Stars above, p.19
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       Stars Above, p.19
 

         Part #4.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
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  She saw him introducing the girl to different mechanics and engineers who they passed.

  For a while, they disappeared into the almost-completed WindWalker800, and Mech6.0 could only catch glimpses of them through the cockpit windows. She noticed they were both smiling.

  Dataran took Miko through parts storage, the painting room, even past the android charging docks, and while Mech6.0 couldn’t hear them, she frequently recognized the dimples of his laughter and noticed how his gazes grew more daring, settling on the girl with increased frequency, just as her gazes settled on him.

  By the time Dataran was opening the gate and ushering Miko up onto the platforms that hung suspended over the water supply and refueling tanks, Mech6.0 realized that she had stopped working.

  She turned her sensor toward the ship’s paneling that had only two screws still fastening it to the hull, then glanced at her brethren beside her. They all had at least three panels already taken down.

  This was very odd. Not only her strange fascination with the humans, but that it could overpower her need to complete her task. Perhaps something really was wrong with her.

  Yes, she would have to check in with maintenance after this shift.

  Then, as she was removing her first panel, someone yelled. Mech6.0 turned in time to see one of the enormous cranes tilt beneath a too-heavy load, its outstretched arm swaying dangerously for a moment that stretched out for ages before it found the tipping point. The enormous metal arm fell toward the suspended platforms, bolts snapping and cables whipping into the air.

  Still on the hanging walkway, Miko screamed.

  Dataran pushed her out of the way.

  The arm of the crane cracked against his head, the sound reverberating right into Mech6.0’s hard plastic shell. He was unconscious before his body fell into the oil vat below.

  Miko screamed again, clinging to the walkway railing. The crane landed hard, and one of the cables flew loose from the ceiling. The platform careened to one side, but the remaining cables held.

  Mech6.0 did not take the time to process the situation or calculate the best course of action—she was already rolling toward the containers. Around her, people yelled and machinery screeched and halted, footsteps thundered and the rickety walkway trembled overhead. Someone called for a ladder or a rope, but Mech6.0 already had her magnets activated to collect the panel screws, and with single-minded precision, she found herself climbing the side of the enormous tank, her grippers spread out against its metal sides, heaving her body upward. It was an awkward climb, one her body was not made for, as her treads banged against the tank and her arms flailed for the next purchase. Her joints strained under her weight. But then she was hauling herself up onto the ledge, which was just barely wide enough for her to stand on.

  The vat of oil was black as the night sky without stars. Black and terrifying.

  Mech6.0 tipped herself over and went in.

  She sank fast, and though she immediately turned her sensor light on to full brightness, it did little to help her. Extending her arms as far as they would go, she searched the bottom of the tank, knowing that he was here somewhere, he was here, he was—

  Here.

  She tightened her grippers and dragged her body toward him through the thick oil. It was seeping through her paneling now, blocking her input plugs, glugging into the charging inlet. But she had him.

  She wrapped her arms around his torso and heaved him upward. He was heavier than she expected and it occurred to her that the bolts connecting her arms to their sockets might not hold, but she kept going. Finding the tank’s wall, she planted her prongs against the side again and started to climb. There was no light anymore, no senses at all but the sound of her grippers and the tread bumping into the wall and the weight of his body pressing down onto her as she forced both of them up, up, up …

  They broke through the surface. Sound crashed into her, more screams and gasps. Then someone was lifting him away, and Mech6.0 barely managed to collapse sensor-facedown onto the tank’s ledge before her programming recognized self-destructive behavior and killed the power to her limbs.

  She lay there, hollow and helpless, as the oil dripped off her sensor. She began to make out human shapes on the platform and her audio picked up on a discussion of towels and air passageways and lungs and blood on his head and it seemed to take so very long, the oil dulling all her senses, but then he was coughing and vomiting and breathing and the humans were rejoicing and when they had finally wiped enough oil from his face that it was safe for him to open his eyes, Dataran looked around at all the humans first. And then, for the very first time, he looked at her.

