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ANNOUNCEMENT: Nexus Nine, by Mary E. Lowd

QSFer Mary E. Lowd has a new pansexual/genderfluid queer sci fi book out: Nexus Nine.

Deep space, nine lives… Or maybe nine-hundred?

When a calico cat with a computer chip in her head — full of lifetimes worth of memories — sets out to uncover the mysteries of her distant past, she finds herself on a space station in a recently war-torn star system.  Will her best friend from one of her previous lives as a dog still accept her?  Can she make new friends with the local bird-like aliens, and how does her own past entangle with the history of a strange shape-changing insect seeking answers of zir own? As Mazel Rheun studies the local deep space anomaly, it becomes increasingly clear…

The answers lie on the other side of… NEXUS NINE.

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Mazel Rheun watched her old friend, Shep Bataille, from across the command deck of Nexus Nine Base.  The calico cat was steeling herself to approach the German Shepherd.  Mazel needed to introduce herself, and then she would see the reality in Shep’s eyes — the confusion, the lack of recognition. Shep wouldn’t know her.  In fact, Mazel probably shouldn’t think of him as her old friend Shep anymore.  Now, he was her commanding officer, Captain Bataille.

A lifetime ago — or maybe only a few months — Mazel had been certain of herself. Himself.  She’d been tall, strong, short-furred, and floppy eared.  She’d been serious when it was called for and goofy whenever possible.  She’d been a captain of her own vessel — his own vessel — in the Tri-Galactic Navy, and she’d come up through the ranks, side by side with Shep.  Two dogs, tearing their way through the wild frontiers of the galaxy.

But that had been Shep Bataille and Darius Rheun.  Then Darius had died in battle, and the Rheun chip had been passed on to an unremarkable young lieutenant whom Darius had identified in his will.  She was Mazel Rheun now — a small calico cat with pale markings who was still figuring herself out.  A few months ago, she’d felt right in her own skin.  Now she felt short, and her fur was always bothering her, feeling distressingly long and fluffy.  It wasn’t long.  Except in comparison to a Great Dane’s.  In comparison to Darius’.

And whenever she looked in a mirror now, her calico patches looked lopsided.  Sure, she’d always had more of the creamsicle orange on her left side, and a touch of pale ash gray on the right, but that had just been how she looked.  Normal. Now she knew what it had felt like to look in a mirror and see a different face.  Sometimes, she still expected to see her old face — his face — and was surprised to see her own.  Compared to Darius’ symmetrical brindling, her calico splotches felt all off kilter. She looked eerie and strange.

A few months ago, Mazel had simply been herself.  Now she was herself and Darius, and that meant she was always herself in comparison — in comparison to who she had been before and who she should have been now if Darius hadn’t chosen her to receive his Rheun chip.  A gift.  An amazing gift.  But not one she had asked for, and not one she knew how to handle.

The command deck of Nexus Nine Base was built in concentric rings with the inner rings higher than the outer ones.  Between each level, control consoles faced inward, and little stairways, only a couple of steps each, bridged the path upward and inward.  The difference in height between the innermost circle — where Captain Bataille was stationed — and the outermost ring where Mazel Rheun stood watching was only about one tall dog’s height, but it created a weird psychological effect, placing the captain on a pedestal.  Mazel’s feline muzzle quirked into an amused smile.  Shep would lovethat, she thought sarcastically.

Taking a deep breath, Mazel approached her old friend and new captain.  The large German Shepherd was focused on one of the central consoles and didn’t see her approaching.  She cleared her throat and said, “So, Reptassan architecture. That’s what brings you out to this corner of the galaxy, right?”

Shep Bataille snorted and straightened up.  Damn, he was tall now.  Mazel stood as tall as she could herself, triangular ears pointed forward and paws clasped together firmly behind her back, trying not to shake as Shep eyed her.

“You’re one of the new science officers assigned here,” Bataille woofed. “Kind of a snarky first introduction to your superior officer, don’t you think?”

Mazel blinked and said with the sweetest, most innocent voice she could manage, “Don’t you recognize me?  Your old friend, Rheun?  I mean, I’m not a captain anymore since last we met… but…”  She trailed off, unable to keep up the ploy while continuing to speak.  Suddenly, the bright light beaming down from the ceiling felt very hot on her fluffy fur. She smiled coyly in a way that her new feline face could; as Darius, she could never have smiled so mysteriously, so knowingly.  Jokes had always showed plainly on his canine face.

Bataille stared blankly for a few moments and then sputtered, choking out the words, “Darius???  Big Dog? Oh my heavens, it’s good to see you!”

Mazel laughed, and some of the heat gathering in her fur dissipated.  She’d never expected Shep to call her ‘Big Dog’ again.  It felt good.  Better than she could have imagined.  Suddenly, she felt like herself again, even if her body was different in every way than the Rheun parts of her expected and her memories were longer and more complex than Mazel had been alive for.

Shep stepped closer, arms wide and head tilted to the side just enough to show he was asking if he could hug her.  Mazel couldn’t bring herself to raise her arms and reach out too, but she looked down, almost shyly, and nodded.  Big canine arms wrapped around her, and even though the hug was all wrong — she was too low and too slight, and his arms wrapped all the way around her far too easily — it was also perfectly right, because it was Shep, her best friend, and he was exactly the same.  And he had immediately accepted her.

When Shep stood back to look at her, his face broke into an easy-going, wolfy grin.  He shook his head.  “I should have known you’d show up here.  You always were fascinated by the nexus passageways.”

