by Mary E. Lowd
Blackness. Beautiful, soothing blackness. Not the infinitely deep blackness of space, nor the red-green blackness behind closed eyes, but a swirling fractal cloud of blackness. Watery blackness. Ink. Enough ink to be from a dozen octopuses.
When the water cleared, all the octopuses were gone. Kipper doubted for a moment that she’d seen their yellow eyes at all. Then she saw subtle crinkly curves in the gray metal walls. It was like an optical illusion — if she focused her eyes just right, all the walls were covered with clinging camouflaged octopi. If she let her eyes unfocus even a little, all she saw was plain metal walls.
A yellow eye cracked open among the tentacles, and Kipper didn’t hesitate to drop her sword and start signing. “Help us,” she signed. “We want–” The yellow eye shut again. Looking at her deadly four-pointed sword floating beside her, Kipper could hardly the blame the octopuses for hiding.
“We need their help,” Kipper said for Trugger to hear. “They know this ship, and we don’t. They’d double our forces.”
“They don’t look like they want to help,” Trugger said. He paddled up beside Kipper. “We can’t make them revolt.”
Kipper burned with frustration. And terror. And adrenaline. “We can’t even ask if they won’t look at us.”
Kipper wanted to shout at the octopi and make them hear her out, but she couldn’t do that in Swimmer’s Sign. All she could do was lay her paws on them and hope they’d look at her. So, she dog-paddled her way over to the one that had peeked at her with its yellow eye and lay one gloved paw, as gently as she could, on the bulbous curve of its mantle. She couldn’t feel the delicate flesh through her clumsy glove, but the octopus’s skin flushed and fluttered with pinks and orange in response to her touch. Its eyes opened again. Both of them this time.
Kipper withdrew her paw and signed more slowly this time: “We’re fighting the raptors. Not you. If we win, we can take you with us — all of you. There are whole cities of free octopuses where we come from. Help us, and we can free you.”
“Those are big promises,” Trugger said to her.
“Shut up,” Kipper snapped.
“Also big ideas,” Trugger said, ignoring the temper in Kipper’s tone. “Ordol wasn’t very good with Swimmer’s Sign to begin with… Even the octopus half is pretty different from his dialect, and you’re signing in the otter half.”
“I know,” Kipper said through gritted teeth. “But we haven’t got anything better…” She trailed off as the octopus in front of her started to move.
The octopus’s color shifted and sharpened into a bright cherry red, and its tentacles moved in a flurry of sign language — expressive, deeply meaningful, and far too fast for Kipper to decipher.
“Are you getting any of that?” Kipper asked Trugger, hoping she wouldn’t have to sign to the octopus asking it to slow down.
“Not much,” he said. “Like I said, the Jovian octopi don’t use Swimmer’s Sign. I think it’s a dialect of a more ancient language that Swimmer’s Sign was originally based on. Oh wait… That sign–” The octopus twisted two of its tentacle tips together. “That’s the sign for friendship, isn’t it?” Trugger made the corresponding sign with his gloved paws.
Kipper signed too: “Friend. Help.” Over and over again, she signed those two words until her paws fell into a rhythm with the octopus’s tentacles. They signed the words together in a silent chant.
The octopus’s color faded and flushed, finally settling on a mottled pinky-gray. Then it floated toward Kipper and reached out for her lobster-sabre. She grabbed the curved sword from where it floated and handed it over more than willingly. The octopus wrapped its tentacles around the handholds and hefted the blade, maneuvering the lobster-sabre through the water, measuring its heft and momentum.
“Is it a good idea to hand over your sword to a stranger?” Trugger asked. “The enemy of our enemy isn’t necessarily our ally. No matter what this octopus seemed to be signing.”
The octopus flipped the sword deftly in its tentacles and proffered it back to Kipper. The tabby took it back more reluctantly. She’d kind of liked the idea of the octopus doing her fighting for her.
Maybe, Kipper thought, she didn’t have to give up on the idea so easily…
The octopus jetted away from her and Trugger, back to the deceptively plain metal wall. It touched its tentacles to the disguised metal-gray tentacles of its fellows, moving across the wall, caressing one after the other. And one after another, pairs of yellow eyes opened, stared skeptically at Kipper or Trugger, and then turned querulously to Kipper’s new ally.
Kipper started to get excited, and her paws moved to sign, “Join us! Fight with us! Fight for your freedom!” But in the time that it took her to sign those simple words, her octopus ally’s tentacles danced and twisted and wriggled more words than Kipper could follow. She imagined an entire eloquent speech, beseeching the octopi to rise up and fight the raptors… But she was only guessing. Her excitement betrayed her, and she breathed the words, “We’ll free these octopi, and then someday we’ll free them all.” She only meant the words for herself, but her helmet radio was transmitting.
“What do you think is happening here?” Trugger asked.
“Revolution,” she whispered. “An uprising.” She could picture these octopi leading her and Trugger to victory.
“These octopi have been enslaved by the raptors for generations. Probably longer than either of our species have been uplifted. Possibly millions of years. You think because a cat shows up with a sword and says, ‘fight with me,’ that you’re suddenly going to start a revolution?”
As if Trugger’s words were a dark wind, the yellow lights of all the octopi eyes in the room began to extinguish. One by one, they shifted their tentacles, signed a single word that Kipper could easily recognize, and closed their eyes, disappearing again into the smooth metal wall.
The word they signed was no.
Kipper’s ears bumped uncomfortably inside her helmet as they tried to flatten with shame, but they couldn’t shut out the echo of Trugger’s words. His question twisted and mocked her: “What do you think? You’re going to start a revolution?”
