by Mary E. Lowd
Gel encrusted eyes flittered open to the wavery sight and watery feel of oxo-agua. Kipper felt cold and icky. Are we there yet? she thought, but she knew better than to try using her lungs. There’s not much point in signing if no one’s looking at you. Given the state of her own gooey eyes, she’d be surprised if anyone was.
A few more groggy minutes and Kipper felt she could risk sitting up. She was alone in the barracks, but that wasn’t surprising. She was the only crewmember who’d never been cryo-gelatinated before.
She felt the fur along her arms and was surprised to find the gelatin entirely gone. Of course, she shouldn’t have been. The gel was caused by an EM-field, and the phase shift between liquid and colloid oxo-agua was as instantaneous as the cessation of that field.
She remembered the colloidal oxo-agua hugging her. She shuddered, and hugged herself. Space was a crazy place.
Kipper worked her way through empty corridors of the Jolly Barracuda toward the bridge. As she went, the gravity lurched in different directions at varying strengths, making swimming even harder than usual.
Kipper had no post on the bridge, but that’s where the action would be and, possibly, answers about the weird gravity. Besides, if the Jolly Barracuda received any more broadcasts from the Persians, she would be the best suited to understand any subtle details. Cats are all about subtle details. Otters not so much. And that made her the cultural liaison.
Before she reached the bridge, floating and ricocheting along the ship’s hallways, Kipper happened upon the squiggly sight of a tangle of tentacles. She floated gently toward them, and lightly touched the quivering bundle. Emily’s skin, normally a mottled grey, flushed flat white. Buried between two sucker-covered arm-bases, one of her yellow eyes opened.
“Emily?” Kipper signed. “Are you okay?”
The tentacular huddle shuddered. Then, a few wispy tentacle tips signed, “Tired.” The miniaturized quality of the sign — being done with the tentacle version of fingertips instead of entire arms — gave the visual effect of a whisper.
Kipper’s heart melted. Moving through a gelatin atmosphere must be exhausting. Poor Emily. Kipper reached out her paws and scooped up Emily’s tentacly mass. A few tentacles curled around Kipper’s arms, hugging onto her. With Emily clinging lightly to her chest, Kipper awkwardly swam her way down the corridor to the galley. The kitchen at the back of the galley was Emily’s home and sanctuary.
Kipper laid Emily gently in the back of the room, between a cupboard and a countertop. Her sucker disks immediately latched onto countertop, anchoring her as the gravity shifted unpredictably. Kipper braced herself against the cupboard.
When Emily’s tentacles started to stretch out, slowly expanding to fill the space in the room, Kipper felt relieved, though, she still didn’t feel right leaving Emily in this state. Whatever was happening on the bridge could wait.
“I’ll make some oolong graplets,” Kipper signed, partly in hopes of reviving Emily further and partly to distract herself. Kipper knew where the ingredients were, and got right to work. The graplets were a delicacy Emily had invented — a soft, flavor-infused gelatin coated in a thin skin. They satisfied some of the otters’ desire for drinks. There wasn’t a great deal of thirst, per se, in the liquid atmosphere of the Jolly Barracuda, but there was still a social, cultural desire for drinks to accompany meals.
Emily had developed a fondness bordering on addiction for oolong tea in this form. Kipper had to wonder if the mildly caffeinated quality of the oolong tea graplets played into Emily’s addiction. Did caffeine affect an octopus’ metabolism the same way it affected a cat’s or an otter’s?
Kipper wasn’t sure, but Emily did perk up when her tentacles felt the oolong graplets. She passed them from sucker disk to sucker disk along her tentacles, moving inward toward the base of her arms. Emily’s mouth was at the intersection of her arms, under her body. In Emily’s current pose, Kipper couldn’t see her mouth, but she knew Emily had a sharp beak — the only non-squishy part of her body — that she used to puncture each graplet before swallowing it.
