38. In Too Deep
As the Uniters and the Imps Liberation Group confront one another for the first time, Lionel Amity is sitting down to a typical dinner with his wife Loretta, oblivious to the violent outburst taking place elsewhere in the Orbital. At a table nearby, some tourists are gushing about the quality of the meal, but Lionel doesn’t really agree. The so-called “gourmet cuisine” has always seemed rather tasteless to him, but that might be his problem, not the orbital’s. He’s heard it said that nothing has much flavor to it when you get above a certain age. Or perhaps the issue is that orbital life grows extremely dull when you live it day after day. Paradise can only remain interesting and dynamic for so long. He’s becoming bored with luxury, and when you get down to it, all of the restaurants on Orbital 9 pretty much serve variations on the exact same foods, anyway.
After putting in a request with the server for her usual dishes, Loretta sits forward in her chair and announces, in a feeble attempt at conversation, “I’ve heard that a few more large business trips came in today.”
“Yes,” he agrees listlessly. “I saw some of the newcomers earlier. Looks like mostly imps to me.” He neglects to mention that at least one of these so-called business trips is actually a gathering of undercover government agents.
She frowns, and her veined, fluttery hands reach up to pat down the ragged bun of hair fastened to her head. “Why the World Gov ruled to allow imps back up here, I’ll never understand…”
“Well, they arepeople, Loretta,” he points out. “I’m no fan of them either, but I can at least acknowledge that. They have thoughts, emotions, free will – ”
“Free will!” she scoffs. “Unlikely. I’ve told you a million times that the government programs them when they’re commissioned in order to use them as pawns. They’ll be the end of us one day, just you wait and see.”
Lionel squints slightly as he scrutinizes his wife. Loretta was once a portly though not entirely unattractive woman, with auburn hair and eyes the color of a cloudy morning sky. But in the twenty-eight years since Pandora was born, she has gradually lost weight until her body and face are sallow, and her skin hangs sadly in pasty, sagging folds. Her hair is now entirely gray, always frizzy and unruly, streaked with dirty white in places. He hasn’t loved her in quite some time, and perhaps he never truly did. It’s entirely possible that hisconditionprevents him from feeling any sort of love, even with medication, and that he’s only fooling himself into believing that a mild sort of acceptance is actually a powerful romantic force. She wasn’t his first choice of a wife, either, but he married her anyway, because marriage is simply a ritual that all normal people are expected to comply with. And he certainly doesn’t want anyone to think of him as abnormal.
In her increasing age, Loretta has turned into the fuzzy, ignorant embrace of nonsensical conspiracy theories. Among her follies are the beliefs that the benevolent World Government is actually a supreme and evil organization, that imps are the pawns of this hostile dictatorship and will someday conquer the world, and that improved DNA will someday be injected into every human on the planet in order to make them compliant drones. All this coming from a woman who willingly signed her daughter off for an experimental procedure that would turn her into a nimp…although perhaps that is truly the source of Loretta’s paranoia.
Lionel exhales, his creased fingers pattering against the tablecloth in agitation. He doesn’t quite trust his wife, but there are certain things that she needs to know, and that it would be deceitful not to tell her. His meeting with the girl who calls herself Lai is one of those things. It would practically be treacherous not to give Loretta some forewarning, but how to go about this tactfully?
The server brings them their dinners on crystal-glastic plates, and his stomach turns as he stares down at his food. He’s unable to even pretend that he has an appetite. Loretta carefully spears a chunk of vegetable on her fork and nibbles at it lightly. He sighs, takes a swig of water from a glass containing mostly ice, and sets it back down on the table with a hard clunk.
“Our daughter’s on the ship,” he says bluntly.
She freezes, another forkful of greens hitting an invisible barrier halfway to her mouth. The blood drains out of her face with slow, almost visible progress.
“No,” she gasps.
“Yes,” he answers tonelessly.
“Are you sure? Are you certain that it couldn’t be a mistake?”
