Wind swept past Michael’s head, bobbing his afro back and forth as the chilly night overtook him.
He gulped, quite audibly, as Denny stood behind him with a red, Michael Jackson-emblazoned hoodie in her hands.
Michael’s eyes moved upwards, looking far ahead at the cityscape beyond.
No bigger than a toy from this far away, he spotted the towering gleam of 5 Records shining through the guise of the night.
“You know on second thought, maybe this isn’t the best plan, Denny.”
His apprehension couldn’t be any less obvious.
For as much as he wanted to save his friends, Michael was only now beginning to realize the true severity of the situation.
He turned around, looking to his blond-haired friend for support.
But she just smiled back at him, clearly confident.
“Try not to overthink it. You just go up, up and away, and you’re there.”
She pushed the hoodie into his arms. “You gotta put this on though.”
Michael looked down at the hoodie, observing it for only a moment before hastily pulling it over his head.
“You really think that they’re going to think that I’m you?” Michael asked. He stared at Denny in a strangely unflattering way.
“Cause there’s stuff you’ve got that I’m kind of…lacking.”
Denny’s face turned just a hint of red once she realized what he was referring to. She tried her best to laugh through her embarrassment.
“Ha! Of course! But I think we’ll be okay. They’re pretty lazy with security once you’re past the building lobby.”
“Got it.” Michael acknowledged. “I trust you.”
Denny gleamed with satisfaction.
“Cool. You remember what I told you about the elevator right?”
Michael nodded fast. “Yeah, yeah. Z-formation and all. Piece of cake.”
She put her hands on his shoulders, her face close as she reassured him.
“You make sure you’re zipped up after that. Once you’re in the Symphon, we’ll meet up after you free Rob and your friends. I’ll keep the rest of the Pop 5 distracted for as long as I can.”
Michael made an exasperated sigh as he looked up again at the towering task before him.
He then forced a smile in an effort to calm himself.
“Thanks, Denny. You really are a lifesaver.”
He grinned, hand already moving as he prepared to activate his proposed song effect.
“Wish me luck?” he asked, only for Denny to flutter her eyes and shoot back a sly smile.
“Oh, I can do better than that.”
She leaned in, kissing him on the cheek and staying attached for what felt like an eternity.
When she pulled away, Michael realized that the cold of the night was all but gone. His face was now red and warm.
“Good luck, Michael.” she giggled, pushing him forward as he found himself at a sudden loss for words.
There was that gnawing question in his mind again; the one that made him think on Denny’s affections and how he felt about it all.
But Michael shook it away within a heartbeat.
Right now, Rob and his friends were the priority. Daydreaming about girls was the last thing he needed.
Michael pushed his feet against the ground, focusing his stance as he pushed play and the song effect started in his ears.
Starlight emerged in its wailing disco hymn, manifesting the same turquoise CD beneath him that rose above the ground like a flying saucer.
Positioned as comfortably as he could be, he gave Denny one more glance, before his chariot burst forward with a brilliant streak, taking him up and away into the night sky.
Denny’s ponytail blew behind her from the sheer wind force. She watched him leave with wide eyes.
And for just a fleeting moment, she forgot that he looked like her idol, and just saw that shimmering grin and infectious optimism within.
There really was nothing else in the world like self-propelled flight.
It was like something out of a comic book; extraordinary and unbelievable.
But where Music Masters were concerned, it was really just another night.
Actually prepared for it this time, Michael grinned to himself as he flew forward under a turquoise sheen of light, his giant disc platform carrying him up high above the New York City Skyline.
Like some sort of teal comet, he zoomed through the air, unabated by the height and the looming ground and buildings below.
As long as he didn’t look down, of course.
Instead, he focused on the sound of Starlight, using the music as the ultimate distraction as he approached his destination miles ahead of him.
Like a towering goal, 5 Records loomed in the distance; the promised 41st floor somewhere within.
Akin to the air rushing past his face, Michael’s thoughts bounded through his mind.
He thought of Rob and where he might be imprisoned.
He thought of Calvin and how he was coping.
He thought of Kim and how angry she was at him.
And then finally, he thought of Aeris. The possibility of running into her, of even being forced to fight her as Calvin had.
That thought alone seemed worse than facing all of the Pop 5 at the same time.
