These Broken Stars Page 69

But is she? She came from nothing, will she dissolve right back? Creating a canteen’s one thing. This is a human being.

I can be kind to her as long as she lasts, at least.

“How long was I gone?” Her voice is still quiet, quavering.

“A few days.” A few days. Forever. I don’t know. You’re still gone.

We lapse into silence, each retreating to our own thoughts. Tiredness creeps over me until it can’t be denied, and she watches me wordlessly as I unlace my boots, stretching out on the blankets.

I can’t bring myself to imagine she’s dangerous. If they wanted to create something that could harm me, one of those giant cats that chased her up a tree would have done.

What they gave me instead might make me want to die, but she won’t kill me herself. I know a man can follow a mirage to his death, but at this moment that seems like a good way to die.

She stays curled up in her corner, and in the shadows I can hear her breathing. I don’t know how much time goes by.

She’s the one who speaks next, her voice echoing out of the black, soft and tired. “I’m sorry I left you.”

This creature, or whatever it is, is so like her it’s hard to remember she isn’t real. Is there any harm in letting myself pretend, just for a moment? In the darkness, it’s easier to say things I can’t say in the light. “I’m sorry I let you set the fuse. I shouldn’t have.” Those words twist like a knife. Nothing else matters, except that I let her light that match.

I’ll never be able to say these things to my Lilac, but saying it now is better than not saying it at all.

“Oh, Tarver.” For a brief moment her voice takes on a hint of color. It’s not amusement, but it’s a faint upward tilt, the barest echo of a smile. It’s even more heartbreaking than her fear. “You think you could have talked me out of it? You didn’t stand a chance.”

I don’t believe that. I could have barked at her. I could have ordered her. I could have pulled the gun on her. She’d probably have done it anyway. My foolish, stubborn girl. I could have stopped her somehow. But there’s no point arguing. “Are you hungry?”


I’m not hungry either, but I force myself to eat half a ration bar. I’ve been breaking them into pieces and putting them in my mouth and chewing and swallowing for days. I don’t remember the last time I tasted one.

When sleep comes, I let it take me. She stays in her corner.

I wake once in the night, and her breathing’s not slow enough for sleep, but she doesn’t speak, and neither do I.

When I open my eyes in the morning, she’s awake too. Maybe she didn’t sleep at all. Maybe sleep is too much like the other thing. I can’t allow myself to think about that. This isn’t my Lilac.

We breakfast in silence. I break the ration bar in half automatically and pass it to her, and she reaches out to take the other end of the piece so our fingers don’t touch. She’s starting to look a little better—there’s a hint of color in her cheeks, and it seems like the trembling’s a little less. I eat a little and she nibbles, and then we rise without speaking to make our way out of the cave.

We both know without speaking where we’re going.

She clears her throat as we step across the stream and start the walk toward the clearing. “I thought I’d seen the last of this dress. I threw away the pieces.”

“Me too.” I speak without thinking. I can’t help but reply—I know she’s scared, and she’s trying. “It’s what you’re wearing, when I think of you.”

My memory throws up a quick flash of my parents’ house. They showed that to me covered in flowers, the way I always remember it. Is that why she’s wearing the dress? Because this is the image preserved in my memory?

“Really?” She sounds faintly, briefly amused. “How mortifying.” And then, softer, horror creeping into her voice: “I wonder if there are two of them, now.”

“Don’t think about that.” I say it quickly, but it’s too late. We both are.

The first room is bare, open to the elements. Our boots crunch on debris as we climb in through the twisted opening. I’ve seen a hundred outpost entrances like this one—room for a sentry if you need one, or your muddy gear if you don’t.

An inner door opens into a larger room lined with monitoring equipment and file cabinets. It’s dark, lit only by the light streaming in through the blasted entrance. At some point there was a fire, leaving half-burned pages from the files scattered all around the floor. I can see stacks of printouts, half intact. Some have been dumped in trash cans, where the fire burned out before the documents dissolved completely into ash. I wonder if they hold the answers to our questions about the mirror-moon above us, or the cat beast near our crash site—things that have no place being here.

“These could lead to a generator, or some other power source,” she suggests, standing above a bunch of cables that plunge down into the floor. She crosses to a bank of circuit breakers on the wall, jerking open a small door and pumping the switches. For an instant I see her in the pod, stripping wires with her fingernails and hot-wiring our escape.

I close my eyes, trying to shake the image away. This isn’t her. Instead I lean down, pressing my cheek to the nearest computer bank. With my eyes closed, I can feel the faintest of vibrations if I hold my breath.

There’s still power here. A knot of tension releases inside me, and I stay where I am, letting the monitor take my weight. Power means some chance of a signal. Power means the game’s not over yet.

The lights above us flick on one by one, dim from lack of power or long disuse. The walls and the far end of the room are illuminated, covered in something patchy that looks like wallpaper for a moment, completely out of place. Then my words die in my throat.

It’s paint.

She turns, and together we stare, uncomprehending. Words and numbers cover the walls, incomprehensible equations and nonsensical half sentences. They start orderly, in marker, scrawled in even lines across the walls. But here and there they start to dip and slant crazily, the marker replaced by paint, until the words devolve into pictures crudely painted on by fingertips. Figures of animals, trees—and men. Handprints. Here and there a swirl of blue stands out amid the earthy reds and browns, electric—always the same shape, a spiral radiating outward. The blue spirals are a focus, but I can make no sense of them. The colors are as bright as if someone had painted them yesterday. With a jolt, I recognize the same reds, blues, and yellows we saw dried on the lids of the paint cans in the shed, back when we inspected the hovercraft.

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