by Oren Otter
It was a sunny day, and a light shower had been drizzling all morning, creating a cool mist which provided relief from the heat, and giving rise to a magnificent rainbow. Zarro had taken time off from his usual job of re-arranging the pots in the container garden, and was instead sitting at the top of the rocky outcrop overlooking the lagoon, simply admiring the brilliant colors of the rainbow. He knew it would disappear when the sun got too high, so it was best to enjoy it while it lasted. As the day progressed, the rainbow slowly sank below the hills to the west. Zarro made his way downward toward the falls. It would be fun to play a little and splash in the falls before going back to work.
As he walked along, he thought he felt something stirring below his paws. That notion was confirmed, and he jumped as three enormous shovel-like claws burst through the ground, narrowly missing his belly.
"Oh, please accept my apologies, Sir." said the owner of those claws as she emerged from the ground. It was an aquatic mole, known in their home dimension as a murmle.. Zarro had heard about these folks. They had been driven from their own dimension by zombies, and a dozen of them had settled here. The island seemed to approve of their presence, though Zarro was surprised to learn this. He was sure he wouldn't want aliens burrowing through HIS body. "Had I known you were above me, I would have exercised more caution." said the mole in a sweet, dulcet voice which belied her rough exterior.
"No harm done." replied Zarro. "But... I'm just curious... why are you tunneling so close to the falls? Surely the ground must be a muddy sludge."
"One would be inclined to so believe." said another voice, a melodious tenor belonging to a large male mole. "But take a look."
Zarro looked down into the tunnel which the two moles had dug. Instead of mud, he saw smooth, gleaming stone. "How..." he asked.
"Science and magic." replied the female. "There exists a chemical process which we use to harden the dirt of our tunnels so that they do not collapse. The island itself is smoothing out that stone."
"But why?" But as Zarro continued to look down into the hole, he got his answer. Water from the falls was pouring through the horrizontal tunnel down at the bottom. The moles had constructed an underground waterslide.
"It is an expedient method of getting from one location to another." said the male. "Would you like to give it a try?"
Zarro had to admit that he was tempted, if just for curiosity's sake. He also had to admit that it looked terrifying. To be zooming along six feet underground in complete darkness... He decided against it. That decision was overruled when the female mole, impatient, pushed him from behind.
"GreeeEEEEEEE!!!!!" screamed Zarro as the rushing water carried him along, putting in a full five excalation points. He might have put in six, but before he got to that last exclamation point, he began to relize that this was fun. The aquatic moles apparently knew what otter tastes were like, and so made the slides as much fun as they could. It swerved and dipped, corkscrewed and zig-zagged until he was certain that he had completely lost all sense of direction. Then, abruptly, Zarro splashed down into a long shallow pool.
"Hoohoo, that was fun!" said the otter as he waded to the side.
He was met by a large mole with a booming bass voice. "What are you doing here?" the mole demanded. "These slides aren't supposed to be in use, yet!"
"It wasn't my idea!" Zarro complained. "I was pushed!"
The big mole simply furrowed his brow and said "Efra."
A moment later, there was a second splash, and the female who had pushed Zarro was climbing out of the pool.
"Efra, why did you send this poor man down here?" demanded the big male. "You know that the slides aren't open yet."
"Call it a matter of conscience." Efra replied. "I had a moral obligation to help him overcome his hesitation."
"Speak in common tongue, you big show-off."
"I had to. He was chicken."
Zarro made a squeak of indignation and made to walk off. "Um..." he said, looking around. "How do I get out of here?"
The big male called up to the surface and a moment later, a rope ladder fell down. "Great." Zarro muttered to himself. Having the small paws and large flippers common to all zwergs, he hated climbing rope ladders.
When the otter reached the surface, he looked about and found himself at the edge of the chanel village. To his back were the woods, and ahead of him, the sandbar and the portal. He could see some construction going on over there. This must be the reception area the king had been talking about some days ago. Out of pure curiosity, he decided to go take a look.
As he was emerging from the chanel and stepping onto the sandbar, three elves stepped through the portal. They paused momentarily to ask a question of the construction otters, then continued on. When they reached Zarro, the lead elf, a thin blonde-haired man bent down and asked him "Is there a bridge or a ferry across to the main part of the forest? We need to see the transformer before nightfall."
Zarro shook his head. "Even with the ferry, it's difficult to get across the island in so little a time."
"We can travel swiftly when the need arises."
Zarro waved a paw and gave a whistle. On the far side of the chanel, a kalan with a large wooden raft saw him. He dove into the water and swam across, pulling the raft behind him.
"Kimbro can take you across the chanel. The fastest way to get to Oren the transformer is to follow the shoreline south until you get to the plain. Follow the river east until you come to the mountain. He lives between the mountain and the gardens."
"Thank you." said the elf. "Are you traveling through the gateway?"
"I wasn't planning to. Why?"
"There is a sentient eatery in the dimension from which we came. He asked us that should we see an otter of Otter Island, he should tell that otter that he seeks news from this world."
"Thank you." said Zarro. "I'll go and visit at once." Zarro had to admit to great curiosity. He'd never been to see the living restaurant, and wanted to experience it for himself. Now he had an excuse. Momentarily, he stopped to pick up some sand in one paw, then continued on. Careful not to get in the way of the builders, the zwerg made his way through the gate. He wondered for a moment if he shouldn't close the gateway behind him. After a moment, he decided against it. The gate would close on its own after an hour.
