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<We are coming,> Climbs Quickly sent to Left-Striped as soon as he was certain that Death Fang’s Bane and Shadowed Sunlight were indeed heading in the right direction. <Can your brother move?>

The reply was muddled. Through it Climbs Quickly felt an awareness of smoke and heat. All People knew that smoke was as dangerous as fire. Despite this, the only place the brothers had been able to take refuge from flames that were eating along the ground was in a tree—and smoke rose. Climbs Quickly sensed that the brothers had already climbed as high as the flexible length of the green-needle would bear them.

<Coming?> came Left-Striped’s faint reply. <How? Flames lick up the trunk beneath us. This green-needle is tallest of its kin, but only a hand or so of body-lengths are between us and the fire.>

This did not come at once, but in little spurts, the usual almost-instant communication of mind-speech broken as Left-Striped struggled to concentrate on more than holding fast to the tree and gathering in his next breath. There, too, a flood of worry for the brother contaminated his thoughts. Climbs Quickly caught a fragment of sensation containing weight against Left-Striped’s shoulders and upper body. He knew then that his new friend had positioned himself beneath his brother, making of his own body a platform to hold the other as the grip of his burned limbs weakened.

The brother then could not move. Indeed, he was barely conscious, and when he lost consciousness, likely he would plummet into the hungry flames beneath.

Climbs Quickly looked up over his shoulder at Death Fang’s Bane.

“Bleek!” he said to draw her attention from the little device she held in one hand. “Bleek!”

When Death Fang’s Bane was looking, Climbs Quickly made as if he was running. It was awkward to do so without actually moving, but Death Fang’s Bane was swift to comprehend. She made urgent mouth noises to Shadowed Sunlight. Immediately, Climbs Quickly felt the vibrations as the air car picked up speed. Shadowed Sunlight was flying much less carefully now, permitting the feathery tips of the green-needle and even small branches to brush against the outside of the air car.

Death Fang’s Bane was making urgent noises, then she was pointing, pointing . . .

Climbs Quickly looked with his eyes—rather than following the guidance of Left Striped’s mind-glow—and saw a horror. The two treecats clung high in the branches of the tallest green-needle in this grove, their weight enough to bend the tip of the tree to one side. Flames licked up the trunk, consuming smaller limbs at once, spilling out along the larger limbs for a more leisurely meal.

Wind was rising, both that which was driving the fire in this direction and that generated by the fire itself, for by feeding on the old green-needles that thickly carpeted this area, the fire was growing hotter by the moment. The flames took sustenance from the wind as well, dancing in delight.

A new sound entered the complex of images as some part of the air car began laboring to cool the interior of the vehicle. An odor of smoke came where there had been none before. Aware from experience how neatly the air car usually sealed away any indication of the world without, Climbs Quickly felt panic rising.

He had possessed such faith in these two-legs that he had brought them here without thought for their safety, but what if in bringing them here he had doomed them all?

* * *

“I see him,” Stephanie shouted. “No! Them. There are two of them. Two treecats up in that bent-over near-pine!”

Spilling into the backseat, she grabbed her kit and slipped on the fire-suit that rested on top. This was an emergency model, made of fire-resistant fabric, basically a coverall with built-in boots and a hood.

An adult might have found donning this difficult in the confines of the air car, but Stephanie was a flexible fourteen—almost fifteen—year-old girl. Lastly, she netted her curly brown hair under the matching hood, slinging the breathing mask to cover her face. An earplug included in the hood put her in immediate contact with the air car. Goggles with an optional heads-up display covered her eyes.

Karl had been maneuvering the air car over toward the burning near-pine. He might not have managed, except that near-pine was among those breeds of trees that shed lower limbs as they grew, so the under-story was comparatively clear. Karl had a steady hand on the controls, but even with the guidance systems enabled, the updrafts of hot air were giving them a bumpy ride.

“Steph,” Karl said, the measured tones of his voice showing just how tense he was. “What are you planning?”

