.

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No.

NO!

Why her? Why not Jeb, who has nearly ten clones and has died probably dozens of times? Why her?

Her suit showed up on the radar, but that didn't necessarily mean that she was still alive. What would I do if she was dead? No. I couldn't think about that.

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I flew over, closer to her, trying to match velocities. I spotted her off in the distance, flying by at a range of several hundred meters. Was that her flailing in the atmosphere, or was that her turning to face me? Was she alive or dead?

A closer flyby confirmed that she was, in fact, alive, and had activated her EVA jetpack. I briefly lit up with hope, but she was still in a near death situation.

Now what?

I need to catch her.

I had several minutes, as she was falling much slower than the ship was. But would it be enough?

I checked to see how slow I could glide. Not slow enough. Hitting the ship would be like stepping in front of a car. I needed to get as slow as possible.

First thing's first, deploy the landing gear. More drag. I had two rudders. After a few seconds of fiddling, I managed to find the controls for them. I set them to deploy opposite of each other. More drag. Was that a fairing on the front?

It was. I hesitated a second. Both the rudders and the gear were reversible. But I was still going far too fast. It had to be done. I found the control, and blew the fairing.

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The speed reduction was near instant. I could feel the deceleration. Fortunately, the fairing did not hit the spacecraft.

Then, I had a realization.

The hallway was too narrow for anyone to pass another, even in times like these. If I managed to catch Evelina, I would have to take the back seat, and she would have to fly the Wyvern.

And having just been blown up, and with her broken arm, with the pain she must be in? And I was the more experienced pilot. I couldn't expect her to be able to fly. I had to have the front seat.

But there was no way to do that.

Wait.

The ladder.

I deployed the ladder. I was planning on it anyways, to give her a larger place to grab on to, and for more drag. But what I was planning, well... I was suddenly extremely glad that Jebediah had taken the time to fix it.

No. I couldn't possibly do this. I couldn't control the craft like that! I couldn't aim for her!"

Wait. Wasn't there an SAS target setting?

No. Not on this vehicle, for whatever reason.

But it was settled. I had to try. I turned around to face Evelina. I made sure SAS was on, and I angled the plane downwards so that my path would hopefully intersect hers. I then tried to open the hatch.

It was stuck.

Duh. The pressure outside was probably ten atmospheres now! I looked around for several seconds before I found some EVA related switches. I flicked most of them. There was a hissing as the atmospheric pressure equalized.

I then opened the hatch again. Luckily, it opened vertically rather than horizontally, otherwise it would have been nearly impossible to open, or would have ripped off. I took a deep breath, thinking about all of the things that had to go right for this to work. I made sure not to lock myself out. Then, terrified, I stepped out into the Joolian airstream, making sure to go slowly, gripping the ladder, well, for dear life.

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I slowly crawled down, looking forwards to Evelina. On target... On target...

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I reached the end and held on as tight as I could. Evelina got closer and closer, and closer!

But I missed. By a hundred meters or more.

I quickly climbed back up into the cockpit, my muscles sore from the terrifying nature of what I had just done. I flew some distance away, pulled up, and turned around for another pass.

I lined up, set SAS, and stepped out.

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Evelina had caught on to my plan, apparently. I could see the jets of thrust from her EVA pack as she tried to adjust her trajectory.

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She approached rapidly.

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But we missed once more.

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How many more times could I keep doing this? Certainly not many. Nonetheless, I climbed back in, flew away, turned around, aimed, set SAS, and climbed out once more.

I lost count of how many times I did that. It couldn't have been more than ten, though.

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Evelina was too high.

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Evelina was too low.

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There was one pass where I swear I could have reached out and touched her. Grabbed her. But even though I reached, no contact was made. If I had made contact, I may have gotten ripped off of the ladder. We would be together again, but only for a few minutes.

Then, I had one very scary pass where I completely forgot to set SAS.

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I flew straight down, plowing faster and faster through the extremely thick atmosphere, fighting to keep my grip on the ladder and re-enter the cockpit. I got back in and pulled up, firing the engine to regain altitude. I noticed a flashing alarm on the control panel. "ATMOSPHERIC PRESSURE ALERT. GAIN ALTITUDE!" it said.

This was it. How many more passes could I make? One? Three?

I heard a creaking noise coming from the rear of the craft. My spacesuit showed a pressure warning as well. I settled on two more passes. Would I be able to stick to that number, though? Could I let Evelina fall into Jool? I began to feel nauseous thinking about it.

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I lined up the Wyvern once more, set SAS and exited the cabin. My suit warning beeped more and more. The same warning was probably going off in her suit. My heart beat faster and faster.

