For the last three hours, Calvin Altberg had barely moved an inch from his seat.
The need to use the bathroom, to drink or eat, to sleep, and perhaps even the need to breathe were almost meaningless to him now.
He sat in a perfectly sterile and clean medical ward, built within the Everclade more than a decade ago. Across from him, hooked up to a breathing apparatus among other things, was the still-living but unresponsive form of his grandfather.
In these last three hours, Calvin had seen Sirenia twice; a double effort she made to check up on him during this grave hour.
There was little Calvin could do beyond wait. He’d been up since 6 AM, completely unable to sleep as his mind was wracked with the knowledge that all of this was most certainly his fault.
Whoever that bald man was, Calvin was the one who’s life he’d tried to claim. Unfortunately, it appeared that his grandfather was about to pay with his own life in Calvin’s stead.
Calvin drew his gaze up, remarking at how calm and peaceful Iberius looked in his sleeping state. Save for the large wound covered in dressing, he looked no worse for the wear.
But then the blond boy looked up at the complicated setup of bags and tubes that were still transfusing blood into him, and he remembered how it was probably the only thing keeping him alive.
In his pocket, Calvin’s music player remained untouched and useless.
He could go through hundreds of songs, playing roulette for hours, and by the time found what he needed his grandfather would probably long gone. And in all probability, he wouldn’t find it.
It was a known fact that song effects capable of mending and healing the human body were some of the rarest to be found. If a Music Master was publicly found to have access to such a song effect, they were almost always scouted by Zero Beat or various Ensembles in need of such services. Sometimes, they could even sell medical services to the highest bidder and make quite the literal killing in the process.
To his knowledge, Calvin knew of only one person who possessed something of that caliber.
In this most dire moment, he remembered her long blond hair, lightning bolt earrings, and bright eyes as if he’d seen her only yesterday.
Aeris, unfortunately, was not an option for him. She was part of a life he’d left behind and excised the minute he’d made the decision to leave Michael in the jaws of the Pop 5.
And so, Calvin remained powerless. One of the family he’d never known was just a few feet in front of him and on the edge of death, and for all his skills as a Music Master, he could do nothing to stop it.
The door into the small ward area opened up, and Calvin looked up to spot Sirenia making yet another appearance.
This time though, she was dressed in a nice alabaster jacket that would clearly protect her against the cold January wind.
Behind her, Ambrose followed and began dutifully checking up on Iberius’s condition in the process. He was stable, if only for now, but his bleeding hadn’t quelled since yesterday. As Calvin had been told, if not for the constant blood transfusions, which could only be afforded by the likes of the PureBeats, he would have been dead hours ago.
“I believe it’s time for you to take release from this room.” Sirenia said, fixing her collar in the process. “I did promise to bring you along with me today, did I not?”
Calvin was clearly glum, and he didn’t try at all to hide it in his response.
“Do I really have to?”
All the excitement from the previous day had been completely drained from his face. His only desire was to stay with Iberius and hope for the best.
Unfortunately, Sirenia seemed adamant. “Yes, you do. You’ll only get in Ambrose’s way here.”
Sirenia approached the bed nearby, putting delicate fingers on her grandfather’s forehead as he continued to remain unconscious. “Let grandfather rest. He’s in good hands.”
Calvin took a deep breath, before finally standing up and making his way towards his sister. Ambrose worked silently beside them, as she would for the rest of the day.
“Fine. Studio Q, you said? That’s in uptown Manhattan, I think…” Calvin asked, recalling the details faintly now as he attempted to clear his mind away from the recent tragedy.
Sirenia smiled with calculated clarity. “Yes, Studio Q. Coincidentally, yesterday’s uninvited guest makes residence there. Jimmy, I believe his name is.”
Calvin’s fists contracted at the sound of that name, and at the notion that his would-be assassin was closer than he’d thought.
He’d never been much of a fighter. In all the years he’d been on his own, Calvin was used to running from fights and conning anyone else dumb enough to fall for it. He’d lost to Michael quite easily that first time, after all, and Ayla had nearly bitten out his jugular with little effort. The fight against Nathan had proven to be one of his few shining moments, but even that he would have clearly lost without Michael’s help.
But right now, just the image of that bald-headed, bug-eyed man was enough to send Calvin into a seething pit of rage he barely thought himself capable of. That was a fight he was looking for.
His first thought was present in his words, and it was exactly what Sirenia wanted to hear.
“You got the limo ready or what?”
For the first time in weeks, visible anger burned in Calvin’s eyes.
It was anger that could be exploited, and in this case, anger that would simply drive him further towards Sirenia’s eventual goals.
