by Mary E. Lowd
The entire ship wasn’t transparent, Kipper realized. The room with the airlock where Trugger and Kipper had emerged from their disguise boxes had opaque ceilings. The room with the octopus tank did too, as well as several of the hallways. For all Kipper knew, she was slumped against one of the opaque parts of the ship right now. Her tired body wanted to believe, but her paranoid cat’s mind couldn’t stop thinking about how much the surface of the sail ship reminded her of the one-way mirrors she’d seen in cop shows.
Except, there weren’t police dogs on the other side of this mirror. There were crazed, blaster wielding dinosaur birds with enslaved octopus tentacles. Octo tentacles meant eight blasters per raptor, with all those horribly be-clawed raptor talons still free. Kipper didn’t like that.
“Kipper?” Trugger asked, his voice coming through the radio in her helmet. “Do we have to keep radio silence out here again?”
Kipper was busy staring along the surface of the sail ship, looking for changes in texture or seams that would provide clues as to which parts were opaque. She spared just enough brain power to answer Trugger’s question with a tired, “What?”
“Well,” he said, “I thought it would be nice to sing a sea shanty together while we wait for the Barracuda.”
“Sure,” Kipper said. She hadn’t heard Trugger. She was imagining a fleet of police dogs showing up to rescue them. On Earth, Kipper hadn’t been much of a fan of police dogs. They were as likely to laugh at a cat in trouble as help one. Out here, however, she would take any allies she could get.
Kipper would be relieved to see flashing red and blue lights cut through the orange Jupiter fog. Black and white cab cars would drive right up on top of the sail ship, and big, strong dogs in blue uniforms would jump out, holding guns, and set up a protective perimeter around her, Trugger, and their rescued octopus companion.
Perhaps relieved wasn’t the right word. Confused might be more like it. Kipper wondered whether the air in her spacesuit was quite high enough on oxygen. The singing in her ears didn’t help her believe in her own sanity.
“…on a spinning iceberg! Come on, Kipster,” Trugger said, breaking off his song. “Don’t you know this one?”
Before he could launch into another verse of “What do you do with a drunken penguin?”, Kipper decided it was time to stop hallucinating an action adventure film where police dogs save the day and start being proactive about her own safety.
“Trugger,” she said, “the surface we’re hiding on is transparent from underneath. The raptors aren’t going to have any trouble finding us. We can’t hide out here singing about penguins until the Jolly Barracuda gets back. We’ll have company long before then.”
The radio in Kipper’s helmet went silent after she finished speaking. Then Trugger’s voice crackled through, “I wonder if this octopus we rescued knows a good hiding place.” Trugger lifted one of the floppy legs of the crumply otter-shaped space suit. In response, the spacesuit’s torso contorted in a spasm, and then more tentacles shoved their way into the helmet, squishing against the faceplate. A single eye popped incongruously up from the neck and blinked mysteriously at them. The octopus’ other eye must have been stuck in the neck seam. Octopi were weird.
“Well, we could try asking it,” Kipper said, raising her paws. She stared dumbly at her spacesuit gloves.
Even if she could form recognizable signs with her gloves on, there was no guarantee the octopus would understand them. It would have to squeeze its eye back down out of the faceplate to make enough room in the helmet to sign back to her, and then it wouldn’t be able to see any response she gave it, unless it squeezed its eye back up again.
“This is no good,” Kipper said. “We should just start moving. See what we can find.”
“That way we’ll be a moving target, at least,” Trugger said.
Or, Kipper thought, we’ll make ourselves even more obvious up here by tramping around until we’re sure they’ve seen us. Regardless, Kipper couldn’t ignore the feeling gnawing in her gut that she was out in the open, and she needed to hide.
Kipper clipped the two alien projectile guns onto extra carabineers on her spacesuit’s belt next to the unused nav-gun. She and Trugger each grabbed one of the octopus’ spacesuit arms. The body sagged between them, leaning forward at the head, where most of the octopus’ bulk seemed to be situated. The legs and rudder-like otter tail dragged on the ground.
Kipper wondered how the octopus was doing inside. The spacesuit provided fresh oxygen, but it couldn’t provide an atmosphere friendly to the octopus’ gills. Unfortunately, there was nothing to be done about that. The octopus would simply have to hold out until the Jolly Barracuda came back for them.
