by Mary E. Lowd
When Trugger arrived at the airlock, he found Kipper in a box. It was a lightweight storage cubby, crammed full of spacesuits, with spacesuits draping over its sides. It rested on the floor of the corridor, rocking and rotating lightly in the currents of oxo-agua. When it turned so Trugger could see inside, Kipper was barely noticeable among the other spacesuits. If she turned her head so the faceplate of her helmet looked away from him, there’d have been no way to tell she was anything other than another empty suit.
“What do you think?” she signed, unfolding herself from the box. The gloves of the spacesuit dangled from straps at her wrists, tangling up her signs. “I bolted the suits to a box. It’s a disguise!”
Trugger tilted his head to the side and his body followed in a little half circle swim. “You didn’t harm the suits?” he signed.
Kipper hated it when the otters signed sideways. It was hard enough keeping up with Swimmer’s Sign — a language she’d only known for a few months — without having to read it sideways. “No,” she signed. “I put the bolts through the backpacks. We could pull the suits out pretty easily; getting the packs off would take more work.” She looked at the drill she’d used to affix the bolts. It was the same drill Felix had used to affix the tables to the hull. She was pretty sure it could be used to take the bolts out if that was called for.
“It’s a disguise,” she signed again. “Like you suggested.” Kipper felt like an idiot. She knew her spacesuit box made no sense, but she was scared and nervous. It had given her paws something to do while waiting for Trugger. While waiting to launch herself into the toxic atmosphere of Jupiter on her way to a terrifying, hostile alien sail station.
“I think it’s brilliant,” Trugger signed with a grin. “Will I fit inside too?”
Kipper shook her head. She pointed toward the supply closet and signed, “I made another one for you. It’s in there.”
“Genius!” Trugger signed, followed by a nose dive for the supply closet.
Kipper wasn’t sure if Trugger’s endorsement of the “disguises” she’d built made her feel better or not. She suspected nothing would really make the pit of terror, panic, and despair in her stomach go away until the residents of New Persia were safely stowed in the Jolly Barracuda’s cargo bay, huddled together, flying away from those horrible, spiky, pinecone ships. She tried to hold that image in her mind — all those grateful flat-faced Persian kittens rescued by her.
Trugger emerged from the supply closet wearing a spacesuit and shoving his own disguise box. Kipper pulled on her spacesuit gloves and sealed them to the rest of her suit. Then the two of them shoved their disguise boxes into the airlock.
Trugger pushed a button in the airlock wall, and the door slid shut behind them. They were enclosed in a cramped compartment, barely large enough to hold both them and their disguise boxes. A window in the outer door showed the thick red smog of Jupiter outside. Kipper braced herself mentally as Trugger reached for the wall panel again. He pushed another button, but, instead of the outer door sliding open like Kipper expected, there was a kachunking in the floor and ceiling. She looked down and saw a tornado of bubbles thread its way upward, whirling outward and growing wide. The room filled with tiny, glittering silver bubbles. Air? she wondered. No, it couldn’t be. Yet, clearly, it was. Precious, gaseous, breathable air.
Thinking it through, Kipper reasoned that the oxo-agua must be pumped out through the grates in the floor, and as the pressure in the airlock lowered, more and more of it evaporated. As much as she hated oxo-agua, it was the Jolly Barracuda’s atmosphere, and it would be horribly wasteful to blast an airlock’s worth of the stuff out into the upper atmosphere of Jupiter.
The airlock had a separate pump system from the rest of the ship, and no otter had bothered telling her about it. Could Kipper have come here and drained away the oxo-agua to give herself a break from breathing this nasty liquid any time during her months on the Jolly Barracuda? She wasn’t sure, but, when she got back, she intended to find out. Kipper fumed. More than a few whiskery heads were going to roll when she got back from that scary alien space station. If she got back from that scary alien space station.
When the last of the oxo-agua — and, presumably the air, though that was harder to see — finished being sucked out through the grates in the floor, Kipper stood in the vacuum-filled room, ready to face the dangers outside. Her fury at her recent discovery made her strong. Cats and anger go well together.
Instead of reaching for another button on the wall panel, Trugger reached down and pulled one of his spacesuit’s boots off. Kipper’s ears would have twisted in confusion, but the limited space in her suit’s helmet constricted them. The helmet’s ears were much too small and rounded for her own, but cat ears are flexible. She’d simply mashed them in.
“What are you doing?” she signed clumsily with her gloved paws. Trugger didn’t answer her. He shoved his boot back on, and then he grabbed one of her ankles.
Reflexively, she tried to kick him off, but she felt just as clumsy standing in Jupiter’s heavy gravity as she always felt floating in the oxo-agua. She couldn’t see him well through her helmet’s faceplate, but it seemed like Trugger was trying to work the latch that would undo her boot. She felt the click that meant he’d succeeded, and then he gave the boot a pull. Kipper would’ve fallen over or found herself hopping on one foot if her disguise box hadn’t been right beside her. As it was, she toppled sideways, catching herself by grabbing the box’s edge.
