Skin of Reflection

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Tri-Galactic Trek, November 2021

“At home on Ursa Minuet, Grawf had been a commander, but in the Tri-Galactic Navy exchange program, she was an ensign.”

Grawf awoke from her long sleep, yawned widely, and lumbered out of her cot and over to the window.  Her ursine reflection hovered ghost-like over the black field of space, a bulky, brown-furred bear in plaid pajamas, dotted by pinpricks of starlight.  She wondered where the starship Initiative had flown to, what wonderous places had been explored without her, during her hibernation.

Grawf was used to living in a society that shut down for a year-long siesta every seventh turn of their world around their sun.  Aboard the starship Initiative, surrounded by the cats and dogs of the Tri-Galactic Navy, life had continued on without her, busy and eventful, she supposed, while she slept.  There was a certain excitement to knowing her ship had continued exploring, accomplishing great things without her.  For once, the entire world hadn’t stopped because it was time to sleep.

But Grawf was also worried about what she had missed out on.  And how hard it might be to catch up.

The ursine officer changed out of her comfy flannel pajamas and into her Tri-Galactic Navy uniform.  She carefully affixed her comm-pin to the breast of the uniform, and then she set off to find herself some vittles and scuttlebut before reporting for duty for the first time in many months.

Grawf hadn’t hibernated for the full year that was traditional for her people, but she felt properly rested and ready to return to work.  Besides, if she slept any longer she’d fall out of synch with her home region on Ursa Minuet, since she had pushed herself for six months, trying to avoid hibernating at all.  It had not gone well.  Bears need their sleep.

Eventually, Doctor Keller had had to order Grawf to hibernate for her own good, and also the good of the rest of the crew.  No one wants a cranky bear — three times the height of an average cat and a good foot taller than the tallest dog — grumbling her way through her daily obligations.  The crew of a spaceship can’t afford to have any officers who aren’t up to their job.  Space is not a forgiving environment.

Grawf arrived in the viewpoint lounge and took a moment to enjoy the broader view of space afforded by the wraparound, floor-to-ceiling windows.  She sighed deeply, contentedly.  Space may not be a forgiving environment, but it was a beautiful one.  And it was a huge honor for Grawf to be an exchange officer on a Tri-Galactic Navy ship.  Her own people had a space program, but it was much more limited.  They’d mostly used it to colonize the outer worlds of their own star-system.  The Tri-Galactic Navy cats and dogs were explorers, driven to press farther and farther outward into the universe, almost like they were looking for something they’d lost.

Grawf punched the code for a grub and wriggly worm breakfast burrito into the communal food synthesizer, then watched the food appear in a sparkle of quantum energy, perfectly wrapped and set on a tray with silverware she had no intention of using.  She took the tray of warm food to a long, crowded table.  Usually Grawf liked to keep to herself, and the dogs and cats at the table looked surprised to see her joining them.  But after her sleep, Grawf had catching up to do.

“What did I miss?” Grawf asked in her deep, rumbly voice that cut through all the conversations that had preceded her.

“Well, we were just talking about–” a calico cat with ensign’s pips on her collar meowed.

But Grawf cut her off.  “No, not this conversation.  The last six months.  Catch me up on the last six months.”

A number of cats and dogs, including the calico cat, suddenly realized they needed to report for duty and excused themselves from the table.  The remaining officers looked at each other uncertainly, and then proceeded to tell Grawf tales of an insectoid species declaring war on the Tri-Galactic Navy; an omnipotent being who appeared in the form of a Cheshire cat; a pure energy entity that looked like a glowing, translucent deep space octopus; sentient rocks; and a teleporter accident reducing crew members to kittens and puppies.

Tall tales, clearly.  All of them.  Grawf grumbled unhappily.  She didn’t find it amusing for these cats and dogs to make fun of her for her hibernation.  She was just trying to get caught up to speed, and here they were trying to make a fool of her.

Grawf buried her muzzle in the wiggly goodness of the burrito.  The wriggly worms tickled her tongue, and the grubs burst satisfyingly between her teeth.  At least the food synthesizers here knew how to make a proper burrito.  And instead of listening to the dogs and cats at her table tell tall tales, she watched the star scape behind them.  One star grew larger and larger as she ate, finally resolving into a dusty yellow-orange sphere.  It looked like a desert world, covered by one unending stretch of sand, except for frosty white caps at the north and south poles.  Grawf wondered what had brought them here, but she didn’t bother asking the tricksters at her table.

