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 next few days were a blur of countries outside Kipper’s window.
Guatemala became El Salvador and then Honduras. The terrain grew mountainous, green, and jungly. Wild rainforests alternated with farmland, growing sugarcane and coffee beans. Kipper slept through Nicaragua and most of Costa Rica, but she took the wheel through all of Panama and down into Colombia. South America at last!
The air got hotter and wetter. As they worked their way south, the humidity was on the rise. The moistness in the air stuck Kipper’s fur against her, and she shed her long-sleeved tunic. The scramball jersey was infinitely cooler and more comfortable, even if it did show her naturally tabby shoulders and upper arms. She was getting used to the indignity; it was better than broiling inside her tunic.
When Trudith was awake, they talked about scramball, Moonville Funpark, and whether Senator Morrison would get his law passed that banned cats in space. When Trudith slept and Kipper drove, she speculated about Sahalie’s nefarious dealings with underhanded dogs and tried to riddle out Violet’s scribbled notes. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get very far on her own. She’d have to wait until she got to the space elevator, where hopefully she’d find Petra. Then the two of them could ride it together, all the way up to otter space and find Violet who could explain everything.
Kipper strained her eyes, but she couldn’t see the twin ribbons of the space elevator yet. Even as they drove down the streets of Guayaquil, the biggest city in Ecuador and largest port-town in the world, she couldn’t make out a double line parting the sky, rising into the void.
“I thought it would look like a cloud trail left by a jet,” she said, trying not to sound too disappointed.
“You can’t see it until you get very close. The ribbons are thin down here,” Trudith said as she parked their car near the docks. Shrimp boats, cruise ships headed for the Galapagos, and every other manner of sea vehicle crowded the bay, bobbing lazily in the water. Kipper smelled shrimp and shellfish in the tangy sea air.
“Are you coming with me to the elevator?” Kipper asked.
Trudith shrugged, “I’ve come this far, and I wouldn’t want to hear later that Sahalie sent thugs to wait for you there. If she sends thugs, then you should have thugs. And that’s me.”
Kipper grinned. “Every cat should have her own thug. Tell you what, I’ll go get my money and call Alistair. You pick up tickets for the ferry to the elevator landing.”
Trudith had been so generous. She always paid for charging the car, keeping it stocked in snacks, and she’d bought Kipper nice restaurant dinners several times. It would feel good to be able to pay her back, even if only a little. There was no way that Kipper could pay for all the time Trudith had given her.
Before leaving the car, Kipper pulled on one of her long-sleeved tunics to wear under her scramball jersey. The sea air was slightly chill, and she felt more embarrassed by her fur in such a big, international city.
Guayaquil was an animal city the way animal cities were meant to be. Sure, there were still human buildings, but they were breathtaking, historical monuments. Towering cathedrals and columnated government buildings had been preserved in mint condition and were mostly used as museums now. However, unlike New LA and Mexico City, there were no crumbling ruins. The streets were all new, and the animal buildings were geometrically organized. They made up the bulk of the city, rather than crouching in between human wreckage, forced to fit inside the antiquated human layout.
And there were otters everywhere! Sure there were dogs of every breed, wearing loud, flowered vests, with cameras hung around their necks. There were even cats; one had a broom and was sweeping out a shop as Kipper passed. Yet, here was one of the only cities in the world with a significant population of otters.
Kipper thrilled to see them pass by. Their long bodies bobbed and swayed as they walked; their short legs as compared to their long backs made them move completely differently from dogs and cats. She’d only seen otters on the news before. It was completely different in person.
Just outside the Coastal Canine Bank, Kipper found a pay-vidphone and dialed her brother. She twitched her tail impatiently as the phone rang. She wanted to share her excitement with her brother. Five rings, and he didn’t answer. Eventually, the message machine picked up, but Kipper didn’t dare to leave a message. She’d worked herself up too much over the last few days, thinking about Sahalie for hours on end. It was paranoid, and she knew it.
Yet, she didn’t know if she’d be able to call Alistair easily from space (there would probably be exorbitant space to Earth charges), so she tried again. With a heavy heart, Kipper had to admit by the third try that he simply wasn’t in. She hoped he wasn’t in some sort of trouble.
Inside the Coastal Canine Bank, Kipper waited in line. It was sad, not knowing when she’d hear from her brother again. When she got to the teller window, she told the dog there her assumed name — Mother Theresa B. Goodkitty. She got a strange look, but the dog went to the back room, rustled around a bit, and returned with an envelope for her. She thanked him.
Walking back to the docks, Kipper ripped open the edge of the envelope and leafed through the bills inside. She divided them approximately evenly — half to pay back Trudith and the other half to keep. That much money should keep her — and Petra — for a while. She slipped her half back in the envelope, folded it over, and slipped it inside an inner tunic pocket, beneath her scramball jersey. There it would be safe from the wind, her carelessness, and any but the most skillful and determined pickpockets.
