"Welcome to Hell."
Stevie shook the doll's hand. "Thanks," he said. "But I don't plan to be here long."
The bassist laughed mirthlessly. "That's what they all say." He fixed the new prisoner with a piercing gaze. "Do yourself a favor. Forget about getting out. Concentrate on surviving. The only way anyone ever gets out of here is in pieces."
Stevie shuddered and Steve stopped stroking his hair long enough to give his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "Relax," he said. "When we leave, it'll be in one piece." He gave the Valory doll a look that clearly said "I dare you to dispute me." The Valory doll shrugged his shoulders and sat back down.
Without taking his hand off of Stevie's head for more than a second, Steve repositioned himself so that he could see the cells on the other side of the room. They were inhabited by two more sets of Journey dolls. Steve had been too dazed to pay any attention to them until now. They wore uniforms too. The dolls in the cage on the left had on light grey shirts. The ones on the right wore dark grey. Thanks to years spent living with Rose, Steve could easily distinguish every year (sometimes, even a particular month) in Steve Perry's life by hair cut alone. The light grey Perry doll was an '83. So, he assumed, was everyone in the cage with him. The dark grey Perry had to be an '86, although his hair wasn't lifting as much as it should. Probably the result of being stuck in a cage. Steve noticed the pattern immediately. The later the model, the darker the shirt. Great, Steve thought. Not only is she a sick, twisted, murderous bitch, but she's color coordinated, too! He shook his head. We have to get out of here.
"What are you called gain?" Steve looked up. The model '83 Perry had spoken.
"Steve," he said.
"How about you?"
The other doll nodded. "That's lucky. Means you won't have to change your names," he said.
"You may have noticed that there's a lot of duplication around here," he said. "At least four of everybody except the keyboardists. Eight Steve's. Makes for a lot of confusion. So we all have different names. No one here now is called Stevie or Steve. So you guys lucked out."
"What... what were they called?" Stevie asked hesitantly. "The ones before us?"
A look of sadness crossed the other dolls face. "We called your predecessor Hazel." He pointed toward Steve. "We called him Voice." He was silent for a moment. "Anyway," he said at last. "That's why you won't have to change your names."
"Wouldn't it be easier to just use everybody's official name?" Steve asked. Everyone except Stevie stared at him as if he was crazy. "Okay, maybe not." They continued to stare until Steve felt more than a little uncomfortable. He raised his hands in self defense. "I'm sorry! New guy on the block here! Cut me some slack, huh?"
"They use our titles," the Cain doll across from him said. "It keeps us in the 'object' category."
"Say no more," Steve said, understanding immediately. "No names equals no rights."
"Exactly," he said. "So listen up. We're only going through this once."
"Oh, come off it, Nathan," the Perry doll from the same cage said. "It took you a whole week to get everybody straight, so don't even try it."
Nathan sighed and rolled his eyes. "I'm never gonna live that down."
"No, you're not," the Rollie doll said. "Now here's the rundown. This is Cell 1979. I'm Gregg. I'll be the easiest to remember, since I'm the only one."
"Yeah," the bassist said with a grin. "Gregg's unique."
Gregg rolled his eyes. "Then there's Val, the smartass, Smitty and Jimi."
"As in Hendrix?" Steve asked.
"That's right," Jimi said. "And I'm not being egotistical. It got chosen for me." He looked sidelong at Val, who snickered.
"It's cause they both wail on the guitar," Gregg explained. "And they both wear afros." Both Steve and Stevie smiled at the pained expression on Jimi's face.
"To our right," Val said. "We have the geriatrics ward."
"Fuck you," the Schon doll said. "We're the '96's. I'm Neal. That's Ross, Jonathan and Jordan."
"Jordan?" Stevie asked.
"As in Michael," the drummer replied, rubbing his bald head by way of explanation. "It was either that or Ski-ball, and you better believe I wasn't goin' for that."
They chuckled. Then the Valory doll across from Steve spoke. "We're the '86's. Red Smith, Lightning-Fingers Schon (Lightning for short), Nathan Cain and Stephen Perry. And I'm Macca, but you can call me Mac. And before you ask, yes, it's Macca like the Beatle. We all had 'Yellow Submarine' stuck in our heads when we were choosing these names."
"Wait a minute," Steve said suddenly. He'd finally realized what had been bothering him ever since he decided that the Dark Greys were from 1986. "If you guys are '86 models, you and Smitty - Red - shouldn't even be here."