When she finished the graplets, Emily waved her tentacles loosely for a moment. Then, she began signing.
“I wasn’t ready,” she signed, golden eyes staring blankly ahead of her.
“Ready for what?” Kipper signed, though she wasn’t sure Emily could even see her in this state of shock.
“I knew what our mission was.” Emily signed, halting with her arms in place at the end. The next signs were quick and decisive: “I should have been ready.”
Kipper was getting seriously worried, and the lurching gravity wasn’t helping. She wondered if she’d get straighter answers on the bridge, but she wasn’t sure Emily should be alone. Before Kipper could make up her mind, Emily fixed that eerie yellow gaze sharply on her.
“The warships attacked before Captain Cod woke up,” Emily signed, her movements precise and hollow. “I had to dodge them.” Her tentacles fumbled, tripping each other. “I think… They’re working on repairing the hull.”
Kipper felt the oxo-agua in her lungs turn to lead. “Repair?” she signed.
“It’ll be fine,” Emily reassured herself. She sure as roaring lions wasn’t reassuring Kipper. “We knew we were heading into a war zone. I should have been ready.”
Watching Emily sign, Kipper had already started backing away, treading water, dog-paddling away from the kitchen, backwards through the galley. She didn’t think she’d be any help at all on the bridge, but maybe she could help with repairs.
Kipper left Emily in her shocked reverie, and turned tail to swim as fast as her cat body could carry her. She searched the corridors of the ship, looking for a repair crew, hoping she could help, and, all the while, those words — “war zone” — echoed in her mind.
Kipper worked her way forward from the aft of the ship. She tried to swim down the middle of the halls, but the gravity kept pulling her up against the floor or the ceiling or the walls. Mostly, she tried to avoid bumping her head. Window by window, Kipper learned not to look at the dizzily spinning stars outside. It was bad enough to feel the ship’s movement in the pit of her stomach. Seeing it didn’t help.
When she found the repair crew, it was simply two otters — Felix and Destry — hemming and hawing over a terribly disturbing bulge in the wall. The fake wood paneling had buckled and split from floor to ceiling. One of Captain Cod’s beloved giant canvas paintings of a sailing ship, coasting along the rings of Saturn with dolphins dancing beside her, hung over the bulge. The acrylic glass protecting it from oxo-agua had broken into a spider web of cracked lines, and the gilt frame had snapped, tearing the canvas halfway down the middle.
“Oh my goodness, what did that?” Kipper signed.
“The enemy ships, of course,” Destry signed.
“We need to reinforce it,” Felix added. “I’m thinking: the tables from the galley.”
“Good idea!” Destry signed. “We could use another pair of arms.” He looked over at Kipper meaningfully. Shortly thereafter, she found herself in the galley, helping to unbolt one of the tables from the floor.
When they had the first one freed, Kipper and Felix hoisted it over their shoulders and set off to swim the table through the lurching, narrow hallways of the ship. Felix took the front end and did all the tricky work of navigating corners and angling the table properly. Kipper just provided exactly what had been asked for: another pair of arms.
Destry stationed himself in the galley with the ratchet. By the time, Kipper got back there, all the rest of the tables were unbolted. They floated eerily, swaying in formation together as the gravity shifted. A particularly strong pull caused several of the tables to slam into the ceiling, and Destry narrowly dodged out of the way.
Kipper didn’t get really worried though, until she and Destry got the second table transported. They arrived in the hall with the bulge to find Felix drilling a series of holes in the wood-paneled wall. The painting had been removed and carelessly discarded farther down the hall.
“What… What are you doing?” Kipper signed.
“I need to have holes to bolt the tables into the wall with,” Felix signed awkwardly, electric drill weighing down one paw.
“Why do you even have a drill on a spaceship?” Kipper signed, thinking furiously about how thick the wood paneling was, how thick the hull was beneath it, and how deep those drill holes went.
