by Mary E. Lowd
Paw prints marked the golden, glittering sand. Tiny, perfect kitten prints danced flirtatiously up and down the line of wet beach, slowly dissolving under the soggy, sloppy wavelets lapping at the land.
Larger canine paw prints marched straight into the oncoming waves, and the dog who made them — a wiry-furred, beard-faced terrier wearing blue and yellow swim trunks — splashed wildly in the surf. Sea foam clung to the fur on his ankles and his furiously wagging brush of a tail.
Up on the dry sand, safely stretched out on a beach towel with her littermates, Kipper the gray tabby, watched her brother-in-law Lucky play with his adopted children. Even further up the beach, a pair of secret service greyhounds in suits watched the family, keeping the stretch of beach clear to protect President Alistair Brighton and his loved ones.
“C’mon, kits!” Lucky barked. “The water won’t hurt you!” He shook off his dripping head and droplets of water flew from his flopped ears and wiry beard. Three wide-eyed tabby kittens scrambled away from the flying drops, shrieking and mewing in terror and delight. Not one drop of water touched them.
Despite Lucky’s urging, his adopted kittens were completely unwilling to wade in the toe-deep wavelets. Instead, they teased the waves, pouncing and prancing away before the water could touch them.
Kipper loved watching the kittens play with their adopted canine father. She’d grown up in a cattery, lucky to know her littermates at all. No one had taken them to play at the beach, certainly not a gregarious, affectionate father like Lucky. Times had changed. Cats and dogs married now; dogs adopted kittens; and her own brother had recently been elected President of the Uplifted States of Mericka. It was a far reach from the days when cats couldn’t even vote.
As a kitten, Kipper had wanted nothing to do with life on Earth. She’d dreamed of dancing with the otters among the stars, and she’d realized that dream, becoming the only cat among a crew of space pirate otters. She’d even become a captain herself of a two-man ship, Brighton’s Destiny, but she’d had to leave her ship behind and come home.
The raptors of Jupiter had forced the Persian cat colony on Europa to flee, all the cats scurrying home to Earth or Mars, but Kipper and her compatriots had foiled the raptor plans to retake Europa by discovering an ancient force field that protected the moon while melting its oceans.
Nonetheless, Kipper had known it was only a matter of time until the raptors attacked again, further afield from Jupiter. If Jenny’s latest message was to be believed, then that time might be soon. Earth needed to defend herself.
“We need to ask the octopi for help.” Petra, an orange tabby, always sounded like she was only a few steps away from angry, but her voice seemed particularly strident considering she was wearing sunglasses, lazing on a sunny beach, yellow sunlight glowing against her orange fur.
“Do we have to talk about this?” asked Alistair, another orange tabby, his ears flattening.
Petra’s voice took a step closer to anger. “Is that how it’s going to be? You’re president now, so you always put everyone off? Never give anyone a straight answer?”
Kipper had spent her whole childhood listening to Petra and Alistair fight — or fighting with them. Somehow, she’d imagined that the fighting was caused by the cattery, or the bad jobs and tight money after they grew old enough that the cattery kicked them out. Once they were secure and safe in their lives, she’d always thought they’d stop fighting.
Maybe the fighting was inside them.
Or maybe it was the stress from the threat of the raptors.
“If you won’t go to the octopus oligarchy yourself,” Petra said, “you could send me as a delegate.”
“Who would watch the kittens?” Kipper asked. It was a barbed question. Lucky and their friend Trudith, a black lab mutt who was ostensibly Alistair’s body guard but had become more of a nanny, spent much more time watching the kittens than Petra did.
Petra glared at her sister. “Fine,” she snapped. “Send Kipper.”
Panic made Kipper’s heart race. For all the time she spent with otters, she still hated water. She couldn’t think of anything scarier than travelling deep under the ocean with thousands of meters of water above her head, crushing down on her. Even raptors. “Alistair can’t send me,” Kipper quipped. “I don’t work for him.”
“I’m not sending anyone,” Alistair said. His voice got low and serious. “I’m not asking for help.”
His sisters stared at him. Without help, the Uplifted States had literally no defenses against an attack from space.
Eventually, Kipper asked, “Do the Uplifted States have a space program I don’t know about? A secret space program?” One of her otter friends was obsessed with spies and secrecy. Some of it had rubbed off on her.
Petra’s ears skewed, and she looked pensive. “That would explain some of the inconsistencies I’ve been seeing in the budget…”
Kipper might not work for Alistair, but Petra was his right-hand cat. She’d been combing through all the government records and documents she could get her paws on since he’d taken office.
“No,” Alistair said, looking frustrated. “There’s no secret space program. We barely even have a military. We have a small number of nuclear missiles, but most were dismantled decades ago. It’s not nearly enough to stop the raptors, but there are plenty of otters who have as much reason to defend the Earth as we have.”
“Not quite as much,” Petra muttered. Most otters lived in space these days.
“Regardless,” Alistair brushed her off. “As I understand it, the octopi already have far more reason to fight the raptors — assuming they even have the necessary technology — than we do.”
Petra stared at her brother levelly and saw right through him. “You don’t want to look weak in front of the government dogs that you have to work with and all the cats who elected you.”
“That’s right,” he said, unashamed. “I need to look strong.”
Petra’s voice twisted with mockery: “You plan to look strong by cowering and hoping someone else steps in to defend our planet from the raptors? You were elected as a war president.”
