The Airship Race Preview

Chapter 1

 

A strong gust of wind rippled Cali’s fur as she stood upon the gas-lamp factory’s rooftop. It was a fine, blustery morning, perfect weather for flying. Scents from all over Ticswyk mixed together on the breeze, delighting her senses and setting her mouth to watering. The scent of the bakery was particularly strong, and visions of creamed sugar played over in her mind. Perhaps their test flight would take them in that direction, and they could fetch some early-morning sweets. Assuming that Lionel was ready to fly soon. Otherwise, the calico cat would likely become bored and retreat to her windowsill for a nap. Sitting back on her haunches, she did her best to be patient.

For months Lionel had been hard at work on his secret invention. He had told no one what project was occupying his time, stating only that everyone would be suitably impressed. It had been only two days ago that he’d revealed his invention to Cali, giving her a glimpse of the engine in its entirety. Cali hadn’t been impressed. Instead, she’d been totally confused. It looked like a mess of gears and pipes, with an occasional puff of steam rising from its rear.

A thorough explanation had been required, and once she’d managed to picture the contraption in her mind, she became quite excited. Of course, if Lionel had simply shown her the schematics, she would have recognized it immediately as an airship. But Lionel never drew out his plans in their entirety. Not since the theft of his plans for a steam-powered hammer had been stolen by members of the Builders Guild. They’d gone on to profit from his design, never revealing its true inventor.

His refusal to join any Guild left him vulnerable. But his freedom to choose which jobs he wanted to take was far too important. Plus, his inventions would remain his alone, rather than being credited to the Guild. Unfortunately, any tinker not among their ranks risked retaliation. The Engineers Guild coveted Lionel’s work above all others. Jamison Morcroft, the Guild’s leader, had kidnapped Lionel and tried to force him to work on a criminal project. Luckily Cali had been there to save the day. She was Lionel’s most prized invention, a calico cat enhanced to perfection. In return, she considered him her dearest friend.

“That ought to do it,” Lionel said, tightening a final bolt. “Now where did I put that…” he trailed off as he sorted through a pile of tools. Finding what he was after, he set it to the side along with two other tools. “Those will have to come along with us,” he said. This would be the airship’s first test flight, and he had to be prepared to make adjustments along the way. He took as few tools as possible to avoid adding weight that would slow their journey. This vessel was designed for speed.

Standing up straight, he stretched the workload from his back. Too many hours spent hunched over the engine was starting to take its toll. He was ready for a break, and the flight should provide the finest one he’d ever taken.

Off to his left, the top of a lady’s yellow hat appeared, followed quickly by the lady herself. Florence ascended the zigzagging metal staircase that ran up the side of the factory to the roof. The wind rustled her skirt and threatened to blow the hat off her head. Instinctively she reached up to hold it in place. With her other hand, she stroked Cali’s tricolored fur.

“Why didn’t you take the hatch?” Lionel asked. “It’s easier on your legs than walking up all those stairs.” For ease of transport of his engine, the tinker had installed a hatch in the roof, complete with a pulley system and platform. With the simple tug of a rope, he could lift himself and the engine to the roof, saving precious time and energy.

“I prefer the stairs,” she said. “The platform is much too fast.”

“Then pull the rope more slowly,” he countered.

“There’s also nothing to hold onto,” she said. “Believe me, the stairs are easier on a lady in heels.”

“I’ll install a handrail on the platform.” It would go on his long list of tasks awaiting completion.

Florence only smiled and shrugged. “How’s this coming along?” she asked, nodding toward the engine.

“You’re just in time for a test flight,” he answered, grinning.

“No thanks,” Florence replied. Though she trusted her brother’s design, she had no desire to go sailing over the rooftops without firm ground beneath her. The basket looked sturdy enough, but it simply wasn’t terra firma. “It’s beautiful,” she said. A silk balloon of red and white, held in place by latticed ropes, rose toward the heavens and danced ever so slightly on the breeze. The engine was a marvelous contraption of shining copper and antiqued bronze. She didn’t understand its inner workings any more than Cali did, but it was certainly pretty to look at. It also appeared to be quite heavy. “Are you sure one propeller is enough?” she asked.

“Oh yes,” Lionel replied, nodding. His voice contained no hint of doubt. He was entirely confident in his design.

“That engine certainly looks heavy,” she observed. “Are all airships designed this way?”

Lionel shrugged. “I’ve seen a few up close, and there are probably a hundred or more different designs out there. But you won’t find one powered like mine.”

Florence wouldn’t know. She’d never traveled in one, and she didn’t intend to. “I thought they were bigger,” she said. Some could carry a large number of passengers and crew. This vessel was large enough for only one.

“The rules of the race say single-person vessels only,” Lionel said.

“Race? You’re entering?” This was news to her. She’d heard about the race being hosted in Ticswyk, of course, but Lionel hadn’t mentioned his plans to enter.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, placing his thumbs behind his suspenders. “And I’m going to win.”

“It’s that fast?” she asked.

“The fastest,” he replied.

“You can bet the Guilds have rigged the competition somehow,” she said. “They’re bound to make trouble for any contestants who aren’t among their membership.”

