by Mary E. Lowd
Kipper folded her tunic, trousers, and scramball jersey into her little purple duffle and stowed it beside Maury’s desk. She wrapped the white sheet around her, under her arms, and pushed the pink curtain out of her way. Maury was arranging the tools of his trade on the work table beside the closest reclining chair. When he noticed her, he patted on the chair’s Naugahyde seat, inviting her to take her place there.
The Naugahyde felt static-y under her bare fur as she seated herself. Before she could really get settled, Maury kicked one of the levers, and the chair thudded back into a full recline.
“Get comfortable, Missy Feline, you’ve got a long ride ahead of you.” And Maury got to work.
Like at a doctor’s office, the white sheet spread over her was really a formality — more a mental barrier to make her feel comfortable than a practical physical one. Still, she wasn’t at all uncomfortable. The feel of Maury parting her fur and brushing it with the cool dye was relatively pleasant. A light tickle that moved along her ribs, following the pattern of her stripes.
Despite the occasional uprising by the Church of the First Race, nakedness just wasn’t that big of a taboo. It would never take much more than an unusually hot summer to get even the most dogmatic, puritanical dog — who prayed daily for the First Race to return — to strip down to only the skimpiest pair of shorts.
The furry peoples of the world could never be as deeply attached to clothing as all the history books suggested humans had once been. It’s just not practical to get too attached to a coat of cotton when you’re already wearing a coat of the finest fur.
“Want a drink?” Maury asked, putting his tools-of-the-trade down and heading to the back. He returned with an unidentifiable bottle and held it out to her after taking a swig himself. “These stripes are going to take awhile,” he said, “So, I thought some refreshments were in order.”
“What is it?” Kipper asked.
Kipper looked confused. The other fur-dresser, who seemed to be just about finished with the purple otter, came over to take a swig from the bottle and saw her look of confusion. “Symilk,” he said. “Synthetic milk.” The skinny fur-dresser handed the bottle back to Maury, and he held it out to Kipper again. She shrugged and took it.
“They probably don’t have symilk down below,” the purple otter said, rising from his reclined chair. “They’ve got cow-dogs rasslin’ up the real thing.”
Kipper was still examining the symilk, swishing it around in the bottle. She figured it couldn’t hurt to drink it, so she took a quick sip. The gulp of symilk went down fast. The flavor was right… She had to give it that. But, it was thin. It didn’t creamily coat her tongue and sooth it’s way down her throat like real milk would. Like milk should. No, this was no replacement for the “real thing.”
“Besides,” the purple fellow was saying, holding his paw out for Kipper to pass the bottle. She handed it off without any regrets. “Besides, there isn’t any space up here for dairy farms.” He gulped at the symilk showing much more relish for the beverage than Kipper felt it deserved. He wiped a purpled paw across his whiskers before continuing. “Even if otters did like fraternizing with cows as much as dogs do. We’re just not as much in to pretending to be humans.”
“Well, that’s the real reason,” the skinny otter added, beckoning for the bottle to make it’s way to him. “Only dogs raise cows, and you can’t get a decent price on anything with a dog monopoly on it.” He took a swig and handed the bottle on to Maury. “If we could,” he shrugged, “we’d buy it. Ship it up the elevator with all the other Earth goods. I mean, you can get a decent price on planet side fish.”
“Sure,” the purple one said. “Any dog, cat, or otter enjoys fishing. It takes one of those weird Collies or Corgis, a real cow dog — herd dog — to want to spend any time around cows.”
It was strange listening to otters talk politics. Kipper felt a burning ambivalence about them and their talk. Part of her was fascinated and wanted to fall into their world. Become one of the otters if she could. Another part of her was as indifferent to their petty problem importing milk as they must be to the struggles of her people. Why did the otters have so much power and control of their own lives? And cats so little?
And, yet, as the otters continued to talk and pass the symilk around, Kipper found herself feeling a strange sensation. She felt like defending dogs. It was odd. But… She liked having real, fresh milk, instead of this thin, synthesized stuff. And, like the otters, she didn’t want to raise cows. So… Actually… She kind of admired all the shepherd dogs out there who did that for her. They were good, hard-working dogs. Like Trudy.
