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Stephanie and Karl would have probably come in for a lot more grief over the risks they’d taken rescuing the two treecats if it hadn’t been for three things.

First, the imagery Karl had so thoughtfully taken had demonstrated how very careful they had been. Stephanie had been in full gear, not rushing in with no thought other than for saving the ’cats.

Second, again the images provided a neutral witness that without their intervention, Left-Striped and Right-Striped would have died in the blaze. Although doubtless many treecats died in fires set in the course of nature, once it had been confirmed that this fire had been caused by human negligence, it was very hard to persuasively argue that humans shouldn’t do something to save those endangered by it.

Third, the arrival of the team of out-of-system anthropologists on the very day of the fire had provided both Stephanie’s parents and the SFS with a way of reminding Stephanie that with great knowledge not only came great responsibility, but a liberal dose of boredom as well.

“Dr. Hobbard,” Marjorie Harrington said that evening over dinner, “commed me earlier to say that the off-world anthropology team was arriving today. She wondered if we could arrange for you to come and speak to them. I told her you were out on SFS business, but that we’d com her back to arrange a time.”

Stephanie had been about to protest that she couldn’t spare the time, that it would be days before Right-Striped could go without care, but a certain narrowing about both her mother’s and father’s eyes, as well as the slight grin twitching the corners of Karl’s usually serious mouth, told her that this was one battle lost before it was joined.

“Do they need time to settle in,” she asked, “or would tomorrow be good?”

Richard Harrington’s expression shifted to approving. Marjorie nodded.

“I asked. Apparently, Dr. Whittaker was disappointed that there weren’t treecats waiting to greet him and his team at the spaceport in Yawata.” She laughed at Stephanie’s involuntary bleat of protest. “I don’t mean that literally, Stephanie. It’s just that Dr. Whittaker is very enthusiastic. Dr. Hobbard says the anthropologists can meet with you any time—the sooner the better. However, she did her best to give you time to prepare by telling them you’d been out doing fire rescue today.”

“That’s nice of her,” Stephanie said.

Quickly, she weighed her options. If she said the fire had worn her out, she might buy some time to get to know Right-Striped and Left-Striped before they took off for wherever they lived. However, next time she wanted to help at a fire, that “tiredness” would certainly be remembered.

Anyhow, she wasn’t tired. She’d rather spend time with the treecats, but she was pretty excited about the anthropologists, too. These were real xenoanthropologists, not fakes like that horrible null, Tennessee Bolgeo.

“Tomorrow, then,” she answered, the words coming so swiftly on the heels of the others that only someone who knew her well—like her parents and Karl—would think them anything but impulsive. “As early as you want.”

Richard nodded. “Good. We’ll com Dr. Hobbard after dinner. Marjorie, did she say where this meeting was to be held?”

“Dr. Hobbard suggested the SFS ranger station near Twin Forks,” came the reply. “There’s just one problem. I have an appointment to be at the Tharch freehold to demonstrate some of the cooler-weather vegetable hybrids we’ve been developing. Sad as it is to admit, this glorious long summer is almost over, but since autumn also runs fifteen months, with the right cultivars we can take advantage of it . . .”

She paused and grinned. “Sorry. My enthusiasm running away with me. Short form. I’m booked all day tomorrow.”

Richard Harrington looked concerned. “I am, too. I have a small gap early, but I was going to use it to work with my newest patients. I suppose they’ll be all right, but if . . .”

Karl didn’t quite interrupt, but a shift in his body language stopped Richard in mid-phrase.

“I could fly Stephanie in,” Karl offered. “I could even get her back here. It’s no trouble. I’ve been considering anthropology rather than forestry—or maybe in addition to forestry—when I start college, so I’d really like to meet these people.”

Richard Harrington visibly relaxed. “That would be great, Karl, if it’s okay with your folks. You’ve been away all day already, out in a forest fire, and now staying away overnight. If you were my kid, I’d want to see you with my own eyes.”

That sadness Stephanie had noted was such a real part of Karl fleetingly passed over his face.