As soon as Trugger and Kipper stepped away from the protective shadow of the fin-like protuberance on the sail ship’s surface, the gale force of Jupiter’s wind knocked the breath right out of them. Kipper was amazed that she kept her footing, but she soon realized there must be some kind of special gripping technology in her spacesuit’s boots. She vaguely remembered Trugger telling her once about space boot technology being based on gecko toes, though she wasn’t sure if he’d been serious or if the comparison had been more akin to one of the bird metaphors so popular among the Barracuders.
“Rollicking raptors!” Trugger exclaimed over the helmet radio. He pointed with his free paw toward the horizon of the sail ship.
Kipper was dismayed to find Trugger’s exclamation had been dead serious. Several twelve-limbed spacesuits climbed over the edge of the sail ship. Kipper counted three suits total, gleaming with the yellowed light of search beams. Fog swirled in the swaths of light cut by the piercing rays.
“Do you think they’ve seen us?” Kipper whispered. Her voice sounded small and kittenish. She didn’t want to get caught up in another firefight. “Never mind,” she hissed. “Let’s not wait to find out. Run.”
Kipper tugged on the arm of the spacesuit that she and Trugger dragged between them. Trugger stepped quickly to follow her. In a mad dash, Kipper led them directly away from the group of raptors. She hadn’t thought any farther ahead than that when she saw another one of the pinecone shaped spaceships flying toward the sail ship from above. She wondered if it was going to dock like the ships she’d watched from onboard the Jolly Barracuda. How many pinecone ships were docked inside this sail ship?
More ships than Kipper wanted in the talons of murderous raptors. The raptors had more than enough ships to rain down terror on all the cats and otters in Jupiter System.
Everything would be better if the raptors had fewer ships. Everything would also be better if Kipper were inside of ship right now instead of fleeing for her life with nothing to protect her fur but a spacesuit and a jetpack.
That gave Kipper an idea.
Grand theft spaceship.
“Forget waiting for the Jolly Barracuda,” Kipper said, trying to keep her breath steady as she ran. “Let’s steal ourselves a spaceship.”
Trugger and Kipper kept running across the surface of the sail ship. Kipper’s own breathing echoed in her ears, but her suggestion wasn’t greeted with any of the excitable exclamations she had expected. As they neared another protuberance in the mostly flat surface, Kipper veered for it, pulling Trugger and the octopus with her. They ducked, panting, out of sight of the piercing searchlights. Kipper was painfully aware that they might still be perfectly visible to any raptors standing inside the sail ship directly beneath them.
“You’re not saying anything,” Kipper said.
“I don’t know what to say,” Trugger answered. “You’re suggesting that we go back inside — where we were being shot at — and make these scary dinosaurs angrier at us?”
“Yes,” Kipper said, trying her best to sound like a full grown cat in charge of the situation, instead of a lost kitten.
Kipper felt ashamed for making such a stupid suggestion but the more she thought about it, the less she could think of any valid alternatives. “When you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how stupid, is what you have to do,” she muttered. “Look, we can’t hang out here, dodging those raptors for another two hours.”
“True,” Trugger conceded, peering around to look at the raptors. Kipper didn’t need to look. She knew they were getting closer.
“I don’t like our odds on a firefight with them,” she said. “And our jetpacks won’t keep us aloft for two hours if we fly away from here.”
“Most definitely true.”
“So, we go back inside. We have nowhere else to go. And if we go back inside, we might as well try to steal a spaceship.”
Trugger was silent for a long time. It scared Kipper that, right now, she was the crazy one.
“Okay,” he said. “But I get to name the spaceship.”
“Deal,” Kipper said with relief, wondering whether she’d end up with a spaceship named for a bird or another fish like the Jolly Barracuda.
“So, how do we get back inside?” Trugger asked, but, before Kipper could answer, the descending pinecone spacecraft lowered to the edge of the sail ship. It cast a bright light across the surface of the ship, blinding them momentarily and silhouetting all the irregularities across the sail ship’s surface.
As Kipper’s eyes recovered, she said, “We follow that. Jet packs on three: One. Two. Three.”
