Stars above, p.2
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       Stars Above, p.2

         Part #4.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
slower 1  faster

  She listened to the entire album and no alerts came.

  She watched the cities come and go, the fields and vineyards disappear over the hills, the sun sink toward the horizon, and no alerts came.

  The car became more crowded as time passed. A man in a suit eventually sat next to her and her whole body tensed, but he didn’t try to talk or ask any questions. He busied himself reading a newsfeed on his port and eventually dozed off, but Scarlet had heard enough stories about bag snatchers and child-nappings that she dared not let down her guard.

  The album started over. The notice board at the front of the car announced that the next stop was Toulouse, and an entirely new bout of nerves writhed in her stomach. She had to wake the man up to get past him, and he startled and said something about almost missing his stop again. He laughed. Scarlet ducked past him without meeting his gaze, clutching the straps of her backpack.

  “Hey, kid.”

  She clomped down the steps to the platform.


  She quickened her pace, panic and adrenaline rushing through her veins. She looked around for someone who would help her if she needed it. Someone in uniform or an android or—

  “Kid, wait!” A hand landed on Scarlet’s shoulder and she spun around, ready to scream.

  It was the man in the suit. “You left this on the bench,” he said, holding out her water bottle.

  Her pulse immediately subsided and she grabbed the bottle away without a thank-you. Turning, she jogged across the platform and up the escalators. She felt embarrassed for her overreaction, but still unnerved. She was alone and no one knew where she was or that she was even missing. She doubted she would feel safe until she reached her grandmother’s house, and even then she’d have to persuade Grand-mère to let her stay.

  She found an empty taxi hover and climbed inside, giving her grandmother’s address. The screen asked her to approve the cost of travel, and the price blinking at her made her stomach drop. It would almost deplete her savings.

  Swallowing hard, she scanned her wrist and approved the payment.

  * * *

  Michelle had been caring for the princess for almost two years, and the regular ministrations had become second nature. Just another chore to check off her daily list. Feed the animals. Gather the eggs. Milk the cow. Check the princess’s diagnostics and adjust the tank’s fluid levels as needed.

  The child was growing. She would have been five years old now—was five years old, Michelle reminded herself. Even after all these months it was hard not to think of the girl as a corpse she kept locked up beneath her hangar.

  She wasn’t a corpse, but she wasn’t exactly alive, either. The machines did everything for her. Breathed. Pumped blood. Sent electrical signals to her brain. Logan had told her it was important to keep her brain stimulated so that when she awoke she wouldn’t still have the mind of a three-year-old. Supposedly she was being fed knowledge and even life experiences as she lay there, unmoving. Michelle didn’t understand how it worked. She couldn’t imagine how this child could sleep for her entire life and then be expected to become a queen upon her return to society.

  But that would be Logan’s job, whenever he returned. There were years still before anyone would know who this child was going to become.

  Michelle finished recording Selene’s vital statistics and flipped off the generator-powered lights. The bomb shelter, which had been converted into a makeshift hospital room and scientific laboratory, remained lit by the pale blue light from the suspension tank. Michelle clipped her portscreen to her belt and climbed the ladder to the hangar above. She grabbed one of the storage crates that she shuffled between the hangar and the barn—a useful excuse in case anyone ever saw her coming and going. The bomb shelter and its occupant were a secret, a dangerous one, and she could never allow herself to lose caution.

  This was the direction of her thoughts when she stepped onto the gravel drive and saw the taxi hover waiting there. She wasn’t expecting visitors. She never had visitors to expect.

  She squared her shoulders and settled the crate on one hip. The pebbles crunched beneath her feet. She glanced into the hover’s windows as she passed, but it was empty, and no one was waiting on the porch, either.

  Setting down the crate, Michelle grabbed the only weapon she passed—a pair of rusted gardening shears—and shoved open her front door.

  She froze.

  Scarlet was sitting on the bottom step of the foyer’s staircase, a backpack tucked under her legs. She was bundled up in the same wool coat that Michelle remembered from the Louvre photos, but now it was fraying at the shoulder seams and looked two sizes too small for a growing girl.