“Don’t worry, Dr. Richard,” he said, using the nickname he’d developed as a compromise between naturally good manners and the difficulty of having two Dr. Harringtons in the same household. “I’ll com. They’ll be glad enough to have a chance to chat. I’ll go home tomorrow.”

Have a chance to chat, Stephanie thought, wishing that, like Lionheart, she could reach out and offer comfort that was more than just words. Unlike with all those people who died in the Plague. People who are gone forever and that those who are left will never have a chance to talk to again.

* * *

Anders was relieved when Dr. Hobbard told them that Stephanie Harrington was unharmed. More excitingly, she had agreed to meet with them the next morning.

“I must warn you,” Dr. Hobbard said that evening when she met them for dinner, “to handle Stephanie Harrington with no less care and courtesy than you would any adult. She may be a girl of fourteen, but where treecats are concerned, she’s old as the hills.”

Anders could tell his father didn’t believe that anyone—especially a girl of fourteen—could hold back any information he was determined to get. It wasn’t until later, when he and his dad were back in their suite, that Anders realized to what extent Dr. Whittaker was prepared to go to get what he wanted.

“Anders,” Dr. Whittaker said, “the time has come for you to show yourself a part of our field team.”

He rubbed his hands together, and Anders was reminded of a coach he had once had, a man who had liked to proclaim himself his players’ “buddy” and “pal”—that is, right up until he was screaming at you for “letting down the side.”

The similarity went beyond attitude. Like that coach, Dr. Whittaker was a big man, both tall and broad. In earlier years, fieldwork had kept him trim, but lately most of his work had been in libraries and laboratories. This might be mentally arduous, but did not put the same demands on his body, making him fleshy if not quite fat. Over the last few years, Dr. Whittaker’s brown hair had been retreating from his forehead at an alarming rate, Whittaker family genetics defying a wide array of “cures,” both scientific and otherwise. The fact that genetic engineering had all but eliminated male pattern baldness only added to Dad’s frustration since, in his case, tinkering with the associated genes created a solution that was far worse than mere hair loss.

Anders distinctly hoped he’d been spared this particular gene. He had even checked with his doctor during a routine physical a few years ago and had been disproportionately relieved to learn that his scans showed no evidence of the baldness gene. More likely, he’d wind up with a thick head of hair like his maternal grandfather.

Surreptitiously comparing himself with his father, Anders thought that overall he hadn’t done too badly. He was showing promise of his father’s height and solid build, but his deep blue eyes and sandy-blond hair came from his mother. His features were also shaping into a masculine version of hers, a throwback to Scandinavian ancestors who had favored clean lines, rather than the blunter, more polyethnic mix that dominated in his father.

“Part of the field team?” Anders echoed.

“That’s right, my boy. You’ve shown yourself interested in the treecats, but have you considered that anthropology is more than studying interesting cultures? Sometimes you must also work with those who dominate the area.”

Anders had a sneaking suspicion where this was heading, but he’d long ago learned that it was politic to hear the other person out before jumping to conclusions. He also had a creepy feeling that he now knew why Dr. Whittaker had been so enthusiastic about taking him to Sphinx.


“That’s right. In this case, of course, the ones who dominate the area are not the treecats themselves, although they are the indigenous intelligent species and therefore should have some rights themselves to decide who does and does not have access to them.”

Anders noted with some admiration how Dr. Whittaker could use this complex conclusion—one that, as far as he knew, was not shared by the majority of the residents of Sphinx—to his own advantage. It made Dr. Whittaker sound like the true treecat advocate, not the Forestry Service, who had set themselves up as the treecats’ protectors.

I guess I’m not the only one who has learned something from living with a politician all these years. Now if Dad could only learn to be as nice—as genuinely caring—as Mom, he’d be ahead of the game.

Anders nodded. “Like the treecat who made friends with Stephanie Harrington—Lionheart. He chose to make contact with the humans.”

“Actually, that’s not precisely correct,” Dr. Whittaker said. “‘Lionheart,’ as Ms. Harrington has so quaintly named this treecat, actually was making contact with the greenhouse. All his actions show that he intended to stay away from humans. He showed remarkable ingenuity in avoiding the alarms. Only Ms. Harrington’s admittedly brilliant deduction regarding the wavelengths in which treecats perceived light enabled her to catch a recorded image.”

