by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Gods With Fur, June 2016
Commander Bill Wilker’s angular muzzle split into a wide Collie grin, and he smoothed down his ruff of fur that spilled regally out of the collar of his Tri-Galactic Navy uniform. “That’s a goddamned beautiful lookin’ planet,” he said.
And it was a goddamned beautiful planet on the viewscreen. It was green and round and blue — everything that a planet should be, not like the desolate lava balls and crater-faced lumps in the last several star-systems. This planet practically screamed, “Shore leave!” and Bill Wilker was ready to take up that cry.
“I should lead a reconnaissance team down to the surface,” Cmdr. Wilker barked to the Captain. “Check it out. Take some readings. Scan it.” He wondered if those blue oceans looked as enticing up close as they looked on the viewscreen. He wouldn’t mind a swim.
“Easy, Commander,” the captain meowed. He was a Sphinx cat, and his naked pink ears twisted about, as if he could pick up clues about the planet by listening closely to every sound happening on the bridge of the starship TGN Initiative. Though, clearly, the only way to really get a handle on a beautiful planet like that was to set paw to ground.
Still, Cmdr. Wilker respected his captain for being cautious. He was a smart cat. That’s why he was the captain.
Captain Pierre Jacques made the rounds on the bridge, leaning over each junior officer’s shoulder in turn to see the readings at their stations.
“Come on,” Cmdr. Wilker said. “They’ve all reported. It’s safe. We should send a team down.”
Captain Jacques’ pink and gray skinned tail lashed. He leaned closer into the station manned by a black cat and pointed at her commscreen with a claw. “There,” he meowed. “What’s that? It looks like life signs.”
The black cat confirmed, “Yes, those are probably some sort of tree or other vegetation — unusually complex for plant-life, but clearly chlorophyll-based.”
The captain paced the bridge, and a rumble rose in his throat, not clearly a purr or a growl. That meant he was about to authorize the reconnaissance team. Cmdr. Wilker knew it. He knew his captain better than anyone.
Cmdr. Wilker looked again at the beautiful sphere on the bridge’s main viewscreen, readying himself for the captain’s order. Then the screen fell dark.
All the lights went out.
The bridge of the TGN Initiative had gone as dark as the space surrounding it.
Junior officers meowed and barked, filling the darkness with a cacophony of interrogative uncertainty, but Cmdr. Wilker’s strong, calm bark rose above it, silencing the rest: “Captain, what do we do?”
The air on the bridge chuckled, a deep, resonant sound that Cmdr. Wilker could feel vibrating the very deck under his paws. Then a shining crescent appeared in the darkness on the viewscreen, split down the middle, showing itself to be an eerie, disembodied cat’s grin, and said, “Don’t ask him. He’s a trivial, unimportant feline. Ask me.” The glowing form of a feline body — pink, purple, and swirly, dressed in a shimmering toga — took shape around the crescent grin. “I’m Questor; bow to me, mortals.”
“I bow to no cat!” Cmdr. Wilker barked, but when he saw Captain Jacques’ reflective eyes glaring at him in the dull pink glow from the viewscreen, he ducked his head and apologized, “I’m sorry; I should let you handle this, Captain.”
In the midst of chaos, Captain Jacques remained one cool cat: “Greetings, Questor. I’m Captain Pierre Jacques of the Tri-Galactic Navy Ship Initiative. We’re on a voyage of peaceful discovery. Your transmission seems to have coincided with a loss of control on my bridge. If your transmission is the cause of my ship’s system failures, please rescind any effect you may be having on my ship so that we may converse peaceably.”
Cmdr. Wilker wished he could keep his cool like that. One. Cool. Cat.
But Questor wasn’t having any of it. He rolled his eyes dramatically, sighed, and then the image of his body on the viewscreen stepped surreally down onto the bridge, taking physical form. He was followed by dancing lights that flitted about, throwing colorful shadows in every which direction.
“Of course, I’m the cause,” Questor intoned. “I am the day. I am the night. I am the stars. I am your god.” He circled around the captain, finally stopping in front of him, nose to nose; captain to strange visitation; cat to cat. “Bow to me.”
A lesser cat’s ears would have flattened in irritation, but the captain was not a lesser cat. Apparently, neither was Questor. He clicked his claws, and his shimmering toga was instantly replaced by a Tri-Galactic Navy admiral’s uniform. “I order you to bow to me.”
“You are no admiral,” the captain returned, and the two cats descended into rapid-fire verbal sparring. Cmdr. Wilker was fascinated by their stand-off, but he recognized Capt. Jacques’ strategy — this was intentional distraction. While the cats argued, Cmdr. Wilker edged his way to the back of the bridge and conferred in whispers with several junior officers in sequence: the black cat confirmed that while her bridge console wasn’t working, Questor showed no life-signs on her handheld unimeter — more like a rip or twist in space; Lieutenant Natalie Vonn, the yellow lab security officer, offered to attack Questor, with her blazor or bare-pawed, since the black cat thought shooting energy at an energy life form might be a bad idea.
“You know what?” Cmdr. Wilker said. “Let’s risk it. You’ve got your blazor; use it.”
The black cat rolled her eyes, but Lt. Vonn said, “Yes sir!” and pulled out her blazor.
