These Broken Stars Page 50

I remember the smell of soap as I brought Anna to the sick bay. And not the astringent scent of medical cleanser, but light, airy, clean-scented soap. The laundry.

I can’t be far, then. Can I?

There’s no smell of soap now, though I can smell something else. Perishable food, I think. It smells like a meat locker that’s been without power for a week. But very faint.

The glow stick is getting dimmer. I have to move more quickly. Soon I’ll need to go see if Tarver’s still alive. Check his bandage, force some water down his throat, and hope he doesn’t mistake me again for a threat. The bruise on my cheek throbs at the memory.

I can only see about a foot in front of me by the dimming light of the glow stick. Tomorrow I’ll have to remember to set the flashlight out in the sun to recharge. Tomorrow? It is night, isn’t it?

Maybe it’s tomorrow already.

Go back, I tell myself frantically. Just go back now.

I have the strangest feeling, almost a superstition, that if I leave him for more than my arbitrary three-hour limit, those few minutes will be the death of him. And yet, the time it takes to go back and forth checking on him, instead of locating medicine, could be just as deadly.

I keep moving.

The path is clear enough here that I can break into a slow run. All that hiking has paid off, and though it’s been a couple of days now since I slept more than an hour or two at a time, I still have enough energy for this.

Ahead of me yawns sudden blackness, not the grid of the floor. My mind, sluggish with lack of sleep, fails to process it. Before I realize I have to stop, I’m falling.

Something soft breaks my fall with a muffled crack. I drop the glow stick, gasping for breath as a sudden wave of nausea shudders through me. It’s the meat-locker smell, not the fall, making me sick. The smell is stronger here. Too strong.

I roll away from whatever I landed on and push myself to my feet. Half in shock, my mind runs through an oddly detached checklist of my body, making sure everything’s still working. Tarver would kill me if he knew I’d been so reckless. If he’d been here.

I turn back for the glow stick, which clattered out of my hand when I fell. I stoop to reach for it and freeze.

It’s a face. A tiny patch of sickly green glow shines from the stick, lighting the hollows of the cheeks, the empty, staring eyes, glinting off the teeth just showing between parted lips.

I scream, flinging myself away until I hit the floor. My face presses into the cold iron gridwork, and I gasp for breath, trying to inhale shallowly through my mouth. The meat-locker smell—God, and it is rotting meat, isn’t it?—is so overpowering I think for a moment I might pass out. I can taste it on my tongue.

I lurch to my feet and into a run. In darkness and fear, I keep colliding with walls and ricocheting around corners. I step on something that gives beneath my heel, and my ankle rolls, but I keep myself upright. I know that if I fall, what I fall on will be the end of me. Soft things. Rotting things. Dead things.

This ship isn’t a maze—it’s a tomb.

Exposed debris slices at my clothes and my hair and my face. Still I run, deeper and deeper into the dead part of the ship, helpless with the knowledge that after such a long fall, I can’t climb back up to get out the way I came in.

A jagged rebar catches my arm and jerks me sideways, flinging me against a wall. My scream is a hoarse, desperate noise.

My hand finds a door handle and twists, and I lurch into the closet-like space behind it, dragging the door shut behind me. I slide down to the floor amid the clanking of buckets and mop handles and fumble for the flashlight. Its beam is warm and golden, if dim, and lights the inside of what seems to be a janitorial cupboard. It’s strangely intact, mops and brooms neatly lined up.

My heart threatening to slam its way out past my rib cage, I put my head down on my knees and focus on my breathing. Anything but the thought of what waits for me outside, the dead eyes and bloated corpses.

One. Oh, God. Two. Three. Four. Something snapped when I fell on that body. I broke something in it. It was like a wet branch. No. No. Five. Six. Seven. He would have despised me for running. Eight. What if one of those bodies was Anna’s? Oh, God. No. Nine. Ten. Eleven. Pull yourself together, Miss LaRoux. Twelve. You’re no use to anybody cowering in a broom cupboard. Thirteen. Fourteen. Don’t sell yourself short. I don’t know many soldiers who’d have done better. Fifteen.

I make it to twenty before opening my eyes again. The beam of the flashlight shudders with each breath, the effort still enough to shake my whole body. But the darkness is no longer trying to strangle me.

Tarver’s a liar, but he lies to keep me moving, and I can’t fault him for that. The least I can do is try to prove him right.

I’ll take the girl I know, thanks.

I force myself to stand up, opening the door again with an effort. I take a long breath through the collar of my shirt, trying to filter out the stench of decay, and step back out into the hallway.

The flashlight dies.

A tiny sound catches in my throat, but I keep from screaming again. Instead I stand still, gazing into the darkness and forcing myself to breathe.

I catch a whiff of something fresher, something untainted by the smell of death all around. I move toward it, picking my way in utter darkness slowly and carefully through the bodies and wreckage littering the floor.

It turns out to be coming from a tear in the side of the ship, where something ripped a long, narrow gash along its hull. I squeeze my body through, careful not to slice myself on the exposed metal and wiring nearly two feet thick in the wall.

It’s night outside, but it’s like walking out into the sunlight. The air has never smelled so sweet, the sky never seemed so full of stars. The clouds have cleared and the mirror-moon shines down, coating the world in its pale blue luminescence. I drop to my knees, gasping for air, as though I can wipe away my memories of what waits inside the ship with enough fresh oxygen. I can’t go back in. How can I go back in? I can’t. It’s a tomb. We knew not everyone could have made it onto the pods in that frantic press of people, but now, faced as I am with the proof, the thought of returning to the ship makes me want to retch. I must have been near one of the evacuation points when I fell.

I let myself crouch in the darkness for the count of five, breathing deep, before I get to my feet and follow the outer hull of the ship back to camp.

Tarver’s unconscious. It’s almost a relief, though I don’t know if unconsciousness is a bad sign, or if the rest is good for him. But it means he doesn’t look at me with those burning eyes, doesn’t reach for me unseeing, shout nonsense, speak to me as if I’m his mother, his lover, his corporal, anyone but me.

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