by Mary E. Lowd
Beating the Manta Ray to Mars was only the first step of Captain Cod’s rapidly unfolding plan. The next stage involved doctoring the message they’d intercepted from the Manta Ray. They ran the voice through a simulator and used the simulation program to generate a new message. The new message said, “Approaching Mars orbit.”
Sure enough, within a few minutes, a signal was broadcast from the ground in response.
Kipper was still in her chair, in the back, when the response arrived. Trugger had made his way to the bridge and was keeping her company, pestering her with small talk questions and unnecessary information about the jump they’d just made past the Manta Ray. Kipper appreciated his effort to distract her, but it wasn’t working very well.
“Kipper?” Captain Cod signed, after Jenny showed him the message from Mars. “We have a message from the planet.” He and Jenny both beckoned Kipper over. She rose from her chair and began the awkward treading of water toward Jenny’s post. Trugger swam slowly beside her, matching her pace. She felt like a cripple.
The weeks swimming and breathing a liquid, the uncertainty of her voyage and what had happened to Petra; being cut off from Alistair, Trudith, and everything else at home… It was all adding up. Homesickness. There was a feeling she never expected to experience for the dog-infested world she was born on. It didn’t last long.
The words on Jenny’s screen made it all — everything — worthwhile: “We welcome your passenger to Siamhalla.”
Trugger hugged her, and she could see over his shoulder, still squeezed into his hug, that all the other otters on the bridge were grinning at her. When Trugger finished trying to squeeze the oxo-agua out of her lungs, he pushed her far enough away to sign, “Now that’s the name of a Cat Haven if I ever saw one.”
“No kidding,” Jenny signed.
Captain Cod put one paw on her shoulder and signed with the other one, “Congratulations.” The rest of the bridge broke into a silent round of applause. Their paws clapped but the sound was absorbed before it could reach her ears.
Before they stopped, Jenny received another message. She signed so to the captain, and he signed for everyone to get back to work.
Kipper looked over Jenny’s shoulder and saw that the second message read, “Open audio/visual contact?”
Her heart leapt to her throat, and she wanted to pour all her feelings out in words to the cats that must be waiting for her on Mars…
But the oxo-agua in her mouth strangled the breath of her voice out. Only a pathetic gurgling emanated. “How can we talk to them in this?” she signed, frantic with her desire to commune with cats instead of otters and dogs again. “They won’t know Swimmer’s Sign!” Her paws were emphatic, conveying every bit of her frustration and anger.
“Don’t worry,” Captain Cod signed. “Their transmissions showed us where they are. We’ll fly down first, drain the oxo-agua, and then, when we’re ready, we’ll answer them.”
“Won’t they be suspicious?” Kipper signed.
“Why should they be?” Captain Cod asked. “There’s no reason for a ship to be here except to find them. And no otter I’ve ever talked to has ever heard of a place called…” his signing faltered for a moment, since there wasn’t a sign yet for Siamhalla. He ended up pointing at the message on the monitor, and Jenny helpfully spelled S-I-A-M-H-A-L-L-A out for him in alphabet signs.
Then, Jenny added, “This place is the best kept secret in the solar system.”
“Until now. And, trust me,” Captain Cod confidently signed, “they won’t see us coming.”
Kipper almost smiled at that. She certainly flicked her ears in amusement. She had to admit that it would be hard for anyone to see the Jolly Barracuda coming. It takes a particularly quirky and off-kilter group of otters to jump at the chance to escort a broke alley cat across space on her wild goose chase. But, then, the Jolly Barracudas liked their bird metaphors. Singing lark, wild goose — it was all the same to them.
Trugger touched her elbow, and when she turned to look at him, he added with his paws, “Besides, we’re just bringing them one of their own. One more cat to Cat Haven.”
Now Kipper did smile, her eyes warm with the look.
“Come on,” Trugger signed, “let’s get you ready for your journey to Mecca. We don’t need to hang around waiting on the bridge anymore.”
The captain agreed with Trugger, assuring her in sign that, “We’ll get you into your Cat Haven. You just go and look forward to it.”
