(I hope you printed this.)
Steve spent a cold, uncomfortable night curled up on the floor of his cell. He stayed as close to Stevie as he could get through the bars, knowing that he needed the support. Steve needed it too. He'd only known when night had come because half the fluorescent lights had been turned off, leaving them in a dim glow without ending the annoying humming. When "daylight" had come, he'd risen to a feeling of bitter disappointment when he realized that the previous day had not been an awful nightmare. He could tell that Stevie felt the same way.
The guards came soon after the lights were turned back up. They placed trays with five cups each into all of the cages and waited for everyone to drink. Steve picked up one of the cups and looked at it dubiously. It was a clear, viscous liquid that looked like some sort of weird alien goo from a sci-fi movie. "What the fuck is this?" he asked.
"Drink it," the guard nearest to him snapped. Steve just looked at him. The guard raised his control rod. "Drink."
"It's not drugged," Ross said when Steve made no move to drink. "It's just a vitamin complex they give us every day to keep us working without actually feeding us."
"Shut up, Valory '96."
Ross shrugged, having said all he wanted to. Steve drank the gunk, figuring that if it was designed to turn them into mindless automatons, it certainly hadn't worked on Ross. It had no taste, but it felt disgusting all the same. He wished very much that he could have some real food at home with Rose. "Yuck!" Stevie exclaimed when the guards had left.
"My sentiments exactly, kid," said Steve.
"You'll get used to it," said Jon.
"Don't lie to them," Stephen said. "It's nasty. It has always been nasty. It will always be nasty." There was a chorus of agreement from the dolls.
They talked for a while about the foods they used to eat before they were captured. Only a few of them had been stolen from stores and knew nothing of what real food tasted like. The others tried to describe it for them. Then, those that had owners before talked about what life was like with them. Nathan and Gregg had had owners who were little better than the Bitch, but most of them had average masters. They weren't actually cruel, but they made their dolls sing or play when they wanted and didn't pay much attention to them otherwise. Lightning, Val, Jon and Ray had had owners like Rose, who treated them like family members. They reminisced about them for a while before Ray decided it was too depressing talking about people they would never see again.
"How do you know you won't see them?" Stevie asked.
"Ask me that again when you've been here as long as I have," Ray replied.
"How long have you - "
"Too long to cling to false hopes," Ray said sharply.
"He's right," Red said. "Our owners have all found replacements for us by now."
"Not Rose," Stevie said vehemently. "She'd never replace us."
"You know that for a fact?" asked Gregg.
"Yes, we do," Steve said. His voice brooked no argument.
"Well it doesn't matter anyway," Lightning said. "She'll never find you."
"She will," Stevie said loudly.
"Look, kid," Ray said. "If someone was going to find us, they'd have done it by now and you wouldn't even be here. But you are. We're all stuck here. You can believe somebody's gonna sail in and rescue you if you want, but I'm telling you it's not going to happen."
Stevie shook his head. "You don't know that!"
"Leave it alone, Stevie," Steve said. He didn't like the fatalistic way Ray was talking, but there was something in the other doll's eyes that told Steve he wasn't just being pessimistic on general principle. Sadness. There was sadness in his eyes so deep that Steve could almost feel it himself. Ray wanted to believe there was hope of escape. They all did. But they'd been imprisoned too long - seen too much - to allow themselves to believe there was a way.
"But, Steve - "
"No," Steve said. Then he continued in their private language. "Don't push these guys. They've been here a long time. They've got reasons for talking the way they do. But we will get out of here. I promise you that. All right? "
"All right, Steve. I believe you. "
After a few minutes of silence, Jon decided to strike up a game of charades. The others joined in and soon, the somber mood that had come over everyone passed. It didn't take long for them to realize that playing charades with the newcomers was hopeless. They guessed each other's phrases with uncanny swiftness, even though they swore they weren't using their secret language. They switched to word games, and ended up spending the better part of the morning playing 20 questions. Actually, it was more like "19 Questions." Each person got to ask one question a piece and the one who guessed the word got to lead the next game. There were several games played, most of them with hilarious (or hilariously raunchy) results. Finally, it was Stevie's turn.
"I have one," he said.
