The Best and Worst of Worlds

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Dogs of War, January 2017

“Cats loved conquest; dogs needed adventure. But Cetazed otteroids were happy splashing about and playing.”

Five officers of the Tri-Galactic Navy and one exchange officer from the planet Cetazed teleported down to a clearing on Planet 328’s surface.  The cats and dogs of the Tri-Galactic Navy were good people, and Consul Eliana Tor didn’t regret leaving her homeworld to become an exchange officer.  Not exactly.  But she missed the flavor of the sunlight on Cetazed, and not only did her empathic abilities make her a fish out of water around these cats and dogs with their non-empathic minds, but they let her read the cats’ and dogs’ emotions — especially their feelings about her — constantly.

On her homeworld of Cetazed, Consul Tor had been surrounded by much stronger empaths and many telepaths.  Among these Terran cats and dogs, her extremely poor empathic abilities became nearly a superpower.  At first, their amusement at her coloring and shape — green like grass and lithe like a Terran otter — amused Eliana herself.  She was happy to make them happy, even by being an exotic alien for them.  But the novelty had worn off, and she worried that her people would be better off isolating themselves from these warm-blooded mammals.

Her people lived in peace on Cetazed:  chlorophyllic otteroids in their cities of water parks.  What need had they for gallivanting about the galaxy?  Cats loved conquest; dogs needed adventure.  But Cetazed otteroids were happy splashing about and playing.

Nonetheless, Consul Tor had to admit that this world they’d teleported down to was beautiful.  The orange glow of a red dwarf, low on the horizon, mixing with the white-blue shine of another star at zenith made a rich and complex flavor unlike anything Eliana had tasted on her homeworld.  She rolled her shoulders, rippling her thick grass-like fur, in order to savor the sunlight better.  Unlike the navy officers, Eliana didn’t wear a long-sleeved, long-legged uniform.  She wore a strappy sundress, designed to expose as much of her fur to the light as possible while still maintaining warm-blooded definitions of decency.

“Enjoying the sunlight?” Commander Wilker asked with a wolfish collie grin.  He was a handsome dog with flowing fur, and Consul Tor could read plainly in his feelings that he was taken with her.

“It’s far better than the artificial lights onboard the Initiative,” Consul Tor answered.

“Glad to hear it!” Cmdr. Wilker barked.  Then he pulled out a uni-meter and got right to work.  He strode off toward the rest of his team, holding the uni-meter in front of him and scanning the air and soil as he went.

Consul Tor pulled out her own uni-meter to take readings on the sunlight from the different stars, but before she could finish her first scan, she felt a darkening.  Consul Tor looked up at the sky, but it wasn’t the stars — it was the emotions of the warm-blooded cats and dogs around her.  They were scared.

“What happened?” Consul Tor asked.  She approached Commander Wilker and the others; all five of the reconnaissance team members were staring into a canyon that cut steeply into the clearing.  It didn’t appear to be a natural formation.  Rather it looked like an impact crater — a crash site for the broken, octagonal structure at its bottom.  “A ship?  Do you think there are any survivors?”

“I hope not,” Cmdr. Wilker barked, his voice husky with the fear he was hiding from the two cats and two dogs under his command.  He couldn’t hide it from Consul Tor, and a sidelong glance at her with his worried brown eyes showed that he knew it.  “We’ve encountered a ship like this one before.”

One of the cats — the orange tabby wearing techno-focal goggles — piped up to add:  “It did not go well.”

One of the security officers, a yellow Labrador, simply started to growl.

“Hold on, guys,” Cmdr. Wilker woofed, doing his best to sound soothing.  “We don’t know anything yet, so let’s get some more information.”  He turned to the second cat, a science officer with glossy black fur and green eyes.  “Lt. Unari, are there any life signs?”

Lt. Unari nearly purred the answer, “No, sir.  No life signs.  No survivors.”

“That’s a relief,” the orange tabby meowed, and Consul Tor could feel how much he meant it.  All of the reconnaissance team relaxed.  Their relief hit Consul Tor like a wave, and it troubled her how pleased they were at the idea of the mysterious occupants of this crashed ship dying.

“Come on,” Cmdr. Wilker barked.  “The nature of our mission has changed:  we need to get as much information as we can about this ship.  Why’s it here?  What was it doing?  Are there more of them?  And we need to do it as fast as possible.”  He clambered over the edge of the cavern and slid his way down to the ship.  The rest of the team followed, though Consul Tor could feel their reluctance.  She didn’t share it.  The crashed ship was fascinating.  She’d never seen architecture like it — layers of metal pipes and beams at sharp angles; lots of triangles and hexagons.

