by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Shark Week: An Ocean Anthology, June 2021
Salty air tickled Commander Wilker’s long nose and whistled past his pointed ears. The light ocean breeze ruffled the long fur of his Collie mane. He placed a paw gently on the hull of his shuttle craft, parked on the small, sandy island in the middle of a yawning purple-blue sea. He was waiting for his co-pilot to join him, a local to this watery world.
Though he wouldn’t mind if they were running late. The Collie dog had seldom been anywhere as peaceful as the surface of Kallendria 7. There was an entire, technologically advanced society on this world, but it was all beneath the waves. Up here, he could have been standing on a completely untouched, unpopulated world. Nothing as far as the eye could see except for rolling purple waves, deep blue sky, and the occasional silver sand island.
Cmdr. Wilker closed his eyes, letting the feel of the sand beneath his paws and the warmth of the orange sunlight on his fur sink into him. He loved chasing adventure down among the stars, but sometimes a dog just needed to feel his paws on solid earth, connecting him to the bulk of an entire world. On the starship Initiative, Cmdr. Wilker was among the stars, but he could feel the limits of the spaceship all around him. The air moved in small ways, suppressed by walls, ceilings, and filtrations systems.
Here, the air in his whiskers was part of currents that reached to the outer levels of the atmosphere and danced over mile after mile of rolling ocean. A planet was a smaller place than the cosmos, but sometimes, it felt bigger.
Splish-splashing sounds broke Cmdr. Wilker’s revery, and he opened his eyes to see ivory claws crawling out of the wine-dark surf. Water streamed down the segmented legs as they emerged, ivory tips giving way to wide, armored legs, pearlescent and gleaming, dimpled with tiny spikes. Behind the first heavy pair of legs, six more delicate legs shuffled, all of them coming together at the base of a conical, twisting shell with the oily, rainbowed colors of abalone.
The crab-like creature stood nearly as tall as Cmdr. Wilker at the peak of its shell. Though, its height changed significantly as the eight legs drew together or spread apart.
Cmdr. Wilker peered at the creature, trying to make out a recognizable face — some part of it that he should look at while addressing it. Between the front talon-like legs, a gap in the shell revealed a squishy-looking collection of cilia or feelers, some of them tipped with eyes.
The collie could work with that — eye stalks counted as a face as far as he could tell. So, Cmdr. Wilker’s own muzzle split in a grin, and he woofed, “You must be the Kallendrian emissary sent to join me on the rescue mission. I’m Commander Bill Wilker of the Tri-Galactic Navy starship Initiative. And this here trusty shuttlecraft is The Little Bo-Peep.” He patted the shuttle’s hull affectionately, and then he stuck his paw out toward the Kallendrian.
The Kallendrian’s eyestalks lengthened, poking further out of the gap in its shell, seeming to examine the canine speaking to it. Then it extended one of its smaller legs, from behind the larger talons, and delicately took hold of Cmdr. Wilker’s furry paw. With a burbly voice, it said, “I am Sydo. My people thank your people for the assistance you will render.”
Cmdr. Wilker’s grin widened even further. “It’s our pleasure. Why don’t we get started?” He gestured toward the open hatch on The Bo-Peep and waited while Sydo climbed aboard, one clacking, segmented leg after another. As the sunlight played over their pearlescent shell, Cmdr. Wilker saw intricate, pictorial carvings etched into the curves and crevices. He wondered what they meant as he followed the crab-like being aboard.
The Bo-Peep had two pilot’s seats at the main controls up front, a small area in the middle where the pilots could rest or else a few passengers or minimal cargo could be carried, and access to the engine in the back. Cmdr. Wilker helped Sydo to adjust one of the pilot’s seats, laying down its back, so the crab could perch atop it. Then he took the remaining seat, fired up the engine, and launched them back into the sky.
“This should be a simple mission,” Cmdr. Wilker barked. In fact, the mission was so simple — track down a missing Kallendrian vessel, using the shuttle’s more advanced scanners — that he’d been sent alone. Usually, Cmdr. Wilker worked with a team, and he felt somewhat discombobulated without any other officers around to keep in order. “Why don’t you tell me about your world? From what I saw, it was very beautiful.”
“What?” Sydo exclaimed. “The surface?! It’s nothing. Empty. Dead.”
“Oh… well…” Cmdr. Wilker wasn’t sure if he’d offended Sydo or just surprised them. “That is all I’ve had a chance to see. I’d love to see more.”
So as they flew through thick purple-orange clouds of space dust surrounding Kallendria and the neighboring star-systems, Sydo told the eager collie dog about life under a purple-blue ocean — hatching from one of thousands of identical eggs as a mere squishy, tentacled youth, growing into their first crab shell, and earning the beautiful etchings that covered their current shell with different achievements and experiences.
In return, Cmdr. Wilker told Sydo about being a dog in the Tri-Galactic Navy, serving aboard a ship filled with other uplifted dogs and cats, along with the occasional alien exchange officer, such as Grawf the bear or Consul Eliana Tor the photosynthetic otter.
“I like the sound of her,” Sydo said. “We have photosynthetic fish on my world. I had one as a pet for a while.”
“I’ve been to Consul Tor’s world,” Cmdr. Wilker said. “Her people don’t live under the ocean, but they do live at the edge of it. Instead of buildings, they have pools and slides.”
Sydo had told Cmdr. Wilker about the buildings on their world — grown out of living coral, trained on structures built out of whale bones. It sounded magnificent.
“She should come to the celebration party,” Sydo said.
“Party?” Cmdr. Wilker liked the sound of that.
“When we bring the Osmosotosa home, there will be a big party to celebrate. You, of course, will be invited.”
Cmdr. Wilker looked over at his crab-like co-pilot with a cheerful grin. He loved parties, and he loved the idea of visiting the civilization under the sea on Sydo’s world. Besides, his captain would be very happy with him for securing an invitation. Forging friendly relationships with new species and new worlds was the driving force behind the existence of the Tri-Galactic Navy, and until now, when Kallendria needed help finding their missing vessel, the budding civilization of crabs had been very hesitant to interact with the wider society of space-faring planets in the triple galaxies.
“Well, this mission just keeps getting better and better!” Cmdr. Wilker barked. “I get to make a great new friend–” He knocked an elbow jovially against the hard shell on Sydo’s closest pincer. “–and then I get to go to a party!”
The universe has a sense of timing, so of course, that was exactly the moment that The Bo-Peep hit a patch of turbulence, violently rocking the shuttle.
“What was that?” Sydo asked, drawing their segmented legs in closer, bracing for further quakes.
Cmdr. Wilker furiously studied the controls and readouts, finally announcing, “There’s an unusual patch of magnetic waves in this area. The dust in this part of the Kalleh Nebula seems to be magnetically polarized. No wonder The Osmosotosa got lost. These waves are wreaking havoc on The Bo-Peep’s scanners, and this is a fifth generation shuttlecraft, one of the most cutting edge technologies in the entire Tri-Galactic Navy.”
