STARGAZER GIRL

Book 4 finale - Chapter 2

CHAPTER 1 | CHAPTER 2CHAPTER 3

STUBBORN

The rain did little more than hiss a simple song as it gently bathed the window. Evelyn could still see through it well enough: the trickles of water running down the synthetic glass barely distorting the view beyond; the billowing clouds in the distance in various shades of black and gray; the wooded mountainsides, some still touched with snow near their peaks; the glint of blossoms deep in the recesses of green far in the valleys below.

Evelyn pressed her feet into the console, pushing her back into the captain’s seat, holding her mug of tea in her hands for warmth. She called it tea. It wasn’t really. There was nothing resembling a tea leaf within it. But there were some herbs she had collected and dried, and the buds of some flowers she had decided weren’t dangerous. And while the tea didn’t smell like ginger or peaches, it did have a mild sweetness and smelled vaguely of sweet grasses and lemon, and that was good enough for her.

The back edge of the swirling, smoky clouds broke, revealing the hint of blue skies beyond. Evelyn took another sip of her tea and then, standing, set the mug on the console. She walked to the armory closet and slid open the carbon fiber door with a touch of her finger. Inside, she took inventory: six pulse pistols, mostly unused but two with minor wear on the grips; six standard slide-action pistols, also with two showing wear from use; four rifles; and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

Glancing past all her guns, she looked at the long thin row of knives flanking the side of the closet. Of all the things she had on the shuttle, she had grown to appreciate her knives the most. There were seven. There had been eight.

Evelyn still remembered the moment when she broke number eight. It shouldn’t have happened. It was a careless mistake. She had been practicing throwing the knives into a tree stump, partly to give herself something to do and partly because she knew she couldn’t keep using up ammunition for hunting. She started easy, flipping them end over end from a few feet away. Of the first ten tosses, she stuck two, but her aim and her reflexes gradually improved with each toss. Over time, her confidence grew and her aim improved, and she got to where she could stick the knife within an inch of her target from ten feet away.

Then one afternoon, in a lazy moment, she tossed the knife sideways, heard it thud against the tree, and then caught a glimpse of the blade as it clanked into a nearby boulder. Her heart sank instantly when she realized what she had done. A full inch of the tip had sheared from the end, nothing but the jagged steel left. In a fume, she hurled what was left into a cluster of boulders, compounding her mistake and realizing quickly that even broken, the knife could have been useful. She searched for an hour, but it was gone.

Evelyn touched the empty sheath gently. She always did, though she didn’t really know why. Maybe it was a subconscious way of reminding herself to be careful with her things. She was living in the wild on an alien planet. She couldn’t afford to be careless.

Grabbing a slide-action pistol, she loaded a clip, tucked it into the holster, and clipped it into her canvas belt at the small of her back. The gun wasn’t really her thing, but she had learned the hard way on a number of occasions that some beasts on Orsus were attracted to blonds—and not in a good way. Having the gun was utilitarian, but the knives made her happy, and pulling one from the wall, she lashed it in a scabbard around her hip and thigh. She tucked a second along the length of her belt in the front, and a third around the small of her back, hugging the pistol. Then, pulling on her black fleece jacket, she walked to the bay feeling the weight of the knife as it swayed on her hip, and the weight of her brooding moment lighten at the same time.

The ramp lowered as she entered the bay. As the air from outside swirled around her, she felt the dampness caress her cheek, and the earthy scent of peat tickle her nose. She stepped down the ramp, and then, glancing off to her right, she noticed Joseph walking up the path. He had something slung over his shoulder, which she assumed was one of the blue-and-orange fish they had grown accustomed to catching in the high lakes on Orsus. In his other hand, he had a spear.

Evelyn had her knives. Joseph liked his spear. He had spent hours buffing the wood staff with sand, fat, and animal hide until it looked like it had been lacquered. The tip was whittled sharp, and every time he came back from fishing, he’d trim the burrs off with one of Evelyn’s knives. It was their routine. Everything for them had become routine.

