by Mary E. Lowd
As soon as the scruffy white dog insisting she was the ship’s new second in command left the engine room, Josie signed with her delicate hand-like paws, “That is one grumpy mop of fur.”
Obsidian’s color shifted from the angry shade of plum he’d become to a self-satisfied shade of soft peach. He signed with the tips of three tentacles — which grew so thin at the very ends that they weren’t much larger than a mouse’s paw: “I’ll believe she’s second in command when Captain Kipper tells us so. Besides, I’m here as an independent advisor, directly from the octopus oligarchy. I don’t answer to dog politicians.”
Like most mice, Yvette had been taught to understand the octopus counterparts of the otter signs in Swimmer’s Sign during school, but before this mission, she’d never seen an octopus signing them in person. Obsidian’s tentacles moved with such grace and elegance that it made the otter half of the dual-sign language — the one she could perform with her own paws — feel like a simplified, pidgin version. Like trying to sing the melody of a song that really ought to be performed by a string quartet.
“That’s fine for you,” Wendell said. He was the mouse with white speckles on brown fur, and he wasn’t getting the same kick out of practicing Swimmer’s Sign as Josie and Mulberry seemed to be. “I’m sure an octopus and a squirrel can book flights on an airplane out of here with no problem if this program goes belly up. But–”
They’d had this argument before.
Yvette cut him off, speaking and trying to sign along as she did: “Stop, Wendell. Just stop. I’ve told you that Commander Trugger has taken personal responsibility for getting us back to New London if there are any problems. We’re not going to get stuck, forgotten in some room with doors too big for us to open until we starve.”
“Besides, if it came to that,” Sequoia chittered, “Obsidian and I would bring you with us. You won’t get abandoned in the Uplifted States.”
Grumbling, Wendell picked up his hand of cards and hid behind them, an effective blockade given their size relative to him. He was the mouse struggling most with living among cats and dogs, possibly partly because he’d never been as close of a friend with Yvette, Josie, and Mulberry as they were with each other. At least, Yvette and Josie used to be close, before the apricot-colored mouse had taken first place in three competitions at the same gymnastics meet and quit gymnastics altogether, convincing Mulberry to quit with her. The two of them had joined an architecture firm right after graduating college. That’s where they’d met Wendell. He was older and didn’t have a background in gymnastics, but he’d been an engineer who’d worked on restoring Big Ben and ran marathons on the weekends.
Yvette told herself that she’d drifted apart from her best friend Josie — and consequently Mulberry — because they were spending their time so differently. Not because she was jealous of Josie’s three gold medals. Not that. Surely, not that. She wasn’t that petty. Really, she wasn’t.
Of course, Josie probably wouldn’t believe her if she explained that time was all that had come between them. Yvette wasn’t sure she believed it herself.
The card game advanced a few rounds. Hedda the calico made her twenty bucks when Obsidian won again. And then Freddy came to the group to say, “Okay, time for work. I need three of you to run the pipes again and check for where the beam’s getting stuck.”
That meant mice. Both Sequoia and Obsidian could fit into the pipes, but they couldn’t run through them efficiently.
Yvette laid down her cards and said, “Count me in. This hand is terrible.” It wasn’t, but she loved running the pipes and didn’t care about the card game.
Josie, Mulberry, and Wendell looked at each other warily and then burst into several rapid rounds of rock-paper-scissors, pounding their paws in rhythm and either whooping or sighing at the result, until it was determined that Josie could keep playing cards.
Wendell and Mulberry would run the pipes with Yvette.
“Which pipes do you want checked?” Mulberry asked.
Freddy pointed to two pipes near the floor and one near the ceiling.
“I call ceiling!” Yvette said and ran off before the others could object. Not that they would. The piping in the floor coiled much less tightly than in the ceiling. Mulberry claimed the tight turns made her dizzy, and Wendell simply preferred running long distances, more like the marathons he was used to. And fair enough. He was really fast at it.
