Some things about being a “late-bloomer” pop star kinda suck. Like being twenty-three and on a mall tour. I’m supposed to muster up false enthusiasm about shopping and fun, but the college interns who concocted this plan have clearly never listened to my music. My songs are about being the odd girl out, the one who isn’t like her peers.
And that’s me, in a nutshell. I’m not like other girls. Granted, being from Cobalt City and being “not like other girls” means something different. I’m not a super hero, I just have a voice that doesn’t require a mic. I use one to keep up appearances. And I can be weirdly persuasive. Which is probably why I’m five years into a pop career in an industry that takes pretty young things, chews them up, and spits them out. Too bad my voice couldn’t get me out of this mall tour.
We’re in Cerulean City, California, and the mall is right on the beach, so I can watch the ocean when we’re not doing sound check, or going over my set list, or the million other demands on my attention. The new intern, Ruby, doesn’t think I should open with “Happily Never After”–too much of a downer, she says–despite this being the Happily Never After Tour. I don’t care about the song order. I’m too busy watching the waves.
Being near the ocean always relaxes me. My dad always said it was like the water was my true home. The water near Cobalt City is way too cold for most people to swim in. I don’t mind it, at least in the summer. I can practically feel the water here, warm and gritty with salt and sand.
There’s a bar down by the water, hastily thrown up right at the edge of the surf, probably moved each day depending on the tides. The tables are set so your feet get washed over every once in a while. It looks divine.
“I’m going to go get a drink,” I say, extracting myself from my low-slung hammocky chair.
Clive, one of the interns, shakes his head, eyes wide. “You can’t, Miss Sweet. We’d need to send security with you, and the paparazzi are crawling this place today. What kind of drink would you like? We’ve got runners who can get you something.”
I sink back into my chair. Another reason being a late-bloomer pop star sucks? Most of your fans are underage and have this weird assumption that you must be their age too. The tabloids have a field day if you go out drinking, calling you a bad role model or hinting at rehab on the horizon.
My gaze stays fixed on the ocean, even when one of the interns presses a drink into my hands. Whiskey with lemon and honey. The drink science says is best for my vocal cords. Whatever.
Something incongruous in my field of vision gives me pause. There’s someone dressed all in black standing at the edge of the water, and I can feel their gaze on me, even at this distance.
It’s 90-something degrees out there, even with the breeze off the ocean. They’ve got to be roasting. I get back out of my chair, walk over to the window, and press one hand to the glass in a sort of static wave of acknowledgement.
They raise their hand in a similar salute.
Somehow it doesn’t make me feel any less alone.
Fifteen minutes to show time, and everything is a rush around me. I try to stay out of their way, but they need to check my makeup, my hair, my mic, my shoes. They want me in sandals, but it’s been hard for them to find any that don’t showcase my webbed toes. Yeah, literally webbed toes. It’s not as rare as you might think, or so the doctors tell me.
I stand like the eye of the storm and just let everyone poke and prod me until one minute to show time. Then I break away, plaster on my trademark Cassidy Sweet smile, and wait for the emcee to say my name.
Ruby won out on the song selection, and we’re starting with “Summer, Sand, and Surf.” Fitting, I guess. I glance over the set list in between verses, and “Happily Never After” is still there, so that’s fine.
The hairs on the back of my neck go up unexpectedly when we hit the chorus the third time, and I scan the crowd.
It’s the guy from the beach–I can tell it’s a guy now–motionless, staring at me. I raise my hand again, and he follows suit.
All around him, the crowd is dancing and singing along, but he doesn’t move. Now I’m weirded out. I’ve had my fair share of stalkers and other creepy “admirers.” This guy hasn’t done anything compared to most. Yet.
Between songs, I switch my mic over to our internal channel. “Possible creeper at the back of the crowd, one o’clock. All in black.”
“On it.” Tito, the head of my tour security, is like an over-protective uncle or big brother. I wouldn’t know. I don’t have either, as far as I know. Dad didn’t have any family that he spoke of, and he said even less about Mom’s family. But I like Tito. He’s always been good to me.
