These Broken Stars Page 45

We left my canteen behind in the cave, crushed under rock and snow. And now, as though we willed it into existence, here lies a replacement directly in our path. No, not just a replacement—this is the same canteen.

“Tarver?” It’s Lilac, trying to look past me at what stopped me short. I step aside to let her through, but it takes her a moment to spot the canteen. When she does, her blue eyes widen, and she nearly falls the rest of the way through the gap. I wrap both arms around her. We pause for a moment with her tucked against me, holding still.

“You’re touching it,” she says, reaching out to press a fingertip against the canteen. “Tarver, it’s solid. It’s not a vision.”

“It’s mine, but brand-new.” I flip it over to show her the initials, and her breath catches.

“How? No—all those soldiers on board. Someone was bound to share your initials. It’s a coincidence.”

I’m about to point out that there’s no way the canteen could have ended up here, in our path, if thrown from the wreckage—but then I see her face, and the words die. She knows. But neither of us wants to say what’s on both our minds. These whispers are capable of more than just visions, or premonitions. What else can they do?

I try the water—sweet, fresh, clean. We each drink, grateful it’s not snow, icy cold and trickling down our faces as we swallow. When Lilac finishes, she holds the canteen in her hands, staring down at it. She keeps running her fingertips over its surface, as though it might change upon inspection. Then she lifts her hand, staring at her own fingers. It takes me a moment, but by the time she lifts her gaze to mine, I get it. She’s not shaking. This is no vision. No image plucked from our minds and given to us by the whispers.

This is real.

I wish that I could take this as a sign of friendship from these beings, if that is indeed what we’re dealing with. But despite my relief at having a canteen again, all I can think is this: Why work so hard to keep us alive? What do they really want from us?

We reach the grassy foothills at the base of the mountain by late morning, and it’s an unspeakable relief to be walking across level ground again, able to stretch my legs and unbunch my muscles for a while. I realize as we walk that in just a few short days, I’ve become familiar with this place—the wildflowers we saw on the other side of the mountain are missing, and my eyes can pick out burrows where I can lay snares later. Any sense of comfort doesn’t last long, though. I’m soon reminded we’re walking through a graveyard.

The debris blankets the hills. We pass pieces of twisted plastene the size of my hand, and great, melted piles of metal that tower above us.

Most of the pods are too damaged to scavenge anything from, but we’re down to our last ration bar. I think we could survive on the tiny critters and grasses here, but it wouldn’t be pretty. And so I risk peeking inside the first reasonably intact pod we come to, its only major damage consisting of the panels on the side torn away where it was still attached to the Icarus. I’m relieved there’s only one occupant. Her head hangs forward and her hair hides her face where she sits, still strapped into her seat, in about the same position Lilac took in our sturdier mechanic’s pod. She’s in her nightclothes, a pink silky wrap tied on over whatever’s underneath. I imagine she died on impact. Her hair is brown, not red, but it’s all too easy to see Lilac there instead. I keep my eyes averted from her as I climb through the gash in the pod and rummage through one of the underseat compartments. There—half a dozen more ration bars. Food for another couple days if we supplement with the local flora.

When I climb out again, Lilac doesn’t ask whether anyone was inside. She knows from one look at my face what I found there.

The Icarus looks like someone’s run a knife along the side of her and peeled her open. For nearly a third of her length her innards are visible, scorched framework laid bare. The plowed-up trail behind her shows where she skidded in to land, carving out a furrow you could lose a platoon inside. There’s a faint chemical smell on the breeze.

“In the military,” I say, “we call this proceeding with caution. Usually that’s code for ‘let someone else go first,’ but since we’re the forward scouts this time, let’s just watch ourselves carefully. We don’t know how bad the structural damage is inside. We don’t know what breathing those chemicals in the air will do, and we don’t have the medical supplies if we get hurt. Let’s be careful, okay? Test every step.”

There’s no haughty reply or cutting glare. She stares at the ship, solemn, and simply nods. “We can avoid the heavy damage completely. That’s the stern; it’s mostly propulsion systems, apart from the viewing decks.” A pause. Maybe she’s thinking of our encounter there, as I am. That was another lifetime, and we were different people then. She pushes on, businesslike. “The bow’s technical as well. That’s where the communications were.”

What she doesn’t have to say is that the communications clearly aren’t there now. The bow is hopelessly mashed from the impact.

She’s scanning the wreck, gaze intent. “The middle third of the ship is—was—passengers and cargo. That’s probably where we’ll find supplies, and it looks like some of it hasn’t been torn open.”

The false moon has been getting higher in the sky, staying for longer and setting later. It sits just above the horizon now, visible even in broad daylight. Lilac sees me staring at the horizon and comes to stand at my side. “Do you think it had something to do with the crash?”

I can’t help but remember the awful lurching feeling as the Icarus tried to phase back into hyperspace, and failed. Caught by gravity, or by whatever force had ripped it from that dimension in the first place.

“Seems too much of a coincidence not to,” I reply.

I hear her breath catch. “I don’t know whether your schools would have focused on this, but my father taught me endless lessons on terraforming and its history. It was the one subject he refused to leave to my tutors—I guess being a pioneer means you don’t trust anyone else to get it right. Before the first emigration, when they were still trying to figure out how to terraform Mars, one of the ideas for heating up the planet enough to have liquid water was to set up a large orbital mirror to direct more sunlight to its surface.”

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