Kay'li Fieran yelped and ducked, pivoting left. Sam Aidan lost his grip on her long mahogany braid. She caught his ribs with her elbow. The taller, heavier boy went down with a gasp, his mouth open like a fish three meters from the river. Kay'li leaped over him. Two steps took her to the gold ball that started the argument. Before Sam could move, she snatched up the toy and fled the forest clearing.
Sam's bullying was just another difference between him and his older brother, Lucas. The brothers had square cheeks and chins, broad shoulders and long-fingered hands from their father, Seth. Lucas had their mother Jenni's dark eyes and hair. Sam was white-blond and gray-eyed, like their father. Sam picked on her every chance he could because he was older than her, but she was smarter, and Lucas always defended her.
"Find it?" Lucas called when she reached the field beyond the outpost cemetery. He grinned when she held up the ball. "You were gone so long, I thought something nasty got you."
"I'm gonna pound him," he said with a groan.
"Already did." Kay'li giggled.
"Serves him right." Lucas held out his hands. She cocked her arm and flung the ball. It hit his hands with a loud smack. He grinned and pretended pain. "We'll bomb him this winter. He won't know what hit him."
"Snowman Sam." She caught the return throw. A cold breeze snapped down out of the treetops, yanking on her hair.
"Winter's almost here." He caught her throw. "Let's head back." He led the way down the packed dirt trail.
Untamed forest lay beyond the eastern edge of Emers Outpost. Kay'li trailed her fingers along the slatted fence that kept hoppers, slithers and other creatures out of the cemetery. The children walked in silence down the fifty meters of trail to the outpost proper. Five long gravel streets of houses ran parallel to the trail. The two streets with administration buildings, warehouses, dining hall and boarding houses lay perpendicular to the residential section. Beyond that, the landing field for shuttles. Beyond that, more forest, pierced by a wide dirt trail for wheeled land vehicles.
Kay'li's house sat on the northeast corner, closest to the forest. She liked it that way. Her father Ian, a Scout on unlimited leave from the Corps, regularly took her into the forest to explore. Since he included others in the excursions, it made him popular with the few children at Emers.
"They're back!" Lucas said, as the children came around the side of the house.
A two-man, open flyer sat in front of the house, with half-unpacked camping gear spread around it. The house door hung open, despite the cold wind.
"Race!" he yelled, and leaped forward.
Kay'li darted around the flyer and leaped over the backpacks. Lucas reached with both hands and vaulted over the middle of the vehicle. He stumbled as he landed, giving her a half-second lead. She jumped the steps two at a time. A tall, tanned, white-haired man stepped into the doorway, making her shriek in surprise. He caught her and lifted her high.
"There's my girl!" He laughed.
"Uncle Nobi!" Kay'li flung her arms tight around him.
Nobi Cole put her down and winked at Lucas, who managed to stop before he ran into the man. "Racing?"
Lucas grinned. "What are you doing back so soon, Major?"
"These old bones don't like the cold weather much." He set Kay'li down and swatted her behind as she flew through the door.
Ian and Miranda were in the front room. Kay'li had left her mother sleeping when she went outside to play with Lucas. Jenni Aidan was gone, but her sewing lay on the hearth. Kay'li heard running water in the kitchen and knew the woman was making another herbal infusion for her mother's headaches.
"Da?" Kay'li paused in the doorway. The weary droop of her father's head, the pallor of her mother's face frightened her.
Ian sat on the edge of the long couch, holding her mother's hands. His old, dark green Scout uniform looked cleaner than usual when he came back from moon-long exploring trips. No mud on his boots, no tears, no bulges in his pockets from unusual stones or plants he brought back for his wife and daughter to study. His hazel eyes had dark smears under them and his mouth was pressed flat instead of his usual smile. Kay'li wondered what was wrong.
Miranda Riallon-Fieran looked like a grand lady to her daughter, even wearing a faded robe of green pod fiber. Her hair gleamed red-gold like a crown in the afternoon sun spilling through the window, and hung almost to her waist.
"There you are." Miranda sounded stronger than she had at lunchtime, when she sent the children home from school. She smiled and held out a hand to her daughter. "Did you have fun?"
Kay'li nodded and hurried into the room. Her father scooped her up and deposited her on his knee. "Missed you lots, Da." She squealed when he kissed her and his beard scratched her cheek. She felt better when her mother laughed.
"I missed you, too," Ian murmured. "Have you been taking care of your mother like I told you?"
"She should study medicine with Jenni." Miranda took Kay'li's hand and squeezed. "Whenever I'd like some tea or a nap, she's ahead of me, heating the water or fluffing my pillows or getting my blanket. She has all the right instincts."
"Mama would feel lots better if you didn't go hunting without us." Kay'li knew immediately she'd said something wrong when Ian went still. "Mama?"
"It's all right." Miranda smiled and settled back against her pillows. "Your father won't take any more trips until spring. By then, I'll be strong enough for camping again."
"Can we?" Kay'li turned to her father.
"I don't see why not." Ian set her down. "Why don't you see if Mistress Aidan has any hot spyce ready?"
Kay'li nodded and hurried out of the room. At the door, she turned back with a question. She saw Ian lift Miranda from the couch and cradle her on his lap, and the hurting, downward curve of her mother's mouth. Something was wrong and her parents didn't want her to know.
She found Lucas and Nobi in the kitchen with Jenni. Nobi sprawled on the long bench along the wall, untangling ropes. Lucas knelt on the floor in front of him, watching his fingers fly through a series of knots. Jenni poured boiling water into the spyce pot. Kay'li smelled fresh bread, sweet dibbleroot cake and hopper stew. Everything felt right, in sharp contrast to the sense of something very wrong in the front room.
