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Heart of Stone
<You must go, Stone Shaper.>
<I am here. I am staying here.>
<Please, beloved. Please leave me.>
<No.> Stone Shaper ran his true-hand gently down Golden Eye’s muzzle, his eyes dark. <You are my life. I will not leave you. I will never leave you, so you must not leave me.>
<But I have no choice.> His mate’s mind-voice was weaker, her mind-glow darker, and he lay down beside her, wrapping her limp body in all six of his limbs, burying his muzzle against the side of her neck. <I have no choice,> Golden Eye repeated, <but you do. Our children, the clan. They need you, and you must stay.>
<I am in the only place I “must” stay,> he told her. <You are my life. I will never leave you.>
<I do not want you to die, too.>
<I know that.> He tasted the pain in her mind-glow, her desperate wish for him to live, but he could not give her what she wanted. Not after so many hands of hands of seasons when she had been the center of his entire world. He could not save her, and he knew that, but this much he could give her, that she did not die alone.
<I know that,> he repeated gently, <but we are one. We have been since first I tasted your mind-glow, and we have always been there for one another. I will not be less than we have been here, at the very end. So rest, beloved.> His arms tightened about her. <Rest, and I will be here, holding you safe.>
<I love you.> He could scarcely hear her mind-voice now, and he pressed his muzzle closer against her neck. <I love you.>
* * *
“Have either of you seen Mack or Zack this morning?” Lady Danette Schardt-Cordova, Baroness Schardt-Cordova, asked, poking her head into the farmhouse breakfast nook.
“Mom, it’s not even nine o’clock and it’s a Saturday,” Dana, the oldest of her three daughters replied, looking up from her book reader. “You really think we’re going to see either of them before noon?” She cocked her head. “You haven’t been sampling the hard cider again, have you?”
“I have not,” Danette retorted with admirable calm. “I never sample it before ten a.m., and you know it, young lady!”
“Just wondering what makes you think either of them are going to show before afternoon on a weekend. I honestly don’t think Zack got back much before dawn. Is there something you need that Natalie and I—” she twitched her head in her youngest sister’s direction “—could take care of?”
“Oh, Gee, thanks,” Natalie said, looking up from her corn flakes. At fourteen T-years, she was ten T-years younger than Dana. She was also ten centimeters taller, which Dana considered a gross miscarriage of genetic justice. “It’s not like I had anything planned this morning, either.”
She rolled her eyes, and her mother chuckled.
“Actually, I need to talk to the boys about the logging pattern for the firebreak Do either of you know if Mack got the software upgrade on the saws loaded?”
“No,” Dana said in a more serious tone. “I know he copied it, but he said something about needing to tweak it.” She snorted suddenly. “I think what he actually said was ‘Those saws are so ancient they wouldn’t even recognize this app if they—you should pardon the expression—saw it.’”
It was Danette’s turn to roll her eyes. She could just hear Mack Kemper saying exactly that in the full expectation that Dana would repeat it to her. Zack was the more flamboyant brother, but Mack had a quietly mischievous streak which had served him well over the years.
The temptation to smile faded. The Schardt-Cordova and the Kemper families had been friends since before the colony ship Jason ever departed the Solar System. They’d invested in the colony early and settled adjacent claims, and Danette and Bart Kemper had both been first-generation Sphinxians.
But the Plague Years had been hard on both families. Danette had lost three siblings and her mother in the first wave, and the Kempers had suffered an equally severe death rate. She was one of the people (there were quite a few of them, especially on Sphinx) who’d thought the new Constitution’s provision ennobling the survivors of the original shareholders was silly, and it certainly couldn’t compensate for all the loss and grief they’d suffered, but it had been ratified only after the worst was over. She’d thought of the title as the bookend for the long, bitter battle against the Plague. After all, they’d finally perfected an effective vaccine in 1496, hadn’t they? Which had only made the final outbreak on Sphinx in 1510—the one that had hit fourteen years after the vaccine, when everyone thought it was over, the monster had been slain; the one the vaccine hadn’t stopped dead in its tracks—hurt even worse.
Stringent quarantine and a medical system built and honed in the face of the Plague’s original onslaught had kept it tightly confined, restricted to an isolated geographic area on a single one of the Star Kingdom’s inhabited worlds, and prevented the sort of pandemic which had made the original plague so horrific. The death rate had been only a hiccup, compared to the staggering death tolls of the Plague Years, but it had hit hard before the medics managed to tweak the vaccine…and Danette had found herself a single mother at the same time Zack and Mack had found themselves orphans.
It had seemed so bitterly unfair, so cruel, of the universe to deal them such a blow once they’d finally begun to trust life once more. To be confident there would be a tomorrow, and another tomorrow after that, for the people they loved. Yet Danette had survived that blow as she had so many others, and she’d done it by refusing to give in. By refusing to break and fail the people she still had to love.
That had been twelve T-years ago, when Mack, had been only six and Zack had been only four. There’d never been any question who was going to take the boys, and not just because they were on adjacent claims, and “Aunt Danette” had never regretted her decision.
Like many of the Plague’s survivors, they had their own share of psychic wounds. Mack was very much the quieter of the two, but even Zack—who delighted in his exuberant, artistic (or “artsy-fartsy,” to use Mack’s occasionally repressive term) personality—had people to mourn, and not just his own parents. Neither of them allowed that to get them down, however, and they had injected a welcome dose of mischief into the Schardt-Cordova household.
Oh, they could be a handful, and she would never admit to them how big a place they had in her heart. They knew; she’d just never admit it! And they’d more than earned their keep as she struggled to keep both claims up and running. She was going to miss them—a lot—when they moved back onto their own claim again in another T-year or so. The Kemper homestead was located on the East Ridge River in the now-Barony of Kemper’s southeastern quadrant, only about ninety kilometers (barely ten or eleven minutes by air) from this very breakfast nook, and she knew they’d still be around, if only because neither of them was a particularly good cook. But it wouldn’t be the same, somehow.
“You say Zack didn’t get back until dawn?” she asked after a moment, and Dana nodded. “And you know this because—?”
“Because she got back about the same time the boys did,” Natalie offered.
“You did?” Danette looked at her older daughter speculatively, and Dana flushed slightly.
“Mom, I’m twenty-three!”
“I didn’t say you weren’t,” Danette said mildly. “I was only…expressing a parental interest. Do you plan on introducing him—whoever he is—to us sometime soon? I only ask so that I can plan the number of place settings for dinner tomorrow, you understand. No rush.”
“Okay. Okay! Just teasing.” Danette smiled broadly, but the truth was that she had a pretty fair idea where—and with whom—Dana had been, and she approved wholeheartedly. Not that she had any intention of giving up such excellent ammunition!
