These Broken Stars Page 2

She’s wearing the same hue as a navy dress uniform, bare shoulders holding my gaze for a moment—she sure as hell wears the color better than any sailor I know. Hair: red, falling down past her shoulders. Nose: a little snub, but that makes her more pretty, not less. It makes her real.

Pretty’s not the right word. She’s a knockout.

Something about the girl’s face tickles at the back of my mind, like I should recognize it, but before I can dig up the connection, she catches me looking at her. I know better than to mix with girls like her, so I don’t know why I keep watching her, or why I smile.

Then, abruptly, a movement jerks my gaze away. It’s the nervous man, and he’s no longer meandering in and out of the crowd. His stooped posture is gone, and with his eyes fixed on something across the room he’s moving quickly through the press of bodies. He’s got a goal—and it’s the girl in the blue dress.

I waste no time weaving in and out of the crowd politely. I shove between a pair of startled elderly gentlemen and make for the booth, but the outsider’s gotten there first. He’s leaning close, speaking low and fast. He’s moving too quickly, trying to spit out what he came to say before he’s picked out as an intruder. The girl jerks back, leaning away. Then the crowd closes up between us, and they’re out of sight.

I reach down to lay a hand on my gun, and hiss between my teeth as I realize it’s not there. The empty spot at my hip feels like a missing limb. I weave left, upsetting a hover tray and sending its contents crashing to the floor. The crowd recoils, finally giving me an avenue toward the table.

The intruder has grabbed her elbow, urgent. She’s trying to pull away, eyes flashing up, looking around for someone as though she expects help. Her gaze falls on me.

I get one step closer before a man in the right sort of top hat claps a hand on the stranger’s shoulder. He has an equally self-important friend with him, and two officers, a man and a woman. They know the man with the fervent light in his eyes doesn’t belong here, and I can see they mean to remedy his presence.

The redhead’s self-appointed guardian jerks the man backward to stumble against the officers, who take him firmly by the arms. I can tell he’s got no training, either formally or the rough-and-tumble sort they learn in the colonies. If he did, he’d be able to handle these desk jockeys and their sloppy form.

They start to turn him toward the door, one of them grabbing at the nape of his neck. More force than I would use, for someone whose only crime so far seems to be trying to talk to the girl in the blue dress, but they’re handling it. I stop by the adjacent booth, still trying to catch my breath.

The man twists, breaking free of the soldiers, and turns back toward the girl. As the room starts to fall silent, the ragged edge to his voice is audible. “You have to speak to your father about this, please. We’re dying for lack of tech, he needs to give the colonists more—”

His voice gives out as one of the officers delivers a blow to his stomach that doubles him over. I jerk forward, shoving away from the booth and past the widening ring of onlookers.

The redhead beats me to it. She’s on her feet in a swift movement that draws the attention of everyone in the room in a way the scuffle didn’t. Whoever she is, she’s a showstopper.

“Enough!” She has a voice well suited to delivering ultimatums. “Captain, Lieutenant, what do you think you’re doing?”

I knew I liked her for a reason.

When I step forward, she’s holding them frozen in place with a glare that could fell a platoon. For a moment, none of them notice me. Then I see the soldiers register my presence, and scan my shoulders for my stars and bars. Rank aside, we’re different in every way. My medals are for combat, theirs for long service, bureaucratic efficiencies. My promotions were made in the field. Theirs, behind a desk. They’ve never had blood on their hands. But for once, I’m glad of my newfound status. The two soldiers come reluctantly to attention—both of them are older, and I can tell it rankles to have to salute an eighteen-year-old. Funny how I was old enough by sixteen to drink, fight, and vote, but even two years later, I’m too young to respect.

They’re still holding on to the gate-crasher. He’s breathing quick and shallow, like he’s pretty sure someone’s going to fire him out an air lock any minute.

I clear my throat, making sure I sound calm. “If there’s a problem, I can help this man find the door.” Without more violence.

We can all hear how my voice sounds—exactly like the backwater boy I am, unpolished and uncultured. I register a few scattered laughs around the room, which is now entirely focused on our little drama. Not malicious laughter—just amused.

“Merendsen, I doubt this guy’s after a book.” Fancy Top Hat smirks at me.

I look down and realize I’m still holding the book I took from the shelves. Right, because this guy is poor, he can’t even read.

“I’m sure he was just about to go,” says the girl, fixing Top Hat with a steely glare. “And I’m pretty sure you were about to leave, too.”

They’re caught off guard by her dismissal, and I use the moment to relieve my fellow officers of their captive, keeping hold of his arm as I guide him away. She’s effectively dismissed the quartet from the salon—again her face tickles my memory, who is she that she can do that?—and I let them make their enforced escape before I gently but firmly steer my new friend toward the door.

“Anything broken?” I ask, once we’re outside. “What possessed you to go near them, and in a place like this? I half thought you were aiming to blow someone up.”

The man gazes at me for a long moment, his face already older than the people inside will ever look.

He turns to walk away without another word, shoulders bowed. I wonder just how much he had riding on this manufactured encounter with the girl in the blue dress.

I stand in the doorway, watching as people give up on the drama now that it’s done. The room slowly comes back to life, the hover trays zipping around, conversation surging, perfectly practiced laughter tinkling here and there. I’m supposed to be here at least another hour, but maybe just this once I can skip out early.

And then I see the girl again—and she’s watching me. Very slowly she’s taking off one of her gloves, pinching each finger deliberately in turn. Her gaze never leaves my face.

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