by Mary E. Lowd
“I’m staying,” Amelia said.
Kipper and Trugger looked at each other, uncertain. The two of them and Amelia were the only ones left in the galley now. It wouldn’t be easy to remove a stubborn dog — even a small one — from The Lucky Boomerang if she didn’t want to go. If she wouldn’t go peaceably.
Several of the other crewmembers had already shown their reluctance to break Uplifted States law and continue on the mission as Kipper planned it. It would be very, very bad for morale if those officers had to hear and see a government dog kicking and screaming as Trugger and Obsidian wrestled her out the airlock.
Though, a small part of Kipper did enjoy the idea of watching an octopus wrestle Amelia off of her ship. That dog had never belonged here in the first place. And you do not want to wrestle an octopus. They’re all muscle.
And Obsidian would have no problem doing it. He didn’t care about Uplifted States laws one bit.
Still, it would be better to avoid that outcome, amusing though it might be.
“Okay…” Kipper said cautiously, feeling her way forward. “Why? Why do you want to stay? You clearly disagree with everything about my plans.”
“Not everything,” Amelia admitted. She cast her eyes downward, shifty and nervous, and one of her paws moved reflexively to touch the tiny, pretty braids around them. She looked like she wanted to tear the braids out and shield her eyes from view again.
“What part do you agree with?” Trugger asked.
“I’d rather not say,” Amelia snapped, eyes narrowing into a glare that would’ve pierced Trugger through like a spear if he were at all bothered by dogs glaring at him.
Trugger was not.
“I can’t keep you here if you’re going to spend all your time trying to sabotage my position as captain, turn the crew against me, or otherwise undermine the mission,” Kipper said.
Amelia shook her head. “I couldn’t turn this crew against you, clearly. You’re the Hero of Europa to them, and they’ll follow you into the depths of outer space.” The curly-furred dog shrugged. “I won’t cause trouble. I just… I have a post here. It’s my job to keep an eye on all of you. It’s my job to monitor this mission, even if I’m monitoring how it goes horribly wrong. And I won’t abandon my post.”
Kipper’s eyes narrowed as well, but not into a glare. She was thinking. Quickly, because they needed to get moving before any of the rest of the crew started to have further doubts or the Uplifted States located a sympathetic otter vessel willing to try to tow them home in return for a big payout.
“You don’t think you’ll be held accountable like the rest of us,” Kipper said.
“I know I won’t,” Amelia replied. “My loyalty to the Uplifted States is not in question, and they’ll understand that I had no choice given the situation up here. I’m an unwilling passenger aboard a mutinous vessel.”
“Not entirely unwilling,” Trugger said. “Not if you’re choosing to stay.” He drew a deep sigh. “Dogs and dog governments are weird.”
“Says the otter sporting green zebra stripes.” Amelia frowned, as if she deeply disapproved of Trugger’s decorative dye job, peeking out from the edges of his navy blue USSA uniform.
Trugger shrugged. “My weirdness only goes fur deep.”
Kipper clenched her paws under the table, letting her sharp claw tips bite against her paw pads through the thin layer of her spacesuit gloves, to keep herself from laughing. Trugger was weird all the way through.
“Look, I have my reasons, and I’ll be good,” Amelia said, appealing to Kipper and pointedly ignoring Trugger.
“You’ll be good.” Kipper repeated Amelia’s own words, thinking about how much goodness meant to all the dogs she’d known.
Of course, what counted as “good” could be extremely flexible.
But… She didn’t want to fight Amelia.
“This is a small ship,” Kipper said. “And I believe in our mission. If you get in the way–”
“You can duct tape me to the ceiling,” Amelia said. “I know you have the duct tape packed.”
Trugger snorted. “Of course we have duct tape. Would any sane astronaut go into space without duct tape? I don’t think so.”
“Duct tape would be hell on those curls,” Kipper observed.
“Exactly,” Amelia agreed. “I’d have to shave them all off to get the gummy gunky residue out.”
“Okay, you can stay,” Kipper said, wondering if she was making a huge mistake to avoid a huge inconvenience. Sometimes, neither option seems good, so you just have to pick one, and hope things get better.
