by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in The Voice of Dog, August 2021
“Here, let me carry those,” Lt. Vonn woofed to the team of scientists packing a crate with electronic devices that looked like funny mechanical spiders, sprouting metal legs in every direction.
The scientists — an orange tabby cat wearing techno-focal goggles, an arctic fox android, and a very striking brown cat with leopard spots — finished arranging the last few mechanical spiders, closed the top over them, and stepped back from the heavy crate gratefully. Lt. Vonn stood a head and shoulders taller than all three of them — even the spotted cat, who was unusually tall for a cat.
“What are these things?” Lt. Vonn asked, getting a good grip on the sides of the crate. It was heavy. But nothing she couldn’t handle. She liked being big and strong enough to help and protect the smaller officers aboard the starship Initiative. Though, of course, the arctic fox android — no matter how small and delicate zhe might seem — could probably lift Lt. Vonn with one paw. The yellow Labrador always forgot about that. And when she remembered, her tail started wagging, and she felt all shy and nervous, like a little Labrador puppy instead of a full grown dog.
The tall spotted cat — a Bengal, most likely — began explaining something about radio receivers and communications arrays, but a lot of the words went right over Lt. Vonn’s head. She was a security officer after all, not a scientist. Brawn, not brain. Also, she might have gotten kind of distracted when Fact, the android fox, wandered away to return to zir duties. Zir white tail was so thick and fluffy! And zhe held it so preternaturally still…
“I’m sorry,” Lt. Vonn said, when the Bengal cat stopped explaining. “I didn’t follow much of that, but I’m excited to help out.”
The spotted cat shook her head and sighed. “I can’t say it seems fair to me that I’ve been studying geode asteroids my whole life, and you’ll get to actually go inside of one without even understanding what you’re doing… while I’m stuck back here in a starship engine room.”
Lt. Vonn gave the Bengal cat a lopsided, sympathetic smile. “I’ll have my spacesuit cam on,” she said, lifting up the crate. “So you can watch everything I see. Just contact me over my comm-pin, and I can make a point of looking closer at anything that interests you. After I help Lt. LeGuin set these spider-radios up, I won’t have anything else to do. By the way, I’m Lt. Vonn.”
“Dr. Ada Wolfgang,” the Bengal cat said. “The universe’s pre-eminent expert on the mathematics and crystallography of oversized geodes.” She held out a paw, then laughed when she realized how foolish that was. Both of Lt. Vonn’s paws were already busy holding the crate.
“Come on,” Lt. LeGuin said. “The sooner we get the communications array setup, the sooner we can try contacting another universe where you’re not the pre-eminent expert on the coolest subject of study in existence.” He was the orange tabby wearing techno-focal goggles, and the grin on his muzzle showed he was teasing. Lt. LeGuin was also the chief engineer and Fact’s best friend; a fact that caused Lt. Vonn’s floppy yellow ears to burn with jealousy.
The orange cat and white fox simply had a bond that totally eluded Lt. Vonn. The yellow Labrador just didn’t know how to act around cats — or Fact, who was much more catlike than doglike — a lot of the time. They made her feel all clumsy and overeager, like everything she did was too much, too big, too loud.
Lt. Vonn carried the crate of spider-radios through the gently curving halls of the Initiative with Lt. LeGuin rushing to keep up beside her. When they got to the teleporter bay, she set down the crate on the pad, and the two of them pulled spacesuits over their Tri-Galactic Navy uniforms. Lt. LeGuin’s space helmet had triangular protrusions on the top, leaving space for his pointy ears. Lt. Vonn’s space helmet was more rounded; her floppy ears didn’t need as much space.
The dog and cat took up positions on either side of the crate, and the white terrier operating the teleporter control station initiated the teleportation beam.
Quantum energy sparkled, filling Lt. Vonn’s vision with colorful explosions, like a tiny fireworks display just for her, and flushing through her body — floppy ears down to blunt-clawed toes — with the tickly, creepy-crawly sensation of a million butterfly wings fanning her, making her thick fur stand on end. She loved the feeling. It was like bathing in champagne, or so she imagined. Maybe more like becoming champagne — her body breaking apart into tiny bubbles of effervescence and reforming somewhere else.
When the sparkly quantum energy cleared from Lt. Vonn’s vision, her stomach flipped at the change in gravity. She was floating now, outside of the starship where she lived. She could see the graceful, silver curves of the Initiative in front of her.
With a gentle tap on her rotational thrusters, Lt. Vonn turned herself to where she could see Lt. LeGuin in his spacesuit and the crate of spider-radios floating beside them. Beyond them, she saw the asteroid. A lumpy, mottled gray sphere. A big rock, about the same size as the starship Initiative. It looked like nothing special. Lt. Vonn had seen countless asteroids on her missions.
The captain’s voice crackled to life over Lt. Vonn’s helmet radio: “We’re ready to begin cutting the asteroid. Are you prepared?”
Both lieutenants concurred, and within moments, a beam of red light fired from the Initiative’s blazor cannon, narrow and precise enough to perform surgery. And it was surgery in a way. For Dr. Wolfgang’s purposes, the crystals inside the asteroid needed to remain intact, unharmed by a starship carving an entrance into the dull rock exo-skeleton cradling them.
When the blazor beam ceased, Lt. Vonn maneuvered her way to the asteroid with a practiced paw on her jetpack controls. The zero gee made her feel funny and a little nauseous, but she’d learned from years of training in the academy to control herself anyway. She stayed focused on the task at hand.
A perfectly round hole graced the surface of the asteroid now. The blazor beam had vaporized the rock, leaving behind a passageway as straight and round as nothing found in nature. Lt. Vonn rotated herself back around to face the cat-shaped spacesuit floating beside the crate. “It looks safe,” she radioed to Lt. LeGuin.
“Awesome,” he answered. He took hold of the crate with both paws, and then his jetpack engaged, shoving him toward the asteroid. In the zero gee of space, the crate was no longer too heavy for a small cat like him.
All cats seemed small to Lt. Vonn. She let Lt. LeGuin fly past her, guiding the crate ahead of him, directly into the passageway.
The yellow lab was about to follow him, when she saw a glimmer in the distance. The glimmer could have been a distant star going supernova, or simply the flash of a meteoroid catching the light of this system’s sun. Then the space beside the Initiative wavered — like a scene viewed through moving water — bending all the starlight. And suddenly a second ship appeared, having dropped out of the hyper-spatial dimensions reached by using a zephyr drive.
The second ship was gold and bronze, decorated with bright, faceted protrusions of emerald green and ruby red. It looked more like a piece of costume jewelry dropped carelessly into a puddle reflecting the starry night sky than an actual spaceship in the depths of space.
“Pollengi…” Lt. Vonn muttered to herself. They’d encountered the chicken-like aliens before, and she recognized their style. Engaging her radio, she said, “Captain, there’s a Pollengi vessel. Should Lt. LeGuin and I return to the ship?”
“Negative, Lieutenant,” the first officer’s voice answered. Commander Wilker was a Collie dog and excellently loyal to their Sphynx cat captain. Lt. Vonn admired him for that. Loyalty is a praiseworthy trait. Still, she’d have felt better hearing the command from the captain himself.
Another voice came on the radio, melodic and feline: “Once they’re inside the asteroid, it won’t be safe to teleport out. My math is very clear on that.”
Ah, yes, Lt. Vonn realized she was listening to the Bengal cat, Dr. Wolfgang.
“I’m aware of the situation,” Cmdr. Wilker replied, “but the captain is talking to the Pollengi Supreme right now and has everything under control. Please, proceed as planned.”
Lt. Vonn was a good dog who knew how to follow orders, so she followed Lt. LeGuin down the narrow corridor the Initiative had carved into the asteroid. Nearly as soon as she entered, the yellow lab found herself drenched in deep darkness. The sunlight that spilled over the asteroid’s surface and the two ships didn’t reach more than a few inches into the hole, given the angle of its entrance. But the hole was straight, as straight as could be, so Lt. Vonn had no trouble navigating.
“I’m turning on my helmet cam now,” Lt. Vonn said for the radio. “But I’m still in the entrance tunnel, so all you’ll see is blackness.”
Dr. Wolfgang answered with an excited trill in her voice: “I can’t wait!”
Lt. LeGuin joined the conversation: “Oh, right, I’ve been so busy getting the crate unpacked, I didn’t even think to turn my camera on. Here you go.”
