Otters In Space 4 – Chapter 9: Sequoia

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.

“Sequoia was in space, for the first time, closer to the stars she loved than she’d ever been before, and yet her heart was distracted by the presence of a ridiculous mop-dog who probably thought of her as less than a full person.”

The last twelve hours of Sequoia’s life had been an absolute rollercoaster of emotions.  She’d learned during her months with the USSA that among the dogs of the Uplifted States, squirrels were stereotyped as flighty, impulsive, mercurial creatures, ruled by emotions as unpredictable as ocean waves during a storm.  That was nothing like how Sequoia had always seen herself.  She knew herself, and she’d always considered herself to be steady, steadfast, and certain.  As fixed as the distant stars in the sky which she treasured so much.

But these last few hours had rocked her heart like a small boat on that metaphorical ocean of emotions.

Perhaps, the day before The Lucky Boomerang’s first flight hadn’t been the best time to start researching Uplifted States politics, but in fairness to herself and that decision, she could never have expected to discover such a tangled web of religion-induced ignorance and xenophobic speciesism.

She’d known that the dogs (other than Freddy and Georgie in the engine room) who she’d encountered since joining the crew had behaved very strangely around her.  She hadn’t realized that they saw her entire species — as well as mice and otters — as completely irrelevant, long since discarded stepping stones on the ladder of Uplift.  As far as First Racer dogs were concerned, only dogs (and maybe cats, if they were well-behaved enough) mattered at all.  Everyone else was, at best, unnecessary and, more likely, a dangerous distraction when it came to their important work of… waiting.

Yes, they were supposed to be waiting for humans to return from the stars, and that just seemed insane.  Sure, the history records were clear that some humans had escaped Earth before the plague that killed the remaining ones, but why would they come back?  They’d been travelling to populate the stars.  Earth was nothing to whatever humans might have survived those interstellar travels.  Nothing but a shell they’d discarded, leaving it for the uplifted animals.

Sequoia wouldn’t care about what all the dogs of the Uplifted States believed, but those dogs were bankrolling this space program.

Also… she’d started looking into dog beliefs, because she kinda had a crush on Amelia.  It was dumb, but that scruffy dog’s tail had started wagging so hard at the final press conference when Kipper talked about how The Lucky Boomerang might uncover evidence of where humans had traveled to among the stars.  And dang, but Amelia was just so cute when her tail wagged like that, and her face totally covered in tawny curls?  Adorable.

Sequoia’s heart had started to go pitter-pat in the kind of way that was probably what caused all the dogs she kept meeting to bark at her about her tail being too distracting.  She didn’t like understanding or sympathizing with that kind of bad behavior at all.  But… also, she could not get the image of Amelia’s curl-obscured smile out of her mind, and the rhythm of the mop-dog’s wagging tail felt like it danced in step with the beating of her squirrel heart.

It was just a crush.  It would go away.

In fact, it was probably caused by her nerves about today’s flight, which had been a whole emotional rollercoaster of its own.  Her brain felt like a whole amusement park full of heart-stopping rides, whooshing about and full of screaming, right now.

Because, of course, researching First Racer beliefs had led Sequoia to discover what Kipper had been trying to distract them all from — the USSA was going to be cancelled by President Champ Truman.  There would be no interstellar travels; The Lucky Boomerang would take one lap around the moon, and then be retired unceremoniously.  Back to Treesylvania for her and Mousfordshire for the mice.  All of it for nothing.  No stars to hold in her paws.

But then… she’d heard the mice giggling together, and she wasn’t sure, but they seemed to think they knew something.  Something secret.  Something Trugger had let slip…

And so hope and disappointment warred in Sequoia’s heart, right alongside the war between her crush on Amelia and fury at her for representing everything bad about Uplifted States, First Racer dogs.

With all those feelings roiling inside her, Sequoia sedately floated along after Kipper, drifting weightlessly through the halls of The Lucky Boomerang toward the galley.  She was painfully aware of Amelia floating along behind her, and she kept her bushy tail as still as possible because of it.  She didn’t know if Amelia had understood that braiding her fur had been a way to flirt with her, and she wasn’t sure that she wanted the dog to figure it out.  She’d hoped that braiding Amelia’s curls would get the crush out of her system… but those curls had been so silky, and the brown eyes underneath so full of adorable bewilderment.

Among squirrels, in Treesylvania where she’d grown up, a flitting tail might betray something of its owner’s feelings, but in and of itself would never be interpreted as flirting.  Sequoia wasn’t used to controlling the manic twitching of her tail like she’d had to learn how to do since joining the USSA.  She didn’t like it.  She wanted to just be herself and let her tail wave frenetically, expressing all the complicated twitchy feelings in her heart.

