These Broken Stars Page 12

The Icarus is spinning when nothing should be able to cause her to do so, and I can’t see any other detached escape pods in the fragment of deep space beyond the viewport. Are the others out of sight? I catch a glimpse of something impossibly huge—the same thing I saw before—reflective and bright. Where is the light coming from? The next instant the pod spins and all I can see is starry darkness.

I study the metal grid on the floor, then the circuit boards overhead that the builders didn’t bother to cover, the metal plates riveted into place. Not like the rest of the escape pods, I’m sure. They’ll be cushy and expensive. I’d rather be in this sturdy, utilitarian pod than one of the others, somehow. Our pod jerks again, when it should be using sensors and thrusters to keep us floating gently in space. Something’s causing it to ignore its programming.

I look across at Miss LaRoux, and for a moment our gazes meet. She’s some combination of tired, pissed off, and just as sure as I am that something’s not right. Neither of us breaks the silence, though, or names the things it might be.

Her hair’s coming loose from the fancy loops and curls she had it up in, and in zero gravity, it’s fanning out around her face as though she’s underwater. Even with a black eye on the way, she’s beautiful.

Then a violent shudder tears through the pod, shattering that moment of peace. The metal begins to hum as the vibrations increase, shaking me through the soles of my boots. I look up to see a glow outside the viewport, and then an automatic shield slides across it, prompted by some reading from outside.

That glow. I know now what was casting that light. I know what’s shaking the pod, causing it to twist and turn and ignore its instructions to laze about in deep space waiting for the cavalry.

It’s a planet. That glow is some planet’s atmosphere reflecting a star’s light, and its gravity is dragging the pod down, interfering with its guidance systems. We’re landing, and that’s if we make it down in one piece. We’re landing if we’re lucky.

Miss LaRoux’s mouth moves, but I can’t hear her—the humming’s too loud, lifting to a rumble and then a roar as the air inside the pod heats up. I have to shout to make myself heard.

“Press your tongue against the roof of your mouth.” I’m bellowing instructions, and she’s frowning at me like I’m speaking Old Chinese. “Relax your jaw. You don’t want to break your teeth or bite your tongue. We’re crashing.” She understands now, and she’s smart enough to nod, instead of trying to shout back. I close my eyes and try, try to relax.

The gravity inside the pod falters, then slams back again, so my harness cuts into my chest and my breath is pushed out of my lungs with a hoarse shout I can’t hear.

The air outside the pod must be white-hot as we rip through the atmosphere. We’re within the pull of the planet’s gravity now, but suspended as we’re pulled up against our straps by our acceleration toward the ground below. For an instant Miss LaRoux meets my eyes—we’re both too shocked, too shaken to communicate.

I have only that instant in which to register that she’s silent, not screaming her head off like I would’ve expected. Then there’s an impact that jolts my head back against the pad behind it so hard my teeth clash together. It turns out I’m holding my chest strap, because I nearly dislocate my thumb.

The parachute’s deployed. We’re floating.

We’re both tense as the sudden silence draws out, waiting for the pod to connect with the ground, wondering if the parachute will reduce the impact enough that we won’t end up smeared across the planet.

There’s a deafening crash, and something scrabbling across the outside of the pod, and then we’re turning over, upside down. The storage locker bangs open, sending my grab bag flying. I pray to whatever might be listening that it doesn’t connect with us.

The pod jerks again, ricocheting wildly, tumbling end over end. I’m stuck in a world where I’m jerked against my straps over and over, thrown back and forth, until finally we settle. It takes me several quick breaths to realize we’ve stopped moving. Though I can barely tell which way is up, I realize I’m not hanging from my straps, so we must be upright. I feel like I’ve been trampled in a stampede, and I swim back toward reason, trying to understand what’s happened. Somehow, unimaginably, we’ve landed. Right now I couldn’t give a damn where. I’m alive.

Or else I’m dead, and I’ve ended up in hell after all, and it’s an escape pod with Lilac LaRoux.

Neither of us speaks at first, though the pod’s far from silent. I hear my own breathing, harsh and hoarse. Hers comes in little fits and gasps—I think maybe she’s trying not to cry. The pod pings audibly as it cools, the sound slowing and softening.

I’m hurting all over, but I flex my fingers and curl my toes, shifting and stretching within the confines of the straps. No serious damage. Though Miss LaRoux’s head is down, her face hidden by a sheet of red hair, I can tell she’s alive and conscious from her breathing. Her hand moves, feeling around for the release on her straps.

“Don’t,” I say, and she freezes. I hear how it sounds—like an order. I try for something a little softer. There’s no point bullying her. For a start, she won’t listen to me if I do. “No point in both of us going flying if it rolls again, Miss LaRoux. Stay where you are for now.” I release my own straps and ease them away, rolling my shoulders as I push carefully to my feet.

She looks up at me, and for a moment I forget what she’s done, and I’m sorry for her. It’s the same white, pinched, blank face I’ve seen in the field.

Two years ago, I was a brand-new recruit myself. A year ago, I was hitting the field for the first time. That was me, freezing up until my sergeant grabbed my arm and hauled me down behind half a brick wall. A laser burned a hole right where my head had been a moment before.

Thing is, though some of the kids who react this way get blown to bits, some of us come out the other side and make good soldiers.

There’s blood on her neck where the backs of her earrings have punched through the skin, and her face is so pale that I know what’s coming before she speaks.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” she says in a choked whisper, and then she’s pressing her lips together again. I reach up to hold on to the hanging straps and stand with my feet apart, shifting my weight. I can’t rock the pod, which means it’s probably wedged in firmly.

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