by Mary E. Lowd
The atmosphere in The Lucky Boomerang’s engine room was riotously celebratory. The engineers didn’t have the gorgeous, panoramic view of Europa that the bridge crew had been enjoying on the main viewscreen; though, smaller versions of the view were relayed to several monitor screens built into the walls. But the engineers were the members of the crew who had done the hard work of properly calibrating the epsilon drive engines for the flight, and they were literally above and beyond the moon with the success of their efforts.
Freddy and Georgie had taken the deck of cards that was kept around for quick games of poker during down time and were throwing playing cards at each other like confetti. The lack of gravity meant the cards floated and bounced around the room, and the four mice had made a game of trying to flip from one side of the engine room to the other, bouncing into as many floating cards as possible along the way.
Hedda, as the chief engineer, stayed serious and focused on the state of the epsilon drive as it powered down from its first two jumps. Or, at least, as serious as possible given the playing cards bouncing past her pointed ears.
Katasha came down from the bridge, now that the epsilon engine test was done, and joined in the games, somersaulting slowly from one side of the room to the other, while the mice zipped past her, treating the much larger cat like a moving obstacle course.
Yvette grabbed onto two playing cards, one with each paw, and tucked them under her arms on either side. With a little work, she figured out how to flap the cards like wings and flew through the engine room like an awkward, newly fledged bird. It was glorious. All of it was glorious.
In all of her years performing at gymnastics meets and studying architecture, Yvette had never before accomplished anything as amazing as what this team had accomplished today. No one in the solar system had. They had jumped from one planet to the next as easily as Yvette could spring from a tumbling mat to a pair of parallel bars. Like a stone skipping across a lake, they had had skipped across the sky, and now she felt like a resident of the universe, not merely a citizen of a single city, confined within the borders of a country, contained within the omnipresent pull of a planet.
In every way, Yvette was flying.
“Time to land,” Captain Kipper’s voice came over the internal ship comm system. “The octopus government on Europa has opened a gap in the Jovian moon’s shields, and there’s a landing pad available for us on the Jupiter-facing side, on top of the new Imperial Star-Ocean Navy base floating on the surface of the world-wide ocean. Follow the coordinates, and let’s give our landing gear its first test!”
All the engineers scurried about, getting back into their places, while the playing cards continued to float, rotate, and drift about the engine room.
The landing went smoothly, and the cards drifted slowly downward, towards the floor, as gravity and the very concept of downward returned to the room. Once they’d landed, the cards made a cheerful layer of over-sized confetti, spread across the floor haphazardly, half facing up and half showing the red gingham pattern on their backs.
With the ship successfully landed on a foreign moon, the engineers went about clearing up the cards on the floor. The cards were far less entertaining now that they were all under paw, making the floor slippery. Gravity had turned them into clutter. Katasha and the dachshunds scooped up whole piles of cards with their large paws; the mice carried the cards, held over their heads, one or two at a time to those piles. They had to be careful though, because the gravity was a mere fraction of what they were used to, and escaped cards flipped about the room erratically, flying much farther than they would on Earth.
Once again Captain Kipper’s voice filled the room: “Now that we’ve landed, we’ll be bringing aboard our final two crew members — Nioli and Gy’krr are a bonded octopus-raptor pair who have seceded from their own society. I’d like it if everyone aboard exited the ship, so we can all be outside to greet them. Partly, it seems welcoming, but mostly, for most of you this will be your first time setting paw on a world other than Earth, and I don’t want any of you to miss that chance before we head on out of our own solar system. The air is breathable, so don’t worry about sealing your spacesuits.”
Yvette’s stomach flipped at the thought of setting paw on an entirely different celestial body, more than it had when gravity had stopped holding her organs down or when space had folded to let The Lucky Boomerang hop halfway across the solar system.
Of course, Yvette had known they were landing the ship on Europa. She had seen the dark side of the moon, surrounded by stars, above the galley. She knew what they’d been doing in this engine room… And she could feel the lightness of Europa’s gravity, letting her bound across the room in giant leaping steps.
But the engine room was still the same engine room, and knowing something isn’t the same as feeling it deep inside, all the way through yourself. Suddenly, her very paws itched with the need to feel a different planet beneath them. Her round ears twitched and tickled at the idea of wind that had never touched a mouse’s ears blowing past her.