“There’ll be too many witnesses for that sort of thing,” Lionel said. “All of Ticswyk will turn out to see the race, and so will half the neighboring cities.”

“Yes, but the Guilds are bound to make mischief,” she warned him. She would never trust the Guilds not to cheat, and rightly so. They were notorious for that sort of behavior.

“No problem,” he replied. “I’ll outrun all of them.”

“Because you’ll be the fastest,” she added.

“That’s right,” he said.

“Faster than Jamison Morcroft?” she asked. She hadn’t seen the race’s list of participants, but she felt certain Morcroft’s name would be on it.

“You bet,” Lionel replied.

“Have you seen his airship?” she wondered.

“No,” he answered honestly. “But I don’t need to. He’s got too many other schemes in the works. I’m surprised he’s even competing.”

“So he is in the competition,” she said. The comment was more to herself than to her brother.

“Of course he is,” Lionel replied. “Any time he has a chance to get his name on a prize, he takes it.”

“And what’s the prize for the winner?” she asked.

“A gold trophy as tall as a man,” he replied. “Along with bragging rights and a contract to have the winning airship mass-produced.” He paused to look at the clouds. “Picture it: Lionel Cogg’s patented airship flying all over the sky. I might even have Cali’s likeness painted on the balloons.”

Looking skyward, Cali could picture that very scene. Lionel was brilliant and deserving of recognition, and her own face adorning the vessels would add a splash of color to the skies.

Florence patted Cali on the head. “That would be a wonderful sight.” Leaning toward her brother, she kissed his cheek. “Best of luck, Lionel,” she said. “And don’t fly too high.”

He chuckled, and said, “I can’t promise that.” Climbing inside the basket, he gave the engine a thorough inspection. “You sure you don’t want to come along?”

Florence shook her head. “How do you know it’s going to stay in the air?” After all, he hadn’t actually flown it before.

“Warm air,” he replied. “You’ve seen plenty of folks on balloon rides before.”

“Yes, but not one this heavy,” she said. “Is that the fuel tank?” She pointed to a small copper tank with pipes leading out of it.

“That’s it,” he said.

“It looks rather small. How far can you go on that amount of fuel?” Her brow wrinkled with worry.

“The smaller tank means a lighter ship,” Lionel pointed out. “And don’t worry about me running out of gas.” He tapped a glass retort mounted to one side of the engine. “This little gadget here traps condensation, which turns into steam power.”

“Doesn’t the water make it heavy?” she asked.

Lionel scratched his head. “I don’t think I’m explaining this correctly. You see, it won’t add any weight since there’s already humidity in the air and…”

“All right,” she said, waving her hands to halt the lengthy explanation. “I’m sure you know what you’re doing.”

“Don’t you worry one bit,” he reassured her. “This ship is lighter and faster than most, and I haven’t compromised anything on fuel. You’ll see. This vessel will fly as far or farther than any other.” The gleam in his eye was unmistakable.

Another gust of wind caught Florence off-guard, and she stumbled in her high-heeled shoes. Bracing herself against the basket, she managed to stay on her feet.

“You might want to go back down,” Lionel said. “The platform is right there.” He pointed at the rectangular section cut out of the roof.

“I’ll use the stairs,” she said. “But first I’ll watch you take off.”

“You coming, Cali?” Lionel called to the cat.

Bounding forward, Cali hopped inside the basket and purred. There wasn’t a doubt in her mind that the airship would fly smoothly. Her faith in Lionel’s abilities was absolute.

Cali’s presence in the basket helped set Florence’s mind at ease. Lionel would never risk harming her. If he had the slightest doubt, he would never let her in the basket. Florence took it as a sign that all would be well, her face settling into a calm expression.

Lionel eyed the balloon to be sure it was fully inflated. Satisfied that everything was in order, he cranked up the engine. It purred to life, then roared. Squinting at the gears, he checked the connections for the umpteenth time. He’d gone over everything so many times, he could hardly think of anything he might have missed. After a few moments, the engine quieted down, settling into a low hum.

Nodding to his sister, the tinker took hold of the wheel and prepared for liftoff. The basket swayed slightly, but not enough to unbalance him. Glancing down at Cali, he found her perfectly at ease. In two pulls of a lever, the basket hovered a few inches above the roof and slowly moved toward the edge.

Florence held her breath and refused to blink. When the balloon cleared the edge of the roof and began to ascend, she finally exhaled, pressing her hand to her heart. She waved to her brother, bidding him a safe journey.

Lionel leaned over the basket’s edge to wave back before securing the goggles over his eyes. Too much wind would leave him blinded, and if he couldn’t see, he couldn’t avoid obstacles. Luckily, there didn’t appear to be any other airships in the vicinity. Soon he would be high enough to avoid collisions with buildings or trees.

Cali hopped up on a raised platform that resembled her favorite windowsill. Lionel had installed it for her comfort, and she purred as she kneaded the cushion with her paws. Looking over the basket’s edge, the first thing she saw was Florence, her yellow dress shining in the sunlight as she descended the steps. Cali wondered why the woman had no interest in flying. She was brave and intelligent, with an independent streak a mile long. If she were in the basket, she’d probably be working the controls by now. Someday Cali would have to coax her along for a ride. Once she’d had a taste of how amazing it was, she’d come around.

