“Commander Cassie, we’ve made contact!”
Cassie looked up from her makeshift repair job on the wing of her ship. The landing into the alien atmosphere had done a number on the vessel, and the wing, normally straight as a rail, had bent upward at a ninety-degree angle with a large tear near the tip. Cassie had managed to beat the wing more or less back into shape, but the tear proved harder to repair. Luckily, after foraging through their dwindling supply cache, she had found one last roll of All-Purpose Binding Strips. Those babies could hold anything together. The ship might not look pretty, she thought, but it would fly. It had to, in the event that contact with the native inhabitants of the planet went awry.
Which, given the history of past expeditions, was a definite possibility.
“Commander Cassie,” Grace, her lieutenant, cried again, “Your presence is requested. The native leader is approaching!”
Satisfied that the wing would hold together until she could dock the ship at a space station, Cassie turned her attentions to Grace and the newcomer she indicated in the distance.
It clung to the shadows across the small valley that separated them, making tentative staccato motions forward. Larger than Cassie had anticipated, its body was covered in a thick coating of fur including its tail, which extended like a bottlebrush behind it. Its gait alternated between bipedal and quadrupedal motion in sudden bursts and stops, making it difficult to judge the creature’s true speed and physical prowess. Cassie and Grace’s mission was twofold: gather information on the beings, which were newcomers to the quadrant and, if deemed of advanced enough intelligence for such matters, to bring them into the Intergalactic Peace Accords. The Council of Planets could not afford any unknown entities endangering the hard-won peace that now reigned across the universe.
At first glance the creature – whose rapidly twitching nose scented the air and whose dark, unblinking eyes took in every aspect of the scene before it, all the while reflecting the starry sky above – did not seem to pose much of a threat. Still, Cassie glimpsed long, pointed teeth and small yet sharp claws on the ends of its fingers.
She approached slowly, cautiously. Better safe than sorry, after all.
“Greetings, friend!” said Cassie, her arm raised in a sign of welcome. “I come in peace!”
It stared at her with its wide, dark eyes, the rest of its surveillance abandoned at the sight of her approach.
“Tell us: are you willing to accept the Intergalactic Peace Accords, and the rule of the Council of Planets?”
The thing’s nose twitched. Could it be that it understood her words? “If so,” she continued, “you may live on this world in peace. What is your answer?”
It cocked its head, first to one side, then the other. Maybe it did understand!
The bottlebrush tail flicked once, twice…
In a single bound it lunged toward Cassie, its teeth and claws bared.
“Get back to the ship!” she cried, grabbing Grace by the arm and running for her life…
“Get back to the ship!”
Denise looked up from the half-washed dish in her hand as the sound of her daughters’ shrieks and laughter carried through the open kitchen window. Cassie had Grace by the hand, making a break for their “spaceship,” a beaten cardboard construction held together by endless layers of duct tape and her girls’ sheer force of will. She thought they might have finally destroyed the darn thing earlier in the evening, when both girls took a flying leap off the swing set and landed squarely on top of it. But a bit more duct tape later and it was good as new. Or, well, as good as it had been before being trampled by her fearless space explorers.
“Quick, quick, it’s almost got us!” Grace squealed as Cassie “piloted” the ship, running through the yard along a trajectory known only to her. Grace hurried along in Cassie’s wake, the cardboard box encircling them both helping her to keep pace with her older sister. Meanwhile the squirrel, the subject of Cassie and Grace’s excitement, scampered away towards the oak on the far side of the yard, nestling on a branch near the new squirrel feeder she had hung the previous week.
The sounds of their play filled the darkening sky, lasting all the way through the final dirty dishes that now lay gleaming in the rack beside the sink. A glance at the clock told Denise it was well past her daughters’ bedtime.
“Cassie! Grace! Time to get ready for bed now!” she called through the mesh screen of the sliding door to the backyard. As expected, protestations sprung to their lips but she silenced them with a lifted hand and a stern look. She had long ago perfected the “mom glare,” the kind that could not be denied. “You can play more tomorrow,” she added, softening the blow of their disappointment. “Even astronauts need sleep too, you know.”
“I’m not an astronaut, Mommy, I’m a Commander of the Space Explorers!” Cassie countered as she slid open the door, letting herself and Grace inside.
“Oh, my mistake, Commander.”
The girls scrambled upstairs and, with only a few more arguments against it, changed into pajamas, brushed their teeth, and climbed into bed.
When the light from their room had been dimmed for a full half an hour, and the girls had been quiet just as long, Denise returned downstairs and ventured into the backyard. The girls’ adventures had been fairly tame that day: only one part of their moveable play structure was overturned. She set it to rights and moved the cardboard ship under the porch awning. Rain had been threatening to fall for the past several days; of everything the valiant vessel had endured, Denise doubted it would survive a night exposed to the elements.
Her eyes then turned to the swing set, the planks swaying slightly in the breeze. How long had it been since she’d sat on a swing? To tell the truth, she couldn’t remember. It groaned under her weight, not strictly intended to support the weight of a full-sized person. But still it held as she swung and gazed up at the night sky.
Denise had grown up in the city, and with all its ever-present lights she had almost forgotten about the stars. Or not forgotten, exactly: they were more of an afterthought, a thing that existed for other people, just not for her. Not really.
Ever since moving out to the country and its clearer skies, the stars never failed to dazzle her. And even after six years in this house, since she had first felt Cassie’s presence within her, the stars still took her by surprise – all the millions of them scattered across the dark like gems shining out from the vault of eternity. A tapestry of light draped across the heavens.
Still she swung. Higher. And higher.
And at the peak of her swing, when all she could see were the stars and the sky, she imagined that if she only let go, she just might soar up to meet them.
She was almost tempted to try it.
Who knows? she thought.
Maybe the girls could use a copilot tomorrow.