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“Vanity is a factor, but it is more a question of control. It is easier to trick others into perceiving you as beautiful if you can convince yourself you are beautiful. But mirrors have an uncanny way of telling the truth.”
A cyborg Cinderella? Wow! It's a bold premise. I applaud Marissa Meyer for thinking this up.
A cyborg Cinderella? Wow! It's a bold premise. I applaud Marissa Meyer for thinking this up.
22 October 2020 (21:58)
Cinder‘s Story Continues…. Coming soon from Marissa Meyer: Scarlett 2013 Cress 2014 Winter 2015 For my grandma, Samalee Jones, with more love than could ever fit into these pages. Contents Book One Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Book Two Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Book Three Chapter Twenty-One Chapter Twenty-Two Chapter Twenty-Three Chapter Twenty-Four Chapter Twenty-Five Chapter Twenty-Six Chapter Twenty-Seven Chapter Twenty-Eight Chapter Twenty-Nine Book Four Chapter Thirty Chapter Thirty-One Chapter Thirty-Two Chapter Thirty-Three Chapter Thirty-Four Chapter Thirty-Five Chapter Thirty-Six Chapter Thirty-Seven Chapter Thirty-Eight Acknowledgments Book One They took away her beautiful clothes, dressed her in an old gray smock, and gave her wooden shoes. Chapter One THE SCREW THROUGH CINDER’S ANKLE HAD RUSTED, THE engraved cross marks worn to a mangled circle. Her knuckles ached from forcing the screwdriver into the joint as she struggled to loosen the screw one gritting twist after another. By the time it was extracted far enough for her to wrench free with her prosthetic steel hand, the hairline threads had been stripped clean. Tossing the screwdriver onto the table, Cinder gripped her heel and yanked the foot from its socket. A spark singed her fingertips and she jerked away, leaving the foot to dangle from a tangle of red and yellow wires. She slumped back with a relieved groan. A sense of release hovered at the end of those wires—freedom. Having loathed the too-small foot for four years, she swore to never pu; t the piece of junk back on again. She just hoped Iko would be back soon with its replacement. Cinder was the only full-service mechanic at New Beijing’s weekly market. Without a sign, her booth hinted at her trade only by the shelves of stock android parts that crowded the walls. It was squeezed into a shady cove between a used netscreen dealer and a silk merchant, both of whom frequently complained about the tangy smell of metal and grease that came from Cinder’s booth, even though it was usually disguised by the aroma of honey buns from the bakery across the square. Cinder knew they really just didn’t like being next to her. A stained tablecloth divided Cinder from browsers as they shuffled past. The square was filled with shoppers and hawkers, children and noise. The bellows of men as they bargained with robotic shopkeepers, trying to talk the computers down from their desired profit margins. The hum of ID scanners and monotone voice receipts as money changed accounts. The netscreens that covered every building and filled the air with the chatter of advertisements, news reports, gossip. Cinder’s auditory interface dulled the noise into a static thrumming, but today one melody lingered above the rest that she couldn’t drown out. A ring of children were standing just outside her booth, trilling—“Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!”—and then laughing hysterically as they collapsed to the pavement. A smile tugged at Cinder’s lips. Not so much at the nursery rhyme, a phantom song about pestilence and death that had regained popularity in the past decade. The song itself made her squeamish. But she did love the glares from passersby as the giggling children fell over in their paths. The inconvenience of having to swarm around the writhing bodies stirred grumbles from the shoppers, and Cinder adored the children for it. “Sunto! Sunto!” Cinder’s amusement wilted. She spotted Chang Sacha, the baker, pushing through the crowd in her flour-coated apron. “Sunto, come here! I told you not to play so close to—” Sacha met Cinder’s gaze, knotted her lips, then grabbed her son by the arm and spun away. The boy whined, dragging his feet as Sacha ordered him to stay closer to their booth. Cinder wrinkled her nose at the baker’s retreating back. The remaining children fled into the crowd, taking their bright laughter with them. “It’s not like wires are contagious,” Cinder muttered to her empty booth. With a spine-popping stretch, she pulled her dirty fingers through her hair, combing it up into a messy tail, then grabbed her blackened work gloves. She covered her steel hand first, and though her right palm began to sweat immediately inside the thick material, she felt more comfortable with the gloves on, hiding the plating of her left hand. She stretched her fingers wide, working out the cramp that had formed at the fleshy base of her thumb from clenching the screwdriver, and squinted again into the city square. She spotted plenty of stocky white androids in the din, but none of them Iko. Sighing, Cinder bent over the toolbox beneath the worktable. After digging through the jumbled mess of screwdrivers and wrenches, she emerged with the fuse puller that had been long buried at the bottom. One by one, she disconnected the wires that still linked her foot and ankle, each spurting a tiny spark. She couldn’t feel them through the gloves, but her retina display helpfully informed her with blinking red text that she was losing connection to the limb. With a yank of the last wire, her foot clattered to the concrete. The difference was instant. For once in her life, she felt…weightless. She made room for the discarded foot on the table, setting it up like a shrine amid the wrenches and lug nuts, before hunkering over her ankle again and cleaning the grime from the socket with an old rag. THUD. Cinder jerked, her head smacking the underside of the table. She shoved back from the desk, her scowl landing first on a lifeless android that sat squat on her worktable and then on the man behind it. She was met with startled copper-brown eyes and black hair that hung past his ears and lips that every girl in the country had admired a thousand times. Her scowl vanished. His own surprise was short-lived, melting into an apology. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realize anyone was back there.” Cinder barely heard him above the blankness in her mind. With her heartbeat gathering speed, her retina display scanned his features, so familiar from years spent watching him on the netscreens. He seemed taller in real life and a gray hooded sweatshirt was like none of the fine clothes he usually made appearances in, but still, it took only 2.6 seconds for Cinder’s scanner to measure the points of his face and link his image to the net database. Another second and the display informed her of what she already knew; details scribbled across the bottom of her vision in a stream of green text. PRINCE KAITO, CROWN PRINCE OF THE EASTERN COMMONWEALTH ID #0082719057 BORN 7 APR 108 T.E. FF 88,987 MEDIA HITS, REVERSE CHRON POSTED 14 AUG 126 T.E.: A PRESS MEETING IS TO BE HOSTED BY CROWN PRINCE KAI ON 15 AUG TO DISCUSS THE ONGOING LETUMOSIS RESEARCH AND POSSIBLE LEADS FOR AN ANTIDOTE— Cinder launched up from her chair, nearly toppling over when she forgot about her missing limb. Steadying herself with both hands on the table, she managed an awkward bow. The retina display sank out of sight. “Your Highness,” she stammered, head lowered, glad that he couldn’t see her empty ankle behind the tablecloth. The prince flinched and cast a glance over his shoulder before hunching toward her. “Maybe, um…”—he pulled his fingers across his lips—“on the Highness stuff?” Wide-eyed, Cinder forced a shaky nod. “Right. Of course. How—can I—are you—” She swallowed, the words sticking like bean paste to her tongue. “I’m looking for a Linh Cinder,” said the prince. “Is he around?” Cinder dared to lift one stabilizing hand from the table, using it to tug the hem of her glove higher on her wrist. Staring at the prince’s chest, she stammered, “I-I’m Linh Cinder.” Her eyes followed his hand as he planted it on top of the android’s bulbous head. “You’re Linh Cinder?” “Yes, Your High—” She bit down on her lip. “The mechanic?” She nodded. “How can I help you?” Instead of answering, the prince bent down, craning his neck so that she had no choice but to meet his eyes, and dashed a grin at her. Her heart winced. The prince straightened, forcing her gaze to follow him. “You’re not quite what I was expecting.” “Well you’re hardly—what I—um.” Unable to hold his gaze, Cinder reached for the android and pulled it to her side of the table. “What seems to be wrong with the android, Your Highness?” The android looked like it had just stepped off the conveyer belt, but Cinder could tell from the mock-feminine shape that it was an outdated model. The design was sleek, though, with a spherical head atop a pear-shaped body and a glossy white finish. “I can’t get her to turn on,” said Prince Kai, watching as Cinder examined the robot. “She was working fine one day, and the next, nothing.” Cinder turned the android around so its sensor light faced the prince. She was glad to have routine tasks for her hands and routine questions for her mouth—something to focus on so she wouldn’t get flustered and lose control of her brain’s net connection again. “Have you had problems with her before?” “No. She gets a monthly checkup from the royal mechanics, and this is the first real problem she’s ever had.” Leaning forward, Prince Kai picked up Cinder’s small metal foot from the worktable, turning it curiously over in his palms. Cinder tensed, watching as he peered into the wire-filled cavity, fiddled with the flexible joints of the toes. He used the too-long sleeve of his sweatshirt to polish off a smudge. “Aren’t you hot?” Cinder said, instantly regretting the question when his attention returned to her. For the briefest moment, the prince almost looked embarrassed. “Dying,” he said, “but I’m trying to be inconspicuous.” Cinder considered telling him it wasn’t working but thought better of it. The lack of a throng of screaming girls surrounding her booth was probably evidence that it was working better than she suspected. Instead of looking like a royal heartthrob, he just looked crazy. Clearing her throat, Cinder refocused on the android. She found the nearly invisible latch and opened its back panel. “Why aren’t the royal mechanics fixing her?” “They tried but couldn’t figure it out. Someone suggested I bring her to you.” He set the foot down and turned his attention to the shelves of old and battered parts—parts for androids, hovers, netscreens, portscreens. Parts for cyborgs. “They say you’re the best mechanic in New Beijing. I was expecting an old man.” “Do they?” she murmured. He wasn’t the first to voice surprise. Most of her customers couldn’t fathom how a teenage girl could be the best mechanic in the city, and she never broadcast the reason for her talent. The fewer people who knew she was cyborg, the better. She was sure she’d go mad if all the market shopkeepers looked at her with the same disdain as Chang Sacha did. She nudged some of the android’s wires aside with her pinkie. “Sometimes they just get worn out. Maybe it’s time to upgrade to a new model.” “I’m afraid I can’t do that. She contains top-secret information. It’s a matter of national security that I retrieve it…before anyone else does.” Fingers stalling, Cinder glanced up at him. He held her gaze a full three seconds before his lips twitched. “I’m just joking. Nainsi was my first android. It’s sentimental.” An orange light flickered in the corner of Cinder’s vision. Her optobionics had picked up on something, though she didn’t know what—an extra swallow, a too-quick blink, a clenching of the prince’s jaw. She was used to the little orange light. It came up all the time. It meant that someone was lying. “National security,” she said. “Funny.” The prince listed his head, as if challenging her to contradict him. A strand of black hair fell into his eyes. Cinder looked away. “Tutor8.6 model,” she said, reading the faintly lit panel inside the plastic cranium. The android was nearly twenty years old. Ancient for an android. “She looks to be in pristine condition.” Raising her fist, she thunked the android hard on the side of its head, barely catching it before it toppled over onto the table. The prince jumped. Cinder set the android back on its treads and jabbed the power button but nothing happened. “You’d be surprised how often that works.” The