by Mary E. Lowd
As the bill was already settled, Kipper had herself dressed and back out on the main drag in no time. She caught herself looking at the otters around her, trying to catch their reaction to her in their eyes. She wove between them, staying as far away from the artificial river as she could manage. She didn’t want to get tripped or pushed into the water again. The otters, by and large, gave her a respectful amount of space. Perhaps they understood what she was doing. She imagined herself walking in the paw steps of all the other cats who had come to this station and who carefully edged their way away from the water.
Of course, her behavior didn’t go completely unnoticed. The otters looked at her as she edged around them. They looked at her, and they held their gaze longer than she expected. They looked at her, and they smiled. Kipper began to fear it was a condescending smile. Perhaps because they knew she was afraid of the water. Or, perhaps, because they were quietly laughing at her new coloring.
On Earth, a dog wouldn’t look at a cat on the street for longer than it had to. Longer than it took the dog’s eyes to pass the cat over and move on to something safer to look at. And a dog wouldn’t smile at a strange cat for no reason.
So, clearly, there must be something comical about her that made them look and smile. Except… The further she walked and the more closely she watched the otters, the less that felt like the case. These smiles didn’t feel like they singled her out of the crowd. These smiles were bouncing all over the crowd. These smiles were being shared between otter and otter.
Maybe otters just smile at strangers more than dogs.
Maybe, otters just smile more than dogs. Or cats, for that matter.
Kipper continued to follow the curve of the river, upstream like Trugger had described. As she understood it, the red quarter was very near the giant cargo bay where bloodhound and bulldog had chased her across puddles from Ganymede. However, she could get there from the other side, without passing that minefield, if she followed the river far enough — basically, if she followed the river all the way around. A handy aspect of living on a torus.
As she understood it, the space elevator unloaded into a cargo bay on the docking ring. All the above board, official, completely honest shipping business took place right there, by the elevator. The red quarter was on the opposite side of the docking ring, as far away from the space elevator cargo bay as the cut-throat pirates and “honest” black-marketeers (like Trugger’s hard-working captain) could manage to be, while still actually docking their ships on the docking ring.
Of course, since Kipper was walking around the outermost ring of Deep Sky Anchor — necessarily the largest ring — she would have to walk a long way to get there. But, she didn’t intend to keep it that way.
After the equivalent of a couple of New LA city blocks, she made her way to the edge of the wide room housing the river. There was another spiral stair that matched the one she’d come down before. In fact, they were apparently staggered along opposite sides of the river. So, she could have avoided swimming across the river before by climbing up a level, crossing there, and climbing back down a stair case on the opposite side. If only she’d known.
Kipper mounted the stair and spiraled away from the noise and tumult of the river. It was clearly the center of otter life on this station. The other levels she passed while spiraling toward the innermost docking level were deathly quiet in comparison.
Before emerging again on her desired level at the top of the stair, Kipper paused to catch her breath. Center herself. Convince herself that there wouldn’t be dogs waiting to arrest her.
She did draw a few stares when she rounded that final spiral and stepped up onto the docking ring floor. That was only to be expected. There aren’t many cats in space. But, the otters and dogs she saw were all otherwise occupied; they weren’t looking for a runaway, stowaway cat. So, they didn’t look at her for long before getting back to their real work: moving crates and boxes, loading and unloading docked ships. Kipper breathed a deep sigh of relief.
She didn’t know where she was going, precisely, but Kipper automatically turned away from the end of the cargo ring where she had begun. By coming back to the docking ring, she knew she was re-entering the territory of Chip’s hired bloodhound and that white bulldog, Luce. But, now, every step took her further into the red quarter, and farther away from them. So, with every step, she relaxed a little. She dug her paw in her pocket and pulled out the crumpled receipt with her scribbled directions:
“@ SE, ask for Chip — night flight — DSA, red 1/4 — Larson w/the Manta Ray”
If Petra was up here, those were the words that would guide her. Her heart raced a little at the thought that so few words might stand between her and her sister now: “Larson w/the Manta Ray.”
Larson must be Violet’s final contact, and, perhaps, the Manta Ray was a space ship? If so, would it still be here? Violet had started out several days ahead of Kipper, and she took the shortcut to Ecuador. The road trip through Central America with Trudith had put even more time between them. By now… Well, if the Manta Ray was waiting to take Violet somewhere, she could already be there. At Cat Haven. Or wherever else she’d decided to go. Wherever Sahalie had sent her…
Could that really be true? Could Violet and Sahalie have really been working together? The fact that Sahalie’s money seemed to be behind the space elevator “night flights” implied it. But… Kipper still found it hard to believe.
None of that mattered though. Kipper was in space now, without enough money to get back down. She had no where else to go, so she might as well go forward. Kipper’s ears flattened in consternation and concentration. She needed a way to find out where the Manta Ray was or, if it was gone, where it had been heading.