Before she’d even pointed the weapon at Questor, the mauve-furred cat raised his voice and said, “Not so fast.” Questor’s slitted eyes flashed like twin pulsars, and Lt. Vonn disappeared. One moment there was a yellow lab holding a blazor; the next, she was simply gone.
“What the hell have you done with my officer!” Captain Jacques yowled, finally losing his cool.
Questor gestured carelessly to the ship’s viewscreen behind him, and an image appeared of a naked feral dog, cowering and whimpering behind bars. The poor creature looked like Lt. Vonn would have if dogs and cats had never been uplifted — four-legged, wild, able only to bark and howl without meaning. “I sent her to another universe… one more appropriate to her level of civilization.”
The image disappeared, and Cmdr. Wilker felt a horrible sense of relief. He knew she was still suffering, but he couldn’t help his sense of relief at not having to see it. So awful. “Bring her back!” Cmdr. Wilker barked. “You can send me instead!”
Captain Jacques held out his paws as if trying to hold down and steady the situation. “Clearly, you are powerful,” he said to Questor. “Bring back my officer; restore power to my ship; and let us start again. My crew is on a mission to discover new life forms, and you are possibly the most fascinating one we’ve ever seen–”
“I’m not a life form. I’m a god. Bow to me. Pray to me.” Questor’s Cheshire grin shone like a newly discovered crescent moon — it was filled with danger and unknown risks.
“We are an enlightened people,” the captain said reasonably. “We’ve evolved past the need for superstitions like gods and prayer.”
Questor seemed amused. “Evolved? Enlightened?” he asked. “You think you don’t… need me.”
“Of course, we don’t need you,” the captain agreed. “But we’d be very interested in getting to know you. Learning about each other. Once you return my officer.”
Questor rolled his eyes dramatically and waved a paw. Lt. Vonn reappeared suddenly, still in the act of aiming her blazor. She fired at Questor, but the energy bolt passed harmlessly through him and scorched the deck behind him.
“See?” Questor intoned. “Uncivilized.” He glared at the yellow lab with her blazor, and she whimpered like a puppy rather than a Tri-Galactic Navy security officer. Cmdr. Wilker wondered how much she remembered of what Questor had done to her, sending her to that horrible alternate universe.
“Now that you have your precious officer back,” Questor said as his body faded eerily away, leaving only his grinning teeth. “Let’s see how much you don’t need me.” The teeth winked out like stars dying, and the actual stars returned to the viewscreen, studding the velvet black sky around that goddamned beautiful blue-green planet. All of the bridge’s stations came back online with blinking lights and reassuring beeps.
But then the stars on the viewscreen swirled, and the blue-green world spun away like a ball flying far, far out of reach. Cmdr. Wilker’s heart raced at the sight; every fiber of his being shouted that he had to help his captain get their ship back to that planet.
The terrier at the pilot’s station barked, “Captain, we’re spinning out of control, and we’re gaining speed!”
“That’s obvious,” Captain Jacques grumbled. “Can you at least keep track of where we’re going”?
“The computer will store the data necessary to calculate our location…” As the pilot terrier spoke, the swirling stars slowed, and a golden-orange nebula grew on the viewscreen until it engulfed them. The ship came to rest with the crenulated dust of the nebula glittering dully all around. The terrier’s triangular ears drooped, and he shook his bearded face. “…but without a fix on the stars, it could take days to process the data.”
There were no stars visible. Only nebula.
“Set a course out of the nebula,” Cmdr. Wilker barked, shooting his captain a quick look to make sure that he approved. It was the obvious move. He might as well take care of it, giving his captain extra time to think.
Unfortunately, an hour later, the nebula dust was just as thick, and the captain was deep in thought, sitting in his captain’s chair. His eyes were closed so he could focus. Cmdr. Wilker was sure the little cat would have a brilliant plan when he woke up.
Two hours later, the terrier pilot barked, “There’s a ship — or space station — ahead of us. It’s large and mechanical. The size of a small moon. Should I give it a wide berth or approach it?”
While the captain roused himself from his deep thoughts — or possibly his shallow catnap — Cmdr. Wilker paced the deck. The foreign ship could be dangerous, but it might have important information. “Are there life signs on the ship?” Cmdr. Wilker asked.
The black cat — Lt. Libby Unari — answered in the affirmative.
“Good,” the captain meowed, now fully awake. “Approach the vessel and open a communications channel.” As they approached, the alien vessel grew on the viewscreen — its surfaces were triangular, giving it the overall shape of an icosahedron, but each face was riddled with bars and latticework, complex patterns of wiring, rather than a smooth hull.
Looking suddenly cheerful with his pink ears standing tall, the captain added, “Fascinating! That meddlesome Questor may have inadvertently aided us in our mission of exploration!”
Rich chuckling filled the bridge, and Questor’s eerie Cheshire smile appeared on the viewscreen beside the alien vessel just long enough to say, “Don’t be so sure, my dear little captain.”
The terrier at the helm barked, “Sir, I’m picking up transmissions from the vessel, but they’re aimed away from us — they’re not answering our radio signals.”
“Can we get any information from those transmissions?” the captain asked.
“They’re not in a language the computer recognizes.” The terrier looked really gloomy as he added, “And it probably means this ship has allies nearby.”
