“Where is the kahk? I was sure it was only two tail lengths ahead of us,” whispered Tepunia.
“I…to track it,” answered Shvaart, his voice muted by annoying static. He drifted to the ground and searched the dusty, gray dirt.
Tepunia’s feet stirred up a cloud of dust as she landed. She winced as Shvaart’s communicator suddenly blared: “Ah, I guessed the kahk was too light to leave a trail but look here—paw prints! Four toes on the front feet and five toes on the back ones.” His tab, the only visible part of Shvaart’s suit, dipped toward little marks leading to a perfectly round, wide hole in the ground.
“Are we sure our kahk left these marks?”
“The scent will tell us. I captured a whiff of it earlier.”
Excellent, we can depend on sniff verification, she thought. “Lieutenant, use your essence indicator.”
“Uh-oh. Mine isn’t working,” he said. “I’m punching its touchpad but getting no response.”
Tepunia pushed a rough pad near her own last toe, right forepaw. Nothing. She held it down again, this time pressing with all her force. No reaction. She wasn’t surprised. Technology held no guarantees. None of ZooCatron’s brilliant scientists had found a way to save their planet. Now were even their suits undependable? “Mine’s out, too. I don’t understand.”
Through a squall of static, Tepunia could hardly hear Shvaart’s answer. She hissed and her tail twitched. Their helmets’ communicators were failing, too. Should she take off her helmet? Should she risk exposure? The visibility shields would cut out, but what else could they do? Of course, without helmets they could use their chin implants. Sighing, she knew they had no choice.
Focusing on Shvaart’s tab, she bumped into him and was grateful he didn’t leap away or scratch her with his auto-claws. She grabbed his paw and ran it alongside her head. She hoped Shvaart would understand she was going to remove her helmet, and she wanted him to do the same. After releasing latch guards around her helmet’s collar, she lifted it away from her head and took a deep breath. The air was sour and sweet, smelling like a mixture of dried grasses and dung. Her head fur fluffed out a bit as the star’s heat warmed it. She looked around and saw only endless rows of dried stalks lined up to the horizon.
Holding his helmet, Shvaart sneezed several times, then nodded to his commanding officer. “The air is heavy with scents. I’ll sniff the paw prints now, Captain…if you wish, of course.”
“Yes, and hurry.”
After starting a few tail lengths from the hole, Shvaart sniffed in ever smaller circles until his nose hovered over the tiny tracks leading into the hole. “Yes, the same animal. What now?”
“We follow it.”
“Into the hole?”
“You have a better idea, maybe?” Tepunia snarled softly.
“No, Captain.” Shvaart rolled to his side. “After you…of course.”
Tepunia ordered Shvaart to leave his helmet next to hers under a pile of dried, brown stalks at the edge of the field, but their stiff padded suits slowed them down. They entered the hole, crouched on all four paws, and followed the kahk’s scent along a passage as dark as the cosmos’ outer regions. At least the creature’s sharp scent hasn’t faded, Tepunia thought. Whew! Our ZooCatron kahks never smelled this bad, like uniforms left unwashed for too long. She chirruped: “Shvaart, can you hear me? Press your chin implant.”
“I hear you. Does mine work, too?”
“Loud and clear, by Catronia’s grace, if only in my head. You’re sure the kahk won’t hear us?” Tepunia lowered herself to the ground and panted.
“That’s what we were told. The implants allow us to connect our thoughts.”
“Good and I’m thinking we need to rest a moment.”
“I knew that.”
The nerve, Tepunia thought and hoped some of her thinking processes would remain private. “Do you see a glimmer of light up ahead? We should find the kahk’s habitat at the end of this miserable tunnel.”
Shvaart did not answer. “Hello, Lieutenant, are you listening?”
“Yes, Captain, but I’ve adjusted the pad to low frequency. I missed some of your thoughts.”
“Why did you do that?”
“I studied the manual before we left. Two clicks lower the frequency and adjust for privacy.”
Relieved, Tepunia inhaled a deep drag of musty air and pointed to the light. “We ought to go on. The kahk must be far ahead of us by now.”
After a lengthy rear leg stretch, both Grimalks resumed their low crawl toward the other end of the tunnel. Tepunia tripped over what her sensors described as a plant root. She ‘heard’ Shvaart mutter Catronian expletives after he fell face down over the same hazard. Shouldn’t the device have muted Shvaart’s private thoughts? Or maybe they weren’t so private. She turned back to help, but Shvaart was up and brushing clods off the front of his suit. Reassured, Tepunia set off for the bright end of the tunnel but stopped short at the sight of shadowy figures silhouetted against the light. Frightened, she backed into Shvaart who was chattering in excitement. Tepunia’s heartbeat quickened and she was considering turning back, but Shvaart’s chirruping stirred her, and she hurried ahead.