Thursday, July 7, 2016

Adrift Off The Great Red Spot, 22°51'23.14"S, 98°49'24.40"W

Io and Jupiter courtesy of NASA

Adrift Off The Great Red Spot, 22°51'23.14"S, 98°49'24.40"W
by Alan Loewen

"Mayday, mayday! This is Captain Arthur Vinson of the floating refinery, Daphne's Tear. I am adrift 800 kilometers away from the wall of the Great Red Spot, twenty-two degrees, fifty-one minutes, twenty-three point fourteen seconds south and ninety-eight degrees, forty-nine minutes, and twenty-four point forty seconds west. Over."

The only response was the soft hiss of static.

Vinson did not believe in luck, but if he had he would have had to admit he had attracted a very bad surplus of it lately.

Daphne's Tear was a huge nanoKevlar balloon a full kilometer in diameter holding to its underside the refinery and the cramped quarters Vinson called home. As Daphne's Tear drifted through the upper clouds of Jupiter, it scooped up the rich gases of the atmosphere and its refineries turned it into fuel for the energy-starved ships that now transported humanity among the planets.

It was a dangerous job, the annual mortality rates almost a full three percent, but after just a year, Vinson would have enough in his bank account to retire for life to a terraformed Mars with a great view of Olympus Mons.

But now, it looked like he was just going to be just a statistic after all except maybe becoming the first black man to die in Jupiter's atmosphere.

And because of his nonexistent bad luck, a rare upper atmospheric lightning blast had fried Daphne's electronics including his rescue pod. He had cobbled together enough batteries and spare electronics to get the radio working, but so far there had been no response.

To make matters worse, Daphne's Tear now drifted in the jet stream of Jupiter's upper atmosphere toward the wall of the Great Red Spot, an anticyclonic storm that had raged in Jupiter's southern hemisphere for centuries.

He looked out the thick steelglass window to see the wall so very far away yet getting nearer, an angry turmoil of winds and boiling clouds. The 400 kilometer per hour winds would shred Daphne's Tear to small pieces in seconds.

He sent out another Mayday.

And this time he was rewarded with a faint response.

"Daphne's Tear, this is the April Devil. I am seven hundred kilometers from your position, ETA estimated to be six hours. Over."

Vinson breathed a sigh of relief. If he was going to die, at least he wouldn't be alone.

"April Devil, this is Daphne's Tear. Be aware that I am going to impact the wall of the Great Red Spot ETA eight hours. Over"

"Received, Daphne's Tear. We're on our way. Have your escape pod ready for ejection and pick up."

"No can do, April Devil. A rogue bolt wiped out my electronics. I have no escape pod. I repeat, I have no escape pod."

There was a lengthy pause in the response.

"We'll think of something, Daphne's Tear. Be there in six hours and am relaying your Mayday."

Vinson sat back in his chair, his fingers massaging tense temples. He had six hours to think of a way of transferring himself from his ship to the April Devil.

They say time flies when you're having fun. It also flies when the prospect of sudden death rears itself. Other calls from other floating refineries came in but being too far away, all they could do was offer prayers and wishes for good luck.

When the April Devil arrived, the wall of the Great Red Spot was much closer. Only two hundred kilometers away and the lightning bolts, hundreds of kilometers long danced through the boiling clouds, forming a nimbus around each cloud-like feature, each individual bolt equaling hundreds of the lightning bolts ever produced on Earth.

If he was going to die, at least, thank heaven, it would be quick.

But in six hours, he had come up with a solution. It was the solution of a desperate man and desperate men can be fools, but there was no other way.

The April Devil hung beside him four kilometers away.

Vinson clicked on the radio. "This is Captain Vinson. Who do I have the pleasure of addressing?"

"This is Captain Abby Constantine, at your service." The close proximity of the April Devil had removed the hiss from the transmission. The voice was clearly female. "Any idea of how we are going to get you from the Daphne's Tear to over here?"

Vinson took a deep breath. "Your ship has an access tube that goes all the way to the top of the balloon?"

"Yes, it does," Constantine replied. "but how does that help you get from your ship to mine?"

"I'm going to atmo it."

"What? Are you insane?"

