by Mary E. Lowd
As Kipper made her way around the edges of the cavernous room, the clear floors and ceiling began to make more sense to her. Raptors came and went through various archways, flocking over the bubble-like floor with a spring in their strong legs and a swing to their feathered arms. Based on their build, Kipper would have been surprised if they could actually fly; their wings didn’t seem large or broad enough relative to their overall mass, but, in this setting, they looked like dark birds, winging through the Jovian sky.
The raptors didn’t seem to notice the spacesuited tabby cat, hiding in their ferns along the outer wall, and, according to the prattle from Trugger that Kipper heard through her helmet, they hadn’t missed their captured crewman yet.
Kipper didn’t dare open any closed doors she encountered, instead limiting her explorations to open archways. Most of the corridors and open rooms she could get to through the open archways were much the same — lined in ferns, occasionally featuring outgrowths of larger, tree-like plants from the floor, or filled with objects that looked like a cross between furniture and abstract art installations. Kipper assumed it was furniture.
After half a dozen such rooms, Kipper grew frustrated with her discoveries. She felt increasingly nervous about the distance between her and Trugger, not to mention the sheer number of raptors between them. Yet, she needed to learn something that could help Captain Cod defend New Persia. She resolved to try at least one more room.
Kipper almost skipped right past the open arch, ducking from the ferns on the one side on to the next. The room on the other side of the arch wasn’t safely blanketed in greenery; however, it was the first open room she’d encountered that didn’t emanate with either the rosy glow of Jupiter’s sky or the harsh yellow lights that filled the rooms without transparent floors and ceilings. The difference intrigued Kipper, and she decided to take a risk.
Kipper waited until the nearest corridors cleared of raptors as far as she could see through her leafy screen of fern shielding. Then she ducked into the dark, bare room.
The floor and ceiling were opaque and gray. The red glow of Jupiter leaked in through the open archway, but it was only a dim illumination. Kipper’s cat eyes were good at seeing in the dark, and they adjusted.
In the center of the room stood a dais, a risen surface that came to her chin height and spanned most of the length of the room. Kipper approached the dais, intrigued by the way it filled the room. Was it a stage? Why would there be a stage in such a small room?
When Kipper reached the edge of the dais, she tipped herself up on her toes and peered over the top, trying to decide if she should climb on top of it. However, the top wasn’t flat. She was surprised to find the inside of the dais hollow and filled with liquid. Perhaps it was less of a dais and more of a restraining wall around a pool or aquarium? As her eyes continued to adjust, Kipper realized she could see pale figures moving inside. They were hard to make out, but their white shadows reminded Kipper of Emily.
Then a tentacle splashed over the edge and reached toward her.
Kipper leapt back, heart racing. Caution told her to run, leave the room and get back to Trugger. Curiosity told her to stay. She followed her curiosity. Kipper edged around the dais that she now recognized for an aquarium, looking for a window in or a control panel to examine. She crouched low as she moved, hoping to avoid the reach of any more grasping tentacles.
When she reached the back side of the aquarium, Kipper heard footsteps enter the room. The walls of the aquarium protected her from immediate discovery, but she was trapped inside the room. Once again balancing caution against curiosity, Kipper flattened herself, completely, against the floor and, slowly as she could, she poked the top of her head around the edge of the aquarium. Her ears were flat against her head in terror at her own ridiculous audacity. However, she was rewarded with a surprising sight.
Several raptors stood in the room, dressed in uniforms made of the same rough green cloth as she’d seen on all the others, but these uniforms were subtly more ornate. Better tailored, perhaps. Certainly, sporting more decoration. Two of the raptors had orange plumes of feathers at their elbows, tail-tips, and on the crests of their heads in addition to the black feathers that blanketed the rest of their bodies. A third raptor sported bursts of yellow plumage.
The raptor that stood in the center, however, had plumes of brilliant royal purple feathers where the others had orange and yellow. The way the others stood beside and behind the purple-plumed raptor, their heads tilted toward him, indicated that he was their leader.
Kipper had grown nearly used to the idea of dinosaurs hiding out in the skies of Jupiter. Creeping around their ship, dodging them, how could she not grow used to the reality of them? Everything she’d known before leaving the Jolly Barracuda behind to come to this sail ship had been wrong: humans were not the first species to leave Earth; the solar system was not a safe place — owned, run, and operated by jolly otters.
