The concert hall was charged with electricity even before the lights dimmed. And when they did fade, only to illuminate the band, the very air seemed to be stifling a roar. The metaphorical butterflies in the stomach were large as eagles, every flap of the wings, every second, building tension.
Kilroy strode onstage and the air exploded around them; the cheers would have deafened the Protomen themselves had they not been wearing earplugs. The drummer of the group, Demon Barber, grinned. This was his moment. He raised the drumsticks high with pride and brought them down as the rest of the band stepped into the light. Kilroy greeted the crowd, the concert formally began, and the message began to be spread.
Drumbeats, soft and steady as a heartbeat, pulsed through the hall. In a matter of moments the drums were joined by a piano; though the keyboards pace was faster, the drum kept it alive. In another few seconds, a voice cut through the melody and into the hearts of the crowd. Panther had taken the stage, singing with quiet strength.
This city doesnt know whats coming; she doesnt feel the heat
This city wont know what hit her, what knocked her out into the street
This citys thinking that its over; shes already fast asleep
Im breaking out of here tonight
And here the song changed; Panthers voice rose into a defiant, proud cry. The drums pulsed once, twice, then were joined by the subdued strains of an electric guitar. Later they would wail and drive, but for now they simply merged with the other instruments to create a unique and beautiful sound.
The rest of Breaking Out seemed a blur. It seemed as soon as it really got going, time seemed to melt, and it was over. The applause thundered in their ears louder than the instruments. The Protomen again thanked their earplugs, waiting for the cheering to die down before continuing.
Youre very passionate, Panther praised, and thats good. We need that. For now, well give the rock a rest
youll learn what were passionate about
The guitars and drums were laid aside, for the moment, and the band was free to hear their leader sing. Panthers voice, rich and deep, enveloped the audience. His fingers slowly danced along the keys of the piano, the notes and the lyrics and his voice melding to create an experience beyond words.
Again, time seemed to dissolve with the song, words and notes and masculine pride all melting together in a blur. The electric guitar returned, providing soul and drive to the piano. Demon Barber readied himself. After this verse the pulse would return, strengthening the song and accentuating key points.
They say a man has to give up the very thing he loves here
I will not live like that
No, I will not live in fear
And I will not let them take it from me, no matter how hard they try
He was ready. Tapping out a beat with his fingers, keeping time, he prepared to strike the first beat.
Most men, when they have a knife to their chin, theyd rather give up than die
Now. He lowered his hands in a rush of excitement
Prisoner #8214, a metallic voice intoned, shattering his thoughts. Get up.
Demon Barber sluggishly opened his eyes, lost in the dream and unwilling to leave. When he didnt move, the Sniper Joe administered a shock with a taser. That got him up. He blinked once, twice, and then remembered where he was.
Did you have to wake me then? I was just about to start playing again, he groaned. They always interrupted the good dreams.
If the robot had heard him, it gave no reply, hauling him roughly to his feet. He was summarily dragged out of the cell, into a corridor and down a hallway. Demon Barber made no move to resist the robot, having learned the hard way that it only brought unwanted pain. While he knew he could endure it, he didnt want to suffer any more than was necessary. He had to be in good condition for when his band mates rescued him, or if he ever escaped.
After walking for several minutes, they came to a nondescript gray door with the inscription Room 1B written on it. The door opened to complete darkness; Demon Barber was dragged inside and strapped to a metal chair, his wrists bound to the chairs arms. After several minutes of trying and failing to free himself, he sat still and waited for whatever would happen.
As if on cue, an electrical hum filled the room as a large monitor clicked on in front of him. Then, two smaller ones on either side of him switched themselves on. In seconds the room was filled with the crackle and static of hundreds of monitors, all at different angles. All aimed at him. They bathed the room in a blue, unearthly glow that oddly reminded him of one of their shows. In the light he could see cameras mounted at intervals along the walls, and a man with a sharp, glinting knife.
The monitors flickered then; the static cleared, and Demon Barber found himself observed at all angles by Dr. Albert William Wily. Some screens, he noticed, were fuzzy or grainy, and he found himself constantly disoriented. It didnt matter where he turned his head; Wily was always there, gazing at him with narrowed, piercing eyes.
Wily said nothing for several minutes. To Demon Barbers surprise, he wasnt smiling, either, gloating over his prisoner. Only the fact that he blinked told Demon Barber that it was the real Wily and not a picture. The only sounds in the room were the hum of the monitors and the grind of a knife being sharpened.
After several minutes of silence, Wily finally spoke. His voice seemed to come from all the monitors, but it wasnt deafening. It was calm and reserved, with an arrogance and power that frightened Demon Barber. It was the voice of a man who had no need to conquer cities, for he already ruled the world.
But it was his words, rather than his voice, that shook Demon Barber to the core.