Cmdr. Wilker found a hatchway and burned it open with a beam of energy from his blazor.  On the inside, ragged sheets of silvery silken fabric hung along the ceiling of the passageway, fluttering in the breeze from outside.  Consul Tor could sense the rising terror in her companions — especially the orange tabby and yellow Labrador.  She sensed very strongly that they’d been in a place like this before.

“We need to find the main computer,” Lt. LeGuin, the orange tabby, said.

“Fan out,” Cmdr. Wilker barked.  “Scan everything.  Get as much data as you can.  This may be the best chance we get to learn about the Archidopterans before…”  His voice broke, and he looked at Consul Tor, feeling a combination of trepidation and embarrassment that he couldn’t hide his trepidation from her.  “Never mind that.  Just learn what you can and fast.”

The cats and dogs disappeared down different passageways of the crashed spaceship, but Consul Tor simply stood in the entryway.  She was shaken by the feelings she’d sensed in Cmdr. Wilker and needed to process them.  He was deeply afraid.  His mind had been filled with pictures of… violence and fighting… war.  That’s what this crashed spaceship represented to him:  the potential for war coming to the Tri-Galactic Union.

Consul Tor wrapped her short arms around herself, feeling suddenly cold without the sunlight against her green fur.  Yet, she forged on, deeper into the dark ship, hoping to learn something that would help her reconcile Cmdr. Wilker’s fears with the beautiful and intricate — delicate, even — architecture of this ship.  The hanging silk whispered over her fur as she passed it by, touching her so lightly that it tasted almost like a flash of pale blue light.

She came to a chamber where the floor was covered with yellow orbs, each approximately the size of her own head.  Consul Tor knelt down beside one of the orbs and peered closely at its yellow surface — it was filmy and slightly translucent.  She could just make out angles and contours inside it, but not well enough to make sense of them.  She pulled out her uni-meter and scanned it; she was startled by the image that resolved on the uni-meter screen:  coiled and segmented, it was clearly the shape of a larval caterpillar-like insect.  A baby that had died in its egg.

Now that she knew what she was looking at, Consul Tor could make out the wide round shape of its eyes underneath the filmy yellow surface of the egg.  Her own feelings soured with sadness, and Consul Tor couldn’t stay in that chamber for a moment longer.  She hurried deeper into the ship.

The next chamber she came to was filled with mounds of the silver silk which she realized must be cocoons of some sort.  Reluctantly, she scanned one of the cocoons and was rewarded with an image on her uni-meter of an insectoid creature with all of its arms folded and its mandibled-head tucked against its chest.  It looked peaceful in that pose, like it was sleeping, but she knew it would never wake up.

Consul Tor was deeply relieved when she heard barking, calling her back toward the entrance of the ship, away from this mausoleum.

“Time’s up, everyone!” Cmdr. Wilker barked.  “We have the computer’s memory banks, and it’s time to get out of here, on the double!”  He gathered his team together, and then he tapped the comm-pin on the breast of his uniform and told the Initiative to teleport them back aboard.

* * *

Captain Pierre Jacques kept exquisite control of his emotions as the members of the reconnaissance team briefed him on the information they’d gathered on the Archidopteran ship.  He was a Sphynx cat with incredible composure; his naked pink triangular ears didn’t flick even once as Lt. LeGuin, the orange tabby engineer with techno-focal goggles, showed him the data from the crashed ship’s computer banks.  Only Consul Tor could tell that Captain Jacques was scared.

And he was scared.

“These are battle plans,” the captain meowed, cool as a cat could be.  But on the inside he was raging with turmoil.

Cmdr. Wilker, however, was much calmer than he’d been on the planet.  Consul Tor had noticed that he was always calmer when the captain was around.  Although the Sphynx cat was only half the collie’s height, Captain Jacques’ mere presence seemed to soothe Cmdr. Wilker.

“Yes, sir,” Cmdr. Wilker agreed.  “But we caught their plans early.  I think we can cut off their fleet before it’s able to do any real damage to any Tri-Galactic Union starports.”

Captain Jacques’ gray-green eyes narrowed.  “Unless it’s a trap.”  He hissed the words.

“Captain, if I may say something–”  Consul Tor’s voice was high and piping next to the barks and meows of the others.  “–the chambers on the vessel that I examined were filled with unhatched eggs and cocoons.  Many of these aliens’ young died on that ship.  So, if it’s a trap for us, it’s one that came to them at a high cost.”

The emotions of the cats and dogs around Consul Tor churned with a mix of disgust at the very idea of Archidopteran reproduction and disbelief that such a species even cared about their offspring.