The collie looked out the front viewscreen and saw that the space dust here was arranged in beautiful stripes of purple, alternating with orange. Thus far, Cmdr. Wilker had been piloting The Bo-Peep along The Osmosotosa’s planned flight path, scanning for any residual background radiation that could be signs of the vessel encountering problems that might have led to them leaving the path.
“Can you tell me more about The Osmosotosa’s mission?” Cmdr. Wilker asked. “If I knew what they were doing out here when they went missing, it might be easier to track them down.”
“It’s a science vessel,” Sydo replied, matter-of-factly. “It was loaded with experiments — biology, chemistry, physics. Everything. There are all kinds of studies my people still need to do on the effects of space travel before we launch a fully fledged space fleet.”
Cmdr. Wilker grinned again. He loved reading historical fiction about the time when dogs and cats were first launching spaceships from the gravitational confines of Earth, chasing after the mysterious humans who had uplifted them and then disappeared into the stars. There was nothing like a good piece of historical fiction for reminding him of the adventure and romance of space travel.
And the Kallendrians were living through that time period right now.
“Thank you,” Cmdr. Wilker said. “That’s helpful.” Though, he wasn’t sure it would help him find The Osmosotosa. But it did help him understand his co-pilot for this mission better. They were a member of such a young species.
As if punishing him for the arrogance of his thoughts regarding the relative youth of Kallendrian society, another wave of turbulence hit the shuttlecraft. This time the shuttle rocked hard enough to illicit a momentary flicker in the life support systems, including the artificial gravity. Cmdr. Wilker’s stomach flipped nauseatingly before the gravity righted itself, and Sydo lost their perch on the chair beside him, rolling awkwardly to the floor.
“Are you okay?” Cmdr. Wilker asked once the systems were safely back on. He reached a paw toward one of Sydo’s flailing limbs, but the crab got their legs under them before the collie could really help.
Then a thunderous crack rent the air inside the shuttle, and the front viewscreen went momentarily dark. Cmdr. Wilker turned his gaze back to the viewscreen in time to see a large, metallic-looking rock, cratered and pockmarked, flying away. It was nearly the size of the shuttle, and its glittery, reflective surface disguised it perfectly among the clouds of purple and orange space dust. Camouflage. They were lucky it hadn’t damaged the shuttle.
Cmdr. Wilker got his paws back on the main control panel and ran a directional scan, aimed manually at the mysterious asteroid. “It’s magnetic,” he said. Then he calibrated the scanners to detect fluctuations in the magnetic waves nearby and found The Bo-Peep was surrounded by similarly disguised asteroids. “There’s an entire asteroid belt out here, and the magnetic waves in the region are interfering with our ability to detect them.”
“I hope The Osmosotosa wasn’t damaged…” Sydo burbled, mouth tentacles waggling frantically.
Before Cmdr. Wilker could reassure Sydo, The Bo-Peep took another blow from an asteroid, this time to the side. And this time, the inertial dampening shields didn’t hold. The shuttle bent like a tin can, crunching inward at the middle. The life support flickered, causing waves of artificial gravity alternated with the natural zero-gee of space to dance across Cmdr. Wilker’s stomach like tap dancing butterflies. Then it went out entirely, leaving the collie and crab alien floating helplessly in the dark. The only light came from the backlit control panels. The gentle circulation of air stopped, feeling immediately stifling, even though the shuttle held several hours worth of breathable air, even without the algae filtration systems running.
“This is not good,” Cmdr. Wilker woofed. He immediately regretted the words. He should be putting up a strong front for Sydo — it was his responsibility to get the two of them out of here alive. He doggy-paddled through the air back to his pilot’s seat at the controls. “Okay, I may have spoken too soon,” he said. “The engines are running, so even with the life support and computer systems down, we can still fly our way out of here manually.”
“What about finding The Osmosotosa?” Sydo asked. They’d managed to grip back onto their seat as well, clinging to it with sharp-tipped talons.
“We’ll have to send someone else,” Cmdr. Wilker said. “The scanners aren’t online, and besides, with the life support systems out, we can’t risk staying out here any longer than absolutely necessary. In fact, we’re lucky we can fly out of here at all with The Bo-Peep crunched down the middle.” He frowned and added to himself, “She’s gonna steer awfully funny.”
“No!” Sydo exclaimed, letting go of their seat. They floated in the zero gee, waving their talons expressively, as comfortably as if they’d grown up in outer space.
Cmdr. Wilker supposed, thinking about it, that Sydo had grown up in a form of quasi zero gee. An underwater society would be much better preparation for life in outer space than any surface dwelling society. Kallendrians would be used to floating.
“What do you mean, ‘no’?” Cmdr. Wilker asked, trying to sound as patient as possible. “Us floating around in this deadly magnetic asteroid belt until we die won’t help The Osmosotosa.”
“Then let’s fix the life support.” Sydo crossed their heavy front pincers in a very judgmental way, as if Cmdr. Wilker must be a complete fool for not having considered the possibility of simply fixing The Bo-Peep.
Cmdr. Wilker almost laughed at the sight.
Except that their situation was deadly serious.
The collie waved a tired paw toward the crunched middle of the ship. “The life support systems that need to be repaired are in the back. Now I know that I’m a skinnier dog than I look — half of this bulk comes from my thick fur–” He slicked a paw along the front of his uniform. “–but I don’t see myself being able to squeeze back there right now.”
“Then tell me what to do,” Sydo said, mouth tentacles waggling. “I’ll do it.”
This time Cmdr. Wilker did laugh. “What are you gonna do? Climb out of your shell? ‘Cause there’s no way in hell that shell’s fitting through a space I can’t squeeze through.”
“Yes,” Sydo said. “Exactly. Though… would you please look away?”
Cmdr. Wilker blinked, unable to summon any words at that moment.
“Please,” Sydo reiterated. “It’s taboo among my people to leave our shells in front of… well, anyone, really. But especially strangers.”
Cmdr. Wilker felt unaccountably disheartened to be called a stranger by this alien who he’d only known a few hours. “I thought we were friends,” he said. Still, he turned away, which was more difficult than usual due to the lack of gravity. When he turned back, Sydo’s shell floated in the same space as where it had been before, but it had an eerie, empty quality. Like an abandoned house or a skeleton, decaying deep in the woods. Yet the only change was a hollow space where Sydo’s face had been before and a few gaps at the many joints of the many legs.
The collie shuddered at the sight.
“Alright, I’m back here,” Sydo said, their voice strangely cheerful. “Talk me through the repairs.”
“First you need to pry off the cover of the access panel. If it’s been bent out of shape, it might give you some trouble…”
“Got it,” Sydo said. “Now what? There are a bunch of buttons and controls.”
