Otters In Space 3 – Chapter 22: Jenny

by Mary E. Lowd

An excerpt from Otters In Space 3: Octopus Ascending.  If you’d prefer, you can start with Chapter 1, return to the previous chapter, or skip ahead.

“Even if she made it down to ground level, she’d be free on a planet filled with dinosaurs. Even if most of them were harmless herbivores, she didn’t relish that idea.”

Jenny would have given up eating clams forever to have a tour guide who simply held out a tentacle — or talon, as the case may be — and pointed to the most precious part of Corjovis.  That would have been invaluable tactical information.  Instead, she had two eager raptor younglings crouched behind her, calling up video and sound files on their computer pad, seemingly to show her their favorite pop songs.

Raptors danced on the touchpad screen, literally shaking their tail feathers to the rhythmic, stuttering screeches that emanated from the device.  Jenny could only assume it was music.  Her helmet computer had trouble keeping up with the sound to give her a translation, but most of the words seemed to be about power or love or murder or freedom or slavery or growth or dinner.  The helmet computer wasn’t sure.  Its translations had improved a great deal in certainty over the last few hours, but song lyrics tend to be inscrutable in any language.

Sandy and White Patch had tired of Jenny’s clumsy attempts to teach them about otters very quickly, and except for occasional interruptions from Tree Bark taking a break from fixing Brighton’s Destiny, they’d been playing these “music” videos for hours.

If Jenny didn’t fear for her life whenever the young raptors’ parents returned, and if the lives of every otter in the system didn’t possibly hinge on her finding useful intelligence to bring back to Admiral Mackerel, it all might have been a fascinating cultural exploration.  Instead, it was a truly bizarre form of torture.

They were going to die here.  Jenny could feel it, the knowledge settling like a cold rock in the pit of her stomach.  “I’m sorry,” she signed with her paws for the benefit of the octopus crouching on her shoulders.  She’d promised to keep him safe, but instead she’d delivered him to the very monsters who had enslaved him before and would almost certainly enslave him again.

As for herself?  Jenny would be a lab rat.  These reptile-bird-aliens, holdovers from the Cretaceous period, had never seen a creature like her before.  Would they keep her alive to experiment on her?  Or jump straight to the dissection?

The music stopped.  And after a moment of disorientation, Jenny realized her helmet computer was no longer translating cryptic lyrics — White Patch was talking to her:  “What is that with your talons?  Why do you use your talons that way?”  White Patch rotated its own talons in a gibberish imitation of the Swimmer’s Sign Jenny had signed to Orodol.

Jenny had no good answer for them and stared in stunned silence until Ordol started waving his tentacles in a way that Jenny could only assume was meant to be menacing.  Instead, it drew the young raptors closer with curiosity.

Sandy’s long feathered muzzle came close enough for Jenny to feel the young raptor’s hot breath in the thick fur on the side of her face.  Those orange eyes narrowed, and then Sandy screeched from a mouth filled with terribly pointy teeth.  Translation:  “There’s no neural connection.

Talons reached toward Jenny and she was humiliated to discover that given a choice between fight and flight, she froze.

Sandy’s talons grasped Ordol at the base of his tentacles, dimpling the clear fabric of his spacesuit.  For a moment, he clung to Jenny’s shoulders so tightly, she thought he’d crush her.  Then in a burst of blue shades blushing over his tentacles, Ordol fainted.  His tentacles fell limply, and Sandy lifted him away from Jenny.

To her even greater shame, Jenny seriously considered darting back to the elevator, scurrying away like a mindless prehistoric shrew from the dawn of the reign of mammals, while the raptors were distracted with examining the unconscious Ordol.  But she couldn’t abandon her friend.  She couldn’t betray her partner.

Besides, she couldn’t pilot Brighton’s Destiny without him.

Jenny swallowed and found her voice.  “Don’t hurt him.”  Could appealing to the raptors’ emotions work?  Did these reptile-birds even have feelings like her own?  Ordol did, and he was physically far more foreign.  “He’s my friend.”

Two sets of orange eyes stared owlishly at Jenny.  The raptors’ feathered faces fluffed, making them look larger, more intimidating.  Then Sandy and White Patch turned to each other and started arguing while Ordol’s tentacles draped over Sandy’s dark talons as if he were dripping down to the floor.  Jenny wished she could melt into a puddle on the floor and evaporate away.  But her only true escape was the broken spaceship downstairs, and from the snatches of conversation that her helmet translated, she wasn’t so sure that Brighton’s Destiny would belong to her anymore once it was fixed.