“And do either of you know where Cordelia might be this fair morning?”
“She’s out on that survey you asked for. She grabbed some cold cereal and left about thirty minutes ago. She took a couple of sandwiches with her, too. Said she probably won’t be back until after lunch.”
“She went alone?” Danette frowned, and Dana shrugged.
“I offered to go with her, but she said she’s fine. She took her rifle and Barnaby.”
Danette nodded, although not in complete satisfaction. They really needed that survey along the Red Bank Bottoms completed before the loggers moved in, but it was a long way from the house—or help—if something went wrong. On the other hand, all three of her girls were excellent shots—people in the Sphinxian bush tended to take marksmanship seriously—and Barnaby was a Meyerdahl Rottweiler. The huge dog stood almost eighty centimeters at the shoulder and, at seventy-three kilos, outweighed Natalie by a considerable margin. He was also both smart and fiercely protective. Between him and her rifle, Cordelia should be fine, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t going to experience a rather firm mother-to-daughter counseling session when she got home.
Or maybe not, Danette thought. She is eighteen now, and you know darned well she’s an awfully mature eighteen. All the girls are. That’s what happens when you grow up on a planet where forty percent or so of the people died in a plague before you were even born.
And aren’t I a cheerful soul this early in the morning?
“Okay,” she said out loud. “What are you two planning for the day?”
“I told Nat I’d run her into Twin Forks after lunch,” Dana replied. “That swim club they’ve been trying to set up is having an actual organizational meeting at the Y this afternoon.”
“Great!” Danette nodded enthusiastically. The planetary data net, coms, uni-links, and computerized classrooms let kids from all over Sphinx “meet” one another, but the Schardt-Cordova claim—only it was now the “Barony of Schardt-Cordova,” of course—was a hundred kilometers on a side, and it was still smaller than a dozen other claims she could think of right off hand. Distances like that meant young folks stuck out in the bush got less physical “face time” with their age cohorts than she wished they could. VR was better than nothing, but it just wasn’t the same. She’d experienced the same sort of isolation, growing up, and she was in favor of anything that might involve actual group activities for her kids, although swimming wasn’t the very first one that would have sprung to mind.
Sphinx’s enormous orbit imposed lengthy seasons, and its average temperature was significantly lower than that of either Manticore or Gryphon, the Manticore Binary System’s other two habitable worlds, to begin with. Gryphon experienced a far more extreme seasonal swing each year, but Sphinx was the dictionary definition of “really, really, really cold” over the course of its sixteen-T-month-long winter. Even at the height of summer, Sphinx’s natural bodies were scarcely what anyone would call warm, but at the moment, they were halfway through autumn. True, this summer had been exceptionally hot (for Sphinx) and dry, with far too many forest fires. The fall weather was continuing the same drought pattern, but at least it was cooling towards something a native born Sphinxian considered comfortable…and anyone else would call “brisk.” Which meant that even though Twin Forks was almost four hundred kilometers away from Schardt-Cordova—a good forty-five-minute flight, one way—the Y’s indoor heated pool had much to recommend it.
And so does the ice cream at the Red Letter Café, she reflected. Well, they work hard, my girls. They deserve an afternoon or two off, especially on the weekend.
“All right, that works for me. But let me know before you leave. I need a few things from town. I’ll put a list together.”
“Gotcha,” Dana agreed.
“And now to go beard the hexapuma. We’ve got to get those saws up and running by Monday, so wish me luck!”
* * *
“Dang, I wish you hadn’t kept us out so late,” Mack Kemper groused as he landed the air car in the clearing. The original Kempers and Schardt-Cordovas had chosen their claim sites in no small part because of how well watered they were, and despite the drought, enough moisture hovered in the air to produce a cool mist, and sunlight slanting through the towering crown oak canopy created gilded bars of gold.
“I kept us out so late?” Zack looked at him. “Who was that guy you were sitting with, again?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Mack pressed the button and his nostrils flared appreciatively as the canopy slid back and the earthy scent of the forest reached them. “And his name, as you know perfectly well, was Brad. Jealous?”
“Not my type, man,” Zack replied. “Way too nerdy.”
“Nerdy?” Mack looked at him in disbelief as he climbed out of the air car and took his rifle from the rack. “This from the guy who came in second in the planetary ‘Call of Earth’ competition? You seriously want to call someone else ‘nerdy’?”
“Asks the guy who came in first in the planetary competition,” Zack observed to no one in particular as he collected his own weapon—he preferred a shotgun rather than a rifle—and checked the chamber. “I, unlike certain other people, game because my sensitive and artistic nature craves expression. Some people, on the other hand, game because they don’t have much of a life outside VR. I mention no names, of course. That would be tacky.”
“I am so gonna smack you upside the head the next time we square off in ‘Death Match,’ buddy!” Mack warned him with a chuckle.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Heard it all before.”
Mack tapped the remote and the canopy slid shut. Most dangerous Sphinxian wildlife tended to be on the large side, like hexapumas and peak bears. There were a few smaller critters who could be decidedly unpleasant, however, and finding one of them perched in the air car when they got back to it was not high on his Good Things list. Besides, they weren’t far from several of the bigger near-beaver ponds. The sleek, six-limbed beasties had a pronounced fondness for chewing air car upholstery into shreds, and the near-possums were even worse.
“So, let’s go kick some saws in the ass,” he said, and Zack shrugged.
“I’m just here because someone dragged me out of my hard-earned sleep to make sure nothing ate him,” he replied. “But that’s okay! Don’t mind my sleep-deprived state. Nothing I’d rather do than keep an eye on my brother’s back!”
“I sure wish Cordelia hadn’t grabbed Barnaby this morning,” Mack said thoughtfully, leading the way through the misty sun shafts towards the hulking mass of the nearest robotic logger. “He’s a lot quieter than you are!”
* * *
Stone, who had once been called Stone Shaper, lay stretched along the net-wood branch in the sunlight. He would have to change position soon if he wanted to stay in its warmth, and he did. The world had moved into leaf-turning hands of hands of days ago. The cold days would not be upon him tomorrow, but soon enough. Soon enough.
So I have seen yet another green season, he thought, looking out through the forest. I suppose that is an achievement.
He rolled onto his back, presenting his belly fur to the sun, and closed his eyes as he remembered. There were memory songs about others like him. Not many, but a few. He had always wondered why those other People had so stubbornly survived. Now it was his turn, and he could no more answer the question now than he could have then.
I should have ended and gone with her, he thought yet again. It was not a helpful thought. He knew that…and he could no more stop thinking it than he could have flown.
The truth was that he had expected to do exactly that, even if the gray death had not taken him, as well. People seldom survived the loss of their mates, especially when they were as deeply bonded as he and Golden Eye. Indeed, he had not wanted to survive when he realized he must lose her.
