by Mary E. Lowd
Sequoia woke up from a sleep so deep that it was as if she’d disappeared from the universe for a while, blinked out of existence into an entirely separate realm of blissful unconsciousness.
The universe she woke up into felt like an alternate reality. Sure, she’d been the first one to flirt with Amelia by braiding the curly fur on the dog’s face, and she’d been the first one to fall asleep in the dog’s bed, innocently sharing a pillow… But now, she’d woken up with her red-furred arms tangled up with the mop dog’s blonde curls, and the dog’s arms wrapped tightly around her. It was more. It was different. It felt like the beginning of something and not just a playful flirtation. They’d come to each other when tired and overwhelmed. They’d turned toward each other like orbiting stars, like they were held together by each other’s gravity. Like they were building a relationship.
But more than that, sounds echoed through the halls of the ship that made no sense in Sequoia’s pointed ears. For a moment, they’d sound like conversation, but she couldn’t make out any of the words. Then the rhythms would change in unexpected ways, screeching or singing or warbling… Sequoia wasn’t sure. It didn’t sound like anything she’d ever heard before.
Next to Sequoia, the blonde mop of a dog opened her brown eyes, which were still beautiful, kind-looking, and soulful, framed by the delicate little braids which were coming apart in charming wisps after a week of wear.
Amelia looked startled for a moment, but she didn’t push Sequoia away. Instead, she sighed, deeply, and squeezed the squirrel tighter. But then her floppy ears perked up, as much as floppy ears can, and she asked, “What is… that?”
“I don’t know.” Sequoia shook her head. “I don’t feel like I know anything any more.” She was thinking about her stars and how they’d gone from being pristine, perfect balls of fire, spinning through the universe as its sole inhabitants, to becoming nothing more than a backdrop to those eerie EDV-pockets that had popped up everywhere as soon as the mice had figured out to look for them.
Sequoia pushed gently against the rumpled, navy blue cloth of Amelia’s uniform, gaining enough space between the two of them to begin unharnessing herself from the cot. Without the dog’s arms or the harness holding her down, she immediately began floating away. “I don’t know what those sounds are, but I’m going to go find some breakfast, and then maybe I’ll have the strength to face… whatever that is.”
“That’s a good idea,” Amelia agreed, smoothing her uniform down and unharnessing herself as well.
The squirrel and dog dug into the stash of granola bars stored in a cupboard between the cots. It wasn’t an exciting breakfast, but then, none of the food in space had been exciting after the feast with all the otters on Europa. Mostly, food in space has to be a practical matter — nothing with too many crumbs or droplets or bits that can get away; nothing that needs complicated cooking; nothing that doesn’t store easily.
Maybe it was different on otter spaceships. Sequoia didn’t know for sure… Although, Trugger had certainly told tales about the delicacies cooked up by Emily, the octopus chef, on The Jolly Barracuda. But for now, the Uplifted States space program was still in its infancy — still enduring the early days of simple rations.
The granola bar suited Sequoia well enough with its crunchy clusters of nuts, simultaneously salty and sweet. Amelia supplemented her granola bar with a chewy looking piece of beef jerky. They ate in silence. Well, they stayed silent. The strange, confusing sounds continued to echo through the rest of the spaceship, leaking into the barracks like an audio-only window on another universe.
“I keep thinking I’m starting to make sense out of these sounds…” Sequoia carefully folded up the foil wrapper from her granola bar and stashed it into the waste bin at the bottom of the cupboard while warbles and wails continued to assault her pointed ears. “But I’m not. I have no clue what these sounds are, and I think it’s starting to drive me mad like some god of cosmic horror from a really artsy film student attempt at a sci-fi movie.”
Amelia laughed. She folded the wrappers from her breakfast just as carefully as Sequoia had before stashing them in the waste bin as well. Sequoia smiled at that. She didn’t really understand the feelings her heart insisted it was having for this dog. But there wasn’t anything much she seemed to be able to do about them, so she might as well enjoy watching Amelia be cute and fastidious.
“Okay, time to be a flying squirrel,” Sequoia said, kicking off from the closest bunk and gliding toward the hallway out of the barracks. She heard a scuffling of claws behind her that suggested Amelia was following. The two of them made it out into the hall and floated, staring at each other, and twisting their ears experimentally. “It’s coming from both the bridge and the engine room, isn’t it?”
