by Mary E. Lowd
While Kipper contemplated the opening moves of the interplanetary war facing them all, Trudith was hard at work trying to affect the war’s mid-game by laying the groundwork for putting another Brighton at the forefront of the action.
So far, she had called a meeting of her scramball team and spent the morning scurrying around, gathering supplies for hosting the team properly at her apartment. Pork rind curls, Munchy-Crunchy peanut butter balls, and beef sticks sufficed for snacks. A good spread of snacks could put any group of dogs into an agreeable mood. Well, almost any group of dogs — all those Shelties at their big Sheltie meeting hadn’t seemed too agreeable, and their food had been super fancy.
Scramball stadium fare would have to do here. It was all Trudith could scrounge up in her price range on short notice.
Trudith arranged all the furniture in her apartment — a couple dining chairs and a futon — to face her computer, and she loaded the video files so they’d be ready when her teammates got there. She had a whole pitch planned in her head, and she rehearsed it over and over again, while going about nervously fluffing and rearranging her various throw pillows until her teammates arrived.
Joey got there first. He liked to take credit for bringing Trudith back into the team, so she knew she could count on him to show early. Besides, his work as a goon kept him busy at night more than the afternoons. A number of the others wouldn’t be able to make it until after work.
They started to filter in after Trudith and Joey had had time to get deeply into an argument about whether local, live scramball games or the big, televised games featuring world class players were more exciting. Trudith liked the visceral feel of watching a game unfold right in front of her. She liked the air in her nose, smelling the currents of the very wind that played across the field. She liked to feel like she could just jump up and join right in, even though she knew better than to actually do that.
Joey, on the other paw, liked knowing that the players he was watching, even if they were only images on a sterile screen, were the most agile, adept, clever scramball players on the entire planet. He felt like he learned new things about scramball, new ways of seeing it and new ways of playing it, just by watching them.
Trudith could understand that, but it still wasn’t the same as watching a match in person.
Somewhere in the middle of their argument, the rest of the team had arrived. Although he wasn’t on the team, Trudith had invited Keith, too. She told herself that she invited him because his connection to Senator Morrison could be useful, and, besides, he had expressed interest in joining her scramball team. However, the way her heart sped up when she saw him, and she felt suddenly both calmer and more nervous at the same time, made Trudith realize those reasons were just excuses.
She wanted to see him again, and she was taking a huge risk including him in this campaign. What if he went straight to Morrison? What if he… well, actually, going straight to Morrison was probably about the worst he could do.
Trudith didn’t think he would do that.
The whole scramball team was here now: Joey paced around the room gesticulating; the salt-and-pepper furred poodle in advertising sat on the futon, squeezed tight with a couple other dogs, mostly the smaller members; and the dining chairs had been claimed by some of the biggest dogs on the team. Keith, possibly the tallest dog in the room, draped himself over one of the dining chairs, which he’d turned backwards so he could lean forward with his arms resting on its back.
Trudith woofed a booming bark. “Hey guys!” Her voice came out louder than she meant it to, cutting right through a raucous argument over which pro-scramball team was best.
After a brief pause and glances in Trudith’s direction, most of the scramball players went back to barking about their favorite teams. If Trudith had been talking to Petra and Alistair, she’d have their complete, annoyed, ears-flat-back attention after that booming bark. Cats don’t like noise the way that dogs do.
Trudith woofed again, shouting even louder this time. “Guys! We’ve got to talk about this thing! This thing I called you here for!” She kept woofing, “Hey guys!” and “C’mon guys!” until the rest of the barking actually quieted down.
“That’s better,” she said. It was so much easier to get cats’ attention! Walking over to her computer, Trudith started up the video of herself and Kipper. She hadn’t done any editing yet — just spliced the two pieces together.
As it played, the scramball team watched. One of the small-breed dogs on the futon barked out, “That’s the cat on the otter spaceship out around Jupiter, right?” Several dogs answered in the affirmative. One added the comment, “That’s one brave cat. I wouldn’t want to be on a spaceship near Jupiter right now.”
When it was over, Trudith looked over her teammates, and said, “I know we don’t talk about politics much as a team–”
A salt-and-pepper furred poodle named Dahlia interjected, “Politics are bad for scramball. We don’t need to agree on government regulations to play sport.”
Trudith’s heart sank. Dahlia was the dog whose support — and advertising expertise — she needed most in this room, other than Keith’s. She guessed from Dahlia’s steely gaze that they weren’t likely to share a lot of political views. Why else would Dahlia feel the need to interrupt and waylay her presentation?
Trudith soldiered on, saying “– But things are different now. This isn’t a time for worrying about political parties and affiliations.” She drew a deep breath. “I don’t know how much attention you’ve all been paying, but there’s a war happening in our solar system.”
Joey barked, “That’s just the otters.”
Keith said, in a steady, commanding woof, “For now.”
Other dogs looked at him. Some of them, including Joey, looked worried. Dahlia looked annoyed.
“It’s not just otters,” Trudith barked. “It’s a whole colony of cats, too.”
Dahlia barked, “It’s a bunch of spacers. If they’d stayed down here on Earth, in the home the First Race left for us–”
Angry, Trudith barked, “Then what? They’d be safe from being attacked by vicious raptor aliens from Jupiter?”
