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Again she scanned the room for a camera, half expecting a small army of med-droids to stampede the room before she could destroy all the lab equipment, but no one came. The hallway outside betrayed no footsteps.

Sliding off the exam table, Cinder went to the door and tested the handle. Locked. An ID scanner was inserted into the frame, but it stayed red when she flashed her wrist before it, so it must have been coded to select personnel.

She went to the cabinets and fiddled with the row of drawers, but none opened.

Tapping the wrench against her thigh, she turned on the netscreen. It blazed to life, a holographic image jumping out at her. It was her again, her medical diagram spliced in half.

She swiped the wrench through the holograph’s abdomen. It flickered, then returned to normal.

Behind her, the door whooshed open.

Cinder spun, tucking the wrench against her side.

An old man in a gray newsboy cap stood before her, holding a portscreen in his left hand and two blood-filled vials in the other. He was shorter than Cinder. A white lab coat hung from his shoulders as it would a model skeleton. Lines drawn into his face suggested he had spent many years thinking very hard over very difficult problems. But his eyes were bluer than the sky and, at that moment, they were smiling.

He reminded her of a child salivating over a sticky bun.

The door shut behind him.

“Hello, Miss Linh.”

Her fingers tightened on the wrench. The strange accent. The disembodied voice.

“I am Dr. Erland, the leading scientist of the royal letumosis research team.”

She forced her shoulders to relax. “Shouldn’t you be wearing a face mask?”

His gray eyebrows lifted. “Whatever for? Are you sick?”

Cinder clenched her teeth and pressed the wrench into her thigh.

“Why don’t you sit down? I have some important things to discuss with you.”

“Oh, now you want to talk,” she said, inching toward him. “I was under the impression you didn’t care too much about the opinions of your guinea pigs.”

“You are a bit different than our usual volunteers.”

Cinder eyed him, the metal tool warming in her palm. “Maybe that’s because I didn’t volunteer.”

In a fluid motion, she raised her arm. Targeted his temple. Envisioned him crumpling to the floor.

But she froze, her vision blurring. Her heart rate slowed, the spike of adrenaline gone before her retina display could warn her about it.

Thoughts came to her, sharp and clear amid the syrupy confusion of her brain. He was a simple old man. A frail, helpless old man. With the sweetest, most innocent blue eyes she’d ever seen. She did not want to hurt him.

Her arm trembled.

The little orange light clicked on and she dropped the wrench in surprise. It clattered to the tile floor, but she was too dazed to worry about it.

He hadn’t said anything. How could he be lying?

The doctor didn’t even flinch. His eyes beamed, pleased with Cinder’s reaction. “Please,” he said, fanning his fingers toward the exam table. “Won’t you sit?”

Chapter Eleven

CINDER BLINKED RAPIDLY, TRYING TO DISPEL THE FOG FROM her brain. The orange light in the corner of her vision disappeared—she still had no idea what had caused it.

Maybe the earlier shock to her system had messed with her programming.

The doctor brushed past her and gestured at the holographic image that jutted from the netscreen. “You no doubt recognize this,” he said, sliding his finger along the screen so that the body spun in a lazy circle. “Let me tell you what is peculiar about it.”

Cinder tugged her glove up, pulling the hem over her scar tissue. She scooted toward him. Her foot bumped the wrench, sending it beneath the exam table. “I’d say about 36.28 percent of it is pretty peculiar.”

When Dr. Erland did not face her, she bent and picked the wrench up. It seemed heavier than before. In fact, everything felt heavy. Her hand, her leg, her head.

The doctor pointed to the holograph’s right elbow. “This is where we injected the letumosis-carrying microbes. They were tagged so that we could monitor their progress through your body.” He withdrew the finger, tapping his lip. “Now you see what is peculiar?”

“The fact that I’m not dead, and you don’t seem concerned about being in the same room with me?”

“Yes, in a way.” He faced her, rubbing his head through his wool hat. “As you can see, the microbes are gone.”

Cinder scratched an itch on her shoulder with the wrench. “What do you mean?”

“I mean they are gone. Disappeared. Poof.” He exploded his hands like fireworks.

“So…I don’t have the plague?”

“That’s correct, Miss Linh. You do not have the plague.”

“And I’m not going to die.”


“And I’m not contagious?”

“Yes, yes, yes. Lovely feeling, isn’t it?”

She leaned against the wall. Relief filled her, but it was followed by suspicion. They had given her the plague, but now she was healed? Without any antidote?

It felt like a trap, but the orange light was nowhere to be seen. He was telling her the truth, no matter how unbelievable it seemed. “Has this happened before?”

