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Chapter Four

When Keen Eyes ventured into the foothills he found himself fighting the sensation that he had moved in time, rather than space. In the mountains, snow was falling at night. The icy whiteness was neither deep nor dense, and it melted within a short time after the sun’s rising. But the coming of snow meant that many of the small ground grubbers bark chewers upon which the Swaying Fronds Clan had been relying to augment their food were harder to find.

Some of those creatures slept all through the winter. Others were simply spending more time in burrows beneath the earth. When true snowfall came, many of them would make tunnels in the snowpack itself, their foraging concealed from all but the sharpest-eared hunters. Knowing this time of relative safety was coming, they waited patiently for the same snow that Keen Eyes dreaded.

Here in the relative lowlands, even though the trees showed signs of damage from the fires that had raged so much more powerfully in the higher elevations, opportunities for hunting and foraging were more plentiful. Leaves were shading into yellow and red, but still bore traces of green. In some sheltered areas, trees were sending up shoots through the thick soil. More quick living plants were taking advantage of the damper weather and rich ash, and some of the grasses and shrubs were adorned with fat seeds. Although the people could not subsist wholly on a diet of leaves, seeds, and shoots, these would help to bulk up their bellies—and they attracted prey animals.

The difficulty did not come from the lowlands themselves. Rather it came from those People who had already claimed these lands as their own. Keen Eyes met up with the first of those one afternoon as he sat on the net wood branch enjoying a small but plump bark-chewer he had caught.

<We thought we smelled something sour.> The mind-voice came without warning. <How do you name yourself, poacher?>

Keen Eyes sniffed the air, but these People must be approaching from upwind, because he could not catch their scent. True, a mind-voice could call over a far greater distance than anyone could detect with certainty the mind-glow of another Person, but these People had obviously sensed his mind-glow and realized that it did not belong to someone they knew.

Relaxing over his meal, Keen Eyes had taken the obvious precautions, but he had not been actively searching for other People. Now he attempted to do so. Distantly, he sensed at least two People. The fuzzy quality of the contact indicated that they were attempting to mute their mind-glows, but one of the pair was upset enough that his anger came through strongly. Even as Keen Eyes sought to get a clearer reading, this one moved deliberately to take his mind-glow out of range.

Keen Eyes shaped his reply carefully. <I am not so much a poacher as a traveler. I was not aware I had crossed into another clan’s range. May I ask to whom I am speaking?>

<I am Nimble Fingers of the Trees Enfolding Clan.> The voice of the person with the less angry mind-glow shaped the answer. <My uncle, Swimmer’s Scourge, hunts with me. What are you called?>

<I am Keen Eyes of the Swaying Fronds Clan.> Keen Eyes did not open his mind to them, but he did allow his sense of loss and sorrow to color his reply. <Although you might say that those of us who survived the great fires of last season are now the Landless Clan, for our burned and tormented forests will not support us through the coming winter.>

Nimble Fingers’ mind-voice shaped the reply. <So your clan is homeless? Are you scouting for new lands?>

<If so, scout elsewhere, Keen Eyes of the Landless Clan,> Swimmer’s Scourge’s mind-voice cut in. <Our own range was burned by the fires. Our hunting has been badly reduced. We need all of what our range produces to survive the coming snows.>

Keen Eyes shared a mind picture of the lands surrounding his clan’s ravaged range. He showed them the barren land, how even where trees still stood so many were nothing more than blackened spires, the remaining limbs charred skeletons that would not hold even a small bark-chewer, much less to a robust Person.

<We would not intrude into your range if that could be avoided in any way,> he said then. <Would it be possible for us to pass through? Perhaps your scouts know of a range that is unoccupied, or that a smaller clan might be willing to share.>

Swimmer’s Scourge’s response came so quickly that Keen Eyes had the impression he had deliberately stopped his nephew from answering. At the same time, his faint awareness of Nimble Fingers’ mind-glow vanished, so that he suspected that the other had moved—or been moved—out of range.