“Shame on all of you,” Consul Tor intoned.  “Do you doubt that my people care for their offspring simply because we reproduce by budding flowers?”  She stared down each of the cats and dogs in the room before adding, “Clearly, this has entered the realm of official Tri-Galactic Navy business.  I’ll be in my quarters if my counsel is needed.”

* * *

Consul Tor’s quarters on the Initiative had been retrofitted with a large sauna bath where she could soak in mineral water and absorb the nutrients she didn’t get from sunlight.  It was a meditative place, not at all like the pools on her homeworld where she was used to frolicking and splashing.

So, when the door to her quarters chimed, indicating a visitor, Consul Tor was deep in thought.  She dripped her way to the door, water droplets sparkling in her thick green fur.  She told the door to open and found Captain Jacques standing on the other side.  His naked pink ears were splayed, and his feelings were divided, distracted, and tumultuous.  “May I come in?” the Sphynx cat asked.

Consul Tor stepped aside and said, “By all means.  Do you mind if I swim while we talk?”

“Not at all,” the captain answered, clearly amused.  He didn’t seem to have the instinctive distaste for water that most cats on the ship did.  With his hairless skin, he didn’t have fur to get wet.  Yet, he clearly found the idea of swimming for pleasure bemusing, at best.

The captain settled on a cushioned ledge under the room’s wide star-studded window, and Consul Tor slipped back into the mineral water, feeling it work its way into her fur, fluffing and nourishing it.

“You have a different perspective than anyone else on my crew,” the captain meowed.  “I value that, and I want to understand it.”

“It’s very simple,” Consul Tor said, swimming lazy laps on her back around the small pool.  “I see beauty in those aliens.”

“I see danger,” the captain countered.

“No,” Consul Tor intoned.  “Your vision is clouded by fear.  That makes you think that you see danger.”

The captain considered her words very carefully.  The tip of his naked tail twitched as if setting out a rhythm for his thoughts.  “That’s possible,” he admitted.  “We met the Archidopterans before under very different — and troubling — circumstances.”

Consul Tor savored the change she sensed in the captain’s emotions as the pink-skinned cat allowed himself to be soothed by her perspective.

“I will think on this,” Captain Jacques said.  “And I’ll keep it under advisement when we face the Archidopterans.”

“When we face them?” Consul Tor asked.

“A fleet of their ships are approaching Old Earth — the seat of the Tri-Galactic Union and my own homeworld.  It would be a devastating military target, and we plan to cut them off before they get there.”  His tail twitched and the unease in his feelings returned, yet weaker than it had been before.  “I hope that you are right, and it can be a peaceful encounter.”

The captain got up to leave, but he turned back before going through the door, tail swishing jauntily.  “I’d like you to be on the bridge for the encounter.  I think your presence might be invaluable.”

The captain had doubts, but he chose to embrace hope.  For now, the symbol of hope in his mind was a green otter.  Consul Tor could live with that.

* * *

The fleet of Archidopteran vessels were arranged in a v-like formation, like geese flying home, but they weren’t flying to their own home.  They were flying towards the home of most of the cats and dogs on the Initiative, and Consul Tor could feel their fear as the navy officers watched the angular icosahedral vessels grow larger on the viewscreen.

“Open a communication channel to the lead vessel,” Captain Jacques ordered.

A bearded terrier at the helm said, “Channel open.”

Captain Jacques straightened the jacket of his navy uniform and spoke to the main viewscreen, “This is Captain Pierre Jacques of the Tri-Galactic Navy Starship Initiative.  I wish to offer you a peaceful welcome to this sector of space.”

The other cats and dogs on the bridge stared at their captain with quizzical, confused expressions.  The yellow lab, Security Chief Natalie Vonn, was trying to figure out if the small Sphynx cat had gone completely crazy.  But none of them dared question the captain.  They trusted him too much.

“No response,” the terrier at the helm said.

The captain harrumphed and swished his naked tail.  “Let’s try again, shall we?”

“I guess?” the terrier said, looking extremely confused.  The captain glared at him until he added, “Channel open.”

“I’d like to invite a delegation of your officers aboard our ship–”

From the back of the bridge, Lt. Vonn couldn’t suppress a whimper-whine at the idea of willingly inviting Archidopterans onto the Initiative.

“–for a tour, refreshments, and open discussion of your fleet’s plans in this sector of space.”  The captain’s whiskers rose in a smile, and Consul Tor could sense he was immensely pleased with himself for doing the right thing and offering hospitality to this alien race.  She was pleased with him as well.

Then he disappeared in a sparkly shimmer of quantum energy.

