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A Beautiful Friendship

David Weber



Climbs Quickly scurried up the nearest trunk, then paused at the first cross-branch to clean his sticky true-hands and hand-feet with fastidious care. He hated crossing between trees now that the cold days were passing into those of mud. Not that he was particularly fond of snow, either, he admitted with a bleek of laughter, but at least it melted out of his fur—eventually—instead of forming gluey clots that dried hard as rock. Still, there were compensations to warming weather, and he sniffed appreciatively at the breeze that rustled the furled buds just beginning to fringe the all-but-bare branches. Under most circumstances, he would have climbed all the way to the top to luxuriate in the wind fingers ruffling his coat, but he had other things on his mind today.

He finished grooming himself, then rose on his rear legs in the angle of the cross-branch and trunk to scan his surroundings with grass-green eyes. None of the two-legs were in sight, but that meant little; two-legs were full of surprises. Climbs Quickly's own Bright Water Clan had seen little of them until lately, but other clans had observed them for twelve full turnings of the seasons, and it was obvious they had tricks the People had never mastered. Among those was some way to keep watch from far away—so far, indeed, that the People could neither hear nor taste them, much less see them. Yet Climbs Quickly detected no sign that he was being watched, and he flowed smoothly to the adjacent trunk, following the line of cross-branches deeper into the clearing.

His clan had not been too apprehensive when the first flying thing arrived and the two-legs emerged to create the clearing, for the clans whose territory had already been invaded had warned them of what to expect. The two-legs could be dangerous, and they kept changing things, but they weren't like death fangs or snow hunters, who all too often killed randomly or for pleasure, and scouts and hunters like Climbs Quickly had watched that first handful of two-legs from the cover of the frost-bright leaves, perched high in the trees. The newcomers had spread out carrying strange things—some that glittered or blinked flashing lights and others that stood on tall, skinny legs—which they moved from place to place and peered through, and then they'd driven stakes of some equally strange not-wood into the ground at intervals. The Bright Water memory singers had sung back through the songs from other clans and decided that the things they peered through were tools of some sort. Climbs Quickly couldn't argue their conclusion, yet the two-leg tools were as different from the hand axes and knives the People made as the substance from which they were made was unlike the flint, wood, and bone the People used.

All of which explained why the two-legs must be watched most carefully . . . and secretly. Small as the People were, they were quick and clever, and their axes and knives and use of fire let them accomplish things larger but less clever creatures could not. Yet the shortest two-leg stood more than two People-lengths in height. Even if their tools had been no better than the People's (and Climbs Quickly knew they were much, much better) their greater size would have made them far more effective. And if there was no sign that the two-legs intended to threaten the People, there was also no sign they did not, so no doubt it was fortunate they were so easy to spy upon.

Climbs Quickly slowed as he reached the final cross-branch. He sat for long, still moments, cream and gray coat blending into invisibility against trunks and branches veiled in a fine spray of tight green buds, motionless but for a single true-hand which groomed his whiskers reflexively. He listened carefully, with ears and thoughts alike, and those ears pricked as he tasted the faint mind glow that indicated the presence of two-legs. It wasn't the clear, bright communication it would have been from one of the People, for the two-legs appeared to be mind-blind, yet there was something . . . nice about it. Which was odd, for whatever else they were, the two-legs were very unlike the People. The memory singers of every clan had sent their songs sweeping far and wide when the two-legs first appeared twelve season-turnings back. They'd sought any song of any other clan which might tell them something—anything—about these strange creatures and whence they had come . . . or at least why.

No one had been able to answer those questions, yet the memory singers of the Blue Mountain Dancing Clan and the Fire Runs Fast Clan had remembered a very old song—one which went back almost two hundred turnings. The song offered no clue to the two-legs' origins or purpose, but it did tell of the very first time the People had ever seen two-legs and how the long ago scout who'd brought it back to his singers had seen their egg-shaped silver thing come down out of the very sky in light and fire and a sound more terrible than any thunder.

That had been enough to send the People of that time scurrying into hiding, and they'd watched from the shadows and leaves—much as Climbs Quickly did now. The first scout to see the masters of that silver egg emerge from it had been joined by others, set to watch the fascinating creatures from a safe distance, but no one had approached the intruders. Perhaps they might have, had not a death fang attempted to eat one of the two-legs.

People didn't like death fangs. The huge creatures looked much like outsized People, but unlike People, they were far from clever. Not that something their size really needed to be clever. Death fangs were the biggest, strongest, most deadly hunters in all the world. Unlike People, they often killed for the sheer pleasure of it, and they feared nothing that lived . . . except the People. They never passed up the opportunity to eat a single scout or hunter if they happened across one stupid enough to be caught on the ground, but even death fangs avoided the heart of any clan's range. Individual size meant little when an entire clan swarmed down from the trees to attack.

Yet the death fang who attacked one of the two-legs had discovered something new to fear. None of the watching People had ever heard anything like the ear shattering "Craaack!" from the tubular thing the two-leg carried, but the charging death fang had suddenly somersaulted end-for-end, crashed to the ground, and lain still, with a bloody hole blown clear through it.

Once they got over their immediate shock, the watching scouts had taken a fierce delight in the death fang's fate, but anything that could kill a death fang with a single bark could certainly do the same to one of the People, and so the decision had been made to avoid the two-legs until the watchers learned more about them. Unfortunately, the scouts were still watching from hiding when, after perhaps a quarter turning, they dismantled the strange, square living places in which they had dwelt, went back into their egg, and disappeared once more into the sky.

All of that had been long, long ago, and Climbs Quickly regretted that no more had been learned of them before they left. He understood the need for caution, yet he wished the Blue Mountain Dancing scouts had been just a little less careful. Perhaps then the People might have been able to decide what the two-legs wanted—or what the People should do about them—between their first arrival and their reappearance.

Personally, Climbs Quickly thought those first two-legs had been scouts, as he himself was. Certainly it would have made sense for the two-legs to send scouts ahead; any clan did the same when expanding or changing its range. Yet if that was the case, why had the rest of their clan delayed so long before following them? And why did the two-legs spread themselves so thinly? The living place in the clearing he'd come to watch had required great labor by over a dozen two-legs to create, even with their clever tools, and it was large enough for a full clan. Yet its builders had simply gone away when they finished. It had stood completely empty for over ten days, and even now it housed only three of the two-legs, one of them—unless Climbs Quickly was mistaken—but a youngling. He sometimes wondered what had happened to the youngling's litter mates, but the important point was that the way in which the two-legs dispersed their living places must surely deprive them of any communication with their fellows.

That was one reason many of the watchers believed two-legs were unlike People in all ways, not just their size and shape and tools. It was the ability to communicate with their fellows which made People people, after all. Only unthinking creatures—like the death fangs, or the snow hunters, or those upon whom the People themselves preyed—lived sealed within themselves, so if the two-legs were not only mind-blind but chose to avoid even their own kind, they could not be people. But Climbs Quickly disagreed. He couldn't fully explain why, even to himself, yet he was convinced the two-legs were, in fact, people—of a sort, at least. They fascinated him, and he'd listened again and again to the song of the first two-legs and their egg, both in an effort to understand what it was they'd wanted and because even now that song carried overtones of something he thought he had tasted from the two-legs he spied upon.

Unfortunately, the song had been worn smooth by too many singers before Sings Truly first sang it for Bright Water Clan. That often happened to older songs or those which had been relayed for great distances, and this song was both ancient and from far away. Though its images remained clear and sharp, they had been subtly shaped and shadowed by all the singers who had come before Sings Truly. Climbs Quickly knew what the two-legs of the song had done, but he knew nothing about why they'd done it, and the interplay of so many singers' minds had blurred any mind glow the long ago watchers might have tasted.

Climbs Quickly had shared what he thought he'd picked up from "his" two-legs only with Sings Truly. It was his duty to report to the memory singers, of course, and so he had. But he'd implored Sings Truly to keep his suspicions only in her own song for now, for some of the other scouts would have laughed uproariously at them. Sings Truly hadn't laughed, but neither had she rushed to agree with him, and he knew she longed to travel in person to the Blue Mountain Dancing or Fire Runs Fast Clan's range to receive the original song from their senior singers. But that was out of the question. Singers were the core of any clan, the storehouse of memory and dispensers of wisdom. They were always female, and their loss could not be risked, whatever Sings Truly might want. Unless a clan was fortunate enough to have a surplus of singers, it must protect its potential supply of replacements by denying them more dangerous tasks. Climbs Quickly understood that, but he found its implications a bit harder to live with than the clan's other scouts and hunters did. There could be disadvantages to being a memory singer's brother when she chose to sulk over the freedoms her role denied her . . . and allowed him.

Climbs Quickly gave another soft chitter of laughter (it was safe enough; Sings Truly was too far away to taste his thoughts), then crept stealthily out to the last trunk. He climbed easily to its highest fork and settled down on the comfortable pad of leaves and branches. The cold days' ravages required a few repairs, but there was no hurry. It remained serviceable, and it would be many days yet before the slowly budding leaves could provide the needed materials, anyway.

In a way, he would be unhappy when the leaves did open. In their absence, bright sunlight spilled through the thin upper branches, pouring down with gentle warmth, and he stretched out on his belly with a sigh of pleasure. He folded his true-hands under his chin and settled himself for a long wait. Scouts learned early to be patient. If they needed help with that lesson, there were teachers enough—from falls to hungry death fangs—to drive it home. Climbs Quickly had never needed such instruction, which, even more than his relationship to Sings Truly, was why he was second only to Short Tail, Bright Water Clan's chief scout . . . and why he'd been chosen to keep watch on these two-legs since their arrival.

So now he waited, motionless in the warm sunlight, and watched the sharp-topped stone living place the two-legs had built in the center of the clearing.



"I mean it, Stephanie!" Richard Harrington said. "I don't want you wandering off into those woods again without me or your mom along. Is that clear?"

"Oh, Daaaddy—" Stephanie began, only to close her mouth sharply when her father folded his arms. Then the toe of his right foot started tapping the carpet lightly, and her heart sank. This wasn't going well at all, and she resented that reflection on her . . . negotiating skill almost as much as she resented the restriction she was trying to avoid. She was eleven T-years old, smart, an only child, a daughter, and cute as a button. That gave her certain advantages, and she'd become an expert at wrapping her father around her finger almost as soon as she could talk. She rather suspected that much of her success came from the fact that he was perfectly willing to be so wrapped, but that was all right as long as it worked. Unfortunately, her mother had always been a tougher customer . . . and even her father was unscrupulously willing to abandon his proper pliancy when he decided the situation justified it.

Like now.

"We're not going to discuss this further," he said with ominous calm. "Just because you haven't seen any hexapumas or peak bears doesn't mean they aren't out there."

"But I've been stuck inside with nothing to do all winter," she said as reasonably as she could, easily suppressing a twinge of conscience as she neglected to mention snowball fights, cross-country skiing, sleds, and certain other diversions. "I want to go outside and see things!"

"I know you do, honey," her father said more gently, reaching out to tousle her curly brown hair. "But it's dangerous out there. This isn't Meyerdahl, you know." Stephanie rolled her eyes and looked martyred, and his expression showed a flash of regret at having let the last sentence slip out. "If you really want something to do, why don't you run into Twin Forks with Mom this afternoon?"

"Because Twin Forks is a complete null, Daddy." Exasperation colored Stephanie's reply, even though she knew it was a tactical error. Even above average parents like hers got stubborn if you disagreed with them too emphatically, but honestly! Twin Forks might be the closest "town" to the Harrington homestead, but it boasted a total of maybe fifty families most of whose handful of kids were zork brains. None of them were interested in xeno-botany or biosystem hierarchies. In fact, they were such nulls they spent most of their free time trying to catch anything small enough to keep as a pet, however much damage they might do to their intended "pets" in the process, and Stephanie was pretty sure any effort to enlist those zorks in her explorations would have led to words—or a fist or two in the eye—in fairly short order. Not, she thought darkly, that she was to blame for the situation. If Dad and Mom hadn't insisted on dragging her away from Meyerdahl just when she'd been accepted for the junior forestry program, she'd have been on her first internship field trip by now. It wasn't her fault she wasn't, and the least they could do to make up for it was let her explore their own property!

"Twin Forks is not a 'complete null,' " her father said firmly.

"Oh yes it is," she replied with a curled lip, and Richard Harrington drew a deep breath.

He made himself step back mentally, reaching for patience, that most vital of parental qualities. The edge of guilt he felt at Stephanie's expression made it a little easier. She hadn't wanted to leave everyone she'd ever known behind on Meyerdahl, and he knew how much she'd looked forward to becoming a forestry intern, but Meyerdahl had been settled for over a thousand years . . . and Sphinx hadn't. Not only had Meyerdahl's most dangerous predators been banished to the tracts of virgin wilderness reserved for them, but its Forestry Service rangers nursemaided their interns with care, and the nature parks where they ran their junior studies programs were thoroughly "wired" with satellite com interfaces, surveillance, and immediately available emergency services. Sphinx's endless forests were not only not wired or watched over, but home to predators like the fearsome, five-meter-long hexapuma (and scarcely less dangerous peak bear) and totally unexplored. Over two-thirds of their flora was evergreen, as well, even here in what passed for the semi-tropical zone, and the best aerial mapping could see very little through that dense green canopy. It would be generations before humanity even began to get a complete picture of the millions of other species which undoubtedly lived in the shade of those trees.

All of which put any repetition of yesterday's solo exploration trip completely out of the question. Stephanie swore she hadn't gone far, and he believed her. Headstrong and occasionally devious she might be, but she was an honest child. And she'd taken her wrist com, so she hadn't really been out of communication and they would have been able to home in on her beacon if she'd gotten into trouble. But that was beside the point. She was his daughter, and he loved her, and all the wrist coms in the world wouldn't get an air car there fast enough if she came face to face with a hexapuma.

"Look, Steph," he said finally, "I know Twin Forks isn't much compared to Hollister, but it's the best I can offer. And you know it's going to grow. They're even talking about putting in their own shuttle pad by next spring!"

Stephanie managed—somehow—not to roll her eyes again. Calling Twin Forks "not much" compared to the city of Hollister was like saying it snowed "a little" on Sphinx. And given the long, dragging, endless year of this stupid planet, she'd almost be seventeen T-years old by the time "next spring" got here! She hadn't quite been ten when they arrived . . . just in time for it to start snowing. And it hadn't stopped snowing for the next fifteen T-months!

"I'm sorry," her father said quietly, reading her thoughts. "I'm sorry Twin Forks isn't exciting, and I'm sorry you didn't want to leave Meyerdahl, and I'm sorry I can't let you wander around on your own. But that's the way it is, honey. And—" he gazed sternly into her brown eyes, trying not to see the tears which suddenly filled them "—I want your word that you'll do what your Mom and I tell you on this one."


Stephanie squelched glumly across the mud to the steep-roofed gazebo. Everything on Sphinx had a steep roof, and she allowed herself a deep, heartfelt groan as she plunked herself down on the gazebo steps and contemplated the reason that was true.

It was the snow, of course. Even here, close to Sphinx's equator, annual snowfall was measured in meters—lots of meters, she thought moodily—and houses needed steep roofs to shed all that frozen water, especially on a planet whose gravity was over a third higher than Old Earth's. Not that Stephanie had ever seen Old Earth . . . or any world which wasn't classified as "heavy grav" by the rest of humanity.

She sighed again, with an edge of wistful misery, and wished her great-great-great-great-whatever grandparents hadn't volunteered for the Meyerdahl First Wave. Her parents had sat her down to explain what that meant shortly after her eighth birthday. She'd already heard the word "genie," though she hadn't realized that, technically at least, it applied to her, but she'd only started her classroom studies four T-years before. Her history courses hadn't gotten to Old Earth's Final War yet, so she'd had no way to know why some people still reacted so violently to any notion of modifications to the human genotype . . . and why they considered "genie" the dirtiest word in Standard English.

Now she knew, though she still thought anyone who felt that way was silly. Of course the bioweapons and "super soldiers" whipped up for the Final War had been bad ideas, and the damage they'd done to Old Earth had been horrible. But that had all happened five hundred T-years ago, and it hadn't had a thing to do with people like the Meyerdahl or Quelhollow first waves. She supposed it was a good thing the original Manticoran settlers had left Sol before the Final War. Their old-fashioned cryo ships had taken over six T-centuries to make the trip, which meant they'd missed the entire thing . . . and the prejudices that went with it.

Not that there was anything much to draw anyone's attention to the changes the geneticists had whipped up for Meyerdahl's colonists. Mass for mass, Stephanie's muscle tissue was about twenty-five percent more efficient than that of "pure strain" humans, and her metabolism ran about twenty percent faster to fuel those muscles. There were a few minor changes to her respiratory and circulatory systems and some skeletal reinforcement, as well, and the modifications had been designed to be dominant, so that all her descendants would have them. But her kind of genie was perfectly interfertile with pure-strainers, and as far as she could see all the changes put together were no big deal. They just meant that because she and her parents needed less muscle mass for a given strength, they were ideally suited to colonize high gravity planets without turning all stumpy and bulgy-muscled. Still, once she'd gotten around to studying the Final War and some of the anti-genie movements, she'd decided Daddy and Mom might have had a point in warning her not to go around telling strangers about it. Aside from that, she seldom thought about it one way or the other . . . except to reflect somewhat bitterly that if they hadn't been genies, the heavy gravities of the Manticore Binary System's habitable planets might have kept her parents from deciding they simply had to drag her off to the boonies like this.

