The metal floor rumbled, sent an empty plastic barrel rolling slowly into Anidev Saschin’s left side. He opened his eyes against the sudden suction of an outer dock bay door opening, and he instinctively grabbed for a handhold that wasn’t there. He squinted through the blue gloom of the little alcove where he lay, and realized the door was sealed, and he was in no danger of being sucked into space, so he relaxed. Somewhere on the other side of the door, a heavy buzzer sounded, acknowledging the departing ship as she was released from her berth. The buzz deepened to a growl, when the dock bay door began its slow closing. The noise ended with a metallic thud, and then hissing silence, as the pressure on the dock normalized.
Finally, Ani lifted his head, aware of the pain and swelling in his face, tasting the blood in his mouth and smelling it as it congealed in tiny pools beneath him. He pushed himself up, allowed himself a small moan, and rested against the dirty wall, tried to let his head stop spinning and his belly stop convulsing. As bad as he felt, he was glad to be on Kharasi Station, glad to be alive, glad to be free. He huffed a laugh, and spat blood on the floor.
He realized that he was hungry, desperately hungry. He didn’t know how long it had been since he had last eaten, but his stomach protested the fast with alternating waves of nausea and growling. As he rubbed at his belly, he noticed that his ID bracelet was missing. With a start, he searched the floor around him, checked his bag, looked everywhere he could get to, but it was simply gone. He sighed, spat again, fell back against the wall, and shook his head, rage building up in his gut. Without the ID tag in that bracelet, he had no identity. And no money. That meant no place to stay, and no food.
He punched the metal wall with the back of his fist, angry that he had felt surprised that he would be left without the one thing he needed to get by on a starstation. No crewmember in his memory had been marooned like this, so he had no experience with it, to know what would be done to the offending crewman. Still, he chided himself for not expecting it. Kaipoori cruelty was legend, and it was rare that a captain would just put someone out, and not rip him to shreds or space him. It was crueller, though, to leave him alive, with no identity, penniless, and in an automatically illegal situation. Axsher Saschin was nothing if not cunningly cruel. Anidev cursed himself, under his breath, in any wise, as there was no one else around to curse. He’d just have to figure out how to get a new identity tag. Surely, one of the skeezy establishments on this old ringpole would have someone who dealt in fake IDs. And to get one, he’d have to come up with a good deal of money. Easy enough, if he could sell one or all of his gold chains. He did a quick check of his bag, and found the chains still there. One good thing, at least. But food had to come first, and no food vendor would accept gold as payment. He’d just have to scavenge, as his head wouldn’t stop spinning on its own. A big cat needed to eat, and eat big.
By then, his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and he found the door controls easily enough. He listened at the door for some time, first, and heard no footfalls or wheels or robots in the area. A swipe of his hand over the control brought the door up, and he slipped out, trying to stay in the darkened parts of the dock and to avoid the security cameras. He moved into another alcove, rummaged around and found a dockworker’s jacket. His claws extended and worked the name patch loose, left the jacket breast intact. Painfully, he eased himself into the jacket, pulled it on right over his family jacket, and found it was still too big. He didn’t care, just rolled up the sleeves a few turns, took off his belt and put it back on over the new jacket to hold it closed. Now, at least, he wouldn’t look like a marooned pirate. He knew there would be a lot of Kaipoori spacers on this station, and he also knew that, to Humans and Oron’Qai, all the cats looked alike, a fact that would allow him to lose himself more easily than a humanoid could. Another Kaipoori might recognize him, if they bothered to give him a second look, but even if they did, it was unlikely that they would involve themselves in his dilemma, unless they thought there would be money in it.
He left the alcove and began slowly moving toward the lifts, knowing full well that he’d not be able to get in one, without ID. However, no ID would be necessary to get on one, if he could find some way into the shaft. He decided he didn’t have the energy to try to get through the wall and into the shaft, thought he’d be better off to just whack somebody on the head and take their ID, then dispose of it, once he was on a useful level. With this in mind, he stepped out of the shadows and purposefully walked over to a dormant robot forklift and took the control pad out of its seat. He then looked “official,” and could take his time, find a suitable victim and make his theft.
Nearly fifteen minutes had passed when he came upon a man who wasn’t in a group of other workers. He wasn’t sure if the man was Human or Oron’Qai, and he didn’t really care. He was tall and blonde and soft looking. An easy target. Anidev’s hunger had reached the point of making this plump, slow-moving man look delicious, and he had to fight the ancient instinct to leap onto the fellow and bite through his throat, then rip his tender sinews and organs out and feast upon them. But even if he wanted to follow that instinct, he no longer had the teeth for it. Surely, he still had long canines, but generations of genetic manipulation had left the Kaipoori with smaller mouths and teeth than their ancestors had had, and the ability to speak had brought with it a slightly longer neck and a lower larynx that wouldn’t let them swallow huge chunks of meat any more. Ani could still eat a man or a large animal, but he’d have to use a knife and fork to do it, now — or, at the least, rip the meat up into manageable, small bites with his claws, or risk choking to death. And where would the fun be in that? All that vicious instinct, to have to daintily eat his prey! He sighed, shook the thoughts out of his head, and focused upon the task at hand.
