by Mary E. Lowd
While the dogs of Trudith’s scramball team worked out their plans to elect a President Brighton, the newly minted Captain Brighton discovered the terrors of her own command inside the cramped, foreign vessel she could now call her own.
Spinning like a whirligig, the two winged ship Brighton’s Destiny disembarked from the Jolly Barracuda’s cargo bay. After a few dizzying swerves, the vessel straightened into a slow arced course for Europa. From inside, Kipper watched the Jolly Barracuda, the ship that had been her home for many months now, barrel past on a fast, straight course to the same destination.
Kipper might have felt lonely watching the Jolly Barracuda fly into a darkness that surpassed night, but the weight on her shoulders let her know she was not alone.
Captain Brighton’s only crew, Emily, clung to her spacesuit clad shoulders. Kipper could see Emily’s tentacles through the faceplate of her helmet. Orange-red and muscular, Emily’s tentacles waved above her, reaching past her, and fumbled with the alien control panels. Emily wore a spacesuit too, although it clung invisibly to her writhing appendages looking more like a layer of saran wrap than anything that could truly protect her from the ravages of space.
The weight of Emily was substantial on Kipper’s back. Although Emily’s body was slight, the reverse-SCUBA gear she wore to keep her breathing was quite heavy. Neither captain nor crew was very comfortable. Despite the emptiness of space surrounding them, the small pocket of machinery that transported and protected them felt extremely tight.
Regardless, neither of them looked forward to getting out. That would only mean their friends were busy battling for their lives, while Kipper and Emily needed to begin triage for the colonists of New Persia, deciding who would live and who would be left to fight and possibly die.
Kipper and Emily couldn’t see each other’s faces, but they could still communicate by signing. A few tests before take-off had shown that Emily could understand Kipper’s paws, even muffled as they were by the spacesuit gloves.
Kipper wanted to say something, exchange words of comfort, but she didn’t believe anything comforting she could say right now. She doubted Emily had any comfort of her own to offer. Before they’d launched, Emily had fortified herself, replacing her white-skinned pallor of late with the ruddy orange she sported now. The skin between her eyes had tightened in an expression that Kipper understood to mean seriousness and extreme concentration.
Kipper knew Emily was deathly frightened of the raptors. The bravery Emily displayed in agreeing to pilot Brighton’s Destiny awed and inspired Kipper. She hoped she would be as brave when she found herself face to face with emotionally crippling decisions about which kittens to take on the Jolly Barracuda with her and which to leave behind. The prospect of those choices daunted her, making her head feel light and her chest tight.
To stave off the haunting visages of ghost kittens, pleading not to be separated from their mothers, Kipper focused her eyes on the pale face of Europa. Surrounded by glittering stars, the moon’s face was white and cracked, smoother than Earth’s moon except for the brown lines tracing irregular patterns on its surface. A dirty snowball. It hardly looked like a place to live, let alone a place worth fighting for.
Europa grew larger on the viewscreen, and Kipper began to look for signs of the New Persia colony. She narrowed her eyes, straining to see, but she couldn’t make out anything in the shining ice. As they rounded on Europa’s night side, the sun rose over the ice, glaring in her eyes and casting the ice a ruddy gray, lit mainly by Jupiter’s reflected light. Kipper noticed a dim glow on the horizon.
Movement caught her eye, and Kipper recognized the Jolly Barracuda’s tiny outline, silhouetted against the moon’s surface. Two dark pinecones chased the Barracuda. Beyond them, the unnatural lines and lights of colonization shimmered into view, barely visible on the horizon of gray ice.
The Jolly Barracuda evaded the pinecone ships, moving faster and changing direction with more agility than they could. Kipper lost sight of the otter ship as it flew away from Europa, but she counted three, four, five more pinecones chasing her. Each of them also disappeared into the darkness.