  “Scarlet?” she breathed, setting the shears on the entry table. “What are you doing here?”

  Scarlet’s cheeks reddened, making her freckles even more pronounced. She looked like she was on the verge of crying, but the tears didn’t come. “I came to live with you.”

  * * *

  “This is just another one of her cries for attention!” Luc spat. His nose and cheeks were tinged red, his words slurred. He was outside and on the screen Michelle could see the puffs of his breaths in the night air. “Just put her back on the train and let her figure it out.”

  “She is seven years old,” Michelle said, aware of how thin the walls around her were. No doubt Scarlet could hear her father’s raised voice, even from downstairs. “It’s a wonder she made it here safely at all, being all by herself like that.”

  “And what do you expect me to do? Fly down there to pick her up? I have work in the morning. I just got this new job and—”

  “She is your daughter,” Michelle said. “I expect you to be a father, to show that you care about her.”

  Luc snorted. “You’re lecturing me on how to be a good parent? That’s rich, Maman.”

  The comment struck her straight between the ribs. Michelle stiffened. The knot of tension in her stomach wound so tight it threatened to cripple her.

  It was her biggest regret, not being there for her son when he was little. She’d been a single mother trying to balance a newborn son with a military career—a career that had been full of potential. She had long ago realized how badly she’d failed in balancing anything. If she could do it all over again …

  But she couldn’t. And while Luc’s flaws were partially her doing, she wasn’t about to see the same neglect happen to her darling Scarlet.

  She looked away from the portscreen. “She can stay the night, of course. I’m not sending her back on a train by herself.”

  Luc grunted. “Fine. I’ll figure out what to do with her tomorrow.”

  Michelle shut her eyes and squeezed them tight. She pictured the secret door to the bomb shelter. The half-alive girl in that glowing blue tank. She pictured a faceless woman—Dr. Eliot—being tortured for information on what had happened to Princess Selene.

  She gulped.

  “Maybe she should stay here,” she said, and pried her eyes open again. Her mind was already made up by the time she looked back at the screen. “Maybe I should take care of her, at least until … until you’re on your feet again.” Even as she said it, she wasn’t confident it would ever be a reality.

  Scarlet deserved more. More than a nonexistent mother and a careless father. Scarlet deserved more than Luc had been given.

  “We’ll talk about this tomorrow,” Luc said. He still sounded angry, but there was also a hint of relief in his voice. Michelle knew he wouldn’t fight her on this.

  She disconnected the comm link and left the port on her bed before making her way back down the stairs.

  Scarlet was at the dining table, curled around a bowl of pea pods—the first of the season. She had a pile of empty shells growing beside her, and a pod open in her fingers.

  Scarlet popped a pea into her mouth when Michelle entered. It crunched between her teeth.

  She was pretending to be unconcerned, a look Michelle recognized immediately. It was an expression she herse
lf wore more often than she cared to admit.

  “You can stay,” said Michelle.

  The crunching stopped. “Forever?”

  Michelle sat down opposite Scarlet. “Maybe. Your father and I have more to discuss, but … for now, at least, you can stay with me.”

  A smile—the first Michelle had seen since Scarlet’s arrival—broke across her face, but Michelle raised a hand. “Listen carefully, Scar. This is a farm, and there is a lot of work that needs to be done here. I’m getting older, you know, and I will expect you to help out.”

  Scarlet nodded eagerly.

  “And I don’t just mean the fun stuff, like gathering eggs. There’s manure to shovel and fences to paint … This isn’t an easy life.”

  “I don’t care,” said Scarlet, still beaming. “I want to be here. I want to be with you.”

  * * *

  “Happy birthday, dearest Scarlet,” Grand-mère sang, carrying the lemon cake to the table. Eleven candle flames flickered and danced over the white frosting. “Happy birthday, my dear.”

  Scarlet closed her eyes for a moment of consideration. She had been waiting for this moment all day. Well, mostly she’d been waiting for the delicious lemon cake that her grandmother had made for her birthday every year since she’d come to live with her, but there was something special about making a wish, too.

