60. Big and Loud
The first thing Lai sees of the ILG is the eyes.
The lighting in their reserved specialty room is dim, splashing shadows everywhere in order to better conceal the Uniters lurking just out of sight. Only Lai, Les, and Ema are out in the open, standing in a stiffly organized formation behind Lady T. The human woman’s navy blue turtleneck and plain slacks would render her an easy target, if it weren’t for the fact that all three of the soldiers surrounding her are clad in their full armor.
When the door opens a sliver, two golden-brown eyes peer in suspiciously at the shady room, and then a burly, silhouetted figure slips in gingerly. More eyes appear at the level of his shoulders and elbows, shining like daubs of fluorescent paint on the wall behind him. The disembodied eyes seem frightened and wary and not all that threatening, but Lady T is not placated by how normal the ILG seems so far.
“Greetings, Unit for Leadership Excellence,” she states, standing up slowly and not wavering from her usual collected demeanor. “Have a seat.”
There are only two chairs in the room, both of them unadorned plastic, facing one another with austere plainness. The rest of the ILG will have to stand behind their leader, just as Les, Ema, and Lai are remaining on their feet right now. As for the other Uniters, they’re all crouching and squatting either on the ground or atop the decorative ceiling beams, out of sight…for now.
Ule lowers himself into the lone chair opposite Lady T, looking almost comically large, as if he’s about to crush the flimsy piece of furniture beneath his bulk. He is wearing his Imps Liberation Group uniform, swathed in smoky, reinforced fabrics from top to bottom, his head enclosed by a square helmet. A visor covers the upper half of his face, but it isn’t tinted, and occasional displays and statistics jitter across the transparent glastic surface. He clears his throat. “I was under the impression that you’d be asking all of the Uniters to attend this meeting, Lady T,” he says.
“Why, that would be very impractical, especially for a peace talk,” replies Lady T pleasantly. She resumes her own seat and crosses her legs casually. “I’ve only brought my leaders, as you can see.”
“I do see.” Ule’s eyes travel over her shoulder, settling first on Les, then on Ema. When they reach Lai, they narrow just slightly, but she doesn’t react.
“You’ve been very naughty lately, Ule,” reprimands Lady T. “I always pegged you for an intelligent, diligent worker, and then I turned around and the next thing I know, you’re out there preaching to all of Settlement 211 about how imps should rule over humans. Now, did I, as your owner, ever do anything that would warrant that kind of behavior?”
“Yes, you did,” he retorts without missing a beat. “I know that even back then, you were one of the most fervid supporters of the Nimp Proposition.”
She presses the tip of one fingernail against her lip. “Nimp Proposition? Why, Ule, I’m afraid that I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“So you say. Why don’t you just go back to the rest of your Uniters and tell them that the Imps Liberation Group is not an imp supremacy movement?”
“Because it’s a lie, and they wouldn’t believe you.” She turns around and gazes at her three leaders knowingly. “Isn’t that right?”
Ema gives a genuine nod, while Lai and Les bob their heads dutifully.
“No, you’re the liar,” Ule contradicts, but wearily, as if he’s well aware that he won’t be convincing anyone of his merits today. “And you’re a very good one, at that. I didn’t suspect a thing when you were still my owner, and I see that you’ve even got Dr. Ema under your thumb now…which couldn’t be too easy to accomplish, since she’s both a smart woman and a professional psychologist.”
Ema bristles, taking a step forward. “I’m sick and tired of you pretending that you know me, Ule! Why don’t you just stop with the attempted head games? No one here is buying into it!”
“But Idoknow you,” he protests, sighing in exasperation. “You really haven’t guessed it yet? I was – ”
“Enough of this!” interrupts Lady T harshly. “I brought you here to reach an agreement, and if all you’re going to do is carry on like this, then I’ll call the whole thing off.”
Ule bows his head in mocking submission. “My…sincerestapologies, ma’am. Now, what exactly is it that you wanted to discuss?”
“I heard that you were looking for a certain nimp,” she replies coolly. “A girl by the name of Pandora Amity, to be precise. And it just so happens that we have a handle on her location and have more or less committed her to our cause. If you were really interested in using her for something, we might be willing to allow your group access to her…but only if you agree to stop with this nonsensical violence immediately.”
“I see,” he says carefully. “And where exactly is Ms. Amity now?”
“Hidden,” Lai speaks up smugly. “And trust me, you’ll never be able to find her.”
“What is it that you want with her, anyway?” asks Ema crossly.
