by Mary E. Lowd
The door opened, spilling space station light into the hold. Kipper could hardly wait to set paw on the light-kissed ground. The closer she got to otter space, the more buzzed she got. She wanted to get out there and see what Deep Sky Anchor was really like. She wanted to join the otters, swimming in their “rivers in the sky.”
The only thing between her and those “rivers” were a squat, white bulldog and the lanky-lookin’ bloodhound nosing around the elevator entrance. Chip’s goons. She could tell them apart from the hired hands — also dogs — because they weren’t wheeling dollies into the hold. No, their paws were free. And their eyes, ears, and noses were searching.
Kipper was particularly worried by the bloodhound’s nose. Black and moist; twitching ten feet below her. Thank goodness — and the otters who designed the station — that this cargo hold was so tall.
Kipper watched as the bloodhound crouched closer to the floor. The white bulldog, a female, stood beside him. They were both jowly dogs, the tall, red male and the short, white female. Folds of skin flapped all over each of their bodies. There was so much extra skin on the two of them, that Kipper could have folded the excess around herself, making a dog-costume to hide her. And there would have still been enough left that the skin-donors could hardly have missed it.
“Over this way, Luce,” the bloodhound barked to his partner.
Luce snarled — or maybe that was just the normal shape of her face? Kipper couldn’t tell. At any rate, the bloodhound followed the scent he’d picked up. It led him back towards the Paris Poodles’ crate. Luce, the bulldog, strutted after him, charging toward a random crate here or there, as if to give a phantom cat-in-hiding a scare. Kipper imagined the routine would have worked on her if she’d been behind any of the boxes. Safely above the dogs’ heads, however, it just gave her the shivers, fluffing her fur a little.
Kipper tensed and relaxed her claws, compulsively sheathing and unsheathing them, counting out the seconds as Chip’s goons moved further and further away from her. The Paris Poodle’s crate was in the very back of the hold; so, when they reached it, they’d be as far from her as they would get. After that, her scent trail would just bring them closer. Now was the time. The time to leap and run and get away.
With only the briefest glance at the dogs loading crates on their dollies, Kipper eased herself off of the ceiling pipes and dropped to the floor. So far so good: none of the dogs had seen her, and her landing had been silent. So, they didn’t hear her either.
Kipper flattened her body into a crouch; her stomach was barely a centimeter above the floor. She moved herself, slinking, toward the nearest stack of crates. Now that she was safely down, she didn’t want to bring attention to herself with any sudden movements. But it was hard: she wanted away from those goons, and she wanted to be out there. She wanted to look through a window and see herself surrounded by stars. She wanted to see a world where otters walked around, the proud owners. Instead of dogs. It wasn’t cats, but, hey, at least it wasn’t dogs.
Now that would be a thing to see. A world owned by cats. The world Petra was looking for. Kipper let out a sigh. She didn’t think the dogs could have heard her. The bloodhound was still busy sniffing every corner of the Paris Poodle’s crate, but Luce looked around suddenly. “There!” she growled, deep and guttural. The bloodhound snapped his head around, so that his snuffling nose was pointing right at Kipper, folds of jowl pulled into a scowl. Had he seen her? Yes, he had.
Every muscle in Kipper’s body tensed at once, launching her into the air. For a moment, she hovered there, every fur, dyed or natural on her body sticking straight out. A gray and white puffball, dressed in a green jersey.
Then, almost faster than Chip’s goons could see, Kipper twisted her spine around, hit the floor, and was off running into the wild, gray yonder. Steel arches and hatchways were the order of the day, with piles of crates and barrels strewn between them. Kipper dodged between the blue plastic barrels and wooden crates, cutting close to them, hoping to obscure her pursuer’s view of her. She was tempted to hide among the cargo, but the bloodhound would sniff her out. No, she needed a way out of Deep Sky Anchor’s loading dock. And, she needed a way to divert the bloodhound’s nosy nose while she took it.
She stopped to breathe behind one of the giant blue barrels. She was panting like a dog, but a quick glance around the edge of the barrel told her that she hadn’t been running like one. She’d been running much faster and was safely, for the moment, out of the goons’ sight. She wanted to take a moment and enjoy the feel of space station metal under her feet, but there wasn’t time. She had to get her bearings, catch her breath, and plan.
