These Broken Stars Page 57

We’re left gasping, staring at each other—she, confused, uncertain why I stopped; me, trying to breathe, pushing away the need coursing through me despite the ache in my hand.

I know what this is. I recognize that desperate longing in her expression—I’ve seen it before, in the field. Lilac was very nearly left alone on this planet, and she’s mistaking her relief for something else.

A girl like her would never look at a guy like me in other circumstances. If that building on the horizon is our ticket home, I’m not sure I could stand to see her waltz off into her old life and leave me behind. Not if I let myself—no.

I can’t afford to show her how badly I want her.

Not when it isn’t really me she wants.

Her expression is shifting with every moment I keep her at arm’s length, eyes darkening, the confusion turning to doubt.

A treacherous part of me doesn’t care that she’s confused, desperately wants to kiss her anyway. Maybe one moment would be worth it, even if afterward it all dissolved into mist, like our trail of purple flowers.

I could be wrong. Maybe she does want—maybe—

I’m drawing breath again when she pulls away sharply, climbing to her feet to stalk off into the darkness. There’s anger in her jerky movements, in the tense line of her shoulders.

My mind thunders with everything I should say, the words tangling in my throat. Wait. Come back. Tell me you won’t vanish the moment they find us here. Tell me if I touch you I’m not going to lose you.

“Don’t go far,” I call instead, and silently curse my own cowardice.

She doesn’t come back, but she does stop where I can still see her, choosing the cold, windy emptiness of the dark plain over returning to me. The mirror-moon gives off enough light that she probably won’t break an ankle, but I wish I knew how to call her back.

In the end I unroll the blankets and stretch out on them—I’m too weak, too tired to sit up and wait for her. When she returns to lie down beside me, it’s at the edge of the blanket, as far from me as she can get.

I have to say something. This will get worse overnight. I reach inside myself and find the part of me that’s used to dragging the unwilling through all kinds of uncompromising landscapes, and I try for a lighter tone. “Stop that, will you come over here? I’m an invalid, I need you to keep me warm.” If I can get my arms around her, maybe she’ll understand.

She’s silent so long it doesn’t seem like she’ll reply at all. When she finally does, her voice is hoarse and hostile. “You’ll survive.”

“Probably,” I agree. “But I’d rather be comfortable.”

She keeps her back to me, spine curved as she curls in on herself. “Tarver.” Now she sounds like she’s the one talking through gritted teeth. “I’m humiliated. I’ll be fine in the morning, and we’ll keep going and get rescued, and then this will be over. Just leave me alone right now.”


She curls up away from me more tightly, tucking her head down as though she can block out my words. Eventually I stop waiting for her to roll over and join me. I lie on my back to stare up at the unfamiliar stars and the bright, blue-white mirror overhead, and wait for sleep.

It’s bitterly cold without her.

She wakes up before me in the morning. I’m still feeling like the living dead, which is what I get for trying a forced march so soon after I’ve been laid up.

We eat a ration bar each in silence. I’m pretty sure giving me a whole one instead of splitting it is her version of looking after me while I’m sick, which perhaps means we’re going to be civilized about what happened last night. It’s not as though we have the luxury of finding someone else to talk to.

I know she’s started hearing the whispers again—she shakes like a leaf whenever they show up. But they’ve declined to let me in on their secrets again, and if they tell her anything, she doesn’t share it with me. I’m not sure I like the idea that they seem to be focusing on her—or targeting her.

I shoulder the pack and we set off in silence, but we do manage to talk a little as the morning wears on. It’s not much, but the content of the conversation isn’t the point. It’s the gesture that matters, on both our parts—our way of telling each other that we’re going to find a way to keep working together.

Seventeen days ago I’d have pulled out my own teeth with pliers before voluntarily seeking her out for conversation. Now I’m just tired with relief that we’re not going to shut each other out completely.

It’s late afternoon when we reach the trees. They’re mostly pole trees again, like the forest where we crashed. This inexplicable landscape, none of the terraforming as it should be, is becoming normal to me.

Lilac’s hand goes out when I stumble over a root. I’m so tired I’m not lifting my feet properly now, a combination of three days of fever and nearly three weeks of rationed meals. At least I started out with some condition on me. I have no idea how Lilac’s still moving, but in some ways she actually seems stronger than she was before.

We emerge from the trees quite suddenly, both of us stumbling to a halt in the same moment.

A boxy, one-story building squats in the middle of the clearing. Hope surges up inside of me.

It’s perfectly intact. This isn’t wreckage, and it isn’t ruined. It’s real. It’s an observation station, like dozens I’ve seen before on newly terraformed planets.

As we stand rooted to the spot, a carpet of purple flowers unfurls beneath our feet, racing away from us to ring the building. The path that led the way from the ship finishes here.

And then, in the next moment, disappointment cuts through me. I look again, and realize the clearing is dotted with young saplings. There are thick vines crawling up the sides of the building.

Nobody’s been here in years.

“Are you reluctant to answer our questions, Major?”

“Of course not. It’s a pleasure to assist you. I can see you’re hanging on my every word.”

“You seem uncooperative, Major. You’re a highly decorated soldier. Your conduct doesn’t match the favorable reports on your file.”

“I suppose appearances can be deceiving.”



FOR A WHILE WE FORGET WHAT HAPPENED last night and explore the building, working together again. Seeing an intact structure, something man-made, is electrifying. I try to imagine what my home looks like, my city, the buildings that touch the clouds and the cars on the skyways, and my mind draws a blank. I think if I were to somehow transport myself there now, it’d be overwhelming.

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