She kept smiling as she opened the door out of the ward, welcoming him through as if it was his first day in the Everclade.
“Of course, younger brother. After you.”
Calvin said very little for the first hour of the ride out of New Jersey and back towards New York City.
This was the first time since he’d arrived at the Everclade that’d he’d left the estate’s confines, and it was both oddly liberating and somewhat terrifying at the same time.
In the spacious backseat of their private limousine, Calvin leaned up against the window and stared at passing buildings as they made their way along the overpass that would lead them into the heart of downtown Manhattan. In a few minutes, they would slow to a crawl as traffic washed up towards them like an oily and restrictive tide.
Across from him, Sirenia seemed initially content with her phone, checking various reports as she made numerous calculations to herself in the process. She’d diverted her eyes once or twice to check on her brother, but it was obvious he would speak when he felt like it.
On some level, she understood his worry. Unlike her though, he didn’t know that once this debacle was over, their grandfather would wake up with picture perfect health and they’d continue on with their lives as if nothing had ever happened.
It was unfortunate, she thought, to live in a world of uncertainty. It was something she seldom found herself in.
In their silence, she could only wonder what was on his mind. From what information she’d pulled from various contacts from Zero Beat, she doubted it could be anything to do with the Audio Knights.
For once, Sirenia couldn’t have been more wrong.
As Calvin looked out he window, the reflections of sunlight from the afternoon skyline of the city seemed to only show scenes of his past; images of Michael and Kim and Aeris that only served to mock him again and again.
The reminders were only more painful now that Iberius had been put in such a critical state, akin to accusing voices in his brain that demanded he admit to his own fault and run back to his former friends in the process.
Calvin turned away from the window, trying to shake such thoughts loose like one might shake off a layer of sand on the beach. His sister across from him was his only possible distraction right now.
A question he’d never thought to ask drifted into his mind, and left his lips just as quickly.
“What were our parents like?”
Sirenia glanced up in response to the question, though only so slightly. Calvin looked at her with somewhat longing eyes, still leaning against himself in laziness.
“They were on top of everything. Mother was calculation, and father was clarity.” Sirenia replied quite frankly. “Together, they were perfection. The only mistake they ever made was the one that cost them their lives.”
Calvin blinked, but no sadness surged through him at the reminder of his parents death. The fate of the living was far more concerning right now.
“Did anyone ever find out who was responsible?”
For a few seconds, his sister was silent. She propped her glasses up, as if trying to hide any stray emotion.
“No. Whoever it was, they hid their tracks well.” she admitted, and that enough for Calvin to leave the subject be.
He tried his best to smile, as if to provide some form of assurance in his own way.
“Well, I’m glad I’ve got you.”
Sirenia smiled back, though subtly. “And grandfather. He’s not gone yet.”
Calvin chuckled, some degree of happiness now counteracting his previous feelings of pain and apprehension.
His lifted mood was the perfect opportunity for Sirenia. She struck with all the deadly swiftness of a snake.
“I know what grandfather said yesterday at the meeting, but I want you to know that I’m more than happy to handle matters of the Ensemble until his condition is normalized. You shouldn’t be expected to have so much responsibility put upon you so suddenly.”
Calvin’s expression perked up at the sound of his sister’s offer, as if not at all expecting it.
Fortunately, it only took him about five seconds to think it over before giving his answer.
“I’m good with that. You’re three hundred percent more qualified than I am anyway. Maybe we can convince grandfather of that too. He’s busy being so invested in me, when he should really be invested in you.”
Sirenia nodded in agreement, though her words were much more restrained.
It took all her willpower to not go into a tirade over the truth hidden in Calvin’s simple statement.
“I’m glad to hear that. It’s a thought, and one we can discuss with grandfather together. For now, don’t stress over the politics and procedure.”
Calvin gave her an approving smile, and with that, leaned back and turned his attention to the window again.
As expected, he easily handed over the reigns of responsibility. From day one, she’d seen in her younger brother a lack of significant ambition or motivation. Cleary, he wanted the easy street and nothing else.
And in the decade of time she’d observed him from afar, that fact hadn’t changed since Calvin was nine years old. He’d slithered his way through life with all the gall and charisma of a snake oil salesman.
He was quite happy giving up the reigns of responsibility to her now, but Sirenia could only imagine how Calvin would react if he knew the truth.
If not for her, he would have stayed in the Everclade and perhaps had a normal childhood. He’d have had time to remember their parents, and he’d have remembered living among the PureBeats as their promised, eventual heir.
