by Mary E. Lowd
The thick red smog whipped past Kipper as she flew haphazardly downward in her strange box-ship powered by the jetpack on her back. She felt the cold through the rubbery fabric of her spacesuit, and dancing wisps of red clouded her field of vision. Kipper’s paws gripped tight to the front edge of the box, and her feet braced against the back.
She leaned her shoulders to steer the jetpack strapped to her back, but she wasn’t good at it. She kept over-steering, wobbling, and constantly altering her grip on the throttle, jolting and lurching her way toward the sail ship.
Trugger, on the other paw, zipped past Kipper, shouting “Yeeha!” over the radio.
The bizarre amalgam of spacesuits that constituted his tiny craft all stared at her with their empty faceplates as he disappeared ahead of her. She couldn’t make out his face in any of them, but she could imagine him grinning. Crazy otter.
The idea of his manic grin, hiding behind the dark gleam of one of those faceplates, eased the tension Kipper felt in her chest. Her heart kept racing, and her paw squeezed tighter, bearing down on the throttle. As the smog closed behind that crazy otter, the crazy tabby-cat following him, raced to keep up.
A red glow diffused everything around Kipper except for the looming, black sail ship beneath her. It was a much, much larger vessel than the Jolly Barracuda or the pinecone ships. It grew larger, filling her field of vision until she squeezed her eyes shut, anticipating the collision. Her paw squeezed even tighter on the throttle as she braced herself for the impending impact.
A second ticked by in the self-imposed darkness of her tiny shut-eyed world. She felt the press of the blasting jetpack behind her, but other than that she felt suddenly, dizzyingly aware of the fact that she was hanging in the sky of a gas giant millions of miles from Earth.
WHAM! The disguise box slammed onto the top of the giant sail ship, and, after a few seconds, Kipper found sense enough to let go of the throttle.
All was eerie quiet. Kipper relaxed the muscles in her arms and legs now that she didn’t need to brace herself inside the box. She opened her eyes and looked over the surface of the sail ship. She couldn’t tell what it was made from — a dark metal, possibly something more synthetic. The light wasn’t especially good, diffused as it was through the swirling red smog.
Kipper shifted her position among the empty spacesuits in the box. The strong gravity made her feel heavy and awkward. Her own body was an uncomfortable weight. For a brief, flicker of a moment, she almost missed the oxo-agua. Almost.
Kipper looked up and could see the light from the Jolly Barracuda’s still-open airlock in the distance. It warmed the red smog to a dull glow, but the power of its illumination tapered off quickly. The bulk of the Jolly Barracuda was a mere shadow behind that light. It hung eerily in the Jovian sky, disturbingly small and far away, but, still, a safe, familiar presence.
The sun would never rise here. Every day would be an overcast sunset: glowing red smog turning to deep auburn and rusty black, then, after the pitch black night, without even stars, the daylong cycle would begin again. Sunrise and sunset combined in an everlasting melt of red, gold, and orange hues. Swirling eddies of gas mesmerized Kipper.
“Dum-de-dum-dum,” came Trugger’s voice over the radio. “We’re on Jupiter!”
Trust an otter to make light of a weighty situation, and the situation got even weightier as Kipper watched the Jolly Barracuda hanging above them. The red expanse of clouds around the otters’ spaceship lit up with bursts of fire, and the ship began rising higher, flying away. “The ship’s leaving us!” Kipper cried.
“Oh, yeah, didn’t I mention?” Trugger said over the radio. “They’re flying to a stable orbit. It’ll be easier to repair the hull in zero-gee vacuum than down here in all this crud and gravity.”
“That makes sense,” Kipper mewed, feeling small and kittenish. Her last anchor to home had just pulled out.
“They’ll be back in about three hours. That’s how long it takes to orbit this big ol’ ball o’ sky. Sky as far as the eye can see! Sky all the way down! Ha ha!”
Kipper couldn’t tell, but she wondered if the stress of their situation was getting to Trugger. He was acting even giddier than usual. Somehow that made her feel better. If he was terrified out of his senses too, then she wasn’t completely alone out here. Kipper peeked above the edge of her disguise-box and looked over the expanse of sail ship. She found Trugger’s box to her right. She couldn’t see him in it — it looked like a discarded box of junk, but, then, that was the idea.
“It’ll be okay,” she said, peering through the red wisps of cloud at his box. There was so much buoyant otter personality hidden inside that box and not the least sign of it to the naked eye. She meant to continue, saying reassuring words for the both of them, but she felt a vibration in the sail ship beneath her. It started gentle and grew to a ragged quaking.
