Lai takes a hot shower in her cabin’s en suite bathroom, and as the water thumps against her bare skin, her thought processes seem to speed up and go into overdrive. She thinks about Lionel and Loretta Amity, her parents, and very poor parents at that. Maybe it’s better that they left her to go out into the world as an imp. At least she didn’t have to be under their influence anymore, and if they hadn’t, then she never would have met Felix or Les or Ema or Alec. Alec…
She repeats his story over again in her head while she splashes herself with satiny lotions and creams. He called himself a murderer, but she knows him better than that. He’s such a rule follower, always so concerned with doing whatever is factually correct. His brain is essentially a highly sophisticated computer, capable of malfunctioning and throwing his consciousness out of control. As far as she knows, the Orbital 13 incident is the only time that he’s ever glitched like that. In the ten years since she’s met him, he’s always seemed like a near-perfect imitation of a human to her…albeit an austere, overly controlling one, but some people are just like that.
She wonders if she might eventually fall in love with him, or if her attraction will remain only that. How will she be able to tell? Ema has always said that there’s no way to define love, but then how would someone know when they’ve experienced it? And for that matter, will Alec really be able to overcome his limited span of emotions and return any feelings that she develops? Lai doesn’t know, and she supposes that they will just have to take it from day to day in order to find out.
She turns off the water and swabs her bare skin with a Super Dry Suction Towel, before changing into clean undergarments and one of her usual gray dresses. Then she combs her bangs neatly against her forehead and frowns at her reflection in the mirror. She half expected that her appearance would be different now that she knows that she’s a nimp, turning her face more human-like, but of course it hasn’t. She still looks like nothing more exotic than a mildly pretty imp. No one who didn’t know in advance would be able to tell that she has any human DNA in her at all.
When at last she is completely washed, dried, and dressed, she steps back into the sleeping area. Lady T is already there, waiting for her.
“There you are!” The human woman descends on her like a hawk cornering a mouse, wrapping her long-nailed fingers snugly around Lai’s shoulders. “My dear girl, I know that this is probably a nightmare for you. It certainly took me by surprise. I accounted for so many crimps in the plan, but not something like this…”
“I’m fine, Lady T,” interjects Lai, tensing uncomfortably.
Lady T eyes her, taken slightly aback. She is wearing her white coat over formal gray slacks and a purple turtleneck, and her glasses are perched on the bridge of her nose as usual, making her eyes appear shiny and intense. “There’s no need to feign strength. After all, you found out thatyouwere the nimp, and then you were held prisoner by the ILG, all on the same night! I can’t imagine that I’d be calm, either, after such an ordeal.”
“But I am calm.” Lai rolls her shoulders out of Lady T’s grasp. “I mean, I’m not going to say that it’s no big deal, because it is a big deal. But I’m not freaking out about it or anything.”
Lady T frowns. “Pandora, are you feeling all right?”
“I promise I’m…” Lai’s breath hitches abruptly. “Hold on. What did you just call me?”
“Oh, it…” Lady T’s eyes widen slightly, and the pace of her words seems to speed up. “It was a slip of the tongue. I’m sorry. I was just rereading the case file, and I’ve got your other identity on the brain.”
“Let’s just cut to the chase,” says Lai. “You’re not going to take me out of the Uniters, are you?”
“All of Squadron 3 is being sent back to Earth as soon as possible,” Lady T answers. “After all, there’s no reason for you to stay here anymore, is there? I’ll pay a visit to the Amitys and get them to come back, as well. I don’t want them getting tricked into talking by the ILG.”
Lai frowns. “We can’t leave yet. There’s still a bunch of ILG members here, including Ule. We still have a chance to stop them!”
“No. That isn’t what I sent you here to do. Your mission was to find the nimp, and you’ve done that much. Now it’s time for you to come home so that we can reorganize.”
