34. Showing Off
Lai is listed on Orbital 9’s guest list under the ludicrous false name of Larissa Amity. It is Lady T’s way of justifying the amount of time Lai will be spending questioning the Amitys, and Lai nearly burst out laughing when she first saw it. She doesn’t think for one second that Lionel and Loretta will believe that she’s some long-lost cousin of theirs, and she already has permission to reveal to them who she really is, but it’s those kinds of little flourishes that really showcase Lady T’s artistry.
Lai claims her painfully boring suitcase with its not-so-painfully-boring contents, checks herself in and makes sure that everyone else does the same, finds their “company” suite and guides other people to their private cabins, and snaps at the rowdy soldiers trailing behind her to stop acting like a bunch of damned kids. Finally, everything seems to be taken care of, and she and the others spread out to explore.
Orbital 9 is so enormous that it seems like there should be some way to pilot groundcrafts through it, if only so that the passengers would be able to see everything more quickly. As it is, the distance is far too great to cover on foot in a single day. Lai tries to absorb as much as she possibly can. She weaves between ballrooms and workout rooms and stargazing rooms, peeks into restaurants and conference halls and empty theaters, pinpoints the locations of the laundry facilities and the convenience stores and the Lido Deck so that she knows where to go later that evening. Everywhere she goes, an expanse of gleaming metal, rounded edges, and posh decorations stretches for as far as the eye can see, and every glastic window and porthole presents an alluring display of the cosmos beyond. Now she fully understands why this is such a popular destination for both vacations and business trips. This is a fully equipped city hovering free from the constraints of the Earth, and she almost wishes that she could stay here forever.
But she is not here to become relaxed and refreshed, of course. She is an on-duty protector of worldwide peace. So after a while, she also tries to keep an eye out for agents of the Imps Liberation Group.
The orbital’s population consists of mostly humans, and Lai’s own kind stand out to her in the crowds, as if they are enveloped in metaphorical glowing auras. But how can she know who is a simple domestic imp, or a legitimate worker? No one appears to be scheming sneakily in a corner or glaring at the humans a little more bitterly. She almost wishes that an attack would break out; at least then she’d know who she was fighting against, and besides, she’d have the chance to use her new skills in some real combat.
Eventually, her wanderings take her to a sort of music lounge, where several other members of her faction are doing nothing in particular. Some are lazily sprawled out over pieces of furniture, others are arguing over whose comm should be connected to the state-of-the-art sound system, and a few are grouped around the keyboard in the corner, joking with each other and beating out random notes. She is of course drawn to this last location, wincing at the discord as she strides over.
“Are you guys done yet?” she quips. “Why don’t you make room for someone who canactuallyplay?”
“Yeah, right,” someone else shoots back. “What exactlycanyou actually play – Twinkle Twinkle Little Star?”
They all laugh, Lai included. She’s never really socialized in a group before, nor has she been interested in doing so, but she knows enough to see that her groupmates aren’t intending to be mean. They’re only joking with her, trying to be inclusive…and it will be even funnier once they see what she can really do.
“Sure, something like that,” she answers as she flexes her fingers and lowers them to the keys, contemplating what song to play. Her hands are automatically outlining the chords of her December Lullaby, but she hasn’t touched that piece in days, not since…
She starts in on a pop song instead, a simple tune that she has committed to memory and that most of her companions will probably recognize. Her fingers dart swiftly and confidently across the keyboard, leaping octaves effortlessly, stepping between the boundaries of white and black in the space of a heartbeat. She senses rather than sees the clusters of eyes training upon her. Her improved hearing prickles as she detects the doubtful mutters of people wondering if she’s faking it, miming along to a music track secretly beamed to the sound system…
“Hey, what’s your trick?” demands the imp who teased her before.
“No trick,” Lai smirks, not even glancing up. While it’s probably not visible to them, she’s concentrating very hard in order to make sure that her muscle memory doesn’t betray her.
