by Mary E. Lowd
Kipper watched the day dawn through The Lucky Boomerang’s main viewscreen. Everyone else was still asleep. Later in the day, the smart glass of the viewscreen would be filled with readings and calculations, and under those, eventually, stars.
But for now, it was just a window. And through the window, she watched the sky soften through shades of violet and pink into powder blue, decorated with clouds that bled gold and orange. A view that couldn’t be seen from space, not like that.
Kipper had come to love living in space. She had spent so much time on The Jolly Barracuda with the silly, piratical otters under Captain Cod’s command that she’d come to think of the ship as her home, almost as much as any part of Earth. But she’d hated how that spaceship flooded with oxo-agua, making her feel like she was drowning. No, correction, it didn’t make her feel like she was drowning — it literally drowned her, but with an oxygenated fluid she could breathe. Kipper shuddered. She loved and hated that spaceship so much.
But this spaceship — this brand new, untested spaceship — was entirely hers. It could be her home for real. This crew could become her family, the way that the Jolly Barracuders had. The way Trugger still was.
But they would have to make it through today. And today would be a crucible that would forge their bonds, forming them into an unbreakable unit… or it would break them. She didn’t know which. She had collected the strongest, most well-balanced crew that she knew how to… but then Alistair had lost re-election; the golden furred menace, Champ Truman, had taken office; and everything had started going to hell.
Most of the cats in the Uplifted States didn’t know yet how bad it could become. They didn’t have friends still involved at the highest levels of the government, keeping them informed on the inner workings, and the changes that were coming. But while Kipper’s brother and sister — Alistair and Petra — had been out on their ears as soon as the government was handed over to Champ, Trudith was the kind of dog who could get along with anyone — even First Racer idiots out to glue cats’ paws to the ground forever, because they believed humans had given dogs the godly right to rule over their feline neighbors.
But even if Trudith could get along with those kinds of crazy dogs, she was still deeply loyal in her heart to Kipper and Alistair. So, she passed along any information she was included on — because she was the kind of dog that those in power liked to have around, but then forgot she was still there and listening when they started discussing their indiscretions — as discretely as possible to her adopted cat family. Because like Trugger, Trudith was family.
Another dog who had gracefully survived the handover of the government from Alistair to Champ was Vice President Morrison. Oh yes, the moment he’d had a chance to hitch his wagon to one pulled by a dog instead of a cat, Morrison had abandoned the politically-expedient alliance with Alistair and run for Vice President again, but on Champ’s ticket.
And Morrison had convinced Champ to bring back his bill to ban cats from space. Just what all the cats of the Uplifted States had needed — a scheming Sheltie pulling the puppet strings on an affable, easy-to-like Golden Retriever.
So, Kipper wasn’t just fighting to save her space program. She was fighting to save the rights of all the cats in the Uplifted States.
And today would be critical in that fight. So, she sighed long and hard when the final dawn-touched cloud melted into a glaringly blue sky.
She was going to break through that sky with her spaceship, and she was going to make damn sure that the crack she broke into it stayed wide open for her niece, nephews, and every other kitten growing up with dreams of someday joining all the otters who lived in the space stations scattered throughout the sky.
The rest of the crew finally began filtering onto the bridge from their restless nights of anticipation. The four mice had shining eyes, full of hope and excitement. Kipper suspected that Trugger had let something slip to them, and they had guesses about what was coming.
The cats, Hedda and Katasha, were all business, checking the readouts on the ship’s dormant engines. Engineers to the core, they only had eyes for the ship. The dogs, Freddy and Georgie, were talking rapidly to each other in MSL, paws moving in beautiful, intricate dances. Kipper didn’t know MSL as well as she knew Swimmer’s Sign, but she knew enough to pick up that the brothers were talking about their family, and how excited they’d all be watching the launch.
The new dog, Amelia, and the squirrel, Sequoia, were much more sedate than all the others. That didn’t surprise Kipper. Amelia had been assigned to this crew after the fact, and Sequoia was supposed to be the ship’s navigator. If they were only taking a short jaunt to the moon and back today, then her skills wouldn’t be called into play. She probably felt like a fifth wheel. Well, that would change soon enough.
Trugger and Obsidian came onto the bridge last, the octopus perched on the river otter’s shoulders, waving his tentacles around mock-menacingly. “I’m a velociraptor!” Trugger said, holding his paws in front of him, curled downward, in a silly imitation of a velociraptor’s talons.
“And I’m an octopus!” Obsidian signed. Together, the two of them seemed to be pretending to be a bonded octopus-raptor pair.
