by Mary E. Lowd
Captain Cod set Kipper up with her own bunk in the barracks and personally pinned one of the golden sailing ship lapel pins on her tunic. It made her feel very official. Officially an honorary otter.
There were also some electronic forms; Trugger helped her fill them out. As far as she could tell, she was registering to pay taxes on the modest salary Captain Cod afforded her. She wondered if there was any way for the dogs down on Earth to claim a portion too. She hoped not.
Once all the work was done, Trugger took her around and personally introduced her to each of her new shipmates. Jenny, a petite, dark-furred river otter, offered to show Kipper around the space station, specifically to help her pick up any supplies she needed. Like a few changes of clothes. Trugger decided to tag along.
Jenny helped Kipper scour the local tailor shops and thrift stores for any clothes that would fit a cat. Mostly, the pants were too short and the tops too long. Everything was designed to suit the short limbs and long torso of an otter. Nonetheless, Jenny had a good eye and was able to help Kipper pick out a few things.
Afterward, Trugger showed the ladies to his favorite squirrel restaurant, the one run by immigrant squirrels. He chittered in a foreign tongue to the squirrels and ordered clam juice and appetizers all around. Kipper had to admit the nut mash was pretty good, and clam juice, she decided, was definitely worth drinking. A lot. Fortunately, it sounded like the Jolly Barracuda kept a full stock.
By the third round of clam juices, Jenny excused herself. She had a few station-dwelling friends to visit before the Jolly Barracuda put out to deep space. According to public station records, the Manta Ray‘s berth was only reserved for another day. In order to tail her, the Jolly Barracuda would also put out tomorrow. And, according to Trugger, it could be weeks or months before they arrived anywhere.
He regaled Kipper with tales of his past trips through deep space over the fourth and fifth rounds of clam juice. Then it was time to go. Kipper felt like she’d barely had time to realize that she was really in space, let alone explore the Deep Sky Anchor as much as she wanted.
Nonetheless, Kipper had enjoyed her one afternoon of otter-culture touristing.
The last errand Kipper insisted on running before retiring to the ship for the night was to put in a call to Alistair. He didn’t answer, but she wasn’t surprised. She left a message: “Ali, it’s me. Kipper. I made it to the space elevator. And up to the station. Petra isn’t here, and I don’t think she’s coming. I wish I could get a message to her… I hope she’s okay.” Kipper clenched her teeth, flattened her ears, and forced herself not to worry about Petra. “Nothing’s been going like I expected… I can’t afford the ride back down. But, these otters offered me a job. And they might help me find out what that cat, Violet, was up to… I don’t know. We’re leaving tomorrow, and, well, I just wanted you to know.”
Kipper felt so cut off. Everything she’d ever known was a hundred thousand kilometers away. Her closest connection to her brother right now was Trudith, who she’d left behind most of a day ago. “Oh, right,” she said. “I sent that dog I was traveling with — Trudith — I sent her back to look out for you. Or for you to look out for her. But you should know that by now… ‘Cause, if you’re watching this, then she got you out of jail…” Kipper trailed off feeling confused and even more disconnected. “Well, tell her ‘hi’ from me,” she ended lamely. She hoped Alistair was out of jail by now. She wondered what he’d done to get in there.
Then, Kipper stepped back and let Trugger take over. He explained how Alistair could call a message in to the communications hub at Deep Sky Anchor. That way, Kipper could access anything Alistair had to tell her at the Jolly Barracuda‘s convenience. And at a semi-reasonable cost. It was much cheaper, apparently, for ships to call in to the communications hub for messages than for the communications hub to actively locate a ship, catch its attention, and then transmit messages to it.
Once the errands were over, Trugger brought Kipper back to the ship, where the evening threatened to stretch on forever. Kipper packed her new belongings away in the drawers under her bunk, and she listened to the otters throw stories about during dinner in the galley. She was exhausted, but, when she settled down to sleep in her bunk, she could barely sleep. She was too nervous about tomorrow. Although, she wasn’t half as nervous as she would have been if she’d realized exactly what was coming.
