by Mary E. Lowd
That night, the crew of The Lucky Boomerang bunked down in the barracks, like they had every other night for weeks. They needed to sleep. They needed to be sharp for their mission in the morning.
But none of them could. Sleep was an ethereal concept. Something they could remember; something that happened every day; and yet seemed impossibly out of reach. Impossible to attain. And some of the crew wasn’t even trying.
Amelia listened to the mice squeak and giggle to each other in their corner of the barracks — a dollhouse-sized nook, close to the floor and right to the side of the entrance to the room. It was placed there so the mice wouldn’t have to travel all the way to the far end of the room — the equivalent of one of their city blocks in Mousfordshire — to get to their bunks.
Occasionally, Captain Kipper half-heartedly shushed the room, which Amelia respected. But it also revealed that the captain couldn’t sleep either.
They were all so nervous. It was a simple flight, from what Amelia understood. And they all seemed to trust the arcane octopus engineering behind the ship implicitly. So, what were they all so worried about?
Amelia grumbled, huffed, and rolled onto her side, trying to shut the sounds of all the restless sleepers out of her floppy ears. She thought longingly of Obsidian’s bunk — the only one not in the barracks. As an octopus, he had an enclosed tank of water for sleeping in. Apparently, for safety reasons, it had to be placed closer to the center of the ship. So, Obsidian was the only one not trying to sleep in this shared space, and while Amelia didn’t want to sleep in a tank of water, she was jealous of the privacy he got.
In fact, he even got a double-size tank, since it had been designed for including the octopus crew member that Captain Kipper had hoped to pick up on Europa. That wouldn’t be happening — sure, Amelia had pulled the strings necessary to get the bonded octopus and raptor included on the crew roster. But this joke of a project would be shut down before it ever made it as far as Europa. The good president Champ Truman would see to that, and then all the Good Dogs of the Uplifted States could get back to life the way it was supposed to be.
Amelia startled at the touch of a paw on her side. She turned and saw in the dark: a small, perfectly formed squirrel face. Ears pointed and nose twitching.
Sequoia whispered to the dog, “I couldn’t sleep, and it sounded like you weren’t sleeping either.”
Amelia’s heart pounded at the closeness of the squirrel, and she was glad she couldn’t make out the probable flitting of Sequoia’s fire-like tail in the darkness. She didn’t know how to respond. She could say something about how she had almost been asleep until the squirrel interrupted her, or something about how she didn’t understand why everyone was so worked up about tomorrow, or maybe just, why won’t those mice stop squeaking? But putting a string of coherent words together took effort, and she didn’t do it fast enough.
Sequoia interpreted Amelia’s silent stare as agreement, and apparently an invitation, since she crawled into the bunk beside her. Whispering again, this time closer to Amelia’s floppy ear, the red squirrel said, “I thought you might like help with your long fur. In zero gee tomorrow, it might get in your way. I could do a few little braids… nothing much, just enough to keep it out of your eyes?”
“I like the hair in my eyes,” Amelia muttered, feeling slow and foolish. Her heart was beating quickly though. It was the only quick thing about her right now.
“Even when you could be using your eyes to look at the stars?” Sequoia asked.
The stars were where the First Race had gone.
Amelia’s heart stopped racing when she thought of the First Race. The mere thought of the humans who had uplifted dogs and given them this wonderful world to live in was enough to calm her during the worst catastrophes and soothe her through the worst heartbreak. The tension and frustrations aboard this strange vessel and the confusing feelings inspired by a squirrel crawling into her bed beside her were nothing compared to the pervasive happiness of simply thinking about the First Race.
“Okay,” Amelia said softly. “You can put in a few braids.” She did want to see the stars. She wanted to see them and feel close to the humans, out there, somewhere in the sky.
Amelia wasn’t the kind of dog who had the hubris to believe that humans would return during her own lifetime. They would come. The doctrine of the First Race said so. But they had been gone a long time, and the scripture predicting when they would return was… at best… cryptic.
Riding this ridiculous contraption powered by blasphemous octopus technology was probably the closest Amelia would ever come to her beloved humans in the sky. And the squirrel was right: she should keep her eyes clear to see them.
Sequoia worked with dexterous, small paws. She wound locks of Amelia’s tawny curls under and over each other, weaving them into tiny plaits above and below the dog’s eyes. She worked so carefully that Amelia could barely feel the gentle tugs on her fur, and yet the activity was almost painfully intimate. The squirrel had to bend so close over Amelia’s face, as the dog lay helplessly supine, head resting on her pillow.
When Sequoia was done, she leaned back and said, “There, that’s better.” The squirrel smiled. “You have very pretty eyes under all those curls.”
Amelia looked away bashfully, embarrassed but also confusingly pleased by the squirrel’s compliment. Imagine that. Complimented by a squirrel. Then overtaken by curiosity, Amelia sat up in the bed and peered into a small mirror built into the wall beside her bunk. Every bunk had one. It was hard to see in the dark, but the braids looked fancy lining her eyes. Fancy like a squirrel’s tail. She felt silly and a little ashamed that she’d let herself be dolled up like this. She felt even sillier realizing how much she liked it.
When Amelia turned back to look at Sequoia and thank her — because thanking her would be polite, and Good Dogs were always polite — the squirrel was already breathing deeply and steadily, sound asleep, with her head on Amelia’s pillow.
The scruffy dog’s heart jumped again at the sight. A squirrel! Sleeping in her bed! Scandalous! And yet… Sequoia looked so peaceful, and all of them had been struggling to sleep. And they all needed their sleep, tonight more than ever. They needed to perform well for the cameras tomorrow, even if it was only a small mission before the program got shut down.
Amelia decided to let the squirrel keep sleeping beside her, and when the dog laid her own head down on the pillow, she felt the weight of Sequoia’s sleep — an emanating drowsiness — pull her down into a surreal patina of dreams, in spite of the mice’s continued squeaking and the other cats’ and dogs’ continued whispering and Captain Kipper’s continued hushing. None of it bothered her, not with Sequoia sleeping beside her.
Continue on to Chapter 8…