  * * *

  Dataran had been taken away to a hospital and Mech6.0 was in the android maintenance office, her limbs being rubbed clean—or as clean as possible—by a man in green coveralls who kept shaking his head.

  “These won’t be salvageable either,” he said, clicking his tongue as he inspected her input plugs. He wasn’t doing a particularly good job of cleaning her, Mech6.0 thought, and she was feeling more sluggish and drained by the minute.

  It began to occur to her that maybe she couldn’t be fixed. That maybe he wouldn’t even try.

  Sighing, the man spun around on his rolling chair so he could enter something into a netscreen on the wall. Mech6.0 glanced down at her body, her joints and the seams of her paneling stained brownish-black from the oil. At least her vision was clear again, and her processor seemed to be working, if slower than usual.

  She was surprised to see a collection of screws still clinging to her side from when she’d been removing the panel from the Orion Classic. She reached her grippers toward them, glad to see that her sensor-gripper coordination was functional as she plucked them off one by one and set them on the mechanic’s table. She reached for the final screw and tugged.

  Then paused. Then tugged some more. It was not a screw at all, but the link of a chain that had wrapped around to her back. She gave the chain a yank and whatever had magnetically sealed itself to her came loose. She found herself staring at a locket, which she suspected would have been gold if it wasn’t blackened by the oil.

  Her memory saw Dataran tucking a chain back into his pocket.

  This belonged to him.

  The mechanic spun back toward her and she hid the locket behind her back. He was eyeing her suspiciously and shaking his head again when the office door opened and the shipyard’s owner came strolling in.

  “Well?”

  The mechanic shook his head. “Its body is ruined. I could spend a couple weeks trying to clean it up, but I frankly don’t see the point. Better off just getting a new one.”

  Tam frowned as he looked the android up and down. “What about the processor, the wiring … Can it be salvaged?”

  “There will probably be some parts we can hold on to for later use. I’ll start to dismantle it tomorrow, see what we’ve got. But as for the processor and personality chip … that much must have been fritzing even before the oil.”

  “Why do you say that?”

  The mechanic brushed his sleeve across his damp forehead. “You saw how all the other androids reacted when Dataran fell in?”

  “I don’t think they did anything.”

  “Exactly. That’s what they’re supposed to do. Just keep working, not get involved with drama and upsets. What this one did … it isn’t normal. Something’s wrong with it.”

  A spark flickered inside Mech6.0’s head. She’d begun to suspect as much, but to have it confirmed was worrisome.

  “What do you think it is?”

  “Who knows? You hear stories about this once in a while. Androids whose artificial intelligence reaches a point of learning at which they develop almost human-like tendencies. Unpractical reasoning, near-emotional responses. There are plenty of theories for why it happens, but the important thing is, it isn’t good.”

  “I’m not sure I agree.” The owner crossed his arms over his chest. “This mech-droid may have saved D
ataran’s life today.”

  “I realize that, and thank the stars. But what will it do next time there’s a disturbance? The fact is, an unpredictable android is a dangerous one.” He shrugged. “My advice: Either send out the computer for reprogramming, or scrap it entirely.”

  Pressing his lips into a thin line, Tam let his gaze travel over Mech6.0’s body. She squeezed the locket tighter in her three-fingered grasp.

  “Fine,” Tam said. “But let’s worry about it tomorrow. I think we could all use the rest of the night off.”

  They left her on the table in the mechanic’s room, and as the lights of the shipyard thudded into blackness, Mech6.0 realized it was the first night in her existence that she hadn’t been plugged into the charging dock.

  Because charging her wasn’t necessary. Because tomorrow she would be dismantled and put on a shelf somewhere, and the bits of her that weren’t worth saving would be sent off to the scrap yard.

  Tomorrow she would be gone.