She should have known. It was an otter spacecraft. Every few feet, there was an iron grilled drain in the floor and ceiling. Everything that mattered was made from plastic. The paintings were protected under plastic. And, most importantly, Trugger had even explained it to her.
Nonetheless, Kipper dismissed the first dampness she felt on the floor of the Jolly Barracuda. There was so much craziness — everything hectic — with all of the crew rushing about, preparing themselves and the ship for flight. Kipper assumed the water she felt between her toes had simply been tracked in and dripped about by one of the hurried otters who had been recently swimming in the space station’s artificial river. She didn’t worry about it.
Instead, she darted about the ship, dodging otters, and looking for a good window to perch by during take-off. She’d been trapped inside a dark, cargo bay for her arrival at Deep Sky Anchor. She intended to have a better view of the station as she left it.
Eventually, she picked an oblong window with a bench seat beside it. The seat was upholstered in a plasticky foam and was reasonably comfortable. Most importantly, the window and bench seemed to be mostly out of the way of the busiest parts of the ship. So, Kipper settled down to await take-off. Only then did she realize that the dampness in her toes hadn’t dried off.
In fact, the floor around her bench was wet.
At first, it was only a thin film of water. But, as she watched, with rising horror, the thin film grew thicker. Clearly, this was more than a little water tracked about on the floor by a careless, water-loving otter.
She wondered why the otters hadn’t noticed and whether she should warn them. Before she had time to decide what to do about it, she found herself sloshing through enough water to splash about when she stood up. There was no way the otters hadn’t noticed it. Why weren’t they concerned?
As the level of the water rose and the level of concern (namely none) displayed by the otters she passed didn’t rise, Kipper found herself closer and closer to panicking. She looked at the impassive faces of the otters rushing about. They saw nothing wrong with the now ankle deep water. It must be a normal part of take-off. A horrifying thought.
Kipper tried to remember what Trugger had told her about fluid dynamics yesterday during the tour. It hadn’t seemed pressingly important at the time. But, it seemed more and more pressingly important now. Of course, the more she started to panic, the less she could coherently think to remember Trugger’s words.
She reached a paw out to the nearest otter. The solid feel of his shoulder under her quavering paw steadied her slightly. “How high is the water going to rise?” she asked. The otter she asked simply laughed and grinned before hurrying on his way. She thought she’d fall without the otter as a prop to lean on, but she couldn’t stand the idea of falling into the water. The rising water.
She caught herself. And looked for another otter. The next nearest otter was working a maintenance panel on the wall. She thought, maybe, he had overheard her. So, she looked to him, hoping for an answer. But he just winked.
Kipper didn’t like that at all. “Where’s Trugger?” she asked.
She could have pressed the otter for a straight answer to her original question, but she strongly suspected she wouldn’t like the answer. She was halfway sure that she’d put the pieces of this highly distressing puzzle together. On her own. She didn’t know what she hoped to find from Trugger. Possibly reassurance. He was the otter she knew best. The closest thing she had to a friend out here in space.
Unfortunately, the otter she asked didn’t know where she could find Trugger. So, she headed back to the barracks, her field of vision narrowing into a dark, watery tunnel. Slosh, slosh, she went, wading now down the hallways. Slosh, slosh is not a way cats should go.
The water was almost to her waist.
Soon, she’d have to swim. It wasn’t right. Her breathing was becoming ragged and labored. One step, one dragging, water-impeded step at a time, she made her way to the barracks. But she couldn’t lie down on her bunk when she got there. It was already under the rising level of the water.
Complete and utter panic.
She heard her name, then she felt the webbed paws on her shoulders.
“Kipper?” Trugger said. “I heard you were wandering the halls, not looking too good.”
Kipper’s eyes were too unfocused to find Trugger’s, but she looked in the general direction of his face. In the barest whisper between her pointy teeth, she said, “How high? How high is the water going to rise?”
