by Mary E. Lowd
While Sequoia piloted The Lucky Boomerang toward the mysterious, exciting space station, all of the engineers gathered around the deck of poker cards in engineering, breathless to find out which one of the mice would get to join the away mission. The slots for cat and dog were already filled by Captain Kipper and Amelia.
Hedda shuffled the deck, and the four mice drew cards, nearly as large as themselves — high card wins — to decide which one of them would get to represent all of mouse-kind.
Yvette won with the queen of spades, and it felt like the first time she’d shot the moon while playing hearts as a tiny mouse pup just learning the game. It felt better than any of the bronze or silver medals she’d ever won at gymnastics competitions, because it didn’t come with as much baggage and uncertainty — had she performed well? Could she have performed better? What would the medal mean for her future career prospects?
This was based on pure randomness — what order the cards happened to be in when she drew from the deck — and the reward was simple, straightforward, and so much more exciting than anything that any mouse on Earth had ever won.
Yvette had won an opportunity to see something marvelous that no other mouse had ever seen.
And yet, as she watched the whiskers droop on Josie, Mulberry, and Wendall’s faces, even this euphoric high became something mixed. It wasn’t a happiness that she could share, and that made it much less sweet.
Quickly, Yvette fixed the natural grin that had raised her whiskers, contorting her muzzle into an expression of glee — she toned her external enjoyment down several notches. Trying to find an appropriate amount to be happy. An amount that wouldn’t make her friends unhappy with her.
Josie smiled, reached out a paw, took hold of Yvette’s paw and squeezed. “You’ll tell us all about it.”
“I will, of course,” Yvette agreed, almost too eagerly, hoping to make up for winning this opportunity — and thus denying it to the others — by trying to share vicariously.
The more that Yvette lived, the more she was coming to think it wasn’t losing she disliked — it was competition itself. She wanted everyone to be able to win. All together. Like when they’d built the artificial gravity generator, and it had been one big group project with everyone participating.
Unfortunately, in this case, the captain was in charge, and Captain Kipper had been clear that she didn’t want the mission crew to get unmanageably large. (Not that a couple extra mice would add much size… but, they might add a lot of complication.)
Yvette and the other engineers — none of whom would be joining the away mission, since Kipper would be representing cats and Amelia dogs — watched the spinning, silver space station grow larger on the viewscreens in engineering as The Lucky Boomerang approached. Bands and boxes of brightness lit up the silver wheels of the space station — long windows, showing the light inside. The video feed was, of course, being recorded, but Katasha scribbled pencil sketches in an actual notebook, trying to capture the images of every spaceship they passed, including little notes about how they might be structured internally. That cat was a spaceship engineer to the core.
Hedda and the dachshunds just watched the screens in awe, shifting their positions to match their shifting weight as The Lucky Boomerang synchronized its momentum with the spinning wheel of the space station. All four mice had clustered on one of the control panels together with Yvette in the middle, holding each others’ paws and twining their tails into a tangled braid as if they were a tiny rat king of legend. Yvette felt like the other three were trying to absorb as much of her presence as possible, as if by doing so they could haunt her and somehow accompany her on the upcoming mission, spiritually if not physically.
As The Lucky Boomerang slowed to barely moving, floating within kissing distance of the space station, the calico cat engineer began swearing under her whiskers. “Holy hell, they have mutable metal.” She pointed at the screen showing an external view of The Lucky Boomerang’s own airlock, where the space station’s docking clamps had reached out and were melding themselves into the right shape to lock securely onto the ship’s exterior. “If we want to break away from here without permission, we’ll tear our own airlock off. I hope to hell the captain knows what she’s doing.”
Katasha laughed, a uniquely feline sound with its touch of a purr. “You know she doesn’t. None of us know what we’re doing anymore.”
“We’re doing what we have to,” Georgie signed, seemingly having read Katasha’s muzzle as she spoke. The Siamese tabby tucked her ears in apology at not having signed to make it easier for the deaf dachshund to understand her. “That’s what we’re all doing out here — what we have to.”
Georgie and Freddy had explained to the rest of the engineers earlier what would happen if The Lucky Boomerang brought back news of humans without having made actual contact with them: the whole Uplifted States space program would get locked down, bogged down by religious dogs, inaccessible to anyone but the most devout canines.
Maybe some otters would be spurred by the information that The Lucky Boomerang returned with to build their own interstellar vessels, or perhaps try to retrofit existing spaceships with epsilon drives. But they’d be months behind The Lucky Boomerang at best. Basically, first contact would belong to the First Racers.
No one onboard, even Amelia it seemed, wanted that. It was better to take the leap and make first contact themselves, even if that meant letting this foreign space station lock itself to their airlock, leaving them with no easy escape from the unknown.
Except, the society aboard that space station wasn’t entirely unknown. The mice and everyone else aboard had been watching hours upon hours of the media that this interstellar society spilled into the vacuum of space, and while they actually understood very little of it… Some of it was clear: there were creatures and beings of all different sorts out here among the stars, and they interacted with each other. They stood in rooms together and made sounds at each other like they were speaking; they built spaceships that could protect them from the harsh vacuum of space, and they congregated together.