And, although Trudy tended to order too many rich, red meats for the comfort of Kipper’s stomach, Kipper did like the taste of a juicy, rare steak now and then. This world in the sky, run entirely by otters, probably didn’t have those.
A world run entirely by cats wouldn’t either.
Kipper drifted further into her own thoughts as the otters deepened their debate of socio-economics and living on a space station. Eventually, Maury capped the nearly empty bottle of symilk and returned it to the refrigerator that must be hiding in the back with his desk. While he was gone, the purple otter turned to Kipper and asked, “So, what do you think of it?”
“Er… what?” Kipper asked, quickly trying to pull any of the otters’ recent comments out of her ears, where they were still echoing around — not quite making it all the way to her brain. “Well, the dog monopoly on…” she started, hoping to find her way as she went. But, it was too late. She had no idea what she was being asked to comment on.
Now this otter would look at her like she was so used to dogs looking at her: with the smug look that said, “you can’t expect a cat to understand anything.” It was bad enough getting that look from hare-brained dogs like Trudy. She didn’t think she could stand it from an otter covered in alternating stripes of bare skin and spiked purple fur.
But before the twitch at the end of Kipper’s tail could work its way up to a smart remark on her tongue, the otter laughed and said, “Symilk. How do you like it?”
“Oh…” Kipper said. She looked at him, searching his brown eyes under spiked brows for mockery or malice. She couldn’t find any. He raised the purple brows, expecting an answer. “It’s thin,” she said. “Thinner than real milk.”
He smiled. “You get used to it.”
“Is it any good for cooking with?” Kipper asked.
“I don’t know. My tugboat’s got a galley.”
The purple guy seemed to think that explained everything. Kipper looked at the otter quizzically. “Your tugboat?”
“Yeah, the Jolly Barracuda.”
The skinny tattooist, who was putting away all the scissors and razors he’d used fancying up the purple otter, snorted. “Trugger works on a cargo ship, Miss Feline. He thinks he’s a pirate. The whole ship’s worth of them think they’re pirates.”
Trugger bristled. Of course, he was already quite bristly from the purple spikes, but he still looked bothered by the skinny otter’s tone. “I don’t think I’m a pirate,” he said.
“No?” the skinny one asked. “Then how come you come here wanting to be made all tough looking like that?”
“I’d watch your mouth,” Trugger advised. “You wouldn’t want to convince me not to come here any more, would you?”
The skinny otter chuckled and put his paws up in surrender. “If you stopped coming, we’d lose our best walking advertisement in the red quarter. Soon as we could turn around, we’d be out of business.”
Trugger looked mollified.
“But, we haven’t answered the fine lady feline’s question. I cook,” he said and turned to Kipper. “Symilk works fine in sauces and soups. And most baking. But it gives you a little trouble in custards. It doesn’t thicken quite right.”
“Because it’s thinner,” Kipper said, but her mind was further back in the conversation.
The thin otter shrugged his narrow shoulders. “Something about the chemical structure. Of the proteins.”
Maury returned from the back and got back to work on Kipper’s stripes while the skinny otter returned to tidying his work area. Trugger was gingerly pulling on a jacket over his spikes when Kipper called out to him, asking: “Heading back to the red quarter?” And, saying those words, she realized why they were familiar.
Trugger started answering Kipper’s innocent question with an involved explanation of scheduling export shipments from the asteroid belt, but Kipper wasn’t really listening.
She reached to dig through her pockets for confirmation of her new thought, but her trousers were still folded neatly on Maury’s desk. The white sheet wrapped around her wouldn’t have the crumpled, torn half of a ticket receipt hidden anywhere in it, and she couldn’t get up and fetch her trousers without interrupting Maury’s work. But, Kipper didn’t really need to look at the receipt. No, she was sure. Red 1/4 was one of the cryptic scrawlings on that treasure map to the adventure she was on.
As Trugger continued explaining about the inter-planetary art scene (apparently the exports from the asteroid belt were mostly objet d’art), Maury moved from her back and sides to working on her paws.
As Maury doctored her body stripes, Kipper got away with twisting around, occasionally, trying to glimpse how it was going. Maury admonished her, however, to quit fidgeting now. He’d be inventing stripes free-hand on her paws, so he needed them completely still.