Lt. Vonn heard the Bengal cat gasp over the radio and felt a little ruffled that Lt. LeGuin — who hadn’t even been paying attention to the mathematician’s desires — had gotten to inspire the happy sound.
And why hadn’t he been paying attention? Lt. LeGuin was the member of the Initiative’s crew who had been working most closely with their visiting expert. He should be the one most tuned into her needs.
Lt. Vonn supposed she should chock the orange tabby’s thoughtlessness up to either a cat’s self-absorption or an engineer’s head in the clouds. Either way, she didn’t understand why Fact was so much more fond of Lt. LeGuin than zhe was of her.
If Fact only knew how much Lt. Vonn thought about zir, and the attention she could pay to making zir happy…
Light appeared in the distance; a round disk of light. Lt. Vonn pressed her paws against the sides of the tunnel, and then kicked off, giving herself a burst of speed. Moments later, she emerged into a wonderous, sparkling cavern. The sight was breath-taking, and she gasped too, just like Dr. Wolfgang had before.
The cavern was lit by a lantern Lt. LeGuin had set up beside the crate of spider-radios. The crate was open, and the spindly mechanical objects drifted through the space around the crate like a cloud. A very disturbing, sharp-edged cloud. Their shadows, cast by the lantern, caused the light to flicker and dance over the many facets of the many, many crystals that curved all the way around them.
Every direction Lt. Vonn looked, she saw light dancing and glimmering on the smooth, angled surfaces of purple-blue crystals. It was quite possibly the most beautiful sight the dog had ever seen.
Usually, Lt. Vonn was partial to green worlds — thick with trees and shrubs, maybe the occasional lake or seaside to splash in. She was a practical dog that way. She liked a planet that was good for romping on. Sure, maybe a sandy beach could be fun, and if the sand sparkled under the sunlight of a foreign star, all the better. But what mattered most to Lt. Vonn was that she could put her paws down on solid ground, stretch her legs, and go for a run with the wind of an alien atmosphere whistling past her ears.
This geode asteroid had none of that. Yet she found herself speechless, staring at the crystal facets, mesmerized by the way the light played over them, winking and shining at her as if the light itself were a lifeform trying to catch her attention.
“Are you going to help set up the communications array?” Lt. LeGuin meowed archly, shaking the dog from her reverie.
“Yes, right, of course,” Lt. Vonn woofed. She tapped her jetpack thrusters and floated into the middle of the hollow asteroid. She grabbed up an armful of spider-radios and followed Lt. LeGuin’s instructions for placing them at the vertices between the crystals arching around them, spaced evenly, regularly, all pointing inward.
After getting one of the spider-radios properly and firmly positioned, Lt. Vonn couldn’t help taking a moment to stare at her face reflected in the crystals. A yellow dog tinted purple-blue, wearing a spacesuit, stared back at her from every angle. So many dogs. All of them good, working hard to help Lt. LeGuin. Her tail wagged, and her muzzle broke into a smile. Then seeing the other dogs smiling, the smile widened, and her tail wagged harder, even though it was trapped in the left leg of her spacesuit.
“I wish it were my face,” Dr. Wolfgang said over the radio.
“What?” Lt. LeGuin asked. He was still focused and working hard, not getting distracted by his own reflection like some foolish, pre-uplift animal who didn’t understand the concept of mirrors.
“Sorry,” Lt. Vonn woofed. “I was getting distracted by the way the crystals reflect my face.”
“Hey, don’t be too sorry,” Dr. Wolfgang meowed. Maybe purred was more accurate. “I may never get a chance to see the inside of a macro-geode myself, and even if it wasn’t my own face looking back at me, that was one hell of an image to carry in my head for the rest of my life.”
Lt. Vonn couldn’t tell if the Bengal cat had planned on saying more, but either way, she was cut off by the gruff sound of Cmdr. Wilker’s bark: “Heads up, Vonn and LeGuin. Negotiations aren’t going well with the Pollengi Supreme. This vessel isn’t acknowledging the Tri-Galactic Navy’s peace treaty with their empire from last year. So, you may need to get out of there fast.”
“How fast?” Lt. LeGuin meowed back, sounding very concerned. “We’ve almost finished set–”
“Abandon the mission for now,” Cmdr. Wilker barked. “Get yourselves into teleporter range.”
Lt. Vonn dropped the spider-radio she’d been holding, leaving it floating in front of her. “You heard the commander,” she woofed. “Back to the tunnel.” She pushed a paw against the closest crystal face, rotating herself until she could see that Lt. LeGuin was following orders and flying toward the tunnel out. He was a good officer, but even the best science officers had a tendency to lose track of the correct priorities when their little science projects were at stake. And it was Lt. Vonn’s job as security officer to make sure that everyone in her team stayed on track — even distractable science officers.
And of course, the thing was, those spider-radios would still be there after everything was sorted out with the rogue Pollengi vessel. As far as Lt. Vonn knew, this had never been a time sensitive mission, and so a short delay shouldn’t be a problem. She wished she could explain that to Lt. LeGuin and Dr. Wolfgang, but she suspected they already knew it. They were both very smart cats. It was always frustrating for Lt. Vonn that scientists could know things like that and still be upset about delays. It seemed irrational to her, and yet cats like Lt. LeGuin and Dr. Wolfgang were always running circles around her with their complicated logic, making her feel foolish and slow.
Just as Lt. Vonn was about to enter the tunnel out of the geode — Lt. LeGuin looked like he was already halfway down it — Cmdr. Wilker’s voice came over the radio again: “Prepare for emergency teleportation.”
“What?!?” Dr. Wolfgang shrieked over the radio in a voice that sounded like a jungle had come to life.
“Commander, I’m almost out of–” Lt. LeGuin began.
Then the tickly, tingly, effervescent feeling of quantum energy roared in Lt. Vonn’s ears, sparkled in her eyes, and bloomed deep inside her belly, growing outward and consuming her all the way to her toe pads and ear tips in its peaceful, giggly glow.
* * *
When the roaring, sparkling, and giggly feeling subsided, Lt. Vonn found herself standing on the teleporter pad and saying, “–the asteroid.”
Why was she saying that?
Everything felt wrong, and Lt. Vonn was afraid to move. Her balance was off, more so than should be caused by her tail being trapped on one side of her spacesuit. And everything looked wrong… complicated, mathematical. She could see heat patterns — the way that the air was moving in the teleporter room, swirling in the corners and flowing gently but steadily towards vents near the floor. And she knew numbers assigned to everything — the exact temperature of the air, the exact brightness and spectrum of the light, and the exact distance down to the millimeter between herself and everything she could see.
How did she know those numbers? Lt. Vonn lifted a hand toward her head, trying to remove the helmet from her spacesuit and feeling like she couldn’t breathe. Her lungs were too small. How could her lungs be too small?
Then she saw the white terrier who had been working the teleporter controls coming toward her. His muzzle gaped, and his eyes were so wide… so wide… he looked as aghast as if he were staring at a horrible monster. But he was looking at her.
To her extreme embarrassment, Lt. Vonn felt her legs buckle and fold as her stomach turned cold and sour inside her. She sank to the floor, vision growing flat, gray, and dim.
* * *
The next time Lt. Vonn awoke, she was staring at the med bay ceiling.
“What happened?” she tried to say, and she heard the words come from her. But it wasn’t her voice. The tone was too high, too feline.
And why did she keep thinking of herself as “her”?
And why had she thought that at all?
Lt. Vonn brought her paws to her head, moaning softly and uncontrollably. Even the moaning sounded wrong, and it felt wrong coming out of her mouth. She didn’t know how to move her tongue right. It was too big and thick. Or too small and thin?
And her paws, when they came into view, were striped.
Lt. Vonn began to whimper like a tiny kitten. No a puppy. Why would a dog like him compare himself to a kitten? Like her. Like him.
“Who am I?” The voice still sounded wrong. But this time, it sounded too canine, and that felt like the final straw.
Whoever she was, the being that had comfortably thought of herself as Lt. Vonn only moments ago — or maybe longer, depending on how long she’d been unconscious for — was ready to crack.
Then she saw the face of her best friend. Gold eyes, angular white muzzle, and the most perfectly triangular ears of any creature. Fact the android arctic fox looked down at her, and Lt. Vonn’s heart started to race as it always did when she saw the object of her unprofessional, puppy-like crush. Then it calmed, as it always did in the presence of her best friend and closest companion.
