The light darted down the length of Cinder’s body, and she was sure Iko was searching for bruise-like rings even though the med-droid had said she wasn’t infected.
Instead of answering, Cinder peeled off her gloves and shoved them into her back pocket. Her faintness passing, she leaned her shoulder against a street lamp and drank in the humid air. They’d made it home, almost. The Phoenix Tower apartments stood on the next corner, only the top floor catching the faint light from the crescent moon, the rest of the building cast in shadow. The windows were black but for a handful of lights and some bluish white glares from flickering netscreens. Cinder counted floors, finding the windows to the kitchen and Adri’s bedroom.
Though dim, a light was still on somewhere in the apartment. Adri wasn’t a night person, but perhaps she’d discovered that Peony was still out. Or perhaps Pearl was awake, working on a school project or comming friends late into the night.
It was probably better this way. She didn’t want to have to wake them.
“What am I going to tell them?”
Iko’s sensor was on the apartment building for a moment, then the ground, picking up the shuffled debris across the sidewalk.
Cinder rubbed her sweaty palm on her pants and forced herself onward. Try as she might, suitable words would not come to her. Explanations, excuses. How do you tell a woman her daughter is dying?
She swiped her ID and entered through the main door this time. The gray lobby was decorated only with a netscreen that held announcements for the residents—a rise in maintenance fees, a petition for a new ID scanner at the front door, a lost cat. Then the elevator, loud with the clunking of old machinery. The hallway was empty, save the man from apartment 1807 snoozing on his doorstep. Cinder had to tuck in his splayed arm so Iko wouldn’t crush it. Heavy breathing and the sweet aroma of rice wine wafted up.
She hesitated in front of apartment 1820, heart pounding. She couldn’t recall when the video of Peony had stopped repeating in her head, eclipsed by her harsh nerves.
What was she going to say?
Cinder bit her lip and held up her wrist for the scanner. The small light switched to green. She opened the door as quietly as possible.
Brightness from the living room spilled into the dark hallway. Cinder caught a glimpse of the netscreen, still showing footage of the market from earlier that day, the baker’s booth going up in flames again and again. The screen was muted.
Cinder entered the room, but halted mid-step. Iko bumped against her leg.
Facing her from the middle of the living room were three androids with red crosses painted on their spherical heads. Emergency med-droids.
Behind them, Adri in her silk bathrobe stood against the mantel although the holographic fire was turned off. Pearl was still fully clothed, sitting on the sofa with her knees pulled up to her chin. They were both holding dry washcloths over their noses and eyeing Cinder with a mixture of repulsion and fear.
Cinder’s stomach clenched. She drew a half step back into the hallway, wondering which of them was sick, but she quickly realized that neither of them could be. The androids would have taken them immediately. They wouldn’t be protecting their breath. The entire building would be on lockdown.
She noticed a small bandage on Adri’s elbow. They’d already been tested.
Cinder shifted her messenger bag, setting it on the ground, but kept the magbelt.
Adri cleared her throat and lowered the cloth to her sternum. She looked like a skeleton in the pale lighting, mealy skin and jutting bones. Without makeup, dark circles swelled beneath her bloodshot eyes. She’d been crying, but now her lips were set in a stiff line.
“I received a comm an hour ago,” she said once the silence had congealed in the room. “It informed me that Peony was picked up in the Taihang District junkyard and taken—” Her voice broke. She dropped her gaze, and when she looked up again, her eyes were flashing. “But you know that already, don’t you?”
Cinder shifted, trying not to look at the med-droids.
Without waiting for Cinder’s answer, Adri said, “Iko, you can begin disposing of Peony’s things. Anything she wore in the past week can go into waste collection—but take it to the alley yourself, I don’t want it clogging up the chutes. I suppose everything else can be sold at the market.” Her voice was sharp and steady, as if this list had been repeating in her head from the moment she’d received the news.
“Yes, Linh-ji,” said Iko, wheeling back into the hallway. Cinder stayed, frozen, both hands clutching the magbelt like a shield. Though the android was incapable of ignoring Adri’s commands, it was clear from her slowness that she didn’t want to leave Cinder alone so long as the med-droids were watching with their hollow yellow sensors.
“Why,” said Adri, wringing the washcloth, “was my youngest daughter at the Taihang District junkyard this evening?”
Cinder drew the magbelt against her, lining it up from shoulder to toe. Made of the same steel as her hand and equally tarnished, it felt like an extension of her. “She came with me to look for a magbelt.” She drew in a heavy breath. Her tongue felt swollen, her throat closing in. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t—I saw the spots, and I called the emergency hover. I didn’t know what to do.”
