The Hardest Place

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There was a time after the fall of the revolution, where everything seemed to be holding its breath, from the grimy under-streets to the gleaming holopaths near the sky. A period of waiting, where all plans were tentative as we waited to see where the turmoil would lead.

From my taxi, I watched people cower when the emperor's forces passed, mothers shushing their children, cyborged ex-cons slinking away with veiled glares. Ambiguous swindlers, clothed in layers, hiding their faces in broad hats. Students in blazers and political armbands, crowded together, whispering. Paranoid businesspeople, hugging briefcases to their chests.

This was the hardest part. When no one knew what would snap first. Would we have peace, or war? Order, or chaos?

For most people, it was a toss-up, but I knew what the tipping point was.

Because it was me. Me and my team.

The cab slowed outside a quiet entrance to the capitol building. I swiped my card, and the door lifted to a very different atmosphere than the lower streets I'd come from.

Buildings rested on platforms, spaced with ornamental trees and impressionist sculptures. The air smelled of flowers and prestige.

As the cab pulled away, I discarded my trench over one arm, revealing the bone-white lab coat which proclaimed my role at the capitol. The patch on the left side, a heart struck through with an electric cable, called awed, curious glances as I passed. Nothing was more mysterious than Project Valentine.

Nothing, that is, except the subject of the project.

I pushed the door open, greeted by the smell of sanitizing sprays which the air purifiers could never remove.

My gaze automatically went to the Faery scientist. She glanced up from her scattering of papers, silver eyes glinting. "You better get in there." She signed, slender fingers almost too fast for me to follow. "She's awake."

When I opened the next set of doors, I was greeted with the dull, vacant stare from the girl on the floor. My team watched her like a wild animal who would snap at any moment. Her new mobility scared them.

I passed my coat to the nearest scientist and slowly, calmly, moved in front of the girl. She was twelve, though mentally much younger, from all the time she'd missed. Her mechanical parts were obvious around her scanty gown.

"Your Highness?" I kept my voice low as I lowered myself to the floor. The new audio receptors were still a shock to her.

Her gaze slowly focused on me. "Not... Not my name." She whispered, barely audible. A light flickered across the room, accompanied by a buzzing at the back of my skull. She was upset. Her telepathy was acting up.

"Sorry, sorry. Fran." I gave her a reassuring smile, and the buzz faded.

In my peripheral, I could see the scientists shifting, surprised and relieved. This was probably the first she'd spoken today; she had a soft spot for me. Maybe she sensed the reason for my limp was mechanical, like her.

"Can you tell me what's wrong?" I asked, slowly holding out my hand. After a second she set her hers in mine, cold and metallic.

"I... don't want to stand." She whispered. "These legs... I might fall."

"I'll help you." I said, offering a smile.

Her gaze flickered to the scientists. I waved them away, and they silently filed out. The door clicked shut behind them. I would give a full report later, but they made Fran nervous.

"It's like when you were an android." I gripped her hand with both of mine. "Just think what you want them to do."

The thought of the mental control simulations calmed her down. She nodded, firming her chin.

It took several minutes for her to find the courage, but slowly, with my support, she rose, eyes squeezed shut. I eased back, letting her support her own weight. Her balance was off, but then she steadied.

She squinted her eyes open. Wonder slowly overtook her features. "I'm standing."

It was short lived. When she tried to adjust her stance, her right leg buckled. I caught her, ignoring the swaying lights overhead. "Hey, hey. You're okay, Fran."

With remarkable dexterity of her mechanical arms, she hid her face. "I... I made an error. I should be an android." The lights swung, casting the room in unsteady light. The computer buzzed. A glass jar slid toward the edge of the table.

I steadied her, gently pulling her hands away from her face. "No, no. This is better."

Her face screwed up, eyes squeezing shut. "I'm an error. I can't save the king."

"Fran." I waited until she looked at me. "That... That hasn't come yet. Okay? That's the finish. We're in the middle."

She was too young to have to deal with visions of the future, much less the wasting disease she'd been rebuilt from or her telepathic computer-hacking brain.

"Remember?" I held her gaze steady with mine. "This is the hardest place. The middle. Once we get to the finish, we can change it, right? You just have to get past this part."

Her jaw clenched. She brushed a tear off on her sleeve, tilted her chin up. "I... I can do that."

The lights above us stilled. The jar didn't fall. The computer calmed, and my headache receded. The chaos didn't come.

The tipping point between that chaos and order? It wasn't my team. It wasn't the enforcers outside. It wasn't in ten years, like the visions cheating Fran's mind.

It was here, in front of me, a powerful child who had the courage to stand even though, a year ago, she'd lost all movement and half her senses. The first successful one of her kind to be brought back.

Yes, everyone was holding their breath what would happen. The whole nation held its breath.

But Francesca Valentine Almeida, single heir to an empire that in ten years would be without a king, straightened.

And she dared to breathe.

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