Cmdr. Wilker frowned, trying to remember the layout of the controls under the rear access panel in a standard design shuttle. It made him feel like he was back at the Tri-Galactic Academy, struggling to get the answers on a final exam. Except this time, he hadn’t known he’d be taking a test, so he hadn’t had the chance to stay up all night studying. “I’m sorry,” he said, giving up. “I can’t remember the layout. Can you describe what you’re looking at for me?”
“Uh… sure… there’s a round gray button, then a darker gray switch, then a row of three red lights…”
Sydo’s voice burbled on and on, as Cmdr. Wilker struggled to visualize the words. But as soon as he figured one part out, he forgot the last part they’d described. Eventually, he exclaimed, “Dammit! I need to see it! I can’t hold all of this in my head! I’d look up the schematics on the computer… but I won’t be able to do that until you’ve fixed it.”
After a long silence, Sydo said, “I think you’d be able to see the panel if you looked through the crunched space I crawled through to get here.”
“But…” Cmdr. Wilker frowned more deeply. “There isn’t anywhere for you to hide. I’d…” Now he felt embarrassed on Sydo’s behalf; the Kallendrian had been so insistent that he not look at them without their shell on. “I’d see you without your shell.”
There was an awkward pause before Sydo said, “I don’t think we have a choice. It’s okay. Just this once. But… don’t tell anyone?”
“Are you sure?” Cmdr. Wilker asked.
The collie pushed himself off of the pilot’s chair where he’d been hovering and floated over the crunched middle of the vessel. He peered through the gap and in the dim light from the various control panels, and he saw a ghostly white figure that, in spite of having too many tentacle-like limbs, looked almost cartoonishly like a sheep. The wavy, billowing shape of Sydo’s squishy body could have easily been a cartoonists’ take on a sheep’s wool. Even a face composed of eyestalks and mouth cilia couldn’t spoil the effect. Overall, they made Cmdr. Wilker think of the Earth mollusks called sea bunnies.
Sydo could have been a sea sheep.
They were adorable. Painfully adorable. And their sheep-like facade squeezed at Cmdr. Wilker’s collie heart. Deep inside, beneath all the layers of uplift, evolution, and civilization, he was a shepherd, and Sydo was a sheep. He wanted to protect the Kallendrians more than ever now.
Working together, Sydo was able to follow Cmdr. Wilker’s directions and repair the shuttlecraft’s life support, get the computers back online, and run a safety check on the engines. When the air started circulating, filtrating through the algae scrubbers again, Cmdr. Wilker drew a deep breath of relief. He’d believed he could pilot them back to Kallendria before the air would run out, but it’s an awful feeling floating in space, stale air growing staler by the minute. There’s not much that can make you feel more alone or helpless than that.
When the full lights came back on, Cmdr. Wilker got a clearer, brighter view of Sydo without their shell, before he had a chance to turn away. Their fleshy skin was dimpled with tiny, short cilia, giving their wavy curves a rumpled effect that looked even more like a sheep’s wool than they had in the dark.
Being a professional, though, Cmdr. Wilker knew better than to comment on Sydo’s appearance. So, he waited quietly for them to crawl back through the crunched middle of the ship and into their shell which had settled heavily on the second pilot’s seat when the artificial gravity turned back on.
“You can look now,” Sydo said.
Cmdr. Wilker nodded, glanced in Sydo’s direction, and smiled. As best as he could, he used the exact same smile as he’d used when interacting with Sydo before. He didn’t want to make them uncomfortable in any way. This shuttle crash would be a traumatizing ordeal for anyone; adding the necessity of breaking one of their society’s most deeply held taboos must have made it so much worse.
“Alright, then,” Cmdr. Wilker said. “Let’s go find The Osmosotosa!”
After a few minutes of flying The Bo-Peep through the waves of purple and orange dust, assiduously dodging the magnetic asteroids, Cmdr. Wilker lost himself into the zone — he enjoyed piloting small vessels, and now that he knew what to look for, this flight was an enjoyable challenge. He began telling Sydo about the time he got into a shuttle race during his academy days, but the Kallendrian cut him off.
“You’re not acting different toward me.” The words were quiet, yet they carried the weight of surprise. And maybe, a little bit of wonder.
“Differently? Why should I act differently?” Cmdr. Wilker asked. He spared a glance for Sydo, but he really didn’t know how to read their face — which, again, was mostly eyestalks and mouth cilia — or their demeanor. Perhaps with practice he could learn. For now, though, he would have to rely on words.
“You’ve seen me without my shell,” Sydo explained.
“Ah.” Cmdr. Willker shrugged. “You’re the same person, with or without a shell.”
Sydo said ponderously, “I don’t feel the same.”
“How so?” Cmdr. Wilker didn’t want to press Sydo to talk about anything that made them uncomfortable, but he was intrigued. He’d never known a species who wore optional shells, almost like mechas.
“I feel… freer,” Sydo said. “More like myself.”
“With your shell on?” Cmdr. Wilker could understand that. Wearing a shell all the time, it would become a part of you. Besides, Sydo’s body without the shell had looked soft and delicate. There’s a freedom in feeling safe.
“No,” Sydo countered. “I feel more like myself without it. My shell feels… heavy. Like a burden. Society expects me to carry it, and so I do. But I keep it as light as possible. No adornments.”
“Adornments?” Cmdr. Wilker asked. “You mean like the etchings?”
“Sort of,” Sydo said. “Most of my people decorate their shells much more extensively, gluing on rocks and gems. Clockwork gears, mechanical gadgets and doodads. Sometimes even the abandoned shells of smaller creatures. Our shells are supposedly expressions of our truest selves… but… I always felt like myself… my true self… was already inside. And the more I glued onto my shell, the deeper I was burying myself.”
Cmdr. Wilker didn’t know what to say. It sounded devastating to live in a society that shamed you for being yourself, and insisted that you hide yourself under layers of unwanted junk and trinkets, literally glued to your body. But he didn’t want to say that. He didn’t want to make it harder, when there was nothing he could do to help. So, he settled for saying, “That sounds hard.”
“Yes,” Sydo agreed, solemnly.
The collie and the strange aquatic facsimile of a sheep were quiet for a moment, simply sharing each other’s company and focusing on The Bo-Peep’s flight. Then Sydo added, “But it feels easy being here with you.”
Cmdr. Wilker could have burst with pride. He couldn’t imagine a higher compliment. And from a sheep, no less! Well, something like a sheep.
Going out on a limb, Cmdr. Wilker decided to tell Sydo about his species’ history as companion animals to the naked-skinned apes who had first developed a technological civilization on Earth, and specifically, about the history of herd dogs, how they’d been bred and developed for protecting and guiding sheep, cows, and other herd animals.
“That’s a fascinating history,” Sydo said. “My people don’t have such a complicated past. We’re more like the primates in your story, developing intelligence and society ourselves. Are most species in the Tri-Galactic Union more like your species? Uplifted by others?”
