Chapter no 17

Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles, #1)


across the blackness of sleep.


It took a minute to shake off the grogginess of sleep and make sense of the scrawling words. She opened her eyes to the windowless bedroom and sat up. All her muscles ached from the midnight trip to the junkyard. Her back hurt so bad it felt as though that old car had run her over, rather than sat in neutral while she and Iko pushed and pulled it through the back roads. But they had succeeded. The car was hers, moved to a dark corner of the apartment’s underground parking garage, where she’d be able to work on it every spare moment. As long as no one complained about the smell, it would remain her and Iko’s little secret.

When they’d finally returned home, Cinder had crashed like someone had hit her power button. For once, she’d had no nightmares.

At least, no nightmares until the message woke her.

The thought of Peony all alone in the quarantines spurred her out of her pile of blankets with a stifled groan. She pulled on a pair of gloves, stole a green brocade blanket from the linen closet in the hall, and passed Iko—set to conservation mode and connected to a charging station in the living room. It felt strange leaving without the android, but she planned on going straight to the palace afterward.

In the apartment corridor, she could hear someone pacing on the next floor and a netscreen mumbling the morning news. Cinder commed a hover for the first time in her life, and it was ready for her by the time she got down to the street. She scanned her ID and gave it the quarantine’s coordinates

before settling into the far back. Cinder netlinked so she could trace the hover’s path to the quarantine. The map that overlaid her vision indicated it was in the industrial district, fifteen miles outside the city limits.

The city was all shadows, blurry, sleepy apartments and empty sidewalks. The buildings grew shorter with more space between them as the heart of the city was left behind. Pale sunlight crawled down the streets, sending long shadows across the pavement.

Cinder knew they’d reached the industrial district without the map’s help. She blinked it away and watched the factories roll by alongside squat concrete warehouses with gigantic roll-up doors that could accommodate even the largest hover. Probably even cargo ships.

Cinder scanned her ID as she exited so the hover could debit her nearly depleted account, then ordered it to wait for her. She headed toward the nearest warehouse where a group of androids stood by the door. Above the door was a brand-new netscreen flashing,


She draped the blanket over her forearms and tried to look confident as she walked, wondering what she would say if the androids questioned her. But the med-droids must not have been programmed to deal with healthy people coming into the quarantines; they hardly even noticed her as she passed. She hoped it would be as easy to leave. Perhaps she should have asked Dr. Erland for a pass.

The stench of excrement and rot reached out to her as she stepped into the warehouse. She reeled back, cupping her palm over her nose as her stomach churned, wishing her brain interface could dull odors as easily as it could noise.

Sucking in a breath through her glove and holding it, she forced herself into the warehouse.

It was cooler inside, the concrete floor untouched by the sun. Opaque green plastic covered a thin row of windows near the high ceilings, swathing the building in a dingy haze. Gray lightbulbs hummed overhead, but they did little to dispel the darkness.

Hundreds of beds were lined up between the distant walls, covered in mismatched blankets—donations and scraps. She was glad to have brought a nice one for Peony. Most of the beds sat empty. This quarantine had been hastily constructed in just the past weeks as the sickness crept closer to the

city. Still, the flies had already caught on and filled the room with buzzing.

The few patients Cinder passed were sleeping or staring blankly up at the ceiling, their skin covered in a blue-black rash. Those who still had their senses were hunkered over portscreens—their last connection to the outside world. Glossy eyes looked up, following Cinder as she hurried by.

More med-droids moved between the beds, supplying food and water, but none of them stopped Cinder.

She found Peony asleep, tangled in a baby blue blanket. Cinder wasn’t sure she would have recognized her if it hadn’t been for the chestnut curls draped over the pillow. The purplish blotches had spread up her arms. Though she was shivering, her forehead glistened with sweat. She looked like an old woman, just this side of death.

Cinder removed her glove and placed the back of her hand against Peony’s forehead. Warm to the touch and damp. The third stage of letumosis.

She spread the green blanket over Peony, then stood, wondering if she should wake her or if it was better to let her rest. Rocking back on her heels, she looked around. The bed behind her was empty. The one on the opposite side of Peony was occupied by a petite form turned away from her, curled in a fetal position. A child.