I saw her coming closer and closer still. This pass looked especially close. Really, really close!

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I gripped the ladder harder and reached out with one hand. She got closer. Closer. Her hand reached out for the ladder.

*THUNK*

Her arm bounced off of the ladder.

*WHAM*

Her helmet bounced off of the intake.

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I watched helplessly as she careened away, almost as if she was in slow motion. I had come all this way... And what were the odds that I would be able to get her on the next pass?

I closed my eyes and screamed for a second, banging my helmet on the ladder.

"WHY?"

I had failed. I wasn't going slow enough. I was gliding too steeply. I could have found more things to deploy! Why hadn't I? Evelina was now doomed because of my stupidity.

 

I looked up. And then to the side. I gasped. In my surprise, I almost let go of the ladder.

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Evelina, with the aid of her helmet, had managed to grab onto the wing with her one good arm. With the other, she struggled to control her thruster pack.

She managed to get her legs over the wing, and pressed them, one on each of the cylinders. With one hand, she grabbed onto whatever protrusions there were in the craft. She slowly climbed against the wind over to me.

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She had an arm over the top of the intake. Then a leg. Then her whole body. She stood up and reached out her arm. She grabbed the ladder. Then she got a foot up. Then the other.

We looked up. Our eyes met.

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"We're even now!" I shouted. I was crying. Half tears of fright, half tears of joy.

"Gee, my knight in shining armor has returned!" she cried.

"Oh, this?" I gestured to my blackened spacesuit (from the re-entry). "Oh, yeah, and here's my trusty steed!"

"Wow, a two legged dragon? And a gauntlet!" she gestured to my orange radiation resistant glove.

"It was a bit difficult to tame, but the the Wyvern is ours!"

"And where's the classic kiss for the damsel in distress?" she joked. Or half joked. I don't know! I was about to reply when there was a very loud noise. I snapped my eyes shut and tensed up. Nothing bad happened. I opened them.

There was a massive crack right down the middle of my visor.

"Jeb was right, we don't have time for jokes! Get in the Wyvern!" I shouted. She quickly obliged, rushing up the ladder. I quickly followed.

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As soon as she was out of the way, I jumped in, and slammed the hatch shut. It didn't latch. I tried again. It didn't work. I started freaking out again. Only on the third time did it fully shut. The atmosphere began equalizing. The ship creaked even more. I pulled up, fired the engine, and flew upwards.

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"Okay, what just happened?" Evelina said. I turned to face her. I couldn't help it. I got out of my seat, stepped back to meet her, and gave her a big hug.

"Evelina, it's been a year since I've seen you."

"What? It's been five, maybe ten minutes!"

"Oh. Right. Well. It's both of me. We're both here. I'm here."

"Oh. Well, then. Hello, Ethan! I missed you!"

"You better bet I missed you!" I responded. I relaxed the most I had in the past, well, how long had it been since we were first attacked? Thirty minutes? An hour? "I'll tell you what happened on the way up. Wait... Oh no. The flower!" I pulled away from Evelina (OH MY GOODNESS. MY ACTUAL GIRLFRIEND!!!) and went back to the radar. We were out of range of any detectable objects, besides a few of the larger chunks of the Legacy II, far below us, all but destroyed. "I don't see it anywhere!"

"Ethan, maybe it wasn't the flower that was important."

"Of course the flower was important!"

"Nobody cares about the flower any more. Everyone originally involved has long since died! Unless we go time travelling, I doubt we're going to run into anyone who does care."

"Honestly, time travel wouldn't surprise me at this point," I replied. "But if that's true, then why did the monolith say it was important? Maybe it's a medicine, an antidote of some kind? An important ingredient for a component of a big universe saving machine?"

"I think it was arbitrary. Had you not gone back for the flower, which Alonya told you was important, you would be in an escape pod, and probably suffering from cancer half a galaxy away. But because you went back for it, well, I'm alive right now." I stopped and thought for a few seconds.

"Which means that the monolith either needs you alive or me happy for a greater purpose..."

"Also probably true. What's your glove blinking for?"

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"It's a dosimeter and Geiger counter."

"Let me see."

"You probably don't want to know." She grabbed my gloved hand anyways.

"Oh. You're right. I didn't."

"Don't tell me."

"We need to get back to orbit as fast as possible," she said.

"And then what?"

"Probably call for help, I'd imagine!"

"How? the entry wrecked the suit radios, I'm beyond sure it wrecked the ship radios. I don't even know where the radio on this thing is! Jeb would have done everything in his power to send a distress signal."

