by Mary E. Lowd
Kipper couldn’t remember falling asleep, but she could tell she had just woken up. She was stretched out on a thin but cushy mattress, a bottom bunk in a room full of bunks. There were otters occupying some of the other beds, but none of them had noticed her yet. Well, she was sure they knew she was there. But none of them had noticed she was awake. She didn’t want them to. She wasn’t ready to deal with a room full of strange otters yet. She had too much to deal with inside of herself.
Strange otters. She repeated those words again in her mind.
That’s what surrounded her now. Everywhere. Not just in this room of bunk beds on a bizarrely plastic-wood paneled spaceship. But everywhere. Strange otters. And their strange ways. In their strange places.
And she had no way home. Nor any assurance she would be safe there, if she could get there. The money in her tunic pocket wasn’t enough to get her from Earth to space; it wouldn’t be enough to get her from space back to Earth. So, like it or not, even though she no longer had any clue what she was doing here, Kipper was stuck in space.
The smell came first, then the stirring of the otters around her in the other bunks. “What’s that?” one of them asked. “Has Emily put chowder on?”
Kipper opened her eyes a little and curled herself inward, making herself smaller. She could see Trugger at the end of the room, a steaming bowl in his paws. The creamy, fishy smell was wafting in that steam. Enticing. And it was coming her way.
The other otters were clearing out, probably heading towards the galley and a tureen of chowder. Kipper didn’t have to work that hard. Trugger brought the steaming bowl right to her and sat down beside her on the bunk, proffering the bowl. Kipper thanked him and took it. Resting on her haunches, bowl cradled in her paws, she put her nose right to the surface of the creamy-thick, white soup. She smelled fish, shellfish, and real milk. “This isn’t made from symilk,” she said.
Trugger shrugged. “You’d have to ask Emily. Try it.”
The chowder was heavenly. Milk and seafood. The two most perfect foods, making a most perfect combination. This simple bowl of soup was a much better meal than the steak dinners Trudith had treated her to. This wouldn’t sit like lead in her stomach. It filled her, warmed her, and left her feeling satisfied.
“You look like you feel better,” Trugger said.
“Yes.” Kipper put aside the empty bowl. She refrained, with difficulty, from licking it out. “Sorry about the fainting. I hadn’t realized how long it had been since I’d slept. Or eaten…”
“No need to worry. We Jolly Barracudas take care of any foundlings that fall into our nest.”
The tone of Trugger’s comment made Kipper think he didn’t know that barracudas were a vicious kind of tropical fish. The image of a nest full of barracudas, high in the branches of a tree, waiting for hapless little birdies to happen on them did make her smile. But she was sure it wasn’t the image Trugger meant to conjure.
“So, why did you fall into our nest?”
Kipper flicked her tail tip, ticking off time with its pendular motion. Every answer she could give Trugger led to another question. The path of answers would take her so far back, it made her head spin.
“It’s a secret,” Trugger ventured. “You’re a spy. I should have known that.”
“No,” Kipper said. “It just doesn’t matter anymore. I failed at what I was doing. And now I don’t even know what I’m doing here. In space.”
“Space is a great place.”
“For otters. Have you seen how few cats are around?”
Trugger rubbed his forepaws together and then slicked his whiskers. “I can’t deny that. It doesn’t mean you’re not welcome. In fact, you’re very welcome here. The Jolly Barracuda tends to run a little underhanded…”
“Are you offering me a job?”
“That wouldn’t be my place,” Trugger said. “Captain Cod makes all those decisions. He’s smart about… Well, everything. But, if you asked him, I’ll bet he could find a place for you here.” Perhaps Trugger could see that Kipper looked doubtful, because he added, “We’re a fine crew.” He squared his shoulders, lightly touching one paw to a pin on the lapel of his vest. It was a gold pin, shaped like one of the sailing ships from Captain Cod’s adored fantastical paintings. Then, he grinned. “It’d be fun to have a cat in the crew. We’d be the only smugglers, er, marketeers with a cat on board, let alone as one of the crew.”
“Well, that’s not quite true,” Kipper said. “That cat I was following…”
“Yes?” Trugger prompted.
“Well, that’s where I lost her. She’s onboard the Manta Ray.”
“They’re scoundrels,” Trugger said. Then, after a thoughtful pause, “I wonder why they’ve taken a cat on board?”
Kipper’s ears flattened in consternation.
She didn’t think Trugger understood the meaning of flattened ears on a cat, but he must have understood something in her look, because he added, “The Manta Ray blokes aren’t the friendliest otters. Not very outgoing. They barely associate with us other marketeers. So, I can’t imagine they’d bring an outsider on board for anything other than business.”
