Truth be told, the hug caught Michael Kay completely off-guard.
He had initially been more concerned over Sirenia, hoping he hadn’t hit her too hard. She laid on the floor before them, glasses broken and just a hint of blood coming from her nose, as Calvin simply stepped over her and looked beyond happy to see his friend.
Without a mouth in which to speak, Michael simply widened his glowing green eyes as Calvin embraced him.
The blond patted him on the back, quickly detaching as his expression had shifted from fear to confidence.
“I knew you’d come through for me, buddy.” he declared, only for Michael to give him a thumbs up in response.
Michael then pointed down at his unconscious sister, before putting his hands up with uncertainty.
Calvin looked disappointed. “Eh, she kind of deserved that. She’ll be fine. She’s nowhere near our top priority right now.”
He turned back to his still robotic, disco-ball headed friend.
“So what’s the plan, Mike?”
In response, Michael might have flashed him an unsure smile, but his lack of a mouth forced him into a look that was somewhat lacking.
He instead pulled off one of his earbuds, transitioning back into his previous human body once the music was no longer playing fully in his ears.
“We find Kim and Rob, and we bust them out. Not all that complicated.” he spouted, sounding as if he’d had to hold his breath this whole time.
Not wanting to waste even a second of time, Michael beckoned Calvin to follow him, and together, the two of them dashed down the hall and towards a seemingly unknown destination.
Michael had his phone out as they moved, his eyes focused on the Symphon layout given to him by Denny previously.
Rob was close, based on the information. Hopefully, he was still intact.
As the two of them turned a corner, Calvin reluctantly spoke up.
“So…what should we do about Aeris?”
Michael stopped in place. His face became drawn and dour for a moment.
This was a subject no one wanted to touch with a ten-foot pole.
“Oh. I, uh, haven’t thought that far ahead.” the boy admitted.
He checked his phone again, noting the destination in mind up just ahead.
“Let’s just get Rob first. We’ll find her too, and figure things out when we do.”
“Okay. You’re the boss.” Calvin said in agreement, though there was just a hint of distress in his tone.
Much like Michael, confronting Aeris again was the last thing Calvin wanted to do.
Amazingly, the sterile white hallways of this part of Symphon were curiously empty.
Despite all the noise Michael and Calvin were making as they headed towards Rob’s holding cell, it appeared no one was coming to stop them.
Even the lack of the alarms seemed odd, especially to Calvin, who knew for a fact Zero Beat was incredibly paranoid about intruders in any of their various Symphons.
One could only wonder if the First Beats and other personnel had been pulled away for something more important, but neither Michael or Calvin thought on it much as they approached Rob’s holding cell up ahead.
They considered it a blessing in disguise at a most crucial time.
After a quick check around the corner to see if the coast was clear, both of them stepped forward, stopping right in front of the opaque superplastic bars that served to keep Rob Prototype trapped and restrained.
Inside this holding cell, he sat alone in silence, hands locked behind his back with a clamp-device that echoed the same one Calvin had worn around his ears.
Rob’s cap was off, and his eyes were closed, like he was trying to sleep while sitting up.
Michael just about crashed into the cell bars from sheer anxiousness.
“Hey!” he said with a loud whisper. “Hey, Rob! It’s me!”
His uncle’s eyes snapped open.
He recognized his nephew in an instant, and then his gaze shifted from calm clarity to complete surprise.
“Mike?” He looked to his nephew’s side and noted another Audio Knight. “Calvin? What the hell are you two doing doing here?”
Calvin shot him a knowing smirk. “Breaking you out of a jail. What else?”
Michael added no further quip, having put on headphones and selecting the necessary song. Canned Heat was soon up and running, and Michael focused the latent heart into a pinpoint spot on his index finger.
It took more than a few seconds, but soon with that same finger, Michael was tracing a scalding line across the bars that guarded Rob’s cell.
They pulsed and vibrated with horribly intense heat, before melting into themselves and collapsing into plastic slag on the floor.
Once they were cool and solidified, Michael and Calvin stepped inside towards the bound Trackmaster.
Another dash of Canned Heat, and Rob Prototype was soon free of the infernal Anti-Music clamps and the handcuffs that kept him prisoner.
He rotated his wrists, as both Michael and Calvin seemed anxious to proceed.