She’d already figured out the answer for herself, so she was hardly even listening as Trugger said, “It’s not water. It’s oxo-agua. A highly oxygenated liquid atmosphere.”
Kipper’s eyes were dilated, and Trugger could tell his words weren’t meaning anything to her. “How high?” she asked again.
“You’re going to have to breathe it.” He looked at Kipper and realized he was going to have to walk her through this.
“I’ve got to get off…” Kipper rasped. “Get me back to the station!”
“Just stay calm,” Trugger said. “We’ve already sealed the airlocks and disembarked, but you don’t really want to leave anyway.”
Kipper sputtered, too frazzled to effectively communicate how very, very much she did want to leave. The water was up to her chest now, and her lungs felt heavy with panic already. It wasn’t quite as high on Trugger, since he was taller. “Look,” Trugger said, trying to recapture her attention. “It’s just like being weightless.” He stopped for moment, thinking. “Well… not just like being weightless, ’cause you’ll feel how the up and down of everything becomes more subjective when we hit our travel velocity…” He could see he was losing her.
Trugger took Kipper’s paws in his; her claws pierced the soft webbing between his toes, but he just flinched and took it. “We’re going to duck under the water. Okay? We’ll just duck down and come back up.”
With a little hopping and swaying, keeping his paws held tight on hers, Trugger managed to urge Kipper downwards. Their heads submerged, and the oxo-agua pressed around her. Water entirely around her; in her ears, her nose, her eyes… Kipper gasped when they came back up.
“See? Not so bad.”
Kipper didn’t entirely agree. In fact, she didn’t agree at all. But, she nodded. Dumbly. Her focus locked on Trugger. Trying not to panic.
“Now we’re going to do it again.”
Oxo-agua (which Kipper found indistinguishable from water except for Trugger’s word that it wasn’t) dripped down all the crevasses of Kipper’s face and filled all the cavities. It was a horrible sensation. But, before she could shake it off, Trugger was pulling her down again.
“This time,” he said, just before submerging, “open your eyes and look around.”
She tried to follow his instructions. It took a great effort of will to fight her natural instincts. She wanted to keep her eyes squeezed tight shut. The oxo-agua didn’t sting her eyes like she expected, but the world around her was wavery and blurry. And her lungs were bursting for air. She shot back up and gasped the air, gulping it down, once she was above the surface again. Dispiritedly, she realized the surface was higher now. Just under her chin.
“You’re doing great,” Trugger said. Considering that it was Trugger’s first time guiding a cat into breathing a liquid atmosphere, Kipper thought he was doing great. That belief disappeared with his next words: “This is the last time. We’ll go under. Open your mouth. And breathe it. You’ll be fine.”
Kipper wanted to scream at him that he was crazy, but he moved so fast that he’d already pulled her under. And she couldn’t, just couldn’t follow his instructions this time. She couldn’t even try.
Instead, she opened her eyes to the bleary wateriness of oxo-agua, beseeching him with her look to change the world. Make the water go away. Put her safely back on Earth, surrounded by bully dogs who only insulted or threw things at her. Occasionally tried to beat her to death. But they never, never tried to drown her.
That’s what he was doing. His firm grip on her utterly restrained her from trying to resurface. She tried, briefly to struggle, but she knew it was only a matter of time before there wasn’t a surface to return to. Only a hard, metal ceiling. No, she didn’t want to claw and scrabble and gasp at the last, thinning air at the top of the room. She wanted to follow Trugger’s instructions. She could see him breathing, easily, calmly in front of her. But he was an otter. They can breathe water, can’t they?
The longer she looked at Trugger, his purple stripes fluffed by the oxo-agua he floated in, the less he looked like an otter. The more he began to look like a bizarre, tropical, space-fish. Everything was blurring. It wasn’t long after she wondered whether space-fishes could breathe vacuum that the world blanked out.