* * *

After finishing her breakfast, Grawf reported to her direct superior officer — Lieutenant Natalie Vonn, a very enthusiastic, medium-sized, yellow-furred dog.  At home on Ursa Minuet, Grawf had been a commander, but in the Tri-Galactic Navy exchange program, she was an ensign.  That was fair.  She didn’t have the years of experience with Tri-Galactic Navy ways that these younger (and smaller) officers had.

“Are you sure you’re ready to be back on duty?” Lt. Vonn barked.

Grawf stifled a yawn and snapped, “Of course!  Give me an assignment!”

Lt. Vonn checked the computer records — Grawf had been given personal leave for the last six months and had seemingly stayed in her quarters the entire time, but there was no medical reason she couldn’t return to duty whenever she wanted.  The yellow Labrador shrugged, “All right then, there’s a mission down to the planet’s surface in half an hour, and I could use a big, strong security officer like you on my team.”

“Excellent,” Grawf said, shifting her weight to look down at Lt. Vonn more comfortably.  Even though the yellow Labrador was a medium-to-large sized dog, she was a full head shorter than Grawf.  The bear spent a lot of time looking down around these cats and dogs.

“We don’t know what to expect from this world,” Lt. Vonn continued, “because the atmosphere has an unusual radiation that’s scrambling our sensors.  And we have to take a shuttle down to the surface, because the same radiation interferes with the safe operation of the teleporters.  We’ll need to be on guard, because the scientists on our team… well, they have a way of getting absorbed in their uni-meter readings and not noticing if a rock were to fall on their heads.”

Grawf nodded curtly.  She’d seen this phenomenon among the dog and cat scientists before, a kind of single-minded focus on abstract ideals.  Perhaps the trait was related to their success exploring the triple-galaxy, but it could also put them in danger.  Grawf was glad there were a few Tri-Galactic Navy officers — like Lt. Vonn — who were more practical.

Grawf shadowed Lt. Vonn as they prepared the shuttle for their mission down to the planet’s surface.  The science officers who joined them were a black cat called Lt. Libby Unari, a white fox-like android called Lt. Fact, and a green otteroid creature who Grawf had never seen before.

The green otteroid had grassy fur and wore a skimpy purple sundress instead of the usual Tri-Galactic Navy uniform.  Was she an exchange officer like Grawf?  Or some kind of emissary?  After her experience with the dogs and cats at breakfast telling tall tales — tales that were seeming a little less unlikely as Grawf stared at the strange creature who looked like a cross between a plant and an otter — she decided not to ask questions and instead to wait for the information to present itself naturally.

“I can sense that you’re curious about me,” the otteroid said, causing Grawf’s hackles to rise in surprise.  The otteroid smiled sweetly and spoke with a fluid, melodic voice.  “No, I can’t read your mind, not exactly.  But I can sense your feelings.  I’m Consul Eliana Tor.”  She held out a dainty paw.  It smelled like flowers.  “From Cetazed.”

Grawf sneezed.  Then she grumbled, disliking the loss of dignity in front of this strange new officer.  She introduced herself gruffly, but declined to shake the tiny otteroid’s flower-scented paw.  Consul Tor looked weak and delicate, like she would require even more protecting than the little cats and dogs.  And that made Grawf resent her presence.  Either that or she resented that she was no longer the only exchange officer.  But Grawf didn’t like to think of herself as being that petty.

Once the entire team had boarded the shuttle, the black cat, Lt. Unari, piloted the small vessel out of the Initiative’s shuttle bay and on a smooth, curving course down through the dusty yellow planet’s atmosphere.  Grawf admired the deftness of Lt. Unari’s piloting skills.  The atmosphere ignited, burning around the shuttle as it descended, as was normal, but the cat’s careful stewarding meant they experienced very little turbulence.

Lt. Unari landed the shuttle on a sandy plain, between a rocky outcropping and a dark, silvery pool of a substance that looked like mercury or oil.  The scientists would probably want to examine it.  Grawf suspected the black cat had landed the shuttle next to it on purpose.

Lt. Vonn left the shuttle first, blazor strapped to her side but paws ready.  The yellow Labrador held her floppy ears perked forward, and she sniffed the air.  They already knew it was breathable, and Grawf wondered what the dog thought she could learn from smelling alien air.  None of the scents here would mean anything, she thought.  Then Grawf followed the dog out, and a smell of ozone, copper, and gunpowder hit her nose so strongly that the giant bear broke into a full fit of sneezes.

