"The ground-crawlers aren't happy." The young woman piloting the Leaper shuttle raised one eyebrow at a line of text crawling across the small screen to the right of her controls.
Watcher, the Leap ship's brain, transcribed all the communication between Chorillan's spaceport facilities and the Leaper ship, Estal'es'cai, so the captain and her passenger wouldn't have to hear the cacophony.
"Not happy at all." Her passenger sat forward against the safety straps to read some of the dialogue on the screen. The two young women grinned, dark eyes sparkling.
"They'd better get used to it. You're not coming back here for shore leave, Captain Fieran."
"A very astute observation, Captain K'veer." Kay'li sighed and rubbed her temples with her thumbs. Then she stared at the thin white line of scar on one thumb. "If it weren't for Da and our dreams, I'd have told Cousin Bain to stuff a rocket up his backside and fly out here to solve the problem himself. This is the last place I ever wanted to come back to."
"Liar," Alexa said softly. She reached across the space between pilot seat and passenger and wrapped her hand around her cousin's thumb. "You promised."
"I made a lot of promises." Kay'li reached over and drew her fingertip across the control pad, blanking the screen showing the communication between Port and Leaper ship. "Think they've told Uncle Nobi we're coming in?"
"Are you kidding? They're still trying to get me to land in Port instead of at Emers. There is no way they can convince me their decontamination procedures are any better than ours. Leapers stay on top of the technology."
"That's part of the problem I have to unravel." Kay'li grabbed the armrests as her cousin tipped the shuttle, giving them a stunning view of the forests of Chorillan, closer with each second that passed. "Technology imports are still three generations behind, and most of Chorillan doesn't know it."
"Doesn't matter what they think or believe. We have clearance to land anywhere on the planet without going through all that bafrak at Port." Alexa nodded decisively. "And we're gonna do it."
"We're just bad little girls, aren't we?"
"Not half as bad as we will be when we find out who's been killing Azuli and helping the Gen'gineers."
"Not one tenth as bad," she whispered, nodding.
The morning mists still clung to the landing field beyond Emers Outpost when the shuttle came in. Kay'li sat as far forward as the straps would allow her, hungry to the point of being ill for a glimpse of her childhood home.
The trees showed a faint, pale green glimmer of leaves ready to burst from their nodules. Snow still lay in lumpy piles around the edges of the landing field. A few lights glowed in the long building that was a combination dining hall and boarding house. Kay'li couldn't make out many other lights. Either most inhabitants of Emers weren't early risers, or the population of the outpost had decreased even more drastically than her latest information from Scout HQ had indicated.
She had been born here in the days when Emers thrived, the threshold to the untamed wilderness of Chorillan. Since then, Emers had shrunk and older outposts had been abandoned altogether. This wasn't the disease that ate at the core of her home world, but only a symptom.
Lifter jets kicked in, whispering when other craft would have roared and awakened the entire outpost. Kay'li stood before the landing struts extended. She had to move, or start crying from anger, regrets, and a sense of helplessness that made her want to burst out of the shuttle with weapons blazing.
She swallowed hard, fighting the ache in her throat that threatened tears. She smoothed the wrinkles from her black trousers and tugged straight the loose, vivid green Scout-issue jacket. She wasn't in uniform, but pieces of Scout uniform were a necessary part of her wardrobe, to subconsciously remind people of the power that lay waiting for her command.
Kay'li would miss the Leaper ship. Not just because Alexa was her closest living relative, not counting Nobi Cole and Commander General Kern. Since receiving her assignment from Kern, she had hidden among the protection and comfort of the Leapers, her distant kin. She had filled her mind with all the data sent by the Scouts who had infiltrated Chorillan society. She knew what needed doing. She knew what the trends pointed toward. It was time to act. Yet a little voice deep inside kept crying, Why me?
The shuttle sighed as the jets shut down and the engines went into standby. Alexa stood and rested a hand on her cousin's shoulder as they stepped to the hatch and the panel slid out, then up.
Kay'li smelled that particular "green" smell she had always identified as Chorillan and missed with a deep pang. Mud and growing things, the too-sweet fragrance of vrilly blossoms and the fruity aroma of crushed silverleaf.
"Home," Alexa whispered. They started down the angled steps that extruded from the shuttle's side. "My offer stands. I could still use a good Second."
"I'll think about it." Kay'li tugged her jacket tighter around her as they stepped out into the cool morning air. She took a deep breath, absorbing the smell and taste of Chorillan. "I forgot how early in the year it is. I'll have to get used to the calendar again. Years in Chorillan measure, not Standard."