“Not so far,” Cmdr. Wilker woofed. “Most of them evolved intelligence and society on their own. From scratch. But it’s a big universe, and we’ve only explored a small fraction of it. So, who knows what else we’ll find.”
Amid the clusters of metallic, cratered asteroids scattered in front of The Bo-Peep, a sliver of shining luminescence appeared. Cmdr. Wilker steered the Bo-Peep closer, zooming around the various asteroids, and an entire pearlescent spacecraft came into view.
“Speaking of finding things!” Cmdr. Wilker whistled in appreciation. “That is one beautiful vessel.”
The Osmosotosa curled and twisted like a seashell, and its surface gleamed with all the colors of an oil slick, picking up the slight scattered light in the cloud of space dust. It almost glowed.
“We grow the hulls for our ships organically,” Sydo said. “They’re very similar in composition to our own shells.”
“That is so cool!” Cmdr. Wilker barked. “Anyway, business first… let’s hail them.” He sent a request for a video connection, and expected to see a Kallendrian or two appear on the shuttle’s viewscreen shortly thereafter.
Instead, the screen stayed dark, showing the view of the ship itself, in front of them. However, an audio channel opened, and a burbling voice said, “This is Captain Reinoo of The Osmosotosa. Can I help you?”
“Actually,” Cmdr. Wilker woofed, “We’re here to help you. I’m Commander Bill Wilker from the Tri-Galactic Navy. When your vessel was lost, the Kallendrian government asked for our help, so I’m here with Diplomat Sydo to do that. I take it you must have sustained damage, since your video communications aren’t working?”
There was a long pause. Long enough for Cmdr. Wilker to start feeling awkward and worried, so he filled the emptiness with more words. “Our shuttle sustained damage from these asteroids as well, but we got it running again. We can come aboard and help repair whatever damage The Osmosotosa has sustained as well…”
“That won’t be necessary,” Captain Reinoo burbled. “We’ve already… repaired most of the damage. If you could simply point us in the right direction, we should be good to go, and you can be on your way. No need for you to wait for us.”
“My shuttle has advanced scanners,” Cmdr. Wilker said. “And now that they’re attuned to the magnetic waves of the asteroids here, we can help you navigate them. It’s no trouble for us to guide you home.”
Another long pause ensued. This time Cmdr. Wilker waited.
“Thank you,” Captain Reinoo burbled. Though, Cmdr. Wilker could have sworn the Kallendrian’s voice sounded less thankful and more resentful. He really didn’t have a good handle on Kallendrian emotional signaling yet. Ah well, there was still time to learn. “We will be ready momentarily.”
Cmdr. Wilker waited until The Osmosotosa’s engines had engaged, and then he turned the Bo-Peep around and began guiding them through the maze of magnetic rocks back toward Kallendria.
“The flight home should take a few hours, but that gives us more time to chat before the big party,” Cmdr. Wilker said. “Overall, that was very easy!”
“It was strange,” Sydo said.
Cmdr. Wilker glanced over at Sydo. Their mouth cilia were wiggling in a way that looked thoughtful or maybe nervous to the collie.
“Doesn’t it seem coincidental that they’d finished their repairs just in time to follow us home?” Sydo continued. “And why didn’t they turn on the viewscreen? What kind of damage could they have sustained that would leave them stranded out here, until exactly the time when we showed up, and left the video communications too difficult to repair?”
“Maybe repairing video communications was simply their lowest priority?” Cmdr. Wilker hazarded. “And in a universe this big, coincidences happen. For instance,” he cleared his throat, nervously, “it turns out that, without your shell on, you actually look a lot like a sheep.”
An awkward pause followed where Cmdr. Wilker regretted his indiscretion. He shouldn’t have commented on Sydo’s body. It was uncalled for, unprofessional, and completely out of line. He started to apologize, but Sydo cut him off, asking, “You mean, those Earth creatures you were telling me about? The ones that your breed of dog was developed to herd?”
“Yes.” He felt very small and very sorry.
Then Sydo’s mouth cilia wriggled and burbled, overflowing with infectious laughter. “That’s delightful!” they said. “And hilarious.”
Cmdr. Wilker grinned and laughed too. He was so relieved that he hadn’t read their companionability wrong. It had been a risk, but he and Sydo had been getting along so well. He felt like they were friends, and friends risk telling each other truths, even when they’re weird or a little awkward.
“That must be very strange for you,” Sydo observed, thoughtfully.
“A little, yes,” Cmdr. Wilker admitted. “Though, mostly, it was weird telling you about it. I didn’t… you know, I didn’t want to offend you by commenting on something I wasn’t supposed to see.”
Another long pause followed, but Cmdr. Wilker was getting used to the long pauses. He didn’t mind them, not when he felt secure in his friendship with Sydo.
“Would you mind…” Sydo curled their mouth cilia and eyestalks, pulling them back into the gap in their shell, shyly. Then they emerged again, and continued: “Would you mind if I took my shell off again? Just until we get back to Kallendria.”
“Not at all,” Cmdr. Wilker replied. “Not if you don’t mind. My people don’t have any taboos regarding wearing or not wearing shells. Though… I suppose most of colleagues would find it pretty weird if I suddenly started wearing a shell.”
The mecha-like shell next to Cmdr. Wilker clacked and rattled as Sydo squeezed out through the gap in the front, extruding themself in a squishy way that a creature with internal bones could never manage. The shell settled behind them on the floor of the shuttle, hauntingly empty again, and Sydo perched on the co-pilot’s seat, looking absurdly happy like only a cartoon character or undersea creature who’s just shed their heavy shell can.
For the rest of the flight, Cmdr. Wilker and Sydo chatted even more naturally, feeling like they’d known each other forever and simply forgotten it for awhile, almost like a long history of past lives had come rushing back to them. The collie was naturally gifted at making friends, and Sydo felt freer and more like themself than they ever had before. It was the perfect recipe for opening their hearts and sharing deep secrets.
Then the purple, oceanic sphere of Kallendria came into view, and Sydo drew deathly quiet. Reluctantly, they began to climb back into their shell, but Cmdr. Wilker interrupted them, barking, “Wait– Do your people… Look, there’s a thing my people do to express friendship sometimes. It’s… called a hug.” He spread his arms wide. “We wrap our arms around each other, and just hold each other, usually just for a few seconds. But it’s nice. Would you like to try?”
Sydo’s eyestalks and mouth cilia waggled in a disconcertingly alien way, but then they said, “Yes,” and crawled toward the collie, three tentacles stretched wide in a way that mirrored his arms.
