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Chapter Two

“So you see, Mom,” Stephanie ended her summary of the meeting with Chief Ranger Shelton, “it’s a terrific honor. What do you think?”

Marjorie Harrington tucked a lock of curly brown hair behind one ear before answering, a gesture that meant she was deep in thought. Her hazel-brown eyes had held only interested curiosity as Stephanie told her about Chief Ranger Shelton’s offer. Now the keen mind that spliced and diced genes of just about anything that grew was at work on the pros and cons of her daughter’s newest opportunity.

Needless to say, Stephanie had told her father about the offer on their flight out to the Harrington freehold. Not to do so would have been uncharacteristic, and the last thing Stephanie wanted either of her parents to guess was how undecided she herself was. From her father’s response, Stephanie had a pretty good idea what her mother would say. She wasn’t disappointed.

“Download the information to my computer, would you? I’ll want to review it myself, then talk with your father. How do you feel about it, Steph?”

“I’m excited,” Stephanie said. “It’s a huge opportunity. Still…. Three months on Manticore is a long time. Manticore’s not at all like Sphinx.”

Marjorie nodded. “And, strangely enough, that might be the best reason for you to go. I know you’re madly in love with Sphinx, but it might be a good idea for you to see something of other planets before you get pot-bound here. You didn’t like Sphinx much at first, remember?”

“Mom! That was in winter! Now I’ve had a spring and a summer and we’re moving into autumn.”

“And winter will come again.”

“Yes, but now I know so much more about Sphinx that I’m almost looking forward to winter. I can’t wait to see how the animals and plants deal with all that snow. Before, I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere unless you or Dad were along, remember?”

“You were only ten,” came her mother’s mild reply.


“Still, Stephanie, the more I think about it, the better it seems that you spend some time on another planet. I’m not saying I’m giving permission, mind you, just that I can see some good points. You’re just a wee bit obsessive—I can’t think where you might have gotten that trait; certainly your father and I are never the least bit obsessive—and it would be good to give you some balance.”

Since Stephanie knew both her parents were perfectly capable of being quite focused—her mother had been known to spend entire nights without sleep waiting for some rare blossom to open so she could collect pollen—she knew she was being teased. Still, she couldn’t quell a certain uneasiness. She’d counted on at least one of her parents being somewhat resistant to the idea, just in case she decided to back out, but so far both had been surprisingly receptive. She wondered if—despite what he’d said—Chief Ranger Shelton might have dropped a hint or two.

“I’ll com that information from my uni-link to your computer,” Stephanie said. “Can I help with dinner or anything?”

“That would be great…”

For the rest of the evening, talk was pointedly centered on domestic matters. Eventually, Stephanie excused herself.

“I’m supposed to show Dacey that waterfall of Jessica’s she wants to paint tomorrow,” she reminded them. “She and Anders picking me up pretty early, so I need to get some sleep.”

“You’re coming back early enough to talk this over, though, right?” Richard said. “Since we need to give SFS our answer, a family conference would be in order.”

“Absolutely,” Stephanie said. “I don’t see that there’ll be any problem with my getting back in time.”

Up in the privacy of her room, Stephanie considered screening Jessica. In the end, she decided that while her own feelings were so unsettled, even talking to her best friend wouldn’t help a lot. Instead, she sat at her desk for a long time, thinking over her options while a slideshow of her favorite holo images from the time she’d spent with Anders marched across her desk. When she eventually tumbled into bed, the same images—animated and making cryptic statements—marched through her dreams. Stephanie thought that somewhere in what they said was the answer she needed, but when she awoke at dawn the dream images fell mute and only the uncertainty remained.

* * *

“Hi, Dr. Richard,” Anders said when Stephanie’s dad opened the door to the big, rambling stone house. “Is Stephanie ready?”

“Good morning to you, Anders,” Dr. Harrington replied. “Steph ran upstairs to get something. Can I offer you some coffee?”

“Dacey and I already had some,” Anderson said, “but I could use a bit more. Were you up all night again?”

The veterinarian nodded as he led the way to the kitchen. “Saleem called from the clinic. We have two nipper-hoppers with some sort of respiratory infection and one went into crisis. Probably reaction to the antibiotic. I didn’t have to fly in—Saleem’s a good vet himself—but we were in consultation until we pulled the patient through.”

“You did then?” Anders accepted the large mug of steaming hot coffee and sipped it gratefully. Stephanie preferred sweets, but he liked a bit of bitter. “Congratulations!”

“Thanks. I think they’ll both make it, but sometimes I long for the days when my practice consisted of dogs and cats, and remedies tested by centuries of care.”

