Loud chattering erupted when Tepunia and Shvaart landed on the limb of a tree far from their starting point. On a branch overhead sat a plump, furry creature with a bushy tail as long as its body. It raced back and forth on the branch while screaming screechety-cheek-cheek-cheek in a long rant.
The Grimalks tongued their translators, which adjusted to the new speech with a few vibrating whirs. The device clicked and they could understood their challenger’s gibberish: “What do you think you are doing up here? Cats aren’t allowed. We hate cats, Cats eat squirrels. Go away. Go away. Go away right now.”
Tepunia stared hard at the squirrel and in her softest voice, she said, “Squirrel, we are not Earth cats. We are trying to hide from the farm cats you fear. Please be quiet or they will come here.”
The squirrel curled its tail over its back, clutched its front paws together, and stared back. “I have never, ever, ever understood cat talk until tonight,” it whispered. “You say you are not one of the farm cats?”
“Absolutely not. We’re from far away and we never, ever, ever eat squirrels.”
“Why are you up here in my tree?”
Shvaart circled around Tepunia on the big limb and sat directly under the squirrel. “We plan to trick Gurrhr. You know Gurrhr?”
“Do I ever, ever, ever know Gurrhr! Let me help you trick him.”
Tepunia exchanged glances with Shvaart. “Can we trust this one?”
“Common enemies. I think we can.” Shvaart spoke in a whisper, “Squirrel, we are going to run to the base of that far tree where we will leave our body wastes. I will climb the tree and leave more liquid waste on its stem—”
“Thank you. On its trunk. We then will return to this tree but leave it for one much further away where we were first hiding. After we start back, will you distract Gurrhr and lead him to that tree where we left our wastes?”
Laughing in a stream of soft chatter, the squirrel rolled over and under its branch. “With pleasure! I will do all that you ask. Just promise you will never, ever, ever eat me.”
Tepunia tried to hide her teeth as she said, “We promise to never, ever, ever eat you.”
“Then go ahead. I’ll watch out for you. If I see Gurrhr nearing us, I will screech loudly.”
Thanking the squirrel many times over, the two Grimalks scrambled down the tree trunk and ran a hundred tail lengths to a lone, cone-shaped tree. Squatting with relief, they left their solid wastes in two piles at the base of the tree and covered some of the mess with pebbles and loose soil. Tepunia ran back to the squirrel’s tree while Shvaart left his liquid waste on the trunk. After reuniting, Tepunia and Shvaart nodded to the squirrel, then began their arduous return trip.
Pausing on sturdy tree limbs between leaps, the Grimalks lay low, rested, and listened for the squirrel’s screech. They startled as a “hoot-hoot” broke the night’s silence. “Hoot-hoot, hoot-hoot.”
“What was that strange sound?” Tepunia asked. Shvaart sniffed and stared into the dark.
“Can’t say. It’s not like any sound I know. Not the squirrel, though.”
Tepunia stood and stretched her back legs. In that moment, she felt a creeping chill wrap around her body and realized the remains of her suit were gone. A wave of embarrassment weakened her legs and she shrank back to the limb. “Lieutenant, I need to slow down a bit. Why don’t you go on ahead of me?”
“But, Captain, you are my superior.”
“No, this is your mission and I commend you for your creativity. Carry on.” She would follow Shvaart but at a slight distance until she could overcome her shame. But why not forget her shame? All of the barn cats were happy without uniforms or suits to show their rank and work status. They all seemed to know Mrow, wearing only her soft gray stripes, was their leader. Tepunia shook her head, licked her shoulder, and head-butted her lieutenant. “I said, carry on.”
“Yes, Captain.” Shvaart stretched and was about to set off when a piercing shriek cut across the woods. “I think Squirrel has espied Gurrhr. If you please, follow me.” He leaped onto a higher limb and Tepunia followed. The first branch was less sturdy and her claws dug into the soft wood. She hated admitting her fear, but Shvaart could sense her discomfort and said, “Captain, we’ll climb a bit more up the trunk over to that branch and from there we should have a good view.”
Without a word, Tepunia followed Shvaart until they were perched on a long, shaky branch. The planet was turning once more toward its star and in the dim but growing light they could see a cat creeping below through the trees. Every so often, Squirrel chattered and the cat—Gurrhr—chased after it with feline stealth. He nosed the ground as he circled each tree in the row and stopped below the Grimalks’ tree. He looked up, and Squirrel shrieked again.
Distracted, Gurrhr resumed his chase and followed Squirrel’s calls until he arrived at the base of the tall, cone-shaped tree. Half-buried wastes and Shvaart’s marking on the trunk convinced him the Grimalks were hiding up above somewhere. In haste but without a sound, he climbed the trunk. Tepunia watched him search the branches. Shvaart’s plan was working so far, but how would it end. Where would they go once Gurrhr was caught up there?
“Look, Captain. Gurrhr reached the tree top. It’s swaying back and forth under his weight. He’s so scared, you can hear his yowls for thousands of tail lengths.”
“I hear him…and so will the woman. Lieutenant, we’d better get out of here.”