by Mary E. Lowd
Trailing Luce would have been easier for Kipper if bulldogs weren’t so much shorter than otters. Between Luce’s short, boxy shape and Kipper’s own limited height, Kipper felt constantly on the edge of losing Luce in the crowd of irritatingly tall otters. Of course, on the flipside, the large (albeit generally lanky) stature of all the space station natives kept Kipper from having to duck and weave too much to stay safely obscured from Luce’s view. “Too much” being a relative term.
The only thing that kept Kipper going when Luce disappeared around a blind corner or when an otter gave her a strange look for dodging suddenly behind a stack of crates was her immense need to find the Manta Ray. She’d come so far to find her sister. She’d traveled through more than a pawful of countries and off the very planet. After traveling so far, with only a ridiculous crumpled up receipt as her guide, she had too much invested to turn back. If she couldn’t find her sister, she could at least take her place. She would find Cat Haven for Petra or look like an idiot trying. That’s what Petra would do.
Even so, the entire process did make Kipper feel like an idiot. Skulking about, jumping out of sight at the slightest provocation — either she was a very bad spy, or spies had a stupid job.
Luce came to a sudden halt, and Kipper nearly walked from behind a blue coverall-ed otter right into her. She made a quick recovery, jumping straight backward and dodging behind a parked self-loader. All of her fur fluffed out from the fright, and the coverall-ed otter laughed at her.
Yes, an idiot. That’s how pretending to be a spy made her feel. A complete idiot. And that was before the worst part:
Kipper crouched behind the self-loader wondering what was taking Luce so long. The white bulldog was just standing there. Looking at something. Kipper crept around to the front of the self-loader, making sure to keep an otter between her and Luce, trying to get a better look. She bobbed about ridiculously for a minute or so, dealing what felt like a mortal blow to her cat pride. When she finally got a clear view without revealing herself, Kipper’s whiskers literally drooped.
Luce was taking so long because she was staring at a large electronic signboard. On the board was posted a twinkling LED manifesto of currently docked ships.
Luce didn’t know where the Manta Ray was any better than Kipper — she was reading its location off of a list. Kipper could have asked any otter she passed to help her find the Manta Ray. They all would have pointed her to that list.
A whimper caught in Kipper’s throat. It was the dying spasm of her cat pride. This was the final clinching proof that she really was stupid. Or at least, a terrible spy.
Still, when Luce continued on her way, Kipper followed her. She no longer needed Luce to find the quarry of her final clue, but what did she have to lose? She had no pride left, and she hoped…
She didn’t know what she hoped.
She’d simply invested too much in trailing this dog, pretending to be a spy, to give it up now and admit to herself it had been pointless.
So she continued doggedly on, sticking with Luce even as the albatross of a bulldog took several wrong turns. Finally, the berth of the Manta Ray, with an impatiently waiting bloodhound pacing out front, came into sight.
Despite the two dogs who were actively searching for her with who knew what ungodly plans for her in their minds, Kipper couldn’t help the relief that filled her at the sight of her quarry. There was the ship that had taken Violet away from all this dog nonsense. Or maybe, it was the ship Violet was still on? Either way, Kipper believed there were allies on that ship; she was almost sure enough to walk right past Luce and the bloodhound, counting on the otters inside to see her, recognize Violet’s kin — another cat who was tired of being dog-trodden, working for dogs, living under a government run by dogs, and being stuck on a world filled with dogs.
And yet… It was Sahalie who sent Trudith after her and turned Chip against her…
“I was just in talking to Larson,” the bloodhound said.
Even if Larson and all the other otters inside the Manta Ray were her allies, Kipper had followed Luce here at great cost. (A cat’s pride is worth a lot to a cat.) It couldn’t hurt to play out this game of spy. Play it safe. She was to the easy part now… So, Kipper sidled up against the station wall, shielded from sight by a jutting support beam, and listened.
“He hasn’t seen any stray cats,” the bloodhound continued, still clearly audible. Kipper didn’t like the way he stressed the word “stray.” “Where’s the cat you found?”
“She got away.”
Luce’s shamefaced sounding answer made Kipper’s ears perk up with glee. She risked peaking around the support beam. The bloodhound looked unimpressed.
“There was a problem with some of the otters,” Luce defended herself. “Almost a riot… I lost her in the crowd.”