Cali caught a glimpse of something gray-blue emerging from the roof hatch. Emmit had come to see her off. He had been absent earlier that morning when she went to invite him along.

She and the mouse had grown close since their first meeting. She had apologized more than once for trying to eat him on that occasion. But Emmit was a forgiving sort and insisted she think no more on the subject. Everything that had transpired between them since had been pleasant, even if it was sometimes dangerous. The mouse was a good friend to have around in a sticky situation, and Cali always thought of him first when she needed help. Today, however, he had been out on the town, likely enjoying breakfast somewhere. Rather than risk missing Lionel’s takeoff, Cali had left a short note behind in Emmit’s house, the mouse hole behind Florence’s desk in the factory.

Emmit must have found the note upon his return and hurried to the roof to see the balloon’s first flight. He squinted up at her and waved his little paw. Despite his small stature, she could see his every movement. Her mechanical eye missed nothing. Lifting her paw, she returned the sentiment.

Though Emmit had accompanied Cali on a few adventures, this time he was content to stay on the ground. Many humans traveled by balloon, but Emmit had never been inside one. He’d often stated that such contraptions flew too high and too fast, and when made aware of Lionel’s new invention, he had professed his unwillingness to climb aboard it. Lionel’s racing vessel would no doubt be among the fastest in the air. That wasn’t an adventure Emmit was ready to take. But Cali was certainly enjoying herself; the smile on her face was unmistakable, even from a distance. Once they landed she would want to tell him all about it, and Emmit, as always, would be happy to listen.

The engine sputtered and hissed, sending a shudder through the basket. Lionel placed a lever between the spokes of the steering wheel to hold it in place before stepping to the back of the vessel. After a few minor adjustments, the engine purred softly.

“Like a cat,” Lionel commented, reaching toward Cali and mussing the fur on the top of her head.

Cali beamed with delight. Though they’d been airborne less than three minutes, Cali was already enjoying the trip. The wind on her face was refreshing, and from her position, she could look down on a large portion of Ticswyk at once. She wondered briefly if they could fly high enough to take in the entire city, but that was unlikely. She wasn’t sure how far off the ground they’d need to be, but the air up there might be too thin for Lionel. Not for Cali, though. With her enhancements, she was sure she could endure such a flight.

While Lionel continued to monitor his engine, Cali looked down upon the city. From here, the different districts looked like a patchwork quilt, the streets crisscrossing between each square. To her surprise, some of the streets ran diagonally, ending in odd intersections. These roads were situated in the older part of the city, constructed at a time when planning was not necessary. She wondered what Ticswyk looked like before industry had come about, and the population had grown by leaps and bounds. Were there farms? Forests? And what manner of people might have lived here? Those were questions she couldn’t answer. Maybe Emmit could. He spent a lot of time reading newspaper articles and could be a wealth of knowledge. She made a note to ask him someday.

As they approached the market district, the craft dipped lower. Throngs of citizens appeared beneath the ship. This area was always busy with merchants and customers, so it wasn’t a surprise to see them. But the people were certainly surprised to see Lionel and Cali flying above their heads. They turned their faces skyward, gaping and pointing. Shopkeepers emerged from their shops, and a curious apple thief dropped his ill-gotten prize as the airship moved past.

Amused by the attention, Lionel waved to the people on the ground. Many of them waved back, slow at first, and then with more enthusiasm. Some shouted, “Hello there!” while others were too slack-jawed to say anything. Chuckling, Lionel cranked up the engine and picked up speed. A convenient gust of wind gave the vessel an added push, and it sped off, leaving the gawkers behind.

Cali wondered why the citizens were so easily impressed. Airships weren’t all that uncommon. On the contrary, they came to Ticswyk daily. Of course, they rarely flew as low as she and Lionel were currently flying. Unless it was coming in for a landing, it wasn’t possible to make eye contact between the ship’s passengers and people on the ground. She suspected they had yet to see an enhanced cat riding along in an airship. Also, the look of Lionel’s engine must seem like something from another world. With pipes snaking through it and its gears exposed, they were given a glimpse of something normally hidden on a transport ship.

Of course, with the race coming up, the citizens were likely excited to get an early look at one of the competitors. They’d be making bets well before the race began, and having inside information could make a person wealthy.

Turning her attention to the clouds, Cali began to daydream. The feeling of weightlessness overcame her, and she drifted off to sleep. When the sound of the engine changed once again, she awoke with a start.

“Hold on tight, Cali!” came Lionel’s voice.

The calico obeyed, digging her claws, both enhanced and natural, into the edge of the basket. While Lionel busily worked the controls, the engine sputtered and stalled. The balloon shifted to the right and began to twirl at the mercy of the wind. A single gas-powered flame still heated the air, keeping them aloft momentarily. A hiss and a pop interrupted the fuel supply, and the vessel lurched, spiraling out of control.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Cali clutched at the basket with all her strength, her eyes intent on Lionel. A sudden updraft launched the ship skyward, but she kept her balance, as did her companion. He worked furiously at a bolt, beads of sweat dotting his brow. Knowing her help was needed, she leapt toward the engine and landed on top of it.