When they arrived at the galley — a room at the top of the ship, with windows looking out at the stars all around them –Kipper took a seat at the head of the long galley table.  The tabby cat moved with a grace in the zero gravity environment that look practiced, carefully earned by hours spent in space among the otters of her old crew.  The younger cat, Katasha, bumped her way along much more awkwardly, bouncing between floor and ceiling, until she settled into the seat beside Captain Kipper.  Each cat hooked their hind paws into the stools rooted to the galley’s floor so they wouldn’t float away.

Sequoia chose a seat further down.  Her heart pounded when Amelia chose the seat beside her.  What did that mean?  Why did she care?  Sequoia was in space, for the first time, closer to the stars she loved than she’d ever been before, and yet her heart was distracted by the presence of a ridiculous mop-dog who probably thought of her as less than a full person.

The octopus, Obsidian, streamed into the room like his tentacles were more liquid than solid.  He looked larger than Sequoia had ever seen him before, stretching out his tentacles to take up all the space available to him, instead of squished down by gravity, pressing him against the floor.  He settled on the ceiling, which was just another wall, albeit window-filled, now that they were in zero gee.  Though, it was a wall above the rest of their heads, and his tentacles blocked out the stars like an extremely strange cloud formation.  His colors fluctuated, fluttering through the spectrum of every shade.  He was a living rainbow or perhaps an aurora borealis, and Sequoia would have thought for sure that he would be the most mesmerizing member of the crew to stare at during the meeting… but then the mice came tumbling into the room, showing off every acrobatic skill they had among them.

Only three of the four mice were former gymnasts, but the fourth one must have picked up a few moves hanging out with them, because all four of them flipped and twirled through the air like an entire miniature circus, their tails chasing after them like streamers.

Hedda, Freddy, and Georgie followed the mice, and all of them settled around the table.  The mice had their own miniature table and stools built onto the surface of the end of the table, so they could sit at a comparable height to everyone else.  Not that heights mattered so much, now that they were in space and the gravity was gone.  But as Sequoia understood it, the otters studying the ancient octopus base on Europa were still hoping to uncover schematics for an artificial gravity generator, and The Lucky Boomerang had been built with those hopes in mind.

And it would be retired with those hopes turned to ash, trodden under the paws of a lot of religious dogs.

And Sequoia wouldn’t get to see the distant stars up close, massive and breathtaking, and the sun from far away, sparkling and small like all the other stars in the sky.

At the head of the table, Captain Kipper snapped the seal between her spacesuit’s faceplate and the hood holding it in place.  Then she lowered the hood behind her head, so it hung down behind her back with the faceplate loosely affixed to one side.  She gestured for the others to follow suit if they desired.

Once the group settled down, most of them with their spacesuit hoods lowered — the notable exception being Obsidian, who seemed more comfortable in his water-filled spacesuit than he’d seemed in the dry air — the captain began to speak:

“I picked each one of you for this crew myself,” Kipper said.  Everyone else at the table glanced at Amelia, who had been foisted on them last minute, as she said this.  But the captain’s gaze didn’t flicker, didn’t favor anyone over anyone else.  She stared down the table, taking them all in evenly.  “I believe in and respect every one of you, and that’s why you all need to be included in this conversation.”

“What about Trugger?” Katasha asked.  The otter was the only crewmember still on the bridge.

“He’s my right-hand otter,” Kipper said.  “He and I have already discussed the coming mission, and I know where he stands.  But I want to give each one of you a chance to make your own choice.”

Hope danced in Sequoia’s heart at the idea of a choice.

If Kipper was offering them a choice…

Maybe today’s mission wasn’t over just yet.

“What choice?” Hedda asked.  The calico cat engineer’s gold eyes gleamed with curiosity.

“In spite of our tireless work to get authorization for an actual deep space mission,” Kipper said, “this test drive to the dark side of the moon was all we could get permission for from the current government.  Obviously, that is not enough.  A ship like this deserves a real test drive.  A real chance to show what it — and its crew — are capable of.”

The variegated crew of animals around the table grew very quiet, waiting to hear the exact choice Kipper would offer them.  Sequoia could hear her own heart racing in the silence.  She noticed a flash in Amelia’s eyes, as the dog sat beside her.  Was it anger?  The dog’s pose had grown stiff, like she was bracing for a fight — she’d leaned back, while everyone else had leaned forward, eager and intrigued.  Hopeful.