Amelia nodded. “Shall we try the engine room first? The sound seems to be louder from there.”
Sequoia’s post was on the bridge. But she didn’t feel like going back there. She’d spent so much time over the last week at that post hoping and grasping… and then she’d grabbed hold of more than she’d meant to, and her paws had been burnt. It was all exhausting and overwhelming. Much like these bizarre sounds, causing her ears to twitch and twist and flatten. “Sure, engine room first,” Sequoia agreed. For her, she mostly associated the engine room with pleasant, friendly games of poker with the mice and Obsidian. She kicked off the nearest wall and took off flying through the hallway.
When they arrived at the engine room, all of the engineers — cats, dogs, and mice — were huddled in front of the bank of video screens that usually showed external views of the ship, internal views of the hardest-to-reach and most important parts of the ship’s internal machinery, and readouts of the engine’s status.
Right now? Those screens were filled with bizarre scenes of disparate alien figures who looked like they’d been pulled right out of a lineup of summer blockbuster sci-fi films –spiders, fish, tentacled things, gleaming silver robots, and fuzzy people of every color, shape, and size.
“What the hell?” Sequoia asked. “What are all these videos?”
The engineers didn’t even turn to look at her, but the gray mouse, Yvette, shushed the newcomers to the engine room vigorously. “It’s local video feeds we’ve picked up. We’re trying to learn the languages in them,” she hissed in a whispered rush, clearly trying not to interrupt the cacophony of sounds accompanying the screens.
“Or learn anything about them, really,” another mouse volunteered. The orange one, Josie.
“Oh my goodness, you’re eating popcorn?” Sequoia asked, recognizing a few of the characteristically puffy kernels floating among the viewers. They had a bowl with a catch-top designed to let paws reach in for popcorn while keeping most of it inside, but a few stray kernels had escaped.
“Hey, this is the best movie night I’ve ever been to,” another mouse squeaked. It was Mulberry, with the Siamese points to her coloring. She had a kernel of popcorn cradled in her paws that was almost as big as her head. The tooth marks on it suggested she’d been nibbling it for a while. “We’ve been watching these videos for hours. It’s better than being back in college and procrastinating studying for finals.”
All three of the other mice shushed Mulberry.
“Oh come on, guys,” said Katasha, the cat with coloring to match Mulberry’s. “It’s not like any of us are actually cracking the code of lingua galactica here.”
“That’s Obsidian’s job,” Hedda mumbled. The calico engineer pulled a pawful of popcorn out of the bowl without taking her eyes off the screens.
Katasha pointed a paw at one screen and said, “We think this one’s a news show.” Her pointing claw changed angles, moving one screen over. “This one seems to be some kind of sitcom.” Her paw continued to move down the bank of screens as she said, “We have no idea what in the hell is going on here; we’re hoping to hell that this one is a movie or something else wildly fictional, because if it’s not, we should fly home with our tails tucked between our legs and hide on Earth for the rest of our lives, like, yesterday.”
“No kidding,” Hedda agreed.
Freddy the dachshund laughed and said, “What, you don’t think being in the middle of an intergalactic war would be fun?”
All of the mice squeaked “No!” in a surprisingly harmonically pleasing chorus.
“How can you stand listening to all of those at once?” Sequoia asked in wonder. She felt like stuffing her ears full of cotton to make the noises stop.
Katasha shrugged. “You get used to it.”
“And when you have information like this available…” Yvette trailed off, staring at the screens. The gray mouse was twisting her tail in her paws, and her eyes were so bright they could have been tiny stars all of their own. “You want to absorb as much of it as possible, as fast as possible.”
Sequoia worried about the fact that none of them had been echoing their spoken words by signing with their paws — their paws were mostly too busy with popcorn — but a glance at Georgie showed that the larger dachshund was so deeply absorbed in staring at the bank of screens that he wouldn’t have seen any signing done for his benefit anyway. She wondered if the videos were more or less disturbing without the overlapping gibberish of noise accompanying them. She had to suspect that this particular experience would be strictly better without sound. If she could mute all the videos without a host of engineers attacking her, Sequoia would do it right away.
