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Climbs Quickly’s two-leg was up to something she shouldn’t be doing . . . again.

The emotions surging through her mind-glow made that perfectly clear. And it was just as clear that she knew her elders would have disapproved strongly. But Death Fang’s Bane had a true gift for bending rules, and she was having a grand time.

Her friend, Shadowed Sunlight, or possibly “Karl” (if indeed the single sound most usually applied to this two-legs was a name, not some other designation), was less delighted. Climbs Quickly couldn’t read Shadowed Sunlight’s mind-glow as easily as he could that of Death Fang’s Bane, but the basics were present. Shadowed Sunlight’s mind-glow overflowed with determination, watchfulness, alertness, and apprehension.

Climbs Quickly leaned forward in his seat, watching intently as the “air car” (or “car”—a sound so very like “Karl” that the similarity had confused him for quite a time) sped along a complex path through the maze of tree trunks among which they traveled.

Climbs Quickly couldn’t quite figure out what precisely was the source of Death Fang’s Bane’s excitement. True, the air car in which they were traveling was moving very quickly—and sometimes rather erratically—but that didn’t seem to be excuse enough for the surges of excitement and dread coming to him through their shared link.

The folding flying thing in which they had more routinely traveled before this new fascination had gripped his two-leg was far more erratic. Yet, unless the weather was particularly bad, Death Fang’s Bane didn’t react this strongly to piloting her folding flying thing.

The treecat thought a bit wistfully about the folding flying thing. He preferred it to the air car in which they were now traveling. The feeling of the wind on his fur was delightful and the winds carried such interesting scents. Also, the glider felt faster somehow. He’d figured out that the air car actually covered distances more quickly, but with the winds closed away, the sensation of speed simply wasn’t the same.

A touch forlornly, Climbs Quickly pressed his remaining true-hand against Death Fang’s Bane’s shoulder, then used his left hand-foot to indicate the air car’s closed side. From past experience, he knew the transparent panels here could open—although he hadn’t quite figured out how to manage the opening himself.

To emphasize his request, Climbs Quickly made a small sound of pleading protest. In the time that he’d lived with Death Fang’s Bane and her family, he’d learned how much emphasis humans placed on mouth noises. The People relied on mind-speech, using sound and gesture to provide emphasis. These alien two-legs, by contrast, seemed to have no equivalent to mind-speech, relying instead on complex mouth noises augmented by a bewildering variety of gestures—gestures that didn’t seem to mean the same thing from occasion to occasion and could be eliminated completely.

He pitied them, for their mind-glows were brilliant and warm. It seemed sad that even two good friends like Death Fang’s Bane and Shadowed Sunlight could not share them.

“Bleek!” Climbs Quickly repeated. Then, when Death Fang’s Bane didn’t acknowledge him, he extended his claws and struck them against the clear panel, making a noise like hail hitting rock. “Bleek! Bleek!”

When he felt Death Fang’s Bane gust out her breath, then chuckle, Climbs Quickly tapped the transparent panel again, just in case she’d missed the point.


* * *

“Bleek!” Tap! Tap! “Bleek! Bleek!”

Stephanie Harrington gingerly began to remove one hand from the air car’s stick. Immediately, the car swerved alarmingly.

“Hands on the controls!” snapped Karl Zivonik. “Stephanie! I’m taking enough of a risk letting you fly without a permit. You want to wreck us and get my license pulled?”

“Sorry,” Stephanie replied with uncharacteristic meekness. She knew perfectly well the risk Karl was taking. If they were found out, losing his license would be the least of the penalties. “Lionheart wants a window open. Since I’m flying low and pretty slow, I think it’s okay.”

She couldn’t see Karl rolling his eyes, but she guessed at the expression even as he emitted a gusty sigh and turned to address the treecat directly.

“Back window,” he said to Lionheart, pointing for emphasis. “Stephanie has enough distractions without you leaning over her shoulder and the wind blowing her hair in her face.”

