by Mary E. Lowd
After a week of hopping across the galaxy, cataloguing stars and background radiation signatures everywhere they went, The Lucky Boomerang wasn’t feeling like such a lucky vessel to the hopeful crew aboard. They’d found no sign of humans. No sign of alien life. Nothing.
They were beautiful stars, and the squirrel navigator still seemed to be happy once she’d accepted the captain’s insistence that the crew was better off collecting data across a multitude of different sites rather than digging really deeply into one site.
Yvette could see Sequoia’s point — even knowing very little about astronomy, she was willing to believe that trying to deeply understand one new point of view could potentially have more value than shallowly understanding a couple dozen. But she also knew that dozens of shoddy snapshots were going to look more impressive to all the animals back on Earth than a single, highly detailed painting. Unless, of course, that painting had an actual human in it, like the one Captain Cod had gifted Captain Kipper of the sailing ship.
Yvette had spent a lot of time staring at that oil painting during the last week. And thinking about the things Captain Kipper had said about being the only one of your species in space. Or in any place.
Yvette hadn’t set out to be an astronaut. It wasn’t the fulfilment of a lifelong dream like it had been for Sequoia, Katasha, Hedda, or Georgie. And originally, she’d planned to make the money she earned working for The Lucky Boomerang and return home a relatively rich mouse. Devote herself full-time to architecture, without feeling beholden to take the best paying jobs rather than the most fulfilling ones.
She was starting to see herself as something of a pioneer or potential role-model. And she wasn’t sure she was comfortable with that. But she also wasn’t sure she felt right about simply declining a mantle that had been laid on her shoulders. If she continued working in space, even just staying on with The Lucky Boomerang, would she be making it easier for more mice to find their way into space travel? Perhaps mice who had always dreamed of it, but hadn’t seen a path to making it possible before she paved the way?
She thought she might. And the possibility… it was enough to make it worthwhile. Maybe she didn’t care as much about the stars or finding humans as some of the other crew members, but she did enjoy the complexity of the spaceship’s design, and she enjoyed thinking about ways to improve it. Spaceship design wasn’t exactly like architecture, but it was related. And she thought her background in architecture might actually be helpful for designing future spaceships with the crew’s comfort in mind. She could make a career out of that and be happy.
And all of that would be easier if she could convince Josie, Mulberry, and Wendell to stay on with The Lucky Boomerang as well.
So, while the other three mice and two cats of the engine room had fallen back on the poker games they’d played before liftoff to amuse themselves, Yvette had been staring at the painting in the hallway, searching for inspiration.
Sequoia and the dachshunds (who had turned out to also have studied astronomy) were busy analyzing the star data The Lucky Boomerang had been collecting, and Obsidian had fallen deeply into an ongoing conversation with Nioli and Gy’krr about their respective societies and lives within them up until now. From what Yvette had glimpsed of their conversation, it looked like the kind of heart-to-heart that college freshmen have after three in the morning during their first weeks of life away from the homes where they’d grown up. Their first time truly stepping into a new way of life.
Being on The Lucky Boomerang was a little like doing college over again — a whole new place with new people, and once you get there, it becomes your whole world.
But you graduate from college. What would graduating from The Lucky Boomerang even look like?
Yvette kind of hoped it would look like the painting of the sailing ship. Adventure. Camaraderie. And great beauty.
But she feared it would look more like The Lucky Boomerang itself — plain gray metal arranged into boxy shapes with sharp corners and nothing fitting quite right.
But maybe, she could make it fit better.
Yvette decided what her first step would be.
As much as the mice had come to love flying through the zero gee, using wings they’d sewn together out of scraps cut from an extra blanket during the ship’s first day of star-hopping, there was no doubt that it made designing living and work spaces more difficult than if the ship had gravity. Of course, providing a natural replacement for gravity — by spinning the ship to create centripetal forces pushing everyone and everything inside toward the outer edges of the ship — would involve a complete redesign.
But there was another option — Nioli and Gy’kyrr had brought plans with them, recently uncovered at the Europa Base, for an artificial gravity generator.
Yvette thought it was time to get to work on building one…
Yvette flapped her fabric wings and flew right into the middle of the floating poker game in the middle of the engine room. All of the players stared at her past their hands of cards, and hovering among the drifting poker chips, she folded her wings and said, “Come on, we can play poker on Earth. We’re in deep space right now! Let’s take advantage of that!”
“How?” Josie asked drily. “You want to play some sort of zero gee sport to pass the time instead?”
“I don’t want to just pass the time,” Yvette replied. “I want to further the cause of interstellar space travel.”
