by Mary E. Lowd
Kipper stared at the ceiling for an hour. She was so intent, she didn’t notice the swell of current as Trugger, another one of her otter shipmates, swam up to her. He tapped on her shoulder to get her attention, and when Kipper looked around, the river otter signed, “Didn’t Jenny tell you? Even though we’re stopped, we won’t be draining the oxo-agua until Trailside clears us for docking.”
Kipper’s ears flattened, and her whiskers lay flat against her face from every muscle being tensed. Kipper mouthed, “Air.” She was careful not to use her throat, so she didn’t double over sputtering. No, she kept breathing the oxo-agua, nice and smooth, but she wouldn’t sign. It was her last minute rebellion, small and pointless, against the atmosphere she hated.
Trugger had explained to Kipper before how the oxo-agua cushioned the Jolly Barracuda’s inhabitants against outrageously high acceleration and decelerations. She knew they didn’t need it to orbit an asteroid.
“What?” Trugger asked.
“Air.” Kipper whispered it this time. The oxo-agua tickled her throat. Too thick for anything but drinking. She hated the stuff.
Her eyes locked back on the ceiling. She would wait.
When she finally saw the first glimmer of silvery, sweet air, it would be heaven, floating above. Except, she knew that even when she saw the shimmering shine of wonderful, light air, it would still be too little to breathe. She would have to wait as the oxo-agua slowly lowered around her, draining into the external, expandable atmo-tanks. Heaven in sight but out of reach.
And, for now, still out of sight.
Trugger shrugged and left the Jolly Barracuda’s most eccentric member (or least, depending on who was asked) to her vigil.
Ages later, Kipper felt Trugger’s return in the tides of oxo-agua around her. She didn’t know it was him, but she knew one of her otter shipmates had swum into the barracks with her. She had remained alert and focused as only a cat could. Her eyes had not moved. Hardly blinked.
“What’s the delay?” she signed without looking down.
A slight flutter in the atmosphere told Kipper that the otter who’d come to see her was signing. She deigned to tear her eyes away from the painfully unchanged ceiling in time to see Trugger’s round otter face look exasperated. He grumpily crossed his arms and, meaningfully, tucked his paws under them.
“I’m sorry,” Kipper signed.
Luckily for her, Trugger was a big softy. “Jenny told me you meant to stare at the ceiling until we switched atmospheres,” Trugger signed. “Neither of us thought you meant it. Do all cats have attention spans like that?”
Kipper shrugged and dipped her ears. She knew Trugger still wasn’t good at reading feline body language, so she signed, “Most.”
Trugger still looked interested.
“Not all,” she added. “I knew a Turkish Van cat,” — she had to spell out the breed name Turkish Van with alphabet signs, because the otter sign language didn’t have a separate word for it — “who wrote down what he was doing on a post-it anytime someone interrupted him. Otherwise he couldn’t remember it five minutes later.”
“So not all cats,” Trugger signed.
Kipper was pensive. “Some herd dogs are pretty patient.” She thought a little more. “President Chiyoko could beat any cat, dog, or otter in a test of patience and focus. She’s an Akita. That’s a kind of dog.” Kipper had to spell that breed name out too.
“I’ve seen her on the news vids.”
“Speaking of news?” Kipper signed.
“Yes, I have some.” Trugger paddled his tail, causing him to bob in the oxo-agua before her.
It made Kipper sea-sick when the otters bobbed like that. Why couldn’t they just float in place? Like drowned rats… “What?” she signed. She hated being underwater, and she just knew Trugger was going tell her it wouldn’t be over any time soon.
“There’s been a delay.”
Kipper felt her stomach knotting up. Even though she knew it was coming, she couldn’t stand to see him sign it. Her ears flattened again. Her eyes closed tight. The world shut down in darkness around her, until all that was left was her breathing. Her infernal, hated, watery, oxo-agua lungfuls of breathing.
She felt Trugger’s flippered paws grip her shoulders. He firmly held and lightly shook her. She swayed, and, because he was good to her and deserved better than her wrath, Kipper opened her eyes for Trugger.
He took a paw off her shoulder and pointed up.
Sweet, sweet air! Kipper could hardly take her eyes off it. A whole inch at the top of the room had filled with true gaseous air.
“There’s been a delay,” Trugger signed again when she looked down, “but they’ve dealt with it now.” He swished his tail lazily until he was floating on his side. It made his signs harder for Kipper to read, but she took comfort in the fact that they’d be talking with airwaves again soon.
“There’s a huge influx of ships from the Jupiter area,” he continued to sign from his sideways position. “Something about unidentified attacks.”
“Pirates?” Kipper signed. It was a light jab. She knew the Jolly Barracuders thought of themselves as pirates, but aside from their misunderstanding with the Asteroid Artist Alliance over Captain Cod’s interior decorating, she hadn’t seen them do anything terribly piratey.
“Pirates would steal something, surely?” Trugger paddled his back paws, rotating himself even further, until he floated upside down.
“Are you trying to make me dizzy?” Kipper signed.
“Sorry.” Trugger flipped himself around in a double summersault. “I’m just trying to take full advantage of our last few minutes.”
Trugger and Kipper both glanced up. The air was a foot deep from the ceiling now. Kipper couldn’t wait. She launched herself upward. One firm kick off the floor, an infinite moment of waiting as she glided upward, and, finally, Kipper burst into air.
She spent the next few minutes hacking and coughing as the oxo-agua worked its way out of her lungs. It was like the worst hairball ever.