“Blessings!” Lt. Vonn woofed.

Grawf recovered her composure and nodded stiffly, a minimal acknowledgment of the yellow lab’s politeness.  Grawf would have preferred to have her sneezing ignored altogether.

“What is that smell?” Consol Tor asked, following the two security officers out of the shuttle.  The lithe green otter closed her eyes and sighed, deeply and contentedly, when the bright sunlight outside the shuttle hit her emerald fur.  “Oh,” she said, “the light here bounces off the glittering sand — it’s coming from every direction!”  She twisted around, bending her long spine, and her purple sundress twirled, flaring out at her feet.  Suddenly, the skimpy garment made sense to Grawf.  The otteroid needed to bare as much of her emerald green fur as possible to photosynthesize.

Lt. Unari and Lt. Fact emerged from the shuttle with their uni-meters held in front of them, already scanning the environment.  The black cat and white fox, each staring down at the screens of their devices, looked almost like photo negatives of each other — same height, similarly triangular ears, but perhaps a slightly narrower muzzle on Fact.  The white-furred android really could be mistaken for either a dog or a cat.  Although, Grawf knew the delicate-looking white fox was about a thousand times stronger and more resilient than a normal cat or dog due to zir synthetic, silicon body.  Grawf respected that about the little android.  Zhe might be a scientist and prone to scientific distraction, but Grawf didn’t need to worry about zir.  Fact could take care of zirself.

Lt. Fact announced, “The olfactory stimulation stems from the pool of amalgamated metals over there.”  Zhe gestured at the silvery lake with a snowy white paw.

The silvery pool looked just big enough for a pleasant swim, Grawf thought.  If it weren’t composed of melted metals.

Grawf followed the small scientists as they approached the reflective pool.  The sky on this world was a wan shade of yellow, a paler version of the sparkling sand below, and when she stood close enough to the silvery pool to see the sky and sun reflected in its surface, the cool silver looked more like rich gold, buttery yellow and bright enough to hurt the eyes.  As she stared at the pool, mesmerized by its subtle ripples, she listened for changes in the air that might signal danger approaching.  But this world seemed barren.

And then the silvery pool shuddered, skewed, and stretched upward, morphing its surface into an extruded shape that mirrored Grawf’s own.  A silvery, smooth ursine form that’s feet melted into the puddle of silver.  When Grawf stared at the extrusion, its still surface mirrored her face back to her, warped and twisted by the lumpy contours of her own physical shape.  She snarled, stumbled backward, and pulled her blazor from the holster at her side.  She aimed the blazor at the silvery extrusion and found it aiming a blazor — well, the shape of a blazor — back at her.

“Lt. Vonn!” Grawf growled.  “We have a problem!”

“Hold your fire!” Lt. Vonn woofed.  As the yellow lab approached from behind Grawf, her image joined the bear’s in the silvery surface of the bear-shaped extrusion.  “Step back,” Lt. Vonn instructed, and Grawf followed her instructions.

The bear’s twisted reflection receded to be replaced entirely by the yellow lab’s.  The smaller canine image stretched oddly over the bearshaped surface, leaving gaps of shining sky around her.  But then the extrusion melted down and matched Lt. Vonn’s shape, right up to her paws raised, paw pads forward, in a gesture of peace and supplication.

“I am Lieutenant Natalie Vonn, chief security officer of the Tri-Galactic Navy starship Initiative,” she woofed, standing very still in front of the mirroring extrusion.  “My team is here on a mission of exploration.  We believed this planet to be uninhabited.  If we were mistaken — if you are a life form — we would like nothing more than to make peaceful contact and exchange information.  But if you don’t wish for that, we will leave your world in peace.”

Grawf wondered if the silvery pool could understand Lt. Vonn’s words.  Grawf wondered if the silvery pool could understand anything at all.  Perhaps its movements were nothing more than a reflexive response — a metal amalgam that reflected in three dimensions instead of only two.

Then Grawf’s questions were answered by the surface of the silver extrusion vibrating, the surface dimpling in rippling patterns, and sound emerged in the form of a tinkly, chiming voice:  “Translation of aural communication complete; please answer:  can you understand?”

“Yes!” Lt. Vonn woofed excitedly, her Tri-Galactic Navy formality melting away with the excitement of having truly made contact with a new lifeform.  “I understand you!  Perfectly!”  Her brush of a yellow tail wagged behind her.

