41. Facts in the Case
Skipping sleep for a night doesn’t have much impact on an imp, so when Ema arrives in the Uniters’ reserved conference room the next morning, there are no visible shadows in her face and her gait isn’t unsteady in the slightest. The first things that Lai notices that inform her that something is wrong are the bloodshot pink rims around her older friend’s eyes. Even though she detests getting wrapped up in emotional drama, she still feels obligated to ask what happened…and the response that she receives is the last thing she’d ever expect.
“What do youmean, you broke up with Les?” she demands. “I thought you said that you two were perfect for each other!”
“That’s what I used to think,” responds Ema bleakly. She is blinking more frequently than usual, but her eyes remain dry. “But now it’s all…I don’t know what. Needless to say, everything about my personal life is royally messed up at the moment.”
Lai just shakes her head in bewilderment. Ema and Les have been together ever since she first met them, and she always unconsciously assumed that they were destined to remain that way. She hasn’t exactly been interested in every facet of their relationship, but it has been a steady, consistent fixture from day to day for almost half of her life. Tearing them apart impacts her in the same way that being fired from her job at Pristine Labs would, or discovering that the sky isn’t blue after all. While it doesn’t hurt her personally, it’s still an odd change to have to grow accustomed to.
She spots Les brooding in the corner, almost entirely concealed from sight. The conference room, which was not designed to accommodate one hundred people, is packed full to bursting point, so it’s relatively easy to find a hiding spot. But Lai is still able to catch a glimpse of his desolate face, and that’s enough to let her know that he’s not taking this latest turn of events well.
She’s not in such a great mood herself. The imps of Squadron 3 are being particularly noisy and rambunctious today, and she has a sense of being trapped within a crowd rather than at the front of it, which is where she really should be. She’s one of the few people who has managed to secure a rolling chair around the long rectangular table, and she is currently pressed into the upholstery as if that will protect her from the grating sound and activity, glowering out at the room around her. “Today sucks for everyone, I guess,” she remarks to no one in particular.
Lady T was not happy with her Uniters’ behavior last night. She sent out a slashing text feed that all of them can remember vividly: “I thought you were responsible enough that I didn’t have to babysit you every step of the way. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I don’t want to hear of any more ‘incidents,’ happening where I’ll have to step in from afar and bail you out. This morning at 9:00 AM sharp O.T., all three factions are to meet in Conference Room 516. Once you arrive, your leaders will put out a holo feed to me so that I can go over the game plan from here on out.”
Some soldiers are still sulking from this, while others are indignantly proclaiming that it wasn’t their fault that they were pushed into a confrontation. “Doesn’t she know that it was the ILG that attacked us?!” “We couldn’t avoid fighting!” “She should be grateful that we captured nine of those guys!” “She should just be grateful that nobody got hurt or killed!”
But no matter who’s at fault, Lai reflects unhappily, they’re here anyway this morning. No doubt they’re about to receive a royal chewing out. She wonders if Lady T now regrets giving her a position as the leader of Faction C, and hopes that no one will say anything to get them in even more trouble than they’re already in.
She produces her comm and checks the time. Lady T specified that the meeting should begin at nine o’ clock O.T., or orbital time, and the vibrant glastic screen informs her that it is currently 8:58. Best to get it over with now. It certainly won’t hurt their cause to be two minutes early.
“Hey, everyone!” Lai pitches her voice to rise above the din, and her sharp-edged words hover like an aircraft among a swarm of groundcrafts. “I’m sending in the holo feed now, so please shut up!”
Ema rolls her eyes a little. “Did no one ever program you with manners when you were being commissioned?”
“What? I saidplease.”
The Uniters cluster around the conference table, vying for chair space, or a good view at the very least. Lai fiddles with her comm, sends out a holo feed signal to the contact number she has for Lady T, and slides the little device towards the center of the table. It stops up short a few inches, but now everyone should be able to see it easily.
After a few moments of seeking a connection, a projection flickers to life above the tabletop, revealing the torso and coolly disappointed face of Lady T. The hologram is flat, not dimensional like a spectrovision display, but it also uses less battery life and appears the same no matter what angle you look at it from. “Well, at least you had enough credibility to be punctual,” pronounces the hovering head, and Lady T’s voice comes through the comm speakers as clearly as if she were actually there.
“Is our side coming through all right?” asks Ema.
“The camera must be pointing up, because all I can see is the ceiling,” responds Lady T. “But I can hear you just fine, so I’ll take the liberty of assuming that you’re all staring at me with rapt attention. With that said, you’ve got some explaining to do. I believe my instructions stated to avoid battles at all costs, and I certainly didn’t want to see something like this happen so early on. You could have been thrown off the orbital – or worse yet, arrested – and then where would we be?”