Felix looked at her strangely. It was a look Kipper got from the otters on the Jolly Barracuda a lot. “Help me hold this table up,” he signed, completely failing to answer her question or address her rapidly multiplying concerns. She wanted to tell herself that a seasoned space otter like Felix wouldn’t drill holes all the way through the hull into outer space, but she also wanted to tell herself that the captain wouldn’t stick them all in stasis and then send the ship barreling uncontrolled toward deep space. One of those had already happened, so she wasn’t sure what — other than luck — would stop the other.
Nonetheless, Kipper swallowed her concerns and helped Destry lift the table up to the wall. They held it in place while Felix bolted it, flat side against the buckling wood paneling. They repeated the process twice, which left three tables still floating dangerously about the galley.
“Will this really fix the hull?” Kipper signed as the three of them stood around admiring their work.
Felix and Destry wobbled — the liquid atmosphere version of shuffling their feet. Then Felix signed, “No. But, it buys us time.”
“And maneuverability,” Destry signed. “The tables will strengthen this patch of hull against all this, you know, stress being put on it.” Destry got a distant look in his eyes as he finished those signs, and the gravity lurched sideways as if to punctuate his point.
Felix also looked worried and signed, “I think we’d better get back to the bridge.”
Kipper gave a last uncertain look at the three tables, essentially stapled to the wrongly curving wall, before following Felix and Destry on their swim to the bridge. She had no experience with space battles, but neither did any of the rest of the crew from what she could tell. Besides, whether she’d be a helpful addition to the bridge or not, the lure of the knowledge she might find there was irresistible.
Peeking around the end of the corridor, peering into the bridge, Kipper saw a confusion of otters. Because of the echoey, ocean-depth silence, each otter had to face Captain Cod, waiting for eye contact before, in turn, signing any messages to him. The proceedings had a strangely regimented feel. All eyes turned to the center of the bridge and the captain, waited, and then snapped back to their consoles after his signed answers.
Watching the conversation, Kipper was able to gather that three unidentified ships were pursuing them. Captain Cod had the Jolly Barracuda doing barrel rolls, zipping around asteroids, and popping out from behind moons like a blackbird from a pie to avoid them. That explained the gravity.
“What did the ships hit us with?” Kipper asked Trugger when he drifted to the back of the bridge to join her.
“What do you mean?” he signed.
“Torpedoes? Missiles?” Kipper had to spell out those words, not knowing the signs for them. “Some kind of laser beams?”
Trugger looked amused briefly, but then his whiskered face went dead serious. “No,” he signed, “They punched their ships right into us. Whole ships. Ship to ship. Blam.” He punched one fisted paw into the other in what was clearly a descriptive gesture rather than an official sign.
Kipper’s eyes widened, black pupils crowding the green irises almost entirely out.
“Apparently,” Trugger signed, “it was only a glancing blow. I’m not sure we could withstand a straight on hit. Fortunately, we can outrun them. Their hulls may be tough, but we’re faster!”
Felix had been watching their conversation and added, “It won’t do us much good though if we can’t stop and give that bump they put in our hull a real repair. Those tables won’t hold for long.”
“Tables?” Trugger signed.
“Isn’t there anywhere we can hide for a while?” Kipper asked.
Trugger shook his head. “They’ve spotted us every time we’ve tried ducking behind a big asteroid or moon.”
Kipper looked at the view screens arrayed across the front of the bridge. The deadly ships following them were visible from several cameras showing rear views. Other screens showed the asteroids all around them. One screen showed a pockmarked moon — larger and rounder than the asteroids. Then there was Jupiter. Giant, covered in creamy ripples. The most giant object Kipper had ever seen with her own eyes.
“What about Jupiter?” she signed, her paws moving as if without her. “Could we hide in Jupiter?”
“Under its surface?” Felix asked, but Trugger was already swimming over to the captain. He tapped Captain Cod’s arm lightly, and when Captain Cod turned, Trugger signed to Kipper, “Say that again.”
Continue on to Chapter 13…