But then Sirenia experienced weakest and most vulnerable moment, and the result was her brother being forcibly removed and dropped into another life.
Now, he was back because she’d finally found reason to bring him back.
As Sirenia subtly observed her brother from across her seat in the limo, another question meandered into her brain.
Did she actually love her brother? Was there some sort of sentiment inside of her that kept her from just killing him and being done with it all?
Jimmy might have done the job, if not for her grandfather’s timely intervention, but even then, was there any guarantee that Sirenia would actually let Calvin die if it came down to it?
It took a split-second of pondering before she came to a clear conclusion.
For all her threats, and for all her actions, he was still family. They’d lost their father and mother, and despite her envy and contempt, she wasn’t ready to lose anymore family just yet.
Not if she could avoid it.
Sirenia turned back to her phone, finally content with their discussion.
And once they were done at Studio Q, the whole Ensemble would breath a collective sigh of contentment once she’d seen to Iberius and put him back in picture perfect health.
The familiar feeling of anger returned as Calvin followed Sirenia down old steps and away from the pulsing lights and trance beats that permeated the dance halls of Studio Q.
All Calvin could think about now was bashing in the teeth of the man who was responsible for his grandfather’s condition. Somewhere in this club’s underbelly, he was just waiting be found like a cockroach hiding in the cupboard.
Entering the club had been a relatively simple matter; Calvin had kept his distance before when Sirenia had addressed the two bouncers in the front.
If she had said something of note, even Calvin with his enhanced hearing was too impatient to pay any attention. The important thing was that they’d gotten in quickly and quietly, lest they alert their target.
After sifting through a crowd of partygoers content to go wild even in the middle of the afternoon, they found themselves past the steps and in a din basement hallway that led to parts unknown.
Following her, Calvin couldn’t see his sister’s expression, but he seriously doubted she’d show anything even close to fear.
He had little reason to be afraid as well. Together, they were surely more than enough to take on Jimmy and whatever associates he might have with him.
Calvin could only hope Sirenia’s tip was reliable, and that her other song effects she’d kept tucked away this entire time would be sufficiently impressive.
The hallways all looked the same to him, a far cry from the colors and shine of the club above. After another minute of walking, Sirenia and him stopped before an older woman who was busy smoking at the door of a large VIP room.
Calvin’s sister and her shared but a glance, and that was all that was needed to tell them that this was their destination.
Sirenia turned towards her brother, prompting him to pull up his headphones as she too took out her baby blue earbuds: custom models made exclusively for members of the PureBeats.
Without the slightest bit of tact, she swung open the door, surprising its occupants as Calvin locked it behind them.
A few girls raised their voices in alarm as Jimmy almost kicked his drink over in the process. He fell slightly back on the couch he was resting in as his entertainment ran out towards the side entrance once they realized that Sirenia and Calvin’s appearance clearly meant trouble.
“Oh come now.” Sirenia declared, reading the confused glaze now in Jimmy’s eyes. “Don’t look so surprised. You tried killing my brother, and you’re wanted by Zero Beat on top of that. You should have seen this coming.”
Calvin cracked his knuckles, raring for some sort of fight.
But Jimmy, even with his jittery nature and bloodshot eyes, seemed reluctant to just give himself up.
“It was a job.” he said, no slur in his voice despite the drinks around him. “But the PureBeats deserve worse, I think. They put you through hell and back to join, only to oust you in the end like the bunch of racists they are.”
Sirenia’s eyes narrowed behind her triangular glasses.
“I’m not apologizing because we ask for pure Music Masters. Blame your own bloodline for that.”
A familiar song began to rise in the air, as Sirenia’s two secretary Sentonals materialized on either side of her. Countering her noise, Jimmy was quick to Harmonize as he jumped forward, the table before him giving way under the reality-blurring effect of Chop Suey.
Calvin dove to one side as his sister dodged in unison, Jimmy’s hands splaying out in attempt to phase through their flesh and bone. He caught only Sirenia’s male, suit-wearing Sentonal in the process. It wavered for a moment, television static-skin crackling as huge swaths had been cleaved from both its midsection and right shoulder.
Fortunately, that wasn’t enough to destroy it. Still existing within this plane, it was quick to ignore the damage and dash headlong towards Jimmy.
Calvin, now on the floor, pressed play and Harmonized as quick as he could.
He was soon up and running towards Jimmy, with Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger buzzing around him, even as the Sentonals struggled to hold this particular Music Master down.
With his ability to cut apart and phase through sections of matter, Sirenia could only stay a safe distance and watch as Jimmy slowly but surely tore apart her Sentonals piece by piece.
