Even when Craven wasn’t around, Aeris still felt like she was always being watched by hungry eyes.
As far as she was concerned, he was the beast and she was the harlot. And unless there was some miracle from heaven waiting to happen, that wasn’t about to change.
She sat alone, high up above in the very same monitoring room that Denny had been observed by Craven and the rest of the Pop 5 all those months ago. With nothing to keep her company besides control consoles, bright screens nearby, and the elevator leading down into the training space, Aeris didn’t even try to hold back her tears.
Head buried in her arms, she quietly sobbed as every horrible thing she’d done to her friends replayed back in her mind.
To be as weak as she was, as fearful as she was; it was the sole reason that her brothers continued to suffer and her friends had seemingly paid the ultimate price.
All that was left was for Craven to come and finally truly claim her as his own.
She brought her head up, wiping away some tears in an effort to recompose herself.
Then her ears perked up from incoming noise, as behind her, the elevator door into the monitoring room opened, and footsteps approached.
They were much quicker than she expected, and Aeris’s mind descended into fear as she imagined the worst person of all coming to take her.
A hand soon rested upon Aeris’s shoulder.
It was lanky, almost spider-like, and Aeris felt her heart just about jump out of her chest at the sensation.
She turned around, panic in her eyes as she expected that gaunt face and devilish, toothy smile.
What she saw, however, was none other than Calvin Altberg.
He had those same golden locks, his cocky smile, though a little unsure this time, and those striking blue eyes.
With him were Michael and Kim, and the three of them seemed well aware of the uncomfortable air that came with this sudden confrontation.
Aeris flinched at sight of them, though some of her fear vanished, replaced by crushing guilt.
“…Calvin? How…how did you find me?”
Calvin turned back to the others, as if searching for an answer he didn’t have to give.
He chuckled awkwardly. “We had a little help.”
Calvin then reached into his pocket, pulling out his phone and swiping it unlocked. It took him a few seconds, but he soon found the video clip he was looking for, texted to him, Kim and Michael just ten minutes ago.
He put it up to Aeris’s face, and her eyes widened in complete disbelief.
“You happen to know these guys?”
The video couldn’t lie, of course.
In it, the image of her four older brothers; sandy-haired David, bespectacled Isaac, greaser-looking Cory, and rugged Spencer, were all visible.
They were unconscious, but otherwise unharmed, pictured within strange, tube-like compartments that must have held them captive this entire time.
Without so much as asking, Aeris grabbed Calvin’s phone right out of his hands.
Her face broke into a smile, as more tears streamed down from her eyes.
This time though, her heart glowed with warmth, as the image of her family unharmed seemed to drive the shadow of Craven far, far away.
As Kim threw out her accusing and difficult question, Michael was at a loss for her words as Calvin seemed more than ready to oppose her.
“Kim, let’s think about all this for a second. What are you really going to do when we find Aeris? Beat her up? Come on; even you’re not that heartless.” he pointed out, though his nonchalant tone was nothing compared to Kim’s venom.
“You bet your ass I’m going to do something. She betrayed us, moron. She told the Pop 5 where we were, and baited us by taking down Rob.”
Michael scratched the back of his head. “It all sounds pretty terrible. But, maybe…she had a reason for all of it?”
Calvin nodded in agreement. “I’m with Mike. I know Aeris. She wouldn’t do any of this unless she had no choice.”
“We always have a choice!” Kim barked, louder and angrier now. “She’s supposed to be our friend, always supposed to have our back! You think I would sell you all out if my back was against the wall? Hell no! We all gotta be held to the same standard, even Ms. Goody Two Shoes.”
Kim’s voice echoed loudly in the testing lab, as Calvin stepped forward and narrowed his eyes in opposition.
“Look, I get it, Kim. We’re all stressed. But I’m going to be clear about this part: I talk to her first, without question. We figure this out as a group, not guns blazing.”
Kim got right up in his face, sneering through her lips as Michael felt himself wanting to back away.
“Oh yeah? And who made you leader of the Audio Knights? How about I just clock you now and call it a day? It would be so goddamn easy.”
Calvin narrowed his eyes, his body becoming tense. “Kim, this really is the wrong time for this. You can hate me all you want, but don’t take it out on Aeris.”
Kim and Calvin stood almost nose to nose now, with Calvin’s slight height advantage being the only extra space between them.
