Hope Towers, the first and only child born to the greatest super-hero team on the planet, was recording an album. She’d been raised by the heroes who pushed Abaddon the Destroyer into the void between worlds; the heroes who could stop hurricanes from turning, and who could defeat monsters the size of mountains. She was, from the moment of her birth, the most famous person in the entire world. And she asked tiny EachPeach Studios to record her first album.
Robbie Sachs, founder of EachPeach, was ecstatic. His co-owner and partner, Alexander Vox-Sachs, was curled into a fetal position on the floor of their kitchenette.
“Hope reinvented fame, Alex. Have you seen Twitter? I’ve never seen so many hits!”
Alexander shook his head. He could not speak. He pulled the notepad he kept for such occasions out of his back pocket, scrawled his words in a trembling hand, then turned it up to Robbie.
Alexander was, for a brief two years in college, a villain known as Soundbite.
The Cold-Blooded Chaos Society was an activist stunt put together by a scaly girl in his poli-sci class who only answered to Raptorella. They wouldn’t have been a blip on The Arcane Protectorate’s super-computers if Amphibiandroid hadn’t lost control of his AI.
Soundbite could mimic any sound to the finest degree. Voices were his specialty, and all the gossip rags could talk of was The Tower’s secret liaisons with fellow Protectorate teammate, The Hierophant. The Hierophant was signing autographs at a local con while The Tower was at a peace conference overseas. He couldn’t resist investigating the voice of his lover screaming for her life.
Raptorella insisted that she only wanted to talk. She needed the Protectorate to acknowledge the 68 lives lost during their last “peace mission,” but the Hierophant wasn’t interested in talking. His hands began to glow. Amphibiandroid’s robots overcompensated for the threat, and the whole world watched The Hierophant die on live-stream video.
Some months later, Hope Towers was born without her father.
Alexander’s vocal chords writhed through his neck. He couldn’t remember the voice he used with Robbie.
“It was sixteen years ago,” said his partner. “You wore a rubber snake head. There’s no way anyone in The Protectorate knows who you were.”
Alexander squeaked, then closed his hands over his mouth. His voice would not behave.
“Damnit, Alex, I don’t care what you sound like. Just talk to me!”
When his body found the path to speech, Alex spoke with the voice of Hope Towers. “Why else would she come here?”
Robbie hugged the man and softly kissed his ear. “Because we’re talented. And she wants to work with us.” Robbie breathed deeply along with Alexander, and slowly led his partner back into the rhythm of their quiet life. “Better?”
Alexander nodded. His voice fell into its usual register. “If I get scared, I’m running.”
Robbie helped him up from the floor. They only had a week to ready their studio for pop-culture royalty. “When are you ever not running?”
The body guards arrived first. Robbie greeted the Emperor-built mech suits and offered them a drink, unsure if human or program lay behind their blank steel faces. After them came agents, lawyers, friends, and social media trendsetters.
Robbie strained the extremes of his entertaining prowess to stem the tide of bodies. He served drinks in the kitchenette, set chairs in sound booths, set a cheese tray in the alley and begged the overflow of bodies to stay outside. The body-guards graciously stood sentry at the doors, as their bulk would not allow space for anyone else in the studio.
Alexander hid inside their smallest sound booth and prayed to be absorbed by the walls.
The band arrived late in an ice blue Chevy van with The Tower’s symbol spray painted on the passenger door. A stream of musicians piled out and Hope climbed down last, holding a battered bass-guitar.
“She can’t need the guards,” muttered Alexander to Robbie when the man finally coaxed him out of hiding. “She must have superpowers.”
Hope Towers gave him a smile. She held out her hand, and Alexander practiced his breathing before he dared to shake it. “I know this must be a lot for you, but my mom is very protective.” She winked, but the smile hitched. “She doesn’t want any more arch rivals kidnapping me. I promise I’m way more annoyed about it than you are.”
She breezed past him, and a lawyer filled her place with a clip board and binding language that forbade Alexander from discussing Hope’s super-powers.
Hope settled behind the microphone in the sound booth, vogued at the glass, and then hummed a few tuneless notes while the band set up behind her.
Alexander flipped on the intercom. “It will be difficult for me to focus with all this noise.”
Hope nodded and spoke into the mic. “Me too.” To the entourage, she gestured. “All non-essentials, please clear the room.”
The crowd of bodies dispersed, leaving Alexander and Robbie in the sudden vacuum. A teenager lounged on their sofa, her eyes obscured by heavy bangs as she scrolled through a phone. Her hair was dyed a black so deep it seemed to pull the light from the room.
“And you’re essential?” asked Robbie.
“Yop,” she affirmed around a snap of her bubblegum.