"Animal, mineral or vegetable?" Ray asked.
"Hmmm." Stevie thought for a moment. "All of the above," he said at last.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Ray asked.
"You've already asked your question," Stevie said with a mischievous grin.
"Is it alive?" Val asked.
"I've always thought so."
"Is it bigger than a bread box?" asked Neal.
"Absolutely," Stevie replied. "And I can't believe that's the best you could come up with."
"Oh, shut up," he said.
"Who's next?" Stevie asked, obviously enjoying himself.
"Can it move on it's own?" Nathan asked.
"Sometimes," Stevie said.
"Ummm... is it a forest?" asked Mac.
"No, but you're getting warmer."
"Is it a tree?" asked Lightning.
"Is it a leaf?" Smitty asked.
"No. I said warmer, not hot."
"Well, is it something that's found in a forest?" asked Jonathan.
"Only if you take it there."
"Oooh! I've got one," Ringo said suddenly. "Is it one thing, or is it a lot of little things that make up a whole?" Ringo asked.
"Good question, Ring," Stevie said. "It's a lot of little things that make up a whole." There were a few cheers and slaps on the back for Ringo.
"Is it unique?" asked Jon.
Stevie giggled. "Yes and no."
"What does that mean?" asked Jon.
"Only one question per person, please," Stevie said.
"Is it something that there's a lot of in the world?" Gregg asked.
"But you're thinking of a specific one?" asked Jimi.
"Is it man made?" asked Red.
"Yes and no."
Suddenly, Steve started to laugh. "What is it?" Jordan asked.
"I know what it is," he said, still laughing. Stevie would be in deep trouble when they guessed it.
"Don't tell!" Stevie said.
"I won't," Steve said. "Do I at least get to ask a question?"
Steve laughed and raised his hands in a helpless gesture when the others looked expectantly at him. "You heard him. He'll kill me if I give it away." Disappointed, they went back to thinking up questions.
"Is it something a person can own?" Stephen asked
"Have any of us ever seen one?" asked Paul.
"Do all of us own one?" Jordan asked.
"No, not all of us," Stevie said. Then he giggled. "Especially not you," he added. Everyone looked mystified except Steve, who was cracking up.
"So, at least one of us owns one of these things?" asked George.
Ross laughed and clapped his hands. "I've got it!"
"Really?" asked Stevie.
"Yes, and man, you're crazy," he said, still laughing hard.
"Well, what is it?!" asked several voices at once.
Ross continued to laugh for a few more seconds. "It's Jimi's 'fro," he said at last. There was a moment of stunned silence, followed by a chorus of laughter.
"You fuckin' bastard," Jimi said, laughing with the rest.
"That's what you get for saying my nose was bigger than a bread box!" Stevie said.
"Well, it is." Stevie jumped up and tackled Jimi. They wrestled playfully for a few minutes, to the renewed enjoyment of everyone present. Then Steve heard the outer doors open and the fun ceased instantly. Stevie quickly extricated himself from Jimi and looked nervously at Steve.
"Don't worry, " he signed quickly. Steve found it difficult to follow his own advice. He didn't like the guards. Nothing good ever happened when they were around. Steve watched as two of them came into view. "Perry '83. Schon '79." The two dolls that were named sighed heavily and stood up. They were let out of their cells one at a time. The guards waited for a moment, while the two dolls shook hands.
"I'm sorry, Jimi," Ray said.
"I'm sorry, Ray," Jimi replied. Then they were led away, followed by the sympathetic gazes of the other dolls.
Steve looked after them in total confusion. "What just happened?"
"Are they going to be killed?" Stevie asked worriedly.
"No," Stephen said.
"They're going to entertain the Bitch," Jordan said shortly.
Steve decided to drop the subject and signed to Stevie to do the same. He could tell that no one was comfortable talking about it, and he figured there must be a good reason why. No one spoke for the next hour or so. Then the outer doors opened again. Jimi and Ray were returned to their cells. They were flushed and glistening with sweat. They each walked slowly to the farthest corners of their cells and sat down without saying a word. Steve noticed that everyone gave them plenty of space. He sat silently for a while, then couldn't take it any more. "What happened?" he whispered to Ross.
