Social Distancing: The Lunar Chronicles Edition

May 20, 2020 | 9:30 PM

Social Distancing: The Lunar Chronicles Edition

By Marissa Meyer

COVID-128
A Lunar Chronicles Story
by Marissa Meyer

“In just a few minutes you’ll be hearing from Earthen Union’s lead medical researcher, Dr. Fuacino,” said Kai, his expression serious yet calm as he looked into the netscreen. He was used to this, of course. He’d been making public addresses to the world for years and had been in the media’s eye long before that. Still, it never ceased to make Cinder’s heart swell, just a little, to see him in his element. Being the leader he was born to be. She often wondered if she would ever be as comfortable in front of the cameras, despite how Kai and so much of her own royal staff persisted in telling her that she was doing great.

“For now,” Kai continued, “Lunar Ambassador Linh Cinder and I encourage you to continue using the protocols our medical experts have recommended to keep yourself, your family, and our society as safe as possible.”

“Wash your hands frequently,” said Cinder, reciting the words she’d said at the end of each of these press conferences. Words that she’d probably started to say in her sleep by now. “Avoid touching your face. And practice social distancing. It really is making a difference. We’ll see you back on Earth as soon as we can. Believe me, Iko—my adviser and public relations representative—has already started planning our celebratory ball for when this pandemic is over.”

“Stay safe, and take care,” said Kai. They both smiled at the netscreen for a beat, then Kai reached forward and ended the transmission.

They turned to each other and shared a mutual sigh.

“Another day, another press conference,” said Cinder, taking his hand. “You were great, as usual.”

He groaned. “Thanks, but . . . I know I don’t need to tell you how much I hate this. The world is facing yet another crisis, and here I am, stuck on Thorne’s spaceship. Again.” Despite his complaining, he gave her hand a squeeze. They both knew this was for the best. Most everyone on the planet knew it was for the best.

They’d been returning from Luna after a congenial visit with the newly instated Lunar cabinet when the outbreak had occurred—a new disease spreading rapidly across planet Earth.

“At least we learned a thing or two after dealing with Letumosis,” said Cinder as they left the crew’s quarters that had been set up as their official press room after the lockdown had gone into effect, suspending travel to and from Earth and leaving thousands of spacecraft, including the Rampion, orbiting the planet.

Kai chuckled humorlessly, dragging a hand through his hair. It was a habit that Cinder had noticed he did after every conference, almost like he had to untidy himself as soon as their transmission was over, transforming from the Emperor Kaito of the Eastern Commonwealth back to . . . just Kai. Her Kai.

“We did learn a lot, didn’t we?” he said. “I’m embarrassed to think about how we handled Letumosis. Hardly any social distancing at all. Can you imagine—I even still held the annual ball!”

“And none of the markets shut down. I was working at my mechanic booth like nothing had changed. I mean, I guess my shop was an essential business, but still.”

“It would have been a lot better if we’d known to shut things down. Practice social distancing.” Kai shrugged. “Live and learn. At least we’re getting this COVID-128 taken care of a lot more effectively.”

A door opened in the corridor and Scarlet appeared, looking slightly bewildered, her mess of red curls tied into a messy bun on top of her head. “Is the press conference over?”

“Just finished,” said Cinder. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” she said, rubbing a palm into her eye. “Didn’t get much sleep last night, but I had to finish the tenth season of Friends.”

“What’s Friends?” asked Kai.

“Oh, this thing, it’s called a sitcom. They had a lot of them in the second era. Sort of like a netdrama, but”—Scarlet searched for the right word—“happier.” She shook her head, her eyes widening conspiratorially. “Anyway, now I’ve started watching this second-era documentary and I’m telling you, people back then were so weird. Did you know they used to keep tigers as pets?”

“Uh . . .” Cinder glanced at Kai, who looked equally confused by this statement. “You mean, real tigers?”

“Weren’t they nearly extinct back then?” asked Kai.

Scarlet nodded sullenly. “I’m so glad we don’t live in those dark ages.” Then she laughed as she started to retreat into the darkness of her quarters. “Now that your press conference is over, I should be able to stream the next episode. I swear, it’s tooth and nail fighting for bandwidth these days.” With that, she disappeared, shutting the door behind her.

Kai cocked his head, frowning at the door. “Should we be worried about her?”

