Dr. Scott MacDallan was, by dint of much sweating and swearing, trying to turn a wriggling, ungrateful little demon of a breech-birth infant for head-down delivery, when the stray arrived on the doorstep.
Mrs. Zivonik had a history of easy births without complications or he'd have done a simple Caesarian, but turning an infant wasn't complicated and the monitors in place showed him neither baby nor mother were in distress, so rather than create an incision and put the woman out of work for several days, he simply took the time-honored step of reaching in for the baby, grabbing it in one hand, and rotating it right-end around instead of wrong-side down. Mrs. Zivonik was doing fine, too, was even cracking terrible jokes despite the sheen of sweat soaking her and the occasional sharp grunts, gasps, and deeper groans when the contractions hit. Scott had just touched the baby's toes and was wondering why he'd ever thought this would be easywhile trying to ignore Evelina Zivonik's sounds of acute discomfortwhen a wave of emotional anguish strong enough to knock him cock-eyed rolled over Scott like a naval battle cruiser.
His involuntary grunt and sharp movement drew a startled sound from his patient. "Doc?" Scott blinked, fighting the urge to panic, and managed, "Uh, sorry. No problems, you're fine and the baby's fine." For God's sake, Scott, pull it together! Before your patient thinks you're as loony as your misbegotten ancestors. Some of them had been burned at the stake . . .
Scott blinked as Evelina Zivonik leaned up far enough to peer over the top of her distended belly. "That's good. But you don't look fine."
Just beyond the bedroom door of the Zivonik home, Fisherwho had the run of Scott's home and office, but not of his patients' homesbegan bleeking in acute distress. He'd never heard the treecat make a sound quite like it, in fact, and the emotional wallop he was getting from his companion was enough to shake him into blurting out the truth.
"I'm not fine. Or rather, my treecat isn't."
"Your treecat?" she echoed. A thread of fear colored those two words. Treecats were viewed with awe and no small measure of worry by their human neighbors, who were almost universally uncertain how to respond to their presence.
"Yes. He's upset, very upset, I'm not sure why." Careful, Scott . . . you're treading thin ice here. "I've never heard him make a noise like that," he added, glancing worriedly toward the closed bedroom door.
"Well, I'm not actually in serious labor yet," Evelina said uncertainly, the worry stronger this time. "If there's a problem with the treecat, you need to go find out what it is. If he's hurt or sick . . . well, I'm not exactly going anywhere, so you should find out what it is."
His professional ethics would permit no such conduct, of course. Abandoning a patient in the middle of a procedure just to comfort his friend was out of the question. But Fisher's deep distress was not to be denied. Fisher knew how to open doors, of course, and the bedroom door was closed, but wasn't locked. Scott hesitated, torn between the need to reassure himself that a treasured friend wasn't in peril and the need to bring this baby into the world.
"Why don't you call him in here?" Evelina suggested, correctly interpreting his hesitation. "Irina has told us all about Fisher and showed us pictures, but I've never actually seen a live treecat." The hint of wistfulness in her voice decided Scott in an instant.
He flashed her a grateful response. "Thanks. Fisher! Come on inside, Fisher, it's not locked!"
The door swung open and a cream-and-grey furred streak shot across the floor on collision course with Scott's shoulder. He grunted softly at the impact, one hand still trapped in Evelina Zivonik's womb, the baby kicking and moving under his fingers.
"Bleek!" The treecat touched his cheek with both front hands, then pointed urgently at the window.
"What? Is there some danger outside?"
That wasn't the feeling he was getting from his companion of nearly twelve Terran months, now. He was getting better at reading Fisher's emotional "messages" all the time, thanks to an empathic ability of some sort that he carried in his extremely Celtic Scots Highland genesan "ability" that still scared him silly on a rational, scientific level. The first time it'd happened with Fisher, he'd literally thought he was hallucinating. Only later did the truth sink inand that was almost worse than a hallucination. On Sphinx, the kind of legacy he'd inherited from a long line of charlatans, parlor tricksters, and other assorted loons was met with mere skepticism and ridicule. But there were human worlds where professing to ownership of anything remotely similar to what his more . . . flamboyant . . . relatives (all on his mother's side of the family, thank God, so the name MacDallan hadn't been connected with them) was punishable by incarceration for fraudor outright insanity.
What he was getting from Fisher now was not so much a sense that there was some kind of danger outside as more a sense that something outside was in danger. Or distress, maybe. It was also abundantly clear that Fisher wanted him to go outside, urgently. "Fisher, I can't go outside right now. I'm trying to deliver a baby."
Grass-green eyes shone brilliant with distress. The treecat made a pitiful sound. Just then, a chorus of childish voices erupted out in the main part of the house.
"Daddy! Come quick!"
"It's a treecat, Daddy!"
"Aunt Irina! Hurry! There's a treecat outside!"
"He's hurt or sick or something! Hurry, Daddy! Hurry, Aunt Irina!"
Scott and Evelina Zivonik exchanged startled glances.
"Go," Evelina said firmly. "I've had six babies. This one's going to get himself born just fine, whether you sit here and sweat to death with worrying or take five minutes to go out there and maybe save a life. You're the only doctor for a hundred kilometers. If there's an injured treecat out there, then it needs you more than I do right now. Besides," and she gave him a wry, sweaty grin, "I could use a breather from all that mauling."
Scott flushed; he'd continued working to turn the baby even while trying to determine what was wrong with Fisher, and "mauling" was probably what it felt like to poor Evelina Zivonik.
Fisher touched his cheek again. "Bleek?" The sound tugged at his heart, not to be denied.
"Thanks," he said with heartfelt sincerity. "I've never seen Fisher this upset. I'll be right back." He eased his hand out of Mrs. Zivonik's womb, reaching for a towel with the other. That bit about Fisher being more upset than Scott had ever seen him wasn't exactly true; but Scott didn't like talking about the injuries he'd suffered the day he and Fisher had first made one another's memorable acquaintance. The treecat had saved Scott MacDallan's life. The very least he could do was repay the favor to a treecat in trouble.
So he hurriedly scrubbed off and jogged outside, where the Zivonik brood danced around their father and Aleksandr Zivonik's younger sister, Irina Kisaevna. Aleksandr and Irina stood a good twenty yards to the side of the house, peering up into a picket wood tree's lower branches. Scott had no more than cleared the doorjamb than the most anguished sound he had ever heard uttered by a living creature smote him straight through the skull bones. The sound keened up and down like a banshee driven insane, voice torn by more pain than can be endured. Fisher, who huddled on his shoulder, wrapped his tail around Scott's throat and shuddered non-stop. "Bleek!"
Scott broke into a run, even while reaching up to soothe his companion with one hand. "Where is it?"
Aleksandr pointed. Scott peered up into the tall picket wood closest to the Zivonik house, toward one of the long, perfectly horizontal branches that made the picket wood so unusual among trees. "Up there."
Scott had to look closely, but he spotted the treecat near the trunk, sitting up on its haunches like an old Terran ferret, longer and leaner than one of those ancient weasels, yet with a head and certain other characteristics far more felineexcept, of course, for the six limbs, a trait it shared with the massive and deadly Sphinxian hexapuma it so closely resembled in all but size. The treecat keening in the Zivoniks' backyard picket wood was larger than Fisher, about seventy centimeters long, not counting the prehensile tail, which effectively doubled its length, yet the little arboreal was far too thin for its length. It did look sickor injured. Its coat was mottled cream-and-grey, like Fisher's, but even from this distance, Scott could see dirt and darker stains that looked sickeningly like blood.
"Fisher?" he murmured, trying to soothe his small friend's violent tremors. "Is it hurt? If I could get to it, treat it . . ."
The hair-raising cries halted. The strange treecat made a pitiful sound, tiny with distance, then moved haltingly down the trunk toward the ground. Scott's pulse raced. He wanted to break into a run, wanted to rush toward it, and was afraid of frightening it away.
"Aleksandr," he said in a low voice, "I think maybe you and Irina should take the children back to the house. If anything spooks it, we may never get a chance to help, and I think that treecat needs help very badly."
Aleksandr nodded. The set of his mouth was grim. "Come on, kids. And no arguments!"
Irina Kisaevna glanced involuntarily toward Scott, concern darkening her vivid blue eyes. Of all the humans Scott had met before being adopted by Fisher, Irina alone seemed to grasp the depth of the bond between himself and the remarkable creature who'd come into his life nearly a full Terran year previously. Widowed when her husband had died in the plague that had devastated the human population of Sphinx, Irina had become a close friend during the past couple of years. Scott enjoyed her company, her quick, incisive mind, and her ability to make him feel rested and at ease, even after a difficult day; but when Evelina's latest pregnancy had turned difficult, she had moved in with her brother on the Zivoniks' farmsteadthus depriving Scott of her delightful company and occasionally intuitive insights into his relationship with his treecat.
"Irina," he said quickly, "I'd appreciate your help."
Warmth flashed into her beautiful eyes. "Of course, Scott. It would be my privilege." She, too, peered toward the slowly descending treecat in the big picket wood tree above them.
Scott waited while Aleksandr herded his youngsters back toward the house. The whimpering treecat had reached the lowest branch of the picket wood, where it stopped, bleeking piteously. Fisher replied, then pointed. Scott made a hopeful guess at Fisher's meaning. "It's okay if I go to him?"
He couldn't pick up anything like sense from Fisher, but the emotional response was unmistakable. He hurried toward the picket wood trunk and peered anxiously upward. The strange treecat was shaking where it huddled on the low branch. The dark stains were blood, long since dried, matting the once-beautiful pelt in a leprous patchwork. The treecat was far too thin, looked half starved, in fact. Was it an outcast, that no treecat community would help it? Did treecats have outcasts? Whether they did or they didn't, Fisher was certainly urging Scott to help the stranger, so there was no clue to be gleaned from his own treecat's behavior.
"Hello," Scott said quietly, speaking directly to the treecat above him. "Can I help?" He projected all the warmth and welcome he could summon.
The reaction stunned him. The distressed treecat let out a warbling, broken sound, then jumped to the ground and ran straight to Scott, clasping his leg with all four upper limbs and holding on as though life itself depended on the strength of that grip. Fisher swarmed down, touching faces with the stranger and making the soft, crooning sounds Scott recognized from his own occasional bouts of emotional distress. Scott crouched down, offered a hand. The bloodied treecat bumped it with his head, begging for the touch, leading Scott to wonder if this treecat had been around humans before. He stroked the treecat gently, trying to determine from that cautious touch how badly injured it might be.
He found no wounds to account for the blood, not even a sign of swelling or inflammation. But the treecat clung to him and shivered and made broken little sounds that horrified Scott nearly as much as they did Fisher, judging by the emotional aura his own treecat was projecting. Something truly dire had happened to this little treecatand Scott received a strong premonition that whatever it was, it meant serious trouble for him and his companion. When Scott tried to pick the treecat up, it let out a frightened sound that prompted Fisher to rest both of his true-hands on the other's nearest shoulder. A moment later, the filthy, blood-matted treecat swarmed into Scott's arms, huddling close. Fisher jumped up to his customary perch on Scott's shoulder, still crooning gently.
Irina hesitated some distance away, biting her lower lip uncertainly. Scott nodded her closer with a slight movement of his head and she approached slowly, while Scott stroked the painfully thin treecat reassuringly. When Irina stood beside him, the stray let out a strange, mewling little sound, gazing up at her through grass-green eyes as deep and wounded as a hurt toddler's.
"Poor thing," she whispered gently, offering a cautious hand.
The trembling treecat permitted her touch, arching slightly in Scott's arms as she stroked gently down its spine. But it was Scott the stray clung to, all four upper limbs clenching in Scott's shirt.
"Will you let me take you inside, I wonder?" Scott asked aloud, moving cautiously toward the Zivonik house. "You're hardly more than fur and bones. You need food and water and God knows what else." The washboard ribcage under his hands spoke of a prolonged deprivation and he could see cracked, dried skin around the treecat's mouth, eyes, and delicate hands, indicating dehydration, as well. Scott stroked the distraught treecat gently, whispering softly to it, as he and Irina slowly approached the meter-thick stone walls of the Zivonik house. The most cursory examination told him the treecat was male andthankfullyuninjured despite the dried blood in its fur.
Irina called out, "Alek, the poor thing's half-starved. Get some meat scraps for him, a dish of cool water, whatever we've got left from dinner last night!"
"Karl, drag out that leftover turkey," Aleksandr said, shooing the children inside. "No, Larisa, you can look later, after the treecat is out of danger. Nadia, go check on your mother. Stasya, get some water for the treecat. Gregor, run some hot, soapy water and bring out a handful of clean towels."
"Kitchen's this way," Alek escorted him into the house.
Scott moved cautiously inside with his unexpected patient, Irina trailing anxiously at his shoulder, and entered a brightly lit kitchen just in time to see Karl, their oldest son, setting out a platter with an enormous, half-stripped turkey carcass. The boy set it down on a broad wooden dining table built to accommodate a growing family.
"Dig in," the boy addressed the bedraggled treecat shyly, cheeks flushed from excitement. "Help yourself." Stasya, the Zivoniks' middle daughter, was carrying a basin of water to the table, eyes round with wonder as Scott set the thin treecat down. It paused for only a moment, as though making certain the offer were genuine, then tore into the carcass with ravenous hunger. The children hung back, staring raptly at the wondrous creature on their kitchen table; very few humans had actually seen one in person. Even stolid, broad-shouldered Aleksandr Zivonik hunkered down to watch the starving treecat tear into the carcass with surprisingly dainty hands, visibly entranced by the sight of his diminutive sentient guest.
Scott smiled gently. "Fisher," he said, reaching up to stroke his friend, "I have to go back and help deliver that baby now. Can you stay with him?" Scott had no idea how much his treecat actually understood of what he said, but he and Fisher generally had little trouble communicating basic things. Fisher simply swarmed down his arm and jumped to the table, crooning softly to the battered treecat, which was busily stuffing strips and hunks of turkey into emaciated jaws. Scott hauled his dirt-streaked shirt off, smiling gratefully at Irina when she carried it toward the laundry room, then scrubbed his arms with hot, soapy water and disinfectant at the kitchen sink and hurried back to check on Mrs. Zivonik.
"Mama's doing fine," Nadia, the oldest of the Zivonik daughters said at once. "How's the treecat?" she added anxiously, edging toward the hallway.
"Eating your turkey dinner. Go on, see for yourself."
The girl darted for the door. Scott found his patient nearly as apprehensive as her daughter when Evelina gazed up at him. "It wasn't injured?" she asked anxiously. Clearly, Mrs. Zivonik was as worried over the sudden appearance of an ailing treecat on their doorstep as her husband. So little was known about treecats, the abrupt appearance of a healthy one was often enough to upset the most steady of settlers; a starvation-thin one with blood in its fur was genuinely cause for frightand Evelina Zivonik wasn't the only one afraid of the reasons for that treecat's condition. Scott was considerably disturbed, himself, despite nearly a full T-year of daily contact with a treecat to accustom him to their sometimes startling habits and behaviors.
And the last thing Evelina Zivonik needed during a breech-presentation, difficult labor was to fret over this unexpected development. He tried to reassure her as he resumed his interrupted work with the baby. "No, I didn't find any actual injuries. Of course, I can't hazard a guess when he last had a solid meal and anything to drink, but he's wolfing down turkey as fast as he can tear it off the bones, so there's nothing wrong with his appetite."
"Nadia said it's covered with dried blood?" Worry still knotted her brow into a deep furrow.
"Yes, but none of its own. Whatever's happened, we can't communicate with treecats very effectively, so I doubt we'll ever know where the blood came from. The important thing," and he gave her a firm, reassuring smile, "is that your little neighbor is doing just fine, so there's no sense in worrying about it. So I want you to relax for me and let's see if we can't get this baby of yours born, eh?"
Evelina Zivonik gave him a wan smile and nodded, then dug her fingers into the bedding and groaned as a contraction rippled across her distended belly. Scott reached once again for the recalcitrant infant attempting to get himself born feet-first and scowled in concentration, moving by feel and instinct. After several minutes of awkward squirming, during which Evelina grunted sharply only a few timesa stoic woman, Evelina ZivonikScott's effort and sweat finally paid off. "Ah-hah! Gotcha!" Scott grinned as the baby under his groping hand finally cooperated enough to turn around inside his mother's uterus. "Head down and rarin' to go. Okay, Evelina Zivonik, let's see if we can't get this latest son of yours born!"
Humanity had discovered the existence of the Sphinxian treecats only fifteen Terran months previously, when eleven-year-old Stephanie Harrington had caught one raiding her parents' greenhousewith several bunches of purloined celery strapped to its back in a neatly woven net. No one knew why treecats were so hyped on celery, but ever since that first, fateful encounter, treecats had been popping out of the woodwork, so to speak, all over Sphinx, importuning their new friends for all the spare, stringy stalks humanity's kitchen gardens could grow. The sheer number of treecats who had abruptly come calling suggested a far-flung and quite sophisticated communications system of unknown origin, all the more remarkable because the treecats had succeeded in hiding from a high-tech civilization for fully half a Terran century.
Enter one eleven-year-old genius with a camera and a battered, shattered glider, and fifty years of secretive observation from the treetops had ended with treecats exploding onto the scene, seeking out human companions in the same way little Stephanie Harrington's crippled treecat had come to her rescue, leaving its own kind to live with her family. While the adoption rates were not very high compared to the overall human populationperhaps one in only a million or socompared to fifty T-years of total secrecy, during which humanity hadn't even suspected the treecats' existence, the sudden switch in tactics on the part of the treecats was startling.
Clearly, the treecats were as insatiably curious about people as humans were about treecatsyet humanity still knew almost nothing about their newest neighbors. Not even their level of intelligence could be accurately determined, although Scott had begun forming his own ideas along those lines. Thanks to his somewhat bizarre genetic legacyone he'd sooner have been slow-roasted over coals than reveal to anyone, let alone the xenologists here to study the treecatsScott was somehow "tuned in" to the emotions of a sentient alien, one that was, he was beginning to suspect, a whole lot smarter than any human on Sphinx had begun to guess. He also suspected that eleven-year-old Stephanie Harrington wasn't telling the full truth about her treecat, either, not if Scott's experiences with Fisher were any indication. And he was beginning to suspect he knew the reason for her silence.
One of the most intense feelings close association with a treecat engendered was an overwhelming protectiveness, an almost subliminal sense that whatever an adoptee learned about his or her treecat, it should under no circumstances be made public knowledge too quickly. Treecats clearly needed the help of their human friends to avoid the fate of so many other indigenous, low-tech, aboriginal populations throughout human history. Caution and secrecy seemed the better part of wisdom until more could be determined about the simple basics of treecat biology, sociology, and culture. Not to mention how humanity was going to react in the short-term, never mind the long-run.
And that was a difficult job, even for an adoptee. Even one like Scott, who had the somewhat unexpected advantage of his ancestors' irritating tendency toward "second sight" flashes of empathy or whatever it was that Scott experienced on a daily basis with Fisher. That the treecats possessed some level of telepathy or empathy was obvious from the reports made by any "adopted" human. But no instruments existed to measure a thing like telepathy, much less an empathic trait. Understandably, the xenologists were massively frustrated.
At the moment, so was Scott MacDallan.
The "stray," as the Zivonik children had christened the emaciated treecat, had filled his cadaverous little belly and promptly gone to sleep. After the successful delivery of squalling young Lev Zivonik, the stray had graciously suffered Scott to plunk him into hot, soapy water to remove the caked blood and dirt. But hefor the stray was definitely malewould not let go of Scott afterward, no matter what enticements were offered. He simply held onto Scott's shirt, which Irina had thoughtfully laundered for him while little Lev was getting himself born, and shivered.
And Fisher displayed an urgent desire for Scott to go outside. Scott suspected that Fisher was relaying what the stray was feeling; or perhaps Scott was also picking up a sense of urgency from the thin treecat clinging to him, but what he couldn't fathom was why the treecats wanted so earnestly for him to hike into a picket wood wilderness after a long, intensive delivery that had left him tired enough to want to go directly home and collapse for the evening.
Each time he quietly suggested they might go back to town and return later, however, Fisher grew nearly frantic and the strange treecat emitted choked, mewling sounds like a kitten being mauled in the jaws of a killer dog. Scott swallowed hard and tried to sound a reasonable note. "But Fisher, it'll be dark in a couple of hours and I really need to get some sleep. I don't want to fly after dark, not as tired as I am."
"Bleek . . ."
Aleksandr asked, "Can you get a sense of how far away they want you to go?"
Scott shook his head. "I can't get that kind of detail. Nobody can. All anyone can really pick up is a sort of subliminal sense of intelligent feeling," he lied through his teeth, aware of Irina's sharp glance. "Well, occasionally, sign language and pantomime can convey a pretty clear meaning, but it's maddening, trying to communicate with a sentient that can't speak your language, knowing you can't possibly learn how to speak its language, either." He considered the problem for a moment. At length, he suggested, "Fisher? Could we fly there?"
He received a bewildering flash of confused emotions, closed his eyes to try sorting them out. Anxiety, sharp fear, rage . . . Scott blinked, stared at his friend. Rage? Fisher huddled on the table in front of him, looking forlorn and solemn.
"I'm not sure why," he said slowly, "but I don't think the treecats want me to use the air car. They're afraid of it. Not Fisher, I mean, he's flown with me dozens of times, but if I'm reading Fisher's reaction rightand that's a big if, I'll grant you that muchI'd say the stray's scared witless of the idea."
Alek lifted one shaggy brow. "Really? Well, we could set out on foot now and if we haven't found anything in an hour, we could turn around and come back, put you up in the boys' room and get a good night's sleep, then start out again tomorrow."
"Bleek!" Both treecats spoke in unison.
"I think they approve." Irina smiled.