"They entertained her," he answered.
"How?" Stevie asked quietly.
"I know you aren't that young," Ross replied.
Steve nodded, understanding at last. Then something occurred to him. "I thought you said that we aren't allowed to touch her," he said, still whispering.
"Then how the hell could they have sex with her without touching her?" Steve asked.
Ross glared at him for a moment. Then he sighed. "They didn't have sex with her," he said. Steve's eyes widened. He looked at Jimi and Ray again, suddenly understanding the significance of their apologies to one another before they were taken away. "Get it now?" Ross asked. Steve nodded, sorry now that he'd made Ross spell it out for him. "Good. Now quit askin' me questions."
They spent the next few hours in silence. When "night" came, two more guards came in. "Perry '96. Perry '86."
Steve looked up sharply. "What?" Stephen was already standing up, looking resigned.
"Better not argue," Jordan whispered.
The guards were glaring at him. "Get up!"
Steve stood up and they opened the cell door. He walked out, feeling somewhat dazed. Stephen looked at him, a mixture of remorse and pity in his eyes. "I'm sorry, Steve," he said, grasping Steve's hand.
"I... I'm s-sorry, Stephen," Steve said, completing the ritual. He glanced back at Stevie as he was being led away. The young doll looked worried and sad. "I'll be all right, " he said, wondering if he believed that himself.
Steve and Stephen were led to the room where he'd been made to put on his uniform. One of the guards went into a closet and pulled out two matching pairs of black silk pants. Stephen put them on and Steve did the same, moving as if in a dream - unable to believe what was happening. Once they were dressed, the guards led them out to the main hall, then toward the ballroom.
Steve's eyes widened when they entered the room. In front of the dais, near the same place he'd been forced to watch his predecessor's murder, there was a king-sized, four poster bed. Steve's stomach churned when he noticed that anything that happened on the bed could be easily seen from the chair on the dais. The bed had pillows and a fitted sheet, but were no covers at all. Not so much as a top sheet. It was designed with specific attention to the absence of privacy. Steve wanted to bolt, but the two guards took up their positions beside the black axes and stood with their control rods at the ready - a silent warning on each of their faces.
The Mistress entered and walked gracefully to her seat on the dais. Stephen bowed low, motioning to Steve to do the same. He did. He hadn't seen the Mistress since he'd watched her order the brutal murder of the doll they called Voice. She was still incredibly beautiful. The scent of fresh flowers still followed her. But when she turned her gorgeous smile on them and, in her angelic voice, told them to "Begin," he hated her more than he'd ever hated anything.
Stephen was gentle. He followed the Mistress' explicit instructions without wavering, but he apologized with his eyes for every touch. It was the most humiliating experience Steve had ever endured.
Steve came back drenched with sweat and looking more than ashamed. He sat with his knees pulled up to his chin and didn't speak for over an hour. Finally, Stevie asked hesitantly if he was all right. He said yes and Stevie knew it was a lie. He reached through the bars and put a hand on Steve's back. Steve tensed but didn't draw away. Encouraged, Stevie started to stroke him, remembering how soothing it had been when Steve did it for him. Eventually, Steve relaxed and they both fell asleep.
The next morning, Steve looked a little better. Whatever had happened between him and Stephen the night before, they were making an effort to shove it forcefully out of their minds. It was the same with Ray and Jimi. They all joked about the "alien goo" they had to drink for breakfast as if nothing had happened. Stevie tried to forget about it, but he could tell that Steve was still hurting. "Are you really all right?" he asked after the guards had left.
Steve looked past him for a moment, obviously thinking about last night. Then he shook his head. "I'll be fine. But I'll be even better when we're out of here and I never have to see that evil bitch again. " Stevie nodded.
They joined the others in a game of "Six Degrees from Harrison Ford." Then they played charades according to the new rules - Steve can not play while Stevie's doing a phrase and vice versa. After about an hour of such games, the outer doors opened again. Stevie looked toward them nervously, wondering what was in store for them now. "Don't worry, " Steve told him.