That was exactly what she’d thought, but she meowed, “No,” defensively anyway. “I had to try. We have to try everything that could stop these ships.”
Captain Cod’s voice crackled to life over the radio, and Kipper’s body flooded with relief. She hadn’t realized how scared she was that he’d already died. She’d thought for sure — after their prolonged silence — that the others were long gone. All of them. Instead, she realized with guilt that they’d simply been too busy fighting to speak.
“It’s a good idea, Kipper,” the captain said. “But we need all paws on deck now. So, if the tentacles aren’t with you–” The captain’s spacesuit rushed through the water, right past Kipper and Trugger. He swam like a torpedo in a hurry. “–then it’s time to move on.” A dozen more space-suited otters barreled startlingly through the watery room, following the captain. They didn’t stop to consort with octopi. They swam straight through and continued towards the nose of the ship. “Thanks for the shortcut though.”
Kipper looked at the octopuses all around. Their subtle curves blended into the walls in a complete denial of Kipper’s plea. These octopuses knew the layout of the ship. They knew where the bridge was, and they might even know how to work the controls. But only one of them would even look at Kipper now, and the soft crinkles in the skin around its eyes didn’t give the tabby any hope.
The octopus had watched the brigade of otters pass through the chamber with a piercing, judging intelligence. When it turned its yellow gaze back toward Kipper, its tentacles began to roil and twist in motions so fluid that Kipper barely recognized them as signs. She was used to Emily’s signing, and Emily’s signs were more punctuated — a motion, then a pause, then a motion. Was Emily always talking slowly for her? Like the octopi in Choir’s Deep had had to?
The words in this octopus’s roiling tentacles weren’t clear to Kipper; something like before, too early, sorry, and maybe good luck. The octopus’s tentacles slowed, and it drifted back towards the wall of the chamber to rejoin the others.
Whatever it had said, the octopus was done with her. They were all done with her. As Kipper watched the octopus disappear against the smooth metal wall, she signed, “Thanks anyway,” only moments before it closed its yellow eyes, winking out entirely.
Then she felt Trugger’s gloved paw on her shoulder. “Come on,” he said. He swam past her in his spacesuit — a torpedo reluctantly moseying along, none-too-eager to reach the battle ahead but grimly determined to play his part. “The others need us.”
Kipper hefted her sword and kicked her back feet, propelling herself awkwardly through the water after the otters. “For Earth,” she said, and she was answered by a chorus of otter voices, echoing her words: “For Earth!” It wasn’t an army of octopi who knew secrets about the ship they were on, but it was an army. A small one. Kipper was not alone. She wouldn’t die alone.
Kipper followed Trugger through the narrowing passageway, swimming faster as the current picked up. When the passage got narrow enough, she kicked against the walls, half-crawling and half-swimming. Fern roots tangled with her paws, and half of the panels lining the passageway were see-through. Through the water and transparent panels, Kipper saw a wavery view of the raptor ship.
They were swimming in the walls of a busy room. Raptors flapped about the room like giant black condors, moving from one station of gleaming screens and buttons to the next. Behind them was a star-scape. No wait, a giant viewscreen. Oh god, this was the bridge. They’d made it to the bridge.
“Here’s our stop!” the captain announced cheerfully. The metal walls of the watery passageway vibrated as Captain Cod smashed his lobster-sabre through a transparent panel. The other otters followed suit, and even Kipper finally swung her curved double-sword. The transparent panel shattered under the lobster-sabre’s points, and Kipper spun in a splash of water into the raptors bridge, carried by her sword’s momentum.
Kipper tumbled head over tail, trying to regain control of her sword in the zero gee, surrounded by total chaos. Lobster-sabres flashed; feathers flew; water spurted from the broken panels; and the star-scape on the viewscreen flickered out as Captain Cod shattered it with his lobster-sabre.
And suddenly a searing pain in Kipper’s right hind paw. She swung her sword and grazed a raptor’s wing more by luck than design. Her blade came away bloodied, and Kipper’s stomach churned. She could hardly see who she was fighting, but she clung to the double handholds of her lobster-sabre for dear life. She swung the bloodied blade madly, throwing any momentum she could gather from a stray kick against a wall or ceiling into her swings. She swung at raptors. She tried to avoid otters… which was getting easier as the raptors took them down.
Kipper landed a blow on the wing of a raptor who’d already lost its brightly colored feather plumes, but before she could pull the sword away, the raptor gripped one of the pincer-blades with its talons. Blood floated away from the raptor’s claws, but it held tight, wrenched the weapon out of Kipper’s grip, and left the tabby floating helpless and unarmed.
“Help!” she cried, but as she looked around the bridge, she saw her compatriots cornered, disarmed, being torn out of their spacesuits. Not one of them still held a sword.
Tearing. Kipper felt the sensation as if her spacesuit were a second, numbed skin. Muggy warmth flooded through the rents in her spacesuit, and Kipper felt herself turned until a raptor face stared directly at her through the thin faceplate of her helmet. Its teeth were too close. Too sharp. It fogged the faceplate with its breath, and then it continued tearing her spacesuit open with its claws — peeling her as if she were a fruit for it to eat.
“Don’t hurt me,” Kipper whimpered. She didn’t expect the raptor to hear or understand her, but the words spilled out of her anyway. Then she felt the strangest vibration rising up from her throat. It was a truly perverse sensation. But she found herself… purring.
She was so scared that she started purring.
This is the way the world ends, she thought. Not with a yowl, but with a purr.
Continue on to Chapter 30…