by Mary E. Lowd
Kipper was trying really hard to believe she could do anything. More specifically, she was trying really hard to believe that she could swing a magnetic grappling hook across empty space, snare a passing raptor vessel, and successfully board it as the Jolly Barracuda passed it by. Trugger had explained how it would work to her a hundred times. She’d had weeks to get used to the idea — numb to it even — but now that she was wearing her spacesuit, standing in an open airlock and staring that empty space directly in the eye, she couldn’t believe she’d let herself get into this situation.
The otters standing in their spacesuits on either side of her seemed confident. Grimly confident. Like they were facing a suicide mission. Except they expected their suicides to come at the talons of raptors inside the approaching vessel, not by spinning out into empty space and dying a slow death of asphyxiation due to messing up with their grappling hooks and never making it to the approaching vessel in the first place. Which was definitely what Kipper expected.
A robotic voice spoke in Kipper’s helmet: “We’re nearing the moment of closest approach. Be ready.” It was the computer’s text-to-speech voice, used by Boris the pilot since the Jolly Barracuda was still filled with its oxo-agua atmosphere. He was the only otter who’d stayed onboard. All the rest of them were lined up in the airlock, packed closely side-by-side like sardines (a comparison Trugger had made several times, possibly because he was hungry), waiting for Boris’s order.
Half a dozen otters and, a moment later, Kipper fired their grappling guns into the darkness of space that yawned in front of the open airlock. The magnetic grapples shot straight out, leaving their ropes behind like vector lines. Kipper felt the rope snap taut just as her eyes made out the shadowy bulk of the raptor vessel, sailing silently through the vacuum like an eerie space whale. Her grip on the grappling gun held, and she felt herself pulled out of the airlock, bumping against the otters beside her.
Kipper squeezed hard on the grappling gun and it began to reel her in, recoiling its rope and pulling her toward the raptor ship. The otters around her sailed toward the vessel on their own grappling lines.
“I really feel like a pirate!” Trugger’s voice came over the helmet speakers, sounding thin. “Boarding an enemy vessel!”
Captain Cod’s voice followed, uncharacteristically serious: “Stay focused. The Jolly Barracuda will take several hours to finish decelerating and swinging around to join us. We’re on our own until then.”
Kipper kicked her hind paws up in front of her, and her space boots thunked solidly onto the side of the raptor vessel. The boots were magnetic too.
“Whaddaya know?” Trugger said. “Cats land on their feet in space too, without a single planet in sight.”
One of the otter-shaped spacesuits pointed into the sky, and then Pearl’s voice came over the helmet speakers, “That one’s a planet… and that one…”
“Focus,” Captain Cod hissed. Kipper hadn’t known otters could hiss. “We need to find an airlock or some other hatchway.”
The otters dispersed, crawling over the raptor ship’s hull like barnacles with a purpose. Or like… otters… trying to break into the biggest clam they’d ever seen? A flock of seagulls fighting over a coconut? Could Kipper go home now? Could Kipper go home ever?
She needed to pull herself together. This was a suicide mission, but maybe it was a suicide mission that they could win. If Kipper could save her family on Earth — if she could protect Earth for all the kittens and puppies before she died — then surely that was worth the paralyzing fear she felt standing on the outside of a warship hurtling toward her homeworld through the vacuum of space.
Nonetheless, Kipper couldn’t bring herself to move a single paw until she heard Chauncey over the radio say, “I found a seam in the hull… yeah… definitely, this is an airlock hatch.”
Captain Cod barked, “Everyone to Chauncey!” and Kipper found her paws drawing her inexorably across the dark metal hull towards the congregation of space-suited otters. One of the otter figures knelt down and traced the edges of a panel beside the airlock hatch with the nozzle of an oilcan-shaped tool. Kipper wasn’t sure if the nozzle was applying heat or chemicals, but the metal corroded away like it was being burned through by acid.
“Gather close,” Captain Cod said, and Kipper realized he was the one holding the oilcan. He stood up and hooked the oilcan tool onto the back of his spacesuit along with the other tools there — including a two-handled sword that the otters called a lobster-sabre. Kipper had only seen them in movies before and had thought Trugger was joking when he’d insisted she’d need to learn how to handle one for this mission.
