by Mary E. Lowd
Although it only took Trudith’s message seconds to reach the Deep Sky Anchor station in Earth orbit and would take another ten minutes to cross the space between there and the Jolly Barracuda, Kipper wouldn’t receive it for two weeks. The Jolly Barracuda flew incommunicado, her flight plans unlogged. Captain Cod felt it was more piratical that way.
Every week or two, the Jolly Barracuda sent its location, speed, and direction back to Deep Sky Anchor, requesting that any messages for the crew be forwarded. After receiving them, Captain Cod ordered a slight change of course, and his ship slipped into the vastness of deep space.
Trudith’s message had poor timing. It arrived at the Deep Sky Anchor communication hub mere minutes after a packet of messages was beamed to the Jolly Barracuda. The ship had already changed course, slipping off the station’s radar as it approached the asteroid belt from a slightly different angle.
More than a hundred million miles away, Kipper watched a video of Alistair tell her how nervous and excited he was about the impending election, but she did not hear Trudith say “Alistair needs you. Come home soon.” (Despite her best intentions, Trudith did record those exact words in her vid.)
Kipper flexed her claws, sighed, and turned off the vidscreen. She gave a slight shove against the com-console and drifted backward and up. She floated through the room, buoyed in the foreign, weightless atmosphere. The Jolly Barracuda, from stem to stern, was flooded in a substance called oxo-agua: a highly oxygenated, breathable liquid; barely breathable from Kipper’s perspective. The otters loved it. They could swim full-time, never surfacing to breathe, and it cushioned their delicate, earthly frames against the extreme accelerations of rapid space travel.
And the space travel was rapid. No ship could match the Jolly Barracuda. No other ship came close.
And yet, in true whimsical otter fashion, Captain Cod used his ultra-fast, proto-type spaceship to deal in art. Perfectly legal, heartwarming paintings of otters and other animals sailing the sky like sailors at sea. At least, he had dealt legally until a misunderstanding got him and his ship blacklisted by the asteroid art community.
Instead of selling his precious cargo, Captain Cod hung it on his spaceship’s walls, protected from the oxo-agua under clear plastic. He wouldn’t pay for it, on the theory that it was still in transit. But he wouldn’t deliver it to paying customers either.
That’s where the Jolly Barracuda had stood when Kipper found it. Impeccably decorated with an empty cargo hold.
Meanwhile, Kipper was a cat with a mission. She and her sister, back on Earth, had tripped onto the trail of a conspiracy. Captain Cod and his merry bandits had turned out to be the perfect otters to help her unravel it. But, now, Kipper felt like a kitten in a knitting basket. Her mystery had unraveled all over her, and she was completely tangled up in its threads.
“Any exciting messages?” Jenny, the river otter pilot, asked Kipper, speaking words by signing them with her paws as she swam a curlicue past the drifting cat.
Weeks upon weeks aboard the Jolly Barracuda had taught Kipper to repress the reflex to answer questions with spoken words. Voices came out unintelligible in the liquid atmosphere, and she would invariably end up choking and sputtering on a gulp of oxo-agua. It was bad enough breathing the stuff; she didn’t need the extra frustration of trying to force her vocal cords to manipulate it.
Instead, Kipper swung a clumsy paw, barely managing to snag the corner of her mattress. Her claws stuck, and Kipper pulled herself to the bunk. She could float comfortably there framed by the bed’s legs and upper bunk. Fewer otters would have to swim curlicues around her while she talked with Jenny that way. Not only would that make her less of an inconvenience — a random obstacle floating in the middle of the barracks — but it also made Kipper much less nervous. The otters onboard swam closer to her than she liked; a clumsy person likes her space, and underwater — or oxo-agua — Kipper was a clumsy, clumsy cat.
“So?” Jenny signed, impatience in the quickness of her paws and the curve of her long back. “Did Josh message you?”
Kipper rolled her eyes. Jenny had completely romanticized the messages from Josh. “You don’t have enough excitement in your own life?” Kipper signed.
