These Broken Stars Page 42

“I see it.” My own voice sounds nearly as bad, unused for so long. “But we can’t stay here. We need to keep walking. There might be supplies in the wreck, some kind of communications equipment we can salvage.”

She sways, then sinks to the ground in utter exhaustion. “When are you going to stop punishing me for not being crazy after all? I saved your life. We’d never have survived the cave-in.”

Lilac, I know. I know we’d never have survived it. I know you heard or saw something before you ran, I watched it happen. I know you saw something real by the river. I know.

But I can’t let myself admit it out loud. This goes so far beyond anything I’ve been trained for, and my training is all I have. I’m better equipped to drag a crazy person across a wilderness than cope with the possibility that she’s receiving communications from—what? Ghosts? The thought is more than absurd; it’s impossible.

If I let myself believe her, then everything I know goes out the window. And what I know has kept us alive this far.

She’s still looking at me wearily, pain written clearly in her expression. “I’m not trying to punish you,” I say finally. “But I can only work from what we know. I don’t think I know everything, and in a place like this, I know even less than usual. But what I do know is that we need to keep moving.”

She slumps over to rest her forehead against her knees, and my heart groans under the pressure. I wish I knew what to do, or even what to say. I wish I knew anything useful at all.

“So you’re going to shrug it off again,” she mumbles, fixing her tired glare on me. “I’ve been struggling for anything I could find to show you I’m not crazy, even when my own logic told me I must be, even when you lied to me outright. And now that we both know I’m not, you’re just going to dismiss this?” She’s crying, but the harsh edge to her voice is anger. “Just once, Tarver, just once, I wish you could see what I see.”

She speaks the words like a witch in an old story, laying a curse on me. I look away, down the mountain at the wreckage below us.

“I’m sorry, Lilac. I don’t know what you see. I only know how to keep us moving. I’m just a soldier. Once we get out of this place, you won’t ever have to see me again. But I can’t make myself see what you do.”

She starts climbing to her feet, slow and painful, and if looks could kill I’d be dead and buried. “I hope that one day you’re forced to believe in something for which you haven’t got a shred of proof.” Her voice is taut like wire. “And I hope someone you care about laughs in your face for it.”

She stalks off down the mountain, and I wonder which one of her fancy tutors taught her this—the ability to make an exit without a door to slam, picking her way down the snowy path with her back ramrod straight in furious indignation. I wonder where she finds the strength for it.

“I’m not laughing at you,” I whisper. I adjust the pack and start to make my way down the mountain after her.

She’s learned a thing or two about trailblazing in the time she’s spent following me, and she makes good time at first, though eventually she starts to slow from exhaustion.

I can almost see my younger self, marching along, trying to keep up with his big brother as we trekked near home. I think of my parents, and my throat closes as I conjure up our cottage in my mind’s eye. My sanctuary, the place that’s always safe. No matter how I try to stay focused on what’s real, what’s in front of us, I can’t resist the thought of home.

The path—maybe a path, anyway—that we’re following curves around the side of the mountain. As we clear an outcropping and a secluded valley becomes visible below, Lilac’s head snaps up. She draws breath to speak, her eyes widening. Then it’s gone, stamped out, and she’s quiet again as she turns away to start working her way around a boulder. She has one last longing glance over her shoulder, as if whatever she sees, it’s something far preferable to our reality. On cue I see her start to shake, shivering as though cold, fingers twitching before she shoves them into her pockets.

Another vision, then. A wave of dizziness washes over me, like a sympathetic reaction—I clench my jaw before my own teeth can start to chatter. At least she knows the difference now. I ignore the part of my brain that points out that if she knows the difference between visions and reality, she can’t be that crazy. I follow in her wake, and I glance down into the valley below us.

It feels like the air’s been sucked out of my lungs. I’m caught gasping for breath, grabbing thin air for something to support me.

There’s a cottage in the valley. My parents’ cottage. It’s all there—the white walls, the rich purple of the lilac, the curving path and the red flowers in the field behind it. The faint wisp of smoke from the chimney, the black smudge to one side that must be my mother’s vegetable garden.

The path winds its way out of the valley, vanishing into the distance, through the hills toward the wreck.

It’s perfect, to the last detail. It’s my home. It’s not really there.

I can hear her voice in my head. Just once, I wish you could see what I see.

I feel her presence beside me, and she reaches out to slip her hand silently into mine. It isn’t until her fingers wind through mine that I realize I too am shaking violently.

I’m going mad.

“As a member of the military, you’ve been trained to withstand a certain degree of shock.”

“If we weren’t, I don’t think we’d last long on the front lines.”

“At any point while you were on the planet’s surface, did your training…falter?”

“I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking.”

“Did you ever experience any side effects from your exposure to such harsh conditions?”

“I think I lost a few pounds.”

“Major, did you ever experience any psychological side effects?”

“No. Like you said, we’re trained not to let that kind of thing happen. Solid as a rock, and just as dense.”



NEVER PUT YOUR HAND OUT TO A DROWNING MAN. I saw that on an HV special once. If you do, they grab on to you and pull you into their panic and hopelessness, dragging you both into the same watery grave.

But I don’t care. I step close to him and slip my hand into his. His fingers tighten around mine with a strength born of desperation. Which of us is shaking more, I can’t tell, but where our hands are joined, we’re steadier.

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