She stared at Trugger numbly as she felt the oxo-agua in her suit vaporize around her. It chilled her fur, and she felt a fizzing followed by a cold hollowness in her throat. Her whiskers shivered, but before the vacuum could do her any actual harm, Trugger shoved her boot back on. He flipped the valve to her oxygen pack, and her suit filled with blessed air.
A voice came through the radio in her helmet. It was Trugger saying, “It’s a crazy sensation having the oxo-agua boil right out of your lungs, isn’t it?”
Kipper coughed lightly. The transition from breathing liquid to breathing gas was much easier this way though kind of terrifying. “Let’s just go,” she said, her voice hoarse with the after effects of oxo-agua or maybe fear.
“Right.” Trugger’s voice echoed in the small space inside Kipper’s helmet. “We’ll want to try to bring these disguises back. I mean, we do have some extra suits onboard. But, well, in terms of general policy, it’s good to have spacesuits around when you’re on a spaceship. That’s why I bought you one.”
Kipper nodded and whispered, “Thank you. I like my space suit.”
Kipper stared at the airlock’s outer door, waiting for it to slide open. Instead, she felt a knocking against one of her gloved hands. She looked down and saw that Trugger was handing her a white plastic pistol.
“Nav-gun,” he said. “It’s basically a water pistol, actually. You shoot it behind you in space, and conservation of momentum causes you to shoot forward.”
Kipper’s ears flattened, despite the impediment of the close-fitting helmet. “We’re not in space,” she said. “We’re inside the atmosphere of Jupiter.”
“Right,” Trugger said. “We’ll use the spacesuit jetpacks to get around, but you still might want that nav-gun.” Trugger guided Kipper’s gloved paw to clip the nav-gun onto her spacesuit near the waist. “You never know,” he said.
Kipper swallowed painfully, imagining herself shooting a plastic water pistol at a hostile space alien. “Okay,” she whispered. “You don’t, you know, have any other weapons?”
Trugger laughed and bumped her shoulder congenially with a gloved hand. “We’re not those kinds of pirates,” Trugger said. “Don’t worry, though. This is purely a reconnaissance mission, right? Get in, get the information, and get out.”
Kipper nodded, still terrified and now wondering whether she should have hung on to Felix’s drill. Though, it was easier to imagine accidently puncturing her spacesuit with it than successfully fighting off a hostile alien. “Right,” she said, mustering a tone of certainty and command. “Let’s get to it.”
“Yes, ma’am!” Trugger answered. He punched a final button in the wall panel, and the outer airlock door slid. Dense, red smog blasted through the widening crack in the door, throwing otter, cat, and both disguise boxes back against the closed inner door to the airlock. Once the airlock finished re-pressurizing to match Jupiter’s atmosphere, the wind in the airlock dropped down, leaving only the roar of red smog blowing by outside as the Jolly Barracuda flew along keeping pace above the black sail ship..
Kipper stepped toward the open door and found herself standing at the edge of a precipitous drop into the heart of a gas giant. She peered into the smoggy red and orange gloom, and she was able to make out the expanse of the black, alien sail ship stretched out about a kilometer beneath them. “We need to fly down there,” she said, pointing into the roaring, windy void.
“Do you remember the instructions on how to use the spacesuit’s jetpack?” Trugger asked.
They’d given Kipper a crash course on most of the Jolly Barracuda’s systems and functioning when she joined the crew — spacesuits had been included, despite the fact that none of them would have fit her back then. It had been a thorough tour.
“Yeah, I think so,” Kipper said. She turned to look at Trugger; he was shoving his disguise box toward the open door. Once it perched at the edge, he climbed into it and took a safety cord coiled at his spacesuit’s waist, pulled out an arm’s length, and tied it to one of the spacesuit packs bolted onto the box.
“That’s a good idea.” Kipper pulled her box to the edge and attached herself to it, just like Trugger. Then, she climbed inside, among the crumpled up, empty spacesuits.
“What’s our plan, fearless leader?” Trugger’s voice came over the radio in Kipper’s helmet.
Kipper set her jaw and said through her teeth, “We fly ourselves straight into the sail ship, ramming it just like they rammed us. When they come to check out what hit them…”
“They’ll find boxes of empty spacesuits!” Trugger said.
“Right.” Although Kipper’s heart felt cold, she powered up her jetpack. In a numb daze, she said, “I’ll go first.” She whispered herself a count of three, and then the blast of her jetpack rocketed her and her disguise box into the freefall of Jupiter’s heavy gravity and ruddy atmosphere.
Continue on to Chapter 19…