"What's wrong?" Jenni Aidan turned to her older son, hunched over his dinner plate, elbows up on the table.
Lucas mumbled a negative and continued staring at his food. Fresh hopper was a treat. His father had caught it while he was out preparing the forest cabin where their family would spend the summer. Why didn't it taste good?
"Misses his girlfriend." Sam snickered. The younger boy grinned, his face flushed from a day of spring sunshine, making his fair hair look almost white by contrast.
"Samuel," their father said, his voice heavy. He leaned back in his chair at the end of the table and cradled his mug of spyce. His weather-beaten face was a study in thoughts far away from the dinner table.
"Kay'li's never coming back, you dope," Sam continued, ignoring the warning. He leaned over his plate across the table, snatched a chunk of steam bread off the plate and waved it under his brother's nose. "Made that stupid blood vow for nothing."
Lucas slowly raised his dark head, fixing his brother with a glare that would have silenced the boy any other time. Sam didn't see the fire building in Lucas's brown eyes.
"Sam, be quiet." Jenni touched his sleeve.
"Lucas got a girlfriend!" the younger boy crowed, his grin wider. "Got a girlfriend who's never coming back!"
Lucas lunged across the table, fists flying. He landed kneeling on the edge of the table, his brother's plate between his knees. Sam fell backwards off the bench. He didn't bawl until he saw the blood stream from his nose.
He scooted backwards off the table. He kept going, out the kitchen, through the mudroom door, heading for the woods. It was the only place where he felt any peace lately.
His knuckles stung. Lucas sucked on his sore hand, tasting blood where he had broken the skin, and kept walking. The smells of dinner clung to his clothes, masking the mix of shuttle fuel fumes from the landing field and the perfume of spring flowers coming from the forest.
He quickened to a stumbling half-run once he passed the cemetery fence. His head throbbed and his stomach churned and his feet took him to the spot by the river that had become a haven in the last three weeks.
Lucas reached the forest proper and felt his muscles give up half their wire-stiff tension. The odors of manmade things faded; the taint of civilization and synthetics and burning that stung in his nose and made his head ache. He took deep breaths, letting the clean smell of growing things flow into his body. Something was wrong. More than missing Kay'li and what his mother called spring fever. Lucas loved the burst of life when spring reached the outpost, but this year it was different. Ten times stronger than before.
He slowed, feeling something moving through the forest alongside him, three meters away on the other side of the bushes. Lucas was stunned to realize he did know exactly where and how far the animal was from him. He kept walking. The first thing Captain Fieran taught him was to keep doing whatever he was doing and never warn observers they were sensed.
The path opened out onto the riverbank. Lucas climbed up the boulder leaning out over the water. It had become his favorite perch, the place he came to settle his aching stomach and head, and just think. To clear his nose from sickening odors and stop the aching feeling in his bones.
The sense of something behind him vanished. Lucas slowly turned his back to the river. A booming, thudding cry echoed through the forest, rising to a shriek. He grinned and dropped to kneel on the rock. It was only a bannow following him, indulging its inborn curiosity. If bannows didn't taste so bad, and weren't so useful for keeping down vermin and larger pests around the outposts, their curiosity and tameness around Humans would have destroyed them long ago.
Maybe it was stupid to go through the forest alone, so close to dark, but he had to listen to the compulsion or get sick. Watching the flow of the water, listening to the gurgle and splash over the rocks, soothed him. All but his loneliness and the sense that something was wrong and getting worse.
Kay'li would have listened when he tried to explain what went on in his head. She would have tried to help him figure it out. When he had felt so sick from the anti-Phase treatment he wanted to die, she gave him food the Port doctors had forbidden. She had saved his life.
Jenni waited in the doorway of the mudroom when Lucas came home. She watched him, her head tilted to the side in her thinking pose, and gave him a sad little smile. She was beautiful in the shadows like this, her hair nearly black, dark eyes sparkling, her pale skin glowing like the rising moons.
"Are you hungry?" Jenni asked, when Lucas had stepped through the door past her. He shook his head. "The whole world's turning wrong for you, isn't it?"
"Yeah." His voice broke on the single word. When Jenni wrapped her arms around him, Lucas let a few tears come, relieving the pressure in his head and chest.
For punching his brother, Lucas wasn't allowed to talk while the family packed to move to their summer research cabin forty kilometers down the river from Emers Outpost. He told himself he didn't mind, even when Sam stuck his tongue out at him, or muttered "girlfriend" every time the boys passed each other. When Lucas stared at his brother's swollen nose, Sam ran away. No need for words, no need for threatening gestures.
