by Mary E. Lowd
The Jolly Barracuda docked at Deep Sky Anchor for the first time since Kipper had joined the crew. She watched the gray metal habitat rings of the rotating station approach on the main bridge’s viewscreen, and she remembered all the times she’d watched space fly by through one of the porthole windows elsewhere on the ship instead. She was sure that those windows were all crowded full of the pug faces of miserably wet Persians now, but she wasn’t among them. She was on the bridge, manning one of the stations. She had come a long way.
With the Jolly Barracuda crew diminished by half after leaving so many crewmen on Europa, Kipper had been needed to help take up the slack. She now worked Jenny’s bridge console. It seemed a fair trade — Jenny took care of Kipper’s ship, Brighton’s Destiny on Europa, and Kipper took care of Jenny’s station on the Jolly Barracuda. It made Kipper feel like her friend wasn’t quite as far away.
Besides, Kipper and Jenny had stayed in close contact by video transmission. Kipper had accrued quite the set of pen pals — Jenny on Europa, Josh the Siamese tomcat on Mars, and, of course, her brother, sister, and Trudith on Earth. It made her feel extremely cosmopolitan; she was a cat with connections on many worlds.
Once the Jolly Barracuda finished her docking procedures, Kipper felt her old impatience flare up: like all the cats onboard, she couldn’t wait for the oxo-agua to drain away. This time, though, it wasn’t because she hated the stuff. (Although, of course, she still did.) No, Kipper felt how close she was to home, and she could hardly hold her paws still or keep her tail from twitching. She wanted to put her paws down, all four of them, and run as fast as she could through Deep Sky Anchor for the elevator down to Earth.
Her tickets were all lined up: a ride down the space elevator, the ferry to Ecuador, and then a flight straight to New LA. Trugger had agreed to accompany her. They would arrive at Papa Fido’s T-Bone Steakery just in time for the big Morrison/Brighton Election Night Party. Only eighteen hours and about 30,000 miles away! That was nothing compared to the rest of her journey that had already passed.
Once the oxo-agua finished draining, Kipper washed out the gummy residue left in her fur with a quick shower. She packed all her belongings — which were limited — into the purple duffel bag that she’d first brought onboard with her.
Then Kipper made snippy, sarcastic comments while Trugger indecisively packed, unpacked, and repacked his own bag. By the time the two of them were ready to disembark, she was seething and felt strangely tempted to slash his broad otter’s nose with her claws when he asked if they’d have time to stop at a fur tattooist before their elevator ride.
“I thought blue swirls would be a good look for this Election party.” Trugger gestured with his right paw at his left arm and then reversed the gesture for his other arm. “You know, blue swirls like ocean waves. It’d look very otterly.”
Kipper skewed an ear and said, “You already look otterly. How much more otterly can you get? Is there even such a thing as more otterly than being an otter?” She slung her duffel bag over a shoulder to free up both paws and readied herself to actually start pushing Trugger down the hall toward the Jolly Barracuda’s airlock.
Before their relative strengths were put to the test — a test that Kipper feared she would lose given Trugger’s stocky swimmer’s build — Captain Cod came strolling down the corridor with an amber wine bottle in his paws.
Trugger jumped to attention. He raised a paw to his forehead in a perfectly serious salute. Kipper followed suit, somewhat less energetically.
“At ease,” the captain said. “I know you must be in a hurry–”
Kipper glared at Trugger who hadn’t seemed to be in a hurry at all.
“–but,” the captain continued, “I wanted to see you off and give you this gift for your family.” Captain Cod held out the amber bottle. Kipper accepted it and turned it in her paws so she could read the label. “It’s an aged sardine scotch. The sardines came from the Strait of Gibraltar. Very good stuff.”
“Thank you,” Kipper said, genuinely touched. “We’ll open it at the election party. Win or lose.” She looked at Trugger and added in a hiss under her breath, “If we get there in time. Come on, let’s go.”
The elevator ride down to Earth’s surface was spectacular. The panoramic view of the planet’s curve grew until that crescent of oceans, clouds, and continents flattened into a world that contained them, large and all encompassing. With them inside it. Instead of large but separate. Earth became the world that Kipper was on, rather than the planet she was above and looking at.
All the other passengers on the ride seemed strangely blasé, but Kipper was in raptures. She was probably the only passenger who had never seen the view before, as her only other ride on the space elevator had been spent hiding in the cargo hold.
The airplane from Guayaquil to New LA had videos for the passengers to watch, but none of them were live. Sure, Kipper could watch glossy action films or the latest puppy heart-throb rom-coms, but she was completely cut off from what was happening right now on election day.
Trugger watched several movies starring a Springer Spaniel with curly brown ears and soulful eyes who kept falling in love with big dogs who were bad for her, always to find that it was her best friend — a loveable mutt or zany terrier — who she was really meant to be with. Kipper tried to sleep and not think about the election.
Bleary eyed and rumple furred, Kipper and Trugger arrived in New LA. They staggered off the plane to find themselves in an airport swamped with media. Newscaster cats and dogs shoved microphones at their muzzles while shouting questions. Lights flashed. It was terribly confusing, and there was no way to hide. While Kipper could have disappeared into the crowd fairly easily — despite her fame, she was still one of many small gray tabbies — Trugger was the only otter in sight.
The horde of reporters parted, and a retinue of lanky Greyhounds wearing crisp suits and wires in their ears stepped forward to surround Kipper and Trugger. One of them held out a paw to Kipper and said, “I work for Mr. Morrison. My name is Keith, and I’ve been sent to bring you to the Morrison/Brighton Election Party.”
Kipper looked up at the Greyhound towering above her and nodded dumbly.
He smiled, parting his long, slender muzzle. “By the way, I’m also a friend of Trudith’s, and, may I say, it is an honor to meet you.” The Greyhounds escorted Kipper and Trugger to a limo. Their first stop was at Trudith’s empty apartment where Keith supplied Kipper with a fancy, green brocade tunic and pants that Petra had picked out for her. There were no special clothes for Trugger, but he did try to dye his fur with some red vinegar in Trudith’s kitchen before they left. It didn’t work.
The next stop before Papa Fido’s was at the local public library where, amidst a complete media circus, the Greyhounds ushered Kipper into a curtained stall to vote for Alistair with the “little curvy arrow” that she and Trudith had made famous. Kipper hadn’t expected a chance to vote for her brother. In all seriousness, she wasn’t even sure she was still registered after her year of adventures in deep space. She didn’t mention that to anyone, and none of the volunteers running the polling station gave her any trouble.
After the noise and hubbub of the library, Keith brought Kipper and Trugger to the relative quiet of Papa Fido’s T-Bone Steakery. The whole restaurant was reserved for the Morrison/Brighton election event. It was a big place with high ceilings and dim lights hanging down in lanterns. Lots of atmosphere. The whole place was decorated with streamers and colorful paper fans and stars. Dogs and cats crowded around video screens in all the corners to watch live footage of exit pollsters and news anchors arguing over competing predictions.
It was a lot to take in for a cat who hadn’t been home in over a year and who had only stepped off the airplane an hour ago. Trugger was enthralled. His head kept bobbing, and Kipper avoided looking at him to keep herself from feeling seasick.
“Your littermates are this way,” Keith said, continuing to guide Kipper. He took her to a private back room with a glassed in door.
Trugger split off to find his own way, saying that “Like a seagull,” he wanted to mingle. Kipper just wanted to see her family.
Continue on to Chapter 33…