A few feet farther back, Grawf gestured as subtly as she could at the three scientists, urging them to back away from the silver pool and closer to the shuttle craft.  She wanted them ready to evacuate quickly if the silvery lifeform turned hostile.  To her credit, Consul Tor followed Grawf’s inarticulate instructions and boarded the shuttle.  Lt. Unari and Lt. Fact stood just outside, watching.

The silver extrusion began rippling again and emitted the words:  “You can leave this world.”

“Uh…”  Lt. Vonn’s tail stopped wagging.

“Can you leave this world,” the extrusion said, and then it jumbled the words once again, continuing to speak in a chiming yet flat affect.  “Leave this world can you.”

“That sounds like a request,” Grawf rumbled.

“Not necessarily…” Lt. Vonn woofed, still hopeful.

Behind them, Fact cleared zir throat, an affectation since zhe didn’t suffer from organic weaknesses.  Regardless, it worked to catch the security officers’ attention.  “The way that this amalgamated metal creature is shuffling the order of its words suggests to me a translation algorithm — I believe we are dealing with a synthetic lifeform that has an artificial intelligence.  Perhaps a swarm of quantum nanobots.”

“That’s very interesting,” Lt. Vonn said.  “But–”

“How is it helpful?” Fact finished her sentence.  “I think the swarm is trying to figure out the proper word order to ask a question and has not figured out that our language uses a tonal modifier for questions.”  Fact stepped toward the silvery pool and addressed it directly:  “May I suggest, ‘Can you leave this planet?'”  Zir voice rose perfectly at the end of the question.  “And may I also answer that, yes, we can, using the shuttle craft behind me.”  Zhe gestured with a snowy white paw.

“Would you like us to?” Lt. Vonn woofed uncertainly.  “Leave, that is?”  She clearly had hopes of returning to the Initiative as the hero dog who had heroically and peacefully made first contact with a previously undiscovered alien race, ushering in a new era of cooperation and friendship between the dogs and cats of the Tri-Galactic Navy and the silver pool people of this desert world.  Those hopes were slowly fading.

And then the hopes winked out entirely as the silver pool shuddered, the extrusion melted back down, and the whole amalgamated puddle stretched and slurped over the sparkling sand, much faster than Grawf had expected it could move, until it engulfed the exterior of the shuttle craft.  It might have oozed all the way inside, except that Lt. Unari was quick on her feet.  The black cat had leapt through the open hatchway as soon as the puddle started to move, joining Consul Tor inside, and slamming her paw on the shield controls.

Lt. Vonn tapped the comm-pin on her chest and woofed, “Lt. Unari, Consul Tor, can you hear me?  Are you safe?”

Lt. Unari’s voice answered, emitted from the comm-pin, “The metal life form doesn’t seem able to breach the shuttle’s force shield, but it does seem to be leeching the shuttle’s power through the shielding.”  After a pause, during which they could hear Consul Tor in the background saying, “Dark, so dark…”, Lt. Unari continued:  “The emergency life support power supply should be secure.”

“Thank you for the report, Lieutenant,” Vonn woofed, frowning but keeping her voice bright, as any respectable superior officer would.  There was no need to frighten the scientists aboard the shuttle further than they already were.

The otteroid already sounded frightened enough.  Grawf could tell that without being able to read her feelings straight out of her brain.

The silver amalgam gleamed in the bright desert sunlight.  Rainbows of color pooled over its surface, melting and congealing together like the colors on the surface of a soap bubble.

Suddenly, the tall tales Grawf had listened to over breakfast didn’t sound so farfetched.  Were sentient rocks and a deep space octopus made of pure energy truly any stranger than this aggressive silver puddle?  Grawf realized she might have underestimated the extent of the strangeness of the universe.  But this was why she was out here, among these cats and dogs:  to expand the knowledge of her people, a reclusive, quiet people who preferred sleeping in their comfortable underground dwellings in their own solar system for years at a time to getting their paws out of their sun’s gravity well and exploring new worlds.

“What does it want?” Grawf rumbled, trying to make sense of the most alien lifeform she had ever encountered.

“Strictly speaking,” Fact said, “the lifeform is not an ‘it,’ but rather ‘they.'”

“They?” Grawf asked, staring at the metal bubble.  It — they — looked almost delicate, stretched over the shuttlecraft’s shielding, but Grawf suspected the impression was an illusion.  This was not a bubble ready to pop; this was a pool of liquid metal that could possibly crush or corrode the shuttlecraft inside once the force shield’s power drained away.

