by Mary E. Lowd
“Are you sure?” Jenny signed to Felix and Ordol.
The otter physicist and octopus translator were at one of the workstations inside the flooded Europa base, and cryptic iconography scrolled hectically over the ancient-yet-insanely-advanced computer screen in front of them. The octopus and otter shared a look — enigmatic on both ends due to Ordol’s lack of a mammalian face and the breathing apparatus obscuring Felix’s nose and mouth — and then Felix shrugged. “Pretty sure,” he signed.
“With technology like that…” Jenny’s paws drifted to a halt. She’d been managing the complicated feelings and jurisdictions of navy otters, corporate dogs, and cat royalty for months, keeping them off of Felix and Ordol’s backs, promising that her team would find a way to stop the raptor fleet… And they had totally failed.
Instead, her scientists brought her a treasure trove of ancient octopus technology. She could hardly believe the technologies they claimed to have discovered blueprints for — faster-than-light engines and instantaneous communication relays — none of which would make a whit of difference in stopping the raptor fleet.
Jenny wanted to scream at them, but in the Europa water that filled the base, the best she could do was sign angrily. And that wouldn’t do. So she turned her rudder-tail on them and swam away.
Jenny swam up through the giant chamber, following the poles that laced through the watery space. She wondered whether a faster-than-light spaceship could be used to… well… No, even if blueprints were the same thing as an operational prototype, a prototype could dance around the raptor fleet, hopping ahead of it and behind it. It could take you… anywhere. But it wouldn’t stop them.
And instant long-distance communication…
Well, it would have let Jenny know that the raptor fleet had already turned around. But she didn’t know that yet, and instantaneous communication felt like the most useless technology imaginable. It would, what? Let the otters orbiting Jupiter talk faster to their friends and family back on Earth while they were bombarded from the sky with lasers or torpedoes or whatever weapons the raptors preferred.
No help. No help at all.
Jenny swam into the narrow tube-like corridor that led to the elevator pad and rode the wide elevator up to the surface of the Europa base. When the elevator pad emerged from the column of water, she ripped the breathing apparatus off of her muzzle and stomped, dripping, toward Admiral Mackerel’s tent. It was time to report yet another failure to him. Yet another failure he could report back to the International Star-Ocean Navy command offices on Kelp Frond station. But, hey, if he included the blueprints for that instantaneous communications relay, then the next time he relayed a failure back to the ISON offices, it could be FASTER.
Unusual movement in the sky caught Jenny’s eye, and she looked up at the atmo-bubble that gently distorted Jupiter’s golden face. Stars streaked across the far horizon like a meteor shower — dozens and dozens of brightly burning stars. Raptor vessels. An entire fleet of raptor vessels must be orbiting Europa.
Jenny’s heart went cold.
The flap on Admiral Mackerel’s tent whipped back, and one of the navy otters looked out. “Base Commander Jenny!” the officer cried. “Get in here!”
Inside the admiral’s tent, a whole slew of navy otters and several of her own officers were crowded around a small console with a vid-screen showing a broadcast of a fluffy sea otter news anchor.
“That’s right, folks,” the news anchor said into her mic. “The raptor fleet has changed course. Calculations show that their new course will take them back to Jupiter where they came from and not to Earth.” The sea otter’s chirpy voice effervesced with relief and excitement. The video cut to a telescope view of the pinecone-shaped raptor vessels, looking exactly the same as they had before.
Until one of them blew up in a fiery flash, like the ship was a grenade and someone had pulled out the pin. Shrapnel flew through space. Then another explosion. And another.
“What the hell?” one of the navy otters in Admiral Mackerel’s tent cried, and the sentiment was soon echoed by all the other otters crowded into the tent, and then by the previously happy news anchor on the screen.
“I… I don’t know what this development means…” the news otter stammered.
Jenny broke through the noise in the tent to say, “We have a more pressing concern than raptor ships halfway to Earth.” She held back the tent flap and pointed at the star-streaked horizon. “We have raptor ships right here.”
