by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in What the Fox?!, March 2018
Lieutenant Libby Unari, a black cat and science officer with a focus on botany, had a tray of biology samples in her lap — cuttings and sprouts, planted in soil samples — taken from a forest moon. The moon itself hung like a green star in the rear window of the shuttle craft, receding into the distance as they flew away.
“That was a very peaceful away mission,” Captain Pierre Jacques meowed. The pink-skinned Sphynx cat didn’t usually accompany away teams down to previously unexplored planets, but he’d made an exception for this forest moon. “Why, I don’t think I’ve felt that relaxed since I was a kitten! I should get off the bridge of the Initiative more often.”
Lt. Unari’s black triangular ears skewed. “I don’t think it was just the break from your daily routine… There’s something very strange about some of these plants. One of them has an almost catnip-like quality.” She’d been feeling inexplicably euphoric during the away mission as well. “And some of them are even stranger.” She narrowed her eyes at the sprout with bell-like flowers again. She hadn’t been able to make any sense of the unimeter’s reading on it.
“Catnip-like qualities?” the captain meowed. He nudged the yellow Labrador Retriever piloting the shuttle. “Did you feel… I don’t know, unusually invigorated down there in that forest?”
Lieutenant Natalie Vonn shrugged. “I always feel invigorated in a forest. Dogs love their walkies,” she woofed.
Lt. Unari looked up from her tray of plant samples to see the starship Initiative looming on the main viewscreen — a beautiful silver behemoth with graceful curves and thousands of sparkling windows, alight with the life inside. They were almost home.
Suddenly, the shuttle craft rocked violently and dirt spilled from several of the plants in Lt. Unari’s sample tray. A second ship appeared on the viewscreen from behind the familiar, comforting bulk of the Initiative. This ship was a gaudy gold; much smaller than the Initiative, but armed to the teeth with electron torpedo turrets and blazor guns. It looked overburdened with weaponry, like it should fall right over. Except it was in space and had nowhere to fall.
“What the hell!” Capt. Jacques hissed. “Was that ship firing at us?!” The gaudy gold ship answered with a bright red bolt of blazor energy, and the shuttle rocked violently again.
“We need to get docked right away,” Lt. Unari meowed, trying to scoop up dirt from the shuttle’s floor with her paws and put it back into the sample cups.
“Too late,” Lt. Vonn woofed, working the shuttle controls frantically. “We took a direct hit to the power core. We won’t make it. The shuttle’s gonna blow!”
Capt. Jacques hit the comm-pin on his navy uniform’s lapel, calling the teleportation bay on the Initiative, and meowed, “Three to teleport aboard! Immediately!”
The Sphynx cat, black cat clutching her tray of plants, and yellow lab glimmered with quantum energy as the shuttle exploded around them; their atoms dispersed and bounced freely through the universe like ping pong balls in a lottery tumbler, until the siren call of the teleporter summoned them back together inside the Initiative. Each atom snapped into place like a block in a kitten’s Lego set, exactly like they were supposed to.
Each of the three officers had teleported a thousand times in the past, but this time, something was wrong. Lt. Unari’s black tail swished, and her ears flattened as she stood on the teleporter pad. She looked up at the White Highland Terrier behind the teleporter console. Usually he was the same height as Lt. Unari — he was not a big dog. But now, he looked huge. His bearded face loomed high above hers.
The teleporter console looked unusually large too.
“I feel strange,” Lt. Unari mewed, and her voice came out oddly high-pitched. She looked at the tray of plants in her paws and gasped to see the sample cups were all empty — bare dirt, no plants.
“What in the name of uplift is going on here?!” the captain spat. Except, when Lt. Unari looked over at him — he wasn’t the captain. He was a tiny pink-skinned Sphynx kitten wearing a uniform that dripped off of him like he was wearing his parent’s clothes.
A yellow lab puppy who looked a lot like Lt. Vonn laughed and pointed at them. “You’re both teeny-tiny kittens!” she woofed. Then she slapped her paws across her muzzle, surprised by the puppyish tone of her voice. Next she noticed the way her own uniform bagged out over her newly tiny limbs. Lt. Vonn tried to straighten the fabric out, but there was too much of it. The uniform was far too big for her puppy body and wouldn’t lie flat, no matter how she twisted or pulled at it. Soon she was simply chasing her tail, turning circle after circle, pulling on the baggy fabric.