Anders grinned. He knew Dr. Harrington was being melodramatic. The truth was that he was a trained xeno-veterinarian who’d treated a lot of non-Terrestrial creatures even back on Meyerdahl.

He heard the sound of Stephanie spilling down the stairs at her usual breakneck pace. A moment later she burst into the kitchen, Lionheart loping with sinuous grace beside her, her travel pack swinging from one hand.

“Sorry, Anders. I realized I’d forgotten to bring those extra nets I have for your dad.”

As always, Anders found his heart giving a joyful leap when he saw Stephanie Harrington. He knew she didn’t think much of her looks. She thought she was too short, that her hair was too curly and too boringly brown. He knew—more from watching Stephanie’s reactions than because she’d actually admitted it—that she envied girls with more curvaceous figures like Jessica or Trudy. He’d tried and tried to tell Stephanie that curvy figures were all right, but how to explain to a girl that she reminded you of an eagle lofting on a breeze or a deer leaping with lithe grace? It just didn’t come out like you meant it to, especially when the girl’s dad was a vet and she tended to think of animals from a very practical perspective.

“Dad will be really pleased to have those nets,” Anders assured her without adding “if he’s allowed to come back to Sphinx.” That was something he and Stephanie had decided by unspoken agreement not to discuss. “He never gets tired of comparing one physical artifact to another,” Anders went on, “even if they all look pretty much the same to most of us.”

“Great!” Stephanie said, turning to give her dad a quick hug. “I’ll be back for dinner. Remind Mom not to tell Jessica, okay? I want to do it myself.”

“Right,” Dr. Harrington said. “I will.”

Anders thought this last exchange was very odd. Over the last six months, Stephanie and Jessica had gotten so close that sometimes he was just a little bit jealous. He guessed their closeness had to do with the fact that both had been adopted by treecats, but maybe it was just that they were girls. Either way—even though they didn’t spend all that much time giggling over clothes or hairstyles—there were times he felt distinctly left out. What wouldn’t Stephanie tell the other girl?

Maybe it’s near Jess’ birthday or something, he thought, and Stephanie is present shopping. He resolved to ask later. Jessica Pheriss had become his friend, too, and he wouldn’t want to miss her birthday.

“Can I help with any of that junk?” he asked Stephanie as they headed towards where he’d parked the rented air car.

“I’ve got it,” she assured him. “It’s less awkward than it looks, really.”

Anders didn’t protest. He’d gotten used to the fact that, tiny as she was, Stephanie was a lot stronger than he was. She moved easily in Sphinx’s 1.35 gravity without needing the counter-grav unit that Anders wore day and night, sleeping and waking. He supposed it didn’t bother him because Stephanie would be the first to remind him that she hadn’t done anything to earn that extra strength. The Harringtons were all genies—genetically modified humans. Their home planet of Meyerdahl had cultivated several variations, all meant to help humans deal with environments for which the unaugmented human form was not intended. Anders didn’t know the full extent of those modifications, but he did know that Stephanie was strong and tough. She healed well, too. He didn’t know if Stephanie’s intelligence—she was scary smart—was a result of genetic modifications, too, or just good luck. After all, both her parents were obviously smart.

There were drawbacks to Stephanie’s mutations, of course. The most obvious was that she had a huge appetite. Most of the time that meant she simply munched away without putting on an extra ounce, but there had been that time they’d been hiking and the extra food bars they’d brought along had been ruined when a pack fell into a stream. If Lionheart hadn’t come up with some peculiar looking nuts, Stephanie would have suffered.

Anders knew from personal experience that it was a good thing humans could eat a lot of what grew on Sphinx. Of course, if humans only ate foods native to Sphinx, they would eventually suffer from dietary deficiencies. But the compatibility meant that the planet—despite its high gravity and relatively cool climate—was actually pretty friendly to humans. Friendly, that was, until something surged out of a bog and tried to eat you….

Anders grinned at the memory. Adventure was definitely more fun afterwards than when it was happening.

The air car was empty when they got to it, but Anders wasn’t surprised.

“Dacey?” he called.

“Up here, just a sec. I saw something I wanted to sketch.”

He and Stephanie looked up in time to see a tall, skinny, older woman drifting from the lower boughs of one of the many crown oaks that ornamented the area surrounding the Harringtons’ house. She adjusted her counter-grav unit just shy of the ground and came to a light landing that spoke of a lot of experience using the device.