<We know nothing of any place where you might go. Perhaps your memory singers could reach out to others of their kind and learn where there may be an open range.>

Keen Eyes could not have hidden his grief, not even if he had tried. <Wide Ears and our other memory singers fell victim to the flames. A tongue wrapped around and cut them off. We tried to save them, but they would not let us risk ourselves on such a thin chance. They had an apprentice, but Tiny Choir is still very young. She shows promise, but her voice is hardly stronger than that of an ordinary adult. She needs time.>

<And time,> Nimble Fingers replied, <is what you are seeking. Time as much as land.>

<Yes. Precisely that,> Keen Eyes replied, glad to be understood, but Swimmer’s Scourge was unable—or unwilling—to join in his nephew’s opinion.

<Stay out of our range,> came his stiff rejoinder. <Your clan may lack memory singers, but surely some of the elders have heard tales of what happens when range rights are challenged. Your clan is already reduced. Do not press a course that may lead it to become even smaller.>

With that, Keen Eyes could no longer sense the pair, even faintly. He sat perched in the net wood tree for a long time, searching, but met only with silence.

* * *

The two weeks before Stephanie and Karl’s departure rapidly dwindled to days. Time and again, Stephanie considered backing out, considered making some excuse for not going. At one point, she was even so desperate that she thought about injuring herself so she couldn’t go. The problem with modern medicine, though, was that even “accidentally” forgetting to turn on her counter-grav unit so that she fell out of a tree wouldn’t have helped much. Even badly broken bones could be patched up pretty quickly.

So began the days of saying goodbye. Stephanie thought that she and Jessica had managed to get across to Lionheart what was going to happen. Certainly, the ’cat cooperated admirably with drills designed to get him used to the standard interstellar pet carrier they’d bought for him. She’d even demonstrated the emergency life support, so the noise wouldn’t bother him in the unlikely event she had to use it.

The first of the goodbye parties came when she and Lionheart visited Lionheart’s extended family where they were settling into winter quarters in the mountains northeast of the Harrington freehold. They went out as they often did, using her hang-glider rather than an air car. As a present, Stephanie had brought with her several bunches of celery. Lionheart loved the stuff, and his family did, too.

However, Stephanie was certain that it wasn’t just the celery that gave this visit the feeling of “event.” For one thing, most of the clan was there. Even the hunters who were often away or asleep were present and active. For another, Morgana took the post of honor and gave a speech.

Stephanie knew she’d have trouble explaining why she was sure that was what Morgana was doing. Certainly she didn’t hear anything. To someone who wasn’t inclined to think of treecats as smart, it probably looked like a lot of ’cats drowsing in the sun. Still, she felt certain. Maybe it was the way the kittens, usually as ebullient and active as their feline equivalents, sat attentively prick-eared, green eyes focused on Morgana. If they were holding still, something important must be going on.

However, party or not, long before dark Lionheart marched over to where Stephanie had stowed her hang-glider, pointedly reminding his human that they had a long flight home. She took the hint. Now was not the time to start taking dumb risks.

The next party came the following day and was held at the Harrington freehold.

“Don’t think we’re just making a fuss over you and Karl,” Marjorie Harrington teased. “Actually, this party is to celebrate Frank and Ainsley’s promotion to Senior Ranger. You can’t imagine how difficult it is to get both of them scheduled for the same day off. It’s just a coincidence that we managed for a few days before you were due to leave.”

Stephanie wasn’t fooled, but she was glad to have some of the focus away from her and Karl going off to Manticore. Frank Lethbridge and Ainsley Jedrusinski had been among the first rangers she’d gotten to know well. Frank had been her handgun and rifle instructor and had introduced Karl to her, and Ainsley was his frequent partner. Celebrating their promotion to the newly created rank of Senior Ranger seemed a very good excuse for a party indeed.

Since both Frank and Ainsley were longtime friends of Karl’s family, that provided a natural excuse for all the Zivoniks to be invited, again, without too much emphasis on the departure of the probationary rangers. With them came Scott MacDallan and his wife, Irina Kisaevna, also as longtime friends of the guests of honor. Scott was the only other living human—other than Jessica and Stephanie—who had been adopted by a treecat.

Given that all of Stephanie’s friends had volunteered during the worst days of the forest fire, it made sense to include them, as well, and Anders came along with Dacey Emberly. So pretty much everyone who would have been at a going away party also ended up at this “promotion party.”