“Uh… Doctor,” the White Highland Terrier woofed into his comm-pin, “I think you’d better get down here. There’s been a teleporter accident.”
The doctor’s voice answered over his comm-pin, sounding weary: “Again?”
* * *
By and large, the teleportation was a very reliable technology, and much of the Tri-Galactic Navy’s exploration of the three galaxies depended on it. HOWEVER…
Sometimes things went wrong.
Doctor Waverly Keller, an Irish Setter with long wavy red-furred ears, had seen some incredible things done by malfunctioning teleporters. She’d seen the Initiative’s first officer accidentally copied, so that they had to deal with two of those shaggy collie dogs barging around, trying to herd everyone on the ship. She’d been transported into a parallel universe where all the dogs were cats and the cats were dogs — her own doppelganger had been a lovely Abyssinian cat with red fur that perfectly matched her own. Why, Dr. Keller had even dealt with Ensign Mewly when the teleporter had beamed him back out of phase with the rest of the ship, and he’d thought he was seeing ghosts everywhere. Mewly was a naturally paranoid cat, and that had not been helpful for his paranoia.
Dr. Keller thought she had seen everything. But she had not seen the teleporter turn adult officers into kittens and puppies before. She looked over her three patients — yellow puppy, black kitten, and pink-skinned kitten — sitting on their medical bay beds, changing into more appropriately-sized clothing. All three full of the exuberance and impatience of kittens and puppies.
“Doctor!” the Sphynx kitten who fancied himself the captain spat, as soon as his tunic was in place. His furless tail swished angrily. “My ship is under attack, and I’m needed on the bridge!”
“Pierre,” Dr. Keller woofed as gently as she could, though she feared it came out condescending. “I can’t clear you for duty — we don’t know how this transformation has affected your intellectual abilities. Besides, do you really want the bridge crew distracted by whether they should take orders from a kitten while the ship is being fired upon?”
The Sphynx kitten snarled and grumbled and tugged on the collar of the tunic he’d changed into, borrowed from some officer’s kitten, no doubt. It fit him better, but it wasn’t his uniform. He wanted his uniform. He wanted to be on the bridge.
* * *
On the bridge, Commander Bill Wilker barked commands and rushed from one station to the next, leaning over the officers and encouraging them as only a collie dog could. Under his command, the Initiative swerved to dodge electron torpedoes, reversed the polarity of its shields to ricochet bolts of blazor energy back at the attacking vessel, and even tried bouncing off the nearest planet’s atmosphere to throw the gold vessel off their tail. Nothing worked. And the herd dog found himself herded into a corner. Well, a dead end. Backed up against a wall? Fighting without a foot to stand on?
Metaphors be damned. If Cmdr. Wilker couldn’t save the ship, he would at least save the crew. “Open a video channel to our assailant,” the collie barked.
The calico cat at the helm answered: “Channel open, Sir.”
The panoramic view of the nearest planet — a dusty red ball clouded by purple storms — and the glittering stars around it on the main viewscreen flickered out. The scene was replaced by the sneering beak and feathered face of an avian alien, staring at them with dark, beady eyes. The alien’s yellow and white feathers ruffled out behind its head like large ears, and a wattle of purple-blue skin on its neck wagged, riddled with piercings, as it spoke. “You will surrender, bock!” The rows of gold hoops on its wattle clinked together. “We will board your ship, bock!”
“I have some conditions!” Cmdr. Wilker barked.
“No conditions! Bock! We will teleport all able-bodied individuals to the surface to mine for hyper-diamonds, bock. Everyone else stays onboard.” The chicken-like creature preened its feathers, smoothing the ear-like fluffs back down. “Hostages, bock.”
Cmdr. Wilker wound his white paw in the long sable fur of his mane, trying to think quickly. He needed a way to steal the ship back from these aliens after turning it over. That meant keeping some of the crew onboard. “We have children on this ship.”
“They’ll be kept safe, bock. As long as the adults work hard.”
