These Broken Stars Page 15

The hike is one of the most goddamn awful things I’ve ever done.

It’s not a difficult walk, though the underbrush is thick, and there are fallen trees to scramble over, rough bark grabbing at my clothes and scraping my skin. The temperature’s not cold enough to keep the sweat from dripping down my spine, but the air carries a chilly bite that aches in my lungs. None of the plants are quite familiar, but none of them are completely unknown—just a little different, a twist on what I’m used to. There are dips and hollows waiting to wrench my ankles, and prickly plants snag my shirt, leaving little barbs to stick my arm later.

None of these things is the problem.

The problem is Miss LaRoux, who’s trying to keep up with me in heels. I wish she’d just stayed behind, because I could move a lot faster without her. But every time I turn to ask if she wants to head back, she gives me a frigid look, lips set, stubborn.

I offer her my hand to help her clamber over obstacles, though it’s getting to the point where if she fell down a hole, I’m not sure I’d bother fishing her out. At first she looks at my hand as though she might catch something from skin-to-skin contact. It’s like she’s determined to make it through this hike looking like it’s no more difficult than a stroll through a meadow. But after a few near misses, she’s gingerly resting her fingers on my palm every so often, doing the very least possible to accept my assistance. She’s still looking white despite her squared jaw, and I stay close enough that I’ll be able to get between her and the nearest hard surface if she decides to top it all off by fainting.

Eventually I give up. “Would you like a rest?” I’m trying not to be too obvious about checking the progress of the sun toward the hill. I don’t want to be out here once the sun sets. It’s hard enough dragging this brat through the woods without her breaking an ankle trying to walk in the dark.

She considers the question, then nods, reaching up to tuck her hair back where it belongs. “Where will I sit?”

Sit? Why, on this comfortable chaise longue I’ve carried here for you in my pocket, Your Highness, so glad you asked.

I clamp my mouth shut, struggling not to say it aloud. Miss LaRoux notices me biting back a response and her expression darkens. But I can see where the holes punched by her earrings are still oozing, and that her nose is swelling up from the blow she got while hot-wiring the escape pod, and that her lips are chapped and raw. It’s a wonder she hasn’t completely fallen to pieces—it’s what I would’ve expected of someone like her.

So instead, I haul off my jacket and lay it out on a log for her. She twitches her skirts into position and then lowers herself onto it, accepting the canteen and taking a delicate sip. She averts her gaze as I take it back and lift it for a long swallow, before capping it once more. I walk the edge of the clearing, pausing every so often to listen. The rustle of small creatures in the undergrowth has returned, and I’m hoping against hope she doesn’t hear—let alone see—anything making those noises.

The fact that I can hear the local wildlife adds another layer of information to the picture I’m slowly building—it wouldn’t be here unless the planet was in the final stages of terraforming. It ought to be brimming with colonies, the skies full of shuttle craft and planes. So why are the only sounds the rustle of the undergrowth, the whispering of the wind through the leaves, and the sound of Miss LaRoux trying to catch her breath as quietly as she can?

I’m about to suggest she turn back and retrace our path, when she rises to her feet of her own accord, leaving the jacket for me to retrieve. I half expect her to stalk off back toward the escape pod without a word, but instead she actually gestures for me to precede her, in the direction we were traveling. Her jaw’s squared as we set off, and as she takes my hand to climb over a log in those ridiculous shoes, I’m forced to concede that she’s tougher than she looks.

It’s a relief—the idea of keeping her safe weighs me down, my shoulders tense and my gut roiling. No matter how irritating she is, she’s a long way from home. If she’s going to get through this, it’s all on me. Sometimes I feel like I spend my life trying to keep other people safe.

By the time we reach the base of the rise, she’s panting despite her clear intention to look like she’s got it together. But we can’t afford to rest again if we want to get back to the pod before dark. We both scramble up the incline, and when I take her hands to haul her with me, she doesn’t bother to look scandalized, too exhausted to waste time on pretense.

It turns out to be a craggy hill, the land sloping up one side, then falling away steeply down the other in a rocky cliff. The crest provides exactly the vantage point we need, and we stand side by side to take in the view.

I wish I’d come alone.

She gasps, breaking her panting for a noise that’s part sob, part wordless distress. Mouth open, she’s staring, and so am I, neither of us capable of processing what we’re seeing. It’s quite possible nobody’s ever seen something like this before.

I try her name. “Lilac. Lilac, don’t watch.” Low and gentle, trying to cajole that recruit in the field into lifting her foot, taking a step, getting out of there. “Look at me, don’t watch it happening, come on.” But she can’t drag her gaze away any more than I can, and we stare together, turned to stone.

Before us, pieces of debris are streaming down from the sky in long, slow arcs, burning as they fall like a meteor shower or incoming missiles. They’re only a sideshow, though.

The Icarus is falling. She’s like a great beast up in the sky, and I imagine her groaning as she wallows and turns, some part of her still fighting, engines still firing in an attempt to escape gravity. For a few moments she seems to hang there, eclipsing one of the planet’s moons, pale in the afternoon sky. But what comes next is inevitable, and I find myself reaching out to put an arm around the girl beside me as the ship dies, pieces still peeling away as she makes her final descent.

She comes in on an angle, heading for a mountain range beyond the plains. Debris the size of skyscrapers goes flying, and one side begins to shear away as the friction becomes too much for her. Smaller shards of fire stream off of her as she goes, arcing across the sky like shooting stars. With a jolt of horror, I realize that they’re escape pods. Pods that didn’t make it off the ship before she went down—pods that didn’t have Miss LaRoux to jar them free of their docking clamps.

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