One of the things Stephanie liked about Karl Zivonik was that he was among the small handful of humans who addressed Lionheart as if the treecat was intelligent enough to understand him. Most humans either didn’t bother to talk to the treecat, or, if they did, they adopted the syrupy tones they used to address very small children—or pets. More annoying were the handful who seemed to think that if they spoke very slowly and used very simple phrases the treecat would understand.

Stephanie supposed this last bothered her so much because it was actually probably the best approach, but those who used it didn’t employ a consistent and scientific approach.

Karl pushed a button. As the back left side window slid down, the air car swerved slightly. Stephanie corrected, but overdid it—in part because Lionheart had just removed his weight from her shoulder—and she was off-balance.

“Steph!” Karl turned the single syllable into reprimand and protest in one.

“Sorry,” Stephanie repeated.

She scanned the control panel: direction indicator, elevation, engine temperature, fluid levels. There was so much to keep track of. Worse, unlike with the hang glider, where an accident meant some busted struts and fabric (and if she wasn’t careful, some busted Stephanie, as she remembered all too vividly), here she might damage expensive equipment.

Worse, Karl didn’t own this air car. At sixteen T-years, he had dreams of owning one, had even admitted that he was saving towards a used model, but this air car was “his” only because he needed to get to his job as a provisional ranger with the Sphinxian Forestry Service. His parents considered use of the car fairly compensated by the time they saved shuttling Karl back and forth from Thunder River, which was about a thousand kilometers away—an investment of a couple hours each way, even at the speeds an air car traveled.

Since Karl and Stephanie were the only probationary rangers in the Sphinxian Forestry Service, they were regularly assigned to work as a team, allowing only one ranger’s time to be taken up with supervising them. Since Stephanie couldn’t pilot, this meant that usually they worked in the vicinity of Twin Forks, the town nearest to the Harrington freehold and where Richard Harrington had his veterinary clinic. There was plenty of room in the Harringtons’ sprawling stone house, since Stephanie’s parents definitely planned on additional children. That was one of the reasons they’d emigrated from their heavily populated homeworld of Meyerdahl, and Stephanie was looking forward (guardedly) to the novel experience of siblings. In the meantime, Karl often stayed with the Harrington family, taking advantage of all that currently unoccupied space, although sometimes he stayed with friends in Twin Forks.

They were coming into an area where the forest giants were more widely spaced, so Stephanie hazarded talking in addition to piloting.

“I think I’m getting better,” she said, “but I’ll admit, I never thought handling an actual air car on ‘manual’ would be so hard. I mean, I was getting perfect scores on the simulator, even in the ‘auto-pilot-off’ setting.”

“Wonder-girl,” Karl retorted with a grin. “You always get perfect scores on everything. If you hadn’t, I would never have let you try this. Reality is different than a simulator. What I don’t understand is why you can’t wait until you have a learner’s permit like everyone else. Your fifteenth birthday isn’t that far off.”

Stephanie was glad that concentrating on piloting gave her an excuse to pause before answering. She knew she tended to “push.” Only lately had she tried to figure out why. It wasn’t as if her parents didn’t love her or expected her to win their approval. If anything, Richard and Margery Harrington were almost too approving, too fair, too balanced.

They’d let Stephanie know, gently and in small increments, that she had advantages most people did not. For one, although they’d tried to hide this from her lest she get either lazy or smug, Stephanie knew her IQ scored nearly off the charts. Karl’s statement that she always got perfect scores on everything was only a slight exaggeration.

For another, Stephanie was a “genie,” her genetic mutations making her stronger and tougher than average. She paid for these advantages with a higher than usual metabolism, but given that Mom and Dad always made certain there was ample interesting stuff to eat—they shared her metabolism, after all—she never suffered for this. What she did suffer from was the flashes of hot temper that came with the package. She simply didn’t get along easily with most people—especially people her own age. They seemed dumb, fascinated with things she wasn’t in the least interested in.