Still, I feel a twinge of guilt at siccing Tito on some random guy all in black. “Just … watch him, for now, Tito.”
And then we’re jumping into my cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” made extra creepy by the fact that this guy is still staring at me, not even blinking, as far as I can tell. It’s starting to break through my cool. This isn’t something I’m used to. My head is starting to pound.
Something’s knocking in my head.
I drift back during the solo, let the dancers take center stage. In the wings, Ruby is dancing along with them. I’m surprised she didn’t muscle her way into getting to be out there with them, after she choreographed their routine. Maybe I’ll suggest that to her later, get her out of my hair for a while.
For now, I’ve got enough in my hair. I cautiously think an answer toward the knocking. “Yes?”
“You’re in danger.” The voice is barely a whisper, but it’s loud enough in my head to drown out the band.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“Call me J.J. You’ve got to stop the show and get everyone out of here. Please.” His voice is earnest.
I’m from Cobalt City. When someone gets a warning like this, they know better than to take the risk. “Then pull the fire alarm.” I glance out into the crowd and spot Tito en route to intercept the guy in black, who might be J.J. “Move now if you’re gonna do it.”
I run back to the front of the stage and resume singing. The guy in black is gone, and Tito looks confused. I’ll have to sort that out later. Whatever this is about, it better be good. I might hate this mall tour, but I also hate disappointing my fans.
Outside, in the chaos of the fire alarm, I slip my handlers, security, and the army of Goblin Records interns and make it down to the beach.
J.J.–the guy in black–is there. Up close, I can tell he’s somewhere in the same nebulous age range as me–late teens to early twenties–hair as black as his clothes, but blue-green eyes the color of the ocean.
“What just happened?”
He hands me a sleeveless hoodie from my merch booth without a word. I pull it on, hood up to cover my hair and most of my face. Now I look like one of my fans, who dress just like me, in whatever brands the interns have me casually promoting this week.
He still hasn’t said anything. “Well?” I prompt him.
“So you’re from Cobalt City, right?”
“Born and bred,” I reply, but I cross my arms over my chest. “Let’s not get too off topic here. This isn’t an interview. This is me finding out why you pulled the fire alarm and stopped my show.”
“Sorry I ruined your concert. I had to get everyone out of there so it wouldn’t be a target anymore.”
“Target? Why was it a target?”
“You’re powered, right?”
I inhale sharply, glance around, make sure there’s no one here to overhear me. I don’t know why I should trust this guy, but I do, even if he’s wrong on this. “No, I can’t fly or punch through walls or run really fast or anything.”
“Yeah, okay. But your voice is kinda–” He hesitates. “Unnatural.”
I bristle at that. I don’t let my producers mess with the quality of my voice for my recordings, or at shows.
“Not unnatural in a bad way. Just–” He winces. “Not entirely human?”
That takes the wind out of my sails. He’s not the first person who’s said something like that. And not knowing my mom, and my dad never talking about her, “not entirely human” is entirely plausible. Especially for Cobalt City. “Okay. But why does that make me a target?”
He shrugs. “Doctor Ruthless … doesn’t always make sense. Maybe she had something against your concert or the mall or something.”
“How do you know this?”
He taps the side of his head. “Telepathy.”
“You just run around surfing into peoples’ brains?” I step away from him.
He waves his hands in the space between us. “No, I don’t. I’m in communication with the rest of my team. They told me Doctor Ruthless was moving toward the mall, I was closest, so I said I’d come and check it out.” He gives me a half smile. “You’re a hard nut to crack, by the way. Even if I had wanted to barge my way in to your thoughts, I don’t think I could have.”
I return the smile. “Well, thanks for knocking. So, team?”
“Yeah. Cerulean City isn’t quite at the level of Cobalt City in terms of super heroes, but we’ve got a few of our own. I’m on a team with some of the other younger heroes.”
I nod. “That sounds cool. I’m not the joining type. And I’m not sure I’m up to par with a super hero, anyway.”
“Everybody plays their part.”
