Chapter no 27

Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles, #1)


side hatch and immediately reeled back, covering her nose with her elbow. Her gut heaved at the stench, rotting flesh intensified by the steamy afternoon heat. Just outside the warehouse’s entrance, a group of med-droids were loading dead bodies into a hover to be carted away, their forms bloated and discolored, each with a red slit in the wrist. Cinder looked away, keeping her eyes averted and her breath held as she slid past them into the warehouse.

The sunlight turned from blaring to murky, caught by the green sheeting on the windows along the ceiling. The quarantine had been near empty before; now it was overflowing with victims—every age, every gender. Buffeting fans on the ceiling did little to dispel the sweltering heat or the smell of death. The air was heavy with it.

Med-droids buzzed between the beds, but there were not enough of them to tend to all the sick.

Cinder slipped down an aisle, gasping for shallow breaths against her sleeve. She spotted Peony’s green brocade blanket and ran to the foot of the bed. “Peony!”

When Peony didn’t stir, she reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder. The blanket was soft, warm, but the bulk beneath it didn’t move.

Shaking, Cinder grasped the edge of the comforter and pulled it back. Peony whimpered, a mild protest, which sent relieved chills across

Cinder’s arms. She slumped down beside the bed. “Stars, Peony. I came as soon as I heard.”

Peony squinted up at her, eyes bleary. Her face was ashen, her lips peeling. The dark splotches on her neck had begun to fade to lavender beneath the surface of her ghostly skin. Eyes on Cinder, she pulled her arm out from beneath the blanket and spread out her fingers, displaying their blue-black tips and the yellowish tinge of her nails.

“I know, but it’s going to be all right.” Still panting, Cinder unbuttoned the pocket on the side of her cargo pants and pulled out the glove that

normally lived on her right hand. The vial was in one of the fingers, protected. “I brought something for you. Can you sit up?”

Peony pulled her hand into a loose fist and tucked it again beneath the blanket. Her eyes were hollow. Cinder didn’t think she’d heard her.


A ping echoed in Cinder’s head. Her display showed an incoming message from Adri, and the familiar surge of anxiety that came with it clamped Cinder’s throat.

She dismissed the message.

“Peony, listen to me. I need you to sit up. Can you do that?” “Mom?” Peony whispered, spittle collecting at the corner of her lips.

“She’s at home. She doesn’t know—” That you’re dying. But, of course, Adri did know. The comm would have gone to her too.

Pulse racing, Cinder bent over Peony and slid her arm beneath her shoulder. “Come on, I’ll help you.”

Peony’s expression didn’t change—the blank, corpse stare—but she did let out a pained groan when Cinder lifted her up.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I need you to drink this.”

Another ping, another message from Adri. This time, irritation welled up in Cinder and she shut off her netlink, blocking any more incoming messages. “It’s from the palace. It might help. Do you understand?” She kept her voice low, worried that the other patients might hear, might riot against her.

But Peony’s gaze remained empty. “A cure, Peony,” she hissed against her ear. “An antidote.”

Peony said nothing, head drooped against Cinder’s shoulder. Her body had gone limp, but she was light as a wooden doll.

Cinder’s throat felt coated in sand as she stared into Peony’s empty eyes.

Eyes looking past her, through her.

“No…Peony, didn’t you hear me?” Cinder pulled Peony fully against her and uncorked the vial. “You have to drink this.” She held the vial to Peony’s lips, but Peony didn’t move. Didn’t flinch. “Peony.” Hand trembling, she coaxed Peony’s head back. Her papery lips fell open.

Cinder forced her hand to still as she lifted the vial, afraid to spill a single drop. She set the glass against Peony’s lips and held her breath, but paused. Her heart was convulsing. Her head felt heavy with tears that wouldn’t come. She shook her head, harshly. “Peony, please.

When no sound or air passed through Peony’s lips, Cinder lowered the vial. She buried her head into the crook of Peony’s neck, gritting her teeth until her jaw ached. Each breath stung as it entered her throat, rank with the stench around her, but even now she caught whiffs of Peony’s shampoo from

so many days past.

Clutching the vial in her fist, she gently released Peony, letting her slip back onto the pillow. Her eyes were still open.

Cinder slammed her fist onto the mattress. Some of the antidote splashed up over her thumb. Squeezing her eyes until stars flashed before her, she slumped over and planted her face into the blanket. “Dammit. Dammit. Peony!” Rocking back on her heels, she sucked in a long, uneven breath and gazed at her little sister’s heart-shaped face and lifeless eyes. “I kept my promise. I brought it for you.” She barely refrained from shattering the vial in her fist. “Plus, I talked to Kai. Peony, he’s going to dance with you. He told me he would. Don’t you get it? You can’t die. I’m here…I—”

A splitting headache rocked her against the bed. She gripped the edge of the mattress and lowered her head, letting it hang to her chest. The pain was coming from the top of her spine again, but it did not overwhelm her like before. Just uncomfortable heat, like a sunburn on the inside.

It passed, leaving only a dull throbbing behind, and the thought of Peony’s blank stare haunting her. She lifted her head and corked the vial with weak fingers, slipping it back into her pocket. Reaching up, she closed Peony’s eyes.