“And our computers are very complicated,” Cmdr. Wilker woofed. “Are your crewmembers capable of handling a…” He hoped these space chickens weren’t too smart and risked rambling off a string of techno-babble. “…quintuple induction eigenvector cooling quantum charm operating system?”
“Bock what?” The tufts of feathers on either side of the alien’s head fluffed back out again, giving the bird a startled expression. But it quickly recomposed itself. “Of course, we can learn any operating system, bock. Heating, cooling; charming, off-putting. I mean, we’re very smart, bock. But maybe we’ll keep you onboard, just in case. Bock. It’ll be faster than adapting to an entirely new… quantum operating system without help. Bock bock.”
“If you insist,” Cmdr. Wilker woofed mildly. On the inside, the collie grinned wolfishly.
* * *
All over the Tri-Galactic Navy vessel Initiative, giant turkey-chickens appeared in bursts of gold-and-green quantum sparkles, bulbous blasters grasped in their feathery wing-hands and sneers plastered across their hooked beaks.
The alien birds marched canine and feline officers at blaster point to the teleporter bay and beamed them down to the harsh planet’s surface.
Two chicken-aliens teleported into the medical bay. One pointed a blaster at Dr. Keller and gobbled, “Come with me.”
The other spread its wings wide, as if trying to look welcoming, and bocked at the seeming-children: “You three like games? Bock?”
Dr. Keller barked angrily, “These children are my patients! They need me!”
But the chicken was having none of it and waved its blaster menacingly. “They look fine, bock. They won’t look fine if you make me shoot them.”
Dr. Keller snarled but acquiesced. As the chicken guided her out of the medical bay, the Irish Setter arranged to pass by the kitten captain. She leaned down and woofed into his tiny pink-skinned ear, “My daughter is in the schoolroom — she can help you.” Then the chicken-alien jabbed Dr. Keller in her ribs with the nose of its blaster, and she hurried on her way, long red brush of a tail tucked between her legs.
The second chicken-alien bobbed its head and bocked, “See? Fun game — all adults go away, and fledglings can play.”
The captain and Lt. Unari exchanged a look, pink-skinned kitten and black-furred kitten with their ears skewed. Lt. Vonn watched the look that passed between them and sensed that now was not the time to fight back. It went against the security chief’s instincts, but she wasn’t a full-sized yellow lab right now. She was a tiny puppy with huge feet.
The chicken-alien was easily four times Lt. Vonn’s current size, and even if the puppy could knock away its blaster, those talons and beak looked fierce.
The giant chicken swept the seeming-kittens and puppy toward the medical bay door with its wings, but Lt. Unari scurried under the curtain of feathers. She darted over to where she’d left her tray of plant samples, now a tray of cups filled with dirt.
“What’s that, bock?”
“Uh… toys?” Lt. Unari meowed. “We need them for our… games?”
“Mammals are weird, bock.” The chicken shrugged. “But you can bring them. Bock. Now come along.”
Once in the corridor, the chicken guided the captain and lieutenants the opposite direction of Dr. Keller. Away from the teleportation bay and toward the schoolroom.
* * *
As a long-term exploration vessel, the Initiative had a number of families onboard. Personally, Capt. Jacques didn’t understand it. He didn’t understand bringing kittens or puppies aboard a starship. He didn’t understand choosing to have kittens or puppies at all. He’d been a wild little rapscallion as a kitten, and he would never want to deal with a whole litter of little hellions like himself.
He flexed his tiny crescent claws and hoped these space chickens wouldn’t like dealing with him either.
The schoolroom was equipped with computers and laboratory equipment — not full-sized equipment, but child-proofed versions for the kittens and puppies to learn on. So, as soon as the chicken-alien turned the captain and two lieutenants loose with the crowd of real children, they set straight to work.
The chicken-alien guarded the door, wings crossed and yellow feathers puffed out impressively. The hoards of kittens and puppies chased each other, climbing right over banks of computer consoles, tumbling and wrestling, barking and yowling, and raising the sort of ruckus that generally wasn’t allowed. The chicken didn’t care. As long as they stayed inside the schoolroom.
Capt. Jacques’ pink ears flattened tight against his skull, and he meowed at his lieutenants, “We need a plan — and we’re going to have to figure it out in this horrid chaos.”
