Scarlet Page 22


“Bartender,” she said, sliding off the stool. “Do you have orders to go? Some sandwiches or anything?”

The bartender jerked his thumb at the screens inset into the bar. “Menus.”

Scarlet frowned. “Never mind, I’ll order something back at the room.”

The bartender showed no sign of having heard her.

“It was nice to meet you, Ran.”

He propped an elbow on the counter, twisting his stool toward her. “Perhaps our paths will cross again. In Paris.”

Hair prickled on her neck as he settled his chin onto his palm. She noticed with a jolt of disgust that each of his fingernails had been filed into a sharp, perfect point.

“Perhaps,” she said, her tone suffused with politeness.

The instinctual alarm hung with her for two whole cars as she made her way back through the train, a warning buzzing in the air. She tried to shake it off. This was her own nerves playing tricks on her, paranoia finally catching up to her after what had happened to her grandmother, and her father. It was amazing she could carry on a conversation at all with all the panic that was residing just beneath the surface of her skin.

He’d been polite. He’d been a gentleman. Maybe talon-like nails were a growing trend in the city.

Just as she’d determined that nothing about Ran had been deserving of the sudden, ardent distrust, she remembered.

She had seen him on the platform in Toulouse, stepping off the escalator in his ratty jeans and no luggage, when Wolf had become so on edge. When it seemed like Wolf had heard something, or recognized someone.

A coincidence?

The speaker overhead crackled. Scarlet barely heard it over the noise of the corridor, until the repeated words gradually silenced the chatter around her. “—experiencing a temporary delay. All passengers are to return to their private quarters immediately and stay clear of the corridors until further notice is given. This is not a test. We are experiencing a temporary delay…”

Eighteen

Scarlet shut the door behind her, relieved that Wolf was still there. Pacing. He swiveled toward her.

“I just heard the announcement,” she said. “Do you know what’s going on?”

“No. I wondered if you might.”

She wrapped her fingers around the portscreen in her pocket. “Some sort of delay. It seems odd to clear the corridors, though.”

He didn’t respond. His scowl became fierce, almost angry. “You smell…”

When he didn’t continue, an offended laugh erupted out of her. “I smell?”

Wolf roughly shook his head, hair whipping across his creased brow. “Not like that. Who did you talk to out there?”

Frowning, she fell back against the door. If Ran had been wearing cologne, it had been too faint for her to pick up.

“Why?” she snapped, annoyed as much with his accusation as with the unexpected sting of guilt it caused. “Is it any of your business?”

His jaw tensed. “No, that’s not what I—” He paused, eyes flickering past her.

A knock startled Scarlet away from the wall. She turned and yanked open the door.

An android rolled into the room, scanner at the end of its wiry arm. “We are performing an identity check for the safety of all passengers. Please show your ID for scanning.”

Scarlet raised her hand on instinct. She didn’t think to question the order until a red light passed over her skin, beeped, and the android turned to Wolf.

“What’s going on?” she said. “We scanned our tickets when we boarded.”

Another beep. “You are not to leave this room until further instructions are given.”

“That wasn’t an answer,” said Scarlet.

A panel opened in the android’s torso and a third limb reached out to greet them, this one fitted with a slender syringe. “I must now conduct a mandatory blood check. Please extend your right arm.”

Scarlet gawked down at the gleaming needle. “You’re running blood tests? That’s ridiculous. We’re just going to Paris.”

“Please extend your right arm,” the android repeated, “or I will be forced to report you for failure to comply with maglev rail safety regulations. Your tickets will be considered invalid and you will be escorted off the train at the next station.”

Scarlet bristled and glanced at Wolf, but he had eyes only for the syringe. For a moment Scarlet thought he was going to smash in the robot’s sensor, before he reluctantly stretched out his arm. Wolf’s expression became distant while the needle punctured his skin.

The moment the android had withdrawn a blood sample and retracted the skeletal limb, Wolf backed away and folded his arm against his chest.

A fear of needles? Scarlet squinted at him, holding out her own elbow as the android produced another syringe. She couldn’t imagine it hurt any more than that tattoo had.

Scowling, she watched as the syringe filled with her own blood. “What exactly are you looking for?” she said as the android finished and both syringes disappeared into its body.

“Initiating blood scan,” said the android, followed by a clatter of humming and beeps. Wolf had just tucked his arm against his side when the android pronounced, “Scan complete. Please shut the door and remain in this room until further instructions are given.”

“You already said that,” Scarlet said to the android’s back as it retreated into the hall.