Furry limbs wrapped, gently, around a squishy, fleshy body, and Cmdr. Wilker felt Sydo’s bumpy, ciliated tentacles wrap around his middle. All the way around him. For a beat, their embrace was as light as the fluttering touch of butterfly wings. Then Sydo seemed to sigh, and they squeezed tightly. Staying as careful of their squishy body as he could, Cmdr. Wilker squeezed them back. He felt content with Sydo in his arms; the firm, evenness of the pressure from their tentacles was calming, and he felt like he was protecting something infinitely precious — maybe a sheep, or maybe the delicate blooming friendship between a collie and a sheep. Maybe, even, the tender beginnings of a profound relationship between two societies.
Then Sydo’s tentacles loosened, and Cmdr. Wilker let go too.
The funny caricature of a sheep twisted and distorted, extruding into a shape that could squeeze back through the narrow gaps in their shell. Once Sydo had returned to their crab form, they said, “Thank you. That was nice. I will cherish the memory.”
* * *
Cmdr. Wilker and Sydo parted ways, planning to see each other again at the party planned for celebrating the successful return of The Osmosotosa in several days’ time. The collie flew his shuttlecraft back to the starship Initiative feeling pensive, and he spent much of the next few days distracted, pondering Sydo’s predicament.
When the time for the party came, Cmdr. Wilker was invited to bring a guest, and so he asked Consul Eliana Tor, the ship’s delegate from Cetazed to join him, just as he’d promised Sydo he would. He didn’t talk about it — because that would be unprofessional — but Cmdr. Wilker had something of a crush on the green otter woman. She had empathic abilities, and could almost certainly read his feelings for her, which always left him feeling a little flustered around her. But flustered in a calm way? He liked being around her. There was something restful about not having to worry about whether he was showing his feelings too much or too little, because she could see right into his mind anyway.
Having an excuse to invite Consul Tor to a party with him was nice. And the idea of her meeting Sydo was even better. Cmdr. Wilker was sure they’d hit it off, and maybe, Consul Tor could help Sydo. See, the sly collie dog had a plan. If Sydo was unhappy among their own people, maybe they’d be happier as an exchange officer in the Tri-Galactic Navy — that way, Cmdr. Wilker could help his friend and also help forge an alliance between the Tri-Galactic Union and Kallendria at the same time!
“You’re up to something,” Consul Tor said to Cmdr. Wilker, as soon as she saw him in the corridor outside the teleporter chamber. The green otter saw right through him.
Cmdr. Wilker grinned. He liked the feeling of being seen through. It made him feel understood. Understandable. “I bet it really gets to you that you can tell I’m up to something… but not what it is.”
The otteroid shrugged a grassy green shoulder. Unlike the regular officers of the Tri-Galactic Navy, she wore a skimpy lavender sundress, designed to leave as much of her photosynthetic fur revealed and able to soak up light as possible while maintaining Tri-Galactic Union ideas of modesty. “If it’s something I’m meant to find out,” she said, “I will.”
The collie and otteroid entered the teleporter room together and stepped onto the teleporter pad, side by side. Cmdr. Wilker affixed a breathing mask to his long face. He was already wearing a special water-proof uniform. Consul Tor didn’t need either the special uniform or breathing mask. Her sundress was already designed for being worn underwater as easily as in dry air, and the grassy blades of her fur could absorb enough of the gasses she’d need to survive from the water for a few hours. Usually that ability only supplemented her lungs, but it could take over for a while.
Quantum energy sparkled through their bodies — taking the collie and otteroid apart sub-atomic particle by sub-atomic particle, and then putting them back together the same way but deep under the oceans of Kallendria.
Cmdr. Wilker was a dog who spent a lot of time grinning, but his usual grin widened even further as he felt the lightness of floating and the gentle swirling of the watery currents against the long fur of his mane. Of course, his grin was hidden inside a breathing mask, but his eyes sparkled too, giving away the grin.
Cmdr. Wilker and Consul Tor had teleported into a small, simple chamber, with smooth rock walls. But the chamber looked out on a riotous scene: colors assaulted their eyes in complicated, constantly moving patterns, swaying and skittering. Bright pinks, iridescent greens, violent oranges, and gentle purples. Everything looked like it was alive — bulging tubes, puckering anemones, and crenulated corals. Small golden shapes flitted in every direction, like coins glittering as they tumbled to the bottom of a fountain. Even smaller shapes, tiny and white, drifted through the water like confetti or cherry blossoms blowing on the wind.
Looking at the chaotic, colorful scene, Cmdr. Wilker understood better why Sydo had been so confused to hear him call the surface of Kallendria beautiful. They were right — compared to this, the surface was dead. An empty space. And if this space was any indication, Kallendrians weren’t used to spaces with any emptiness.
“Let’s find my friend, Sydo,” Cmdr. Wilker barked, and the breathing mask transmitted the sound into the surrounding water. A translator fob inside his ear picked up the sound and reversed the distortion caused by the thicker, aquatic atmosphere. Cmdr. Wilker loved technology. It made it possible for him to attend a party thrown by alien crab-sea-bunny people deep under the ocean, where he wouldn’t normally be able to breathe, let alone communicate.
“Sounds like a plan,” Consul Tor agreed. “Lead the way.”
Cmdr. Wilker waved his arms through the water and kicked his legs behind him, flailing his way forward. His own awkwardness made him laugh. He’d done his share of recreational swimming, but generally, he was swimming along the surface of the water. Here, he didn’t have anything so clear to guide him, and his body didn’t seem to know what to do.
Consul Tor had no such trouble. She shot past him like a green arrow, rudder-like tail waving sinuously behind her. She turned around and looked back him, smiling and laughing as well. “Perhaps I’ll lead then.” She held out a paw, and once the collie had grabbed on, the otter swam forward again, pulling him after her.
Even though Cmdr. Wilker was much larger than Consul Tor, his weight was little concern in the water, and she easily led him around the large space, gracefully navigating between all the party-goers in their opalescent shells. Sydo had been right, again, and most of the Kallendrians sported much more complicated, fancily-decorated shells. It was easy to find Sydo, with their relatively plain shell, in the crowd.
Once they found Sydo, the collie, otteroid, and Kallendrian floated together in the colorful chaos. Sydo told them about the various fishes — including the small golden shapes, flitting about — that swam through the room, ready to be plucked from the water and eaten. There were triangular, tiger-striped ones and blue ones with draping fins. The small golden ones were particular delicacies, and Cmdr. Wilker risked popping a few under his breathing mask to give them a try. They were squishy on the outside, crunchy in the middle, and tasted strangely of mango. He liked them.
“Are the little squiggly white ones edible treats too?” Cmdr. Wilker asked, trying to point toward some of the miniscule bits of white drifting by like cherry blossoms.
“Oh, no!” Sydo exclaimed. “Those are our children, after they’ve hatched but before they’re large enough for their first shells. Though, they are also edible. But mostly, we don’t eat them. They don’t taste very good. Still, it can be satisfying to munch a tentacle-full if you’re in a bad mood and want to hurt someone. It’s the way of life. Some don’t survive.”
