by Mary E. Lowd
Trailside was smaller and more cramped than Deep Sky Anchor, that giant outpost of Otterdom in geosynchronous orbit with Earth, anchored to the land of dogs and dog-oppressed cats by the slender thread of the space elevator.
Kipper had taken the space elevator to Deep Sky Anchor, where she met up with Captain Cod and his ragtag Barracuders. Before Trailside, their only stop had been at the disappointingly exclusive cat colony on Mars. So, Trailside was the second-ever otter outpost that Kipper had set paw on.
She was not disappointed.
Despite Trailside’s smaller size, Kipper felt more like she was in space than she ever had on Deep Sky Anchor or the Jolly Barracuda. Both Deep Sky Anchor and the Jolly Barracuda were uniquely, and bizarrely, otter in nature. Beyond the sickening oxo-agua that Captain Cod flooded his ship with while in flight, there was the hideous, tacky decorating. The whole ship felt like — a sailing ship. Except in the tawdry, themed, shore side seafood-joint kind of way. All it was missing was a few buoys and life preservers on the walls.
Deep Sky Anchor was better, yet Kipper couldn’t help feeling creeped out by the artificial rivers that ran down the center of the station which the otters jumped in and out of like personal freeways. Kipper shuddered merely thinking about it.
Now Trailside was Kipper’s idea of a space station. Every way she looked she saw space. Vast, gaping windows of blackness, starlight, and asteroid dust. The gravity was low, because the asteroid was small. For a cat who’d dreamed her whole kittenhood of floating among the stars, this was close to heaven.
“You like,” Trugger said. It wasn’t a question, because it didn’t have to be. Kipper’s round eyes, perked ears, and swishing tail were easy to read, even for an otter.
“Come on, let’s get her to the Foghorn,” Jenny said, taking Kipper by the paw. They stepped out from the arch of the airlock that connected the Jolly Barracuda to Trailside, floating lightly on their paws.
“It’s not that much more impressive than the Barracuda.” Trugger grumbled at Kipper’s obvious, continued awe. “Is it?”
Kipper looked at her friend. She’d grown very close to Jenny and Trugger on their journey. Though she had to seriously question Trugger’s taste sometimes, like when he’d chosen to have his fur dyed purple with spikes. She wasn’t at all sorry that both of their fur jobs — his spikes and her spots — had faded away over the last few months.
“Are you kidding?” Kipper said. “The entire ceiling here is the yawning emptiness of space.”
“So?” Trugger said. “That’s true on Earth too. And it’s not like the Barracuda doesn’t have windows!”
Kipper opened her mouth to retort that the windows on the Jolly Barracuda were the equivalent of a few dingy portholes, but she stopped herself in time. Trugger was nothing if not loyal, and she didn’t think he’d take that well. Instead she said, “We don’t have the weightlessness on Earth.”
“Weightless?” Trugger snorted. “You call this weightless? There’s got to be a full sixteenth gravity here. Now, weightless is oxo-agua. Weightless is swimming.”
Kipper hacked like she had a hairball. “Don’t remind me.”
“Look over there,” Jenny said in a less than subtle attempt to redirect the conversation. Kipper didn’t mind the diversion.
It took Kipper a moment to see what Jenny was talking about. Crawling along the far wall of the crowded docking bay, just above otter head height, were two ashen gray octopuses. The chef on the Jolly Barracuda was an octopus, so Kipper had met one before. However, Emily could only roam the ship freely while it was flooded with oxo-agua. At other times, she was confined to the glassed in, submerged kitchen.
“How?” Kipper asked, but then she noticed their equipment. “Is that scuba gear?”
Each octopus had a dull metal tank strapped to the side of its bulbous mantle with a nexus of tubes congregated where the mantle met the arms, completely covering their tube-like breathing siphons.
“Pretty much,” Jenny said.
“Or kind of the opposite,” Trugger added.