Stevie found it extremely difficult not to. Especially when eight of the guards came into view. However, the others didn't seem to be particularly troubled. They stood up quickly, but there was no sign that anything awful was about to happen. Stevie stood up, too. One of the guards started to speak. "Infinity twice, Departure twice, Evolution twice, Frontiers, Number Five, Raised on Radio, Trial by Fire."
"Aw, shit!" Stevie jumped, startled by Gregg's outburst. He couldn't understand why a bunch of album titles would be of any significance to anyone. Then he noticed that the other people who shared his cell were looking as if they wanted to say just that. He was about to ask what was going on when one of the guards slammed his control rod onto the bars.
"Do you have a problem, Rolie '79?" he snapped.
"No, sir," Gregg said quickly.
"Because if you did, I'm sure we could arrange for you not to play today."
"No," Gregg cried, taking a step back. "I'm - I'm fine, sir, really. No problems at all."
"Good." The guard opened the door and Jimi led the way out. With a worried glance at Steve, Stevie followed the others. He noticed that the other prisoners were looking at them sympathetically, and he wondered again what was going to happen. The guard had said something about playing. Were they going to give a concert? Two guards led them to the main door where they stopped and arranged themselves into pairs. Stevie, who was left alone in the back, looked behind him. The other dolls were being let out as well. The '83's came out next, followed by the '86's, then the '96's.
The two guards in the front of the line waited for everyone to pair themselves. Then they opened the doors and started walking. Two of the guards stayed in the back, while two flanked them on each side. Stevie ended up being paired with Ray. "What's happening?" he whispered. Ray shook his head slightly and held a finger to his lips. Stevie tried not to worry. He'd find out what was going on soon enough. In the meantime, he decided that he could find some humor in the fact that he and 19 other grown men were being led down the hall in pairs like kids on a field trip.
They were led to a long room with full length mirrors along one wall. On the opposite wall was a line of vanity mirrors - the tables in front of them equipped with make-up, combs, brushes, hair spray, gel and other miscellaneous things that Stevie didn't recognize. At one end of the room, Stevie could see several racks of clothes - each labeled with a particular year. "Thirty minutes," a guard said. Then he left the room along with the rest of them.
"Fuck!" Jimi exclaimed, as soon as the door closed. "Shit! God damn it! Fuck, fuck, fuck!" Without stopping his stream of explicatives for even a second, Jimi yanked off his shirt and headed toward the racks. Val, Gregg and Smitty did the same, adding their own equally vehement curses to Jimi's.
"What's the matter?" Stevie asked.
"Better get dressed," Ray said. "We've only got 30 minutes."
"Thirty minutes to what?" Steve asked.
"Showtime," Ross answered. "You'd better get moving," he said to Stevie. "Don't make us late."
Feeling completely lost, Stevie joined the others at the racks. They were still muttering curses, mingled with the occasional, "What does she think we're made of?", "Is she crazy?" and "I hate these fucking marathons!" Stevie stood looking at the clothes. "What do I wear?" he asked no one in particular.
"Didn't you hear?" asked Jimi impatiently. "'Infinity's' first."
"What the hell is wrong with you?" he snapped. Stevie backed away, shocked by the other man's anger.
"Hey, Jimi," Val said sharply. "Chill. Kid's never done it before, remember?" Jimi shot Stevie an apologetic glance before returning to his hasty search of the rack. "Look," Val said to Stevie. "Don't worry about him. He's just edgy because she's got us on another one of her marathon runs."
"I'm sorry," Stevie said. "But I have no idea what you're talking about."
"You heard the guard rattle off those album titles?" Val said, pulling on a pair of black pants and a black shirt.
"That's the concert. We do the whole album, in the order that they tell it to us." He grabbed a second pair of slacks, a light pink shirt and a midnight blue jacket with bright yellow dragons embroidered on it. "Put these on." Stevie did as he was told while Val continued his explanation. "Well, he said 'Infinity', 'Departure' and 'Evolution' are first. That's all us. We gotta do each album all the way through, twice. Costume changes and everything."
"Do we get a break?" Stevie asked. Val shook his head. "Oh my God," Stevie said, suddenly understanding why everyone was so upset. He felt tired already.
"Come on." Val led Stevie to the vanity tables. "Ever used make-up before?"
"No," he answered.
Val sighed. "Just sit tight. I'll help you when I'm finished."