“What the hell!” Cmdr. Wilker barked.  The collie rushed to the empty space where the captain had been, twirled around several times as if looking for him, and then turned to growl at the viewscreen.  “Open a channel,” he snapped, but before the terrier at the helm could follow his order, a message from the Archidopteran vessel appeared on the viewscreen.

The image of the icosahedral vessels disappeared, replaced by an image of an Archidopteran itself:  its silver carapace gleamed, and its many-jointed arms moved restlessly; shimmery wings flapped slowly behind it; the antennae on its head and its glittering compound eyes stared relentlessly at the screen; when its wriggling mouth parts and pincer-like mandibles began to move, it emitted a sound like a chainsaw squealing against metal.  All of the cats on the bridge flattened their ears, and the dogs rolled their heads, trying to escape the horrible sound.

But Consul Tor heard the meaning inside it — not through words, but through feelings.  The green otteroid spoke, translating what she understood as it came to her:  “The Archidopteran Queen needs new worlds for her eggs and new worker drones to tend them.  Our ship is too small for her to bother with us, but she’s taken our captain as a warning:  don’t interfere.”

The anger flared inside Cmdr. Wilker like a bonfire.  Underneath his flowing fur, he filled with razor-sharp hate so strong that it buffeted Consul Tor’s mind with actual words:  my sheep, my ward, my alpha.  Consul Tor didn’t know what those words meant, but they clearly meant a lot to him.

Cmdr. Wilker woofed, “We must rescue the captain.”  He spoke the words as simple, empirical truth, but then he looked around the bridge and saw the other navy officers watching him, waiting for their orders.  Without the captain, he was in charge.  These were his wards, his sheep — he was their sheepdog, their alpha.  He couldn’t chase the captain, not until the rest of his flock was safe.  Sadness doused the fire inside him, and he grew cold.  “But first, lay in a course for the nearest Tri-Galactic Navy Starport.  We need to regroup.  We need reinforcements.”

* * *

Consul Tor watched the Tri-Galactic Navy vessels take formation through the window in her quarters.  They were very different from the geometrical Archidopteran ships — all smooth edges and curves.  Very graceful.  These ships had a streamlined quality, almost like toys that a budling might build, gluing together river-bottom pebbles and bits of stick.

But these toy ships held hundreds of lives each.  And they were preparing for battle.  Even if they won, how many Archidopteran lives would it cost?

Consul Tor knew that Cmdr. Wilker was meeting with the captains of the other vessels in the Initiative’s conference room right that minute, planning how their fleet would surround the Archidopterans, cut them off from Earth, demand they reverse course, and destroy them if they didn’t.  It was violent.  And Consul Tor hated it.

If Captain Jacques were still here, she might have been included in the meeting, and perhaps she could have tempered their plan.  Softened it.  Though that hadn’t worked well before…  She still wasn’t ready to give up on peace with the Archidopterans.

However, Captain Jacques was not here, and Cmdr. Wilker’s feelings made it perfectly clear that the collie blamed Consul Tor for that.  He blamed her, and he wanted her to stay away from him.

So, she watched the pebble-and-stick ships arrange themselves in a grid in front of the stars, and she came up with a plan.

If she couldn’t convince Cmdr. Wilker to seek peace with the Archidopterans himself, maybe she could seek it for him.  She simply had to offer her services to him in a way he could understand:  she would volunteer to teleport aboard the Archidopteran flagship during the battle and attempt to rescue the captain.  He wouldn’t be able to resist that.  And once she was over there, maybe she could find a way to broker peace with the Archidopterans.

* * *

Cmdr. Wilker accepted Consul Tor’s plan with a few modifications.  Instead of teleporting to the Archidopteran ship, she had to take a shuttle.  And she couldn’t go alone.  He insisted on her taking Lt. Vonn, the yellow lab security officer, and Lt. LeGuin, the orange tabby engineer, with her.  Apparently, they had the most experience dealing with Archidopteran vessels, as they’d been on the reconnaissance team when the Initiative had first encountered one.

Of course, this also meant they had the most baggage and hostile feelings concerning the Archidopterans.  Consul Tor saw that as a distinct disadvantage, but Cmdr. Wilker didn’t.  And he was in charge.  He would have gone with her himself, but the Initiative needed him.

Consul Tor’s shuttle launched from the Initiative during the heat of battle.  Lt. LeGuin skillfully piloted the small vessel, dodging both enemy and friendly fire, while the Initiative laid down a volley of electron torpedoes as cover.  It was their hope that in all the chaos, the Archidopterans wouldn’t notice such a small, relatively insignificant shuttle craft.  Or else, they wouldn’t have the resources available to target it.

