Otters In Space 4 – Chapter 2: Sequoia

by Mary E. Lowd

An excerpt from Otters In Space 4: First Moustronaut.  If you’d prefer, you can start with Chapter 1 or skip ahead.

“Sequoia had been thinking about moving from Earth up to one of the otter space stations for some time, to be closer to the stars.”

Sequoia collected stars like other squirrels collected acorns.  Not really.  Because squirrels didn’t collect acorns anymore, except for kits on the playground.  And no matter how much Sequoia wanted to gather all the stars in the sky — all the red giants and blue dwarfs; all the pretty yellow and orange ones — up into a pile and bury them deep inside a black hole where they would be hers, all hers and only hers forever and forever, you just can’t do that with stars.

But the red squirrel still collected them.  She found them, deep in the dark patches of the sky, seeking them out with her telescope, and then she catalogued them, numbering and naming them.  She kept them in lists and charts and spreadsheets.  She knew them all by heart.

Sequoia mapped out the cosmos.  She would be the ideal navigator for an interstellar spacecraft, and she knew it.  She hadn’t hesitated to accept the job when Kipper offered it to her.  It was the perfect job for her.  The job she’d been dreaming about her whole life, without even realizing it.

Sequoia had been thinking about moving from Earth up to one of the otter space stations for some time, to be closer to the stars.  So, she’d been living lightly, meaning it had been easy to sublet her treetop apartment, sell her thrift store furniture back to the thrift store at a minor loss, and pack up her few sentimental belongings to be stored at her sister’s branch house.

She left Treesylvania with nothing but a backpack slung over her shoulder, packed with a few changes of clothes and two laptop computers — one for star-mapping and one for Star Quest, her favorite video game.  Which she had written.  Because she was awesome and in her spare time, after cataloguing the cosmos, Sequoia programmed and maintained a massively multiplayer online game.  The accounts of players were anonymous, but she suspected, based on the locations they signed in from on Deep Sky Anchor and Kelp Frond Station, that most of the fans of her game were otters.

Sequoia expected to get along with her new team mates fine.  She would meet most of the team when she got to the Uplifted States.  Kipper and Trugger — after the lunch where they’d invited her to join the team — had suggested that she travel with them as a group from Europe to the Uplifted States, after they finished recruiting a few more crewmembers.  They’d be flying from New London, so Sequoia took the overnight maglev train and watched her hometown with its towering, tree-like buildings dwindle into the distance behind her, lost among the thick forests of actual trees.

No matter how small the city of Treesylvania looked from the train window — no matter how many forests or mountains; or how much of the Earth’s curvature hid it from her — she was still closer to her home than she’d ever been to the stars, even though that was where her heart lived, dancing among the constellations in deep space.  She would be there soon.  She couldn’t wait.

Sequoia slept on the train with her head leaned against the window.  When she awoke, the train was slowing, pulling into a station.  They’d arrived in New London, and when she stepped out of the train, Kipper and Trugger were waiting for her on the platform.  The gray tabby and river otter with his emerald green stripes each stood head and shoulders taller than Sequoia.  They held a large, rolling suitcase between them, probably large enough that a squirrel could fit inside, and the river otter had a bulky, squishy-looking, maroon-colored pack strapped to his long back.

They were also wearing their Uplifted States Space Administration uniforms.  Navy blue with silver trim, covered in pockets.  They looked sharp.  “When do I get a fancy uniform?” Sequoia asked.  The navy blue would look good against her fiery, red fur.

“Not until we get back to the States,” Kipper said.

As Sequoia approached the otter, she got a better look at his backpack.  The color shivered, shifting from deep maroon to pale pink, and then a touch of rainbow fluttered across it.  The squirrel stopped in her tracks, staring at it.  “What is going on with that backpack?”

“Oh, this?” Trugger said.  “He’s sleeping.”

“Who’s… what?”  Sequoia stared a little longer and realized that the backpack wasn’t changing colors at all.  It was transparent.  There was something coiled up inside of it.  Something with twists and curves and lots of little round discs.  Something moving with a gentle in and out rhythm.  Something… breathing.

“That’s Obsidian,” Kipper explained.  “He’s joining us from the octopus city of Polychromia in the Mediterranean Sea.  He’s a renowned expert in linguistics and should prove invaluable if we encounter any alien species in our travels.”

Sequoia blinked, and her tufted red ears twitched.  “Aliens?  And… do octopuses even speak?”  Now that she knew what she was looking at inside the backpack, she could make sense of the coiled-up tentacles with their sucker discs.