“Maybe she hired them to take her somewhere,” Kipper said. In her ears, she heard the echoing words Cat Haven, but she didn’t say them. Trugger wouldn’t have understood what they meant to her. Or at all.
“That could be,” he said. “The Mantas do run courier sometimes. I haven’t heard of them taking passengers, but they keep most of their business pretty hush-hush. So, it’s entirely possible.”
Kipper was almost reluctant to ask the question, because she hoped too much from the answer: “Do you know where she could be going?”
“On the Manta Ray?”
Kipper nodded, her ears flickering. She was fighting to keep them proud and tall. Even if Trugger didn’t know what their flagging height meant, the straightness of her ears meant something to her. It was like fighting to keep your smile, because you know it’s all that’s protecting you from crying. Except, Kipper wouldn’t cry, because she knew better than to expect the answer she wanted from Trugger.
“Like I said, they keep their business pretty hush-hush.”
Kipper sighed under her whiskers. Even if Trugger had known where Violet was going on the Manta Ray, Kipper wasn’t sure any more it would be an answer she wanted to hear. Cats like Sahalie — and Violet too, she supposed now that she’d seen her — weren’t the type to be fleeing dog purgatory for cat heaven. They were too conniving, sneaky, and — dare she even think it? — catty to need an escape from dogs. Instead, they just twisted dogs around a carefully extended pinky claw.
The thought of it made Kipper retract her claws, making her paws harmless and velvety. She didn’t want to be like that. She hoped her relationship with Trudith couldn’t be seen that way. Kipper sighed. Everyone she knew and cared about was so far away…
“Of course,” Trugger suggested, still following the lines of their conversation, “it might not be impossible to find out. Not for a crack team of otters — the first to employ their own feline spy.” Trugger’s eyes got all dreamy for a moment, and then he snapped back to reality. “I’m getting ahead of myself,” he said. “Let’s go talk to the captain.” So, Trugger bounced up from the cot they’d been sitting on and offered Kipper a paw. She didn’t need the help getting up, but she took his paw to be courteous. They left the emptied chowder bowl abandoned on the bed and headed toward the front of the ship to find Captain Cod.
Trugger’s earlier guided tour of the Jolly Barracuda had started Kipper in the back of the ship, with the cargo hold. From there, they’d worked their way forward until Kipper fainted. Now, they finished their forward march, coming all the way to the foremost room on the ship. The bridge.
Trugger explained that the bridge and living quarters were all gathered near the front of the ship, with cargo areas in the back, for some reason involving atmospheric pressure, acceleration simulating gravity, and fluid dynamics. But, like with his stories about how Captain Cod won the Jolly Barracuda in a poker game — despite it being fixed against him — Kipper wasn’t listening all that closely. She would regret that later.
For now, she was excited and a little overwhelmed to take her first steps into the control room and bridge of a spaceship. It wasn’t as if the ship transformed from the tacky plexiglass and fake wood into gleaming panels and glowing buttons with those steps. The fake wood was as present here as anywhere. However, she could feel that she was at the ship’s hub. Monitors lined all the walls, and every other surface was covered in switches, levers, and keypads. She could picture the room busy, bustling with otters while the Jolly Barracuda was in flight, performing some complicated docking maneuver or course adjustment.
Now, of course, the bridge was mostly quiet. Captain Cod was consulting with another river otter by a flickering console. The rest of the crew must have been down in the galley, eating Emily’s chowder. Or otherwise away. Perhaps roaming the station. Kipper wondered how long their trips between ports lasted. Did the otters get cabin fever and long for their “rivers in the sky?” She hadn’t seen any swimming pools on board, but, from what she knew of otters, Kipper found it hard to imagine that the Barracuda crew would be willing to long forgo their native urge to swim.
“Well, if it isn’t our visiting kitty-cat,” said Captain Cod, catching Kipper and Trugger’s reflections in the screen he was watching. He turned to face them. “That was quite a long tour, wasn’t it? I take it that you liked our fine ship.”
Kipper nodded and searched for a truth she could say that would sound complimentary: “Yes, it looks quite… sea-worthy.”
Captain Cod brightened with a broad otter grin. “Space: the great sea of the sky.” He spread his paws expansively. “Now, I asked you to come see me after your tour.”
Kipper dipped her ears in acknowledgement. Then, she clarified with an accompanying nod.
“Right,” the captain said. “Why was that?” There was a baffled pause since neither Kipper nor Trugger knew quite why the captain had wanted to see her. “Oh, I remember! The cat spy,” he said. “Well, well, well, I can’t miss an opportunity like that. I’ve heard a rumor about chowder in the galley. Why don’t we go there to talk? I may even have a proposition for you.”