Cmdr. Wilker looked around the bridge and saw that all the junior officers — Lt. Unari the black cat, Lt. Vonn the yellow lab, the gray tabby at the tactical station, and the shaggy poodle running scans of the nebula — looked similarly gloomy. “Hey now,” he barked, his muzzle splitting into an infectious collie grin. “You say ‘allies’ like they’re our enemies. We don’t know that — they might just be calling all their buddies in to come check out the cool new ship they’ve met! This could be the start of an entire new alliance between the Tri-Galactic Navy and these… triangular-ball-ships.”
There. That pep-talk ought to lighten everyone’s spirits, Cmdr. Wilker thought, swishing his tail. And everyone did look a little more hopeful.
Then Lt. Unari’s panel lit up and chimed with alarms. “I’m picking up an unauthorized teleportation beam…” Her black paws worked the panel, tracing the source of the beam. “And now there’s an extra set of life signs… in…”
The comm-channel from engineering opened up, and they all heard the voice of chief engineer Jordan LeGuin meow, “Captain, we have an intruder down here.” He sounded very stressed.
Lt. Unari looked up from her control panel, her green cat eyes troubled. “That’s where the extra life signs are — engineering.”
Captain Jacques gestured to Cmdr. Wilker and Lt. Vonn — “Get down there, on the double!”
The two dogs wasted no time; the collie and yellow lab jogged through the corridors of the Initiative, drawing their blazors as they moved. “Lowest energy setting,” Cmdr. Wilker woofed as they approached the doors to engineering. “We want to try to keep this peaceful. If we can.”
Lt. Vonn led the way with her blonde head low and her blazor held high. Her brush of a tail kept eerily still. She was a consummate professional, trained in three different forms of martial arts. Cmdr. Wilker would have trusted her with his life, but he hoped he wouldn’t have to.
Inside engineering, the various canine and feline junior officers had backed around the edges of the room, many ducked behind the zephyr drive coils that pulsed with soft blue light. In the middle of the room, Lt. Jordan LeGuin — an orange tabby wearing techno-focal goggles and with fur fluffed out so far his tail looked like a bottle brush — was hissing and spitting at a segmented figure twice his size that was messing with the central control pylon that reached from the floor to the high ceiling of engineering.
At first, Cmdr. Wilker thought the intruder was wearing body armor, but as he stared at the smooth, gun-metal gray plating of the segmented body, he realized that he was looking at a creature that was truly alien: exoskeleton, at least six limbs, a mandibled face with hundreds of wriggling mouth parts, and glittering domes of compound eyes — this was an arthropoidal alien.
No one would have uplifted a hideous creature like that. Would they? No — this species had to have evolved to sentience by itself. But the Tri-Galactic Navy was out here to contact alien life, and this intruder certainly counted.
Cmdr. Wilker held out one paw and lowered the blazor in his other, knowing that Lt. Vonn still had him covered. “We’re on a mission of peace,” he barked. “Please, you’ve taken us by surprise. Come with me, and speak to our captain. Our people could learn so much from each other.”
The alien emitted a sound like fireworks, whistling and crackling bursts that the ship’s computer was apparently unable to translate. Then another pair of limbs unfolded from the alien’s body, bringing the total count up to at least eight. These arms hinged like a praying mantis’s, but they spewed shiny sticky silk like a spider’s spinnerets. The stream of gooey material knocked Lt. LeGuin to the deck, glommed onto his orange fur, dripped over his uniform, and stuck him firmly to the floor.
“Fire!” Cmdr. Wilker barked, and Lt. Vonn’s blazor blared. The energy beam bounced off of the alien’s metallic carapace and hit one of the zephyr drive coils, breaking it. The yellow lab launched herself bodily towards the insectoid intruder, but before she could law paws on it, a stream of sticky silk hit her hind paws, and she found herself glued in place.
This fight was not going well. As Cmdr. Wilker knelt down to check on Lt. LeGuin, the alien returned to messing with the central control pylon. Lt. LeGuin was clearly shaken and might need his fur shaved to unstick him from the floor, but he seemed otherwise unharmed. Cmdr. Wilker needed a new strategy for dealing with this alien.
Lt. LeGuin whispered to Cmdr. Wilker, “You need to get the alien away from that pylon. It could damage the hyper crystal that powers the zephyr drive.”
Cmdr. Wilker looked up at the arthropoid and considered his options. Lt. Vonn had ruled out blazor attacks and paw-to-paw combat for him. It wouldn’t do any good to draw the alien’s ire and get himself stuck to the deck like his security officer and chief engineer.
Unless… If he turned off the artificial gravity, then spewing silk would jet the alien backwards, away from the central control pylon.
Unfortunately, before Cmdr. Wilker could open his muzzle to tell the computer to shut off the gravity in engineering, the arthropoidal alien succeeded in jimmying open the panel on the front of the towering pylon. It reached into the opening with fearsome claws and grabbed the glowing yellow crystal from its chamber. Then the arthropoid and the hyper crystal disappeared in a shimmering field of quantum energy.
“Doggarnit!” Cmdr. Wilker barked. He tapped the comm-pin on his uniform, opening a communication channel to the bridge: “Captain, the alien has teleported away, taking our hyper crystal with it.”
