by Mary E. Lowd
Kipper knew that it was canonically hard to herd cats, and there were in fact two cats among her engineers… However, she thought that overall it was harder to herd engineers. And as a cat herself, instead of some kind of herd dog, she wasn’t at all sure that she was well suited to the task.
The gray tabby grumbled to herself about the difficulty of leadership as she floated through the halls of her ship, mostly as a way to console herself over the fact that she’d missed something as important as three-quarters of her engineering team going rogue and building an untested artificial gravity generator in deep space.
You don’t build something like that in deep space. You just don’t. You need safeguards and safety protocols and backup systems for building something like that.
By the time Kipper arrived in the cargo bay — where the rogue cats, mice, and raptor were clustered cheerfully around a device that looked like the unholy lovechild of a blender, toaster oven, and Klein bottle — her muttered depredations had mostly burned themselves out. All that was left was fire in her eyes and terror in the pit of her stomach.
The mice, cats, and probably raptor (though it was harder to read her feathered face) all grinned at her like kittens with cream dripping from their whiskers.
“Before you say anything,” Hedda the head engineer said, floating out in front of the others, “it works. You’re here, ready to berate us, because it works. You felt it.”
“We all felt it!” Yvette squeaked, spinning giddily in the restored zero-gee of the spaceship.
“You could have killed us all.” Kipper said the words so steadily and so quietly that without the context of the situation, no one could have even told from her tone that she was mad. That’s how mad she was. Too mad to even give in to displaying it.
Hedda and Katasha’s ears flattened contritely; the mice twisted their long tails in their front paws; and the raptor’s feathers fluffed out like a pin cushion.
“We wouldn’t have known what went wrong. We wouldn’t have even known we were dead, because that’s what dead means: you don’t know things anymore. And no one back home would have ever known what had happened to us. Just — poof — gone.” Kipper saw Katasha and several of the mice blanche at that point. They had families who cared about them. Families who’d be devastated if they didn’t return.
“I’m sorry,” Yvette said, drowning out the muttered apologies from the others. “It was my idea. I should… have asked you.”
Kipper kicked a hind paw against the nearest surface, twisting herself away from the gathering of engineers so she wouldn’t have to look at her foolish, insubordinate officers while collecting herself. She was too angry to look at them. She wanted to spit and claw and scream.
They had survived.
The moment of most danger was over — turning the device on.
And now she had to deal with the situation in front of her; not the one behind her. Even if she felt like that situation had been handled very, very badly. She couldn’t believe she’d been so out of touch with her crew on this tiny little ship that she hadn’t noticed three-quarters of her engineers creeping off to the cargo bay to build an artificial gravity generator.
She felt like she was back on The Jolly Barracuda, surrounded by reckless, silly otters. Except, she’d never been in charge when she was back there. The responsibility lay at Captain Cod’s webbed feet.
Now it was hers, and she didn’t like it. She didn’t like being in charge. Yet, here she was.
Kipper drew a deep, steadying breath and turned back toward the penitent-looking collection of animals. They knew they had messed up. They’d been gambling with their own lives as much as anyone else’s. There was no point in punishing them further than with her disapproval. At least, she’d done that much right: her crew clearly cared about her approval.
“I expect better from each of you,” Kipper said through clenched fangs. “Do you understand?”
Every head nodded.
“Now tell me about this–” Kipper waved her paw at the electronic abomination. “–device you’ve made.” It hardly looked big or impressive enough to generate artificial gravity… But then, the pipes which ran throughout the ship, allowing particles to accelerate fast enough to create epsilon jumps didn’t actually look like much either.
“It’s from the blueprints I brought.” Gy’krr spoke in a voice like seagulls calling to the distant sea. Confident, proud, but somehow also a little mournful.
“I thought it would be a good idea,” Yvette squeaked. “Most of us engineers didn’t have anything else much to do–”
Kipper really regretted not coming up with a task — a safe task — to have kept the engineers busy. That was her fault. Her oversight. And she was damned lucky that it hadn’t killed everyone.
“–and I figured, if we at least built the artificial gravity generator, we wouldn’t come back to Earth empty-pawed.”
Also Kipper’s fault: her crew was terrified of coming back to Earth without having found something quasi-magical, something of mythical proportions out here in the galaxy. As if hopping around the galaxy like a doggarned water-skipper on a lake wasn’t good enough.
“We’re collecting amazing data–” Kipper started to say, repeating the party line that she’d been offering Sequoia all week as the squirrel grew more and more anxious. Clearly, the party line wasn’t working.
With a deep sigh, Kipper admitted to her wayward engineers, “Look, none of us know what we’re doing, and we’re all making this up as we go along. But that doesn’t mean anyone else — anyone outside our crew — can tell that. We’re going to come home heroes to the people who matter — the people who care about progress and science and technological advancement and exploring space. This isn’t going to be the end of your careers. I promise. I mean, I may not be able to keep the Uplifted States Space Administration alive, but I’m gonna land on my feet like I always have, and I’ll make sure to have positions available for all of you who want them. As long as we’re all still alive and no one blows us up with an untested gravity generator.”
And just like that, Kipper had looped back around to hissing angrily through her teeth. She could feel the fur under her uniform collar puffing out.
