This Shattered World Page 61

Lilac gives a startled squawk, grabbing her robe closed up under her chin. “Tarver!” she gasps. “Why didn’t you say someone was there? Who the hell is this?” Her face is burning with embarrassment.

“This is Lee.” I can tell Merendsen’s aiming for bland, but he’s not hiding his amusement very well. “Don’t worry, I’m sure she was staring at the wall. She’s very discreet and she doesn’t believe in romance.”

I pull my eyes away from the girl on the screen, trying to offer her a little of her dignity to cling to. “The ceiling, sir,” I correct him.

There’s silence from the computer while Lilac stares at the picture on her own screen. Then, in a low, careful voice, she asks, “Lee is a woman?”

I have to choke back a sound of surprise. Merendsen didn’t tell his fiancée he was flying to the next system for a girl? I know it’s because he doesn’t see me like that—to him, he flew for a day and a half for one of his soldiers. I’d do the same for mine. But to Lilac LaRoux…

“I’ve never really noticed,” Merendsen replies, carefully not looking in my direction. “Lee’s friend is here too. Lilac, can you get us a secure line?”

She sobers, and all traces of the wounded, sulky bride-to-be vanish. She nods curtly. “Give me two seconds.”

And then she’s busy, typing away—doing as I did, not trusting the eye-tracker interface. She gets up, reaching for something behind the screen that we can’t see. It sounds like she’s flipping switches. I can’t understand what she’s doing. Whatever it is, it’s far more advanced than anything I did at my end. Merendsen couldn’t have taught her that.

Finally, Lilac settles back in her chair with a small device that, when she turns it on, sends a wave of static through the picture. It evens out after she starts making tiny adjustments to a dial on the device. Some kind of dampening field. I find my gaze creeping over toward Merendsen, wondering why they have such a need for secrecy.

“Okay, go.” It’s a completely different girl than the coy, flirty creature there a moment before. This Lilac is all business.

“This is Flynn Cormac,” Merendsen says, prompting Flynn to step forward into the light. “One of the rebels here.”

I half expect a dramatic exclamation from flighty Lilac LaRoux, some shallow declaration about how ridiculous he looks with his bleached hair. Instead she leans forward, inspecting him in her screen. “Goodness,” she says mildly. “This is one of the infamous Fianna? He isn’t exactly what I might have expected.”

Flynn speaks up, deadpan. “That’s why it works so well. It’s better if you don’t actually look infamous.” It’s an imitation of his usual humor, but there’s something different about it. A note that’s missing I didn’t know I’d learned to recognize until it was gone.

Lilac grins, an expression I never would’ve expected from her. “Well said,” she says approvingly. “I see we’re all experts here at seeming to be what we’re not.”

Except me, says a tiny, seething thread inside my mind. I’m only exactly what I ever was.

I expect Merendsen to go into a detailed explanation, relaying what I told him. Instead, he cuts straight to the point.

“From everything Lee’s told me,” he tells the girl on the screen, “I think you were right.”

“Whispers?” Her face in the glow of her monitor is ghost-pale.

Merendsen nods. “And they’re getting stronger. People here are going mad, like the researchers in the station did, but much quicker.”

Lilac’s eyes close, the features so suited to laughter and frivolity now bearing signs of a deep, biting grief. “I knew it,” she murmurs. “I told you I could feel—”

“I believe you,” Tarver interrupts her, and though he doesn’t look back at us, I know he’s unwilling to share the whole story behind their cryptic conversation. “I’m not about to make that mistake again.”

Lilac’s eyes fly open then, refocusing on her screen. “Are your friends okay? Have they…Are you okay?” She’s addressing me and Flynn directly now. There’s such a shift in her voice, her compassion so clear, her expression transformed. Somehow she knows what we’re going through. But how? It’s her own father’s company; what could it have possibly done to her?

My voice tangles with uncertainty. “I—I’m not sure.”

Merendsen speaks up again. “We’ll figure it out. We’ll help them.”

“Tarver, you know you can’t stay there for long. I’ll try to find out what I can, but if what’s happening there is connected to the whispers, then your poking around will only draw the wrong kind of attention. They’re watching us constantly as it is; it’ll only get worse.”

Who’s watching? Her father? But their conversation is moving lightning quick, and I don’t have time to analyze that before they’re moving on.

“I know. I’ve only got two days here before I’m due off-world with the report. But Lee and Cormac are looking for a facility LRI might have here, somewhere out in no-man’s-land. It’s not the first time they’ve used another corporation’s territory in secret, so they’ve had practice burying the records.”

“Patron.” Lilac’s face is grim, her eyes glued to her monitor as though trying to read the minute details of Merendsen’s face.

He nods. “But this one would have been moved recently from one location to another, and that’s got to leave a paper trail somewhere. Can you look into that?”

“I’ll try to get into my father’s files. He’s changed his passwords, but I can…” She hesitates. “I’ll talk to the Knave.”

Merendsen grimaces. “Are you sure? We keep feeding him more information, trusting him with more of our secrets.”

Lilac shakes her head. “Come on, Tarver. He taught us how to protect ourselves, keep our lives private. Without him we wouldn’t be having this conversation. We have to trust him.”

Merendsen grumbles wordlessly, the sound approaching a growl, but he nods.

I clear my throat. “The Knave?” I can hear the dubiousness in my voice. It’s one thing to bring in Merendsen and to let him bring in his fiancée. But this is rapidly spiraling out of my control.

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