A Beautiful Friendship — Snippet 14



Stephanie leaned back in the comfortable chair, folded her hands behind her head, and propped her sock feet on her desk in the posture which always drew a scold from her mother. Her lips were pursed in the silent, tuneless whistle that was an all but inevitable complement to the vague dreaminess of her eyes . . . and which would, had she let her parents see it, instantly have alerted them to the fact that their darling daughter was Up To Something.


The problem was that for the first time in a very long time, and despite a full T-month spent thinking about it from every angle she could come up with, she had only the haziest idea of precisely what she was up to. Or, rather, of how to pursue her objective. Uncertainty was an unusual feeling for someone who normally got into trouble by being too positive about things, yet there was something rather appealing about it, too. Perhaps because of its novelty.


She frowned, closed her eyes, tipped her chair further back, and thought harder.


She’d managed to evade detection on her way to bed the night of the thunderstorm. Oddly — though it hadn’t occurred to her that it was odd until much later — she hadn’t even considered rushing to her parents with the camera. Even now she still didn’t know why she hadn’t. Perhaps it was because the knowledge that humanity shared Sphinx with another sentient species was her discovery, and she felt strangely disinclined to share it. Until she did, it was not only her discovery but her secret, and she’d been almost surprised to realize she was determined to learn all she possibly could about her unexpected neighbors before she let anyone else know they existed.


She wasn’t certain when she’d decided that, but once she had, it had been easy to find logical reasons for her decision. For one thing, the mere thought of how some of the kids in Twin Forks would react was enough to make her shudder. Even the ones with two brain cells to rub together (and she could count the ones who had even that many brain cells on the fingers of one hand, she thought sourly) would have been an outright threat to her little celery thief. Given their determination to catch everything from chipmunks to near-turtles as pets, they’d be almost certain to pursue these new creatures with even greater enthusiasm . . . and catastrophic results.


She felt rather virtuous once she got that far, but it didn’t come close to solving her main problem. If she didn’t tell anybody, how did she go about learning more about them on her own? She might have been the first to come up with an answer to the mystery, but eventually someone else was going to catch another celery thief in the act. When that happened her secret would be out, and she was determined to learn everything she possibly could about them before that happened.


And, she thought, at least I’m starting with a clean slate!


Over the last several T-weeks, she’d accessed the planetary data net without finding a single word about miniature hexapumas with hands. She’d even used her father’s link to the Forestry Service to compare her camera imagery to known Sphinxian species, only to draw a total blank. Whatever the celery snatcher was, no one else had ever gotten pictures of one of his — or had it been her? — relatives or even uploaded a verbal description of them to the planetary database.


And that’s as much evidence of their intelligence as that woven net of his, she thought. I know a planet’s a big place, but from the pattern of the raids, they’ve got to be at least as widely distributed as our settlements and freeholds. And if they are, then the only way people could’ve missed spotting at least one of them for over fifty T-years, even with the Plague, would be for them to deliberately avoid humans. And that’s a reasoned response. It means they had to actually plan to hide from us, and that kind of coordinated planning means they have to be able to talk to each other, and that means they must have a common language and some way to communicate over distances at least as widespread as we are!


So they were not only tool-users, but language-users, and their small size made that even more remarkable. The one Stephanie had seen couldn’t have had a body length of more than sixty centimeters or weighed more than thirteen or fourteen kilos, and no one had ever before encountered a sentient species with a body mass that low.


Stephanie got that far without much difficulty. Unfortunately, that was as far as she could get without more data, and for the first time she could recall, she didn’t know how to get any more. That was a novel experience for someone who routinely approached most problems with complete confidence, but this time, she was stumped. She’d exhausted the available research possibilities, so if she wanted more information she had to get it for herself. That implied some sort of field research, but how did someone who’d just turned twelve T-years old — and one who’d promised her parents she wouldn’t tramp around the woods alone — investigate a totally unknown species without even telling anyone it existed?


In a way, she was actually glad her mother had found herself too tied down by current projects to go for those nature hikes she’d promised to try to make time for. Stephanie had been grateful when her mother made the offer, but now her mother’s presence would have posed a serious obstacle for any attempt to pursue her private research in secret.


It was perhaps unfortunate, however, that her father — in an effort to make up for her “disappointment” over her mother’s schedule — had decided to distract her with the surprise gift of a brand-new hang glider for her twelfth birthday. She’d been touched by the thoughtfulness of the present, and even more by the way he’d rearranged his work schedule to free up time to resume the hang-gliding lessons their departure from Meyerdahl had interrupted. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy the lessons, either. In fact, Stephanie loved the exhilaration of flight, and no one could have been a better teacher than Richard Harrington. He’d made it into the continental hang-gliding finals on Meyerdahl three times, and she knew no one in the galaxy could have taught her more.


The problem is that every minute I spend on flight lessons is another minute I can’t spend doing what I really want to do . . . assuming I can figure out how to do it in the first place. And if I don’t spend time on the lessons Mom and Dad are for sure going to figure out I’ve got something else on my mind!


Worse, Dad insisted on flying in to Twin Forks for her lessons. That made sense, since unlike her mom he had to be “on-call” twenty-five hours a day and Twin Forks was the central hub for all the local freeholds. He could reach any of them quickly from town, and teaching the lessons there let him enlist the two or three other parents with gliding experience as assistant teachers. It let him offer the lessons to all the settlement’s other kids, as well, which was one of the drawbacks in Stephanie’s opinion, but exactly the sort of generosity she would have expected of him. But it also meant her lessons were not only eating up an enormous amount of her free time but taking her over eighty kilometers away from the place where she was more eager than ever to begin the explorations she’d promised her parents she wouldn’t undertake.


She hadn’t found a way around her problems yet, but she was determined that she would find one . . . and without breaking her promise, however much that added to her difficulties. But at least it hadn’t been hard to give the species a name. It looked like an enormously smaller version of a “hexapuma,” and like the hexapuma, there was something very (or perhaps inevitably) feline about it. Of course, Stephanie knew “feline” actually referred only to a very specific branch of Old Terran evolution. But it had become customary over the centuries to apply Old Terran names to alien species — like the Sphinxian “chipmunks” or “near-pine.” Most claimed the practice originated from a sort of racial homesickness and a desire for familiarity in alien environments. Personally, Stephanie thought it was more likely to stem from laziness, since it let people avoid thinking up new labels for everything they encountered. Despite all that, however, she’d discovered that “treecat” was the only possible choice when she started considering names. She hoped the taxonomists would let it stand when she finally had to go public with their discovery. Usually the discoverer of the species did get to assign its common name, after all, though she suspected rather glumly that her age would work against her in that regard. Grown-ups could be so zorky sometimes.


And if she hadn’t figured out how to go about investigating the treecats without breaking her promise — which was out of the question, however eager she might be to proceed — at least she knew the direction in which to start looking. She had no idea how she knew, but she was absolutely convinced that she would know exactly where to go when the time came.


She closed her eyes, took one arm from behind her head, and pointed, then opened her eyes to see where her index finger was aimed. The direction had changed slightly since the last time she’d checked, and yet she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was pointing directly at the treecat who’d raided her mother’s greenhouse.


And that, she reflected, was the oddest — and most exciting — part of the whole thing.