by Mary E. Lowd
The spiny wedge of an alien sail station loomed ahead on the Jolly Barracuda’s viewscreen. Every otter on the bridge grew deathly still looking at it. Bewhiskered faces with oval noses and serious expressions stared straight at the behemoth in front of them. Then, one by one, they turned to look at their captain.
Shifting uncomfortably under the combined gaze and the weighty Jovian gravity, Captain Cod eventually signed, “It’s big, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Jenny agreed.
“Our weapons couldn’t take it down,” he signed.
“No,” Boris answered.
Captain Cod rubbed his paws together meaninglessly. Trugger, his most loyal follower, tried to spare him the spotlight by signing, “This means the attackers on the anonymous ships are Jupiter… ians?”
Jenny shook her head. “Jovians, but I doubt they evolved here,” she signed. “We have Deep Sky Anchor and Kelp Frond station, but it doesn’t mean otters evolved in space.”
“Right,” Trugger signed. “But if they didn’t evolve here, then where?”
As soon as she saw the look that crossed Captain Cod’s face, Kipper’s heart started pounding a mile a minute. She knew what he was thinking even before he signed: “We need more information.”
Information was a spy’s bread and butter. Kipper felt her fur fluff out, but she knew that floating in the oxo-agua the change wouldn’t be visibly noticeable. Her fur floated about making her look like a scaredy-fluffball all the time in this atmosphere anyway. She didn’t need to feel embarrassed, only terrified.
“Let’s nose the Barracuda up closer to that behemoth,” the captain signed. “Either under or above, wherever you think we’ll get the least attention.”
“Aye, Captain,” Boris signed. He turned to the controls and began adjusting the Jolly Barracuda’s position with carefully controlled thruster blasts. It looked like he was aiming for the topside of the space station.
“Now, Kipper,” Captain Cod signed, turning to her. Just as she had expected. “While Felix and Destry get to work on repairing our hull from the outside, I want you to infiltrate that space station.”
Kipper floated limply in the oxo-agua. If she’d been in a gaseous atmosphere, she’d have staggered and possibly fallen over. As it was, she simply drifted downward in the heavy gravity.
For a dread moment, Kipper felt her head pounding and her ears echoing in the thick atmosphere. She couldn’t imagine putting on a spacesuit and climbing into that dangerous looking sail station to discover god knows what kind of lethal gas giant aliens who she’d have to hide from and possibly face down alone. Alone.
A flicker of a hope occurred to her, and Kipper signed before even finishing the thought for herself, “Captain, I don’t have a spacesuit.”
“That’s not true!” Trugger signed. “I bought the smallest suit I could find at Trailside when you decided to come with us and had it altered to fit you.”
“Thanks,” Kipper signed, trying to glare her sense of betrayal at Trugger since her paws couldn’t convey sarcasm as well as her tongue. In spite of the dangerous mission it made possible, Kipper thrilled inside to think there was a special spacesuit for her. “But…” she stalled, thinking hard. “I’ll need a team?”
Captain Cod blinked. “Of course,” he signed. “Why didn’t I think of that? This is a whole infiltration mission!” He looked thoughtful for a moment, chewing his whiskers again. “My goodness, should I have had a spy’s assistant training with you all this time?”
“I volunteer!” Trugger signed, unable to wait any longer for the captain to actually ask for volunteers. If they’d been standing on land, he’d have been bouncing up and down to catch the captain’s attention. As it was, he was just sort of vibrating mid oxo-agua. It was dizzying.
“Excellent,” the captain signed. “Go prepare for your mission. I’ll expect you to be ready in twenty minutes.”
Trugger saluted heartily, bobbing his head to meet the thick paw at the end of his short arm. Kipper mirrored his salute, half-heartedly. She had a sick feeling in the base of her stomach and wondered if her fondness for the Jolly Barracuda and its crew was all an illusion caused by adrenaline addiction. If you spent enough time scared witless, perhaps you started to get a taste for it.
Trugger turned a tight curlicue in the oxo-agua ahead of her. Swishing his broad tail, he launched himself out of the bridge, grabbing Kipper’s paw as he flew past. The momentum helped her keep up with him until she settled into swimming in his wake.
At the end of the corridor, Trugger twisted about, stopping to sign, “I think we should do our planning in the galley. There’s nothing like a trip on the Ryderian engines to leave you hungry, and I don’t think we should infiltrate an alien sail station on empty stomachs.”
Paddling hard to keep up with Trugger as he took off down the next corridor, Kipper realized he was right. Her stomach felt cavernous and rumbly. Left to her own devices, she’d have spent the next twenty minutes obsessing over the ordeal to come. She’d have probably set one paw on that alien sail station only to collapse, faint with hunger.
Trugger summersaulted to a halt in the middle of the galley. The tables were still unbolted, but Jupiter’s gravity had pulled them back down to the floor. The momentum of Trugger’s wake pulled Kipper right into him. Untangling her water-awkward feline limbs, he helped her right herself. Once they were both floating freely, he signed, “What’s wrong with Emily?”
