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A Beautiful Friendship: Chapter Nine
Last updated: Wednesday, October 5, 2011 22:34 EDT
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.
Climbs Quickly winced as the two-leg’s peaking hurt clawed at him, yet he was vastly relieved to find it awake and aware. He smelled the bright, sharp scent of blood, and the two-leg’s arm was clearly broken. He had no idea how it had managed to get itself into such a predicament, but the bits and pieces strewn around and hanging from its harness straps were obviously the ruin of some sort of flying thing. The fragments didn’t look like the other flying things he’d seen, yet such it must have been for the two-leg to wind up stuck in the top of a tree this way.
He wished fervently that it could have found another place to crash. This clearing was a place of bad omen, shunned by all of the People. Once it had been the heart of the Sun Shadow Clan’s range, but the remnants of that clan had moved far, far away, trying to forget what had happened to it here, and Climbs Quickly would have much preferred not to come here himself.
But that was beside the point. He was here, and however little he might like this place, he knew the two-leg had to get down. The branch from which it hung was not only thrashing with the wind but trying to split off the tree — he knew it was, for he’d crossed the weakened spot to reach the two-leg. And that didn’t even consider the way green-needle trees attracted lightning. Yet he could see no way for a two-leg with a broken arm to climb like one of the People, and he was certainly too small to carry it!
Frustration bubbled in the back of his mind as he realized how little he could do, yet it never occurred to him not to try to help. This was one of “his” two-legs, and he knew that it was the link to him which had brought it here. There were far too many things happening for him to begin to understand them all, yet understanding was strangely unimportant. This, he realized with a dawning sense of wonder, wasn’t “one” of his two-legs after all; it was his two-leg. Whatever the link between them was, it reached out in both directions. They weren’t simply linked; they were bound to one another, and he could no more have abandoned this strange-looking, alien creature than he could have walked away from Sings Truly or Short Tail in time of need.
Yet what could he do? He leaned out from his perch, clinging to the tree’s deeply furrowed bark with hand-feet and one true-hand, prehensile tail curled tight around the branch, as he extended the other true-hand to stroke the two-leg’s cheek. He crooned to it, and he saw it blink. Then its hand came up — so much smaller than a full-grown two-leg’s, yet so much bigger than his own –and he arched his spine and crooned again — this time in pleasure — as the two-leg returned his caress.
Even in her pain and fear, Stephanie felt a sense of wonderalmost aweas the treecat reached out to touch her face.
She’d seen the strong, curved claws the creature’s other hand had sunk into the near-pine’s bark, but the wiry fingers which touched her cheek were moth-wing gentle, claws retracted, and she pressed back against them. Then she reached out her own good hand, touching the rain soaked fur, stroking its spine as she would have stroked an Old Terran cat. The outer layer of that fur, she realized, was an efficient rain shedder. The layers under it were dry and fluffy, and the creature arched with a soft sound of pleasure as her fingers stroked it. She didn’t begin to understand what was happening, but she didn’t have to. She might not know exactly what the treecat was doing, yet she dimly sensed the way it was soothing her fear — even her pain — through that strange link they shared, and she clung to the comfort it offered.
But then it drew back, sitting higher on its four rear limbs. It cocked its head at her for a long moment while wind and rain howled about them, and then it raised one front paw — no, she reminded herself, one of its hands — and pointed downward.
That was the only possible way to describe its actions. It pointed downward, and even as it pointed it made a sharp, scolding sound whose meaning was unmistakable.
“I know I need to get down,” she told it in a hoarse, pain-shadowed voice. “In fact, I was working on it when you turned up. Just give me a minute, will you?”
Climbs Quickly’s ear shifted as the two-leg made noises at him.
For the first time, thanks to the link between them, he had proof the noises were actually meant to convey meaning, although just what their meaning might be was more than he could have said. While the two-leg’s emotions themselves were almost painfully sharp and clear at this short range, the echoes, the hints of meaning, which infused the emotions of any mind-glow were far too strange and unfamiliar for him to sort out any sort of specific meaning. Yet it was obvious the youngling was trying to communicate with him, and he felt a stab of pity for it and its fellows. Was that the only way they knew to communicate with one another? But however crude and imperfect the means might be compared to the manner in which the People spoke, at least he could now prove they did communicate. That should go a long way towards convincing the clan leaders the two-legs truly were People in their own fashion. And at least the noises the hurt youngling was making coupled with the taste of its mind-glow were proof it was still thinking. He felt strange surge of pride in the two-leg, comparing its reaction to how some of the People’s youngling’s might have reacted in its place, and bleeked at it again, more gently.
“I know, I know, I know!“
Stephanie sighed and reached back to the counter-grav’s controls. She adjusted them carefully, then bit her lower lip as a ragged pulsation marred its smooth vibration.
She gave the rheostat one last, gentle twitch, feeling the pressure of the harness straps ease as her apparent weight was reduced to three or four kilos. But that was as far as it was going. She would have preferred an even lower level — had the unit been undamaged, she could have reduced her apparent weight all the way to zero or even a negative number, in which case she would actually have had to pull herself down against its lift. But the rheostat was all the way over now. It wouldn’t go any further . . . and the ragged pulsation served notice that the unit was likely to pack up any minute, even at its current setting.
Still, she told herself, doggedly trying to find a bright side, maybe it was just as well. Any lighter weight would have been dangerous in such a high wind, and getting her lightweight self smashed against a tree trunk or branch by a sudden gust would hardly do her broken arm any good.
“Well,” she said, looking back at the treecat. “Here goes.”
The two-leg looked at him, made another mouth noise, and then — to Climbs Quickly’s horror — it unlatched its harness with its good hand and let itself fall.
He reared up in protest, ears flattened, yet his horror vanished almost as quickly as it had come, for the youngling didn’t actually fall at all. Instead, its good hand flashed back out, catching hold of a dangling strip of its broken flying thing, and he blinked. That frayed strap looked too frail to support even his weight, yet it held the two-leg with ease, and the youngling slid slowly down it from the grip of that single hand.
The counter-grav’s harsh, warning buzz of imminent failure clawed at Stephanie’s ears.
She muttered a word she wasn’t supposed to know and slithered more quickly down the broken rigging stay. It was tempting to simply let herself fall, but any object fell at over thirteen meters per second in Sphinx’s gravity. She had no desire to hit the ground at that speed with an arm which was so badly broken, no matter how little she “weighed” at the moment of contact. Besides, although the stay’s torn anchorage would never have supported her normal weight, it was doing just fine with her current weight. All it had to do was hold for another minute or two and –
She was only two meters up when the counter-grav unit decided to fail. She cried out, clutching at the stay as her suddenly restored weight snatched at her, but it disintegrated in her grip. She plummeted to the ground, automatically tucking and rolling as her gym teacher had taught her, and she would have been fine if her arm hadn’t been broken.
But it was broken, and her scream was high and shrill as her rolling weight smashed down on it and the darkness claimed her.
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