Time seemed inconsequential now, and before Michael knew it, 5 Records was close in his view.
He was quick to steer his makeshift platform towards the only floor with scaffolding just on the outside.
Michael’s heart banged back and forth in his chest.
He was only minutes away now.
He blinked, noting the wide open window ahead but bracing for impact nevertheless.
Starlight roared in his ears, as he and his disc zoomed through the opening and barrelled into all manner of leftover construction.
Michael felt dust and debris wash over him as he tumbled onto the ground and an earbud rolled out in the process.
His music stopped, and so did his chaotic rolling.
Beyond a bruise on his forearm, and the matted dust and assorted refuse on him, Michael was surprisingly okay.
He stood up, looking back at the open window and the air that rushed through it. In his crash landing, he’d practically obliterated the flooring that was still being worked on.
No alarms went off despite the massive commotion. Exactly as Denny had promised.
As he dusted himself off and tried to look as presentable as possible, Michael could only wonder if there was more to Starlight than appeared.
Unfortunately, he had little time to think on it. Satisfied with his appearance, Michael made his way out of the floor and towards the elevator.
It was only a few minutes of waiting before it reached the 41st floor, opening up to reveal a pristine, bronze interior.
Michael quickly stepped inside, staring at the configuration of buttons for a moment before inputting the Z-formation Denny had detailed to him some time earlier.
From 80 up to 1, he traced his finger, until the buttons lit up teal to signify the acceptance of the Zero Beat passcode.
Michael Kay watched with eyes wide as those same buttons proceeded to unfold into a technological wonder; a small set of metallic, stationary headphones clearly meant to be used, if only for a short time.
Denny’s words from before echoed in his mind.
Within this innocuous set of headphones was the only way he would get into the Zero Beat Symphon below.
It served as the ultimate security; a process that would have to be bypassed before the elevator could descend to a sublevel even further past the 5 Records storage basement.
Michael took what felt like the deepest and fullest breath he’d taken in his entire life.
He leaned down, hair flattening beneath the metal rung as the cold steel of the headphones touched his ears.
In front of him on the elevator panel, he could see a new button, small and innocent, in the form of a play symbol.
Michael gulped, and tapped his finger on it in the next moment.
At first, he heard nothing.
Then the noise started, a quiet drone that quickly escalated with intensity.
Michael heard gnashing guitars, and then soothing cymbals. He listened to vigorous rapping, and then fast, eclectic keyboards.
A didgeridoo came through, then a sitar, and then the sound of a loud Tibetan bell.
The cacophony of sounds began to grate at his ears, as banging drums, high-pitched crooning, glorious strings, and other uncountable instruments joined the mix.
Michael’s limbs shuddered, and his mind throbbed as the torrent of audio information threatened to shut down his consciousness.
His vision wavered, and he gripped onto the elevator bar nearby in an effort to stay standing. Michael gritted his teeth as the mental pain exploded in his forehead.
It was like experiencing the most horrible seizure in the world; it was a veritable wonder Michael still remained standing in the first place.
As he threatened to pass out, he thought of Rob, and of Kim and Calvin, and of Denny and even Aeris.
The people whom he’d fail if he didn’t get through this.
Blood dripped down his nose as pain gripped him. The timer drew to a close.
Just as Michael felt his teeth on the verge of chipping, and his brain on the verge of imploding, the horrible sound stopped.
In an instant, Michael’s limbs froze, and he felt his head sway as an electronic voice above announced his success.
“AUDIO CLEARANCE CONFIRMED. THANK YOU. NOW DESCENDING TO SYMPHON SUB-LEVEL 1.”
With an exasperated gasp, Michael held himself straight, wiping the blood away from his nose before tossing the hoodie over his head and zipping it up tight.
The elevator continued, and in a few minutes, he would be at the Symphon, just like Denny had promised.
Michael took a look up at the corner, where small, nondescript security camera looked back at him.
He could only hope that Zero Beat’s on-duty personnel was particularly lazy tonight.
Despite everything, Calvin Altberg hadn’t yet succumbed to true despair.
He had been alone in this cell for more than a day, a pristine white prison that served to hold him until Zero Beat said otherwise.
On his ears, a strange, white headset-like device clamped down. He couldn’t pull or pry it off if he wanted to, lest he take his ears off with it.
