A Beautiful Friendship — Snippet 11


Climbs Quickly shook his head. It wasn’t actually like any of those things, he realized, except that each of them, in its own way, was wonderful and unique. It was just that he didn’t have anything else to which he could really compare that first blissful taste, and he nibbled gently at the end of the stalk. It was hard to chew — People didn’t really have the right kind of teeth to eat plants — but it tasted just as wonderful as that first lick had promised, and he crooned in pleasure as he devoured it.


He finished the entire stalk and reached quickly for another, then made himself stop. Yes, it tasted wonderful, and he wanted more. But he was no ground burrower to gorge himself into insensibility on yellow stalk. He was a scout of Bright Water Clan, and it was his job to carry this home for Short Tail, Bright Claw, even Broken Tooth, and the memory singers to judge it for themselves. Even if they hadn’t been the leaders of his clan, they were his friends, and friends shared anything this marvelous with one another.


It was actually easier to get an entire head out of the soft earth in which it grew than it had been to peel off that single stalk, and Climbs Quickly soon had two of them rolled up in his carry net. They made an awkward bundle, but he tied the net as neatly as he could and slung it onto his back, reaching up to hold the hand loops with his mid-limbs hand-feet while he used true-feet and true-hands to climb back down to the floor. Getting to the opening to the outer world would be more difficult with his burden than it had been coming in, but he could manage. He might not be very fast or agile, but not even a death fang would be out on a night like this!


*     *     *


Stephanie was glad her jacket and trousers were waterproof, and her broad-brimmed rain hat kept her head and face dry. But holding the camera on target required her to raise her hands in front of her, and ice-cold rain had flooded down the drain pipes of her nice, waterproof jacket sleeves. She felt it puddling about her elbows and beginning to probe stealthily towards her shoulders — just as her forearms were raised, her upper arms were parallel to the ground, providing an all-too-convenient channel for the frigid water — but all the rain in the world couldn’t have convinced her to lower her camera at a moment like this.


She stood no more than ten meters from the greenhouse, recording steadily. Each of her camera’s storage chips was good for over ten hours, and she had no intention of missing any of this for the official record. Excitement trembled inside as the minutes passed in the splashing, lightning-slivered darkness. Whatever it was had been inside the greenhouse for nine minutes now. Surely it would be coming back out pretty s–


*     *     *


Climbs Quickly reached the opening with a profound sense of relief. He’d almost dropped his carry net twice, and he decided to catch his breath before leaping down into the rain with his prize. After all, he had plenty of ti–


*     *     *


A whisker-fringed muzzle and prick-eared head poked out of the opening, green eyes glittering like emerald mirrors as lightning stuttered, and the universe seemed to stop as their owner found himself staring into the glassy eye of a camera in the hands of an eleven-T-year-old girl. Excitement froze Stephanie’s breath even though she’d known this moment was coming, but Climbs Quickly hadn’t known. His surprise was total, and he went absolutely motionless in astonishment.


Seconds ticked past, and then he shook himself mentally. Showing himself to a two-leg was the one thing he’d been most firmly instructed not to do, and he cringed inwardly at how Broken Tooth would react to this. He knew he could claim distraction on the basis of the storm and his first experience with cluster stalk, but that wouldn’t change his failure into success, and he stared down at the two-leg while his mind began to work once more.


It was the youngling, he realized, for it was smaller than either of its parents. He didn’t know what it was pointing at him, but from all reports he would have been dead already if the two-leg had intended to kill him. Yet deciding the thing aimed his way wasn’t a weapon didn’t tell him what it was. Those thoughts flashed through his brain in a heartbeat, and then, without really thinking about it, he reached out to the two-leg’s mind-glow in an effort to judge its intentions.


He was totally unprepared for the consequences.


It was as if he’d looked straight up into the sun expecting to see only the glow of a single torch, and his eyes flared wide and his ears flattened as the intensity of the two-leg’s emotions rolled over him. The glow was far brighter than before, and he wondered distantly if that was simply because he was closer and concentrating upon it, or if the cluster stalk he’d sampled might have something to do with it. But it didn’t really matter. What mattered was the excitement and eagerness and wonder that blazed so brightly in the two-leg’s mind. It was the first time any of the People had ever come face-to-face with a two-leg, and nothing could have prepared Climbs Quickly for the sheer delight with which Stephanie Harrington saw the marvelous, six-limbed creature crouched in the ventilation louver with the woven net of purloined celery slung over its back.


The representatives of two intelligent species — one of which had never even suspected the other’s existence — stared at one another in the middle of a howling thunderstorm. It was a moment which could not last, yet neither wanted it to end. Triumph and excited discovery flooded through Stephanie like a fountain, and she had no idea that Climbs Quickly felt those emotions even more clearly than he would have felt them from another of his own kind. Nor could she have guessed how very much he wanted to continue feeling them. She knew only that he crouched there, gazing at her for what seemed like forever, before he shook himself and leapt suddenly down and outward.


*     *     *


Climbs Quickly pulled free of the two-leg’s mind-glow. It was hard — possibly the hardest thing he’d ever done — yet he had his duty. And so he made himself step back from that wonderful, welcoming furnace. Or, rather, he stepped away from it, for it was too strong, too intense, actually to disconnect from. He could turn his eyes away from the fire, but he could not pretend it did not blaze.


He shook himself, and then he launched outward into the rain and darkness. He was slow and clumsy with the net of cluster stalk on his back, but he knew as surely as he’d ever known anything in his life that this young two-leg meant him no harm. The secret of the People’s existence was already revealed, and haste would change nothing, so he sat upright in the rain for a moment, gazing up at the two-leg, who finally lowered the strange thing it had held before its face to look down at him with its own eyes. He met those odd, brown, round-pupiled eyes for a moment, then flipped his ears, turned, and scampered off.


*     *     *


Stephanie watched the intruder vanish with a sense of wonder which only grew as the creature disappeared. It was small, she thought — no more than sixty or seventy centimeters long, though its tail would probably double its body length. An arboreal, her mind went on, considering its tail and the well-developed hands and claws she’d seen as it clung to the lip of the louver. And those hands, she thought slowly, might have had only three fingers each, but they’d also had fully opposable thumbs. She closed her eyes, picturing it once more, seeing the net on its back, and knew she was right.


The celery snatcher might look like a teeny-tiny hexapuma, yet that net was proof the survey crews had missed the most important single facet of Sphinx. But that was all right. In fact, that was just fine. Their omission had abruptly transformed this world from a place of exile to the most marvelous, exciting place Stephanie Harrington could possibly have been, for she’d done something tonight which had happened only eleven other times in the fifteen centuries of mankind’s diaspora to the stars.


She’d just made first contact with a tool-using, clearly sentient, alien race.