So, Captain Cod and Kipper left Trugger and the otter at the console to watch the bridge. The two of them headed for the galley, and, along the way, Captain Cod insisted on stopping to discuss almost every painting hanging on the corridor walls. So, by the time they reached the galley, most of the throng from the barracks had already cleared out. The remaining few passed Kipper and the captain as they entered with salutary hails and politely disguised curiosity. The former for the captain; the latter for Kipper.
The only person left in the galley was Emily, the cook. At least, Kipper assumed it was Emily. But she wasn’t what Kipper would have expected. At all.
The galley featured two rows of long, rectangular tables bolted to the floor. They were the same fake wood design as most of the walls. Then, in the back, behind a plexiglass shield was the kitchen, flooded to the ceiling with water. Emily was busy inside arranging the stores in the cupboards, sharpening her chopping knives, and updating her shopping list on a computer panel. At least, those were the tasks Kipper could figure out from looking at her. All Kipper knew for sure was that each of Emily’s sinewy, suction-cupped arms was busily doing something.
From Kipper’s limited knowledge, she guessed that Emily was a Giant Pacific octopus. Kipper only knew two breeds of octopus — Giant Pacific and blue-ringed — between those two, Giant Pacific was a pretty safe bet.
Kipper had heard rumors that octopus society had advanced beyond anything cats and dogs were doing, but she hadn’t expected to see one here. In space. In Kipper’s mind, outer space was otter society. Despite the squirrels running a diner in the red quarter… At any rate, she thought octopuses were still keeping to the oceans. Apparently not Emily.
“Kipper?” the captain inquired, for Kipper had stopped still at the sight of Emily. She was still transfixed by the curling, undulating motion of her tentacles. “Kipper?”
“That’s Emily?” Kipper asked.
“Oh! Yes, our chef. I didn’t realize Trugger hadn’t introduced you yet.”
Kipper’s ears flattened at the horrific image of herself ever entering that flooded kitchen to meet Emily: treading water, holding her breath, drowning. No, swimming was not for cats. Especially not for Kipper.
“Is there a hatchway?” Kipper asked, trying to figure out how the food made it between the kitchen and the rest of the galley. “Oh, yes, I see it…” She peered harder at the transparent, plexiglass wall dividing the room; it had a double hatch on the top of a bar counter, with a device that looked a little like a blender on the side. Probably a suction pump for emptying the hatch of water before opening it on this side. The safe, dry side. “Does Emily ever come out of there?”
“What?” Captain Cod exclaimed, “you don’t think we keep her locked in the kitchen all the time? Do you?”
“Well…” Kipper didn’t want to admit that she had been wondering.
“She sleeps in the barracks with the rest of the crew. Except when we’re docked, of course. She has a cubbyhole in the back of the kitchen, kind of the octopus version of a cot, I guess, for while we’re docked.”
While he spoke, Captain Cod began making the strangest series of gestures with his paws. Quick, expansive motions. Kipper was utterly baffled, and he laughed at her expression.
“Sign language,” the captain said. “I was just introducing you to Emily.” He pointed at the flooded kitchen, and Kipper looked back to see that Emily had put all her knives and canned goods aside. She was sitting — standing? — on the counter, her golden eyes staring through the plexiglass and across the room at Kipper. “Go ahead, wave to her. You don’t know any SSS, do you?”
Kipper shook her head dumbly.
“No, I guess not,” the captain said. “That’s Standard Swimmer’s Signing — SSS. Well, here’s your first lesson: waving means the same. So, go ahead.”
Kipper trepidatiously raised a paw and flexed her claws outward, stretching her paw into a wave. Emily immediately reciprocated, lazily swaying a mottled tentacle. She looked like a window-washer, trying to wipe the plexiglass window between them clean. Well, a very strange window-washer. A very strange anything.
While Kipper stood dumbstruck, the captain proceeded across the galley to the counter dividing the dining area from the flooded kitchen. A giant, squat, metal pot sat on the near side of the counter, in front of the plexiglass, a little to the side of the hatchway it must have come through to leave the kitchen. Captain Cod grabbed a bowl from a stack of them at the end of the counter and ladled the creamy white glop — less steaming than when Kipper had eaten it — from the pot and into his bowl.
“Now, this is the good stuff!” Captain Cod said raising his bowl. He moved to the nearest dining table and seated himself on the bench with the sloshing full bowl before him. “Care to join me?”
“I already had some,” Kipper said, but she joined him at the table anyway.
“Lucky cat,” he said. “Emily only makes us chowder when we’re docked. And only then when we beg her.”
“Why only when you’re docked? Are the supplies perishable?”
“Swimming ostriches, no! Well…” the captain looked ponderous, “I suppose if you really did chowder up right, you would have to get some fresh shrimps and salmon… But, no, we get all that stuff canned.”
