by Mary E. Lowd
“You need to sleep,” Captain Kipper insisted to the bleary-eyed, scraggle-tailed squirrel, mere minutes after the latest epsilon jump. “I can make that an order if you’d like. And it doesn’t have to be more than a nap, but if you don’t lie down in the barracks and close those eyes for a while, you’re not allowed on the bridge anymore.”
Sequoia glared at the screen of data in front of her, flooding with new numbers in this new location that represented stars she hadn’t had time to get to know well yet. She didn’t dare look up at the captain. She knew she’d keep glaring, and she figured that glaring at her captain was a bad idea. She’d probably end up ordered to sleep for a solid eight hours instead of just catching a nap.
Napping was all she’d done, all week long. And mostly only when Captain Kipper made her. She needed to study these stars; she needed to study them before the ship jumped away from them again. She needed to be here, on the bridge, studying her stars. Because she didn’t know when she’d ever get to do something like this again. And the thought of being stuck in the solar system, unable to hop about the galaxy like a water-skipper on the top of a lake was unthinkable to her now. She hated that she’d ever been trapped on a single world, and she never wanted to do that to herself again.
“I’ll walk her to the barracks,” Amelia woofed.
Sequoia laughed, an unhinged sound. “Walk! Hah, right. You mean, float.” But she didn’t struggle when the scruffy dog’s paws laid on her shoulders, pulling her gently away from her post.
The two of them floated down the halls of the ship together, Amelia continuing to guide Sequoia with her paws. The dog’s paws felt solid and soothing against Sequoia’s back. She knew the stars she’d been studying were real, physical objects out there in space, but to her, all week, they’d been numbers and graphs on computer screens. Ephemeral. Phantom images of real objects. And she loved them with all her heart, but studying them was possibly making her lose her mind a little bit. She felt like a kitten who’d been chasing the red light of a laser pointer all week, with no actual toys she could get her paws on and sink her claws into.
She was starting to realize — and this should have been obvious, but somehow it hadn’t been — that the stars didn’t love her back.
By the time the dog and squirrel made it into the barracks, the sensation of floating made Sequoia feel like she was already dreaming, even though she still wasn’t asleep. She was too wound up, deep inside, to sleep. No matter what the captain ordered.
Regardless, Sequoia let Amelia help her into a bunk and strap the restraints around her body that would stop her from floating right back out of the bunk.
Then the squirrel watched as the scruffy dog secured herself into the bunk across the way.
The dog and squirrel stared at each other. Unblinking. Sequoia started to giggle, because it felt like a staring contest and she couldn’t think of anything sillier than launching a bunch of astronauts into the sky so that they could skip to the other side of the galaxy and have staring contests.
“You’re not sleeping,” Amelia observed drily.
“Nope!” Sequoia agreed cheerfully.
“You’re not even trying.”
“Hey now,” Sequoia said. “You don’t know that. You just don’t know how hard sleep is for me.”
“Apparently.” The mop dog picked at the straps holding her in her bunk. “You do realize that all the data the ship’s gathering will still be available when we get home and that the ship keeps gathering data while you sleep, and on top of all of that, those dachshund brothers are sifting through all those numbers right now anyway.”
“Yeah…” Sequoia agreed grimly.
“So what’s the big deal? Why won’t you — or can’t you — sleep?” Amelia stopped fidgeting with her restraining straps and turned her warm brown eyes toward Sequoia.
The squirrel almost gasped at the power of those brown eyes. She hadn’t realized how little the dog looked directly at her until their eyes locked, and it almost felt like too much. It wasn’t that Amelia didn’t look at her… not quite. But never so directly. Flitting looks. Angled looks. This gaze was direct, and it was filled with heat. Just like a star.
Amelia really wanted to understand what was driving Sequoia to mad, sleep-deprived depths.
“Studying the stars is all I’ve ever done that I cared about,” Sequoia said, her tone even and plain. She was speaking her simple truth. The core of who she was. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. And now, I have the freedom to study the stars from new angles, from a degree of closeness… I can…” She faltered. It was all too big to explain. Like the stars. Astronomers and astrophysicists tried to capture them in long lists of numbers and equations. But beyond all of that… They were so big, it was almost incomprehensible to small mammals like squirrels and dogs.
Sequoia was losing Amelia’s interest, and she could see the dog’s brown eyes straying.
Sequoia drew a deep breath and started over, from a new angle. “When I was a kit, there was a total solar eclipse. My family had to take the train for three days to get to a place that would experience totality, and it was the most fun I’d ever had. My cousins and I stormed up and down the train, exploring the dining car and the lounge car and…” She shook her head, this part was beside the point. “When we got there, we stayed with a distant relative — a squirrel who had married an otter — and we all set up folding chairs in their wide backyard, right beside a babbling stream, and we kits kept playing, but…”
Amelia was staring steadily at her again.
“We made a special viewer out a cardboard box and wore special glasses, so we could watch the moon eating away at the sun, taking bigger and bigger bites out of it.” Sequoia’s voice had grown hollow and wavery, like she was channeling the memory of her past self. “The other kits thought it was fun, but I was entranced by the changing shape of the little yellow disk in the viewer. And then totality came. The air turned chill. Everything turned strangely twilight in the middle of the day. We took our glasses off, because the sun was blocked completely behind the moon, and we didn’t need them anymore. And–” Her voice choked off, remembering the moment that had come to define her life.
