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Fred Warren works as a government contractor in eastern Kansas, which is a lot like being a superhero minus the special abilities and cool costume. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of print and online publications, including A Fly in Amber, Mindflights, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Brain Harvest, Kaleidotrope, and Allegory, and his first novel, The Muse, debuted in November 2009. You can find him online at

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It begins in Kansas, as I suppose these stories always do. Donna and I played in the back yard, while our parents sat in the living room drinking lemonade and talking about wheat prices, and farm equipment, and how best to keep the varmints out of the fields.

We didn’t care about any of that. We were half a world away, rescuing our planet from the latest incursion of evil villainy. The giant robot had just clocked me a good one, on the chin, and I lay prone, watching little stars and birdies circle my head as the mechanical monster clanked relentlessly onward, an impressive cluster of weapons spinning into firing position as it prepared to finish me off.

“Don’t be afraid, Titanic Man!” Donna shouted, swooping in from above. “I’ll save you!”

I shook off the glittering lightshow and struggled to my feet. “I don’t need saving. Girls can’t save boys, anyhow.”

She launched herself from the rope swing to a perfect two-point landing a few feet away. “Why not? If I was a superhero, I’d save anybody who needed it—especially you.”

I held the robot monster at bay as he slobbered all over my face. “Especially me? How come?”

“Because you’re my friend, and that’s what friends do. They save each other.”

“Whatever. Robo Dog of Doom is killing me here, if you haven’t noticed.”

Donna was always there—at the farm, in school, at church, around town. She was a part of my landscape, like the wind and sun and the wheat fields that surrounded us like a golden ocean. But when we turned thirteen, everything changed. The fever and convulsions took her one day at school, and I watched, numb, my stomach knotted, as they strapped her onto a gurney and loaded her into a brown-mottled military ambulance.

She cried out once, a thin, strangled sound. I thought she’d called my name, and I struggled against the principal’s grasp on my shoulders as the medics slammed the ambulance door shut and drove away.

Donna was one of the Empowered. One in five million. Their immune systems ran wild, shuffling their DNA. Sometimes it killed them. Sometimes it transformed them into a superhuman. It happened to animals, too, but they usually mutated into huge, grotesque varmints beyond the capabilities of conventional pest control, one reason the Empowered were handy to have around.

They were heroes, most of them. They rescued people and warded off disaster. Sometimes, though, the thrill of power would corrupt one of them, and we’d get a villain. The government scientists weeded out most of those before they caused trouble. The others they hunted down and sent to a special facility somewhere in the Mojave Desert. What happened after that was anyone’s guess. One of my friends said there were experiments, digging around inside the villains’ bodies to figure out what had made them Empowered, so heroes could be created at will.

For five years, I waited and worried about Donna, wondering if she’d survived, praying she hadn’t ended up a lab rat, dissected on some mad scientist’s slab. Life plodded on, bland and lifeless without her. Finally, at my high school graduation, Donna’s parents took the stage, eyes brimming, voices choked with relief and joy.

She was alive, and she was coming home.

Donna returned on a sun-drenched Fourth of July, fresh from post-transformation training. She was the stuff of every teenage boy’s dreams. She could fly, and she had enhanced senses and strength. Her perfect curves were accentuated by shimmering carbon nano-mesh armor that clung in all the right places and revealed much more than necessary. Marketing was a big part of the superhero gig, and the community wasn’t above providing a little fan service for their audience.

I felt dizzy. This was my buddy, the rowdy girl who helped me fight imaginary monsters in my backyard, who rode bikes with me, who called me after dinner to ask for help with her homework. I stared at her with a mixture of joy, fascination, confusion, and a couple of other emotions I didn’t want to think about as she stood on a rickety platform in the town square, thanking us for welcoming her home and explaining her new mission in life.

Her colors were red and white, and they called her Rockette. A little silver missile was emblazoned below her décolletage, and pinstriped flames adorned her thigh-high boots. A short cape, more decorative than practical, covered her shoulders. She carried a tranquilizer gun in a holster slung low on her right hip to, she said, “Rockette my enemies to sleep.” It was more corn pone for the masses, but she said the cartridges had enough punch to drop any varmint, big or small.

As she looked across the crowd, our eyes met. She paused her speech, her brow furrowed and head tilted slightly, then a glowing smile spread across her face, and she said, “I see someone I’ve wanted to talk with for a very long time. Please excuse us.”

Faster than I could react, she leapt from the platform, grabbed me around the waist, and vaulted into the air. We landed atop the school gymnasium as gently as a soap bubble floating to earth, my stomach lurching but my dignity intact. We talked for nearly an hour.

