by Mary E. Lowd
The mysterious machinations of the octopus government in Choir’s Deep kept Kipper and the otters on the Diving Canary waiting for nearly two days. Kipper did a lot more reading. Trugger found a deck of tarot cards that some previous occupant of the submarine had left behind and invented a card game that was a cross between tarot and poker.
Trugger, Captain Cod, Chauncy, and Pearl took turns laying out cards to tell each other’s fortunes, betting on them, trading them, and mixing them up, all while laughing a lot. Kipper declined to play, feeling like she’d already bet too much on her fortune.
When Choir’s Deep finally contacted them again, the new message was as short and pithy as the one before: “Prepare for escorts.”
Pearl had been the officer on duty in the bridge when the message arrived, so she was the one to relay those words to everyone else, huddled in the barracks around their card game.
“We’re going in!” Trugger whooped. “Octopus City, here we come!”
“Either that,” Kipper grumbled, setting her data-pad aside, “or they’re arresting us.”
“Say what?” Pearl asked with her head still poking up from the lower level. Everyone else was too busy singing along with Trugger on his improvised surf song “Octopus City” to have even heard her.
“Nothing,” Kipper said. “How should we prepare?”
“SCUBA gear,” Trugger said knowingly, cutting his song short. He began gathering together the waxy water-proof tarot cards to put them away.
Unless Kipper was mistaken, SCUBA gear meant more water. At least, it also meant not breathing it.
Captain Cod said, “This is your mission, Kipper, so obviously you’ve got to be part of the team.”
Kipper wished that weren’t so obvious.
“I’m the captain, so I’ll come along too.”
“Me too!” Trugger yelped.
Pearl and Chauncy shot each other a glance that Kipper couldn’t read. Then Pearl said, “Chauncy and I should be able to manage the ship on our own.” Chauncy nodded eagerly.
Kipper wondered if they were glad to get rid of Trugger. She’d wondered about the fact that she had become so instantly his best friend when she had arrived on the Jolly Barracuda. Did he have trouble getting along with other otters?
“That’s settled then,” Captain Cod said. “The three of us will get our SCUBA gear on and debark from the sub’s airlock.” He turned to Pearl and added, “Send the octopi a message. Tell them we’ll be ready in a matter of minutes.”
Pearl saluted and then bobbed back down to the main level. Chauncy followed.
Captain Cod held his webbed paws out, paw pads up. “Let’s all join paws,” he said, completely creeping Kipper out.
“What? Why?” she objected. But she was a good cat and took hold of one of Captain Cod’s paws. Trugger grabbed hold of her other paw.
“We’re a team,” Captain Cod said.
Kipper nodded respectfully and waited for him to continue onto some some sort of inspirational speech, fabricated anecdote, or tall tale about a bird, but after a few moments, Captain Cod simply squeezed their paws. Then he let go, clapped his own paws together, and said, “Let’s go meet some octopi!”
Kipper wouldn’t have minded a bit of an inspirational speech.
“Down to the airlock!” Captain Cod practically dove down the hatch to the main level. Once he splashed down, Kipper could hear him muttering to himself about how it was really more of a “waterlock” on a submarine, and then pondering whether “waterlock” would be a good word for a warlock with water magic, and wondering if he should invest some money in starting a “waterlock” movie franchise.
Kipper supposed that would have to do for inspiration. She followed Trugger down to the main level. When they got to the outer door of the airlock, Captain Cod handed them each a tangle of SCUBA gear. Like most of the gear Kipper had to deal with around Jolly Barracuders, the SCUBA gear was designed for otters. Fortunately, that didn’t make nearly as much difference in a simple face mask as it had in a full body spacesuit. Kipper shuddered at the memory of cramming her ears into the small rounded ear guards designed for an otter, and she cringed at the memory of the useless appendage designed for an otter’s rudder-like tail flapping baggily behind her.
Once all three of them — Kipper, Trugger, and Captain Cod — had their face masks firmly affixed and their air tanks strapped on their backs, they stepped into the airlock and sealed it behind them.
The water sloshing around Kipper’s waist began to rise. Her heart pounded, preparing her for the moment of panic that always came on the Jolly Barracuda when the oxo-agua rose too high, drowning her, and she had to breathe it. But this was not oxo-agua, although it looked eerily the same. It was water, and she was not expected to breathe it.
The tepid water rose past her shoulders, tickled her chin, crept up her face, wetting down her fur, and filled her ears. But Kipper breathed steadily from her face mask, clinging to the stream of air — real air — that the SCUBA gear fed her hungry lungs.
As soon as the water finished filling the small room, Captain Cod signed, “Ready?”