She chewed her lower lip and leaned back, letting her eyes roam over the isolated clearing in which she'd been marooned by their decision. The tall, green roof of the main house was a cheerful splash of color against the still-bare picket wood and crown oaks which surrounded it, but she wasn't in the mood to be cheerful, and it took very little effort to decide green was a stupid color for a roof. Something dark and drab—brown, maybe, or maybe even black—would have suited her much better. And while she was on the subject of inappropriate building materials, why couldn't they have used something more colorful than natural gray stone? She knew it had been the cheapest way to do it, but getting enough insulating capacity to face a Sphinx winter out of natural rock required walls over a meter thick. It was like living in a dungeon, she thought . . . then paused to savor the simile. It fitted her present mood perfectly, and she stored it away for future use.

She considered it a moment longer, then shook herself and gazed at the trees beyond the house and its attached greenhouses with a yearning that was almost a physical pain. Some kids knew they wanted to be spacers or scientists by the time they could pronounce the words, but Stephanie didn't want stars. She wanted . . . green. She wanted to go places no one had ever been yet—not through hyper-space, but on a warm, living, breathing planet. She wanted waterfalls and mountains, trees and animals who'd never heard of zoos. And she wanted to be the first to see them, to study them, understand them, protect them. . . .

Maybe it was because of her parents, she mused, forgetting to resent her father's restrictions for the moment. Richard Harrington held degrees in both Terran and xeno-veterinary medicine. They made him far more valuable to a frontier world like Sphinx than he'd ever been back home, but he'd occasionally been called upon by Meyerdahl's Forestry Service. That had brought Stephanie into far closer contact with her birth world's animal kingdom than most people her age ever had the chance to come, and her mother's background as a plant geneticist—another of those specialties new worlds found so necessary—had helped her appreciate the beautiful intricacies of Meyerdahl's flora, as well.

Only then they'd brought her way out here and dumped her on Sphinx.

Stephanie grimaced in fresh disgust. Part of her had deeply resented the thought of leaving Meyerdahl, but another part had been delighted. However much she might long for a Forestry Service career, the thought of starships and interstellar voyages had been exciting. And so had the thought of immigrating on a sort of rescue mission to help save a colony which had been almost wiped out by plague. (Although, she admitted, that part would have been much less exciting if the doctors hadn't found a cure for the plague in question.) Best of all, her parents' specialities meant the Star Kingdom had agreed to pay the cost of their transportation, which, coupled with their savings, had let them buy a huge piece of land all their own. The Harrington homestead was a rough rectangle thrown across the steep slopes of the Copperwall Mountains to overlook the Tannerman Ocean, and it measured twenty kilometers on a side. Not the twenty meters of their lot's frontage in Hollister, but twenty kilometers, which made it as big as the entire city had been back home! And it backed up against an area already designated as a major nature preserve, as well.

But there were a few things Stephanie hadn't considered in her delight. Like the fact that their homestead was almost a thousand kilometers from anything that could reasonably be called a city. Much as she loved wilderness, she wasn't used to being that far from civilization, and the distances between settlements meant her father had to spend an awful lot of time in the air just getting from patient to patient. At least the planetary datanet let her keep up with her schooling and enjoy some simple pleasures—in fact, she was first in her class (again), despite the move, and she stood sixteenth in the current planetary chess competition, as well—and she enjoyed her trips to town (when she wasn't using Twin Forks' dinkiness in negotiations with her parents). But none of the few kids her age in Twin Forks were in the accelerated curriculum, which meant they weren't in any of her classes, and the settlement was totally lacking in all the amenities of a city of almost half a million people.

Yet Stephanie could have lived with that if it hadn't been for two other things: snow, and hexapumas.

She dug a booted toe into the squishy mud beyond the gazebo's bottom step and scowled. Daddy had warned her they'd be arriving just before winter, and she'd thought she knew what that meant. But "winter" had an entirely different meaning on Sphinx. Snow had been an exciting rarity on warm, mild Meyerdahl, but a Sphinxian winter lasted almost sixteen T-months. That was over a tenth of her entire life, and she'd become well and truly sick of snow. Daddy could say whatever he liked about how other seasons would be just as long. Stephanie believed him. She even understood, intellectually, that she had the better part of four full T-years before the snow returned. But she hadn't experienced it yet, and all she had right now was mud. Lots and lots and lots of mud, and the bare beginning of buds on the deciduous trees, and boredom.

And, she reminded herself with a scowl, she also had the promise not to do anything about that boredom which Daddy had extracted from her. She supposed she should be glad he and Mom worried about her, but it was so . . . so underhanded of him to make her promise. It was like making Stephanie her own jailer, and he knew it!

She sighed again, rose, shoved her fists into her jacket pockets, and headed for her mother's office. She doubted she could get Mom to help her change Daddy's mind about grounding her, but she could try. And at least she might get a little understanding out of her.


Dr. Marjorie Harrington stood by the window and smiled sympathetically as she watched Stephanie trudge toward the house. Dr. Harrington knew where her daughter was headed . . . and what she meant to do when she got there. In a general way, she disapproved of Stephanie's attempts to enlist one parent against the other when edicts were laid down, but she understood her daughter too well to resent it in this case. And one thing about Stephanie: however much she might resent a restriction or maneuver to get it lifted, she always honored it once she'd given her word to do so.

Dr. Harrington turned from the window and headed back to her desk terminal. Her services had become much sought after in the seventeen T-months she and Richard had been on Sphinx, but unlike Richard, she seldom had to go to her clients. On the rare occasions when she required physical specimens rather than simple electronic data, they could be delivered to her small but efficient lab and supporting greenhouses here on the homestead as easily as to any other location, and she loved the sense of freedom that gave her. In addition, all three habitable planets of the Manticore Binary System had remarkably human-compatible biosystems. So far, she hadn't hit any problems she couldn't find answers for fairly quickly—aside from the disappearing celery mystery, which was hardly in her area of specialization anyway—and she had a sense of helping to build something new and special here which she hadn't had on long-settled Meyerdahl. She loved that, but for now she put her terminal on hold and leaned back in her chair while she considered the rapidly looming interview with Stephanie.

There were times when she thought it might have been nice to have a child who wasn't quite so gifted. Stephanie knew she was much further along in school than other children her age, just as she knew her IQ was considerably higher than most. What she did not know—and what Marjorie and Richard had no intention of telling her just yet—was that her scores placed her squarely in the top tenth of a percent of the human race. Even today, tests became increasingly unreliable as one reached the stratosphere of intelligence, which made it impossible to rank her any more positively, but Marjorie had firsthand experience of just how difficult it could be to win an argument with her. In fact, her parents, faced with an endless and inventive series of perfectly logical objections (logical, at least, from Stephanie's perspective) often found themselves with little option but to say "because we said so, that's why!" Marjorie hated using that discussion-ender, but, to her credit, Stephanie usually took it better than Marjorie had when she was a child.

But gifted or not, Stephanie was only eleven. She truly didn't grasp—yet—all that Sphinx's slow seasons meant. The next several weeks, Marjorie estimated, would be marked by long, dark sighs, listlessness, draggy steps (when anyone was looking, at least), and all those time-honored cues by which offspring showed uncaring parents how cruelly oppressed they were. But assuming that all concerned survived long enough for spring to get underway, Stephanie was going to find that Sphinx without snow was a far more interesting place, and Marjorie made a firm mental note to take some time away from the terminal. There was no way she could spend as many hours in the woods as Stephanie wanted to, but she could at least provide her only child with an adult escort often enough for Stephanie's habit to get a minimum fix.

Her thoughts paused, and then she smiled again as another idea occurred to her. They couldn't let Stephanie rummage around in the woods by herself, no, but there might just be another way to distract her. Stephanie had the sort of mind that enjoyed working the Yawata Crossing Times crossword puzzles in permanent ink. She was constitutionally incapable of resisting a challenge, so with just a little prompting . . .

Marjorie let her chair slip upright and drew a sheaf of hardcopy closer as she heard boots moving down the hall towards her office. She uncapped her stylus and bent over the neatly printed sheets with a studious expression just as Stephanie knocked on the frame of the open door.

"Mom?" Dr. Harrington allowed herself one more sympathetic smile at the put-upon pensiveness of Stephanie's tone, then banished the expression and looked up from her paperwork.

"Come in, Steph," she invited, and leaned back in her chair once more.

"Could I talk to you a minute?" Stephanie asked, and Marjorie nodded.

"Of course you can, honey," she said. "What's on your mind?"



Climbs Quickly perched in his observation post once more, but the sunlit sky of three days earlier had turned to dark, gray-black charcoal, and a stiff wind whipped in from the mountains to the west. It brought the tang of rock and snow, mingled with the bright sharpness of thunder, but it also blew across the two-legs' clearing, and he slitted his eyes and flattened his ears, peering into it as it rippled his fur. There was rain, as well as thunder, on that wind. He didn't look forward to being soaked, and lightning could make his present perch dangerous, yet he felt no temptation to seek cover, for other scents indicated his two-legs were up to something interesting in one of their transparent plant places.

Climbs Quickly cocked his head, lashing the tip of his prehensile tail as he considered. He'd come to think of this clearing's inhabitants as "his" two-legs, but there were many other two-legs on the planet, most with their own scouts keeping watch over them. Those scouts' reports, like his own, were circulated among the memory singers of all the clans, and they included something he felt a burning desire to explore for himself.

One of the cleverest of the many clever things the two-legs had demonstrated to the People were their plant places, for the People weren't only hunters. Like the snow hunters and the lake builders (but not the death fangs), they ate plants as well, and they required certain kinds of plants to remain strong and fit.

Unfortunately, some of the plants they needed couldn't live in ice and snow, which made the cold days a time of hunger and death, when too many of the very old or very young died. Although there was usually prey of some sort, there was less of it, and it was harder to catch, and the lack of needed plants only made that normal hunger worse. But that was changing, for the eating of plants was yet another way in which two-legs and People were alike . . . and the two-legs had found an answer to the cold days, just as they had to so many other problems. Indeed, it often seemed to Climbs Quickly that two-legs could never be satisfied with a single answer to any challenge, and in this case, they had devised at least two.

The simpler answer was to make plants grow where they wanted during the warm days, but the more spectacular one (and the one that most intrigued Climbs Quickly) were their transparent plant places. The plant places' sides and roofs, made of yet another material the People had no idea how to make, let the sun's light and heat pass through, forming little pockets of the warm days amid even the deepest snow, and the two-legs made the plants they ate grow inside that warmth all turning long. Nor did they grow them only during the cold days. There were fresh plants growing in these plant places even now, for Climbs Quickly could smell them through the moving spaces the two-legs had opened along the upper sides of the plant places to let the breeze blow in.

The People had never considered making things grow in specific places. Instead, they gathered plants wherever they grew of their own accord, either to eat immediately or to store for future need. In some turnings, they were able to gather more than enough to see them through the cold days; in less prosperous turnings, hunger and starvation stalked the clans, yet that was the way it had always been and the way it would continue. Until, that was, the People heard their scouts' reports of the two-leg plant places.

The People weren't very good at it yet, but they, too, had begun growing plants in carefully tended and guarded patches at the hearts of their clans' ranges. Their efforts had worked out poorly for the first few turnings, yet the two-legs' success proved it was possible, and they'd continued watching the two-legs and the strange not-living things which tended their open plant places. Much of what they observed meant little or nothing, but other lessons were clearer, and the People had learned a great deal. They had no way to duplicate the enclosed, transparent plant places, of course, yet this last turning, Bright Water Clan had found itself facing the cold days with much more white root, golden ear, and lace leaf than it had required to survive them. Indeed, there had been sufficient surplus for Bright Water to trade it to the neighboring High Crag Clan for additional supplies of flint, and Climbs Quickly wasn't the only member of the clan who realized the People owed the two-legs great thanks (whether the two-legs ever knew it or not).

But what made his whiskers quiver with anticipation was something else the other scouts had reported. The two-legs grew many strange plants the People had never heard of—a single sharp-nosed tour of any of their outside plant places would prove that—yet most were like ones the People knew. But one wasn't. Climbs Quickly had yet to personally encounter the plant the other scouts had christened cluster stalk, but he was eager to do so. Indeed, he knew he was a bit too eager, for the bright ecstasy of the scouts who'd sampled cluster stalk rang through the relayed songs of their clans' memory singers with a clarity that was almost stunning. It wasn't simply the plant's marvelous taste, either. Like the tiny, bitter-tasting, hard to find fruit of the purple thorn, cluster stalk sharpened the Peoples' mind voices and deepened the texture of their memory songs. The People had known the virtue of purple thorn for hundreds upon hundreds of turnings—indeed, People who were denied its fruit had actually been known to lose their mind voices entirely—yet there had never been enough of it, and it had always been almost impossible to find in sufficient quantities. But the cluster stalk was even better than purple thorn (if the reports were correct), and the two-legs seemed to grow it almost effortlessly.

And unless Climbs Quickly was mistaken, that scent blowing from the two-legs' plant places matched the cluster stalk's perfume embedded in the memory songs.

He crouched on his perch, watching the sky grow still darker and heavier, and made up his mind. It would be full dark soon, and the two-legs would retire to the light and warmth of their living place, especially on a night of rain such as this one promised to be. He didn't blame them for that. Indeed, under other circumstances, he would have been scurrying back to his own snugly-roofed nest's water-shedding woven canopy. But not tonight.

No, tonight he would stay, rain or no, and when the two-legs retired, he would explore more closely than he'd ever yet dared approach their living place.


Stephanie Harrington turned up the collar of her jacket and wiggled her toes in her boots for warmth. This part of Sphinx had officially entered Spring, but nights were still cold (though far, far warmer than they had been!), and Stephanie was grateful for her thick, warm socks and jacket as she sat in the darkened gazebo sniffing the ozone-heavy wind. The weather satellites said the Harrington homestead was in for a night of thunder, lightning, rain, and violent wind, and cold or not, Stephanie intended to savor it to the full. She'd always liked thunderstorms. She knew some kids were frightened by them, but Stephanie thought that was stupid. She had no intention of running out into the storm with a lightning rod—or, for that matter, standing under a tree—but the spectacle of all that fire and electricity crashing about the sky was simply too exhilarating and wonderful to miss . . . and this would be the first thunderstorm she'd seen in over a T-year.

Not that she'd mentioned her intention to observe it from the gazebo to her parents. She estimated that there was an almost even chance that they would have agreed to let her stay up to enjoy the storm, but she knew they would have insisted that she watch it from inside. Thoughts of fireplace-popped popcorn and the hot chocolate Mom would undoubtedly have added to the experience had almost tempted her into announcing her plans, but a little further thought had dissuaded her. Popcorn and hot chocolate were nice, but the only proper way to enjoy her first storm in so long was from out in the middle of it where she could feel and taste its power.

And, of course, there was that other little matter.

She smiled in the dark and patted the camera in her lap as thunder growled louder and lightning lashed the mountaintops to the west. She knew her mother had trolled the disappearing crops mystery in front of her as a distraction, but that hadn't made the puzzle any less fascinating. She didn't really expect to solve it, yet she could have fun trying, and if it just happened that she did find the answer, well, she was sure she could accept the credit with becoming modesty.

Her smile curled up in urchin glee at the thought. The original idea might have been her mother's, and Dr. Harrington might have lent her enthusiastic support to Stephanie's approach to the problem, but Stephanie hadn't made her mother privy to every facet of her plan. Part of that was to avoid embarrassment if it didn't work, but most of it came from the simple knowledge that her parents wouldn't approve of her . . . hands-on approach. Fortunately, knowing what they would have said—had the occasion arisen—was quite different from actually having them say it when the occasion hadn't arisen, which was why she'd carefully avoided bringing the matter up at all.

For the past year or so, a mounting number of homesteads had reported vanishing crops. At first, people had been inclined to think it was some kind of hoax, especially since only one plant ever took missing. Personally, Stephanie couldn't imagine why anyone would want to steal celery, which she ate only under parental insistence, but it was obvious someone was.

The question was who. Logically, since celery was a Terran import, humans were the only people on Sphinx who should be interested in it, but the very limited evidence available suggested otherwise. Whoever was behind it must be fiendishly clever, for they seemed able to get in and out of places no human should have been able to sneak through, and they left very little in the way of clues. But Stephanie had noticed a pattern. First, the celery was always stolen from one of the more isolated homesteads, not from any of the farm plots or greenhouses near a town. And, second, whoever was stealing it operated only at night and, if possible, under cover of bad weather. For the most part, that had meant waiting to strike a greenhouse during a snow storm, when the blizzard would blot out any tracks they might leave, but Stephanie rather suspected that the bandits would find it hard to pass up the opportunity of a good, heavy thunderstorm. And if the raiders were not, in fact, simply a bunch of humans playing adolescent pranks—if, as she suspected, something native to Sphinx was behind it—then lurking out here in the dark might actually prove as interesting as the solo excursions into the woods which had been denied her.


Climbs Quickly clung to his pad as groaning branches lashed the night to protest the wind that roared among them. The rumbling thunder had drawn closer, barking more and more loudly, and lightning forks had begun to play about the mountain heads to the west. The storm was going to be even more powerful than he'd thought, and he smelled cold, wet rain on its breath. It would be here soon, he thought. Very soon, which meant it was time.

He climbed down the trunk more slowly and cautiously than was his wont, for he felt the sturdy tree quivering and shivering under his claws. It took him much longer than usual to reach the ground, and he paused, still a half dozen People-lengths up the tree, to survey his surroundings. The People were quick and agile anywhere, but true safety lay in their ability to scamper up into places where things like death fangs couldn't follow. Unfortunately, Climbs Quickly's plans required him to venture into an area without handy trees, and while it was unlikely to hold any death fangs, either, he saw no harm in double-checking to be certain of that.

But scan the night though he might, he detected no dangers other than those of the weather itself, and he dropped the last distance to the ground. The mud, he noted, had begun to dry—on the top, at least—but the rain would change that. He felt the faint, pounding vibration of raindrops through the ground, coming steadily nearer, and his ears flattened in resignation. If the reports about cluster stalk proved true, getting soaked would be small enough cost for this evening's excursion, but that didn't mean he would enjoy it, and he flirted his tail and scampered quickly towards the nearest plant place.


