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“Nobody survives the plague. If you care for Peony as much as you claim to, you’ll do as I say. If you hadn’t been so selfish, you would have volunteered yourself after you left the market today, before coming here and ruining my family. Again.”

“But—”

“Take her away. She is yours.”

Cinder was too stunned to move as the nearest android held a scanner up to her wrist. It beeped and she flinched back.

“Linh Cinder,” it said in its metallic voice, “your voluntary sacrifice is admired and appreciated by all citizens of the Eastern Commonwealth. A payment will be made to your loved ones as a show of gratitude for your contribution to our ongoing studies.”

Her grip tightened on the magbelt. “No—that’s what this is really about, isn’t it? You don’t care about Peony, you don’t care about me, you just want the stupid payout!”

Adri’s eyes widened, her temples pulling taut against her skull.

She crossed the room in two steps, the back of her hand whipping across Cinder’s face. Cinder fell against the door frame and pressed a hand to her cheek.

“Take her,” said Adri. “Get her out of my sight.”

“I didn’t volunteer. You can’t take me against my will!”

The android was unperturbed. “We have been authorized by your legal guardian to take you into custody through the use of force if necessary.”

Cinder curled her fingers, balling a fist against her ear.

“You can’t force me to be a test subject.”

“Yes,” said Adri, her own breathing labored. “I can. So long as you are under my guardianship.”

“You don’t really think this will save Peony, so don’t pretend this is about her. She has days. The chances of them finding a cure before—”

“Then my only mistake was in waiting too long to be rid of you,” Adri said, running the washcloth between her fingers. “Believe me, Cinder. You are a sacrifice I will never regret.”

The treads of one of the med-droids clattered against the carpet. “Are you prepared to come with us?”

Cinder pursed her lips and lowered her hand from her face. She glared at Adri, but she could find no sympathy in her stepmother’s eyes. A new hatred boiled up inside her. Warnings flashed in her vision. “No. I’m not.”

Cinder swung the magbelt, smacking it hard against the android’s cranium. The robot fell to the floor, treads spinning midair. “I won’t go. Scientists have done enough to me already!”


A second android rolled toward her. “Initiating procedure 240B: forcible removal of cyborg draft subject.”

Cinder sneered and shoved the end of the magbelt at the android’s sensor, shattering the lens and thrusting it onto its back.

She spun around to face the last android, already thinking how she would run from the apartment. Wondering if it would be too risky to call a hover. Wondering where to find a knife for cutting out her ID chip, otherwise they were sure to track her. Wondering if Iko would be fast enough to follow. Wondering if her legs could carry her all the way to Europe.

The med-droid approached too fast. She stumbled, changing the trajectory of the magbelt, but the android’s metal pinchers grasped her wrist first. Electrodes fired. Electricity sizzled through Cinder’s nervous system. The voltage overwhelmed her wiring. Cinder’s lips parted, but the cry stuck in the back of her throat.

She dropped the magbelt and collapsed. Red warnings flashed across her vision until, in an act of cyborg self-preservation, her brain forced her to shut down.

Chapter Seven

DR. DMITRI ERLAND DRAGGED HIS FINGER ACROSS THE portscreen, scanning the patient’s records. Male. Thirty-two years old. He had a child but no mention of a spouse. Unemployed. Turned cyborg after a debilitating work-related accident three years ago, no doubt spent most of his savings on the surgery. He’d traveled all the way from Tokyo.

So many strikes against him, and Dr. Erland couldn’t explain that to anybody. Sticking his tongue out between his teeth, he raspberried his disappointment.

“What do you think, doctor?” asked today’s assistant, a dark-skinned girl whose name he could never recall and who was taller than he was by at least four inches. He liked to give her tasks that kept her seated while she worked.

Dr. Erland filled his lungs slowly, then released them all at once, changing the display to the more relevant diagram of the patient’s body. He had a mere 6.4 percent makeup—his right foot, a bit of wiring, and a thumbnail-size control panel imbedded in his thigh.

“Too old,” he said, tossing the port onto the countertop before the observation window. On the other side of the glass, the patient was laid out on the lab table. He looked peaceful but for madly tapping fingers against the plastic cushions. His feet were bare, but skin grafting covered the prosthesis.

“Too old?” said the assistant. She stood and came to the window, waving her own portscreen at him. “Thirty-two is too old now?”

“We can’t use him.”

She bunched her lips to one side. “Doctor, this will be the sixth draft subject you’ve turned away this month. We can’t afford to keep doing this.”

“He has a child. A son. It says so right here.”

