Scarlet Page 40


Thorne shook the scalpel at her. “Good thinking. Of course she wouldn’t have had her own when she came to Earth.” He gestured at the tank. “What about all that?”

Cinder gripped the tank’s edges to steady her hands. “Her burns would have been severe, even life threatening. Their priority would have been keeping her alive, and also keeping her hidden. Suspended animation would solve both problems.” She tapped a finger on the glass. “These transmitters would have been used to stimulate her brain while she was sleeping. She couldn’t receive life experience or learn like a normal child, so they had to make up for it with fake learning. Fake experiences.”

She bit her lip, silencing herself before she mentioned the netlink they’d planted in the princess’s brain that made for an efficient way to learn when she was finally awake, without being any the wiser that she should have known these things anyway.

It was easy to talk about the princess as if she were someone else. Cinder couldn’t stop thinking that she was someone else. The girl who had slept in this tank was someone different from the cyborg that had woken up in it.

It occurred to Cinder with a jolt that this was why she had no memories. Not because the surgeons had damaged her brain while inserting her control panel, but because she had never been awake to make memories in the first place.

If she thought back, could she grasp something from before the coma? Something from her childhood? And then she recalled her recurring dream. The bed of coals, the fire burning off her skin, and realized it may have been more memory than nightmare.

“Screen, on.”

Both screens over the operating table brightened at Thorne’s command—the one on the left output a holograph of a torso from the shoulders up, spinning and flickering in the air. Cinder’s heart jolted, thinking it was her, until she took in the second screen.

PATIENT: MICHELLE BENOIT

OPERATION: SPINAL AND NERVOUS SYSTEM BIOELECTRICITY SECURITY BLOCK, PROTOTYPE 4.6

STATUS: COMPLETE

Cinder approached the holograph. The shoulders were slender and feminine, but nothing could be seen above the line of her jaw.

“What’s a bioelectricity security block?”

Cinder pointed at the holograph as it spun away from her and a dark square spot appeared on the spine, just beneath her skull. “This. I had one implanted too, so I wouldn’t accidentally use my Lunar gift when I was growing up. In an Earthen, it makes it so you can’t be brainwashed by Lunars. If Michelle Benoit did have information about Princess Selene, she would have had to protect herself, in case she ever fell into Lunar hands.”

“If we have the technology to nullify the Lunar’s craziness, why doesn’t everyone have one of these?”

A wave of sadness washed over her. Her stepfather, Linh Garan, had invented the bioelectricity block, but he’d died of the plague before seeing it past the prototype stage. Though she’d barely known him, she couldn’t help feeling that his life had been cut far too short. How different things could have been if he’d survived—not only for Pearl and Peony, but for Cinder too.

She sighed, tired of thinking, and said simply, “I don’t know why.”

Thorne grunted. “Well, this proves it, doesn’t it? The princess really was here.”

Cinder scanned the room again, her attention catching on the table of mechanics. The tools that had made her cyborg. Thorne either hadn’t noticed them, or hadn’t yet figured out what they would have been used for. The confession settled on the tip of her tongue. Maybe he should know. If she was going to be stuck with him, he deserved to know who he was traveling with. The true danger she’d put him in.

But before she could speak, he said, “Screen, show Princess Selene.”

Cinder spun back around, pulse rushing, but it was not an eleven-year-old version of herself that greeted her. What she saw was hardly recognizable as human at all.

Thorne stumbled back, clapping a hand to his mouth. “What the—”

Cinder’s stomach heaved once before she shut her eyes, tempering the revulsion. She swallowed hard and dared to look at the screen again.

It was the photo of a child.

What was left of a child.

She was wrapped in bandages from her neck to the stump of her left thigh. Her right arm and shoulder were uncovered, showing the skin that was gouged bloody red in spots, bright pink and glossy in others. She had no hair and the burn marks continued up her neck and across her cheek. The left side of her face was swollen and disfigured, only the slit of her eye could be seen, and a line of stitches ran along her earlobe before cutting across to her lips.

Cinder raised trembling fingers to her mouth, smoothing them over the skin. There was no scar, no sign of these wounds. Only some scar tissue around her thigh and wrist, where the prostheses had been attached.

How had they fixed her? How could they possibly fix this?

But it was Thorne who asked the true question.

“Who would do this to a child?”

Goose bumps covered Cinder’s skin. There was no memory of the suffering those burns must have caused her. She couldn’t connect the child with herself.

But Thorne’s question lingered, haunting the cold room.

Queen Levana had done this.

To a child, barely more than a baby.

To her own niece.

And all so she could rule. So she could claim the throne. So she would be queen.

