by Mary E. Lowd
An excerpt from Otters In Space: The Search for Cat Haven. If you’d prefer, you can start with Chapter 1, return to the previous chapter, or skip ahead.
The guard flicked his ears in the chill desert air. Mornings were cold, but it would be hot when the sun got overhead and started beating down. During the day, it was no place for the thick, full mane of a rough Collie; but, right now, it was a bit nippy for a smooth one. The guard dog scratched the barrel of his rifle against his chin. A car was coming.
The gleaming black sedan slowed as it approached. The guard dog could see a black dog driving inside, dressed in a sharp, black vest, sunglasses, and a red bandana tied at her throat. An angry looking, white cat was sitting at the dog’s side. It was a shame, having a white cat like that in such a fancy, black car. The cat would get white hair all over the lovingly burnished upholstery.
The car came to stop, and the window rolled down. “Can I see some ID?” the guard said.
Trudith handed over her wallet, flipped open to her license.
“Where’re you going?” the guard asked, looking past Trudith at the white cat. The white cat stared resolutely out the window. “Who’s your friend?”
Trudith looked over at Kipper, like she expected Kipper to answer. But Kipper didn’t even move her eyes. She’d picked a sign on the guard booth beside the road and was reading it over and over again. “All Unaccompanied Cats Must Carry Proof Of Employment.” Were unemployed cats such a huge problem in Mexico?
“We’re just heading down to Tijuana,” Trudith said. “The cat’s my assistant. Her name’s, uh, Sylvia.” Trudith cuffed Kipper on the shoulder, so Kipper turned towards her. Her blue eyes were an icy glare, and she rapidly moved her paws through a pantomime of deaf-cat signing she once saw. It wouldn’t fool a deaf cat, but it might fool a normal one. So, it should certainly fool a dog.
“What’s she saying?” the guard asked.
“I, uh…” Trudith stared at Kipper’s paws intently. “I think she was just asking what’s taking so long.” Trudith looked back at the guard, who was now examining her license. “I only hired Sylvia a few weeks ago. I’m still getting the hang of her signing.”
“Sure,” the guard said. “What do you need a deaf cat for to assist you?”
“She does the books,” Trudith said, far too flippantly for Kipper’s taste.
The guard dog narrowed his eyes and shifted his glance between Trudith and Kipper. “Hey, Sylvia,” the guard dog shouted. “You got any ID?”
Kipper strained every fiber of her self-control to keep from flattening her ears. Her nose wrinkled a little in spite of herself, but she didn’t think the guard dog could see.
“Whaddayou want ID for?” Trudith asked. “She’s my cat. Are you insulting me?”
The guard dog grumbled, a low growl. “I’ll be back,” he said. “I just have to check on something.” With that, he walked around the sedan and disappeared into the guard booth, shaking his head over Trudith’s ID.
In the car, Trudith’s ears were flat back. Their rounded ends always flopped by the side of her head, but the muscles at their base were strained. Her jowly, brown muzzle was tight shut, making her look stricken. “He can’t have recognized you,” she said to herself. “I can hardly recognize you.” Trudith looked over at Kipper, reassuring herself that Kipper was absolutely unmistakable for a gray tabby cat. “Maybe there’s a white cat wanted for murder down here…” Trudith pondered the ridiculous possibility. “If I have to,” she said. “I’ll fight to protect you. I can take a Collie. He’s just a herd-dog, even if he is a big one.”
Behind her random babbling, Trudith looked as nervous as a kitten, but Kipper dared not either console or mock her. The guard dog could emerge at any moment, and she couldn’t risk being overheard. Trudith reached over, grabbed, and squeezed Kipper’s paw, as if Kipper was the one who was afraid. She withdrew her paw quickly, when the Collie returned.
“Your license expired a month ago,” the guard Collie said.
Trudith’s eyes widened in terror. Her cat was about to be caught and turned over to the evil tabby who was chasing her, and it would be Trudith’s fault for not getting her license renewed. “That’s not Sylvia’s fault!” she blurted out.
The guard dog gave her the strangest look, but he decided to dismiss her outburst. Black lab mutts weren’t always the brightest. “It’s just a formality to renew it,” he said. “Would you like me to punch the renewal into my computer?”
Trudith looked flustered, but then her jowls broke into a relieved grin. “Yah,” she said. “Do that. And, I’ll make sure Sylvia does a better job keeping me up to date on my paperwork. Right Sylvia?”