…not a hero… we could keep… what do you… serious… our own spaceship!

The helmet couldn’t keep up with translating two voices at once, but Jenny was pretty sure that one of the raptors was making a strong argument for keeping Brighton’s Destiny for themselves.  These raptors may have been the younglings while Jenny was an adult otter, but she’d never felt more like a helpless child, hoping the grownups in charge would let her keep her toy.  Of course, if the real grownups showed up — the adult raptors with their sleek black feathers and brightly colored crests and plumes — then the toy that Jenny hoped to keep might be her life, not just a broken spaceship.

After a particularly piercing shriek, Sandy dropped Ordol to the floor and began gesticulating wildly, flapping those feathered arms like wings.  Any translation of the outburst was completely drowned out by the outburst itself.

Terrified, Jenny knelt down and risked crawling closer until she could gather Ordol’s limp, fainted tentacles into her fuzzy arms.  His muscular tentacles were heavier without his consciousness holding them up, controlling them, making them lithe.  By shifting her weight while backing away, Jenny managed to rearrange Ordol’s body so that several of his tentacles draped over each of her shoulders.  With his weight spread more evenly, she was able to rise up on her back paws again.  She wanted to hide, cower behind one of the structures that was either furniture or an abstract statue…  But it was better to stand tall, looking brave and strong.

The raptors continued to argue, screeching, echoed by a helmet that threw disordered words like want, need, and ours to take into the noisy air.  Jenny had to do something — they were going to take her ship away.

“Please,” Jenny said.  Her otter voice sounded small and mewling, plaintive next to the raptors’ caws and cries.  But then the helmet mirrored her word with a shriek of its own.  “Please,” she repeated.  “I need that ship to get home.”

The helmet’s raptor-like cries cut through the actual raptors’ argument, and they both turned to look at it.  Then White Patch’s wide orange eyes turned toward Jenny.  The young raptor pointed with a talon at the helmet and shrieked, “Turn. That. Off.”

Shaking from head to tail tip, Jenny walked over to the helmet, where it was still resting on the plush couch-like ledge, and turned off the speaker.  She dared not defy these taloned beasts.

White Patch pointed next at a stair up to an open hatchway in the ceiling on the far side of the room.  Jenny didn’t need any translation to understand that she was being exiled.  She gathered her helmet and spacesuit into her arms and ascended the stair to the smaller room above.

White Patch sealed the hatchway behind Jenny, and the otter found herself alone in what seemed to be a raptor child’s bedroom with an unconscious octopus draped over her shoulders and screeching raptors below.  The only way out was back down.

The room below was an entire cross-section of the mechanical tree; this room was a wedge, windowed on one curving side but with opaque walls on the other two sides.

Jenny climbed into the nest-like pile of brightly colored cushions that she assumed was a bed.  She set her spacesuit and helmet down on the edge.  Then she arranged Ordol gently around herself and rocked back and forth, barely aware that she was humming the Jolly Barracuda fight song while she stared at the posters of raptors dressed in bespangled outfits (some of them familiar from the earlier music videos) and shelves of carved figurines (all different shapes of dinosaur) that filled the two opaque walls of the small room.

None of it blocked out the sound of the raptor children screaming.  Deciding her fate.

Jenny wondered if she could break the window-wall, smash it with one of the figurines.  But then she’d be hundreds of feet in the air.  Even if she made it down to ground level, she’d be free on a planet filled with dinosaurs.  Even if most of them were harmless herbivores, she didn’t relish that idea.

She needed a spaceship to get home.

She needed mercy.

From raptor younglings.

Jenny couldn’t imagine that her adrenaline-flooded body had been capable of sleeping, but she must have for the room was suddenly dark, no more light streaming through the floor to ceiling windows.  And all was quiet.  She felt Ordol’s tentacles stir around her.  Then yellow light streamed in through the hatchway in the floor as it opened.  One of the young raptors — it was hard to tell which, silhouetted like that — entered and pointed urgently with a fearsome talon at her helmet.  Jenny groggily turned the translation software and the speakers back on.