prince let out a single, awkward chuckle. “Are you sure you’re Linh Cinder? The mechanic?” “Cinder! I’ve got it!” Iko wheeled out of the crowd and up to the worktable, her blue sensor flashing. Lifting one pronged hand, she slammed a brand-new steel-plated foot onto the desk, in the shadow of the prince’s android. “It’s a huge improvement over the old one, only lightly used, and the wiring looks compatible as is. Plus, I was able to get the dealer down to just 600 univs.” Panic jolted through Cinder. Still balancing on her human leg, she snatched the foot off the table and dropped it behind her. “Good work, Iko. Nguyen-shìfu will be delighted to have a replacement foot for his escort-droid.” Iko’s sensor dimmed. “Nguyen-shìfu? I don’t compute.” Smiling through locked teeth, Cinder gestured at the prince. “Iko, please pay your respects to our customer.” She lowered her voice. “His Imperial Highness.” Iko craned her head, aiming the round sensor up at the prince, who towered more than three feet above her. The light flared as her scanner recognized him. “Prince Kai,” she said, her metallic voice squeaking. “You are even more handsome in person.” Cinder’s stomach twisted in embarrassment, even as the prince laughed. “That’s enough, Iko. Get in the booth.” Iko obeyed, pushing aside the tablecloth and ducking under the table. “You don’t see a personality like that every day,” said Prince Kai, leaning against the booth’s door frame as if he brought androids to the market all the time. “Did you program her yourself?” “Believe it or not, she came that way. I suspect a programming error, which is probably why my stepmother got her so cheap.” “I do not have a programming error!” said Iko from behind her. Cinder met the prince’s gaze, was caught momentarily dazzled by another easy laugh, and ducked her head back behind his android. “So what do you think?” he asked. “I’ll need to run her diagnostics. It will take me a few days, maybe a week.” Tucking a strand of hair behind one ear, Cinder sat down, grateful to give her leg a rest while she examined the android’s innards. She knew she must be breaking some rule of etiquette, but the prince didn’t seem to mind as he tipped forward, watching her hands. “Do you need payment up front?” He held his left wrist toward her, embedded with his ID chip, but Cinder waved a gloved hand at him. “No, thank you. It will be my honor.” Prince Kai looked about to protest but then let his hand fall. “I don’t suppose there’s any hope of having her done before the festival?” Cinder shut the android’s panel. “I don’t think that will be a problem. But without knowing what’s wrong with her—” “I know, I know.” He rocked back on his heels. “Just wishful thinking.” “How will I contact you when she’s ready?” “Send a comm to the palace. Or will you be here again next weekend? I could stop by then.” “Oh, yes!” said Iko from the back of the booth. “We’re here every market day. You should come by again. That would be lovely.” Cinder flinched. “You don’t need to—” “It’ll be my pleasure.” He dipped his head in polite farewell, simultaneously pulling the edges of the hood farther over his face. Cinder returned the nod, knowing she should have stood and bowed, but not daring to test her balance a second time. She waited until his shadow had disappeared from the tabletop before surveying the square. The prince’s presence among the harried crowd seemed to have gone unnoticed. Cinder let her muscles relax. Iko rolled to her side, clasping her metal grippers over her chest. “Prince Kai! Check my fan, I think I’m overheating.” Cinder bent over and picked up her replacement foot, dusting it off on her cargo pants. She checked the plating, glad that she hadn’t dented it. “Can you imagine Peony’s expression when she hears about this?” said Iko. “I can imagine a lot of high-pitched squealing.” Cinder allowed one more wary scan of the crowd before the first tickle of giddiness stirred inside her. She couldn’t wait to tell Peony. The prince himself! An abrupt laugh escaped her. It was uncanny. It was unbelievable. It was— “Oh, dear.” Cinder’s smile fell. “What?” Iko pointed at her forehead with a pronged finger. “You have a grease splotch.” Cinder jerked back and scrubbed at her brow. “You’re kidding.” “I’m sure he hardly noticed.” Cinder dropped her hand. “What does it matter? Come on, help me put this on before any other royalty stops by.” She propped her ankle on the opposite knee and began connecting the color-coordinated wires, wondering if the prince had been fooled. “Fits like a glove, doesn’t it?” Iko said, holding a handful of screws while Cinder twisted them into the predrilled holes. “It’s very nice, Iko, thank you. I just hope Adri doesn’t notice. She’d murder me if she knew I’d spent 600 univs on a foot.” She tightened the last screw and stretched out her leg, rolling her ankle forward, back, wiggling the toes. It was a little stiff, and the nerve sensors would need a few days to harmonize with the updated wiring, but at least she wouldn’t have to limp around off-kilter anymore. “It’s perfect,” she said, pulling on her boot. She spotted her old foot held in Iko’s pincers. “You can throw that piece of junk awa—” A scream filled Cinder’s ears. She flinched, the sound peaking in her audio interface, and turned toward it. The market silenced. The children, who had switched to a game of hide-and-seek among the clustered booths, crept out from their hiding spots. The scream had come from the baker, Chang Sacha. Baffled, Cinder stood and climbed on top of her chair to peer over the crowd. She spotted Sacha in her booth, behind the glass case of sweet breads and pork buns, gawking at her outstretched hands. Cinder clamped a hand over her nose at the same moment realization skittered through the rest of the square. “The plague!” someone yelled. “She has the plague!” The street filled with panic. Mothers scooped up their children, masking their faces with desperate hands as they scrambled to get away from Sacha’s booth. Shopkeepers slammed shut their rolling doors. Sunto screamed and rushed toward his mother, but she held her hands out to him. No, no, stay back. A neighboring shopkeeper grabbed the boy, tucking the child under his arm as he ran. Sacha yelled something after him, but the words were lost in the uproar. Cinder’s stomach churned. They couldn’t run or Iko would be trampled in the chaos. Holding her breath, she reached for the cord at the booth’s corner and yanked the metal door down its rail. Darkness cloaked them but for a single shard of daylight along the ground. The heat rose up from the concrete floor, stifling in the cramped space. “Cinder?” said Iko, worry in her robotic voice. She brightened her sensor, washing the booth in blue light. “Don’t worry,” Cinder said, hopping down from the chair and grabbing the grease-covered rag from the table. The screams were already fading, transforming the booth into its own empty universe. “She’s all the way across the square. We’re fine here.” But she slipped back toward the wall of shelves anyway, crouched down and covered her nose and mouth with the rag. There they waited, Cinder breathing as shallowly as possible, until they heard the sirens of the emergency hover come and take Sacha away. Chapter Two THE EMERGENCY SIRENS HADN’T FADED BEFORE THE HUM OF another engine rumbled into the square. The market’s silence was split by feet thumping on the pavement and then someone spitting commands. Someone else’s guttural response. Slinging her messenger bag across her back, Cinder crept across the dusty floor of her booth and pushed past the tablecloth that draped her work desk. She slipped her fingers into the gap of light beneath the door and inched it open. Pressing her cheek to the warm, gritty pavement, she was able to make out three sets of yellow boots across the square. An emergency crew. She peeled the door open farther and watched the men—all wearing gas masks—as they doused the interior of the booth with liquid from a yellow can. Even across the square, Cinder wrinkled her nose at the stench. “What’s happening?” Iko asked from behind her. “They’re going to burn Chang-ji’s booth.” Cinder’s eyes swept along the square, noting the pristine white hover planted near the corner. Other than the three men, the square was abandoned. Rolling onto her back, Cinder peered up into Iko’s sensor, still glowing faintly in the dark. “We’ll leave when the flames start, when they’re distracted.” “Are we in trouble?” “No. I just can’t be bothered with a trip to the quarantines today.” One of the men spouted an order, followed by shuffling feet. Cinder turned her head and squinted through the gap. A flame was thrown into the booth. The smell of gasoline was soon met with that of burned toast. The men stood back, their uniforms silhouetted against the growing flames. Reaching up, Cinder grabbed Prince Kai’s android around its neck and pulled it down beside her. Tucking it under one arm, she slid the door open enough to crawl through, keeping her eyes on the men’s backs. Iko followed, scooting against the next booth as Cinder lowered the door. They darted along the storefronts—most left wide open during the mass exodus—and turned into the first skinny alley between shops. Black smoke blotted the sky above them. Seconds later, a hoard of news hovers buzzed over the buildings on their way to the market square. Cinder slowed when they’d put enough distance between them and the market, emerging from the maze of alleys. The sun had passed overhead and was descending behind the skyscrapers to the west. The air sweated with August heat, but an occasional warm breeze was funneled between the buildings, picking up whirlwinds of garbage from the gutters. Four blocks from the market, signs of life appeared again on the streets—pedestrians pooling on the sidewalks and gossiping about the plague outbreak in the city center. Netscreens implanted into building walls showed live feeds of fire and smoke in downtown New Beijing and panicked headlines in which the toll of infected mounted by the second—even though only one person had been confirmed sick so far as Cinder could tell. “All those sticky buns,” Iko said as they passed a close-up shot of the blackened booth. Cinder bit the inside corner of her cheek. Neither of them had ever sampled the acclaimed sweets of the market bakery. Iko didn’t have taste buds, and Chang Sacha didn’t serve cyborgs. Towering offices and shopping centers gradually melded with a messy assortment of apartment buildings, built so close that they became an unending stretch of glass and concrete. Apartments in this corner of the city had once been spacious and desirable but had been so subdivided and remodeled over time—always trying to cram more people into the same square footage—that the buildings had become labyrinths of corridors and stairwells. But all the crowded ugliness was briefly forgotten as Cinder turned the corner onto her own street. For half a step, New Beijing Palace could be glimpsed between complexes, sprawling and serene on the cliff that overlooked the city. The palace’s pointed gold roofs sparkled orange beneath the sun, the windows glinting the light back at the city. The ornate gables, the tiered pavilions that teetered dangerously close to the cliff’s edge, the rounded temples stretching to the heavens. Cinder paused longer than usual to look up at it, thinking about someone who lived beyond those walls, who was up there perhaps this very second. Not that she hadn’t known the prince lived there every time she’d seen the palace before, but today she felt a connection she’d never had before, and with it came an almost smug delight. She had met the prince. He had come to her booth. He knew her name. Sucking in a breath of humid air, Cinder forced herself to turn away, feeling childish. She was going to start sounding like Peony. She shifted the royal android to her other arm as she and Iko ducked beneath the overhang of the Phoenix Tower apartments. She flashed her freed wrist at the ID scanner on the wall and heard the clunking of the lock. Iko used her arm extensions to clop down the stairs as they descended into the basement, a dim maze of storage spaces caged with chicken wire. As a wave of musty air blew up to meet them, the android turned on her floodlight, dispersing the shadows from the sparse halogens. It was a familiar path from the stairwell to storage space number 18-20—the cramped, always chilly cell that Adri allowed Cinder to use for her work. Cinder cleared a space for the android among the worktable’s clutter and set her messenger bag on the floor. She swapped her heavy work gloves for less grungy