16. Becoming a Uniter
Getting the mental modifications was like taking a ten-minute power nap, except with a lot more waiting around and being bored. Lai had to spend nearly half an hour in a waiting room crammed with other Uniters, all of whom were much more nervous than she was. Felix eventually called her into the lab, where she had to lay on a cot while he attached all sorts of wires and monitoring disks to her forehead. Then it was time for the pricker.
Seeing the pricker was the only thing that bought out even a stirring of fear in Lai. Prickers are small devices that resemble metallic thumbtacks, and they have always made her uncomfortable, though she has never quite been able to place why. When Felix brought it out during the procedure, smiling sympathetically, anxiety spread through her veins in a brief flash. But then the fine needle-point was embedded into her neck, and calm darkness tucked itself snugly around her like a warm blanket. Ten minutes later, the pricker was gone and she was awake again.
From there she was rushed straight into physical modifications, which turned out to be much more interesting. It would have been much more nerve-wracking, as well, but fortunately she was unconscious the whole time for this part.
She had the lightning dream while she was under, more thrillingly vivid than ever before. In her mind’s eye, she watched as fingers of electricity, tremulous and silver like strands of spider silk, reached down to fill her body with a sensation of power. Perhaps it was so clear to her because of the lasers and high-voltage energy being pumped into her limbs at the time, but she interpreted it as a premonition. These operations are the start of a grand adventure, which she can acknowledge even in her sleep.
At last, Lai awakens in the recovery room, surrounded by other newly modified imps in a long, sterile hall lined with portable beds. She sees Felix leaning over her, consulting a monitor built into the headboard above her pillow, and she knows that things will never be the same again. Lai Mansen the defunct Land and Air Inspector is no more.
She is a Uniter now.
The Recovery Room is almost unbearably soft and padded. It is kept as immaculate as any other medical room, but the usual stark white coloration has been muted into soft pastels, and every right angle has been filed down into a rounded edge. Gentle, wordless music plays in an endless refrain, punctuated every so often by a recorded voice crooning reminders that patients can use their beds’ em-comms to contact a nurse if they require assistance.
Lai is itching to get up anddosomething, but she is admittedly a bit groggy; that last surgery must have kept her out for a while. As far as she can tell, all of the other patients in the Recovery Room are imps…which makes sense, considering that today is the day that all Uniters in Settlement 209 are scheduled for their modifications.
The people in charge were forced to make arrangements with Settlement Central Hospital after the facilities at Pristine Labs proved to be far too small for the job. Most of the recruits only needed to go through “external insertion of tactics of information,” or whatever it’s technically called, more commonly referred to as “stage one mods.” Everyone in the Recovery Room has been through stage two mods, which means that they’ve had something about their bodies altered in order to make them better soldiers. The entire system is headed by Felix and staffed by a few lesser genitechs, as well as a bunch of hospital orderlies. Nurses offer glasses of water to some of the more alert patients, looking vaguely perplexed the entire time; since imps don’t get sick and are rarely hurt badly enough to warrant a hospital visit, this is probably a new experience for the normal medical workers.
Felix darts from bedside to bedside like a water bug skirting across the surface of a pond, except that this particular water bug is running the show. Lai’s eyes track his movements, and she wonders if he is missing the familiar environment of his lab at Pristine. She knows that he has been uneasy about the whole process of turning imps into fighting machines. But he’s tested his mods on a few volunteers, and so far everything has worked out perfectly. Lady T is pleased, and she’s said that her superiors in the World Gov are satisfied as well. Training hasn’t begun yet, but the Uniters are going quite smoothly so far.
“Hey, Lai,” says the man in the bed next to hers.
Lai blinks, eliminating the last of the fuzziness from her brain, and reaches over to pull the dividing curtain aside. The neighboring cot is occupied by a tall imp who looks vaguely familiar, and who apparently knows her name as well; he probably works on her floor or something. His face is handsome and robust while still maintaining a boyish quality, bordered by a tousled mass of dark brown hair. Soulful brown eyes stare at her curiously, set into his freckle-splattered olive skin like a pair of chocolate gems.
“You don’t look any different,” he remarks.
She shrugs. “What can I say? I wasn’t exactly getting a facelift in there.”
He laughs. “No, but depending on the job you’re recruited for, some of the transformations are pretty unbelievable. I think I was getting a bit of a facelift myself.”
Lai squints at him. “Do I know you? Sorry, I’ve got a terrible memory for names, but you look familiar…”
“Do you know me?” he repeats incredulously. “Lai, it’s me! Cade!”
She blinks, absolutely floored. “…Cade?”
“Well, actually they’ve started calling me ‘Les’ now, but yeah, it’s me.” He grins. “Talk about a facelift, am I right?”
“I’ll say!” Both of them are laughing now, sitting up in bed. “But seriously, you look great! Does Ema know about this?”
“Well, she knew I was getting stage two mods, but I didn’t tell her that they would be this drastic. I didn’t even know what I’d look like when it was over; Lady T just said that I’d look ‘more leader-like,’ whatever that means. I was out for about five hours.” He runs a hand across his jaw gingerly. “I had my face restructured, my muscle bulk increased, and my height increased by two inches. How about you?”
Lai shrugs absently, still absorbed in scouring Cade’s new facial features. Now that she knows who he is, she feels stupid for not realizing it earlier. The planes of his cheeks may be strong and apparent now, and his formerly lanky body might be padded with lean muscles, but the eyes and hair are still most definitely his…as are his mannerisms of holding himself and speaking (though his voice has been deepened slightly, too). She finally replies. “They didn’t do much to me, just some sort of electrical thing that’s supposed to ‘unlock my potential for increased strength and speed.’”
“Did they make you taller?”
“Hmm.” Cade purses his lips. “That’s…odd.”
“Not really. Lady T said that she wanted me to stay this size so that I could be her secret weapon.”
“It’s not that. This whole business has gotten me thinking, that’s all.” Cade’s dark eyebrows furrow as he attempts to organize his thoughts. “You have a size defect…and that’s why you can’t do real Land and Air Inspector work, which you always complain about. But I wonder why you never got modifications so that you could do what you were supposed to?”
Surprisingly enough, Lai already knows the answer to this question.
“There’s only so much you can do to an imp that’s already been commissioned,” she recites carefully. “At a certain point, mods become dangerous. Adding more than three inches to a preexisting imp’s height can cause paralysis, and too many facial restructurings can lead to permanent deformities. I read about it a while ago.”
“That’s horrible.” Cade shakes his head. “And that’s why you’ve stayed the way you are?”
“Pretty much, yes. I guess if I wanted to, I could splurge and becomethree whole inches taller– but what’s the point? I’d still be too small to meet the Imp Welfare Union’s standards. And despite what I might say sometimes, I really don’t mind being short.”
He smirks. “I’m going to remember that the next time you start whining about it.”
Lai drums her fingers against the mattress impatiently. Her muscles are twitching slightly, as if filled with a new energy that is desperate to be expended. “So, Cade, when exactly are they going to let us out of here?”
“I think Felix has to come and clear you before you can get up. Then you have to wait for the shuttle groundcraft to come pick you up and take you home.”
She spots the frazzled Felix out of the corner of her eye, being dragged around to different patients, and she flops back down on her glorified cot with a groan. These are her first moments of being a Uniter, in both mind and body, and yet she can’t even leave the room.
“Well, he’d better hurry up,” she grumbles. “The ILG’s not about to wait.”