As the raptor spoke in quiet caws and chirps, it turned its head and the light caught its feathers — they were the golden hue of an Earth beach.  This one was Sandy.  “My hatch mates agreed to keep your ship.  They’ve gone to get our brood mother.”

Jenny’s blood ran cold as if she’d plunged into an icy stream, but Sandy continued to speak.

“They left me to guard you, but I’m afraid of what Brood Mother will do to you.”

Slavery?  Dissection?  Hostage against her own people?  None of the options were good.  Jenny should have crashed Brighton’s Destiny into the sea when she had the chance.

“Don’t worry, little otter,” Sandy said.  “I’m going to help you.”

Jenny was skeptical.  These raptor fledglings had been playing with her like she was a pet since they’d found her.  Even when they’d thought she had an octopus slave hooked into her brain stem, they’d treated her more like a playmate than… what?  What was Jenny to them?  An enemy of their people?  A spy?  A prisoner of war?

Maybe she didn’t want to be treated like anything other than a treasured pet.

“Thank you,” Jenny said, hoping to hell and back that Sandy’s idea of ‘help’ didn’t mean keeping her and Ordol hidden in a box and bringing them scraps of food.

“Come on,” Sandy said, gesturing with a tilt of that feathered head toward the hatchway.  Sandy held out a murderous-looking talon, clearly expecting Jenny to take hold of it.

So Jenny did.

Otter paw and raptor talon, hand in hand, they sneaked through the darkened rooms.  Ordol was still draped over Jenny’s shoulders, and she held her spacesuit and helmet tucked under her other arm.

The raptor didn’t lead Jenny back to the spacious elevator that had brought them up.  “Brood Mother will come up that way,” Sandy explained.  Instead, they came to a small chamber on the other side of the building.

Jenny sighed at the sight of a spiraling ladder that stretched as far down as she could see.  She couldn’t easily climb the rungs with her spacesuit under one arm, so she pulled the suit on and reaffixed the helmet over her head.  Then she held her paws out and signed, hoping the limp Ordol was conscious and would see, “We need to climb down this ladder.  Can you do that?  Or do I need to keep carrying you?”

Ordol’s tentacles on Jenny’s shoulders writhed in a way that almost felt like octopus laughter.  Several tentacle tips twisted into Jenny’s view and signed, “How about, I carry you?”

If there was one thing Ordol wanted to do, it was get the hell out of there.

Before Jenny realized what was happening, all the sucker disks draped against her shoulders clamped on, holding her tight.  The rest of Ordol’s long arms reached for the ladder, swinging Jenny forward and then, down, down, down.  She descended the twirling ladder much, much faster than she could have under the power of her own paws.  It felt more like a controlled fall than climbing.

At the bottom, Sandy opened a door out to the darkened forest.  Why was there night here?  Jenny wondered.  The daylight had to have been artificial; there was no way that true sunlight had filtered through so many layers of soupy noxious Jovian atmosphere.  The raptors must have designed an artificial day/night cycle for their world.

With her paws back on the ground, Jenny felt Ordol settle his weight back onto her shoulders, tentacles wrapped around her like an ornate organic shawl.  When she stepped outside, Jenny heard the sounds of night time animals — croaking and trilling, the strange calls of alien dinosaurs.  She looked up to see the starless Corjovis sky peaking between the towering trees.  The darkness above was textured like storm clouds, and there was just enough light for her eyes to adjust.  At least she wouldn’t trip and stumble in the alien gloom.

“This way,” Sandy cawed.

Jenny followed the young raptor around the curve of the tree-like building, back to the garage where Brighton’s Destiny stood in all its hopeful glory.

The ship’s maple-seed wings stretched out proudly again, all fixed, and the cockpit called to Jenny.  She wanted to scurry into it, strap herself in, power up the engine, and get out of here.  She also didn’t want to make any sudden movements in front of a prehistoric alien with talons as long as her whole paw.  She still couldn’t quite believe the young raptor was helping them.

“Thank you,” she said, wishing she had a small token to give the raptor.  “Wait a second…”  Her spacesuit wasn’t pressurized yet, so she unsealed the side of the torso segment and reached underneath.  She unpinned the little ornament that all of the Jolly Barracuda crew wore at their collar as part of their uniform — a tiny gold sailing ship.