Dark demons from the pre-history of her world lurked under the surfaces, ready to attack, and those demons were stranger than she imagined. At first, Kipper could hardly believe what her eyes saw. The purple-plumed raptor breached her understanding of the entire situation in one mind-bending, world-altering way: out from his black-feathered shoulders eight pale tentacles rose, stretching away from his body like a hideous set of extra, twisting, writhing arms.
The purple-plumed raptor with his pale tentacle arms was a strange hybrid creature, the sort that was supposed to stay relegated to nightmares on only the darkest, loneliest, rain-pounded nights.
The purple-plumed raptor creature gestured to the other raptors, directing their motions with both his feathered, taloned arms and squirming tentacles. His ten fore-limbs worked in clear concert, all a piece of the same unutterable being.
Kipper’s eyes dilated, and she wanted to pull back behind the tank. Yet, she watched, frozen in horror, as the other three raptors — first the yellow-plumed one and then the two orange — reached into the tank and pulled out struggling tentacle clusters of their own.
Only, they weren’t mere tentacles. As the struggling, writhing balls of flesh were pulled from the aquarium, Kipper saw their mantle-bodies and yellow eyes, eerily similar to Emily’s. The octopi lashed their pale tentacles, reaching for the aquarium, fighting and scrabbling to return to the liquid. With taloned hands, each raptor pulled a single octopus out, gripping it firmly at the base of its mantle, where all eight arms met in a small, beaked mouth.
Each raptor lifted an octopus over its feathered head and lowered the struggling cephalopod into an electronic-looking harness at its shoulders. As each octopus came to rest in its harness, its tentacles suddenly, startlingly relaxed. The eight limbs stopped struggling and became raptor limbs, moving in concert with feathered arms — just as the tentacles on the purple-plumed raptor had moved.
Night-black feathers and dagger sharp talons contrasted hideously with soft, pale, waving tentacles that grew from the raptors’ shoulders. They were horror incarnate.
The yellow eyes of one of the octopi fixed on Kipper. Its mantle-body was a limp lump of flesh, fixed to the raptor it rode. Wires from the electronic harness disappeared into the base of the raptor’s skull, probably connecting its brain to the brain of the octopus. Would the raptor turn its head toward Kipper, following the piercing gaze of those yellow eyes? Had she been discovered?
The tentacles continued to move as they had before, none of them reached to point at her. That watchful yellow eye continued to stare at Kipper, but the raptor carrying it turned with the others, and all the raptors left the room.
Kipper closed her eyes and tried to breathe a sigh of relief, but her panting breath would not slow down. The sight of that yellow eye was burned into her mind. The octopus had seen her. She knew it. Yet, the raptor had not.
When her breathing finally slowed, Kipper opened her eyes and raised herself to look in the aquarium again. Pale tentacled figures moved inside. The raptors hadn’t taken them all. Were they normal octopi like Emily? Did Emily know about them? Was this why she’d been scared?
Without thinking it through, Kipper pulled off the gloves of her spacesuit and left them dangling from the straps that attached to her wrists. Her paws formed the Standard Swimmer’s Sign for the question, “Who are you?” She held her paws high enough to be seen from inside the aquarium and, despite shaking, signed the question again.
The movement inside the aquarium changed. Yellow eyes stared through the wavey surface at her.
“Who are you?” she signed, again and again.
Then, she added, “Help me.” Suddenly, her feelings rushed out through the language of her paws, “I’m terrified,” she signed. “I don’t know what’s going on, and I need to find a way to stop these dinosaurs from hurting my friends. They’re hurting cats and kittens. I need to stop them, and I don’t know how.” Her paws took on a life of their own, speaking all her fear and uncertainty. She didn’t expect an answer, but she couldn’t stop her paws from rushing on, signing about Emily and New Persia and the leak in the hull of the Jolly Barracuda.
The pale figures moved beneath the surface of the aquarium. More and more yellow eyes watched her, and they began rising toward the surface. Finally, a bumpy pair of eyes emerged and stared levelly at her paws.
Kipper’s paws slowed to a halt, mid-sentence. The octopus watching her raised a pair of tentacles and reached out. Kipper held still as the tentacles explored the fur of her paws. She was used to the soft feel of Emily’s tentacles under oxo-agua, but, now that she was dry, most of what she felt from the octopus’ touch was wetness.
The pair of tentacles pulled back. The octopus’ eyes continued to float barely above the surface, watching Kipper, but more of the octopus’ tentacles rose up, breaking the surface. Slowly, the octopus formed signs of its own.
