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I try to say yes but nothing comes out, so I bob my head once more.
‘There’s a Stream crew upstairs and most of your neighbourhood. I’d prefer we didn’t have to drag you off looking like a loose thread, but if you try that again I’ll have him dose you. Do you understand what I’m saying?’ He points to the medic who has finished healing my wound.
I manage to squeak, ‘Yes.’
‘Good girl. We’ll deal with this later,’ he says, gesturing to the escape tunnel. ‘Your job is to smile and look thrilled to be selected. Can you do that?’
I stare at him.
The official sighs and cocks his head to activate the microscopic complant embedded over his left ear. The device automatically connects you to any other complant user or wall-communication panel. I’ve seen men in the metro chatting on them, but my father’s role as a mechanic doesn’t warrant the privilege of having one implanted. A moment later I’m privy to the man’s one-sided conversation.
‘Hannox, do you have them? No, hold her.’ Turning back to me, he points to the hole my mother and Amie disappeared through. ‘Let’s pretend my colleague has someone you love very much in his custody, and your performance for the Stream crew decides whether she lives or dies. Can you look thrilled now?’
I muster up the brightest smile I can and flash it at him.
‘Not bad, Adelice.’ But then he frowns and pushes away the grooming crew. ‘Are you idiots? This is a retrieval. She can’t wear cosmetics!’
I look away as he continues to berate the aestheticians, and search for signs of my father. He’s nowhere, but as my eyes scan the wall I can’t make out any other cracks that could hide a passage. Of course, until twenty minutes ago I hadn’t known about even the first two passages.
‘Are we clear?’ the official asks the medic.
‘Give her one more minute.’
‘I’m fine,’ I say with a smile, practising for the Stream crew. But as soon as I speak, my stomach contracts hard and sends my dinner back up my throat. I double over and retch up pot roast and frothy cream.
‘Fantastic,’ the official bellows. ‘Can’t I even get a competent squad?’
‘She’ll be fine now,’ the medic says, backing up a few steps.
The official glowers at him and then turns and leads me to the stairs. At the last step, he grabs my arm and leans in close. ‘Make it look real. Her life depends on it.’
I don’t have the guts to ask him if he means my mother or my sister; his answer will only tell me who is dead. I stagger up the stairs and blink hard against the bright lights of the main floor. Every lamp is on and the kitchen and dining room have been ransacked. As we march through the dining room on our way to the front door, I slip on something dark and sticky. One of the officers catches my arm as I stumble, and I snap my head down to the spot on the floor. It’s nearly black and pools out from a large, stiff bag.
I crumple back against the man behind me.
‘No time for that now, sweetheart,’ he hisses. ‘You’ve got a show to put on or we’re going to need more of those bags.’
I can’t tear my eyes from the bag, so he leads me away. I try to tell him there’s blood on my feet, but he’s already barking more orders at his squad.
‘Halt,’ commands a guard at the door.
The official steps forward, runs his eyes over me, sighs, and steps out onto the porch to thunderous applause. I turn away and focus on the long black bag, but a guard moves over to the table, blocking my view. I glance over to see he’s eating the cake.
‘Hey,’ I call, and everyone looks at me in surprise. ‘That’s half a week’s rations! Leave it for my family.’
The officer’s eyes dart to his companion, and I see it on their faces – pity – but he sets down the cake.
‘Blessings, Romen! I’m Cormac Patton and...’ The rude official addresses the crowd from my porch. More applause. He waits a moment for it to calm down.
‘He always has time for applause,’ an aesthetician notes drily.
‘Blessings, Arras. I’m Cormac Patton,’ her companion mimics him in a low voice, and they laugh until a guard shushes them.
Cormac Patton. Coventry Ambassador for the Guild of Twelve and the Stream’s number-one pretty boy. How could I have not recognised him? They must have really drugged me. Or maybe I’m not used to celebrities hanging out in my basement. Even my mom has a thing for him. But I don’t see the appeal. Sure, he’s perpetually clad in a black, double-breasted tuxedo, and very handsome, but he has to be at least forty. Or maybe even older, since I can’t remember a time in my life when he looked anything but forty.
I can’t comprehend that he’s standing on my porch right now.
‘We are privileged to call to service Adelice Lewys,’ Cormac’s voice bellows. An officer pushes me out next to him. ‘May Arras flourish at her touch.’
The crowd echoes back the blessing and colour floods my cheeks. I paste the bright smile on my face and will it to stick.
‘Wave,’ Cormac instructs me through gritted teeth, his own smile undiminished as he gives the command.
I wave shyly and keep beaming at the crowd. A moment later, officers surround and flank us, escorting us to a waiting motocarriage. The crowd swarms into a mob and all I see are hands. The officers hold most of them back, and I shrink away from the mob. Everywhere I look, fingers claw at me, grabbing for a bit of my skirt or a caress of my hair. I’m breathing faster, and beside me Cormac frowns. The drugs must not be as strong as he thought. I think of his threat and force myself to look excited.