These Broken Stars Page 28

Then he turns his back and moves out, sure in the knowledge that I’ll follow.

What else can I do?

Somewhere in the back of my mind, a tiny, unbidden voice whispers, Would you actually want to do anything else?

The pace seems easier today. Perhaps he’s being gentler on me, but I suspect I’m growing accustomed to walking.

We make better time on the flat ground of the plains, pausing only to choke down a ration bar each. I choke, anyway; Tarver tucks in as though it’s a three-course steak dinner.

He calls a halt again after another hour and a half of walking, looking around the plains in each direction. Behind us the forest is a smear of gray-green on a ridge, dropping down into the broad, golden expanse of the plain. I’ve never seen anything so immense as this, such a vast sweep of empty land. The creek we’ve been following fans out into a network of silvery streams, marking the small dips in the land. They’re all narrow enough to jump across, but large enough that Tarver can dip the canteen into them, filling it up and letting the water filter do its work. The wind ripples the grass of the plains in waves, for all the world like the oceans I’ve seen on the HV. On the far side of all this are the mountains that stand between us and the Icarus.

But we don’t see any signs of life. No rescue craft roaring overhead, no colony traffic crisscrossing the sky the way the streams divide the plain. I can’t understand why there aren’t colonies here. Where is everyone? Neither of us says a word about it, but I know it can’t have escaped him.

Tarver makes camp more quickly than he did the night before, and it takes me a few moments to realize why—he hasn’t dug a fire pit this time. No wood on the plains for a real fire. Why hadn’t I thought about that? Until I leaned against him last night, I was halfway to freezing, even with a fire close at hand. And after shoving him away so quickly this morning, I can’t rely on his warmth again. I shiver, my mind on the miserable night ahead.

Tarver gathers up a bundle of the wire he stripped from the escape pod, mumbles something about setting snares for food, and strikes out across the plain in a straight line. At least I can see him here, without the trees of the forest to block my view, and know I’m not completely alone.

I’m watching him and exploring my face with my fingertips, wishing I had a mirror. My skin is warm and flushed despite sitting still; sunburn, something tells me, swimming up from some childhood experience when I got lost on a simulation deck emulating a tropical vacation. Then, my father just summoned a physician, and the burn melted away under her care. Now I trace its damage across my cheeks. The skin around my eye is still painful to the touch, and I imagine that it’s at least a little bruised—it’s had the four days since the crash to bloom. At least Tarver has the decency not to mock me about it.

I hear his voice not far behind me. Didn’t I just see him in the distance, crouching to set a snare? I turn, chest tightening in surprise, only to find an empty plain. How could he have gotten behind me so fast? I squint back over my shoulder and see him straighten up, too far off for me to have heard him speak.

The hair on the back of my neck lifts, and I scan the plains behind me. There’s no sign of anyone, and yet as I stand there, heart pounding and ears straining, I hear another murmur. It isn’t Tarver’s voice after all—it’s not quite as deep. It carries some emotion I can’t identify, and I can’t understand at all what it’s saying.

My body begins to shake, my fingertips tingling and itching, my breath quickening. Fear, I tell myself, but it doesn’t abate even when I force myself to take deep breaths. My skin runs hot and cold and hot again, itching with restlessness until I feel like I must move or explode from the sensation. My head spins as though my blood sugar’s low, as if I’m wearing a too-tight dress, and not enough oxygen is reaching my brain.

I’m still standing when Tarver returns. I hear his footsteps through the tall grass long before he reaches me, so when he announces with uncharacteristic cheer, “Burrows—we’re in luck,” I manage not to jump.

I glance over my shoulder to find him standing there smiling, his arms full of plants and long grasses. The sight’s distracting—but not so distracting as what I heard. I turn back toward the plains.

“Did you hear anything while you were out there?” I ask, squinting into the afternoon light and trying as hard as I can to keep my shivering to a minimum.

“Wind,” he replies, punctuated by a rustle as he drops his armful. “The grass, the occasional scurrying critter. There won’t be anything larger out here, there’s nothing to feed it.”

“I heard a man.”

The sound his monster of a gun makes when he takes it out of its holster is getting to be familiar. I sigh, shaking my head. “I don’t think he means us any harm. He didn’t sound angry.”

Tarver comes up next to me, peering in the same direction I’m facing. “You sure? There’s not much room for someone to hide out here.”

“Positive.” He can’t accuse me of dreaming this time. I’m wide-awake, every nerve on edge. “I thought it was you at first, but you were too far away. It sounded really close, like he was nearby.”

Tarver’s frowning now. I catch him shooting me a sideways glance, before taking a few steps forward to turn in a slow circle, scanning the area. “I guess a voice could be carried a ways on the wind. What did he say?”

I hesitate, clenching my jaw to keep my teeth from chattering. “I don’t…know. I couldn’t quite tell. It was like listening to voices through a wall. You know they’re speaking a language you understand, and you know you could hear them if you could just…” I don’t know how to explain it.

He stops watching the plains, turning his attention fully on me. “Well, which was it? Was he distant or right next to you?”

“I don’t know!” The burst of frustration escapes before I can control it, and my voice is shaking with whatever’s seized my body. “He was right here, but muffled. Like—the sounds were clear, but there was no meaning in them.”

He’s staring at me, and I feel my face starting to burn.

“I’m realizing how this sounds,” I whisper.

“Not good,” he agrees. But then he surprises me, and turns around to holster his gun and cup his hands around his mouth to bellow across the plain. “Come on in if you’re out there. We’re armed, but we’ll play nicely if you will.”

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