Things were different here.
The Amity division was more dilapidated than she remembered, decaying and destroyed instead of just stagnant and dusty. Yet it was rebuilding itself even as she walked through the halls. The lights came on, and they were too glaringly bright for comfort, turning everything into an indistinct blur of gilded metal and polished mahogany.
She suspected that she was not herself, and yet this role that she was playing seemed strangely fitting, as if she had stepped into another person’s shoes and inherited their life. Whoever she might be, she walked herself into the kitchen, where she sat down at the table and ate. Only she wasn’t really eating. She was repeating the motion of lifting her fork from the plate to her mouth, but there was no food, just empty air.
And then a hand wrapped around her face and poked two small, round objects into her mouth. She felt them tumble into her throat without resistance.
And then she was lying down, and someone was shining a bright light into her eyes. A commanding voice was barking out orders, but she couldn’t make sense of the words.
And then spidery silver lightning dropped down in front of her, splitting her vision into so many shards of broken glass…
That’s when Lai opens her eyes.
Alec does not sleep – not in the human sense of the word, anyway. Every so often his body will begin to chide low battery warnings at him, and he will enter a mode of dormancy while going through a wireless recharge. But this is only necessary every few nights. On the evening before Squadron 3’s departure to Orbital 9, he finds even relaxation impossible, and he spends the hours of darkness thinking in solitude.
The thought of returning to an orbital after so many years presents him with a frontier where promise coincides with dread. He wonders what he can do to prevent the passengers from taking notice of him, even considering if he should requisition a holographic patch for his bad eye. But that seems needlessly wasteful, and besides, it would be putting his insecurity on display for those who already know him. And he cannot permit himself to have such an obvious weakness.
The prospect of searching for a nimp is intriguing, as well. While it is a notion that he has never really entertained before, the existential conflicts of a human/imp hybrid now seem rather fascinating. Once the Uniters manage to extract the location of Pandora Amity from her parents, they will be confronted with the task of meeting the girl, and who knows what she will be like. Will she understand who or what she is? Perhaps she will feel like an outcast, in outlier in the communities of both humans and imps, much like Alec…
Shuffling steps interrupt his train of thought, followed by the loud slam of a door. That would be someone going out onto the division’s balcony; the old-fashioned glastic doors leading to the veranda are the only ones capable of being slammed. He draws his internal clock over his vision so that he can glance at it and sees that it’s just past two thirty in the morning. Who here would be going outside now, when the sky is dark and starless and the wind is bitterly cold?
Even before he finishes asking the question, he knows the answer.
His footsteps are nearly soundless and he leaves his room, and not even theclick-clickof the latches on the terrace’s double doors coaxes Lai to turn around as he steps outside.
She is wearing a white camisole and a pair of black sleep shorts that are significantly less modest than her daytime clothes. Much of her skin is exposed to the frigid temperatures of this crisp morning of December first, and he is sure that the red coat thrown haphazardly over her shoulders is doing little to preserve her body heat. She is glaring at the horizon as if the world is responsible for some great insult to her pride. Tense, harsh breaths hiss between her teeth.
“You are upset,” he states.
She doesn’t move. “I’m not upset, I’m agitated,” she corrects snappishly. “And I’ve been this way for days. God!” Her breath boils out in front of her like a surly cloud. “I have no idea why. Sometimes I feel like I’m afraid, but…that’s one thing I can’t stand, irrational fear.”
“Perhaps you should speak to Ema about this,” suggests Alec.
“Ema wouldn’t get it. She already thinks that something’s wrong with me. She and Felix were tossing around the idea that I have a personality disorder.” She snorts, and condensed air plays around her nostrils. “Times like this, I wonder if she’s not on to something.”
“You say that you have felt like this for several days?” He frowns. “I have noticed no great change in your demeanor.”
“During the day, it’s not so bad. It’s normal, even. But then it gets to be a certain time of night, and…” She shakes her head. “Butyoudon’t want to hear about this.”
“On the contrary, I may be able to inject a bit of logic into the situation.” He approaches her, lightly straightening the coat around her shoulders. “Am I correct in assuming that you have been affected by the occurrences at the Amity division?”
She nods. “It’s really starting to freak me out. When we were in the bedroom, I just sort of…sawwhere that doll was. I can’t explain it. And now I’ve been seeing other things, too. Sometimes it’s people, sometimes it’s blurry stuff. I have dreams, not really nightmares, just uncomfortable dreams.” A shiver spreads through her, and she rubs her arms vigorously, gathering friction. “It doesn’t seem to make sense.”
“It is a puzzle,” Alec agrees. “But every occurrence has a reason behind it. I am sure that there is a simple explanation for your plight.”
“I’m not imagining it, you know. Or making it up.”
“I did not say that you were.”
“But I bet you were thinking it.” She eyes him somberly. “Just like you think that I like living in a fantasy world and being the center of attention.”