"You think that's bad? Mum raised me with three calendars. Standard, Leaper home universe time, and the universe Grandmother came from."
"Better than four-dimensional math?"
"Much better." Alexa laughed.
For a moment, they were adolescents again, faced with the challenge of getting the Estal'es'cai back to the Commonwealth's universe after Captain Jaklyn had been injured. Alexa had never piloted the ship solo before. With Kay'li's support, they merged with the ship's system to jump dimensions and bring ship and crew home. The fright they had felt then was nothing compared with the heavy responsibility resting on Kay'li's shoulders.
"Lots of things are going to take some getting used to." Kay'li sighed and took a step away from the shuttle and almost stopped when Alexa's hand left her shoulder.
They had agreed on this. She had an errand to run before checking in with Nobi, and Alexa would wait in the shuttle. Kay'li needed to plant her feet firmly on Chorillan before she got to work, and she had to do it in solitude.
Mud lay everywhere at this time of year. Moss faded from dormant gray to green. Razor grass glistened silver. The perfume of fruit tree blossoms whispered through the pungent aroma of mud and water and wet rock. Kay'li felt physically ill with mixed longing and reluctance, but she had a promise to keep.
She took a pouch from her deep jacket pocket and held it close to her body as she walked up the muddy, gravel-strewn trail to the small residential section. Her goal lay past the houses, up a shallow slope heading for the river. She stopped, though, when she saw the houses.
There were so few left. Some streets were nothing but muddy trails, with only footers remaining where homes had been dismantled. Overgrown bushes and trees filled in the spots where houses had been removed like bad teeth. Kay'li looked around the half-desolate outpost and shivered in the spring cool.
Chorillan was still a frontier world. Explosive growth was expected. Emers Outpost should bustle at this time of the morning, full of noisy families. It should be a minor city by now, not a half-deserted ghost town, little more than a supply drop for settlers.
Most settlers this far out from Port were Wildlings. Non-Wildlings were scarce, except in administrative jobs. They clustered like frightened chicks around the central hub of civilization. The Scouts waiting to report to her were still too new to the culture to understand all the undercurrents. Commander General Kern had made her the mission commander because she was a native and had that instinctive understanding, no matter how long she had been away from home. And because of her emotional bond to the colony.
The outpost office, boarding house and dining hall, two dormitories for Emers' workers and the Peace Forcer unit, two houses for their officers and families, three houses shared by trappers and explorers who worked survey for the government, and the warehouse were all that remained of an outpost that once boasted a clinic, ten residential streets and three boarding houses for the numerous transients passing through.
This was all wrong. Every shred of Kay'li's being shouted it. Her father had trained her never to let a question sit unanswered. Scouts saw mysteries as potential dangers.
"Wish you hadn't trained me so good, Da," she whispered. She took a deep breath, savoring the clean, sweet air and stepped out of the shadows of the trees.
The abandoned houses and neglected streets vanished behind her as she walked around the perimeter of the outpost, along the shallow sloping path. She soon reached a parcel of ground that had once been neatly fenced, forming a large square claimed from the forest. The fence was nonexistent but for a few fallen, rotten posts. That shook her, yet not as badly as the fear the chapel had vanished. Kay'li searched the shadows of the overgrown trees and bushes until she found it.
The roof had caved in and the plastic light panes in the walls were weathered and scratched to opacity. Kay'li paused at the single post that remained of the cemetery gate, remembering. It had been a tidy, restful place once. The sad state of the cemetery was another sign of the sickness on Chorillan.
Her mother's grave was easy to find. The creeper vines were just budding. Stones ringed the grave, sunk into the ground around the pink and gold slab that covered half the grave. No mud from rain splash marred the glossy surface, no debris cluttered the moss surrounding the grave. Kay'li saw few other graves that had regular care.
Kneeling, she took the pouch from the crook of her elbow and brought out the inner bag with the Scout emblem on front and back. The wet ground soaked through her knees. Kay'li didn't mind; it suited her mood. She dug with her fingers at the base of the slab until she had a deep, narrow hole. She pressed the magnetic seal on the pouch, paused to fight a tightness in her throat, then let her father's ashes trickle out. There was no breeze, nothing to disturb the slow sifting into the hole. A few birds twittered far away, barely loud enough to mask the whispering hiss of the falling ashes.
After the last bit of ash had sifted out, Kay'li covered the hole with mud and torn moss and sat back on her heels, waiting for tears.