“Their language is based on color and movement,” Kipper said.

Trugger added dreamily, “Rainbows and dancing…”

Kipper continued:  “But some of them — including Obsidian and any other octopi who interact with otters regularly — also use a simplified sign language that’s a variant of Swimmer’s Sign.  And in Obsidian’s case, he has an unusual sensitivity to vibrations, so he can pick up on spoken languages as well.  Albeit with limitations.  He’s been working on developing a computer translation technology that will make it easier for octopi who aren’t sensitive enough to vibrations to understand spoken languages to communicate with the rest of us, regardless of whether we know sign language.  We’re very lucky to have him on the team.  Now, about the uniform, yours — like Obsidian’s and the mice’s — will have to be custom sewn for you once we get to the Uplifted States.”

Sequoia had trouble picturing one of the Uplifted States Space Administration uniforms in an octopus shape…  She supposed she’d have to wait and see what that looked like.

“Come on,” Kipper said, beginning to pull the giant wheeled suitcase away from the train which still had passengers streaming out of it.  The tabby cat led them through the crowd of squirrels and otters on the platform, heading toward the exit to New London’s streets.  “We have four more team members to pick up before heading to the airport.  It won’t be a long walk.”

There were train stations all over New London, and Sequoia had got off the train at the station closest to Mousfordshire.  She followed the tabby cat and river otter along the New London streets, marveling as she always did when in New London at how different the city — built within the ruins of an ancient human city — was from Treesylvania, which had been constructed entirely by squirrels, for squirrels, well after the Dark Times when humans had disappeared from the Earth.

Treesylvania had been carved freshly out of the forests around Transylvania, and all the buildings were designed to look and feel tree-like.  Perfectly and specifically designed for squirrels.  Here, in New London, many of the buildings had been adapted from the towering monuments to humanity that still remained.  Giant, cavernous, stone monstrosities, far too large for the otters who now lived in them.  So, the buildings had been bisected, and smaller, more practical buildings had been built inside of and around them.  It was a city on two scales:  human and otter.

Dizzyingly, the scale changed to include a third default size, as they entered the tiny, footpath-like streets of Mousfordshire.  The two-story mouse buildings stood twice as tall as the tips of Sequoia’s tufted ears.  One-story buildings were shorter than her.  She felt like she was walking through a toy store display room filled with giant doll houses.

Above the whole city rose the giant clock tower, Big Ben, which the mice had, miraculously, kept running all these years, keeping perfect time.  And bordering the eastern side of Mousfordshire ran the Thames, a perfect, glittering blue river, wider than the mouse city itself, and filled with bobbing boats, some staked to the shoreline and others floating along.  Many of the boats had kiosks on them, and otters wearing fast-dry clothes swam up to the kiosks to buy food or do other business.  It was a city of its own sort, flowing along with the river.

Kipper and Trugger came to an apartment building — nearly three times Sequoia’s height — with tiny balconies under all the windows.  The tabby leaned down and — with a carefully extended claw — delicately pressed a tiny buzzer beside the front door.  A few moments later, a mouse emerged.  Three more mice followed after her, and introductions were made all around.  Except for Obsidian, who was still sleeping on Trugger’s back, and the mice didn’t seem to notice him.

The first mouse, Yvette, had gray fur, much the same color as Kipper’s stripes.  The next one had an apricot tinge to her fur and was called Josie.  Wendell had tiny white splotches patching his brown fur, and Mulberry was colored like a Siamese cat — dark muzzle and ears, white fur otherwise.  They all had dark, bright eyes, and twitchy noses graced with whiskers so thin and fine that Sequoia could barely see them.

Kipper and Trugger opened the giant rolling suitcase they’d been dragging around New London, and inside, it was decked out like a small dormitory — two simple bunk beds, just the size for mice, and it was wired up with an internal light.  Sequoia almost laughed at the sight.  Here was the dollhouse she’d kept picturing the Mousfordshire houses to be.

As Kipper helped the mice by loading their own miniscule suitcases inside the giant one, she looked like a giant kitten playing with her dolls.  It was such a disrespectful way for Sequoia to see her new colleagues that she clapped her paws against her muzzle, afraid she’d say something that would betray her thoughts.

