9. Perfect Perfect World
When Felix Mansen turned eighteen, inherited Alec, and moved out of his parents’ division, the fact that he was leaving his entire family behind never bothered him. When he was in college, studying hard and partying lightly (and having his way with the young ladies who were entranced by the fact that he owned a personal imp, and correctly assumed that this was a sign of wealth), he never felt homesickness or missed the company of his blood relatives. And now that he is a fully functioning, mature adult, with a high-paying job and a cushy division of his own, he only sets time aside to visit his parents or grandparents or cousins or whoever when their pestering becomes too annoying to bear any longer.
Most of his companionship comes from imps, which is fine by him, as he finds imps to be more agreeable that most humans. Alec has been there to support Felix in every way he could ever need, from being a babysitter during his youth to being a perfect roommate during school (keeps the dorm tidy, never borrows your stuff without asking, and always knows the answers to your homework questions!) to being a best friend now that Felix is a grown man. Felix has since filled up the empty rooms in his home with other imps, usually those with odd qualities that will ultimately estrange them from other owners. When he purchased Lai ten years ago, she was brand-new, a defect fresh out of the factory. Ema and Cade were bought in tandem six years later, and both had already been around awhile; Cade had been through one owner and Ema had been through two. Now all five of them – Felix, Alec, Lai, Cade, and Ema – are one big, patchwork family, like a machine cobbled together from random parts that somehow fit together, functioning as one, still plugging along from day to day.
Felix is currently leading his four imps on the short journey from Pristine Labs to their home in the four-division neighborhood. They usually walk to and from work, unless the weather is particularly nasty, and it’s an invigorating, refreshing trip on chilly days like this November afternoon. They take up the same formation every time: Felix strides confidently in the front, while Lai, Cade, and Ema cluster behind him, and Alec hangs back from the others as he walks at his slow, deliberate pace. Today they have somehow managed to enter a heated debate, and Felix listens closely, waiting for an opportunity to step in and offer his opinion on whatever topic is being discussed.
“The whole concept of nimps was invented by conspiracy theorists, obviously,” Lai is saying. “If you can back one of them into a corner, you’ll figure that out fast. And every time evidence comes up suggesting that nimps exist, it always turns out to be fake!”
“I know that,” Ema replies, “and I don’t want to argue about if they’re real or not, but you have to admit that it is a fascinating concept, isn’t it? Combining an imp and a human, getting the best of both worlds…”
“I’d feel sorry for anyone subjected to that,” sniffs Lai. “If nimps were real, I bet they’d be poor, confused outcasts who had no idea what to do with themselves. Humans act one way, and imps act another way – putting them together is just asking for trouble.”
Felix rolls his eyes. He hears enough about nimps on the spectrovision and comm networks. He doesn’t need Ema and Lai to be getting obsessed with it, as well.
Nimps, much like aliens, are nonexistent creatures that are hailed by nervous conspiracy-loving types and dismissed by experts. They are said to be hybrids created from one imp parent and one human parent, even though no one is entirely sure how that breeding process would work. After all, imps are created as sterile due to their long life spans, and also because they are designed to think more about work and less about making babies. And while imps will occasionally become attracted to one another in cases like Cade and Ema’s (and Felix is certain that there are imps who have decided to be “friends with benefits” even before then) there have been no recoded instances of an imp falling for a human,
“It’s notimpossiblefor a nimp to exist, though, is it?” Ema presses on. “I mean, obviously they wouldn’t be born the traditional way, but one could still be testied…”
“No, they couldn’t,” disagrees Lai. “Testied babies are made from an egg cell and a sperm cell, and imps are infertile, so that wouldn’t work.” She looks up at her owner for approval. “Right, Felix?”
Felix nods. “Yep. You can create a person out of non-reproductive cells, but you’d need very high-end equipment to do it. As in, the stuff they make imps with. In which case you could just make an imp, so why shove straight human DNA in there? It would be a genetic mess. You’d have to figure out how the aging would work, which abilities from which species they’d get…it just wouldn’t be worth the effort.”
“But you could screw with the conspiracy theorists,” Cade pipes up, “and that’s always worth the effort, isn’t it?”
They all laugh, except for Alec, who just continues to maintain his unflinchingly austere expression. It’s rare to ever hear Alec laugh, probably because his voice box wasn’t built to produce such sounds.
Felix peeks over his shoulder and watches Lai fall into step with Alec. He groans inwardly; Lai has always made frequent attempts to “figure out” Alec’s story, mostly through prying questions that grate on the older man’s nerves more than she will ever know. She really needs to start leaving him alone, but there’s no keeping her away from old-fashioned things, and androids are definitely old-fashioned. But pestering Alec is like pulling on the tail of a sleeping cat. At first you might only get glared at, but eventually, you’ll find yourself being clawed across the face.