cotton ones before locking up the storage room. “If Adri asks,” she said as they made their way to the elevators, “our booth is nowhere near the baker’s.” Iko’s light flickered. “Noted.” They were alone in the elevator. It wasn’t until they stepped out onto the eighteenth floor that the building became a crawling hive—children chasing each other down the corridors, both domestic and stray cats creeping tight against the walls, the ever-constant blur of netscreen chatter spilling from the doorways. Cinder adjusted the white-noise output from her brain interface as she dodged the children on her way to the apartment. The door was wide open, making Cinder pause and check the number before entering. She heard Adri’s stiff voice from the living room. “Lower neckline for Peony. She looks like an old woman.” Cinder peered around the corner. Adri was standing with one hand on the mantel of the holographic fireplace, wearing a chrysanthemum-embroidered bathrobe that blended in with the collection of garish paper fans that covered the wall behind her—reproductions made to look antique. With her face shimmering with too much powder and her lips painted horrifically bright, Adri almost looked like a reproduction herself. Her face was made up as if she’d been planning to go somewhere, although she rarely left the apartment. If she noticed Cinder loitering in the doorway, she ignored her. The netscreen above the heatless flames was showing footage from the market. The baker’s booth had been reduced to rubble and the skeleton of a portable oven. In the center of the room, Pearl and Peony each stood swathed in silk and tulle. Peony was holding up her dark curly hair while a woman Cinder didn’t recognize fidgeted with her dress’s neckline. Peony caught sight of Cinder over the woman’s shoulder and her eyes sparked, a glow bursting across her face. She gestured at the dress with a barely silenced squeal. Cinder grinned back. Her younger stepsister looked angelic, her dress all silver and shimmering, with hints of lavender when caught in the fire’s light. “Pearl.” Adri gestured at her older daughter with a twirling finger, and Pearl spun around, displaying a row of pearl buttons down her back. Her dress matched Peony’s with its snug bodice and flouncy skirt, only it was made of stardust gold. “Let’s take in her waist some more.” Threading a pin through the hem of Peony’s neckline, the stranger started at seeing Cinder in the doorway but quickly turned away. Stepping back, the woman removed a bundle of sharp pins from between her lips and tilted her head to one side. “It’s already very snug,” she said. “We want her to dance, don’t we?” “We want her to find a husband,” said Adri. “No, no,” the seamstress tittered even as she reached out and pinched the material around Pearl’s waist. Cinder could tell Pearl was sucking in her stomach as much as she could; she detected the edges of ribs beneath the fabric. “She is much too young for marriage.” “I’m seventeen,” Pearl said, glaring at the woman. “Seventeen! See? A child. Now is for fun, right, girl?” “She is too expensive for fun,” said Adri. “I expect results from this gown.” “Do not worry, Linh-ji. She will be lovely as morning dew.” Stuffing the pins back into her mouth, the woman returned her focus to Peony’s neckline. Adri lifted her chin and finally acknowledged Cinder’s presence by swiping her gaze down Cinder’s filthy boots and cargo pants. “Why aren’t you at the market?” “It closed down early today,” said Cinder, with a meaningful look at the netscreen that Adri didn’t follow. Feigning nonchalance, Cinder thrust a thumb toward the hall. “So I’ll just go get cleaned up, and then I’ll be ready for my dress fitting.” The seamstress paused. “Another dress, Linh-ji? I did not bring material for—” “Have you replaced the magbelt on the hover yet?” Cinder’s smile faltered. “No. Not yet.” “Well, none of us will be going to the ball unless that gets fixed, will we?” Cinder stifled her irritation. They’d already had this conversation twice in the past week. “I need money to buy a new magbelt. 800 univs, at least. If income from the market wasn’t deposited directly into your account, I would have bought one by now.” “And trust you not to spend it all on your frivolous toys?” Adri said toys with a glare at Iko and a curl of her lip, even though Iko technically belonged to her. “Besides, I can’t afford both a magbelt and a new dress that you’ll only wear once. You’ll have to find some other way of fixing the hover or find your own gown for the ball.” Irritation hardened in Cinder’s gut. She might have pointed out that Pearl and Peony could have been given ready-made rather than custom dresses in order to budget for Cinder’s as well. She might have pointed out that they would only wear their dresses one time too. She might have pointed out that, as she was the one doing the work, the money should have been hers to spend as she saw fit. But all arguments would come to nothing. Legally, Cinder belonged to Adri as much as the household android and so too did her money, her few possessions, even the new foot she’d just attached. Adri loved to remind her of that. So she stomped the anger down before Adri could see a spark of rebellion. “I may be able to offer a trade for the magbelt. I’ll check with the local shops.” Adri sniffed. “Why don’t we trade that worthless android for it?” Iko ducked behind Cinder’s legs. “We wouldn’t get much for her,” said Cinder. “Nobody wants such an old model.” “No. They don’t, do they? Perhaps I will have to sell both of you off as spare parts.” Adri reached forward and fidgeted with the unfinished hem of Pearl’s sleeve. “I don’t care how you fix the hover, just fix it before the ball—and cheaply. I don’t need that pile of junk taking up valuable parking space.” Cinder tucked her hands into her back pockets. “Are you saying that if I fix the hover and get a dress, I can really go this year?” Adri’s lips puckered slightly at the corners. “It will be a miracle if you can find something suitable to wear that will hide your”—her gaze dropped to Cinder’s boots—“eccentricities. But, yes. If you fix the hover, I suppose you can go to the ball.” Peony flashed Cinder a stunned half smile, while her older sister spun on their mother. “You can’t be serious! Her? Go with us?” Cinder pressed her shoulder into the door frame, trying to hide her disappointment from Peony. Pearl’s outrage was unnecessary. A little orange light had flickered in the corner of Cinder’s vision—Adri had not meant her promise. “Well,” she said, attempting to look heartened. “I guess I’d better go find a magbelt then.” Adri flourished her arm at Cinder, her attention once again captivated by Pearl’s dress. A silent dismissal. Cinder cast one more look at her stepsisters’ sumptuous gowns before backing out of the room. She had barely turned toward the hallway when Peony squealed. “Prince Kai!” Freezing, Cinder glanced back at the netscreen. The plague alerts had been replaced with a live broadcast from the palace’s pressroom. Prince Kai was speaking to a crowd of journalists—human and android. “Volume on,” said Pearl, batting the seamstress away. “…research continues to be our top priority,” Prince Kai was saying, gripping the sides of a podium. “Our research team is determined to find a vaccine for this disease that has now taken one of my parents and threatens to take the other, as well as tens of thousands of our citizens. The circumstances are made even more desperate in the face of the outbreak that occurred today within the city limits. No longer can we claim this disease is relegated to the poor, rural communities of our country. Letumosis threatens us all, and we will find a way to stop it. Only then can we begin to rebuild our economy and return the Eastern Commonwealth to its once prosperous state.” Unenthusiastic applause shifted through the crowd. Research on the plague had been underway since the first outbreak had occurred in a small town in the African Union over a dozen years ago. It seemed that very little progress had been made. Meanwhile, the disease had surfaced in hundreds of seemingly unconnected communities throughout the world. Hundreds of thousands of people had fallen ill, suffered, died. Even Adri’s husband had contracted it on a trip to Europe—the same trip during which he’d agreed to become the guardian of an eleven-year-old orphaned cyborg. One of Cinder’s few memories of the man was of him being carted away to the quarantines while Adri raved at how he could not leave her with this thing. Adri never talked about her husband, and few memories of him lingered in the apartment. The only reminder that he’d even existed was found in a row of holographic plaques and carved medallions that lined the fireplace’s mantel—achievement awards and congratulatory prizes from an international technology fair, three years running. Cinder had no idea what he’d invented. Evidently, whatever it was hadn’t taken off, because he’d left his family almost no money when he had died. On the screen, the prince’s speech was interrupted when a stranger stepped onto the platform and handed a note to Prince Kai. The prince’s eyes clouded over. The screen blackened. The pressroom was replaced with a desk before a blue screen. A woman sat behind it, expressionless but with whitened knuckles atop the desk. “We interrupt His Imperial Highness’s press conference with an update on the status of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Rikan. The emperor’s physicians have just informed us that His Majesty has entered into the third stage of letumosis.” Gasping, the seamstress pulled the pins from her mouth. Cinder pressed herself against the door frame. She had not even thought to give Kai her condolences, or wishes for the emperor’s return of health. He must think her so insensitive. So ignorant. “We are told that everything is being done to ensure His Imperial Majesty’s comfort at this time, and palace officials tell us that researchers are working nonstop in their search for a vaccine. Volunteers are still urgently needed for antidote testing, even as the cyborg draft continues. “There has been much controversy regarding the 126th Annual Peace Festival due to the emperor’s illness, but Prince Kaito has told the press that the festival will continue as scheduled and that he hopes it might bring some joy in this otherwise tragic time.” The anchor paused, hesitating, even with the prompter before her. Her face softened, and her stiff voice had a warble when she finished. “Long live the emperor.” The seamstress murmured the words back to the anchor. The screen went black again before returning to the press conference, but Prince Kai had left the stage, and the audience of journalists was in upheaval as they reported to their individual cameras. “I know a cyborg who could volunteer for plague testing,” said Pearl. “Why wait for the draft?” Cinder leveled a glare at Pearl, who was nearly six inches shorter than she was despite being a year older. “Good idea,” she said. “And then you could get a job to pay for your pretty dress.” Pearl snarled. “They reimburse the volunteers’ families, wire-head.” The cyborg draft had been started by some royal research team a year ago. Every morning, a new ID number was drawn from the pool of so many thousand cyborgs who resided in the Eastern Commonwealth. Subjects had been carted in from provinces as far-reaching as Mumbai and Singapore to act as guinea pigs for the antidote testing. It was made out to be some sort of honor, giving your life for the good of humanity, but it was really just a reminder that cyborgs were not like everyone else. Many of them had been given a second chance at life by the generous hand of scientists and therefore owed their very existence to those who had created them. They were lucky to have lived this long, many thought. It’s only right that they should be the first to give up their lives in search for the cure. “We can’t volunteer Cinder,” said Peony, bunching her skirt in her hands. “I need her to fix my portscreen.” Pearl sniffed and turned away from both of them. Peony scrunched her nose at her sister’s back. “Stop bickering,” said Adri. “Peony, you’re wrinkling your skirt.” Cinder stepped back into the hallway as the seamstress returned to her work. Iko was already two steps ahead of her, eager to escape Adri’s presence. She appreciated Peony coming to her defense, of course, but she knew in the end it wouldn’t matter. Adri would never volunteer her for the testing, because that would be the end of her only income, and Cinder was sure her stepmother had never worked a day in her life. But if the draft chose