As was natural at a gathering of such size, people eventually broke into smaller groups. Irina, Marjorie, and Dacey sat in a cozy huddle around the high-ceilinged great room’s huge fireplace, discussing art while the antique ceiling fans’ blades turned lazily overhead and Richard stood with an elbow propped on the mantle and listened, interjecting an occasional comment of his own. Karl and Toby were out on the wide snow porch, its sliding sides open to the pleasant autumn breeze, organizing foot races for the younger Zivoniks. Jessica and Scott were in deep conversation, probably about living with treecats, as they tidied up the stone-flagged kitchen where hectares of the buffet dinner’s bowls and serving platters had been stacked to one side. The guests of honor had gathered around the pool table in the family room, just off the great room, cues in hand while they chatted with Christine and Chet about a new guide program the SFS was introducing to deal with the growing influx of tourists.

Coincidentally or not, Anders and Stephanie found themselves alone near the great room’s wide front windows, looking out at the mountainous trunks of the crown oaks. Even Lionheart had absented himself to visit with Valiant and Fisher.

“Want to go for a walk?” Stephanie asked.


When they were out of direct sight of the party, Anders wrapped his hand tightly around Stephanie’s.

“It’s weird to think that in a few days we’re not going to be able to do this again,” he said after a long pause. He leaned and kissed her. “Or this. Or even talk to each other in real time.” He grimaced. “Messages and vids just aren’t the same, whatever anyone says.”

“I know.” Stephanie’s response came out a bit more emphatically than she’d intended as she recalled the months Anders had spent on Manticore. “Still,” she went on after a moment, “I think maybe it’s better for the transmission lag to be as great as it is. I mean, there’s no way anyone could possibly hold a conversation with a fifty-minute hole between every question and answer, and we both know it. But it was only, say, ten minutes each way, we might just try it, and think how miserable that would be!”

“Yeah, recorded messages are a lot smoother than that,” Anders agreed.

“And the delays would just make the separation more real.”

“So you’ll message?”

“I promise. I won’t let homework and all the rest get in the way.”

“Me either.”

More silence, though there was quite a bit of nonverbal communication to fill the space.

Eventually, Anders sighed and pulled back, though not before he’d carefully nested Stephanie’s head against his shoulder.

“Who was it who said that bit about parting being sweet sorrow?”


“I think he was cracked. I thought it the first time we went through this, and I’m sure of it now. Parting isn’t sweet at all. It’s just sad.”

Stephanie offered an explanation. “It’s sweet sorrow because you have someone to feel sad about. If you didn’t have anyone, then, well, it wouldn’t be sad, but it wouldn’t be sweet either. It would just be going different ways.”

“So this is sweet sorrow?” Anders asked, although the expression in his blue eyes when Stephanie moved to look up into his face left no doubt.

“It is,” she said. “Very sweet and very, very sad.”

* * *

Two days later, she was at the shuttleport. Her baggage had gone ahead, and she was hugging everyone who’d come to see them off—her folks, Jessica, Anders, Karl’s family—some of them more than once. Karl was doing the same. He even hugged Anders, who laughed and hugged him back.

“Take care of our girl, Karl,” Anders said. “Don’t let her intimidate all those Manticorans.”

“Promise,” Karl said. “And you be careful here. Remember, we won’t be around to rescue you.”

“I’ll remember.”

A recorded voice announced final boarding, and Anders gave Stephanie one more huge, bone-cracking hug.

“I guess we’ve got to go,” she said. “I’ll message. I’ll message everyone!”

“C’mon, Steph.” Karl’s tone was gruff. “We’ll be back before they get used to having us gone.”

“Right.” She grabbed Lionheart’s carrier, then darted back one more time to hug each of her parents. “See you when you come to Manticore for your holiday!”

Then she turned and almost ran to the shuttle.

* * *

Anders was glad he’d brought his own air car to the shuttleport. He didn’t really feel like being with anyone right now. He saw Jessica and Valiant go off with the Harringtons. Jessica looked as if she was crying. The treecat was reaching up over her shoulder to gently pat her cheek.

