by Mary E. Lowd
As all the rest of the crew absorbed the chaotic view of alien lifeforms on this interstellar space station, Amelia only had eyes for the humans among the crowd. She wanted to rush toward the first one she saw — a human with pinkish skin and long black hair — and fall at the woman’s feet. She wanted to forget everything about adulthood and civility and kiss the woman’s boots, touching the fabric that clothed her, rubbing her tongue along a surface that touched a human’s skin. She wanted to roll on her back and laugh and bark and beg the human to tell her she’d been a Good Dog.
It was the most confusing, silliest feeling Amelia had ever experienced, bubbling up through her, and leaving her light-headed. There were humans dotted throughout the crowd here, mixed in with the avians, insects, fish-like creatures, and all the orange-furred pointy-eared canine beings. Amelia’s hackles raised at the sight of those strange alien dogs — they looked a little like Shelties or Collies with their bushy manes, but much, much taller. Taller than the humans. Jealousy burned the underside of Amelia’s floppy ears: why were these dogs here? Why had they been allowed to know humans their whole lives? Why did they walk among the First Race as if it meant nothing to them?
Had humans left the dogs on Earth behind and forgotten about them because they’d found better dog friends in space?
Oh doggarned damnation, Amelia was thinking in blasphemies. Humans had not abandoned dogs. They had gone ahead, paving the way.
Maybe none of these humans had spared a glance for her, because they could sense Amelia’s faith was so weak it would falter at the sight of them and the heaven they’d prepared for her to find. Maybe she truly was a Bad Dog.
“I’m not sure we should split up…” Captain Kipper said, finally pulling her spacesuit hood all the way down and seemingly replying to something Trugger had suggested. “This place is a lot bigger than Deep Sky Anchor.”
“It’s bigger than any otter space station,” Trugger said.
Amelia tore her gaze away from a human with long black hair who was loading crates into the docking berth right next to The Lucky Boomerang’s (maybe Amelia could gain her favor and prove she was a Good Dog by helping load those crates for her?) and turned to look at Captain Kipper’s discussion with Trugger, who now had all four mice perched on his shoulders. Two mice on each side. Each mouse pointed a tiny paw toward some thrilling view in the distance, whiskers trembling with excitement on each of them. There were so many thrilling things to see that the mice’s paws jabbed wildly at the air, pointing out one view after another.
Even the pair of dachshund brothers — the only other dogs on the ship — seemed delighted by the array of sights in front of them all.
Amelia didn’t understand any of them. Her crewmates were standing near humans — actual members of the First Race, living GODS — and they were excited by the sight of a few giant insects or aliens with elephantine trunks? What did those things matter compared to living humans?
“I don’t know, Kipper,” Trugger said. “A little reconnaissance–” He drew out the word in the silly, faux-pretentious way that he had. “–is always a good idea, right? And we’ll cover more ground if we split up.”
“You just want to play mount for those mice who’ve finally all settled on your shoulders at the same time,” Kipper countered.
Trugger shrugged, causing the mice to giggle, partly with surprise at the rolling motion and partly with the giddiness of it all. “Maybe,” he agreed. “But two birds fly farther when they fly in opposite directions.”
“That… makes… no sense.” Kipper frowned, then glanced, surprisingly at Amelia. “What do you think? As you pointed out, you’ve studied humans more than any of the rest of us, and according to Obsidian’s translations, this is a human-run station.”
Amelia had truly thought of herself as an expert on humans until mere minutes ago. But now, she was faced with the actuality of humans, and it made no sense to pretend that she knew anything at all. The First Race knew everything; Amelia was nothing but an acolyte, following footprints long left behind, trying to trace their path. A path that had led here. The humans were here. Anything Kipper wanted to know, she should ask the humans.
And yet, Amelia had a role to play in this crew, and she didn’t know what to do other than play it through. Humans stood only twenty, forty, or fifty paces from her… and yet, they were still separated from her by an impossible gulf. They didn’t look at her. They didn’t notice her. And Amelia knew better — mostly — than to fall at their feet and roll about like a puppy on a sugar high.
“If this is a human-run station,” Amelia said each word carefully, slowly, feeling her way. “Then I believe we’re safe here.” She gestured with a curly-furred paw. “Look how peaceful it is — all these aliens, going about their lives, organized by the holy power of…” Her voice broke off. She wanted to cry. There were humans who could have heard her words, the timbre of her voice, caught the sound of her speaking… if they were listening. And none of them were.
Why were none of her gods listening to her?
Didn’t they care?
Didn’t humans Love Good Dogs and Care about them? Weren’t the First Race out here in space, specifically because they Loved and Cared about Good Dogs and wanted to prepare the perfect New Home for them?
If the Members of the First Race were ignoring her, did that mean Amelia wasn’t a Good Dog?
