Otters In Space 4 – Chapter 1: Yvette

by Mary E. Lowd

An excerpt from Otters In Space 4: First Moustronaut.  If you’d prefer to read in e-book or paperback form, learn more here.  Or if you want, jump back to book one or return to the end of book three.

“Yvette had never won first place at a competition — second sometimes, third often. Never first.”

The mouse whirled through the air, paws hitting the gym mat in rhythm as she flipped:  front paws, back paws, front paws.  Head over tail.  Her long tail streamed behind her, making fancy curlicues in the wake of her carefully practiced routine.  Finally, Yvette pirouetted up to the high bar, spun around it and launched even higher into the air — nearly flying.

When she came down, the mouse landed — perfectly — in the center of the mat, all four paws on the ground.  She drew a deep breath, and then rose up, standing just long enough to smile at the crowd, before taking her bow.

Yvette always felt a little lost, almost dizzy, in the moments after she finished a routine in front of a crowd.  While she was flipping, she knew exactly what to do.  The movements were measured, precise, practiced.  Afterwards, her hind paws betrayed her, stumbling, as the weight of the audience’s expectations fell on her shoulders.  The roar of their applause crashed over her like a wave, and she tried to enjoy the moment. The dizzy, overwhelming moment.  She bowed again, trying not to worry yet about her score.

Yvette had never won first place at a competition — second sometimes, third often.  Never first.  And she didn’t want to jinx her chances by caring… too much.  Or at all.  She scurried off the mat, dusting the white chalk off her paws that made the bars easier to grip.  It left smears on her bright red leotard, and her gray fur would be full of it later; it always was.  Practice every day; get your fur full of chalk every day.

When Yvette reached the sidelines, her mother and then her trainer hugged her, each in turn.

“You did great,” her mother said.

Her trainer nodded, meaning Yvette had done well.  But then she started twisting up her tail in knots, meaning maybe Yvette hadn’t done well enough.

Yvette turned away from the scoreboard where the judges’ scores would soon appear in harsh red lights.  She looked at the crowd of mice in the bleachers instead.  They looked happy, excited.  They’d watched her perform, and her performance had made them happy.  Maybe that was enough.  That was why she did this — not the score.

At the far side of the bleachers filled with mice, crouching down to fit inside the auditorium, were two unusual members of the crowd — a gray striped tabby cat and a river otter with green zebra stripes dyed into his brown fur, both of them wearing navy-blue uniforms.  They were giants compared to everyone else.  Yvette couldn’t possibly have missed them in the crowd before.  They must have come in during her performance.

What were a cat and otter doing in Mousfordshire?  And even more bizarrely, watching a gymnastics meet?

The murmuring in the crowd turned sour, and Yvette lost interest in the strange visitors.  She knew what the change in the crowd’s voices meant.  Instead of looking up at the scoreboard, she turned to her mother, and her mother simply shook her head.

Yvette nodded.  She hadn’t expected to win.  She didn’t mind.  Really.  Except, her stomach felt like it had fallen inside of itself.  She had to keep smiling, whiskers turned up, for the audience.  Brave and graceful.  Always graceful, whether flipping through the air — which she enjoyed — or facing dismal scores.  Which she did not.

Yvette didn’t like losing, but then who did?

“Next time,” her trainer said with a falsely cheerful smile.  The smile didn’t reach all the way to her whiskers.

“Let’s get out of here,” her mother said.

Yvette nodded, relieved at the idea.  She didn’t want to stay around and watch the rest of the performances.  “I could use a basket of greasy corn fries and a very cold blackberry juice.”  As cold as her heart felt.

“Go get ready, and I’ll meet you outside.”

“I’ll see you at practice on Monday?” her trainer asked.

Yvette nodded, but she wasn’t sure.  She couldn’t face the idea of a ‘next time’ right now.  Or maybe at all.  Eventually, it would be time to give gymnastics up and get serious about using her moldering engineering degree.  Design some bridges or high-rise buildings.  Something real and solid that would last, instead of dissipating into so many videos on the internet — ephemeral moments that passed into memories as fast as the enormous clock Mousfordshire was built around could tick off the seconds in a day.