“Careful,” Lionel said. The calico was dangerously close to the edge. He grunted with effort. “Almost…” The muscles in his thin arms bulged as he attempted to shift a lever that was stuck fast.

Cali didn’t need him to ask. She knew exactly what he needed her to do. Pressing against the lever with her enhanced right paw, she leaned her weight against it. Sending power to her haunches, she pressed against the sturdy engine and made use of all the added strength her implants provided. It was enough to shift the lever into position.

The engine returned to its quiet hum, and the balloon drifted gently on the breeze. With a sigh of relief, Lionel let go of the lever. “That was a close one,” he said. He moved toward the gas pipes to reignite the flame, sending warm air throughout the balloon. In less than a minute, the ship was fully under his control.

“I’m glad I had you along,” Lionel said.

Cali purred and nudged his ankles with her nose. Winding her tail around his leg, she offered her unwavering support. If he could have understood her language, she would have reassured him that she was there for him. She would always be there for him. Not long ago, he had rescued her from a life on the streets. He had gifted her these remarkable implants, and she could never thank him enough. He would always have her friendship and devotion.

“I think that’s enough for today,” Lionel said as he steered the craft toward home.

The feline agreed. She was always ready for adventure, but nearly plummeting to her demise had taken its toll. She was ready to go back home and relax on her windowsill. Maybe a bite to eat would help too.

With expert precision, Lionel brought the airship to a smooth landing on top of the factory roof. Once he had secured it with a rope, he turned to Cali. “Not too bad,” he said with a grin.

Cali gave a slow blink in reply and hopped out of the basket. She headed toward the hatch and paused, hoping Lionel would follow. He didn’t. His focus remained fixed on his engine as he sorted through his tools to continue his work. She worked up a pitiful mrrroooww, but the tinker didn’t acknowledge it. There would be no snack in Cali’s immediate future.

Lacking thumbs to operate the pulley, she headed down the metal staircase to the sidewalk and let herself in through the apartment window. She sniffed at the air, searching for signs anything was amiss. No strange smells found their way to her nostrils, suggesting everything was as it should be.

“How was it?” Emmit’s voice chirped. His eyes sparkled, a wide smile on his face.

“It was fun,” she said. “Until we nearly crashed.”

“Oh no,” the mouse replied.

She waved a paw dismissively. “We were able to fix it, and I’m sure the second flight will go much smoother.” Lionel was probably adding oil to that lever this very moment. With so many moving parts, he was bound to overlook one or two. The next flight would likely be perfect, and then he could focus solely on speed. After all, he wanted to win the race, and Cali would be rooting for him, hopefully from inside the basket.

“I’m glad you’re all right,” the mouse said. What would he do without Cali? Not only did she provide him with an ample supply of cheese, she was his closest friend. She was always there to get him out of scrapes. Or was it the other way around? At any rate, he was accustomed to the presence of his feline friend, and should she ever become absent, he would never feel complete again. They had bonded despite their many differences.

“With that part aside, though,” the cat went on, “I found the city quite beautiful from above.”

“You weren’t scared at all?” the mouse asked. “It’s so high.”

“On the contrary,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind flying higher.” She paused to groom a spot on her paw. “Though, I suppose I’ll get that chance during the race.”

“You want to be inside it during the race?” Emmit nearly fell over. His stomach clenched as he thought how terrifying that would be.

Cali laughed. “You might like it if you tried it,” she said. “Once you get off the ground, I think you’d be surprised. It’s not nearly as scary as you think.”

The mouse paused to consider her words. Maybe she was right, but cats were naturals when it came to heights. They were agile and sturdy, and they always landed on their feet. She had little reason to fear. Emmit, on the other hand, was not nearly as flexible, and he’d experienced firsthand that mice don’t always land on their paws.

“I won’t push you to ride in the airship,” Cali said, patting the mouse on his back. “But I think someday you’ll be curious and want to come along.”

“Maybe,” he replied. If Cali were in the ship with him, and if he could hold onto her enhancements, he might actually be safe. Then he’d have only his nerves to deal with.

“When you think about it, it isn’t much different than riding in a carriage,” Cali said. “You might go a little faster, but if you don’t look down, you’d never know you weren’t on the ground.”

“Except for the view of clouds in your face,” the mouse said.

Laughing, Cali said, “Yes, if you’re that high in the air.” She shook her head, still smiling. Emmit was far braver than he gave himself credit for. One day he’d ride in the airship and wonder what all the fuss was about, and Cali would be there alongside him. The two would have a good laugh, and all would be well.

A clang of metal sounded from above, a sure sign that Lionel was still hard at work. Cali’s eyes looked up, her ears at attention. Grumbled words that she couldn’t make out suggested things weren’t going as smoothly as the tinker would like. Sighing, Cali turned her attention to the window.

“It’s midday,” she said, her stomach beginning to rumble.

“I suppose Lionel will spend all day on the roof,” Emmit said.