"We will figure that out once we get to orbit. This place has got to be crawling with ships. We just detonated three nuclear weapons in space, and The Species was here! Jeb told people to come get the wreckage... Which was actually a semi-functional ship that then shot us..."

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"Right. Into space." I had already retracted the gear and ladder, and I had reset the rudders. The broken docking port at the top of the ship was still there. I ditched that. I flew up several dozen kilometers and began accelerating eastward.

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"Are you sure you know how to fly this thing?" Evelina asked.

"No, but what else are we going to do? I just need to get up to, what, three kilometers per second, pull up, and ignite the fusion engine once we are in space."

"It's not like it's rocket science or anything!" she sarcastically said. We went supersonic. The tiniest fringes of ionization flames began to show themselves. And then nothing more.

"Bad news," I said.

"What?"

"I popped the nose fairing to slow down enough to catch you. We appear to be at our maximum speed."

"Try gaining altitude."

"I've been gaining altitude! We're not breaking past one kilometer per second easily!"

"Pull up now then! It's worth a shot!"

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And so I pulled up. Our apoapsis rose dramatically. We got to the point where aerodynamics barely mattered and I could point straight up.

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But it wasn't enough.

Our vertical velocity dropped to zero, and we fell back down into Jool. I began to panic a little bit again.

"I'm going to try shooting straight up from the get-go," I said. I pointed the plane downwards.

"Do you feel nauseous?" asked Evelina.

"Yes," I replied. "You're that terrified too?"

"Well, yes," she replied. "Do you have a headache?"

"A little bit," I said. "Fright will do that to you."

"And nuclear radiation, from an unshielded nuclear thermal ramjet." My face fell.

"Oh."

"I'm getting as much as possible between the engine and us."

"Good idea." I kept the dive stable, and pulled out of it gently, low down in Jool's atmosphere, but comfortably high. Somewhere in there, I got turned around, and I was travelling west, but it didn't matter. The fusion engine was efficient enough to make up for that little bit of velocity lost. "Ready?" I asked.

"Ready." Evelina gripped the edges of her seat. I turned around to face her once more. I noticed that her face was extremely pale. She bit her lip, a sign that she was trying to prevent from crying out in pain. Her arm lay limp at her side, having received quite a beating. I remembered my own injuries. Adrenaline has a way of making you forget.

"Wait. The best legal painkillers in the galaxy. Jeb told us they would be in here somewhere."

"Ethan, we'll look once we're in orbit. I'm perfectly fine."

"No, you're not."

"You've got me there, but there are more pressing matters."

"Can you even move your arm?"

"Barely without using the other one to help."

"You need medicine!"

"Then talk to me. Distract me. Tell me about a date you'd love to take me on."

"Alright. Brace yourself." I pulled up over the course of several seconds. The Wyvern began ascending straight up, accelerating as it went, but only to a point.

"Switzerland, Earth. At night on top of a decently sized mountain. Us, some small lights, a tent, lots of blankets. A telescope."

"Don't forget the campfire and s'mores!"

"You think I'm going to carry all that wood up the mountain?"

"Okay, one of those gas cooking stoves and s'mores then!"

"We would sit out under the beautiful sky, a nearly clear night, lit by a full moon."

"During a meteor shower!"

"No doubt!" We were climbing very rapidly now. "We're both sitting next to each other, on chairs, taking turns looking through the telescope. Wrapped in blankets."

"Lots of blankets."

"It is gonna be cold up there!"

"The mountain shouldn't be too tall to freeze us to death! Not snowcapped! But cold enough that we won't need an excuse to cuddle!"

"I'd adjust the telescope while holding your hand, this time pointing it up at the moon."

"I'd rest my head on your shoulder, awaiting my turn."

"I see the craters in all their glory, after achieving proper focus."

"And during my turn, I'd pull back from the telescope, turn my head towards you, and ask "Do you think we'll ever go there?""

"What do you mean? We've already been there!"

"I mean again!"

"Ever, I'd say so. SLS is a mess, but something will come of it eventually. If not them, with the BFR or Falcon Heavy. If not SpaceX, then China."

"But what about us?"

"You and me? I'm not gonna lie, the odds are pretty slim."

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"I know," she said.

"But if BFR works, or if we really put our minds to it, we could become astronauts. Sweden certainly could use more of them!"

"Christer Fuglesang, our only one."

"But who am I kidding," I said. "Space is cool. But so are you. Space is far off, but you're right here. Right now."

"So you're saying?"

"There are some days I think I'd trade the adventure of a lifetime, travelling to other worlds, meeting other species, flying spaceships faster than light, landing on all sorts of moons, and saving the galaxy, for one kiss."