Cmdr. Wilker stared levelly at Sydo, trying really hard to figure out if the Kallendrian was joking. But their face of eye-stalks and mouth-cilia gave him absolutely no clues to work with. “Are they joking?” he finally gave up and asked Consul Tor.
“They are not,” the otteroid answered.
“You can read my emotions,” Sydo stated in response.
“I can,” she agreed.
Now it was their turn to stare levelly at each other — photosynthetic green otteroid and precious caricature of a sheep, hidden inside a heavy crab shell.
“And you can read the emotions of those around us?” Sydo asked, breaking the stand-off. Float off.
“Yes, I can read their emotions as well. On my own world, most of the people are telepaths and can communicate entirely by sharing thoughts. My abilities are weaker, but I can still pick up on emotions, especially strong ones.”
“Are there any especially strong feelings at this party?” Sydo asked.
“Do you want to talk about your feelings?” Consul Tor countered.
Sydo’s mouth-cilia wriggled in amusement. “I suppose not. I didn’t realize my feelings are the strongest.”
“Well…” Consul Tor looked about them, glancing at the various crab-like aliens in their heavy, complicatedly-decorated shells. She seemed unsure about whether she wanted to mention something.
“Is it the scientists from The Osmosotosa?” Sydo asked. As the three of them had floated together, a series of the scientists had come up to thank Cmdr. Wilker and Sydo for rescuing them.
“Yes,” Consul Tor agreed. “There’s something strange about their feelings. They’re hiding something. Impatience. And resentment.”
“Resentment?” Cmdr. Wilker asked, confused. “About being rescued?”
“I don’t think they wanted to be rescued. Actually,” she said, “I don’t think they needed to be rescued at all.”
Cmdr. Wilker’s eyes narrowed, and he noticed that Sydo had gone deathly still. “What is it?” he asked.
“Does she know?” Sydo asked. “Our secret?”
“I promised I would tell no one.” Cmdr. Wilker was hurt that Sydo would doubt him. Doubt their friendship. But in fairness, they hadn’t known each other very long. And Sydo lived in an entire society that rejected them and their true nature at a deep level. That would make it hard to trust. “She doesn’t know.”
Consul Tor stayed quiet — curious but quiet. She knew better than to ask about a secret, especially when the person who it belonged to sounded so raw and scared at the idea of it being shared.
“Then why did you bring an empath to the party?” Sydo asked.
“You said I should,” Cmdr. Wilker answered.
Sydo didn’t look convinced. Their mouth-cilia were all crisscrossed and tangled in an unhappy-looking way.
“Besides… I was hoping…” The collie steeled himself. This was where he needed to reveal his plan. “I was hoping she could convince you to become an exchange officer in the Tri-Galactic Navy, like she is. It would forge the connection between our people, and it would give you a chance… Well, I think you’d find living among the people of the Tri-Galactic Union… freeing, in some ways.”
The silence that followed Cmdr. Wilker’s pitch was so icy that he started to worry the water would freeze around them. The moment stretched on and on, as Cmdr. Wilker struggled inside, trying to figure out if there was something more he should say, or if he’d already said too much. He didn’t know what had happened, how it had all gone wrong. He and Sydo had felt like such close friends, and now… It felt like he’d imagined the whole thing.
“Come on,” Consul Tor said to Cmdr. Wilker, taking him by the paw. “We have a duty, as emissaries here, to interact with more people.” She turned her attention to the crab, who’d gotten all clammed up, and said, “Thank you, Sydo, for spending so much time with us.”
“It was nothing,” Sydo said, and with a complicated twist of their armored legs, they turned and swam away.
Cmdr. Wilker felt pierced through the heart, run through by a serrated crab leg. He had thought his friendship with Sydo was a beginning, not something that would end so suddenly, so abruptly. But he docilely let Consul Tor pull him by the paw and swim away in the other direction.
They mingled and mixed with Kallendrians, exactly like the captain would want them to, exactly like good, responsible officers in the Tri-Galactic Navy should. But when the ebb and flow of the party — the currents and eddies of party-goers — led to a momentary lull for them, Cmdr. Wilker took control and awkwardly swam to a quiet cove, pulling Consul Tor along as he half-flailed and half-dogpaddled.
Once they were settled among the lavender and lilac shades of coral, Cmdr. Wilker looked around, to be sure they wouldn’t be overheard, and said, “I don’t understand what happened. Can you help me? I thought Sydo, and I were friends. I thought I could help them. But… everything went wrong.”
“I can only tell you what I sensed,” Consul Tor said, “but Sydo does have strong, friendly feelings toward you, and they felt very… conflicted… by everything that was said. But also, I get the sense that they aren’t ready for something… something that friendship with you represents.”
Cmdr. Wilker stared into the green otteroid’s lilac eyes, nearly the exact same shade as the crenulated coral behind her. The grassy fur on her brow furrowed. She could sense that he was conflicted too; certainly she could. But he couldn’t tell Sydo’s secret, even to someone else who would keep it as carefully as him, someone else who would never use the secret to hurt them.
“You don’t have to tell me the secret,” Consul Tor said. It was like she could read his thoughts, not just his feelings. “I wouldn’t want you to break a promise to a friend. And I don’t need to know what it is to tell you that it’s not at all unusual for species without telepathic or empathic powers to be threatened by those of us who have them–”
Cmdr. Wilker felt abashed, thinking of how many of his own crewmates and colleagues — other dogs and cats on the starship Initiative — must have reacted to Consul Tor in exactly that way when they met her. He hoped he hadn’t been one of them. He didn’t think he had been. He found her more fascinating than threatening. And yet, he couldn’t be sure. He felt nearly certain that she must understand his feelings better by sensing them indirectly than he could through feeling them himself.
Some things are easier to see from far away.
“–and regardless of my empathic abilities, Sydo was never going to agree to your plan.”
“They weren’t?” Cmdr. Wilker asked in surprise. It had seemed like such a good plan. A perfect plan.
“They’re far too attached to their home world.”
“But they’re so unhappy,” Cmdr. Wilker objected.
Consul Tor shrugged. “Leaving your entire life behind isn’t always the cure for unhappiness.”
Cmdr. Wilker nodded. He had to admit that was true. He was still disappointed. And he wished there was something he could do for Sydo, some way to help them.
“There’s one more thing I can tell you that might help,” Consul Tor said, looking away from the collie, letting her gaze pass over the array of partying crabs.
“Really?” Cmdr. Wilker tried not get his hopes up, but he wasn’t any good at it.
“You remember how Sydo was curious about the feelings of the crew of The Osmosotosa?”
Cmdr. Wilker nodded.
“Every one of them who talked to us was just as curious about Sydo.”
“What does that mean?” Cmdr. Wilker asked, confused.
“I don’t know,” Consul Tor said. “But I got the strong sense that they wanted to help Sydo, much like you do. Perhaps, if you talked to one of them privately…”
“I could learn something.”
