Scarlet Page 19


She couldn’t regret it. She knew she would do it all over again, despite what a mess her life had become since that single rash decision.

Then there was Iko’s personality chip. It was the largest and most abused of the three. One side showed a distinct greasy thumbprint, probably Cinder’s, and one corner had a hairline fracture. Nevertheless, Cinder was confident it would still function. Iko, a servant android who had belonged to Cinder’s stepmother, had long been one of her closest friends. But in a fit of anger and desperation, Adri had dismantled Iko and sold off her parts, leaving only the most useless pieces behind. Including her personality chip.

The third chip in Cinder’s stash made her heart cramp as she picked it up.

Peony’s ID chip.

Her younger stepsister had died almost two weeks ago. The plague had claimed her, because Cinder couldn’t get the antidote to her in time. Because Cinder had been too late.

What would Peony think now? That Cinder was Lunar. That Cinder was Princess Selene. That Cinder had danced with Kai, kissed Kai …

“Eww, is that an ID chip?”

She jumped, enclosing the chip in her fist as Thorne sank into the second chair. “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”

“Why do you have an ID chip?” he said, peering suspiciously at the other two chips on the arm of her chair. “It’d better not be yours, after you made me cut mine out.”

She shook her head. “It’s my sister’s.” Gulping, she unfurled her fingers. A bit of dried blood had crackled off in her palm.

“Don’t tell me she’s a runaway convict too. Doesn’t she need it?”

Cinder held her breath, waiting for the aching in her chest to fade, and glared at Thorne.

He met the look, and realization gradually expanded over his face. “Oh. I’m sorry.”

She fidgeted with the chip, passing it from one metal knuckle to the next.

“How long ago?”

“A couple of weeks.” She tucked the chip into her fist. “She was only fourteen.”

“The plague?”

Cinder nodded. “The androids who run the quarantines have been harvesting ID chips from the deceased. I think they’re giving them to convicts and escaped Lunars … people wanting a new identity.” She set the chip down beside the others. “I couldn’t let them take hers.”

Thorne settled back in his chair. He’d cleaned up well—his hair was neatly trimmed, he was clean shaven, and he smelled of very expensive soap. He was sporting a well-worn leather jacket with a single medallion pinned onto the collar, the rank of captain.

“Aren’t the androids that work at the quarantines government property?” he said, staring at Earth through the window.

“Yeah, I think so.” Cinder frowned. She’d never given it any thought before, but saying it aloud brought on a flurry of suspicion.

Thorne voiced the thought first. “Why would the government program androids to harvest ID chips?”

“Maybe it’s not to sell on the black market,” Cinder said, pressing Peony’s chip into the arm of the chair. “Maybe they just wipe them clean and recirculate them.”

But she didn’t believe that. ID chips were cheap to make and if the public ever found out their loved one’s identities were being erased, there would be an uproar.

She bit her lip. Was there another reason then? Something else the government was using the chips for? Or had someone managed to reprogram the quarantine androids without the government even knowing?

Her gut tightened. How she wished she could talk to Kai …

“What are those other two?”

She glanced down. “Direct communication chip, and a personality chip that used to belong to an android, a friend of mine.”

“Are you some sort of chip hoarder or something?”

She scowled. “I’m just keeping them safe until I figure out what to do with them. Eventually I’ll need to find a new body for Iko, something she can…” She trailed off, then gasped. “That’s it!”

She hurriedly stashed the other two chips in her calf again. Grabbing Iko’s personality chip, she sped off to the cargo bay. Thorne followed her—into the hall, down the hatch to the sublevel, into the engine room, lingering in the doorway while Cinder crawled beneath the ductwork and popped up beside the computer mainframe.

“We need a new auto-control system,” she said, opening a panel and running her finger along the labels. “Iko is an auto-control system. All androids are! Of course, she’s used to the functionality of a much smaller body, but … how different can it be?”

“I’m going to guess, really different?”

She shook her head and plugged the chip into the system’s mainframe. “No, no, this is going to work. It just needs an adapter.” She worked while she talked, twisting live wires out of their connections, rearranging, reconnecting.

“And we have an adapter?”

“We’re about to.”

Turning, she scanned the control panel behind her. “We’re never going to use the dust-vacuum module are we?”

“The dust what?”

She yanked a connector cord from the panel and snapped one end into the mainframe, the other into the inlet for the auto-control system—the same that had nearly fried her own circuitry.

“And that should do it,” she said, sitting back on her heels.