"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Who says you can't have both?"

"True. But for now, we're still on Earth, so we'll just have to stick with the one."

"I squeeze your hand."

"I lean in," I said. Evelina made gagging noises. "What, that bad?" I asked. I turned around. Evelina threw up.

"I'm fine," she said. "Just the turbulence!" She threw up again.

"We're near the top of our arc, there is no turbulence! It's the radiation!"

"What's our apogee?"

"Twenty five kilometers short of space."

"No!"

"I'm giving the engine a try." I flicked the switch for the fusion engine. I heard some noises coming from the back of the ship. A whirring. A buzzing. A loud startup-y noise. And then nothing. A message appeared on a screen: "INERTIAL CONFINEMENT FUSION FAILED. CAN ONLY OPERATE IN VACUUM."

"Is this the part where we die?"

"No, this is the part where we kiss under a moonlit Swiss sky."

"Ethan, I'm serious. What else can we do?"

"Go horizontally as fast as possible, but lower down, then pull up as efficiently as possible into a climb."

"How many more times can we do that? Will that really make up twenty five whole kilometers?"

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"We can pray," I said.

"I've been doing that. We need a booster of some sort. Or maybe a massive updraft."

"I don't know, does Jool have updrafts?"

"Probably somewhere, but what are the odds that we'll just happen upon one? I don't have a map of Jool's storms memorized!"

"We can try."

"We're not-so-slowly dying of radiation sickness. Do we really have the time to get to a storm even if we knew where one was?"

"Well, where else are we going to find an updraft?" There was a sudden bright flash of light.

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"The fourth nuke," she whispered.

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"Okay. We have an updraft. We've got one shot at this." I took a deep breath.

"You can't be serious! We would be flying an alien spaceplane through a nuclear explosion!"

"I doubt that would be one of the top three craziest things we've done today." I pushed the control stick downwards, and the Wyvern dove faster and faster through the atmosphere.

"How did it even go off? It's a thermonuclear weapon."

"Triggered by a plutonium implosion bomb. Maybe the pressure got so high that the whole thing went off."

"The pressures required must be immense!"

"Maybe Jool is weird. Maybe it has a sudden layer of a material that reflects neutrons. And wouldn't the core have to be by itself to detonate? The core would be by itself, without the fusion part."

"We're in a sea of hydrogen. That could have fused!"

"But isn't a specific type of hydrogen needed? The bomb could have been electrically set off!" There was a huge boom as a ripple tore through the craft, probably damaging several systems. It was the shockwave from the explosion. We said nothing about it and continued arguing, descending all the while.

"The bomb was designed by our top scientists to never go off unless armed and purposefully detonated."

"Didn't Jeb arm it?"

"The important thing is that it blew up, not why! Focus!" I got closer and closer to the plume, which was now rising fairly rapidly. I began feeling the effects on control. The craft started shaking in the turbulent atomic breeze.

"Pulling up now!" I pulled back on the stick as hard as I could. I nearly passed out, but we began going upwards.

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The majority of the blast was still below us, but the heated hydrogen rising was already enough to make a difference. The throttle was at maximum. We exceeded the speeds we had reached on our last attempt and soared higher and higher above Jool.

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"I can't believe this is working!" shouted Evelina. The thrust began to taper off. "What's our apoapsis?"

"187."

"Oh no."

"188... 189..." My heart beat. "190." Several seconds passed. "Stabilizing around 191 kilometers. Nine short."

"Can we fire the fusion engine there?"

"I sure hope so."

"Wait," she said. "What if we used the nuclear engine as a nuclear thermal rocket? We have hydrogen on board!"

"By going EVA again with your trusty Swiss army knife and rerouting the hydrogen pipe in less than a minute or two at most? How are we going to manage that?"

"Surely the designers must have thought of that... There must have been worlds with taller atmospheres than this... Wait." She looked over my shoulder. "That switch. Right there." I looked where she was pointing. It was flicked downwards, towards the "ATMOSPHERIC" setting. The upwards setting was "LH2." I held my breath and flipped it. There was a rumble from the rear of the craft.

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"Oh my goodness. Evelina, you are a genius!"

"Whoever designed this was a genius. I'm just clever."

"We're going through hydrogen rapidly. Like, very rapidly."

"Cut off as soon as the apoapsis reaches space."

"197... 198... 199... 200. Cutoff." The engine spooled down and shut off. I deactivated the nuclear reactor. We coasted for a few seconds. "More than two thirds of our hydrogen fuel is gone."