Yvette made her way to the locker rooms, changed out of her leotard into street clothes, and then disappeared into the crowds on her way out.  Just another mouse.  No longer an athlete.  Anonymous.  Or so she thought, until a very large foot stepped in front of her on the street outside.

A cat’s paw.

Otters weren’t an unusual sight around Mousfordshire. If one day, Yvette designed a building that actually got built, a team of otters would likely do most of the actual construction. They were giants among mice. Hiring a couple otters to come into town and construct a building was simply more efficient than having the mice who lived there do it.

Cats on the other hand were rare, most of them lived across the pond in the Uplifted States.  Yvette had never seen one in person before.  And now one was standing, pointedly, in her way.

“What do you want?” Yvette squeaked up at the cat who was easily more than four times her height. “Don’t most of you cats stick to the Uplifted States?  So, what’re you doing here, blocking my way?”

The cat’s face, staring down at her, made Yvette’s skin crawl and her fur ruffle.  Those feline eyes, green and glinting, looked at the mouse too possessively.  And her teeth looked very large and sharp.  Yvette shuffled her hind paws in a restless, nervous dance. She’d never felt so aware of her own size before, and she didn’t like it.

The cat said in a purring voice, “My name is Kipper Brighton, and I have a proposition for you.”

“Wait…”  Suddenly, Yvette recognized the tabby cat.  She’d seen her after all.  This tabby was all over the news last year.  “You’re that space cat.  The hero of Europa.”

“That’s right,” Kipper purred.  “I’m in charge of the new Uplifted States space program.  And we’re looking for mouse recruits.”

Other mice scurried along the streets, walking around the giant cat who was too large to enter most of the buildings around her.  Plenty of other mice.  “Why me?” Yvette asked.  “You want a gymnast with a side degree in engineering?”  She almost laughed, but the cat replied:

“Yes, that’s exactly what I want.”

Yvette noticed the otter who’d been with Kipper before, the one with brightly dyed fur, just around the corner of the sports complex building.  His long spine was bent forward, so he could lean down.  He was talking to a mouse — oh, he had found Yvette’s mother.  That was good, she supposed.  If Kipper’s otter associate was talking to her, then at least Yvette’s mother wasn’t worried about why she was taking so long.

“I have a life and commitments here,” Yvette said. “I imagine your space program would involve moving to the Uplifted States.”  Nothing Yvette had ever heard about the Uplifted States had made it sound like a good place for a mouse.  From what she’d heard, in fact, it wasn’t even a great place for cats.  Dogs ruled the roost there.

“At first, yes,” Kipper admitted. The way her eyes flitted away, not even looking at Yvette as she said ‘yes’ suggested she knew exactly how unpleasant life in the Uplifted States could be.  “But in a matter of months, we expect to begin trial flights.  So, actually, it would involve moving to… space.”

Yvette knew there were some nice mouse villages on the various otter space stations.  Even so, this whole conversation felt like a dream.  Minutes ago, she’d been performing a routine that she’d been practicing for months.  Every move memorized. Right down to the sad but graceful smile she’d rehearsed for when she didn’t win.

Now everything was off the rails.  No script here to lean on.  She didn’t know what to say at all.  And yet…

Yvette found herself remembering a year ago, when she’d placed third at the same competition. A respectable placement. The honor had even come with a shiny, bronze medallion on a bright, red ribbon. She’d hung it on her wall with the one from the year before, and the year before that, all won while she’d still been finishing her engineering degree.  Then she’d spent two days in bed, feeling bad about herself.  Even worse because — she told herself — she had no right to feel sad in the first place.  She’d placed third.  She should be grateful to have done so well.  Most gymnasts didn’t win a medal at all.

