“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.”
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 slipping along her wires. She felt it most where the skin joined with metal, a tingle where the blood had been cut off.
Cinder clenched her jaw. Someone had been there before—in her head. A fact never forgotten, always ignored. Some surgeon, some stranger, opening her skull and inserting their made-up system of wires and conductors while she had lain helpless beneath them. Someone had altered her brain. Someone had altered her.
She choked on the scream that tried to burble out of her. It was painless. Painless. But someone was in her head. Inside her. An invasion. A violation. She tried to jerk away, but the android held her firm.
“Get out!” The scream echoed back to her off the cold walls.
The med-droid disconnected the prongs. Cinder lay trembling, her heart crushed against her ribcage.
The med-droid didn’t bother to close the panel in the back of her head.
Cinder hated it. Hated Adri. Hated the mad voice behind the mirror. Hated the nameless people who had turned her into this.
“Thank you for that stellar cooperation,” said the disembodied voice. “It will take just a minute for us to record your cybernetic makeup, and then we’ll proceed. Please make yourself comfortable.”
Cinder ignored him, face turned away from the mirror. It was one of those rare moments she was glad to have no tear ducts, otherwise she was sure she’d be a sniveling disaster, and she would have hated herself all the more for it.
She could still hear voices over the speakers, but their words consisted of muttered scientific lingo she didn’t understand. The med-droid was bustling around behind her, putting the ratio detector away. Readying her next instrument of torture.
Cinder opened her eyes. The netscreen on the wall had changed, no longer showing her life stats. Her ID number was still at the top, headlining a holographic diagram.
Of a girl.
A girl full of wires.
It was as if someone had chopped her down the middle, dividing her front half from her back half, and then put her cartoonish image into a medical textbook. Her heart, her brain, her intestines, her muscles, her blue veins. Her control panel, her synthetic hand and leg, wires that trailed from the base of her skull all the way down her spine and out to her prosthetic limbs. The scar tissue where flesh met metal. A small dark square in her wrist—her ID chip.
But those things she had known. Those things she had expected.
She had not known about the metal vertebrae along her spine, or the four metal ribs, or the synthetic tissue around her heart, or the metal splints along the bones in her right leg.
The bottom of the screen was labeled:
She was 36.28 percent not human.
“Thank you for your patience,” came the voice, startling her. “As you’ve no doubt noticed, you are quite the exemplary model of modern science, young lady.”
“Leave me alone,” she whispered.
“What’s going to happen next is that the med-droid is going to inject you with a one-tenth solution of letumosis microbes. They’ve been magnetically tagged and so will appear bright green on the holographic diagram, in real time. Once your body enters into the first stage of the disease, your immune system will kick in and try to destroy the microbes, but it will fail. Your body will then proceed to stage two of the disease, which is of course where we see the bruise-like spots on your skin. At that point, we will inject you with our most recent batch of antibodies, which, if we’ve succeeded, will permanently disable the pathogens. Abracadabra, you’ll be home in time for dumplings. Are you ready?”
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