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.
Chip was a harsh task-master. He kept Kipper lugging crates of shrimp, tanks of crabs, and other sea-farmed delectables along with trunk after trunk of passenger luggage until her agile cat-spine ached. Cats weren’t built for hard work, and this work was back-breaking.
She loaded cargo until the climbers took off. She watched the dogs and otters who had ridden the ferry with her ascend into the sky. Even though they took the climbers with them, Chip managed to find more tasks for Kipper. He kept her busy unloading cargo from ocean-barges, arranging it on the elevator platform to wait for the climbers on the other cable to finish their descent.
Kipper was run ragged by the time the climbers actually arrived, loaded with cargo. She wished she had Trudith with her to help unload it. Or maybe the whole Mexican scramball team… They’d make short work out of a long job for her. It was a comfort wearing her jersey.
In fact the work kept her hot enough from exertion that Kipper stripped off her long-sleeved tunic and stuffed it in her purple duffel. It was a relief to have her arms bared to the tropical air. The warm breeze stirred her fur which had been smashed, damp, and sweltering in the tunic. Sure, the jersey showed the gray stripes on her shoulders, but if she was playing the part of heavy-labor, she saw no reason to look the part of a an aristrocat. Besides, none of the elevator passengers were coming anywhere near the cargo entrance to the climber. They stayed on the touristy half of the island. So, the only animal likely to see her was Chip, and he already knew she’d dyed her fur.
On and off she loaded luggage, barely getting breaks between one climber taking off and the next arriving. Descend, ascend. Unload, reload. Kipper had become a part of the space elevator machinery.
The sky slowly darkened, and the equatorial air grew a few degrees cooler. Kipper could feel the approach of her “night flight.” She peered into the sky and searched for a pinpoint of light that might be a climber coming to whisk her away.
“The next one will be your ride,” Chip said, calling to her from across the platform. “So, get it loaded fast, and we’ll be done for the night.”
Before she looked back up, Kipper could already hear the grumbling approach of the climbers. When she looked up, the mammoth elevator cars were blotting out the stars in the sky. The air around her lifted in a wind as the climber flashed its landing lights. She got straight to work, and, despite her aching, wobbly muscles, had the climber loaded in record time.
Chip stomped over and checked her work. He sniffed and wiped his wet nose with a poorly manicured paw. “Are you ready, cat, to watch those squid?”
“Aye!” Kipper answered, with more enthusiasm than was really called for by squid baby-sitting. Chip gave her a suspicious look, and Kipper could see the red in his eyes. Then, he stomped off, gesturing for Kipper to follow him.
He led her to a locked shed, opened it, and began wheeling the giant, sloshing squid tank that was inside backward and into a sharp turn, aiming it for the climber.
“Here, cat,” Chip said and stepped away, handing control over to her. “These are expensive. A delicacy up there. So take good care of them.”
Kipper nodded as she began struggling with the tank. Chip might be about her size, but he was clearly a lot stronger. He peered at her strangely in the dim light, but Kipper was more concerned with keeping the tank squarely on its dolly than with the stare of a strange dog. Thankfully, this dolly wasn’t the one with the wonky wheel.
Chip clucked his tongue, watching her. He made no motion to help, standing back as Kipper shoved at the wheeled but hard to budge tank. “I thought you dyed your fur.” he said, narrowing his eyes.
“I did,” Kipper huffed between shoves.
“But, why would you dye your shoulders like that?”
“What?” Kipper looked down at her shoulders, despite knowing what they looked like. “No, that’s my natural color.” Kipper could feel the strain in her muscles rising through her body into a dizzy headache between her ears. Seeing that Chip was still watching her expectantly, she added “I dyed the rest white.” Hopefully that would send the butch little task-master on his way.
Chip simply said, “Oh…”, wheels turning in his beady-eyed head. Then, “I thought you were Siamese.”
Kipper laughed, a manic laugh bred from tension, but refrained from giving Chip the speech about the difference between true and bottle-job Siamese. She didn’t have the extra breath if she was going to get the tank of squid to where it needed to be. Besides, she felt less high and mighty about it now, with her arms and head a frazzled, chemically bleached white.