Kipper drew a deep breath. It came in raggedly between her fangs. Her whiskers tingled. Those ships could have stayed, making her descent on the Brighton’s Destiny more dangerous. Instead they chased her friends. Kipper supposed that was better? The difference between worse and worst is an intellectual one. Both the idea of facing those raptor ships herself and the idea of them pursuing the Jolly Barracuda left her numb.
As Brighton’s Destiny approached the glow on Europa’s horizon, bright specks of light became more visible. They grew until Kipper could make out the shapes of domes and buildings in the pattern of bright and shadow — a city in this bleak landscape of ice, millions of miles from feline-kind’s original terrestrial cradle — New Persia, the home of arrogant cats, desperately in need of otter-kind’s help.
And Kipper’s help.
At that moment, it was Emily who made all the difference. Kipper couldn’t read the controls, but Emily had some ability to read them as the raptor language shared traits with that of the octopus empire, and Emily saw something intriguing on the readouts.
New Persia grew beneath them as their ship barreled toward the icy surface. Kipper tried to make sense of it, but it was strange and small and moving fast. Brighton’s Destiny leveled out, flying along, above the city and beyond. New Persia passed beneath them as the Brighton’s Destiny flew straight on past. “What are you doing?” Kipper signed. “Don’t you know how to land? Are you looping around?” Kipper twisted her helmeted head about, straining to see Emily, even though she knew she didn’t need to.
Emily lowered a pair of tentacles to within Kipper’s visual range and signed with their sinuous tips, “New plan. There’s something we need to check out.”
For being a captain, Kipper didn’t feel in control of her vessel. She couldn’t read the displays, had no clue what her one crewmember was up to, and could see nothing worth checking out on the bleak beige horizon of cracked ice stretching out ahead of them.
Behind them lay a sparkling city of translucent domes and right-angled sky scrapers. Curves and lines that implied civilization. Shapes that meant cats are here. Cats who need help.
The muscles controlling Kipper’s claws tightened. She wanted to turn the spaceship around and take it back to New Persia, but she could already see the ground approaching them at an alarming rate. Emily was bringing Brighton’s Destiny down for a landing in this middle-of-nowhere.
The screeching sensation of metal scraping along ice — like claws on a blackboard — made Kipper cringe. A crack that she felt more than heard sent terror through her body, out to the very tips of her whiskers. Kipper feared for her vessel and herself. She was glad she was wearing a spacesuit. It was not an elegant landing. Brighton’s Destiny was sliding, uncontrolled, across the ice.
By the time Brighton’s Destiny reached a full stop, Kipper had to peel herself off the forward control panels. She felt bruised all over, and her body prickled with the sensation of her fluffed out fur. She had grave concerns about whether the spaceship would still be flight worthy. Was it even in one piece? What had that crack been? If it couldn’t take off again, would she and Emily be stranded here? Kipper didn’t know how far they had flown past New Persia, but she was sure it was a lot farther than they could hike back with only the oxygen in their spacesuit air tanks.
Kipper didn’t like the idea of being a fool that Captain Cod would have to come rescue, wasting valuable time that could be spent saving kittens from raptors.
With a grumble in her throat, Kipper signed angrily, “What was that?!” Her paws kept gesturing, signing accusatory sentences in a substitute for shouting.
Emily, however, paid no heed. She shifted her weight, lifting off of Kipper’s shoulders, and dropping herself in a careful fall to the floor. Tentacles pressed outward, bracing against the walls of the small spaceship hold as her center of weight lowered down. Then, she reached a tentacle back up, twisted a few knobs, pressed a few buttons, and the hatch to the tiny airlock opened.
Kipper had no option but to follow. She didn’t know how to work the airlock hatch herself, and she didn’t want to get trapped inside, alone.
The first hatch closed behind Kipper, and the exterior hatch opened only moments later, revealing dun colored ice shining dully in the reddish light. Kipper stepped gingerly onto the ice.
Looking up, she saw Jupiter straight above, a gibbous ball of orange and white lace in the black sky. Two other moons, a tiny crescent just above the horizon and a yellowed half-circle near Jupiter, decorated the blackness. Beneath that vault of the heavens, Brighton’s Destiny lay in a rut of ice, one wing angled at forty-five degrees; the other snapped and dangling from a twisted metal joint.
