For Rob Prototype, time flowed like the smoothest bass line.
It carried him to the future, where the triumph of Michael and his group of friends shined as bright as the surface of a mirror ball.
Their legacy as the Audio Knights would surpass that of his, Lex and Talulah. By now, Rob was sure of that.
But as much as he tried to avoid it, as Rob sat at the bar with an untouched drink in hand, memories of the past continued to flash loudly in the core of his mind.
Memories of death, of betrayal, and worst of all, of love that turned out to be a lie.
His phone lay right nearby, silent as it should be.
That same lie had brought him to this familiar place tonight.
He looked around, averting the gaze of other bar goers and the bartender just a few feet away.
Over the course of the last decade, Synthosphere hadn’t changed all that much.
It still had the same chill, club beats playing overhead, and the same astro violet and teal colour scheme in its lighting and decor. Very spacey, and thus very hospitable to anyone looking to pop XTC, lay back, and take in the universe beyond.
Rob stared downwards at the drink in his hand, as if trying to find an answer within the swirl of liquid.
All Synthosphere lacked now was that joking, sly voice belonging to the guy that had once been Rob Prototype’s best mate.
It was at this thought at Rob took a swig. The taste was sour and acrid. A perfect reminder to why Rob never did partake in alcohol.
But at least it was still preferable to remembering Lex and everything that had happened between them.
Footsteps somehow peeked into Rob’s ears, despite the club beats and partygoers around him. He turned slightly, listening as she made herself known.
“Of all the places we’d meet again, it just had to be here. Really does bring back memories of the old days, though…”
Her voice was as quicksilver as always.
“No bass? Aw, I guess you won’t be playing me any Bootsy Collins tonight.”
Rob ignored the remark, taking in her appearance instead.
She looked older, certainly, but her curly hair still draped around her face in the same way, and her skin was still the same tinge of reddish-brown that Rob remembered.
With a sway in her step, the woman took a seat in the bar next to Rob, chin resting on her knuckle as she looked back at him fondly.
“You look great, all things considered.” she told him with a smile.
Rob didn’t smile back. He fixed his cap out of habit.
That smile seemed more palpable on a king cobra than it did on her. Somehow, it would probably still be far less toxic.
“I could split right now, you know. So don’t start with the old friend act. You know what you did, even if you don’t want to acknowledge it.”
His finger slipped from his drink, just as the woman’s moved towards it in tandem. She looked at him, then motioned to the drink with a knowing smirk.
Rob pushed it in her direction. “Go ahead. If it’ll make this quicker.”
She was quick to oblige. Despite the taste, the woman downed said drink with all the subtlety of a sailor.
Rob sat up more rigid now. “So what’s this all about? Don’t play games with me, Talulah. The time for that’s long gone.”
Talulah pushed the drink away, her tone only lowering slightly.
“You’ve been very busy, Rob. Messing around with Zero Beat, and now your kid nephew’s got his whole Audio Knights thing going on.”
She put her finger to her lips, as if relishing a sudden thought. “They took down Craven and shook it all up. Honestly, I’m a bit jealous. They’re making us look bad, and they don’t even know it.”
“And that’s how it’ll stay.” Rob interjected. “If you so much as go near Michael, I swear…”
Talulah put her hand up, almost as if she was shooing Rob away. “Oh, I won’t. I promise you. But if they don’t hear it from me, or someone else, then at least you should know.”
Rob lifted his cap, showing his eyes and the glare that emanated from them.
Rob looked to one side. “Whatever you tell me, it’s like hearing it secondhand. No guarantee it’s even close to true.”
Talulah was playing with her glass now, her words coming out so carefree in the process.
“It’s about Neo-DanceDown. They’re finally making a resurgence.”
Rob leaned back, but not a hint of shock surfaced in his eyes. “Yeah, sure. Rumours I’ve been hearing for the last month now. And even if it’s true, why should I care? It’s Zero Beat they have issue with.”
He lifted his cap, showing the stone-cold seriousness within his eyes.