Karl Zivonik—who was over a T-year and a half older than her—was the closest Stephanie had to a friend her own age, the first she had made since her family emigrated to Sphinx from Meyerdahl a bit over four T-years ago. Even Karl was more like a big brother than a friend, watching over her, scolding her, teasing her, practicing target shooting with her, and, well, letting her fly his car, even though it was against the rules.

However, despite the amount of time they spent together, Stephanie still felt there was a lot she didn’t know about Karl. At times he’d fall into a brooding silence or snap at something she didn’t think was all that bad. From Karl’s aunt, Irina Kisaevna, Stephanie had learned that much of Karl’s family and many of his friends had died during the Plague. Stephanie guessed that probably had something to do with his moods, but she sensed there was more. Occasionally, someone named “Sumiko” would get mentioned—usually by one of Karl’s host of younger siblings—and there would be this uncomfortable quiet.

Anyhow, despite the amount of time she’d been spending with Karl, Stephanie’s best friend was Lionheart.

I mean, look at him, now, she thought affectionately, glancing into the rearview mirror to do so, hanging out the window like some cross between a gray-and-cream floppy toy and a six-legged weasel. No one would ever guess how smart he is. . . .

At long last, Stephanie answered Karl’s question, “I don’t want just a learner’s permit. You know as well as I do that you can qualify for a provisional license at fifteen.”

“At need,” Karl said. “You can get a provisional license ‘at need.’”

“My family does live pretty far from Twin Forks,” Stephanie was beginning, when an overwhelming sensation of alarm surged into her from Lionheart. The strong wave of emotion was far stronger than the normally faint, elusive sensations she received, yet its very strength made it hard to define: apprehension, anxiety, yet somewhat removed.

“Bleek!” Lionheart spilled the meter and a half of his furry length over into the front seat, landing in Karl’s lap, rather than Stephanie’s, as would have been his more usual choice. “Bleek!”

Showing Lionheart understands more about operating machinery than most would grant a treecat, Stephanie thought, but the thought was fleeting. Lionheart was pointing off to the southwest. Every line of his body was tight with urgency.

Stephanie immediately shifted course. Karl didn’t protest.

“What’s bothering Lionheart?” he said, stroking the thick gray fur along the treecat’s spine in a effort to soothe him.

“I don’t know,” Stephanie admitted, “but whatever it is is over that way. Let’s go find out!”

* * *

Pleased when the clear side panel was opened, Climbs Quickly immediately poked his head out the opening. Again, he was reminded that the air car moved more quickly than did the folding flying thing. His fur flattened against his face and his inner eyelids dropped into place. Even so, this was an infinitely better experience.

During the seasons he had lived with Death Fang’s Bane and her parents, he had come to the conclusion that two-legs and the People did not use their senses in the same fashion. Two-legs were so sight-oriented that, as in this wonderful fast-traveling vehicle, they would actually eliminate signals from scent or sound. Taste—except when eating—did not enter into their experience of the world. The importance of touch was harder for him to judge.

By contrast, the People relied on the triad of sight, scent, and hearing about equivalently. As hunters—especially when moving through the treetops—they were very aware of the usefulness of touch, including signals carried by vibration. He had no idea how two-legs managed without whiskers! Taste was also important, especially in how it could add dimension to the sense of smell. And in the pleasure it brought to food . . .

At this speed, Climbs Quickly found himself relying primarily on scent for his assessment. He caught a variety of tantalizing odors: bark-chewer mingled with the sap of the golden-leaf it had been sampling; the tangy scent of purple thorn; the musky perfume of tongue-leaf in summer flower. At one point his fur bristled when an upward eddy brought him the rank odor of death fang, liberally associated with the blood of some unlucky ground runner.

Climbs Quickly wondered how the two-legs could think they knew anything of a world most of them merely saw as they passed over faster than a winter wind, glimpsing what lay below only as a blur of green and brown. Perhaps the two-legs had senses he couldn’t guess at, just as most of them had no idea how the People used mind-speech.

