The Orbital 9 Annual Honors Gala is and always has been a celebration to the most hoity-toity members of the aristocracy, an excuse for wine and dainty finger foods to be served on silver platters, for men to adopt the regalia of penguins, and for women to present an alluring display of shimmering fabric and as much skin as they can get away with. There may or may not be a few extra guests this year, and if there are, who among thehoi aristoiwould notice them? As long as they have invitations and the security guards didn’t turn them away at the door, they are welcome there, and everyone will pretend to know them personally and, as more alcohol is consumed, mingle with them as they have been good friends all their lives.
The Uniters disperse throughout the crowd and play their parts very well. They stick their noses in the air when the discussion turns to elitism, laugh at jokes whether the punch line is funny or not, and look so alluring while doing it that no one seems to notice or care that they’re a bit too attractive to be ordinary humans. The em-comms nestled snugly against their ears are nearly invisible, and so far they have no need to use them or draw attention to their status as a group. They shift from clique to clique throughout the Grand Ballroom, becoming invested in the party atmosphere only enough to blend in. They leave the beverages untouched and keep their senses sharp.
Occasionally, one or more of them will slip into the shadowy corners of the room, and unnoticed by all, they will begin to mutter seemingly to themselves:
“No sign of them over here.”
“None here, either.”
“Maybe they found us out and they’re not coming.”
“Maybe they weren’t planning to come anyway.”
“Maybe they’re just not here yet. Maybe they’re going to come in late…”
“Enough of this ‘maybe’ business!” hisses one voice above all the others. This is Lai, of course. “We’ll find them. We will. So shut up and keep looking!”
It’s already quite late by the time that the official toast is made. Of course, it’s hard to keep track of the passage of time on an orbital, as the lights are always on and the view beyond the windows is always a starry sky. But the toast (“to our generous friends and donors who put their funds to good use on Earth, as well as making sure that this orbital remains a paradise”) feels like the sort of event that could only take place when night is nearing the morning. It serves as a reminded of who paid for the party to everyone in attendance, and they all clap politely before eagerly turning towards the next, most exciting activity: the dance.
Two technicians adjust the sound system while the male guests scramble to find a suitable lady partner. Ema is politely skirting away from several human men who are eyeing her pointedly when she finds a familiar hand extended towards her from a crisp tuxedo sleeve.
“May I have this dance?” asks Les.
She frowns, torn between the pros and cons of acceptance and refusal. “It’s a bit early for that, Les, don’t you think?”
“I just want to talk to you.” His eyes are soft and pleading. “Just give me this one chance, Ema. One dance, and then you can go on your way.”
She sighs, resigning herself as she gingerly places her palm against his. She admits to herself that from the start, she knew that this would happen. “Fine. One dance.”
His arm wraps around her waste in a conservative curve, devoid of all of the intimacy that they once shared. He sweeps her into the middle of the room, where a large circular area has been cleared to serve as a dance floor. The gradually building beginnings of music enfold them, clarifying into an usually severe piece for string orchestra with a tempo that is almost frenzied. Bows hack skillfully against instruments, and the sharp, bold sounds vibrate the eardrums of the couples on the floor.
“Can you tell me exactly what it is that I did wrong?” asks Les quietly.
Ema huffs. “We’ve been through this. It’s not that you did something wrong, it’s just – ”
“I know what you said, but I feel like maybe there’s more to it than that. We’ve been going steady for four years. It just isn’t like you to suddenly abandon me, out of the blue…”
His choice of words sends a searing stab of guilt through her ribcage. They are swaying hypnotically now, as if propelled by a force other than their own energy. “You know I’d neverabandonyou…”
“Do you remember the day of the ILG attack, before we heard about Settlement 211? When we were in the lobby waiting for everyone else and you asked me if something was wrong?”
She nods, uncertain about what he’s doing by bringing up that inconsequential event.
“Well, I guess I can tell you the truth about what was bothering me. It’s not as if it matters now. I was starting to get worried about whether or not I was good enough for you, and if maybe you needed someone who was…well, closer to perfect. Someone who was beautiful and talented, like you.”
