Michael knew that his worries had lessened the moment he was more concerned with the rumbling of his stomach rather than the fate of his friend.
It was but a split-second thought, one which Michael shook quickly, but it served to remind him that he might just yet calm down.
Rob had been gone for over an hour now, not having sent so much of a text to anyone that he was on his way back with food.
Having taken residence on Seth’s biggest couch in the living room, Michael yawned loudly, stretching his arms wide as grogginess began to overtake him.
They’d been swept up and out of The Sound Loft so quickly, he’d almost forgotten that it was just beyond the early hours of the morning.
Sleep was like some foreign entity that he’d have to keep at bay for the time being.
Some distance away on a small table, Michael’s phone lay undisturbed.
He looked over his shoulder, noting the lack of Kim and Calvin and wondering if he should so much as bother Kim in the first place.
Considering that he’d been so roughly throttled by her, heckling her at such a delicate hour was certainly not the smartest idea.
So rather than let his imagination wander, the boy grabbed at his phone.
Swiping it unlocked, Michael Kay was greeted by just one sentence that had been delivered in the same moment his home screen popped up.
He nearly dropped his phone as he read it.
His eyes went wide as he scanned it three times in succession.
It was the one thing they’d all been waiting for, from the one person they’d all been looking for.
– I found Rob in Central Park. We’re near the old rock formation. Please Michael. Help us. –
Straight from Aeris’s number, and could it sound any less than a cry for help?
That was all he needed to see.
In an instant, Michael was on his feet, bounding towards Seth’s old room as he yelled for his friends at the top of his lungs.
“Kim! Calvin! It’s Aeris! I got radio contact!”
There was little to be said between the assembled Audio Knights once all three of them had gotten word of Aeris’s imminent message.
From Seth’s apartment, Kim led the forefront as the three of them made their way towards Central Park, ignoring the cold of the dark morning hours and the creeping light of the sun coming over the horizon.
When it came to this plan of action, all three of them agreed instantly.
Rob was in trouble, Aeris was with him, and whether or not Zero Beat was lying in wait, the Audio Knights would still be there.
While Michael seemed anxious over his uncle, and Calvin distressed over Aeris, Kim worked to remain as calm and composed as possible.
To give in to panic and worry would be equivalent to giving themselves up to Zero Beat on a platter.
So with hands in her pockets and gaze set straight ahead, Kim stomped along in self-produced silence.
Still, even she couldn’t stop a tiny thought from popping up again in her mind.
It was a thought she’d often tried to ignore.
Aeris texting them so suddenly, Rob abandoning them and then being caught in such a precarious situation, the three of them being drawn to Central Park like this; it all seemed far too convenient.
If Kim didn’t know any better, it was the perfect recipe for a trap.
And yet they kept going.
Even as Kim spotted the fidgeting “pedestrians” who just so happened to all be wearing the same kind of white headphones around their necks.
Even as they passed deeper into the park; where less and less people frequented.
The signs of ambush began clearer and clearer, Kim was hit by a wave of distraction the farther into the park they got.
As Kim led them along, she was struck with nostalgia of the very first time she’d met Michael here to comply to his incessant demands for training as a Music Master.
If the situation wasn’t so dire, Kim Ramone might have cracked a smile at the thought.
That was a simpler time that was all but gone.
Finally approaching their familiar spot by the rock formations, the three Audio Knights stopped.
Youthful reminiscing would do them no favors; they were real Music Masters now.
And as their familiar, blond-haired friend came out of the shadows towards them, Helia and Renaldo at her sides, Kim realized exactly just how real this night was about to become.
A veritable cyclone of situations rushed through Calvin’s mind as he, Michael and Kim made their rendezvous to Central Park at Aeris’s behest.
He thought of Michael’s uncle defeated and possibly even dead.
He imagined a waiting trap from Zero Beat, or even the assembled Pop 5; ready and willing to finish them once and for all.
The last thing he’d imagined, however, was Rob Prototype nowhere to be found, and Aeris facing them, clad in black clothes, black hair dye, and even blacker mascara.
Just in front of Calvin, both Kim and Michael seemed equally stunned. It was more than enough to take their attention away from the gathered ranks of First Beats that now revealed themselves.
In this lonely stretch of the park, lit up by only a few street lights, the familiar faces of Helia and Renaldo showed up to round out this unforeseen gathering.
“See?” Helia said first. “I told you they would come.”
Aeris didn’t respond.
Try as she might, she couldn’t completely hide the very visible strain and distress written all over her face.
“Aeris.” Michael said, eyes wide at the sight of her. “I’m so glad you’re okay. What’s going on? Where’s Rob?”
Kim eyed him incredulously.
Before she could say much of anything, Renaldo beat her to the punch.
“He’s with us. Safe and sound in Zero Beat’s hands.”