No, wait…  That had been two years ago.  Last year, she’d shaped up and done better.  The third-place medal had rolled off her like water on an otter.

Although, she recalled that she had still spent two days in bed moping. She’d simply blamed it on her model bridge breaking. The model had been her thesis project, and she had genuinely put many hours of work into it. Still…

The days she’d spent in bed moping correlated awfully closely with the days that she’d competed and her grasp had fallen just short of her dream.

Yvette didn’t want to waste two days moping.  And she didn’t want to get back to practicing with her trainer.  Maybe a trip to space was exactly what she needed.  An escape.  An entirely new life.  “Okay, I’m curious.  Is there somewhere we can go, so you can tell me more about it?”

None of the restaurants Yvette was familiar with catered to… giants.  She supposed there might be a cafe somewhere with outdoor seating, but when she glanced up to check, the sky was gray.  Classic, drizzly New London weather all around the Big Ben clocktower.

All of the mouse buildings that had been constructed inside the ruins of the Palace of Westminster, attached to Big Ben, would be too small for Kipper and her otter friend.  Still, there had to be somewhere out here that catered to the otters who came into town to do work.  Although, she supposed, otters might not mind eating in the rain as much as mice did.  Or probably cats.

“Look, I’ve never been to Mousfordshire before,” Kipper said.  “But my associate, Trugger–”  She gestured with a gray paw at the green-striped otter.  “He has been.”

“Alright,” Yvette said, stepping away from the cat and heading towards her mother and the otter.

Trugger was every bit as large as Kipper, but somehow, his lively presence felt less threatening.  He seemed more likely to cause damage accidentally — say by stepping carelessly and swinging his rudder tail into a building — than to psychopathically snap and start eating mice.

Yvette knew that uplifted cats didn’t eat uplifted mice.  Maybe she’d just seen too many nature videos about the feral animals that still existed in the world — lions, cheetahs, tigers.  Big cats.  And to Yvette, Kipper really did look big.  She wouldn’t actually fit inside the cat’s mouth in one bite… but close.

“Hey, Trugger,” Kipper said.  She was still standing half a block away from him.  A mouse-sized block.  For a cat and otter, that seemed to be a comfortable, conversational distance.  “What was that restaurant you wanted to go to?”

“Fish-Man Jack’s!” Trugger exclaimed, clapping his paws and hopping dangerously up and down.  All of the mice near him scurried to a safer distance.

“Wait,” Yvette squeaked, loudly to make sure the otter could hear her.  “Didn’t that place close down a couple years ago?”  And from what she could remember, it was an otter-run joint on the fringe of Mousfordshire, at least half an hour’s walk away.  And it wasn’t like Trugger and Kipper would fit in a cab with Yvette and her mother…

“It’s also a little far from here,” Yvette’s mother said, looking worried.  Her thinking had clearly run parallel to Yvette’s.

“Oh, don’t worry about that, Vonda,” Trugger said, chummily, as if he’d been best friends with Yvette’s mother for years.  “You can ride on my shoulder and keep telling me about all the different fancy leotards you sewed for Yvie’s competitions when she was little.  Well… even littler!”

Vonda chortled, and Yvette realized that this otter — who might soon be her colleague, if she took this new job offer — was going to know all about her ninja, princess, and space warrior phases as a child.  Her mother loved talking about those costumes.

Also, why did she already have a nickname?  Even her mother didn’t call her “Yvie.”

Yvette looked up at Kipper and caught a gleam of sympathy in the tabby cat’s eye.  “He’ll drop the nickname if you ask,” Kipper said.  “He used to call me Kipster.”  Her ears skewed, and her eyes rolled.  “Look, if you’re okay with it, I can give you a ride too.”

Vonda was already sitting happily on Trugger’s shoulder, so Yvette shrugged.  She might as well ride on a cat’s shoulder to a closed down otter restaurant.  This was turning out to be the strangest day.