And things were going to get extra-solar soon. So, probably better.
Meeting over, Kipper left the galley and floated through the halls of The Lucky Boomerang back toward the bridge, enjoying how on this ship, she got to swim through air instead of liquid. The halls were designed with plenty of handholds to make it easy for a cat to glide along, using her paws to guide herself. Zero gravity could be quite pleasant when it didn’t come accompanied by the requirement that she drown herself in a highly oxygenated liquid atmosphere and then breathe the horrid stuff.
Running her own space program was more work than being a lackey on someone else’s ship, but it did come with its advantages.
Kipper settled back into her captain’s chair and then watched as the rest of the bridge crew reacted — subtly, but the reactions were there — to Amelia returning to her post. The strongest reaction came from Sequoia, the squirrel. There seemed to be some kind of tension between Sequoia and Amelia, but Kipper trusted the squirrel to behave professionally. Even if her tail had flickered like a bonfire sputtering in a gust of sea-salt wind when she saw Amelia return to her seat.
With everyone settled in their places, Kipper said, “The decision is unanimous. All of us will be proceeding with the mission as Trugger and I have planned it.”
Kipper paused a moment to let the surprise in Sequoia and Katasha’s eyes settle. Amelia looked away from both of them. She seemed to be a very private dog when it came to her own emotions and motivations. And Obsidian — both curled and sprawled at the same time — in his seat showed no reaction to Amelia staying whatsoever. His skin stayed the simple, dimpled red-brown that seemed to be his default, and his goat-like eyes didn’t even deign to look in Amelia’s direction.
Kipper nodded and drew a deep breath. She could trust her crew. Now she needed to be the captain that they trusted. And it was her responsibility to say a few words, broadcasted back to Earth. She’d practiced what she might say many times in her mind, and it was always slightly different, taking twists and turns she didn’t expect. Never perfect. And she knew, whatever she said, it wouldn’t only echo in her own ears forever, haunting her with how it could have been better — no, it would actually be replayed over and over again by news stations. She’d considered memorizing a short speech… but in the end, concluded that speaking a few words from the heart was more likely to go well. Even if the words weren’t perfect, she’d practiced enough times to know that they would be close enough.
“Trugger, please open a channel and broadcast as widely as possible.” She didn’t want the USSA to disappear her words, gagging her, and letting themselves speak for the delinquent Lucky Boomerang crew on her behalf. As long as enough otter ships picked up the broadcast, she knew that wouldn’t happen.
“Channel open… now.” Trugger said, raising his paw and then lowering it suddenly on the word “now.”
“Cats, dogs, and other peoples of the Uplifted States,” Kipper said. “The first stage of our first homegrown space program has been a success. The Lucky Boomerang used its epsilon drive to jump to the far side of the moon without incident. We intend to continue our mission by jumping to Jupiter’s moon Europa, and from there, we will make the first voyage from our solar system to the universe outside since…” Her voice caught a little, but that was okay. It would play well with the First Racer dogs listening. The same dogs who would be furious that she’d begun her speech by addressing “cats” before “dogs.” “…ahem, the first voyage from our solar system to the outside universe since the humans who uplifted us all left the Earth.”
Kipper paused, letting the momentousness of her words sink in. Not just for her listeners across the Earth and Earth’s sky, but also for herself. This was a big deal.
“We don’t know what we’ll find outside of our solar system. Perhaps nothing more than a few stars and empty planets on our first voyage, but what we learn on this trip could have invaluable repercussions in many scientific fields, regardless of whether we find…”
Kipper hesitated here. She had dithered back and forth for weeks about whether it would be wise or not to mention the possibility of finding humans. She wanted to raise First Racer hopes enough that they took the possibilities opened up by The Lucky Boomerang and its epsilon drive seriously. But she didn’t want to raise them so high that her crew couldn’t deliver on them. Realistically, if humans were still alive out there, and if they were easy to find… Wouldn’t they have come back on their own by now?
There was no right answer. So Kipper chose one before the silence wore on too long.