Kipper whispered, “I think they’re coming. Let’s keep radio silence until we’re inside, okay?”
Trugger whispered back, “Okay.” Kipper had never heard his voice so serious.
Kipper closed her eyes and ducked her head back down. She turned herself so her faceplate faced the side of the box, and she worked at relaxing her body, but it didn’t come naturally. Her muscles wanted to tense, ready to spring into action. Instead, she tried to loosen them and let herself sag into the box like any of the other, empty spacesuits.
When she felt the box lift and move, all her fur fluffed out. Her tail grew thick and brush-like inside the pant of the spacesuit where she’d tucked it, but she didn’t let herself move. Not a muscle.
Every instinct inside Kipper screamed at her to jump up, bare her claws, spit between her fangs, and run, run, run away! Her breathing sounded loud, echoing in her own ears. She worried that Trugger could hear her breathless, puppy-like panting over the radio in his helmet. He’d pick up on her fear and get more scared himself. She’d have a useless, puddle of fear-ridden otter to deal with whenever they got out.
Kipper began to count silently in her head to stave off her panic. Before she got to ten, though, she felt a change in the atmosphere. The fabric of her suit pressed more heavily against her, and she heard clanking from the world outside her helmet. They must be inside the alien sail ship now. Cycling through an airlock, perhaps?
Oh my, Kipper thought, oh my, oh my, oh my. The aliens who’d built this vessel and attacked New Persia must be within paw’s reach. Were several of them carrying her disguise-box together? Were they large and strong enough that it took only one? Or had they sent an evil alien robot minion to fetch these strange boxes that had crashed into their ship?
The desire to open her eyes and peek over the edge, to catch a glimpse of the mysterious aliens of the pinecone ships — true space aliens! — was immense, but Kipper kept her eyes squeezed shut and counted again to distract herself. Right now, she and Trugger were space debris. If she started moving and showed her face? Then she was a hostile alien who’d infiltrated their sail ship. She would wait. She would wait. She would wait. Keep counting.
The box jostled and dropped, knocking the breath out of Kipper’s lungs. Kipper felt something poking her spacesuit and the others around her. Were those alien hands she felt on her suited back? Her heart raced. When the sensations stopped, Kipper had counted well into the high hundreds.
Kipper promised herself that if the box didn’t move and nothing else poked her, she would try peaking out when she reached a thousand. No, two thousand. To be sure.
Time dragged so slowly; by the time she reached a thousand, she was relieved to be interrupted by Trugger saying over the radio, “Woo-oo-ooo! I am the ghost of empty spacesuits!” Then after a slightly manic sounding fit of giggles, he added in a more serious tone, “Shall we get out of these boxes and check out this alien space ship?”
“I said to keep radio silence,” Kipper grumbled, but she opened her eyes and peeked over the edge of the box. The room she saw wasn’t what she expected at all. She expected dark metal walls at severe angles and bizarre contraptions that looked like a cross between spaceship consoles and alien torture devices. Instead…
“Ferns?” Trugger said. “And horsetails? What is this? Some kind of flying arboretum inside of Jupiter?” They were surrounded by layers of green, lacy, bladed leaves.
“You are terrible at keeping radio silence,” Kipper said. Though she was too perplexed by what she was seeing to properly rebuke him. There were plants everywhere, and they didn’t look all that alien. They really did look like ferns, all different kinds and sizes of fern. Some were tall like trees, others were low underbrush. Altogether, they gave the area a tropical, almost prehistoric air. Kipper didn’t feel like she was in a spaceship; she felt like she was in a natural history museum. It was an eerie, out of place feeling.
Something about all those cycadophytic plants inside a dimly lit, drably colored room (for the walls, or what she could see of them between the ferns growing right on them, were a dull dun color) reminded Kipper of fieldtrips to the museum as a kitten. “Are those Earth plants?” she began to ask, but she stopped herself before reaching the word Earth. Certainly, Trugger wasn’t a First-Racer nut like most of the dogs back home, but she didn’t want to tread too closely to the ideas that these strangely familiar plants were putting in her head. At least all this underbrush would give her and Trugger some sort of cover when they got moving. She wished their spacesuits were camo-patterned instead of flat gray.
“Do you think we can breathe in here?” Kipper asked.
“Uh,” Trugger said, “Let me check the readings inside my suit. Your suit should have them too.”
