Kingsport wasn’t like other cities, especially at this time of night. No one was quite sure how to explain it. The difference wasn’t in the tenements, where artists worked on their latest masterpieces before dropping from exhaustion an hour before dawn. It wasn’t the ocean, lapping at the shore just a stones throw away. And it wasn’t the fog, ever present even on the brightest day, and, so old timers said, brought dreams vivid and powerful. It was all these things.
Kingsport was a port where things happened, though you would be at a loss to say why. The best advice was to roll with it, and hope you didn’t get swept away.
Orion passed a tenement just as a typewriter was hurled from the second floor window. A flurry of manuscript pages followed it. Orion caught the title page. The Book of the New World it was called. The writer, an ibis, stuck his head out and cried to the night. “NO! NO! That’s not right! That never happened! I must begin again and tell the truth!” he ducked back inside, ranting to himself. Orion shook his head, bemused.
There were few places open after midnight. Luckily one of those few catered to animals in his profession. Jake’s Soda Joint was below street level, marked only by a simple milkshake sign and an arrow pointing downward.
The bell rang as he entered. It looked like the gang was all there. Dunwin, the mole alchemist, and Hemingway, the otter mentalist shared a table as always, sipping chocolate and banana, respectively. Kaymen, the iguana in the fedora, watched from the shadowy back booth, taking nothing stronger then water. Mr. Jakes, the mouse and bartender, was busy polishing glasses. And of course there was Smedley, the calico, idly swirling the straw in her cola. It had been a while since they had talked.
Smedley smiled as Orion sidled up to the counter. “You look like you’ve had a rough night.” She observed.
“You’re looking good, as always” he replied. No cat discusses what they have been doing over a long span. To most feline folk, the fact that their friends are present is enough. Gushing over how long it’s been or what you did a year ago is a waste of time.
“What will it be, ser Orion?” Jake asked.
“Give me a vanilla. And one for Smed too.”
“You got it.”
“I ran into Klosterheim tonight.”
“Did you catch him?”
Orion chuckled. “Does the cat ever catch the dog? No, he got away again. But I found…”
He was cut off by a sound like rushing air, accompanied by the scent of ozone. Everyone turned around. Standing in the door was a rat in a tattered overcoat. His fur was overgrown and mangy, and he was pointing something that looked like a pistol at the ceiling. Unlike Rocky’s signature revolver though, the barrel seemed to be formed from small circles, like mirrors. The strange weapon had blown a hole clean through the ceiling. Something tugged at Orion’s memory. Perhaps it was something he had read.
“Alright you Magicians!” The rat cried. “I’ve got myself a sweet new weapon and I’m not afraid to use it! Empty your pockets! No funny business or I’ll untwist the sponge’s funny bone! Waffle? This odd proclamation was punctuated by the strange gun exploding. The would-be robber clutched his paw in agony. Dunwin and Hemmingway high-foured. The other patrons made sure the rat behaved while Jake called the cops.
Orion clicked his tongue. “Stupid.”
The cat crossed the room and bent to examine the weapon, now in two unequal halves. Looking them over carefully it was then that he remembered. “Curiouser and curiouser.”
“You know what it is?” Smedley asked.
Orion nodded. “This is a human weapon, what they call a laser. It’s like a gun, but instead of a bullet it shoots a highly focused beam of light.”
Smedley smirked. “What would a mangy rat be doing with a glorified magnifying glass?”
Orion’s tail swept back and forth thoughtfully. “That’s the question isn’t it? Tonight I found a human, a male, in Klosterheim’s basement. Perhaps there’s a connection.”
“That means your going to run off again doesn’t it? And I’d so been looking forward to the two of us spending time together.” She pouted teasingly.
“Ah, I won’t be gone long. Besides, I’m sure there are plenty of willing toms out there to tide you over.”
The calico grinned. “How right you are.”
Orion finished his shake and bid everyone farewell. He tucked the broken blaster into his waistcoat as he left. Doubling back to Dr. Smythe’s house a thought struck him. Would the fuzz be upset about losing evidence?
His dreams were memories of pain and death. A dozen times he saw his friends eviscerated to fuel dark magic, and he could do nothing to help them. And ever present was the Magicians demonically grinning muzzle.
The man awoke in darkness, breathing heavily, but unharmed. His mouth felt like a desert. Fumbling in the blackness, he found a water glass, and miraculously managed not to knock it over. He drank greedily, and was refreshed. He was confused though. How did he escape? And where was he.
His questions were to be answered shortly. First came the soft footsteps, followed by a light, which proved to be coming from an old fashioned lantern. As for the person holding it, it was the last thing he expected. It was one of the natives, a fox, with fur an impossible fire-engine red, a purple bathrobe, and reading glasses with no bridges.
