A Beautiful Friendship — Snippet 16



Stephanie whooped in sheer exuberance as she rode the powerful updraft. Wind whipped through her birthday glider’s struts, drummed on its fabric covering, and whistled around her helmet, and she leaned to one side, banking as she sliced still higher. The counter-grav unit on her back could have taken her higher yet — and done it more quickly — but it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as much fun as this was!


She watched the treetops below and felt a tiny stir of guilt buried in her delight. She was safely above those trees — not even the towering crown oaks came anywhere near her present altitude — but she also knew what her father would have said had he known where she was. The fact that he didn’t know, and thus wouldn’t say it, wasn’t quite enough for her to convince herself her actions weren’t just a bit across the line. But she could always say — truthfully — that she hadn’t broken her word. She wasn’t walking around the woods by herself, and no hexapuma or peak bear could possibly threaten her at an altitude of two or three hundred meters.


For all that, innate honesty forced her to admit that she knew her parents would instantly have countermanded her plans if they’d known of them. For that matter, she’d taken shameless advantage of a failure in communication on their part, and she knew it.


Her father had been forced to cancel today’s hang-gliding lesson because of an emergency house call, and he’d commed Mr. Sapristos, the Twin Forks mayor, who usually subbed for him in the gliding classes. Mr. Sapristos had agreed to take over for the day, but Dad hadn’t specifically told him Stephanie would be there. The autopilot in Mom’s air car could have delivered her under the direction of the planetary air-traffic computers, and he’d apparently assumed that was what would happen. Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on one’s viewpoint — his haste had been so great that he hadn’t asked Mom to arrange transportation. (Stephanie was guiltily certain he’d expected her to tell her mother. But, she reminded herself, he hadn’t actually told her to, had he?)


All of which meant Dad thought she was with Mr. Sapristos, but that Mr. Sapristos and Mom both thought she was with Dad. And that just happened to have given Stephanie a chance to pick her own flight plan without having to explain it to anyone else.


It wasn’t the first time the same situation had arisen . . . or that she’d capitalized upon it. But it wasn’t the sort of opportunity an enterprising young woman could expect to come along often, either, and she’d jumped at it. She’d had to, for the long Sphinxian days were creeping past, over two T-months had gotten away from her, and none of her previous unauthorized flights had given her big enough time windows. Avoiding parental discovery had always required her to turn back short of the point at which she knew her treecats lurked, and if she didn’t find out more about them soon, someone else was bound to.


Of course, she couldn’t expect to learn much about them just flying around overhead, but that wasn’t really what she was after. If she could only pinpoint a location for them, she was sure she could get Dad to come out here with her — maybe with some of his friends from the Forestry Service — to find the physical evidence to support her discovery. And, she thought, her ability to tell them where to look would also be evidence of her strange link with the celery thief. Somehow she figured she’d need a lot of evidence of that before she got anyone else to believe it existed.


She closed her eyes, consulting her inner compass once more, and smiled. It was holding steady, which meant she was headed in the right direction, and she opened her eyes once more.


She banked again, very slightly, adjusting her course to precisely the right heading, and her face glowed with excitement. She was on track at last. She knew she was, just as she knew that this time she had enough flight time to reach her goal before anyone missed her, and she was quite correct.


Unfortunately, she’d also made one small mistake.


*     *     *


Climbs Quickly paused, one true-hand stopped in mid-reach for the branch above, and his ears flattened. He’d become accustomed to his ability to sense the direction to the two-leg youngling, even if he still hadn’t mentioned it to anyone else. He’d even become used to the way the youngling sometimes seemed to move with extraordinary speed — no doubt in one of the two-legs’ flying things — but this was different. The youngling was moving quickly, though far more slowly than it sometimes had. But it was also headed directly towards Climbs Quickly. In fact, it was already far closer than it had ever come since he’d been relieved of his spying duties — and he felt a sudden chill.


There was no question. He recognized exactly what the youngling was doing, for he’d done much the same thing often enough in the past. True, he usually pursued his prey by scent, but now he understood how a ground runner must have felt when it realized he was on its trail, for the two-leg was using the link between them in exactly the same way. It was tracking him, and if it found him, it would also find Bright Water Clan’s central nesting place. For good or ill, its ability to seek out Climbs Quickly would result in the discovery of his entire clan!


He stood for one more moment, heart racing, ears flat with mingled excitement and fear, then decided. He abandoned his original task and bounded off along the outstretched net-wood limb, racing to meet the approaching two-leg well away from the rest of his clan.


*     *     *


Stephanie’s attention was locked on the trees below her now. Her flight had lasted over two hours, but she was drawing close at last. She could feel the distance melting away — indeed, it almost seemed the treecat was coming to meet her — and excitement narrowed the focus of her attention even further. The crown oak had thinned as she’d left the foothills behind and begun climbing into the Copperwalls proper. Now the woods were a mix of various evergreens, dominated by shorter species of near-pine and the dark, blue-green pyramids of Sphinxian red spruce, and the crazy quilt geometry of picketwood.


Of course they were, she thought, and her eyes brightened. The rough-barked picketwood would be the perfect habitat for someone like her little celery thief! Each picketwood system radiated from a single central trunk which sent out long, straight, horizontal branches at a height of between three and ten meters. Above that, branches might take on any shape; below it, they always grew in groups of four, radiating at near-perfect right angles from one another for a distance of ten to fifteen meters. At that point, each sent a vertical runner down to the earth below to establish its own root system and, in time, become its own nodal trunk. A single picketwood “tree” could extend itself for literally hundreds of kilometers in any direction, and it wasn’t uncommon for one “tree” to run into another and fuse with it. When the lateral branches of two systems crossed, they merged into a node which put down its own runner.