In any case, today, Death Fang’s Bane and Shadowed Sunlight were traveling below the canopy—and not at too great a speed. Climbs Quickly, for one, was going to make the most of it.

Drawing in a luxuriously deep breath of the warm late-summer air, Climbs Quickly caught a new scent, one that shocked and appalled him as even that of the death fang had not . . . The scent of smoke and, behind it, the hot, brain-snapping odor of freshly burning fire.

Arboreal as they were, the People were all too aware of the danger brought by forest fire. It offered a danger to them greater than any death fang or snow hunter. Those could be escaped by flight into the upper branches or even—with cooperation—fought and killed, although rarely without injury, as his own scars attested. However, even the greatest cooperation could not fight a forest fire. The best the united strength of an entire clan could hope to achieve was to forestall the fire’s spread while the weak and young got away.

Climbs Quickly shivered inside his skin and breathed in the scent again. It was hard to pinpoint where it was coming from with so many conflicting winds, but he was a trained scout.

The course on which Death Fang’s Bane was taking the vehicle was erratic, but it did not seem to be going in the direction of the smoke and fire. For a moment, Climbs Quickly almost gave in to the impulse to ignore what he had smelled. After all, he was far away and this was nowhere near the range of his own Bright Water Clan.

However, his own natural curiosity had not been dulled by his seasons with the two-legs. Moreover, the songs of the memory singers—of whom his own sister was one—provided a connection to clans that would never meet, even if that connection was attenuated by distance.

Usually, Climbs Quickly’s first impulse would have been to get Death Fang’s Bane’s attention, but he knew that not only was she responsible for the vehicle’s movement, she was not handling this chore with her usual ease. Therefore, although his alarm was growing as the scent of smoke became more intense, he leapt over the seat and into Shadowed Sunlight’s lap.

“Bleek!” he said, pointing in the direction in which the smell of smoke was strongest. “Bleek! Bleek!”

His faith in these two-legs had not been misplaced. Almost immediately, he felt the vehicle change direction. Nor was the impulse entirely that of Death Fang’s Bane. Shadowed Sunlight’s mind-glow was less easy for Climbs Quickly to read, but he could feel in it acceptance that he had some reason for his urgency—even if the reason was as of yet a mystery.

* * *

“What’s in that direction?” Stephanie asked, trying to increase the speed while not losing control of the air car. “Let me know if Lionheart seems to think we’re going the wrong way.”

“He’s still pointing southwest,” Karl said. “Let me call up the area map. We’re within a Forestry Service district, but I’m pretty sure it’s close to private holdings near here.”

Stephanie knew Karl wasn’t being in the least slow, but she felt an intense sense of impatience—or urgency. Not for the first time, she wondered if her feelings were always entirely her own. For example, she could always locate Lionheart, no matter how far away he was. She knew he could do the same with her. However, she felt certain Lionheart knew what she felt sometimes even better than she herself did. However, how much did the link work the other way? Might the urgency she felt now not be her own impatience, but Lionheart’s?

“Oh, Steph,” Karl said with a chuckle. “You’re going to love this. The private lands we’re heading toward belong to the Franchitti family.”

Stephanie made a rude noise. The Franchittis were not among her favorite people on Sphinx. In fact, it wasn’t stretching the point too much to say that they were among her least favorite. Certainly Trudy Franchitti, who was roughly a year older than Stephanie, was on Stephanie’s “Most To Be Avoided” list.

“Well,” Stephanie said. “Maybe we don’t need to go that far. I wonder what has Lionheart so riled. If it was something on the ground, we should have flown over it already. I mean, we’re not moving all that fast.”

“I’ve been thinking the same thing,” Karl said. “Which means it’s something he could smell from a long way off. Take the car up, Steph. Maybe we can see what he can smell.”

