by Mary E. Lowd
Kipper stood among the noisy patrons of the Foghorn, shocked by what she saw on the vid screen. Did this change anything? she wondered. She’d uncovered and visited one hidden cat colony on Mars. She’d spoken with the cats there. She’d made friends with one of them, or so he would have her think from his letters, anyway.
But he was keeping this giant secret. They all were. An entire other colony in an entire other part of the solar system. None of them, not even Josh, who was so seemingly smitten with her, had mentioned it.
Cats are good at keeping secrets.
Okay, so Josh had mentioned New Persia. But he had purposely let Kipper believe it was just another atmo-dome on Mars. Hadn’t he?
Cats are also good at getting revenge, Kipper thought. The word catty does come from somewhere, but Kipper felt tired of cats and cattiness. She didn’t want to be a cat.
That Persian cat had looked so scared.
“Kipper, Kipper!” Trugger was shaking Kipper by the shoulder. “Are you okay?”
Against every catty bone in her body, Kipper said, “I have to help those cats.” But she didn’t know how. She was the only other cat in space. The only cat on a spaceship, but she was too far away. It would take weeks, at the least, to get from the asteroid belt to Jupiter. By then, it would surely be too late.
“Of course we have to help them,” Captain Cod said. He and Jenny both stood beside Trugger, who still held Kipper by the shoulder. She was glad of the support. Without it, she might have fainted.
Looking around the Foghorn, Kipper realized the rest of the Barracuders had already left.
“I’ve ordered the rest of the crew back to the ship,” Captain Cod said. “You’re coming with us, right?”
“With you?” Kipper asked, still in a daze.
“To Jupiter,” Captain Cod said. “To help the New Persians.”
“That’s weeks away,” Kipper mewled, despair trembling in her voice.
“Well, sure,” Trugger said, “Using the normal engines.”
Kipper’s eyes dilated. The normal engines? There were faster engines? And the otters hadn’t been using them?
“You’re coming?” Jenny asked.
Kipper nodded mutely.
She let Trugger and Jenny walk her back through Trailside toward the ship. The captain had to deal with the dock master before the Jolly Barracuda could disembark. Trailside kept a complex and busy docking schedule.
As she walked, Kipper felt the despair lifting. She was terrified of what these non-normal engines might be, and she didn’t want to breathe oxo-agua again. But…
In a way, she was relieved. She’d been only a whisker’s breadth from saying goodbye to her otter friends and starting her voyage back to Earth, but at some level she was glad of the discovery of the Europan cat colony and her clearly felt duty to come to their aid. She knew that was wrong. Those Persian cats were under fire, facing unimaginable horrors at the hands of an unknown foe. Kipper couldn’t help it.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to say goodbye, with all the sad awkwardness that came with that. She didn’t want to leave the Jolly Barracuda.
Perhaps Kipper hadn’t found what she’d come to space looking for, namely a friendly colony of cats with their arms wide, ready to welcome her. The cats had not welcomed her. But the otters had.
There were reasons she had left Earth. She was tired of living a dog-trodden life. There were good dogs like Trudith, sure, but, for every Trudith, there seemed to be a dozen Morrisons. Dogs aside, on Earth, Kipper had felt like nothing more than an interchangeable, unimportant cog.
Up here, she was the cat discovering giant Siamhalla-sized secrets. She was the cat coming to rescue New Persia. Perhaps it was the Jolly Barracuda insanity claiming her, but being the Ship’s Spy for Captain Cod and his crew made Kipper feel important.
The feeling lasted until the moment she set paw on one of the grated iron drains in the floor of the chlorine-scented Jolly Barracuda.
Oh god, she thought. I’m going to be breathing oxo-agua again.
“You know, Kipster,” Trugger said, slapping her on the back, “I’m glad you’re staying.”
“Kipster?” Kipper asked. Only Petra called Kipper that, and only because Petra was too much of a force of nature for Kipper to stop her.
“Yeah,” Trugger said. “That’s what I call you.”
“Not to my knowledge,” Kipper said snippily.
“See?” Trugger said, using the Standard Swimmer’s Sign for a kippered herring which had become Kipper’s name under oxo-agua.
“You’re not seeing it?” He made the sign a few more times; it involved wiggling his littlest paw pad. Apparently, however, he was wiggling it slightly differently than for the normal sign. Jenny shrugged at Kipper; she didn’t get it either.
Trugger kept signing, however, and, eventually, Kipper figured it out: the rhythm of the wiggling pawpad was syncopated. In Trugger’s mind, that must make it a nickname — one which it would be too late to object to now. Apparently, like Petra, Trugger was a force of nature. Only where Petra was a tsunami, Trugger was more like an ice age. He snuck up on you.
“Right,” Kipper sighed with a sense of resignation. “I need to talk to Emily before we take off… about… some stuff.” It wasn’t the smoothest exit, but Trugger saluted, saying something about an errand he needed to run on Trailside, and Jenny gave her arm a friendly squeeze. More importantly, they let her escape. She must have seemed steady enough to convince them that she was all right. Kipper wasn’t convinced. What she needed right now wasn’t sympathetic otters.
As Kipper approached the kitchen, she could see Emily busy at work inside. Her tentacles flew, wielding knives, steadying cutting boards, sweeping chopped vegetables into bowls, and turning a crank on the top of a big pressure cooker. She must be fixing her traditional clam chowder.
