Scarlet Page 43


Dread settled in Cinder’s stomach. “Um.”

The kid managed to pull his attention away from the game and gave her an irritated glare.

Cinder gulped. Neither of them had an ID chip or any means of paying. Could she glamour her way out of that? She imagined Levana probably wouldn’t have had any trouble …

Before she could speak, something sparkly dangled in the corner of her eye.

“Will this cover it?” said Thorne, holding out a gold-plated digital portscreen watch. Cinder recognized it as the one Alak had been wearing, the man who owned the spaceship hangar in New Beijing.

“Thorne!” she hissed.

“This isn’t a pawn shop,” said the boy, dropping the scanner gun on the counter. “Can you pay or not?”

Cinder glared at Thorne, but then spotted the strange man plodding out of the aisle near the back of the shop. Strolling toward them, he whistled a chirpy tune, then pulled a pair of thick work gloves out of one pocket and made a big show of pulling one onto his left hand.

Heart hammering, Cinder turned back to the kid. “You want the watch,” she said. “It’s a fine trade for this power cell and you’re not going to report us for taking it.”

The kid’s eyes glazed over. He’d just started to nod when Thorne deposited the watch into his palm and Cinder grabbed the power cell off the counter. They marched out the door, leaving the ringing of fake bells behind.

“No more stealing!” she said as Thorne fell into step beside her.

“Hey, that watch saved us in there.”

“No, I saved us in there and in case you already forgot, that is exactly the kind of mental trick that I don’t want to pull on people.”

“Even if it saves your skin?”

“Yes!”

A light flashed in Cinder’s eye, indicating an incoming comm. A moment later, words began tracking across her vision.

WE’VE BEEN DETECTED—POLICE. WILL KEEP THEM OUT AS LONG AS POSSIBLE.

She stumbled in the middle of the street.

“What?” said Thorne.

“It’s Iko. The police have found the ship.”

Thorne paled. “No time to shop for new clothes then.”

“Or an android body. Come on.”

She took off running, Thorne keeping step, until they spun around the corner and both skidded to a halt.

Two policemen stood between them and their podship—one comparing the ship’s model with something on his portscreen.

Something beeped on the other officer’s belt. As he reached for it, Cinder and Thorne backed away, ducking around the building.

Pulse racing, Cinder glanced up at Thorne, but he was scanning the nearest window. RIEUX TAVERN was painted off center on the glass.

“Here,” he said, dragging her around two wrought-iron tables and through the door.

The tavern stank of booze and fried fat, and was thrumming with sports on the netscreens and uproarious laughter.

Cinder took two steps inside, her breath caught, and she spun around to leave. Thorne blocked her path with an outstretched arm. “Where are you going?”

“There are too many people. We’ll have better luck with the police.” She pushed him away but froze when she spotted a green hover easing onto the cobblestones outside, the emblem of the Eastern Commonwealth military painted on its side. “Thorne.”

His arm stiffened and then the tavern seemed to quiet. Cinder slowly faced the crowd. Dozens of strangers, gaping at her.

A cyborg.

“Stars,” she whispered. “I need to find a new pair of gloves.”

“No, you need to calm down and start using your brainwave witchery thing.”

Cinder drew closer to Thorne and swallowed her growing panic. “We belong here,” she murmured. Sweat beaded on the back of her neck, dripping down her spine. “We’re not suspicious. You don’t recognize us. You have no interest or curiosity or…” She trailed off as the attention of people around the room began to drift back to their food and drinks and the netscreens behind the bar. Cinder continued the mindless chanting in her head, We belong here, we are not suspicious, until the statements blurred together into a sensation of invisibility.

They weren’t suspicious. They did belong there.

She forced herself to believe it.

Scanning the crowd, she saw that only one set of eyes was still on her—vibrant blue and filled with laughter. He was a muscular man sitting at a table near the back, a smile playing on his mouth. When Cinder’s gaze held his, he sat back and lifted his attention to the screens.

“Come on, then,” said Thorne, guiding her toward an open booth.

The sound of the door creaking behind them sent Cinder’s stomach heaving like a dying motor. They slid into the booth.

“This was a bad idea,” she whispered, tucking the power cell beside her on the bench. Thorne said nothing, both of them bending their necks over the table as three red uniforms brushed past. A scanner beeped, sending Cinder’s pulse thrumming against her temples, and the last officer paused.

With her cyborg hand beneath the table, Cinder deftly opened the barrel of her imbedded tranquilizer gun, the first time she’d engaged that finger since Dr. Erland had given her the hand.

The officer remained beside their booth and Cinder forced herself to turn toward him, thinking innocence, normal, indistinguishable from anyone else.

The officer was holding a portscreen with a built-in ID scanner. Cinder gulped and looked up. He was young, perhaps in his early twenties, and his face was contorted in confusion.

