by Mary E. Lowd
Kipper watched the faces of her crew closely as they took in the sight of their newest comrades in arms… and tentacles… and flightless wings. They might be more arms than wings, but those feathery raptor limbs had clearly evolved into bird’s wings in some branches of the family tree all of Earth’s creatures shared. Well, all of them shared a family tree, except the octopuses. From what Kipper had learned, octopuses were the one sentient race of creatures rattling around this solar system who hadn’t actually evolved on Earth. Thank goodness for that, given that octopus technology was behind every piece of her plan to take The Lucky Boomerang out into the universe, searching for the wayward humans who’d forgotten to come home and check on the dogs they’d left behind waiting for them. And, you know, the cats too. Though, cats weren’t quite as much waiting. Certainly not the ones on The Lucky Boomerang.
As The Lucky Boomerang crew took in the sight of their new members, there wasn’t a lot to read on Freddy, Georgie, Hedda, or Katasha’s faces, and Kipper wasn’t great at reading the expressions of mice or squirrels. Their muzzles were so small and pointy. Amelia though looked incensed. Wary and incensed, eyes glaring past the tiny braids she now sported. She was going to be a difficult one.
Nioli and Gy’krr settled on a bench chair down at the end of the table, looking nervous. Oddly, Kipper could read Nioli’s face, or rather the expanse of wrinkled, blotchy, bright orange skin stretched between her wide eyes. Octopus’s don’t have a lot in terms of actual faces, but they can still be very expressive, especially with their ever-changing coloring. And Kipper had practice reading octopus body language from all the time she’d spent with Emily on The Jolly Barracuda.
Nioli looked very nervous.
Kipper supposed that made sense. Part of why the bonded octopus-raptor pair was joining her crew was that they’d been rejected by all corners of their own society. Raptors had been subjugating octopi on Jupiter for an unthinkably long time — far, far longer than cats and dogs had even been uplifted. Longer than humans had been sentient for. Or existed. And now that the Jovian octopi had overthrown their subjugators, most of them had no patience for octopi who had bonded to the raptors who had wielded them like a merely convenient set of extra arms.
But that didn’t mean there weren’t octopi and raptors who had genuinely created a real, valuable relationship with each other. And those bonded pairs were having a hard time.
This bonded pair in particular — Nioli and Gy’krr — had played an important role in the preparations leading up to the octopus uprising, but had found themselves outcast after the uprising actually took place. Since then, they’d been working on the Europa base with Jenny, unearthing and learning about the ancient octopus technologies hidden here. They’d be an invaluable asset aboard The Lucky Boomerang. And Jenny had suggested they’d be more comfortable on Kipper’s ship, among a mixed crew composed of all the uplifted species living in the solar system, rather than trying to fit into the edges of their own society which currently didn’t want them.
Hopefully, the octopus and raptor societies around and inside of Jupiter would settle themselves out into a more… stable state? Kipper wasn’t sure what she was picturing here. Cat and dog society felt like a mess, and it didn’t have the centuries of enslavement to reckon with that octopus and raptor society did. Just a couple hundred years of grudges and light discrimination and disenfranchisement. If discrimination and disenfranchisement can ever truly be considered to be light…
Bigotry is bigotry, no matter how small it tries to make itself in order to hide when the reckoning comes.
Kipper took her seat again after seeing that Nioli and Gy’krr had been folded into a conversation at the far end of the table. Nioli’s bright orange coloring had subdued some as they’d begun signing with Obsidian who had glued himself to the side of the table with two of his tentacles, entirely forgoing a chair. From what Kipper could read of their signs, they were discussing different dialects of sign language among the octopuses of Jupiter.
Gy’krr seemed to be talking to the cluster of mice seated on top of the table, who were showing a remarkable level of bravery in the face of the raptor’s long, razor sharp teeth and massive stature compared to them. Kipper shuddered. She still had nightmares sometimes about the time when she and Trugger had to sneak through an enemy raptor vessel, running for their lives from figures shaped just like Gy’krr, many of them with octopi affixed to their backs just like Nioli.
Kipper knew Gy’krr was a stand-up raptor, vouched for by Jenny and all the other otters on her base, but it was hard to shake the visceral quality of her memories from back then, even though so much time had passed.
“Your other octopus crew member seems to have hit it off with Nioli,” Jenny observed.
“Yes, it does seem that way,” Kipper agreed. “I’m glad Obsidian won’t be the only octopus onboard anymore. I sometimes worry that Trugger and I should have tried harder to find a second squirrel to join the crew… I know it can be hard being the only member of your species on a spaceship. But Sequoia seems to have fit in alright.”
The mouse seated near Kipper’s plate looked at her quizzically in response to her statement.