Finally, as they flailed in an attempt to keep him down, he managed to get both hands on their throats, contracting in the next instant and beheading them both with one swift motion. Their collective matter dissipated in the next second, leaving Jimmy able to completely focus on the blond Music Master now charging his way.
Eyes wide, Jimmy charged back, one hand outstretched as Calvin prepared to let loose buzzing, neon fury upon him.
For his sister though, this was exactly the distraction she needed. In the next moment, she switched songs, positioning herself as Calvin and Jimmy were but five feet from contact.
The song boomed into the air, its singer rapping against a low bass beat as its visual effect metamorphosed in Sirenia’s arms.
It was the shape of a guitar, melded with the frame of a firearm, and coloured with white and gray markings that gave it the impression of being picked up off the street.
Seconds away from slicing her brother in two, Sirenia focused Jimmy into her sights and pressed the trigger.
Out of the guitar-gun’s end, a spray in the fashion of white paint blew out, spewing all over Jimmy and sending him up against the wall from just the sheer force. Calvin stopped short, his fingers twitching as the sudden cold of Sirenia’s song effect hit him. It was as if someone had sprayed him with a gout of liquid nitrogen, as Jimmy became stuck to the wall itself under a billowy blanket of crystallized ice. He focused his power through Chop Suey, but only went part way through some of the ice before more particles latched on and kept him in place.
If Jimmy had a few more seconds to focus, he might have escaped.
But this moment was exactly what Sirenia needed, and she quickly removed his headphones, leaving him powerless and now at their mercy.
As if to add insult to injury, Jimmy heard his headphone wire snap from the frigid cold as Sirenia forcibly pulled it away.
For now, he seemed unafraid, his gaze focused right at her as he spoke.
“Okay, you got me. Now what?”
Sirenia put a finger on her chin, as if thinking about if quite deeply.
Her response was uncharacteristically snide. “Now I decide whether or not we have Zero Beat come pick you up, or I freeze your head and call it a day.”
Jimmy’s eyes went wide, as the terrible concept of being frozen alive dawned upon him. Now he was clearly afraid.
Calvin, meanwhile, was somewhat in disbelief. This had to be some sort of scare tactic.
“Uh, excuse me?” he asked. “He’s not really much of a threat now. Let’s just call Zero Beat and let them take it from here. After we’re long gone, of course.”
He chuckled at his own comment, but it was a very real concern.
The last thing he needed was Zero Beat knowing where he was, after so much time and energy spent trying to avoid them. His bout with Denny was the closest he ever wanted to get.
Sirenia didn’t respond, instead lifting her guitar-gun right at Jimmy’s face as if priming for a shot.
Now just a bit panicked, Calvin put his hands up as the hum of her nitrogen-gun signified she could fire at any moment. As if contrasting to the lethality of the situation, Ice Ice Baby just continued to play in the air.
“Woah, hold up a bit, sis. Let’s not get hasty here. What you’re suggesting is murder…”
Sirenia focused her gaze, as Jimmy said nothing lest he ignite her wrath. “It wouldn’t be the first time, and he’s an impure Music Master anyway. The world won’t miss him. He should have been content just being looked down upon, but he decided to directly involve himself in our affairs. That was his mistake, not ours.”
Her disturbing words echoed into Calvin’s mind, made only stronger by Jimmy’s sudden courage in speaking.
“See? You just proving everybody right. You freaking PureBeats are just a bunch of skinheads.”
“Still leagues better than you, however. Perhaps I should just freeze your mouth.” Sirenia suggested, as horror slowly came over Calvin’s face at the notion. “It won’t kill you, but it would hurt quite a bit, I imagine.”
She turned to her brother as she kept the barrel pointed at Jimmy’s face.
It was now or never, she thought. The mental game would have to be played.
“What do you think, Calvin?”
Calvin’s mind just about stopped, as the question of life and death was presented before him.
Jimmy just looked on, clearly searching for some hint of mercy in his eyes. He wondered at the deadly irony that this single job had no cast upon him.
“I’ll let you make an executive decision on this one.” Sirenia told Calvin, her finger poised over the trigger.
Her brother felt his heart rise up to his throat, as flashbacks surged through his mind at the sound of his sister’s next statement.
It was something he never thought he’d have to decide on again.
“Does he live, or does he die? ”
Calvin’s breath stopped short, his heart dialing a mile a minute.
Where Jimmy stood, imprisoned in rap-borne ice, all he could see was Michael Kay’s face.
And within it, the proof of his own cowardice and inadequacy that he feared he might never shake off as long as he lived.