She stood on the precipice of possibilities that would have seemed like impossibilities only months ago.
Katasha offered the four mice a ride on her shoulders, and all four hopped on — two on each side. With the light gravity, they didn’t need Katasha to kneel down or raise them up on her paws. The mice could simply leap from the floor, all the way up to her shoulders.
The Siamese cat seemed pleased with herself as she strolled through the ship’s halls with a jaunty, floating step. When the engineers caught up with the main bridge crew at the ship’s main entrance — airlock still sealed shut from their flight — Katasha gestured at the mice on her shoulders and threw a self-satisfied grin at Trugger.
The otter gaped and said, “All four of you? On her narrow shoulders at once? When you don’t even need a ride due to this ridiculous gravity??? I’ve been trying to give a ride to all four of you at once for weeks!”
Mulberry, the mouse with markings most similar to Katasha’s Siamese patterning, laughed. She was sitting beside Yvette on Katasha’s left side, and their tails had tangled together as they’d wrapped around the cat’s collar, holding them each securely in position. “I know,” she said. “That’s why I always chose to run. You wanted it too much.”
Trugger comically kicked at the floor and pouted. The kick caused him to float up into the air, and the expression didn’t last long. His face was made for merriment, and it brightened into a grin as he held out a webbed paw to Katasha. “Congratulations, you’re now officially the mouse passenger wagon.”
Katasha’s ears skewed, but she accepted the handshake, saying, “What?”
Captain Kipper pressed her paw against the controls for the airlock, and the inner door spiraled open. The tabby cat led the way, and the rest of her crew followed. Once inside the airlock, the captain overrode the safety controls that kept the double doors of the airlock from both opening at the same time when The Lucky Boomerang was in the depths of outer space. Cool, humid, salty air rushed in.
Yvette gasped at the feel of the wind on her whiskers and against her furry face. Her ears folded over, protecting themselves from the cacophonous roar of Europa that she only belatedly recognized as the sound of ocean waves rocking and slapping against the sides of the floating otter station.
As Katasha stepped out of the ship, Yvette grasped onto the cat’s collar with her tiny paws as well as the curve of her long tail. She hadn’t expected to be afraid. She knew that otters and octopi lived on Europa. So, it had to be safe. Or safe enough. Cats had even used to live here — before the New Persia colony was destroyed by the raptor fleet and then the icy surface of the moon had been melted by ancient octopus technology.
Perhaps the fear Yvette felt was an instinctual reaction, something she couldn’t possibly have controlled even if she had expected it and tried to push it away. There was a different sky above her, filled with the looming presence of Jupiter; strange, weaving ground below her, bucking slowly like the deck of an ocean liner; and an endless purple-gray ocean stretching in every direction, all around, including down. This world was not a place mice had evolved for. It was not a place mice had ever visited before. And something deep in the pit of Yvette’s stomach said that, maybe, it was not a place where mice belonged.
But then an otter — slightly smaller than Trugger but with a grin just as wide — greeted them all with her paws held wide: “Welcome to Europa!”
Trugger rushed forward, shouting, “Jenny!” and hugged the other otter. “Barracuders forever!”
“Barracuders forever,” Jenny agreed before stepping back and looking over The Lucky Boomerang crew, assembled haphazardly in front of the open airlock, shuffling paws, skewing ears, and mostly staring at the specter of Jupiter hanging impossibly above them.
Jenny stepped up to Captain Kipper, at the front of her crew, took the tabby’s hand and said, “Congratulations, Kipper.”
“I usually go by ‘Captain Kipper’ now,” Kipper corrected.
Jenny’s grin widened and she said, “Then I guess that’s Base Commander Jenny to you.” Both otter and cat laughed, easily, companionably.
Yvette could tell Jenny and Kipper were good friends just from watching them together. She hoped that someday her friendship with Josie would become that easy and straightforward, not knotted up by confusions about their history, priorities, and ambitions. But then, maybe their friendship already looked that way from the outside. She didn’t know.
Maybe Kipper and Jenny had as torturous a friendship on the inside of it as the ones Yvette experienced. And yet, watching them talk together, voices lowered now so that the crew couldn’t hear it all, she really didn’t think so.