“Maybe you should be the one looking over your shoulder, considering the crowd you ran with.” Rob added, though it didn’t seem to phase Talulah in the slightest. “People don’t just forget that kind of stuff.”
“They can try if they want.” she said with a laugh. “Thankfully, it’s not me they want.”
Her eyes then moved in a fashion that made Rob’s heart skip a beat. She continued talking just when she knew she’d caught his attention again.
“Nicodemus Craven is no more. With him out of the way, it’s the opportunity they’ve been waiting for. Zero Beat’s reeling, and there’s never been a better time to act.”
She took another small sip from her drink, holding it by lip of the glass with two fingers. “And…word on the street is that they’re recruiting new blood. New dancers. Young and talented ones…just like your nephew.”
There was a short pause, before Talulah continued.
It was all the words Rob Prototype never wanted to hear, and yet his ex-girlfriend said them all the same.
“After what he’s done, there’s no doubt they’ll set their sights on him. So I just wanted to give you a fair warning, Rob. You know, for old time’s sake.”
Michael Kay kicked aside the red can near his feet, sighing for once in relaxation as opposed to anxiety.
It was awfully strange, to be out here on a sunny day and not feel so exposed.
No longer did the threat of Nicodemus Craven, or the Pop 5, or Nagataki X, or any other hostile Music Masters loom over his head.
And without them, Michael had to go back to worrying about high school, and Colleen, and the friends he’d cultivated after all this time.
The sun masked the skyline overhead like some giant, fiery mirror ball. For Michael, a day like this felt as normal as the times before he’d become a Music Master.
Without excitement, and because of that, somewhat empty.
“Hey.” Kim said, breaking his concentration as she picked up the can on the ground.
All around them, skaters skidded against the asphalt and went about their own business. It was strange for Michael; to be in the Dust Bowl during daytime when it was populated, to be here without expecting some sort of fight.
Truthfully, he’d become far too used to late night trysts among Music Masters.
Kim held the can up to Michael’s face, laughing to herself. “Looks kind of familiar, doesn’t it? Think it would hurt as much?”
Michael just smirked in response, pushing her hand away. “Yeah, don’t remind me. I’d rather not remember when you hated me, and when I was a total newbie.”
Kim nodded. “No argument there.”
She then threw the can like a basketball, and it landed at the bottom of the trash can with a satisfying ding.
Kim closed her fist in satisfaction. “Score.”
Michael smiled at the sight. Kim in a good mood did wonders for anyone, and Michael relaxed as he leaned back on the stone bench and looked up at the clear sky above.
It had been one month since their confrontation with Craven, and for better or for worse, it seemed like things had finally gone back to normal.
Of course, normal was a relative term where Music Masters were involved. According to Rob, with Craven’s gone, they were off Zero Beat’s radar for the foreseeable future.
He hadn’t gone into much detail, but it appeared that Craven’s leadership had been less than favorable for those around and beneath him, Pop 5 included.
But Michael didn’t really care about the politics. As long as that psycho was out of the picture, he was happy enough.
A few seconds later, and the boy’s phone buzzed in his pocket.
He went for it quick, seeing a text from Denny and typing his response in an instant.
A few feet away, Kim’s eyes narrowed as she spotted that dumb smile on his face, and her own pleasant expression seemed to drop.
She turned, speaking as if disappointed.
“Still texting that girl, huh?”
Michael stopped in the middle of typing. He scratched his head, sounding beyond unsure.
“Uh, yeah. She’s my friend, Kim, and she has a name: Denny. You know that.”
“I do. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. And it’s doesn’t mean I have to like her.”
Her venom was more than obvious, even for someone like Michael.
The boy put his phone down, now somewhat annoyed.
“Ok, relax, will you? Do I gotta introduce you two so you can finally stop worrying over nothing? Seriously, Kim.”
Kim swiveled around, her tone rising in response. “Spare me, please. I’m being realistic here. As far as we know, she’s still with the Pop 5. And whether Zero Beat still wants you dead or not, I guarantee you the rest of the Pop 5 ain’t ready bury the hatchet.”
“But be my guest. Go ahead and ignore me. Or you know, just do it behind my back. It wouldn’t be the first time someone has.” Kim said further, crossing her arms and turning away from Michael.