“Trugger and I plan to continue our mission, in spite of the government’s refusal to back us up.  We won’t let The Lucky Boomerang be mothballed just because we weren’t willing to take a risk and prove its value.”  Kipper drew a deep breath, lowered her head, and stared levelly at the whole group.  “We plan to fly to Europa and pick up our remaining crewmembers — Nioli and Gy’krr the bonded octopus and raptor pair.  From there, we intend to explore deep space, searching for signs or traces of extrasolar civilizations, possibly even human colonies on other worlds.”

If silence can become more silent, the silence in The Lucky Boomerang’s galley did so.

“Technically,” Kipper said, “this means we’ll be stealing this spaceship.  If we do find anything of value out among the stars… that indiscretion will likely be forgiven by the Uplifted States government.  Ask for forgiveness, not permission, right?  But if we don’t find anything of value…”  Kipper shrugged.  “Well, I can handle living the rest of my life as a political refugee.  There are plenty of great places to live in our solar system outside of the Uplifted States, and I know my sister and brother would come visit me.  But I don’t want to inflict that kind of exile on any of you.”

An uncomfortable rustling diminished the silence as the different members of the crew shuffled in their seats, looking from one neighbor to the next, trying to figure out how their crewmates would choose.

“So this is your chance,” Kipper said, “if any of you don’t want to risk your future in the Uplifted States, gambling it on this mission, then I’ve arranged for The Jolly Barracuda, my previous ship, to rendezvous with us and offer safe passage back to Earth to you now.”

“This is ridiculous!”  The curly-furred mop dog was shaking with fury after her outburst.  Amelia’s eyes smoldered, framed by the pretty braids that revealed them to onlookers.  The way her gaze darted from one crewmember to the next suggested she was trying to gauge whether they’d follow her in a mutiny and hoping to intimidate them into believing they no choice but to help her overthrow Captain Kipper.  She also brushed her paw against the side of her face in a way that made Sequoia think it hadn’t been a mistake that she’d kept her eyes hidden before — this dog didn’t like other people being able to look her in the eye.

Sequoia found that kind of endearing — Amelia might put up a bold front, but it was just that:  a front.  She was masking, trying to hide the uncertainty she felt inside.

Sequoia raised her paw and said, “As far as I can tell, half of the dogs in the Uplifted States already think I’m a criminal just for being a squirrel.  I have no problem with adding spaceship theft to my rap sheet.  I would follow you to the farthest star, Captain Kipper.  Especially because I’ve wanted to travel to the stars for as long as I can remember anyway.  Count me in.”

If Amelia looked angry before, she was seething now.

One by one, the mice chimed in to agree — there was no life for them in the Uplifted States anyway, and they’d already planned to return to Mousfordshire after their time with the USSA ended.

Obsidian signed his answer with tentacle tips blushed as gleaming black as his name.  He would follow Captain Kipper too.

That left only crewmembers who actually were dogs and cats of the Uplifted States.  Freddy and George had turned toward each other and were both signing rapidly, holding their paws low and close, obscured enough by their shoulders and the edge of the table that no one else could quite make out what they were signing to each other.

Katasha’s dark ears had flattened, and her clear blue eyes looked troubled.  Hedda had only lowered one of her ears, giving her splotchy Halloween-colored, calico face a skewed expression; her golden eyes had gone all distant and dreamy.  She was the first to speak:  “Captain, do you have any reason to expect that you will find something valuable on this mission?”

“Exploration of our galaxy is intrinsically valuable,” Sequoia quipped.  Though, she knew she probably shouldn’t have.  It wasn’t what Hedda had meant, and it was true that it wouldn’t buy the calico cat a way home after stealing a multi-million dollar, government-funded spaceship.  But the squirrel just couldn’t resist, largely because it made Amelia bristle even more.  That adorable, scruffy mop was just this side of actually growling.

“If you’re asking whether I have privileged information that leads me to believe our mission will be a success…”  Captain Kipper’s ears dipped, in spite of the fact that she was clearly struggling to keep them standing tall.  “No, I don’t know anything that you don’t.  There hasn’t been some secret discovery in the ancient octopus archives on Europa.  I’m gambling with my life here, and if I lose the gamble, I’ll only get to see my niece and two nephews when my sister brings them to visit me outside of the Uplifted States for the rest of my life.”

Freddy and Georgie stopped signing to each other to watch Kipper’s paws as she mirrored her spoken words with signs.