She was leaning against the smooth blue plastic of the barrel, still panting, when she noticed indentations under her paws. The indented words read, “Pure Ganymedean H2O — Best in the Solar System.” And there was a valve.
Kipper wondered how much damage she could do to the otter’s cargo before she became a fugitive of the otters as well as Chip’s goons. Well, if she got away fast enough, maybe the otter’s would never find out. She imagined the underworld goons and the above board police officials didn’t talk to each other much. At least, she hoped not.
Here goes, she thought and threw all her weight into wrenching open the black valve fixture protruding from the giant blue barrel. It resisted at first, but then the water began trickling out. A full turn of the valve, and the water was veritably gushing.
She moved to the next barrel. Soon, the floor was flooded with melted Ganymede, even more gooshing on the way. Kipper wasn’t crazy about the feel of Ganymede in the fur between her paw pads. But, it was worth it, if it wiped the track of her scent away. Tiny paw prints — impressions of the oil from her pads — were leading that red furred, baggy skinned nose straight to her. Now, he’d have to be able to scent her through a thin layer of Ganymede. Without getting her into their line of sight, Kipper didn’t think the goons would have enough to go on.
So, her best plan was to keep moving; keep out of sight. That in mind, she dropped low on her haunches and peered around the blue barrels. The white bulldog, Luce, was a distance off, talking to some dock workers. They must have been too absorbed in their grunt work to notice the gray and white streak of fur duck ‘n’ weaving her way across the floor, because they were scratching their heads and shrugging. The bloodhound was hunched over, inspecting the edge of the growing puddle of Ganymede.
“Where’s this water coming from?” he called out to the dock workers. A few of them turned away from their crates and dollies to join in the inspection.
“One of the barrels must be leaking,” Kipper heard one of them say.
“Leaking my nose,” the bloodhound answered. “Find the ‘leak,’ find the missing cat. Get on it.”
The dock workers, Luce, and the bloodhound fanned out. They were completely unfazed by stepping into the sloshy Ganymede puddle. Kipper could barely stand the feeling of it squishing between her toes. But, she would have to put it out of her mind a little longer.
By now the puddle was big enough (and still expanding) that several configurations of barrels could have been the source. The goons and dockworkers were all to one side of her — back toward the docked elevator. So, Kipper went the other way, keeping the blue barrels always between them.
Stepping slowly and surely, to stop the water from splashing around her paws, Kipper made her way to one of the steel arches edging the docking pad. There she found a spiral stairwell. Next to it was a sign bearing a colorful map of the station.
As she read the map, Kipper reflexively tried to shake the moisture off her paws. She lifted one back paw, and then the other, shifting her weight between them. It didn’t work. But, when she flexed her claws, she could feel the water squeezing out between her tightened paw pads. Wringing all the water out would take more time than she had. She would have to ignore the feeling of Ganymede between her toes.
The space station map was composed of a number of concentric rings. That way, by spinning, the space station could simulate gravity with centripetal force. The outermost edge of the station — where Kipper wanted to be — was in blue. The cargo bay — where she currently stood — was in black, several rings inward. Which translated to being a few levels above it. So, in two flicks of the tip of her tail, she was bounding along the steps of the spiral staircase. Headed down.
At first, the sound of her footfalls and breathing resounded in her ears. She was sure the bloodhound or Luce would track her to the staircase, drawn by the horrible racket she was making. But it was all in her pointy ears. No barks of “Stop, cat!” came from above. No rough paws grabbed her from behind. She made it three flights down, past a business level, and through a medical section, all the way to the bottom of the stairs. The outer ring. The hub of life on Deep Sky Anchor.
She took a deep breath, flattening her ears in anticipation, and stepped around the last spiral of stairs.
There they were. Otters. Otters in suits, like the two on the ferry to the elevator; otters in street clothes — baggy britches and sloppy tunics like the puppy bands of the last decade had made popular; otters of all kinds, living their lives, wandering around their space station.
It was thrilling. A little like getting a glimpse of what Cat Haven might be like. Except with otters. She wished Petra were here to see it.