Cali nodded. The tinker frequently spent long hours in his workshop, forgetting to feed himself. Normally, Cali would make a fuss by refusing to leave him in peace until he fed her. Today she decided against resorting to those tactics. There was only a short time left for Lionel to finish his engine, and she wanted him to win the race. Stretching her back, she contemplated taking a nap to pass the time. Settling into her cushion, she tried to ignore her empty stomach.

Hearing a gurgle from the cat’s midsection, Emmit said, “We could go get something to eat.”

Cali squinted her green eye at him. “Will it require traversing through sewers?” Emmit liked to take the fastest route, even if it wasn’t the cleanest.

The little mouse shook his head. “No, we’d be heading toward the docks.”

“That’s clear across town!” the feline complained.

“Yes, but it’s the freshest fish you’re going to find,” he said. Seeing she still hadn’t budged, he added, “I bet tuna is far tastier fresh than from a tin.”

Cali’s ears perked up. “You’re pretty clever, Emmit,” she said. “Let’s go.” Hopping through the window, she waited on the sidewalk for her companion to join her.

Following her lead, Emmit scurried through the window. “This way’s quickest,” he said, darting around the corner and into a narrow alley.

Cali rolled her eyes but followed the mouse without voicing any complaints. The path was narrow and mucky but not overly smelly. She turned her thoughts to the promise of fresh tuna and tried to ignore the rest.

The sound of Lionel’s engine faded out as they moved away from the factory. Cali hoped his repairs wouldn’t take too long. He needed rest like anyone else, but he was so intent on his work that he’d ignored all his own needs. If she found any fresh enough, she would take a piece of fish home for him to eat. Bringing gifts was the best way to show her affection. She tried to remember the last time she’d brought him one, and remembered it had been a mouse. That had been months before she’d met Emmit. She gave him a sideways glance, grateful that he had no knowledge of the event. Such a gift was unthinkable now.

“We’re getting close,” Emmit said, misreading her expression.

“I think it’s about a mile away,” she pointed out.

“True,” the mouse replied. “But it’s closer than it was ten minutes ago.”

Cali shook her head and kept silent. She wondered how far Emmit must travel in a week as he searched for food. Of course, he had the option to simply share her meals. She was glad to save a small portion for him since a mouse didn’t require large quantities. But Emmit had a varied appetite, always craving this or that. His taste range was far wider than the feline’s. Cali often winced at the treasures he brought home, especially when it was days old and unrecognizable.

“Look,” Emmit said, pointing to a shadow on the street ahead. Both of them looked skyward at the airship that had cast the shadow. It was high, too high to see any of the passengers.

“You can see how smoothly it seems to fly,” Cali said to him.

“Yes, because it’s slow.” He paused a moment to observe the craft that seemed to move no faster than the average human’s walking pace.

“A fast ship is smooth if it’s crafted by the right person,” the feline said.

“I’ll take your word for it,” Emmit replied, continuing along the street.

Just when Cali’s stomach could hardly take the waiting any longer, they turned a corner and laid eyes on the fish market. It stretched along an entire block, stalls filled with all manner of fish. Flashing scales caught the midday sun, illuminating Cali’s meal of choice. “I think I see tuna,” she said, salivating.

When she started toward the stall, Emmit squeaked to stop her. “You can’t just walk up to the stall,” he said. “They’ll shoo you away.”

“I won’t leave,” she replied.

“They’ll throw things,” he said. “They don’t like beggars—human, cat, or mouse. We have to stay out of sight.”

“Then how do we get the fish?” Cali asked. It was piled high right in front of her. Why not walk up and take it? After all, she was famous in Ticswyk. Surely one of these fishermen would be willing to share in exchange for a close look at the famous clockwork cat.

“From the boats,” Emmit said, pointing toward the water. “They load the fish from there, but first they have to retrieve a cart. That’s when we can sneak in. All it takes is patience and proper timing.”

Cali narrowed her eyes. “You’re a regular little thief,” she said, grinning.

Emmit shrugged. “A mouse doesn’t need to take much.”

“Yes, but I do,” Cali said. “I need a whole fish for me and some to take back to Lionel.”

“Good thing you’re strong,” Emmit said. “And fast.”

Skirting along the edge of the docks, the two were careful to avoid all humans. No one seemed to notice the pair because the fishermen were far too busy unloading their catch.

“There,” Cali said. “Fourth boat.” That one had tuna. She hadn’t seen them whole before, but they perfectly matched the picture on her tinned tuna flakes. She watched a fisherman intently as he fiddled with a pole and then set it aside. When he climbed out of his boat and walked away, she said, “Wait for me behind those barrels.”

Emmit nodded and scurried away.

Cali didn’t hesitate. She sprang forward, dashing toward the boat. Leaping with her enhanced legs, she hopped over the gap and landed on the pile of tuna. The boat swayed beneath her. Her eyes gleamed at the prize, but it seemed to be sliding away. Realizing she was the one who was sliding, she grabbed onto a fish with her mechanical claws. It wasn’t enough to stop her momentum. The slippery fish came along with her as the boat rocked, tipping her over the side.

Yowling with displeasure, she kicked her hind legs and splashed wildly. It drew the attention of the fisherman, who hurried back to his boat.

“Oy, there, cat!” he yelled. “Thief!” He raised his fist and shook it.

