15. The Insecurities

15. The Insecurities

            “You’re Cade Mansen?”

            Cade gives a nervous dip of his head, observing anxiously as Lady T’s eyes narrow with disappointment. After meeting with Lai and Ema back to back, she probably formed expectations that all Mansen imps were strong-minded and outgoing. Cade is well aware that he does not fit this mold at all. He is not aloof and unflappable like Lai, or headstrong and personable like Ema. To the coldly realistic eyes of Lady T, he almost certainly comes off as shy, introverted, and weak.

            None of which is going to create a favorable first impression, but he has to get into the Uniters. He justhasto…

            “You don’t look like a fighter to me,” pronounces Lady T, unimpressed.

            “Maybe I don’tlookit…” He lifts his chin in a way that he hopes will portray strength. “But looks can be deceiving.”

            Lady T’s nostrils flare as she represses laughter at that tired old cliché. “Not true, I’m afraid. As far as imps are concerned, looks are rarely deceiving. From appearance alone, you can get a very good idea of an imp’s job, class status, and personality. But no imps have been manufactured for the sole purpose of fighting, so I suppose I can’t judge you too much.”

            Cade exhales slowly.

            “But nevertheless, you must have some sort of special skill in order to be accepted into the Uniters,” she continues. “So tell me – what exactly can a janitor offer to my exclusive group?”

            “Some sort of special skill?” he repeats. “Well, I’m good at finding things.”

            He can tell that he has her attention now. “What things?” she asks, intrigued.

            “Lots of things.” He shrugs, trying to be nonchalant about it, although his stomach is spiked with nerves. “Missing items, or information, or people.”

            “That could be useful,” says Lady T thoughtfully. “If you can prove it, that is.”

            “Proof? If you want proof, you can just check my record. I run the company Lost & Found, and not just because I’m the Head of Cleanup.” Cade leans back in the hard chair as if he doesn’t have a care in the world, but his constantly shifting eyes and the pulse visibly fluttering in his throat reveal that he isn’t nearly as calm as he’s trying to appear. Still, feigning confidence might be the only way for him to get into the Uniters.

            Lady T blinks at him, unperturbed. “Don’t you think that I’ve already reviewed every miniscule detail of the information that you submitted? Your record is virtually identical to those of all the other imps. It tells me nothing about your character.” She leans toward him, her eyes oddly bright behind those funny glasses she wears. “And what I can see of you now, Mr. Cade, tells me that you don’t really want to fight.”

            Cade swallows. “Doesanyonereally want to fight?” he mutters.

            “You’d be surprised. I’ve recruited many belligerent imps so far. They seem to think that the battles will be glamorous, turning them into action heroes. You clearly have no such misconceptions. I could praise you as a realist and enlist you, except I can see how scared you are. So why even bother signing up?” She sighs, her shoulders deflating. Cade realizes that she isn’t actively trying to be cruel or discouraging; all she wants is to restore order while keeping the casualties to a minimum, and she seems to have gone through many exasperating would-be soldiers so far. He relaxes at this new insight. Perhaps he should just tell her the truth instead of putting up a tough façade.

            “Well, you’re right about one thing. I’m not exactly thrilled about a potential war,” Cade starts carefully. “But I have to join the Uniters because…because I need to be there for Ema.”

            “Oh, that’s right…” Lady T’s eyebrows arch high in understanding. “You’re Ema’s lover. Well…”

            “I might not be the strongest imp there is,” he continues, his voice steadying, “but I’ll do anything for her. And she needs me right now. With all this talk of the ILG bringing up bad memories, she’ll need someone to support her.”

            “She’s stronger than you give her credit for.”

            “I know how much she…” He trails off, his eyes dropping to the floor. Doubt infiltrates his mind like smog clouds choking off the sun. After all, maybe he’s just kidding himself. Ema can take care of herself, and she’s a hundred times more resilient than he could ever be. What if he’s nothing but a nuisance to her right now? What if he’s not what she needs? He can easily picture her stepping onto a battlefield and single-handedly eliminating the threat to them all, or even worse, fighting alongside some tall-dark-and-handsome soldier type. Suddenly he feels foolish. Joining the Uniters won’t accomplish anything, he can see that now.

            Lady T seems to be closely monitoring his face, and so his mood change does not escape her notice. “What’s wrong? Are you two having relationship woes?”

            “Not exactly,” Cade sighs. “It’s just…no. I think I’ve made a mistake. You were right, I’m not cut out for the Uniters.” He makes a motion to stand, but she clamps a hand over his shoulder, halting him.

            “So that’s it,” she declares. “You feel inadequate.”

            Cade presses his lips into a tense line. He’d never thought to use such a malignant word to describe his plight, but he doesn’t deny it.

            “No wonder you look so anxious! You’ve got low self-esteem, hmm? In that case, perhaps you should join the Uniters, for your own sake.”

            “Now it’s starting to sound like youwantme to be killed,” he says glumly.

            “That’s not what I mean at all.” She reaches up and cups a hand around his jaw, and a slight tremor skirts across the surface of his skin.

            “Yes…” she drawls slowly, pushing his head aside in order to examine his profile. “I think a stronger chin would do you well, and sharper features. Perhaps even two or three inches added to your height…”

            “What are you talking about?” demands Cade.

            “Why, I’m talking about modifications, of course.” Lady T places her hands on her hips, smiling self-assuredly. “You weren’t made to be a soldier, and you won’t be an effective one…not as you are, anyway. But if we put you through training and shift around a few bones in your face to match…you could be more than just an ideal fighter. You could be an ideal leader.”

            “Really? You think so?” Cade places two fingers against his cheek, returning to his earlier mental image of Ema with a capable, handsome combatant. Is it possible that he could become that bold warrior? “But won’t that…change me?”

            “Of course it will, but it won’t change who you are. It will be like upgrading a computer. The internal hardware stays the same, but now it can do so much more.” She gazes at him reproachfully. “And it won’t just be for your lover’s sake, either. Think of all the good you could do for the world as a leader of the Uniters.”

            He has to admit that it is tempting. Cade has never fancied himself as a hero, and he’s also never made much of a difference in anything. His existence is much like that of the discarded items that he is constantly rescuing – transient, undefined, and easily replaceable. But now he is being offered the chance to improve upon his current skills, gain some new ones, and become a supersoldier in the process. And all of his worries about whether or not he’s good enough for Ema will be wiped away forever…

            “Well,” he says, “it definitely sounds like something to consider.”

            “Excellent.” Lady T produces a comm from her pocket, inscribes a mark on its screen with a small stylus, and then puts both items away before he can get a good look at what she is doing. “I’ll be in touch. For now, consider yourself one of the Uniters.”

 

            Surprisingly, Alec is the only one of the Mansen imps who is not called in for interrogation. His comm buzzes near the end of the day, and upon examination, he finds a message stating that his application to the Uniters has been accepted and that no further information is required. A grim smile briefly flickers across his face when he reads this, gone in such a flash that it could easily be mistaken for a glitch of facial mechanics. After all, Lady T has realized that there is nothing more to him than his working record reveals.

            There is no personality behind the slightly stiff face, only a series of directives both pending and completed, and lines of code inside the machine.

The End

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