“But,” Anders protested, “they’ve stayed friends since.”

“Again, Anders, I fear you are jumping to the same romantic conclusions that so many have reached. Lionheart—I do wish we knew what manner of naming conventions treecats use for themselves—actually fled from that initial contact. It was not until Ms. Harrington pursued him, using tracking methods about which she has been very vague, and was injured, that Lionheart came to the rescue. Her actions were irresponsible, putting both herself and the treecat in considerable danger.”

“She saved his life!” Anders said angrily.

“Only after endangering it in the first place. Really, Anders, I thought you were more capable of scientific detachment. Perhaps your mother is correct and you have developed a—romantic attachment, shall we call it?—to the idea of the heroic Stephanie Harrington.”

Anders glowered and bit back a couple dozen things he would have liked to say. Instead, dreading more discussion on this subject, he steered the conversation back to his father’s original statement.

“So, Dad, you said there was something I could do to help out the team?”

Dr. Whittaker brightened. “That’s right. As I was saying, often well-meaning non-indigenous cultures assume a paternalistic attitude regarding what they consider vulnerable primitive cultures.”

“That is,” Anders couldn’t resist saying, “the high-tech newcomers decide to protect those who might suffer otherwise.”

“You are romanticizing again,” Dr. Whittaker replied, waggling one finger at Anders. “Paternalism is not simply protectiveness. As the word—which has its roots in an old word for ‘father’—implies, those who become paternalistic set themselves up in the role of parents, assuming they know better for no other reason than they have more technology and that technology enables them to dominate.”

“So the Sphinx Forestry Service is paternalistic,” Anders summarized.

“Yes,” Dr. Whittaker agreed enthusiastically, “and not merely toward the treecats, but also toward Ms. Harrington herself. You heard Dr. Hobbard’s warning.”

“That didn’t sound protective,” Anders said. “I mean, except maybe of us. Dr. Hobbard was warning us that Ms. Harrington might button up if we pushed her too hard.”

“I can see you are determined not to see things my way,” Dr. Whittaker said. Since this was pretty much the truth, Anders said nothing, but waited for him to continue. “I do not plan to ‘push’ Ms. Harrington. Clearly, this would be a bad tactic. However, it has occurred to me that you are about her own age. She might loosen up around you. Moreover, you are a handsome young man and she is a young lady—a clever young lady, no doubt, but no less a female for all that.”

“You want me to sweet-talk her so she’ll tell us more about the treecats?” Anders didn’t know whether to be indignant or to laugh.

“Befriend her,” Dr. Whittaker said. “Flirt, if that is what you wish. Make her comfortable with us. Let her see us as humans who care as much about the treecats and their well-being as she herself does. Remember. Her initial contact with anthropologists was that fake Tennessee Bolgeo. She may retain some reflex aversion to our profession.”

“So you want me to flirt with her,” Anders said, amazed.

“Befriend her,” Dr. Whittaker pressed. “Or, if you are unwilling, then I believe there is a young man who is also an SFS ‘probationary ranger’—a post created, apparently, to enable the SFS to better control Ms. Harrington. Don’t look at me so disapprovingly. I’m not asking you to seduce the girl. I’m not asking you to do anything more dishonest than what your mother does when she kisses strange babies and hugs little old ladies she’s never met. All I’m asking you to do is be nice.”

Anders didn’t know what to say to that. Anyhow, refusing to talk to Stephanie or this other fellow—Karl something-beginning-with-“Z”—would be really stupid, since, in addition to seeing a treecat himself, there wasn’t anything Anders wanted more. And if he could make his dad happy, earn points as a “team player,” then what was he doing wrong?

“Okay, Dad,” Anders said, putting on his most winning smile, uncomfortably aware of how much it resembled the one on thousands of his mom’s campaign posters, “I see your point. I’ll do what I can to befriend Stephanie Harrington.”