“Huh.” Kipper hadn’t thought about how Emily, the Jolly Barracuda’s chef, had traveled from her native home under the ocean, up the space elevator, through Deep Sky Anchor, and into her cozy little oxo-agua flooded kitchen. It was a simple enough trip for Kipper, but Kipper breathed the same as the otter architects who had built the space elevator, Deep Sky Anchor, and the Jolly Barracuda. An octopus could survive outside of water for hours at a time, but not that long.
Kipper knew that Emily had once lived under the ocean. She hadn’t always been behind the acrylic glass shielding around the Jolly Barracuda’s permanently submerged kitchen. It was like a personal fish tank for Emily. Kipper realized that she must have pictured Emily traveling from the ocean in an actual fish tank, wheeled about on a dolly by muscular, hired otters.
Inverse scuba gear made a lot more sense.
“How come Emily doesn’t use it?” Kipper asked. “She could come out to the Foghorn with us.”
Jenny shrugged. “After Captain Cod hired her, she convinced him to wall in the kitchen like that. She never leaves it.”
Kipper realized that in all her time on the Jolly Barracuda, she’d never seen Emily venture farther away from the kitchen than to the galley even when she could have. Sure, the ship was drained now, but, for weeks, the entire ship had been a much more comfortable environment for Emily than for Kipper. Still, Emily had stayed in that one, confined area. Could it be agoraphobia?
The three companions walked past the scuba-suited octopi, and Kipper saw a cursive, neon green sign reading “The Foghorn” looming ahead. When they reached that bar, Captain Cod would have work for her, and she would have to explain that, after all his kindness, she didn’t want to do it. She wanted to be released from her contract and freed to return home.
Kipper’s tail tip twitched in trepidation. Captain Cod could be a bewildering and enigmatic otter. She wasn’t sure how far his power over her extended, as she had only skimmed the lengthy contract, and she wasn’t sure how whimsically he would use it. So far, he’d been… not reasonable, but good natured. She didn’t know if he had any other nature, but she hoped not to see it if he did.
The captain sat at the bar. A monitor in the corner showed a sports scene — it must have been an Earth broadcast, because the game was clearly scramball and the three teams were composed of Golden Retrievers, Boxers, and Airedales. The Airedales were winning.
The captain wasn’t watching the game. He was talking to the bartender, a bulky sea otter wearing a frilly apron. The bartender was short for an otter, but that still made him more than a whisker taller than most cats, including Kipper.
“Trugger! Jenny!” the captain called out. When Kipper stepped out from between them, Captain Cod jumped off his barstool. “Just the cat I’ve been waiting for!” he exclaimed. “Why, I’ve been telling Gus here all about you.”
Gus, the bartender, grinned a whiskery grin and would’ve agreed, except the captain didn’t give him a chance. Instead, the captain launched into a dramatic retelling of how Kipper, disguised as a leopard, had sneaked onto the Jolly Barracuda, and only through his own brilliant cunning had Captain Cod apprehended her, regained control of his ship (which, apparently, she’d somehow stolen), and then through the largesse of his kindly heart offered her the position of ship’s spy so that she could work off her debt to society on the great and grand Jolly Barracuda rather than while rotting away in a cell on Deep Sky Anchor.
It was an interesting story, bearing little relation to reality, of course.
Gus, the bartender, waggled his furry brow at Kipper when the story was done in a way that suggested he understood the proper tone of levity to apply to Captain Cod’s tales. Clearly, the captain had been chewing his ear off. Gus probably hadn’t gotten a word in the whole time.
“Now,” said the captain, reaching a proprietary paw around Kipper’s shoulders, “if you all don’t mind giving us some privacy, I believe my crewmember and I have some spy business to attend.”
Trugger saluted, and Jenny nodded. The bartender merely took a few steps sideways along the bar. Trugger and Jenny followed, ordered drinks from him, and then made their way to a pinball table under the corner news monitor.