As a red bolt of energy singed past the shuttle’s viewscreen, Consul Tor swore and exclaimed, “What in the hell was that collie dog thinking, sending us in a shuttle when we could have teleported!”

Lt. Vonn was eerily calm as she answered from the back of the shuttle, “He was thinking that last time we were on one of these vessels, they had technology that could block our comm-pins and possibly our teleporters.”  The yellow lab wasn’t paying any attention to the space battle happening all around them.  She was busy checking her sidearms.  She had various blazors and vibro-knives strapped to every one of her limbs.  Consul Tor wouldn’t have been surprised to find a weapon hidden in the swishing brush of her tail.  “He doesn’t want us to get stuck over there.”

Consul Tor didn’t understand the existential horror that emanated from the orange tabby piloting their shuttle at the words ‘stuck over there.’  As far as she could tell, these dogs and cats had started this war, and while they looked superficially more similar to her than the Archidopterans, her underlying anatomical structure — beneath the grassy green fur — was more similar to the sessile plants they kept as decorations.  She was beginning to wonder why her species had felt any kinship at all with the members of the Tri-Galactic Navy when they’d come to her homeworld.

After several more red bolts of energy singed by, close enough to warm the air inside the shuttle, Lt. LeGuin exclaimed, “Hold on, here comes the big one!”  Sure enough, moments later, sparks and fire engulfed the side of the Archidopteran vessel as an electron torpedo from the Initiative tore a hole in its side, calculated to blow open a portion of the ship’s shuttle bay.  Atmosphere exploded outward and then fizzled in the vacuum of space.

Under cover of the explosion, Lt. LeGuin piloted their shuttle into the newly gaping open enemy shuttle bay.  Exactly as planned.  Moments later, a shimmery force field sealed off the gaping hole in the shuttle bay’s doors, but the Initiative reconnaissance team was already safely inside.

Lt. Vonn held out a blazor rifle to Consul Tor as they debarked the shuttle.  “Take this,” the yellow lab said, but the green otteroid stared at the rifle like it was a squirming snake… or whatever photosynthetic aliens find disgusting.  Lt. Vonn could not understand this exchange officer.  “You need to protect yourself,” she barked.

“I thought that’s what you’re here for.”  Consul Tor still didn’t take the rifle, but she stepped out onto the deck of the Archidopteran vessel, edging around the large yellow lab.

Lt. Vonn growled deep in her throat, and the short blonde fur around her neck prickled out.  “Suit yourself.”  She handed the rifle to Lt. LeGuin, and the orange tabby took it without hesitation.  “You stay here and guard the shuttle,” Lt. Vonn barked at him.  “The Consul and I will get back here with the captain as fast as possible, and I expect we’ll need to make a quick exit.”

“Getaway detail,” Lt. LeGuin meowed.  “Got it.  And I can’t say I mind.  I don’t envy you guys, heading out there.”  Streams of text flowed over the lenses of the little cat’s techno-focal goggles.  “Good luck.”

“All right, Consul,” Lt. Vonn barked, “you’re leading this detail, so where to?”

Consul Tor unholstered the uni-meter at her waist and stared at the data and scans on the device’s screen.  Based on electro, magnetic, heat, and sonar scans, it projected a map of their surroundings and pinpointed the locations of nearby life signs.  It also showed the location of the captain’s comm-pin — in a large chamber, mostly empty of life signs, down several passageways to the right — but Consul Tor didn’t feel right about that.

The empathic green otteroid felt drawn to a smaller chamber, packed full of life signs, further away to the left.  If she explained herself to the security dog, Consul Tor knew Lt. Vonn would insist they head toward the comm-pin.

Consul Tor made her decision.  “This way.”  She darted through the severely damaged shuttle bay, trying hard not to look at the shimmery force field protecting them from the gaping hole the Initiative had blown to get them in.

Through the force field’s shimmery light, Consul Tor could see the Tri-Galactic Navy vessels and the Archidopteran ships firing at each other.  Destroying each other.  So much death.  She had to shut it out — she had to focus on the whisper she heard calling to her from inside this vessel.  She led Lt. Vonn down the chamber to the left.

Consul Tor glanced occasionally at the uni-meter clutched in her paws, keeping an eye on the various life signs — especially those moving through the corridors.  Though, she found that she could sense the presence of the moving life signs as clearly in her mind — a bold, brazen, uncompromising sensation — as on the uni-meter’s screen.  When one of those life signs came too close, Consul Tor took a risk and ducked into a small chamber — according to the uni-meter, it was a chamber filled with life signs, but in her own mind…  All she could hear were quiet murmurs.  Daydreams.  Or perhaps, lullabies.

