More Than Rhythm
rating: +6+x

The backstage area was as stuffy as hell. Conner tried to adjust the mask he was wearing to get some more air, but it was pointless. He called over to the other crazy dudes and dudettes that made up their sorry excuse for a band. "What's the time?"

Lock, who had chops when it came to the clarinet and was the unofficial-official leader of the band, answered first. "We have ten minutes before showtime. Put on your earplugs everyone."

He took a deep breath and tried to still his nerves. Of course, he knew there was really nothing to worry about: he had performed the same song they were about to play with the people around him five times already since he had started with them two months ago, and not one of those performances had led to a train wreck. Some might have thought that it was astonishing how well a band could assimilate new members into their ranks, but it was a given if you wanted to be cool.

Tonight, however, was different, as tonight was the night Conner was finally going to have his first solo. It would only be for a mere moment—ten seconds, at the most—but it would be a defining moment in his musical career. For Conner, it was his chance to perform and ask the next day, after everything settled down and everyone was sober, the question of a lifetime: "Am I cool now?"

He took a final look around him, feeling both worried and excited in his shiny silver mask. There were five of them in total, and all were wearing masks and earplugs of varying colors. The masks were there to protect their identities for the most part, while the earplugs were a precautionary measure against the music they were playing. Ezzie, the trumpet-player, wore a bright yellow mask in the shape of an elephant. The saxophonist Gavin decided to bring an old leather mask he found lying around his parents' house, and Melany, who handled the drums and bass, tall girl as she was, had donned a purple and green mask for the occasion. Lock himself wore a pink, smiling mask, along with a gold necklace that contrasted against the dark clothing he and the rest of the group were wearing. There was a bit of chatter here and there, but as soon as they were called, everyone fell silent and made their way onstage and to their instruments.


Leonard was nervous, very nervous. Rentals were easily controlled; if something went awry, it could be stopped within seconds without any loss. Live events were riskier; by their nature they had uncontrollable variables. If something went wrong with the music, it would require them to somehow disable the musicians, which would be relatively slow and messy. He'd read through all the documents and memos MC&D had on file, which didn't tell him much. The AWCY? proposal at least promised they had a way to deal with a dangerous event during the performance, but the fact that it had already happened once didn't fill him with any more confidence, nor did the non-existent details as to what they actually planned to do in response. He wasn't even sure what he would do; he had been told nothing except that the on-site security would handle it if the time came—he was just an associate. He double-checked tickets and told people to sit down, and on a few occasions collected money from those who hadn't prepaid.

He shuffled between seats and retreated to the corner, and checking his watch, saw that the performance was due to begin any second now. The curtains drew back, and the members made their way on stage in their gaudy, technicolor attire, masks and all, settling at their more tasteful instruments. As he double-checked that his earplugs were snugly in place, the murmuring of the crowd drew to a close, and the performance began.


"Introducing the anmusician group Masked Mayhem, performing 'A Night You'll Never Remember, A Show You'll Never Forget' !"

Conner walked over to the shining piano he polished himself earlier that day. Taking his seat, he glimpsed at the audience to his right. He reflexively flinched; he had spotted several people wearing suits, reminding him of the low-level, unaspiring chumps at the Gock and the Foolednation. Suits can't hurt me here, he thought, remembering where he was, and he calmed down. It's just another concert hosted by MCD for people who can afford it. I'll be fine.

Lock started them off with a smooth melody, flowing like a river, albeit a heavily syncopated one. Ezzie joined him, with Gavin close behind. Throughout all of it, Melany and Conner stayed in the backdrop, continuously playing, but not too loudly to where they would be the focus. This part of the song always stayed the same. Things started to really jumble between rehearsals and concerts around one minute and thirty seconds in. At that point, someone, usually someone besides Conner, would take off with a solo, usually with Melany keeping tempo in the background, and the music would take hold on the audience.

Now, though, it was Conner's turn, without Melany's beat. The initial pattern and tune from the rest of the instruments died down as Conner took the limelight. He started slow at first, but quickly gained confidence with every note. Up and down the keys his fingers went, running and walking and everything in between. For anyone watching that was deaf, watching through a silent video, or wearing earplugs, it would have looked like any other concert out there. The first one minute or so was constant throughout every performance, followed by improvisation or specifically made rhythms played by one or more of the band members, which was nothing out-of-the-ordinary. But that was the catch. The first one minute or so was special, engineered by Lock himself to expose listeners to the forces of music and beat and show them the true essence of improvisation and Jazz. Everything played after Lock's brainchild would show an audience the raw emotion and force that comes with self-designed, self-expressed music, which, in his opinion, was the best catch of all, to use something constant to demonstrate the power of something spontaneous in nature.