The captain’s voice answered through the comm-pin, “It’s worse than that, Commander. I’ve been receiving reports of intruders all over the ship — our security teams can’t keep up.”
“We should get out of here,” Cmdr. Wilker said. He looked down at the tabby engineer stuck to the deck and asked, “Do we have any back-up crystals?”
“Two,” he meowed. “In storage bays three and twelve.”
“Not any more,” the captain’s voice responded. “They’ve stripped us clean of anything valuable and portable. We’re dead in the water. But the good news is that they’re leaving us otherwise alone.”
Cmdr. Wilker didn’t think that sounded like very good news. “So far,” he said. “What if they come back?”
Across the room, Lt. Vonn was struggling against the gooey silk holding her in place. With a sickening sound, she pulled herself free, leaving behind most of the blonde fur from her hind paws. It looked painful, but she didn’t even limp.
“Let’s not give them the chance,” Lt. Vonn barked. “We should launch a full scale attack–”
The captain’s voice cut her off: “That’s not a good idea. An entire fleet of similar vessels is on their way, and they’ve already stolen our entire stock of electron torpedoes.”
Lt. Von’s muzzle drew into a tight grimace, her blonde ears far back on her head. Cmdr. Wilker understood how she felt. He wanted to attack these arthropoids with all he was worth too. But he had to be smart.
“Captain, I’d like to lead a stealth mission onto the alien vessel,” Cmdr. Wilker barked. “If we can steal back one of our hyper crystals, we can hot-paw our way out of here. We’ll have sustained heavy losses in terms of machinery, but right now, I think we’ll be lucky if we can just get out of here without any loss of life.”
“I agree,” the captain meowed. “Make it happen!” The communications channel to the bridge chimed off.
With the help of a junior engineer and a vibro-scalpel, Cmdr. Wilker got Lt. LeGuin unstuck from the floor. His arms sported a few bald patches, and his uniform had a few holes in it. But he could function, and Cmdr. Wilker would need the orange tabby’s expertise for navigating a foreign vessel. No one knew ships like Lt. LeGuin.
Meanwhile, Lt. Vonn assembled an arsenal — she holstered a blazor rifle on one leg and an electron pulse canon on the other. On her back, she strapped a curved, two-handed vibro-sword. She did not look like a yellow lab that you wanted to cross.
The three of them — orange tabby in techno-focal goggles, yellow lab armed to the teeth, and Collie in charge — headed to the tele-bay and teleported over to the alien vessel in their own shimmering field of quantum energy. Based on their scans of the icosahedral vessel, Lt. LeGuin had picked a location for them to teleport to that he believed to be an empty maintenance bay.
There had been no life signs in the chamber, so Cmdr. Wilker’s heart nearly stopped when the shimmering quantum energy cleared from his vision to show an arthropoidal alien with mouth parts squirming, staring right at him with those mounds of glittering eyes. It raised one of its spinneret arms, and Cmdr. Wilker threw himself in front of his two subordinate officers to protect them.
But instead of gooey silk, the air exploded in pink and purple confetti. When the confetti cleared, the arthropoid was gone, replaced by a pink-and-purple striped Cheshire cat, laughing hysterically on the floor.
“Oh my,” Quester purred. “You should have seen your face! That loooong muzzle of yours, hanging open!” He rolled about the floor in laughter, hugging his fluffy tail to himself.
“That was not funny,” Cmdr. Wilker barked. Then he remembered they were on a stealth mission and lowered his voice to say, “I thought you claimed to be a god. It seems to me that you’re no better than a cosmic trickster, playing stupid pranks on us.”
Questor’s wide Cheshire grin grew suddenly serious. He picked himself up off the floor, dusted off his faux Tri-Galactic Navy uniform, and squared off against the mortal Collie questioning him. “I am a god, and this is no prank. This is a warning. A dire warning. You think you’re playing games here? These Arhcidopterans do not take kindly to intruders in their home nebula.”
Cmdr. Wilker stood nearly twice Questor’s height, but he suddenly felt small staring into the pink-and-purple cat’s eyes. Those eyes had sparkled when he laughed, like stars dancing, now they were as hard and dark as twin singularities. The anger in those eyes could suck him in and destroy them all.
Cmdr. Wilker cleared his throat and said quietly, “We didn’t intrude. You sent us here.”
“You think they’ll care?”
An inarticulate growl of rage broke out behind the commander, and he turned to see Lt. Von with her hackles raised. Her paws hovered over the butts of the holstered weapons on each of her legs, but the memory of what Questor had done to her before stayed her.
Questor laughed again; the sound rolled through the air, rich and velvety. “Your guard dog has learned some manners. Let’s see if you can learn something too.”
Confetti filled the air again. When it cleared, vanishing as if it had never existed at all, Questor was gone too.
Cmdr. Wilker wished Questor had never existed at all. Then they’d all be back where they’d started — about to explore a goddamned beautiful blue-and-green world. Maybe discover some new flowers that no one had ever seen before. Maybe go for a swim and discover a brand new form of sea life.
Instead, Cmdr. Wilker led his stealth team through the winding corridors of this mechanical insect hive, ducking behind sticky cocoon-like structures whenever one of the arthropoids passed by. The walls sloped inward, meeting at a point for the ceiling. Apparently, the arthropoids really liked triangular structures.
