Stars above, p.6
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       Stars Above, p.6

         Part #4.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
 

  “Cinder.”

  She dared to meet Adri’s gaze.

  “I came to tell you that if you are to be a part of this household, I will expect you to take on some responsibilities. You’re old enough to help Pearl with her chores.”

  She nodded, almost eager to have something to do with her time when Peony wasn’t around. “Of course. I don’t want to be any trouble.”

  Adri’s mouth pursed into a thin line. “I won’t ask you to do any dusting until I can trust you to move with a bit of grace. Is that hand water-resistant?”

  Cinder held out her bionic hand, splaying out the fingers. “I … I think so. But it might rust … after a while…”

  “Fine, no dishes or scrubbing, then. Can you at least cook?”

  Cinder racked her brain, wondering if it could feed her recipes as easily as it fed her useless definitions. “I never have before, that I can remember. But I’m sure…”

  Peony threw her arms into the air. “Why don’t we just get Iko fixed and then she can do all the housework like she’s supposed to?”

  Adri’s eyes smoldered as she looked between her daughter and Cinder. “Well,” she said finally, snatching up the two kimonos and draping them over her arm. “I’m sure we’ll be able to find some use for you. In the meantime, why don’t you leave my daughter alone so she can get some of her schoolwork accomplished?”

  “What?” said Peony. “But we haven’t even gotten to the ball yet.”

  Cinder didn’t wait to hear the argument she expected to follow. “Yes, Stepmother,” she murmured, ducking her head. She slipped past Adri and made her way to her own room.

  Her insides were writhing but she couldn’t pinpoint the overruling emotion. Hot anger, because it wasn’t her fault that her new leg was awkward and heavy, and how was she to know Adri wouldn’t want them playing in her things?

  But also mortification, because maybe she really was useless. She was eleven years old, but she didn’t know anything, other than the bits of data that seemed to serve no purpose other than to keep her from looking like a complete idiot. If she’d had any skills before, she had no idea what they had been. She’d lost them now.

  Sighing, she shut her bedroom door and slumped against it.

  The room hadn’t changed much in the almost two weeks since she’d come to call it home, other than the cast-off clothes that had been put into the dresser drawers, a pair of boots tossed into a corner, the blankets bundled up in a ball at the foot of her bed.

  Her eyes landed on the box of android parts that hadn’t been moved from its spot behind the door. The dead sensor, the spindly arms.

  There was a bar code printed on the back of the torso that she hadn’t noticed before. She barely noticed it now, except that her distracted brain was searching for the random numbers, downloading the android’s make and model information. Parts list. Estimated value. Maintenance and repair manual.

  Something familiar stirred inside her, like she already knew this android. How its parts fit together, how its mechanics and programming all functioned as a whole. Or no, this wasn’t familiarity, but … a connectedness. Like she knew the android intimately. Like it was an extension of her.

  She pushed herself off the door, her skin tingling.

  Perhaps she had one useful skill after all.

  * * *

  It took three days, during which she emerged from her room only to sit for meals with her new family and, once, to play in the snow with Peony while Adri and Pearl were at the market. Her metal limbs had frosted over with cold by the time they were done, but coming inside to a pot of green tea and the flush of shared laughter had quickly warmed her back up.

  Adri had not asked Cinder to take on any household chores again, and Cinder imagined it seemed a lost cause to her stepmother. She stayed hopeful, though, as the jumble of android pieces gradually formed into something recognizable. A hollow plastic body atop wide treads, two skinny arms, a squat head with nothing but a cyclops sensor for a face. The sensor had given her the most trouble, and she had had to redo the wiring twice, triple-checking the diagram that had downloaded across her eyesight, before she felt confident she’d gotten it right.

  If only it worked. If only she could show to Adri, and even Garan, that she wasn’t a useless addition to their family after all. That she was grateful they’d taken her in when no one else would. That she wanted to belong to them.