“Sit down.” The captain gestured at the stool beside him. Kipper perched on it lightly. Without the oxo-agua, low gravity was quite pleasant. “All right,” the captain continued, hunching conspiratorially toward Kipper. “Let’s get down to business. Spy business,” he said in a conspicuous hush. He darted a few equally conspicuous and corny glances around the bar. No one was paying any attention to them, except Gus who politely looked away and ambled farther down the bar after Captain Cod shot him a glare.
Satisfied that it was now safe, Captain Cod began: “You know about the crowd of ships from Jupiter?”
Kipper nodded, thinking about how those ships had kept her breathing a liquid longer than she otherwise would have had to. Ugh.
“You do?” he asked, his voice rising in surprise.
“Well, yeah, Trugger told me that was–” Kipper faltered under the intensity of Captain Cod’s stare. “–um, you know, why we weren’t able to dock for so long.”
“Oh,” Captain Cod looked disappointed. “So you only know what I know.” He shot her a suspicious look, as if he thought she were holding out on him. Clearly, as ship’s spy, she should have deduced what he’d want her to know about and have already studied out the answer for him. “Well, I wish you’d get on it,” he said. “Whatever’s going on, causing so many ships to flee the Jupiter system and run Earthwards like wrens with their tail feathers on fire, we need to know about it!” He slammed the bar with a fisted paw.
Gus gave the captain a look that said, “You dent it, you pay for it.” The captain mumbled an apology. Then, promising to return and discuss Kipper’s spy plans with her in a few minutes, Captain Cod explained that he had important business to attend to at the establishment next door, a sweets shop. She strongly suspected that the captain’s “important business” was with a bag of saltwater taffy.
She wondered if they made catnip flavor?
Kipper shook the image from her head. She had more important things to worry about. The whole “ship’s spy” thing was cute onboard the Jolly Barracuda, but she wasn’t sure what the captain expected of her. She was the only member of his crew who’d never been to Trailside before. She was also the only member of his crew who stuck out like a sore thumb, since, apparently, there were even other octopi around, whereas she was the only cat in the solar system whose paws weren’t firmly rooted to a planet.
Kipper sighed, and the bartender came her way. “Need a drink?” he asked.
Kipper nodded, and before she could give him her order, Gus whipped out a glass, a bottle, a stirring rod, and a tiny, metal canister.
“You wouldn’t expect me to have this,” he said, waggling the canister. “But I like to be ready for any customer.”
The spicy, tangy, weedy smell intoxicated Kipper the moment he opened the canister. Her eyes dilated as he sprinkled flecks of leaf over her drink. “You’re the first cat I’ve ever had the honor to serve,” he said. “One catnip froth. On the house.”
Gus slid the frothy glass her way.
But Kipper sighed and slid it back. “I was just craving catnip,” she said, wistful.
“Is there something wrong?” Gus looked at the drink, holding his stirring rod ready, as if he hoped to perform emergency surgery and re-fix the drink however was necessary to make it to his customer’s liking.
“No, no,” Kipper said. “The drink is fine. The drink looks great.” In fact, she couldn’t take her eyes off it. Another sigh. “But I have a job to do.”
“Ah,” Gus said, knowingly. “Spy business.”
“Right,” Kipper grimly agreed.
If she were a real spy, she’d probably infiltrate one of the other ships somehow, gain confidences, and overhear privileged conversations. Even if she were a real spy, being the only cat in all of space — except for the xenophobes on Mars — would be a real hindrance. She had no idea how she was going to surreptitiously uncover secrets from the otters fleeing Jupiter.
“If you change your mind,” Gus said, “the drink’s here. Until then…” The pudgy sea otter looked about surreptitiously — Kipper couldn’t tell if he was mocking Captain Cod’s earlier behavior or if he’d really been sucked into the whole spy mythos. “Don’t suppose you can drop a hint?” He winked. “You know, about who you’re spying on?”
It was amazing. Were all otters fools? Or just the ones Kipper ran into?
