Otters In Space 3 – Chapter 8: Petra

by Mary E. Lowd

An excerpt from Otters In Space 3: Octopus Ascending.  If you’d prefer, you can start with Chapter 1, return to the previous chapter, or skip ahead.

“Pete had a long, blue, silky scarf tied around his neck. He grabbed the ends of it and fluttered them, exclaiming, “I’m an uplifted butterfly!””

Petra had lots of plans.  None of them were working out the way she wanted them to.  No one would cooperate with her.  She’d been sent from one end to the other of the beautiful but archaic, ancient human building that was the seat of the Uplifted States’ government — the White House.

Sure, it had been renovated to suit the needs of dogs and cats who were on average much smaller than humans, but if you asked Petra they’d be much better off with an entirely new building with fewer beautiful columns and more properly proportioned rooms.

Partitions had been built into many of the previously cavernous rooms, but the ceilings still loomed far above; the original staircases made Petra feel awkward and silly as she uncomfortably clambered up or down their too high and wide steps; and the partitions had turned the whole place into a maze.  Though Petra wouldn’t be getting lost in it anymore.  She’d drawn herself a map and tucked it into her vest pocket.

Not that the map helped.  Knowing where she was didn’t get her the financial files she needed.  Petra could swear that all the other cats in the building were hiding things from her.  In fact, she wanted to swear at each of them.  The cat in the policy office had told her that the records she wanted would be in finances.  The cat in finances had sent her to general records.  The cat in general records sent her back to policy — of course — where she was told that only authorized personnel could search the files directly.

How much more authorized could you get than the president’s sister and main advisor?  And why were the files all kept on actual paper in metal filing cabinets anyway?  Hadn’t the government heard of computers before she and Alistair had shown up?

None of them understood how important it was either.  Even Alistair and Kipper had seemed skeptical of her plans:  the world needed saving from the raptors — how would paperwork help?  But Petra knew there must be something Alistair had missed.  The Uplifted States of Mericka was the strongest nation on Earth, but Alistair seemed to have almost no power at all.  The power must be hidden, and Petra would find it.

Petra snarled to herself and sat down on one of the broad steps of the Grand Staircase — a ridiculous structure only suited to greyhounds, Great Danes, St. Bernards, and Mastiffs.  None of whom were in evidence.  No, it was all cats — Siamese, Birman, Himalayan, and Tonkinese — officiously guarding office doors for the dogs.

It made Petra just that extra bit more furious thinking about how all the cats in the building seemed to have some variation on that fancy regal coloring — black masked faces and paws over a coat of snowy white.  It made her fiery orange tabby markings feel like a brand burning into her, marking her:  not purebred, doesn’t belong, get out tabby!

And yet all the fancy-schmancy cats who’d been working here for years were basically secretaries and lackeys.  She and Alistair had fought their way into the tip-top tier of authority.  Those fancy-schmancy secretaries should show her more respect.

Petra heard paw steps and rustling paper on the stairs above her, and then a canine voice said, “Well, well, pretty pussycat.  Is the harsh reality of government finally getting the little tabby down?  All those big numbers in the budget too much for you?”  The fluffy sable-furred Sheltie was one of Vice President Morrison’s cabinet.  He was holding a sheaf of papers that looked like a stack of freshly signed executive orders.  His long-muzzled grin made Petra’s claws itch.

In an even tone, Petra said, “Don’t get cocky, Jazon.  Your alpha dog isn’t here to protect you.”  Usually dogs like Jazon wouldn’t acknowledge Petra at all, so she knew something was up.  She didn’t intend to give him the satisfaction of asking what he wanted.

“Poor pretty tabby,” Jazon cooed, sitting down on the step beside her and resting his sheaf of papers on his knee.  “You look so tired.  Maybe you should take a break from working on the budget and go home to play with your kittens.”

The fur on the back of Petra’s neck ruffled.  This was her break.  At home, the kittens were probably climbing all over Trudith, pulling her floppy ears, scratching drawings on the walls with their claws, inventing new forms of havoc to wreak every hour.  “Raising a litter isn’t play.”  Petra spoke through clenched fangs.  “It’s hard work.  Even harder than dealing with condescending mangy flea-balls like you.”