That sudden surge of unexplained gravity had been downright scary. She’d thought they’d been hit by a space rock or fallen into the inescapable orbit of an invisible black hole. She’d thought she’d failed her whole crew, and they were all about to be scrambling for their lives… not that it would help. This far from anywhere habitable, if the ship took damage — real damage, the kind of damage that would feel like a sudden burst of gravity — they’d all be doomed.
It was really hard to shake that fear off and just, you know, act like a reasonable captain in charge of her crew.
But that’s what they needed.
They were all staring at her, looking wide-eyed and terrified again. Like they were more afraid of her reprobation than they’d been of the untested gravity generator floating in the middle of the room between them all.
“Okay, right,” Kipper said, gesturing at the device again. “So, tell me: how does it work?”
Katasha kicked a striped paw against the wall she was floating beside, pushing herself out in front of the others. The younger cat said, “It’s ingenious really. The artificial gravity is generated by a pocket of extra-dimensional vacuum which the device then manipulates into different field shapes based on its settings. Right now, we have the field dialed down so small that you’d have to be inside the device to feel it, and even then, it would be lower than the gravity of a small asteroid.”
A couple of the mice chuckled and tittered something about how they would fit inside the artificial gravity generator, even if the cats wouldn’t. Not that any of them would be foolish enough to climb inside the device. No, no, never that foolish.
Kipper narrowed her eyes, trying to understand everything Katasha had said. She’d never actually been a scientist or an engineer. She’d been an office temp, handling meaningless paperwork, before she’d somehow found herself a hero astronaut and now captain.
“So… uh… extra-dimensional vacuum? What is that?” Kipper asked, hoping she didn’t sound too foolish but also knowing that it was her job sometimes to sound foolish. Sounding foolish was better than being foolish, and pretending to understand something that you actually don’t is very, very foolish. Especially on a spaceship. Kipper had learned that the hard way the first time the otter crew of The Jolly Barracuda expected her to breathe oxo-agua.
Katasha continued, saying, “An extra-dimensional vacuum is a vacuum that exists in more dimensions than the usual three dimensions of space that we exist in.”
Kipper frowned. She thought, but didn’t say, “That explanation isn’t very helpful.” Sometimes, it felt like she had no choice but to be foolish… Maybe it was the universe that was foolish and not her. Because extra-dimensional vacuums sounded very foolish to her, and yet she’d felt the gravitational pull it had caused. “Okay, so, uh, how did you get a pocket of extra-dimensional vacuum?” Kipper pressed.
Hedda answered this time: “We charged the device during the last epsilon jump. Essentially, while the ship was jumping through hyper space, the device was scooping up… uh… the emptiness of those other dimensions we passed through.”
Kipper’s ears splayed. She couldn’t stop them. She tried. It didn’t do any good to display her discomfited feelings to her crew, but it also didn’t do any good to explain that fact to her ears. They were going to show her emotions right now whether she liked it or not. She was still too rattled by what had felt like her recent brush with death.
And then Trugger swooped into the room like a swirling, swerving, fluffy brown arrow with faded remnants of the green stripes still dyed into his fur. “We are picking up the weirdest signal on the bridge,” he announced as soon as he’d settled into a still position, with his tail curled around like he was a giant comma.
“What kind of signal?” Kipper asked, her ears perking forward now. Her body was already preparing to brace against death again.
Trugger held out a computer pad, and the engineers crowded around to look at its screen before Kipper could make out anything meaningful.
“That’s our extra-dimensional vacuum!” Yvette squeaked.
“Yeah, it sure is,” Katasha agreed with the mouse. “It’s showing up like a giant red, you-are-here dot on those scans. I wonder…”
Katasha and Yvette looked at each other; mouse and cat with eyes locked together, seemingly thinking the exact same thing.
“What?” Kipper asked. “What are you thinking?”
Katasha gestured to the mouse. “This project was your idea, you say it.”
Yvette turned toward her captain and said slowly, seemingly amazed by her own words as she said them, “We can pick up extra-dimensional gravity pockets on our scans, so… maybe if we scan farther afield for them… which we should be able to do, because they exist in hyperspace, unlike radio waves which we have to scan for in real space, and thus are limited by traveling at less than light speed…”
Kipper finally caught up and interrupted: “We might find more pockets of them.”
“And that would mean more people generating artificial gravity,” Yvette concluded.
“Humans,” Katasha muttered, sounding both awed and confused.
“Or octopi,” Gy’krr pointed out. “The gravity generator is an octopus technology…”
“Or other, completely alien societies!” Hedda added. The calico cat’s golden eyes were practically glowing at the thought. “Other technologically advanced alien societies.”
And with that, a look passed between the rest of the engineers, bouncing around between them like a scramball on a game court, until as one, they rushed toward the bridge, shouting and squeaking and meowing and squawking, a riotous ruckus that would wake the antsy squirrel who Kipper had so recently sent away to sleep.
All that was left in the cargo bay was Kipper, Trugger who looked startled, and the enigmatic appliance that had caused it all.
Kipper glared at the artificial gravity generator for causing so much trouble. Then she gestured to Trugger to follow her and said, “Come on, we need to go keep an eye on them before they do anything else foolish.”
“Like hopping us into the middle of a much more technologically advanced and potentially hostile civilization?” Trugger asked.
Kipper shuddered. “Yeah, something exactly like that.” She’d never heard Trugger be the voice of reason before. Those ambitious, clever little mice were getting completely out of control. Kipper wasn’t sure if she was impressed or terrified. Probably both.
Continue on to Chapter 17…