By the time her lungs cleared out, Kipper found herself treading water in a room still half filled with oxo-agua. The dry air stung in her eyes, but she saw Trugger swimming loop de loops in the liquid half of the room under her. His long, dark body twisted and curled. He swam much faster than Kipper ever could. If she could swim like that, Kipper supposed she might understand wanting to be in a liquid atmosphere. As it was, though, she wasn’t built for swimming, and she felt huge relief when the oxo-agua drained low enough for her hind paws to touch the floor.
“Come on in! The water’s fine!” Trugger signed to her with a huge grin. His gestures looked wavey and stretched under the oxo-agua, but Kipper could still make them out.
“You’re looking a little cramped down there,” Kipper said, trying out her voice. It felt weird after weeks of disuse. And abuse. Breathing liquid wasn’t good for the vocal cords. It didn’t matter; Trugger’s ears were still submerged with the rest of him, so Kipper echoed her words with paw signs.
She wasn’t sure if he caught them, what with all his circling. Trugger kept swimming around her until the oxo-agua was barely deep enough for him to steer with his tail. As his broad rudder of a tail swayed to turn him, the oily brown fur broke the surface. While he continued to swim tight circles around her, the fur along his side emerged. Fuzzy and wet. Finally, Trugger gave up the game. He stood up, dripping, coughing, and sneezing. Even so, Kipper thought he recovered from the liquid to gaseous atmosphere transition much quicker than she had. Of course, he had much more experience, being a seasoned Barracuder.
Kipper was only on her second flight. First, she flew from Earth to Mars — where she discovered Siamhalla and all its catly joys. Now, from Mars to the asteroids. And what, she wondered, would she find here?
“Seriously,” Trugger said, interrupting her reverie. His voice was growly with the adjustment back to real air. “The Captain wants you to find out what’s going on with all these ships from Jupiter.”
“Right…” Kipper said, startled by Trugger’s indirect reminder of her official position on the Jolly Barracuda: ship’s spy. Why exactly Captain Cod felt that his ship needed a spy and how he got the idea that the only cat in outer space was the right animal for the job, well, that was anyone’s guess.
“I was–” Kipper coughed. Her voice startled at speaking again. “I was planning to find a ship that could take me home.”
Trugger stared blankly at her. If anything, his whiskers turned down. Kipper wasn’t sure, but she thought he looked a little more serious than usual.
“Jenny knew that,” Kipper added, hoping to make the serious look go away.
Instead, it got worse. “You’d better talk to the captain,” Trugger said. But then he brightened, “You’ll find him at the Foghorn. It’s the best bar in the solar system.” Trugger gave his long body a twisty shake, ruffling all his oily-wet brown fur. Droplets of oxo-agua sparkled as they flew off him, leaving his fur bushy and sticking out. “I’ll take you there.”
“You mean he’s not on the ship?” Kipper asked.
“When we hit Trailside,” Trugger said, wringing out soggy folds of his trousers. “The captain doesn’t waste two shakes of a titmouse’s tail. Why, he’ll be sucking down rum spiked clam juice at the Foghorn before we can get changed into dry clothes.”
The clingy, soaked fabric of her vest and pants felt unbearable to Kipper. “Maybe before you can,” she said, turning and slogging her way toward the hall down to the barracks. The oxo-agua was still a foot deep, but she felt more agile splashing her way through that than she had in weeks. “No otter is going to beat this cat into dry clothes!” She yelled over her shoulder as she ran. “Let alone off of this soggy puddle of a spaceship!”
Of course, Kipper would have been right, except that one otter, namely Captain Cod, had his own quarters in the Jolly Barracuda’s nose, nestled only one level below the bridge. Kipper had a bottom bunk in the barracks, and the barracks were two levels lower. When Kipper got to the stairs down, the importance of that difference finally sunk in. Up and down hadn’t mattered much in the oxo-agua. Now they did.
“Rats!” she cried, staring in dismay at an oxo-agua filled staircase. She stamped her foot on the slick but drying floor. It would take another twenty minutes for the oxo-agua to drain all the way down to the barracks. She was still staring intently at the insidious liquid filling the staircase when Trugger approached from behind.
“Don’t even think about it,” he said.
“What?” she asked, flattening her ears. Certainly, there could be nothing wrong with heading straight to the bar. “If the outpost on this asteroid is anything like Deep Sky Anchor,” she referred to the otter space station in geosynchronous Earth orbit, “then, my clothes and fur will be getting wet again all over the place out there.”
“Well, that’s true,” Trugger admitted.
Kipper shuddered out to her whiskers. She’d been downright creeped out when she first saw the artificial rivers that otters treated like freeways flowing through the center of Deep Sky Anchor. Otter architecture took a lot of getting used to.
“So what’s the point in waiting for the barracks to drain out, waiting my turn for a chemical brush, and then digging out the one set of dry-packed clothes from the back of my bunk drawer?” Kipper’s nose wrinkled remembering which vest and pants she’d shoved in the dry-bag as they’d been leaving Mars. It was what was clean… And she’d been in a hurry. “Well?”
“Let’s just say that oxo-agua doesn’t dry so nicely.”
Kipper gave Trugger a quizzical stare; one ear flattened, the other held high.
“It’ll make your fur all gummy.”
Kipper sighed. If an otter who’d had his fur dyed and sculpted into purple spikes when she’d first met him was concerned about dry oxo-agua messing up his fur, then it was definitely something to worry about. She sat down on the top step of the staircase, her feet dangled over the next two, recently air-exposed steps. She could wait.
Continue on to Chapter 5…