Finally, the Jack Russell walked away, pawing his tiny beard. Kipper kept wrestling with the squid tank until she got it positioned safely past the yellow safety line painted on the concrete floor of the climber.
She could sense the tension in the machinery of the climber, all the gears hidden inside its walls, as it readied to climb. The slight vibration in the miles long carbon cable, streaming upward into the dark, rose in pitch as the climber gripped it, raising her spirits with it. Kipper grinned in tired relief. The long day of work was over. She grabbed her purple duffel from where she’d stowed it and went to tell Chip she was done.
Chip was twenty feet away in his ticket station. Kipper brushed her paws off on her jersey as she approached. Through the glass over the ticketing counter, she could see Chip dialing numbers into the vidphone on the back wall. She stopped just short of knocking on the glass. The vidphone had crackled into an open channel, and she didn’t want to disturb Chip in the middle of a call.
A moment later, Kipper was glad she’d waited. She could just make out the face on the vidscreen: fine gray stripes and clear blue eyes. Sahalie.
It didn’t take a whole thought, let alone a second one, to realize that Sahalie would give her away. Chip would soon be looking for her and an explanation. If she was lucky. If not, he’d just be looking for her. Like Trudith had been. Way back when.
Even if Chip was planning to listen to her, she didn’t think she could talk herself out of this one. Chip was clearly Sahalie’s dog, and Sahalie had already shown her what she liked to do with her dogs. Not every one of them could turn out to be a Trudith. And Chip didn’t seem much like Trudith. Kipper didn’t wait to find out.
She dropped to all fours and pelted across the tarmac between her and the invitingly dark nooks and crannies inside the loaded elevator climber. She spanned the distance to the cargo hold before Chip was even off the phone.
A frantic look around the dark cavern of the climber’s hold left Kipper with sagging ears. She’d put all of these crates here. And all of them were heavy. And none of them were easy to open — most of them looking like they were designed to be torn apart by crowbar. Glancing back over her shoulder, she could see Chip emerging from the ticket station. He disappeared in the direction of the dock. That meant he was going for reinforcements. Kipper had to get herself hidden.
She decided her best bet was a configuration of crates near the back of the hold. A beam jutting out from the wall, a little higher than the top of the crates, would provide some shelter from above, if she could get herself ensconced behind them.
Her heart racing and her arms shaking, Kipper jostled the boxes along the wall to find one light enough to move without the dolly. The winning contestant was a crate marked “Paris Poodle Pastries.” Although the pastries made for the lightest crate in the row, they were still heavy enough to belie their ever-catchy advertising campaign: they were not lighter than air.
Kipper shimmied the wooden pastry crate far enough away from the crates around it to squeeze in behind. Once there, she kicked and heaved against the other crates until their haphazard angles afforded her a hidden cove large enough to crouch inside. Fortunately, she had packed all of the crates somewhat haphazardly, so the change wouldn’t be immediately obvious.
From her crouch, Kipper reached one paw around the corner of the pastry crate, dug her claws in, braced herself with her other paw, and yanked until the entryway closed. She twisted around, positioning the purple duffel like a pillow behind her back and focused on steadying her breathing.
Gruff dog voices preceded the plodding sound of dog paws. “A stowaway?” one voice, unfamiliar, was saying. From the easy lilt, Kipper guessed the speaker was a Golden. At least, she was pretty sure the speaker wasn’t a Basset — thank goodness, or she’d certainly be found.
“A cat,” Chip said. “A funny white and gray one. I saw it come running back here.”
“I didn’t see any cats arrive on the last boat,” the possibly-Golden said.
“It musta been hangin’ around since earlier today.”
“Why didn’t it stow away earlier?”
There was an uncomfortable pause. Kipper could hear the two dogs shifting boxes on the other side of the hold, and she could feel slivers stinging her paw pads. She must have got them from moving the wooden crates, but she didn’t dare try doctoring her paws now. She didn’t dare move. She hardly dared breath.