Stevie waited, watching the flurry of activity around him. Once the '79's had all gotten dressed, the rest of the Journey's moved in on the clothes. Everyone was in a hurry - dressing, searching for lost shoes or shirts, applying make-up, combing and, in the case of the '86's, spraying their hair. Stevie caught sight of Steve a couple of times. Each time, he was listening intently to some instruction from either Jonathan or Jordan. Everything was done with a sense of urgency. They talked and joked with each other, but they never stopped moving. It was as if their lives depended on being ready on time. But then, Stevie thought with a shudder, they probably do.
"Okay," Val said suddenly. "Look at me." Stevie tore his eyes away from the parade and let Val put on his make-up. He explained everything as he did it so that Stevie would know how next time. Then he handed Stevie a comb. "Can you make it look like the back cover of 'Infinity'?" Stevie nodded and did just that. "All right," Val said when he was done. "Almost ready." Stevie followed Val back to the clothes. He pulled out three more outfits for himself and three for Stevie, moving them to the end of the rack. "Gonna have to be able to get to these fast," he explained.
At last, everyone was ready. They all stood in front of the full length mirrors, checking to make sure everything was perfect. "I'm gonna die in this," Smitty complained, tugging at the black and red jacket he wore. "You can't tell me Aynsley ever played drums in this friggin' sweat suit."
"You always say that," Gregg said, brushing some lint off of his burgundy coat.
"Well, it's true! I'm sweating already!"
"You guys ready for this?" Val asked.
"Ready as we'll ever be, I guess," said Gregg.
"We're gonna die," Jimi said.
"Come on," Red said. "You guys can do it."
"Yeah," said Lightning. "We'll be rooting for you."
"Is there anything we should know before we go out there?" Steve asked. "Any special rules from the Bitch?"
"Yeah," Jon said. "Don't change anything."
"Remember I told you we sing the album?" Jonathan said. Steve nodded. "Well, that's exactly what I meant. We sing the album. Note for note, phrase for phrase."
"What?" Steve cried. "We don't get to ad lib even a little?"
"Any ad libs you do had better already be on the recording," Ray said.
"Man!" Steve said. "How often do you guys have to do this?"
"Every other day. Sometimes more, sometimes less," Neal answered.
"And you never get to change anything?" Stevie asked incredulously.
"We do the albums she picks, just the way they sound," Nathan said. "If something was double tracked, or can't be reproduced precisely without a studio for some other reason, she allows us to compensate. But otherwise there's no changes allowed. If we ever do a song differently, it's because we're doing it just like it sounds on one of the live albums."
"But... but that's so boring!" Stevie said.
"Like I said before, kid," Val said, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Welcome to hell."
Before anything more could be said, the guards returned. "Out!" The bands lined up in their pairs again and were led away to yet another room. Soon, things began to look familiar. Stevie gasped when he realized where they were headed. The ballroom. He did not want to see that place again. He hesitated, but Ray looked at him so sharply that he knew something bad would happen if he didn't keep going.
Stevie looked around the room in distaste. It had been set up something like a skewed stadium. The dais, where he'd assumed the instruments would be, bore only the single, throne-like chair. Behind it, the axes on the wall brought back images he wanted nothing more than to forget. The instruments had been set up in the middle of the floor, where the audience should have been. There was a massive speaker system behind them, almost as large as the ones he would have expected to see on a real stage. Off to the side, about half way between the dais and the instruments, twenty wooden chairs had been neatly arranged in two staggered rows.
Around the room, standing at attention against each of the walls, there were more guards. They all held their control rods at the ready, which made Stevie extremely nervous. He counted 30 of them all together (including their escort). It was hard to distinguish between them. For one thing, they were all in uniform: black boots, black pants, black sweaters, black gloves and shiny black helmets with the visors up. They all had the same body shape as well - tall, broad-shouldered and buff. They even wore the same expression - grim, mildly scornful and very watchful. Stevie had the feeling that if anyone tried something, they would be stopped immediately - most likely by jolts from five or six control rods at the same time.