At every junction between corridors, Cmdr. Wilker looked back at Lt. LeGuin for directions. The little orange cat scanned with his uni-meter and silently gestured which way to go.
Cmdr. Wilker’s herd-dog instincts told him that he should be behind his crew, watching their backs and protecting them, but he had to trust Lt. Vonn with that role. He knew the yellow lab had them covered from the rear. Her blazor may have proved useless in the Initiative’s engineering bay, but a blazor rifle was ten times more powerful. If that wasn’t enough to protect them, the electron pulse cannon strapped to her other leg worked on an entirely different principle. A pulse from it ought to leave one of these giant insects curled on the floor, contorted by spasms of pain. If all else failed, Cmdr. Wilker knew the yellow lab was not above paw-to-claw combat, and the vibro-sword strapped to her back would be able cut them all free from sticky silk if need be.
Cmdr. Wilker knew he was leading a tight team, and they were prepared for dangerous missions. Nonetheless, he was infinitely relieved when the little orange tabby looked up from his uni-meter and said, “There’s a hyper crystal in the chamber at the end of this corridor, and I’m not picking up any life signs.”
Excellent, all they had to do was nab the crystal, call back to the Iniative, and teleport the hell out of here. At least, that’s what Cmdr. Wilker thought until he’d poked his long Collie nose through the chamber door. Except, it wasn’t a small chamber on the other side; the space opened out above and around him. There were no arthropoids nearby, but he could see them flying through the open space in the distance. He hadn’t realized they had wings.
Lt. LeGuin stepped up beside Cmdr. Wilker, and the wide open space in front of them reflected eerily in the lenses of his techno-focal goggles. The vessel was a hollow icosahedron — small chambers and corridors lined the outer shell of the vessel, but the heart was nearly empty. Spires rose from the walls, pointing towards the center, and a few latticed bridge-ways crisscrossed the space. Far above their heads, where the bridge-ways met in the very center of the yawning open space, a massive knot of silk like a giant cocoon pulsed, beating like a heart.
Cmdr. Wilker wondered what was inside it — a queen? a nursery? He hoped he would never find out. “You didn’t detect any life signs nearby,” Cmdr. Wilker woofed quietly, “but I guess you didn’t detect any walls either.”
“Woah…” Lt. LeGuin’s soft voice was almost a purr. “I thought the uni-meter was malfunctioning, but it wasn’t… This vessel is amazing.”
Lt. Vonn shouldered the small cat aside and pointed her blazor rifle out at the empty space as if she could fend off an entire ship with it. “We don’t have time for marveling at feats of engineering,” she said. “No matter how amazing. Now where’s the crystal?”
Lt. LeGuin lifted his uni-meter to scan again; the device’s screen flickered with yellow and green lights. Then the orange tabby pointed at a bulkhead to their left built like metallic honeycomb. “It’s over there.”
Cmdr. Wilker put his paws to the metal surface, expecting it to be cold, but it was warm against his paw pads. He felt around the edges until one paw slipped into a groove. He pressed in, then pulled outward. The honeycomb panel came off in his paws. Underneath, the hyper crystal glowed, bathing the alien landscape in soft comforting light — the light of the crystal that would take them home.
“Careful,” Lt. LeGuin meowed. “They’ve already wired it into their own machinery.”
“Is that a problem?” Lt. Vonn asked.
Cmdr. Wilker eyed the crystal warily. It didn’t look like it would be hard to remove.
“It means that when we take it out, whatever it’s powering will shut down.” The little cat’s words were matter-of-fact, but they carried a heavy weight.
“Right,” Cmdr. Wilker said. “So we need to be ready to teleport out of here on the double.” He put a paw to the comm-pin on his navy uniform to call back to the Initiative and let them know to be ready. The comm-pin clicked, but the Initiative didn’t respond. “Is something blocking the signal?” Cmdr. Wilker asked.
Lt. LeGuin checked his uni-meter; red and yellow lights chased each other over its screen. “Maybe. There is a strong electro-magnetic field here.”
“Can you counteract it?”
The lights on the uni-meter screen reflected off Lt. LeGuin’s techno-focal goggles, and tiny lines of blue text streamed across the goggles’ lenses, combining with the reflections in a dance of colors. After a minute or two, Lt. Leguin said, “It’s not working, but I’ve located the quantum energy trace of a tele-bay on this vessel. If we can’t tell the Initiative to teleport us home, we may be able to teleport ourselves from there.”
Lt. Vonn grumbled. Her blonde ears were far back on her head, and the black skin of her mouth was set in a tight grimace. The fur around her collar was standing up, all prickly.
“How far is the tele-bay?” Cmdr. Wilker asked. He could tell that Lt. Vonn was picturing how dangerous it would be for them to fight their way out of here; he didn’t like the idea of fighting their way through an army of arthropoids on their own turf any better than she did. But if they could just get back to the Initiative, it would all be okay.
Then a purring voice whispered in Cmdr. Wilker’s ear, warm breath stirring the long fur of his ruff, “Or will it?” It was Questor’s voice, and the eerie shape of that crescent moon grin followed it. Those shining teeth hovered by Cmdr. Wilker’s ear, far too close for comfort, and whispered again, “Are you sure that your communications are malfunctioning? Or is it possible that something has… happened… to the rest of your crew?”