Pressing a thumb against the small puncture wound, Scarlet slammed the door shut with her foot. “What was that all about? I have half a mind to comm the maglev customer service and issue a complaint.”

Turning, she found Wolf already at the window—his steps had been soundless. “We’re slowing down.”

It was a silent, agonizing moment before Scarlet felt it too.

Through the window, she could see a thick canopy of forest choking off the midday sun. There were no roads, no buildings. They weren’t stopping at a station.

She opened her mouth, but Wolf’s expression stopped her question before it could form. “Do you hear that?”

Scarlet tugged the zipper of her hoodie down to let air on her neck, and listened. The hum of the magnets. The whistle of air passing through an open window in the next cabin. The rattle of luggage.

Wailing. So distant it sounded like a fading nightmare.

Cold goose bumps grazed her arms. “What’s going on out there?”

The wall speaker clattered. “Passengers, this is your conductor speaking. There has been a medical emergency aboard the train. We will be experiencing a delay while we wait for medical authorities. We ask that all passengers remain in their private quarters and comply with any requests from the staff androids. Thank you for your patience.”

The speaker fell silent, leaving Scarlet and Wolf staring at each other.

Scarlet’s throat constricted.

A blood test. Crying. A delay.

“The plague.”

Wolf said nothing.

“They’ll put the whole train on lockdown,” she said. “We’ll all be quarantined.”

Out in the hall, doors were slamming, neighbors yelling questions and speculations at each other, ignoring the conductor’s request to stay in their own rooms. The android must have moved on to the next car.

Scarlet heard the rushed words: letumosis outbreak, posed as a question, a fear.

“No.” She spat the word like a bullet. “They can’t keep us here. My grandma—!” Her voice hitched, a tide of panic overwhelming her.

Someone down the hall pounded erratically on a door. The distant wailing grew louder.

“Get your things,” said Wolf.

She and Wolf moved at the same time. She threw her portscreen into her pack while Wolf crossed to the window and flung it open. The ground raced beneath them. Beyond the tracks, a dense forest stretched out, dissolving into shadows.

Scarlet checked the pistol in her waistband. “Are we jumping?”

“Yes. But they might be expecting it, so we have to do it before the train slows too much. They’re probably prepping enforcement androids right now to round up runaways.”

Scarlet nodded. “If it is letumosis, we’ve probably already become a quarantine.”

Wolf thrust his head out the window, looking both ways down the length of the train. “Now’s our best chance.”

Pulling inside, he heaved the bag onto one shoulder. Scarlet peered down at the ground fleeing beneath them, dizzied by a moment of vertigo. It was impossible to focus on any one spot as the speckled sun flashed against the trees. “Well. This seems dangerous.”

“We’ll be fine.”

She peered up at him, for a moment expecting to meet that crazed madman again, but his expression was stone-cold and clinical. He was focused hard on the landscape that whizzed by them. “They’re braking,” he said. “We’ll start slowing down faster now.” Again, it was a few seconds before Scarlet sensed it too, the subtle shift of speed, the way they were decelerating fast, no longer just coasting to a steady stop.

Wolf inclined his head. “Climb onto my back.”

“I can jump myself.”

“Scarlet.”

She met his eyes. His youthful curiosity from before was gone, replaced with a sternness she hadn’t expected.

“What? It’ll be just like jumping off the barn into a haystack. I’ve done that a hundred times.”

“A haystack? Honestly, Scarlet, it’ll be nothing like that.”

Before she could argue, before she could cement her defiance, he bent over her and scooped her into both arms.

She gasped and had just enough time to open her mouth, ready to demand he put her down, before Wolf was on the windowsill, the wind whipping Scarlet’s curls against her neck.

He jumped. Scarlet yelped and grabbed on to him, her stomach somersaulting, and then the shock of landing jogged up her spine.

She dug her fingers into his shoulders. Every limb trembled.

Wolf had landed in a clearing eight steps beyond the tracks. He staggered into the tree line and hunkered into the shadows.

“All right?” he asked.

“Just like”—she caught her breath—“a haystack.”

A laugh reverberated through his chest, into her, and before she was ready Wolf settled her feet onto a patch of squishy moss. She scrambled out of his hold, caught her balance, then punched him squarely in the arm. “Never do that again.”

He looked almost pleased with himself, before he tilted his head toward the forest. “We should move farther in, in case someone saw us.”

She listened to the train zipping by, her pulse heavy and erratic, and followed Wolf into the trees. They hadn’t gone a dozen steps when the thrumming of the train disappeared, fading away down the tracks.

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