by Mary E. Lowd
In the middle of the Europan ice desert, many miles beyond New Persia and under the watchful eye of Jupiter’s great red spot, Kipper and Emily sank into the moon’s interior on an old, abandoned elevator. The shaft rose up around them, shrinking the circle of sky they could see. They deeper they sank, the smaller it got. Kipper turned off her helmet light and stared up at the receding stars. Eventually, a metal iris closed above them, sealing them into the darkness.
The vibrating hum beneath Kipper’s feet rose and fell in pitch until Kipper’s paws grew numb to the sensation. She wondered how long the elevator would descend. She wondered if it would open on raptor guards, holding blaster weapons at the ready in their many mind-controlled tentacles. Could this be a trap or would she and Emily simply find themselves stuck in a relic of technology, enough juice left to start the elevator running but otherwise dead?
The elevator kathunked then stopped humming. Nothing happened for long enough to make Kipper’s heart race. She was sure that the elevator had lowered her to an alien grave. No one would come for them. The Jolly Barracuda would be unable to find them, and the elevator would never start again.
With her ears flattened inside her helmet, Kipper fumbled to turn on her helmet light. Before she succeeded, the light around her changed, and Kipper felt sure her eyes were playing tricks on her.
A round mouth of lighter gray had opened up before her. Inside that gray, Kipper thought she could see lights moving and dancing. Tiny sparkles dotted her vision, like stars, or maybe only the starbursts that clouded her vision if she closed her eyes, squeezing both layers of eyelids tight.
But her eyes were open, and the lights continued to dance.
Kipper felt movement at her foot, and she looked down to see Emily crawling past. Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and there was enough light, barely, to make out the snaky shape of tentacles pulling themselves one over the other. Kipper decided to leave her helmet light off.
Kipper followed Emily out of the elevator, but she had to crouch down. The corridor was too low, even for a cat. Clearly, this was not a raptor base after all. With their greater stature, the raptors wouldn’t have fit in these tunnels.
Kipper followed Emily down the tunnel, marveling at the ease with which the octopus pulled herself forward. The rounded, tubular shape of the tunnel leant itself perfectly to her many-armed, radial form.
As Kipper crawled through the tunnel, she realized the dancing lights were embedded in the material of the walls. Wherever she put her paws and wherever Emily’s tentacles touched them, the walls blossomed with pinpricks of light.
It was hard to be sure in the low gravity, but Kipper didn’t think the tunnel had a level floor. One moment she was crawling uphill; the next moment, the tunnel sloped downward and she strained not to slide forward into Emily.
Between the changing angle of the tunnel and the shape of Emily’s body in front of her, Kipper couldn’t see to the end of the corridor. She was surprised when Emily’s silhouetted shape suddenly disappeared ahead of her. Kipper crawled cautiously forward, thankful that the tunnel was angled uphill here. She slid her paws to make sure they kept solid ground beneath them. When Kipper’s forepaws felt the lip of the corridor, she leaned forward.
Kipper strained her eyes to make sense of the varying levels of grayness in front of her. She wanted to taste the space with the vibration of her whiskers and hear it with the turn of her ears. It would have been much easier to understand it that way, but her whiskers were trapped, uselessly inside her space helmet, and the only sounds her ears could hear were the echoes of her own blood rushing through her body and the muteness of her spacesuit radio.
She couldn’t talk to Emily over the radio, and she didn’t expect to hear from the Jolly Barracuda until they’d finished running the raptors a merry chase.
Kipper could feel the temptation of defeatism, but her body was too filled with anxious adrenaline to slump into that kind of depression. There had to be something useful here. Kipper redoubled her efforts to understand the space in front of her. She peered into the grayness looking for Emily. As she stared, vertical and horizontal lines of black resolved. They looked like poles, interlacing a large open space. Kipper was tempted to turn on her helmet light, but it would have only illuminated a small swath of the space, and then her eyes would lose their adjustment to the darkness.
As far as Kipper could tell, the corridor opened near the top of a large room. She thought she could see other openings riddling the walls of that room, so perhaps there were other corridors around it. The poles made no sense to her.
Then she spotted Emily, swinging easily from one pole to the next in the low Europa gravity. Her darkened silhouette gracefully extended tentacles, wrapping half of them around a new pole while the other half still clung to the last one, moving ever downward through the room. The span of her tentacles was marvelous. Kipper never saw Emily stretch out so fully in her little kitchen on the Jolly Barracuda. Kipper thought of her as small, and in the tight corridor Emily had been. In this wide space, Emily’s long tentacles unfurled to reveal an arm span Kipper had never guessed at.
Emily navigated the poles in this room as fluidly as the otters swam through their artificial rivers on Deep Sky Anchor. It was a beautiful and mesmerizing sight. It left no doubt in Kipper’s mind: this space had been built for octopi. Perhaps by octopi?
