PEONY’S SHRIEKS FILLED THE JUNKYARD, SEEPING INTO THE cracks of broken machinery and outdated computers. Cinder’s auditory interface couldn’t protect her from the shrill memory, even as Peony’s voice cracked and she dissolved into hysteria.
Cinder stood trembling, unable to move. Wanting to comfort Peony. Wanting to run away.
How was this possible?
Peony was young, healthy. She couldn’t be sick.
Peony cried, brushing repeatedly at her skin, the spots.
Cinder’s netlink took over, as it did in moments when she couldn’t think for herself. Searching, connecting, feeding information to her she didn’t want.
Letumosis. The blue fever. Worldwide pandemic. Hundreds of thousands dead. Unknown cause, unknown cure.
She tentatively reached forward, but Peony stumbled back, swiping at her wet cheeks and nose. “Don’t come near me! You’ll get it. You’ll all get it.”
Cinder retracted her hand. She heard Iko at her side, fan whirring. Saw the blue light darting over Peony, around the junkyard, flickering. She was scared.
“I said, get back!” Peony collapsed to her knees, hunching over her stomach.
Cinder took two steps away, then lingered, watching Peony rock herself back and forth in Iko’s spotlight.
“I…I need to call an emergency hover. To—”
To come and take you away.
Peony didn’t respond. Her whole body was rattling. Cinder could hear her teeth chattering in between the wails.
Cinder shivered. She rubbed at her arms, inspecting them for spots. She couldn’t see any, but she eyed her right glove with distrust, not wanting to remove it, not wanting to check.
She stepped back again. The junkyard shadows loomed toward her. The plague. It was here. In the air. In the garbage. How long did it take for the first symptoms of the plague to show up?
She thought of Chang Sacha at the market. The terrified mob running from her booth. The blare of the sirens.
Her stomach plummeted.
Was this her fault? Had she brought the plague home from the market?
She checked her arms again, swiping at invisible bugs that crawled over her skin. Stumbled back. Peony’s sobs filled her head, suffocating her.
A red warning flashed across her retina display, informing her that she was experiencing elevated levels of adrenaline. She blinked it away, then called up her comm link with a writhing gut and sent a simple message before she could question it.
EMERGENCY, TAIHANG DISTRICT JUNKYARD.
She clenched her jaw, feeling the painful dryness of her eyes. A throbbing headache told her that she should be crying, that her sobs should match her sister’s.
“Why?” Peony said, her voice stammering. “What did I do?”
“You didn’t do anything,” said Cinder. “This isn’t your fault.”
But it might be mine.
“What should I do?” Iko asked, almost too quiet to be heard.
“I don’t know,” said Cinder. “A hover is on its way.”
Peony rubbed her nose with her forearm. Her eyes were rimmed in red. “You n-need to go. You’ll catch it.”
Feeling dizzy, Cinder realized she’d been breathing too shallowly. She took another step away before filling her lungs. “Maybe I already have it. Maybe it’s my fault you caught it. The outbreak at the market today…I-I didn’t think I was close enough, but…Peony, I’m so sorry.”
Peony squeezed her eyes and buried her face again. Her brown hair was a mess of tangles hanging across her shoulders, stark against her pale skin. A hiccup, followed by another sob. “I don’t want to go.”
It was all Cinder could think to say. Don’t be scared? It will be all right? She couldn’t lie, not when it would be so obvious.
“I wish there was something…” She stopped herself. She heard the sirens before Peony did. “I’m so sorry.”
Peony swiped at her nose with her sleeve, leaving a trail of mucus. Then kept crying. She didn’t respond until the wails of the sirens reached her ears and her head snapped up. She stared into the distance, the entrance of the junkyard somewhere beyond the trash heaps. Eyes rounded. Lips trembling. Face blotchy red.
Cinder’s heart shriveled in on itself.
She couldn’t help herself. If she was going to catch it, she already had.
She fell to her knees, wrapping Peony up in both arms. Her tool belt dug into her hip, but she ignored it as Peony grasped at her T-shirt, sobs renewed.
“I’m so sorry.”
“What will you tell Mom and Pearl?”
Cinder bit her lips. “I don’t know.” Then, “The truth, I guess.”
Bile rose in her mouth. Maybe it was a sign. Maybe stomach sickness was a symptom. She looked down at her forearm, embracing Peony to her. Still no spots.
Peony shoved her away, scooting back in the dirt. “Stay away. You might not be sick yet. But they would take you. You have to get out of here.”
Cinder hesitated. She heard the crunch of treads over scattered aluminum and plastic. She didn’t want to leave Peony, but what if she really hadn’t caught it yet?