“Someone’s going to have to stuff the ’cats in the car,” she said tersely. “I’m sure Lionheart has been trying to tell them we’re here to rescue them, but I don’t think he’s getting through. How close can you get me?”

“To that large limb about two meters below the ’cats,” Karl said. “I think.”

“I have my counter-grav unit,” she said. “So whatever happens, I’m not going to fall.”

She didn’t need to tell Karl that while the counter-grav unit would assist her in rising and falling, it wouldn’t let her “fly.” Moving through the burning tree—for rising sparks were now igniting the needles of the upper branches—would be up to her.

When Karl had the air car into position, Stephanie opened the back side door. Smoke immediately gusted in, making both Karl and Lionheart cough and sneeze. Stephanie wished she’d thought to hand Karl at least the breathing mask from his kit, but she couldn’t delay now.

Lionheart did not attempt to follow her out onto the burning near-pine. As Stephanie stepped onto the limb, she could feel it bobbing. Part of this would be from her movements, but she thought more was due to the conflicting air currents of wind and thermal updraft.

Her goggles automatically adjusted for the available light, but even so, the conflicting brilliance of the flames warred with the darkening of the smoke. Even odder was the way her coveralls shielded her from the worst of the environmental changes. Stephanie knew she was walking through a rising fire, but she didn’t feel it—which didn’t mean she wouldn’t burn if exposed to enough heat for long enough.

Long ago, Stephanie had learned that she kept her head in situations that would turn most of her peers—even most adults—into gibbering idiots. As when she had fought the hexapuma in an effort to save Lionheart’s life, she now felt herself concentrating on the situation, fears pushed aside in the urgency of a need to act.

She’d gibber later.

Moving purposefully toward the trunk, Stephanie assessed the situation more closely. From a distance, she had seen two treecats huddled together. What she hadn’t been able to see through the smoke was that the lower one was holding the other in place, his limbs bracing the upper treecat while his strong, prehensile tail anchored him to the near-pine limb. The upper cat was limp but breathing.

Stephanie’s original plan had been to grab the lower one, then see if she could get him moving towards the car. Now she adapted.

She touched the lower ’cat. Bleary green eyes opened and looked at her with surprising lack of panic. Stephanie guessed that Lionheart must have reached this ’cat at least. When she touched him, she could feel him trembling from the strain of maintaining his awkward hold on the other treecat. He hissed when he felt her touch, and she guessed why.

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to pull you out from under your buddy,” she said, hoping the tone of her voice would soothe him and trusting Lionheart to do the rest. “Did he get a bad dose of smoke? Let’s see if I can move him.”

The hissing stopped as soon as Stephanie reached up for the other ’cat. This one’s ears flickered when she touched him, but his eyes did not open. Moving as quickly as she could without risking her precarious balance on the tree limb, she struggled to free his claws from their death grip in the tree bark. She managed more easily than she had thought possible, given that treecats had six limbs with retractable claws that could rip through even tanned leather and artificially reinforced fabrics—as Stephanie had learned to the detriment of her wardrobe in her early days with Lionheart, before he learned just how fragile her clothing was.

This ’cat was only holding on with his true-hands. The other two sets were badly burned, the grip of their claws easily released.

Stephanie winced as she worked the claws free, trying hard not to hurt the ’cat but very aware that a fate far worse than burned paws was awaiting him if she didn’t get him into the car as quickly as possible.

Karl had set a closed link between her fire-suit and the air car. Through this he had provided a steady update as to immediate conditions, his voice almost as impersonal as a computerized weather report.

Now a note of emotion entered his voice. “Steph, the flames are within a meter of your feet. The limb you’re standing on is starting to smoulder. It’s going to go up soon.”

“I’ve almost gotten this ’cat loose,” Stephanie replied. “I think the other one can move on his own. You’re not going to believe it, but he was holding the other one up.”

“I saw,” Karl said. “Hurry.”

