by Mary E. Lowd
What does it look like when the world changes? Does it have to be hundreds of cats, marching together, holding up banners that read, “Free Petra!” and singing folk songs?
Or is it just one dog? Afraid to meet a cat’s eyes and mumbling, “The charges have been dropped, and the officer who assaulted you has had his badge taken. He’s not a police officer anymore. We’re sorry.”
Maybe the world was changing. If a police dog could be punished for assaulting a cat — if his fellow officers would even admit that he’d committed assault — maybe the world could get better. Petra wasn’t sure. She was sure that those police dogs had cost her dearly. Whether the world had changed or not, Petra had changed. She was more afraid. And her own home had continued changing daily — as a home with small kittens does — while she’d been gone. And she’d missed it.
The kittens looked lankier, like someone had stretched out their arms and legs. They also acted differently. Pete started babbling a mile a minute the moment he saw her, trying to catch his mother up on everything she’d missed — though his tales of kittenish escapades were jumbles of nonsense to someone who hadn’t been there to watch them. Allison had turned sulky and morose, seemingly unable to communicate except by twitching the tip of her gray-striped tail. Robin, who had always been clingy, a true mama’s kitten, was polite but distant which broke Petra’s heart.
It was hard to believe her kittens could have changed so much in only a few weeks. Precious minutes and hours that a police dog bully and his friends who believed him had stolen from her.
Then there was the house itself. Lucky had tried and failed to build bunk beds for the kittens, so the boys’ bedroom was filled with lumber, nailed together at weird angles; the living room had been rearranged into a permanent fort with one couch upturned to stand on its end and the other couch pushed up against it; blankets were draped over everything, filling the room with ad hoc tents.
Bizarrely, the kitchen was sparklingly clean. Without Petra around, Lucky had been finally able to let his tenacious terrier tendencies scare the piles of dirty dishes and mostly-but-not-quite empty cartons and jars into submission. It was the one room in the house where everything was in its place, perfectly arranged. Everywhere else was chaos.
Petra let the chaos wash over her.
Lucky had planned a big celebratory dinner to welcome Petra home — fish-burgers and milkshakes with Alistair, Trudith, and Keith. They all kept the conversation conspicuously away from politics. They stayed to safe topics — which school the kittens would go to, which parks had new playground structures, what kind of books the kittens were reading.
Petra played along, but it made her feel small and trapped. She understood what they were doing — no one wanted to talk about anything big. If her family which included the president of the country had found itself helpless in the face of its own justice system (“justice” — what a joke), how much more helpless were they in the face of a raptor fleet from Jupiter? They didn’t want to talk about it, because there was nothing left any of them could do. They were all waiting.
Waiting to see if they’d survive whatever attack the raptors had planned.
Waiting to see if there would be a future.
It didn’t make sense to plan for a future that might not happen.
But Petra had spent weeks in a tiny cell. She needed the world to be big and expansive. She needed to make plans in spite of what that cop dog had done to her. In spite of the raptors.
After dinner, the kittens dragged Trudith and Keith into their epic blanket fort to play a game they called Golympics! It seemed to mostly involve climbing all over Trudith, pulling her floppy black ears and stepping on her shoulders, while arguing over which of them had won the gold medal, which was actually just a shiny brass lid from a jar of sardine salsa. Keith played the role of arbiter and made sure each kitten got a turn gloating over the brass lid.
“I never get tired of watching that,” Alistair said.
“What?” Lucky asked. The terrier’s sleeves were pushed up high, and his paws were filled with dishes to take to the kitchen. Somehow, that made him look extra-scruffy. “The kittens playing?”
The two adult orange tabbies — Petra and Alistair — looked at each other. Petra knew what Alistair meant. But of course, a terrier mutt who’d grown up in a family with his own parents didn’t. “Playing with an adult dog who loves them,” Petra said.
Lucky’s bearded muzzle twisted into a lopsided smile. “They have lots of those. In fact, my brothers have been talking about moving closer, then they’d have some aunt and uncle dogs around. Also puppy cousins.”
Lucky disappeared into the kitchen with his pile of dirty dishes while Petra reeled at the idea of a whole family of terriers moving to be closer to them. She wished it made her feel safer. It didn’t. But it might make her kittens feel safe. Someday, the puppies they played with would grow up to be dogs who weren’t afraid of an unarmed cat who happened to hiss. Maybe.
Alistair leaned in close and whispered, “Who’d have thought that you’d be the big family cat, huh?”
Petra foresaw a lot of family dinners and backyard barbecues in her future with kittens and puppies running rampant. But those weren’t the sort of plans she wanted to make. “We need a space program,” she said.
“What?” Alistair’s green eyes looked startled, and his orange ears twisted about as if he were listening for reporters waiting to pounce on The President’s any word. He lowered his voice to the quietest of whispers and said, “There’s no way to build a space program that fast.” Even in the privacy of Petra’s home with secret service dogs posted outside and the covering noise of kittens mewling about pretend gold medals, he didn’t mention the raptor fleet.
Petra didn’t either. That wasn’t what this was about. If she was having trouble visualizing a better future on Earth, maybe what the world needed was to become larger. “I don’t mean for protection,” she said. “Exploration. Expansion. Colonization. I don’t know. What the otters are doing — we need to do that too. It shouldn’t just be purebred cats–”
Alistair interrupted to say, “And Kipper.”
“–and Kipper up there. It needs to be all kinds of cats and dogs. It needs to be the Uplifted States of Mericka too. We need a space program. We need hope.” She needed hope.