Jet packs blared. Kipper and Trugger careened across the surface of the sail ship tethered to each other by means of the octopus’ spacesuit that they each continued to clutch by an empty arm. They tugged each other erratically as each of them adjusted the thrust, alternately over and under compensating.
They flew low over the sail ship taking the most direct course to its edge. Their boots bumped and dragged as they skimmed over its surface. Finally, the surface gave way beneath them, and they flew over the yawning chasm of Jupiter. A tight turn, with Kipper in the lead, pointed the three-suit conglomeration down and back, following the path of the pinecone spaceship.
It was a massive, looming object; smaller than the sail ship, by far, of course. However, the sail ship was so large as to become a piece of land, an island, floating in the ruddy sea of Jovian gases.
The pinecone ship was closer in size to the Jolly Barracuda, and that size could be felt viscerally in a way that the sail ship’s size could not. It was too large to comprehend as a single object. The pinecone ship, on the other paw, was on a scale with the giant mansions of Wooftown movie stars, and giant mansions are not meant to hang, floating above you, in the swirling sky — even if that sky is orange and red without a trace of anything resembling land to be seen below.
Doubt glimmered in Kipper’s heart. Despite the tall tales Captain Cod told about her wresting control of the Jolly Barracuda from him single handed, a spaceship this large was not something that a single cat — or even a cat, an otter, and a captured octopus — could fly. It took an entire bridge crew and engineers and, well, familiarity with the ship’s layout and design.
Nonetheless, Kipper tilted her body, aiming herself for a loop that would curl around the pinecone ship and back to a neat landing on the topside. A sheet of light had opened in the sail ship ahead of them — hangar doors, if Kipper wasn’t mistaken. Her landing didn’t turn out as neat as Kipper hoped. Trugger slammed into her, squishing the octopus’ suit between them. They tussled awkwardly to rearrange themselves among the jutting angles of the pinecone ship’s upper hull. It was uncomfortable, but they were safely out of sight, hidden between dark metal turrets, as the pinecone ship pulled into the hangar bay.
Kipper helped Trugger lay out the octopus’ suit then got herself situated in a pounce-ready crouch. So far, the octopus had been much more burden than help ever since crawling into that spacesuit. She couldn’t blame the octopus for being useless inside an otter-shaped spacesuit. Her own altered spacesuit felt uncomfortable enough, and she was essentially otter-shaped compared to the octopus.
Kipper hoped the octopus would revert to its former incredibly useful state once they managed to break into this spaceship, take it over, and were faced with an alien helm to control.
The adrenaline in Kipper’s veins started to slow down as she thought about that. What were the chances that this octopus would really know how to control one of these ships? This octopus was a slave, not a legitimate member of raptor society. Besides, even if the octopus were a trained pilot, it took a lot more than one pilot to run a ship as large as the Jolly Barracuda. Sure, the crew could rig up the Barracuda so that Emily could pilot her on a short, pre-planned flight, but that didn’t mean Emily would be able to break into a ship the size of the Barracuda, start her engines from cold, and take off without a flight plan.
That all assumed the crew either didn’t put up much of a fight or happened to all disembark at once, leaving the ship nice and empty.
“This plan is crazy,” Kipper said.
“Oh ho, no you don’t,” Trugger replied. He stood up peering over the turret. “I see my ship over there, and you are not depriving me of the chance to name such a beauty. We have a deal.”
Kipper rose out of her crouch, placed her paws on the edge of the turret and slowly lifted her head high enough to see over. Instinct flattened her ears, even though it made no difference in hiding her. The rounded ears of her space helmet didn’t flatten with them.
Kipper’s tip-toe position afforded her a better view of the hangar. It was wide — housing at least two other pinecone ships. She wasn’t sure if there were more on the other side. The ceiling was low, at least, from her vantage point on top of the pinecone ship. The raptor who piloted it must be good at precision parking.
Then, Kipper saw what Trugger had been looking at: a much smaller vessel perched on the floor of the hangar between this pinecone ship and the next one.