The bloodhound treated Luce to the kind of patronizing look that Kipper enjoyed from dogs like him all the time.
“Probably wasn’t the right cat anyway…” Luce mumbled.
“That’s what I said.”
“Just an awful coincidence, you know, both of them wearing green jerseys like that.” The coincidence clearly still bothered her. Ironically, despite all of Luce’s incompetence, her first instinct was right. Kipper was tempted to make a splashy entrance and throw Luce into even greater confusion. She suspected that there wasn’t much more to learn from eavesdropping on these dog goons. Then, suddenly, the entire situation changed: a decidedly non-stray cat appeared, tentatively, from the inside of the Manta Ray’s entry hatch. It was Violet. She was still here.
She might not have kept a picture of herself on her desk at Luna Tech, but Kipper was willing to play the odds on this one. Just as there weren’t two cats running around Deep Sky Anchor wearing green jerseys, there weren’t two clear blue eyed Siamese women hanging around the Manta Ray. This was Violet.
In a deep, throaty voice Violet said: “The otters said you were out here.” Her regal bearing, the tone of her voice, the very shape of her eyes — everything about Violet shamed Kipper in her faux-Mau fur. “Is there a problem?”
This cat had fled dogs all the way into space, and Kipper had brought those same dogs right to her. But, then, Kipper noticed a strange thing. Luce and the bloodhound weren’t looking Violet in the eyes. Luce was shuffling her feet, and the bloodhound nearly stuttered as he said, “There’s a stray cat.”
“There are lots of stray cats,” Violet said. “Why do we care about this particular one?” It was strangely empowering to hear a cat use the same patronizing tone with dogs that Kipper was used to hearing from dogs.
“She’s been masquerading as one of you. She presented herself to Chip just like all the others.”
“And Chip let her on the elevator?” Violet’s voice rose dangerously at the end of her question. The dogs looked terrified. Kipper was confused.
“We’ll find her,” the bloodhound offered.
Violet’s ears flickered flat, but she had them tall again before the moment passed. “It doesn’t matter. If Chip can’t tell the difference between a paying customer and a mere stowaway, he’ll be replaced. Or the otters will notice all his underhanded dealings. Either way, the crew of the Manta Ray is much clearer-headed, so this stray won’t get any farther. Do what you want about her.”
And, like that, Kipper found herself alone in space.
There was nothing for her on the Manta Ray. No refuge from the dog goons. No friendly, fleeing-feline waiting to explain the mystery that had pulled her here.
And wherever Petra had gotten to… She wasn’t here, and she wouldn’t be getting here. Chip wasn’t likely to help another cat masquerading as one of Violet and Sahalie’s crowd bum a ride, and Kipper knew Petra couldn’t afford a ticket.
Unless, Kipper thought with a touch of hope, Petra had beaten her to the elevator… But, no, Chip and Violet had made such a big deal about Kipper sneaking through. Petra couldn’t have come before her.
Kipper’s paws felt like phantoms on the beam she was hiding behind. Her entire body felt like something foreign she didn’t belong inside. She began backing away, not knowing what to do or where to go. What would Luce and the bloodhound do with her if they caught her? Did the otter authorities care about stowaways from the elevator? How could she get home?
What would Petra do?
She had to make some sort of decision soon. Luce and the bloodhound had finished talking to Violet, and, although they hadn’t seen her yet, they were heading her way. Kipper turned — wherever she went, it should be away from them — but, before she made it a full step, she ran into the broad brown (and purple) chest of an otter. “Hey! Missy!” the otter said.
Kipper looked up into the grinning face of Trugger.
“You decided to come and visit? Take me up on my offer of a tour of the grand ol’ Jolly Barracuda?”
Vague memories of feigning interest in Trugger’s ship and Trugger pressing her to let him show her around resurfaced in Kipper’s mind. All she’d really wanted were directions to the red quarter.
“Um…” she said, looking for an escape, but all she saw was Luce and a disgruntled bloodhound bearing down on her. “Um, yes. Yes, I’d love a tour.” Anything was better than standing, aimless and lost, directly in the path of those goons.
“Great!” Trugger said and swept his zebra spiked arm behind her, guiding her away from the Manta Ray and back toward the Jolly Barracuda. His gesture also had the inadvertent effect of shielding her with his bulk from the dogs’ sight. Kipper walked safely in Trugger’s shadow all the way along the curve of the red quarter until they reached the Jolly Barracuda’s berth. Then, she was cheerily invited off of the crowded, public strip — where a short bulldog could be hiding behind any tall otter — and into the private safe-haven of the legendary Captain Cod and crew.