"Tell that to the Bitch," Stephen said. "You may have noticed she's not exactly big on accuracy as far as time lines are concerned."
"That's right," Red said. "And if she wants to put us in the band in '86, I'm not gonna argue."
"With that," the Perry doll from the last cage said, "I'll finish us off. Meet Jon, Paul, George and Ringo. And I'm Ray Perry, the fifth Beatle." There was silence while Steve and Stevie looked at them as if waiting for the punch line. Ray shrugged. "Creativity was at an all time low," he said. "And he told you, we couldn't get that damned song out of our heads."
Steve had felt a laugh building inside for a long time. Now, he found he couldn't hold it in anymore. He threw his head back and laughed uproariously. It was so ridiculous. The whole situation was too absurd to handle. Stevie joined him and soon, they were both on the floor, giggling uncontrollably. No doubt as a result of the stress and trauma they'd experienced that day, their laughter soon escalated to hysterical proportions. The others let it go on for a few minutes. Then Neal looked around. "We might have to smack them out of it. Volunteers?" Everyone raised their hands.
Steve shook his head and waved a hand in front of his face. "No, no" he said breathlessly, getting to his knees. "I'm okay. Really." He took a few deep breaths, then went over and shook Stevie. The other doll was still helpless with laughter, but Steve could see a tinge of fear in his eyes. He really couldn't stop. "Take a deep breath and hold it as long as you can," he said. Stevie did as he was told and soon he was able to calm down again. He looked at Steve with gratitude in his eyes, and the older doll acknowledged it silently. Then he turned to the others imprisoned with him. "So what do you guys do around here for fun? Besides tormenting the newcomers, that is."
Mac shrugged. "Word games."
"Twenty Questions," Ray said.
"Six degrees," Jimi added. "Charades. I'm sure you get the picture."
"Do we ever get to go outside?" Stevie asked.
"No," Jon said.
"Do we at least get an exercise period?" Steve asked. The other dolls looked at each other uncomfortably and didn't answer. "What? Did I do it again?"
"Never mind," Neal said. "You'll find out soon enough I guess."
There was an awkward silence that dragged on for quite a long time. Finally, Stevie must have decided it was too quiet. He started to sing. "City of the angel!"
Heads snapped toward him. Before he could sing the next line, Jimi had rushed over and clamped a hand over his mouth. "Caged birds don't sing," he whispered tersely.
Stevie looked confused and a little nervous. "What's the matter?" Steve asked for him.
"We're not allowed to - ." Jonathan's answer was cut off by the sound of doors slamming and heavy footfalls approaching the cells. "Shit! They're coming!"
Steve looked over at Stevie. He was looking fearfully toward the sound of the footsteps and he'd started to tremble. Steve took a deep breath. Then, at the top of his lungs, he sang, "City of the angeeeeeeeeel!"
Stevie gasped. "What are you - "
"Shut it," Steve hissed. Then he continued to sing as if nothing was wrong until two guards showed up at the cell.
One of them opened the door and hit Steve across the face with his control rod. Steve backed up. The blow didn't damage him, but it hurt quite a bit. "What did I do?" he asked.
"Caged birds don't sing," the guard said. Then he pointed his control rod at Steve.
"Don't!" Stevie cried.
"Shut up," the other guard ordered, aiming at Stevie.
"Come on, sir," Neal said, speaking in a meek tone. "Give him a break. He didn't know the rule."
The first guard backhanded Neal with the heavy weapon. "Nobody told you to speak," he snarled. Then he turned back to Steve. Without further hesitation, he fired his control rod. Steve sank to his knees. He made no sound, but heard Stevie cry out in anguish as if he had been struck himself. Steve rested his head on the cold stone floor, waiting for the dizziness and nausea to pass. "Rule number one," the guard said with a sneer in his voice. "Nobody sings except for the Mistress' pleasure." The cage door clanged shut and the footsteps retreated, followed by another slamming door.
"Steve?" Stevie's voice sounded high pitched and extremely worried. "Are you okay?" Steve lifted his head with an effort and gave Stevie a thumbs up sign. "I'm sorry!" he said. He was so upset that Steve thought he might be about to shed tears. "I didn't mean to - ."