All was fuzzy silence when she awoke. And the strangest sensation of thickness. She stirred and felt herself rise above the surface she was resting on. Was she falling? She opened her eyes and grabbed out for something to hold. She opened her mouth to scream, but the sound didn’t come out right. Muffled. Strangely small and high pitched. Almost inaudible. “Where am I?” she asked, but she couldn’t hear that any better. A sob caught in her throat, but the air in her throat was already thick…
It wasn’t air.
Before the third sob, Trugger was beside her, webbed paws steadying her. He made a series of gestures. They looked familiar… like the gestures Captain Cod used to communicate with Emily. But Kipper didn’t understand them. She could feel the panic rising again, but Trugger squeezed her shoulders, took her paw, and led her up from the bunk. This was the second time he’d had to bring a blacked-out Kipper to the barracks. She felt ashamed and tried to make up for it by docilely, gamely following his lead. It was hard. Cats aren’t built to swim like otters. She didn’t have webbed paws. Or practice.
With a little trial and error, however, she managed to wobble her way through the oxo-agua after Trugger. They didn’t go far. He’d led her to a computer console; Kipper suspected it was the nearest one.
They were in a small room just down the corridor from the barracks. Trugger didn’t have to seat himself at the computer. He more… floated at it. That bothered Kipper.
Still floating, Trugger put his paws to the computer keys, and in a flash the monitor read, “You don’t know any sign language, do you?”
Kipper shook her head.
More typing, and the monitor read, “I didn’t think of that.”
Awkwardly, Kipper tried to maneuver herself toward the computer. She kept grasping at it, her paws sliding away empty through the oxo-agua, until finally one paw hit solid matter. She grabbed the edge of the desk and pulled. That was much easier, and she was soon able to type: “Captain Cod knew.”
Trugger frowned. Rolled his eyes. And then shrugged. He took over the keyboard again. “You’ll just have to learn.”
Kipper flattened her ears, feeling very aware of the thickness of the oxo-agua inside them. Trugger was cruising through the files on the Jolly Barracuda computer system at a mile a minute. He grinned when he found what he wanted and pointed at the screen. Kipper tilted her head looking at it.
“Standard Swimmer’s Sign: A Tutorial.”
She sighed, and the oxo-agua streamed thickly through her throat and lungs. This was the beginning, she realized, of what life among otter pirates would be like. Swimming. Studying and “speaking” a foreign language. Swimming. More swimming. Everything foreign.
Even her most constant companion, who she had expected to be Trugger, turned out to instead be the most foreign person on the ship.
Most of the otters, including Trugger, were kept busy by their onboard jobs, keeping the ship smoothly running. But, Kipper wasn’t experienced with spaceship maintenance or operations, so she had a great deal of free time. And Swimmer’s Sign came faster to Kipper than expected. Especially since she hadn’t expected to be studying it almost full time.
Most of the gestures were reasonably intuitive, and Kipper didn’t have much else to do during their stealthy flight in pursuit of the Manta Ray. So, over time, she came to spend most of her days in the kitchen, practicing her signing skills on Emily. While the otters seemed foreign in their manner, build, and personality to Kipper, they were blood brothers to her in comparison to Emily.
Practicing with one of the otters might have been easier, since Swimmer’s Sign was essentially two languages: one used by otters and an entirely separate one used by octopi. With all those limbs… and no hands… Well, you just couldn’t expect an octopus to make the same “hand” signals as a creature with paws. In fact, Emily’s signals were really much more subtle and complicated.
However, Kipper didn’t mind the added challenge of discourse with Emily. The octopus chef of the Jolly Barracuda had a far too interesting history for Kipper to begrudge the work it took her to ascertain it. And, besides, there was nothing else to do. Watching the stars hang steadily in the windows lost its charm after the first few days. Well, not entirely. But, it couldn’t fill all her hours.
Kipper did continue to spend her mornings gazing through the unchanging windows. She took her breakfasts to where she could keep an eye on the large, palely colored dot that she’d been told was the Manta Ray. Boris, the pilot who sported a cluster of silver rings on his little round left ear, pointed it out for her. Like the stars, it never seemed to move, so she didn’t have any trouble finding it after that.