We know you know where the Protomen are. We know you know where their base is. If you dont talk, he said simply, well cut off your hands.
Demon Barber paled, unwilling to believe what hed just heard. Wily had just personally threatened him with dismemberment, and his tone told him it wasnt an idle tactic designed to scare. His feet being cut off he could take without a whimper. An ear or two lost would be no big loss. But his hands
? Unconsciously, his fingers twitched.
Think about it, Demon Barber, Wily intoned. Think of all you wouldnt be able to do without hands. You wouldnt be able to hold things. You wouldnt be able to writeyes, weve seen you writing in the dust on the floor, to keep yourself sane. You wouldnt be able to cover your ears when the loudspeakers chant the mantra day in and day out. And you wouldnt be able to play a musical instrument of any kind
least of all drums.
Wily paused, then, to let his words sink in.
Think about it. Think long and hard.
Demon Barber thought.
He thought of not having hands. He thought of the feel of an instrument in his hand, then imagined it ripped cleanly away. He thought of wanting to die, but having nothing to grasp a knife with.
He then thought of the Protomen, of being in the group. Touring with them, fighting with them, living with them. Spreading the last message of hope to as many places as they could.
He knew Wily, knew the robots; they wouldnt kill him because he might provide information. But if he told of the Protomen, told all he knew
They would be slaughtered, and he would be kept alive with his guilt. And mankind itself would fall.
When he weighed his hands against his friends, there really was no choice. It would be hard to manage without them, but he would. Hed have to.
Limbs could be replaced, after all. Hope couldnt.
Demon Barber sat up straight and stared, unblinking, at the monitors. A wry grin crossed his face.
Do it, Wily. Slice them off. Ill find ways to keep playing.
The man with the knife moved forward, placing the blade an inch above his wrist.
Last chance, Wily breathed.
The last thing Demon Barber did with his hands was to give them the finger.
The knife came down.
The rest was a blur of tears and red and pain. Through distorted vision, burning wrists, and a splitting headache, Demon Barber heard Wily speak.
Bandage him; cauterize the wounds if you have to. Then take him back to his cell and toss him in headfirst.
Demon Barber felt the bonds being loosened, felt something wrapped around where his hands should have been, felt himself being lifted up and taken back to the small, barred room that now seemed far too big.
He found himself literally thrown inside. He reached out to brace the fall, but screamed as he hit the floor and fire shot through him; and for a moment he wondered why. Then he remembered, and the pain intensified.
He waited until the door clicked shut. He waited until the metallic footsteps faded completely from range. He waited several minutes after that, to make sure theyd let him be.
It was then he raged, then he cried, pounding his nonexistent fists into the wall until the pain shot through him, forcing him to stop.
He could still feel his fingers.
Demon Barber pressed into the wall, letting an inarticulate cry escape his lips and stifle itself in the concrete. The walls shook with the force of the scream, and for a brief moment he pictured the entire place crumbling around his ears. He found himself smirking. Sure would be nice.
he knew it would never happen. Hed be here til the day he was rescued, or the day he died, whichever came first. Demon Barber pulled away from the wall and sighed. Usually when he felt like this, he would think of the songs, the music, that the Protomen composed and played.
But not tonight. Too many drums.
He searched his memory for a song to sustain him and found one. The band was a rock group founded in England, in what was once called the 1980s. It was a so-called side project of another, more famous band, and the Protomen respected and admired both. Many things had been lost to Wily, and the music of Genesis and Mike & the Mechanics were among the casualties. He supposed that was why they covered these songs
So the music would live on in those that heard it.
Demon Barber extended his arms and closed his eyes. Imaginary fingers danced along imaginary piano keys, and he sang for himself.
Take the children and yourself
And hide out in the cellar
By now the fighting will be close at hand
Panther was the singer of the group; Demon Barber knew this. He knew he couldnt sing as well as the leader. None of them could, except maybe Kilroy. But the emotion was there, and he knew Panther would approve. Now, he realized, he sung for them as well.
Don't believe the church and state
And everything they tell you
Believe in me, I'm with the high command
This was the part that always got to him whenever Panther sang it. The desperate, heartfelt cry for help, the feverish hope that someone, somewhere, could hear his voice. That he wasnt in this alone. Tears trickled down his cheeks, and he made no effort to wipe them away.
Can you hear me?
Can you hear me running?
Can you hear me running, can you hear me calling you?
Demon Barber poured his very soul into the second chorus. His voice filled the cell, echoed around the compound, pleading for someone, anyone, to answer. As his phantom hands struck lilting, aching chords, he felt he could hear Panthers voice
singing, praying, and crying with him.
Can you hear me?
Can you hear me running?
Can you hear me running, can you hear me calling you?
He felt he could hear a response.