27. The Leftovers
From the outside, Building 3020 looks virtually identical to every other residential structure in the settlement. It only begins to reveal its lavishness after Lai and the others pass into the lobby, and even then the décor is nothing that she isn’t used to. After all, she lives in a four-division, which is only one financial step down from this three-division. The only notable difference she can see is that the mirrors seem to be a bit more sparkly here.
It takes a few minutes for Les to coax the receptionist into opening up the elevator for them, and Lai assumes that the process is filled with many suspicious glances from the woman behind the polished desk and much checking and rechecking until she is satisfied that they really do work for the government. Convincing the elevator to take them to the third floor is a relatively simple task by comparison. Les enters an override code that bypasses all of the security measures surrounding Division 3023, and soon enough, the four of them are on their way.
“That code of yours is pretty handy,” Lai remarks as they begin their ascent.
Les shakes his head. “It won’t be for much longer. Any code that’s handed out to a subordinate for free will only work for so long. Usually they self destruct after twenty-four hours.”
“Then it’s even better that we came tonight,” she retorts smugly.
“What are we going to do if there’s security cameras in the division?” asks Ema worriedly.
“Nothing,” answers Les. “I doubt that anyone pays attention to the camera feeds from an abandoned division. Even if someone does, we have a good reason for being up there. All we have to do is explain ourselves.”
“No one will care,” says Lai dismissively. “There’s a war going on. Law enforcement has better things to do than protect the property of some rich people who aren’t even on Earth right now.”
The elevator door retracts quietly, and they step into a small, mostly undecorated foyer. The carpet beneath Lai’s boots is nubby and standard, coughing out puffs of dust every time she takes a step forward. Two artificial plants stand on either side of the door to Division 3023 like guards keeping a silent vigil, the cheery tones of their vases and plastic stems hidden beneath a layer of gray silt.
Les wipes off the door panel and wrinkles his nose at the grit clinging to his skin. “I wish I’d thought to bring my gloves.” Nevertheless, he strokes the slightly outdated screen to awaken it and jabs in a string of seemingly random numbers and letters. After a moment of hesitation, the door slides open, its movements stilted and jerky.
Lai is the first to stride in, and she places her hands on her hips as she takes in her surroundings. “Wow,” she declares appreciatively. “The Amitys must be pretty rich if they can live on an orbital and still keep this place reserved.”
“Not rich enough to keep the power on, apparently,” says Les, fruitlessly thumbing the light controls beside the door. Dim luminescence filters in from the hallway, but it isn’t enough to fully penetrate the murk of the division.
Lai reaches into her coat pocket and withdraws a lumi-stick. She gives the handle a quick twist, and a globe of white light appears to emanate from her hand. Now she can see that she is in what must have once been the living room. The windows are blocked completely by heavy blackout curtains draped over the usual electronic blinds, and the furniture coloration still speaks dully of non-synthetic materials.
“Well, one thing’s for sure. The Amitys must have liked old-fashioned things as much as I do,” she declares.
“This division has remained untouched for the greater part of a decade,” states Alec. “This means that to our eyes, its styling appears to be ‘behind the times.’”
“That’s not what I mean,” insists Lai. “Look at this couch.” She walks over to the sofa in question, prodding one of its legs with the tip of her boot. “It’s made of wood and silk, not plastic. And I know for a fact that they had modern building materials ten years ago, because that’s around the time that I was commissioned.”
Les scratches his head. “Huh. Well, Lionel Amity was an antique dealer. I guess he liked to bring home some pieces for himself.”
“Does that matter?” interjects Ema, her eyes darting back and forth in agitation. She rubs her arms as if she’s caught a chill, and Lai notices fleetingly that the older woman has broken out in gooseflesh. “Let’s just do what we came here to do and get out of here. This place gives me the creeps.”
And it very well might, Lai reflects, but not because of the dust-laden eeriness or the stench of abandonment in the air. It is because this is a forbidden area, and Ema is a rule follower above all things. She is unsuited for this kind of dark environment, which is so very different from the clean predictability that she is used to.
Lai feels no such apprehension. Perhaps it is her Land and Air Inspector instincts kicking in, but there is an aura of familiarity about this place that is swaddling her, protecting her from discomfort. It feels like she’s reliving a memory from a dream.