In planning her own approach to the disappearing celery mystery, Stephanie had studied everything she could get her hands on about previous thefts. Not that there'd been much to study; the mysterious thieves didn't strike often, and their first known raids had completely surprised the colonists. Since no one had seen any reason to take precautions against celery thefts, whoever the thieves were had been able to simply walk into the fields or greenhouses, scarf up their prizes, and disappear. Given that ease of operation, Stephanie had been surprised to discover how small the original thefts had been. With so clear a field of operations, the bandits should have been able to take as much as they pleased, yet their known hauls were so small that she suspected they'd been pilfering for quite a while before anyone even noticed.

It had taken a long time for anyone to take the reports seriously, and even when the colonists finally moved to put precautions in place, they'd started by trying the predictable—and simplest—measures. But locking greenhouse doors or fencing outdoor garden plots had failed miserably. Despite the unlikeliness that any Sphinxian creature could have a taste for a Terran vegetable, opinion (among those who didn't still think it was all a hoax, at least) had hardened in favor of some clever local animal. Had whatever it was shown an interest in anything but celery, that might have been a cause for alarm; as it was, most of those who'd been raided seemed to take it as a challenge, not a threat. Whatever the pest was, it had to be small, agile, fast, and sneaky, and they were determined to figure out what it was, but they had to act within the limits of the Elysian Rule. With no clear idea what they were after, it was impossible to be sure even capture traps would be nonlethal, and the Elysian Rule absolutely forbade the use of lethal means against a complete unknown without evidence that whatever it was posed a physical danger to humans.

That rule had been adopted over a thousand years before, after a disastrous clutch of mistakes had devastated the ecology of the colony world of Elysian, and no administration on a planet in the early stages of settlement would even consider its violation without a reason far more compelling than the minuscule economic loss thefts of celery represented. But that hadn't ruled out trip wires, photoelectric detectors, and pressure plates. They were attached to lights or alarms or passive camera systems, but somehow the celery thieves always seemed to avoid them. There had been that one time when someone—or, Stephanie thought deliciously, something—had tripped a camera over in Jefferies Land in the middle of a howling blizzard. Unfortunately, all the exterior camera had recorded was a lot of swirling snow.

Given how hard others had been working on the mystery, Stephanie was willing to admit that it was unlikely she would be the one to solve it. But that wasn't the same as impossible, and she'd been very careful to leave the ventilation louvers open on the greenhouse which contained her mother's celery. The odds were against anything coming along to take advantage of the opportunity, but it wasn't as if Stephanie had a lot of other things to do just now, and she settled back in her chair, camera in her lap, as the first spatters of rain began to fall.


Climbs Quickly paused, head and shoulders rising as he stood high on his true-feet and hand-feet like—had he known (or cared)—an Old Terran prairie dog to peer into the night. This was the closest he'd ever come to his two-legs' living place, and his eyes glowed as he realized he'd been right. He had been tasting a mind glow from them, and he stood motionless in the darkness as he savored the texture.

It was unlike anything he'd ever tasted from another of the People . . . and yet it wasn't unlike. It was . . . was . . . 

He sat down, curling his tail about his toes, and rubbed one ear with a true-hand while he tried to put a label on it. It was like the People, he decided after long, hard moments of thought, but without words. It was only the emotions, the feelings of the two-legs, without the shaping that turned those into communication, and there was a strange drowsiness to it, as if it were half-asleep. As if, he thought slowly, the mind glow rose from minds which had never even considered that anyone else might be able to taste or hear them and so had never learned to use it to communicate. Yet even as he thought that, it seemed impossible, for the glow was too strong, too powerful. Unformed, unshaped, it blazed like some marvelous flower, brighter and taller than any of the People had ever produced in Climbs Quickly's presence, and he shivered as he wondered what it would have been like if the two-legs hadn't been mind-blind. He felt the brightness calling to him, tempting him closer like a memory singer's song, and he shook himself. This would be a very important part of his next report to Sings Truly and Short Tail, but he certainly had no business exploring it on his own before he reported it. Besides, it wasn't what he'd come for.

He shook himself again, stepping back from the mind glow, but it was hard to distance himself from it. In fact, he had to make a deliberate, conscious decision not to taste it and then close his mind to it, and that took much longer to manage than he'd expected.

Yet he did manage it, eventually, and drew a deep breath of relief as he pulled free. He flipped his ears, twitched his whiskers, and began sliding once more through the darkness as the first raindrops splashed about him.


The rain came down harder, drumming on the gazebo roof. The air seemed to dance and shiver as incessant lightning split the night and thunder shook its halves, and Stephanie's eyes glowed as wind whipped spray in through the gazebo's open sides to spatter the floor and kiss her eyelashes and chilled cheeks. She felt the storm crackling about her and hugged it to herself, drinking in its energy.

But then, suddenly, a tiny light began to flash on her camera, and she froze. It couldn't be! But the light was flashing—it really was!—and that could only mean—

She pressed the button that killed the warning light, then snatched the camera up to peer through the viewfinder. Visibility was poor through the rain cascading off the gazebo roof. There was too much water in the air for a clear view, even with the camera's light-gathering technology, and the lightning didn't help as much as one might have expected. The camera adjusted to changing light levels more quickly than any human eye, but the contrast between the lightning's split-second, stroboscopic fury and the darkness that followed was too extreme.

Stephanie knew that, and she hadn't really expected to see anything just yet, anyway. Since the celery bandits had proved so clever at avoiding mechanical devices like trip wires, most of those working on the problem had opted for more subtle approaches. Photoelectric beams had been the next obvious approach, but whoever it was actually seemed to avoid them even more readily than he—or they—avoided mechanical barriers.

But Stephanie had a theory about why that was. In every case she'd been able to research, the photoelectric system used had employed infrared. Well, obviously visible light wouldn't work for something like that, and people had used infrared for such systems just about forever. But Stephanie's discussions with her father about his work with the fledgling Sphinx Forestry Service had led her to suspect that the people setting up those systems here had failed to adequately analyze their problem. From what Daddy said, relatively new evidence suggested that Sphinx wildlife used much more of the lower end of the spectrum than human eyes. That meant a Sphinxian animal might actually see the infrared light a human couldn't, and that, in turn, would make the photoelectric beams relatively easy to avoid, so Stephanie's alarms used the other end of the spectrum.

It hadn't been hard for her and Daddy to tinker them up in his workshop, and he'd helped her weave a solid wall of ultraviolet beams to cover the opened louvers. But while he and Mom knew all about her sensors, they thought she'd connected them to the data terminal in her room. Which she had. She just hadn't mentioned that for tonight she'd disabled the audible alarm on her data terminal and set up a silent relay to her camera, instead. Mom and Daddy were smart enough to guess why she might have done that, but since they hadn't specifically asked, she hadn't had to tell them, and that meant they hadn't gotten around to forbidding her to lurk in the gazebo tonight, which was certainly the most satisfactory outcome for all concerned.

If pressed, Stephanie would have conceded that her parents might have quibbled with that last conclusion, but what mattered at this particular moment was that something had just climbed through the open louver. Whatever was stealing celery was inside the greenhouse right this minute, and she had a chance to be the very first person on Sphinx to get actual pictures of it!

She stood for a moment, biting her lip and wishing she had better visibility, then shrugged. Mom and Dad wouldn't be a lot madder at her for getting soaked than they'd be over her having snuck out at all, and she needed to get closer to the greenhouse. She took a second to clip the rain shield onto the camera, then dragged her hat down over her ears, drew a deep breath, and splashed down the gazebo steps into the rain-whipped night.


Climbs Quickly found it even harder to ignore the two-leg mind glows as he dropped to the soft, bare earth of the plant place's floor. The rich smells of unknown growing things filled his nostrils, and his tail twitched as he absorbed them. The transparent material of the plant place seemed far too thin to resist the rain beating upon it, yet it did, and without a single drop leaking through! The two-legs were truly clever to design a marvel like that, and he sat for a moment luxuriating in the enfolding warmth that was made somehow even warmer and more welcoming by the furious splashing of the icy, lightning-laced rain.

But he hadn't come here to be dry, he reminded himself, and his true-hands untied the carry net wrapped about his middle while he followed his nose and resolutely ignored the background mind glows of the two-legs.

Ah! There was the cluster stalk scent from Sings Truly's song! His eyes lit, and he swarmed easily up the side of the raised part of the plant place, then paused as he came face to face with cluster stalk for the very first time.

The growing heads were bigger than the ones from Sings Truly's song, and he wondered if the scout who first brought that song to his clan had sampled his first cluster stalk before it was fully grown. Whether that was true or not, each of these plants was two-thirds as long as Climbs Quickly himself, and he was glad he'd brought the carry net. Still, net or not, he would have to be careful not to take too much if he expected to carry it all the way home. He sat for another long moment, considering, then flipped his ears in decision. Two heads, he decided. He could manage that much, and he could always come back for more.

But even as he decided that, he realized he'd used the need to decide to distract him from the marvelous scent of the cluster stalk. It was like nothing he'd ever smelled before, and he felt his mouth water as he drew it deep into his lungs. He hesitated, then reached out and tugged gently on an outer stalk.

It responded with a springy resistance, like the top of a white root, and he tugged harder. Still it held out, and he tugged still harder, then bleeked in triumph as the stalk came loose in his true-hand. He raised it to his nose, sniffing deeply, then stuck out his tongue.

Magic filled his mouth as he licked delicately. It was like hot, liquid sunlight on a day of frozen ice. Like cold mountain water on a day of scorching heat, or the gentle caress of a new mother, just ruffling her first kitten's delicate fur while her mind promised him welcome and warmth and love. It was—

Climbs Quickly shook his head. It wasn't actually like any of those things, he realized, except that each of them, in its own way, was wonderful and unique. It was just that he didn't have anything else he could really compare that first blissful taste to, and he nibbled gently at the end of the stalk. It was hard to chew—People didn't really have the right kind of teeth to eat plants—but it tasted just as wonderful as that first lick had promised, and he crooned in pleasure as he devoured it.

He finished the entire stalk and reached quickly for another, then made himself stop. Yes, it tasted wonderful, and he wanted more, but he was no ground burrower to gorge himself into insensibility on yellow stalk. He was a scout of the Bright Water Clan, and it was his job to carry this home for Short Tail, Bright Claw, Broken Tooth, and the memory singers to judge it for themselves. Even if they hadn't been the leaders of his clan, they were his friends, and friends shared anything this marvelous with one another.

It was actually easier to get an entire head out of the soft earth in which it grew than it had been to peel off that single stalk, and Climbs Quickly soon had two of them rolled up in his carry net. They made an awkward bundle, but he tied the net as neatly as he could and slung it onto his back, reaching up to hold the hand loops with his mid-limbs' hand-feet while he used true-feet and true-hands to climb back down to the floor. Getting to the opening to the outer world would be more difficult with his burden than it had been coming in, but he could manage. He might not be very fast or agile, but not even a death fang would be out on a night like this!


Stephanie was glad her jacket and trousers were waterproof, and her broad-brimmed hat kept her head and face dry. But holding the camera on target required her to raise her hands in front of her, and ice-cold rain had flooded down the drain pipes of her nice, waterproof jacket sleeves. She felt it puddling about her elbows and beginning to probe stealthily towards her shoulders—just as her forearms were raised, her upper arms were parallel to the ground, providing an all too convenient channel for the frigid water—but all the rain in the world couldn't have convinced her to lower her camera at a moment like this.

She stood no more than ten meters from the greenhouse, recording steadily. Her camera's storage chip was good for over ten hours, and she had no intention of missing any of this for the official record. Excitement trembled inside as the minutes passed in the splashing, lightning-slivered darkness. Whatever it was had been inside the greenhouse for nine minutes now, surely it would be coming back out pretty s—


Climbs Quickly reached the opening with a profound sense of relief. He'd almost dropped his carry net twice, and he decided to catch his breath before leaping down into the rain with his prize. After all, he had plenty of ti—


A whisker-fringed muzzle and prick-eared head poked out of the opening, green eyes glowing emerald as lightning stuttered, and the universe seemed to stop as their owner found himself staring into the glassy eye of a camera in the hands of an eleven-year-old girl. Excitement froze Stephanie's breath, even though she'd known this moment was coming, but Climbs Quickly hadn't known. His surprise was total, and he went absolutely motionless in astonishment.

Seconds ticked past, and then he shook himself mentally. Showing himself to a two-leg was the one thing he'd been most firmly instructed not to do, and he cringed inwardly at how Short Tail would react to this. He knew he could claim distraction on the basis of the storm and his first experience with cluster stalk, but that wouldn't change his failure into success, and he stared down at the two-leg while his mind began to work once more.

It was the youngling, he realized, for it was smaller than either of its parents. He didn't know what it was pointing at him, but from all reports, he would have been dead already if the two-leg had intended to kill him. Yet deciding the thing aimed his way wasn't a weapon didn't tell him what it was. Those thoughts flashed through his brain in a heartbeat, and then, without really thinking about it, he reached out to the two-leg's mind glow in an effort to judge its intentions.

He was totally unprepared for the consequences. It was as if he'd looked straight up into the sun expecting to see only the glow of a single torch, and his eyes flared wide and his ears flattened as the intensity of the two-leg's emotions rolled over him. The glow was far brighter than before, and he wondered distantly if that was simply because he was closer and concentrating upon it, or if the cluster stalk he'd sampled might have something to do with it. But it didn't really matter. What mattered was the excitement and eagerness and wonder that blazed so brightly in the two-leg's mind. It was the first time any of the People had ever come face-to-face with a two-leg, and nothing could have prepared Climbs Quickly for the sheer delight with which Stephanie Harrington saw the marvelous, six-limbed creature crouched in the ventilation louver with the woven net of purloined celery slung over its back.

The representatives of two intelligent species, one of which had never even suspected the other's existence, stared at one another in the middle of a howling thunderstorm. It was a moment which could not last, yet neither wanted it to end. Stephanie felt her sense of triumph and excited discovery flow through her like a fountain, and she had no idea that Climbs Quickly felt those emotions even more clearly than he would have felt them from another of his own kind. Nor could she have guessed how very much he wanted to continue feeling them. She knew only that he crouched there, gazing at her for what seemed like forever, before he shook himself and leapt suddenly down and outward.


Climbs Quickly pulled free of the two-leg's mind glow. It was hard—possibly the hardest thing he'd ever done—yet he had his duty, and so he made himself step back from that wonderful, welcoming furnace. Or, rather, he stepped away from it, for it was too strong, too intense, actually to disconnect from. He could turn his eyes away from the fire, but he could not pretend it did not blaze.

He shook himself, and then he launched outward into the rain and darkness. He was slow and clumsy with the net of cluster stalk on his back, but he knew as surely as he'd ever known anything in his life that this young two-leg meant him no harm. The secret of the People's existence was already revealed, and haste would change nothing, so he sat upright in the rain for a moment, gazing up at the two-leg, who finally lowered the strange thing it had held before its face to look down at him with its own eyes. He met those odd, brown, round-pupiled eyes for a moment, then flicked his ears, turned, and scampered off.


Stephanie watched the intruder vanish with a sense of wonder which only grew as the creature disappeared. It was small, she thought, no more than sixty or seventy centimeters long, though its tail would probably double its body length. An arboreal, her mind went on, considering its tail and the well-developed hands and the claws she'd seen as it clung to the lip of the louver. And those hands, she thought slowly, might have had only three fingers each, but they'd also had fully opposable thumbs. She closed her eyes, picturing it once more, seeing the net on its back, and knew she was right.

The celery snatcher might look like a teeny-tiny hexapuma, but that net was incontrovertible evidence that the survey crews had missed the most important single facet of Sphinx. But that was all right. In fact, that was just fine. Their omission had abruptly transformed this world from a place of exile to the most marvelous, exciting place Stephanie Harrington could possibly have been, for she'd just done something which had happened only eleven other times in the fifteen centuries of mankind's diaspora to the stars.

She'd just made first contact with a tool-using, clearly sentient, alien race.

The only question now was what to do about it.



Climbs Quickly lay on his back outside his nest, belly fur turned to the sun, and did his best to convince the rest of his clan he was asleep. He knew he wasn't fooling anyone who cared to taste his mind glow, but good manners required them to pretend he was.

Which was just as well, for blissful as it was, the comfort of the drowsy sunlight was far too little to distract him from the monumental changes in his life. Facing his clan leaders and admitting that he'd let one of the two-legs actually see him—and even worse, see him in the very process of raiding their plant place—had been just as unpleasant as he'd feared.

People seldom physically attacked other People. Oh, there were squabbles enough, and occasional serious fights—usually, though not always, limited to younger scouts or hunters—and even rarer situations in which entire clans found themselves feuding with one another or fighting for control of their ranges. No one was particularly proud of such situations, but the ability to hear one another's thoughts and taste one another's emotions didn't necessarily make other People any easier to live with or fill a clan's range with prey when it was needed. But a clan's leaders normally intervened before anything serious could happen within a clan, and it was rare indeed for one member of a clan to deliberately attack another unless there was something fundamentally wrong with the attacker. Climbs Quickly himself could remember an occasion on which High Crag Clan had been forced to drive out one of its scouts, a rogue who had attacked other People. The exile had crossed into the Bright Water range, killing prey not just to live but for the sheer joy of killing, and raided Bright Water's storage places. He'd even attacked and seriously injured a Bright Water scout while attempting to steal a mother's kittens . . . for purposes Climbs Quickly preferred not to consider too deeply. In the end, the clan's scouts and hunters had been forced to hunt him down and kill him, a grim necessity none had welcomed.

So Climbs Quickly hadn't expected any of the Bright Water leaders to assault him, and they hadn't. But they had left him feeling as if they'd skinned him and hung his hide up to dry. It wasn't even the things they'd said so much as the way they'd said them.

