On the third orbit pass, Tepunia ordered Shvaart to check the landing gear while she prepared their protective suits and visibility shields. After securing all their supplies and giving the suits a final pat check, she engaged the scanner and saw a harsh landscape: half-dead, pale green stalks in neat rows ran across a cracked gray field. No animals anywhere.
“So you insist this spot is the best place for us to land? Why should I approve? I don’t see any water or possible shelter, no inhabitants to contact, no—”
“There, Captain. See? Something just ran under that stalk.”
“I saw nothing.”
Shvaart licked his paw and whipped his tail. “Replay the scan. It looked like one of our kahks, the little rodents we herd, rather, herded back home.” He laid his head on his paws. “I would never forget those big ears, long tails, tasty little round bodies…”
Tepunia set the scan to rewind and slow-advance. First, a small shadow crossed the screen, followed by a tiny brown living thing with a long nose. It crouched under a tall, dried stalk and was nibbling little yellow seeds. If it lived here, it would need water; then, water must be somewhere near. We should follow it to water, she mused. Wonder if furless ones are living here, too…but, the scanner didn’t detect any. Scouting might be less risky here. No giant Grimalks, either. Perhaps Shvaart was right.
Tepunia slapped her tail back and forth as she pondered her next move. “Lieutenant, as you know too well, we misunderstood those giant Grimalks. I agree with Ensign Prrrup; she thinks the furless ones you saw, not the giants, are the planet’s primaries; but we want to explore without meeting either of them. Perhaps if we follow that little living thing you call a kahk, it will lead us to friendlier territory, one suitable for a colony.”
“May I point out, Captain, a wild kahk will not behave as did our domesticated herd animals.”
“All to our good. It’s free to wander where it wishes. We’ll follow it to…who knows…water, food, and other resources?”
“And our visibility shields will hide us.”
“Correct. Now, let’s land the module, but nowhere near that kahk. We don’t want to frighten it.”
“If you permit me, Captain, by activating the energy field, I can mute the module’s sound and make it invisible.”
“Good thinking. Lieutenant, I’ll be sure to report a commendation when we…Oh, we won’t be going back home.” Tepunia’s tail drooped and she comforted herself with a vigorous shoulder lick. “Never mind,” she brightened. “We’ll set up a commendation post in the center of our new settlement, where every Grimalk will rub and leave scent to show solidarity. I don’t want them to forget how you saved me from tumbling away forever into the cosmos and, Catronia knows, I thank you for that.”
Shvaart rolled over on his back, curled up his front paws, and half-closed his eyes. He returned Tepunia’s praise with a reverent silent meow.
The module had landed in a broad, open space on the edge of the field. Slowed by padded scouting gear, Tepunia wished her legs would move down the module’s ramp with their customary grace, but she plodded on. The ground was firm as she made her way to the first row of stalks.
If Tepunia could believe her suit’s sensors, the atmosphere was nearly identical to ZooCatron’s and the temperature was ideal for Grimalks. How she wished she could remove the helmet, suck in the air, and feel the heat of the planet’s star between her ears, but the helmet helped hide them from the kahk and any other creature possibly out there.
The kahk had not budged. Tepunia imagined Shvaart fighting his urge to chase and eat it. Thinking his rear end must be wriggling, she switched on the communicator with a whisker twitch and said, “Steady, Lieutenant. We need this kahk. Stay with me. You can snack on your Treetz if you’re hungry. By the way, in all the excitement, I forgot to ask you if you sealed the module.”
“Yes, Captain. Sealed tight, hidden, and waiting for our return. I sent our coordinates to Ensign Prrrup. She also initiated the tracer and will know our whereabouts at all times. I’m glad our transmitter receivers are embedded under our chins. We’ll need them.”
Relieved that everything was in its place, Tepunia bobbed her nose in agreement and returned to study the kahk. Shielded from the star’s heat by a long, overhanging leaf, the little living thing was nosing the ground where its small supply of seeds had been. It washed its face with licked paws.
My, my, Tepunia thought, it cleans itself the way I do! But with both paws, and not behind its ears.
Suddenly, the creature jumped up and ran down the long lane between rows. If they didn’t hurry, they would lose sight of it. “Lieutenant, start up your mini-jets. We can’t let the creature get away.”
With a flick of a paw sensor, both Grimalks rose a tail’s length from the ground and pursued their target at top speed despite brittle stems and leaves snagging them as they raced by. In the lead, Tepunia veered as the creature dashed out of the field toward a structure in the distance.
“Lieutenant, can you hear me? I’ve turned right paw.”
“Yes, Captain. I hear you. Still behind you. I see your tag. Where did the kahk go?”
“Toward that structure in the distance. Where we’re going, too.”
“Captain, are you sure? I think I see—”
“Quiet, we can’t waste time talking. Follow me.”
The two Grimalks raced after their quarry, mindless of small, dark life forms moving around the wall of the structure ahead of them.