Otters In Space 2 – Chapter 30: Europa

by Mary E. Lowd

An excerpt from Otters In Space 2: Jupiter, Deadly.  If you’d prefer, you can start with Chapter 1, return to the previous chapter, or skip ahead.

“Before either of the raptor ships could finish their descent, each of them exploded.”

For all the responsibility hanging on her shoulders, Kipper stood uselessly in the dark, watching Emily’s spacesuit-wrapped tentacles fly around, working the panels.  The glowing lights on the panels danced, and Kipper watched their reflections play across the bubble of helmet over Emily’s eyes.  None of it meant anything to her, but clearly it meant something to Emily.

Kipper’s paws itched to sign questions at Emily:  “What are you learning?  What does it say?  Can we use this base for anything?”  But she kept her paws to herself, endeavoring to stay out of Emily’s way and keep from distracting her.  It would do her no good to act like an impatient kitten, swatting at anything she saw just to evoke a reaction.

Emily’s tentacles slowed to a halt, and she turned her eyes to look at Kipper.  There was concern in the creases of her skin.  That faceless expanse that nonetheless was her face.

Impatience bubbled out of Kipper, and she signed, “Is there life support?  Can you fill this place with some kind of atmosphere?”  She still hoped to turn the underground base into a bunker to protect New Persians.

Emily shrugged, a gesture that always looked impressive on her many-armed body but that was incredibly frustrating to Kipper right now.  “There are a lot of controls,” Emily signed.  “I don’t know how long it will take me to understand them.”

Kipper sighed.  Maybe they could load New Persians into space suits and hide them down here anyway.  It wouldn’t be comfortable, or a long term solution, but it would be safer than that unprotected city on the surface.

“Kipper,” Emily signed, “I’m confused.  Everything on these control panels points toward one thing.  It’s like a big red button in the middle with giant arrows pointing at it.  But, I don’t know what the button does.”

“What do you mean?” Kipper signed.  She didn’t see anything like a big red button on the smooth panels, laced with intricate glowing squiggles all around them.

“I think this base was built with one big purpose,” Emily signed.  “Like a nuclear power plant — turn it on, and it will generate nuclear energy.  Except, I don’t know what this base is designed to do.  If I turn it on, it will do something, but I don’t know what.”

Kipper thought about that.  “Could it be a power plant?”

“Could be,” Emily signed.  “I don’t understand all the physics.  I think it generates electro-magnetic waves or a field?  Or maybe it’s gravity?  Some sort of…”  She shrugged again.

The roots of Kipper’s ears prickled and she felt the tip of her tail start twitching against her leg in the spacesuit.  “Could it be a weapon?”  Perhaps something that could shoot down the raptor vessels.

Emily’s expression was unreadable.  “If it is, I don’t know if I’ll be able to control it.”

That could be dangerous.  If they started up a planetary defense system down here in the dark, might they accidentally shoot down the Jolly Barracuda?  Would that casualty be worth it if they saved an entire colony of New Persians?

When it came down to it, Kipper realized, she was responsible for the final decision.  It was better not to over think it.  “Press the red button,” she signed.

Emily signed in the affirmative, showing she understood.  Then her tentacles flew into a whirl, filling the alcove they shared with writhing motion.  The glowing squiggles on the panels began dancing again.  Apparently, the metaphorical big red button was pretty metaphorical, because Emily’s eight tentacles did something a lot more complicated than pushing a single button.

As Emily worked, the lights embedded in the material of the walls of the giant room brightened.  Kipper saw better, but nothing else changed.  Nothing Kipper could sense anyway.  Eventually Emily stopped.

“Is that it?” Kipper signed.  “Did it work?”

“I don’t know,” Emily signed.  Her tentacles drooped, expressing the same disappointment that Kipper felt.

“We can’t even tell if it did anything,” Kipper signed.  She felt a huge temptation to start pawing at the control panels herself, as if her random interference was more likely to produce an interesting result than Emily’s careful work.

Kipper jumped in surprise as a robotic voice spoke in her ear.  “Jolly Barracuda to Kipper, this is Jenny.  Kipper come in.