“That’s Cindi,” said Hope. “My bestie. I don’t do anything without her.”
The band tuned their instruments. Hope sung a few bars to warm up. Her voice was unremarkable. She shifted behind the mic.
“We need a sound.”
Alexander realized too late that she was talking to him. “That’s what the band is for.”
Hope shook her head. “We’re gritty, but I want to elevate the grit. Something cosmic, but organic.”
Cindi dropped her phone to add “Naturally spacey,” with a lazy smile. Hope saluted her from the other side of the glass.
Alexander nodded and stoically noted their nonsense as he did with all his other bands. “Why don’t you lay down some tracks before we search too deep for sound?”
Hope cocked finger guns and Alexander flinched. “Smart man. I knew EachPeach would have the answers.”
They worked a week on sugar-pop with something wicked buried inside it. The choruses were nonsense with a few lines of teenage love thrown in, but the verses spoke of abandonment, of solitary cells and half-living ghosts. Hope once spent two months in a deprivation tank while Rathsura the Ruthless ransomed her back to her mother’s super team.
Alexander never had to ask about Hope’s past. A hundred fan pages recalled her history.
Two weeks into recording, Hope dismissed her band, and began to work alone in the sound booth. The bodyguards remained outside, ever vigilant, but the entourage waned.
After three weeks, Alexander was alone with Hope. Cindi didn’t count. Cindi was always on her cell phone, blending into the furniture.
Hope plucked at her bass, set it down, and flicked the intercom on.
“I want you to sing on my album.”
Alexander leaned over the mic and steadied his nerves. “No.”
“I know you sing,” said Hope. “I talked to the guitarist from Yaquina Headlight. They said you were like a one-man choir. I want you to sing with me.”
Cindi put her phone down. “I heard you humming in the kitchenette, my dude. You’ve got the sound.”
Alexander shook his head, but his mind was already on the music. Hope’s voice was low and pretty and it carried strong through the steady guitar, but she could use a sharp falsetto to set it off. His throat shifted to hook into her music.
“Come on, Alex. I know you want to sing.”
Hope’s sound followed Alexander home. He sang Hope’s choruses while making dinner and directed her orchestra with a paring knife.
“I knew this would be good for us,” said Robbie
“Hm?” Alexander swallowed. “The money is good. Nice to have all my attention on one thing.” Hope’s money was infinite. She had their studio to herself until the record was finished.
“And Hope is lovely.”
“Good kid,” Alexander agreed. “Surprisingly humble.”
Robbie rolled his eyes. “To you. She likes you. She directs the rest of us like a five-star general.”
Alexander protested, but Robbie stopped him.
“I never said she was mean. It’s just odd how easy it is to fall in line. Must be all those space battles she’s been a part of.”
Alexander froze. He set his fork down and excused himself.
“That wasn’t an attack,” shouted Robbie.
It wasn’t murder. Manslaughter, second degree. And Alexander was barely an accomplice. He was the bait. It was Amphibiandroid who killed him.
Alexander hadn’t talked to the Cold Blooded Chaos Society since The Hierophant’s death. He never knew Raptorella’s real name, but he looked up Amphibiandroid at a public library three counties away. Kevin Andrews perished two years ago when a police helicopter fell through his living room ceiling. The Tower, who was in an aerial battle with Kragnor the Undaunted, saved the pilot, but she was not fast enough to catch the helicopter.
No report of Kevin’s death mentioned his connection to the Cold Blooded Chaos Society.
“She doesn’t know,” said Alexander, as much to himself as to Robbie. Hope was not her mother.
The Tower was always saving the world and had little time for her daughter. Hope was raised at Protectorate Central, guarded by a three-hundred-year-old shape-shifting alien from Andromeda. The Hermit was strong like Hope’s mother, genius like her father, but was judged “unsettling” by the majority of the Protectorate’s focus groups. Hope could not have inherited any grudges from her alien au pair.
“Can I ask you something personal?” asked Alexander. They were a month into recording, and Hope was endlessly tweaking the tracks.
Hope frowned and took off the headphones. Alexander repeated the question. She glanced to Cindi and the girl crunched her hand in a small ‘ta-ta’ before leaving them alone.
“About your super-power. You can control people. They just do what you want.”
“That’s not a question, Alex.”
“Is that your power?”
“It’s not a super power. Not like yours.”
His vocal chords flexed into shapes outside his control. He bit his tongue.
“I can’t shapeshift, or fly, or snatch bullets out of the air like my mother. Not that she didn’t try to teach me … ”
Alexander fought his body, forced his words out through gravel and fear. “Are you here to kill me?” he asked.
