If Carlos had known he was going to be the star of the first big musical number that morning, he would have put on a nicer shirt.
As it was, he stepped out of the front door of the house the science team was renting in a ratty T-shirt, khaki shorts, and tennis shoes still stained with purple goo from that incident with the giant clams. And his lab coat, of course. You couldn't do Science without a lab coat, and you never knew when the need would strike.
The messenger bag over his shoulder (with a sparkly eyeball-shaped keychain, a gift from Cecil, dangling from the main zipper) held the usual mess of stuff. His phone, his notebook, a couple of pens and markers. A notarized copy of his official Writing Utensil Exemption permit from City Hall. Sterile gloves and sample bags. Some cash. A bus pass.
He pulled out the bus pass as he approached his stop, waved a companionable hello to Janice Rio (down the street), then took a skipping step along the sidewalk as disembodied music started to play.
He hadn't known the music was coming. Rather, it started in perfect time to his steps, as if it had been waiting for its cue.
Without planning to, Carlos started to sing.
"Oh, oh, oh, woke up today feeling the way I always do — oh, oh, oh, hungry for something I can't ingest — at least, not in tests —"
A block ahead of him, the bus turned a corner and rumbled onto his street. Carlos picked up his pace, reaching the stop just as it squeaked to a halt, doors opening to meet him.
"That rhythm of town starts calling me down — it's like a message from high above! Oh, oh, oh, pulling me out to the smiles and the streets that I love —"
He spun into the aisle and sang to the passengers already in the seats, which would have felt a lot weirder if they hadn't spontaneously formed a chorus and started harmonizing.
"Good morning, Night Vale! Every day's like a fairy tale! Every test is a quandary — each result is a mystery — good morning, Night Vale! And one day when I write up, in full, this work...then the whole world will see: Night Vale and me!"
The ride seemed to go by a lot faster than usual. It was one of the standard time-distortion phenomenon Carlos had catalogued in the Night Vale area: the "montage effect."
He swung off the bus and took a few more skipping steps into Big Rico's.
"Oh, oh, oh, look at my hair — what 'do can compare with mine today?" he sang, flipping it over his shoulder and getting a smattering of applause from the customers and staff (who were also singing along, thank goodness). He grinned at the woman behind the counter, who knew his usual and was already handing it over, then beamed up at the speaker near the ceiling: Cecil's show didn't start for hours, but NVCR was playing all the same. "Oh, oh, oh, I've got my pizza and radio — I'm ready to go!"
It took some quick footwork to avoid squashing any of the tarantulas ahead of him in line. They waved hello as they scurried out of the way.
"The spiders I meet all dance around my feet: they seem to say, 'Carlos, it's up to you!'" Carlos handed over a couple of dollars, then spun on his heel. "So, oh, oh, don't hold me back, 'cause right here all my dreams will come true —"
He burst out into the sunshine, where a fresh ensemble sang along with him: "— good morning, Night Vale!"
Carlos tipped a quick salute to the ones in all black, with short capes and balaclavas. "There's my Secret Police detail!" The other group, tall and winged and in some cases on fire, he greeted with a short bow. "There's some angels — who are not real! They wish me luck with my grant appeal. Good morning, Night Vale! Swear someday I will write up, in full, this work, so the whole world can see — Night Vale and me!"
He had a quick stop to make in the lab, where a couple of his fellow scientists were hard at work. Carlos swept past the tables with their bubbling beakers, long white coat fluttering out behind him.
"I test and retest — the data come through," he sang in frustration, retrieving one of his favorite pieces of humming electrical equipment from the supply cabinet. "I know that they sound like they can't be true. I'm sure my submissions are going unread...just let me get published before I drop dead!"
"Before he drops dead!" came a helpful backup chorus from Dave, Rochelle, and (outside the window) a couple of Secret Police officers.
Familiar businesses rushed by outside the window of another bus, this one headed even farther downtown. "So, oh, oh, give me a break! Not a number is faked, in this town of ours," sighed Carlos, sinking into his seat, now accompanied by a soft choir of angels flying alongside the vehicle. "Oh, oh, oh, we're at the heart of a weirdness blitz...and I love it to bits!"
He grabbed a handful of papers out of his bag, shaking them, as if he had the grant manager sitting in front of him right now.
"My brain says it's wrong...but the tests come out strong! Stay up all night just to make the charts," he intoned to no one in particular, as they slowed in front of a parking lot Carlos knew like the back of his hand. The montage effect was hitting hard this morning. "Oh, oh, a scientist's dream, is this town that's grown into my heart...."
He stepped off of the latest bus...and spotted a figure standing across the lot, silhouetted against the building. Lighting up, Carlos broke into a run: heedless of the artful swirl of papers that flew out behind him, totally not listening to the choral repetition of his last couple of lines. Disembodied drums pounded along with his heartbeat.
