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Chapter Three

All the world he had known was burnt and broken, reeking of ash. Keen Eyes, scout of what had been the Swaying Fronds Clan, looked over the ruins of his former home. A few of the tall gray-bark trees still remained, but their bark was blackened and ruined. The fat, wide limbs that had protected the People when they foraged for the tangy seeds among the springy boughs were gone, except for an occasional skeleton that both evoked and mocked the trees’ former beauty.

As for the wide-leafed ground plants that had given the clan their name, they were not even skeletons, not even ash, only memory.

The People had known such destruction before and moved on. The songs of many clans contained details of migrations when fire or flood made a range no longer suited for habitation. Those songs were heart-swelling and inspirational, filled with challenges met and overcome before, at last, the clan settled into its new home.

But this time is different, Keen Eyes thought. The fires were vast. Even with the two-legs intervening to put the blaze out, the destruction spread farther than any in the recent memory of our clan and evenso Wide Ears reported before she died—in the memories of neighboring clans. Many have praised the two-legs for their intervention, but I cannot believe they did so for the good of any but themselves. No doubt it was to protect the range they have made their own, and they seem to take more of it with every turning! I have scouted to the sun-setting of what was once our range and the two-legs have settled themselves throughout that area. True, there are none of the larger settlements, but the presence of the two-legs contaminates what was once open range, and with so much burned and destroyed….

He had recently returned from scouting deeper into the mountains. The fire had burned fiercely there, making the lower elevations uninhabitable. The higher elevations were not inviting, especially since the year had already moved into the changing of leaves. Were this the time of new growth, his clan might manage in higher elevations while searching for a new range, but not now. Not with the coldest times marching closer.

Swaying Fronds Clan could not move in the direction of moss-drying. Bright Water Clan held the range there. They were known as a generous clan, but they already faced the strain of supporting their own clan with the more limited foraging offered in higher elevations. Bright Water’s range was large, so they had plenty of good hunting, but their hunters worked hard and they did not have a great deal to spare.

Moreover, Bright Water had long been considered uncomfortable neighbors by many of the older members of the Swaying Fronds Clan. Bright Water consorted too freely with the two-legs. One of their scouts had even bonded with a youngling of that strange, naked-skinned, mind-blind people. Some whispered that this Climbs Quickly had become nothing more than a lazy hanger-on, trumpeting through his memory singer sister tales of his own importance.

Keen Eyes didn’t believe this last. He had never met Climbs Quickly, but he had listened to the song of that Person’s courage and valor, not only when he had rescued the two-leg youngling who was now his partner, but during the last fire season, when he had intervened to help save members of the Damp Ground Clan who otherwise might have been trapped on their island home and burned to death.

No. Climbs Quickly was not anyone’s lazy hanger-on. Nonetheless, moving in the direction of Bright Water’s range was not an option.

So, further to sun-setting into the mountains was ruled out. The mountains to moss-drying were out. So were the mountains to moss-growing, for the fires had been worse there. That meant the only direction in which Swaying Fronds could move was the lowlands. Here the problem was that many areas were already the territory of established clans. They might let the remnants of Swaying Fronds Clan pass through their lands, but they would not wish them to settle.

The two-legs were more common in the lowlands, as well. Even where they had not claimed land for themselves, they seemed to prefer the lowlands for their own hunting and foraging. From what had been learned of the two-legs from People who lived near them, the strange creatures had a marked preference for warmer areas. Although their various made things let them do remarkable things, without them they were astonishingly defenseless. Seemingly, some of them even had trouble walking about without the aid of their made things.

Therefore, Keen Eyes did not find it at all surprising that the two-legs preferred the softer lowlands, but their activities in those regions made the already complicated problem of finding a new place for his clan almost impossible.

He breathed deeply and the bitter odor of ash and burned wood flooded his lungs. Even though the fires had been quenched since the warmer days of turning leaves, Keen Eyes still found himself inclined to cough. The smoke had done damage to his lungs, damage that might not ever heal, even with the passage of many turnings.

Others of his clan had been weakened by the smoke as well. Struggling to subsist on the tattered edges of their old range had made others thin and weak. Only the ripening of nuts that came at this time of year and the plentiful fish in the streams had let them survive thus far, but soon the nuts would be gone and the fish sealed up beneath the unrelenting ice.

