by Mary E. Lowd
Trudith heard barking as she approached the Campaign Headquarters early in the morning. The blinds were closed against the harsh slant of morning light. Trudith couldn’t see inside, but she recognized Lucky’s voice shouting.
The door burst open, rattling on its hinges. Lucky stalked out past her, barely bothering to throw a grumbled greeting her way. That wasn’t like him. He was a genial, pleasant dog most of the time. One of the easiest people to get along with that Trudith had ever met. He probably had to be, she figured, to survive being married to Petra.
Trudith watched Lucky walk away, radiating anger as if he had his own personal storm cloud floating over him. She wondered if she should follow after him — see what was wrong and try to make him feel better. But she didn’t know Lucky that well. If it had been any other acquaintance, Trudith wouldn’t have let that stop her, but Lucky was Petra’s. Trudith didn’t like to cross Petra, and if Lucky was storming out of the Brighton offices, it was probably over a fight with Petra. Trudith didn’t want to take sides.
Besides, Petra was already glaring at Trudith with narrowed eyes through the wide open door. “Don’t let me stop you,” she hissed. “I can see you want to go commiserate with him. You poor dogs,” she mocked, “always having to put up with the crazy, spiteful cat.”
“No,” Trudith woofed. She came into the office and gingerly closed the door behind her.
“Too afraid?” Petra tried to sound mocking, but her voice broke, belying the illusion.
“I was wondering what Lucky did to make you angry.” Trudith’s sympathetic tone knocked the wind out of Petra’s sails.
Angry orange ears flattened. It was hard to be cruel to someone who was being insightful and kind to her, but Petra didn’t know how to cheer herself up without treating Trudith like a verbal scratching post.
“It’s about that torbie woman who came with us to the demonstration,” Petra said dully. She didn’t elaborate. She merely sat at her desk, hunched before the computer, looking glum.
The lines of morning sun from the half-open blinds cut across Petra’s fur making it glow in stripes. She wore a green sundress with strappy shoulders instead of the usual vest and pants. It looked light and summery, utterly at odds with the demeanor of the cat wearing it.
“I like your sundress,” Trudith said.
Petra’s ears perked up, and then one of them skewed to the side as if she was questioning the motives of any dog who would dare compliment her right now. Her skewed ear circled back when Petra decided that Trudith wasn’t clever enough to be insincere.
“Thanks,” Petra said.
Trying to maintain the rapport that had suddenly sprung up between them, Trudith blurted out, “I went on a date last night.”
One of Petra’s ears skewed again. Her eyes narrowed. She was trying to figure out what Trudith was up to, but Trudith wasn’t up to anything other than trying to cheer Petra up and connect with her. Eventually, curiosity got the better of Petra and she said, “Oh?” in a very leading way.
Once Trudith got talking about her trip to the ice cream parlor with Keith, it rapidly became clear that she really did want to talk. Trudith would have preferred pouring out her confused feelings to Kipper, but, in the absence of her best friend, her best friend’s sister was a decent substitute, especially since Petra was so baffled by being the sudden recipient of such open camaraderie that not a single barbed word sprang to her tongue.
Sure enough, Petra wanted to abuse Trudith, take her anger out on the nearest available target, but she found herself too fascinated.
Trudith picked apart every moment of the previous evening, every detail of Keith’s behavior, even her own actions and reactions. She analyzed and extrapolated just like a cat.
Was Keith sincere in his regard for her, Trudith wondered, or was he merely trying to play her for some scheme of Senator Morrison’s? If he was trying to play her, then should Trudith double-scheme him by playing along? If he really liked her, could she make use of that to benefit Alistair? And, if she did, would that, in turn, destroy Keith’s regard for her? Was that a trade worth making?
Trudith felt caught between the beginning tendrils of a fluttery feeling inspired by Keith’s clearly romantic overture and her firmly rooted loyalty to Alistair.
Spending so much time around cats had rubbed off on Trudith. Her brain spun in crazy circles, but that meant the wheels were turning. When Trudith’s brain was working, it became clear that she was a sharp dog.
For once, Petra’s ears stayed straight toward Trudith as she spoke, instead of twisting about as if she’d rather listen to anyone — anything — else. Her eyes held a plain, straightforward expression instead of the usual glare she reserved for her brother’s bodyguard.
