[Seeking refuge from their dying planet, two tech-savvy extraterrestrial cats land on Earth where their troubles continue. See https://susanbassmarcus.net/2018/12/31/a-new-zoocatron/ for CHAPTER ONE]
They dashed from their hiding place behind the waste pile into the field behind the barn. The planet’s star was directly overhead, and its heat made Tepunia’s ears flick. Aiming her paw at a row of tall plants, she ordered Shvaart to crouch beside her. Tepunia leaned against a cluster of stalks and cringed when they rustled. She hoped the furless ones they called ‘humans’ would not hear the noise and find them there.
She peeked back at the barn and transmitted to Shvaart: “Hope those big cats don’t track us. They’re still sitting by the kahk, I mean mouse, hole.” She licked her lips. “Too bad I didn’t follow you inside the barn. At least you had some water and kibble.”
“Not really. Hardly had any time before that human reached for me.” Shvaart was settling into a little hollow in the gritty soil around two stalks. He kicked small clods of dirt and some pebbles to make himself more comfortable. “I’m just as thirsty as you are, Captain. Good idea to rest here for a while; but I would like to suggest—”
“Again? I don’t know if I want to risk another of your suggestions.”
“Please, Captain? We have to do something.” he blinked slowly.
Tepunia hunkered down next to him. “OK, what do you suggest?”
Shvaart sat up and stared at her with feline intensity, “We need water. These fields are as dry as ZooCatron; but I saw a huge tub filled with water in the barn. The water had to come from somewhere nearby.”
Shvaart raised his head and dropped his jaw a bit. After a few quick breaths he said, “I’m trying to catch the scent of water out here.”
“If I can pick up the scent, I suggest we track it. Just give me some time.”
“We haven’t much time. Everything meant to keep us alive was in our suits. Now look. There’s barely enough suit left to cover me and most of my devices are gone or broken.”
“Mine, too, but my natural sniffer won a few championships back home. It won’t take me long.”
Tepunia returned his long stare, then rested her chin on her paws. She knew Shvaart’s problem-solving talent made him a good lieutenant, but sometimes his solutions made the situation worse. She hoped this would not be one of those times. She resisted the urge to head-bump his flank and said, “Well, any results?”
“If you turn your head that way—right, toward the end of this row—you’ll catch a whiff of something damp, something that’s been wet. I can almost taste it. Worth tracking, don’t you think?”
Licking her paw was futile. She had hardly any saliva left to clean herself and her kidneys hurt. The thought of cool water—any water really—decided her. “Yes, and you take the lead this time.”
They crouched low and wove their way along the row. Splintery, broken stalks caught their fur and little puffs of dust coated their faces. How Tepunia ached to clean her ears and nose; but they had to find water first.
Near the end of the row, Shvaart froze. His tail pointed straight back and his ears flattened against his head. Tepunia’s heart quickened. “What’s wrong?” she transmitted.
“A naked cat over there. I think he’s Gurrhr, the one that bit me.” Cowering, he added, “And I think that barn human is with him.”
“Naked? Shows you: these cats are savages.”
Tepunia stretched her neck just beyond the plant row and saw the human she’d spied in the barn. Bending over Gurrhr, the creature was patting the cat’s head and scratching behind his ears. She heard the human whisper: Naughty Gurrhr. What’re you doing out here in the corn field? Well, don’t worry. I’ll find ‘em. Too many kittens around here anyway.
“The human called this place a corn field. What’s ‘corn?’”
Shvaart hung his head without answering. He furiously licked his shoulder and Tepunia could see he was upset.
Tepunia resumed her transmitting: “Lieutenant, how do we avoid them and get to the water? Return to the barn and hide there? That cat will find us if we stay here.”
“No, Captain. In the barn the water tub will trap us. The human will grab us there and we’ll be sunk, so to speak.”
“What does that mean, sunk?”
“Just an expression. Anyway, without our visibility shields, we can’t dodge Gurrhr, but we can create a distraction.” Shvaart gathered a pawful of pebbles and stuffed them into his mouth. Bending over and hacking, he threw up a hairball and spewed it along with the pebbles many tail lengths away. They crashed into a distant row of crumbling corn stalks.
While the human and Gurrhr hurried to check out the commotion, Tepunia and Shvaart scurried low to the ground along their row until they came to the end of the field. At their feet ran a wide ditch bordering the field. At the bottom of the ditch flowed a shallow, sluggish stream of water.
“At last, Shvaart! Drink up.” Tepunia slipped down the slick side of the ditch and began to lap up a steady vortex of water. She relaxed into a semi-crouch as cool mouthfuls softened her parched throat. Satisfied after a long drink, she turned to see how Shvaart was doing, but he was not at her side. Tepunia sensed a long shadow between her and the star’s warm light. Looking up, she saw the human standing behind her and holding her lieutenant by the scruff of his neck.