It’s going to feel weird for all of them, being without Stephanie. And it’s going to be weird for me to be here with all of her friends while she’s off on another planet. It’s all backwards and upside down from the way it was last time. And Steph and I have been so focused on what this means to us, I haven’t really thought about how it’s going to change things for everyone else.

He was still replaying the image of the shuttle’s port sealing behind Stephanie, of the final pale flash that might have been the wave of her hand, when he got back to the apartment building where Calida had rented their quarters.

Kesia Guyen tried to wave him down as he passed through the lobby, but he pretended not to see her. Normally, Kesia would be just the person to talk to about his bruised feelings, but right now he still wanted to be alone.

To his surprise—Kesia was normally good at picking up on nonverbal cues—she came trotting after him and caught up just before he reached the lifts.

“Hang on a minute!” she called, and Anders was forced to stop and turn around to face her. She took one look at his expression, then smiled gently and reached up to pat him on the shoulder. That smile was so sympathetic Anders felt his own expression waver uncertainly for a moment. Funny. He’d thought he was doing a better job of hiding his feelings than that.

“I know you probably have other things on your mind right now,” Kesia said, “but I thought you’d like to know about this. We got a com message from Manticore about four minutes ago, probably about the time you were parking the air car.”

“What kind of com message?” Anders asked, trying to figure out exactly how to describe her tone. She sounded both excited—almost jubilant—and irritated in equal measure.

“Your dad’s back,” she told him. “The University sent him back out in a fast charter.”

Dad’s back?” He stared at her in shock, and she nodded.

“Just hit Manticore orbit a bit over two hours ago,” she confirmed.

Anders shook his head as if to clear it while he tried to process the completely unexpected news. Then it hit him. If Doctor Whitaker had been sent out here to collect the rest of the expedition’s personnel—if the University had chartered the courier boat in order to hustle everyone else home in disgrace as quickly as possible—then he might have just seen Stephanie for the very last time! He felt as if someone had punched a big icy hole through the spot where his stomach used to be.

“Hey!” Kesia reached up, grabbed him by both shoulders, and gave him a shake. “Lighten, Anders! Lighten! It’s good…mostly.”

“What do you mean ‘mostly’?” Anders demanded.

“Well, the good news is that the University’s excited enough about what we’ve already turned up that, despite any…minor irregularities, they’ve authorized your dad to seek a contract extension from the Star Kingdom. It’s open-ended as far as the University’s concerned!” Her eyes twinkled at the sudden leap of hope in Anders’. “And, the Chancellor and the head of department—and your mom, on behalf of of the government—have all promised everything Governor Donaldson and Minister Vásquez asked for. So I think we’ve got a pretty good chance of getting the extension. Maybe in a single time block, maybe with a break over the winter while we return to Urako with our data.”

Anders nodded. All of that was good news…except, maybe, for that bit about going home “over the winter,” since Sphinx’s winter was over sixteen T-months long. But Kesia had said….

“So what’s the news that isn’t good?” he asked. And for that matter, he thought, if Dad’s been back more than two hours, why didn’t he com us quicker than this? It’s only a twenty-five-minute transmission delay, after all!

“It may be good, and it may be bad.” Kesia shrugged. “He says that when he logged into the system data net and commed Dr. Hobbard to tell her he was back, she told him there’s been a change of plans. She says some bigwig on Manticore—Morgo, Morrow, something like that; your dad wasn’t sure of the name—is sponsoring what he called ‘some tourists with an interest in xeno-anthropology.’”


“Exactly.” Kesia actually chuckled. “Actually, once he calmed down a bit, he admitted they seem to be a little better than that. In fact, some of them have pretty good credentials. But your dad’s really ticked. He thinks it’s a violation of our contract’s exclusivity.”

“Well, it is,” Anders pointed out. “On the other hand, we’re probably luckier than we deserve to still have a contract. If we do, that is.”

“I think that was pretty much your dad’s conclusion, too,” Kesia said with a grin. “Apparently this Morrow or whoever he is is associated with something called the Adair Foundation. It’s some kind of nonprofit involved in preserving biodiversity that’s interested in treecats, and apparently it’s thinking about endowing a real xeno-anthropology chair at Landing University. So the Dean of Dr. Hobbard’s college asked her—told her, really—to make the Foundation’s team welcome.”