  She analyzed those words for a long time, her processor whirring and sputtering around them, trying to calculate the hours and minutes left in her existence before there would be only a black hole where her consciousness had been before.

  She wondered if Dataran would give a single thought to the malfunctioning android who had saved his life and been destroyed for it.

  Dataran. She had something that belonged to him now. It was in her code to return it to him if she could. She brought the locket up in front of her sensor and scanned its dimensions and the small hinge and the tiny unlocking mechanism. It was a challenge to open with her clumsy prongs, but finally she did—

  And the galaxy expanded before her.

  The holograph filled up the entire office. The sun and the planets, the stars and the nebulas, asteroids and comets and all the beauty of space contained in that tiny, unimpressive little locket.

  Mech6.0 clicked it shut, storing the universe away in its small prison once again.

  No. She couldn’t stay here. She could not stand to be lost to the darkness forever, when there was still a whole universe she’d never seen.

  * * *

  Mech6.0 had never been outside of the shipyard before, not since she’d been programmed and built and purchased. She quickly discovered that the world was chaotic and loud and filled with so much sensory information she worried that her frazzled synapses would be fried before she ever reached her destination.

  But she tried to focus on the map of New Beijing and the profile she’d discovered on the net as she turned into the first street of market booths, crowded with barrels of spices and woven blankets that hung from wire racks and netscreens chattering from every surface.

  “Robotic cats, two for the price of one, today only! No shedding, just purring!”

  “Depression? Low energy? Infertility? What’s your ailment—we have cures! We even have the newest prevention drops for the blue fever, tried and true!”

  “Plum wine, rice wine, come try a free sample!”

  “Big sale on serv-droids, now’s the time to upgrade! New models, just in!”

  She kept her sensor down and attempted to look inconspicuous. The net was filled with stories of android theft, and she was worried that being crushed together with so many humans, she would soon find herself snatched up and saddled with some new owner, who would no doubt have her dismantled anyway once they discovered her damage.

  Finally, she spotted a nondescript booth just where the market directory had said it would be. The walls were lined with shelves that sagged from their jumble of tools and android parts and outdated portscreens stacked three layers deep.

  Mech6.0 rolled up to the table that blocked the entrance. A girl was standing near the back of the booth, wearing thick work gloves and cargo pants, scanning something with a portscreen. She paused and tapped her fingers against the screen, then reshuffled some items on the shelf before scanning another item.

  “Pardon … me,” said Mech6.0, her senses crackling at the effort. She did not have many opportunities to speak at the shipyard, and the long trek had already drained her power source.

  The girl glanced toward her. “Oh—sorry! I’ll be with you in just a minute.” She finished entering whatever data she was working on and clipped the portscreen to her belt. “How can I help you?”

  “Looking for … Linh Cinder.”

  “You found her.” The girl tilted her head to one side, furrowing her brow. “Is your voice box on the fritz?”

  “Whole … body,” said Mech6.0. “Purchase … new?”

  It took a moment, but then Linh Cinder nodded. “Oh, sure. I can do that. Is your owner around?”

  Mech6.0 felt a sudden drop in power, but was relieved when it was only a temporary loss. Now that she’d found the mechanic, she shut off her net database in order to conserve what energy she could. “No owner.”

  Linh Cinder’s brow furrowed. Her eyes darted to the android dealer across the way. “Oh. I see.” She reached for her portscreen again and set it on the table between them, before typing in a few commands. “Well. All right, so I can order up a replacement mech body today, but it usually takes about a week to get here, unless the warehouse downtown has some in stock. You’re a 6.0, right? It doesn’t look like they have any. Do you mind waiting a week?”

  “Can I … wait here?”

  “Uh…” Hesitating, Cinder glanced over her shoulder at the booth, cluttered with machines and toolboxes. Then she shrugged. “Sure, I can probably clear a space for you.” Tightening her ponytail, she sat down in the chair that had been pushed beneath the table. “But if you don’t have an owner … how do you plan on paying for this?”

  Paying.

