Lai Mansen has always considered herself to be "almost normal" despite the fact that she's a genetically improved human. But when the Imps Liberation Group attacks a nearby city, all semblance of normality gets thrown to the winds. Her only hope of getting her life back lies in answering the question: who is Pandora Amity?
PART I: STRANGE LITTLE GIRL
1. Informed Consent
A sleeping monster is looming on the horizon.
Lionel Amity has never been this far away from Settlement 209 before, and he finds that his eyes are constantly being dragged back towards the cluster of hulking shapes receding into the distance. The buildings are so tightly packed together that they really do resemble some enormous creature, with lumpy skin and jagged spines jutting out of its back. The yellow-lit windows of divisions and late-night offices wink in and out of sight like so many glittering eyes, all blinking independently of each other.
It is not exactly a pleasant sight, but it is far more comforting than the sprawling wasteland that the groundcraft is currently rolling through. The road still stretches out in front of them reassuringly, but the vehicle’s passage kicks up puffs of dust and dirt that seem to hang frozen in time over the disconcertingly empty landscape. Everything is dirty here, from the shriveled clumps of brush to the occasional flat, elongated building making itself known as they whiz by. Lionel doesn’t like the look of these buildings. Any company that decides to set up shop here, in a place where it will be shrouded in secrecy, is obviously not involved in a respectable business. Civilians don’t leave the city often enough to warrant stores or restaurants out here. He is most likely surrounded by drug labs and illegal goods factories.
His wife, Loretta, is tense all over as she guides the groundcraft to their destination. Her lips are tight, her eyes are tight, her hands are tight on the steering controls. She doesn’t like this any more than he does. They both want to picture a medical institution as a bright, cushy place tucked safely within the city limits, even though they know that this is a cutting-edge research institute, not a hospital from the last century.
Besides, they’ve thoroughly researched every safety measure imaginable. They’ve checked and double-checked, and they know that the Institute for the Betterment of Humans Genetically Improved and Otherwise is legitimate. It is government funded, scientist run, and entirely safe…or at least, as safe as any place that specializes in experimental procedures can be.
Loretta eases up on the speed of the vehicle as its front lights splash over an upcoming turn-off. It is a narrow path, splitting from the main road at a precise right angle, leading to a vast empty parking lot. They’ve nearly arrived.
Lionel feels his stomach lurch as the groundcraft turns sharply, and in the backseat, something shifts.
His head snaps around quickly. He can see the silhouette of a figure back there, barely outlined in the unlit space. It isn’t moving any longer.
Lionel heaves a silent sigh as he remembers the only other time that he was at the Institute’s headquarters, and how he received the pill that he slipped his daughter that night at dinner…
“On the night of the operation, makes sure she takes this,” instructed the doctor, holding up an innocuous little capsule between his thumb and index finger. “It should keep her out long enough for you all to get here.”
“You want her to be asleep before she even enters the building?” asked Loretta, surprised. “Why?”
The doctor smiled painfully. “They know,” he explained. “Even people with her condition know when they come here that something will happen to them. Some of them fight. Usually children, but the simple-minded ones do it, too. It’s better this way.”
“Hold on a second,” said Lionel. “I thought you said that this was an experimental procedure. Never been done before.”
“It is,” replied the doctor. “But you’re not the only family we’ve ever tried to help. There have been other procedures, other…patients.”
Now, as they pull up to the control both that regulates access to the parking lot, Lionel notices that his wife’s lips are pursed. She is less sure about this than he is. Unlike him, she has always been able to maintain a false hope that their daughter might heal. Sometimes she even spends time with Pandora, although she normally restricts her motherly duties to ensuring that the servants are behaving properly.
As for Lionel, he more or less gave up on Pandora the moment that the genitechs emerged from the birthing room with telltale grim expressions on their faces. This operation is the final straw. One way or another, the ordeal that he has suffered through for eighteen years will end tonight.
The groundcraft rolls to a stop beside the control booth, and a minimum-wage night guard peers out at them with disinterest. “Name?” he asks.
“Lionel, Loretta, and Pandora Amity,” recites Loretta carefully. “We’ll be on the schedule.”
The guard’s fingers patter against an outdated video screen that causes his face to light up in the darkness. The night sky is unadorned and black, its stars bleached out by Settlement 209’s light pollution, and the disembodied face appears warped and vaguely ghostly against this plain backdrop. The guard must have confirmed their names in his database, because without pausing for further conversation, he retracts the electrified gate and allows them to pass. They creep forward slowly.
