Chapter no 21

Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles, #1)

CINDER SLUMPED DOWN AT HER WORK DESK, RELIEVED TO finally be out of that stifling apartment. Not only was the air system down—again—with maintenance nowhere to be seen, but the awkwardness between her and Adri bordered on unbearable. They’d been tiptoeing around each other since she’d returned home from the lab two days before, Adri trying to remind Cinder of her superiority by ordering her to defrag their apartment’s entire mainframe and update all the software that they didn’t even use anymore, while at the same time lurking around as if she were—almost, kind of—ashamed of what she’d done to Cinder.

But Cinder was probably imagining that last part.

At least Pearl had been gone all day and had only shown up when Cinder and Iko were on their way out to work on the car.

Another long day. Another late night. The car was going to take more work than she’d realized—the entire exhaust system needed to be replaced, which meant manufacturing a lot of parts herself, which created any number of headaches. She had a feeling she wasn’t going to get much sleep if they were going to have it road ready by the night of the ball.

She sighed. The ball.

She didn’t regret saying no when the prince had asked her, because she knew how badly that would end. Any number of things were sure to go wrong

—from tripping on the stairs and flashing the prince a sexy metal thigh, to running into Pearl or Adri or someone from the market. People would talk. The gossip channels were sure to look into her past, and pretty soon the whole world would know that the prince had taken a cyborg to his coronation ball. He would be mortified. She would be mortified.

But it didn’t make it any easier when she wondered, what if she were wrong? What if Prince Kai wouldn’t care? What if the world were different and nobody cared if she was cyborg…and on top of that, Lunar?

Yeah. Wishful thinking.

Spotting the broken netscreen on the carpet, she peeled herself off her

chair and kneeled before it. The black screen was just reflective enough for her to see the outline of her face and body, the tanned skin of her arms contrasted with the dark steel of her hand.

Denial had run its course until it had nowhere else to go. She was Lunar.

But she was not afraid of the mirrored surface, not afraid of her own reflection. She couldn’t understand what Levana and her kind, their kind, found so disturbing about it. Her mechanical parts were the only disturbing thing in Cinder’s reflection, and that had been done to her on Earth.

Lunar. And cyborg. And a fugitive.

Did Adri know? No, Adri never would have housed a Lunar. If she’d known, she would have turned Cinder in herself, probably expecting payment.

Had Adri’s husband known?

That was a question Cinder would probably never know the answer to.

Nevertheless, she was confident that so long as Dr. Erland didn’t say anything, her secret would be safe. She would just have to go on as if nothing had changed.

In many ways, nothing had. She was every bit an outcast as ever.

A white blob caught her eye in the screen’s surface—Kai’s android, its lifeless sensor staring down at her from its perch on top of her desk. Its pear-shaped body was the brightest thing in the room and probably the cleanest. It reminded her of the sterile med-droids in the labs and the quarantines, but this machine did not have scalpels and syringes hidden in its torso.

Work. Mechanics. She needed the distraction.

Returning to her desk, she turned on her audio interface for some tranquil background music. Kicking off her boots, she gripped both sides of the android and wheeled it toward her. After a quick examination of its external plating, she tipped the android over, laying it horizontal so that it balanced on the edge of its treads.

Cinder opened the back panel and inspected the wiring throughout the cylindrical frame. It was not a complicated android. The interior was mostly hollow, a shell for housing a minimum of hard drives, wires, chips. Tutor androids required little more than a central processing unit. Cinder suspected that the android would have to be wiped and reprogrammed, but she had a feeling that wasn’t a viable option. Despite Kai’s nonchalance, it was clear this android knew something important, and after their conversation in the research hall, she had an uneasy feeling it had something to do with Lunars.

War strategies? Classified communications? Evidence for blackmail? Whatever it was, Kai clearly thought it would help, and he’d trusted Cinder to save it.

“No pressure or anything,” she muttered, gripping a flashlight between her teeth so she could see inside the android. She grabbed a pair of pliers and coerced the wires from one side of its cranium to the other. Its configuration was similar to Iko’s, so Cinder felt a familiarity with its parts, knew exactly where to find all the important connections. She checked that the wire connectors were sound, that the battery held power, that no important pieces were missing, and everything seemed fine. She cleaned out the noise translator and adjusted the internal fan, but Nainsi the android remained a lifeless statue of plastic and aluminum.

“All dressed up with nowhere to go,” said Iko from the doorway.

Cinder spit out the flashlight with a laugh and glanced down at her oil-stained cargo pants. “Yeah, right. All I need is a tiara.”

“I was talking about me.”

She spun her chair around. Iko had draped a strand of Adri’s pearls around her bulbous head and smeared cherry lipstick beneath her sensor in a horrible imitation of lips.

Cinder laughed. “Wow. That’s a great color on you.”