Again, Trudith seemed to have forgotten that, according to her role as Sylvia, Kipper couldn’t hear. But, no harm was done. Ignoring Trudith came naturally to Kipper by now.
After they pulled away from the guard station, safely inside Mexico, Kipper took her contacts out. She was pleased to discover that Trudith’s tone of voice returned to normal with the change in her eye color.
About an hour down the road, Kipper realized that Trudith’s banter was losing the slim grip on coherency that it originally had. “Then the otter jumped in the river and swam away! Right there in the space station. Those are some crazy space stations the otters have.”
“Trudith, would you like me to drive?” Kipper asked. “I slept most of the way to Saniego, but you’ve been awake all night.”
Trudith drove on, quietly thinking the question through. Kipper was getting used to the fact that Trudith took longer to think about things than she expected. It contrasted strangely with her ability to bellow on and on, telling stories about the places she’d been and the fights she’d started. “Yeah,” Trudith eventually said. “Do you mind if we stop, and I lie down in the back?” When Trudith looked over, Kipper could see that her eyes were red-rimmed and bleary. Kipper would feel safer without her behind the wheel.
After a quick roadside lesson in handling Trudith’s vehicle, Kipper adjusted the seat to accommodate her smaller stature. She had to slide the chair almost all the way forward for her feet to reach the pedals. Nonetheless, it was a nice car. A very nice car.
When Kipper had learned to drive, she’d had to borrow Alistair’s car. It was an old junker he’d bought from a dog who was going to literally take it to the junkyard. Alistair had fixed the car up, and he used it to get around. He insisted on teaching both Petra and Kipper to drive, even though they both took the bus. He said they never knew it would come in useful. Kipper guessed he was right.
Once she could hear Trudith’s snuffly snoring emanating from the back seat, Kipper felt herself liberated. She was driving the nicest car she’d ever driven, cruising down mile after mile of an empty stretch of freeway. The speedometer went twice as high as Trudith had pushed it, and Kipper wanted to drive this car for all it was worth. So, she eased her foot into the accelerator and felt real speed. At this rate, she could halve the time to Ecuador.
Kipper pretended the black sedan was her own spaceship, bought at a criminally low rate from an aging otter. The aging otter had only used it for Sunday commutes to visit his grandpups on Kelp Frond station, so it was in perfect, stellar, starhopping condition. For the first couple hours, Kipper bounced her razorcool spaceship off the gravity well of Mars and dodged it, at record speeds, through the asteroid belt. Otters were fast, but a cat can be even faster. Dogs are for Earth; otters for the oceans. Truly, it’s cats who are meant for space.
Of course, racing spaceships against otters (and beating the otters mercilessly, she might add) probably wasn’t what Petra had in mind when she took off for Ecuador. If Petra thought this goose chase was worth abandoning her campaign for, she probably thought there was a greater cause at stake. Perhaps a place for every cat in space, not just her and Kipper.
There was a thought. Forget Cat Haven in Ecuador… Kipper would rather hold out for a Cat Haven on a space station. Is that where Violet was going? Kipper was pretty sure that Violet was headed for space, but could Petra still be right too? Kipper could picture it — Violet, up among the stars and the otters, on a space station for cats, and cats alone.
No, a cat space station was too much of a long shot. It would have been in the otters’ newscasts, and Kipper would have heard about it. She religiously watched otter news. Violet’s motive had to be something else. And, based on Kipper’s recent experiences, something dangerous. Not something wonderful.
A terrible thought struck her, and Kipper had to work to keep her eyes on the road and paws on the wheel. Could Violet be dead? Was Violet dead? She’d bought a plane ticket… That didn’t mean she’d made it to the plane. Not necessarily.
Oh my. What had Violet done to upset Sahalie? Whatever it was, Sahalie thought it was worth killing two cats to cover it up. Double caticide; attempted, anyway. Sahalie had to have backed herself into a corner and backed herself in bad.
Scared as she was, Kipper honestly felt sorry for Sahalie that she’d gotten herself into a situation so bad that she thought hiring an assassin to take out a fellow cat was her only way out. If dogs treated cats better, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen. Cats didn’t turn on each other for no reason. Dogs made them do it.
The sky was already darkening when Kipper heard Trudith rousing in the back seat. Kipper had been thinking all day, and her thoughts had begun chasing each other in circles, like puppies chasing their tails. She had worn herself out with thinking and driving, and she was ready for a break.