The system lit up, the sound of an internal diagnostics check familiar to Cinder’s ear. Her heart was palpitating—to think that she wouldn’t be alone anymore, that she could succeed in rescuing at least one person who mattered to her …

The mainframe fell quiet again.

Thorne stared up at the ship’s ceiling as if he expected it to cave in on him.

“Iko?” Cinder said, facing the computer. Were the speakers on? The sound and data input settings correct? She’d been able to communicate with Thorne just fine when they were in the warehouse, but …

“Cinder?”

Her relieved gasp nearly knocked her backward. “Iko! Yes, it’s me, it’s Cinder!” She grabbed hold of a cooling tube that hung overhead—a part of the engine, a part of the ship.

And Iko was all of it.

“Cinder. Something’s wrong with my vision sensor. I can’t see you, and I feel funny.”

Tongue jutting from her mouth, Cinder bent over to analyze the slot where Iko’s personality chip had found a new home. It seemed to fit perfectly, protected and functional. There was no hint of any compatibility issues. Her smile split from ear to ear.

“I know, Iko. Things are going to be a little different for a while. I’ve had to install you as the auto-control system of a spaceship. A 214 Rampion, Class 11.3. Do you have net connectivity? You should be able to download the specs.”

“A Rampion? A spaceship?”

Cinder ducked. Though there was only one speaker in the engine room, Iko’s voice echoed from every corner.

“What are we doing on a spaceship?”

“It’s a long, long story, but it’s all I could think to do with your—”

“Oh, Cinder! Cinder!” Iko’s voice came out as a wail, sending a chill down Cinder’s spine. “Where were you all day? Adri is furious, and Peony … Peony.”

Cinder’s words dried up.

“She’s dead, Cinder. Adri received a comm from the quarantines.”

Cinder stared dumbly at the wall. “I know, Iko. That was two weeks ago. It’s been two weeks since Adri disabled you. This is the first … body … I’ve been able to find.”

Iko fell silent. Cinder glanced around, sensing Iko all around her. The engine rotated faster for a moment, then reduced to normal speed. The temperature barely dropped. A light flickered in the hallway behind Thorne, who was stiff and uncomfortable in the doorway, looking like a poltergeist had just taken over his beloved Rampion.

“Cinder,” Iko said after a few silent minutes of explorations. “I’m enormous.” There was a distinct whine in her metallic tone.

“You’re a ship, Iko.”

“But I’m … how can I … no hands, no visual sensor, humongous landing gear—are those supposed to be my feet?”

“Well, no. It’s supposed to be landing gear.”

“Oh, what’s to become of me? I’m hideous!”

“Iko, it’s only tempor—”

“Now, hold on just one minute there, little miss disembodied voice.” Thorne strode into the engine room and crossed his arms over his chest. “What do you mean, ‘hideous’?”

This time, the temperature spiked. “Who’s that? Who’s speaking?”

“I am Captain Carswell Thorne, the owner of this fine ship, and I will not stand to have her insulted in my presence!”

Cinder rolled her eyes.

“Captain Carswell Thorne?”

“That’s right.”

A brief silence. “My net search is finding only a Cadet Carswell Thorne, of the American Republic, imprisoned in New Beijing prison on—”

“That’s him,” said Cinder, ignoring Thorne’s glare.

Another silence as the heat in the engine room hovered just upside of comfortable. Then, “You’re … rather handsome, Captain Thorne.”

Cinder groaned.

“And you, my fine lady, are the most gorgeous ship in these skies, and don’t let anyone ever tell you different.”

The temperature drifted upward, until Cinder dropped her arms with a sigh. “Iko, are you intentionally blushing?”

The temperature dropped back down to pleasant. “No,” Iko said. Then, “But am I really pretty? Even as a ship?”

“The prettiest,” said Thorne.

“You do have a naked lady painted on your port side,” added Cinder.

“Painted her myself.”

A series of inset ceiling lights flickered and released a dim glow.

“And really, Iko, this is only temporary. We’ll get a new auto-control system, and we’ll get you a new body. Eventually. But I need you to watch over the ship, check the reports, maybe run a diagnostics—”

“The power cell is almost dead.”

Cinder nodded. “Right. I knew that part already. Anything else?”

The engine hummed all around her. “I guess I could run a full system check…”

Beaming, Cinder crawled toward the door, meeting a pleased-looking Thorne when she stood back up. “Thank you, Iko.”

The lights flickered out again as Iko diverted her energy. “But why are we on this spaceship again? And with a convicted felon? No offense, Captain Thorne.”

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