Stevie followed the example of the other '79's and walked toward the instruments. He took his place in front of the mic while the others went to their instruments and tuned up. The dolls who weren't performing sat quietly in the wooden chairs. Two guards from the escort stood directly behind the mini-audience, while the rest took up positions with the others against the walls. They waited.
In a few minutes, the Mistress entered. Stevie felt everyone grow tense around him. Although her beauty had not diminished in the least, he had to force himself not to cringe at the sight of her. The dolls in the audience stood up. Then, as a unit - except for Steve and Stevie, who took a second to catch up - all the dolls bowed from the waist in her direction. She smiled benevolently at them and sat in her chair on the dais. When she had arranged the skirt of her flowing blue gown to her liking, she turned to the audience. "Sit," she said in her lovely voice. They did so immediately. Then she looked at the performers. "Begin."
Almost instantly, Gregg and Neal began the opening riff of "Lights." Steve sang the song, remembering not to deviate from the recorded version. He felt lucky to have a programmed memory that allowed him to imitate the album exactly without practicing first. He hadn't been allowed to sing for over 16 hours, which was longer than he'd ever gone without singing a single note. It felt good to make music again, even if he did have to follow the no ad lib rule. When the song was over he smiled widely, waiting for some applause. He was rewarded with silence from everyone except Steve, who applauded loudly for the few seconds it took him to realize he was alone. The others gasped and stared at him wide-eyed. Steve looked confused. "What?" he asked nervously.
The woman slowly turned her head and stared at Steve, her deep blue eyes narrowed in anger. Steve's face grew pale and Stevie could tell that he was breathing faster than normal. Stevie felt his stomach tighten, but he forced himself not to move. Then the woman pointed a long, slender finger at Steve. "Silence," she said sharply. "Is that clear?"
"Yes, Mistress," Steve said breathlessly.
The woman looked at him for a few more seconds before turning back to Stevie and the others. "Continue," she said. Gregg began to play "Feeling That Way," and Stevie was grateful that he had a short break before he had to sing again. He was still shaky. He glanced at Steve, who made a face that said, "Phew! Close call. "
Stevie gave a nearly imperceptible nod that he knew only Steve would see. "No kidding. " He finished "Feeling That Way" and "Anytime." He knew not to expect applause, but he was getting nervous nonetheless. It wasn't just the silence that bothered him. The phrase "tough crowd" didn't do this audience justice. The only good feedback he got came from the other dolls. They smiled broadly in lieu of clapping, but the other people in the room were daunting enough to outweigh their smiles. The guards looked on, their control rods at the ready, their expressions a mixture of scorn and boredom. The woman watched them with a half smile on her face very similar to the one she'd had when they'd started to chop his predecessor, Hazel, to pieces. He got the distinct impression that it wasn't the music she cared about so much as the fact that she could force them to make it for her.
By the time they started "Patiently," Stevie was sweating and he could feel his throat start to tense. He knew that if he didn't try to relax soon, his voice would crack. But the thought of what would happen if he did crack only made him twice as nervous. He became obsessed with the fear that he would make some small mistake and the axes would come down. By "Wheel in the Sky," he was noticeably shaking. The others were stealing worried glances at him, which didn't help. It was only by sheer luck that he made the high run without a flaw.
Stevie knew he couldn't expect his luck to hold out through the next song. "Somethin' To Hide" just had too many high notes. He looked toward Steve in a panic. There was deep concern in the other doll's eyes. He signed to Stevie, trying to keep his movements low key so he wouldn't be noticed. "Take it easy. Forget them. They're not here. Sing to Rose. " Stevie nodded, wiping the sweat from his brow. He closed his eyes and imagined that he was giving Rose one of the mini-concerts they so often put together for her. She would be sitting in her favorite comfy chair, swaying to the opening chords. Steve would be there, controlling the mixer and supporting him from behind until it was his turn to sing. Snippet would be curled up in Rose's lap watching intently. Even she was quiet when they gave a performance. Then Rose would smile. But it would be a real smile - warm and full of affection. Stevie let the familiar image soothe him and he sang perfectly to her. When the song was over, he opened his eyes and looked at Steve with gratitude. Steve smiled. "You were great, " he said. "Keep it up. "
They performed the rest of the album without a hitch. Then they did it again. Stevie followed the example of the others and bowed low to the Mistress after the second run-through. Then they walked off the "stage" and out of the room. Four guards escorted them back to the dressing room at a swift pace. "Hustle," one of them said. "Five minutes."
