35. Some Day is Today
It’s incredible how one nonsensical conversation can dredge up twenty-eight years’ worth of discomfort and color the emotions of an entire day. Lionel Amity is disgusted with himself for letting last night’s encounter affect him so much. He’d have to skip his medication for a month if he wanted to allow this situation to slide harmlessly from his mind.
Loretta didn’t notice his altered demeanor this morning, probably because she was too preoccupied with chastising him over never coming to bed last night. She has a certain knack for missing the point in almost every situation. Of course, that’s probably why she agreed to marry him in the first place. He allowed her to go off at him over a breakfast that he only picked at, weathering her scolds in glum silence. For the hundredth time, he considered asking her if she still loved him, but he once again dismissed the notion by realizing that there would be no point to it. What would they do if she actually answered him truthfully and said no – get a divorce? After this long, a divorce would be both pointless and unnecessary, scarcely changing a thing for either of them. So why even bother?
For most of the morning, he attempted to distract himself by reading a book; he’s always enjoyed old-fashioned paper books, and since they are a rare commodity indeed here on Orbital 9, this is usually one of the most enjoyable ways for him to pass the time. But he was agitated and distracted, unable to grasp the complexities of the story no matter how much he concentrated. At last, he decided to go for a walk, hoping that a bit of aimless wandering would ease his tenseness. As usual, his feet automatically carried him in the direction of the music lounge, which has always been his sanctuary of sorts…
But now, as the morning begins to bleed into the afternoon, he is waiting outside the door to the music lounge and listening to the loud laughter and voices leaking into the corridor from inside. This is not a frequent occurrence, but not so uncommon, either. Occasionally, a just-arrived group of tourists will use the music lounge as their hangout instead of one of the more suitable party areas (probably because they are as of yet ignorant of the orbital’s layout). They’ll stream garish pop songs to the sound system and play loud, synthesized music, exchanging crude jokes and laughing at every little thing, and then after a few minutes they’ll grow bored and head off to the next location on their sightseeing lists. But this time, the music he hears isn’t the typical messes of piercing notes and garbled innuendos that he’s used to. As a matter of fact, it sounds as if someone inside is playing the keyboard…and playing it well, for that matter. He has always thought that he’s the only one on the ship who knows how to play a keyboard.
Lionel listens curiously as the mystery instrumentalist pounds their way through a few songs. Whoever it is seems to be making up song arrangements on the fly, and while their chord structures are often clumsy and unpolished and there are many audible wrong notes tossed into the mix, it’s all obviously being orchestrated by a set of rather skilled fingers. After a few fairly strong performances like this, the door to the music lounge opens and people begin to trickle out. Lionel remains calm and still, leaning against the polished metal wall, practically invisible to them as they trot by. Unbeknownst to them, he’s scrutinizing their faces.
There both men and women who leave the lounge, of various races and apparent nationalities. None of them look older than twenty-nine, and they all have trim, fit bodies and perfectly proportioned facial features. The more he examines them, the clearer it becomes to Lionel that they aren’t humans. Just like the strange man who paid him a visit yesterday evening, they’re imps, every one of them. All at once, he has a bad feeling about these people.
He flexes his hands impatiently, until all of them have left, and he feels that it is safe enough for him to go inside and lay claim tohiskeyboard. But his entrance turns out to be a little too hasty, because no sooner has he entered his residential code and made it through the doorway than he hears the tones of the digitized piano again…and this time, he stops up short.
The mystery keyboardist, it seems, never left the lounge. She is still seated at the bench facing the instrument, a pale girl in a gray wool dress, short black hair, small for an imp. She has begun to play again, this time with a practiced finesse that suggests that she’s been studying this song for months or even years, even though Lionel can’t even grasp how she would know it in the first place.
It’s the December Lullaby, a simple piano piece that he wrote for his daughter back when she was four or five years old. He recalls now the way that Pandora would haul herself onto his keyboard bench and sit quietly beside him while he played, staring at his hands with rapt concentration, her little brow furrowed as if the music was a secret code that she couldn’t quite decipher. And during those times, he would feel for a moment that everything was normal, forgetting that Pandora was a cripple and that she’d most likely remain that way forever. She could almost pass for a typical young girl, wanting to follow in her father’s footsteps, and he’d wonder about what it would be like if he could sign her up for piano lessons and see her perform beautifully someday…
He clears his throat, and then immediately wishes that he hadn’t. The girl at the keyboard stops playing and turns around to face him. Annoyance lingers on her brow for a moment before she gets a good look at him, and then her eyes widen slightly as recognition visibly registers in her mind.
At the very same time, his jaw drops, shock taking hold of him physically even before its mental effects make themselves known. On the surface, there seems to be nothing too intriguing about the keyboard girl. Her face is sort of generically imp-pretty, with no great beauty or extensive depth behind it. She isn’t an imposing presence, either; she’s skinny enough that even an old man like him could shove her aside with ease, and her aura isn’t designed to leave a lasting impression on those who meet her. No, the thing that really cuts straight to the darkest recesses of Lionel’s heart is her eyes, which are frosty and blue, and as familiar as the back of his hand.