Tears puddled in Adri’s eyes, briefly, before she blinked them away. She dropped her head, staring down at the twisted cloth. Her body sagged against the mantel. “I wasn’t sure that you would come back here, Cinder. I expected to receive another comm at any minute, telling me that my ward had also been taken.” Adri pulled her shoulders back, lifting her gaze. The weakness passed, her dark eyes hardened. “These med-droids tested Pearl and myself. The plague has not yet spread to either of us.”
Cinder started to nod, relieved, but Adri continued. “Tell me, Cinder. If Pearl and I are not carrying the disease, where did Peony get it from?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? But you did know about the outbreak in the market today.”
Cinder’s lips parted. Of course. The cloths. The med-droids. They thought she was infected.
“I don’t understand you, Cinder. How could you be so selfish?”
She jerked her head, no. “They tested me too, at the junkyard. I don’t have it. I don’t know where she got it from.” She held out her arm, showing the bruise blooming on her inner elbow. “They can check again if they want to.”
One of the med-droids showed its first sign of life, shining the light at the small red spot where the needle had pricked her. But they didn’t move, and Adri didn’t encourage them. Instead, she turned her attention to a small framed portscreen on the mantel, shuffling through pictures of Pearl and Peony in their childhood. Pictures at their old house, the one with the garden. Pictures with Adri, before she’d lost her smile. Pictures with their father.
“I’m so sorry,” said Cinder. “I love her too.”
Adri squeezed the frame. “Don’t insult me,” she said, sliding the frame closer to her. “Do your kind even know what love is? Can you feel anything at all, or is it just…programmed?”
She was talking to herself, but the words stung. Cinder risked a glance at Pearl, who was still sitting on the sofa with her face half-hidden behind her knees, but she was no longer holding the washcloth to her face. When she saw Cinder looking at her, she turned her gaze to the floor.
Cinder flexed her fingers against the magbelt. “Of course I know what love is.” And sadness too. She wished she could cry to prove it.
“Good. Then you will understand that I am doing what a mother must do, to protect my children.” Adri turned the frame facedown on the mantel. On the couch, Pearl turned her face away, pressing her cheek against her knees.
A tendril of fear curled in Cinder’s stomach. “Adri?”
“It has been five years since you became a part of this household, Cinder. Five years since Garan left you to me. I still don’t know what made him do it, don’t know why he felt obligated to travel to Europe, of all places, to find some…mutant to take care of. He never explained it to me. Perhaps he would have someday. But I never wanted you. You know that.”
Cinder pursed her lips. The blank-faced med-droids leered up at her.
She did know it, but she didn’t think Adri had ever put it so clearly.
“Garan wanted you to be taken care of, so I’ve done my best. Even when he died, even when the money ran out, even when…everything fell apart.” Her voice cracked, and she pressed one palm firmly against her mouth. Cinder watched her shoulders tremble, listened to the short gasps of breath as she tried to stifle the sobs. “But Garan would have agreed. Peony comes first. Our girls come first.”
Cinder started at the raised voice. She could hear the justification in Adri’s tone. The determination.
Don’t leave me with this thing.
She shuddered. “Adri—”
“If it weren’t for you, Garan would still be alive. And Peony—”
“No, it’s not my fault.” Cinder spotted a flash of white, saw Iko loitering in the hallway, uncertain. Her sensor had gone nearly black.
Cinder searched for her voice. Her pulse was throbbing, white spots flickering across her vision. A red warning flickered in the corner of her eye—a recommendation that she calm down. “I didn’t ask to be made like this. I didn’t ask for you or anybody to adopt me. This isn’t my fault!”
“It isn’t my fault either!” Adri lashed out, shoving the netscreen off its brackets with one shove. It fell and crashed, taking two of her husband’s achievement plaques down with it. Bits of plastic ricocheted across the worn carpet.
Cinder jumped back, but the frenzy fled as fast as it had come. Adri’s ragged breath was already slowing. She was always so careful not to disturb the neighbors. Not to be noticed. Not to cause a commotion. Not to do anything that could ruin their reputation. Even now.
“Cinder,” said Adri, chafing her fingers with the washcloth as if she could erase her lost temper. “You will be going with these med-droids. Don’t make a scene.”
The floor shifted. “What? Why?”
“Because we all have a duty to do what we can, and you know what a high demand there is for…your type. Especially now.” She paused. Her face had gone pink and mottled. “We can still help Peony. They just need cyborgs, to find a cure.”
“You volunteered me for plague research?” Her mouth could barely form the words.
“What else was I to do?”
Cinder’s jaw hung. She shook her head, dumbly, as all three yellow sensors focused on her. “But…nobody survives the testing. How could you—”
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com