The gray death struck only rarely, but the People knew its signs well…and that almost all of those touched by it died. None of the memory songs told what caused it. It wasn’t like eating death weed or any of the other poisonous plants. It didn’t come from bad water, or from death sting venom. It just…happened, and it spread like wildfire in fire season. The only defense against it was to stay away from those afflicted by it. That was why the rest of Bright Water Clan had moved its nests from the golden-leaf in which he and Golden Eye had built their own nest. Neither he nor Golden Eye had blamed them for that decision. The clan’s hunters and scouts had brought food and left it for them at a safe distance, and their friends and the mind-healers had stayed close enough to mind-speak them every day. Bright Water had not abandoned them. In fact, it had refused to, and it had done only what it must to save the rest of the clan.
Stone Shaper understood that. It was what had happened later that had driven him from the clan and its central nesting place forever.
And that was not Bright Water’s fault, either. It was his own, because he had not died.
The gray death was not the only sickness that could kill. True, it killed far more of those it struck than most of those other sicknesses. Yet what made it especially terrifying to the People was what happened to so many of the tiny number of People it did not kill.
He remembered the day he had finally reemerged from the darkness he had thought was death. He remembered awakening, remembered the aching, awful silence where his beloved mate’s mind-glow had been. Remembered the terrible grief, the need to follow her back into the darkness, never to emerge.
Yet he had not. Something had stopped him. Perhaps it was Golden Eye’s forever-silent mind-voice whispering to him out of the stillness, telling him to live. Perhaps it was simple obstinacy on his own part. Golden Eye had always told him he was the most stubborn Person she had ever known, so perhaps that was the reason.
Or perhaps I just needed to make my life a curse upon the world. Proof that it cannot kill everything I love only because it could kill the Person I loved more than all the rest of it combined.
He had borne Golden Eye’s still, stiff body up from their nesting place to the fork at the very top of the golden-leaf and placed her where the cleansing wind, the bright sunshine, could bear her spirit to that other place where he hoped she awaited him. And then he had returned to their empty nest, waited the double-hand of days that proved the gray death had left him, mourning her in silence, before he went out once more to meet the clan.
And discovered that the gray death had taken something far crueler than his life. It had stolen his mind-voice. And not just the ability to mind-speak, as was most common among those who survived the gray death. No. It had taken his ability to mind-hear, as well. The constant flow of mind-voices, the presence of all those other mind-voices around him, among him, part of him…
Gone. Simply…gone. Gone into a great, dark emptiness. Into a silence he had never known. And, perhaps worse even than that, he could still taste mind-glows. He knew exactly what the People around him felt, but for the first time in his life, he did not know what they thought. They could not speak to him, tell him, and he could not ask.
They had been horrified by how the gray death had maimed him, and his very presence had only added to their horror. There was no hatred, there was no resentment, no one wanted him away from them…yet his mere presence had frightened them, however hard they strove against their fear. Or against sharing it with him. He was the reminder of what might happen to any of them, as well. Almost worse, he had tasted their compassion—their pity. Their need to somehow comfort him…and the knowledge that they could not. They could no more avoid sharing their mind-glows than he could avoid tasting them, and the guilt they felt—the guilt about which neither he nor they could mind-speak—had only made it worse.
And so he had left.
Those same mind-glows had implored him not to go. The People well knew how unlikely a single Person was to survive. There were so many perils in the world, so many of them bigger and far stronger than any Person. Without the rest of the clan to watch and ward and aid, death almost always came quickly, and despite his silence, he was a part of their lives and their hearts. They had already lost Golden Eye, and their hearts had cried out against losing him, as well.
Yet he could not stay. Not tasting their mind-glows so deeply from his world of silence. Besides, without his mind-voice, he could no longer serve as the leader of Bright Water’s flint shapers, anyway. How could he, when he could no longer hear what was needed or explain the other flint shapers’ tasks to them? And so his place as one of Bright Water’s elders had passed to Stone Biter. That was good. Stone Biter was his and Golden Eye’s eldest surviving kitten, with a good heart, a strong mind-glow. He would do well by the clan.
And so he had changed his own name, in the silence of his own mind. It was not the name by which the rest of the clan might know him, but he no longer knew what they might call him now. So he had become simply Stone. A stone wrapped in stony silence, cast out not by the clan, but by his own heart and will as he set out on to find the death awaiting him.
But it had refused to find him, and he had discovered that he could not simply wait passively for it. He had nothing left except the stony determination that the world would not slay him as easily as it had slain his beloved. He would fight death, every step of the way, with bared fangs and claws, because it was the only purpose left to him.
He knew that. He accepted it. And yet that empty, bleeding silence within him longed for the day when he lost that fight at last.
And is that not a pleasant way to begin your day? he asked himself. Perhaps you should be thinking about your next visit to the two-legs, instead.
Stone doubted the rest of Bright Water would have approved of his raids upon the two-legs, but he was far away from Bright Water’s range. Nothing that happened with these two-legs was likely to impact the rest of the People. Besides, the People had been raiding the two-legs plant places for cluster stalk long before Golden Eye left him. True, Stone had been a flint shaper, without the stealthiness of a scout or hunter, but there was also only one of him, and he had been careful in his forays.
And the two-legs were the only reason he had survived so long, actually. Their plant places provided many plants, some of them pleasant tasting and some not so pleasant, even at the height of the cold days. And there were other…interesting possibilities.
He had been very tempted to sample one of the long-eared creatures who reminded him of grass runners. They were somewhat smaller than a Person, yet large enough that one of them might have fed him for quite some time, and they smelled delicious. Unfortunately, he was sure the two-legs would notice if any of them disappeared, and while they might blame it on bark-chewers or sharp-snouts, it was unlikely. Neither of them would have been able to open the simple but effective closures the two-legs had constructed to keep them out. And so, regretfully, he had left them unsampled.
On the other hand, there were the flutter-wings. It wasn’t a very good name for them, but it was the only one he had. They were ridiculous creatures—fat, excitable, and for something with wings, unbelievably clumsy. Certainly they were nothing at all like a death-wing or wind-glider! They smelled even more delicious than the long-ears, though. And unlike the long-ears, they also laid eggs. Whatever the flutter-wings might smell like, their eggs truly were delicious, and they produced a lot of them. A short visit to the flutter-wing nest place with his carry net could feed him for a full hand of days without taking more than an egg here or an egg there.
