by Mary E. Lowd
Kipper didn’t know why the octopi kept sending puzzles to their prisoners, but she wanted Captain Cod and Trugger to stop solving them. Except for the occasional meal of sushi-like rolls and raw fish brought by the dolphins, there was no way to mark the time, but it felt like they’d been held in the dank, watery cell for days. Days of being cut off from the outside world. Days of the raptor ships flying closer and closer to Earth. Days of being wet and useless.
Kipper was restless. Besides, there was something sinister about solving puzzles for captors who never showed themselves. It was time to stop cooperating with their captors. It was time to start planning a way out of this underwater dungeon.
“Has it occurred to you that the octopi could be gathering tactical information about how otters think?” Kipper said to the two otters tinkering with an object that looked like a cross between a tuba and an abacus. “They could be planning to use that information against us.”
Captain Cod looked horrified, and Trugger dropped the tuba-abacus like it had suddenly become electrified. It splashed and then floated on the water in the middle of their small room.
“She’s right,” Trugger said. “We should stop.”
Kipper didn’t mention that decades worth of daily newscasts from Deep Sky Anchor, the otter film industry on Kelp Frond Station, and all other otter media were probably more useful for gathering tactical information about how otters think than the weird puzzles the dolphins kept bringing them. “If you want to work on a puzzle,” she said, “let’s try to find a way out of here.”
Captain Cod chewed his whiskers, like he always did when he was thinking. “The hatch that the dolphins come through is too obvious. I’m sure they have it guarded.”
“There must be vents for circulating the air and water,” Trugger offered. “Maybe they’re large enough to climb through if we find them and pry them open.”
Kipper’s ears skewed and twisted as she looked around the room, trying to spot the tell-tale sign of a seam in the otherwise smooth abalone walls and ceiling. She got up and ran her paw pads over the walls, which were slick with condensation, feeling for a seam too small to see in the dim light. There was an idea — the glowing patches of light in the ceiling. Could those be removed? Kipper’s eyes narrowed to slits as she stared directly into the glow. Before she could decide if the idea was worth pursuing, she heard a ka-thunk, followed by a low-pitched whine, and, oh gods, the water level started rising.
Kipper scrambled for the pile of breathing gear. Trugger helped her get the air tank strapped on her back and the mask over her muzzle. Then Trugger and Captain Cod put their own breathing gear back on. By the time they were all suited-up again, there was only about a foot of air left.
When all the air was gone, the tuba-abacus tumbled, releasing a final bubble to the ceiling, before drifting down to the floor. Kipper watched it fall, so her eyes were on the hatchway in the floor when it opened.
Tentacles rolling in a slow, hypnotic motion and yellow eyes glaring, an octopus ascended into the room. Kipper felt strangely relieved that it wasn’t the blue-eyed octopus with the silver tentacle.
“We won’t play your games anymore,” Kipper signed with shaky paws. She didn’t know how dangerous it was to defy these octopuses. She didn’t know what could be expected of them — their behavior so far had already shown she couldn’t predict them. Not even close.
“Yes, we saw,” the octopus signed. Its tentacles moved with the grace and simplicity of calligraphy.
Kipper looked around the room again, trying to see where there might be a camera for observing them, but the room was as smooth as the inside of a shell. It was another puzzle, and Kipper wouldn’t waste time solving it. She flattened her ears in irritation and cut to the chase: “If you won’t help us,” she signed, “let us go. We have raptors to fight.”
“You have crimes to pay for,” the octopus jailor signed. “But we have decided to release you under restrictions.”
Kipper’s body flooded with a weird combination of relief and outrage. Before she could make sense of her feelings and decide how to respond, Captain Cod signed, “What restrictions?” Then he ruddered his tail and paddled with his hind paws, pushing himself closer to the octopus. He placed his neotropical otter bulk nearly between Kipper and the octopus jailor, physically signaling that he intended to stand by his subordinate officer. Well, swim by her. At least, that’s how Kipper interpreted it — she had no idea as to whether the octopus understood.
“You will be released under guard,” the octopus jailor signed. “Five guards and the oligarch will escort you and observe your actions. If your actions make a significant difference in protecting the octopi of Earth from the raptors, then that will be taken into consideration when you return for trial.”
