by Mary E. Lowd
Kipper couldn’t convince Captain Cod to stop singing. The captain led his merry band of imprisoned otters in one round of sailing ditties after another, insisting it was the only otterly way to face certain death.
Kipper wasn’t sure she liked it any better than she’d liked facing death with a lobster-sabre in her paws. She thought that perhaps the best way to face death might be with a strong dose of catnip, a rich mug of cream, and quiet contemplation. Though she wasn’t sure. All the boisterous singing around her made it too noisy for her to properly contemplate it.
How could they sing so cheerfully, plastered on the floor of a high-gee raptor jail cell, with their arms and legs immobilized by little electrical cuffs that the raptors had strapped onto their ankles and wrists? Bitterly, Kipper wished the raptors would hurry up and do whatever they had planned, so she wouldn’t have to listen to chirpy otter voices sing sea shanties while her stomach twisted itself in knots anymore. Then she immediately regretted her curmudgeonly wish when a dark shadow fell over her.
Kipper twisted around awkwardly on the floor by wiggling her hips and shoulders, dragging her arms and legs like useless lumps, until she could see the three black-feathered raptors that rose over her and the otters like dark angels of judgement day. Demonic executors of doom. The foremost raptor’s skull and forearms were crested with royal amethyst plumes of feathers, and enslaved tentacles stretched out thin and pale from its shoulders like skeletal wings. The two raptors behind it bore golden orange and yellow feathers; the tentacles on their shoulders draped listlessly like shawls of souls.
All three of the raptors seemed undisturbed by the crushingly high gravity; they were apparently freakishly strong.
The foremost raptor’s skeletal wings shivered, a slight flutter, and then they started signing. The bone-pale tentacles twisted haltingly into the words: “Does work? You understand? Speak if understand.”
“Yes!” Kipper yowled, rocking her body madly against the high gee, trying to wake up her electronically-numbed limbs. She couldn’t sign back without her arms.
The otters around her chorused her answer and began speculating: “Have the octopi taken over?“; “Are we going to be freed?“; “Let us go!”
The foremost raptor’s eyes glinted at the floor full of moaning, squirming mammals, and it looked over its shoulder at the raptor with yellow crest feathers, screeched and cawed as if conferring with its compatriot, and then the second raptor came forward and removed the electronic cuffs from Kipper’s forepaws.
Kipper tried to shake some feeling back into her tingling paws, and then she looked up at the purple-crested raptor looming above her to sign, “Thank you.” She didn’t know if she was signing to an octopus controlling a raptor or to a raptor controlling an octopus, but either way, it seemed safest to be polite.
The foremost raptor’s head bobbed in a seeming expression of surprise, and then its tentacles signed, “Understood that. You’re welcome.”
The raptors screeched at each other for a while, and the longer they did, the more convinced Kipper became that the raptors were still in charge. The octopi had not overthrown them while Kipper and the others lay in this cell. That had been too much to hope for.
Eventually, the foremost raptor’s enslaved tentacles began wiggling again; it signed, “Never talk like this before. Not expect work. Simple words please. Need to know: octopi hurt you?”
Kipper’s brain scrambled in confusion. Was she being offered a way out? If she gave the right answer, was there any chance the raptors would let them live? Let them go? She had to game this question… But she had no idea what the raptors were looking for, and all the otters around her were shouting different answers at her, along with complex, confusing metaphors: “Tell them ‘not a hair off a halibut’s head!”; “Two sardines don’t make a salmon!”; “An algae’s a better friend than an urchin!”
And finally, “As your commanding officer, I order you to tell them ‘Never a bass, always a bassoon!'”
“I don’t think confusing them will help,” Kipper hissed.
“It might,” Trugger countered, almost reasonably.
Kipper couldn’t think clearly enough to figure out what the raptors wanted to hear, but she knew that even in Choir’s Deep the octopi had never actually hurt her. She signed, “No. Never.”
The two raptors standing behind the foremost one made a coughing sound that could have been laughter until the foremost raptor cut them off with a screech.
“Octopi dangerous,” the raptor signed with totally subdued and submissive octopus tentacles. “Must control octopi. Don’t control you?”
“No one controls me,” Kipper signed. She heard Captain Cod harrumph and mutter something about bassoonists behind her. Kipper kept signing: “I’m in charge.” If the raptors were giving her a chance to negotiate, she would take it and take complete responsibility. This wasn’t simply a Jolly Barracuda matter. Right now, Kipper spoke for all the cats and dogs on Earth. Even the squirrels and mice, and anyone else she didn’t know about yet.
The three raptors looked at each other and then cawed to each other in quieter tones. Eventually, the orange-crested one left the chamber and returned a few moments later with a smaller, midnight blue-crested raptor clutching an octopus to its feathered breast. The octopus had a silver tentacle like the oligarch, but when it opened its eyes–
“Emily?” Kipper said and signed.