Before Petra could completely shatter her image as the scary, mean cat in Trudith’s mind by reciprocating her friendly confidences, though, a window popped up on her computer screen to interrupt their conversation. An incoming message from the Jolly Barracuda.
Trudith’s heart leapt when she saw those words. It was like she had summoned a message from Kipper by confiding in Petra. It made little rational sense, but Trudith felt like she’d earned Petra’s good will and was being rewarded.
Petra started the vid file playing, and a window popped up onscreen with an image of blurry gray stripes. The image readjusted itself, and Kipper’s face became visible. She must have been hunched up close to the camera, because her face was about all they could see.
“Hi guys,” Kipper’s voice said through the tinny computer speakers. Petra paused the video.
“What are you–” Trudith began, but Petra was already setting up the software to send a return video.
“Hey Kipper,” Petra said, looking at the computer screen where a pinhole camera recorded her. “I don’t know how far away you are. I don’t know what the lag time is. But, in case you’re still waiting for a reply out there, you should know that I’m going to watch your video right away.”
“Me too!” Trudith chimed in, pressing her head up against Petra’s, hoping to squeeze her face into the video frame. “Hi Kipper! I miss you!”
Petra glared at Trudith with flattened ears, but she didn’t let the dog’s interruption stop her. “A few quick things you should know: Morrison backed out of his senate seat in a bizarre deal-with-the-devil that Ali’s fallen for. They’re going to run for president together.”
“Morrison will be president and Alistair vice president!” Trudith exclaimed. “Doesn’t that seem backward?”
Petra kept talking, but she’d set a precedent when she tried to cut Trudith off; the dog talked right over her. Kipper would simply have to sort out the mess when she heard it.
“You know,” Trudith continued, musing, “People really ought to just flip the names when they vote for Morrison/Brighton. Draw a little arrow or something?”
Petra finished her own tirade about Alistair’s questionable choice and turned to look at Trudith with skewed ears.
“You know, a little curvy arrow,” Trudith pantomimed the imagined arrow with a blunt claw. “Pointing at both names to show that they should be reversed because they’re really voting for Alistair. That way Alistair could be the president and Morrison would just be vice president!” Trudith concluded triumphantly.
Petra rolled her eyes and snapped the video recorder off. “That is the dumbest idea,” she said. “Have you no sense of how politics work?” Acid dripped from Petra’s words, but it was less concentrated acid than Trudith was used to. Petra’s argument with Lucky must have really gotten to her.
Petra unpaused Kipper’s video and dialed up the speed to two-hundred percent. There was no more time to argue as Kipper began explaining in an eerily fast, high-pitched voice how she and the otters of the Jolly Barracuda had been attacked, fled into the atmosphere of Jupiter, and unwittingly discovered a giant sail ship.
The playback caught up with the live stream around the the part of the story where Kipper, Trugger, and the freed octopus began plummeting into the heart of Jupiter on their stolen vessel. The video slowed down to real time, and the pitch of Kipper’s voice returned to normal.
“Trugger named the ship…” her voice caught for a moment before she continued. “He named it Brighton’s Destiny. For Alistair. For all three of us.”
Trudith looked over at Petra, and it seemed like her ears stood a little taller, her whiskers a little straighter. There was a new sparkle of hope in her eye that matched the look in Kipper’s eye on the screen.
“After some fancy flying, we rendezvoused with the Jolly Barracuda, and parked Brighton’s Destiny in one of the cargo bays. Boris and Destry have been looking it over, trying to learn what they can. Jenny and Emily have been talking to the octopus we rescued. Captain Cod and Trugger are trying to work out a plan of attack. I convinced the captain that I should come in here –” Kipper’s ears flicked and her eyes turned away from the camera, looking around the room she was in, which the camera barely showed, “–and send the news of what we’ve learned home.”
Kipper drew a deep breath through her teeth. “Did you know that the airlocks can be drained of oxo-agua independently of the rest of the ship?” she asked rhetorically. “And none of the otters told me about it.” Her green eyes sparked with anger. “Anyway,” she said through gritted teeth, “I figured it’d be easier to send a message home from here. That way, you can edit it up and have a video for the press instead of just a written statement. People need to know about these raptors.”