“Do you think?” Iko wheeled her way into the room and paused before Cinder’s desk, trying to catch her reflection in the netscreen. “I was imagining going to the ball and dancing with the prince.”

Cinder rubbed her jaw with one hand and mindlessly tapped the table with the other. “Funny. I’ve found myself imagining that exact thing lately.”

“I knew you liked him. You pretend to be immune to his charms, but I could see the way you looked at him at the market.” Iko rubbed at the lipstick, smearing it across her blank white chin.

“Yeah, well.” Cinder pinched her metal fingers with the pliers’ nose. “We all have our weaknesses.”

“I know,” said Iko. “Mine is shoes.”

Cinder tossed the tool onto her desk. Something like guilt was beginning to grow in her when Iko was around. She knew she should tell Iko about being Lunar, that Iko more than anyone would understand what it was like to be different and unwanted. But somehow she couldn’t bring herself to say it out loud. By the way, Iko, it turns out I’m Lunar. You don’t mind, do you?

“What are you doing down here?” she asked instead.

“Just seeing if you need help. I’m supposed to be dusting the air vents, but Adri was in the bath.”


“I could hear her crying.” Cinder blinked. “Oh.”

“It was making me feel useless.”

“I see.”

Iko was not a normal servant android, but she did retain one prominent trait—uselessness was the worst emotion they knew.

“Well, sure, you can help,” Cinder said, rubbing her hands together. “Just don’t let her catch you with those pearls.”

Iko lifted the beaded necklace up with her prongs, and Cinder noticed she was wearing the ribbon Peony had given her. She pulled back, as if she’d been stung. “How about some light?”

The blue sensor brightened, shedding a spotlight into Nainsi’s interior. Cinder twisted up her lips. “Do you think it could have a virus?”

“Maybe her programming was overwhelmed by Prince Kai’s uncanny hotness.”

Cinder flinched. “Can we please not talk about the prince?”

“I don’t think that will be possible. You’re working on his android, after all. Just think about the things she knows, the things she’s seen and—” Iko’s voice sputtered. “Do you think she’s seen him in the nude?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” Cinder yanked off her gloves and tossed them onto the table. “You’re not helping.”

“I’m just making conversation.”

“Well stop.” Crossing her arms over her chest, Cinder pushed her chair back from the worktable and swung both legs up to rest on top of it. “It has to be a software issue.”

She sneered to herself. Software issues usually came down to reinstallation, but that would turn the android into a blank slate. She didn’t know if Kai was concerned with the android’s personality chip, which had probably developed into something quite complicated after twenty years of service, but she did know Kai was concerned with something in this android’s hard drive, and she didn’t want to risk wiping whatever it was.

The only way to determine what was wrong and if a reboot was necessary was to check the android’s internal diagnostics, and that required plugging in. Cinder hated plugging in. Connecting her own wiring with a foreign object had always felt hazardous, like if she wasn’t careful, her own software could be overridden.

Chastising herself for being squeamish, she reached for the panel in the back of her head. Her fingernail caught the small latch and it swung open.

“What’s that?”

Cinder stared at Iko’s outstretched prong. “What’s what?” “That chip.”

Cinder dropped her feet to the floor and leaned forward. She squinted into the far back of the model, where a row of tiny chips stood like soldiers along

the bottom of the control panel. There were twenty plugs in all, but only thirteen of them were full; manufacturers always left plenty of room for add-ons and updates.

Iko had spotted the thirteenth chip, and she was right. Something was different about it. It was tucked far enough behind the other chips that it was easy to miss with a cursory glance, but when Cinder targeted it with the flashlight, it gleamed like polished silver.

Cinder shut the panel in the back of her head and called up the digital blueprint of the android’s model on her retina. According to the manufacturer’s original plans, this model only came with twelve chips. But surely, after twenty years, the android would have received at least one add-on. Surely, the palace had access to the newest, finest programs available. Still, Cinder had never seen a chip quite like that.

She pressed a fingernail into the release switch and gripped the edge of the silver chip with the pliers. It slid like grease from its plug.

Cinder held it up for closer inspection. With the exception of the pearlescent, shimmering finish, it looked like every other program chip she’d ever seen. Flipping it over, she saw the letters D-COMM engraved on the other side.

“Is that so?” She lowered her arm. “What is it?” asked Iko.

“A direct communication chip.”

Cinder furrowed her brow. Almost all communication was done through the net—direct communication that bypassed the net entirely was practically obsolete, as it was slow and had a tendency to lose connection in the middle of a link. She supposed paranoid types who required absolute privacy would find direct comms appealing, but even then, they would use a port or netscreen—a device that was set up for it. Using an android as one side of the link didn’t make any sense.

Iko’s light dimmed. “My database informs me that androids have not come equipped with direct communication abilities since 89 T.E.

