This Shattered World Page 62

“The Knave of Hearts,” says Lilac. “A hacker based somewhere on Corinth. Don’t worry, Captain. He can be trusted.”

Merendsen’s eyes are still on the screen, and when he speaks his voice is soft. He misses her. “I’m sorry to bring you into it, Lilac. We may not be able to call again. It’s hard enough setting up a completely secure line under the best of circumstances, and these aren’t those.”

“I’ll get word through somehow,” she says confidently.

Hackers, socialites with hidden tech skills—it’s all too much. “This is ridiculous,” I burst out, earning stares from everyone. “Sir.” I shift my gaze to Merendsen. “I expected you to help me bring this up the chain of command. It’s what I should’ve done in the first place.” I can feel Flynn’s eyes on me.

“You can’t.” Lilac’s voice cracks whip-like from the speakers, stopping me cold.

“I appreciate you wanting to help, Miss LaRoux.” Speaking to her, this creature from a world entirely separate from mine, feels strange. “But if I take this to General Macintosh, he’ll have the power to actually do something.”

Lilac LaRoux doesn’t answer immediately. I half expect Merendsen to take over and fight this battle for her, but instead he waits, watching the girl on the screen. Finally, she tilts her head to one side and speaks. “The planet we crashed on, Captain, was not what the reports later said it was. By the time Tarver and I were rescued, we had discovered a mountain of evidence implicating my father’s company in a conspiracy that would have ruined him.”

My mouth goes dry, and I find myself looking for Flynn, who has finally pulled his gaze up off the floor. “So why not go public with it?”

“Because he destroyed it.”

“No one can destroy all the evidence of a conspiracy like that,” Flynn argues, and I know he’s thinking of the LaRoux Industries ident chip I found in the swamp.

“No, not the evidence—Mr. Cormac, he destroyed the planet.”

The silence pours in to follow her words. I can feel Flynn’s panic matching my own, a thickening of the air that makes it hard to breathe. My gaze pulls toward him, and I find him staring hollow-eyed at the screen. My heart squeezes, a low painful wrench.

“We let him bury it,” Lilac murmurs, closing her eyes. “We thought that…well, we thought the story ended there. We knew he’d taken whispers from the rift, but we didn’t think any were still alive until a few months ago.”

“Whispers?” I interject.

Merendsen shifts, clearing his throat in such a way that forestalls any answer to my question, and I realize he’s afraid to discuss it over the computer, despite their security measures. “It’s not your fault, Lilac,” he says quietly. “Now we know.”

“He can’t destroy Avon.” Flynn’s voice is hoarse, torn from his throat with an effort that makes his shoulders quiver. “There are people here. Not just colonists—soldiers, civilian personnel, corporation representatives. It’d be mass murder.”

But Lilac LaRoux is listening with a weary grief in the slope of her lips, the drawn brows. “You don’t know my father.”

I’m still struggling to digest what Lilac LaRoux has just told us. It means there’s nowhere to go. If we tip our hand, even if we start to win this secret struggle behind the war, the moment LaRoux begins to suspect he’s losing control of Avon, he could destroy it, and all the lives it harbors. Me. Commander Towers. Molly. Flynn.

We’re all alone.

“Your only hope is to find proof.” Lilac LaRoux is all business again, that grief tucked away where no one can see it. She’s far better than I ever was, Stone-faced Chase or no. “You find proof of what’s going on there, and you find a way to go public with it, tell everyone who will listen about what my father is doing—that’s your protection. He can’t destroy anything if the galaxy is watching.”

Then, eyes drifting away, no doubt searching for me in her picture, she raises her voice again. “Mr. Cormac, Captain, you’re not alone. You hear me? I’m going to help. Just hang in there.” Neither of us expected the daughter of Roderick LaRoux to care that people were dying on Avon, much less offer us help or compassion.

“And Captain—” Lilac’s still talking, pulling my attention back. “If my father’s experiments are involved, then you can’t trust anything. Trust Flynn, trust yourself, but trust what you feel, not what you see. They can do things—put pictures in your head, make you see things, hear things, that aren’t there. Trust what you feel.”

I take a step back, not knowing how to respond. Trust what you feel. I manage not to look at Flynn again, but I can feel his eyes on me.

Merendsen saves me having to reply. “We should get off the line, just in case.”

Lilac nods. “Of course.” No pleas to stay or coy demands that he spend more time talking to her. She’s calm, quiet, competent. For a wild moment I think she’d make a good soldier—and then I have to dismiss the thought for sheer ridiculousness. “I’ll see what I can get by tomorrow and send it your way.”

Merendsen exhales audibly, the sense of urgency fading. I can’t see his face, but I can tell he’s gazing at his fiancée on the screen, having run out of words.

Her eyes soften. “Be careful, Tarver,” she says simply. “Come back to me.”

“I promise.” He lifts a hand, fingertips brushing the screen—and after half a second, hers lifts as well. As though they’re reaching across the intervening light-years, palm to palm. I look away, not wanting to intrude on this intimacy. There’s silence for a few heartbeats, and then the light cuts out abruptly as the picture vanishes. I look up to see the words SESSION TERMINATED flashing along the bottom of the screen.

Merendsen leans back, inhaling briskly. It’s a few seconds before he turns, swiveling in the chair to look at me. “Well,” he says heavily. “That’s my girl. Still don’t understand why I want to marry her?”

I have to swallow to find my voice. “I was wrong, sir. I’m sorry.”

He grins at me. “She’s used to it. And so am I, now. Or at least I’m getting more used to it. It’s not easy listening to people dismiss her as a fashion-obsessed idiot, but it’s what’s best, and it keeps anyone from thinking she’s hiding anything.”

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