by Mary E. Lowd
There was nothing for it, Trudith decided. She had to find a way to use this little, cat-paw-sized cell phone, because Alistair needed to know what she’d found out. Right now.
Trudith pulled the borrowed phone out of her pocket. She held it lightly between keratinous black claws, and an idea struck her. She couldn’t operate this phone, but a cat could. Any cat.
Trudith backed away from Senator Morrison and his Greyhound posse. She made sure to put at least twenty paces between them before looking around for a likely cat to ask for help. She didn’t want the Greyhounds to overhear her, and, even with the noise of the crowd, it was better to be safe.
There were a lot of cats dotting the crowd, mostly angry looking individuals or conspiratorial looking pairs. None of them looked likely to help a large dog, but Trudith’s need was great. She chose a calico woman with a trio of kittens mewling over her shoulders from a back carrier to approach.
“Excuse me,” Trudith said, leaning down as she approached so as to not look too large. “My friend lent me his cell phone and told me to call his sister on it when I want to find them.”
The calico glared, her ears darting about nervously. She seemed to hope that Trudith was talking to someone else, but Trudith carried on gamely.
“I can’t work it,” she said. “My claws are too big, see?”
The calico peered curiously at the tiny phone cradled in the giant paws. She snickered at the sight, and her amusement softened her. She snatched the little phone away and asked, “What number do you need?”
“It should be listed under Petra.”
One of the kittens swatted over her mother’s shoulder as the calico searched the phone’s memory. “Here,” she said, handing the phone back. “It’s ringing.”
“Thank you! Oh, thank you!” Trudith said.
“Not a problem,” the calico said graciously, her ears standing tall and her tail straightening with a clear sense of empowerment.
Trudith drifted into the crowd and anonymity — a simulation of privacy — as she settled the tiny phone against her head, under the flop of her ear. By the time she could hear it, the phone was practically inside her ear.
“Hello? Hello?” the phone said.
“Petra? It’s Trudith!” she barked.
“Trudith?” Petra said in a disgusted voice, followed by some squabbling in the background. When next the phone spoke, it was Alistair’s voice. “Trudith, where are you? It sounds like you’re in the crowd?”
“Yeah… I thought I could find you.” Trudith looked around the growing crowd, realizing how foolish that idea had been. “I couldn’t.”
“Right. Where are you?”
Trudith and Alistair walked around the crowd playing the complicated describe-things-you-see-over-the-phone-until-you-find-each-other game. Alistair, Petra, Lucky, and the brindle cat with them spotted Trudith before she spotted them. They may have been the larger group, but they were shorter and had more eyes.
“Trudith,” Alistair said. “I think Senator Morrison is about to make a big move.”
“That’s what I was trying to call you about, and then the phone–” Trudith held out the tiny phone which Petra snatched away from her and handed demurely to Alistair. “But, a calico woman… And Morrison’s Greyhounds!” Trudith was so tongue-tied by trying to squeeze all the experiences of the last quarter hour out of her brain and into coherent words that her breath gave out in a cross between a woof and a whine.
Three pairs of cat eyes and Lucky stared at her.
Fortunately, Trudith was spared the pressure of their gaze through redirection. “What’s that?” Trudith said and pointed at the giant screen that Morrison’s Greyhounds were erecting on the steps of the capital building. The cats and Lucky turned around.
Everyone in the crowd turned that way.
“Fellow citizens,” an edgy voice boomed over a loudspeaker. It was Senator Morrison, standing to the side of the newly erected screen. He had a mic clipped to his collar, and speakers were being erected as part of the whole screen setup beside him.
“Fellow citizens,” he repeated. The crowd began quieting down, and when it quieted enough, Morrison continued. “The video that we are about to play for you will hit the mainstream media by the end of the day. But I don’t think that’s soon enough.”
There was an interrogative tone to the crowd’s hush, but Senator Morrison’s steely gaze kept the crowd under control.
“When it’s over,” the senator said, “I’m going to call for us to pull together and take action! An action that has been coming for a long time.”
Trudith’s tongue came untied all of a sudden, and she edged over to Alistair. In her husky voice she whispered, “It’s war. He’s going to call for war.”
Alistair turned and stared at her pointedly, his green eyes complex and mysterious.
“I overheard him talking to guards,” Trudith said.
“Thank you,” Alistair said.
“So what do we do?” Trudith asked, eager to please as always, and ready to do whatever Alistair commanded.
“We watch the video,” Alistair said. “And think.”
“Right,” Trudith said. She was certainly willing to do at least one of those. She hoped Alistair would be okay carrying the weight of the second half on his own.
The video playing on the big screen, set up on the steps of the capital building, was an otter newscast. In fact, it was the same otter newscast that had rooted Kipper to the low gravity floor of Trailside a hundred million miles away.