“Wait…” she said, with her awkwardly wide and narrow tongue. “You’re Lt. LeGuin’s best friend… not mine. Right?”
Fact’s muzzle quirked into a sad, sympathetic smile. “You are my best friend, Lt. LeGuin, but you are also my respected colleague, Lt. Vonn. There was a teleporter accident.”
The android fox held up a mirror, and the creature who could no longer think of themself as Lt. Vonn stared at their yellow-orange, stripey face. Their ears were more and less triangular than they should be; the triangular tips flopped over in a way that was completely wrong for a cat, and completely inadequate for a yellow Labrador. Their whiskers were longer and shorter than they’d been, on a muzzle that looked more like Fact’s than it had before.
Technically, Fact was not an arctic fox; zhe simply had snowy white fur and had been designed to look halfway between a cat and a dog, which landed approximately in the area of fox.
Right now, the singular being who should have been two separate beings — Lt. Vonn the yellow Labrador and Lt. LeGuin the orange tabby — was approximately halfway between cat and dog. They were a pale orange striped fox, wearing a sea green uniform made from fabric that was bewilderingly halfway between the bold mustard yellow of a security officer’s uniform and the bright ocean blue of a science officer.
Even their eyes were a strange in-between color — a muddled shade of swampy green — both brown and emerald, depending on the angle. Upon seeing their eyes, the confused being gasped and said, “I can see.” They held their paws up to their face again, turning the striped appendages back and forth, looking at their claws — too sharp and too blunt, only able to partially retract. “I mean, of course I can see… but my goggles…”
“In your current form,” Fact said, lowering the mirror, “Dr. Keller surmised that you wouldn’t need the techno-focal goggles to see, so we took them off before you woke up.”
“Thank you,” the confused, muddled being said. “I remember seeing through them for a minute… before…”
“Before you fainted,” Fact supplied helpfully. “In the teleporter bay.”
“Yes, it was very confusing.” Except, as soon as they said those words, they felt a rebelling sensation deep inside their mind: it hadn’t been confusing. Seeing through the techno-focal goggles was normal, and it was helplessly confusing to be without all the specific, exact numbers that were usually attached to every object in their sight. What temperature was it in the room? Which way was the air flowing? Was Fact’s body temperature its usual number of degrees cooler than was normal for other — biological — officers? Or had zir temperature raised with the stress of this situation, as Lt. LeGuin had known it to do before?
How could Lt. LeGuin tell if his friend was distressed, if he couldn’t read zir exact body temperature?
What a ridiculous concern to have. Lt. Vonn had never been able to read exact body temperatures before, and she couldn’t believe that she suddenly felt bereft without knowing them now.
“I… need a name. I don’t even know how to think of myself. I feel like I’m fighting inside… trying to be two different people.”
The tabby fox stared at the arctic one with pleading eyes.
“Since you’re biologically — and seemingly intellectually — a blending of Lt. LeGuin and Lt. Vonn,” Fact said, “it would be logical to call you by a blending of their — or your, I guess — names. I suggest, LeVonn. At least, for now. Unless you prefer a different name?”
“No, no, thank you,” LeVonn replied, deeply grateful for their friend’s help. They could always rely on Fact to be there for them. Just… usually in different amounts. Lt. Vonn would have relied on Fact as a fellow officer, implicitly trustworthy and completely competent. Whereas, Lt. LeGuin would have relied on Fact as a friend, someone who was always there, even before he realized that he needed zir.
Lt. Vonn would have given anything for the effortless closeness that Fact had with Lt. LeGuin. And now… maybe she had it herself? Or maybe he’d lost it… all muddled by being combined with someone else…
LeVonn didn’t know what their relationship was to Fact.
The arctic fox cleared zir throat — an affectation, as zir android body never actually needed to breathe, sigh, cough, or clear its throat. Then zhe said, “Another question to consider: what pronouns would you like others to use for you?”
LeVonn’s swampy eyes widened. This was all too much. They were half cat, half dog now. And of course, the cat had been a man, and the dog a woman, so… They hadn’t thought about their gender yet — what was it?
Before LeVonn could get too overwhelmed by the question, Fact continued on to say, “If I might make a suggestion–”
“Please make suggestions,” LeVonn implored.
“–you seem to be torn between the two identities that you remember. This suggests a plurality in your existence, and perhaps they/them pronouns would be most appropriate?”
LeVonn nodded eagerly in the way that Lt. Vonn would have and felt a little silly about it. A single curt nod would have been enough; they didn’t have to go broadcasting their feelings with such broad, boorish, canine gestures. “I feel like I’m fighting inside myself,” LeVonn muttered unhappily. “Everything I do feels wrong, and then I’m angry at myself for doing it wrong… like saying this right now… why…”
They stopped talking, but the words kept going, silently, inside their shared head: “Why am I talking about all my feelings like this? Dribbling them out like I’m a leaky faucet — or some drooling dog; hey! dog’s don’t drool — who can’t hold my thoughts inside my own head? Except, now, I’m not talking, and I’m still mad at myself and can hear the words happening. Why won’t this voice inside my head stop talking? Is this what it’s like to be a cat? Always thinking in useless circles?”
“This is hard,” LeVonn said aloud. “Is it going to be over soon?”
Fact didn’t answer that question, and both sides of LeVonn knew that wasn’t good.
Over the next few hours, LeVonn underwent a whole battery of medical tests from Dr. Keller. Next they were subjected to emotional analysis by the visiting dignitary, Consul Tor, who happened to be from a race of empathic, photosynthetic otters. Her conclusion? LeVonn’s overriding emotional state was confusion.
Such a surprise.
LeVonn could have told them all that without the help of an empath.
Next, Captain Jacques showed up to express sympathy, take responsibility, and make vague but emphatic promises. Somehow, the sphynx cat’s assurances were reassuring. But also, the sight of him mixed up LeVonn’s feelings like the inside of their head was a blender — why did they revere the captain so much? What was up with their obsession over rank and hierarchy? Was that their dog side? It made them feel vaguely disgusted with themself that were so obsequious.
And yet… the captain really did have a reassuring, confident demeanor. And he was the captain. That should mean something, shouldn’t it?
“For the time being, of course,” Captain Jacques said, “you will be relieved of your rank and all duties aboard the Initiative.”
“But captain–” LeVonn objected.
The captain was having none of it. “No, no, I’ll take no argument on this.” The captain’s pink-skinned tail swished behind him, but he kept his triangular ears upright. “Take some time for yourself… uh, LeVonn, was it?”
LeVonn’s own ears flagged, sinking to half mast. “Yes, captain, that’s what I’m going by… for now.”
“Well, yes, take some time LeVonn.” The captain’s voice turned soft and sympathetic, and he laid a paw on their shoulder. “Get to know this new version of yourself. I mean, really, this is a fascinating experience you’re having, isn’t it? One of a kind. And that’s what we’re out here for, exploring the universe. So, experience it. And meanwhile, Fact and Dr. Wolfgang are already hard at work figuring out how to reverse the… uh… situation.”
Captain Jacques ended his little motivational speech with a winning smile that lifted his whiskers but didn’t reach all the way to twinkling in his eyes. LeVonn wasn’t sure whether to feel encouraged or not.
* * *
When LeVonn was finally released from the med bay by Dr. Keller, the Irish Setter implored them to get some rest.
LeVonn fully intended to comply, but as soon as they stepped into the corridor, they found their feet stuck — unable to choose which direction to walk in. Lt. Vonn’s quarters were to the left, in the opposite direction from Lt. LeGuin’s to the right.
The dog’s quarters had an especially comfortably couch, and LeVonn found the idea of lying down on it and falling into a deep sleep very appealing. Though they were also afraid of what dreams they might have in this state. They were also afraid that their mind would be too busy — thrumming with the buzz of years of incompatible memories, churning like a whirpool, and trying to sort them into a shape that made sense — to actually fall asleep.
The cat’s quarters, on the other paw, were filled with interesting games and puzzles that the engineer liked to play with in his spare time, keeping his mind sharp and active. Those could be enjoyably absorbing. Perhaps a good puzzle could distract LeVonn from their current state?