* * *

Climbs Quickly managed to convince Left-Striped and Right-Striped that they would be perfectly safe in the gazebo, but it took some doing. Not only was the gazebo far closer to the ground than a more usual sleeping platform, but it was uncomfortably close to the two-legs’ own dwelling.

In the end, Climbs Quickly thought that Right-Striped’s injuries had as much to do with convincing them to stay as any reassurance he offered. When Right-Striped had been forced to climb the green-needle, the pads of his hand-feet and true-feet had not only been burned, but also had been badly abraded. What skin remained had been blistered and swollen, leaking blood and slime, and in great danger of becoming infected.

Healer’s treatments had minimized the pain and all but eliminated the swelling. However, the false skin he had misted over the injuries would not hold up under the demands of travel.

Then, too, the food Death Fang’s Bane brought them was a selection based on Climbs Quickly’s own favorites. The grand finale of the meal was a fresh piece of cluster-stalk for each of them. This fine and exotic treat brought rhapsodies of delight from the two guests, even bringing Right-Striped out of the silence that had shadowed him long after much of his pain had been alleviated.

Over cluster-stalk, Left-Striped told how they had happened to be so near an area inhabited by two-legs.

<The Damp Ground Clan recently relocated to a fresh central nesting place within our territory. Although this hot, dry weather has not drained the lands beneath our former nesting trees, many of the feeder streams that bring us fish and water crawlers have diminished their flow or dried entirely. Hunting was growing more difficult, since too few ground-runners come into the wetlands to make up the difference.>

The images that accompanied Left-Striped’s words gave Climbs Quickly a fair idea of the area into which the Damp Ground Clan had made their new home. As with all treecat nesting areas, it was well-supplied with the net-wood trees that made travel without touching the ground so easy. He noted that the Damp Ground Clan’s new nesting place also had exceptionally good overhead coverage, supplied in part by association with golden-leaf.

<Yes.> Right-Striped said in response to Climbs Quickly’s unarticulated thought. <One of the reasons the elders of our clan chose this area was that the golden-leaf provides further shelter from the two-legs and their flying things. Our territory is near enough to lands the two-legs have claimed as their own that there has been some disturbance.>

Left-Striped added, <Our new nesting place is not very near where the two-legs live, but some of the best hunting does take us close. My brother and I were scouting the region, checking to see if we could find what routes the two-legs use and gathering some idea of how frequently so our hunters could make appropriate plans.>

Although the People had resolved to be cautious in their interactions with the two-legs, they were also learning that where the two-legs settled, interesting opportunities were to be found. Climbs Quickly himself had taken cluster stalk from their transparent plant places—an act justifiable for a scout, although it would be considered theft if a Person took such from another Person.

However, even if the People would not steal directly from where the two-legs grew their food, it could not be ignored that often the two-legs created secondary food opportunities. Small ground-runners often came to browse at the edges of their planted fields. The two-legs’ practice of leaving out food for the animals they kept also drew scavengers. Some of the plants they grew also migrated outside the areas the two-legs had marked for their own. These were often quite tasty and very robust.

So, although doubtless the elders of the Damp Ground Clan would have argued otherwise, Right-Striped and Left-Striped had been sent to scout the forests near to where the two-legs had staked a claim precisely because the two-legs were there.

Climbs Quickly did not blame them, although he was growing a bit weary of how the People could fill their mouths with cluster stalk while their minds denied the value of those who had brought it.

He bleeked amusement as he tasted Left-Striped’s—Right-Striped had drifted off into a doze—awareness of the irony.

* * *

The next morning, Death Fang’s Bane’s actions made clear that she and Shadowed Sunlight were heading off again. Climbs Quickly debated staying behind to continue visiting with Left-Striped and Right-Striped. He thought his presence might reassure them that it was safe to remain in the gazebo. However, beneath the excitement in Death Fang’s Bane’s mind-glow was a sense of uneasiness. He could not read her thoughts, but he knew the taste of this particular emotion and knew it had much to do with her relationship with the People.