  She wasn’t superstitious, but she loved the sense of possibilities that came with wishing.

  I wish …

  Even having thought of it all day, though, she hadn’t made up her mind. It was a struggle to come up with a decent wish. A worthy wish.

  That they wouldn’t lose any more chickens to whatever predator had gotten into the coop last week? That her father wouldn’t forget her birthday again, like he had last year, and the year before that? That Padgett Dubois would stop making fun of her freckles, or that Gil Lambert would actually notice her at school one of these days?

  No. None of those were worthy enough.

  She knew it was a long shot, but …

  I wish that Grand-mère would teach me how to fly.

  Opening her eyes, she leaned forward and blew out the candles in one impressive breath. Grand-mère applauded. “Well done! You get those powerful lungs from me, you know.” She winked and pushed two wrapped presents across the table. “Go ahead and open these while I dish up the cake.”

  “Thank you, Grand-mère.” She pulled the larger gift toward her. It was heavier than she expected, and she took care as she untied the ribbon and peeled open the worn pillowcase it had been wrapped in.

  Scarlet opened the box. Stared. Lifted one eyebrow.

  She looked up at her grandmother, who was licking the frosting off each burnt candle. She couldn’t tell if the “present” was a joke. Sure, her grandmother was eccentric, but …

  “A … gun?” she said.

  “A Leo 1272 TCP 380 personal handgun,” said her grandmother, picking up a carving knife and making the first cut into the cake. A moment later she lifted a perfect slice from the pan and deposited it onto Scarlet’s plate. She passed it across the table along with a fork, the layers of yellow cake and white buttercream as flawless as any bakery dessert Scarlet had ever seen.

  Her grandmother’s skills in the kitchen weren’t nearly as wide praised as they should have been. Mostly, when people talked about Michelle Benoit, they joked about the slightly crazy woman who never wanted any help running her farm. Who chased off unwanted solicitors with a shotgun. Who sang when she gardened and claimed that it made the vegetables sweeter.

  Scarlet loved her grandmother for her quirks, but even she found it a little off-putting to receive a weapon—an actual, deadly weapon—for her eleventh birthday. Sure, she’d used the shotgun before to chase away wild wolves or shoot clay pigeons when she was bored. But a handgun? This wasn’t for hunting. This was for … protection.

  “Don’t look so disappointed,” Grand-mère said with a laugh, cutting herself a slice of cake. “It’s an excellent model. Just like the one I’ve carried for years. I’ll show you how to load it and empty it when we’re done eating. Once you’re comfortable carrying it, you’ll find that you never want to be without it again.”

  Scarlet licked her lower lip and nudged the box away with the gun still sitting inside. She was hesitant to touch it. She wasn’t even sure if it was legal for someone her age to carry a gun. “But … why? I mean, it’s a little…”

  “Unorthodox?” Grand-mère chuckled. “What were you expecting? A baby doll?”

  Scarlet made a face at her. “A new pair of tennis shoes would be nice.”

  Her grandma pulled a bit of cake off her fork with her teeth. Though she was still grinning, there was a heavy seriousness in her gaze when she set the fork down and reached over to remove the gun from the box. Her movements were confident, controlled. She looked like she had picked up a thousand guns in her life, and maybe she had.

  “Don’t worry, Scar,” she said, not looking up. “I’ll teach you how to use it, although I hope you never have to.” She gave a little shrug and set the gun on the table between them, the barrel pointing toward the kitchen window. “I just want you to know how to defend yourself. After all, you just never know when a stranger will want to take you somewhere you don’t mean to go.”

  Her words were foreboding and Scarlet found herself eyeing the gun as goose bumps scrabbled down her arms. “Thank you?” she said uncertainly.

  Her grandmother swallowed another bite of cake and pointed her fork toward the second box. “Open your other present.”

