32. The Other Way
In the same Orbital Boarding Station, a mere few terminals away, Ema is also thinking of Les…but not in the way that she usually does.
“He’s changed,” she tried to tell Lai the other day. “I feel like ever since we joined the Uniters, he’s been…well, not conceited exactly, but something’s definitely different about him.” But Lai didn’t really seem to listen or care. She’s changed as well; she’s always been detached and introverted, but this is a new low, even for her. She hardly speaks to anyone anymore. Ema wonders if the fall is beginning, if this is the rift in their friendship that she has been anticipating for so long. But she is too preoccupied at the moment to give much thought to that.
Right now she is leading a group of thirty-three imps (including herself) through the boarding procedures that will lead them off-planet. It is a new experience for her, and the complications around their departure are a trifle nerve-wracking. At first she was certain that the orbital authorities would be suspicious of three supposed business trips making reservations for the same orbital, and arriving on the same day at around the same time. But the crowds occupying the Boarding Station have quickly eased those fears. Apparently, going into space is one of the most popular methods of spicing up corporate executive duties. And if someone does happen to grow wary and decides to comm the superiors of her imaginary company, Lady T has already established a system of feed trees that will divert and reassure anyone who noses around in the Uniters’ business.
She taps her ear clip and mutters, “Line up, everyone. We have an allotted 15 minutes to get through Security. Our spacecraft leaves in half an hour. Everyone needs to step forward, hand their boarding pass to the officer up ahead of us, and proceed to the waiting area. If you have any trouble, let me know.”
Her little group is jumpy and excitable, comparable to the children in the Boarding Station who tug at their parents’ arms and chirp, “I’ve never been on an orbital before!” They’re thinking of this as an adventure, much like Lai. But for once, Ema is more nervous than optimistic. Things have been progressing far too quickly for her liking, and now here she is, about to be thrust into direct conflict with the ILG. And not only that, but they’re under a deadline as well. Squadron 3 is only booked to remain on Orbital 9 for two weeks. This means that they have fourteen days maximum to find their nimp and hightail it home…and the ILG already has a head start.
“Feeling nervous, Dr. Ema?”
Ema jumps, her head immediately snapping towards the cool, familiar voice. Lady T has taken up stride beside the young imp woman. She adjusts her glasses calmly, starkly contrasting Ema’s tenseness.
“What? Oh…I suppose I am, a little bit…” Ema forces her lips to form a smile.
“Oh, there’s no need for that. You and your lover will be reunited soon enough. You just have to make it through the spacecraft trip without him.”
Ema shrugs uncomfortably. “I’m afraid of heights,” she admits.
“Heights are the least of your problems. At any rate, you’re far more likely to die of asphyxiation in space than you are of a fall.”
“Gee, that makes me feel better.”
“It’s a fact of life. You can’t ignore the existence of something simply because it doesn’t make you feel better. But if it’s any reassurance to you, no one has died of unnatural causes on an orbital in nearly forty years.”
Ema shakes her head to clear it, ignoring this last, pointed reference. “Lady T, are you sure that there are Imps Liberation Group members already on the orbital? Are you absolutely positive?”
Lady T hesitates. “No, I can’t be sure, at least not with one-hundred-percent-watertight-certainty. But it is highly likely that part of the ILG is on board. Perhaps even their leader, the Unit for Leadership Excellence.”
“Ule, right.” Ema nods grimly. “Say, didn’t he used to be your imp?”
“He’s been through many owners, and I was one of them, for a brief period of time. You and everyone else need to be on the alert for him. He is highly intelligent and highly persuasive, designed to make people feel privileged to be following him. He may try to spread lies throughout your group and cause unrest. As a leader in your own right, you must be aware of everything that your soldiers are saying and try to stop trouble before it starts.”