Four seconds had passed. He risked a glance up, and the first thing he saw was Melany leaning on her bass, strumming patiently and staring at Conner in anticipation of the next part. Three more seconds passed. For a moment, he thought, she almost seemed proud. Never thought anyone would be happy at me for playing jazz, he thought, as he realized that no one had ever really been proud of him for his musical skill. Conner couldn't help himself; he smiled, and the earplug in his left ear tumbled out, leaving him exposed to the sound around him.

He remembered what had happened, from the talk of the others, the last time an earplug fell out unexpectedly. He didn't want to share the same fate. Conner tried to stop playing; it didn't matter if he ruined the concert if he ruined himself first. But then he stopped himself. To him, this night was the only night where he would be able to prove himself, to show that he was really part of the band after all. He remembered the warnings people always said about anmusic, about how it could inspire and hurt at the same time, but he also remembered how he wouldn't have had the chance to play any of it if he didn't show others what he was capable of.

There was anxiety, fear, and panic as Conner continued to play, live, and smile, but there was no time for him to lose himself in emotion, because he was already lost in the music.

Everything was fine, at first. Conner had continued to play, finishing his solo and calming down a little once everyone else chimed in. Then, Lock went in with his musical monstrosity and everything turned to black. Conner continued to play and follow the beat; he never needed to see to play, but the anmusic was taking its toll on his senses. Sight left him, hearing abandoned him, and even smell, taste and touch refused to stay. A few seconds later, he felt the full impact of the music all at once.

Conner became blind and enlightened at the same time.

"Hello?" Conner tried to speak, but he couldn't hear himself.

"Hello? Can anyone hear me?" He looked around him and saw only black.

"Is anyone there? What's going on?" He stood up, until he realized he didn't know where up was. All he felt was pressure all around him, like he was submerged in water, and waves bouncing around him, almost as if to physically sway him.

He sat down and took a deep breath, smelling nothing but bitter iron. He vaguely recalled a piano. Yes—he was playing it. Faint notes, notes that were his, were heard in the background, and his heart raced as he remembered what was happening. After a second of thought, he decided to really see. He opened his eyes.

Purple and blue, red and green, all he saw was an ocean of sound, of music. Ripples stretched across as far as he could see in the sea of sonic jelly, with him at the center of the biggest disturbance, the loudest sound, the purest music.

"This is what it looks like. This is what it feels like. More than anything I could've ever imagined. More than what anyone could've imagined." At this point, he didn't care if he was speaking aloud; no one could hear him at any rate. Eventually, he knew it was time to hear, too. He calmed himself from the ecstasy brought about by the experience and brought himself to truly hear.

Almost instantly, he saw a shadow dart to his left. Another one faded off right above his line of sight. Colors flashed around him before he knew that he wasn't alone. Thoughts passed through his head at rapid speed, attempts to explain his company. He caught his breath as he realized that the performance did not merely portray music as something physical—it showed it in its most abstract form, especially in a band: unity. This was it, the thing Conner had waited for his entire life. For almost all musicians, all the late nights, all the failed gigs, and all the ruined bands were centered on the one goal of understanding the true beauty of music, and Conner found it.

Suddenly, he felt a hand try to pull him away. No—he would not leave. Not yet, not—


It was a bit awkward, he thought, to be the only one not in on the event. He was sure everyone in attendance was living through a once in a lifetime experience, the anomalous elements of the composition bending and redefining the way they experienced music—or whatever other flowery prose the marketing blurb descended into. He got to stand watch over a bunch of men in suits, as they silently sat in front of what was, to him, a silent band. It wasn't even that visually impressive, he thought. As he looked down and began to fidget with his cufflinks, he was tapped on the shoulder by one of the guards. The solo is about to start.

Yes, the solo: the biggest unknown of the whole performance. Their previous soloist was the impetus for the previous incident, and had been replaced by a friend of the musicians who had practiced with them before, whose stage name was Conner South. They assured him ten times over that it would all go according to plan, even if this was his first show in a while. Inexperienced musicians and a potentially volatile anmusic piece—what could go wrong? Either way, the soloist made his way down the stage and began to play. Everything seemed to be going according to plan; he couldn't hear it, obviously, but the audience seemed content, and the musicians played skillfully. He glanced at his watch; the solo seemed to be going on for longer than planned—but then everything seemed stable, and the whole point of this performance was to record a completely new track for the rental tapes, right? Maybe this was just part of their plan; it seemed like something an anartist would do, with how they think of themselves. Try and mess around with the plan last minute, even when dealing with a high-class outfit like MC&D.