her, no one could do anything about it. And it seemed that lately a disproportionate number of those chosen were from New Beijing and the surrounding suburbs. Every time one of the draft’s victims was a teenage girl, Cinder imagined a clock ticking inside her head. Chapter Three “YOU’RE GOING TO THE BALL!” IKO TAPPED HER GRIPPERS together in an imitation of clapping. “We have to find you a dress, and shoes. I will not allow you to wear those awful boots. We’ll get some new gloves and—” “Could you bring that light over here?” Cinder said, yanking out the top drawer of her standing toolbox. She riffled through it, spare bolts and sockets jangling as Iko scooted closer. A wash of bluish light dispersed the dimness of the storage room. “Think of the food they’ll have,” said Iko. “And the dresses. And music!” Cinder ignored her, selecting an assortment of varying tools and arranging them on Iko’s magnetic torso. “Oh, my stars! Think about Prince Kai! You could dance with Prince Kai!” This made Cinder pause and squint into Iko’s blinding light. “Why would the prince dance with me?” Iko’s fan hummed as she sought an answer. “Because you won’t have grease on your face this time.” Cinder fought down a chuckle. Android reasoning could be so simplistic. “I hate to break this to you, Iko,” she said, slamming in the drawer and moving on to the next, “but I’m not going to the ball.” Iko’s fan stopped momentarily, started up again. “I don’t compute.” “For starters, I just spent my life savings on a new foot. But even if I did have money, why would I spend it on a dress or shoes or gloves? What a waste.” “What else could you have to spend it on?” “A complete set of wrenches? A toolbox with drawers that don’t stick?” She slammed in the second drawer with her shoulder to emphasize her point. “A down payment on my own apartment where I won’t have to be Adri’s servant anymore?” “Adri wouldn’t sign the release documents.” Cinder opened the third drawer. “I know. It would cost a lot more than a silly dress anyway.” She grabbed a ratchet and a handful of wrenches and set them on top of the toolbox. “Maybe I’d get skin grafting.” “Your skin is fine.” Cinder glanced at Iko from the corner of her eye. “Oh. You mean your cyborg parts.” Shutting the third drawer, Cinder grabbed her messenger bag from the work desk and shoveled the tools into it. “What else do you think we’ll—oh, the floor jack. Where’d I put that?” “You’re being unreasonable,” said Iko. “Maybe you can trade for a dress or get one on consignment. I’ve been dying to go into that vintage dress store on Sakura. You know the one I mean?” Cinder shuffled around the random tools that had collected beneath the worktable. “It doesn’t matter. I’m not going.” “But it does matter. It’s the ball. And the prince!” “Iko, I’m fixing an android for him. It’s not like we’re friends now.” Mentioning the prince’s android sparked a memory, and a moment later Cinder pulled the floor jack out from behind its tread. “And it doesn’t matter because Adri will never let me go.” “She said if you fixed the hover—” “Right. And after I fix the hover? What about Peony’s portscreen that’s always acting up? What about—” She scanned the room and spotted a rusty android tucked away in the corner. “What about that old Gard7.3?” “What would Adri want with that old thing? She doesn’t have a garden anymore. She doesn’t even have a balcony.” “I’m just saying that she has no real intention of letting me go. As long as she can come up with things for me to fix, my ‘chores’ will never be done.” Cinder shoved a couple jack stands into her bag, telling herself that she didn’t care. Not really. She wouldn’t fit in at a formal ball anyway. Even if she did find dress gloves and slippers that could hide her metal monstrosities, her mousy hair would never hold a curl, and she didn’t know the first thing about makeup. She would just end up sitting off the dance floor and making fun of the girls who swooned to get Prince Kai’s attention, pretending she wasn’t jealous. Pretending it didn’t bother her. Although she was curious about the food. And the prince did know her now, sort of. He had been kind to her at the market. Perhaps he would ask her to dance. Out of politeness. Out of chivalry when he saw her standing alone. The precarious fantasy crashed down around her as quickly as it had begun. It was impossible. Not worth thinking about. She was cyborg, and she would never go to the ball. “I think that’s everything,” she said, masking her disappointment by adjusting the messenger bag over her shoulders. “You ready?” “I don’t compute,” said Iko. “If fixing the hover won’t convince Adri to let you go to the ball, then why are we going to the junkyard? If she wants a magbelt so bad, why doesn’t she go dig through the trash to find one?” “Because ball or no, I do believe she would sell you off for pocket change if given a reason. Besides, with them off to the ball, we’ll have the apartment to ourselves. Doesn’t that sound nice?” “It sounds great to me!” Cinder turned to see Peony heaving herself through the doorway. She still wore her silver ball gown, but now the hems along the neck and sleeves were finished. A hint of lace had been added at her cleavage, accentuating the fact that, at fourteen, Peony had already developed curves that Cinder couldn’t begin to hope for. If Cinder’s body had ever been predisposed to femininity, it had been ruined by whatever the surgeons had done to her, leaving her with a stick-straight figure. Too angular. Too boyish. Too awkward with her heavy artificial leg. “I’m going to strangle Mom,” said Peony. “She’s making me loony. ‘Pearl needs to find a husband,’ ‘My daughters are such a drain,’ ‘No one appreciates what I do for them,’ yap yap yap.” She wobbled her fingers in the air in mockery of her mother. “What are you doing down here?” “Hiding. Oh, and to ask if you could look at my portscreen.” She pulled a handheld screen from behind her back, offering it to Cinder. Cinder took it, but her eyes were on the bottom of Peony’s skirt, watching as the shimmering hem gathered dust bunnies around it. “You’re going to ruin that dress. Then Adri will really be a tyrant.” Peony stuck out her tongue but then gathered up her skirt in both fists, hiking the hem up to her knees. “So what do you think?” she said, bouncing on the balls of her bare feet. “You look amazing.” Peony preened, wrinkling the fabric more in her fingers. But then her cheeriness faltered. “She should have had one made for you too. It’s not fair.” “I don’t really want to go.” Cinder shrugged. Peony’s tone had such sympathy that she didn’t bother to argue. She was usually able to ignore the jealousy she had toward her stepsisters—how Adri doted on them, how soft their hands were—especially when Peony was the only human friend she had. But she could not swallow the twitch of envy at seeing Peony in that dress. She brushed the topic away. “What’s wrong with the port?” “It’s doing that gibberish thing again.” Peony pushed some tools off a stack of empty paint bins, choosing the cleanest spot before sitting down, her full skirts flouncing around her. She swung her feet so that her heels beat steadily against the plastic. “Have you been downloading those stupid celeb apps again?” “No.” Cinder raised an eyebrow. “One language app. That’s it. And I needed it for class. Oh—before I forget, Iko, I brought you something.” Iko rolled to Peony’s side as she pulled a velvet ribbon from her bodice, leftover trim from the seamstress. The light in the room brightened when Iko saw it. “Thank you,” said the android as Peony tied the ribbon around her skinny wrist joint. “It’s lovely.” Cinder set the portscreen on the work desk, next to Prince Kai’s android. “I’ll look at it tomorrow. We’re off to find a magbelt for Her Majesty.” “Oh? Where are you going?” “The junkyard.” “It’s going to be a bundle of fun,” said Iko, scanning the makeshift bracelet with her sensor again and again. “Really?” said Peony. “Can I come?” Cinder laughed. “She’s kidding. Iko’s been practicing her sarcasm.” “I don’t care. Anything’s better than going back into that stuffy apartment.” Peony fanned herself and absently leaned back against a stack of metal shelving. Reaching out, Cinder pulled her back. “Careful, your dress.” Peony surveyed her skirt, then the grime-covered shelves, then waved Cinder’s concern away. “Really, can I? Sounds exciting.” “It sounds dirty and stinky,” said Iko. “How would you know?” said Cinder. “You don’t have scent receptors.” “I have a fantastic imagination.” Smirking, Cinder half shoved her stepsister toward the door. “Fine, go get changed. But be quick. I have a story to tell you.” Chapter Four PEONY SLUGGED CINDER IN THE SHOULDER, NEARLY PUSHING her into a pile of bald android treads. “How could you wait so long to tell me? You’ve only been home for, what, four hours?” “I know, I know, I’m sorry,” said Cinder, rubbing her shoulder. “There wasn’t a good time, and I didn’t want Adri to know. I don’t want her taking advantage of it.” “Who cares about what Mom thinks? I want to take advantage of this. Good stars, the prince. In your booth. I can’t believe I wasn’t there. Why wasn’t I there?” “You were busy being fitted in silk and brocade.” “Ugh.” Peony kicked a broken headlight out of her path. “You should have commed me. I would have been there in two seconds, unfinished ball gown and all. Ugh. I hate you. It’s official, I hate you. Are you going to see him again? I mean, you’ll have to, right? I might be able to stop hating you if you promise to bring me with you, all right, deal?” “Found one!” Iko called from ten yards ahead. Her floodlight targeted the body of a rusted hover, entrenching the piles of debris behind it in shadows. “So? What was he like?” Peony said, keeping pace as Cinder hurried toward the earthbound vehicle, as if being near her was now on par with being near His Imperial Highness himself. “I don’t know,” said Cinder, unlatching the vehicle’s hood and lifting it up on the prop-rod. “Ah, good, it hasn’t been scavenged.” Iko scooted out of Cinder’s way. “He was polite enough not to point out the giant grease stain on her forehead.” Peony gasped. “Oh, you didn’t!” “What? I’m a mechanic. I get dirty. If he wanted me to get all gussied up, he should have commed ahead. Iko, I could use some light in here.” Iko tilted her head forward, illuminating the engine compartment. On Cinder’s other side, Peony clucked her tongue. “Maybe he thought it was a mole?” “That makes me feel much better.” Cinder pulled a pair of pliers from her bag. The night sky was clear, and though the lights from the city blocked out any stars, the sharp crescent moon lurked near the horizon, a sleepy eye squinting through the haze. “Is he as handsome in real life as he looks on the netscreens?” “Yes,” said Iko. “Even more handsome. And awful tall.” “Everyone’s tall to you.” Peony leaned against the front bumper, arms folded. “And I want to hear Cinder’s opinion.” Cinder stopped poking the pliers around the engine as the memory of his easy smile rushed into her. Though Prince Kai had long been one of Peony’s favorite topics—she was probably in every one of his net fangroups—Cinder had never imagined that she might share the admiration. In fact, she’d always thought Peony’s celebrity crush was a little silly, a little preadolescent. Prince Kai this, Prince Kai that. An impossible fantasy. But now… Something in Cinder’s face must have said enough, because Peony suddenly shrieked and lunged at her, wrapping her arms around Cinder’s waist and hopping up and down. “I knew it! I knew you liked him too! I can’t believe you actually met him! It’s not fair. Did I mention how much I hate you?” “Yes, yes, I know,” said Cinder, prying Peony’s arms off her. “Now go be giddy somewhere else. I’m trying to work.” Peony made a face and skipped away, twirling amid the piles of junk. “What else? Tell me everything. What did he say? What did he do?” “Nothing,” said Cinder. “He just asked me to fix his android.” She peeled away the spiderwebs from what had once been the hover’s solar generator but was now little more than a plastic shell. A cloud of dust kicked up into her face and she pulled away, coughing. “Ratchet?” Iko plucked the ratchet from her torso and handed it to Cinder. “What kind of android is it?” asked Peony. Cinder pried the generator from the compartment with a grunt and set it on the ground beside the hover. “An old one.” “Tutor8.6,” said Iko. “Older than me. And he said he would come back to the market next weekend to pick it up.” Peony kicked a rusted oil can out of the path before bending over the engine. “The news said the market’s going