Trugger marshaled her off the bridge and toward the galley for a bite of breakfast. Kipper knew she was being gotten out of the way, but she was happy to let it happen. She was going to see Siamhalla soon. She moved as in a daze, and, added to her normally slow rate of swimming, that meant she was barely moving at all. Literally floating.
When they finally arrived, Emily had breakfast dumplings all ready and no one to eat them. Everyone else was busy beginning the ship’s landing. So, the three of them — cat, otter, and octopus — sat and ate.
Emily was excited to learn about the latest development: Siamhalla. The simple word rang with triumph, happiness, and mystery for Kipper. Even though she had yet to hear it pronounced — only read or signed — she could hear it in her mind; imagine it in her ears. Music. Sheer music.
Kipper let Trugger do most of the signing. She was too scared to believe her memories. Afraid that saying such outrageous things herself would make her and everyone else realize they must be untrue. Watching Trugger sign, deftly with his brown otter paws, though, was like reading the words to a fairy story. Meant to lull worried kittens off to sleep. She wished someone had read her his story when she was a kitten in the cattery. It would have given her something to strive for and dream about. Maybe she wouldn’t have drifted uselessly from one temp job to the next if she hadn’t thought the only alternative was a dead-end career like Alistair’s or Petra’s.
She hoped Trudith had gotten her brother out of jail by now, and found her sister. Maybe he really would be a government official by the time she got home. Unless… If Siamhalla was everything she hoped it was… Maybe she wouldn’t be going home.
As they ate and Trugger signed, Kipper could feel the effects of the impending landing. The water pressure changed, and gravity grew and shifted; It was all the affect of the Jolly Barracuda entering a planetary atmosphere for the first time since Kipper had boarded.
Right as the three companions finished with their chewy, fishy, breakfast of dumplings, the alarm lights and buzzer went off again. Like they had back on the bridge. The ship was still for several minutes, having recently passed through a particularly bumpy phase. Trugger signed, “The buzzer means we’ve landed. The oxo-agua is going to drain now.”
Emily waved her tentacles at her two companions, not in Swimmer’s Sign — merely in a simple wave of goodbye, and swam back to the kitchen. She sealed herself behind plexiglass walls, returning to the cage she’d been in when Kipper had first seen her.
Kipper returned Emily’s wave, saddened to see her friend caged like that, but the sadness couldn’t live long. Self interest always wins in the end. Especially in a cat.
Soon (not nearly soon enough, nothing but now could be soon enough) Kipper wouldn’t be breathing water anymore. And, with the ship landed, she was finally on the same planet as her dreamland for cats! She could have jumped for joy — except, she knew jumping would be easier once the oxo-agua drained, and the atmosphere was back to being gaseous again. (A treat in and of itself: to breathe air again… to walk instead of swim…)
So, she waited. Eagerly, impatiently.
The draining began with a kathunking, not so much a sound as a feeling in the floors. Then, looking up, Kipper could see a shine of silver appearing over the ceiling. The silver grew thicker, and she realized the silver was the air she would soon be (and longed to be) breathing. It descended slowly, unbearably slowly, at first. But, Kipper didn’t swim up to it. She restrained herself, knowing she would just find herself flailing in the oxo-agua, thrashing, feeling like she was drowning in her attempt to escape the last few minutes of it. No, it was better to stay in her chair, accept the wait where she was already equilibrated.
As the layer of air above their heads gained width, it lost the silvered quality and grew into a green portal that stretched and distorted the world Kipper could see above her through it. Finally, just as the oxo-agua lowered to barely over her head, Kipper saw whirlpools, little tornadoes of air stretch down from the air ceiling into the drains below. Kipper closed her eyes, waiting for the air to touch the tips of her ears. Just waiting. Waiting.
And there it was: the tingly, strange feeling of the oxo-agua draining away, leaving her ear tips high and dry. Not really dry yet, but drier than they’d been in weeks.
Kipper kept her eyes closed and savored it until she could feel the air crowning her head. Then, unable to wait, she opened her eyes and stood up from her chair.