“So… yes, I do really believe that it’s a worthwhile gamble.  But no, I don’t know anything that the rest of you don’t.  We may simply visit a few stars, gather a little astrophysical and astronomical data, and come back with nothing that the politicians who could retroactively excuse our little jaunt would care about.”

All of the cats’ ears had flattened by this point.

“But… you think we could find positions among the otter space fleet?”  Hedda’s voice had grown high and querulous.  This was clearly a stressful choice for the animals who actually lived and had families in the Uplifted States.

“I can’t make any guarantees,” Kipper said, “but anyone who stays aboard The Lucky Boomerang for this coming mission will be among the first crew of interstellar travelers in our entire solar system.”

“Except for the First Race,” Amelia grumbled.  She’d leaned way back, arms crossed protectively across her chest.  She seemed to have checked out emotionally from the proceedings.

Sequoia supposed her crush on the dog would stop being a problem when Amelia opted out of the mission.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Then the squirrel could go back to focusing on her beloved stars — stars that she was about to get a whole lot closer to.  Her heart raced with excitement.

At some level, Sequoia didn’t care what the cats and dogs of the engine room chose to do… as long as there were enough engineers left for them to run the ship.

“Being one of the first interstellar travelers in the solar system seems like it would have to count for something when looking for a new position on a spaceship,” Yvette squeaked.  The gray mouse was holding her tail in her paws, twisting it nervously.  The mice had been more closely involved in working on The Lucky Boomerang’s engines than Sequoia, and suddenly the squirrel realized that maybe she should be worried about what would happen if all four of the engine dogs and cats defected here…

“More than that,” Sequoia chimed in, “if The Lucky Boomerang gets mothballed and the USSA cancelled, there won’t be any spaceships associated with the Uplifted States.  So, if you want to keep working on spaceship engines, the otters will be your only option.  Might as well impress them while you have the chance.  Everyone aboard The Lucky Boomerang will be solar system experts on interstellar travel after this mission, no matter what we discover.”

Captain Kipper pointed a carefully extended claw toward Sequoia, showing she agreed with the squirrel’s point.  In response, Sequoia’s spacesuit-sheathed tail flipped and twitched behind her.  Deep down, the squirrel enjoyed praise as much as any dog.  Especially when it came from someone she respected as much as Captain Kipper — the Hero of Europa.

George glanced nervously at his brother, and the skinnier dachshund looked away huffily.  George looked back at the captain and signed, “We’re in.  My brother is worried about how our mother will take the news, but he knows we need to do this.”

“Is that right?” Kipper asked, pinning Freddy with a questioning look.

The skinny dachshund nodded, once quickly.  He didn’t expand on what his brother had said for him.

Katasha drew a deep breath and said, “That’s what I’m worried about — how my boyfriend will take the news.  I wish I could have warned him.  Instead…”

“He’ll hear it on the news, not from you,” Kipper said, completing the thought.  “I know.  I’m sorry about that.  But if the slightest whisper of our plans had gotten out ahead of time…”

“You’d have been thrown in jail, and President Truman would have thrown away the key,” Amelia grumbled.  “You’re committing sedition right now.  And if it goes the way it looks like it’s going, you’ll all be committing treason.”

That’s when Trugger burst into the room, gliding like an arrow, and said, “Treason, like a parrot’s tears, is in the eye of the beholder.”

“Are the tears… not in the parrot’s eyes?” Katasha asked.

“Do parrots even cry?” Yvette squeaked.

Kipper just sighed.  She’d clearly known Trugger the longest.  She was used to him.

“Parakeets cry when feathers line the passage of time.”  Trugger said, becoming even more arcane.  He whipped himself around in a curlicue, ending up floating above the table, between all the mammals seated at it and Obsidian still clinging to the windowed ceiling with his sucker disks.

“You’ve switched from parrots to parakeets,” Katasha irritably observed, ears skewing in a complicated dance.  “You know they’re different right?”

“The important thing,” Trugger said, “is that The Jolly Barracuda is ready to rendezvous with us, and USSA control is getting increasingly frantic about recalling us to Earth.  Has everyone decided what they’re doing?”

“Not yet,” Kipper said.

Sequoia stared across the table at the two cats who were still undecided.  Could the mission continue safely without them?  Freddy and Georgie both worked in the engine room, but Hedda was the chief engineer.  And Katasha seemed to be some kind of wunderkind, plucked straight out of college (before she’d even graduated) to join the crew.

Captain Kipper wasn’t revealing a lot with her stoic expression, but Sequoia suspected the mission would be in serious trouble without Hedda and Katasha.  There weren’t a lot of extra hands aboard this ship.  Every one of them was needed.