A small red-furred Irish Setter, a true puppy unlike Lt. Vonn, edged into the group and woofed, “Be glad for the chaos. Without it, that guard would notice right away that you’re up to something.”
Capt. Jacques looked the puppy up and down — with those long, curly, red-furred ears, Leslie Keller looked almost exactly like a miniature version of her mother. She was the brightest and best behaved puppy that the captain had ever met. The only puppy that the captain had ever been able to stand.
“Leslie, we need weapons to take back the ship,” the captain meowed. “Is there anything in here that we could use?”
The Irish Setter puppy laughed, but the captain kept staring at her levelly. Deadly serious.
“You mean, like something sharp or dangerous?” Leslie woofed.
“Exactly,” the captain meowed, glancing around the room furtively. He looked extremely devious as a kitten with his furless pink skin and oversized triangular ears. “Where can we find something like that?”
“You can’t, Captain,” Leslie woofed. “Adults keep things like that away from children.”
Lt. Unari held forth her tray of dirt cups. “What about a bio-scanner?” she mewed. “Is there anything like that?”
“Oh, sure,” Lesley barked.
The Irish Setter puppy led the black kitten with her tray of dirt cups to an aquamarine and pink machine. It was bulkier and more brightly colored than the bio-scanner in the actual science labs; all of the angles and corners had been smoothed and rounded. But it was a bio-scanner. Well, close enough. The display screen was lower resolution than Lt. Unari would have liked, and the computer processer much, much slower… but it would have to do for now.
“You have an idea?” the captain meowed at Lt. Unari, but the black kitten was too busy with the bio-scanner to answer.
While waiting for Lt. Unari’s response, the captain watched his other lieutenant, Natalie Vonn, drift casually away, edging a few steps at a time farther from the bio-scanner, as if she wasn’t up to anything — until another puppy bumped into her, and then the yellow lab puppy was off and running. Tumbling and barking with all the others, as if she were nothing more than a puppy and not the ship’s chief of security in a bizarre teleporter-related predicament.
Capt. Jacques decided to charitably assume that Lt. Vonn was trying to protect their cover. Though it looked an awful lot like she was just playing.
The captain scowled. “What are you working on?” he snapped at Lt. Unari, losing his patience. He had not been patient as a kitten. That was a virtue he’d developed over many years, and he wasn’t sure that it had stayed with him when the teleporter had shrunk him back to kitten-sized.
Lt. Unari’s black ears skewed, and she gave the captain an appraising look, cool beyond the years that her kitten-body displayed. “It’s just as I thought, captain. The plant samples that I brought back from the forest moon — they’re all seeds now. That’s why the sample cups look empty, except for dirt.”
“Seeds?” the captain meowed. “The teleporter de-aged them too?”
“I’m still working on that…” Lt. Unari took one of the sample cups — it looked the same as all of the others — and held it up for the captain and Leslie Keller to see. “But I think this plant is the culprit.”
“Is it the catnip one?” Capt. Jacques asked.
Leslie Keller stifled a laugh. “Is that what officers do on away missions? Get high on catnip?”
The Irish Setter puppy got quiet real fast when both kittens — actual adult officers in disguise — glared at her.
“Actually, captain,” Lt. Unari meowed, “that one was a yellow grass. This one had purple bell-shaped flowers.”
“That’s very interesting,” the captain said in a way that made it perfectly clear he wasn’t interested at all. “But is there any way we can use this information? Possibly to get ourselves back to normal again?” He glanced into the crowd of cavorting children where Lt. Vonn had a dachshund puppy in some sort of wrestling head-lock. If you asked the captain, the yellow lab was having entirely too good of a time as a puppy. “We need to get the Initiative freed from the talons of these bird aliens. And I can’t do that as a doggarned kitten!”
“Uh… actually…” Leslie Keller looked very nervous about talking back to the ship’s captain, even if he was smaller than her for the time being.
“What is it?” the captain meowed. “Spit it out.”
“Well, if you go back to normal, those chickens are going to teleport you down to the surface with my mom and the other adults.” Leslie pawed at the floor and avoided the captain’s eyes. The gesture was genuinely young and endearing; it reminded the captain that this was a puppy separated from her mother.