Kipper tilted her head to look at the row of digital readouts under her chin at the seam between her spacesuit’s helmet and body. There were a bunch of numbers and abbreviations, but she didn’t know what any of them meant.
“Right,” Trugger said. “It looks like the oxygen content in this atmosphere is a little higher than we’re used to, so it might make us a little giddy, but it’s otherwise fine.”
The idea of Trugger getting even giddier troubled Kipper, so she said, “Maybe we should leave our helmets on. You know, in case we need to make a quick escape.”
“Right ho,” Trugger said. “You’re in charge of the spy mission, so I’ll do what you say.”
Unless it involves radio silence, Kipper thought. What she said was, “Come on, we need to learn something that will give us an edge over these aliens, and we’ve only got three hours to do it.” With that, Kipper crawled over the side of her box, toppling the contraption in the process. She climbed into the ferny underbrush, feeling almost stealthy and catlike under its obscuring cover. The clunky spacesuit, however, interfered with the illusion, especially the empty flap flopping about in back for an otter’s rudder-like tail.
“Keep low,” she said to Trugger, keeping her voice down in case it carried. She didn’t know what kind of hearing these aliens had or how far away they might be.
“I see an archway over there, to the left.” Trugger pointed to a flat part of the wall, without any ferns growing from it.
“Do you think that’s the airlock we came in through?”
“Could be,” Trugger said.
Kipper turned herself around to get a complete view of the room. Behind them was a whole stack of other boxes, variously sized crates, and random equipment. Their disguise-boxes were down in front. “This looks like some sort of storage bay. Except for all the plants.” Who was Kipper to judge? She hung out with a bunch of otters who filled their spaceships with liquid; filling a spaceship with plants was a lot less weird.
The arch Trugger had pointed out did look like some kind of hatchway, and there were a pair of open corridors to the right. “Trugger, why don’t you go check out the archway,” Kipper said. “I’m going to prowl around and check out those corridors. Try to keep low down, under these plants, and if any weird aliens come in here, well…” Kipper’s voice broke off with a small, scared sound. She didn’t have any advice for dealing with unknown aliens. That was why Captain Cod had sent them here — to make the unknown aliens known. “I’m… I’m g-going to see if I can get a look at whoever lives on this ship,” she said, more for her own benefit, to bolster her courage by committing to the idea, than Trugger’s.
The ferny greens came to the middle of Kipper’s chest when standing up, so she crouched low and let her helmeted head disappear beneath their cover. She tried to duck under their blade-like leaves to keep them from swaying too much with her passing.
When Kipper reached the open corridors, she chose the one closer to the arch Trugger was examining. The corridor had lower ceilings than the cargo room, and the ferns were thinner on the floor but thicker on the walls. There weren’t so many of the tall, tree-like ones that were scattered among the underbrush in the cargo bay. However, there was still enough underbrush that Kipper could crouch down, paws to the floor and crawl forward under its visual protection. Unless, of course, these aliens saw infrared? Kipper shuddered. At least she’d learned one thing about them: based on the height of the ceiling in the corridor, she guessed they were taller than most cats. Possibly the height of a tall Greyhound, or taller. Maybe the height of humans.
For a moment, Kipper felt ashamed to be crawling on four paws like a primitive cat. If she was on a human ship, then she should meet that ancient race standing tall and proud. Except, if the aliens on this sail ship were humans, then humans were murdering otters and cats on Europa. That couldn’t be the humans of the history she knew. Could it? She hadn’t read much First Race doctrine, but she didn’t think that murdering non-believers was supposed to be the First Race’s style. More like rewarding the believers and leaving the rest of the world to rot on Earth.
Kipper heard the radio silence in her helmet change — the subtle change that always happened right before Trugger started speaking. Just then, she saw movement in the ferns ahead of her. Her heart pounded, and her paws froze. She hoped the ferns would shield her. She hoped the radio wouldn’t give her away.
“These controls are really weird,” Trugger said. His voice sounded painfully loud in Kipper’s helmet, but she couldn’t do a thing about it. She couldn’t remember how to work the controls.
“They look like, well, like they were designed to be used by tentacles,” Trugger said. “Like the little entertainment station Emily keeps in the corner of the kitchen, you know?”
Kipper wished he would stop talking. The movement in the ferns was getting closer. Despite wanting to stay frozen like a statue, a subconscious instinct caused Kipper to shrink away from the center of the hall, closer to the dirt floor and closer to the wall of the corridor.
“You don’t think this could be an octopus ship?” Trugger asked.