Kipper and Trugger both answered, “Yes,” with their paws, and Captain Cod punched the button to open the outer door of the airlock. The door split open, four pieces withdrawing into the walls, leaving a cross of empty space. Outside, the water was devastatingly clear. Except for the water’s embrace on her furry arms and the deep, deep blue in the distance, Kipper wouldn’t have known it was water.
They stood in the airlock, staring at the crenulated green lobes of Choir’s Deep softly lit by the Diving Canary’s front lights, waiting for the escort they’d been promised. Kipper wasn’t even sure what that meant until she saw two giant shapes moving toward them, swimming slowly through the water. Kipper felt her fur fluff, a strange prickly feeling when she was under water. Alarmed, she signed, “Sharks? Should we–”
She was going to suggest closing the airlock and going back inside, but then she saw the octopi clinging to the sharks’ speckled backs. Five on one, six on the other, riding them like some kind of giant underwater bus.
“They’re too big for sharks,” Captain Cod signed.
“Whale sharks,” Trugger signed. “They’re filter feeders. We have nothing to fear. Nice ride though!”
Nothing to fear. Kipper liked that optimism. Even if it did seem a little blind.
A lifetime of being a common alley cat in a society run by dogs and purebreds had taught Kipper that government officials weren’t always on her side. And a government that had chased away Emily, the Jolly Barracuda’s octopus chef, didn’t seem any more likely to be utopian.
As the whale sharks drew closer, the octopi riding them waved their tentacles. Rainbows of different colors flitted over their skin. Kipper felt torn as to whether the sight was cheerful and friendly or disturbing and deeply ominous. Even after all the time Kipper had spent with her friend Emily, octopi were still basically aliens to her.
“This is exciting!” Trugger signed, giving Kipper a big otterly grin.
Captain Cod signed, “A momentous occasion!”
Kipper’s stomach churned with nervousness. She waited until the whale sharks pulled up beside the Diving Canary’s airlock and then signed to the octopi, “Thank you for seeing us. We have important things to… discuss.”
The octopi looked at each other, glances exchanged from one pair of golden eyes with rectangular pupils to another. Then their tentacles began to writhe. Kipper couldn’t tell if it was an expression of restlessness, a mere emotional gesture, or if they were signing to her — too quickly, too subtly — for her to understand.
“I don’t understand,” she signed.
Captain Cod put a hand on her arm as if to say, Don’t worry I’ve got this. Then he signed to the octopi in big, clear gestures, with no apparent irony, “Take us to your leader.”
More writhing. More rainbows. Nothing clear. Nothing Kipper could interpret. Her triangular ears flattened, but her otter compatriots seemed unfazed.
Captain Cod leaned forward and his rudder-like tail undulated, propelling him out into the open water. Rainbowed tentacles reached for him as he approached, grabbed his outstretched arms, and helped him onto the smooth speckled back of one of the whale sharks. He grinned, waved, and signed, “Come on!”
Trugger grabbed Kipper by the paw and pulled her out into the water with him. She was grateful for his help swimming, but she was still wary of what they were swimming toward. When they reached the whale shark, a rainbow of tentacles wound around her, gripping her furry arms with the soft kiss of sucker discs.
Her feline nervous system screamed: everything that’s happening is wrong. She should not passively let tentacles grab her. She should not be submerged under water. The only small grace was the stream of air that she gulped, trying not to hyperventilate, from her SCUBA mask.
Why did adventures have to be so hard? Here she was, making contact with a civilization one-hundred-years out of touch with her own society, and instead of marveling in awe — she was having a perfectly pedestrian panic attack.
Kipper focused on slowing her breathing until it matched the side-to-side sway of the whale shark’s easy swimming. Water flowed past her, ruffling her fur. It was almost relaxing. Except for the tentacles. And the water. And the shark underneath her.
Amazingly, Trugger and Captain Cod seemed completely unaware of Kipper’s struggles. They pointed out shining copper fish to each other and signed at the octopi, telling them how excited they were to be here, how great the whale sharks were, and how beautiful it was in the Galapagos. The octopi may have signed back — every now and then, Kipper thought she caught a phrase in the curls and twists of their tentacle tips, increasingly dimly lit by the Diving Canary’s headlights: very welcome; like it here; leave soon; dangerous.
Or was it simply her imagination? Kipper didn’t like to ask the otters whether they understood the octopuses’ signing in front of the octopi. She didn’t want to admit her own lack of fluency. Yet she was unlikely to get a chance to speak with them privately any time soon. She would have to risk revealing her weakness.
“I don’t understand,” Kipper signed, looking at as many octopi as she could, trying to catch each one by the eye. “Can you sign larger? Slower?”