Capt. Jacques tried to be gentle as he said, “We have to do something.”
“But do it as kittens!” Leslie barked. “They won’t expect it. Besides, if that plant did this to you, couldn’t you use it to do the same thing to all the chickens?”
Capt. Jacques began to object that it was the teleporter which had done this to him, but Lt. Unari meowed, “You mean, turn the intruders into fledglings?” The black kitten phrased her words like a question, but before anyone could answer her, she was already busy running more scans on the plants, muttering to herself and deep in thought.
Meanwhile, the chicken guarding the schoolroom started flapping its wings and squawking, “Settle down! Bock! Don’t you fledglings ever rest!” The noise and chaos had finally gotten to it.
The chicken alien’s exasperated exclamation was met with titters of laughter from the marauding puppies and kittens. Instead of settling down, one of the puppies and two of the kittens took the chicken’s flapping wings as an invitation to draw the guard into their games. The puppy jumped around the chicken in circles, wiggling and woofing. The kittens batted at the chicken’s long pinion feathers at the tip of each wing.
The chicken squawked louder. The puppies and kittens laughed harder. It was all getting out of hand, and the captain worried about how far the chicken’s patience could stretch before it remembered the blaster holstered at its side and decided that a couple fewer hostages would still be quite enough.
“We need to get the children under control,” Capt. Jacques breathed under his whiskers. If he were full size and wearing his uniform, he’d have simply ordered them to behave. Though while that worked fine on officers, he wasn’t sure how well it would work on officers’ children. Probably not well. Honestly, he sympathized with the flustered flapping chicken. “This is going to end very badly.”
“We need the Galactic Culture Tutor,” Leslie barked.
“It’s a lumo-graphic projection that teaches us about different societies and cultures.” Leslie got knocked aside by a pair of large St. Bernard puppies wrestling, but she recovered her balance quickly. She was such a subdued and serious puppy. “Everyone loves it, but the teacher only runs the GCT every couple of weeks. Says it’s more entertaining than educational, and we’re better off reading.”
“That sounds extremely wise and reasonable of your teacher. There is no better way to learn than from hardbound books,” Capt. Jacques meowed. “However, in this case, I think some entertainment may be warranted. Would you turn it on?”
Leslie lifted a paw to her brow in a salute and woofed, “At your service, Captain!” Then she scurried off to the corner of the large room — dodging other puppies and kittens at play — to where a lumo-projector was mounted. At the push of a few buttons, the projector powered up and fired several dancing blue beams of low-intensity laser light into the center of the room. The blue lines of light traced out increasingly complicated geometrical shapes until suddenly coalescing into the form of a tall deer-like creature with a wide rack of antlers sprouting from its head and dressed in a flowing toga.
Blam, blam! Two blazes of red light shot right through the unfazed deer and exploded one of the computer consoles on the far side of the room. Puppies and kittens ducked and shrieked. The chicken — who’d fired the two blasts — held out its blaster and stared at it like it had turned out to be an eggplant instead of a weapon.
“Excuse me,” the captain meowed, raising his voice above the din, “But the lumo-projected individual is not a threat to you. Merely a diversion for the children.”
Leslie elbowed the captain aside and stood in front of him, blocking him from the chicken’s view with her larger body. “It’s a game,” she woofed. “Just a game.” Then to the captain she whispered, “Be careful — it’ll realize you’re not one of us.”
The chicken re-holstered its blaster and tilted its head, examining the lumo-projection. “Game, bock?”
“Hello!” the deer said brightly. “I’m the Galactic Culture Tutor. You can call me the GCT! What culture would you like to learn about today?”
Like magic, all of the puppies and kittens in the room settled down and formed a circle, sitting on the floor at the GCT’s feet. Even Lt. Vonn followed along. Being a puppy came far too naturally to her.
A terrier girl called out, “I want to learn about Cetazoids!”
In response, the deer morphed into a green-furred long-spined otteroid and said, “The otter-like peoples of Cetazed are not only telepaths, they’re actually flora instead of fauna! The chlorophyll in their fur is what makes them green.” The green otter began dancing, long spine swaying hypnotically. “This is a traditional Cetazed dance, done when all three of the world’s moons are in conjunction.”