Mazel smiled again, this time wishing her face were better at naive innocence and less suited to mystery.  Darius had never explained the connection between his Rheun chip and the nexus passageways to Shep Bataille or any other dog.  He’d been a dog himself, and he knew how it would affect them, how it would make them weird around him.  He hadn’t wanted that.  And he’d had an excellent poker face.

Fortunately, Captain Bataille didn’t know Lieutenant Mazel Rheun well enough yet to see that she was hiding something behind her smile.  “Yes,” she said.  “The nexus passages are fascinating, and I guess I’ve picked up a few new… I mean, held on to a few old…”  Her ears splayed, nonplussed by her own internal disagreement about who she was — Mazel, a fresh young feline officer, or Rheun, an ancient neural chip passed down from one lifeform to the next over centuries of lifetimes.  Finally, she settled for saying, “Studying nexus passageways is still one of my hobbies.  Passions.”

Shep’s head was tilted again, watching her.  “It’s been a bit of a rough transition for you, hasn’t it?”

Mazel straightened her ears and narrowed her eyes.  The young cat in her didn’t like Captain Bataille’s unearned familiarity, and the old dog in her didn’t like seeming weak in front of his friend Shep. But she wasn’t a young cat or an old dog.  She was both. Shep Bataille had earned the familiarity he was showing through years — decades, really — of friendship, and she was weak.  She was a young lieutenant, confused by the process of integrating her two selves, and she should be grateful for her captain and friend showing compassion. “Yes.  It’s been rough.  I…”

Mazel felt a wall she’d built up around her heart, to protect herself over the last few months, begin cracking.  She’d lost all of her old life — both of her old lives, really.  Mazel’s family didn’t understand how much she’d changed. And… she’d never even been to see Darius’ family.  She couldn’t face meeting with Jebastion.  Who was she to him now?  She was no longer his father.

In a rush she said, “I barely know who I am sometimes.”

Captain Bataille nodded seriously, slowly, ponderously.

And Mazel had time to doubt her choice to speak so openly and honestly about her weakness with a superior officer.  And some of the wall around her heart sealed back up.

“But it doesn’t get in the way of my work.  That’s the one thing,” she said, defending herself, “that’s remained constant.  I was a scientist before, and I’m a scientist now.  Darius wouldn’t have chosen me to inherit the Rheun chip if we weren’t fundamentally compatible.”  The words sounded better than they felt.  It was a good story.  She wasn’t sure how much she believed it.  She didn’t know why Darius Rheun had chosen her.  They’d barely known each other.  Before.  She knew him intimately now.  Now that he was dead.  But the logic of his choice still evaded her.

Shep waved a paw dismissively.  “I know, I know,” he said.  “Don’t worry.  I wasn’t going to relieve you of duty or refer you to the psych officer or anything. I know from your record as Mazel Tabbith — who I had been expecting — as well as your record as Darius Rheun that you’re an officer I can trust with my life.  That’s the kind of officer I’ll need in this wreck of a Reptassan space station.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Mazel said.

Now Captain Bataille drew a deep breath.  His triangular ears flicked, and his gaze darted around the strangely shaped, overly hierarchical room.  Canine, feline, and avian officers worked busily at about half of the stations; the other half of the stations were unmanned, display screens cracked or simply flickering.  The elevator on the outer ring that led down to the next deck below command had appeared and disappeared, always empty, several times while they’d been talking. It was clearly malfunctioning.

“As you can see,” Bataille said, “the Reptassans didn’t leave their space station in good condition when they evacuated.”

“You mean when we kicked their scaly asses out,” squawked a nearby bird.  Her feathers were blue and shimmery with touches of red and purple at her throat and wingtips.  Her tailfeathers fanned out in an array of autumnal hues.  She’d been working at the first officer’s station, and she was beautiful in a way that made Mazel’s feline heart skip a beat.

Mazel wasn’t used to working around birds, even in her previous lives.  For several lifetimes now, she’d been an officer of the Tri-Galactic Navy, the space fleet of the Tri-Galactic Union, and most of her fellow officers had been other cats and dogs.

The Tri-Galactic Union had been originally founded by the uplifted dogs and cats of Earth, and while other species they’d encountered in the three galaxies had joined the union, none of the most prominent races were avian.  So far.

The Aviorans of the planet Avia, the world that the Nexus Nine Base orbited, had opened a petition to join the Tri-Galactic Union.  That was why Captain Bataille was here; he was meant to shepherd their leaders through the complicated process.  An appropriate role for a German Shepherd like him — he had always been a natural leader with a keen eye for the critical path to follow and a way of gently guiding others towards their own goals.Mazel felt a sense of safety and security, knowing he would be her captain for the coming time. Maybe she could finally figure out who she was — not just the recent confusion of becoming Mazel Rheun, but perhaps she would finally uncover the origin of her Rheun-self, a quest that had consumed her since before the young cat could remember. 

Author Bio

Mary E. Lowd is a science-fiction and furry writer in Oregon.  She’s had more than 130 short stories published, and her novels include Nexus Nine, In a Dog’s World, the Otters In Space trilogy, and The Snake’s Song: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel. 

Her work has won an Ursa Major Award, two Leo Literary Awards, and two Cóyotl Awards.  She edited FurPlanet’s ROAR anthology series for five years, and she is now the editor and founder of the furry e-zine Zooscape. 

She lives in a crashed spaceship, disguised as a house and hidden behind a rose garden, with an extensive menagerie of animals, some real and some imaginary.


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