Otters In Space 3 – Chapter 9: Kipper

by Mary E. Lowd

An excerpt from Otters In Space 3: Octopus Ascending.  If you’d prefer, you can start with Chapter 1, return to the previous chapter, or skip ahead.

“She’d known the Church of the First Race had a lot of power, but… They edited the news? Had she been living in a religious hegemony? Without knowing it?”

Kipper hadn’t expected the submarine to feel so cramped.  There was plenty of space on the Jolly Barracuda — why should a submarine be any more cramped than a spaceship?  They’re both airtight vehicles, and if anything, space seemed like a more foreign and dangerous landscape than the ocean.  The ocean is at least on Earth.

Well, a spaceship has to hold an atmosphere for its occupants to breathe.  Whereas, a submarine has to be built to withstand the extreme water pressure created by the weight of miles upon miles of ocean water pressing downward on it.

At least, that’s how Trugger explained the cramped quarters onboard the Diving Canary to Kipper.

Kipper didn’t really mind the low ceilings, narrow corridors, and weird machinery jutting out from every angle.  She was simply grateful that she got to keep on breathing good old gaseous air.  True, she did have to slosh her way through waist deep water on the main level, but when she climbed up from the control deck to the sleeping quarters on the upper level, she could curl up on a trundle bed and dry off completely.

Kipper spent most of the two day trip from the coast of Ecuador to the Galapagos Islands reading the data-chip she’d picked up in Cedar Heights, munching on sunflower crisps, and sipping maple mead.  At first, Kipper was nervous whenever an otter came splashing up to the sleeping quarters, dripping everywhere, but Trugger assured her that the tablet computer he’d loaned her for reading the data-chip was water proof.  Apparently, pretty much all otter technology was water proof.  Even computers.

The sunflower crisps, on the other paw, lost a lot of their crispness when they got soggy.  Unfortunately, the almond buns hadn’t lasted an hour onboard the Diving Canary — Kipper had had to fight Trugger off to eat even one of them before he gobbled the rest up.  Their almond filling had been sweet and meaty, less sugary than actual marzipan.

Unlike the almond buns and maple mead, the information on the data-chip didn’t go down so easy.  The more Kipper read of the squirrel history books on the data-chip, the more confused she felt.  It was like reading science-fiction.  Or an alternate history.

Breanna Schweitzer had been an expert on gene therapy and a radical wildlife conservationist in Ancient England.  She’d believed that the only way to truly protect an animal species was to uplift it to the point where it would indisputably deserve and share in the same rights as humans.  Thus, she’d designed the techniques for using gene therapy to uplift various local species — basically, all those woodland animals Kipper had seen in the statue with her.  Schweitzer had devoted most of her time to otters, developing an array of breeds based on the different species of otter all around the world.

However, Breanna Schweitzer had had difficulty funding her lab.  So, she’d sold her techniques to anyone willing to pay, figuring that regardless of the purchasers’ plans, once they’d fully uplifted an animal that animal would be able to turn around and sue for full human rights.

The main purchasers had been the American Canine Club, the Cat Enthusiast Society, and various independent dog and cat breeders around the United States of America — which, of course, was now the Uplifted States of Mericka.

Before reading these histories, Kipper had known that, back before uplift, humans had bred dogs and cats for particular characteristics.  Some dogs were bred for hunting, some for herding, and some to be companions.  Many dogs and cats were bred for aesthetic reasons — somehow, although Kipper had never really thought about it, that’s all she’d thought cats had ever been bred for.  Beautiful but useless; that was the message First Race culture spread regarding cats.

At any rate, the way uplift was presented to her growing up, Kipper had believed all the different breeds of cat and dog had somehow been frozen in place right before uplift began.  However, these squirrel books suggested that the very process of feline and canine uplift in the United States had been a continuation of that long history of selective breeding.  Rather than simply preserving the supposedly sacred breeds that had been designed before uplift, humans had kept selectively breeding dogs and cats for various purposes after uplift.

Why had Kipper never heard of German Baker Dogs, Butler Terriers, or Rescue Retrievers?  What about Florida Hospice Cats and Domestic Shorthair Valets?  Shouldn’t she have heard of them if they were real?  If they had ever really existed?

Yet according to these books, there really was no such thing as an uplifted common tabby.  Uplifted breeds in Mericka — America — had all been by definition purebred, carefully controlled to meet standards set by the American Canine Club and the Cat Enthusiast Society, and most of them had been bred for specific purposes.  Kipper’s ancestors most likely were Domestic Shorthair Valets.

