by Mary E. Lowd
Octopuses keep their secrets.
But cats can keep secrets too.
Kipper kept and coveted the secret of Siamhalla’s missile armament, coddling it close to her heart, hoping it would be the salvation she needed. Of course, the octopus brigade that escorted her and all her otters back to the Jolly Barracuda might not give her credit for saving Earth from the raptors if Siamhalla did it. They might want to drag her back to their cartoon court and convict her of war crimes.
If so, she didn’t like their odds of extraditing her.
Six octopuses might be an intimidating force under the ocean. They might even be an intimidating force in the Jolly Barracuda’s travelling atmosphere of oxo-agua, but Kipper had no doubt that she could give them the slip in the crowds of otters on Deep Sky Anchor. She’d given a pair of police dogs the slip in those crowds before.
So, as the occupants of the Diving Canary travelled by ferry to the base of the space elevator, rode the elevator up to Deep Sky Anchor, and then found their way to the Jolly Barracuda’s berth in the docking section, Kipper watched closely for where her best chances at escape on the trip back would be. She would be prepared. Choir’s Deep had been a fantastical place to visit, but she had no intention of returning there to live out her life as a prisoner.
Aboard the Jolly Barracuda, Kipper returned to her old habits and hid away in the kitchen with Emily, the ship’s octopus chef. Usually, she hid there because she had joined the Jolly Barracuda crew as a passenger originally and wasn’t much help on the bridge or in the engine room. She didn’t know a lot about running a spaceship, and she could be more useful — and out of the way — in the kitchen.
Now she hid in the kitchen because the entourage of octopus guards from Choir’s Deep seemed to want to avoid Emily. The octo-ninjas gave Kipper a wider berth and thus more privacy when Emily was near. So she chopped fish and rolled it in seaweed, helping Emily make the daily meals for the Jolly Barracuda crew. On their previous trips, Kipper had helped less, leaving her paws free to sign and chat. With her eight arms, Emily could cook and sign all at once, but Kipper had to concentrate on either activity — she’d been using Swimmer’s Sign for less than year, and she had to be very careful trying to maneuver knives and ingredients in an atmosphere that allowed small objects to float away with the slightest current caused by a careless motion. Strange swirly atmosphere.
Besides, Kipper didn’t want to chat. She was still troubled that everything she’d learned from Emily about octopus society had matched so poorly with what she’d actually observed. She would feel betrayed or lied to… Except that she apparently didn’t understand her own society all that well. She wasn’t sure that she trusted second-hand observations anymore. If she were free to travel wherever she wanted, Kipper decided that she’d like to meet the mice in Mousfordshire. Perhaps spend a few months in Cedar Heights. There had clearly been a lot to learn there. Of course, she would only get that chance if the raptor fleet could be defeated.
Yet as the days passed and the raptor ships approached Earth, Kipper grew more and more certain that the Siamhalla missiles would stop them. She followed the news from Earth — the riots were worse; cats were marching for Petra’s freedom; catteries were burned down and the dogs responsible were released on parole while Petra stayed in jail. But Kipper knew it would all get better when Siamhalla saved Earth by stopping the raptors.
She was half right.
Siamhalla launched their missiles — more than a dozen nuclear missiles, their entire armament — along with a recording of Josh and several other members of their ruling council stating their support for Earth and all the animals living. They released the missiles and the message at dawn on the East coast of the Uplifted States of Mericka. It was the middle of the night for Kipper on the arbitrary sleep cycle aboard the Jolly Barracuda, but Chauncy and Pearl who were on the night shift woke everyone else up.
Everyone crowded onto the bridge to watch the news roll in. The main viewscreen showed a live video streamed from a telescope observatory on the moon: Siamhalla’s missiles showed up as a white streak, like a cluster of shooting stars, headed towards a bumpy mass of red and orange spots that were only visible due to an infrared enhancement. The missiles’ course looked true. Kipper held her oxo-agua breath, knowing that in only a few minutes time this whole war could be over.