The two travelers stopped on the dusty stretch of road in the twilight to switch drivers and catch a bite to eat. Back in Saniego, Trudith had bought jerky steaks which they ate in silence, leaning against the side of the car, kicking their back paws in the dirt. It was good to stretch their legs. Though, every car that passed made Kipper’s heart leap. She strained her eyes looking for Petra, but she only saw dogs behind the wheels.
Jerky steaks kept well — actually, a properly sealed jerky steak would probably outlive a tortoise on life-extending, telomerase therapy — but, they were hard on Kipper’s stomach. She preferred fowl and fish, but she’d been busy dying her fur when the food was selected. She would have happily traded jobs with Trudith, but dying Trudith’s face and arms wouldn’t have helped them at the border. On second thought, if Trudith’s fur had turned out the way Kipper was imagining it, the guard might have been too shocked to do more than stare slack-jawed as they drove on.
As soon as they were back in the car, Kipper curled herself around her stomachache and fell right asleep. She dreamed about being with her sister again.
When Kipper woke up, it was day. The glare of the light hurt her eyes, but she could see that the countryside had grown lush and green while she slept. They’d left the dusty California landscape far behind. Kipper crawled into the front seat with Trudith. “Where are we?” she asked. “Is this still Mexico?”
“We’re coming up on Mexico City. We may get to Guatemala by later today.” As they progressed, the roads were getting worse, but Trudith made up for it by driving fast.
Kipper watched the city zoom by outside her window. It was much more crowded than New LA. More of the ancient human buildings were still standing. They stretched towards the sky like the sun bleached rib bones of an abandoned carcass. The dogs and cats had squeezed smaller, more temporary buildings around them. “Do they live in the human buildings?” Kipper asked.
“I think they build inside them,” Trudith said. “They put up partitions made from old sheets and bedspreads. I went to a swap meet in one. It was hot and crowded.”
“Humans left a lot more of us in Mexico than the US. Didn’t they?”
“More dogs than cats,” Trudith said. She didn’t have to connect the dots: there were fewer cats in Mexico because there were so many dogs. In a country where dogs were fighting the effects of overpopulation, cats were even worse off. It was a sobering sight. New LA looked like a ghost town in comparison. Of course, sometimes New LA felt like a ghost town anyway.
The histories weren’t very good that far back, but all the evidence suggested that animals had a hard time rebuilding society after humans left. Humans had, according to their own unearthed records, controlled canine and feline breeding processes for a long time. They’d genetically engineered cats and dogs over hundreds of years, through selective breeding programs, to be the companion animals they became.
Even during the process of upraising cats and dogs to sentience, many individuals, especially in the cities, were kept incapable of reproduction to keep the society under control. The first generations of independence — after the human exodus — relied heavily on migration from the countryside and other rural areas to repopulate the cities. Only after the population stabilized could they begin maintaining the cities and rebuilding for themselves.
Kipper waited until they were past the heart of Mexico City to suggest they stop. They found a small town on the outer fringes of Mexico City where Trudith could recharge the car and Kipper could, reluctantly, call Alistair again.
“Hello?” Alistair answered his vid-phone.
He didn’t recognize her, and Kipper realized it was her white fur. “It’s me. Kipper,” she said.
“Oh, hi, Kip!” He tactfully didn’t comment on the dyed fur. “Have you caught up with Petra?”
“Uh… Not yet,” Kipper answered, surprised by how cheerful Alistair looked. “Have you heard from her?
“Nope,” he said. “But I wired the money for you. It’s at the Coastal Canine Bank, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, under our mother’s name. That way either of you can pick it up. In case Petra gets there first. And thinks to call home.”
Kipper smiled, “Cute.”
“Thanks,” Alistair said.
Of course, they didn’t really know their mother’s name, but when they were kittens Kipper, Alistair, and Petra liked to pretend her name was Mother Theresa B. Goodkitty. No one else knew that, and there was no way to trace it to any of them.
Kipper wished Petra had checked in with Alistair. She must have had a chance by now. She could be so inconsiderate sometimes. Unless, of course, something had happened to her… Kipper quickly derailed that line of thinking. Petra was a tough cat. If any cat could take care of herself, it was Petra.
“How’s the campaign going?” Kipper asked.
