STARGAZER GIRL

Book 4 finale - Chapter 3

CHAPTER 1 | CHAPTER 2CHAPTER 3

CURIOUS

It didn’t take long for Evelyn to find herself on the path to the rock again, though it seemed every moment of her trek was consumed with the argument she was having with herself about it.

She sat under the shuttle for another ten minutes after Joseph had left, trying to convince herself that she should not go back for another look. No good could come of it, she told herself, and though she didn’t really want to relive her time with the colonists, she continued to drum up images she realized she must have been repressing—as real as they seemed, they were so horrific, bizarre, and absurd she knew they couldn’t have just been her imagination running away.

At some point, she realized two things. First, there was no way her mind was going to let the issue rest until she at least went back for another look. Second, unless she figured out a way to rein in her mind from its tendency to trend to the extremes, she was going to find her way into more trouble, and it very likely was going to cut her life short.

Realizing she had dug the point of her knife into the branch she was holding, she pried it loose, put out the fire, and packed up the almost-charred remains of the fish that had cooked a little too long. After putting it in the cooler on the shuttle, she set out to the cliff for another look.

Climbing over the boulder she had scaled the night before, Evelyn walked down to the ledge. The midday breeze on the rock was still chilly though the sun was out, and the skies had cleared from the storm earlier.

Just as before, Evelyn didn’t know what she hoped to see. She stood and looked down on the colony, tucking her hands in her fleece as the breeze chilled the edges of her ears. Like a hawk circling high overhead, waiting for some sign of movement below, she waited.

How long she stood there, she couldn’t tell, but it was getting to be long enough that she felt her nerves settle. Things were, in fact, just as she had suspected—the people were gone.

Evelyn sighed, a wave of relief washing over her initially that was quickly followed by a sinking feeling for finding relief about such a thing. But before she could really flog herself over her apparent lack of compassion, she saw some movement by the lake. Snapping her eyes into focus, it was obvious it was a person. Even at a distance, Evelyn could tell the person was walking fast. They had rounded one of the small buildings on the corner of the main street, and they were headed out of the center of town, toward the knoll leading to the tents.

The person picked up their pace, jogging, and Evelyn couldn’t tell for sure, but they looked to be turning their head slightly as they ran, like they were looking around themselves or over their shoulder. Evelyn still couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman for sure, but by their gait, they appeared to be female.

Evelyn realized she was holding her breath, and she tried to breathe evenly so she could focus better. She glanced back in the direction from which the person was running, and then she saw a second person walk out from behind the same building, but rather than follow the first, they took up a spot in the center of the dirt road in town.

The female continued to jog out to the knoll and then stopped, lifting her hands to her face. It was obvious she was peering through binoculars by her gesture, and even though she was looking along the ridge on which Evelyn stood, Evelyn could tell she hadn’t quite made it to her spot yet.

Evelyn’s mind raced. She knew she had just a second or two to duck and avoid being seen, but she held firm, staring at the scout below, wondering what they would do if they saw her on the ridge.

The scout stopped panning, and Evelyn could feel the woman’s eyes on her. Not a second later, the woman was raising her arm and waving, almost as if she were stranded on a deserted island and Evelyn was the ship passing a mile away. The woman quickly turned and shouted something to the person standing in town. Evelyn couldn’t hear what was being said, but no sooner had the woman turned back to look at Evelyn through the binoculars than the other person ran off.

The woman stood still and held her hand high in the air to Evelyn, but Evelyn didn’t move. She was still trying to assess what was happening. Her mind immediately went to visions of the mob that had hunted her in the forest, and she wasn’t going to stick around if a group of colonists came racing around the side of the building in town.

She looked back at the woman with the binoculars, who still had her arm raised, waving now, no doubt hoping for Evelyn to return the gesture.

The woman paused, lowering her arm and the binoculars, and then, quite unexpectedly, started jogging in Evelyn’s direction. Every twenty or thirty feet, the woman would raise her arm and wave and seemed to be shouting something that would have never crossed the chasm between them. Even so, it looked like it was one lone person coming in her direction, and apparently, the woman wanted Evelyn to know it.

Evelyn still couldn’t tell who it was, though as the figure drew nearer, it was clear it was, in fact, a woman, and given her build, the possibilities narrowed to about fifty of the colonists.

Evelyn’s mind was awhirl with questions. Seeing two people was hardly different than seeing no people when the colony consisted of over four hundred when she had left. But still, two was two, so everyone hadn’t deserted the colony or died. And the fact that the woman was now running across the meadow, obviously trying to flag Evelyn down from her perch a thousand feet up, suggested they were waiting for her to come back.

Evelyn felt the nerves in her stomach swirl, not so much from dread or anxiety as from excitement, almost like she had only then realized she secretly wanted to see other people—her body had known it, but her mind had been refusing to go along.

