Tepunia reassured herself that ever practical and observant Ensign Prrrup would keep the ZooCatron Quest steady as it orbited the planet. She licked her flank to calm a nervous twitch. All this stress was thinning her fur; little dust kittens littered the floor around her bed bowl. She’d ordered Shvaart to prepare for another reconnaissance and meet her at the super module’s bay. Hearing the order, he had crouched and panted a little, but the promise of extra kibblings revived his spirit. She hoped he’d be a help on their second try at contacting the planet’s inhabitants. Certainly, she could not have left him in charge of the mother ship, but she would use his strength and speed for whatever they happened upon down there.
Prrrup’s quiet confidence inspired respect. The rest of the crew loved Prrrup. Tepunia could see that—all those cheek rubs and flank bumps they gave her. Prrrup would have been command material back on ZooCatron. Tepunia sneezed. Oh, well, that’s out of the question, she mused.
A few stray belongings in her bowl bed remained to be packed: her herbal mouse, a favorite string, and packets of a new food developed to meet the challenges of a dying planet. She snagged them all with her recently sharpened claws and tossed them into the long pocket of her emergency belt.
Tepunia paced in front of her mirror, tightened her belt, then wriggled into her travel suit. Helmet dangling from one paw, she swam aft to the module deck where her lieutenant met her at the pod bay, leading to Airlock #2. Her communicator bleeped and she heard Ensign Prrrup affirm that all systems for their separation were primed and in place.
“Thank you, Ensign. Well done.”
“Yes, Captain. Have a good, safe trip and a speedy return. We’ll remain in orbit until we hear differently.”
Tepunia’s tail quivered with pleasure—Prrrup was so dependable—until she began to worry about the unknown before them. With her tail low to the floor, she answered, “Thanks, again, Ensign, but if we lose contact with you for more than 30 of their star-risings, use the program I installed to leave orbit and start another search for a suitable site.”
“But, Captain, we couldn’t—”
“Yes, you could, and you must. If we don’t contact you or answer your call, you’ll know this planet is not safe for settlement. Those are your orders.”
The communicator transmitted static interrupted by soft meows. Tepunia called Prrrup again: “Are you there, Ensign? Did you hear me?”
“Yes, Captain. I am here and your orders are in effect.” She paused, whimpered a little, then squeaked, “Good-bye, Captain. Good-bye, Lieutenant.” The communicator went dead.
The super module provided limited accommodations for all the Grimalks’ needs: waste disposal, heated moist food, cushioned bed shelves, and station planks when they were actively engaged in maneuvering the module. Two passengers would have enough consumables for one reconnaissance foray and the return trip, or about 30 of the subject planet’s star-risings. As supplies ran out, the cushions would deteriorate and only the station planks and navigation systems would remain intact.
Tepunia’s heart was racing; she had not felt so stirred in a long time. How thrilling it would be to land on a new planet, to explore its peculiarities, and meet its challenges! By contrast, Shvaart seemed unmoved. There he was, curled and asleep on his bed shelf, not a care in the cosmos. To calm herself, Tepunia swam to her station plank and checked the systems panels. Assured their sub-orbit path was clear and steady, she leaped from the plank to the servo-bar and, just as she was about to press a sensor for her food drop, a soft beep-beep drew her attention back to the panels.
Licking her lips in disappointment, Tepunia floated back to the panel and saw a message from the ship’s drive: the maintenance panel covering reaction control engines was coming loose. She would have to fix it.
Shvaart bolted up from his nap with wide, dark eyes. “What—what happened?”
“Gear up, Lieutenant, and take over the systems panels. We have a problem outside. I will dress for a space float and take care of it.”
“Right. What’s wrong?”
She pointed to the message window. “Read it for yourself. I have to hurry.”
The only sound Tepunia heard outside the module was the rapid beating of her heart and her quick breaths. Calm, calm yourself, Tepunia, she thought. You’ll use up all your oxygen unless you settle down.”
Her pressurized suit, ballooning from the vacuum of space, was stiff. Although her gloves were automated, her toes struggled to bend around the panel covering’s handle. Pressing the sensor pads for the two tools she needed to release from the glove, Tepunia called on all her strength. It was so hard to bend her forelegs against the stubborn suit. When at last she faced the panel, she applied the tools and tightened the covering, but the effort felt like it took forever, and she worried again about oxygen starvation. She mewled involuntarily as she stabilized the last bolt and without thinking she stretched her rear legs.
The sudden movement made her somersault backwards, away from the ship. Fearing she would break the umbilicus that tied her to the super module, she reached for one of its loops floating past her, but she missed. Soon, as she drifted away from the module, she felt an abrupt tug signaling she had reached the end of her cord. Would it break? Would she be lost, endlessly tumbling away from her clowder and kind? She whirled around and gasped at the immensity of space beyond her—stars, planets, other cosmic bodies going on and on, forever—wait! the cord did not break. Was she floating back to the module?
Shvaart had stopped her frightening flight. With one of the recoil mechanisms, he was reeling her in. She checked her gases gauge and saw her oxygen levels were depleting too fast. Hurry, Shvaart, she mouthed. I don’t have much time.
Through the open bay door, she could see Shvaart’s dark head profiled against the airlock’s bright lights. His tail whipped in and out of sight as it flailed against his head. Grateful for his efforts, she nearly head bumped the ship when she slid into the module’s bay. Once Shvaart was clear, she entered the airlock and sealed the hull opening behind her.
“Welcome back, Captain. Thank you.”
“Great Cats of Catronia,” she hissed. “Oh, my apologies, Lieutenant. That came out wrong. I was so nervous at the end.”
“No offense taken, Captain,” he purred.
Tepunia hurried out of her space suit, tossed her helmet into the recapture bin, and followed Shvaart to the super module’s small navigation center. “Why the haste, Lieutenant?”
“I found a place you might choose for landing and I hope you’ll approve after you look at the screen—of course when you’re ready. There is, however, a small something to think about.”
“Now what?” Tepunia grumbled but kept her tail high and floated after Shvaart to the navigation panels. “Oh, why this place?”
“It might have certain advantages.”
“Well, I don’t know. We’ll prep the module for landing somewhere, but not right now.” She licked her lower jaw and patted her tummy. “The space float made me hungry. I have some new food here I’d like you to share. It’s called Treetz.”
“The landing will wait?”
“The landing can wait.”