Some of that had to be good.
Some of that was much like what The Lucky Boomerang looked like, except on a much, much bigger scale. A grander scale. A galactic scale.
Yvette got shivers down her spine, puffing out her fur, just thinking about it. She felt small being a mouse on a spaceship built for cats and dogs, but she felt even smaller thinking about what they might find on the space station they were about to board.
“Alright, we’re docked,” Hedda said, and the shifting gravity caused by the ship’s centripetal motion had indeed settled down to a normal-feeling downward pull. It felt like a perfect approximation of Earth’s gravity. Hedda’s feline face with its lopsided calico markings melted into a beatific smile, and she announced, “Let’s get our representative engineer to the airlock.”
All of the engineers looked happy for Yvette — the dachshunds’ tails wagged; Katasha purred; and the other three mice were practically jumping for joy. Apparently, there wasn’t room left over for jealousy with how much excitement filled and overflowed in them all.
Yvette may have been the only engineer invited on the away mission, but this was still a triumph for all of them. They’d built and flown a spaceship across hundreds of lightyears, and now they would take their first steps into joining an interstellar community where the entire solar system altogether only added up to one small drop.
Georgie offered his paw to the cluster of mice, making it a ramp to his shoulders. Yvette climbed up and settled beside one floppy, brown ear. She flapped her fabric wings as Georgie walked down the hall, carrying her, as if she were still flying like a tiny bird. The other engineers followed in a crowd, each cat and dog with a mouse on their shoulder. The mice could no longer fly using their cloth wings, now that The Lucky Boomerang shared in the space station’s gravity.
Yvette flipped her long tail in complicated curlicues, enjoying the ride on Georgie’s shoulder and the anticipation of the unknown to come. When they made it to the airlock, Captain Kipper, Trugger, Amelia, and the bonded pair of Nioli and Gy’krr were already suited up and standing in the airlock. Inside their conjoined spacesuit, with Nioli settled on Gy’krr’s shoulders, the two of them looked like a magnificent creature — strong legs, two arms, and eight tentacles sprouting from the raptor’s back like frightening, angelic wings. Yvette could see why — if the two of them truly enjoyed and complimented each other — they wouldn’t want to give that joint existence up.
“Nioli is the octopus on the mission?” Katasha asked with characteristic catly curiosity. “Not Obsidian? I thought he was specifically here for his facility with languages and translation.”
Captain Kipper answered, “Obsidian feels he’ll be able to concentrate better in familiar surroundings. He’ll be observing the audio-video feeds from our suits and transmitting back real-time attempts at text translation. You are, of course, all welcome to watch our video feeds as well.”
“Oh, we will be,” Hedda declared. “Eagerly.”
“Fervently,” Katasha added.
The three mice who would be staying aboard The Lucky Boomerang said nothing, but Trugger leaned conspiratorially toward Josie, sitting on Katasha’s shoulder, nonetheless and offered, “I could sneak you on the mission inside my space helmet if you’d like. I think you’d fit.”
“I heard that,” Captain Kipper declared dryly, seemingly unbothered by her first officer pretending to undermine her orders.
Trugger shrugged. “Well, I had to try. Maybe I’ll be able to bring you all back some souvenirs!”
“No squirrel?” Freddy asked, looking around the gathered crew. “Sequoia isn’t joining you?”
“She declined my invitation,” Captain Kipper said. “But I think we have enough of the solar system represented here, and most likely, this won’t be our last foray into interstellar society.”
Yvette finished securing her own spacesuit and hopped onto Trugger’s shoulder. The otter, conjoined octopus-raptor, officious dog, and cat captain all crowded into the airlock together. The inner door to the airlock closed. The air began to cycle out — Captain Kipper didn’t want to waste any of the ship’s precious air if there turned out to be anything wrong with the air on the space station. And once the group of them stood in a small patch of vacuum, Trugger stepped forward, saying, “Where skylarks roam…” and pressed the controls to open the outer door.
Yvette drew a breath sharply through her whiskers as the metal airlock spiraled open, revealing a bustling scene.
The docking hangar on the space station yawned out in front of them with massively high ceilings, a distant far wall with many windows and doors in it and the sides curving into the distance with no visible end. The ceiling and far wall curved as well; the whole space was part of a spinning ring, which The Lucky Boomerang had attached to the side of, and through the many windows in the ceiling, Yvette could see more rings, the inner rings of the space station above.
In the yawning space around them, alien creatures of all sorts — large and small, furry and scaly, feathered and leafy, and some too strange to understand — wandered and gathered, stacked boxes and crates of cargo, and pushed cargo about on floating dollies. A lot of the aliens looked vaguely canine, many with red fur and pointy ears. Yvette supposed she shouldn’t be surprised to see that dogs — or dog-like creatures — were prevalent even out here in deep space. Dogs were so good at feeling like they belonged anywhere they happened to be that, of course, they would have evolved on other worlds as well.
