58. One Last Offensive
“Listen up, everyone!”
Les, Ema, and Lai are standing tall at the front of the conference room. Lai, being somewhat vertically challenged, is actually balanced atop the long rectangular table, precariously and yet gracefully perched on its polished plastic surface like a crane on one leg. To look at her, one would never suspect that she has gone through multiple ordeals over the past two days. Her eyes are cool, her posture relaxed and yet confident. Sleep and a little bit of time have completely refreshed her, and it’s hard to imagine that her calm face could have ever looked doubtful or afraid.
She is taking the lead now as they face down all of Uniter Squadron 3, despite the fact that she is the newest of the three leaders. Les appears to be respectfully awaiting her commands, and Ema seems confused but silent. The other Uniters are less taken aback, as they have grown to think of their three superiors as interchangeable, and they are much more focused on what reason there could be for this unexpected meeting, anyway.
“Our orders have changed,” announces Lai matter-of-factly. “We’re no longer supposed to be looking for the nimp.”
“Why not?” someone calls up to the front.
She shoots a withering gaze in the direction of the voice, as if just daring them to question her again. “That’s confidential. Only leaders are allowed to know. All you need to understand is that we’re doing this because Lady T said so.”
“WhereisLady T?” another imp asks. “I thought she arrived on the orbital yesterday! Shouldn’tshebe telling us this?”
“She did arrive yesterday, but she asked me to make the announcement,” responds Lai boastingly. “Now, be quiet and listen, because I’m only going to explain this once.”
When her audience has sufficiently settled down, she clears her throat and begins again. “As I was saying, there’s been a change of plans. Now that Lady T’s heard that Ule is on the orbital, we’ve collaboratively decided that finding Pandora Amity is less important than stopping the ILG once and for all. We’re going to try to beat them from the top down, taking out their leader, and hopefully that will make the rest of the group collapse.” She punches a fist into her palm. “And that means that we’re going to get to see some real action.”
Mutters saturate the air, forming a mist of combined excitement and trepidation.
“Here’s what we’re going to do. The obvious first step is actually getting the ILG out of hiding. You can’t fight what you can’t find, after all. So if you want to a person – or a lot of people – out of hiding, then what do you do? You use bait.”
The whispers continue. Lai strains her advanced hearing, trying to see if anyone has guessed her intent yet. Sure enough, she catches murmured snatches of words like “rumors” and “ambush.”
“Right now, as we speak, Lady T is writing a fake negotiation to send to Ule,” she proclaims. “It’ll say that we’ve found the nimp, and that we’re willing to make an exchange for her if they’ll meet us at a certain place to discuss a peace agreement. We don’t know for sure if they’ll respond, of course, but we’ve got to hope for the best. The ILG really, really wants to get their hands on Pandora Amity. Hopefully this will be too tempting for them to pass up.”
“We haven’t actually found the nimp, have we?” someone demands suspiciously.
Several eyes in the crowd – those belonging to Les, Ema, and Alec, to be more precise – anxiously flit up to Lai’s face in order to gauge her reaction to this. But her muscles don’t give even the slightest flinch or twitch to betray her. “Of course we haven’t. And even if we had, we wouldn’t gotradingPandora Amity to a bunch of psychos. She’s still a person, after all, even if she is a little different.”
“What is our plan, Madame Superior?” asks Alec, the corner of his mouth twitching as he looks up at her.
She smirks right back at him as she begins her explanation. “We’ve reserved one of the specialty rooms for a ‘private event’ the day after tomorrow. There won’t be anyone in there but us and the ILG, provided that they actually show up. Lady T says that she thinks that there’s maybe sixty of them on the orbital right now, and since there’s a hundred of us and we have better training, we should be able to subdue them easily. Then we take them back to Earth as prisoners, and with a little luck, the rest of the group should start crumbling without guidance. The whole conflict could be wiped out soon enough.”
