by Mary E. Lowd
The giant malachite stalagmite towered in front of Kipper like an underwater skyscraper. The octopus tour guide led her, Trugger, and Captain Cod into an opening at the base that turned into a dark, narrow, winding tunnel. After several sharp twists and turns, the tunnel opened into a conical chamber that must have filled nearly the entire stalagmite.
The octopus city outside the stalagmite had been a heady visual opera of colors and motions. The inside was literally dizzying. Kipper had to turn her head down and close her eyes, shutting the visual noise out for a moment before she was ready to face it again.
In every direction, videos played of octopuses signing, text streaming, colors flashing. The entire conical chamber seemed to be lined with video screens, seamlessly forming the walls, and more of the spherical video-playing bubbles floated… everywhere. In the middle of the chamber, another much smaller spire rose from the floor. It was dark, pockmarked stone, and its surface was riddled with small caves. Kipper stared at it, trying to block out the visual clutter of all the videos everywhere else. She saw that most of the small caves’ ceilings hung with clumps and clusters of white grapes. Almost like strings of pearls. Octopi crouched in some of the caves, tending the clusters lovingly.
“This is our nursery,” the tour guide octopus signed.
The clusters were eggs. The octopi tending them were the mothers who had come here to die. This is what Emily had told Kipper about — why she had fled octopus society. After a mother octopus laid her eggs, she was expected to tend to them, starving and wasting away, until she died. Emily had lived, and there was no place for her in octopus society as a female who had already laid her eggs, so she’d come to live with the otters. Now she was the chef on the Jolly Barracuda.
Kipper didn’t understand octopi. In fact, right now, thinking about how they were treating her and how they’d treated Emily, she didn’t like them at all. Still, she was here. She should learn. So, she focused on reading the octopus tour guide’s signing tentacles.
“We all come from here,” the octopus signed. “This is our birthplace, hatchery, nursery school…” The octopus’s yellow eyes gazed into the mid-distance, and Kipper realized the water throughout the giant chamber was filled with tiny, floating, nearly-translucent baby octopi, swirling through the blue water like dust motes in a sunbeam. “Only a miniscule fraction of those who hatch survive to adulthood, but those who do are entirely prepared for their adult lives by the time they leave this chamber.”
“Is that what the videos are?” Captain Cod signed. “Education?”
“Of course,” the tour guide signed.
“Why do so few survive?” Trugger signed.
“We are so small when we hatch…” The tour guide’s signing tentacles moved with such grace, they barely disturbed the water at all. “Some eat. Some are eaten.”
“They eat each other?” Trugger’s paws didn’t show his feelings, and his expression was hidden behind his breathing mask. So he didn’t have to hide that he was horrified — it was already hidden for him.
“No,” the tour guide signed. “Larval crab, shrimp… we compete with our own food to survive.”
Kipper wanted to pay attention to the tour guide, but it was hard to concentrate on the signing of a single set of life-sized tentacles when so many larger-than-life tentacles loomed on the screens around her. She couldn’t keep up with their rapid signs. They were much faster than the tour guide’s, so she couldn’t tell much of what they were signing about. It didn’t seem much like the neon kiddie programs that Robin, Pete, and Allison watched. More like tech talks or lectures on advanced mathematics.
Kipper wondered who chose what kind of videos were shown in this chamber. Was it a political branch? Were the choices highly contested? They would be if dogs and cats were trying to agree on one set of videos to show all the kittens and puppies in the country.
Before Kipper could ask, the octopus tour guide startled her by jetting through the water over to the pockmarked stalagmite in the center of the chamber. The tour guide floated beside one of the caves that was empty now and signed, “This is where I laid my own eggs, many years ago, when I was young enough to be a mother.” She laid her tentacles delicately, fondly, even sentimentally over the curve of the cave’s mouth. “Thousands and thousands of beautiful, perfect eggs. I often wonder if any survived.”
Kipper was stunned. This octopus was female? And had laid eggs years ago?
If Kipper hadn’t been wearing breathing gear, she would have stuttered incoherently, making a fool of herself to this octopus like she’d made a fool of herself to the squirrel in Tree Town. Instead, she had time to gather her thoughts and try to sign something coherent. Her paws moved mechanically through the words, “We have an octopus on our spaceship. She told me that she came to space because there’s no room in octopus society for females after they’ve laid their eggs.” Even with a chance to gather her thoughts before speaking, Kipper still felt like a fool. How little could a cat know about her own world? At least she was getting used to feeling ignorant. “She said they always die.”