  Scarlet was more hesitant with this one. The gift was small enough to fit in the palm of her hand and wrapped in a clean dish towel. Maybe it was poison darts, she thought. Or a taser. Or—

  She lifted the box’s lid.

  Her grandmother’s pilot pin sat on a bed of tissue paper—a star with a yellow gemstone in its center and gold-plated wings spanning to either side. Scarlet took it into her palm and looked up.

  “That was given to me on the day I was promoted to pilot,” her grandmother said, smiling at the memory. “And now I want you to have it.”

  Scarlet curled her fingers around the pin. “Thank you.”

  “You’re welcome. I hope it will protect you in flight as much as it protected me.”

  Her heart began to throb. She almost dared not hope …

  “In flight?”

  Her grandmother’s cheeks dimpled with mischievous glee. “Tomorrow morning, I’m going to start teaching you how to fly the podship.”

  * * *

  “The mulch will protect the garden over the winter,” Michelle said, raking a layer of straw over the cutting garden. Hollow stems and wilted leaves still jutted from the dirt, mere remnants of the colorful dahlias and lilies that had filled the bed throughout the summer. “You want to make sure it’s thick, like a heavy winter quilt.”

  “I know,” said Scarlet. She was perched on top of the wooden fence, her face cupped in both hands. “I know what mulch is. We do this every year.”

  Michelle’s mouth bunched to one side. She straightened and thrust the rake toward her granddaughter. “If you’re such an expert, you can finish the job.”

  With a saucy eye roll that seemed reminiscent of every thirteen-year-old girl Michelle had ever met, Scarlet hopped off the fence and took the rake from her. The straw rustled and crackled under Scarlet’s worn tennis shoes. Michelle took a step back to watch and, pleased that Scarlet did indeed seem to know what she was doing, she grabbed the pitchfork from the stack of dwindling straw and went to turn the compost pile.

  The low hum of an approaching hover made Michelle’s heart skitter—a reaction that had become common over the past eight years. Her farm was situated on a little-used country road, with only two neighbors beyond her on the lane, and they mostly used podships like she did, even for short trips into town. Hovers were a rarity, and her paranoia had grown worse with every week and month that passed. Maybe she should have relaxed over the years, whe
n no one had come asking questions about Logan, when no one had inquired about her connection to the Lunars or her knowledge of a missing princess. Clearly, after all this time, no one suspected that she was involved—in fact, most people believed that the princess was dead, just as they’d been told years before, and that rumors of her faked death were nothing but fanciful gossip, especially as an eventual war with Luna seemed more and more inevitable.

  None of this calmed her, though. Rather, with every day that passed without any retribution coming her way for her decision to harbor Selene, the more certain she became that someday, someday, her secret would be discovered.

  “Is that a hover?” Scarlet asked, leaning into the rake and squinting at the black speck rolling over the farthest hill.

  “Probably just another obnoxious escort salesman,” said Michelle. She jerked her head toward the house. “Go inside, Scarlet.”

  Scarlet scowled at her. “If it’s just a salesman, why do I have to go inside?”

  Michelle fisted a hand on her hip. “Must you always argue with me? Just go inside.”

  With another eye roll, Scarlet dropped the rake onto the half-covered garden bed and stomped off toward the house.

  Michelle didn’t release her grip on the pitchfork as the hover came closer. For a moment, she thought it would pass by them and continue on to the neighbors, but at the last moment it slowed and turned into her driveway. Michelle was by no means a connoisseur of hovers, yet she could tell this was an old model. Old, but well maintained. Its windows glinted under the late autumn sun as it came closer.

  She glanced back once as she heard the house’s back door clamor shut, then went to greet the newcomer, holding the pitchfork horizontally like a javelin. She had no qualms about being called crazy. She had no fear of frightening off a solicitor or some hapless city dweller who had gotten turned around on the unfamiliar country roads. She didn’t mind her reputation so long as it kept curious strangers off her property.

  It wasn’t a stranger, though, who opened the door.

  He had hardly changed in the years since he’d helped her set up the bomb shelter for the safekeeping of Selene. The same wrinkles, the same graying hair.

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