Then, Kipper opened the smaller envelope that had been paper-clipped to it. Encouraging words, she figured, from her brother when he wired the money. Yet, she had to read the first sentence several times. It didn’t make sense. “I’m in jail,” it said. Kipper checked the date, and she realized the note had been attached to the envelope with the money only yesterday. She read the note again, and this time it made more sense.
“I’m in jail,” Alistair wrote, “but don’t worry about it. It’s the best thing that could happen. The cats are rallying in the streets for me, and my fellow jailbirds are all taking my side. Even the dogs! They know what it’s like to be repressed by The Man — The Dog — too. Pin down that conspiracy for me, and we’ll run for president. Felines for Freedom! — Cheers, Alistair.”
Kipper’s eyes grew wide, and she laughed like a kitten. Her brother was showing a new side.
Back at the car, Trudith was leaning into the trunk, emptying one of her smaller luggage bags. When she’d moved everything out of the purple duffle, she put in the few changes of clothes she’d bought for Kipper. She also stuffed in the rest of the snacks.
“Here,” she said, when she heard Kipper arrive. “You’ll need a suitcase for traveling, so I gave you one of mine.”
Kipper took the little, purple duffel bag in her paws. She was deeply touched. “Trudith… Where will you go once I’m on the elevator?”
Trudith’s ears went back in that stricken look that made her jowly face gaunt. Her brown eyebrows peaked in confusion. “I don’t know…” she said. “I can’t work for Sahalie any more… Maybe I should come with you?”
“No, I think I have to follow this trail alone.” Trudith had become like a surrogate sister on this trip, but Kipper was about to find and rejoin her own sister. And she figured the two of them would have a better chance finding Violet on their own. Two cats looking for a lone cat. A big, scary dog would just get in the way.
But, from Trudith’s face, Kipper realized that the dog had probably been planning to accompany her as far as this road led. It would be a kindness to tell Trudith what she should do. She needed a task.
“Would you do something for me?” Kipper asked. “Alistair’s in jail…” As funny as it was, Kipper felt a twinge of fear actually saying the words. Alistair didn’t belong behind bars any more than a fluffy little gerbil did. “Could you go back to New LA? And help him out?”
“Your brother’s in jail?” Trudith asked, her gruff voice forceful with an emotion between outrage for the undercat, who was apparently her new poorly-paying employer, and enthusiasm for a new job. “The Alistair you’ve told me about? Why would anyone want to throw a stand-up cat like him in jail?”
Kipper knew it would be unkind to remind Trudith of their original relationship, but Trudith must have thought of it herself. Her big, brown eyes rolled downward, avoiding Kipper’s gaze. She clearly still felt guilty.
“Could you go help him?” Kipper asked. “I’d feel better if he had a dog like you looking out for him. A sort of bodyguard.”
“Or assistant! Secretary to the District Rep!”
“Yeah, something like that,” Kipper said, realizing how much she would miss this big, dumb dog.
The two of them talked it over and agreed that it would be best if Trudith took the next flight out. She knew a dog here who could sell her car for her, and it would be faster to fly. With difficulty, Kipper convinced Trudith to take her money. It was only fair, she argued, that she pay for her half of the car charges and road food. Besides, if Trudith really objected, she could apply the money to helping Alistair.
The final goodbye was rough and sloppy. First a hug that jolted Kipper out of balance, and then a wet kiss on either cheek. Trudith’s brown eyes embraced Kipper as well. The look in them said, “you’re my cat,” and it was a kind of ownership that went both ways. Because Trudith felt Kipper belonged to her, Trudith wholly belonged to Kipper. If only Trudith could have skipped the slobbery kisses, it would have been a perfect goodbye.
Trudith wasn’t a bad dog; she just needed a little guidance. Alistair, on the other paw, could be a reckless fool. He was Petra’s brother. He needed protection, and he needed it bad. The two would do well in each others’ paws.
And so Kipper, purple duffle slung over her shoulder, boarded the ferry to the space elevator alone. She kept her long-sleeved tunic buttoned up high, and she even put in the blue contacts. Not all blue-eyed white cats are deaf, but enough are that it would give her the element of surprise. Just in case she needed it.
On board the boat, Kipper used her disguise to move freely among the other passengers, listening in. As far as she could tell, she was the only cat on board for the forty minute ride. There were tourist dogs with their puppies, hyped up on sugar and the idea of Moonville Funpark rides, and there were sharply-dressed business otters by the dozen.
One pair of otters noticed her approach, but since they assumed she couldn’t hear they took the opportunity to begin talking about cats. Kipper was pleased to find that she understood their accents perfectly from all the otter news she’d watched.
