Scarlet Page 23


Scarlet dug her port out of the bag on Wolf’s shoulder and checked their location.

“Great. The nearest town is twenty miles east of here. It’s out of our way, but maybe someone can give us a ride to the next maglev station.”

“Because we seem so trustworthy?”

Scarlet peered up at him, noting the pale, scattered scars and the faded black eye. “What’s your idea?”

“We should stay on the tracks. Another train will be by eventually.”

“And they’ll give us a lift?”

“Sure.”

This time, she was sure she caught mischief in his eye as he started back down the rails. But they hadn’t gone a dozen steps when he halted mid-step.

“What—”

Wolf spun on her, clamping one hand behind her head, the other firmly over her mouth.

Tensing, Scarlet moved to shove him away, but something gave her pause. He was staring off into the forest, brow furrowed. Tilting his nose up, he sniffed the air.

When he was sure she wouldn’t make a sound, he snatched his hands away as if something had stung him. Scarlet stumbled back, surprised by the sudden release.

They lingered, still and silent, Scarlet straining to listen for what had Wolf on edge. Slowly reaching behind her, she pulled the gun from her waistband. The click as she released the safety echoed off the trees.

Off in the woods, a wolf howled. The lonely cry sent a shiver down Scarlet’s spine.

Wolf didn’t seem surprised.

Then, behind them, another howl, this one farther away. Then another to the north.

Silence crept around them as the howls faded longingly into the air.

“Friends of yours?” Scarlet asked.

Clarity returned to Wolf’s expression and he glanced at her, then down at the gun. It struck her as odd that he could be startled by it, when the howls had garnered no reaction at all.

“They won’t bother us,” he said finally, turning and heading down the tracks.

With a snort, Scarlet trotted after him. “Well, isn’t that a relief. We’re stranded in wild wolf territory, but as long as you say they’re not going to bother us…” She clicked the gun’s safety back on and was tucking it back in her waistband when Wolf’s gesture gave her pause.

“They won’t bother us,” he said again, almost smiling. “But you might want to keep that out anyway, just in case.”

Nineteen

“What is all this junk?” Cinder locked her jaw, straining to push a plastic crate that was almost as tall as she was.

Thorne grunted beside her. “It’s—not—junk.” The tendons in his neck bulged as the crate collided with the cargo bay wall.

Thorne tossed his arms over the top with a groan and Cinder collapsed against it. Her shoulders ached, as tense as the metal that made up her left leg, and her arms felt like they were about to fall off. But when she allowed herself to look around the cargo bay, a sense of accomplishment settled around her.

All the crates had been slid to the walls, clearing an actual path from the cockpit to the living quarters. The smaller, lighter ones had been stacked on top of one another and some were left out as makeshift furniture in front of the main netscreen.

It bordered on cozy.

The next job would be to actually unpack the crates—the ones that were worth unpacking—but that would be a job for another day. “No, really,” she said when she’d found her breath. “What is all this?”

Thorne slid down beside her and wiped his brow with his sleeve. “I don’t know,” he said, eyeing the stamped labels on the side of the nearest crate: an unhelpful code. “Supplies. Food. I think there are some guns in one of them. And I know I had a few sculptures from this really collectible second-era artist—I was going to make a fortune off of them, but I got arrested before I had a chance.” He sighed.

Cinder squinted at him. Sure that the sculptures were stolen, she found it difficult to muster any sympathy. “Shame,” she muttered, thumping her head back against the crate.

Thorne pointed at something on the far wall, his forearm jutting beneath Cinder’s nose. “What’s that?”

She followed his gesture, frowned, and with a cranky moan pushed herself back to her feet. The corner of a metal frame could be seen behind a tall stack of crates they’d left against the wall. “A door.” She drew up the ship’s blueprint on her retina display. “The medbay?”

Realization brightened Thorne’s face. “Oh, right. This ship does have one of those.”

Cinder settled her fists on her hips. “You covered up the medbay?”

Thorne pulled himself up. “Never needed it.”

“Don’t you think it might be good to have access to, just in case?”

Thorne shrugged. “We’ll see.”

Rolling her eyes, Cinder reached for the uppermost crate and hauled it down onto the floor, already disrupting their hard-won pathway. “How can we be sure there’s nothing in these boxes that can be tracked?”

“What do you think I am, an amateur? Nothing entered this ship without being thoroughly inspected. Otherwise the Republic would have reclaimed it all a long time ago rather than let it idle in that warehouse.”

