Stars above, p.21
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       Stars Above, p.21

         Part #4.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
 
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  * * *

  Star dragged a finger across the screen embedded in the wall, and the lights of the cockpit went dark. She swirled it clockwise; they gradually brightened again. Counterclockwise; they dimmed darker. A tap here to raise the temperature, here to lower it. She tested every command: play music, adjust the air filtration system, seal the cockpit door, heat the cockpit floor, place an order for a beverage through the automated beverage service.

  Confident that everything was working just as it should, she shut the panel of wiring beneath the screen and gathered up the tools that she’d used, hooking them neatly into her tool belt. She then paused, preparing herself to walk, before heading toward the ship’s main exit. Her body screamed at her as she walked, and she knew that the exertion was beginning to take its toll on her system. For weeks she had done her best to ignore the pain and the knowledge that sooner or later, her escort-droid body would rebel and reject the installed personality chip altogether, and there were times when she felt she was holding her body together through sheer willpower.

  It wouldn’t be long, though, before she could afford a new body. Just a little while longer.

  A voice made her foot catch and she paused on the exit ramp. Dataran.

  Turning, she peered into the common room that divided the front of the ship from the living areas. An assortment of comfortable seats, accented with silk pillows and cashmere throw blankets, were arranged around a gurgling aquarium that reached from the floor to the tiled ceiling. The brightly colored fish had been brought to their new home a few days before and seemed content to float mindlessly among their artificial coral reef.

  Star crept toward Miko’s rooms, her back against the wall, aware that this was not something she would have done when she was Mech6.0. Spying, sneaking, eavesdropping. Androids were not made to be curious.

  And yet, there she was, standing beside the doorframe and listening to the hiccupping sounds of a girl crying.

  “If we could just talk to your father … show him how much we love each other…”

  “He’ll never agree to it. He doesn’t think you could keep me safe.”

  Dataran released a disgruntled sigh. “I know, I know. And I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to you either. I just need time … I can get us a ship. It may not be anything like this, anything like what you’re used to, but…”

  “That doesn’t matter. I would go”—she sobbed—“anywhere with you. But Dataran…”

  “But what?”

  Her crying grew louder. “Do you really want to live—your whole life—with a cyborg?”

  Star dared to inch closer, shifting her weight so she could peer through the crack between the lavish mahogany doors. These rooms were completed. The ship was almost finished, but for some last detail work in the front end.

  Scheduled departure was in two days.

  She spotted them standing near Miko’s netscreen desk, and Dataran was embracing her, one hand cupping the base of her head as she buried her face into his shoulder.

  Memorizing the pose, Star brought her hand up to the back of her neck and dug her fingertips into her own hair. Tried to imagine what that must be like.

  “Miko, please,” Dataran whispered. “Your arms could be made out of broom handle for all I care.”

  Star adjusted her audio interface, so loud that she could hear the rustle of fabric, his breathing, her sniffles.

  “All I care about is what’s in here.”

  He pulled far enough away that he could slide his hand around and place it over a chrysanthemum flower painted onto the silk of her kimono. Right below her collarbone.

  Star followed the movement. Felt her own chest, her own hard plating, with the slightest bit of softness from her layer of synthetic skin. But no heartbeat, no pulse.

  “You’re perfect, Miko, and beautiful, and I love you. I want to marry you.”

  The words, spoken so quietly, were like a gunshot in Star’s head. She flinched and stumbled backward, pressing a hand over one ear. But it was too late. Those words, still smoking, were burned into her database.

  Miko gasped and they pulled apart, spinning toward the door.

  Dataran was there in a moment, whipping the doors open, and relief crossed over them both when they saw her.

  “Oh, stars,” whispered Miko, placing her own artificial hand over her very real beating heart. “I thought you were my father.”

  Faking apology, Stars took a step toward them and gestured at the lights that ran around the room, then at the control panel on the wall. She raised her eyebrows in a question.

  It was a lie. She had checked all these rooms the day before, and she knew there was a time when she wouldn’t have been capable of the falsehood, even an implied one.

  “Oh—yes, yes, everything seems to be working perfectly,” said Dataran, stringing a hand through his hair.

  He seemed flustered, while Star felt broken.

  “I should finish packing,” mumbled Miko, sounding no more enthusiastic than if she were moving into a prison cell, not the lavish yacht. Ducking her head, she shuffled toward the door. “So many more cases to bring in…”

  “Miko, wait.” Dataran grabbed Miko’s wrist, but then glanced at Star. She turned to inspect the electronics control panel. “I have to try,” he whispered, lowering his head toward Miko. “I have to at least ask him…”

  “He won’t say yes.”

  “But if he did … if I could convince him that I would take care of you, that I love you … Would you say yes?”

  Star absently punched her fingertips against the screen.

  “You know that I would,” Miko responded, her hushed voice breaking on the last word. She sniffed and cleared her throat. “But it doesn’t matter. He won’t say yes. He won’t let me stay.”

  Then her soft footsteps padded out toward the ship’s exit.