An octopus with especially pale eyes reached out to Kipper with two arms and embraced her in a hug that Kipper struggled not to find menacing. The octopus’ color settled down from the riot of rainbows dancing over its flesh to a simple coral shade. Except for the unusually pale eyes, the octopus looked much like Emily. With all the rest of its tentacles still — eerily still compared to the rainbowy octopuses around it — the pale-eyed octopus held two tentacles up and signed very clearly, “Is this better?”
Kipper’s body flooded with relief from her pointed eartips down to her clawed toes. “Thank goodness,” she signed. “Thank you. Yes, that’s much better.” She’d begun to fear that she wouldn’t be able to understand these octopi at all. She hadn’t realized how much better Captain Cod and Trugger — and all the other otters, she supposed — were at communicating in Swimmer’s Sign. In fairness, they had grown up learning it, and Kipper had only taken a crash course a few months ago.
Still, the otters signed slowly and clearly enough for her that she’d begun to think she could actually keep up with them. Apparently, though, it was yet another skill like swimming — no matter how much better she got, she still didn’t have webbed paws. And she still hadn’t spent her kittenhood bilingual. She might never truly catch up.
The pale-eyed octopus signed slowly and clearly for Kipper again: “You are not used to this language.” The way its tentacles curled, the sentence didn’t look like a question.
Kipper answered anyway: “No, most cats and dogs don’t learn Swimmer’s Sign.”
The whale shark swam through a round opening in a crevasse of the crenulated green city. Up close, the material the city was made of looked a little like malachite, but paler.
“What is this?” Kipper signed, indicating the walls of the tunnel they were now swimming through. “Is it rock?”
“Coral,” the pale-eyed octopus signed. “Genetically modified for building purposes.” The octopus’s signing grew harder to read as the tunnel darkened, but then light shone through from the other side.
The tunnel opened up into an alcove wide enough for the whale shark to turn around. It did so. Then it settled onto the floor of the chamber. The second whale shark joined it, nestling in beside the first. Once the two speckled behemoths were completely settled, the octopi on their backs leapt and crawled and swam and jetted away. It was a breathtaking spectacle of bumpy, suckery, curling tentacles.
Of course, it was nothing compared to the spectacle awaiting them on the other side of the entrance chamber to Choir’s Deep.
Captain Cod swam after the clutch of octopi — an arrow amidst a tangle of string. Trugger grabbed one of Kipper’s paws, and the pale-eyed octopus wrapped a tentacle around her other. The two of them pulled her along.
On the inside, Choir’s Deep was so large that Kipper wondered for a moment whether they’d somehow ended up out in the open ocean again. She could only barely make out the curve of the malachite colored walls and ceilings in the distance. However, the inside of Choir’s Deep was much busier and brighter than the open ocean.
The fish like copper pennies that Kipper had seen outside darted about in schools. Jellyfish floated like serene ballerinas — each ones’ ruffled tentacles trailing to a tip under a diaphanous bell like the pointed toe under a tutu. Kelp trees glowed softly green filling the space with a smooth, mellow light. Kipper didn’t think that kelp usually glowed and wanted to ask whether this kelp had been genetically modified to serve as a light source, but her paws were both held fast.
Trugger and the pale-eyed octopus continued to pull her along past large floating spheres. Octopi surrounded the spheres, watching much enlarged images within them of octopi signing to each other, embracing each other, working at computer stations. Kipper wasn’t sure, but she thought they were video screens, perhaps showing movies or newscasts.
Giant spires jutted out of the ground and ceiling like stalactites and stalagmites, formed from the same malachite-green coral as the rest of Choir’s Deep. The stalactite and stalagmite structures were riddled with openings that looked like the mouths of tunnels.
Kipper kicked her hind paws, trying to paddle along as her group turned upwards toward one of the giant stalactites. She didn’t want to be entirely deadweight-driftwood dragged on by Trugger and the pale-eyed octopus.
On their way up, they swam past a formation of octopi riding on the disk-shelled backs of giant sea-turtles like they were skateboards or motorbikes. Kipper wondered how the turtles survived down here in Choir’s Deep — turtles breathe air like cats, like her. Then she saw gills on their wrinkled yellow necks. They must be another example of genetic engineering. How advanced was octopus technology? Kipper began to feel excited about the possibilities. Between the genetic engineering she was seeing in effect here and the force field surrounding Europa, it was possible that octopi were far more advanced than dogs and cats had been giving them credit for.
Perhaps octopi really could make the difference in the impending clash Earth faced against the oncoming raptor fleet.
