PART IV: HUMAN
In the split second after Lai faints, two things happen at once. The first is that Alec surges forward with inhuman speed to support her, and the second is that the picture that put her into this state of shock extricates itself from her fingers and flutters to the ground with the light innocence of a feather. Ema is the one who goes to retrieve it.
“This…this isn’t possible!” she gasps.
Les is at her side in an instant, peering over her shoulder at the photo. He too is stunned. In her hands is a 2D image of a girl with blank, pale blue eyes and long hair, past her shoulders, dark and dusty. Her features are frozen into a perfect expression of apathy. She is pretty but unformed, as if the essence that separates humans from store mannequins was accidentally left out of her during her creation.
And the face is Lai’s face.
Ema looks over at the unconscious Lai, who has been helped into a chair by Alec, then back at the picture, and then back at Lai. “No,” she says slowly. She and Les gaze at each other, their eyes brimming over with horrified understanding.
Lai remains unconscious for less than a minute. Her eyes flutter open and she pushes herself into a sitting position, ignoring the questions asking her if she’s okay. One mortified thought has entirely taken over her mind:
I’m the nimp.
All this time, we were looking for the nimp…but the nimp is me. We were wasting our time.
But if I’m the nimp, and Pandora Amity is also the nimp, that means that I’m…
“I’m Pandora Amity,” she whispers shakily.
Lionel Amity stares at her grimly. “I told you…”
“Youtoldme!” she shrieks indignantly, and she lunges up from her chair. Alec has to hold her back, and she strains against his grasp as she shouts, “You didn’t tell meanything!You knew, didn’t you?Didn’t you?!”
“Of course I knew,” answers Mr. Amity. His voice is toneless, but his eyes are desperate. “From the moment I first saw you in the music lounge, I knew who you were. Why else do you think I refused to answer your questions? And why do you think I told you that you have to get off the orbital? If the ILG is really searching for the nimp, then you’re in grave danger!”
Lai blinks; she hadn’t thought of that before. True, the ILG has no reason to suspect her, but for all she knows, their eyes and ears could be everywhere. They might be potentially listening in on this conversation. And once they find out who she is, what she is…
She stares at Lionel and Loretta, the two people who are apparently her…no…she won’t even allow herself tothinkabout the P-word. There is no way that she has, or ever has had,parents.
“This doesn’t make any sense!” Ema exclaims. “If Lai was actually a nimp, wouldn’t we have known before now?!”
“No,” responds Lai dully. “It does make sense. Pandora Amity disappeared ten years ago, and that’s the same time that I was commissioned.” She snorts bitterly. “I guess I wasn’t commissioned after all. And I was told that I have a size defect – that must be a lie as well. The reason I’m so small is because I used to be a human. Acrippledhuman.”
“But that does not explain why you have spent the past decade believing that you were an imp,” Alec points out. “Even if your memory was unintentionally erased, you still should have been returned to the custody of the Amitys. Why is it that you were outfitted to become a domestic Land and Air Inspector instead?”
Loretta is compulsively smoothing out the hem of her dress skirt. “It’s a long story,” she says quietly.
“And I guess we’d better tell it now,” adds Lionel. “There’s no point in withholding any more information…”
Dr. Tamara was practically gushing as she led the Amitys into the recovery room. “It went even better than we thought it would!” she declared. “Pandora is going to be so happy now, I’m sure of it. She’ll be able to do whatever she wants to do! And you’ll both be happier, as well…”
Lionel hardly heard her, as he was still trying to comprehend the fact that his daughter was cured. After eighteen terrible years, she was now a fully functioning adult. It seemed almost too easy. There had to be a catch, a loophole somewhere…besides all of the money that they had spent on the procedure, of course.
The recovery room was small, since it didn’t exactly need to cater to a normal-sized hospital population. There was no one inside except Pandora, laying in the cot nearest the door, her hands settled lightly atop a clean white sheet. Lionel’s breath hitched as he gazed upon her. For the first time that he could remember, she looked healthy – her hair, though in disarray, had taken on a lustrous shine; her lips were plump and rosy; and there was a bit of color in her cheeks. Her body and face had been slightly altered, so that her appearance reflected her age, and she really did look like a normal young woman now. And she wassmiling, her lips curled up ever so slightly in her unconsciousness. Lionel had never seen his daughter smile before, not ever.
As he and Loretta stood there, gazing at her in wonder, Pandora opened her eyes. The ghost of life that he had seen behind those eyes several hours before had now become a full, living entity. She had bright, curious eyes, and he felt a surge of warmth as she looked at him with something other than apathy.