“Yeah, a child who’ll be able to afford dinner tonight because his daddy was lucky enough to fit our subject profile.”

“To fit our profile? With a 6.4 percent ratio?”

“It’s better than testing on people.” She dropped the portscreen beside a tray of petri dishes. “You really want to let him go?”

Dr. Erland glared into the quarantine room, a growl humming in the back of his throat. Pulling his shoulders back, he tugged down on his lab coat. “Placebo him.”

“Pla—but he’s not sick!”

“Yes, but if we don’t give him anything, the treasury will wonder what we’re doing down here. Now, give him a placebo and submit a report so he can be on his way.”

The girl huffed and went to grab a labeled vial from a shelf. “What are we doing down here?”

Dr. Erland held up a finger, but the girl gave him such an irritated look that he forgot what he’d been about to say. “What’s your name again?”

She rolled her eyes. “Honestly. I’ve only been your assistant every Monday for the past four months.”

She turned her back on him, her long black braid whipping against her hip. Dr. Erland’s eyebrows drew together as he stared at the braid, watching as it wound itself up, curling in on itself. A shiny black snake rearing its head. Hissing at him. Ready to strike.

He slammed shut his eyes and counted to ten. When he opened them again, the braid was just a braid. Shiny black hair. Harmless.

Pulling off his hat, Dr. Erland took a moment to rub at his own hair, gray and considerably less full than his assistant’s.

The visions were getting worse.

The door to the lab room opened. “Doctor?”

He jolted and stuffed his head back into the hat. “Yes?” he said, grabbing his portscreen. Li, another assistant, lingered with his hand on the doorknob. Dr. Erland had always liked Li—who was also tall but not as tall as the girl.

“There’s a volunteer waiting in 6D,” said Li. “Someone they brought in last night.”

“A volunteer?” said the girl. “Been a while since we had one of those.”

Li pulled a portscreen from his breast pocket. “She’s young too, a teenager. We haven’t run her diagnostics yet, but I think she’s going to have a pretty high ratio. No skin grafting.”

Dr. Erland perked up, scratching his temple with the corner of his port. “A teenage girl, you say? How…” He fumbled for an appropriate descriptor. Unusual? Coincidental? Lucky?

“Suspicious,” said the girl, her voice low. Dr. Erland turned, found her glower bearing down on him.

“Suspicious? Whatever do you mean?”

She perched against the edge of the counter, diminishing her height so she was eye level, but she still seemed intimidating with her folded arms and unimpressed scowl. “Just that you’re always more than willing to placebo the male cyborgs that come in, but you perk right up when you catch word of a girl, especially the young ones.”

He opened his mouth, closed it, then started again. “The younger, the healthier,” he said. “The healthier, the fewer complications we’ll have. And it isn’t my fault that the draft keeps picking on females.”

“Fewer complications. Right. Either way, they’re going to die.”

“Yes, well. Thank you for the optimism.” He gestured to the man on the other side of the glass. “Placebo, please. Come join us when you’ve finished.”

He stepped out of the lab room, Li at his side, and cupped a hand around his mouth. “What is her name again?”

“Fateen?”

“Fateen! I can never remember that. One of these days, I’ll be forgetting my own name.”

Li chuckled, and Dr. Erland was glad he’d made the joke. People seemed to overlook an old man losing his mind if he occasionally made light of it.

The hallway was empty save for two med-droids lingering by the stairwell, awaiting orders. It was a short walk to lab room 6D.

Dr. Erland pulled a stylus from behind his ear and tapped at his port, downloading the information Li had sent him. The new patient’s profile popped up.

L

INH

C

INDER, LICENSED MECHANIC

ID

#0097917305

B

ORN

29 N

OV

109

T.E.

0

MEDIA HITS

R

ESIDENT OF

N

EW

B

EIJING

, E

ASTERN

C

OMMONWEALTH

. W

ARD OF

L

INH

A

DRI.

Li opened the door to the lab. Tucking the stylus back behind his ear, Dr. Erland entered the room with twitching fingers.

The girl was lying on the table on the other side of the viewing window. The sterile quarantine room was so bright he had to squint into the glare. A med-droid was just capping a plastic vial filled with blood and plunking it onto the chute, sending it off to the blood lab.

The girl’s hands and wrists had been fastened with metal bands. Her left hand was steel, tarnished and dark between the joints as if it needed a good cleaning. Her pant legs had been rolled up her calves, revealing one human leg and one synthetic.

“Is she plugged in yet?” he asked, slipping his port into his coat pocket.

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