So Stephanie did, pretending to herself that the tears that leapt hot to her eyes were from some trace of smoke that had gotten in past her mask, not because she knew she was causing the treecat considerable pain. Once he snapped as if to bite her, but stopped in mid-motion. She was relieved.

At last, well aware that flames were now licking around her feet, Stephanie got the upper treecat loose. He dropped into her arms, not as heavy as his bulky fur might suggest, but still a considerable weight that threw off her balance. For a terrifying moment, she teetered, then recovered.


“I’m coming!”

To her relief, as soon as his burden was lifted, the lower treecat had uncurled himself from the awkward position he had adopted to hold the other in place. He was running now, scampering with odd, leaping jumps meant to minimize his contact with the burning tree limb. Despite this awkward gait, he flowed rapidly toward the open door of the air car. There he hesitated momentarily. The opening was bobbing alarmingly as the air car was tossed by the updrafts.

Lionheart poked out his upper body, true-hand and hand-feet extended, beckoning urgently, reaching as if to grab the other. Perhaps seeing how Lionheart’s missing limb made this a very precarious position, the other treecat jumped into the air car. Stephanie and her burden were only a few steps behind. Feeling the limb under her feet creaking alarmingly, Stephanie half-leapt, half-lurched through the open door.

“Get your feet in!” Karl yelled. “I’m pulling us out.”

Stephanie hauled her legs in after her and felt the open panel sliding shut. Almost immediately, the jouncing of the air car settled somewhat.

“I’m taking us back to your freehold,” Karl said. She noticed he was wearing his breathing mask and goggles. “I called and your dad is home. I told him we have a patient for him. Did the other ’cat get burned?”

“I don’t think so,” she said, “or at least not badly.”

Stephanie twisted carefully in the now cramped confines of the backseat, the injured ’cat in her lap. Lionheart was sitting next to the other treecat, thrumming gently.

She grinned at him. “Good job, Lionheart.”

He bleeked and gave her a “thumbs up” gesture with his one true-hand. Then he motioned for her to put the injured treecat on the seat between him and the other cat. Now they both sat pressed against the injured one, making soothing sounds something like a Terran cat’s purr.

At the time of her own injury, Lionheart’s clan had done something similar for her, somehow making her mind able to ignore the pain of a very badly broken arm, nearly broken leg, and several cracked ribs, so Stephanie did not interfere. Instead, she climbed into the front seat to give the ’cats more room.

Karl, she noted, now had both respirator and goggles hanging loose on straps around his neck. She took off her own, but left the fire-suit on.

“Were you able to get those out while keeping the car steady?” she asked. “I’m impressed.”

Karl chuckled. “Actually, Lionheart got them for me. I was coughing my head off and that wasn’t doing any good for my piloting. Next thing I know, he’s shoving the respirator at me, bleek-bleeking like mad. I got it on and he brought me the goggles.”

“Good for him!”

“We got to add that to our list for Dr. Hobbard,” Karl said. “The one to show that treecats are human smart, no matter what some people say.”

“Human smart,” Stephanie laughed. “You and I both know they’re smarter than some people we know.”

Lionheart bleeked, reaching forward to pat Stephanie with approval.

“Lionheart agrees with us,” Stephanie said. Then the background chatter from the SFS team cut into her thoughts. “Oh! Have you reported in to SFS?”

She still felt a thrill when she referred to the Sphinxian Forestry Service by its initials—that was one of the “in” things she and Karl had picked up during their training as probationary rangers. She also got a kick out of addressing Frank and Ainsley by their titles, rather than first names, when they were on duty. Doing so acknowledged that they were all part of a group that went from the newly created Probationary Rangers up to Assistant Rangers, Rangers, Senior Rangers, with Chief Ranger Shelton overlooking them all from the very top.