Then a horrible thought occurred to them — what if the presence of the dog’s mind mixed in with their cat mind meant they were no longer clever enough to do any of their beloved puzzles?
Why would a dog be less smart than a cat?
Okay, maybe it wasn’t that LeVonn thought their dog-mind would be less smart than their cat-mind. Maybe it was just that they feared their security officer self was less smart than their engineering side.
Was that better?
LeVonn didn’t know. And they still felt a niggling sense of affront, convinced that yes, their cat-side really thought dogs were dumber than cats.
With a deep sigh, LeVonn started walking. They took the corridor straight in front of them which led to neither of their quarters.
The pale orange tabby fox strolled through the corridors of the starship Initiative, swishing their tail, and watching the faces of the other crew members they passed. It was a large ship, and not every officer knew every other one. However, LeVonn didn’t look like a normal breed of either cat or dog right now, so everyone they passed — cat and dog alike — gave them strange looks. Tri-Galactic Navy officers are professionals, and they tried to cover it. No one outright stared or grimaced. But LeVonn saw the subtle contortions of their muzzles and dipping of their ears anyway.
LeVonn’s own tail swished faster whenever they saw a new person approaching, but they couldn’t tell if it was from eager excitement — hope that this next officer would look at them kindly — or if it was from agitation. Irritation and resigned acceptance of the fact that no one aboard this vessel — their home — recognized them anymore.
LeVonn couldn’t even understand their own body language. Cat tails swish in irritation. Dog tails wag in happiness.
How could they tell what they were feeling?
Finally, LeVonn settled on a destination for their wanderings — they needed to feel more rooted inside this changed body of theirs, and what always made Lt. Vonn feel more rooted in her body was practicing her martial arts in the lumo-bay. Lt. LeGuin had never done martial arts, so LeVonn didn’t have any confusingly contradictory feelings coming from his side of their self.
When they arrived at the closest lumo-bay, they checked the control panel beside the closed double doors. The lumo-bay already had an occupant, but it didn’t seem to be running a program yet. So either, the occupant had just arrived and was about to start a program, or hopefully, they were finishing up. Then LeVonn could claim the room when they left.
LeVonn shifted their paws, standing idly in the hallway. After only a few moments, they impatiently checked the controls again — still no program running. They also ran a quick query to see if any of the other lumo-bays were empty right now. They were not. They were all running programs.
LeVonn could use the control panel to sign up for a time slot in the next available lumo-bay. In fact, they could even sign up twice, using both Lt. LeGuin’s and Lt. Vonn’s identities. Given the circumstances, they felt entitled, and truly didn’t think anyone else would mind.
And yet, this lumo-bay was right here, sitting idle. What good was a lumo-bay without a program running? It was just a big empty room with glowing blue lines inscribing hexagons on all the walls.
LeVonn waited another few minutes, swishing their tail all the time, which suggested that their tail might be more likely to swish out of agitation than happiness. Or maybe it would swish from both and simply be a constantly moving pendulum. When LeVonn could stay patient no longer, it occurred to them that whoever was inside might have been hurt. Or maybe they were trying to fix a problem with the lumo-bay? LeVonn could help with that! Well… Lt. LeGuin could help with that, for sure. LeVonn could maybe help. They weren’t entirely sure of their capabilities in this confusing form.
LeVonn laid their paw on the control panel, broadcasting a request to the occupant of the lumo-bay for them to come inside.
In response, the double doors slid open.
A spotted cat sat in the middle of the empty room, cross-legged on the floor. Her tail lay on the floor behind her, curled into the shape of a question mark. Blue hexagons glowed all around her. Just as the control panel had showed, no program was running.
“Dr. Wolfgang?” LeVonn asked.
The Bengal turned her head. As soon as she saw LeVonn, her triangular ears splayed to the side in a clear display of distress. She didn’t even try hiding it.
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Wolfgang said. “I’m so sorry.”
LeVonn’s tail stopped swishing for the first time since they’d left the medical bay. They stood very still, letting it sink in that Dr. Wolfgang wasn’t looking at them with distress because they were strange and confusing — because they looked wrong — but because she felt guilty. She blamed herself for what had happened.
“It’s not your fault,” LeVonn said. “You couldn’t have known that a rogue Pollengi vessel would…” The tabby fox faltered. They walked closer to Dr. Wolfgang and sat down on the floor beside her. “Actually, I don’t know what happened. Do you?”
“No one told you?” Dr. Wolfgang asked. Her feline eyes were so wide they looked like owl eyes.
“I think they were too busy trying to figure out what I am — you know, asking me questions, running medical exams.” LeVonn shrugged. “In fairness, I didn’t ask a lot of questions. I’ve been too busy…” They trailed off, then tapped a paw to the side of their head. “Too busy in here.”
Dr. Wolfgang nodded sagely. “I can understand that. I’ve had times in my life when the noise inside my head was too loud to hear anything else.” She tilted her head, still staring at LeVonn with those owl eyes of hers. “And I’ve never actually had two whole separate people inside my head. Just me. Different versions of me.”
“Different versions?” LeVonn asked. They’d been working very closely with Dr. Wolfgang for the last week — well, one half of them had been — but they didn’t know the Bengal cat very well. Lt. LeGuin had been interested in knowing her better because he respected her work so much, and Lt. Vonn generally liked getting to know new people. So for once, their feelings felt unified and at peace.
Because they had so little history together, LeVonn could enjoy being in Dr. Wolfgang’s company in an uncomplicated way, unfettered by fears or hopes regarding how their relationships might damage or improve Lt. Vonn’s or Lt. LeGuin’s relationships with her.
Dr. Wolfgang drew a deep breath in through her whiskers. Her owl eyes narrowed, sizing up the mess of an orange tabby fox who’d been created by her own experiment gone wrong. She started to speak, then hesitated.
LeVonn sat quietly, waiting. That’s what Lt. LeGuin would have done. Lt. Vonn would have tried to draw her out — said something encouraging or reassuring. At least, that’s what LeVonn thought. It was much easier to sit in silence now that they were half Lt. LeGuin.
Was that why Fact liked the feline engineer so much? He could be still and silent, where the yellow lab security officer was always pushing and pleading for interaction?
Finally, Dr. Wolfgang spoke, but LeVonn felt sure that it was to say something different than she’d almost said a moment ago.
“I’m supposed to be working on fixing you — reversing the teleporter accident that caused your condition.” She smiled sadly. “But I can’t seem to think about math right now. All I can think about is those Pollengi. You know why they fired on the asteroid?”
LeVonn shook their head, even though it was clearly a rhetorical question. Dr. Wolfgang already knew that they knew nothing.
“The Pollengi believe the geode asteroids are sacred eggs of their gods,” Dr. Wolfgang said.
LeVonn felt their face scrunch up in a quizzical expression. Their ears and brow moved differently now than they were used to, and even the feeling of their face reacting to their emotions was confusing and distracting.
“Right, so if it’s sacred,” Dr. Wolfgang continued, “why did they fire on it with blazor canons?” Yet more rhetorical questions. “Apparently, they told the captain that if they can’t have it, no one can.”
“That seems very selfish,” LeVonn said. “What were they even doing here? Isn’t their sector of space hundreds of light-years away?” The tabby fox was surprised to realize they knew that fact about the location of the Pollengi system… Then they remembered studying star charts for the locations richest in geode-asteroids as Lt. LeGuin. The tabby cat had pored over star charts for days and chosen this sector of space for their experiment precisely because it wasn’t claimed by the Pollengi.
The Pollengi’s sector of space was even richer in the giant crystal-filled space rocks. Their homeworld was positively surrounded by them; orbited by an entire asteroid belt of geodes.
“It was a rogue vessel.” Dr. Wolfgang shrugged. “As soon as Captain Jacques got in touch with the Pollengi Merchant Oligarchy, they completely disowned the rogue vessel’s actions and sent their own enforcer vessels to return the rogue to their flock. Of course… that was well after they’d vaporized our geode, leaving Commander Wilker no choice but to teleport the… uh… two of you…” Her eyes narrowed again, and ears skewed. But she recovered quickly. “…out of the asteroid. I begged him not to. I knew it was dangerous. I thought it would kill you.”
Inwardly, LeVonn cringed at the idea of all of those spider-radios having been destroyed. They’d have to build new ones before the experiment could be attempted again.
