Cinder stared at the holograph and imagined watching herself die. In real time.
“How many different batches of antibodies have you gone through?”
“Twenty-seven,” said the med-droid.
“But,” said the foreign voice, “they die a little slower each time.”
Cinder crinkled the tissue paper beneath her fingertips.
“I believe we’re all ready. Med, please proceed with syringe A.”
Something clattered on the table, and then the android was beside her. A panel was open in its torso, revealing a third arm ending in a syringe, like those in the emergency androids.
Cinder tried to pull away, but she had nowhere to go. Imagining the headless voice on the other side of the mirror, watching, laughing at her vain struggles, she froze and tried her best to hold still. To be strong. To not think about what they were doing to her.
The android’s prongs were cold as they gripped Cinder’s elbow, still bruised from having blood taken twice in the past twelve hours. She grimaced, muscles pulling taut to her bones.
“It is easier to find the vein if you are relaxed,” the android said in a hollow voice.
Cinder tensed her arm’s muscles until they were shaking. A snort came through the speakers, as if the disembodied voice was amused by her antics.
The android was well-programmed. Despite her rebellion, the needle punctured her vein on the first try. Cinder gasped.
A pinch. Just a pinch. The fight drained out of her as the clear liquid ran in.
In the evening, when she was exhausted from working, they took away her bed, and she had to lie next to the hearth in the ashes.
“SUCCESSFUL TRANSMITTAL OF THE CARRIERS,” SAID LI. “ALL reactions appear normal. Blood pressure stabilizing. Signs of stage two expected around 0100 tomorrow morning.” He clapped his hands and spun in his chair to face Dr. Erland and Fateen. “That means we can all go home and take naps, right?”
Dr. Erland sniffed. He traced his finger along the screen before him, slowly turning the holographic image of the patient. Twenty little green lights were flickering along her bloodstream, spreading slowly through her veins. But he had seen that before, dozens of times. It was the rest of her that held his interest now.
“Have you ever seen anything like her before?” said Fateen, standing beside him. “The sales from her control panel alone will cover the family payoff.”
Dr. Erland tried to give her an unimpressed glare, but it was less than effective when he had to tilt his head back to look up at her. Snarling, he scooted away and turned back to the holograph. He tapped on the top of the glowing spine, where two metal vertebrae connected, and enlarged the image. What had been a small shadow before now appeared too substantial, too geometric.
Fateen crossed her arms and bent down. “What is that?”
“I’m not sure,” said Erland, rotating the image for a better view.
“It looks like a chip,” said Li, getting up to join them.
“On her spine?” said Fateen. “What good would that do her?”
“I’m just saying that’s what it looks like. Or maybe they messed up on the vertebrae and had to reweld it or something.”
Fateen pointed. “This is more than just welding though. You can see the ridges here, like it’s plugged into…” She hesitated.
They both faced Dr. Erland, whose eyes were following a small green dot that had just floated into the holograph’s viewing range. “Like a vicious green firefly,” he muttered to himself.
“Doctor,” said Fateen, snapping his attention back to her, “why would she have a chip plugged into her nervous system?”
He cleared his throat. “Perhaps,” he said, pulling spectacles from his breast pocket and sliding them onto his nose, “her nervous system experienced traumatic damage.”
“From a hover accident?” said Li.
“Spinal injuries used to be quite common before computer-operated navigation took over.” Dr. Erland scratched his nail across the screen, pulling the holograph back to show her whole torso. He squinted into the lenses, his fingers flittering over the image.
“What are you looking for?” asked Fateen.
Dr. Erland dropped his hand and glanced at the immobile girl on the other side of the window. “Something is missing.”
The scar tissue around her wrist. The dull sheen of her synthetic foot. The grease beneath her fingertips.
“What?” said Li. “What’s missing?”
Dr. Erland stepped closer to the window and pressed a sweating palm against the counter. “A little green firefly.”
Behind him, Li and Fateen traded glances, before spinning back to the holograph. They each began their count, him silently, her out loud, but Fateen paused on number twelve with a gasp.
“One just disappeared,” she said, pointing to an empty spot on the girl’s right thigh. “A microbe, it was right here, I was looking right at it, and now it’s gone.”
As they watched, two more dots flickered and disappeared, like burned-out lightbulbs.
Li grabbed his portscreen off a desk and pounded his fingers against it. “Her immune system is going berserk.”
Dr. Erland leaned into the microphone. “Med, please draw another blood sample. Quickly.” The girl jolted to attention at the sound of his voice.
Fateen joined him at the window. “We haven’t given her the antidote yet.”
