A Beautiful Friendship — Snippet 17


Stephanie’s mother was fascinated by the picketwoods. Plants which spread by sending out runners weren’t all that rare, but those which spread only via runner were. It was also more than a little uncommon for the runner to spread out through the air and go down to the earth, rather than the reverse. But what truly fascinated Dr. Harrington was the tree’s anti-disease defense mechanism. The unending network of branches and trunks should have made a picketwood system lethally vulnerable to diseases and parasites. But the plant had demonstrated a sort of natural quarantine process. Somehow — and Dr. Harrington had yet to discover how — a picketwood system was able to sever its links to afflicted portions of itself. Attacked by disease or parasites, the system secreted powerful cellulose-dissolving enzymes that ate away at connecting cross-branches and literally disconnected them at intervening nodal trunks, and Dr. Harrington was determined to locate the mechanism which made that possible.


But her mother’s interest in picketwood meant very little to Stephanie at the moment beside her realization of the same tree’s importance to treecats. Picketwood was deciduous and stopped well short of the tree line, abandoning the higher altitudes to near-pine and red spruce. But it crossed mountains readily through valleys or at lower elevations, and it could be found in almost every climate zone. All of which meant it would provide treecats with the equivalent of aerial highways that could literally run clear across a continent! They could travel for hundreds — thousands! — of kilometers without ever having to touch the ground where larger predators like hexapumas could get at them!


She laughed aloud at her deduction, but then her glider slipped abruptly sideways, and her laughter died as she stopped thinking about the sorts of trees beneath her and recognized instead the speed at which she was passing over them. She raised her head and looked around quickly, and a fist of the ice seemed to squeeze her stomach.


The clear blue skies under which she had begun her flight still stretched away in front of her to the east. But the western sky behind her was no longer clear. A deadly looking line of thunderheads marched steadily east, white and fluffy on top but an ominous purple-black below, and even as she looked over her shoulder, she saw lightning flicker.


She should have seen it coming sooner, she thought numbly, hands aching as she squeezed the glider’s grips in ivory-knuckled fists.


Idiot! she told herself sickly. You should’ve checked the weather reports! You know you should have! Dad’s pounded that into you every single time the two of you plan a flight!


Yes, he had . . . and that, she realized sickly, was the point. She was used to having other people — adult people — check the weather before they went gliding, and she’d let herself get so excited, focus so intently on what she was doing, pay so little attention —


A harder fist of wind punched at her glider, staggering it in midair, and fear became terror. The following wind had been growing stronger for quite some time, a small logical part of her realized. No doubt she would have noticed despite her concentration if she hadn’t been gliding in the same direction, riding in the wind rather than across or against it, where the velocity shift would have to have registered. But the thunderheads were catching up with her quickly, and the outriders of their squall line lashed through the air space in front of them.


Daddy! She had to com her father — tell him where she was — tell him to come get her — tell him –!


But there was no time. She’d messed up, and all the theoretical discussions about what to do in bad weather, all the stern warnings to avoid rough air, came crashing in on her. But they were no longer theoretical; she was in deadly danger, and she knew it. Counter-grav unit or no, a storm like the one racing up behind her could blot her out of the air as casually as she might have swatted a fly, and with just as deadly a result. She could die in the next few minutes, and the thought terrified her, but she didn’t panic.


Yes, you have to com Mom and Dad, but it’s not like you don’t already know exactly what they’d tell you to do if you did. You’ve got to get out of the air, get yourself down on the ground, now! And the last thing you need, she thought sickly, staring down at the solid green canopy below her, is to be trying to explain to them where you are while you do it!


She banked again, shivering with fear, eyes desperately seeking some opening, however small, and the air trembled as thunder rumbled behind her.


*     *     *


Climbs Quickly reared up on true-feet and hand-feet, lips wrinkling back from needle-sharp white fangs as a flood of terror crashed over him. It pounded deep into him, waking the ancient fight-or-flight instinct which, had he but known it, his kind shared with humanity. But it wasn’t his terror at all.


It took him an instant to realize that, yet it was true. It wasn’t his fear; it was the two-leg youngling’s, and even as the youngling’s fear ripped at him, he felt a fresh surge of wonder. He was still too far from the two-leg. He could never have felt another of the People’s mind-glow at this distance, and he knew it. But this two-leg’s mind-glow raged through him like a forest fire, screaming for his aid without even realizing it could do so, and it struck him like a lash. He shook his head once, and then flashed down the line of netwood like a cream-and-gray blur while his fluffy tail streamed straight out behind him.


*     *     *


Desperation filled Stephanie.


The thunderstorm was almost upon her — the first white pellets of hail rattled off her taut glider covering — and without the counter-grav she would already have been blotted from the sky. But not even the counter-grav unit could save her from the mounting turbulence much longer, and —


Her thoughts chopped off as salvation loomed suddenly before her. The black, irregular scar of an old forest fire had ripped a huge hole through the trees, and she choked back a sob of gratitude as she spied it. The ground looked dangerously rough for a landing in conditions like this, but it was infinitely more inviting than the solid web of branches tossing and flashing below her, and she banked towards it.


She almost made it.


*     *     *


Climbs Quickly ran as he’d never run before. Somehow he knew he raced against death itself, though it never occurred to him to wonder what someone his size could do for someone the size of even a two-leg youngling. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was the terror, the fear — the danger — which confronted that other presence in his mind, and he ran madly towards it.


*     *     *


It was the strength of the wind which did it.


Even then, she would have made it without the sudden downdraft that hammered her at the last instant. But between them, they were too much. Stephanie saw it coming in the moment before she struck, realized instantly what was going to happen, but there was no time to avoid it. No time even to feel the full impact of the realization before her glider crashed into the crown of the towering near pine at over fifty kilometers per hour.