“Let’s give it a few more days,” said Cinder. “We’re all coping with this in our own way, right? For Scarlet, that’s evidently binge-watching all the second-era media she didn’t have time to watch while she was too busy running the farm.”

Fast-paced techno music with a thumping bass drew their attention toward the cargo hull. It was followed by Iko’s chipper voice barking orders, drill-sergeant style.

“Six! Seven! Eight! Don’t quit now! You can do this! Push push push!”

Cinder followed the voice, though she already had a good idea of what she would find. In the cargo hull, Wolf and Iko were powering through their virtual wellness class. Iko had proposed it a few weeks ago as a way to help people take care of themselves while they were stuck at home, but Cinder had started to suspect it was as much for Wolf’s benefit as for their watchers’. Wolf, more than any of them, was suffering from being trapped aboard the ship for such a long period of time, but the classes had proved an effective way for him to burn off all his extra energy. And Iko enjoyed bossing people around, so they made a good team. Their classes ranged from yoga to kickboxing, and Iko had even thrown in a fair amount of self-care sessions, talking their viewers through guided meditations or teaching them how to make skin-care masks out of pantry staples (all the while pointing out the fact that her own manufactured skin was naturally flawless).

Today they appeared to be focused on strength training. When Cinder and Kai entered the room, Wolf and Iko were switching back and forth between push-ups and jumping jacks. It looked exhausting, but they both had huge grins on their faces, and a glance at the netscreen on the wall showed that they had more than half a million live watchers. A perk of already being semi-famous after the whole Lunar revolution thing.

“Okay,” said Iko, pausing to talk to the screen while Wolf pushed out a few more rounds. “Great job, everyone! We’re going to wrap up this workout with a cooldown and some stretching. Ship, reduce music volume by forty percent.”

As the volume lowered, Thorne appeared in the door to the cockpit. “Are you two almost done? I’ve got a podcast to do here!”

Iko shot him a glare, hands on her hips. “Excuse me, but we are trying to better the lives of people all over the galaxy.”

Thorne quirked an eyebrow. “And you think I’m not?”

“It’s a subjective argument,” Kai muttered, making Cinder smile. Not long after Iko and Wolf had started their virtual classes, Thorne had the brilliant idea to start his own project for the betterment of humanity. His idea was to start a podcast called The Happy Captain with Captain Carswell Thorne, in which he spent literally hours explaining how his listeners could become more awesome . . . like him.

His listener stats had also risen astronomically over the past weeks, and the gushing fan mail had started to pour in, which Cinder found baffling. When she’d brought it up to Cress, though, Cress had just shrugged and confessed that if Thorne had been recording a podcast when she was stuck in her satellite, she definitely would have been listening to it. “Besides,” she added, “he’s started taking live calls from listeners who want relationship advice, and surprisingly . . . the advice he’s been giving hasn’t been terrible.”

Speaking of Cress . . .

Cinder looked around, but she wasn’t in the cargo hull, and she couldn’t see her through the doors to the cockpit or medical room, either. “Where’s Cress?” she asked, as Iko and Wolf worked on some hamstring stretches.

Thorne shrugged. “She said she was planning something for us and we shouldn’t bother her. Another one of her games, I think.” Turning, he ducked back into the cockpit.

Wolf, pressed up into cobra pose, sniffed loudly at the air. “I smell pie.”

Iko turned to him. “Pie?”

A second later, Cinder smelled it too, as the aroma of pastry and sugared fruit, along with Winter’s serene voice, wafted in from the galley. “Behold! I discovered two cans of peaches and the cutest little bear-shaped bottle of crystallized honey.” Winter appeared, carrying a perfectly lattice-topped pie in her mitted hands. “The cabinets in there are truly a gold mine of possibility.”

“Don’t we still have a few dozen cookies and half a cake left from the last couple of days?” whispered Kai.

“Unless Wolf got to them,” Cinder whispered back. Which was silly, as Wolf’s ears immediately twitched toward them, no doubt hearing every word. He didn’t look too guilty, though.

Winter’s means of coping during their time aboard the Rampion had mostly revolved around stress baking. A whole lot of stress baking. For the most part, no one was complaining. Most of her creations had been delicious, though the dried-prune-granola-condensed-milk trifle hadn’t been one of her better experiments. Luckily, Wolf would eat anything.

