Chapter no 32

Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles, #1)


apartment building had come to life again. She kept herself plastered to the wall, crutches tucked behind her, as her neighbors danced by in their fine clothes. A few pitying glances turned on Cinder as she kept out of their way, careful not to smudge any of the beautiful dresses, but mostly her neighbors ignored her.

Making it to the apartment, she shut the door behind her and listened for a moment to the blissful emptiness of the living room. She ran a mental checklist of everything she wanted to grab, green text scrolling across her vision. In her room, Cinder spread out her blanket and filled it with her few belongings—oil-stained clothes, tools that had never made their way back to the toolbox, silly little gifts that Iko had given to her over the years, like a “gold ring” that was actually a rusted washer.

Both Iko’s personality chip and Peony’s ID chip were tucked safely in her calf compartment, where they would stay until she found a more permanent home for them.

She shut her eyes, suddenly tired. How was it that with freedom so close on the horizon, she suddenly had the overwhelming desire to lie down and take a nap? All those long nights fixing the car were catching up with her.

Shaking off the feeling, she finished packing as fast as she could, trying her best not to think of the risks she was taking. She would be considered a runaway cyborg for real this time. If she were ever caught, Adri could have her imprisoned.

She kept her hands moving. Trying not to think of Iko, who should have been at her side. Or Peony, who should have made her want to stay. Or Prince Kai.

Emperor Kai.

She would never see him again.

She knotted the blanket corners with an angry tug. She was thinking too much. She just had to leave. One step at a time and soon she would be in the

car, and all this would be behind her. Settling the makeshift bag over her shoulder, she hobbled her way back to the hall and down to the labyrinth of underground storage spaces. Limping into the storage room, she dropped the bag onto the floor.

She paused for only a moment to catch her breath before she continued, unlatching the top of the handheld toolbox and shoveling everything off the desk into it. There would be time for sorting later. The standing toolbox that came nearly to her chest was much too big to fit into the car and would have to be left behind. Her gas mileage would have been ruined with all that weight in the back, anyway.

She surveyed the room where she’d spent most of the past five years. It was the closest thing to a home she’d ever known, even with the chicken wire that felt like a cage and the boxes that smelled of mildew. She didn’t expect to miss it much.

Peony’s crumpled ball gown was still draped over the welder. It, like the toolbox, wouldn’t be coming with her.

She moved to the towering steel shelves against the far wall and began rummaging for parts that would be useful for the car or even her own body should anything malfunction, throwing the pieces of miscellaneous junk into a heap on the floor. She paused as her hand stumbled across something she’d never thought she would see again.

The small, battered foot of an eleven-year-old cyborg.

She lifted it from the shelf, where it had been tucked out of sight. Iko must have saved it, even after Cinder had asked her to throw it away.

Perhaps in Iko’s mind, it was the closest thing to an android shoe she would ever own. Cinder cradled the foot against her heart. How she had hated this foot. How overjoyed she was to see it now.

With an ironic smile, she slumped into her desk chair for the last time. Pulling off her gloves, she eyed her left wrist, trying to picture the small chip just beneath the surface. The thought brought Peony to mind. Her blue-tipped fingers. The scalpel against her pale white skin.

Cinder shut her eyes, forcing the memory away. She had to do this.

She reached for the utility knife on the corner of her desk, the blade soaking in a tin can filled with alcohol. She shook it off, took a deep breath, and rested her cyborg hand palm up on the desk. She recalled seeing the chip on Dr. Erland’s holograph, less than an inch away from where skin met metal. The challenge would be getting it out without accidentally splicing any important wires.

Forcing her mind to quiet, her hand to still, she pressed the blade into her wrist. The pain bit into her, but she didn’t flinch. Steady. Steady.

A beep startled her. Cinder jumped, pulling the blade away and spinning around to face the wall of shelving. Her heart pummeled against her ribs as she scanned all the parts and tools that would be left behind.

It beeped again. Cinder’s eyes dropped to the old netscreen that was still propped against the shelves. She knew it was disconnected from the net, and yet a bright blue square was flashing in the corner. Another beep.

Setting down the knife, Cinder slinked away from her chair and kneeled before the screen.

On the blue square was scrawled:


Tilting her head, she spotted the D-COMM chip still inserted in the screen’s drive. The small green light beside it glowed. In the shadow of the screen, it looked like any other chip, but Cinder remembered Kai’s response when she’d described the chip’s shimmery silver material. A Lunar chip.