The small vessel had two wings, angled backward from the body of the craft. Its shape reminded her of a whirligig seed from a maple tree. Kipper used to find whirligig seeds as a kitten and drop them to watch them spin downward like tiny helicopters. If the tiny vessel was designed to spin like that, Kipper wasn’t at all sure she liked the idea of being inside it while it dropped down towards the heart of Jupiter.
Yet, Trugger was right about one thing. That smaller vessel looked like it would be much easier to capture and probably easier to pilot than a pinecone ship. Based on its size, Kipper estimated the whirligig was designed for a crew of two or three. Kipper was leading a crew of two or three. Perfect.
“Do you want to know what I’m going to name it?” Trugger asked.
“Tell me when we’re flying it free through the skies of Jupiter,” Kipper answered. “It’ll give me something to look forward to.” Something more believable than successfully stealing a ship straight out of the raptors’ docking bay. Besides, even if they did get the whirligig out of the docking bay, there’d be raptor ships following, guns blaring, behind them. It would probably be a good time for a bird or fish-based pun.
Kipper unclipped the stolen projectile guns from her spacesuit’s belt. With a gun in each paw, she clambered onto the top of the turret and looked around. She could see raptors at the back of the bay. A stream of them came from the rear of the pinecone she was perched on, and none of them looked up to see her. They were dressed in cloth uniforms like the raptors she’d seen inside. As she watched, they disappeared one by one through an airlock-like door. Presumably, they were returning to the leafy arboretum innards of the sail ship.
The last raptor even turned off the lights. The docking bay plunged into darkness.
“You bring the octopus,” Kipper said to Trugger. She switched on her spacesuit’s headlamp, cutting a path of light straight from her to the whirligig. “I’ll keep us covered.” Kipper didn’t think there were any raptors left in the docking bay, but she felt safer with guns. Holding them at the ready made her climb over the bumpy hull of the pinecone ship more awkwardly, but her otter-shaped spacesuit and the Jovian gravity had already robbed her of her cat’s grace. She didn’t consider the extra inconvenience of the guns a huge loss.
The rounded hull of the pinecone made it possible to clamber nearly half of the way down before letting go and leaping. She hit the floor with a thud, but she stayed on her feet. Trugger was less lucky.
Kipper offered an arm to Trugger, never letting go of her guns, and he pulled himself up. He dragged the floppy octopus-filled spacesuit with him. Kipper worried about their noise, but the cavernous room stayed dark. Realistically, the swaths of light from the headlamps were probably a greater risk.
Kipper turned back to the whirligig. She followed the bouncing light from her headlamp directly to the winged ship. Once she reached it, Kipper held her paw out. She touched the reassuring solidness of the whirligig’s hull.
Kipper decided to risk getting a better look at the docking bay from her new vantage point. She turned her head and watched the disk of light from her headlamp jump around the bay. It fell flat on the back wall, a small circle at such a distance. It caught on the angled hull of another pinecone ship and became an irregular, oblong ellipse. Scanning quickly to learn as much as she could, Kipper made out several small ships parked further on. Their shapes were different: one was pointed like a dart; another was blocky with a dish shape on top.
“Why this ship?” Kipper asked over her radio. “Those ships look fine too.”
“This one looks fast,” Trugger said without the least hesitation. It was enough for Kipper, even if she wasn’t sure his reasoning made sense. “How do you think it opens?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Kipper said. “But maybe our friend does.” She tucked the gun in her left paw under her other arm, leaving one hand free. She touched the faceplate of the octopus’ spacesuit. When she had the attention of the single yellow eye staring out from the helmet, Kipper pointed at the whirligig spaceship.
The tentacles in the octopus’ spacesuit receded down the neck, disappearing inside the spacesuit’s body. Kipper didn’t know what that meant, but she knew the octopus couldn’t help them from inside the spacesuit.
Trugger held up the spacesuit with a paw under each armpit. The helmet sagged forward, empty now, and Kipper reached over to unclamp it. After a tense moment, the tentacle tips began to emerge, and the octopus climbed out.
The octopus’ fleshy tentacles looked different in the dry docking bay atmosphere than Emily’s looked under oxo-agua. There was a soft, almost fluffy quality to Emily’s skin. This flesh looked slimy, like the pink skin of an open wound. Where Emily floated gracefully, nearly flying through her liquid atmosphere, these tentacles were pressed down by the unrelenting Jovian gravity, without any cushioning from the gaseous atmosphere.