Steve cut him off, making a swift chopping motion with his hand. Then, in their private language, he said, "Don't worry. I'm just a little dizzy. I'll be okay in a few minutes. And stop beating yourself up! It's not your fault. None of this is your fault. I told you I wouldn't let anything bad happen to you, and I won't. "
Stevie nodded, then sat down. Steve could see that although he was still upset, he was making a valiant effort not to show it. Good kid. Damned if he was going to let anyone hurt him. Steve tried to sit up, but dizziness prevented it. Suddenly, someone was holding his arms. Neal and Jordan pulled him back so he could sit up with the support of the back wall and the bars. Stevie immediately came over and sat nearby on the other side. "Thanks," Steve said hoarsely. Then he looked directly at Neal. "Thanks a lot."
Neal smiled slightly and shook his head. "Don't mention it," he said. "Fuckin' bastards make me sick."
Steve's eyes widened and he glanced toward the heavy doors. "Don't worry," Stephen said, guessing the direction of his thoughts. "They don't listen to what we say."
"The Bitch has an alarm system in here specifically designed to alert them to the sound of music. Singing, humming, anything like that. She doesn't care what we say to each other, but we're not allowed to make music unless she orders it. Bitch," he added forcefully. Steve understood his anger. They were a group of people in whom music ran thicker than blood, and they could only make it when someone else - who just happened to be a psychopath - decided it was okay.
"Is that why you can get away with calling her names like that?" Stevie asked.
"Yup," said Lightning. "But if you ever call her anything but 'Mistress' to her face, you'll be eating reinforced titanium."
"Anything else you guys want to share before I learn it at the wrong end of a control rod?" Steve asked.
"Sorry about that," Smitty said. "It's been a while since anyone's tried to sing in here."
"Let's see," Nathan said. "I'll give you the basics. The guards are called 'Sir', unless we're alone."
"In which case they're called fucking assholes, goddamn bastards, and many other choice phrases," Mac supplied.
"The Bitch is called 'Mistress,'" Nathan continued. "Do everything she says and don't argue unless you want to feel pain and or die."
"Got that one loud and clear," Steve said.
"Oh yeah," said Ringo. "No one's allowed to touch her either. She can touch you if she wants, but not the other way around."
"What's that about?" Stevie asked.
"She thinks we're beneath her," Jimi said simply.
"You don't believe that, do you?" Steve said.
"Fuck no!" Jimi said. He was echoed by several other exclamations to the same effect. "I'm not gonna go into any philosophical crap about dolls versus humans or anything," Jimi said. "But we are definitely not beneath her. She's a monster." The others nodded their agreement.
"Anything else?" Steve asked.
"Don't attack the guards, and don't try to escape," Jordan said.
"Hmph," Steve grunted. "I'll probably be breaking those last two pretty soon."
"Not if you know what's good for you," Ray said.
Steve didn't argue with him. Everyone here obviously had good reasons not to want to risk an escape attempt. But he was getting out one way or another, and he was taking Stevie with him. However, he didn't know enough to try anything right away, so he saw no point in pressing the issue. "What about you guys? Do you have any rules?" he asked instead.
"We look out for each other," Neal said. "Our basic rule is, don't be a rat. You've obviously got that one down - at least as far as he goes." He pointed to Stevie. "I wonder if you'd do the same for us." The dolls looked at him, as if expecting an answer.
Steve sighed. "I've only been here for a few hours, so I can't truthfully say that I would take a shot for any of you. But I'm not a fink either. There's no way I'd inform on anyone to that... woman."
"That goes for me, too," Stevie said.
"Good enough for me," Ross said.
"Hey, I've been meaning to ask you something," George said suddenly.
"What's up?" Steve asked.
"What was that stuff you were saying to Stevie?"
"Yeah," Smitty said. "Right after you got hit, you were doing sign language or something."
"Ohhh," Steve said. "That's our own little language. Rose calls it Studiospeak. It's a sort of unspoken body language thing that we got in the habit of using while we were working."
"Who's Rose?" Ross asked.
"Our mistress," Stevie replied. "She's great."
"Don't ever refer to her as your mistress while the Bitch or the guards can hear you," Gregg warned. "That's another rule we forgot to mention."
"Got it," Stevie said.
"Hey, say something to him," Lightning said.
"Like what?" asked Steve.
"I don't know. Say you want some coffee." Steve obliged and the others stared.