Kipper quirked a smile. Though, she probably shouldn’t encourage them. Still, it was interesting watching the rest of the room’s response — the mice tittered nervously; Sequoia smiled; Hedda rolled her eyes, and Katasha barely looked up from the engine readings. Both dachshund brothers guffawed, and Amelia frowned, an expression almost hidden by the fringe of curls around her muzzle. Though, Kipper noticed that the curly-furred dog had braided the hair around her eyes, giving her a clearer view. That was a smart move. Long fur could be hard to manage in zero gee.
“Okay,” Kipper said. “Just to be clear here, even though Earth just underwent a war with the velociraptors who used to rule Jupiter, they’ve been overthrown by the octopuses they’d been enslaving. The entire Jovian society of octopuses and velociraptors is in complete upheaval, and many velociraptors have defected, becoming essentially our allies. Including our crew member, Gy’krr, who has yet to join us.”
“Right,” Trugger agreed. “So, when Gy’krr and Nioli get here…”
“When?” Sequoia snorted, and Kipper thought she was probably hearing some of the bitterness that the squirrel might feel about the extremely limited nature of today’s mission. Today’s official mission. “I’ve been brushing up on Uplifted States politics, and you’re never gonna get clearance to have a bonded octopus-raptor pair join our crew.” The squirrel’s expression was grim.
“Actually,” Kipper said, smiling beneficently at the curly-furred mop dog who suddenly looked very uncomfortable. “We already have the clearance, thanks to Amelia.”
“A lot of good it’ll do,” Sequoia muttered, “if we’re never authorized to fly as far as Europa.”
Trugger caught Kipper’s eye, and the two of them kept the best poker faces they could manage.
“Sorry,” Sequoia said, “I just…”
“You saw the news article this morning about Vice President Morrison’s speech.” Kipper hadn’t watched the video of the speech herself. She couldn’t stand that smug Sheltie’s muzzle. But Trudith had leaked the planned text of the speech to her ahead of time, so she’d known what to expect.
“Yeah,” Sequoia agreed. “And if you read between the lines…”
“Yes, clearly, he’s bucking for making our first mission our last mission, but Trugger and I have known this was coming for some time. And we’re not going to give up the USSA that easily.”
Everyone on the bridge was watching Kipper now, and she felt the weight of their gaze fall heavily on her — their hopes, expectations, and fear of disappointment if they dared to feel those hopes too keenly. She understood better how ridiculous Captain Cod could be now that she had taken on his role as leader of a spaceship crew — it was a lot to carry, and a little levity probably made those weights fall more lightly on the shoulders.
And yet, she couldn’t bring herself to break the tension with a joke or metaphor about birds.
Today was too important.
Kipper spoke solemnly, seriously, and completely sincerely, signing along with her paws in Swimmer’s Sign: “Whatever comes next for the USSA will depend on how our mission goes today, so let’s show the world that the Uplifted States Space Administration has the best spaceship in the whole solar system. Let’s show them what The Lucky Boomerang can do.”
Smiles broke across muzzles of varying sizes throughout the room. Even Obsidian blushed a lovely shade of sunset pink.
But most importantly, Amelia didn’t seem to suspect a thing. Because of her presence, Kipper couldn’t afford to bring anyone into her confidences until they were in the extranational waters of deep space. She couldn’t tell anyone what she really had planned. Except Trugger, of course.
“Let’s all get to our stations and get this launch underway,” Trugger said and signed, dismissing everyone to begin their day’s work. Obsidian slithered his way down from Trugger’s shoulders, and then the otter came over to put a paw reassuringly on Kipper’s shoulder. “We’ve got this,” he said.
Kipper nodded, trying to buck up her own spirits, internally, the way she had done for everyone else. The unwavering smile on Trugger’s face helped.
And then the smile faded, and Trugger turned deeply serious. He leaned close to her and said in a low voice, “But I do have to correct one thing you said.”
“What?” Kipper asked, genuinely concerned.
“The Lucky Boomerang may be the fastest ship in the entire solar system, with its epsilon drive… but The Jolly Barracuda is still the best.”
Kipper sighed deeply. But she knew better than to argue. Trugger’s loyalty was one of his best traits, and she would never succeed in arguing him out of it. She wouldn’t want to.
The crew scurried around the ship, getting every last detail ready for their launch. Kipper felt strange and useless in her captain’s chair — in the middle of it all, and yet, somehow not entirely a part of it.
That’s how Kipper felt about the world too. She’d watched the political scene grow more and more divided during the course of her brother’s presidency… It wasn’t his fault. He was the first feline president, and it was inevitable that a cat ascending to the highest position in the country would draw out all the crackpot, nutjob, diehard First Racer dogs who wanted to hold cats down, no matter how good of a president he’d turned out to be.
But knowing it was inevitable, and knowing that overall the country was making progress, in spite of the setbacks being thrown at them by Champ Truman… it didn’t make her feel any better. She felt like she was drowning on Earth; and she felt like she was only a visitor in the otter society in the sky. She hoped this spaceship and the USSA would change that. She was about to be back in the sky — the beautiful, wonderful, infinite sky — but this time she’d be there on her own terms, not hitching a lift from a generous otter.