Oxo-agua dripped down her face and shoulders. She coughed the oxo-agua out of her lungs, lurching forward, curling herself around lungs that felt wrongly light and heavy. She felt Trugger grab her, support her, and pound her back, helping her hack the oxo-agua out of her lungs. Replacing it with wonderful air.
Except, the air didn’t feel wonderful… It felt dry and scratchy, chafing a throat that had grown used to breathing horrid liquid… Breathing liquid. So wrong.
When she got her eyes open again (they also hurt in the now unfamiliar gaseous atmosphere), the view in front of them looked strangely… firm. Nothing wavered like it had; flowing with the feel of a mirage. She’d grown used to that. Without it, she found herself stumbling, and she didn’t have the forgiving cushion of oxo-agua to catch her.
She splashed about, as pathetic as a kitten thrown in a pool by cruel, prankster puppies. Again, Trugger kept hold of her and helped her to stand until the oxo-agua got low enough to sit her back in the chair.
There, she panted and spat and heaved, finally calming and re-equilibrating to the atmosphere she’d looked forward to returning to for so long. She hadn’t realized the transition would be so hard. Such a system shock.
“Hey,” Trugger said.
Kipper’s ears perked up, straight and forward. It was the first time she’d heard Trugger’s voice, or any clear sound, in weeks. Kipper looked at him and smiled. “Hi,” she said, feeling funny and shy. It was like they were introducing themselves for the first time all over again, like the last few weeks hadn’t counted. They’d been in a different world. An underwater world. A world where cats don’t belong.
Now it was time to be in a world where cats did belong.
“Are there showers?” Kipper asked. Her voice felt shaky from disuse, and her throat felt raspy. Air felt thin and harsh on all the exposed parts of her skin — her nose, mouth, and eyes.
“The ship isn’t plumbed that way,” Trugger said. He could see the betrayal in Kipper’s eyes. “We don’t spend enough time docked for it to make sense.”
Kipper sighed and stood up awkwardly. Her limbs felt tired, automatically, in the new, less supportive atmosphere. “I guess another chemical brushing will have to do then.” She was still gripping the arms of the chair, using them as a prop. She was thankful she didn’t fall down when she gave them up. “There,” she said. “I can still walk.”
Trugger smiled. “The transition’s hard. You’ve been swimming a long time. And you weren’t built for it the way we were.”
“No,” she agreed. “I was built for this. Now, I’m gonna get myself back to the barracks, get this hideous oxo-agua out of my fur, and make myself as presentable as possible before I let any other cats see me.”
“Fair enough,” Trugger agreed, and, with some tactfully proffered help from him, that’s exactly what Kipper did.
Kipper didn’t know if they’d been waiting for her on the bridge, but it felt that way from the subtle change in postures and attitudes when she and Trugger arrived. She’d been glancing out all the windows as they walked through the ship — too nervous to really look, but too drawn by the lure of what might lay right outside not to. She hadn’t seen anything that told her much about where they’d landed. Just red mountains, pale red sky, and the occasional metal-looking obstruction. Possibly the corner of a building or other structure.
“Where did we land?” she asked.
“The ground-controller of Siamhalla was kind enough to open the entry hatch to their elegant city-dome. So, we landed right inside.” Captain Cod grinned a giant otter grin. Then, he came up and gave Kipper a giant otter hug, leaning his lanky body down over hers and wrapping his short arms around her shoulders. “Welcome to the inside of Siamhalla,” he whispered before straightening back up.
There was brief applause and cheering from the other otters on the bridge. Trugger grabbed Kipper by the paw and squeezed. She squeezed back, affirming his silent congratulations, before he stepped away and joined the others in their noisy ones.
“Now,” Captain Cod asked, “Are you ready to take a look at our new hosts?”
“And let them take a look at us…” Kipper whispered to herself. She dug her claws into the loose folds of her baggy otter trousers. Too baggy and too short. She felt all the otters looking at her, completely unaware of how foolish and self-conscious she felt in such obviously ill-fitting otter clothing. They weren’t cats; they didn’t know how clothes should fit her, or maybe they didn’t care. Any cat would. Yet these knee-length otter trousers and almost knee-length otter vest, brand new from a fashionable boutique on Deep Sky Anchor were the best she had. The cats of Siamhalla would have to understand that.