With her ears flat and her eyes focused on the scrawled words “Manta Ray,” as if she could summon Larson (whoever he was) out of words themselves with her gaze, Kipper practically walked into Luce.
She was deep in the red quarter, by now. And most of the otters around looked like Trugger, tattooed and dyed beyond recognition. Okay, most of them weren’t as extreme as Trugger, but there was barely an otter who still sported a fully brown coat. Luce should have stuck out like a sore thumb, but Kipper hadn’t been looking. And, in her defense, Luce was shorter than the otters. (For Kipper’s pride, Kipper hoped Luce had been standing behind one. For her future safety, Kipper wished she was standing behind one now. Or several. Big ones. Who liked defending strange cats…)
Fortunately for Kipper, Luce was looking the other way. She was snarling — maybe Luce didn’t mean to snarl, but her bulldog grimace turned her face into a snarl anyway — at a bunch of otters. Unfortunately, she was asking them if they’d seen any cats around, and right as Kipper was going to breathe a sigh of relief that Luce hadn’t seen her, one of the lanky, young-lookin’ otters pointed right at her. Luce swung her head around for a quick look, but Kipper’s disguise must have worked. Luce turned right back to the otters and snarled, “Not a spotted one, a white one. A white one wearing a…” Luce trailed off, and Kipper realized she’d made a horrible mistake.
After all that trouble to dye her fur, she was still wearing the same green jersey.
She started to back away, but Luce was already coming toward her. Eyes locked on her. Trying to make a break for it would just confirm what Luce already suspected, and then she’d be on the run again with a blown disguise. So, Kipper planted her paws firmly on the ground where she stood and waited for the bulldog to approach. Acting as if she didn’t care. Maybe, by some miracle, Luce could be convinced that this wasn’t the cat she was looking for.
After a broad look up and down, Luce snorted through her foreshortened nose. “Where’d you get that green jersey?” she asked.
“I bought it at a thrift shop on the outer ring.”
Luce snorted again. Kipper hoped that all of Maury’s toxic dyes combined with Luce’s useless-looking, foreshortened nose would be enough to protect her from being recognized by smell. Given that Luce hadn’t laid paws on her yet, Kipper guessed it was.
Thank goodness she’d run into Luce instead of her bloodhound partner.
The moments stretched on, and Kipper tried to imagine the thoughts going on behind Luce’s wrinkled forehead. Was there another cat running around wearing a green jersey? Was there a whole team of cats wearing green jerseys? Was this spotted cat trying to cover up for her white-furred, green-jersey-wearing teammate? Kipper had to concentrate to keep from snickering. She didn’t really believe Luce’s thought processes would be so laughable, but she could hope.
Since Luce hadn’t actually tried to detain her, Kipper decided to try moving on her way. It didn’t work.
“Wait,” Luce said. “I need to ask you a few more questions.” She reached a stubby arm out and wrapped a dull-clawed paw around Kipper’s upper arm. “Let’s go find my partner.”
“I haven’t done anything,” Kipper said, digging her claws into the metal flooring. The scree of the metal under her sharpened claw tips was unpleasant, but Luce kept dragging her along regardless.
Kipper was still trying to decide between fight, flight, and continuing to protest her innocence when Luce flipped out a vidcom with her free paw. The bloodhound popped up on the little color screen. “Luce?” he said. His voice came out tinny in the tiny speakers. “What’ve you got?”
Kipper tried to ease away from the vidcom, but Luce’s grip was too firm. She thought about leaning out of the vidcom’s video range, but that seemed too awkward and suspicious. She’d just have to hope the bloodhound wasn’t any better at recognizing a fur-job by sight than Luce.
“I found a spotted cat, dressed like the one we’re chasing. Smells similar too, but I’m not sure.”
“I dunno, Luce,” the bloodhound said. “We’re looking for a white cat.”
“Coulda dyed her fur.”
“And not changed her clothes? Not even a cat is that dumb.”
Kipper fumed. But kept it quiet. The only thing worse than being that dumb would be being more dumb. She wouldn’t compound her stupidity by denying it. In one stroke, revealing herself and proving Luce — a dog — right. And, in this case, a dog was right. It happened. Sometimes.
“Look,” the bloodhound continued, seeing that Luce was less than convinced. “I called down to Chip a few minutes ago, and he said this cat will be heading for the Manta Ray. So, why don’t you drag the spotted cat along, and I’ll meet you there?”
“Sure,” Luce agreed and pocketed the vidcom again. “Let’s go,” she told Kipper before beginning to drag her along. Perhaps Kipper should have struggled, argued that she had somewhere else to be. But, she’d forgotten her role of innocent Egyptian Mau entirely when she heard that the Manta Ray was still docked. The bloodhound was right — again — that was exactly where she was headed. And it made her very nervous that he knew that. Though, it didn’t change her plans; the Manta Ray was the one place she could hope to find some answers.