“He made the right call,” LeVonn said dolefully. “However dangerous teleporting us was, it was a chance. And being vaporized wouldn’t have been better than… being this.” They knew that was true. They did. Really. But it was very exhausting being a half cat, half dog, with the memories of two very different people all jumbled together.
“You sound uncertain,” Dr. Wolfgang said.
LeVonn didn’t reply. They didn’t want to confirm Dr. Wolfgang’s statement. But they couldn’t deny it. Not truthfully. And both of their halves were truthful down to the bone.
“Why did you come to the lumo-bay?” Dr. Wolfgang asked after the silence had stretched on for a length of time that would have made Lt. Vonn very uncomfortable.
“I couldn’t decide which set of quarters to go to,” LeVonn said. “And everyone I saw made me feel weird and uncomfortable — like I felt two different ways about them, and I couldn’t sort the feelings out. So…” Their ears skewed as they felt confused by their own words: “I decided to come here and do some martial arts.”
It had seemed like a good plan at the time. Now LeVonn couldn’t entirely remember why. Maybe their feline side had taken over more control while they’d been sitting there, talking to someone Lt. LeGuin knew.
“Don’t let me get in your way,” Dr. Wolfgang said, standing up. “In fact, that actually sounds like a wonderful way to clear my head. I came here because, sometimes when I get stuck on math, it helps to get my body moving.” She smiled and swished her tail in an almost dog-like way. “I’ve never done martial arts, but I’d love to try. Maybe you could teach me? That is, as long as my presence here isn’t too confusing…”
“No,” LeVonn said, almost too eagerly. “I didn’t know you very well as either of myselves. So, it’s actually kind of restful being around you.”
LeVonn tried not to think about how confused they felt about Fact right now — part of them wanted to just sit near the android, quietly, saying nothing. Another part desperately wanted to see if their newfound closeness meant the arctic fox would be willing to kiss them. And the first part was horrified by that possibility and terrified by what results it might lead to, what damage it might wreck on their friendship with Fact if this situation ever got reversed.
When this situation got reversed.
Damn, they needed to get their feet and arms moving. Anything to pull them back out of their muddled up head. Ah, yes, that’s why martial arts had seemed like a good idea…
LeVonn raised their voice and said, “Computer begin Lt. Vonn program five. Easy mode.”
Usually, they ran the program on Extra Hard mode. But they weren’t sure how much their skills would have dropped from having their body changed to be half feline. At least, Lt. LeGuin seemed like he’d been a fairly agile and fleet-footed cat… but completely untrained in martial arts or, really, any physical activity. He’d lived entirely in his mind, and now that mind was a chaotic, disordered place.
Martial arts were orderly.
The glowing blue hexagons inscribing the walls all around them flashed a blinding shade of sky blue, so bright that it was like a million summer days in an instant. When the flash subsided, their surroundings had changed: instead of an empty room, the lumo-bay had become a crowded dojo filled with large, hulking ursine aliens dressed in simple white gis, tied at the waist with differently colored belts. The bear-like aliens were attacking and throwing each other, rolling and shuffling their paws on the floor of rectangular green mats in a complicated dance. It was beautiful.
Usually, Lt. Vonn was a black belt in Urs’aido, the martial art that she’d learned from Ensign Grawf, an ursine exchange officer aboard the Initiative. The bear-like alien and yellow lab often practiced martial arts together.
Today, LeVonn supposed they’d be lucky to maintain the skills of a purple belt. Maybe blue belt. They’d see. That’s why they’d set the program to “easy mode.” In hard mode, the lumo-projected bears would have all attacked them by now.
LeVonn raised their arms to the side in the opening pose, closed their eyes, and drew a deep, centering breath. They visualized the air currents in the room around them, flowing around the dance-fighting bears, swirling up to the corners of the ceiling, and flowing into their own lungs and back out again.
They tried not to get distracted by thinking about how they’d be able to actually see those air currents perfectly well if they’d just get over themselves and put on Lt. LeGuin’s techno-focal goggles.
Get over themselves.
They meant, get over their Lt. Vonn half. Their dog half. Was it more dominant? Was that a problem?
Frustrated with their inability to focus, LeVonn opened their eyes. Perhaps teaching Dr. Wolfgang would be easier to focus on than being alone inside themself.
“Put your arms out to the side, like mine,” LeVonn said. “This is the first pose.”
The Bengal cat gracefully extended her arms. She seemed even taller to LeVonn, now that they were fox-sized instead of yellow lab-sized. Dr. Wolfgang had always been taller than Lt. LeGuin, but she’d been shorter than Lt. Vonn. Now they were about the same height.
“That’s good,” LeVonn said. They guided Dr. Wolfgang through the chants, visualization, and breathing exercises meant to prepare an Urs’aido artist for their practice. The Bengal cat exuded exactly the kind of calm centeredness that kept escaping LeVonn. She was a natural.
When they got to the opening moves — tucked rolls and simple attacks where one practitioner guided the other’s energy from a punch into a harmless roll — the Bengal cat had no problem gracefully executing the rolls herself and effortlessly throwing LeVonn into them.
The tabby fox, however, landed flat on their back, slamming painfully into the green mat. Over and over again. Several times, they flipped their tail right under themself, crushing it during a roll, and their chin didn’t tuck forward quite like they expected, so they kept bumping the back of their head. Even when they managed to tuck their head right, they slammed their right shoulder into the mats repeatedly, always hitting in the same increasingly tender place. It was not relaxing. It was not centering. And LeVonn was getting more and more bruised and frustrated.
“Shouldn’t you be working on the math to get me fixed?” they finally roared at Dr. Wolfgang, after she’d thrown them to the floor for the umpteenth time.
“I am,” she replied testily, tail waving behind her. She was hardly winded from their exertions. Whereas LeVonn was practically panting, like they’d forgotten how to breathe properly.
Their whole body felt like a mess of tangled and discordant muscles, pulling at each other in the wrong ways, clumsy as a puppy or kitten.
“What do you mean?” LeVonn asked, still lying flat on the mats where they’d been thrown.
“My mind’s been working on the math while we…” She smiled, an especially feline and mysterious smile. “…dance.”
“This doesn’t feel like dancing,” LeVonn grumbled. “It’s supposed to. It used to.” They couldn’t bring themself to say more words. They were too disappointed in themselves. They’d thought, for sure, even if everything felt different and their skills were decreased, they’d simply be starting out again.
But this wasn’t what starting out had been like for Lt. Vonn at all. She’d always known how to place her paws where she meant to; she’d been a natural, like Dr. Wolfgang had proved to be.
Bitterly, LeVonn realized that Lt. LeGuin had never taken an interest in many physical activities because he wouldn’t have been very good at them. They’d preferred imagining it was the other way around — he wasn’t any good, simply because he’d never chosen to take part. If he’d put the time in, surely, he could learn to be as fine a martial artist as… Lt. Vonn.
With a deep sigh, LeVonn said, “Tell me about the math. Because I can’t do this.”
“Are you sure?” Dr. Wolfgang asked. “Because I have a different idea.”
LeVonn pushed themself into a sitting position, intrigued. “What is it?”
Dr. Wolfgang raised her voice and said, “Computer, do you have any dance studio programs?”
A melodic yet sterile, disembodied voice answered, “Three hundred and twenty four varieties. Please narrow your search parameters.”
Dr. Wolfgang negotiated with the computer, eventually settling on a program labelled “Dr. Keller program six.” Apparently, the ship’s doctor liked dancing.
The fighting bears disappeared, along with the sound of their paws slapping and thumping against the floor. The green mats beneath them shimmered and were replaced by beautifully grained mahogany hardwood.
The dance studio was empty, except for Dr. Wolfgang and LeVonn, but cheerfully spirited orchestral music filled the air, along with bright sunlight slanting in through tall windows at the far end of the room.
In spite of themself, LeVonn felt uplifted by the atmosphere. “This is a nice program,” they said.
“It does look nice, doesn’t it?” Dr. Wolfgang turned around, long tail following her, to get a look at the room from every angle. “Very nice. This is exactly what I came here for.” With the deftest of paw steps, the Bengal cat shifted from simply turning to gracefully twirling. Her tail swung to the music, and everything about her brightened.
“You’re a dancer and a mathematician?” LeVonn asked. They could feel themself developing a little crush on her. Or maybe, it was just that Lt. LeGuin would’ve probably had a crush on her. They couldn’t tell their own feelings, and they were starting to think it was better when they didn’t even try.
