56. The New War
Lionel Amity is, of course, no stranger to déjà-vu. His life often feels like an endless cycle that he is powerless to stop, especially over the past few days, what with his daughter making her reappearance after ten years. But right now, he is being overwhelmed with a creeping sense of familiarity that seemingly has no reason or purpose. The woman seated at the kitchen table with him and his wife is a stranger, and yet he can’t help but wonder if he’s seen her before.
“So, just to confirm…you’re the leader of the Uniters?” he asks for the second or third time.
“Yes,” she answers patiently. “I formed the group, and I’ve been leading it from behind the scenes. I sent Squadron 3 here to ask you nicely about your daughter, and I was unhappy to hear that you two were quite uncooperative.”
“Well, you had our daughter all along,” retorts Lionel testily. “It isn’t our fault that you didn’t know who she was.”
The woman – Lady T, she calls herself – raises an eyebrow. “On the contrary, I think that itisyour fault. Both of you should be ashamed of yourselves. What sort of parents would give up on their child and abandon her for ten years?”
“Now, wait just a minute!” protests Loretta. “You don’t know anything about why we…”
“Don’t I, though?”
Something about the commanding timbre of her voice stops the Amitys up short. Her pleasant tone has suddenly become reinforced by steel fangs.
“Consider the audacity,” she continues, “of allowing a nimp to mingle with the ordinary humans and imps! There are so many things that could have gone wrong. Imagine if she’d suddenly started remembering, hmm? What would have happened if she’d recollected who she was and had started telling people that she was actually a nimp? The conspiracy theorists would have swarmed out of the woodwork, I can tell you that much, and they’d suddenly have so many new recruits for their cause. Too many for comfort. And that might have compromised everything.”
“All the better, if people would start believing the truth,” declares Loretta self-righteously. “They should see the immoral things that the government does to people!”
“And it seems that there is a conspiracy theorist in our midst right now.” Lady T’s lip curls back. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, Mrs. Amity. I’m so sick of people like you who only see things as transparently ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ The World Gov is a complex institution comprised of many people with many different ideas. There’s no malevolent dictator at the center of it all, rubbing their hands together and laughing evilly as they enslave all of humanity. What would be the advantage of that? Without people, the government has no power. And obtaining power isn’t even our ultimate goal. Our job is to make sure that everything stays organized, to define normality.”
“Then why do you artificially create imps and condition them to do your work?” demands Loretta. “Why don’t you let them do what they want…or better yet, get rid of them entirely and just allow humans to populate the world, like it was meant to be?”
“We first created imps to show that it was possible; now they’re all a part of the system. We couldn’t get rid of them, because the entire economy depends on them now. And it’s not as if we’re brainwashing them into doing our bidding. They have free will, they have their opinions, and they’re free to develop their own personalities and interests once we let them go. We design them for certain jobs because if we didn’t, then a lot of vital work would never get done well, or get done at all. Imps aren’t unnatural, you see. They and humans both have their places in the world.” Lady T folds her hands on the tabletop in front of her. “That’s why your precious Pandora is such an outlier since you abandoned her. She’s a nimp. Too much of a human to fit in with the imps, but too improved to be comfortable with the humans. Even before she knew who she really was, she was always aware of her differences.”
Lionel narrows his eyes. “Now it’s starting to sound like you always knew she was a nimp, even when she didn’t…”
Lady T smiles, but it isn’t a comforting expression, or an innocent one.
He feels profoundly uneasy about the direction that this conversation is heading in. “It’s not like you have to reveal to the whole world that she’s a nimp. Only a few people know. If you’re that worried about the consequences, I’m sure that she could just continue pretending to be an imp, and no one would think anything of it…”
“I’m afraid that won’t work,” Lady T sighs remorsefully. “Secrets are like organic fruits. They’re rare, delicious little things, but they never last too long. You might try to put them in the refrigerator so that they’ll keep longer, but it doesn’t work. Eventually, one of two things will happen: you’ll either take them out and eat them, or they’ll spoil and cause quite a mess.”
He sets his jaw. “Do you have to beat around the bush? What are youreallysaying?”