“And I’m the lonely pop star.” I sigh. “Speaking of, they’re going to insist I continue the concert. I can’t beg out of this one. Believe me, I’ve tried. Can you call your team and maybe keep this Doctor Ruthless off my back for another half hour?”
He shrugs. “I’ll give it a shot. We’re not heavy hitters, though. I might have to call in the big guns.” He looks sheepish at that last.
“Big guns?” I repeat.
“Major Justice or someone like him, I guess.”
“He sounds kinda fierce.” I cock my head to the side, curious about another city with super heroes out in the open. Not many places are like Cobalt City. “So does J.J. stand for some super hero name?”
“Yeah.” He sighs. “Justice Junior. Major Justice is my dad. My granddad was General Justice. I’ve got an aunt who goes by Doctor Justice. They haven’t given me a rank yet, and everyone just started calling me Justice Junior. I hate it, though, so J.J.”
“Oof, legacy, huh? That’s gotta suck.”
“Yeah, especially when I’m nothing like them.”
I chuckle. “Oh, I get that. Welcome to my entire life.”
“Not big on the limelight?”
“It’s not that. This is what I wanted. It’s just that some of the reality of stardom isn’t what you think it is. Probably kinda like the reality of coming from a family of super heroes.”
He smiles. He’s kinda cute when he does that. “Yeah, probably.”
Before I can say anything more, there’s a crackle in my ear. I had been in such a hurry to get out of the mall I hadn’t unclipped my mic, earpiece, anything. Tito’s voice comes through. “Cass, where are you?”
“Shit,” I mutter. “Sorry, Tito, I just didn’t want to be too close to the mall, in case something happened. I’m on my way back now.” To J.J., I say, “I’ve gotta go. Good luck with dealing with Doctor Ruthless. If you need anything from me, you know where I’ll be.”
He looks like he wants to say something more, but I turn away and don’t let him. The last thing I need on this awful tour is a stupid crush on some cute super hero in Cerulean City.
If I said my heart wasn’t really in continuing my concert, that would be basically true. Though it hadn’t really been in starting the concert in the first place. Now, on top of my desire to be anywhere but here, I also have the nagging dread that some super villain is going to crash into my concert at any moment.
At least she doesn’t make me wait too long.
When she first drops in through the skylight, she looks fantastic. She has a tailored black leather lab coat and black goggles, so the Doctor part of her name is well represented in her costume. But she’s wearing these amazing red knee high boots, and matching lipstick, that wouldn’t be safe in any lab. I gotta say, though, it takes stylists to get me to look half as good. And maybe super villains have stylists too. I don’t know.
But I’m mostly rambling because when she shows up, I freeze. I might be from the city voted most likely to play host to a date interrupted by a super villain, but I’ve never encountered a villain in Cobalt City. I guess I’ve led a sheltered life, somehow.
But now, here I am, face to face with Doctor Ruthless. She’s flying, or hovering, but she hasn’t shown off any other powers yet. So I have no idea what will happen if I somehow have to fight her. Especially since I don’t know how to do much more than throw a half-hearted punch.
For now, at least, I have the whole PA system at my disposal, so I figure I can at least give J.J. and his team a temporary distraction.
“STOP!” I put the full force of my personality behind it. I’ve never tried to make people do as I say, but if I really throw my aural weight around, most people realize that they want what I want.
Doctor Ruthless doesn’t stop.
Most of the fans are at least getting away from where she’s descending. Some of them are taking pictures, of course. Because when a pop star is from Cobalt City, it’s hard to say if random attacks by a super villain are part of the show or real. (It’s actually worse in Cobalt City, from what I’ve heard. Len, who’s been around Goblin Records for roughly ever, has seen some shit while working shows.)
Since she doesn’t respond to my really persuasive suggestion, I figure I might as well give up that approach. “You want the mic, then? Tell us what you’re here for?” I grab one of the stage mics and hold it out toward her.
She doesn’t take it, telekinetically or otherwise. But when she speaks, everyone can hear her. “You have something I want.”