Kipper knelt down, and Yvette climbed onto her shoulder.  She clung tightly to the collar of the cat’s uniform.  At first she was nervous, watching the city glide by from such an awkward in-between height — high enough to hurt if she fell, but still lower than the roofs of the multi-story buildings they passed by.  But as she settled into the rhythm of the cat’s pace, she began to see how convenient it might be to be a giant.

When they got to the edge of Mousfordshire, there was no wall or sign.  Nothing that explicitly demarked the difference between the mouse town and the otter outskirts.  But the change was obvious.  Buildings were five times as tall; the streets widened drastically.  When Yvette was younger — a college mouse — she’d loved venturing out to the outskirts with her friends late at night.  Avoiding studying.  Escaping the pressure of exams.  It had felt adventurous.  And there were more than a few otter restaurants that catered specifically to adventure-seeking college mice like she’d been.

That’s how she knew Fish-Man Jack’s had closed down.  A group of her college buddies, after graduation, had tried to go there.  But the greasy diner was no more.

Sure enough, when they arrived at the building with blue fish painted all over its walls and a roof shaped like a spouting whale, Fish-Man Jack’s was gone.  Closed down two years ago, just like Yvette had thought.  But the restaurant that had taken its place had a really boring name:  Sushi Central.  So, Yvette could kind of sympathize with Trugger stubbornly continuing to call it Fish-Man Jack’s.  She might do the same.

Sushi Central was quiet inside, except for a few otter regulars.  Kipper and Trugger were invited to take stools at a counter with an elevated conveyer belt that ran down the middle.  Sushi morsels on fish-shaped plates streamed by on the conveyer.  A sea otter wearing an apron — also decorated with fish — brought over a tiny table and pair of chairs.  Well, they looked tiny in his paws, but usually Yvette would think of them as normal-sized.  He set them up on top of the counter, so Yvette and Vonda could sit comfortably beside Kipper and Trugger.

The apron-clad otter daintily unfolded a cloth napkin and laid it over Yvette and Vonda’s tiny table.  A perfect table cloth for them.

“Would you like to order anything?” he asked.

Yvette glanced nervously at the sushi streaming by.  Slabs of raw fish, glistening pink and yellow on giant balls of sticky rice, didn’t strike her as a particularly appealing meal.  But she didn’t know what else a place like this offered.

“We’re good,” Trugger said, dismissing the waiter.  Once he was gone, the river otter busied himself grabbing table-sized fish-shaped plates from the conveyer.  “If I may, I’d like to suggest a few things.”  He unwrapped a pair of spear-sized chopsticks and stabbed a spherical confection right through the middle.  “This is a sesame ball with red bean paste inside.”  He waved it around on his chopstick.  Yvette marveled at the fact that it didn’t go flying off.

Vonda was less skeptical, less worried, and apparently much more in the mood for a random adventure with an unpredictable otter leading their way.  “Looks lovely!” she declared.

“Excellent.”  Trugger pulled a sword-sized pocket knife out of one of the pockets in his uniform and sliced off an edge of the sesame ball.  The golden, sesame-encrusted pastry was indeed filled with a red paste.  He placed it inside a small, flat bowl, probably meant for dipping condiments, and then carefully placed the bowl on their little table.  It made a perfect platter.

Next Trugger supplied them with a condiment bowl’s worth of seaweed salad and another one filled with sticky rice topped with mango.  Each entree he served them came apportioned from the much larger versions he kept for himself.

While Trugger served the mice, Kipper kept her gleaming eyes focused on the conveyer, and every time a pink slip of salmon sashimi or nigiri came gliding by, she reached out with snatching paws.  The civilized, uplifted version of a cat pouncing on prey.

Yvette had never really been a mouse who dreamed of leaving her world.  Sure, she’d had a space warrior phase as a pup, but who hadn’t?  Her mother had made a shiny, silver spandex leotard for her, and she’d worn a plastic bubble helmet that had thrown off her balance during flips.

