Scarlet Page 39


Cinder peered out the cockpit window at a crop of leafy plants. The fields stretched out in every direction, the view of the flat horizon broken only by a stone farmhouse nearly a mile away.

A house. A lot of vegetables. And a giant spaceship.

“This isn’t conspicuous at all.”

“At least we’re in the middle of nowhere,” said Thorne, peeling himself out of the pilot seat and sliding on his leather jacket. “If anyone calls the police, it will take them a while to get here.”

“Unless they’re already on their way,” Cinder muttered. Her heart had been drumming throughout their eons-long descent down to Earth, her brain skimming over a thousand different fates that could await them. Though she’d kept up the ridiculous chanting as long as she could, they still had no way of knowing how effective she was being, and she still had the sinking feeling that her attempts to disguise their ship using Lunar magic were pathetically futile. She couldn’t understand how she could manipulate radars and radio waves with nothing but her own muddled thoughts.

Nevertheless—the fact remained that no one had discovered them in space, and so far their luck was holding. Benoit Farms and Gardens appeared to be wholly deserted.

The ramp began to lower off the cargo bay and Iko chirped, “You two go off and have fun now. I’ll be sitting here, by myself, all alone, checking for radar interference and running diagnostics. It’s going to be fantastic.”

“You’re getting really good at your sarcasm,” said Cinder, joining Thorne at the top of the ramp as it smashed a very fine row of hearty foliage.

Thorne squinted at the glare on his portscreen. “Bingo,” he said, pointing at the two-story house that had to be old enough to have survived the Fourth World War. “She’s here.”

“Bring me back a souvenir!” Iko yelled as Thorne stomped down into the field. The ground was soggy from a recent watering and mud clung to the hem of his pants as he cut through the crop, making his own direct route to the house.

Cinder followed, drinking in the wide-open farmland and the fresh air, so sweet after being locked up inside the Rampion’s recycled oxygen. Even with her audio interface turned off, it was the deepest silence she’d ever experienced. “It’s so quiet here.”

“Creepy, isn’t it? I don’t know how people can stand it.”

“I think it’s kind of nice.”

“Yeah, like a morgue is nice.”

A cluster of smaller buildings were thrown haphazardly throughout the fields: a barn, a chicken coop, a shed, a hangar big enough to house a number of hovers or even a spaceship, though not one as big as the Rampion.

Cinder drew up short when she spotted it. She frowned, stretching for the gossamer memory that seemed to recognize the hangar. “Wait.”

Thorne turned back to her. “Did you see someone?”

Without answering, she changed direction, squishing through the mud. Thorne trailed after her, silent as Cinder shoved open the hangar’s door.

“I’m not sure that breaking into Michelle Benoit’s outbuildings is the best way to introduce ourselves.”

Cinder glanced back, scanning the house’s empty windows. “I need to see something,” she said, and stepped inside. “Lights, on.”

The lights flickered to life and she gasped at the sight before her. Tools and parts, screws and bolts, clothes and grimy shop rags, all flung haphazardly around the space. Every cabinet hung open, every storage crate and toolbox had been tipped over. The glossy white floor could hardly be seen beneath the mess.

On the other side of the hangar, a small delivery ship sat with its back window busted out. Shards of glass glittered beneath the blazing lights. The hangar smelled of spilled fuel and toxic fumes, and a little bit like Cinder’s market booth.

“What a sty,” said Thorne, disgusted. “I’m not sure I can trust a pilot with such little respect for her ship.”

Cinder ignored him, busy sending her scanner over the shelves and walls. Despite the distraction of the chaos, her brain-machine interface was picking up on something. A general impression of familiarity, tinges of a long-lost memory. The way the sun angled in from the door. The combined smells of machinery and manure. The crisscrossed pattern of the exposed trusses.

She paced across the concrete, crunching through the debris. She moved slowly, lest the ghost of familiarity vanish.

“Uh, Cinder,” said Thorne, glancing back toward the farm. “What are we doing in here?”

“Looking for something.”

“In this mess? Good luck with that.”

She found a small plot of empty concrete and stalled, thinking. Examining. Knowing she’d been there before. In a dream, in a daze.

She noticed a thin metal cabinet painted a putrid brown, where three jackets hung on a rod. They all had insignias from the EF military embroidered on their sleeves. Squaring her shoulders, Cinder picked her way toward it and pushed the jackets to the side.

“Really, Cinder?” said Thorne, coming up beside her. “This is not the time to be worried about a change of clothes.”

Cinder barely heard him over the ticking in her head. The mess was no coincidence. Someone had been there, and they’d been looking for something.

They’d been looking for her.