When Evelyn returned to the shuttle the night before, it was late and it had already been dark for hours. She had taken her time walking back, not so much because she was worried about stumbling in the darkness but more because she still couldn’t get the deserted village out of her mind, and her progress along the path slowed with her thoughts. By the time she climbed aboard the shuttle, Joseph was already asleep, and not wanting to wake him, she had tucked in quietly next to him. When she woke, he was already gone, and he had obviously taken great care not to wake her either.

When Evelyn gave thought to it, it seemed to her that in some ways they were very much like the old married couples she had heard of, each going about their lives not so much with each other but around each other. The big differences, however, were they were neither old nor technically married. But they were alone—together, of course—but alone in the universe, and when they had figured out they didn’t need to spend every waking moment in each other’s company, a melancholic peace had settled over them and the life they were making together.

Looking up from the path in front of him—Joseph was always careful to watch the ground in front of his feet—he smiled at her, the soft smile someone offers their best friend.

“You got in late,” he said.

“You got up early,” she replied.

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“Is something wrong?”

“No … I just couldn’t stop thinking about the colony.” Joseph unslung the fish from his shoulder, the long blue-and-orange fins draping off its body like fabric. He had already gutted the fish, and as they wandered under the shuttle, Evelyn found a dry patch of grass on which to rest the fish.

The bottom of the shuttle stood ten feet above the ground, and even though they could cook in the galley kitchen, they had determined long ago that cooking fish not only made the shuttle smell bad, even with the air purifiers running, but it made a horrendous mess. They also had decided that if they ever lost their technology, they needed to be able to rough it, so they did to some extent. The shuttle was made of a composite that could handle the heat of reentry to the planet’s surface. Even the fireball that consumed the shuttle after they blew up the Kraken months before had had no effect. A campfire lit ten feet below the belly of the shuttle wasn’t even enough to warm the surface, so it acted like a giant shield from the weather and rain. It kept everything dry underneath, and Joseph and Evelyn had taken to setting up their camp underneath, in the grass or sand or shallow water of wherever they landed.

“Well, I didn’t see anyone down in the colony,” Evelyn said as she gathered the sticks and twigs they had collected the day before. Pulling them together into the firepit, Joseph lit the bunch with the hand torch he carried. In seconds a crackling fire curled through the wood.

“What do you mean?” he asked, standing back to admire the little fire, tossing larger sticks on top.

Evelyn threaded the fish on a spit and propped it up over the growing embers. “I mean I didn’t see anyone … literally. In the whole time I sat there, I didn’t see even one person.”

“Nobody?”

“Nobody.”

“Where were they?”

“I have no idea, but it was strange. It was like everyone had just left, and they didn’t bother to pack anything up before they went. By the looks of things, the colony has been deserted for a while. Half the tents are gone, and the whole place was dark.”

Evelyn sat on the grass not far from the coals, and Joseph continued to toss small branches on the fire. It didn’t take long for the skin on the fish to sizzle and hiss and for the oils within it to drip into the fire, making it pop.

“So, they’re just gone,” Joseph said more than asked, absently looking at the fire with a wrinkle across his brow. Evelyn knew all of Joseph’s expressions, and this one was the one he seldom used. He was a kid from the streets and was keenly aware when something seemed amiss. It was like a sense he had, and one Evelyn wished she was better at using, noting that it would have saved her a lot of trouble and heartache over the last several months. Even when he didn’t really know how to handle something, Joseph could make decisions about what to do, and they always seemed to be right. But on occasion, he’d furrow his brow in the way he did just then, which told Evelyn he was confused and intrigued but worried enough that he wasn’t sure he ought to do anything at all.

They sat quietly together, the smoke from the fire rolling out from under the shuttle just over Evelyn’s head. “You okay?” she asked, watching his shoulders sag a little as if he had just heard bad news.

“Yeah … I’m just surprised, that’s all.”

“Me too.”

“I didn’t think they’d be gone.”

“Me neither.”

“I guess I thought we might go back … and see how everyone was doing.”

