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Though blackened by flames, the surviving worldtrees on Theroc remained defiant in the aftermath of the nightmare that had befallen them. Skeletal branches twisted upward, frozen in agony, as if warding off an unexpected blow from the skies. Damaged bark had sloughed away like leprous scabs. Many of the trees had been mortally wounded. The forest itself was a morass of dead branches and half-fallen trees.
Celli, the youngest child of Mother Alexa and Father Idriss, could not look at the painful ruins without blinking back tears that came too readily to her large brown eyes. At eighteen, she was skinny, tomboyish, with a dusting of light freckles on her mocha skin. She had a shag of short, corkscrewy auburn hair that she cut only when it got in her way. Soot and ash scuffed her cropped, fitted top that left her midriff bare and her short flutter skirt that added a splash of color. Normally she had a bright smile beneath her upturned nose, but of late there had been few occasions to smile.
After the hydrogues had been driven back, it had taken all the remaining energy of the worldforest, a herculean effort from the Therons, and the assistance of a delayed rescue fleet from the Earth Defense Forces to bring the wildfires mostly under control.
Even so, whole continents lay wasted. Some patches still burned, and smoke rose into the blue sky like stains drawn by bloody fingers. Green priests and Theron laborers regularly gathered at central meeting places to face the endless task of recovery.
Each day, Celli joined them. With every breath as she ran along, the sour stench of burned pulpy foliage caught in her throat, and she knew that she would find the smell of roasting meat and burning wood nauseating for the rest of her life.
When she had first arrived at what remained of the fungus-reef city, an enormous shelf mushroom that had coalesced over the centuries, she gazed up at it with a fresh sense of shock. The host tree had been badly burned and the fungus reef half-destroyed, the carved-out pocket rooms unsuitable for habitation.
In a trampled clearing beneath the damaged fungus reef, her parentsthough overwhelmed by the enormity of the taskdid their best to organize the weary, red-eyed workers. Idriss and Alexa had officially retired from their leadership role and made Cellis oldest brother, Reynald, their king. But he had been killed in the hydrogue attack. She remembered her last vision of him, standing defiantly atop the worldforest canopy as the hydrogues and faeros battled overhead. . . .
Today, though, as on every other day since the hydrogue attack, no one would stop to mourn or dwell on thoughts of all those who had died. To pause right now in their labors, even out of pure grief, would have been too self-indulgent. There were countless trees and people that could yet be saved, if only there were hands enough to do the necessary work. That was why all Therons who were not too severely injured returned without complaint to the tasks that must be done. Celli, like every other Theron, grieved while on the move.
Her brother was lost along with so many others, including three of Cellis close friends. Including her other brother, Beneto, a green priest killed when the hydrogues attacked Corvus Landing. Every day, moment by moment, Celli worked to the point of exhaustion, trying to avoid the worst of the pain. She didnt dare think too long about Lica, Kari, Ren, for fear that the grief might immobilize her.
Before the hydrogue attack, Celli and her friends had spent their days amusing themselves in the forest, never thinking much beyond the next day or two. She would practice treedancing moves, and Ren was particularly good at catching condorflies. Lica and Kari both liked the same boy, but he hadnt noticed either one of them. How they had all laughed and played together, never expecting anything to change . . .
None of them had ever guessed that enemies might lie beyond the sky.
Celli, the baby of the family, was now the only one of her siblings left on Theroc, since her sisters Sarein and Estarra both lived in the Whisper Palace on Earth. In the past, her sisters had often accused her of complaining too much; now the worries and discomforts of her youth seemed petty and meaningless. For the first time in her life, Celli felt both a spark of independence and the weight of real responsibility. And she was determined to help her people get through this tragedy. The problem seemed impossibly large, but she lifted her chin and gritted her teeth.
Like Celli, the Theron survivors possessed a new determination that formed a tough veneer over their despair. The people had been unprepared for such a holocaust, but this desperate time had revealed an inner resolve, as they simultaneously shored up the worldforest and drew comfort from it.
We are not alone. We care for the trees, and they care for us. We will never abandon each other. This is the source of our strength, and together we will all get through our ordeal, Father Idriss had pronounced when, shortly after the attack, he called the survivors together.