Quickly, he made his way down the path to the cafe. The place was busy, as usual, being full of people from all sorts of dimensions. Having heard the routine from friends who had been here before, he plucked a few strands of fur from his ear and placed them in the wicker basket on the counter.
The maitre D' appeared out of thin air and directed Zarro to his seat. A delicious dinner of breaded chicken, potatoes and corn was there waiting for him. "Interesting choice." said the Maitre D'. "Most otters choose fish."
"Believe it or not, I hate fish." replied Zarro as he chomped on a chicken leg. Then he remembered that he had to feed the cafe more bits of himself to communicate.
"Really?" the cafe's avatar responded.
"Wait a minute. I thought you couldn't hear me until I gave you more hairs."
"It's true." said the restaurant. "But most customers found the process of continually putting hairs into the ashtrays quite tedious."
"I'm taking tiny samples of your fur from the underside of your tail."
Zarro decided not to think about the disturbing fact that the being which he was currently inside was eating his substance while he was eating its. Unfortunately, he was unable not to think about it. After a moment, he remembered the sand in his paw and let it fall into the ashtray.
The apparition representing the cafe stood still for a moment before breathlessly whispering "My gosh, she's beautiful!"
"I never thought of it as a she."
The cafe's avatar smiled and sat down. "Well, technically she's not a she. Just like I'm not actually male. I suppose I just think of myself as a male because I'm a provider. But I can't tell you the wonder of what I just saw. Her thoughts are so pure, so innocent... so compassionate. I so wish I could meet her in person."
"Maybe someday." said Zarro encouragingly.
The cafe suddenly brightened. "Oh, but I have good news. The reason I asked the elves to send you here is to tell you that another species of otter has been discovered."
Zarro dropped a chicken leg. "What?" he asked, slack-jawed. "Where?"
"It's a difficult place to get to. But if you're interested, I'll go with you and show you the way."
"Wait a minute. I thought you couldn't leave this location."
"I can't. But what I can do is put all of the relevant thoughts into a small package which you can take with you." As he said this, a bag of hard candies appeared on the table.
Zarro thought for a moment. If he could be the one to establish contact with a new species of otter, he'd be more than just a simple container gardener. He'd be an interdimensional hero. "I'll do it!" he exclaimed.
"Wonderful. Now eat up. You'll need lots of energy."
* * *
Zarro was getting exhausted. He'd expected a quick trip. Perhaps two days at the outside. Instead, he'd been walking for two weeks. "I thought we were supposed to be there by now."
The intangible sea otter who appeared to be walking along beside Zarro shrugged. "All I know is what the Kendrus have told me."
"Furry people." said the little piece of the cafe. "About your size. Big eyes, big ears, gli... oh."
"Oh? What oh.?"
Zarro looked insensed. "Your directions are from people who fly and you never mentioned it?"
"I never thought about it. Besides, look. There's a village just over the next hill."
"About time." Zarro grumped. He was looking forward to eating a decent meal after all this time. Ironic, he thought, that he was so hungry when his companion was a restaurant. Tiredly, he walked toward the buildings, noting in passing that there were doors on every floor. He was well inside the town before he actually saw someone. It was a white female. She looked like a flying squirrel with the head of a rabbit. Her wings, stretched from wrist to ankle, were bright pink, her legs were thin and spindly, and her eyes, enormous. "Excuse me, Miss..." he called.
To his left, there was a scream. A second female, this one large and grey, rushed at him with a stick. Shouting and swinging, she hit him, repeatedly and hard. Zarro cried out in pain, but his cries only seemed to stir the woman to greater violence. The stick cracked the skin on his shoulder. It bent his tail. Finally, it swung directly at his eye. That was the last thing that Zarro saw.
* * *
When Zarro finally revived, he found himself laying on a human-style bed. The white female was standing over him. "What happened?" he groaned.
"Twem ak nobshalock." said the kendru. "Eeb wamtehr?"
"Oh yeah." said Zarro. "I forgot about the language barrier."
The Kendru offered Zarro a bowl of water. "Glob snobulutt." she said encouragingly. "Em watt hara bosh ti elkora."
Where was Cafe? Zarro desperately wanted contact with the one creature who might possibly be able to tell him what was going on. Putting his paw to his mouth, he gestured for his bag of candies.
"Shamtu?" asked the kendru as she offered a fish.
It took a few tries, but the otter finally managed to get his point across. Once he was given the candies, he popped one into his mouth. Instantly, the sea otter appeared. "What happened?" he asked. "What did I miss?"
"I was hoping you could tell me." said Zarro.
The kendru looked quizzically at the empty spot to which Zarro was speaking.
"I woke up here and I found myself with this kendru, who can't speak my language."
"Of course. Give her one of the candies."
"I prepared for this. All of my own language skills are in the candies. If you give her one, you'll be able to understand her."
Zarro held out one of the candies.
"Ee char hanga." said the kendru, her nose blushing slightly.
"Please." said the otter, his eyes insistant.
Hesitantly, she took the candy and tasted it. Her eyes took on a startled look. "Where did he come from?" she said with wonder.
"This is Cafe." said the otter. "I'm Zarro."