Cinder started as she felt a tug on her left wrist. Peony was gripping her steel fingers, squeezing with the little strength she had left. Her eyes watched Cinder, pleading. Afraid. Awed, as if Peony were seeing a ghost.

Cinder swallowed hard and sat down on the bed. It was almost as hard as the floor in her own bedroom.

“Take me home?” Peony said, her voice scratching at the words.

Cinder flinched. She covered Peony’s hand. “I brought you a blanket,” she said, as if it explained her presence.

Peony’s gaze fell from her. Her free hand traced the texture of the brocade. They said nothing for a long time, until a shrill scream reached them. Peony’s hands clenched as Cinder spun around, searching, sure someone was being murdered.

A woman four aisles away was thrashing in her bed, screeching, begging to be left alone as a calm med-droid waited to inject her with a syringe. A minute later, two more androids arrived to hold the woman still, forcing her down on the bed, holding her arm out to receive the shot.

Feeling Peony curl up beside her, Cinder turned back. Peony was shaking. “I’m being punished for something,” Peony said, shutting her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Cinder said. “The plague, it’s just…it isn’t fair. I

know. But you didn’t do anything wrong.” She patted the girl’s hand.

“Are Mom and Pearl…?”

“Heartbroken,” said Cinder. “We all miss you so much. But they haven’t caught it.”

Peony’s eyes flickered open. She scanned Cinder’s face, her neck. “Where are your spots?”

Lips parting, Cinder rubbed absently at her throat, but Peony didn’t wait for an answer. “You can sleep there, right?” she said, gesturing to the empty bed. “They won’t give you a bed far away?”

Cinder squeezed Peony’s hands. “No, Peony, I’m not…” She looked around but no one was paying them any attention. A med-droid two beds away was helping a patient take a drink of water. “I’m not sick.”

Peony listed her head. “You’re here.”

“I know. It’s complicated. You see, I went to the letumosis research center yesterday, and they tested me and…Peony, I’m immune. I can’t get letumosis.”

Peony’s tense brow melted. She scanned Cinder’s face, neck, arms again, as if her immunity were something visible, something that should have been apparent. “Immune?”

Cinder rubbed Peony’s hand more quickly, anxious now that she’d told someone her secret. “They asked me to go back again today. The head doctor thinks he might be able to use me to find an antidote. I told him that if he finds anything, anything at all, you have to be the first person to get it. I made him promise.”

She watched, amazed, as Peony’s eyes began to fill with tears. “Really?” “Absolutely. We’re going to find one.”

“How long will it take?” “I-I’m not sure.”

Peony’s other hand found her wrist and squeezed. Her long nails dug into Cinder’s skin, but it took her a long time to register the pain. Peony’s breath had grown rapid. More tears pooled in her eyes, but some of the instant hope had faded, leaving her wild with desperation. “Don’t let me die, Cinder. I wanted to go to the ball. Remember? You were going to introduce me to Prince—” She turned her head, scrunching her face up in a vain attempt to hold in the tears, or hide them, or squeeze them out faster. Then a harsh cough burst from her mouth, along with a thin trail of blood.

Cinder grimaced, then reached forward and swiped the blood off Peony’s chin with the corner of the brocade blanket. “Don’t give up, Peony. If I’m immune, then there has to be a way to defeat it. And they’re going to find it. You’re still going to the ball.” She considered telling Peony that Iko had managed to save her dress, but realized that would require telling her that

everything else she’d ever touched was gone. She cleared her throat and stroked Peony’s hair off her temple. “Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?”

Peony shook her head against the worn pillow, holding the blanket against her mouth. But then she raised her eyes. “My portscreen?”

Cinder flinched with guilt. “I’m sorry. It’s still broken. But I’ll look at it tonight.”

“I just want to comm Pearl. And Mom.”

“Of course. I’ll bring it to you, as soon as I can.” Peony’s portscreen. The prince’s android. The car. “I’m so sorry, Peony, but I need to go.”

The small hands tightened.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can. I promise.”

Peony took in a shaky breath, sniffed, then released her. She dug her frail hands beneath the blanket, burying herself up to her chin.

Cinder stood and untangled Peony’s hair with her fingers. “Try to get some sleep. Reserve your strength.”

Peony followed Cinder with her watery gaze. “I love you, Cinder. I’m glad you’re not sick.”