Of course, how long that would last all depended on how well she’d understood the composition of her crew. Because a spaceship isn’t worth much without a crew to fly it.
She’d find out soon enough. As soon as The Lucky Boomerang was settled into a safe orbit, just past the dark side of the moon, it would be time for the whole crew to have a very serious conversation.
Pushing the anticipation — both hope and fear — of that conversation aside, Kipper let the ritual, details, and structure of the launch flow past her. Her only job was to keep track of all those details, making sure that each necessary step was taken before the crew moved onto the next.
Once the ship was ready — engines humming — and the government dogs in the air control tower gave them the green light to launch, every member of the crew pulled their jumpsuit spacesuits over their uniforms. There shouldn’t be any need for them, but you don’t launch a prototype vessel into space without being ready for something to go wrong, so they all needed to suit up.
The uniforms were made from a new kind of fabric — the formula for it was yet another one of the invaluable discoveries that Jenny and her team on Europa had extracted and translated from the treasure trove of ancient octopus computers, along with the plans for the epsilon drive itself and also faster-than-light communications arrays.
“Okay,” Trugger said, wiggling his long spine as he shimmied into the new spacesuit. “I have to grant — these suits are better than anything we had on The Jolly Barracuda.” He zipped the suit up the front, and the fabric shimmered like the rainbowy surface of a bubble. He flipped the spacesuit’s hood over his head, snapped the attached faceplate into its rigid form and sealed the edges of the hood around it.
The whole suit looked as clear as the surface of a very deep lake, catching reflections and obscuring them strangely with every slight movement.
Kipper pulled her own spacesuit hood over her head, snapped the faceplate in place, and broke into a huge grin. “It feels like… nothing,” she said.
“A bit of an improvement over that otter suit you had to wear way back when, eh?” Trugger grinned back.
Kipper’s ears flattened at the mere memory of how that spacesuit helmet with its space for tiny, round otter ears had crushed her own triangular ears down. She shuddered all the way down to the twitchy tip of her tail, which as usual with a spacesuit was pressed against her leg inside the pant leg. But still, she wasn’t saddled with a big old baggy, empty sack for an otter’s rudder tail flapping around uselessly behind her. “Yeah, I’d say this is better.”
The rest of the crew looked happy with their spacesuits too, even Obsidian who could still communicate via the color of his skin through the transparent fabric wrapped around his tentacles.
Once everyone was in place, properly suited, Kipper gave the order, and the engines roared to life.
“The epsilon drive will be a lot quieter than that,” Katasha said. “These are just the booster engines for escaping Earth’s atmosphere.” The tabby-point Siamese cat’s post was on the bridge, but she was monitoring the engines and staying in communication with Hedda, the calico cat running the engine room.
The mice and dachshund brothers were down in the engine room too, working with Hedda. Whereas Obsidian, Sequoia, Trugger, and now Amelia all had posts on the bridge, arranged at computer stations all around Kipper. Fortunately, there had been enough room on the bridge to accommodate an extra, unwanted government dog, added to the crew at the last minute.
“To the stars!” Kipper said, slicing her paw through the air in a way that made it clear it was time for Katasha to engage the booster engines.
“Well, at least, the moon,” Sequoia quipped, still seemingly bitter about the limited nature of their mission.
Kipper shot the squirrel an unamused expression that quieted her down instantly. Trugger decided to help by saying, “And after all, isn’t the moon really a kind of star? The biggest and brightest one in the Earth’s sky?”
Every animal on the bridge turned to stare at Trugger, but the otter felt no shame over the ridiculousness of his statement. “Hey, at least I didn’t compare the moon to an ostrich egg, lost on the waving dunes of a black sand desert.”
“I think that would’ve been better,” Kipper said.
“It certainly wouldn’t have been any less factual,” Sequoia agreed.
And Trugger quirked a smile at Kipper — his ridiculous statement had put her and the unhappy squirrel on the same side, defending reality from the encroaching silliness of otters. And that had clearly been his plan.
Crew interactions aside, it was time to launch.
How do you describe a spaceship launch?
From the ground, watching it, the ship streaks through the sky, piercing higher and higher into the thick blue like a needle cutting through a layer of fabric that protects our world from the emptiness outside. White smoke trails after the ship like a cottony strand of thread, hanging from the needle.
Inside the ship, it’s like being strapped into the car of a rollercoaster — everything rumbles, everything quivers and shakes, and your stomach falls and flips, no matter how much you’ve trained, no matter how much you’re prepared, because mammalian stomachs didn’t evolve for that kind of travel. Our bodies never expected to leave this world, even as our minds yearned for escape and adventure.