Time and again, Climbs Quickly had sat with his two-leg, reassuring her as she answered question after question. From her gestures and a few words—as well as the taste of her mind-glow—he knew when the People were the subject. There was a special note that entered into her mind-glow during some of these discussions. It reminded Climbs Quickly somewhat of the feeling of stalking or scouting—as if she was being very, very careful, as a hunter took care not to break a twig lest the prey hear and flee. Or as if she was scouting some dangerous creature, like a death fang or snow hunter, and knew that a slip might mean disaster.

For these reasons, although he would have enjoyed relaxing with these members of another clan—especially after the exertions of the previous day—he decided to join Death Fang’s Bane and Shadowed Sunlight when they departed that morning.

This time, Climbs Quickly noted with amusement, there was no question as to who was operating the air car. Despite their traveling above the trees and at a high speed, Shadowed Sunlight slid down one of the transparent panels for Climbs Quickly without being asked, but Climbs Quickly did not enjoy the ride as much as he usually did. His thoughts were too full of the implications of change.

* * *

When Karl brought down the air car at the familiar SFS regional headquarters complex, Stephanie noticed that several vehicles were already parked in the visitors’ area.

“Dr. Whittaker and his team must already be here,” she said, gathering Lionheart into her arms and hugging him. Surely Dad wouldn’t mind if she carried him just a short distance.

“Ready?” Karl asked.

“You bet,” Stephanie replied.

Inside, they were immediately directed to a conference room off to one side of the building. The room was large—it doubled as a lecture hall—but today seemed quite crowded. It smelled strongly of coffee—the beverage favored by the hard-working SFS staff—but there were under-notes that promised other options. When Lionheart bleeked in delight and strained in the direction of the refreshment table set up to one side of the room, Stephanie suspected the presence of celery.

“Little pig,” she whispered. “You had some just last night!”

But she knew she’d give in. She suspected that Lionheart liked meetings as little as she did. She appreciated his company—and the support he gave her could go far beyond the comfort offered by a warm, furry body to hold.

She set Lionheart on the long table that bisected the room. Frank Lethbridge, one of the two rangers who had been assigned to train her and Karl, was the first to intercept her, but others quickly followed.

In addition to several representatives of the SFS, including Chief Ranger Gary Shelton himself, Dr. Sanura Hobbard was attending. Stephanie knew Dr. Hobbard all too well. At first she’d found the professor somewhat annoying, but now she had come to respect her devotion to careful and responsible study of other cultures. Eventually, they’d even come to a sort of compromise as to what Dr. Hobbard would and would not publish about the treecats.

As Stephanie politely greeted those she knew, sharing with Karl a mixture of ribbing and congratulations for their heroics during the fire the day before, she was very aware of the large group that clustered at one end of the room, clearly waiting to be introduced.

The group was dominated by an extremely tall, broad man. Somehow he gave Stephanie the impression of being made all of curves: the dome of his balding head, the arc of a budding gut, a round smoothness to his heavy, muscular limbs. This proved to be Dr. Bradford Whittaker himself.

When they were introduced, Dr. Whittaker shook Stephanie’s hand. He gained a point in her estimation by neither patting nor poking Lionheart, but instead offering the treecat a little bow by way of greeting.

“This,” Dr. Whittaker said, “is my chief assistant, Dr. Langston Nez.”

Dr. Nez proved to be shorter than average, built along planes instead of curves. His most noticeable features were untidy brown hair that stood up in spikes, as if he ran his hands through it frequently, and bushy eyebrows from under which green eyes—darker than Lionheart’s but no less alert—watched like animals from a forest.

Dr. Whittaker went on. “This is our linguistics specialist, Kesia Guyen.”

No “doctor” in front of this one’s name, Stephanie noticed. A graduate student, then, but certainly one who was done with classes and now working on her dissertation.

Kesia Guyen had lovely rich chocolate-brown skin and wore her hair in swirling curls that framed a face that seemed to find seriousness difficult. She had a rounded figure with breasts that could do double-duty as platforms, and full hips. Her clothing showed a penchant for bright colors, sashes, and jewelry, but Stephanie didn’t think that this was a Trudy-like effort to emphasize her physical assets, more as if Kesia found life colorful and didn’t mind showing it.

“Delighted!” Kesia said when Stephanie said she was happy to meet her, “Enchanted! So very, very happy to meet you both.”

