24. This is Just a Game
The practice beam is a long, narrow rod suspended six feet above the turn of the Arena. It’s used for teaching Uniters to maximize their balance in “tight spots,” although Alec can’t think of very many situations in the real world that can be represented by a glorified balance beam. He can walk all the way across it without much difficulty, although he does have to keep his arms thrust out perpendicular to his body in order to remain steady.
This is not a problem for Lai.
He watches as she paces back and forth, not for any real purpose, but simply to announce to everyone how much she excels at it. Her arms are behind her back, or folded across her chest, or resting on her hips (she has been up there for a while now and seems to be getting bored). Her armored feet pad along lightly, their heels and toes connecting in an endless chain that she doesn’t even bother to look at. When he finally grows tired of watching her tread along, he calls up to her, “I see that you are being very productive, Lai-unit.”
She doesn’t glance toward him, or even stop walking. “I don’t need to be productive,” she retorts. “We’re on break. Now, go away.”
Ignoring her customary lack of tact, he answers, “We are all well aware that your sense of balance is superb – there is no need for you to exploit yourself.”
“I’m trying to think!” Her eyes flash at him in irritation. “I don’t care if people see me up here or not.”
“Do you often choose to concentrate while walking six feet above the ground?”
“Sure. It makes me feel taller.”
He observes her for a while longer as she continues her tireless repetitions. Her eyes are unfocused, scanning the lush foliage of her thoughts instead of taking in the monotonous scenery. Sometimes she’ll halt in her tracks, as if confronted with an invisible barrier that she is unable to pass through, before resuming her walk as if nothing had ever interrupted her.
Several more minutes have passed before he speaks again. “How exactly do you create the illusion that you are maintaining such effortless balance?”
She smirks. “It’s no illusion. I could tell you what I’m doing, but you know the drill…what’s in it for me?”
“This again?” But Alec is unable to make himself sound too cross, since he has admittedly come to expect this. It’s a sort of ritual that has developed over the past week, a game that Lai delights in playing with him.You tell me something about yourself, and I’ll tell you what the name of that kick was, or how to somersault like that.He allows himself to play along. She thinks that she is being so clever, never realizing that he is purposely feeding her disjointed fragments of information in order to keep her in the dark. His story is complicated enough that she would have to carry on like this for years before she could actually piece anything together.
“Fair enough,” he concedes, and she leans toward him eagerly. “I was given my empathetic software by Pythagoras Mansen.”
“Hmm.” She considers it. “Empathetic software…so you mean, he gave you emotions?”
“That is an extremely simplified means of describing it. Emotions are not a tangible commodity; they are sensations and impulses delivered by either a series of chemical impulses in an organic brain, or the output of a computer program in an inorganic one.”
“But either way, that means that you didn’t have emotions before and you do now, right?”
“Affirmative. I now possess some semblance of sentiency, though I am…restricted in some respects. I am forever condemned to be a sufferer of limited affect, you might say.”
He stares up at her somberly. “You have more than exhausted your quotient of inquiries. Now you must answer me.”
“Killjoy,” remarks Lai lazily, resuming her pacing. “So you want to know how to balance? It’s all in the feet. Spreading your weight between your heels and toes.” She snickers. “Of course, not being made of metal helps, too.”
Alec’s mouth pulls downwards into a scowl. Why is it that everyone feels the need to constantly remind him that he is an android? It’s not as if he walks around every day chastising other people for being based in carbon instead of alloys.
“It’s in the mind, too,” adds Lai.
“What is in the mind?” he frowns. “Balance is a combination of certain physical skills. There is nothing mental about it.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” she declares. “Imagine if this beam was on the ground. You’d be able to walk across it without any trouble, and you wouldn’t even have to touch the floor. But stick it a few feet in the air, and suddenly everybody’s wobbling.”
“That can still be explained by a combination of physical phenomena Such as, for example, gravity.”
Lai stops, spins herself so that her body is parallel to the practice beam, and somersaults into the air. She touches down before him, landing on her haunches so as to absorb the shock of the impact. Her eyes spark at him from behind their short curtain of charcoal-colored bangs as she stands up slowly.
“I don’t feel any more gravity than usual up there,” she says.
“Then perhaps you are accustomed to feeling as if you are above everyone else,” he responds coolly.
She snorts. “Your problems with me never end, do they? First I’m immature and irresponsible, and now I’m a narcissist. Well, let me tell you something. I like to spend more time in my own little world than I do in this one. It’s not that I think I’m better than everything in real life, or even that I don’t care about it. It’s just that up until now…I’ve never found it to be veryinteresting.”
They are both interrupted by a clicking from the em-comms nestled against their eardrums. Alec’s hand rises to his ear clip, funneling the sound of the little emergency communicator inside, as the voice of Les begins to speak.
“Will Squadron 3 please report to our usual meeting place? I have an assignment for you…all of you. I’ve just received our first mission.”
“Mission?” Alec murmurs incredulously. “Not possible. It has only been a week!”
Lai’s face is filled with slowly dawning sensations that pass across her face in slow, obvious drifts. Surprise, confirmation, anticipation, and finally something like glee.
“Of course it’s only been a week!” She grins, bouncing on her heels. “What, did you think the ILG was going to wait for us? It’s finally time to get in on the action!”
With that, she hurries off, leaving him still stunned and standing there.