These Broken Stars Page 29

He drops his hands, turning his head slightly to better listen for a reply. My own ears strain, skin prickling at each rustle and whistle of grass and wind.

Then, from only a few feet away, comes the voice, clearer than ever. I still can’t make out what he’s saying, but this time I can tell he’s excited.

“There!” I dart forward to stand at Tarver’s side. “There, it’s the same voice. I told you.”

He isn’t smiling. He’s not looking out at the plain, but rather down at me, his expression more troubled than annoyed.

“I heard nothing,” he says quietly.

The words are like a punch in the stomach, leaving me gasping. Even he wouldn’t be so cruel. “That’s not funny.”

“I’m not laughing.” Carefully, Tarver reaches out and takes hold of my shoulder. “I’ve been working you too hard. You’re exhausted. Let’s just sit and rest, and you’ll feel better tomorrow.”

I jerk my shoulder away with such force that I wrench the muscle, although I scarcely notice the pain. My spine tingles uncomfortably. “I’m not hallucinating, Tarver!”

He smiles, though it doesn’t touch his eyes, which remain grave, fixed on mine. “It’s no big deal,” he says dismissively. “I’ve done it myself, once. Come, sit down for me, and I’ll see about finding you something to eat besides those ration bars.”

“I know what’s real!” I want to smack him, shake him, do whatever it takes to convince him that I know what I heard. My shivering slows, my dizziness ebbing. As a breeze skitters past and touches damp skin, I realize I’ve been sweating.

“Lilac,” he says, voice soft and weary. “Please. Rest.”

I wonder if he knows how easily he can win this way—how can I fight him when he’s so tired, so sad? The relief at having heard another human voice has shattered into a thick misery, so dense I can barely breathe. I sink back down onto my blanket, eyes burning. I refuse to cry, not while he can see me. But was it too much to ask to have been proven right, just once? Instead he thinks I’m going mad, that Lilac LaRoux’s so traumatized she can’t even tell dreams from reality. I wish Tarver were here alone.

And the worst part is that I know he does too.

“Sudden trauma can manifest in any number of ways.”

“That’s true. We receive extensive training.”

“Did you notice any of those manifestations in Miss LaRoux?”

“No. Well, only that she was off her food, but I think that was an objection to the ration bars, mostly. Not quite what she was used to.”

“Otherwise nothing?”

“That’s what I said. Are you having trouble understanding my answers?”

“We just want to be certain, Major. Exact.”

“Any chance you can tell me exactly how much longer this is going to last?”

“Until we have the answers we require.”



SHE STAYS CRUMPLED ON THE BLANKET, and I deliberately putter around, giving her a little time to pull herself together. If I’ve learned anything about Lilac LaRoux over the past few days, it’s that she doesn’t like to fall apart in front of people, even when it’s justified. I find the razor in my grab bag and shave, clawing a couple of steps back toward civilization—a comfort to her, maybe. The rough rasp of the blade on my skin keeps me focused, and the silence draws out.

There’s some good news among the bad. The plains make for easier walking, the ground even and flat. I’m confident we’ve left our feline friends behind in the forest. I’ve found burrows that tell me something will end up in my snares for sure, and the armful of unfamiliar plants and grasses that I foraged is bound to yield up something edible. I’d hoped that giving Lilac a break from the ration bars might cheer her up.

But now there’s a horrible weight in the pit of my stomach that won’t shift. I saw how she was shaking, sweating, how dilated her pupils were. Hallucinations can be a sign of a number of things, but I can’t help thinking that in Lilac’s case, it’s simply all too much. I just need her to hold on long enough to make it across the mountains to the Icarus.

“Give me an hour or so, and I might be able to get some variety into your diet, Miss LaRoux,” I say briskly, running out of things to pretend to fiddle with and sinking down beside her. “When they terraform, a lot of the flora that goes in is edible, more or less. Once you’re on a steady diet of ration bars, your definition of ‘edible’ changes pretty radically, I’d say.”

Her gaze flicks up to me, still blank, glazed. I know that our ongoing battle isn’t what she needs right now, and in the face of such misery, I try the only thing left that I can think of. I offer her a small smile—and though she doesn’t quite smile back, she looks at me, absorbing the human contact.

“I’ll test them,” I continue, “and if any of them are edible, we can gather up some extras and have a proper meal tonight. These aren’t the standard plants I usually see come out of terraforming, but I can’t see why the principle wouldn’t be the same. There’s enough grass here for a tiny fire, so we can heat up the canteen for some soup, at any rate.”

She nods, which is a small improvement. My efforts are beginning to calm me down, as well. I set to work, breaking open the first stalk of grass—a stout, woody thing at the base, green and juicy at the tip, about the same thickness as one of her fingers. I don’t want to highlight to her how strange it is that I don’t recognize these plants—terraforming flora and fauna are completely standard. The corporations don’t mess with a formula that works…but the plants here are only tangentially related to the ones I’m used to. As the sap on the broken grass stalk begins to appear in tiny beads, I rub it across the sensitive skin on the inside of my forearm.

“What are you doing?” She’s still subdued, but at least she’s looking at something other than the ground in front of her.

“Checking for an allergic reaction. If it doesn’t make me red or itchy, then it makes it through to round two, the taste test.”

She nods, watching my forearm for a moment, then looks away.

I try again. “There’s a dip in the land to the east, looks like a river. We’ll cross over and follow it across the plains so we’ve got plenty of water. We can even wash, if you like, make ourselves presentable for when the cavalry arrive.”

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