“Well, come on, stand up,” Dr. Wolfgang said.
LeVonn stood up, but they said, “I don’t dance. Neither of me.”
“Perfect,” Dr. Wolfgang said, twirling closer. She stopped spinning, held her arms out toward LeVonn, and swayed in place. “If you didn’t dance before, then both of your sides will be new to this. No expectations. No disappointment. Just learning. You like learning new things, don’t you?”
LeVonn quirked a smile. They did like learning new things. That was something both their feline engineer and security officer dog halves had in common. Sure, Lt. LeGuin liked learning about new types of technology and Lt. Vonn preferred learning new martial arts. But they both loved learning.
“That’s a safe guess among Tri-Galactic Navy officers, isn’t it?” LeVonn jeered wryly.
“It would be hard to get anywhere in the Tri-Galactic Navy without a love of knowledge and a thirst for adding to it,” Dr. Wolfgang agreed. “Now give me your paws.”
The tabby fox placed their pale orange paws in the Bengal cat’s dark ones.
“Now look at my feet and follow the pattern,” she said.
LeVonn looked down and saw the simple, repeated pattern of steps — left paw forward, left paw back, step to the right, step to the left. Simple. Yet, somehow, even with that level of simplicity, LeVonn managed to keep stepping at the wrong moments and in the wrong directions.
Dr. Wolfgang raised her voice and said, “Computer, slow the music to half speed.”
The orchestral music slowed from a lively rhythm to a languorous one, and suddenly LeVonn found their paws able to keep up. Their muzzle twisted into a lopsided smile as they felt their movements finally line up with the music, and their tail began to swing along.
“That’s better,” Dr. Wolfgang said. After a few more repetitions of the pattern, she stepped closer, and lifted one of LeVonn’s paws to her shoulder. She then placed her free paw at LeVonn’s waist and stretched out her other arm, still holding LeVonn’s other paw. “Now just keep stepping, and follow me.”
After a few minutes, LeVonn found themself whirling around the room, spinning out from Dr. Wolfgang’s steady paw and then being pulled back in. All they were doing was a simple step pattern, but by following Dr. Wolfgang’s skilled lead, they found themselves truly dancing.
The lopsided smile on LeVonn’s muzzle brightened to a full grin. “This is wonderful,” they said. “I think I’d even enjoy doing this as Lt. LeGuin.”
“Well, typically, you’d probably be expected to lead as Lt. LeGuin,” Dr. Wolfgang said.
LeVonn’s grin faltered a little, but they were enjoying the whirling, twirling rhythm of the dance too much to be too troubled by the idea of what one of their halves would be expected to do if they were ever successfully separated.
Right now, both of their halves were happy. They felt fancy and free.
“Is leading harder?” LeVonn asked eventually.
“It’s different,” Dr. Wolfgang said.
“You’re very good at it.”
“It’s the way I danced for many years.” Her ears skewed to the side — a brief flicker before standing tall again. “I was about to tell you earlier… but then I got shy about it. When I said that there were different versions of myself, I was talking about… Alan Wolfgang.”
“Alan?” LeVonn asked. “A brother?”
Dr. Wolfgang smiled. “No, an earlier version of me. I was assigned the wrong gender at birth, and it took me longer to figure it out than some. So, I lived as Alan for many years. My earliest academic papers were published under that name.”
LeVonn didn’t know what to say. Then they remembered Lt. LeGuin reading a few papers on rudimentary crystalline mathematics by Dr. Alan Wolfgang. “Oh, I saw those papers. Why didn’t you change your name on them?”
Dr. Wolfgang shrugged, somehow fluidly working the gesture right into their dancing. “Being Alan was a big part of my journey. I still might change my mind and change the name someday, but so far, I kind of like leaving them that way.”
“Does this mean you picked the name Ada for yourself?”
“That’s right. Oh, I didn’t ask: what are you going by? Have you picked a name for… well… until we get this fixed?”
“LeVonn. Fact picked it for me.”
They continued to dance in silence. Then Dr. Wolfgang said, “Would you like to pick a name for yourself? It can be very empowering and unifying. Perhaps a first name instead of a surname?”
LeVonn shook their head emphatically. But they found themself thinking that Natalie (Lt. Vonn’s first name) and Jordan (Lt. LeGuin’s) combined rather nicely to Nathan. They could imagine someday feeling like a Nathan. And learning how to lead while dancing might be kind of fun.
LeVonn wondered if Fact would be interested in learning to dance. And then they realized, they weren’t afraid of the idea of asking zir. Lt. LeGuin wouldn’t be afraid to ask Fact — his best friend — if zhe was interested in trying out a new activity that the orange tabby cat found interesting. And Lt. Vonn would have loved the idea of sharing an activity with Fact where she could play to her strengths — physical movement and social interaction. Most of Fact’s interests were too abstract for her, and she hadn’t had much luck connecting with the android fox, no matter how infatuated she was with zir.
For once, LeVonn felt at peace, doing something both of their sides would enjoy. They didn’t know how long it would last before something that their two sides disagreed upon violently upset their current feeling of placidly calm happiness. But for the moment, they were enjoying themselves. That was enough. Sometimes, all you can do is get by from moment to moment.
“Do you ever think about how the previous version of yourself would feel about things you’re doing in the moment?” LeVonn asked.
Dr. Wolfgang’s ears skewed, but righted themselves quickly. “Not really,” she said. “I mean, it’s all just me — Alan, Ada. So, I’d feel exactly the way I feel. There was only one path forward for me, and that path left the name Alan behind.”
“I don’t know if there are two paths forward for me… or just one,” LeVonn said. They certainly hoped they wouldn’t be stuck like this forever. But if they were… maybe it wouldn’t be untenable. Maybe they could figure out a path forward. “I guess it depends on the math you’re doing in your head.”
Dr. Wolfgang stopped dancing. She stood completely still as the music continued to lilt in the air around them. Then her ears started flicking, and her tail tip twitched, but only at the very end.
“Why did you stop dancing?” LeVonn asked. “What are you thinking?”
“Two paths…” she repeated, slowly and ponderously.
LeVonn could hardly stand the suspense. The nature of their future might hinge on what was happening in Dr. Wolfgang’s mind, but there was no way to hurry her into saying words faster. The last thing LeVonn wanted to do was disrupt her thinking process, possibly derailing an important train of thought or even just slowing it down.
Finally, Dr. Wolfgang’s wide owl eyes narrowed, and she said, “Computer, can you create a simulation of the inside of the geode asteroid from Lt. LeGuin and Lt. Vonn’s last mission, based on the videos they transmitted back to the ship?”
“Yes,” the computer answered.
“Please do so.”
The computer said, “According to our analysis, there was no gravity inside the asteroid. Do you want us to turn off the artificial gravity for a more complete simulation?”
Dr. Wolfgang’s whiskers lifted in a grin, and she said in a whisper under her breath, “I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before.” Then raising her voice, “Yes, computer. But of course, please maintain a breathable atmosphere.”
The computer replied, “Safety controls require it.”
LeVonn’s stomach flipped as the gravity vanished; their paws floated up off the floor, just slightly. The cheerful surroundings of the empty dance studio vanished, replaced by a vaguely spherical cavern rising above them, crenulated with the angular, faceted surfaces of purple-blue crystals all around. It was nice seeing them without the translucent pane of a spacesuit helmet in the way.
The computer had even simulated the crate of spider-radios and lantern floating in the middle of the crystal-lined cavity.
But the brightness of the lantern couldn’t compare with Dr. Wolfgang’s grin. The Bengal cat was grinning like a Cheshire cat — a grin bright enough to melt the polar ice caps of a habitable world.
“I’ve tried generating simulations before,” Dr. Wolfgang meowed. “But they never looked like this!”
“You never had video footage to work with, right?”
“Right, just math, and scans from external sensors.” She touched a hind-paw down to the faceted crystals beneath her and kicked off in a way that started her twirling around. She wasn’t dancing to music anymore; she was dancing to math, geometry, and beauty. Her reflection twirled in the faceted crystals all around.