He followed the man toward the restrooms, went in behind him and instantly whacked him on the head with the heavy control pad. That didn’t put the man out, and Ani found himself struggling with a humanoid who was at least a head and a half taller than he was. Ani was, however, much stronger and more fierce. He headbutted the fellow in the chest, to stop him from crying out, and then shoved the man into the metal wall and repeatedly smacked his head into it, until he lost consciousness. Anidev stood over him, panting and snorting and chuffing, tail whipping like mad, his claws still buried in the man’s jacket. He settled down quickly, released the body and took the ID bracelet from it. He made sure the man was still alive, then he rushed out of the restroom and toward the nearest lift.
He had to stand back and look busy, until the lift had no one waiting to get on it. Every moment he had to wait only increased his hunger and his agitation, as well as the likelihood of his victim coming to and crying foul, so when he finally saw his chance, he raced into the lift as if he was being chased by a demon. The lift door slid shut, closed him, alone, into the capsule. He selected the Promenade deck, as he remembered that level having a lot of bars, restaurants, lodging, and entertainment establishments. Surely, he’d be able to scrounge some kind of food there, even if it meant checking garbage chutes for scraps, and he’d be able to find somewhere to hide, when he needed to.
The lift belched him up to his chosen level, and he shoved out before the door had finished opening, hurried away from the lift and stopped near some potted trees, where he deftly deposited the stolen ID. He knew it would be worse to be caught with that than to be caught with no ID, at all, and he couldn’t buy food with it, without having his face caught on camera. He straightened himself up a bit, and began to stroll about the deck, relaxing as his adrenaline rush spent itself. He stopped at another restroom and relieved himself, took a moment to wash up his face and check his teeth. None were broken or loose, and he was grateful for that. He did still have some swelling beneath his left eye, but it wasn’t bad. He combed his dark brown mane and arranged it in its usual fashion, then returned to the quest for food.
He walked and walked, looking into restaurants with a searching eye, until he finally came upon a cafe with tables out on the lane. He looked over all the patrons, chose his mark, and focused upon him. The man at the table had barely touched his steaks, had his entire attention on the palm computer in his hand. Anidev confidently walked toward him, pretending to try and read the menu board, and bumped heartily into the man, causing him to drop the computer.
“Oh, excuse me! I’m so sorry,” Anidev muttered in Standard, as the man grumbled and bent over to retrieve his computer. Ani waited until his head was below the table level, and then he snatched both steaks and took off with them. He had already run out of sight, by the time the man realized what had happened and called over the waiter to complain.
Anidev lost himself in a crowd of spectators who were engrossed in a wrestling match between two grey-ruffed Maqat males. He stopped to watch, and happily chewed on his steaks, wishing he’d had some money to put on the meaner-eyed of the two apes. As it turned out, he would have lost his bet. He grunted when the softer-eyed Maqat flipped the other one onto his ridged back and held him down for the count, hooting and screaming his victory. Ani licked his lips, savoring the taste of the steak, but wishing the man had ordered it rare instead of medium.
Once the crowd thinned out around the makeshift fighting arena, he moved on with the larger group of pedestrians, took his time in surreptitiously looking around, taking in as much detail as he could. He finished the last bite of steak, licked the juices off his hand, and then ducked his head. Across the lane, ambling out of the nasty GoGozeNe bar, was his father’s chief rival, Captain Star. If anyone would recognize a Saschini kit, it would be him. Anidev puffed out his cheeks and kept his head down, watching Star with a sidelong glare, as he swaggered about with his well-armed cousins making a ring around him.
Star was one of the mountain Kaipoori, with long white fur that had silver tips on each hair, crystal blue eyes, and a longer snout than the lowland cats, like the Saschini were. His looks were more like those of the lowland females, and many made fun of that fact, both secretly and not so secretly. He had tried, once or twice, to convince Axsher Saschin to let him take Nadi, Anidev’s only sister, as a mate, but Nadi wouldn’t have him, referring to him as “that hairy bastard.” Star’s pride had been badly wounded by her rejection, but he still carried a torch for the girl. Ani was glad to see the captain swish on his way, jewelry jingling and silken trousers shining in the bright lights of the main lane.