He had also availed himself of other treasures courtesy of the two-legs. There was a place behind the main nesting place where they seemed to discard things they no longer wanted. They had some sort of made-thing that crunched up their discards, for some reason. Perhaps it was simply to make them take up less space, but a flying thing collected the eaten pieces every double-hand of days. The important point was that they only used their made-thing the day before the flying thing came, and he had found any number of useful things prowling through the discard place. He had used them to build a nest that was both larger and warmer than anything a single Person truly needed—enough to shelter him easily even through the coldest of cold days—and he had gathered up other tools he needed to survive inside it, like the marvelous blade he used now instead of the stone tools of the People.
There were actually days when he was almost content.
He suspected that he had learned more about two-legs than any other Person. It was a pity he would never be able to share what he had learned with the memory singers. But—
His thoughts broke off and he rolled over onto his hand-feet and true-feet as he felt the approach of a mind-glow. That was one of the things he could never share with a memory singer—the discovery that two-legs had mind-glows. Well, of course they did! Every creature that lived had a mind-glow, of sorts, at least. But two-leg mind-glows were much stronger than those of any other creature Stone had ever encountered. In fact, they were at least as strong as those of the People, although they were very different. Of course, he had no mind-voice, nor any ability to listen for their mind-voices, so he had no idea how similar to or different from the People the two-legs might truly be, but it was interesting.
Now he watched as one of what he’d come to think of as “his” two-legs made its way along the streambank with a thunder-barker slung over its shoulder. The big, black barker Stone took great pains to avoid in his excursions into the flutter-wing’s nesting place scampered in and out of the low growing brush, ranging ahead of the two-leg but always circling back to it.
Now what are you doing out here today, two-leg? he thought.
No doubt the answer was some other incomprehensible two-leg thing, but at least following it would give him something to do.
* * *
“There!” Mack said.
“Oh? Are you finally done?” Zack inquired.
“I didn’t notice you breaking a sweat to help,” Mack observed.
“Not my job! You’re the software guy. I’m the bring-my-shotgun-and-watch-your-back-with-steely-eyed-concentration guy. Remember?”
Since at that very moment Zack was sprawled comfortably in the shade of one of the logging robots with his hands clasped behind his head while he chewed a near-sage stem, his older brother might have been excused for the eye roll he gave him.
“Yeah, sure. But, as it happens, we are done here. So why don’t we head back? It’s almost lunchtime. Besides, I need to talk to Aunt Danette.”
“And you broke your uni-link!” Zack said sorrowfully, spitting out his near-sage stem and climbing to his feet. “I didn’t even notice!”
“You really are full of yourself today, aren’t you?” Mack shook his head. “In this instance, however, I need to show her some diagrams on my pad while we talk. You know how visually oriented she is. There are a couple of trim patterns in this software I didn’t realize were included. I think we’re going to have more flexibility than we thought we were, but I really need her input to decide which ones we want to prioritize.”
“Makes sense,” Zack said a bit more seriously. “But you know she’s really going to want to hear from Cordelia before she makes any decisions about that.”
“Yeah, she is.” Mack nodded.
Unlike some Sphinxians, Aunt Danette took her responsibilities as a custodian of the planetary wilderness dead seriously. That was why she wanted an eyes-on report from the ground to back up the drones’ aerial scans. She wanted to know exactly what needed to be cut and what didn’t, rather than resorting to the “cut it all down and let God sort it out” approach some of her fellow “nobles” would have adopted.
“There’s enough daylight left we can still get back out here this afternoon to make any tweaks she wants,” he pointed out, and Zack nodded. Sphinx’s day was the next best thing to twenty-six hours long and, despite their late start, it was barely midday. “We need to start cutting Monday,” Mack continued, “and I have plans for tomorrow.”
“Plans that include what’s-his-name? Brad?” Zack asked mischievously.
“Plans,” Mack said repressively, and his younger brother relented.
“All right. Then why don’t you and I head on over and give Cordelia a hand? I know she really prefers wandering around the woods alone, but she’d probably forgive us for horning in on her this afternoon. As long as we don’t get into the habit!”
“You know, that’s not a half bad idea,” Mack agreed. “C’mon.”
* * *
Cordelia Schardt-Cordova made her way cautiously along the game trail. The Sphinxian near-deer, which she understood didn’t look a great deal like the terrestrial species it had been named for, preferred flight to fight in the face of any threat. It also ran to around ninety kilos, however, and upon occasion its version of “flight” might be more accurately described as “run-right-over-the-threat-and-trample-it-on-my-way-out.”
She figured the odds of any such encounter today were slim, partly because the trail didn’t seem to have seen much recent use but even more because Barnaby would spot any near-deer—or anything else large enough to pose a threat—well before Cordelia did. The Meyerdahl Rotties had been genetically modified for a heavy-gravity environment, and although it hadn’t been part of the modification’s original objectives, the breed’s already considerable intelligence had been tweaked in the process. The result was the almost perfect settler’s dog for Sphinx, in Cordelia’s opinion.
Now Barnaby came bounding back down the trail towards her like a furry, black-and-tan thunderbolt. He slid to a halt, and she braced herself as he rose on his back feet and planted his front paws on her shoulders, tail wagging and ears pricked.
“Don’t even think it!” she warned him as he cocked his massive head, clearly contemplating whether or not to give her a lick. She scratched him behind his right ear and he decided to close his eyes and luxuriate in the caress, instead.
“Smart move,” she told him.
He chuffled happily, then dropped back to all four feet and nosed her rucksack. She glanced down at him—it wasn’t that far; he stood well above waist-high on her—and he waggled his head, flapping his ears at her.
“Well,” she checked the time on her uni-link and discovered it was later than she’d thought, “I guess it is about lunchtime. Let’s find a place with a view.”
Barnaby sneezed explosively in agreement and went trotting along the trail ahead of her once more, and she shook her head as she followed him.
She kept her eyes open as she went, and not just to make sure nothing untoward pounced upon her. The drone dodging through the canopy overhead was actually as responsible for collecting the survey data she was out here to get as she was, but the impressions of a human observer were bound to play a role in its interpretation. Besides, humans had been on Sphinx for less than a T-century, even now. There were still plenty of things they hadn’t figured out about their new planet. The Sphinx Forestry Service was constantly identifying new species of flora and fauna, many of which only reemphasized the need to treat the planetary biosphere with wary respect. And one reason Cordelia loved running surveys for her mom was the possibility of spotting new species herself. There was a bounty for identifying useful plants or animals, although it didn’t amount to a whole heap of money. But Cordelia wasn’t interested in the money. She wanted the naming rights that accompanied the bounty. A species’ discoverer was allowed to propose the official name for her discovery, and Cordelia was appalled by how little imagination some of those discoverers displayed.
Tell the truth, she told herself now. What you’re really hoping is to turn up something like the Harringtons did, aren’t you?