“Know this octopus?” the foremost raptor signed. Suddenly, in comparison to Emily’s self-animated tentacles, the raptor’s neurologically-controlled tentacles looked especially creepy.
“Yes,” Kipper signed. She wanted to elaborate. She wanted to say Emily was her friend and beg them not to hurt her, but she dared not risk it. If she said too much, she might say something they didn’t like. She didn’t know what they’d like.
“Octopus say stay under oceans,” the raptor signed. “Not spaceships. Not hunt raptors. Not enslave little fuzzies.”
“Right,” Kipper agreed. “Octopi harmless.”
The raptor pointed at Kipper with its own feathered talon while signing with the octopus tentacles: “You in charge?”
“Yes,” Kipper affirmed while Captain Cod grumbled about insufferably independent cats in the background.
The raptor shifted its weight from one strong feathered leg to the other, drawing attention to the sharp hooked claw on its largest toe. That hooked claw was distressingly close to Kipper as she lay under the crushingly high gravity, still mostly immobilized, on the floor.
The octopus tentacles rising out of the raptor’s shoulders began signing again: “Why little fuzzies attack raptors?”
This was it. This was the moment of truth. Kipper couldn’t help but notice that suddenly her chorus of otter hecklers had grown eerily silent. They had no offers of help for her now.
Kipper signed, moving her small striped paws very carefully, “Protect home.” She waited a few moments, and then she turned the question back at the raptor: “Why raptors attack little fuzzies?”
The raptor’s fore-talons lifted and stretched out, almost as if the raptor wanted to sign with its own hands instead of the enslaved octopus’ tentacles. Then the tentacles twisted into the signs to say, “Not know little fuzzies. Only mean attack octopuses. Raptors go home now.”
Kipper was floored. Well, she was already lying on the floor, but now she was floored both literally and figuratively. She couldn’t believe it was over. Somehow, they’d saved the Earth from the raptors.
“What about us?” Captain Cod called out, knowing the raptors couldn’t understand him but that Kipper would know she should translate.
“What about us?” Kipper signed and then gestured around at the crew of the Jolly Barracuda ingloriously sprawled on the cell floor with their limbs electronically paralyzed.
“If give ship back, will leave raptors alone?”
“Yes,” Kipper signed.
“Then give ship back.” The purple-crested raptor pointed at Emily, jumbled in the smaller raptor’s arms. “Want octopuses? Found seven on ship. Three still alive. Want them? Or kill them?”
“Want them!” Kipper signed in a rush, three times fast, to be sure.
“Valuable?” The foremost raptor looked at Emily as if appraising her. Then his feathered wing-like arms flopped in a gesture very nearly like a shrug. “Want replace dead ones? Have extras here.”
Kipper faltered over how to answer that — she’d be rescuing them, right? Or would she be ripping them from their families? The lives they knew?
“Want?” the raptor repeated.
“Yes,” Kipper signed, taking a risk.
After a round of screeching and cawing, the orange-crested raptor went around releasing the otters from their electronic cuffs, and the yellow-crested raptor left the room, presumably to turn off the high gravity, since the newly freed otters were once again able to float off of the floor. Kipper suddenly found her stomach churning much less; apparently, some of her distress had come from the jail cell spinning to pin them down with artificial gravity, not merely from the gravity of the situation.
The small blue-crested raptor approached Kipper and held Emily out to her, a slippery mass of ropy sucker disc-covered arms. Most of Emily tumbled eagerly into Kipper’s furry embrace, but one of her tentacles stayed stretched out, all the way to its limit, twisting its wire-thin tip around the blue-crested raptor’s talon. The small raptor and the octopus looked at each other, separated now by a gulf of species and cultures but still joined by the bond they’d formed through the silver tentacle.
The silver tentacle itself curled around Kipper’s neck and shoulders, looping around and around, embracing the little cat with all the tenderness an octopus could ever feel for a cat.
Finally, Emily let go of the raptor, and the rag-tag crew of the Jolly Barracuda, all the little fuzzies, were escorted through the zero-gee hallways of the raptor ship to where the Jolly Barracuda — a much smaller vessel — had been taken onboard.
The Barracuders’ debarkation was a strangely ceremonial event, markedly different from the sloppy heist they’d pulled in getting onboard the raptor vessel. Two rows of raptors stood, creating a narrow passage that the otters and Kipper had to float through to get to the airlock of the Jolly Barracuda. At the entrance, they were handed three unconscious octopi like some sort of diplomatic offering, and suddenly all the raptors dipped their heads. Kipper wasn’t sure what the gesture meant from them, but it felt like they were bowing to her, and she wondered if she should bow back. She tried, but between the zero-gravity and the octopus wrapped around her neck like a very afraid and affectionate scarf, Kipper wasn’t sure that her attempted bow would be noticeable even if the raptors were familiar with the custom.