“This is crazy. How did you even get in here, Mike?” Rob asked, clearly worried out of his mind. “You had to have gotten past audio clearance. If you’re not Zero Beat, then that mea-”
“Hey.” Calvin interrupted. “Let’s not dwell on the details. Kim’s still somewhere around here.”
“And Aeris.” Michael added, with clear uncertainty.
Rob pulled his cap down, and with deft ease, slipped off one of his shoes before reaching his fingers towards the toe.
He pulled out a spare miniature music player and micro-headphones that had been stuffed within the extra space this whole time.
“Kim’s on the second sub-level, in the testing lab. I don’t know what they’re doing with her in there, but I can’t imagine it’s good.”
His voice dropped with seriousness. “You two get going. Just leave Aeris to me.”
Michael nodded, but Calvin wasn’t so dense to not be able to understand what Rob meant with his words.
He pointed an accusing finger right at Rob’s chest. “Hey, you watch yourself with her. We still don’t know what the whole situation is. If I find out you hurt a hair on her head, I swear…”
Rob walked past him. “Relax, Calvin. I just want to make sure she’s okay. Something’s up, and I think I got a fix.”
“Understood. I trust you, Rob.” Michael said.
Michael put a hand on Calvin’s shoulder, attempting to diffuse as best he could.
“He’s got this, I promise. Let’s just go, man. Kim’s waiting for us.”
Calvin shot one last look at Rob Prototype, as if calling his bluff, before following Michael as they made their way towards the nearest floor elevator.
They left Rob standing alone, without his bass guitar for the moment but armed with music once again.
Putting his micro-headphones on, he pressed play on the tiny music player, forcing the sound of Travelling Without Moving to pulse through the air.
It was weak and somewhat unsure in comparison to the one conjured through his bass guitar, but for now, it was more than enough.
With Aeris and her plight on his mind, he took a deep breath as her Harmonized with the deep, resounding bass of the Jamiroquai track in ears.
Then, there was a green and gold flash of light as his body left this reality, and Rob was gone.
At seven years old, Kim Ramone was completely alone.
Clad in a bright yellow sundress, she walked slowly through run-down streets and looked up towards a rough and storm-wracked sky.
All around, refuse, trash, and assorted destruction seemed to be the norm. The place she’d once known as home had become a mangled cityscape full of desperation and despair.
The only thing she had to keep her company in all this was Albert; her stuffed duck given to her by Seth on her sixth birthday.
Together, they made their way down the sidewalk, unsure of the future.
But unbeknownst to them, paranoid eyes watched hungrily from the alcoves above.
Kim remained motionless, a breathing mask strapped to her face and large, headphone-like implants plugged deep into her ear canals.
All around her, various technicians worked on consoles and adjusted settings as they slowly played controlled music in her ears.
Since she’d been brought in, they’d worked tirelessly for hours, keeping her in a hyper-sedated state and hoping for some sort of reaction to the music being forced into her brain.
Up until this point, their work had remained undisturbed.
That all changed in but a heartbeat.
A door at the end of the hall slammed open, exposing them and revealing an angry, afro-headed teen whose hand and heels burned with all his disco-fueled rage.
“Hey!” he shouted from down the hall, alerting the scientists from their audio-based work. “You get your hands off Kim before I burn this place to the ground!”
His eyes gleamed with threat as he speeded towards them with heat-infused speed.
Of course, they immediately stopped what they were doing, looking up with apprehension and fear as Calvin followed in Michael’s wake.
Some of them booked it out of there, but Michael was far more concerned with the state of his friend than he was with any escapees.
With Calvin at his side, Michael made his way towards the form of Kim asleep on the operating table.
Her chest rose and fell, and she seemed peaceful as she slept and the music played in her ears.
Then, just outside the corner of Michael’s view, Kim’s right hand began to twitch.
The little girl that was Kim was running fast now. Her shoes slapped against the asphalt, as white, mohawk-wearing, monkey-like punks bounded after her.
They jeered and cackled, gaining on her as she held onto Albert for dear life and turned corner after street corner with no solace in sight.
Seth and his golden grin were nowhere to be found.
Kim skidded after another turn, her feet tripping up over each other and causing her to fall hard on the ground.
She tumbled, Albert leaving her grip before she fell right into a huge waist-high puddle of murky and disgusting water.
Kim sputtered, water absorbing her copious tears as she soon realized that her duck was no longer with her.