He shakes his head. “It’s no mistake,” he pronounces grimly, and quickly relates to her the events that transpired earlier that day.
Loretta is trembling slightly by the time he finishes, the bony fingers of one hand stroking her pale neck. “How safe is she?” she whispers.
“She’s entirely clueless, and so is the ILG, and so are these Uniters. But I can’t say how long it will stay that way.”
She purses her lips and tilts her chin upwards a little. “Then I want you to go back to…Lai…and tell her that she needs to get off of the orbital. Immediately. As soon as possible.”
“Do you really think that a government agent is going to take orders from me? Especially after I blew off all her questions the way I did…besides, even if she does listen, she probably won’t take heed of my advice unless she knows the reasonwhyshe’s supposed to leave. And we can’t exactly tell her the reason, can we?”
“No!” she exclaims quickly, drawing startled glances towards their table. She clears her throat and forces her voice to lower. “No, definitely don’t tell her. She’ll hate us for it. It’s better if she doesn’t know.”
“Then how am I supposed to get her out of here?”
“Just…do what you can. I’ll try to help in any way possible.”
Lionel half shuts his eyes and leans back, his chest heaving as if with a silent sigh. Loretta won’t be helping him at all, he can tell that much. She’s accustomed to have servants tend to her every whim, and upper-class orbital life has certainly not purged her of those expectations. She’ll snuggle into the security of her conspiracy theories, allowing them to coddle her and doing her best to forget every word spoken in this conversation.
“Lionel?” she speaks up quietly. “Our daughter…do you think she’s happy?”
“I can see no reason why she wouldn’t be,” he replies. “Ignorance is bliss, after all.”
The Uniters were escorted away from the Lido Deck by orbital security forces. The members of Faction B, who remained at the restaurant and did nothing more harmful than guarding their dangerous prisoners, were the only ones who manage to slip away. Ema was the one who commed down to Earth and alerted Lady T of the complications, and from there the tiresome explanations could begin.
Lai was being interrogated, making her answers sketchy because she was unsure of how much information she was authorized to reveal, when the two guards questioning her were abruptly called away. They returned and asked, “Are you Lai Mansen?” and she said, “Yes,” and they queried, “You’re the leader of Uniter Squadron 3 Faction C?” and she confirmed, “Yes, that’s me,” and then, much to her surprise and delight, they were much kinder and more polite to her, treating her as an equal or even a superior instead of as a criminal. They allowed her to tell them about the Uniters and what she stood for, recounting the battle and assuring them that it was the Uniters who had been provoked to attack, not the other way around. “We didn’t mean to cause a panic,” she said apologetically. “It was a bad idea to get together in such a crowded place, we understand that now.”
“Well, that’s all right, ma’am,” one of the guards assured her. “Just exercise a little more caution next time, that’s all.”
“Even though it’s been forty years since the Orbital 13 incident, people up here can still be a little skittish,” added another.
And she nodded like a good little citizen, thanking them for their assistance in combating the ILG and promising that she’d call them if she ever needed help. Then she was released without any trouble, and she wouldn’t know until later that the sudden onset of respect was orchestrated by Lady T. That woman wields quite a lot of power.
Now Lai is wandering around the waiting area adjoining the security headquarters, where she is obligated to stay until the rest of her faction has finished being interrogated. Not too many imps have made it out so far, and she looks around to see if there’s anyone to pass the time with. The only person she really knows is Alec, so she lowers herself into an empty chair beside him, all too conscious of the fact that they have been spending a lot of time together lately.
“How bad did you get it?” she asks.
He raises his shoulders slightly, then allows them to drop. “My interrogators did not progress very far before they were interrupted. They received a voice feed, I believe from one of Lady T’s employees, instructing them to cease and desist. But they were still quite suspicious of me.” He gingerly brushes the skin above his damaged eye. “Because of what I am, undoubtedly.”