Otters love clam chowder, and Kipper had to agree with them. However, soups of any sort don’t fare well under oxo-agua, so Emily only ever fixed it while the Jolly Barracuda was drained and docked at a station. Personally, Kipper was surprised she made it at all. While being docked made eating clam chowder easier, Emily still had to cook it in oxo-agua. As Kipper understood it, the process was quite complex, involving a carefully sealed pressure-cooker. Somehow, Emily managed.
Kipper walked up to the kitchen and, with the sensation of breaking a taboo, knocked on the glass. Emily had said she didn’t mind people getting her attention that way, but Kipper felt like a kitten on a visit to an aquarium, illicitly tapping on all the fish tanks despite clearly marked signs reading, “Do Not Tap on the Glass!”
Perhaps that said more about Kipper’s kittenhood than anything else.
Emily looked up. Her eyes were yellow with rectangular pupils, and the rectangles narrowed in a smile when she saw Kipper. Her face — or what passed for it — was really just the gray expanse of skin under her eyes. Nonetheless, Kipper had learned to read the way that her skin stretched, and she knew Emily was happy to see her.
“You’ve come to say goodbye?” Emily signed with two of her free tentacles.
“I’m staying,” Kipper signed.
Standard Swimmer’s Sign was a dual language — for every word there was a sign designed for otter paws and another sign designed for octopus tentacles. Kipper used the otter signs since she was two-pawed like them, but she knew how to read octopus signs.
“What changed your mind?” Emily asked. It constantly amazed Kipper how Emily could easily communicate in sign language without even hesitating at her cooking. She worked the signs in fluidly with whichever tentacles were handy while all the others kept busy with knives, pots, and pans.
Otters — and Kipper — couldn’t do that. With only two front paws, it took a person’s every appendage to sign.
“There’s been news,” Kipper signed. “There’s a second cat colony. On a moon of Jupiter.”
It was momentary, and Kipper almost missed it; but all eight of Emily’s tentacles froze. The skin around her eyes rearranged in surprise. Then, as quick as the blink of a cat’s inner eyelid, six of the eight tentacles were back to cooking. The last two signed, “Which moon?”
“Europa,” Kipper signed. She had to resort to spelling the name out, letter by letter, as she didn’t know the Swimmer’s Sign for it. As she spelled, Kipper’s brain buzzed. She tried to make sense of the reaction she’d just seen.
Had Emily really been that surprised to learn of another cat colony? It seemed like too much surprise for just that, and, if it was just that, why had Emily tried to cover her surprise?
Or had Emily been surprised to learn that Kipper knew about the second cat colony?
“I’m sorry,” Kipper signed, realizing she hadn’t been reading Emily’s signs at all. “What were you saying?”
“Are you going to this other colony?” Emily repeated. “Do you think the cats there will be more accepting?”
“I don’t know,” Kipper signed. She hadn’t really thought about it, but she supposed she couldn’t help hoping a little that they’d be more accepting. Especially if she brought the only otter ship crazy enough to head into Jupiter System to their rescue.
Who was she kidding? These were Persians. On New Persia. “No,” Kipper signed, “I don’t think they’ll be more accepting. But they need help, and they’re cats. I have to go help them.”
“Noble,” Emily signed. “I wouldn’t necessarily feel the same empathy for another member of my race.” Emily had left her home under the ocean in disgrace, and Kipper knew that she felt a great deal of dissonance about the culture and society of her people.
“What if it was an octopus up here?” Kipper signed. “In space — like you.”
“There are other octopi in space,” Emily signed. “They’re not like me.”
“They’re all males,” Kipper guessed.
From what Emily had said in the past, Kipper inferred that the octopi had a profoundly sexist society. Kipper wasn’t clear on the details, but it seemed that women were expected to lay their eggs, watch over them until they hatched, and then die. Emily hadn’t died.
Emily didn’t know why — whether it was a biological quirk or, as it was seen in her society, some sort of mental weakness that caused her to fail in what was seen as her natural biological role. Either way, there simply hadn’t been a place in octopus society for a female past egg-laying age.
Kipper sighed and felt some of the tension between her ears relax. She didn’t know why she’d doubted Emily. If octopi were involved in this, Emily wouldn’t be part of it. Perhaps Kipper was just in a paranoid, catty frame of mind. Being cast out by a society of your species-peers can do that to you.
“There are ships attacking this cat colony,” Kipper signed. Even if Emily wouldn’t be involved, she might know something. “These anonymous ships have been attacking otters, too. Do you think they could be octopus ships?”
This time, when all of Emily’s tentacles stopped — mid-chop, mid-stir, and with a soggy baguette of Emily’s special underwater bread held aloft — they stayed stopped. She held stock still for several heartbeats before all of her tentacles, still mainly motionless, started that almost imperceptible squiggling and squirming that meant Emily was thinking.
“No,” she signed.
The signed word was simple, final, but Emily’s tentacles hadn’t stopped wriggling.
“Are you sure?” Kipper signed.
Green eyes and yellow eyes locked on each other across atmospheres and an acrylic glass barrier. Her yellow eyes narrowed, but when Emily spoke, her tentacles signed, completely nonchalantly, “I’ve almost finished this chowder. You should spread the word — it’s best when it’s hot.”
Nonplussed, Kipper’s ears danced forward and backward, finally settling, flattened against her skull. Emily did know something, and she wasn’t talking.
Kipper sighed through her teeth. When it came down to it, she really couldn’t tell. Emily was too foreign, and Kipper was too exhausted. She’d have to go round up the otters for their clam chowder feast and put her confusions and suspicions on hold. For now. Yes, for now, she would eat, drink, and be merry — for, tomorrow, she would be breathing oxo-agua.
Continue on to Chapter 9…