She grabbed a dirty rag from the pile of junk and pressed it against the barely bleeding wound. “Screen, accept link.”

The beeping stopped. The blue box disappeared. A spiral turned over on the screen.

Hello?” Cinder jumped.

Hello hello hello—is anybody there?

Whoever she was, she sounded on the verge of a breakdown. “Please, oh, please, someone answer. Where is that stupid android? HELLO?”

“Hell-o?…” Cinder leaned in toward the screen.

The girl gasped, followed by a short silence. “Hello? Can you hear me? Is somebody—”

“Yes, I can hear you. Hold on, something’s wrong with the vid-cable.” “Oh, thank heavens,” the voice said as Cinder set aside the rag. She set

the screen facedown on the concrete and opened the door to its control panel. “I thought maybe the chip had gotten damaged or I’d programmed it with the wrong connection ID or something. Are you in the palace now?”

Cinder found the vid-cable disconnected from its plug; it must have come loose when Adri had knocked it off the wall. Cinder screwed it in and a flood of blue light splattered across the floor. “There we are,” she said, righting the screen.

She jolted back when she saw the girl on the other side of the connection.

She must have been close to Cinder’s age and had the longest, waviest, most unruly mess of tangled blonde hair imaginable. The golden nest around her head was tied in a big knot over one shoulder and cascaded in a jumble of braids and snarls, wrapping around one of the girl’s arms before descending out of the screen’s view. The girl was fidgeting with the ends, fervently winding and unwinding them around her fingers.

If it weren’t for the mess of hair, she would have been pretty. She had a sweet heart-shaped face, giant sky-blue eyes, and a sprinkle of freckles across her nose.

She was somehow not at all what Cinder had been expecting.

The girl looked equally surprised at seeing Cinder and her cyborg hand and dreary T-shirt.

“Who are you?” the girl asked. Her eyes darted behind Cinder, taking in the dim lighting and the chicken wire. “Why aren’t you at the palace?”

“I wasn’t allowed to go,” Cinder answered. She squinted at the room behind the girl, wondering if she were looking at a home on the moon…but it did not look like any home at all. Rather, the girl was surrounded by metal walls and machines and screens and computers and more controls and buttons and lights than a cargo ship’s cockpit.

Cinder folded her legs, letting her footless calf dangle more comfortably over her thigh. “Are you Lunar?”

The girl’s eyes fluttered, as if caught off guard by the question. Instead of answering, she leaned forward. “I need to speak with someone at New Beijing Palace right away.”

“Then why don’t you comm the palace information board?”

“I can’t!” The girl’s shriek was so unexpected, so desperate that Cinder nearly fell over. “I don’t have a global comm chip—this is the only direct link I’ve been able to get down to Earth!”

“So you are Lunar.”

The girl’s eyes widened to near perfect circles. “That’s not—”

“Who are you?” said Cinder, her voice raising. “Are you working for the queen? Are you the one who installed the chip in that android? You are, aren’t you?”

The girl’s eyebrows drew together, but rather than looking irritated at Cinder’s questions, she appeared frightened. Even ashamed.

Cinder clenched her jaw against the onslaught of questions and took in a slow breath before asking, steadily, “Are you a Lunar spy?”

“No! Of course not! I mean…well…sort of.” “Sort of? What do you mean—”

“Please, listen to me!” The girl clenched her hands together, as if fighting

an internal battle. “Yes, I programmed the chip, and I am working for the queen, but it’s not what you think. I’ve programmed all the spyware that Levana’s used to watch Emperor Rikan these past months, but I didn’t have a choice. Mistress would kill me if…stars above, she will kill me when she finds out about this.”

“Mistress who? You mean Queen Levana?”

The girl squeezed her eyes tight, her face contorted with pain. When she opened her eyes again, they were glistening. “No. Mistress Sybil. She is Her Majesty’s head thaumaturge…and my guardian.”

Recognition pinged in Cinder’s head. Kai had suspected the queen’s thaumaturge of putting the chip in Nainsi in the first place.

“But she’s more like a captor, really,” the girl continued. “I’m nothing to her but a prisoner and a sla-ave.” She hiccupped on the last word and buried her face in a bundle of hair, sobbing. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m an evil, worthless, wretched girl.”

Cinder felt her heart tug in sympathy—she could relate to being a slave for her “guardian,” but she couldn’t recall ever being afraid that Adri might actually kill her. Well, other than that time she sold her off for plague research.