Now support ladders and pulleys, makeshift ramps, and walkways were erected against the main fungus-reef tree as crews salvaged what they could. Adults worked to clear debris and charred mushroom flesh from the lower levels, while cautious younger children crawled onto precarious perches, marking safe routes for the heavier adult workers. Celli remembered when she and Estarra had climbed to the top levels of the giant mushroom to harvest the tender whitish meat Beneto loved so well. . . .
Fortunately, since their initial attack here, the hydrogues had been preoccupied with a new conflict against the faeros and had not returned to crush the worldforest. But Celli took little heart from that. There was too much death and destruction around her.
From above, she heard a shout of surprise, then moans of grief. In one of the fungus-reef chambers, a child explorer had just found an asphyxiated woman. Others made their way across the hardened fringes to where they could drag the victim out. Celli had known the woman, a family friend who made delicious treats from forest berries. Her heart sank, but her grief had no further to go; each fresh drop of cold tragedy ran like water off an already saturated cloak. Reynald, Beneto, Lica, Kari, Renthe names rolled through her conscience, one after another. She was terrified she might forget somebodyand that didnt seem fair. They deserved to be remembered. Each one of them.
Not wanting to be at the base camp when the workers brought down the womans body, Celli went to her grandparents. I want to go where Im needed most, Grandmother. Send me out.
I know youre impatient, dear. Old Lias watery eyes seemed extremely tired. Were all trying to decide which work is most important.
Her grandfather scratched his seamed cheek. Every day weve been doing triage for the forest.
Uthair and Lia were busily keeping track of scouting teams, scribing notes and making records that only they could decipher. Normally, the green priests could connect to the worldtrees to see the whole scope of the forest, but the magnitude of the destruction was so overwhelming that many of them could not sort through the visual information to make sense of it all.
The old couple spread out detailed satellite images taken by EDF ships, showing the extent of burned and frozen areas like a blight across the landscape. Reeling green priests had already shared this information with the trees through telink, but the forest already felt its enormous injuries, which made direct and clear communication difficult. Her grandmother pointed to an unmarked spot where hundreds of acres of broken and toppled trees lay flattened as if they had been no more than stalks of grain in the path of a hurricane. No one has gone into this area yet.
Ill go take a look. Celli was glad to have a useful assignment she could do by herself. She welcomed the responsibility. After all, she was now as old as Estarra had been when shed married King Peter. Everyone on Theroc, down to the youngest child, was being forced to grow up too quickly.
She sprinted off, picking her way through the haunted forest. The fast blaze had scoured away the underbrush, but the hydrogues icewave had been like dynamite, blasting trees into kindling, shattering them into tangles of fibrous pulp.
Celli moved lightly on graceful legs that were muscular from climbing, running, and dancing. She imagined she was practicing to be a treedancer again, a profession shed aspired to for many years. She had trained diligently, seeing herself as half ballerina and half marathon runner.
As she ran, she encountered more human bodiesbroken statues killed by the hydrogues icewave or horribly burned cadavers drawn into a mummified fetal position as muscles and sinews tightened in the heat. Far too many had died, both trees and humans.
But Celli forged on, her feet sending up puffs of ash. Each living tree she could report would be one little victory for Theroc. Each such triumph would gradually tip the scales against the despair the hydrogues had brought.
As she explored in slow, broad zigzags through the devastation, the surviving trees were few and far between, but she touched each one briefly, murmuring words of encouragement and hope. Scrambling on her hands and knees, she climbed through a tangle of toppled trees as wide as a house. Though the jagged branches scratched her, she pressed forward and reached an artificial clearing in which all the trees had been knocked down in a circular pattern, as if something huge had exploded there, leaving an open area at the center.
Celli caught her breath. In the middle of the circle of destruction, she saw a curved shell of smoke-blackened crystal, the shattered fragments of what had been an alien warglobe. Pyramid-shaped protrusions thrust like claws through the spherical hull sections.
A hydrogue ship.
She had seen these awful things before, though this warglobe was nothing more than a fractured wreck, half of it strewn around the clearing. Celli couldnt help but clench her fists while her lips curled in an angry but triumphant snarl.
Thus far, the EDFfor all their sophisticated weaponshad achieved little success against the hydrogues diamond armor. Celli was sure the Earth military would be interested in having a specimen of an enemy warship that they could analyze up closeand she intended to give it to them, if there was any chance it might help in the fight.
Flushed with her discovery, Celli raced back toward the fungus-reef city, happy to have good news to share at last.