by Mary E. Lowd
Kipper watched Amelia walk away, back toward their spaceship. It shouldn’t bother her to have the government dog who she’d never wanted on her ship leave her side. But it felt wrong.
Kipper was just one cat. A tabby who’d grown up in a cattery, poor and undereducated, without a real support system. She had her siblings, and she’d made friends over the years. But deep inside, she still felt like a lone cat who had to fight for herself.
She felt so entirely, completely unqualified to be here, representing an entire planet. Sure, she had Nioli and Gy’krr by her side, but they represented Jupiter. Not Earth. And sure, she could call Trugger back to her side. He would always come when she needed him. But he would support her — not take the weight off her shoulders.
The chain of choices Kipper had made in her life — searching for something better than oppression by First Racer dogs, fighting for the lives of the cats on New Persia when they were under attack, and refusing to let go of her ideals when President Truman tried to shut down her space program — had brought her inexorably here.
She was the only cat for this job.
Kipper turned herself back in the direction that the human had pointed her in and began walking, one paw in front of the other, making herself step closer and closer to whatever she would find in this space station’s administrative offices.
Perhaps Kipper shouldn’t have been surprised to find red tape — rooms with people in them who passed her along from one person to the next, some of them human and some more bizarre (one was clearly a robot, built from clanking metals), making her wait while they conferred with each other, trying to decide what to do with the waist-high cat in a spacesuit, backed up by a looming octopus-raptor being, speaking a language they didn’t know and haphazardly trying to communicate via sound-snippets played on her translucent faceplate computer screen.
In all, it only took fifty minutes — though it felt like hours — for Kipper, Nioli, and Gy’krr to be passed along from person to person until they landed in a final room, sitting in front of a human with short-clipped, frizzy hair and light brown skin with a parrot sitting on either shoulder. One parrot was yellow and blue; the other red and green. And the way they sat on the human’s shoulders made Kipper think of Trugger with all four mice riding him like a giant otter-shaped tram. It also made her think of depictions of pirates in ancient human movies.
Did everyone in space — otters and humans alike — think that deep down they were pirates?
The human spoke, forming a gibberish slew of syllables that ran together, a complete stew of sounds that Kipper couldn’t make the slightest sense of. But she looked down at the translucent screen in her paws and saw words appear: “Attempted translation: ‘…can translate… speak… practice… learn takes time…’”
Kipper glared at the words and their broken nature. They weren’t a lot to go on, but Obsidian’s guesses about what the human was saying were certainly better than the gibberish slew of syllables itself.
Kipper drew a deep breath through her sharp teeth and said, “My translator says that you might be telling me to speak a lot of words so that you can practice understanding my language? Actually, I have no idea if that’s what this translation means, but it’s my best guess. So, I’m going to try saying a lot of words and hope that somehow it gives you the raw data that you need to get your translators working. Speaking of which…” Kipper glanced around the room, trying to spot a device that looked like it might be a translator or computer of some kind. “…what kind of device are you using for translation?”
The blue and yellow parrot flapped its wings; the red and green one said in a perfect copy of Kipper’s stressed out voice and querulous intonation, “…what kind of device are you using for translation?”
Kipper blinked at the bird. “You’re the translator,” she said.
The blue one flapped its wings again. The red one repeated, “Translator.”
Looking back down at the screen in her paws, Kipper saw a message from Obsidian reading, “I can’t translate all of what you just said, but I think this audio clip should say, ‘Speak a lot to teach translator?’ Or hopefully, something close to that.” Kipper pressed the button with a paw pad that started the screen playing the new audio clip. Then she looked carefully at the human and parrots for their reaction to the sounds.
The human raised her eyebrows, looking surprised and pleased. Kipper might not understand the human’s language, but she’d seen enough old human movies to be able to do a rudimentary job of reading their facial expressions.
The blue parrot squawked, and the red one laughed. There was no other correct description of that sound.
