by Mary E. Lowd
While Trudith phoned her scramball mates, rallying them to her cause, Kipper floated inside the Jolly Barracuda, treading water and watching Captain Cod sign a description of his battle plans for defending New Persia. Most of the crew assembled on the bridge to watch him, even Emily and the rescued octopus.
Captain Cod’s paws moved with a deliberation and certainty that they rarely held. “We are about to embark on a dangerous mission. The Jolly Barracuda is not a warship, but she will not shirk from battle if honor calls for it. Nor will her crew.”
In the oxo-agua atmosphere, the otters of the Jolly Barracuda couldn’t raise a rousing cheer, but many of them did quick loop-de-loops or back flips before settling down to watch the captain’s signed speech again.
“What we’ve learned from Ordol here–” Captain Cod spelled out Ordol’s name, combined with a gesture to indicate the rescued octopus. “–suggests we’re hopelessly outmatched. The raptors have an entire civilization floating inside this gas giant’s atmosphere, and every sail ship hosts dozens of warships.
“Whereas, we are only one small cargo vessel, and the police force of our own civilization is centered between Earth and the asteroids. It would take weeks for any reinforcements to reach us, and we can’t expect New Persia to hold out that long.”
Kipper examined the faces of the otters around her. Even Trugger looked grim; Jenny clutched the end of her tail, fidgeting; and, both octopi were blanched white.
Captain Cod continued, “Thus, our mission is two-fold: first, we must confront the warships attacking New Persia head-on. An all-out assault will use our greater speed and maneuverability to their best advantage. We’ll draw the raptors’ attacks away from New Persia.”
Captain Cod turned his eyes to Kipper before proceeding. His brown eyes stared at her with an intensity that made her very, very nervous.
“While we distract and divert the attacking vessels, destroying as many as we can in the process, Kipper and Ordol will fly the Brighton’s Destiny to the surface, make contact with the New Persians, and begin organizing evacuation plans.”
The intensity in Captain Cod’s eyes turned to sadness as he signed, “The Jolly Barracuda can’t carry very many refugees. If we fill our cargo bay, we can probably take a hundred and fifty, maybe two hundred refugees.”
Kipper thought of the cargo load of fine art — whimsical, baroque and rococo paintings in gilt frames — that would have to be dumped. Nearly half the cargo bay was currently set up as the captain’s personal art museum. She couldn’t help but wonder whether some of Captain Cod’s sadness was over that.
She couldn’t doubt his feelings long. Captain Cod looked away from Kipper, turned his gaze to each of the other members of his crew in turn, and signed, “We can’t do enough, merely rescuing a tiny fraction of the New Persians. So, I have decided to stay behind and form a group of freedom fighters to protect the New Persians who we can’t rescue. I will be taking volunteers to join me.”
The otters of the crew, floating in a crowded ring around the captain, shifted their flippered paws in a restless motion of surprise. Their whiskered faces looked long, but their eyes were lit with sparks of determination.
“For each one of us that stays behind,” Captain Cod signed, “there will be room for another refugee on the Jolly Barracuda.”
Jenny signed excitedly, “And there will be another warrior fighting alongside the New Persians!” Her foot-paws paddled, causing her to float forward. “I volunteer.”
“Me too,” signed Destry.
Trugger looked at Kipper before volunteering himself. Kipper’s heart jumped each time another otter volunteered, until every last one of them had followed suit.
“But,” she signed, “who will fly the refugees away?”
Captain Cod looked at her again and signed with steady paws, “I already thought of that.” He looked proudly around at his crew. “I expected you would all be willing to stay and fight. You’re a brave crew. But, the Jolly Barracuda will need someone to fly her.”
Boris, the sea otter pilot with golden earrings bejangling his small round ears, bobbed his head dutifully and signed, “I can fly her home, Captain.”
“Yes,” Captain Cod agreed. “A ship needs her pilot.” He pointed in rapid succession to Felix, Emily, and Kipper. “You’ll also need our head engineer; our expert on maintaining mobility during use of the Ryderian engines; and Kipper to keep order among the refugees.”
“What?” Kipper signed, feeling a burning at the tips of her ears. The white noise of the ship creaking, like distant whale song, was joined in her ears by an internal roar of outrage. “I should stay to defend New Persia!” she signed. If she could have spoken, her voice would have seethed. As it was, her paws trembled. She didn’t want to be sent away like a kitten while all her friends stayed to fight.