Finally Kipper turned back to the crew and said, “Base Commander Jenny has invited us to join the otters and octopi on her base in a meal before we continue our mission.”
“And you should really try out swimming in the ocean before you go,” Jenny added. “There’s a coral reef surrounding the base, and as long as you don’t swim past the edge of the coral, the currents will keep you perfectly safe.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice!” Trugger announced and took off running for the nearest edge of the landing platform.
“Seal your spacesuit!” Kipper called after him. “You don’t want it filling with seawater!”
The otter managed to flip his spacesuit’s helmet over his head as he ran, and he had it perfectly sealed before diving into the water so smoothly that he barely caused a splash.
Yvette had expected to meet the new crew members, return to the ship, and then be on their way. She didn’t know how she felt about hanging out on Europa for swimming and feasting. It seemed almost… hedonistically improper after stealing The Lucky Boomerang. It was one thing to steal a spaceship and use it for a mission that might make profoundly important discoveries for the government they’d stolen it from. It was quite something else to steal a spaceship so they could play summer camp on a distant moon.
And yet? Here they were. What harm could a little fun do?
Yvette jumped off Katasha’s shoulder with a spin, achieving a longer series of flips and somersaults in the air before landing than she ever could have in Earth’s gravity, and bounded after Trugger. By the time she got to the edge of the landing pad, the otter had climbed back out of the ocean and was shedding his spacesuit and uniform, stripping down to the tank top and shorts he wore underneath.
“I want to feel the water,” Trugger said by way of explanation. “And these are quick dry fabric anyway.” A lot of otters wore quick dry fabrics for all of their clothing.
Trugger dove back into the lapping waves, and Yvette dove after him, keeping her spacesuit on with the helmet sealed. She didn’t want to get water in her ears and eyes. She didn’t know if it would sting, and she didn’t want to find out.
Staring through the faceplate, Yvette saw the riotous colors of the coral reef, growing directly on the side of the floating station and stretching outward into the ocean, some thirty or forty feet below the ocean’s surface. She felt the currents pull against her limbs, moving her even as she worked at moving herself. She’d never been much of a swimmer, but one of her more unorthodox gymnastics coaches had believed that practicing underwater routines helped gymnasts ground themselves in their bodies. Not the best coach she’d had. But she’d been young at the time, and swimming had been a nice change of pace from more standard practice methods.
“This floating station is new since the end of the raptor war, right?” Yvette asked, using the radio in her suit to broadcast the question to all the other crew members still wearing their spacesuits. So, probably everyone except Trugger. “How did the coral grow so fast?”
Coral is a notoriously slow-growing species, and yet there was an entire forest of branching, spiky, rough-edged coral in shades of royal purple, sunset orange, and melted butter yellow down there.
“Good question,” came back Katasha’s voice. The young engineer sounded genuinely interested. “I’ll ask one of the Europa otters.”
While Yvette waited for the answer, she kept swimming, feeling the pull of the water against her limbs. Trugger swam past her — a sudden blur of brown — and she managed to fall into his wake, picking up speed by following alongside him. Eventually, the other three mice appeared, also swimming and also drawn into the otter’s wake. He had become their planet, and they his moons. A tiny representation of Jupiter, Europa, Ganymede, Io, and Callisto.
Yvette told the others of her theory, and Josie chimed up over the radio, “I get to be Io! It’s closest to my apricot coloring.”
Wendell called Callisto; and Mulberry Europa. Leaving Yvette with Ganymede, a pale gray moon, not too different in coloring from her own soft gray. The four mouse moons held paws in a circle around their otter planet, laughing and spinning and swimming. Yvette thought they were all a little giddy from the combination of joy at their engineering successes, stress at their political transgressions, and sheer dizzying, unbelieving amazement that they were on an entirely different planet.
She could have kept swimming for a long time.
But Katasha’s feline voice came over the radio, saying, “The coral is genetically engineered to be fast-growing. One of the technological advancements they found in the ancient octopus computers. Also, Captain Kipper and Base Commander Jenny say that lunch is ready, and you should all come back.”
