40. Still Nobody
The typical corporate suite on Orbital 9 consists of a sitting area, a kitchenette, and a dining space, spread out over two stories and ringed with up to forty personal cabins. The suite assigned to Uniter Squadron 3 Faction A is no exception to this layout. After the excitement of the battle earlier that day, the activity of Faction A has been reduced to a dull, buzzing drone, like a sleepy beehive. Assorted imps group around the full-screen spectrovision or lazily flick through their comm updates, scattered across various pieces of furniture as if tossed there by the hand of a giant. Many cabin doors are already sealed shut, and a few even lack slivers of pale light slipping out from underneath.
Les is still awake, although he does find himself having to stifle a yawn from time to time. He’s in the midst of composing two text feeds, one a daily status report to Lady T, the other a reassurance to Felix that everything is progressing well. He’s expecting a visit from Ema in a few minutes, after which he’ll complete the agenda for tomorrow and go to bed.
As if on cue, he hears the soft rap of knuckles knocking against the door, and he takes a split second to study his reflection in the mirror before answering. His hair is tousled in a way that looks almost systematically arranged, and there is a warm, vital flush to his freckled cheeks. Even his rumpled pajamas don’t detract from his appearance, shifting to hint at but never reveal the well-toned muscles beneath. Running the tip of his tongue across his lips with a combination of nervousness and anticipation, he calls, “The door’s open. Come right in.”
When he turns around, Ema is standing there somberly. Her lovely face has turned pallid, and her hair, freed from its usual ponytail, floats voluminously around her upper body and makes her appear small and vulnerable. Les frowns and strides over to her, taking her hand into his. “You wanted to see me, Ema? Is something wrong?”
She wriggles her hand out of his grasps, flexing her fingers as if concerned that he’s ruined her manicure. “May I sit down?” she asks softly.
“Of course.” The worry doesn’t leave his face for a moment. “What happened? You know you can tell me…”
Ema lowers herself onto the bed with excessive caution, as if wrinkling the sheets is a criminal offense here. Her gaze roams around the cabin, and her hazel eyes, usually so vivacious and bright, are oddly morbid. She doesn’t look at him.
“I’m not quite sure how to say this,” she begins at last. “I’ve never really…” Pause. “I guess the best thing to do is not beat around the bush. I think that you and I…we should…separate for a while.”
Les’s lips part slightly. No sound comes out, and the shock doesn’t yet completely register on his face. He’s entertaining the notion that perhaps he has dozed off, because these are words that he’s heard so often in his nighttime worries. This is a nightmare conversation. And yet the world is not noticeably blurred or distorted around him. The angles of the room are sharp and the lighting is brisk. He can’t go on believing that this isn’t a dream for long.
“You mean break up,” he says stiffly. The words leave his tongue haltingly, as if he’s pronouncing the worst obscenity imaginable.
“No, that’s not what I mean at all,” Ema answers quickly. “We’ll still be loyal to each other, that is, unless you don’t want to…I just think we should put our relationship on hold for a little while. There’s been a lot of change lately. I need some time to think about all of this…”
“But…!” The panic stabs him right in the chests, and he gasps. “Ema, what happened?” he demands desperately. “Have I done something wrong? Is there…is there someone else?!”
“Yes, there is someone else.” Her eyes settle on him, filled with so much mournful truth that it makes him wonder if every look of love she’s ever given him was a well-acted lie. “And the someone else is you.”
“Wh-what?” he stammers, the meaning of her words not penetrating his frenzied brain. Is she honestly telling him that what they shared was a falsehood the whole time?
“I fell in love with you because I thought you were kind and sincere, and I never wanted you to change,” she continues. “I didn’t mind that you were shy. I didn’t mind that sometimes you couldn’t come up with exactly the right thing to say. I loved everything about you, flaws and all. But now…you’re notyouanymore.”
He squeezes his eyes shut as understanding drapes over him. Of course, she’s talking about the decision he made to turn from Cade into Les…an alteration that he chose partly because of the Uniters, but mostly because of her. All he was able to think at the time was that she deserved someone stronger than him; thoughts of how she needed a partner as perfect as herself batted around in his head for weeks. And now here he is, as close to achieving glory as he can get. He’s tall, handsome, outgoing, and brave, and he’s absolutely not what she ever wanted. He has achievedhisidea of perfection, not hers.
Stage two mods did absolutely nothing to help him. Now he’s even more of a nobody than he was before.
“Ema…” He swallows several times in rapid succession. “I didn’t mean to mess anything up, honest to god I didn’t…”
“I know you didn’t,” she murmurs. “Like I said, I just need some time to adjust…”
“If you want me to change back, I will,” he offers lamely. “After we get back on Earth, I mean. I’m sure that the genitechs can reverse whatever they did to me…”
“No. I don’t want you to change yourself anymore, Les. Not for me, anyway.”
“And I don’t want to break up with you,” he whispers, his throat tight. “So tell me what I have to do to make this better…”
Ema rises from her seat on the bed, steps over to him quietly, and presses her lips against his. It isn’t much of a kiss. She’s going through the motions, but there’s no heart in it, no meaning. After a split second, she pulls back, her expression resigned but not regretful.
“We’re not breaking up,” she says. “I told you that already. Just give me a little bit of time, leave me alone for a little while. I don’t think that it’s too late for us to save this. I just need some space.”
“If you wanted me to, I could always – ”
“But you don’t understand!” he cries. “We’ve been together every day for more than four years! I need you now, Ema. What happens if while you’re out there thinking on your own, you decide that what we have isn’t worth salvaging, or that you love someone else more than me? What happens then?”
“I don’t know,” she answers simply. “We have to take it from day to day.”
“And we’re just supposed to pretend like what we shared never existed?!” he insists, becoming increasingly agitated.
“Hush, Les.” She lays one elegant finger against his lips and opens her mouth to spew more reassurances, but he pulls back, suddenly pained and almostdisgustedby the sight of her.
“If you don’t love me anymore, all you had to do was say so,” he snaps, his voice coming out hurt and shaky. “You don’t have to pretend that we’re taking a vacation from each other or something.”
“Les, I never said that I didn’t – ”
“You were thinking it, weren’t you? No, don’t answer that, I know you were. Well, I want you to be happy, Ema. I really do. And if you’re happier without me, then so be it, but I still love you and I think I always will. I wanted to marry you, you know. I just needed to get a ring, and then I would have proposed.”
Ema looks as if she’s trying to speak, but can’t. Her eyes are brimming with tears. His impulses tell him to go to her and comfort her, but he no longer has the right to do that. He can only stand there, squeezing his fists compulsively and grappling for acceptance of the fact that the two of them are no longer an item.
“Maybe the change is with me as much as you,” she finally manages. “Maybe I’m different as well. I don’t know. But I need to figure it out.”
And with that she hurries past him, her hair rippling out behind her like a banner woven from golden threads.
Les watches her go until his improved eyesight can no longer pick her out from the scores of other imps retiring for the night. Then he slams the door to his room shut and staggers back onto the bed, lapsing into mute trembles. He hauls the faux-downy comforter around his shoulders, but it does little to abate his chills.
Space is cold, he recalls. All of the research he did before coming here informed him that most everyone says that space is cold, and despite the heating systems and other comfort measures installed on orbitals, the true temperatures are still able to persist. He didn’t feel the cold at all today, but he feels it now, for the first time. It is sinking into his skin, nibbling at his bones with razor-sharp teeth, until there is no warmth at all left within his body.
Space is cold. That’s what they say.
He’s only just finding out now how much colder it is when you’re alone.