"That's it?" Smitty asked.
"Yeah," Steve said.
"You hardly moved at all!" Ross said.
"A lot of it is in the facial expression," Stevie said with a shrug.
"Wow. Can you guys say anything to each other that way?" Ray asked.
"Pretty much," Steve replied.
"No way!" Gregg whispered something into Stevie's ear. "Can you tell him that?"
Stevie raised his eyebrows at Gregg. Then he shrugged and signed to Steve. It was Steve's turn to raise his eyebrows. "The giant hamster ate my keyboard?" he asked.
"Hey, you can say anything!"
"What about this?" Neal asked. Then he whispered to Steve.
"Can you say it or not?"
Steve shook his head, then signed to Stevie. "Oh, please!" Stevie exclaimed. "Your penis is bigger than a whale's in heat?? You wish!"
The others laughed. "Maybe your ego is bigger," Nathan said.
"Okay, okay," Stephen said. "I have one I know you guys can't get. Close your eyes and cover your ears."
Steve and Stevie both obliged. In a moment, Ross said they could open them again. Everyone was grinning. "We've got you this time," Ross said. Then he whispered in Steve's ear.
Steve's eyes widened. "You guys are a bunch of bastards!" He sat and thought for a few moments. Then he snapped his fingers and signed to Stevie.
Stevie looked confused for a moment. Then he smiled and gave a thumbs up to Steve. "Supercalafragilisticexpialidocious," he said.
"Yes!" Steve said triumphantly, giving Stevie a high five through the bars. The others gaped.
"No. Way," Stephen said at last. "How the hell did you do that?"
Steve smiled. "We don't actually have a sign for that word, if that's what you're thinking," he said. "The direct translation for what I said would be, 'That really really really really long word from Rose's favorite movie with the flying umbrella lady.'"
"Sneaky, huh?" Stevie said.
Ray shook his head. "You guys are a trip."
"You should try to teach us," Red said.
"Good idea," Steve said. "I have no idea how we would do that, but it might come in handy when we're ready to leave."
There was a short, awkward silence wherein everyone pointedly kept their opinions of escape attempts to themselves. "You guys really had your own studio?" Jordan asked at last.
"Yeah," Stevie replied. "Steve designed it himself."
"Lucky bastards," Lightning said.
"Not really. We're stuck in here with you turkeys now," Steve said smiling. "When we get out of here, you'll all have to come by. We'll cut a few tracks."
"Yeah, right," Paul said. "Like if, in some miraculous act of God we do get out of here, your mistress would really allow that."
"She would be thrilled," Stevie said. "Wouldn't she, Steve?"
"More than. Four different versions of Journey in one place? What more could she ask?"
"Pepperoni!" Rose exclaimed. "All I asked for was pepperoni! What the hell are all these fucking bell peppers doing on here?!"
Xenith eyed the pizza with distaste. "Well, I certainly didn't ask for them," she said. "They're almost as vile as Jell-O."
"I can't eat this," Rose told the delivery boy. "You'll have to take it back."
"Yes, ma'am. Sorry about the mix-up."
"In fact, my most awful nightmares usually involve being forced to eat bell peppers and Jell-O," Xenith said.
"That's okay," Rose said, making an effort not to bite the delivery boy's head off. It wasn't his fault, after all.
"I'll bring back your corrected order in 20 minutes or less," he said.
"Or, worse yet, bell pepper flavored Jell-O," Xenith said.
"Thank you," she said. The boy nodded and left. Rose shut the door and sat down in a huff. Then she looked sharply at Xenith. "Did you just say bell pepper flavored Jell-O?"
"Well, I - "
"Never mind," Rose said. She'd worked with the woman until almost 2:00 a.m. the night before, and they'd started again first thing in the morning. If she had learned one thing about Xenith in that time, it was that her explanations were usually more mystifying than the odd statements she sometimes made. "Tell me what you've got so far."
"I've finally finished," she said. "I've got 84 police officers retiring to Southern California in the past five years."
"Phew!" Rose whistled. "I've got 66 army personnel. That makes an even 150. There has to be some way to narrow this down."
"Well, let's assume we don't need to count anyone who wasn't directly involved with Artificial Intelligence projects," Xenith said. "I mean, it's not like they can just go up to someone and say, 'Hey, Bob, can I borrow ten or twelve of your control rods? I need to arm my doll thieves.'"