She couldn’t take the idea of abandoning her friends. She’d seen how terrifying these raptors were, first hand, and she didn’t want to leave these otters who had become her second family behind to fight them without her. If they had to face such a terrible foe, she wanted to be right there, fighting at their side.
Instead of addressing her objection, however, Captain Cod merely signed, “That settles it then. The rest of us will be staying on New Persia to fight the raptors. With Ordol’s inside knowledge, I’m sure we can keep them on their toes and hold them back. Let them do their worst, and we’ll best them! In paw-to-paw combat if it comes to it!”
A number of Barracuders signed brave, eager, bloodthirsty words of assent. Captain Cod continued to sign, but Kipper’s view of him was suddenly obscured by a cloud of murky grayness. The smoky cloud blasted into the atmosphere of the bridge, muddying the oxo-agua, and blotting out Kipper’s vision. She felt the oxo-agua around her bump turbulently in a sudden storm of motion. All the otters around her were moving — had they taken off for their posts? or escape pods? Was the ship under attack?
Before Kipper could do anything, a sour, salty taste from the darkened oxo-agua hit her nostrils. She coughed violently as it burned in her lungs.
Doubled over, floating and coughing, Kipper was a wreck by the time she felt a paw on her shoulder. She hadn’t realized she’d clamped her eyes shut against the salty sting until she opened them to see Jenny beside her. Jenny didn’t look nearly as discomposed. Her eyes — like all the otters’ — were much better protected in this liquid atmosphere by their third inner eyelids.
Squinting her less protected eyes, Kipper saw the murk in the oxo-agua clearing. She noticed a deep, thrumming, hum vibrating around her and a strong current blowing past. The pumps for filtering and scrubbing the oxo-agua must have been turned up high.
“What happened?” Kipper signed. “What was that?”
Jenny signed, “I think it was Ordol. He blasted us with ink.”
Through the clearing murk, Kipper saw that most of the crew had swum directly to their stations. Captain Cod still floated at the center of the bridge. He signed, “Did anyone see which way Ordol went? We need him. Everyone fan out and look. Except you–” He pointed at Kipper. “I need to talk with you.”
Otters summersaulted and dove away, streaming out of the bridge, until only Captain Cod, Kipper, and Emily, lurking at the arch of the door into the bridge, were left. Emily’s tentacles writhed nervously, and her skin pigmentation had taken on rose-colored rings, scattered like leopard spots over her taupe body.
As Captain Cod began signing, Kipper signed simultaneously. Her paws spelled out, “Captain, I want to stay and fight.”
His paws signed, moving much faster than hers, “Kipper, we’ve stumbled our way into a war. When back-up arrives from the asteroid belt, I think we otters can make a good showing, but an early victory is not a decisive end. If we want to win this war, we’ll need back-up from more than the other otters in space. We’ll need the support of Earth.”
Kipper’s paws trailed to a stop, and her ears slowly lowered. With small, slow motions, she signed, “I can’t give you the support of Earth. I… have no power there.”
Captain Cod signed, “You need to be a hero, Kipper. You need to return to Earth victorious — the only cat that was up here to make a difference when New Persia was in need. You need to shepherd home two-hundred refugees who would have died without you. You need to be an example for all the cats and dogs on Earth.”
Kipper shook her head, but she knew the captain wouldn’t back down. He might even be right. It made her mind spin that the foolish buffoon she was used to had turned into a clear-thinking military leader when the situation called for it. She hadn’t known Captain Cod had this in him. This was why he inspired so much loyalty in his crew.
“How shall I select the refugees?” Kipper signed, resigning herself to submission.
“Find a leader you can work with — not the top cat. The top cat should stay behind to run New Persia until this battle is resolved.” Captain Cod chewed his whiskers, showing some of his old buffoonish side, but it was belied by the cool-headed wisdom he imparted. “You’ll want to take as many kittens as you can, but you’ll need to have enough adults to keep them in line.” More whisker chewing. “Give preference to nursing mothers, adults that have experience with kitten-care, and adults who won’t be strong enough to defend themselves and survive the raptor onslaught if left behind.”
Watching Captain Cod sign these instructions, the reality of what Kipper was about to face began to feel terribly real to her. With sinking ears, she signed, “Right. Kittens and elderly.” The shape of those words on her paws made her think about all the cats who wouldn’t fit that description. All the cats who would be left behind.
The captain saw her flagging spirits and gave her a friendly cuff to the chin, followed by signing, “Buck up, crewman. Jumpin’ jaybirds will tap dance to paw-paw music before we let those raptors tear us down.”