The four double-edged blades of a lobster-sabre curved towards each other in pairs, pointed outwards in opposite directions from the double handhold in the middle. Kind of like a pair of lobster claws, except made from shining metal blades. In the movies, they were deadly. In real life… Well, Kipper didn’t doubt a lobster-sabre could still be deadly in her own paws — she just hoped it wouldn’t be deadly to her.
Once all the spacesuit-clad otters were crowded close, Captain Cod knelt down again and removed the metal panel that he’d burned free beside the airlock. Underneath the panel, wires wrestled in a tangle. “When I hotwire this emergency lock,” the captain said, “the raptors will know we’re here for sure. So, as soon as the hatch opens, I want everyone inside the airlock as fast as… as fast as…” He faltered for a metaphor. The stress was clearly getting to him.
But Trugger was quick with a save: “As fast as a swallow-tailed swift with a rocket pack and a strong tailwind!”
There was a long pause during which many of the otters tried to picture such a tiny bird wearing a rocket pack, and Kipper found herself praying to First Race gods she didn’t believe in.
“Thanks,” Captain Cod said. “When we get through the inner hatch, everyone fan out. Damage anything you can. That includes raptors themselves — this is a time to be heartless.” The captain’s voice broke a little on the word ‘heartless.’ Even if the raptors were a dire threat to his own people, he was not an otter who could order murder lightly. “Look for the bridge. Look for the engines. If we’re going to take down the other vessels in this fleet, we need to capture this one. That means taking control of the bridge or engineering. Everyone got that?”
A chorus of otter voices yipped, “Aye aye!”
Captain Cod turned his head, taking a moment to look each of his officers in the eye. When he reached Kipper, the curving reflection of her own spacesuit on his faceplate obscured his expression. Then he tilted his head, and the reflection disappeared. Instead, she could see framed inside the helmet: downturned whiskers, a grim mouth, and dark eyes glinting like obsidian, sharp and hard. He wasn’t the Captain Cod that Kipper knew and loved. He was a planetary hero.
Kipper couldn’t think that way. She couldn’t afford to. She was going to get inside this enemy vessel and fight her hardest — for all the kittens back home.
Captain Cod worked his magic on the exposed wires, and the airlock hatch slid open. Kipper felt the rumble of its motors in the hull under her feet.
“Go go go!!” the captain shouted, and all the space-suited otters squeezed inside the airlock. Kipper squeezed in last.
Opening and closing the airlock hatches from inside the airlock was much simpler — Captain Cod only had to punch the single large button in the wall with his gloved fist. The outer hatch closed; air rushed in from vents in the walls; and then, breathless moments later, the inner hatch slid wide.
One after another, the otters emerged from the airlock and drew their lobster-sabres. Kipper felt her heartbeat echoing and pounding in her pointed ears as she reached behind her back and drew her own lobster-sabre. The curved sword settled heavily in her gloved paws. She did not want to swing it. She didn’t want to be holding it.
“The bridge will be in the nose of the ship,” Captain Cod said. “This way.”
Kipper couldn’t see Captain Cod’s gesture from behind all the other otters, but the group of them began to move to her left, many of them releasing the magnetic hold on their boots so they could float freely in the zero gee. As they cleared away, Kipper could see the ship they’d entered better: the airlock opened into the middle of a wide tubular corridor; fern-like plants grew in four evenly spaced stripes along the corridor — ceiling, either wall, and floor — except that those terms had no meaning in a radially symmetrical tubular corridor with no gravity.
Kipper felt a pang of homesickness for the Jolly Barracuda’s tacky fake-wood paneling and iron grated floors. With its decor like a cheap seafood restaurant, the Jolly Barracuda hadn’t been her original idea of a spaceship, but it sure was a whole lot friendlier than this gleaming tube with its hydroponic ferns.
Or maybe that was just because Kipper felt sure she would die here. In this death tube.
