These Broken Stars Page 25

And so I’m collecting rocks for markers while he finishes digging the graves.

He’s returned once or twice to check on me and drink from the canteen, face grimy with dust and sweat, hands as red and raw as my feet. I’ve yet to see him tired like this—hiking seems to him no more difficult than a light stroll around the promenade deck—and the sight of him dirty and out of breath is sobering. Major Merendsen is human after all.

I hand him the canteen quietly, and wait beside him while he rests until he’s ready to continue the task.

It’s edging into late afternoon when he returns carrying his pack in one hand and his shovel, a makeshift thing rigged from a branch and a piece of debris, in the other. He tosses both down beside my pile and gestures for me to have a seat.

“I need you to put these on for me,” he says as I sink down beside him, skin crawling at the feel of the springy leaf litter underneath, but not quite ready to demand a blanket to sit on. I’m confused at his request, until he opens his pack and pulls out a pair of boots.

I’m recoiling almost before I have time to register what he’s suggesting. “No. Tarver, no. I won’t.”

He rubs a hand across his eyes, leaving a streak of dirt on his forehead. “Please don’t argue with me. You can’t possibly make it much farther wearing those monstrosities.” He jerks his chin at my feet, mostly hidden by their cocoons of tape, nestled inside the ruins of my Delacours.

This isn’t about practicality, though. My skin crawls and I shut my eyes. “Please,” I whisper. “I can’t wear a dead woman’s shoes. Please, please don’t make me.” My stomach roils, nauseous despite being empty.

I’m braced for one of his sarcastic remarks, designed to get me moving before my brain kicks in, like I’m one of his soldiers. Instead there’s a light touch against my chin, startlingly gentle, and I open my eyes in surprise.

“If they could, these people would tell you to take what you can,” he says quietly, crouching next to me with one hand on the ground for balance and the other outstretched, urging me to lift my head. “They can’t use these things anymore. We can. I don’t know how you’ve walked so far without decent shoes, but that, at least, can change now. I believe that rescue is coming, but we have to be in a place they’ll find us. I’m not going to leave you behind, but that means you’ve got to do what you can to keep up.”

The dizziness sweeps on past me, leaving me drained and tired, but no longer about to throw up. “I’m trying.”

His sudden grin is as startling as the gentle summons to lift my head. “Believe me, I know. Come on, let’s see if they fit.”

No wonder he managed to take the remnants of an intelligence outpost on Patron and lead them to safety. There’s not a person in the central planets who hasn’t heard tales of his heroism, but no one actually believes in the stories that come from the border—suddenly I see in the man in front of me the qualities of the Major Merendsen, war hero. He could probably lead water uphill if he wanted to.

Later, when he’s helped to cut my feet out of the tangle of tape and ruined shoe, and laced me up in the boots (he didn’t mention having to wear a dead woman’s socks as well), we share a drink from the canteen. Together we carry the rocks I’ve gathered over to the site of the crash. The grave is one long mound, no way to tell how many are buried beneath it, and I don’t ask. We scatter the stones over the top as markers. I don’t need to investigate the pod to know that its beacon isn’t working—a whole side of the wreck is destroyed, circuits exposed and scorched where it was torn from the Icarus when it hit the atmosphere. These people were probably dead before the pod even broke away from the ship. It’s a first-class pod; I have no idea where the boots came from. Maybe a few soldiers were mixed in with society in the chaos.

Suddenly I wonder if Anna was among its occupants. Would Tarver have recognized her? Perhaps all of us are only blurs of color and hairstyles to him, one rich person very much like the next. Even if he had recognized her—would he have told me?

“Could I say something?” I say, surprising myself.

He blinks and looks over at me as he shifts one of the stones and straightens. “Go ahead.”

“I mean—alone. To them.” I tilt my head toward the grave.

“Oh,” he says, looking down at the disturbed earth and stone. “Of course. I’ll be up at the tree line when you’re ready to keep moving.”

I listen to his footsteps moving away, my eyes on the stones I’ve gathered and placed. Always, my ears are tuned for the sounds of engines, the whine of a flyover jet, the hum of hovercraft. But they never come. It’s always this silence. A world of quiet broken only by my footsteps and Tarver’s, and the whispering of the woods.

I know he has no reason to lie. Still, it’s hard to connect the long mound with the reality of people resting beneath it, actual flesh and bone. The sky is as empty as it always is—the world is quiet. My ears pick out the wind, the sighing of the leaves, the distant chirp of a bird. The stillness of an undisturbed wilderness. I can’t help but wonder how long it’ll take for the grass and the trees to consume these graves—how long until it’s impossible to tell anyone ever rested here.

How long until we too are swallowed up?

“I don’t know who any of you are,” I whisper, eyes blurring with sudden tears. “I wish I did. I wish I could keep pretending none of this is real. That my father will swoop down, pick everyone up, and everything will go back to normal. That this is all some terrible dream.”

I crouch, reaching out to lay a hand against the stones warming in the sunlight streaming through the clearing. The surface is rough and smooth at once, irregular but soothing. Nothing like the stones in our gardens, polished and placed with perfect artistic balance. I’m hungry and tired, and there’s sweat rolling down my back. Tears drip from my chin, splattering against the stone, leaving uneven patches of darkness against the gray rock.

“I could have fit a lot more people in that maintenance pod. Maybe it could have been you. I’m sorry.”

I straighten and look back, toward where Tarver waits at the tree line, adjusting his pack. From here the trek to the Icarus seems endless—I can’t even see the mountains, much less the plains, or the rest of the forest that lies between us and our only chance at rescue. Maybe it would have been better to have died in this crashed pod. Easier than dying slowly out here, alone but for this man who hates me, so far from the one person who cares about me. Fear, icy and sickening, roils in my stomach.

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