He turned his attention then to GoGozeNe. Any bar that Star came out of had to be full of sneaky types, perhaps one of whom could get him that coveted fake ID. He couldn’t just walk in and ask, though. It would be a delicate affair, requiring a lot more finesse than he could muster up, at the moment. The two steaks he had stolen were a decent nibble, but he still needed to feed, to get his energy back up and pump up his brain to a conniving level. He marked the location of the bar in his mind, and set about trying to find another source of food. His continued hunger and focus upon finding food kept him from noticing the Human female leaning against the wall outside the bar, who was studying him with great interest. He set off on his feeding quest, unaware of the woman carefully following him.
Anidev Saschin’s vision began to tunnel, his mind focused more and more upon food, and his predator’s eyes darted from person to person, as he ambled through the promenade. He passed a man with a small child on his back, who stood at the end of a queue, and noticed the kid had a kebab of some sort. He looped back, came by once more, and quickly snatched the tidbit off its stick with his teeth, before running away, again, leaving the child crying and the man looking confused. That morsel was tasty, very tender meat, but was barely a bite for him. His rumbling stomach reminded him that it was a good way from being filled. Still, it was another twenty minutes before he found one more possible bit of a meal. An Oron’Qai noble sat near the door in one restaurant, his plate piled high with leftovers of meatloaf, vegetables, bread, and sauce. Nothing caught Ani’s eye but the meatloaf. He went inside, walked around as if checking the place out, then suddenly ran at the well-fed fellow with long blonde curls and velvet waistcoat, deftly scooped up the meatloaf and let out a half roar that startled the man so badly that his chair fell backward and onto the floor, with him still in it.
Anidev ran, again, but this time, a Maqat diner leapt from his seat and gave chase, bellowing in a deep, grumbling voice. “Come back here, you thief! How dare you interrupt the doctor’s meal!”
Ani didn’t slow down, just stuffed the meat into his mouth and chewed for all he was worth, easily outrunning the gangly ape and throwing himself beneath some dense shrubbery at the edge of the walking park. He crouched there, eyes darting back and forth, lungs panting, muscles poised for another sprint, but the need never came. He settled down, finished swallowing the last of the meatloaf, and decided that would be enough food to get him by for the night. He would find a hiding place to nap in, then get up and start on his quest to obtain his fake ID. Likely, someone would happiy give him some credits for his chains, and he could use that to pay for the tags. He peered through the dark green leaves to make certain the coast was clear, then crawled out of the bushes and casually walked through the perfectly pruned trees until he came upon an exterior ventilation unit on the side of a hotel block. He climbed in behind the box and curled up against the vibrating unit, let himself quickly sink into a deep sleep.
Freika Larn followed the sprinting Kaipoori as best she could, but damn, he was fast! She didn’t know Maragoni cats could run that fast on only two legs. She huffed and puffed in trying to keep his pace, and had to stop for breath when she saw him leap into some shrubbery at the park. He didn’t immediately emerge, so she took her time in approaching the bush, hung back, but stayed close enough that she could see bits of his yellow jacket and a small piece of his fluffy tail sticking out of the brush, and she pretended to not be looking in his direction. She was glad the big Maqat had given up the chase, and that he hadn’t seemed to realize that she was chasing, too. The Maqat was one of the very few gen-altered beasts on the station who could hold his own and even stand a chance at killing a full-grown Kaipoori. As big and burly as that ape was, she figured kitty man wouldn’t stand a chance against him, if he got himself caught. But he didn’t get caught. At least, he didn’t get caught by the Maqat. She smirked, thinking about how much more humiliating it would be for him to get caught by a mere Human female. She desperately wanted to catch him, no matter the risk. So she straightened up her shorts, wriggled each of her legs, and waited for him to come out of hiding.
When he finally emerged, he wasn’t running. He looked calm and collected, no meatloaf in sight, and he held his beautiful tail confidently at attention. He was a fine looking cat, in Freika’s estimation, with his luxurious dark brown mane, soft folded ears, velvety looking golden body fur, huge tiger eyes, and muscular build. He was at least a head shorter than she was, but he just oozed what she thought was tomcat allure and strength, and his presence occupied a great deal more space than his physical body did. She hadn’t realized until then that she wanted to lay claim to him in more ways than one.
He moved slowly through the park, taking things in, familiarizing himself with the territory, and Freika followed, far enough back to not be noticed, but close enough to keep him in easy sight. She watched him climb behind a ventilation box and settle in, saw him curl up there and tuck his head into his arms, like a housecat curling into himself for a nap. She waited until he seemed to be deeply asleep before she quietly climbed into the space with him, sat down in front of him, and just watched him sleep. Her deepest desire, at that moment, was to reach out and stroke his silky mane, to play with his delicate ear flap, but she rather liked having her hands intact. Kaipoori all kept their claws, and many of them were enhanced with metal. Even three inches of natural claw could rip her hand clean off, so she refrained from touching him.