Swaying Fronds must find a new home range, and soon, but where? Where could they go?

Never had the world in all its vast green reaches seemed so small.

* * *

Four days had passed since Stephanie had broken the news to Anders about her possible departure from Manticore. That night she’d talked to her parents. They’d agreed that, if she wanted, she could enroll in the Forestry Service training program. Apparently, they’d taken advantage of her being out to com Chief Ranger Shelton and were content with how the program would be managed. They’d even excused Stephanie from her regular studies here on Sphinx until after her return from Manticore.

“Even you deserve a vacation now and then,” Mom had said, “and you’ll need to be fresh to soak up everything expected of you in the training program. It’s not only a lot of information, but a very diverse curriculum.”

Now Stephanie and her best friend, Jessica Pheriss, sat on the bed in Stephanie’s room. They weren’t much alike. Jessica was curvy to Stephanie’s still-boyish figure. Jessica had vibrant hazel-green eyes and wild masses of curly light auburn hair. She was taller than Stephanie—but then, just about everyone was—and knew a lot more about “girl stuff” than Stephanie had ever bothered to learn. But they were alike in one very important thing: both of them tended to speak out about what they thought was important, no matter the cost. That had drawn them together even before Jessica had been adopted by the treecat, Valiant. After that, their friendship was sealed.

Despite cooler autumn evenings, the casement window of Stephanie’s room was cranked open, and Lionheart and Valiant sat up in the limbs of the closest crown oak, taking advantage of the convenient sunbeam. The two ’cats, superficially alike with their gray-striped tabby fur trimmed in cream, were apparently dozing, but for all Stephanie knew they might be as deep in conversation as two businessmen lounging in chairs before the fire in their favorite club.

Alike, Stephanie thought. Well, they would be if it weren’t for Lionheart’s injuries. No one could miss all the ripples of his scars under his coat, or that he’s missing his right true-hand.

Jessica often came out to spend a few days with Stephanie, so that each of the treecats could have the companionship of another of his own kind. By nature, the ’cats were social. Stephanie had often worried that Lionheart had condemned himself to loneliness by choosing to stay with her. Valiant’s availability had eased her guilt on that matter, but now she felt it rising all over again.

“Jess…How do I tell Lionheart I’m taking him not just on any old trip but off the entire planet?”

To her credit, Jessica didn’t even suggest that Stephanie not try, that Lionheart would go with her anyhow, so why get stressed? Nor did she say that maybe he wouldn’t even realize what had happened. Why worry about it?

Stephanie knew Jessica understood the relationship she and Lionheart shared in a manner that even Stephanie’s parents or Karl or Anders couldn’t. Jessica’s relationship with Valiant was a little different, forged in fire rather than in blood and battle, but no less intense for that. What made the difference were the personalities involved.

Like Stephanie, Lionheart was impulsive. After all, he’d been breaking into one of Marjorie Harrington’s greenhouses when Stephanie first met him. Valiant, by contrast, was a steady soul. He was no less inquisitive in his own way, but his interests ran to what was for treecats—at least by every indication the humans had gathered to this point—the cutting-edge science of agriculture. If Climbs Quickly was the explorer and adventurer, Valiant was the innovator, eager to watch and learn from the humans, showing every sign of not merely copying but adapting what he had learned.

And Jessica is steady like Valiant. Maybe it’s because her family’s moved so much, or because she’s had to pitch in with caring for all the littler kids, but she values stability and comfort in a way I don’t. She’s far from dull, or I couldn’t like her so much. She’s just different from me.

Typically, Jessica’s answer to Stephanie’s question hadn’t come quickly.

“I think that, since you can’t tell Lionheart, you’re going to need to show him,” she said finally. “Does he understand what he sees on a computer screen? I’m never sure how much Valiant gets or if what he sees just bores him so he doesn’t pay any attention.”

“I think Lionheart gets at least some,” Stephanie said. “I’ve shown him images and he seems to grasp what he’s seeing. It’s hard to tell how much. I’ve wondered how much a purely visual or even visual/audio presentation would mean to a treecat. They rely on their sense of smell a lot more than we do, and on their sense of touch—not just in their fingers and whiskers, but in a whole-body way.”