An impish grin spread across the doctor’s weathered face. “You are the first. I have some theories about how it could be possible, but I’ll need to run tests, of course.”

He abandoned the holograph and went to the counter, lying out the two vials. “These are your blood samples, one taken before the injection, one after. I am very excited to see what secrets they contain.”

She slid her eyes to the door, then back to the doctor. “Are you saying you think I’m immune?”

“Yes! That is precisely what it seems. Very interesting. Very special.” He gripped his hands together. “It is possible that you were born with it. Something in your DNA that predisposed your immune system to fight off this particular disease. Or perhaps you were introduced to letumosis in a very small amount some time in your past, perhaps in your childhood, and your body was able to fight it off, therefore building an immunity to it which you utilized today.”

Cinder shrank back, uncomfortable under his eager stare.

“Do you recall anything from your childhood that could be connected to this?” he continued. “Any horrible sicknesses? Near brushes with death?”

“No. Well…” She hesitated, stuffing the wrench into a side cargo pocket. “I guess, maybe. My stepfather died of letumosis. Five years ago.”

“Your stepfather. Do you know where he could have contracted it?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. My step—my guardian, Adri, always suspected he got it in Europe. When he adopted me.”

The doctor’s hands trembled, as if his clutched fingers alone were keeping him from combusting. “You’re from Europe then.”

She nodded, uncertainly. It felt odd to think she was from a place she had no memory of.

“Were there many sick people in Europe that you recall? Any notable outbreaks in your province?”

“I don’t know. I don’t actually remember anything from before the surgery.”

His eyebrows rose, his blue eyes sucking in all the light of the room. “The cybernetic operation?”

“No, the sex change.”

The doctor’s smile faltered.

“I’m joking.”

Dr. Erland reassembled his composure. “What do you mean when you say you don’t remember anything?”

Cinder blew a wisp of hair from her face. “Just that. Something about when they installed the brain interface, it did some damage to my…you know, whatever. The part of the brain that remembers things.”

“The hippocampus.”

“I guess.”

“And how old were you?”


“Eleven.” He released his breath in a rush. His gaze darted haphazardly around the floor as if the reason for her immunity was written upon it. “Eleven. Because of a hover accident, was it?”


“Hover accidents are nearly impossible these days.”

“Until some idiot removes the collision sensor, trying to make it go faster.”

“Even so, it wouldn’t seem that a few bumps and bruises would justify the amount of repairs you had.”

Cinder tapped her fingers against her hip. Repairs—what a very cyborg term.

“Yeah, well, it killed my parents and threw me through the windshield. The force pushed the hover off the maglev track. It rolled a couple times and pinned me underneath. Afterward some of the bones in my leg were the consistency of sawdust.” She paused, fiddling with her gloves. “At least, that’s what they told me. Like I said, I don’t remember any of it.”

She only barely remembered the drug-induced fog, her mushy thoughts. And then there was the pain. Every muscle burning. Every joint screaming. Her body in rebellion as it discovered what had been done to it.

“Do you have any trouble retaining memories since then, or forming new ones?”

“Not that I know of.” She glared. “Is this relevant?”

“It’s fascinating,” Dr. Erland said, dodging the question. He pulled out his portscreen, making some notation. “Eleven years old,” he muttered again, then, “You must have gone through a lot of prosthetic limbs growing into those.”

Cinder twisted her lips. She should have gone through lots of limbs, but Adri had refused to pay for new parts for her freak stepdaughter. Instead of responding, she cast her eyes to the door, then at the blood-filled vials. “So…am I free to go?”

Dr. Erland’s eyes flashed as if injured by her question. “Go? Miss Linh, you must realize how valuable you’ve become with this discovery.”

Her muscles tensed, her fingers trailing along the hard outline of the wrench in her pocket. “So I’m still a prisoner. Just a valuable one now.”

His face softened, and he tucked the port out of sight. “This is much bigger than you realize. You have no idea how important…no idea of your worth.”

“So what now? Are you going to inject me with even more lethal diseases, to see how my body fares against those?”

“Stars, no. You are much too precious to kill.”

“You weren’t exactly saying that an hour ago.”

Dr. Erland’s gaze flickered to the holograph, brow furrowed as if considering her words. “Things are quite different than they were an hour ago, Miss Linh. With your help, we could save hundreds of thousands of lives. If you are what I think you are, we could—well, we could stop the cyborg draft, to start with.” He settled his fist against his mouth. “Plus, we would pay you, of course.”


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