Otters In Space 4 – Chapter 3: Amelia

by Mary E. Lowd

An excerpt from Otters In Space 4: First Moustronaut.  If you’d prefer, you can start with Chapter 1, return to the previous chapter, or skip ahead.

“Amelia wondered idly if the octopus changed his patterning in purposeful ways to bluff the other players into thinking he had good or poor hands.”

The Lucky Boomerang squatted on the tarmac like a half-melted scramball.  The name of the spaceship had been hotly contested for a few months while it was being built — a lot of dogs and cats had wanted to name it The Lucky Frisbee for the flying disc-shaped toys, because deep in the cultural consciousness of the Uplifted States, spaceships were still expected to be flying saucers.  Even though they never were.  Even The Lucky Boomerang was only vaguely disc-shaped, and that was largely because the committee who had approved the hull design had added non-functional wings to either side.  For aesthetic reasons.

‘Aesthetic reasons’ were also cited when a team of dogs showed up to paint the hull with lime green hexagons, outlined in dark silver — the colors of a regulation scramball.  The hexagons got kind of droopy around the edges, but Amelia thought it looked good.  Cheerful and fun.

In the end, though, an influential First Racer preacher, fomenting opposition to the space program, had conceded that a spaceship might be alright, as long as all the Good Dogs and Nice Cats remembered that humans had intended them to stay on Earth.  Thus, the spaceship had been named for a flying toy known for coming back.

Amelia straightened the tunic of her new, navy blue Uplifted States Space Administration uniform.  Her ivory curls flowed over the crisp collar and puffed out at the ends of the sleeves.  She’d been letting her fur grow long lately.  She liked the way her curls flopped over her eyes, shielding her from the world and keeping others from feeling on solid footing with her, since they couldn’t make out her expression beneath her fur.

It always seemed to make others nervous when they couldn’t quite see the eyes of the person they were talking to.  Amelia kind of liked it.  She didn’t need to look at other dogs’ — or cats’ — eyes to read more information about them — from their posture, their tone of voice, their tiny gestures and stance — than she wanted to know.

Most dogs with long fur kept it trimmed short around their eyes.  And sure, Amelia could see better right after a trim.  But she liked the advantage of putting others on edge better.  And shielding herself.

The airlock of The Lucky Boomerang was wide open, both inner and outer doors, and the gangplank was lowered to the tarmac, so Amelia had no trouble getting aboard.  Security wasn’t really an issue once someone got as close to the spaceship as the tarmac.  It was getting inside the facility surrounding the tarmac that was the hard part.  But Amelia had been assigned to this mission.

The captain and rest of the crew just didn’t know about her yet.  But she was one of them now.  A late addition — and possibly unwanted — but a full member with a uniform and everything.

Amelia walked through the corridors of the ship, heading toward the bridge.  She was familiar with its layout from the blueprints.  The corridors were a comfortable size for her, as she was only a little taller than most cats.  A tall dog like a greyhound or Great Dane would have had to hunker over uncomfortably in some places.  That would need to be fixed in future models.

Assuming there were future models.

Amelia had her doubts about this entire project.

The doctrine of the First Race said that dogs should wait patiently for humans to return.  Good Dogs waited.  This meant that all of the rich dogs throwing money at this ill-conceived government project were either poor First Racers or just really bad at understanding the doctrines that they themselves believed in.  Either way, Amelia didn’t see any harm in some fun while canine-kind waited.  A quick jaunt out to the next few solar systems was basically a walk around the block writ large.  And you couldn’t expect a dog not to take herself on a few walks while waiting.  Even a Good Dog.

Amelia headed to the bridge of the ship first, but no one was there.  The main viewscreen was dark; all the workstations were empty; and the only sound was a soft hum.  Amelia wondered if that meant the engines were running.  They shouldn’t be ready for takeoff yet, but it was possible the engineers were running tests.

Next, Amelia made her way to the engine room where she found four mice, an octopus, and a squirrel playing cards in the middle of the floor while the cats and dogs worked around them.  Not exactly professional behavior.