And there stood death — with ruffled feathers, iridescent black, full of the swirling colors of an oil pool. Two raptors floated at the end of the corridor with their wing-like arms outstretched as if they were flying. They looked startled, if Kipper could read raptor expressions at all. They hadn’t expected an unscheduled airlock cycle to mean they would find their corridor filled with space-suited otters wielding curved swords. Who would have?
In the lead of the otters, Captain Cod kicked off of the floor and sailed through the middle of the corridor, lobster-sabre swinging. The sharp blade grazed one of the raptor’s wings and a cloud of feathers and blood exploded into the air to hover mesmerizingly in the zero gee. A gory cloud of black feathers and red droplets.
Captain Cod’s momentum carried him between the raptors, narrowly escaping a sharp-clawed kick from one of them. He hit the corridor wall on the far side and tumbled through the ferns. After that, Kipper lost track. Lobster-sabres gleamed; otters tumbled, and their spacesuits tore under the sharp claws and teeth of the two raptors. Even without weapons, the raptors — easily three times the size of a cat and twice the size of a big otter — were formidable: angry tornadoes of feathers and muscle, ripping and slashing with their hooked toe-claws.
Kipper’s feline body shook with terror and adrenaline, but her fight-or-flight response did not say fight. Every fiber of her body screamed for her to flee, and the sword in her paws didn’t spring to life, fighting for her people. It hung dully in the zero gee. At best, a shield.
“Look out from behind!” a breathless otter voice shouted over the comm. It sounded like Chauncy. “They’re coming from both directions now!”
Kipper spun around, still anchored to the side of the corridor with her magnetic boots, and saw three more raptors winging toward her. Tentacles rose from their shoulder blades and wielded rod-like weapons that crackled with electricity at their tips. Kipper had no intention of staying around for that.
The terrified tabby dove for cover in the nearest stripe of ferns. Under their green fronds, shame filled Kipper to the tip of her brushed out tail. She pressed her faceplate against the clear hydroponic plating that the fern stems grew through and watched the water rushing by around their roots underneath. Otters shouted warnings and orders to each other in her ears, but she couldn’t muster the willpower to raise her sword and join them. If she was going to die, did it matter if she died fighting?
The rushing water under the clear plating reminded Kipper of the rivers on Deep Sky Anchor. Rivers in space. Rushing water… Where was it rushing to?
Wherever it was rushing to had to be better than here. Kipper raised herself up, held her lobster-sabre high, and then with all her strength, brought the curved weapon down on the hydroponic plating.
The transparent sheet shattered.
Water bubbled and spurted, spraying into the zero gee corridor, and Kipper dove through the hole in the broken plating. The jagged edges scraped against her spacesuit, but it didn’t tear. No water seeped in.
Kipper dragged the lobster-sabre in one paw and swam for her life. The channel of water was barely wider than herself. The raptors wouldn’t fit in it. This was truly an escape route. “Captain Cod,” she said, pulling herself back together, “there are channels of water under the ferns!” There was no response, and she kept swimming, half dog-paddling and half kicking off the walls of the narrow channel, all the while trying not to panic at the sensation of being trapped in a tiny tube of rushing water. “Captain Cod?” He must be too busy fighting… They were all too busy. “Anybody?”
“Right behind you,” Trugger answered. “It’s a mess out there.” It was comforting to hear his voice over the helmet speakers.
“I’ve no idea where this leads,” Kipper admitted, fearing that she’d led one of the soldiers from the fray for nothing.
“Doesn’t matter,” Trugger replied. “At the very least, these channels have to tie into some sort of pump, moving the water throughout the ship. We wreck that, and we’ll cause some real chaos and confusion.”
Just what we need more of, Kipper thought. Although, truly, chaos and confusion were the friends of a small and losing battalion. This was not how Kipper wanted to die. She pawed her way through a particularly thick knot of fern roots and found that the channel split on the other side. She steered away from the clear plating along the corridor and into the new channel, slightly wider and metal all around. After a few strokes, the new channel opened into a wide tank. Kipper paused in the entrance to the tank and myriad pairs of yellow eyes with rectangular pupils stared at her. Tentacles roiled in a pastiche of pastel colors all around.
This was where the raptors kept their octopus slaves.
Continue on to Chapter 29…