by Mary E. Lowd
The evening and night both passed slowly. At dinner, the crew of the Jolly Barracuda talked about the various mining expeditions or scientific surveys of Mars they’d either been on or known members of. As far as Kipper could tell, the only otter onboard to have actually put paw to soil on Mars was Boris. Well, space-suited paw. Nonetheless, he was clearly proud of the distinction and told the story of his visit in great detail. The other otters seemed impressed. Kipper wanted to slug him.
He’d been on a scouting mission to find a good location for a resort of sorts. An otter get-away, nestled among the rugged, red hills of Mars. The moral of his story? “Nowhere on Mars is worth two shakes of a jaybird’s tail.” He grinned as he signed it, and then he leaned back complacently and fiddled with his row of silver earrings.
It made Kipper furious. She wanted to sign back, “Maybe for otters!” But, she didn’t know yet that cats felt any differently… She just hoped they did.
She excused herself and swam to her favorite window to watch the Manta Ray, imperceptibly decelerating as it approached the red ball of Mars. Yes, she could make out Mars now. It was no longer lost in the wash of identical stars. In fact, the more tired she got, the more convinced she was that she could see it growing as the Jolly Barracuda grew nearer. She sent herself to the barracks and to bed before she tried to convince herself that she could see cats joyously dancing on the distant red surface.
The dancing cats, however, found her in her bed. In Kipper’s dreams, the Jolly Barracuda landed on Mars to find Petra already there, dancing with Violet and every cat Kipper had ever seen abused or put down by a dog in her life. Petra, Violet and all the other cats were dancing, unsheltered, on the harsh surface of Mars. Even Alistair and Sahalie were there, waltzing on the red rocks.
Violet saw her and left the others dancing to come toward Kipper. She came in leaps and bounds across the dusty, red rocks. As she came closer, Kipper could see that her face and mouth were transformed — surreally melded to a breathing apparatus. Kipper felt her own face similarly transformed, and the thin Mars air felt thick in her throat and lungs because of it. The surface of Mars was no different from oxo-agua. “How can you breathe this?” she tried to ask Violet, but her mouth was a contraption of rubber pipes and tubes. The sound wouldn’t emerge, and the harder Kipper tried to scream her question the more frustrated she became.
Finally, Kipper awoke screaming. Except, like in her dream, no sound came from her mouth, except for an impossibly quiet high-pitched whine. She coughed and choked, gasping for air and only finding oxo-agua. She’d woken like this most of her nights on the Jolly Barracuda. But, the spookiness of seeing Violet and her littermates with those gas-mask faces still clung around her, making the morning ritual of hyperventilation worse.
Eventually, she calmed herself and slowed her breathing, accepting the thick, liquid atmosphere as the only one available to her. She looked around the barracks and saw many otters sleeping in their bunks. It was still early. And none of them had been disturbed by her nearly silent fit. In a normal atmosphere, her screams would have woken them all.
In a normal atmosphere, she wouldn’t have awoken screaming.
Also, in a normal atmosphere, she could have risen from bed and washed her night terrors away with a relaxing shower. Though cats don’t like living in water, they can appreciate it. Especially when it’s moving. And in limited, controllable quantities.
On the Jolly Barracuda, however, Kipper had to settle for grabbing one of the otters’ chemical brushes and giving her fur a thorough brushing.
The rough bristles felt good, but she had trouble feeling truly clean in a liquid atmosphere. Trugger had assured her that the oxo-agua was constantly being filtered and treated. Kept as pure as any air. But, no matter how he reassured her, Kipper couldn’t reconcile herself to breathing the same substance she was swimming in.
She shuddered, finished brushing her fur, dressed in the shorts and vest that had become her uniform onboard, and headed to the bridge.
She tried to dawdle on the way, because she knew there wouldn’t be anything happening. She knew it. But she hoped otherwise.
Her dawdling brought her past the galley where she could see Emily clinging to the ceiling, still asleep. Her suckers stuck tight above her and her tentacles coiled about in twisty patterns. Her mantle, the round bulk of her body, rose and fell in the center of her twisty arms. The fine tips of her curled tentacles — they were so thin at their tips! — quivered in the disturbance of the oxo-agua blowing through her siphon, the tube organ she breathed through. She would awake and begin preparing breakfast soon. She was always deep at work when Kipper arrived to help her. Except this morning. Such a curse to be unable to sleep… And especially when one is waiting.
Kipper dog-paddled on to her window, where she made herself watch Mars, the Manta Ray, and the plethora of surrounding stars as long as she could stand it. Then, when she could take no more, she finished her swim to the bridge.
Boris and Jenny were the only otters there. Kipper was still sore at Boris, so she paddled over to the right side of the bridge, near Jenny. The turbulence in the oxo-agua from Kipper’s swimming rustled Jenny’s fur, and she looked up. Noticing Kipper, Jenny smiled and signed, “Up early.”
Kipper nodded and settled in to watch. Since the bridge was mostly empty this early, there were free computer stations. Kipper claimed the one two down from Jenny and worked on studying her Swimmer’s Sign. She might as well stay useful and try to keep her mind off of Mars and the Manta Ray while waiting.
Kipper occupied her time by practicing the signs for lyrics to a pop puppy band song she liked. It was a good way to help herself remember the signs, and puppy bands do have some good songs. That’s what she told herself, anyway. Besides, a cat lyricist wrote the song, not the puppy band members. Just in case Boris and Jenny didn’t understand that, Kipper kept her body angled away from them. That way, they couldn’t read her signed singing.