Jenny held the little gold ornament out to the raptor on the palm of her spacesuit glove.  Talons delicately plucked it up, and Sandy examined the ornament closely before tucking it into a pocket.  “Thank you,” the raptor squawked.

Jenny resealed her spacesuit and began pressurizing it as she walked to Brighton’s Destiny with slow, measured steps, but before she could climb into the ship’s cockpit, Sandy called out, “Take me with you.”

Jenny turned and stared at the raptor in surprise, but Ordol was in no mood to wait another second.  He was within reach of the cockpit, so he stretched out his arms, grabbed on, and began pulling the spacesuit-clad otter in with him.  His strong arms strapped her into her seat while she tried to explain to the raptor, “I can’t do that…  There isn’t room in this ship, and you don’t belong with my people.  Your brood mother — she’d think I’d kidnapped you.”

For an instant, Jenny wondered if a hostage would be valuable… but, no, a single raptor child would have no military intelligence or value to offer.  It would only be a liability.  “This is your home,” Jenny said.  “And we’re not coming back.  One-way trip.”

Sandy maneuvered into the hatchway to the cockpit, spread its talons to block the door from closing, in spite of Ordol mashing the door-close button with his tentacles.

“I want to see all the little mammals,” Sandy squawked.  “The cats and dogs and other otters.”

Jenny raised her paws for Ordol to see and firmly signed, “Stop.”  When he didn’t stop, she cupped her paws over the door-close button, blocking his tentacles, so that the cockpit door would stop bouncing off of the raptor child’s head.

Ordol signed a couple of choice swear words in front of Jenny’s faceplate, but then he slumped on her shoulders, tentacles knotted up with the tips twitching, like a petulant teenager with his arms crossed and foot tapping impatiently.

Jenny tried to ignore the muscular ball of unhappy octopus on her shoulders and focus on the overly earnest raptor.  “I wish I could bring you to meet my people,” Jenny said.  “That would be wonderful — if we could visit each other’s worlds and simply learn about each other.  But that’s not possible right now.”

Sandy’s feathered arms were still stretched out, blocking the cockpit door.  As Jenny spoke though, the young raptor’s plumage that had puffed up with excitement began to smooth down, and disappointment entered those owlish orange eyes.

Jenny wanted to tell the truth and say, “Our people are at war.  Your people have been killing mine.  Raptors murdering otters.”  But it was too dangerous.  She didn’t know how much the raptor civilians knew, let alone a raptor youngling, and she couldn’t risk Sandy re-thinking the choice to let them go.  So, Jenny simply said, “Maybe someday.”

Sandy’s feathered arms dropped and folded up like wings.  The raptor’s feathered head bobbed, sadly acknowledging that Jenny wouldn’t be taking a passenger.

As a final thought before lifting her cupped paws from the door-close button, Jenny said, “Tell your brood mother about me and the other otters.  Tell her… tell her that we’re your friends.”

Sandy looked up, and a glint of hope entered those orange eyes.  Jenny wished that she could feel that hope, but she didn’t expect her message of friendship to start a worldwide revolution on this raptor planet.  There were still raptor vessels headed towards Earth.  There were still octopuses — how many hundreds of thousands of them? — enslaved on the raptor vessels.

The cockpit sealed, closing away the strange, fascinating world of Corjovis.  Jenny wouldn’t be seeing Sandy again.  Or the other young raptors.  Or anything else of this planetary time capsule.  The hope in Sandy’s heart — that raptors and otters would visit each other peacefully — was foolish.

Jenny didn’t feel hope, but she did feel lucky.  Her comrades would have assumed she was dead by now, and by all rights she should be.  Instead, she’d been very, very lucky.

Ordol revved the engine, and Brighton’s Destiny rose gently from the ground.  Ever so carefully, the octopus and otter piloted the two-man vessel out of the garage shop where it had been fixed and between the sparse trees at the edge of the forest.  As soon as the wide wingspan cleared the forest and Brighton’s Destiny was flying over the wide meadow, Ordol rammed the throttle.  The Whirligig vessel careened upward, leaving a wake of startled brontosaur-like creatures scattering through the meadow in its wake.

Flying straight up into the thickly clouded Jovian sky, Jenny did allow herself a small glimmer of hope:  maybe, just maybe, if their luck held a little longer, they’d actually make it home.

Continue on to Chapter 23

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