"You speak Kendru! No, wait... You're not speaking Kendru. I'M not speaking Kendru! What's going on?"
"It's all right!" said Zarro. "Cafe has the power to package his thoughts into these little candies. You tasted the candy and he taught you his language. It's called English."
"You speak English?"
"Actually, I speak Purac. But where I come from, language is a complicated affair."
"Oh wow. I can't believe I'm actually talking to a giant otter. Oh... um... my name is Fgori."
Zarro looked down at his diminuative and battered form. "I never considered myself a giant." he said."
"Oh, but you are! I mean, look at you!"
"Yeah." said Zarro. "Look at me." He examined his cuts and bruises, which seemed to include a broken toe, a kink in the tip of his tail, and from the blurring of his vision, quite possibly a black eye. "Why did that woman attack me?"
"I'm so sorry." said Fgori as she sat on the bed and tended to the otter's wounds with a damp cloth. "This is so wrong. But it's the way people here react to otters."
"Because..." Fgori seemed hesitant to continue. "Because they see you as evil, diseased and filthy."
Zarro stammered for a moment. "I... what... buh... otters?"
"I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. It used to be the same in my world until the Maxwells came along."
"Yes." Zarro smiled as Fgori pressed the cold cloth to his brow. "Prince Mijbil was murderd for that very reason. We have a play about it we perform back on the Island. I suppose I was lucky that the woman who attacked me wasn't carrying a pickaxe, or I might have been killed as well."
"Actually... you were killed."
Zarro frowned. "Excuse me?"
"Your heart stopped beating for several minutes. I managed to get it going again."
Zarro was about to ask a very big question when Cafe cut him off. "I hate to interrupt," he said. "But my friend is going to need food and water."
"Thinking like a restaurant." Zarro noted.
* * *
Fgori was amazed at just how much one otter could eat. "You must really like fish." she noted as Zarro wolfed down a broiled carp whole.
"I usually hate fish." said the otter. "But today, I'm making an exception. This stuff is just so excellent!"
"So let me see if I have this straight. You come from an island populated by otters the size of kendru. Your friend the cafe told you about a new species of otter and you came to find them. You also brought along a little piece of the cafe in the form of these little candies."
"I have something I think you should see."
Zarro watched as Fgori went into the next room, then came back holding a small cage. In the cage was a creature that might possibly have been a mouse, except that it was too small. It was too small even to be a least weasel. As he looked very closely, he saw the face of an otter staring back in astonishment.
"Gree cheo cheo wut chk!" chattered the tiny otter.
Zarro put two and two together. "In this world... all otters are that small?"
"I get it. Here, otters are like mice. Which means that I have the social status of a gigantic rat."
"I don't know what a rat is, but... yes."
"Heppi chk ao grt grt preee!" went the little one.
Fgori turned to Zarro. "What is he saying?"
"I have no idea."
"But... but don't you speak otter?"
"Well, it's not like we all speak one language. Some of us speak Purac, some Sumat, some Amazon and some Chichaga. It's only by magic that we can understand each other."
Cafe cleared his phantom throat. "I happen to be magic." he said.
Following Cafe's lead, Zarro chipped a piece off of one of the candies and gave it to the micro- otter. "Can you understand me now?" asked Zarro.
"I can!" answered the smaller in a high, shrill voice. "Wow! What powerful magic you must have!"
"Actually, it's his." said Zarro, pointing to Cafe.
"I didn't see you there. Wait... you must be a telepathic construct formed from molecularly coded information in the structure of these sweets."
Zarro and Fgori were both amazed. "How did you know that?" Zarro half-whispered.
"Just because I'm kept as a pet doesn't mean I'm stupid. My name is Alinor, and I'm a scientist."
"A scientist?" Fgori echoed incredulously. "Otters have scientists?"
Alinor was incensed. "We most certainly do! We also have doctors, teachers, preachers and inventors."
"I'm Zarro from Otter Island, and I came to..."
"Otter island?" interrupted Alinor. "You've come from Otter Island?"
Alinor was so amazed that he fell backwards onto his rump. "It's real. It's really real."
"Well of course it's real." said Zarro. "Every otter knows how to get to Otter Island."
"We do." Alinor agreed. "But that doesn't mean we can actually GET there.
Zarro looked confused.
"I'd love to explain it all, but first... would you mind letting me out of this cage?"
Fgori hurried to comply. Alinor climbed out onto the tabletop and sat down, nibbling on a piece of candy as he spoke.
"It began many years ago. At first, our people were simple folk, living off the land. Then we began to dream. My ancestors felt that the island was calling to them, and they dreamed about it every night. In their dreams, they saw that the island was in another world. A world that they could not easily reach. They developed sciences to learn how they might get there, and were frustrated at nearly every turn. Reaching the island became an obsession, but it seemed impossible. Many began to believe that it didn't even exist."
"But why couldn't you get there? Obviously, you've gotten here.
Alinor stood up and with the moistened end of his candy chip, drew on the table. First a circle... "This is your dimension." Off to one side, he drew a second circle, then connected it by a line to the first. "This is the dimension we are in now. This is the gateway which Oberon built, allowing travel between the two."
Alinor drew a much smaller circle off of the second. This is my world. It's what we call a microverse. You can get there from here by shrinking."
"So you can get here from there... by growing?" Zarro concluded.