“Good morning, Stephanie,” Dacey Emberly said cheerfully. “I hope your parents don’t mind, but the light drifting down through the leaves—especially with the leaves turning that particular golden shade—was too much for me.”

Stephanie grinned and stowed her pack in the air car. Lionheart leapt up and in, settling into one of the window seats and bleeking to have the window opened a crack so he could sniff out. Anders moved into the driver’s seat and complied with the treecat’s request.

“The autumn color’s too much for Mom, too,” Stephanie said. “This is only our second real autumn here on Sphinx, and we got here late last autumn, just as winter was coming on. Mom’s making sketches or taking images every free moment. She wants to fill out her series of season paintings.”

“I know,” Dacey agreed. “And I understand, too. We’ve been here for nearly a full T-year, and as far as I’m concerned, Sphinx exists in a sort of eternal late summer, though the color shifts in the trees these last couple of T-months are making me believe in autumn.”

“If you’re still here,” Stephanie laughed, “I can tell you, you’ll seriously believe in winter. Take my word for that!”

The flight to the waterfall she’d described to Dacey was filled with conversation comparing Sphinx and Meyerdahl to Urako and to several planets Dacey had lived on during her long life. Eventually, Anders brought the air car down into the clearing Stephanie indicated and they piled out.

“It still another couple of kilometers that way,” Stephanie said, pointing to the northeast. “Sorry I couldn’t find you a landing spot closer than this.”

“We’ll manage,” Dacey assured her, watching as Stephanie checked the enormous pistol holstered at her right hip.

Anders had acquired the Sphinxian habit of always carrying a weapon in the bush, as well, although he preferred a rather more modest-sized gun, and he was busy checking his own pistol. Dacey, on the other hand, knew her limits. She had no expertise with firearms and no real desire to acquire it. If something with lots of teeth and claws came along, she’d do her bit by getting nimbly out of the way and letting Stephanie deal with it.

“Let’s go,” Stephanie said, shouldering her pack, and started off through the picketwood along the trail she’d marked on her and Lionheart’s last visit.

Anders and Dacey followed her, and she heard them discussing Calida Emberly’s most recent meeting with Patricia Helton, Governor Donaldson’s chief of staff. It was clear from Helton’s attitude that Donaldson’s nose was still out of joint over Dr. Whitaker’s actions, but he seemed to be settling down at least a little. The fact that Dr. Whitaker had been off Sphinx for almost five months might have something to do with that, she thought.

It felt a little strange to realize that Anders’ father had been back in the Kenichi System for almost two months by now. She wondered how he’d made out defending his activities on Sphinx? He struck her as the sort who would be able to evade his fellow academics’ condemnation, but what if he hadn’t? Even if he managed to use his connections to nab another fast courier boat for his return to the Star Kingdom, he couldn’t possibly be back here for another month, so there was a little time left with Anders, no matter what happened. But what if he did come back only to collect Anders and return to Urako University in disgrace? If he had to make the trip by regular passenger ship, she and Anders had at least another five or six months before he disappeared back to Kenichi. But if he did get passage back on a courier boat, Anders could be headed home to Urako before Stephanie even got back from Manticore!

Worrying about it won’t change it, she told herself tartly, eyes and ears alert for any possible threat. Lionheart was pacing them, flowing through the picketwood a good fifteen meters above the ground, and she trusted him to spot potential dangers well before she did, but that didn’t excuse her from the responsibility of looking out for herself and her companions, as well.

She thought about the Whitaker expedition as they hiked along. Assuming Dr. Whitaker was allowed to return, his staff would be rather different, and she thought that might help. She suspected that what had happened six months ago might actually have cured him of thinking he knew how to handle everything better than anyone else—nearly getting eaten by a swamp siren should provide a wake-up call for almost anyone. And the fact that he would no longer be as surrounded by people dependent on him for their careers would probably be good for him, too.

Virgil Iwamoto had resigned as Dr. Whitaker’s chief assistant and managed to secure passage for himself and Peony Rose, his pregnant wife, aboard a starship headed for Beowulf about a month after Dr. Whitaker’s departure by courier boat. Modern medical and technological improvements meant that pregnancies in high gravity weren’t as risky as they had once been, but Anders had told her Virgil and Peony Rose were both concerned. Besides, they probably wanted to be near their families at this exciting time in their lives, and they’d barely get home in time for the birth, as it was.

Whether out of gratitude or because he was aware that Virgil could ruin his reputation if he chose to share certain stories, Dr. Whitaker had released him from his contract and given him the highest marks. He’d also granted Virgil permission to use expedition data to complete his dissertation, Anders had said, assuring that the document would get a lot of attention.