Alistair leaned back, looking very relaxed and pleased with himself. At least he didn’t seem to be worried about their wayward sister. If he wasn’t, maybe she shouldn’t be. Stupid Petra.
“Excellent,” Alistair said, answering her question. “The cats around here are eating it up that I took over the campaign of my poor, lost sister who’s vanished without a trace. The police are freaking out, because they’re taking all the heat, and they can’t prove that they’re not the ones who disappeared her. And you.”
“Just as long as Sahalie doesn’t turn on you.”
“Sahalie? Isn’t that Petra’s boss?” Alistair looked confused. Kipper had forgotten that she hadn’t had time to tell him about Sahalie during their last call.
“Yeah…” Kipper said. “She’s the one who hired Trudith.” Wait… had she told him about Trudith? Kipper couldn’t remember. “But, it’s okay, now she’s driving me to Ecuador.”
“Sahalie?” Now Alistair looked really confused.
“No, Trudith.” Kipper didn’t feel up to sorting the story out for him. “But…” she said, thinking it out for herself. “Sahalie shouldn’t have any reason to turn on you, if you’re claiming that you don’t know what happened to me and Petra.”
Alistair looked at Kipper like she was crazy. Kipper recognized the look. It was one they both gave Petra a lot. “Don’t worry,” he said. “That’s my whole line: I have no idea what happened to you or Petra. Besides,” he looked smug, “it’s too late for anyone to come after me. If anything happened to me now, there’d probably be a revolution.”
Kipper flicked her ears. “I told you that you were better suited to politics than Petra. Or me.”
“You just keep yourself safe and catch up with Petra,” he said.
Kipper hung up the vidphone and sighed. She wished she felt as sure of everything as her brother. And she wished she’d be there to vote for him, but, at this rate, she really would make it to Ecuador before finding Petra. Besides she wouldn’t feel safe in New LA again until she knew what happened between Violet and Sahalie. And whether Sahalie was done trying to happen it to her.
Kipper walked the block back to the car charge station, but Trudith’s black sedan was parked in front of the convenience store, no longer in the charger. Trudith was no where to be seen.
Kipper tried the car doors, but Trudith had locked them. There was a dog behind the register in the convenience store, and Kipper could see several mangy, yellow, short-haired dogs kicking a can down the street. She thought about waiting by the car, but the street dogs made her nervous. There were so few cats here, she didn’t know how the dogs would treat a cat. Was she an oddity to ignore? A toy to play with? Kipper didn’t want to find out, so she took a chance on the speckled dog behind the register.
The glass door chimed as she opened it, but Kipper didn’t go all the way in. She stood inside the open door and shouted out, “Have you seen the black dog with the sedan?” She gestured toward Trudith’s car.
The dog answered in a heavy accent which Kipper couldn’t understand, but then he came out from behind the register. He put his paws on her and began forcing her back outside. Kipper felt the fur on the back of her neck rising and her claws flexing inside their sheaths. She backed away from the dog, throwing his arm off of her, but he kept walking around the edge of the store front, gesturing for her to follow. He wanted her to follow him down the alley between the stores, but Kipper didn’t like the idea of being alone back there with him. She added distance between them, edging toward the other building until she could get a view down the alley, around the back of the convenience store.
It was an open field back there, and she could see about twenty dogs. Trudith was among them, fighting them off. She was clearly the biggest and the strongest — the others all looked gauntly thin in comparison — but, she was no match for twenty dogs.
Kipper’s teeth parted in a hiss, and she slashed at the speckled dog as he grabbed her wrist and tried to drag her toward the other dogs. She fought and spat, but the speckled dog kept talking in his incomprehensible Mexican accent and pulling her down the alley. She simply wasn’t as strong as him. Even the smallest dogs are stronger than most strong cats. At the end of the alley, she got a good slash on his upper arm, and he let go. Kipper fell backward into the dirt and was scrambling to run away when Trudith came bounding to her side.
“Want to play?” Trudith asked and shoved a scramball in her face.
Kipper scrabbled back to her feet, smoothing her fur and recollecting her dignity. “No,” she said, breathless and confused. “We have to go.”
“Aw come on,” Trudith said, completely unaware of Kipper’s recent fright.
The other dogs, now clearly an impromptu, ragtag scramball team, gathered around and joined in Trudith’s cajoling. Most of the dogs were Chihuahuas and Xolos. Kipper couldn’t make out their words, but she got the idea that they felt better matched to her than Trudith.
