by Mary E. Lowd
Kipper packed a few clothes and pictures of her littermates, nephews, and niece inside plastic sleeves to protect them. It wasn’t much, but it was more than she’d taken with her the last time she went away. She was in more of a hurry this time, but it was less hectic. More purposeful. More planned.
Trudith drove her to the airport. It had been hard saying goodbye to her family. It was awful saying goodbye to Trudith, her best friend on Earth. There’s nothing like a sad black lab mutt with melting brown eyes to crumble your heart to pieces. Even three cute kittens couldn’t compare.
“Let me come with you,” Trudith said, holding Kipper’s purple duffel bag of stuff. She’d insisted on walking Kipper to the gate and waiting with her for the plane. “I could go buy myself a ticket.”
Even the kittens hadn’t suggested that.
“I need you here,” Kipper said. “I need you to take care of Petra and the kittens. I’ll be fine.”
“You’d be better with a bodyguard,” Trudith said.
“I’m meeting Captain Cod, Trugger, and Emily in Ecuador. You met Trugger. He won’t let anything happen to me.”
Trudith looked skeptical.
Trugger may have been big compared to Kipper, but he was substantially smaller than Trudith. Kipper didn’t dare suggest that he was as loyal as Trudith. That would only insult her.
“Look, I’m only going down to the Galapagos to talk to the octopi. I’m not going to Jupiter to fight raptors or anything.”
Trudith gave Kipper a pained look. She may not have been the smartest dog, but she was was bright enough to see through that: just because Kipper was going to the Galapagos first didn’t mean she wouldn’t take off and fight raptors before she came back. Before she saw Trudith again. Or her littermates. Or the kittens.
Kipper’s head felt light. Trudith must have seen her distress, because she suddenly found herself in the middle of a giant bear hug. Dog hug. Warm black furred arms held her.
“I’ll be fine,” Kipper said, voice shaking.
Trudith pulled away, looked at Kipper, and finally nodded, flopping her ears. “You’ll be fine,” she said. It was what Kipper needed her to say. So she said it.
The plane boarded on time, and Kipper left behind a strangely still Trudith — no wagging tail, just set jowls. The image of her black lab mutt friend standing there, watching her leave, stayed with Kipper as she boarded the plane, stowed her duffel bag below her seat, and finally settled into the stiff, uncomfortable airplane seat.
She couldn’t shake the sensation of loss, a growing void that was usually filled by everything in her life on Earth. But she was leaving it all behind. That space inside her felt empty.
Kipper pulled her hind feet up onto the airplane seat and curled her tail around her haunches. The seat was uncomfortable, but she was glad that it wasn’t too small. A particularly large St. Bernard woman on the other side of the aisle had to struggle to fit into her seat at all. Her head kept hitting the ceiling and bumping the little buttons to turn on the light or air conditioning, and no matter how she folded her long, thick legs, they looked horribly cramped.
That was one advantage of being a cat. Airplane seats were never too small.
Kipper had a window seat, and she watched the city below shrink down to a toy model as the plane rose into the sky, flying south. She kept watching the Earth slide by outside her window, rich green mottled with the geometrical tan shapes of farms and cities, until they reached the ocean. Kipper couldn’t handle looking at that much water, so she drew the shade on her window and fell asleep.
Kipper slept through dinner. She didn’t miss much. Crunchy breaded chicken on an airplane couldn’t compare to fresh seafood in a chowder house at the beach. It was night when she awoke. She lifted the shade on her window and saw only black outside. The ocean was down there, but she didn’t have to see it anymore.
As the plane approached South America, Kipper started to feel excited about her journey. It was a small feeling at first — mild anticipation at the idea of seeing her otter friends again. Kipper found herself wondering what kind of vessel Captain Cod had chartered to take them down to octopus city in the Galapagos. Would it be an octopus vessel filled with water? Would she have to wear SCUBA gear for days without break? Would she be able to sleep like that if she had to?
What she was feeling was fear. But fear is a lot like excitement. They feel the same sometimes. Two sides of the same anxiety.
The flat black darkness outside Kipper’s window split in half as the growing glow of the approaching sun defined an edge. Gray ocean, so large that Kipper thought she could see it curve, hid the sun. But the sky hollowed out in the sun’s light, pale and white fading all the way to blue as deep as black. The sky was open. The ocean was shut. But Kipper was going to break into it.