With Virgil’s departure, Calida had become the senior member of the expedition in the Star Kingdom, although it seemed probable that Kesia Guyen would step into Virgil’s place when—and if—Dr. Whitaker was allowed to return. Since Kesia’s specialization was linguistics and the treecats were being remarkably stubborn about providing her anything to work with, she’d decided to expand her expertise. It turned out the the type of mind that easily organized tiny details of word order and grammatical rules also did very well in categorizing the minutia of an alien culture. Making matters better all around, Kesia’s husband, John Qin, had made some profitable business contacts within the Star Kingdom. Unlike Virgil, who’d been all too aware of his dependence on his mentor, Kesia—eager to succeed in her field, but buffered by her husband’s increased prominence—was unlikely to be the least intimidated by her boss. And from all Stephanie had seen, the other two PhDs on the expedition—Calida and Dr. Nez—seemed to view it as part of their job to make sure the assessment of the treecats’ possible sentience went beyond examining the flint tools, nets, pots, baskets, and shelters that made up their material culture, which should serve as another brake on Dr. Whitaker’s occasional bouts of excessive enthusiasm.

If he comes back, and Governor Donaldson and Minister Vásquez let him stay, he’ll behave himself better this time, she thought with a mental smile.

* * *

Anders hiked along behind Dacey, bringing up the rear and trying to emulate Stephanie’s obvious alertness. He envied the way she seemed so completely at home here in the bush, striding along with the easy grace of her genetically engineered muscles and constantly aware of every sound, every flicker of light. This was exactly the world she’d been born to live on, he thought, and hoped his dad’s past actions weren’t going to get all of them permanently exiled from it after all.

He didn’t much like thinking about that possibility, but it had occupied his mind more and more of late. It had been frustrating, to say the very least, to find himself stuck on Manticore until Dacey managed to convince Calida to return to Sphinx. Letters and vids just weren’t the same thing as face-to-face conversations, although he did have to admit that he would always treasure the memory of the rib-popping hug Stephanie had bestowed when they finally did return. And whatever happened, they’d have at least another three or four months together, he reminded himself. And on the same planet, this time!

He smiled at the thought, and the smile broadened as he anticipated having her to himself for a change. Dacey would disappear into her sketch pad as soon as they reached the waterfall Stephanie had described, and that would give him a chance to sit and talk with Stephanie in the sort of privacy they seldom enjoyed.

Usually, when Stephanie guided him or other members of the expedition in the bush, Karl came along, as well. Anders liked Karl quite a lot, but the older boy was an intimidating presence. Like Stephanie, he often moved around without the need for a counter-grav unit. However, in Karl’s case, the ability owed nothing to genetic modification and a great deal to sheer stubbornness. Karl had the determination of a nativeborn Sphinxian to be able to move about on his home planet without being constantly dependent on a counter-grav unit. Anders had been on Sphinx long enough to know that not every Sphinxian made that difficult choice, which added to his respect for Karl.

The fact was that Anders wasn’t at all sure how Karl felt about him—Anders—and his increasingly important role in Stephanie’s life. From various things he’d overheard—and from various things Stephanie herself had let drop—Anders had learned that after the Harringtons moved to Sphinx, Stephanie had resisted making friends among people her own age. She’d managed with her own company and—later on—that of Lionheart, supplemented by corresponding with people she met on the net through classes or clubs. If her parents hadn’t pretty much forced her to join the hang-gliding club, Stephanie probably wouldn’t have met anyone her own age at all. Then a couple of rangers had talked the Harringtons into having Stephanie take lessons in how to use a variety of firearms. Karl had been brought in to act as tutor, since the rangers couldn’t always be available. It had turned out they shared interests in a lot more than target shooting, and Karl had become Stephanie’s first real friend on Sphinx.

Anders knew Steph liked Karl but thought of him as a buddy rather than anything else. What he couldn’t figure out was how Karl felt about Stephanie. There had been a few times early on when Anders thought he was being given “keep off” signals, but then Karl had seemed to accept that Stephanie would make her own mind up in matters romantic, the way she did about everything else.

Even so, when a couple of times Karl had come upon them when they couldn’t have been doing anything other than kissing, Anders had thought he saw jealousy—or maybe just protectiveness—flash in Karl’s dark eyes.