Kipper paused a while, seeming to collect her thoughts. “The octopi already knew about the raptors. When Emily met the octopus we rescued, she began signing right away in a language I don’t know. It wasn’t Standard Swimmer’s Sign. It was kind of creepy. Maybe just because Emily looked so scared.” Kipper looked scared.
“Apparently, there are octopi on Earth with religious beliefs similar to the Doctrine of the First Race. Except, instead of believing humans uplifted dogs and cats, they believe raptors uplifted octopi. And instead of believing that humans will return one day, bringing love and happiness to everyone…” Kipper’s voice hushed a level: “They believe raptors will return and destroy them.”
The word destroy hung in the air in between Trudith, Petra, and the video recording of Kipper.
“We’re orbiting Jupiter,” Kipper said, “but, as soon as we’ve regrouped a bit and Captain Cod has come up with a war plan, we’re going to fly to Europa.” There was heaviness in Kipper’s voice. “I’ll wait in the airlock as long as I can for a return message, but, whenever the captain’s ready, I… Just in case, you know… I love you guys.”
The picture of Kipper disappeared. The video stream ended.
A hush hung over the office. Petra’s ears were flat, and Trudith’s jowls taut. They both looked stricken. They both wondered what they’d do if they lost Kipper. They both wondered if they’d ever hear from Kipper again.
“Do you think she got our message?” Trudith asked.
“If she did,” Petra said in a bleak voice, “she’ll send another one.” Petra didn’t say that the video they’d just watched had been nearly thirty minutes long, and they hadn’t received a reply yet. “How far away is Jupiter?” Petra asked, meaning the question for herself. She had no expectation at all that Trudith would know, but that fact was in Our Solar System! Puppy Guide!
“It’s about five hundred million miles from the sun,” Trudith said.
Petra blinked. “What?”
“Earth is about a hundred million miles from the sun,” Trudith continued, remembering a word problem she’d done recently. “So, Jupiter is anywhere between four hundred million miles and six hundred million miles away.”
Petra hadn’t expected an answer, and Trudith got a huge rush from her look of surprise. Trudith wondered if she could push that look over into actual respect by carrying on with the math until she actually got a useful number.
Straining her memory now, Trudith said, “Since there’s about eleven million miles in a light minute…” Her eyes rolled up in concentrated thought. “Let’s make that ten. It’ll be, uh, forty to sixty minutes for a message to get here from Jupiter!” A huge grin broke across Trudith’s muzzle. She felt immensely triumphant.
The look on Petra’s face hadn’t turned into respect, however; it had turned into irritation. Most likely, Petra was irritated by what the math proved — namely, how far away her only sister was right now — but, it was much easier and more satisfying to be mad at Trudith than at cold, unalterable facts.
“Stupid dog wasting time doing math,” Petra muttered under her whiskers as she reconfigured the video camera to send Kipper another message. She didn’t turn it on. The truth was: she didn’t know what to say to Kipper. Neither of them did. Neither of them wanted to say final, parting words. The pressure was too high.
“What if she doesn’t come back from Europa?” Petra breathed. It was the softest whisper, but Trudith heard. And Trudith took a risk: she wrapped her big, black-furred arms around the tiny orange cat. If Kipper was her sister — and Trudith liked to think of Kipper that way — then Petra was her sister too.
The hug didn’t last long. It’s not safe to hug a cat for long. Their claws come out, and they get all sharp. Nonetheless, Trudith’s show of support had made its point and something inside Petra melted. She looked to Trudith and said, “Lucky and I were going to adopt a kitten.” She halted, her ears still flat. “Do I tell Kipper? We were going to wait to tell anyone until it was done, but now I don’t know if it’ll happen. What if I never get another chance to tell her anything?”
“Is that what the fight is about?” Trudith asked. After her impressive feats of mathematical memory and simple arithmetic, the question seemed dull and plodding to Trudith as soon as she’d asked it. She ought, she felt, to be able to work out the nature of the fight between Petra and Lucky through cleverness alone!