The octopus was wearing breathing gear in the form of translucent bulbs of water on either side of his mantle.  Unlike the others, he didn’t wear a uniform — just wristbands around a few of his tentacles in the colors of the others’ uniforms, navy blue with silver edging.  He was sitting in a low pan of water to keep himself from drying out, which seemed like a clear safety hazard to Amelia.

Most of the octopus’s dimpled, wrinkly skin glistened with moisture but had been kept bare, probably to aide in his ability to communicate using colors.  Right now, he had taken on a splotchy coloring that seemed to resemble a hodgepodge of hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds in black and red, speckling his ashy gray skin.  Mimicking the cards.

Amelia wondered idly if the octopus changed his patterning in purposeful ways to bluff the other players into thinking he had good or poor hands.

The mice were barely bigger than the cards laying face down on the floor in front of them.  Their hands of cards were too big to comfortably hold them up for long.  One of the mice kept awkwardly lifting her cards up to peer at them without letting the others see.

Amelia shook her head and sighed.  She didn’t like that the cat in charge of this program had insisted on including outsiders in the project.  Sure, she’d read all the briefs explaining how each one of the crew members was absolutely necessary — including that ridiculous otter who served as second in command.  At least, he had served as second in command, until now.  Amelia hoped Captain Brighton wouldn’t take it too badly when she saw the paperwork reassigning Diplomatic Observer Amelia von Cupsworth to take over as second in command.  It would be good if she could have a professional working relationship with the captain.  However, she didn’t care how the otter took it.  From what she’d seen, he had zero real credentials, and Captain Brighton had brought him aboard purely out of nepotism and poorly placed friendship.

Amelia had concerns about a feline captain — or really any cat — who picked her friends so poorly.  There was nothing wrong with nepotism when it was used to raise up the right Good Dogs and Nice Cats.  But a space pirate otter?  He had no place in the Uplifted States, let alone their brand new space program.  Otters were unpredictable rogues at the best of times, and these were not the best of times, what with all the cats in the land getting ideas about their superiority from the fluke where Captain Brighton’s brother won a single stint as president.

The red squirrel put down her hand of cards, peered at Amelia — probably trying and failing to catch the dog’s eye, due to the fringe of curly fur covering them — and said, “Excuse me, but do you need some help?  You look lost, and… where did you get that uniform?  Are you a new crew member?  I thought, I’d already met everyone.”

The squirrel stood up and her tail flicked alluringly behind her.  Amelia had to hold back a snarl.  The squirrel should control that tail better, and ideally keep it tucked entirely out of sight.  It was much too distracting.  “Yes,” Amelia woofed through clenched teeth, “I’ve been assigned to this crew as a diplomatic observer and first officer.”  She held out a paw, stiffly, formally.  “Commander Amelia von Cupsworth.  You must be… Sequoia Birch?”

The squirrel laughed — a chittering, musical sound that felt like rainbows dancing all over under Amelia’s skin.  She shook off the feeling as fast as she could, setting her jaw, and frowning at the squirrel.

“And why, may I ask, is that funny?” Amelia woofed.

The squirrel gave her a crooked smile, a charmingly lopsided expression on her finely featured face.  “Well, I’m the only squirrel onboard.  So, not a hard guess, right?  Even if you didn’t know from the crew profiles that Sequoia Birch was a squirrel, it’s a pretty safe bet from the name, right?  Two types of tree?”

One of the mice said, “I have a cousin named Magnolia Larch.”

Another mouse said, “Didn’t we meet a dog named Willow Spruce at the airport while going through customs?”

Amelia grumbled, feeling a fool.  She couldn’t tell if the mice were making fun of her — making up names for fictional cousins and customs workers — or if they really did know mice and dogs with double tree names.  She wasn’t good at reading sarcasm and knew that she tended to take things more literally than most dogs.  And yet, it was still possible that the cousin and customs worker were real.

Amelia had heard that squirrels were good at making fools of dogs, and now this squirrel had a whole card game’s worth of mice laughing at her.  She was glad for the fringe of curls, half covering her eyes.  She’d have to watch this squirrel carefully.

“Where’s Captain Brighton?” Amelia asked gruffly, trying to cut through the tinkling laughter of the tiny mice.  Even the octopus’s colors were rippling in a way that looked like it might be laughter now.