Of all of them, Winter probably had the most to be worried about, anyway, at least on a personal level. Yes, Kai was concerned for his entire country and everyone was anxious to hear about the ongoing vaccine research, but Winter was mostly worried for Jacin. He’d been attending an Earthen medical school for the past couple of years in order to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor, and had just started an internship when the pandemic hit. He’d been on the front lines, caring for infected patients, ever since. Winter was so proud of him—they all were—but there was also a lot of unspoken anxiety swirling through the ship.

“Someone will have to make an emergency supply run soon,” said Winter. “I’m almost out of flour and Scarlet promised to share her croissant recipe.” She passed Cinder and Kai, forcing them apart as she set the steaming pie down on top of a storage crate. Wolf sniffed again and licked his lips.

“I’m not sure croissants constitute an emergency,” said Cinder.

Winter stripped off the oven mitts. “If croissants aren’t an emergency, then I don’t know what is. Oh, but I did find a bag of almonds in there. Perhaps I could make almond flour . . .”

“Have you spoken to Jacin today?” Kai asked.

Winter shook her head. “He’s supposed to comm when he has a free minute.” Her smile trembled, but it was only slightly noticeable.

“All right, that’s plenty of sweat for today,” said Iko, finishing up with their last stretch. “At least, for those of you who sweat.” She smirked at Wolf, who was indeed looking a little damp around the edges, though his bright eyes appeared more exhilarated than weary.

He bounced from foot to foot, clearly still harboring more energy to burn. “It felt good to get moving. Hope you all enjoyed the workout. See you next time!”

Iko shut off their feed, then turned to the group with a wide smile. “I always knew I had the makings of a netfeed star! I just always assumed it would be in the guise of a great netdrama actress, not . . . you know, as a health coach.”

“You’re a natural,” said Winter. She flourished her hand toward the crate. “Pie, anyone?”

“Yes!” said Wolf, turning to loom over the delicious-smelling pastry. He looked ravenous, but managed to resist long enough to glance around the room. “Does anyone else want some?”

Cinder waved a hand at him. “You’ve burned off more calories today than the rest of us have all week. It’s yours.”

He took a slice that Winter had precut and gobbled it down in just a few bites. Cinder would have thought that maybe he was stress eating as much as Winter was stress baking, but she’d been around him and his appetite enough to know this was standard practice for him, and for all the lupine mutants that had come out of Queen Levana’s reign, for that matter.

Upbeat music started to pour out of the cockpit—the “theme music” Thorne had started using for the intro to his podcasts. It continued for a few seconds before fading out.

“Welcome back to The Happy Captain!” Thorne’s voice rang through the cargo hull. “I hope you’re ready to become even more awesome, with me, Captain Carswell Thorne, showing you the way. We’ve got an exciting show lined up—”

“What happened?!” Scarlet emerged from the corridor, looking frantic. “I was watching that show, and it was getting so good—this guy, he tried to have this woman killed and now there’s going to be a trial and I have to know what’s going to happen, but my signal just cut out and—” She paused and blinked toward the cockpit, where Thorne could be heard reading quotes from recent fan mail. A shadow fell over her face. “He’s doing his show live again, isn’t he? Can’t he just record it like a normal podcaster? When all eight billion of his doting fans sign on at the same time, it completely monopolizes the signal!”

Before anyone could answer, a bang made Cinder jump. She turned to see the hatch door that led down to the ship’s lower level lying open. Cress poked her head up, a grin stretched across her face.

“Oh good, you’re finished with your workout,” she said, climbing out of the hatch. “Perfect timing. I have a new game set up for everyone!”

Cinder managed to stifle a groan. Scarlet did not.

Cress heard it and frowned, hurt. “You . . . don’t want to play? I mean, you don’t have to. I just thought it would be fun . . . it’s kind of a team-building, educational, puzzle-type—”

“No, no, no,” said Scarlet, pulling her hair back to try to tame the snarls. Cinder couldn’t help but wonder when was the last time she’d showered. “That sounds great, Cress. Really. So much fun. I’m just not sure we’ve all fully recovered from yesterday’s murder-mystery game . . .”

“Or the game show from the day before . . .” Kai added gently.

“Or the spree of second-era-style party games . . .” muttered Wolf.