  She was sitting cross-legged on her bed with the window open behind her, allowing in a chilled but pleasant breeze, when she inserted the final touch. The small personality chip clicked into place and Cinder held her breath, half expecting the android to perk up and swivel around and start talking to her, until she remembered that she would need to be charged before she could function.

  Feeling her excitement wane from the anticlimactic finale, Cinder released a slow breath and fell back onto her mattress, mentally exhausted.

  A knock thunked against the door.

  “Come in,” she called, not bothering to move as the door creaked open.

  “I was just wondering if you wanted to come watch—” Peony fell silent, and Cinder managed to lift her head to see the girl gaping wide-eyed at the android. “Is that … Iko?”

  Grinning, Cinder braced herself on her elbows. “She still needs to be charged, but I think she’ll work.”

  Jaw still hanging open, Peony crept into the room. Though only nine years old, she was already well over a foot taller than the squat robot. “How … how? How did you fix her?”

  “I had to borrow some tools from your dad.” Cinder gestured to a pile of wrenches and screwdrivers in the corner. She didn’t bother to mention that he hadn’t been in his workshop behind the house when she’d gone to find them. It almost felt like theft, and that thought terrified her, but it wasn’t theft. She wasn’t going to keep the tools, and she was sure Garan would be delighted when he saw she’d fixed the android.

  “That’s not…” Peony shook her head and finally looked at Cinder. “You fixed her by yourself?”

  Cinder shrugged, not sure if she should be proud or uncomfortable from the look of awe Peony was giving her. “It wasn’t that hard,” she said. “I had … I can download … information. Instructions. Into my head. And I figured out how to get the android’s blueprint to go across my vision so I could…” She trailed off, realizing that what she’d been sure was a most useful skill was also one more strange eccentricity her body could claim. One more side effect of being cyborg.

  But Peony’s eyes were twinkling more by the minute. “You’re kidding,” she said, picking up one of Iko’s hands and waggling it around. Cinder had been sure to thoroughly grease it so the joints wouldn’t seize up. “What else can you do?”

  “Um.” Cinder hunched her shoulders, considering. “I can … make stuff louder. I mean, not really, but I can adjust my hearing so it seems louder. Or quieter. I could probably mute my hearing if I wanted to.”

  Peony laughed. “That’s brilliant! You’d never have to hear Mom when she’s yelling! Aw, I’m so jealous!” Beaming, she started to drag Iko toward the door. “Come on, there’s a charging station in the hallway.”

  Cinder hopped off the bed and followed her to a docking station at the end of the hall. Peony plugged Iko in and, instantly, a faint blue light started to glow around the plug.

  Peony had raised hopeful eyes to Cinder when the front door opened and Garan stumbled into the hallway, his hair dripping. He wasn’t wearing his coat.

  He started when he saw the girls standing there. “Peony,” he said, short of breath. “Where’s your mother?”

  She glanced over her shoulder. “In the kitchen, I thi—”

  “Go fetch her. Quickly, please.”

  Peony stalled, her face clouding with worry, before hurrying toward the kitchen.

  Intertwining her fingers, Cinder slid in closer to the android. It was the first time she’d been alone with Garan since their long trip, and she expected him to say something, to ask how s
he was getting along or if there was anything she needed—he’d certainly asked that plenty of times while they were traveling—but he hardly seemed to notice her standing there.

  “I fixed your android,” she said finally, her voice squeaking a little. She grabbed the android’s limp arm, as if to prove it, though the hand did nothing but droop.

  Garan turned his distraught gaze on her and looked for a moment like he was going to ask who she was and what she was doing in his house. He opened his mouth, but it took a long time for any words to form.

  “Oh, child.”

  She frowned at the obvious pity. This was not a reaction she’d expected—he was not impressed, he was not grateful. Thinking he must not have heard her correctly, she went to repeat herself—no, she’d fixed the android—when Adri came around the corner, wearing the robe she always wore when she wasn’t planning on going out. She had a dish towel in her hand and her two daughters trailing in her wake.

  “Garan?”

  He stumbled back, slamming his shoulder hard into the wall, and everyone froze.