Kipper lay flat on the dirt floor now, holding her breath and terrified. She couldn’t have answered Trugger’s question if she wanted to, because her throat constricted with fear.
A heavy, taloned footfall in front of her answered Trugger’s question: not octopi.
Sharp claws. Large claws. One larger than the others.
“Kipper?” Trugger asked. His voice stopped. Maybe he’d remembered her earlier order for radio silence. Kipper hoped it wasn’t too late.
The clawed foot passed in front of Kipper — passed her by — and Kipper felt the tightness in her throat release, just in time to realize that while the taloned alien didn’t seem to have heard Trugger, it might see him if he wasn’t under cover when it got to the cargo room. “Trugger, get down!” she rasped into the radio. “Get down now!” She had no way to know if he’d obeyed, but, great and holy First Race, she sure hoped he had.
Kipper had seen statues, paintings, and alleged, ancient photographs of humans, and that was not a human. That was not a primate’s foot. That was a creature with murder in its heart and vicious, curved talons that made her own claws feel like kittens’ toys.
Curiosity got the better of Kipper and, as the ferns in her corridor settled back to stillness, she dared against her fear to creep toward the cargo bay, following the alien. She moved slowly and cautiously, keeping close to the wall, but she could hardly account for how her need to see that alien pulled her onward. It would be much safer to stay still.
At the entrance to the cargo bay, Kipper’s sense of the reality of her situation slipped away. It was too surreal. With a cat’s insane curiosity outweighing fear, she raised herself slowly upward and poked her helmeted head, ever so slowly, above the cover of the ferns.
The alien’s long, narrow head tilted to the side, and its tail, wide at the base and slender at the tip, swayed menacingly. It examined their disguise-boxes. The alien was easily three times her height. It wore simple, brief clothing over its shoulders, chest, and down to its thighs. Where the rough, green cloth of its uniform didn’t cover it, the alien’s body — arms, legs, tail, and head — was covered in gleaming black feathers. At its elbows, the tip of its tail, and the crest of its head, the feathers exploded in plumes of brilliant fresh-blood red.
“Oh my god,” Kipper whispered, falling silently to her knees, safely beneath the ferns. As safe, at least, as she could be as long as she stayed on this most dangerous vessel. “This is heresy!” The image of the alien was burned into her eyes.
Kipper had never thought herself a believer of First Race doctrine until the moment she saw it disproved: humans were not the first species off of Earth. They’d been preceded. “This is wrong,” Kipper whispered. “This is so wrong.” She continued mumbling unintelligibly about dogmatic dogs and their damned First Race doctrine until Trugger’s voice in a hoarse, frightened whisper broke through the radio of her helmet.
“I don’t understand, Kipper,” he said. “Can you see the alien?”
“Yeah,” she said, pulling herself out of her reverie. She looked around at the Earthly ferns surrounding her and said, “It’s a dinosaur.”
It was an impossible, unbelievable, heretical demon from the murky, apocryphal times that came before the distant, barely remembered beginnings of human pre-history. Yet there it was, proving billions of deeply faithful First-Racer dogs wrong. Dinosaurs existed, and they had spaceships.
“Humans were not the first race off our native rock,” Kipper whispered to herself in awe.
“A dinosaur?” Trugger said, sounding suddenly interested. “You mean those giant reptile-bird-skeleton thingies from ancient human religions?”
“Yeah,” Kipper said. “I’m looking right at one.” Even though she’d crouched down, low to the dirt ground again, she could still make out the shape of the dinosaur, obscured by fern leaves, ahead of her. “It has red feathers.”
“Neat!” Trugger exclaimed and, with a sudden rustling in the ferns ahead, his helmeted head popped up. Kipper could see the light gleam off of his faceplate, and she could just make out his wide-eyed look of wonder that turned to horror when the dinosaur’s head tilted toward him. “I think it’s some kind of raptor,” Trugger said, his voice gone wobbly. “And, uh, well, I think it sees me.”
Kipper had no weapons at her disposal save the nav-gun clipped at her waist and the jetpack strapped to her back. Kipper decided to bet on the jetpack instead of the equivalent of a squirt gun. She gripped the jetpack throttle and launched herself bodily straight for the feathered raptor.