It isn’t hard to find a parking spot. Most of the spaces are empty, though a few are occupied by high tech-looking aircrafts. Their groundcraft appears insubstantial and obsolete by comparison. Loretta enables park mode and then just sits there stiffly in her seat, staring straight ahead, seemingly unable to make herself get up.
Lionel opens the door and walks around to the back, where he carefully extracts Pandora from her safety belt. She sags limply in his arms as he hoists her up, still soundly asleep. A passing bystander trying to pinpoint her age would probably guess that she was about ten years old, twelve maximum. In reality, she is eighteen.
She is eighteen, and she has never been to a party, or gone to school, or spoken a word. She cannot talk, think, or emote. Unable to complete even the simplest of tasks on her own, she has been assisted by servants and nursemaids for her entire life. Since she doesn’t understand the concept of “parents,” it doesn’t really matter who is taking care of her.
In short, she is a perfect test subject for the Institute. If all goes well tonight, she will begin a new life as a fully functioning adult. If it doesn’t…
“Come on, Loretta,” Lionel grunts, shifting Pandora in his arms.
As Loretta gets out of the groundcraft, two men in lab coats emerge from the Institute’s sprawling facility, wheeling an old gurney between them. A woman walks briskly alongside them. Her name is Dr. Tamara, and she is the genitech who has been assigned to the Amitys. Lionel has met with her on multiple occasions.
“Mr. Amity?” she says, striding up to him briskly. “It’s good to see you again.” She plucks Pandora from his arms as if the girl weighs no more than a stuffed toy and lays her out on the gurney. “Please, come right in…”
He is ushered into the building along with his wife. Neither of them finds the structure to be particularly welcoming. Like the other buildings outside of the city, it is ugly and flat, composed entirely of chunky angles and barely three stories high. But on the inside, it is clear that someone has at least attempted to make it look less like an industrial warehouse. The floors are carpeted, designs have been stenciled into the walls, and the chairs in the empty reception area look relatively comfortable. Not that they are given any time test out the furniture; the Amitys are brought directly down a corridor, into the sterilized steel bowels of the Institute, where an operating room undoubtedly awaits them. The wheels of the gurney creak maddeningly as Pandora is pushed along by the two doctors.
Dr. Tamara leads the way. “The procedure will likely take several hours,” she tells them, in a tone of voice that is almost cheerful. “If you would like something to eat or drink at any time, or require anything else to make you comfortable, an assistant will attend to you as soon as possible.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Loretta manages, looking slightly ill. Her hands are as white and fluttery as frightened albino moths.
Dr. Tamara gives the older woman’s shoulder a comforting squeeze. “It’s all right,” she says reassuringly. “I know it can be nerve-wracking for a parent to do this sort of thing, but it’s for the best. I’m sure that everything will work out just fine!”
Loretta toys with the hem of her skirt. “I just feel so bad for Pandora!” she blurts out. “The poor thing doesn’t even know what’s happening! Shouldn’t we have told her? Informed consent, or whatever it’s called?”
Dr. Tamara smiles wryly. “Your daughter isn’t legally able to give informed consent, Mrs. Amity – not until after this operation. Even if you’d told her, she wouldn’t have understood. You know that.”
They are presented with digital forms and electronic waivers by the bundle. Lionel doesn’t remember signing off on any of them, although he knows that he must have. He is the one giving informed consent here, despite the fact that cold dread is building up in the pit of his stomach.
Before he knows it, Pandora is being transported into the operating room. As the gurney is pushed away, her head lolls back, and he feels a stab of panic. He thinks that he gave her the sleeping pill too early, that he should have slipped it to her before bed instead of at dinner, because now the sedative is wearing off. And yes, he is fully aware that the doctors will be anesthetizing her in just a few more minutes, but…
In his last glimpse of her, she is sprawled out and pale and sickly, and her eyes are open. He cannot bear to look at her eyes. For the past eighteen years, they have been entirely devoid of feeling, as empty as glass marbles. But now there is something behind them, like a glowing ember buried at the bottom of a dead campfire, or a beam of light shining into an empty room. Those eyes are narrowing now, and he swears that she is looking at him with confusion, and…betrayal?
It isn’t possible. Betrayal is an emotion too complicated for her broken mind to grasp. Before he can get a second look at her, she is whisked away, out of sight.
But somehow, he knows that he will see her again.