If Michael didn’t know any better, he thought he spotted lightning spark between their eyes, as an unnecessary fight seemed ready to break out between them.
Just moments away from sucker-punching him, Kim’s anger was abated as her phone buzzed loudly in her pocket.
At the exact same time, both Calvin and Michael also felt their phones vibrate.
Michael managed to get his out first, seeing a message from Rob that contained a short video clip embedded within.
There was a note to call as soon as possible, and at the very least, it was proof that Rob was still alive and well.
Michael scanned it quickly, as Calvin and Kim were thankfully distracted enough from their fight to turn their attention towards him.
He’d already pressed play on the video as he addressed his two bickering friends before him.
“Speaking of Aeris, you guys might want to take a look at this.” Michael said, his phone placed before him for all to see.
Annoyed at each other, but not yet that far gone, both Calvin and Kim had little choice but to lean down and watch.
The tears kept flowing, as Aeris held onto Calvin’s phone like it was the holy book itself.
“How is this possible? I was so powerless. Craven said he could kill them with a press of a button…”
This time, Michael stepped forward in an effort to fill in the blanks.
Behind him, it was obvious just by her expression that Kim was reluctant to speak, lest she blow up again.
“Rob found them in those weird tube-things, looking for you. Guess he figured out pretty quick that this Craven guy was holding them hostage. He said once we got you, to meet him downstairs and he’ll get us all out of here.” Michael explained, as Aeris just looked down, still unable to believe it all.
“Why would he do that for me?” Aeris said, her voice cracking slightly as she held back tears. “I electrocuted him. I told the Pop 5 where you were while you slept. I’m the whole reason you’re all here in the first place.”
“You’re damn right you are! I have half a mind to leave you here with the rest of Zero Beat!” Kim snapped, unable to retain her patience any longer.
Calvin put his hand out to shush her, and amazingly, it worked for the time being.
“You’re right. There’s no question of what happened.” Calvin said, his voice honest yet stern. “You double-crossed us the same way I did to Michael.”
Michael looked away, clearly uncomfortable as he acknowledge his friend’s words. “Yeah, Aeris. You kinda did.”
“We will address all of this, I promise you. But we’ll do it together, as friends.” Calvin said, before putting his hand out for Aeris to take.
“Right now though, the most important thing is that we hightail it out of here. The last thing I want to do is run into the Pop 5 again. Saturday night’s alright for fighting, but not tonight, Bright Eyes.”
He smiled at Aeris, who by now had wiped away her tears and was looking at his hand as if taking it might be the most important decision of her life.
“Whatever happened before, whatever might happen, I’m not dwelling on it right now. I just need to know…are you with us, Aeris?”
Aeris blinked, thinking about everything that occured within the span of the last few minutes.
It seemed her miracle had come.
Despite everything she’d done to him, Rob Prototype had become the hero of the hour and saved her from the most awful existence that just made her want to die.
And where once Craven’s spider-like grip might have pulled her back towards the darkness, she now was able to shake it away.
So slowly but surely, she took Calvin’s head, smiling at him for a brief moment before grabbing him in a sudden and tearful embrace.
“Yes.” she said happily, holding him tight. “I’m with you.”
Calvin just smiled through a sigh as he returned her hug. “Good. Glad to hear it.”
They stayed that way for almost a minute, as Michael grinned with satisfaction.
More than anything, he just wanted to see everyone together. It was how things were supposed to be.
Unfortunately, Kim wasn’t so like minded.
In an effort to stem her anger, she just looked away from the sight before them.
But even still, rage continued to beat softly in the back of her mind.
And when she looked at Aeris, all she could see was the face of a betrayer; repeating in her mind over and over and over again.
The elevator ticked downward, its electric hum like a pleasant music in Michael’s ears.
He grinned ear to ear, despite the clear anger emanating from Kim nearby.
Things couldn’t be better than they were right now, he thought to himself.
Just a short ride back down to the training space, and Rob would be waiting for the four of them, bass in hand and ready to whisk them out of the Symphon and away from Zero Beat.
He could see Colleen again, and eventually rendezvous with Denny when things sufficiently calmed down.
In this elation, he turned to say something to Kim, forgetting for just a moment that she was still quite miffed.
