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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what made his whiskers quiver with anticipation was something else the other scouts had reported. The two-legs grew many strange plants the People had never heard of—a single sharp-nosed tour of any of their outside plant places would prove that—yet most were like ones the People knew. But one wasn’t. Climbs Quickly had yet to personally encounter the plant the other scouts had christened cluster stalk, but he was eager to do so. Indeed, he knew he was a bit too eager, for the bright ecstasy of the scouts who’d sampled cluster stalk rang through the relayed songs of their clans’ memory singers with a clarity that was almost stunning.

It wasn’t simply the plant’s marvelous taste, either. Like the tiny, bitter-tasting, hard-to-find fruit of the purple thorn, cluster stalk sharpened the People’s mind-voices and deepened the texture of their memory songs. The People had known the virtue of purple thorn for hundreds upon hundreds of turnings—indeed, People who were denied its fruit had actually been known to lose their mind-voices entirely—yet there had never been enough of it, and it had always been almost impossible to find in sufficient quantities. But the cluster stalk was even better than purple thorn (if the reports were correct), and the two-legs seemed to grow it almost effortlessly.

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

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

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

* * *

Stephanie Harrington pulled on her jacket, turned up its collar, and wiggled her toes in her boots as she gazed out of her bedroom’s deep-set window at a night sky crosshatched with livid streaks of lightning. The planet of Sphinx had officially entered Spring, but nights were still cold (though far, far warmer than they had been!), and she knew she’d be grateful for her thick, warm socks and jacket soon enough.

She opened the tall casement window quietly, although the sudden earthquake rumble of thunder would have drowned just about any sound she could have made. The window swung inward in its deep embrasure, and chill dampness hit her in the face as she latched it back. Then she leaned forward, bracing herself on the broad windowsill, and smiled as she sniffed the ozone-heavy wind.

The weather satellites said the Harrington freehold was in for a night of thunder, lightning, rain, and violent wind, and cold or not Stephanie intended to savor it to the fullest. She’d always liked thunderstorms. She knew some kids were frightened by them, but Stephanie thought that was stupid. She had no intention of running out into the storm with a lightning rod—or, for that matter, standing under a tree—but the spectacle of all that fire and electricity crashing about the sky was simply too exhilarating and wonderful to miss . . . and this would be the first thunderstorm she’d seen in over a T-year.

Not that she’d mentioned her plans for the night to her parents. She figured there was an almost even chance they would have agreed to let her stay up to enjoy the storm, but she knew they would have insisted she watch it from inside. Thoughts of fireplace-popped popcorn and the hot chocolate Mom would undoubtedly have added to the experience had been tempting, but a little further thought had dissuaded her. Popcorn and hot chocolate were nice, but the only proper way to enjoy her first storm in so long was from out in the middle of it where she could feel and taste its power, and they weren’t very likely to think that was a good idea.

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

She smiled in the dark and patted the camera in its case on her hip as thunder growled louder and lightning lashed the mountaintops to the west. She knew her mother had trolled the disappearing celery mystery in front of her as a distraction, but that hadn’t made the puzzle any less fascinating. She didn’t really expect to be the one to solve it, yet she could have fun trying. And if it just happened that she did find the answer, well, she was sure she could accept the credit somehow.

Her smile curled up in urchin glee at the thought, but she hadn’t made her mother privy to every facet of her plan. Part of that was to avoid embarrassment if it didn’t work, but most of it came from the simple knowledge that her parents wouldn’t approve of her . . . hands-on approach. Fortunately, knowing what they would have said—had the occasion arisen—was quite different from actually hearing them say it when the occasion hadn’t arisen, which was why she’d carefully avoided bringing the matter up at all.