  “Don’t—” he stammered, smiling apologetically as a droplet of water fell onto his nose. “I’ve called for an emergency hover.”

  The curiosity hardened on Adri’s face. “Whatever for?”

  Cinder pressed herself as far as she could into the wall, feeling like she was pinned between two people who hadn’t the faintest idea she was standing there.

  Garan folded his arms, starting to shiver. “I’ve caught it,” he whispered, his eyes beginning to water.

  Cinder glanced back at Peony, wondering if these words meant something to her, but no one was paying Cinder any attention.

  “I’m sorry,” said Garan, coughing. He shuffled back toward the door. “I shouldn’t even have come inside. But I had to say … I had to…” He covered his mouth and his entire body shook with a cough, or a sob, Cinder couldn’t tell which. “I love you all so much. I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

  “Garan.” Adri took half a step forward, but her husband was already turning away. The front door shut a second later, and Pearl and Peony cried out at the same time and rushed forward, but Adri caught them both by their arms. “Garan! No—you girls, stay here. Both of you.” Her voice was trembling as she pulled them back before chasing after Garan herself, her night robe swishing against Cinder’s legs as she passed.

  Cinder inched forward so she could see the door being swung open around the corner. Her heart thumped like a drum against her ribs.

  “GARAN!” Adri screamed, tears in her voice. “What are you—you can’t go!”

  Cinder was slammed against the wall as Pearl tore past her, screaming for her father, then Peony, sobbing.

  No one paused. No one looked at Cinder or the android in their hurry for the door. Cinder realized after a moment that she was still gripping the android’s skeletal arm, listening. Listening to the sobs and pleas, the Nos, the Daddys. The words echoed off the snow and back into the house.

  Releasing the android, Cinder hobbled forward. She reached the threshold that overlooked the blindingly white world and paused, staring at Adri and Pearl and Peony, who were on their knees in the pathway to the street, slush soaking into their clothes. Garan was standing on the curb, his hand still over his mouth as if he’d forgotten it was there. His eyes were red from crying. He looked weak and small, as if the slightest wind would blow him over into the snowdrifts.

  Cinder heard sirens.

  “What am I supposed to do?” Adri screamed, her arms covered in goose bumps as they gripped her children against her. “What will I do?”

  A door slammed and Cinder looked up. The old man across the street was on his doorstep. More neighbors were emerging—at doors and windows, their gazes bright with curiosity.

  Adri sobbed louder, and Cinder returned her attention to the family—her new family—and realized that Garan was watching her.

  She stared back, her throat burning from the cold.

  The sirens became louder and Garan glanced down at his huddled wife, his terrified daughters. “My girls,” he said, trying to smile, and then a white hover with flashing lights turned the corner, screaming its arrival.

  Cinder ducked back through the doorway as the hover slid up behind Garan and settled into the snow. Two androids rolled out of its side door with a gurney hovering between them. Their yellow sensors flashed.

  “A comm was received at 17:04 this evening regarding a victim of letumosis at this address,” said one of the androids in a sterile voice.

  “That’s me,” Garan choked—his words instantly drowned out by Adri’s screaming, “NO! Garan! You can’t. You can’t!”

  Garan attempted a shaken smile and held out his arm. He rolled up his sleeve, and even from her spot on the doorstep Cinder could see two dark spots on his wrist. “I have it. Adri, love, you must take care of the girl.”

  Adri pulled back as if he’d struck her. “The girl?”

  “Pearl, Peony,” Garan continued, as if she hadn’t spoken, “be good for your mother. Never forget that I love you so, so very much.” Releasing the hard-won smile, he perched himself uncertainly on the floating gurney.

  “Lie back,” said one of the androids. “We will input your identification into our records and alert your family immediately of any changes in your condition.”

  “No, Garan!” Adri clambered to her feet, her thin slippers sliding on the ice and nearly sending her onto her face as she struggled to rush after her husband. “You can’t leave me. Not by myself, not with … not with this thing!”

  Cinder shuddered and wrapped her arms around her waist.