Instead, the squirrel settled for turning tail and heading toward the bridge to see if the situation was more informative and less overwhelming there. She reached the door to the hall and looked back to see that Amelia wasn’t following her.
The curly-furred dog was staring dumbstruck at the screens, and Sequoia was about to write her off as having joined the host of mesmerized engineers when a certain glimmer in Amelia’s eyes stopped her short. She tried to follow the dog’s gaze to exactly which screen had captured her attention and saw something she hadn’t expected:
A figure with long hair growing from the top of its head, flowing down its shoulders, and framing an oval face of naked, furless skin. A primate. But not just any primate.
Sequoia had seen ancient human movies before. She’d seen statues. She knew what humans looked like.
This was a human. Unmistakably so.
No wonder Amelia was transfixed.
Sequoia kicked off the hallway door to get some momentum and floated back to the group. She said, “Hey, isn’t that a human?” She pointed at the screen which had frozen Amelia as still as a statue herself.
“Sure seems to be,” Freddy agreed. “They’ve been showing up periodically in a number of the video feeds.” He didn’t seem too concerned. Not like Amelia.
A strangled squeak escaped Amelia’s throat, but she still didn’t move. Her eyes didn’t even waver from staring at the one human face, until the scene changed and the human went away. Then Amelia gasped, as if the spell holding her had been broken. She turned her face away from the screens and flailed her paws, awkwardly careening out of the engine room, as fast as she could. As if she were running from a fire.
Sequoia followed Amelia back to the barracks at a much more reasonable speed and arrived to find the dog floating in the middle of the room like a windup toy whose spring had wound down.
“Are you okay?” Sequoia asked.
Amelia shook her head; everything about her seemed to be quivering. She was so tough and self-possessed most of the time. Ready to boss everyone on the ship around, even the captain. But now, it was like she’d seen a ghost.
Or her god.
“I mean… you’ve seen humans before, right?” Sequoia asked. “Like ancient movies? Right?” If squirrels watched ancient human movies, then it seemed like dogs — who worshipped humans — must watch them too. But maybe they didn’t. Maybe they thought it was blasphemy of some sort. Dogs seemed to be big on the concept of blasphemy and using it as an excuse to ban perfectly good things from what Sequoia had been learning about the way they ran the Uplifted States.
“Yes,” Amelia said softly. “I’ve seen human movies. Watched human television shows. Appreciated human paintings. Read human books. I’ve spent my whole life studying them and the clues they left behind for us, just as any Good Dog does.”
“But this is different?” Sequoia prompted when it became clear that Amelia didn’t intend to say anything more.
“This is different,” Amelia agreed. “Those… everything we have… it’s ancient. It comes from lifetimes before I was born. But that video…”
“We don’t know how old it is,” Sequoia pointed out.
“True, we don’t.” But Amelia’s eyes didn’t look any less haunted.
Sequoia didn’t know what to say, so she waited.
Eventually, Amelia said in slow, measured tones, “I knew they were out here. I never doubted they were out here. But…” Her voice choked before she managed to continue. “To look at your God when they haven’t asked you to… To break their Command and Follow them when you weren’t Asked… weren’t Wanted…”
“How do you know you’re not wanted?” Sequoia asked.
“They told us to Stay,” Amelia whispered.
Sequoia didn’t know anything about First Racer doctrine. But she wanted to make her friend — possibly girlfriend — feel better. “Didn’t they also tell you to… uh… look out for the other animals on Earth?”
“Well, no one told me to stay,” Sequoia said. “And I’ve heard voices calling me to the stars my whole life, so you were never going to stop me from coming out here. Maybe… maybe you just did what you had to do. Maybe that’s what they would have wanted from you. Maybe… maybe you’ll be able to ask them?”
“Ask them if I was a Good Dog?” The whisper was so quiet, it was barely more than a breath, shaped into all of Amelia’s hopes.
“I guess,” Sequoia agreed. Though, she was troubled by the idea that so much of Amelia’s — or anyone’s — sense of self-worth would depend on what a virtual alien had to say to them.
Because even if there were humans out here, and they had come from Earth… They weren’t part of Earth anymore. They hadn’t been for a long time.
Continue on to Chapter 25…