Her face was mature now, the familiar childish features perfected. Her skin was radiant, clear and smooth, framed by glossy auburn hair bobbed to her jawline. Her brilliant blue eyes were the ones I’d always known, but they never met mine precisely—she seemed preoccupied with some point on the horizon, just over my shoulder, as if she was seeing her future in the distance or scanning for a threat I couldn’t see or hear.

I wasn’t sure what to say at first—how do you talk to a girl who’s been gone for five years, then comes back a goddess? I tossed a few half-baked jokes about old chorus line dancers, and battle bikinis, and not forgetting about the little people. It was lame and awkward. She took it all in stride, her laughter a gentle, musical sound that set me at ease and brought all the old memories rushing back.

Far too soon, it was time for her to go. We strolled back to the square, hand-in-hand, like two ordinary teenagers, and as we parted, she gave me a platinum disc embossed with her rocket insignia, a tiny button at the center. “If you ever need saving,” she said, “just press the button, and I’ll be there, faster than you can imagine.”

“Girls can’t save boys, remember?”

She smiled, but her eyes were moist. “I remember, but it’s even less true now. Call me, and I will save you. I promise. That’s what friends do for each other.”

Donna—Rockette—walked away then, back to the plywood dais hung with patriotic bunting, a gaggle of adolescent boys, plus a few dirty old men who should have known better, drooling in her wake. As the crowd cheered and the high school band struck up a fanfare, I whispered, “And if you ever need me, I promise I’ll be there to save you.

She might have faltered in her stride, just for an instant. Maybe her Empowered hearing was sharp enough to make out the words, but it was probably my own wishful thinking. She climbed the stairs to the platform, closed her eyes for a moment, then shot heavenward, out of my life forever, a dwindling mote of brilliant red against the blue Kansas sky.

As I toiled through college, her fame grew. She joined the Devastators. They were a prominent and successful super-team, but I didn’t like them very much. There were three members besides Rockette. Bulldozer was 350 pounds of idiot in construction-zone-yellow tights and a bullet-shaped helmet. He broke things, and he was an arrogant jerk, but people never looked deeper than his chiseled physique. Blue Streak was a speedster, and a narcissist. Rumors about his sexual preference kept the tabloids buzzing, as if he could possibly love anyone, male or female, more than himself. He was as slick as his glittering turquoise unitard and never admitted anything, one way or the other. Finally, there was Calculus. He was an anomaly among superheroes, artificial intelligence housed in an android body, shining green armor giving him the look of a huge, iridescent beetle. Though the government was silent on the issue, most people figured he was created as a sop to the A.I. lobby in the World Congress—one more step toward their vision of equality between human and machine. He was an expert tactician with a supercomputer brain, and his calculating prowess bordered on clairvoyance.

Nothing happened that Calculus didn’t anticipate. It was the key to the Devastators’ success, since Bulldozer was stupid, Blue Streak was self-absorbed, and neither of them listened to anything Rockette had to say. She sent me a few e-mails about their adventures, until the government tightened the security protocols and blocked her messages. She never complained—she was loyal, a real team player. I wished for her sake she’d get fed up with her teammates one day and stand up for herself.

I wound up in the construction business, or, more precisely, the re-construction business. When superheroes fought either varmint monsters or supervillains, it made a super mess. Somebody had to clean things up and reassemble the broken pieces of civilization, and I became pretty good at it. I didn’t just repair broken buildings, I sculpted them with nanotechnology and resurrected them as works of art. I streamlined the whole process and hired the best work crews and civil engineers. There was good money in city restoration, and the job kept me as close to Rockette as any Normal could get. I set up my home office in New York City, a few blocks from the Devastators’ headquarters.

I even made it into a news feature once. They called me “Doctor Disaster,” like I was some kind of superhero myself. I laughed it off, but in my heart, I wished it was true. I wished I could live in her world, that I could match her blinding speed and dance with her among the clouds. Sometimes I’d glimpse her darting across the sky like a jet-powered ballerina in scarlet—curving, spinning, and pirouetting in maneuvers that would make a falcon dizzy.

I loved her.

Everybody loved her—even the press, who began to suggest the wrong hero might be leading the Devastators. She brought in the lion’s share of her team’s income from product endorsements, action figures, and public speaking engagements. They were lucky to have her. Bulldozer could barely put two words together, Blue Streak only wanted to talk about himself, and nobody could understand anything Calculus said. There was gossip of a secret romance between Bulldozer and Rockette, but I never believed it. She had far too much common sense to hook up with a knucklehead like that.

At least, I hoped she did.




 Promises by Fred Warren - 1 2
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