“I know.” Jessica nodded. “And then there’s the added element of their empathy and telepathy. Yeah. I can see what you mean. It may not be that Lionheart and Valiant don’t ‘get’ the images. It’s just that to them even a really good HD clip with full sound gives them about as much dimension as we’d get out of a flatscreen when the audio went dead.”

“You mean show Lionheart images of shuttles taking off and like that…. Wait!” Stephanie threw one hand into the air to hold back whatever Jessica might say in reply. “I’ve got it! We can make a movie of our own. It won’t be great, but we can use the animation program on my computer. We’ll feed in images of Lionheart and me from my files, then…”

Jessica got into Stephanie’s idea at once. They settled side-by-side at Stephanie’s desk and started pulling up files. Stephanie was the better programmer, but Jessica had more of an artistic flair. Her suggestions were invaluable for transforming what would otherwise have been a rather stiff presentation into something fluid and alive. The girls had to take a break for dinner, but afterwards they galloped up the stairs. Before they went to bed, they’d put together a short but detailed film showing Stephanie and Lionheart—each distinctly recognizable—entering a shuttle and what would happen afterwards.

“Of course,” Stephanie said with satisfaction after they’d reviewed their work, “Lionheart’s probably going to have to be in a carrier of some sort, not walking like we’ve shown him here. I’d want him in a carrier for his own safety, even if no one else did. I don’t want him poked by the other passengers. For that matter, we know he doesn’t get airsick, but he might find liftoff and all unsettling. Better that he have a secure place of his own.”

“I agree,” Jessica said, “but for the video, I think we’re better off showing him moving around. Adding him getting put in a carrier and hauled around would distract from the real purpose—showing him going up in the shuttle and where that goes. Are we going to show him our vid now?”

“Let’s wait,” Stephanie said. “I’m beat and I bet you are, too. When we show it to him, I want to try something to go with the images. I was hoping you and Valiant could help, too.”

“Sure. What?”

“Remember how I told you that when Bolgeo had that ’cat trapped Morgana—Lionheart’s sister—kept staring at me like she was trying to put ideas into my head?”

“Sure. You didn’t understand, did you?”

“Not really, but I did understand that whatever it was she wanted was important, and I’ve often wondered how it might work the other way around. After all, I’m not a telepath, but clearly Lionheart can read me more than I can him. I’m going to try get across to him that this isn’t just an image or something fun we made, but that it’s real—a representation of what’s going to happen.”

Jessica nodded. “We know they could at least get a mental picture through to Scott MacDallan. From the way he described what happened, it took a bunch of treecats working together for them to communicate even with someone who has ‘the sight.’ Well, we’re not telepaths, but maybe if both of us concentrate really hard on our specific ’cat then we can boost the signal strength enough that they’ll be able to understand this isn’t just pretty art.”

“Right. After all, if they can talk to each other…”

“And we’re both sure they can…”

“Then they can discuss what we’re showing them. It might help them work through what we’re telling them.”

“I like it,” Jessica agreed. “Anyway, it can’t hurt to try, can it?”

* * *

“Guess who’s coming to Manticore?” Oswald Morrow couldn’t hide a certain sly, self-satisfied smile as he spoke. He was a big man with dark skin against which his teeth flashed in brilliant contrast.

“Who?” Gwendolyn Adair asked, not even looking up from examining her manicure.

“Stephanie Harrington. I have it on good authority that not only is she coming without any adult supervision, she’s bringing the treecat with her.”

That got Gwendolyn’s full attention. She sat up straight, showing off a trim, youthful body.

“You’re joking! That’s too perfect.”

Oswald Morrow gave her another flash of the dealmaker smile that was so very well known in certain exclusive Manticoran business circles. “I’m not joking. I’m perfectly sincere. Stephanie Harrington is coming here with the famous ‘Lionheart.’ I’m not one to brag—”

“Hah!” Gwendolyn’s comment was little more than a breath.

“—but I might even say I had something to do with arranging their trip.”

“How could you have done that?”

“You know I keep alert for any information at all having to do with the SFS.”