to be shut down next week because of the outbreak.” “Oh—I hadn’t heard that.” Cinder wiped her hands on her pants, peering down into the engine’s lower compartment. “I guess we’ll have to drop it off at the palace then.” “Yes!” Peony jigged in place. “We’ll go together and you can introduce me and—and—” “Aha!” Cinder beamed. “Magbelt.” Peony cupped her cheek in her palm, raising her voice. “And then he’ll recognize me at the ball, and I’ll dance with him and—Pearl will be livid!” She laughed, as if angering her older sister were life’s greatest accomplishment. “If the android’s even done before the ball.” Cinder selected a wrench from the tool belt slung around her hips. She didn’t want to inform Peony that Prince Kai probably wouldn’t be the one signing for deliveries at the palace. Peony whisked her hand through the air. “Well, or whenever.” “I want to go to the ball,” said Iko, gazing up at the horizon. “It’s prejudice not to let androids attend.” “Petition the government then. I’m sure Peony will be happy to take your cause direct to the prince himself.” Cinder clamped onto Iko’s spherical head and forced her to aim the light back into the hood. “Now hold still. I’ve just about got this end detached.” Cinder stuck the wrench to Iko, then pried the magbelt from its bracket, letting it clatter to the ground below. “One side down, one to go.” She led the way around the hover, clearing a path through the garbage so Iko’s treads wouldn’t get stuck. Peony followed and climbed on top of the hover’s trunk, folding her legs beneath her. “You know, some people are saying he’s going to be looking for a bride at the ball.” “A bride!” said Iko. “How romantic.” Cinder lowered herself onto her side behind the hover’s back bumper and took a small flashlight from her tool belt. “Hand me that wrench again?” “Didn’t you hear me? A bride, Cinder. As in, a princess.” “As in, not going to happen. He’s only, what? Nineteen?” Tucking the flashlight between her teeth, Cinder took the wrench from Iko. The bolts in the back had less rust on them, better protected from the overhanging trunk, and took only a few quick turns to loosen. “Eighteen and a half,” said Peony. “And it’s true. All the gossip links are saying so.” Cinder grunted. “I would marry Prince Kai in a heartbeat.” “Me too,” said Iko. Cinder spit out the flashlight and shuffled to the fourth corner. “You and every other girl in the Commonwealth.” “Like you wouldn’t,” said Peony. Cinder didn’t answer as she loosened the final bolt gripping the magbelt. It released and fell to the ground with a clang. “There we go.” She slid out from beneath the car and tucked the wrench and flashlight into her calf compartment before standing. “See any other hovers worth scavenging while we’re here?” Pulling the magbelt out from beneath the hover, she folded it at its hinges, forming a less cumbersome metal rod. “I did see something over there.” Iko swished the light around the stacks. “Not sure what model.” “Great. Lead the way.” Cinder nudged the android with the belt. Iko took off, muttering about being stuck in junkyards while Adri was all clean and cozy at home. “Besides,” said Peony, hopping off the trunk, “the rumor that he’s looking for a bride at the ball is a lot better than what the other rumors are saying.” “Let me guess. Prince Kai is actually a martian? Or no, no—he had an illegitimate child with an escort, didn’t he?” “Escort-droids can have children?” “No.” Peony huffed, blowing a curl off her brow. “Well, this is even worse. They say there’s been talk of him marrying…” She dropped her voice to a harsh whisper. “Queen Levana.” “Queen—” Cinder froze and clamped a gloved hand over her mouth, glancing around as if someone could be lurking in the piles of garbage, listening. She pulled her hand away but kept her voice down. “Honestly, Peony. Those tabloids are going to rot your brain.” “I don’t want to believe it either, but they’re all saying it. That’s why the queen’s witchy ambassador has been staying at the palace, so she can secure an alliance. It’s all very political.” “I don’t think so. Prince Kai would never marry her.” “You don’t know that.” But she did know. Cinder may not know much about inter-galactic politics, but she knew Prince Kai would be a fool to marry Queen Levana. The lingering moon caught Cinder’s attention, and a shock of goose bumps covered her arms. The moon had always given her a sense of paranoia, like the people who lived up there could be watching her, and if she stared for too long, she might draw their attention. Superstitious nonsense, but then everything about Lunars was eerie and superstitious. Lunars were a society that had evolved from an Earthen moon colony centuries ago, but they weren’t human anymore. People said Lunars could alter a person’s brain—make you see things you shouldn’t see, feel things you shouldn’t feel, do things you didn’t want to do. Their unnatural power had made them a greedy and violent race, and Queen Levana was the worst of all of them. They said she knew when people were talking about her even thousands of miles away. Even down on Earth. They said she’d murdered her older sister, Queen Channary, so she could take the throne from her. They said she’d had her own husband killed too so she would be free to make a more advantageous match. They said she had forced her stepdaughter to mutilate her own face because, at the sweet age of thirteen, she had become more beautiful than the jealous queen could stand. They said she’d killed her niece, her only threat to the throne. Princess Selene had only been three years old when a fire caught in her nursery, killing her and her nanny. Some conspiracy theorists thought the princess had survived and was still alive somewhere, waiting for the right time to reclaim her crown and end Levana’s rule of tyranny, but Cinder knew it was only desperation that fueled these rumors. After all, they’d found traces of the child’s flesh in the ashes. “Here.” Iko raised her hand and knocked on a slab of metal jutting from a huge mound of junk, startling Cinder. She shoved the thoughts aside. Prince Kai would never marry that witch. He could never marry a Lunar. Cinder pushed a few rusted aerosol cans and an old mattress aside before she was able to clearly make out the hover’s nose. “Good eye.” Together they shuffled enough junk out of the way so that the full front of the vehicle could be seen. “I’ve never seen one like this,” Cinder said, running a hand over the pitted chrome insignia. “It’s hideous,” said Peony with a sneer. “What an awful color.” “It must be really old.” Cinder found the latch and pulled open the hood. She drew back, blinking at the mess of metal and plastic that greeted her. “Really old.” She squinted into the front corner of the engine, but the undercarriage hid the magbelt clamps from view. “Huh. Point the light over there, would you?” Cinder lowered herself to the dirt. She tightened her ponytail before squirming under the hover, shoving aside the jumble of old parts that had been left to rust in the weeds beneath it. “Stars,” she muttered when she was able to look up into its belly. Iko’s light filtered down from above, through cables and wires, ducts and manifolds, nuts and bolts. “This thing is ancient.” “It is in a junkyard,” said Peony. “I’m serious. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Cinder ran a hand along a rubber cable. The light flashed back and forth as Iko’s sensor scanned the engine from above. “Any useful parts?” “Good question.” Cinder’s vision tinted blue as she connected to her netlink. “Could you read me the VIN by the windshield?” She searched the number as Peony read it to her and had the hover’s blueprint downloaded in minutes, the display creating an overlaid image on top of the engine above her. “Seems to be fairly intact,” she murmured, running her fingertips along a cluster of wires over her head. She followed them with her eyes, tilting her head to trace the path from hoses to pulleys to axles, trying to decipher how it all fit together. How it all worked. “This is so cool.” “I’m bored,” said Peony. Sighing, Cinder searched for the magbelt on the blueprint, but a green error message flashed in her vision. She tried just magnet, and then just belt, finally receiving a hit. The blueprint lit up a rubber band wrapped around a series of gears, encapsulated by a metal cover—something called a timing belt. Frowning, Cinder reached up and felt for the bolts and lock washers that attached the cover to the engine block. She thought timing belts hadn’t been used since internal combustion had become obsolete. Gasping, she craned her neck to the side. In the deep shadows beneath the vehicle, she could make out something round beside her, connected to the bars overhead. A wheel. “It’s not a hover. It’s a car. A gasoline car.” “Seriously?” said Peony. “I thought real cars were supposed to be…I don’t know. Classy.” Indignation flared in Cinder’s chest. “It has character,” she said, feeling for the tire’s treads. “So,” said Iko a second later, “does this mean we can’t use any of its parts?” Ignoring her, Cinder hungrily scanned the blueprint before her. Oil pan, fuel injectors, exhaust pipes. “It’s from the second era.” “Fascinating. Not,” said Peony. She suddenly screeched, launching herself back from the car. Cinder started so fast she whapped her head on the front suspension. “Peony, what?” “A rat just came out of the window! A big hairy fat one. Oh, gross.” Groaning, Cinder settled her head back into the dirt, massaging her forehead. That made two head injuries in one day. At that rate, she was going to have to buy a new control panel too. “It must have been nesting in the upholstery. We probably scared it.” “We scared it?” Peony’s voice carried a shudder with it. “Can we go now, please?” Cinder sighed. “Fine.” Dismissing the blueprint, she squirmed out from beneath the car, accepting Iko’s offered grippers to stand. “I thought all the surviving gasoline cars were in museums,” she said, brushing the cobwebs from her hair. “I’m not sure I would label it a ‘survivor,’” said Iko, her sensor darkening with disgust. “It looks more like a rotting pumpkin.” Cinder shut the hood with a bang, sending an impressive dust cloud over the android. “What was that about having a fantastic imagination? With some attention and a good cleaning, it could be restored to its former glory.” She caressed the hood. The car’s dome-shaped body was a yellow-orange shade that looked sickly under Iko’s light—a color that no one in modern times would choose—but with the antique style of the vehicle it bordered on charming. Rust was creeping up from the hollow beneath the shattered headlights, arching along the dented fender. One of the back windows was missing, but the seats were intact, albeit mildew covered and torn and probably home to more than just rodents. The steering wheel and dash seemed to have suffered only minor damage over the years. “Maybe it could be our escape car.” Peony peered into the passenger’s side window. “Escape from what?” “Adri. New Beijing. We could get out of the Commonwealth altogether. We could go to Europe!” Cinder rounded the driver’s side and scrubbed the dirt from the window with her glove. On the floor inside, three pedals winked up at her. Though hovers were all controlled by computer, she had read enough about old technology to know what a clutch was and even had a basic idea of how to operate one. “This hunk of metal wouldn’t get us to the city limits,” said Peony. Stepping back, Cinder dusted off her hands. They were probably right. Maybe this wasn’t a fantasy vehicle, maybe it wasn’t their key to salvation, but somehow, someday, she would leave New Beijing. She would find a place where no one knew who she was—or what she was. “Plus, we couldn’t afford the gasoline,” continued Iko. “We could trade in your new foot and still not be able to afford enough fuel to get out of here. Plus, the pollution fines. Plus, I’m not getting in this thing. There’s probably decades’ worth of rat droppings under those seats.” Peony cringed. “Ew.” Cinder laughed. “All right, I get it. I won’t make you guys push the car home.” “Whew, you had me worried,” said Peony. She smiled because she hadn’t really been worried and flipped her hair off her shoulder. Cinder’s eye caught on something—a dark spot below Peony’s collarbone, visible just above the collar of her shirt. “Hold still,” she said, reaching forward. Peony did the opposite, panicking and swiping at phantoms on her chest. “What? What is it? A bug? A spider?” “I said, hold still!” Cinder grabbed Peony by the wrist, swiped at the spot—and froze. Dropping Peony’s