Kipper nearly jumped, trying to grab Captain Cod’s paws to stop him from signing, “What if she doesn’t return for trial?” Unfortunately, Kipper still wasn’t good at maneuvering underwater, so she performed a useless somersault, and Captain Cod signed the question exactly as she expected him to.
The octopus jailor flushed with red circles and then returned to an impassive peach-gray before signing, “If the cat defeats the raptors, we will be lenient.”
Oh great, Kipper thought, all I have to do is defend Earth from a pre-historic alien spaceship invasion force single pawed.
“If the cat does not defeat the raptors–” The octopus jailor’s tentacles drifted into stillness.
Each of them took a moment to picture their own personal vision of what would happen if the raptors ravaged Earth — Kipper saw her sister’s kittens huddling in a broken down shack, hiding from shiny-feathered monstrosities stalking the streets with blasters ready. Trugger pictured the space elevator broken in half, tearing Deep Sky Anchor out of its geosynchronous orbit, and all of it bursting into flame as it fell to Earth. Captain Cod pictured the Jolly Barracuda hiding out in the asteroid belt and never getting another fresh shipment of fish.
The octopus pictured itself losing all control of its own limbs and feeling the cold, hard mind of another push it away into subservience, forced to watch its own tentacles do the work of capturing more octopi to join in the living hell of total slavery.
“Got it,” Trugger signed. “There may not be a trial to return for if we don’t defeat the raptors. But that’s okay, because we’re going to defeat the raptors.”
If skepticism were a living creature, it would have been that octopus, staring down Trugger’s unfounded optimism with yellow eyes, and tentacles curled tightly like crossed arms.
Captain Cod signed, “If my ship is to offer hospitality to six octopus guards, then I expect them to return the favor by offering any information that they have on the raptors.”
“Do you have any scholars who are experts on the raptors?” Kipper signed. “You should send them.”
The octopus jailor’s eyes narrowed. “You do not get to pick your contingent of guards, Cat.” The sign for cat was distorted and drawn out, as if the octopus were sneering with its tentacles. Kipper had heard the word cat spoken that way by many dogs; she knew how it would sound if spoken, the exact tone of voice. She also knew that it meant she was supposed to back down, show proper deference. Now wasn’t the time to stand up for herself. She would leave that to Captain Cod. So, she bowed her head and paddled back a few inches, trying to show deference by giving the octopus space.
“My officer is correct,” Captain Cod signed. “It’s in your own best interest to share any information that you have with us. We all want to defend this planet.”
“We will be the judges of that,” the octopus signed.
“You will be the judges of many things, apparently,” Kipper muttered into her breathing mask, but she kept her paws balled tight and tucked under her arms, staying appropriately silent as Captain Cod negotiated the terms of her release as a paroled war criminal with one of the octopuses that she had come here to help.
Kipper could see why Emily had fled this insane society under the ocean.
By the time the negotiations were done, Kipper was fuming in her breathing gear, ears clasped tightly against her head and claws flexing with tension. She wanted to sink her claws into something — preferably something with tentacles, something squishy and condescending — but instead she let Trugger pull her docilely along when the octopus jailor finally deigned to lead them out of their cell.
Bizarrely, the three of them were not thrown out of Choir’s Deep like the week-old trash that Kipper felt like after being locked in a dank cell that smelled of salt and old fish for hours. (Or days?) She had expected to be dumped directly onto the back of another whale shark and immediately exiled — an idea she didn’t mind at all. She wanted out of this watery death trap. Yet, now that the octopuses had an arrangement worked out with Captain Cod and her impending trial was properly scheduled, suddenly they were the diplomatic guests they should have been all along.
“While the oligarch and her guards are preparing,” the octopus jailor signed to Captain Cod, “I have been authorized to give you a tour. We want you to see the beautiful, peaceful, harmonious way of life that you’ve put in danger with your reckless behavior, gallivanting about the solar system.”
Kipper couldn’t see much of Captain Cod’s expression behind the breathing mask obscuring his muzzle, but she expected that he looked inappropriately pleased at the idea of himself gallivanting recklessly. That was pretty much his aim in life.