It took a little work for the mouse-moons to capture their otter-planet’s attention. Without his spacesuit on, Trugger didn’t have a radio speaking into his ear. But eventually, working together, they caught ahold of one of his paws, and when he swirled around to look at them, Yvette signed the situation to him. And then he scooped all four of them up in his webbed paws, swam quickly back to the landing platform, and emerged from the water with them, like some King Kong or Godzilla from an ancient human movie.
Out of the water, the mice took off bounding across the landing platform, while Trugger stayed behind, gathering up the spacesuit he’d discarded for swimming.
Once they’d rounded the side of The Lucky Boomerang, Yvette could see a large table, spread with food, and crowded around by otters, chatting with the rest of the ship’s crew. Captain Kipper was already seated at the head of the table, beside Base Commander Jenny, deep in rapt conversation.
The other three mice bounded over to the table, reveling in their ability to jump straight from the ground to the tabletop in the low gravity, without needing something to climb or waiting for a lift offered by a bigger animal. But Yvette held back, where she could watch Kipper and Jenny, standing far enough away to be safe from all the wandering paws near the table.
Yvette continued to be fascinated by the friendship between her feline captain and the lutrine base commander. Like most mice, she knew enough about the “Hero of Europa” from news stories — how the tabby cat had grown up in a cattery with her sister and brother, the previous president — that she didn’t think the friendship between Kipper and Jenny could have extended back into their childhoods. It couldn’t have. Kittens in Uplifted States catteries simply didn’t know otters growing up on space stations.
Their friendship wasn’t rooted in a long history, and it couldn’t be rooted in a similar past. They couldn’t have known each other for more than a few years. And yet, there they were, delighted to see each other, connecting at a seemingly deep level, and making choices about the future of the entire solar system together.
Yvette decided she wanted to sit near the head of the table, where she could listen to Kipper and Jenny’s conversation. Even if it did mean being the sole mouse up there, as the other three had created an improvised mouse-sized table on top of the otter table out of an overturned serving bowl at the other end.
Yvette bounded past the crowd of otters, now settling into chairs around the table, and landed on the corner of the table by Captain Kipper. A bold, presumptuous move. (Also, a move that was only possible in this low gravity. She simply couldn’t be so bold when she depended on a lift from a larger animal to get to the top of a table.) But Yvette wouldn’t let herself be turned away. There was no reason to fear her captain — Kipper had been kind and companionable with the whole crew, and the days when mice needed to fear cats simply because of their species were ancient history, back in the Dark Times when humans still walked the Earth.
“Well, hello,” Kipper said. Then turning to Jenny she added, “This is Yvette, one of the mice on my engineering team.”
“Is it… okay if I join you?” Yvette asked, trying to keep her voice and whiskers from quivering. They apparently hadn’t gotten the memo yet from her brain about how she was going to be bold and presumptuous and not let anything get in her way. Besides, she couldn’t quite push aside the knowledge that while jumping right onto the table was a reasonable move for a mouse… it would be extremely uncouth for the larger animals in the crew. And it was weird, albeit necessary, to be held to a different standard.
“Of course, there’s plenty of room,” Kipper said, casually taking the lid off a butter dish and placing it in front of Yvette as her own improvised table. “Can I grab you anything?” Kipper gestured at the spread of foods in front of them.
Yvette recognized nothing among the dishes. It was all strange colors and textures — something that looked purple and squishy; another dish was filled with something spongy and pale green. She sniffed the air, and while some of it smelled wonderful — fresh and green or salty and fried — it was all still unfamiliar.
“I… don’t know what anything is,” Yvette admitted.
Jenny smiled as only an otter can — wide and broad and plainly happy. “That’s because it’s all local — fresh Europa sea life!” She began pointing with a claw at each dish near them, describing what they were. The spongy green one was some kind of sea cucumber, which sounded like a plant but Yvette guessed it was actually an animal. The squishy purple dish was a pile of roasted seaweeds. Altogether, there were too many new, foreign delicacies for Yvette to keep them straight. So, she said, “I’ll take a little of anything vegetarian. Is that okay?”
“That’s fine.” Jenny nodded as she spoke, and then began assembling a collection of tiny servings that she dished out onto the top of the overturned butter dish. When she’d finished, Yvette poked gingerly at the pile of foods with a paw, wishing for the mouse-sized utensils back on The Lucky Boomerang. She’d eaten more food with her hands since joining Captain Kipper’s crew than she had since being a kit, when her mother had had to force her kicking and squeaking into civilized society one admonishment at a time, and many admonishments per each meal time.