“Which would explain why it didn’t work with her programming.” Cinder held the chip toward Iko. “Can you run a material scan, see what it’s made out of?”

Iko backed away. “Absolutely not. Having a mental breakdown is not on my list of things to do today.”

“It doesn’t seem like it would have caused her to malfunction, though. Wouldn’t the system have just rejected it?” Cinder angled the chip back and forth, mesmerized by how its reflective surface caught Iko’s light. “Unless she tried to send information over the direct link. It could have jammed up the


Standing, Cinder strolled across the storage space toward the netscreen. Though its frame had been shattered, the screen and controls seemed undamaged. She slid the chip in and pressed the power button, having to jab it harder than usual before a pale green light came to life beside the drive and the screen flared bright blue. A spiral in the corner announced that it was reading the new chip. Cinder released her breath and folded her legs beneath her.

A second later the spiral disappeared, replaced with text.




Cinder waited. And wiggled her foot. And waited. And drummed her fingers against her knee. And began to wonder if she were wasting her time. She’d never heard of a direct communication chip hurting anything, even if the technology was archaic. This wasn’t helping her solve the problem.

“I guess no one’s home,” said Iko, rolling up behind her. Her fan turned on, blowing warm air on Cinder’s neck. “Oh, drat, Adri is comming me. She must be out of the bath.”

Cinder tilted her head back. “Thanks for your help. Don’t forget to take those pearls off before you see her.”

Tilting forward, Iko pressed her flat, cool face to Cinder’s brow, no doubt leaving a smudge of lipstick. Cinder laughed.

“You’ll find out what’s wrong with His Highness’s android. I don’t doubt



Cinder rubbed her clammy palm on her pants, listening as Iko’s treads got

farther away. The text continued to repeat across the screen. It seemed whoever was on the other side of the link had no intention of answering.

A series of clicks startled her, followed by telltale humming. She turned around, propping her knuckles on the gritty floor.

The android’s control panel was glowing as the system ran through its routine diagnostics. It was turning back on.

Cinder stood and dusted her hands just as a calm female voice began to

emanate from the android’s speakers, as if it were continuing a speech that had been rudely interrupted.

“—pected that a man by the name of Logan Tanner, a Lunar doctor who worked under the reign of Queen Channary, first brought Princess Selene to Earth approximately four months after her alleged death.”

Cinder froze. Princess Selene?

“Unfortunately, Tanner was admitted into Xu Ming Psychiatric Hospital on 8 May 125 T.E., and committed bioelectric-induced suicide on 17 January 126 T.E. Though sources indicate that Princess Selene had been given to another keeper years before Tanner’s death, I have thus far not been able to confirm the identity of that keeper. One suspect is an ex-military pilot from the European Federation, Wing Commander Michelle Benoit, who—”

“Stop,” said Cinder. “Stop talking.”

The voice silenced. The android’s head rotated 180 degrees. Its sensor flashed bright blue as it scanned Cinder. Her internal control panel dimmed. The fan in her torso began to spin.

“Who are you?” said the android. “My global positioning system indicates that we are in the 76th Sector of New Beijing. I have no memory of leaving the palace.”

Cinder straddled her seat, draping her arms over the back. “Welcome to New Beijing’s mechanic suite. Prince Kai hired me to fix you.”

The loud humming in the android’s torso died down until it was barely discernible, even in the quiet room.

The bulbous head rotated back and forth, scanning its unfamiliar surroundings, then refocused on Cinder.

“My calendar tells me that I have not been conscious for over twelve days, fifteen hours. Did I experience a system crash?”

“Not exactly,” said Cinder, glancing over her shoulder at the netscreen. It continued to repeat the same line of text, unable to establish the direct link. “It seems someone installed a comm chip that didn’t meld well with your programming.”

“I come preinstalled with vid- and text-comm capabilities. A new comm chip would be unnecessary.”

“This was for a direct link.” Cinder settled her chin on her wrist. “Do you know if it was Prince Kai? If maybe he wanted to be able to get in touch with you without going through the net?”

“I was unaware of any direct communication chip in my programming.”

Cinder chewed her lip. Clearly the comm chip had been responsible for the android’s sudden malfunction, but why? And if Kai hadn’t installed it, then who had?

“When you woke up just now,” she said, “you were talking about…you have information on the Lunar heir.”

“That information was classified. You should not have heard it.”

“I know. But I think you were probably communicating it to someone when you were disabled.” Cinder prayed that it had been Kai, or someone loyal to him. She doubted that Queen Levana would be too happy to know that the soon-to-be emperor was searching for the rightful heir to her throne.

“Hold still,” she said, reaching for her screwdriver. “I’ll put your panel back on, and then take you back to the palace. In the meantime, you should download the news broadcasts from the last few days. A lot’s happened since you’ve been out.”

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