“You’ve probably heard stories about me being the Hero of Europa,” Kipper said, trying to address whatever questions Yvette might have without making the mouse actually ask them. “But mostly, I was just lost and confused and surrounded by otters who didn’t understand how hard it was for me to be the only cat up here. It’s been such a relief having Hedda and Katasha on the crew. That’s part of why we made sure to recruit a group of mice who knew each other and would get along. Space is wonderful… but it’s also big and cold and will kill you the first chance it gets. You need allies out here. And especially allies who understand where you’re coming from.”
Yvette looked pensive, and glanced several times down the length of the table toward the other three mice who seemed to be having a lively conversation with Gy’krr. “I hadn’t thought of it that way,” she squeaked. “Do you think Gy’krr will be alright? Being the only raptor?”
“Gy’krr has been as excited as a trilling songbird looking forward to joining your crew,” Jenny said. “I think she’s just glad to put some distance between herself and Jupiter honestly.”
“And really,” Kipper added, “our ship is barely big enough for one raptor onboard. Also, honestly, I’m a lot less worried about individuals from species who’ve been dominating the space scene for… well, forever. Like Trugger. Sure, he’s the only otter aboard The Lucky Boomerang, but he’s had otters paving his way up here for generations now.”
Technically, the octopi had been flying spaceships since before life on Earth evolved sentience at all, but modern octopus society had been subjugated by raptors or hidden under Earth’s oceans for so long that their situation simply wasn’t the same.
The rest of the meal passed in a blur of delicious if strange flavors and cheerful jokes, quips, and anecdotes, mostly from the Europa Base otters. Kipper’s crew seemed to her to be in fairly good spirits… but tired. That made sense. They’d had a big morning — launching a prototype space vessel, making history for their world, and then being asked to commit treason. Any morning that starts with treason is going to wear on you, at least a little… Even if the panorama of Jupiter’s swirly creamsicle clouds does hang impossibly over your head, surrounded by moons and stars that all feel closer than they’ve ever felt before. The beautiful scene in the sky was a healing balm, but the exhaustion of the morning would still take time to mend.
As the meal began to wrap up, Kipper stood from her chair, signaling to the others that it was time for this phase of their journey to end. She was amazed that standing up was all it took for all of her crew to perk their ears, tilt their heads, or otherwise show that they’d been subtly paying attention to her, waiting for her signal.
“This has been a wonderful meal,” Kipper said, speaking in a voice that felt slightly unnatural to her — a little too loud, a little too clear, designed to be heard by everyone at the table. “But we have a mission to attend to.”
“Before you go–” Jenny rose from her seat as well and waved her paws in an encouraging way at one of the otters further down the table. He got up and scurried away, as if he was going to fetch something. “–Captain Cod left a little something for you when The Jolly Barracuda was last here.”
“A little something?” Kipper echoed, bewildered and a little troubled. Captain Cod was an unpredictable one.
The otter, who Kipper now recognized as Felix, staggered his way back to the table holding a large, rectangular, flat package, wrapped in a colorful patterned paper. The pattern was tiny rocket ships, cleverly tessellated together so half of them were flying one way, and the other half the other.
Felix brought the package over to Kipper and leaned it against the table.
“It’s… kind of large. You know spaceships are tight,” Kipper said, poking at the paper with a claw.
“Open it!” Trugger cried. “We have to see what’s in it!”
So Kipper slashed the paper with her claws, revealing the object underneath.
Kipper’s heart leapt into her throat. She recognized the painting. It was one of the first things she’d seen onboard The Jolly Barracuda, during her first ever day in space. She placed her paw gently on its surface, protected by the same plexiglass shielding that it had had back on The Jolly Barracuda. It felt like she was touching the surface of nostalgia itself.
The painting was of an old-style Earth sailing ship, complete with billowing sails, crewed by a wild mix of animals, many of whom had never reached sentience — a giraffe, an alligator, and a flamingo — in addition to the more standard otter, dog, cat, squirrel, mouse and even a human, wearing a wide captain’s hat. The ship sailed on a starry expanse of sky, swirling with purple and blue. It was fantastical, whimsical, and everything she remembered loving about The Jolly Barracuda. It captured the heart of what she was trying to do with The Lucky Boomerang — bring all the species she could together into one cohesive crew, exploring the sky.
But then a horrible thought occurred to Kipper, “Is this painting… it’s not still…” She didn’t want to say ‘stolen,” because Captain Cod and his crew were touchy about that. Technically, they’d never stolen the paintings. They just hadn’t finished delivering them to actual buyers. For years. The artists who’d painted them were furious.
“No, no,” Felix said, “I asked the captain about that, and he paid for this one. It’s not in transit anymore. It’s made its way to its final owner.”
Kipper smiled. “You’ll have to help me figure out where we can hang it on The Lucky Boomerang before we take off.”
Continue on to Chapter 13…