Oh, no. No, no, no. If he thought that the questioning session last night was a painful assault of old memories, then just catching a glimpse of those eyes is a thousand times worse. And a thousand times worse than that is the horrible realization that creeps slowly into him when he realizes what it means that she was playing the December Lullaby – playing it perfectly, and from memory.
They said that she wouldn’t remember anymore. But they were wrong…
“Hey, I’ve been looking for you!” she exclaims.
Lionel feels the last traces of his reserve melting into the floor, and he can only wish that his physical body would go along with it. He braces himself for the barrage of insults, the tide of accusing questions that with doubtlessly be rushing forward to smother him in just a moment...
“You’re Lionel Amity, right?” asks the keyboard girl.
“Er…yes, that’s right,” he manages. “Do I know you?” The query is such a glaring falsehood that it would flush his fate with guilt, if it wasn’t for the fact that he was seemingly born with an inability to blush.
Much to his increasing surprise, she responds, “No, not really. We’ve never met before, actually. I just have a few questions that I need to ask you.”
Lionel exhales slowly. Is it possible that he was mistaken, or that she really doesn’t recognize him the way that he does her? No, it can’t be so…she was playing that December Lullaby, after all… “Questions? You’re, uh, starting to sound a lot like that other young man who came to see me last night…what did you say your name was?”
“My name is Lai Mansen,” she answers immediately, with no detectable hesitation. If she’s feeding him a pseudonym, then she’s practiced long and hard to make the name roll off of her tongue as naturally as possible. Her eyes narrow into a look of suspicion that sends an uncanny flash of déjà vu surging through him. “And what’s that about a guy who was questioning you?”
“Last night, a gentleman I didn’t know came to my cabin and asked me some questions about…my daughter,” he stammers. “Is that important?”
Lai swears under her breath. “Damn them! I knew Lady T had us leaving too late!”
“Are you with him?” Lionel frowns warily. How much does she know? Are her memories intact, or…
“No, I’m not.” She scowls. “Have you heard about the riot in Settlement 211, Mr. Amity?”
He nods, increasingly confused by the subject change. “It was a big deal, even all the way up here.” It also contributed heavily to his discomfort with imps.
“Well, that guy who was asking you questions about your daughter was most likely a member of the Imps Liberation Group.”
Now he wishes that he had somewhere to sit down, since with the combined one-two punch of seeingherand having the identity of his interrogator revealed, he certainly needs one. “What?!How do you – are you sure about that?!”
“Pretty sure. What I do know for certain is that there are a bunch of ILG members on this orbital right now, and that they’re looking for something. Looking for your daughter, to be more specific.”
“The Imps Liberation Group ishere?!” he cried. “Shouldn’t we be notifying the authorities?!”
The girl hops off of the piano bench and draws herself up to her full height, which doesn’t make her look any tougher. “Iamthe authorities,” she proclaims. “Or one of them, anyway. I’m part of a group called the Uniters. We’re backed by the World Gov, and our mission is to bring the ILG to justice. So we need you to help us, Mr. Amity. We have to get to your daughter first. Because you see, we’re the good guys. The ILG just wants to wreak havoc.”
He shuts his eyes, feeling blood pound furiously in his temples. “I don’t see how I can help you.”
“Well, you can start by answering my questions. Tell me about the guy who interrogated you last night. What exactly did he look like?”
“He was a pretty big fellow. Tall, I mean, and muscular as well. He had fair hair. His eyes were brownish, I think. He didn’t tell me his name…”
“Was he an imp?”
“Well, that’s a pretty vague description, but I’m betting that it was an ILG agent. Did you answer any of his questions?”
“No, not really.”
“And he asked you about your daughter?”
“About what happened to her after her last operation, and where she is now?”
A chill sweeps through his nerves from head to toe. “Yes, he was playing twenty questions with me, the way you seem to be doing right now. Even though you obviously know a lot about my daughter already.” But that was the unspoken question hammering at his brain:how much is ‘a lot?’
“You could say that,” she responds carefully. “I know that your daughter is what we call a ‘nimp.’ You know the meaning of the term?”
“A h-hybrid of a human and an imp,” Lionel sputters, growing dizzy as every remaining drop of blood in his head cascades into his lower extremities.
She meets the expression on his face with a wrinkled nose and an arched eyebrow. “Yeah, that’s right. Your daughter has both human and imp DNA, and for that reason, the ILG wants to find her. We don’t know exactly what they’re planning to do, but they’ve got to be up to something bad. So you have to tell me where your daughter Pandora is. For all we know, everything could be at stake!”
He can’t stand it anymore. Just being in the room with her, having her look at him with those eyes, is making him sick to his stomach. She doesn’t know everything, that much is clear now, and he knows that he’ll blurt it all out to her if he stays there for much longer. So he take a generous step back and chokes out, “I’m sorry, Ms. Mansen. I can’t help you.”
“What do youmean, you can’t help me?” She advances on him. “You don’t want your daughter to get captured by the ILG, do you?”
“I don’t know what happened to Pandora,” he lies insistently. “I don’t know where she is. I can’t help you."
She glares at him coolly. The bangs spread across her pale forehead almost seem to bristle. “That’s not true,” she declares. “You’re lying to me, aren’t you, Mr. Amity? You know something…”
“I know nothing,” he says evenly, his voice drained of tone and emotion all at once.
And then he turns and flees before this brief moment of level-headedness can end.