Kipper stopped listening to her littermates argue and watched Lucky play with the kittens. He lifted one of the orange kittens onto his shoulders for a piggy-back ride. Another kitten grabbed his knee, trying to anchor him down, keep him from splashing back into the waves. The third kitten, a gray tabby like Kipper, settled farther up the beach with a yellow plastic shovel and pail. Sandcastles blossomed around her, beautiful and temporary.
The waves would knock down the sandcastles. And the raptors would come in their battleships — no matter what spiteful words Petra and Alistair said to each other. The question was: would Earth be ready? Or, better yet, was there any way to stop the raptors before they got here?
Kipper didn’t think of herself as a brave cat, but she had done brave things as a member of the crew of the Jolly Barracuda. She wanted to be that cat.
Kipper closed her eyes and stood up. She took a deep breath of salty air. Then without stopping to think, she ran toward the waves, only opening her eyes when the lukewarm water splashed under her paws. Her tail lashed wildly, but she didn’t stop. The waves crashed against her legs, and the current pulled at her. When it came all the way to her waist, Kipper closed her eyes and dove into it.
The ocean felt like the oxo-agua on the Jolly Barracuda. It echoed in her ears and lifted her fur. With her eyes closed and her paws off the ground, she could imagine she was in space, on her spaceship full of otters, orbiting Jupiter again.
She wasn’t Alistair and Petra’s quieter littermate; she was Ship’s Spy and Diplomatic Ambassador to Independent Cat Nations and any other silly title that Captain Cod came up with for her. She was brave and heroic and did things that no other cat had ever done.
Or any otter either.
Only two people in the entire solar system had infiltrated one of the raptors’ sail ships inside the upper atmosphere of Jupiter. And only one of them had seen the aquariums where the raptors kept octopi enslaved.
Kipper remembered the yellow eyes staring at her and pale tentacles. She remembered those tentacles writhing and struggling as raptors grabbed them, pulled them from the water, and forced them into electronic harnesses that overrode the octopi’s own brains. Raptors hadn’t merely enslaved octopi — they violated them, robbing the octopi of their own wills and bodies on a daily basis.
The octopi on Earth didn’t know how much they had to fight for. They hadn’t seen it. Space and Earth, sunny beaches and miles of deep dark water lay between the Earth octopi and the atrocities being visited on their Jovian siblings.
Floating in the shallowest edge of Earth’s deep dark oceans, Kipper knew what she had to do. She had to go to those octopi and make them understand.
Kipper came out of the waves, dripping and shivering, to stand at the edge of Alistair and Petra’s beach blanket. She interrupted their argument to say: “I’ll go. I’ll be an emissary to the octopi.” She didn’t want to, but it was what needed to be done.
Alistair’s green eyes stared daggers at his dripping sister. He kept a laissez faire attitude through most of his fights with Petra, but now his orange stripes fluffed. “Like hell you will! I said I wouldn’t ask for help. How do you think it would look if I sent my littermate to ask for me?”
“You can’t send me,” Kipper said. “And you can’t stop me either.”
Alistair didn’t lose control often, and Kipper could tell it was rattling him even more that her fur hadn’t fluffed out at all. That was one of the few advantages of wet fur.
“I’m the president,” Alistair said.
“I’m not a member of the government, so I’m not in your chain-of-command. Captain Cod is my commanding officer. Not you.”
“I’ll tell him not to let you go. I don’t think he’ll defy the wishes of the president of the Uplifted States of Mericka.”
Kipper didn’t argue. She wasn’t interested in building sandcastles. It was time to start making waves. Besides, she knew how to convince Captain Cod. She’d tell him that Alistair had to object officially, but secretly he wanted Captain Cod to send an envoy to the octopi to ask for help. That would tickle the otter captain’s fancy, and he wouldn’t think to question it. Captain Cod loved secrets.
Three kittens came running, skittering excitedly across the sand. “Auntie Kipper! You’re all wet! What was the water like? Why did you dive in?” Childhood’s eagerness and incessant questions obliterated all adult conversation until Lucky suggested it was time to pack up and find a suitable chowder house for lunch. Somewhere that Alistair’s greyhound guards considered sufficiently safe for the president and his family.
While the others brushed sand out of their fur, shook out and folded up the beach towel, and readied themselves to go, Kipper borrowed Petra’s cell phone. She didn’t keep one of her own — it wouldn’t work on the otter space stations and space ships. However, she was able to patch a voice call through from the cell phone, through Deep Sky Anchor’s communications, to the Jolly Barracuda.
Boris, the sea otter pilot, answered. “What’s up, Kipper?” He knew she’d be the only one calling from Earth right now.
“Can I talk to the captain?” Kipper walked a few paces down the beach to hear Boris better over the noise of the kittens.
“The captain and Trugger are playing poker on a ship docked a few berths down right now. Do you want me to get them? Or patch your call through to the other ship?”
“That’s okay,” Kipper said. She wished she could talk to Emily, the Jolly Barracuda’s octopus chef, but Petra’s phone wasn’t equipped for vid-calls. “Can you have the captain call me when he gets back? I have a new mission for us that I think he’ll be interested in.” Kipper gave Boris the number for Petra’s phone.
Then there was nothing to do but go eat clam chowder with her family, even though she was already steeling herself for the travails to come.
Continue on to Chapter 3…