arm, she stumbled back. “What? What is it?” Peony tugged on her shirt, trying to see, but then spotted another spot on the back of her hand. She looked up at Cinder, blood draining from her face. “A…a rash?” she said. “From the car?” Cinder gulped and neared her with hesitant footsteps, holding her breath. She reached again for Peony’s collarbone and pulled the fabric of her shirt down, revealing the entire spot in the moonlight. A splotch of red, rimmed with bruise purple. Her fingers trembled. She pulled away, meeting Peony’s gaze. Peony screamed. Chapter Five PEONY’S SHRIEKS FILLED THE JUNKYARD, SEEPING INTO THE cracks of broken machinery and outdated computers. Cinder’s auditory interface couldn’t protect her from the shrill memory, even as Peony’s voice cracked and she dissolved into hysteria. Cinder stood trembling, unable to move. Wanting to comfort Peony. Wanting to run away. How was this possible? Peony was young, healthy. She couldn’t be sick. Peony cried, brushing repeatedly at her skin, the spots. Cinder’s netlink took over, as it did in moments when she couldn’t think for herself. Searching, connecting, feeding information to her she didn’t want. Letumosis. The blue fever. Worldwide pandemic. Hundreds of thousands dead. Unknown cause, unknown cure. “Peony—” She tentatively reached forward, but Peony stumbled back, swiping at her wet cheeks and nose. “Don’t come near me! You’ll get it. You’ll all get it.” Cinder retracted her hand. She heard Iko at her side, fan whirring. Saw the blue light darting over Peony, around the junkyard, flickering. She was scared. “I said, get back!” Peony collapsed to her knees, hunching over her stomach. Cinder took two steps away, then lingered, watching Peony rock herself back and forth in Iko’s spotlight. “I…I need to call an emergency hover. To—” To come and take you away. Peony didn’t respond. Her whole body was rattling. Cinder could hear her teeth chattering in between the wails. Cinder shivered. She rubbed at her arms, inspecting them for spots. She couldn’t see any, but she eyed her right glove with distrust, not wanting to remove it, not wanting to check. She stepped back again. The junkyard shadows loomed toward her. The plague. It was here. In the air. In the garbage. How long did it take for the first symptoms of the plague to show up? Or… She thought of Chang Sacha at the market. The terrified mob running from her booth. The blare of the sirens. Her stomach plummeted. Was this her fault? Had she brought the plague home from the market? She checked her arms again, swiping at invisible bugs that crawled over her skin. Stumbled back. Peony’s sobs filled her head, suffocating her. A red warning flashed across her retina display, informing her that she was experiencing elevated levels of adrenaline. She blinked it away, then called up her comm link with a writhing gut and sent a simple message before she could question it. EMERGENCY, TAIHANG DISTRICT JUNKYARD. LETUMOSIS. She clenched her jaw, feeling the painful dryness of her eyes. A throbbing headache told her that she should be crying, that her sobs should match her sister’s. “Why?” Peony said, her voice stammering. “What did I do?” “You didn’t do anything,” said Cinder. “This isn’t your fault.” But it might be mine. “What should I do?” Iko asked, almost too quiet to be heard. “I don’t know,” said Cinder. “A hover is on its way.” Peony rubbed her nose with her forearm. Her eyes were rimmed in red. “You n-need to go. You’ll catch it.” Feeling dizzy, Cinder realized she’d been breathing too shallowly. She took another step away before filling her lungs. “Maybe I already have it. Maybe it’s my fault you caught it. The outbreak at the market today…I-I didn’t think I was close enough, but…Peony, I’m so sorry.” Peony squeezed her eyes and buried her face again. Her brown hair was a mess of tangles hanging across her shoulders, stark against her pale skin. A hiccup, followed by another sob. “I don’t want to go.” “I know.” It was all Cinder could think to say. Don’t be scared? It will be all right? She couldn’t lie, not when it would be so obvious. “I wish there was something…” She stopped herself. She heard the sirens before Peony did. “I’m so sorry.” Peony swiped at her nose with her sleeve, leaving a trail of mucus. Then kept crying. She didn’t respond until the wails of the sirens reached her ears and her head snapped up. She stared into the distance, the entrance of the junkyard somewhere beyond the trash heaps. Eyes rounded. Lips trembling. Face blotchy red. Cinder’s heart shriveled in on itself. She couldn’t help herself. If she was going to catch it, she already had. She fell to her knees, wrapping Peony up in both arms. Her tool belt dug into her hip, but she ignored it as Peony grasped at her T-shirt, sobs renewed. “I’m so sorry.” “What will you tell Mom and Pearl?” Cinder bit her lips. “I don’t know.” Then, “The truth, I guess.” Bile rose in her mouth. Maybe it was a sign. Maybe stomach sickness was a symptom. She looked down at her forearm, embracing Peony to her. Still no spots. Peony shoved her away, scooting back in the dirt. “Stay away. You might not be sick yet. But they would take you. You have to get out of here.” Cinder hesitated. She heard the crunch of treads over scattered aluminum and plastic. She didn’t want to leave Peony, but what if she really hadn’t caught it yet? She sat back on her heels, then clambered to her feet. Yellow lights were nearing them from the shadows. Cinder’s right hand was sweating in its glove. Her breathing had shallowed again. “Peony…” “Go! Go away!” Cinder stepped back. Back. Had the bleary sense to stop and pick up the folded magbelt. She moved toward the exit, her human leg as numb as the prosthesis. Peony’s sobs chased after her. Three white androids met her around a corner. They had yellow sensors and red crosses painted on their heads and two were pushing a hovering gurney between them. “Are you the letumosis victim?” one asked in a neutral voice, holding up an ID scanner. Cinder hid her wrist. “No. My sister, Linh Peony. She-she’s that way, to the left.” The med-droids with the gurney wheeled away from her, down the path. “Have you had direct contact with the victim in the past twelve hours?” the remaining android asked. Cinder opened her mouth, hesitated. Guilt and fear curdled in her gut. She could lie. There was no proof she had it yet, but if they took her to the quarantines, she didn’t stand a chance. But if she went home, she could infect everyone. Adri. Pearl. Those screeching, laughing children rushing through the hallways. She could barely hear her own voice. “Yes.” “Are you showing symptoms?” “N-no. I don’t know. I feel lightheaded, but not—” She stopped herself. The med-droid neared her, its treads grating on the dirty ground. Cinder stumbled away from it, but it said nothing, only inched closer until Cinder’s calves were pressed against a rotting storage crate. It held up the ID scanner in one pronged hand, and then a third arm appeared from within its torso—a syringe in place of grippers. Cinder shuddered but didn’t resist as it grabbed her right wrist and inserted the needle. She flinched, watching as dark liquid, almost black in the android’s yellow light, was pulled up into the syringe. She was not afraid of needles, but the world began to tilt. The android removed it just in time for her to slump down onto the crate. “What are you doing?” she whispered. “Initiating blood scan for letumosis-carrying pathogens.” Cinder heard a motor start up inside the android, faint beeps announcing each step. The android’s light dimmed as its power source was diverted. She held her breath until her control panel kicked in and forced her lungs to contract. “ID,” said the android, holding the scanner out to her. A red light passed over her wrist and the scanner beeped. The android stashed it away in its hollow torso. She wondered how long it would take for it to finish the scan and determine that she was a carrier, confirming that she was at fault. For everything. The sound of treads approached along the path. Cinder turned her head as the two androids appeared with Peony atop their gurney. She was sitting up with her hands wrapped around her knees. Swollen eyes wildly darted around the junkyard as if searching for an escape. As if she’d stumbled into a nightmare. But she didn’t try to run. No one ever put up a fight when being taken to the quarantines. Their eyes met. Cinder opened her mouth but nothing came out. She tried to plead forgiveness with her eyes. The faintest of smiles touched Peony’s lips. She raised a hand and waved with only her fingers. Cinder returned it, knowing it should be her. She had already outlived fate once. She should be the one being carted away. She should be the one dying. It should be her. It was about to be her. She tried to speak, to tell Peony she would be right behind her. She wouldn’t be alone. But then the android beeped. “Scan complete. No letumosis-carrying pathogens detected. Subject is urged to stand fifty feet back from infected patient.” Cinder blinked. Relief and dread both squirmed inside her. She wasn’t sick. She wasn’t going to die. She wasn’t going with Peony. “We will alert you via comm when Linh Peony enters the subsequent stages of the disease. Thank you for your cooperation.” Cinder wrapped her arms around herself and watched Peony lay down as she was carted away, curling up like a child on the gurney. Chapter Six CINDER SLINKED THROUGH THE BALMY NIGHT, THE SOUND of her boots shuffling across the concrete, as if both legs were made of steel. The empty night was a chorus of muted sounds in her head: the sandy crunching of Iko’s treads, the sputtering of street lamps above them, the constant hum of the magnetic superconductor beneath the street. With every step, the wrench inside Cinder’s calf clanked. It all dulled in comparison to the video replaying in her mind. Her interface did that sometimes—recording moments of strong emotion and replaying them over and over. Like déjà vu or when the last words of a conversation linger in the air long after silence has settled in. Usually, she could make the memory stop before it drove her crazy, but tonight she didn’t have the energy. The black splotch on Peony’s skin. Her scream. The med-droid’s syringe dragging Cinder’s blood from the flesh of her elbow. Peony, small and trembling on the gurney. Already dying. She stopped, clutching her stomach as nausea roiled up. Iko paused a few paces ahead, shining her spotlight on Cinder’s scrunched face. “Are you all right?” The light darted down the length of Cinder’s body, and she was sure Iko was searching for bruise-like rings even though the med-droid had said she wasn’t infected. Instead of answering, Cinder peeled off her gloves and shoved them into her back pocket. Her faintness passing, she leaned her shoulder against a street lamp and drank in the humid air. They’d made it home, almost. The Phoenix Tower apartments stood on the next corner, only the top floor catching the faint light from the crescent moon, the rest of the building cast in shadow. The windows were black but for a handful of lights and some bluish white glares from flickering netscreens. Cinder counted floors, finding the windows to the kitchen and Adri’s bedroom. Though dim, a light was still on somewhere in the apartment. Adri wasn’t a night person, but perhaps she’d discovered that Peony was still out. Or perhaps Pearl was awake, working on a school project or comming friends late into the night. It was probably better this way. She didn’t want to have to wake them. “What am I going to tell them?” Iko’s sensor was on the apartment building for a moment, then the ground, picking up the shuffled debris across the sidewalk. Cinder rubbed her sweaty palm on her pants and forced herself onward. Try as she might, suitable words would not come to her. Explanations, excuses. How do you tell a woman her daughter is dying? She swiped her ID and entered through the main door this time. The gray lobby was decorated only with a netscreen that held announcements for the residents—a rise in maintenance fees, a petition for a new ID scanner at the front door, a lost cat. Then the elevator, loud with the clunking of old machinery. The hallway was empty, save the man from apartment 1807 snoozing on his doorstep. Cinder had to tuck in his splayed arm so Iko wouldn’t crush it. Heavy breathing and the sweet aroma of rice wine wafted up. She hesitated in front of apartment 1820, heart pounding. She couldn’t recall when the video of Peony had stopped repeating in her head, eclipsed by her harsh nerves. What was she going to say? Cinder bit her lip