But all of that is wrong. Too simplistic.
The most important part is that the world falls away, as if gravity had never really been a law, as if it’s something you can forget, and when you forget, the bonds tying you to the planet you were born on, grew up on, lived on and walked on… become nothing. You are meant for the sky.
And the world that had been your whole world becomes so very small, you can see the whole thing at once. Every place you’ve been, every person you’ve met, every memory that you built while living on the planet all become small enough to fit inside a single sphere that fills less than the entirety of your vision. You can see more than you’ve ever seen before, and you can see it all at once.
Kipper’s heart swelled as she watched the ground recede, horizon broadening beneath them. The clouds slipped past the viewscreen in their shades of ash gray to pearly white, filling the view until the last wisp of cloud cleared, leaving a rippled, crenulated, landscape of whipped cream beneath them and emptiness all around. But Earth still filled the viewscreen — blue oceans glowing under the smears of soft white. Eventually, the curved edges of the Earth came into view, closing the landscape into something contained.
Kipper felt herself becoming a part of the wider society filling her homeworld’s solar system once again. On Earth, it’s easy to think that Earth is everything, and everything beyond Earth is small. But when you’re in the sky, your entire perspective flips, and the place that held you becomes a something you can hold in your vision, in your mind. The cradle becomes the thing that needs cradling.
Just a sphere of blue, white, and touches of green. Just an eye, staring back at you, holding your gaze as steadily as you can stare back.
On the Earth, when you blink, you can still feel the planet all around you. The air, the gravity, the sounds. It holds you, whispers to you, and fills your lungs. You can’t imagine it could disappear, not really. But in space, blink for a split second, and for that moment, the whole world could be gone. You can’t feel its hold on you anymore, except maybe in your heart.
Kipper had seen beautiful sights in her travels — the creamsicle clouds of Jupiter, the ice fields of Europa, and the octopus city of Choir’s Deep, bursting with all the colors of underwater life. But the sight of Earth, curled up and small, like a child sleeping, was still one of the most beautiful sights she’d ever seen. It always would be. It had all the majesty of space… and all the comfort and familiarity of gazing at your mother’s face.
“Geosynchronous orbit achieved,” Katasha said, floating at her station now, only held in place by a seatbelt, as they all were. They’d left gravity behind, along with all the rules and control of the dog-run government. “Booster engines have powered down, and the epsilon drive is ready for its first test on your command, Captain Kipper.”
“Let’s get right to it then,” Kipper said. “Begin the epsilon drive jump to the far side of the moon at will.”
Katasha didn’t hesitate. She was a young engineer, scooped straight out of college and drafted into the new USSA program for her brilliant, cutting edge designs. That eagerness combined with her gray tabby stripes — even if they were only a mask on her face and gloves on her paws, due to her Siamese heritage — made Kipper feel like she was looking into a distorted mirror on her past whenever she watched Katasha. This young cat was who she could have been, if she’d been born a few years later, young enough to see a feline president before understanding the weight of history that had had to be lifted to raise him to that position, and had been raised herself in a family instead of a cattery, taught to value herself instead of doubt herself.
Kipper felt proud and, honestly, a little threatened by Katasha. She wished she could have been a cat like her, instead of one of the cats who’d had to pave the way for her.
Suddenly, every thought in Kipper’s mind was cut off by the sensation of jumping through space. The feeling completely enveloped Kipper before she’d had time to brace against it: cold and hot, bright and dark, pleasurable and painful, all at once. It was as if every nerve and every neuron in her body sparked at the same time — fire and ice, whisper and shout, dream and unmistakable reality, blended into an impossible mix.
And then it was over, as fast it had begun, and Kipper found herself staring at the far side of the moon. The silver sphere wasn’t dark. It was the wrong time of the month for that; the sun shone steadily on the unfamiliar, pockmarked, ashy gray surface. This was the moon’s other face, and it would watch over her ship, as her crew decided whether they would accompany her on her planned, rogue mission.
“Trugger,” Kipper said, “send a message back to Earth saying that the jump was a success, but that we’ll be going silent for a while as we double and triple check all of our systems, just to be sure.”
“What?” Katasha objected. “We don’t need to–”
“Everyone else,” Kipper said, ignoring the outburst from her younger mirror, “follow me to the galley. We have a change of plans to discuss. Trugger will run the ship while we do. Please pass that information along to everyone in engineering, Katasha.”
The Siamese-tabby dipped her ears and nodded deferentially, looking both non-plussed and intrigued. Kipper supposed that was a fair reaction. The young engineer was one of the officers for whom Kipper was least sure of what to expect in the coming conversation. Youth is inherently unpredictable. Furthermore, citizens of the Uplifted States had more to lose by going rogue on this mission.
Kipper was about to ask her crew to assist her in stealing a spaceship.
Continue on to Chapter 9…