by Mary E. Lowd
Every piece of paper in front of Petra told a story. The rows of numbers; the columns of… pointless, stupid text that meant nothing to her. The story the papers told was one of frustration and boredom. She wanted the papers to tell a story of corruption and secret societies, money being funneled into an underground military complex — an army that would rise up from their massively expensive hidden bunkers to save Earth from the raptors — all because Petra found the number trail leading to them in these papers.
But for that to happen, Petra would have to see more than dry charts and records. She growled, flattened her ears, and lowered her head to the pile of papers, laying her muzzle against their cool, smooth, unhelpful surface. The wheeled trolley under the papers wobbled unsettlingly.
“Giving up?” Blaine asked from the other side of their cell.
Petra groaned, a deep unhappy rumble in her throat. She turned her head, still pressed into the papers, until she could see Blaine. The tuxedo cat was stretched out on the bench on the far side of the cell, casually examining his claws.
“I could take a look at them,” he said. “If you’d like.”
Blaine’s offer sounded casual, but Petra still thought he was trying to find some way to get political gain from sharing a cell with her. Either that or she’d simply become physically incapable of trusting anyone.
“What the hell,” she said, clawing the papers out from under her weary face. She sat up and shoved the trolley so it rolled toward Blaine. Once the trolley was out of her way, she curled up on the uncomfortable cell bench and wrapped her orange-striped arms over her head. She squeezed tight, imagining that she was back in the cattery she’d grown up in.
The cattery had been a dreary place, but when she was there, she’d liked to imagine that the mother she’d never known was holding her tight. Petra, Alistair, and Kipper had pretended their mother was named Theresa B. Goodkitty and had only left them at the cattery while she went to fetch her hidden fortune. Somehow, remembering the phantom of her imaginary mother could still comfort Petra at times.
“You’re not an accountant, are you?” Blaine said, his voice nearly breaking into a purr.
Petra’s left ear twitched and turned towards Blaine. “Why do you sound happy?” She lifted her head from her arms to see Blaine staring at the papers, eyes darting back and forth as if he were watching tiny fish flitting about under the surface of a pond. His white-tipped black paws traced over the papers as if he were about to pounce and catch himself a goldfish. “You found something,” she said. “What did you find?”
“There’s money missing.” Blaine looked so pleased with himself — he thought he’d caught the fish. But he hadn’t.
“I know that,” Petra growled bleakly. “Where did it go? Who took it? Those are things I don’t know.”
The glow in Blaine’s eyes didn’t diminish. “Look,” he said, pointing at the papers.
Grudgingly, Petra came over, but all she saw under his pointed claw were the same useless numbers that she’d been wrestling with before. Blaine traced the sharp tip of his claw across the papers, zigging and zagging like he was following a path on a map. He chanted mumbo jumbo about calendar years versus fiscal years, amortization, and itemized reports. Petra had done enough accounting during her years working as a temp to keep up. Barely. Finally, Blaine’s claw came to rest on a name Petra recognized but hadn’t noticed in the sea of documentation before: it was a receipt for an order form to Luna Tech Industries, signed in swooping, calligraphic letters by Sahalie Silbernagel.
Petra hissed the name, “Sahalie. She tried to have my sister killed when we uncovered that she’d been embezzling.”
Blaine eyed Petra. He was keeping something from her. She could tell. “Say it,” she hissed. “What am I missing?”
“I’m guessing that wasn’t just about embezzling.” Blaine pulled his paw back from the papers and straightened his tie nervously. Anything that could make a cat as smooth as him nervous couldn’t be good. “Look, what I’m seeing here is a lot of money, disappearing really slowly, over the course of years — but it’s not the amount that’s scary. It’s where it’s been going.”
“What’s so scary about Luna Tech?” Petra snapped impatiently. “They were sending purebred cats to Mars. So what?”
“It’s not just Luna Tech,” Blaine said. “It’s an array of industries — chemical companies, manufacturers, research engineers. Luna Tech was only the tip of the iceberg. According to what I see here…” Blaine swept his white-tipped paws over the mess of papers. “There’s been a wide-spread government conspiracy going on for years, and they’ve been smuggling nuclear missiles, piece by piece, to Mars.”
“You mean…” Petra said numbly, feeling the pieces fall together in her head. “Siamhalla has the nuclear missiles that the Uplifted States spent the last few decades dismantling.”
When Kipper had chased Violet the Luna Tech employee all the way to Mars, that cat hadn’t simply been emigrating to the isolationist purebred cat colony there — that cat had been smuggling pieces of nuclear weaponry. So, Siamhalla wasn’t merely a radical splinter sect of society; it was one with really sharp claws.
Blaine might not have uncovered a bunker of secret armed forces ready to rise up from the Earth, but if he was right, the missing money did add up to weaponry in allies’ paws. Because compared to cold-blooded raptors, even crazy pure-bred-fetishist cats were allies.
“This could actually be good news,” Petra hazarded. “If Siamhalla can be convinced to use their missiles on the raptor fleet, they might be able to stop or at least damage the fleet before it gets to Earth.” A terrible thought struck her. “Wait — is Mars between Earth and Jupiter right now?” Those nuclear missiles would do them no good if they were on the far side of the sun, but Petra knew next to nothing about Solar geography as a function of time. She’d never needed to before.
Blaine shrugged, and Petra looked around the jail cell frantically for a moment, as if a computer or helpful guard would pop up and show her orbital charts of the planets. Of course, none did.
“Dammit,” she said. Kipper would know. More than that, Kipper had a contact on Siamhalla. “I need to call my sister.”
The tuxedo cat shot her a bewildered look. “Shouldn’t you bring this to your brother? The president?”
“Yeah, he should know too,” Petra conceded. Though, she had less and less faith in the efficacy of his office, and as little as she liked to admit it, Kipper had become a force to reckon with in this solar system. She had connections, and she got things done. “For dealing with Siamhalla, though, Kipper’s the expert. Now, how do I get the attention of those guard dogs and convince them to let me make a call?”
Blaine looked at her sadly. “You are new to this, aren’t you?” He raised his paws to gesture at the concrete wall to one side of them and the iron bars to the other. “You wait. The guards will come when they feel like it — nothing you do will speed that up.”
“What if I was sick?” Petra asked. “What if I was crying out in pain?”
Blaine shook his head.
That made Petra angry. She pressed harder, “What if I was dying?”
At first Blaine didn’t answer. He just looked away, green eyes staring at the concrete around them. He looked like he was remembering something he’d seen during one of his other incarcerations, something horrible, too horrible to tell her about.
“What? They’d let me die?” Petra didn’t believe that. Did she? She didn’t want to.
Finally Blaine said, “I don’t know. Maybe they’d treat you differently, because you’re the president’s sister. You’re famous, and there’s a lot of news about your arrest. But they’ll check on us eventually anyway, without you doing anything that could be seen as causing trouble. If I were you, I’d just wait.” It sounded like he was pleading with her. Though he couldn’t look her in the eye. “And when the guards do come, ask nicely.”
Petra felt cold inside. She had military intelligence that could change the course of a war, and she was still at the mercy of a few over-paid copper dogs who didn’t like her.
Was the world ever going to change? Had all the change so far been nothing more than veneer? An illusion of equality, over a plunging chasm of inequity?
Continue on to Chapter 24…