“I did,” Karl said. A sly grin stretched one corner of his mouth. “I told them that we’d been coming in from the north, but had encountered a tongue of fire that made going that way a bad idea. They told me not to circle around, that the fire was under control and that aircraft were coming in to dump water and fire retardant to halt the spread of the fire in that area, so we’d better clear out.”

“So you did . . .” Stephanie giggled.

“And was praised for my prudence,” Karl said, a lopsided grin turning up one corner of his mouth. “Of course, they’re going to find out eventually, but why add to their stress?”

* * *

<Are you badly burned?> Climbs Quickly asked Left-Striped.

<My hand-feet and true-feet are tender,> the other admitted, <and I have some blisters where sparks or flying embers burned through my fur. Nothing at all serious. I am more worried about my brother. He is very sluggish.>

<We are going to one who can help him,> Climbs Quickly said reassuringly. His mind voice filled with images of Healer, the father of Death Fang’s Bane. <This one specializes in helping those who have been wounded—and not only those of his own type. I have seen him help his daughter or mate, but usually he gives his skills to other bloods. He is the one who saved my life after a death fang tore me into little more than bloodied scraps of fur.>

<I have heard that song,> Left-Striped said, a note of excitement coloring his mind voice. <When I realized that your voice was coming from the two-leg’s flying thing, I wondered if the one who had offered hope when there was none might be you.>

Climbs Quickly felt pleased at this generous recognition, but he did not bask in it.

<Then you realize that the two-leg who came out onto the burning green-needle is the one our people call Death Fang’s Bane?>

<Yes. She is as brave as the songs tell.>

<We are going to her home. She is a youngling by their count. Her father is a healer. Her mother does interesting things with plants. It was in the clear-walled plant place attached to their house that I first tasted cluster stalk.>

<And were seen in the process,> added Left-Striped, his mind voice mingling admiration for boldness with traces of disapproval. <The elders of our clan—my brother and I are of the Damp Ground Clan—are still arguing as to the wisdom of Bright Water’s choice. As for me, having been saved when I had no belief such rescue was possible, I am interested in learning more about the two-legs.>

<They are as different from each other as the People are,> Climbs Quickly cautioned. <One cannot meet Death Fang’s Bane or Darkness Foe—both of whom have shown themselves friends and protectors of the People—and say “Now I know what two-legs are.” There are those such as Speaks Falsely or the one who caused the burning destruction of Bright Heart Clan who also walk on two legs.>

Much of this conversation was augmented with a flow of images. There was no chance that Left-Striped would mistake which specific two-leg Climbs Quickly referred to. The names were accompanied by mental images: sharp in the case of Darkness Foe and Speaks Falsely, both of whom Climbs Quickly had met personally, less sharp in the case of those he had only heard about from another treecat. The People could lie—however, when they did, it was usually by leaving out some important piece of information, as Sings Truly had done when encouraging the Bright Water Clan to come to the rescue of Climbs Quickly and a “youngling.”

<I think,> said Left-Striped, <based upon what you have shown me, that there must be greater variation between these two-legged people than there is among our own people. They have no memory singers to bind them together with shared histories. From what we witnessed when Speaks Falsely preyed upon the People, they find it all too easy to deliberately hide what they are doing from each other.>

Considering what he had seen Death Fang’s Bane do, such as her venture in the pilot’s seat of the air car earlier that day, Climbs Quickly could only agree.

Left-Striped went on. <This lack of shared stories would make for dangerously varied ways of behaving. How can the People know which of the two-legs can be trusted and which should be avoided?>

A good question, Climbs Quickly thought to himself. But one for which I do not yet have an answer.

* * *

Stephanie was worried that her dad would ask all sorts of awkward questions regarding how she and Karl had come up with two more treecats, but whatever Karl had said over his uni-link had apparently left Richard Harrington with the impression that they had been working the fringes of a fire with the SFS and that the treecats had been handed over to them.

“Have I ever messed up the air car,” Karl said, ruefully surveying the array of scratches and smoke stains, while the vet examined his two newest patients where they huddled in the backseat.