“What do you think, Alec?” asks Lai.
Alec makes a low, vaguely irritated sound in the back of his throat. “If you are asking my opinion on so-called ‘nimps,’ then I believe that it is all nonsense. In an age of government benevolence and relative security, humans must still convince themselves that there is an antagonist in their lives. Their chosen antagonist may be people of other countries, or the idea of political corruption, or nimps. Even imps were one considered to be a threat to humanity’s existence.”
“So were androids,” adds Lai pointedly.
Alec’s lip curls back. “Yes,” he says shortly, “my kind was once readily attacked by the morale of humans, and that is why there are no longer others like me.”
“Is that also why you have that bad eye?”
Felix swallows, slowing his pace in case he has to intervene. Alec may have an extraordinarily well-controlled temper, but surely that was too far…
However, he only sets his jaw and answers, “Lai-unit, you have been asking me about that topic for ten years now. Why would I be so inclined as to respond to your prodding today?”
Lai shrugs. “Who knows? It might be my lucky day. I know you’ll tell me eventually. And don’t call me Lai-unit,” she adds with a hint of curtness.
“I will never divulge such information to an irresponsible, scatterbrained,foolishyoung woman such as yourself,” says Alec coldly. “Nor shall I ever cease to think of you as anything more than aunit.”
Lai opens her mouth, then shuts it.
Felix finally interrupts, unable to take it any longer. “Lai, come here,” he calls, beckoning her towards him.
Lai hurries to his side, her long red coat flapping haltingly as slow-motion airwaves ripple through it. It’s an old-fashioned garment with a high collar, just the sort of thing that she would take to.
“Look, you need to stop bugging Alec, okay?” he hisses at her softly.
She pushes out her lower lip in a mock pout. He is a rather tall man, and with her size defect she doesn’t even come up to his shoulder, so she looks like a schoolgirl being reprimanded as she strides alongside him. “I was just curious.”
“You’re always curious, aren’t you?”
Suddenly, a shriek of brakes pierces the air, causing all of the foot commuters plodding along to snap their heads upwards in almost perfect unison. On the street ahead of them, an automatic freighter has become splayed across four lanes of traffic, forcing all of the groundcrafts behind it to come to a screeching halt. Felix stops in his tracks, confused; he can’t remember the last time he saw a crash happen here. After all, this is one of the richest neighborhoods in the settlement, a place of tall gleaming buildings and polished street fixtures, where only the wealthiest denizens walk the clean-swept sidewalks. The authorities fight to prevent anything ugly or undesirable from showing up here.
Felix draws closer, leaning as close to the road as he dares, feeling his four imps pressing in behind him. That’s when he spots a twisted mass sticking out from beneath the front of the nonfunctioning freighter. It takes a moment for him to realize that the unidentified shapes are arms and legs, mangled beyond repair.
Lai’s fingers sink into his arm. “Felix,” she breathes.
“It’s okay,” he forces out, even though he has no idea what is going on.
“L-look at that book…” She reaches out and points with a barely trembling hand.
Of course she would be the one to notice something like a book at a time like this, but once Felix’s eyes land on it, he wonders why he didn’t see it before. It lies a few inches away from the pulpy remnants of what might have once been a hand, fluttering and being dragged across the street by the wind like a half-dead bird. It is missing most of its pages, and the cover is only cheap black plastic. As it smacks against the pavement brokenly, a metallic gold cross etched on the front catches the fading light of the winter sun.
The crowd of gawking bystanders is parting now, making way for three uniformed authority figures who are heading towards the scene of the accident. If itwasan accident, that is. Felix isn’t naïve enough to deny the fact that people in violation of laws like the Keep Public Secular Act often seem to perish in unfortunate accidents. He doesn’t see much of it, not here in this neighborhood, but as he watches the authorities carefully extracting a shattered bottle of booze from between the wheels of the freighter, he can’t help but think of how convenient it is that the KPSA violator just happened to be drunk at the time of death, the perfect excuse for falling into the road. And look, the police officers were right around the corner. How handy.
“Come on, guys, let’s get out of here,” he mutters to his imps. All four of them hurry after him without comment or complaint. Even Alec has allowed some shock to break through his usual apathetic expression.
Felix is smart, but there are some things that he prefers to remain ignorant about. He knows that these things happen…he’d just prefer it if they didn’t happen while he was around.