At a short distance from the pod shielded by an energy field, Lieutenant Shvaart and his ensign viewed their surroundings. They stood on spongy green plants dampening the outer layer of their shield suits. “Don’t fret about the wet, Ensign.”
“But I feel a creeping chill.” she replied through her communicator.
“No ice age here. We’ll be fine. Our breathing apparatus filters incoming gases and won’t allow any poisons to pass. But, look, we have other concerns. Stay away from those.” His gloved paw pointed to a cluster of furless creatures. “Probably supplicants hoping for some favor from the ruler.”
The furless creatures ambled past the ruler’s enclosure and stopped in front of a structure where, inside a wide opening, a similar creature was exchanging sounds with them. His paw, if that was the name for it, held some sacks he offered to the group’s leader who left some crumpled, flat objects on the structure’s counter. The creature inside returned a few shiny metal pieces to the leader. The group wandered off until they found a sitting platform under a big leafy plant. They sat on it, tore open the sacks, and began to eat little crumbling disks.
“I thought they were going to offer those to the ruler. The disks smell very good, don’t you think, Sir?”
“I agree, Ensign. Let’s approach.”
One of the smaller furless creatures was tossing disks to winged animals hopping around its feet. While the feathered animals pecked at disks with speed and force, Shvaart scooped up crumbs with his suit’s extensor paw and transferred them into an exchange pocket. Prrrup did the same.
“Ensign, you have my permission to taste the disk particles. They seem to have no ill effect on those consuming them.”
Prrrup sucked up the crumbs from her exchange pocket through a tube and burbled, “Oh, sir, I like these disks. Imagine, our first taste of this planet’s food source.”
Shvaart was listening to the creatures’ exchange of sounds as he ate his own sample of disk crumbs. “Every time they pull a few more disks from the sacks, they make a sound like this: ‘Podado ship.’ What do you think?”
“I think we are learning their language. So exciting. Podado ship. Perhaps the transport used to bring the disks? May I eat more, sir?”
“Help yourself. They can’t see us, but hurry. We must observe the giants.”
With Shvaart’s permission, Prrrup jumped onto the sitting platform and sidled up to one of the creatures. This one had much more fur on its head, long and quite curly, unlike any fur she had ever seen. With a deft poke at the sack, Prrrup knocked it from the creature’s paw and followed it to the ground. In a flash, she emptied the remaining contents into her exchange pocket and sucked them up. The creature next to her was waving its front paws and making loud noises sounding like, “Hey!” and “Wherditgo?”
Prrrup saw Shvaart standing by the little door that the attendant used to bring a meal to the ruler and his courtiers. She licked her lips and the whiskers around her mouth, then trotted up the path to join him.
“Sir, your plan?”
“Look,” he said as he pushed on the door. “The servant did not secure this entry. Follow me.” Confident his shield suit would hide him, Shvaart bounded up the terraces and circled the royal family.
Having finished his meal, the ruler was resting at the far end of the terrace; and his courtiers were tearing at the headless, now two-legged animal. They pulled pieces of skin and muscle away from the animal’s bones. Prrrup and Shvaart jumped away as the group’s clicks, grunts, and low rumblings grew louder.
“They’re quarreling over their food,” Prrrup observed.
“Some bits dropped to the terrace below. Let’s test them.”
“Sir, unlike the disks I ate, these bits of animal might not agree with our ZooCatron microbiome. We must proceed with caution, if I may say so.”
Shvaart’s shield suit tag bounced as he boomed over the communicator: “How did you know those disks were edible? Any moment now, you might soil your shield suit.”
“Every suit is equipped with a Jacobson’s organ screener, sir. It can detect any potentially harmful particle in food, drink, or atmosphere. The organ allowed my disk ingestion. May I suggest, sir, you place one of those bits in your exchange pocket and let the suit decide if it safe to eat?”
Prrrup watched a piece of the animal carcass lying on the lower terrace disappear. Avoiding the tag on Shvaart’s shield suit, she paced the terrace. She dropped into a four-legged crouch, sucked her own scrap of the animal into her exchange pocket and waited for the triple beep signaling its safety. Hearing only Shvaart’s purrs, she turned her attention once more to the enclosure and the door they entered a short while before. It remained open.
One of the courtiers dropped a leg she was chewing, leaped down the terraces, and headed toward the door of the enclosure. The others followed her. The ruler ambled along behind them. After sniffing the door’s frame, the ruler and his court strolled outside the enclosure and headed toward the furless creatures Prrrup had encountered a short while before.
Shvaart and Prrrup trotted after them. They stopped at the sound of a triple beep in Prrrup’s suit. The ruler paused, then turned toward the Grimalks. His courtiers lay on the path between the Grimalks and the screaming furless creatures, but the ruler’s ears wriggled, and he strode with great majesty in Prrrup’s direction.
“He can’t see or smell me, right, sir?”
“Correct, Ensign, but we can’t risk an encounter with the inhabitants yet. Back to the pod.”
“Where did we leave it, sir?”
“Over there, on that green spongy spot. The ruler is picking up speed. Run for it.”
The Grimalks raced to their landing zone and bumped into the pod’s shield.
“Ensign Prrrup, deactivate the energy field. Now!”
The ruler was charging them in a disconcertingly familiar way as the Grimalks slipped into the pod and restored the energy field. The pod rocked as the ruler crashed into it. The sound of his deep, bellowing roar penetrated the hull. Both Grimalks felt their tails and dorsal body fur fluff to twice normal thickness.
Quickly shedding their now suffocating shield suits, Shvaart and Prrrup collapsed on the pod floor and panted until their hearts slowed to a normal pace. Prrrup was the first to stagger toward the scanner screen. She swiveled the view-stick until the ruler’s image filled the screen. “Look, Sir, there he is. I think he is sniffing at the portal. I don’t hear him, but he appears to be pawing the pod’s shell.”
Shvaart stood on his hind legs and rested his forelegs on the screen’s frame. “He’s pawing at the energy field. See, it’s shimmering. Not a good sign. I hope it holds.”
“Sir, may I suggest evasive action?”
Without bumping Prrrup’s nose to agree, Shvaart miauled, “Ensign, we should take evasive action. Revive the activator and prepare for lift-off.”