Richard Harrington pulled out a spray applicator and gave each treecat a light sedative. “This will let us move them without stressing them further.”

“Help yourself to the supplies I keep in the hangar,” he went on. “You won’t be able to get the smell of smoke out of the upholstery, but this should go a long way toward your keeping your use-privileges. I’ve found a buffing compound that does wonders with scratches.”

“Thanks, Dr. Richard. I was wondering what my folks would say. Do you need help moving the ’cats?”

“No, I can handle them. Once I get them out, you can take the ’car directly over to the hangar.”

Of average height, but strong enough to carry his heaviest gear without assistance even under the pull of in Sphinx’s 1.35 g, Dad easily lifted the two stranger treecats. Stephanie bent to give Lionheart a ride.

Without turning, Dad said, “Let him walk, Steph. It won’t hurt him to work off some of what I’ve seen him devouring at the table. In any case, how many times do I have to tell you that you may be strong, but your skeleton is still pliable. Hauling that treecat around could give you curvature of the spine.”

“But, Dad, I used to carry him all the time.”

“That was before Scott gave you your last physical, young lady. Consider the facts. You are a hundred and thirty-five centimeters tall. Lionheart is sixty-five centimeters through the body. His tail adds another sixty-five centimeters, so he’s one hundred and thirty centimeters long—only five centimeters shorter than you are.”

Stephanie knew that was true. When Lionheart stretched out next to her in bed, he was just about as long as her. Still, she wasn’t going to give up without trying at least a little more. Motioning for Lionheart to come along, she followed her dad toward his in-house clinic.

“He’s not as heavy as I am, though.”

“No, he’s not, but when you consider that a poorly balanced backpack or even a large purse can contribute to scoliosis, you surely can see my point. Scott MacDallan may carry Fisher half-perched on one shoulder, but Scott’s a grown man. When you’re an adult, you can make your own choices, but for now, you—and your skeletal structure and soft tissues—are my responsibility, got it?”

“Got it,” Stephanie sighed.

I can handle being short, Stephanie thought, as long as one of these days I get around to having a figure. Mom’s built okay. She keeps telling me she was a late developer, but what if I got the Harrington genes for figure and the Quintrell genes for height?

The thoughts, a constant source of minor worry as her fifteenth birthday drew closer, ran like background music through her mind as Stephanie hurried after her father.

In the clinic, Stephanie assisted her father as he cleaned up the two treecats and treated their surface injuries. One good thing about having a resident treecat was that Richard Harrington had a solid idea of what medications would work and which would not.

The smoke inhalation was more of a problem, since Dad didn’t like the idea of forcing a breathing mask over the treecats’ heads.

“They’re tense enough without scaring them with that, but from the wheezing in their chests, they took some damage. I’d hate for them to get pneumonia.”

Lionheart had been standing by, making reassuring croons and bleeks when the stranger treecats—especially the one that had been more severely injured—bristled at being handled. Even though the burn medication was applied with a light spray, the treecat clearly hadn’t liked it and had hissed back at the applicator.

Maybe he thinks the applicator was threatening him, Stephanie thought, and wished, not for the first time, that she could ask Lionheart a question more complex than “Want some celery?” (the answer to that was always enthusiastic agreement) or “Want to come with me?” (This also almost always met with agreement, although with varying degrees of enthusiasm.)

Now, remembering how Karl had reported that Lionheart had brought him his respirator when the air car had filled with smoke, she had a sudden idea.

“Dad, Lionheart was in the smoke, too, though not for as long. Do you think he could use a dose from the inhaler? Maybe if he used it, he could somehow let the others know it won’t hurt them.”

Richard Harrington had long gotten past the days when he underestimated Lionheart. He looked thoughtful, then nodded. “You show him what we want.”