“Have you heard about the dogs in the U.S.?” the first otter asked. He was a sleek, chic, and sinewy river otter.
The second otter, a puffy but dapper sea otter, patted himself down, searching his pockets until he found a tin of clam chews. “What about them?” he asked, popping one of the treats into his mouth. The river otter deferred when the sea otter offered the tin to him, and so the sea otter swung around and offered the tin to Kipper, sitting in a row of seats off to their side. He pointed at the lid of the tin but didn’t bother to speak. Kipper took a chew and smiled. She bobbed her ears in a motion of thanks but didn’t break her disguise.
“I say, you haven’t heard then. They’re trying to ban cats from entering space.”
“That’s outrageous!” the sea otter proclaimed.
Kipper almost choked on the clam chew, breaking her disguise, but she covered her surprise by unzipping her duffle bag and rustling around inside. She could feel the sea otter looking at her. What did he mean by what he’d said? Were the otters on the cats’ side?
“It’s this Senator Morrison bloke,” the river otter continued. “He’s been pushing it for the last year.”
“You know, it seems to me that dogs have gotten a little too comfortable on Earth. Do you think we should start a war with them?”
“It would be good fun,” the river otter said. “But I don’t think it will come to that. The dogs don’t own the elevator,” he shrugged, “so there’s not much they can do if we let cats on.” Kipper felt an immense sense of relief. Senator Morrison’s pending law had been the bane of any forward thinking cats’ existence for the last year.
Yet, with only a few words, the otters had dispelled the law’s power. In Kipper’s eyes, anyway. Senator Morrison couldn’t keep cats like her from space… How had she not known? Living in a dog run world, she had accepted the dogs’ own estimation of their importance. And power. But… Dogs didn’t really run the world. At least not all of it.
“Too true. Too true,” the sea otter said, rising from his seat. “Let’s take a stroll on the outer deck, shall we? Feel that honest sea breeze before getting back to the rivers in the sky.” He smiled down at Kipper, poor deaf cat, before tottering on.
Kipper liked that phrase: rivers in the sky. Otters were so sophisticated and true romantics. Not like dogs. Nothing against Trudith — Kipper had grown quite fond of her during the last week, but she was such a simpleton compared to otters. Let the dogs have Earth. Cats belonged with otters in the rivers in the sky. Well, at least, the sky. She could do without most rivers, but what cat didn’t enjoy a good metaphor?
When the ferry docked, dogs and otters filed off the boat and onto the monstrous sea structure that was the elevator platform.
The platform itself was a broad, steel structure floating on the calm of the sea. It was large enough and solid enough that it gave the illusion of being rooted to ground underneath the water. Wavelets lapped against its sides, and buildings clustered around its edges, including restaurants, gift shops, and other tourist destinations.
However, the heart of the platform was the open, landing area in the center for the climbers — the elevator cars. Out of that area rose two thin strands of woven carbon nano-tubes. These cables were what the climbers climbed. Kipper thrilled to see the climbers there, folded around the carbon cables like spiders dangling from silken thread. One carbon cable was empty, rising into the sky as lonely as a shed whisker. But, three climbers were stacked, one atop another, at the bottom of the other cable. When they began to climb, the climbers at the top of the other cable would begin to descend.
As Kipper stared at the wonder of construction and technology around her, feeling the paradoxical solidity and levity under her feet, she felt her heart begin to sink inside her. It wasn’t reasonable or rational, but she had expected to step one paw on the platform island and find Petra waiting for her. Orange-striped arms and an acerbic tongue would greet her. And two sister-cats would crack wide open the conspiracy surrounding Sahalie and Violet. Then they would paint space red.
Instead, Kipper found herself standing alone, surrounded by tourdogs and business-otters she didn’t know. She had to face the reality of the fact that Petra, traveling alone, either made it onto an airplane before Sahalie could send a second round of dogs after her — meaning she would have arrived days ago — or, she had a drive that would take twice as long with half the drivers.
Deep down, Kipper felt that Petra had to be ahead of her. She’d left first, and she wouldn’t think twice about dangers like running into another group of thug-dogs at airport security. She was the impulsive type…
Either way though, Kipper, honestly, had no idea how to find her. Would Petra wait on the platform for her? Kipper looked around. It would be easy enough to skulk around the tourist shops and spots, waiting for her sister to catch up with her. But did Petra even expect Kipper to be following her? And… Well… Kipper knew Petra. Even if she did understand that Kipper had to follow that note she left, “Gone to Ecuador!“, she wasn’t big on patience. And even Kipper could feel the impossible pull of those elevators, begging her to step inside, ride up to space, and taste a new kind of freedom. If Kipper was even a little swayed by that pull, Petra would give right in. Impulsive type, remember?
