by Mary E. Lowd
A Deep Sky Anchor Original, April 2023
Kipper placed her gray tabby paws on the metal orb. It felt smooth and cool against her paw pads. Jenny was explaining everything that she and the other otter scientists had learned about this particular, mysterious relic that they’d found in one of the deepest, most thoroughly locked and booby-trapped rooms in the ancient octopus base on Europa. Trugger sounded fascinated. But all Kipper wanted to do was touch it. She felt compelled, perhaps by feline curiosity. Perhaps by something intrinsic, something sinister about the orb.
“What are you doing?” Jenny asked, grabbing Kipper’s arm with a webbed paw. “We don’t know if it’s safe!”
Trugger placed a steadying paw on Kipper’s other shoulder. “Oh, don’t worry about my captain,” he said. “Kipper’s always careful!”
Then a bright flash filled the room, blinding all three of them — two otters and the tabby cat whose curiosity had gotten the better of her. Usually the otters in Kipper’s life were the careless ones. But apparently, not today.
“What did you do?!” Jenny exclaimed. The otters got their sight back first, probably thanks to the extra eyelids designed to protect their sight underwater that were apparently faster at clamping shut than normal cat eyelids had been. But even without seeing, Kipper could feel with her whiskers that the air here was open wide, not closed off like it had been inside the Europa station, and she smelled salt and fresh greenery carried by a gentle, warm breeze. “I don’t know where we are…”
“Jumping jellyfish!” Trugger added, followed by a strange, sloppy plopping sound raining down all around them. By the time the brightness cleared from Kipper’s eyes, there were skooshed piles of transparent, gelatinous goo on the dirt ground all around the befuddled otter’s webbed feet. His whiskers turned down in a nonplussed expression. “Are those… jellyfish?” he asked. “They’re not very good at jumping, are they? And singing salmon, where did they come from?”
A silvery fish popped into the space by Trugger’s shoulder, like the inverse of a soap bubble bursting, and fell to the ground where it flopped about, moaning and whistling.
“Goodness,” Trugger said. “Salmon aren’t much better at singing than jellyfish are at jumping. I may have to re-think some of my favorite phrases…”
“And maybe you should keep from saying any more of them just now,” Jenny added, urgently. “At least, until we figure out what’s going on.”
Kipper looked up at the sky — the purple sky — and counted five suns, seven moons. The suns ranged from small and yellow to great red discs glowing like fire. She felt the light from each of them warming her fur. The moons were pockmarked crescents; one of them had its own rings. Based on Kipper’s minimal understanding of astronomy and astrophysics, it was not a sky that should have been possible. Too many suns, too many moons, too close together. Much too close together. And none of the angles or shadows were right for turning those moons into crescents.
“This place shouldn’t be possible,” Kipper said. “Were we teleported here?”
“Maybe it’s an illusion,” Trugger suggested while staring at his paws and wiggling his webbed fingers, as if trying to understand how he’d caused jellyfish and a solemn salmon to appear out of thin air. “Perhaps you turned on some sort of holographic display.”
Jenny shook her head. She had strayed from the others and was examining a tree with an orange-splotched trunk and ruby red leaves. “A holographic display with smells and textures this strong? It seems unlikely.”
“Less likely than a teleportation device?” Kipper asked. Then she looked at the sky again. “No, whatever this is… it can’t be real.”
“Maybe it’s only happening in our minds,” Jenny suggested. She’d pulled a leaf off the tree and tried, tentatively, nibbling its serrated edge. “Some kind of virtual reality?”
“A virtual reality where I can summon fish by saying, ‘penguin with a swan’s wings!’?” Trugger asked. A penguin appeared at his feet with white, downy wings stretched wide.
Jenny frowned at the amalgamated bird and said, “I told you not to do that.”
Kipper pointed out, “That’s not a fish,” and then reiterated, “and Jenny told you not to do that.”
“I’m sorry.” It wasn’t clear whether Trugger was apologizing to Jenny and Kipper… or to the confused looking penguin. Either way, Trugger looked abashed and genuinely remorseful.
The penguin looked strangely delighted and began flapping its wide wings. With a little effort, it took to the air, bullet-shaped body hanging strangely between the powerful wings.
“I don’t know much about virtual reality,” Kipper said, “but weren’t you telling Trugger, right before the bright flash, about how that metal orb seemed to contain entangled particles that were — what was it? — missing their entangled pairs?”
“Yes,” Jenny agreed. She had moved from nibbling at the ruby red leaf to sniffing a dull brown moss on the tree’s bright orange trunk. After a moment, she scraped a bit of the moss off the trunk with her claw and tried tasting it as well.