Alek added, "I've got a spare rifle. It's not likely we'll run into a hexapuma, and peak bears don't generally come down this low in a valley, but I don't go hiking without a good rifle in my hand."
Scott glanced up. "No, I don't blame you. I've seen what hexapumas and peak bears can do to a man inadequately armed. I've got a rifle of my own in the air car, though, thanks." He scraped back his chair, offered his shoulder to Fisher, who jumped lightly to his accustomed perch. "Let me just get it."
The stray wouldn't go near Scott's air car. Scott retrieved his gear, casting uneasy glances at the emaciated treecat who sat in the nearest tree, bleeking in terrible distress, and wondered why the treecat reacted so violently to air cars. Surely nobody would have harassed a treecat colony from an air car? The 'cats were protected by the Elysian Rule and the fiercely protective reaction of their newest neighbors, most of whom earnestly wanted this most recent and personal of interspecies relationships to get off on the very best of feet. But Scott couldn't imagine any other reason for the treecat's reaction, which caused him a great deal of concern as to who might be guilty of "buzzing" a treecat colony from the air. All sorts of dark thoughts ran through his mind as he gathered up what he'd need for even a short hike into Sphinx's wilds.
Irina Kisaevna volunteered to go with them and Scott seriously considered agreeing; she'd been of immense help during the early months of his adjustment to Fisher. But Evelina Zivonik was still recovering from the delivery and Aleksandr was uneasy about leaving her alone without an adult in the house, so she reluctantly agreed to stay.
"Be careful out there, Scott," she said urgently before returning to the house. "We don't know what's happened or what the treecats want you to see out there. I'm worried."
Scott nodded, kissing her gently. "So am I. Believe me, we'll be very careful."
"Good." She smiled up at him. "Go on, then. Solve our mystery for us, Scott. I know you're anxious to be off."
He rubbed his nose sheepishly. Irina Kisaevna knew him too well. "We'll com you if we find anything, all right?"
"I'll sit by the speakers and wait," she smiled, kissing him again.
They finally set out a quarter of an hour later, with Aleksandr Zivonik in the lead. His oldest boy Karl, who at fifteen T-years was a keen marksman, covered their rearguard. Scott drew the relatively safer middle position, with his own rifle and his medical pack strapped to his back. He'd learned the hard way to carry a well-stocked medical kit with him wherever he wentparticularly on hikes into the wilds of Sphinx's picket wood forests, which were a tangle of interlaced, interwoven branches and nodal trunks, thanks to the picket wood's bizarre method of reproduction.
The picket wood tree propagated itself by sending out four long, straight branches parallel to the ground at a height of about three to ten meters, radiating out like spokes from a primitive wheel, at close to right angles from one another. Periodically, these branches put down "roots" which grew downward and formed a new nodal trunk, with perfectly ordinary, randomized branches growing above and below them. A single picket wood "tree" could grow to hundreds of kilometers in length and breadth, an unbroken green carpet that ran through river valleys, climbed partway up mountainsides, and spread out lushly across flatlands, with thousands of "individuals" genetically identical to one another. Consequently, hiking through a picket wood forest was an adventure in orienteering, since the interconnected system prevented one from holding anything like a reasonably straight course for more than a couple of meters at a time. It was a crazy way to reproduce, but it provided a perfect habitat for the arboreal treecats. The picket woods created a kind of intercontinental "super-highway" system that, so far as could be determined, inhabited every corner of Sphinx that would support the trees.
The treecats had taken to the tangle of branches the moment Scott and the Zivoniks entered the forest; they raced ahead, pausing impatiently to let the humans catch up, then raced on as the sun descended steadily toward the horizon. Scott wasn't a professional woodsman, but he enjoyed fishing with a passion and had done his share of hiking to some of Sphinx's remoter spots, having emigrated here from Meyerdahl only three T-years previously.
Sphinx didn't possess "true" fish, at least, not like Terran species, but wherever there was water, there were things that lived and swam in it, things that would glom onto a hook dangled temptingly in front of whatever they used for mouths, and that was all a born fisherman could ask of life. Scott loved the dense picket wood forests, loved the scent of their leaves and the slanting sunlight that filtered down through the dense green of the canopy, loved the clear, rushing streams and wild rivers that poured through these forests, and the fresh colors of spring as the land came back to life after the unimaginably harsh winter snows, fifteen Terran months of them, even this far into the subtropical zone of the planet.
Thanks to Sphinx's long year, springScott's favorite seasonalso lasted a marvelous fifteen T-months, which meant it had been spring for the entire time he and Fisher had been companions, for the entire time humanity and treecats had been getting to know one another, for that matter. There was something satisfyingly appropriate about the growth of new ties and friendships with a brand new sentient species while the whole planet they shared was coming back to life again.
Hiking through the burgeoning picket wood forest now, Scott breathed in the wild scent of a world coming alive all around him, and smiled. Then he glanced upward, where two treecats waited impatiently, and felt the smile run away like bilge water. Whatever the treecats wanted him to see out here, it wasn't likely to inspire smiles. What in the world could have happened, to leave the strange treecat so cruelly wasted with hunger and thirst? Where had all that blood come from? And why was the treecat so afraid of air cars? For that matter, he'd clearly been wary of humans in general until Fisher had showed up with Scott in tow, refusing to come anywhere near any of the Zivonik family. Why would a treecat be afraid of people, yet broadcast its presence so vocallyand when a human turned up in treecat company, cling to that person like a leech and insist they go with him into trackless wilderness?
Despite the overwhelmingly positive reaction of the Sphinxian human population to their arboreal neighbors, Scott could think of several unpleasant reasons why a treecat might be afraid of any number of people, given the history of human race relations, even amongst its own species. While the colonists were, on the whole, good people, there were always troublesome, unpleasant individuals in any population and there had been occasional grumbles about sectioning off large parcels of previously choice real estate as sacrosanct treecat preserves.
None of the darker thoughts occurring to Scott as they hiked deeper into the forest inspired any confidence that this trek would have a happy outcome. So he gripped his rifle, watched and listened for any sign of hexapumas or peak bears, and tracked the passage of time as the sun lowered gradually toward the treeline. By the time the one-hour limit expired, Scott was flagging behind Aleksandr, an increasingly footsore hikerhe wasn't wearing his hiking boots and civilian shoes weren't manufactured with Sphinxian picket wood systems in mindand was more than ready to turn back. As his watch alarm sounded, he called a weary halt and shut it off.
"That's an hour," he said, unnecessarily.
The treecats burst into a frenzy of bleeking, racing along the horizontal picket wood branches overhead to dance agitatedly just above them, then turning and racing back in the direction they'd been moving steadily for a full hour, now. The urgency he was picking up from Fisher increased at least threefold. He also received the distinct feeling that they were very close to whatever it was the emaciated treecat wanted them to see.
"Five minutes," he agreed reluctantly. "Five minutes, then we turn back."
"Bleek! Bleek, bleek, bleek!"
Fifteen-year-old Karl Zivonik grinned. "Five minutes, huh? Just how hard is it to say `no' to a treecat, Dr. MacDallan?"
"Watch yourself, youngster," Scotty smiled, "or one of these days some pretty little lady treecat might decide you're exactly what she's looking forand then you'll find out!"
The boy's eyes went round. "Really? Do you think I might ever get adopted?"
Scott chuckled, then slapped the youngster's shoulder. "Frankly, I have no idea. The treecats can't share their criteria for picking friends, after all, since they can't talk to us."
"Have any girl 'cats adopted anyone?"
Scott frowned slowly. "That's an interesting question, Karl. Come to think of it, I haven't heard of any. I'll have to check it out. Maybe the xenology team that arrived to study them will know."
They forded a shallow creek, work boots and Scott's low-topped shoes squelching in the mud, and climbed the opposite bank, heading deeper into a thick tangle of picket wood trunks. A couple of minutes later, Scott noticed an increase in the light falling through the canopy, a familiar sort of increase he'd noticed several times before while hiking to a promising fishing site, where occasional natural clearings in the forest allowed in more light. Such clearings often marked the presence of small lakes or old forest-fire scars or a change in topography or soils that discouraged picket wood growth. Another minute later, they rounded a thick tree bole and emerged at the edge of a small clearing, just as he'd surmised they would. But when he got a good look at that clearing, Scott rocked to a halt. So did the Zivoniks.
It was not a natural clearing. A ragged hole had been forcibly torn through the forest canopy, leaving a debris trail ninety meters long. Something large and man-made had plowed through the tangle of branches and upper-level trunks with massive, splintering force on its way to the forest floor. Bits and ribbons of metal lay in torn, jagged shreds in a path arcing downward along the trail of broken branches and clipped trunks. More metal fragments had embedded themselves in unbroken trees on either side of the path of devastation, where the force of impact had flung them. Scott's gaze followed the trail of ruin down and to their left, aware of a sick tension in his muscles as he sought what he knew he must inevitably find.
And there it was, nearly a dozen meters to their left. A massive cargo carrier had come down at what must have been a terrific rate of speed. The hulk had finally smashed against a picket wood trunk too thick to snap off, about two meters above the forest floor. The metal frame had crumpled like fragile tissue paper around the picket wood, then slammed down to the forest floor at an insane, twisted angle, a complete ruin.
Scott swallowed hard.
How many people had died, inside?
The treecats uttered shrill, sharp sounds and raced away through the tangled, broken branches, making for the wreck. Scott caught Aleksandr's glance. He considered suggesting that Karl stay behind, then thought better. The Zivoniks were pioneering folk, farming a hundred klicks from their nearest neighbor. Sheltering the boy wouldn't do him any favors. Colonists needed tough hides. The look in Alek's eyes told him the same thoughts had gone through the farmer's mind, as well. Aleksandr nodded sharply, then broke trail through the ruin of debris and splintered trees. Young Karl said nothing and looked rather pale, but followed his father without pause. The medical pack Scott had strapped on before leaving the farmhouse felt useless, a superfluous gesture in the face of violent death.
They climbed over fallen limbs and shattered tree trunks until they reached the wreck, then Aleksandr said, "Let's see how stable she is before we go looking for the hatch."
Scott nodded. The big farmer studied the way she lay, looked at the broken tree limbs under the hull where she'd dug partway into the ground, then shoved at the battered airframe and hung his full weight from it. She was wedged in solid as a mountain, from the look of things. As they hunted across the twisted hull for the access hatch to the pilot's compartment, Scott dreaded the sight which awaited them. He found a vaguely familiar, battered logo on a badly dented section of hull, a stylized picket wood tree with its trunk formed from the double-helix spiral of a DNA molecule. The paint was so badly scraped, the name had been completely obliterated, leaving only about half of the double-helix tree. Aleksandr Zivonik noticed him peering at it and looked over his shoulder.
"That's a BioNeering company logo," the farmer said quietly. "They've got a research plant out here somewhere, but it's a long way from our farm."
"I thought I recognized the logo, I just couldn't place it."
Overhead, the treecats emitted a sharp whistling sound and jumped down onto the uptilted end of the wreck, scampering across the side to pause halfway down.
"Looks like they found the way in," Karl said nervously. The boy was swallowing hard.
"I begin to suspect," Scott said slowly, "that the stray 'cat knew whoever was inside." He couldn't imagine any other reason for the treecat to behave in such an agitated fashion, or for the 'cat to have been in such a wretched state. Had the stray adopted the pilot, perhaps, and been left behind when the air car took off for its cargo run? Just how long had the air car been down? It would take days to run that much weight off a treecat. The thought of Fisher struggling across miles of wilderness trying to reach him brought a thickness to his throat. Scott started to climb cautiously up the dented, twisted hull and found, not the hatchway, but the shattered windows of the pilot's compartment.
One look and Scott swallowed sharply. It was not difficult to determine where the blood all over the treecat's fur had come from. The pilot's compartment had been awash with it, before the spatters and puddles had dried to a rusty brown scum.
"The hatch is back here," Aleksandr said off to Scott's right. "The frame's bent pretty badly around it, but the latches popped under impact." Bending metal shrieked in the unnatural stillness, a desecration that couldn't be avoided. Scott edged his way around to help pry it further open. The hatch shrieked in protest, but finally gave way. Scott ducked through first. The stench of decaying flesh gagged him. He paused to cough and wipe his mouth, then fumbled for a mask from his surgical kit to tie around his mouth and nose. Wordlessly, he handed masks to the Zivoniks. The control compartment was a fraction of its original size. Judging from the debris, there'd been three people inside when she'd impacted. Pilot and co-pilot, probably, maybe a company executive or an employee headed to or from that remote plant Alek had mentioned.
Aleksandr Zivonik spoke in a muted whisper through his mask. "Must've come down during one of the big storms or we'd have heard the crash from the house. Sound travels a long way out here. We can't be more than two, three kilometers from the house, tops. How long you figure it's been?"
"At a guess, given the state of the bodies, they've been dead at least a week. And there were some pretty bad storms last week, which could've forced them down. I had to fly through a couple of real humdingers and I was just skirting the edges."
How far could one frantic treecat run in a week's time, not pausing to eat or rest? Thoughts of Fisher brought his eyelids clenching down. The sound coming from the emaciated treecat got them open again. That sound was a feeble shadow of Fisher's familiar, comforting croon. The treecat huddled over what must have been the co-pilot, shaking and wheezing in a grief so sharp, Scott found himself blinking too rapidly and swallowing much too hard. The specter of death was always difficult to face, even for a physician who'd seen it strike many times before; witnessing this depth of grief from an alien creature for a lost human companion . . .
He turned aside, unable to hide the wetness in his eyes any other way.
A weight settled onto his shoulder and Fisher wrapped his tail around Scott's throat, crooning softly and rubbing his head against Scott's cheek. He clenched his fingers through his friend's thick fur and just stood there for a moment, trying to come to terms with powerful feelings which he knew from experience were no longer entirely his own. Aleksandr's voice reached him, speaking quietly into his wrist com.
"Twin Forks Tower, do you read?"
"Twin Forks, we read you, over."
"Aleksandr Zivonik, here. Doc MacDallan's with me. We, uh, just found a wrecked air car, looks like it's been missing a few days."
There was a brief pause, which Scott used to move closer to the grieving treecat. He hesitated, then stroked the thin 'cat gently. It quivered under his hand, but made no protest. Twin Forks Tower came back on.
"Cargo air car?"
"Yeah, we got a report on a missing cargo carrier about six days ago. Its crash beacon must've malfunctioned, because we haven't been able to trace it and the aerial surveys haven't been able to find it, either. I've got a fix on you. Good God, what were they doing out there? That's five hundred klicks off their flight plan. No wonder we couldn't find them."
"Well, they're found now. Looks like three bodies. Doc, you want to make the report?"
Scott cleared his throat, then keyed his own wrist com to the Twin Forks Tower's code. "Scott MacDallan, here."
"Wylie Bishop, Doc."
Scott had seen him once or twice for minor ailments. "We've got three confirmed casualties in the pilot's compartment. How many people were listed as missing?"
"Just the three. Conrad Warren, pilot, Arvin Erhardt,
co-pilot, and Pol Rafferty, passenger. How'd you find that air car, Doc? According to the section maps, it must be three, maybe four kilometers from the Zivoniks' house, not what I'd call an easy stroll. Did the Zivoniks hear it come down?"
"No." He had to clear his throat. "I think the co-pilot must have been adopted by a treecat, because a half-starved treecat showed up at the Zivonik place today and led us back here."
"A treecat?" The shock in Wylie Bishop's voice was unmistakable.
"Yeah. My treecat, Fisher, insisted I hike out here, I didn't know why until we found the wreckage."
The com crackled sharply. "Good God. That xenology team is going to want every detail. Doc, I've got Mayor Sapristos on, patching him through."
"Scott?" The mayor of Twin Forks sounded weary. Nobody ever wanted a fatal air crash to strike their community and Sapristos was a good man who worked tirelessly to make Twin Forks and its outlying settlements safe, pleasant places in which to live, work, and raise a family. He took the deaths of anyone in his community very much to heart.
"Can you stand by at the wreck site? We've already got a recovery team airborne, headed your way. They'll be there in thirty minutes, at most."
"Roger, we'll stay, and we'd appreciate a lift back to the Zivonik place. I left my air car there and the Zivoniks don't want to be out here on foot after dark."
"Roger that, they'll lift you out, no problem."
"Thanks. Am I acting as official coroner for the crash?"
"Yes, you've got the job and thanks, Scott. I'd appreciate the help out there."
"Right. I'll begin the preliminary medical exams and investigation, although it's pretty obvious what the cause of death was."
"Copy that, and I'm sorry you had to be the one to find them."
"Yeah. Thanks. Just get that crash team out here, will you? It's going to be a long night."
"Roger that. The cavalry's on the way."
Their com units fell silent. Young Karl looked like a boy who needed to be violently ill and was holding himself under control by willpower alone. Scott sympathized. "Somebody should stand watch outside. With that hatch open, God knows what will be drawn by the scent. What else," he added, since it was clear that small scavengers had already found their way through the broken windows to take advantage of a macabre meal. "Take a spare rifle, too." He handed his to Karl.
"Yessir," the boy slurred out through his surgical mask. He took the rifle with a hand that was steady enough to suit, but exited hastily.
"What can I do?" Aleksandr asked heavily.
"Dig through the cargo and the storage bins, see if you can find a portable generator and some lights. This is going to take a while and the sun's going down. And call Irina, let her know what's happened."
The elder Zivonik nodded and started his search, keying his wrist com to call his waiting sister and wife. His voice, speaking softly, drifted back to Scott as Aleksandr broke the news to his family.
Scott tried to comfort the grieving treecat one last time and had to fight blurriness in his eyes when the 'cat clung to his hand, looking up with such a pleading expression he could hardly bear to meet the treecat's steady green gaze.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "There's nothing I can do for him. I'm sorry."
Thin, three-fingered hands tightened briefly around his fingers. "Bleek . . ."
He crouched down, face-to-face with the treecat. "What?" he asked a little hopelessly, hating the language barrier that put such an uncrossable chasm between them. "Surely you understand there's nothing anyone can do? I can't help him. What is it you're trying to tell me?"
Scott listened hard with his emotions, with that sixth sense he'd inherited from generations of Scottish "sensitives," trying to make some sense of what he was feeling reflected through Fisher and perhaps even directly from this treecat. The chaotic emotions churning through him were far stronger now than they'd ever been with just Fisher alone. Overwhelming grief and loneliness . . . pain and exhaustion . . . and threading through it all like a trickle of hot, spilt blood, unending, anguished rage. He shut his eyes, trying to fathom the anger he was all but tasting, it was so strong. Why anger? Was this little treecat merely expressing the anger felt by many another victim of disaster, who'd lost a loved one in a senseless vehicle crash? Or was it something else, something deeper? More . . . sinister?
Scott blinked at the agitated treecat in sudden surprise. Sinister? Why had that particular word popped into his mind? The treecat was clutching tightly at his hand, clawtips just barely unsheathed, pressing into his skin. Scott stared into eyes the color of summer grass and wondered why he was feeling a dark suspicion that something about this seemingly ordinary crash was not quite right. What wasn't right, he couldn't begin to hazard a guessand trying to pin down concrete reasons from the nebulous feelings received from a treecat was almost as difficult as trying to travel between star systems without Warshawski sails.
But suspicion lingered, a strong undercurrent of the anger reflected so powerfully by the treecats. Was the grieving 'cat suspicious of the circumstances of his friend's death? Or had the co-pilot been suspicious of something and the treecat was trying to pass along that feeling to Scott? According to the air car's markings, this was a BioNeering cargo vehicle. Scott didn't know very much about BioNeering, other than they'd set up business a couple of T-years back and had been expanding their business steadily, providing welcome jobs and cashflow for the Sphinxian export economy.
Other than that, he'd paid little attention to the company, having more than enough to keep him busy, what with his far-flung, madly pro-creative and fairly accident-prone patients, his occasional escapes into the wilds to go fishing, andever since that last, disastrous fishing expeditionlearning everything he could get his hands on about Sphinxian treecats while recording his own daily, ever-wondrous discoveries. He hadn't had time to go fishing since and hadn't really missed it, not with his remarkable new friend to try and understand.
Huddled on the buckled floor plates of a blood-stained wreck, Scott gazed quietly into a heartbroken stray treecat's luminous green eyes and found himself vowing that he would get to the bottom of this mystery, whatever it took. If suspicion existed in this treecat's mind, then a careful investigation was warranted. If suspicion had existed in the human co-pilot's mind . . . then an even more cautious investigation was called for. People didn't carry around suspicions strong enough to leave a treecat in this pitiful state without good reason.
And if a reason existed, Scott MacDallan intended to unearth it.
In the sepulchral darkness beyond the blaze of artificial lights, they gathered, arriving silently to sit in the branches of the trees overlooking the place of disaster. The hunters and scouts of Walks in Moonlight Clan mourned, even as they listened to the voices of the two-legs who had finally discovered the flying machine which had come crashing down from the sky two hands of days before. The two-legs had come at last to this clearing of sorrow to reclaim their own. Walks in Moonlight Clan had come to learn the song of their grieving brother from Bright Heart Clan.
Within the ring of alert hunters and scouts, Clear Singer sat with her tail curled primly around her true-feet, ears cocked toward the alien voices, which she had never heard directly before. Memory singers did not leave a clan's central nesting place without great cause, but True Stalker would not leave the remains of his friend until the two-leg responsible for that friend's death was punishedand for that to happen, the other two-leg, who walked with Swift Striker of Laughing River Clan, must somehow be made to understand what had happened.
It was beyond the hope of a starving, grief-stricken hunter and a simple scout, even working together, to make a mind-blind two-leg understand the evil done here. But if Clear Singer added her own mind-voice, perhaps enough could be communicated to the mind-blind two-leg called "Scott" that the truth would be discovered? Clear Singer could hope, for a grievous wrong had been done and if she succeeded, that wrong might at least be known, even though it could never be righted.