In a panic, Kim sloshed and splashed through the sewage-looking stuff, fingers grasping for anything even remotely in Albert’s shape.
The jeers were closer now, but Kim’s fear of her pursuers had all but vanished.
She searched in vain, and after minutes more, she finally realized that Albert might truly be gone for good.
The little girl in her wet and sopping sundress looked up.
She was surrounded by this destroyed city, and its white inhabitants with their lanky forms now prowled around her like starving hounds.
They laughed louder. Kim put here hands against her cheeks.
She cried out, and her anguish tore a rent in the very sky above.
Then she only seemed to sink deeper into the murky depths of the wretched pool around her.
Pitch black darkness began to encroach upon her skin, as her eyes glowed with unruly light.
Soon enough, she was in far too deep.
Michael pushed the man against the wall, surprising anger written on his face as he gritted his teeth.
“I’m not playing here, man! Whatever you people did, you undo it, right now!”
Behind Michael, Calvin looked around with uncertainty.
He had never seen Michael this angry before, let alone this physical.
The rest of the men and women working on Kim had booked it the moment they realized hostile Music Masters were in their midst, leaving just the slowest of their number to speak for the lot of them.
Canned Heat pulsed threateningly in Michael’s right hand, and sweat dripped down the man’s brow as he spoke quickly.
“It’s not that simple. We can’t just wake her up. There’s no telling how long she’ll be asleep…”
The heat pulsed brighter. Michael’s eyes narrowed as anger vibrated in his very tone. “You’re telling me this is permanent? That’s my friend! You turned her into a freaking vegetable! I should burn your face off for this!”
Calvin stepped forward, sensing Michael’s rage and putting a hand on the teen’s shoulder in an effort to calm him.
“Mike, not yet. We need as much info as we can get from him first.” he advised, turning his gaze to the man now.
“What were you people doing down here? What did you need Kim for?” Calvin asked him, serious but nowhere near as mad as Michael.
His grip on the man’s white collar lessened, but only slightly. The man answered with anxious fear.
“Forceful induction of Perfect Beat. Zero Beat’s been on us about it for years. It takes specific circumstances, and the right bond with the right song. This Kim girl already has emotional instability; it’s a catalyst needed to spark the reaction.” he explained, between clearly panicked breaths.
The heat was so dangerously close to his face.
“Perfect Beat? What the hell is this nonsense?” Michael said, clearly confused.
“Not nonsense, you ignorant child.” the man insisted, full of himself now despite the clear danger. “It is the very pinnacle of a Music Master’s power. Total emotional detachment, and the most powerful a song effect can become. If we can just find a way to induce it voluntarily…”
“…then Zero Beat’s army of First Beats would turn from pushovers to Trackmasters. Talk about a change of pace.” Calvin finished for him, just as Michael finally decided to let the man go.
He stumbled in the process, eventually resting his arm on the operating table behind him, where Kim still lay breathing in supposed peace.
“Now you understand.” he said, becoming suddenly ecstatic. “We’re on the edge of a power that will finally tip the scales. I would be positively shaking in fear if I were you. Because we all know what happened to DanceDown and Highlord Funk.”
His words seemed to come right on cue, as the song that was formerly just low in Kim’s ears began to increase in volume in the air.
It began with an innocent guitar riff, escalating into desperate singing as Kim herself sat up on the operating table.
The man had no time to react as her hand shot for his throat and held it within a super vice-grip.
He struggled, eyes popping in his head as the girl kept him in place and stopped him from talking any further. Her song only seemed to frame the rising danger of the whole situation.
Michael felt himself taking a step back, eyes glued on Kim.
Or more accurately, eyes glued on the thing that once was Kim.
With one hand, the technician was raised high in the air, gargling as the atmosphere around of all them changed as the song effect finally came into being.
Weightlessness hit Michael and Calvin, as the sensation of rushing water accompanied the fact that the entire room seemed to have been suddenly plunged beneath the sea.
As both Music Masters realized they could still somehow breathe, the man being held by Kim found he wasn’t as lucky.
He sputtered and choked, drowning as a being of pure darkness held him tightly in within her fingers.
It was like a living silhouette of Kim; completely black and devoid of light save for the eldritch purple that glowed violently from her eyelids.
She was totally silent as she held onto the technician for what felt like an eternity, watching him drown helplessly before she finally let go and let him drift off into apparent unconsciousness.