But her dreams of space back then had been filled with other mice.  The vast, unmeasurable reaches of space… on her scale.  Mice battling mice with glowing laser swords.  Mice flying mouse-sized spaceships.

Actual outer space had been mostly populated by otters, since humanity disappeared from Earth during the Dark Times.  And she’d never dreamed about living somewhere that the doors were too large to open and the tabletops too high to reach.  She didn’t want to live among giants, in a world built for them.

That sounded more like a nightmare than a dream.

“Okay,” she said.  “Let’s cut to the…”  Yvette stumbled over her own choice of words as she was struck with a far too literal visualization of them.  “…um, chase.  Why me?  Why a mouse?”

Kipper ate several of the glistening slabs of salmon, leaving the balls of sticky rice from the pieces of nigiri behind.  Trugger sniped them from her plate, squished them together into a giant ball of rice, and stuffed his muzzle full, as if someone had dared him to fit as much rice in his mouth as he could.  But no one had.

Kipper stared at the conveyer for a while, her eyes following each plate with salmon like she might pounce again.  Instead, she sighed deeply and said, “There’s a limit to what I can tell you, legally, before you sign on to the project.  I assume you followed the news about the ancient octopus base recovered on Europa?”

A safe bet, since that was how Yvette recognized Kipper.  Still, the mouse nodded in confirmation.

Kipper continued:  “What I can say is that… schematics… for some very… powerful… technologies were recovered from that base.  And we’re working to implement those technologies as fast as we can, and also to adapt them for use by, well, a non-octopus crew.”

“Although, we do have two octopuses in our crew!” Trugger interjected, cheerfully, still chewing on his giant wad of sticky rice.

Kipper’s ears flattened.  “Technically, we have one octopus who we’ve reached out to but hasn’t agreed to join the crew yet, and another who would like to… but has been struggling against the more bureaucratic parts of the Uplifted States government to get the necessary clearances.”

“Right,” Trugger agreed.  “Two.”

“Are any other mice signed on?” Vonda addressed the question to Trugger.  Yvette’s mother seemed kind of smitten with the cheerful, zany giant.

“Uh, not yet,” Kipper admitted, reluctantly.

Trugger announced, perhaps a little too forthrightly:  “The consensus from the engineers and tech experts we’ve approached so far seems to be that our mission goals are a fool’s errand and that only a mouse who was a fool would sign on to a project run by a cat and otter within a dog majority society.  So, fools all around.  But being foolish is fun, and you should show them all who the real fool is!”

“Me?” Yvette asked.

“Exactly!” Trugger agreed.  “At least, that’s what we’re hoping.”  He winked at her, as if they were in on the same joke, instead of him just agreeing that she’d be a fool to join their project.

Kipper shook her head.  “Our goals are… ambitious, but whether we achieve them or not is secondary to the progress that can be made by striving for them.”

“What are your goals?”  Yvette picked at the sticky rice in front of her.  The slightly sweet and sour taste was very pleasant.  “Space exploration?  Founding new space stations for the Uplifted States?”  There were quite a few otter space stations in the solar system already, but dogs and cats had mostly kept their paws on Earth.  Like mice.

Kipper and Trugger exchanged a glance that said they knew their next words were going to sound silly, and they each wanted the other one to actually say them.  Finally Kipper folded and said, “We’re going to find the missing humans.”

“Humans,” Yvette repeated.  Her mother just laughed.  “They died out… ages ago.  During the Dark Times, from a plague.  I mean, everyone knows that.  Except, I guess, for some fringe dog religions…”

Kipper’s slanted ears and down-turned whiskers spoke volumes.

“Oh, right, it’s not a fringe religion in the Uplifted States.”  Yvette suddenly felt self-conscious and awkward.  Was she dealing with true believers here?  She’d never met anyone who thought of humans as gods instead of merely another species on Earth who had, thankfully, managed to uplift several other species before dying out in the great plague.  “I’m sorry — I didn’t mean to make fun of your beliefs.”