Sure enough, inside the chamber, Consul Tor found a trove of the waist-high, golden eggs like she’d seen on the crashed vessel that had started all of this.  She crouched down behind one of them, and Lt. Vonn followed suit.  The yellow Labrador looked funny with her tongue hanging out, panting, as she tried to fit behind one of the yellow orbs.  Though, Consul Tor could sense that her emotions were anything but funny — Lt. Vonn was more than ready to use the blazor rifle grasped in her paws.

“Wait,” Consul Tor said, holding out a green-furred paw in a steadying gesture.  “If we can stay hidden… the less damage we do…”  How could she explain this to such a battle-ready warmongering dog?

“I get it,” Lt. Vonn woofed quietly.  “Low profile.  Any idea how close we are…”  The yellow lab’s voice trailed off as an Archidopteran skittered its way down the hall outside the chamber.

Consul Tor only got a brief glimpse, but she thought the Archidopteran’s translucent wings and shining carapace were beautiful.  Lt. Vonn, on the other paw, was about to go out of her mind with fear.  Consul Tor didn’t love that she was being accompanied by a well-armed emotional wreck.  She’d have much preferred completing this mission alone.

Before leaving the egg chamber, Consul Tor pressed one of her green paws up against one of the golden eggs.  She felt a babbling voice of confusion and surprise and delight from inside.  Then she heard the disjointed, sing-song tones of a babbling baby trying to repeat a lullaby.

“Ugh,” Lt. Vonn woofed, looking at the squirming caterpillar-like shape under the translucent surface of the egg.  “These things are hideous.  Can we move on?”

Regretfully, Consul Tor pulled her paw away from the egg and led them on.  She would have liked to stay and hear more of the lullaby, but without her paw pressed against the egg’s warm surface, all she heard were distant whispers, disappearing as she forged deeper into the Archidopteran vessel.

Yet, another whisper called her onward.  It grew stronger with every step, until she could almost hear an actual voice echoing in her head.  She couldn’t make out words, but she felt the shapes of words.  She recognized the voice as the captain’s… but then it was someone else.  It morphed, dizzyingly, until a single phrase rang out like a bell:  “Conflict is fruitless.”

Consul Tor stumbled, and Lt. Vonn caught her.  “Are you okay?” the yellow lab asked.

The voice in Consul Tor’s mind had been seductive and powerful, and it spoke words she agreed with:  times of conflict never coincided with a time of fruiting for her people.  “Did you hear that?” she asked Lt. Vonn.

The yellow lab shook her head, muzzle drawn into a serious grimace.

The voice spoke in Consul Tor’s mind again:  “The mammals can’t hear me without… help.  I am the voice of the many.  The All-Mother.  The Queen.  Yet, you are not my child, and you can hear me, little flower.”  One voice and yet thousands.  And the captain’s voice was woven into the tapestry with the rest.

“Maybe we should go back,” Lt. Vonn woofed nervously.  “I’m not sure I can carry both you and the captain safely, if we find him.”

“I’m fine,” Consul Tor snapped, pushing the yellow lab away from her.  “We’re close now.”  She was sure of it.  But she wasn’t sure it mattered anymore.

Consul Tor continued onward, and the voice continued singing in her head:  “That’s right, little flower.  Bring the mammal to me, and I’ll help her understand.

The physical world became illusory under Consul Tor’s green paws.  With each step down the passageway, her senses filled with a warm glow like the light of a red-orange sun.  She could picture every ticking machination of the hive around her — workers with their tiny vestigial wings and strong six-arms tending to the ship; drones with their hulking height, true wings, and delicate six-arms, tending the eggs and cocoons.  The eggs and cocoons themselves, singing in their slumber, praising the harmony of the hive, the placid wisdom of the Queen, their protector.

The Queen herself, enthroned in the heart of the vessel, almost the very vessel itself, seeing through its sensors, fighting the Tri-Galactic Navy vessels with her weaponry.

Consul Tor swooned, and Lt. Vonn caught her up.  “I’m taking you back to the shuttle,” the yellow lab barked, too scared to modulate her voice to a quiet woof.

“No,” Consul Tor said, but it wasn’t her voice anymore.  She was one of the queen’s children.  Adopted and strange, but loved.  She held out a green-furred paw and pointed into the next chamber.  “Right there.  What you’re seeking is right in there.”

“You’re being so weird,” Lt. Vonn woofed, finding her control again.  It gave her something to focus on — protecting the green otteroid draped over her yellow-furred arms.  In that way, Lt. Vonn was like the Queen — a protector — but so much smaller.