The being that was somehow Kim turned its gaze now to Michael and Calvin.
Michael in particular gulped at the sight. He opened his mouth, and the word tumbled out with uncertainty.
“Kim? It’s us. You know; the Audio Knights.”
She didn’t respond. Her bonds snapped like rubber bands as she got out of the operating table, hands balled into fists as Michael himself was set into her sights.
Canned Heat still powered up, Michael’s reaction speed was nothing when compared to Kim’s, as she surged forward and grabbed him by the neck in the same fashion as the technician before.
In response, Calvin could only swim as best he could, held back by the environment while Michael gargled as water suddenly and violently began to fill his mouth.
Kim held onto him with an unbreakable grip, her SUM 41 sound pouring into his ears as the otherworldly water threatened to do the same to his lungs.
“Kim, please!” Calvin cried out in Michael’s aid, knowing full well he wouldn’t make it in time. “You can’t just ice us! I gotta live to tell my kids about this!”
Kim just ignored him, holding Michael in place despite all of struggling.
In desperation, he’d placed a Canned Heat-infused hand over her dark-covered wrist, but the energy seemed to have no effect whatsoever.
His vision waned, water overtaking him as Kim’s glowing eyes stared back at him with impunity.
She was something else entirely; some creature covered in the purest night that echoed Kim’s shape and had all of her strength increased tenfold.
Not knowing what to do beyond struggle for dear life, Michael flashed a grin.
Perhaps he did it because he wondered if this might be his very last opportunity.
No reaction from Kim that he could see.
Finally relenting to the pressure, bubbles floated between his teeth, just as Michael’s eyes began to roll over in his head.
In front of him, Kim’s eyes blinked for the first time since Perfect Beat had overtaken her, and her grip on his throat ceased.
The city’s awful noises had finally stopped.
The small, young Kim stood up from the waist-deep water.
She blinked in surprise. The once dirty water was clear and clean now; like something off the coast of the Bahamas as opposed to some city street.
All around her, the cackling monkey-men were gone.
Sunlight began to creep through the buildings above where once dark clouds had reigned. She heard footsteps approaching, stopping just at the water’s edge on the sidewalk.
A shadow fell over her, but it was not threatening in the slightest.
Kim’s face grew into a smile, as Seth put his hand out, blue mohawk as bright as ever, before flashing her that golden grin.
Under his other arm, Albert waited; dry, safe and sound.
Kim took his hand and gleamed with joy.
Birds chirped, and they laughed together as he helped her up on the sidewalk and they happily went on their way.
Michael’s feet dropped to the floor, just after Kim violently ripped off her forced headphones with the last vestiges of her Perfect Beat strength.
The water vanished from the room as In Too Deep was silenced, and it vanished from Michael’s body just seconds before it might have shut his brain down entirely.
He took in a huge breath, heaving back and forth as Calvin approached from behind and a somewhat dazed but normal Kim now stood before him.
Michael composed himself, putting a hand on Kim’s shoulder as he addressed her with exasperation.
“You…you good now, Kim?”
Kim shook her head slightly, blinking rapidly in an effort to focus.
She put a hand on her forehead, feeling the throbbing remnants of a headache.
“I’ll survive.” she replied.
Unfortunately for her, Calvin’s attempt to lighten the mood snaked right through.
“Good, because Mike wasn’t about to. Do you know what just happened to you?”
Kim looked straight at him, trying to compile it all in her head but seeing nothing but the memories of herself running through a city in fear, only to find the light of her brother Seth at the end.
“Just some sort of weird dream.” Kim declared, though she was quick not to dwell on it.
“Not really important.”
She grabbed her headphones and music player from a table nearby. Since she’d been brought here, they had remained untouched.
Her skull-emblazoned headphones slid comfortably down her neck and just between her shoulders.
“Good to see you two okay. Must be some story on how you broke in here.” she observed, as Michael just laughed in response.
“You bet. We got Rob too. He said he was going to take care of something…”
Michael’s voice trailed off, but Kim was quick to understand. She knew exactly what he didn’t want to say.
She stuffed her hands in her pockets.
“More like someone. Thanks for the save guys, but really, how stupid do you think I am?”
Michael looked beyond unsure, while Calvin sighed as Kim said the inevitable.
“Where is she?”
She narrowed her green eyes, thinly veiled rage coming over them.