Now Consul Tor nodded.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
The collie looked over the lay of the land in front of him — everything floating and swaying and moving, obscured by fish swimming by and decorative strands of something like kelp. He located a Kallendrian who he recognized as a crewmember of The Osmosotosa; in fact, he believed it was the captain.
Cmdr. Wilker remembered because he’d been particularly entranced by a piece of clockwork machinery that spiraled all the way around the captain’s shell when they’d come over to thank him. Tiny green spheres, like marbles made from sea glass, tumbled endlessly around on narrow tracks, always moving. It was a beautiful, but very distracting piece of machinery to wear on your body at all times.
As he thought about it, Cmdr. Wilker realized that most of the crewmembers of The Osmosotosa who’d come to thank him had sported particularly ornate shells. He wondered if it had something to do with being scientists.
The collie swam like a drowning dog over toward Captain Reinoo. Other Kallendrians cleared a path around him, avoiding the spastic dog’s flailing limbs. But he managed to catch Captain Reinoo’s gaze, and the Kallendrian stared steadily at him with an array of eyestalks as he approached.
“The good Commander Wilker,” Captain Reinoo said when the collie arrived, out of breath and feeling foolish at their side. “To what do I owe the honor?”
Now that Cmdr. Wilker was face to… uh… face-like collection of protuberances with Captain Reinoo, the collie wished he’d formulated more of a plan. Perhaps Consul Tor could have given him a list of questions to ask. And yet, Consul Tor hadn’t been there when he’d connected with Sydo.
Cmdr. Wilker would have to befriend this alien crab on his own. It was harder, though, than it had been with Sydo, because now he was so frustrated with how Kallendrian society treated his friend.
“I wanted to ask you about the machinery on your shell,” Cmdr. Wilker blurted out.
“Oh this?” Captain Reinoo’s pincers and legs twisted about, pointing at the track the marbles continued to roll along. On the slightly shorter side of the conical, spiraling shell, there was an additional piece of machinery that moved the marbles back up to the top of the track, so they could begin rolling again. “It’s fun, isn’t it?”
“Extremely,” Cmdr. Wilker agreed. Although, it kind of made him want to catch all the marbles and make them stop rolling. “But see, my co-pilot on the mission, Sydo, told me that the decorations on Kallendrian shells usually have special significance. Does this piece of machinery mean something? Perhaps about the endless cycle of life? I hope you don’t mind my asking.”
The Kallendrian floated in the water before the collie, waving their eyestalks methodically back and forth, sizing the alien dog up. “I could make up a story for you,” Captain Reinoo said, “but no, not really.”
“I’m surprised,” Cmdr. Wilker said. “I was sure Sydo said–”
Captain Reinoo cut the collie dog off. “I could lie to you, but no one is listening to us. And I can easily explain that you’ve misunderstood me if you try to tell anyone what I’ve said. So, why bother?”
Cmdr. Wilker had no answer for that.
“Do you want to tell me what you really want to know?” Captain Reinoo asked.
Cmdr. Wilker did want to tell Captain Reinoo, but he didn’t know how, without betraying Sydo’s confidence.
“I see,” Captain Reinoo said. “I’ve trusted you, but you won’t trust me.”
“It’s a rather limited sort of trust,” Cmdr. Wilker countered, “when it relies on your ability to malign me.”
Captain Reinoo’s mouth-cilia wriggled in what seemed like laughter.
Cmdr. Wilker tried a different tack. “Why weren’t you happy to have us rescue you?”
Now Captain Reinoo’s face parts curled up, tightening like tiny fists. “What makes you say this? We’ve all thanked you. Every one of my officers at the party tonight.”
“My friend, the green one who came with me, has empathic powers,” Cmdr. Wilker said. “She told me you weren’t happy, and that you were hiding something.”
“Come with me,” Captain Reinoo said.
Cmdr. Wilker struggled to follow the Kallendrian, swimming through schools of alien fish and around other party-goers with dangerously flailing pincers and shells like antique store curios. He found himself wishing that Captain Reinoo would offer to let him hold onto the pointy end of one of their segmented legs, towing the collie along like Consul Tor had done. He’d never thought of himself as a bad swimmer before, but here, surrounded by aliens who lived their lives in the water, he felt really terrible at it.
Above average for a dog turned out to be less than passable for a crab.
With great relief, the collie swam under a broad yellow coral, shaped like a small tree or gigantic toadstool, and found Captain Reinoo had settled, segmented legs crossed sternly. A veil of bubbles fizzed up from vents in the rocky floor beneath the yellow coral, effectively concealing them.
The captain crab looked very serious, worrisomely so, but from Cmdr. Wilker’s perspective, the most important, most pertinent point was that they were holding still. He let his own hind paws touch the rocky floor beneath the coral and found a surprising amount of comfort in the simple sensation of pressure against the pads of his feet. The feeling anchored him, at least a little, in this strange underwater world.
“I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing,” Captain Reinoo said, “but if you were to reveal our secret to the government, you’d be responsible — personally responsible — for the deaths of hundreds of people.”
Well, that had escalated quickly. Cmdr. Wilker had no idea what Captain Reinoo was talking about, but Consul Tor had certainly been right about speaking to them privately. He was already learning a lot.
“I wouldn’t want that,” Cmdr. Wilker said, stiffly. “Obviously, I wouldn’t want that.”
“Good.” Captain Reinoo’s crossed legs relaxed slightly.
Cmdr. Wilker was tempted to say more, perhaps ask questions poking around the edges of what he didn’t know, but Captain Reinoo had already revealed so much without his asking that reason told him keeping quiet was the best bet. Most likely, Captain Reinoo had severely overestimated how much Consul Tor had been able to read of their mind and the minds of the rest of The Osmosotosa’s crew. Cmdr. Wilker hoped to take as much advantage of that fact as possible.
So he waited.
And Captain Reinoo said, “We were so close when you arrived. Almost there. Another day… Just one more day, and I’d be home now, instead of here.”
“Home?” Cmdr. Wilker asked.
“Of course, I think of it as home,” Captain Reinoo snapped, clacking the joints in several of their legs in time with the words. “I may not have been there yet, but it’s my home. All of our homes. Why do you think you’d cause hundreds of deaths if you revealed our colony? The government wouldn’t kill us. Those of us who couldn’t face losing our home… couldn’t face coming back… they’d take their own lives.”
Cmdr. Wilker felt like everything just kept getting worse and worse as he listened to Captain Reinoo talk. And he couldn’t stand hearing the crab reveal their darkest secrets, impelled by an implied lie.
Cmdr. Wilker lifted a paw and said, “Stop, please. I don’t know anything. There’s nothing I could reveal to your government, even if I wanted to, and even if I did want to… The policies of the Tri-Galactic Union forbid any officer to interfere in an outside culture’s policies.”