Cinder heard the familiar crunch of treads on the dirty concrete and spotted a med-droid coming toward her, no water or damp rags in its prongs. It paused on the other side of Peony’s bed, opened its torso, and retrieved a scalpel.

Cinder reached across the bed and clamped her gloved hand over Peony’s wrist. “No,” she said, louder than she’d intended. Nearby patients lolled their heads toward her.

The android’s sensor rose to her, still dim.

Thieves. Convicts. Fugitives. “You can’t have this one.”

The android stood with its blank white face, the scalpel jutting from its torso. Bits of dried blood clung to the edge.

Without speaking, the android reached forward with one of its free arms and latched onto Peony’s elbow. “I have been programmed—”

“I don’t care what you’ve been programmed to do. You can’t have this one.” Cinder yanked Peony’s arm out of the android’s grip. The pincers left deep scratches across her skin.

“I must remove and preserve her ID chip,” the android said, reaching forward again.

Cinder bent over the bed and plastered her hand against the android’s sensor, holding it at bay. “I said you’re not getting it. Leave her alone.”

The android swung the scalpel up, burying the tip into Cinder’s glove. It

clanged, metal on metal. Cinder reeled back from surprise. The blade clung to the thick fabric of her work gloves.

Gritting her teeth, she wrenched the scalpel from the glove and jammed it into the android’s sensor. Glass shattered. The glowing yellow light flashed out. The android wheeled back, metal arms swinging, loud beeps and error messages spilling from its hidden speakers.

Cinder barreled over the bed and slammed her fist into the android’s head.

It crashed to the ground, silenced, arms still twitching.

Panting, Cinder looked around. The patients who could were sitting up in bed, blinking glossy eyes. A med-droid four aisles away left its patient and rambled toward her.

Cinder sucked in a breath. Crouching down, she reached into the android’s shattered sensor and grabbed the scalpel. She spun back to Peony— the disheveled blankets, the scratches on her arm, the blue fingertips dangling over the side of the bed. Kneeling beside her, she asked for hurried forgiveness while she grasped her sister’s fragile wrist.

She spliced the scalpel into the soft tissue. Blood dribbled out of the wound and onto her glove, mixing with years of grime. Peony’s fingers twitched when Cinder hit a tendon, making her jump.

When the cut was wide enough, she peeled it open with her thumb, revealing bright red muscle. Blood. Her stomach squirmed but she dug the tip of the blade in as carefully as she could, easing up the square chip.

“I’m so, so sorry,” she whispered, setting the mutilated wrist down on Peony’s stomach and standing. The grating of the med-droid’s treads worked closer.

“Ashes, ashes…”

She spun toward the dry, singsong voice, scalpel gripped firmly in one hand, Peony’s chip protected in the other.

The small boy in the next aisle shrank back as his dilated eyes spotted the weapon. The nursery rhyme faded away. It took Cinder a moment to recognize him. Chang Sunto, from the market. Sacha’s son. His skin now glossy with sweat, black hair matted to one side of his head from sleeping too much. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

Everyone who was strong enough to sit up was staring at her.

Stealing a breath, Cinder swept toward Sunto. She fished the vial from her pocket and forced it into his clammy fingers. “Drink this.”

The med-droid reached the foot of the bed, and Cinder shoved it aside. It toppled to the ground like a fallen pawn. Sunto’s delirious eyes followed her without recognition. “Drink it!” she ordered, pulling out the stopper and forcing the vial up to his mouth. She waited for his lips to close around it, and

then she ran.

The sun momentarily blinded her as she bolted into the street. Blocked from her hover by the med-droids and two gurneys of dead patients, she spun and ran in the other direction.

She turned a corner and had gone four blocks when she heard another hover overhead, the hum of magnets awakening beneath her pounding feet.

“Linh Cinder,” came a booming voice over the speaker, “you are hereby ordered to halt and be taken peacefully into custody.”

She cursed. Were they arresting her?

Planting her feet she turned to face the white hover, panting. It was a law enforcement vehicle, manned by more androids. How had they gotten to her so quickly?

“I didn’t steal it!” she yelled, holding up her fist with Peony’s chip enclosed. “It belongs to her family, not to you or anyone else!”

The hover settled to the ground, its engine still thrumming. An android alighted from a ramp, its yellow light scanning Cinder up and down as it approached her. It held a taser in its prongs.

She shuffled back, her heels kicking up debris on the deserted street.

“I haven’t done anything wrong,” she said, hands extended toward the android. “That med-droid was attacking me. It was self-defense.”

“Linh Cinder,” said the machine’s mechanical voice, “we have been contacted by your legal guardian in regard to your unauthorized disappearance. You are hereby in violation of the Cyborg Protection Act and have been labeled a runaway cyborg. Our orders are to apprehend you by force if necessary and return you to your legal guardian. If you come peaceably, this infraction will not be recorded on your permanent record.”

Cinder squinted, confused. A bead of sweat rolled over her eyebrow as she looked from the android who had spoken to a second android just leaving the hover’s ramp.

“Wait,” she said, lowering her hands. “Adri sent you?”

You'll Also Like