Jazon laughed.  “Well, now.  You sound like you’re halfway to becoming a statistic — yet another deadbeat mama cat who drops her kittens off on a cattery doorstep, ’cause she’s too lazy to do a little work.”

Petra spent her nights doting on crying kittens and spent her days, exhausted, trying to fix a country that was filled with prejudiced dogs like Jazon and catty cats who fed his prejudices.  Right now, she wasn’t sure why she bothered.  It was more than she could take.

“If you’re really worried about the budget–”  Jazon’s voice fell to a whisper.  “Don’t leave your worthless kittens at a cattery and cost the government more dollars.  Drown them.”

Petra’s claws took on a life of their own.  Her paw swung.  She wanted to swing at Jazon’s black nose and see his brown muzzle grow wet with blood, but she took control of her paw and aimed lower.  Before Petra fully knew what she was doing, long claw marks shredded Jazon’s sheaf of executive orders.

They’d all have to be printed out and signed by Alistair and Vice President Morrison again.

Jazon grinned wolfishly.

With horror, Petra realized that she’d played right into his paws.  This was what he’d wanted — he wanted to rile her up, push her past the limit, and get her to do something stupid he could use against her.

And she’d let him.

She hated herself for that.

But she hated him more.

Still, she’d gotten herself in enough trouble for the day, so she bit her tongue, sheathed her claws, and stuffed her paws deep into her vest pockets.  She stayed that way — sulky and sullen — all the way through Alistair’s aggrieved, shocked lecturing; Vice President Morrison’s gleeful insistence that she be banned from the White House until further notice; and even through Jazon’s triumphant snickering.

She was lucky she had controlled her paw at the last second.  If she’d actually clawed Jazon’s brown-furred muzzle, Vice President Morrison would never have settled for banning her from the White House premises.  He would have pressed charges and turned the incident into a full-blown scandal.

Petra didn’t think she could have pulled off claiming that she’d thought Jazon was actually threatening to drown her kittens.  He hadn’t been holding a wash basin, and her kittens had been nowhere near him.  And no one would care that she’d had terrified nightmares three times in the last month about them drowning in the ocean — that was normal right?  All parents were plagued by violent terrors in their dreams of what might happen to their precious but provoking kittens.

Petra wished Jazon and Vice President Morrison and all those stupid, superior cats who wouldn’t let her at their records would drown.

It was exactly that kind of thought which turned into extended claws slashing an important sheaf of documents and getting her kicked out of the White House.  She needed to control her thoughts better.

Petra growled, but she wasn’t sure if it was at herself or everyone else in the world.  They were all against her.

Tail swishing, Petra was escorted to her small office next to Alistair’s by Keith, one of Alistair’s greyhound guards.  The gangly greyhound watched while she stuffed all the records she had managed to gather into the outer pocket of her briefcase, shut down her laptop computer, and stuffed it into the briefcase as well.

“Are you allowed to take that?” Keith asked.

Petra figured that if he didn’t know the answer to that question, the answer might as well be yes.  “Yes,” she said.  She left all the drawings her kittens had made of her and Aunt Kipper taped to the walls.  She’d be back.

Keith gave her a sympathetic smile.  His angled ears and dopey brown eyes made his long face well-suited to sympathetic smiles.  “I’ve given Trudith a call.  She’s bringing the kittens over to meet you for a picnic on the South Lawn.  That’ll be nice, won’t it?”

Petra looked up at Keith — the greyhound was nearly three times her height.  It was hard not to think he was being condescending when he was literally speaking down to her.

Petra needed to simmer down.  Keith was a good guy.  He was one of Trudith’s best friends.  There was no reason for her to be mad at him, other than that she was generally mad.  And that wasn’t a good reason.

“Yeah, a picnic could be nice,” Petra admitted, shouldering the strap on her laptop briefcase.  The kittens would probably enjoy seeing the roses.  As Petra understood it, some of the rose bushes dated back all the way to the time of humans.  They were hardy little plants.  Beautiful but also scrappy.  Petra had to respect that.