LeVonn watched Dr. Wolfgang revel in this first-hand experience of her work. Abstract concepts had become hard crystal surfaces, things she could look at and touch, without having to imagine them. She floated through the cavern, swishing her tail like an ineffective rudder, and trying to swim through the thin air by pulling and kicking at it with her paws. She laughed. “Oh, this is wonderful. It makes me wish I’d gotten the training necessary to actually come on the real mission. Until today, it never seemed worth getting certified for a bunch of field missions I’d never actually go on.”
The Lt. LeGuin half of LeVonn could sympathize, but the Lt. Vonn half couldn’t imagine the point of joining the Tri-Galactic Navy if you weren’t planning on going on field missions. Visiting strange new worlds and exploring the universe was the whole point, wasn’t it?
And yet… LeVonn remembered spending hours and hours as Lt. LeGuin, totally contented, working on the starship Initiative’s engines, tweaking the machinery and fine-tuning the Zephyr Drive. Everything the orange tabby cat had wanted was inside the engine room — all the strange new worlds and exploration that he could ever need.
Dr. Wolfgang floated up to the far side of the cavern. LeVonn kicked off and followed her. When they arrived at her side, they found her staring at the reflection of her face, just like she’d wished she could back when LeVonn had been inside the geode asteroid for real. Back when they’d been two separate people. Somewhat fearfully, LeVonn followed suit and let their gaze fall on the reflection of their transformed, melded face.
The pale orange striped fox face stared back at them with its swampy brown-green eyes and semi-floppy ears. It wasn’t right. It was like looking at a photograph of yourself, where all your features look backward, because usually you see yourself in a mirror. Or maybe like seeing yourself wearing a costume.
LeVonn could see pieces of herself and himself in the face. But not the entirety of either of their separate selves. Just pieces, facets even. They felt like a crystal that had been smashed, and then glued back together, mixed up with the pieces of a different crystal, so the end result was something new. Something wrong. But… also beautiful.
Because LeVonn couldn’t deny that they kind of liked being a half cat, half dog. They liked looking more like Fact, who both of their sides admired deeply. They liked getting the good traits of both sides — Lt. LeGuin’s sharp mind and unflappable patience; Lt. Vonn’s friendliness, eagerness, and physical coordination. They blended well together.
LeVonn stopped staring at their own face and turned to look at Dr. Wolfgang. “Why are we here?” they asked. “You seemed like you’d had…” They were reluctant to say the word, afraid of making it untrue. Or maybe afraid of the opposite? “…a revelation?”
Dr. Wolfgang laid one of her dark paws reverently against a particularly large crystal facet. She sighed like one might if they’d finally met a long-time pen pal, a deeply intimate friend who they’d never before seen in person. Then she lifted her paw and turned her head, returning LeVonn’s gaze.
“Yes,” Dr. Wolfgang said. “All the time we were fighting and dancing, I was trying to figure out the geometry of the crystal facets that could have caused the two teleporter streams to combine so perfectly into one. But when you said ‘two paths,’ I realized — it was never about the geometry of the crystal facets.”
Dr. Wolfgang turned her gaze toward the perfectly round, dark hole of the passageway that the Initiative had carved into the asteroid with its blazor beam. She pointed at it.
“That’s the answer,” she said.
LeVonn felt their brain spark in a way that was familiar from all of Lt. LeGuin’s memories but felt exciting and new to the parts of her that still identified most with Lt. Vonn. “You mean,” they said, “that the gap in the crystals–”
Dr. Wolfgang was too excited to wait and rushed on with her explanation: “The two teleporter beams bounced around the inside of the asteroid until each of them found the only way out — straight through the corridor!” Her excited grin faded, and a haunted look filled her owl eyes. “If… if there hadn’t been a corridor, then the teleporter beams might have bounced uselessly around inside the asteroid forever…”
LeVonn laid a reassuring paw on her shoulder and pointed out, “If there’d been no corridor, we couldn’t have gotten inside in the first place.”
Dr. Wolfgang nodded soberly. “Yes, of course.”
“Does this solve our problem?” LeVonn asked.
Dr. Wolfgang tilted her head, expressing far too effortlessly that she expected a being who was half composed of Lt. LeGuin to be able to figure the answer out themself.
To their surprise, LeVonn realized they knew the answer: “Two corridors…”
“Yes!” Dr. Wolfgang agreed. “Two paths forward. We’ll carve two passageways into a similar asteroid’s shell, and then–”
“Teleport me out of the center, and the teleportation beam will be divided by the two pathways!” LeVonn’s tail started wagging in excitement. Or was that agitation? It was a scary prospect, the idea of being teleported out of a geode asteroid a second time. How else could it go wrong? What new ways might their body and mind be deformed? They didn’t want to think about that. They wanted to put the thought out of their head entirely and just forge forward.
“Come on,” Dr. Wolfgang said. “We’ve got work to do.”
* * *
The work went quickly, but it still took days. The captain declined to reinstate LeVonn’s rank or duties, but Fact and Dr. Wolfgang let them help where they could.
Fact surveyed the asteroids, scanning them for the information necessary to make mathematical models of their interiors. Dr. Wolfgang ran one mathematical simulation after another, checking for an asteroid similar enough to the original one to produce the desired results.
LeVonn worked on building replacements for the spider-radios, so that in addition to reversing their own teleporter mishap, it would be possible to run the original experiment through to completion. Building spider-radios was a simpler, more mechanical task than analyzing the crystalline interiors of geodes for the right mathematical structure. LeVonn felt a little frustrated with their inability to keep up with Dr. Wolfgang’s and Fact’s effortless mathematics, but they did enjoy putting together the spider-radios. And it was necessary work.
In the evenings, when all of their brains were too tired to think about math or electronics, Dr. Wolfgang continued teaching LeVonn how to dance. They thought about asking Fact to join them, but LeVonn didn’t want to risk making any serious changes to their relationship during such an unstable, liminal period in their life.
Their life. There wasn’t even supposed to be such a thing as their life.
And yet, they found themselves enjoying their life anyway.
When the time came for LeVonn to carry the crate of new spider-radios to the teleporter bay and put back on the weirdly melded spacesuit that had been created by blending Lt. LeGuin’s and Lt. Vonn’s suits during the original teleporter accident… they hesitated.
What if the fix didn’t work?
What if the teleporter beam bounced around inside the geode asteroid until their signal was completely garbled, or they were split into something worse, something less functional?
Their current state wasn’t ideal, but…
LeVonn could live this way.
What if trying to fix themselves… killed them?
“I’m scared,” LeVonn said.
“That is a rational emotional reaction,” Fact replied. “Fear is a common response to uncertainty, especially in situations with high stakes.”
“The stakes feel… too high,” LeVonn said, standing beside the crate. As Lt. Vonn, they’d be able to pick up the crate easily. As Lt. LeGuin, they wouldn’t feel like they should be able to pick it up. Carrying heavy crates was physical labor, and the orange tabby cat had simply known that wasn’t what he was best suited for.
LeVonn knelt down beside the crate, grabbed it from the bottom with their paws, and tilted its weight against their chest. They lifted it and stood there, awkwardly holding a heavy crate. It was hard, but they could do it. “Maybe… maybe I should just stay this way. I could do the rest of the mission — setup all the spider-radios in the right places — and then just… come home.”
Fact tilted zir head quizzically. Zir eyes might be made from real gold irises encased in translucent polymers, but they showed as much compassion as any pair of biological eyes. “Is that what you really want? Most likely, you’d need to return to the naval academy to regain your rank, as this version of yourself has not been tested or proven to have the mettle of a full Tri-Galactic Navy officer.”
LeVonn shifted the awkwardly large and heavy crate in their arms and sighed. They didn’t want to start their life over. But they didn’t want to risk their life either.
Yet risking their life was a day to day part of a Tri-Galactic Navy officer’s job.
But not for nothing. They risked their lives for meaningful advances in diplomacy, knowledge, science… Real changes in the state of progress among all thinking beings in the universe.
Dr. Wolfgang approached the pair of strange foxes — white-furred android and pale orange-striped tabby fusion. “I am sure of my math,” she said. “I didn’t know what would happen before, but I know what will happen this time: it will work.”
“I know,” LeVonn said. They didn’t doubt Dr. Wolfgang’s math. Not really. LeVonn smiled weakly and nodded, as if they’d been reassured. Then they began the long trek through the corridors to the teleporter bay.
As they walked, LeVonn began to wonder — were they scared because they thought it wouldn’t work… or were they scared because they knew it would, and they were afraid of being disappointed and, maybe, lonely, once they’d been separated out into two people?