Cali didn’t care. Transferring the fish to her mouth, she bit down hard with her fangs. With her front paws free, she paddled away from the fisherman. Pulling herself out of the water, she trotted away with her prize.

Wet through, she knew she must look frightful. She could hear laughter somewhere behind her, but she ignored it and continued toward the barrels where she’d sent Emmit.

The little mouse took one look at his companion and gasped. “What happened?”

Spitting the fish onto the ground, she shook her body to remove the water. Despite her disdain for being wet, she kept her composure to maintain dignity. “I fell in,” she said matter-of-factly. “I’d never been on a boat before, so I neglected to time my jump with the motion of the water. Next time, I’ll do better.” She held her head high, a look of satisfaction on her face.

Emmit stifled a laugh. “I believe you will.” Looking down at the fish, he asked, “May I?”

“Help yourself,” she said.

The little mouse immediately went for the blank, lifeless eyes, devouring them in a few bites. Cali nearly gagged. Choosing a more civilized fillet, she sliced open the fish with one metal claw. When the insides came out, she stuck out her tongue in disgust.

“You catch it, you clean it,” Emmit said with a grin. His belly fully, he sat back to relax while Cali enjoyed her share.

Gobbling down the fresh meat, she realized it was far better than tinned tuna. It was probably the best meal she’d ever eaten. “I’m going to have to come down here more often,” she said. “But I won’t be stealing again.”

“Then how will you get the fish?” Emmit asked.

“I’ll go fishing,” she replied.

“You mean swim for it?” The mouse looked horrified.

Cali shook her head. “No, I don’t plan to be all wet again.” The mention of her earlier misstep gave her the irresistible urge to groom, and she gave her flank several licks before continuing. “I’m sure Lionel has some sort of enhanced fishing pole I could use, or I’ll have to invent one myself.” She had every confidence she could figure it out. All it required was being smarter than a fish, and there was no doubt in her mind that she was.

“Sounds like fun,” Emmit said. “I’ll come along whenever you’re ready.”

Cali nodded and continued to groom her fur until every strand was back in place. She wasn’t sure how long it took, but her companion had dozed off at some point. “I’m ready to go,” she said, waking him.

Emmit rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “There’s still a lot of fish left,” he said.

“I’ll have more later, and I want to leave enough for Lionel,” she replied.

He didn’t say it, but Emmit suspected Lionel wouldn’t want fish that had been left lying in the sun for an hour.

Securing the fish in her mouth, Cali turned toward home. A rattling sound stopped her as she approached the alley. A metal trash bin overturned, clattering against the cobblestones. Something moved inside it, grunting and growling. Instinctively, she reached out her paw to prevent Emmit from going any farther. The clang of metal on metal echoed from inside the trash bin, followed by a faint ticking.

Cali zoomed in with her mechanical eye. A metal coil scraped the edge of the bin, but she couldn’t make out the source of its movement. Something was buried beneath the trash—something clockwork.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

“Stay back,” Cali called to Emmit as she approached the bin.

“What is it?” the mouse asked.

Cali didn’t know the answer yet, but she was determined to find out. Setting aside her fish, she crept low and silently toward the overturned garbage. Wads of old newspaper littered the alley, their movement on the wind a constant distraction. But Cali remained focused, her eyes peering inside the bin. Scraping, as if someone was digging, sounded against the metal. Cali flattened her ears to tune it out.

When the noise suddenly stopped, the feline did as well. Pausing midstride, she waited. Movement. The jumbled garbage inside rose in a single lump, and it was coming toward her.

Cali shifted power to her haunches and readied her claws. When the creature burst forth from the bin, the feline flinched. It was a dog, no bigger than herself. She allowed her muscles to relax. This was no sinister creation stalking the streets of Ticswyk. It was just an unfortunate stray.

Upon closer inspection, Cali noticed a metal spring protruding from the dog’s side. He wore a monocle, or rather, it was attached to his skull. She could clearly see the mechanism that held it in place. The sound of ticking resumed, and she realized that he was indeed clockwork. Her ears had not deceived her.

The dog’s eyes were wide with surprise as he looked upon the cat. A scurrying creature behind her drew his gaze, and he sprang into action. “Mouse!” he cried as he pounced on Emmit, pinning him with his front paws. Scooping the mouse into his mouth, he shook vigorously.

“Drop him!” Cali shouted, swatting the dog on the nose. The first strike was with her unenhanced paw, the second would be with the other. But there was no second swat. The dog obeyed after the first, dropping Emmit to the ground.

Emmit brushed himself off and moved to stand behind Cali.

“That mouse is my friend, and he’s under my protection,” Cali said, sticking out her chest.

“I’m sorry,” the dog said, lowering his head. “I thought he was a windup toy.”

Emmit scoffed. “Windup toy indeed,” he said, crossing his arms.

Cali chuckled. Dogs weren’t very smart, so she was inclined to believe his explanation. When the dog padded sideways and sat on his rear, she could clearly see gears attached at his hips. Someone had tried to mimic her own implants, and she was certain she knew who it was.

“Who installed your implants?” she asked, expecting a name. But that wasn’t the answer she got.

