A Beautiful Friendship — Snippet 18



Climbs Quickly slithered to a stop, momentarily frozen in horror. But then he gasped in relief.


The sudden silence in his mind wasn’t — quite — absolute. His instant fear that the youngling had been killed eased, yet something deeper and darker, without the same bright panic but with even greater power, replaced it. Whatever had happened, the youngling was now unconscious, yet even in its unconsciousness he was still linked to it . . . and he felt its pain. It was injured, possibly badly — possibly badly enough that his initial fear that it had died would prove justified after all. And if it was injured, what could he do to help? Young as it was, it was far larger than he; much too large for him to drag to safety.


But what one of the People couldn’t do, many of them often could, and he closed his eyes, lashing his tail while he thought. He’d run too far to feel the combined mind-glow of his clan’s central nest place. His emotions couldn’t reach so far, but his mind-voice could. If he cried out for help, Sings Truly would hear, and if she failed to, surely some hunter or scout between her and Climbs Quickly would hear and relay. Yet what message could he cry out with? How could he summon the clan to aid a two-leg — the very two-leg he had allowed to see him? How could he expect them to abandon their policy of hiding from the two-legs? And even if he could have expected that of them, what right had he to demand it?


He stood irresolute, tail flicking, ears flattened, as the branch behind him creaked and swayed and the first raindrops lashed the budding leaves. Rain, he thought, a flicker of humor leaking even through his dread and uncertainty. Was it always going to be raining when he and his two-leg met?


Strangely, that thought broke his paralysis, and he shook himself. All he knew so far was that the two-leg was hurt and that he was very close to it now. He had no way of knowing how bad its injuries might actually be, nor even if there were any reason to consider calling out for help. After all, if there was nothing the clan could do, then there was no point in trying to convince it to come. No, the thing to do was to continue until he found the youngling. He had to see what its condition was before he could determine the best way to help — assuming it required his help at all — and he scurried onward almost as quickly as before.


*     *     *


Stephanie recovered consciousness slowly. The world swayed and jerked all about her, thunder rumbled and crashed, rain lashed her like an icy flail, and she’d never hurt so much in her entire life.


The pounding rain’s chill wetness helped rouse her, and she tried to move — only to whimper as the pain in her left arm stabbed suddenly higher. She’d lost her helmet somehow. That wasn’t supposed to happen, but it had. She felt a painful welt rising under her jaw where the helmet strap had lain, and her hair was already soaking wet. Nor was that all she had to worry about, and she blinked, rubbing her eyes with her right palm, and felt a sort of dull shock as she realized part of what had been blinding her was blood, not simply rainwater.


She wiped again and felt a shiver of relief as she realized there was much less blood than she’d thought. Most of it seemed to be coming from a single cut on her forehead, and the cold rain was already slowing the bleeding. She managed to clear her eyes well enough to look about her, and her relief vanished.


Her brand new glider was smashed. Not broken: smashed. Its tough composite covering and struts had been specially designed to be crash survivable, but it had never been intended for the abuse to which she’d subjected it, and it had crumpled into a mangled lacework of fabric and shattered framing. Yet it hadn’t quite failed completely, and she hung in her harness from the main spar, which was jammed in the fork of a branch above her. The throbbing ache where the harness straps crossed her body told her she’d been badly bruised by the abrupt termination of her flight, and one of her ribs stabbed her with a white burst of agony every time she breathed. But without the harness — and the forked branch which had caught her — she would have slammed straight into the massive tree trunk directly in front of her, and she shuddered at the thought.


But however lucky she might have been, there’d been bad luck to go with the good. Like most colony world children, Stephanie had been through mandatory first-aid courses . . . not that any training was needed to realize her left arm was broken in at least two places. She knew which way her elbow was supposed to bend, and there was no joint in the middle of her forearm. That was bad enough, but there was worse, for her uni-link had been strapped to her left wrist.


It wasn’t there anymore.


She turned her head, craning her neck to peer painfully back along the all too obvious course of her crashing impact with the treetops, and wondered where the uni-link was. The wrist unit was virtually indestructible, and if she could only find it — and reach it — she could call for help in an instant. But there was no way she was going to find it in that mess.


It was almost funny, she thought through the haze of her pain. She couldn’t find it, but Mom or Dad could have found it with ridiculous ease . . . if they’d only known to use the emergency override code to activate the locator beacon function. Or, for that matter, if she’d thought to activate it when the storm first came up. Unfortunately, she’d been too preoccupied finding a landing spot to bring the beacon up, and even if she had, no one would have found it until they thought to look for it.


And since I can’t even find it, I can’t com anyone to tell them to start looking for it, she thought fuzzily. I really messed up this time. Mom and Dad are going to be really, really pissed. Bet they ground me till I’m sixteen for this one!


Even as she thought it, she knew it was ridiculous to worry about such things at a time like this. Yet there was a certain perverse comfort — a sense of familiarity, perhaps — to it, and she actually managed a damp-sounding chuckle despite the tears of pain and fear trickling down her face.


She let herself hang limp for another moment, but badly as she felt the need to rest, she dared do no such thing. The wind was growing stronger, not weaker, and the branch from which she hung creaked and swayed alarmingly. Then there was the matter of lightning. A tree this tall was all too likely to attract any stray bolt, and she had no desire to share the experience with it. No, she had to get herself down, and she blinked away residual pain tears and fresh rain to peer down at the ground.


For all its height, the near-pine into which she’d crashed wasn’t a particularly towering specimen of its species, which could easily run to as much as sixty or even seventy meters, without a single branch for the lower third of its height. It was still a good twelve-meter drop to the ground, though, and she shuddered at the thought. Her gymnastics classes had taught her how to tuck and roll, but that wouldn’t help from this height even with two good arms. With her left arm shattered, she’d probably finish herself off permanently if she tried. But the way her supporting branch was beginning to shake told her she had no option but to get down somehow. Even if the branch held, her damaged harness was likely to let go . . . assuming the even more badly damaged spar didn’t simply snap first. But how –?


Of course! She reached up and around with her right arm, gritting her teeth as even that movement shifted her left arm ever so slightly and sent fresh stabs of anguish through her. But the pain was worth it, for her fingers confirmed her hope. The counter-grav unit was still there, and she felt the slight, pulsating hum that indicated it was still operating. Of course, she couldn’t be certain how long it would go on operating.


Her cautiously exploring hand reported an entire series of deep dents and gouges in its casing. She supposed she should be glad it had protected her back by absorbing the blows which had left those marks, but if the unit had taken a beating anything like what had happened to the rest of her equipment, it probably wouldn’t last all that long. On the other hand, it only had to hold out long enough to get her to the ground, and —


Her thoughts chopped off as something touched the back of her head, and she jerked back around, in a shock spasm fast enough to wrench a half-scream of pain from her bruised body and broken arm. It wasn’t that the touch hurt in any way, for it was feather-gentle, almost a caress. Only its totally unexpected surprise produced its power, and all the pain she felt was the result of her response to it. Yet even as she bit her pain sound back into a groan, the hurt seemed far away and unimportant as she stared into the treecat’s slit-pupiled green eyes from a distance of less than thirty centimeters.