Kipper snorted.  “I’m not a First Racer.  But there is archeological evidence to support, at least, one specific aspect of First Racer beliefs:  humans left the Earth before the Dark Times.  And for all we know, they may still be out there.”

“So what?” Yvette asked.

At almost the same time, her mother blurted out, “Who cares!  It’s not like they’re gods, no matter what some star-struck dogs think.”

“We don’t think they’re gods,” Trugger said.  “But we do think that if they evolved on Earth before us, made it to the stars before us, and are still living out there — maybe they have some knowledge worth learning.”

“Have they terraformed new worlds?” Kipper asked.  “Developed better technologies?  Isn’t that worth knowing?”

Yvette didn’t know what to say.  The cat and otter made some reasonable points.  But she wasn’t sure that the mice they’d approached before her were wrong — this did sound like a fool’s errand.

“I suppose you’re financing the trip by telling a bunch of dogs that they’ll get to meet their gods?” Vonda asked drily.

Kipper shrugged.  “I’m not in charge of what any dogs think.  All I can do is relay the facts.  If they want to believe that our space mission will bring them face to face with their gods… well, I suppose it does help pay the bills.”

Vonda laughed again.  “Oh, you giants with your heads in the sky are always so silly.”

Yvette tilted her head and looked at her mother, trying to read what she really thought about the situation.  Sure, it was fun, as a joke, to eat sticky rice and mango with giants, while they told you silly stories about their plans to adventure through the stars.  But…  How would her mother take it if Yvette really went with them?  “This still doesn’t explain why you need mice.  Or, more particularly, a gymnast mouse.”

“The octopus technology that we’ve been adapting,” Kipper said, “is designed for people who can… squeeze through very small spaces.”

“Octopi are basically liquid,” Trugger said, helpfully but completely inaccurately.

“We’ve been able to scale up the empty spaces, the access spaces, around the engines we’re building… but not enough for cats or otters–”

“Or small dogs!” Trugger interjected.  “Or even squirrels!”

“–to fit comfortably inside them for maintenance purposes.  We need crew members who are… small and agile.”

“Gymnast mice,” Yvette said.

“Exactly.”  Trugger popped another extra giant sushi, composed of several normally giant sushi rolls smooshed together, into his mouth.

“However, since they’ll be maintaining a–”  Kipper cut herself off, seemingly stopping herself from revealing confidential information.  “–a highly technical engine, we need crew mice with proven, tested technical abilities.”

“Thus me,” Yvette said.  “I sit at the cross-section of gymnastics and engineering.  How did you find me?”

“We checked the names of all of the mice who’d placed in gymnastics meets in the last year, looking for any who also held degrees in engineering,” Trugger said.  “And that led us to you.  Just you.”

Silver and bronze medals might not have been the gleaming gold Yvette dreamed about, but they’d been glittery enough to catch the eye of giants.  That was something.  Quite something.

“We were actually hoping,” Kipper added, “that you could recommend some other mice who would be good for and interested in the job.  Three more would be perfect.  If you know anyone.  Since we’ll be living and working in close quarters aboard the spaceship, it’s not a bad idea for you to pick friends.”

Yvette could think of a few classmates who might be interested.  The thing was:  no matter how ridiculous this job might be, mice who could snag jobs working for otters — or cats, she supposed — were generally set for life afterwards.  The exchange rate between societies composed of mice and societies composed of giants — who needed much more material to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves on a daily basis — were generally extremely favorable.

Likely, the only reason Kipper had had trouble finding mice to work for her was that she’d been asking mice with established lives and careers.  Ones who didn’t need a sudden windfall.  Ones with something to lose.  If Yvette passed along this job offer to some of her friends who were having trouble paying off their college debt — hungry students instead of self-satisfied professors — well…  There’d be no problem.

And Yvette could be an astronaut with three chosen friends.

This was a deal too good to pass up.

“I’m in.”

Continue on to Chapter 2

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