At first, Kipper was too surprised to translate the word shapes she saw in its tentacles. They weren’t Standard Swimmer’s Signs, however, some of the figures were familiar. She couldn’t make all of it out, but she thought… she thought she could make out some. Perhaps it was a related language.
The octopus signed the word slavery, or maybe Kipper only thought it did, because she was looking for that word, expecting it. She thought the octopus signed the word help, too. Was it asking for help, offering to help her, or refusing to help her? She couldn’t tell, but she was pretty sure the sign for help — or, at least, a sign similar to it — was in there. Many times.
Kipper repeated the sign, “Help. Yes.” She didn’t know if she was asking or offering or simply trying to connect on the word that was most recognizable.
“Trugger,” she said, into her helmet. “I found the tentacles that must be meant to work those controls you found.”
The speakers in Kipper’s helmet stayed silent. Trugger didn’t answer. How long had he been quiet for? She hadn’t been paying attention to him. “Trugger?” she said. “Trugger?” Worry for her friend overpowered the pressing, strangeness and urgency of her communication with the octopus. “Trugger, are you okay?”
Finally, the speakers in Kipper’s helmet crackled to life. “I think we need to leave soon,” Trugger’s voice said, low and scared. “Very, very soon.”
“What happened?” Kipper asked, stepping away from the aquarium. The octopus she’d been signing with reached two of its tentacles out and wrapped them, tightly, around her wrists. Two more of its tentacles grabbed the gloves dangling from her spacesuit.
“The electronic gadget,” Trugger said, “it’s broadcasting raptor voices. I think they’ve started looking for our captive. How quickly can you get back here?”
“I don’t know,” Kipper said. Her paws signed, as best they could trapped in the vise-like grip of those freakishly strong tentacles, “I need to leave. My friend needs help.” She took a step away, pulling her arms against the tentacles, but the grip didn’t give. Instead, the octopus let itself be pulled forward by her, onto the edge of the aquarium. Kipper startled at the sight of the octopus emerging from the water, skin all wrinkled and horny.
During her moment of discomfiture, the octopus leapt with its other tentacles and wrapped itself around her spacesuited body. It squeezed against her, climbing up her shoulders. It settled behind her helmet, placing itself much as the other octopi had been placed on the shoulders of the raptors.
There was no electronic connection between Kipper and the fleshy sea-creature riding on her back. The tentacles that filled her peripheral vision, clinging to the side of her helmet’s faceplate and waving in the air, were not hers. She could not control them. Neither did they restrain her anymore.
Kipper couldn’t stay here while Trugger needed help. In spite of the octopus on her back, Kipper raced for the archway she’d entered through. The tentacles slowed her down, grasping with powerful sucker-discs at the nearest wall and sticking solidly to it. “Let go!” Kipper signed, holding her paws above her head. She couldn’t tell if the octopus behind her bothered to read her paws; she didn’t know if it would even understand her signs. It ought to understand her thrashing movements and pulling, though.
Suddenly, the pull against Kipper’s body let up, and she crashed to the floor. As she pulled herself onto her knees, she saw something in her peripheral vision — an object gripped in one of the tentacles that rose out of her shoulders. She turned around to see it better, but the tentacles turned with her. She couldn’t directly see what the octopus held.
Kipper saw an open cabinet in the wall that she hadn’t noticed before. Inside it were metallic objects, shaped to be held by a paw or talon. Shaped like guns. The octopus had armed itself.
Kipper’s heart lurched to think that a hostile cephalopod was perched on her back, pointing who-knew-how-many guns at her head. She thought about grabbing one of those weapons for herself and shooting it blindly over her head, down her back, trying to knock the octopus off.
But she wouldn’t know how to work it. She’d be as likely to shoot herself or be disarmed before figuring the gun out as to succeed. She could use her nav-gun, but squirting an octopus with a water pistol seemed more ludicrous than helpful.
Kipper remembered the calm way those yellow eyes had looked at her, tentacles signing smoothly in a foreign sign language, trying to communicate with her.
Kipper found a glimmer of hope inside herself that the octopus on her back was her ally instead of her enemy, despite the guns it held. She clung to that hope. The octopus was a slave of these raptors, hoping for escape, as much as she was. She had to believe that. The octopus held her firmly — it could restrain or, likely, kill her if it wanted to. She had to trust it.