Thinking about Karl reminded Anders of the other complication in his developing relationship with Stephanie. That was her link with Lionheart. The ’cat was far more than a pet. Anders thought that anyone who bothered to spend time with the ’cats would come to the conclusion that they were intelligent—although that intelligence had taken a somewhat different shape than it did in humans. Even someone who, like Dr. Whitaker, preferred to make assessments of a race based on its material culture had decided the ’cats were intelligent. Really, the only question that remained—at least as Anders saw it—was where on the sentience scale the treecats would end up being placed.

However, Stephanie had confided in Anders something that far fewer people had had the opportunity to learn. She was certain the ’cats were at least telempathic. She was less certain—but still pretty positive—that they were telepathic, as well. Anders had to agree that something was going on with the treecats that didn’t lend itself to visual confirmation. He’d seen how Lionheart seemed aware of the flow of Stephanie’s emotions. He’d also become pretty certain that Lionheart could read people other than Stephanie—although he wasn’t sure if the ’cat got the same amount of detail from anyone else. Stephanie claimed that Lionheart was a really good judge of character. He liked Anders, didn’t he? But he’d taken a strong dislike to another off-worlder, Tennessee Bolgeo, right off.

As to whether the cats were telepathic…Anders thought Stephanie was probably right. He’d had opportunities to observe Lionheart and Valiant acting in concert when the action in question implied a whole lot more information was being exchanged than could be held in some sort of emotional burst. One of the best examples was when Valiant—who shared Jessica’s interest in gardening—had reached for a specific tool, one Jessica had borrowed a few moments before. Lionheart had loped over, retrieved the tool from Jessica, and handed it to Valiant. There’d been no exchange of sounds. Valiant hadn’t even turned around, so there couldn’t have been any of the body language signals Kesia had thought might substitute for more complex vocalizations.

All of this made Anders less than comfortable when he was alone with Stephanie and things were getting…romantic. Were the two of them really alone? How much did the treecat share in Stephanie’s reactions? How much did he feel of Anders’ own reactions? Anders was determined to keep his and Stephanie’s mutual explorations within Stephanie’s comfort range, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t had thoughts, some of them pretty detailed and pretty graphic.

It was bad enough to think that Lionheart might sense some of what he was thinking, but what if the treecat shared those feelings with Stephanie? What would she think of Anders? Would she be enticed or horrified? Could the treecat somehow contaminate or influence their feelings for each other?

Such conjectures were enough to make Anders stop short every time he got a bit carried away, even when he was pretty sure Stephanie wouldn’t mind trying a little bit more. Now, just thinking about what Lionheart might or might not know was enough to make Anders hot under the collar.

He shook his head, smiling at himself, and concentrated on paying attention to his surroundings.

* * *

“It’s gorgeous, Stephanie!” Dacey Emberly exclaimed as they came to the foot of the waterfall.

It plunged over a precipice ninety meters above them, plummeting down in a single long spill, flanked by two secondary falls that descended in a series of roaring cataracts. The seething pool at the base of the cliff was at least fifty meters across, its surface perpetually dimpled by fine drops condensing back out of the falls’ spray. The river was twenty meters across where it flowed away from them, brawling through a forest of rapids and sliding down deep, glassy smooth chutes between mossgrown boulders. The backdrop of trees and undergrowth—most of it the distinctive deep blue-green of summer red spruce but touched here and there with paintbrush kisses of autumn—framed it in a rich, luxuriant tangle of color.

It was just a bit difficult to hear Dacey over the steady, unremitting thunder of the falls, but her expression was all Stephanie had hoped for.

“Jessica was the one who spotted it, really,” she told the older woman. “She and I were mapping the freehold’s plant diversity from the air for Mom. You wouldn’t think something that tall would be hard to see, but those crown oaks”—she pointed back over her shoulder—“do a really good job of hiding it from the air unless you hit the angle just right.”

“It’s spectacular,” Dacey said, head swiveling as she absorbed the falls’ entire impact. “And speaking of crown oaks, I think that might be my best vantage point. If that’s all right with you, of course, Probationary Ranger Harrington!”

She smiled broadly, and Stephanie chuckled.

“I think it’s probably perfectly safe,” she replied. “Look—Lionheart’s already checking it out!” She pointed, and Dacey followed her finger to see the cream-and-gray blur of the treecat swarming up the tallest of the crown oaks. “We’ll just make sure nothing’s hanging around up there to eat any of us, and then Anders and I will find a good lookout post about half way up. You can climb as high as you like to get the exact angle you want.”

* * *

Climbs Quickly flowed up the towering golden-leaf, exploring his surroundings with eyes, ears, nose, and mind. He had realized early on that they must be bringing Eye of Memory out here to see the waterfall Windswept had discovered, and he was happy that they had, because he loved to watch Eye of Memory at her craft.