She felt like a different cat than the one who had boarded the plane. She still missed her family, but it was a feeling contained, as if it had been put into a locket, close to her heart but locked away. It didn’t consume her. There was room inside her for other things.
Captain Cod met Kipper at the airport. He was a big otter with a broad chest and whiskery face. He wore his linen vest open, showing his coarse brown fur, and turquoise bangles on his short arms.
He bounced on his webbed toes, and his face lit up in a wide smile when he saw Kipper. “Leapin’ lamprey, Kipper! I’ve never been happier to lose a bet.” He took her purple duffel bag and led her out of the airport to a taxi. They got in, and Captain Cod instructed the squirrel driver to take them to the docks.
Once the car started moving, Kipper said, “What bet?”
Captain Cod chewed on his whiskers like he didn’t want to answer Kipper. “Oh, I just bet that you’d stay in the Uplifted States with your family. It didn’t seem like you’d be coming back to us. I owe Trugger a pound of candied clams.”
In honesty, Kipper hadn’t been sure whether she would come back to the Jolly Barracuda either. She’d meant to — but then she’d gotten caught up in Alistair’s new position and Petra’s kittens. It was easier on Earth where the air was air instead of highly oxygenated liquid.
In fact, she still wasn’t sure that she was going back to the Jolly Barracuda. She had an important mission — only she could tell the octopi how much they had to fight for. But that didn’t mean she had to go back to the Jolly Barracuda and space adventures when her oceanic mission was over.
Yet, she felt hurt that Captain Cod had doubted her. It didn’t matter that he was right to. It still hurt.
“I guess Trugger knows you better than I do,” Captain Cod said.
Kipper muttered something non-committal.
“You’re probably really tired?” Captain Cod said, suddenly looking her over much too carefully. “You can sleep on the submarine.”
“Will it have air?” Kipper asked.
Captain Cod laughed and shook his head. Kipper couldn’t tell if he was shaking his head in amusement or saying that the submarine wouldn’t have air. She couldn’t bring herself to press the point.
Kipper watched the shining city of Guayaquil slide by outside the taxi’s window. It was a beautiful city, and she never had time to really explore it. She was always on her way elsewhere, in a hurry, when she came through. “Are we taking off right away?” she asked.
“Do pigeons wish they were penguins?” Captain Cod looked as if he thought his riddle answered everything.
Kipper flattened her ears. “What?” She was out of practice with Captain Cod’s metaphors.
“Of course they do! Wouldn’t you rather swim than fly?”
Captain Cod shook his head again. This time in bemusement. “Silly cat. Swimming’s always best.”
Kipper sighed. She could see the docks already out the car window. “Look, can we… I mean, I’ve never seen anything of Guayaquil. Could we go somewhere? Get breakfast at a restaurant or see some sort of tourist sight before we go under the ocean?”
The cab pulled over, and the squirrel driver looked into the backseat. She looked Kipper up and down with her dark, sparkling eyes. Her red-furred face was tiny and pointed. She was smaller than any cat or dog Kipper had ever known.
“You’re that hero cat, aren’t you? The savior of Europa?” the squirrel said in a surprisingly deep, mellifluous voice. From such a tiny person, Kipper expected a high, squeaky voice, but Captain Cod’s voice was actually much squeakier.
“We don’t see a lot of cats around here. I bet you don’t see a lot of squirrels where you come from?”
Kipper had never spoken to a squirrel in person, but she said, “I went to a squirrel restaurant on Deep Sky Anchor once. I ate nut-mash.”
Captain Cod groaned. “Trugger didn’t drag you to that dive, did he?”
The red squirrel rolled her eyes — Kipper wasn’t sure if it was at her or the captain. “Let me drive you through Cedar Heights.”
“Tree Town?” Captain Cod complained.
The squirrel grimaced at him and said, “Cedar Heights. It’ll take half an hour.” She turned her gaze back to Kipper. “If you’re interested in eating real sciuridae cuisine — not the stuff made to appeal to the otters on the space station — I can point you toward a good restaurant there.”