Cinder’s heart tightened. Pursing her lips, she bent over and placed a kiss against Peony’s damp forehead. “I love you too.”

She struggled to breathe as she forced herself to walk away, trying to trick herself into being hopeful. There was a chance. A chance.

She didn’t look at any of the other patients as she made her way to the quarantine’s exit, but then she heard her name. She paused, thinking that the sandpaper voice had been nothing more than her imagination mixed with too many hysterical cries.


She turned and spotted a familiar face half-covered by an age-bleached quilt.



“Chang-ji ?” She neared the foot of the bed, nose wrinkling at the pungent odor wafting from the woman’s bed. Chang Sacha, the market baker, was barely recognizable with her swollen eyelids and sallow skin.

Trying to breathe normally, Cinder rounded the bed.

The quilt that rested across Sacha’s nose and mouth shifted with her belabored breathing. Her eyes were glossy, as wide as Cinder had ever seen them. It was the only time she could remember Sacha looking at her without disdain. “You too? Cinder?”

Instead of answering, Cinder said, uncertainly, “Can I do anything for you?”

They were the kindest words that had ever passed between them. The

blanket shifted, inching down Sacha’s face. Cinder bit back a gasp at seeing the blue-ringed splotches on the woman’s jaw and down her throat.

“My son,” she said, wheezing each word. “Bring Sunto? I need to see him.”

Cinder didn’t move, remembering how Sacha had ordered Sunto away from her booth days before. “Bring him?”

Sacha snaked one arm out from beneath the blankets and reached toward Cinder, grasping her wrist where skin met metal. Cinder squirmed, trying to pull away, but Sacha held tight. Her hand was marked by bluish pigment around her yellowed fingernails.

The fourth and final stage of the blue fever.

“I will try,” she said. She reached up, hesitated, then pet Sacha on the knuckles. The blue fingers released her and sank to the bed.

“Sunto,” Sacha murmured. Her gaze was still locked on Cinder’s face, but the recognition had faded. “Sunto.”

Cinder stepped back, watching as the words dried up. The life dulled in Sacha’s black eyes.

Cinder convulsed, tying her arms around her stomach. She looked around. None of the other patients were paying any attention to her or the woman— the corpse—beside her. But then she saw the android rolling toward them. The med-droids must be linked somehow, she thought, to know when someone dies.

How long did it take for the notification comm to be sent to the family?

How long would it be before Sunto knew he was motherless?

She wanted to turn away, to leave, but she felt rooted to the spot as the android wheeled up beside the bed and took Sacha’s limp hand between its grippers. Sacha’s complexion was ashen but for the bruised blotches on her jaw. Her eyes were still open, turned toward the heavens.

Perhaps the med-droid would have questions for Cinder. Perhaps someone would want to know the woman’s final words. Her son might want to know. Cinder should tell someone.

But the med-droid’s sensor did not turn toward her.

Cinder licked her lips. She opened her mouth but could think of nothing to say.

A panel opened in the body of the med-droid. It reached in with its free prongs and pulled out a scalpel. Cinder watched, mesmerized and disgusted, as the android pressed the blade into Sacha’s wrist. A stream of blood dripped down Sacha’s palm.

Cinder shook herself from her stupor and stumbled forward. The foot of the bed pressed into her thighs. “What are you doing?” she said, louder than

she’d meant to.

The med-droid paused with the scalpel buried in Sacha’s flesh. Its yellow visor flashed toward Cinder, then dimmed. “How can I help you?” it said with its manufactured politeness.

“What are you doing to her?” she asked again. She wanted to reach out and snatch the scalpel away, but feared she misunderstood. There must be a reason, something logical. Med-droids were all logic.

“Removing her ID chip,” said the android. “Why?”

The visor flashed again, and the android returned its focus to Sacha’s wrist. “She has no more use for it.” The med-droid traded the scalpel for tweezers, and Cinder heard the subtle click of metal on metal. She grimaced as the android extracted the small chip. Its protective plastic coating glistened scarlet.

“But…don’t you need it to identify the body?”

The android dropped the chip into a tray that opened up in its plastic plating. Cinder saw it fall into a bed of dozens of other bloodied chips.

It drew the tattered blanket over Sacha’s unblinking eyes. Instead of answering her question, it said simply, “I have been programmed to follow instructions.”

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