"Theoretically, yes. But the problem with that is that it would require more mass than is available in our entire universe. After all, one of our star systems is no bigger than an atom to you."
"There isn't that much magic in our entire universe, either."
"Then how did you get here?"
"We found another way." Alinor drew a fourth, even smaller circle off of the third. We discovered a second microverse off of ours, connected to this one by a variation of Oberon's highway. We built a ship which would shrink down into this second microverse so that we could take this passageway to here, and finally cross over to Otter Island."
"So what happened?" asked Fgori, entranced by the tale.
"The ship worked. We were able to shrink into the microverse. The people there were friendly, and helped us on our way. But we weren't able to take the ship through the portal. We had to go through on foot. This we did. But when we arrived, the kendu tried to kill us. We were unable to operate the portal, and were forced to live as fugitives in this universe. I, myself am of the fifth generation descended from the original explorers."
Zarro stiffled a tear and puffed out his chest. "I'm here to help." he said. "I want to bring your people to Otter Island."
"And so do I." said Fgori.
Zarro turned to the kendru. "You don't have to do this." he said.
"I want to." Fgori insisted. "I've spent many, many years arguing that otters should be treated humanely. This will be the justification of those arguments.
Zarro was uncomfortable with this, though he couldn't say why. "All right." he agreed. "Let's do it."
"Follow me." said Fgori as she hastily packed a bag. "I know the way."
* * *
It was only a few hours before the motley foursome arrived at the second gate. It looked a great deal like the gate which Zarro and Cafe had come through at first, except that instead of a circular hole going straight through, this gate seemed to go back into a cone. That made sense when Zarro thought about it. The gate was a tunnel in which the far side was infinitessimally small. Next to the gate was the usual control stone. This one, however, did not have a grid. It had only a single depression. Next to the stone was a box. It contained only one white magic stone. Fgori took the stone and placed it into the depression. Immediately, the back end of the cone inside the gate seemed to grow, opening up into a bizarre new world.
"Who wants to go first?" said Zarro.
"I'm not actually here." replied Cafe.
"You're leading this expedition." Alinor pointed out. "Go ahead. We're right here with you."
Bravely, Zarro stepped forward through the gate. Immediately, he felt like he was shrinking. He couldn't actually see it, but there was a sense of decreasing mass. In only a few steps, he was there, standing on a world the size of a subatomic particle. Fgori was there beside him, and Alinor at his feet. Cafe, while not currently showing himself, was there, he knew.
The buildings were truly odd. They looked like they had been designed and built by drunks. They leaned every which way, and many of the upper floors were connected to other buildings by twisted staircases which had no railings.
"What is this place?" Zarro asked.
"It's a city called Izzer." Alinor told him. "The vinecrawlers live here."
"We call them monaurs." Fgori interjected.
There came a hardy "Welcome, friends!" from a nearby booth. From that booth came a cat. At least it looked kind of like a cat. Except that it only had one ear right on top of its head. As it emerged, the newcomers could see that it had no front legs, only paws which came straight from its chest. There were no back limbs at all. Rather, the torso extended into a long, furry snake's tail. "I'm Ploogie." said the cat-thing. "It's been my job for twenty years to watch this gateway. I never thought I'd see anyone come through here. Welcome! Welcome!"
"I'm Zarro of Otter Island." said the otter. "This is Fgori the kendru, and Alinor, the son of questors. The one you can't see right now is Cafe.
More of the strange creatures came to greet the travelers. They all seemed to be variations on a theme. All normal Earth animals with the one ear, tiny arms, no legs, and the long snaky tail.
"What brings you to our world?" asked the catlike vinecrawler.
"We're looking for a way to get to Alinor's home dimension."
A doglike vinecrawler approached the group. "We have not had visiters from other worlds for nearly twenty years. Won't you stay with us for a while?"
Zarro wasn't sure he should dally.
"We'll prepare a banquet in your honor."
* * *
Zarro was still famished. He had no idea what he was eating, but it tasted good, and his empty stomach enjoyed it. Fgori picked at a little bit of strange fruit. Alinor busied himself with something that looked vaguely fishlike, and Cafe, while unable to eat, insisted that his companions take a little bit of this alien food back to his main self.
As he finished a plate of meat, Zarro turned to Ploogie and asked "So... you haven't had any visitors for twenty years? I find that difficult to believe when you have a gate right here."
"Actually," replied Ploogie. "This is true, but it's only half the story. There have been others, but they were not visitors."
"What do you mean?" asked Fgori.
"Ploogie seemed hesitant. "They're... uh... invaders."
Alinor nearly choked. "Invaders? From where?"
"From a dimension on the same scale as yours, but far kata."
Fgori and Zarro both looked blankly at Ploogie.
"Kata. That's four dimensional down."
Both still stared cluelessly.
"Allow me." said Alinor. "Picture your world as a completely flat plane, having only width and length, not height." he drew a line on the table with a bit of candle wax. "Now imagine that there is a fourth spatial dimension, perpendicular to the other three. You can't see into it, because you're only three dimensional, but it's there. In this diagram, we can represent this fourth dimension, commonly known as "tridth", in terms of height. Now there are other realms which lie parallel to yours in this fourth dimension." He drew several more lines parallel to the first. "Each of these is a seperate and unique world."
"That's why we call them different dimensions!" Zarro concluded.