She shoved the folded rain hat into her pocket, climbed up onto the deep, stone windowsill, swung her legs out, and sat there for a moment longer, feeling the wind whipping through her short, curly hair. She knew her mom expected her to be monitoring her carefully placed sensor net from her bedroom terminal, and she had a pretty shrewd notion that her parents Would Not Be Amused if they happened to wander into her room for some reason and she wasn’t in it. She’d thought about stuffing pillows under her blankets just in case, but she’d decided against it. First, it wouldn’t have fooled either of them. Second, they would be certain to notice the rope she’d anchored to the frame of her bed before dropping its free end out the window, anyway. But, third, it would have been cheating. It was one thing to set out on an adventure of which they might not approve; it was quite another to try to trick them into thinking she hadn’t if they figured it out fair and square, and Stephanie didn’t cheat. Of course, that didn’t mean it wouldn’t work out a lot better for all concerned if they didn’t wander in. . . .

She twisted around to kneel on the window sill (which was more than half as deep as she was tall) while she tugged the casement closed. She couldn’t close it all the way because of her climbing rope, but that was good. It would keep the window from closing and latching behind her, with her still outside, and she carefully hooked the length of cord she’d run from the window frame through the latching bracket. She pulled it taut and tied it to keep the window from slamming back and forth in the wind if the storm got as lively as it looked like it was getting, and tested it to make it was secure.

It was, so she slid down on her stomach, letting her legs dangle toward the ground, then lowered herself down to arms’ length, and dropped the last half meter or so to the ground. She stood for a moment, looking back up, and gave the rope a tug to make sure it was still secure. Getting back into her bedroom unobserved was going to be trickier than getting out had been, but she felt confident she’d manage.

The wind roar in the massive crown oak closest to the house was louder than ever, with mighty branches creaking and swaying in the darkness far overhead or etched against the eye-blinding flash of lightning with almost painful clarity. All of Sphinx seemed to be alive, moving and swaying and lashing in the night, and she laughed in sheer delight as she scampered through the roaring, whispering prelude of a thunderstorm orchestra tuning its instruments.

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

Stephanie dipped into the stash she’d brought along and extracted a fruit bar. She might be willing to give up popcorn and hot chocolate, but she was still a growing girl with the Meyerdahl first wave’s genetic modifications. That kind of accelerated metabolism had to be stoked regularly, and most Meyerdahl kids routinely packed along munchies for moments like this.

She settled back in her chair in the gazebo, camera in her lap, and her mind ran back over her checklist as she began to chew.

She’d been careful to leave the ventilation louvers open on the greenhouse which contained her mother’s celery. In addition, she’d adjusted the greenhouse ventilation system to produce a slight overpressure, pushing whatever scent the celery might have out those open louvers. Her parents had known about that part of her plan, but somehow she hadn’t gotten around to mentioning the fact that for tonight she’d disabled the audible alarm on her bedroom terminal and set up a silent relay from her sensor net to her camera, instead. Mom and Dad were smart enough to have guessed why she might have done that if they’d known about it, but since they hadn’t specifically asked, she hadn’t had to tell them. And that meant they hadn’t gotten around to forbidding her to lurk in the gazebo tonight, which was certainly the most satisfactory outcome for all concerned.

If pressed, Stephanie would have conceded that her parents might have quibbled with that last conclusion, so it was probably just as well that they didn’t know.

She giggled at the thought and took another bite of fruit bar. The odds were against anything coming along to take advantage of the opportunity she’d provided, and she knew it. But it wasn’t as if she had a lot of other things to do just now, and she smiled as the first spatters of rain began to tapdance on the gazebo’s roof.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

She tossed away the fruit bar—her third of the night—and pressed the button that killed the warning light, then snatched the camera up to peer through the viewfinder.

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

Stephanie had more than half expected that, so she wasn’t really surprised not to see anything just yet. But what mattered at this particular moment was that something had just climbed through the open louvers. Whatever was stealing celery was inside the greenhouse right this minute, and she had a chance to be the very first person on Sphinx to get actual pictures of it!

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

He was totally unprepared for the consequences.

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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