Kipper didn’t seem to care that Amelia had broken off mid-thought. The tabby cat captain, who stood only thigh-high to the humans mixed into the crowds on this station, was looking at those crowds very seriously. She nodded. “I think you’re right.”
Amelia noticed the differences in their words: Amelia had said she believed; Kipper said she thought.
Amelia didn’t know what to think right now. But she did still believe. She believed. She believed so hard. She would not let go of that belief.
At least… She didn’t think she would let go of that belief…
The thought entered her mind, small and unwanted, but undeniably there: maybe her belief wasn’t as strong as it should be. Right now, her belief felt tenuous, like a waving curtain, shielding her from seeing a bigger truth hidden behind it. A horrible truth.
“Alright,” Kipper said, waving a paw at Trugger and the eager mice on his shoulders. “Go do some reconnaissance. Don’t get lost.” She turned her feline gaze to the rest of the crew, crowded around the open airlock. “Who wants to go with them?”
Several paws raised — Georgie’s, Katasha’s, and Hedda’s. The cats’ eyes were wide with curiosity, and Georgie’s floppy black ears were pricked up with interest, even though he couldn’t hear anything with them. Freddy, Sequoia, and the bonded pair of Nioli and Gy’krr looked less certain; Nioli’s tentacles had blanched to a pale shade of pink under the translucent covering of her spacesuit.
Kipper waved her paw at the three crewmembers with their paws eagerly raised and said, “Go on then, follow Trugger, and stick together.” Then she turned to the remaining group and said, “Freddy and Sequoia, would you stay here and keep an eye on the situation at our airlock?”
The squirrel and dachshund exchanged a glance.
“You’re not asking us to guard it?” Freddy asked, sounding uncertain. He was a small dog, like Amelia. Smaller than his brother Georgie. And Sequoia, being a squirrel, was even smaller than him. They wouldn’t make very good guards in this crowd of giant red-furred canines and other large aliens. The only Lucky Boomerang crewmember who would make a good guard was Gy’kyrr with her sharp talons, her long, strong legs, and Nioli’s powerful tentacles reaching over her shoulders like strange, grasping wings.
“No,” Kipper said. “Just keep an eye out. You can always go inside and close the airlock behind you. Basically, play lookout for us. Lock up if there’s any… uh… danger. And contact us over the suit radios; then let us in when we get back. I mean, hopefully, it won’t come to that.” Kipper looked around at the chaos — the peaceable chaos — surrounding them again. Then she turned back to the remaining crewmembers in the group who hadn’t been assigned a role — Amelia, Gy’krr, and Nioli. “The four of us are going to see if we can find whoever’s in charge of this station and… I don’t know… forge some kind of first contact peace treaty?”
Nioli signed for both her and Gy’krr, “We would like to be part of that mission.”
Amelia nodded, curtly. She couldn’t bring herself to say more words, feeling the weight of all the humans around them. Not right now. But maybe soon. Maybe Captain Kipper would find the human in charge, and everything would fall into order. It would all make sense the way it was supposed to.
Kipper held up the spacesuit helmet faceplate, a simple squarish oval of clear plastic, in front of her like some kind of metaphorical shield and said, “You can hear me, right, Obsidian?” Text streamed over the glassy surface of the faceplate, and Kipper nodded, seemingly content with the octopus’s reply. “Okay, great, that means we have half a chance of understanding what anyone else says to us.” She looked up and glanced around the giant docking hangar, eyes glazed and ears held at half mast. She looked nearly as overwhelmed as Amelia felt. “If only we had a way for them to understand us…”
Nioli signed with her tentacles, which had turned a paler shade of soft violet: “With this many different species aboard a single station, we’re clearly seeing representatives of many different worlds. They must have more experience breaking through language barriers than the small collection of species we represent from our solar system.”
Kipper nodded again. Then she tilted her head, ears skewing unevenly, as she stared curiously at the bonded octopus-raptor pair. “Do you usually speak in sign language when bonded together?” she asked. “I’m sorry if that’s an impertinent question… I’m just… Surprised. And I guess I haven’t seen the two of you bonded much before. And this is all a lot–” She gestured at everything. “–and I suddenly wondered, and I need to get ahold of my tongue before I go talking to a bunch of complete aliens and blurting out something unforgivable, don’t I?”
Nioi’s violet tentacles wriggled in an octopus form of laughter, and Gy’krr’s spade-like, feathered head bowed, seeming to try to hide a smile. When the two of them recovered from their amusement at Captain Kipper’s discomfiture, Nioli signed, “Yes, we’re more comfortable signing when we think together. It’s part of why we’ve stayed together, even after the revolution liberating octopi — our octopus self is more dominant, which is very unusual. But it feels right to us. We like to be together. We like it when we speak with our tentacles. And we don’t mind you asking.”
Amelia frowned at all the words looping through the air in front of her in the shapes of those dancing tentacles. She’d clearly come a long way at reading sign language since joining the crew of The Lucky Boomerang, but it was still a struggle.