"Exactly! Now as you can see, there are realms above yours. But this isn't actually height, so "up" isn't really an appropriate term. Instead, we say ‘ana'. The opposite direction is ‘kata'."
"So these invaders are from a lower dimension. All right. Where are they now?"
"They're not here right now." Ploogie reassured. "They began making raids years ago. They come every few months. The probability of a raiding party coming while you're here is minute, so I wouldn't worry."
"What do they want?" asked Alinor.
"We don't know. We've tried asking, but they seem to be imune to magic, including the magic which allows us to understand all languages. We cannot communicate with them. All we know is that they seem to be looking for something."
"Cafe thinks he may be able to help." said Fgori.
"Your invisible friend?"
"Yes. He says that if we get one of the invaders to eat one of his candies, we may be able to speak with them in his language."
Ploogie looked expectantly at Zarro. The otter felt a little uncomfortable. He'd been away from Otter Island for quite a while, but this was important. He could either go back quickly and return to arranging flowers or do this right and return with not only a whole new species of otter, but another ally in the war against Nexicul. "We'll stay." said Zarro. "Until the next raid, at least."
This news was met with cheering and applause.
* * *
The vinecrawlers were nothing if not hospitable. The four were housed in a very comfortable apartment. Fgori was given a very nice four-poster bed. Alinor sprawled luxuriously on a small pillow. While he didn't need any special accomidation, Cafe was given a hand-woven basket to keep his candies in. Zarro was content to sleep on the floor, winding it unusually warm and cozy on the carpet.
"Zarro?" whispered Fgori in the dark.
"What do you suppose the invaders want?"
Zarro shook his head, unaware that no one could see it. "There's no way of knowing. That's why we have to try to communicate with them."
Fgori grunted in acknowledgement. A few moments later, she added "What do we do once we know?"
This time, it was Alinor that answered. "We don't know that. That's the entire reason we're trying to establish communicataion in the first place."
"True." said the kendru. "Well, whatever it is, I hope the monaurs will allow us to give it to them."
"What?" demanded Zarro, sounding mildly annoyed. "What do you mean ‘give it to them'?"
"So that they'll leave the monaurs alone."
"What makes you think thay will?"
"What reason would they have to harass the monaurs once their goals are met? It would be illogical. I can't believe that anyone would deliberately harm a stranger for harm's sake."
"Then you've never met a nageel."
Zarro lapsed into silence for several seconds. "Terrible creatures." he said at last. "They can change from eels into humans. The magic of otter island gives us all the best traits of humankind. Creativity, intellect, forebearance... they have all the worst. They kill for pleasure."
"Do they really? There's nothing else they want?"
"Their greatest desire is to destroy us and take our island."
"Ah!" said Fgori with a touch of triumph. "All they want is an island, then."
"No... they don't want AN island. They want OUR island."
"Then couldn't you simply give them part of it?"
"Already been tried. The result was a massacre. It's a time in our history we don't often speak of."
Fgori's voice seemed to sadden. "I just can't believe that there's such a thing as an implacable enemy. Alinor, what do you think?"
"I have to agree with Zarro." said the little one.
"You do? But why?"
"Think about it. What happens when there's an encounter between a kendru and an otter? They try to kill us. There's nothing we can offer to turn them from the decision to exterminate us."
Fgori became indignant. "I never tried to kill you! I took very good care of you!"
"For which I am very grateful. But you already know that you are not typical of your people."
"That's true. But they're not evil. They just don't understand. Cafe, back me up here."
"I'm afraid I can't." said Cafe, who appeared to be sitting up in his basket. "Not after the things I've seen Nexicul do through his zombies."
"Like... uh... I don't know."
"But you just said..."
"Remember, I'm not all here. All I have are the thoughts I put into these candies. But I do know that Nexicul is pure evil."
Fgori said no more, but drifted into an uneasy sleep.
* * *
The next day was spent seeing the local sights. Ploogie personally took them around and gave them a tour of the Brandenbel tower, site of Dr. Valmon's famous interdimensional telescope. They also went to see Mt. Turner, the home of a jolly creature who was their equivalent of Santa Claus.
But by far the best stop on the tour was the good ship Dreamcrest. It wasn't much to look at. Parts of it seemed to have broken off. But that didn't matter to Alinor.
"Good gosh, it's beautiful!" said the scientist in awe. He reached out his tiny paw to run his hand over the aged red wood of the hull. "And it's still in perfect condition after all these years!"
"Perfect condition?" asked Zarro, incredulously. "The fins coming off of the sides are broken."
Alinor smiled, knowingly. "They're not broken." he corrected his large friend. "They're completely intact."
"Look at them, Alinor!" He bent down to pass his paw through where the end of the fin would have been.
The little one was getting impatient. "Think about it, Zarro. This is a ship designed for exploring other worlds. It was meant to sail from one dimension to another. How is it going to do that unless the ship itself is 4-dimensional?"
"Yes. The wings on the side extend into hyperspace and the keel extends into subspace."
"But I thought it was only supposed to shrink."
"Oh, no. This ship was meant to do it all. Microverses, phases, planes... this ship does it all. To actually see it in person..."
"Would you like to take a look inside?" asked Ploogie.
"Of course. It belongs to you, after all."