She complied easily enough. Her entire focus had moved from watching Maury’s work to steering Trugger’s topic of conversation. He was clearly a naturally chatty otter, but she wasn’t interested in the fine line the captain of the Jolly Barracuda had to walk between outright piracy and essential black market smuggling. She needed to find out as much as she could about the red quarter.
Fortunately, Trugger seemed perfectly content to stay and talk while Maury painted the stripes on her paws. By the time Maury pronounced the left paw done, Kipper had heard all about the in-fighting between different merchants who docked in the red quarter, where the name came from (the red docking lights around the air-hatches), the best restaurants near the red quarter (apparently, a pair of immigrant squirrels ran Trugger’s favorite), and, most importantly, a rough idea of how to get there from Maury’s. By the time, Maury pronounced the right paw done, she’d been given a complete rundown of the menu at the squirrels’ restaurant, along with recommendations for which dishes were best at which times of day.
Even though Kipper was done with Trugger now, having learned what she needed from him — and more — he showed no interest in leaving. To her slight annoyance, he kept chattering away while Maury did the most terrifying part of his job: recreating the stripes on her face.
Kipper didn’t like the dyes and brushes so close to her eyes. She fought the reflexes to squeeze her already shut eyes more tightly shut. That would interfere with the dying, and she didn’t want crooked stripes.
Trapped in the dark world behind her eyes, Kipper’s mind kept coming back to what Maury had said about her bone structure. Sure, it was the opinion of an otter, but even so. She was deeply flattered by the idea that he thought she had a regal bone structure like Siamese and Egyptian Maus and all those breeds of cat that are brought up in rich, purebred homes — houses strewn with silk pillows. She knew it wasn’t really like that, but it was how she pictured their lives anyway.
It only took one orphan at her cattery lucky enough to have perfect Siamese points being adopted by a couple in a button down suit and a blue dress (it matched the adoptive mother’s Siamese eyes) to stamp that image very deep in Kipper’s brain. If only she looked like that, she’d thought, maybe she’d have been adopted too.
Kipper began to feel a little bit of hope about the final outcome of this entire dubious venture. Maybe this otter tattooist was a greater artist than the low-class, down-trodden cat fur dressers on Earth. Maybe she really would look like a purebred cat.
It seemed like forever, but finally, Maury was done.
“Take a look,” Maury said, giving her chair a spin so that Kipper faced the closest mirror by the time her eyes were open. “So?” Maury asked, holding up a hand mirror so Kipper could see herself from all sides. “What do you think?”
“It’s a complete transformation,” Trugger answered, admiration in his voice.
Maury smiled, accepting the compliment, but he was still watching Kipper. She would be the true judge of his work.
“She looks all regal and fancy, like those cats you see in vid-dramas.”
“Yes, thank you, but what does the Miss Feline think herself?”
Honestly, Kipper didn’t know what to think. She kept peering at the mirror, trying to find herself in this foreign face of another cat. A purebred Egyptian Mau. And, then, her perspective would flip and all she could see was a botched and blotty Kipper — no sign of Egyptian Mau anywhere in the exaggerated, white and black, Halloween-ghost mask that Maury had made of her. No true Egyptian Mau had coloring this pronounced.
And, yet… Maybe she just had unusually distinct markings. It wasn’t completely unbelievable.
By now, Maury was looking a little nervous. Kipper suspected he was confident of the quality of his work, but it’s never fun to have an unhappy client.
Trugger, on the other paw, was grinning broadly. “Look at that, she’s so taken with her new coat that she can’t even find her tongue to answer you. Cat’s got her own tongue!” He laughed and slapped his thigh. He was still chuckling as he headed for the door. “Well, Kipper,” he said, just before leaving, “maybe I’ll catch you in the red quarter…” The door swung shut behind him.
An uncomfortable moment ensued. The skinny otter had come up behind Maury, and they were both waiting. They were probably trying to come up with ways to supplicate the wrath of an unhappy cat. Ways to make her just happy enough with the coat to walk out the front door without demanding her money back.
But, uncertain as she was of her new appearance, Kipper couldn’t think of a single way to change it for the better. She needed this disguise, and this disguise looked as good as it was going to get. It looked, in fact, better than she had expected.
Kipper finally pulled herself together enough to dip her ears and throw Maury an appreciative smile. “Thank you,” she said.
Continue on to Chapter 10…