Lt. Vonn carried Consul Tor into the chamber.  By then, the green otteroid was completely lost in visions of the queen’s harmony.  Overwhelmed by the voices of the hive.  Of course, all Lt. Vonn knew was that the delicate photosynthetic alien had fainted in her arms, and the yellow lab would have to carry both the otteroid and the captain back to the shuttle if he’d been incapacitated — meaning her arms would be full.  She’d be a sitting duck, unable to properly defend herself or her wards.

Lt. Vonn needed to get the reconnaissance team out of here.

Unfortunately, the captain wasn’t obviously inside the chamber the Consul had indicated.  All Lt. Vonn saw inside were a bunch of silken mounds.  With horror, she realized she’d seen mounds like this before — the last time the Initiative had encountered the Archidopterans.  They were cocoons.

Lt. Vonn laid the Consul down on the floor and began ripping into the nearest cocoon with her bare paws, scrabbling at the sticky silk with her dull claws.  It would have been faster to cut her way through the silk with a vibro-knife, but what if the captain was inside?  What if she cut too deep?

The silk tore away, and under the tear, Lt. Vonn revealed segmented arms, folded as if in prayer, and a gun-metal gray carapace.  Not the captain.  Oh god, she hoped it was not the captain.  He couldn’t have been transformed so fully, could he?

Lt. Vonn began ripping away at another cocoon and found another pupal Archidopteran beneath the silk.  Another and another.  She left the cocoons shredded, and the pupae underneath began stirring, their many segmented legs twitching and antennae feeling around to taste the air in their new, adult forms.  Another few minutes, and they’d be fully awake.

They’d be ready to wrap Lt. Vonn inside her own cocoon.

But then Lt. Vonn ripped through the silk of a smallish cocoon and found something different:  segmented legs, folded as if in prayer… but they were pink.  Like the captain’s naked skin.  With a sinking feeling, Lt. Vonn ripped more of the silk off and revealed a hideous hybrid, half Sphynx cat and half Archidopteran.  The captain had grown antennae beside his triangular ears, and his muzzle had morphed into wide mandibles filled with writhing mouth parts.

But his gray-green eyes were the same.

Except filled with horror.

“Oh, Captain,” Lt. Vonn breathed.  Her heart ached for the little cat, and her stomach churned with revulsion.  She pulled the rest of the silk away from him and threw his small, strange body over one shoulder.

Then Lt. Vonn lifted the Consul from the floor and draped the otteroid’s limp body over the other shoulder.  The Consul’s thick green fur had become studded with tiny star-like white flowers.  Lt. Vonn didn’t know what that meant, but the yellow lab knew that she needed to get out of here.  Now.

But of course, the entrance to the chamber was blocked by a pair of Archidopterans, and the pupae that Lt. Vonn had freed early from their cocoons rose from their positions of repose, unfolding their arms and clacking their mandibles.  The room was filled with towering insectoids, and Lt. Vonn didn’t have half a chance of shooting her way out.

So, instead, she whispered a prayer and tapped the comm-pin on her breast.  “Lt. LeGuin?” she barked.  “Please for the sake of everything holy, tell me that you’re receiving this and that the shuttle’s teleporter isn’t blocked by this ungodly ship’s shields.”

The Archidopterans encircled Lt. Vonn, raising their upper-most arms like they were dancing.  One after another, the towering insectoids spat globs of sticky silk against the growling yellow Labrador.

Then the orange tabby’s voice meowed from Lt. Vonn’s comm-pin, “I can probably get off one teleportation before they block us, but I need an active comm-pin signal to lock onto.”

“Not a problem; the captain and Consul Tor are in my arms!”  On the final word, a glob of sticky silk hit Lt. Vonn in the face, filling her open mouth with a musty taste that made her gag and glued her muzzle shut.  But then she felt the tingle of quantum energy in her chest, and her body flooded with relief.

The yellow lab, transmuted Sphynx cat, and photosynthetic otteroid disappeared in a shimmer of quantum energy and reappeared inside their own shuttle, where they promptly fell over, crashing onto the ground, too glued together by silk to do anything but lay there uselessly while Lt. LeGuin meowed at them.

“My goodness, but you three look a horror.  I’m getting us out of here.”  The orange tabby kept them updated with a running monologue as he powered up the shuttle, fired an electron torpedo at the force field holding them in, and then piloted the shuttle back out of the Archidopteran vessel.