A few of the creatures moving through the crowds among the docking berths were clearly human, living versions of the statues Yvette had seen back home. And even though mice had no religions built up around humanity, the sight of them made Yvette’s fur prickle under her uniform. Seeing living humans felt like seeing unicorns or gryphons — something Yvette had never imagined she would see except on a video screen, fictional and fabricated, conjured by the clever work of an artist.
Further in the distance some of the red-furred canine aliens seemed to be operating vendor stalls — exchanging what looked like bundles of food with their seeming customers.
Yvette twitched her nose automatically, wishing to catch the smell in the air, but of course, all she smelled was the pristine, filtered air inside her spacesuit.
Yvette supposed that the group of crewmembers from The Lucky Boomerang must look odd, standing in front of their docked ship in their shimmery spacesuits and helmets. None of the aliens here seemed to be wearing spacesuits inside the station.
Wait, no, that wasn’t quite true — Yvette spotted a creature with a complex helmet over its head. What she could see of its body was blue with long, trailing, silky-looking fins. It looked like a fish, and it even swam through the air. Yvette wondered how — did its helmet provide a small pocket of anti-gravity? The dollies being used to move cargo about hovered as well, and pockets of anti-gravity were how The Lucky Boomerang had found this station in the first place, so the mouse supposed it was possible. It still felt fantastical and unreal to see it happening in front of her with her own eyes. Though, the framing of her spacesuit helmet around her field of vision made it almost seem like yet another one of the video feeds that they’d all watched together back in engineering.
She wished the other mice were out here with her, seeing this too. With their own eyes, not filtered through the video feed each of their spacesuits was sending back to the ship, only a few feet behind them.
As odd as Yvette imagined that The Lucky Boomerang crewmembers looked in their shimmery, translucent spacesuits, none of the aliens had paid the slightest attention to them. They were all too busy with their own lives.
“Captain,” Trugger’s voice came over the radio in Yvette’s helmet, and presumably the helmets of the others. “The air here is perfectly safe, according to the readings I’m getting. Permission for us to remove our helmets?”
Yvette was sure she imagined it, because Captain Kipper was so strong and brave, but she thought she heard a frightened crack in the tabby’s voice as she said, “Permission granted.”
Yvette eagerly unlatched the faceplate in her spacesuit’s hood that served as a helmet and flipped it back over her head, letting her large round ears feel the whisper of different air sigh across her fur and the confusion of smells fill her twitching nose. Suddenly, the reality of her situation was something she could deny no longer: this was real; she could smell the cacophony of creatures and feel the air they shared moving through her whiskers.
Yvette was standing on (the shoulder of an otter on) an interstellar space station, filled with alien beings that she hadn’t known inhabited this universe mere days ago. She wanted her friends to experience this too. She didn’t want to keep this experience for just herself. She wanted to share. And she had an idea…
“Captain,” Yvette squeaked. “The air smells so fresh and good.” Complicated and delicious scents mixed with the profusion of creaturely smells indicating all the other life here. “So much fresher than aboard our ship. Wouldn’t it be better to open the airlock up–” Yvette pointed with her tiny paw toward a nearby docking berth where a green, reptilian creature lounged in what looked like a lawn chair in front of an open airlock. “–like the other spaceships have done? We could air out the stale air we’ve been breathing and re-breathing all through the mission.”
Silence greeted Yvette’s suggestion. She looked at the captain and saw her green eyes were dilated, and her gray ears flattened, still inside the hood of her spacesuit, although she’d unlatched and removed the faceplate. She held the faceplate in her paws like a portable computer pad, and it would function that way, letting her communicate with Obsidian back on the ship. She looked overwhelmed. It must be frightening to face such a patina of the unknown while feeling wholly responsible for the lives of an entire crew and the results of such a bewildering first contact. And yet the captain pulled herself together, looked at the mouse on Trugger’s shoulder, and smiled. “Yes, that does sound like a good idea.”
Yvette sensed that the captain understood exactly what her plan had been getting at: letting the rest of the crew join them, even if only by lurking inside the opened airlock.
Trugger worked the controls, re-opening first the outer airlock door and then, overriding the ship’s fail safes, also opening the inner one. Meanwhile, Captain Kipper radioed back to the crew onboard, explaining what was happening.
So, by the time the airlock was fully open, all of the engineers and even Sequoia, who had turned down the option of coming on this mission, were crowded around the opened inner door.
Yvette caught Josie’s eye, and an electric spark of joy passed between them. Both mice grinned. Then Yvette jumped down from Trugger’s shoulder, ran back partway into the airlock, and gestured for her three mice friends to come join her.
“Isn’t this place amazing?” Yvette squeaked, and as she saw her friends’ answering grins, for the first time, it really sank in that she was an interstellar traveler, surrounded by other interstellar travelers, a citizen of more than a country or world or even a whole solar system.
They might be tiny, but they were citizens of the galaxy.
And it was time to explore!
Continue on to Chapter 27…