A week later, Lai finds herself seated in a hard plastic chair, the only visible piece of furniture in the unused conference room where she is currently located. The lights overhead have been set to maximum sharpness, splashing everything with a harsh yellow glare from above. No one has explicitly told her so, but she understands that the setup is supposed to resemble an interrogation room. People have been calling this a “diagnostic,” as if it’s some sort of a gentle doctor exam, but Lai knows how deadly serious this situation really is.
After Felix told her and the others about the Uniters, exactly a week ago, he seemed pretty perturbed when all four of his imps decided to volunteer for the new army. Alec stated his commitment somberly, as if the entire world was riding on his choice. Ema felt that she had to go up against anything labeled “ILG,” which all of them understood. Cade also agreed, nervously, and Lai was certain that the only reason he was going at all was because of Ema. Lai herself made her decision immediately and without reserve. She wondered then, as she is wondering now, if this was the break she had been waiting for – the chance to leave her ordinary life behind, to embark on an adventure, to contribute to the world in a way that being a defunct Land and Air Inspector will never allow.
Then she learned that not just anyone would be admitted into the Uniters, that there was a thorough selection process that every applicant had to go through, and she realized that her chances of making it would be slim to none. Her size defect doesn’t exactly give her the perfect physique for being in an army, and her working record isn’t particularly impressive either. In fact, almost all of her assignments are always turned in late, if she even submits them at all. And while she doesn’t believe that any of it actually represents her work ethic (she works very hard on things she actually cares about!) it is her record, and that’s what the mysterious Lady T will be looking at.
Lai submitted her information anyway, fully expecting to be booted out by the big, strong, hardworking imps who had doubtlessly also applied. Yet somehow she made it here, to the final stage of the process. If she passes this final test, she will become a Uniter. So she gazes up into the harsh lights unflinchingly, waiting for the interrogator to arrive.
On cue, seamless door pulls aside with the barest hiss of sound, and a tall, trim woman steps into the room. Her eyes are nearly black, glinting from behind the frames of wire-rimmed glasses.Real glasses– Lai sits forward in her chair, intrigued. She’s never seen someone wearing real glasses before.
“You’re Lai Mansen?” asks the woman.
“Yes’m,” replies Lai. “Are you Lady T?”
“That’s what I go by, yes.” Lady T’s dark lips twitch upwards. “So, you want to join the Uniters. I must say that after reading your work record, I was quite fascinated.”
Lai nibbles at her lower lip. “Well, about that…I know it doesn’t look that great, but…”
“Lai, do you know how many of the other imps who applied had imperfect work records?”
She shakes her head.
“None of them. You were the only one.”
“Uh, okay…” Lai shifts in her hard plastic seat, still feeling uneasy. “So why did you even call me here if everybody else was perfect?”
“Because of what that imperfection tells me about you, Lai.” Lady T strides forward, her boot heels clicking against the floor. “You’re the one who stands out from the norm. Just by looking at some files, I can see that you most likely have outside interests of some sort, while everyone else is a slave to their job.”
Lai thinks that she might have just been complimented, but she isn’t sure, and she’s never sure how to respond to praise anyway. So she thinks about it and says, “Isn’t that the kind of recruit you want, though? Someone who knows how to follow orders and works really hard?”
“I don’t want those sorts of people was much as you might think. This isn’t a military I’m putting together, it’s a group.” Lady T is looming over Lai now, her thin eyebrows arched high. “And I need…risk takers…in order for my little group to work.”
“And how do you know I’m a risk taker?” challenges Lai, not one to be easily intimidated.
“You’re a Land and Air Inspector. You’ve been made to be unafraid, designed for field missions in the most extreme environments. Excitement should be your bread and butter. But it’s not, because you’re not going on those field missions…are you, Lai? You’re stuck here, filing reports and things. I imagine that’s why your work tends to slip.”
Lai’s eyes narrow. “How do you…”
“And that’s not all. I was talking to Felix about you the other day. Did you know that he and Ema think that you might have a personality disorder? They’re concerned that your unwillingness to do your job means that you have a mental problem. They’ve been talking about medications and counseling, possibly even modifications to rewire your brain the right way…”
“What?!” Lai shoots out of her chair as if someone has just placed a tack on the seat. In the back of her brain, a nagging voice reminds her that she’s probably supposed to remain seated, but she’s far too heated to listen to her logical side. “I don’t believe you! Felix is my owner, and Ema is my friend! They understand me and they’d never think that something was wrong with me…” But she recalls her conversation with Ema on the day of the attack, where the older woman had chastised her so-called childish behavior, and wonders if Lady T’s statement might hold more truth than Lai is willing to admit to herself. “…would they?”
Lady T places a steady hand on the imp girl’s shoulder, and Lai tenses automatically. She doesn’t like people touching her, not even her own family, and certainly not near-total strangers like Lady T.
“I’m telling you this for your own good, Ms. Lai,” states Lady T. “They’re hiding that from you, but I think you should know what they think of you.”
“What they think is that I’m crazy,” mutters Lai bitterly.
“Well, no matter what they believe,Idon’t think you’re crazy,” Lady T assures her. “Your plight is more common than they would have you think. Remember, I used to be the CEO of a company very much like this. I’ve known other imps in your situation.”
Lai inhales deeply. “My job is boring,” she says. “I focus on interesting things, instead of work. I’m sick of being stuck here, day in and day out. I want todosomething.”
“And so you will,” Lady T agrees. “But there is one thing that you need to understand…” She bends her knees slightly so that she can make eye contact with her much smaller companion, removing her glasses with a single smooth rotation of her wrist. “This is not a game, Lai,” she says seriously. “Remember that. This is not one of the sim-games where you go in and blast some baddies with a super gun, and if you die you start all over again. This is a potential war. It’s happening in real life, and it poses a very real risk if something were to go wrong.”
“I know,” replies Lai, unfazed. “And I don’t even play sim-games.”
“Well then…” A smile slips across Lady T’s lips. “You seem to be just what we need. I think you’ll be just perfect…”
Lai exhales, wondering if perhaps Lady T is mistaken. She’s definitely not perfect. Even if Lady T doesn’t mind that she has odd work habits and outside interests, or doesn’t think that she has a “personality disorder” and claims to understand her, that doesn’t mean that she’s necessarily cut out for the Uniters…even though she desperately wants to be.
“And my size…” Lai’s eyes briefly scan her own small body. “That’s not going to be a problem?”
“No, no. Actually, it might give us an advantage. You could be the secret weapon, so to speak. Stealthy, able to get into hard-to-reach places, so small that no one suspects a thing from you. But with the right training, and maybe a few physical modifications, you could be virtually unstoppable.”
Lai already knows from reading the Uniters’ digital pamphlet that all recruits will be subject to genetic alterations, performed with consent, of course. At the very least, all of the imps will have training information implanted into their brains; many will also have their muscle size increased or be given a higher speed capacity, or any number of other improvements that will optimize them for battle. She is no slouch at the moment, but she reflects on how invigorating it would be if she possessed superhuman strength and speed, a powerhouse contained within a tiny and incongruous exterior, able to charge into crowds of adversaries, skillfully eliminating evil ILG members with just a flick of the wrist and a tug of the trigger…
“I’d like to add you to the group as soon as possible,” finishes Lady T. “If you’re really certain about this, that is.”
“Hmm?” Lai resurfaces in the real world, blinking and slightly dazed. “Oh, I’m certain about it, all right. When can I start?”
“Soon. Very soon.” Lady T takes a step backwards, her face seemingly frozen in a slight, vacant smile. “Welcome to the Uniters.”