And she could learn from it.  Roses kept their thorns to themselves.

Keith led Petra through the labyrinthine warren of small rooms that filled the White House as if he’d been there for years.  Though Petra knew he’d spent no more time there than she had, since he was also part of Alistair’s team.  She wondered if Keith navigated by an uncanny canine sense of smell.  Or maybe he was just better at learning his way around than she was.

Probably because he wasn’t thinking about anything else.  Petra scolded herself for the uncharitable thought as soon as it crossed her mind.

Keith walked Petra all the way out of the building, past the Doberman and Rottweiler standing guard at the back door.  She wouldn’t be sneaking past them ever.  It would take a brain-damaged fool to try.  Now that Petra was securely out of the actual White House, Keith turned to her and said, “I’d love to stay for the picnic, but Alistair needs me back inside.  Say ‘hi’ to Trudith for me!”  So casual.  As if he hadn’t just dumped her on the other side of a door guarded by the scariest looking dogs in the world.

“Hey Keith!” the Rottweiler said as Keith passed by.  “Are we still on for the marathon of Small Dog, Big Heart this weekend?”

The Doberman broke into a goofy grin and said, “I can’t wait to re-watch the episode where Vanessa kisses the cat!”

The two guards broke out laughing at the memory of the famous episode of Small Dog, Big Heart where the heroine, a shaggy Maltese dog, was dared to kiss a scrawny tabby tomcat.  It had been the first interspecies kiss ever to air on television, and it had been so controversial that it had been banned in half the country.

Interspecies relationships had come a long way since then — now the episode was merely a joke.

Keith shot Petra an apologetic look, embarrassed by his friends, but said, “Yeah, I’ll be there.”

Petra thought of several biting things to say to the guards but took a lesson from the rose bushes and kept her sharp tongue to herself.  It wasn’t easy when it felt like everyone was always making fun of her, taunting her, and disrespecting her.  She’d married a dog; she was a common tabby from a cattery; she was a mother and a cat, the worst combination of demographics.  She was the ideal target for ridicule, and the jibes came continuously from every direction.

But instead of picking a fight with dogs five times her weight, Petra strolled the South Lawn grumbling to herself until Trudith and the kittens arrived — a big black dog wearing a backpack, three little kittens trailing behind her like a row of ducklings.

They picked a nice, sunny stretch of lawn and while Trudith spread a picnic blanket and unloaded food from her backpack, the kittens pranced and swarmed around Petra, telling her all about their exciting day.

“Trudith took us to a thrift shop!”  The tiny gray tabby, Allison, gave her mother a coy look from under a wide brimmed black hat and over a ridiculously large pair of sunglasses.  “And she gave us each five dollars to spend!”

“Then I can guess where those came from,” Petra said.

“I’m a private detective,” Allison said smugly, raising the sunglasses to cover her green eyes again.  “With my gray stripes, and this hat, I’ll blend right into the shadows.”  She spread her paws wide and stepped nimbly backward, as if she were melting into a shadow.  Except there was bright sunlight and green grass all around.

“What about you two?” Petra asked, turning to her orange-furred sons.

Pete had a long, blue, silky scarf tied around his neck.  He grabbed the ends of it and fluttered them, exclaiming, “I’m an uplifted butterfly!”

That was a new one.  “Oh?” Petra asked, sitting down on a corner of Trudith’s picnic blanket.

Pete grabbed the plush cat doll that was always tucked under his arm and held it forward, “Mr. Pickles is a human scientist who discovered how to uplift EVERYTHING.  And I’m a butterfly that was flying past his lab when suddenly ZAP.  And now I’m uplifted.”

Petra nodded solemnly.  She could think of no other way to react to her son’s delightfully absurd new game.  Her other son, Robin, crawled onto her lap.

Trudith finished setting out the tuna fish sandwiches and settled onto the other corner of the blanket.  It took awhile for Trudith to cajole the three kittens into settling down to eat their sandwiches — Allison had to be called back several times from trying to hide in a bush, and Pete kept insisting that he was too busy flying to eat.  Petra felt guilty that she was simply watching Trudith do all the hard work, but she could hardly chase after Allison and Pete with Robin curled up on her lap.