Her face stayed dry, though the ache returned, pressing on her chest, making it hard to breathe. She tipped her head back, gazing up at the bit of sun visible through a narrow hole in the tangled canopy of branches and buds overhead, feeling her throat contract in a sob that wouldn't emerge. She waited until her back and legs protested, but still no tears.
Gradually, the sensation that she wasn't alone tickled her spine. Kay'li held still, her breathing unchanged. The birds continued singing, the insects clicking and chirping. She heard no footsteps. Nothing to disturb the calm of this place. Was it an animal, watching her from the cover of the trees?
The man's voice startled her, coming from close behind her. She leaped to her feet, pivoting on one heel, ready to dodge and kick, one hand reaching for the knife hidden in the illusion sheath on the outside of her trousers.
He just stood there, empty hands hanging at his sides, head slightly tilted to the left. No threat. Nothing but that crooked smile that made her think he was sure he was wrong.
Kay'li knew him. Not consciously, his name and where she had seen him before. But something deep inside her recognized him. His eyes woke chords of memory. Dark eyes, deep, serious. Those eyes had never lied to her. His thick, black hair hung in long curls nearly to his shoulders, half-masking the wide, glossy scar marring his left cheek from temple to chin. His wide shoulders and the muscles evident under his loose, sturdy clothes proclaimed him a man who lived outdoors and could handle any kind of physical labor.
"Took you long enough," he said, breaking through the swirling of Kay'li's thoughts as she struggled to remember. "I knew you'd keep your promise."
"Promise." She swallowed hard and blinked against a momentary dizzy sensation. She had made a promise just before she left Chorillan. To a friend. Her best friend.
He held out his hand, thumb sticking up. Her gaze fastened on his thumb and the thin white scar down the tip. A scar that matched the scar on her own thumb. A scar from a cut that had been too long and deep for the need; a blood vow made by two childhood friends facing years of separation.
"Lucas." Kay'li laughed and lunged forward to fling her arms tight around him.
The past shredded the moment she felt his muscles harden under her touch. This wasn't her childhood friend, the boy she had left behind. He was a grown man, a Wildling, and Wildlings didn't like to be touched. She stumbled as she released him and jerked backwards, away from him, wondering why she felt so afraid. No matter what had happened to him in the intervening years, he was still Lucas.
"Guess you're glad to see me." Lucas grinned shakily. He cleared his throat, shrugged, then gestured at the grave behind her. "You're visiting Mistress Miranda. Are you and the Captain - sorry, he was promoted to colonel, wasn't he?"
"Yes, Da was promoted to colonel. Several missions ago." Kay'li laughed silently at herself when she realized she had been half-expecting to see Lucas unchanged from the boy she had left behind. She would need time to get used to this strong man, a head taller than her. A Wildling. Scarred by his time during Phase and whatever happened to him when he was dragged back to civilization. It was hard to see Lucas as a victim.
"So you two are finally back here to settle?"
"Not quite." She swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. It surprised her how it hurt to tell him the truth--but only part of the truth. "I'm here on rest leave from the Corps. Da died on our last mission. I just buried his ashes with Mama," she finished in a breathless rush.
"I'm sorry," Lucas whispered. "So you brought him back."
"Just about his only regret, dying so far away." She shook her head, refusing to let her thoughts go any further in that direction. "Is it safe in the chapel?"
Lucas shrugged and stepped aside so she could go ahead. He followed her to the dilapidated building.
Inside, the vandalized remnants of benches lay scattered about. The painted walls were damaged by weather and scorching. Gaping holes in the roof had let in leaves and other rubbish over the years. A few spots on the ceiling still displayed the clouds and stars someone had painted with loving care.
"You would think people would still come here, even when everything else is abandoned," she whispered.
"Nobody comes here. Nobody prays. Hardly anybody around here even talks about Fi'in, except as someone to blame." Lucas wore a half-smile as he spoke.
"Except Wildlings?" she said, guessing his unspoken words.
"Wildlings know Fi'in exists. We don't need a building to prove it."
"In the Scout Corps, there's something wrong with you if you don't believe in Fi'in."
"Well, there aren't any Scouts here, and everybody knows everything is wrong with Wildlings."
"Don't joke about something like that." Kay'li wanted to blurt that Scouts had infiltrated the planet, poised to help Wildlings. But she couldn't tell anyone until she knew the entire situation, who to trust, who not to trust. "The chapel is a sign of a lot wrong here." She gestured around the shadowed building. "If people have nothing to believe in but themselves, how are they going to get anywhere?"
"Maybe nobody wants to get anywhere."
