by Mary E. Lowd
Sequoia felt like she’d spent the whole meal on Europa playing some sort of game with Amelia, catching each others’ eyes and then glancing away, trying not to get caught looking at each other. Except, she wasn’t sure if it was something they were both doing, or if it was all in her own head. She didn’t know why the mop dog had stayed with the crew when she was so clearly opposed to everything Captain Kipper was doing. And it made her feel all fluttery inside.
Or maybe that was the low gravity.
Every time Sequoia flipped her tail, she felt like she was going to float away in this low Europa gravity. Her tail felt like a sail, like on that fantastical painting Captain Kipper had been given by her old captain.
In spite of the joy of seeing Jupiter hanging over her head, and the deliciously weird local kelp dishes, Sequoia was relieved when she set paw back on The Lucky Boomerang. It had started to feel like home to her. And as she settled back into her post on the bridge, she felt a new kind of fluttering in her heart — one that had nothing to do with inconvenient crushes or unusual gravity.
It was all about stars.
Little yellow stars that could provide warm sunlight to a scattering of planets around them; white dwarf stars that twinkled prettily but were too cold to provide a home to any habitable planets; and red giant stars overflowing with too much heat, scorching the planets that used to rely on them. Sequoia loved them all. Especially the pulsars with their uneven light and binary stars that circled each other forever in a dance of gravity, drawn forever together but also held apart.
Like Sequoia and Amelia at lunch…
Sequoia was not going to think about a foolish dog when there were stars waiting to fill her senses.
The rest of the bridge crew took their places more belatedly than Sequoia. They’d stayed to see the painting installed in The Lucky Boomerang’s central corridor — the only space with enough blank wall space for it to fit. Most of the ship was too compact, contorted around all the technology it took to keep it afloat in the sky for a big ol’ painting to fit.
The ascent from Europa was quick, and then The Lucky Boomerang shot through the emptiness of space, away from Jupiter, away from Earth, away even from the sun. Away from everything that squirrels and all the other animals aboard had ever known.
And then came Sequoia’s moment to shine.
“Sequoia,” Captain Kipper said, “please set a course for our first epsilon-drive jump out of the solar system.”
Sequoia’s heart raced. She was going to go visit the stars. Her stars. The stars she’d loved since she was a kit. “Do you have anywhere in particular in mind, Captain?” Sequoia asked, barely able to believe she was asking those words. Barely able to believe any of this was happening.
“You know the mission,” Captain Kipper replied, looking comfortable in her captain’s seat. “And you know the stars. That’s why you’re here. We have fuel for several dozen jumps before we’ll have to go home, so why don’t you start us out easy. Somewhere not too close to any given star, just for safety as we get started. But also, you know, maybe a cluster where there are a couple of stars that might support life around them? Maybe where… humans might have headed?” The captain’s voice faltered over the word “humans.”
Talking about humans felt a little bit like talking about unicorns, or dragons, or vampires, or ghosts. Something less than real. Or maybe, more than real. Because sometimes, myths are more powerful than reality.
“Got it,” Sequoia said. She’d been given free reign to take the ship anywhere outside the solar system. And she knew the perfect place. A cluster of nice, mid-sized yellow stars that she personally thought of as the Acorn Cluster. The way they were all bunched up together made her think of acorns clustered together on a branch. Any of those stars could have planets orbiting them. Possibly nice, habitable planets.
Sequoia chose a location just outside of the cluster, allowing the safe distance Captain Kipper had requested, and programmed it into the ship’s computer. She truly couldn’t believe that her love of stars and cataloguing them had led to her being the navigator on an interstellar spacecraft. It made no sense. It was beyond her wildest imaginings. And yet it had happened. She was here, and she was about to be there. Right outside the Acorn Cluster.
“Course plotted, Captain,” Sequoia said, feeling more like a kit roleplaying one of the characters on Tri-Galactic Trek than a full-grown adult squirrel doing a real job.
“Onward and outward,” Captain Kipper replied, and everyone on the bridge giggled, recognizing the catchphrase of the Sphynx cat captain on Tri-Galactic Trek. So, Sequoia wasn’t the only one feeling like a kit pretending to be on a TV space show.