The man laughed inwardly. “Wouldn’t be out of place in an old picture book.” He thought.
“You’re awake. I see you found the water.”
“Yes thank you.” The reply was half coughed. It had been at least a week since he had spoken words that weren’t curses. “Who…ugh…Can I ask who you are?”
“Certainly sir. I am Christopher Smythe, a veterinarian. What shall I call you? Unless every human is just “Human.” Dr. Smythe chuckled softly.
“Carter. You can call me Carter. It’s good to know you Doc. Are you to thank for getting me out of there?”
The doctor took a seat on a chair next to the bed. “Sadly no. That honor goes to a cat of my acquaintance. A Magician of much better disposition then your former captor.”
“A Magician. The hound, Klosterheim. What happened to him?”
“He’s slipped through our paws I’m afraid. To hear him tell it, ser Orion-that’s the Magician I mentioned-has been chasing him for years.”
“I’d like to rip his guts out…the things he put us through.”
Dr. Smythe nodded. “I’m sure. But now is the time for recuperation, not vengeance. How ever did you end up in an infernalists subbasement anyway?”
Carter shook his head. “I can’t quite recall. My friends and I were exploring the jungles near our Colony. We were hit by some kind of darts. Everything’s hazy after that, must have been drugged. I remember a ship though, and an auction block.”
The fox nodded gravely. “There have long been rumors of a black market exploiting humans. Few give it much credence though. For what it’s worth I’m sorry about your friends.”
Carter lay back in bed. “That’s kind of you Doc. You ever lose anyone close to you?”
Dr. Smythe sighed wistfully. “My father was taken by distemper. It’s what inspired me to get into medicine. Now my nephew, Fenthick, there’s a different story. He became a mercenary, bouncing all over the world ‘serving justice and righting wrongs’ as he put it. Even now I can’t say I approve of such vigilante behavior, but who was I to stop him?”
“What happened to him?”
“That’s the question. His letters stopped coming about a year ago. But I still hope.”
Carter nodded. “Sometimes that’s all you can do.”
Suddenly there was a knock at the door. “Well, speak of demons and they will come.” Dr. Smythe said as he got up to answer the door. Just as he had predicted, Orion stood on the front step.
“Is he awake?” The cat asked.
“Indeed. Though I hardly think he will appreciate being interrogated in the middle of the night.”
Orion didn’t budge. “I’m afraid it’s most urgent.”
The Doctors ears drooped. “Very well, but be gentle.”
Carter wasn’t sure what to expect when he had first heard of this “Orion” but the creature that stepped through the door wasn’t it. A tall black cat, his clothes matched exactly, with a similarly colored trilby and high collard greatcoat. A gold pocket watch chain could be glimpsed in his left pocket.
“I’ll get right to the point sir.” He said, reaching inside his coat. “Do you recognize this?” The cat asked, throwing the laser pistol fragments onto the bed.
“I applaud your directness, buddy. But I hardly think you have the right to ask me any questions. I hardly know you.”
“Not even if I got you out of that basement?”
Carter laughed. “You must be the ‘Orion’ I’ve heard about. Sure, I’ll play the game.”
It was at that moment that Dr. Smythe came rushing in. “Carter I’m sorry he insisted on seeing you I…”
Carter held up a hand for silence. “It’s okay Doc. For now anyway.” He turned to Orion. “There was something you wanted to ask me, right?”
The Magician indicated the pistol fragments. “Do you recognize that weapon?”
Carter picked up the pieces and examined them carefully. “It looks like it was blown in half but I’m pretty sure it’s one of our lasers. What happened? Did it wash up on the beach or something?”
“On the contrary, it came off a two-bit hood trying to rob the soda shop.”
Carter raised an eyebrow. “You’re kidding right?”
Orion shook his head. His tail was restless. “I only wish I was. I believe there may be a connection between that gun and your capture.”
“Oh man! The Council is going to have a PR nightmare on its hands if this gets out.” Carter laughed mirthlessly.
“The Terran High Council.” He explained. “Our governing body, like your King-Emperor. They voted not to sell their technology to the Empire.”
“Well, regardless of the political ramifications, I’m sure all of us could use some sleep.” Dr. Smythe said.
“Indeed.” Orion replied, snatching up the laser gun shards. “I’ll be in touch.”
The fox led the Magician to the door, closed it after him and sighed heavily. “His kind makes my fur stand on end.”
Meanwhile, lying awake in bed, Carter made a resolution. If there was human trafficking going on in the empire, he would find its source.