Climbs Quickly's ears flicked, and he squirmed, turning to catch the sun more fully, as he recalled his time before Bright Water's leaders. Sings Truly had been present as the clan's second singer and the obvious heir to the first singer's position when Song Spinner died or surrendered her authority, but even Sings Truly had been shocked by his clumsiness. She hadn't scolded him the way Short Tail or Broken Tooth had, yet tasting his sister's wordless reproach had been harder for Climbs Quickly to bear than all of Broken Tooth's cutting irony.

He'd tried to explain, as clearly and undefensively as possible, that he'd never meant to let the two-leg see him, and he'd suggested the possibility that somehow the two-leg had known he was in the plant place even before seeing him. Unfortunately, his suspicion rested on the mind glow of the two-leg, and although none of the others had actually said so, he knew they found it difficult to believe a two-leg's mind glow could tell one of the People so much. He even knew why they thought that way, for no other scout had ever come close enough to—or concentrated hard enough upon—a two-leg to realize how wonderfully, dreadfully powerful that mind glow truly was.

<I believe that you believe the two-leg had some way of knowing you were there,> Short Tail had told him judiciously, his mind voice grave, <yet I fail to see how it could have. You saw none of the strange lights or tool things the two-legs have used to detect other scouts, after all.> 

<True,> Climbs Quickly had replied as honestly as possible, <yet the two-legs are very clever. I saw none of the tool things I knew to look for, but does that prove the two-legs have no tool things we have not yet learned of?> 

<You hunt for ground runners in the upper branches, little brother,> Broken Tooth, the most senior of Bright Water's elders, had put in sternly. <You allowed the two-leg not simply to see you but to see you raiding its range. I do not doubt you tasted its mind glow, but neither do I doubt that you tasted within that mind glow that which it was most important for you to taste.> 

Much as Broken Tooth's charge had angered Climbs Quickly, he'd been unable to counter it effectively. The feelings of the mind glow were always much easier to misinterpret, even among the People, than thoughts which were formed into words, and it was only reasonable for Broken Tooth, who'd never tasted a two-leg mind glow, to assume that it would be even more difficult to interpret those of a totally different creature. Climbs Quickly knew—didn't think; knew—that the two-leg's mind glow had been so strong, so vibrant, that he literally could not have read it wrongly, yet when he couldn't explain how he knew that even to himself, he could hardly blame the clan's leaders for failing to grasp the same fact.

And so, because he couldn't explain, he'd accepted his scolding as meekly as possible. The cluster stalk he'd brought home had muted that scolding to some extent, for it had proved just as marvelous as the songs from other clans had indicated, but not even that had been enough to deflect the one consequence he truly resented.

He had been relieved of his responsibility to watch over his two-legs, and Shadow Hider, another scout (who just happened to be a grandson of Broken Tooth), had been assigned that task in his place. He understood why, however much he disliked it, for the People had only to watch them cutting down trees with their whining tools that ate through the trunks of trees large enough to hold whole clans of the People or using the machines that gouged out the deep holes in which they planted their living places to recognize the potential danger the two-legs represented. They need not decide to kill the People or destroy a clan's entire range to accomplish the same end by accident, and so the People had decided that their only true safety lay in avoiding them entirely. The clans must stay undetected, observing without being observed, until they decided how best to respond to the strange creatures who so confidently and competently reshaped the world.

Unfortunately, Climbs Quickly had come to doubt the wisdom of that policy. Certainly caution was necessary, yet it seemed to him that many People—such as Broken Tooth and his like among the other clans—had become too aware of the potential danger and too unaware of the possible advantages the two-legs presented. Perhaps without even realizing it, they had decided deep down inside that the time for the two-legs to learn of the People's existence would never come, for only thus could the People be safe.

But though Climbs Quickly had too much respect for his clan's leaders to say so, the hope that the two-legs would never discover the People was foolishness. There were more two-legs with every turning, and their flying things and long-seeing things and whatever the young two-leg had used to detect his own presence were too clever for the People to hide forever. Even without his encounter with the two-leg, the People would have been found sooner or later. And when that happened—or perhaps, more accurately, now that it had happened—the People would have no choice but to decide how they would interact with the two-legs . . . assuming, of course, that the two-legs allowed the People to make that decision.

All of that was perfectly clear to Climbs Quickly and, he suspected, to Sings Truly, Short Tail, and Bright Claw, the clan's senior hunter. But Broken Tooth, Song Spinner, and Digger, who oversaw the clan's plant places, rejected that conclusion. They saw how vast the world was, how many hiding places it offered, and believed they could avoid the two-legs forever, even now that the two-legs knew the People existed.

He sighed again, and then his whiskers twitched with wry amusement as he wondered if the young two-leg was having as many difficulties getting its elders to accept its judgment. If so, should Climbs Quickly be grateful or unhappy? He knew from its mind glow that the youngling had felt only wonder and delight, not anger or fear, when it saw him. Surely if its elders shared its feelings, the People had nothing to fear. Yet the fact that one two-leg—and one perhaps little removed from kittenhood—felt that way might very well mean no more to the rest of the two-legs than his feelings meant to Broken Tooth.

Climbs Quickly lay basking in the sunlight, considering all that had happened—and all that still threatened to happen—and understood the fear of Broken Tooth and his supporters. Indeed, a part of him shared their fear, but another part knew events had already been set in motion. The two-legs knew of the People's existence now. They would react to that, whatever the People did or didn't do, and all Broken Tooth's scolding could never prevent it.

Yet there was one thing Climbs Quickly hadn't reported, something he had yet to come to grips with himself and something he feared might actually panic Bright Water's leaders into abandoning their range and fleeing deep into the mountains. Perhaps that flight would actually be the path of wisdom, he admitted, but it might also cast away a treasure such as the People had never before encountered. It was scarcely the place of a single scout to make choices affecting his entire clan, yet no one else could make this decision, for he alone knew that somehow, in a way he couldn't begin to understand, he and the young two-leg now shared something.

He wasn't certain what that "something" was, but even now, with his eyes closed and the two-legs' clearing far away, he knew exactly where the youngling was. He could feel its mind glow, like a far-off fire or sunlight shining red through his closed eyelids. It was too distant for him to taste its emotions, yet he knew it wasn't his imagination. He truly did know the direction to the two-leg, even more clearly than the direction to Sings Truly, who was no more than twenty or thirty People-lengths away at this very moment.

Climbs Quickly had no idea at all what that might mean or where it might lead, but two things he did know. His connection, if such it was, to the young two-leg might—must—hold the key, for better or for worse, to whatever relationship People and two-legs might come to share. And until he decided what that connection meant in his own case, he dared not even suggest its existence to those who felt as Broken Tooth.



Stephanie leaned back in the comfortable chair, folded her hands behind her head, and propped her sock feet on her desk in the posture which always drew a scold from her mother. Her lips were pursed in a silent, tuneless whistle that was an all but inevitable complement to the vague dreaminess of her eyes . . . and which would, had she let her parents see it, instantly have alerted them to the fact that their darling daughter was Up To Something.

The problem was that for the first time in a very, very long time, she had only the haziest idea of precisely what she was up to. Or, rather, of how to pursue her objective. Uncertainty was an unusual feeling for someone who usually got into trouble by being too positive about things, yet there was something rather appealing about it, too. Perhaps because of its novelty.

She frowned, closed her eyes, tipped her chair further back, and thought harder.

She'd managed to evade detection on her way to bed the night of the thunderstorm. Oddly—though it hadn't occurred to her that it was odd until much later—she hadn't even considered rushing to her parents with her camera. The knowledge that humanity shared Sphinx with another sentient species was her discovery, and she'd felt strangely disinclined to share it. Until she did, it was not only her discovery but her secret, and she'd been almost surprised to realize she was determined to learn all she possibly could about her unexpected neighbors before she let anyone else know they existed. She wasn't certain when she'd decided that, but once she had, it had been easy to find logical reasons for her decision. For one thing, the mere thought of how some of the kids in Twin Forks would react was enough to make her shudder. Given their determination to catch everything from chipmunks (which didn't look at all like Meyerdahl's—or, for that matter, Old Terra's—chipmunks) to near-turtles as pets, they'd be almost certain to pursue these new creatures with even greater enthusiasm and catastrophic results.

She'd felt rather virtuous once she got that far, but it didn't come close to solving her main problem. If she didn't tell anybody, how did she go about learning more about them on her own? Stephanie knew she was brighter than most, but she also knew someone else would eventually catch a celery thief in the act. When that happened her secret would be out, and she was determined to learn everything she possibly could about them before that happened.

And, she thought, she was starting with a clean slate. She'd accessed the datanet without finding a single word about miniature hexapumas with hands. She'd even used her father's link to the Forestry Service to compare her camera imagery to known Sphinxian species, only to draw a total blank. Whatever the celery snatcher was, no one else had ever gotten pictures of one of his—or had it been her?— relatives or even uploaded a verbal description of them to the planetary database, and that said as much about their intelligence as the raider's woven net had. A planet was a big place, but from the pattern of celery thefts, these creatures must be at least as widely distributed as Sphinx's colonists. The only way they could have gone undetected for over fifty T-years was by deliberately avoiding humans . . . and that indicated a reasoned response to the colonists's presence and the existence of a language. Hiding so successfully had to indicate a deliberate, conscious, shared pattern of activity, and how could they coordinate that well without the ability to talk to one another? So they were not only tool-users but language-users, and their small size made that even more remarkable. The one Stephanie had seen couldn't have had a body length of more than sixty centimeters or weighed more than thirteen or fourteen kilos, and no one had ever before encountered a sentient species with a body mass that low.

Stephanie got that far without much difficulty. Unfortunately, that was as far as she could get without more data, and for the first time she could recall, she didn't know how to get any more. She might be first in her class, and she might have made it into the final round of the planetary chess championship, and she might approach most problems with complete confidence, but this time she was stumped. She'd exhausted the available research possibilities, so if she wanted more information, she had to get it for herself. That implied some sort of field research, but how did an eleven year old—and one who'd promised her parents she wouldn't tramp around the woods alone—investigate a totally unknown species without even telling anyone it existed?

In a way, she was actually grateful that her mother had found herself too tied down by her current projects to go for those nature hikes she'd promised to try to make time for. Stephanie had been grateful when her mother made the offer, though she'd realized even then that with her mom along her hikes could hardly have offered the sort of intensive investigation for which she'd longed. Now, however, her mother's presence would have posed a serious obstacle for any attempt to pursue private research in secret.

It was perhaps unfortunate, however, that her father, in an effort to make up for her "disappointment" over her mother's schedule, had decided to distract her by resuming the hang-gliding lessons their departure from Meyerdahl had interrupted. Stephanie loved the exhilaration of flight, even if Daddy did insist that she take along an emergency countergrav unit "just in case," and no one could have been a better teacher than Richard Harrington, who'd made it into the continental hang-gliding finals on Meyerdahl three times. But the time she spent on gliding lessons was time she didn't spend investigating her fascinating discovery, and if she didn't spend time on the lessons—and obviously enjoy them—her parents would suspect she had something else on her mind. Worse, Daddy insisted on flying into Twin Forks for her lessons. That made sense, since unlike her mom he had to be "on call" twenty-five hours a day and Twin Forks was the central hub for all the local homesteads. He could reach any of them quickly from town, and teaching the lessons there let him enlist the two or three other parents with gliding experience as assistant teachers and offer the lessons to all the settlement's other kids, as well. That was exactly the sort of generosity Stephanie would have expected of him, but it also meant her lessons were not only eating up an enormous amount of her free time but taking her over eighty kilometers away from the place where she was more eager than ever to begin the explorations she'd promised her parents she wouldn't undertake.

She hadn't found a way around her problems yet, but she was determined that she would find one—and without breaking her promise, however much that added to her difficulties. But at least it hadn't been hard to give the species a name. It looked like an enormously smaller version of a "hexapuma," and like the hexapuma, there was something very (or perhaps inevitably) feline about it. Of course, Stephanie knew "feline" actually referred only to a very specific branch of Old Terran evolution, but it had become customary over the centuries to apply Old Terran names to alien species (like the Sphinxian "chipmunks" or "near-pine"). Most claimed the practice originated from a sort of racial homesickness and a desire for familiarity in alien environments, but Stephanie thought it was more likely to stem from laziness, since it let people avoid thinking up new labels for everything they encountered. Despite all that, however, she'd discovered that "treecat" was the only possible choice when she started considering names, and she hoped the taxonomists would let it stand when she finally had to go public with her discovery, though she suspected rather glumly that her age would work against her in that regard.

And if she hadn't figured out how to go about investigating the treecats without breaking her promise—which was out of the question, however eager she might be to proceed—at least she knew the direction in which to start looking. She had no idea how she knew, but she was absolutely convinced that she would know exactly where to go when the time came.

She closed her eyes, took one arm from behind her head, and pointed, then opened her eyes to see where her index finger was aimed. The direction had changed slightly since the last time she'd checked, and yet she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was pointing directly at the treecat who'd raided her mother's greenhouse.

And that, she reflected, was the oddest—and most exciting—part of the whole thing.



Marjorie Harrington finished writing up her latest microbe-resistant strain of squash, closed the file, and sat back with a sigh. Some of Sphinx's farmers had argued that it would be much simpler (and quicker) just to come up with something to swat the microbe in question. That always seemed to occur to the people who faced such problems, and sometimes, Marjorie was prepared to admit, it was not only the simplest but also the most cost effective and ecologically sound answer. That was especially true when the parasite in question was itself a new strain, a new mutation rather than an old, established part of the ecosystem. But in this case, she and the planetary administration had resisted firmly, and her final solution—which, she admitted, had taken longer than a more aggressive one might have—had been to select the least intrusive of three possible genetic modifications to the plant rather than going after the microbe. It was always a good idea for people on a planet whose biosystem they were still in the process of exploring to exercise the greatest possible care to limit the impact of their actions on that biosystem, and she expected the agricultural cartels and Interior Ministry officials to be quite pleased with her solution, despite the cost of all the additional hours she'd put into the project.

She made a wry face at the thought of the bureaucrats. She had to admit that the local varieties were far less intrusive—and more reasonable—than their equivalents on Meyerdahl, but the Star Kingdom was barely sixty T-years old. No doubt it would have all the entrenched bureaucracies the least imaginative, most procedure-loving clerical tyrant could desire by the time it was Meyerdahl's age.

Her wry expression turned into a grin remarkably like her daughter's, then faded as she turned her mind from squash to other matters. Her work load had grown much heavier over the past weeks as Sphinx's southern hemisphere moved steadily towards planting time, and now that the squash project was out of the way her nagging sense of guilt returned full force. It was hardly her fault that the press of assignments had kept her from finding the time for long hikes with Stephanie, but she hadn't even been able to free up the time to help her daughter explore possible answers to the celery pilferage which had finally reached the Harrington Homestead.

She was thankful that Richard had at least resumed Stephanie's hang-gliding lessons as a combination diversion and compensation. It had been a brilliant idea on his part, and Stephanie had responded with enthusiasm. Marjorie could only be grateful that she seemed to enjoy it so much—she'd started spending hours in the air, checking in periodically over her wrist com—and, despite the vocal worry of some of the Twin Folks parents whose kids were also learning to glide, Marjorie wasn't especially worried by the risks involved in her daughter's new hobby. She'd never pursued the sport herself, but it had been quite popular on Meyerdahl, where she'd known dozens of avid practitioners. And unlike some parents, she'd learned—not without difficulty, she admitted—that it was impossible to keep her only child wrapped in cotton wool. Children might not be indestructible, but they came far closer to it than most adults were prepared to admit, and a certain number of bumps, scrapes, contusions, bruises, or even broken bones were among the inevitable rites of childhood, whether or not parents liked that fact.

Yet if Marjorie had no particular qualms over Stephanie's new interest, she was still unhappily certain that Stephanie had embraced it mainly as a diversion from her disappointment in other directions. Appearances might suggest Stephanie had forgotten all about her hunger to explore the homestead's endless forests, but appearances could be deceiving, and Marjorie knew her daughter too well to believe she had, in fact, relinquished her original ambitions, however outwardly cheerful her acceptance of an alternate activity.

Marjorie rubbed her nose pensively. She had no doubt Stephanie understood—at least intellectually—how important her own work was and why it had precluded the other activities they'd discussed, but that only made it almost worse. However bright Stephanie might be, she was also only eleven, and understanding and acceptance were too often two completely different things even for adults. Besides, whether Stephanie accepted it or not, the situation was grossly unfair to her, and "fairness" was of enormous importance to children . . . even going-on-twelve geniuses. Although Stephanie seldom sulked or whined, Marjorie had expected to hear quite a bit of carefully reasoned comment on the subject of fairness, and the fact that Stephanie hadn't complained at all only sharpened Marjorie's sense of guilt. It was as if Stephanie—

The hand rubbing Dr. Harrington's nose suddenly stopped moving as a fresh thought struck her, and she frowned, wondering why it hadn't occurred to her before. It wasn't as if she didn't know her daughter, after all, and this sort of sweet acceptance was very unlike Stephanie. No, she didn't sulk or whine, but neither did she give up without a fight on something to which she'd truly set her mind. And, Marjorie thought, while Stephanie had enjoyed hang-gliding back on Meyerdahl, it had never been the passion for her that it seemed to have become here. It was certainly possible that she'd simply discovered that she'd underestimated its enjoyment quotient on Meyerdahl, but Marjorie's abruptly roused instincts said something else entirely.

She ran her memory back over her more recent conversations with her daughter, and her suspicion grew. Not only had Stephanie not complained about the unfairness of her grounding or the "zorkiness" of the younger citizens of Twin Forks who shared her gliding lessons, but it was over two weeks since she'd even referred to the mysterious celery thefts, and Marjorie scolded herself harder for falling into the error of complacency. She understood exactly how it had happened—given the pressures of her current projects, she'd been too grateful for Stephanie's restraint to adequately consider its roots—but that was no excuse. All the signs were there, and she should have realized that the only thing which could produce such a tractable Stephanie was a Stephanie who was Up To Something and didn't want her parents to notice.