There was a thought. Perhaps the only otters who had time for a penniless tabby were the fools. “Gah,” Kipper said. She raked her paws over her face, flattening her whiskers uncomfortably. “Can you just point me toward an otter who recently got here from Jupiter?” She peered from behind her clawful paws.
Kipper had a feeling that Captain Cod wouldn’t like her asking that question. He might think it revealed too much. Though, since she didn’t know anything, she wasn’t sure what it could reveal. Besides, wasn’t asking bartenders for leads a time-honored tradition among spies? Yes, Kipper decided. As far as Captain Cod was concerned, from now on, asking the bartender was rule number one in her spy book.
The Captain would probably believe her if she said she had a spy book. And he would believe her if she said it was too secret for him to see.
“Every otter in here, ‘cept the ones you walked in with, just rolled in from Jupiter System.”
Kipper looked around, one eye narrowed and one ear flattened.
“Oh, and if you’re interested in that whole fiasco, I’d watch the news.” Gus gestured with his dishrag toward the monitor suspended above the pinball machine. Since it was directly above Trugger and Jenny’s heads, Kipper could tell they hadn’t watched a lick of it. They hadn’t talked to any other otters around the bar either, Kipper realized. In fact, Captain Cod hadn’t been talking to anyone either — or, at any rate, listening.
Suddenly, Kipper wasn’t sure if she had the stupidest job ever, or maybe, the best job?
“Yeah,” Gus said, staring at the monitor, “They’ve been looping this story all day between the scramball. I must’a seen it ten times.” Even so, the steady gaze Gus held on the monitor and the way his voice trailed off showed that he was already absorbed into watching it again. Kipper swiveled her barstool around, and they watched the newsfeed in silence.
Two ships had been confirmed destroyed. A dozen otters on each. Other ships had taken heavy damage with casualty numbers coming in. As the word spread, every other ship in the Jupiter system fled.
The attacking ship was sleek and fast. The newsfeed showed a grainy picture of it, taken by a fleeing ship’s external cameras. It looked sinister to Kipper, but, then, anything would when compared to what she was used to: namely, the bizarre bulk of the Jolly Barracuda, which looked like a spaceship being strangled by inner tubes.
This was more like a rocket with missiles strapped on, and a few shotguns and pistols thrown in for good measure. The entire ship looked like a weapon, and it wasn’t the only one. At least three had been spotted, and their attacks were, as far as anyone knew, utterly unprovoked.
One haggard and harried looking river otter explained to the extremely well-coiffed sea otter anchor woman on-screen that, “They appeared out of nowhere and started shooting us! Now, I’m no coward, but I had a ship full of crewmen I was responsible for.”
“So you fled the system?” the anchor woman prompted.
“They gave us little choice,” the river otter said. “I’ve never killed anyone. I have no quarrels with anyone!” He looked pensive and then sighed. “At least, I hadn’t. But, that’s neither here nor there. I don’t know who was on that ship, and I wasn’t about to start firing. Besides…” He looked ruffled. “My ship wouldn’t have stood a chance.”
The news program concluded with the chilling information that fleeing ships had been chased almost to the orbit of Sinope, one of Jupiter’s outermost moons, before their attackers gave up pursuit. All ships were now advised to stay away from the Jupiter system until further notice.
“Are they otters?” Kipper asked Gus. If the attackers were otters, that would mean civil war.
Gus shrugged. He looked dispirited. “Not as far as anyone knows. But, then, who else could they be?”
Kipper suddenly flashed on those octopi wearing scuba gear. She’d have to talk to Emily about the state of octopus rocket technology when she got back to the Jolly Barracuda.
“Some dogs down on the dirtball,” — that’s what some otters called Earth — “are claiming it’s their ‘First Race’ come to bring salvation to the worthy.”
“The worthy meaning First Race believing dogs,” Kipper said.