“Through your brother-in-law, Harvey. Yes, I know.”

“Well, I asked a few leading questions when Joan and I had dinner with Harvey and his family a while back. Harvey started ranting about how Shelton of the SFS had actually had the audacity to suggest two kids be enrolled in the Forestry Service training class. Harvey was pretty indignant. He had a hand in getting that program into its current shape, and he sickeningly proud of it for turning out tough, well-trained men and women who can deal with flood, fire, or panicked tourists with equal ease. He felt Shelton was degrading the program by assuming two kids could pass.”

“And you asked who the kids were…”

“I did. And when he’d confirmed that they were indeed Stephanie Harrington and her sidekick, Karl Zivonik, I hinted that it might be a good idea to admit them. It would show he has an open mind towards those backwoods bumpkins. If—I might even have said ‘when’—the kids failed his demanding program, well, the one who’d look bad would be Shelton, not Harvey.”


Morrow shrugged in mock humility. “I’m not saying I was the only one speaking out in favor of including them. In fact, the number of people who wanted the Harrington kid included was part of what had Harvey so riled. My comments might have tipped the balance, that’s all.”

“But Stephanie and Lionheart will be here!” Gwendolyn looked as pleased as a cat that had gotten the cream. She was an attractive enough woman, but her real gift was not beauty. It wasn’t even her family connections, valuable as those had been on occasion. It was in acting. She was a chameleon, filtering effortlessly through other people’s lives and being whoever she had to be for each of them. She’d worked profitably with Morrow before, shifting appearance and attitude with such skill she sometimes frightened him. “It’s been so hard to influence the treecat question from off planet. The Bolgeo plan was a disaster because he had a few too many irons in the fire. If he’d stuck to doing what we paid him for instead of resorting to poaching—”

“That’s water under the bridge,” Morrow said dismissively. “Bolgeo didn’t do us any favors, but now Shelton’s ambition has handed us just what we need. With Ms. Harrington and her ’cat here, we can engineer situations that show them in a less than ideal light. And with them off Sphinx, we can send in new agents without worrying about her interference.”

“You’re not afraid of a fifteen-year-old girl, are you?” Gwendolyn’s laugh held an acid bite.

“I’m not afraid of anything,” Morrow countered. “We simply can’t ignore the Stephanie Harrington seems to view anything to do with the ’cats as her personal domain, or that the SFS plays up to her because it’s good for their public image. No one else is the ‘treecat discoverer,’ though, so no one else can butt in quite so objectionably. We’ll do very well out of both her presence here and her absence there.”

Gwendolyn looked at her manicure again as if she were considering it in a new light. “Yes, we will indeed. I have some very interesting thoughts on how we might befriend the young lady.”

“I’m sure you do, my dear,” Morrow chuckled. “I’m sure you do.”

* * *

Climbs Quickly watched as the images moved before him. If he had not lived with Death Fang’s Bane for so long, observing her as she spent long hours in front of the thing—and if he had not watched Eye of Memory creating images of her own—he was not sure he would have grasped what his two-leg was trying to show him. Indeed, if she had not been so intense in her desire for him to look, to pay attention, to understand, he was not sure he would have grasped the importance of what he was seeing at all. As it was, he felt at least reasonably confident that he understood her meaning.


He thought, however, that some confirmation would be a good idea, just in case he was jumping from limb to limb without testing his footing—something his elders were always telling him was one of his failings.

<Dirt Grubber,> he said, <I wonder. What to do you make of these images?>

The older Person—Dirt Grubber’s long tail had two more full rings than did Climbs Quickly’s own—rubbed at his nose with his true-hand, much as he did when he had finished digging and wanted to clean his whiskers.

<In those images, empty of thought as they are, I see a song—a song of future travel. I think we now know why Death Fang’s Bane has been so unsettled since she met with Old Authority. She has decided to go in the big flying thing, up higher even than the tallest mountains, then to land on this other thing. I think perhaps it is an even bigger flying thing, but what these colored balls are I cannot quite guess. Are they islands?>

Climbs Quickly shook his head, a mannerism he had picked up from the two-legs.