“There may not be any trackers,” said Iko, making Cinder and Thorne both jump. They still weren’t used to their invisible, omnipresent companion. “But we can still be detected on radar. I’m doing my best to keep us out of the path of any satellites or ships, but it’s surprisingly crowded up here.”

Thorne unrolled his sleeves. “And it’s next to impossible to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere without detection. That’s how they nabbed me last time.”

“I thought there was a trick to it,” said Cinder. “I’m sure I heard once about a way people could sneak into Earth’s atmosphere without notice. Where did I hear that?”

“News to me. I got pretty good at sweet-talking my way into public hangars, but I don’t think that’s going to work with such a high-profile convict on the loose.”

Having found an old rubber band in the galley, Cinder fished it from her pocket and tossed her hair up in a ponytail. Her brain ticked through her memories until, with a snap, it came to her. Dr. Erland had told her that there were more Lunars on Earth than people suspected, and that they had a way of getting to Earth without the government taking notice.

“Lunars know how to cloak their spacecrafts.”

“Huh?”

She pulled herself from the daze, blinking at Thorne. “Lunars can cloak their spacecrafts. Keep Earthen radars from picking up on them. That’s how so many are able to make it to Earth, if they manage to get away from Luna in the first place.”

“That’s terrifying,” said Iko, who had acknowledged the truth of Cinder’s race much as she’d acknowledged Thorne’s convict status: with loyalty and acceptance, but without changing her opinion that Lunars and convicts remained untrustworthy and unredeemable as a general rule.

Cinder had not yet figured out how to tell her that she also happened to be the missing Princess Selene.

“I know it is,” said Cinder, “but it would be awfully convenient if I knew how they did it.”

“Do you think it’s with their”—Thorne rolled his wrist toward her—“crazy Lunar magic stuff?”

“Bioelectricity,” she said, quoting Dr. Erland. “Calling it magic only empowers them.”

“Whatever.”

“I don’t know. It could be some special technology they install on their ships.”

“Optimistically hoping it’s magic, maybe you should start practicing?”

Cinder bit the inside of her cheek. Start practicing what?

“I guess I can try.” Turning her attention back to the crate, she pulled up the lid and was met with a box of packing chips. She stuffed her metal hand into it and emerged with a skinny wooden doll bedecked in feathers and painted with six eyes. “What is this?”

“Venezuelan dream doll.”

“It’s hideous.”

“It’s worth about twelve thousand univs.”

Heart skipping, Cinder lowered the doll back into the protective packaging. “You don’t think you might have something useful in all of these? Like, I don’t know, a fully charged power cell?”

“Doubtful,” said Thorne. “How much longer will ours hold out?”

Iko chimed, “Approximately thirty-seven hours.”

Thorne gave Cinder a thumbs-up. “Plenty of time to learn a new Lunar trick, right?”

Cinder shut the crate’s lid and slid it back against the others, trying not to show panic at having to use her new gift for anything, much less something as huge as disguising a cargo ship.

“In the meantime, I’ll do a little research, try to determine the best place for us to land. Not the Commonwealth, obviously. I hear Fiji’s nice this time of year.”

“Or Los Angeles!” Iko practically sang. “They have a huge escort-droid outlet store there. I wouldn’t mind having an escort-droid body. Some of the newer models come with color-changing fiber-optic hair.”

Cinder slumped onto the floor again and scratched at her wrist—a tick that was becoming awkward now that she had no gloves to fiddle with. “We’re not landing a stolen American ship in the American Republic,” she said, fixing her attention on the netscreen, where her own prison picture hovered in the corner. She was so sick of that picture.

“Do you have any suggestions?” said Thorne.

Africa.

She heard herself saying it, but nothing came out.

That’s where she was supposed to go. To meet Dr. Erland, so that he could tell her what to do next. He had plans for her. Plans to make her a hero, a savior, a princess. Plans to overthrow Levana and instate Cinder as the true queen.

Her right hand started to shake. Dr. Erland had set up the cyborg draft and treated dozens, perhaps hundreds of cyborgs like throwaways, all for the sake of finding her. And then, when he found her, he kept the secret of her identity until he had no other choice but to tell her, all the while planning out the rest of her life. He had made his need for revenge the highest priority.

But what the doctor hadn’t considered was that Cinder had no desire to be queen. She didn’t want to be a princess or an heir to anything. All her life—at least, all the life she could remember—all she’d ever wanted was freedom. And now, for the first time, she had it, however tenuous it was. There was no one telling her what to do. No one to judge or criticize.

But if she went to Dr. Erland, she would lose all that. He would expect her to reclaim her rightful place as the queen of Luna, and that struck her as the most binding shackles of all.

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