and held up her wrist for the scanner. The small light switched to green. She opened the door as quietly as possible. Brightness from the living room spilled into the dark hallway. Cinder caught a glimpse of the netscreen, still showing footage of the market from earlier that day, the baker’s booth going up in flames again and again. The screen was muted. Cinder entered the room, but halted mid-step. Iko bumped against her leg. Facing her from the middle of the living room were three androids with red crosses painted on their spherical heads. Emergency med-droids. Behind them, Adri in her silk bathrobe stood against the mantel although the holographic fire was turned off. Pearl was still fully clothed, sitting on the sofa with her knees pulled up to her chin. They were both holding dry washcloths over their noses and eyeing Cinder with a mixture of repulsion and fear. Cinder’s stomach clenched. She drew a half step back into the hallway, wondering which of them was sick, but she quickly realized that neither of them could be. The androids would have taken them immediately. They wouldn’t be protecting their breath. The entire building would be on lockdown. She noticed a small bandage on Adri’s elbow. They’d already been tested. Cinder shifted her messenger bag, setting it on the ground, but kept the magbelt. Adri cleared her throat and lowered the cloth to her sternum. She looked like a skeleton in the pale lighting, mealy skin and jutting bones. Without makeup, dark circles swelled beneath her bloodshot eyes. She’d been crying, but now her lips were set in a stiff line. “I received a comm an hour ago,” she said once the silence had congealed in the room. “It informed me that Peony was picked up in the Taihang District junkyard and taken—” Her voice broke. She dropped her gaze, and when she looked up again, her eyes were flashing. “But you know that already, don’t you?” Cinder shifted, trying not to look at the med-droids. Without waiting for Cinder’s answer, Adri said, “Iko, you can begin disposing of Peony’s things. Anything she wore in the past week can go into waste collection—but take it to the alley yourself, I don’t want it clogging up the chutes. I suppose everything else can be sold at the market.” Her voice was sharp and steady, as if this list had been repeating in her head from the moment she’d received the news. “Yes, Linh-ji,” said Iko, wheeling back into the hallway. Cinder stayed, frozen, both hands clutching the magbelt like a shield. Though the android was incapable of ignoring Adri’s commands, it was clear from her slowness that she didn’t want to leave Cinder alone so long as the med-droids were watching with their hollow yellow sensors. “Why,” said Adri, wringing the washcloth, “was my youngest daughter at the Taihang District junkyard this evening?” Cinder drew the magbelt against her, lining it up from shoulder to toe. Made of the same steel as her hand and equally tarnished, it felt like an extension of her. “She came with me to look for a magbelt.” She drew in a heavy breath. Her tongue felt swollen, her throat closing in. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t—I saw the spots, and I called the emergency hover. I didn’t know what to do.” Tears puddled in Adri’s eyes, briefly, before she blinked them away. She dropped her head, staring down at the twisted cloth. Her body sagged against the mantel. “I wasn’t sure that you would come back here, Cinder. I expected to receive another comm at any minute, telling me that my ward had also been taken.” Adri pulled her shoulders back, lifting her gaze. The weakness passed, her dark eyes hardened. “These med-droids tested Pearl and myself. The plague has not yet spread to either of us.” Cinder started to nod, relieved, but Adri continued. “Tell me, Cinder. If Pearl and I are not carrying the disease, where did Peony get it from?” “I don’t know.” “You don’t know? But you did know about the outbreak in the market today.” Cinder’s lips parted. Of course. The cloths. The med-droids. They thought she was infected. “I don’t understand you, Cinder. How could you be so selfish?” She jerked her head, no. “They tested me too, at the junkyard. I don’t have it. I don’t know where she got it from.” She held out her arm, showing the bruise blooming on her inner elbow. “They can check again if they want to.” One of the med-droids showed its first sign of life, shining the light at the small red spot where the needle had pricked her. But they didn’t move, and Adri didn’t encourage them. Instead, she turned her attention to a small framed portscreen on the mantel, shuffling through pictures of Pearl and Peony in their childhood. Pictures at their old house, the one with the garden. Pictures with Adri, before she’d lost her smile. Pictures with their father. “I’m so sorry,” said Cinder. “I love her too.” Adri squeezed the frame. “Don’t insult me,” she said, sliding the frame closer to her. “Do your kind even know what love is? Can you feel anything at all, or is it just…programmed?” She was talking to herself, but the words stung. Cinder risked a glance at Pearl, who was still sitting on the sofa with her face half-hidden behind her knees, but she was no longer holding the washcloth to her face. When she saw Cinder looking at her, she turned her gaze to the floor. Cinder flexed her fingers against the magbelt. “Of course I know what love is.” And sadness too. She wished she could cry to prove it. “Good. Then you will understand that I am doing what a mother must do, to protect my children.” Adri turned the frame facedown on the mantel. On the couch, Pearl turned her face away, pressing her cheek against her knees. A tendril of fear curled in Cinder’s stomach. “Adri?” “It has been five years since you became a part of this household, Cinder. Five years since Garan left you to me. I still don’t know what made him do it, don’t know why he felt obligated to travel to Europe, of all places, to find some…mutant to take care of. He never explained it to me. Perhaps he would have someday. But I never wanted you. You know that.” Cinder pursed her lips. The blank-faced med-droids leered up at her. She did know it, but she didn’t think Adri had ever put it so clearly. “Garan wanted you to be taken care of, so I’ve done my best. Even when he died, even when the money ran out, even when…everything fell apart.” Her voice cracked, and she pressed one palm firmly against her mouth. Cinder watched her shoulders tremble, listened to the short gasps of breath as she tried to stifle the sobs. “But Garan would have agreed. Peony comes first. Our girls come first.” Cinder started at the raised voice. She could hear the justification in Adri’s tone. The determination. Don’t leave me with this thing. She shuddered. “Adri—” “If it weren’t for you, Garan would still be alive. And Peony—” “No, it’s not my fault.” Cinder spotted a flash of white, saw Iko loitering in the hallway, uncertain. Her sensor had gone nearly black. Cinder searched for her voice. Her pulse was throbbing, white spots flickering across her vision. A red warning flickered in the corner of her eye—a recommendation that she calm down. “I didn’t ask to be made like this. I didn’t ask for you or anybody to adopt me. This isn’t my fault!” “It isn’t my fault either!” Adri lashed out, shoving the netscreen off its brackets with one shove. It fell and crashed, taking two of her husband’s achievement plaques down with it. Bits of plastic ricocheted across the worn carpet. Cinder jumped back, but the frenzy fled as fast as it had come. Adri’s ragged breath was already slowing. She was always so careful not to disturb the neighbors. Not to be noticed. Not to cause a commotion. Not to do anything that could ruin their reputation. Even now. “Cinder,” said Adri, chafing her fingers with the washcloth as if she could erase her lost temper. “You will be going with these med-droids. Don’t make a scene.” The floor shifted. “What? Why?” “Because we all have a duty to do what we can, and you know what a high demand there is for…your type. Especially now.” She paused. Her face had gone pink and mottled. “We can still help Peony. They just need cyborgs, to find a cure.” “You volunteered me for plague research?” Her mouth could barely form the words. “What else was I to do?” Cinder’s jaw hung. She shook her head, dumbly, as all three yellow sensors focused on her. “But…nobody survives the testing. How could you—” “Nobody survives the plague. If you care for Peony as much as you claim to, you’ll do as I say. If you hadn’t been so selfish, you would have volunteered yourself after you left the market today, before coming here and ruining my family. Again.” “But—” “Take her away. She is yours.” Cinder was too stunned to move as the nearest android held a scanner up to her wrist. It beeped and she flinched back. “Linh Cinder,” it said in its metallic voice, “your voluntary sacrifice is admired and appreciated by all citizens of the Eastern Commonwealth. A payment will be made to your loved ones as a show of gratitude for your contribution to our ongoing studies.” Her grip tightened on the magbelt. “No—that’s what this is really about, isn’t it? You don’t care about Peony, you don’t care about me, you just want the stupid payout!” Adri’s eyes widened, her temples pulling taut against her skull. She crossed the room in two steps, the back of her hand whipping across Cinder’s face. Cinder fell against the door frame and pressed a hand to her cheek. “Take her,” said Adri. “Get her out of my sight.” “I didn’t volunteer. You can’t take me against my will!” The android was unperturbed. “We have been authorized by your legal guardian to take you into custody through the use of force if necessary.” Cinder curled her fingers, balling a fist against her ear. “You can’t force me to be a test subject.” “Yes,” said Adri, her own breathing labored. “I can. So long as you are under my guardianship.” “You don’t really think this will save Peony, so don’t pretend this is about her. She has days. The chances of them finding a cure before—” “Then my only mistake was in waiting too long to be rid of you,” Adri said, running the washcloth between her fingers. “Believe me, Cinder. You are a sacrifice I will never regret.” The treads of one of the med-droids clattered against the carpet. “Are you prepared to come with us?” Cinder pursed her lips and lowered her hand from her face. She glared at Adri, but she could find no sympathy in her stepmother’s eyes. A new hatred boiled up inside her. Warnings flashed in her vision. “No. I’m not.” Cinder swung the magbelt, smacking it hard against the android’s cranium. The robot fell to the floor, treads spinning midair. “I won’t go. Scientists have done enough to me already!” A second android rolled toward her. “Initiating procedure 240B: forcible removal of cyborg draft subject.” Cinder sneered and shoved the end of the magbelt at the android’s sensor, shattering the lens and thrusting it onto its back. She spun around to face the last android, already thinking how she would run from the apartment. Wondering if it would be too risky to call a hover. Wondering where to find a knife for cutting out her ID chip, otherwise they were sure to track her. Wondering if Iko would be fast enough to follow. Wondering if her legs could carry her all the way to Europe. The med-droid approached too fast. She stumbled, changing the trajectory of the magbelt, but the android’s metal pinchers grasped her wrist first. Electrodes fired. Electricity sizzled through Cinder’s nervous system. The voltage overwhelmed her wiring. Cinder’s lips parted, but the cry stuck in the back of her throat. She dropped the magbelt and collapsed. Red warnings flashed across her vision until, in an act of cyborg self-preservation, her brain forced her to shut down. Chapter Seven DR. DMITRI ERLAND DRAGGED HIS FINGER ACROSS THE portscreen, scanning the patient’s records. Male. Thirty-two years old. He had a child but no mention of a spouse. Unemployed. Turned cyborg after a debilitating work-related accident three years ago, no doubt spent most of his savings on the surgery. He’d traveled all the way from Tokyo. So many strikes against him, and Dr. Erland couldn’t explain that to anybody. Sticking his tongue out between his teeth, he raspberried his disappointment. “What do you think, doctor?” asked today’s assistant, a dark-skinned girl whose name he could never recall and who was taller than he was by at least four inches. He liked to give her tasks that kept her seated while she worked. Dr. Erland filled his lungs slowly, then released them all at once, changing the display to the more relevant diagram of the patient’s