by Mary E. Lowd
Safe inside the ancient octopus base on Europa, Jenny itched to be back in Brighton’s Destiny, flying free, but the little Whirligig ship was parked, inert on the roof of the floating base. Jenny was stuck inside one the plethora of spherical rooms off of the main central chamber of the base. It was a reasonably sized room until someone had decided to shove a table into it. The curved walls and ceiling hadn’t been designed to accommodate a rectangular table with four otters, two dogs, and a cat seated around it.
The spherical room had been designed for octopi, and the only octopus there was Ordol, clinging to the ceiling with his sucker disks, wearing a breathing apparatus that looked like inverse-SCUBA gear. He looked as uncomfortable as Jenny felt, and he was the only one who should have been comfortable in a room like that.
Instead, Ordol watched silently, reading the paws of the one otter from the Imperial Star-Ocean Navy who was taking the time to translate the arguments between his fellow officer-otters, the dachshund and Australian Cattle Dog from Howard Industries, and the yellow-furred former-empress of New Persia into sign language. The cats and dogs didn’t know Standard Swimmer’s Sign. Of course.
That didn’t stop them from arguing over who should own a base designed by octopi, for octopi, and meant to float just under the surface of an ocean planet.
Jenny had always imagined that “fighting like cats and dogs” meant something exciting. She’d seen Earth sitcoms where cats sneered sarcastic barbs at dogs, and the dogs barked their heads off back at them — insults and obscenities flying both ways.
In reality, though, it was all skewed ears, raised hackles, carefully chosen words, and faked politeness. Jenny couldn’t imagine anything more tedious, except, of course, for the way that the navy otters humored them, acting as though cats, dogs, otters, and octopi all had an equal claim on the Europa base.
“My colony has been reduced to a pile of floating wreckage,” the former-empress said. Her pointed ears flattened against her head, nearly burying themselves in her fluffy yellow fur. “All of my people, except myself and my cabinet, were forced to evacuate back to Earth or the feline colony on Mars. I think we deserve some form of recompense.”
“Obviously,” the cattle dog said with a wide, infectious grin, “we all have a great deal of sympathy for the troubles that the cats of New Persia have undergone.”
The dachshund chimed in with her down-home, folksy accent: “It’s sure no fun having to pick up and move your whole life when you thought you were settled.”
Jenny rolled her eyes at the way the Howard Industry dogs downplayed the destruction of an entire colony. She could see that the Persian cat was seething under her courteous facade.
“But the truth of the situation,” the cattle dog intoned, the grin on his muzzle turning downward into a more serious expression. “The real truth is that you never had the proper government permits to settle a colony on Europa in the first place.”
The senior navy otter, Admiral Mackerel, cut in to say, “The New Persians didn’t need any permits. The land was unclaimed.”
“With all due respect, Admiral,” the dachshund said, “all of the cats of New Persia are citizens of Earth countries. Many of them — in fact, the majority — are citizens of the Uplifted States of Mericka, and citizens of the Uplifted States do need proper government-issued permits to settle on other worlds.”
“That’s why we’re here,” the cattle dog said. “Howard Industries is one of the Uplifted States’ most trusted independent contractors. We have people on Earth right now working on getting those permits for you, Empress.” The cattle dog kept a straight face, but his tail wagged under the table. “All you have to do to make your colony retroactively legal is sign on as an incorporated subsidy of Howard Industries.”
“It’s really their only option,” the dachshund said to Admiral Mackerel, looking straight past the empress. “You may as well consider it already done.”
“Which is why any reparations, in the form of a controlling interest in this base,” the cattle dog said, “should be handed directly to Howard Industries.”
“You mean to you?” said the otter who’d been translating the conversation into sign language.
The cattle dog and dachshund glanced at each other, looking mildly uncomfortable.
“To Howard Industries,” the dachshund said.
“Of which I’m the senior local representative,” added the cattle dog. “So, in a way, yes.”
Jenny couldn’t take it anymore. These negotiations had been going on for weeks, ever since the dogs from Howard Industries had arrived in their hired spaceship. Jenny didn’t know why they’d bothered coming — this base clearly didn’t belong to them — and she wished the former-empress and her cabinet had evacuated Europa with the other New Persians. Why was Admiral Mackerel putting up with this? It was a waste of time.
Jenny caught Ordol’s eye and signed, subtly so the navy otters missed it, “Let’s get out of here.”
Ordol signed with the tip of a tentacle, “Please.”
Jenny interrupted a painfully civil argument between Admiral Mackerel and the cattle dog about whether cats on Europa were still subject to laws on Earth to say and sign, “Ordol looks exhausted. I think he’s getting dehydrated. We’re going to go for a swim.”