“Yes,” Fact continued, “since this being is composed of quantum nano-bots, working in concert, they are more properly understood as a swarm consciousness than as a singular entity.”

“Swarm…” Grawf repeated ponderously.  The word reminded her of the legends on her world of a beehive, one of the ancient gods in the pantheon her people worshipped.  The beehive had spoken with a single voice — the voice of the queen — until the queen died.  Then the beehive’s behavior became erratic, chaotic, unpredictable; it became a trickster god, unhinged and dangerous until eventually a new queen ascended and gave the hive a cohesive voice again.

As Grawf pondered, Lt. Vonn continued speaking to the amalgam pool, asking it nicely to leave their shuttlecraft alone, entreating it to consider the situation from Lt. Unari and Consul Tor’s perspective.  Lt. Fact continued scanning with zir uni-meter.  When the amalgam stretched again, moving quicker than quicksilver, Grawf was the only one of the three in the proper frame of mind to react fast enough.  She threw her own bulky body between the reaching extrusion of metal and Lt. Vonn, knocking the yellow Labrador out of the way, and taking a piercing, dagger-like blow to her shoulder.

Grawf roared in pain as the extrusion melted away, withdrawing back into the silver bubble.  She fell to the ground and rolled to her side, favoring the injured, bleeding shoulder.

“That would have stabbed through my heart,” Lt. Vonn said, backing away from the amalgam-coated shuttle and dragging Grawf — as best as she could — with her.

“By my estimation,” Fact said, also backing away from the amalgam, “it would have missed your heart, piercing all the way through the lung instead.  The blow most likely would have been fatal.”

Fact tilted zir head and looked at Grawf.  The bear had trouble focusing her eyes on the little white blur of an android fox.  She was feeling suddenly and extremely sleepy — her body’s innate reaction to significant injury.  Sleep it off.

“Will Grawf be okay?” Lt. Vonn asked.

Grawf heard the beep-booping sounds of the uni-meter scanning her, and then Fact said, “Her injury is severe, but her body is better designed to handle such an injury.  She will be fine.”  The fox’s voice lowered, and zhe added, “I am extremely grateful to you for saving Lieutenant Vonn’s life.  Thank you.”

“Doing… my job…” Grawf slurred from her half-sleep.

Though only half-asleep, the injured bear was already dreaming, and in her semi-lucid dream, she watched the liquid metal peel away from the shuttlecraft, mirrored shards rising into the air and breaking into smaller and smaller fragments, shattering and buzzing and flying like bees.  Bees.  Grawf hummed to herself, tripping her way through the melody of a prayer-song from her childhood.  A prayer to the reformed trickster god — “May I find myself and learn my voice as you have found your queen.  May I be a good cub whose sticky-honey paws are always licked clean.”

* * *

Inside the shuttlecraft, lit only by red emergency lights, Consul Tor tried not to panic.  The green otteroid tried to imagine that the darkness she felt against her photosynthetic fur was the natural dark of nighttime.  But the red emergency light tasted sour against her fur, with an aftertaste of bitter.  She wrapped her short arms around herself, wishing for once that she were dressed in a flowing cloak or even the restrictive jumpsuits that the Tri-Galactic Navy cats and dogs wore.  Anything to block the sour, bitter taste of the emergency light.

“Are you okay?” Lt. Unari meowed softly.  The black cat could see the otteroid’s near panic.  “Will you be okay?”

“The light doesn’t taste right,” Consol Tor said, and she could immediately feel the black cat’s confusion and dismissal of her complaint.  She could sense the emotions of most organic lifeforms — not as strongly as other Cetazeds; among her own people she was considered nearly deaf.  But among these cats and dogs, her relatively weak telepathy was considered almost a super power.

And yet she’d sensed nothing from the silver pool that had leapt towards them and now wrapped around the shuttle, blocking all of the outside light from the windows and draining the power that would have otherwise provided clean, fresh, lemon-buttery, yellow light on the inside.

“You are trying to access our programming.”  The words emanated from the very air around them.

“What is that?” Consol Tor asked.

Lt. Unari said, “I believe the metal amalgam is causing vibrations, using the shuttlecraft’s frame itself as a speaker to talk to us.”