It would never have occurred to one of the People to make a permanent image of something one of them had seen, since they could always pass the actuality of it from mind to mind. Because of that, it had taken him longer than perhaps it ought to have to associate even the moving images on the bright, flat memory thing Death Fang’s Bane spent so much time sitting in front of with things he had actually seen. Then he had realized that of course the poor, mind-blind two-legs could not possibly exchange the memory of things seen with one another. He had been pleased by the clever way they compensated for their inability, yet the images that Eye of Memory made were even more pleasing. They were not as accurate, perhaps, and they did not move, but gazing at them was like savoring the tiny differences between two of the People’s remembered images of the same thing. It was as if Eye of Memory was able to share her own perceptions of the things whose images she captured despite the fact that she was mind-blind, and watching those images come to life under her clever, skilled fingers was almost as pleasing as the taste of her happy, focused mind-glow as she worked.

He and Death Fang’s Bane had accompanied Eye of Memory on several expeditions, and so he had already guessed where she would be most likely to perch while capturing this image. When Death Fang’s Bane turned and looked at the tallest of the golden-leafs, he had known he had guessed correctly, and it felt good to climb swiftly up the enormous tree. Well, of course it did! Had not his clan named him Climbs Quickly because climbing was one of the things he most enjoyed in all the world?

He reached a wide fork in one of the branches and paused, looking back down the way he had come. This would do well for Eye of Memory, he decided. The branch was broad enough to give her a comfortable place to sit or stand and shaded from too much direct sunlight, and the entire waterfall was clearly visible. He had detected no sign of any danger, and so he scurried out to the end of the branch, sat up high on his true-feet, and waved his true-hand at Death Fang’s Bane.

He could not make her hear his mind-voice, but he knew she would be watching him through the far-seeing thing she carried at her belt, and he felt her understanding as he beckoned to her and the other two-legs. She waved back, and he settled down on his bright, breezy perch, waiting.

* * *

“How long do you think she’ll paint this time?” Anders asked, grinning at Stephanie as they sat on their own branch, twenty meters below Dacey’s, and leaned back against the crown oak’s enormous trunk sharing the thermos of lemonade Marjorie Harrington had sent along.

“Until she runs out of light, probably,” Stephanie replied with an answering grin. She’d become very fond of Dacey Emberly, but having a mother who was also a painter had taught her a thing or two about the breed.

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Anders agreed.

He looked around, thoroughly enjoying the sunlight and the cool breeze singing through the crown oak’s leaves. He might not have felt quite so happy about perching so many meters above the ground if he hadn’t had his own counter-grav, but he’d gotten accustomed to climbing trees here on Sphinx. Stephanie and Lionheart seemed to spend at least a third of their time in the treetops, after all!

The thought of the treecat drew his attention to where Lionheart clung to a branch just above Dacey, gazing intently over her shoulder as she worked. He knew Lionheart seemed to love watching Dacey paint, and he wondered how focused he was at the moment on Dacey’s emotions instead of Stephanie’s. Could he be distracted from his person’s emotions, or was the link between them—whatever it was and however it worked—always in the forefront of his attention? It was a question which had occupied Anders more than once, but in a lot of ways, he was grateful, since no one objected when he and Stephanie went off on a hike together, even without Karl. Apparently they assumed that Lionheart made an adequate chaperone.

And I guess he does, Anders thought ruefully. Even if Stephanie flat-out invited me to…well…to do more than we’ve been doing, I don’t think I’d try. I saw the records of what Lionheart and his family did to the hexapuma. I don’t really want him to decide I was offering his human some sort of threat.

Today, however, Stephanie seemed to have something on her mind other than their usual explorations of the local wildlife and each other. He hadn’t been able to put his finger on what that something else might be, but several times he’d thought her usual smile seemed a little more forced than usual. Now she looked at him for several moments, smile fading. Then she reached to hold his hand, and Anders didn’t need to be a telepath—not even a telempath—to know she was looking for comfort, not inviting a snuggle.

His eyebrows furrowed as he searched for a way to ask what was wrong without implying that she was acting particularly weird, but he didn’t have to.

“Anders,” she asked, “how did you feel when you realized you had a chance to go to Sphinx?”

Anders was surprised. They’d talked about this before when comparing notes on their various trips to other planets and it hadn’t seemed to worry her any then. Why should it be worrying her now? Unless….

Guessing this was a lead to some other topic, he answered honestly.