Clear Singer seethed with frustration, unsure of herself as she had never been when questions of right and wrong among the People were at issue. They knew so very little of the two-legs! There were those among the People, some in her own Clan, who had called for an immediate withdrawal from the two-legs, as too dangerous to risk further association with, when word had spread of the disaster in this clearing and its dreadful cause.
Yet retreat was not the wise course, Clear Singer could see that as clearly as Sings Truly of Bright Water Clan had seen it when the spring was still new and Climbs Quickly had first bonded with a two-leg youngling. Yes, two-legs could be dangerous. The People had known that when the decision to reveal themselves, to actively seek out more bonds with two-legs, had been made and carried out. That decision had been the right one, Clear Singer knew that in her heart, for the two-legs could be tremendous allies, as well. Already the People had learned things that had improved countless lives, in dozenshundredsof clans.
And murder was not unknown, even among the People.
What Clear Singer did not know was how the two-legs viewed the deliberate killing of their kind by one of their own number. If Clear Singer accomplished the impossible, if she somehow communicated with a mind-blind creature like the two-leg Scott, if she somehow made him understand that murder had been done in this tree-shattered clearing, what would the two-legs do? A creature that would murder three of its own companions could not be trusted to remain at large amongst its own kind, nor could the People risk letting such a creature walk loose. A mind-sick two-leg who would destroy its companions could never be trusted to refrain from committing murder against the Peopleand after what True Stalker had seen and heard and had done to him, he had more than ample reason to fear for his very life.
If True Stalker went back with the two-legs, trying to bring the killer's actions to lightwithout the two-leg Scott understanding what True Stalker returned toClear Singer feared the grieving Bright Heart hunter would not survive another hand of days. But if he remained with Walks in Moonlight Clan or even returned to his own distant clan, the murder would never be known by any but the People. And that, Clear Singer could not permit. Not without at least trying. So she sent her call to the clearing, where the two who had summoned her to this place waited.
<I am ready.>
<We will come.>
It was now Clear Singer's turn to wait.
Swift Striker crooned softly, touching his true-hands to Scott's face to gather his friend's full attention. The mind glow he so loved focused all its glorious brightness on him.
He had learned, that day he'd first glimpsed the two-leg called Scott MacDallan, that his friend's mouth sound "Fisher" was the name his two-leg had given him, unable to hear Swift Striker's mind voice clearly enough to learn his true name. The name was so surprisingly close to his own name's meaning, he delighted in the sound of it from Scott's lips.
"What is it, Fisher?"
He pointed into the night, away from the downed air car, toward the place Walks in Moonlight Clan had gathered and now waited with their precious, irreplaceable senior memory singer. He knew the two-legs feared the night in open forest like this, with good reason, but Scott had to be made to understand. He pointed again. "Bleek?"
Along with that plaintive sound, Swift Striker put all the intense need he felt for Scott to come with him. At his side, True Stalkerwhose grief was a knife-cut in Swift Striker's mindadded his own urgent summons, silently reinforcing Swift Striker's plea and even reaching out to grasp Scott's nearest hand in both True Stalker's own.
Scott twitched his face into the gesture of unhappiness. "You want me to come with you? Out there?"
The stubborn resistance Swift Striker had learned to recognize flared in his friend's mind glow. It was dangerous in the forest at night. Scott did not want to go anywhere near the trees at the edge of this ruined clearing.
"Bleek!" The grieving True Stalker ran to the shattered windows of the broken flying machine, bleeking his distress, came back and grasped Scott's hand again, dragging at it, tugging Scott's large, smooth fingers in the direction of the forest and the waiting Clear Singer. "Bleek! Bleek!"
True Stalker's reaction had startled Scott; water-blue eyes had widened. "What in the world's gotten into the two of you?"
At least, that was the emotional gist of the question. Swift Striker was still learning the two-leg language of mouth noises and although he had mastered many basic words, complex ideas and abstract concepts were laboriously difficult to translate. He knew that Clear Singer, waiting in the darkness, shared his frustration, with even greater reason. If a senior memory singer with the help of an entire Clan could not get across what True Stalker so desperately needed Scott to know, who among the People could?
"Bleek!" Swift Striker tried again, voicing his frustration the only way he could. "Bleek!" He, too, dragged at Scott's hand with one of his true-hands, while pointing urgently toward the waiting memory singer. If they could just get him outside, far enough from the other two-legs for him to realize other treecats were out there, all wanting him to come, Swift Striker knew Scott would risk any number of death fangs to try and understand what they were attempting to tell him. The love he felt for his two-leg friend that this was so was all the sharper for the darkness in True Stalker's mind, where a beloved mind glow would never be welcomed again.
The hunter's grief burned through Swift Striker's awareness, an agony none of the People could possibly have ignored, for True Stalker had sensed, despite the immense distance between them, that his friend Erhardt had known he and his companions were being murdered even as the flying machine fell, crippled, from the sky. And the two-leg responsible for that devastating crash had tried to kill True Stalker, attacking in his worst moment of pain and grief, with murder in her heart. His clan, already thrown into chaos by the two-legs' terrible, incomprehensible accident at their research placean accident which was devastating his clan's home rangehad packed their food stores and flint tools, their baskets, carry nets, and kittens with frantic haste, even while True Stalker fled for his life.
With a mind-sick two-leg attacking the People as well as her own kind, Bright Heart Clan's very survival demanded they immediately abandon their doubly-threatened central nesting place. Not only was their hunting range devastated, with many of the animals they depended on dead, killed by the poisons the dissolving trees emitted to keep any animals from spreading the two-legs' mysterious blight from damaged, dying trees to undamaged, healthy ones, the clan's central nesting place lay far too close to the two-leg habitation to risk leaving their kittens and memory singers where this mind-sick, murderous two-leg could all-too-easily find and strike at them.
And while the People had occasionally been forced to hunt down and kill one of their own hunters or scouts who had become murderously mind-sick, such as Bright Water Clan had been forced to do when a High Crag Clan hunter had attacked their scouts, trying to steal kittens for hideous purposes, Bright Heart Clan could not trust the wisdom of doing the same to a mind-sick two-leg. The newcomers were simply too powerful, too great an unknown to risk the entire future of the People, even if their cause was a good one. Misunderstandings between those who could not speak to one another were far too great a risk to jeopardize the future of the entire People; nor was there any guarantee that the two-legs could comprehend what had happened here, or comprehend it in time to protect Bright Heart's kittens and females from their mind-sick companion. So the Bright Heart Clan deserted their home to find safety elsewhere and the grieving True Stalker, his entire clan in flight, refugees in their own home range, had set out to find his murdered friendand any two-legs who might help him prove that murder had been done.
He had found Swift Striker and Scott MacDallan.
Swift Striker, huddled now beside the remains of True Stalker's murdered friend, tightened his true-hand around Scott's finger and thumb, desperate to make his own friend understand. "Bleek?"
Scott regarded him for a long moment, his water-blue eyes dark and troubled. The artificial lights which shed so brilliant a blaze in the cramped space glinted on the fire-colored curls of his head fur. Swift Striker had never seen a two-leg before he'd found Scott, had never seen any creature with fur the color of bright hearth fires. Scott's pale skin, lighter in color than the cream in Swift Striker's own fur, was almost as mottled as Swift Striker's pelt, not with fur, for most of him was smooth and virtually furless, but with pale golden spots and splotches, hundreds of them, as though little droplets of sunlight had splashed across his skin and glowed now from inside it.
Of all the two-legs Swift Striker had now seen, he thought Scott MacDallan was by far the most strikingly decorated; that his mind glow was as brilliant and unique as his appearance only made Swift Striker love him the more. And he had tasted his friend's determination to discover what had happened here, knew that if Scott would only come with them, the chances of his learning the truth would be far greater.
"Bleek?" he pleaded again.
"I ought to have my head examined," Scott MacDallan muttered.
But he was moving toward the shattered hatch and Swift Striker could taste his decision to go at least a little ways with them. Exultation sent his mind call soaring out to the waiting Clear Singer. <We come!>
True Stalker darted out through the window, while Swift Striker chased after Scott and found his favorite place on his friend's shoulder. The process of removing the two-legs who had died inside the flying machine was finished and now two-legs Swift Striker had never seen were moving all through the machine, tinkering with bits and pieces of it and using tools whose purposes Swift Striker could not begin to fathom. One of these two-legs called out something to Scott.
"Doc, are you going to do an?" Swift Striker could not yet interpret some words, leading to frustrating gaps in two-leg conversations.
"No, I'llthem later." Whatever it was, Swift Striker received the impression of distaste for something unpleasant. "What about you?" Scott called back.
"Almost done. Where are you going? The rescue car's that way, not under the trees."
"I just wanted to check out something under the" The feeling Swift Striker got from that was "front of the flying machine."
"Have you got a pistol?"
That word Swift Striker knew. Scott took either a pistol or a rifle with him whenever he walked through a forested area away from town or one of the far-flung houses they visited so frequently. Swift Striker had seen him use the pistol once. While not as devastating as the larger, longer weapon called rifle, Scott's pistol had still killed a half-grown snow hunter with only two thunderous barks from its long, thin tubular end. The rifle, he knew from memory songs of those who had witnessed them being used, could kill a death fang at full charge, with only one such thunderous roar.
"Yes, I have my pistol, Garvey. I'm not a greenhorn newcomer to Sphinx, you know!"
The other two-leg laughed, although Swift Striker could taste the grimness behind that sound. All the two-legs who had come to this clearing were distressed by what they had found. Swift Striker knew that distress would increase sharply if they understood the reason they had found their companions dead here. At least, he knew Scott's distress would. The other two-legs, he wasn't quite so certain about. And that was one reason Walks in Moonlight Clan's memory singer waited for them in the trees. Swift Striker had learned a great deal about the two-legs, hoped he understood them sufficiently to judge how some of them would react, when they understood this wreck completely. But he had not learned enough. Never enough.
So he wrapped his tail around his friend's neck and crooned encouragingly as Scott picked his way cautiously through the debris of broken, jagged wood and torn metal at the base of the wreck. True Stalker waited for them at the edge of the forest, rising up on his true-feet to tug at Scott's hand.
Scott moved cautiously toward the looming trees, wariness sharp in his mind glow. His hand hovered near the handle of his weapon. When they reached the first thick trunks and spreading branches, he halted and would go no further. Swift Striker knew he would not leave the safe haven of the artificial lights, not without much greater incentive than they'd already given him.
<He fears the darkness and the death fangs,> Swift Striker called to the waiting Walks in Moonlight Clan. <He will come no farther unless we show ourselves. If we give him reason enough to be curious, he will come farther. And two-legs know that a massed clan can kill a death fang with ease, for Climbs Quickly's youngling saw Bright Water Clan destroy the death fang that nearly killed her and Climbs Quickly.>
Swift Striker listened intently to the response, hearing the hurried exchange of worried thoughts between clan hunters and the precious senior singer of Walks in Moonlight clan. A moment later, Clear Singer's mind voice, so much more powerful than any hunter's or scout's, answered clearly. <We will show ourselves.>
Like spirits of ancestors visiting in the night, the assembled Walks in Moonlight Clan materialized from the darkness, appearing on branches in a wide arc around Swift Striker and his beloved two-leg. Eyes gleaming in the harsh lights from the clearing, they showed themselves in a silent, welcoming mass.
Treecatshundreds of treecatsmaterialized out of thin air where moments before there had been only empty, shadowed picket wood branches. The fine hairs along Scott MacDallan's arms stood starkly upright. A wave of warmth, of welcome and encouragement, rolled over him with the power of a breaking thunderstorm. On his shoulder, Fisher said, "Bleek . . ."
and pointed toward the darkness beneath the trees.
The treecats wanted him to go out there?
"But why?" he gasped, trying to understand why several hundred treecats would be concerning themselves over a simple air car crash. Surely they'd seen other crashes? This was hardly the first air car that had smashed into the Sphinxian forests during the past fifty T-years, killing all crew and passengers aboard.
Orrin Garvey's voice drifted to him from the back of the wreck. "Doc? You okay out there? Thought I heard you shout something."
"Yes, I'm fine. I was just startled by something I saw, that's all. I'm going to take a closer look down here."
"Don't take too long. We're just about set to pack up and head home."
Scott wasn't sure why he didn't tell Garvey about the massed treecats gazing so intently down at him, but he was receiving the very strong impression that he was the only human welcome out here tonight. And that thought disturbed him far more than he liked to admit, coming as it did on top of his disquieted feelings about the wreck and the grieving treecat who'd brought him all the way out here to it. Humanity understood so very little about the tiny arboreals, any contact with "wild" treecats was unnerving, even after nearly a T-year spent in the constant company of a treecat recently converted into a city dweller. Coming face-to-face with what looked like upwards of two or three hundred wild treecats, all of them firmly putting themselves squarely in the middle of an ugly business, drew Scott's nerves taut against his bones with fear. That those same three hundred or so wild treecats were also focusing their uncanny attention squarely on him only made the situation scarier.
Scott MacDallan was no diplomat.
At the moment, however, he appeared to be the only human Sphinx's native inhabitants wanted to open diplomatic relations with. The treecats could've showed themselves at any time, to the Zivoniks, to Garvey or Vollney, or the pilot of the rescue car, but they hadn't. They'd waited, hidden in the darkness, until Fisher and the distraught stray had convinced him to follow them out into the trees.
Looks like I'm a diplomat, after all . . .
"Okay," he said quietly, addressing the hundreds of treecats who watched him so closely, "I know there won't be any hexapumas around, not with that many of you here. Although why you want me . . ." There wasn't much point in speculation. He'd find out shortly, for himself. Scott glanced over his shoulder toward the crash-investigation team finishing up their preliminary evaluation of the crash site, then stepped cautiously beneath the dark trees. He could feel the treecats' eyes following his progress as he left behind the safety and warm glow of lights in the clearing. Nervousness as well as fear prickled along his spine, but he trusted Fisher implicitly, for his companion had earned that trust multiple times over the course of their unlikely friendship.
At length, he spotted a faint glow beneath the trees and realized with a shock of surprise that a small fire burned just ahead. Old leaves and fallen deadwood crackled underfoot as Scott moved uncertainly through the darkness toward it. He caught the scent of woodsmoke, unmistakable in the still spring air. Then his eyes adjusted to the dim light and he made out small, furred shapes seated around the tiny campfire. Their positioning and some indefinable sense of emotion he was catching from Fisher told Scott this was a deeply formal gathering, thick with protocol. He swallowed sharply and wondered what to do. I'm no xenologist! What if I blunder into this and mortally offend a highly placed treecat dignitary? The xenologists hadn't even figured out how treecat familial and social organizations operated, never mind their political ones.
For a brief, blinding instant, Scott bitterly regretted his complete lack of camera or sound-recording equipment, despite the fact that his instinct to keep what he learned to himself was currently operating full tilt. Then Fisher jumped lightly to the ground and the half-starved treecat appeared from the darkness overhead, and Scott realized the council sessionor whatever this might bewas already open for the main order of business. Fisher and the stray moved between ranks of large, clearly male treecats toward the fire, where they greeted a much smaller, slimmer treecat. Scott studied this one sharply, cursing the dim light. Ruddy firelight which flickered across this smaller 'cat suggested a darker, brownish tint to the coat, darker, certainly, than the grey markings in Fisher's coat. Female? Scott wondered. The other 'cats regarded her deferentially and Scott received an overwhelming sense of protectiveness toward her from the assembled treecats.
Maybe the treecats wanted him because Scott, alone of probably all humans on Sphinx, could sense their emotions so clearly? For the first time in his life, Scott's unwanted genetic heritage suddenly loomed as a major plus in his favor, rather than an embarrassing handicap to be hidden from friends, colleagues, and acquaintances at all cost. If the treecats are communicating through telempathic means, maybe I'm not such a bad choice of ambassador, after all? The thought encouraged him a little, even though he cringed at the idea of telling anyone what he was sensing at this council fire right now. Better keep my mouth shut and figure this out on my own, rather than risk telling some off-world xenologist, "Yes, well, I sort of read the treecats' emotions, uh, like a psychic, you know . . ."
No, that was definitely out. Whatever the treecats had to tell him out here, he was on his own when it came to pursuing it.
They were half-a-dozen paces from the low, crackling fire when Fisher turned and bounded back toward him. "Bleek?" He sat up on his rear-most legs, looking for the world like an oversized Terran prairie-dog. Fisher caught at Scott's fingers. "Bleek?" He was tugging Scott forward.
"Okay." Scott was willing to be led toward the tiny, crackling fire. The smaller, darker treecat's gaze was uncanny. Her eyes were also green, but a darker hue, more pine than grass. Scott towered over her. A remembered snatch of basic psychology prompted him to sit down, cross-legged, to face her, presenting a less intimidating presence to the tiny creature opposite the fire. "Hello."
She tipped her head to one side, studying him gravely. "Bleek."
A delicate voice, pure as silver bells. Scott smiled, scarcely aware that he did so. She was exquisite. "Why do you want to see me?" he asked slowly, without much hope of being understood, since it had taken Fisher a fair amount of time to learn as much human vocabulary as he knew. An instinct he'd learned to pay attention to when dealing with treecats told Scott this one had never seen a human before. At least, not a live one . . . An overwhelming aura of curiosity and surprise nibbled at his awareness, whether from her or from the assembled hundreds of treecats with her, he wasn't sure. Finding himself in the role of ambassador for his entire species weighed on Scott, made him concentrate doubly hard on every emotional impression he received. Whatever these treecats wanted, it was abundantly clear that the burden of figuring it out lay squarely on Scott's shoulders.
He gathered his resolve and waited.
Clear Singer felt a surge of hope as she studied Swift Striker's two-leg. He was, in truth, as mind-blind as she had known he would be, for she had learned all the memory songs of those who had gone among the two-legs and brought back the knowledge and taste of two-leg mind glows. But his mind glow was as strong as a roaring forest fire, compared with some of the two-leg mind glows in songs she had tasted and woven into her own. Swift Striker had chosen well, when he had crept through the forest the day he had first seen this two-leg.
<This is the song of Swift Striker and his two-leg, whose name sounds like Scott MacDallan, in two-leg speech,> she said to the assembled hunters and scouts of her clan. <I sing it that you may taste the depth of courage and strength of purpose in this two-leg we seek help from, for this two-leg is the best hope the People have in this time of crisis.> With the skill of long years and innate strength and sharpness of mind, Clear Singer spun the memory song for her waiting clan.
Sunlight fell in a dappled pattern through the trees, casting motes of brilliance and shadow across fast-rushing water beneath Swift Striker's perch. The soft spring air carried a tang of green things stirring to life, and from the forest floor rose the heady scent of wet, warming earth. The river was narrow here, where the island made it possible for long, horizontal branches to cross the gap and put down roots to form nodal trunks on the rocky island, itself. The river bridge thus created was one of many up and down this stretch of river, where it plunged and roared its way down out of the steep crags toward the valley far below.
Swift Striker loved this place, where rushing water foamed and swirled into deep, dark pools of mystery and lurking fish. He excelled at spotting them from above, at tracking them carefully, cautiously, waiting . . . then flash! He struck true, centimeter-long claws sinking into the wriggling, wet body an arm's length under the surface. Fur soaked and dripping, Swift Striker anchored himself with true-feet and tail and used true-hands and hand-feet to drag the heavy, struggling fish out of the water and up onto his branch, where he bit it neatly through the spine, killing it instantly. Nearly two-thirds as long as himself, Swift Striker's dripping prize would be a welcome addition to the cook fires tonight. Unwinding his carry net from his waist, he tied the fish securely and loaded it onto his back. His whiskers twitched unpleasantly as water soaked into his back fur, but the sweet, delicate flavor of baked fish tantalized his imagination with promised delights.
Fishing was easier, he chuckled to himself as he set off along the rough-barked branches toward Laughing River Clan's central nesting place, when it was done with large nets and many true-hands and hand-feet to do the hauling. But the dull work of dragging a netful of wriggling captives onto the shore could never compare with the delight of the flashing strike and the exhilaration of catching a canny old monster unawares and dragging it up onto a sturdy branch with one's bare claws. Swift Striker wasn't the only one of the People who felt that way, either; younglings approaching the age where they would first be taught the ways of the hunt begged him to show his secrets and even oldsters whose prime had long since passed smiled at the memory of their own long hours spent crouched above a deep pool, peering down into sunlit green depths, patiently waiting for just the right instant.
Sounding deep waters to tease out the riches hidden within was in his blood, a passion and a joy shared with a few, select others who understood in their hearts what it was that drew him again and again to the branches overhanging the deep pools and fissured holes in the rushing, whitewater river. It was this joy, a glow like a bright hearth fire on an ice-bitter winter day, that brought Swift Striker to an abrupt, quivering halt on a branch high above a roaring cascade of water, grass-green eyes dilating in shock as he tasted it from a completely unexpected direction. The mind glow beating against his awareness was as hot and powerful as a raging, forest-deep wildfire, crackling and alive and immense. He had never tasted anything like ityet knew in an instant what it was, for the memory singers of his clan had repeated the memory songs of Bright Water Clan, of the impossible, awe-striking bond which had formed between a Bright Water scout and one of the two-leg strangers who had come from the skies.
Swift Striker trembled with sheer delight as the power of the two-leg's mind glow and his own astonishment rolled through him. Then, shaking himself as though he'd fallen headlong into the water and dripped with waterlogged fur, Swift Striker crept slowly forward along his branch and peered cautiously down through the thick leaves into the dizzying drop of water and vegetation along the river's boulder-strewn banks. Two-legs had never come this deep into the mountains, had never been spotted anywhere near Laughing River Clan's home range. What were they doing here? Had they come to build nesting places of stone and not-wood, like those he'd seen in the memory songs received from other clans?