Kipper wished Jenny would stop tasting things here. It didn’t seem safe.
Jenny grimaced as the moss touched her tongue. “Bitter,” she said. “And yeah, I suppose a metal orb filled with singleton entangled particles is a bit excessive for powering a VR device. We can make things like that with otter technology that’s far less advanced than some of the simplest devices on that octopus base.”
“I think we’re in an alternate universe,” Trugger said. He was still staring at the penguin-swan he’d summoned into existence. It had continued to fly, circling around the otter, and occasionally looking like it meant to try perching on his shoulder like some kind of pirate’s parrot — but it was much too large relative to him to balance on his shoulder successfully.
“Yes,” Jenny said. “I suppose that’s possible.”
The two otters and one tabby cat stood in silence for a few moments, letting the reality and unreality of their situation fully sink in. They didn’t know how they’d gotten here, where ‘here’ was, or how to get back.
“I think we should look for more people,” Kipper said. “Or a village… or even just shelter.” With all those stars in the sky, night was unlikely to be a problem any time soon, but Kipper didn’t feel right about just standing around at the edge of a ruby red forest. There was nothing here that seemed likely to teleport them back home. Besides, she thought she might feel better if they got moving.
“Alright,” Jenny agreed. “Let’s look for signs of civilization.”
The three of them began marching, away from the trees, toward a glimmer in the distance that looked like it might be a lake or the edge of an ocean. Societies often congregated around the edges of large bodies of water. As they moved along, the three travelers crossed paths with a narrow stream and began following it. The penguin-swan, which had continued flying along beside Trugger, dove into the stream and joyfully splashed the cold water by flapping its wide wings, sending crystalline droplets of water soaring through the air.
“Hey!” Kipper objected, cowering away from the battery of water droplets. “Cats don’t like getting wet!”
Suddenly, the water droplets slid away from Kipper, as if they’d hit an invisible force field surrounding the tabby cat. Kipper’s eyes widened in surprise, but then she saw Jenny’s eyes had widened even farther.
“I think…” Jenny said, staring at her webbed paws, much the way Trugger had done after summoning the not-so-jumping jellyfish. “I did that. May have done that… I don’t know. None of this is possible.”
“You think you controlled the water?” Trugger asked, barely hiding his glee at the ridiculous idea. “Do it again!” He jumped into the stream beside his penguin-swan and splashed even more water towards Kipper with a slap of his wide rudder-like tail.
Jenny put her paws out, instinctively, and the water stopped in mid-air. She moved her paws, gesturing away from Kipper and back toward Trugger. The splash of water halted in the air, stretched out into a stream of water following the shape of Jenny’s gesture, and snaked back through the air until it splashed the troublesome otter right in his grinning face.
“That’s amazing!” Trugger announced through the water dripping over his face. Kipper thought it was even more amazing that he’d managed to say so without referencing any more birds or fish. That must have been hard for him, and she was very impressed by his restraint.
Come to think of it, though, if Trugger could summon fish and birds with his words and Jenny could control the movement of water with her mind… what could Kipper do? Did she have any magical powers in this strange, impossible land?
Tentatively and quietly, Kipper whispered, “Sardines.” They were the smallest, least dangerous fish she could think of. But nothing happened. Maybe she had to say it louder? Or maybe… it had to be sillier. Trugger’s fish and bird sayings were always ridiculous.
Kipper watched Jenny experiment more and more boldly with her ability to telekinetically control the water from the stream — she had three globes of water bobbling through the space in front of her, rotating and spinning through the air as if she were juggling them. Kipper supposed that, in a way, Jenny was juggling them; it was just that her paws flowed through the motions she wanted the globes to perform without ever actually touching them.
It was quite magical to watch.
And Kipper felt horribly jealous. She wanted to do magic too.
“Sardines in a twister!” Kipper blurted out suddenly, putting all of her heart and a lot of voice into it. She really thought for a moment that a bunch of sardines would pop into existence, mussing up Jenny’s juggling globes, and tornado about in a tiny twister.
But they didn’t.
All that happened was that both otters — and the penguin-swan — stopped what they were doing and stared at Kipper in sudden surprise.
“What’s that?” Trugger asked.
“Sardines in a twister?” Jenny repeated, and for a cringing moment, Kipper thought the phrase would prove magical in her mouth. Perhaps only otters could perform magic here? But nothing happened.
No tiny tornado.
“Do you…” Trugger’s eyes narrowed in confusion and speculation. “Do you want me to say it? I could probably make that happen for you.” He carefully didn’t actually say anything about sardines or twisters. Again, Kipper was impressed.
But she was also disappointed. “No…” Kipper kicked at the ground with her foot-paw. “I was just hoping that I had magic here too.”
