"Who is the nervous spirit of this world

that must go over and over

what it already knows,

what is it,

so hot and dry,

that's looking through us, by us, for its answer?"

-Jorie Graham

Three weeks earlier:

A stolen ship hurtled through the ruby colored darkness, stars and satellites fizzing past it.

"This isn't a black hole," Joh Collison said. "It's a portal."

"Or a trap," the girl said. Her voice was crisp and light, but she squeezed the grizzled hand of the old Phyrnosian trader. "Joh," she said--"look!" For the strange passage had opened up again and they no longer hurtled through space.

They were in orbit, circling three tiny planets.

One was dusky orange, with rings stacked around it. The second was purple and still. The last was a blue world, similar to ancient Earth, but smaller.

"Fancy an adventure?" the girl said. The old trader glanced through their supplies.

"I don't think we have a choice," Joh said. "There's nothing on board to eat."

"But plenty of Gemicene?"

"Plenty of Gemicene. Which is lucky in case we need to trade for food."

Although the blue planet looked the most hospitable, they decided to leave best for last and first visited the orange planet.

As they came closer, the girl was startled to see that it appeared to be covered with fur. As they came closer still, they saw the planet was covered with a rumbling carpet of cats. All colors, all sizes. Lions, jaguars and house cats strolled amiably up to the ship as it came in for their landing. Joh and Starless opened their doors gingerly, still wearing life-support suits.

A lion cub cocked his ears and slunk up the boards, making a low noise.

"Might he be edible, Starless?" Joh said, in a low voice.

"Shh, Joh, he'll hear you. Look at this, isn't it strange? They should be devouring one another. But they're acting like house-cats," she said. The lion bumped its head against her shin. It rumbled again.

"It's purring," she said.

"Purring?"

"He's happy, Joh." An ocelot lilted up behind the lion cub, twining between Joh's legs. "What do I do?"

"Pet him! Like this!"

"Yech," he said. "All this fur. It's unhygienic."

"This planet belongs to someone," she said, picking up the cub. "They're someone's pets."

"I do not understand." He looked around; more animals were striding up, already purring in anticipation. The sound gathered into a bone-rattling hum.

"Please, girl. Let us leave. We can come back another time. These creatures make me nervous."

They flew to the second planet, which was a dark and humid green, mottled with runny black places and coated in fog. As they broke through its atmosphere, they floated low over the foliage, looking for a place to land.

"I can't see through the leaves," she said. But now and again the big plants would rustle, as if shaken at their base. "I don't trust this one, Joh," she said.

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