“What do you mean by ‘access your programming?'” Consul Tor asked.  While waiting for their captor to answer, she rubbed her paws briskly over her shoulders and down her sides, ruffling her green fur and trying to remove the taste of the dull red light.  It was impossible with the dingy light continuing to emanate from all around.  “Can we change this light?” she asked Lt. Unari.  “A different color or frequency?  Or just turn it off?”

“I’m sorry,” Lt. Unari said.  “The emergency life support power is very carefully regulated.  It would take me hours to break through the various levels of safeties and change the light settings.”

Consul Tor considered her options.  She wanted to tell the black cat to begin work on changing the light, because there was a very real chance they’d be trapped in here for hours.  But she could feel the black cat’s terror, carefully covered by layers of stoic professionalism.  Lt. Unari was worried enough about the metal puddle crushing them to death without Consul Tor adding to her fears by pointing out that they could very well suffocate instead if the amalgam simply continued to cling to their shields for long enough.

It was bad enough being trapped inside of this dark shuttle with dank red light leeching into her fur.  She didn’t want to be trapped in here with a Tri-Galactic Navy cat whose professionalism had cracked, letting the terror underneath through.

Consul Tor could suffer the suffocating taste of the red light a little longer.  Or a lot longer.

“Your psionic emanations are irritating green one,” the amalgam said.  “Stop.”

“Stop what?” Consul Tor asked.

“Trying to read our programming with your limited psionic mind.”

Consul Tor frowned.  Had she been trying to read the amalgam’s emotions and intent?  All she had received from the amalgam was blankness, as smooth and reflective as its physical skin, so she hadn’t realized she’d been reflexively trying to pierce its blankness with her telepathy.  “I’m sorry,” she said, actively turning her telepathic senses away from the amalgam.  “I didn’t mean to bother you, but you have to understand — we’re scared and uncomfortable.  Your actions are frightening to us.”

The amalgam didn’t respond, so Consul Tor continued, hoping to engage them with words.  “Talk to us,” she said.  “Please.  Maybe we can help you.”

When Consul Tor received no answer again, her fear and discomfort caused her to act rashly — she tried piercing the amalgam’s blankness with her telepathic sight.  If she could only understand what it wanted, maybe they could find common ground.  She reached out telepathically, knowing the amalgam wouldn’t like it.

The red emergency lights flickered.

With a touch of panic, Lt. Unari meowed, “The power is draining faster from our shields.”

A moment later, the emergency lights flicked off and stayed off.  The only light left came from the edges of the buttons on the control panels, tiny tracings of light, barely enough for Consul Tor to taste it at all.  She felt hollow in the sudden darkness and regretted complaining about the dingy red light.  This was not the darkness of midnight.  It was the dark of a coffin.

The air cyclers shut down next, and in the total silence that followed, Lt. Unari’s frightened gasp cut through the still air like a knife.  “We’re going to suffocate,” she whispered in a voice barely loud enough to reach past her own whiskers.

Consul Tor placed a furry green paw on the cat’s shoulder.  “Not right away,” she said.  She pulled the cat close to her.  Consul Tor placed a paw on the back of the cat’s head and pressed her ever closer, until Lt. Unari’s wet, black nose nestled in the grassy fur at the base of the otteroid’s neck.  “Breathe me,” she said and felt the cat’s panic subside like a wave at the ocean — receding, but preparing to return again.

Consul Tor’s photosynthesis caused her to generate air the cat could breathe, but not very much of it.  Not enough to make a real difference.  But enough, just enough, to reassure.  And comfort.

“Lt. Vonn will save us,” Libby Unari said, whispering the words into Consul Tor’s fur.

The otteroid nodded, but she wasn’t sure.  She couldn’t sense the emotions of the others at all; their presence was blocked to her entirely by the reflective skin surrounding them.  The only emotions she could sense were Unari’s.  And her own.  She had never been so isolated from the feelings of those around her before in her entire life.  Even as a seedling, still curled up underground, mostly composed of roots she would shed at puberty, she had been able to sense the curiosity and anticipation of the other seedlings growing in the ground around her and the pride emanating from the adults above.

But now it was only her own feelings and those of one scared cat.

And her own feelings — hidden inside of her, impenetrable to this telepathically deaf cat — were a roaring, raging tsunami, growing more and more powerful in its trapped isolation, focused and refocused inward by the skin of reflection around them.

She didn’t want to die in the dark, without soil beneath her paws or sky above her face.