Her eyes widen. “Youwereperfect! I didn’t love you any less just because of how you were made! If anything, I thought it just made you even more charming…”
“Like I said, it doesn’t matter now,” he remarks dryly. “Because I thought I could fix everything by getting those stage two mods and becoming more equal to you, but it turns out that I just messed everything up more. Basically, if I’d just talked to you about it beforehand, then you never would have broken up with me. I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the past few days. I guess that’s what I did wrong.”
“Cade…I mean, Les,” she corrects herself, before swallowing hard. “I don’t know what to say. That’s just – I wish youhadtold me.”
“So do I,” he murmurs. “So do I.”
Her instincts nudge her to pull him close, and she almost does. She’s certain that he wouldn’t reject it. But if anything, she only pulls back a little more. “That’s not why I thought that we needed to separate for a little while. I wouldn’t have minded that you got stage two mods, if you’d just acted the same way you had before. But you were starting to remind me of…well, Codi. It was getting to be too close for comfort…”
Les looks vaguely mortified at this. “Ema, no matter what I look like, I’d never hurt you like Codi did!”
“I guess I already know that.” Ema shrugs wearily. “But what can I say? The whole situation just made me uncomfortable. I don’t like to be reminded.”
At the same time, Lai is hovering at the fringes of the gala, among the older or more socially awkward guests who have decided to opt out of joining the dance. She is here partly because it is a likely spot for the Amitys to be lurking, but mostly because she dares not venture out onto the dance floor. This is the first time in a while that she feels self-conscious about her loner attitude, and she’s aware that it doesn’t stem from shyness or a fear of embarrassing herself. When she thinks of squeezing in between all of those close-pressed bodies and letting herself fall to obscurity in the crowd, she feels almost nothing at all, just a slight rim of distaste around the edges of a cold aloofness. Could Ema be right? Is it possible that her differences are not an advantage at all, but merely the symptoms of a personality disorder? Is her independent streak nothing more than a product of faulty brain circuitry?
And speaking of brain circuitry, it looks like Alec is headed this way. Lai wrinkles her nose and tugs up the top of her strapless dress a little.
He takes up a position by her side, folding his arms behind his back. She notices that he’s wearing a white suit over a black dress shirt, his jacket unbuttoned and hanging crisply, lacking a tie or a bowtie. “Have things been progressing in your favor so far?” he inquires.
She takes this to be a question on if she’s spotted the Amitys yet, and shakes her head accordingly.
“Well, I am certain that our luck will improve soon. In the meantime…” He angles himself to face her and spreads one hand so that it hovers open and palm-up. “Would you do me the indescribable honor of obliging me with a dance?”
She stares at him, aghast. “I can’t dance,” she says.
“It is not my strong suit, either,” he admits, “but it cannot be too difficult, can it? And besides, it shall allow us to survey the ballroom from all angles. All the better to fulfill the terms of our plan.”
She smiles coyly. “Well, damn, when you put it like that…”
They merge into the crowd, and surprisingly, Lai isn’t bothered by it. She can barely sense the scores of couples surrounding her; the unusual sensation of being this close to another person is drowning everything out. One of Alec’s hands is on her waist, and the other guides her insistently into elegant spins and whirls. She lets him lead, shuffling her feet slightly as she tries to grow accustomed to the dance. At this distance, she has to tilt her head back just to see his face, and she can feel the constant hum of his inner workings barely conducting vibrations into her body. She’s not quite sure if she likes the sensation, but at this point, she couldn’t pull away even if she wanted to. She is mesmerized.
Alec leads the dance while also trying to maintain a respectable distance between the two of them. He’s never come into physical contact with someone in this manner before, much less with a woman…even if it’s odd to think of Lai as a woman. Her narrow, straight body makes her look more young and girlish. But the pronounced beauty that he sees in her face tonight is both feminine and adult. He wishes that he could properly feel the texture of her skin and her gown, instead of just having the receptors in his skin rattle off information at him.
“After tonight, you will most likely know for sure if you are a recycled imp or not,” he states in a feeble attempt at small talk.
“I guess so,” answers Lai uncertainly. “I don’t know. I just can’t shake this stupid feeling that something bad is going to happen…”
He frowns. “You do not suspect that the ILG may attack, do you?”
“No. It’s not that. I seriously don’t get why I’m feeling like this, but I don’t think that anything will gowrong, per se…”
“You do not appear to be too perturbed by this.”
“Well, not right now, because we’re dancing. It’s a distraction.”
“You consider me to be a distraction?”