Kipper wasn’t sure she liked that.

Though, she took a strange glee in reading that the fancier breeds of cats — Siamese, Persian, what-have-you — largely had been bred to meet standards set for beauty rather than brains.  They had been bred to be show cats, unlike the Domestic Shorthair Valets who’d been bred to work as personal assistants.

All of this made Kipper’s head spin, but the part she found truly unbelievable was the mice.

Yes, the mice.

See, there had only ever been one uplifted bear — Teddy Bearclaw.  The rats, rabbits, foxes, and badgers had only been small populations, not enough to remain sustainable after the Great Anarchy struck — the time when the uplifted animals found themselves alone, not yet able to master the First Race’s abandoned technology, not ready to fend for themselves.  It had been a time of darkness, a black spot poorly recorded in the annals of history.  And, apparently, a time when the rats, rabbits, foxes, and badgers — who Kipper had never heard of before — had all died out.

But not the mice.

Head spinning, Kipper put down the tablet computer.  She couldn’t read any more right now.  Laying flat on the thin mattress, she stared blankly at the dull metal twisting pipes that made up the ceiling of the sleeping quarters — barely an arm’s length above her.  She tried to process how she felt, to understand how she could have spent her whole life so totally ignorant that she hadn’t even known there were uplifted mice.

According to the squirrel book, the mice lived in a tiny city all their own, nestled inside the heart of New London.  They called it Mousfordshire.  And unless Kipper had horribly misunderstood — which actually seemed like the more likely, less fantastical option — the uplifted mice were still living there.

Trugger pulled himself up the little ladder from the main deck to the sleeping quarters and burst into Kipper’s sanctuary like a torpedo.  A very wet torpedo.

Kipper raised herself up on one elbow to look at him.  His fur was dyed in red stripes now, like he was trying to be a tiger.  “Mousfordshire,” she said, the word somewhere between a question and an accusation.

“The mouse city?” Trugger asked, as if it were nothing.  “What about it?”

“I used to watch Deep Sky Anchor News at Eleven!” Kipper exclaimed in defensive exasperation.  “Why didn’t they ever mention that there’s a whole uplifted mouse civilization?!”

Trugger gave Kipper a funny look.  She had no idea how to interpret it.  Then he said, “Well, they’re not very interesting.”  Trugger flopped down on the opposite trundle bed and put his paws behind his head.  “Besides, News at Eleven isn’t the real news.  That’s the Uplifted States version of the news — trimmed to remove anything that the Church of the First Race finds offensive.”

“But…”  Kipper couldn’t find anything to say.  She’d known the Church of the First Race had a lot of power, but…  They edited the news?  Had she been living in a religious hegemony?  Without knowing it?

“The real news is Orbital Hour.  Or Geosynchronous Now.”

“I’ve never even heard of those,” Kipper said, feeling like she’d thought those words far too many times during the last two days.  At least, it wasn’t so bad to have not heard of a TV show.  It wasn’t like being unaware of an entire sentient species sharing your home planet.

“Yeah, they don’t rate well with most canine audiences, so I’d be surprised if very many stations in the Uplifted States carried them.”

He said it like the fact that her country was censoring out whole sections of ancient and current history was nothing.  Just what you’d expect of a backwards religious country like the Uplifted States.

It was all extremely frustrating.  It made her feel stupid and angry — stupid for not having seen through it all, and angry — well, angry at a lot of things.  But mostly herself for being so stupid.

In a small voice, Kipper admitted, “I didn’t know any of this stuff — Breanna Schweitzer, Teddy Bearclaw, Mousfordshire…  And I didn’t even know that I didn’t know it.”

Trugger turned his head to look at her.  His expression was sympathetic.  At least, it wasn’t pitying.  “That’s the thing about not knowing stuff.”  He reached over to help himself to a pawful of her sunflower crisps.  After several less-than-crunchy bites, he said,  “But, hey, you know it now.  Want to visit Mousfordshire with me some time?  It’s like a whole little city of doll houses all around the base of that ancient human relic, the clock building — you know, Big Ben.  That’s their city center.”

