These Broken Stars Page 13

“All right,” I say, in the same gentle voice that worked on me the first time I froze, dropping to one knee in front of her and helping her with her straps. “All right, hang on a moment, breathe in through your nose.” She whimpers and scrambles free of the straps, dropping to her knees on the metal grid floor. That’ll leave a mark later.

I flip up the seat of the spare chair, and sure enough there’s a storage locker underneath it. I lift out the toolbox and set it aside. She understands my intention and leans past me to grip the edges of it, back arching as she retches. I leave her to it, getting to work hauling open the hatches of the lockers and storage compartments built in all over this thing. There’s a water tank, the silver wrappers of ration packs, a first-aid kit marked with a red cross, the toolbox. I find a slightly grubby rag stashed inside one, and hold it out to her as she lifts her head. She stares at it dubiously—still blessedly silent—but finally takes it gingerly, using the cleanest corner to wipe her mouth.

Crash-landed on an unknown planet, a black eye on the way, and the contents of her stomach now in the underseat storage locker, and she still feels the need to act like she’s above it all.

She coughs, trying to clear her throat. “How long do you think it will be before the shuttles will find us?”

I realize that she thinks the Icarus is still okay—that they’re doing repairs as we speak. That her surface-going craft will come scoop us up at any moment, that this is all some fleeting nightmare. My annoyance fades a little as I think about telling her what I saw. The Icarus dipping, wallowing in the atmosphere of this planet, fighting a losing battle against gravity.

No, telling her will just send her into hysterics, like it would any of those people I met in the first-class salon. Best to keep some things close to my chest.

“First things first,” I say instead, hunting for something I can use to pour her a cup of water. This works with the recruits too—a firm, businesslike tone, cheerful but not quite friendly, pushing them toward tasks they can focus on. “Let’s learn what we can about where ‘here’ is.”

As I speak, I’m watching the heat shields retract on the windows, and something releases inside my chest as I look outside. Trees. “We’re in luck. This place looks like it’s terraformed. There must be sensors for checking the air quality outside.”

“There are,” she agrees. “But the electrical surge fried them. We don’t need them, though. It’s safe.”

“Glad you’re so sure, Miss LaRoux,” I retort before I can stop myself. “I think I’d rather an instrument told me so. Not that I don’t trust your extensive training.”

Her eyes narrow, and if looks could kill, then toxic atmospheres would be the least of my problems.

“We’re already breathing the air,” she replies tightly, lifting one hand to gesture toward the lockers by her feet.

I crouch to get a look at where she’s pointing, and for an instant I stop breathing, lungs seizing. You can’t see it unless you’re down low, but the pod’s been ripped like a massive can opener ran along one side of it. I remind myself that nobody’s started choking and force myself to inhale.

“Well, look at that. Must have happened on landing.” I listen to my own voice. Sounds calm. Good. “So the terraforming is in advanced stages for sure. And that means—”

“Colonies,” she whispers, closing her eyes as she completes my sentence.

I don’t blame her. There’s a crack on the tip of my tongue about how soon she’ll be able to find company she prefers to mine, but the truth is I’m just as relieved. The companies that own this place will have colonies all over the planet’s surface. Which means somewhere on this planet, maybe even nearby, folks are wondering what the hell is going on up there. They’ll probably show up ready to fight, expecting hijackers or raiders, but I don’t think we’ll have a hard time convincing them we’re crash survivors. I could live without being in my fatigues, though. Most of the settlers on the remote colonies aren’t too fond of my kind.

“Keep sitting,” I say, rising to my feet and filling the canteen from my pack at the water tank. “I’m going to stick my head outside and see if the communications array is okay.”

She raises an eyebrow at me, her mouth curving to a tiny smile that somehow manages to be superior, despite the hair everywhere, and the blood, and the black eye. I feel myself bristle as that smile echoes every condescending moment I’ve ever experienced at the hands of her people.

“Major,” she says, speaking slowly, as if to a child, “all we have to do is stay put. Even if the communications array is gone, the colonists will have seen the crash. My father’s teams are probably already on their way.”

I wish I could afford to be so sure someone was going to swoop down and save me, but I’ve never been able to count on that in the past. Then again, I’m not Roderick LaRoux’s only child.

I leave her sitting on one of the seats, arranging her skirt artistically and clasping her hands in her lap, and head for the door. It takes the weight of my whole body behind my shoulder to ram it free of its warped frame. It gives with a screech that the uncharitable might suggest sounds just like Miss LaRoux, when displeased.

Outside, everything’s quiet. The chilly air is rich—not thin and spare like it is on some of the younger colonized planets. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever breathed anything so pure, not even at home. I shove that thought away. I can’t let myself be distracted by thinking of home, of my parents. I’m stranded with the richest girl in the galaxy, and I need to make sure that when her daddy shows up to find us, we’re out in plain sight.

I can’t hear birds, or any of the small scuffles that might suggest there’s local wildlife on the move. Then again, our pod’s cut a furrow through the surrounding woods that stretches nearly a klick, huge trees laid out flat and ground into the mud along the length of the scar. Perhaps the local fauna’s just hiding up trees and down holes, waiting for the end of the world to continue.

The trees are tall and straight, their lower trunks mostly devoid of limbs, their foliage a dark green with a distinctive smell, crisp and clean. I’ve seen them before. I don’t know their technical name, but we call them pole trees. They’re the first trees the terraforming crews get in, once all the organic muck has provided a basic layer of soil. They grow quickly, and make good building material with those tall, straight trunks. It’s later that the ornamental and the harvest trees are planted. So, perhaps this is my first hint at where we might be. Since I see pole trees and not much else, we’re probably on a newer planet, despite the rich air.

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