  Money. Currency. Univs. To give compensation for goods or services.

  Androids did not get paid.

  “Trade,” said Mech6.0.

  “Trade?” Cinder dipped her gaze over Mech6.0’s battered form. “For what?”

  Mech6.0 opened the compartment in her abdomen. Her prongs found the metal locket on its chain first and wrapped around it.

  Her fan slowed—almost stopped.

  Releasing the locket, she searched again, and her grippers emerged with the small holographic card instead. She placed it on the table.

  Removing the glove from her right hand, Cinder picked up the card and flipped it over, reading the words on the back before turning it so that the holograph projected from the flat surface.

  “A Prince Kai holographic trading card,” she muttered, rubbing her brow with her gloved hand. “Because that’s all I need.” Sighing, she peered at Mech6.0 again. “I’m sorry, but this is only worth about twenty micro-univs. It would barely buy you a screw.” She looked truly regretful as she handed the card back. Mech6.0 pinched it gently between her prongs.

  “Do you have anything else?”

  Her processor pulsed. The locket.

  But it was not hers. It belonged to Dataran, and she was going to return it to him. When she had her new body. When she saw him again.

  Her power source dropped low again. The colors of the world dimmed beyond her sensor’s eye.

  “Nothing … else.”

  Linh Cinder frowned sympathetically. “Then I’m sorry. I can’t help you.”

  Mech6.0 analyzed the situation again, calculating the potential worth of the locket and the importance that she received a new body, and soon. But despite her logical reasoning telling her that the locket might be valued high enough to complete the trade, there was a new factor involved in the calculation. The value of her one possession—something that had been Dataran’s. The value of his smile when she returned it to him.

  She knew that the decision was illogical, that she would be returning nothing at all if she didn’t get a new body, and yet she still found herself tucking the holographic card against her torso and turning away. Which was when she realized that she had nowhere to go, and besides, she wouldn’t make it very far. She spotted the used android dealer down the way, and a darkness settl
ed in her vision, washing all the color away entirely.

  Her treads clattered as she started back through the crowd.

  “Wait.”

  Pausing, she spun back to face the mechanic, who was rubbing her fingers against her temple again, leaving a dark smudge on her skin.

  “You remind me of a friend of mine. Iko, also an android,” she said. Then she added, gesturing to the card, “Plus, my little sister really loves that guy. So … here, I think I might have something. Hang on.”

  Pulling herself from the chair, she headed toward the back of the booth. Mech6.0 waited as Linh Cinder shuffled miscellaneous bits of machinery.

  “Well, she’s not a huge improvement,” she said, “but I do have this.” She emerged from behind a towering shelf with the body of a girl draped over one arm. Shouldering aside a toolbox, she dropped the girl on the table with a thud. A limp arm splayed out toward Mech6.0 and her scanner picked up on precisely trimmed fingernails, the natural curve of her fingers, the faint blue veining beneath her skin.

  And then she spotted the near-invisible imprint across the girl’s wrist. A barcode.

  She was an escort-droid.

  “She’s almost thirty years old,” said Cinder, “and in pretty bad shape. I was really just keeping her around for spare parts.” She adjusted the head so Mech6.0 could see her face, which was beautiful and convincingly lifelike, with dark irises and sleek black hair. With her empty gaze and a rosy flush to her cheeks, she looked like she was dead, but only recently so.

  “If I remember right, something was wrong with her voice box. I think she’d gone mute and the last owner didn’t want to bother with replacing it. She was also prone to occasional power surges, so you might want to look into replacing her wiring and getting a new battery as soon as you can.” Cinder brushed some dust off the escort-droid’s brow. “And on top of that, with her being so old, I don’t really know how compatible she’s going to be with your personality chip. You might find that you experience some weird glitches. But … if you want her…”

  In response, Mech6.0 held out the holographic card.

  * * *

  “So … you’re an electrician?” said Tam Sovann, scanning her profile on his portscreen.

 
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