She might have said more, but Dr. Whittaker continued.

“This is Dr. Calida Emberly.” He indicated a woman quite a bit older than the others, older even than himself, for she was easily in her mid-fifties. “She is our xenobiologist. Her first concentration was in zoology, but she also holds degrees in xenobotany.”

Dr. Emberly extended a long-boned hand. “I’ve read several of your mother’s papers. I hope to get to chat with Dr. Harrington while we’re here.”

Stephanie liked Dr. Emberly instantly. “I’m sure she’d be happy to meet you. She’s always glad to hear other people’s thoughts.”

Dr. Emberly possessed a hawklike profile that made her seem very stern, but when she smiled, the hawk took wing. She wasn’t nearly as tall as Dr. Whittaker, but her slender, lithe build made her seem taller. Her hair was either silvered or platinum blond—Stephanie couldn’t be sure which—and she wore it long, in a thick braid intertwined with a contrasting violet silk cord. Stephanie admired this touch of vanity on a woman who otherwise might be dismissed as plain. It gave her character.

I wonder if Dr. Whittaker waited to introduce her because, in a lot of ways, she probably outranks him, Stephanie thought. He seems like that sort.

“Finally,” Dr. Whittaker said, “we have Virgil Iwamoto. He’s our lithics specialist. He’s also an expert on the latest in field methods.”

Iwamoto was the youngest of the group, probably in his mid-twenties. His face showed a distinct Asian influence that expressed itself in brown, almond-shaped eyes and small, neat features framed by silky black hair. He wore a short, tidy beard and seemed anxious.

“Pleased to meet you,” he said in a soft, pleasant voice.

“Let me see,” Dr. Whittaker said with a curious smile. “There’s one other person I’d like you to meet.”

He looked around, finding the one he sought at the end of the refreshments table, where he had apparently just filled a cup with coffee.

“I’d like you and Karl to meet an unofficial but important member of our team,” Dr. Whittaker said, the words rolling out as if he was making a speech. “Over there, hiding behind Dr. Emberly, is my son, Anders Whittaker.”

Anders turned and almost sheepishly toasted Stephanie and Karl with his coffee mug.

“Hi,” he said. “I’ve read a lot about you both. Glad to meet you.”

Stephanie knew she said something in reply. She could feel the words buzzing in her throat, but somehow she wanted to say something more than “Glad to meet you, too.”

Anders Whittaker was, simply put, the most compelling young man Stephanie had ever met. It wasn’t just his dark blue eyes, large enough to lose yourself in, or the thick wheat-colored hair that he wore gathered in a neat ponytail at the base of his neck. It was the shape of his mouth, the way it quirked in a sideways smile that invited you to join in on some unspoken joke. It was the rose-and-ivory glow of his unexpectedly fair skin—his father was several shades darker. Anders was already tall, taking after his father in that, but where Dr. Whittaker seemed to be made of curves, Anders was lean and supple.

Stephanie was saved from gaping stupidly by Chief Ranger Shelton saying, “If we could all grab drinks, then take seats, I’d like to get this gathering underway. Sadly, I have a meeting regarding yesterday’s fire that’s going to pull me away, but I’d like to get things started.”

While all the predictable things were said—Dr. Whittaker holding forth on how very happy he was to be there and how proud he was to have been selected for this important, groundbreaking study, Dr. Hobbard and Chief Ranger Shelton responding in kind—Stephanie fought to keep her attention on what was being said. She wanted to move to where she could get a better look at Anders, see if he was maybe smiling one of those quirky smiles as the adults said all the things they already knew, but wanted to get on the record.

After Chief Ranger Shelton left, the mood immediately became less formal. Chairs were pushed back. Several people rose to refill their drinks.

Karl was one of these. “More cocoa, Steph?”

“Uh, sure.” She blushed. That had really sounded polished, hadn’t it?

“Bleek!” Lionheart said. The SFS staff had provided him with a stool so that he could sit next to Stephanie and still comfortably see over the table. When Stephanie had gotten her cocoa, she’d brought him some cubes of cheese, but she had no doubt what he was asking for now.

