These Broken Stars Page 70

Paint dribbles down from the walls to the monitors. Some of the paintings are orderly, almost artistic, painted with sensitivity and planning. Clearly identifiable. But overlaid on these murals are cruder, savage depictions of death and carnage, of men and animals fighting and dying. Gaudy crimson streams from a gash across one figure’s throat. Another is impaled by a thick slash of black paint, some kind of spear. Red flames stream up from a bonfire laden with bodies.

“They went mad,” she whispers, fearful, and I shove my hands in my pockets to keep myself from reaching out to take her hand.

I know what she’s thinking—something about this planet sent the people stationed here insane. If an entire station of monitoring specialists, researchers, and whoever else was posted here fell apart so completely, what chance do we have? At least we’re starting to get a picture of why this place was abandoned. Why the entire planet stands empty and forgotten. I tear my eyes away from the walls and focus on the lights overhead. We have to keep moving.

I clear my throat, and she startles. “If there’s a generator we could turn it off. Disrupt the power, and if they’re monitoring it, somebody might show up to do maintenance. Or maybe they’re broadcasting updates, we could hack that and try signaling prime numbers to show someone’s here?”

“I think we can do better,” she says, swallowing hard. Her skin’s pale beneath her freckles, but her voice is firmer. I can see it’s still an effort to remain composed. Discussing the circuitry and power sources was the right move—like my Lilac, these things interest her. “I think perhaps we could send a real signal.”

She drags her eyes away from the paintings and walks slowly back to the circuit breakers. Slowly, she closes the cover so I can see the mark stamped on it. It looks like an upside-down V, but everyone in the universe knows that symbol. Even I know it, out in the muddy far reaches of the galaxy. Especially there.

The lambda. LaRoux Industries. Not only was this an abandoned terraforming project—it was Lilac’s father’s.

She says nothing, turning her back on the symbol. We move around the monitoring room, exploring the hatches and machinery, trying to ignore the feeling that the primal figures in the paintings are watching us. We turn for the next door at the same time, and if it had been my Lilac, I would’ve reached down to wind my fingers through hers. Instead I just stand there, motionless, and let her through ahead of me.

The hall leads to a dormitory full of bunks, and a shower—I press the button and wait as long-disused pipes gurgle and groan a protest, then provide a stuttering flow of water. Half a minute later it steadies out, then begins to heat up. We both stare at it like we’ve never seen running water before.

“This isn’t right,” she says. “The lights, the hot water. A generator alone couldn’t be doing this, especially after being abandoned so long. There must be another power source.”

I reach out and hold my hand under the flow, watching hypnotized as the water curves around my fingers and streams off their tips. It’s such a small thing, a shower—and then again, it’s everything we haven’t had. It’s cleanliness and food on plates, and sitting in a chair instead of on a rock. It’s civilization, safety. Of course, safety has come too late.

She crosses to inspect a bunch of cables where they plug into a bank of silent computers. “These cables lead downstairs. We should follow them and see where they go.”

“Downstairs?” I glance around the confined room. “These places don’t usually have an underground level. Are you sure it’s not just wiring under the floor?”

“I’m sure,” she says, tugging aside a panel to get at the keypad below it. “There’s too many of them; there has to be more underneath us.”

Observant and thoughtful, just like Lilac. I can barely look at her, and yet I can’t look away. Her every word and gesture, every look she gives me…they’re all Lilac’s. But this isn’t her. I watched you die, my mind screams at her. I held you while you bled to death.

In the end I have to leave, put space between us, on the pretext of looking for the underground level she insists is here. It takes me twenty minutes of searching the small base, but eventually I find it. The floor in the hallway is faintly worn, but only halfway. When I crouch to pull up the rubber floor mats, raising a small cloud of grit and dust, I find a hatch.

It’s locked, and I try digging my fingers in and prying it out. That doesn’t work, and after a few tries I give up. Time for a little gentle persuasion, as my first sergeant used to say.

I stomp hard on the hinges, the vibrations traveling up through my heel. The plastene cracks, but in the end I have to head out to the shed to retrieve the crowbar. In the main room, all I can see is a flash of red hair vanishing below one of the banks of controls as she tries to find out what’s underneath. She doesn’t look up as I pass by. I yank the hatch cover free. A ladder disappears down into the dark.

I’ve seen a lot of terraforming monitoring stations—this doesn’t come standard.

I take a deep breath. “It’s open,” I call out, and a few moments later she walks through to stand beside me, looking down into the dark. There’s no switch up here—the lights must be operated from down below. I grab my pack—I’ve gotten trapped in half-destroyed buildings before, and I’m not about to explore without food and water. I head down first and then reach up to steady her as she climbs after me, her breathing growing quick and shallow.

She drops down beside me and then steps away from my hand—still loath to let me touch her. I can’t see my hand in front of my face, and the air is perfectly still. It doesn’t feel close and stuffy, but that doesn’t tell me much. It’s bone-achingly cold down here.

We feel around in the dark for the lights and bump into each other, and I wince at the sound of her gasp.

“Where the hell is the switch?” I stumble against the ladder, stifling my curse as my elbow collides with the metal.

As if in answer, a light flickers on overhead. It’s a pale, fluorescent ceiling panel that does little to illuminate anything beyond arm’s reach. We seem to be at one end of a corridor; the rest of it is lost in darkness. We stand frozen by the sudden light, faces turning up toward it, blinking.

“Was that you?” I ask, despite the fact that she’s standing in the middle of the corridor, nowhere near any switch I can see.

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