“I’m here to make a record,” said Hope. She pulled out her phone, typed with her thumbs, and Cindi reappeared in the door. “My mother is the one with the grudge.”
Alexander scanned the teenager in the doorway. Her eyes were still obscured by heavy black hair, an ironic Hawaiian shirt tucked into short pink shorts. Was there a waver to her outline? A hint of Emperor-tech hiding The Tower’s true form?
“Dude,” said Cindi. “Are we gonna finish this album or what?”
Hope broke into giggles behind Alexander, and the man fell into his rolling chair. His heart just started beating again.
Raptorella was dead. Official news outlets called her Adrianna Gatz, a thirty-six year old woman who bore a striking resemblance to the notorious leader of the Cold Blooded Chaos Society. The gossip rags called it Cold Blooded Comeuppance, and plastered her face at the top of their pages. The infamous Raptorella hadn’t even bothered to hide her scales.
She had been working with at-risk supers in New Mexico. She had put on weight, done her makeup differently, but she never hid her scales because her students needed to love their own anomalies. She lived a quiet life, turned down promotions; she did her best work at ground level, anyway. And last week, The Tower threw Dreadnought Jones’ one-ton mech suit through the windshield of Adrianna Gatz’ Kia Rio. Dreadnought Jones would have leveled half of the state university had The Tower not taken him down. Of course, any civilian fatalities are deeply tragic. No further questions.
Alexander began packing his bags the moment he heard the news.
Robbie protested. He put his partner’s clothes back in their closet, and Alexander yelled in Robbie’s voice. “You knew this might happen. I never lied about who I was! Not with you.”
“Stop that,” shouted Robbie over his own voice. “You don’t need to do this!”
“Come with me.”
Alexander fumbled with the coat hangers. He ripped his shirts from them and threw them into the suitcase. “Argentina! Atlantis! I don’t know, Robbie, but I can’t stay here.”
The doorbell rang, and Alexander’s face went white.
Hope was at the door. Cindi stood just behind her.
“How did you find us?” asked Robbie.
“Cindi Googles deep,” said Hope.
Cindi flashed a V for victory without looking up from her phone.
“You aren’t leaving,” begged Hope. “Tell me you’re not going to drop the record. We’re close to a breakthrough!”
Alexander’s muscles seized and contracted, shaping a voice for him that he did not want. He stammered, and sounded like her mother, and shut his mouth.
“How did you know we were packing?” Robbie asked.
“I hacked your phones,” said Cindi. “The mics are always on.”
Robbie started to close the door. Hope stopped it with her foot.
“Please let me in?”
“No,” said Alexander. He spoke with The Tower’s voice.
Hope blanched. “You won’t be safe if you run.”
Robbie lost his composure. He flexed his shoulders, made himself big in the doorway. He was strong, human strong, and it was enough to push Hope back and slam the door.
To Alexander, he gestured out the balcony. The man could easily cross from their apartment into the next one, and the neighbor might let him hide. Robbie could stall the girls.
The doorknob jumped underneath his hands, then was ripped from the door. Cindi handed it back to him, the metal crumpled around her fingers like tinfoil. She shrugged. “Sorry.”
“You’re safer with me,” said Hope. She glared at Robbie. “I wasn’t threatening you! I thought we were friends!”
“You’re clients,” said Robbie, but Hope wasn’t listening.
“My mom knows who you are, but she’s not going to drop a satellite on your studio if she thinks I’m there with you. She’s not a monster.”
“She’d risk killing everyone on the block to get to me,” said Alexander. “I think she is.”
“You killed the only person she ever loved.”
Cindi put her hand on Hope’s shoulder, and Hope’s fingers entwined with hers. She almost hid the tears wavering in her eyes. Alexander almost missed the “only” in her mother’s love. He did not know what to say.
“It was an accident. I never thought your dad would get hurt … ”
Cindi gently squeezed Hope’s hand, and the girls left through the wreckage of his door.
“Do what you want. I’ll get my recordings off your equipment tomorrow.”
Hope was at the elevator when Cindi ran back to the apartment. She tried to give Robbie a scrap of paper, then set it on their table when neither man would look at her.
“My contact info,” she said. “Bill me for the door, okay?”
Alexander nodded, and Cindi sprinted for the stairs.
Alexander took a different route to work, disguised in a false beard and pink linin trousers. He took an Uber to the north side of the city, bought one coffee, then took a different Uber on the back roads to EachPeach Studio. He arrived at ten o’clock, looking like an indie musician rolling in when inspiration struck. He wanted to abandon the studio. He wanted to get on a cruise ship to Alaska and find a new life hucking fish on a pier. Was that a job? Was his back too old for that job?
The studio was dark, the front door locked. He went to punch in his alarm code, and found the consul torn from the wall.