But maybe Captain Kipper and Trugger had backup plans?  Maybe they knew otters who could fill Hedda and Katasha’s places?

Or maybe the whole mission would end up stuck in the bureaucratic hell of negotiating for otters to join the crew, waiting and treading water until the whole thing went under and stealing a spaceship from the Uplifted States government turned out to be for nothing.

Would any otters want to touch this rebel mission?

Or would that be construed as an act of war by this wretched President Champ Truman and his administration of rabid First Racers?

Sequoia needed to say something.  She needed to say something inspiring.  Something that would motivate these reluctant cats to get onboard, because she couldn’t come this close to touching the stars and have it all fall apart here.

“What’s holding you back?” Sequoia chittered.  “Because I’ve been in your country for only a few months, mostly cloistered on this spaceship, and even I can see how badly cats get treated in the Uplifted States.  Why do you care about going back to that?”

“Because it’s my home,” Hedda said glumly.  The calico cat’s splotchy ears weren’t so much flattened now as simply sagging.

“Also,” Katasha pointed out, “Freddy and Georgie might be able to cut some kind of deal and come back.  If we do this?  That’s it for going home.  You said that you can see how badly cats get treated?  Well, it gets even worse if you’ve ever stepped out of line, even the smallest amount.  We have to be perfect.”

Sequoia’s voice got low and sympathetic, “It doesn’t have to be like that.”

“And it’s not like that everywhere,” Kipper said.

“What should I tell USSA control?” Trugger asked.  “Is the mission on?”

Kipper’s eyes widened, and her lips drew back in a grimace revealing her sharp fangs.  Clearly, Trugger had revealed more than she wanted him to.

And Sequoia was right.

This whole mission hinged on getting everyone to opt into it.  Or least, more than had agreed to follow Kipper so far.

“Tell them we’re coming home,” Amelia said.  “We had a little engine trouble, nothing serious, and we’ll be returning shortly.”  The mop dog let her braid-framed eyes pass from one member of the crew to the next, lingering the longest on Captain Kipper.  “Take this deal now, and I’ll tell no one about this conversation.”

Sequoia’s heart sank.  That was it.  She looked up at the windowed ceiling, and it felt like the stars, framed by the curlicues of Obsidian’s purple-gray tentacles, were receding farther and farther away from her.  Always out of grasp.

“No,” Katasha said, growling at Amelia, “it’s First Racer dogs like you and Champ Truman who sold my boyfriend’s family a cult about how they’re not only less good than dogs because they’re cats, but they’re also less good than other cats because they’re not part of some weird purebred line that humans set up before disappearing.  He’s spent years recovering from that nonsense.  And if we can find anything in the stars to help debunk your whole damned awful religion, then I want to be part of that, and he’ll understand.”  Katasha’s triangular ears stood tall as she turned her clear blue eyes toward Captain Kipper.  “Count me in.”

Suddenly, Kipper looked a whole lot more comfortable.  “Alright then, Trugger, keep stalling with USSA control, but it looks like we’ll need The Jolly Barracuda to pick up Hedda and Amelia?”  The captain’s voice rose, making it clear she was still asking.  It still wasn’t too late to join her.

Hedda’s gold eyes looked troubled, but she said, “I’ll come.  The Uplifted States might be my home, but Katasha’s right.  This is a chance to make my home better… even if I lose it for myself in the process.”  The calico cat got up from her seat and floated past Trugger toward the corridor she’d entered through.  “I’m going back to my engine room now.”

Captain Kipper nodded and said, “The rest of you may return to your posts as well.  Except for Trugger and Amelia.  The two of you hold back for a minute.  But the rest of you, prepare for a very exciting mission!”

Sequoia’s heart felt like the rollercoaster it had been riding had just pulled up to the top of the biggest, steepest hill, and oh goodness, was she ready for the loop-de-looping dive to come!  This was gonna be the thrill of a lifetime.

A huge grin spread across the squirrel’s small muzzle, and she waved her paw tauntingly at the frowning mop dog as she floated away.  “Buh-bye, Amelia.  I hope you liked the braids, but I guess you won’t be needing them much longer.”  She made a point of flipping her bushy red tail as she sailed out of the room, letting it flap and flutter like a flag in a heavy wind.

That curly-furred dog could eat her heart out.  She wouldn’t be troubling Sequoia’s heart any more.  Sequoia’s heart had stars to love.

Continue on to Chapter 10

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