Alinor needed a moment to absorb that, but he realized that Ploogie was right. As the only otter to come back and attempt to complete the voyage, he was both captain and crew of the vessel. Eagerly, he made his way inside. "I wish you could see this!" he called to his giant friends.
"I can see it." replied Cafe, startling Alinor. It had not occurred to the small otter that since Cafe was not actually there, he could easily reduce himself to Alinor's size.
It was while Alinor was exploring the ship that it happened. In the sky over the city, an odd hole appeared. It was spherical, yet seemed to have an infinite depth. From the very center, menacing star shapes appeared. Each one was an icy blue with mottled purple running down each of its six arms. Each arm was tipped with three wickedly curved hooks. The stars spun slowly as they drinfted darkly over the vinecrawler city.
"That's them." said the one-eared host. "Those are the invaders."
"I hadn't guessed." said Zarro sarcastically. "Fgori, get out the candies. How many do we have left?"
"Okay... where is the mouth on these things?"
"Right in the center." replied Ploogie. "They can form a second mouth on one of their arms, but they never eat with those. You have to get the candy into the middle mouth."
"Right. Now to get close to one."
"I don't think that will be a problem." said Fgori. "Look!"
Indeed, one of the stars was landing only a few feet away. It stood upright, two of its limbs forming legs. The middle seemed to stretch vertically, and for a moment, the creature seemed almost otterlike. But as one of the arms changed into a head, it became decidedly un-otterlike. Two bulging eyes opened, each with two pupils. One of the scythelike claws formed a terrible horn, the other two, tusks.
The creature sniffed about, but seemed to largely ingore the group.
Zarro, wanting to try a peaceful approach first, held out one of the candies. The alien inspected it briefly, but, satisfied that this was not the thing it was looking for, ignored it. So it would have to be the hard way. The otter concentrated on the star-shaped opening in the alien's belly. With a leap, he dived beneath the thing and jammed the candy into its mouth. Annoyed, it kicked Zarro to one side, it's footclaws cutting his hip.
"Zarro!" called Fgori. "Are you all right?"
"No." replied the florist. "You! Blue thing! Can you understand me?"
"I can." said the invader without turning its attention from the inspection of its surroundings.
"Who are you? What do you want?"
"We are the astruchin. I am hive 46 egg 573. I seek the weapon of the vinecrawlers."
"Weapon? What weapon?"
The astruchin continued searching. "We have heard of a weapon which changes enemies into allies. We seek to take it and use it in our conquests."
Zarro rose, clutching his bleeding hip. "Are you always this honest?" he asked.
"The astruchin have no reason to practice deception.
Zarro pulled Ploogie aside and whispered "Do you know what he's talking about?"
"Yes. It's in..."
The astruchin turned now to Ploogie. "Disclose the location of the weapon."
"It's in the B..."
"Ploogie!" yelled Zarro. "You can't tell him where it is!"
Egg 573 advanced on the group. "Disclose the location of the weapon!" it demanded.
"NO!" Zarro shouted.
"We have to give it to them." said the vinecrawler. "It's in the Brandenbel tower."
Zarro cursed under his breath.
"Disclose the location of the Brandenbel tower." said egg 573.
Realizing that every second counted, Zarro dashed for the Brandenbel tower. Even as he ran, the menacing stars began to converge on him.
"The astruchin!" called the otter to one of the scientists in the tower. "They're coming for the weapon! We have to get it out of here!"
"The weapon." said the scientist. "Hurry!"
Zarro followed him up to a room where, on a pedistal in the middle, there sat a plain-looking metal box. "I'll leave the box at the door for them to take. You go and hide on the higher levels of the tower."
"You can't do that!" Zarro exclaimed.
"We must! It's the only way to peace!"
Angrily, Zarro grabbed the box.
"Wait! You don't know what you're doing!"
Zarro ran out the back door of the tower. While the astruchin gave chase, they weren't able to overtake him.
"Zarro!" came Fgori's voice. "This way!" Zarro looked up to see the kendru flying along overhead. On her back sat Alinor. "I think we can lose them in the mountains!"
Alinor hopped from Fgori's back to Zarro's shoulder. "Hope you don't mind." he said. "I'm a little timid about flying."
"No problem. Hold on tight. If we can't lose these things, they're going to do a lot more than drop us.
Zarro wished someone else could hold the box so that he could run on all fours, but Alinor was far too small, Fgori needed her arms spread to use her wings, and Cafe seemed to have disappeared. On and on they ran, barely keeping ahead of the astruchin. Up into the mountain range they ran, up the sides of Mt. Turner. Unable to fly well in the high winds which whipped along down the mountain, both the astruchin and Fgori were forced to climb on foot.
"I thought we were supposed to lose them up here!" declared Zarro as the peak of the mountain came into view.
"That was the idea. I didn't realize that they could climb like that."
The astruchin were gaining. It wouldn't be long, now. "We're going to die." said Fgori matter- of-factly.
"Maybe not." responded Alinor.
"You know something?" said Zarro.
"Look." As Alinor pointed, a tiny form came around the side of the mountain below. It came up toward them, and they were amazed to see that it was none other than the Dreamcrest.
"Who's at the controls?" asked Zarro in confusion.
"Look!" cried Fgori. "It's Cafe!" Indeed Zarro could see the odd phantasmic creature at the helm through the winshield.
