The Lido Deck is constructed in a common modern style known as “stereotypical future”: all sloping curves and circular motifs, with furniture that appears to be hovering or impossibly suspended, trying to make guests believe that they have stepped into cheery days yet to come. Raised in the center of the deck is a swimming pool shaped like a warped bubble, and the guests floating or splashing around inside it are vividly clear through the gleaming glastic sides and water like melted crystal. Nearby, a few older humans in bathing suits are reclining in silvery beach chairs, tanning beneath the light bulbs of artificial suns. Jutting out over this pleasant scene is a large platform containing a cabana-themed restaurant and bar, where factions A, B, and C of Uniter Squadron 3 have reunited for dinner and a meeting.
Lai sits at a small beside Les and Ema, the other two leaders, and everyone is gazing at her attentively, but she’s too frustrated and pensive to bask in their adulation. She beats her heels against the legs of her chair, anxious for the serious discussions to get underway. The other Uniters seem to be taking an agonizingly long time to send their check-in text feeds so that attendance can be taken. She’s about ready to snap at them to hurry up, although that seems like it might be slight abuse of her leadership position.
Alec, who is sitting on her other side, taps her hand lightly. “Is something the matter, Lai?” he inquires. “You appear to be quite tense.”
She exhales huffily. “I’m fine. Something kind of weird happened to me, is all. I guess I’m more annoyed than anything.”
“I see. And what exactly has occurred…?”
“Well…I’ll explain once we get this meeting started. It involves everyone, I think.” Her eyes sweep across the restaurant, and she scowls upon seeing how many Uniters are still fumbling with their comms, or entering the contact number of the attendance feed as if they have all the time in the world. “Ugh, could these guys take any longer?!”
One side of Alec’s mouth inches up into a half smile. “Patience, Lai. Our caucus shall begin all in good time.”
A waitress stops by then to ask for their orders. Ema, Les, and Lai, being no great fans of human food, put in requests for small protein shakes so that they won’t be kicked out of the restaurant. Alec, being unable to partake in any nourishment whatsoever, remains silent.
Ema consults her comm screen, then announces, “Okay, I think that’s everyone. Fortunately, nobody went missing in transit.” Her hand lifts to her ear clip, and she clears her throat and proclaims, “The meeting is now starting.”
The chattering of the other imps tapers off, and since they’re occupying almost the entire restaurant, an eerie silence drops over the room.
“As you know, this is a mission of the utmost importance,” Ema begins. Lai can hear her both normally and through her em-comm, creating an odd double effect with her friend’s voice. “Orbital 9 has a lot of distractions to offer, but we have to avoid those at all costs. We’ve got two weeks to try and find the location of Pandora Amity. I think that some of us should start questioning the Amitys first thing tomorrow morning, maybe even tonight, if possible – ”
“I’ve questioned one of them already,” interrupts Lai, one finger poised tensely on her ear clip.
Incredulous murmurs infiltrate her em-comm.
Ema sends the younger girl a sharp look. “Youhave?”
“Yes. It was an accident, kind of. I didn’t go looking for him…”
“What happened?” asks someone excitedly.
“Well…” Lai gnaws at her lower lip a bit. “I was in the music lounge by myself, playing on the keyboard, minding my own business. Then I heard someone behind me, and it just so happened to be Mr. Lionel Amity. I don’t know what he was doing there.”
“And you questioned himalready?” demands Les. “You were supposed to wait!”
Lai rolls her eyes. “Relax. As I was saying, I saw him over there, and I said something like, ‘Hey, I know you!’ Something like that, just because I was surprised that I recognized him. But then he started acting really weird, looking at me like I was a big terrible monster or something.”
“Probably because you were questioning him out of nowhere about his daughter,” interjects Ema pointedly.
“No, even before that. He looked like he was expecting me to pull out a gun and shoot him. I just told him,politely, that I wanted to ask him a few questions. And he told me that someone else had already been asking him questions about his daughter last night. Sounds like a member of the ILG, if you ask me.”
Les mutters an oath under his breath. Ema asks, “Did you ask Mr. Amity what that man looked like?”
“Yes, I did,” answers Lai proudly, and she repeats the physical description that she was given earlier.
“Well, that doesn’t tell us much,” says Les unhappily. “It could be anybody.”