Then he spotted that disgusted look on her face, and even Michael wasn’t so clueless to bother her further.
Michael was quick to face forward again, preferring to wait patienly as the elevator just about reached the bottom floor into the training space.
Kim would come around, he thought.
She would come around, and everything would go back to the way it was.
Michael sighed deeply, with a mix of relief and satisfaction.
Behind him, Aeris and Calvin had remained remarkably quiet even as the doors opened before them.
Without thinking, Michael stepped out of the elevator with glee, announcing himself to everyone in the process.
“Alright everybody, we are officially home free!”
He stopped mid-step, as a voice belonging neither to Rob nor his friends answered him in turn.
“No, you’re right where we want you, Michael.”
Everyone just about froze, as before them, blocking their way across the training space, the assembled Pop 5 was revealed.
Ollie stood in the forefront, hands at his sides and a stern, patient look on his face.
“Thanks for coming to us. Means I don’t have to spend the time to track you down.” Ollie said to Michael in particular, who took a step back as his fellow Audio Knights readied themselves for the worst.
Next to Ollie, Nathan shook his hands, a snide grin plastered on his face.
“So we can only kill the disco boy, right?” he asked, clearly far too engrossed in it all.
“Unless you want Craven to come down on your head, yes, you’re correct. Let’s avoid the headache, please.” Lily answered for him, arms crossed as she stood stalwart by her fellow Pop 5.
On her left side, Denny stood quiet and unsure, as if waiting for the perfect moment.
She made a particular effort in avoiding Michael’s gaze at all costs. Even Paul was more talkative than her.
“The rest of you lot.” the Brit explained. “You lay down quietly, and we bring you quietly. We don’t have to have a big fight here.”
Ollie’s eyes stopped on Aeris, and he tipped his chin to beckon her.
“You. You’re with us if you know what’s good for you.”
Aeris shook her head in defiance, Calvin right beside her.
“No. Not anymore. I’m with Michael. I stopped you once, and I can stop you again.”
Calvin was quick to agree. “That’s right, Ollie. If you’re expecting some easy fight, you might as well hightail it out of here now.”
Even Kim seemed prepared for the worst, despite her anger. She cracked her knuckles and stretched her shoulders as she surveyed the gathered enemies before her.
“This might just be perfect, actually. You five are just the thing I need to cool off. Lucky for you guys, I hear Zero Beat’s got good insurance.”
With the combined vocal support of his friends, Michael Kay found the confidence to step forward, fist closed as he was now face to face with Ollie.
The tension in the air was obvious. Goaded by the presence of people and through its own automatic functions, music began to play in the loudspeakers up above, as if framing a final conflict well overdue.
But Ollie ignored it, speaking quickly as he tried to drive his point home.
“Don’t you get it? Your uncle won’t be here in time. You got nobody to swoop in to save you. It’s just you and your dumb little friends. You’re dead, Michael. You were dead the moment you decided to come running back for your friends. No, you were dead the moment you got into the Pop 5’s sights.”
Breaking her silence, Denny finally found the courage to speak.
“Yeah, that’s why he’s here right now, looking like a smooth criminal. Cause you did such a good job making sure he’s dead.” she pointed out, much to Ollie’s visible annoyance.
He might have gone back and hit her if he didn’t have mortal enemy so up in his space.
Michael just laughed. It seemed Denny wasn’t lying when she said her ship with the Pop 5 had sailed.
The odds may have just evened for the Audio Knights.
With everyone by his side, fear became an afterthought for Michael Kay.
“Sorry man.” he told Ollie, headphones in his ears, having pressed play through all of Ollie’s monologuing. “I can’t hear you over the sound of my music.”
That was the cue everyone needed, and Michael flashed a big grin in Ollie’s direction even as he went for a fierce punch to the face out of pure impatience and rage.
Song effects manifested left and right, but Ollie’s attack failed to hit home as Michael took on the familiar disco-studded robot form of Dancing Machine.
Michael moonwalked backwards, and his friends charged, with lightning, neon squares, and purple claws assaulting in tandem.
Taunting Ollie even without a mouth, only one thought surged through Michael Kay’s mind as the Pop 5 and the Audio Knights finally clashed in the massive and sterile white space of the training gym.
It was time to fight fire with fire.
Or more accurately, Michael thought, fight music with music.