"Right," Rose said, grinning a little at the idea. She narrowed her search, hearing the swift clicking from Xenith's computer as she did the same. "That's a little better," she said when the results came up. "I got 35."
"Fifty-nine," Xenith said. "Still too much for us to do anything with."
"Wait a minute," Rose said suddenly. "We're dealing with an insane Journey fan, right?"
"Well, how many retired military personnel and police officers do you know that are interested in Journey?"
"You're right," Xenith said. "According to the National Institute of Music Research, the average Journey fan is a woman between the ages of 15 and 35 with an avid interest in the music and culture of the late 1900's."
"Riiiight," Rose said, having learned in the past few hours not to be surprised when Xenith started rattling off statistics by rote. "I don't think we should exclude the possibility of a male fan," she said. "But we can at least narrow our search down to the retirees that have kids in that age range."
"Or young spouses," Xenith suggested.
The two women went back to work. They managed to narrow the list down to a total of forty-four. The delivery boy returned with their pizza - minus the offending bell peppers - and they worked out a plan over lunch. An hour later, they were ready. "I think your car looks more official than mine," Xenith said.
"Suits me," Rose said. "Got the list?" Xenith held up her fancy clipboard. What had she been thinking? Of course Miss Organization had the list. She had shown herself to be the queen of list making. "All right, let's get going. What's the first address."
Xenith told her as they got into the car. Rose drove them to the large, well kept house and parked on the street. They made their way up the walk and rang the bell. After a few moments, the door was opened by a woman in her early thirties. She looked at them expectantly and Rose smiled her best professional smile. "Good morning. My name is Rosalinda Matthews and this is my assistant, Xenith Perrera. We're with the National Institute of Music Research. We're conducting a survey to determine whether living in a military household affects musical preference. We would be very grateful if you and the rest of the household would take a few moments to fill out our survey. It shouldn't take more than five minutes."
The woman shrugged. "Sure. Come on in." They followed her inside and she invited them to have a seat in the living room. Rose paid careful attention to the details of the house, looking for anything related to Journey. In a few moments, the woman had assembled her family in the living room. There was a couple in their late 50's, a boy of about 16 and the woman who'd answered the door. Xenith handed each of them the short survey they'd made up that morning. While the family filled them out, Rose went over the questions again in her mind.
1. What is your favorite type of music?
2. What is your least favorite?
3. What is your favorite musical group/singer?
4. What is your least favorite?
5. Please rate the following bands from 1-7, one being the band you consider to be the best:
Death Ray 209
Rose and Xenith had tried to come up with bands that spanned a wide period of time and variations in style. Hopefully, the guilty party would think nothing of a harmless survey, and so would answer truthfully. When everyone had finished, Xenith collected the surveys while Rose thanked them for participating. "Well?" Rose asked when they got to the car.
"They're not the ones," Xenith replied. "They like classical, jazz and heavy metal. Journey wasn't anywhere near the top of anyone's list."
Rose shrugged. "Oh, well. Where to next?"
For the rest of the day, they drove from place to place giving out the phony survey, replacing "military family" with "law enforcement family" when necessary. By the end of the day, they'd only visited ten of the houses on the list - all with much the same results. In almost all cases, the Beatles ranked highest on everyone's list, which didn't really surprise Rose. What did surprise her was that Journey never featured higher than #4. The homes they visited reflected the results. There was not a single poster, album or window decal that belied anyone's survey answers. Rose found that hard to believe, but her musical taste's weren't the issue. The point was, no one they'd checked so far was passionate enough about Journey to commit multiple acts of larceny.
Sighing, Rose slammed the car door shut. "We got nowhere," she said frustratedly.
"We've only been at it one day," Xenith said. "And we didn't start asking around until the afternoon. I'm sure we'll get much more done tomorrow."
"You're probably right," Rose said. "Thanks for your help." Rose extended her hand, and Xenith shook it.
"Thank you," she said. "We did more than I thought we would today."
"I'm glad one of us is happy."
Xenith smiled. "We'll find them, Rose," she said. "Soon. I can feel it." Then she turned, walked to her car and drove away.
Rose turned toward her house, marveling at Xenith's optimism. But then, she reflected. She's been at this over a year. What's one more day to her? However, as Rose stepped into her empty house and contemplated spending another sleepless night alone, one more day seemed like an eternity.
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