Alistair started to object, but suddenly the kittens were on them like a whirlwind — laughing and mewing, scrabbling over their mother and uncle in the pursuit of yet another imaginary medal. Next, all three kittens fell to the floor and began somersaulting about the room like orange- and gray-striped tumbleweeds.
Before Alistair could catch his breath, Petra pressed her point further: “We need something to look forward to. I can’t just hold my breath, waiting to see if there will be a tomorrow — if my kittens will get to start school next year. I need to assume they will. We need to assume that there is a tomorrow worth building. Everyone does.”
Alistair frowned grimly and echoed Petra’s words, “We need a space program.” The way he said it, it wasn’t entirely clear if he was mocking her or agreeing with her. But he sighed deeply and added, “Put together a budget. Find the money, and I don’t know. I’ll see what I can make happen.”
Petra wasn’t sure if he was humoring her because they were siblings or if this was how he treated all policy requests — tolerant, tired, noncommittal. She also wasn’t sure that she believed in his ability to get anything done anymore. That one dog cop had shaken her faith in most of the world. No matter. She would take it. She would work out a budget and a plan.
When Trudith and Keith had said goodbye and Alistair had departed in a swarm of secret service dogs who’d been waiting conspicuously outside, Lucky put the kittens to bed. Petra watched from the doorway for a while as the terrier helped with pajamas, brushed sharp kitten fangs, and read picture books about otters dancing in the sky. She’d already had her goodnight hugs — although with Robin, she’d had to settle for a goodnight handshake, which was hilariously adorable but also sad. Apparently, he didn’t do hugs these days.
Petra felt a pang of guilt stepping away from the door — shouldn’t she be the one inside the sanctuary of the kittens’ room, performing the rites and rituals of the bedtime sacrament, surrounded by scattered and forgotten toys and games? Shouldn’t she want to be? She had missed so much, shouldn’t she be making up for it? But she could never make up for it… An extra ten minutes now wouldn’t give her back the days she had lost.
She’d had her goodnight hugs, and now she wanted to call Blaine.
The Jellicle cat had give her his number before he’d gone home, leaving her alone in that jail cell. There’d been nothing to write it down with — in spite of all the papers Trudith had brought for them to analyze, they’d been given nothing to write with — but she remembered it.
Petra sat down at the computer in the corner of the chaotic living room and waited for Blaine to answer her vid-call.
When his image appeared, the Jellicle cat was as impeccably dressed as he’d been before — black and white splotched fur perfectly complemented by a pin-striped suit. He looked amused, and Petra realized he must be reacting to the half-knocked-over blanket forts behind her. “What happened there?” Blaine asked.
“Kittens,” Petra answered matter-of-factly.
A moment later Lucky came into the room and said, “The kittens are in bed now. Oh, I didn’t see you had a call. Hi.” Lucky waved at the screen for Blaine to see. Then he came over and squeezed one of Petra’s paws. “Don’t stay up too late trying to save the world.” He brushed his bearded muzzle against the top of her head, leaving a kiss between her pointed ears before going.
“Save the world?” Blaine asked when Lucky was gone.
“It’s a joke,” Petra said. “Lucky thinks I’m always trying to save the world. But tonight, I’m just hoping to change it.”
“Okay,” the Jellicle said with an intrigued smile under his whiskers. “How? And why call me?”
Petra explained that she wanted help putting together a budget for a space program, and Blaine looked pensive. His ears skewed, and he finally said, “Aren’t you the cat who thought catnip laws were too big to tackle?”
“What do catnip laws have to do with a space program?” Petra saw one of her kittens — orange-furred, so one of the boys — peering out of the hallway into the living room. She gestured to him that he could come over, and moments later Robin crawled into her lap and nestled his head against her chest, right under her chin. It was awkward balancing his weight against her own in the desk chair, but it was also the most peaceful feeling she could imagine — holding her little boy in her arms, with his soft fur ruffled against her own. His breathing was so steady. Petra closed her eyes for a beat, just to enjoy the feeling, while listening to Blaine answer her question.
“Are you kidding?” Blaine said. “Catnip isn’t even mentioned in the Book of the First Race. Whereas space travel is specifically prohibited. There are whole poems — whole books of psalms — that basically amount to the holy humans holding their hands out and saying, ‘STAY!’ to all of dog-kind before they left Earth. The entirety of dog religion is founded on the idea that dogs — and by extension cats –” Blaine rolled his eyes dramatically at the idea that cats were only an afterthought. “– are meant to stay put, paws firmly on the ground.”
“First Racers can’t take that seriously,” Petra said, trying not to disturb the kitten who was now purring against her. She stroked his pajama-clad back.
“They do,” Blaine said, green eyes blazing. “If they didn’t we’d already have a space program. And a lot of other technology for that matter. You should really read the Book of the First Race. It determines more of our lives than most cats realize. Did you know that some First Racers believe we’re not even meant to have networked computers? Or cell phones?”
Petra’s ears skewed. She’d battled dogs and their beliefs before. And won. “Look, I just need you to help me with the budget. Will you do that?”
“It’s a waste of time…” Blaine argued, but Petra could see that he wanted to be won over. Hope is better than despair and futility. She was offering hope.
“Let me worry about that,” Petra said. “I’ll figure something out.” With Robin sleeping and purring in her arms, Petra felt powerful. She would change the world for her kittens. If Robin believed in her, she could do anything.
Continue on to Chapter 28…