And nothing should have been a struggle here… not with humans so close at paw.
“Alright,” Kipper said. “This is wildly stereotypical — straight out of the cheesiest of the old sci-fi B-movies preserved from the human era — but we need to find who’s in charge. So, Obsidian, is there any chance that you can give me a sound clip that says something simple like ‘Take me to your leader’ in a language that someone here might understand?”
Amelia, Nioli, and Gy’krr all crowded around Kipper to watch the text that began scrolling over the faceplate when Obsidian answered. He answered in the affirmative, providing a short sound clip that Kipper could play by pressing a digital button on the faceplate screen. Alongside it, Obsidian offered sound clips that he said should mean approximately ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ and ‘confusion.’
Drawing a deep breath, perking her ears as tall as they would stand, and squaring her shoulders, Kipper prepared herself. Amelia was awed by the bravery and audacity of this tabby cat who didn’t even believe in the power, supremacy, and love of the First Race. For all Kipper knew, these humans could be totally indifferent to a ship of cats, dogs, mice, and other sundry animals from the world they’d fled many generations ago. It must be lonely to feel that way. And yet, Kipper charged off, straight toward the closest human.
Captain Kipper stood barely waist-high to the human woman with the long dark hair, but she held the faceplate up and pressed a pawpad carefully to the screen. A strange series of sounds emitted from the faceplate, and the human’s expression turned intense and concerned.
Amelia felt like she could have fainted. She half wished she actually would, because the stress of seeing one of her gods look at her crewmate with such confusion felt like an icicle to the heart. Surely, the confusion would pass. Surely, this would all begin to make sense.
But no, the human shrugged. An oddly familiar and understandable gesture considering the string of nonsense syllables she spoke following the shrug. It was a human’s voice — soft and musical and a sound Amelia had waited her whole life to hear, and yet, the sounds meant nothing to her. Just gibberish.
Amelia wanted to press closer to Kipper and look at the screen to see how Obsidian translated the words — she was desperate to understand the words of her god. But her paws wouldn’t move, wouldn’t take her closer.
Kipper pressed the screen again; Amelia couldn’t see whether it was to say ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ or ‘confusion.’ But the human spoke more gibberish and then pointed into the distance, across the crowd filling the docking hangar.
“If I’ve understood correctly,” Kipper said, “there are administrative offices for the station that way. Let’s go!” She sounded surprisingly chipper about the situation, even with all its uncertainty.
Amelia couldn’t understand right now how anyone could feel anything short of absolute euphoria — being in the presence of humans! — or totally crushing despair. Those felt like the only two feelings left in the universe, and she could feel herself teetering toward the latter one. None of this was anything she could have expected. And none of it felt like the warm blanket of Safety and Acceptance and Approval and Complete Love that she had always known Humans would Provide.
Each step through the crowd made Amelia’s paws feel heavier, and each glance she cast at a human in the crowd — only to see the human gaze right past her, usually over her head, totally indifferent to her presence and the Work she’d done all her life to be a Good Dog — made the poor dog’s heart sink farther into her stomach. She felt like the roiling acid in her belly would dissolve her heart entirely, and there’d be nothing left of her to Love Humans Back, even if They Finally Did Shower Her With The Praises She’d Been Awaiting.
Amelia’s paws stopped moving beneath her. She barely felt like she was still inside her body. She certainly didn’t seem to be able to control it anymore.
A moment and a few strides later, Captain Kipper stopped and looked back at the stalled dog, quirking one ear into a questioning tilt. “Is something wrong?”
“I can’t do this,” Amelia replied. The words came from her mouth, but they didn’t feel like they came from her heart. Her heart was screaming inside her, but acid in her stomach was roiling and her paws tingled with numbness. Her head felt like it would float away. Amelia was having a panic attack. She’d had them before, but never this bad.
Why did she have to panic now?
Amelia wanted nothing more than to stride into the administrative offices of this space station, look into the eyes of the human in charge, and feel the world fall into order around her as she helped negotiate the future congress between the Good Dogs of Earth and the Holy Humans of Here.
A creeping, hollowing, horrible fear filled her: that wasn’t what would happen. Nothing would fall into place. The world was going to be out of order, everything discordant and confusing, and infinitely lonely for the rest of eternity.
Because the humans here didn’t care that she’d come so far to see them.
They didn’t care about her at all.
“What do you mean, ‘you can’t do this’?” Captain Kipper asked.
Amelia shook her head, staring at her paws. It was all she could manage. But then words found their way out of her mouth: “I need to go back to the ship.”
Captain Kipper looked like she was about to ask ‘why?’ but then thought better of it. She shrugged and said, “You can help Sequoia and Freddy keep lookout.”
Then she turned herself around and walked away from her gods.
Continue on to Chapter 28…