“Look, Chip,” said the Golden — Kipper was sure he must be a Golden by now, because she was banking everything on the legendary affability and easygoing nature of that breed. When they found her — and they were so near her now, they had to find her — a Golden probably wouldn’t rough her up. “Look, I know you’ve got this side deal going with smuggling the Siamese cats up the elevator…” The voice was coming from just the other side of Kipper’s pastry box. “…and I look the other way. We all do. But…” The pastry box creaked; Kipper guessed the Golden must be leaning against it. “See, you can’t be letting these cats cause problems like this all the time. I mean, we have a schedule to keep.”
Kipper could hear a growl that must have been coming from deep in Chip’s voice box. “Fine!” he barked as the box jumped, squeezing Kipper tighter, probably in response to a swift kick. That Jack Russell might be short, but Kipper sure wouldn’t want to fight with him.
“Look, I’ll radio the otters up top, and they can have the authorities pick this cat up.”
“No, never mind it,” Chip said. “I’ll call some goons up; deal with it myself. Don’t tell the swimmers.”
“All right. But, the otters are going to find out eventually.” The voices were starting to recede now. Kipper could just make out the Golden saying, “You really shouldn’t get so mixed up in all this cat nonsense. They’ll just make trouble for you. Stowaways… Petty theft… Typical cat stuff.”
Typical dog stuff; blame it on the cats. Seriously, petty theft? How was she supposed to commit petty theft with all these boxes nailed shut? Not that she would mind trying one of Paris Poodles’ famous puff pastries. On the ads, the pictures of the ones filled with crab ragout looked particularly delectable.
Kipper pushed her nose against a crack between the wooden slats to see if she could make out the smell of crab ragout inside. All she could smell was wood. However, her disappointment was short lived. Though she couldn’t smell anything she liked, she could hear something she very much liked, a sound she’d heard repeatedly today: the sound of the cargo doors closing.
The final clanking touchdown was followed by an ominous hum. It was the hum of the lights powering down, and Kipper realized she would spend the entire hour and a half flight in the dark. No matter. Her cat’s eyes were already adjusting.
Clambering awkwardly from behind the pastry crate, she felt a pang at how little difference she could sense between plummeting upwards into space and, well, not. Without windows to show her the Earth shrinking beneath her, or even a noticeable acceleration, the climber might as well still be on the landing pad for all she knew.
She’d read before about how the space elevator was so perfectly designed — with a slowly increasing acceleration for the first half, switching to a slowly increasing deceleration for the second half. Passengers didn’t feel the slightest discomfort. She’d been impressed by that. But, now — actually riding the elevator — she wished for a little discomfort. Just a little. Just to let her feel that it was real.
Of course, several extra gees wouldn’t really be in Kipper’s best interest. She had an hour and a half before Chip’s “goons” would come walking in that cargo door. She needed a better hiding place than behind Paris Poodles. Maybe one of the crates would be loose enough to open, and she could hide inside? Then, when the crate was unloaded, she’d be carried safely past the goons. That was her best hope. Short of that, she would have to trade invisibility against ease of escape: the better she stacked the boxes around her, the harder it would be to make a break for it when the time came. Or, even, to recognize that the time had come. Assuming one did…
The worst part of being alone in the dark was knowing, now, that there would be no one waiting for her. Petra couldn’t have paid for a ticket into space any better than Kipper could. And Kipper realized now that Chip had only helped her because he thought she was Siamese, like Violet. There was no mistaking Petra and her electrically orange stripes for Siamese. So, unless Petra had dyed her fur too — unlikely — she wouldn’t be at the top of the elevator waiting for Kipper with open arms.
Kipper was still scrabbling at boxes, digging her claws deep into their wooden slats and pulling hard to break off their immovable lids, when the flight hit its midpoint. Her paws felt light on the floor, and her stomach became queasy. She’d seen vids of the space elevator so she figured out what was happening pretty quickly, even though she couldn’t see it.