Kipper’s startled jump had sent her sailing in the low gravity.  She scrabbled uselessly with her paws in the air trying to catch herself midflight and cried out inarticulately.

Kipper?” the robot said.  “Is that you?  Please speak clearly.  The voice-to-text translation made complete gobbledygook of your last transmission.

Kipper landed several alcoves over from Emily, who was peeking over the top of her alcove to watch Kipper’s inelegant flight.  Kipper spat at her, ineffectively, and then regained her composure enough to say, “Jenny?  You sound like a robot.  Please tell me that the raptors haven’t turned you all into robots.”

The robotic voice replied with an eerie, “Ha, ha, ha.”  It sounded nothing like laughter.  “No, I’m typing messages into a text-to-voice translator for electronic transmission to your spacesuit radio.  We’re still onboard in oxo-agua.

Kipper climbed over the honeycomb alcoves back toward Emily.  As she climbed, she said for her radio, “Okay, well, things haven’t gone as planned here.”

Emily signed, “Are you okay?”

Kipper replied with her paws to explain the radio messages.  She wondered if Emily’s spacesuit was set up with any kind of radio receiver — could she send and receive messages in text form?  Kipper found her own otter-spacesuit confusing enough.  She had no idea how Emily’s octopus-suit worked.

“Look,” Kipper said for the radio.  “We got kind of sidetracked.”  She was preparing to explain the underground octopus base and her complete failure to organize the cats of New Persia into refugee groups.

Instead, the robot voice cut in to say, “Yes, we can tell you’ve been up to something.

“What do you mean?” Kipper said, her heart thumping and her tail fluffing.  “Are you all okay?”  They wouldn’t be calling her on the radio if they’d been shot down by a planetary defense system, right?  At least, not unless they’d survived it.

Out of respect to Emily, Kipper signed her words too as she spoke them; she translated the robotic words into signs for Emily as well.

We saw the strangest thing happen to a pair of raptor vessels.

Kipper’s paws followed along, signing as the robotic voice in her ear continued.

We’d led the raptor ships away from Europa and then doubled back at full speed.  When we got within sight of New Persia again, it turned out that a couple of raptor ships had broken off from chasing us and were already flying toward the surface.  As they got close though, it was like they just crunched, like something invisible chewed them up and spat them out.  Before either of the raptor ships could finish their descent, each of them exploded.

“We broke away and have entered a high level orbit.

There was a pause where Kipper and Emily stared at each other wide eyed.  What had they turned on?

Kipper said and signed, “We found an underground base — it seems to have been built for and possibly by octopi.  We don’t know what it does, but we turned it on, hoping it could help the New Persians.  So…  I guess that was us?”

Static sounds erupted in Kipper’s ears.  She expected it was the sound of a text-to-voice translator sputtering mashed keys of infuriation.  She felt the pit of her stomach twist at the thought of how close she’d come to killing all her friends.

It was cold comfort that the octopus base had in fact done something to protect the New Persians.  That had been her goal.  She had succeeded.  However, she realized, if she could go back in time twenty minutes, she wouldn’t have the courage to do it again.  It was too much of a risk.  It had come too close to having too high a cost.

Okay,” the robotic voice said, “well, can you turn it back off to let us in?

Emily signed to Kipper, “I think so.”

“Yeah,” Kipper relayed back to the radio in her helmet.  “But, can you send some sort of test objects through before going through yourselves?  ‘Cause, I really don’t want this to go wrong.”

No kidding,” the robotic voice replied.  “We don’t either.”  After a moment of silence, the voice continued, “Felix says we can shoot crates of empty fish tins ahead of us to see how they fare.”

Turning off the newly powered up base turned out to be harder than turning it on.  Emily’s tentacles whirled around Kipper, working their magic on the glowing squiggles.  Nonetheless, one crate of fish tins after another crunched into a ball of scrap metal on the Jolly Barracuda’s viewscreen.  On one paw, this meant the New Persians were safe from the raptors.  On the other, the Jolly Barracuda was trapped on the raptor side of a powerful force field, and the longer it took to let them in, the more raptors there would be ready to follow them.

One by one, the raptor ships returned to Europa.  The first few threw themselves unwittingly against the standing gravity wave that now surrounded Europa a couple hundred miles above the surface.  They crunched and exploded like the fish tins.  The rest of the raptor ships wised up fast.