* * *

With a gasp, Grawf emerged fully conscious from her dream, heart racing.  Everything looked the same — bright desert sky, white fox and yellow lab leaning over her, and ominous silver bubble around their shuttlecraft — but the pain in her shoulder was entirely gone.  And the shuttlecraft was farther away.  Lt. Vonn and Fact must have dragged her across the sand, away from the dangerous metal swarm.

“What happened?” Grawf asked.  It felt like only seconds had passed, but that couldn’t have been enough time to heal her shoulder.

“We let you sleep for a few hours,” Lt. Vonn said.  “According to Fact’s scans, that should be enough healing for you to function again.  For now.  And we need your assistance, so I had Fact give you a shot of adrenaline.”

Grawf scooted into a sitting position on the gritty sand and nodded.  “What is the plan?  Do we kill the silver swarm?  Can we?  Do we know how?  Will shooting the thing with blazors work?”  Grawf felt dizzy at her own loquacious rush of words; she didn’t usually talk this fast or even have that much to say, but the adrenaline was coursing through her.  She felt a restless, surging energy, commanding her to rush at the silver bubble and tear at it with her claws.  But she was a trained officer, and she resisted her irrational, base impulses.

“While you were unconscious,” Fact explained, “we established that the metal amalgam thinks of themself as Wayfarer and was programmed to take the form of an advanced scouting vessel, designed to voyage through space, discovering new worlds and reporting back to the species who created them.”

“How did you learn all of this?” Grawf asked.

“For a time, Wayfarer was willing to talk to me,” Fact said, “due to our similarities as artificially constructed lifeforms.”

“And then,” Lt. Vonn woofed, “the thing suddenly announced that Fact was ‘a stupid one-bodied gravity-well dweller’ and refused to say anything more.”

“Shortly after that,” Fact said, “Wayfarer blocked our communication with the hostages inside the shuttle.  Or else they passed out from the decreasing levels of oxygen.”  The fox blinked zir uncanny golden eyes and observed, “Wayfarer’s hostile behavior is extremely unfortunate.  Especially considering that they are on a mission very similar to our own.”

Grawf thought wryly, “Yes, android, you and the swarm of tiny computers have much in common,” but she bit her tongue and kept from saying it out loud.  The android fox was a good officer and did not deserve her grumpy snark, a leftover emotion from waking up too suddenly.

“Wayfarer was damaged by a burst of solar radiation and crashed on this planet,” Fact said.  “They no longer remember how to take the form of a space-worthy vessel, and so they are trapped here.”

“And that’s why Wayfarer has glommed onto our shuttlecraft,” Lt. Vonn added.  “They want to steal it.”

Grawf had found the cats and dogs of the Tri-Galactic Navy almost naively compliant when other species asked them for favors nicely.  “Wayfarer should have just asked to borrow it,” she said.  “Or I bet, by downloading starship blueprints from the Initiative’s computer, we could probably repair them.”

“We could,” Fact affirmed.

“I know!” Lt. Vonn woofed.  “Right?!?  But now we have to ask ourselves all sorts of ethical questions — like would it really be safe to release an aggressive swarm of micro-computers on the universe?  Can we afford to take responsibility for that kind of decision?  And wouldn’t it be better to just trick the thing into leaving our shuttlecraft alone and make a run for it?”  The dog paused a moment before saying, “That last question is rhetorical.  Because yes, it is better.  And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

“While you were unconscious,” Fact said, “I reprogrammed the uni-meter to function as a lumo-projector.”  With a few beep-booping presses of buttons, zhe turned on the new program and turned zir golden eyes toward the sky.  “Watch,” zhe said.  “And whatever happens next, play along.”

A wink of light appeared in the bright sky and then stretched into the trail of a falling star.  Within moments, the narrow strand of light grew into a thick contrail, and the head of the comet resolved into a shuttlecraft, exactly like the one they’d flown down in.  Another shuttlecraft from the Initiative.

“They’re sending reinforcements to rescue us?” Grawf asked, still groggy and not thinking at her fastest or clearest.

Fact simply tapped the uni-meter with a delicate claw.  Then zhe winked, an entirely uncharacteristic behavior for the android fox.  Grawf was quite surprised.

Play along,” Lt. Vonn growled, guttural and low.  The cheerful yellow dog usually didn’t growl.  Everyone was acting weird.