Her eyes stare into his with a seriousness and depth that he has hardly noticed before. “More and more, it seems like.”
Just then, she catches a glimpse of something out of the corner of her eyes. Her head snaps around abruptly, and what she sees quickly shatters her concentration. “There he is!” she exclaims, and she pulls away from Alec fast enough to leave him blinking and confused, standing like an idiot in the midst of a few dozen swirling couples. He can still sense the last remnants of her body heat against his chest.
Lionel is watching without much interest as the dancing progresses and making excuses to himself as to why he’s not out there with everyone else. The music sounds uncomfortably discordant to him, not the sort of waltz you’d want to play for a harmless, cushy event like this, and he doesn’t know where his wife has gotten off to, anyway. He is standing around and doing nothing in particular when the girl approaches him.
“Mr. Amity,” she greets him, her cool eyes flashing with excitement.
He feels his breath involuntarily beginning to turn ragged. It’sheragain – the one who calls herself Lai. “What do you want this time?” he demands shakily.
“We’ll dance and talk,” she responds. It isn’t a request. “Come on, don’t keep a lady waiting.”
She pulls him out into the center of activity with more force than he’d expect from someone her size. Then again, what was that phrase she used when they met a few days ago?“Iamthe authorities.”She is probably a lot stronger than she looks.
“I’m concerned about something, Mr. Amity,” she says in a tone of mock hurt.
He swallows. “What are you concerned about?” he asks, since that’s clearly how she wants him to respond.
“I’m concerned about the fact that you’re lying to me. I don’t like being lied to.”
“Well, I don’t imagine that anyone does.”
“Then if we’re in agreement that lying is bad, why don’t you do yourself a favor and tell me the truth?”
Someone nudges him from behind, and he recoils from the touch quickly. “I can’t.”
Her eyes are narrowed now. “Why not?”
“I can’t tell you that either.”
“Mr. Amity, I’m getting tired of this.”
“You just have to trust me, Miss Lai. There are some things that you can’t know, for your own good. All I can tell you is that you need to get off of Orbital 9, now, or something terrible might happen to you.”
She bristles. “Was that a threat?”
“No. It’s a plea.Pleaseget off of the ship, for your own sake…”
“I can’t leave until you tell me about your daughter.”
“I’ve already told you that…”
Lionel freezes. Someone has bumped into him again, and it’s not a glancing blow. Suddenly it seems that everyone surrounding him is forcing him into a restricted path, backing him into a corner while never straying from the movements of their dances…and Lai is helping them.
His mouth drops open slightly, and he stares at her fearfully. “What’s going on?!”
“I really am sorry about this, Mr. Amity,” she answers, in a tone of voice that doesn’t hold the slightest hint of regret. “But this is an emergency. We can’t take no for an answer.”
“Lionel?!” He hears his wife’s shrieking cry, and then his pursuers have tightened the circle and she’s right there, beside him. Their captors are on all sides now, impenetrable, not allowing any room for escape. Loretta’s manicured fingernails sink into his arm. “Lionel, these people…theseimps…I told you – !”
“We’re not going to hurt you,” interrupts Lai calmly. She’s stepped away from him now, and she and her friends have formed a tight, concise circle, not even pretending to dance any longer. “We’re not going to do anything bad to you at all. We just need to ask you a few questions, and once you answer them, you can go.”
Lionel’s eyes desperately scan the ballroom in a vain hope that someone will notice this odd conglomeration of so-called “guests.” But the elite partygoers are too wrapped up in themselves and in their dancing to pay this any mind. He’s on his own.
“Will you come with us?” asks Lai.
“Do I have a choice?” he retorts gruffly.
“Not really.” Her voice is light and pleasant, almost cheery, but he knows that it won’t be for much longer. Because now he’s going to have to answer her questions, and once he does, that vague little smile will be gone from her face for who-knows-how long. All hell will break loose, he can say that for sure.
He and Loretta are marched through a back door, and he can feel himself physically leaving his comfortable reality behind. His life will now be thrown out of whack, perhaps permanently, and yet he can’t even bring himself to struggle. Maybe a part of him always wanted things to end this way; maybe this will ease some miniscule part of his guilt, but probably not.
So he goes willingly to his ruination, and to the ruination of the girl called Lai, even though she doesn’t know it yet.