“He didn’t really say anything to the ILG agent,” Lai continues. “But hereallydidn’t say anything to me. I tried to explain to him about Pandora being important and the ILG going after her and stuff, but he freaked out and claimed that he couldn’t help us and he didn’t know where his daughter was. He was lying, though. I could tell.”
“Very intriguing,” muses Alec. “Miss Pandora is becoming more and more mysterious by the minute.”
Lai shrugs, her eyes roaming restlessly around the restaurant. At a table shoved into a far corner, one that’s not occupied by any of the one hundred members of Squadron 3, a diner senses her roving gaze and peeks over the top of his menu at her. She turns away quickly.
“I still don’t think that it was a good idea for you to go interrogating Mr. Amity like that, Lai,” Ema is saying crossly. “We need to have a little more…subtlety…in on our endeavor.”
“Uh-huh,” murmurs Lai absently. It seems to her that, all of a sudden, there seem to be many unfamiliar customers surrounding them, when she could have sworn that a few minutes ago there were only three or four. All of these newcomers are staring flatly at the gathering of Uniters. No two of them look alike; they have different skin colors, hair colors, and eye colors, all blended together in a perfect blend of perfect faces.
“Oh, crap!” hisses Lai.
Everyone sitting around her looks at her in surprise. Ema raises an eyebrow. “What was that, Lai?”
“Stop talking,” commands Lai, keeping her voice barely above a whisper. “And for future reference, let’s never have one of these meetings in an open area again!”
Alec is the first one to understand. “Where are they?” he demands quietly, his hand moving methodically towards the electric trigger hidden in his pocket.
“All around us.” She doesn’t dare point, so she flicks her eyes over her shoulder to draw his attention to the faces still staring at them. “There’s a whole bunch, now. No one else in here but us and them…”
“Are yousure?” whispers Ema, her hazel eyes growing large and round. “Are you absolutelycertainthat it’s them?”
“They’re all imps, and they’re all staring at us like we’re the enemy. I don’t know who else they could be.”
Shock and fright prickle across the group, and Lai clenches her hands tightly. Can’t they see that they’re broadcasting their realization for the ILG’s viewing pleasure? “Everyone, juststay calm,” she insists over her em-comm.
“Lai is right,” agrees Les. “I want everyone to get out of here now. Act nonchalant, and donotactivate your armor unless otherwise instructed to do so. No – not all at once! Just Faction A, you go first…”
The imps in Faction A rise uneasily, all thirty-five of them unsuccessfully attempting to act as if they’ve just finished a meal and are now casually heading back to their cabins. Lai doesn’t believe the charade for a minute, and apparently neither do the ILG members, because in less than a minute they’ve positioned themselves in front of every possible exit. The Uniters are trapped.
Or at least they would be, if they weren’t prepared.
“Hold it right there!” proclaims Lai, lifting herself to stand atop the seat of her chair. At the same time, her hand plunges into the pocket of her dress and activates an electronic sensor. Her clothing seems to quiver, shifting from synthetic wool to sleek black chainmail, and creeping to cover her entirely from her neck down to her toes like strands of possessed ivy in a horror flick. She stands indignantly before the Imps Liberation Group in her full Uniter uniform, glaring at them coolly.
Les and Ema seem uncertain, but after a quick moment of thought, they acknowledge that they have no other choice. “Suit up, everyone,” orders Ema, and her words have the same effect as a stone tossed into a puddle of oil, sending blackness rippling across the crowd of Uniters.
The ILG agents exchange wary glances with one another. They don’t appear to have any armor electrically triggered to their own clothes, or even weapons with them. But a deep, rumbling voice soothes them as it says, “Don’t worry, everyone. I have a feeling that we’ll be able to sort this out very quickly.”
Every head in the restaurant, Uniter and ILG member alike, turns to face a tall, strong imp with flat-topped blonde hair and hazel eyes so light that they’re almost golden. Lai stiffens when her eyes land on him. Much like Lionel Amity, she’s never seen him before, but his face is recognizable from the scores of digital images that she was shown during her training period. She knows who he is, how he’s contributed to this conflict, and even where he used to work.
And she knows that his name is Ule, and he’s the leader of the Imps Liberation Group.