Josie’s eyes narrowed, crinkling the creamy orange fur of her brow. “And how do you propose we do that?”
“I want to build the artificial gravity generator that Nioli and Gy’krr brought plans for.”
“But I like the zero gee,” Mulberry said, wrinkling her dark-furred nose. “We can get anywhere without help in this gargantuan ship.”
“Sure,” Yvette agreed, shoving a big red disk of a poker chip that had floated up to her out of the way. “The zero gee is convenient for us while we’re on a vessel built to accommodate larger animals, but what if mice ever made their own vessels? And it’s not like you have to turn the artificial gravity all the way up to Earth levels, just because you can. We could keep it at a nice Europa-like level.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Mulberry admitted, looking intrigued.
“Like I said, this is about furthering the cause of space travel,” Yvette insisted. “Progress! Technological advancement!” The others looked skeptical. “Impressing everyone you meet for the rest of your life because you can say you were among the first group to build a working artificial gravity generator this side of the asteroid that wiped out dinosaurs on Earth?”
“Yeah, okay.” Josie folded her hand of playing cards, dividing it into two stacks as she did, and then used those stacks as supplemental wings to fly to the pile of chips floating in the middle. “Help us clear this card game away, and then we can dig through the backup supplies and materials in the cargo bay to see if we really have all the supplies we’d need. Are Nioli and Gy’krr onboard with your plan? ‘Cause, they’re kind of the experts, and we’d probably need their help.”
“I’ll get them onboard,” Yvette said, feeling a lightness in her heart that had nothing to do with the lack of gravity in the room and everything to do with one of her oldest friends agreeing to work on a project with her.
Next Yvette turned to the two cats who’d been playing cards with the three mice, but she didn’t have to say anything, just throw a quizzical look their way.
“Oh, you had me at ‘further the cause of interstellar space travel,'” Katasha said.
And Hedda said, “I’m always up for building something.” The calico’s golden eyes twinkled. She was an engineer through and through. “The only reason I hadn’t started already is that these space jumps every few hours have me expecting something exciting to happen any moment…”
“And then it doesn’t,” Katasha finished the thought for Hedda, adding a dose of wryness to it. “Because it’s a doggarned big galaxy out here, and if humans had really been planning to come back, they’d have done so by now.” She rolled her clear blue eyes. She was a cat with strong opinions on dog religions. “I’m all for exploring space, but looking for humans is a silly publicity stunt if you ask me.”
“You don’t think we’ll find anything out here?” Josie asked. She was still trying to help gather the poker cards and chips together, but her efforts were much less effective than those of the cats, whose paws were as large as a whole mouse.
“I don’t know,” Katasha admitted. “But I think we’re far more likely to find aliens than humans.”
“Really weird, impossible to understand aliens!” Hedda added gleefully with the kind of Cheshire grin that could make a mouse shudder all the way to the tip of her tail if she thought it were aimed hungrily at her.
“Yeah, like space blimps who feed on nebula gasses or sentient rocks that vibrate in harmony with each other to communicate!” Katasha agreed.
There was something mesmerizing for a mouse about watching two cats play together, even if it was only verbally. Terrifying, beautiful giants who somehow managed to be benevolent in spite of the genetic, pre-uplift history of their species.
Civilization is a wonderful thing. Yvette was definitely a fan. She much preferred exploring space with these cats to hiding from them in some dingy hole in a wall while they hunted her on four paws.
“Okay, then,” Yvette said, spreading her fabric wings. “I’ll see the rest of you in the cargo bay, after I check in with Nioli and Gy’krr.”
The other mice and cats waved her on, and Yvette flew away toward the barracks. When she got there, she found Gy’krr curled into a tight ball of feathers, nesting on his cramped bunk. Nioli wasn’t in sight. Yvette guessed the octopus — and probably the other octopus, Obsidian — was in the tank of water that served as their bunk, closer to the center of the ship. Every time Yvette had seen them, all week long, they’d been signing at each other, rapidly twisting and contorting their tentacles into ever-evolving series of signs. Yvette had done a pretty good job of learning the octopus half of Swimmer’s Sign so she could understand Obsidian when he talked, but either they weren’t sticking with just Swimmer’s Sign, or their tentacles simply moved too fast and fluidly for her to keep up.