Kipper hadn’t known about Big Ben, but she liked the image of tiny mouse houses built all around a giant clock.  “Yeah,” she said.  “I’d like to go to New London sometime.”  She’d already seen so much of space — much more than she’d ever dreamed she’d get to see — but there were whole continents on Earth she’d never visited.  “Maybe after we defeat this raptor army.”

If we defeat this raptor army, Kipper thought.  Otherwise there wouldn’t be a Mousfordshire, nor any cats or otters to visit it.

Trugger casually grabbed the almost empty bag of sunflower crisps and leaned back on the trundle bed.  “Oh, about that.  We’re almost to Choir’s Deep.”  He poured the final soggy crumbs into his mouth; then he eyed Kipper to see if the tabby was upset about him finishing off the bag of crisps.

Kipper didn’t care.  She’d had enough sunflower crisps.  Besides, if Emily’s cooking was any indication, there could be some amazing cuisine waiting for them in Choir’s Deep.  “Can we see it?” Kipper asked.  It might be worth sloshing down to the main deck where there were portholes to get a look at the octopus city.

Trugger shook his head, still staring at the twisting pipes of the ceiling.  “Nah, it’s nothing but a dull green glow from here.”

The portholes had been nothing but murky midnight blue any time Kipper had gone down to check them.  There was very little light this deep in the ocean.  A dull green glow might not be much — but it would be a change.  She weighed the relative merits of getting her first glimpse of Choir’s Deep versus getting wet to her waist…

It was a close call, but she swung herself off the trundle bed and slid down the ladder to the main deck.  “Don’t finish off my maple mead,” she shouted up to Trugger as she splashed into the tepid water.  Thank goodness she was wearing quick-dry clothing made from otter fabrics.

“No promises!” he shouted back, but Kipper was already sloshing her way toward the front of the submarine.

The first porthole she passed was the same dark shade it had been for the last two days.  So was the next.  And the next.  But when she rounded the bend to the nose of the submarine where Captain Cod was busy at the wheel — literally, piloting the submarine with a spoked wheel as wide as Kipper was tall — she saw the dull green glow of Choir’s Deep on the viewscreen.  It wasn’t the same as seeing it with her bare eyes through a porthole, but the video image relayed to the viewscreen was probably higher resolution than her bare eyes could have made out anyway.

Kipper squeezed into the space between Pearl and Chauncey, two other otters from the Jolly Barracuda, who were busy working buttons and dials related to various radar screens and computer readouts.

“Come to watch the approach of the city?” Pearl asked.

Kipper spared enough attention to say, “Yeah,” but the rest of her focus was entirely on the main viewscreen.  She even forgot the lukewarm water sloshing at her waist as she peered into the dark image, trying to find patterns in the shades of dull green.  She may have hated discomfort, but she loved exploring.

The variegated green image on the viewscreen grew sharper slowly, but Kipper knew how to be a patient cat.  She had watched Mars — a single diamond speck — grow imperceptibly brighter for weeks as the Jolly Barracuda flew toward it.  Waiting for the green glow on the viewscreen to resolve into the crenulated folds of the trained coral reefs that built the outer walls of Choir’s Deep was nothing.

Choir’s Deep was a city carved into the ocean floor between the Galapagos Islands.  It was powered by geothermal energy pouring out of the Galapagos Rift — a hydrothermal vent a little to the east.  The Galapagos Rift might be a volatile, volcanic region filled with underwater geysers that could power an entire civilization in lieu of sunlight and photosynthesis, but here the water was calm.

“It looks like a brain, doesn’t it?” Pearl asked, breaking Kipper’s trance.

Kipper skewed one ear, slightly annoyed by the interruption of her reverie, but she had to admit it was true.  Choir’s Deep looked like a giant green brain nestled into the crevice between two underwater cliffs.

As they got closer, the front lights on the submarine began to illuminate the scene.  The colors grew clearer and more complicated — patches of peach and orange anemones grew on the coral like blushes of rust; darting schools of copper fish sparkled like pennies sprinkled down a wishing well; and strange plant-like growths in brilliant red and cobalt blue clawed upward like grasping hands.

In many ways, it was a more alien world than Mars or Europa.

“Do otters visit Choir’s Deep often?” Kipper asked.

“Does an egret whistle?” Chauncey asked, his cheerful sea otter face providing no clue as to the answer.

“Does it?” Kipper asked.  She’d learned long ago to just cut to the chase with Jolly Barracuder bird sayings.