“I could tell you, but as long as you still think that we’re an imp supremacy movement, you wouldn’t believe the truth. All I’ll say is that I need her to prove that nimps really exist. If my union simply came out of the woodwork and declared that the government wants to turn us all into nimps, then we’d be labeled as pretentious conspiracy theorists and universally ignored. But if we actually had some good, solid proof that nimps really do exist…” He spreads his hands out in front of him. “Well, concrete evidence is a good way to convince people that you aren’t insane.”
The ILG members gathered behind him mutter to one another restlessly, shifting on their feet. Lady T snaps her fingers to quiet them down. “You, back there! You’re not a part of this conversation! I don’t want to hear any more whispering, or else this whole thing is off.”
“Don’t speak like that to my group!” Ule leans forward, his eyes shrinking down to threatening slits. “They haven’t done anything to you!”
She looks over her shoulder dramatically at the three increasingly edgy leaders. “Do any of you agree with that statement? Do you think that the ILG ‘hasn’t done anything to us?’”
Les shakes his head firmly. “They provoked us to attack.”
“They launched a siege on a settlement!” adds Ema.
“They’ve messed things up for us, all right,” finishes Lai. Technically, there is nothing false in what she’s saying. The ILG has certainly made her life more needlessly complicated than it ever was before, even though they had no intention to do so. And to think, she’s on their side now…
“Let me ask you something,Lady T,” splits Ule, as if the pseudonym is acidic on his tongue. “If I decide to cease and desist and give myself up, you would have me tried and convicted, wouldn’t you?”
“Well, obviously,” she replies icily. “The last time I checked, rebelling against the ownership system of humans and imps is illegal. Not to mention all of the property damage you’ve caused, the numerous innocent persons you’ve imprisoned, and the possible casualties that have yet to be investigated…”
His eyes widen. “Casualties? No one in my group has killed anyone!”
“So you say. But I don’t tend to believe the assurances of maniacs, and neither do the authorities.”
“No matter what hairs you want to spit, Lady T, my answer to you is going to remain the same.” He sits forward, lips pursed in determination, looking focused and steadfast but surprisingly not evil. “I’m not doing what you think I am, but technically, my movement’s purpose is still illegal. Either way, obtaining Pandora Amity in exchange for surrendering myself would be extremely counterproductive. I can only use her if I’m around to set the wheels in motion. So asgenerousas your offer is, I’m afraid that I’ll have to pass up on it.”
Behind her glasses, one eyelid twitches. “You’re refusing to reach a peace agreement?”
“That’s what I said.”
Her fingers flex in anticipation. “I had thought that might be your response, but it never hurts to give one a second chance…no matter. You have now forced me to declare all-out war on you and your Imps Liberation Group. From now on, all pretense of mercy will be abandoned, and my Uniters will be devoted to bringing you to justice by any means necessary.”
“We can live with that,” retorts Ule, and he lifts his own hand.
Immediately, the soldiers behind him snap into a formation, as instantaneously organized as iron fillings dragged into a radial shape by a magnet. Their weapons emerge and are immediately pointed at Lady T and her three leaders, but they don’t evoke the reaction that they were hoping for. Instead, Les plants a finger against the em-comm in his ear and declares, “They’re resisting. Come out here, now!”
Ninety-seven figures in black armor spring out of corners and leap down from the ceiling beams, nonchalantly revealing weapons of their own and shifting into fighting stances. Their stunners and flash bombs make the ILG’s outdated handguns look pitifully harmless, and even the Uniters’ shadowy garb makes the odds seem ridiculously favorable to them, like a squad of ninjas facing off against a convention of rent-a-cops.
In all his infinite planning, Ule anticipated that the Uniters might spring something like this, but he never imagined that the situation would look this bleak and terrifying. His chair topples over as he frantically rushes to join his ranks, but taking a step back and seeing just how many adversaries he has isn’t exactly fodder for optimism.
“Call them off,” instructs Lady T flatly, jerking her tapered chin towards the now-discouraged ILG agents.
Ule swallows. “Lower your weapons,” he says, but he doesn’t issue an order to retreat.
Lady T spins on her heels to face her own army. “That was even easier than I thought it would be. Good idea, Lai.”
Lai smirks and performs a none-too-modest bow, but even as her upper body leans towards the floor, she catches a glimpse of Ule’s shocked and disappointed expression.
“Now,” says Lady T, kicking the fallen chair out of the way with an offhand nudge of her shoe heel, “let’s finish this.”