“Pretty happy, really. I’d already gotten interested in treecats, you know. Here was my chance to see them—not in recordings, not some captive being brought around as a display—but where they lived. I was really excited.”

“You weren’t nervous about going to a strange place?”

“Not really. I mean, it wasn’t like I was going alone. Yeah, Dad can be pretty obsessive, but if I got in trouble he’d be around. Anyway, despite my mom’s impression that a colony world was going to be pretty backward, I knew Sphinx was cutting edge in a lot of ways.”

“Manticore is even more cutting edge,” Stephanie said. “I haven’t been there since we stopped over on the way to Sphinx. I was only ten and fresh from Meyerdahl, so it didn’t seem too much to me then. Now I know lots of people on Manticore think people from Sphinx are complete rubes.”

“Some of them probably do,” Anders replied. “I don’t remember anyone actually saying anything like that to me, but most of the people I talked to knew I was a visitor. They probably wouldn’t have talked down about their neighbors to a stranger.” He smiled slightly. “I don’t think most of them think that way, though.”

“No?” Stephanie looked away for a moment. “I sort of felt that way when we first got here, you know. Until Lionheart and I met, anyway. So I guess it wouldn’t be too surprising if somebody on Manticore felt that way. Or if…if they might, I don’t know, look down on somebody from Sphinx if they were to run into them wandering around Landing or something.”

The meaning behind her somewhat jumbled words registered on Anders suddenly.

“You’ve got a chance to go to Manticore? That’s really cool, Steph. I enjoyed my visit a lot—except for the fact that you were on a different planet, that is. I think you’ll really enjoy it! What is it? Some sort of educational field trip? A competition, maybe?”

“You might say so,” Stephanie agreed. She took a deep breath, and then, the words spilling out of her in a torrent, she told Anders about her and Karl’s meeting with Chief Ranger Shelton.

Anders listened first in delight, then—as he realized just how long Stephanie would be gone—with increasing dismay. He fought to hide his reaction. He was sure Stephanie didn’t guess how he felt, but he was pretty sure that if Lionheart was paying attention to them instead of Dacey, he wasn’t fooled at all.

Stephanie ended her account on a sort of choking note, like she was swallowing back a little sob. She’d told the last part to some point on the tree limb near her right foot. Now Anders reached and tilted back her head so he could see her face. To his amazement—Stephanie was a queen of self-control—her brown eyes were swimming with unshed tears.

He thought she might pull away, but instead she flung her arms around him and squeezed him with a bone crushing intensity that demonstrated that, for once, she’d forgotten her own strength. Anders tried not to show he was gasping for breath, but hugged her back as hard as he could.

“Oh, Anders! Anders! What am I going to do? I thought that maybe Mom or Dad would be against it, but as far as I can tell, if I want to go they’re going to let me. But you only just got back from there! And…and we don’t know yet how long you’re even going to be here in the Star Kingdom at all! How can I tell them I don’t want to go because I don’t want to leave you?!”

She relaxed her hug so she could look at him. To give himself a moment to catch his breath, Anders kissed her lightly. Then, trying hard not to show how mixed up he himself felt, he settled her back next to him with his arm around her.

“I don’t want you to go, either, Steph. But I’m guessing that you don’t know what you really want.”

Stephanie gulped something between a sob and a laugh. “I do know, actually. Absolutely. I want to go and take that class and I want to stay right here on Sphinx with you. Since that’s impossible, I’m going to have to make a choice.”

Anders cuddled her against him. He’d grown a bit in the last six T-months, but Stephanie hadn’t much. Against his side, she felt deceptively fragile and delicate, like a baby bird.

Stephanie is fragile and delicate, he thought. Maybe not in her body, but inside, where it counts. I’ve got to help her make the right decision or something might break—and along with it, whatever it is we have between us.

“We’ve never really talked about being from two different planets—what that means to ‘us,’” he began.

Stephanie sniffled a little bit. When she pulled away just enough that she could look up into his face, Anders saw that she’d stopped crying.

“No,” she agreed. “I think we were just about to when your dad decided you could stay here in the Star Kingdom while he went back to Urako. I guess I didn’t want to jinx the good news. Maybe I just hoped the reprieves would keep coming.”

Anders flashed a grin that quickly faded into seriousness.

“Yeah. Me, too. And the truth is, that Dad’s good enough at working the system back at the University that I really do think the odds are that he will be able to get the guarantees Governor Donaldson and Minister Vásquez want. If he does, they may even extend his contract, leave us here longer than any of us thought. But one way or another—you going to Manticore, me going back to Urako—we’re going to be separated. Even if Dad’s contract gets extended until I reach my majority, there’s no way I’m never going to leave to see my Mom or something. And it’s not like we weren’t already separated while I was on Manticore and you were here on Sphinx, either. Right?”