They kept moving, mechanically, through the steps of the mission — teleport into space, watch the Initiative carve two holes into the asteroid with blazor cannons, fly with their jetpack inside, and setup all the spider-radios.
This time, they weren’t interrupted by any marauding Pollengi vessels.
And they took their time, knowing that each spider-radio they placed brought them one step closer to teleporting out and dissolving their current identity.
LeVonn remembered worrying as a small kitten — in Lt. LeGuin’s memories, obviously — that when he went to sleep at night, he’d forget the train of his thoughts and wake up in the morning a different kitten. A kitten who looked the same, had basically the same memories and same life, but because his brain had been reset by sleeping, he was worried he’d lose a piece of himself. An important piece that he didn’t want to let go of… He’d been a terror for his poor parents, never easy to put to bed, always popping back up with one more question or needing one more drink of water.
LeVonn felt like that now. If they just kept checking and rechecking the positioning of each spider-radio, then they wouldn’t have to call back to the ship, say they were ready, and teleport into two separate pieces. Fragmentary selves.
When had that happened? Somewhere along the way, Lt. LeGuin and Lt. Vonn had become facets of themself — instead of whole people who would have longed to, been desperate to — return to their own lives.
Dr. Wolfgang’s voice crackled to life over the radio, “Sensors show that the radios are all properly positioned. Is there a reason for the delay?”
There was only one correct answer — no. No reason. But LeVonn didn’t want to say it. Because then their life would be over.
Dr. Wolfgang spoke again, her voice softer than before: “You know, there are always a multitude of paths in front of us. I said before that there was only one path for me, but I was simplifying. I’m a mathematician. We like to simplify things.”
LeVonn laughed, halfheartedly. Half of two hearts, though, makes a full one. The thought made them sad.
“It only seemed like there’d been one path — and only one path for me — in retrospect, because I found the right one. A path that made me happy.”
Commander Wilker’s voice joined Dr. Wolfgang’s on the radio, “Excuse me for interrupting, but are you scientists about ready to proceed?”
“Don’t take a path just because it’s the one you’re expected to take,” Dr. Wolfgang said.
Then the line went silent, and LeVonn found themself alone with their thoughts, surrounded by crystal faces reflecting their singular body into a multitude of slightly skewed versions.
What did they want to do?
“I have a question,” LeVonn said, “before I teleport back.”
After a moment, Commander Wilker barked, “Go ahead.”
LeVonn was afraid to say the question out loud, because once it was shared with the crew members listening over the comm, then it would be known that they had doubts.
Doubts about who they were.
But they couldn’t proceed without asking.
Asking the question was the only path forward for them in that moment.
“What if I change my mind?” LeVonn said. “Could we use another geode, drill only a single corridor into it, and put me back like this?”
The aftermath of the question hung in the silence, echoing in LeVonn’s own ears.
Dr. Wolfgang broke the silence: “Mathematically? Yes.”
A moment later, the voice of the ship’s doctor, Dr. Keller woofed, “Biologically, I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t be done.”
The silence returned.
In spite of LeVonn’s fears, no one asked, “Why would you want to do that?”
“Okay,” LeVonn said. “I’m ready. Teleport me back.”
* * *
When the fizzy champagne bubbly feeling of quantum energy cleared from LeVonn’s vision, they saw Fact standing at the teleporter control panel and filled with relief at the sight. They were about to say, “It didn’t work…”
But before they could, Fact said, “Lt. LeGuin! It’s so good to have you back!” Zhe stepped around the control panel and toward the teleporter pad, and then walked right past them.
LeVonn turned, face falling, and saw Lt. LeGuin — completely feline, bright orange with perfectly erect ears, and totally blind without his techno-focal goggles — standing beside them on the pad. Beside her.
She looked down and saw her paws — yellow, big, and blunt clawed. She reached up and touched the side of her face, the tip of her floppy ear. She was a yellow Labrador. She was Lt. Natalie Vonn again.
And a rush of cold loneliness filled her belly, replacing the fizzy, giggly feeling of teleportation. They’d made a terrible mistake. She felt like half a person, and she reached toward her other half. Lt. LeGuin reached out too…
But he wasn’t reaching toward her. He was reaching toward Fact, who held out a pair of techno-focal goggles.
The orange tabby took the goggles from Fact’s white paws. He placed them over his eyes and sighed with evidently deep relief. “Oh goodness,” he meowed, “it’s so wonderful to be myself again.”
Lt. Vonn felt crushed. She didn’t feel wonderful. She’d been discarded by her other half, deemed unnecessary. A flaw in the perfect crystal that was Lt. LeGuin.
Fact turned toward her. The arctic fox’s gold eyes shone warmly. “Welcome back, Lt. Vonn. The ship has not been the same without you.”
Lt. Vonn’s tail wagged tentatively. She wanted so badly to interpret Fact’s words in a positive way. Surely, the android meant them kindly?
Lt. LeGuin stepped closer, and he took hold of Lt. Vonn’s paw. She felt steadied by his grasp.
“Fact,” Lt. LeGuin meowed, “would you mind giving Natalie and me a moment alone?”
“Most assuredly,” Fact agreed. “I will see you in engineering later.” The fox nodded at zir feline friend. Then zhe nodded at Lt. Vonn. She thought she saw a wisp of a smile on zir angular muzzle.
Once Fact was gone, and the two halves of LeVonn were once again alone together, Lt. LeGuin took hold of both of Lt. Vonn’s paws.
“You helped me remember how much I love being myself,” Lt. LeGuin meowed. “I’m deeply grateful for that.”
It felt like he was twisting the knife.
“In return,” he said, “I want you to know that — yes, Fact is genuinely happy to have you back.”
Lt. Vonn caught a sob in the back of her throat before it could escape.
“I know you have trouble reading zir,” Lt. LeGuin said. “So, I thought I’d say it plainly for you.”
Lt. Vonn nodded, not trusting herself to say any words.
“You’re worrying that you’re the lesser half,” he said, continuing on in a way that was uncharacteristic of him. He was usually someone who got lost in thought and forgot to say those thoughts out loud. “But that’s not why I’m happy to be myself again. It’s not that I wanted to be rid of you. It’s not that I didn’t… kind of think we were better as one. It’s just, I needed to be…”
The yellow Labrador and orange tabby stood in silence together, paws clasped tightly, as if squeezing hard enough could make them into a single person again.
Then Lt. LeGuin’s hold loosened.
Lt. Vonn tried to loosen her hold in return. It was harder for her.
“This is a rough transition,” she said.
“We already had a rough transition,” Lt. LeGuin countered. “And you handled that okay.” His feline face twisted into a smile.
“Are you sure?” she asked. “Are you sure it wasn’t you who handled it?”
He shook his head. “No, I’d have never thought to get out of my head and throw myself at the floor repeatedly until I figured out how to live with my new, more confusing, more complicated self.”
Lt. Vonn laughed. “Yeah, rolling around on the floor is more of a dog thing.”
Lt. LeGuin swished his tail jauntily. “Dancing turned out to be both of our thing though, right?”
Lt. Vonn nodded.
“Maybe we can go dancing again?” he asked.
“I’d like that.”
“Now that Dr. Wolfgang’s experiment is completed, she won’t be around to dance with us much longer…”
“But we have two bodies now…”
“Exactly my thinking!” Lt. LeGuin’s face brightened, whiskers rising with his grin. “Would you mind, though, if we took turns learning how to lead?”
“It does seem like — gender roles aside — I’d probably be better at it,” Lt. Vonn mused.
“Consider it a plan.”
The orange tabby turned, ready to rush off to engineering. But Lt. Vonn said, “Wait… when you’ve analyzed the results from the experiment… you know, from those radios we set up… Will you tell me about what you find out?”
His grin grew even brighter. “You know it’ll mostly be complicated math that will take years for us to sort out, right?”
“I know,” Lt. Vonn said. “But I’d still like to hear about it.”
“It’d be my honor,” he replied.
Then Lt. Vonn watched her smaller, cleverer, clumsier, feline half walk away. She thought she was sad to see him go, but then she felt her tail wagging. She might miss the sharpness of LeGuin in her mind, but she felt the happiness of being herself again, flowing throughout her body.
Read more about these characters in Tri-Galactic Trek!