Poking his muzzle through an opening in the dark green leaves, Swift Striker scanned the rocky watercourse and spotted a bright flash of fiery color against the dark green foliage. Swift Striker stared, entranced, at the creature below. The two-leg was standing almost immobile in a pool of shadow where the great overhanging branches crossed the water to another small islet mid-stream, where another nodal trunk grew from stony soil to spread the great tree to the far bank. Quivers of excitement raced through Swift Striker, from the end of his sensitive nose to the tip of his bushy, prehensile tail, which twitched irresistibly now as he gazed for the first time at one of the newcomers to his world.
Unlike any of the two-legs in the memory songs his clan's memory singers had relayed, this one's head fur was as bright as a blazing fire, as full of unpredictable curls as a twisting vine. Like the two-legs Swift Striker had seen in the memory songs, its face was bare of fur, all smooth skin, pale, yet oddly speckled with a scattering of spots and splotches of golden hue, leaving the strange skin as mottled and subtle as the markings on Swift Striker's pelt.
Tall and angular, the two-leg seemed denuded of limbs, possessing only four, yet it possessed also an eerie, alien sort of beauty where it stood motionless on a boulder, peering intently into the deep water of a rocky pool, as delighted to be there and occupied by the challenge of capturing a prize fish as Swift Striker himself had been just minutes previously. The two-leg had no claws in its stubby fingers with which to secure a wriggling captive, and its true-feet were encased in heavy, cumbersome coverings that hid its feet from view. In fact, the two-leg's entire body was swathed in body coverings of enticingly strange stuff, differing colors and textures of it.
The two-leg held a long, slender rod of something that at first glance looked like wood, but upon closer inspection could not have been wood that grew from any plant Swift Striker had ever seen. The not-wood rod gleamed white, like winter ice, and sported odd, glinting bits and curlicues as silver as any fish's armor. A long, exceedingly thin, almost colorless cord trailed from it into the deep water of the pool. That cord was narrower than one of Swift Striker's claws. How had the two-legs braided such a thin cord? And what plant fiber had they used, to make it shimmer with almost no color at all?
As Swift Striker watched, entranced, the creature's handas speckled as its facemoved, touched something at the side of its pole, and the line blurred into motion, reeling back up to the tip of the quivering rod. A flick of the two-leg's wrist sent the line singing through the air again and a glinting, furry-looking thing at the end plopped into the deep water behind a boulder, its aim perfect despite the difficulty such a cast must have presented. Swift Striker didn't think he could have tossed a line from a pole into such a small pool without many hours of practice, not without striking the rocks, tangling it in the thick, overhead branches, or watching it skitter away down the rushing current where the river poured down between jutting grey rocks in a froth of angry white water.
Swift Striker settled comfortably on his branch, ignoring the steady drip of his own catch as it shed water into his fur, and waited, true-hands tucked under his chin, entranced by the two-leg below his perch. Cast after cast angled out above the roaring water and landed with sharp, quiet plopping sounds in the dark green depths. It occurred to him, after watching this curious ritual for several minutes, that the blurry thing on the end of the line looked and sounded like a fat, wriggling bug that had fallen into the water. The notion brought his ears pricking forward. He'd seen deep-dwelling fish rise from the gloomy depths to snap up such morsels when they plopped clumsily into the water. The idea that a fisher could trick his prey into mistaking a false bug for a real one caused his whiskers to tremble with intense interest.
Below, the line sang through the air again and the false bug popped into the still, deep waterwhich boiled abruptly as something enormous surged upward. A flare of intense excitement from the two-leg's mind glow caught Swift Striker with a shock of pleasure. His claws arched out, biting into the branch as though he'd sunk them deep into a struggling fish. Then the line was singing and the pole's tip bent nearly to the surface of the water. An enormous fish, bigger than Swift Striker, himself, surged up out of the depths, trapped somehow on the end of the line. His pulse raced. He found himself half-crouching along the branch, having surged to true-feet and hand-feet in his excitement. The monstrous fish lunged and fought like a maddened death fang at the end of the cord. Water sprayed in arching droplets as the enormous, glinting fish fought at the end of the two-leg's line. How could such a flimsy little cord hold the frantic weight of such a monster? The two-leg burst into motion, abandoning its shadowed perch on the enormous boulder. It splashed straight into the river, soaking its strange body coverings in an instant, fighting to keep the tip of its pole above the surface, slowly and inexorably reeling in the line and the struggling captive on the other end.
Feet slithering and sliding on the submerged boulders, the two-leg battled its prize and panted its visible delight. Its eyes glowed like sunlight on a deep blue lake, its golden-speckled skin flushed with reddish color that hadn't been there moments previously, when it had stood silently on the bank, waiting as Swift Striker, himself, knew so patiently how to wait. At last, after a battle that would have left Swift Striker exhausted, the deceptively fragile-looking line drew up short and the two-leg hauled the great fish up out of the water. Clear, unexpected sound rippled from the two-leg, bright and burbling, a strangely perfect accompaniment to the fierce glow of delight from its mind. The dripping fish was longer than the two-leg's arm, and the two-leg's arm was longer than Swift Striker, but the two-leg hoisted the fish with such ease it left Swift Striker gasping in surprise. It would have taken many of the clan's hunters to drag such a fish from the water; yet the two-leg held it one-handed, wading now back toward the shore and the boulder it had abandoned.
Strong as well as tall, he realized with a sense of wonder and discovery. The joy the two-leg felt to be wading through the swift current, its prize hanging from one hand, while the sun filtered down warmly through the trees and the rush of the river filled the air with music touched a chord deep inside his heart. Not so different, then, he sighed happily, beginning to understand how the Bright Water Clan's scout had been so drawn to the two-leg youngling it had somehow bonded with. His own clan had argued the merits of Bright Water Clan's decision that the two-legs should be studied directly, that those of the People who could, should try to establish such bonds as the now-crippled Climbs Quickly of Bright Water had done, to learn all that could be learned of these newcomers.
Swift Striker had felt a keen sense of excitement, listening to the Bright Water memory songs, had found his own heart pounding with the same terror and grim determination Climbs Quickly had felt, facing down a death fang alone, knowing he could not win, in a battle to save his two-leg youngling. Laughing River Clan had finally reached agreement that Bright Water Clan had been right to decide that the two-legs should be sought out and studied, particularly since the youngling two-leg had leaped, broken and injured as it was, to defend the fallen Bright Water Scout from the ravening death fang, as fierce in protecting her friend as Swift Striker would have been in protecting any member of Laughing River Clan.
But two-legs never came to the deep mountains where Laughing River Clan's central nesting place lay. They never even passed overhead in their great flying machines that carried them through the air with such astonishing speed, like the one that had carried the broken, cruelly injured Climbs Quickly away to be healed in the two-legs' nesting place. Swift Striker had sorrowed that he would not be likely ever to meet a two-leg or be given such a chance which Climbs Quickly and others of the People had been given to bond with a two-leg, as the People came cautiously out of a hiding that had lasted for so many turnings of the seasons.
Yet here he was, clinging to a branch, enthralled by the wondrous brightness of this two-leg's mind glow, with no idea where the two-leg had come from or how it had come to be so far from the nearest two-leg nesting places, so close to him that Swift Striker could hear as well as taste the laughter in its voice and its bubbling, chaotic mind glow. The Bright Water memory songs were accurate about two-leg minds, as well. His delighted two-leg was mind-blind, his mind glow a churning mass of emotions without any conscious thoughts forming from them, as the People were so adept at doing, yet he glimpsed a depth of intelligence in that mind glow, an intelligence that tantalized and drew Swift Striker with a strength he did not even want to resist. He found himself moving forward through the branches, down and toward the riverbank, wanting nothing more than to peer into his two-leg's water-bright eyes and touch its strange, hairless face and learn everything he could possibly learn from the bewitching depths of this creature's bright mind.
Swift Striker had nearly reached the boulder the two-leg was wading back toward when it happened. The giant fish was still struggling and flopping at the end of its line, ponderous and heavy, and the two-leg was moving through a roaring swirl of white water between rounded, massive boulders, watching sharply for its uncertain footing in the foaming water. The fish lunged just as the two-leg was placing a foot between boulders, searching for an anchored footing. The two-leg was jerked off balance. It uttered a short, sharp sound and started to fall sideways. A scorching flare of surprise and pain swept outward from its mind glow, blasting across Swift Striker where he paused, rigid with abrupt alarm, on a swaying branch.
Then the two-leg fell heavily, the leg still planted in the swirling water twisting out from under it with a sharp shock of pain through the ankle. It smashed down heavily, striking half-submerged boulders with its back and shoulders and head. Pain smashed across Swift Striker, left him momentarily blind with agony. The huge, armored fish, still lunging and fighting, crashed down across the two-leg's head and shoulders, crushing the two-leg's skull against unyielding rock. White-hot, blinding pain caught Swift Striker so hard he cried out with a sharp bleek of distress. Then darkness smashed down, erasing all but a thready trickle of that bright, powerful mind glow.
Swift Striker huddled frozen in place, deeply shocked. The great fish flopped away, lying trapped in the swirling water downstream. For just an instant longer, Swift Striker clung motionless to his branch, while the two-leg sprawled insanely across the boulders, half buried in the raging water. A dark stain leaked from its head, smearing the white water an ugly shade of red.
Then Swift Striker was moving, racing along the branches, flowing out above the angry river along the rough-barked wood that crossed like a bridge toward the distant island. The heavy fish strapped to his back hindered him. He tore impatiently at the knots of his carry net and freed it, dropping the fish with a negligent splash into the water, then swarmed down trailing branches that came within a few hand-spans of the two-leg's still form. A chill passed down Swift Striker's spine when he realized the two-leg had fallen with its face partially in the water, its nose and mouth lying just under the foaming surface. Another few moments of immersion and it would drown!
He used tail and true-feet to cling upside down from a branch just above the two-leg's head and tugged at its brightly curled head fur, lifting with all his strength. He managed to pull the furless face clear of the water and heard the shallow, ragged breaths it drew, but he couldn't possibly hold the two-leg's head like this for more than a few moments. Already the muscles along his arms and legs and back burned with the strain of holding up the heavy head. The carry net, still looped around his middle, flopped down his belly, hanging limp. The idea that flashed into his mind had him wrenching at the remaining knots with his hand-feet, freeing the net completely. He looped the net downward, snagging the two-leg's face in it, then strained and pulled and struggled to drag the carry loops up over the snagging branch from which he dangled.
The ropes slid over a sturdy fork in the rough-barked branch and held fast. The two-leg's face hung in the net, just clear of the water rushing past its oddly shaped nose, but it could breathe now, safe as Swift Striker could make it until it woke again. The pain in the two-leg's mind throbbed even with that mind lost in unconsciousness. Swift Striker whimpered softly, unable to erase that pain and needing to do just that, more than he could recall ever having needed to do anything in his life. Moving gingerly, still clinging upside down from the branch, Swift Striker parted the silky, flame-colored head fur to peer critically at a gash along the back which still bled. Angry swelling already spread outward and the flesh was hotter there than elsewhere. Another gash crossed the upper portion of the two-leg's face above its eyes, where the huge fish had crashed down against its head. The bruising here was even worse and the bones felt wrong, as though the blow from the enormous, armor-scaled fish had broken them. The blood leaking slowly down the boulder from the great cuts alarmed Swift Striker.
He narrowed his eyes, recalling the memory song his clan's memory singers had sung, of the two-leg youngling which had halted Climbs Quickly's terrible bleeding where the death fang's claws had torn the scout so cruelly. She had wrapped a cord around the injury and tightened it down. But Swift Striker's two-leg had not suffered injuries on a forelimb, which could be tied off with cord, they bled from his head. Still, if he tied something down tightly across the gashes, the bleeding might stop. The two-leg's body coverings certainly provided sufficient materials for such a wrapping.
Swift Striker shifted along the branch with his true-feet and altered position cautiously, fumbling for his flint knife, then tugged at a section of the covering over the two-leg's motionless arm. Sawing carefully, Swift Striker separated long strips from the body covering, then moved gingerly, having to work through the carry net he'd looped around the two-leg's face. It was awkward work, but after a brief struggle, Swift Striker succeeded in tying the strips down over both gashes. Blood, dark red and terrifying, soaked into them, but the flow slowed and gradually stopped. The two-leg remained unconscious, but it was still alive.
Swift Striker stroked the smooth skin of the two-leg's cheek, crooning anxiously. Touching the two-leg like this sent shocks of strange pleasure through Swift Striker. Its head fur was longer, silkier than his own, yet the face, so smooth and soft, was not entirely hairless, he now realized. Tufts of fur grew above its closed eyes, in an arching curve, and its jaw and cheeks bore a fuzzy shadow of hair, as though the two-leg had scraped its face against something so abrasive it had rubbed all the hair off right down to the skin. The prickle of remaining stubble was rough-smooth under his hands through the webbing of his carry net, the golden-mottled skin icy pale.
Swift Striker scented the wind, but could catch no trace of any danger, certainly not the stink of a death fang or the musky odor of a snow hunter. Death fangs, while not overly bright, knew better than to come this deep under the trees of a clan's home range, and snow hunters tended to keep to the high slopes and craggy peaks of the mountains. It ought to be safe enough to risk. Swift Striker let go with his tail and true-feet and landed softly on the boulder next to his stricken two-leg. He chittered softly in anxiety, able to do nothing else to help. Far too large and heavy to drag clear of the icy water, the two-leg would have to remain where it was until it regained consciousness.
Crooning anxiously, Swift Striker stroked the two-leg's bright, wet hair and waited.
Consciousness returned reluctantly, in patchy bits and pieces of confusion. Blinding pain through Scott's head dominated awareness for an uncertain stretch of time. Eventually other stimuli made themselves felt. Cold water rushed across portions of him, leaving him numb in several places and shivering all over. Deep-lying aches the length of his back told of injuries to muscle and soft tissue. His ankle throbbed inside his high-topped wading boot. Unyielding rock dug into his shoulder and ribs and thigh. An unfamiliar roaring in his ears gradually settled into the recognizable sound of rushing water. Memory, splintered and broken, stirred. He had been wading through a rocky stream, had lost his footing. He must be lying in the water, then, with rocks under him.
That made sense.
But something lay across his face, cutting into the skin like a web of ropes, and that didn't make sense. He stirred sluggishly, then bit back sour bile and a need to groan. For long moments, the only roaring he could hear was the pounding of blood in his ears as his whole head threatened to detach itself from his shoulders and go spinning away on the current like a child's balsa-wood raft. By the time his head had decided it would remain attached, after all, Scott knew he was in serious trouble. He was a medical doctor, after all, knew the signs and symptoms of shock and concussion as well as any other medical professional on Sphinx.
The fact that he lay sprawled in an icy mountain river, unable to move, while sporting all the classic textbook symptoms of head injury and physical shock, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest hospital and several dozen meters from the shelter of his air car, left Scott MacDallan cold with a fear such as he had never known in his life. An aching, burning crick in his neck prompted him to try, gingerly, to ease his head into a slightly different position. He bit his lips and moved his head fractionally, swallowing back a cry of pain, and realized the sensation of webbing across his face was not an illusion.
Scott blinked slowly, wincing at the stab of light through his skull when he opened his eyes, and made a discovery that left him suspended between broken thoughts. His face lay tangled in the mesh of a hand-knotted net of some kind, which supported the weight of his head and left his nose mere millimeters clear of the water. How in the world had he come to be lying face down with his head in a net? Moving his arm left Scott gulping down bile, but his arm did work, even though the abused muscles in shoulders and neck shrieked their protest. He felt gingerly at his head, blinked stupidly as his fingers encountered rough knots and what felt like strips of cloth around his forehead and down the back of his aching skull. The netting was taut, looped, he discovered, over a low-hanging tree limb. When he brought his hand down again, it came away dark with blood.
At first, the low crooning sound didn't even register. He was lying there, trying to decide when and how he'd managed to tie bandages around his head during a state of concussed coma, when he realized that his fear was rapidly ebbing away. That was when the nearly subliminal sound that was sinking down through the pain in his head, soothing him, somehow, registered.
He blinked with a tremendous effort and managed to look up . . . and grass-green eyes peered anxiously right into his.
Scott came up out of the water with a convulsive yell. Then sprawled across the boulder, vomiting helplessly while agony lanced deep into his brain. He felt tiny, gentle hands touch his head, his cheek and brow, knew instinctively that the creature crouched beside himwhatever it wasnot only meant him no harm, it was trying to help. He didn't know how he knew that; he just knew it, as surely as he knew he would die out here if he didn't get out of this freezing water and down the mountain and into the nearest available hospital. For all of humanity's medical miracles, conquering diseases and developing human cloning and other gene-manipulating technologies, even limited cybernetic enhancements, simple, stupid accident still accounted for an appalling number of deaths, particularly on new colony worlds like Sphinx. Scott lay there shuddering for long moments, huddled across the boulder, fighting the nausea in the pit of his belly, aware that he was quite probably going to be the next accidental death recorded in Sphinx's official records.
At length, gaining sufficient strength, he groped cautiously at the net still tangled across his face. He could feel other hands moving deftly, as well, working at the back of his head and above him. Then the net came loose and he was free. He blinked slowly and found a long, sinuous shape of mottled cream and grey fur busily winding the net around its middle, using its four upper-most limbs in a graceful fashion.
A treecat . . . !
As the shock of that sank dimly through his aching head, it occurred to Scott MacDallan that if the treecat hadn't wound that net around his face and looped it over that branch, he would have drowned long before regaining consciousness. His throat ran dry at the realization that this tiny animal had deliberately and quite cleverly saved his life. The treecat huddled down, crooning softly, and touched its face to Scott's, rubbing soft fur against his cheek in a gesture clearly meant to comfort and reassure. Wonder seeped through the fear and pain holding him prisoner. It gradually occurred to him that he needed to start thinking about a way to survive this predicament. And to do that, he had to get out of this icy water.
Scott inched his way awkwardly higher onto the boulder, trying to drag more of himself out of the river's freezing clutches, then clamped shut his jaws and explored his injuries more thoroughly, finding blood-soaked bandages of some kind which the treecat had clearly tied in place around the gashes in his head. When he probed the back of his skull, Scott groaned. But when he touched his brow, a bomb detonated behind his eyelids and icy panic came up with the vomit as he spewed helplessly into the river, fighting a pain in his head that he knew would kill him very soon if he didn't get help and get it fast.
Even if his skull wasn't broken, which it might be, with hairline fractures, the concussion alone was bad enough that he might not even be able to stand up, much less hike down the river to the distant bend where he'd parked his air car. He tried keying in the code for the Twin Forks emergency operations center on his wrist com, but nothing happened. The com unit was damaged, its circuitry broken from the fall against the boulders. He had a backup com unit in his backpack, but that was several meters away, across a rushing stretch of boulder-strewn river and up a sloping riverbank and back under the nearest spreading picket wood tree. Unless he could get his injured self out of this river and all the way up to that pack, he couldn't even call for help.
Black terror lapped at his awareness, rising out of a bottomless chasm in a flood far colder than the river he lay sprawled in. And straight through that terror, a sudden, unexpected warmth enfolded Scott, nudged him back from the edge of that terrifying black pit, drew him up out of panic and back to an awareness of the sunlit river and the touch of tiny, alien hands on his cheeks. He caught raggedly at the air and managed to open his eyelids into the harsh glare of sunlight. The treecat huddled down in front of him, crooning in distress. A moment later, it nestled right against him, pressing its warm body as close to his heart as it could hold itself. Three pairs of hands and feet gripped his shirt firmly, as if saying, I'm not going to let you go. The warmth and love rolling through him drew a broken sound from Scott. His panic and fear ebbed away with the wetness spilling down his face.
With a concussion and shock and blood loss to overcome and a broad stretch of treacherous ground to cover before he could even reach his communications gear, the odds against his survival had gone up immeasurably . . . but he wasn't quite alone.
Swift Striker huddled as close to his two-leg as he could press himself and sank deeper into the bonding trance. The two-leg's mind glow was similar enough to that of the People that he could, after a fashion, establish a bond, even though the two-leg clearly couldn't complete it. But he was able to drain away the ragged, cutting terror that rolled out of the two-leg's mind, aware of a not-quite-rightness that differed from the taste of his two-leg's mind-glow just before the disastrous fall against the rocks. Swift Striker had seen a youngling suffer damage to his head, once, when the youngling had mistimed a jump between branches. The disastrous fall hadn't been fatal, but the smashing blow of the youngling's head against the ground where he'd landed had left the youngling's mind glow crippled forever afterward. He'd been completely unable to form clear thoughts after that terrible fall. Less than half a season later, the youngling had quietly suicided.
The two-leg's terror and the broken taste of its mind glow reminded Swift Striker fearfully of that tragedy. He poured love and reassurance through the bond, determined to protect this wonderful, bright-haired creature, to get it safely back to its own kind. And he would stay with the two-leg, croon to it . . . to him, he realized, sinking deeper into the trance . . . would keep him from the despair the mind-blind youngling had felt, if it were in Swift Striker's power to do so. The two-legs were used to being mind-blind, after all; perhaps Swift Striker's constant reassurances would help enough, whatever was actually wrong inside his head?
Determined to succeed, Swift Striker steadied the frantic chaos in his two-leg's mind glow, eased his fright, soothed and crooned and drew away the physical hurting and the sharp emotional pain, as best he could. The two-leg's pounding heartbeat gradually relaxed into a less frantic, only slightly irregular knocking and his breathing steadied down and his muscles turned from stone back to pliant flesh again. His two-leg was still afraid, but the blinding, jagged terror had gone.
Swift Striker rubbed his head against the two-leg's wet cheek and burbled softly, then pulled his head back and touched the two-leg's face with one true-hand. <You must get out of this cold water,> he thought firmly.