Cinder clenched her fists at her sides, her blood boiling. Thorne was watching her, his expression equally dark.

“We should go talk to Michelle Benoit,” he said, setting down the scalpel.

Cinder blew a strand of hair out of her face. The ghost of her child self lingered in the air here, a victim struggling to stay alive. How many people had helped rescue and protect her, had kept her secrets? How many had risked their lives because they believed hers was worth more? Because they believed she could grow into someone powerful enough to stop Levana.

Nerves scratching at her stomach, she followed Thorne back up into the hanger, making sure to close the hidden door behind them.

As they walked back into the daylight, the house still towered eerily still and silent above a small garden. The Rampion stood enormous and out of place in the fields.

Thorne checked his portscreen, and his voice was tight when he spoke. “She hasn’t moved since we got here.”

He didn’t try to hide his stomping footsteps across the gravel. He pounded on the front door, every strike bouncing around the courtyard. They waited for the telltale footsteps within, but only the sound of chickens scratching in the yard greeted them.

Thorne checked the knob and the door swung open, unlocked.

Stepping into the foyer, Thorne peered up the wood-paneled stairway. To their right was a living room, filled with rugged furniture. To their left a kitchen with a couple dirty plates left at the table. All the lights were off.

“Hello?” Thorne called. “Miss Benoit?”

Cinder called up a netlink and traced the signal to Michelle Benoit’s ID chip. “The signal is coming from upstairs,” she whispered. The stairs groaned beneath the weight of her metal leg. Small screens lined the wall, alternating pictures of a middle-aged woman in a pilot uniform and a girl with flaming red hair. Though chubby and covered in freckles as a child, later pictures showed her quite stunning, and Thorne gave a low “Hello, Scarlet” as they passed.

“Miss Benoit?” Cinder called again. Either the woman was a very deep sleeper, or they were about to stumble across something that Cinder was sure she didn’t want to see. Her hand shook as she pushed open the first door off the stairs, preparing herself not to scream if she spotted a decaying body sprawled across the bed.

But there was no body.

The room was in upheaval just as the hangar had been. Clothes and shoes, trinkets and blankets, but no human being. No corpse.

“Hello?”

Glancing around the room, Cinder spotted the vanity beside the window and her heart fell. She paced to it and picked up the small chip and held it up for Thorne to see.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Michelle Benoit,” she said. Sighing, she dismissed the netlink.

“You mean … she’s not here?”

“Try to keep up,” Cinder grumbled, and pushed past him into the hallway. She planted her fists on her hips and scanned the other closed door, no doubt another bedroom.

The house was abandoned. Michelle Benoit wasn’t here, and neither was her granddaughter. No one with any answers.

“How do we track a person who doesn’t have an ID chip?” Thorne said.

“We don’t,” she said. “That’s the whole point of removing it.”

“We should talk to the neighbors. They might know something.”

Cinder groaned. “We’re not talking to anyone. We’re still fugitives, in case you’ve forgotten.” She stared at the rotating pictures. Michelle Benoit and a young Scarlet kneeling proudly beside a freshly planted vegetable bed.

“Come on,” she said, dusting her hands as if she was the one who had been digging in the dirt. “Let’s get out of here before the Rampion attracts any attention.” The floorboards clapped hollowly beneath her as she tromped down the stairs and rounded the first landing.

The front door swung open.

Cinder froze.

A pretty girl with honey-blonde curls froze in front of her.

Her eyes widened, first with surprise, then recognition. They fell to Cinder’s cyborg hand and the color drained from her cheeks.

“Bonjour, mademoiselle,” said Thorne.

The girl glanced up at him. Then her eyes rolled back into her head and she collapsed onto the tile floor.

Thirty-Three

Cinder cursed and glanced back at Thorne, but he only shrugged. She turned back to the fainted girl. Her head was bent at an awkward angle against an entry table, her feet splayed across the doorway.

“Is it her granddaughter?” Cinder asked, even as her scanner was connecting the measurements of the girl’s face to the database in her brain and coming up with nothing. Scarlet Benoit it would have recognized. “Never mind,” she said, and inched toward the girl’s prone body. She nudged the table out of the way and the girl’s head thumped onto the tiles.

Creeping over her, Cinder peered out the front door. A beat-up hover sat in the courtyard.

“What are you doing?” said Thorne.

“Looking.” Cinder turned around to see Thorne stepping into the foyer, eyeing the girl with mild curiosity. “She seems to be alone.”

A wicked grin spread across his face. “We should take her with us.”

Cinder glared. “Are you crazy?”

“Crazy in love. She’s gorgeous.”

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