The Jolly Barracuda led the raptors in a complicated game of chase, hide and seek, and the occasional round of dodge ball at a high orbit.  All the while, Felix kept hopefully lobbing empty fish tins toward the moon, and Emily tinkered with the mysterious glowing control panels.

The robotic voice in Kipper’s ear couldn’t convey frustration in its tone, but Kipper could hear it in her own voice.  She knew the tension on the Jolly Barracuda must be rising when the robotic voice switched from Jenny’s matter of fact updates to the enigmatic though flatly delivered line, “One fish short of a mackerel!  Can’t you two move any faster?  We’re a flamingo without a leg to stand on up here!

“Captain Cod?” Kipper asked.

Sorry, that was the captain, but this is Felix.  There are enough raptors up here that I don’t think you should shut down the force field for us even if you can.”

Kipper swore under her breath.  “What are you going to do?  Fly away and leave us here?”  She and Emily didn’t have the resources to make it to New Persia on their own.

Maybe, but I have an idea first.  Since we can’t shut down the whole field anyway, let’s see if we can cancel out one part of it.  That way, the Barracuda could fly through without all the raptors following us.

Unlike Emily and Kipper, Felix was an expert on physics, but he was trying to understand physics equations written in a language he didn’t understand, on a console he couldn’t see, translated into Swimmer’s Sign by an octopus, relayed by a cat whose speech was being converted to text by the Jolly Barracuda’s computer.  It was not ideal.  Not at all.

Nonetheless, Felix and Emily figured out how to send a directed gravity wave to cancel out a small part of the planet-wide wave, effectively creating a temporary opening.  The Jolly Barracuda slipped through the opening.  Several raptors vessels tried to follow the Jolly Barracuda, but Emily closed the field, crunching them, before they made it through.

Kipper’s body flooded with relief when the robotic voice said, “We’ve landed next to Brighton’s Destiny.”  She hadn’t realized all her fur was fluffed out against her spacesuit until she felt the prickly sensation of it smoothing down.

Emily sure did a number on the Destiny, but the captain says we’ll put a team on repair duty, see if we can’t fix that broken wing for you.  This is Jenny again, by the way.  We’re also going to send a team to investigate the octopus base.  Felix wants an up close look at those control panels.

“What about New Persia?” Kipper asked.  Now that her friends were safe, he mind turned to all the cats and kittens who’d been scared and wounded by the raptor attacks.  “They probably need medical aid.  And, even after we get this base figured out, I bet a few of them will still want to go home.  Force field or not, Earth is a lot safer than anywhere in Jupiter System right now.”

The voice in Kipper’s ear was quiet.  As she waited to hear the captain’s plan for dealing with New Persia, she found herself formulating her own plans.  If there were too many cats who wanted to leave New Persia right away, there would need to be a hierarchy assigned to their level of need and perhaps a lottery to maintain fairness when the level of need was unclear or approximately equal.  She’d never had so much power over so many people’s lives before.

The next voice Kipper heard through her space helmet was Captain Cod’s, buoyant and flamboyant, a huge contrast to the robotic monotone of the text-to-voice translator.  The oxo-agua must have finished draining from his captain’s quarters.  “Skippy sandpipers, Kipper!  Congratulations on a job well done!  Now, I know you were planning to decommission, but before you do, I hope you’ll accept a promotion.”

Kipper’s ears twisted uncomfortably against the otter-shaped ears on her spacesuit helmet.  “A promotion?”

“I’m going to need some help sorting out the New Persians,” Captain Cod said.  “And I’ll need your help.  I’d like to promote you from Ship’s Spy to Diplomatic Ambassador to Independent Cat Nations.”

Kipper’s ears burned with pride.  It was a silly title, but she loved it.

“Of course, you’ll be free to leave the crew and return to Earth after this whole Persian situation is sorted out–”

Kipper cut the captain off.  “Never mind about that.”  Certainly, she would want to go home and see her littermates, but Kipper was beginning to think that it would only be a visit.  Her place was up here, having adventures with these crazy otters.  “I accept.”

Continue on to Chapter 31

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