Once the kittens were all under control, Trudith breathed a deep sigh of relief and picked up her own sandwich — chipped beef instead of tuna.  Before taking a bite, she said, “You should ask Robin what he did with his money.”

Petra waited, giving Robin a chance to speak, expecting him to eagerly volunteer his answer like the others.  She couldn’t see his face with him curled into her lap; only his ears and the back of his orange-striped head were visible to her.

“What did you do with your money?” Petra finally asked.

After a long while — long enough that Petra wasn’t sure he intended to answer at all — Robin put a paw into one of his pockets and pulled out a wadded up five dollar bill.

“You saved it?” Petra asked.

Robin nodded.  Then he took his mother’s paw and gave the bill to her.  Turning to look into her eyes, he said, “You said you were worried about money missing from the government’s budget.”  His green eyes were so clear and innocent.  “I wanted to help.”

Petra squeezed him tight.  “Thank you, Robin.”  She’d have to put the money aside, save it for him.  Maybe not everyone was against her.  Maybe there were still things worth fighting for.

Only now, she couldn’t get back inside the White House to fight for them.  Petra sighed.  She would need help.  She hated asking for help.  So she waited, watching the kittens eat their tuna fish and then fight over the sweet cream cheese buns for dessert.  Trudith talked meaninglessly at her about scramball games and sports scores.  Couldn’t Trudith tell that Petra didn’t care?  Wasn’t listening?  That there were more important things to talk about?  Nonetheless, Petra didn’t want to cut Trudith off.

Once the kittens were done eating, everything devolved into wild scampering — Allison chased Robin around the lawn, insisting that she had a lot of questions for him about a case she was trying to solve; Pete burrowed under the picnic blanket, knocking around the paper plates on top, claiming that it was his chrysalis, and he needed to hibernate now.

“Hmm,” Petra mused.  “You could use a book about butterflies if you think that’s what a chrysalis is for.”

The bump under the blanket showed no signs of hearing her.  It was too busy hibernating.

“We could take them to the library,” Trudith offered.

They were interrupted by Robin and Allison prancing their way across the middle of the picnic blanket.  Pete shouted from underneath, “You’re squishing me!”  Much noise and crying ensued.  The kittens were falling apart.  That meant it was time to take them home.

Trudith helped Petra stuff all the picnic supplies into the backpack.  Then her black-muzzled face split into a nervous grin.  “Keith says they could use another pair of paws here.  Now that you’ve got the kittens…”  Trudith trailed off, but she didn’t have to finish her thought.  Petra knew what she was getting at.

“Yeah, that’s fine.  I’ve got the kittens.”  Petra gave the fuzzy little demons an appraising look — Pete had tied his blue scarf around Mr. Pickles; Allison was throwing her new hat like a frisbee; and Robin seemed to be practicing somersaults.  “Everything’s under control.”

“Great!”  Trudith’s nervous grin morphed into a joyous one.  “Here are the car keys.  I parked by that coffee shop–”  She gestured vaguely, but Petra knew the place she was talking about.

“I took the bus this morning,” Petra said.

“I figured.”

Taking the bus was much easier without the kittens.  The kittens required greater containment than was offered by a bus full of other travelers to bug.

“Look–” Petra started to say.  She hated admitting weakness, and she didn’t want to ask for help.  But Trudith had proved herself surprisingly competent in the past, and Petra didn’t have a lot of options now that she was banned from the building that held all the records she needed.  “I–”

“You’d like help getting those financial records.”

“Yes,” Petra said, dumbstruck.

“Don’t worry,” Trudith said.  “I’m on it.”

Petra was still worried.  She watched the big black dog walk up to the White House, laugh with the Doberman and Rottweiler guards, and then go right in.  She hoped Trudith wasn’t planning to steal the records.  Petra was already in enough trouble without Trudith doing something stupid on her behalf.

For better or worse, Petra couldn’t worry about Trudith for long.  She had three wild and busy kittens to herd back home.

Continue on to Chapter 9

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