Evelyn sat on the ledge, letting her feet dangle off the cliff. She didn’t know who the woman was. She didn’t know what they wanted or if they brought good tidings or bad. She didn’t know if they would actually scale a thousand feet to reach her, but she figured if they did, she could sit there and wait, and was content to sit in suspense.

UNFORGIVING

For an hour after the woman disappeared into the woods at the base of her cliff, Evelyn wondered why she was sitting there on the ledge, waiting for someone who had as much chance of dragging her into another nightmare as anything else. Her question had no answer, however, except that perhaps Evelyn had a perverse and growing fascination with suffering and death. She didn’t think that was the case, but it seemed the only logical explanation.

On more than one occasion, she thought about leaving her spot. She could go back and tell Joseph she had checked again and hadn’t seen anything. It would be a lie, of course, but nobody would know other than her. But it would have festered over time. Plus, she couldn’t shake the hope—a dangerous desire, she knew—that it might be Doctor Khari coming to meet her. If it was, Evelyn also knew she’d feel terrible about not at least trying to meet her halfway down the cliff, but she just couldn’t bring herself to worry over that when it could also be Colette Vandergaast. If it was, Evelyn knew she’d feel stupid about not making the councilwoman scale every inch of that mountain to get to her. So, in the end, her pride won out, and she kept her backside firmly and precariously planted on the edge of her cliff. She did smile a little more broadly, however, at the realization that her bullheaded sister’s DNA had taken full root within her.

At the sound of loose rock breaking free behind her, Evelyn finally stood and turned to the crevasse through which she knew the colonist would have to come. The withered stump of a pine struck by lightning blocked one side, and Evelyn waited, first hearing the rock clattering down the boulder behind her, then the woman’s labored breathing, and finally the heaving sigh as she pulled herself up onto the ledge.

It was a woman. Her tattered tan shirt was stained with sweat under her armpits, and her filthy and stained brown canvas work cap was pulled down tight over the top of her head, blocking Evelyn’s view of her face. But as the woman looked up, Evelyn’s heart sank, in part because she could barely recognize the emaciated girl before her, and in part because she knew exactly who it was.

“You’re the last person I expected to see up here, Misha,” Evelyn said, struggling to think of why the girl was there, her mind generating hundreds of possible reasons, few of them redeeming.

“Yeah,” Misha said, pulling the cap off her head as she leaned against the tree stump. It was obvious her hair was filthy, matted to her forehead and hanging in long, tangled dreads from her scalp. Her cheeks were sunken, and her cheekbones protruded below her sky-blue eyes. Even though the girl had never been friendly to her, and she was teetering on the edge of starvation with her hair a matted mess, Evelyn had thought on more than one occasion that Misha had the potential to be strikingly pretty. That clearly wasn’t the case any longer.

“I’m a little surprised to see you too,” Misha added, putting the cap back on her head. She started to reach behind her, but before her hand could even disappear, Evelyn drew the knife from her leg and threw it, sticking the blade an inch deep into the stump and blocking the girl’s hand midmotion.

Misha gasped and froze.

“Keep your hands where I can see them,” Evelyn said. The last time she had been alone with the girl, Misha had ambushed her, shot her at least four times with chemical bullets, and watched gleefully as the colonists beat her until the skin on her face peeled off her skull. Evelyn had made Misha’s life miserable for a few days after she had found a way to kill the parasites that were killing the colonists, but she still didn’t consider the two of them even—and she didn’t trust Misha as far as she could throw her, even if it was off a thousand-foot cliff.

Misha’s eyes went wide. “I just wanted my water,” she said, turning slightly to reveal the canteen she had strapped around her waist at the small of her back.

“If you try anything, Misha, so help me, I’ll throw you off this rock and I’ll savor every moment of your free fall.”

Whatever spark of fear had lit in Misha’s eyes vanished, surprising Evelyn at how quickly it did. The girl furrowed her brow and stuck out her jaw, her back stiffening with resolve.

“So, what?” she said, flipping her hand at Evelyn. “You just waited for me to come up here so you could stick me with a knife?”

Refusing to let Misha’s stance go unchecked, Evelyn leaned in and pointed her finger in the girl’s face, even though they were still ten feet apart.

“Maybe I did. Or maybe I thought you were someone else, and now I’m pissed that it’s you. But either way, you better start talking before I get tired of this conversation.”

Misha locked her knees, catching them both in their stare-down with one another, but as the seconds passed, she finally relented. “Fine,” she said quickly, looking away from Evelyn and nodding at the colony below. “I came to find you because we need your help.”

You’re asking me for help?” Evelyn asked, surprised at the half laugh that burst from her lips.