Les nods obediently. “Surround them,” he says, with his hand still cupped over his ear. He deliberately avoids making eye contact with Lai.
The Squadron 3 imps quickly take up their positions and circle the ILG, forcing the enemy soldiers to condense into a huddled lump in which fighting back would be extremely difficult. Some of the crestfallen combatants squeeze their eyes shut, certain that the new “no mercy” battle tactic means that they’re about to be blown to smithereens. The more sanguine fighters merely lift their chins defiantly and refuse to be cowed by this quick ending, even knowing that they will soon be taken prisoner. Fear and pride alternate throughout the group with a nearly visible pattern, and as she stares at them, Lai feels more certain about her choice than ever.
They’re humans, she thinks.They’re just like us. This whole time we’ve been thinking of them as horrible evil villains, but they’re not. And I might be a nimp while everyone else is an imp, but that doesn’t matter in the end. All of us are humans. In our minds, we’re all the same.
As this revelation strikes her, her eyes roam over the tightly packed crowd and connect with a single green optic – Alec’s. He gives her the barest little nod, conveying that now is the time to execute her plan.
“Wait a minute,” she calls out, stepping forward.
Lady T’s glasses flash as her head tilts towards the dim lighting. “What is it now?”
“There’s just one more thing I want to do,” answers Lai, striding up to Ule until she is nearly nose to nose with the Unit for Leadership Excellence. He glowers at her, arms crossed, fingers creeping instinctively towards the weapon in his belt. He wouldn’t dare reach for it in these tense conditions, however.
“You want to know where the nimp is,” she tells him, matter-of-factly.
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” he snaps, his metaphorical hackles rising.
“Maybe it does.” She draws herself up on tiptoes pointedly. “What if I told you that Pandora Amity was in here right now? That she could see this whole conflict going on, and that she’s onyourside, not Lady T’s? What if I told you that she was right in front of your face?”
He gazes at her bitterly. “If you told me that, I don’t think that I would be inclined to believe you.”
“You’d be making a big mistake, then.” Lai sucks in a deep breath, deliberately raising the volume of her voice to its maximum level.Big and loud, she tells herself.Don’t be ashamed of it. It will be over fast.
She hears the rustling of confused whispers surrounding her, but she doesn’t turn to look at any of her former companions. She doesn’t want to see Alec’s grim resignation or Ema’s incredulous horror, and most of all, she can’t bring herself to watch the realization dawn on Lady T’s face. The human woman might be understanding right now what is about to happen, but if she is, then she’s too late.
“Pandora Amity isn’t just a nimp,” announces Lai, and her muscles lose their tension as the last traces of fear are flushed out of her nerve endings. Nothing can stop her now. “You already know that she used to be a human. But in the operation thatchangedher, she lost her memory. For the longest time, she thought that she was just a regular imp. And it was only after she saw her parents again that she learned otherwise. Can you guess who of us she might be?”
Ule’s brow crinkles…then, seemingly out of nowhere, his eyes widen abruptly. “You’re not serious,” he breathes.
“Iamserious,” she declares, and she turns and sprints into the middle of the room so that everyone can get a good look at her, clambering atop Lady T’s vacated chair. “I wouldn’t lie about this!” she exclaims. “I wouldn’t lie to any of the Uniters. All of you are good people, and whatever you might think of me now, I just need you to keep on listening for a few minutes.
“When the ILG said that they’re not an imp supremacy movement, they were telling the truth. I know that they sound like a bunch of crackpot conspiracy theorists, but the thing is, they know more about us than we do. They know thatshe” – here she jabs an accusing index finger at Lady T – “is a fraud, and that she’s advocating a new system in which humans and imps will be combined. She used us – she usedallof us.”
The uproar following this contains exactly the sort of reactions that Lai expected.
“She’s lost it!”
“She hasn’t lost it. The ILG probably mindhacked her!”
“Or she’s been letting Ule persuade her! Lady T warned us about that!”
Lai’s em-comm prickles, and after a moment Ema’s voice hisses, “Lai, what are you doing?! You’re not supposed to tell the rest of us about who you are, let alone the ILG!”
“Watch me,” retorts Lai, and she pries the ear clip from its perch, allowing it to drop harmlessly to the floor.
“I know you all think I’m insane,” she continues. “I would think so, too, except I have proof. The proof is that we found Pandora Amity…and I’m her.
“I know that nimps exist…because the nimp is me.”