She wished the realization hadn’t struck, but there was no dismissing it.

Crouching in front of the cabinet, she slid her hand against the back corner until it brushed against the handle she’d known would be there. Painted the same brown color, it was invisible in the shadows. It would never be noticed unless a person knew to look. And she knew—because she’d been here. Five years ago, in a state of drugged-up delirium that she’d always mistaken for a dream, she’d emerged in this spot. Every joint and muscle aching from the recent surgeries. Crawling slowly out of endless darkness and blinking, as if for the first time, into a dizzily bright world.

Cinder braced herself against the cabinet and pulled.

The secret door was heavier than she’d expected, made of something much sturdier than tin. She heaved it up on hidden hinges and let it slam down on the concrete floor. A cloud of dust billowed up on all sides.

A square hole gaped up at them. A ladder of plastic rungs was drilled into the foundation, leading to a secret sublevel.

Thorne bent over, planting his hands on his knees. “How did you know that was there?”

Cinder couldn’t tear her gaze away from the hidden passageway.

Unable to voice the truth, she said simply, “Cyborg vision.”

She descended first, releasing her flashlight as she was hit with thick, stale air. The beam bounced around a room as big as the hangar above, with no doors and no windows. Almost afraid to know what she’d just stumbled into, she tentatively ventured, “Lights. On.”

She heard the sound of an independent generator click on first, before three long overhead fluorescents gradually brightened, one after another. Thorne’s shoes thumped on the hard floor as he skipped the last four rungs of the ladder. He spun around and froze.

“What—what is this?”

Cinder couldn’t answer. She could barely breathe.

A tank sat in the center of the room, about two meters long with a domed glass lid. A collection of complex machines stood around it—life monitors, temperature gauges, bioelectricity scanners. Machines with dials and tubes, needles and screens, plugs and controls.

A long operating table against the far wall held an array of moveable lights sprouting from each end like a metal octopus, and beside it a small rolling table with a near-empty jug of sterilizer and an assortment of surgical tools—scalpels, syringes, bandages, face masks, towels. On the wall were two blank netscreens.

As much as that side of the secret chamber imitated an operating room, the opposite side more closely resembled Cinder’s workshop in the basement of Adri’s apartment building, complete with screwdrivers, fuse pullers, and a soldering iron. Discarded android parts and computer chips. An unfinished, three-fingered cyborg hand.

Cinder shuddered, chilled from the air that smelled like both a sterile hospital room and a damp underground cave.

Thorne crept toward the tank. It was empty, but the vague imprint of a child could be seen in the goo-like lining beneath the glass dome. “What’s this?”

Cinder went to fidget with her glove before remembering that it wasn’t there.

“A suspended animation tank,” she said, whispering as if the ghosts of unknown surgeons could be listening. “Designed to keep someone alive, but unconscious, for long periods of time.”

“Aren’t those illegal? Overpopulation laws or something?”

Cinder nodded. Nearing the tank, she pressed her fingers to the glass and tried to remember waking up here, but she couldn’t. Only addled memories of the hangar and the farm came back to her—nothing about this dungeon. She hadn’t been fully conscious until she’d been en route to New Beijing, ready to start her new life as a scared, confused orphan, and a cyborg.

The girl’s outline in the goo seemed too small to have ever been hers, but she knew it was. The left leg appeared to have been significantly heavier than the right. She wondered how long she had lain there without any leg at all.

“What do you suppose it’s doing down here?”

Cinder licked her lips. “I think it was hiding a princess.”


Cinder’s feet were cemented to the ground as she took in the underground room. She couldn’t shake the vision of her eleven-year-old self lying on that operating table as unknown surgeons cut and sewed and pieced her body together with foreign steel limbs. Wires in her brain. Optobionics behind her retinas. Synthetic tissue in her heart, new vertebrae, grafted skin to cover the scar tissue.

How long had it taken? How long had she been unconscious, sleeping in this dark cellar?

Levana had tried to kill her when she was only three years old.

Her operation had been completed when she was eleven.

Eight years. In a tank, sleeping and dreaming and growing.

Not dead, but not alive either.

She peered down into the imprint of her own head beneath the tank’s glass. Hundreds of tiny wires with neural transmitters were attached to the walls and a small netscreen was implanted on the side. No, not a netscreen, Cinder realized. No net access could infiltrate this room. Nothing that could ever get back to Queen Levana.

“I don’t get it,” said Thorne, examining the surgical tools on the other side of the room. “What do you think they did to her down here?”

She peered up at the captain, but there was no suspicion on his face, only curiosity.

“Well,” she started, “programmed and implanted her ID chip, for starters.”

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