by Mary E. Lowd
Kipper recorded the video. It took a few takes to get just right. She wasn’t much for public speaking. At least, she wouldn’t have to be there in the senate assembly when Alistair played the video. She hoped it would give him what he needed.
She wouldn’t find out until his coup was all over.
For now — and the next week — Kipper would have her own concerns, and very few of them had to do with planetary-bound politics, canine rulers, or even gravity.
When Trugger first explained the way Ryderian engines worked to her, Kipper had been excited. She liked the idea of riding to Jupiter in stasis and skipping all that unpleasantness with oxo-agua. Then Trugger explained how the stasis worked.
First, the Jolly Barracuda would be flooded with oxo-agua, like normal, which would be bad enough. But, then, a Tesla helix embedded in the ship’s hull would create an electro-magnetic field that would gel the oxo-agua into a colloid right inside their bodies. The worst part was that they would remain conscious. UGH! Kipper could hardly stand to think about it.
“Are you ready?” Jenny asked, poking her head into the little room where Kipper had ensconced herself with a com-console to record and receive videos.
“Yes,” Kipper said, distractedly. “No, wait, I mean, I’d like to record one more message.”
“Be quick!” Jenny said. “Oxo-agua stops for no cat. Or otter, for that matter. But, an otter wouldn’t ask it to stop.” She grinned, wide and whiskery.
Kipper shuddered, and the fur all up and down her body fluffed a bit. “How long…” She could hardly even talk about it. The mere idea of oxo-agua gelling in her throat choked her words to a halt. She tried again. “How long will we have after the ship is flooded before, you know, the stasis happens?”
“I’d say twenty minutes, give or take. Just enough time for Captain Cod to hand over control of the ship to Emily.”
“To Emily?” Kipper asked in amazement.
“Who did you think was going to fly the ship while we’re all in stasis?”
“How does she avoid the stasis?”
“She doesn’t,” Jenny said, “but she’s an octopus. Her muscles are freakishly strong, and she’s designed for living in a high pressure, high viscosity environment. At least, compared to what we’re designed for.”
“I see,” Kipper said. She was still reeling from this new piece of knowledge, namely that the chef would be flying the ship. “Has she, um, flown the ship before?”
“Sure,” Jenny said.
Kipper felt better hearing that. Then, Jenny continued.
“Why, Emily’s the one who stopped us from rocketing straight into the cold, dark eternity of an interstellar voyage when the Ryderian engines were first installed.”
Kipper’s feline curiosity got the better of her, and she asked, “How do you mean?” before she could stop herself.
“You know the captain.”
Kipper’s ears flattened in impatience. “Yes.”
“He hadn’t really thought the stasis part through. He only meant to test the engines — see if they’d start right. He didn’t exactly have a plan for how we were going to, well, stop the ship.”
Kipper could picture it. A ship full of otters, gelled in stasis, unable to hit the off switch. Fortunately, they happened to employ an octopus chef, who must have made her slow, invertebrate way from the kitchen to the bridge when she finally realized something was wrong.
“How far out did the ship make it?” Kipper asked.
“Emily realized what had happened around dinner time,” Jenny said, “And she taught herself the ship’s controls surprisingly fast. So, we weren’t much further out than the orbit of Neptune.”
Speechless. Kipper felt utterly speechless. It truly amazed her sometimes that anyone followed Captain Cod’s orders. Yet, here she was, doing the same.
“Emily’s a good pilot,” Jenny said. “You’ll be in good tentacles.”
“Right,” Kipper said. “I think I’d better record that last vid now. If you don’t mind.”
Jenny bobbed her head to acknowledge Kipper’s request for privacy then disappeared back into the corridor.
Kipper turned to the vid-cam monitor and took a deep breath. Feeling completely unready, she hit record. “Josh,” she said as her brain switched gears from octopus pilots to cat colonies. “I’ve just found out about the attacks on Europa.” Kipper paused a moment, weighing her options. She wanted to tell Josh off for misleading her, for being as secretive and superior as his entire society. She wanted to tell him off for even being in such a secretive and superior society.
But this conversation wasn’t going to happen real time, fact to face. Her private video to a prospective paramour might not stay private. It was also going to be the only direct communique between New Persia’s rescuers and New Persia’s sister colony before those rescuers arrived.
Kipper stayed her spiteful tongue. Mostly.
“The Jolly Barracuda will be in Jupiter System by the end of the week. We’re only one ship, but we have a big cargo-hold. It won’t be comfortable, but if New Persia has supplies ready, we can rescue… a hundred colonists?”