Dr. Erland bit down on a thumbnail to tame the rush of giddiness. “I need to go get that first blood sample,” he said, backing away, almost afraid to take his eyes from the cyborg girl. “When all the microbes have disappeared, have her taken into lab four.”
“Lab four isn’t set up for quarantine,” said Li.
“Indeed. She won’t be contagious.” Dr. Erland snapped his fingers, halfway out the door. “And perhaps have the med untie her.”
“Untie—” Fateen’s face contorted with disbelief. “Are you sure that’s such a good idea? She was violent with the med-droids, remember?”
Li folded his arms. “She’s right. I know I wouldn’t want to be on the other side of that fist if she got angry.”
“In that case, you have nothing to fear,” said Dr. Erland. “I’ll be meeting with her in private.”
CINDER STARTED WHEN THE MYSTERY VOICE FILLED THE room again, demanding another blood sample from the sacrificial lamb. She glared at the mirror, ignoring the med-droid as it prepared a new needle with robotic efficiency.
She fought down a gulp, moistening her throat. “How long before I get the pretend antidote?”
She waited, but there was no answer. The android clipped its metal claws around her arm. She flinched at the cold, then again as the needle poked into her sore elbow.
The bruise would last for days.
Then she remembered that tomorrow she would be dead. Or dying.
Her stomach twisted. Maybe Adri was right. Maybe it was for the best.
A shudder wracked her body. Her metal leg clanked hard against her restraints.
Maybe not, though. Maybe the antidote would work.
She filled her lungs with the cool, sterile air of the lab and watched as the holograph on the wall mimicked her. Two green dots lingered by her right foot.
The med-droid pulled out the needle and used a cotton ball to stopper the wound. The vial filled with her blood was set into a metal box attached to the wall.
Cinder thumped her head against the lab table. “I asked you a question. Antidote? Any day now? You are going to at least try to save my life, right?”
“Med,” said a new voice, a female. Cinder snapped her head around to look at herself in the mirror again. “Disconnect the patient from the monitoring machines and escort her into lab room 4D.”
Cinder dug her fingernails into the tissue paper beneath her. Lab room 4D. Is that where they sent you so they could watch you die?
The android snapped shut her head panel and removed the nodes from her chest. The heart rate machine flatlined.
“Hello?” said Cinder. “Could you tell me what’s going on?”
No answer. A green light flickered beside the android’s sensor, and the door opened into a room’s white tiled hallway. The med-droid wheeled Cinder’s exam table out of the lab, past the mirror. The corridor was empty and smelled of bleach, and one of the table’s wheels squeaked in time with the android’s treads.
Cinder craned her head but was unable to meet the med-droid’s sensor. “I think I have some oil in my calf if you’d like me to fix that wheel.”
The android remained silent.
Cinder pressed her lips. Numbered white doors slid past them. “What’s in lab room 4D?”
Cinder drummed her fingers, listening to the crinkle of tissue paper and the wheel that was sure to give her a twitch. She caught the sound of voices somewhere far away, down another corridor, and half expected to hear screams coming from behind the closed doors. Then one of the doors opened, and the android pushed her past a black 4D. The room was almost an exact duplicate of the other but without the observation mirror.
Cinder was wheeled alongside another exam table, upon which sat a familiar pair of boots and gloves. Then, to Cinder’s surprise, her shackles released with a simultaneous whistle of air.
She jerked her hands and feet out of the opened metal rings before the android could realize it had made a mistake and bind her again, but the android showed no reaction as it retreated to the hall without comment. The door clanked shut behind it.
Shivering, Cinder sat up and searched the room for hidden cameras, but nothing struck her as obvious. A counter along one wall held the same heart-rate machines and ratio detectors as the other had. One netscreen to her right sat blank. The door. Two exam tables. And her.
She swung her legs over the side and snatched up her gloves and boots. While lacing up her left boot, she remembered the tools she’d stashed in her leg before leaving the junkyard, what seemed like eons ago. She unlatched the compartment and was relieved to find it hadn’t been raided. With a steadying breath, she grabbed the largest, heaviest tool she had—a wrench—before closing the compartment and tying off her boot.
With her synthetic limbs covered and a weapon in hand, she felt better. Still tense, but not as vulnerable as before.
More confused than ever.
Why give her stuff back if they were going to kill her? Why take her to a new lab?
She rubbed the cool wrench against the bruise on the eye of her elbow. It almost looked like a spot from the plague. She pressed on it with her thumb, glad to feel the dull pain that proved it wasn’t.
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