Kipper pulled her spacesuit gloves back on and sealed them in place. She rose to her feet, struggling to keep her balance with the new weight on her shoulders and crawled her way toward the open archway. This time, the octopus let her leave through the archway. It didn’t interfere as she crept through the ferns of the corridors, making her way carefully, steadily back through the sail ship towards the cargo room housing Trugger.
As Kipper retraced her steps, the cephalopod on her back settled into being nothing more than a slight extra weight and a niggling uncertainty in the corner of her mind. By the time she made it back to the first large chamber she’d encountered in her explorations, Kipper thought she was home free. There was only this last chamber to edge her way around. Then, a short corridor. That was all that was left between her and Trugger.
A screeching, rising sound — instantly recognizable as an alarm — began wailing.
“I thought that was about to happen,” Trugger said over the radio in her helmet. “The voices over that gadget have sounded increasingly frantic. On the upside, I know exactly what these raptor voices sound like when they hit their breaking point.”
“This means they’re actively looking for us now.”
“Possibly,” Trugger hedged. “If I were them, I’d send someone to check out the airlock where they lost contact with the raptor we captured.”
The cyclical rising and falling tones of the alarm made Kipper’s fur fluff out all over. The pressure of her spacesuit against her fluffed fur felt itchy and uncomfortable. Her heart pounded. She didn’t think she could stand creeping, an inch at a time, around the wide perimeter of the giant chamber ahead of her. If she wanted to get to Trugger before more raptors got to him, she didn’t have time. The alarm drilled that knowledge into her.
Kipper made a choice: she broke from the cover of the ferns and ran for it, straight through the middle of the chamber. Speed over safety. Maybe it wasn’t the best choice, but Kipper was terrified out of her mind.
“Trugger?” Kipper hissed through her teeth as her paws pounded, four-legged, full-speed, against the strangely cushy, transparent floor. “Can you get that airlock open? We need a way out of here!” Kipper thought she heard raptor voices shouting at her, but she ignored them.
“I dunno, Kipster,” Trugger said doubtfully.
Kipper tried not to think that she and Trugger might be trapped on this ship with these hostile raptors. “Try to figure it out,” she hissed then lapsed into labored panting as she continued to run.
Kipper crossed onto the ferny floor of the final corridor. She could hear the raptor voices close behind. More frightening even, she could hear punctuated blasting sounds. She felt wobbles of pressure whenever she heard them. Were the raptors shooting at her? If so, they weren’t missing by much.
Kipper couldn’t risk looking back, but her question was answered when she came to the end of the corridor and Trugger stared at her wide-eyed. He exclaimed, “What in the name of the holy nightingale is that?! You grew tentacles and found guns?”
“Uh,” Kipper said. “Apparently?”
“I could use some tentacles and guns.” Trugger looked at his raptor captive, clearly wondering why it didn’t have tentacles for him to appropriate.
Kipper risked whirling around to see behind her. As Kipper turned, the octopus on her back twisted around too, bringing its tentacles into her peripheral vision. As Trugger described, the octopus kept firing the guns it’d grabbed, keeping the raptors — also tentacled and wielding firearms — at bay. Nearly half a dozen of the raptor-octopus hybrids advanced through the corridor
“First Race!” she swore, but her paws were already saying something different. Held out and up so the octopus on her back could read them, Kipper’s paws signed, “Can you work the airlock? We need to get out of here!” She didn’t know if the octopus could understand her signs, let alone her clumsily suited paws. She backed up the Swimmer’s Signs with frantic pointing at the airlock.
Two of the octopus’ tentacles waved in her periphery, unencumbered with weaponry, and signed something Kipper didn’t understand.
Kipper ran to the airlock and pounded on it with her paws. She pointed to the cryptic control panel.
The tentacles kept signing cryptically and shooting at the raptors crouched in the mouth of the corridor.
Kipper seethed in frustration.
“I have an idea,” Trugger said. He pulled one of the empty spacesuits out of the discarded disguise boxes and waved it around. He opened the suit at the neck, flipping the helmet back. The empty hole into the body gaped open.
Suddenly, the octopus leapt from Kipper’s back. She had no idea an octopus could jump like that! It slithered, pulling itself tentacle by tentacle, over the ferny floor. When it got to Trugger, it grabbed the spacesuit he was holding with its large sucker discs at the base of its tentacles. The octopus dragged the suit and itself into the archway, and climbed up the curved wall. Tentacles moved quickly over the controls, and the door in the archway slid open. As the octopus focused on the airlock controls, though, it neglected firing at the advancing raptors.