Of course, she would rather not arrive effectively handcuffed to Luce. Nor at the same time as a bloodhound who would have a better than even chance of recognizing her scent. He had already proved himself pretty smart for a dog.
No, it would be much better if Kipper could give Luce the slip and then follow her there.
To that end, Kipper needed a distraction. She looked around, but nothing seemed imminent. None of these otters were going to unknowingly cooperate with her. So, she’d just have to do the best with what she had: a purple duffel bag and a believable outrage at how Luce was treating her.
First step. As an otter passed by, almost brushing Kipper’s shoulder, she slung her purple duffel down and kicked it. Then, she stumbled as if she’d tripped, tangling her hind paws in the otter’s. The otter crashed down, rolling into a tumble of paws and fur with her.
A little dazed, even though she’d known the fall was coming, Kipper pushed herself off the cold metal floor. She was winded, and the otter looked at least as phased as her. “Are you all right?” the otter asked. Kipper could tell from the voice and clothes that it was a woman otter. Though, despite years of watching otter television, she still had trouble telling the slight differences in physique between male and female otters apart on sight.
“Yeah, I’m fine…” Kipper started to say. It was true, and it was polite. And she wanted to be polite to this hapless otter who wouldn’t know why Kipper was about to flip out at her. But she needed a scene. So, she fought her civilized impulses and readied herself to hurl insults and accusations at the otter for tripping her and kicking her bag.
She didn’t need to.
Before Kipper could say anything, Luce jumped in and started doing it for her. Everything Kipper could have thought of to say — reasonable or not — Luce did say. Kipper and the otter stared wide eyed at her, as the string of vituperative invectives hurled from Luce’s jowly mouth grew and grew. Any unenlightened bystander would have thought the otter woman was personally responsible for stealing and hiding the First Race away from Luce and all her devout, bereaved dog brethren. Not merely tripping over a cat.
“I’m sorry…” the otter woman mumbled, sounding horribly shamed. But, then, another otter, who couldn’t help listening to Luce’s voluminous tirade stepped in with his part: “Don’t you feel sorry about upsetting this dog! I’ve never heard anyone be more rude, and I didn’t see you do anything wrong!” He reached to help her up, kindly putting a paw out to Kipper too.
“Water breathers,” Luce growled. By then, there were even more otters gathered around to take offense at Luce’s racial slur. “Interfering with my cat. All sticking together!”
“Your cat?!” Kipper cried out. Her outrage was automatic, but she couldn’t have chosen a more perfect response or set a more perfect timbre to her voice. The otters immediately rallied around her.
The otter who’d helped her and the woman otter up emerged as the un-elected spokesman: “I don’t know what you’re used to down there,” the contempt in his voice shook his whiskers as he spoke, “but you don’t own cats or anyone up here.”
“She’s my captive!” Deep behind the sags of skin and red rims, Luce’s eyes were shifting madly among the growing circle of otters. Better than that, since she and Kipper were already deep in the red quarter, it was a growing circle of otter renegades, black marketeers, and — to use the tattooist’s word — pirates.
Kipper grinned, watching and slowly backing away as the scene she’d started spiraled completely out of control. Apparently, the red quarter otters had a long backlog of issues with Earth law (possibly law in general), dog enforcers (probably law enforcers in general), and Luce, specifically. Kipper had given them the excuse they needed to vent a little.
As much as she felt Luce deserved a taste of her own medicine, Kipper was glad to see that the otter throng didn’t descend past a few shoves and raised voices. “Get back to your quarter!” one otter shouted; another followed with, “Go back down to Earth.” But, by and large, as the otters had their say, they felt satisfied enough to leave the mob. Become individuals again. So, one by one, the otters left Luce standing in the middle of the hall, seething, eyes darting — probably looking for Kipper. But, the distraction had provided more than enough time and cover for Kipper to reacquire her duffel and squeeze behind a nearby docking fixture.
She crouched close to the floor, hoping Luce would continue scanning the crowd at head height, and peered between the metal flanges of the gear-like protuberance providing her dog-blind. Not much more than her eyes and whiskers could be showing, and even those were in the shadows. Moreover, Kipper knew that Luce’s sense of smell wasn’t what a dog’s should be. Still, her heart leapt when Luce wrinkled her nose while looking nearly at her.
Then, Luce stomped her paw, grumbled, and gave up. Her expression must have meant disgust and resignation — not the hint of a feline scent. Kipper allowed Luce a solid head start before slipping out from her hiding hole to trail her. Better to lose Luce than have Luce unlose her.
Continue on to Chapter 11…