After leaving the tree and landing soundlessly on the ground, Tepunia and Shvaart froze, each holding a paw in the air. “Which way?” they said to each other. Their ears turning in every direction, they picked up the hoot-hoot they’d heard earlier.
“That sound will lead us to a safer place, Captain.”
“Never heard it around the barn, cats don’t make that sound, and what do we have to lose?”
“Our freedom and dignity, for example.”
Tepunia sat back and stared into the woods behind the line of trees they had crossed. What if they stumbled into another trap or met up with giant Grimalks or, or—she struggled to calm down. Easy now. Focus, she told herself. You are a planner, a good strategist.
She began to feel better, but other thoughts intruded. All these unexpected events befuddled her. They weren’t covered in the Manual. But the hoot-hoots were intriguing; she couldn’t help wondering what they were. She knew she’d have to go along with Shvaart’s instincts.
Tepunia crouched and sniffed the earth around her. With her ears pointed forward, she crept through dense woods. Shvaart prowled ahead, his belly low to the ground. Dried leaves, seed husks, and bits of clay and dirt snagged in their fur. Tepunia’s urge to groom was almost irresistible, but she kept on. Safety lay somewhere ahead. Their pace quickened as the hoot-hoots grew louder.
Shvaart broke into Tepunia’s thoughts: “Whatever it is, we’re closer to it.”
Pausing to nibble off pieces of moldy bark on her leg, Tepunia answered, “We can’t let it see or hear us. Together we are an easy target.” She pointed to a clump of trees. “The sounds are coming from something or someone over there. You go around to the left and I’ll take the right-paw side. Once you spot it, contact me. I’ll do the same.”
“And we’ll decide on the next step then?”
“Right. Good. Carry on.”
The planet’s star sat higher in the sky now. Its long beams brightened Tepunia’s path, and she felt conspicuous. She watched Shvaart disappear behind a thicket of shrubs; anxious flutterings quickened her breathing. He would be careful, she reassured herself. All his training would keep him safe. Strengthened by memories of her own self-defense drills, she dropped her tail, flattened her ears, and drew near the thicket.
As she circled around it, a piercing hoot-hoot made her ears stand up; the fierce caterwaul that followed brought her to a standstill, tail bushing out and back arching. Tepunia’s mind-speech called to Shvaart again and again but she heard nothing in return. Her nose picked up his paw scent, mixed with…mixed with—human! —oh, no, human scent. About to flee, she felt someone grab her by the neck and raise her off the ground.
The woods were atilt. She felt dizzy and sick to her stomach. When her vision cleared, she saw a new human in front of her, another woman type but smaller than the first, holding a box made of metal bars. It had a small open door. The hand gripping her thrust her inside the box, next to a shivering ball of black fur—Shvaart.
Her heart pounding, Tepunia opened her mouth and spoke to Shvaart directly. “Look at me, Lieutenant,” she meowed softly, but Shvaart’s eyes were closed. He was panting. “I said, look at me. What’s going on here?” Without getting any response from him, she huddled in a corner of the wire box and looked out at her captors.
The two women were talking, but Tepunia’s translator was failing. She understood only some of their words: “Get the truck…vet…put ‘em up for…Let’s go.”
With that, the farm woman picked up the cage, which swung back and forth as she strode out of the woods and across the field behind the barn. The smaller woman trailed her and called out, “Ma…stay home? I’m so…and have school…”
School? Was the smaller woman the other’s kitten? What was a vet? Tepunia’s highly-educated brain could not piece this new puzzle together. The box hurt: its bottom where she and Shvaart lay was also a grid of metal bars and her paws found no place to stand without pain.
The box swayed in the woman’s hand, and Tepunia worried about her queasiness. It could only mean she would vomit soon. Her drooling was out of control. She and Shvaart were trembling nonstop. With a violent shake, Tepunia coughed out a mass of old kibblings and a hairball that fell through the bars to the ground below. At least I don’t have to lie in my own vomit, she thought.
Shvaart tried to stand, then crouched and coughed up his own spew. “Captain, what’s happening to us? I feel so sick.”
“The farm women have caught us and put us in this box. Can you see where we are?”
Shvaart peered out with half-shut eyes. “Back to the barn. There’s Mrow. Maybe she can save us again?”
The gray cat was pacing around the barn yard. Her miauls brought all the kittens running to her side. They badgered her with questions Tepunia only half understood.
“Can you help us?” she cried, hoping the translator worked.
Their friend tried to tangle herself into the woman’s legs, but the Grimalks’ captor pushed Mrow away with a solid kick. The gray cat yowled and, followed by her kittens, ran into the barn. The woman crossed the yard and stopped next to a large machine resembling an ancient ZooCatron module. Was this the truck they mentioned? After opening a hatch at the truck’s rear, she slammed the box onto a metal floor, closed the hatch, and spoke to the Grimalks.
“I’ve had enough…you…vet…’dopted, maybe, or put to sleep…whichever comes first.” She turned around and went to the side of the truck, opened a door, and disappeared inside its cabin.
Shvaart was clawing the box’s metal bars. “Captain, we need help. Can you contact Prrrup? My communicator is malfunctioning.”
“I’ll try, but my translator’s also on the blink.” Tepunia tongued the device and sent her urgent message: Captured by Earth creatures. In danger. SOS -Save Our Skins.
They waited for Prrrup to answer. And waited. Meanwhile the truck came to life and began to roll forward, out of the yard and onto a path leading away from the farm.