"But he's not actually there! How can he be flying the ship?"
"Before I left," Alinor explained. "I dropped my candy into the liquid fuel tank. Cafe is in the ship's computer, now."
Climbing aboard, Alinor tossed a rope out to Fgori. Zarro grabbed the mast firmly. "Head for the wormhole!" he shouted.
"Are you crazy?" Fgori shouted back.
"We've got to get the ship out of here! There's only one gate and the ship won't fit through. We've got to take the wormhole."
With Zarro hanging from the mast and Fgori trailing along like a kite, Cafe piloted the ship into the wormhole. The experience of flying through a wormhole was nothing like Zarro expected. There was no tunnel. Merely the shpere getting larger and larger as they passed through it. Some sort of ring seemed to be following them on all sides as they flew along. As it drew closer, Zarro looked up and so that the top of that ring was the bottom of the Dreamcrest. Looking to his right, he saw a distorted version of himself. Zarro didn't pretend to understand 4-D physics, but he did understand that this ring was getting closer, and something was adding mass to his body. If this continued, he could very well be crushed against himself.
The wormhole soon opened out and Zarro found himself tumbling on the ground of an alien world. The box was still in his arm, but it was badly cracked. His paw was feeling the same way.
Behind him, the otter could see the device which had created the wormhole. It looked like a modified version of the gateway on Otter Island, right down to the control stone. Only instead of magic gems, it was connected to an elaborate machine. Through that gateway he could see the astruchin coming.
"The stone!" Zarro cried. "Remove the stone!"
Using all of her strength, Fgori pushed at the interface. After what seemed like an eternity, the thing came away from the stone and the portal closed.
"We're safe!" declared Fgori.
"Not quite." Zarro corrected. Indeed, they were now surrounded by astruchin. This made sense. From the mounds of glistening white gel it seemed more than likely that this was the astruchin homeworld.
"Surrender the weapon." ordered one of the astruchin.
"I think not." Zarro answered. He pulled away half of the broken box. Inside was a glowing pink cube. "Get back!" he ordered. "I'll use this."
There was a moment of hesitation. "We believe you are lying." said the astruchin. "You do not know how to use the weapon."
Zarro had to confess that this was true. Helplessly, we watched as the astruchin took out the crystaline cube. Zarro prepared to be blasted. Something very strange happened. Several expressions proceeded across the astruchin's face one after the other. As they did, they also crossed the faces of all the other astruchin. At long last, the one holding the cube spoke. "We... are sorry." it said.
"We do not understand what has happened to us, but we regret what we have done. It was wrong to steal the weapon, and wrong to harm you."
Zarro was dumbfounded.
"Remember what Ploogie said?" asked Fgori. "He said that the weapon turns enemies into allies."
"I think I know." said Cafe. "It works the same way as my power to transfer thoughts. The vinecrawlers put a certain mix of emotions into the cube, and whoever touches it experiences those emotions."
"But then why did they ALL change?"
"It is because we share a common brain." said one of the astruchin. All of us are telepathically connected to the brain in hive 46." The astruchin handed the cube back to Zarro. As it touched his paws, he felt those strange emotions which his former enemy had felt. There was compassion, love, and sympathy. All fear drained away as he rejoiced in the conversion of hive 46. "Take this back to the vinecrawler people with our blessing." said the astruchin. They then re-attached the computer to the contol stone and opened the wormhole again.
"Wait..." said Zarro. "Can you use this device to open a wormhole into any dimension?"
"Can you take us to the world of Alinor's people? It's the macroverse of the one we were just in."
"We can. We can also modify the pathway from the world of the vinecrawlers so that it may be used to reach Alinor's world." The astruchin gave Zarro a small device the size of a magic gem. "Place this in the gateway and it will open onto Alinor's world."
"This is great!" said Fgori. "I can take the weapon back to the monaurs and meet you there!"
The astruchin nodded assent. Carefully placing the cube in her bag without touching it, Fgori flew back through the wormhole.
Alinor looked to the astruchin. "Can I assume now that we're on the same scale as Otter Island?"
"We do not know of Otter Island, but this realm is a top level macroverse."
"This is wonderful!" declared Alinor. "Now that we're at full size, we'll be able to return to this size no matter how far we shrink! There will be no need to mess with any gateways. My people can take the Dreamcrest straight to Otter Island!
"But not me, I'm afraid." said Zarro.
"You can return through the wormhole." offered the astruchin. "From there, we will return you to your own world, if you can provide us with the address."
"All right!" agreed Zarro. "Let's do it!"
Zarro stepped out onto the surface of the alien world and was surprised to find... "a gateway? There was a gateway right here the whole time?"
"Of course." said Alinor from the deck of the Dreamcrest. "Every world has at least one gate onto Oberon's highway. But for some reason, ours has never WORKED.
"So Fgori will eventually be coming through here."
"Right. Let's wait."
So they waited. And waited. And waited.
"I hope nothing's happened to her." said Cafe.
"She might not have been able to get the control device to work." said Alinor.
"Let's hope that's it." Zarro said. "Come on. Let's go get your people and then I'll go look for her."
* * *
It was a joyous day in the city of the otters. For five generations they had waited, and now, at last, the Dreamcrest had returned to carry them to the far distant island which called to them so fervently. Alinor was declared a national hero, and Zarro was honored as well. He didn't stick around for the celebration, however. He was too worried about Fgori and eager to look for her.
