37. A Game of Chess
Alec’s hand clenches into a fist around the trigger in his pocket. The effect is immediate. Electrical impulses play across the surface of his skin, slightly jarring to his internal mechanics; he blinks slightly as a haze of static infiltrates his good eye. When his vision is once again clear, his normal white suit has transformed into the black uniform of the Uniters.
The technology used in this conversion is unfamiliar to him, and when he was given his reprogrammed uniform for the first time, he wondered if it was developed by Lady T and her team. It’s made out of some incredibly versatile fabric, one that can perfectly mimic the appearance and texture of normal clothing, yet able to become nothing short of armor at the push of a button. Now he and his comrades really do have an atmosphere of togetherness about them. All of them are serious, all of them poised on high alert for their first encounter with the ILG.
Ule strides calmly to the front of his group, like a commanding general from wars of old. “Wait,” he commands, holding up one blocky hand to still the advancing Uniters. “I don’t want to fight you people. Let’s just see if we can settle our differences peacefully.”
“Yeah, just like you settled your differences peacefully in Settlement 211,” spits Lai.
Ule’s face contorts into a dark scowl. “Don’t start talking about matters you know nothing about, little girl.”
Her eyes widen, and her muscles coil as she prepares to spring forward, but Alec clamps a hand around her arm. From her perch atop the chair, she is now slightly elevated above him. “Lai,” he hisses. “Control yourself.”
She glowers at him. He can see the adrenaline that must be fueling the gears in her brain, urging her into a bloodthirsty rage and wanting her to use her newfound skills in a true battle. But that would be a great risk, and possibly an unnecessary one. So he mutters, “You are the leader of a faction now, and by definition you are no longer required to heed my advice. But I implore you to listen not to me, but toyourleader. Lady T has explicitly instructed us to avoid any violence that can be prevented.”
Lai grits her teeth in frustration, but mercifully, she stays put.
Ema intervenes, stepping forward to face Ule. “We don’t want to fight you, either,” she announces. “But it appears that we have no choice in the matter. We can’t allow an imp supremacy movement to run rampant.”
“Imp supremacy movement?” repeats Ule incredulously, as if he’s never heard of such a thing before. The soldiers behind him also mutter to one another in confusion. He squints at Ema’s face, then seems to come to a realization. “Do you…do you recognize me, Dr. Ema?”
“I recognize you as the leader of the Imps Liberation Group,” answers Ema fiercely. “We’ve never met before, but I still know who you are.”
“Who am I, then?” he asks.
“You’re under arrest by mandate of the World Government,” she retorts unflinchingly. “And if you don’t come quietly, the Uniters and I are authorized to use force.”
“Uniters? Is that what you call yourselves?” He frowns as he looks over the opposing army. “How apt. Well, Dr. Ema, let me tell you this: I am not here to harm this orbital, or any of its inhabitants. My followers and I are only looking for something.”
“You’re looking for something you can’t have!” declares Lai from on top of the chair. “Besides, what you did is illegal. We’re not just going to let you quietly leave and mind your own business!”
Ule turns to his fighters and wraps his mouth around inaudible words, but Alec is able to read his lips. He’s saying, “Retreat at the first possible chance. Wait for my order.”
Alec lifts his hand to his ear clip. “They are planning to escape,” he murmurs.
Lai nods almost imperceptibly, not even glancing down at him.
“We’ll give you one more chance to come quietly,” Les speaks up. “Or else wewillfight you.”
Alec knows that expecting the ILG to surrender themselves so willingly is foolish. Surely Les is aware of this as well, and is only giving them the benefit of the doubt in accordance with his orders from Lady T. Of course, provoking a battle with a force that has successfully taken over a settlement may also not be the wisest choice, but there are one hundred Uniters present and only about fifteen ILG agents, twenty maximum. They don’t even seem to be armed. This fight should be over quickly.
“I’m afraid that ‘coming quietly’ is simply not an option,” says Ule in an almost mournful tone of voice.
“Then we’ll make the decision for you,” declares Lai.
Recognizing this as a cue, and conscious of their greater numbers and skill, the Uniters surge forward en masse. Ule barks out an order that is swallowed up by the thundering sound of so many metal-clad feet charging towards their targets. Some of the ILG soldiers manage to slip through the doors, though not without being pursued. Others are immediately snatched up and restrained. Across the crowd, concealed handguns and stunners glint like silver sparks as they are revealed and brandished.
“Remember, don’t shoot to kill!” Ema practically screams. Her frantic words are muddled into a high-pitched shriek in Alec’s em-comm. He’s lingering on the fringes of the attack, not so eager to throw himself into the fray until he can devise a proper, logical strategy. Conditions are quickly becoming chaotic. Chefs and servers peek out from inside the kitchen and behind the bar, their jaws dropping when they see the source of the commotion. If the Uniters don’t start organizing themselves right now, they’ll be finding that victory will have some dire repercussions.
Nearby, someone else is also biding her time. Lai’s pale blue eyes track the frenzied movements of the fight. She watches as the warriors that she leads in part subdue most of the ILG members, and her face is apathetic and calculating as she does so, undoubtedly reflecting the state of her mind. She glances down at him and says, “It can’t be this easy.”
“I am not quite sure what you mean.”
“Why would the ILG block our exit and challenge us if there’s so few of them, and they don’t even have weapons? It doesn’t make any sense.”
In response, Alec turns to look over his shoulder. The table that he and Lai were sitting at is close to the edge of the restaurant’s overhanging terrace, separated from the Lido Deck below by nothing more than a sturdy metal banister. Now, peering over the edge, he can spot several figures swathed in pale fabrics, their faces upturned towards the battle with expressions of rapt concentration rather than shock. Hard helmets turn their heads boxy and solid, and their eyes are concealed behind tinted visors.