Somewhere, flute-like music played. Many of the kittens and puppies swayed along to the dance, but they all stayed demurely in their places. Captain Jacques could see why the teacher didn’t want to use the GCT too often. Its magic might get used up, and this sort of power was invaluable.
A kitten called out another species, and the GCT transformed into a giant cockroach who taught them about democratic duelocracies. Then a puppy called out another, and the cockroach transformed into a purple giraffe.
After a few more iterations, Lt. Unari edged up to the captain. The black kitten whispered, “I’ve isolated the effects of the plant with the bell-shaped flowers. It releases a telomeric transform wave.”
The captain nodded, realizing that he’d been watching the GCT for easily an hour by now. “Go on.”
“The wave encourages growth in nearby telomeres. The shortening of telomeres over time causes aging, so re-growing them… causes the opposite.”
The captain whispered in awe, “We’ve found the plant version of a fountain of youth.”
“I believe that the teleportation beam massively amplified the telomeric transform waves’ effect.”
“Can we duplicate it?” the captain asked in a rush.
“Yes,” Lt. Unari said. “But not from here. We’ll need to get to the bridge or a teleporter bay.”
The captain put a paw out and laid it on Lt. Unari’s shoulder. “Even more importantly: can we reverse it? I don’t want to stay a kitten.” The Sphynx kitten looked tired. He had to be bone-weary to worry about himself at all while his ship was still in danger.
“Unfortunately, that’s a question for Doctor Keller, not me.”
“Well, then, let’s get Doctor Keller back.” The captain had Lt. Unari explain all of her research to him, everything he’d need to do if he got to the bridge or a teleporter bay. Then he threw himself on the floor, rolling and kicking, hissing and spitting, yowling as if in pain. “Ooho woah, pain, so much pain!” he yowled, shaking as if he were having some sort of seizure or fit.
Skeptically, the chicken strutted over.
“You have to help him!” Lt. Unari meowed.
“He needs a doctor!” Leslie woofed.
Even Lt. Vonn pulled herself away from the circle of puppies and kittens watching the GCT — now a bulgy frog creature, slick and shiny with wet amphibious skin.
The yellow lab puppy woofed at the chicken, “The doctor told you we were her patients!” Lt. Vonn looked genuinely worried. She hadn’t been paying attention to Capt. Jacques’ and Lt. Unari’s scheming and thought the captain might be in real pain. Perhaps a side-effect of the teleporter accident. “You have to do something! Now! This is the captain–” Lt. Vonn’s black lips pulled back in a grimace as she realized her mistake, but she fixed it. “–‘s son! The captain’s son! The captain will destroy ALL OF YOU if you let his son die!”
“The captain?” the chicken bocked. “That big fluffy thing is this scrawny pink thing’s father?”
Lt. Unari and Lt. Vonn looked at each other, as if trying to synchronize their plans. Since they weren’t telepathic like Cetazoids, the synchronization utterly failed. At the same time, Lt. Unari meowed, “He’s adopted,” and Lt. Vonn woofed, “He’s REALLY sick.”
The chicken alien flapped its wings in a gesture of resignation. The intensity of the yellow lab puppy’s urgency had bowled it over. “I’ll get someone down here, bock, to take this mewling mess up to the fluffy one on the bridge.”
The pink-skinned kitten kept rocking and yowling, throwing a hissy fit, but when the chicken looked away, he winked at his fellow officers.
* * *
On the bridge, Cmdr. Bill Wilker patiently explained how the Initiative’s computer system worked to a flabbergasted pair of chickens for the fifth time. Each time, he changed the explanation slightly, throwing in random words he remembered from quantum physics and chemical engineering courses back at the Tri-Galactic Naval Academy. He hadn’t been much of a student back in those days — too busy chasing cats. But he remembered enough to confuse these avians.
While the collie pointed at buttons and display panels with one paw, he discreetly typed out codes with the other paw, making sure the chickens didn’t notice. He wanted to help the crew members on the surface directly, but so far all he’d been able to do was beef up the power of the computers in the schoolroom, relaying their processors out to other faster computers. It wasn’t enough, and with every minute that passed, he worried more about all the cats and dogs on the planet being subjected to dangerous mining bock. No, mining work. These chickens were getting to him.