"But a colony should grow. Doesn't the Council care?"
"Maybe they like things the way they are now." Lucas stepped back to the gaping ruin of a door. "This isn't the way to talk your first day home."
"No, I suppose not." She let him lead her outside again. She wanted to tell him that kind of talk was the reason for her return to Chorillan.
"Does Nobi know you're home?"
"Not yet. I needed to take care of Da first, alone." She shrugged, feeling chilled as they walked down the path, back toward the magistrate's office. "Then, I'm going into Port. I have to check in with Grandmother and Uncle Kallin."
"Think they'll send Peacers after you if you don't report in?" Lucas's voice went thin. His smile had an edge that enforced her sense that he was nothing like the boy she had known.
"I've grown up and the years change everybody. They're all the family I have left, and we should at least try to get along. If I stay on Chorillan." She forced a sigh and a smile. "Nothing is certain. I'm going to relax and enjoy my rest leave and not worry about the future until I have to."
"That doesn't sound like Scout thinking."
"It's not. I don't know what I am anymore." She stopped when they reached the end of the path. "Where are you going? Where do you live now?"
"Here. When are you coming back to Emers?"
"Tomorrow, I hope."
"Good. Then I'll see you around." He nodded to her and turned down the path, moving away from the landing field, through the deserted rows of empty lots and abandoned houses.
Kay'li watched him, struggling against the certainty that if she didn't watch him, he would vanish into thin air and she would never see him again.
She had come back to Chorillan for the sake of all the children who had gone through Phase and become Wildlings. The problem was that whenever she thought of Wildlings, she saw Lucas. In the last few weeks, as she prepared for her mission, she had dreamed of him, watching her, unreadable questions in his eyes.
Wrapping her arms around herself, she walked across the outpost. She had work to do, contacts to make, information to gather. She was a Scout captain with an important assignment. Kay'li concentrated on that. She would deal with Lucas later.
Alexa waited for her, perched on the railing across the porch of the magistrate's house. She said nothing, just slowly swung one leg and watched Kay'li approach. Then the door swung open and Nobi Cole stepped out.
He hadn't changed in the years since he had left the Scouts to return to Chorillan. His shoulders were just as broad, his hair just as thick and pure white, his eyes as big and sparkling with laughter. He wore an out-of-date Scout jumpsuit, brown, with the patches torn off the shoulders and pockets. He stood there three seconds and stared at her. Then his arms opened wide. Kay'li ran to him. It was almost like being held by her father, enfolded in his arms and lifted off her feet and spun around once before she was set down again.
"Girl, look at you!" Nobi hooted and tugged on her braid, hanging past her waist. "Where did you get that hair?"
"That's a long story."
"You're beautiful, you know that?" He swung her around so they both faced Alexa. "Why didn't you tell me she was beautiful?"
Alexa shrugged. Suspicions percolated in Kay'li's mind.
"Just what have you been up to?" she demanded.
"Captain K'Veer was charged with all of Bain Kern's orders and updates," Nobi said, sobering. "I don't know what this universe is coming to when my two favorite little girls are all grown up and charged with saving an entire planet."
"Uncle Nobi... You didn't know about all this until now?"
"Someone kept Uncle Ian's reports about the Wildling situation from leaving the planet. It was safe to assume they had the ability and motivation to intercept any messages Scout Command sent to a retired Scout," Alexa said. "I was entrusted with all the data disks and some verbal messages."
"Oh." Kay'li settled down on the railing with Nobi's arm still tight around her.
"You done taking care of your father?" Nobi asked. He nodded in the general direction of the cemetery. "I was looking forward to straightening out this mess with him, taking care of problems we should have settled the first time around. It's only right that you be given the job to finish for him."
"It scares me."
"Yeah, well, only a fool goes into something this important without being afraid. We've done a lot of the groundwork and every single Scout they've shipped in during the last few years is committed to this mission. I have this feeling a good number of them will settle here. That's how much they love this world."
"That's good for us all," she murmured.
"They're a tight unit, just waiting for the commander to move in and start things rolling."
"They're waiting for Da."
"True." Nobi nodded. The sparkle returned to his eyes and he winked at Alexa. "But you're Ian's girl, and what common sense and training doesn't do to back up your authority, well...hormones just might."
"Uncle Nobi!" Kay'li was shocked for three heartbeats. Then she laughed.
He let go of her and stepped to the door. "I can guess what that schemer cousin of ours did to make you agree to this, gal. It isn't right, even if it's the only answer." He opened the door and beckoned for her and Alexa to come inside.