The octopus jailor — now tour guide, Kipper supposed — led them all down a twisting malachite-walled tunnel until it opened into a wide room with low ceilings. Several giant sea turtles with broad brown shells, blotchy flippers, and fluttering gills on their necks waited for them there. The octopus drifted lightly, propelled by its jet-like siphon, onto the back of one of the turtles and settled on its shell like a smug fat-cat politician on the only chair in the room.
“These turtles are our ride,” the octopus tour guide signed. “Get on.” The octopus gripped the smooth surface of the turtle’s shell easily with eight tentacles’ worth of sucker disks. Kipper could’ve sworn she saw a glint of cruel glee in the octopus’s eye as it added with two tentacle tips, “And hold on.”
Kipper dog-paddled to the nearest turtle and clawed uselessly at the hard, sheer surface of its shell. Some sort of saddle or hand-hold would have been really useful, but of course, the octopi had no need to have gengineered those changes into their turtle steeds. They had sucker disks.
Eventually Kipper had to settle for plastering herself awkwardly, belly-down, against the broad, flat surface of the shell and gripping the lip on either side with her paws. It was not elegant. Or comfortable. Yet, somehow, Trugger and Captain Cod managed to make the awkward position look almost cool or fun — like they were surfers about to dive head-long into a crashing blue curl of wave.
Kipper tried to think of it that way as the octopus tour guide signaled to the turtles, and they began flapping their flippers. Kipper felt her turtle steed lift beneath her, pushing its shell against her sprawled body. Then the water around her rushed against her like a thick, slow wind as the turtle swam forward with steady strokes of its flippers. Kipper held on tight and swore to herself about how cats were supposed to ride inside vehicles, not on top of them.
Even Kipper’s cynicism and anger had to fall away though when the dark malachite walls opened up to the brightly colored glory of the cavernous interior of Choir’s Deep. The slowly dancing jellyfish, the glowing kelp forests, the penny-bright schools of fish, the strange spherical video displays, and clumps of coral in every color beneath it all — the octopus city remained undeniably beautiful, no matter how its inhabitants had wronged her and denied her freedom.
Kipper loved exploring, but she was tired of doing it on others’ terms. She was tired of water in her fur and face (and sometimes lungs); she was tired of modes of travel that didn’t fit her.
When all of this was over, Kipper realized, it might be time to move on from the Jolly Barracuda — not to go home, but to find a new way to explore. A way that fit her own skin.
A way for cats.
A way without water.
Her path through the water slipped and slooped as her sea turtle surfboard followed the lead of the other three turtles, presumably steered by the octopus tour guide riding on the turtle in the lead. Kipper couldn’t see how the tour guide octopus was steering — the turtle wore no reins. Perhaps it was an intelligent steed, and the octopus had explained their route to it before they began.
Or perhaps it was no steed at all — perhaps these turtles were uplifted? And what about those dolphins that had brought those infernal, damnable puzzles to them in their captivity? How many uplifted species lived in this city?
Suddenly, Kipper didn’t know who anyone was anymore. Any creature could be uplifted. Jellyfish fluttering like ballerinas? Maybe they were ballerinas — maybe they’d spent years training and studying to flutter like that. Except jellyfish didn’t live for years. Did they?
Good gods. Kipper was losing her mind. She could see why dogs liked the simple fiction that the only uplifted creatures had been designed — purposefully, meaningfully — by humans, and humans had a plan for them, a plan that was still ticking and turning like clockwork, keeping every dog safely in its place — a beloved, cherished place, waiting for Master to return home.
But Kipper didn’t believe the First Race were gods. She’d seen proof first-hand — with gold eyes and obsidian feathers and rayguns in their talons — that humans weren’t even the first race. Humans may have uplifted cats, dogs, otters, and everyone else in that statue in Cedar Heights, but they’d only been human. Kipper believed they’d been muddling along, useless and confused, as much as any cat or dog.
The four turtles swooped all the way down to the sandy ocean floor of Choir’s Deep and stopped at the base of another malachite protrusion, this one a stalagmite jutting up from the floor.
The octopus tour guide disembarked the turtle steed, stepping with coupled tentacles almost like they were legs. It was eerie how much octopi could contort and disguise their bodies. “We’re going to start with the most precious part of our entire city,” the tour guide signed before gesturing at a dark opening, yawning in the base of the stalagmite. “Follow me.”
Continue on to Chapter 22…