"I'm really glad to have you on our side." said Zarro as he stepped back out onto the world of the astruchin. "I'd like to come back and visit with you when all this is over."
"We will not be here." replied the astruchin.
"Are you going somewhere?"
"No. We will be killed."
Zarro stepped back in shock and disbelief. "Killed? By whom?"
"Hive 46 is now kind and compassionate. This means that we are now a liability to the astruchins' plans to conquor the multiverse. The other hives will soon exterminate us."
"We can't allow that! Come with me! You can find refuge on Otter Island!"
"We cannot. Our one brain is located here. It cannot be moved."
"You idiots!" shouted Zarro. "You could have kept the weapon! You could have turned them peaceful as well!"
"It did not belong to us." said the astruchin.
"You morons! You IMBECILES! Why didn't you tell me this sooner!"
"There is nothing you can do. Now let us return you to your home dimension."
Zarro was at a loss for words. "All right." he said quietly. "The code is... wait, no. Send me to the world of the Kendru."
"As you wish."
Zarro gave the astruchin the code for Fgori's world, then stepped through the gate, waving a sad farewell to those unlikely friends he knew he would never see again.
"There he is!" shouted a familiar female voice. "It's Zarro!"
The otter turned to see his kendru friend, followed by more than a hundred small otters. "Fgori? But how...?"
"I couldn't get that artificial stone to work for anything." Fgori explained. "So I came here to my own world and hoped that you would come looking for me here. And while I was here, I fed a piece of Cafe's candy to one of the local otters. He helped me distribute more of it to others. Now we're all speaking the same language, and I told them that as soon as you came back, you would take us through that gate to Otter Island."
A second voice sounded. "What, you weren't going to wait for me?" Through the leaves of the trees came the good ship Dreamcrest, with Alinor standing on deck, waving. All of the tiny otters rejoiced at being reuinited.
* * *
"It's beautiful!" declared Fgori as she stepped through the gate onto the sandbar and gazed at the island. "What have we here?" said someone off to the side. Zarro looked over toward the construction crew and there saw Efra the murmle. How many ages ago had it been since he'd seen her? "Efra, this is Fgori the kendru. Fgori, this is Efra the murmle."
"Pleased to meet you." said the females in unison.
Efra pointed to the ship. "And who are these?"
"These are..." Zarro hesitated. "Otters" would hardly be descriptive enough in this place, and "mini-otters" just seemed patronizing. "...the microlonts. Small in stature but big on courage. That one near the bow is Alinor. He's one of the bravest people I've ever met."
The dreamcrest swung around and hovered near Zarro's head. "Permission to board, Zarro? The three of us have one stop left before our mission is done!"
"Granted!" replied Zarro, and lifted his paw for Alinor to jump onto. A quick adjustment to the control grid and the three of them went back through the gate.
* * *
"Good morning." said the maitre D'. "Please place a sample of your tissue in the basket on the counter." Each of them did as instructed, then took the mints which appeared on the counter. "Zarro!" said the maitre'D in surprise. "How was your trip! You must tell me everything!"
"Well, first off..."
"No, not with words, silly."
"Oh... right. The otter took the remainder of the candies and poured them into the basket. In the blink of an eye, the main Cafe had re-absorbed his avatar and the two again became one being. "Wow." said the maitre D', changing into the sea otter who had been Zarro's companion for so long. "What an adventure! Thank you so very much for taking me along, Zarro."
"It was my pleasure, Cafe."
"Fgori, Alinor, I'm very happy to have met you both, and I hope that you'll both come back and visit me many times in the future."
"You can count on it." said Fgori. And though he wasn't physically there, she put her arms around the illusion in a big hug.
* * *
Zarro really looked forward to going home, and Fgori insisted on seeing him there. So with Fgori by his side and Alinor on his shoulder, he proceeded back across Otter Island. "Over there are the gardens." said Zarro as he walked down the path toward his house. "There's Ferris' satelite greenhouse out past the gazebo. Over on the right, that's where Blalok teaches the pups to swim. And over... wait a minute."
"What is it?" asked Fgori.
"That bumpy patch in the ground. That wasn't there before."
Alinor looked where Zarro had indicated. "Dozens of tiny hills." he noted. "Just the right size for microlont burrows."
"Hey, yeah! It must be the island trying to make you feel welcome."
"What's wrong?" inquired Zarro.
"Oh, nothing. It's silly."
"Tell me. What is it?"
"It's just that I wish I could stay here. I'd love to be surrounded by friendly giant otters."
By this time, they were drawing close to Zarro's house. Everything seemed as the otter had left it, except that there seemed to be a construction project in his back yard. Someone was building a treehouse. "What's going on here?" called Zarro.
"Hi, Zarro!" called back the builder. It was Imron the star otter. "I had a dream this morning. The island told me to come here and build a treehouse for a kendru. Whatever a kendru is."
"I'm a kendru!" called Fgori.
"Oh! Well in that case, this is your house! Welcome to Otter Island!"
"The island wants you to stay." said Zarro with a smile.
Fgori danced for joy.
* * *
As Fgori danced, she was watched from offshore. A young nageel observed her through a rusty telescope. "An interesting development." said the fish to himself, and smiled as he sank below the sea.