Besides, she knew, whatever another cat thought of her clothing would be completely dwarfed by opinions on her fading faux-Mau fur job.
Deep breath. Dry air, whistling between her teeth. “Yes,” she said, loud for all the bridge otters. “Let’s see some cats.”
“Great,” Captain Cod said, putting his arm out, placing a paw on Kipper’s shoulder and guiding her over to a station at the side of the bridge. Jenny scurried over and worked the switches, adjusted what looked like a microphone and video-feed.
An image popped up on the monitor between the mic and video feed: an empty box with a smaller box in the corner; Kipper and Captain Cod were in the smaller box. Kipper shuffled uncomfortably at the sight of her own image, and the image shuffled uncomfortably back. That wouldn’t do. So, while Jenny signaled Siamhalla by text that the Jolly Barracuda was ready to talk to them, Kipper straightened herself out. She’d found the Cat Haven she’d been looking for — she put that pride in her posture and eyes. Then she looked ready. And not a moment too soon, for the larger box on the monitor jumped to life.
The new image was a stately Siamese man standing beside a pleasantly fluffed Birman woman. The Siamese was very handsome — broad shoulders, thin waist, elegantly tapered arms crossed over his chest. Kipper felt her ears burn hot at the tips, seeing both his and the Birman’s stern expressions.
“We weren’t expecting your ship,” the Siamese said. He tilted his head forward; his eyes were piercing, but Kipper realized he was looking at the Captain, not her. “Our usual cargo ship is the Manta Ray. When you signaled, we assumed you were them.”
“Yes,” Captain Cod said. “Captain Larson and the Manta Ray are on their way,” — a brief pause and a huge grin — “but my ship is faster. And our guest was impatient to get here.”
There were chuckles from some of the otters on the bridge. Kipper thought she could hear Trugger saying something about an “understatement.” Then, Captain Cod threw a casual arm around Kipper’s shoulder, urging her to step forward. As she did, she could see the Birman look at her and then up at the taller Siamese. His eyes narrowed as he looked at Kipper, and she could feel herself freeze, from the tips of her ears to the usually fidgety tip of her tail.
The glinting blue eyes, measuring her and judging her, softened. He said, “I’m Josh,” gestured to the Birman beside him, “This is Elle. Welcome to your new home…” He trailed off with a clear question in his voice.
Kipper answered, “Kipper.”
“Welcome home, Kipper,” Elle said.
Josh added, “Come on out. We’ll show you around.” With a final, skeptical look at the clownish otter captain standing beside Kipper, Josh reached forward and cut the video-feed.
There was silence on the bridge. Kipper wondered if the otters could tell how much Josh and Elle had disliked them. It made her nervous to look over at Captain Cod and catch his eye, but when she did, her question was answered.
He broke into a broad grin and said, “They seemed nice. I think I’d like doing business with them.” He hadn’t sensed their coldness toward him at all. “And, if they’re working with Larson now, all we have to do is show them that our ship is better and,” he looked around the bridge at all his subordinate otters, “our crew is a lot more personable. They seemed personable. Surely, they’d rather work with friendly, personable otters like us than Captain Larson’s… indifferent crew.” He rocked back on his heels, then forward on his toes. The bouncing motion traveled along his entire spine, adding up to a cheerful, endearing hop. “Yes, I think we’ve got a real chance here.”
Kipper smiled weakly, her ears at half mast.
“Now, let’s get out there,” Captain Cod continued, “and let you take a good look at what you’ve come so far to find.”
Kipper knew better than to point out that Josh hadn’t invited the Captain. Just her. If none of the otters were cued enough into cat social cues to catch that subtlety… Well, Kipper didn’t want to be the one to tell them. They’d find out soon enough. Or, maybe, if these Siamhallese were tactful enough, and the Jolly Barracudas were obtuse enough… Well, maybe they wouldn’t have to find out at all.
Continue on to Chapter 16…