But what could she be up to? And why didn't she want them to notice? The only thing she'd been forbidden was the freedom to explore the wilderness on her own, and Marjorie was confident that, however devious she might sometimes be, Stephanie would never break a promise. Yet if she was using her sudden interest in hang-gliding as a cover for something else, then whatever she was up to must be something she calculated would arouse parental resistance. Her daughter, Marjorie thought with affection-laced exasperation, was entirely too prone to figure that anything which hadn't been specifically forbidden was legal . . . whether or not the opportunity to forbid it had ever been offered.

On the other hand, Stephanie wasn't the sort to prevaricate in the face of specific questions. If Marjorie sat her down and asked her, she'd open up about whatever she was up to. She might not want to, but she'd do it, and Marjorie made a firm mental note to set aside enough time to explore the possibilities—thoroughly.



Stephanie whooped in sheer exuberance as she rode the powerful updraft. Wind whipped her short, curly hair, and she leaned to one side, banking the glider as she sliced still higher. The countergrav unit on her back could have taken her higher yet—and done it more quickly—but it wouldn't have been anywhere near as much fun as this was!

She watched the treetops below her and felt a tiny stir of guilt buried in her delight. She was safely above those trees—not even the towering crown oaks came anywhere near her present altitude—but she also knew what her father would have said had he known where she was. The fact that he didn't know, and thus wouldn't say it wasn't quite enough for her to convince herself her actions weren't just a bit across the line, but she could always say—truthfully—that she hadn't broken her word. She wasn't walking around the woods by herself, and no hexapuma or peak bear could possibly threaten her at an altitude of two or three hundred meters.

For all that, innate self-honesty forced her to admit that she knew her parents would instantly have countermanded her plans if they'd known of them. But Daddy had been forced to cancel today's lesson because of an emergency house call, and he'd commed Mr. Sapristos, the Twin Forks' mayor who usually subbed for him in the gliding classes. Mr. Sapristos had agreed to take over for the day, but Daddy hadn't specifically told him Stephanie would be there. The autopilot in Mom's air car could have delivered her under the direction of the planetary air traffic computers, and he'd apparently assumed that was what would happen. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on one's viewpoint—his haste had been so great that he hadn't asked Mom to arrange transportation. (Stephanie was guiltily certain that he'd expected her to tell her mother. But, she reminded herself, he hadn't actually told her to, had he?)

All of which meant Daddy thought she was with Mr. Sapristos but that Mr. Sapristos and Mom both thought she was with Daddy. And that just happened to have given Stephanie a chance to pick her own flight plan without having to explain it to anyone else.

It wasn't the first time the same situation had arisen . . . or that she'd capitalized upon it. But it wasn't the sort of opportunity an enterprising young woman could expect to come along often, either, and she'd jumped at it. She'd had to, for the long Sphinxian days were creeping past, and none of her previous unauthorized flights had given her big enough time windows. Avoiding parental discovery had required her to turn back short of the point at which she knew her treecats lurked, and if she didn't find out more about them soon, someone else was bound to. Of course, she couldn't expect to learn much about them flying around overhead, but that wasn't really what she was after. If she could just pinpoint a location for them, she was sure she could get Daddy to come out here with her, maybe with some of his friends from the Forestry Service, to find the physical evidence to support her discovery. And, she thought, her ability to tell them where to look would also be evidence of her strange link with the celery thief—a link, she was certain, which would require a lot of evidence before anyone else was prepared to accept it.

She closed her eyes, consulting her inner compass once more, and smiled. It was holding steady, which meant she was headed in the right direction, and she opened her eyes once more.

She banked again, very slightly, adjusting her course to precisely the right heading, and her face glowed with excitement. She was on track at last. She knew she was, just as she knew that this time she had enough flight time to reach her goal, and she was quite correct. Unfortunately, she was also very young, and for all her brilliance, she'd made one small mistake.


Climbs Quickly paused, one true-hand stopped in mid-reach for the branch above, and his ears flattened. He'd become accustomed to his ability to sense the direction to the two-leg youngling, even if he still hadn't mentioned it to anyone else. He'd even become used to the way the youngling sometimes seemed to move with extraordinary speed—no doubt in one of the two-legs' flying things—but this was different. The youngling was moving quickly, though not as quickly as it sometimes had, but it was headed directly towards Climbs Quickly—and already far closer than it had come since he'd been relieved of his spying duties—and he felt a sudden chill.

There was no question. He recognized exactly what the youngling was doing, for he'd done much the same thing often enough in the past. True, he usually pursued his prey by scent, but now he understood how a ground runner must have felt when it realized he was on its trail, for the two-leg was using the link between them in exactly the same way. It was tracking him, and if it found him, it would also find Bright Water Clan's central nesting place. For good or ill, its ability to seek out Climbs Quickly would result in the discovery of his entire clan!

He stood for one more moment, heart racing, ears flat with mingled excitement and fear, then decided. He abandoned his original task and bounded off along an outstretched limb, racing to meet the approaching two-leg well away from the rest of his clan.


Stephanie's attention was locked on the trees below her now. Her flight had lasted over two hours, but she was drawing close at last. She could feel the distance melting away—indeed, it almost seemed the treecat was coming to meet her—and excitement narrowed the focus of her attention even further. The crown oak had thinned as she moved higher into the foothills. Now the woods below her were a mix of various evergreens and the crazy-quilt geometry of picket wood.

Of course they were, she thought, and her eyes brightened. The rough-barked picket wood would be the perfect habitat for someone like her little celery thief! Each picket wood system radiated from a single central trunk which sent out long, straight, horizontal branches at a height of between three and ten meters. Above that, branches might take on any shape; below it, they always grew in groups of four, radiating at near-perfect right angles from one another for a distance of ten to fifteen meters . . . at which point, each sent a vertical runner down to the earth below to establish its own root system and, in time, become its own nodal trunk. A single picket wood "tree" could extend itself for literally hundreds of kilometers in any direction, and it wasn't uncommon for one "tree" to run into another and fuse with it. When the lateral branches of two systems crossed, they merged in a node which put down its own runner.

Stephanie's mother was fascinated by the picket woods. Plants which spread by sending out runners weren't all that rare, but those which spread only via runner were. It was also more than a little uncommon for the runner to spread out through the air and grow down to the earth rather than the reverse, but what truly fascinated her was the tree's anti-disease defense mechanism. The unending network of branches and trunks should have made a picket wood system lethally vulnerable to diseases and parasites, but the plant had demonstrated a sort of natural quarantine process. Somehow—and Dr. Harrington had yet to discover how—a picket wood system was able to sever its links to afflicted portions of itself. Attacked by disease or parasites, the system secreted powerful cellulose-dissolving enzymes that ate away the connecting cross-branches and literally disconnected them at intervening nodal trunks, and Dr. Harrington was determined to locate the mechanism which made that possible.

But at the moment, her mother's interest in picket wood meant very little to Stephanie beside her realization of the same plant's importance to treecats. Picket wood stopped well short of the tree line, but it crossed mountains readily through valleys or at lower elevations, and it could be found in almost every climate zone. All of which meant it would provide treecats with the equivalent of aerial highways that could literally run clear across a continent! They could travel for hundreds—thousands!—of kilometers without ever once having to touch the ground where larger predators like hexapumas could get at them!

She laughed aloud at her deduction, but then her glider slipped abruptly sideways, and her laughter died as she stopped thinking about the sorts of trees beneath her and recognized instead the speed at which she was passing over them. She raised her head and looked around quickly, and a fist of ice seemed to squeeze her stomach.

The clear blue skies under which she had begun her flight still stretched away in front of her to the west. But the eastern sky behind her was no longer clear. A deadly looking line of thunderheads marched steadily west, white and fluffy on top but an ominous purple-black below, and even as she looked over her shoulder, she saw lightning flicker below them.

She should have seen it coming sooner, she thought numbly, hands aching as she squeezed the glider's grips in ivory-knuckled fists. She should have kept an eye out for it! But she was used to having other people—adult people—check the weather before she went gliding, and then she'd let herself get so excited, focus so intently on what she was doing, pay so little attention—

A harder fist of wind punched at her glider, staggering it in mid-air, and fear became terror. The following wind had been growing stronger for quite some time, a small, logical part of her realized. No doubt she would have noticed despite her concentration if she hadn't been gliding in the same direction, riding in the wind rather than across or against it where the velocity shift would have to have registered. But the thunderheads behind were catching up with her quickly, and the outriders of their squall line lashed through the airspace in front of them.

Daddy! She had to com Daddy—tell him where she was—tell him to come get her—tell him—!

But there was no time. She'd messed up, and for the first time in her life, Stephanie Harrington confronted her own mortality. All the theoretical discussions of what to do in bad weather, all the stern warnings to avoid rough air, came crashing in on her, and they were no longer theoretical. She was in deadly danger, and she knew it. Countergrav unit or no, a storm like the one racing up behind her could blot her out of the air as casually as she might have swatted a fly, and with just as deadly a result. She could die in the next few minutes, and the thought terrified her, but she didn't panic.

Yes, she had to com Mom and Daddy, but it wasn't as if she didn't know exactly what they'd tell her to do if she did. She had to get out of the air, and she couldn't afford the distraction of trying to explain where she was while she tried to get down safely . . . especially through that solid-looking green canopy below her.

She banked again, shivering with fear, eyes desperately seeking some opening, however small, and the air trembled as thunder rumbled behind her.


Climbs Quickly reared up on true-feet and hand-feet, lips wrinkling back from needle-sharp white fangs as a flood of terror crashed over him. It pounded deep into him, waking the ancient fight-or-flight instinct which, had he but known it, his kind shared with humanity, but it wasn't his terror at all.

It took him an instant to realize that, yet it was true. It wasn't his fear; it was the two-leg youngling's, and even as the youngling's fear ripped at him, he felt a fresh surge of wonder. He was still too far from the two-leg. He could never have felt another of the People's mind glow at this distance, and he knew it, but this two-leg's mind glow raged through him like a forest fire, screaming for his aid without even realizing it could do so, and it struck him like a lash. He shook his head once, and then flashed down the line of what humans called picket wood like a cream and gray blur while his fluffy tail streamed straight out behind him.


Desperation filled Stephanie. The thunderstorm was almost upon her—the first white pellets of hail rattled off her taut glider covering—and without the countergrav she would already have been blotted from the sky. But not even the countergrav unit could save her from the mounting turbulence much longer, and—

Her thoughts chopped off as salvation loomed suddenly before her. The black, irregular scar of an old forest fire ripped a huge hole through the trees, and she choked back a sob of gratitude as she spied it. The ground was dangerously rough for a landing in conditions like this, but it was infinitely more inviting than the solid web of branches tossing and lashing below her, and she banked towards it.

She almost made it.


Climbs Quickly ran as he'd never run before. Somehow he knew he raced against death itself, though it never occurred to him to wonder what someone his size could do for someone the size of even a two-leg youngling. It didn't matter. All that mattered was the terror, the fear—the danger—which confronted that other presence in his mind, and he ran madly towards it.

* * *

It was the strength of the wind which did it. Even then, she would have made it without the sudden downdraft that hammered her at the last instant, but between them, they were too much. Stephanie saw it coming in the moment before she struck, realized instantly what was going to happen, but there was no time to avoid it. No time even to feel the full impact of the realization before her glider crashed into the crown of the towering evergreen at over fifty kilometers per hour.



Climbs Quickly slithered to a stop, momentarily frozen in horror, but then he gasped in relief. The sudden silence in his mind wasn't—quite—absolute. His instant fear that the youngling had been killed eased, but something deeper and darker, without the same bright panic but with even greater power, replaced it. Whatever had happened, the youngling was now unconscious, yet even in its unconsciousness, he was still linked to it . . . and he felt its pain. It was injured, possibly badly—possibly badly enough that his initial fear that it had died would prove justified after all. And if it was injured, what could he do to help? Young as it was, it was far larger than he—much too large for him to drag to safety.

But what one of the People couldn't do, many of them often could, he thought, and closed his eyes, lashing his tail while he thought. He'd run too far to feel the combined mind glow of his clan's central nest place. His emotions couldn't reach so far, but his mind voice could. If he cried out for help, Sings Truly would hear, and if she failed to, surely some hunter or scout between her and Climbs Quickly would hear and relay. Yet what words could he cry out with? How could he summon the clan to aid a two-leg—the very two-leg he had allowed to see him? How could he expect them to abandon their policy of hiding from the two-legs? And even if he could have expected that of them, what right had he to demand it?

He stood irresolute, tail flicking, ears flattened as the branch beneath him creaked and swayed and the first raindrops lashed the budding leaves. Rain, he thought, a flicker of humor leaking even through his dread and uncertainty. Was it always going to be raining when he and his two-leg met?

Strangely, that thought broke his paralysis, and he shook himself. All he knew so far was that the two-leg was hurt and that he was very close to it now. He had no way of knowing how bad its injuries might actually be, nor even if there were any reason to consider calling out for help. After all, if there was nothing the clan could do, then there was no point in trying to convince it to come. No, the thing to do was to continue until he found the youngling. He had to see what its condition was before he could determine the best way to help—assuming it required his help at all—and he scurried onward almost as quickly as before.

* * *

Stephanie recovered consciousness slowly. The world swayed and jerked all about her, thunder rumbled and crashed, rain lashed her like an icy flail, and she'd never hurt so much in her entire life.

The pounding rain's chill wetness helped rouse her, and she tried to move, only to whimper as the pain in her left arm stabbed suddenly higher. She blinked, rubbing her eyes with her right palm, and felt a sort of dull shock as she realized part of what had been blinding her was blood, not simply rainwater.

She wiped again and felt a sliver of relief as she realized there was much less blood than she'd thought. It seemed to be coming from a single cut on her forehead, and the cold rain was already slowing the bleeding. She managed to clear her eyes well enough to look about her, and her relief vanished.

Her glider was smashed. Not broken: smashed. Its tough composite covering and struts had been specially designed to be crash survivable, but it had never been intended for the abuse to which she'd subjected it, and it had crumpled into a mangled lacework of fabric and shattered framing. Yet it hadn't quite failed completely, and she hung in her harness from the main spar, which was jammed in the fork of a branch above her. The throbbing ache where the harness straps crossed her body told her she'd been badly bruised by the abrupt termination of her flight, and one of her ribs stabbed her with a white burst of agony every time she breathed, but without the harness—and the forked branch which had caught her—she would have smashed straight into the massive tree trunk directly in front of her, and she shuddered at the thought.

But however lucky she might have been, there'd been bad luck to go with the good. Like most colony world children, Stephanie had been through the mandatory first-aid courses . . . not that any training was needed to realize her left arm was broken in at least two places. She knew which way her elbow was supposed to bend, and there was no joint in the middle of her forearm. That was bad enough, but there was worse, for her com had been strapped to her left wrist.

It wasn't there anymore.

She turned her head, craning her neck to peer painfully back along the all too obvious course of her crashing impact with the treetops, and wondered where the com was. The wrist unit was virtually indestructible, and if she could only find it—and reach it—she could call for help in an instant. But there was no way she was going to find it in that mess. It was almost funny, she thought through the haze of her pain. She couldn't find it, but Mom or Daddy could have found it with ridiculous ease . . . if they'd only known to use the emergency override code to activate the locator beacon function. Or, for that matter, if she'd thought to activate it when the storm first came up. Unfortunately, she'd been too preoccupied finding a landing spot to bring the beacon up, and even if she had, no one would have found it until they thought to look for it.

And since I can't even find it, I can't com anyone to tell them to start looking for it, she thought fuzzily. I really messed up this time. Mom and Daddy are going to be really, really pissed. Bet they ground me till I'm sixteen for this one! 

Even as she thought it, she knew it was ridiculous to worry about such things at a time like this. Yet there was a certain perverse comfort—a sense of familiarity, perhaps—to it, and she actually managed a damp-sounding chuckle despite the tears of pain and fear trickling down her face.

She let herself hang limp for another moment, but badly as she felt the need to rest, she dared do no such thing. The wind was growing stronger, not weaker, and the branch from which she hung creaked and swayed alarmingly. Then there was the matter of lightning. A tree this tall was all too likely to attract any stray bolt, and she had no desire to share the experience with it. No, she had to get herself down, and she blinked away residual pain tears and fresh rain to peer down at the ground.

It was a good twelve-meter drop, and she shuddered at the thought. Her gymnastics classes had taught her how to tuck and roll, but that wouldn't have helped from this height even with two good arms. With her left arm shattered, she'd probably finish herself off permanently if she tried it. But the way her supporting branch was beginning to shake told her she had no option but to get down somehow. Even if the branch held, her damaged harness was likely to let go . . . assuming the even more badly damaged spar didn't simply snap first. But how—?

Of course! She reached up and around with her right arm, gritting her teeth as even that movement shifted her left arm ever so slightly and sent fresh stabs of anguish through her. But the pain was worth it, for her fingers confirmed her hope. The counter-grav unit was still there, and she felt the slight, pulsating hum that indicated it was still operating. Of course, she couldn't be certain how long it would go on operating. Her cautiously exploring hand reported an entire series of deep dents and gouges in its casing. She supposed she should be glad it had protected her back by absorbing the blows which had left those marks, but if the unit had taken a beating anything like what had happened to the rest of her equipment, it probably wouldn't last all that long. On the other hand, it only had to hold out long enough to get her to the ground, and—

Her thoughts chopped off, and she jerked back around, in a shock spasm fast enough to wrench a half-scream of pain from her bruised body and broken arm, as something touched the back of her head. It wasn't that the touch hurt in any way, for it was feather gentle, almost a caress. Only its totally unexpected surprise produced its power, and all the pain she felt was the result of her response to it. Yet even as she bit her pain sound back into a groan, the hurt seemed far away and unimportant as she stared into the treecat's slit-pupiled green eyes from a distance of less than thirty centimeters.