“Is there a problem, monsieur?” she said, sickened to hear her own voice come out as saccharine sweet as she’d once heard Queen Levana’s.

His eyes blinked wildly. The attention of the other officers, one man and one woman, was captured too, and Cinder could see them hovering nearby.

Heat spread out from the base of her neck, creeping uncomfortably down her limbs. She clenched her fists. The wash of energy in the room was pulsing, almost visible. Her optobionics were beginning to panic, sending concerned warnings about hormones and chemical imbalances across her eyesight, and all the while she desperately grasped for control over her Lunar gift. I am invisible. I am unimportant. You do not recognize me. Please, don’t recognize me.

“Officer?”

“You are … um.” His eyes darted from the port to her face, and he shook his head to dispel the cobwebs. “We’re looking for someone, and this says … you wouldn’t happen to…”

Everyone was watching now. The waitresses, the customers, the eerie guy with the stormy eyes. No amount of internal pleading could make her invisible when a military officer from another country was speaking to her. She was becoming dizzy with the effort of it. Her body was warming, sweat beading on her brow.

She gulped. “Is everything all right, Officer?”

His brow drew together. “We’re looking for a girl … a teenager, from the Eastern Commonwealth. You wouldn’t happen to be … Linh…”

Cinder raised her eyebrows, feigning ignorance.

“Peony?”

Thirty-Six

Cinder’s smile froze to her face. Peony’s name was like a stone on her chest, pressing the air out of her lungs as memories fell across her vision. Peony scared and alone in the quarantines. Peony dying, with the antidote still in Cinder’s hand.

The pain was instant, fire ripping through her muscles. Cinder cried out and gripped the table, nearly falling out of the booth.

The officer stumbled back and his female comrade yelled, “It’s her!”

Cinder felt the table being shoved toward her as Thorne jumped up. It took a moment for the burning to dwindle. The taste of salt lingered on her tongue and someone screamed and in the muddle of her brain she heard chair and table legs screeching across the floor. The woman’s voice: “Linh Cinder, we are taking you into custody.” Red text flashed across her retina.

INTERNAL TEMP ABOVE RECOMMENDED CONTROL TEMP. IF COOL DOWN PROCEDURE DOES NOT ENGAGE, AUTOMATIC SHUTDOWN WILL OCCUR IN ONE MINUTE.

“Linh Cinder, slowly place your hands on top of your head. Do not make any sudden movements.”

She blinked past the bright fog in her vision, barely making out the officer with a gun pointed at her forehead. Behind her, Thorne was swinging a punch at the nose of the young man with the port, who ducked, then swung back. The third officer had his gun on the two men as they collapsed in a brawl onto a nearby table.

Cinder took in a deep breath, glad that only a residue of the pain lingered beneath her skin.

FIFTY SECONDS UNTIL AUTOMATIC—

She released the breath, slowly.

SHUTDOWN COUNTDOWN PAUSED. TEMPERATURES DROPPING. COOL DOWN PROCEDURE ENGAGED.

“Linh Cinder,” the woman said again. “Put your hands on top of your head. I have been authorized to shoot to kill if necessary.”

She forgot that one of her fingertips was open, ready with a dart as it passed her gaze.

“Slowly come out of the booth and turn around.” The woman stepped away to allow Cinder room to maneuver. Behind her, Thorne grunted as a punch collided with his stomach and he slumped over.

Cinder recoiled at the sound, but did as she was told, waiting for her guts to stop churning, for the weakness to pass. She tried to prepare her brain for the attempt, knowing she would only get one more chance at it.

She stood from the booth just as they were ratcheting handcuffs around Thorne’s wrists. Cinder turned around. From the corner of her eye, she saw the officer reach for her belt.

“You don’t want to do that,” Cinder said, again cringing at the lovely serenity of her own voice. “You want to let us go.”

The officer paused and stared at her with hollow eyes.

“You want to let us go.” The command was directed at all the officers—at everyone in the tavern, even the frightened patrons who had pushed themselves against the back wall. Cinder’s head buzzed with the return of strength and control and power. “You want to let us go.”

The female officer dropped her arms to her sides. “We want to let you—”

A guttural cry ricocheted across the tavern. Beyond the officer, the man with the blue eyes moved to stand, but then collapsed over his table. The table legs snapped from the weight and he crashed to the floor. The other customers pulled away from him, everyone’s attention diverted. Cinder glanced at Thorne, who was watching the spectacle with his hands locked behind his back.

The stranger snarled. He was crouching down on all fours, saliva dripping from his mouth. Beneath dark eyebrows, his eyes had taken on an eerie luminescence and a crazed, bloodthirsty expression that twisted Cinder’s stomach. He curled his fingers, pulling his nails across the hard floor, and peered up at the terrified faces surrounding him.

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