Otters In Space 4 – Chapter 18: Kipper

by Mary E. Lowd

An excerpt from Otters In Space 4: First Moustronaut.  If you’d prefer, you can start with Chapter 1, return to the previous chapter, or skip ahead.

“Have you picked a star system?” Kipper asked gently.

Kipper stared at the viewscreen in complete wonder and awe.  She had assembled this team, dragged them into the middle of nowhere on a wild goose chase, and yet, there they were:  wild geese.  The viewscreen was filled with pockets and clusters of pockets of extra-dimensional vacuums (EDV).  The scan was overlaid on top of a star map, showing that the vacuum pockets grouped around yellow stars, the exact kind of stars Sequoia had kept The Lucky Boomerang chasing after all week.

Not all of the yellow stars were surrounded by the pockets.  Most of the yellow stars were single, lonely points of light.  Like the stars they’d been jumping between all week.

However, most of the yellow stars with EDV pockets clustered around them wibbled with the characteristic wobble of a star whose light was occasionally blocked by orbiting planets.  Kipper supposed that made sense — star systems with planets had more resources and were more likely to foster the development of life or even lure life from other parts of the galaxy.  That’s why they’d been highest on Sequoia’s priority list.

Kipper felt a complicated burst of pride — both in herself for selecting Sequoia as the ship’s navigator and even more strongly in Sequoia herself for having been absolutely right about what they should be looking for.  It was just that there were so doggarned many stars in the sky.  Even knowing what to look for, they could have hopped about from star to star for years without finding anything, so long as they didn’t have a map to lead them.

Now they had a map.

They just had to choose which cluster on it looked most promising.

And the person best qualified to make that choice was the hyperactive red squirrel who bounced her way onto the bridge like a fireball special effect in a fantasy movie.  She stopped at her post, tail continuing to flutter like a strong wind was stirring the air on the ship’s bridge.  Her eyes were still red-rimmed from lack of sleep, but her tufted ears stood tall.

Bleary-eyed and bushy-tailed.  Exactly what you want from a ship’s navigator.

The mice who’d gone to fetch Sequoia — Yvette and Josie — flapped onto the bridge behind her, and Amelia followed them, glaring and grumbling.

“All of these stars have pockets of… uh… what was it?  Extra-dimensional vacuum?”  Sequoia looked back at the mice, and they both nodded.  “It’s so many…”

“And so few,” Kipper said.  “With so many stars in the galaxy, it can be both at the same time.”

“Yes,” Sequoia agreed.  “This is amazing.”  She stared at the screen with glowing eyes; eyes that mirrored the stars themselves.  “Our galaxy is filled with life.”

“And we figured out how to find it!” Yvette squeaked, sounding extremely pleased with herself.  The words flirted a thin line with bragging, but Kipper figured the clever little mouse had earned some bragging.  Her innovation — and recklessness — meant the crew would be less likely to go home empty-pawed.

Although, exactly what they would find among those EDV pockets remained to be seen…

“Not to put too much of a damper on the mood,” Trugger said gently, “but we still don’t know for sure that those pockets aren’t naturally occurring.”

Kipper turned to look at her true second in command with quiet shock.  This was the second time in a matter of minutes that Trugger had been the one trying to keep her and her crew grounded.  She wasn’t sure what to make of that, but it didn’t seem like a good sign when the otter from The Jolly Barracuda — a hotbed of fools and clowns masquerading as pirates — was the one speaking of caution.

“Right,” Kipper agreed.  “We don’t know what we’ll find at these stars.  We might want to take things slow.”

“Slow?” Sequoia asked, blinking.  The squirrel looked like she’d never encountered the word or concept of “slow” before in her life.

“Yes,” Kipper repeated.  “Slow.  Can you pick us a star system to investigate that… I don’t know… doesn’t look threatening?  Somewhere we can examine these EDV readings up close without necessarily starting some kind of intergalactic first contact incident?”

“Wait… you want me to pick a star that doesn’t seem likely to have much of anyone there?”  The squirrel’s dainty muzzle gaped open in disbelief.

“That actually sounds like a really good idea,” Amelia woofed, looking far less grumbly than when she’d floated onto the bridge after the flapping mice.

The mice, however, now hung in the air beside Sequoia featuring similar expressions of disbelief.  “But… but!  We found them!  Humans or octopi or aliens or something!” Yvette objected.  “Shouldn’t we go see them?”

“If the First Race had wanted us–” Amelia began to drone judgmentally, but her words were cut off by a sudden, feline hiss.

Kipper snapped:  “Keep your religious nonsense off my bridge!  It’s enough work figuring out what to do here without some government dog trying to shove First Race doctrine down all our throats.”

Amelia’s eyes widened, but she kept her muzzle shut.  The dog was just smart enough to know better than to try to pull her imaginary rank of second in command.  Kipper had left that nonsense behind when she’d cajoled the rest of her crew into committing treason.