Stephanie did so, miming using the inhaler on herself, then holding the inhaler to Lionheart’s mouth. He sniffed it carefully, then sighed gustily and opened his mouth. This revealed a remarkable array of very sharp teeth, but Stephanie trusted him not to bite her. The procedure completed, she held up the inhaler, then pointed it at the other two treecats.

“They need this, too,” she said. “Can you explain?”

Lionheart bleeked and directed his attention at the other ’cats. Whatever he said also involved a great deal of wheezing and deep breathing, but in the end, the two treecats submitted to one deep breath each.

“Very good!” Dad said after they had finished with the breathing treatments. He leaned forward and took a closer look at the two treecats’ coats, focusing particularly on their tabby-gray sections. “This is interesting. I think we have a pair of mirror twins here.”

“Mirror twins?” Stephanie asked. The term sounded familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it.

“Fraternal twins,” Dad clarified, “but ones that have markings that match each other like reflections in a mirror. In humans, this would mean that one twin would be right-handed while the other was left-handed. Things like that. Look how the stripes and other markings on these two work. Our injured friend’s larger stripes all go right. The other one’s are a perfect match, but oriented to the left.”

Now that the two treecats were cleaned up and brushed, Stephanie could see what her father meant. To a nonspecialist, all male treecats looked pretty much alike. Their upper coats were striped in shades of gray, while their stomachs were a contrasting cream. Female treecats (not that most humans got a glimpse of these, since they were less adventurous than the males) were dappled brown and white, rather like a Terran fawn. However, when you spent enough time with treecats, you learned there was a fair amount of variety within individual tabby patterns.

“Well,” Richard Harrington continued, “that will make naming them for my records easier: Right-Striped and Left-Striped. I wonder how usual mirror twins are among treecats. You said you’ve seen litters of kittens, but do treecats often have identical twins?”

“I haven’t,” Stephanie said, rolling her eyes, “been able to ask them. Is the one who got worst burnt—Right-Striped—going to be okay?”

“I think so. In an ideal universe, I’d keep him in bed for a day while the skin healed, but in this case I think the best we can do is take him and his brother out to the gazebo. You still have a hammock rigged for Lionheart there?”

“A couple. He likes taking advantage of sun or shade, depending on the weather.”

“Good. We’ll put them out there and invite them to stay by bribing them with fresh food and water. Let’s add some celery for good measure—that always seems to work with Lionheart.”

From past experience, Stephanie knew that most treecats reacted to celery like a Terran cat did to catnip. This was really weird, since, although technically omnivores, the ’cats seemed to lean to the carnivorous side. It also meant that their teeth weren’t really well equipped for eating the stuff and they tended to make a horrible mess.

“I’ve commed your mother,” Dad went on as he scooped up first Left-Striped, then Right-Striped, “and she knows we have guests. She’s bringing her car in on the side furthest from the gazebo so she doesn’t startle them. Ask Karl if he wants to stay for dinner.”

Karl did and was easily convinced to stay overnight as well, since he and Stephanie both had been asked by the SFS if they’d help with fire clean-up, and the Harrington freehold was a great deal closer than his own family home.

That evening, Karl showed Stephanie some images he’d taken of her going into the fire. By necessity, the pictures were wobbly and choppy, since he’d had to leave his uni-link balanced on the dashboard while he concentrated on keeping the vehicle steady. Even so, it was impressive. Stephanie hadn’t realized just how close the flames had been or how badly burnt she would have been without her fire-suit. A couple of times, even knowing that everything had worked out in the end, she found herself distinctly scared.

Still, she knew that if circumstances demanded, she’d do it again.

* * *

Sphinx! Anders Whittaker felt delight shiver through him as the shuttle touched down, followed some moments later by a not unexpected heaviness as the planet’s higher gravity took effect. He switched on his belt-mounted counter-grav unit, already adjusted to compensate, and felt his weight return to normal.

It shouldn’t be so easy, Anders thought, to adapt to an alien planet.