It was a little eerie though. All the inhabitants having brushy brown fur, short legs, crazy-long spines, and startlingly self-similar, rounded faces — how did otters tell each other apart? At least, with dogs, they were all different heights and colors. And some of them had beards, like Chip, or elephantine skin like the bloodhound. Kipper shrugged. The otters probably thought all cats look alike. If so, all the better for her, because she still needed to be covering her trail.
To that end, Kipper stepped away from the mouth of the spiral staircase and into the crowd. She was congratulating herself on becoming a part of the rivers in the sky when the crowd of otters parted in front of her. And suddenly her breath caught in her throat. Her ears dropped flat against her skull, and her fur even fluffed out a bit. Those rivers… She thought they were a metaphor…
They weren’t a metaphor. The crowd of otters thinned and thickened, blocking her view and then allowing glimpses between them. Always behind them, there it was. Blue and rippling, burbling toward her… The river in the sky was a real river, running through the middle of the broad corridor that was the outer ring of Deep Sky Anchor.
Kipper stepped carefully between the otters in the crowd, edging nervously toward the river. When she got to its bank — a deep step in the metal flooring — she turned her head, looking first down- and then upriver. Yes, the artificial river descended as far as she could see into the distance. It must run all the way around the station. A river with no end. Or beginning. Like a snake swallowing its own tail, this river ran.
And the life on the station ran in and out of it. As naturally as… ducks in a pond. Or, otters in a river.
There were cafes with tables right at the edge, chairs knee-deep in the water. Some otters dove right in and swam along like fishes. The middle of the river, clearly deeper than the edges, was like the foot traffic freeway. And, off in the distance, Kipper could see water slides, tributaries joining the central river from either side of the broad, long room all this life was bustling in.
Yes, now that she looked closer, Kipper realized that many of the otters’ pelts were wet. And their clothes too. Well, at least her wet toes weren’t about to look out of place. Still, her species — and her strangely dyed fur — was sorely out of place. She needed to find something to do about that.
The species… well, that she was stuck with. But, ten minutes of wandering along the bank of the artificial river brought her within sight of a solution to the other problem. A fur tattoo shop. Right across the river from her. It was a dingy lookin’ hole in the wall, and the otter running it was completely covered in tattoo dye, but he would have the materials to make her look like one breed of cat again. If she could just get across the river…
Sure, it would be normal and otterly to jump right in, swim across, pat down her wet clothing on the other side. But… Kipper wasn’t otterly. She was feline. And, well, honestly, cats don’t like to get wet. That one’s not a myth.
A few minutes of dithering at the edge of the river, dipping her toes, and generally trying to steel her nerves brought Kipper to an important conclusion. There had to be a bridge. So, she continued upriver, enjoying the sights, looking for a dry way across. She wasn’t having any luck, but Kipper didn’t mind. Her eyes weren’t on the river anyway. They were on the sky: huge windows arched above the entire strip. She could see the other rings of the station in their metal enormity through those windows. She could also see the stars.
Kipper’s eyes were still focused on the stars, and her mind was in a place all its own, when a troop of otter pups — school age younglings barely up to Kipper’s knees — came galloping by. The majority of them went around her, but it only took a few clumsy pups to throw Kipper off balance. She teetered valiantly, every catly instinct trying to keep her from getting wet. Nonetheless, she landed in the drink. Her automatic reflexes immediately kicked in, and Kipper became a blur of white and gray fur, flailing, hissing, and spitting uselessly. It took a concerted effort on her part to control those panic reflexes and pull herself back out.
Of course, she pulled herself out on the wrong side. The side she’d started on. Ears completely flattened, water dripping from their tips, Kipper let out a mournful meouwl. She squinched her eyes shut and crawled back in. She was already soaked to the bone, she might as well save herself another fruitless search for a bridge. Clearly, otters didn’t believe in them.
The water rushed past her, pushing her downstream as she struggled against it, toward the farther shore. She crawled out, miserable and scrawny. A wet cat. Her fur and clothes were plastered to her from the water, and her purple duffel was dripping like an over-saturated sponge. She felt half-drowned. But, the otters just kept walking by. Bouncing, actually. Their short legs and long, sinuous spines combined to give them all a bouncy, circus gait. Kipper despised them, and their water.
She sat and gasped a while longer, but eventually she had to get up. She wrung out the folds of her green scramball jersey and baggy trousers. She shook her head and could feel the fur fluff up, all spiky with wetness. She must look a fright. Her tail was swishing, and she hadn’t even noticed.