As the shuttle dodged electron torpedoes and red energy bolts, flying back through the fray towards the Initiative, something strange was happening on the deck inside.  Lt. Vonn was struck by the beautiful harmony of the Archidopteran hive; Consul Tor felt her mind fill with terror at losing herself — was she even a cat anymore?  Wait, had she ever been one?  And Captain Jacques was flooded by the sense of safety and assurance that came with being the greatest breed of dog ever designed by man — a yellow Labrador, who was protected from all harm by the great love that had gone into designing her.  His paws were big.  Her ears floppy.  He was a good… hive member who loved her Queen?

Lt. LeGuin piloted the shuttle back into the relative safety of the Initiative’s own welcoming shuttle bay.  On the shuttle’s floor, the rest of the reconnaissance team blurred and melded together, aided by Consul Tor’s empathic abilities and the catalytic enzymes in the silk that half cocooned them together.  Instead of a dog, a cat, and an otteroid, they’d become a mess of segmented legs, green and yellow fur, pink skin, and three pairs of eyes filled with deep, existential horror.  They could see themself in the reflection of Lt. LeGuin’s techno-focal goggles, as the orange tabby hit the comm-pin on his breast and meowed, “Doctor Keller, we have an emergency in the shuttle bay.”

* * *

Consul Tor felt the captain’s concern for his crew and Lt. Vonn’s frustration with herself that she was lying on a bed in the medical bay rather than doing her job.

But… they were just feelings.  Sensations that she could sense from outside of herself.  No longer her own thoughts.

Consul Tor lifted her green-furred paws and held them above her face.  They looked normal.  The embarrassing white flowers were gone.  She shouldn’t have been flowering at all.  Not now.  Not like that.  She lifted herself up and looked around.

Lt. Vonn was lazing on her hospital bed, bouncing a ball off of the nearest wall to pass the time.  Captain Jacques was a normal Sphynx cat again, and he held a dusty old book in his paws.  But Consul Tor could tell he wasn’t able to concentrate on reading it.

“You’re awake!” a cheerful voice barked.  Doctor Keller was a tall red dog with long curly ears.  An Irish Setter and proud of it.  A lot of the dogs onboard this vessel seemed inordinately proud of themselves, simply for being a particular type of dog.

Consul Tor shook her head at the strangeness of it.  And yet, she’d experienced the sensation first-hand while she’d been melded with the captain and Lt. Vonn.  It was a strange but mostly harmless kind of pride.

While the doctor checked Consul Tor, scanning her with a uni-meter and muttering about her alien physiology, another prideful dog burst into the medical bay.

But Cmdr. Bill Wilker wasn’t proud of himself for being a dog right now.  He was bursting with pride on behalf of… Consul Tor.  The green otteroid felt a bashful modesty at the bright glow of Cmdr. Wilker’s pride in her.

“Our hero has awoken!” he barked, rushing to Consul Tor’s side.  He took one of her green paws in his own and squeezed tight.  “Thank you,” the collie woofed.  “You saved the captain.”

“Lt. Vonn and Lt. LeGuin saved the captain, I think,” Consul Tor said, lowering her eyes from the collie’s intense gaze.

Lt. Vonn paused in bouncing her ball and gave the Consul a curt, appreciative nod.  Then back to bouncing.

“They wouldn’t have been over there without you.”  Cmdr. Wilker smoothed the flowing fur of his ruff that spilled out around his collar.  “Besides, I’ve thanked each of them already.  Lt. LeGuin as soon as he got back, and Lt. Vonn when she woke up a week ago.”

“A week ago?” Consul Tor asked.  “Has it been so long?  What happened to the rest of the ship?  All the other ships?  Are we still fighting?”

Captain Jacques laid his dusty book down on his lap.  “We won the battle.  The jury’s still out on the war.”  His pink ears flattened.  “And yes, we’ve been trapped in this godforsaken sick bay all week.”

“The flagship exploded only minutes after your shuttle escaped,” Cmdr. Wilker barked.  “After the flagship was destroyed, all the other ships…  They ran out of fight.  They simply withdrew from the sector, back the way they came.”

“Good riddance,” Lt. Vonn muttered, throwing her ball extra hard.

Consul Tor felt a confusing wave of loss.  The Archidopteran Queen had manipulated her mind, altered the captain’s body against his will, and would have experimented with her reproductive flowers if Lt. Vonn hadn’t rescued her.  Yet, the harmony of her hive had been beautiful.  All those voices, joined together as one, in perfect accord and completely loved.

It wasn’t worth it.  The price for that accord and harmony was high.  Much too high.

In comparison, the dogs and cats of the Tri-Galactic Navy were noisy and disjointed, a constant jumble of conflict and mixed-up emotions.  They were chaotic.  Uncontrollable.  And they had saved the entire sector from the Archidopterans.

And Consul Tor loved them.

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