The human’s smelly, noisy car was awful. Tepunia’s hackles rose and she was desperate to escape. Their box door would not open, no matter how many times she scratched it. She sniffed the floor but found no openings. How could Shvaart lie there, curled in the corner with his head upside-down? Didn’t he realize how serious this was?
In some ways, however, the car recalled a hover-ship she’d loved riding between her den and work. All she had to do was call it, snuggle into its cozy corner, and soon it would bring her rested and relaxed to work where she researched durable kibblings for extended cosmic exploration.
Then came the catastrophe: ZooCatron’s star had shifted sooner than expected and glaciers were sucking up the planet’s water. Once the lush landscape of ZooCatron became an icy desert, Tepunia had to spend all her time preparing for mass evacuations and she stopped commuting.
Here, Earth’s starlight poured through the car’s windows and its warmth stirred comforting memories of home, her family clowder, and kitten-hood joy-jumps in the woods. Another jolt as the car wheels hit a hole brought her back to reality. Worried about the car’s poisonous-smelling fumes, she needed to pace but the box was too small. One more jounce made her land with a thump against Shvaart and the box’s side. She licked her painful shoulder and hunkered into the soft pad lining the box floor.
The stranger who had coaxed them into that box was sitting in the front seat. Her hands were on a wheel she turned whenever the car changed direction. Not quite as noisy as the farm woman’s truck, the car droned and buzzed, hurting Tepunia’s ears.
“Where do you suppose we’re going now?” Shvaart mewed. Tepunia had little patience for his fears; she had to find a way out. Shvaart whined again: one paw covered his eyes and his tail switched back and forth. “I need to find a waste pile; but any litter will do.”
Outside the car, the sound of shouts and screams, scraping and banging, and engines roaring startled both cats. Through the box’s openings Tepunia saw they were moving along a road lined with gigantic, tall structures. Humans crowded the walkways and canines, like the dogs in their ancient ZooCatron tales, accompanied many of the humans. Most canines were naked, although a few—probably high-ranking—wore little coats. All the canines led their companions by a long cord.
“This world grows odder every moment we’re here, Lieutenant. We must somehow coordinate with Prrrup.” Tepunia crouched, wondering how long they would be living like this. She, too, needed to find litter.
Their box bounced again as the car stopped against a walkway near a small structure fronted by wide glass windows. Something sparkled inside the windows. Tepunia adjusted her eyes. She saw two boxes like theirs up against the window; each held a cat.
The stranger pulled the Grimalks’ box from the car and carried it into the structure. Two humans waiting for them inside made cooing sounds when the stranger held up the box. One of them stuck his finger between an opening and wiggled it at Tepunia. He made soft, sucking sounds. Tepunia’s whiskers, down to her toes, were tingling. She wanted to nip his finger—just a little—to let him know how stressed she was, but she thought, they might hurt us; I’d better not bite.
“They called the car-stranger Brianna,” Shvaart signaled. “These humans are—”
Before Shvaart could finish his transmission, the humans plucked him and Tepunia from their box and set them inside a huge tub full of litter. Tepunia hopped out of the tub, but Shvaart wasted no time. While she paced and explored the area, he finished then buried his waste. One of the humans, a tall female with long, pale hair picked her up and stroked her head and neck. Tepunia struggled at first, then felt her muscles ease a bit.
They were carrying Shvaart back to the box. Tepunia hoped no one would watch as she squatted over the litter. Relieved her belly no longer ached, she planned to leap over the tub’s side and, with a warning to Shvaart, make her escape; but Brianna scooped her up and returned her to the box and to Shvaart.
“Lieutenant, get your nose out of that kibble.”
“But, Captain, I was hungry.”
“You’re always hungry. You live to eat.”
“That’s not fair.” Shvaart turned away from her. “We all eat to—hey, they’re putting us in the window.”
Brianna was setting the box close to the door. The cats near them mewed a soft greeting then curled up in their boxes and said no more. Several humans stopped to look at Shvaart and Tepunia through the window. They tapped the pane and twisted their features into unreadable expressions.
Time passed. When Shvaart and Tepunia woke up from a nap, they saw a female and male pair with graying hair looking at them through the window. The female tugged on the male’s sleeve. He nodded, and they entered the structure.
“They say this is a shop, whatever that is,” said Shvaart. “I didn’t hear it all, but Brianna’s hoping someone will take us home to be…I think they said pets. What’s a pet? Those gray-haired humans asked to hold us. Brianna said that one’s called a mister.”
“Hold us? Why? It can’t be good.”
Brianna opened the box. Tepunia’s claws dug into the pad, but Brianna unhooked her and placed her on the mister’s chest. He held her hind end in one soft hand and stroked her neck with the other. Something about his voice and smell calmed her. He was warm and the cloth covering him was squishy, but smooth. She let her claws cling to him.
The mister tickled her chin and scratched that special place between her ears… and her translator switched on. Why now, she wondered. After a few moments of static, she heard: “There, there, little girl, no one’s going to hurt you.” She looked into the mister’s eyes. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Steve.” Her claws hung on.