Stars above, p.20
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       Stars Above, p.20
 

         Part #4.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
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  Mech6.0 nodded, smiling as she had seen humans do. It had taken her nearly two weeks to set up a net profile and manage to steal some proper work clothes that fit her, even though it went against everything her android code told her. Still, she had done it and she had made her way back to the shipyard and she was here, with a humanoid body and a convincing identity and Dataran’s locket snapped snugly in her pocket.

  “And you specialize in classic podships and cruisers, particularly the luxury lines … impressive.” He glanced up again, as if trying to decide if the profile could be believed.

  She kept smiling.

  “And you’re … mute.”

  She nodded.

  He squinted suspiciously for a moment before going over her profile again. “Well, we certainly do work on a lot of luxury lines like these…”

  Which she knew.

  “… and I have been faced with a high turnover of electricians lately.”

  Which she also knew.

  “I’d have to start you at a base salary, until you prove you can do the work. You understand that.”

  She nodded. Having never received a salary before, she did not even know what she would do with that measly base pay.

  “All right. Well. Let’s give it a shot,” he said, as if he couldn’t quite believe he was saying it. Mech6.0 wasn’t sure if it was her muteness that had him unconvinced about her, or the fact that her escort body was startlingly attractive, even in her drab work clothing. “And what was your name again?” he said, before flinching at her patient smile. “Right, sorry, uh—” He scanned through her profile again. “Hoshi … Star.”

  Mech6.0—no, Hoshi Star nodded.

  His eyes narrowed suspiciously, but then he shrugged. “If you say so. Well then. Welcome aboard, Hoshi-mèi. I have a project that I think will be perfect for you. This way.”

  She braced herself before rising off the chair. Her personality chip hadn’t synced quite right with the outdated escort body, and Linh Cinder was right—it had caused a peculiar glitch that manifested itself whenever she walked. The effort caused pain to shoot through the wires from her legs to her chest, burning into her synapses. The first time it had happened, she had gasped and collapsed onto the sidewalk and sat trembling on the ground for close to an hour while blinding light flooded her senses.

  Pain.

  She had never known pain before—androids should not have been able to experience it at all. But she had no doubt that’s what it was. Just as the human brain used pain to recognize when something was horribly wrong, her processor was warning her that this body was not hers. That this combination could not last.

  The third time it had happened, she had considered going back to the market and pleading with Linh Cinder to take the body away, but she had ultimately refused to do that, not before she saw Dataran again. With time, the pain was becoming more bearable, even if only because she was learning to compartmentalize it away from the rest of her sensory input.

  Clenching her teeth, she pushed herself to her feet and followed Tam-shìfu out into the shipyard.

  She began searching for him the moment she stepped into the massive hangar. Her eyes darted from human to human, searching for a graceful frame and an easy smile. She’d been worried ever since she’d left, terrified that he hadn’t fully recovered from the fall into the oil, terrified that she hadn’t gotten to him in time.

  Though her gaze darted from one corner of the yard to the other as they walked, there was no sign of the young engineer.

  “Here we are,” said Tam, gesturing to the space yacht, the Orion Classic. Over the past two weeks, the exterior had been nearly completed, but Star could guess that the interior still had plenty of work to be done. “This is for one of our premium clients, and he doesn’t want to spare a single expense. But of course, he’s on a tight schedule, as they always are. I’ll track down some electrical blueprints for you. And—ah! You’ll be reporting directly to Wing-jūn here. Dataran, come meet our newest electrician.”

  He came around from the front of the ship, a portscreen in his hand and a stylus tucked behind one ear, and a surge of electricity coursed so fast through Star’s body she thought for a moment she would experience an actual meltdown. But she didn’t, and when he politely bowed his head, she remembered to politely bow hers as well.

  “It’s nice to meet you,” he said. “You’ll be working on the Orion Classic with us?”

  She smiled, but Tam was already waving his hand. “That’s right, she says she’s an expert with the classics. Keep her busy. Let’s see what she can do, all right?” He glanced at the port. “I have to check on the racer. Dataran, do you mind showing her the ropes?”