Unspoken between them was that they both had guessed what this threat might be. The season was very late summer—on Sphinx the seasons lasted for approximately fifteen T-months. This summer had started out normally enough, but as it had progressed, conditions had grown increasingly dry. Drought status had been declared. Fire warnings were posted everywhere.

Very carefully, Stephanie brought the air car up above the canopy. The gigantic crown oaks and near-pines that dominated this area were so widely spaced that it was possible to steer between them. Since steering without the autopilot and radar assistance was something Stephanie had wanted to practice, they had stayed at trunk level. This choice had the added advantage of keeping Stephanie’s more erratic maneuvers away from casual observation.

“Steph!” Karl was pointing southwest, his gesture unconsciously mimicking that of the treecat who rested in his lap. “Smoke!”

Looking in the direction indicated, Stephanie saw the faintest wispy grayish-white traces threading through the thick arboreal canopy.

Karl was already on his uni-link, comming the SFS fire alert number. “This is Karl Zivonik. We’re at . . .” He rattled off coordinates. “We’ve spotted smoke. It’s pretty faint and might be coming from private land, but we thought we’d better report it.”

The voice of Ranger Ainsley Jedrusinski came back over the com. “We’ve got it, Karl, and one of the weather-watch birds is just clearing the horizon. Give me a sec.”

There was a brief delay while she queried the weather satellite for a downlook. Then her voice came back. “Definitely a hot spot over accepted limits, especially given wind direction. We’re going to send in a crew. Good work. Out!”

Stephanie had set the air car to hover and now she glanced over at Karl. “So, do we go to help?”

Karl considered. “Well, Ainsley didn’t say we shouldn’t, and it is our fire, sort of. But if we go, I pilot.”

“No problem,” Stephanie said, setting the auto-pilot to hover and sliding so they could change places. “No problem at all.”

* * *

Actually, though she wouldn’t have admitted it aloud, Stephanie was glad to give up having to pay attention to the surprisingly demanding role of pilot—at least a pilot without autopilot. Freed up from those responsibilities, she brought up her uni-link and downloaded information on the location of the fire.

“Winds are rising,” she told Karl. “Unless there’s a miracle, the fire’s going to spread—and fast. I wonder what started this one?”

Karl shrugged. “We can rule out lightning. The usual summer T-storms are really late. This might be a ground fire that’s finally broken out to the surface, so we’re seeing the smoke. The area is so dry almost anything might start a fire.”

Stephanie nodded. She also knew what Karl wasn’t saying: on Meyerdahl, eighty to ninety percent of forest fires had a direct or indirect human cause. The percentage wasn’t as high on Sphinx, since the population was so much smaller, but that didn’t matter. When the forests were this dry, even a stray spark could find ample natural tinder.

Whatever their cause, forest fires were never comfortable events. Intellectually, Stephanie knew wildfire was actually a necessary part of a forest ecology, a means of clearing away deadwood, underbrush, and accumulated duff that contributed to disease. Moreover, many plants actually needed fire in order for their seeds to germinate. Browsing and grazing animals benefitted, too, since new growth was higher in nutrient value. Thus, a bit more indirectly, the predators benefitted as well.

Despite knowing all of this, Stephanie still found it hard to think of forest fires as good. The skeletons of burned-out trees, the carcasses of animals that failed to outrace the spreading flames, the fallen bodies of birds choked by smoke, even though they were never close to the fire, all seemed evidence of evils to be fought.

Yet what was true on any planet with forests was even more so on Sphinx. Eighty percent of Sphinx’s land surface was forested. Some of the plants—like the picketwood, on which the treecats were so dependent—might look like forests. However, picketwood groves were actually one vast plant. The parent tree sent down runners from the branches of a nodal trunk. These in turn became their own trunks and sent out more runners. Damage to one area of picketwood could have a definite—although usually short-term—effect on related groves, even if those groves were kilometers away.