Evelyn didn’t say anything. She had drawn the knife from the sheath on her leg and was balancing its long thinness by the point on a stick in front of her. As she spun the blade, it caught the orange light of the embers. She could almost feel the heat in her eyes. Everything that Joseph had just said was exactly what she had been thinking … until she noticed that nobody was left, and all of a sudden—whether it was because she felt betrayed or abandoned or forgotten—she had decided she didn’t want to learn more.

“Did you?” Joseph asked.

Evelyn looked up. He was looking at her as if he had expected an answer to a question he hadn’t asked and was irritated that she hadn’t picked up on it.

“Did I what?” Evelyn asked, already knowing what he wanted to know but not wanting to answer all the same.

He tossed his last stick in the fire. “Did you want to go back, to see anyone?”

“I don’t really know … I guess … but it doesn’t matter now. There’s nobody left to see.”

Joseph pulled his head back with a sigh, clearly surprised by Evelyn’s apparent disinterest. “So that’s it? You don’t want to try to find out where they went?”

“I don’t know,” Evelyn said, returning her gaze to the fire—but really she knew she didn’t. In the months since they had left, Evelyn had tried to put all the colonists behind her. She had nearly killed a few of them out of frustration, self-defense, and purely out of exhaustion. And even though there were some she knew she would enjoy seeing again, for the most part she imagined that they and she would all be better off without any more contact. Then again, she imagined the little colony might be thriving too, and whether it was out of spite or pity, in finding it deserted, she couldn’t help but feel a curious satisfaction in suspecting that maybe they hadn’t done alright without her.

“You’re really confusing me, Evie. I know you don’t care about most of the colonists, and neither do I, if I’m being honest about it, but there were a few down there you did care about and who cared about you … Don’t you want to know what happened to them … for their sakes?”

Evelyn shrugged a nod. “I do care about some of them … Tau and Mina, and Doctor Khari … geez, even Titus wasn’t so bad when you got to know him … but the last time I was there …” Evelyn’s voice trailed off into the breeze that had pushed under the shuttle, fanning the coals and blowing smoke in her face. She quickly closed her eyes, and then, as if someone had just set a spotlight on her memories, she remembered the funeral pyre in the meadow. She remembered the procession of dead, diseased bodies, the colonists unsure what else to do but burn them. In the days that followed, she remembered them turning on her in their hatred and ignorance, figuring that was the best solution to their problems—killing her and destroying every fragment of evidence that she had ever existed.

The screams still echoed in her dreams. They often sounded like they were coming from others, but she knew they were her screams as they kicked and beat her. The malice. The hatred. The resentment. A colony’s worth of rage, unleashed on her as she writhed helpless in the mud, crying out for any single decent person to show her there was an ounce of humanity among them.

That person had come to her, eventually. It was not the person she had hoped for. It wasn’t Joseph. It was Colette Vandergaast, and now, as Evelyn winced from the smoke burning her eyes and the memories burning her conscience, she still couldn’t bring herself to admit she cared enough to find out what had happened to the rest of them.

The breeze shifted, and Evelyn felt the coolness on her neck. She opened her eyes.

“Evie?”

Evelyn looked again at the boy with the mossy-green eyes, her best friend and the person with whom she had been through more trials than any two teenagers should have had to face. She knew what he wanted to know, but whether it was frustration with the colonists, herself, or Joseph—or just downright stubbornness—she didn’t want to concede to Joseph that he was right. She was tired of talking about it.

“Look, I’m sorry if I’m confusing you, but it’s complicated. I just need some time to think, and you’re not helping.”

Joseph huffed a small laugh that told Evelyn her barb had struck its mark. Shaking his head, he reached down, picked up his spear, and walked down the hillside.

Joseph always seemed to have more control, and Evelyn felt the pit grow in her stomach. She knew he’d forgive her for her remark, and not because he didn’t have a choice about it but because that was just the boy he was. Evelyn rolled her eyes, more at herself for her childishness than anything else, but also at the realization that once again, the colonists had brought out the worst in her.

CHAPTER 1 | CHAPTER 2CHAPTER 3

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