The octopus chef was still much paler than usual. White flashes flushed her skin like a fever.
“She was captaining the ship when it was first attacked,” Kipper signed. “It really shook her up.”
“Right,” Trugger signed. He turned tail and swam to Emily. With his furry paws, he stroked the octopus’ long tentacles, two at a time. Her golden eyes stared at him, and the white flashes slowed down. Trugger kept his paws on her and stared his brown eyes into her gold ones until she settled out to her usual gray. “That’s better,” he signed.
“Thank you,” Emily signed, twirling a few of her tentacle tips — as slender as sharpened claw tips — around his paws.
“It’s okay to be scared,” Trugger signed. “As long as you can whip us up some sashimi at the same time!”
Emily waggled her tentacles in her version of laughter and signed, “Already done,” with two tentacles while pointing a third tentacle at a covered glass platter of colorful morsels on the counter. “Yellowfin tuna and mackerel,” she signed. “I cook when I’m scared.”
“A trait I love in every creature, great and small!” Trugger lifted the lid from the platter and tossed several of the morsels into his mouth in quick succession. Kipper joined him, and they finished off the platter in no time.
“Now,” Trugger signed after putting the glass lid carefully back. “We need a plan.”
“Yes,” Kipper signed. “I’ve been thinking about that.”
“And?” Trugger signed.
“I haven’t got very far.”
“Well, we need disguises, right?” Trugger signed, “We’ll be infiltrating their space station. That means disguises.”
Kipper blinked, and then her ears rotated about as if she’d misheard something and was looking for a sound that made more sense. Even in the dull quiet of oxo-agua, surrounded by otters who were practically blind when it came to understanding cat facial communication, her ears continued to reflect her every thought. “Are you serious?” she signed. “We have no idea what kind of alien life forms will be on that sail station. How could we possibly disguise ourselves to look like them?!”
“I guess that means we need a whole lot of different disguises. To be sure we’re ready.”
Kipper wondered if this was Trugger’s way of dealing with stress.
Emily watched their conversation. The rectangular pupils in her golden eyes were widely dilated. “There’s something you should know,” Emily signed. Her flesh was pale again, although not flashing white like before. “You asked if these ships could be octopus space ships.”
Kipper nodded, flattening her ears. Had Emily lied to her?
Emily’s flesh grew paler by the second. “I know they’re not,” she signed, “because the octopus empire has had dealings with them before. Hundreds of years before otters and cats were even uplifted. The octopus empire is ancient.” The white flashes returned, and Emily’s tentacles began quivering so badly she could barely sign.
“Slow down,” Trugger signed, “I can’t make any of your signs out.”
Emily managed to sign the words, “I wish I knew something that could help you. All I know is: be careful,” before giving up and curling all her tentacles in close to her. In her fear, she became an eerily small, coiled ball of whiteness that hung in the kitchen’s atmosphere, falling slowly through the Jovian gravity to the floor. It demonstrated how much of her size was an illusion caused by the motion of her eight long arms.
Trugger’s whiskers drooped; his usually cheerful face frowned. “You shouldn’t be left alone,” he signed to Emily. “Destry has the most training in medicine, so I’m gonna swim back to the bridge and get him.” Then, turning to Kipper, he signed, “I’ll meet you at the secondary airlock. Your spacesuit is in the supply closet with the others. Get your space suit on, and we’ll figure out the rest when I get there.”
Kipper swam to the airlock, hoping to draw out the time she had left before this unsettling mission began. The aliens were most certainly hostile. She had every reason to expect the same from them in person as in a ship to ship confrontation. She should be ready for guns. Or blasters. Laser rifles? Sonic pistols? Kipper wasn’t sure what kind of weapons to expect from hostile aliens living inside the upper atmosphere of Jupiter.
Once she reached the secondary airlock, Kipper found the supply closet filled with spacesuits. As Trugger suggested, there was one suit that stood out: it was smaller and looked like it had been altered to better fit feline proportions.
Kipper pulled the rubbery fabric of the suit up her legs, curling her tail into the left pant, and fastened the seals along the side of her torso. It was a stretchy material, fortunately, since despite the alterations, she could tell it had been built for an otter. The torso was long, and it bunched up around her middle. The limbs were barely long enough. The bulky space for a wide otter tail in back was simply unnecessary, even though it had clearly been narrowed for her. Whoever had altered the suit for Trugger must have done fast work, but it wasn’t bad.
She slipped her arms into the sleeves and left the gloves dangling, attached at the wrists but without her paws in them, to maintain her dexterity a little longer.
Then, as she looked at the helmet and the complex breathing apparatus, not to mention the thruster pack, Kipper had an idea. Maybe Trugger’s suggestion of disguises wasn’t so far off.
Continue on to Chapter 17…