A few of the imps begin clapping at this, enthusiastically and only half-sarcastically. Most of the faces within her field of vision simply look relieved. The Uniter lifestyle has proved to be much more nerve-wracking than many of them anticipated, and it’s comforting to know that all of this will soon be over. Lai feels a little bit guilty about lying when she sees the pathetic optimism on their faces.But, she reminds herself,you’d be feeling even worse if you had to watch as everyone in the world was forcibly conditioned by the government, knowing that you just sat back and let it happen.
“And this time,” she declares, “there’s no regulations about non-lethal weaponry or not shooting to kill. Lady T is prepared to defeat these guys by any means necessary. If it means taking a few casualties, well, it’s not pretty, but that’s life. Besides, there won’t be anyone around to see it, and orbital security has already been alerted about what we’re going to be doing. They understand that it’s necessary.”
It’s necessary.She has to keep telling herself that.Ruining my life is necessary. And look on the bright side! After this ambush, everybody in the world will know my name. They’ll all know how special I am. I’ll become the most interesting person in the world.
She knows that she has support in her endeavor. Alec is planning to follow her lead, and so is Les. There’s a possibility that some of the other Uniters will go along with her, too, although personally she doubts that it will happen. Ema might, though. After all, once she learns that the ILG isn’t really an evil force hell-bent on taking over the world, she might feel more comfortable about rendezvousing with Codi.
There are questions asked, and she answers them. She struts around on the tabletop and puts on a show of smugness and indifference, because that’s what is expected of her. And she knows that very soon, she’ll have to deal with Lady T’s sickly sweet smiles as her human boss claims to be proud of her for coming up with such an effective plan all by herself. But the truth is that Lai had help devising this strategy; she, Alec, and Les spent hours concocting it after reaching their final decision about the conversation they’d overheard. And she’s well aware that no matter what Lady T says, that woman could care less about her. She’d just as soon drag Lai to a secret research institution as praise her and give her a leadership position.
The meeting adjourns quickly, since there isn’t much to talk about after laying out the specifics of their battle tactics. The conference room is rapidly emptied of its contents until only the four Mansen imps are left sitting there: Lai, Ema, Les, and Alec.
“I don’t like this at all,” remarks Ema unhappily. “I know this will sound awful, Lai, but couldn’t you have given yourself up instead of convincing Lady T that we needed to launch a full-blown attack? It seems like it would have been much simpler to just get you back to Earth and decide what needed to be done once we got there…”
“This is the best choice,” protests Lai defensively. She’s sitting on top of the table now, swinging her legs restlessly. “If the ILG found out who I am, they’d come after me no matter where I was. And I don’t want to sit there and be guarded like I’m some sort of precious treasure. I want tofight.”
“Yes, I know. You’ve insisted on it.” Ema rubs the skin beneath her eyes, where faint purplish shadows are now beginning to congregate. “And now the majority rules, since Les is supporting this as well.”
Les shrugs tensely. “What can I say, Ema? I think that this is the best choice as well, and once we get out there and finish this, I dare say that you’ll agree.”
“I guess so.” Ema sounds less than convinced, and she sighs, running her fingers through her ponytail tiredly. “I’ll be right back. I need to take some meds for my headache.”
The other three watch her go. Once she’s out of earshot, Les murmurs mournfully, “I’m worried about her.”
“You should be worried about us,” retorts Lai. “We’ve got a lot more at stake than just mild depression.”
“Are you certain that your decision is the correct one, Lai?” asks Alec. “There are still potential advantages to be had if we reveal your true identity to the Uniters now…”
“They’ll know soon enough,” she responds without missing a beat. “I’m going to say it big and loud, for everyone to hear.”
“That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll believe it,” Les points out.
She spins on her heels to face him, her nostrils flaring slightly. “Well, why would I lie about something like that?”
“In order to obtain attention,” says Alec. “Everyone is aware that you have a certain fondness for positioning yourself in the limelight.”
“They’ll believe it,” insists Lai dismissively. “They have to. Or else.”