The otters and octopi around her signed to each other in a flurry of webbed paws and tentacular arms while close-captioned videos of newscasters — mostly otters, but also a Golden Retriever — filled the smaller screens around the bridge with further speculation and commentary. The video of Josh and other Siamhalla cats played over and over again, moving from one screen to the next, as every newscaster took a turn dissecting it.
“Every puppy and kitten will remember where they were on this day,” scrolled the words under the Golden Retriever. She seemed to assume that the missiles would be successful and waxed philosophical about what it meant for a nation of felines to save Earth. The otter newscasters were by and large more circumspect, speculating as to the exact force that the missiles might deliver and how deadly of an explosion the raptor fleet could probably withstand.
As the missiles drew closer to the raptor fleet, the flurry of signing paws and tentacles on the Jolly Barracuda’s bridge settled down. Even the newscasters’ eager analysis slowed to the occasional inane observation — “They sure are getting close now!” — as every eye focused on that shiny streak of missiles.
Would their bite be fatal?
Captain Cod looked away from the screen and stared directly at Kipper. “Did you know about this?” he signed. “Is this your doing?”
He was giving her a chance to take credit in front of the octopus guards. Their colors flushed through a variety of patterns. Except for the oligarch with the metal tentacle whose natural skin stayed deep, deep red and spiky.
Kipper signed, “I knew about it.”
Captain Cod nodded and turned back to the main viewscreen, but the oligarch signed, “It matters not. Whether or not you knew, this is not your doing.”
Kipper felt the soft, probing of a tentacle wrap around her shoulder and the many kiss-like touches as another coiled around one of her paws. She looked over to see Emily’s yellow eyes staring at her with hope and worry. No one understood Kipper’s fears better than Emily — trapped between the raptor fleet and the octopus guards from Choir’s Deep. Emily signed to her, “If this works, and the guards still drag you back for a trial, I’ll go with you. I’ll advocate for you and defend you.” They were in this together. Except that Kipper had every intention of fleeing incarceration.
Siamhalla’s teeth met the raptor fleet, and the bumpy mass of red and orange shone bright, bright white. The Jolly Barracuda’s pilot — Boris, a sea otter with rows of golden hoops piercing both of his little round ears — signed, “Well, that’s that.”
A shade of blue rippled along the octopus guards, each of them reacting to Boris’ statement with the same hue. Kipper guessed it meant skepticism, but none of them signed anything that could have elucidated their true emotions.
The Golden Retriever newscaster barked ecstatically, and the caption read, “What a sight! What an explosion! What a day! Victory for all of us!” The various otter newscaster gave more measured responses: “It does seem to have been a direct hit,” said a river otter. A sea otter on a different channel offered, “It’s hard to imagine that anyone on those vessels survived a nuclear attack like that.”
The bright white spot on the screen dimmed back to red and orange splotches. The raptor fleet looked unchanged, although the trajectories of the individual vessels had been altered. They were no longer travelling in formation, but slowly drifting away from each other.
“What the hell is going on?” the Golden Retriever barked. “Are reptiles un-killable?”
The sea otter offered, “Of course, just because the vessels survived, that doesn’t mean there’s anyone alive onboard…”
Then the vessels began, one by one, to change direction. Minor course corrections altered their trajectories until they were travelling in formation again.
Emily’s tentacle wrapped tighter around Kipper’s wrist and arm. She was scared. Kipper was scared too. Suddenly, facing a jury of octopuses trying her for war crimes didn’t sound so bad. She had truly believed that Siamhalla would stop the raptors, and she would escape from the octopus guards when they returned to Deep Sky Anchor. But she would have gladly gone back to Choir’s Deep with them and faced the prospect of a few years in a dank octopus jail cell if it meant those red and orange blobs had been obliterated from the screen.
The river otter newscaster said, “The course corrections that we’re seeing could be part of an auto-pilot system.” The words were comforting, but the newscaster’s glum expression was not.
They all knew the truth. The raptors were still coming.
Continue on to Chapter 27…