“If you aren’t committing treason by being here, you don’t have a say in this,” Kipper mumbled.  Clearing her throat, she raised her voice to add, “You are a guest here, Amelia.  And if you want to stay on the bridge, you’ll keep your muzzle shut unless you have something helpful to say, and anything that appears in any book of doctrine of the First Race doesn’t count.”

Amelia nodded somberly.  She kept her mouth shut, and she stayed on the bridge.

Kipper supposed the religious dog felt compelled by her beliefs to stay and monitor the rest of them.  As a cat raised in an Uplifted States cattery, Kipper knew just enough about First Racer doctrine to know that Amelia must see herself as some kind of keeper of all the rest of them.

Well, she was welcome to keep on keeping them, as long as she kept quiet and kept her paws and judgmental thoughts to herself.

Kipper looked down at her own paws and realized they were shaking.  She couldn’t tell how much it was from the stress of command, the terror of what they might find after their next jump, or quixotically from knowing she’d just blasphemed against gods she might be about to meet.

What if they did find humans?  And what if Amelia really was supposed to be in charge of them all?

Great gods in the sky, what favors would Kipper be doing for all the cats — and other sentient animals — on Earth if she brought home gods who really did believe that cats were lesser than dogs?

What if the religious dogs were right?

Kipper shuddered.

Pulling herself together, because everyone on the bridge was watching her, Kipper said, “I’m not saying we won’t visit one of the dense clusters of EDV pockets.  I’m saying we should get our bearings first before jumping into the middle of grand central station, galactic edition.”

Katasha, who had been staring at Kipper with awe and admiration ever since she’d snapped at the religious dog to shut up, spoke up to say:  “The captain’s right.  For all we know, these aren’t all indicators of technology.  Some of them might be singularities — naturally occurring side effects of black holes or some other dangerous natural event.  We need to get a closer look from a safe distance.”

“Thank you, Katasha,” Kipper said.  “Now, could we get the engineers back to engineering?  The bridge is a bit crowded with all of us in here, and I don’t want everyone falling all over each other when we jump.”

“You heard the captain!”  Trugger announced, beginning to direct the crowd of crewmembers with his paws as if he were a traffic conductor.  “Everyone to their posts!”

Most of them willingly followed the otter’s directions — engineering cats, dachshunds, and mice streaming out of the bridge entrance and floating or flying down the hall toward engineering.  Though, Kipper noticed one of the mice, Yvette, ducked past Trugger, staying on the bridge and taking up a position next to Sequoia, perched on the corner of the squirrel’s computer screen.  And Amelia took the post that had been hers, by fiat of governmental interference, before all of them — except for her — had committed treason by stealing The Lucky Boomerang.  It wasn’t really her post anymore.  But Kipper decided not to press the point.

“And no more messing with that artificial gravity generator UNTIL I SPECIFICALLY SAY SO!” Kipper shouted down the hall after them.  It should have gone without saying.  But nothing seems to go without saying when you’re dealing with an overly clever, ambitious, and bored group of engineers.

When the exodus finished, Kipper looked around at the remaining crew on her bridge — Trugger, Sequoia, Yvette, Amelia, and Gy’krr.  The raptor wasn’t exactly bridge crew, but she wasn’t really an engineer either.  Her role onboard — along with her bonded octopus half — was somewhat unclear.  A gamble, if you will.  Kipper wanted someone — or a pair of someones — experienced with raptor and octopus society, and also the massive political shifts that the combined raptor-octopus society had been undergoing.  She wanted them onboard in case The Lucky Boomerang really did find other societies out here in space.  If they did, they’d need every perspective available to them in order to have a chance at bridging a connection.  And if these EDV pockets did represent more octopus technology — which they really might, as it turned out octopi were the most ancient and advanced species in the solar system, the only species which had originated elsewhere in the universe — then having representatives from both octopus civilizations in the solar system could prove invaluable.

“Gy’krr,” Kipper said, addressing the raptor, “could you go let the octopuses know we’re about to jump again?  And please bring them back with you to the bridge.”

Once the raptor had turned her tail feathers and crawled her way out of the bridge — she was too big to fly in here, even if she did look more like a naturally flying creature than the mice — Kipper turned her attention back to the exhausted squirrel navigator who had been stringing herself out all week.

“Have you picked a star system?” Kipper asked gently.

Sequoia pointed at a single star on her screen.  Yellow, simple, no wobble that would imply planets, and only a single EDV-pocket.  “This one is the least interesting option you could choose,” the squirrel intoned drily.

“Perfect.”  Boring sounded perfect to Kipper.  There’s nothing quite like being in charge to make a cat become excitement-averse.

As soon as the two octopi and raptor were back on the bridge, settled into their positions, Kipper ordered an epsilon jump, and the way her stomach flipped during the jump was only partly about the ship skipping through folds of hyperspace.  It was mostly about what they might find on the other side.

Continue on to Chapter 19

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