The policy of the Sphinx Forestry Service was to manage rather than simply put out natural fires. This did not make SFS popular with many of the human settlers, who felt that they and their property should be protected no matter what—even if that property was located where it should not be. When the fire was of human origin and SFS started handing out reprimands and fines . . . Well, then the SFS found itself even less popular.

Karl had switched the com so they could listen to the Forestry Service chatter as the unit was assembled and sent out. Although the SFS had what many of the planet’s residents considered an overly large staff, they were actually stretched pretty thin. Ranger Jedrusinski’s call had alerted any and all on- or off-duty rangers in the immediate area of the fire. Some would delay long enough to fetch specially equipped firefighting vehicles.

However, at this time of year, all rangers—and that included Stephanie and Karl, who were only probationary rangers—routinely carried with them a kit that included a Pulaski, a shovel, a bladder bag, a portable fire shelter, and a fire-suit. Many of these tools would have been perfectly familiar to firefighters some thirteen hundred years before. Others, like the modified vibroblade cutting edge of the Pulaski (a combination hoe and fire axe that had been in use for centuries even before humans reached for the stars) or the fire-retardant chemicals that the bladder bag automatically mixed with water, would have surprised and delighted them.

When he’d taken over piloting, Karl had closed the back window they’d opened for Lionheart. The treecat had remained in the front seat, perched on Stephanie’s lap. Once they’d set course in the direction of the fire, Lionheart stopped pointing. Some of the tension had left the lines of his long, lean body, but through their shared link Stephanie could feel that the treecat was clearly conflicted about heading into—rather than away from—a fire.

She stroked Lionheart, even going so far as to roll him over onto his back so she could ruffle the cream-colored fur on his tummy and tickle under his chin. Usually, this relaxed him, but soon enough, Lionheart put his one remaining true-hand and his two hand-feet on her forearm and gently shoved her away.

Stephanie offered him a perch along the back of her seat. He flowed up, sinuously graceful, and settled where he could rest his true-hand on the top of her head while looking out the window.

Despite their name, treecats were not all that feline. For one, no Terran cat had ever possessed six limbs or a fully prehensile tail. Their build was longer and—beneath their fluffy coats—leaner. They were also larger, averaging sixty to seventy centimeters through the body, with their tails doubling their length. And, of course, no Terran cat had three-fingered hands with fully opposable thumbs.

However, quite like Terran cats, male treecats, like Lionheart, were tabby-gray above, cream below. Their gray tails were ornamented with a varying number of darker bands. There were other similarities as well: slitted pupils to the eyes (these almost always green), retractable claws (although these were far sharper than those possessed by any Terran cat), pointed ears, and long whiskers. Moreover, when tense, treecats bristled out their fur much as a Terran cat did. As Karl piloted them closer to the fire, Stephanie could feel from the tickling along her neck that Lionheart was distinctly puffed.

Stephanie wondered what treecat clans did when faced with a forest fire. They didn’t have fire retardant chemicals. They were tool users, but the tools she had seen were limited to ropes, nets, stone knives, and small stone axes. These last were fine for hacking off the branches treecats used to build sleeping platforms, but could not fell a burning tree so the flames consuming it would not spread through the canopy.

She supposed the only thing treecats could do was run in the hope they could get their kittens and old ones out fast enough they didn’t need to watch—and what she suspected was worse, feel them burning to death—as the flames licked out greedy tongues, devouring all with a mindless hunger.

Shuddering at the thought, Stephanie pulled up a template and overlaid it on the map of their location. Immediately, she felt relieved. The map the Forestry Service had put together indicating the locations of known treecat clans did not show a clan in this area. The map was far from complete, but this close to human-inhabited lands, she felt pretty confident that it would be accurate.

Stephanie knew she shouldn’t have favorites among the creatures that lived on Sphinx. As Frank Lethbridge and Ainsley Jedrusinski kept reminding her, every creature—even hexapumas—had their part to play in the complex planetary ecology. Stephanie couldn’t help it. She didn’t like hexapumas. She liked treecats a lot—more, in fact, than she did most humans.