Trusting Emily’s octopus instinct in this environment, Kipper crawled forward, extending her torso over the lip of the tunnel, and reached for the nearest pole. She didn’t have the arm span necessary to swing between them like Emily. However, Emily headed to the bottom of the room, and Kipper figured she could, at least, slide down a pole. Hopefully, Emily would help her whenever it came time to climb back up. She didn’t know if her spacesuited paws would have the grip necessary for that.
Like a firefighter, Kipper grabbed the nearest pole with her forepaws, crisscrossed her hindpaws loosely around it, and slid down. In the low gravity, she drifted rather than plummeted. Her tail only fluffed out a little at the freefall sensation of falling through the dark.
Kipper’s paws touched ground, and she looked around at the bottom of this vast room. The ground had an uneven, honeycomb shape. It sloped down into alcoves large enough to hold several cats like her — or perhaps a comfortably stretched out octopus? Between the alcoves, the ground raised into ridges wide enough for her to balance on carefully.
Most of the poles rose out of the ridges, stretching upward from those high points toward the ceiling. Thus, Kipper had touched down at a high point. She squinted into the nearest honeycomb alcove, but she couldn’t make out much in the darkness. She would need to get closer. Instead of climbing into the nearest one, though, Kipper decided to continue following Emily.
A dim trail of light in the material of the ground traced the path Emily had followed, over and through the various alcoves. Kipper tried to balance her way along the ridge of high ground between the alcoves, using an occasional pole to steady her, but she ended up finding it easier to climb in and out of the alcoves. A trail of lit up boot prints followed her.
Many of the alcoves in the honeycomb floor that Kipper climbed through seemed to host alien control panels of some sort. Smooth, dark screens, and collections of knobs, switches, and buttons. Kipper didn’t stop to look at them closely, but when she caught up with Emily she could tell that Emily had chosen to ensconce herself in the alcove with far and away the most elaborate control panels.
The alcove curved around Emily, and it was indeed the perfect size for her tentacles to comfortably stretch out and reach control panels in every direction around her, all three-hundred-and-sixty degrees. Emily contorted her tentacles, making room for Kipper to climb in beside her.
“Feel at home?” Kipper signed.
Emily’s eyes stared at her through the darkness. Yellow and alien. Emily had never seemed so much like an alien entity to Kipper as she did at that moment.
Then she moved her tentacles in the familiar sign language they shared with the otters: “What do you mean?”
Kipper found it comforting to think that Emily might find this sunken base under the surface of Europa as mysterious and alien as she did. Even if it did look like it had built perfectly to the specifications of Emily’s tentacled body.
Kipper signed, “I think this place was built by octopi.”
Emily blinked. Twice. Then signed, “I can read some of the writing in these computers.”
Kipper looked at the panels surrounding them. She hadn’t noticed writing on them. They were lit up with moving squiggles. She supposed it could be writing. “Is it octopus writing?”
“Yes,” Emily signed. “It’s very ancient, but I studied some when I was a mother.”
Kipper and Emily had discussed the different meaning of the word “mother” in the octopus culture before. Emily was referring to the time when she was still fertile, before she’d laid her clutch of eggs, done the unthinkable for a female — namely, surviving their maturation — and become an outcast who lived among otters. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise Kipper that Emily didn’t feel at home in a world built for octopi. She hadn’t felt at home among the octopi living under Earth’s oceans either.
“Can you tell what any of these controls do?” Kipper signed.
“I’m a chef,” Emily signed. “Not a physicist. And this looks like physics.”
Kipper peered at the squiggles. They writhed and danced, little worms of light, playing with her vision. They didn’t look like physics, not to her, but, if they did to Emily, then maybe they were. “You’re not a pilot either,” Kipper signed. “But you got us here. Now, if you can figure out what this place is… Maybe turn on some life support? I dunno, but there are cats dying up there on the surface, and there must be some way we can use this place to help them. Maybe as a bunker to shelter refugees from the raptor attacks?”
The rectangular pupils of Emily’s eyes narrowed: a look of determination, recognizable across species. “Aye, captain,” she signed, a slightly mirthful writhe in her tentacles at the use of Kipper’s newly earned title. Then all eight of her appendages shot into action, reaching around Kipper, working the control panels in every direction. The tendril thin tips of her tentacles traced out delicate squiggles of light, writing her own commands in this octopus language, while the larger sucker discs at the trunks of her arms worked dials and switches. It was amazing and wonderful how much her eight tentacles could do at once.
Kipper had always been impressed by the way that Emily’s arms flew into action, wielding knives, kneading dough, cooking an entire meal and several appetizers in the Jolly Barracuda kitchen at once. This was the same but with alien computer consoles, and all Kipper could do was stand there and watch, trying not to worry about the kittens in New Persia.
Continue on to Chapter 29…