  Daring to glance over her shoulder, Star saw that Dataran had pressed his forehead against the wall, his fingers dug into his hair. With a heavy sigh, he dragged his palms down his face and looked up at her. She noted darkening circles beneath his eyes and a paleness that seemed all wrong on him.

  “Ochida-shìfu … he’s worried for her safety…” he said, as if in explanation, then looked away. “And I am too, to be honest. But if she leaves, I might never see her again. If I just … if I had a ship of my own, but…” Shaking his head, he turned so that he could lean his back against the wall, like he might collapse without its support. “I was actually saving up for one. Have been for years. And I almost had enough, along with this antique holograph locket that should have been plenty to make up the difference, but I lost it in that stupid oil tank.”

  Star pressed a hand against her hip, where the locket sat snugly in her pocket. She’d kept it, waiting, expecting there to be a perfect moment to give it back to him, but the time never seemed right. And in the evenings, when she was alone, she would open it up and let herself get swallowed up by the stars, and think about what life would be like when Miko was gone. There would be so many chances, so many opportunities …

  “I’m sorry, Star. I shouldn’t talk about my problems like this. It’s not fair, when you can’t tell me about yours.”

  He met her gaze again and she pulled her hand away from the pocket, curling her fingers into a fist. Miko would be gone in two days. Only two more days. And then … and then …

  Dataran smiled, but it was exhausted and missing all the warmth that had so often interrupted the flow of electricity to her limbs. “Do you have any problems you wish you could talk about, Star?”

  She nodded.

  “Maybe you could write them down. I would read them, if you wanted me to.”

  Dropping her gaze, she shook her head. Out in the common room, the aquarium bubbled and hummed, the sound that was meant to be calming now taking up the entire ship and drowning her.

  “I understand,” said Dataran. “I probably haven’t shown myself to be the best … listener, since we met. But I do wonder
what goes on in that head of yours sometimes. Miko likes you, you know. I think … she hasn’t said it, but I think you might be the only friend she has.”

  Star looked away. Clenched her fists. Then, daring to meet his gaze again, she lifted a hand and tapped a finger against her hollow chest. Dataran was watching, but uncertain. He didn’t understand.

  Star took a step toward him and tapped the same finger against his heart.

  He blinked and opened his mouth to speak, but Star leaned forward and kissed him before he could. Just a peck, but she tried to put every unspoken word into it. It’s me, it’s been me all along, and I may have saved your life, but I would be nothing if it wasn’t for you. I would be just another mech-droid, and I wouldn’t know what it’s like to love someone so much I would give up everything for them.

  But when she pulled away, he looked shocked and horrified and guilty, and she knew he didn’t understand. She left the room before Dataran could speak. He didn’t call her back, and he didn’t come after her.

  Star fled from the ship and kept going until she was out of the hangar, out of the shipyard, a single lonely android beneath an enormous morning sky, before she reached into her pocket and wrapped her fingers around the locket and a universe that meant nothing to her without him.

  * * *

  Unlike the Triton’s launch, the launch of the Child of the Stars was a private affair. Some of Ochida-shìfu’s old coworkers and acquaintances had come out to wish them a safe journey, along with the shipyard staff, but that was all. No friends of Miko’s. Maybe Dataran was right and she didn’t have any, which made Star wonder if it was because she was rich and sheltered, or shy, or because she was cyborg.

  Star couldn’t take her eyes from Dataran, standing sunken-shouldered in the crowd, his eyes haunting the ship as its engines rumbled and the lifter magnets beneath the hangar’s floor hummed with life. He was probably hoping to catch a glimpse of Miko through the windows, although all but the cockpit windows were so small it was an impossible hope. Star wondered if they had seen each other at all since she had stumbled upon them two days before. The words she’d overheard still bounced around in Star’s head, and she ached from the memory, almost as much as she ached from the kiss.

  She had not seen Dataran since that morning. She’d been avoiding him. Unable to stand his sorrow over losing Miko, and whatever kind, sensible things he would say to explain why Miko was the one he loved, and why Star would never be, even after Miko was gone.

  As she stared, the crowd shifted around Dataran. A figure moved gracefully between the bodies.

  Star cocked her head and squinted. Staring. Waiting.

  Dataran gave a start, then whipped his head around. His gaze fell on Miko, who was wearing plain coveralls, and he drew back in surprise. Her smile was shy but bright as she pressed up closer to him and whispered. She lifted her hand and something small glinted from her palm. Though Star was too far away to see, she knew it was the locket. Her locket. Her galaxy.

  Dataran shook his head in disbelief and glanced back toward the ship. Then, on the verge of a smile, he took Miko into his arms and kissed her.

  Star pressed her fingertips against her own lips. Imagining.

  Her arm weakened and she let it fall to her lap. It wouldn’t be long now. She could feel her body beginning to rebel. It was in the pain that was almost constant now, a stabbing sensation that tore through her legs even when she was only sitting. It was in the frequent loss of control in her twitching limbs. It was in the blackness that clouded in around her vision, and how she always thought this would be the last time, before, after a long, agonizing moment, she returned to consciousness again.

  Footsteps thumped in the common room and paused in the doorway. Star turned her head away.

