The glass door to 131’s chamber slid open, and Mona entered with a cup of tea in each hand.
A ringlet of dark brown hair had come loose from Mona’s neat bun, and with both hands occupied, she hadn’t been able to fix it. 131 knew the renegade strands were probably driving Mona crazy, but to 131, they made Mona look more beautiful. The hair fell apart over her face like a sheer curtain, a hazy veil softening her hard edges.
“Hi, 131,” said Mona.
In a single fluid motion, Mona lowered herself gracefully into a sitting position beside 131 on the cot. Most people wouldn’t have been able to do it without spilling the tea, but Mona would never spill anything.
Mona placed one teacup on a flat piece of metal fixed to the wall beside 131’s cot. It was supposed to serve as both a table and a chair, but it wasn’t terribly effective as either. Mona held the other cup out to 131, and 131 took it. Her hand brushed against Mona’s manicured hand, warm from the teacup, and 131 let her hand linger for a moment before pulling it away.
131 had heard a lot of real people, especially men, describe Mona as frigid, and 131 understood why. She had seen how Mona looked around most people–hardly a trace of emotion on her face, just cold apathy tinged with annoyance.
But the Mona 131 knew, the Mona who brought her tea and kept her company when everyone else treated her with clinical indifference–that Mona was pure warmth. Her dark eyes, usually so hard and cruel, transformed when they looked at 131.
“Sorry,” said Mona. “It’s just whatever weird tea they had in the break room. I’ll bring something from home next time.”
“Thank you, Mona,” said 131.
Mona smiled, tucking her stray hair back into place.
“Look at me,” she said. “I’m a mess.”
131 looked at Mona–her pristine white button up, her meticulous makeup, her elegant features.
“You could never be a mess,” said 131.
“You’re sweet,” said Mona.
“No, I’m not.” 131 took a sip of her tea. “‘Sweet’ isn’t in my genetic programming.”
“You’re always sweet to me.” Mona smiled playfully. “Should I feel special?”
131 watched Mona as she reached for her tea and stopped to check her reflection in the metal, keeping her back pin-straight as she leaned down. It was such a simple movement, but Mona’s poise made everything she did look like a kind of dance.
Of course Mona should feel special. Of course she was special. No one else was this captivating.
Mona looked at 131, arching an eyebrow.
“What do you mean, what?”
“You’re staring at me. Don’t tell me my hair is still a mess.”
131 shook her head.
“Then what is it?”
“You are special,” said 131. “I can feel it.”
Mona sipped her tea again, then set it down.
“I am,” she said. “I was kidding before, but I am. I don’t say that to be cocky. My father always said there were two kinds of people in the world. Most people just bumble through life, never putting in effort, never contributing to anything worthwhile. Then, there are those few of us who choose to do better.”
“That’s harsh,” said 131.
“It’s not really,” said Mona. “Everyone decides what kind of person they are. I think it’s empowering. Only you get to choose who you are. My father had no sympathy for those who made the lazy choice, and neither do I.”
“Should I be afraid to ask which choice you think I made?” said 131.
“You?” Mona laughed. “131, you’re neither. That’s why you’re more special even than me.”
“If I’m neither, then what am I?”
Mona traced a gentle hand across 131’s cheek, and something about the touch made 131’s heart speed up.
“You’re something even better,” said Mona. “You’re a work of art.”
“I’m a science experiment,” said 131. “A failed science experiment.”
Mona’s deep brown eyes stared at her, hardening, the edges of those two warm pools freezing over.
“No, 131. No. Don’t you dare think that. Don’t ever think that,” said Mona. “You’re the only perfect thing in this world.”
“No. No ‘buts’. 131, listen to me. Look me in the eyes.”
Mona moved the hand on 131’s cheek, cupping the side of 131’s face and moving her head so they were eye to eye.
“Every single person who’s told you that?” said Mona. “They’re the first type of person.”
“No. Listen to me. You’re beautiful. You’re perfection. Anyone who can’t see that is worth less than garbage. Okay?”
“I want to hear you say it,” said Mona. “Tell me you’re a work of art.”
131 shook her head. “If anyone’s a work of art, it’s you.”
“Me?” Mona frowned. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’m not,” said 131. “Everything about you–your hair, your clothes, your movements. It’s all like… a special kind of art. I’m just a dumb fab, so I can’t explain it well.”
Mona’s frown deepened, but she didn’t interrupt.
“I think the way I’d put it is,” said 131, “you’re like the artist and the canvas at the same time. If that makes sense?”
Mona’s eyes softened, their familiar warmth mixed with a rare sadness.
“You don’t belong here, 131. You shouldn’t be at their mercy. Not when you’re their superior in every way.” Mona leaned closer to 131, lowering her voice. “I’ve been thinking about how to get you out of here.”
“Really?” 131 felt a tiny twinge of hope. “Where would I even go?”
“Anywhere you wanted,” said Mona. “Without this cage, you could do anything, 131.”
“I’d miss you if I left,” said 131.
“I’d go with you, of course.”
“You would?” said 131. “What about your family?”
“They have each other,” said Mona. “You need me more than they do.”
“Where would we go?” 131 leaned forward, sudden excitement bubbling within her. “What would we even do?”
Mona smiled at 131’s excitement.
“What would you want to do?”
“This might sound really stupid, but I’d want power.”
“You’d have it.” Mona’s smile widened. “You could achieve all the power you wanted.”
“Do you really think so?”
“I know so. You should be ruling over all these idiots. You’d rule the world if it were up to me.” Mona shook her head, still smiling. “But listen to me. I sound like a super-villain.”
“It’s a good look for you.”
Mona laughed, taking 131’s free hand.
“I know I sound like a broken record, but you’re going to do great things once you’re out of here.”
“What kind of great things?”
“I don’t know. You tell me,” said Mona. “It’s like my father said. You get to decide who you are and what you do.”
“I guess don’t know what I want to do yet,” said 131. “I know whatever it is, I’ll want you there with me while I’m doing it.”
“And I always will be.” Mona squeezed her hand. “I promise.”