by Mary E. Lowd
The EDV-pocket orbiting the simple, lonely yellow sun turned out to be contained inside a partly melted lump of metal — a derelict spaceship, abandoned many, many years before, spiraling slowly inward toward the sun. Whoever had been inside the spaceship had escaped, been rescued, or died in there long ago, and the heat radiation from the sun meant there’d be nothing useful the crew of The Lucky Boomerang could find inside, even if they were able to tow the vehicle far enough away from the sun to safely examine it.
“It’s remarkable that the pocket of extra-dimensional vacuum has survived in there,” Sequoia muttered.
Yvette, still perched on the corner of the squirrel’s computer station, chittered back, “They’re quite stable once they’re set up, actually.”
“Apparently,” Sequoia replied drily. “Can we go somewhere more interesting now?” she asked, turning toward her captain. The glint returned to the squirrel’s eye as she pointed a claw delicately at her screen and said, “I’ve picked out several promising star systems…”
The squirrel’s eyes were still bleary.
The government dog was still camped out on the bridge where she arguably didn’t belong, arms crossed, and eyes judgmental.
The two octopi continued to gossip in sign language whenever they thought the mammals on the bridge weren’t watching — though, now, Nioli was settled into her place on Gy’krr’s shoulders, presumably linking their consciousnesses again. Her metamorphic skin had taken on the same tawny, dappled coloring as the raptor’s feathers, and the raptor looked much more relaxed now that she was combined with her octopus half again.
Obsidian’s skin was the same shiny, inscrutable black as his name. His tentacles — when they weren’t busy gossiping — were sprawled over his computer station like an oil slick.
The only animal in the room who Kipper wanted to talk to was Trugger, but she couldn’t consult with him in front of the others. The ship suddenly felt far too small, and Kipper felt like the walls of it were closing in on her.
Kipper held up her paws, without thinking, as if she were about to sign something to Trugger, but all the eyes in the room were still on her, and she couldn’t bring herself to speak with tongue nor paw. Too much weighed on what she said next.
Fortunately, Trugger knew his captain — and best friend — very well, and he said, “Captain, could I consult with you in private for a minute?”
Kipper swallowed, nodded, and looked about, trying to picture where they could speak privately on this cramped spaceship without fear of being overheard. But Trugger took the matter into his own paws and guided her gently off the bridge and into the central hallway, where he arranged for the two of them to float, facing toward each other and the gaudy, beautiful, oil painting on the wall.
Trugger signed, keeping his paw movements small and shielded between the two of them, in case any of the rest of the crew tried to follow them, “What’s up?”
“I’m sorry,” Kipper signed back. “I think…” She shook her head. She didn’t know what to say.
“The biggest danger we faced before now,” Trugger signed, “was our ship failing–”
“Which didn’t worry me,” Kipper signed simultaneously to Trugger’s signing. “I trust our engineers and the blueprints.”
“–and the Uplifted States government trying to throw us all in jail when we get back.”
“Also, not a problem,” Kipper signed, “if we just never go back.”
“But now…” Trugger’s paws trailed off into stillness.
“Yes, now,” Kipper agreed with her paws. “Everything is different. We might actually find something. Something big. And the last time the two of us headed into dangers unknown, we were almost killed by dinosaurs who should have been dead since before the First Race even existed. I don’t want to die. And more than that, I don’t want to endanger my crew.”
“We could take what we’ve learned and head home,” Trugger suggested. “We’ve already discovered so much more than we’d expected.”
“True…” Kipper’s paws stilled. “No, no, we couldn’t. I’ve already taught this crew to commit treason. I think they’d go one step farther and commit mutiny if I tried to take us home without visiting one of those EDV heavy star systems. I don’t think they’d even see it as mutiny… just… doing what I was being too cautious to admit I wanted them to do.”
Trugger chewed his whiskers thoughtfully, but he didn’t contradict her. “I’d have your back,” he said.
Kipper didn’t really want to start a brawl onboard the bridge as the crew bodily struggled over where the ship should jump next. And she could absolutely picture that happening. She wasn’t even sure if she could get away with ordering the crew to take an extra day to study the scans before jumping. She was pretty sure that if she looked away for too long, she’d find her ship epsilon jumping to an EDV-heavy star system without her orders and a whole lot of crew members unwilling to rat each other out about whose paw actually pressed the button.