“Whatever we find, it will bring us closer to knowing what the humans who uplifted us experienced when they left our solar system. We must follow in their footprints, and that means exploring the stars. Captain Kipper of The Lucky Boomerang out.”
Kipper bowed her head when she finished speaking. Her heart was racing. She wanted to explore the universe. She wanted the freedom and thrill of flying on The Lucky Boomerang, farther from the Earth than any Earth-being had traveled in many lifetimes. But she didn’t relish the weight of the responsibilities that came with it.
“Channel closed,” Trugger said.
“I hope that was good enough,” Kipper muttered before she could stop herself.
“It was beautiful,” Katasha said reverently.
Kipper smiled at the compliment. Inspiring younger cats was one of her goals, and it warmed her heart to know she’d succeeded with at least one. But then she raised her eyes and turned to look at Amelia — because First Racer dogs were the demographic who would decide if she ever got to go home again after this stunt.
Amelia was trying to hide it, looking away from everyone else on the bridge, but there were tears in her eyes, wetting the delicate braids that framed them.
Good. If Kipper could move the heart of the government dog sent to keep them all on short leashes, then maybe there’d be enough positive public sentiment toward herself and the crew when they returned that their indiscretions would be forgiven. If First Racer dogs were excited enough about The Lucky Boomerang’s mission, then President Truman would only make himself look bad by throwing a tantrum about how he’d tried and failed to stop it.
“We’re receiving an incoming message from The Jolly Barracuda,” Trugger said with a grin big enough to melt oceans.
“Put it on the main screen,” Kipper said.
A crowd of otters appeared on the screen, floating in the liquid, oxo-agua atmosphere that The Jolly Barracuda sported when it was prepared for flight. The big river otter in the middle of the screen — Kipper and Trugger’s old captain — Captain Cod signed with his webbed paws, “Congratulations on your first epsilon drive jump, and congratulations on picking your crew so carefully that you don’t need our services offloading any of them. And good luck with the rest of your mission.”
“Thank you,” Kipper signed back. Signing was much easier in these new spacesuits with their thin fabric than in the bulky ones she’d had to wear before now.
Captain Cod signed back, “Say ‘hi’ to the rest of the universe for us.”
“Will do,” Kipper answered with her paws before the message shut off, leaving the screen filled with the silvery curve of the moon, eclipsing the blue and green curve of Earth, all in front of a backdrop of stars.
Kipper and her crew were alone again, on the far side of the moon. An entire celestial body hung between them and the friends, family, and foes they’d left behind. And that distance was about to get a lot larger.
“Now, let’s set a course for Europa–” Kipper raised her paw, waited for a nod from Katasha showing that the course was set, and concluded, “Jump at will.”
They could skip putting the hoods on their spacesuits up this time. The epsilon drive had already shown it worked. Preparing for it to fail with every jump would be an overabundance of caution.
Kipper was ready for the sensation of jumping through the folds of space-time now. And yet, she also wasn’t. Would she ever be? Would it be different every time? This time, it felt like she’d curled over — inside of and through herself — like a fiddlehead on a spring fern unfurling during a cool evening rainfall or a pre-uplift cat from the ancient times when humans still walked the Earth curling up into a tight ball on a cushion in front of a crackling fire.
When the moment ended, static still buzzed in Kipper’s ears like the hissing of rain falling on leaves. The sound died away, but the change in scenery stayed: Europa filled the screen, ice blue and glass smooth. Only a small wedge of Jupiter fit into the space visible behind Europa, orange and swirly as ever.
Katasha gasped, and Sequoia made a chirping sound, halfway between laughter and a heartfelt sob. Obsidian’s skin had turned the swirly shades of Jupiter’s creamsicle clouds. Only Amelia — of the bridge crew members who had never traveled to Jupiter before — remained entirely composed and seemingly unmoved. She’d recovered from her reaction to Kipper’s speech and seemed determined to stay stone-faced and indifferent.
Trugger grinned and said, “Jenny’s calling. She has a place for us to land.”
Continue on to Chapter 11…