Boris claimed the Manta Ray was on a course that would lead them past Mars, but it was keeping complete radio silence. So, there were no transmissions to pick apart, no clues to figure out where the final destination of their trip might be.
Kipper stared at that dot among dots in the window, wondering where it was going and what would happen when it got there. What kind of conflict would occur between these two otter ships when the cats chasing each other on them caught up with each other? When she tired of her imaginings about a ship she could barely see, Kipper would find her way inward, back to the galley. Every day she swam less awkwardly but still uncertainly through the oxo-agua.
Emily gave her little tasks to make her feel busy while they “talked.” Kipper was sure Emily could have got by without her. In fact, she suspected that her presence in the kitchen merely slowed Emily down. However, the otters still got their meals, and Kipper enjoyed learning about octopus cuisine. It was a very different animal from cat, dog, or otter cuisine. And, apparently, that’s why Emily was onboard. The otters needed someone who knew how to cook on their very unusual ship.
Liquid atmosphere isn’t fire friendly. Even heating coils are dangerous, since their heat doesn’t stay contained. It leaks out, cooking the chef along with her creations. Thus, Emily’s signature dishes were mostly raw. A few involved a pressure cooker, but, by and large, Emily prepared exquisite meals made almost entirely from raw or cured fish, shellfish, and various seaweeds. Kipper was skeptical of the kelp and algae based products at first, but Emily used them to perfection as skins and glues for the delectable mashes of cured fish and chunks of savory raw fish.
“You’re getting better. You’d make a good octopus,” Emily signed one day after watching Kipper deftly handle the chopping of a long roll of wrapped, cured salmon. Kipper had impressed Emily by flipping each chopped segment with a flick of the knife so that they floated out of her way. She was using the semi-weightlessness of the water to her advantage. Something that came automatically to an octopus. And seemingly so to otters. But not to a cat, and Emily knew that.
“Thanks,” Kipper signed back, barely restraining her impulse to open her mouth and try to speak. She still hated being underwater. Oxo-agua. Whatever. She figured she always would. “But, you know it’s not true,” she signed. “I’d be a terrible octopus.”
Kipper watched Emily for a response, but her tentacles were all busy arranging the food they’d just finished preparing for the hungry otters who would soon come devour it. And her expression continued to be inscrutable. Kipper simply didn’t know how to read a face that was only eyes and the expanse of skin between them. Certainly, Emily had expressions. The skin between and around her yellow eyes crinkled in terribly expressive ways, but Kipper had no idea what those different expressions meant.
Kipper went back to chopping, and when she finished she put the knife away, arranging it carefully among the other knives stored on the magnetic knife block. She glanced back to Emily and saw that the octopus chef’s yellow eyes were waiting to catch hers. “You’d make as good an octopus as me,” Emily signed.
Kipper begged to differ, but she was so boggled by Emily’s statement that she couldn’t think of any of the otter signs she would need to say so. She could only think of the octopus signs, and her mammalian limbs couldn’t make those. Feeling frustrated with her poor grasp of the only language available to her, Kipper settled for signing the first thing she could work out the otterly gestures for, “Is that why you’re here? You don’t make a good octopus?”
Emily fluttered her tentacles about in a gesture that Kipper recognized had no Swimmer’s Sign meaning. It was an expression of emotion, but, unlike Emily’s “facial” expressions, Kipper had developed something of an interpretation of it. It made her think of a cat or a dog sputtering. Except, since Emily spoke with her arms, she sputtered with them too. Finally, her tentacles settled down and she signed, “There isn’t much room for women under the ocean.”
Kipper waited, and, after a little more tentacle fluttering, Emily continued. “Once we lay our eggs, and safeguard them, most octopus women waste away and die.”
“Why?” Kipper signed.
Emily flipped all her forward tentacles sucker-side up. Kipper interpreted the gesture as a shrug, since it also had no correlation in Swimmer’s Sign. Though, she wasn’t sure.