“Welcome aboard,” Trugger said with a flourish. Then he began her tour. He walked her up and down the halls of his craft, chattering away as he was wont to do. This time, Kipper didn’t mind.
The Jolly Barracuda was Kipper’s first real space ship, and, even though she’d spent the afternoon on a space station, she couldn’t help a quiet rumbling from swelling in her throat as she stepped through the open hatchways and airlock onto the deck of a vehicle that traveled between planets. The simple thrill of it made her purr. Suddenly, she felt back on track. She didn’t know what Petra would have done about Violet, but she knew Petra would be proud to see her here.
The ship itself wasn’t anything like Kipper expected. It was cramped with winding little hallways, and the walls were covered in a cheesy, fake-wood paneling. There were iron grates periodically in the floor and ceiling, and everything felt musty and damp. A sterile, toxic smell like the chlorine at a dog’s public swimming pool pervaded the air. She choked on it when she tried to breathe too deeply, so she kept to short, shallow breaths.
Strangest of all were the paintings. They were hanging everywhere. Large oil canvases in gilt-edged frames. Encased in clear plexiglass. As if they were hanging in a museum — except, museums don’t entomb the paintings like that, only objects. Coins and daggers, little things that could be walked off with.
The scratched plexiglass distorted her view, but Kipper wasn’t enough of an art expert to care about the brush strokes anyway. And these didn’t look like ancient masterpieces.
They mostly sported fantastic representations of old human-style sailboats, except the boats sailed among the stars. Swashbuckling on the high… vacuum? Or perhaps ether. Space seemed to swirl with a haze of purple dust in most of the paintings, and the ships were manned with heroic, gallant looking otters. Except, the characters weren’t all otters. There were dogs and cats, too. Even squirrels and birds and reptiles. And humans. Fanciful.
Kipper had to admit a certain charm in the world the paintings conjured. All species living together, living high on the seas of the sky. She wondered about the mind behind their selection, but she didn’t have to wonder long.
“Captain Cod at your service,” a burly otter said, sticking his webbed paw under Kipper’s nose, presumably for her to shake it. She took the risk, as it seemed polite, despite fearing his paw would be wet. It wasn’t. Apparently, otter fur simply has a natural, oily sheen that makes it look always wet. And probably water proofs it, but Kipper didn’t know for sure about that. “Where’s your visitor from, Trugger?”
“Where are most cats from?” Kipper asked, feeling a little peevish.
“Good point! What brings you up from the ol’ solid rock?”
Trugger chuckled and said, “I found her at Maury’s.”
Kipper could see the captain looking her over, examining the fur job Maury had done — or maybe looking for it. Given what Trugger went to Maury’s for, Captain Cod probably found her fur disconcertingly natural. Which seemed fair. His gaze was disconcerting her. And, since she felt disconcerted, she covered with sass: “I’m a spy,” she said. “I’ve been following someone.”
Trugger and Captain Cod were both clearly delighted. “What a lark in a larch!” the captain exclaimed.
Trugger looked more contemplative: “That’s why you had Maury do the Egyptian meow-y job?”
Kipper hadn’t expected the word “spy” to earn her so much credit so quickly. “Actually,” she said, “that was just to shake some dogs who were chasing me. The cat I’ve been following has never seen me. She didn’t even know she was being followed.”
“Cats following cats,” Captain Cod mused. “Intrigue. I always knew that was what you felines were all about. Well, we might be able to use a spy on board.”
Kipper couldn’t see how. But she was stranded up here in space, and she wasn’t about to point out the numerous flaws with the idea of a cat spy working among a population composed ninety-five percent of otters if the captain couldn’t work them out for himself. These were the only friends she had so far, and, if Trudith had taught her anything, it was that she shouldn’t underestimate the value of friendship. Even the friendship of seemingly bumbling, incompetent dogs — or eccentric otters. Which reminded her… “Captain, are you the one who picked all these paintings?”