Well, maybe she was. She wasn’t sure she accepted the theory that these “treecats” were tool makers. Tool users, maybe. There were plenty of species on planets humanity had settled who displayed that behavior, using sticks to dig, for instance. But if young Harrington was to be believed, her “treecats” went well beyond that, and that level of sophistication was far rarer. The Forestry Service seemed to agree with her, though. She was actually a Ranger now herself, despite being a couple of years younger than Cordelia, and she and her friends were fierce “treecat” advocates. Cordelia was willing to admit the possibility that they were right about the critters actually making tools; she just wanted firsthand confirmation of it before she signed off on the theory.
The woods began to thin ahead of her as the game trail angled back towards the streambank. More near-beaver work, she thought. For beasties that never exceeded a body length of fifty centimeters or so, they could be incredibly destructive. But the ponds they impounded could be enormous—the one she was approaching was well over two kilometers in its longest dimension—and they nurtured the wetlands that were key to much of the forests’ lifecycle. That was one reason she was out here. The last summer had been decidedly too dry, and there’d been a lot of fires, especially over on the far side of Twin Forks. So far, the autumn had been just as dry, with precious little of the rains they normally expected. The parched undergrowth the summer had turned into kindling was in the process of turning into tinder, and the Forestry Service was warning everyone they were far from out of the danger zone. The higher elevations had seen some relief—snow was already falling up there, although there was less of it than usual and it was still mostly melting each morning—but the lower claims were in just as much danger as ever. In fact, in many ways it was worse than it had been at the height of the summer.
Feather-bramble was a critical component of the Sphinxian plant cycle. The resinous, low growing shrub provided a dense ground cover and the combination of its shade and deep root system played a major role in capturing and conserving rainwater. When there was any rain, at least. But it also died back every fall, leaving a skeletal lacework of highly combustible dead leaves and twigs. It was well into that annual die-back cycle now, and it was moving east as the season deepened, which meant it was all too likely to lead a fresh spate of fires in the same direction.
The Red Bank Bottoms lay directly athwart that threat axis. They followed the north-south course of the river for which they had been named, and while the Red Bank was only a modest stream (by Sphinxian standards), tribes of beavers had strung their ponds along it like beads on a necklace to produce the Bottoms. The water in those ponds was always critical for wildlife during dry summers, and the band of wetlands also provided a potential firebreak that guarded over a third of her mom’s barony’s western perimeter.
The problem was the feather-bramble along the bottoms’ western perimeter and number of crown oaks growing alongside the river. Actually, the problem was the crown oak branches which extended clear across the river. Coupled with the picketwood thickets which exploded into the clearings the near-beavers’ logging efforts produced, they created altogether too many bridges by which flames could leap the water barrier if the feather-bramble caught fire. A crown oak took decades—more probably centuries—to reach full maturity, so the decision to harvest one usually required careful consideration. Picketwood, on the other hand, grew so fast it could become a serious nuisance, and the long, dry summer had turned the blankets of fallen vegetation under the thickets into yet another pile of tinder waiting for a spark. Once Mack and Zack had the logging robots’ new software loaded and certified, they’d move into the area to cut back the picketwood and clear out that tinder as a fire precaution. At least some of the crown oaks would be going, as well, though. Cordelia regretted that. As on most recently colonized planets, timber was a primary building material on Sphinx, but a typical crown oak was at least eighty meters in height and eight meters in diameter. Just one of them could provide thousands of board-meters of lumber, and they might be going to drop as many as a half dozen of them. That was an awful lot more timber than anyone was going to need.
In fact, that was really what she was looking for: places where the majestic trees could be topped or pruned to get rid of the fire bridges without taking them down completely. That would be far better for the forest in general, and Cordelia would feel less as if they were desecrating their planet.
Barnaby emerged from the picketwood thicket into a near-beaver-provided clearing, and Cordelia followed him gratefully. She loved the dim-majestic aisles of the crown oaks, but the temperature was decidedly on the cool side, even for her Sphinx-born sensibilities, this early in Sphinx’s long day, and a little direct sunlight would be welcome.
She stepped out of the shade and found herself on the brink of the beaver pond she’d been working her way toward for the last forty-five minutes. It was even more impressive down here at ground level than from the aerial shots. In fact, its northern limb ran farther back into the crown oaks than she’d realized. It might well be the biggest single pond she’d ever heard of, she thought, making her way through the knee-high scrub that had taken advantage of the supply of sunlight. Near-beavers tended to take down the trees they intended to use and then let them season. They stripped off branches and leaves for immediate use, but the trunks often lay where they’d fallen for as much as a planetary year before they were hauled off for the current construction project. From the overhead drone’s imagery, these beavers had been kind enough to leave several suitable benches from which to choose her luncheon perch.
* * *
Stone flowed along the net-wood, watching the two-leg and tasting its mind-glow. This was the closest he’d actually come to one of them, although he had seen them moving through the forests on more than one occasion. It was also the closest he’d been to one of their mind-glows, and it was even stronger than he had thought it was. Indeed, it seemed to be stronger than one of the People’s mind-glows!
And perhaps it only seems that way because it has been so long since you tasted another Person’s mind-glow, he reminded himself. Still, it was astonishing that he could taste it so clearly from this distance.
It tasted…nice. That was the only way he could describe it to himself. He suspected that this must be a young two-leg, judging by the bright edges of its mind-glow. This two-leg was still seeing things that were new to it, and he tasted its anticipation of seeing still more of them.
Strange that I can tell that is what it wants so clearly. Even another Person’s mind-glow would reveal less about his actual thoughts.
On the other hand, he was close enough now to be confident that the two-legs had no mind-voices. In fact, they must be totally mind-blind, poor things. If not, the two-leg would had to have tasted his own mind-glow by now.
He eased a little closer, confident from their mind-glows that neither the two-leg nor the barker had detected his presence, and his ears pricked as the comforting warmth of the two-leg flowed over him. And that was what it was, he realized—comforting. It was as if he warmed his true-hands over a welcoming fire. Like the fire, the two-leg’s mind-glow was not even aware of him, yet its brightness—its warmth—reached into the inner chill where Golden Eye had left him. And if it was not aware of him, neither did it feel pity for him. It simply was, and he followed even more closely through the dappled sunlight and shade, gazing down upon the crown of its head from almost directly above.
He was so lost, so enwrapped in his study of its mind-glow, that he did not realize where it was headed until the trees began to thin ahead of them.
He froze when he did realize, and shock and alarm rolled through him. Was the two-leg crazed? How could it—?
And then he realized something else.
It does not know, he thought. It does not know! And neither does the barker!
Their mind-glows made that obvious. And even if they had possessed mind-voices, he had none. He could not even warn them! Unless—
* * *
Cordelia paused in mid-step. She’d never heard an animal’s cry quite like that one, and she turned, trying to find its source.