With a deep breath to steel herself, Yvette decided she should try figuring out if the raptor curled up in her bunk was actually asleep… or just resting. Yvette severely doubted she’d be brave (or foolish) enough to risk waking a sleeping raptor up. She’d known plenty of mice in her time who woke up grumpy and snappish if their sleep was disturbed. Her own mother included. She didn’t want to see what a grumpy and snappish bird of prey was like. At her size, Yvette would be less than a mouthful to Gy’krr. A raptor like that made cats seems positively unthreatening.
With a few flaps of her fabric wings, Yvette fluttered like a little fairy through the room until she was hovering only inches away from the raptor’s speckled feathers. “Ah… uh… ahem?” she managed to squeak out.
The ball of feathers shifted, uncurling, until Yvette could see a giant golden eye staring at her from its middle. Gy’krr had managed to curl herself completely around, until her head was tucked under her arm, much as it would have been if she were a bird and her arm were an actual wing. “Yes?” the raptor hissed.
“The rest of us… from the engine room… the mice and cats, that is, we, uh, thought we’d try building the artificial gravity generator that you brought plans for? And, uh, we’d like your help?” Yvette wasn’t thrilled with how her already squeaky-sounding voice rose into a shrill, pleading whine at the end of her sentence. But there was something very deep inside her brain screaming at her to be afraid of this raptor. Birds of prey are nightmare fuel for mice.
The bird of prey uncurled further, lifting her head up and blinking those giant golden eyes. “Really?” Gy’krr’s voice sounded oddly hopeful, almost pleading.
“Well, yeah,” Yvette said, flapping her wings a few times. She couldn’t help wanting to back away from the raptor’s mouth, with its sharp teeth, even if she was here to talk to the owner of that mouth. “We engineers are all kind of bored at this point, waiting to find out if… well, we find anything out here. So, we thought, why not? And you should know more about those plans than any of the rest of us…”
Gy’krr blinked her golden eye again, and when it reopened, Yvette saw the clear gleam of a smile there. “Yes, yes, please, I would like something to do while my octopus self is busy.”
“Awesome!” Yvette said. She wondered about Gy’krr’s use of the phrase “octopus self,” but she didn’t want to press her luck right now. Maybe she could ask about it later. She knew Gy’krr and Nioli were a bonded pair, but she really didn’t know what that meant. “Do you, uh, want to come to the cargo bay and help us figure out if we have the right supplies?”
“Yes,” Gy’krr agreed, looking much more lively. “I will follow?”
“Sure,” Yvette said, feeling unsure about the idea of having a giant bird of prey following her through the halls of the spaceship. That said, it was probably easier than trying to dodge about next to her in this zero gravity space.
The mouse began flapping her fabric wings and got up enough momentum to soar through the barracks, down the hall, and right into the cargo bay. Nothing was very far away from anywhere else aboard a spaceship. With all the empty space outside, it seemed kind of ironic to Yvette how much space inside was at a premium. But then, livable, breathable space is worth a whole lot more than vacuum.
Inside the cargo bay, Mulberry and Wendell were poring over a computer pad with the blueprints for the gravity generator while the cats and Josie dug through the carefully stored backup supplies. They had already started a floating pile of loose pieces, no longer carefully stored away, ready for them to build with.
“We aren’t going to actually need any of these pieces for the main engine are we?” Josie asked, carrying a spool of thread-thin silver wire from a drawer at the side of the room and toward the floating pile in the middle. “I mean, this stuff is all for if something in the ship breaks, right? So, we probably shouldn’t use it up… in case we need it.”
Katasha turned to gaze at the pile with her clear blue, calculating Siamese eyes. Her dark ears skewed. “I mean, worst case scenario, we tear apart the gravity generator and scavenge the pieces we need back, right?”
Hedda shrugged her splotchy calico shoulders which were bare under the rolled up arms of her blue uniform. “The engine works. I don’t think we’re going to actually need any of this.”
“Unless we get hit by a space rock in just the wrong way,” Wendell muttered in his tiny voice.
“Well, if we do need it back, it’ll still be here,” Hedda argued. “Like Katasha said.”
Yvette was troubled to realize that Wendell had a point — yanking pieces back out of an artificial gravity generator would be a lot less efficient than just using fresh new pieces that were properly stored in the cupboards and drawers meant for them. And a few minutes of inefficiency could mean life or death out here in space.
That said, she really didn’t want to side with Wendell against the feline engineers. And more than that, she didn’t want to go back to sitting on her paws while that squirrel navigator hopped all over the galaxy searching for needles in a haystack.