Helia snickered. “Right where he belongs. Too bad you won’t be able to say the same, disco boy.”
“Let Aeris go. Now!” Calvin demanded, narrowing his eyes seriously as anger boiled furiously throughout his being.
Every passing moment of seeing Aeris the way she was soon became unbearable.
He would have just charged in and assaulted the ranks of Zero Beat standing in his way, if he didn’t know any better.
This appeared to be just the line of thought that Helia was waiting for.
She grinned ear to ear, stepping to one side as she presented Aeris like some sort of twisted auction.
“Let her go? Didn’t she let you guys know? She’s with Cypress now. I just had her bring all of you so our business could be concluded tonight.”
Out of everyone, Kim appeared to somehow be the most calm at the sound of Helia’s sarcastic declaration.
As Michael’s face became drawn with panic, and Calvin’s wrought with disbelief, Kim kept a quiet look of observance as she asked her question quickly and simply.
“You baited us into this? Is that really true, Aeris?”
Her eyes were completely fixated on Aeris. Not Helia or Renaldo, nor the myriad of First Beats, mattered in the slightest.
Aeris simply looked away. It was obvious she couldn’t bear to speak in their presence.
“Oh come now!” Helia rubbed in, clearly enjoying herself. “Who do you think told the Pop 5 exactly where all of you would be?”
She put her hands on Aeris’s shoulders, patting them as she made the girl enormously uncomfortable in the process.
“No one else but Benedict Aeris here. Ain’t she just a sweetheart?”
“No way.” Michael declared, shaking his head as his tone dropped. “I won’t believe it. I can’t believe it.”
Nearby, Calvin swallowed as his breath became dry and his body shuddered.
Aeris’s expression said it all. Kim had realized that first.
Renaldo cleared his throat. The scared little boy they’d first faced in the Dust Bowl was nowhere to be found in his tone.
“Calvin Altberg and Kim Ramone…you’re both wanted for crimes against Zero Beat. If you come quietly, your punishments may be lessened.”
Helia turned to Michael, sneering now.
“As for you, disco boy…”
She stuck out her index finger and dragged it across her throat, making exaggerated slurring noise in the process.
Music pulsed in the air, as numerous First Beats activated their various song effects.
Much to the horror of the Audio Knights, Aeris put on This Fragile Breath in turn, blue lightning proceeding to dance violently between her fingers.
“You’re seriously outnumbered.” Helia told them all, lighting a cigarette just to hammer in on how sure she was of their victory. “This ain’t going to be like the Dust Bowl. Better to surrender and make this as easy as possible.”
With that smile still plastered on her face, she walked forward with a mocking gait, stopping just in front of Kim.
“Come on, Kimberly. We can just put all that past behind us, okay?”
Kim said nothing. She just glanced all around, exhaled once, and then moved with sudden, almost inhuman speed.
Her fist flew out, slamming right across Helia’s jaw and knocking the girl completely off her feet.
Her lone cigarette was lost among the grass, as Helia now sat on her bottom, dizzied by Kim’s vicious blow.
“Put that behind you, you nicotine-chugging bitch. I’ll surrender when Afroboy here gets a haircut.”
She narrowed her eyes, addressing the gathering of First Beats now with renewed vigor in her voice.
“Let’s go, you babies!. What are you waiting for? I’m right here!”
Her music erupted in the air in tandem, the power of Walking Disaster serving to once again create a forest of hydra-arms to fight on her behalf.
Their eerie purple glow lit up the dimness of the morning hours, as First Beats charged and Michael and Calvin prepared themselves for a fight.
Kim’s face was as stone cold as always.
Aeris had fulfilled her worst fear.
But if they went down today, and the Audio Knights were no more, then at least Kim Ramone would be remembered for being able to truly cut loose.
Between the sound of so many different songs going off around him, and the fact that he was face to face with his beloved Bright Eyes, Calvin felt himself on the verge of fainting.
Neither of them had made a move against the other, but Calvin and Aeris had already activated We Come Together and This Fragile Breath respectively.
His eyes were still glazed with pure disbelief. The reality was one that belonged in his darkest nightmare. There was no way that the girl before him was the same sweet Texas-born person that he’d first laid lovestruck eyes on.
“Aeris, please. Whatever’s happening, whatever these people are making you do, we’re here for you. We can stop this before it starts.”
His tone remained as confident as he could muster. “I’m here for you. I promised you I was with all of you guys for good, remember? Are you really going to back out on us so easily?”
Aeris opened her palms in response, the lightning crackling back and forth as she looked at him with a dour expression.
“There are no choices left for me, Calvin. But at least I can give you a choice. Take off your headphones, and I’ll be able to take you back without hurting you.”
Calvin scoffed at the remark. “Take me back? Zero Beat’s still not over me?”