  “Not at all, sir.”

  Tam was gone almost before he’d finished talking, and Dataran was chuckling after him. “Don’t take it personally. He’s like that toward everyone.”

  His kind smile made the pain of standing recede almost fully from her thoughts, and Star beamed hopefully back.

  “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”

  Lashes fluttering, she opened her lips, but of course there was nothing. Flinching, she patted a hand against her throat. Dataran frowned. “Did you lose your voice?”

  She shrugged. Close enough.

  “Oh. Then, um. Should I call you…” He frowned, not able to come up with anything appropriate on the spot.

  Perking up, she grabbed his sleeve and dragged him back toward the front of the ship, where she gestured up at the name that had been freshly painted on its side. Child of the Stars.

  “Uh—Stars? Star?”

  When she beamed again, he laughed. “That wasn’t so hard. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Star.”

  She tried her best to speak through her eyes, her stretched lips, her trembling fingers, which had released his sleeve and were too afraid to reach for him again. It’s me, she thought, willing him to understand. I’m the one who rescued you. I’m the one who found your locket. It’s me, it’s me, it’s me.

  But Dataran just jerked his head toward the landing gear. “Come on, I’ll show you the engine room and how far we’ve gotten in the wiring so far—which isn’t much. We could definitely use your help.”

  Before he turned away, he glanced up toward the cockpit windows one level up, and his mouth quirked fast to one side.

  Star followed the look.

  Ochida Miko and her father were sitting in the cockpit. He appeared to be teaching her something, gesturing at the different controls, but Miko had spotted Dataran outside and didn’t seem to be listening.

  Star had a sense that Miko’s bashful smile had not been intended for her, or Miko’s father, to see.

  * * *

  “Oh, it’s beautiful!” said Miko, sitting on Dataran’s other side.

  Star knew that she was talking about the ship that was about to leave the hangar—a sleek, flashy thing that had been commissioned for the annual Space Race to Neptune (which everyone knew was a fallacy—the race officially ended at Jupiter, but the sponsors claimed that didn’t have the same ring to it). It was a beautiful ship, with its elongated thrusters and needle-sharp nose. The painters had outdone themselves, creating a very realistic montage of New Beijing’s skyline across its frame.

  But Star did not care so much for the ship. Her attention had gone back up to the ceiling as it pulled back to reveal the endless sky. Although her new life as a human had given her the opportunity to gaze up at the night sky as often as she wished, her eyes never tired of it. The sense of vastness and eternity, the yearning to see what else the universe had to offer, even for one as small and unimportant as she was.

  She didn’t think that Miko had glanced up at all since the ceiling had lifted to allow the ship an exit. Of course, she had already been to space countless times. Would be going again as soon as the Orion Classic was finished—another two or three weeks at the most. Ochida-shìfu had been growing more and more impatient, urging them to tighten the schedule, to work longer hours, to finish e
arly.

  Miko and Dataran, on the other hand, seemed to become more and more miserable as each step of the rebuild was completed. If anything, Dataran’s pace had slowed as the ship’s deadline loomed.

  Star pulled her attention away as Dataran was explaining the different features of the racer, gesturing at the elegant curve of its back, the power behind the rocket boosters, and on and on. Star was more interested in the sound of his voice than his words. The subtle inflections. The careful pronunciation of very technical terms. The way he talked faster when something struck him as ingenious. Listening to him felt like being plugged into a power dock, feeling the gentle current of electricity warm and enliven her.

  She glanced over at him, and the contented smile fell from her lips.

  Dataran had laced his fingers with Miko’s and was holding her hand on his knee while his other hand drew explanatory pictures in the air.

  Something flashed in Star’s chest—a spark, maybe, or a power surge. Her fingers curled into fists, tightening with the urge to reach across Dataran and rip their hands away from each other. To shove Miko aside. To wrap her own fingers around Miko’s neck.

  Grimacing, she turned away and waited for the flood of white to fade from her vision.