Oh well. A fur-dresser would want to wet her fur before dying it anyway. She slunk back along the side of the river, until she once again reached the tattoo shop. Cheap snapshots were taped all over the windows, showing what kind of work the shop could do. Otters were twisted around in the pictures to better display their new fur art. The photographer was clearly an amateur. Faces were fuzzy and out of focus — fuzzier than they should be just from fur.
Most of the otters proudly modeling their dye- tattooed arms or punk stripes in the pictures were trying to look like tough guys. Kipper had trouble seeing an otter who would have to return to a fur-dresser to have his tattoos re-dyed every few weeks as a tough guy. Down on Earth, it was street walker alley cats who hung out at the fur-dresser’s. And, when it came down to it, a tattoo shop is just a fur-dresser with attitude.
Kipper shrugged, swung back the door, and walked in.
There were three funny swivel chairs; one was leaned way back so that the otter occupying it could drape himself over it on his stomach. A skinny little river otter was shaving a stripe down the occupant’s back. Very punk.
Kipper hoped they would be up to repairing her stripes. She didn’t want to walk out of here covered in shaved patches alternated with purple spikes.
“Well, hello, Missy Feline,” said a grizzled sea otter as he came out from the back. A bizarrely pink curtain cordoned off the back of the shop. It was a very small shop, but the mirrored walls made it feel less crowded. Kipper presumed the mirrors were there so that the clients could watch what was being done to them. She would have to watch them very carefully if she was going to trust this old grizzly bear of an otter anywhere near her fur. “I’m Maurice,” he said. “Call me Maury.” And the otter stuck his dye-stained paw toward her.
Kipper narrowed her eyes, looking closely at his paw for a moment, and then a sense of peace and acceptance came over her. She stuck out her paw and shook his vigorously. “I’m Kipper, and I’m usually a gray tabby, but…” Her words broke off as her eyes strayed to the mangled image of her in the surrounding mirrors. She looked like an picture from a kitten’s coloring book: only partly filled in, barely constrained by the lines. “Can you fix it? Make my fur look natural again?”
Maury stepped in and put his paws on her. He lifted her arm, brushed his blunt claws along the seam between natural gray and white-bleached fur on her shoulder. He ruffled the fur, one way and then the other. “Cat fur is very thin,” he said.
“You’ve never worked on a cat?” Kipper asked, filled even further with apprehension.
“Not in a long time,” he said. He grinned big, seeing her nervousness. “Don’t worry. Thinner is easier. Whaddaya want? Back to tabby? Something more exotic?”
Kipper’s answer was on the tip of her tongue when she clamped her pointed teeth back together, holding the answer back. She wanted her fur back to normal again. The gray stripes she’d seen in the mirror every day of her life, all the way back to when she was peering into that clouded old mirror in the cattery. But…
She’d told Chip she was normally a tabby, hadn’t she? She wasn’t sure. She couldn’t take the risk.
“What kind of cats do you see the most of around here?” she asked.
“I know,” Kipper cut him off. “You don’t see many cats. But, when you do, what kinds?”
“I was gonna say, I don’t know what the different kinds are called.” Maury stretched his bewhiskered mouth again into that wide grin. Between the big, black nose in the center of his face and the rounded grin at the bottom of it — Maury looked the perfect clown. Kipper didn’t know how sea otters ever took each other seriously. “Now, I could describe them to you.”
Kipper dipped her ears submissively: an apology and encouragement for Maury to continue. He didn’t continue, and she realized he must not understand feline body language. She’d always taken it for granted that dogs understood — but, they lived around cats all the time. “Go on,” she said.
“Up here, it’s mostly white cats with dark faces, and flat faced cats — they come in all kinds of colors. We see a lot of those. Well, for cats. Like you said, we don’t see too many cats up here.”
Siamese and Persian, Kipper translated to herself. Persian didn’t do her any good; no amount of fur tattooing would give her a Persian’s snub nose. And, Kipper shuddered, she didn’t relish the idea of becoming one of the bottle-job Siamese she’d always loathed.