“If you play one game,” Trudith said, making her final offer, “I’ll buy you dinner when we get to Guatemala.”
Given that Kipper wouldn’t have access to Alistair’s wired funds until they hit Ecuador, she couldn’t afford to turn down a free dinner. Also, if they stopped at a restaurant, she might be able to pick out something easier on the stomach than Trudith’s choice of car snacks. Kipper put her paws out to accept the scramball.
Kipper had never played the game before, but she couldn’t have worked in an office environment with dogs for as long as she had without picking up the basics. It helped that these dogs seemed to be playing by looser rules than usual.
The twenty odd dogs were divided unevenly into three teams. Trudith’s team was the smallest, and Kipper’s the largest, to make up for their disparate abilities. At any given time, one team had the ball and was trying to get it to the second team. The third team was trying to co-opt it. If Team One got the ball to Team Two, then both teams scored. Then Team Two took over trying to get the ball to Team Three, and Team One had to try to co-opt it.
However, if Teams One and Two failed, and Team Three co-opted the ball, then Team Three got double points. And, the order would reverse.
From Kipper’s perspective, there were suddenly a lot of dogs to dodge, swipe (with sheathed claws), and duck between. The ball itself was a highly theoretical object, lost somewhere among the sea of dogs on the yellow team. Her own team — defined as “the dogs in green plus the cat” — was fanned out around the main fray.
A huge cheer rose from her team when a Chihuahua sporting a yellow bandana on his arm managed to pass the ball through the ring of red team blockers. The entire topology of the field changed with the passing of the ball. Red team dogs found themselves shoved bodily away from anyone wearing a speck of green. And vice versa. Kipper decided her goal would be to keep from getting the wind knocked out of her. She ducked and weaved among the dogs in red, mostly trying to keep their big paws off of her.
Her plan backfired, however, when one of her teammates, a hairless, black-skinned Xolo dog, got the ball. “Hey, cat!” he called. “You’re good at dodging! Can you catch?”
Kipper hadn’t meant to impress anyone. And she certainly hadn’t meant to end up with the ball. There was only a split second to decide though, and she didn’t want to be “that hilariously pathetic cat who ran from the ball.” So, instead of becoming a laughingstock, Kipper threw out her paws. The ball slammed her in the chest, knocking the wind out of her, but, she wrapped her arms tight around it. Then she took off running before the entire field of dogs could converge, violently, on the spot.
Barreling forward, dodging erratically, Kipper realized she needed a plan. She had to keep the ball away from yellow, and get it to someone — anyone — wearing something green or red. Fortunately, she was good at thinking on her feet. Or so she’d thought before playing scramball…
Running and dodging bought her time, but she could only run for so long. The only dogs that even got near her all wore tell-tale scraps of yellow. Bandanas tied around necks or arms; a ratty t-shirt. Trudith sported a yellow sash, borrowed and tied around her middle. About to give up, Kipper had an idea. She aimed straight for Trudith, leaping with all her cat’s might. Dogs are strong and fast, but they can’t jump like cats.
Kipper sailed right over Trudith, landing on her surprised companion’s back. Holding on tight with her legs and one arm, Kipper waved the scramball in the air, furiously searching the mosh of dogs for a teammate who was clear.
When she finally divested herself of the ball, Kipper slid down Trudith’s back, and sank to the ground. But she didn’t stay there long before getting back in the game. To her utter surprise, Kipper’s small size and limber agility counted for almost as much as the dog players’ weight. She was good at scramball.
Exhilarated and exhausted by the end of the game, Kipper crashed against Trudith’s side for support, panting like one of the dogs. “That was fun,” she said. “I’ve got to start up a scramball team for cats when this is all done.”
“There are already a few,” Trudith said, bouncing the scramball back to a lanky Xolo.
One of the Chihuahua’s from Kipper’s team came up to her and shook her paws, speaking a few indecipherable words. She guessed he was congratulating her on the game. Then, he looked her over and pulled off his green scramball jersey, holding it out for her. Most of the dogs didn’t have real jerseys, but this Chihuahua had a real, numbered scramball jersey.
“Take it,” Trudith said. “It’ll fit you.”
Kipper grinned and threw the green jersey on over her blue tunic. It was number twenty-five, and she decided that would be her new lucky number. She’d never felt more accepted. “Thank you,” she said, giving the Chihuahua a hug. “Really, thanks.”
Continue on to Chapter 6…