“Nothing left to live for?” Emily signed. “Too much effort spent on the eggs to recover from? I don’t know.” Here, the shrug again. “I didn’t. Some don’t. The men don’t know what to do with us. We don’t get treated the same as the mothers.”
“You mean you don’t get treated the same as the ones that aren’t mothers?”
“But, if you’ve laid your eggs, and they haven’t…” Kipper signed.
More tentacular fluttering. “They have eggs in them. They can bear children. I am spent.” A pause, and then, the shrug. “The otters don’t mind.”
Kipper couldn’t help thinking (though, she could easily help saying since signing was still so difficult for her): “But, obviously, you do.”
All the time Emily had spent signing to Kipper about the architecture of octopus buildings and the basics of octopus cuisine, the state of the art in octopus technology (they were on the verge of their own space program, only a few decades behind the otters) — none of it had really communicated to Kipper how the octopi lived.
They were so different physically… And, yet, Kipper wasn’t prepared to disagree on such a fundamental concept as the meaning of motherhood. Even though she knew that octopi didn’t raise their children like cats, dogs, and otters do… Even though she knew an octopus laid thousands, hundreds of thousands of eggs… Still, Kipper couldn’t help trying to mold life in their society into a shape she was more familiar with.
Kipper was still wrestling with the idea, and Emily was still wrestling with the mesh baskets holding the coming lunchtime’s scrumptious morsels, when Trugger rushed in. Actually, Kipper couldn’t tell that Trugger was particularly rushing, because compared to her slow paddling all the otters moved ungodly fast.
He was swimming along the ceiling, his body undulating and twisting, webbed paws paddling to steer. A faded-purple and brown blur, seemingly at one with the currents and eddies in the oxo-agua. The spikes in his fur had been flattened out by the oxo-agua as soon as the Jolly Barracuda changed atmospheres, but the purple, though growing paler, was still there.
As he arrived in the kitchen, Trugger swooped downward, looping around in a loop-de-loop (an unnecessarily showy move if you asked Kipper), and finally halted at about the middle of the room. In all dimensions. His eyes went straight to the baskets of lunch in Emily’s tentacles, but then he shook his head as if to refocus his attention and looked to Kipper. She was already watching him, so he started signing right away:
“The Doppler’s shifted!” His paw motions were fast and exaggerated. They would have been hard to decipher under the best conditions, and Kipper’s inexperience with Swimmer’s Sign certainly didn’t constitute the best conditions.
He repeated himself, signing more slowly and carefully: “The Doppler has shifted.”
He looked very proud of his exclamation, but Kipper was neither familiar with the Swimmer’s Sign for “Doppler” nor the concept of the Doppler effect. So, his care in signing didn’t help her, and all she could manage in way of a response was, “What?”
Trugger did a somersault of giddiness or impatience in the water above her and then repeated himself. “The Doppler’s shifted!”
Kipper frowned and signed, “What does that mean?” The signs came easier to her talking to Trugger. Since he was using otter signs and she was too, she was effectively working with only one new language where talking to Emily required two.
Trugger treaded through the oxo-agua, lowering himself to right in front of Kipper. He put his paws out, steady, before beginning to sign again. The equivalent of a deep breath. “The Manta Ray is slowing down. The Captain thinks we’re stopping at Mars.”
If Kipper had been standing on a normal spaceship, in a normal atmosphere, she would have lost her balance and lurched forward at the heart-stopping news: finally, something was happening. Instead, she floated placidly in the oxo-agua, her inner-turmoil utterly unexpressed in her outward posture. After a few moments — not enough to absorb the news, but enough to steady herself slightly — she signed with shaking paws, “What’s on Mars?”
“Nothing, as far as we know,” Trugger signed. “If otters wanted to live on planets, we’d still be on Earth. So… It might be exactly what you’re looking for.”
Kipper wasn’t sure she needed to see those words, needed to know that anyone else was thinking the thought she held so dear that she could barely think it herself. “All right, then,” she mouthed, knowing the words wouldn’t carry, but unable to keep from speaking to herself. She looked about her, saw that the knives and other kitchen tools she’d been using were safely in order, and then kicked off from the floor. She paddled her tiny, unwebbed paws, treading through the oxo-agua, but as she passed Trugger he put out a spread, webbed paw and, placing it on her shoulder, stopped her.