"Shit!" several voices exclaimed at once. Clothes were ripped off and tossed willy-nilly in the frantic rush to get dressed. Stevie was still pulling on his boots when the guards returned. They headed for the door, Stevie still hopping on one foot trying to pull on his other shoe. They jogged back to the stage and started the next set. Twice through "Departure" and everyone was exhausted. They ran back to the dressing room and started to change for "Evolution."
"I can't do this," Smitty said when the guards left the room.
"Come on, Smitty," Gregg said. "It's almost over."
"Can't." Smitty sat down heavily on one of the benches. Stevie looked at him. They were all sweaty, but Smitty was absolutely drenched. His arms were shaking and he could barely get his shirt off.
"Shit," Jimi said. He went over and finished taking off Smitty's shirt. "We gotta get him dressed," he said. They worked together, trying to get Smitty's clothes on him as fast as they could. Then they let him sit while they got their own clothes on. Val had the most involved suit, and he wasn't even half-finished when the guards came in.
"What the hell is this?" one of them asked gruffly, stalking toward Val.
"Sorry, sir," Val said, backing away without pausing his efforts to get his shirt buttoned. "Couldn't find my ruffles."
The guard grabbed him by his collar and shook him a little. "You were supposed to have this ready," he snapped.
"I said I was sorry, sir," Val said. "I'll finish faster if you let me go."
"Don't be a smartass," he said, striking Val across the face with his control rod. "Now hurry up." He left with the other guards.
Val finished getting dressed, looking very much like he would rather be pummeling the guard who'd hit him than primping his ruffled collar. "Sorry man," Smitty said.
"Gimme a break," Val said. "Fucking bastards." The guards came back about a minute later and they ran back to the stage. The Mistress looked slightly perturbed, but she didn't say anything about it. Stevie was glad. Smitty managed to make it through "Evolution" both times, but he looked like he was ready to collapse. Stevie understood. By the time they'd done their final bow, he didn't care that the guards looked bored, or that the Mistress looked like a spider watching trapped flies. All he wanted to do now was lay down and not get up again for at least 24 hours. They stumbled to their chairs, literally dripping with sweat and shaking with exhaustion.
The '83's were up next with "Frontiers." Stevie felt like zoning out, but he made himself sit up straight and pay attention. They'd given him all the support they could and he refused to let a little thing like complete and total exhaustion keep him from doing the same. The other '79's seemed to be of the same opinion, because they all watched attentively as well. Even Smitty. After the '83's had done all of "Frontiers," they started the album that the guard had called "Number Five." Stevie recognized it as soon as they started to play the first song. "Escape." He wondered why they'd called it "Number Five." Oh well. Who cares? He continued to listen, smiling instead of clapping after every song. They played "Still They Ride," and he thought about Rose again. It was one of her favorite songs. He wished he was at home. A LOT.
The next song they played was "Lay it Down." Stevie listened to that for a few seconds. Then he sat bolt upright. They'd missed a song! He looked at the Mistress, but was surprised to see that she didn't look angry at all. In fact, no one around him seemed to think anything was wrong. Stevie looked behind him. The only person who seemed to have noticed was Steve. Stevie turned back around, unwilling to attract any attention to himself. He couldn't understand it. They missed a whole song, and Miss Exactly-Like-The-Album didn't even care. Then in a sudden flash of insight, he understood. Of course! "Escape." It was the song they'd skipped. It was the album title that they'd refused to name. No wonder they always seemed so reluctant to discuss escaping. The punishment even for talking about it had to be awful if they weren't even allowed even to say the word.
Suddenly, Stevie saw the face of the other '79 - his own face - contorted with pain and with the agonizing effort it took to lift his head and force out one word before he died. "Escape." Stevie looked around at the guards, the other dolls and the Mistress - sitting there on her throne with that sickening half-smile. "Let that be a lesson to you." She'd said those words with that same smile on her face. Now Stevie knew would do just that. But he would take the lesson from Hazel, not from her. He would escape.