Gold boots crunched over broken glass from the back windows. The iron bars that had protected them were twisted in The Tower’s hands. She folded them, working the metal like a paperclip. Alexander dropped his keys and stumbled back for the door.
“Stop,” said the Tower.
His feet were anchored. The Tower’s voice could evacuate cities and clip villainous monologues in half.
A grim smile pulled at The Tower’s thin lips. She pushed her platinum hair back from her face and cracked her neck as if his annihilation would require effort. “Are you going to beg?” she asked.
Tears streamed from his eyes. Alexander shook his head.
“Speak!” she barked. “Tell me how you didn’t mean it! Tell me my husband’s death was an accident. That his life meant nothing to you!”
His throat rippled, growing new chords, lengthening some muscles, shortening others. It hurt; it pressed on his trachea, shortened his breath. But he could not remain silent. Alexander wiped the tears and snot from his face and when he spoke, The Tower heard the voices of her family. Of Hope, and of The Hierophant. “It meant everything to me. It ruined me.”
“Liar!” she screamed. She flew at him with a fist that could obliterate asteroids, but death did not come. A streak of black struck her from the side, and the Tower crashed through the wall to land in the drum kit. The black, so deep that it drank in all the light near it, found arms and legs and an almost human form as The Hermit restrained The Tower from behind. Two haunting pinpricks of star-white light focused on Alexander. A mouth slashed the Vantablack face into a frown.
“Please don’t fight,” said The Hermit.
The Hermit grinned, light pouring through the place where her teeth should be as The Tower struggled in her grasp. “Yop.”
“You’re abetting a murderer,” said the Tower.
“Mom!” Hope stepped out of the closet holding Cindi’s phone, camera pointed forward. “You were going to kill him.”
“I was bringing him in.”
“Everybody saw the punch.” Hope gestured up to the corners of the room and turned the phone around. The video was streaming on all of Hope’s channels. Almost ten million people were watching. “Alex has all the powers of a Casio keyboard. That punch would have killed him!”
The Tower lurched against The Hermit’s arms. “He’s a career criminal.”
The massive alien cinched her arms tighter. “We don’t decide that, Tower. That’s what your courts are for.”
Hope brought the camera closer to her face, held it steady as she crossed to Alexander. He flinched when she wrapped her arm around him, but she ignored it and kissed his cheek.
“This ‘criminal’ helped me create the most phenomenal record ever seen on the face of this planet, so I don’t know how much time he’s had for a career in crime. Obviously, that’s for the courts to decide. But if you want to make your voice heard regarding my new album, you’ll find the link below in three, two, “
She shut off the camera on “one,” then slipped away from Alexander’s side.
“You’re putting me in jail for a record promotion?” The Tower’s disgust was palpable.
Hope looked pained. “Mom, you were killing people. That’s why you’re going to jail. And you’re super famous. You’ll be out of there in no time.”
“And me?” asked Alexander. His voice had settled into ragged amalgam between Robbie and The Hierophant.
“I like you, Alex. This is going to make you so, so famous. As soon as you’re out of jail, everyone will want to record at EachPeach.”
The Tower was turned over to The Emperor’s androids. News helicopters already hovered over the scene. Hope left in a limo. She was due for a release party in San Francisco that spanned three city blocks. And Alexander was guided into the back of a police car for his role in the death of The Hierophant.
Cindi climbed into the seat next to him, wearing her false human shape. He could see now that the shimmering hair was more her than the face underneath. Pricks of light dotted the shifting expanse of black like a miniature solar system. She passed her phone to him and woke him from admiration.
“I let Robbie know you’ll be spending the night in jail, but you’ll post bail tomorrow.”
“She used all of this as a record promo.”
Cindi shrugged. “Hope may be opportunistic, but she isn’t evil. Not with the right influences. And with all the followers that girl has, the right influence could really change the world for the better.”
Robbie’s text’s ran out the screen on Cindi’s phone. He was worried. He was confused. He wanted to be there. Alexander typed back. “Don’t worry. I’m fine,” then passed the phone back to Cindi.
“I got a fortress of solitude on the moon if you and Robbie wanna get away after all this blows over. Human friendly. Oxygen and everything.”
Alexander sank down in the seat. It was stiff and cramped, and it led to a reckoning for past villainies. But for the first time in forever, he wasn’t running. He sighed, then held out his hand to make a deal.
“Solitude sounds great. I’ll bring Robbie, and you bring Hope.”
Megan Lee Beals lives in Tacoma Washington with her husband and young cat. When not writing, she is knitting, or sewing, or acquiring new hobbies at an unsustainable rate. You can find more of her stories at meganleebeals.com.