The tour guide stared at Kipper for a long time before signing, “There are religious sects who believe that. Hundreds of years ago it was a common belief. Not anymore.”
Maybe Kipper wasn’t the only one who was ignorant. Or maybe Emily hadn’t told her the whole story of her culture. She didn’t know.
Kipper tried to imagine growing up in a cavernous chamber, raised by videos, and surrounded by millions of strangers and siblings, all mixed together. No family. More than that, family would be a meaningless word. Cohorts, perhaps. But mostly, society would exist on two levels — the individual and then everyone. At least, that was her guess, but her guesses had been proving to be way off.
Kipper held out a paw, and the water swirled around her motion. She cupped her paw and held it still until one of the tiny octopuses, with a mantle barely larger than a single one of her paw pads, came into view. She placed her paw behind the octopus, blocking the noisy colors of the chamber, so she could see its delicate, jelly-like body in contrast to the plain gray skin of her paw pad.
The octopus baby squirmed and squiggled. Its tentacles writhed and wriggled. Its skin was translucent white with tiny black speckles, and its mantle was much larger relative to its tiny tentacles than on a grown octopus, making it look cute and babyish. Kipper wondered if it could change its colors yet. She wondered how old it was, and how old it would have to be before it was guaranteed to be one of the octopi that survived to adulthood. Perversely, Kipper wished she could tuck the tiny tentacled baby in a pocket and smuggle it out of here to raise it with a family. She and Emily could keep it and raise it together. That would be a nice family.
Does it count as kidnapping if the child is fated to die? Of course, it wasn’t fated to die — it had the same chances as any other octopus baby here. Very, very slim.
Kipper dropped her paw to her side, and the currents in the water whisked the baby octopus away, tentacles flitting and flailing. It became one of a million, all mixed together, tiny specks of life swimming through this chamber.
The rest of the octopus tour guide’s words, signed with deft tentacles, passed in front of Kipper’s eyes but never translated into language in her brain. She couldn’t stop thinking about her own family — her niece and nephews especially, but also Petra, Alistair, Trudith, and even the crew of the Jolly Barracuda who she’d come to think of as family. All of them were whirling through space, flitting and flailing, just hoping they’d be among the ones to survive — that their whole world would survive.
Kipper couldn’t save a baby octopus, and she didn’t feel like she could save the world.
By the time the octopus tour guide led them back out of the nursery stalagmite, Kipper’s mood was morose. Fortunately, she wasn’t called to do more than follow along, docile and polite, as their octopus retinue — five guards and the oligarch, who turned out to be the creepy blue-eyed octopus with the silver tentacle — was assembled and prepared to leave Choir’s Deep.
Each of the five octopus guards wore a backpack strapped around its waist — below the eyes, above the tentacles, with the bulk of the pack hanging down beneath the mantle. The effect looked strange to Kipper, as she’d come to think of the span of skin between the eyes and where the front tentacles divided as an octopus’s face, and the backpack straps covered that span like a gag or blind fold.
Of course, it wasn’t a face. Octopuses don’t have faces in the same sense as cats and otters. What Kipper thought of as a face was merely a blank span of skin that could take on expressive qualities depending on an octopus’s posture. Nonetheless, the black straps holding on their backpacks made the retinue of octopus guards look like ninjas to Kipper — an effect that might have been cool if she’d felt like they were on her side. She liked the idea of octopus ninjas fighting back against the raptors. She didn’t so much like the idea of octopus ninjas assigned to guard her so that she would return and pay for her supposed crimes.
Though, the idea that she was a powerful and scary enough cat to require five octopus ninjas to guard her… Kipper supposed that was kind of cool.
The whole crew of them — six octopuses, Kipper, Trugger, and Captain Cod — rode two whale sharks back to the Diving Canary. Once they were back onboard an otter vessel, Kipper took a savage pleasure in climbing up to the sleeping quarters on the upper level where it was dry. Sure, her octopus guards could have followed her. They had brought breathing gear in their packs that would let them function out of water — Kipper had asked — and octopi are freakishly strong, in spite of developing in a liquid atmosphere. But they didn’t follow her. They swam around on the lowest levels, under the water, like weird tentacle monsters hiding under everyone’s feet, and Kipper got to enjoy a small modicum of rebellion and privacy.
For two days, Kipper read the history books on her data-chip from Cedar Heights and pretended that a fleet of killer raptors wasn’t flying towards Earth. She didn’t have a choice — deep under the ocean, the Diving Canary was out of touch with the news above sea level. When they finally surfaced, a few hours out from the docks at Guayaquil, the news from the previous week hit Kipper — and all the otters onboard — in a rush.