Petra shoved a copy of the morning paper at Trudith. The paper was folded open to an article about Topher Brooke — a popular pug dog comedian, known for his anti-feline shtick. Trudith skimmed the text, but it was hard to read with Petra staring at her. She couldn’t concentrate under all this pressure. Time was ticking away, and every extra second meant it was less likely a message could make it back to Kipper, crouched in that airlock, circling Jupiter in time.
“I don’t understand what this has to do with you and Lucky,” Trudith admitted. “It seems to be about Topher Brooke… having kittens?”
Petra snatched the newspaper back clawfully. Trudith heard the paper shredding.
“Not kittens,” Petra said. Her ears splayed on her head in a befuddled expression. “Hybrids? They’re…” she looked at the paper in her paws again. “They’re half-dog, half-cats. He and his wife have been trying… Artificial insemination? Gene therapy? I don’t know. I don’t get it.”
Trudith looked at the paper again. The picture of Topher Brooke showed him standing in front of a black cat, shielding her from the camera. “Topher Brooke is married to a cat?” Trudith asked. “That doesn’t make sense. He hates cats.”
“That’s an act,” Petra said. “Irony? Satire? Fictional persona? Do any of those words mean anything to you?” Petra shook her head. “Sheesh. Yes, he’s married to a cat. He’s a cats’ rights activist, and his wife is a cat.” Petra paused, looking at the paper with that befuddled expression again. “And they’ve managed to have a litter of — puppies? kittens? — something together.”
“Wow,” Trudith woofed. She hadn’t realized that was possible. According to the Puppy Guide! on biology she’d been working through, dogs and cats didn’t even have the same number of chromosomes. That alone should mean they couldn’t reproduce. Apparently, the Puppy Guide! book on biology was a little behind the bleeding edge of technology.
“Look,” Trudith said, “I don’t want to rush this conversation, since it’s the first time you’ve ever really been nice to me and all–” As she said it, Trudith wondered whether those words were such a good idea. She hurried on past them. “But I don’t understand what this has to do with you and Lucky, and, well, Kipper might be up there waiting to hear from us.”
Petra’s ears flattened and her whiskers drooped in an expression that Trudith could have sworn was chagrin. It didn’t last long. Without even discussing it, Petra turned back to the computer and switched on the video recording software. Instantly, her demeanor was bright and cheerful. “Hi Kipper. We watched your message. It’s so good to hear from you.”
“It is!” Trudith agreed fervently.
Petra spared a glare for Trudith but didn’t miss a beat saying, “We’ll pass the important parts along to the media–” It looked like she had more to say, but Petra was relieved to see the words incoming message appear on her screen. “Oh, another message from you!” she exclaimed, interrupted herself. “We’ll be right back — I mean — you know, we’re going to watch the new message.”
As Petra reached for the computer to switch from recording their own message to playing Kipper’s, Trudith barked quickly to squeeze in a last few words: “Good luck saving Europa!”
Then Kipper was onscreen: “Oh, Trudith,” she said, smiling through her whiskers. “I love that idea! Everyone should vote for Brighton/Morrison with a little arrow to show that they mean for Alistair to be president. He’s exactly the cat to lead us through this war.”
Petra looked at Trudith sourly. She was clearly jealous that the few words they’d received from her sister so far were for Trudith instead of her, but Kipper continued, saying, “Keep him honest, Petra? Okay? I know that Trudith will keep him safe, but he’s going to need you if that conniving, controlling Sheltie has his ear now.” Kipper shook her head. “God, I wish you were here now, Petra. I’m always so much braver when you’re around.” She drew a deep breath and looked down pensively.
Moments passed as Trudith and Petra waited with bated breath for their distant sister to speak again. Trudith wished she could be there with Kipper, but it was Petra that Kipper wanted.
“I’m going to volunteer to fly the Brighton’s Destiny,” Kipper said, turning her eyes back toward the camera. “An extra ship defending New Persia — even a small one — might help. And I have to do everything I can to help.” Her eyes burned through the camera, her gaze steady and piercing. A look of such determination withered any doubt in its presence.
“I miss you, Kipper,” Petra whispered. Nearly at the same time, Kipper’s visage on the computer screen said, “I miss you guys. I have to go.” And the video was over.
Continue on to Chapter 24…