It was no use, of course. The two-leg was mind-blind and couldn't understand. But when Swift Striker pointed urgently toward the shore, his two-leg made some strange mouth noises that comprised two-leg language and stirred a little. The two-leg's emotional aura tasted now of faint, renewed hope and determination to try. A youngling of the People, so injured, would never have been able to accomplish what his two-leg must if he were to survive. Swift Striker scented the wind and listened hard for any hint of danger on the shore, then bleeked encouragement. Not even if Swift Striker summoned the entire Laughing River Clan, could he hope to carry his new friend to safety. His two-leg must save himselfwith whatever feeble help Swift Striker could lend.
He feared it would not be enough.
The treecat blinked solemnly into Scott's eyes, still pointing toward shore, then made a soft sound. "Bleek?"
Scott reached up, hand wet and shaking and smeared red. He hesitated, then dunked his fingers into the freezing water to rinse off the blood. The treecat sat very still, permitting the touch of Scott's dripping hand and unsteady fingers. Soft as dandelion down . . . The treecat closed grass-green eyes as Scott stroked damp fur, then arched its long back and made a sound very like a buzzing purr. Through the blinding pain, the fear, and the freezing ache of numbing water where it rushed across his lower legs, dangling down from the boulder, Scott MacDallan smiled, enchanted.
The treecat sat up, peering into his eyes, then tilted its head and raised one arm, unmistakably pointing toward the bank once again. Yeah, good idea, Scott agreed muzzily. Gotta get out of this freezing water. Standing up was out of the question, however. Scott hunched himself into a semi-foetal position on his side, then eased his way gingerly over toward hands and knees. His head mushroomed and he gagged; but he made it onto knees and palms without vomiting. Scott knelt on the boulder, knees and feet in the rushing water, head low, trembling, and willed the nausea back. Water splashed up across his bare arm and he realized dimly that the strips of cloth around his head had been torn from his sleeveor, rather, cut from it, given the sharp, straight lines and clean edges of those cuts. Clever treecat, marv'lous treecat . . .
He started to crawl toward the distant bank.
The slender, six-limbed creature hopped from boulder to boulder, dancing just ahead of him as he crawled. It bleeked in steady encouragement as Scott dragged himself from one rock to another, sometimes collapsing against sun-warmed stone to pant and rest. Whenever Scott paused, pulling himself half out of the water just long enough to catch his breath and gulp back the murderous nausea in his throat, occasionally immersed up to his armpits and thighs in rushing, cold water, he would look up to find the treecat just in front of him, sitting on the next boulder, waiting with an air of anxious worry.
If he stopped too long, the treecat bleeked urgently, a low, distressed sound, then hopped back to the boulder Scott clung to and touched one tiny hand to his face, urging him to motion again. When, some unknown stretch of time later, he collapsed across a rough-edged boulder, aware that he couldn't possibly go on, he was so exhausted, the treecat grew frantic.
How many times that sound repeated, he wasn't sure, but the sharp cry finally penetrated the icy fog in his brain. Scott looked up slowly, shaking and cold with more than the freezing river swirling around him, and blinked up into uncanny, summer-grass eyes. The treecat's gaze bored into his own, visibly willing him to rouse himself from fatal stupor. The treecat grasped his face in both hands, the tiny fingers warm and supple, claws sheathed. The curiously firm gesture had the effect of a rousing slap. Scott felt some of the rising flood of hopelessness seep away.
He could almost sense, at the very edges of his awareness, the treecat's fright. Under other circumstances, Scott might have convinced himself he was hallucinating the treecat's fear as a result of the head injury. But as he lay there, tasting his companion's rising alarm, with one of its hands on his face and its other hand pointing urgently toward the riverbank, Scott found himself profoundly believing that his treecat was genuinely afraid for his life in the icy river.
That fear got Scott moving again. You kept me from drowning, can't let you down now . . . He slithered and splashed face-first into the water again, half-crawling and half-floating to the next rock, dragged sideways by the savage current and fighting to keep his battered head above the surface. Had he been alone, Scott knew he would've just lain there and died.
He'd been crawling for what felt like hours, promising himself he could collapse at the very next boulder he reached, when Scott realized the water was so shallow only his wrists and knees remained immersed. With the infinite slowness of a grinding glacier, he lifted his head, biting at his lips to hold back the nausea. Sunlight shimmered in a painful haze across a glare of rocks and clay which rose in front of him, dry and baking hot in the sunlight.
He'd reached the riverbank.
A ghastly sound escaped him, defying translation; but he was clawing and scrabbling at the rocks, digging in with fingers that sank into the soft clay, hauling and scraping himself upward, out of the river's deadly clutch. The rock was hot and wonderful under his belly, driving away some of the icy chill on his bones. Then the ground flattened out under him and Scott collapsed forward onto a sun-warmed ledge above the river, shaking violently. As exhaustion lapped at the edges of his awareness, dragging him down toward oblivion, Scott's last conscious sensation was the touch of tiny, three-fingered hands against his cheek.
When, at last, the two-leg reached the rocky shore and dragged himself, shaking and weak, onto the bank, Swift Striker crooned approvingly and touched his wet face, trying to urge him higher onto the bank, under the safety of the trees. But the struggle with the icy river and the terrible injuries had taken their toll; his two-leg collapsed utterly and slid into unconsciousness, clearly exhausted beyond his ability to keep going. His wonderful, smooth skin, mottled with those beautiful flecks of gold, was chilly to the touch. His two-leg needed a fire to warm him.
Swift Striker swarmed up into the trees, searching for deadwood, using his true-hands and the flint knife and hand-axe tied to his waist belt to break and hack pieces loose, then dropped branches to the ground until he had a respectable pile. It wasn't enough to warm a creature the size of his two-leg for long, but it would help. Tail flicking in agitation, Swift Striker darted to the ground again and piled the rough branches to make what would be the largest fire he'd ever started. He used his knife to scrape bark and wood shavings for tinder, then set about striking his fire flint to shower sparks down into the dry bark and shavings.
He blew gently across the smouldering sparks and fed twigs into the flamesand grew aware of an intense, burningly curious gaze from his two-leg. Swift Striker looked up and found wide, water-blue eyes watching him, the surprise in his mind glow spilling over into delight as the bright fire crackled and licked at the larger branches. The exhausted two-leg made more mouth noises, which Swift Striker determined he would have to set about learning as quickly as possible, since the two-leg could never learn to speak the way the People did. Then the two-leg's mouth opened slightly in a curious gesture, the wide, strangely shaped lips lifting at the corners. The wonder in his mind glow told Swift Striker the odd grimace was an expression of pleasure.
He bleeked happily and fed more wood to the flames.
His two-leg stirred at length, looking around their immediate vicinity, then hunched forward on his side. His hand closed over a branch too large for Swift Striker to drag and pulled it closer to the fire. Swift Striker sat up on his haunches, surprised again by the two-leg's strength. He'd planned to use his hand-axe to chop the limb into more manageable chunks, but the two-leg dragged the whole thing with ease, injured as he was. The two-leg fumbled at a part of his body coverings which circled his hips, then pulled something loose, some sort of tool, by the look of it, although Swift Striker couldn't imagine what it might be for.
A vibrating hum startled him. Then something sprang into existence beyond the two-leg's hand, projecting out of the oddly shaped tool he held. Whatever it was, it sliced through the heavy branch as though passing through empty air. In seconds, a limb nearly as thick as Swift Striker's whole body and three times longer was reduced to kindling. Swift Striker's whiskers twitched and trembled in excitement. He wanted to look at the marvelous tool, yet feared that without knowing how to properly use it, he would do himself a grievous injury. His own flint knife felt clumsy and ridiculous by comparison. The People must learn more of the two-legs!
Once the cut-up branch was blazing brightly, the two-leg did something that caused the tool's hum to stop and replaced the marvelous knife-tool in some kind of holder at his hip. The fire crackled invitingly and the two-leg hunched closer to its blazing heat. He closed his eyes, huddling as close as he could get without igniting his curly red head fur, then lay still for long minutes. Swift Striker fed the fire with more of the big branch, running his true-hands over the perfectly smooth, flat edges, and wondered what other marvels the two-legs possessed. Slowly, the two-leg's dripping hair and skin dried in the warmth of the hot fire. His body coverings remained wet, but they had ceased to drip, now, and the front of his chest-covering was beginning to show dry in patches, as well.
When, eventually, the wood ran out and the fire began to die back, the two-leg stirred, opening his eyes once more. Fingers capable of such enormous power touched Swift Striker's fur, trembling and weak as a newborn kitten. Water spilled from the bright blue eyes and dripped down gold-speckled cheeks and his breaths shortened as his emotional distress deepened, coming in short, ragged gasps. The agony of fear and loneliness in his two-leg's mind was unbearable.
Swift Striker huddled close again, wrapping his tail around the two-leg's arm, stroking his head against the two-leg's cheek, focusing all his own energy on quieting the deep currents of fear and despair he could taste so strongly in the two-leg's broken mind. It seemed to help. His breaths deepened and water ceased to flow from his eyes. A few soft mouth noises came, gusting across Swift Striker's fur with his breath, then his two-leg struggled to sit up. Swift Striker crooned and pushed gently against his two-leg's shoulder, lending what little strength he could. His two-leg sat panting for a moment, then touched Swift Striker's fur and stroked gently down his back once again. He arched and purred ecstatically, reveling in the caress, so unlike anything he'd ever experienced.
His two-leg made low mouth noises, then pointed away under the trees, down river. The gesture was unmistakable. His two-leg wanted to go down the riverbank, for some unknown but imperative reason. The urgency Swift Striker felt from his mind glow was a bright furnace, impossible to ignore. There was something in that direction which his two-leg needed, desperately. And his two-leg was peering through the brush, as well, clearly hunting for something closer at hand. Swift Striker sat up on his rear-most limbs, lookinghad he knownsomething like a Terran ferret with one pair too many feet and a head far more feline than weaselish. Swift Striker peered intently into the deep shadows beneath the trees and spotted what his two-leg must be searching for. A heavy-looking sack of some not-leather substance lay at the foot of a tree. A long, tube-like, not-wood rod, thicker than the pole he'd used for fishing, leaned against the tree trunk beside it.
Swift Striker had never seen one of the thunder-bark tools, but Song Crooner had sung the oldest of the memory songs, from Blue Mountain Dancing Clan and Fire Runs Fast Clan, which showed clear images of such tools being used to kill a charging death fang when the two-legs had first been sighted in the world. Clearly, this was what his two-leg searched for. Swift Striker bleeked excitedly and pointed toward the alien tools. The two-leg's lips quivered upward again and a wave of pleasure rolled across him, leaving Swift Striker burbling with happiness. His two-leg crawled toward the tools, moving with pained shakiness, and finally gained the tree where he'd left them. He ignored the long tube and dug into the not-leather sack, instead, bringing out another oddly shaped tool whose function Swift Striker could not fathom.
His two-leg made mouth noises at it, then fell silent. The tool sputtered strangelythen two-leg voices came from inside it! Swift Striker uttered a sharp sound of amazement and crept forward, staring. The tool spoke again, with a voice that was clearly a two-leg, yet Swift Striker knew that no two-leg could possibly fit inside that tiny little box, nor could he taste the mind glow or catch the scent of another two-leg anywhere nearby.
His own two-leg made the pleasure grimace at him, then made more mouth noises into the tool. But his two-leg's glow of pleasure was short-lived. Swift Striker felt a rising tide of worry from him as the tool spoke again and his two-leg listened in growing agitation. Then he peered toward the sky, clearly trying to see upward through the trees. Swift Striker could taste his frustration and sense of helplessness as he sat huddled at the base of the tree, listening to the bodiless voice from the tool. What could his two-leg want to see in the sky? Swift Striker scented the wind for clues. He could smell nothing out of the ordinary, although the wind was heavy with the scent of approaching rain.
Swift Striker swarmed up the tree trunk, racing through the tangle of branches until he clung to the thin twigs at the very canopy of the forest. Wind fingers ruffled through his fur as he peered up toward the distant mountain peaks. Dark storm clouds gathered on the mountain above them, thick with the promise of driving rain and lightning. Such storms were so common in the spring season, Swift Striker hadn't really paid much attention to the signs of the coming deluge. He didn't have far to travel to his clan's central nesting place, after all, and could easily outrun any storm to reach the snug, woven shelter waiting for him.
But his wounded two-leg could barely sit up, unaided.
The coming storm would slash down across them with unbridled fury. Nor was there any shelter his two-leg could reach that would protect him from the coming wind and rain andif he tasted the scent of that wind righthailstones, as well. Swift Striker had no idea how the two-leg had known the storm was coming, but clearly he had, or at least, the two-leg voice from the tool had known, for the voice had spoken and his own two-leg had tried to see the sky, worry suddenly thick in his mind glow. And he was right to worry, Swift Striker realized bleakly, watching the clouds boil down from the mountain peaks. There was no guessing how far away the nearest two-legs must be, so Swift Striker couldn't even begin to guess how soon others of his kind might be able to rescue him. It couldn't be soon enough, not even if they came in one of the flying tools like the one that had carried away the injured Climbs Quickly and his youngling
Of course! Swift Striker's two-leg must have used one to come this far from the nearest two-leg nesting places. That meant he must have left it somewhere close by. If his two-leg could reach it before the storm broke, it would provide shelter from the slashing hail storm on its way down the mountainside. From his vantage at the top of the trees, Swift Striker scanned the forest canopy, wondering where the two-leg might have left his machine. He knew what two-leg flying machines looked like, from the Bright Water Clan memory songs and those of clans which lived closer to two-leg habitations. And his two-leg had pointed down river, wanting to go that direction.
The wind was whipping through the treetops, swinging his perch in dizzy arcs, when Swift Striker finally spotted the clearing at the river's bend. Floods from melting snow had come roaring down the riverbed earlier in the season, smashing into that bend and gouging out whole trees. He had seen it happen before, other spring seasons, both here and along other twists of the river where it raged and tore its way down the mountainside. There was a flat, treeless stretch of ground there, more than large enough to hold a two-leg flying machine. And when the wind whipped the trees in just the right direction, Swift Striker saw a flash of alien, bright color, yellow as the sun, shiny and strange, and quite large enough to be a curved section of his two-leg's flying tool. Feeling a sense of triumph the circumstances probably didn't warrant, Swift Striker scrambled for safer footing in the lower branches, where the rising wind didn't reach with quite so fierce a strength, and raced for the ground and his injured friend.
" . . . no way we can get an air car up there in time, Scott," Gifford Bede's voice broke the bad news from Scott's backup com-link unit. "That's a force-two thunderstorm brewing up there. Even if we set out now, that storm would drive us back to town inside thirty minutes. It's going to break over you in about ten. Can you get to your air car?"
"Yeah, sure," he lied, knowing he couldn't possibly crawl over terrain that rough in only ten minutes. It had taken him more than twice that long just to crawl a few meters out of the river. One glance at the chronometer in his backup com unit told him more than thirty minutes had passed since he'd landed that huge fish, so he'd been out cold for nearly ten minutes with his face suspended in his little friend's net. If he hadn't fallen with his arms and torso draped over a boulder, keeping much of his body mass out of the icy water, hypothermia would've killed him, making it physically impossible for him to crawl to relative safety on the riverbank. And now Scott had only ten minutes in which to drag his battered self several dozen meters down a forested, boulder-strewn riverbank to the safety of his air car before a force-two Sphinxian thunderstorm burst over him.
The treecat listened to his exchange with Gifford Bede, then uttered a curiously sharp, "Bleek!" and took off straight up the tree trunk at top speed. It vanished into the branches, a cream-and-grey blur streaking toward the treetops. A stab of abandonment crushed through Scott, watching the treecat leave. He leaned against the picket wood's rough-barked trunk and bit his lower lip and wondered what the hell to do next. He needed to fashion a walking stick of some kind, because he needed to make better time than he could simply crawling all the way to the air car from here, and he needed to wrap his throbbing ankle to brace the sprain under his flexible boot, and if he sat here much longer, that storm was going to come howling down across him like a shrieking banshee and God alone knew if he'd survive, exposed to the wind, the rain, and the hail.
"Keep talking to me, Giff," Scott said in a choked voice. "I'm all by myself out here."
"Roger. Hang on, Scott. Just get to your air car and you'll make it through fine. What's the rest of you look like?"
He explained the wrenched ankle and the need for a splint and walking stick.
"Okay, Scott, we'll talk you through this. You've got a vibro-knife with you, right?"
"Yes, I do. I . . ." He hesitated, looking across to the dying fire. "I used it to cut up a big limb the treecat hacked out of the picket wood I'm under."
The backup com unit crackled with silence for a long moment. "Come again, Scott? Did you say treecat?" He could hear the uncertainty in Giff's voice, even through the storm static which interfered with his com unit's signal to the orbital communications system it accessed. At this juncture, it had been only a couple of T-months since little Stephanie Harrington had first been adopted by a treecat and any human contact with the native sentients of Sphinx sent ripples of shock, excitement, and uncertainty through the planet's newest sentients.
"The treecat," he said slowly. "There's a treecat with me. Or there was. He just ran up the picket wood I'm leaning against and disappeared. He was with me out in the river when I woke up." Scott found it surprisingly difficult to say the words, because the implications, the depth of concern shown by one sentient race for another impacted him so deeply and closed up his throat. "He dragged a net around my head. Pulled my face up out of the water, looped the damned net over a tree limb. Kept me from drowning while I was unconscious. And when I dragged myself out of the river, he used some kind of stone tool to chop deadwood out of this big picket wood I'm under, then he started a fire going, I watched him use a flint to strike the sparks with."
"Good God!" Gifford Bede's disembodied voice echoed the same naked shock Scott still felt, having witnessed the astonishing things his little arboreal friend had done on his behalf. "You said the treecat's been with you since you woke up?"
"And he wasn't there before you fell and struck your head?"
"No. At least, not where I could see him, because I've been looking for signs of treecats all day. When I woke up, I was sprawled across a boulder with my face hanging in a net. And he'd cut off part of my sleeve, wrapped compresses around the gashes in my skull. Kept me from bleeding to death, probably."
A rustle overhead drew Scott's attention. He gripped his backup com tighter and started to reach for his rifle. Then hope and a pleasure so intense it astonished him surged as a familiar cream-and-grey shape hurtled down through the branches. The treecat swarmed down the picket wood trunk and dropped lightly beside him. It rested one hand against his and lifted another to point urgently downriver.
"Scott?" The com crackled with wild static interference from the descending storm. "What was that sound?"
"It's the treecat," Scott whispered, awestruck. "He's come back. And he's pointing toward my air car. My God, I think he climbed the tree and saw it!"
"Well, if he's telling you to shag your butt out of there, you'd better pay attention. That storm is a mean monster and it's on collision course with your transponder. We're picking up high winds and big hailstones and more lightning than you'll ever want to meet up close and personal."
Given the amount of static shrieking through the com unit's pickup, that didn't come as a surprise. "Roger. I'll do my best, Giff."
"Okay. First, wrap up that ankle, splint it with anything you've got."
Scott rummaged through his haversack, pulling out plastiglass-filament tape and several sections of disassembled fishing rod, the spare he always carried. With his head swimming from the pain in his skull, Scott dragged his knee up until he could reach the throbbing ankle, then tried to hold the fishing-rod sections in place and wrap the plastiglass-filament tape around them. He quickly discovered he needed about four more hands than he currently possessedand the only ones he did possess were shaking so violently, they were nearly useless. The treecat tipped his head to one side, ears pricked forward, studying the stiff pieces of fiberglass rod that kept toppling over, then bleeked softly.
With deft, three-fingered hands and strong, opposable thumbs, the treecat snatched up the disassembled sections and held them firmly against Scott's ankle, using all four of his upper limbs to hold them in place. Sudden salt stung Scott's eyelids. "Thanks, little buddy," he mumbled, pulling a length of tape loose and winding it around his ankle with shaking hands.
"What's the treecat doing?" Giff asked urgently. Scott knew Gifford Bede would be recording every second of their exchange, now that he knew treecats were involvedjust in case Scott didn't make it back to give the xenologists a report.
Scott closed his mouth before he could say, He's holding the pieces of my spare fishing rod against my ankle so I can tape them down. Scott's sixth sense had just kicked in with as big a warning as he'd ever received from his hindbrain. That profoundly intelligent, life-saving bit of assistance, figured out in a flash of problem-solving intuition, so similar to the treecat's solution to prevent him from drowning, gave Scott a great deal of insight into treecat intelligence. You might use flint tools, little friend, but there's nothing primitive about your level of sapience. Stephanie Harrington was right about that, and maybe there's a lot she's not saying, if half of what I'm picking up from you is accurate. The xenologists haven't got a clue, have they? This is data they haven't got, nothing like it, in fact. And maybe little Stephanie's got the right of it, keeping her mouth shut when those xenologists start poking at her. You're smart and you careand how many of us humans would take advantage of the fact that your technology consists of stone knives and fire flints? Well, if Scott got himself out of this mess, nobody would find out from him just how clever this treecat was. Better they erred on the side of caution, unsure what treecats could or couldn't do, than take advantage of them the way humanity had taken advantage of almost every other sentient aboriginal population they'd ever come across, just because they knew they could.
But that didn't stop Scott from wanting to learn everything he could about this particular treecat. A few well-informed, close-mouthed humans could do the treecats more political, sociological, and legal good than entire bureaus of well-meaning xenologists. Stephanie Harrington was only eleven. Scott MacDallan was a grown man and a respected professional in the far-flung community he served as physician. He could do a great deal, protecting this treecat and the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of others. If he survived long enough to try. God, how much more could I learn about you, what kinds of things could I accomplish, protecting you and your kind, if I had the chance?
Scott wanted that chance, wanted it badly.
By the time he'd wrapped enough tape to stiffen his ankle, the blaze of late afternoon sunlight had vanished into an ominous, lowering darkness. Wind whistled and shrieked through the treetops and the smell of ozone and rain lay thick on the air.
"Gotta get downriver," he mumbled to himself. "Have to get to the air car."
"Scott?" Gifford Bede's voice was breaking up in the crackle coming from the comlink.