“This is Minnow Miller, and I’m here with a late-breaking follow up to the Jupiter massacres,” said the same sea otter woman with fluffy, well-coiffed fur. “As you know, all otter ships have fled Jupiter System, and we thought the entire area was evacuated. Then we received this from the surface of Europa, Jupiter’s fourth largest moon.” The video cut from Minnow Miller and her fluffy sienna pelt to a grainy, staticky image of a tomcat with an equally fluffy, snow-white pelt and an imperial pug face.
“We surrender,” said the tom. “Stop your attacks! New Persia surrenders! Stop your attacks! Stop your attacks!”
The crowd watching the video around the capital building went silent. Utterly. Completely. Silent.
Crashes and explosions, however, continued to rock the image in the video. The tom, in a broken voice unbecoming the pride of a cat, especially an obviously pure-bred cat of such an old, respected breed as Persians, said in a whisper, “Help us. We have no way to evacuate. Anyone. Send help. Please.”
The silence in the crowd lasted three flicks of an agitated cat’s tail before whispers of “New Persia?“, “Another cat colony?“, and “On Europa?” broke out everywhere.
Trudith looked at Alistair, her little alpha cat. The brown eyebrow spots above her eyes furrowed, giving her face a sad, worried look. She hoped Alistair had a plan.
On the steps, Senator Morrison cleared his throat into the mic, and the crowd started to quiet again. If Alistair had a plan, the time was now.
“He’s going to call for war?” Alistair asked, looking up at Trudith. “Against the otters? Now?”
He asked, but the question was rhetorical. Senator Morrison had been nearly as anti-otter in his policies as he was anti-cat. “The fool.” Alistair spat and sprang into action.
The crowd was thick, but Alistair was lithe and quick. His dignified, orange-striped body ducked between crowd members until he was on the steps, not far below Morrison. A Greyhound guard moved to block Alistair, but the little cat gave the towering dog a steely gaze to match Morrison’s own. Trudith could see Alistair speaking, and then the guard reluctantly let him pass. Trudith imagined it would not go well for that guard with Senator Morrison later.
The Sheltie senator, still unaware of Alistair’s presence, said to the crowd, “I think it’s obvious what our nation must do. No more can we be neutral!”
Moments later, Alistair leaned toward Morrison and said into his mic, “I couldn’t agree more, dear Senator.”
Morrison looked shocked to find his competitor beside him, and Alistair rushed on before Morrison could recover his composure. “We must make the otters our allies once and for all!”
“No!” Morrison shouted, but Alistair joined right in with him, turning it into a chant: “No more neutrality!”
Trudith, quick to take a cue from her alpha, picked the chant right up in her booming, barrel-chested voice: “No more neutrality!”
“Otters are allies!” Alistair added, and soon the two of them — orange cat on the stage and black dog in the crowd — had the entire crowd chanting with them: “No more neutrality! Otters are allies!”
Senator Morrison may have been an anti-cat, anti-otter extremist — a complete bigot, if you asked Petra — but he was also a politician and a herd dog. He knew the direction of a crowd, and he knew how to move with one in order to have a chance at making the crowd move with him later.
Morrison spread his white paws in a gesture that symbolically, and effectively, turned down the volume of the crowd a notch. Then, he put one paw on Alistair’s shoulder and said, “When two opponents see eye to eye on an issue,” — Morrison, who was short for a dog, looked down at Alistair pointedly — “Then you know it must be right.” He signaled to his Greyhound guards who circled around him briefly in a huddle and then disseminated into the crowd, carrying clipboards.
Speaking to the crowd again, Morrison said, “I want each and every one of you to sign this petition that my assistants are bringing around. I’ll deliver it in the senate tomorrow.”
Morrison covered his clip-on mic with a paw, and Trudith watched her alpha cat argue with the incumbent competition. Morrison and Alistair were much too far away for Trudith to make out their words, but their exchange looked heated. It ended with a wolfish grin on Morrison’s side, and flattened ears on Alistair. However, despite the conflict apparent in their body language, the two opponents made a point of shaking paws, ceremoniously, before Alistair left the steps. They both knew the importance of keeping up appearances.
When Alistair made it back to his group, he said, “Can you grab hold of one of those Greyhounds? I want to see the petitions they’re taking around.”
With an eager swish of her tail and a malicious gleam in her eye, Petra said, “Sure thing, brother.” But, as they watched Petra bob through the crowd, popping up in front of Greyhounds, it became clear she’d have no luck. Every Greyhound she found looked right past her, literally over her head. In fact, they seemed to be ignoring most cats as they wandered the crowd proffering their clipboards.
“They’re being extremely selective,” Lucky said.