I wait to see if she’s going to say what it is, but it seems like this is going to take some encouragement on my part. “Okay, am I supposed to guess, or–”
I try not to laugh, but I can’t help but crack a joke. “What? Are you Ursula?”
“I’m a collector of powers. You have something I haven’t found elsewhere. So I want it. I’ll make this simple. If you agree, I’ll leave your cowering fans alone, and I’ll leave you alive. If you don’t agree–” She shrugs nonchalantly. “–well, I make no promises.”
A chunk of the skylights flies away, like it’s been caught in a gust of wind, and someone else comes down through that section. At least, I think it’s another person. The wind kicks up with a whole section of skylights missing, so my hair is whipping around like I’m in a tornado.
I hear the heavy glass doors to the mall thump open, followed by running footsteps. Either Doctor Ruthless is getting reinforcements, or that’s J.J. and the rest of his team.
I wonder if this is what it feels like to tourists in Cobalt City, when heroes and villains started throwing down, and the onlookers aren’t sure which is which.
I manage to get my hair out of my face long enough to see what’s going on. There is an actual tornado in the food court, surrounding someone with dark hair dressed in gray and a pale teal color. And she–at least I think it’s a she–looks like she’s grappling with Doctor Ruthless.
Below, there’s a young woman in a vibrantly colored long dress, black hair whipping around her brown skin, which is lit from within with golden light. She’s chanting something, but the tornado pulls the words straight from her lips and into the air, inaudible on stage.
And there’s J.J., or at least who I think is J.J, dressed in black with red accents. Either the costume is padded to give him faux muscles, or he’s ripped. I catch myself staring, trying to figure out which it is, when he waves.
He stands behind the woman on the ground and holds out his arms. All of a sudden, her voice is deafening, booming through the entire food court. And it’s not just that I couldn’t hear her before–I can’t understand what she’s saying. Languages aren’t my strong suit.
The woman inside the tornado tries to angle Doctor Ruthless so her back is to the woman on the ground, but Doctor Ruthless shakes her off.
For an instant, Doctor Ruthless’s gaze is locked on J.J. Her lips move, and I swear she says his name. But then she’s gone, rocketing back out of the hole that she came in through, and we’re left with ear-splitting chanting and a tornado in the wreckage of my stage.
The winds die down, and the woman in gray and teal descends as they do. The other woman has stopped chanting, J.J. has dropped his arms, and they’re all staring at the hole in the roof that Doctor Ruthless escaped through.
I clamber off the stage and over to them.
“Hey, Cassidy,” J.J. says, smiling beneath his mask. Did he have dimples before? He’s got dimples now. “This is Celadon and Preethi. Uh, we call ourselves the Young Techs.”
“Which I hate,” the woman in the bright-colored dress he pointed out as Preethi says. She’s got a thick Indian accent and an almost lyrical voice. “I did not come to this country just for its technology.”
Celadon rolls her eyes, like she’s heard this a million times before. “So what happened, why’d she call it off?” she asks J.J. Up close, I can see her olive complexion and golden-brown eyes, fixed on the gauntlets she’s wearing over her suit, where she’s flipping what seems like a million different switches and not looking at J.J. at all.
And not noticing me staring at J.J.
He runs his hand through his hair and blushes. “I … uh, I don’t know.”
I stare at him, and then think, “She said your name,” at him as hard as I can. I don’t know if he can hear me or not, but he nods.
Aloud, I say, “So what happens now? Do you have to track her back to her villainess lair or something?”
Celadon shrugs. “Nah, this is the point where we hand this off to the professionals. Like Major Justice. By the way, J.J., tell your dad the roof was not my fault this time, okay? I don’t need him yelling at us for that, on top of letting Doctor Ruthless go.”
“Yeah, okay,” J.J. says.
Preethi has already walked off, and Celadon follows her toward the mall entrance.
J.J. looks at me. “I guess … I should go with them.”
I don’t want him to go, so I stall. “What if she comes back?” I ask. “And what did she mean by wanting to steal my voice?”