Irritated, Cmdr. Wilker snapped, “Is this how gods behave? They torment and taunt?” The Collie was trapped on an alien vessel with a critical mission to accomplish. He did not have time for this cat’s games.
Pink and purple tabby swirls materialized around Questor’s grin, looking as much out of place in this giant honeycombed chamber as they had on the Initiative’s bridge. The odd cat had disposed of his faux admiral’s uniform, returning to the shimmering toga he’d first appeared in. He was also lying across the air, hovering several feet about the ground. He stretched and rolled in the air, as if he were nothing more than a cat sun-bathing on the beach. Perfectly normal. Perfectly bizarre.
Questor stepped down from his invisible couch and stood on the ground, looking up at the much taller Collie. “You hurt me, dear mortal. I’m not taunting you. I’m warning you.”
“You use that word a lot,” Cmdr. Wilker said. “Yet, I don’t see how that was a warning.”
The Cheshire cat sniffed and took several steps away. When he looked back, already fading into transparency, he said, “If you’d rather return to a ship full of cocoons with no plan for how to handle the situation, be my guest.” His voice was hard and cruel by the final words, and their sound echoed after the sight of his shining teeth had entirely disappeared.
“I wonder what that meant,” Lt. Vonn woofed, but before Cmdr. Wilker could say anything in response, the yellow lab disappeared in a shimmer of quantum energy. Lt. LeGuin followed a moment later, and then Cmdr. Wilker felt the warm numbness of quantum teleportation begin to tingle in his own chest. He flung himself at the honeycomb panel and ripped the hyper crystal free of its wiring, consequences be damned.
To his own eyes, it looked like the alien vessel around him blew apart in a million tiny shards, though it was really his own atoms and particles that tunneled through space to where the Initiative’s tele-bay, in all its comforting familiarity, reformed around him. The solid weight of the hyper crystal, still grasped in his paws, made Cmdr. Wilker feel profoundly grateful.
To who? he wondered. This was the kind of moment when one might thank the gods for letting him return home, mission successful. Yet it was a god — ostensibly — who had put him and the Initiative’s crew in danger in the first place.
No, Questor was not a god.
Or was he?
Thoughts for another time, Cmdr. Wilker told himself firmly. He held the glowing crystal out to Lt. LeGuin and said, “Get this crystal back to engineering.” He turned to Lt. Vonn and said, “Escort him there. I’m heading to the bridge.”
“Here, take this.” Lt. Vonn pulled a hidden vibro-dagger from her boot and held it out to the Collie.
“Thanks,” Cmdr. Wilker said, hoping he wouldn’t need it. He watched the yellow lab, with her blazor rifle held ready, follow the little orange tabby out of the tele-bay and into the corridor. That Lt. Vonn sure as hell was one prepared dog. Cmdr. Wilker admired that.
On his way to the bridge, Cmdr. Wilker tried several times to contact the captain — or any bridge crew — with his comm-pin. No answer. But he pushed his worry aside and kept hurrying through the halls.
He saw a cocoon — just like Questor had warned — stuck to one of the corridor walls. Then two more. It was only a few of them, but they were the right size to hold a dog or cat. It took every bit of Cmdr. Wilker’s willpower to pass those cocoons by, hurrying on to the bridge instead of stopping to tear the hideous silk away with his vibro-dagger and release whatever — whoever — might be trapped inside.
He could do more good on the bridge, Cmdr. Wilker told himself. Once Lt. LeGuin got that hyper crystal hooked up, someone had to pilot the Initiative out of here. When the ship was safe, then Cmdr. Wilker could worry about the crew.
No matter what Questor had said, no matter what Cmdr. Wilker had seen in the halls, he still wasn’t prepared for what he found on the bridge. The corridors had been almost eerily quiet — without the ship’s alarms blaring, Cmdr. Wilker had dared hope that all would be well on the bridge. It was not.
The door to the bridge slid open, and a squealing screech like a chainsaw cutting through metal filled the air. Two of the arthropoid aliens skittered and zipped through the room, occasionally opening their wings to fly short hops. The bridge felt very small with two large insects buzzing around it, nearly bouncing off the ceiling and walls.
A third arthropoid near the back of the bridge was carefully, patiently wrapping a struggling black cat — Lt. Unari — inside a cocoon, stretching the shimmery strands of silk around her using four different angular limbs. The terrier at the pilot’s station had already been replaced by a squirming silk cocoon, and the remaining science officers on the bridge — a spaniel and two more cats — were stuck to the wall behind their stations like flies in a web. But where was the captain?
A red bolt of blazor fire streaked across the bridge. The energy bolt hit one of the arthropoid’s in its wing, and the alien shrieked in pain. Another bolt of energy struck the arthropoid in its antenna, breaking the appendage and leaving it dangling.
Based on where the blazor fire was coming from, the captain had to be hiding behind one of the consoles. As Cmdr. Wilker watched, the small Sphynx cat jumped from behind the console, tucked into a roll, and then ducked behind the cocoon at the pilot’s station. He started firing again immediately, but he only aimed at the aliens’ peripheral appendages — antennae, wings, the claws at the end of their limbs — anything but the smooth metallic carapace that had simply reflected Lt. Vonn’s blazor fire earlier.