  It was not the first time such horrible thoughts had come into her head. Generally, she found that she enjoyed Miko’s company. She was a smart girl who talked just enough to keep Star from feeling strange that she couldn’t participate in the conversation, and who had insisted that Star take the occasional walk with her in a nearby park when she deemed that Star had been working too hard lately.

  But when they were with Dataran, which was more often than not, Star found herself withdrawing away from Miko’s friendliness and discovering a darker part of her programming. She figured it had to be another glitch, this strange desire to hurt a human being, which seemed to emerge only when Dataran found some subtle way to touch Miko. Just placing a hand on her elbow or brushing a lock of hair off her shoulder.

  These little moments made Star feel like she was disintegrating inside.

  Maybe the malfunctions were getting worse. Maybe a new processor would help. Had she earned enough money now to afford one? She wasn’t sure, and she needed to weigh it with her need for a power source that didn’t threaten to die near the end of every workday.

  “Star? Are you all right?”

  Prying her eyes open, she forced herself to look at Dataran. A quick glance confirmed that their hands remained entwined, but she still forced her lips to curl upward and her head to bob up and down.

  The concern lingered in Dataran’s gaze, but then a cheer rose up from the audience and the racer was taking flight; Dataran and Miko shifted their giddy attention back to the spectacle.

  Star tried to focus on the ship, or even the starry night sky, but she couldn’t get the image of her own pale fingers around Miko’s neck to fade from her thoughts. It disturbed her, that her processor was capable of imagining something so horrific, and the shipyard mechanic’s words flashed through her head.

  The fact is, an unpredictable android is a dangerous one.

  Was she unpredictable?

  Was she dangerous?

  She felt the shudder along her wires as soon as the ship lifted up off the ground to another uproarious cheer.

  Her energy was running out.

  She switched her internal settings to power-saving mode, and the world dulled to shades of gray, the sound in her ears a jumbled hum as her audio receptors stopped sorting and cataloging the input.

  She set a hand on Dataran’s shoulder and climbed to her feet. The movement came with a jolt of pain that threatened to cripple her. She grimaced and waited a moment before waving good-bye.

  “Where are you going?” Dataran pointed at the ship. “It will only be another few minutes. We can take a hover together.”

  Her fan whirred faster. On her third day at the shipyard, she had made up a home address that was near to his and they often left together when the workday was over. Sometimes Miko joined them too, and Star thought she and Dataran might have plans that didn’t involve her, and yet they were always so good to not suggest she was an unwanted intruder.

  Those hover rides, simply listening to Dataran talk and laugh, were some of the best moments of her short existence.

  But this time, she shook her head. She needed to find a charging dock, and quickly.

  He did not expect her to explain, an unexpected benefit of being mute, and so he simply nodded, still frowning, and let her go.

  But Star had not gone a dozen steps before she felt the power drain from her legs. Warnings pounded into her consciousness, but they were too late—she was falling. Her head crashed into the hard floor and she lay there with her arms twitching so hard she worried they would pull themselves right out of her shoulder sockets.

  She picked out Miko’s and Dataran’s yells even from the chaotic roaring in her ears, and then they were above her, tenderly turning her onto her back. She scanned their faces, recognizing shock, fear, panic, uncertainty. Dataran was speaking but she couldn’t comprehend. Miko was pressing a hand against her forehead.

  Her processor began to flicker back to life, programs gradually rebooting themselves. Though she still had no control over her legs, she could once again make out Dataran’s concerned questions, raining down on her like shooting stars.

  Then Miko laid a hand on Dataran’s arms and said, with calm authority, “Bring her some water.”

  With a frantic nod, he pushed himself to his feet. When he had gone, Miko sighed, her gaze full of sympathy as she tucked a lock of Star’s hair behind an ear.

  “The fit seems to have passed, but just lie still.”

  Star withered from embarrassment to know that Dataran had seen her like this.

  “I’m sorry if I offend you by asking this,” Miko whispered, glancing in the direction Dataran had gone, “but … are you an escort-droid, Star-mèi?”