Like a ropy mass of animated intestines, the octopus crawled down the outside of the spacesuit, over the floor and straight up the outer hull of the whirligig. It stretched its tentacles across a rectangular hatch on the hull, splaying its body into a wavy star of flesh that bled from pink to ashen gray. Then the octopus’ skin darkened to a coal black that blended in with the hull.
Kipper questioned her eyes. She blinked, but she could no longer make out the octopus against the metal of the hull. Had the octopus fled? she wondered, but, then, the hatch swung open, and she saw a bulging blur in the path of her headlamp that looked to be the octopus climbing inside the whirligig. Stepping closer, Kipper saw a panel on the exterior of the open hatch. It had the same controls designed to be worked by tentacles that had been on the airlock.
She didn’t waste long examining it. Instead, she gave Trugger a gentle push on his arm, gesturing for him to go inside. She followed close on his heels and grabbed a handle on the inside of the hatch, allowing her to swing it shut behind them.
The interior of the whirligig was tight, probably designed for only one or two inhabitants. Perhaps a pilot and gunner? Kipper hoped the whirligig had weapons. She feared they’d need them.
The octopus busied itself at the front of the whirligig’s cabin, tentacles stretching and waving, working controls. The control panel lit up with a multitude of lights and indecipherable computer displays.
Amazingly, one of the displays made sense to Kipper. It looked like a graphical representation of the sail ship, marking all the other ships in the docking bay with a pulsing light in their own position. She recognized the configuration of pinecone ships and smaller ships surrounding them.
“I can read that one,” Kipper said pointing.
“Yeah, it’s a map,” Trugger agreed. “It’ll help us figure out if they’re pursuing us.”
Trugger and Kipper watched in silence as their octopus helper continued to clamber around the control panel, stretching its body into changing shapes like a loop of string, wound around a kitten’s paws, for a game of Cat’s Cradle.
“I wonder what’s taking so long?” Trugger asked.
Then Kipper realized: the octopus was contorting into such bizarre shapes because he was having trouble reaching all the controls. “Oh!” she said. “This ship isn’t designed to be piloted by an octopus.” She stepped closer, and the octopus locked an eye on her. She thought she saw gratitude. Then, the octopus reached for her with three tentacles, grabbed on, and shifted its weight onto her shoulders again. “It’s designed to be piloted by an octopus joined to a raptor.”
From its new vantage, the octopus was able to move its tentacles much more freely, reaching higher and farther than when its body had been pressed against the control panel, clinging to it like a spattered stain of jelly on a wall. Things started happening much faster.
A hum began in the floor, resonating through their space boots. More lights came on — clearly external as Kipper could see their effect through the suddenly visible side windows and fore-screen. They lit up the space around the whirligig in the docking bay. Finally, a screeching voice boomed throughout the ship. Kipper couldn’t understand the language, but the voice sounded like a raptor. And it sounded angry.
“We need to get out of here,” she hissed, as if the octopus on her shoulders could hear. As she finished the words, she lurched forward. The whirligig was moving! The octopus’ tentacles wrapped around her shoulders kept Kipper from falling. Trugger, however, slammed into the front control panel. The whirligig listed eerily to the side and then began zooming forward.
Kipper couldn’t tell if the octopus was driving the ship or if Trugger had inadvertently hit the thrusters. Either way, her heart caught in her throat: the closed docking bay doors were rushing toward them!
The tenor of the screaming raptor voice over the whirligig’s sound system raised several notches, matching the panicked screaming in Kipper’s own head. Kipper wondered if this was how the raptors sounded to Trugger right before starting that alarm.
The docking bay doors began to open. Either the octopus had mad skills, or the raptors didn’t want their docking bay door smashed to pieces even more than they didn’t want a whirligig stolen. Kipper felt sick realizing the octopus had been playing a game of chicken.
Kipper, Trugger, and their octopus pilot slipped out of the docking bay and into the thick currents of Jupiter’s atmosphere like a maple seed falling onto the surface of a fast flowing stream.
Continue on to Chapter 23…