by Mary E. Lowd
Petra, Alistair, and Trudith huddled around Petra’s computer, reading the enlarged photo she’d taken of Morrison’s petition. The petition didn’t look good.
“Well,” Alistair said, “that explains why Morrison’s hench-hounds were so withholding with these.”
“Indeed,” Petra agreed, seeming unusually restrained, but her restraint didn’t hold. She spat through her teeth, “Lying canine bully!”
“Hey now,” Alistair said, looking at Trudith to see if she was hurt by the species-slur.
“That’s okay,” Trudith said. “Morrison is a lying canine bully.” Petra looked like a little orange kitten who’d been caught with her paw in the fish tank, only to have her parents assume she’d been cleaning it. “Doesn’t mean we all are,” Trudith added. Petra nodded mutely, accepting her reprieve with grace.
“What do we do?” Trudith asked.
Morrison’s petition didn’t call for an alliance with otters, but it did call for an end to neutrality. Specifically, the petition called for an ultimatum: the otters were to stop attacking New Persia — although no one in their right mind really believed the otters were attacking New Persia — and turn over control of their space elevator. Or else war. It was an unprovoked grab for otter technology, designed to be delivered at the worst time.
Petra pulled out a calculator, and after a flurry of calculations said, “If it came to war, I think our government could take control of the space elevator by force.”
Trudith’s eyebrows raised in a worried look. She wasn’t sure how Petra had arrived at that conclusion using a calculator, but the conclusion seemed right. And wrong. “That’s the otters’ elevator,” Trudith said.
Petra looked at Trudith pityingly. Clearly, they were working with different definitions of ownership. Trudith felt that her definition was more moral somehow. Petra’s, admittedly, might be more practical for understanding this situation.
“So,” Alistair said, “I need to offer our government something better than the space elevator to keep them from declaring war on the otters.”
“Like moral fortitude?” Petra asked mockingly.
“It does feel better when you do things that are right,” Trudith said.
Petra cast her the pitying look again.
“Don’t fight,” Alistair said. Petra and Trudith both opened their mouths to defend themselves, but Alistair stared them down. “Please,” he said. “Don’t fight. I think,” — his eyes went dreamy and faraway — “I need to go for a walk. Get outside. See the stars.”
Petra nodded, ears submissively lowered. Trudith could tell that both cats were thinking about Kipper, their missing sister. Trudith had never seen all three siblings together, but she could feel the space left behind where the third sibling was meant to be. Trudith couldn’t fill that hole. It was Kipper shaped.
Trudith and Kipper had become close friends — almost sisters — on their long journey down the Pacific Coast, all the way to Ecuador and the space elevator. When they parted ways, Kipper sent Trudith home to look out for her wayward politician of a brother. Until Kipper returned, that’s what Trudith would do.
Trudith went to the office’s front window. She could see Alistair standing on the sidewalk, staring upward at the stars. Trudith stared at him, keeping him safely in her steady gaze. She would let no harm come to that little cat.
“Ali?” Petra said. She rolled her chair back from the computer and looked around. When she didn’t see her brother, Petra said, “Trudith. Go fetch Alistair for me.”
Trudith made it all the way out the door before realizing that she probably should have felt insulted by the way Petra ordered her around. It just came too naturally to her to fetch things. “Alistair.” Trudith walked up to him. “Petra wants you.”
Trudith flanked Alistair as they walked back inside. The sound of Kipper talking greeted them as they entered the office. Petra glanced at them over her shoulder and said, right over Kipper’s voice, “Too slow. I couldn’t wait.” Kipper’s image was on the screen in front of her. “But we can start it over when we reach the end.”
Alistair’s ears perked right up, and he leaned past his sister to crank up the volume.
“…and the ship won’t be ready to fire up its Ryderian engines for another few hours. So, if you get this message in time… Well, I’ll be hanging around hoping that one of you messages me back.” Kipper smiled, her eyes full of warmth, and then looked away from the camera. “I miss you guys.”
The image went to black, and Alistair immediately snaked his paw over Petra’s shoulder toward the keyboard. Before he reached a single key, though, Petra slapped his paw away. “I know, you want to watch the beginning,” she said, switching programs on her computer, “but this is more important.”
Any given change in Alistair’s stance was imperceptible, but his entire demeanor changed. He was furious. And it was menacing. Trudith felt like whimpering, but Petra completely ignored him.
“Hi Sis,” she said to the tiny camera embedded at the top of her computer screen. “We’re all here. Alistair and your watch dog walked in late, so I have to replay your video from the beginning. But we’ll be here as long as you’re available and want to talk. Swap messages. Whatever.” Petra cast a querying glance over her shoulder at Alistair who had begun to visibly relax when he realized what Petra was doing. “At least, I will be.”
Petra sent the message and switched back to the other program, then stood up and offered Alistair her seat. He immediately sat down and restarted the video.
“Her time lag should be something like ten minutes.” Petra moved to the other side of the room and began poking at Trudith’s desk. “So, think quick about what you want to say to her.”
Alistair swished his tail in irritation at Petra speaking over Kipper’s video, but he didn’t deign to turn either ear in her direction.
Trudith tried to listen to the recording of Kipper, but she felt overwhelmed by the subtle interplay of aggression and dominance that had happened in front of her. She always felt wibbly inside when Petra challenged Alistair like that. And was Petra poking at Trudith’s desk just to bother her or was she really interested in the notes Trudith had jotted down on how to get to her cousin’s apartment to babysit his puppies next week?
Even when Trudith did manage to focus on Kipper’s words, they were all sorts of confusing. She seemed to be describing the physics behind some super fast engines on the otters’ spaceship. Trudith couldn’t keep up, but Kipper seemed excited about it.
The video looped back around to the part where Trudith and Alistair had come in. Alistair didn’t wait for the end. He whipped around to look at his companions, eyes glittering. “Well, that’s that, then!”
“Wait,” Trudith said, “what’s what, when?”
“They’re never going to succeed.” Petra scowled. “Have you listened to Kipper’s other videos? Those otters she’s hanging out with are complete loons.” Petra took a moment just then to eye Trudith, but she pointedly didn’t say anything more general about the kind of company her sister kept.
Alistair wasn’t watching them, or listening. He’d switched to the recording software on Petra’s computer. “Kipper,” he said to the pinhole video camera hidden in the monitor, “I’m going to address the senate tomorrow, and I need you to record a video message for me.”
Continue on to Chapter 10…