“Actually.” Aeris said, as the two of them circled one another, song effects erupting around them. “It’s Sirenia who wants you back.”
Calvin narrowed his eyes. Now he was done with this back and forth.
“Yeah well, she can shove it. You really are a piece of work, Aeris. But if you think I’m just getting on my hands and knees for you…you’ve got another thing coming.”
Aeris shook her head, clearly sad. “So be it.”
Without another word, Aeris opened her right palm in Calvin’s direction, sending out sparks of blue lightning in an attempt to knock him down.
The electricity hit nothing but air, as Calvin’s once human form split apart into particulate cubes of color that flitted around like a swarm of insects.
He rematerialized a few feet behind her, grabbing both of her arms in an attempt to keep her restrained.
Calvin spoke in her ear, half-pleading, half-angry.
“I just want to help, Aeris! I just want to know what’s going on! Don’t you care? Did all our time together mean nothing to you?”
She was struggling hard against his grip, her lightning just shy of touching his exposed skin as it desperately tried to leap off the her glove-covered palms.
Aeris’s voice was pained, but honest at the very least.
“I care more than you know.”
She elbowed him hard, causing him to cough audibly as she grabbed him by the cuff of his suit jacket.
“But my family is everything to me. I’m sorry, Calvin.”
His eyes widened, but he had no time to say anything more.
Calvin’s limbs shook, and he screamed in pain as the lightning overtook his body and shocked his very being.
In his convulsions, Calvin’s fingernails scratched against Aeris’s forearm , leaving a bloody scratche right where her Cypress tattoo was.
Ultimately though, he failed to pry himself free.
The last expression to pass on his face was one of pure anguish, before Calvin’s body finally relented and the voltage took his mind into sudden and painful unconsciousness.
Aeris caught him before he could fall to the ground, and she leaned down as she cradled his head head in her arms.
Caressing his blond locks, all the girl could do was look with sorrow and regret.
The deed was done, and Calvin might live another day.
But that black mark on her soul just grew larger and more hideous with each consecutive sin, and the sooner this was over, the sooner Aeris Fairfield could hope to forget.
Right now, Kim had no idea where Michael and Calvin were.
Like a raging bull she was seeing red, her fists flying and boots stomping as she fought in tandem with the power of her Walking Disaster.
All around her, First Beats were tossed around like ragdolls as her hydra-arms worked to defend her, and Kim personally took care of any of those who managed to squirm within touch range.
She dodged fire, ice, digitized death, oddly-shaped Sentonals, exploding music notes, and all other manner of song effects as she fought with the fury of an animal uncaged.
Though the First Beats had the number advantage, they had none of Kim’s fighting skill and experience, evidenced by two who had gotten just close enough as to allow Kim to painfully headbutt the both of them together.
Another one of them grabbed her from behind, but Kim tossed the girl over her shoulder and proceeded to kick her across the face with her boot.
Two more came at her from either side, and Kim laid down two strong right hooks to put them both out of commission.
She was powered by pure rage; rage against Zero Beat, and rage against Aeris and the fact that she had been the catalyst of the attack from the Pop 5.
So focused on her rage Kim was, that she didn’t initially notice the Sentonals manifested behind the incoming First Beats.
They were a familiar pair: a large, green fire cobra and a tall, blue bomb-headed being.
A huge white hand moved to push away those First Beats that came from Kim’s left side.
Michael shouted through the sound of YMCA.
She looked up, just in time to see a grinning blue bomb coming straight for her.
All she had time to do was to call all of her hydra-arms to the forefront, as they and Michael’s Sentonal took the full brunt of the blast.
The explosion rocked the air, sending First Beats flying and blowing apart four of the Big YMCA’s arms in the process.
Kim’s ears rung horribly, as she struggled to get up despite the shock put upon her body after being thrown so violently off her feet.
The shuffling of steps signaled the approach of more First Beats. They were anything but friendly.
One grabbed her shoulder, and she headbutted him hard, knocking him to the ground.
Another got her by the leg, only for Kim to smash his teeth in with the heel of her boot.
Soon however, their hands became overpowering, some of them enhanced by song effects and other belonging to their music-borne Sentonals.
Kim found herself smothered underneath them, resorting to biting, scratching and kicking as she fought to break free.
She fought like a rabid dog, dishing out pain left and right and gifting black eyes, bloody noses and bruises in tandem.
Finally, one of the First Beats got their fingers under the nape of her headphones, pulling them off as four of them held her down despite all of her violent struggling.
Kim tossed her head around, desperate to break free, before one of them put a hand over her face.
She fought against it as hard as she could, pushing her body to its limit, but their superior numbers would prove to be too much.
This final song would be her downfall, finally lulling Kim Ramone into a forceful and deep sleep.