“Not liking those options?” Maury asked. “Hey now,” he slapped his paws against his thighs suddenly. “I saw a whole troupe of this other kind a couple weeks ago. They had more of your bone-structure than the cats with flat faces…”
“Persians,” Kipper provided.
“Right. But, they didn’t have that black and white coloring like the…”
“Yeah. These were built like them but with little gray spots all over. Whole rows of them. I could do your coat up like one of them — doctor those stripes into spots. Easy.”
Kipper narrowed her eyes trying to match up the physical description Maury gave her with any of the images of cats in her head. “Egyptian Maus?”
“They all had the gray spots?”
“Oh yeah, any otter who wasn’t an expert on fur coloring,” Maury dusted himself off proudly, “would have a really hard time telling them apart. If that’s what you’re going for?”
Kipper weighed her options briefly, but, in the end, she had to admit that fooling otters and dogs was a whole lot more important for the moment than not looking like a fool in front of the… what? …three, maybe four cats she would run into up here. Space: no-cat’s land. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s what I’m going for.”
“A cat of mystery,” offered the other tattooist, the skinny otter, winking at Kipper via the mirror.
Kipper turned around to face him and saw his client chuckling. He was still lying on his stomach, a white sheet draped over his bottom half. The skinny otter was no longer shaving stripes on him though. Now he was dying the remaining fur purple. And adding spikes. Kipper didn’t think he was someone to be doing much judging.
The chuckler hoisted himself up on one elbow and eyed Kipper. His laughing brown eyes were met with a cold green gaze, narrowing in challenge. He chose not to speak, but he kept chuckling.
“Here,” Maury said, “let’s go in back and work out the details.” With one glance from Maury, the purple porcupine lay back on his stomach and the skinny otter bustled back to work, teasing that thick otter pelt into jagged looking spines.
Behind the pink curtain, Maury had a little desk with a computer unit, almost buried by stacks and teetering piles of dusty old books and glossy fashion magazines. He leaned over the chair pushed up to the computer desk, instead of sitting down on it. “What were those spotted cats called again?” he asked.
“Egyptian Mau,” Kipper answered, consciously restraining her impulse to drag a paw pad through the layer of dust on a book with a cover that read Piratical Fur Art.
After punching a few buttons on the computer’s keypad, Maury swiveled the monitor around. The screen hosted several shots of handsome Egyptian Maus. “Is that what you’re hoping for?”
Maury turned the screen back and peered closely at it for a while. Another rash of typing, and he said, “It’ll take a few hours. Where you still have stripes, I can work with those, but I’ll have to lighten the fur around and between them. Your stripes are kind of a gray on gray, but these cats lighten out almost to white behind the spots.” He spun the screen around, and pointed to the silvery dappling along a particularly beautiful Egyptian Mau’s back. “See, there?”
“The hard part will be restructuring your face and paws. That’s what’ll really cost you.”
Kipper gulped and nodded again. In her nervousness about the impending figure, the price tag on her new disguise, she lost control of her paw: the dust on Piratical Fur Art now read “Kipper.”
“See, you’ve completely obliterated the markings on your face,” Maury continued, “I’ll need to create those delicate little stripe patterns from scratch.” He looked at her, then he looked at her paw, doodling in the dust and smiled that ridiculous clown grin.
Kipper pulled her paw away, as if the book had caught fire. She stuffed both white-bleached paws behind her back, and started wringing the green mesh of her jersey to keep them busy. When Maury finally quoted her the price, her eyes widened in disbelief.
“Is that too much for you?” he asked.
“No…” she stumbled. “I mean… That’s just fine.” Given the price of the elevator ride up to otter space, Kipper figured the price would be much higher. Either Maury was a shockingly philanthropic fur-stylist, or the cost of living in otter space was going to be much more affordable than she’d expected.
It didn’t hurt that she still had her life’s savings — courtesy of the free ride up the elevator, provided by Chip. “Thank you, Chip,” she muttered to herself, as she pulled the neatly folded but slightly damp envelope out of her pocket. She only had to hand over one bill for Maury to throw her a big grin.
“Now, wrap this around yourself, little kitty,” Maury shoved a folded white sheet toward her, “and I’ll be out front with the brushes and dyes when you’re stripped down to nothing but white cotton and,” he eyed her home-made dye job, “strangely dyed fur.”
Continue on to Chapter 9…