"Makes sense. We have enough hydrogen to orbit most reasonable worlds with an engine that has more than ten thousand seconds of specific impulse. The nuclear engine probably has a tenth of that at best."

"True. I hope this still works. Here goes nothing. Fusion engine ignition in three. Two. one."

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"Yes!" I shouted.

"Don't celebrate yet," she said. "We need to stay above the atmosphere. Gravity losses are big here. We need to accelerate to nearly seven kilometers per second to get to orbit. We don't have much more Delta-V than that."

"We have enough." I did my best to manage our pitch angle to minimize gravity losses. Fortunately, we still had several hundred meters per second of Delta-V left when we...

...Entered Low Jool Orbit.

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"Engine cutoff. Fusion shutdown."

"We... We did it," said Evelina weakly. I turned to her again. Her face was even more pale.

"Evelina!"

"There... must have been... a gap in the shielding," she managed to say between breaths.

"Medkit," I said. I felt weaker than normal too.

"Call... for... help."

"Jeb said it's in here somewhere." I suddenly got dizzier than I had before.

"Radio..."

"I'll do my best to... to... fix it," I said. Oh no. The fusion engine. Neutron radiation. Usually blocked by the rest of the ship and the radiation suits. I looked at my dosimeter. It had stopped rising, but it was blinking more than ever and did indeed show a specific neutron warning.

"Ethan..." I turned around in time to see her pass out.

"Evelina!" I shouted, breathing heavily. I felt lightheaded. I turned to the control panel. I managed to find the radio, but it was definitely broken. I tried turning the radar on and off several times, hoping it would pulse, but then I realized that it would be pulsing regardless... I radar-ed SOS, the only thing I knew in Morse code. But no other alien species would be using English Morse code! I needed to launch a signal flare of some sort!

Wait. We just were shot out of a gas giant by the biggest signal flare I could reasonably ask for.

I snapped my head back. I had almost passed out.

There was a blue light in the distance. I squinted as it got closer and closer.

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Sunlight glinted off of its solar panels. Or were those solar panels?

I snapped my head back again. I was fading fast. I remembered. The data drive! No... Evelina's had to have been destroyed by the crystal! But we needed it! Would she, by some miracle, still have it?

I turned around to check.

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I saw bay doors begin to open on the massive ship.

I jerked myself awake again, in the process slapping the control stick. The ship spun around once more, turning me away from the ship.

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The last thing I remembered was the sky.

 

==========

 

I heard distant voices.

"Bandages. He needs bandages."

"No, not those little ones! The gauze!"

"Data drive..." I muttered.

"He's awake!" someone shouted. I opened my eyes.

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I blinked and looked around.

"Ethan, oh my gosh, are you okay?" asked Marie.

"I'm... The data drive!"

"The what?"

"I need it! JEB!"

"Ethan, you hit you passed out, had a seizure, and hit your head," said Valentina. "Hold on, we're coming with bandages."

"Ethan!" said Jeb, who was more panicky than concerned. "Are you okay?"

"Yes, but - "

"No, not you. You know... You."

"We're orbiting."

"Yes, Ethan, we're orbiting Laythe," said Jack.

"No," I said. "We're orbiting Jool."

"You must have hit your head really hard, Ethan," said Marie. "Here, hold still." She began wrapping a bandage around my head.

"We?" asked Jebediah.

"Evelina," I said. He moved in closer to my ear.

"I'll take it from here, Marie," he said, taking the roll of gauze from her. "Evelina launched her pod. We haven't found it yet, but we're looking," he whispered in my ear.

"No," I replied. "Her pod exploded. I saw it."

"Oh." Jeb's face fell.

"I saved her," I said.

"You saved her to the data drive?"

"No," I said. "I saved her. We're in Low Jool Orbit, dying of radiation sickness."

"How did you manage that?!" He barely managed to maintain his whisper.

"You tell me. But you need to come get us."

"Will do. You must have quite the story to tell."

"Oh my. You bet. But the data drive... I lost mine. Evelina's is probably gone."

"Shh. it's fine. Mine's fine, and I'm within the friendly part of the galaxy."

"But what if it's corrupted?"

"Remember when I said that the drive was worth more than your life?"

"Yes," I answered truthfully.

"Forget that. One encounter survived, one of a dozen. Their fight pattern often changes unpredictably. It was stupid of me to say that."

"So the data isn't as important as I thought?"

"Well... it is important. But Ethan? You are a living, breathing, loving, intelligent being. No amount of data could ever replace you."

"Jeb, are you sure you know how to put on a bandage?" said Marie.

"Right, sorry. I think it's better that you do it."

 

==========

"Exactly to plan," said Z.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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