  Eyes widening, Star tried to sit up, only succeeding when Miko tucked an arm beneath her shoulders and lifted her. She realized the thought of Miko knowing her secret terrified her, but Miko’s smile was kind. “Don’t worry. I don’t think Dataran has noticed anything, and I won’t tell anyone. You are very … convincing.” Her lashes dipped, and she murmured, “But like recognizes like.”

  Star scrutinized her. Like recognizes like. The words repeated in her head, but she couldn’t seem to compute them.

  Then Miko reached a hand for the back of her neck, where Star had noticed that strange dark spot a dozen times since her return, always hastily covered up. “I’m not an android,” she said, shaking her head. She cleared her throat and dared to meet Star’s gaze again. “But I am a cyborg.”

  Cyborg. The definition was in her database, but Star doubted its accuracy. Miko? Lovely young Miko?

  Miko glanced around to make sure no one was near. They had been sitting near the paint booth, which offered a good view of the ship’s takeoff without all the crowds, and no one was paying them any attention.

  Sitting back on her heels, Miko pulled up the wide sleeve of her silk kimono. Star watched, mesmerized, as Miko dug her fingers into the flesh of her elbow and began to peel the skin back. A perfect, thin layer of flesh rolled down her am like a tightly knit sleeve, and beneath the skin was a finely crafted arm made from lightweight carbon-fiber polymer, the same material Star’s body was constructed from.

  As soon as Star had seen, Miko rolled the skin back into place, rubbing at the synthetic until the edges had merged seamlessly back together.

  Gaping, Star pointed to where Dataran had gone.

  “He knows,” said Miko. “I told him as soon as … well…” She stared down at her prosthetic hands, now clutched together in her lap. “As soon as I realized that I was falling in love with him. I thought for sure it would put an end to it all. That he wouldn’t want anything to do with me once he knew. But … he isn’t like that, is he?” A happy flush bloomed across her cheeks, but wa
s smothered as she glanced out toward the rows of ships in all stages of incompletion. And down the lane, the Child of the Stars. “Not that it matters. As soon as the ship is done, we’ll be leaving, and nothing will change my father’s mind. I know he thinks it’s for my own good, but…”

  Star listed her head, urging her to continue.

  “We’re leaving the Commonwealth because he’s afraid that I’ll be selected for the cyborg draft if we stay. I know it’s by random selection, and the odds are so small, and yet he’s convinced that the draft skews toward female cyborgs, and young ones at that. I don’t know how he got this into his head, but … That’s why he bought the ship, why he’s so insistent that they finish it as soon as possible. And when it’s done … I’ll have to say good-bye.”

  Star thought she detected a shimmer in Miko’s eye, but it was gone just as fast. “I should be grateful. I know that. He’s going through so much trouble to keep me safe. But I can’t help but feel that I would rather take my chances with the draft, if it means being with Dataran.”

  Star looked away. She knew that feeling so well. The pain that jolted through her vertebrae when she walked. The torture of seeing how his eyes latched on to the bright-colored obi that wrapped around Miko’s body. How agonizing it was, this life of silence and yearning.

  Yet how very worth it when his eyes found hers, and she could still recall the look of disbelief and gratitude and curiosity that had passed over him when she’d pulled him from the oil tank.

  “Here, I usually keep a portable charger with me,” said Miko, pulling her handbag toward her. “Dataran will be back soon, and it will be difficult for me to explain why you aren’t drinking any water unless you seem recovered. Is the receptacle in your neck?”

  Star nodded and tried her best to be grateful as Miko opened the panel beneath her ear and inserted the charging cord, but there was something dark lingering still, making her dig her own fingertips into her thighs. An impatience with Miko, a throbbing irritation with her presence.

  Ever since she’d returned to the shipyard, Star had thought of Miko’s departure as an ending—and a beginning—and that feeling grew stronger by the day. She was only biding her time until Miko was gone. Then she would buy a new body that didn’t rebel every time she walked, and she would return the locket that contained the whole galaxy to Dataran and explain everything to him. She would tell him that something in his smile had changed her, back when it shouldn’t have been possible for her to be changed. She would tell him that she was the one who had saved his life, because something about him made her unpredictable, and maybe dangerous, and she couldn’t exist in a world without him.

 
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