To exist or otherwise.
At one point, this had been a common question in Calvin Altberg’s daily life.
Once upon a time, he’d spent the majority of his days dodging the likes of Zero Beat, former friends, and unsavory Music Masters alike.
For Calvin, it had been the normal routine to always be ahead of the curb and keep every single person just out of arm’s reach. Until he met Michael, Aeris and Kim, he’d never really known what it was like to have comrades.
What he had known, however, was grim thoughts of death and imprisonment from Zero Beat always waiting for him around the corner.
But upon becoming inundated with the PureBeats, and realizing that they were not in fact Zero Beat out to trick him into their clutches, Calvin imagined that those hard days might finally be over.
Unfortunately, the truth was quite far from that.
Right now, that very same question of life and death was presented to him by his sibling in front of him, who held her song effect-borne freeze gun pointed at Jimmy’s head with deadly intent.
But despite the mounting pressure, Calvin’s answer was still quick and comedic.
He could easily see a glint of violence just behind his sister’s glasses, and his reluctance to entertain it was clear.
“I’m gonna say live today.” Calvin quipped, his more upbeat tone truly trying to offset the lethal mood. “Don’t quote me on tomorrow though. That may be subject to change.”
Calvin smiled slyly, even as Sirenia kept her aim focused on Jimmy’s face all this time.
The image of his head being frozen and shattered ran through the blond boy’s mind, and he almost gulped as he thought he heard the click of Sirenia pulling the trigger despite his answer.
He was already having enough trouble dealing with Michael’s blood still staining his hands. The last thing he needed to see today was yet another fatality.
Thankfully, Sirenia soon lowered her gun, and with it, the threat on Jimmy’s life.
Calvin had to hold back his enormous sigh of relief, as she finally appeared to be at ease.
“Interesting choice.” Sirenia said. “It appears your odds are favorable today, Jimmy.”
But as Jimmy struggled to break free from his icy prison, it became obvious she was actually quite far from finished with him.
“But,” she continued, moving in closer until their faces were just inches away. “Mercy does not come without a price. From this point forward, you will remain at my beck and call. When the time comes, you will answer to me when I find myself in need of your services.”
Jimmy looked somewhat taken aback, but from that calculated look in her eyes, he doubted she was anything but serious.
He might have even admired her slight beauty if he wasn’t so intimidated by her cold stare.
And so, Jimmy just nodded. Beside him, Calvin’s previous worry finally began to sink.
His voice further showed how much more comfortable he’d become as the tension melted away. “That’s fair enough. He’s got the picture now, so I think we can free him from the Iceman treatment, right sis?”
Sirenia said nothing, but her response was clear as she pressed pause on her music player.
The song stopped, the large weapon dissipating in her hands as Jimmy’s breath surged out in one forced motion.
And in that same instant, the icy covering around Jimmy vanished. No longer suspended by the song effect, he fell to his knees, shivering as warmth began to pulse through his limbs again.
He prayed silently to himself at the sensation that was the fire of the world coming back to his body. Any longer under such low temperature, and he most certainly would have been damaged permanently.
Jimmy looked up to Calvin, kneeling still as he showed the boy sudden respect.
“Thank you for your understanding.” the bald-headed man stated.
He hated the PureBeats. That would never change. But even Jimmy wasn’t so stupid to push away his impromptu savior.
He mentally cursed himself, vowing that after today, he would never answer an anonymous job ever again. No matter how desperate he happened to be.
Unfortunately, his thought process was soundly interrupted as Sirenia seemed sick of his presence already.
“Yes, yes. Now make your exit please. I’ll know where to find you. Remember that.”
Her words cut into the air like a knife, further strengthening any future threat against him. Jimmy nodded again with acknowledgment, before taking his leave as he practically scurried out of the VIP room like a rodent just freed from a mouse trap.
Once he was gone, Calvin was beaming in approval.
What had appeared to be a complex stalemate had turned out to be a situation he’d actually been able to diffuse.
And the longer he thought about that, the more he almost missed having Kim around to mock his success.
He sighed in satisfaction. “Heh, what do you know? Maybe I should take back what I said before. I could lead the PureBeats. Not such a bad decision maker over here, huh?”
Sirenia just shook her head, trying her best to sound amused.
“You’re a work in progress. It could certainly be worse.”
She allowed her brother his relaxed chuckle, but Sirenia was anything but amused.
To her, it was a grave insult to their dead parents that he might even imply his so-called prowess at being anything close to being a competent leader.
Of course, that thought would remain with her for the foreseeable future. Calvin would enjoy his own glory for now.
“So now what?” her brother asked, hands in his pockets as he was suddenly at a loss of what to do.
It was an attempt at distraction as well. After seeing the girls that Jimmy had been with before, all Calvin could think of was Aeris.