“Captain Brighton and… uh… Officer Trugger are working on cutting through some bureaucratic red tape… I mean, doing some paperwork in the barracks,” Sequoia said.  The way she said “Captain Brighton” left Amelia one hundred percent sure that the foolish cat had her subordinates calling her by her first name most of the time.  That was no way to keep order.

“Thank you,” Amelia said curtly.  “Now, please clear out of the way here.  This is no way to run an engine room.”

“Excuse me?” one of the mice squeaked.  She had pale orange fur.  From the crew manifest that Amelia had studied, she knew this one was named Josie Longtail.

“You heard me, Officer Longtail.  Get this mess cleared off the floor.”  Amelia waved a paw dismissively at the card game.

The octopus, Obsidian, turned into a dark purple mass of writhing tentacles.  He looked angry and started making complicated gestures with the tentacles that weren’t holding his hand of cards.  Belatedly, Amelia realized he was speaking sign language to her.  “What’s Officer Obsidian saying?” she asked.

More laughter from the mice and squirrel.

Sequoia said in amazement, “They assigned a dog to help command this crew who doesn’t speak Swimmer’s Sign?”

At this point, one of the dogs working on the engine — a skinny dachshund with short dark fur — took an interest in the conversation going on in the middle of the room.  “Hey guys, lay off the new dog.  Most dogs and cats in the Uplifted States don’t learn sign language.”  He stuck out a paw toward Amelia.  “I’m Freddy.”

Amelia considered correcting Freddy and calling him by his title and last name… but it was becoming increasingly clear that she’d be fighting a losing battle here against the casual culture that Captain Brighton had chosen to foster.  Instead, she sighed, shook his paw, and asked, “So do you know what the octopus is saying?”

“I’ve only picked up a little of Swimmer’s Sign so far, but from what I’ve picked up, I don’t think you want to hear it.”  As the dachshund spoke, his paws fluttered, gesturing in complicated, dancing patterns.

Amelia frowned.  “If you only know a few words of Swimmer’s Sign, how come you’re signing so much?”

“Oh this?” Freddy asked.  “This is MSL — Mericka Sign Language.  I’ve been using it since I was a pup, because my brother, Georgie, is deaf.”  He gestured over a shoulder at the other, plumper dachshund.  “It’s a different sign language, but there are some similarities.  I’ll be the first to admit that it gives both Georgie and me a real head start on learning Swimmer’s Sign.  But I’m sure you’ll catch up.  The cats are doing great.”

“The cats…?” Amelia asked, feeling like she was having trouble keeping up on a number of levels.  “What about the squirrel and mice?”

The squirrel and mice,” Sequoia said in a tone that made it perfectly clear that she didn’t think much of being referred to by her species instead of her name, “already know Swimmer’s Sign, because just about everyone in Europe learns it.”

“Well, this isn’t a European space program,” Amelia snapped.  She hadn’t read anything about sign language — either Swimmer’s Sign or MSL — being such an important aspect of communication among the crew of The Lucky Boomerang in the progress reports from Captain Brighton.  She wondered what else the cat had been leaving out.  “Now, as I commanded before, get this card game cleared up and out of the way.”

None of the card players moved.

After an awkward silence, Freddy said, “I’m going to have to respectfully ask, Commander von Cupsworth, that you don’t interfere with how we’re running the engine room.”  He gestured at the other canine and feline officers — a calico cat; a tabby-point Siamese; and the dachshund who looked a lot like him, but less skinny — working on the control panels and twisting pipes lacing the edge of the room.  “Hedda, Katasha, Georgie and I can’t crawl into the loopy piping structures that the epsilon drive engine requires, so we need our smaller officers available at a moment’s notice to help us out.  If they clear out and go somewhere else, it will slow our progress down whenever we need them to crawl inside the piping and check something out.”

The calico cat called out, without turning away from the open panel she was wiring, “Besides, I have twenty bucks riding on the outcome of that game.”

Amelia frowned again.  She didn’t like that the chief engineer was a cat when she read about it in the files, and now she liked it even less.  A feline captain was more than enough cat leadership for one crew.

Clearly, if Amelia wanted to pull this crew into shape, she’d need to start changing the culture from the top down.  And that meant dealing with Captain Brighton.

Continue on to Chapter 4

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