Where in the world—?
Movement flickered in the corner of her vision and her eyes widened in disbelief as she saw the source of the cries.
It’s a…a treecat!
That was all it could be, she thought. She’d seen enough imagery of them to know that! But what had it so upset?
“Bleek! Bleek, bleek, bleek!”
She didn’t know why she was so certain its agitation had something to do with her, yet she was. Maybe it was just that she couldn’t think of any other reason for it to be making so much racket—or to have revealed its presence to her in the first place! And now it was flowing back and forth along the branches of the picketwood. It raced towards her for a couple of meters, then turned around and ran in the opposite direction, looking over its shoulder at her.
What in the world—?
She turned and took a step towards it.
* * *
Relief boiled through Stone as the two-leg paused, looked up, and saw him. He bleeked at it again, running back along the net-wood, and tasted the surprise and curiosity that erupted through its mind-glow. There was delight mixed with the surprise, and a sense of wonder that went beyond simple curiosity, and he tasted it turning to follow him.
Good! If he could only get it—
* * *
Cordelia Schardt-Cordova felt herself smiling hugely as she realized the treecat wanted her to follow it!
My God, they really are intelligent! she thought. And this one wants to show me something? Is that what it wants? But why—?
She took one more step, and that was when Barnaby’s warcry snarled through the clearing. For an instant, she thought it was aimed at the treecat. She whipped around in the Rottweiler’s direction, eyes wide, and then froze as the entire shoreline of the near-beaver pond exploded with movement.
* * *
No! He had come so close to saving it!
Horror erupted through Stone as the needle-fangs swarmed out of the undergrowth.
Needle-fangs were among the world’s most deadly hunters. Not because of their size—they were no more than half a Person’s size—but because of their numbers…and their hunger. They would attack anything that lived, hands of hands of them swarming over it, pulling it down, literally devouring it alive, especially in mating season.
They were the reason there were no longer any lake builders here.
* * *
“Barnaby! Come!” Cordelia shouted, un-slinging her rifle and suddenly wishing she’d brought a shotgun instead. “Come!”
Near-weasels! She should have realized! That was why she’d seen no sign of near-beavers, why nothing was using the game trail! Normally, near-weasels were seen only in relatively small numbers, but in mid-autumn, the peak of their breeding season, they could run in packs of dozens or even more.
Barnaby’s hackles had gone up the instant he scented the near-weasels, but he responded quickly to her call, bounding towards her as she backed towards the open ground where the crown oaks’ canopy choked out the undergrowth. Near-weasels were territorial—that was why their packs grew during breeding season as they staked out territory and hunting grounds in which to bear their young—and if she and Barnaby could just get beyond the limit of the territory they’d claimed here—
Barnaby stayed between her and the oncoming near-weasels, flowing back and forth, rumbling his war cry, and it looked as if the creatures were slowing. Or maybe she just wanted to believe that. Maybe—
She was watching the threat. She didn’t notice the root growing across the game trail until the heel of her right boot caught on it.
* * *
The two-leg stumbled, then sprawled backward, dropping its thunder-barker, and Stone tasted the bolt of pain that shot through its mind-glow. Not from the fall; from its ankle.
It fought to climb back to its feet while the needle-fangs surged closer, and he heard it cry out in pain. It managed to scramble back upright, but it swayed, fighting to stay there while anguish ripped through it.
* * *
Cordelia sobbed in pain as she crawled back to her feet and knew that she and Barnaby were about to die because of a simple stupid, stupid fall.
She didn’t know if the ankle was broken or just horribly sprained, and it didn’t matter. What mattered was that she could barely stand, far less run. She’d managed to recover her rifle on her way back up, and her hand found the pistol grip while her thumb snapped off the safety, but that was more a reflex act of defiance than anything else. Near-weasels were fast, and they were small targets. And—
Barnaby’s rumbling snarl rolled up like thunder as the outliers of the near-weasel tide reached them. His massive jaws snapped shut with an audible crunch. His victim’s squeal died abruptly, and he tossed his head, flipping it back into the pack. His jaws closed again, and then the near-weasels were upon him. They were small foes, but their teeth were needle-sharp. His thick coat and hide offered some protection, but not enough, and Cordelia raised her rifle.
* * *
The two-leg’s thunder-barker bellowed, and Stone felt a flicker of hope. But the needle-fangs came on, undeterred. They had no idea what a thunder-barker was…and if they had understood, they wouldn’t have cared. Their mind-glows were minimal at the best of times; now they were filled with nothing but rage and hunger.
* * *
“What the hell?!”
Zack Kemper bolted upright in his seat as the alarm pinged. He jerked up his wrist and tapped the face of his uni-link.
“What?” Mack asked tautly.
“She doesn’t say. In fact—” Zack tapped again, and his face tightened. “It’s her fall alert on auto, Mack.”
The brothers looked at each other. Aunt Danette’s rules were inflexible. No one ever went into the bush alone without activating the fall alert function on his uni-link. The younger members of her household might occasionally roll their eyes over the precaution, but they didn’t really feel like arguing. Falls were one of the most common accidents that could overtake someone in the bush, and in Sphinx’s 1.35 gravities, that sort of “accident” often meant broken bones—sometimes a lot of them—for humans who hadn’t been genetically enhanced for heavy-grav worlds. So if the uni-link detected a fall and its wearer didn’t tap the “Are you okay?” prompt within ten seconds, it automatically broadcast a homing signal.
“Where?” Mack demanded. “I don’t see—” He broke off as an icon flashed on his navigation display. “Got it! Ping Aunt Danette and tell her we’re on it!”
* * *
Blood stained Barnaby’s coat in a dozen places, but he was a Rottweiler. Not just a Rottweiler—a Meyerdahl Rottweiler whose person was in danger. He was far stronger, far tougher than any terrestrial Rottweiler, yet he possessed every iota of his ancestors’ fearless, go-for-broke nature, and he ignored his own wounds, whipping around Cordelia, snatching away the near-weasels that tried to swarm up her boots and the tough, no-rip fabric of her trousers.
They moved too fast, were too elusive, for her to target them with her rifle, so she used it as a club, instead, sobbing with terror but refusing to panic. She smashed one near-weasel after another, trying to keep them off of Barnaby, but there were always two more in place of each one that she clubbed.
* * *
Stone snarled in fury as he tasted the mind-glows below him.
The two-leg’s terror surged over him like a tide, but for all its fear, it was that mind-glow’s focus that caught Stone by the throat. He recognized the despair in it. He had known that same despair as Golden Eye sank into her final sleep in his arms. Had felt it himself when he longed to never awaken and find her gone. But there was no surrender in the two-leg. It would fight against the needle-fangs until it could fight no more, and not just for itself. Stone tasted its desperate determination to protect the barker even as he tasted the barker’s blood-red, furious determination to protect the two-leg.