Kipper and Trugger found themselves ducking gunfire. The raptors advanced from the mouth of the corridor, heading for their captured compatriot. Kipper and Trugger fled for shelter in the newly opened airlock as the gun-wielding raptors stopped to free the captive raptor from the disguise box. It would only be a matter of moments before the others had him free, and, sure enough, shots soon rang off the airlock walls.
Instead of returning fire, however, the octopus crawled into the airlock after Kipper and Trugger. It handed its guns — all three of them, more than Kipper could hold effectively in her paws — to Kipper. Then, the octopus squeezed itself through the small neck-hole of the empty otter-shaped spacesuit. It pulled the helmet after it, closing itself inside.
The spacesuit lay crumpled on the floor, looking nearly as empty as it had before the octopus crawled inside. Then, tiny, delicate tentacle tips emerged from the neck, visible through the helmet’s faceplate. They signed in miniature parody of the usual signing done with an entire tentacle: “Help. Help.”
Kipper felt frustrated that the octopus was wasting time when it could be closing the airlock door to protect them all. Trugger, however, helped the octopus seal itself in the otter-shaped spacesuit, adjusted the suit controls to air-tight, and pressurized the otter-shaped metallic cloth bag.
Meanwhile, Kipper struggled with one of the guns. There was a catch and a trigger, not too alien after all. Once she figured out the trick of clicking the catch only a moment before pulling the trigger, she was able to fire the gun easily enough. She squeezed off several successive shots in the general direction of the raptors.
The gun was projectile based. Kipper hoped it wouldn’t run out of ammunition. Picking up a second gun for her other paw, Kipper fired them both haphazardly at any raptor that dared approach. She expected Trugger and the octopus to seal the airlock in front of them, closing a shield between them and the raptors. She grew more and more impatient, ducking and dodging gunshots from the raptors, as she waited for the doors to slide closed.
A sudden blast knocked Kipper backward. She lost her footing and her stomach clenched. The airlock receded from her. Thick red gasses swirled past her into it. Panic hit, but a cool, rational center inside her refused to give in. She tucked her guns under arms, so as not to lose them. Then her paws grasped frantically, seeking the throttle for her jetpack, and she felt a surge of relief as she closed her suited fist, squeezing the blasters on her back into glorious life.
She shot upward. The red and yellow gases streamed past her faceplate, and she saw the open airlock fall away beneath her. The raptors fell away too, blasted unprepared into Jupiter’s atmosphere; they diminished into tiny specks, plummeting beneath the sail ship. First Race! Kipper hoped the octopus wasn’t among those tiny specks.
Kipper leaned her shoulders forward, changing the angle of her flight and prepared to dive after the falling raptors if necessary. She couldn’t let the octopus, who’d helped to save her, fall to its death in the crushing atmosphere of Jupiter.
Fortunately, she spotted Trugger clutching the crumply spacesuit to his chest with one suited arm; an alien gun — the third one, Kipper didn’t have enough paws for — held in the paw of the other. His jetpack flared. He was aimed toward the rear of the sail ship. Kipper followed his lead and watched as he landed on the sail ship’s roof, protected from the howling Jovian wind by a fin-shaped protuberance on the ship’s hull. Kipper tried to copy his landing, but it didn’t go quite as planned.
Trugger landed on his feet, suggesting he had a lot more practice with jetpack maneuvers than Kipper who landed in an awkward barrel roll that ended when she slammed into the looming fin-protuberance. Cats don’t always land on their feet.
“You all right?” Trugger asked.
“Yes,” Kipper hissed. She tried to right herself and regain dignity, but instead she stumbled, tripping over the useless, otter-shaped tail of her spacesuit. “We should hide here until the Jolly Barracuda comes back for us.” She sank against the surface of the sail ship. All the extra weight from the triple-Earth gravity exhausted Kipper.
The surface of the sail ship stretched out around them, larger than a dozen scramball fields. In the thick atmosphere and howling winds, three spacesuited figures crouched in the shadows would be almost impossible to see.
As she looked at the surface of the sail ship, though, the dull gleam of her reflection in the seemingly metallic surface reminded Kipper of how the ceilings had looked on the inside: transparent. From underneath, she wasn’t hidden at all.
Continue on to Chapter 21…