29. Too Many Questions
Beyond the reach of the outer atmosphere and ignorant of the uninvited visitors to his former home, Lionel Amity is seated at the kitchen table in his cabin on Orbital 9, staring unflinchingly at the man sitting across from him. If itisa man, that is. He’s a part of the large group of new arrivals that was transported from on-planet yesterday, and Lionel knew as soon as he saw them that these were not exactly normal people. The size of the gathering wasn’t all that unusual; Orbital 9 gets plenty of business trips and family reunions. But most offices and families aren’t only comprised of perfect-bodied, pretty-faced people with an air of manufactured uniformity about them, and Lionel could guess who – or rather, what – they were. He hasn’t been around imps much in the past ten years or so, but he knows from past experience that they are always beautiful.
His guest tonight is certainly quite handsome to look at. He has strong features, with a chiseled nose and cheekbones; fair, flat-topped hair lies against his high forehead. His eyes are continuously bright, virile and driven, even as they bore into Lionel’s world-weary ones.
The human man speaks first. “I don’t believe I caught your name.”
“I don’t believe I gave it,” answers the imp carefully. “I only want to ask you a few questions, Mr. Amity. It’s dangerous for us to become acquainted beyond that.”
“Dangerous?” repeats Lionel. “How so?”
“It involves searching for certain things that many people would rather prevent from being discovered. Searching for the truth, you might say, or something even greater. And in order to keep myself and others safe, I can’t reveal my name.”
Lionel leans back in his chair. He’s very familiar with these young people who are so certain that they’re on to something, that they’re going to change the world. He remembers being that young and serious, once. It’s a feeling he hasn’t experienced in over three decades.
“If this is so dangerous, then why are you doing it?” he asks.
The imp shrugs evenly. “We do what we must do.”
“Yeah, sure,” responds Lionel, unimpressed. Young people. They are like a foreign species to him now. They run to indulge their hungry determination until they become jaded, until they learn that there is no conspiracy and that things really are what they seem to be. To him, growing up means accepting that there is nothing grand or mysterious in the world. People like his wife, who cling to their conspiracy theories like life preservers of ignorance in a sea of knowledge, are nothing but children looking out through the eyes of adult bodies.
Thinking of his wife causes him to peer over his shoulder quickly, towards the door of the bedroom where Loretta is sleeping. She always turns in early, while his insomnia often keeps him up half the night. He should probably look into medication for it, but he has to take enough pills already just so that he can behave in an almost normal manner. He detests the idea of adding yet another prescription to the list.
“I just want to ask you a few questions,” the imp says again.
“Then ask them,” replies Lionel dully. “Go on, I don’t have all night.”
The imp draws a deep, steadying breath. “I’d be most obliged if you would tell me about your daughter.”
Lionel stiffens; his heart seizes up, and his stomach churns with writhing tendrils of acid. In that first disorienting moment, he is so desperately wishing for the robotic apathy that he has struggled to beat into submission for his entire life. Fortunately, he has quite the poker face, which remains steady as his brief second of panic passes and he is able to think clearly again.
“Daughter?” he repeats innocently. “Why, surely you must know that my wife and I have no children. I don’t have a daughter.”
“You don’t now,” corrects the imp. “But I know for a fact that you used to have one. Her name was Pandora Amity, correct?”
Lionel shrugs. “There’s lots of Amitys in the world, and ten or fifteen years ago, the name Pandora was very common. Actually, it was the second most popular girls’ name, right after Aphrodite. Do you remember that Greek mythology trend from back then?”
“I know if it.” The imp’s eyes track Lionel’s face carefully. “But I know that Pandora wasyourdaughter. And I know that she’s not dead. What happened to her?”
“Nothing happened to her. Things can’t happen to people who don’t exist. And if you’d bothered to look up any of my public records, you would have found no indication that I’ve ever had a daughter.”
“Oh?” The imp arches an eyebrow. He reaches into his pocket and withdraws a comm, which he quickly stretches out to tablet size. “Not everyone who’s ever existed has a record, Mr. Amity. Any file can be deleted, accidentally or otherwise. But if it’s a record you want, then here you go.” And he slides the comm across the table.
Lionel feels a familiar numbness creep through him as he lifts the sliver of a device. The vibrant screen, optimized for any number of bright and cheery graphics, is now displaying nothing but rows of hard, plain text. Sure enough, he finds himself confronted with the medical records of one Pandora Amity, up to and including that final, fateful operation.
Caught in his own lies…but it doesn’t frighten him, not really. So what if someone knows about Pandora? It’s virtually impossible to find her – even he doesn’t know exactly where she is. And she’s protected by the greatest security measure of all, more formidable than the strongest walls, more reliable than the most high tech alarms and tripwires.Ignorance is bliss…he distinctly remembers speaking those words, the last words to leave his mouth before he and Loretta walked out of the Institute for good.
So he looks up at the imp and states calmly, “This information doesn’t mean anything to me. You could have forged it easily, with just an ordinary word processing program.”
“It’s not a forgery!” insists the imp. “Mr. Amity, you have to trust me on this. Your cooperation is imperative!”
“Why should I trust you?” demands Lionel, rising to his feet. “I don’t know who you are or what you’re trying to do. I’ve obliged you enough just by letting you in here, and now I think that I must ask you to leave.” He points an unforgiving finger towards the door.
The imp stares at him coolly. “You don’t know where she is, do you?”
“No, I don’t. And I much prefer it that way. Now we have nothing more to discuss, do we?”
“We have plenty more to discuss,” replies the imp. “But not at this moment. I’ll be going now, Mr. Amity. Remember this conversation when you start to see things in the world becoming…odd.”
He exits with a lumbering gait. He’s a big man, tall and broad-chested, corded with muscle beneath his flawlessly smooth skin. Even after the door clamps shut behind him, Lionel imagines that there is still a broad and boxy silhouette looming just out of sight.
He shouldn’t have to go through this. All of these complications with imps and lies and Pandora is why he left Earth in the first place. Orbital 9 is supposed to be a utopia, a safe haven, connected enough to its mother planet to provide luxury and yet disconnected in a way that shelters its inhabitants. But ever since the imp ban was repealed last year, more and more reality has been leaking in, and reality is bad. Reality is abrasive. Reality has caused him nothing but grief when he’s tried to incorporate it into his lifestyle.
And tonight’s events have confronted him with reality once again. Perhaps he’ll put in a call to the pharmacy, or better yet, the Feel Good Bar. Just a single shot of Oblivion or a couple of mild narcotic pills, that’s all he needs. Not enough potency to deal his brain a crippling blow, just strong enough to abolish anxiety and soften the edges of the real world.
Because that’s the trick to surviving the real world, he’s learned. Softening the edges, blurring the lines, not letting anything stand out too much. Apathy is the finest coping medicine. Who knows, perhaps what he really needs isn’t any additional substance, but only to skip his medication for tonight…
And then life will go on, and Pandora will fade to the dull nagging at the back of his mind that she usually is. That’s just the way it is, and that’s the way that it always will be.