“I’m saying that one way or another, the truth will eventually come out about Pandora. That’s why I think that she’ll be going away for a while. Perhaps the revelation of her true origins will simply be too much for her, and she’ll run away, leaving her entire life behind her…a sad situation, but not an entirely uncommon one. These disappearances do happen from time to time…”
Lionel and Loretta exchange a horrified glance.
“Disappearances?” gasps Loretta. “You don’t mean that you’re going to…”
“…kill her? I wouldn’t dare,” responds Lady T coolly. “She’s much too valuable for that. But she’ll need to be transported to a safe place, preferably a place where she can be properly studied. And while she’s there, all evidence that she ever existed will suddenly vanish, and she never will have been.” She peers through her glasses at them. “I’m not here to reassure you two. I’m here to warn you. By the order of my superiors, you’re being given a chance to keep living normal lives. You are to return to Earth immediately and forget all about this, or you’ll be disappearing along with your daughter…and if that happens, then you won’t be valuable enough to warrant being kept safe. Are we clear?”
“Crystal clear,” squeaks Loretta, a gulp of air travelling down the length of her pale throat.
Lionel stares down at where his clenched hands are resting on the table. He knows that he shouldn’t resist Lady T, that it would be so much easier for him to brush all of this aside and continue the charade that he’s maintained for the past ten years. And yet somehow, he can’t bring himself to do that anymore. Imprinted into his visual memory, like the after-burn of a camera flash, is the image of Lai as she shouted at him yesterday, her face livid but still desolate, her tense muscles juxtaposing her overall slumped posture. She looked exactly like someone who had just learned that her parents abandoned her, someone who didn’t know whether to be angry or sad. And for the first time, he feels a surge of protectiveness towards her. She’s still his daughter, by god, and if Lady T was expecting him to sit here quietly and let this happen…
“We’re clear,” he agreed calmly, raising his eyes. “And if you’re going to make us vanish, then go ahead, do your worst. But leave Pandora alone.”
“Excuse me?” demands Lady T, as if unable to comprehend that someone would ever challenge her.
“I said, don’t you dare do anything to our daughter,” he repeats. “This isn’t her fault, it’s ours. She never asked for any of this to happen to her. If anyone deserves to be punished, then it’s me and Loretta.”
“Lionel!” cries Loretta. “We don’t deserve to be punished! We didn’t do anything wrong!”
He shakes his head silently. Is his wife really deluded enough to genuinely believe that what they did to Pandora was therightchoice?”
“Oh, sonowyou’ve decided to play the noble parent?” Lady T’s teeth and glasses flash at them. “Too late, you’ve already missed your chance. In case you hadn’t noticed, I don’t take orders from you. If you try to interfere, then I’ll personally see to it that you’re no longer a threat. And that is a promise.”
“Why should we listen to you?” Lionel’s voice is rising. “Why should we just stand by and make yet another bad decision while you take our daughter away to god-knows-where?!”
“Because this is no longer about your daughter,” replies Lady T sharply. “It’s about the stability of the entire world. Even this very orbital could come crashing down if my endeavor fails. Pandora is merely one piece of a very large machine, and I can’t worry about her anymore. I have to think about the greater good. And if you make any attempt to stop me, Mr. Amity, then I’ll make you regret it.Do you understand?”
Lionel swallows and leans back against his chair. “Yes,” he says quietly. “I understand.”
“That’s more like it.” She stands abruptly, and her chair scrapes against the linoleum floor, making a raspy and discordant sound. But then there’s another sound, as well: a sort ofthump-thump-thumpcoming from above their heads, barely audible, like the heartbeat of a gentle lullaby.
Loretta’s head darts up nervously. “What was that?”
“How should I know?” mutters Lady T. “There’s maintenance ducts between each floor. Some janitor is probably up there making noise.” She strides over to the door and pauses for a moment longer before she leaves, her eyes glimmering challengingly behind the lenses of her glasses. “Remember what I said. And don’t think that I won’t know it if you disobey me.”
The door slides shut behind her, and the thumping sound retreats into the distance.