<I do not think so. I admit, something like that was my first conclusion. Then I considered. We know that two-legs are from elsewhere. We have both listened to those old memory songs that tell of the egg-shaped things that roared down from above and returned to the skies. I know some People persist in believing that the two-legs come from somewhere else in the lands we know. I have heard the theories that the two-legs live on some isolated island where netwood does not grow, and so the People have not ventured there. However, I think that unlikely.>

<I agree,> Dirt Grubber said. <The two-legs did not suddenly create the flying things we see them using now. There must have been steps in between, perhaps along the lines of the folding flying things that Death Fang’s Bane and Windswept use as toys. But if they had such flying things and were anywhere near the lands that we know, certainly, a bold two-leg or two would have come into the netwood forests before Death Fang’s Bane, and that meeting would be recorded by the memory singers. Therefore, they must have come from elsewhere.>

Climbs Quickly was pleased that his friend agreed. He had not looked forward to arguing with him. Dirt Grubber could be as stubborn as the deep-rooted weeds he was always pulling from his garden patches.

<I think,> Climbs Quickly continued, <that Death Fang’s Bane is going to journey back to where the two-legs came from before coming to the world. The first ball in her images is here. The second ball is where we are going. She is trying to make sure I understand because she does not want to make the journey without me.>

<So she anticipates a long journey,> Dirt Grubber commented.

Climbs Quickly agreed. Bonded pairs could separate, sometimes for days on end, else how would a male feed his mate and kittens? However, a long separation was wearing on both. Many mated males tried not to be away from their nesting places overly long. Some, especially the older ones, chose to give up hunting entirely, focusing on contributing to the clan in other ways. Making stone tools took time and patience, and so did scraping straight shafts and tying nets. Or a mated pair might go foraging together, for although the People mostly ate meat or fish, they supplemented their diets with nuts and roots.

Since the coming of the two-legs, the People had begun to imitate them in the cultivation of plants. At first this had merely been the tending of plants that were already in place, bringing them water when the season was dry, clearing away competing plants that might choke them. In this way, the yield had increased. Now there were those such as Dirt Grubber who wanted the People to actually put useful plants where they would thrive, or bury seeds and protect the young shoots from opportunistic bark chewers. Plant growing took a lot of attention. It was proving a very good way for bonded pairs to help provide food for the clan without taking the same degree of risk as when the male went hunting.

And avoiding that risk was important. Only rarely did one half of a bonded pair survive the death of the other. Minds that had been so intertwined that they intensified each other’s glow did not often survive the loss of their match. Sometimes a female with kits would survive because they needed her, but often the clan would need to care for doubly orphaned younglings.

Climbs Quickly shook himself as if he could shake away the unhappy memories as easily as he could a bug climbing through his fur.

<I am glad that Death Fang’s Bane wants me to go with her. I am not certain she understands the dangers when a bonded pair is separated. I think she knows she would be unhappy, but I do not know if she realizes that our separation could mean my death, especially if our mind glows were so far separated. Even if I must go beyond the tops of the mountains and to this other ball—this other world—I will go. It is our pact. It is our bond.>

* * *

Anders tried not to let Calida—or even Dacey—know how mixed up he felt about Stephanie’s going off to Manticore. For the moment, he was glad Bradford Whitaker wasn’t on Sphinx. Doctor Whitaker wasn’t the most sensitive of humans, and Anders doubted he would really have understood his son’s feelings—or even noticed them. Of course, there was something to be said for that. If Anders mother had been there, he would have been forced to have a heart-to-heart or two whether he wanted to or not. There was a reason she was a politician—and a good one of the old type, the type who’d gone into politics not because she saw it as a route to fame and fortune, but because she saw it as a way to help people.

He’d had to message Mom, of course, but the nice thing about interstellar communication—well, nice in this case, although he doubted his father saw it the same way at the moment—was that there would be a considerable time lag. By the time he had to answer Mom’s well-meaning and thoughtful questions, he thought he’d have his head together.

For now, though…

His heart twisted painfully whenever he saw Stephanie. He thought she didn’t guess, but he was pretty sure Lionheart did. Oddly enough though, Anders also felt sure the treecat was keeping his secret. It made him realize the ‘cat was his friend in a way he’d never felt before, so he guessed at least one good thing had come out of this impending heartbreak.