To distract herself, Stephanie thought about a particular litter of hexapumas, the kits of a mother she and Lionheart had killed just under three T-years ago. When she had become a probationary ranger she had learned, to her surprise, that SFS rangers had rescued and hand-raised the kits. Like the cubs of many Terran “higher” predators, hexapuma kits required parental care for their first several years.

As a probationary ranger, Stephanie had been required to take her turn cleaning the pens and bringing the little monsters food. Lately, she and Karl had been included in discussion as to the best areas in which to release them. Care had been taken to make certain the hexapuma kits did not bond with their human caretakers, but a certain greater familiarity could not be avoided—even if merely that these hexapumas would be accustomed to human odor and might even associate it with food.

A surge of anger filled Stephanie as she recalled how she’d struggled not to point everyone’s attention at Lionheart’s horrible scars, his missing right true-hand. Quick heal and considerable medical attention had made certain her own scars did not show, but they were there nonetheless. She wanted to scream, “Hexapumas are dangerous monsters!” but knowing hers would be the minority opinion—suspecting she was probably even wrong—she’d kept her opinions to herself.

When Lionheart suddenly stiffened, Stephanie thought that—as so often—he was reacting to her internal turmoil. However, instead of reaching and patting her gently on one cheek as he usually did to soothe her, he now began to bounce in place, pointing both ahead and down. Stephanie could almost feel his frustration that he couldn’t make his point more clearly.

“What is it, Lionheart? What’s wrong?”

* * *

Climbs Quickly hadn’t exactly relaxed when Shadowed Sunlight and Death Fang’s Bane had demonstrated that they understood his warning about the fire. From past experience, he knew that two-legs took fire at least as seriously as did the People. Moreover, being what they were, the two-legs would likely deal with the fire in some fashion, rather than merely running from it. He had witnessed such actions in the past and seen Shadowed Sunlight and Death Fang’s Bane being trained to fight fire. While he was still uncertain why some fires were put out promptly while others were permitted to burn in a contained area, he had come to trust that any danger this fire offered would not be ignored.

Now, settled comfortably across the back of Death Fang’s Bane’s seat, Climbs Quickly decided that it couldn’t hurt to spread the warning a bit further. He was no memory singer to send his mind voice out between clans, but he knew his mind voice—especially since he had bonded with Death Fang’s Bane—was stronger than that of most males. Moreover, his sister Sings Truly was considered one of the most remarkable memory singers of this generation. Even at this distance, he might be able to reach her. She could spread the word to other memory singers and so alert the clans. At the very least, he might reach some scout or hunter who would relay the warning.

Climbs Quickly sent out a call, then opened his mind to “listen” for a reply. One came almost immediately, but it was not his sister’s voice he heard. This was an unfamiliar voice, male and much closer.

<Help!> it cried. <My brother and I are trapped by the fire. Help!>

There was a desperation to the cry, as if the one who gave it had been calling for some time and had lost hope that any would hear. The mind-speech included information not included in the simple message. The two treecats were high in a green-needle, within a grove of such trees.

This was not good for several reasons. Unlike the net-wood groves in which clans tended to make their central nesting places, green-needle trees did not have interconnected branches. Instead, branches tapered off, ending in needles that would not bear an infant bark-chewer, much less a full-grown Person. To make matters worse, green-needle trees burned fast and hot. These brothers must have been hard-pressed to take refuge there.

The fire had not yet reached their refuge.

<Can you get down? To another tree?> Climbs Quickly asked.

<No,> the speaker—he called himself Left-Striped—replied. <The ground is very hot. We tried. My brother—he insisted he could run fast enough—badly burned the pads of his hand-feet and true-feet. We made our way up into a green-needle and hoped the winds would carry the fire elsewhere, but . . . >

Climbs Quickly knew then what this call really was. It was not so much a call for help—for what help could come in such a situation? It was Left-Striped’s last attempt to make certain that the clan to which these brothers belonged would learn of their deaths and so not be left to empty mourning.