Despite all the strange things that had happened to Kipper in her life, none of them had prepared her for visiting a human space station and having a parrot laugh at her.
And it wasn’t like it was an alien parrot. No, Kipper was dead sure that these parrots were Earth parrots, uplifted like she had been.
For a moment, she felt a flash of anger: why were the parrots here? Why had humans brought parrots into space and left cats, dogs, otters, and her behind. Kipper had had to fight her way into space, pushing back against religious dogs who would be furious to find out about these parrots, but the parrots? They’d been up here on a human space station, living side by side with humans all along.
Kipper’s whole life, even when her paws had never left the solid foundation of Earth, these parrots had been living in the sky, light-years away, in a completely different part of the galaxy, circling a completely different pair of suns.
Why were parrots better than her? Why were they more worth bringing along on a journey into the marvels of the extended universe?
Was it because they could translate?
Since cats had to be given human speech through uplift, rather than being able to mimic it in their own right, they weren’t worth as much?
Kipper wasn’t a religious cat, but she suddenly understood why Amelia hadn’t been able to handle all of this; why the deeply devout dog had needed to return to their spaceship in the face of this all.
This was going to be a hard transition for all the uplifted animals of Earth, not just the religious First Racer ones. Humans had raised them up, been their parents, and then abandoned them. Returning to Earth with news of what those abandoning parents had been up to for all these generations was going to cause a lot of emotions. Kipper could hardly even imagine what effects it would have on Uplifted States society, let alone the interconnected web of societies that made up the entire solar system.
But this was the way forward, and you don’t stop going forward just because it’s scary.
So, Kipper turned to her crewmates — Nioli and Gy’krr — and after indicating the hulking feathered raptor and twisty tentacles of the octopus with a gesture of her paw, she introduced them to the human and parrots. She briefly described the different societies filling the solar system — the raptors and octopi of Jupiter; the otters living in the spaces between worlds; and the cats, dogs, mice, and squirrels on Earth. She talked about the other members of her crew — the ones back on the ship and the ones exploring this space station. She used a lot of words, and she watched the two parrots tilt their heads inquisitively, focusing on every word she said, even if they couldn’t possibly be understanding them all yet.
As Kipper spoke, the parrots took turns muttering quietly into the human’s ears, possibly translating, possibly discussing something entirely unrelated. Kipper had no way to know.
When she ran out of words, Kipper glanced down at the screen in her paws and saw a message from Obsidian: “You know I can’t possibly translate all that.”
Kipper laughed in spite of herself at the image of Obsidian, back aboard The Lucky Boomerang twisting his tentacles into a tangle trying to keep up with all the words she was saying and ideas she was trying to convey.
When Kipper looked back up at the parrots and human watching her, the human said a few gibberish syllables. The blue parrot repeated them, but this time they actually made sense: “And your name?”
“My name?” Kipper asked, surprised. Then she realized, in all the words she’d said and introductions she’d made — including those to crewmembers who weren’t here — she’d forgotten to introduce herself. “I’m Kipper Brighton,” she said. “Captain of The Lucky Boomerang. And I’m here to forge a connection between the peoples in my solar system and–” Words failed her; she simply gestured with her paw in a way that included everything around them. The room they were in. The space station it was part of. The aliens walking through that space station. And all their space ships docked along its spinning rings.
All the stars in the sky.
All the space in between.
Kipper was here to forge peace between her world and everything else in the universe.
It was a lot of responsibility for one small tabby cat. But she knew her friends back home would have her back — Emily who’d ascended to become some kind of grand high octopus leader; Jenny running the Europa Base; Captain Cod with the fastest ship in the solar system, short of her own Lucky Boomerang; and her siblings — both blood and found — Petra, Alistair, and Trudith with whatever political power they could still manage on Earth.
Kipper might feel lonely carrying this responsibility on her shoulders, but she wasn’t really alone.
Continue on to Epilogue…