Until now, the ancient octopus base’s shield had protected Europa from any raptor vessels, but Jenny had never seen a fleet like this one. If they were coming in force like that, they must have a plan.
“We’re receiving a signal,” one of the navy otters said from a second console crammed into the crowded tent.
“Patch it through to this screen,” Admiral Mackerel responded, and moments later, an octopus face appeared on the screen where the news otter had been.
The octopus was ash gray and splotchy. Its tentacles signed, over and over again, “Seek asylum. Please help. Lower shield.”
The navy otter said, “There’s a text file accompanying the video feed.” She was looking at it on the smaller computer screen on the second console. “It seems to be a roster of ships and certificate of assurance that they’re all octopus controlled now.”
“Let me see,” Jenny said, pushing her way through the other otters until she could lean over the secondary console. It was a long list of ships. No wonder there were so many new stars. “Can you send a message back to them?”
“Sure,” the navy otter said. “There’s a vid-feed in this console. Ready?”
“Ready,” Jenny said. Then she stared straight at the console and signed as clearly as she could, “More information, please. Are there raptors with you? What is the state of your homeworld? Should we expect more ships to follow you?” She had so many questions, and she wasn’t sure that she was asking the right ones. So, she added one more simple one: “What happened?” She dropped her paws and said to the navy otter, “Send it on repeat.”
The navy otter sent the file, and after a few moments said, “There’s a response already.”
Once again, the splotchy ash gray octopus appeared on the larger vidscreen. The octopus’s color brightened a little, more pink around the sucker disks, and it started signing, “Revolution. Long time plan. Escape. Many octopus wanting… go to Earth. First stop Europa. Please help. Raptors confused. Military decimated. Will take time to recover. We use time to regroup. Finish escape. Maybe rescue more.” The octopus’s color rose, growing pinker and stronger as it signed. Finally, its tentacles trailed off, and it ended with, “Please help,” before the video began to repeat.
“Can we trust them?” the navy otter working the secondary console asked.
“They’re refugees of a civil war,” Jenny said. She worked her way back through the crowded tent until she could look through the tent flap at the sky again. Shooting stars continued to streak across the horizon. So many of them. So many escaped octopi. Slaves who had freed themselves. “This isn’t about trust. It’s about compassion. Compare the roster we received to the vessels we can detect with our own sensors. If they match up…” Jenny could feel her role as Base Commander coming to an end. By all rights, this base belonged to those octopi. Their ancestors had built it. “…drop the shield and let them in. This is their base after all.”
The navy otter cut off the video of the ash gray octopus refugee, and the sea otter news anchor returned to the screen. “…half of the vessels have exploded. We have no idea what this means. Stay tuned for more information as it comes in.”
“Hell’s pelicans,” Destry said. “It’s a coordinated effort. That raptor fleet was never going to make it to Earth after all.”
“I hope some of them do,” Jenny said, thinking of the octopi that must be rebelling on them. She took the admiral by his uniformed arm and pulled him out of the tent. Once outside, she said, “Our role here is about to change drastically.”
Admiral Mackerel frowned and nodded in agreement. “We should prepare to withdraw our forces. The octopi may need a while to sort themselves out, and unless we’re wanted, we’ll just be in the way.”
“But we can aid in the transition of giving the base back to them,” Jenny said. “I’m going to check in with those Howard Industries dogs and the Persian empress. If they want to look up everything they can about octopus anatomy, maybe they can set up a temporary medical station, in case there are injured octopi. Otherwise, they need to get out of here.”
“Good idea,” Admiral Mackerel said.
“As for you,” Jenny said, “my team in the base has found some information…” She hesitated, remembering her frustration with the blueprints Ordol and Felix had found only a few minutes ago. Now she realized that the technology they’d found would be life changing. They were lucky to have found it before handing the base back over to its rightful owners. Jenny made the biggest understatement of her life: “…some information that may be useful. I need your officers to see if they can build something, and we need to send the blueprints back to Earth too.”
Then after that, Jenny could go tell Ordol that his people were coming.
Continue on to Chapter 34…