“Your voice?” he asked, eyebrows arching above the top of his mask. “Well, hate to be the one to break it to you, but that means you’ve got powers. Doctor Ruthless is the reason that no one who has innate powers lives in Cerulean City. They either get their powers stolen, or they flee. We’re all either tech or magic based here.”
“I’ve got powers,” I say, sitting down hard on the edge of the stage. “Real ones?”
“Looks that way, yeah.” He sits beside me.
I want to lean on his shoulder, hoping that he’ll put an arm around me to comfort me, but I don’t want him to freak out and move away, either. So I sit there, stiffly, half pretending to be in shock. I’m not entirely surprised to hear that I do have powers. I just don’t understand them. And that’s scary.
After a minute of us sitting in silence, he gets back up. “Um, well, Doctor Ruthless isn’t likely to come back here, and I’m guessing your concert is over.”
“Yeah,” I say, looking up at the roof. “I don’t think they’re gonna make me go back on after a tornado. In the food court.” I pause, and lower my voice. “So how do you know her?”
He glances away. “It’s a long story.”
“Oh, an ex?” I say, trying to make it a joke. Anything to get us laughing, and forgetting about the part where I really do have powers.
He doesn’t laugh, but his shoulders go stiff. “Not even.”
“Sorry, bad joke. I’m guessing you don’t want to talk about it?”
He lets out a long sigh, and it’s like his suit almost deflates, and he’s back to regular old J.J. on the beach in a hoodie. In a quiet voice, he says, “I think Doctor Ruthless is my mom.”
“Oh. Shit.” The implications of that hit me on more than just the simple level of J.J.’s mom leaving so she didn’t attack her son. I know what it’s like to not know your mom, and while I doubt my long-lost mom is a super villain too, I still wonder sometimes. I mean, you don’t live in Cobalt City and not wonder if you’re related to some hero or villain. So we’re both dealing with some shit. “Look, if you want to talk–”
“I’d love to,” he says, then grins sheepishly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off. But I’d love to talk to you more. I just think, maybe later. Not tonight.”
I nod, pull a Sharpie out of the pocket of my jeans, and peel back enough of his sleeve to scribble my mobile number on his wrist. We’re standing so close to each other right now, but I get the impression we’re both miles away. Still, this is something. “You’ll call me, then?”
“Yeah,” he says, blowing on his wrist to make sure the ink is dry before he pulls his sleeve back down. Then he chuckles. “I should go call my–” His chuckles fade into a sigh. “God, I’m way too old to be calling my dad to get me from the mall.”
I nod, swallowing the lump in my throat. Why does he have to be so cute? “Um, so random question? How old are all of you?” That’s right. Play it cool. Act like I’m interested in all of the Young Techs. Not just him.
“Uh, I don’t know how old Preethi is. Never asked. Celadon was … a few years ahead of me in high school, so she’s like 27 or 28, maybe? Me, I’m 24 next month.”
That’s a relief. I didn’t want him to be way younger than me. I smile. “Cool. I guess eventually you’ll have to stop being the Young anything, huh?”
J.J. shrugs. “Not until there’s another group younger than us. Cerulean City is ruled by the old school.” He shrugs again. “And based on Granddad’s longevity, I suspect it will be for a while.”
“I know a place where it’s not always like that. A place where you wouldn’t have to be in their shadow all the time.” I smile. “If you’re interested, I mean.”
“What, Cobalt City?” he asks, a smile lighting his eyes and bringing out those dimples again.
Why am I doing this to myself? I don’t need the hope that maybe one day he’ll call, or show up on my doorstep, and we’ll live happily ever after. I know better than that. After all, I wrote the damn song. But it doesn’t stop me. “Yeah,” I say, sharing his smile. “Come visit sometime.”
Dawn Vogel writes and edits both fiction and non-fiction. Her academic background is in history, so it’s not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. She is a member of Broad Universe, SFWA, and Codex Writers. Her steampunk series, Brass and Glass, is being published by Razorgirl Press. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats. Visit her at historythatneverwas.com.