  “Please stand back from the letumosis victim,” said one of the androids, positioning itself between Adri and the hover as Garan was lifted into its belly.

  “Garan, no! NO!”

  Pearl and Peony latched back on to their mother’s sides, both screaming for their father, but perhaps they were too afraid of the androids to go any closer. The androids rolled themselves back up into the hover. The doors shut. The sirens and the lights filled up the quiet suburb before fading slowly away. Adri and her daughters stayed clumped together in the snow, sobbing and clutching one another while the neighbors watched. While Cinder watched, wondering why her eyes stayed so dry—stinging dry—when dread was encompassing her like slush freezing over.

  “What is happening?”

  Cinder glanced down. The android had woken up and disconnected herself from the charging station and now stood before her with her sensor faintly glowing.

  She’d done it. She’d fixed the android. She’d proven her worth.

  But her success was drowned out by their sobs and the memory of the sirens. She couldn’t quite grasp the unfairness of it.

  “They took Garan away,” she said, licking her lips. “They called him a letumosis victim.”

  A series of clicks echoed inside the android’s body. “Oh, dear … not Garan.”

  Cinder barely heard her. In saying the words, she realized that her brain had been downloading information for some time, but she’d been too caught up in everything to realize it. Now dozens of useless bits of information were scrolling across her vision. LETUMOSIS, ALSO CALLED THE BLUE FEVER OR THE PLAGUE, HAS CLAIMED THOUSANDS OF LIVES SINCE THE FIRST KNOWN VICTIMS OF THE DISEASE DIED IN NORTHERN AFRICA IN MAY OF 114 T.E.…Cinder read faster, scanning until she found the words that she feared, but had somehow known she would find. TO DATE, THERE HAVE BEEN NO KNOWN SURVIVORS.

  Iko was speaking again and Cinder shook her head to clear it. “—can’t stand to see them cry, especially lovely Peony. Nothing makes an android feel more useless than when a human is crying.”

  Finding it suddenly hard to breathe, Cinder deserted the doorway and slumped back against the inside wall, unable to listen to the sobs any longer. “You won’t have to worry about me, then. I don’t think I can cry anymore.” She hesitated. “Maybe I never could.”

  “Is that so? How peculiar. Perhaps it’s a progr
amming glitch.”

  She stared down into Iko’s single sensor. “A programming glitch.”

  “Sure. You have programming, don’t you?” Iko lifted a spindly arm and gestured toward Cinder’s steel prosthetic. “I have a glitch, too. Sometimes I forget that I’m not human. I don’t think that happens to most androids.”

  Cinder gaped down at Iko’s smooth body, beat-up treads, three-fingered prongs, and wondered what it would be like to be stuck in such a body and not know if you were human or robot.

  She raised the pad of her finger to the corner of her right eye, searching for wetness that wasn’t there.

  “Right. A glitch.” She feigned a nonchalant smile, hoping the android couldn’t detect the grimace that came with it. “Maybe that’s all it is.”

  The Queen’s Army

  They came at the end of the long night, when the mining sector had not seen sunlight for almost two weeks. Z had crossed his twelfth birthday some months ago, and just enough time had passed that he’d stopped imagining glimpses of gold embroidery on black coats. He’d just stopped questioning every thought that flickered through his brain. He had just begun to hope that he would not be chosen.

  But he was not surprised when he was awoken by a tap at the front door. It was so early that his father hadn’t left for the plant, one sector over, where he assembled engines for podships and tractors. Z stared at the dark ceiling and listened to his parents’ whisperings through the wall, then to his father’s footsteps padding past his door.

  Muffled voices in the front room.

  Z balled up his blanket between his fists and tried to pour all his fears into it and then release them all at once. He had to do it three times to keep from hyperventilating. He didn’t want his brother, still asleep on the other side of the room, to be afraid for him.

  He had known this was inevitable.

  He was at the top of his class. He was stronger than some of the men his father worked with in the plant. Still, he’d thought that maybe his instructors would overlook him. Maybe he would be skipped.

 
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