She sat back on her heels, then clambered to her feet.
Yellow lights were nearing them from the shadows.
Cinder’s right hand was sweating in its glove. Her breathing had shallowed again.
“Go! Go away!”
Cinder stepped back. Back. Had the bleary sense to stop and pick up the folded magbelt. She moved toward the exit, her human leg as numb as the prosthesis. Peony’s sobs chased after her.
Three white androids met her around a corner. They had yellow sensors and red crosses painted on their heads and two were pushing a hovering gurney between them.
“Are you the letumosis victim?” one asked in a neutral voice, holding up an ID scanner.
Cinder hid her wrist. “No. My sister, Linh Peony. She-she’s that way, to the left.”
The med-droids with the gurney wheeled away from her, down the path.
“Have you had direct contact with the victim in the past twelve hours?” the remaining android asked.
Cinder opened her mouth, hesitated. Guilt and fear curdled in her gut.
She could lie. There was no proof she had it yet, but if they took her to the quarantines, she didn’t stand a chance.
But if she went home, she could infect everyone. Adri. Pearl. Those screeching, laughing children rushing through the hallways.
She could barely hear her own voice. “Yes.”
“Are you showing symptoms?”
“N-no. I don’t know. I feel lightheaded, but not—” She stopped herself.
The med-droid neared her, its treads grating on the dirty ground. Cinder stumbled away from it, but it said nothing, only inched closer until Cinder’s calves were pressed against a rotting storage crate. It held up the ID scanner in one pronged hand, and then a third arm appeared from within its torso—a syringe in place of grippers.
Cinder shuddered but didn’t resist as it grabbed her right wrist and inserted the needle. She flinched, watching as dark liquid, almost black in the android’s yellow light, was pulled up into the syringe. She was not afraid of needles, but the world began to tilt. The android removed it just in time for her to slump down onto the crate.
“What are you doing?” she whispered.
“Initiating blood scan for letumosis-carrying pathogens.” Cinder heard a motor start up inside the android, faint beeps announcing each step. The android’s light dimmed as its power source was diverted.
She held her breath until her control panel kicked in and forced her lungs to contract.
“ID,” said the android, holding the scanner out to her. A red light passed over her wrist and the scanner beeped. The android stashed it away in its hollow torso.
She wondered how long it would take for it to finish the scan and determine that she was a carrier, confirming that she was at fault. For everything.
The sound of treads approached along the path. Cinder turned her head as the two androids appeared with Peony atop their gurney. She was sitting up with her hands wrapped around her knees. Swollen eyes wildly darted around the junkyard as if searching for an escape. As if she’d stumbled into a nightmare.
But she didn’t try to run. No one ever put up a fight when being taken to the quarantines.
Their eyes met. Cinder opened her mouth but nothing came out. She tried to plead forgiveness with her eyes.
The faintest of smiles touched Peony’s lips. She raised a hand and waved with only her fingers.
Cinder returned it, knowing it should be her.
She had already outlived fate once. She should be the one being carted away. She should be the one dying. It should be her.
It was about to be her.
She tried to speak, to tell Peony she would be right behind her. She wouldn’t be alone. But then the android beeped. “Scan complete. No letumosis-carrying pathogens detected. Subject is urged to stand fifty feet back from infected patient.”
Cinder blinked. Relief and dread both squirmed inside her.
She wasn’t sick. She wasn’t going to die.
She wasn’t going with Peony.
“We will alert you via comm when Linh Peony enters the subsequent stages of the disease. Thank you for your cooperation.”
Cinder wrapped her arms around herself and watched Peony lay down as she was carted away, curling up like a child on the gurney.
CINDER SLINKED THROUGH THE BALMY NIGHT, THE SOUND of her boots shuffling across the concrete, as if both legs were made of steel. The empty night was a chorus of muted sounds in her head: the sandy crunching of Iko’s treads, the sputtering of street lamps above them, the constant hum of the magnetic superconductor beneath the street. With every step, the wrench inside Cinder’s calf clanked. It all dulled in comparison to the video replaying in her mind.
Her interface did that sometimes—recording moments of strong emotion and replaying them over and over. Like déjà vu or when the last words of a conversation linger in the air long after silence has settled in. Usually, she could make the memory stop before it drove her crazy, but tonight she didn’t have the energy.
The black splotch on Peony’s skin. Her scream. The med-droid’s syringe dragging Cinder’s blood from the flesh of her elbow. Peony, small and trembling on the gurney. Already dying.
She stopped, clutching her stomach as nausea roiled up. Iko paused a few paces ahead, shining her spotlight on Cinder’s scrunched face.
“Are you all right?”
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com