Grawf needed to get herself in line.  She shook her head, trying to clear it, and watched the shuttle land, twenty feet from the shuttle encased by Wayfarer’s reflective skin.  The shuttle hatch opened, and a figure that looked eerily similar to Captain Pierre Jacques stepped out onto the sand.  The sphynx cat captain was followed by the much larger, fluffy figure of Commander Bill Wilker, a collie dog.  But neither of them looked quite right.  Cmdr. Wilker’s fur was smooth, like a plastic shell, and Capt. Jacques’ face was angular — more angular than usual with sharp corners.  They looked like replicas.  They had to be lumo-projections.

Fact coughed and said, “I had limited time and no access to the lumo-bay projection records.”

Lt. Vonn replied, still with her voice low, “They look fine.”  Raising her voice, the chief security officer called out, “Captain, be carefu–”

Captain Jacques cut her off in a voice exactly like Fact’s, “I don’t have time for your nonsense, Lieutenant Vonn.  What’s been taking you so long down here?”  As he spoke, he walked toward her, lifting his hind paws in jerky, stilted motions.  “We had to come down after you in the shuttlecraft that has broken shields!”

As the captain (or facsimile of him) spoke, Lt. Vonn called out, “Quick! Get back in the ship!  You’re in danger here!”

This time Cmdr. Wilker barked at her — also in a voice exactly like Fact’s — “Don’t interrupt your captain!”  The lumo-projected collie dog followed the lumo-projected sphynx cat out onto the desert sand, leaving the lumo-projected shuttlecraft unguarded.

Wayfarer fell for the bait.  The silver puddle of quantum nanobots slipped away from the real shuttle craft and slid like a pool of mercury over the sand.  The lumo-projected captain and commander shrieked and danced about uselessly.  Lt. Vonn, Fact, and Grawf ran, fast as a dog, fox, and bear can, for the real shuttlecraft.  Fact left the uni-meter laying on the sand.

The real shuttlecraft was still protected by the translucent blue sheen of its force shield, and Grawf worried as her paws pounded over the glittering sand that all of Fact’s clever — but artistically lacking — programming would be for naught.

At the last moment, the force shielding dispersed in a sparkle of blue, and all three officers boarded the tiny vessel.  Lt. Unari was passed out on the floor, and Consul Tor looked like a wilted plant, draped over the shuttle’s main console.  Yet the green otter moved her paw over the controls, raising the shuttle’s shields again behind them.

“What took you so long?” Consol Tor said.  Her emerald green fur had turned limp and straw-colored at the tips.  She’d stayed draped over as much of the console as possible, keeping her body in the light from the main window.  “Was it more of Lt. Vonn’s nonsense?”  Even half wilted, her green muzzle quirked into a snarky smile.  “Nice programming by the way.”

“Thank you,” Fact said simply, taking the controls over from the semi-incapacitated otter.  Zhe powered up the shuttle’s engines and had them in the air within moments, but to the otter’s clear consternation, zhe didn’t immediately turn on the shipboard lights.

“You could hear all that?” Lt. Vonn asked as the shuttle zoomed away from the planet’s surface and Wayfarer.  The yellow dog lifted the unconscious black cat into one of the shuttle’s seats and strapped her in.

“Not until the end,” Consul Tor said, “when the being was distracted.  Before that, ever since Lt. Unari lost consciousness, I’ve been alone.”  She shuddered.

Grawf tilted her head, watching the strange green otter.  When the ship’s lights finally came on, the otter closed her eyes and shuddered again, but this time differently, like the light against her fur was a wave of warm water.

Grawf helped the limp otteroid down from the console and arranged her in one of the shuttle’s seats.  “I imagine you’re not used to being alone,” Grawf said.

Consul Tor simply smiled.  She could sense Grawf’s emotions — the bear’s grudging respect for the willowy green otter’s fortitude in a situation that had been especially distressing for her.  This time, Grawf didn’t mind letting the otter know her feelings, not that either of them had a choice in the way her telepathy worked.

“What about the uni-meter that we left behind?” Lt. Vonn asked as the shuttle crested the atmosphere.

“I removed any information that Wayfarer could use for directly escaping this planet,” Fact said.  “I left on enough information for them to transmit a distress signal.  If they ever learn to ask for help nicely, they have a way to ask.”

Grawf snorted, her subdued version of a laugh.

If the bear had told herself the story of today this morning, she’d have never believed it.  She supposed maybe there really had been something to all of those tall tales the cats and dogs had told her.  And if so, then it was nice to have lived through one of her own.

Grawf wondered how many more there would be.  She hoped it would be a lot of them.

Read more about these characters in Tri-Galactic Trek!

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