“Of course.” Anders sighed and shook his head, feeling sympathy for both his father and Dr. Hobbard.

Sonura Hobard was the current chair of the Anthropology Department at Landing University. She was also the head of the Crown Commission on Treecats and so, in a sense, his dad’s boss here in the Star Kingdom. However, the Whitaker expedition had been allowed to work on Sphinx in direct reaction to the Bolgeo disaster. The Crown wanted to be certain the people studying the ‘cats were real—and reputable—scientists, and they’d been granted a considerable amount of latitude in their operations in light of their academic credentials. And their contract had specifically protected the all important academic rights of first publication.

But that had been before Doctor Whitaker had taken his entire team off and marooned it in the bush without mentioning his plans to anyone. It was inevitable that there’d be tighter oversight in the wake of that near disaster—his dad had to know that even better than Anders did—and if there was one thing his father understood—outside of xeno-anthropology, of course—it was academic politics and funding. And that meant that he knew he had no more choice about accepting these newcomers than Dr. Hobbard had about taking her Dean’s “request” to heart.

“Is Dad sure these people are legit?” he asked.

“He says they look that way so far.” Kesia shrugged. “Apparently, this has been brewing for a while and Dr. Hobbard says the background checks have been in motion for a couple of T-months now.”

“When will they get here?”

“Probably not for at least another T-month. From your dad’s message, they’re already on their way, but they’re coming from several different out-System universities.”

“So this Adair Foundation gets an inside look at the treecats and Landing University gets the money for a chair.” Anders snorted. “Sounds as if everyone except Dad and you guys get something out of this!”

“Your father’s feelings exactly.”

“Hey!” Anders perked up, interest briefly pushing back his depression over Stephanie’s departure. “If Dad plays this right, you could get some pre-publicity for your work out of this when these visiting scientists head home again. The sort of thing that will have people panting to read your ‘full and complete’ definitive reports when they come out!”

“You really are your parents’ son, aren’t you?” Kesia said with a laugh. “I foresee a bright future in politics for you if you can only stay out of the swamps of academia! I think that’s a suggestion you should make to him as soon as he gets off the shuttle. Maybe even sooner if you want to message him!”

“Oh, I can wait till I see him in person,” Anders replied, the reference to messaging reminding him that he wouldn’t be seeing Stephanie again in person for another whole three months. The gloom came rushing back, but it was a lot less deep this time.

No, I won’t see her for another three months. But if Kesia’s right, we’ll have at least six months together after she gets back. And if Dad really is able to extend his contract into an open-ended study….

It was amazing how much brighter the universe had just become.

* * *

The taxi slowed, banking to the left across Jason Bay and circling toward the landing pad, and Stephanie rested one elbow on Lionheart’s carrier as she peered out the window beside her.

Her regret at leaving Anders behind on Sphinx was never far from the surface, but she had to admit that the trip had had its amusing moments. She’d completely forgotten that Karl had never been off the surface of Sphinx in his life—never been aboard even a little puddle-jumper ship like HMS Zephyr, their transport to the planet Manticore, far less on a visit to the “big city” of Landing. Big, tough, strong, competent Karl had been completely out of his depth aboard ship, and Stephanie had found herself in the role of senior partner for the voyage.

Nor had Karl been able to conceal his near awe at the sheer size of Landing and its gleaming pastel-tinted ceramacrete towers. After so long on Sphinx, Stephanie had been a little taken aback herself, but that hadn’t lasted long. For all its impressive ground plan, there was still plenty of room for Landing to grow, and none of the towers were much over a hundred meters tall yet. In fact, the total population of the Star Kingdom’s capital city was less than a quarter of the population of Hollister, back on Meyerdahl where she’d grown up.

Was kind of interesting to see where “Mount Royal Palace” is going to go, though, she reflected. The taxi pilot had deliberately detoured over the construction site to give the off-world kids a look. It’ll have a really nice view of the Bay, anyway. Going to be big, too, but I’d think they’d want a tower all their own, and from the architect’s drawings posted all over the city landing pad’s smart screens, they won’t be over four or five stories anywhere.