The whole scene was breathtaking and heartbreaking.
Before Kipper could cry too many tears, though, Emily crawled out onto the ice. Her tentacles flushed crimson, like bloody worms writhing on the ice, pulling her body erratically forward. Kipper had never seen the graceful, elegant Emily move so awkwardly. Although, gravity was light on Europa, her body — without bones or a buoyant liquid atmosphere — was all muscle squashed to the ground. Yet, she still moved strangely quickly, and Kipper found herself fast-walking to keep up.
Kipper wanted to ask where they were going, but Emily wouldn’t see her paws. She followed Emily mutely through the desolate landscape, quietly seething over the destruction of her ship and doing everything she could to deny the relief she felt at being saved from facing the harsh reality of cats and kittens dying in New Persia.
The fact that Kipper was stranded in an ice desert out of sight of that destruction didn’t make it any less real, but it felt less real. The pit of her stomach, ready to fill with twisting agony and emotion, was grateful for the mere emptiness and confusion she felt here.
In this surreal landscape, Kipper didn’t feel like an adult cat with responsibilities and people relying on her. She felt like the tiny tabby kitten she had once been in the cattery at home, too small to shoulder the burdens laid upon her, and merely amazed by the wonder of space yawning above her. How could this be real? How had the years passed in such a way to bring her here, where Jupiter and its moons hung above her? Kipper felt giddy, and she wondered whether she getting enough oxygen from her spacesuit. She hoped that she wasn’t growing delirious from oxygen deprivation.
Kipper wasn’t practiced with her spacesuit, but she tried to read the life support displays inside her helmet while continuing to trot after Emily at a good clip.
The displays read in the safe levels, but the distraction of looking at them caused Kipper to trip. She slid forward on the ice, front paws flailing to catch herself. When Kipper got herself righted, four paws on the ground, she looked back to see Emily. Had it been Emily’s tentacles that had tripped her when the octopus stopped?
Emily pointed her tentacles, like force lines on a magnet diagram, toward a place on the ground between them. Kipper looked down to see that the ground she crouched on was smooth — even smoother than the ice. Darkened by their shadows, it was hard to make out, so Kipper flipped on her helmet light.
Under her paws, a metal plate shone in the pool of light from her helmet. Turning her head to see the extent of the metal, Kipper saw it extended several yards further in all directions. There was a lip of several inches around the edges, tracing out a strange, artificial circle of silver recessed in the natural, dun color of the ice.
Where Emily pointed — in the middle of the metal plate under them — there was a hemisphere of metal, a round dome about the size of a scramball. Its surface was dented with smaller circles, arranged in a swirling pattern, diminishing in size as they curved in toward the center.
It was beautiful and mysterious.
Then Emily curled one of her tentacles, holding it with flared sucker discs, carefully above the hemisphere. The swirling pattern on the hemisphere perfectly matched the curve of her tentacle; the diminishing circles matched her sucker discs — large at the base of her arm, but as tiny as the tip of a claw at her slender tentacle tip.
Kipper saw a quiver in Emily’s tentacular arm as she held it there. Kipper didn’t know what would happen if she pressed down on that hemisphere, and she suspected Emily didn’t know either. It was clearly what had drawn Emily to bring them here. Whatever this was, the displays on Brighton’s Destiny must have told Emily about it. It must be raptor technology.
“Go ahead,” Kipper signed with spacesuited hands.
Emily’s yellow eyes with their rectangular pupils stared at her from within the bulb of helmet that fit over Emily’s octopus face and bulbous mantle. Their eyes locked together, and Kipper signed the words again, the motions of her paws small as if whispering.
Emily lowered her tentacle into the spiral indentation and pressed down the hemisphere. It receded into the flat metal beneath them, and then the ground began to hum.
Continue on to Chapter 28…