They were mind-blind. Neither could taste the other, know that the other would die rather than abandon them. And it didn’t matter. Not to them. They would fight, and they would die, together, as surely as any of the People would fight and die together.
And as he realized that, he realized something else, as well.
He could not let them fight and die alone. He knew too much of what that meant.
* * *
Even through Barnaby’s howling fury and her own panic, Cordelia heard another sound. It was like tearing canvas. She’d never heard it before, yet a corner of her brain recognized what it had to be and she wanted to cry out. To reject what she knew was about to happen.
The treecat followed its battle cry down out of the picketwood.
It hit her shoulder, but only a glancing blow, a carom shot that landed it perfectly poised on all six limbs right at her feet.
And then it exploded into action.
* * *
Stone had no idea if the barker would realize that he wasn’t simply one more needle-fang, but he had no choice but to take that chance. He flung himself into the mad swirl of needle-fangs around the two-leg’s feet, slashing with razor-sharp claws and fangs as sharp as any needle-fang’s.
* * *
Cordelia clubbed another near-weasel, sobbing for breath. The creatures had gotten through her trousers in several places, and she felt blood flowing down her legs, but her wounds were nothing beside Barnaby’s. The Rottweiler was coated in blood, now, and the savagely fighting treecat was already bloodied, as well.
They were going to die. She knew they were. But if they were, then by God, they would go kicking and clawing to the end! Barnaby would never abandon her, she would never abandon him, and neither of them would abandon the treecat who had made their hopeless fight his own.
* * *
Stone squealed in pain as the needle-sharp fangs sank into his right leg.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been bitten, but this time those fangs had reached the big tendon in the back of his leg. The leg went out from under him, and he went down, rolling and lashing out with five sets of claws. The big, black barker’s jaws ripped away one of his attackers even as two more of them swarmed over the barker, and Stone managed to lunge upright. Two of the needle-fangs took advantage of the opening, breaking past him and the barker, swarming up the two-leg’s legs until they could reach its arms. It cried out, dropping its thunder-barker, beating at them to keep them away from its throat, and Stone flung himself upward, swarming up the two-leg in pursuit of the near-fangs.
He reached the closest and sank his right true-hand’s curved claws into its haunch, jerking it back, severing its throat with his left true-hand while he clung to the two-leg’s body covering with both hand-feet and the one true-foot that still worked. But he couldn’t reach the second needle-fang as it eluded the two-leg’s grip and lunged for its throat.
Stone leapt. It was not the strongest leap he had ever made—not with only one leg that worked—but it was enough. He hit the needle-fang, gripping it with both true-hands, ripping the life from it as he arced outward. Then he landed, too far from the two-leg or the barker for either of them to reach him.
The needle-fangs were waiting.
* * *
“No!” Cordelia screamed as the treecat disappeared into the sea of near-weasels. “No!”
She knew exactly what the treecat had done…and why. It hadn’t had to join the fight at all, and now it had died to buy her a few more seconds.
More fangs chewed through her trousers, and three of the little monsters clung to Barnaby’s back, biting and tearing. The Rottweiler was slowing as his blood loss mounted. It was only—
Her head jerked up and her incredulous eyes flared wide.
It was Zack! Where—? How—?
* * *
Zack Kemper killed his counter-grav unit and hit the ground outside the perimeter of the near-weasel pack surrounding Cordelia, and unlike Cordelia, he favored a shotgun. In principle, it was identical to the shotguns which had been used on Terra for thousands of years, but the design was rather more advanced, and he had dialed in what one of his Terran ancestors would have called an “improved cylinder choke.” The weapon’s cartridges were slimmer than those of an old-fashioned shotgun, as well. There were fifteen of them in his magazine, each loaded with razor-sharp, aerodynamically stabilized flechettes, and because Zack, for all his levity, was dead serious about watching his brother’s back in the woods, it was also selective fire.
He went to one knee and a burst of fully automatic flechettes ripped a swath of shredded near-weasels across the pack attacking Cordelia.
Recoil hammered his shoulder, and he emptied the magazine, hit the release button with his right index finger without ever letting go of the pistol grip, and slammed in a fresh magazine with his left hand.
* * *
Cordelia sobbed in disbelief. She’d been so focused on the near-weasels that she’d never even heard the air car! Now it hovered above her, canopy open and she saw Mack standing in it. He leaned over the side, shooting downward, and if he didn’t have a shotgun like Zack’s, his rifle was firing on full auto, and he’d attached the hundred-round drum magazine Cordelia had always teased him about. His fire sawed into the other side of the pack, and that torrent of death and destruction was enough to get through even to near-weasels.
The survivors began to break away, shock and terror finally penetrating their ferocity and hunger, and Cordelia stumbled. She went to her right knee, ripping at the near-weasels still clinging to her legs, feeling them chewing at her hands as she tore them free and hurled them away. But then she saw Zack changing his aim point towards the biggest remaining cluster of the creatures.
“No!” she screamed. “No, Zack!”
He didn’t hear her. Or realize what she was saying, anyway.
And he didn’t know about the treecat…or that it was what the near-weasels were attacking.
* * *
Fury roared through Zack Kemper as the blood soaking Cordelia’s trousers, arms, and hands registered. He dropped his holo sight onto the cluster of near-weasels. His finger tightened, and—
He managed—somehow—not to squeeze the trigger as the bleeding, wounded Rottweiler leapt squarely into the near-weasels he’d been about to shoot. Zack jerked his muzzle up and surged to his feet. He didn’t know what had possessed Barnaby to hurl himself right into the middle of his sight picture. Maybe he’d figure that out later. For now, though—
He charged across the swath of carnage his fire had left and brought the shotgun’s butt down clubbing the near-weasels still ripping at Barnaby.
At Barnaby and something else, he realized. The Rottweiler’s blood-dripping jaws ripped a near-weasel away, tearing it almost in two, and Zack’s eyes widened as he saw the mauled, blood-soaked creature—the treecat—at the bottom of the pile.
* * *
“Zack! Zack!” Cordelia sobbed, hobbling towards him as quickly as her ankle allowed. “Oh, Zack!”
“It’s okay, Cordy,” he said, shotgun in his right hand as he threw his left arm around her. “It’s okay.”
“Oh, Zack,” she said again, burying her face against his shoulder.
“Bet you don’t complain about setting the fall alert again!” he said, but his voice was gentle, and she shook her head hard.
“Never!” she gasped.
“We’ve got to get you to a doct—” he said, but she surprised him. She pulled back, shaking her head again, and went to her knees.
“No,” she said so fiercely he blinked.