  “One minute to takeoff,” said Ochida-shìfu. “Do you want to come sit with me in the cockpit?”

  She shook her head and adjusted the sleeve of the silk kimono so that he was sure to see the metal plating of her arms. The synthetic skin had been easy to remove, and though seeing her android insides was disconcerting, the limb reminded her of the three-fingered prongs from her Mech6.0 body, and there was a comforting familiarity in that.

  Ochida sighed heavily behind her. “I’m doing this for you, Miko. It’s better this way. And he’s just a boy—you’ll get over this.”

  When Star didn’t respond, he huffed and withdrew from the doorway.

  “Fine. Be angry. Throw your tantrum if you have to. Just put your skingraft back on before you snag that material. Whatever point you’re trying to make, it isn’t working. The reminder of what you are just further convinces me that I’m making the right decision.”

  Then he was gone.

  Star returned her gaze to the window, the hangar, the crowd. Hundreds of mech-droids lined up against the charging wall. Miko. And Dataran.

  Not minutes had gone by before she heard the magnets engage and felt the ship rise off the ground. The crowd cheered. Dataran wrapped his arms around Miko and she was beaming. Though Star didn’t think Miko could see her, she felt almost like they were looking at each other in that moment, and that Miko knew precisely the decision that Star had made. And she, too, knew it was the right one.

  Then the thrusters engaged, and the ship was climbing up out of the hangar, over the glittering, sprawling city of New Beijing. And Dataran was gone.

  Suddenly weary, Star leaned her head against the window. Her audio input dulled to a faint, distant hum as the Child of the Stars speared through the wisps of clouds and the sky turned from bright blue to blushing pink and pale orange.

  Her fan was struggling inside her torso, moving slower and slower …

  Then, so suddenly she almost missed it, space opened up before her. Black and expansive and endless and filled with more stars than she could ever drink in. More stars than she could ever compute.

  It was so much better than a holograph.

  Her wires quivered as the last dregs of power sizzled through them. Her fingers jolted and twitched and then lay still.

  She was smiling as she imagined herself as one more star in the sea of millions, and her body decided it had had enough, and she felt the exact moment when her power source gave up and the hum of electricity extinguished.

  But she was already vast and bright and endless.

  The Mechanic

  The hover was waiting outside the palace’s northwest gate. Kai feigned nonchalance as he made his way through the garden’s path, Nainsi’s lightweight android body tucked under one arm and a pack carrying a hooded sweatshirt slung over his opposite shoulder. He didn’t hurry, but he wasn’t meandering, either. He pretended that he was unconcerned about being noticed. It wasn’t like he couldn’t be tracked. He had not one but two identity chips hidden beneath his skin, and his security team were experts at keeping tabs on him.

  It wasn’t a secret that he was leaving.

  But he didn’t want it to be public knowledge either.

  The day was hotter than it had been all week and the humidity made his hair cling to the back of his neck. The garden gate opened without a sound, though he could feel the security camera overhead following his movements. He ignored it and approached the hover with the same straight-spined confidence he’d learned to do every task with, no matter how trivial. He waved his ID-embedded wrist over the hover’s scanner and the door whispered open, revealing a spacious interior behind the tinted-glass windows. Hidden speakers emitted the soothing notes of a flautist. Though the air inside had been cooled to a pleasant temperature, an ice bucket in the corner was still slick with condensation. It displayed an assortment of flavored waters and cold teas.

  Kai pushed Nainsi in first before settling onto one of the upholstered benches. The door shut, and he realized that, despite the tranquility of the hover’s interior, his heart had started to pound.

  “Good afternoon, Your Imperial Highness. What is your destination?” the hover asked in an artificially feminine voice.

  He r
ubbed away a bead of sweat before it could drip down his temple. “The market at city center.”

  The hover lifted off the street and glided away from the palace, taking the looping drive around the protective exterior wall before dipping down the hill toward New Beijing. Through the dark-paned glass, Kai could see his city shimmering with waves of heat, the windows and metal structures glinting beneath the afternoon sun.

  He loved his city. He loved his country.

  He would risk anything to protect it.

  Inhaling sharply, he unclipped the portscreen from his belt and pulled up the net. The profile he’d looked up days ago greeted him on the main page.

  LINH CINDER, LICENSED MECHANIC

  LOCATION: NEW BEIJING WEEKLY MARKET, BOOTH #771

  480 RATINGS; 98.7% CLIENT APPROVAL

  There was no picture of the mechanic or the shop, but Linh Cinder had a reputation of being the best mechanic in the city, and the approval rating was higher than anyone else Kai had looked up. He’d first heard of Linh Cinder from one of the mechanics at the palace who was charged with keeping the royal androids well maintained. When they had failed to properly diagnose Nainsi after running the basic tests, Linh Cinder’s name had come up as the best chance for fixing the android.

  Of course, they had all thought Kai was crazy for being so invested in an android.

  We’ll order up a new one, they said. Run it through the palace budget. Standard procedure. She’s just a tutor android, after all, programmed with a few assistant apps. Easily replaced, Your Highness. Not for you to worry about.

 
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