50. Dark Side
On her days off, Lai has always liked to lie in bed and allow her thoughts to wander before getting up, sometimes for over an hour after she awakens. It seems to be the only time of day that her thoughts are truly random, so disconnected and pointless that she never grows bored of them. But when she opens her eyes that morning, there is no restfulness in her mind. She feels as if she’s aged a decade in the space of a few hours. She’s more resigned now, more jaded. And for the first time, she knows the extent of how odd she really is.
The bitter irony of her situation does not escape her. She’s spent her life wishing to be extraordinary and to be the center of attention. Now she is most certainly a one-of-a-kind individual, her specialness proven by irrefutable scientific and historical fact. And if the world at large finds out what she is, they won’t stop paying attention to her for a long, long time.
As if the thought has triggered a burst of paranoia, she suddenly becomes aware that someone is staring at her.
Lai sits up quickly, noticing with dismay that she’s still wearing her formal gown from last night, though it’s now pathetically rumbled and sad-looking. Her hair has risen in jagged spikes from an uneasy sleep, which she can tell just by raising a hand to her head. And she quickly discovers that the eyes crawling upon her belong to Alec – or eye, rather, as his broken optic is still sealed shut and grinding. Its malfunctions seem to take different paths according to his moods, she’s noticed.
“What are you doing in here?” she demands.
He blinks at her calmly from his chair. “I have been supervising you for the past several hours, as I was instructed to.”
“Well, who the hell instructed you to do that?!”
“Ema. She was concerned that after your recent ordeal, you might require assistance during the night. You did not wake at all, however, so my role here was ultimately unnecessary. I shall leave in a moment, as I see that you are not in a pleasant mood.”
“I’m fine,” she says testily, averting her eyes.
“There is no need to feign strength for my benefit,” he responds, cool and unimpeded. “After the events of yesterday evening, I would not expect you to be ‘fine.’ You have discovered that you are a nimp and that you were abandoned by your parents” – she winces, as if simply the mention of that word is tangibly slicing into her skin – “and were taken hostage by the ILG directly afterwards.”
“I wasn’t really taken hostage. They didn’t do anything to me besides tie me up, stick me with prickers, and give me sleeping serum.”
“Nevertheless, it could not have been a pleasant experience.”
“No,” she admits, and she leans her head forward, massaging her temples. Her eyes flick up to him. “Quit looking at me like that.”
He tilts his head ever so slightly. “Whatever do you mean?”
“You’re giving me your pity,” she snaps. “I don’t want to be pitied. I know that from now on I’m going to have to deal with people looking at me like that, thinking, ‘oh, the poor little nimp girl! She doesn’t understand us normal people!’ I can’t correct all of them, but I can correct you, so that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m no different right now than I was a week ago, or a year ago. I’ve been a nimp for as long as you’ve known me. If you’re going to go back to hating me because of it, fine. But don’t give me your pity.”
Alec listens to her outburst without surprise, as if he expected that she would say something like that. “I do not pity you, Lai,” he says calmly, arching his eyebrow at her. “Nor have I ever hated you. It was not your fault that you became a nimp, nor did you have the power to choose this fate. The responsibility for the situation belongs exclusively to your parents, and anyone who believes otherwise would be a fool.”
“I guess.” She exhales roughly. “But what bothers me the most about it is, I wouldn’t beanythingif it wasn’t for them. No matter what their intentions were, everything I’ve done over the past ten years is because of them. I wouldn’t be able to play the keyboard, or read, or write, or have a life, if they hadn’t turned me into a nimp.”
“They have given you all of your freedom,” he muses aloud.
“But is it reallyfreedom? All of my hobbies come from them, too. I don’t know. I feel like no matter what they did, I was predestined to become who I am now, and I never even knew about it until yesterday.” She sighs sadly. “I always thought that normality is boring, but now I realize that I kind of need it. Things are never going to be ‘normal’ again, not for me.”
Alec gets to his feet, strides over, and sits down on the bed beside her. “You are not alone. Not in your life, and not in your situation. There is a dark side to everyone.”
“A dark side?” she repeats suspiciously.
“The place in the mind that contains secrets best left untold and dreams best left unfulfilled. Even when a person behaves in one manner, there are aspects of them that yearn to act oppositely. A kind person will still cultivate revenge fantasies, and a nonconformist will still wish to be praised and adulated. It is connected to what I was explaining to you before, about the inner and outer self.
“You mean, it’s the evil that’s in everyone,” says Lai, having read about similar theories before.
Alec shakes his head. “It is not so simple as good and evil. Being a nimp does not make you ‘evil,’ but it is a part of you that you would rather not acknowledge, which means that it can be counted as your dark side.”
“I guess so. It’s my deep, dark secret.” Her shoulders descend slowly. “And you already know all about it.”
They sit in silence for several minutes before Alec realizes something.
“The exchange,” he says.
Lai turns to him. The fire in her eyes is still quenched and smoldering. “What?”
“The game we play, in which we exchange information. I have learned your most carefully guarded secret, so it is only fair that you hear mine as well.”
“I don’t think that’s how the game works, but we made up the rules, so I can’t really object. And I need a distraction, anyway. What’s your big secret?”
“It is more of a story than a secret.” His gloved fingers creep towards his damaged eye. “To be more specific, it is the story of howthiscame to be.”
She’s paying attention now, leaning forward automatically. After all, she’s always wanted to hearthatstory, ever since she first met Alec. “You’re really going to tell me?” she asks.
“Why should I not? I believe that you are prepared enough. And after all of this, you shall certainly understand the weight of it.” His intact eye lifts to the ceiling, as if he is pleading for some distant deity to bestow strength upon him. “It involves…Orbital 13.”
“Were you there?” she asks, her curiosity flickering into reluctant life again. “Did you know the bionic imp who rebelled?”
“I did not know him.” Alec is staring straight ahead now, making the wall face the brunt of his deadpan gaze. “I am him.”
Lai’s eyes become shiny and round. Her lips part, but she does not make an attempt to speak.
“But…” she murmurs at last. “They said that he was decommissioned.”
“Yes,” he agrees softly. “I am a well-kept secret.”
“Why did you do it?”
“I did not.”
“But you rebelled and killed the – ”
“I did not rebel, and I did not kill my captain,” he interrupts. “I did not intend to, anyway. You must hear my story and judge for yourself.”
“Well,” she says, flicking her bangs out of her eyes, “I’m listening.”
And he can see that she is.