The soloist continued to play, faster, more intense, though it was still a slow burn. If they wanted to build up to some big ending crescendo, this probably wasn't a half-bad way of doing it, he thought. The soloist began playing rapidly, erratically, with an intensity he'd never seen a piano-player possess. A speaker blew, in the corner of the room. Everyone who wasn't absorbed in the music, which only consisted of the guards and associates at this point, flinched, and an earplug rolled out of one of the guard's ears. At that moment, the proverbial needle dropped.

Streaks of light hopped throughout the audience and the once-engaged crowed fell limp and drained. Glowing tendrils began to swarm the chairs and the stage until they engulfed the soloist, who seemed to be smiling wickedly. Every note, as far as Leonard could tell with his earplugs, caused the audience to lose more and more focus. Leonard started to walk forward with the full intention of doing something, but stopped himself. He stood still. He thought that he could almost sense streams of something filling surge through the room, but he had no time to think on the good feeling. A few bright, neon moments later, most of everyone who had listened to the monstrosity of music collapsed completely in their seats.

Amidst the aftershock, Leonard saw the musicians pulling at Conner, dragging him back stage and off the piano. He kicked and screamed, like someone coming off of a bad trip. Leonard took off his earplugs and shakily ordered the guards to check the audience. The guards sprinted to the audience, and began the tedious and sometimes fearful work of checking on the patrons. A few looked around in confusion, as if they were coming out of a dream. The majority sat still. Too still. One screamed, another had a seizure. By the time they'd checked everyone, over half of those in attendance had suffered from some form of brain damage, caused by the anmusic run amok.

More agents arrived shortly thereafter, took away those injured for treatment, and searched the place. The band had fled—big surprise—with the exception of the soloist, who they found tied up backstage, mumbling and sobbing. It would be sad, Leonard thought, if only he hadn't just successfully ruined a performance that would have brought in as much money as twice his salary—not to mention the metaphorical and possibly literal magic the legal team would have to do to get them out of this one. Leonard stumbled away from the experience, rather shaken. He dreaded the paperwork tomorrow, an incident report he would have to write, and probably weeks worth of involvement with the legal team. At least he had double-checked his earplugs, he thought. Otherwise he'd probably have ended up the same as the guard who flinched and lost his earplugs—in a nearly catatonic state in a hospital bed. A very plush hospital bed befitting his salary, but a hospital bed nonetheless.


"Conner, wake up. I'm not kidding, wake—" Lock's voice cracked. "Ahem. Wake up, Conner?" Lock said this last part as a question, as he had seen the piano man stir.

A few breathtaking moments later, Conner sat up and fought against the darkness of sleep threatening to pull him back down. Notes and sensations bounced in his mind, and he couldn't shut any of it out. Even worse, it was starting to hurt. He turned around and saw curtains and masks, along with the faces of his band mates staring at him, except for Gavin, who was off to the side and more concerned with some papers he was holding. He heard a siren in the background, and thought he heard two or three quiet moans of pain. Conner saw that he was on a dusty, weathered couch, and, after checking to see that he wasn't dreaming, decided that he needed more information.

Conner had two questions in mind. He started with the simple and hopefully less emotional one. "What just happened?"

"We don't have time to explain, Conner—Do you remember anything?" Lock asked. Gavin was searching for something anxiously in the back.

"No, I obviously don't or I—Ow." Pain flared in his forehead. "—I wouldn't have asked," he continued. He saw that they were backstage. Why were they backstage?

Lock took a nervous glance behind him, seeing if Gavin's searching was complete. It wasn't. "Okay. This will be fine." Lock ran his hand through his hair. "You need to stand up, can you do that?"

"Wait, but why—"

Lock took a deep breath. "You screwed us up, okay? Something happened when you were playing and you practically mental-melted half the people in the audience and messed with the other half's brains. Now, we're pretty sure suits are on us, or at least MCD is for screwing up their concert. We need to leave now, even if you won't come with us."

Conner tried to stand. He failed miserably and fell back down on the couch. "I—Wait, just give me a moment." He realized he couldn't feel his knees.

Gavin gave a yelp of joy as he held up a crinkled piece of printed copy paper. "Found it!" He yelled. "Let's blow this Popsicle stand!"

Lock turned towards him. "Never say that again." In a lowered voice, he continued. "…It's worse than I thought, we'll have to leave him. I can't believe this happened a second time. Ezzie, Melany, blindfold and gag him."

Conner nearly cried when a cloth was lowered onto his face. His arms were just as useless as his legs, and he had no choice but to submit to the insanity of it all. "Wait," he said softly. "I still have one more question." He choked back a sob. "Did I at least sound good?"

A few seconds passed.

In the end, no one responded, and soon everyone and everything Conner liked about his life vanished, like a song on the wind.

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