“What implants?” the dog replied.

“The metal coil, the gears,” she said, pointing to each part.

“Is that what they’re called?” the dog asked with a shrug. “My owner put those on me.”

Cali glanced back at Emmit before turning back to the dog. “We’re coming closer. Don’t make any sudden movements.” Cautiously, she approached the dog.

The dog stood and remained still. Large brown eyes stared at the feline before turning to Emmit. The mouse shuddered slightly and stayed close to Cali.

The poor creature was dirty and smelled awful. Cali suspected he had been a stray for some time. She couldn’t see which mechanism was ticking, but neither the gears nor the metal coil appeared to be functioning.

“I don’t know my owner’s name,” the dog finally answered. He lowered his eyes to the ground. “He doesn’t want me anymore.”

Swallowing her opinion, Cali didn’t say what was on her mind. This dog was much better off alone if his owner was the person she suspected.

“Do you have an owner?” the dog asked.

Cali shook her head. “I am a cat. We have no owners, but I do have a home with a very dear friend.”

“That sounds nice,” the dog said. “And what about you?” he asked Emmit.

The sincerity of the dog’s voice helped ease Emmit’s tension. Keeping a safe distance, he answered, “I live on my own, but in the same building as Cali.”

“Are you going to finish that fish?” the dog asked, eyeing Cali’s prized catch. “I’ve tried to take them, but the fishermen yell and throw things.”

Glancing over her shoulder, Cali said, “I suppose I could share a bit.” The dog was skinny and probably hadn’t had a proper meal in weeks. The least she could do was share. She could catch another one for Lionel.

“Thanks!” the dog said, bounding forward to retrieve the fish. He gnawed at its head, savoring the fresh meat. After he finished, he licked his paws and wiped at his muzzle.

At least he has a few manners, Cali thought. “What’s your name?”

The dog shrugged. “My owner called me Dog, and sometimes Specimen.”

Emmit’s mouth dropped. “He used you for a lab rat.” He immediately felt sympathy for the dog, his fears melting away. “That’s no way to treat a living being.” He padded toward the dog and said, “My name’s Emmit, and this is Cali.”

“Pleased to meet you,” the dog said, dipping his head.

“What did your owner look like?” Cali asked. She had to be sure.

“He was tall and slender, with dark eyes, and he always wore a tall black hat,” the dog said. “He yelled a lot.” The dog sniffed, his eyes growing wet. “Two weeks ago, he threw me out on the street. I tried to go back inside, but he threw rocks at me and slammed the door. I waited outside the house a few days, but I didn’t see him again.”

“That’s terrible,” Emmit said, shaking his head.

“He said I was a waste of time and unrepairable, whatever that means. I didn’t work the way he wanted me to.”

“Morcroft,” Cali muttered.

“Yes, I’ve heard that name,” the dog said.

Emmit gasped.

There was no doubting Morcroft’s cruelty. He’d been planning to imitate Cali’s design since viewing her at the exhibition. She’d seen the schematics herself in his workshop. To think he was experimenting on living creatures gave her a chill. Her mind was now made up. She would help this dog and see that he lived a better life. “Lionel will be able to fix you,” she said with certainty. “You’ll come with us.”

Emmit nodded his agreement. “I think that’s a fine idea, Cali.”

The dog pawed at the ground, his tail wagging furiously. “I’d love to!”

“Do you think Lionel will mind?” Emmit asked. He didn’t know the tinker as well as Cali did.

“He’ll be happy to help,” the cat replied. “Lionel has a soft heart.” She turned to the dog. “How does a warm bed and plenty to eat sound?”

“Fantastic!” the dog said. With a wide smile on his face, he stepped forward to lick Cali’s face.

Cali took a step back. “No need for that,” she said.

The dog licked Emmit instead. The little mouse froze momentarily, but then accepted the gesture as a dog’s way of expressing gratitude.

The smell of garbage began to irritate Cali’s nose. “Let’s head back,” she said.

“Just one more thing,” the dog said, darting toward the spilled trash.

Cali eyed the dog suspiciously. What was he up to? She nearly gagged when she found out. As if it were the sweetest smell in the world, the dog buried his nose in the garbage. What came next shocked her even more. The dog turned his head to the side and began rubbing his face in the trash before proceeding to roll in it. Cali looked away in disgust.

The look on Emmit’s face was a mixture of amusement and repulsion. “Do dogs normally do that?” he asked. “I’ve seen rats go for garbage like that, but never a dog.”

Cali shrugged and shook her head. “All I know about dogs is that they’re gross.”

When the dog had finished, he returned to his new friends. “All set,” he said.

Cali led the way, the dog excitedly prancing at her side. Twice he got ahead of her, and she had to remind him not to walk into the street without checking for carriages first. “The horses are too fast to stop if you run in front of them,” she said. Clearly the dog hadn’t been properly educated. She had much to teach him.

As they traveled on, Emmit grew curious. “How did you end up with Morcroft?” No creature would live with that horrible man willingly. He suspected the dog might have a sad story to tell.