Ahead of Kipper, the other octopi in her group and Captain Cod disappeared into the mouth of a tunnel at the tip of the stalactite. Trugger and the pale-eyed octopus pulled her after them. On the inside, after a few twists and turns of the tunnel, was an expansive, vaguely round room. The walls of the room were riddled with little nooks that many of the octopi settled into, leaving their tentacle-tips and eyes hanging out like hermit crabs peeking out of their shells. Other octopi had been waiting, already nestled into the nooks. Now dozens of pairs of eyes stared out from the nooks.
The wall spaces between nooks were decorated with glassy surfaces, swirling in glowing color. Kipper couldn’t tell if they were electronic screens or some sort of more natural phenomenon. As she watched, their riotous colors faded into a soothing monochromatic scene reminiscent of rolling waves — purely shades of blue. Then greens and browns danced like leaves in the wind. Suddenly, the jumble of clashing colors came back, dancing like jewels in a kaleidoscope.
Dizzying. It was dizzying like something out of a particularly intense catnip trip. Come to think of it, the entire experience of floating in a round room at the bottom of the ocean, surrounded by tentacles, yellow eyes staring at her, and swirling colors felt more like a hazy dream than real life.
There was no clear orientation to the room — no up or down. Since Kipper and the otters didn’t fit into the octopuses’ nooks, they floated awkwardly over the tunnel they’d entered through.
An octopus entered through an opening on the other side of the room like a spread parachute settling over them all. Seven of its tentacles were normal, fleshy appendages, flushed orange, but the eighth tentacle was silver and shiny. The octopus curled its tentacles inward, making a scalloped shape, and twisted around until its startling blue eyes stared directly at Kipper with rectangular pupils narrowed. None of the other octopi had blue eyes — they were all varying shades of yellow, tan, gold.
“You are the cat,” it signed with tentacles that turned a deep cobalt blue, except for the silver tentacle that shone mechanically and pointed at Kipper.
She wanted to hide.
There was nowhere to hide in any part of Choir’s Deep she’d seen, unless she could figure out how to fold her body up like an octopus.
Her paws faltered, but she managed to sign, “Yes. My name is Kipper.”
All around her, Kipper saw tentacles twitch and twist in tiny, hard to interpret signs. It was a silent whisper, everyone talking, but her unable to understand, left wondering whether they were talking about her. They must be. Right?
It didn’t matter. She’d come here for a reason. She steadied her paws and signed on. “There are octopus slaves on Jupiter.” No point in being indirect — she’d come all this way; she might as well jump straight to the point. “They’re enslaved by a race of raptors. I’ve seen them–”
“We know,” the blue-eyed octopus signed with its mechanical tentacle. “They deserve their fate.”
Kipper’s paws drifted to a halt while her mind processed the unexpected signs. “They… deserve… slavery?” Her paws felt clumsy, fumbling over the hideous idea. How could anyone deserve the fate she’d seen Ordol living with? His own nervous system repeatedly hijacked to follow the bidding of another’s brain? Living in a tank, a mere tool waiting to be picked up and used?
“Yes.” The blue-eyed octopus signed first, but then the sign — “yes” — echoed throughout the room, on all the other octopi’s tentacles in Kipper’s peripheral vision.
“Woah,” Trugger signed. “That’s cold.”
The octopus’ blue eyes sparked. Kipper couldn’t read all octopus facial expressions, but she recognized that spark of anger.
“You don’t know what they did,” the blue-eyed octopus signed. “We didn’t bring you here to judge us.”
“You didn’t bring us here,” Captain Cod signed. “We came of our own accord. We reached out to you, because our planet is facing a threat that affects all of us together.”
The blue-eyed octopus continued signing, in complete disregard of Captain Cod’s statement. “We brought you here — inside our city — to judge you.”
Kipper’s heart raced. Everything was flipping inside out and backwards. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go at all.
“For millions of years,” the blue-eyed octopus signed, “we’ve hidden here under the seas on this tiny planet, exiled from our rightful home in the stars by the foolish, damnable, unutterable crimes of our ancestral siblings inside Jupiter. Until now. Until you revealed us.”
“Revealed you?” Kipper signed, wishing she were anywhere on Earth right now other than in the center of this globe of yellow eyes staring at her, judging her.
“To the raptors! They are coming here, because of you.” The blue-eyed octopus’s silver tentacle shone like a dancing scimitar as it signed. “You must pay for that crime.”
And like that, Kipper’s delicate dream of diplomacy was crushed under the nightmarish weight of a wall of tentacles writhing and twisting into the signs for “pay!” and “crime!” It was as if she’d written the hopes in her heart onto a piece of paper and carefully folded them into an origami octopus — the octopus of her imagination, safe and orderly — only to have a drooling, slime-dripping Cthulhu-monster drop from the sky and squash her, paper octopus in her paw and all.
Continue on to Chapter 13…