Of course, it really hadn’t been easy. The counter-grav unit could compensate for weight, but lightening a person didn’t do anything to help the lungs deal with the denser atmosphere’s concentrations of gases. For that he’d needed nano-tech treatments. Then there had been all the immunizations, not just against the plague, which had wiped out so many of the original settlers, but against anything else his parents could think of.

I bet I could swim in raw sewage and come out without the least trace of infection.

He grinned at the image, thinking how horrified his mother would be. She’d been worried about him accompanying his father to Sphinx on this research expedition. However, she hadn’t been able to deny that it made more sense for Anders to spend the time in his father’s company. She’d just been named to a post as a cabinet minister of the newly elected president of Urako. She’d been busy before, as Counselor Whittaker, senior representative for one of the highest population zones on the planet. As Cabinet Minister Whittaker, she was going to be nearly unreachable for the next six T-months.

In light of his wife’s appointment, the timing for Dr. Whittaker’s trip to Sphinx hadn’t exactly been the best. However, although Bradford A. Whittaker could be called many things, “professionally uninvolved” would never be one. A rising light in the field of xenoanthropology, he’d long griped that his career had been held back by the lack of a new intelligent alien species to study.

When the earliest reports of the Sphinxian treecats had come to his attention, Dr. Whittaker had seen the opening for which he had longed. He had all but memorized every word of every press release, every report. He’d begun immediate correspondence with Dr. Sanura Hobbard, Chairwoman of the Anthropology Department, Landing University, on Manticore, the official head of official Crown inquiry into treecat intelligence. He’d fumed that his own responsibilities as a faculty member of Urako University on the planet Urako in the Kenichi System didn’t let him take ship right away—this despite the fact that the Sphinxian Forestry Service wasn’t allowing anyone much access to the treecats.

Anders had been infected by his father’s fascination. Like Dr. Whittaker, he agreed that treecats just had to be intelligent, maybe not humanly intelligent, but no one was certain where they would fit on the sentience scale. Human exploration had turned up too few other intelligent species—and in at least one case, the species had been wiped out before it could become inconvenient. Long before there had ever been a chance to go to Sphinx, Anders had become an advocate for treecats’ rights.

Then had come the fiasco with “Doctor” Tennessee Bolgeo, ostensibly of Liberty University in the distant Chattanooga System. Not many people knew what had happened, but enough had leaked out—especially within xenoanthropological circles—to create a scandal. In response, the Star Kingdom had decided that the best damage control would involve two steps.

First, they changed their policy of permitting relatively free access to the treecats. Second, they decided to bring in an officially sanctioned off-planet xenoanthropological team. Needless to say, Dr. Whittaker had immediately applied for this newly created Crown consultancy.

It was a long shot. There were many other xenoanthropologists with more seniority—and with a better chance at landing additional grants that would assure detailed investigations. However, Anders was certain that no other applicant had more passion than his dad.

So had begun several T-months of pure agony.

Between Dr. Whittaker waiting to hear if he had been selected for the Sphinx project and Counselor Whittaker waiting to hear if soon she would be Cabinet Minister Whittaker, the tension in their household had been thick enough to cut into bricks.

Very much the son of a politician and the son of an anthropologist, Anders had weathered the situation with skill. From the politician side, he’d learned to say the right things and not commit himself to any course too soon. From the anthropologist side, he’d learned to step back and observe, weighing the data with as little added emotion as possible.

So it was that Anders was more prepared than either of his parents when—miracle of miracles—both of them had found themselves with fascinating new professional opportunities and the topic of “What do we do with Anders?” had arisen.

Anders knew his mother would want him to stay on Urako. He loved his mom, but he also knew how much time he’d spend alone—and that much of the time he’d spend with his mother would be within the context of official functions. Compared to the lure of treecats and a chance to live on a barely settled alien world within the fascinating Star Kingdom of Manticore, well, even regular dinners with the president of Urako and all the perqs that came with high public office held no attraction.