"Yeah?" He strained to hear through the interference.
" . . . tape around your ankle?"
"Yes, I've got it splinted."
" . . . stick . . ."
"You're breaking up," Scott said, feeling tendrils of fear stir again as he glanced involuntarily skyward. "Say again?"
" . . . walking stick . . ."
"Roger that, I'll try and cut a walking stick, Giff. Something sturdy enough to lean against and hobble across the broken ground between here and my air car."
" . . ."
It was no good. The storm's rising interference was too strong. Scott clipped the com unit to his belt, drew a deep breath and smiled at his anxious friend, who peered up at him through brilliant green eyes, then dragged himself slowly up the tree trunk. He fought dizziness and waves of sickness. "Don't let me fall, Jesus, don't let me fall and hit my head again." He made it up, leaning heavily against the tree trunk, then opened his eyes and peered upward.
The nearest branches were just within reach. Scott fumbled the vibro-knife off his belt clip and switched it on. The blade would cut through virtually anything known. It made short work of a section of branch as thick as Scott's wrist. The branch crashed down and Scott switched off the knife, hunkered his way cautiously back down again, then crawled along the length of the makeshift staff, lopping off side limbs and twigs.
The treecat shadowed him, peering curiously at the humming blade, but thankfully the treecat didn't offer to poke so much as a twitching whisker at it. "What must you think of this?" Scott asked, aware that the treecat wouldn't understand him, yet driven to communicate, somehow, with the creature who was so patently trying to keep him alive. He was also desperately trying to keep his own mind focused, battling not only the agony in his head, but a terrifying tendency to fog out and lose control of his wandering thoughts. With a force-two thunderstorm bearing down on them, Scott couldn't afford a foggy brain with thoughts as scattered as dandelion down on a gale-force wind. So he talked to the treecat as he crawled along the downed tree limb, lopping off branches and shaping his walking stick. "You know, little buddy, I can't just keep calling you `creature,' can I? You've got a name, I'll wager, but what does it sound like in your language?" So far the only sounds he'd heard the treecat make were a curious, warbling sort of bleek, that buzzing purr, and a soft, reassuring croon.
As he worked with maddening slowness, Scott considered the problem.
"Any suggestions?" he asked his companion, who was busy solicitously dragging sharp-edged branches and twigs out of his way as he inched forward on hands and knees, to spare him cuts and splinters. "No? Well, you fished me out of that river, right enough. Maybe that's what I'll call you, little buddy. Fisher."
The treecat's reaction astonished him. It sat up on its hindmost set of legs, whistling sharply in visible excitement. Then it startled him by touching the disassembled fishing rod attached to his taped ankle, pointing to the river, and saying, "Bleek?"
Scott paused, momentarily oblivious to the onrushing storm, the agony behind his eyes. "Fisher?" he repeated. He touched the fiberglass sections of rod, pointed to the river, and made casting motions, said, "Fisher." Then he pointed to the treecat and said it again. "Fisher."
He found himself with an ecstatic treecat twining around his arm, head pressed strongly against his cheek, while the lithe, furred body purred like a well-tuned Terran housecat. Scott laughed shakily and petted the treecat with one unsteady hand. "I think that means you approve of the name? Is that what you're trying to tell me, Fisher?"
The treecat gave out a satisfied-sounding, warbling chirp, then pointed urgently to the sky. "Bleek!"
"Right." He'd let his thoughts scatter off the task at hand after all, distracted by the astonishing rapport the treecat was somehow building with him. A grim smile came and went as it occurred to Scott that what he was sensing might well be the same thing his grandmother had scared him witless with when Scott had been just a kid, when Granny MacChait had routinely anticipated things he said or needed, or when she'd known, from half a planet away without anyone calling her, that he'd been injured in an air car accident on his way to a nature preserve, simply showing up at his hospital room, or quietly giving out advice to neighbors who pointed to their heads and whispered behind her back about "that crazy old Scotswoman . . ."
The idea that he might have inherited the same cursehe'd never been able to think of it any other way, growing updisturbed him deeply, even as he realized that he was "sensing" a great deal more from Fisher than anyone had reported picking up from the treecats who'd adopted them, even Stephanie Harringtonand that his ability to pick up so much emotional information from this treecat might prove to be of extreme value one day.
"Great, not only am I crawling around with a busted head and a bum ankle while a force-two thunderstorm howls down on me, now I find out I'm as psychic as Granny MacChait and I'm tuned in on a treecat's psychic aura." The notionand his current predicamentwere so absurd, he couldn't help it, he started to laugh. I'm gonna die out here, if I don't shag my butt downriver, and I'm sitting here laughing like a maniac!
Maybe it was just reaction hysteria?
"Bleek?" Fisher asked quizzically, peering worriedly up at him.
"Never mind, Fisher," Scott wheezed, wiping his wet face with shaking hands and wincing as thunder boomed above the forest canopy, which tossed in the rising wind with a sound like thousands of snakes hissing in rage. "Gotta get moving." Scott finished lopping off all the protruding limbs, then shut off the vibro-knife once more and slipped it back into its sheath. He dragged the thick pole across the rough ground, crawling backwards until he reached the tree trunk once again. Scott wanted to lean against it and shut his eyes and not move again until rescue came, but thunder echoed and boomed above the picket wood trees, closer every minute. The ominous darkness flared with lightning above the forest canopy. "Got to get moving, don't we, Fisher?"
Scott bit back a groan and struggled once again to his feet. He peered toward the river to get his bearings, strapped on haversack and rifle, then gripped the heavy wooden shaft he'd fashioned in both hands and shuffled forward a step, leaning his weight against it. He didn't fall, but his knees shook and his ankle screamed and the pain in his head blossomed like a bright fire flower at the heart of an incendiary bomb. He stood still for a moment, swaying and fighting down nausea which surged up his throat. Sweat stood out in beads along every millimeter of his skin. If he'd been smart enough to bring his medi-kit out here, instead of leaving it in the air car, he could've given himself something for the nausea, at least, which would've made hiking out of here a little easier, even if he didn't dare give himself a painkiller because of the head injury.
A low crooning reached him and Scott opened his eyes to find the treecat clinging to the picket wood trunk at eye level, staring at him with a worry that Scott could nearly taste. "Bleek?"
He swallowed down sour acid. "That way," he managed, pointing toward the bend in the river and his distant air car.
"Bleek!" The treecat pointed in the same direction, then swarmed up the trunk to one of the straight, horizontal limbs that made the picket wood so unique.
Fisher could have outdistanced him in the blink of an eyelash, but he didn't. The treecat remained close above his head, crooning audibly as Scott lurched with agonizing slowness down the riverbank toward his air car. The wind picked up overhead and the snarl of thunder grew steadily closer. Lightning strobed through the lashing branches overhead, streaking from cloud to cloud. Before long, it would be snaking from cloud to groundor the nearest convenient tree. Scott did not want to be under whatever tree served as a conduit for a river of raw electricity. Fear for the treecat's life sharpened his anxiety as he thought about lightning strikes in the picket woods overhead.
"Gotta make it to the air car." He chanted it half under his breath and struggled forward, leaning his whole shaky weight on the staff. With every step, his ankle throbbed and stabbed in protest, but that pain was nothing compared with the blinding agony in his head. The forest blurred around him, growing as faded and indistinct as his waning strength. Reality shrank, condensed to a fearful knot of pain inside his head and the need to shuffle forward another step and another after that, to crawl, awkward and shaky, over downed tree trunks, sharp outcroppings of rock, and jagged boulders tossed into his path by the roaring floodwaters of some past season. He gasped in the thick, storm-heavy air, trying to drag enough oxygen into his lungs to keep up his grueling, limping pace across the broken, rough terrain which skirted the riverbank.
When the rain struck, it did so with a shock. He halted a skid across suddenly slick leaves and mud, then stood huddled against the downpour, gasping and shaking and trying to regain sufficient strength to keep going. Rain pelted down, lashing at his back and head with ferocity only slightly eased by the trees between himself and the open sky. He was trying to get his bearings, having momentarily lost sight of the river through interposing underbrush, when he was half-blinded and deafened by a brilliant flash of lightning and a roar of thunder that beat against his whole body. Another blinding flash showed him a furry, bedraggled form on a branch just overhead. "Why don't you go home?" Scott shouted above the roar of rain and bruising thunder. "You're going to get struck by lightning if you stay up there!"
Between crashes of thunder, he heard a sharp sound from overhead, then gasped. The treecat jumped from the branch right onto his shoulder. Fisher's warmth was shocking against his drenched skin. The touch of tiny hands against his face, claws sheathed, left him awed. "Bleek!" There was sharp distress in that sound. Scott could feel the urgency of worry coming from the treecat, sensed somehow that Fisher would stay with him no matter what happened, just as Stephanie Harrington's treecat had charged a hexapuma rather than abandon her. He was face-to-face with a selfless honor that left him ashamed of three-quarters of his own species' history.
A warm, furred body pressed against the side of his head and the treecat leaned his face against Scott's cheek, oblivious to the blinding rain. Fisher was crooning into Scott's ear, touching his face, wrapping his tail gently around Scott's neck, all but shaking in his effort to let Scott know he wasn't alone in this terrifying disaster in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. Scott risked letting go of his crutch to lift one hand, touching the sentient creature riding his shoulder; he could feel as well as hear its contented purr as he stroked wet fur with unsteady fingers.
"Where did you come from?" Scott whispered. "Your people must live near here. I don't know why you're helping me, Fisher, but you can't know how glad I am that you are." Then, pondering the intense emotions he could feel pouring through him from the treecat, he reconsidered. "Then again, maybe you can."
"Bleek . . ." The sound was low, comforting. The treecat pointed through the downpour, in a direction that looked about right for the spot he'd parked his air car, what felt like a lifetime ago. "Bleek!" The treecat pointed emphatically; Scott could all but taste its rising urgency. So he started hobbling in that direction, still trying to get his bearings. If he'd thought he could find a cave closer, he would cheerfully have crawled into it; but the only place he was certain offered shelter was his air car, somewhere up ahead in that general direction. At least, he thought it was in that direction. When lightning strobed overhead, he finally caught a glimpse of the river, but he couldn't tell how far he'd come. The confusion of wind-lashed rain made it impossible to judge his position relative to where he'd fallen so disastrously, never mind to where he'd left the air car.
"Bleek!" The treecat pointed firmly ahead.
"Hope you know where we're going, Fisher." He kept slogging forward at a slow shuffle, uncertain of his footing in the mud and the thick layers of detritus on the forest floor. Fallen branches and deadwood and rain-slick rocks tripped him every few moments. Only his grip on the walking stick kept him from falling. The treecat stayed with him, a warmth on his shoulder and along his upper arm and a comforting presence that kept despair at bay. Whenever he paused, panting and hopelessly lost, the treecat pointed firmly through the lightning-slashed gloom and driving rain, clearly aware of where he wanted to go, even if Scott no longer was certain where they actually were going. He had no idea how long he'd been moving, hunched over against the stinging downpour, when he heard the first rattle of hail strike the trees like gunfire.
Then pain stung his back where a hailstone struck and Scott yelped, nearly losing his balance. He caught himself at the last moment, clinging to his staff, then stood shaking for a moment while hail smashed down through the canopy, striking the mud all around him. Scott was so wobbly, he wasn't even sure his knees would hold him for another step, and hail was falling all around him, smashing through the picket wood in a rain of destruction that showered broken twigs and branches to the forest floor.
"Bleek!" The treecat moved across his shoulders, arched his whole body protectively over Scott's head. One three-fingered hand appeared in his peripheral vision, pointing urgently ahead. Lightning flared wildly
And Scott saw a break in the trees, saw the gleam of bright yellow paint on his air car. "The car! Fisher, oh, God, you wonderful, marvelous treecat!"
He slithered forward through the mud, gasping with effort, cringing every time hailstones cracked off branches overhead and splashed down past him. Almost there . . . another few meters, that was all . . . He came out from under cover of the trees and slipped in the sea of mud beyond. Scott yelled, aware that he couldn't stop the slide, knew he would fall, jarringly. He hit with his left shoulder, heard an animal squeal of pain . . . then discovered himself lying prone in the mud, with his head resting on a pile of wet, shivering fur. A faint sound of pain escaped the treecat. Scott whimpered, too, all but blinded by his own pain, but that sound of distress brought him to hands and knees, crouching over the treecat. Hailstones pelted down, striking his back, but he ignored the sharp, bruising sting and squinted down at the treecat.
A flare of lightning showed him the treecat under his shoulder, one of its middle limbs curled up tautly against Fisher's body. When he probed gently for damage, the treecat screamed. Oh, God, that middle limb's gotta be broken. You could've jumped clear . . . why didn't you?
Because if he had, Scott would've smashed his head against the muddy, boulder-strewn ground and the treecat had known it, had sensed how much damage that would cause. Scott didn't need words to understand what the treecat had done. He fought a sting of salt in his eyes, blinked against it. He lifted the treecat in one arm, cradled it close, stricken by the mewling sound that escaped. Scott peered through the rain, spotted his air car less than two meters away. He crawled, one-armed, across the muddy ground, splashing through puddles and wincing at the jab of broken, splintered wood under his palm and his knees where the earlier flood had torn away the trees to form this clearing. It seemed like an eternity, but couldn't have been more than a few minutes, at most, when Scott finally fumbled his hand up the side of the air car, popped the latch, and crawled, shaking in every limb, into the dry shelter beyond.
He wanted to collapse right there on the floor.
Instead, he dragged the hatch shut, crawled forward, and switched on the power. Taking off in a storm like the one raging outside would have been out of the question under any other circumstances, but Scott needed medical help badlyand now, so did Fisher. And a storm like this one was liable to tear out whole trees and send them crashing downstream with flash flood waters cascading down the mountain canyon, potentially straight into his parked air car. He flipped switches, brought up the lights and powered up the air car's systems. Exhausted, sick with his own pain, Scott dragged himself and his injured companion up onto the mid-car seat cushions, then rummaged through the medical kit he carried everywhere he wentand had stupidly left behind. "Won't make that mistake ever again," he muttered aloud as he pulled out bandages and splints.
Scott bit his lips, knowing this would hurt the treecat, but that leg had to be splinted. He gently touched the treecat's injured limb. Fisher whimpered like a hurt child, but let him draw the leg out straight. It didn't feel broken, thank God, when he explored with cautious fingertips. He could feel inflammation and swelling, though, and stiffness, which suggested a bad sprain. He was no xeno-veterinarian, but he was a medical doctor and soft-tissue injuries were soft-tissue injuries, whether they occurred in a human, a bird, a horse, or a sentient treecat.
"I'm sorry, little buddy, didn't mean to hurt you like that. God, what a mess I've got us in. Hang on, Fisher, I'm going to get us out of this, okay?" Scott retrieved a moderate painkiller from his kit and injected his little friend, selecting one of the medications he'd read Richard Harrington had tested safely on his daughter's injured treecat. The treecat bleeked softly, a sound of mingled distress and thanks as the drug began to take effect. Scott tried to smile. "Yeah. That should feel a little better. Wish I could give myself some of that."
But Scott had to fly them out of here and painkillers did not mix well with head injuries or with flying through force-two thunderstorms. He wrapped the sprained middle limb in a cushioning plasti-foam bandage, then shifted Fisher and carefully strapped him into a protective webbing in the co-pilot's seat, which allowed him to remain suspended in a sort of stabilized sling that would reduce the jouncing they were going to get once this car was airborne. Scott then gave himself a badly needed antinausea medication and strapped himself into the pilot's chair. He tried to use the air car's com, but could raise nothing but static.
Worry gnawed at him, but he couldn't do anything about it right now and Gifford Bede had a fix on his transponder. He'd have to fly nap-of-the-earth to stay out of the worst of the savage winds, which meant the river was his best bet. Scott said a silent prayer, then powered up the engines and lifted off. His hands sweat on the controls and his head pounded to a savage rhythm of physical pain and gnawing fear, but he got the air car out over the open river and headed downstream. The cross-winds were a nightmare, even this low to the ground, and rain beat at the windows in a solid, leaden curtain; but his instruments showed him the terrain just below and ahead, and the anti-gravs kicked in automatically every few seconds, surging against sudden down-drafts that tried to swat them into the riverbed.
How long Scott hunched over the controls, fighting the wind and slewing them back and forth above the twisting, savage river as it snaked its way down out of the mountains, dipping and diving to avoid picket wood trees that grew out across the river's snaking bed to set down nodal trunks on islands mid-stream, he wasn't certain. Hail cracked and rattled off the canopy like machine-gun fire and lightning blinded him every few seconds, hissing and cracking so close, at times thunder vibrated through the car's airframe. But there finally came a moment when Scott realized the worst of the storm lay behind them. He'd gained on its leading edge and was now flying level over the valley floor.
Scott sent a heartfelt prayer of thanks winging its way and reached a shaking hand to the co-pilot's chair beside him, stroking Fisher's damp fur. Scott's caress earned a sleepy burble of pleasure from his injured friend and a burst of love and warmth through his mind.
"Hang in there, little buddy," Scott murmured softly. "It won't be long now."
He gained altitude, pushed the air car's speed to max, and laid in a course for home.
A low croon from several hundred voices jerked Scott back to the reality of a low, crackling fire and the massed presence of more treecats than he'd ever seen at one time. Across the fire, a slim, half-sized treecat with a mottled brown coat and pine-green eyes crooned softly, voice trailing into silence as she peered into Scott's eyes. Other voices died away as well, leaving only the sigh of wind high in the picket wood branches and the distant clang and echo of shouted human voices from the BioNeering cargo carrier's crash site. He blinked and felt a flush of embarrassment sting his cheeks. Some ambassador I turn out to be, sitting here daydreaming about how Fisher saved my bacon, when this brown-coated treecat is clearly trying to tell me something important. He sternly ordered himself to quit woolgathering, even though the sharpness of those memories, the ache of remembered fear and the shock and wonder of discovery were so immediate, gooseflesh still rippled across his arms and down his chest and back.
"I'm sorry," he said contritely to the female treecat.
"Bleek," she answered softly, her voice a splash of tinkling chimes in the breeze.
What happened next caught Scott totally off guard. The half-starved stray he'd rescued at the Zivonik farm touched Scott's knee with its hands
and reality swung dizzily, a blur of color and sound and sudden, wrenching anger. Faces swam briefly in his mind's eye and voices shouted in a sharp quarrel. Scott gasped, reeling under a sudden lash of fear and rage, literally tasting the urgency of someone's fury and steely determination to stop . . . something. He caught a flash of pictures in his mind, of a withered, sere picket wood forest, the trees denuded of leaves, bark peeling in shaggy, leprous strips, caught an overpowering sense of fear and despair and belly-twisting rage . . .
Then a single image hung in his mind: the twisted wreckage of a cargo transport air car and the broken, decaying corpse of co-pilot Arvin Erhardt, with a starvation-thin treecat huddled over his body, keening in an agony of grief and anger.
Scott sat trembling for long moments, gulping down air that tasted of woodsmoke and death, aware of a weight against his side where Fisher pressed against him, crooning gently. He blinked sweat from his eyes, focused slowly on the leaping, misshapen flames of the treecats' council fire, shivered in the sudden chill of the cool spring night. How did that happen? And what in God's name are they trying to tell me? Scott lifted a shaking hand to his face, wiped sweat from his cheeks and rubbed his eyes, trying to gather his composure again. Maybe I wasn't woolgathering after all, just now, Jesus, how did she do that? Did she do that? How else could he explain what had just happened to him?
Neither Fisher nor the stray had ever achieved anything remotely like what had just occurred, with crystalline flashes of sight and sound projected right into his mind's eye, pictures of places he'd never seen and voices he'd never heard, yet as clear as any memory he could call his own. The half-size treecat with the beguiling pine-green eyes was gazing intently up at him, the intelligence behind those eyes shaking Scott anew. Christ, Granny MacChait, how did you ever live with this? Seeing and hearing what happened to other people, hundreds of kilometers away? People you didn't even know . . . ? He drew slow, calming breaths, felt the almost subliminal touch as Fisherand perhaps many more treecats than Fishereased the sense of shock still pounding him.
When he looked up, Scott found the dark-furred female treecat crouched right next to him. She huddled beside the stray Scott had followed here, crooning gently to it. Grief poured from that treecat in almost visible waves, lashing against Scott's shaken sensibilities. He found himself stroking the thin back, murmuring softly to it, trying to ease its distress, too, and felt as well as heard a low hum of approval from the assembled 'cats. Pine-green eyes lifted, gazed into his.
Scott didn't know what to say, what to do. He cast back through the impressions he'd received, trying to make sense of what he'd seen and heard and felt. A violent quarrel between humans . . . that much was clear. A quarrel that had involved primally sharp emotions and dark suspicions. That, at least, echoed the feeling he'd received from Fisher and the stray back at the wreck. A violent quarrel, laced with suspicion and a determination to stop . . . something . . . followed by a fatal air crash, spelled events far removed from "accident" in Scott's mind. Was that what the treecats were trying to tell him? That the crash hadn't been an accident? That it had beenhis breath caught sharplymurder?
"Dear God," he whispered.
He knew, in a flash of intuition that might not be entirely his own, that he was right. But why? What had the victims in the cargo transport been trying to stop, that someone would have risked murdering three people to keep secret? This was far beyond the scope of a lover's quarrel grown lethal, far more serious than an angry brawl between drunken miners whooping it up in town on a Saturday night. This suggested deliberate, cold-blooded murder to hide something of profound importance to the killer, who had to be closely connected with whatever research was going on in that BioNeering plant. Worse, whatever that something was, it clearly involved treecats, a realization that shook him all over again.