“Regardless of what I may think of you, there is concrete evidence to suggest external stimuli beyond your control. I have witnessed it with my own eyes…or eye, rather…when we were searching Division 3023.”
“I could have faked that,” she points out, studying his face carefully.
He shakes his head. “Highly unlikely. What were your means? What could be your motive? And your reaction was genuine; we have been acquainted long enough for me to ascertain that.”
Lai still appears to be suspicious. Her mouth his tight, her eyebrows pulled taut over her wary blue eyes.
“I have said that I believe you,” he insists softly. “And I do not endorse falsehoods. Is this not good enough for you, Lai?”
She blinks. “Hey. You didn’t call me ‘Lai-unit’ for once.”
“No…I suppose I did not.” A gust of wind loosens a strand of his hair, and it escapes from his usual slicked-back style, tumbling over his forehead. Somehow this makes him look more connectable, more human, a touch of imperfection to question his steely exterior. Lai’s eyes soften slightly.
Suddenly, he has an idea. “I will put this into terms that you are more comfortable with. You will tell me the exact nature of what has been bothering you so that we may try to discern a solution, and in return, I will reveal to you another fact about myself.”
The corner of her lip twitches upwards. “You first.”
“Fine.” His operational eye lifts to the night sky, a green eye that seems too vibrant in color to belong to someone like him. “I possess a tendency to consider people as objects rather than as individuals. As ‘units,’ if you will. That is why I have called you ‘Lai-unit’ for so long. You were not an individual to me. Not an asset to the community, and so not equal to a human or an imp.”
“Gee, thanks,” she snaps, miffed.
He holds up a gloved hand. “Allow me to finish, if you please. With many if not most people, I am never in a position to familiarize myself with them. But occasionally, I am able to see beyond the exterior that a person presents. Perhaps you understand what I mean, that there is both an inner and an outer nature to people.”
Lai bobs her head in a nod.
“Recently, I believe that I have seen your inner nature for the first time. It is surprising, as we have been collaboratively owned by Dr. Mansen for ten years. But you have revealed a facet of yourself that I was certain did not exist. There is a drive to you now, a passion for the greater good. It is a refreshing change, and that is why you are no longer a unit.”
She snickers a little. “Has anyone ever told you that you talk just like an old book?”
“Negative, but who apart from you would have read an old book to compare me to?”
“I guess no one.” She smiles, but her face is still unusually drawn and serious. “If you really care about what’s bothering me…well, I have a theory, but you might not believe it.”
“This is going to be a weird question.” Storm clouds dance around her lips as she exhales roughly. “Do you believe in past lives?”
Alec shrugs. “It is an abstract concept, but not entirely impossible, I suppose.”
“I read about it, but I never really gave it much thought until now. Do you think that maybe, possibly…I could have known the Amitys in a past life?”
He opens his mouth to respond – then pauses abruptly, frozen in consideration.
“Maybe I was a friend of theirs or something…? It sounds crazy, even to me, but I can’t think of any better explanation.”
“I believe I may have just thought of one.” Alec rests one fingertip on his chin. “One that is less outlandish, but not so far removed from your theory as you might think. You may be a recycled imp.”
Lai frowns. “Arecycled imp? I’ve never heard of that.”
“It is not common knowledge. Occasionally, an imp’s owner may perish without adding an ownership clause to their will, or they will disown the imp for one reason or another. When this occurs, the imp may be reformatted and have aspects of its appearance changed. It then has its memory erased and is assigned to another line of work where it is needed.”
Her mouth drops open slowly. “The memory is erased?” she repeats. “You mean, if that happened, the imp wouldn’tknow?”
“Correct. But the memory erasing procedure is a fickle thing. Fragments of the former life often remain embedded within the subconscious, to reveal themselves when certain triggers become present. The case file of Lionel and Loretta Amity specifies that they employed a staff of nursemaid imps in order to care for their invalid daughter. Once they departed for Orbital 9, it is possible that said imps were…” He trails off.
“…oh, wow,” gasps Lai. “Oh, wow!”
“It is only a theory,” Alec reminds her. “Not yet proven or disproven.”
“But it makes sense!” she declares. “Think about it. If that was true, I wouldn’t really have a size defect – I just wasn’t made to be a Land and Air Inspector! And maybe that’s always why I’ve found my work boring, because that’s not what I was designed to do! And it explains all the memories, and the dreams. I could have actually known Pandora…”
He can see her hackles beginning to descend as cool, concise logic flushes way the frenzied unreality that she has been coping with. Nothing is known yet, but Alec contemplates her points and has to agree that they do make sense. However, his only response is, “We will discuss it further in the morning. For now, come back inside. Even if you are not planning to return to sleep, you may fall ill in these temperatures.”
“Imps don’t get sick,” she says dismissively. “Not even potentially recycled ones.”
“Not easily, but it is possible.” He ushers her inside. “And you must be running at top efficiency for our departure to Orbital 9 tomorrow morning.”
Lai nods. “Good thing, too. Hopefully I’ll find some real answers there…”