“Pandora, my darling!” cried Loretta.
The girl’s brow furrowed. “Pandora?” she repeated, speaking for the first time in her life. She had a distinctive voice, clear and deliberate and slightly chirpy.”You must be mistaken, sir. I haven’t received my designation yet.”
“Pandora, what are you talking about?” demanded Loretta. “It’s us, your parents!”
Pandora shook her head. “Now I know that you’re mistaken. I am a genetically improved human. I have no parents.”
“You’re not an imp!” insisted Loretta, a touch of hysteria crawling into her voice. “What on Earth are you talking about?!”
Dr. Tamara had a hand clapped over her mouth. “Mr. Amity, Mrs. Amity, I think you’d better step outside with me for a moment…”
Out in the hallway again, Lionel asked shakily, “What is it? What’s going on?”
“We don’t know,” answered Dr. Tamara honestly. “I thought everything went well…we’re going to run some more tests. Don’t worry, we’ll get this sorted out as soon as possible.”
“As soon as possible” turned out to be not for nearly another hour. The Amitys were in the waiting room again when Dr. Tamara returned. She wore the same telltale grim expression that the genitechs who’d created Pandora had when they’d first stepped out of the birthing room. Lionel had come to associate a certain darkness of the eyes and curve of the mouth to mean that he was about to be confronted with horrible, possibly life-destroying news.
“It seems,” Dr. Tamara said slowly, “that through a combination of factors, your daughter has lost her memory.”
Lionel and Loretta looked at each other bleakly.
“Given that her mind was so simple for all of her life,” the doctor continued, “her brain didn’t take well to all of the rewiring we did. Everything was wiped out. She has the mindset of a default imp, now.”
“But I thought you said that the surgery went according to plan,” whispered Loretta.
“We – we thought that it did. We’re so sorry. We did anticipate that there was a chance of something like this happening, but there was no way of knowing until she woke up…”
“You’re sure it can’t be fixed?” asked Lionel. “There’s nothing you can do?”
“Well, it can’t be fixed instantaneously, but…the human brain is an incredible machine, Mr. Amity. Everything we see and hear and experience is backed up somewhere forever; it’s accessing those memories that’s the real trick. If you got Pandora accustomed to the fact that she’s not an imp and that you’re her parents, her memories might begin to return in as little as a year. It’s a slim hope, but…”
Lionel tried to imagine flushing the past eighteen years of toil down the drain forever, striving to make his daughter’s shift back into her life easier while knowing that she didn’t remember him as her father, that she probably wouldn’t really remember that ever again. All of the child care, all of the trials that their family had faced trying to care for a crippled daughter, all of it no longer existed to her. He was having a hard time trying to come to terms with the concept. It was like asking him to suddenly exchange Pandora for an entirely different child, one who had an adult body but knew just as little as a child; his daughter may have been a cripple, but at least he knew what to do for her. How could Dr. Tamara talk about the change as if it was so easy and seamless?
“We’ll have to think about it,” he said at last.
Dr. Tamara nodded. “I understand. Take all the time you need.”
He and Loretta talked, more intimately than they had in years, about what the right thing to do might be. They discussed the hardships and the setbacks, and they wondered if the benefits would be worth it in the long run. For all they knew, there might not evenbeany benefits.
They went to see Pandora again, but the visit didn’t last long; she was drowsy and soon nodded off, and they didn’t make any progress in getting her to recognize them. Then they talked some more. Finally, they came up with a potential solution, and they called Dr. Tamara into the room.
“What if we were to let her go?” asked Lionel.
Dr. Tamara frowned. “What do you mean by that?”
“She thinks she’s an imp, and she believes that she belongs in that world. Maybe it would be best if she was allowed to keep thinking that. She could be sold as an imp, get an owner and a job, and she would learn about the world that way, in the same way that most imps do. She might not recover her old memories, but she’d be able to form new ones.”
“Well…I suppose we could do that,” mused Dr. Tamara slowly. “We’d have to restructure her a little more to give her the abilities of an imp, but that shouldn’t be too hard. You’d come visit her, though, wouldn’t you?”
“Maybe it would be better if we didn’t do that,” said Loretta softly. “It would be much harder for her to fit in if she knew where she came from, and it would be painful for us to see her. It’d be easier to sever all ties and just have a clean start.”
Dr. Tamara’s eyes widened. “But…she’s your daughter!”
“She is,” agreed Lionel. “And we want her to be happy. We feel that this is the only way for that to happen. Ignorance is bliss.”
And that more or less settled the matter.