Sequoia supposed they all felt a little flustered and out of their element at this moment. They were about to do something they’d only seen happen in stories before.
Sequoia pressed the button locking her coordinates in place, and the epsilon jump sequence began.
Just like the first two jumps, a sensation of largeness filled Sequoia, starting deep in her belly and growing outward, as if she were expanding into a star herself. A squirrel star, red and bright. Then the sensation flipped, snapping her back to herself. It happened too fast. Sequoia would have lived in the moment between the beginning and end of an epsilon jump if she could have. She’d have chosen to be a star herself, like all the glittering, winking, bright spots in the sky which she loved so much.
But once again, all too fast, she was a squirrel.
A squirrel light-years away from every other squirrel. Light-years away from where she’d begun. The thought was dizzying.
Then her eyes raised from the control-panel in front of her to the vid-screen dominating the room. Those tiny specks of light, mere diamond chips strewn on an infinite black sand beach, had grown. Perhaps, if you didn’t know the stars as well as Sequoia did, they’d still look like nothing much. Spots of light. They were still far away. But so much closer. And Sequoia could make out the warmth, the yellowness of their light, with her bare eyes, without need for complicated tools that magnified them or read their spectrographic footprint. She could see them. For herself.
She’d been born for this moment. She’d dreamed of it so many times that the moment itself seemed to create beats across her life, echoing back to all her kit-hood dreams, making them retroactively prophetic.
“So… why here?” Amelia asked, voice echoing across the otherwise reverently silent bridge. “What made you pick these stars?”
Sequoia’s eyes flitted reluctantly away from the viewscreen to glare daggers at the scruffy mop dog who’d interrupted her moment of transcendence.
“I mean, there’s no record of where humans went,” Amelia continued. “I’m no expert, but I’ve read enough pop science books about archaeology and ancient human studies to know that anything like records of where they went were completely lost during the Dark Times. No one’s been able to decode the remnants of computers left from those times. So, what, did you just point at the sky and go, ‘There! Let’s fly there!’ Or is there some method to this madness?”
The dog’s voice had a mocking tone that made Sequoia’s thin red fur bristle all over her neck and shoulders. If she were a porcupine, she’d have been shooting quills at Amelia out of fury. Even though porcupines don’t actually do that. She’d have found a way.
“We’re not expecting to find humans on our first jump, Amelia,” Captain Kipper said with just enough condescension in her voice to ameliorate Sequoia’s fury some. At least the annoying dog was being spoken down to. Like she deserved.
“We’re expecting to find information,” Sequoia snapped primly. “And there’s an abundance of it here. Radio waves that will take years to reach our own solar system, assuming they ever do. If they’re being broadcast directionally, they might only be findable out this far. The background noise here is a veritable soup of information.”
“Info soup!” Trugger exclaimed. “Less delicious than clam chowder, but potentially much more valuable.”
“Much more,” Captain Kipper agreed. “We can stay here a few hours, absorbing and analyzing the data available. But then I’ll expect you to pick our next location. Our fuel gives us several dozen jumps, and our life support supplies give us several months. But our patience won’t last forever. I mean, yes, I imagine some of us would be happy analyzing the star data we can find out here forever–”
Based on the way the captain was looking at her, Sequoia suspected the captain knew that her squirrel navigator fell into exactly that category.
“–but there’s a lot of space out here, and our chances of finding something interesting will be higher if we can cover more ground in the time available.”
Sequoia wasn’t sure that was true. She could spend the next month analyzing the background noise in this one spot, and she might have as much chance of happening on a stray radio signal with useful information as she’d have if they hopped to a new location every few hours. Space is big, and when you’re surrounded by it in every direction, there’s a lot of information to analyze. That’s why astronomers could stay busy on Earth for entire lifetimes, even though the planet wasn’t hopping its way through the universe like a frantic frog.
There are always more corners of the sky to stare at, analyze, and dig into ever more deeply.
Even so, this corner was already one of Sequoia’s favorites. She truly believed that one or more of these yellow stars would prove to have planets, and she hoped at least one of those planets would have life on it.
So, she needed to hunker down and get to work if she was going to prove the Acorn Cluster deserved more of their time than a few hours.
Continue on to Chapter 14…