“Aren’t they a lark?” the captain said, not quite answering her. She dipped her ears in a gesture any cat, and even most dogs would recognize, but the captain just grinned at her. Apparently, these otters were going to take some training to read a cat properly. Kipper clarified with a rolling gesture of her paw. This time he got it. “Right, yes, I picked them. They’re from an artist commune in the asteroid belt. We ship their paintings, show them around to art dealers, and sell them for a commission. But, these were too good to pass on right away.” Captain Cod looked proudly at the nearest painting — a sunscape, featuring a dashing otter swinging on a solar flare as if it were a vine and he were a monkey in a jungle.
“Yes,” Kipper said, “I can see that. Far too good to pass on.”
“Well, right away, anyway,” Captain Cod amended, ponderously. “Do you think…” he began, looking at Trugger, but he trailed off and chewed his whiskers instead of finishing.
“They seemed pretty adamant,” Trugger replied, regardless of the incompleteness of the captain’s sentence.
“Indeed. Yes. Well, it’s not as if we’d be ready to part with the paintings yet.” The captain looked doubtfully at the nearby painting, and, as he did, his face brightened right up. It was as if the gaudy orange and yellow oil sunbeams had reached right out of the painting to fall on his face like real sunlight and cheer him.
“No,” he said, “I can’t imagine passing them on. It just wouldn’t do. Look at they way this painting livens up the corridor!”
Kipper had to admit that the dank tiled floor and plastic paneled walls were better off for the distraction the painting provided.
“Anyway, I seem to have interrupted your tour,” the captain said. He looked at Trugger. “I assume you were going to show the feline lady around.” He looked back at Kipper, raising his otterly brows. “It’s a splendid ship. A real singing lark. A skylark even.”
“I’m sure,” Kipper said.
“Well, I’ll leave you two to that. But, do bring her by the bridge before letting her go, Trugger. I’ll want to know what you think of my skylark,” he told Kipper. “She’s never had a cat on her. Not since I’ve been captain anyway…” Captain Cod kept talking as he walked away. Eventually he got far enough along the corridor that Kipper could only conclude he was talking to the ship. Not her and Trugger.
“He’s a great captain,” Trugger said. “Really stands by his principles.”
Before Kipper could ask exactly what Captain Cod’s principles were, Trugger resumed his role as tour guide, telling her about the history of their ship. Apparently, it hadn’t originally been meant for cargo hauling, which was its primary function now. “Although, our cargo hold is empty at the moment… See there’s been a bit of a misunderstanding,” Trugger looked as if he would explain further but then thought better of it. Instead he returned to the story of how Captain Cod won the Jolly Barracuda in a poker game, securing her future as a cargo ship — a noble and honorable vocation for a ship, to hear Trugger tell it — rather than an experimental military vessel gathering dust due to the lack of any war for her to fight in. Kipper couldn’t tell which use Trugger deplored more for his beloved ship — war vessel or dust bunny.
The tour took Kipper from stem to stern. Trugger didn’t explain much about the ship’s workings. He was more interested in telling stories about the exploits of Captain Cod and the brave, daring crew he worked among. Kipper couldn’t tell if Trugger was a new initiate to the Jolly Barracuda, still glamoured by having been invited to join, or if he was really that naturally exuberantly enthusiastic.
Or, maybe, she was a tired cat, and any otter giving her a tour of a spaceship would have worn her out. Come to think of it, Kipper hadn’t slept since her last nap in the car while Trudith drove. That felt like days ago.
“This way’s the galley,” Trugger said. “You’ve got to meet our chef.”
“The one you mentioned at Maury’s?” Kipper asked, making an effort to regain her focus. Instead, everything went fuzzy and echo-y. The physical drain of hauling boxes for Chip, the stress of running and hiding from Chip’s goons, and the sheer number of hours since she’d slept all added up.
“Whoa, Miss Feline,” Trugger said, putting a paw out to steady her. “You look like you’re…” Before he could finish the sentence, Kipper fell into a swoon. The fake wood wall and one of Trugger’s arms protected her from landing on the floor, but she still found herself leaning against Trugger as he insisted on walking her to the barracks and settling her in his bunk.
“You can meet Emily later,” he said. “In fact, I’ll have her whip something up for you to eat. Do you like chowder?”
Kipper tried to say that she’d never had it, but her own body felt a million miles away. She couldn’t get to herself fast enough to make her tongue work. Instead, she heard Trugger tell her, “It doesn’t matter. You just rest for now, and I’ll be back to check on you later.”
Continue on to Chapter 12…