Climbs Quickly winced as the two-leg's peaking hurt clawed at him, yet he was vastly relieved to find it awake and aware. He smelled the bright, sharp smell of blood, and the two-leg's arm was clearly broken. He had no idea how it had managed to get itself into such a predicament, but the bits and pieces strewn around it and hanging from its harness of straps were obviously the ruin of some sort of flying thing. The fragments didn't look like the other flying things he'd seen, yet such it must have been for the two-leg to wind up stuck in the top of a tree this way.

He wished fervently that it could have found another place to crash. This clearing was a place of bad omen, shunned by all of the People. Once it had been the heart of the Sun Shadow Clan's range, but the remnants of that clan had moved far, far away, trying to forget what had happened to it here, and Climbs Quickly would have much preferred not to come here himself.

But that was beside the point. He was here, and however little he might like this place, he knew the two-leg had to get down. The branch from which it hung was not only thrashing with the wind but trying to split off the tree—he knew it was, for he'd crossed the weakened spot to reach the two-leg—and that didn't even consider the way green-needle trees attracted lightning. Yet he could see no way for a two-leg with a broken arm to climb like one of the People, and he was certainly too small to carry it!

Frustration bubbled in the back of his mind as he realized how little he could do, but it never occurred to him not to try to help. This was one of "his" two-legs, and he knew that it was the link to him which had brought it here. There were far too many things happening for him to begin to understand them all, yet understanding was strangely unimportant. This, he realized suddenly, wasn't "one" of his two-legs after all; it was his two-leg. Whatever the link between them was, it cut both ways. They weren't simply linked; they were bound to one another, and he could no more have abandoned this strange-looking, alien creature than he could have walked away from Sings Truly or Short Tail in time of need.

Yet what could he do? He leaned out from his perch, clinging to the tree with hand-feet and one true-hand, prehensile tail curled tight around the branch, as he extended the other true-hand to stroke the two-leg's cheek and croon to it, and he saw it blink. Then its hand came up, so much smaller than a full grown two-leg's yet so much bigger than his own, and he arched his spine and crooned again—this time in pleasure—as the two-leg returned his caress.


Even in her pain and fear, Stephanie felt a sense of wonder—almost awe—as the treecat reached out to touch her face. She'd seen the strong, curved claws the creature's other hand had sunk into the evergreen's bark, but the wiry fingers that touched her cheek were moth-wing gentle, claws retracted, and she pressed back against it. Then she reached out her own good hand, touching the rain-soaked fur, stroking it as she would have stroked an Old Terran cat, and the creature arched with a soft sound of pleasure. She didn't begin to understand what was happening, but she didn't have to. She didn't know exactly what the treecat was doing, but she dimly sensed the way it was soothing her fear—even her pain—through that strange link they shared, and she clung to the comfort it offered.

But then it drew back, sitting higher on its four rear limbs. It cocked its head at her for a long moment while wind and rain howled about them, and then it raised one front paw—no, she reminded herself, one of its hands—and pointed downward.

That was the only possible way to describe its actions. It pointed downward, and even as it pointed, it made a sharp, scolding sound whose meaning was unmistakable.

"I know I need to get down," she told it in a hoarse, pain-shadowed voice. "In fact, I was working on it when you turned up. Just give me a minute, will you?"


Climbs Quickly's ears shifted as the two-leg made noises at him. For the first time, thanks to the link between them, he had proof the noises were actually words, and he felt a stab of pity for the two-leg and its fellows. Was that the only way they knew to communicate with one another? But however crude and imperfect the means might be compared to the manner in which the People spoke, at least he could now prove that they did communicate. That should go a long way towards convincing the rest of the clan leaders that two-legs truly were People in their own fashion. And at least the noises the hurt youngling was making, coupled with the taste of its mind glow, were proof that it was still thinking. He felt a surge of strange pride in the two-leg, comparing its reaction to how some of the People's younglings might have reacted in its place, and bleeked at it again, more gently.


"I know, I know, I know!" Stephanie sighed, and reached back to the countergrav's controls. She adjusted them carefully, then bit her lower lip as a ragged pulsation marred its smooth vibration.

She gave the rheostat one last, gentle twitch, feeling the pressure of the harness straps ease as her apparent weight was reduced to three or four kilos, but that was as far as it would go. She would have preferred an even lower value—had the unit been undamaged, she could have reduced her apparent weight all the way to zero, in which case she would actually have had to pull herself down against its lift. But the rheostat was all the way over now. It wouldn't go any further . . . and the ragged pulsation served notice that the unit was likely to pack up any minute, even at its current setting. Still, she told herself, doggedly trying to find a bright side, maybe it was just as well. Any lighter weight would have been dangerous in such a high wind, and getting her lightweight self smashed against a tree trunk or branch by a sudden gust would hardly do her broken arm any good.

"Well," she said, looking back at the treecat, "here goes."


The two-leg looked at him and said something else, and then, to Climbs Quickly's horror, it unlatched its harness with its good hand and let itself fall. He reared up in protest, ears flattened, yet his horror vanished almost as quickly as it had come, for the youngling didn't actually fall at all. Instead, its good hand flashed back out, catching hold of a dangling strip of its broken flying thing, and he blinked. That frayed strip looked too frail to support even his weight, yet it held the two-leg with ease, and the youngling slid slowly down it from the grip of that single hand.


The countergrav unit's harsh, warning buzz of imminent failure clawed at Stephanie's ears, and she muttered a word she wasn't supposed to know and slithered more quickly down the broken rigging stay. It was tempting to simply let herself fall, but the countergrav unit only reduced her apparent weight. It didn't do a thing about her mass, and any object fell at over thirteen meters per second per second in Sphinx's gravity, which meant she would hit the ground just as fast and with just as much momentum as if she'd had no countergrav at all. But what she could do was let herself down the stay, whose torn anchorage would never have supported her normal weight.

She was only two meters up when the unit decided to fail, and she cried out, clutching at the stay as her suddenly restored weight snatched at her. She plummeted to the ground, automatically tucking and rolling as her gym teacher had taught her, and she would have been fine if her arm hadn't been broken.

But it was broken, and her scream was high and shrill as her rolling weight smashed down on it and the darkness claimed her.



Climbs Quickly leapt down through the branches with frantic haste. His sensitive hearing had detected the sound of the countergrav unit, and though he'd had no idea what it was, he knew its abrupt cessation must have had something to do with the youngling's fall. No doubt it had been another two-leg tool which, like the youngling's flying thing, had broken. In an odd sort of way, it was almost reassuring to know two-leg tools could break, but that was cold comfort at the moment, and his whiskers quivered with anxiety as he hit the ground and scuttled quickly over to the youngling.

It lay on its side, and he winced as he realized its fall had ended with its broken arm trapped under it. He tasted the shadow of pain even through the murkiness of its unconscious mind glow, and he dreaded what the youngling would experience when it regained its senses. Worse, he sensed a new pain source in its right knee. But aside from the arm, the knee, and another bump swelling on its forehead, the young two-leg appeared to have taken no fresh damage, and Climbs Quickly settled back on his haunches in relief.

He might not understand what had happened to forge the link between him and this two-leg, but that was no longer really important. What mattered was that the link existed and that for whatever reason the two of them had somehow been made one. There was an echo to it much like that in the mind glows of mated couples, but this was different, without the overtones of physical desire and bereft of the mutual communication of ideas. It was a thing of pure emotion—or almost pure emotion, at any rate; he felt frustratingly certain that he had touched the very edge of the youngling's actual thoughts a time or two and wondered if perhaps another of the People and another two-leg might someday reach further than that. For that matter, perhaps he and his two-leg would manage that someday, for if this was in fact a permanent link, they would have turnings and turnings in which to explore it.

That prompted another thought, and he groomed his whiskers with a meditative hand while he wondered just how long two-legs lived. The People were much longer lived than large creatures like the death fangs and snow hunters. Did that mean they lived longer than two-legs? The possibility woke an unexpected pain, almost like a presentiment of grief for the loss of the youngling's—his youngling's—glorious mind glow. Yet it was a youngling, he reminded himself, while he was a full adult. Even if its natural span was shorter than his, the difference in their ages might give them an equal number of remaining turnings. That thought was oddly comforting, and he shook himself and looked around.

The battering rain had already eased as the squall line passed through, and much of the wind's strength had died away, as well. He was glad his two-leg had gotten down before the wind could knock it out of the tree, yet every instinct insisted that the ground was not a safe place to be. That was certainly true for the People, but perhaps the youngling had one of the weapons with which its elders sometimes slew the death fangs which threatened them. Climbs Quickly knew those weapons came in different shapes and sizes, but he'd never seen the small ones some two-legs carried, and so he had no way to tell if the youngling had one.

Yet even if it did, its injured condition would leave it in poor shape to defend itself, and it certainly couldn't follow him up into the trees if danger threatened. Which meant it was time to scout around. If there was danger here, best he should know about it now. Once the young two-leg reawakened, it might have ideas of its own about how to proceed; until then, he would simply have to do the best he could on his own.

He turned away from the two-leg and began to circle it, moving out in an ever-widening spiral while nose and ears probed alertly. This early in the season there was little undergrowth beneath the trees to obscure his lines of sight, though it was a different matter in the old forest fire's clearing, which low-growing scrub and young trees were beginning to reclaim, and the rain hadn't been hard enough or fallen long enough to wipe away scents. Indeed, the moist air actually made them sharper and richer, and his muzzle wrinkled as he tested them.

But then, suddenly, he froze, whiskers stiff and fluffy tail belled out to twice its normal diameter. He made himself take another long, careful scent, yet it was no more than a formality. No clan scout could ever mistake the smell of a death fang lair, and this one was close.

He turned slowly, working to fix the location clearly in his mind, and his heart fell. The scent came from the clearing, where the undergrowth would offer the lair's owner maximum concealment when it returned and scented the two-leg. And it would return, he thought sinkingly, for he smelled something more, now. The death fang was a female, and it had recently littered. That meant it must be out hunting food for its young . . . and that it would be back sooner rather than later.

Climbs Quickly stood a moment longer, then raced back to the two-leg. He touched its face with his muzzle, willing it to awaken with all his might, but there was no response. It would wake when it woke, he realized. Nothing he did would speed that moment, and that left but one thing he could do.

He sat upright on his four rearmost limbs, curling his tail neatly about his true-feet and hand-feet, and composed his thought carefully, then sent it soaring out through the dripping forest. He shaped and drove it with all the urgency in him, crying out to his sister, and somehow his link to the two-leg lent his call additional strength.

<Climb's Quickly?> Even from here he tasted the shock in Sings Truly's mind voice. <Where are you? What's wrong?> 

<I am near the old fire scar to sun-rising of our range,> Climbs Quickly replied as calmly as he could, and felt a fresh surge of astonishment from his sister. No one from Bright Water Clan would soon forget the terrible day Sun Shadow Clan had lost control of a fire and seen its entire central nesting place—and all too many of its kittens—consumed in dreadful flame and smoke.

<Why?> she demanded. <What could possibly take you there?>

<I—> Climbs Quickly paused, then drew a deep breath. <It would take too long to explain, Sings Truly. But I am here with an injured youngling . . . and so also is a death fang lair filled with young.> 

Sings Truly knew her brother well, and the oddness in his reply was obvious to her. But so was the unusual strength and clarity of his mind voice. He had always had a strong voice for a male, but today he had reached almost to the strength of a memory singer, and she wondered how he'd done it. Some scouts and hunters gained far stronger voices when they mated, as if their mates' minds somehow harmonized with theirs at need, but that couldn't explain Climbs Quickly's new power. Yet those thoughts were but a fleeting background for the chill horror she felt at the thought of any injured youngling trapped so near a death fang.

She started to reply once more, then stopped, tail kinking and ears cocking in sudden consternation and suspicion. No, surely not. Not even Climbs Quickly would dare that. Not after the way the clan elders had berated him! Yet try as she might, she could think of no way any Bright Water youngling would have strayed so far, and no other clan's range bordered on the fire scar. And Climbs Quickly had named no names, had he? But—

She shook herself. There was, of course, one way to satisfy her suspicion. All she had to do was ask . . . but if she did, then she would know her brother was violating the edicts of his clan heads. If she didn't ask, she could only suspect—not know—and so she kept that particular question to herself and asked another.

<What do you wish of me, brother?>

<Sound the alarm,> he replied, sending a burst of gratitude and love with the words, for he knew what she'd considered, and her choice of question told him what she'd decided.

<For the "injured youngling."> Sings Truly's flat statement was a question, and he flicked his tail in agreement even though she could not see it.

<Yes,> he returned simply, and felt her hesitation. But then her answer came.

<I will,> she said with equal simplicity—and the unquestionable authority of a memory singer. <We come with all speed, my brother.>


Stephanie Harrington awoke once more. A weak, pain-filled sound leaked from her—less words than the mew of an injured kitten—and her eyelids fluttered. She started to sit up, and her mew became a breathless, involuntary scream as her weight shifted on her broken arm. The sudden agony was literally blinding, and she screwed her eyes shut once more, sobbing with hurt as she made herself sit up anyway. Nausea knotted her stomach as the anguish in her arm and shoulder and broken rib vibrated through her, and she sat very still, as if the pain were some sort of hunting predator from which she could hide until it passed her by.

But the pain didn't pass her by. It only eased a bit, and she blinked on tears, scrubbing her face with her good hand and sniffling as she smeared mud and the blood from her mashed nose across her cheeks. She didn't need to move to know she'd smashed her knee, as well as her bad arm, in her fall, and she felt herself shuddering, quivering like a leaf as hopelessness and pain crushed down on her. The immediacy of the need to get down out of the tree had helped carry her to this point, but she was on the ground now. That gave her time to think—and feel.

Fresh, hot tears brimmed, dripping down her face, and she whined as she made herself gather her left wrist in her right hand and lift it into her lap. Just moving it twisted her with torment, but she couldn't leave it hanging down beside her like it belonged to someone else. She thought about using her belt to fasten it to her side, but she couldn't find the energy—or courage—to move that shattered bone again. It was too much for her. Now that the immediate crisis was over, she knew how much she hurt, how totally lost she was, how desperately she wanted—needed—her parents to come take her home, how stupid she'd been to get herself into this mess . . . and how very little she could do to get herself out of it.

She huddled there at the foot of the tree, crying hopelessly for her mother and father. The world had proved bigger and more dangerous than she'd ever quite believed, and she wanted them to come find her. No scold they could give her, however ferocious, could match the one she gave herself, and she whimpered as the sobs she couldn't stop shook her broken arm and sent fresh, vicious stabs of pain through her.

But then she felt a light pressure on her right thigh and blinked furiously to clear her eyes. She looked down, and the treecat looked back. He stood beside her, one hand resting on her leg, ears flattened with concern, and she heard—and felt—his soft, comforting croon. She gazed down at him for a moment, mouth quivering in exhaustion, despair, pain, and physical shock, and then she held out her good arm to him, and he didn't even hesitate. He flowed up her leg to stand on his rearmost limbs in her lap and place his hands—those strong, wiry, long-fingered hands with the carefully sheathed claws—on either side of her neck. He pressed his whiskered muzzle to her cheek, the power of his croon quivering through him as if he were a dynamo, and she locked her right arm around him. She held him close, almost crushing him, and buried her face in his soft, damp fur, sobbing as if her heart would break, and even as she wept, she felt him somehow taking the worst hurt, the worst despair and helplessness from her.

* * *

Climbs Quickly accepted the two-leg's tight embrace. People's eyes didn't shed water as the two-leg's did, but only the mind-blind could possibly have mistaken the grief and fear and pain in the youngling's mind glow, and he felt a vast surge of protective tenderness for it. For her, he realized now, though he wasn't quite certain how he knew. Perhaps it was just that he was becoming more accustomed to the taste of her mind glow. One could almost always tell whether one of the People was male or female from no more than that, after all. Of course, this youngling was totally unlike the People, but still—

He pressed more firmly against her, stroking her cheek with his muzzle and patting her good shoulder with his right true-hand while he settled more deeply into fusion with her. It wasn't as it would have been with another of his own kind, for she was unable to anchor the fusion properly from her end, but it was enough to let him draw off the worst of her despair. He felt the burden of her fear and pain ease and sensed her surprised awareness that he was somehow responsible, and a deep, buzzing purr replaced his croon. He nudged her cheek more firmly, then pulled back just far enough to touch his nose to hers, staring deep into her eyes, and her good hand caressed his ears. She said something—another of those mouth noises which so far meant nothing—but he felt her gratitude and knew the meaningless sounds thanked him for being there.

She leaned back against the tree, easing her broken arm carefully, and he settled down in her lap, wishing with what he hoped was concealed desperation that there was some way to get her away from this place. He knew she remained confused and frightened, and he had no desire to undo all the soothing he'd achieved, yet the scent of the death fang seemed to clog his nostrils. If not for her injured knee, he would have done his best to get her on her feet despite her broken arm. But the tough covering she wore over her legs had torn when she hit the ground, and the gashed knee under it was swollen and purpling. He needed no link to know she could move neither fast nor far, and he turned his mind once more towards his sister.

<Does the clan come?> he asked urgently, and her reply astounded him.

<We come,> Sings Truly repeated with unmistakable emphasis, and he blinked. Surely she didn't mean—? But then she sent him a brief burst of her own vision, and he realized she did. She was leading every male adult of the clan herself. A memory singer was leading the clan's fighting strength into battle with a death fang! That wasn't merely unheard of—it was unthinkable. Yet it was happening, and he poured a flood of gratitude towards her.