“Not really a good idea,” she said.

“Is he asking for celery?” said Dr. Emberly, the woman who had been introduced as the xenobiologist.

Stephanie smiled ruefully. “He is. He’s known it was here since we walked into the room—heck, he probably knew as soon as we got into the building. From what we can tell, treecats have a wonderfully sharp sense of smell.”

“Is it all right if I give him some?” asked Virgil Iwamoto.

Stephanie considered. “Well, Lionheart had some celery just last night, so he shouldn’t have too much. Treecats are more carnivores than omnivores and . . .”

She wished she hadn’t started in on this, but having done so, she pushed on, inelegant though the subject might be. She hoped Anders didn’t think she was being crass or crude.

“. . . Well, it makes them constipated if they eat too much of it. Lionheart had some real problems when he first came to live with us, but Dad figured out the problem. Now I give Lionheart doses of what’s basically cod-liver oil a couple times a week. Since he likes fish, it isn’t too much trouble.”

“Interesting,” said Dr. Emberly. “Extra fiber usually gives terrestrial animals gas. Eating it helps eliminate blockage. I wonder what the difference is in the metabolisms?”

She looked as if she would very much like to be given a treecat to dissect, but since Stephanie had heard her father say similar things, she recognized scientific fervor when she heard it.

Watching Lionheart make his messy way through the helping of celery sticks Iwamoto slid over to him broke the ice amazingly. Questions rained down from all sides. Karl—whose uncle by marriage, Scott MacDallan, had also been adopted by a treecat—helped answer them.

“What else does Lionheart eat?”

“Just about what the wild treecats do. We try to make certain he gets a healthy, balanced diet, but he does eat with the rest of us, so he’s developed rather esoteric tastes.”

Karl added, “Fisher and Lionheart do have different preferences. Fisher really loves fish. Lionheart seems to prefer poultry or red meat.”

“Will the treecats eat celery to the exclusion of everything else?” This was from Dr. Nez, the cultural anthropologist.

“You mean, do they get addicted?” Stephanie asked back, hearing her voice sharpening.

She’d been asked this before, and knew that there were some humans who thought that the “pet” treecats stayed with humans more for access to this delicacy than out of affection—like a drug addict hanging around a pusher.

She went on before Dr. Nez could clarify his question. “No. They don’t get addicted—at least the treecats I’ve known don’t seem to be. They just like it a whole lot. It’s like my mom and chocolate. She can go without it, but offer her a slice of apple pie or a slice of chocolate torte and she’ll take the chocolate every time.”

Ranger Lethbridge chuckled. “I’ll second that. I’d say there are some members of the SFS who are more addicted to coffee than any treecat is to celery, but that doesn’t mean I’d leave a bunch of celery unsupervised when Fisher and Scott come to call—not if I expect to find it left untouched.”

There were more questions about diet, which segued pretty naturally into matters of food gathering and hunting. Stephanie and Karl could handle most of these questions without violating their sense of what was right. For the questions they didn’t choose to answer—Stephanie never gave away quite how often she and Lionheart went to visit Lionheart’s extended family—one of the SFS rangers could offer at least a partial answer.

After the fiasco with Tennessee Bolgeo, there had been two treecats in need of care and rehabilitation before they could be returned to their clan. Stephanie and Karl had helped with that, but it hadn’t been too long before the treecats had returned to Lionheart’s clan. There had been another case when a human had done considerable harm to treecats. In that case, an entire clan had come close to being wiped out. The SFS had helped however they could, relocating the ’cats and even giving them food and tools.

After they relocated the treecats, the SFS didn’t quite snoop, but they did take some long-range films. However, since the treecats lived in the shelter of the picketwood, satellite downlook was out for all but chance spottings. The microbugs that had been attached to ears or skin were meticulously groomed out of existence. Attempts to plant observation mini-cameras in known treecat colonies had ended with a series of mysterious accidents to expensive equipment.

Or not so mysterious, Stephanie thought, once you realize that Lionheart and a couple of the others figured out what those cameras were and passed the information along.