So, feeling a little hurt and angry — reasonably or not — that her quest hadn’t rejoined her with her sister yet, Kipper stepped into the line for elevator tickets. She hoped that Petra would be easy to find on space-side.
As the line advanced, Kipper pulled the envelope out of her tunic and looked up at the signboard posting the prices. She gulped. How could this be?! She’d been saving money for her whole life, and she wouldn’t have had a fraction of the cost of a lousy one-way ticket into space, even if Alistair had wired everything she had.
The business-otters and tourdogs in line with her didn’t even look at the signboard with ticket prices; they handed over plastic and paid the exorbitant sums. Not a blink of a canine eye. So much for that sea otter’s grand ideals about otters subverting the dogs’ plans to ban cats from space. At least the dogs were honest about it. The otters were hiding behind a price tag.
Kipper spat at the otters in line. She spat at the dogs next. She spat at the ticket stand. And, she spat at the unfairness of a world where a dog was paid big bucks to beat her up, and she was paid a pitiful pittance for doing honest, hard work.
Kipper glared at the dogs in the line, subconsciously looking for a Chow, hoping to pick a fight. Lucky for her, there were no Chows going to Moonville Funpark that day. Even in her red rage, Kipper knew that picking a fight was more likely to get her thrown in a Guayaquil jail than into space. And it would be a while before Trudith could come and rescue her.
Kipper pulled the increasingly crumpled note that had started this whole mess from her tunic pocket. If Petra and Violet had made it onto the space elevator before her then there had to be a way.
“@ SE, ask for Chip — night flight.”
Huh. Suddenly that part wasn’t cryptic any more. Kipper stepped out of the futile line and walked up to the first otter she could find. “Do you know Chip?” she asked. It broke her cover, but pretending to be deaf wasn’t really doing her much good.
The otter pointed her toward the actual base of the space elevator, where huge crates were being loaded by forklift into the cargo hold of the bottom most climber. “Thanks,” Kipper said, and took off that way.
The only creature amid the bustle ahead of her, who wasn’t driving a forklift, was a short, officious looking, bearded Jack Russell with a clipboard. Kipper had been hoping for another otter. This mini-goon didn’t look like a gateway to otter space, let alone Cat Haven, but he did look like he might be a “Chip.” He would have to do.
“Chip?” Kipper asked, skeptically.
“Yes?” the dog asked. “I’m very busy.” His eyes barely even flitted away from the clipboard to look at her. In fact, his grip on the clipboard seemed to tighten as Kipper approached.
She really had been hoping for an otter. Oh well. She’d asked for “Chip,” and she’d got him. Now it was time for step two. “I was hoping to get a…” Kipper was careful to put extra emphasis on the next words, “night flight.”
For that, Chip looked up. The clipboard was still clutched tightly in his paws, but his eyes took Petra in, looking her up and down. To him, she was just a scruffy-lookin’ cat, about his height, but wispier. Chip was built like a barrel — solid chested with medium length legs and arms. Chip narrowed his eyes at her. “You don’t look like the others…”
Kipper instinctively, defensively responded, “I had to dye my fur.” Of course, then the strangeness of Chip’s words hit her… However, her words didn’t seem to be strange to him at all.
“Oh, okay,” Chip said. He gazed hard into Kipper’s clear blue eyes. “Yeah, okay. I wasn’t expecting you, but I’ll add it to the growing tab.”
Growing tab… Did that mean Kipper wasn’t the first unexpected cat? Had Petra already passed this way? Looking at Chip, grumpily flipping through the pages on his clipboard, Kipper was afraid to ask. But, at least she knew some other cats had been through here. Hopefully, Petra was one of them.
Chip found the page he was looking for, and noted something down with his pen. Grumbling, he said, “Sahalie needs to start keeping better records…”
The words — that name — sent a shock through Kipper’s body. What was Sahalie playing at? As an accountant, probably embezzlement. But, why would she use her ill-gotten funds to buy some cats space elevator tickets and other cats one-way tickets to the morgue?
Kipper was knocked out of her reverie, and almost off her feet, by a crate-loaded dolly. Chip, clipboard tucked under his arm, had wheeled the thing right into her. “Here’s how it works,” he said. “I can put you on the night flight as the custodian of the live squid shipment. Someone has to watch the tank, and no one will notice if you slip away once you’re up top. So, just don’t come back down. This is a one way ride.”
Kipper nodded, wrestling to keep the heavy dolly upright. It seemed to have a wonky wheel.
“Until then, I need you to work. Load cargo from there,” Chip gestured at a depressingly large pile of crates and trunks, “to there.” Following Chip’s second gesture, Kipper peered into the dark, cavernous hold of the bottom crawler. If the live squid shipment was somewhere in there, she guessed she would miss the view on the ride up. Oh well. That was better than missing the ride.
Continue on to Chapter 7…