“I was born on a farm,” the dog began. “But when I was still little, I was taken away from my family and put in a cage. I stayed there for I don’t know how long before the man in the top hat came to get me.” The dog shrugged. “After that he kept me in a cage, except when he was adding my accessories. When he was finished, he’d put some dry kibble in the cage and leave until the next day.”

“Then you were in his workshop, not his house,” Emmit said.

“No,” the dog replied. “I think it was a house. I escaped the cage once and had a look around. There was a workshop, but there was a lot more than that. I only saw a few rooms before he put me back in the cage.”

Cali filed the information away for later. She didn’t know where Morcroft lived, but that information might prove invaluable. Her decision to share her home with this dog had been a smart one. Protecting Lionel from Morcroft’s scheming might be easier with the dog’s knowledge.

Only two blocks from the apartment, the dog stopped in his tracks, his attention focused on a small city park. He narrowed his eyes, and without warning, bolted toward the park.

Cali huffed and said, “Come on, Emmit.” Racing to catch up with the canine, she sent power to her haunches. “Where are you going?” she shouted.

But the dog didn’t answer. He kept running until finally he stopped at the base of a tree and stared upward, barking with all his might. Kicking at the ground with his hind feet, he sent bits of grass and dirt flying.

“All right, that’s enough,” Cali said, stopping at his side. “What’s going on?”

The dog ceased his barking and turned toward the cat. His head tilted to the side as if he couldn’t believe she needed to ask such a question. “There was a squirrel.”

Emmit burst out laughing. “A squirrel,” he squeaked through his laughter.

Cali placed a paw over her face, trying to hide her annoyed expression. She wasn’t sure how much more dog behavior she could tolerate. Why couldn’t dogs simply act like cats? She sighed, knowing that was impossible. No creature could ever be as wonderful as a cat.

“All right, Dog,” she said. “No more running away from us, and no more garbage. We need to get back to my home.” She looked him straight in the eye. “Can you manage to walk two more blocks without getting distracted?”

The dog nodded vigorously.

Though Cali doubted his ability to do so, she decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. Now she fully understood why dogs typically walked on leashes. She didn’t want to employ such methods, but she would if she had to. “Come along then,” she said.

Cali had to redirect the dog’s attention more than once. He was distracted by every carriage that passed. When a human appeared on the sidewalk, the dog stopped walking, sat on his haunches, and raised his front paws.

“What are you doing now?” Cali asked, irritated.

“Begging,” the dog replied. The human paid him no heed and continued on his way. The dog gave a whimper before resuming his march.

After what felt like an eternity, they arrived at the gas-lamp factory. The clanging of Lionel’s tools still rang from the rooftop, so Cali led them to the metal staircase. “Right here,” she said.

The dog hesitated, his eyes wide.

“We have to go to the roof,” she said. “That’s where Lionel is.” She hopped onto the bottom stair to show him it was sturdy.

“It’s safe,” Emmit reassured him.

The dog placed a paw carefully on the step and slowly ascended behind Cali. He froze midway, trembling.

“Don’t look down,” Cali said. Trotting down a few steps, she stood behind the dog. “I’ll catch you if you fall.” The poor creature looked miserable, but he started moving again. “See,” she said, “there’s nothing to it.”

The dog hunkered down on top of the roof, keeping his body as low as possible. The wind rippled through his shaggy fur, his brown eyes looking more mournful than ever.

“It’ll only be a moment,” she said. This would get Lionel off the roof for sure. Motioning for the dog to follow, Cali padded toward the tinker.

“Mrrrooowww,” she cried. It was as deep and throaty as she could manage. The more pitiful the better.

Lionel set down his tool and looked at the calico. “Hungry?” he asked.

She stepped to the side, allowing him to see the dog behind her.

“Where did you come from?” he asked. “Poor thing.” He reached out a hand, allowing the dog to sniff it.

The dog promptly gave it a few licks.

Now that they’d been properly introduced, Lionel patted the dog’s head. “You look terrible, little friend,” he said. “You need something to eat.”

He reached for the dog, cupping him in his hand and tucking him under his arm as if he were a bag of tools. Standing on the roof hatch, he waited for Cali to join them before making his descent. Emmit hopped on behind the tinker, staying out of the human’s sight.

Inside the workshop, Lionel carried the dog to his workbench and set him down. Switching on a lamp, he said, “Let me have a look at you.” He inspected the metal coil and gears, and pressed his ear to the dog’s side to hear the ticking. “This is all wrong,” he said, his tone somber. Sniffing the air, he added, “And you smell terrible. I should probably give you a bath before I start poking at these mishmash gadgets.”

The dog began to tremble.

Lionel laughed. “Don’t like baths, do you, boy?”

“Arf!” the dog replied.

The tinker scratched the dog behind his ear. “Well, they’re a necessary evil. Come on, we’ll get you something to eat first.”

With a lick of Lionel’s face, the dog hopped off the workbench and began to bounce around the tinker’s legs.

“You’ll have to eat cat food,” he said. “It’s all I have.”

Cali narrowed her eyes, annoyed that she hadn’t been invited.

When he reached the door, Lionel looked back over his shoulder. “Come on, Cali.”

Flicking her tail only once, Cali trotted toward him. That’s better, she thought.

 

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