This explained why two of the aliens were buzzing around the bridge like crazed hornets. They were trying to capture the captain. From where he stood, Cmdr. Wilker couldn’t tell who was winning. He raised his own blazor, ready to assist the captain, but before he could fire, the two bugs fell onto the captain in a way that made the score much more clear. In a flurry of strangely-jointed legs, the arthropoid’s wrapped the captain in silk. Within moments, the fight was over.
A burning rage inside Cmdr. Wilker told him to bark and howl and gun these insects down, but that wouldn’t help the captain. One more cocoon on the bridge wouldn’t get the Initiative out of here.
The arthropoids hadn’t seen Cmdr. Wilker, so the Collie stepped slowly away. As he left the bridge, his gaze fell on the viewscreen: the Initiative was surrounded by icosahedral ships. Even if he had control of his own vessel, it would mean a space battle to get out of here.
Cmdr. Wilker didn’t have a plan yet, but he kept moving, heading instinctively toward engineering. That was the heart of the vessel. With the bridge lost, he should be down there. Maybe, he thought, Lt. LeGuin could find a way to reroute the ship’s controls and pilot it from engineering.
It would probably help to have a few more paws on their side, so Cmdr. Wilker stopped at the next cocoon he saw and hacked into the sticky shell of silk with his vibro-dagger. What he found underneath dropped him to his knees, and the vibro-dagger fell out of his paw, clattering to the floor. He had imagined the cocoons to be some sort of stasis — a way to neutralize enemies. Nothing more. He had been so wrong.
The officer inside the gashed open cocoon had been a calico cat, but she wasn’t any more. Her furry ears with their orange-and-black splotches were unchanged, as was the splish of white fur that ran down to her pink feline nose. Her eyes though… her golden cat’s eyes had split and multiplied into unholy domes of facets. A pair of many-jointed antennae rose between her ears, and wriggling nubs and feelers had grown around the edges of her mouth. She was no longer a cat. She wasn’t quite yet an arthropoid. Is that what she would become if Cmdr. Wilker left her here? How far gone was the rest of the crew? If he got them home, could the Tri-Galactic Navy doctors reverse this horrific process?
Was there anything left on the Initiative worth saving?
All was lost.
Cmdr. Wilker threw his head back and howled. Eventually, the howl took the form of a name, and Cmdr. Wilker cried all his anguish into the one word, “QUESTOR!!!” The meddling feline might not be a god, but Cmdr. Wilker could curse him like one.
As the Collie’s howl died away into a heartbroken whimper, the air around him tinkled and chimed like it was filled with invisible bells. “You called?” The Cheshire cat’s voice sounded like a smile, even when that eerie crescent of teeth was nowhere in sight.
Cmdr. Wilker’s vibro-dagger rose from the floor as if lifted by an invisible paw. It floated up to the gashed cocoon and begin skillfully cutting the silk away, dancing merrily through the air, seemingly of its own accord.
The disturbing hybrid creature beneath the silk still wore her Tri-Galactic Navy uniform, but it had been torn where two extra pairs of angular limbs had burst through the fabric. The limbs were shaped like an arthropoid’s many-jointed arms, but they were covered with orange-and-white splotched fur. When the last of the cocoon’s silk fell away from the hybrid creature, Cmdr. Wilker was horrified to watch the calico-that-was step away from the cocoon and begin twirling through the corridor, moving as if she were jerked about by marionette strings.
Questor’s disembodied voice purred, “The Archidopterans do lovely work, don’t they?”
A strangled sound escaped from Cmdr. Wilker’s throat. It was the only sound he could muster as a reply.
“Cat got your tongue?” Questor asked, his crescent grin finally glinting into view. “Of course, you won’t have a tongue much longer — once you’re an Archidopteran, you’ll probably have a proboscis or some such. Delightful, isn’t it?”
Questor’s pink-and-purple feline body, still dressed in a shimmery toga, took form around his grin. When he was fully opaque and solid, Questor stepped up to the calico-that-was, grasped one of her bizarre insect claws in his own paw, placed another paw between her various limbs, approximately at her waist, and they began to waltz.
It was hideous. But also upsettingly graceful.
“Help us,” Cmdr. Wilker woofed, so quietly he didn’t expect his tormentor to hear.
“What’s that?” Questor meowed, still dancing. “Do what?”
“Help us,” Cmdr. Wilker repeated, woofing louder. “You sent us here; you can send us home.”
“My dear puppy-dog,” Quester meowed, finally stopping his waltz. “I can do so much more.” He clapped his paws, and in a flash of light, the hybrid creature beside him returned to her original form — a calico cat in a pristine Tri-Galactic Navy uniform. “All you have to do is accept me as your god and pray to me.”
“Please,” Cmdr. Wilker barked, beseeching Questor with all his heart. “Help us.”
Questor’s ears flattened, and his eyes flashed. He clapped his paws again, and the calico cat returned to her hybrid form. “That’s not what I want, and you know it!” he meowed, sounding more like a petulant kitten than a supreme being. “Don’t plead. Pray.”
In exasperation, the Collie cried, “What’s the difference?” The fate of his fellow officers — every dog and cat on the Initiative — depended on this whimsical feline, and Cmdr. Wilker didn’t understand what he wanted. Was it a question of semantics? If he spoke eloquently enough, could he persuade Questor to save them? The captain was so much more eloquent in his speech… Why couldn’t it be the captain here, instead of him?