“Yeah,” Alistair agreed. “That’s why I’d like to see what they have in those petitions. It’s got to be something Morrison threw together before he knew I’d be here and would manage to derail him.”
Without another word, Lucky drifted casually away. At first, Trudith thought he was being rude — something that wouldn’t surprise her from someone so close to Petra. Then Trudith realized what he was doing.
Lucky had the look that the Greyhounds were searching for. As soon as he was away from Alistair and the brindle cat who’d come with him, a Greyhound with a petition spotted Lucky and came right up to him.
“Would you like to sign?” the Greyhound said.
“I don’t know,” Lucky answered. “I usually believe in everything the senator says, but making nice with otters?” Lucky shook his head disapprovingly. “That’s not his usual party line.”
The Greyhound glanced surreptitiously around, and Trudith belatedly realized that her cats were making a point of looking in other directions, as if they weren’t paying attention to what was going on with the Greyhound and Lucky. Fortunately, Trudith didn’t look like a threat to the Greyhound. Trudith wasn’t sure if that was meant as a comment on her intelligence, or if the Greyhound simply didn’t recognize her as Alistair’s right-hand dog. Either way, she felt a little insulted.
“Don’t worry,” the Greyhound told Lucky, holding the petition down where Lucky, a much, much shorter dog could see it. “As you can see, this doesn’t stray quite so far from the party line.”
While Lucky looked over the document, Petra popped up behind him and snapped a shot with a camera over his shoulder. “Ha!” she said.
The Greyhound snarled, “Give me that camera!”
“Fat chance!” Petra quipped and slipped back into the crowd.
The Greyhound could have outrun Petra, but not in a crowd. As thoroughly surrounded as they were, there was no chance of running. The Greyhound put a paw up to the wire in his ear and gave a laughably vague description to his cohorts: “A cat with a camera got a picture of the petition… No… I dunno… Orange? Sounded female… I think…” Finally, the Greyhound narrowed his eyes in anger and glared into the crowd.
Petra had bested him.
Lucky gave Trudith a goofy grin that said, “I am so in love with my clever feline wife.”
Trudith gagged like a cat with a hairball.
When the Greyhound gave up glaring at the crowd, he re-approached Lucky about the petition. Lucky, however, politely declined to sign.
Once the Greyhound was a safe distance into the crowd, Lucky and Trudith rejoined their cats. Even Petra had managed to loop her way back through the crowd. She was staring intently at the viewer on her camera.
“I don’t think you can zoom it in enough, Pet. We’ll have to wait until you get it downloaded onto the computer,” Alistair said.
“Is this the camera for taking pictures of the kittens?” the brindle cat asked.
“Kittens?” Trudith asked. Then, “Excuse me, but what is your coloring called?”
“I’m a torbie,” the cat answered proudly. Most cats, no matter how ordinary, seemed to be proud of their fur color. “That’s short for tortoiseshell tabby.”
Petra looked at the torbie appraisingly. “A torbie would be good,” she said.
“Really?” Lucky asked, looking surprised. “Aren’t torbies all girls? I was thinking–”
Petra spat at Lucky, shushing him right up so that no one got to hear what he’d been thinking. Petra shoved her camera in her pocket, grabbed Lucky with one arm and the torbie with another, and said, “We have to be going, but I’ll download this picture as soon as we’re done.”
Alistair waved goodbye, then he turned to Trudith and said, “I wonder why they were talking about kittens. I know Petra had some idea for a publicity stunt, but the campaign has gotten a bit past that now.”
Trudith wasn’t at all sure that she liked the sound of a publicity stunt involving kittens, especially not one born out of Petra’s scheming mind. She imagined kittens suspended over shark-infested waters or trapped inside burning houses. Sure, the intention would be for Alistair, amidst great fanfare, to rescue the kittens, but mostly Trudith imagined crying, mewling, endangered kittens.
“Never mind,” Alistair said. “I need to come up with an idea for a stunt of my own. We may have turned the tide of this crowd for today. But, tomorrow, Morrison will be addressing the senate. And, you can bet that he won’t be presenting a petition that says ‘Otters Are Allies.'”
“It might say ‘No More Neutrality,’ though,” Trudith said, feeling unusually clever. She was rewarded with an amused smile.
“We have a long day of scheming ahead of us,” Alistair said. “Let’s get back to the office, and figure out a way to prevent a war.”
Trudith nodded, feeling worried. She believed in her little alpha cat, but she’d seen the fire in Senator Morrison’s eyes when he’d said the word “war.” And she’d felt the fear throughout the crowd. She’d felt it herself. Someone was attacking otters, and now, that same someone was attacking cats. Right now, the attack was on cats she didn’t know, up on a moon of Jupiter.
Next would it be her cats? On Earth? And dogs, even?
Continue on to Chapter 8…