The Europa base attack had successfully shut down the energy beams from Jupiter to the raptor fleet. For six hours. Then the energy beams were back online, and the raptor fleet began accelerating toward Earth again. Jenny was gone. So was Ordol. Riots had begun all over the Uplifted States. Cats wanted Petra freed. Dogs wanted a president who would “protect” them — in other words, another dog. The International Star-Ocean Navy was assembling a brigade to fight the raptors, but by the time they’d be ready, the raptor fleet would be nearly to Earth. No one liked Earth’s prospects.
But there was one good piece of news. A short video call from Petra. Two police dogs stood behind the orange tabby, at the back of a drab room. Petra’s clothes were wrinkled and stained, and her fur looked greasy and unwashed. Her ears twisted back, clearly listening to the police dogs behind her who were both staring away, at least pretending not to listen. Petra whisper-hissed into the camera, voice very low, “Kipper, I know where the missing money went — Siamhalla has nukes. Nuclear missiles. They’re armed to the teeth. You know what to do.” The picture fizzed out. That was it. But it was good news.
And Kipper did know what to do. She was elated that she might not have to rely on the crazy octopuses that she’d fished up from the bottom of the ocean to save the world — just crazy isolationist pure-bred cats. She routed a call immediately through Deep Sky Anchor to Mars. According to the data in the corner of the vid-call window on the tablet computer, the charges for the call would be exorbitant, but the time-delay was low — only about five minutes, because Mars and Earth were close together this year. Though, the time-delay didn’t matter — Kipper didn’t need to hear anything back; she simply had something to say.
“Josh,” Kipper said, as soon as the vid-call window showed that it was transmitting. She could see her own green-eyed, tabby-striped face on the screen, just as it would be transmitted, but she pictured the handsome blue-eyed Siamese who would receive this message. He wouldn’t like it. But he had to hear it. She drew a deep breath and started:
“I know that Siamhalla has teeth. My sister traced the money. The news will come out eventually — the question that you and everyone else on Siamhalla need to ask yourselves is whether you want the news to be that Siamhalla was responsible for embezzling and smuggling… or that Siamhalla was responsible for embezzling, smuggling, and standing by while their fellow cats on Earth died.” Kipper paused a moment to let those words sink in.
“You have teeth. Use them. Bite hard. Bite with every tooth you’ve got. Or else I will personally see to it that if we survive the raptor assault, the Uplifted States of Mericka reclaims every piece of property you stole and drags every last one of your sorry tails back to Earth where you can rot in jail for treason.”
Kipper’s ears flicked back uncomfortably at the sight of her own green eyes flashing with anger. It was strange watching herself trying to intimidate someone. “Look,” she said, softening a little. “You have a chance to be heroes. Be heroes. Kipper out.”
Kipper swiped a paw pad across the screen, ending the transmission. The crisp, bright video image of herself disappeared and was replaced by her ghostly reflection on the blank black screen. She stared at it for a while wondering what Josh would think. They’d been pen-pals since she’d visited Siamhalla, and she believed he was a good guy. But more importantly, he seemed smart. Too smart to let this warning pass by. He would do the right thing. Siamhalla would do the right thing. Kipper had to believe that. They might restrict their own residency to purebred cats, but that didn’t mean they would stand by and watch other cats die.
Besides, there were still purebred cats on Earth. It was insane that their empathy for the cats on Earth might depend on their pedigree…
Trugger popped his head up from the lower level of the submarine. “We’re docked. Pack your stuff. It’s time to get this travelling circus back to the Jolly Barracuda and kick some raptor tail.” He said the words with bravado, but then his expression wavered — whiskers almost drooping. Kipper could see the fear in his eyes. He was the only otter who’d been with her to see the raptors first-hand. He knew what they were up against.
Kipper stowed the borrowed tablet computer in her beat-up purple duffel bag. It was starting to feel like that purple bag was her real home. Wherever she went, her purple duffel came with her. She almost wanted to see if she were small enough to crawl inside it and turn the universe inside-out so that all that was left was the inside of that small purple bag. She’d be shielded from the raptor’s talons and pinecone-like bludgeoning warships by a thin layer of purple fabric.
Siamhalla would come through. They had to. They would use their nuclear missiles to shoot down the raptor vessels, and Kipper wouldn’t have to face the raptors again. She knew they would, because if they didn’t, she would destroy them.
Continue on to Chapter 25…