Winter hopped excitedly. “Oh, I liked the party games! Especially that pin the tail on the donkey one. A donkey! Of all things! Earthens are so strange. A lizard would have made more sense.”

Kai blinked at her. “Why would a lizard make more sense?”

“Because they lose their tails sometimes. And can grow them back. Clearly.”

“Ah.” Kai nodded. “So much more sense.”

Cress’s smile returned, but weaker now. “We could do more party games, if you’d rather . . .”

“Cress, we’ll happily play your new . . . whatever it is you got set up for us,” said Cinder, trying to sound enthusiastic. “I’m sure it’ll be great.”

“I’m game for anything,” said Iko with a wink. “Game. Get it?”

Cress gave her an appreciative smile. Of all of their quarantine coping strategies, Cress’s was by far the most . . . interactive. It was as though she were determined to show the rest of them that, as quarantines went, this was nothing! After all, she’d been stuck in her satellite, all alone, for seven years, whereas it had barely been seven weeks since COVID-128 had struck. It seemed that being stuck on the Rampion with her dearest friends was more or less a dream come true for Cress, and her goal was now to make their time in isolation a memorable bonding experience. She’d spent hours preparing highly involved and rather complicated experiences for them. There had been myriad crafts and scavenger hunts. Board games and “themed” parties. Treasure hunts and trivia competitions and various tutorials she’d found on the net, demonstrating how they could make origami flower bouquets or grow a potato plant from their food scraps.

Cinder was fairly certain she was getting a lot of her ideas from the many virtual homeschooling initiatives that had taken over the netfeeds lately. And sure, some of the activities had been fun at first, but the novelty was wearing off and the rest of the crew was pretty much over it, though no one had the heart to tell Cress.

“I’ve got it all set up in the podship dock,” she said. “Where’s Thorne?”

Thorne’s head popped out of the cockpit door, as if summoned. “Hey, Cress, get in here! There’s a fan question for you.”

Cress’s brow furrowed, hesitant. She approached the cockpit, the rest of the crew following behind. The cockpit felt less like a recording booth and more like a nightclub, with bass-heavy music droning in the background and a mix of fluorescent lights flickering around the flight panel. Thorne claimed he needed to have the right atmosphere to bring his A-game. And his listeners deserved his A-game.

Cress perched awkwardly on the edge of the copilot’s chair. They had all made guest appearances on the podcast from time to time, at Thorne’s request, but of all of them, Cress was the least comfortable speaking to Thorne’s adoring masses.

“All right, folks, we’ve just been joined by the luckiest girl in outer space, who has also made me the luckiest guy. My girlfriend, Cress! Okay, caller, what was your question?”

“Hello, thanks for taking my call,” came a male voice, which surprised Cinder. She’d expected it to be some fangirl wanting to know how she, too, could capture the heart of someone as dreamy as Captain Thorne. “There’s a rumor,” continued the caller, “that you’re pretty good at hacking software, and I have a favor to ask of you.”

Cinder traded suspicious glances with the rest of the crew. All except Winter, whose head tilted to one side, as if trying to listen more closely.

Cinder sensed it, too. There was something about the voice that was . . . familiar. She wanted to ask Thorne to turn off the music, but before she could, Thorne leaned forward into the mic. “Uh . . . sorry, but did you have a question?”

“My question is whether or not Cress could realign a satellite to take a photograph of the location on Earth at the coordinates I just sent, and then broadcast that imagery to the world? Or at least show it to the rest of your friends up there.”

“Sorry,” said Thorne, “but that sounds illicit and suspicious and, frankly, my criminal days are behind me. Next—”

“Wait!” Winter jumped forward, grabbing Thorne’s hand before he could end the call. “Cress, do it.”

“What?” Thorne turned to her. “This is clearly a scam. He’s trying to get some sort of free publicity for . . . something. That, or this is a nefarious setup, and I won’t be a part of it. Not on my show, which is billed as wholesome entertainment for the masses, you know.”

Winter raised an eyebrow at him. “Really, Captain? You aren’t a tiny bit curious?”

His jaw tightened. A few seconds passed before he groaned and threw his head back. “Yes, I am so curious! Okay, Cress, go ahead, overtake some government-controlled satellite imaging software to obtain whatever piece of blackmail it is this guy is after.”

“I already did,” said Cress, smiling over her shoulder at them. “And you should probably see this.”