Kipper hadn’t been crazy about the nut-mash, and she suspected that otter food, in general, appealed to her more than squirrel food would. While squirrels weren’t actually herbivores, they kept mostly to plant matter and insects.
Still, Kipper liked the idea of seeing more of Guayaquil. She turned to Captain Cod and said, “Half an hour. The submarine can wait half an hour. Can’t it?”
Captain Cod pointed out the cab’s window at the docks. “See the one with the orange stripe?”
There were boats lined up with sails and rigging, but Captain Cod’s claw pointed at the smooth metal hull of a submarine bobbing at the surface of the water at the far end of the dock. A simple steel gray fin with a single orange stripe poked out of the smooth metal. It was the only submarine at the dock, orange stripe or not.
“Sure,” Kipper said.
“I’ll start getting the submarine prepped. You go have fun.” He handed a wad of cash to the squirrel driver. “Have her back at the docks in an hour.”
The squirrel picked through the cash, flattening the bills out. She found several clam chews in plastic wrappers mixed in with the cash and handed those back to Captain Cod.
“You’re not coming?” Kipper asked.
“I’ve seen Tree Town,” he said. “But our driver here –”
He looked at the squirrel and waited until she offered her name: “Tamantha.”
“Tamantha will take good care of you. Won’t she?”
The squirrel finished flattening out the cash with her tiny paws and looked satisfied. She stuffed the money in her pocket. “Sure will,” she said. After Captain Cod got out, she said to Kipper, “Why don’t you come sit up front with me?”
As Kipper strapped herself into the front seat, she noticed that Tamantha had her seat adjusted all the way forward. Even so, it still looked like she had to stretch to reach the gas and brake pedals. Kipper wasn’t used to feeling big, but next to Tamantha, she did.
“I’ve seen you on the news,” Tamantha said, driving the taxi away from the dock again. “You’re the cat who saved Europa.”
Kipper’s ears flattened in embarrassed modesty, and she looked out the window, away from Tamantha. “I guess so.”
“And now you’re planning to board a submarine? You’re quite the adventurer.”
Kipper didn’t bite. She didn’t feel like talking about herself. Instead she asked, “What can you do in Cedar Heights in less than an hour?”
Tamantha laughed sharply. “What can you do in any city in less than an hour? Not a lot. I’ll give you a driving tour and take you to one or two of the best shops. Sound good?”
The buildings outside grew taller and narrower as Tamantha drove farther inland.
“It’s better than getting straight into a submarine,” Kipper said. “How will I know when we get to Cedar Heights?”
“You mean, will there be gleaming silver arches like intertwining tree limbs that rise over the street? Something like that?”
Kipper felt silly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…” She didn’t even know what she’d accidentally implied, but Tamantha’s tone had been sarcastic. Then she saw the exact arches that Tamantha had described. The sun really did gleam in their twisting metal branches. “That’s beautiful.” She craned her neck to keep looking at the silver arches as they drove under them.
“The otters may call it Tree Town,” Tamantha said. “But Cedar Heights isn’t a ghetto. It’s a really nice part of Guayaquil.”
Beyond the silver arches, the buildings were narrow enough that four of them fit in the space a single building usually filled. They stretched upward so high that Kipper couldn’t see their tops from inside the car. All the buildings had stairs on the outside, lacing back and forth like fire escapes. Except these stairs were unusually steep, almost ladders, and they were clearly meant for every day use. Squirrels raced up and down them as quickly as the otters in space swam through the rivers on Deep Sky Anchor.
“I think I like Tree Town,” Kipper said. She hated swimming, but she loved climbing.
Tamantha didn’t say anything, but she made a dismissive chirruping sound.
“I mean, Cedar Heights,” Kipper corrected herself. “Sorry.”
Was Cedar Heights the place Kipper should have been looking for when she went on her search for Cat Haven? Why in the hell was she about to let a bunch of otters drag her down to the octopus oligarchy when there was a whole squirrel culture here for her to explore?
Never mind the raptors flying in from Jupiter. Kipper sighed.
Tamantha told Kipper about the buildings that they passed — apartment complexes, business centers, banks, and restaurants. All the normal sorts of buildings that any city has. Then Tamantha pulled the taxi over to the curb, parked, and said, “We’re getting out here.”
Continue on to Chapter 6…