He’d only shaken the thought in the adrenaline of their short fight, and it had unfortunately settled back into his mind in this moment of calm.
“Our work here is done for now.” Sirenia observed. “No need to call Zero Beat, as I’ll personally keep tabs on Jimmy. Perhaps he might prove useful at some point.”
Calvin laughed. After that stunt, he was pretty sure that this Jimmy fellow wouldn’t come back and try anything funny.
He looked at his sister wistfully. Maybe he’d assumed too much too quickly.
But then he remembered those words of her. It wouldn’t the first time she’d murdered someone, and that as an impure Music Master, his life was of little consequence.
The blatant racism aside, he wondered: she hadn’t been actually planning on killing him, had she?
Calvin would have loved to say that he was jumping the gun, but he knew better. He’d dealt with worse types in the past, and just because she was his sister by blood didn’t mean that she might not have a few screws loose as well.
Then again, maybe he just needed more time with her. This was the first time he’d seen in her in the last seventeen years of his life, after all. With everything that was going on with the Ensemble, it could just be an extreme amount of stress.
For now at least, Calvin would let it be.
But just a few feet away, Sirenia just looked back at him through her triangular glasses.
She would forever read him like a book. She could see the apprehension in his eyes, and she wondered if he was suddenly losing faith in his older sister.
More likely though, he might just be disturbed by how close she’d come to killing Jimmy.
Clearly, her brother didn’t understand death.
He had no idea what it meant to lose someone forever. Not anymore, at least.
Sirenia Altberg had seen to that, when she personally took away all memories of his life before the age of eight.
The hours had long since passed since they’d confronted Jimmy, but time meant little to Sirenia.
At this very moment, much like that would-be assassin, it was at her beck and call. She molded it under her will, twisting its very threads to fit her needs.
She sat in the medical ward, the pale blue lights illuminating the room now that night reigned outside the Everclade. Calvin had fallen asleep hours ago, she’d been certain of that.
And now that Ambrose was finally relieved for the night, Sirenia had the time to perform her necessary work in peace.
Her eyes were focused as she held her right hand just a few feet above the grievous wound that kept Iberius Altberg clinging to the edge of life. Where once there was an appendage made of flesh and blood, a mechanical configuration of rose-coloured metal now appeared. It was as if someone had inlaid a complex, metallic flower into the shape of a hand.
Through bizarre and esoteric mechanisms it pulled at the visible, wispy threads of time itself within a small and controlled space.
Calvin had been right to think that searching for a song that could heal his grandfather would be a futile gesture. What he failed to realize, however, is that the ability to heal was only one of many options when it came to fixing damage to the human body or otherwise.
All throughout the room, the audible song effect played in the air at its time dilation worked on the spot of Iberius’s bleeding. Through her subtle and careful control, Sirenia focused this power to fast forward time on only this one, particular spot. Time was compressed in mere minutes, the wound mending itself as months of cellular repair were forced upon it in rapid succession.
This particular song was but a random track Sirenia had happened upon one day in her endless search for useful song effects. There was no luck in discovering music and its uses; only numbers. If a Music Master looked hard enough, any power imaginable could be found within the sound of a certain song.
To this day, Music Masters still debated on how song effects were created. Some insisted that all songs related to the effect in a visual or lyrical sense, while others said that it had to do with a emotional and conscious association that a particular Music Master had with that particular song. Even more outliers insisted that song effects were inherently random, and that no science could define that which was created out of them.
Sirenia had only one belief. It echoed her worldview on everything, from family, to the Ensemble, to herself as a person.
There were simply songs that mattered, and songs that didn’t. She cared not for the music in the slightest, only what it could achieve to further her desires.
And right now, this song had completely achieved its desired goal. Her eyes settled with satisfaction as she pulled her hand away.
A moment later, and she proceeded to remove the dressing covering what had once been Iberius’s chest wound. Dried blood remained, but any hint of the ravages his flesh had endured from Jimmy’s attack had completely vanished. His heart monitor sped up, as the the elder Altberg finally stirred.
Sirenia was in no rush. She waited patiently as he slowly but surely came to.
Her eyes glanced towards the door. It would remain locked.
Meanwhile, Iberius’s groggy voice came out as if he’d awoken from a thousand year sleep.
“…Oh, my stars, what time is it?” he asked. Sirenia pushed up her glasses, legs crossed as she addressed him.
“Almost midnight, grandfather. Nice to see you finally awake.”
Iberius pulled against the various tubes still connected to him as he sat up in his hospital bed. His voice was frantic as the first bubbling thoughts came into his mind.
“…Calvin. Where’s Calvin? Is he alright?”
