Two cats, one squat with short, black fur, the other slender, with orange fur and extraordinarily large ears, and both in light-weight blue uniforms, left the ZooCatron Quest orbiting the planet and descended rapidly in their pod toward the planet’s surface. All instruments trained on a landing place surrounded by quaint plantings, so reminiscent of the Feline Middle Ages, before ZooCatron’s lakes had frozen then disappeared.
The star around which this planet revolved was barely visible on the horizon. Through the dim light of daybreak, Shvaart, the black cat, surveyed an open area the pod calculated suitable for landing. He tapped a few dots on the instrument panel, and the pod began its descent. His companion, Ensign Prrrup, secured their fasteners for impact.
The pod sent pieces of vegetation flying as it landed with a surprisingly gentle bounce and settled into a thick cluster of multi-colored growth. Everything else in the area—enclosures, gigantic plants with dark, thick stems, and winding trails (rivers?)—looked gray, at least through their viewer.
“The sensors indicate a tolerable environment, mostly the same gases we breathe, but richer in oxygen,” Prrrup reported. “Unlike ZooCatron’s atmosphere, this one also has lots of nitrogen, argon, and carbon dioxide. ”
“You’re the engineer. Tell me, will we be OK?”
“We won’t be here long enough to feel the difference. Shall I unfasten and get our gear out now?”
Prrrup knew her superior was not happy; he was flicking his tail. His low, soft growl sent her loping to the galley. “Of course not, sir. No gear right now. Nourishment first.”
“Right! Eat first, explore later, I always say.” Shvaart’s tail relaxed and curled around his haunches.
“Yes, you do, sir, always, sir.” Prrrup returned with a packet secured between her teeth. She dropped it near Shvaart’s front paws and sat back on her haunches.
Shvaart bit open the packet and lapped up half the kibblings spilled in front of him. Pawing the remaining pieces, he said, “Help yourself, Ensign. This will do until we finish our business here and return to the pod.”
Prrrup sat up straighter. Her ears twitched in several directions and her eyes widened. “Did you hear that?”
A kibbling dropped from Shvaart’s mouth and rolled across the pod. Little chirping noises escaped his gaping mouth. “I did. What could it be?”
The two cats stared at the scanner. They arched their backs and hissed at the sight of a giant Grimalk-like animal, head ringed in long fur, strutting across the enclosure near their landing place. Prrrup swiveled the lens to follow the creature. It scaled a series of stone terraces and lay across the topmost one. Holding its head above its outstretched paws, it looked very much like the last, now deceased, ruler of ZooCatron, Stijn of Stajns, but 10 times larger.
“Sir, do you suppose it could be the ruler of this planet? It’s hard to tell except for its size, but to have found the ruler so easily…I…”
“I don’t know. It wears no royal garments, in fact, no clothes at all. Wait, look.” A nearly furless creature entered the view field. Layers of cloth covered its body, reminding the Grimalks of their own uniforms. Was this clothed creature the furry one’s superior? Carrying a container of meats, the furless one opened a small door and entered an area outside the enclosure yet surrounded on all sides by a high barrier made of metal links. There, it called to the giant creature and tossed meats over the barrier onto the lowest stone terrace. It stood there for a while repeating the move, then closed the little door, and appeared to lock it before leaving.
“Ensign, I think you’re onto something. That must be a servant and it offered the furry one a meal. As polite as any servant I knew on ZooCatron. Observe how it left him alone, to eat his meal without interruptions. So respectful. So well trained. Surely, the furry one rules here.”
Prrrup pointed to two other large creatures, strolling slowly toward the one eating. They had no ring of fur around their heads, but they were almost as big and muscular as the assumed ruler. They bounded up the series of terraces toward the meat.
Shvaart said, “Look how they wait to eat, just as we did when we were kittens. The big one eats first, then the others…Oh Great Cats of Catronia! The one with the long hair is a big male, isn’t he?”
“I can see that,” Prrrup’s tail pointed back and her ears stood straight up.
“And the others are in his…his…?”
“Family?” Prrrup sharpened her claws on a scratching post. “A royal family? Or the ruler’s courtiers? Do you think they might share with us? We look a little like them.”
“You think? Their fur is much lighter than mine. They might not welcome felines who look different.” Shvaart twisted his head to the right and licked his shoulder.
“You are as dark as deep space, sir. They certainly lack the beauty of your coat. Perhaps we should have a look around, but without being seen.”
Enjoying the nearly normal gravity of this planet, Shvaart raised his tail and stretched out his forelegs. He then bumped along Prrrup’s flank. “You’re a good officer, Prrrup. Observant and helpful. We will explore the area, wrapped in visibility-blocking shields.”
“Excellent strategy, sir,” Prrrup purred. She licked up the remaining kibblings dotting the floor between them and turned to open the storage unit behind her. After tapping a code on a panel showing several different icons, she hooked her claws into a pull tab and twisted it to the right. With a long creak, the unit’s lid opened, and Prrrup jumped inside. She pawed at the contents. Booties, atmosphere-filtering helmets, and fur-covered jumpsuits flew across the pod.
Prrrup grunted a satisfied “mmrf” and jumped out of the unit with two shiny, gray suits hanging from her mouth.
Shvaart’s tail vibrated, “Once we put these on, no one will see us.”
“Of course, Sir, but, then, how will I find you?”
Shvaart sat briefly swishing his tail in annoyance, then, pacing the pod’s small interior, he meowled, “The ultraviolet tab, of course. Did you forget?”
Prrrup paced behind him. “Sir, I am unfamiliar with ultraviolet tabs. If you will permit me, I will now examine the gear to be certain all suits are equipped with ultraviolet tabs.” At his nod, she retracted her claws and patted one of the suits until she found a tab at the top of a fastener strip. “Ah, here is one of them, sir. Please enlighten this poor Grimalk. What does it do?”
Shvaart ignored her question as he stared once more at the scanner. With his claws partly extended, he licked his lips with his pink tongue. Nostrils flaring, he snorted and said, “I wish I could smell that. The servant just threw part of another animal into the throne room. The head is missing, but I see at least three legs, a round body—oh my…”
“Its body is open. All the insides are going to fall out. Look, the ruler opened his big jaws. The courtiers ran to the animal and dragged it up the terrace to him.”
“If only we could find a way to share a bit of that,” the ensign purred.
Shvaart swiveled his head to answer, “We shall share. Once we are wearing our shield suits, we are invisible to all. We’ll see each other’s tabs and we’ll use the communicators to hear each other. All well-insulated from the ruler’s senses.”
Prrrup was standing next to him and stared at the scanner. “They are tearing that animal apart. Look how the courtiers eat a bit, then back away and invite the ruler to eat alone. Wait, what’s that?”
“How very odd—a winged creature, all black. What planet is that thing from?”
“The ruler doesn’t notice it. Nor do the courtiers. I suspect the creature originates here.”
“It’s pecking at the animal while the courtiers are having a go at it. None of them cares at all. Quick. Let’s get in there. We’ll eat some of that ourselves once we’re inside. Now, into our shields. Secure the pod before locking up.”