She was digging through the dead near-weasels. Barnaby was beside her, pawing at the bodies, and Zack realized what they were after as Cordelia scooped up the treecat in torn, bleeding hands and cradled it against her chest.
“Cordy,” he started to say gently, “I’m afraid he’s—”
“No he isn’t!” She glared up at him. “He’s not! He’s still alive! I know he is!”
“He’s alive! And we have to get him to Dr. Harrington, Zack! He saved my life!”
“But—” Zack began, then cut himself off as the bleeding treecat stirred feebly in Cordelia’s arms.
“Now, Zack!” she said fiercely. “Him and Barnaby both! We can worry about me later!”
* * *
Stone floated unwillingly up toward the surface of his dreams and stirred in protest.
He should not be alive. The darkness for which a part of him had longed so hard since Golden Eye left him should have taken him, and he would have been glad. He would have perished doing something worth the doing, and he wished he had. He knew how badly he had been hurt, and that meant death would find him soon enough. There was no other possibility for a single Person alone in the world. And if he must die anyway, why could he not have died in his dreams. Died and been restored to his bond with Golden Eye, if only in a dream?
He could have died so happily in a dream.
But that had been denied him, and something touched his muzzle.
He opened his unwilling eyes and blinked, trying to focus. And as he tried, he tasted a familiar mind-glow.
His eyes popped fully open, and he stared in astonishment at Climbs Quickly!
What was the Bright Water scout doing this far from the clan’s range? And—
Stone’s thought broke off as he realized they were in one of the two-leg nesting places. It was night outside a transparent part of the wall, but the overhead light was daylight-bright. He lay on his side, strange scents surrounded him, many of them sharp enough to hurt his nose, and the surface under him was soft and warm.
Climbs Quickly stroked his muzzle again, and Stone blinked. He had not seen the scout in almost a hand of turnings, and it was obvious Climbs Quickly had been as badly injured as he since last they’d seen one another. One of his forelimbs was missing, and his pelt was swirled with the tell-tale traces of scars beneath it.
It is too bad I cannot hear his mind-voice, Stone reflected. His thoughts were oddly unfocused, and he wondered why the pain he felt seemed so distant, almost unimportant. It would be nice if he could explain what is happening!
From the taste of Climbs Quickly’s mind-glow, he was thinking much the same thing, and Stone tasted a flicker of amusement—of shared amusement, he realized—at their predicament.
And then he recognized what he had just felt. Amusement. In the face of this fresh proof of how the gray death had maimed him, he had felt amused! What was wrong with him?!
The question burned through him, but then he realized something else. He had awakened from his dream of Golden Eye, yet the warmth, the love, the focus of her mind-glow remained with him. It was back…and that was not possible.
He twitched as Climbs Quickly touched him again, this time on the shoulder, and he tasted the scout’s compassion. And something very like…joy?
This was all wrong. Not possible! Golden Eye had been taken from him, so how could he taste her mind-glow again? He could not! He—
But, no. It wasn’t Golden Eye’s mind-glow. And yet—
Climbs Quickly looked down at him, then pointed, and Stone turned his head, eyes following the gesture, and froze.
No, it wasn’t Golden Eye’s mind-glow.
It was the two-leg’s.
This is not possible, he thought. Surely it is not! It is a two-leg!
Yes, it was a two-leg, not a Person, and the People could not bond with any other creatures who walked the world.
But the two-legs are not of our world. The thought trickled through his mind. They are not like any other creatures who walk it. We have known that for turning upon turning.
He stared at the two-leg—his two-leg, he realized, tasting the joyous strength of the bond between them. She—he knew now that his two-leg was female—was asleep on some sort of sitting thing beside the flat, soft surface upon which he lay and Climbs Quickly sat. She had wounds of her own, wounds which had been treated as his own had, he realized, and he tasted her exhaustion. Yet even as she slept, her mind-glow sought his. It was not the conscious, knowing seeking of another Person, and yet it was actually stronger in so many ways. Her mind-glow was so bright, so intense, even in her sleep, and it was his. It reached out, enfolded him, welcomed him. It was focused upon him, deeply concerned about his wounds and yet totally devoid of the pity which had driven him from Bright Water so long ago. Because the two-leg had no mind-voice of her own, he realized. she did not know what he had lost, and so she did not mourn it for him…and she never would. Her mind-glow was not Golden Eye’s, and it never would be, and that was a good thing. This, whatever it was and however it had happened, was too bright, too special and precious, to be compared to anything else.
He opened to it, felt it flooding through the dark places deep within him, washing away the fear and the grief and the anguish, and knew he had come home again at last.
* * *
Cordelia twitched, then snorted, as a feather touched her face.
Her mom and her sisters had teased her about her snoring for years, and from the feel of things, she’d been snoring again, she thought drowsily. Now why had she been doing that? And why was she sleeping sitting up? It was—
The feather touched her again, her eyes popped open, and it all came flooding back. The terror, the pain, the—
The feather brushed her cheek yet again, and she felt…something else. She didn’t know what that “something” was, but it was there. She knew that much. And it was coming from—
She turned her head, and her eyes widened. It wasn’t a feather brushing her cheek. It was a long, wiry finger. One armed with a sheathed, razor-sharp claw. A claw she’d seen rending and tearing near-weasels in her defense.
She straightened in the chair and reached out very carefully, wondering how he had gotten into her lap. Dr. Harrington said he’d put twice as many stitches into this treecat as into Lionheart on the day he’d saved Stephanie from the hexapuma, and his right rear leg was immobilized where the tendon had been repaired. He had to be in a lot of pain, despite the anesthetics, but somehow he’d gotten from the table beside her into her lap, and she heard a soft, buzzing sound—a purr, she realized—as her arms went cautiously around him.
She held him close, cradling him like the most precious thing in her world. Because, she realized, that was what he had just become. She and Stephanie and Karl Zivonik had talked while Dr. Harrington worked on both the treecat and Barnaby. Stephanie had tried to explain her bond with Lionheart, but Cordelia had known she hadn’t really understood what the younger girl was trying to say.
Now she did, she realized with a sense of awe. She understood exactly what Stephanie had been saying…and knew she would never be able to explain it to someone else, either.
And that didn’t matter at all.
“Hello,” she told the treecat—her treecat—softly, eyes burning. “My name is Cordelia.” She kissed him gently between the ears. “Thank you for the rest of my life.”
* * *
Stone pressed his nose against her, listening to her mouth sounds, wondering if that was how the mind-blind communicated with one another. It was an interesting thought, and perhaps one day he would know.
But that didn’t matter at all.
<Hello,> he thought in the silence of his broken mind-voice. <My name is Heart Stone. Thank you for the rest of my life.>
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