(Warning: contains strong language and depictions of physical violence.)
The show starts when time stops. The children stare at my purple costume, frozen in their places as I walk around. I’m the only one moving in the entire birthday party; everything and everyone else is as static as a picture. I run across the stage, and time resumes its flow when I reach the other side.
I turn to the audience: they applaud and cheer in awe, their minds trying to understand the mechanics of my tricks. I present myself, naturally, as a mere magician. Not one of them needs to know that I can manipulate time.
“Are you ready?”
The crowd cheers and I deliver what they all wait for. I dash toward the center of the stage and leap.
As if reality itself were but an orchestra under my command, I decelerate time with a slight gesture. I dance in the air like a pretentious Neil Armstrong, like a swimmer in the depths of an invisible ocean. And when I land on the stage and resume time, they all go batshit — like they usually do.
Later that night, the phone rings. It’s the mayor. For the record, I never spoke to him in my life, nor do I know how the hell he got my number. When he states he wants to talk about a serious matter, I react as every person would:
“Go fuck yourself.”
I touch the screen, end the call, and try to get myself some sleep.
My cell phone vibrates again. I sigh and pick it up — the mayor wants to know why I have told him to fuck himself.
“What do you want?”
“I’ve heard about you, Stephen.” That’s me, all right. “And I know you’re a metahuman.” And that’s the word they use for freaks like me.
“Yeah, so what?”
“I’m not here to ask you why you have dodged the draft after all these years, even if this could get you into jail.”
“Go fuck yourself.”
I touch the screen again and throw the cell phone away. I go back to bed and keep struggling to find some sleep.
The cell phone, of course, vibrates again, again, and again. I look at the clock beside my bed and hasten time — a few minutes feel like a blink. The cell phone keeps on vibrating.
The mayor starts as soon as I pick it up: “Stephen, I already got that talks about morality won’t bend you. But how about I get you arrested after failing to protect your country?”
“You can’t be calling this draft that turns metahumans into walking nuclear warheads a ‘protection.’”
“Call it what you will. Your sentence will be the same.”
I sigh, look at the alarm clock, roll my eyes. Oh, man.
“What is it, then? And why now?”
“Turn on your TV.”
“Who has a TV nowadays?”
Now it is his turn to sigh. “We have a hostage situation we can’t quite deal with.”
“I think they call it karma.”
“What do I have to do to make you cooperate?”
“You should have asked that yourself after sending metahumans to fight in a war.”
“Look, I sent no one; the president did. I don’t make the rules — I abide by them. And I’m just asking you to do the same thing. Now, I need your powers to solve that situation. Fast. Get that done, and I’ll forget about the draft and even that you exist.”
I walk to the window and observe the night, the uncountable buildings rising to the cloudy sky. Somewhere in the distance, police vehicles paint hues of red and blue on the gray buildings.
“You’re going to a party this late? On a Wednesday?” In the rear-view mirror, the taxi driver looks at me, my bright purple costume with a “T” sewed on the top of my mask. “Who are you? Which hero should that be?”
“I’m not a hero,” I say.
“I know you aren’t. I mean, no offense, but look at you. Now, which hero are you going dressed as?”
“None. It’s just… just a costume.”
“All right. And how should I call you then?”
I hesitate. “Timeless.”
The taxi driver chuckles, pitying me. He shakes his head in disbelief.
“It’s my stage name, you know. I work at birthday parties.”
“Must be real fun,” he says, not meaning it.
“It is,” I say, not meaning it as well. I don’t tell him the specifics, of course: I can manipulate the flow of time, but I cannot reverse it. If I could travel back in time, I would be a billionaire day-trader.
He raises an eyebrow, still smiling. “But you aren’t a metahuman, are you? I mean, they all got sent to that country on the other side of the world. Captain Lance, Drifter, Nightshade.” He turns left and looks again at me, now with some distress in his eyes. “I doubt they’re ever coming back. The only metahumans left around are those lunatics.”
I say nothing, and he keeps on driving.
At the end of the street, he sees many police vehicles in front of a gigantic building, a legion of officers blocking the road. At the very top of the skyscraper, spotlights illuminate around a dozen human silhouettes standing on the edge, ready to jump. A helicopter surveys the area, its hum echoing in the night.