Sirenia’s voice was cold, but at least honest. “Of course. You’re the hero of the hour. It’s a wonder that Jimmy didn’t bisect you. But I planned for that, of course.”
Her grandfather’s eyes narrowed, as the cogs clicked together in his mind.
Betrayal was something the PureBeats had known before, and even as an echo of memory was dredged up in his mind, he still didn’t want to believe it.
Doubt was clear in his voice. “Excuse me? Sirenia, what is this nonsense?”
His granddaughter appeared quite unphased. “No nonsense. I made a gamble that has only partially paid off. It wasn’t enough to push my brother into completely giving up the rights to the PureBeats, but it’s progress. I’m a patient woman after all.”
Her gaze seemed almost devoid of any life. Iberius’s lips twitched underneath his mustache, and he began to wonder if this was all some sort of nightmarish vision.
Perhaps he was already dead, and this was hell itself.
But whether or not this was real, his ideals would at least survive. “I don’t want to hear another word. Where’s Calvin? Bring him to me now!”
Sirenia made a small smile as she finally found that notion of a threat amusing.
“Calm yourself. He’s perfectly fine; asleep upstairs in his room. I need this every once in awhile, I must admit. It’s difficult to keep it all bottled in.”
Alone with her grandfather, Sirenia stood up and approached his bedside. She leaned down as she put her delicate, younger hand on his older, rougher one.
“You’ve always failed to see what I could be. You did the same thing to mother. She could have led the PureBeats, but that would defeat your old-fashioned values, wouldn’t it? Could your fragile heart even handle such a travesty?”
Iberius leaned up, his strength having returned now that the wound that had been killing him was gone. “You speak of something you can barely fathom. I loved my daughter. I knew how much she wanted to lead, but I didn’t want to see her pulled apart. Your father was meant to bear the responsibility of the Ensemble, but she insisted on an equal partnership.”
“And like a fool, I relented.” he further admitted, as his tone cracked.
So many emotions welled up inside him, but the creeping sadness was the strongest one of all.
Tears welled in his eyes at the memories of his beautiful Nina and her angelic voice. “And now they’re both dead.”
Iberius stared up at his granddaughter, empowering his next declaration.
“But I won’t let Calvin share their fate. I don’t know what misguided ambition you have, but I won’t let destroy what family we have left. Not as long as I continue to draw breath.”
It was as if someone had left the record needle astray. Sirenia had heard it all before.
Nevertheless, Iberius attempted to get out of bed. He wanted to go to Calvin and reassure him, to warn him of impending danger, but he was too unprepared as his granddaughter grabbed him by the chin.
Her hand was warm, her grip calculated and intense. She stared down into his eyes, holding him in place as her words burned into him like acid.
“Spare me, grandfather. This will have been the eighth time we’ve had this discussion. I tire of your excuses. I simply want you to know that I have, and always will be, in control.”
With her free hand, Sirenia Altberg clicked play on her music player.
Her last words in his mind were strangely soothing and calm.
“Dream and forget.”
A strained, frantic singer then surged into her ears, and soon into her grandfather’s as he remained frozen in shock at the sight before him.
A slithering creature flowed from behind Sirenia’s shoulder, its gaze focused completely on the target of her desire. It was a small, gray cobra, its upper half clad in a tiny, baggy suit. As it snaked down her arm, Iberius noted the aux jack in place of a tail, which rattled back and forth as it approached.
Seconds later, and it was on the hospital bed with him, fast like quicksilver as it dove for his exposed right arm.
Iberius tried to pull away, but Sirenia held him still. There was no pain, but there was a light digital crackle as the tiny Sentonal born from Once In A Lifetime sank its metallic fangs deep within Iberius’s forearm.
His mind pulsed violently as it began to suck away at his very being.
The world around him flashed with rampant brightness and saturation, as colors inverted and reality shook back and forth as if under some cosmic earthquake.
Iberius reached out in protest towards his granddaughter, but soon his hand fell to one side as the very droplets of memories within his brain were drained away. Everything from this moment going backwards until the very second after Jimmy had been thwarted, was completely and utterly flushed from Iberius’s memory.
He fell back, eyes glazed over as his mind settled into a blank state. He would remain this way for another hour, until his neurons normalized and his brain soon followed suit.
Meanwhile, Sirenia’s Sentonal slithered comfortably up on her arm, hissing for appreciation. She was far too distracted, however, as she wondered at her own behavior.
This marked the eighth time that she’d drained her grandfather’s memories in order to maintain the status quo of the PureBeats.
By now, she should have been used to this routine, and been able to respond with clarity and dignity.
Sirenia instead smiled, breathing somewhat loudly as her heart rate jumped. There was a thrill to this that she couldn’t deny.
Even after all this time, that defeated expression on his face never became any less satisfying.