by Mary E. Lowd
While Kipper and Petra waited in their prisons — two tabby cats desperate to save Earth yet incarcerated by their own allies — Jenny parleyed with the enemy.
That was generous.
The otter wasn’t parleying with the enemy, she was playing games with the enemies’ children
Jenny and the two raptor chicks were in a room at the top of the giant mechanical redwood, and the walls were as clear as glass. Jenny had seen the tree from the outside and knew it looked opaque, but from the inside it looked like she was standing on an open platform. She could see out over the jagged green tops of all the real trees. In the distance, more of these mechanical trees stuck out of the forest like towers — much taller and larger around than the real trees. And behind it all, loomed the ruddy agate Jovian sky.
In the back of her mind, Jenny knew she should be looking for information, weaknesses, a way to capture these fledglings and turn them into hostages that would force the entire raptor civilization in Jupiter to leave Earth alone.
Yeah, none of that was going to happen. She’d be lucky if they repaired her spaceship and she was able to escape without being handed over to their parents to be dissected or held hostage herself.
So, Jenny found ways to entertain the fuzzy fledglings, White Patch and Sandy, while their nest-mate, Tree Bark, repaired Brighton’s Destiny. Jenny assumed they were nest-mates, since they were all about the same size and seemed to live in the same giant mechanical tree.
For a while, Jenny played the point-at-things-and-say-what-they-are game. Her helmet was still uneven with its translations, and she figured the game would help it along. After a while, though, Jenny was sick of wearing her clunky spacesuit, and she knew from its internal sensors that the atmosphere was safe. She decided to take it off.
Jenny unlatched the helmet and removed it. Sandy and White Patch were delighted by the sight of Jenny’s fuzzy, brown head with whiskers and round ears. They bobbed their own feathered heads and made a trilling sound that the helmet didn’t translate. Jenny thought it might be laughter, but it still set her on edge.
Jenny set down her helmet on a plush ledge next to where she’d arranged the still-unconscious Ordol. She turned the volume up high, so the helmet would work like a speaker and keep translating. Then Jenny stripped off the rest of her spacesuit, leaving her in the tank top and shorts underneath. It was much more comfortable, and it caused another round of high-pitched warbling trills from Sandy and White Patch.
Then, terrifyingly, the raptor fledglings approached her, talons out. Jenny started to back away, but there was nowhere to go. She was in their home at the top of an elevator up a mechanical tree. Jenny closed her eyes, unable to face those terribly sharp talons.
The alien world around Jenny disappeared behind the darkness of her eyelids. If she could have shrunk down the universe to become only the space within her own thick pelt, Jenny would have.
It tickled when the talons traced through her fur.
That’s all they did, trace patterns in the fur on Jenny’s arms and shoulders.
Jenny wondered if these raptors had ever encountered a mammal before. Their species had probably left Earth before mammals had even evolved.
One of the raptors screeched, and the helmet translated, “Soft bristles! Funny!” Then the computer voice added, “Possible alternate translations include: ‘Limp needles! Tasty!’ and ‘Broken pinions! Flightless!'”
Jenny was okay with two of those translations. She was indeed flightless, and didn’t mind being thought of as funny.
Jenny opened her eyes to find both raptors’ staring at her with their fierce orange eyes. They were still stroking her, gently, with their dangerously sharp claws. She felt like a fancy, exotic pet.
Of course, Ordol chose that moment to open his eyes. Jenny didn’t notice his eyes open, but she couldn’t possibly miss the eight muscular tentacles that began flailing wildly, shoving themselves backwards into the clear window-wall with a series of smacks. The spacesuit he wore didn’t have the sensitivity and strength of his actual sucker disks contained inside, but it must have employed a related technology, because Ordol managed to clamber several feet up the window.
“They’re babies,” Jenny signed, knowing it was an exaggeration meant to soothe Ordol. These fledgling raptors might have fuzzy baby feathers, but they’d shown no sign in their behavior of being anything but fully functioning adults. “They haven’t done anything to hurt us — they’re helping fix Brighton’s Destiny.”
Sandy and White Patch watched Jenny’s rapidly moving paws closely. Then the two raptors looked at each other and waved their talons about meaninglessly, wiggling their long claws, as if they were trying to mimic Jenny’s carefully articulated signs. It was no surprise to Jenny that they didn’t know Swimmer’s Sign. To them, it would be a slave language at best. More likely, they knew nothing of it at all.
When the raptor fledglings finished waving their talons, they trilled in laughter, an ear-splitting sound that made Jenny’s fur raise, but Ordol didn’t react at all, deaf to sound.
Ordol watched the raptors closely.
Letting go of the window with three tentacle tips, Ordol signed, “You promised.”
“Would you rather be dead?” Jenny signed back.