Murder, industrial secrets, and treecats spelled a potential crisis of enormous proportions, with implications for the entire future of the Star Kingdom's relationship with its newfound, native sentient race. He saw again the flash of images he'd somehow picked up from these treecats, the barren, denuded picket wood trees, their naked and peeling branches stretching into the harsh sunlight like plague victims. He frowned slowly, playing it through again. Something had clearly killed this cluster of trees. Something so critical, people had been murdered for trying to report the reason.
"Bleek . . ." It was a piteous sound, half-pleading, half-hopeful. Scott looked down to find his thin little stray gazing steadily upward into Scott's eyes, waiting.
<Bod"Where?" Scott asked softly.
Like a compass needle swinging toward the magnetic poles, a directional "bump" appeared in Scott's brain, pointing inexorably toward the southwest. There wasn't much out that way, he pondered, reviewing his mental map of Sphinx's surface. A mining operation that was largely automated, a few farms . . . and BioNeering's experimental plant. That cargo transport was a BioNeering air car, the crash victims were all BioNeering employees. The familiar BioNeering corporate logo flashed into his mind's eye, the spreading picket wood tree with its nodal trunk formed from the double-spiral DNA helix. It took a moment for Scott to realize he wasn't visualizing it from the last place he'd seen that logo, the battered, scraped side of the downed transport. He was "seeing" it emblazoned on the side of a long, low building he knew very well he'd never laid eyes on. It came as a shock like icewater that the picket wood trees he could "see" nearby were all dead, their branches barren, their bark hanging in leprous strips . . .
Scott found himself on his feet without realizing he'd scrambled up. He was breathing hard, stomach clenched in sick knots. There'd been some kind of accident, a release of something that had devastated the picket wood system around that experimental plant. And whoever was in charge of that plant had resorted to murder, rather than have co-workers report the truth. How far must the damage run, by now? And what, in God's name, had they released? Had it even been accidental? Surely no fool would be insane enough to deliberately release an untested gengineered organism into the environment, in all violation of the Elysian Rule? The ecosystem of the entire planet of Elysian had collapsed, thanks to such ill-advised tampering.
Scott would not stand idly by and let that happen on Sphinx!
It occurred to him, as he stood there in the dim, flickering light from the treecats' fire, fists clenched, jaws aching, that the murdered trio in the clearing must have felt exactly the same way he did right now. Somewhere out there, a dark, diseased mind with blood on its soul waited for the return of Scott's crash team. That person had done murder once. They would kill again to protect themselves the moment he or anyone else started probing the dark secret behind this crash.
But he was going to find out who had killed these people and why, whatever it took. He would learn the truth. These treecats had done the impossible, trying to get their urgent message out to humanity. He didn't intend to fail them. Scott found himself staring into the pine-green eyes of a dark-furred treecat. She gazed up the long way into his eyes and something akin to fierce joy burst through Scott, coming, he realized with awe, from her. It echoed in waves all around him, from the hundreds of treecats gazing intently into his eyes.
"I don't know who," he said in a quiet, hard voice, speaking directly to the pine-green eyes of the female 'cat, "and I don't know how. But I will, by God, find out. However you did it, thank you for telling me."
He turned and stalked away through the smothering darkness, aware of rustlings in the branches overhead as the assembled treecats escorted him back to the bright lights at the edge of the crash clearing. He had to be careful, he knew that; with a situation as potentially volatile as this, treecats involving themselves in a spectacular triple murder in the human community, with God-only-knew what ramifications for the future of relations between the two species, he had to move with extreme circumspection until he had proof. He couldn't just blurt out his suspicions. Not only did he have to gather proof that would convince the Manticoran authorities, he had to present something concrete, rather than nebulous feelings received from treecats. And he certainly couldn't admit to having received the message through a psychic flash of intuitive suspicions and images obtained through mindreading. He'd be laughed straight off Sphinx. Or worse.
Even the most open-minded humans understood so little about their new neighbors, the idea of a treecat communicating such a thing as murder or a cover-up scheme to hide a major industrial accidentthrough clairvoyance, no lesswould likely trigger everything from open skepticism to outright hostility to blatant panic. He knew he was right; but very few humans had spent anything close to a T-year coming to understand the nuances of the strange bond which existed between a human and the treecat which adopted him or her.
So he would have to proceed with extreme caution, nudging the crash team in the direction he wanted their investigation to go, gathering evidence on BioNeering's activities on his own in his official capacity as coroner for these fatalities. Thank God he'd had the foresight to ask Mayor Sapristos to make that official before he got started out here. But he couldn't even go to Sapristos until he had something concrete that didn't involve saying, "Well, sir, the treecats told me so" when everyone knew the treecats couldn't tell anyone anything, not directly, and he couldn't, wouldn't, risk telling the truth about his own personal, psychic secret.
Had it taken the combined empathic skills or telepathy or whatever they used, of that many treecats, massed for one single-minded effort, to get those few brief images and emotions across to him? Or had they realized there was something in his Scottish heritage that made him more receptive to whatever it was the treecats used to communicate? Treecats couldn't know the old Earth legends about the Scots and Irish being "fey," legends which still persisted, despite the complete lack of ability to measure such a thing, but they could certainly pick up human emotions and broadcast their own, at least to Scott.
The notion that the 'cats had somehow known that only Scott MacDallan would be able to understand their message left him more determined than ever to get to the bottom of this mysteryand to do it without jeopardizing the treecats' future by giving away too much information about them. At least, not before the humans on Sphinx could be convinced or coerced into establishing proper, civilized diplomatic relations that protected their little neighbors.
Whether or not the treecats had chosen him deliberately because of his genetic heritage, he couldn't be sure, and doubted that he or anyone else would ever know that particular truth; but he could certainly start finding answers to the questions posed by this crash. And he intended to begin with the air car itself, try to find out exactly what had caused that big cargo car to come down, not just assume it'd been downed by the storm. Just before he stepped out from beneath the last trees, he felt a familiar weight settle onto his shoulder and welcomed Fisher with a gentle hand. Then another weight dropped to his other shoulder and Scott found himself gazing into the brilliant grass-green eyes of his determined stray.
"Bleek!" It pointed toward the waiting crash team with stark emphasis.
"Oh, yes," Scott agreed softly. "We will, indeed!"
He broke cover into the clearing and rounded the bow of the misshapen wreck.
The crash investigators appeared from two directions, one leaning out the open cargo hatch, the other jogging around the crumpled stern. "Doc?"
"There's something bothering me about this crash. I've flown through thunderstorms dozens of times, trying to get to patients who needed a doctor, flew through one with a concussion, once, to get my friend, Fisher, here, and myself to a hospital. I don't know exactly what we're looking for, but whatever it is, it caused this air car to go off course several hundred kilometers and crash without sending out a distress call or beacon signal. I can't believe an experienced pilot caught in a thunderstorm wouldn't com his position or turn on his emergency transponder, at the very least. What've you found so far? Was their equipment damaged by lightning strikes, maybe, that prevented them from calling for help?"
Nick Vollney and Marcus Keegan exchanged startled glances. Then Vollney said, "Uh, now you mention it, Doc, I haven't seen the kind of damage you'd expect from a lightning strike to their instrumentation. There's no characteristic popcorn denting from hailstones on the hull, either, although that's not definitive, since there are plenty of thunderstorms that don't produce low-atmosphere hail. But you've got something with the instruments, Doc, we've just been assuming the storm prevented them from calling out or setting their beacon, without really checking out thoroughly how or why. I'll get right on it."
Keegan added, "If it wasn't lightning, maybe a violent downdraft while they were at low level sent them into the canopy? But that'd mean their anti-gravs were malfunctioning and I didn't even check those." He frowned. "This may take a while."
Scott grimaced. "I may be tired, Marcus, but I'd rather know what caused this crash. Get on it, would you?"
"Right." The investigator crawled into the remains of the battered air car.
Scott was tired, so much so he'd have been happy to curl up on a picket wood limb, if it'd offered a quiet place to sleep. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and dug out his surgical kit and mask, and got busy in the cargo hold of the rescue air car. He had three field autopsies to perform and the night wasn't getting any younger. The possibility that the killer had somehow drugged the victims was too great to ignore and might explain why they were so far off course and hadn't called in their difficulty. Unconscious or incoherent pilots wouldn't have been able to keep their car on course when the storm that must have masked the sounds of the crash from the Zivonik homestead had caught them somewhere between BioNeering's research facility and town.
Pine-green eyes burned in his memory as he set to work. At his side, a starvation thin treecat watched as Scott began the grisly work of cutting open the remains of the poor stray's murdered friend. A stab of rage tore through him. This time it was all his own. The treecats were counting on him to prove that what he gazed at right now was murder.
Scott did not intend to let them down.
Dawn was breaking over the Zivonik farmhouse when the air car settled in the broad sweep of grass beyond the kitchen garden. Scott reeled out, eyes bleary from lack of sleep, and stumbled beside Aleksandr Zivonik and his oldest boy toward the house. All Scott wanted was a mattress under him and a long, hot soak in gallons and gallons of steaming water. The Zivonik children, blinking sleepily, met them at the door. Irina Kisaevna appeared a moment later as they approached the door, looking gloriously tumbled from sleep and wholesome enough to drive away the stink of horror clinging to his very skin.
"How's Evelina?" Aleksandr asked, voice rough with exhaustion.
"Sleeping. So's Lev."
Aleksandr just nodded.
Irina kissed her brother's cheek and said, "Go on to bed. I'll see to Scott."
The big farmer made his apologies, then stumbled down the hall in the direction of his bedroom. Irina took Scott's arm and braved the stares of both treecats to kiss him, too, although not on the cheek. Irina tasted of home and warmth and sanity; Scott pulled her closer and just held her for a moment, not wanting to think about murders or autopsies or investigations yet to be made. Both treecats crooned anxiously where they rode his shoulders.
"You're exhausted, all of you, poor things," Irina said softly, pulling away to smile up into his eyes. "Come on, Scott, let me show you where there's a spare bed." She led him down a short hall to an open doorway. The bed was wide enough to accommodate three, without risk of colliding with elbows or knees; it was more than roomy enough for one exhausted doctor and two bleary-eyed treecats.
"Thanks, Irina." His own voice was hoarse with weariness. Scott stumbled into the darkened bedroom, groping his way out of his clothes and into bed, hardly registering the soft latch of the door as Irina closed it behind him. When he next opened his eyes, strong sunlight poured in through the windows and the smells of frying bacon and steaming coffee tickled his nostrils. According to the clock, he'd been asleep for five hours, not enough to catch up to himself, but better than none. He suspected it was the gnawing in his bellyand his little friends' belliesthat'd wakened him. Scott found a shower just off the bedroom and stood under it for a full quarter of an hour, just letting hot water sluice over him. He didn't want to remember the previous night, knew he couldn't run away from the grim responsibility waiting for him in this morning's blinding sunlight.
Today, he had to find a killer.
Someoneprobably Irina, againhad laundered his filthy clothes while he slept. Scott greeted Fisher and the thin treecat, both of whom had curled up to sleep beside him, and reassured the stray with caresses and low murmurs, then dressed and headed for the Zivonik kitchen, accompanied by two ravenously hungry treecats. The oldest Zivonik girl was pouring coffee and the second-oldest boy was dishing up platters of eggs, bacon, and flapjacks. Irina, barefooted and wearing an apron, with stray tendrils of hair escaping the ribbon she'd used to tie it back with, was piling a stack of generously laden plates, bowls, coffee cups, and juice glasses onto an enormous tray, doubtless for her brother and sister-in-law. Bright smiles greeted him as he paused in the doorway.
"Good morning, Dr. MacDallan!"
" 'Morning. Mind if I wrap myself around a plateful of that?"
"Help yourself," the tow-headed short-order cook grinned with a slight lisp. He was missing a front tooth. "And I shredded some more of that turkey carcass for the treecats."
"Thanks." Scott smiled. He dragged out a chair and plowed into the food as Irina carried the heavy tray out.
"Eat up, Scott. I'll just take this down to Alek and Evelina and be right back."
He nodded and smiled, mouth too full of fluffy flapjacks and crisp bacon to say anything. The treecats ate hungrily, as well, then bleeked in open delight when Stasya brought over a tray piled high with celery.
"I heard treecats like it." She smiled shyly.
Both 'cats were already chewing in ecstasy, shredding the celery into a sticky, wet mass.
"They do." Scott nodded. "God knows why. I never did."
The children giggled, tempting the treecats with more stringy, springy stalks. Irina returned and poured a cup of coffee for herself, then joined him at the table, blowing gently across the steaming liquid. "Will you be going back to town today?"
"I'll have to." He said. "Mind if I borrow your computer before I go? I want to check a few things on the net before I leave."
"Sure. I'll show you when you're done eating."
Scott was aware of her close scrutiny as he finished off seconds. Irina knew him well enough to realize something was up, something more out of the ordinary than weariness after an unpleasant business like last night's. Tiredness, she'd have expected, but Scott couldn't quite hide the tension gripping him as he struggled with the best way to attack the problem of acquiring the proof he needed. He tried to smile at her and she returned the gesture easily enough, but her eyes remained dark and concerned. But she didn't ask, which was one of the reasons Scott appreciated her company: she didn't pry. Maybe it was only that frontier folk minded their own business or maybe it was more a matter of Irina's innate respect for a person's privacy; even when she'd been at her most curious over Fisher's unexpected presence in Scott's life, she had never pushed for more information than Scott wanted to give her.
Whatever the reason, Scott appreciated it, now more than ever.
She set him up at the family's computer terminal and dropped a kiss on the top of his head, then left him to "go check on Evelina and the baby." Scott smiled and hooked into planetary data net. A short while later, Scott was pulling up aerial surveys and maps, delving into public records on BioNeering's corporate structure and export activities, and learning everything he could about the company's research facility southwest of the Zivonik farmstead. He was aware that he raced the sun if he hoped to fly from here to the site of the BioNeering plant, then make it back to town by nightfall. Scott did not want to be anywhere near that plant after dark.
When he checked the message queues on his home and business datanet accounts, wanting to be sure no professional emergencies had arisen demanding immediate attentionalthough any true emergency would've been automatically forwarded to his wrist-comhe found a message from the newly founded Xenology Institute, marked with the personal account code of Dr. Sanura Hobbard, chief xenologist of the team dispatched by the Star Kingdom of Manticore to study the treecats. Clearly, word about how they'd found the crash site had spread with lightning speed. That message was time-stamped less than ten minutes after he and Aleksandr Zivonik had called in the news the previous evening.
Scott frowned as he read the politely phrased request for a meeting to discuss "important behavioral developments with your treecat and Arvin Erhardt's, regarding the discovery of the crash site." He'd have to tell her something, he knew that much; but after a year in Fisher's company, his instincts about keeping quiet on the subject of treecat intelligence and other unique traits had been honed to razor keenness. He sent back a short reply that he'd contact her once he was back in his office. She wouldn't be happy; but he wasn't about to break what had, he suspected, become a code of silence amongst those who'd been adopted by treecats. Even little Stephanie Harrington had begun to get cagey when discussing the 'cats.
He did, however, set down a fair approximation of the full story in a coded file, which he started to route to his computer at home, so it could be retrieved if anything untoward happened to him. If anything went wrong out there, he wanted someone to know what had happened, so the murder investigation would still go forward. He was just about to press the "send" command when he paused, reconsidering the wisdom of sending it over the datanet, even in code. If anything did happen to him, he wanted to be sure the file was read by someone he could trust, someone who would actually believe him. That meant either someone who'd been adopted by a treecatrelatively few and far between, and Stephanie Harrington, the likeliest person to comprehend the full truth, was only a childor someone who knew him well enough to believe the story even without direct experience with a treecat bond.
Scott routed the file to Irina Kisaevna's account, doubly pleased because he was able to do that right here, without sending the coded message through the planetary net where, it was conceivable, a person might be able to intercept a copy and de-code it. There was a killer out there who would be watching every move he made on the datanet during the next few days, aware that he was acting as official coroner for the crash. Transferring the file to Irina's account was simply a matter of copying it straight into her private mail directory on the family's computer. He put a header on it marked "to be de-coded only in the event of Scott MacDallan's death" and hoped like hell Irina would never have to read the blasted thing.
That unpleasant chore completed, he turned his attention to the files he'd located on BioNeering, Inc. According to BioNeering company records, at least those available on the public net, the experimental research plant was operated by a small staff headed by one Dr. Mariel Ubel. Ubel was listed as chief research scientist for the plant, which was largely automated, like the Copperwall Mine several hundred kilometers away. Pol Rafferty was listed as her research assistant. Rafferty's body was on its way back to Twin Forks for burial, in the rescue 'car that had dropped him off at dawn. The only other personnel employed at the plant were the other two crash victims, who had pulled double duty as pilots for cargo transport and mechanics for the facility's automated equipment.
The work Ubel's team had been doing was supposedly extraction of the chemical compound that allowed picket wood to dissolve cellulose between healthy portions of a picket wood system and any part of the community attacked by disease or pest infestation. There were multiple, economically lucrative uses for such a compound, and BioNeering was investigating them, extracting the genetic material responsible for its secretion from wood harvested at the plant, which served as Mariel Ubel's primary research lab. She had been heading the effort to isolate the exact chemical compound and the genes that controlled its diffusion by living picket wood systems under attack for the past two T-years.
Mariel Ubel wasn't at the plant at the moment, according to news posts on the net. She'd flown into Twin Forks with the research facility's passenger air car to meet with company officials, identify the remains of her colleagues, and recruit replacements to keep the plant and its vital industrial research operational. Since the facility was mostly automated, work in progress could continue for a short period without direct human oversight, allowing the scientist time to hire new staff in town. That suited Scott perfectly. The fewer people around when he arrived, the better.
The treecats' reaction to Mariel Ubel's photograph on the computer screen confirmed Scott's dark suspicions: both cats grew visibly agitated, bleeking in distress and anger at first sight of the strikingly beautiful blond-haired scientist's likeness. Fisher could never have seen Ubel in person; but the stray might well have known the woman first-hand and the anger radiating from both 'cats strongly suggested that the relationship had not been congenial. No, it wouldn't have been, not if she's responsible for murdering his friend.
What, Scott wondered, might the stray have been able to tell them, had he been capable of human speech? What had he witnessed in that BioNeering plant, between Mariel Ubel and Arvin Erhardt and the others? Mariel Ubel might well have gotten clean away with murder, if Scott hadn't stumbled across the stray and that crash site in the company of a couple of hundred treecats determined to get the truth across to someone. She might still get away with it, if he and the crash investigators couldn't locate proof that the crash had been anything other than tragic accident. BioNeering could be finedstifflyand possibly even have their business charter yanked for violation of the Elysian Rule, but putting Mariel Ubel out of business wasn't sufficient. Scott MacDallan wanted to prove the story the treecats had so painfully managed to convey to him, which meant he needed to get his hands on some solid evidence pointing to cold-blooded murder.
And the only place he could do that was at BioNeering's remote research plant.
Scott printed out the files on Mariel Ubel and her automated tree-processing facility and tucked them into his coverall pockets, then shoved back his chair. He'd seen enough for now. It was time to get this investigation airborne. He inquired after Evelina Zivonik and gave her and the newborn Lev a brief exam, reassuring the family that she and the baby were doing just fine, then said his goodbyes, thanked them for their hospitality, kissed Irina while the Zivonik children giggled, and took his leave. He left a copy of his flight plan with Irina as a safety precaution, giving her an alternative reason for going out there, so someone would at least know where he was going.
"I'm betting the stray comes from a treecat colony near there," he said quietly, "and now that his human friend is dead, I think he wants to go home. It's a long way for a treecat to go on foot, Irina, and I think that's why he's so thin and exhaustedhe's already made that journey once, in this direction, just to reach his friend's body. I thought the least I could do is give him a lift home again."
"Of course, Scott."
Aleksandr, standing nearby, nodded and clasped Scott's hand firmly. "You got a heart of gold, Doc." The big farmer, whose parents had emigrated directly from old Terra's Ukraine in the colony's first wave, making his family one of Sphinx's prestigious first shareholders, glanced at Fisher, who rode Scott's right shoulder, then at the stray, who'd taken up a perch on Scott's left. "Isn't hard to see why that treecat of yours adopted you. And you can bet I won't be forgetting this little stray anytime soon. Take care, Doc."
They shook hands, then Scott climbed into his air car and the treecats jumped down. They joined him in the cockpit as he powered up and checked systems. Scott made sure his rifle and pistol were fully loaded, then strapped the pistol on and clipped the rifle into its holder so it would be easily accessible, and made sure his medical kit was strapped down securely. He rigged the safety webbing for the treecats, a precaution he always put in place when flying with Fisher in the co-pilot's chair, and smiled when the stray and Fisher pressed their noses against the canopy to watch his takeoff. He waved to Irina, who blew a kiss, and to Aleksandr and the children, then lifted slowly above the farmhouse, with its sharply sloped, conical green roof, designed to shed the heavy weight of winter snow, and headed southwest.
The devastation wasn't as widespread from the air as it had seemed in the treecats' mental images, but it was enough to churn his stomach. The dispersal pattern was clearly wind-borne, fanning out from the research plant in a cone of blighted trees down wind. The initial cone of destruction was not the only area affected, either. Whatever had been released, it had spread outward, stretching away from the plant in a widening vee of wilted, peeling picket wood trees that stretched five kilometers or more to either side of the facility. A sharp line of demarcation existed beyond the damaged area, with withered trees on one side and healthy, vigorous picket wood systems beyond. The reason for this became clear as he hovered lower over the canopy.
There were gaps in the forest where wood had been dissolved away in the picket wood system's last-ditch defense mechanism, cutting off the stricken section of forest. Scott had seen photos of damaged picket wood stands with just such gaps, but never up close and never resulting from damage caused by a man-made agent. Whatever it was, it had apparently affected the wildlife, too, because Scott couldn't see any of Sphinx's multitude of native species moving through the blighted trees or on the forest floor near the gap in the canopy. The stillness of the forest was ominous; Scott wondered uneasily if the agent which had damaged the picket wood system had also proven lethal to the region's fauna. A glance at the painfully thin stray sitting on the co-pilot's couch beside Fisher caused Scott to clench his jaw muscles. If the local game had died or been driven out because their food supply had vanished, starvation could well stalk any treecat population in this region during the coming months.