Captain Reinoo’s mouth-cilia wriggled in laughter again. Possibly bitter laughter, given the words that followed: “You’ve already done that. But then, I guess the question is: does the Colony of the Unshelled count as its own culture? Or are we nothing but a rebellious subset, troublesome rabblerousers and rule-breakers, to you and your lofty Tri-Galactic Union?”
From all the words Captain Reinoo had said, one phrase stood out to Cmdr. Wilker, as if it had been written in bubble letters, colored in with highlighter, and made to flash somehow: “The Colony of the Unshelled?”
“It’s a temporary name,” Captain Reinoo said.
All the pieces fell together inside the collie’s head, and he worked through laying down the final pieces of the jigsaw by saying the words out loud: “The Osmosotosa didn’t get lost. You were fleeing. From persecution. For not wanting to wear your shells… And the colony you were fleeing to… No one wears shells there. Ever.”
“Well, I mean, sometimes a shell is useful if you’re doing hard labor,” Captain Reinoo said. “So, not never. But we don’t live in them.” Their mouth-cilia curled into a tangle, like ribbon on top of a present. A smile perhaps. And then the captain said, “I wish you could see what we look like without our shells. We’re entirely different people.”
“I know,” Cmdr. Wilker said, reverently remembering the embrace that he and Sydo had shared. “I mean, I can imagine,” he said, quickly, trying to cover his mistake. And then, he did imagine. He imagined the entire crowd of party-goers with their complicated, ornate shells… all bare. A whole crowd of squishy, tentacled, cloud creatures. A herd of cartoon sheep, under the sea. It was a lovely image. “I can understand why this colony must be so important to you. There were times in my people’s past when some groups… were not treated well. I would never want to deny your people a freedom that they so desperately need.”
“The freedom to be ourselves,” Captain Reinoo agreed.
The Kallendrian looked mollified.
“May I ask, then,” Cmdr. Wilker began, “why so many of your crew have such particularly ornate shells? If you all long to be freed of them?”
“Cover,” Captain Reinoo answered. “Those with bare shells… plain ones, like Sydo’s… they draw attention. Others wonder if there’s something… wrong with them. If they’re like us. And the costs for being caught can be high. It’s still considered acceptable to lock a Kallendrian in their shell for months at a time, as a form of therapy. Those of us who know ourselves… that’s why we work harder to hide than those who are still figuring themselves out. We know that isn’t therapy. Only cruelty.”
Cmdr. Wilker shuddered at the idea of Sydo being locked in their shell, when they took so much obvious pleasure in abandoning it. To have that freedom removed as a possibility, even in private? Cmdr. Wilker could see how cruel that could be. He even wondered if it would qualify as a civil rights violation as far as the Tri-Galactic Union was concerned. They might not concern themselves with the internal workings of an isolated society on a barely space-faring world… but if it came to a conflict between Kallendria proper and the Colony of the Unshelled, it could easily become the deciding factor on the TGU’s choice of policy.
Cmdr. Wilker explained this to Captain Reinoo, but he couldn’t leave it at that. He was still worried for Sydo.
“For a Kallendrian who was still figuring themself out…” Cmdr. Wilker knew he was treading on delicate ground, given that the only Kallendrian he’d interacted with closely for any sustained time was Sydo, and he didn’t want to indirectly reveal their secret. But he had to ask. “Are there resources for them? Some way to find out about the colony?”
“We look for our own,” Captain Reinoo said. “There are secret societies. When one of our kind is ready, others will find them. And The Osmosotosa won’t be the last science vessel to get lost.”
Somehow, Cmdr. Wilker imagined that if Captain Reinoo were a dog like him, they’d have put air quotes around “science vessel” and “lost.”
“That’s good,” Cmdr. Wilker said. “If someone were to have a friend — someone who wasn’t ready, someone who still hiding from themself, maybe — then they’d want to know…” His voice choked off.
“There will be help for them when they’re ready.” One of Captain Reinoo’s armored legs grew eerily light, and then a tentacle extended, nakedly from one of its upper joints.
Cmdr. Wilker reached out a paw, and Captain Reinoo wrapped their bare tentacle around it. The moment was short. And then the tentacle withdrew, disappeared from sight, and filled the armored leg up again. The captain likely feared revealing himself, in case any other Kallendrian happened to blunder under their umbrella of yellow coral. But it was meaningful. Perhaps not as meaningful as the embrace with Sydo, but a sort of coda or reprise of that moment.
Cmdr. Wilker would have to trust Captain Reinoo to take care of the others in their society seeking an escape. The collie couldn’t do that for them. And he would have to trust Sydo to find their own way to accepting themself and seeking out a better way to live.
Cmdr. Wilker couldn’t do that for Sydo either, no matter how much he wanted to.
What he could do was say, “If you have a colony on another planet, then the Tri-Galactic Union might well accept it as a society in its own right. You could reach out to us for aid.”
“I will keep that in mind,” Captain Reinoo said. “We launch again in a month. Next time, if a Tri-Galactic Navy ship crosses our path before we reach the colony, perhaps we’ll keep going.”
“Why did you turn back? My shuttle wasn’t equipped to stop a vessel of your size, even if we’d tried to.”
“We couldn’t risk anyone discovering and revealing the location of our colony.”
“The Tri-Galactic Union would never reveal that information without the colony’s consent.”
“Perhaps,” Captain Reinoo said. “I find you… strangely trustworthy. I will think about extending that trust to the rest of your people. But not yet. We can’t take risks with a colony that’s so young.”
Cmdr. Wilker said, “I understand.” But he didn’t really. He couldn’t. He could only imagine what it was like to have a shell, and then he had to imagine on top of that what it would be like to wish the shell gone and still be trapped in it. Extending those musings all the way to imagining what it would be like to live embroiled, enmeshed in the whirlpool of politics surrounding the simple question of whether it was okay to live without a shell… It was a tower of cards, too delicate to place any true weight on it.
He couldn’t herd these sheep into formation, fixing their lives for them. Because he wasn’t really a shepherd. And they weren’t really sheep.
He was just an officer who had done his job, and they were an entire, complex society.
All he could do was try to empathize, offer what help they would accept, and appreciate how his life had been enriched by meeting these sea sheep who masqueraded as crabs to pass in their society.
Cmdr. Wilker did his best to enjoy the rest of the party, and when the time came, he sought out Sydo to say goodbye. He wished he could tell Sydo about the Colony of the Unshelled. He wanted to believe that Sydo would happily join the crew of The Osmosotosa and move to a place where they’d feel accepted and free to be themself. All their problems would be solved.
But Cmdr. Wilker could no more share Captain Reinoo’s secret with Sydo than he could share Sydo’s secret with Captain Reinoo. And he understood why each of them wasn’t ready yet to directly trust the other.
He hoped that someday, they would be. And he hoped, when that day came, Sydo would reach out to him again.
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