She clenched her jaw against the mounting pity, reminding herself that this girl was Lunar. She had helped Queen Levana spy on Emperor Rikan, and on Kai. She briefly wondered if the girl was only manipulating her emotions now, before she remembered that Lunars couldn’t control people through the netscreens.

Blowing some hair out of her face, Cinder leaned forward and yelled, “Stop it! Stop crying!”

The crying stopped. The girl peered up at her with big, watery eyes. “Why were you trying to get a hold of the palace?”

The girl shrank back and sobbed, but the tears seemed to have been startled out of her. “I need to get a message to Emperor Kai. I need to warn him. He’s in danger, all of Earth…Queen Levana…and it’s all my fault. If I’d only been stronger, if I’d only tried to fight, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s all my fault.”

“Stars above, would you stop crying?” said Cinder before the girl could dissolve into hysterics again. “You need to get a hold of yourself. What do you mean Kai’s in danger? What have you done?”

The girl hugged herself, her eyes pleading with Cinder as if she alone could offer forgiveness. “I’m the queen’s programmer, like I said. I’m good at it—hacking into netlinks and security systems and the like.” She said this without a hint of arrogance on her wavering voice. “For the last few years,

Mistress has been asking me to connect feeds from Earth’s political leaders to Her Majesty’s palace. At first, it was just court discussions, meetings, document transfers, nothing very interesting. Her Majesty wasn’t learning anything that your emperor hadn’t already told her, so I didn’t think much harm could come of it.”

The girl twisted her hair around both sets of knuckles. “But then she asked me to program a D-COMM chip that she could install in one of the royal androids, thinking then she could spy on the emperor outside of the netlinks.” She raised her eyes to Cinder. Guilt was scrawled across her face. “If it had been any other android, any android in the entire palace, she still wouldn’t know anything. But now she does know! And it’s all my fault!” She whimpered and pulled the lock of hair into her mouth like a gag.

“Wait,” Cinder held up her hand, trying to slow the girl’s rapid words. “What exactly does Levana know?”

The girl pulled the hair out as tears started to slip down her cheeks. “She knows everything that android knew, everything she’d been researching. She knows that Princess Selene is alive and that Prince—I’m sorry, that Emperor Kai was searching for her. She knows that the emperor wanted to find the princess and instate her as the true Lunar queen.”

Dread squirmed in Cinder’s stomach.

“She knows the names of the doctors who helped her escape and this poor old woman in the European Federation who housed her for so long…. Her Majesty’s already sent people to hunt her down, using the information Kai had. And when they find her—”

“But what will she do to Kai?” Cinder interrupted. “Levana’s already won. Kai all but said he was going to give her what she wants, so what does it matter now?”

“He tried to usurp her! You don’t know the queen, her grudges. She’ll never forgive this. I have to get a message to him, to somebody at the palace. He has to know it’s a setup.”

“A setup? What kind of setup?”

“To become empress! Once she’s in control of the Commonwealth, she intends to use her army to wage war on the rest of Earth. And she can do it too—her army…this army…” She shuddered, ducking her head as if someone had swiped at her.

Cinder shook her head. “Kai wouldn’t allow it.”

“It doesn’t matter. Once she’s empress, she’ll have no more use of him.”

Blood rushed in Cinder’s ears. “You think—but she would be an idiot to try to kill him. Everyone would know it was her.”

“Lunars suspect she killed Queen Channary and Princess Selene, but what

can they do about it? They might think of rebellion, but as soon as they’re in her presence, she brainwashes them into compliance again.”

Cinder rubbed her fingers over her brow. “He was going to announce it at the ball tonight,” she murmured to herself. “He’s going to announce his intent to marry her.” Her heart was racing, thoughts spilling over in her brain.

Levana knew he had been searching for Princess Selene. She would kill him. She would take over the Commonwealth. She would wage war on…on the whole planet.

She grasped her head as the world spun around her.

She had to warn him. She couldn’t let him make the announcement.

She could send him a comm, but what were the chances he was checking them during the ball?

The ball.

Cinder peered down at her drab clothes. Her empty ankle.

Peony’s dress. The old foot that Iko had saved. The silk gloves.

Her head bobbed before she knew what she was agreeing to, and she used the shelves to pull herself to standing. “I’ll go,” she muttered. “I’ll find him.”

“Take the chip,” said the girl on the screen. “In case we need to contact each other. And please, don’t tell them about me. If my mistress ever found out—”

Without waiting for her to finish, Cinder bent over and pulled the chip from its drive. The screen went black.

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