<There is no choice, little brother,> she told him dryly. <The clan may protect your "youngling" from the death fang, but without me, there will be no one to protect you from Broken Tooth and Digger . . . or Song Spinner! Now leave me in peace, Climbs Quickly. I cannot run properly with you nattering at me.> 

He pulled in his thought, basking in his sister's love and trying not to think about the implications of her warning. From the glimpse he'd shared through her eyes, she and the others were making excellent speed. They would be here soon, and only a very stupid death fang would risk attacking anything with an entire clan of People perched protectively in the trees above it. It would not be long until—


Stephanie had fallen into a half doze, leaning back against the tree, but her head snapped up instantly as the treecat came to his feet in her lap with a harsh, rippling snarl like shredding canvas. She'd never heard anything like it, yet she knew instantly what it meant. It was as if the link between them transmitted that meaning to her, and she felt his fear and fury . . . and fierce determination to protect her.

She looked around wildly, trying to find the danger, then gasped, eyes huge in a parchment face, as the hexapuma flowed out of the undergrowth like a gray, six-legged shadow of death. Its lips wrinkled back, baring bone-white canines at least fifteen centimeters long, and its ears flattened as it sent its own rippling snarl—this one voiced in deep, basso thunder—to meet the treecat's. Terror froze Stephanie, but the treecat leapt from her lap. He sprang up onto a low-lying limb and crouched there, threatening his gargantuan foe from above, and his claws were no longer sheathed. For some reason, the hexapuma hesitated, twisting its head around and staring up at the trees, almost as if it were afraid of something. But that couldn't last, and she knew it.

"No," she heard herself whisper to her tiny protector. "No, it's too big! Run away. Oh, please—please! Run away!" 

But the treecat ignored her, his green eyes locked on the hexapuma, and despair mixed with her terror. The hexapuma was going to get them both, because the treecat wouldn't run away. Somehow she knew, beyond any possibility of question, that the only way the hexapuma would reach her would be through him.


There was very little to sense in a death fang's brain, but Climbs Quickly understood its hesitation. This was an old death fang, and it had not lived this long without learning some hard lessons. Among those lessons must have been what a roused clan could do to its kind, for it had the wit to look for the others who should have been there to support him.

But Climbs Quickly knew what the death fang couldn't. There were no other People—not yet. They were coming, tearing through the treetops with frantic, redoubled speed, but they would never arrive in time.

He glared down at the death fang, sounding his challenge, and knew he couldn't win. No single scout or hunter could encounter a death fang and live, yet he could no more abandon his two-leg youngling than he could have abandoned a kitten of the People. He felt her desperate emotions urging him to flee and save himself despite her own terror, even as he felt his sister's mind voice screaming the same, but it didn't matter. It didn't even matter that the death fang would kill the two-leg the moment he himself was dead. What mattered was that his two-leg—his person—must not die alone and abandoned. He would buy her every moment of life he could, and perhaps, just perhaps, it would be long enough for Sings Truly to arrive. He told himself that firmly, fiercely, trying to pretend he didn't know it was a lie, and then the death fang charged.


Stephanie watched the motionless confrontation as treecat and hexapuma glared and snarled at one another, and the tension tore at her like knives. She couldn't stand it, yet neither could she escape it, and the treecat's utter, hopeless gallantry ripped at her heart. He could have run away. He could have escaped the hexapuma easily, but he'd refused, and deep inside, under the panic of an exhausted, hurt, terrified child face-to-face with a murderous menace she should never have encountered, his fierce defiance touched something in her. She didn't know what it was. She didn't even realize what was happening. But even as the treecat was determined to protect her, she felt an equally fierce, equally unyielding determination to protect him. 

Her right hand fell to her belt and closed on the hilt of her vibro blade survival knife. It was only a short blade—barely eighteen centimeters long, which was nothing compared to the sixty-centimeter bush knives Forestry Service rangers carried. But that short blade had a cutting "edge" less than a molecule wide, and it whined alive in her hand as she somehow shoved herself to her feet. She leaned back against the trunk, left arm dangling while terror rose like bile in her throat, and knew her knife was too puny. It would slice through the hexapuma effortlessly, cutting bone as easily as tissue, yet it was too short. The huge predator would tear her apart before she could cut it at all, and even if she somehow did manage to cut it as it charged, even inflict a mortal wound, it was so big and powerful it would kill her before it died. But the knife was all she had, and she stared at the hexapuma, hardly daring to breathe, waiting.

And then it charged.


Climbs Quickly saw the death fang move at last. He had time to send out one more urgent message to Sings Truly, to feel her raging despair and fury at the knowledge she would come too late, and then there was no more time to think. There was no time for anything but speed and violence and ferocity.


Stephanie couldn't believe it. The hexapuma was terrifyingly quick for so huge a creature, yet the treecat sprang from his perch, catapulting through the air in a cream-and-gray streak that somehow evaded the hexapuma's slashing forepaws. He landed on the back of its neck, and it screamed as centimeter-long claws ripped at thick fur and tough skin. It whirled, both rear pairs of limbs planted firmly, forequarters rising up as it twisted to snap and claw at the treecat, but its furious blows missed. The treecat had executed his flashing attack only to race further down his enemy's spine and fling himself back up onto another branch, and the hexapuma forgot about Stephanie. It wheeled, charging the tree in which the treecat waited, rising up on its rear legs and spreading its front and mid-limbs wide to claw at the thick trunk. It dragged itself as high as it could, slashing and snarling, and Stephanie suddenly understood what the treecat was trying to do.

He was distracting the hexapuma. He knew he couldn't kill it or even truly fight it. His attack had been intended to hurt it, to make it angry and direct that anger at him and away from her, and it was working. But it was a desperate, ultimately losing game, for he must keep up the attacks, keep stinging the hexapuma, and he couldn't be lucky forever.


Climbs Quickly felt a fierce exultation, unlike anything he'd ever imagined. This was a fight he couldn't win, yet he was eager for it. He wanted it, and the blood-red taste of his own fury filled him with fire. He watched the death fang lunge up the tree and timed his response perfectly. Just as the death fang reached the very top of its leap, he dropped to meet it, slashing and ripping, and the death fang howled as he shredded its muzzle and tore an ear to pieces, but again its counter-striking forepaws missed him as he sprang away once more.

It charged after him, and he came to meet it yet again. He danced in and out of the trees, pitting blinding speed and skill and intelligence against the death fang's brute power and cunning. It was a dance which could have only one ending, yet he spun it out far longer than even he would have believed possible before it began.

* * *


Stephanie screamed in useless denial as the treecat finally made a mistake. Perhaps he slipped, or perhaps he'd simply begun to tire at last. She didn't know. She only knew that she'd felt a wild, impossible hope as the fight raged on and on. Not that he could win, but that he might not lose. Even as she'd let herself hope, she'd known it was in vain, but the suddenness of the end hit her with the cruelty of a hammer.

The treecat was a fraction of a second too slow, lingered to slash at the hexapuma's shoulders for just an instant too long, and a mid-limb paw flashed up savagely. Ten-centimeter claws gleamed like scimitars, and she heard—and felt—the treecat's scream of agony as that brutal blow landed.

It didn't hit squarely, but it was square enough. It stripped him away from the hexapuma's neck, flicking him aside like a toy, and he screamed again as he slammed into the trunk of a tree. He tumbled down it in a broken, bloody ball of fur, and the hexapuma rose on its rearmost limbs. It hovered there, howling its rage and triumph, and then it lowered all six feet to the ground and crouched to spring and rend and tear and crush its tiny enemy.

Stephanie saw it, understood it, knew what it intended . . . and that she couldn't possibly stop it. But the treecat—her treecat—had known he couldn't stop it from killing her, either, and that hadn't kept him from trying. A part of her knew it was only a pathetic gesture, no more than the hiss and spit of a kitten in the instant before hungry jaws closed on it forever, but it was a gesture she simply could not not make.

She lunged, ignoring her snapped rib, the agony in her wounded knee and broken arm. In that moment, she wasn't just an eleven-year-old girl. There was no time for her to fully grasp all that was happening, but something inside her had changed forever when the treecat offered his life to save hers, and her scream was a war cry as she brought the vibro blade slashing forward and offered her life for his.

The hexapuma shrieked as the high-tech blade sliced into it. It had forgotten about Stephanie, narrowed all its intention to Climbs Quickly, and it was totally unprepared for the unadulterated agony of that blow. The blade caught it on its right flank, so "sharp" that even an eleven-year-old's arm could drive it hilt-deep. The creature's own frantic lunge to escape the pain did the rest, and blood sprayed across the fallen leaves of winters past as its movement dragged the unstoppable blade through muscle, tendons, arteries, and bone.

Stephanie staggered and almost fell as the huge predator squirmed frantically away. Her hand and arm were soaked in its blood, more steaming blood had gouted across her face and eyes, and if she'd had time for it, she would have been nauseated. But she didn't have time, and she staggered further forward, putting herself between the treecat and the hexapuma.

It was all she could do to stay on her feet. She shook like a leaf, her blood-coated face streaked with tears while terror yammered within her, yet somehow she stayed upright and raised the humming blade between them as the hexapuma stared at her in animal disbelief. Its right rear leg trailed helplessly while blood pulsed from the huge, gaping wound in its flank, but the very sharpness of the vibro blade worked against Stephanie in at least one respect. That wound was fatal, but the hexapuma didn't know it. It would take time to bleed out, and the knife was so sharp, the wound inflicted so quickly, that the creature had no idea of the catastrophic damage it had just received. It only knew it was hurt, that the injured prey it had expected to take so easily had inflicted more agony than any enemy it had ever faced, and it howled its fury.

It paused for just a moment, hissing and spitting, the ears Climbs Quickly had shredded flat to its skull, and Stephanie knew it was going to charge. She had no more idea than the hexapuma that she'd already inflicted a mortal wound, and she tried to hold her knife steady. It was going to come right over her, but if she could get the knife up, stick it into its chest or belly and let its charge do there what its lunge away had done to its hindquarters, then maybe at least the treecat would—

The hexapuma howled again, and Stephanie wanted desperately to close her eyes. But she couldn't, and she saw it lunge—saw it spring forward in the first of the two leaps it would take to reach her, dragging its crippled leg, fang-studded maw agape.

Only it never completed that lunge, and Stephanie's head jerked up as a dreadful noise filled the forest. She'd heard a single echo of it from the treecat who'd fought to protect her, but this wasn't the defiant cry of one hopelessly gallant defender. This was the rippling snarl of dozens—scores—of treecats, filled with hate and vengeance, and its challenge pierced even the hexapuma's rage. Its head snapped up, as Stephanie's had done, and its yowl was filled with as much panic as fury as the trees exploded above it.

A cream-and-gray avalanche thundered down with a massed, high-pitched scream that seemed to shake the forest. It engulfed the hexapuma in an unstoppable flood of slashing ivory claws and needle-sharp fangs, and Stephanie Harrington collapsed beside a dreadfully wounded Climbs Quickly as the scouts and hunters of his clan literally ripped their foe to pieces.



"I'm home!" Richard Harrington called out as he walked into the living room.

"About time," Marjorie replied from her office. She was at the end of a section anyway, so she hit the save key and closed the report, then rose and stretched.

"Hey, don't give me a hard time," her husband told her severely as he walked down the short hall and poked his head in her door. "You may be able to do a full day's work without going anywhere, but some of us have patients who require our direct, personal attendance . . . not to mention a superb bedside manner."

"'Bedside manner,' right!" Marjorie snorted, and Richard grinned as he leaned close to kiss her cheek. She put an arm around him and hugged him briefly. "Did Steph have a good day with Mr. Sapristos?" she went on.

"What?" Richard pulled back with a strange expression, and she cocked an eyebrow.

"I asked if Stephanie had a good day with Mayor Sapristos," she said, and Richard frowned.

"I didn't drop her off in Twin Forks," he said. "I didn't have time, so I left her home. Didn't I tell you I was going to?"

"Left her home?" Marjorie repeated. "Here? On the homestead?"

"Of course! Where else would I—" Richard broke off as he recognized his wife's incomprehension. "Are you saying you haven't seen her all day?"

"I certainly haven't! Would I have asked you about Mr. Sapristos if I had?" 


Richard broke off again, and his frown deepened. He stood for a moment, thinking hard, then turned and half-ran down the hall. Marjorie heard the front door open and close—then it opened and closed again, seconds later, and Richard was back.

"Her glider's gone," he told Marjorie grimly.

"But you said you didn't take her to town," Marjorie protested.

"I didn't," he said even more grimly. "So if her glider's gone, she must've gone off on a flight of her own—without telling either of us."

Marjorie gazed at him, her own mind filled with a cascade of chaotic thoughts and sudden, half-formed fears. Then she took a firm mental grip on herself and cleared her throat.

"If she went out on her own, she should be back by now," she said as calmly as she could. "It's getting dark, and she would've wanted to be home before that happened."

"Absolutely," Richard agreed, and the tension in their locked gazes was just short of panic. An inextricable brew of fear for their daughter, guilt for not having watched her more closely, and—hard though they tried to suppress it—anger at her for evading their watchfulness, flowed through them, but there was no time for that. Richard shook himself, then raised his left wrist and keyed Stephanie's combination into his com.

He waited, right forefinger and second finger drumming anxiously on the com's wrist band, and his face went bleak as the seconds oozed past with no reply. He waited a full minute, in which his eyes became agate and the last expression leached from his face, and Marjorie caught his upper right arm and squeezed tightly. She said nothing, for she too understood what that lack of reply meant.

It took a painful act of will for Richard Harrington to accept the silence, but then his forefinger moved again. He keyed in another combination, and inhaled sharply as a red light began to flash almost instantly on the com. In one way, the light was almost worse than the total lack of response had been; in another, it was an enormous relief. At least it gave them a beacon to track—one which should guide them to their daughter. But if the emergency beacon was working the rest of the com unit should also be functional. And if it was—if it had produced the high-pitched buzz which was guaranteed to be audible from a distance of over thirty meters—then Stephanie should have answered it. If she hadn't, there had to be a reason, and neither Harrington had the courage to voice what that reason might well be.

"Grab the emergency med-kit," Richard said instead, his voice harsh. "I'll get my car back out of the garage."


Stephanie Harrington couldn't hear the signal from the lost com that hung on the stub of a limb more than fifty meters above her. Nor was she even thinking about coms, for she was surrounded by over two hundred treecats. They perched on branches, clung to trunks, and crouched with her on the wet leaves. Two actually sat pressed against her sides, and they—like all the rest—crooned a deep, soft harmony to the bloody, mauled ball of fur in her lap.

She was grateful for their presence, and she knew those scores of guardians could—and would—protect her from any other predators. Yet she had little attention to spare them, for every scrap of her attention was fixed with desperate strength on her treecat, as if somehow she could keep him alive by sheer force of will. The pain in her arm and knee and ribs and her residual, quivering terror still filled her, but those things scarcely mattered. They were there, and they were real, but nothing—literally nothing—was as important as the treecat she cuddled with fierce protectiveness in the crook of her good arm.

Her memory of what had happened after the other treecats poured down from the trees was vague. She recalled switching off the vibro knife, but she hadn't gotten it back into its sheath. She must have dropped it somewhere, but it didn't matter. All that had mattered was getting to her treecat.

She'd known he was alive. There was no way she could not know, but she'd also known he was desperately hurt, and her stomach had knotted as she fell to her good knee beside him. Her own pain had made her whimper as she moved with injudicious speed, yet she'd hardly noticed as she touched her protector—her friend, however he'd become that—with fearful fingers.

Blood matted his right side, and she'd felt fresh nausea as she saw how badly his right forelimb was mangled. The blood flow was terrifying, without the spurt of a severed artery, but far too thick and heavy. She had no idea how his internal anatomy was arranged, but her frightened touch had felt what had to be the jagged give of broken ribs, and his mid-limbs' pelvis was clearly broken, as well. She'd cringed at the thought of the damage all those broken bones could have done inside him, but there was nothing she could do about them. That shattered forelimb needed immediate attention, however, and she plucked the drawstring from the left cuff of her flying jacket. Tying it into a slip noose with only her teeth and one working hand was impossibly difficult, yet she managed it somehow, and slipped it up the broken, bloodsoaked limb. She settled it just above the ripped and torn flesh and drew it tight, bending close to use her teeth again, then worked a pocket stylus under the improvised tourniquet and tightened it carefully. She'd never done anything like this herself, but she knew the theory, and she'd once seen her father do the same thing for an Irish setter who'd lost most of a leg to a robotic cultivator.

It worked, and she sagged in relief as the blood flow slowed, then stopped. She knew that cutting off all blood from the damaged tissues would only damage them worse in the long run, but at least he wouldn't bleed to death now. Unless, of course, she thought, fighting a suddenly resurgent panic, there was internal bleeding.

She didn't really want to move him, but she couldn't leave him lying on the cold, wet ground. He needed warmth, and she lowered herself with a groan to sit beside him and lift him as carefully as she could with only one hand. She flinched when he twisted with a sound like the mewl of a broken kitten, but she didn't put him back down. Instead, she tucked him inside her unsealed flying jacket and tugged the loose flaps closed around him as well as her single working arm could manage. Then she leaned back, whimpering with her own pain, holding him against her and trying to fight his shock and blood loss with the warmth of her own body.

She didn't think about her missing com, or her parents, or her own pain. She didn't think of anything. She only sat there, cuddling her defender's broken body against her own, and thought of nothing at all, for that was all she had the strength to do.


The elders of Bright Water Clan sat in a circle about the young two-leg. All of them, even Song Spinner, who had come after the others for the sole purpose of berating Sings Truly for her incredible folly in risking herself in such a fashion. But no one was berating anyone now. Instead, the other elders watched in confusion and uncertainty as Sings Truly and Short Tail crept closer to the two-leg. The chief scout and the clan's second ranking memory singer crouched on either side of the two-leg, quivering noses scarcely a handspan's distance from it. They sniffed it carefully, and then reached out to touch the link between it and Climbs Quickly.