Ordol reached two of his tentacles toward Jenny, and she held out an arm for him to grab as he drifted lightly down from the ceiling in Europa’s low gravity.
Ordol led the way out of the improvised meeting room into one of the winding, tubular corridors that characterized the Europa base. He pulled himself through the narrow corridor, grabbing the walls with his tentacles stretched out in every direction. The walls glowed wherever his sucker discs touched them. Tiny sparkles of light danced in the strange material of the walls.
The corridor was too narrow for an otter to stand upright, so Jenny crawled awkwardly after him, lighting up a denser trail of tiny sparkles in the material of the floor. She couldn’t help thinking it would be much easier, much faster to swim. All the narrow corridors in the Europa base would be easier to navigate while swimming.
Come to think of it, Jenny realized that a lot of problems with the Europa base could be solved by flooding it. Cats and dogs were a lot less likely to fight over a base filled with water. The corridors would be easier to swim through. And besides, the base had clearly been designed to hold water; it would be much better for the long term structural integrity of the base.
In an underwater world, he who can breathe water is king. That meant Ordol. The base rightfully, in her mind, should belong to him anyway. At least, until some more octopi showed up. But the base was clearly designed for octopi. Let the octopus run it!
By the time that Ordol and Jenny reached the end of the corridor, her mind was made up.
The corridor opened out onto a yawning central chamber, several stories high and vaguely cylindrical. Its walls were riddled with the entrances to other narrow corridors, and the open space in the middle was crisscrossed by poles that stretched the entire height and width of the giant chamber.
Ordol swung gracefully from one pole to another, descending toward the workstations that honeycombed the floor. Jenny reached for the closest pole and slid down it like a firefighter. Going down was easy. Getting back up would be hard — but not after the base was flooded.
Jenny signed to Ordol, “Help me round up the other Barracuders. Try not to tip off the navy otters that we’re up to something. Okay?”
“The navy ones wear the uniforms?” Ordol asked. He still had trouble telling otters apart from cats and dogs — let alone one otter from another. They were all fuzzy mammals, and he couldn’t read the differences in their shapes any better than most otters could read the expression in an octopus’s skin. Until a few months ago, Ordol had only ever seen other octopi and the raptors who had them enslaved.
“Right, the navy ones wear all the brass buttons and stiff collars and cuff-links,” Jenny signed. “All that nonsense.” The Jolly Barracuda idea of a uniform was much less formal — dark slacks, light vest, and a single golden pin shaped like an old Earth sailing ship.
Jenny and Ordol rounded up the half dozen members of the Jolly Barracuda crew who’d stayed behind on the Europa base when Captain Cod had flown back to Earth, ship filled to the gills with hissing and yowling Persian refugees.
Jenny explained her plan to the other otters, and they listened in silence. When she was done, Jenny said, “I know that Captain Cod left me in charge, but I’m not only asking you to follow my orders here; I’m asking you to go against the wishes of the ISON admiral.”
Six otter faces stared at her, their whiskers downturned in serious expressions.
“Has the admiral expressly ordered you not to do this?” Destry asked.
“No,” Jenny admitted. “But he won’t like it.”
“Tough jellyfish,” Amoreena said. “If he hasn’t forbidden it, then it’s not against the rule of the Imperial Star-Ocean Navy. I’m in.”
“He really should know better than to leave a big ol’ gray-area loophole wide open around chaos-sowing pirates like us,” Felix said.
“We’re not pirates,” Jenny corrected. “The situation with the Asteroid Artists’ Alliance is a misunderstanding.”
Amoreena rolled her eyes. Felix and Destry both chuckled. The other three chimed in to agree to Jenny’s plan, pirates or not.
Like secret agents, they dispersed through the corridors of the Europa base. They went in pairs to the hatches around the outer edge of the base. Then like bank robbers, they turned the heavy metal wheels, unlocking the vault-like doors that held out the newly melted oceans of Europa. Water spat and gurgled around the edges as the doors started to open. Then it rushed in through the widening gap. They only opened the door a few inches, but that would be enough to flood the base soon enough. Jenny jammed the door open, smashing the wheel that controlled it with the broken length of one of the poles from the central chamber.
Jenny and Felix waltzed together in the sloshing, ankle-deep Europa ocean. It would be much deeper soon.
“Come on,” Jenny said to her partner-in-crime, “let’s get back to the others and start warning the cats and dogs to get out of here.”
“We’ll need to set up a camp on the surface,” Felix said. “And rig up some breathing gear so that we can come back in here when it’s done flooding.”
“That’s the idea!” Jenny grinned. Now things were happening! This should shake up those stuffy navy otters, entitled dogs, and the enigmatic empress.
Continue on to Chapter 4…