A Beautiful Friendship — Snippet 10


If pressed, Stephanie would have conceded that her parents might have quibbled with that last conclusion, so it was probably just as well that they didn’t know.


She giggled at the thought and took another bite of fruit bar. The odds were against anything coming along to take advantage of the opportunity she’d provided, and she knew it. But it wasn’t as if she had a lot of other things to do just now, and she smiled as the first spatters of rain began to tapdance on the gazebo’s roof.


*     *     *


Climbs Quickly paused, head and shoulders rising as he stood high on his true-feet like — had he known — an Old Terran prairie dog to peer into the night. This was the closest he’d ever come to his two-legs’ living place, and his eyes glowed as he realized he’d been right. He had been tasting a mind-glow from them, and he stood motionless in the darkness as he savored the texture.


It was unlike anything he’d ever tasted from another of the People . . . and yet it wasn’t unlike. It was . . . was . . .


He sat down, curling his tail about his toes, and rubbed one ear with a true-hand while he tried to put a label on it. It was like the People, he decided after long, hard moments of thought, but without words. It was only the emotions, the feelings of the two-legs without the shaping that turned those into communication, and there was a strange drowsiness to it, as if it were half-asleep. As if, he thought slowly, the mind-glow rose from minds which had never even considered that anyone else might be able to taste or hear them and so had never learned to use it to communicate. Yet even as he thought that, it seemed impossible, for the glow was too strong, too powerful. Unformed, un-shaped, it blazed like some marvelous flower, brighter and taller than any of the People had ever produced in Climbs Quickly’s presence, and he shivered as he wondered what it would have been like if the two-legs hadn’t been mind-blind. He felt the brightness calling to him, tempting him closer like a memory singer’s song, and he shook himself. This would be a very important part of his next report to Sings Truly and Short Tail, but he certainly had no business exploring it on his own before he reported it. Besides, it wasn’t what he’d come for.


He shook himself again, stepping back from the mind-glow, but it was hard to distance himself from it. In fact, he had to make a deliberate, conscious decision not to taste it and then close his mind to it, and that took much longer to manage than he’d expected.


Yet he did manage it, eventually, and drew a deep breath of relief as he pulled free. He flipped his ears, twitched his whiskers, and began sliding once more through the darkness as the first raindrops splashed about him.


*     *     *


The rain came down harder, drumming on the gazebo roof. The air seemed to dance and shiver as incessant lightning split the night and thunder shook its halves, and Stephanie’s eyes glowed as wind whipped spray in through the gazebo’s open sides to spatter the floor and kiss her eyelashes and chilled cheeks. She felt the storm crackling about her and hugged herself, drinking in its energy.


But then, suddenly, a tiny light began to flash on the camera, and she froze. It couldn’t be! But the light was flashing — it really was! — and that could only mean —


She tossed away the fruit bar — her third of the night — and pressed the button that killed the warning light, then snatched the camera up to peer through the viewfinder.


Visibility was poor through the rain cascading off the gazebo roof. There was too much water in the air for a clear view, even with the camera’s light-gathering technology, and the lightning didn’t help as much as one might have expected. The camera adjusted to changing light levels more quickly than any human eye, but the contrast between the lightning’s split-second, stroboscopic fury and the darkness that followed was too extreme.


Stephanie had more than half expected that, so she wasn’t really surprised not to see anything just yet. But what mattered at this particular moment was that something had just climbed through the open louvers. Whatever was stealing celery was inside the greenhouse right this minute, and she had a chance to be the very first person on Sphinx to get actual pictures of it!


She stood for a moment, biting her lip and wishing she had better visibility, then shrugged. If she ended up having to face the music, Mom and Dad wouldn’t be a lot madder at her for getting soaked than they’d be over her having snuck out at all, and she needed to get closer to the greenhouse. She took a second to clip the rain shield onto the camera, then dragged her hat down over her ears, drew a deep breath, and splashed down the gazebo steps into the rain-whipped night.


*     *     *


Climbs Quickly dropped to the soft, bare earth of the plant place’s floor. The rich smells of unknown growing things filled his nostrils, and his tail twitched as he absorbed them. The transparent material of the plant place seemed far too thin to resist the rain beating upon it, yet it did, and without a single drop leaking through! The two-legs were truly clever to design a marvel like that, and he sat for a moment luxuriating in the enfolding warmth that was somehow made even warmer and more welcoming by the furious splashing of the icy, lightning-laced rain.


But he hadn’t come here to be dry, he reminded himself, and his true-hands untied the carry net wrapped about his middle while he followed his nose and resolutely ignored the background mind-glows of the two-legs.


Ah! There was the cluster stalk scent from Sings Truly’s song! His eyes lit, and he swarmed easily up the side of the raised part of the plant place, then paused as he came face-to-face with cluster stalk for the very first time.


The growing heads seemed bigger than the ones from Sings Truly’s song, and he wondered if the scout who’d first brought that song to his clan had sampled his first cluster stalk before it was fully grown. Whether that was true or not, each of these plants was two-thirds as long as Climbs Quickly himself, and he was glad he’d brought the carry net. Still, net or not, he would have to be careful not to take too much if he expected to carry it all the way home. He sat for another long moment, considering, then flipped his ears in decision. Two heads, he decided. He could manage that much, and he could always come back for more.


But even as he decided that, he realized he’d used the need to decide to distract him from the marvelous scent of the cluster stalk. It was like nothing he’d ever smelled before, and he felt his mouth water as he drew it deep into his lungs. He hesitated, then reached out and tugged gently on an outer stalk.


It responded with a springy resistance, like the top of a white-root, and he tugged harder. Still it held out, and he tugged still harder, then bleeked in triumph as the stalk came loose in his true-hands. He raised it to his nose, sniffing deeply, then stuck out his tongue.


Magic filled his mouth as he licked delicately. It was like hot, liquid sunlight on a day of frozen ice. Like cold mountain water on a day of scorching heat, or the gentle caress of a new mother, just ruffling her first kitten’s delicate fur while her mind-glow promised him welcome and warmth and love. It was —