“No trick? Then how are you doing that?” someone else exclaims, as other Uniters begin to crowd around her. She wishes that they’d take a few steps back and leave the sphere of her personal space, but she remains nonchalant.
“I took digital lessons and taught myself how to play some other songs and stuff,” she replies. “I mean, I know that most of you guys think that all music comes from a synthesizer, but some people prefer to do it the old-fashioned way. Like me.”
People stoop down to examine the speakers and observe the motion of her hands. They aren’t naïve enough to believe that no one is able to play the keyboard anymore, but activities like leisure instruments are for humans. The concept of animplearning to do something like this is practically unheard of.
Questions begin to bounce at her from all sides. “What learning program did you get to teach you how to play?”
“Does your owner know about this?
“Do you have a keyboard at home?”
“Can you play any other songs?”
“Sure, I can play other songs,” Lai answers, cutting herself off in the middle of a measure. “Does anyone have any suggestions?”
A dozen other titles are promptly flung at her. Most of them she doesn’t recognize – she’s never followed pop music too closely – but at last she selects a name that sounds familiar, and even though she hasn’t played the piece before, it’s simple enough that she thinks she should be able to figure it out by ear. The resulting performance is certainly not concert-worthy, but she enjoys it and so does her rapidly growing audience.
So she stumbles through that song, and then she plows her way through a few more, laughing along with the others when she pounds out an incorrect chord or comes across an inconsistency in the tempo. Anyone who came across their little party in that lounge would see them as nothing more than a bunch of young men and women, social creatures, all interacting with one another and behaving as they are wont to do. For the other Uniters, that may even be true. But Lai senses that she is somehow separate from them, not physically, but isolated as if by a mental barricade. Perhaps it is because she is still conscious of her position as their leader. If the ILG were to attack them right now, the entire battle would be her responsibility, and she would no longer be on equal ground with her soldiers. Even now, as she snickers and smiles, her eyes remain icy and observant. Happiness does not extend all the way to her core.
Fortunately, no battles materialize, and her novelty wears off after four or five pop song renditions. Imps leave the music lounge in pairs and trios. One group invites her to come and grab a drink with them, but she politely declines. She has no desire to entangle herself in the social lives of people she barely knows. Besides, it will soon be time for Squadron 3’s mass meeting in the Lido Deck, and she wants a few minutes to herself before that happens.
Soon the room is entirely vacant. Lai remains seated at the keyboard bench, feeling the muscles in her fingers twitch longingly. She is itching to play her December Lullaby…and, now that she thinks about it, why shouldn’t she? There’s nothing wrong with it, not really. So what if she didn’t write it, and it’s nothing but an old memory from a past life that she can recall only faintly? It’s still purelyhersong, woven tightly between the strands of her DNA, composing both her body and mind. There’s no need for her to feel afraid of it.
She begins to play, slowly and methodically, and this time there isn’t a trace of clumsiness to the music. Each note rises from the speakers, crisp and true; her hands never fumble or grapple for unknown combinations of sound; and gradually the trepidation still persistently clinging to her begins to wash away, and her heartbeat steadies.
She isn’t sure how long she stays there, letting the December Lullaby loop in a seemingly endless refrain, before she hears someone clear their throat behind her. Expecting it to be one of the Uniters vying for her attention, she stops and turns to face them, a slightly irritated expression darkening her face.
Only it isn’t a Uniter standing there.
It’s a man – a human man, on the elderly side, with fully gray hair that is just beginning to thin out on top. There are stress lines scratched lightly into his face, and his watery hazel eyes are dark and world-weary…but when they land on her face, they widen much more than she would have expected.
Lai’s slender eyebrows furrow. Something seems so oddly familiar about this man, and yet at the same time, she has the sense that they’ve never met before…and then it hits her. She’s seen his face, but only in photographs, some digital and some entrapped within dusty picture frames in an abandoned division…
“Hey!” she exclaims. “I’ve been looking for you!”
And Lionel Amity looks as if he just might faint.