“You still might,” Jenny said. “Have you tried controlling the water? We might both have that power.” The otter summoned another transparent bulb of water from the babbling stream; it floated right up to hover above her webbed paw, and the weird light from all the stars above refracted beautifully through its changing surface.
Kipper reached out a paw and focused all of her willpower on the floating globe of water. But nothing happened. She reached closer, extending her retractable claws until their sharp tips pierced the surface tension of the globe. The water bubble popped, and all the water streamed down over Jenny’s paw, dripping over her thick, brown fur toward the ground.
Jenny laughed. “I guess not.”
Kipper scowled and turned to look at the babbling stream itself. The sun-studded sky reflected off the water’s troubled surface at so many changing angles; it was like a liquid rainbow. But Kipper found a still pool at the side of the stream where the water’s surface was as flat and clear as a mirror. She looked down and saw her face, half expecting that it wouldn’t be the face she remembered. If the sky could have a half dozen stars, then why couldn’t she have transformed from a tabby into some fantastical creature of mythology?
But no, her otter friends looked the same as always, and they would have mentioned it to her if she had changed.
In the reflective surface of the water, Kipper saw her usual tabby face, gray-striped with a white sploosh between her green eyes. She wished she could be like her otter friends — magical. But even in the normal universe, they were brave and fun and funny. She didn’t always feel that way. And she wanted to. She wanted to be like them.
As Kipper stared at her tabby face, dreaming about being like her otter friends, she felt something prickle, first at the tips of her ears, then under her chin, finally spreading across her face, down her shoulders, and everywhere. The tingling feeling flooded through her whole body, filling her with apprehension and excitement.
And somehow, it wasn’t a surprise at all when she saw her face transform: gray fur darkened to brown; stripes disappeared; and her nose widened while her pointed ears shrank and curved. Her green eyes lost their mysterious sparkle and took on a warm twinkle, changing also to brown.
Her tabby face became the face of an otter.
But it was still her face.
An otter’s face that was also hers.
Kipper smiled, held up her paws to look at the new webbing stretched between her fingers, and twitched her tail tentatively. Instead of swishing the way a cat’s tail would, it swung wide. She had a thick rudder of a tail. An otter’s tail.
Kipper’s smile widened to a grin, and without a further thought, she dove into the stream. She heard Trugger and Jenny exclaiming behind her, but she couldn’t make out their words. The babbling sound of the stream filled her ears as the cold water rushed over her body. It felt right. It felt right in a way that water never would feel right to a cat.
Otters are made to swim.
And Kipper swam, loving the way her wide tail pushed her through the water and the way her new inner eyelid protected her eyes. She swam downstream, turned around, and swam back upstream again. When she got back to Trugger and Jenny, Kipper burst out of the water, triumphant.
And suddenly, the sky flashed. Kipper thought it was a lightning bolt at first, but it kept growing brighter until everything was gone, subsumed by the blinding whiteness of the light.
When Kipper’s vision returned, she already knew what had happened. She could feel the smooth floor under her paws, smell the sterile air, and hear how the sound echoed differently. She heard it with pointed ears. She back on Europa, in the ancient octopus base, and her otter body was gone, replaced with her original tabby self.
Kipper’s paws were still on the metal orb; Jenny’s webbed paw was still grasping Kipper’s wrist, and Trugger still had another webbed paw placed on her shoulder. All of them stood there, still and stunned.
Finally, Jenny spoke: “I think its power cell burned out.”
“Can we get it another one?” Kipper’s voice cracked over the question. She wanted to be an otter again. She hadn’t been done being an otter.
And yet, clearly, she was done being an otter, whether she’d been ready or not. Because she was a cat again, and the tingly, compelling feeling in the metal orb under her paws was completely gone. It was just a plain metal orb now, as far as Kipper could tell.
“I’m sorry,” Jenny said. “We don’t understand these types of power cells yet. My scientists are still studying them.”
“Flamingo with its feathers fluffed out!” Trugger exclaimed, recklessly. All three of them watched and waited, half expecting a frazzled flamingo to appear. One didn’t. “I miss my penguin-swan,” Trugger said ruefully. “I was going to name her Swanzilla.”
“That’s a lovely name,” Kipper said. She caught Trugger’s eye, and they smiled sadly at each other. All three of them had lost something just now, something that they hadn’t known to want or even imagine until it happened — magical powers that didn’t even make sense.
“It was fun while it lasted,” Jenny said.
“Yes, it was,” Kipper agreed.
A tiny taste of magic might leave an aftertaste of loss on the tongue, but it had still been delicious.
Want to read more about Kipper, Trugger, and Jenny? Check out the Otters In Space series!