Now, as the taxi settled the last few dozen meters, she looked around Landing University of Manticore’s campus and decided she liked what she saw. They could have put the entire university into a single tower easily, since the total student body was no more than thirty thousand, but they’d chosen to scatter it around the ample four hundred-hectare site.

They’d fitted it elegantly into the landscape, doing as little damage as possible to the local eco-structure, too, and her eyes brightened as she saw species of Manticoran trees for the first time. Somehow, even though she’d known better (especially after boning up for this trip), she’d half expected Manticore’s flora to be similar to Sphinx’s, yet they looked nothing at all alike. Most of the trees she could see had a distinctively blue cast to their foliage, and everywhere she looked she saw brilliant blossoms nodding under the late morning sun. Landing was almost on Manticore’s equator, and the Star Kingdom’s capital world was almost ten light-minutes closer to the Sun than Sphinx, which gave it a substantially higher average temperature to begin with.

“It’s going to be a lot hotter out there than we’re used to,” she said, turning her head to look at Karl, and then glancing down at Lionheart’s carrier. “A lot.”

“I did read the handout, too, Steph.” Karl sounded just a little snappish, she thought. Maybe he was feeling more nervous about visiting the “big city” than he wanted to appear? “I slathered on plenty of sunscreen, too,” he added a bit pointedly.

“And a good thing you did,” she agreed equably, then leaned closer to the carrier, looking into the open side at Lionheart. “Too bad we can’t use sunscreen on you,” she told him.

* * *

Climbs Quickly’s ears pricked and his nose twitched as Death Fang’s Bane made her mouth noises at him. He didn’t much care for the scents inside this flying thing—there were too many of them, as if hands of hands of two-legs had come and gone—but new, different ones were coming to him now. He could smell them only faintly so far, since the flying things were stingy about letting smells in and out, but they were much more interesting. Indeed, they were very interesting, for they were obviously the smell of plants, yet he’d never smelled anything quite like them before, and he felt a burning need to be out and about to explore them.

But that is going to have to wait, he reminded himself. You are in a new place, Climbs Quickly! Best you not rush off like a new-weaned kitten so sure of all you think you know that you come nose-to-nose with a death fang!

He laughed silently at the thought, though he knew there was truth as well as humor to it. And even as he laughed, he wondered how much of his eagerness to explore was a way to distract himself from anxiety. He had no idea how far he and his two-leg had come from their home, but he was beginning to suspect it was even farther than he had believed it could be before they departed. The trip aboard the big flying thing from the two-legs’ nesting place hadn’t seemed to take that long, but when his person had lifted the carrying thing and let him look out the window, he had quickly realized they were traveling far faster than they had ever traveled before. They had been far higher, as well, and they’d gone on getting higher until the very sky had turned from blue to black! Yet even that had been only the beginning of their trip, for they had transferred to the biggest flying thing he had ever seen through a vast, hollow tube, and it seemed reasonable to conclude that it was probably even faster than the one which had delivered them to it. After all, it had even farther to go and there was clearly no limit to the sorts of speeds at which two-legs could travel when the mood took them! And the hollow tube had had windows, too—windows that let him look down upon the world…and know he had been right about the reason Death Fang’s Bane and Windswept had used round blue shapes of their images for this journey. They had not been islands, whatever others of the People might have believed.

Yet Climbs Quickly had found himself almost more daunted than pleased at being proved right. The blue shapes were entirely separate worlds…and that meant he was far, far away from Bright Water’s nesting place. That was a sobering thought for even the hardiest scout, for it meant he was the only Person in an entire world, and he was surprised how small that made him feel.

Still, he could not feel lonely, even if there were no other People to whom he might speak, for he was with Death Fang’s Bane, and he looked back up at her, holding tight to the flare of her mind-glow and treasuring its welcome.

* * *


There was something especially warm, especially loving, about Lionheart’s sound, and Stephanie blinked quickly. Somehow, she knew he was trying to reassure her that he was fine…and probably to take reassurance from her, as well.

“It’ll be fine,” she told him just a bit gruffly, reaching into the carrier’s side to stroke his ears with her forefinger while Karl popped the hatch. “It’ll be fine.”

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