Anidev’s nose twitched, caught her scent, and he thrust himself upright, claws extended and ready to kill. Freika sat absolutely still, her bright blue eyes open wide. Anidev took only a moment to scan his hunter’s eyes up and down her tall, slender frame, noting her large bosom, pretty face, and chopped blonde hair. Then the blue patch on her breast that read “Daphne’s Dream,” twined around the silhouette of a woman with flowing blue hair that made up the outer circle of the patch.
“Who are you?” he growled.
“Um, I’m Freika,” she breathed. “Freika Larn. Who are you?”
He ignored her question. “What are you doing here?”
She visibly relaxed. “I could ask you the same question, but you’d probably ignore it, like you just ignored my first one.”
Ani kept his guard up. “What do you want?”
She walled her eyes and snorted. “You, obviously. Why else would I sit down next to a sleeping cat who could rip my arm off if he wanted to?”
“Tch!” he spat, and stood up. “Can’t even get a nap around here.”
She reached out and grabbed his sleeve. “Wait! Can you run calcs?”
His eyes narrowed. “Why are you speaking like that?”
“Oh. I thought you couldn’t understand Standard slang. Or my Cassarean accent confused you.”
He shook his head in amazement. “And speaking in drawn-out syllables would make a difference in either? Tch!”
“Wow, you’re an angry little kitty, aren’t you?”
“I’m not a little kitty!”
She squealed with delight. “Oh, yes you are, you growly-wowly, purry-wurry, pretty little furry kitty!” Her hand lashed out and instantly started to scratch behind his folded ear. He flinched, but didn’t move out of reach. A faint purr started in his breast, but then he slapped her hand away.
“Stop that! I am not a lap cat! I am a Kaipoori! I am Anidev Saschin, the eldest son of Axsher Saschin, the greatest pirate this system has ever, or will ever, know! I am not a pet!”
“You? Axsher Saschin’s kitten? No, sir! I’ve seen his wanted posters. You’re way too cute to be related to him.” She interrupted him just as he appeared to be about to launch into a rant. “Besides, Ebony Angel and Terreos aren’t in dock, here. I mean, I think I heard them come in for refuel, but they’ve been gone for a long time. Why would they leave you behind, if you’re the captain’s kid?” She suddenly grinned. “Unless you did something wrong! What did you do that was bad enough for a pirate to kick you off the ship? And your own daddy, at that!”
“That is none of your business!”
“Sure it is! I want to know all about it.”
Ani turned to walk away. “Leave me alone.”
She held onto his sleeve and shook it a little. “Look, Anidev, you’re hungry, right? I mean, you were scarfing down leftover station meatloaf, so you have to be hungry. Nobody with half a set of tastebuds eats that garbage willingly. Plus, you have no money, right? Otherwise, you wouldn’t have been snatching leftovers off some fat Oron’Qai’s plate.” She scooted closer, and dropped her voice to a conspiratorial tone. “That’s why I asked if you can run calcs. See, our number one and number two got themselves inconveniently stowed in the station’s morgue. I’m not fully qualified to run numbers, yet, so we need a good pilot. I heard lots of Kaipoori spacers are good at numbers. Are you?”
His spine stiffened and added a few inches to his height. “Yes. I am. I was captain of Terreos. Until recently.”
She let go of him and cupped her mouth with one hand. “Oh my God! They beached you?! What the hell did you do?!”
“That is none of your business!”
“You keep saying that, like it’s going to make me stop asking.”
“You might as well stop asking, because I’m not going to tell you.”
“What if I feed you? I mean really feed you, something delectable, instead of rancid meatloaf? Piles and piles of deliciousness! What do Kaipoori like to eat, anyway?”
His eyes slitted. “Nosy little girls.”
“Ha!” She grabbed his sleeve and pulled him closer, almost right against her. “Oh, I’m going to like you.”
He pushed away from her. “Well, I don’t like you, so leave me alone!”
She held on, looking down at him with one eyebrow cocked. “You don’t like me? What kind of rude crap is that? Here I am, offering you food, all the food you can eat, for absolutely free, and I’m also offering you a job, which you damn well know you can’t get anywhere else, without any ID.” His eyes widened, and she nodded. “Ja. I noticed your bracelet is gone. If you still had it, you wouldn’t need to steal food or sleep behind machinery.” She kept hold of his sleeve, despite his offended chuffing, and gave him another little shake. “So, what’ll it be, pussy cat? Try to buy yourself a fake ID and end up in the pound, or come with me for a chance at glory, fame, and good food?”
He pushed her hand off his sleeve, but his eyes never left hers and never blinked. “Where are you docked?”