Lai nods understandingly. She hasn’t done much research on the Orbital 13 incident – it happened years before she was commissioned, and history has never really interested her – but it’s common knowledge that the tragedy was instigated by a bionic imp. She finds herself wishing that people weren’t so prejudiced towards Alec. Sure, he might seem a little intimidating at first glance, but he really isn’tthatbad once you get to know him…
“I wanted to talk to you about something,” she says tentatively.
“Speak, then. You know that I shall listen.”
“Well, it’s about what happened today between me and Lionel Amity. Do you think that it helps prove our theory?”
Alec presses his lips together thoughtfully. “I was not present, of course, but I would say that it does.”
She exhales slowly. “I really think that we’re on the right track. I hope we are, anyway, because something about this feels supremely weird to me. I almostknowPandora Amity. I can’t quite say how, but it’s on the tip of my tongue. I feel like if maybe I just saw a picture of her or something, I’d be able to figure it out. That probably doesn’t make sense.”
“On the contrary, it is quite logical. The memory operates more efficiently with sensations than it does with words. Images, scents, sounds…all are more intuitive to the human mind than language. It is because speech is something that was invented, while other things were always there.”
“Huh.” She considered it. “I guess that’s why they say that a picture is worth a thousand words.”
They sit in silence for a moment.
“Do you know what I think, Lai?” says Alec. “I think that you are actually hoping that you will turn out to be a recycled imp.”
“What?!” Her eyes sharpen. “Why would you even say something like that?”
“You and I are alike in that we are different – different from those around us, and different from the accepted norm. There are others who fit into this category. Most people who are somehow odd, including myself, crave a sense of belonging. They wish that they were able to be accepted into their environments, or find an alternate environment that welcomes them. But you do not.”
“What can I say?” Lai studies him warily. “I’ve never really cared one way or the other.”
“And that is most unusual. You acknowledge that you are considered to be ‘strange’ but it does not faze you. Rather, you revel in it. You believe that your differences elevate you above ordinary people. Consequently, the more differences you possess, the more superior you shall become. Discovering that you are a recycled imp would raise you to the heights of a goddess, in your eyes.”
“Now it’s starting to sound like you’re accusing me of being a narcissist again.”
“I am not accusing you of anything, Lai. It is merely a pattern of behavior that I have noticed.”
“Yeah, right!” she snaps. “What are you saying? That it’s normal for abnormal people to feel like outcasts, and that in being happy with who I am, I’m just making myself extra weird or something? I don’t see any point in wanting to be like other people, because quite frankly, I think that most other people suck. They waste their time doing things that aren’t important, they never use their brains, and they overreact to every little thing that happens to them! And most of all, they’re not veryinteresting. I’d rather be interesting and wrong than boring and right any day.”
“As someone who is both dull and factually correct a majority of the time, I find myself considering that credo to be strangely admirable,” answers Alec, and he seems to be somewhat in awe of his own words. “This falls into our discussion from earlier, about interior and exterior selves. Your interior self desires, above all other things, to stand out…to be ‘special,’ if you will. You may not think of yourself that way, but that is what I see before me.”
She has to think on that, unsure if she is receiving a compliment or not. “So…you’re saying that all I want is attention?”
“No. The opinions of other people are not the most precious things to you. I am saying that you want to be unique, and that being a recycled imp would certainly usher you into that category.” His face is relaxed, and he offers her a slight, wry smile. “But that is quite unnecessary, Lai…for you are already special enough.”
At those words, Lai feels a strange sort of adrenaline prickling the nerves beneath her skin, not entirely unlike the flaming ice sensation that engulfs her when she is fighting. But this is a more uncertain feeling, an inkling of an emotion that she has never experienced before. She isn’t quite sure what to do with it, and her brain churns, trying to dredge up an acceptable response.
Then she sees that the rest of Faction C has arrived, milling around and awaiting further instruction, and she goes to round them up without a word. Alec is left to wonder why he said so much, and so quickly.