“Where you going?” he signed with the free paw. It happened to be a one-handed phrase.
Kipper scowled at him for impeding her progress and signed with claws out, catching at his fur as her paws flew past his chest, “The bridge. I need to see what’s happening.”
“It’s almost lunchtime,” Trugger signed. He could see her bafflement, so he continued, “Nothing will happen again for hours now. It will take a day or two for the Manta Ray to decelerate.”
In her impatience, Kipper signed as fast as her paws and memory let her: “I thought the whole point of the oxo-agua was to let the ship stop fast.” The oxo-agua, whipped into a frenzy by her flying paws, kept whirling around them when they stopped.
“We can stop fast,” Trugger signed. “The Manta Ray can’t. And, even though it looks like they’re slowing down for Mars, we won’t be sure until they get closer. Or send a transmission. So, there’s no point in us shooting past them and screeching to a stop. Sure, we’d arrive at Mars sooner, but that won’t be any good if they never arrive at all.”
Kipper started to object, but Trugger anticipated her objection and cut her off. Her paws slowed to a halt while his explained, “They could be slowing down for a tune-up. Or,” he added, “to make a course readjustment.”
Kipper flicked her ears and moved her jaws as if to speak, but her paws stayed still.
“There’s nothing to do now,” he signed. “Except lunch.”
Emily had been watching their interchange, and when she saw Trugger’s gaze move back to the basket of delectables held in her sinewy, suckery arms, she lifted the wire mesh contraption and waved it. The delectables tumbled about inside, and Trugger signed, “Yum.”
Trugger stayed around to help Emily and Kipper set up the galley for lunch. The mesh baskets latched onto the tabletops where lunching otters could pull back a hinged door to reach in after the delectables. The hinged door sprung back into place, keeping the food inside, once it was let go. This way Emily’s carefully prepared food didn’t end up floating messily about the mess hall. Less clean-up; less wasted food.
Of course, the otters wouldn’t have had to sit at the tables to eat, but it preserved some of the normality of life that got lost in deep space for weeks and weeks at a time. And, quite simply, it was more orderly.
Very little of the conversation at lunch was about the Manta Ray’s change in acceleration. So, Kipper couldn’t keep up with it. All she could think about was the Manta Ray. And Mars.
An empty red planet. Desolate, dry. She had to admit that dry sounded appealing, especially to a cat who’d been thoroughly soaked, inside and out, for far too long. But, even if she didn’t like oxo-agua, a cat has to breathe. And Mars didn’t provide much in the way of atmosphere. If there were cats on Mars, they’d have a hell of a time financing their oxygen. Kipper hadn’t even been able to legitimately afford getting into space. How could cats like her ever expect to build some dream colony on Mars?
That afternoon, Kipper hung around the back of the bridge instead of studying her Swimmer’s Sign and helping Emily prepare dinner. The bridge was mostly quiet — metaphorically speaking. (Literally, of course, it was almost entirely quiet; all noise dampened by the oxo-agua atmosphere except a soft, ever-present creaking of the ship that sounded like a distant whale song.) Otters manned the various stations, monitoring the condition of the Jolly Barracuda and tracking the progress of the Manta Ray.
When Captain Cod turned to Kipper and offered an encouraging smile, she signed, “What’s the point of the oxo-agua if we have to follow a normal atmosphere spaceship just as if we were in a normal atmosphere ourselves?”
She’d spent fifteen minutes working out the signs for such a complicated sentence and another half hour waiting for the captain to look at her. She didn’t want to risk being seen as an annoyance on the bridge, so she didn’t disturb him to get his attention. But, surely, it was reasonable to sign a question while he was already looking.
All the captain signed back was, “You’ll see.” Then he turned back to his work, like the other otters on the bridge.
Continue on to Chapter 14…