The room fell silent, except for some awkward shuffling of feet and shifting of weight. In the heat of all the barking, Trudith had forgotten that she and Petra were the only ones on Earth who knew about the raptors. Trudith wasn’t sure if she’d scared her teammates, or if they were questioning her sanity.
“Raptor aliens?” Keith asked.
Trudith looked down at her hind paws, footpads splayed on the floor. She clicked her claws a few times against the wooden floor in a soothing rhythm. “Yeah, raptor aliens,” she barked, without looking up. “We found out this morning. That cat–” Trudith pointed at the computer screen, where the video of Kipper had so recently played. “She was on one of their ships last night, and now–” Trudith choked up, her voice catching. “Now she’s probably fighting them.”
The room was utterly silent this time. No movement. Nothing.
“She’s my best friend,” Trudith said. “And she’s fighting raptors to save those cats on Europa. I don’t know if I’ll ever hear from her again.” Trudith hadn’t meant to call her scramball team together to hear her talk about how much she missed Kipper. She didn’t mean to be crying in front of them. All she wanted to do was convince them of how important it all was. Maybe she wasn’t ready to be doing this.
Trudith heard Keith clear his throat and step up from his chair. “Protecting and stewarding the other races is what the First Race would want us to do,” he said. “It’s what this brave cat is doing, and it’s what all dogs are supposed to do too.”
Trudith felt weird hearing Keith quote First Race doctrine. The more time she spent with the Brighton cats, the more distanced she felt from those dogmatic beliefs, but he was right. First Race doctrine called for dogs to protect and steward cats — and otters and all the other uplifted species — regardless of whether they were on Earth or up in space. And maybe that’s what a traditional dog like Dahlia needed to hear.
“Look,” Trudith said, “I wouldn’t ask you to even vote for Alistair — even though that’s kind of my job, working for him — if it weren’t for what’s happening in the solar system right now. We need a leader we can trust to carry us through a war.”
“But a cat???” Dahlia barked, an unnaturally high pitch to her voice.
“It’s not about voting for a cat,” Trudith said. “It’s about making sure our planet has a leader you can trust with your whole heart.”
Trudith looked straight at Dahlia. One pair of brown eyes staring down another. For a moment, it looked like Dahlia had something more to say, but then she shut her muzzle and looked away.
“I trust Alistair that way,” Trudith said. “Are there any politicians that any of you trust like that? With your whole heart?”
Some of the dogs in the room looked excited by Trudith’s words; others looked away like Dahlia. None of them offered up any names.
Finally, Keith said, “No, I don’t trust any politicians like that, and I work for the one who’s most likely to be our next president.”
That got an uncomfortable stir from the room, along with a few confused looks. Most of the team probably didn’t know who Keith was yet.
“This is Keith,” Trudith said, gesturing to him with her paw. “He works for Senator Morrison.”
Dahlia’s face snapped back, nose pointing at Keith. “What’s wrong with Morrison?” she barked. “I vote for Morrison.”
“No comment,” Keith said, looking supremely uncomfortable. Perhaps he realized that he’d said too much. He did still have a job to look out for.
Dahlia wouldn’t let it go, though. She began giving a run down of all Senator Morrison’s accomplishments, all the policies he’d written into law, all the good she believed he was doing.
Keith put up his paws. “Hey, hey,” he said, barking over Dahlia’s tirade. “I didn’t say anything about Senator Morrison’s policies. I think he’s done great work.” Dahlia began to simmer down, and Keith continued. “He’s a great politician, but he’s a politician. And I don’t trust him with my whole heart. That’s all I said.”
With a sneer on her muzzle, Dahlia said, “But you trust this cat?”
“Actually, I haven’t really met Alistair Brighton,” Keith said.
Dahlia scoffed, as if Keith has just proved her point for her.
“But,” he said, holding up a paw, “I trust Trudith. And I’ve barely even known her two days.” He looked around the room, catching the eyes of every dog he could. “I’m guessing you all know her a lot better.”
A lot of eyes turned to stare at Trudith, measuring her up, remembering everything they could about her. Trudith had been a member of this scramball team, on and off, for years. Almost every dog on it had turned to her at one point or another for help through hard times, and they’d all seen the way that she’d changed since she’d met Kipper and begun working for Alistair.
She was a good dog.
And she felt supremely uncomfortable under such scrutiny.
Dahlia narrowed her eyes, but then she sighed. Other dogs looked nervously at her, waiting to see if she had more argument in her. Eventually, Joey hazarded, “If Trudith says this cat she works for is the leader we need right now, then I’m with her.”
A couple dogs barked assent. Dahlia wasn’t among them, but at least she wasn’t arguing any more. Trudith wasn’t sure that would be enough. She really needed Dahlia’s advertising expertise.
Keith must have picked up on the continued tension between Trudith and Dahlia. He turned to Dahlia and said in a low woof, “We have a responsibility as dogs. A responsibility to the First Race to make sure that their world is here for them, with all their uplifted children, waiting for them when they return.” His voice was so serious, it made Trudith’s heart flutter. “That means,” he said, “supporting the very best leader we can in these dangerous times. Regardless of whether that leader is a dog or a cat.”
Dahlia looked abashed.
Hearing Keith say those words with such conviction, Trudith almost believed that the First Race really would return to them some day, and she wouldn’t call herself a believer. Dahlia clearly was, and Keith’s words had their intended effect on her.
Dahlia’s muzzle was tight, but she lowered her head in submission. “What can we do to help?” she said.
Continue on to Chapter 27…