“No.”  Chauncey looked pensive for a moment.  His mouth narrowed until it nearly disappeared into the brown fuzz of his chin.  “Actually, egrets sound kind of like frogs.”  His face widened into a grin again.  “We’ll be the first to visit Choir’s Deep in nearly a hundred years!”

Kipper blinked.  “That’s because most otter-octopus interactions happen at a different octopus city?” she asked hopefully.

Captain Cod turned from his wheel to stare levelly at Kipper.  He didn’t usually do anything levelly, so it was quite disturbing.  “That’s because the only octopi that have been in communication with otters — or anyone — for the last century are refugees and exiles.”

Kipper gulped.  Suddenly, her little diplomatic visit to the nearest octopus city felt like a much weightier event than she’d realized.  “You mean…  I’m broaching communication with octopus civilization for the first time in a century?”

“You’ll do great!”  Captain Cod’s confidence in her would have been inspiring if Kipper didn’t think he halfway believed his own made-up tales about how she’d single-handedly commandeered the Jolly Barracuda to prove herself to him and earn the rank of Ship’s Spy — or whatever he was calling her these days.  “So…  What do you want us to say to them?”

Kipper wished she had a hat so she could swallow it.  That would have been the best way to communicate her feelings to an otter like Captain Cod.  Instead, she had to settle for saying, “Me?  You want me to choose what to say to them?”

“You’re the Diplomatic Ambassador to Independent Cat and Octopus Nations,” Captain Cod said cheerfully.

Kipper saw that her title had grown.  “I see.  Well…  Is there a standard procedure for situations like this?”

“No.”  Captain Cod still looked cheerful.

Kipper wished that Captain Cod would stop looking cheerful.  But that wasn’t going to happen.  He was going to keep grinning at her through his whiskers until she told him what to tell the octopuses.

Kipper wrung her paws, looked down at the water lapping at her waist, and considered her options.  She couldn’t claim that she was here on behalf of the Uplifted States of Mericka.  Alistair had ordered her explicitly not to come, and she wouldn’t lie.  She couldn’t claim to be here on behalf of any otters other than the single rag-tag semi-pirate ship she belonged to.  That wasn’t impressive.  New Persia was destroyed, and Siamhalla would never accept a common tabby as their spokesperson — even if she had thought to ask them in advance.  Which she hadn’t.

Really, the only person she could speak for was herself.

And her first-hand observations of the raptor vessel inside the clouds of Jupiter.

“Tell them, We’re here on behalf of the enslaved octopus population of Jupiter.  Please let us dock and enter your city.

“Perfect,” Captain Cod said.  “You have a beautiful way with words.”

Kipper thought to herself, “Sure, I avoid metaphors and references to birds…  It’s not that hard.”  But outwardly, she accepted the compliment with an embarrassed dip of her ears and a nod.

At the captain’s order, Chauncey typed Kipper’s message into the Diving Canary’s computer and broadcast it to Choir’s Deep in every written language the computer knew.

“Now we wait for a response!”  Captain Cod didn’t look at all nervous.  He could have been confidence incarnate — the living embodiment of the emotion.  “It shouldn’t take long.”

Kipper wasn’t convinced that the captain’s confidence was justified.  After five minutes of waiting, she was even less convinced.  In fact, she was starting to wonder if there were any octopi home — perhaps, they’d all moved to a different city?

After ten minutes of nervously dipping her paws into the water that lapped at her waist and then watching the water drip, drip, drip off her paw pads to pass the time, Kipper stopped worrying that the octopi would never respond and started to worry that they’d called an immediate, emergency war council in response to her message.  Perhaps, they were in Choir’s Deep right now deciding whether it was better to take the Diving Canary captive or simply shoot her out of the water.

What if their response wasn’t a pleasantly worded invitation but instead a volley of underwater missiles?

Kipper wondered if that would count as a hero’s death — they were on a mission intended to help save the world.  Surely, that was heroic.  Yet, it would be so meaningless to be shot down by xenophobic octopi before they’d made any difference.

Then Kipper realized that she didn’t care — dead was dead, heroic or not.

Thank the First Race, Chauncy finally broke Kipper’s painful reverie to say, “They’ve sent back two words in a pictographic language very similar to the written version of Swimmer’s Sign.”

Kipper’s voice caught in her throat.  So it was Trugger — who had waded up behind her — who asked, “What does it say?”

Please wait.”

Continue on to Chapter 10

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