Visions of blue-crested birds with top hats and tap shoes pirouetted through Kipper’s head, making her wonder whether this expression might be more believable than the swimming ostriches that so often colored the captain’s language. She wished, like an ostrich, she could bury her head in the sand. Instead, she signed, “I guess we need to find Ordol, so that I can be ready for the flight down to New Persia.”
At that, the captain gave a whiskery frown. “That blasted coward! We’re going to need him as a tactical expert, and, right now, he’s holding the whole mission up!”
Given Ordol’s current behavior, Kipper wasn’t sure she wanted to trust him with the controls of Brighton’s Destiny — or any mechanical device, let alone a spaceship that the future of New Persia and all her friends hinged upon.
Emily waved her tentacles to draw the captain’s and Kipper’s attention.
“Ordol’s system is still in shock from spending so much time out of water. He needs more time to recover,” Emily signed. “I have experience piloting space ships.” A quiver of whiteness flushed over Emily’s body, starting at her mantle and ending at her tentacle tips. It was brief, and then she returned to a healthy tan with rose-colored rings. Emily was scared, but who wasn’t right now?
“Not raptor ships,” Captain Cod pointed out.
Kipper signed at the same time, “I’ll take a pilot who’s volunteering — and who speaks in Standard Swimmer’s Sign — over a wildcard who squirted me with ink like Ordol any day.”
After a steady stare, the captain nodded his head gravely. “Your call,” he signed. “That gives the rest of us more time to find what nook or cranny Ordol’s insinuated himself into. Now get going, and start familiarizing yourself with that ship! I’ll expect you to disembark as soon as we reach the orbit of Europa — that way you can finish the approach behind us, shielded by our diversion.”
Captain Cod looked brave, but the tremble in his whiskers gave him away. Kipper put a paw up as if to shake his hand, but he threw both of his short arms around her shoulders, encircling her in a bushy-furred embrace.
Next he turned to Emily, who approached him with tentacles writhing in an ornate, eight-armed goodbye hug. Captain Cod broke away and signed, “Good luck, officers. You’re the best chef and ship’s spy we’ve ever had.” At that he pirouetted away to face the front of the bridge where he floated, framed in the star-studded blackness of the main viewscreen.
Kipper thought, perhaps, the presence of the oxo-agua had hidden the trails of a tear down the captain’s cheek fur. The stinging in her eyes suggested that it might also be masking a few of her own. She turned away too, willing herself to stay strong. Life was surreal, and she felt buffeted about.
Mere months ago, she’d been a simple secretary, moving from office to office, wherever her temp job took her. Yet, then, her life had been stable, predictable, and profoundly safe. She hadn’t felt that way back then, but, looking back, she could see it now. Her fears back then were so small, nearly petty, compared to the fears that tightened her throat, already lodged with oxo-agua, and threatened to drown her now.
“Come on,” Kipper signed to Emily. “Let’s go see what we can figure out about my spaceship.” Kipper stretched her paws out, spreading her toes into an ineffective doggy-paddle.
Emily wrapped three of her tentacles around Kipper’s wrists and jetted herself forward by expelling a blast of oxo-agua from her siphon. Held firmly in Emily’s grasp, Kipper was pulled along for the ride. Emily propelled them through the corridors of the ship, heading for the cargo bay where Brighton’s Destiny had been parked.
Emily used her free tentacles to sign to Kipper. “Your ship?”
Emily adjusted her grip on Kipper, replacing the three tentacles around Kipper’s wrists with a single one, snaked under Kipper’s arm and around her back. This freed Kipper up to answer, signing with her paws, “Captain Cod says, I found it, it’s mine. Law of the space pirates or something. Does that make me a captain?”
Kipper saw the tips of Emily’s free tentacles wriggle in laughter, but then she signed, “At your command, Captain Kipper.”
Shortly thereafter, Emily unhanded Kipper, removing her suckered grasp from the cat’s back. They had arrived in the cargo bay, and the strange double-winged ship sat enigmatically before them. Correction: Kipper’s funny little double-winged ship. She shook her head, trying to wrap her mind around that idea. A couple months ago, Kipper couldn’t even afford the ticket to ride the space elevator, and now she owned her own spaceship.
If only she weren’t about to fly the same spaceship into the opening battle of what might well become a worldwide — if not solar system-wide — war.
Continue on to Chapter 26…