As his escort had explained, this thing served to filter out all incoming music, turning it into harmless white noise within his ears and making him incapable of Harmonizing with any song effects.
And that was if he even had his headphones or music player in the first place.
Calvin stared up at the ceiling, and the dull white of its sterile surface stared back at him.
Everything within the Symphon had a white, almost medical feel to it. When Calvin and Kim had first been brought in, he chuckled, half-expecting to see a giant, bitten logo of an apple to showcase who really owned this place.
His smile dropped quickly. Kim and him had been separated since then, and he had absolutely no idea where she was or what they were doing with her.
Aeris had similarly made herself scarce since their short fight, and Rob was somewhere secure and away from prying eyes.
Michael was their only hope now; even Zero Beat couldn’t completely hide the fact that he’d escaped at the last moment.
That, at least, was enough to stave off Calvin’s total despair.
He might have been content to keep thinking to himself, and theorizing what might be his inevitable death or life imprisonment, if not for the sound of approaching footsteps coming down the hall towards his cell.
Calvin sat up on his bunk, eager eyes towards the edge of the hall. He might not have been able to hear music in this state, but everything else was fair game.
But instead of another First Beat dressed in the that sterile white Zero Beat uniform, he was greeted with the tall, feminine form belonging to none other than his older sister.
Arms across her chest, she methodically approached his cell, tailed by one of the said First Beats who was quick to unlock it and allow her entry.
Calvin backed away in an instant, remembering Aeris’s words but also remembering there was nowhere to run.
“Relax, little brother.” Sirenia stated, though with clear impatience in her voice. “If I wanted to actually hurt you, believe me, there are far easier ways to do so.”
She nodded off the First Beat to leave them in peace, and he quickly obliged.
“So what…you’re here to make me an offer I can’t refuse?” Calvin asked.
His sister was unamused. “I’m here to bring you back to your family. I don’t think you realize how difficult it can be to broker a deal with Zero Beat. Especially considering that Rob Prototype is now out of the picture.”
Calvin crossed his arms and looked away. “Yeah well, you wasted your time coming here. There’s no way in hell I’m going back after what you did to me. I’d rather rot in here with Rob and Kim.”
Sirenia shook her head with disappointment. “Your faith in your little friends is so beyond misguided. Especially considering how easily your girlfriend gave you and your Michael friend up to Zero Beat.”
Calvin narrowed his eyes, anger seething through his voice.
“You don’t know a thing about Aeris. Get out of my face. This conversation is over.”
But despite his words, Sirenia didn’t budge.
Instead, she pushed play on her music player, and the familiar sound of the Talking Heads filled the air.
Of course because of his ear-clamps, Calvin heard none of it, only able to see the shimmering visual manifestation of the song effect itself.
He was now forced to face her, as he noted the tiny, suit-wearing cobra that manifested on her shoulder.
It was the same song effect that had stolen his past all those years ago. Certainly not one to be taken lightly.
One bite from those fangs, and he could lose all of his memories of Michael and the others within a single breath.
Sirenia seemed to understand his apprehension immediately.
“Let me make this plain and simple.” she began, petting her little Sentonal to calm its anxious nature.
“Either you come willingly, or I take you. You force my hand, and there’s no telling how many memories you might lose in the process.”
The Sentonal hissed in response to her words, fangs salivating digital sparks as it shook its aux cable tail.
Calvin backed against the wall next to his bunk, but of course, he was trapped.
“Time is ticking, little brother, and my patience wears thin…” Sirenia announced.
Her Sentonal hissed again, louder this time. She narrowed her eyes underneath her glasses, and it was obvious Calvin’s options were non-existent.
Not knowing what to do, Calvin closed his eyes like a frightened child and waited for the end of his mental sanctity to come.
Instead, he heard a loud whack, and the sound of Sirenia’s glasses shattering as she dropped to the floor.
Calvin blinked, and before him, he saw Michael, clad in the robotic form of Dancing Machine and standing over a now unconscious Sirenia.
If he had a mouth, Michael would have smiled. Seeing his blond friend alive and well was all he needed.
Meanwhile, Calvin just beamed as he spoke to his fellow Audio Knight.
“Disco music saves my life once again. Huh. Who would have thought?”