Little did the commander know, without his silent help from the bridge, Lt. Unari’s research on the bio-scanner would have taken days rather than an hour. Right now, the schoolroom was the most powerful room on the entire ship. But it didn’t have access to the teleporters. No matter how beefy the schoolroom computers got, they simply weren’t connected to the teleporters. Most of the time that made sense. Kittens and puppies shouldn’t be accidentally teleporting themselves all over the ship. Or out into space. But today, that safety precaution was keeping the chickens in charge.
The doors to the bridge slid open, and Cmdr. Wilker looked up to see a ruffled chicken standing over a tiny version of the captain who was doubled over, clutching his stomach, moaning and yowling in pain.
As soon as the Sphynx kitten saw the collie, though, he rushed over, threw his tiny arms around the big dog, and buried his pink-skinned face in the collie’s overflowing beard. “Dad!” he meowed.
“Uh… yes… Son, how are you?” the collie fumbled. He was surprised the chickens were buying this, but he wasn’t about to inform them of the biological differences between cats and dogs.
The captain looked up at his first officer with wide kitten eyes, doing a surprisingly good job of playing the role of an innocent child. “Much better now that I’ve seen you!” he meowed. “But my friends… Libby and Natalie… we’re all still feeling sick, since the doctor didn’t get to finish taking care of us.”
The collie glanced dartingly at each of the chickens on the bridge and grinned nervously. “Well, uh, Son, the doctor had to be–”
“I know, Dad,” the captain interrupted. “But she had some medicine designed for us. It’s in the computer banks under the name Libby-Alpha. If you could just… synthesize it with the teleporters, then we wouldn’t–” The kitten glared at the chicken who’d brought him to the bridge. “–have seizures any more. I know you don’t want me to have any seizures.”
If Sphynx kittens had laser eyes, the chicken alien would have been a well-cooked turkey by the time the captain stopped glaring at it. Why, they wouldn’t have needed tricks, teleporters, or telomeric transform waves at all!
“Let’s take a look at the file,” Cmdr. Wilker woofed, ignoring the impatient chickens.
* * *
Back in the schoolroom, Lt. Unari paced, black tail twitching. She was also impatient.
Leslie Keller kept pace behind the kitten, whispering questions to her whenever she caught up. “How will we know if the captain’s succeeded? How long will it take? What do we do once the chickens are little? Even a fledgling chicken could do a lot of damage with those talons and sharp beak…”
The black kitten whirled around and stared at the Irish Setter puppy with fierce green eyes. It was probably a good thing that kittens, in general, didn’t have laser eyes. “All we can do right now is keep the children here safe.”
Leslie Keller nodded and reached a red-furred paw out to take hold of one of Lt. Unari’s black paws. “Come on,” she woofed, leading the black kitten toward the circle of children still watching the GCT. “The best way to do that is to pretend to be one of them.”
Lt. Unari skewed an ear and stifled an amused smile at the puppy’s implication that she wasn’t one of the children. Some day, this puppy was going to make an excellent officer.
In the middle of the room, the GCT had taken the form of a giant amorphous blob and was reciting poetry when the chicken guard suddenly took an interest in it.
“Do you have my species on record, bock?”
“Of course!” the GCT answered, transforming into a chicken alien with yellow and white feathers fluffed out. “The Pollengi are a primitive race of avians who bargain for technology from more advanced species rather than inventing it themselves.” As the GCT bocked, the actual chicken seethed. “The Tri-Galactic Navy has minimal contact with the Pollengi due to its desire to refrain from influencing a less evolved culture. Would you like me to sing a Pollengi love song?”
A choir of “yes, please!” rose from the kittens and puppies, but the chicken alien drew its blaster. This time, the blaster’s red energy bolts zipped across the room into the lumo-projector rather than the projection itself. The projector burst with a rain of white sparks, melted in the middle, and crumpled over.
The GCT disappeared into nothing: mere photons dissipating into the ambient light of the room.
Kittens cried and puppies bayed.