"I love you, Night Vale!" he burst out, catching a delighted Cecil's hands and pulling him into a two-step across the asphalt. "Every day's like a fairy tale! Every test is a quandary — each result is a mystery. And I promise, Night Vale, that some day when I publish this all, the world's gonna wake up and see...Night Vale and me!"
They were fully surrounded by his backup chorus now: police officers, angels, a couple of NVCR interns, one or two hooded figures, and the customers sitting under the outdoor awnings at the White Sands ice cream shop. Dozens of voices harmonized as Carlos reiterated that last line a few more times, holding the final note much longer than he would normally have been able to keep up.
With one final crescendo, the music that had been following him all morning finally shut off.
Carlos stumbled to a stop, just in time not to trip over his own feet. Apparently whatever force had gifted him with a Broadway singing range and matching dance moves had deserted him all at once. "Uh...hi."
Cecil, a little out-of-breath and with his hair fetchingly tousled by the unexpected spinning, beamed at him. "Carlos, that was amazing! Did you come all this way just to sing to me?"
"No," said Carlos. He didn't realize how blunt it would sound until Cecil's face fell. "That is, I did come here to see you! And to do science, obviously. But the singing part, that just sort of, um, happened. I don't even have enough data to hypothesize where it came from."
"Oh, do you not get musical fronts back east?" asked Cecil with interest.
"A couple of days where everyone has a chance to burst into song! Or a couple of weeks, or even longer, depending on how strong it is. I took a peek at the weather earlier, and it looks like this is a really big one coming through." Cecil pulled his hands out of Carlos's to clap in excitement. "Oh, I hope it lasts long enough for us to do a duet!"
"I'm sure there's nothing to worry about, Josie," said Cecil, holding the phone against his ear with his shoulder while he tried to pry the Helicopter Reference Guide out of his office bookshelf. It wasn't easy. The stupid thing kept trying to bite him. "In fact, I saw some angels just this morning, singing with Carlos! I bet you anything they'll show up back at your house this afternoon, wanting to know if you've got the next season of Breaking Bad yet. Whoops — sorry, gotta go —"
With one strong yank, he dragged the guide out from between the other books, losing his phone and tumbling to the carpet with his prize in hand. It shrieked, yanked out of his grip, and ran out the door.
Cecil scrambled after it into the hall, where he spotted an intern in the direction it was running. "Get it!" he shouted. "Stomp on it or something, come on!"
Vithya tried, but not nearly hard enough. The reference guide scurried past her...and slid itself under the door of Station Management. "Sorry!" she exclaimed, blinking back tears.
"No, it's all right." Cecil got to his feet and brushed himself off. "Just wait until I get to the tape room before you knock, understand?"
"I...I have to knock? On management's door?"
"How else do you expect to get that book back?" asked Cecil. "And we need it, to figure out what's going on with those oddly-colored helicopters you've been collecting reports on. Give me two minutes, and if you haven't come to see me in ten, I'll assume the worst and start putting together your eulogy package."
With that, he booked it for the tape room.
Five minutes later, a red-eyed and slightly scorched Vithya joined him and a couple of other interns, carrying the Helicopter Reference Guide. It was growling, but subdued.
Also, a chipper beat had started playing around Cecil, with the deep resonance of a pipe organ.
"Good job," he told Vithya. (Speaking, not singing. Not yet, at least.) "Are you okay?"
"Angels aren't real," sniffled Vithya unhelpfully.
"How come management gets to do that to people?" demanded Intern Jésus. At least he had the sense to keep his voice low.
"First, she's only crying when angels come up," said Cecil sternly. "Which is a sign of someone who has been chosen by angels, which of course are not real, for special angelic purposes. Nothing to do with our bosses at all. And second...some things are tradition, and have been tradition ever since our little radio station was founded by mysterious unseen forces centuries ago. These traditions are what keep us grounded, able to do our jobs instead of collapsing screaming into the terrible void of uncertainty. Understand?"
Vague mumbles from the group. How long had this little thread of defiance been running through his staff? Cecil would have to shut it down. Hard.
The music around them did an extra little flourish, and he took his cue.
"Who, day and night, must slumber in its office, wave its tentacles, having nasty dreams?" he half-sang, half-chanted along with the pipe organ. "And who has the right, as station management, to drive its employees insane?"
All the interns dutifully chorused the answer along with him: "Our bosses, our bosses! Tradition!"
Then they plunged into a verse of their own. "Who must hide from mirrors, broadcast no dissent, serve management, and seem content? Who must look for hidden ways to circumvent the limits on what he can say? The anchor, the anchor! Tradition!"
(Cecil was really glad you couldn't get in trouble for any too-honest revelations delivered in song form during a musical front.)
"At nineteen, angels are a thing I cannot talk about," chanted Vithya, in a mournful tone. "And one way or another, soon my time...will run out."
"Who's always first to go, who fills the air with cries?" added her fellow interns. "Whose sanity is blasted, and then who usually dies? The interns, the interns! Tradition!"