Whereas, Yvette liked the feeling of constantly twisting and turning. It brought back some of her favorite parts of being a gymnast. Somehow, she never seemed to get dizzy.
Tiny ladder railings were built into all the walls of the engine room, making it possible for Yvette to scurry up to the opening of the pipe on her own. Though, it would get even easier once they were in space. She was really looking forward to experiencing zero gravity. She wanted to try out some of her favorite gymnastics routines and see how well they adapted.
Of course, she wouldn’t have the usual parallel bars and balance beams to work with, but she thought she’d probably be able to do some interesting things with the ladders and pipes. She would miss having the creativity and aesthetic sense of her trainer and choreographer to help her… but she’d be able to come up with some routines herself. She’d still have fun.
The mouth of the pipe was nothing to the cats and dogs on the crew — just a hole that they could maybe reach their paws into. To Yvette, though, it was a yawning cave, and every time she stepped inside it, she felt like she was beginning an adventure.
“I’m turning on the beam now,” Freddy woofed.
Yvette held out her paw, reaching for the exact middle of the pipe, and waved it around until she found the red laser beam. A wide red dot lit up her paw, making it glow like something from a fantasy movie. She was the Chosen Mouse, and this was the path to her Glorious Destiny. Yvette craned her neck, bringing her nose just close enough to the harmless beam of light for her to see the bright red shine on her whiskers. It danced with every breath that made the fine filaments of her whiskers quiver in the air. She smiled, but held back the laughter she felt in her heart.
She lived on a spaceship. She worked on a spaceship. And if things went well, they’d soon be in space.
Yvette dropped to all fours and began running along the pipe. She moved faster that way, and though she couldn’t compete with Wendell’s speed — and didn’t want to — she intended to do a good job for the feline and canine engineers building this modern marvel.
At every seam between pieces of pipe, Yvette stopped, held up her paw, and checked that the beam was bending properly along the twisting, curving path. Still centered in the pipe. The pipes themselves were securely welded together, shaped exactly to the specifications for the epsilon drive that the otters had found in the ancient octopus ruins on Europa. However, the beam of light bent according to the epsilon field waves generated by the engine.
The pipes Yvette was running through were merely a track for accelerating particles. It was the invisible, ineffable epsilon waves that would bend the particle beam into following the track so that the sub-atomic particles could zoom around, faster and faster, until their racing pinched the fabric of space, allowing the ship to fold its way instantly from one location to the next, disregarding the limitations imposed by the speed of light.
Yvette liked to imagine that she was a sub-atomic particle herself while she ran through the curlicues of piping. She certainly felt tiny enough, living in this cat and dog world.
The way the pipes twisted made Yvette think of the etchings by the ancient human artist M.C. Escher or maybe a machine by Rube Goldberg. Finally, she came to a seam at a tightly curved point in the piping where the red beam of laser light didn’t show up centered. She stopped, waved her paws around, and finally located the beam, near the top of the pipe. She moved her paw back and forth, tracing the beam’s path and found that it had stopped curving. She checked the address of the location, etched into the metal of the pipe in the form of a simple five-digit number, along the seam.
“Freddy,” Yvette called out, squeaking as loud as she could. “I found the problem.”
“Yvette?” His bark echoed through the curves of the pipe, sounding distant and small, like a shadow of his voice back in the engine room.
“That’s right. Ready for the address?”
Yvette read the number out and waited for his response. She knew the cats and dogs must be working furiously to figure out what was wrong with the field shape of the epsilon waves, and she didn’t mind waiting. Eventually, they’d need her to pull the measuring tape out of her pocket and take more specific measurements as they tried to fix it.
She laid down on the cool, curved metal of the pipe, next to the address etching, and took the end of her tail in her paws. She twirled the end of her tail and watched the circles it made, thinking about how small they were and how much larger the circles were that the planets made around the sun.
She was going to escape those circles in this ship and fly away into the galaxy. The mere idea made her feel light and giddy, as if she could do a triple flip during a gymnastics routine… and instead of plummeting back down to the mat… just soar up into the sky.
Continue on to Chapter 5…