Michael sighed, deeply now. Then he focused his gaze, speaking as honestly as he could.
“Hey, Aeris already said sorry, Kim. Everybody agreed to forgive her, and you still keep wanting to leave her out. I don’t think that’s really fai-”
Kim turned back, boiling anger in her eyes. She was just about screaming now.
“Oh no! YOU agreed to forgive her, not me! You and Calvin! Not once did I concede to that. She screwed up, she pays the price. Don’t make me repeat myself.”
Despite her rage, Michael held his ground.
“You’re kind of ducking here, Kim. Calvin did the same thing, and you got over it. So why can’t you get over this? Everybody makes mistakes. Heck, I’ve made a million.”
Kim opened her mouth to shoot out another declaration, but she stopped before the words could even form.
The punk girl looked to one side, face softening as she thought on Michael Kay’s words.
Her tone lowered. “That’s not the kind of mistake you just forget, Michael. Especially coming from her.”
Never had Kim felt so ignited. The very thought of Aeris; once the picture-perfect, down to earth girl that they all trusted, now did nothing more but sent Kim into a tumble of rage.
Even Michael’s grin, the very same one that echoed her older brother, did little to abate her anger.
“Way I see it…friends gotta forgive friends.” he said, now lowering his tone and relaxing. “It’s super simple, Kim. Let’s not mess up the thing we got going after so long, okay?”
There was a light sniffle as Kim felt her face flush with emotion. It was something she was still not all that used to; allowing those softer, stray feelings to break out of her normally hard shell.
She had to turn away quickly, lest Michael spot the hint of tears coming from her eyes.
But as she tried to wipe them away, a familiar voice addressed her just nearby.
“Wow, Kimberly. Didn’t think I’d ever see you crying. Not in this lifetime, at least.”
Helia strode in, but this time, she was loudly chewing gum as opposed to smoking a cigarette.
Next to her, Renaldo stayed quiet but stalwart as Kim and Michael stood up, both of them jolted into their fight or flight responses.
Michael looked behind him, noticing the bystanders and the fact they were all in broad daylight.
Zero Beat couldn’t be so anxious to get him to come after him with so many witnesses present.
That’s what Michael wanted to believe, at least.
Kim beat quickly him to a response. “What the hell do you two want? We got an audience today; are you really that itching for a beating. What is this…round four?”
Helia stopped. She didn’t even flinch, and with no headphones in her ears, she made her intentions quickly known.
“I’ve lost track by now. Amazingly though, we’re not looking for a fight today. Maybe not for a long time.”
She turned to Renaldo, who knew in an instant that was his cue.
He rubbed the back of his neck. “We’re here to thank you, in a sense. And discuss some things.”
Michael stared back, completely confused. “Thank us? You mean for the whole Craven thing? That wasn’t planned you know. He came for us. It was totally in self-defense.”
Renaldo nodded. “We’re well aware. Not that anyone’s complaining. I’m sure you realized Craven wasn’t the most popular leader. You four taking him out proved to be a favorable solution for everyone. But that means reorganization for Zero Beat, which could take some time.”
“And they’re not looking for interruptions,” Helia interjected. “Which means…that Zero Beat wants you to know that they’ll stay out of your way, if you stay out of theirs. Disco music or not, Audio Knights or not, that’s the way it is now. Makes life easier for everyone.”
Kim narrowed her eyes, fists closed and at the ready. “Don’t believe this garbage, Michael. This has to be some sort of trick.”
“No trick.” Helia assured, before putting her hand out as a clear offer of peace.
“We can make it official, if you’d like. If that makes you feel warm and all inside.” she said, with just the slightest hint of indignance in her voice.
Her gum chewing was both loud and obnoxious. Kim’s fist tightened as her eyes focused on Helia’s outstretched palm.
“This is your golden opportunity. Zero Beat doesn’t forgive often. So let’s shake on it, and put the whole thing behind us.
Helia blew a bubble, only to pop it a moment later and smile through her teeth.
“Sound good, Kim?”