"Chorillan is my home. My friends are affected." Lucas's face filled her thoughts for a moment.
"A good Scout cares, but there are limits to how much they should depend on your emotions." He closed the door and stepped ahead, leading them through the office, cluttered with four desks, file bins stacked to the ceiling and old-style computer terminals and drives on each desk. The next door opened into the living quarters, a main room with a massive fireplace filling one wall at the narrow end of the room, couches on either side wall, thick fiber matting on the floor and shelves full of games and reading disks. It was a man's type of room, comfortably shabby and made for relaxing.
Kay'li stopped short in the doorway as a wave of mouth-watering, spicy, meaty, yeasty aromas assaulted her. She pressed her free hand to her stomach when it rumbled painfully.
"Thought you'd be starving. Nothing like real food to get you feeling like you're really home." He pushed open the swinging door on the other side of the main room and more odors of hot, fresh cooking gushed out to meet them.
He settled them at the table, set for three with heavy, utilitarian plates and utensils and massive cups. Kay'li snatched the insulated pitcher from the middle of the scarred, stained wooden table and twisted the stopper. The creamy, sweet aroma of spyce met her nose and she sighed in satisfaction. She would take spyce over coffee any day.
They glossed over the bare details of their next step while Nobi filled plates and brought them to the table. Kay'li outlined her cover story of a Scout on emotional rest leave.
"The truth, but hidden in plain sight," she said, as Nobi nodded and muttered approval. "The next part is going to be hard. Making nice with Grandmother and Uncle Kallin."
"Just think of the information you can wheedle out of them if they think you're playing along," Nobi said.
"That's the only reason for visiting either of them."
"That and the influence that comes with belonging to the Riallons," Alexa offered.
"Not so sure what kind that would be." Nobi set overflowing plates in front of them and stepped back to the counter to get his own. "Mistress Riallon has a reputation... well, not exactly as an enemy of Wildlings, but not a friend, either. She's particularly rough on the Rovers. If there wasn't such a sharp line between the civilized Wildlings and the Rovers, she and her friends could have them all taken into custody."
"Rovers?" Alexa frowned, questions clear in her eyes.
"Rover Wildlings are the ones who blame the universe for their difficulties. They only work when it's easier than stealing. They don't bother to keep clean or find shelter. They drink to numb their senses and their morals are non-existent." Nobi sighed. "It wasn't so bad when Kay'li was little. The civilized Wildlings were more visible. But they're retreating from Port and cutting off as much contact with officials and regulations as they can, for the sake of survival. It leaves the dregs more visible, which makes the prospect of children becoming Wildlings more repulsive than ever." He punctuated his words with the thump of his plate on the table and the scrape of his chair on the wooden floor.
"We have to let the civilized Wildlings know what we have to offer," Kay'li said.
"Eat first. Plan strategy later." He gestured down at his plate. Alexa laughed and nodded agreement.
Kay'li inhaled the aroma of hopper sausage and tuber hash, eggs and orangeberry sweetrolls. It had been too long since she had eaten fresh food. She bowed her head, pressed the fingertips of her left hand to her forehead and closed her eyes.
"Fi'in, my thanks," she whispered. Opening her eyes, she found Nobi watching her with a bemused smile.
"Scout all the way. Left hand for prayers," he explained, gesturing with his fork. "Most people pray with their right hands."
"Fi'in doesn't listen to people who let down their guard." She grinned. "The right hand is for resting on your gun."
Between mouthfuls, they outlined their plan of action. Alexa and the Estal'es'cai would establish orbit beyond the planet's satellites, to monitor planetary communications, siphon off data from the security satellites, and wait to assist Kay'li and the Scouts. Kay'li would borrow a sled to go to Port, visit her grandmother overnight and return to Emers in the morning.
"Overnight?" Nobi said. "I don't know how smart that is, letting Mistress Riallon keep you in her home even one night."
"I'm to meet with the leader of the Port Underground movement." Kay'li reached to pour her second cup of spyce.
"What movement?" He blinked and paused with his fork halfway to his plate.
"Someone with the right connections has been sneaking messages out to the Commonwealth Upper University, hidden among eco-system reports. It took years to put everything together. Cousin Bain sent a response back the same way, asking for a meeting. When we came into orbit, Alexa sent the agreed-on signal, using the code the Underground created. They'll contact me tonight and take me to meet their leader. We'll decide what to do once we've talked."
"Folks supporting Wildlings," Nobi muttered. He filled his mouth with egg and chewed slowly, shaking his head. "It's about time, that's all I can say."