Jenny loop-de-looped in response. Coming out of the loop, she signed, “I take it that’s a yes.” She treaded over to the com-console and asked, “Can I see?”
Kipper shrugged. Though she felt a secret thrill at the idea of seeing Josh’s clear blue Siamese eyes again. Jenny turned on the vid and slid the earphones over her head. Kipper watched the image of Josh, speaking in silence. Josh didn’t send vids in sign. He didn’t know about the oxo-agua, and he probably didn’t know sign language. There wouldn’t be much call for it in his perfect little world. Kipper turned away.
The vid continued; Josh’s purring voice spoke into Jenny’s ears. His resonating tones didn’t have the same effect on Jenny as on Kipper. She didn’t find herself going all weak and quivery, but she knew enough about cats — and one cat in particular — to guess his message’s effect on Kipper.
Kipper knew when the vid ended because she felt the oxo-agua shift as Jenny swam over beside her. Kipper reached out and caught Jenny’s flippered paws in her own without looking at her, effectively silencing the otter. Jenny flexed her paws, clearly wanting to sign something, but Kipper gave her paws a squeeze. Jenny understood, and she let her paws go limp.
“Don’t encourage me,” Kipper signed. She could see Jenny tense, readying her paws to respond. Kipper rushed on: “He’s only interested in me because I’m… exotic.”
Jenny looked at her skeptically. It didn’t need saying that Kipper was the plainest, garden variety, gray tabby there could be.
“It’s true, though,” she signed, earnest in the pain she felt. “He’s…” Kipper’s paws floated, stalled mid-sign. “Just leave it be.” Her face turned down. “I can’t explain.”
Jenny hugged Kipper. Her short but strong river otter arms wrapped around Kipper’s bony shoulders. Dense brown otter fur and fine gray cat fur pressed against each other as the two creatures wobbled slightly in the buoyancy of oxo-agua.
“Did Alistair message you?” Jenny signed when Kipper pulled away.
“The election happened today,” Kipper answered. Her spirits lifted as she thought about the exciting things happening on Earth. “But his last message was from two days ago.” For all Kipper knew, her brother was a senator-elect by now. She sighed, “I wish I could be there.” With a hopeful look, she added, “Any word from Trailside?”
The busiest asteroid in the asteroid belt was called Trailside. That’s where the Jolly Barracuda planned her next stop and where Kipper hoped to cross paths with enough other ships to find one headed home.
“There’re a few ships listed on their registry that I recognize,” Jenny signed. “But the cheapest and fastest ships don’t usually advertise their whereabouts. Don’t worry. We’ll find someone the captain trusts to get you home.”
Now that Kipper had finished her mission, she could hardly get home fast enough. However, since her body couldn’t fly home to her brother, zipping through space on careless wings in the effortless way her imagination could, Kipper had to accept the reality of her situation. She was stuck on this waterlogged bottle of oxo-agua that passed for a spaceship.
If Kipper couldn’t get herself home as fast as she’d like, there were other things that could precede her, specifically, the findings of her mission. Kipper may have satisfied her own catly curiosity, but there was a whole planet full of cats — and dogs — at home who had no idea about the secret she’d uncovered.
“Let’s get back to work on editing that video,” she signed to Jenny. “You said the ship picked up some aerial footage?”
“Indeed,” Jenny answered. The two of them swam back to the com-console, Kipper lagging woefully behind Jenny.
“I’m so glad you thought to bring that camera with you,” Kipper signed when she caught up.
Jenny smiled and signed, “I can’t believe you didn’t bring a camera with you.”
Kipper conceded the point. “Regardless,” she signed, “I’m glad you got all that footage. A few aerial shots will finish the film off perfectly.”
Jenny punched up the record of the Jolly Barracuda’s external sensors from their last stop. Kipper found herself looking at a grainy image of Mars. As the ship approached, the planet grew larger. Round, red, and exactly the same as it always had been. Then Jenny sped up to the good bits.
Kipper smiled behind her whiskers. It was time to change the world.
Continue on to Chapter 3…