These Broken Stars Page 7

I can’t believe I made such an idiot of myself tonight. Everyone in the galaxy knows who Lilac LaRoux is, and I couldn’t have glanced at one lousy newscast, watched one of those damn gossip shows, and learned what she looked like? I must be the only guy alive who doesn’t know.

Normally you couldn’t get me near a girl that rich and entitled if you held a gun to my head. What was I thinking? I wasn’t thinking at all. I had my mind on dimples and red hair and—

The guy underneath me pushes up against my shoulder, and I roll it back so he can’t get purchase, planting a knee in his chest and drawing back my arm. My fist makes it halfway to the guy’s cheek before he catches it, gripping and twisting so I have to throw myself backward to break free. He scrambles after me, grinning and panting.

“That all you got, kid? Try harder.”

That’s all I ever hear. That all you got? Try harder. Be richer. Be smarter. Learn which damn cutlery to use. Speak like us. Think like us.

Screw that all the way to hell.

A ragged chorus of shouts and swearing in a dozen different languages erupts from the blur of fatigues and faces around us. The only officer down here is the sergeant overseeing the sparring, and he’s not about to tell us to watch our mouths. Well—the only officer other than me. But they don’t know that. It’s only upstairs that everyone recognizes my face from their magazines and newspapers and holovids.

Still, I bet they would have recognized Lilac LaRoux.

I can’t get my mind off of her. Did she think it was funny to play with me like that in front of her friends?

I lash out so quickly we’re both surprised, and there’s a crunch, and then the other guy’s rolling away, hand up in front of his face, blood seeping through his fingers. I draw a breath, and before I can move, the sergeant is leaning down to stick his hand between us, showing me the flat of his palm—bout over.

I lean back on my elbows, chest heaving as he helps the other guy to his feet and hands him over to one of his buddies to head for the sick bay. Then the sergeant turns back to stand over me, arms folded across his massive chest.

“Son, one more like that, and you’re off the mats, you understand? One more and I’ll be speaking to your commanding officer.”

Down here it’s all plain fatigues, khaki T-shirts and pants, and I can ditch my stars and bars and pretend I’m a private. Down here I’m just eighteen, not an officer, not a war hero. He doesn’t imagine for a moment that I could be a major. I prefer it that way. Some days I wish it was that way. That I could earn my stripes in official training, rather than out in the field like I did, where mistakes cost more than marks on a piece of paper.

“Yes, Sergeant.” My breath’s still coming quickly, and I climb to my feet carefully. I want to stay a little longer.

The military quarters are utilitarian, the metal skeleton of the ship showing, but I’m more at home down here. The air is humid with so many bodies working and sweating, the filters chugging on overtime without much result. These guys are on their way to one of the colonies to put down the latest rebellion. Take away my medals and my field promotion, and I’d be traveling in military quarters too, waiting to see what terraformed wonders and pissed-off rebels were waiting for me. I wish.

The sergeant sizes me up a moment longer, then turns his head to bellow, parade-ground style. “Corporal Adams, front and center. You’re up next.”

She’s a few years older than me, a couple of inches shorter, blond hair spiked. She shoots me a quick grin as she shakes out her arms and readies herself, and I suck in a breath and square up. I’m going to do this until I’m tired enough to sleep.

Turns out she’s fast, shifting her weight nimbly as we circle each other. This is the sort of girl who suits me, quick and direct, none of that upper-decks intrigue. The way she moves reminds me of a line from one of my mother’s poems. Quicksilver light and motes of dust.

She smiles again, and for an instant I can see Lilac LaRoux’s smile, and those blue eyes.

But next thing I see is the metal grating across the roof of the deck. Corporal Adams has her bare foot on my throat, and it’s over. I lift my hands carefully, think about grabbing her ankle, and show her my palms instead. She got me. I should have had my mind on the job at hand.

She lifts her foot and leans down to offer me her hand. I grip it, she hauls, and I come up to my feet.

Now Miss LaRoux’s getting my ass kicked on the sparring mats as well. Is there any part of my life that girl can’t mess with?

I lace my hands together behind my head, arching my back until the stretch tugs at sore muscles, looking over at the sergeant. He directs the corporal to the next mat over, and closes the distance between us.

“Son, I don’t know what you’re working off there, but you might want to try the weapons range,” he begins.

I don’t want my gun. I want someone I can lay into, here in person. “Please, Sergeant, I—”

The ground bucks and heaves beneath me and we both stagger backward—for an instant I think someone’s tackled me from behind, and then I realize it’s the ship herself shaking beneath us.

I plant my feet wide apart, waiting to see if there’s going to be another tremor. The sparring hall is eerily silent as everyone turns their faces up, waiting for information from the loudspeakers. The Icarus hasn’t been anything but perfectly stable in the weeks I’ve been on her.

Nothing breaks the silence, and I exchange glances with the sergeant. Slowly he shakes his head, broad shoulders lifting in a quick shrug. Where’s the announcement?

There’ll be more information upstairs. For sure, someone will be telling the rich folks what’s going on. They’d expect nothing less. I toss off a quick salute, and stomp into my boots.

When I push through the doors of the silent sparring hall and out into the network of gangways beyond, it’s like entering another world. It’s all soft luxury upstairs, but down here they don’t waste an inch.

The gangways crisscross over and under each other like spiderwebs, populated by techheads in suits that pulse lights in time with the music around us, emigrants heading for new colonies, tourists taking the cheapest route to other planets, folks making the long haul for family visits. I hear a snatch of worried Spanish on my left, and an Irish curse nearby. A cluster of missionaries bent on bringing comfort and relief to the unenlightened rebels on the new planets stands watching the bustle of humanity like it’s their first time off-world. Amid all the sound and movement, there’s not a top hat or a corset in sight.

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