Or could Questor see into his heart and tell that Cmdr. Wilker still doubted that the Cheshire cat was anything more than a troublesome, powerful, space anomaly?
Cmdr. Wilker wasn’t a religious dog, but he believed in forces greater than himself. He knew who had uplifted his people, raising them from mere feral animals and guiding them into sentience, giving them the gift of a civilization among the stars. And it wasn’t this Cheshire cat.
“Would it help you to believe in me,” Questor asked, “if I looked like this?”
Cmdr. Wilker didn’t know if Questor could see into his heart, but it seemed as though he had read the Collie’s thoughts. The swirly stripes of pink-and-purple fur, the wide Cheshire grin, the triangular ears — all gone. Questor stood before Cmdr. Wilker in a new form — an ancient form actually. Brown hair topped his head, but his face was naked skin, like the captain’s. Instead of a muzzle, his flat face sported a nub of a nose and thin, smiling lips over flat teeth.
Cmdr. Wilker had seen paintings, statues, holograms — but he had never seen a real human in the flesh. His heart opened in a way he’d never felt before, a way that felt completely natural and right. This was who he owed his love and loyalty to; this was who had designed him. He bowed his head before the human Questor and said in the simplest, sincerest woof: “Please, my god, help me.”
Questor laid his human hand on the crown of Cmdr. Wilker’s head and patted it twice. His long fingers scratched behind Cmdr. Wilker’s ear, tangling in the thick fur of his mane, and the Collie’s tail began to wag, an instinctive response to his master’s love and praise.
“That’s a good dog,” Questor said in a fluting voice, much smoother than his previous feline meow. Then light flashed all around, and suddenly Questor was gone. Only his voice remained, a lingering whisper in Cmdr. Wilker’s ear: “Don’t forget me.”
Cmdr. Wilker rose to his feet, feeling disoriented. He was on the bridge. The cobwebs of silk were gone. So were the cocoons. All of the bridge officers stood at their stations, perfectly normal cats and dogs with their ears flattened or twisting about in confusion.
When Cmdr. Wilker looked at the viewscreen, the icosahedral ships and the thick nebula dust were gone. They were back in clear, empty space, and the goddamned beautiful blue-green world hung in front of them like a gift — a ball his master had fetched. It looked even more goddamned beautiful than before.
“What the hell happened?” Captain Jacques meowed. “Where’d the big bugs go? And where’s that damnable purple cat?”
Cmdr. Wilker wanted to pretend nothing had happened. Now that Questor was gone, he felt a strange shame over his feelings and actions. Even if he had saved the ship by praying to Questor, he was a Tri-Galactic Navy officer and should be above begging. Still, the captain deserved an answer.
“Questor sent us home,” Cmdr. Wilker woofed.
The captain’s naked ears stood tall and straight with surprise. “Really? Why?”
Cmdr. Wilker’s tail tucked between his legs as he said, “I told him he was a god and prayed to him.”
The captain must not have noticed his first officer’s shame, for he exclaimed, “How clever! You must have done a masterful job of convincing him. Well done, Bill.”
For the first time, the captain’s praise felt thin and hollow to Cmdr. Wilker. It was probably just how shaken he felt — the last few hours had been very upsetting. He would feel better soon.
“Do you think he’ll come back?” the terrier pilot asked.
The captain turned to the row of science officers and said, “Let’s put together a science team to analyze the ship’s data from our encounter with him. Perhaps we can come up with counter measures to contain and control him if he does.”
Cmdr. Wilker hoped that would work, but in case it didn’t, he added a silent prayer to Questor: “We’re okay now. Please, leave us alone.” He didn’t know if that would work either.
“You look exhausted,” the captain said to Cmdr. Wilker, placing a furless paw on the Collie’s shoulder. “Would you like a break? Go to your quarters and get some rest?”
Cmdr. Wilker considered the offer carefully, but before he could respond, Lt. Unari said, “Captain, we’re receiving a video-communication from the planet.”
“Can you put it on the main viewscreen?” Captain Jacques asked.
Moments later, the image of the blue-green world was replaced by the image of a grinning, green-furred, otteroid.
“I thought you said there was only plant-life on this world?” Captain Jacques asked Lt. Unari.
The black cat looked at her computer scans, back up at the viewscreen, and then back at the computer scans. “I think that creature is plant life — sentient photosynthetics.”
Looking more closely, Cmdr. Wilker realized that the otteroid’s spiky green fur looked very grass-like.
“Welcome to our world,” the otteroid said, and everyone on the bridge drew a sigh of relief that the computer was able to automatically translate her language. So much better than insects that screamed like inarticulate chainsaws. “We have a wide range of recreational opportunities available — especially if you enjoy water sports.” She gestured behind herself and Cmdr. Wilker realized the green otter was standing in front of a waterfall, cascading water into an intricately-winding complex of live trees that had been grown into the shape of water slides. It was the most fun-looking thing he’d ever seen. “And we welcome visitors.”
This was how a mission was supposed to go. No gods, just happy aliens and fun times. “We should send a team down,” Cmdr. Wilker woofed to his captain, tail swishing eagerly. “I’d be happy to lead it.”
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