Besides, Yvettte suspected that the feline engineers’ cavalier attitude came from knowing, deep down, that if something went wrong, a few minutes wouldn’t make a difference, because the kind of things that go wrong with an interstellar engine don’t take a few minutes. They happen in a matter of seconds. And it’s better not to think about them.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Yvette said. “And look!” She gestured at Gy’krr as the bird of prey glided into the room, far too large to need a mouse to draw attention to her. “Gy’krr’s here to help us!”
Gy’krr’s long neck seemed to shrink, drawing her angular head back into her feathered shoulders. “Well… help… yes. But…”
“What’s wrong?” Yvette asked, risking flying back closer to the raptor with a few flaps of her fabric wings.
“Not so helpful with just…” Gy’krr held out her talons, as if there were something wrong with them, like they were less a part of her and more just useless lumps attached to her. “Am used to having tentacles. Not so… dexterous now.”
Josie’s round, orange ears flattened against her back. On a mouse flattened ears was more of a stricken look and less like the annoyed expression cats got when their ears flattened. “Are you saying you don’t know how to be helpful without Nioli to be your… uh… hands?”
“No,” Gy’krr objected, yellow eyes narrowing. But then her feathers ruffled and she admitted, “Yes. Am used to being… only half. Other half self busy now.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Yvette said, trying to avoid anything going wrong with her plans here. “You have mice to be your hands now.”
“And cats!” Katasha exclaimed, happily digging through the pile of wires, gears, gaskets, and whatnot floating in the middle of the room. She looked like a kitten pawing at a pile of string. Perfectly happy, completely entranced. “Now what do we start with?”
Wendell began reading from the blueprints with Mulberry occasionally correcting him. Yvette helped the cats and Josie begin assembling the disparate pieces, and eventually, Gy’krr found herself drawn into the process. The raptor stayed back from the others, keeping her talons tucked beside her as if they really were folded wings and not just feathered arms ending in claw-like hands. But she helped by pointing out ways the others could assemble the pieces more efficiently, based on what she’d learned about other ancient octopus technologies at the Europa base. Her presence was definitely an asset, and as the building went along, the raptor even began to warm up and talk about her life a bit with the others.
Yvette didn’t know if the others were as fascinated by Gy’krr as she was, but she did notice that everyone quieted down whenever the raptor started to speak. She was the only one of them who’d ever been inside the clouds of Jupiter, onboard a raptor vessel, or had her consciousness technologically joined with an octopus.
Yvette found the symbiotic relationship Gy’krr described with Nioli utterly fascinating. It sounded somewhere between a marriage of best friends; a lifelong collaboration between a musician and a lyricist; and something just utterly indescribable if you hadn’t experienced it yourself. Though, it did make Yvette think of her brief experiences doing partner gymnastics — needing to coordinate her every move with another person, totally reliant on the other mouse fulfilling her parts of the routine.
Yvette couldn’t tell if she was deeply jealous of the bond Gy’krr described having with Nioli… or kind of viscerally horrified by it. It would be confusing and intrusive enough to have one’s mind melded with another of one’s own species. At least then you’d understand how all the different limbs and senses worked. Add on a bunch of tentacles and sucker discs that could literally taste the things they touched and change color with their mood? And goodness, that sounded more like a drug trip to Yvette than a partnership.
Speaking of drug trips, the ship-wide intercom clicked on, and Captain Kipper’s voice spoke over it: “Crew, please prepare for another epsilon jump in five minutes.”
“I don’t know how valuable the star data they’re collecting is,” Wendell grumbled, “but these jumps are very disruptive.”
Yvette’s hopes of keeping Wendell with the crew had been diminishing more and more. He clearly really hated the sensation of epsilon jumping, and while he seemed to be enjoying his role reading out instructions from the blueprints, he didn’t seem especially excited about the project itself.
Fortunately, Josie and Mulberry had been having a great time brainstorming with the cats about how an artificial gravity generator could be used to create an uneven gravity field aboard a spaceship, making some portions zero gee and others low gee depending on what was most convenient for the activities meant to take place there.
Yvette was pretty sure that Mulberry had fallen so deeply in love with life as a moustronaut that she’d stay with The Lucky Boomerang whether any of the other mice did or not. And if Mulberry and Yvette both stayed? Josie would probably stay too.
If Yvette could have seen herself now — hanging out with her old best friend, building an artificial gravity generator on a spaceship hundreds of lightyears from Earth — back when she’d been lonely, bitter, and isolated over the last few years… She never would have believed it. She’d been starting to give up on friendship and happiness. They’d seemed too hard to her. As impossible for her as jumping from one star-system to another.
Neither of which had turned out to be impossible at all. Life has a way of being surprising.
Continue on to Chapter 15…