Michael Kay was on one knee, panting heavily, as his Big YMCA was all but destroyed behind him.
The First Beats maintained their distance nearby, as Helia relished in her clear victory and Michael wondered where he’d gone wrong all of this time.
At this point, with so many of its limbs vaporized, the music emitting from Michael’s YMCA song effect was but a scrambled echo of its former self.
With each labored movement, it appeared his once proud Sentonal was inching closer and closer to dissipation.
In front of him, Michael could see Renaldo at Helia’s side, his own Sentonal with its bomb-head already cradled in its arms.
Michael’s eyes just scanned back and forth, half-listening to Helia as he watched Calvin and Kim get taken away by First Beats, into the park bushes and out of sight.
“So this is how your story finally ends, disco boy. Fitting, isn’t it?” Helia told him, having lit up another cigarette to replace her lost one.
She took a big, green-tinged puff from it, blowing smoke through her nose in delight.
“If it makes you feel any better, I hear death by detonation is pretty painless.”
Michael looked up, and the shadow of Renaldo’s Big Bomb Balladeer fell upon him.
Hoisting its own bomb-head high above, it only waited for Renaldo’s word to toss it and finish Michael once and for all.
“So…any last words?”
Michael just audibly gulped. His fingers moved towards his music player.
Renaldo looked unphased by this in particular.
“I wouldn’t try it. You won’t have enough time to Harmonize before you disintegrate.”
Michael just threw back a nervous smile. It was all her could think of.
“Hey man. It never hurts to try.”
Helia was far from amused. “Yeah well, you’re out of tries. Renaldo, do it!”
Her partner in Zero Beat obliged, mentally pushing his Sentonal to throw its blue bomb-head forward with intent to kill.
First Beats all around them had gotten to a safe distance, as did Helia and Renaldo themselves, as the bomb hit smack in the middle of the Big YMCA’s large M.
It was a moment before this that Michael went for his opportunity, forcing his Sentonal to grab at him and hoist him up to one of its higher still-functional arms.
As the bomb made contact, and the explosion ruptured across its form, Michael felt the wind picking up as one huge gloved hand pulled him backwards with all its might, before throwing him like one might throw a fastball.
Heat singed the soles of Michael’s shoes, but the pitch was just fast enough to launch him out of the explosion’s range.
He didn’t dare look behind him, but he knew his Sentonal was gone for good the moment its music disappeared from the air.
Meanwhile, Michael flew upwards fast, already hundreds of feet high just before his momentum began to falter.
By now, Michael had switched over to his song of choice, focusing on Harmonizing even as his body began to plummet as instant death awaited him far below.
His afro and cheeks blowing back from the speed, Michael’s eyes remained shut tight as the purest synthesizer sound finally came over him.
As he had done only once before, just after jumping off the rock formation during training, Michael’s posture shifted in mid-air as his feet planted down on the huge disc that had now manifested beneath him.
He splayed his arms out, focusing his stance as he glanced at the massive turquoise compact disc that now served as his flying saucer through the cosmos.
It took a few seconds to maintain ascent, but Michael Kay was no longer falling; he was in control of his speed as he rode this CD to unknown freedom.
Below, the city glinted against the sunny skyline as Michael searched for somewhere to land.
It took a good five minutes, but soon enough, the speed of his space-CD carried him to the familiar roof of the music store that started it all.
Michael landed with little trouble, stepping off his platform and onto the cold ground below.
Just underneath, pedestrians walked by unaware, and people worked within the store, none the wiser of his song effect or anything that had occured with him and his friends in the last hour.
He stopped the song, and his glinting disc disappeared.
A few minutes later, and Michael was leaning against the side of roof access into Audio Empire, staring up at the sky above without even the slightest idea as to what to do next.
He had just barely escaped the clutches of Zero Beat with his life, but his two friends hadn’t been so lucky.
Aeris was not just gone; she was a traitor.
For all Michael knew, she’d arranged for his uncle to be killed or worse.
Michael pulled his phone out, but as he stared at his past texts, he knew what he wanted to do was out of the question.
There was no way he could go back to the apartment. Barring the fact that Colleen would chew him out, just showing his face there would put her at risk.
Even the Sound Loft was no longer a safe haven, and he could barely remember the way back to Seth’s place.
Michael pulled his knees to his chest. He sighed deeply, trying to look back fondly at memories the felt like they were from another life entirely.
Without Calvin, Kim, Rob and now Aeris, the Audio Knights were no more.
Michael might have gotten away for now, but it was clearly a temporary arrangement.
His adrenaline ran out, as the horrible truth of it all dawned upon him.
There was no escape from Zero Beat. As long as he kept using his disco music, wearing these clothes, and keeping this hair, he and his friends could never be truly safe.
Rob’s reason for everything he’d ever done finally became perfectly clear.