body. He had a mere 6.4 percent makeup—his right foot, a bit of wiring, and a thumbnail-size control panel imbedded in his thigh. “Too old,” he said, tossing the port onto the countertop before the observation window. On the other side of the glass, the patient was laid out on the lab table. He looked peaceful but for madly tapping fingers against the plastic cushions. His feet were bare, but skin grafting covered the prosthesis. “Too old?” said the assistant. She stood and came to the window, waving her own portscreen at him. “Thirty-two is too old now?” “We can’t use him.” She bunched her lips to one side. “Doctor, this will be the sixth draft subject you’ve turned away this month. We can’t afford to keep doing this.” “He has a child. A son. It says so right here.” “Yeah, a child who’ll be able to afford dinner tonight because his daddy was lucky enough to fit our subject profile.” “To fit our profile? With a 6.4 percent ratio?” “It’s better than testing on people.” She dropped the portscreen beside a tray of petri dishes. “You really want to let him go?” Dr. Erland glared into the quarantine room, a growl humming in the back of his throat. Pulling his shoulders back, he tugged down on his lab coat. “Placebo him.” “Pla—but he’s not sick!” “Yes, but if we don’t give him anything, the treasury will wonder what we’re doing down here. Now, give him a placebo and submit a report so he can be on his way.” The girl huffed and went to grab a labeled vial from a shelf. “What are we doing down here?” Dr. Erland held up a finger, but the girl gave him such an irritated look that he forgot what he’d been about to say. “What’s your name again?” She rolled her eyes. “Honestly. I’ve only been your assistant every Monday for the past four months.” She turned her back on him, her long black braid whipping against her hip. Dr. Erland’s eyebrows drew together as he stared at the braid, watching as it wound itself up, curling in on itself. A shiny black snake rearing its head. Hissing at him. Ready to strike. He slammed shut his eyes and counted to ten. When he opened them again, the braid was just a braid. Shiny black hair. Harmless. Pulling off his hat, Dr. Erland took a moment to rub at his own hair, gray and considerably less full than his assistant’s. The visions were getting worse. The door to the lab room opened. “Doctor?” He jolted and stuffed his head back into the hat. “Yes?” he said, grabbing his portscreen. Li, another assistant, lingered with his hand on the doorknob. Dr. Erland had always liked Li—who was also tall but not as tall as the girl. “There’s a volunteer waiting in 6D,” said Li. “Someone they brought in last night.” “A volunteer?” said the girl. “Been a while since we had one of those.” Li pulled a portscreen from his breast pocket. “She’s young too, a teenager. We haven’t run her diagnostics yet, but I think she’s going to have a pretty high ratio. No skin grafting.” Dr. Erland perked up, scratching his temple with the corner of his port. “A teenage girl, you say? How…” He fumbled for an appropriate descriptor. Unusual? Coincidental? Lucky? “Suspicious,” said the girl, her voice low. Dr. Erland turned, found her glower bearing down on him. “Suspicious? Whatever do you mean?” She perched against the edge of the counter, diminishing her height so she was eye level, but she still seemed intimidating with her folded arms and unimpressed scowl. “Just that you’re always more than willing to placebo the male cyborgs that come in, but you perk right up when you catch word of a girl, especially the young ones.” He opened his mouth, closed it, then started again. “The younger, the healthier,” he said. “The healthier, the fewer complications we’ll have. And it isn’t my fault that the draft keeps picking on females.” “Fewer complications. Right. Either way, they’re going to die.” “Yes, well. Thank you for the optimism.” He gestured to the man on the other side of the glass. “Placebo, please. Come join us when you’ve finished.” He stepped out of the lab room, Li at his side, and cupped a hand around his mouth. “What is her name again?” “Fateen?” “Fateen! I can never remember that. One of these days, I’ll be forgetting my own name.” Li chuckled, and Dr. Erland was glad he’d made the joke. People seemed to overlook an old man losing his mind if he occasionally made light of it. The hallway was empty save for two med-droids lingering by the stairwell, awaiting orders. It was a short walk to lab room 6D. Dr. Erland pulled a stylus from behind his ear and tapped at his port, downloading the information Li had sent him. The new patient’s profile popped up. LINH CINDER, LICENSED MECHANIC ID #0097917305 BORN 29 NOV 109 T.E. 0 MEDIA HITS RESIDENT OF NEW BEIJING, EASTERN COMMONWEALTH. WARD OF LINH ADRI. Li opened the door to the lab. Tucking the stylus back behind his ear, Dr. Erland entered the room with twitching fingers. The girl was lying on the table on the other side of the viewing window. The sterile quarantine room was so bright he had to squint into the glare. A med-droid was just capping a plastic vial filled with blood and plunking it onto the chute, sending it off to the blood lab. The girl’s hands and wrists had been fastened with metal bands. Her left hand was steel, tarnished and dark between the joints as if it needed a good cleaning. Her pant legs had been rolled up her calves, revealing one human leg and one synthetic. “Is she plugged in yet?” he asked, slipping his port into his coat pocket. “Not yet,” said Li. “But look at her.” Dr. Erland grunted, staving off his disappointment. “Yes, her ratio should be impressive. But it’s not the best quality, is it?” “Not the exterior maybe, but you should have seen her wiring. Autocontrol and four-grade nervous system.” Dr. Erland quirked an eyebrow, then lowered it just as fast. “Has she been unruly?” “The med-droids had trouble apprehending her. She disabled two of them with a…a belt, or something, before they were able to shock her system. She’s been out all night.” “But she volunteered?” “Her legal guardian did. She suspects the patient has already had contact with the disease. A sister—taken in yesterday.” Dr. Erland pulled the microphone across the desk. “Wakey, wakey, sleeping beauty,” he sang, rapping on the glass. “They stunned her with 200 volts,” said Li. “But I expect her to be coming around any minute now.” Dr. Erland hooked his thumbs on his coat pockets. “Well. We don’t need consciousness. Let’s go ahead and get started.” “Oh, good,” Fateen said in the doorway. Her heels clipped against the tile floor as she entered the lab room. “Glad you found one to suit your tastes.” Dr. Erland pressed a finger to the glass. “Young,” he said, eyeing the metallic sheen of the girl’s limbs. “Healthy.” With a sneer, Fateen claimed a seat before a netscreen that projected the cyborg’s records. “If thirty-two is old and decrepit, what does that make you, old man?” “Very valuable in the antique market.” Dr. Erland lowered his lips to the mic. “Med? Ready the ratio detector, if you please.” Chapter Eight SHE WAS LYING ON A BURNING PYRE, HOT COALS BENEATH HER back. Flames. Smoke. Blisters burbling across her skin. Her leg and hand were gone, leaving stumps where the surgeons had attached her prostheses. Dead wires dangled from them. She tried to crawl but was as useless as an upended turtle. She reached out with her one hand, trying to drag her body from the fire, but the bed of coals stretched off into the horizon. She’d had this dream before, a hundred times. This time though, it was different. Instead of being all alone, like usual, she was surrounded. Other crippled victims writhed among the coals, moaning, begging for water. They were all missing limbs. Some were nothing more than a head and a torso and a mouth, pleading, pleading. Cinder shrank away from them, noticing bluish splotches on their skin. Their necks, their stump thighs, their shriveled wrists. She saw Peony. Screaming. Accusing Cinder. She had done this to her. She had brought the plague to their household. It was all her fault. Cinder opened her mouth to beg for forgiveness, but she stopped when she caught sight of her one good hand. Her skin was covered in blue spots. The fire began to melt the diseased skin away, revealing metal and wires beneath the flesh. She met Peony’s gaze again. Her sister opened her mouth, but her voice sounded awkward, deep. “Ready the ratio detector, if you please.” The words hummed like bees in Cinder’s ears. Her body jolted, but she couldn’t move. Her limbs were too heavy. The smell of smoke lingered in her nostrils, but the heat from the flames was dying away, leaving only her sore, burning back. Peony faded away. The pit of coals melted into the ground. Green text scrolled along the bottom corner of Cinder’s vision. Beyond the darkness, she heard the familiar rumble of android treads. Iko? DIAGNOSTICS CHECK COMPLETE. ALL SYSTEMS STABILIZED. REBOOTING IN 3…2…1… Something clattered above her head. The hum of electricity. Cinder felt her finger twitch, the closest thing to a flinch her body was capable of. The darkness began to warm, a subtle crimson brightness beyond her eyelids. She forced her eyes open, squinting into harsh fluorescents. “Ah! Juliet awakens.” She shut her eyes again, let them adjust. She tried to bring her hand up to cover them, but something had her locked in place. Panic raced along her nerves. She opened her eyes again and turned her head, straining to see who had spoken. A mirror filled the wall. Her own face stared wild-eyed back at her. Her ponytail was a mess: dull, tangled, in need of a wash. Her skin was too pale, almost translucent, as if the voltage had drained her of more than energy. They’d taken her gloves and her boots and rolled her pant legs up. She was not looking at a girl in the mirror. She was looking at a machine. “How are you feeling, Miss, uh…Miss Linh?” said a disembodied voice in an accent she couldn’t pinpoint. European? American? She wet her parched lips and craned her neck to peer at the android behind her. It was fidgeting with a small machine on a countertop, amid a dozen other machines. Medical equipment. Surgical toys. IVs. Needles. Cinder realized she was attached to one of the machines by wired sensors on her chest and forehead. A netscreen hung on the wall to her right, displaying her name and ID number. Otherwise the room was empty. “If you will just hold still and cooperate, we won’t take up too much of your time,” said the voice. Cinder scowled. “Very funny,” she said, forcibly straining against the metal bands. “I didn’t sign up for this. I didn’t volunteer for your stupid tests.” A silence. Something beeped behind her. Peering overhead, she saw the android pulling two prongs attached to thin cables out of a machine. A chill crawled up her spine. “Keep that thing away from me.” “This won’t hurt a bit, Miss Linh.” “I don’t care. Stay out of my head. I’m not one of your lemming volunteers.” The voice clucked. “I have a signature here from a Miss Linh Adri. You must know her?” “She’s not my mother! She’s just—” Her heart lurched. “Your legal guardian?” Cinder thumped her head against the padded exam table. Tissue paper crinkled beneath her. “This isn’t right.” “Don’t fret, Miss Linh. You are doing your fellow citizens a great service by being here.” She glared at the mirror, hoping she was glaring at the jerk on the other side. “Yeah? And what’d they ever do for me?” Instead of answering, he said simply, “Med, please proceed.” Treads wheeled toward her. Cinder jerked away, twisting her neck in an effort to avoid the cold prongs, but the android gripped her scalp with mechanical strength and forced her right cheek to the tissue paper. She thrashed her arms and legs, but it was useless. Perhaps if she fought hard enough they would knock her out again. She wasn’t sure if that would be better or worse, but the memory of the pit of burning embers halted her struggling. Her heart galloped as the android undid the latch in the back of her head. She shut her eyes, trying to imagine herself anywhere but this cold, sterile room. She didn’t want to think about the two metal prongs being inserted into her control panel—her brain—but it was impossible not to think about it as she heard them being maneuvered into place. Nausea. She swallowed back the bile. She heard the click of the prongs. She couldn’t feel anything—there were no nerve endings. But a shudder ripped through her, sending goose bumps down her arms. Her retina display informed her that she was now connected to RATIO DETECTOR 2.3. SCANNING…2%…7%…16%… The machine hummed on the table behind her. Cinder imagined a subtle current of electricity