The driver stops. “Wait. You’re not going there, are you?”
When the driver looks again in the rear-view mirror, he doesn’t find me there — only a twenty-dollar bill and a calling card.
When the police officers first see me, their immediate reaction is to crack up laughing and call me a freak. That’s kind of the same reaction the children have. They call the mayor, who confirms that the guy in the weird costume is the key to this operation. And no, that’s no joke.
When they realize I might be serious about it, I start doing my part in this straightforward plan. I alter time in an area large enough to fit two police officers and me. I motion for them to follow me, and we enter the building through the front door. Mindweaver’s thugs — mind-controlled security personnel — don’t have time to react as we dash upstairs, for they seem frozen in place.
As we make our way to the roof, I cannot let go of what the mayor told me. I’m a coward, all right. Even if I don’t see the point of this war, I recall the former heroes who now lie in a shallow grave. Heroes who are braver than me, more generous than me, and who see their powers as tools for humanity — and not as cheap tricks to make some dough on the side.
Heroes who are, unlike me, heroes.
I attempt to shake these thoughts as we reach the door to the rooftop, and my abilities falter. Superpowers are, for metahumans, quite like muscles: you can work out and improve them, but at some point, exhaustion kicks in. And when we see Mindweaver before us, with the mind-controlled hostages one inch away from falling from the building, I’m already on the verge of exhaustion.
Time resumes, and the supervillain takes an involuntary step back. “What’s this? One step further and I’ll make them fly!”
I try to say something clever. Something heroic. “Uh… look, buddy, I think we can… sort out this little mess, all right? Without violence and all?”
The officers by my side grasp their pistols with trembling hands; some hostages take an involuntary step toward their death.
“How did you come up here?” The approaching helicopter muffles Mindweaver’s voice.
“Through the front door?”
He squints. “I don’t understand it. I’ve never seen you. Who… who the hell are you?”
I scratch my chin and adjust my mask. “Uh… they call me Timeless.”
“Who calls you Timeless?”
“Children, I guess. And their parents.”
When I realize what Mindweaver was doing during all these seconds, it is almost too late. He was buying himself time. The officer to my right now points his pistol at my head, his stare void as a puppet’s.
I hear a gunshot.
Mindweaver loses balance and cries as a bullet catches his chest; the mind-controlled officer drops his weapon. I turn around, and the officer who shot him still has his pistol pointed at the villain.
This is bad, but still quite okay. What is really, really bad is that every hostage — now free of Mindweaver’s influence — dives into the urban abyss.
I don’t reminisce about not being a hero. Hell, I’m just a broke loser with overdue rent and a guilty conscience. Even then, I try to ignore my fatigue, stop time around me, and dash toward the edge of the rooftop.
And when I see myself contemplating my death, I don’t think twice.
I’m watching TV as the mayor calls me. The screen portrays the moments when I hastened my fall to reach the ground before the hostages, and then I paused time so I could land in safety. Then, I slowed time so I could catch every one of them. After that, I collapsed; the mayor ordered that no one remove my mask as an ambulance brought me to the hospital.
“You never said thanks,” he says as I pick up.
“Go fuck yourself.”
He chuckles. “I’m just calling you to say I’m keeping my word. There’s still no sign this war will end and that the president will order the return of the metahumans back to the United States, but until then… we’ll have to learn to live without heroes.”
A long, inconvenient pause; he assumes I’m commenting on that, but I’m not.
“So, I just wanted to say that, in the name of every person you saved and their families, you did a lot for this city. Mindweaver is recovering well and soon will be transferred to a maximum-security prison. The security officers he mind-controlled into thugs are all safe as well.” He sighs. “And as promised, I’ll forget that you exist. Thank you for your service, Stephen.”
Before he hangs up, he says one more thing — one that has kept lingering in my mind since I put the cell phone away.
“You’re a hero.”
I think about going to the fridge and grabbing myself a beer, but I remember the fridge is empty. All the money I got from that birthday party went to the rent. I drag myself to my bedroom and walk to the window — the same place where the mayor first called me a few nights ago.
Looking down at the street, I witness a robbery. Two individuals with balaclavas covering their faces threaten a young couple by a dark alley. One criminal takes a revolver from inside his jacket and points it at the victims.
I relive that moment on the top of the building.
I don’t think twice.