“Yeah.”

Evelyn was quiet for a second, still unsure she was hearing the girl correctly, and then her mind started whirling again. “Where is everyone, Misha? I’ve only seen two people in the last two days.”

“They’re gone … or dead.”

“What do you mean, they’re gone?” Evelyn asked, realizing she was going to have to break the girl’s statement into two separate and possibly grisly conversations.

“I mean a bunch of the colonists flew off a few months ago, and they haven’t returned.”

“And they left you behind?”

“Some of us stayed behind. But then the winter came. And some people got sick. And we didn’t know how to take care of them.”

“Where’s Doctor Khari?”

“She left with the others.”

“Where did they go?”

“I don’t know.”

“What about Tau and Mina Moor?”

“They’re gone too.”

Evelyn felt like they were talking in circles. She ran her hands through her short hair, pulling on it in frustration. “Misha, you’re not explaining what happened, and you’re definitely not talking fast enough.”

Obviously frustrated too, Misha stiffened her arms, balling her hands at her sides, and started talking through gritted teeth. “Look, it’s like I said, some people left … they were trying to find another place to live … I don’t know why because nobody told me and I didn’t ask. They haven’t come back. The rest of us are just trying to survive in the town, and we’ve been waiting for you to come back.”

Again another revelation that slowed Evelyn’s thoughts to a crawl. “Why?” she asked finally, flipping her hands in the air.

“Because we want to go home … back to Earth … and we need you to help us.”

“Misha …” Evelyn said, putting her hands back on her hips and shaking her head in frustration.

“Honest, Evelyn … look at me,” she said, looking at herself with a grimace of self-loathing. “Would I be standing here … would I have climbed all the way up here if we weren’t desperate?”

Evelyn didn’t answer, but she knew Misha had a point. It had taken a lot of physical strength to get up the cliff—strength Misha had little of to begin with, given how malnourished she appeared. But beyond that, the seemingly simple act of asking her—the person Misha despised more than anyone else in the universe—would have required an otherworldly strength, and one Evelyn wasn’t sure she would have had herself had their roles been reversed. Even so, Evelyn didn’t want to give the girl the satisfaction of making a reasonable point, and then more questions flooded her mind.

“I only saw one other person down there … Who was that? Titus?”

“No, he’s gone too. That was Emma.”

“How about Autumn …? Is she there too?”

“Yeah.”

“And who else? What about Mary and Sarah?”

“No, they’re gone too … Almost everyone is gone.”

Whatever traction Evelyn had with her thoughts slipped again. “What?” she almost yelled at the absurdity of what Misha had just said. Evelyn took a step toward Misha, and perhaps realizing Evelyn was seconds away from actually doing what she threatened earlier, she diverted her eyes, put up her hand, and winced.

“It’s true, Evelyn. Honest, it’s true!”

Evelyn stopped. Misha glanced back up for a second and returned her gaze to the rock in front of her.

“There aren’t hardly any of us left, and we just want to go back home,” she said, barely louder than a whisper. “Please … just help us, and we never have to see each other again.”

Evelyn still couldn’t reconcile what could have possibly happened to the colonists, but she also knew Misha may not actually know more than she had shared. Still, something about the whole thing was wrenching her gut in a knot, and she couldn’t isolate why. A moment passed, and Misha, seemingly content to let Evelyn think, finally stood straight and looked again at her.

Evelyn huffed. “You should go if you’re going to get down from here before it gets dark.”

“You aren’t going to help us?”

“I’ll think about it.”

Misha shook her head, clearly disappointed by Evelyn’s lack of commitment, and turned to head back down the mountain.

Worm. Misha had called her that on numerous occasions. She had called her a monster and an abomination and countless other insults over the past year, yet here she was, passing judgement on Evelyn once again as she gripped the tree stump, walking dejectedly off the side of the mountain. Without thinking, Evelyn drew another of her knives and threw it, cutting the air, sizzling through the breeze between them before it stuck in the stump not an inch from Misha’s hand.

Misha withdrew her hand quickly and spun around, almost losing her balance and going backward through the crevasse.

“What’d you do that for?” she said after steadying herself, her eyes wide with wonder or fear at the accuracy of Evelyn’s throw.

Evelyn stepped closer, her anger simmering in her belly. She pointed her finger in the girl’s face again. “I meant what I said before … If you’re lying to me, I’ll bring you back up here just so I can drop you from this rock. Are we clear?”

“Yeah, we’re clear.”

“Good.”

With that, Misha started the long climb down, and after she had pulled her knives from the tree, Evelyn started her long hike back to the shuttle, knowing that she was going to need every second of it to figure out exactly what she was going to tell Joseph.

CHAPTER 1 | CHAPTER 2CHAPTER 3

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