His air car didn't have sophisticated recording equipment, but it was outfitted with a basic camera system he used to pinpoint likely fishing spots. He was recording every centimeter of this flyover, including the deep gouges in the blasted section of forest where five mechanical wood harvesters were busy literally chewing up the evidence of the disaster. The research plant's harvesters were designed to fell timber and grind it up and the remaining staff member down there had clearly set the harvesters on auto and left them running, determined to "harvest" all traces of the accidentalhe hoped to God it'd been accidental, rather than deliberaterelease of whatever they'd let loose down there. By the time Mariel Ubel returned with her new recruits, the work would be finished.
"She must've started harvesting the evidence the moment her colleagues took off to report the infraction," Scott muttered. "Six days of round-the-clock work, seven counting today. She almost got away with it, damn her."
If Scott hoped to obtain samples from the damaged trees, he had to grab them right now. He moved his air car out over the debris-strewn swath left by the harvesters and did a low-level flyover to film that, as well. Even if the release hadn't directly affected the fauna down there, with this big a disruption in the local biosystem, exacerbated by the massive scale of Mariel Ubel's clear-cutting operation, the animals that had lived in this stretch of forest would be long gone, looking for new feeding grounds and safer ranges away from those huge mechanical harvesters chewing up their old habitat. If the stray had come from a treecat colony based in the immediate vicinity of this research plant, those treecats were going to get mighty hungry, mighty soon, without any game to be caught or snared or however wild treecats hunted their prey. They were primarily a carnivorous species, given their dentitionand whenever herbivores vanished, carnivores went hungry.
"I am going to get inside that plant," Scott muttered, "and find out just what the hell Ubel's let loose out here."
The research plant wasn't a single building, Scott discovered as he moved his air car toward the sprawling facility. It was a series of structures connected by what would've been roofed walkways in other climes, but on Sphinx, with its harsh winters, took on the appearance of walled corridors from some medieval fortress, with sharply sloped roofs to shed snow. Several of the smaller structures were clearly living quarters for the facility's research staff. He spotted a greenhouse, several tool or machine sheds, and what looked very much like a small livestock barn with fenced paddocks attached to it. Several sleek horses lifted their heads from grazing and watched his cautious approach. The plant itself was an immense rectangular structure, large enough to store the expensive harvesters out of the elements during bad weather. A circular landing pad beside big bay doors marked the loading dock for the now-demolished cargo transport. A hangar nearby stood with its doors open, revealing two bays, one for the missing cargo carrier and one for the passenger air car Mariel Ubel had taken into town.
Then Scott's heart skipped a long, frantic beat.
That second bay wasn't empty.
"Bleek!" The treecats shrieked the warning simultaneously.
At the edge of that hangar bay, sunlight glinted on the muzzle of a high-powered rifle, aimed right at his air car. Scott yanked at the car's controls, shot them skyward even as he caught the blur of the weapon's discharge below his vulnerable belly. He rolled his lightweight craft in a sickening twist as the heavy rifle fired. The treecats slammed into the side of the airframe, shrieking in pain. WHUMP! The impact shook the whole air car. The control board lit like Christmas in Piccadilly. Smoke from fried electrical connections clouted his nostrils. The air car shimmied wildly midair, fighting the controls. They slewed sideways, yawed and pitched drunkenly. Scott swore savagely, flipping switches to backup systems, rerouting power, trying to gain altitude and distance from that open hangar bay.
The second impact sent them spinning out of control. Scott struggled with the anti-grav generators, cut in emergency backup, fought the guidance system on manual, flying the old-fashioned way, without any on-board computers to assist him. The treecats were bleeking madly, their terror and fury rolling across him in waves as the air car spun first one direction, then bucked and staggered in another. The air car caromed straight toward the blighted forest on collision course. Scott keyed the com link, tried to broadcast even as he fought to gain altitude, heard only static. She was jamming his signal, making certain no distress call or warning went out.
The air car rose sluggishly, still pitching unpredictably as crippled systems labored to keep her airborne, but they weren't gaining altitude fast enough to avoid the trees. In a final, desperate measure, Scott cut the anti-gravs completely. They dropped like a stone, gliding in fast toward the shattered jackstraws of broken branches and shredded treetrunks below. Both treecats were frantic. "Bleek!"
Scott tried to pick out the smoothest, most level area of debris in the wicked minefield of protruding branches and punji stakes below. He switched in the faltering anti-gravs again, in an effort to hop over a tangle of lethal splinters the size of his torso, then wrenched at the controls. He cut the anti-gravs again and they hit belly first. The air car smashed down, bounced. The impact rocked Scott in his harness, snapped his head forward against the restraints. The safety webbing caught the treecats before they could impact against the dash.
They hit again, skidding sideways through sharp, protruding branches and woody debris. Metal shrieked, bent, tore. Scott snapped forward in his harness again, jounced his teeth together over a scream of pain as the airframe buckled and tore open at his side, shredded by a thick branch they skidded past, puncturing the car's skin like a can opener. They finally rocked to a halt, less than a meter from the closest standing trees. Scott blinked sweat out of his eyes and dragged in a lungful of smoky air. The control panels were sizzling, hissing. Gotta get out, Ubel's going to be right on top of us . . .
Scott fumbled with his harness, released the catches, crawled free. His arm was slashed where the skin of the airframe, peeled back by the branch they'd skidded past, had cut skin and muscle. It wasn't critically deep, but it was bleeding and hurt like hell. He crawled toward the co-pilot's seat, found the treecats untangling themselves from the safety webbing.
"You guys okay?" he asked hoarsely, trying to clear his vision enough to look for injuries.
Get out fast! was the urgent message behind that verbal warning. Scott dug for his bulky medi-kit, slung it over one shoulder, grabbed his rifle where he'd clipped it to the dash, made sure his pistol was still strapped to his hip, then crawled toward the hatch. It was jammed. Scott gritted his teeth, unsheathed his vibro-knife, and cut their way out through the side of the dented airframe. He slithered out feet first and landed awkwardly in ankle-deep splinters and broken branches.
The treecats swarmed through the battered interior and jumped down as well, flitting across the uppermost layer of shifting wood, on a direct course for the blighted trees. Scott followed as fast as he could jog through the treacherous piles of broken, splintered timber. The treecats gained the woodline and jumped for the nearest tree trunk. Scott followed gingerly and finally caught up, staggering forward into the clear, debris-free undergrowth of the dying forest. The treecats were chittering and broadcasting anger and fright. Scott tried his wrist com, but it was no use. Ubel was jamming this whole valley with something powerful enough to keep any transmission he might send from getting through.
He paused under the barren branches, listening hard as he gulped down air that stank of decaying wood and rotting leaves. The blighted trees were sere and brown, bark peeling off in loose, hanging strips. He tested the nearest low-hanging limbs, wondering if he might not be smarter to try climbing rather than running, which gave her a moving target, easier to spot than a stationary chameleon. But the branches were spongy and discolored and even the largest split under his weight.
Scott listened for any sound of approaching air car engines, but heard only the wind and the distant grinding roar of the harvesters at work. He set off at an oblique angle, heading for healthy forest. The crackle and crunch of deadwood under his boots advertised his location to any ears that might be listening, but he didn't have a whole lot of time to put distance between himself and the pursuit that was certain to follow. She couldn't afford to let any witnesses leave this blasted little valley alive.
Scott had almost reached the gap between the dead trees and the healthy forest beyond when he heard the sounds of a large animal crashing through the dead picket woods, headed his way. Alarm jerked through him, simultaneously with the sharp cries of warning from two keen-eyed treecats. Scott dragged at his pistol, cursing Mariel Ubel and his own carelessness in letting her shoot them down. Maybe it's a hexapuma, scenting its first live game in a week? A hexapuma I could kill without too much trouble, but dammit, I don't have time!
He gained the gap where the picket wood system had dissolved a twenty-meter-wide swath of open space around the damaged trees and lunged forward, frantic to gain the cover of thick trees beyond. He cast a wild glance back over one shoulder
and a horse burst out into the open from the ravaged forest, neighing sharply as its rider pulled up, placing herself between Scott and safety in the thick underbrush beyond. He skidded sideways, tried to cut and change directions, but she fired at the deadwood under his feet and the blast tripped him up. He went down hard, sprawling inelegantly amongst the rotting leaves and spongy branches on the former forest floor. He lay stunned for critical seconds while sweat prickled down his back and soaked into his shirt beneath his armpits.
Mariel Ubel was a superb horsewoman. She controlled her mount with knees alone, freeing her hands for the lethal rifle she now aimed dead-center at Scott's chest. The horse showed signs of a hard gallop, and Scott cursed himself for not having thought of this possibility. Of course she wouldn't have hunted him from the air; she knew as well as he did that spotting him under that thick green canopy would've been almost impossible, even with infrared sensing equipment, since bright light bouncing off sun-heated leaves in that dense a canopy would've confused any heat signature he might've given offand infrared wasn't much use in broad daylight in any case. Much better to track him on the ground, where she could see and hear him.
He lay panting under Mariel Ubel's cold gaze for a long moment, aware that he couldn't possibly bring up the pistol in his hand fast enough to fire before she drilled him with that rifle. His own rifle hung down his back, where he'd slung it across his shoulder. Hard, ice-blue eyes flicked up and she met his gaze.
Wind-blown blond hair framed a face that might have been beautiful, if she hadn't been about to cut him down in cold blood. She had the drop on him and they both knew it. "You can't possibly get away with this," he said, trying to talk his way into distracting her, hoping for just an instant's break in her concentration, which he could exploit to bring up his pistol and fire. His hand sweated on the plastic grip.
She laughed at him. "I already have."
"Two fatal crashes with you involved?" he came back. "And no storm to explain this one?"
She shrugged. "If I have to run, all I need is enough time to get off world and I can do that in less than an hour. Well before any air car from town can get all the way out here. They'd still be on their way when my ship went into impeller drive."
She must have been making escape arrangements from the moment she'd planned and executed her first murders. All she had to do was destroy the evidence of her violation of the Elysian Rule, close up shop quietly, resign her position, and be long gone before anyone had a chance to grow suspicious. Even if the murders were discovered, she'd get away clean.
"Mind telling me why?"
Pale brows arched. "Why?" Contempt dripped from her voice. "Because my career would have been destroyed, of course."
"I mean, what was it you released and why did you release it?"
Her mouth twisted in distaste. "One of Rafferty's creations. We were developing a test spray to use in controlled experiments, to see what effect our synthesized product would have. It wasn't my fault."
"Then it was you who released the stuff."
"It wasn't my fault!" she repeated sharply. "It could have happened to anyone! And if it hadn't been for those damned, meddlesome treecats, it wouldn't have happened at all! I told Erhardt to get rid of that thing!"
"Treecats?" Scott asked quietly. "How can the treecats be responsible for your accidental discharge of a deadly bio-agent?" He was achingly aware that Fisher and the stray were working their way toward Ubel through the branches that leaned out into the clearing, could taste their determination to stop her, could even taste the anger and revulsion they felt as they closed ground on her. The horse tossed its head restively and blew through distended nostrils, shaking its mane unhappily. A sharp command brought the animal to a standstill, but only for a moment. Its eyes rolled white as it sidled away from the stealthy approach of the treecats. Could the treecats be responsible for the horse's disquiet? Scott didn't know, wished he could count on it. Unfortunately, she was a good enough horsewoman, her concentration never faltered. She kept that damned rifle trained steadily on him the whole time.
"The treecats," she said bitingly, "are pernicious snoops and thieves! Arvin's damned pet broke into the lab while I was working alone one night, startled me in the middle of a critical transfer. The whole flask shattered, right into the exhaust vents! I tried to shoot the little bastard, but they're quick, damn them and it got away. My God, do you have any idea how much time and money and research went down the drain when that flask broke? I've got three separate biochemical firms bidding for the rights to my research, but with the fines Manticore is going to levy, I'll have to take it to Mesa if I want to make any damned profit at all, thanks to the stinking treecats!"
Mesa . . . Home of Manpower Unlimited, which provided cloned and bio-engineered human slave labor to corporate colonies looking for environmentally adaptive work forces they wouldn't have to pay for working in harrowing conditions. Any civilized star system shunned Mesan firms for the monstrosities they were. That Mariel Ubel was running straight for Mesa's bio-medical firms was not surprising; it merely confirmed the depths of her grasping, cold-blooded nature.
"What are the Mesans going to do with your discovery?" Scott bit out angrily. "Turn it into the next war's bio-weapon?"
"Enough talk! Drop that pistol."
She was going to kill him anyway. I'll be damned if I just lie here and let her cut me in half without a fight! He lifted his arm out to the side, as if complying with the order, letting the pistol dangle loosely in his hand. He couldn't possibly bring it up fast enough to hit her; but a horse made for a much largerand lowertarget.
"Going to shoot me here?" he asked. "Or herd me back to my wrecked air car first, so you don't have to drag the body?"
Now or never . . .
Scott wrenched the pistol around in his hand, saw Ubel's finger tighten down on the trigger of her rifle, knew he was going to die. A shrill, snarling scream of raw hate tore the air. A streak of cream-and-grey fur launched itself toward Mariel Ubel's horse, too far away, still, to reach her. Fisher landed on the horse's rear quarters, claws unsheathed and ripping into the animal's flesh the instant he landed. The horse reared with a sharp neigh. Scott rolled frantically sideways, even as Ubel ripped off her shot. The medical pack slung over his shoulder exploded. Heat seared his back as an animal scream of agony ripped from the horse. Scott rolled wildly to his feet, off-balance and staggering. Ubel clung to that damned saddle, leech-like, and swung the rifle around again before Fisher could reach her.
Scott dove, rolling in an effort to bring up his pistol. He could feel frantic terror and fury from the stray's mind as it raced through the trees, slower than Fisher because of the cruel deprivations it had suffered. Mariel Ubel's rifle tracked around. She aimed straight at Scott. He was still off-balance, still rolling, trying to bring the pistol up in time. Fisher flung himself toward her neck, claws bared, shrieking in fury, but he couldn't possibly knock that rifle aside from where he was. Scott fired wildly, knew he'd missed
and a starvation-thin treecat launched itself from the trees straight at the rifle's muzzle. The stray flung itself right down the bore, shrieking its hate and fury, directly between Scott and the rifle. The treecat's lunge knocked the tip of the muzzle slightly sideways, left it sprawled across the end of the muzzle just as the shot blasted loose. Psychic pain detonated behind Scott's eyelids just as he came to his feet, pistol still too low to do any good. The shot tore through the treecat and blasted into the deadwood at Scott's feet, just missing him. Scott stumbled, grey-faced and shaken. A broken ball of fur dropped to the ground from horse height. Scott was still moving, still bringing his own weapon up. He fired blind, aiming with trembling hands as the killer on horseback brought her rifle around again, seeking his life this time.
His shot struck her chest with brutal force at the same instant Fisher reached her throat. Mariel Ubel jerked in the saddle and screamed, a gurgling, ghastly sound. A look of shock crossed her face. Fisher's claws had ripped away half her throat in the time it had taken her to scream once. The rifle thudded to the ground from nerveless fingers. Then she crumpled down after it, landing with a hard thump. Her frantic mount reared and came down right on top of her, trampled her with flint-sharp hooves. A sickening crunch reached Scott. She didn't move again. Scott fell to his knees, panting and sick. Another treecat appeared in his blurred vision, dropped from the still-screaming, blood-ribboned horse. It bucked one last time and bolted into the trees. The second treecat huddled over the too-still shape on the ground.
Scott caught back an agonized sound and stumbled forward, half-blind, already knowing what he would find. The stray was dead, shot through the body with a weapon capable of dropping a hexapuma in its tracks. Fisher keened inconsolably, rocking back and forth above him. Scott gathered the broken body up, buried his face in the bloodied fur, grieving. The treecat had thrown himself deliberately between that rifle and Scott . . . And it had known what a rifle could do. Had seen Scott's medical pack blown apart on his back, knew it was the same weapon that had downed their air car. And the stray had lunged straight into the shot's path, anyway, knocking the muzzle aside, saving Scott's life. Scott knelt on the broken ground, face buried in blood-streaked, dirt-matted fur, and cried.
You knew it would kill you, you knew . . . Scott couldn't forgive himself for bringing the stray here, for causing it to choose in that hair-trigger instant of decision, felt the blame and the guilt so keenly, he would rather the shot had blasted through him. After everything the stray had done, achieving the impossible, communicating the truth that his human friend had been murdered, Scott had let Arvin Erhardt's killer destroy the stray's life.
And Scott had never even given him a name.
He huddled over the broken, nameless little treecat and grieved.
"It's never easy to lose a friend, is it?"
Scott looked up slowly from his chair to see Sanura Hobbard standing quietly in the doorway. He'd forgotten she was coming. Scott tightened his fingers briefly through Fisher's silky fur, needing the soft croon his friend gave him, then roused himself. "I'm sorry, Dr. Hobbard. Come in."
Fisher bleeked a soft greeting.
Her smile was hesitant, her dark eyes solemn. "Thank you, Dr. MacDallan, and thank you, too, Fisher."
That she included his friend in the greeting warmed a dull, cold ache deep inside. "Dr. Hobbard." He rose to his feet, shook her hand. "And no," he added, gesturing her to a chair, "it isn't easy."
"I'm sorry. We all are."
Scott tightened his jaw muscles briefly. "Thanks," he said in a low voice.
"We found a displaced group of treecats," she said quietly into the silence, "within a few kilometers of the plant. They were clearly trying to migrate away from the zone of devastation. We've already delivered the first emergency drops of food to them. A high percentage of the game animals in the blighted area were evidently killed by toxins emitted by the dissolving picket wood trees. Now that we know what's happened out there, we'll keep the affected treecats from starving until they can relocate to another range."
Scott nodded. His hunch had been right, then. That was good, he thought tiredly. It didn't balance the loss of the stray . . . but it helped. "I'm glad."
"I talked to Nicholas Vollney. They found what caused the crash."
Scott, lost in contemplation of the subtle shadings of grey and cream in Fisher's silky fur, looked up. "Oh?"
The xenologist nodded. "It was the air car's on-board computer. It had been tampered with, of course. Caused them to veer off course, shut down their beacon and communications gear, caused the anti-gravs to malfunction, then cut power entirely at a critical moment as they were losing altitude. That's how she did it. If you hadn't grown suspicious, it would never have been noticed." Sanura Hobbard hesitated, clearly needing to ask and equally clearly not wanting to cause him further pain; but she was, above all else, a professional xenologist. Sensitivity to people's feelings had never stopped one, yet. "You know I have to ask. It's important, I don't have to tell you that, how important it is that we understand this. How did you know? Please, tell me."
Scott's mouth thinned and he shook his head. "There's nothing to tell, Dr. Hobbard. I've flown through a lot of thunderstorms. An experienced pilot would've set his beacon going, if nothing else. No mysteries, just plain old human intuition."
She leveled a cool, disappointed stare at him. "You're going to sit there and tell me there's nothing to tell, when a treecat travels five hundred kilometers to find his murdered friend's body, nearly killing himself in the process, locates the nearest humans he can find, drags them out to the crash site, and then throws himself between the killer's rifle and the human he's somehow convinced to investigate the suspicious crash? Dr. MacDallan, I wasn't born yesterday."
Scott pitied her. He really did. If he'd been in her position, he'd have wanted to throttle anyone holding back what she knew he wasn't telling her. But what the treecats had done was something the human colonists on Sphinx just weren't ready to hear, yet, not emotionally or psychologically or even politically. Stephanie Harrington was right to play the "I'm just a little kid, Dr. Hobbard," game with the xenologist. Until Scott was sure the Manticoran Star Kingdom or others like Mariel Ubel couldn't run roughshod over the treecats, Stephanie's was exactly the right game plan to play.
"I'm sorry, Dr. Hobbard," he said tiredly. "But there really isn't anything more to be said. The stray led us to the crash. I did the rest. And I still don't know why it jumped in front of that rifle . . ." The unsteadiness in his voice brought a flinch to the xenologist's eyes.
"I'm sorry, too," she said softly. She stood up, manner somewhat stiff, and said, "I hope you'll change your mind, Dr. MacDallan. You have my number."
"Yes. I do."
And they both knew he wouldn't be calling it.
She said good-bye somewhat awkwardly, then left. Scott sighed and stroked Fisher's fur. When he glanced up again, Irina Kisaevna was leaning against the door frame, just watching him. He tried to smile.
"I heard what she said," Irina told him quietly.
Scott just nodded.
"I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but I was coming to the office to check on you and the door was open . . ."
"It's all right."
She moved across the room, sat down beside him, took his hand in hers and just held it. He pressed her fingers in silent thanks. An odd expression touched her eyes as she sat there, quietly studying him. "You didn't tell her everything, did you? And no, I haven't read that file you left on my computer. But I know you, Scott, you didn't tell that woman everything. Not even close to it."
He tightened his hand gently through Fisher's fur once again. His friend crooned softly and touched his wrist with tiny, warm fingers, sharing the ache of a grief that pounded, dull and relentless, through him. His thoughts jumped back to a tiny campfire and the brilliant, pine-green eyes of a female treecat gazing up at him, the touch of a starvation-thin treecat's hands on his knee and the kaleidoscopic blur of images and sounds and emotional impressions that had swept through him from the stray's memory.
Irina, of all the humans on Sphinx, would understandand keep the secret.
Speaking very quietly into a silence broken only by Fisher's soft, comforting croons, Scott MacDallan told her the story of the stray.
|Title:||Worlds of Honor|
|Copyright:||© 1999 by David M. Weber|