These Broken Stars Page 22

“To you, as well,” I offer graciously. After all, I can afford to be gracious now, can’t I? I stoop and gather up the corners of my blanket. It’s ungainly and awkward as I sling it over my shoulder, and my battered feet nearly trip on the ragged hem of my dress, but a LaRoux doesn’t let those things stop her from making a statement. If it were my father, he’d have walked off into the forest hours ago, head held high. He’d have found a way to handle this.

Snatches of sound rise up from the awful, untidy forest all around me, for a moment sounding just like voices, high and distressed. He doesn’t even seem to notice them—clearly at home surrounded by so much dirt—and just stands there with a scowl as I turn away.

I hope I have enough time to make it back to the pod before sundown, but either way, he’ll probably catch up with me before then. I hear nothing behind me, but I can’t risk a look over my shoulder to see what he’s doing. It doesn’t matter—he’ll come back for me, I know it. I imagine him standing there, watching me go, and wish more than anything that I could see the expression on his face.

I wonder how long he’ll last.

“The situation was foreign to Miss LaRoux.”

“Yes, though I had some experience handling civilians in the field.”

“Ah, yes. The intelligence and research teams on Patron.”


“What was your assessment of her state during that part of the walk?”

“I thought she was handling it all right.”

“There were no disagreements?”

“No, we were getting on fine.”



I TAKE CARE TO KEEP MY PACE SLOW as I start walking, breaking off branches and scuffing up the leaf litter so even a society girl should be able to tell which way I went. Important not to go too fast, otherwise she’ll never catch up to me. Part of me wants to sit down on a log to wait, maybe write something in my notebook, have a snack. Wait to enjoy the look on her face when she turns around and comes back with her tail between her legs.

This little insurrection has been coming, and though I’d rather she tried it on the plains, where I could keep an eye on her, waiting until we were out of the woods was definitely too much to ask.

The arrogance, the sheer—what is she, sixteen? Amazing that she’s had time to get through all that military survival training.

I’ve been walking ten minutes or so when I hear her. Not right behind me, where I’m expecting her to be by now. She must have stayed in the clearing, or even walked away from me, because she’s something like half a klick back.

She’s screaming.

I’m sprinting before I know I’m moving, grab bag banging against my back, Gleidel hauled out of my holster and fitting into my hand without any conscious decision to draw it. You develop instincts. Like my drill sergeant used to say: Learn fast, or don’t.

Branches whip my face and tear at my clothes as I crash through the undergrowth, churning up mud along the edge of the creek as I choose speed over caution.

I burst into the clearing without any pretense of stealth.

I see it immediately—a giant creature, some kind of wild cat, solid muscle beneath tawny fur, teeth bared in a snarl. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life—not on any planet. Long canines, dark, intelligent eyes. This thing outweighs me easily, and one bite will do for Lilac.

It’s got its front paws up against the trunk of a tree, growling low in its throat as it rakes them down the bark, leaving a row of parallel gashes. Lilac’s up the tree, screaming, though how she got up there I don’t know. I lift the Gleidel and brace it with both hands. Closing one eye, I draw a breath, wait until I steady. The shriek of the laser mixes with the frustrated yowls of the beast as the gun leaps and quivers in my hands.

The creature hits the ground with a crash, twitching and snarling as it kicks up the leaves and sends up clouds of dry dirt. It thrashes around for the count of ten and then lies still, the clearing filling with the horrible smell of burned hair and flesh. Up in the tree, Lilac’s screams descend into a series of ragged gasps. I stand and watch the cat for the count of thirty after it stops moving.

Keeping the Gleidel in one hand, I walk slowly across the clearing to where the creature lies still. There’s a moan of relief from the tree, and I realize she hasn’t been able to see me until now. I can’t focus on her yet.

“Stay up there,” I call. “It’s dead if it keeps its brain where it’s supposed to. Did it touch you?”

There’s no reply, but she hasn’t fallen out of the tree yet, so I can only suppose she’s unharmed.

I loose an extra bolt into the creature’s head for safety’s sake, the Gleidel shrieking again. I take my time over it, nudging it carefully with the toe of my boot, waiting for a response, and eventually stepping in for a closer inspection. The eyes are glassy; its side doesn’t rise or fall. Dead.

What kind of a terraformed planet is this, with a thing like that running around? There’s no reason to introduce a higher-order predator into a place like this; the felines should be a quarter this size or less. Their part in the ecosystem should be attacking small rodents, not chasing socialites up trees. This one has the same stripes around its face as the kind I’m used to, but it’s a man-eater.

So how did this thing get here? I study it for a few moments longer, then give up—it’s dead, and that’s what matters. When I look up, Lilac’s white as a sheet, clinging to the lowest branch. She stares down at me, blue eyes wide, shining. She’s not even crying, which tells me how bad the fright has been.

No kidding, Miss LaRoux, I’m pretty shaken up myself. As I stare up at her, a rush of relief overtakes me, my hand trembling where it holds the gun.

I fight the urge to drag her down from the tree. I could shake her. I could kiss her. I can’t let myself do either. I can’t believe I was so moronic as to let her go off alone after I’d seen those paw prints. I have to be smart, handle this next part carefully. I swallow, clearing my throat to make my voice even.

“That was some climb. Do you need a hand down from there?”

She ignores my offer, which reassures me more than anything else that she’s suffered no permanent damage. I’d be more concerned if she let me help her. She more falls down than climbs down, sliding sideways, dangling for a few seconds, then letting go so she can hit the ground with a thump. She crumples to sit on the dirt, then scrabbles backward away from the dead creature.

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