“They started it!” someone exclaims.
“That may be true, but then you should have ended it more effectively.” Lady T straightens her glasses, a gesture that shouldn’t seem intimidating in the slightest and yet somehow silences everyone in the room. “You have no idea how hard it is to calm people down once they’ve seen the guns and stunners getting pulled out. You should really use lessvisiblemeans of negotiation. Fewer casualties, easier to clean up afterwards. Besides, you’re not really here to fight the ILG – you’re here to question the Amitys.”
“I questioned Lionel Amity yesterday,” Lai speaks up.
Lady T blinks. “Did you, now? Well, I’m glad that at least one person was being productive. Did you learn anything from him?”
“I learned that an ILG agent was questioning him about Pandora two days ago. Other than that, he just lied about not knowing where she is.”
“We should have brought mindhack weapons,” one of the Uniters grumbles. “Then we could get that information easily!”
“You don’t always need a weapon to sway someone to your side,” answers Lady T. “All you need is persuasion…and perhaps the right circumstances to give you a bit of luck. And after doing a bit of digging, I believe that I’ve found just the time and place.”
Without really noticing it, everyone in the room leans toward the projection.
“There’s to be a gala in three days,” she continues. “It will be held in the formal ballroom in honor of the most distinguished permanent residents of Orbital 9. The Amitys will both be attending, and a few especially notable visitors have also been invited. It seems to me that some of you now fall into the latter category.”
This announcement is met with a mixture of irritation and excitement, depending on which imps think that a gala sounds appealing.
Lai shifts in her seat uncertainly. “Hold on a minute. You were just talking about how we need to be ‘less visible.’ Why would you want us to question them at a gala?”
“Why, I never said anything about questioning them there,” replies Lady T mysteriously. “But it would be a prime opportunity to surround them and escort them to a proper area for interrogation, don’t you think? With so many of you there, they wouldn’t be apt to resist. And since the whole occasion is nothing but a party for rich humans to drink too much alcohol and pretend to behave badly, I doubt that anyone would notice if two of the guests decided to…retreat back to their rooms for a little while.”
“And you’re sure that the Amitys aren’t supposed to give a speech or anything like that?” inquires Ema. “If the gala is supposed to be honoring people like them, they could be participating in an activity where they’ll be missed…”
“Practical thinking as always, Dr. Ema, but do give me a little more credit. My team has already examined the schedule for the event, and the only two group events planned are an official toast after dinner, and a dance directly after that. I think that during the dance would be the best time to separate the Amitys from the crowd. Split into couples and then start to…casually surround them.”
“Do we have to get dressed up?” someone asks.
“If you want to fit in, then yes, you do. You can rent dress clothes from orbital requisition. I’d recommend as much formality as you can find, but I doubt than anything more than basic etiquette will be required in mannerisms.”
Many of the younger women began to murmur excitedly amongst themselves about selecting dresses and finding dates, and Lai thought she saw Ema’s shoulders deflate a little.
Lady T snaps her fingers to bring their attention back to the task at hand. “This is not a game! I don’t mind if you mingle to appear more secretive, but you’re not going to a party so that you can have fun and socialize! And please, for the love of all that is right and justified, keep your hands off of the alcoholic beverages. The last thing I need on my hands is a group of drunken supersoldiers with concealed weaponry.”
Lai still has a bad feeling about this new plan. “What happens if the Amitys still won’t talk to us? They always have the right to remain silent, after all.”
“I hope that doesn’t come up, but if it does, you might have to – ” Suddenly, in the projection, Lady T’s head snaps over her shoulder. The microphone broadcasts a muffled voice shouting things in a vaguely alarmed tone of voice. Lai is unable to make out the exact words.
“I have to go,” says Lady T quickly. “There’s an emergency situation with another squadron. I’ll send a message to your leaders as soon as I can.”
The feed cuts off there, with no further explanation of what the alleged “emergency situation” is. Lai is left with a sense of deep uneasiness. She feels as if she is watching electric storm clouds gathering on the horizon, and not in a good way.
“A gala, huh?” sighs Ema. “I have to say, I’m not really in a partying mood.”
Lai doesn’t say anything. A sudden shiver rolls through her.
Ema frowns. “Um, Lai, are you all right?”
“Huh?” Lai squeezes her eyes shut and shakes her head vigorously. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just caught a chill for a second. I guess someone walked over my grave.”
“It’s just an expression. It was in a book I read.” And she rests her chin in her hands thoughtfully and doesn’t say anything for a long time after that.