Most First-Racers believed in a definite hierarchy to the races, and, despite otters being the second race to develop space travel, they usually didn’t come second in that list. No, second was reserved for Man’s Best Friend, and first were the humans who’d abandoned Earth long ago. Kipper got the sense that Gus was interested in her comment. She probably knew more about First Race doctrine and general canine culture than anyone he’d ever met out here in the asteroid belt, but a theological discussion would have to wait.
Captain Cod came swaggering back into the Foghorn, proudly holding a little bag to his chest. It was nearly bursting its seams with saltwater taffy. His whiskers looked sticky, and when he spoke, his voice was muffled and chewy.
“You should really try this stuff,” he said. Seeing Kipper eye the bag, as if she actually might pick out a piece to try, Captain Cod clutched the bag closer. “They’re quite cheap. As soon as we’re done stra-a-a-tegizing,” — that last word sounded particularly sticky in his taffy filled mouth — “you should head next door and buy yourself a bag.”
Gus rolled his eyes at the captain’s lack of generosity, but he made sure the gesture was visible only to Kipper. In fact, he made a point of drifting away, politely out of earshot before Captain Cod made it all the way back to his barstool.
Captain Cod and his spy were safely secluded for continuing their spy shop-talk. Kipper figured she’d cut to the chase. “Anonymous spaceships are attacking innocent otter ships in the Jupiter system–” She was going to add, “And you want me to figure out who they are?“, but Captain Cod jumped up from his seat.
“Great hopping herons!” he exclaimed. “How did you do that? I was only out of the bar for a few minutes.” He looked around suspiciously, then he buddied up to her and said, “No, don’t tell me. Keep your secrets.” Leaning back, making himself comfortable, he said, “Anonymous spaceships, eh?”
Kipper felt at a loss. Had he really been in this bar for the last two hours and not noticed the news?
“I thought it was some sort of gold rush. Clearly, this is much worse,” he said.
Looking around the room, Kipper noticed: every otter she recognized from the Jolly Barracuda socialized strictly with other otters from the Jolly Barracuda. None of them were watching the news. In addition to Jenny and Trugger at the pinball machine, there was a whole table of Barracuders. None of them seemed even slightly aware of the rest of the otters in the bar.
Captain Cod didn’t need a spy. He needed a liaison to the outside world.
Kipper supposed it would be the ship full of outcasts that would accept her into their midst. Kipper tried not to think too hard about that. Right now, outcast was a word that conjured an image for her of a world sparkling with everything a cat could dream of, all of it out of her claws’ grasp, simply because she had the wrong pattern on her fur.
“If that’s all you wanted me to find out,” Kipper said, “I was thinking of looking for a ship that could take me home.”
Captain Cod looked surprised and then dismayed. His whiskers drooped, and his flat, black nose looked very large in his suddenly mournful face. “I was afraid of this.” He held out his bag of taffies now, but Kipper politely demurred. She didn’t think she could chew taffy with her heart in her throat.
“I was hoping you’d stay,” the captain said. “But I guess I knew it was too good to be true. I’ll have Jenny pull up your records, and transfer your pay into any account you specify. Boris can help you book passage with an appropriate freighter back to Earth.”
“It’s that easy?” Kipper asked, suddenly disappointed in herself for thinking Captain Cod would ever try to keep a crew member who didn’t want to stay. He might be strange, but he was a good guy. “I suppose I’ll go back to the ship and pack.”
“As you will.” Captain Cod stuffed several taffies in his mouth and gave her a friendly, albeit sticky, pat on the shoulder. Then, he looked away, quickly. She thought she saw a hint of moisture around his eyes. She felt really guilty, and didn’t think she could face saying goodbye to Trugger and Jenny just yet.
She meant to hurry out of the Foghorn. But before she’d made it five bouncily weightless steps, the video on the monitor in the corner had her rooted to the ground. A different late-breaking news report interrupted the televised scramball game — and changed everything.
Continue on to Chapter 7…