“Look at it this way,” Trugger suggested, “will there ever be a better time or a better crew to take this risk?”
Kipper’s eyes narrowed, asking without words for Trugger to explain his meaning.
“If we take this information back home, what do you think will happen?” he asked.
And suddenly Kipper could picture the branching possibilities: governments rushing to beat each other to the punch. President Champ Truman would almost certainly have his dogs commandeer her space program and send a crew of religious zealots. Otters would rush to complete building their own ships based on the ancient octopus blueprints, and based on what Kipper knew of the chaotic way otter society was run, she could absolutely picture Captain Cod blundering his way out of the solar system with his lovable but ridiculous crew before anyone more official could catch up.
Or possibly, a convoy of raptor ships — holdouts from the civil war that had been raging under the clouds of Jupiter — would suddenly resurface, thinking that taking further parts of the galaxy as conquest would give them power again in their home star system.
None of those options were good. They were all troubling in very different ways, but when it came down to it, they were all bad. No matter how much Kipper admired and respected Captain Cod’s solid gold heart, she would never put him in charge of a mission this important. And among those options, having Captain Cod stumble into the galaxy like a drunken emu was far and away the best.
“You put this crew together specifically to represent as much of the sentient life in our solar system as possible,” Trugger signed. “If there’s anything to be found out here, wouldn’t you rather that this crew — your crew — be the ones to find it?”
Trugger wasn’t telling Kipper anything she didn’t already know. But he was helping her to clarify it, and she needed to hold that knowledge like a crystal in her heart — clear and bright — if she was going to take this crew — animals who she’d hand-picked and who each trusted her completely, although might still mutiny on her — into an unknown danger.
“Okay,” Kipper signed. “Thank you. I guess, I’ve stalled on this enough.”
Trugger’s face broke into a huge grin. “There’s my cat,” he signed.
The two of them re-entered the bridge, and Kipper spoke with both her paws and voice to say, “Finish up collecting readings on the derelict vessel, and prepare for our next jump.” Then turning to Sequoia, she added, “Give me your absolute best bet on a star system where…” Her voice caught as she said the next words, having trouble keeping up with her paws, which seemed to feel much less emotional about them: “…humans might have gone.”
The tone on the bridge was practically electric — fur puffing up on every animal with fur, including the gray mouse perched on the corner of Sequoia’s computer station in obstinate defiance of Kipper’s earlier orders for the engineers to get back to engineering. Gy’krr’s feathers bristled like a pin-cushion and both octopi began to change colors in rapid, complicated patterns.
Sequoia pointed with a quivering claw at a binary star-system — a yellow star locked in dancing orbit with a smaller white star. “There should be a few planets in this system, possibly habitable,” Sequoia said. “But that’s not why I think it’s our best bet. See this cluster of EDV-pockets?” With a deft motion of her paws, Sequoia zoomed the image in closer. “There’s a really big one, with smaller ones close around it, and scattered farther out…”
“You think it’s a space station,” Kipper said.
Sequoia nodded mutely.
“With spaceships around it.”
“And you think it’s where humans would have gone?” Kipper pressed.
The squirrel shrugged. “Of all the clusters like it, this one is the closest to Earth. There are other systems with EDV-pockets closer… but they’re all smaller.”
Kipper caught the sight of motion out of the corner of her eye and looked over to see Obsidian signing with his currently-maroon tentacles, “There may be more individual spaceships, possibly inhabited worlds closer to Earth… But none of them look like grand central station, galactic edition. And that’s what we’re looking for, no?”
Kipper couldn’t help quirking a smile at the sight of the octopus quoting her.
“All right, then,” Kipper said, feeling like she was jumping off the side of a cliff, or maybe skydiving into a gas giant without the slightest clue what alien horrors might be hiding under its swirling clouds — blimp-like creatures with jagged teeth or maybe clouds of toxic, mind-controlling fungal spores. It could be anything. “Lay in a course for a jump that will take us… to just at the very edge of our sensor range from that cluster of EDV-pockets.”
“As measured from the central EDV-pocket or one of the outer ones?” Sequoia asked.
“One of the outer ones, please,” Kipper said. It was better to play it safe. “We can always fly closer under the power of normal thrusters once we get there.”
“Okay,” Sequoia said. “The course is laid in.”
Kipper nodded to her, and the squirrel pressed the button, initiating another epsilon jump.
Continue on to Chapter 20…