Kipper could sign her way smoothly through the chorus and was working on translating the second verse when the Jolly Barracuda detected a transmission from the Manta Ray to Mars. Kipper found out when Jenny, deftly as an otter in water, swam over to her and tapped her on the shoulder. Kipper jumped and the momentum started her drifting out of her seat.
“I’m about to go wake the captain,” Jenny signed, “but, I thought you’d want to know right away.”
Kipper was still worrying about whether Jenny had seen any of her paw-singing, but what Jenny signed next completely wiped that concern from Kipper’s mind.
“The Manta Ray sent a short message to Mars just now. It was a simple voice transmission: ‘We have another new settler for you.'”
There’s no other way to interpret that, is there? Kipper asked herself. She wanted to ask Jenny, but her heart was racing too fast and her thoughts floating too high to speak in sign. So, instead, she floated dumbstruck, an inch off of her chair, as Jenny smiled and turned tail to swim away. The thick brown otter tail swished rhythmically as Jenny jetted toward the back of the bridge. Kipper watched until Jenny rounded the corner into the starboard corridor and disappeared from sight.
Then, Kipper pushed a paw down and launched herself into her own swim across the bridge. Except, she swam toward the front of the bridge where she paddled awkwardly from monitor to monitor, looking for information about the Manta Ray, or the intercepted message, or Mars. She learned nothing, but she kept trying to scry out any meaning from those cryptic computer screens until Jenny returned with Captain Cod. The two of them had apparently stopped to gather several more bridge officers along the way, because Kipper suddenly found herself on a fully manned bridge.
Otters zipped from one post to another, swimming like Kipper never could. She didn’t have the body for it. Swimmer’s Sign filled the room, paws flapping and gesticulating as each officer turned to report to Captain Cod. The captain floated calmly in the center, apparently following all their rapidly signed reports. Kipper didn’t know how he could keep up — “listening” to every otter “talking” at once.
But, apparently, he did, and before Kipper could accustom herself to the flurry it all died down. Each otter officer serenely, diligently focused on his own post. Captain Cod turned to Kipper and signed, “Now you’ll see what the oxo-agua can do.”
Lights in the seam between the walls and ceiling began flashing — they danced from red through orange, yellow, and the rest of the rainbow, all the way back to red. A buzz jolted through Kipper’s entire body. It jolted twice more, and then Kipper found herself being forcibly moved to the back of the bridge and helped into a chair. Jenny, the otter helping her, signed “That was the alarm system, so everyone knows we’re about to hit high acceleration. Since you’re not used to it, I thought it’d be better if you sat down.”
Kipper nodded dumbly. She found her manners right as Jenny turned to swim back to her post, signing too late for Jenny to read it, “Thank you.”
From her new, secure, and seated position Kipper could see all the bridge officers’ paw signs whenever they “spoke” to Captain Cod. She couldn’t follow all of it, but it kept her abreast of the ship’s motions. Albeit, mostly after they happened, for she found it easier to decipher their signed statements with the added clues she received from feeling the ships’ goings-on herself.
As she understood it, the Jolly Barracuda was accelerating at a much higher rate than the Manta Ray could handle. Of course, the hull of either ship would be fine with even more acceleration — but, the Jolly Barracuda’s unorthodox oxo-agua atmosphere was necessary to cushion and protect the bodies of the ship’s passengers. Instead of receiving the entire acceleration as an increased gravity, pushing downward on them all, they felt an increased water pressure, pushing inward on every part of their bodies. Too much acceleration would still crush them; but, they could handle a great deal more acceleration than the Manta Ray’s inhabitants could.
Thus, they could arrive at Mars much sooner.
From Kipper’s purely sensational perspective, she lost the feeling of weightlessness she’d known during her time on the Jolly Barracuda. Instead, she could feel herself being pushed downward in her chair, and she could feel the oxo-agua hugging her closer. This feeling rose until she could almost stand it no more. Her breathing was labored. (Not that breathing had ever been a joy in the oxo-agua atmosphere.) Her head felt light, and her chest felt heavy. Then, finally, she felt the gravity lessening. When it dropped back to where she felt weightless, she saw the stars spin in the windows around the bridge.
The bridge was set at the top, or nose, of the ship, with all the other living areas clustered not far beneath it. The bottom, tail-end, of the ship hosted all the cargo bays. That way, the greatest water pressure during maneuvers like these would only squeeze on inanimate boxes. The crew was, essentially, just under the surface of the miniature ocean contained inside the Jolly Barracuda. The cargo bays were at the ocean’s depths.
The stars spun, Kipper decoded from the signage around her, because the ship had spun around to begin decelerating. That way, the live occupants were all still at the top of the ship, relative to the “gravity” that the ship’s acceleration would make them feel.
And Kipper felt it. She clenched her teeth, not enjoying the feeling of being miles under the ocean one bit.
But, when it stopped, she looked out the bridge windows and saw Mars, larger than life, hanging before them. In fact, she couldn’t really see Mars, per se — only part of it. Just the one horizon in front of them.
“Now tell me that you think oxo-agua is pointless,” the captain signed to her, but Kipper’s eyes were too full of the sight before her to understand him. The small red dot had grown in mere minutes to fill an entire sky.
Captain Cod understood and left Kipper to her Mars-gazing while himself returning to commanding the ship.
Continue on to Chapter 15…