These Broken Stars Page 24

I know he’ll come back—he always has—but tiny eddies of fear swirl in my subconscious anyway. What if he doesn’t? What if he falls down some unseen gully and cracks his head open, and I’m left all alone? What if my last insult was one too many?

The forest is full of sound and movement I can’t track, things that flicker out of the corners of my eyes, vanishing before I can focus on them. The major doesn’t seem to notice—or if he does, he isn’t bothered. But it’s as though the forest is whispering all around us, saying incomprehensible things in my ear. Sometimes I almost think I can hear voices, though logic insists that I’m searching for the familiar in this alien world. I’m used to being around other people, and my mind is turning the sounds of the wilderness into sounds I find comforting.

Except none of this is comforting.

If my father were here, he’d tell me to stand up, pull myself together. He’d tell me not to let anyone see me fall. He’d tell me to find the power in this situation and get it back.

That makes me smile, however weakly. The only power I have in this horrible wilderness is getting under Major Merendsen’s skin. It’s so easy to undercut his know-it-all attitude, and score a point in our endless battle.

I can imagine Anna beside me, close and real for a moment. Choose what you let them see, she’d say. My throat closes as I think of her.

His opinion of me is already a lost cause—years later, when he looks back at this escapade, I’d rather he think bitch than weakling.

The sounds of branches cracking and leaves rustling alert me that he’s returning. He makes a point of making a little noise now, after the first time he appeared soundlessly behind me and ended up with a scream and a canteen thrown at his face. My heartbeat quickens, mind turning over a dozen ways to pick a fight.

But just as I’m about to speak, I see his face.

He doesn’t look at me, but there’s a rawness in his gaze as he drops into a crouch that wipes my mind clean of insults. He rubs his hand over his scalp, fingers fanning through his dark hair, lips pressed tightly together. My eyes sweep across the telling droop of his shoulders as he crouches there motionless.

I was wrong—there is one thing for me to read in the middle of this alien forest.

I’m afraid to ask, but my lips form the question anyway. “Did you find something?”

He doesn’t answer right away, pushing up from his crouch to collect the canteen from me and give a jerk of his head to indicate that I should get off the blanket and allow him to pack it away. Only after he’s done that, leaving me standing there awkwardly with my arms wrapped around myself against the chill, does he speak.

“Yes. We’re going to have to stop for a while so I can take care of it, but I want you closer so I can hear you if you shout. I need you to just do as I say for once, all right, Lilac?”

When he gives orders, my first instinct is to blast him with some kind of insult for his arrogance. But now he’s so sad, so tired, that the thought barely flickers through my mind before I dismiss it. He’s watching me, expressionless.

I nod, and a tiny bit of the tension in his shoulders drops away.

“Good. I’ll find you a spot a little ways back from where I am. You can keep resting your feet, or if you want you can help by gathering some rocks.”

“Rocks? What for?”

He turns away to shrug his pack back onto his shoulders. “There’s another downed escape pod over the next ridge.”

I’m about to fall into step, ready to follow him, when his words halt me mid-stride. “There’s a what?” The torrent of relief and hope is so tangible it nearly drives me to my knees. I don’t have time to analyze the tiny stab of disappointment—company means the end of this strange, private partnership—before words come pouring out of me. “How many people? Was it a first-class pod? Do you know anyone who was inside? Is their rescue beacon working?”

He’s shaking his head and tightening his hands around the straps of his pack. “No, no,” he says, cutting across the flood of questions. “There’s no one.”

“Maybe we can catch up with them!” I cry, plucking the hem of my skirt out of dirt and crossing toward him. “They must be heading toward the ship like we are.”

“No,” he says again.

“Well, you ignore them if you like, Major, but I’m going to go find them.”

“There’s no one to catch up with,” he says shortly, tone sparking with annoyance.

“How do you know there’s no one?”

“Because no one survived!” he snaps, turning finally so I can see the fierceness in his features, the rawness of dashed hopes, and the weariness that has replaced them. He takes a slow breath, not unlike the way he usually does when trying not to rise to my bait. This time, though, the tension drains when he exhales.

“They’re all dead, Lilac.”

My hands are starting to dry, the skin threatening to crack. The hours spent digging stones out of the earth and carrying them to the pile at the edge of the forest clearing have left me exhausted, sweating through my dress despite the crisp air. I never knew it was possible to be so miserable in so many ways.

I keep looking up at the sky through the trees, as though a rescue ship might fly over at any moment, but the sky stays empty, blue, clear. My father has to be coming for me. It’s just the two of us, and has been since I was eight years old. I’m the only one he has in the world—just as he’s the only one I have. And when he gets here, cracked, dry skin will be a dim, unpleasant memory.

Major Merendsen refuses to let me see the crash, demanding that I come no closer than the clearing’s edge. This is what he meant when he asked that I do as he says. He doesn’t want me to see the bodies.

I tried to protest that it couldn’t make much difference, that all my time spent watching medical dramas on the HV meant I was immune to that kind of shock. Surely the three-dimensional gore and excitement of watching holographic limb-replacement and thoracic surgeries would prepare me for anything a crash could throw at me. But my protests sounded weak even to my own ears. I couldn’t have understood it before, but I do now. It’s different.

He urged me to rest, sit down and stay off my battered feet, save them for walking. But when I sit, I think, and I don’t want to make it any easier for my imagination to conjure horrors in front of my eyes.

Prev Next