Kipper lowered her head to her paws, dug the claws into the skin before her ears. “That’s not enough. Doggarnit, Josh!” She glared at the mirrored image of herself on the vid-cam’s RECORD-screen, “Why did you all have to be like this? If all the wealthy, elite, purebred cats like you had spent their power and money to help all cats, instead of building this exclusive castle in the sky…”
Kipper’s whiskers quivered. This would get her nowhere. She flexed her claws and exerted the raw willpower necessary to still her whiskers.
“Well, you didn’t, did you?” she said. “So, New Persia has one tabby cat and a borrowed otter ship coming to help them. I hope that will be enough.”
Kipper slammed her paw down on the keyboard, shutting off the vid-cam. She sent the message, unedited: no flirtatious addendums, no wistful hoping to hear from him when she got out of stasis. None of that. In fact, Kipper hoped she wouldn’t hear from Josh again. She didn’t need all the frustrating emotions he inspired. If she wanted to fall in love, there were plenty of perfectly nice mixed-breed cats on Earth.
She hadn’t wanted to fall in love, though. At least, not with another cat. Maybe with a place. A way of life.
Kipper shook herself, ears and whiskers thoroughly flapped, to get the very thought out of her head: she could not be in love with a way of life that involved breathing gelatin.
She was still sitting there, dazed and confused by her revelation, when Jenny poked her head back around the door. “It’s time!” Jenny said. “Let’s go to Jupiter!”
Kipper’s tail fluffed, and she couldn’t keep her claws from unsheathing. They squeaked on the flooring as she followed Jenny to the barracks. Other otters were already in the bunks, and Trugger shot her a huge grin when he saw her.
Sitting on her own bunk, Kipper felt her heart race as she heard the sound of the vents opening under the floor. Within moments, oxo-agua seeped up from the iron grates spaced around the floor of the room and everywhere else on the ship. The otters around her joked and chatted, but she couldn’t hear any of it. All she heard was the sound of oxo-agua, sloshing and splashing.
When it reached the level of the bunk, she closed her eyes. It was bad enough to feel the liquid rising around her body. She couldn’t stand to see it. She started to hyperventilate as the oxo-agua reached her shoulders. She knew she’d have to dunk her head soon and take that horrible lungful of oxygenated liquid into her lungs. The thought terrified her. As she took her final breath of air, Kipper thought, Terror is a lot like exhilaration.
When she opened her eyes in that other atmosphere, she looked up and saw the silvery layer of air above her. The first time she’d done this, Trugger had held her down. He’d forced her to stay under, rather than let her flop about like she was drowning. This time she’d done it herself. That felt better.
Jenny caught Kipper’s eye and signed, “As soon as the atmosphere change is done, Captain Cod will send Boris to join us. Then he’ll set off the EM-field.”
“The captain stays in a room right off the bridge. Closer to Emily.”
Kipper nodded again and looked at the dwindling layer of silver air above them. The silver rose higher and higher, broke apart into separate bubbles as it hit the ceiling, and then was entirely gone. Sucked through vents, pushed into pressurized chambers. Where it would be stored until the Jolly Barracuda needed a gaseous atmosphere again.
Kipper wondered what the ship looked like now. She’d only seen it from the outside when the inflatable storage units for the oxo-agua were full. At those times, the Jolly Barracuda looked kind of like a missile being strangled by a pair of angry inner-tubes.
Since the Jolly Barracuda’s gaseous atmosphere was so much more compressible while stored, those storage units were probably mostly deflated right now. The Jolly Barracuda might look a lot better that way. More like a spaceship should.
Kipper’s reverie was interrupted by a swaying sensation in the oxo-agua around her. Boris swam past. He settled on his bunk, looked around the room at all the otters watching him, and signed, “T minus one!” Then he lay back on his bunk, as did all the other otters.
Kipper’s heart pounded. She felt the blood rushing through her ears. She forced herself to lie back calmly, and she tried to breathe evenly. Each breath was liquid, and for the first time, she was grateful for that. Then she felt a prickling under her fur, which could have been her imagination, and she suddenly thought to clamp her eyes shut.
The gel congealed in an instant. It was like the oxo-agua hugged her all over — inside and out. Every part of her body froze, from her closed double-eyelids to her lungs. No more breathing. Not until Jupiter. Wouldn’t she die of oxygen deprivation? Her mind started to panic inside an immobile body. This was a nightmare.
Then the temperature started to drop, and as Kipper felt her heart slow, she remembered: the cold would shut her body down. She would survive this nightmare and wake up in Jupiter System. She hated this. Right before her mind slipped away into blessed unconsciousness, she thought, “Thank goodness my eyes aren’t open.”
Continue on to Chapter 11…