Once the Jolly Barracuda’s airlock closed behind them, Kipper felt like she ought to whoop and hurrah that they’d won and escaped with their lives. Or at least turn to her fellow otters and start picking apart every detail of what they’d seen on the raptor vessel and everything that had happened to them.
The otters certainly whooped and hurrahed, but Kipper didn’t join them.
Instead, she stared numbly at her paws while oxo-agua flooded the airlock chamber. She’d never acquiesced to breathing the damnable liquid so easily before. But after losing everything and then getting it all back — totally unexpectedly — Kipper didn’t have the energy left in her to care about minutiae like what kind of substance filled her lungs.
All Kipper cared about was swimming through the familiar halls of Captain Cod’s ship to Emily’s kitchen where she crammed herself into one of the cupboards to hide. She wasn’t sure what she was hiding from anymore. The raptors were back there — still on their own vessel and soon to fly away, back towards Jupiter. But Kipper needed to hide anyway, and Emily seemed to understand. Emily seeped into the cracks around Kipper where she didn’t fit the rectangular shape of the cupboard and filled it up with her squishy, amorphous body.
The two of them stayed there, octopus and cat, hiding from nothing and everything, safely alone together for many, many heartbeats. When Trugger finally came looking for them, he signed through the cracked open cupboard door, “I thought I’d find Emily here. I didn’t expect Kipper as well.” He pulled the cupboard door open wider.
“Remember when I first met you?” Kipper signed with cramped paws inside the cupboad. “You had purple spikes tattooed in your fur.”
Trugger looked down at his plain brown body. His red tiger stripes had completely grown out. “Hasn’t been much time for stuff like that lately, has there?”
“I liked the blue swirls, when you did those,” Kipper signed. “They made you look like an ocean.”
“How should I have it dyed next? When we get back to Deep Sky Anchor… You can pick.”
“Have you ever done polka dots?” Kipper signed.
Trugger grinned. “I look good in polka dots.” He held out his short brown-furred arms and stared intently at them, as if picturing the polka dots that had apparently been there at least once before. “Purple again?” he asked.
“How about green?” Kipper signed.
“Your call,” Trugger signed back. “Now, is it time to get out of the cupboard?”
“Tabby stripes,” Emily signed. “Make him get tabby stripes to match you.”
“But green ones.”
“Yeah.” It was a simple sign, needing only one tentacle, but the tentacle Emily used was her new silver one from the oligarch.
All three of them — cat, river otter, and cyborg octopus — stared at the tentacle for a long time after it spoke. Finally, Kipper asked, “Does this make you the new oligarch?”
Emily signed again, this time with a different, wholly organic tentacle, “Yeah. There are eight oligarchs. I’m one of them.”
“Do I still have to go back to Choir’s Deep and face trial?”
“No,” Emily signed. “I pardon you.”
Kipper almost asked, “You can do that?”, but decided it was better not to press the point and settled for, “Thanks.” Then she asked Trugger, “How are the octopi that the raptors… gave us.”
“Clearly drugged,” Trugger signed. “Very groggy. They were signing something about going to Earth, though. It didn’t quite make sense, but it’s the right direction. They’re with the two remaining octopi from Choir’s Deep now.”
Kipper was glad that they weren’t obviously distressed about being taken from the raptors. She still wasn’t sure if she’d made the right choice in accepting them. “What do we do now?” Kipper asked.
“Besides get out of the cupboard?” Trugger offered one of his paws to the tangle of Kipper and Emily, like he thought they were stuck and wanted to help pull them out. When neither cat nor octopus took it, he signed, “The war’s over. Things go back to normal.”
Kipper was a cat who’d spent most of the last year breathing a liquid, and Emily was an octopus with memories that spanned more than centuries. Neither of them could picture normal. They couldn’t go back to normal. Each of them needed to invent something new.
“I don’t think that’s an option,” Kipper signed, but before she could sign anything else, Emily stirred all around her. Her tentacles flexed and pulled and she floated out of the cupboard.
Emily’s soft skin stretched, the webbing between the broad bases of her tentacles expanding almost like an umbrella opening. She became very large, and her skin flushed pink, all of it except the new silver tentacle. “I’m an oligarch,” Emily signed. Her silver tentacle flashed, and she looked regal. “I have to go back to my people.”
“Day-blind owls!” Trugger swore. “We’ll have to get a new chef. Don’t go!”
The skin around Emily’s eyes crinkled with fondness. An octopus smile. But when she turned her yellow-eyed gaze to Kipper, there was no tractability in it. She was leaving the Jolly Barracuda.
And Kipper realized that she needed to do that too. She couldn’t be a cat underwater anymore. She needed to breathe again.
She just wasn’t sure where she would go.
Continue on to Chapter 33…