Vinson laughed. "Certainly, but listen. Bring the April Devil right under my gondola. I can hold my breath for forty-five seconds, long enough for me to drop down to the airlock on top of your balloon. The outside air pressure is close to cabin pressure. The temp is a balmy five degrees Celsius."

"And if you try to breathe you'll die from lack of oxygen and every exposed body part will be sunburned to the point of almost needing a skin graft. And you'll probably break every bone in your body when you hit my balloon."

"Details, details. I'm a dead man any other way. And I'm not worried about the sunburn. I'm black enough to protect me for a limited time. Let me try it."

A short pause. "Maneuvering now. Give me five minutes."

"I'll be generous. I'll give you ten, but not a second more."

Arthur Vinson looked around the small cubicle he had called home for three months. Sadly, he patted the console. "Sorry, old girl. Sorry it had to end like this."

He made his way to the airlock, ripping the sheet off his small bed. He gave one last look to what he had called home, stepped into the airlock, and cycled it closed behind him.

Looking out the little window, he watched as the April Devil swung underneath him. Below, he could see the target. Right on top of the balloon, an airlock connected to a small needle-like corridor with a ladder that ran straight through the balloon to the gondola below.

And through the thick walls of his own gondola, he could dimly hear the wails of the winds of the approaching Great Red Spot.

Deliberately and slowly, Vinson placed goggles over his eyes, wishing that there had been room in the cramped quarters for an atmospheric suit. However, gondola builders had other ideas than basic safety. There simply was no logical need for having such a bulky item in a gondola where all space was a premium. Anyway, if there was a need to leave the gondola itself for any reason, sometimes even in an escape pod, you were probably dead anyway.

So Vinson hyperventilated his lungs until he felt dizzy. Then quickly making sure his goggles securely protected his eyes, without a moment's further pause, he pushed the escape bar that blew the emergency locks of the outer door open.

He fell toward the April Devil and all he could perceive was a barrage of color and cold and sound and the overwhelming need to breathe. The winds of Jupiter buffeted him, but streaming up around the mass of the April Devil's balloon they slowed his fall just as he hoped they would. Behind him, holding onto it with a death grip, Vinson's bed sheet acted as a fluttering tail to slow his descent even more.

He still approached the other balloon at a frightening speed.

He hit the nanoKevlar surface of the April Devil's balloon with a thud and he felt something snap in his chest, but by grace, he was only a yard away from the airlock. The gamble had worked, but the last card had not yet been drawn.

This close to the surface of the balloon, the ascending winds were quieter, so ignoring the screaming pain in his chest, Vinson let the adrenaline of fear drive him to the airlock on hands and knees.

It was when he had the airlock door open that he lost the strength to hold his breath. With a gasp, Arthur Vinson drew the atmosphere of Jupiter into his lungs and he felt a moment's relief for there was air at last in his lungs.

Unfortunately, its oxygen content was measured in scant molecules per square foot.

And then he noticed the aroma, a delicate presence of roses, the perfume of Jupiter.

And now unconscious, he was not aware of the arms reaching out for him.

* * * *

He awoke to a pair of bright green eyes looking at him with concern. He coughed and decided that was a bad thing, but he couldn't stop.

Everything throbbed with agony, but pain was good. Pain meant he was alive.

"Captain Vinson?"

Breathing deeply, Vinson looked up at his rescuer, a trim lady with green eyes. He wanted to respond, but even the thought of talking simply inspired another coughing jag.

"Please don't try to talk or move. We're just an hour away from one of the Southern platforms. They have a hospital bed all ready for you."

* * * *

Six months later, Arthur Vinson stared out the window of his home just far away from the slopes of Olympus Mons to watch the annual climb of green vegetation up its lower slopes. Each successive year, the green limb climbed just a little higher. Vinson was determined to watch that happen for many, many years. He was hoping to get married, raise some children, and share the wonders of this incredible, new world.

It was good the media had finally left him alone. Humanity's adventures in the Solar System eventually pushed his story down the list to be replaced by other heroes, but Arthur Vinson still had his name in the history books. Not only was he the first man to fly the winds of Jupiter, he had also been the first to breathe its perfume and survive.


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