“Yes, Lady T, I will.” Ema has already read the design archives and viewed all available photos of Ule, and she knows that he is strong and confident, probably a capable fighter. If he’s a master of head games as well, then he is a very dangerous adversary indeed. The Uniters will have to rely on their superior training and government-issue weaponry to give them an advantage.
“They could have already questioned the Amitys and taken what they wanted,” she points out. “They might just be biding their time and honing in on Pandora’s location. Or worse, planning an ambush for us.”
“Yes, that is possible,” Lady T agrees. “But we don’t know anything for sure, and we won’t until you get up there. Find the Amitys, commit them to your side, and don’t get too tangled up in battles with the ILG. Remember, you’re in charge of discerning which imps on Orbital 9 may be your enemies. Use the psychologist talents of yours!”
Ema frowns. “That’s a pretty broad order. You don’t haveanyleads?”
“On the contrary, we have quite a few leads. You’ll find a list of names in your comm. But none of that is for sure. That’s the main thing you have to keep in mind: from here on out, nothing is for sure. There are no more routines, no more easy ways out. Everyone must be prepared for anything, especially you.”
Ema swallows, not liking the sound of any of this. She can only hope that her efforts will be all worthwhile when she discovers the connection between her old friend Codi and this new ILG, and when the war is finally stopped…
Sometimes she feels as if she is the only one who sees the conflict for what it really is: a horrible anomaly in the world’s peaceful state that will lead to madness if left unchecked. Even her own family isn’t immune to the bloodlust; Lai has been more belligerent than ever for these past few days, training vigorously and showing no mercy in her sparring matches. And as for Les…
As horrible as Ema feels acknowledging it, she can’t deny to herself that the imp she fell in love with was Cade, not Les. She found it charming that Cade was shy (though not necessarily timid; there is a difference) and adored his quiet determination. His penchant for beautiful things was endearing, and he was unshakably loyal and attentive, the kind of boyfriend who would stay up with her all night if the situation called for it. After her less than favorable experience with Codi, it was a refreshing change to step away from the outgoing socialite types in favor of a soft, genuine romance. She pledged her commitment to Cade, but now Cade is gone, and in his place is exactly the sort of man that she’d hoped to avoid dating: Les. Les is serious and bold and strong, determined to stomp out the ILG, always selflessly attending to his job at the head of the Uniters before anything else. He is an entirely new person.
Yes, his modifications were designed for the good of the world, and yes, his physical body is now igniting a pleasure in her that she’s barely felt before. But in all honesty, he has simply changed too much for her to be comfortable with.I’m still me on the inside, he said to her, on the morning after his stage two mods.
But I don’t think you are, Les, she tells herself unhappily.I don’t think you are.
Yet she can’t bring herself to break his heart by telling him the truth. Perhaps this is just something that she has to get used to, and her uncertainty will dissipate in time. At the very least, Les is just as supportive as Cade ever was, and she does need someone to be there for her now that she has no other choice but to enter a realm of unreality, where her psychology training will be used as an analytical super-weapon instead of as the helpful tool that it was meant to be.
She is a leader now, no matter the price. Failing her mission will mean the end of the world that she knows. So at last, she smiles at Lady T and says, “You can count on me.”
“I know I can.” Lady T doesn’t exactly smile in return, but the lines of her face reveal that she is pleased. “You’ve come very far. Dr. Ema. I truly believe that you will lead us back to peace.”
“That’s what I’m hoping for.” Ema grips the handle of her suitcase, which is packed full of enough concealed weaponry to send every alarm in the Boarding Station screaming. An adhesive barcode has been slapped across its lid, ensuring that it will remain unopened by the monitors.
The thirty-three imps of her group crowd in behind her, and she strides calmly towards the electronic turnstiles that will deposit them in Security, even though she wants nothing more than to flee and blindly run the other way. She is willingly handing herself to the mission and abandoning Earth, going towards insanity and away from normality.
But Ema keeps walking, and she doesn’t look back once.
After all, who is better for the job of combating insanity than an Emotional and Mental Associate?