It felt uncouth, grabbing the food with her paws, while the otters, cats, and dogs — even Sequoia and Obsidian! — ate using real utensils.
But she was hungry, and the idea of fresh Europan cuisine was too fascinating to pass up. She grabbed a fistful of glistening, purple, roasted seaweed and held it up to her nose. She took a sniff before testing her teeth on the rubbery strands. They were chewy, salty, and sweet in a very satisfying way, and her whiskers lifted in a grin.
Jenny mirrored Yvette’s grin back at her, magnified to otter-size. “It’s good, right?”
Yvette nodded, mouth too full of seaweed to squeak. She hoped that if she kept her mouth too busy to speak, Jenny would lose interest in her and would go back to the conversation she’d been having with Kipper. The companionable conversation between two powerful women that had drawn Yvette to this end of the table…
For a while, her plan seemed to be working.
Jenny turned back to Kipper and said, “So, have you kept in touch with Josh?”
Captain Kipper shrugged. “We send each other video messages. He’s eloquent and funny, so he makes a good pen pal.” Kipper looked down at Yvette and explained, “Josh is a Siamese cat on Mars. I met him when I discovered the hidden purebred cat colony of Siamhalla.”
Yvette nodded quickly, trying to acknowledge the information and shake Kipper’s focus from her as soon as possible.
“Just a pen pal?” Jenny asked, a teasing tone in her voice.
“Just a pen pal,” Kipper agreed. Something in the cat’s green eyes made Yvette wonder if there was more between her and Jenny than either of them were letting on. Or maybe even, more than either of them had realized. “Being a space traveler doesn’t exactly leave a lot of room for personal relationships anyway. Always flying around.”
“Also, being a leader,” Jenny added ruefully. “It puts up strange walls between you and the people flying around with you. Or living on an ocean moon with you, as the case may be.”
“That’s true,” Kipper agreed. “I suppose that’s been the one silver lining of how the last election went. Alistair, my brother, lost to that hateful Golden Retriever who’s trying to shut down my space program. But… It has meant that Alistair finally had time to woo the European squirrel ambassador he’d been will-they-won’t-theying with all through his presidency. Now they’re properly each other’s boyfriends.”
“That’s nice,” Jenny agreed. “I’m happy for them. For better and worse, I can’t exactly lose re-election here, since Base Commander wasn’t an elected position in the first place…”
Jenny frowned, like she was imagining how her life might be different if she weren’t commanding this moon base, and in that moment, Yvette was one hundred percent certain there was an unacknowledged romantic tension between otter and tabby cat. Before Kipper could say anything in response, Trugger popped by unexpectedly, still dripping with Europa ocean water, and interrupted the moment. He said, “Oh, you never know, we held quite a few surprise elections back in our Jolly Barracuda days. Remember when Emily got tired of cooking clam chowder over and over again and held a vote to elect herself Selector of What the Chef Cooks As Well as Chef?”
Jenny laughed. “I do. We ate a lot more sushi after that vote.”
“Well, first we ate some really bungled clam chowder until Captain Cod stepped down as interim chef.” Trugger grabbed a blob of fleshy peach stuff from the table and popped it in his mouth. “Captain Cod was really good at winning those surprise elections.”
Kipper’s face brightened into a grin again, looking at something further in the distance, and she said, “Well, look, the guest of honor has arrived!” She gestured with a stripey paw toward the far end of the table.
Yvette looked down the long table, seated mostly with otters, to see a large, unusual figure standing at the end. At first, the mouse couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing — a confusion of tawny, speckled limbs, all jumbled together, but slowly, her eyes began to pick out the details.
The raptor stood taller than any of the otters or dogs at the table, hunched forward with its feathered, winglike arms close to its sides. Upon its back was settled an octopus — arms wrapped around the raptor’s neck like a complicated scarf — whose bare skin had mottled to match the raptor’s tawny brown and white feathers. Tentacles and feathers perfectly matched in color and pattern.
Captain Kipper stood up. “Nioli and Gy’krr! Welcome to our crew, and crew, meet our newest members.”
Continue on to Chapter 12…