These Broken Stars Page 20

“Breakfast, Miss LaRoux?” he asks blandly.

I could slap him. God, I could kiss him—he hasn’t abandoned me. If I were home I would stalk out of the room in deafening silence, finding a place to gather my composure in peace. But if I were home, I’d have no reason to be relieved at the presence of someone I’d so much rather never see again. If I were home…I close my eyes and try to pull myself together.

His footsteps move past me, soft in the thick springy bits of leaf coating the forest floor. I can almost smell him, something sharp and different behind the assault of green smells I’m not used to.

“If you’re not hungry,” he adds, “then I suggest we get moving.”

“What were your views of the planet at that stage?”

“Obviously it was in the advanced stages of terraforming. We were waiting for rescue teams to arrive.”

“What made you so sure they’d come?”

“Why spend the resources to terraform a planet if you’re not going to profit from the colonies? We were sure the settlers would have seen the Icarus crash, and somebody would be along to investigate.”

“Your key concerns at that stage?”

“Well, Miss LaRoux had a party she didn’t want to miss, and I—”

“Major, you don’t seem to understand the seriousness of your situation.”

“Sure I do. What the hell do you think our key concerns were?”



THE SUN’S SLANTING THROUGH the trees by the time we get moving. I’m aching, covered in bruises from the dozens of times I was thrown against my straps as our pod screamed in to land. My grab bag’s on my back, stuffed with everything I could find use for in the pod’s lockers—ration bars, the blanket, a pathetically inadequate first-aid kit, a length of spare cable, and a mechanic’s suit I haven’t yet dared suggest Miss LaRoux substitute for her totally impractical dress. My silver photo case, my battered notebook full of half-written poems. The canteen, with the built-in water filter we’ll need so badly now. For better or worse, we’re walking, following a creek through the forest.

I’m walking, anyway. She’s hobbling along, grabbing trees for support when she thinks I’m not looking. She’s still clinging to the idea that she’s fine, that this is all simply some horrible inconvenience, and her regular life is going to resume at any moment. God forbid she drop her airs and graces for five minutes. If she’d just accept some damned help, we’d be moving a lot more quickly.

At this rate, we’re not going to have to worry about the owner of the big paw prints—though I wish I knew what left them—or the risk of injury or starvation. We’re going to die of old age before we make it a klick.

We’re on a deadline, and that knowledge drums through me like a pulse. If we can’t find a colony, we’re going to have to get to the wreck as quickly as we can.

Our pod will just be one of a thousand pieces of wreckage strewn through the forest, with nothing about it to show there are survivors nearby. And even if they do recognize it as a downed escape pod, there’s nothing to distinguish it from those that fell still attached to the Icarus. Nothing to say, We’re alive, come get us. We can’t rig up a smoke signal, because all around us are chunks of debris sending up columns of black smoke like an endless procession of funeral pyres.

The only place we can guarantee we’ll be found is at the wreck. That’s where the rescue crews will go, looking for survivors and salvage. That’s where they’ll set up their base of operations.

We have days of walking ahead of us. I don’t think she realizes how deceiving vast distances can be—but if she knew it’d be a week or more, I’m not sure I could get her moving at all. And I can’t afford to waste a moment. If we’re too slow, depending on whether they’re finding other survivors, they could pull out before we even arrive. I could make better time on my own, but if I leave her behind, I’m not sure she’d survive until I make it back.

It’s only through an exhausting combination of frequent rests and liberal insults that we make it through the next few hours. I could tell myself that I’m doing it because she’ll get back to her feet just to spite me—but the truth is, I really just want to piss her off. Keeping her moving is a bonus. I’m starting to think we might be able to make some progress when I hear a particularly loud gasp for breath.

I pause, staring ahead. It looks the same in front as behind, the same behind as to the sides. Uneven ground, underbrush with burs and scrub to catch at you, leaf litter, and straight, even tree trunks, like they were laid out with a laser sight. Slow breath in, slow breath out, then I turn.

She’s standing still again, leaning against a tree for support. I know she’s struggling, but does she have to stop every fifteen minutes? I open my mouth to try a new method of prodding her onward, but then I see her face—twisted with pain, not anger.

“How are your shoes?” I ask.

She swallows, regaining enough composure to scowl at me. “My shoes are fine.”

I consider the heels I saw slide through the metal grating on the pod’s floor. I know she’s lying, and she knows I know.

“Well,” I reply, using the calm tone I know gets under her skin. I wish I was noble enough not to enjoy it, but I came to terms with my lack of nobility long ago. “Way I see it, we have two options. Either I can take a look at your feet and try to patch them up a little for walking, or you can press on, descend into agony, get blisters, bleed, contract an infection, lose anything from a toe to your life, and end up being too slow for either of us to reach a colony or the wreck before we starve. Which do you fancy, Miss LaRoux?”

She shivers, looking away and wrapping her arms around her middle, squeezing herself tight. “Is this what you did on Patron? Terrorized them all with graphic threats?”

Kill me. She’s acting like I offered to shoot her, instead of telling her the truth. “Call me unsophisticated, Miss LaRoux, but it works.” I gesture toward a fallen tree, and she reluctantly sits.

Her feet are a mess, and I have to bite back a hiss when I see them. The straps have rubbed her skin raw, and her toes are puffy with blisters. The skin’s red and shiny, and there’ll be blood sooner, not later. Both her ankles are swollen.

Luckily for me, she’s busy staring into space, as though she’s too embarrassed to look at her own feet. That’s good, because I’m pretty sure she’s not going to like what comes next. I’m gentle as I slide the little straps through the buckles, unthreading the shoes and easing them off. I turn them over in my hands—such delicate things, probably worth a month’s pay each—and snap the heels off.

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