So the situation must have been in the days before the coming of the two-legs, the tragedy accepted as something to be sung of in sorrow, but now . . .

Climbs Quickly’s “conversation” with the stranded treecat had taken only breaths. Now he rose onto his true-feet and began pointing. He tried to show that he was indicating a specific portion of the fire-affected area by angling his gestures precisely along the lines where he could “feel” the other treecat’s mind-glow.

Death Fang’s Bane made mouth noises at him. One of these was the one she used as his name; the rest was only noise. Yet Climbs Quickly sensed concern in her mind glow, a desire to comfort, to reassure.

She made more mouth noises. Climbs Quickly felt fairly certain that she understood he was not merely repeating his warning about the fire, but a frustration that matched his own indicated that his new message was not reaching her.

“Bleek!” he said desperately, wishing the sound carried different meanings the way mouth noises seemed to do. “Bleek!”

* * *

“Easy, Lionheart. Easy,” Stephanie said soothingly.

The treecat flowed down from her seat back onto her lap. Then he stood and turned, his flexible spine meaning that his feet could remain oriented forward even as he turned to face her. He placed his remaining true-hand on her face and looked deeply into her brown eyes with his green.

“Bleek,” he said with a sort of pathetic intensity. Then, gently but firmly, he grasped two locks of her short, curly brown hair and began tugging them.

Stephanie heeded the prompt—not to do so would have been to have her hair pulled, since the treecat was very strong. She found she was looking down.

“Karl,” she said, her voice coming just a little choked from the tight angle of her throat, “I think he’s telling us that whatever has his attention is lower.”

“Well,” Karl replied. “That’s a given, since we’re flying above the tree canopy.”

Despite the sardonic tone of his reply, Karl began guiding the air car lower. Stephanie felt precisely when Lionheart let go of her hair.

“Okay, Karl! I think we’re at the right elevation. Can we level off here?”

“Pretty well,” Karl replied. “There’s a lot of mature near-pine here and they tend to leave space between as they develop. If it was picketwood, no way. What direction does he want me to go?”

The treecat had adopted his “pointer dog” stance again.

“Still the same,” she said. “I’ll let you know if he changes direction.”

“So we’re still heading into the fire,” Karl said. “Check the Forestry Service reports.”

Stephanie pulled the maps up on her uni-link screen.

“The heart of the fire is further west,” she said, “definitely on what my grid shows as Franchitti lands. However, the winds are pushing a tongue out this way—right toward these near-pines.”

“Bad. Very bad.” Karl said, “Near-pines burn super hot and fast.”

Stephanie nodded. At firefighting orientation, she had learned that the high profile of the oldest trees was meant to attract lightning. Basically, when a stand reached the point in its life-cycle where new growth was impossible, the oldest trees became lightning rods—inviting fire that would open up the area, fertilize it with ash, and accelerate the germination of seeds by burning away the resinous covering.

Now all that theory was becoming real. She and Karl had helped with a few firefighting operations this season, but always as support: bringing in supplies, coordinating communications, answering questions from concerned residents. This was the first time they’d flown directly into a fire—and all the warnings they’d been given about how dangerous and unpredictable fire could be were becoming very real.

“Lionheart’s changing his point now,” Stephanie reported a few minutes later. “He’s indicating more south.”

She took a compass reading along the line of the treecat’s hand and gave it to Karl. He then refined their course. This was repeated several times.

“I think,” Stephanie said, “we can guess where Lionheart wants us to go. I’m marking your nav map. See where the fire’s sent out a tongue? The place isn’t really ‘on fire’ yet, but it’s close.”

“Why do you think he wants us to go there?” Karl asked, adjusting the course and accelerating the air car’s pace.

Stephanie pressed her lips together. “I think someone—some treecat—must be right where that tongue of the fire is. I think we’re its only chance not to get burned to death.”

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