by Mary E. Lowd
Kipper was struggling really hard to make a decision that she knew would be unpopular with her crew when Amelia burst back onto the bridge, zooming like a fuzzy meteor, followed more sedately by Sequoia. The squirrel looked much better rested now. That was good. Amelia looked… half-crazed. There was a glittering gleam in her brown eyes that worried Kipper… but somehow felt inspiring too? Like Amelia was one of those preacher dogs who could get a whole church dancing on their paws and howling like feral wolves, overflowing with a frenzied, communal joy.
“You have to let me come with you,” Amelia said. “I need to be one of the crew members who actually steps paw on the space station. And you need me with you.”
Kipper frowned but didn’t say anything. Clearly, Amelia didn’t know that her captain had been moments away from announcing that The Lucky Boomerang had gathered enough data, and it was time to fly home, still safe, still alive, and heroes. Let the dogs back home argue about how to proceed with actually contacting this interstellar soup of civilization that they’d successfully managed to blunder into out here. Let someone else lead the mission of first contact. Kipper had done enough, and it was time to go home.
Kipper had found more than she’d been looking for — more than she could have imagined out here. According to Obsidian, most of the video programs that the engineers were busy watching were part of a bundle of data that streamed between a fair number of the vessels out here — something like interstellar cable, Kipper supposed. But the octopus had also found a lot of shorter bursts of data and seemed confident that they were actual real-time communications between the various starships and the space station they were all swarming around.
If Obsidian was right, and he’d successfully managed to intercept videos showing who was actually aboard these spaceships, then they’d stumbled into a neighborhood with dozens of different alien races, what seemed to be sentient robots, and of course, the one that was most familiar and yet also most mythical of all: humans. Actual humans.
Kipper had travelled out into space and found her second grade teacher’s gods. And her dentist’s. And most of the politicians running her country. Kipper had known so many dogs — and even a few cats over the years — who worshipped humans. And Kipper had never thought very hard about them. Sure, she’d used the specter of finding humans as a rationale for the space program she believed in so deeply… but she’d been using a popular idea that she knew would appeal to the dogs with money and the power to say ‘yes’ to her project. She hadn’t really thought she’d find them. Maybe… some ruins? Some abandoned, derelict space vessels? Maybe some clues?
But… living humans?
Kipper didn’t think they were gods. And yet, they had engineered her people, redesigning their bodies from four-legged, feral things — beasts with feelings, but no words — into full people who could talk and write and make art and design technology of their own.
Kipper had to admire that. She had to feel grateful for it. Deep inside herself, she felt the pull of that power. These were the people who had made her. She wanted to believe they’d be pleased with and proud of what she’d become, what she’d made of the gifts they’d given her, and yet Kipper knew that made no sense at all. Whatever people — whatever human beings — she might meet on that space station had had no hand in her lineage. They were great, great, great, great-grandchildren at best of the humans who’d actually lived on Earth.
Would they even know what to do with her?
Would Kipper know what to do with them?
Kipper raised a paw to silence Amelia’s continuing pleas and explanations of how useful she’d be on a mission to actually meet the humans. Most of her arguments seemed to boil down to her having greater experience with diplomacy and deeper knowledge of human history than anyone else onboard. Kipper wasn’t sure the former was true, given the work Nioli and Gy’krr had done during the octopus revolution on Jupiter, and the latter? Human history wouldn’t help here.
Understanding human history wouldn’t be any more useful for understanding the interstellar society in front of them than understanding a feral, pre-uplift cat would be for understanding Kipper’s brilliant, erratic sister Petra. Furthermore, being a devout First Racer meant Amelia was profoundly emotionally compromised when it came to the question of possibly actually making contact with the aliens — and humans — out here.
And yet, Amelia would be Kipper’s most direct liaison to the Uplifted States government — the government in charge of her space program — when they got home.
Kipper needed Amelia happy with her if she wanted any chance of salvaging her position running the USSA when they returned to Earth, rather than just automatically planning on defecting back to the chaotic society of otters in the sky.
“I haven’t decided whether we’re actually going to approach the space station,” Kipper admitted to the frenzied dog in front of her. She saw a stillness form in the other members of her crew on the bridge — even Trugger — as they heard her words as well.
They had all been assuming, without the slightest question, that if you find a space station swarming with spaceships in the depths of space, buzzing with video feeds that seem to show a wide range of arts and entertainment, implying some kind of a civilized culture… you, of course, approach it. You fly up and say, “Hello.”
Kipper wasn’t so sure. They had enough data available to study it for a long time, and wasn’t it safer to wait until they understood what they were seeing in all these video feeds? Wouldn’t it be better to send a crew of trained diplomats?
Of course, was there really such a thing as diplomat trained for this situation?
And wasn’t that exactly why Kipper had picked representatives of all the major species in the solar system for her crew, including a bonded octopus and raptor pair who had just navigated the complete overhaul of their society through revolution?
Amelia’s eyes still looked wild with desperation and clawing need, so it was kind of unsettling when she spoke in a completely calm voice: “We will return heroes from this mission, even if we turn around and head home now. All of us. But there are Humans on that space station, and when President Truman and the rest of the government at home get wind of that, what do you think is going to happen to your space program?”
No one answered. The two octopuses, raptor, and Trugger all looked to Kipper. She knew the answer, but she didn’t want to say it.
“What will happen?” Trugger finally asked. For all the time he’d spent with Kipper, he really wasn’t well-versed in Earthly politics.
Bleakly, Kipper said, “We’ll all be heroes, but we’ll never set paw in this spaceship again. The next crew will be entirely dogs. Devout, devoted, fervent First Racer dogs. And not one of us will set paw near space via this space program again until… I don’t know. I genuinely don’t know what all those religious dogs will do about the humans out here, but I do know that they won’t let a single cat — or any other species, even including non-religious dogs — have any part of it, not until they feel it’s settled.”
Amelia nodded. And Kipper realized, Amelia’s impassioned plea was because the dog knew she wouldn’t be a high enough ranking dog to be sent on that second mission. She’d be locked out of meeting the humans on that space station as absolutely and completely as everyone else currently aboard The Lucky Boomerang. If Amelia was low-ranking enough to be sent along as a babysitter on this mission, she definitely wouldn’t rank high enough for that mission. This was possibly her only chance to meet her own gods face to face.
Kipper wanted to play it safe, but sometimes playing it safe meant willingly relegating yourself to the sidelines. And being a hero wasn’t good enough for Kipper if all it meant was being a figurehead. Kipper wanted — needed — to be involved in setting policy. Because she was never letting those religious dogs back home landlock her or any other cat, anchoring their paws to the surface of the Earth.
“You can come,” Kipper said to Amelia. She would bring one member, at least, of each species aboard The Lucky Boomerang who wanted to come. Each species deserved representation. Of course, that was getting ahead of herself. First, they had to wrangle an invitation. Kipper turned to her octopus translator, Obsidian, and signed, “Have you figured out what kind of message we could send to that space station to let it know we’d like to dock with it?”
Obsidian’s pale pink tentacles fluttered in a rapid answer: “I’ve isolated a lot of patterns from the communications between the vessels and the central space station. And yes, one of them does seem to be a request to dock, which I could easily copy and transmit.”
With far too much portent weighing on her shoulders, Kipper signed back, “Send the message.”
Only moments later, Obsidian reported that they’d received in return what seemed to be an automated response, inviting them to dock and directing them to a particular docking berth.
The joy that filled Amelia’s eyes troubled Kipper.
Continue on to Chapter 26…