They all sang in a round for a while, Cecil drumming them along — "Our bosses! The anchor! The interns! Tradition!" — before the music settled into a background beat. "Much better!" exclaimed Cecil. "Without our traditions, this job would be as unstable as...." He waved vaguely at the ceiling. "...as doing the broadcast from the roof!"
Music wasn't exactly common in Strexcorp Synernists Inc.'s regional corporate headquarters in Desert Bluffs. There were company-approved instrumental tracks playing in the elevators, and that was about it. You didn't want to disrupt someone else's working environment, after all.
So Lauren Mallard was pretty surprised when, in the middle of a board meeting, the room was filled with what sounded like...drums? And then people around the table started chanting hummm in time with the rhythm, which was even weirder.
She tried not to think about the fact that she was chanting too.
The Chair of the meeting had been explaining the details of the takeover that upper management had apparently been planning for almost a year, and that the rank-and-file were just finding out about now. So far, so good. Except then the Chair started crooning, in a low, sonorous voice:
"I know that your corporate ambition...has a comfortable old paradigm. But we can add value, so listen: there's profit in bulk here to mine! It's clear, from your vacant expressions, there's not much to leverage upstairs...but with firm mission statements and roadmaps, even you can sustain it from there!"
The slideshow started flipping through reconnaissance photos from the next town over. Small local businesses. Big businesses: closer to their own values, but harder to buy out. Ordinary people, not a single one of them wearing Strex-branded merchandise, or getting paid in scrip only redeemable at Strex outlets.
"So prepare for some globalization!" sang the Chair, as the already un-businesslike music kicked up. "Be prepared for expanding your brand! A smiling new era is progressing nearer...."
Lauren raised her hand. "And what would be our part?" she half-sang.
"Just look at the org chart!" exclaimed the Chair, stopping at a slide that looked like an octopus playing cat's cradle. The music pounded around them, almost hard enough to shake the table. "I know it sounds high-risk, but we've run logistics, and we have a sustainable plan — with no small local businesses spared! Be prepared!"
The instruments settled into the calmer strains of background music as the employees thought it over. "Yeah, be prepared," said Shawn, from Sales. "Heh, we'll be prepared...For what?"
The Chair hit a button, and the slideshow flipped to a new image: a man Lauren both recognized and didn't recognize. Tan skin, dark hair, glasses: he looked so much like their own beloved Kevin, but with messier hair and purple eyes, and, apparently, no concept of the words dress code. "For the death of the Voice!"
"Why? Is he sick?" asked Sean, also from Sales.
"No, you fool, we're going to kill him." The Chair flipped to the next slide, this one showing a satellite photo of the Voice of Night Vale getting coffee with a stunningly handsome man in a lab coat. "And his scientist, too."
"Great idea! Who needs a Voice?" asked Shaun, and the whole Sales side of the table burst into a singsong chant that was clearly not part of the whole musical thing, just them being them.
"Idiots! There will be a Voice!" barked the Chair.
"Hey, but you said, uh...."
The Chair flipped one more slide, and there was Desert Bluffs' familiar Kevin, smiling his cheery bloodstained smile at the camera. "A company Voice! ...Stick with me, and you'll never see downsizing again!"
At last it got through. The Sales guys started to clap and cheer, and this time Lauren joined in. "Hooray for the merger! Hooray for the company! Hooray for the plan!"
Seemed like the next thing Lauren knew, she was on the floor of the nearest hangar. The Chair wanted to talk to her personally, as she was being tapped for programming director at the newly-bought Night Vale Corporate Radio.
The music was still going. All around them, people were suiting up, stowing weapons, and boarding helicopters. "It's great that we'll soon be connected with consumers from our neighbor town!" they chanted in the background.
"Of course, it'll be unexpected," crooned the Chair in a low voice, for Lauren's ears only. "But someday they'll all come around." Then, louder, over the sound of the first helicopter rotors starting to chop through the air: "It's such a win-win situation: once we run both economies, we'll get locals' cooperation...or hope they enjoy bankruptcy!"
Vehicles thundered; drums crashed. Lauren could barely hear the pilots now, and only because there were so many of them, chanting in perfect unison in the background.
"So prepare for the coup of the century!" growled the Chair, practically dancing down the center of the hangar as the helicopters lifted off around them. "Be prepared for the takeover plan! Meticulous planning, with synergy spanning from here to the heavens — so smile and say amen! We'll smile and we'll buy them, or napalm and fry them — our enterprise won't be denied! Yes, my teeth and ambitions are bared — be prepared!"
Lauren grinned a wide, sharp grin and did a little twirl of her own. "Yes, our teeth and ambitions are bared! Be prepared!"
Strexcorp employees were discouraged from having non-company-sanctioned fun. Oh, you were supposed to enjoy your job, and the more you smiled, the better...but getting too much enjoyment out of anything not strictly in your job description, and that probably meant you weren't working hard enough. Singing and dancing, for instance, were definitely not in Lauren's job description.
Therefore, she was absolutely not having fun with them.