“I’m not sure why, but…I don’t think that leaving is a good idea. Something is going on here, and if the Uniters aren’t here to stop it, we might lose this war.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Lady T, when I was with the ILG, they told me that they’re not really an imp supremacy movement. They said that they’re going up against a new idea that the World Gov has, about turning everyone into a nimp so that they can control everything. What do you know about that?”
“It’s facetious nonsense,” proclaims Lady T calmly. “And it’s a popular conspiracy theory, if memory serves. Who told you about it? Ule?”
“I’m not surprised. His main weapon is persuasion, and it would do him well to make one of the Uniters’ leaders believe that his group is not a threat. You mustn’t allow him to weaken your resolve, Pandora. I know that you’re strong enough to shut him out.”
Lai stares. “You just called me Pandora again.”
Lady T seems almost aghast for a moment; then, gradually, her lips curl up. She’s wearing very bright lipstick, the color of a carnation, making her mouth the most prominent feature against her deep brown skin.
“I take it that you don’t like being called Pandora, then.”
“No matter who I used to be, that’s not my name anymore. My name is Lai.”
“Fine, then, I’ll make sure that I don’t make that mistake again. You do seem unusually calm. I know a great number of imps who would break down completely if they were faced with the life-changing news you heard yesterday.”
Lai shrugs. “I guess so. I think I’ve always been better at controlling my emotions than other people. And I’ve had some other things to think about…” She smiles slightly.
Lady T’s face darkens. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing’s funny. I was just thinking about Alec, that’s all.”
“Alec? The bionic imp? What doeshehave to do with this?”
“He’s my boyfriend now. I think he likes me…”
“Likesyou?” repeats Lady T incredulously. Her eyes are horrified, as if she’s never been confronted with two people forming an emotional connection before. “Lai, that’s…that’s absolutely demented! Now I know for sure that you must be too distraught to stay here. Haven’t I already told you that you’ll be so much stronger if you don’t get involved in any attachments?”
“It’s not like I’m in love with him or anything. Besides, attachments aren’tthatbad…”
“Regardless of that, it’s not as if A130 can feel things the way that people do. He’s a glorified android! Surely you must understand that…”
“Let’s just get back on track,” Lai interrupts. “Now, I know that you’re my superior and everything, but the leader of Squadron 3 Faction C, I think that we should stay up here for just a few more days. We finally have Ule in our sights, and we know that he’s probably not planning to escape. So we should just take him down now, while we’re here! It will send the rest of the ILG into chaos, and then it will be easier for us to get them, too. Otherwise, who knows when we’ll have another chance?”
Lady T’s eyes narrow. “You want to have one last offensive before we leave?”
“I trust your judgment, Lai.” Pause. “You don’t seem to be thinking too irrationally, and your plan does make sense. Still, I’m wary about you making a target of yourself…”
“The ILG doesn’t know who I am, and I don’t think they’ll figure it out. My parents won’t tell them, and besides, why would they ever suspect me?” Lai smiles innocently.
“I can’t believe I’m going to let you give the orders,” mutters Lady T. “All right, Miss Lai, I’ll compromise. We’ll play the game your way. But I want this to be quick, and if it fails, we’re going back to Earth no matter what. Are we clear?”
“Crystal clear.” Lai nods vigorously.
“All right. I have to head off to visit the Amitys now.” Lady T starts for the door, then turns around one more time. “Make sure you take care of yourself, Pandora. I would hate for something to happen to you.”
Lai doesn’t bother correcting her this time. The imp girl lowers herself onto her bed, and her eyebrows are furrowed and troubled. For a few minutes, she hardly moves, sitting and concentrating in her characteristic silent mode. Something about the entire conversation feels wrong to her. The tone was off, the pacing was odd, and Lady T’s reactions were extremely confusing. Not to mention that she kept calling Lai “Pandora” as if she is already completely accustomed to the fact that Lai is the nimp…
At last, without hesitating a moment longer, Lai strides out of her room and heads off to find Alec. She has the feeling that it’s time to do some off the books work once again.