Black against white, he can’t help but think at the sight of their uniforms.How appropriate.
He points a gloved finger down in their direction. “It appears that they have come prepared with reinforcements.”
“Damn!” swears Lai, and her hand claps over her ear. “Guys, there’s more of them! I want my faction to stay up here and make sure that the ones we’ve arrested don’t escape. Everybody else, we have to get down to the Lido Deck – but be careful! The agents down there are armed!”
“Second that,” contributes Les, from somewhere on the other side of the restaurant. “I’ve got a clear view of the enemies below. Faction A, go after them!”
“You’re sure?” comes Ema’s voice. “In that case, I think it should be Faction B and me who should stay up here and make sure everything’s secure. Faction C, go with Lai. I’m sure she could use you.”
Alec isn’t so certain of that. Lai has become a separate creature now, disconnected from the bulky entity of the Uniters. Her unconcerned face broadcasts that she could care less about whether or not the rest of the team is operating with her. She steps from the chair to the banister and balances there on her heels for a moment, not wobbling in the slightest, her expertise honed by all that time spent pacing on the practice beam. Then she bends her knees and pushes herself off into the air, making up in purposefulness whatever she lacks in grace, like a bat swooping into flight.
He finds himself curiously mesmerized as he watches her using handholds on the platform to slow her descent, until she lands agilely on her feet in the midst of a cluster of ILG members. They all rear back, squinting at her suspiciously. Then he becomes aware that the Uniters are all thumping down the emergency stairs towards the Lido Deck, ignoring the elevator, and as a member of Faction C it would only be proper for him to accompany them.
He lags at the back, trying to avoid the discomfort that will surely arise if he gets into the thick of things and feels all those unfamiliar bodies pressing in around him. It is at times like this that he feels more inhuman than ever, and he can only futilely wish that his metallic core would construct physical boundaries around him in addition to mental ones. The lack of organization is driving him mad. War isn’t an organized affair, of course; long gone are the days when combatants would align themselves in neat rows like tin soldiers, marching forwards in perfect tandem to fire their muskets and spear adversaries with bayonets. But in this moment of crisis, the Uniters seem to have thrown most of their training to the winds, charging out in random flurries of fists and feet when they should really be acting more cautious and precise than ever before.
He bounds into the Lido Deck, skidding to a halt as he tries to decide where he is most needed. The fight has been reduced to nothing more than a chaotic flurry of activity. There aren’t so many reinforcement ILG soldiers, he realizes, perhaps thirty or less. And while they’re armed, he can tell that they weren’t preparing for a full-scale attack. The aggression of the Uniters has caught them off-guard.
Odd, he reflects in puzzlement.What in the world could be their strategy, then? Did they believe that we would not dare to oppose them?
Not so far away, Lai is facing down Ule, who is standing his ground even as the rest of his army flees around him. She lands a harsh blow to his stomach while he’s distracted, then knocks her armored foot against his unprotected ankle to get him on the floor. A fist to the chin is the last assault needed to make him drop down on one knee, doubling over. She leans over him, pointing her fully charged stunner at his forehead.
“Not so little now, am I?” she sneers.
“You know what you’re doing, I’ll give you that,” he gasps, his eyes barely lifting him to meet her. “You have a lot of potential. So why are you fighting for the wrong side?”
“I should be asking you the same thing!” she shoots back.
Ule shakes his head slowly, almost mournfully. “I told you that I didn’t want to fight you,” he sighs, and suddenly he springs up without warning, knocking her to the ground with a blunt hit from his elbow. Lai releases a slight, startled cry and stumbles back, giving him just enough time to race for the exit. His movements are enhanced with a speed and litheness unusual in a man of his size. He’s one of the last ILG members to escape.
Alec’s single eye blinks as he realizes that the battle is over. He hardly even had the chance to do anything.
“What are you doing?” shrieks a terrified voice, and he swivels to face an adult human woman who, judging by her bright red swimsuit, was the active lifeguard on duty. She is standing back several generous feet from the panting and still-stunned Uniters. Behind her, the other human passengers have accumulated into a frightened, huddled group. There are children there, and young adolescents, and senior citizens as well. All of them are trembling and gaping at the clash that they have apparently just witnessed.
“We’ve got some explaining to do,” mutters Les in Alec’s em-comm.
Alec figures that he is probably not the ideal figure to do that explaining, as he is now noticing several fingers in the crowd being jabbed in his direction. He catches himself nearly raising his hand to cover his broken eye. Imps on an orbital may be somewhat acceptable now, but androids…well, his presence here is violating an unspoken taboo, to say the least.
Wordlessly, he crosses to the area of the deck where Lai has fallen to her haunches. “Are you all right?” he asks softly, extending his hand towards her.
She wrinkles her nose and stands without his assistance. “Yeah, I’m fine. That was a pretty big letdown, though.”
“It was a great mass of confusion,” he agrees. “We shall have some difficulty attempting to rationalize it to the orbital authorities.”
Lai’s eyes scan the group of humans as parents try to comfort their children, while more logical thinkers fumble in beach bags and purses for their comms so that they can dial emergency numbers. “And it looks like we’re not going to have much time to figure it out,” she notes, stuffing her hand into a pressure-release pocket in her uniform and toggling the electric trigger. The armor ripples and shrinks, and soon enough she is once again clad in her normal clothes.
“Indeed.” If he was able to sigh wearily, he would have.
She turns to him, her eyes sharp and inquisitive. “Alec, why are those people staring at you like that?”
He starts. “Whatever do you mean?”
“They’re looking at you like you’re a monster or something.”
Alec’s gaze lowers. She has seen the people beginning to recognize him, now; he won’t be able to conceal the truth for much longer.
“I shall tell you, Lai,” he states softly, “but not now.”