Bradford Whittaker wasn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy parent—there was too much of the anthropologist in him for that. But he did believe in exposing his son to every possible experience, and he’d already taken Anders with him on trips to anthropological sites both on planet and in a few nearby systems. Given all of this, it wasn’t hard to convince the new cabinet minister that her son would be better off accompanying his father. What had surprised Anders was how enthusiastic Dr. Whittaker had been about taking Anders with him.

“Anders is interested in treecats,” he’d said. “I’m certain he’ll be a real asset to the team.”

Anders had glowed like a sun going nova. It wasn’t often his father approved of him within the context of the anthropology that was his first love. Even Mom had been won over.

“But you’ll write me every week,” she’d fussed as she’d helped Anders to pack. “And I’ll write, too. Send lots of pictures and make certain you don’t fall behind on your studies. University may seem impossibly far off to you, but you’re nearly sixteen and entrance exams will be on you before you realize it.”

There was a lot more of this. Anders let it flow over him. He knew it was just his mom making sure he knew he was important to her. He’d let her pack him extra socks and underwear without protest. On some atavistic maternal level Mom seemed convinced that a relatively newly settled planet like Sphinx would lack such basic items.

Unspoken was her concern that Dr. Whittaker would forget such things as clean underwear and regular meals once he was within reach of his new test subjects. He’d always been a bit obsessive. Now, with his entire professional reputation resting on this trip (as he repeatedly stated), Dr. Whittaker had taken to addressing his son as if he was simply an unusually young graduate assistant.

In many ways, this suited Anders just fine. It beat being “the kid.” Since the field season was going to be a long one, several members of the crew had brought family members. However, Anders was the only one who wasn’t another adult.

Doctor Calida Emberly (xenobiology and xenobotany) had brought her elderly mother, a painter, who was on partial retainer to the expedition as a scientific illustrator. Both Kesia Guyen (linguistics) and Virgil Iwamoto (lithics and field methods) had brought their spouses. In Iwamoto’s case, his was a very recent marriage, brought about in part by the impending departure of the expedition. Only Dr. Langston Nez, a newly minted Ph.D. in cultural anthropology who had been Dr. Whittaker’s senior assistant for many years, had traveled alone.

Anders had overheard Peony Rose Iwamoto gossiping to Dacey Emberly, saying that Dr. Nez’s long-standing relationship had broken up in large part because Nez preferred to continue working with Dr. Whittaker rather than seeking some prestigious position of his own. Apparently, Nez’s partner had said some really nasty things about Dr. Whittaker being grasping, ambitious, and self-absorbed.

Anders only wished he disagreed. He loved his dad but, if it hadn’t been for their shared fascination with treecats, these days he wasn’t sure they’d have much in common.

Sphinx! Anders savored the thought as the passengers shuffled from the shuttle into the spaceport. I’m really here! I wonder how long until I get to see a treecat in person? I wonder if it will be a “wild” or one of one of those who have adopted a human?

Unarticulated, even to himself, was the question, “Will I get to meet Stephanie Harrington and Lionheart?”

Anders’ fascination with Stephanie was almost as acute as his interest in treecats. It wasn’t because she was a girl nearly his own age—he was about eight T-months older—although his mother had teased him about that when she saw he had a special file for articles on Stephanie. It was because Stephanie Harrington had been the first person to make contact with treecats. Until Stephanie had figured out a way to trap an image, no one had even known treecats existed.

Then she’d nearly been killed saving a treecat from a hexapuma—or the treecat had been nearly killed saving her—that part of the story was always a bit unclear. Basically, as Anders had told his mother, Stephanie Harrington could have been a century-old double-butted near-baboon and if she’d done what she’d done, he’d still have been interested in meeting her.

And Lionheart.

Therefore, Anders was shocked and horrified when, after welcoming them to Sphinx, Dr. Hobbard told them that Stephanie had nearly been killed that day while going into the heart of a raging forest fire to rescue a pair a stranded treecats.

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