Sequoia wondered how hard it would be for the mice to get by when they got to the Uplifted States.  It couldn’t be easy to be that small in a world designed by and for dogs and cats.  Mostly dogs, from what Sequoia understood.  She found herself feeling almost smug about her own size.  Sure, she was smaller than Kipper and Trugger, but she’d be big enough to get around on her own.  Besides, squirrels are built for climbing.  If something was out of reach, she could probably find a way to scamper up to any high cupboards.

The feeling faded the further that the group travelled.  Walking through New London, Sequoia felt perfectly comfortable.  The otters they passed who lived there treated her no differently than she’d ever been treated.  But after they’d taken a car from the edge of Mousfordshire to the airport, they started encountering more and more tourists, mostly dogs.  And Sequoia felt them watching her.  Dogs turned their heads as she walked by.  Dogs stared at her, long after they should have.  They paid more attention to her than Trugger’s color-changing backpack, stuffed full of tentacles.

As they sat in the terminal, waiting to board their transatlantic flight, Sequoia fidgeted with the jacket and blouse she was wearing, wondering if they were too flashy somehow.  There were constellations sewn into the fabric of the jacket, made from tiny crystal buttons, and they sparkled prettily in the light.  But then, she flicked her tail, nervously, and a dog sitting across the way got up.  She was a medium-sized, brown-furred dog.  Sequoia didn’t know dog breeds well enough to be sure of more than that.

The dog came straight towards Sequoia, paws folded together in front of her, and said, “I just think you should know that you have the prettiest fluffy red tail.  It looks like fire!”

“Uh… thanks,” Sequoia said, reflexively folding her tail around herself, making it less visible.

“Oh, don’t do that!” the dog said.  Standing so close, she seemed very large.  “Your tail’s so beautiful, don’t ever hide it.”

“Excuse me,” Kipper said, getting up and placing herself between the dog and the squirrel.  “But my team and I need to discuss some important business before boarding the plane.”

“We do?” Sequoia asked, only catching onto what was happening a moment after the words escaped her muzzle.

“Yes, we do,” Kipper said, firmly.  To the dog, she added, “Could you give us some privacy?  Thank you so much.”

The dog went away, muttering something about rude cats and ungrateful squirrels.

Kipper ran her paws down the front of her navy tunic.  “Holy haddock, I love this uniform.  Dogs never listened to me that easily when I wore street clothes.”

“That was easy?” Sequoia asked.  Her tail — which apparently was beautiful and looked like fire, enough so to be worth remarking on it — was still wrapped tightly around herself, held unnaturally still.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Kipper said, sitting back down beside Sequoia.  “I’m afraid you may see a lot of that in the Uplifted States.”

Sequoia looked around the terminal and realized that somewhere between New London’s streets and here, the balance had changed so thoroughly that the only otters left seemed to be wearing airline uniforms.  Everyone else was dogs.  All different sizes and shapes of dogs.  Floppy eared, pointy eared; shaggy furred, sheer furred; hulking huge, small as a cat.  But even the smallest were bigger than Sequoia.  She wasn’t large for a squirrel, but she was very small surrounded by dogs.

When the airplane was ready, and they filed onto it, single file, she started to realize just how much smaller she was.  The dogs in front of and behind her loomed over her.  When she got to her seat and tried to load her backpack into the overhead bin, a dog stopped her from climbing up on her seat to reach.  He helped, by taking the backpack from her paws and lifting it out of her reach, without even asking if that was okay.

As Sequoia watched Kipper and Trugger secure their giant suitcase into one of the seats, she began to envy the mice their tiny refuge inside, all done up like a dormitory.  They didn’t have to deal with the dogs out here at all.  Staring at her, whispering about her, and now that she thought about it, asking her repeatedly if she had her boarding pass, knew where she was going, needed any help, was in the right place…  It was almost like they’d just been coming up with excuses to come talk to her ever since she’d entered the airport.  Sequoia hadn’t noticed until now, but they hadn’t been doing that to Kipper nearly as much.  Or Trugger at all.

Sequoia closed her eyes and curled up in the airplane seat that was too large for her to sit on with her feet on the floor.  She kept her eyes closed as the airplane took off, imagining that it was a spaceship, and they weren’t just flying into the sky but beyond it.

Sequoia wasn’t sure she wanted to go to the Uplifted States.  But she was ready to head straight out to the stars.

Then she heard Kipper whisper something to Trugger that turned her heart cold.  The cat, sitting in the seat beside her, probably thought Sequoia was asleep; her eyes had been closed for a long time.

“Let’s get home and get this mission in the air before the new president can cancel our funding.”

The stars had never felt farther away.

Continue on to Chapter 3

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