Eventually, the voice Stephanie had been longing to hear again without consciously realizing it spoke. His voice was clear, but there was a sense of hesitancy as well.

“Lionheart was really badly hurt,” Anders said. “He lost one true-hand entirely. Even with his fur grown back, you can see the other scars. Could he go back to being a wild ’cat if he wanted?”

Stephanie always hated this question because it implied that—like one of those birds who had a badly broken wing and so couldn’t be set free again—that Lionheart was a captive because of injuries he had taken protecting her.

She felt Karl stiffen slightly where he sat next to her, his foot moving to press against hers in a reminder to keep her temper. This time, though, maybe because Anders had asked so gently, the question didn’t sting as it usually did.

“I think Lionheart could,” Stephanie said. “He’d have to be careful. He doesn’t climb quite as fast or run as well as I’ve seen other treecats do, but he has adapted. The middle set of limbs are basically—as far as we can tell, anyhow—used for expanding options. Treecats can run like centaurs, but still have their hands free. Or they can manipulate things with two sets of hands while standing on their back legs. Or they can run all-out on all six limbs. Basically, Lionheart’s lost a few options, but he’s not as crippled as a human would be even if that human had lost only a couple of fingers.”

Karl, apparently not trusting this unexpected calm and wanting to give Stephanie a chance to collect herself, added, “Also, treecats are social. We haven’t had a lot of opportunities to observe their community interactions, but we have plenty of evidence that they help each other.”

He went on to tell about how Left-Striped had held Right-Striped in the burning near-pine. “Left-Striped did that,” Karl continued, “even though any chance of rescue was pretty slim. I’d say Lionheart would have plenty of support from his clan if he chose to go back.”

To a one, the anthropologists were eager for more details about this most recent treecat contact. This rescue, as well as the evidence of mirror twins among the treecats, was new material.

“It’s lucky you two came along,” Dr. Whittaker said, “or was it entirely luck?”

“Lionheart probably smelled the smoke,” Stephanie said. “He likes to hang out the air-car window if we’re not going too fast.”

She went on to tell that part of the story, leaving out only that she had been piloting and that was why they’d been going so slowly. No one asked. Probably they figured she and Karl were doing some sort of sample survey. Not all SFS work was as glamorous as fighting fires.

“Was it Lionheart who led you to the others? Do you think he used that empathy or telepathy or whatever it is that they have?”

Again, the questioner was Anders, eager and wide-eyed. A few passing comments during the more general discussion had shown he really was pretty well-informed about treecats. Again, because it was him, Stephanie found herself answering maybe a little more freely than she might have otherwise.

“Lionheart did seem to sense them first,” she said. “It’s pretty clear treecats have means of communicating with each other that we don’t understand. The empathy seems clear. However, it’s possible that they have some manner of verbal communication we haven’t figured out, as well.”

She offered a winning smile to Kesia Guyen, the team’s linguist. “Maybe you’ll be able to figure out things we’ve missed.”

Ms. Guyen looked both pleased and concerned. “Well, that’s not going to be easy unless I have an opportunity to observe a colony or clan—at least some larger group—in action, and I believe that sort of thing is frowned upon these days.”

Ranger Lethbridge cut in. “We have hours of recordings of the clan we helped out after the Ubel affair. Hours upon hours of material that has never been out of our archives. Lots of it is of sick treecats sleeping. Once the danger of infection was gone, knowing they’re social creatures, we kept as many of them together as we could.”

Dr. Hobbard chuckled. “It’s seriously boring material. Definitely not for publication. However, if you want to watch it . . .”

Guyen nodded eagerly. “I’d love that. You’d be amazed at what you can learn from ‘dull’ stuff like that. They might have a gesture language to augment sound. Or they might be communicating in frequencies you didn’t think to check.”

Under the cover of the technical discussion of the recordings that followed, Stephanie sneaked a glance at Anders. To her embarrassment, she found he was looking right at her.

She knew she blushed up to the tops of her ears and felt relieved that her genotype hadn’t mixed to make her as fair as him. The conversation swirled on around her, but for the first time since she had discovered the treecats, Stephanie Harrington found there was something at least as fascinating to occupy her attention.

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