Before she could even think through what she was doing, Kipper had slammed against the surprised alien, knocking the two of them over. With the element of surprise on their side, Trugger thought quickly. Both Kipper and the alien were still recovering from their rocket-powered collision, but Trugger was already busy binding the raptor’s talons with safety cords from the Trojan spacesuits and shoving it bodily into the disguise-box. By the time he was done, the angry bird-like alien was trussed like a turkey ready for baking. Which, as a coincidence, was exactly the metaphor Trugger used as he crowed about his success to Kipper.
“Shall I interrogate our turkey?” Trugger asked of the dizzied tabby. She was having trouble keeping up.
“Um, you don’t know dinosaur language? Do you?” Kipper asked, getting to her feet and looking at the quick work Trugger had made of the much larger alien. Its powerful hind legs, smaller arms, and tail didn’t entirely fit inside the box, but the spacesuit tethers tied tightly around them, digging into the dark plumage.
Kipper found it hard to believe that Trugger had simply tied up those sharp talons at the end of such strong, curved legs without shying away. On the other paw, she’d rushed the raptor while it was still standing, clearly a moment of complete insanity.
“I don’t know its language,” Trugger said. “That’s true. But, I’m sure I can learn something from it.”
Kipper wasn’t as sure, and she was concerned about leaving Trugger alone with the raptor, no matter how securely it seemed to be tied up. “What if it calls for help?” Kipper asked.
Trugger took a step, carefully, toward the raptor and reached gingerly with a space-suited arm towards an electronic gadget clipped to the alien’s clothing. He gave the device a tug and then stumbled quickly away with the gadget in his paws.
The raptor let out a warbling screech, but Kipper surprised herself by pouncing close enough to pull a free spacesuit tether out of the box, loop it around the raptor’s feathery yet lizard-like snout and pull it tight. The screech ended, but the raptor glared at Kipper with eerily round, orange eyes. Its pupils narrowed to pinpricks of black in an expression that made Kipper shudder.
“There, see?” Trugger said, holding out the electronic gadget he’d freed from the raptor’s clothing. “This looks like a communication device. Without this or, well, the use of its mouth, I don’t think it can call for help.”
“Or answer questions,” Kipper added shakily. She still held the end of the tether taught against the raptor’s snout.
Trugger came over and helped her tie it in a secure knot. “I think I can figure something out. Besides, we’re looking for clues about how to beat these aliens. I can’t think of a better place to start than with one of the aliens itself.”
“Maybe,” Kipper said. She still felt they should explore more of the sail ship. They did need to beat these aliens, but that mostly involved beating their ships. Splitting up seemed dangerous, but they were working with a limited amount of time. “All right,” she said to Trugger. “Use the external speakers on your helmet though, so you don’t have to take it off. And keep your radio open so I can hear you.”
“Will do,” Trugger said. His next words echoed strangely between Kipper’s helmet speakers and the external speakers on Trugger’s suit broadcasting outside. “Now! As for you…” He spoke to the raptor and brandished the confiscated electronic gadget. Kipper didn’t listen to the rest of his words. She could hear him, but her mind was focused on the task at paw. Trugger’s voice became a dull blur in the background as she crouched back down, sinking below the level of the ferns. She put her front paws to the floor and began moving, stealthily towards the open corridor.
She stayed low and close to the wall, weaving among the plants so as not to disturb their stalks lest the motion in their leaves give away her presence. Trugger’s voice anchored her comfortingly to the reality of the Jolly Barracuda and the friends coming back for her. Everything else around her made her blood pulse with fear and uncertainty.
As she neared the end of the corridor, Kipper could see that it opened into a much larger room beyond. At first, she thought the floor fell away because she couldn’t see any more ferns ahead of her, though they clearly continued to cover the walls. When she reached the seeming-ledge at the end of the corridor, however, she found the reality much stranger.
The ferns stopped, because the floor turned to glass or some other clear, hard substance. The floor looked smooth and empty — a window looking down on the swirling red gases of Jupiter below. It didn’t feel smooth or slippery like she expected when she tested it with a paw. The surface gave a bit under her suited paw like the feel of a tumbling mat. It made her feel like she was perched on the surface of a bubble, ready to pop.
Kipper looked up and found the ceiling, approximately as high as the ceiling in a First Race ruin, matched the floor: another clear window, this one showing the ruddy Jovian atmosphere above.
Although Kipper tested the clear floor with her paws, she didn’t want to step into the open. She didn’t see any raptors in this large room, but there were archways leading to other corridors all around. A raptor could appear from any one of them at a moment’s notice.
Kipper kept close to the wall, letting the ferns that grew out of it continue to cover her, and followed the edge of the giant room.
Continue on to Chapter 20…