The chicken alien aimed its blaster at the nearest puppy, a St. Bernard with the presence of mind to look terrified. “This is what you mammals think of my people, bock?! I’ll show you less evolved!”
A blur of yellow fur streaked across the room, and Lt. Vonn knocked the blaster from the chicken’s wing. She might be small now, but she still had years of training in five varieties of martial arts.
The yellow lab puppy growled, keeping the chicken’s attention away from any actual children. The chicken squawked and aimed its sharp beak at her. Lt. Vonn dodged like a puppy playing dodgeball, but the chicken pecked vigorously. The security chief couldn’t keep out of its reach for long.
Suddenly, the chicken sparkled with quantum energy. “Bock!” it squawked, flapping and shrinking and sparkling. Its wings flapped so hard, downy white feathers flew off into the air. Then long yellow pinions floated into the fray of feathers. The angry chicken disappeared in a cloud of feathers and a puff of sparkles.
When the sparkles winked out and the feathers settled, all that was left was a porcelain-white ovoid.
“A ball!” the St. Bernard puppy woofed. “Let’s play ball!” She aimed a giant puppy paw at the egg, and Lt. Vonn was only barely able to tackle her down before she could kick it.
“No!” Lt. Unari meowed jumping in front of the egg. “None of you touch this egg! We will be judged on how we treat our prisoners of war!”
“Huh?” The St. Bernard rubbed her floppy ear where it had been pinched by Lt. Vonn’s tackle.
Leslie Keller edged up to Lt. Unari and whispered to the black kitten, “Let me translate for you.” Then to the crowd of puppies and kittens, the Irish Setter woofed, “This egg is valuable and delicate, and if anyone breaks it, the teacher will be furious with them when he gets back.”
Puppies grumbled, and kittens skewed their ears. But none of them messed with the egg.
* * *
All over the Initiative, chickens reverted to eggs. This was a case where the answer to the age-old question was clear: the chickens had come before the eggs.
Once Cmdr. Wilker and the kitten captain had re-taken the ship, they set to work rescuing the crew — a simple matter of teleporting chickens on the planet’s surface back into eggs and teleporting cats and dogs back aboard.
They left a clutch of Pollengi eggs on the planet along with a distress signal calling for the golden Pollengi vessel to return and rescue them before they hatched.
Then Cmdr. Wilker set a course out of the system.
* * *
The kitten captain awaited word from the doctor. No longer stuck in the schoolroom with all the children, he’d returned to his own quarters to sulk and count the years he’d have to live through as a kitten, waiting to become a captain again, if Doctor Keller couldn’t reverse the effects of the teleporter accident.
A chime at the door let him know he had a visitor.
The captain meowed, “Come in,” and the door slid open, revealing a black kitten and yellow lab puppy.
“We thought we’d wait with you,” Lt. Unari meowed.
“I brought scratch-colors,” Lt. Vonn woofed, holding up a set of coloring books designed to be drawn in by claws capped with tiny crayons.
“I haven’t done scratch-colors,” the captain meowed with amusement, “since I was…” He trailed off, ears skewing.
“A kitten,” Lt. Unari offered. “Me either.” Her ears skewed too, and her tail tip twitched.
The puppy and two kittens settled down to color. Lt. Vonn scuffed her paws over one page after another, filling them with disorganized riots of color. Lt. Unari carefully sketched pictures of each of the plant samples she’d taken from the forest moon, giving special care to her rendition of the purple bell-flowers that had caused so much trouble.
The captain’s paw hovered over the page, crayon-tips not quite touching the paper. He couldn’t decide what to draw. He didn’t want to accept this fate.
He didn’t want to be a kitten.
“I don’t want this,” he meowed.
“It won’t last,” Lt. Vonn woofed. “Doctor Keller’s never let anyone down who depended on her. Not ever. So, you might as well enjoy it while you can.”
Captain Jacques smiled. That was true. He would trust his fate in the paws of any officer on his ship, but especially Doctor Keller. She was probably in the medical bay curing the problem of aging right now. He’d have to tell her how admirably her puppy had performed while she was gone.
But for now, the captain put his paw to the paper and colored.
Read more about these characters in Tri-Galactic Trek!