“Maybe,” Ordol answered, his tentacles flushed as white as death. He tried to scootch higher on the window, but gravity pulled hard against him without water for buoyancy. Hanging against the panorama of orange sky like an eldritch ivory pendant, Ordol did look like he was in his own personal hell.
Jenny said aloud for the raptors, “Stay back; you’ll scare him.” She hoped the translation came through clearly, and the raptors would obey. Then she stepped toward Ordol and signed, “Come down,” as gently as she could before holding her paws out, offering to take him into her arms. “I’ll protect you.”
Standing between fiercely taloned pre-historic raptors and a creature built of pure wrestling muscle, Jenny hardly felt qualified to offer protection. But she could offer confidence and comfort.
Ordol had few options, clinging to a window on the home world of the raptors. He’d have to take what he could get — even if it was insane optimism from a small golden-brown furred mammal, barely as large as the juvenile raptors eyeing her. So, Ordol reached out and let Jenny draw him down from the window and into her arms. From there, he arranged himself onto her shoulders, returning to the position they used to pilot Brighton’s Destiny.
In a flail of exasperated tentacles, he signed, “You better know what you’re doing.” He knew that she didn’t. She was improvising like all the otters he’d met seemed to, rolling with the events like she was swimming through a wild white-water current.
But the raptor chicks didn’t know that.
And they were awed by the sight of Ordol’s tentacles rising out of Jenny’s furry shoulders like Lovecraftian wings.
“Warrior,” Sandy screeched. The computer offered several alternatives — hero, leader, captain — but they all amounted to the same thing: sudden, surprising respect for the otter that had until that moment been a mere pet and plaything.
Sandy and White Patch tilted their long heads down, lowering their orange eyes, and spread their elbows almost as if their feathered arms were wings. They squatted before Jenny in awkward bows of submission.
Jenny knew enough to hold her tongue, but she signed with her paws, “What the hell just happened? They’re calling me a warrior?”
Ordol signed back with large, exaggerated movements designed to impress the young raptors shooting furtive glances at him, and still be visible to Jenny underneath him, “They think I’m your slave — that you’re controlling me.”
Jenny’s stomach knotted at the sickening idea of enslaving Ordol’s brain and body through a direct neural link to her mind, but if the idea made the raptor fledglings believe she was powerful, it could be useful. She and Ordol could pretend to be joined, but she’d need to start downplaying her paw signals. She signed quickly with small motions, “I can work with that. Follow my lead; stay on my shoulders.”
Then speaking aloud, Jenny said, “Up, up. You don’t need to bow to me.” A truly powerful figure wouldn’t need displays of submission, so Jenny didn’t want them either. She gestured with her paws for the raptors to rise, in case the screechy helmet translation wasn’t clear to them. She could see in her peripheral vision that Ordol mimicked her gesture with his tentacles. That was a nice touch. Good for him. This was going to be weird.
The raptor fledglings’ feathers ruffled, and they shot each other questioning glances, but they did rise back out of their awkward bows.
Sandy’s orange eyes pierced Jenny as the young raptor screeched a question. Before the helmet finished translating, White Patch screeched another question, then Sandy again, until Jenny couldn’t keep track of which raptor the helmet was translating for — it simply poured questions at her in its artificial voice:
“Who are you? What are you? What are you doing here? Where did you come from? What do you want?”
Jenny couldn’t keep track of the questions — some were translations, some were alternate translations — but they all circled around the central idea:
“Who are you?”
Jenny was tempted to tell them something grandiose or cryptic: I am death the destroyer of worlds. I am the future returned to the past. I am the spirit of the Great Sky River, and your people must change their ways.
Finally, she settled for saying, “I am an otter.” She knew the translation of ‘otter’ wouldn’t mean anything to them, but she’d seen another one of those computerized tablets that Sandy had scribbled pictures on earlier lying around. She moved towards it and signed subtly to Ordol, explaining he should pick it up and hand it to her. Once the tablet was in her paws, Jenny said, “Show me how this works, and I’ll teach you about otters.”
Sandy and White Patch agreed eagerly.
Soon, Jenny and the raptors were lost in their scribbles on the tablet’s screen. Jenny tried her best to explain the evolution of mammals through poorly rendered sketches, but she wasn’t great at drawing, and there was so little shared culture to start from. The raptor fledglings hadn’t even grown up on a world where they could see the stars. Their sky was a blanket of amber, muffling out the sun, let alone the pinpoint of light that was the small blue-green world their species had come from millions of years ago.
Fortunately, Jenny didn’t care about educating young raptors. She did care about learning how to use their computer tablet, and Sandy and White Patch were being extremely helpful toward that goal. The more they helped Jenny teach them useless otter pre-history, the more Jenny learned about current raptor computer systems. It was a good trade, and Jenny was almost disappointed when Tree Bark interrupted them.
Continue on to Chapter 20…