Stephanie nodded. “Right. But do we need to speed up getting separated? What if I come back from Manticore and you need to leave for Urako a month later? What if you get a message from your dad telling you to come home next month while I’m stuck on another whole planet? We would have wasted whatever time we might have had together!”

Anders wrapped a lock of her hair around his finger. “I doubt even Mom would hire a private courier just to send word to me to come home. So we’re probably looking at at least another four months before I’d have to go—and we’d probably have to wait another month longer than that, at least, before we found a passenger ship headed in the right direction. So, at worst, we’d have another couple of months after you got home. And if Dad does manage to convince everyone to let him come back and stay, we’ll be here at least until the snow makes excavation impossible. That gives us eight, nine—even ten months. Then, yeah. I’m going to have to go.”

“And if you’re wrong? If you have to go sooner?”

“Leave off my going for a minute,” Anders said. “Before we go any further, there something I’ve got to say. I’ll be honest. I don’t want you to go to Manticore. I really, really don’t. But I don’t want you staying because of me, either. I think in the end it would ruin whatever we’ve got. Karl would come back with his certificate or badge, and you’d be thinking ‘That could’ve been me.’ Worse, you’d be thinking, ‘That could’ve been me and I missed the chance to be one of the youngest ever to get that badge. Anders held me back and there’s Anders, getting on a ship for home anyway.’”

Stephanie sighed. “You know me too well…I thought about all that. I think I might have felt that way if I hadn’t considered it ahead of time, but now I’d be making the decision knowing up front what the trade would be. I don’t think I’d be so small-souled that I’d resent a trade I made, well, knowing I was making it.”

“I’ll give you that, Steph. You might sometimes be impulsive, but you’re never small-souled. But you have to consider that you would’ve wasted a unique opportunity.” Anders hated the words that were taking shape in his own mouth, but he knew he had to say them or he’d be a hypocrite. “Earlier you tried to give the impression that this training class wasn’t a one-time offer, but do you know that?”

Stephanie frowned. “I want to be a member of the SFS. This is part of SFS training. Of course there’ll be another chance.”

“You’re being difficult,” Anders said. “You know exactly what I mean. You’re fifteen and, what, eight months? Chief Ranger Shelton made clear that he had to argue to get you included. Now, what if word gets around that you turned down the offer because you were obsessed with some boy? How seriously will people take you? I’m guessing not very. They’ll decide you’re one of those intense prodigies who burn out young, or, worse, one of those girls who excel in some hobby until they discover boys.”

Stephanie winced. That last had hit home. Recently, her rival in the hang-gliding club, Trudy Franchitti, had quit, saying she had more interesting things to do than play at butterflies with a bunch of kids. The fact that her on-again off-again beau, Stan Chang, had dropped out a few weeks before made it pretty clear with those “more interesting things” were.

“So you’re saying I might not get another chance next year. I might not get a chance until I was actually in the SFS.”

“Right,” Anders agreed. “Worse, you might find yourself waiting until you’re in your early twenties for that other chance. You’re still a probationary ranger. The SFS has just opened up its ranks and started active recruiting, so there are going to be new assistant rangers ahead of you next year. This opening only came up because the fire season this year was so bad Chief Ranger Shelton can’t spare any of his full-timers. I’d say this is a one-shot offer until you’re at least an assistant ranger, maybe until you’re promoted to full ranger. Wouldn’t you?”

Stephanie bit her lower lip. “I can see what you’re saying, but, Anders, you’re a one-time offer, too! I’ve heard your dad. He’s really proud of what you’ve done with your independent study here, but he wants you to finish up school back on Urako so you’re on hand to apply for university, go on interviews, do internships, all that kind of thing.”

Anders felt his mind go all cool, the way it did sometimes when he was helping Dr. Emberly or Dr. Nez sort through samples. His heart was still pounding fit to burst at the idea that Stephanie might actually go off to another planet. In some ways, the fact that they’d already endured that kind of separation only made it even worse. He thought that if he wasn’t careful he was going to embarrass himself by crying, but, thankfully, the coolness held.

“So you accept that I have to get a proper education? Apply for college. All that?”

“Of course! You’re smart! You have promise!”

Anders bent to kiss her again, this time softly, gently, on the lips.

“Then, Stephanie, my darling, how can I wish for anything less for you? You’ve got to go to Manticore. It’s really our only choice.”

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