The passenger and cargo carriers, responding to the shift from acceleration to deceleration, were filled with a simulated reversed gravity. The solution to this tricky meeting of engineering and ergonomics? The two holds — passenger and cargo — were attached to the core of the climber by a mechanical rotator cuff. And, one hold balancing the other out, they rotated in opposite directions, resulting in them making the rest of the ascent upside down. Perfectly matching the upside down gravity.
The practical upshot? Kipper felt her paw pads lift off the cold metal floor, and all of her fur puffed out at the eerie sensation of being surrounded by dozens of heavy cargo crates that had moved so imperceptibly she could barely see it with her cat eye vision in the darkness. And, yet, she could sense they were floating. Spooky.
A moment later, everything in the hold silently landed. The crates hadn’t risen high enough above the ground to create air gaps large enough for noisy crashes.
Kipper wondered what would happen at the end of the flight when the holds disconnected from the climbing apparatus of the climber so they could be shifted from the center to the outer edge of the rotating, tubular donut that was Deep Sky Anchor station. During that process, there would be a whole minute of weightlessness. If not several. Kipper could explore the ceiling of the hold if she wanted. Actually… That gave Kipper an idea.
Craning her neck back, Kipper edged around the hold, examining the dimly visible, distant ceiling. There were pipes, and machinery, up there. Even with her night-vision cat’s eyes, the details were lost to her in the gloom. Nonetheless, she now had a plan.
With nothing to do to further her plan until the last minutes of the flight, Kipper was sorely tempted to catch a brief nap. The floor was hard and uncomfortable, but the hold was dark and quiet. And cats need their naps. However, Kipper couldn’t risk missing the brief window she’d have for effecting her plan, so she had to settle for one of those alert drowses that dogs often mistake for real naps. It’s not like real sleep, though. Any cat knows the difference.
The decreasing acceleration was so gradual that, despite Kipper’s alertness, she didn’t notice she was practically floating until she felt the thunderous kachunk that must have been the crawling apparatus inside the climber disengaging from the carbon cord. She immediately jumped into action. Literally. And, underestimating her new lightness, the impetus of her jump hurled her all the way to the high, high ceiling of the hold and — crash — resoundingly into it.
If she’d been made out of rubber, she would have bounced all the way back to the floor. Instead, she just bruised her back and shoulders. And hung there. Her back was against the ceiling, but she wasn’t lying on it. She was just hovering there, looking down at the entire hold, yawning beneath her. Her perspective kept flipping, as if she were looking at one of those optical illusion sketches where if you look at it one way it’s a silly looking dog with its tongue hanging out, but, then, suddenly, it’ll be two cats playing checkers.
Well, one moment, the room had flipped upside down and she was lying on the ceiling; then, suddenly, the room would be right side up again and she just knew that she would fall any moment.
Of course, if she waited long enough, the climber would finish its lateral trip to the rotating edge of Deep Sky Anchor, and gravity would return. Then she really would fall.
So, Kipper pulled herself together, checked that the straps of her duffel were still over her shoulder (she could no longer feel the pull of the duffel’s weight, since it now had none), and gave a gentle push against the ceiling behind her. The right-pawed push twisted her around to where the ceiling was underneath her. Her new floor. Moving was less dizzying that way.
Awkwardly, she scrabbled along the ceiling, digging her claws into seams between metal panels, and gripping pipes as she came by them, to keep from drifting uselessly away from the ceiling, toward the real floor.
By the time the crawler kathunked, summoning the return of gravity, Kipper was ready for it. In every way.
She was perched on top of a nexus of pipes above the entry hatch to the crawler: the perfect place to watch Chip’s goons search for her; herself, searching for an opportunity to escape. But, also, she was ready to feel lithe and agile again. Which she simply didn’t in zero gee. Her vast inexperience with zero gee made her feel awkward and… uncatlike.
But, most importantly, she was ready to get out of this elevator. Then she’d be in space. Something she’d hitherto only dreamed about. And even though none of her dreams had been anything like this, stepping onto that space station would still be a triumph. She’d figure out the next stage of her crazy journey from there.
Continue on to Chapter 8…