“Where do we start looking?” Les glances around. “There must be some personal files or photos orsomethingaround here…”
“How about in here?” Lai pries open the nearest door, which is slightly ajar and releases quiet screeches of protest as she pushes it aside. The doorway is further obscured by a mildewed, moth-eaten velvet curtain dangling down. She shoves it out of the way and stretches her arm into the room beyond, allowing her lumi-stick to splash light over its contents.
The others press in behind her. “I wonder what this room was used for?” Ema muses aloud.
“It’s some kind of formal living room/ballroom thing,” Lai finds herself saying.
Ema’s head turns sharply, and her eyes narrow. “Why do you say that?”
Lai shrugs. Whydidshe say that? “That’s…just what it looks like to me.” Suddenly she catches sight of a familiar boxy shape against one wall, its upper surface displaying a very distinctive black and white pattern. “Hey, look, a keyboard!”
“Don’t touch it!” hisses Ema, but Lai is already running off to examine the instrument. It’s of a similar make to her own keyboard, but with a few more bells and whistles added to it. One feature that she definitely recognizes, though, is the music display screen, which has built-in connectivity so that the user can download new songs directly…or compose them.
“Let’s see if the Amitys ever wrote a song for their daughter,” she decides, jamming her thumb against the power button.
“There’s no electricity in – ” Les starts, then blinks at the music display screen is illuminated with the words WELCOME LIONEL. “Wait, how did you turn that thing on?”
“If it’s anything like my keyboard at home, it’s got its own battery,” Lai replies. “Which still has juice, I guess. Wow, somebody here was a musician.”
She is scrolling through the song list now, and is surprised to find so many custom compositions; not even she writes music this often. “Piano solo 1,” she recites. “Piano solo 2 mock-up. Piano solo 2 final. Autumn Blues mock-up. Autumn Blues final…” Then she sees the next piece on the list, and her breath hitches.
“…Lai-unit, what has happened?” Alec speaks up.
She shakes her head in bewilderment and points at the screen. “Come over here,” she forces out. “You have to see this…”
The other three Mansen imps cluster around her, their eyes following the path of a finger that is not trembling, but frozen and rigid with shock. Typed on the screen in plain, economic letters is the one file name that is standing out to Lai like a starburst firework in a dark night sky:December Lullaby.
“…I don’t get it,” says Ema, puzzled.
Lai stifles an eye roll. Doesn’tanyoneever listen to her? “December Lullaby is my song. It’s the one I play all the time. The one that I wrote!”
Ema shrugs slowly. “Well, there’s a simple explanation. It’s a real song, and you didn’t remember that when you wrote it down.”
“Yeah, sure. Except that this is a custom composition. Whoever owns this keyboard wrote it themselves.”
“It could still be – ”
“It’s not a real song!” insists Lai. “Trust me, when it first popped into my head, I looked everywhere for it! There’s no actual, published piece of music called December Lullaby!”
“Perhaps it is only the title that is identical,” Alec suggests. “Which would be a coincidence, to be sure, but not unheard of by any means. It is extremely improbable that the music itself is also the same.”
Les nods. “That’s a good point. ‘December Lullaby’ is a pretty generic name. I bet you’re getting worked up over nothing.”
Lai releases a huffy breath and leans forward, tapping the display screen as if she suspects that it might explode. Immediately, a conglomeration of staffs and notes is spread out in front of her. She squints at the sheet music, and her brain takes a moment to grind into gear and inform her of the note names; admittedly, music literacy has never been her strongest suit.
“Well?” asks Ema pointedly, confident that this uncanny coincidence will be effortlessly disproved. Of course, she doesn’t even know how to read music, so…
Instead of responding, Lai lowers her fingers to the dusty keyboard and begins to play.
A familiar refrain filters through the keyboard’s long-dormant speakers, drifting between motes of dust, spreading ripples through this division that has been long devoid of both sound and life. The acoustics are strange, playing at their ears and turning the relatively simply melody into a haunting chant. It isn’t note-for-note the same as her arrangement, Lai notices. There are a few dotted quarter notes where she inserted halves, and a key change in the spot where she placed a repeat. Oddly enough, these changes feel even more natural, somehow, as if they were always meant to be there and were simply waiting for her to figure them out.
Or remember them…
The last measures of the December Lullaby die on her fingertips. Echoes linger in the air, mingling with the heavy scent of abandonment, and she turns to exchange stupefied glances with Ema, Les, and Alec.
No one speaks a word. There seems to be nothing else to say in the matter.
At last, Lai breaks the long silence. “Come on, let’s finish up. I want to get out of here.”