"Is Mama going to die?" she blurted.
"Kay'li!" Jenni nearly dropped the pot of hot water.
Lucas sat back on his heels and ducked his head the way he did when something hurt him. Nobi stood, letting the ropes fall from his hands.
"Where'd you get a silly idea like that?" Jenni forced a smile on her face.
Kay'li had her answer. If the answer was good, adults said so immediately. If it was bad, they asked her another question instead of answering.
Ian stood by the window with the curtains pulled back so the light of the three moons spilled onto the bed. Moonlight somehow eased the pain. He watched Miranda sleep and cursed himself again for going away.
It wasn't just the change of season that exacerbated her cough and weariness. Cooler weather didn't revive her, as it had last fall.
His trip had been a waste. The Wildling outposts had completely vanished into the forest, as if they had never been there. Miranda's brother, Daral had warned Ian in the spring they were ready to move far out of satellite range. The Azuli had been giving them signs for moons that danger approached. Ian tried to find a message hidden away for him to find, a clue of some kind. But nothing. It was as if the Wildlings had never been there, hunting for children who had broken free during the pain and confusion of Phase.
Now who would help bring the children home without fear and trauma and pain?
The suddenness worried Ian. Either he had grown lax, or the inner rot of Chorillan's government had returned. His first suspect in the new rising prejudice against Wildlings was Kallin, Miranda's brother. Or his mother-in-law. Kalinda Riallon had welcomed Ian's marriage to her daughter, until Ian and Miranda didn't leave Chorillan. Why would the woman be so venomous, unless she feared a Scout on her doorstep would find things she tried to hide?
Unfortunately, this Scout couldn't seem to find his own shoes under his own bed without a light.
How could he concentrate on anything, with Miranda so sick? Her condition was just like the illness that killed her father, Daran. Ian had sent blood and tissue samples to friends at the Commonwealth Upper University, but a cure could take years.
If he didn't think the trip would kill her, he would take Miranda and Kay'li and leave Chorillan. Even with the problems that still plagued Wildlings ten Standard years after his team had routed the Gen'gineer base.
An entry in his ancestor, Lin Fieran's journals came to his mind, as he stared out at the moonlit forest and tied his insides into knots with frustration and helplessness.
'Sometimes we can't do anything to change the universe. We can't make a speck of difference if we sacrifice our lives and use up all the power in our ships. But maybe we can change one life in a small way, and that life will change the universe.'
Ian had lost faith that he could make a difference in even one life. When had he lost it? He couldn't remember.
"You're all scowly." Miranda rolled onto her back, smiled and held out her hand to him.
In the moonlight, she looked magical and alive, untouched by pain. Ian crawled back into bed with her. Miranda's hands and feet were cold when he wrapped himself around her again.
"You're thinking about Mother, aren't you?" She sighed, weak laughter. "Don't think I haven't considered her conniving."
"Manda, she's the least of our worries." Ian kissed her and repressed a shudder at the thoughts her words triggered.
Kalinda Riallon--Kay'li had been named for her--was ruthless when it came to what she wanted. Even blood ties meant little to her, when someone stood in her way. When Daran Riallon had died, Ian had harbored suspicions that his illness had been contrived. Why else had she had the body cremated, except to make sure it couldn't be studied?
"I won't see spring."
"Don't argue with me, Ian Fieran." She tightened her arms around him. To Ian, it felt like thin threads encircling his chest. With a little pressure, they would snap.
Ian had never lacked strength of will or body until now. The thought of losing his wife, his love, frightened him more than the thought of his own death.
"I know this is killing me. I'm not afraid anymore. Too tired." She tried to laugh, but only wheezed. "What frightens me is Mother getting custody of Kay'li. She has the power to class you an unfit parent, and exile you before you can turn around."
Ian wanted to protest, but he knew she was right. Kalinda couldn't force him to do anything, couldn't accuse him of crimes, but she could use the legal system to destroy his life. If he lost Miranda, Kay'li would be all he had left, and Kalinda Riallon would take the girl and warp her life.
"I can always call in favors with the Corps," Ian said when the silence grew heavy with ugly possibilities.
"Don't be silly." She pressed a kiss against the corner of his jaw. "You're too honorable. You'd be playing by her rules if you used Commonwealth authority for personal reasons. Kay'li will only be safe off-planet."
"We should have left as soon as we got married."
"Doesn't matter--" Miranda tilted her head back. A surprised look caught her. She shuddered.
"Manda?" Ian smoothed the hair back from her face. Cold sweat seeped through her skin.
"It hurts," she whispered. A single tear escaped when she squeezed her eyes closed. Ian held her while the growing chill in her body sucked warmth from him. He wished he could fight the pain by giving up his own health and strength.
Ian didn't relax, though tension cracked his muscles, until he felt warmth return to Miranda's body, felt the rigidity leave her flesh. When she sighed and tucked her head under his chin, he knew the crisis had passed again.
"Go to sleep," he whispered.
"Not until you promise me."
"Manda, there are alternatives. I could take Kay'li so far into uncharted territory, even if your mother sent Peacers after us, she'd be an adult before they found us."
"What about Phase? Daral is a Wildling. Kay'li could become one. You can hide her from my mother, but not from Phase. Take her away before she's old enough. Promise me?" Fear burned in her eyes with more strength than Miranda had shown in moons.
Ian cursed himself for forgetting that danger to their daughter. The causes of Phase were still unknown. The only certainty was that any child of parents born on Chorillan could go through physical torment. Even with all the changes and safeguards Ian had convinced the Health Authority to use, Phase was still something to fear. Even for his daughter.
Miranda was right. Ian kissed her, making his kiss a sacred vow. Miranda melted against him, relaxing with relief. Tears flavored the sweetness.