Geez, though, I’m an insensitive jerk, aren’t I? All the time Stephanie and I have been ‘canoodling,’ as Dacey puts it, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to how Steph would feel when I went back home. I knew how bad I felt when I got dragged off to Manticore and she got left behind, but at least we could still message each other and get a reply back the same day! I figured that felt pretty darn bad anyway, but now that the shoe’s on the other foot, I know she felt even worse watching me go than I felt going, and I was so busy feeling sorry for myself I never realized it. Now that I’m the one being left, well, I can say it doesn’t feel good. In fact, it feels worse than being the one doing the leaving. The leaver has something to do; the left just gets to build life around the hole where the other person should be. And what are we going to do when I have to leave and we both know I won’t be coming back? There won’t be any same-day messages then!

Stephanie was being really sweet, Anders had to admit that. Even though she must be up to her ear in plans—he knew there’d been a shopping expedition all the way to Yawata Crossing for stuff that couldn’t be found in little Twin Forks—still she never chattered about how excited she was. Even better, the holiday Stephanie’s parents had let her have from her studies meant they still had time to meet every day, even with preparations for departure.

Today they were linking up in Twin Forks where they planned to join the hang-gliding club meeting, then go out—just the two of them—afterwards. Anders had his own glider now—a cutting-edge model that had been an “I’m sorry I screwed up” gift from his dad before Dr. Whitaker’s departure. It was really nice looking, in vibrant green and turquoise that the girls had all assured him went well with his own coloring. A few months hadn’t been enough to get Anders up to speed with the rest of Stephanie’s gang, but at least he no longer embarrassed himself.

Maybe because Stephanie’s pending departure was making him think back to when everything was fresh and new, Anders found himself thinking how much people had changed in the last six months as he hurried over to join the others.

The changes were most obvious in Toby Mednick. Toby was just a few months younger than Stephanie, and when Anders had first met him, he’d been Stephanie’s size or a little shorter. Certainly, the way the boy had carried himself—shy and meek—meant he might have been three meters tall and still have seemed small. Now nature had stepped in to give Toby more height. His shoulders were showing powerful muscle, although overall his build remained gazelle-graceful. The biggest change, though, was in his attitude.

Toby came from a very conservative family. The hang-gliding club was the only such organization he was allowed to join, and that was because it was run by Mayor Sapristos. But hang-gliding had proven to be just what Toby needed. He was well on the way to making good his vow at Stephanie’s fifteenth birthday party to become the best flyer in the club. No longer did dark brown eyes peek up shyly through a curtain of silky black hair. They met other people’s eyes directly, and the dark hair was tied back in a fashion that Anders thought—without undue modesty—was copied from how Anders wore his own.

The “Double Cs,” Chet Pointier and Christine Schroeder, had changed differently. Chet had finally slowed the growth spurt that had—he admitted cheerfully—been the bane of his parents’ clothes-buying budget. At seventeen, he was settling in at something over 188 centimeters in height, and these days his body seemed determined to fill in the frame it had stretched out. Chet’s natural hair color was just slightly lighter than Anders’ own wheaten gold, but he and his girlfriend Christine had recently indulged in matching dye jobs. Both now sported indigo blue hair, highlighted with violet. When they got set to go out, they also sported matching cat’s-eye contact lenses in silver.

On Chet, the alterations looked a little affected—or so Anders thought—but from their very first meeting Anders had always thought that Christine had something of the exotic bird about her. She’d kept her cockatoo crest, and it looked as good in indigo and violet as it ever had in white-blond. If Christine’s graceful, willowy figure had changed at all, it had been to smooth her curves into something more delightfully feminine. Silver contact lenses were hardly an improvement over her naturally ice-blue eyes, especially when contrasted with the warm sandalwood hue of her skin, but if she wanted to experiment, Anders wasn’t going to complain.

Stephanie and Jessica arrived in Jessica’s junker just as Anders was unfolding his glider. He turned to meet them, his heart lifting as always when he saw Stephanie smile at him.

How am I ever going to let her get on the shuttle without me? I’ve got to do it. I know I’ve got to do it, but I can’t let her know just how very much letting her go is going to hurt.

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