Sings Truly's ears went flat in shock that, even for her, even now, was honed by disbelief. Despite the alienness of the two-leg, Climbs Quickly's link to it was at least as strong as that of any mated pair she'd ever encountered. More than that, the link clearly had yet to reach its maximum strength. That couldn't possibly happen—not with a creature as obviously and completely mind-blind as the two-leg. Yet it had happened, and Sings Truly's mind whirled as she tried to imagine the ramifications of that simple fact.

The rest of her clan's adult fighting strength sat or crouched or hung behind and above and all about her and the two-leg. As she, they'd watched the youngling, tasting its pain like their own, as it dragged its gravely injured body to Climbs Quickly. As Sings Truly, they had tasted its fear for him, its tenderness and frantic concern, its . . . love. And, as Sings Truly, they had watched the youngling—surely no more than a kitten itself—tighten the string that stopped Climbs Quickly's bleeding before he died. And then they watched the two-leg gather him against itself, hugging him, giving of its own body heat to him, and the massed music of the clan's soft, approving croon had risen about the two-leg. The clan had reached out, able to touch the two-leg, albeit indirectly, through its link to Climbs Quickly, and their massed touch had soothed the youngling's fear and pain and eased it tenderly into a gentle mind haze. The People of Bright Water took its hurt upon themselves and soothed it into something very like sleep, and it was safe for them to do so, for nothing that walked the world's forest could threaten or harm Climbs Quickly or his two-leg through their watchful ring of claws and fangs.

Sings Truly saw all that, understood all that, and deep inside, she wanted—as she had never wanted anything before—to hate the two-leg. Climbs Quickly might live. His mind glow was weak, yet it was there, and even now she felt his awareness creeping slowly, doggedly back towards the surface. But he was terribly hurt, and those hurts were the two-leg's fault. It was the two-leg which had drawn him here. It was the two-leg for whom he'd fought his impossible battle, risked—and all too possibly lost—his life. Even if he lived, he would have only one true-hand, and that, too, was the two-leg's fault.

Yet badly as Sings Truly wished to hate the two-leg, she knew Climbs Quickly had chosen to come. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the strength of his link to this alien creature had left him no choice but to come, yet if that was true, then it was equally true that the two-leg had been given no choice, either. They were one, as tightly bound as any mated pair, and Sings Truly knew it . . . just as she knew her brother, as she herself, would have fought to the death to protect his mate.

And so would this two-leg. Youngling or no, despite broken bones and legs which would scarcely bear it, this barely weaned kitten had attacked a death fang single-handed. Climbs Quickly had done the same, but he had been an adult—and uninjured. The two-leg had been neither, but it had risen above its wounds and terror to fight the same terrible foe for Climbs Quickly. No youngling of the People, and all too few of the People's adults, could have done that, and without the two-leg, Climbs Quickly would already be dead, so—

<How shall we untangle this knot, Sings Truly?> The question came from Short Tail, and though it was directed to Sings Truly, the chief scout had thought it loudly enough to be certain all of the elders heard him.

<We should leave while we still can!> Broken Tooth replied sharply, before Sings Truly could. <The danger of this is far too great! Sooner or later, this two-leg's fellows will come seeking it, and we must not be here when they do.> 

<And Climbs Quickly?> Short Tail asked bitingly, and the People's ability to taste one another's emotions was not a useful thing at the moment. Broken Tooth felt the scout's searing contempt as clearly as if Short Tail had shouted it aloud—which, indeed, he had, in a way—and his own mind voice was hot when he replied.

<Climbs Quickly chose to come here!> he snapped. <He was told to stay away from the two-legs—that Shadow Chaser would have that duty—yet he disobeyed. Not content with that, he summoned the clan to save the two-leg from a death fang, despite the danger. Many of us might have been killed or hurt by such an enemy, and you know it! I am sorry for his wounds, and I wish him no evil, but what happens to him stems from his own decisions. Our task is to safeguard our entire clan, and to do that we must be far away when the other two-legs arrive. If that requires us to leave Climbs Quickly to his fate, it cannot be helped.> 

<It was not Climbs Quickly who summoned the clan,> Song Spinner observed with frigid disapproval. <Or not directly. It was you, Sings Truly, and you knew he was trying to protect the two-leg!> 

<It was, and I did.> The calmness of Sings Truly's reply surprised even her. <Oh, I didn't know, but that was only because I had declined to ask him. So, yes, senior singer. I knew what Climbs Quickly desired. Perhaps I was even wrong to give it to him. But even if I was wrong, he most certainly was not.> The other elders stared at her in consternation, and she turned from her contemplation of the young two-leg and her brother to face them.

<Climbs Quickly and this two-leg are linked,> she told them. <I have tasted that link, and so can any of you, if you doubt me. He was defending . . . not his "mate," precisely, but something very close to it. This is his two-leg, and he is its. He could no more have failed to protect it than he could have failed to protect me or I him.> 

<Prettily said,> Song Spinner said acidly when none of the males would meet Sings Truly's eyes or refute her words. <Perhaps even true . . . for Climbs Quickly. But Broken Tooth speaks for the rest of the clan. We have no link to this two-leg, and surely this is only fresh proof of the danger of hasty contact with them. Look at your brother, memory singer, and tell me risking further contact with these creatures is not the path of madness!>

<Very well, senior singer,> Sings Truly said, still with that same astounding calm and clarity of mind voice, <if you wish, I will tell you exactly that. Indeed, what has happened here is the clearest proof that we must seek out more contact with the two-legs, for we must learn if more of the People can establish such bonds with the two-legs.>

<More bonds?> Broken Tooth gasped. He and Digger gawked in horror, but Song Spinner stared at her in shock too profound for any other emotion. Short Tail, on the other hand, crouched beside her, radiating fierce agreement, and they were joined—albeit with less certainty—by Fleet Wind, the elder charged with the instruction of young scouts and hunters, and by Stone Biter, who led the clan's flint shapers.

<More bonds,> Sings Truly replied levelly, and Broken Tooth hissed—not in anger, for no male would ever show challenge to a senior memory singer, whatever the provocation, but in utter rejection. <No, hear me out!> Sings Truly commanded. <Right or wrong, I am a singer. You will hear me, and the clan—the clan, Broken Tooth, not simply the elders—will judge between us on this!>

Broken Tooth settled back, and Song Spinner twitched in even greater shock. As the clan's second ranking singer, Sings Truly had every right to make that demand, yet by making it, she had in effect challenged Song Spinner's own position. She had appealed to the entire clan, seeking the judgment of the majority of its adults, when all knew that Song Spinner opposed her. If the clan chose to support Sings Truly, she would become Bright Water's senior singer, while if the clan chose to reject her, she would be stripped of all authority.

But the challenge had been issued, and the clan adults drew closer.

<What my brother has done was not of his choice,> Sings Truly said quietly but clearly. <It could not have been his choice, for none of the People even guessed such a thing was possible. Nor could he, or any of us, have known how to establish such a link with a two-leg even had we desired to do so. But he did establish the link, and though the two-leg is mind-blind and clearly fails to understand, it shares the link. It is as linked to him as he is to it. Is this not true, senior singer?> 

Sings Truly looked directly at Song Spinner, and Bright Water's senior singer could only flick her ears in curt agreement, for it was obvious to all, singer and non-singer alike, that it was true.

<Very well,> Sings Truly continued. <We didn't know—then—that such links were possible. We do know now, however, just as all of us have seen proof of the link's depth and power. Climbs Quickly fought the death fang for his two-leg, but the two-leg also fought the death fang for him, and by the standards of its own kind, this two-leg is but a kitten. We dare not judge all two-legs by its actions, yet we dare not reject its example, either. We must learn more about them and their tools and their purpose in being here. They are too dangerous, and there are too many of them, and their numbers increase too quickly for us not to learn those things. Climbs Quickly was right in that . . . and the very things which make them so dangerous could also make them powerful allies.>

Not a whisper rose among her listeners. Every eye was fixed upon her, and even Broken Tooth's tail had stopped its lashing, for it had never occurred to him to consider what the two-legs could do for the People. He had been too aware of all the threats the intruders posed to them, and Sings Truly felt her hope rise higher as she tasted the shifting emotions of his mind glow.

<If others of the People can—and choose to—form such links, we will learn much. If they go with those they link with to live among the two-legs, they will see far more than we can ever see spying upon them from the shadows. They can report to us, tell us of all they learn, help us to understand the two-legs. And remember the nature of such links. The two-legs do, indeed, appear to be mind-blind. Certainly this one is. Yet for all its blindness, it senses the link. It feels and recognizes Climbs Quickly's love for it . . . and returns that love. I think it is clear from Climbs Quickly's original report that this two-leg thought him no more clever than the ground runners or lake builders when first it met him. It knows better now, yet it cannot know how much more clever the People are. Perhaps it would be as well if we do not let it or its elders know just how clever we are, for it is always wise to let others underestimate us. But let us also build more links with the two-legs, if such we can. Let us learn, and let those of the People who share such links with them teach them that we do not threaten them. There is much room in the world, surely enough for us to share it with the two-legs if we can make them our friends.> 

The mental silence lingered, hovering in the wet, rapidly darkening woods. And then, in the way of the People, it was broken by mind voices in ones and twos, choosing their course.



Richard Harrington's face was white as the air car's powerful lights picked the wreckage trail from the darkness. The icon of Stephanie's emergency beacon glowed in the dead center of his HUD, indicating that it lay directly below him, but he didn't really need it. Bits and pieces of a mangled hang glider were strewn through the tops of three different trees, and the continued silence from his daughter's end of the com link was suddenly even more terrifying.

He didn't know what Stephanie had been doing out here, but she'd clearly been trying to reach the clearing ahead when she went down, and he sent the air car scudding forward. Marjorie sat tense and silent beside him, twisting the control that swept the starboard spotlight in a wide half-circle on her side of the car. Richard was just reaching for the control to the port light, when Marjorie gasped.

"Richard! Look!"

His head snapped around at his wife's command, and his jaw dropped. Stephanie sat huddled against the base of a huge tree, clasping something against her with one arm. Her clothing was torn and bloody, but her head rose as he looked at her. She stared back into the lights, and even from his seat in the air car, he saw the bottomless relief on her bruised and bloody face. Yet even as he recognized that, and even as his heart leapt in joy so sharp it was anguish, stunned surprise held him frozen, for his daughter was not alone.

A grisly ruin of white bone and mangled tissue lay to one side. Richard had done enough anatomical studies of Sphinxian animal life to recognize the half-stripped skeleton of a hexapuma, but neither he nor any other naturalist had ever seen or imagined anything like the dozens and dozens and dozens of tiny "hexapumas" who surrounded his daughter protectively.

He blinked, astonished by his own choice of adverb, yet it was the only one which fitted. They were protecting Stephanie, watching over her, and he knew—as if he'd seen it with his own eyes—that they, whatever they were, had killed the hexapuma to save her.

But that was all he knew, and he touched Marjorie's arm gently.

"Stay here," he said quietly. "This is my area, not yours."


"Please, Marge," he said, still in that quiet voice. "I don't think there's any danger—now—but I could be wrong. Just stay here while I find out, all right?"

Marjorie Harrington's jaw clenched, but she fought down her unreasoning surge of anger, for he was right. He was the xeno-veterinarian. If the problem had been plant life, he would have deferred to her expertise; in this case she must defer to his, however her heart raged at her to rush to her daughter's side.

"All right," she said grudgingly. "But you be careful!"

"I will," he promised, and popped the hatch. He climbed out slowly and walked very carefully towards his daughter, carrying the emergency medical kit. The sea of furry, long-tailed arboreals parted about his feet, retreating perhaps a meter to either side and then flowing back in behind him, and he felt their watchful eyes as he stepped into the small clear space about Stephanie. A single creature crouched by her side—smaller and more slender than the others, with a dappled brown and white coat instead of their cream and gray—and he felt its grass-green eyes bore into him. But despite the unnerving intelligence behind that scrutiny, his attention was on his daughter. This close, the bruises and bloodstains—few of the latter hers, thank God!—were far more evident, and his stomach clenched at the evidence of her injuries. Her left arm hung beside her, obviously badly broken, and her right leg was stretched stiffly before her, and he had to blink back tears as he dropped to his knees.

"Hello, baby," he said gently, and she looked at him.

"I messed up, Daddy," she whispered, and tears welled in her own eyes. "Oh, Daddy! I messed everything up! I—"

"Hush, baby." His voice quivered, and he cupped the right side of her face in his palm. "We'll have time for that later. For now, let's get you home, okay?"

She nodded, but something in her expression told him there was more. He frowned speculatively—and then his eyebrows shot up as she opened her jacket to reveal another of the creatures hovering all about them. He stared at the badly mauled animal, then jerked his eyes to his daughter's.

Stephanie read the question in her father's gaze. There wasn't time to explain everything—that would have to come later, when she also accepted whatever thoroughly merited punishment her parents decided to levy—but she nodded.

"He's my friend." Her voice trembled, heavy with tears—the voice of a child begging her parents to tell her the problem could be fixed, the damage mended . . . the friend saved. "He . . . he saved me from the hexapuma," she went on, fighting to keep that fraying voice steady. "He fought it, Daddy—fought it for me—and he got hurt so bad. I—" Her voice broke at last, and she stared at her father, white-faced with exhaustion, pain, fear, and grief. Richard Harrington looked back, his own heart broken by her distress, and cupped her face between both his hands.

"Don't worry, baby," he told his daughter softly. "If he helped you, than I'll help him any way I can."

* * *

Climbs Quickly floated slowly, slowly up out of the blackness. He lay on his left side on something warm and soft, and he blinked. He felt the pain of his hurts and knew they were serious, yet there was something strange about the way they hurt. The pain was distant and far away, as if something were making it less than it should have been, and he turned his head. He looked up, seeking what he knew was there, and made a soft sound—a weak parody of his normal, buzzing purr—as he saw the face of his two-leg.

She looked down quickly, and the brilliant flare of her joy and relief at seeing him move blazed through the odd, pleasantly lazy haziness which afflicted his thoughts. She touched his fur gently, and he realized the blood had been cleaned from her face. White bits of something covered the worst of her cuts and scratches, and her broken arm was sheathed in some stiff, white material. He tasted an echo of pain still coloring her mind glow, but the echo was almost as muted as his own. She opened her mouth and made more of the sounds the two-legs used to communicate, and he rolled his head the other way as another, deeper voice replied.

His person was seated on one of the two-legs' sitting things, he realized, but it took several more breaths to realize the sitting thing was inside one of the flying things. He might not have realized even then, without his link to his person, but that same link—and the haziness—kept him from panicking at the thought of tearing through the heavens at the speed at which the flying things regularly moved.

Two more two-legs—his two-leg's parents—sat in front of them. One looked back at his two-leg, and he blinked again as their link helped him recognize her as his two-leg's mother. But it was the other adult—his two-leg's father—who spoke. The deep, rumbling sounds still meant nothing, and Climbs Quickly decided vaguely that he really must start learning to recognize their meanings.


"He looked at me, Daddy!" Stephanie cried. "He opened his eyes and looked at me!"

"That's a good sign, Steph," Richard replied, putting as much encouragement as he could into his voice.

"But he looks awfully weak and groggy," Stephanie went on in a more worried tone, and Richard turned his head to exchange glances with Marjorie. Despite the painkillers, Stephanie still had to be suffering fairly extreme discomfort, but there was no concern at all for herself in her voice. Every bit of it was for the creature—the "treecat"—in her lap, and it had been ever since they'd found her. She'd insisted that her father examine the "treecat" even before he set her arm, and given the vast, silently watching audience of other treecats—and the fact that Stephanie, at least, was in no immediately life-threatening danger—he'd agreed. Neither he nor Marjorie could make much sense of the bits and pieces of explanation they'd so far heard, but they'd already concluded that Stephanie was right about one thing: whatever else they might be, these treecats of hers were another sentient species.

God only knew where that was going to end, and, at the moment, Richard and Marjorie Harrington didn't much care. The treecats had saved their daughter's life. That was a debt they could never hope to repay, but they were quite prepared to spend the rest of their lives trying to, and he cleared his throat carefully.

"He looks weak because he is, honey," he said. "He's hurt pretty badly, and he lost a lot of blood before you got that tourniquet on him. Without that, he'd be dead by now, you know." Stephanie recognized the approval in his voice, but she only nodded impatiently. "The painkiller I used is probably making him look a little groggy too," he went on, "but we've been using it on Sphinxian species for over forty T-years without any dangerous side effects."

"But will he be all right?" his daughter demanded insistently, and he gave a tiny shrug.

"He's going to live, Steph," he promised. "I don't think we'll be able to save his forelimb, and he'll have some scars—maybe some that show even through his fur—but he should recover completely except for that. I can't guarantee it, baby, but you know I wouldn't lie to you about something like this."

Stephanie stared at the back of his head for a moment, then swiveled her eyes to her mother. Marjorie gazed back and nodded firmly, backing up Richard's prognosis, and a frozen boulder seemed to thaw in Stephanie's middle.

"You're sure, Daddy?" she demanded, but her voice was no longer desperate, and he nodded again.

"Sure as I can be, honey," he told her, and she sighed and stroked the treecat's head again. It blinked wide, unfocused green eyes at her, and she bent to brush a kiss between its triangular ears.

"Hear that?" she whispered to it. "You're gonna be all right. Daddy said so."


Yes, Climbs Quickly thought fuzzily, he really did have to start learning what the two-leg sounds meant. But not tonight. Tonight he was simply too tired, and it didn't matter right now, anyway. What mattered was the mind glow of his two-leg, and the knowledge that she was safe.

He blinked up at her and managed to pat her leg weakly with his good arm. Then he closed his eyes with a sigh, snuggled his nose more firmly against her, and let the welcome and love of her mind glow sing him to sleep.

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