They all leaned forward. A photo on the nearest screen showed a rooftop in the midst of a densely populated Earthen city. A landing pad for a podship was nearby and Cinder thought it might be a hospital.

Taking up nearly the entire width of the rooftop, someone had written the words in what appeared to be bed linens:

W-

I MISS YOU.

I LOVE YOU.

-J

A man stood not far from the words, staring up at the sky with a medical mask over his mouth, his yellow hair glinting in the sun.

“Jacin?” said Winter, stepping closer to the microphone.

“Hi,” he said.

She beamed. “Hi,” she returned, breathless. In the midst of her smile, tears started to cloud her eyes. “I love you, too.”

“I’m happy to hear it.”

A beat of silence was followed by Thorne groaning. “Terrible, you guys. You can’t let the silences drag on like that. We’re live, you know.”

Cress punched him lightly on the shoulder. “We’re missing you, Jacin. Are you all right down there?”

“As well as can be expected,” he said. “Our social-distancing tactics seem to be working. We’ve successfully flattened the curve in most of our major cities, and we’re optimistic about the new rounds of vaccines that are being tested.” He paused before adding, “Honestly, the biggest problem I’m having right now is that every time I try to comm Ambassador Hayle, some guy with a podcast is taking up all the signal and not letting me get through.”

For a moment, Thorne almost looked sheepish. “But, hey, have you been enjoying the show?”

There was another silence, before Jacin admitted, “I like when you have the rest of the crew on as special guests.” His voice was strained, as if it was physically painful for him to continue. “I guess I kind of miss all of you.”

“We’ll be together soon,” said Winter. She kissed her fingertips and placed them against Jacin’s image on the screen. “Now, Captain, could we please end this show so I can talk to our favorite medical intern in private?”

Thorne sighed. “Fine. Sorry, listeners, but true love calls, and I am nothing if not a romantic. It’s just one of the many things that makes me so amazing. Go ahead and add it to the growing list.” He winked—at literally no one, since none of his listeners could see him.

Cinder rolled her eyes, and she was pretty sure she wasn’t the only one.

She and the others vacated the cockpit, letting Winter and Jacin finish their conversation in peace.

“I know I’ve said this before,” said Cress, shutting the door behind them, “and you’re all probably sick of hearing it, but . . . difficult as these times are, I am glad we have each other.”

Scarlet nodded. “It’s nice to know we’re all in this together, isn’t it?” She entwined her fingers with Wolf’s. He smiled down on her, so wide that Cinder caught a glimpse of the fangs he was usually careful to keep hidden.

Kai nodded, draping an arm around Cinder’s shoulders. “And that we’re all trying to make the best of this situation. To find the bright moments wherever we can.”

“On that note!” said Cress. “Who’s ready to play my new game? There are clues and puzzles you have to figure out and a coded secret language! Oh, and booby traps!”

“Pick me!” cried Iko, jutting her hand into the air—while the rest of them grimaced.

“Or . . .” said Scarlet, “we could go see if this guy goes to jail and all the tigers are set free into the wild, officially restoring my faith in humanity?”

A round of agreement swirled through the group and they started meandering toward the corridor.

Cinder paused, realizing that Cress and Thorne weren’t following. Frowning, she turned back to see Cress looking disappointed. Guilt dug into Cinder’s chest, but before she could call the others back and rally them to give Cress’s newest activity a go, Thorne leaned over and pressed a kiss against Cress’s cheek.

“It’s been a long day in quarantine,” he said. “I’m sure everyone will be ready to play your game tomorrow.”

She turned to him, pouting. “Maybe I’ve been taking these activities a little too far?”

He shrugged. “It’s not your job to entertain us. But if you enjoy doing them, you should keep it up.”

Cinder stepped forward. “Thorne’s right. That murder-mystery one was actually really fun.”

Cress chewed on her lower lip, considering. “You know, I would have given anything to not be so lonely when I was on the satellite. I just want everyone to realize how lucky we are to have each other right now.”

“Trust me, Cress, we all know how lucky we are.” Tucking her against his side, Thorne guided her after the others. “In the midst of this sickness, there’s nowhere I’d rather be quarantined than right here. On my ship . . . with my crew.”

Cinder smiled. She couldn’t help feeling exactly the same way.




Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl…

Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.


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