Lucas wasn't allowed to sit in the front seat while his father piloted the shuttle, as he usually did. Sam wasn't allowed to ride next to Seth, either. The trip was silent. Sam tried chattering about their summer plans for a few minutes, then gave up and stared out the tiny window next to his seat.
When they landed at the cabin, Lucas felt the tense coil inside his chest relax. The first clean, green-smelling breeze blowing off the river made his head feel lighter, free, as if a tight band had been removed from around his forehead. He picked up two duffel bags next to his seat and scrambled on his knees for the hatch. Everything inside him begged to go running, exploring, taste the ripening berries and the sugar grass, climb a few trees, explore the shallows of the river. He had work to do, first.
"Excited?" his mother asked, when he nearly ran into her, sliding to the ground through the hatch. Jenni laughed and tousled his hair when Lucas only grinned at her.
He slung the bag straps across his shoulders and hurried across the open space to their cabin. The ground was a haphazard patchwork of vibrant green and olive-shaded brown; meters of mossy growth broken by spears of sugar grass and spikes of razor grass. The clearing was a tiny cove, a blister of open space off the river, intruding into the dense cover of the forest.
Lucas felt eyes watching from the shadows, heard the soft whispering of birds waiting for the intruders to leave. He liked this new awareness of the forest and felt a moment of resentment for the cabin. It didn't belong there.
The cabin was simple, long and one-story, like all their summer cabins, made from the trees felled for the clearing, roofed with plastic sheeting, floored with thicker plastic for insulation. The windows, door and partitions inside were all particleboard, from recycled containers. Lucas smelled the biting tang of the plastic before he got within five steps of the door. He hesitated. His skin crawled at the thought of touching the door. It would feel greasy-gritty and his hand would smell of plastic for hours.
"Outsmarted yourself," his father said, coming up behind him. He reached past the boy and hit the latch, nudging the door open with his hip as he carried his crate of dishes inside. "Next time, don't fill both hands until you know the door is open." Seth smiled at Lucas as he spoke.
Lucas grinned and hurried after him. He set the duffel bags down under the table in the main room and hurried out again. Unpacking was always easier and took less time than the packing. Maybe if he hurried, he could do some exploring before sunset.
The cabin was divided into three main parts. The first ran the length of the cabin because it required as much wall space as possible. Seth's workroom was narrow, crowded with his computer, germination trays, analysis equipment, chemicals, boxes of seeds and fertilizers, and the power generator.
The second was the main room where his family would live, work and eat for the summer. The table, benches, cooking and refrigeration units and the generator had been installed when the Agriculture Authority built the cabin. The third part was a series of cubicles, each with a bed and storage drawers. Lucas took one look at his room and decided to spend as little time indoors as possible. His room was little more than a closet with a light strip in the ceiling. He felt the hum of the generator in the flooring, through his boots.
He would spend as much time outdoors as he could. Indoor air pressed on his skin, rubbed his temples and eyelids, dried out his mouth and felt as if it came from a pressure bottle. The sensation crawled under his clothes.
Stupid. He swallowed hard, turned on one heel and hurried back outside for another load of bags and crates. It was only his imagination.
"They must certainly be pleased with your work over the winter," Jenni said to her husband, as the family settled around the table for their first dinner at the cabin.
"How's that?" Seth lifted his gaze from the five-page list of goals for this summer's research.
"It's certainly more luxurious than last year's cabin," she said, gesturing around. "More storage, better cooking and lighting, better supplies."
"My own room," Sam said, his mouth full of bread. He grinned and kept chewing when his parents chuckled.
"What do you think, Lucas?" Seth asked. "Is this going to be a good summer?"
"The river's good and clean," Lucas mumbled, his voice scratchy. "Lots of berry patches all over the place."
"How do you know?" Sam asked. "You went exploring without me!"
"You can smell them, stupid. I bet we can eat berries half the summer and not get them all."
"Oh, I don't know," his mother said with a smile. "Want to see how many berry pies and jars of jam I can make with what you pick?"
Both boys grinned at her. Lucas wouldn't mind hours spent bent over picking berries, avoiding brambles and tangle-vines. It would keep him outdoors, away from the thick air and oily, dirty smells coming from the walls and floor. He knew better than to complain about the smells when his father had his head full of work. Maybe they could do something about the smells and the sick, pounding feeling they created in Lucas's head when Seth had organized his summer work and could relax.
Lucas just hoped that wouldn't take too long. He hadn't felt this bad since the anti-Phase treatment.