“I remember seeing an eclipse when I was a pup,” Amelia said, trying to encourage the squirrel to continue. “But I wasn’t anywhere near totality, so I only sort of saw it. I saw videos of the actual totality.”
“It’s not the same,” Sequoia said. She said it quickly, but somehow, she didn’t snap the words. Just rushed them. “When you’re there… It’s like the distance between the Earth and the sun suddenly becomes real and understandable. A tangible distance that your brain can understand. There’s you, small and furry and full of blood rushing through your body, pushed and pulled by a beating heart. But then above you… There’s the moon, and it’s not just a disc in the sky. It’s a real, solid object, a giant round rock, hanging impossibly in space between you and the sun. And suddenly, the sun feels like a real thing. Huge, and fiery, and golden, just peeking out from around the edges of the moon. Almost like something you could touch, if you could just reach high enough… It feels real.” Nothing else had ever felt that real. She couldn’t stress those words strongly enough to communicate what she had felt. Instead, feeling her failure to capture the moment she remembered so vividly, she muttered, “And it never did before. It never felt real, and even when you were looking right up at the sky, you simply didn’t know how much you were missing.” Sequoia’s voice choked again.
Silence filled the space between the dog and squirrel the way that emptiness filled the space between the Earth, moon, and sun.
Sequoia wrung the final words of her story out of herself: “Then eight minutes later it’s over, and you can’t believe you’ll never get to feel that close to the sun ever again.”
“There have been other eclipses since then,” Amelia objected.
Sequoia shook her head. “I couldn’t become some kind of junky eclipse chaser, throwing all of my money into traveling around the world following the eclipses for a few minutes here and there of that high.”
“So, instead you devoted your whole life to studying stars?” Amelia sounded skeptical of that trade, and for the first time, Sequoia wondered if her whole career had been nothing more than a pale imitation of what she’d really wanted to do: chase eclipses.
And yet, her career had brought her here. Up among the stars.
And just like those eight minutes of totality, this trip would end soon. And she couldn’t stand losing that feeling of being close to the stars once again. She’d been chasing that feeling her whole life.
“I… I don’t know what it is, really,” Sequoia mumbled, mostly to herself. “Was it the chill in the air? The twilight? And now, is it the zero gravity? Could I just go on vacation to Moonville Funpark and bounce in the low-gee chamber every couple of years? I mean, this drive, this compulsion I feel… it just doesn’t make sense…”
“That it’s really the stars pulling you toward them?” Amelia asked.
“Yeah, I mean, they’re all still just specks in the sky around us. Even when we’re up here with them.” Sequoia was as befuddled by her own obsession and the paradoxes within it as anyone else could be. She’d experienced it, growing with her as she’d grown up, but she still didn’t understand it: what pulled her so strongly toward the stars? Why wouldn’t anything else substitute for them?
Amelia’s voice lowered to a reverent whisper, and she said, “Has it ever occurred to you that the stars might not be what you’re looking for?”
“What?” Sequoia asked, confused. “What else do you think I could be looking for?”
“Humans,” Amelia said, and Sequoia had to stop herself from laughing.
The dog just sounded so serious, and she was so completely off-base. Sequoia had never cared two shakes of her tail about humans or what had happened to them.
But clearly, the dog cared. And finally, Sequoia understood why Amelia had been hanging over her shoulder all week, breathing down her neck, and just generally staying much too close. The dog was hoping beyond hope to get a glimpse of her gods.
Sequoia shook her head, trying to do so as kindly and gently as she could. “No,” she said. “No, it’s not that.”
Amelia smiled condescendingly. “You say that, but how can you know? They’re out here somewhere, and even if you’re not thinking about them consciously… your spirit may be drawn to them. That’s completely understandable. I feel it too. But you know, they don’t want to be found, don’t you? When we’re ready for them, they’ll come back to us. The scriptures tell us that. Until then… It’s just hubris that keeps us looking, and we’re never going to find them. Not until they think we’re ready.”
Sequoia sighed, suddenly feeling the full weight of her exhaustion settle upon her. Religious dogs made her feel very tired.
Or… wait… was that… gravity?
“Why are we being pulled to the bottom of the ship?” Sequoia asked, trying not to panic as gravity pushed her gently down against her bunk. Sudden sensations of gravity in the middle of empty space could not be a good sign.
Then one of the mouse’s voices came over the ship-wide intercom: “Sorry everyone! What you’re feeling right now is a side effect of the artificial gravity generator that we engineers — who’ve been at loose ends all week — have been building in the cargo bay. We didn’t realize it would kick into effect as soon as we finished wiring it up, or we would have warned you all!”
Sequoia heard a string of half-hissed, half-growled swear words and other invectives echo down the hallways. It sounded like Captain Kipper had just realized half of her crew had gone rogue and started building dangerously untested devices in the middle of deep space.
Sequoia didn’t know if it was the sudden chaos — which reminded her soothingly of being a kit with her parents arguing about nothing much in the other room, knowing they were in charge and would take care of whatever was bothering them — or the gentle press of gravity, but finally, she was able to fall asleep.
Continue on to Chapter 16…