“Swimming ostriches?” Kipper asked.
“It’s an expression. See, it would just be too messy when we’re flying with the oxo-agua atmosphere.”
“Can ostriches swim?” Kipper asked, not realizing she was missing an important point. Trugger had mentioned oxo-agua earlier while she was tuning out his lecture on practical spaceship physics, so she was old hat at ignoring that technical term by now.
“Actually,” Captain Cod said, “they can swim. They’re awfully funny, ungainly looking when they do it though. It’s a real lark in a larch to watch.” So, Kipper missed her second opportunity to be warned about the situation she was about to get herself into. She was a cat about to be thrown into a vat of water. All too literally.
“Anyway…” the captain continued, sobering up from his reflections on swimming land birds and settling down to business. “I’ve got this problem. See, all the paintings? For a while now, we’ve been transporting and dealing them for a colony of artists in the asteroids.”
“I think you mentioned that,” Kipper said.
“Well, there’s been a misunderstanding. And they don’t want to work with us anymore.” The captain stared levelly at Kipper. She got the idea that she was supposed to be offering a solution to his problem, but she couldn’t imagine what kind of solution he expected. Or, more to the point, why he expected it from her. “So…” The captain stirred his soup. “So… You’re a spy.”
Kipper still wasn’t sure what he wanted.
“Spies know things. They know people. They have connections.”
“You want me to hook you up with another art supplier?”
“Do you know one?” The captain looked eager.
Kipper twisted her ears about in confusion. “You do realize I just got here? Yesterday, I was down on Earth.” The reality wasn’t hitting him. “And, a week ago I was a temp in an office. The only person I’ve ever spied on is this one cat — Violet. And, I think I’m done with even that now.”
The captain’s whiskers drooped, but he quickly covered his disappointment with a spoonful of chowder. “Well, it was a long shot,” he said between mouthfuls. He set down the spoon again. “So, why are you done spying on this Violet? You finished the job?”
“More like failed at it. I trailed her to the Manta Ray. The trail ended there.”
“What were you trailing her for?”
Kipper locked her eyes on the table; she couldn’t answer Captain Cod’s question while looking at him. “I hoped she was fleeing Earth to get to a Cat Haven. Some sort of utopia where cats run their own government and their own lives. And live together without dogs controlling them.” She felt silly saying it. But, Captain Cod was such a silly otter that somehow she managed to anyway.
“That’s lovely,” he said. They were both quiet for a while. Then, he asked, “Where was she actually going?”
“I don’t know,” Kipper answered. “Like I said, I lost her at the Manta Ray.”
“Then, you don’t really know that she isn’t going to a hidden utopia run by cats. I wonder what kind of art a place like that would deal in… A bunch of felines hopped up high on utopia could probably conjure some crazy-swimmy art.”
Kipper lowered one ear questioningly. Captain Cod’s leap from her imaginary Cat Haven to his role as sole art dealer for all the hypothetical cat artists there — well, it was a bit much for her. “Even if Violet is going to a hidden colony of cats…” she pointed out, “they seem to already have an established relationship with the Manta Ray.”
“No one in their right mind would rather work with slimy ol’ Larson and his barnacle bogged Manta Ray than with the upstanding crew of the fine, sky-sailing Jolly Barracuda!”
Kipper had to wonder if Captain Cod was in his right mind, but she knew better than to argue with him when she heard his following plan:
“Look, you want to know where Violet is going, and I’m looking for a new trade route for my cargo ship. You’ve already done the first thing I’d want from you as ship’s spy — er, information specialist. (It wouldn’t be very spy-like to call you a spy, now would it?)” he added under his breath. “Anyway, you’ve set me on a lead — all I have to do now is follow it. And that’s an excellent beginning to your job. If you’ll take it.”
“Wait, you’re planning to follow the Manta Ray, hoping to find a hidden colony of cats, so that you can offer your services to them in place of Captain Larson’s?”
“That’s the general idea. Want in?”
“Yes,” she answered. “Yes.” It didn’t matter to Kipper that Captain Cod’s plan was crazy. He was offering to subsidize the next portion of her trip — a portion she had thought unattainable at any price. Certainly any price payable by the scanty cash folded up in her tunic pocket.
“You’ll take the job, then?” The captain looked excited. “You’ll be a Jolly Barracuda?” He was about to be the first otter to captain a spaceship with a cat on the crew. He nearly jumped out of his seat when Kipper nodded.
“Sweet-singing lark!” he exclaimed. “Well, let’s go get you set up. You’re okay with staying in the barracks with the rest of the otters? You’ve seen the barracks? Trugger can show you the ropes…”
Continue on to Chapter 13…