by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Midwest Furfest 2019 Conbook, December 2019
Water splashed into the Ob’glaung Station airlock, wetting three sets of feet — a pair of red-furred paws belonging to a Heffen, a pair of gray-tufted paws belonging to a Woaoo, and a pair of green-scaled S’rellick talons. A long blue fin hovered, trailing over the water’s surface, as an icthyoid Lintar swam eager circles through the air.
Soon, all of the air would be replaced with liquid atmosphere, and the four aliens would be able to enter the station. Three of them would need to don breathing gear, but the Lintar would be able to take his off for the first time in months. He had grown up on Ob’glaung Station.
The reptilian S’rellick lifted her spike-ridged tail, keeping the rising water off of its green scales a little longer, and hissed at the liquid that would soon surround her.
The Woaoo and Heffen, both furry mammalians, shared a glance in response to their reptilian friend’s finicky aversion to the new atmosphere. What did she have to worry about with getting wet? No fur. Then the Woaoo reached one of her tufted gray paws out and clasped the Heffen’s red paw. He pulled her in close, and they embraced as the water rose around them.
The final alien in the group — the blue-finned Lintar — could hover above the water, floating due to the ultra-light gases in his swim-bladder. He bobbled about excitedly, soundlessly clapping his elegantly long, silky fins. He had brought his friends to the space station where he’d grown up to celebrate his hatch-day. “It’s time to put your breathing helmets on,” he said, diving down to the rising surface of the water. “And take mine off!” He submerged, and a moment later, the bubble-like helmet he always wore bobbed back up to the surface.
The water was now waist-high on the koala-like Woaoo and thigh-high on the taller wolf-like Heffen; the reptilian S’rellick had decided to bite the bullet and plunge in neck-deep by kneeling down. She could see her icthyoid friend swimming circles around her under the wavery surface of the water atmosphere. She shook her head and then affixed her breathing gear over her face.
The Heffen and Woaoo followed suit, and then all three friends plunged under the water.
The Lintar blinked his wide fish-eyes at them. “Welcome!” he intoned. None of them had ever seen the Lintar without his breathing helmet before. In all of the years of their friendship, travelling together as a group, they’d never seen him without his helmet on. The sleek lines of his narrow body were sinuous and unbroken without the clunky mechanical bubble over his head. He looked natural. And happy.
The airlock finished cycling atmospheres, and all four of them were left floating in a small room filled with water. The artificial gravity shut off, and the internal doors slid open, revealing the stunning sight of the water-filled space station of Ob’glaung.
The Woaoo, Heffen, and S’rellick watched as their Lintar friend swam dartingly out of the airlock like a streak of blue lightning. He became one of many Lintars and other water-breathing aliens swimming in the thick atmosphere of Ob’glaung. Many were different forms of icthyoids, some were tentacled, others had calcareous shells or chitinous exoskeletons, and even a few seemed to be bulbous, blubbery mammal-like creatures — sentient water-breathing whales or manatees or some such.
All through the scene in front of them, strands of bioluminescent kelp wavered in the wakes of swimming passersby. Far off in the distance, they could make out a curving translucent horizon that looked back out on the star-studded void of space. From the outside, Ob’glaung looked like a shimmering dewdrop hanging in the dark. Inside, Ob’glaung was a giant busy pond, and every direction was up. It didn’t need to simulate gravity by rotating like a wheel station, since all of its inhabitants were already used to a life of floating.
The S’rellick was the first to attempt following her Lintar friend away from the airlock. Her long reptilian tail swayed back and forth, making her a decent swimmer. The Woaoo and Heffen, on the other hand, were pathetically awkward trying to navigate an atmosphere unnaturally thick and multi-directional for them. Their fuzzy limbs sprawled and splayed, dragging them sadly and slowly along. Nonetheless, they managed to catch up to their friends — the Lintar and the S’rellick — since those two were kind enough to wait for them.
“So, what do you guys want to do?” the Lintar asked. His voice was picked up the sound-sensors in the others’ breathing gear and translated into sound-waves they could interpret in the bubbles of atmosphere around each of their heads.
“Your voice sounds so close this way…” the Woaoo said. “It’s strange having my head inside a bubble.”
“Yeah,” the Heffen woofed. “How do you not feel claustrophobic all the time?”
The icthyoid shrugged his long elegant fins, drifting sideways. “It makes me feel kind of safe, actually.”
“What do you mean, ‘what do we want to do?'” the S’rellick asked in her usual sarcasm. “This is your hatch-day celebration, on the space station you grew up on. Shouldn’t you have a plan for what we’re going to do here?”
The Lintar turned one way and then the other, looking around the place that he had once called home. But it wasn’t his home anymore. And it hadn’t been for a long time. He had wanted to return, but it had been for sentimental reasons, not practical ones. Simply being here, sharing it with the people he was closest to, soothed something deep inside. It made him feel like his friends knew him better. But he didn’t have a plan, not beyond coming here. “There’s a reason I moved to Crossroads Station,” he finally said. “I never fit in here. I never really knew what to do.”
“You mean…” the Woaoo couldn’t resist, but she also couldn’t stop herself from giggling as she said it, “…that you felt like a fish out of water?”
“Yes,” the Lintar said without the slightest hint of levity. He stared levelly at his three dearest friends — a green lizard, a red-wolf, and a fluffy little koala — each of them floating awkwardly and wearing a diving helmet, obscuring their natural faces. This must be how he looked to them all the time. Obscured.
But he was okay with that. The Lintar’s diving helmet had started to feel like part of who he was. And his friends knew who he was on the inside, regardless of whether he hid his face in a bubble of tech. It was liberating to shed it… but it was also strange.
The S’rellick could see that the Lintar had lost himself in thought. That happened to him a lot. The four aliens had travelled to many worlds together, and explored many places that had been new to all four of them. They knew each other very well. “Tell you what,” she said. “Let’s go explore this place together.”
“That sounds wonderful,” the Lintar said. But first, he darted back into the airlock and fetched his breathing helmet from where it floated. He clipped it to a buckle on the utility harness he wore. He’d be needing it again later.