I slam the button on my stopwatch, and the woman stops mid-step, the green numbers above her head freezing at 0:04.
Only four seconds left in this woman’s life, plus the twenty minutes of suspended time on my watch, which is already counting down.
Usually, saving lives is pretty simple for me, because I always have enough real time: if I see a green Deadline with only a few hours above a person’s head, I can follow them, scout out their surroundings. By the point their Deadline reaches its last couple seconds, I can guess exactly what will happen to them, and prevent them from wandering into traffic or putting a ridiculously large piece of steak in their mouth. And if I really need it, I can make use of my handy stopwatch, which allows me to freeze time for up to twenty minutes once every day.
With only four seconds left of real time, I might need to use the full twenty minutes of suspended time to guess how she’ll die. And the most frustrating thing? The woman appears as safe as can be. There are no cars coming toward us on this street, so there’s no way she’ll die in a car crash. She looks healthy (slim, tall, dark hair) so she won’t die from illness, unless she’s about to have an aneurysm. Not that I can do anything about an aneurysm. I’ve learned that the tragic way.
I check my stopwatch: Nineteen minutes left.
I swear with the full force of my lungs. I’ve never seen a situation like this. I’ve heard from somewhere that 1.8 humans die each second, but I’d never thought I would actually encounter one right at the end. Until now the shortest time I’ve ever found on someone’s Deadline was thirty minutes for a bank teller. That was plenty of time to sip free stale coffee and wait for the bank robber to arrive.
I guess I would see plenty of low Deadlines if I went to a hospital or elderly care home, which is also why I avoid those places. No sense in torturing myself visiting sweet, bald children who won’t even see the next episode of their favorite show.
I look at the air above the woman, but there’s nothing there, no floating piano ready to come unstuck and fall as soon as I run out of time. What danger could this woman possibly be in? With only seventeen minutes left, I have to think fast. I curse again, glance around the street, see about fifty other people frozen on the sidewalk. None of them have a Deadline anywhere close to four seconds, in fact, I can’t see any time lower than eight months. This means I can rule out a mass casualty like an earthquake or bomb.
Side note: a friend of mine (there are four others of my species who can see Deadlines and who all wear stopwatches) once saw a crowd of humans waiting at an airport gate whose Deadlines were all exactly forty-two minutes and thirty seconds. Gods above, that must have terrifying for him. Fortunately, he was able to puncture the tires of the airplane before they boarded. After he resumed time, the flight was canceled, and their Deadlines all updated to their individual, normal lifespans. That’s another thing: Deadlines don’t update while time is suspended. So even if I figure out a cause, I won’t know for sure if I’ve saved this woman until it’s too late to try another attempt.
Think! Maybe she’s suicidal? About to pull a gun on herself? I wish I can open her black purse or leather jacket to search her for weapons, but in suspended time, matter becomes hyper-fragile. So if I touch her, I might break open her rib cage, ironically guaranteeing her death.
Within only fifteen minutes left, I get as close to this woman as I can, studying every inch of her. I can’t see where she is looking, because of black and gold sunglasses that I can’t touch without shattering. But I can see tear streaks coming out from behind her glasses; clearly she was distressed about something when I suspended time. Is she in pain? Does she somehow sense her death is imminent? If only I had longer than four seconds to ask her…
Her hair, jacket, skirt, and high-heeled boots all look average. As an average, healthy, white female human in her mid-twenties, how is she mostly likely to die? Accidental injury, suicide, cancer… I had memorized the top ten causes of death for every race, age group, and profession.
And then I see it: a black pea-sized object in the crock of her ear. When I notice the earpiece, the other clues jump out at me like popcorn: the bulge of her holster by her left hip, the shape of another weapon in her black leather boot. A spy, or some secret agent, scanning the crowd behind her expensive sunglasses.
Leading cause of white female humans who also happen to be spies? Assassination.
And then my dilemma begins: should I prevent her death?
I myself try to save as many human lives as possible, but I don’t want to abuse my powers by playing favorites in human wars. Soldiers kill each other, countries spy on each other, and as long as they’re not targeting innocent civilians or bystanders, I try to let humans be humans.
Does it pain me to allow humans to die? Yes, it torments me! Worse than the kiddy cancer ward. If there’s anything I hate more than being unable to save a human, it’s my heart-wrenching commitment to stay neutral. Because this secret agent woman might not be a good guy; she might be planning some terrorist attack next week, and if I prevent a law officer from killing her today, I might condemn hell knows how many innocent people tomorrow. So I trust police officers and soldiers to do their job. Even though it hurts.
Now, the other four of my species each have different views about how to use our powers. One of the others always attempts to save whomever he sees in danger, no exceptions. He has suspended time just to sabotage the executions of hardened criminals, knowing he won’t be able to use his stopwatch for anyone until the next day. I respect his utter commitment to human life, but I think it’s a bit excessive.
Another one of us never gets involved, never touches his stopwatch for any reason. Lives a normal life, pretends to be a regular human, ignoring the Deadlines of everyone he meets, even his family. He even has a human wife, who, after a couple decades, will probably start to wonder why he never ages.
And the other is known for going out of his way to cause mayhem: suspending time to vandalize cars, break open doors to locked banks. Once, a month ago, I saved a train full of people after he destroyed the tracks in front of it. It was pure luck I happened to be there that same day, and the only way I knew it was him was because the damage to the tracks had appeared silently and instantaneously. You can’t do that much instantaneous, silent damage without a stopwatch like ours. I was furious with him, so angry I might have killed him, except our species isn’t physically able to kill other.
And the fifth one of our species died just last week. Yeah, even though we can’t kill each other, and we don’t age and don’t have Deadlines of our own, we can die from external harm. He was the same one who once saved the passengers about to board the airplane. He was killed while trying to save American soldiers from a suicide bomber in what the humans call the Middle-East. I didn’t find out until I saw it on the humans’ news and recognized his face. Everyone else watching the news probably assumed he was human; we don’t look any different from humans. But there he was, lying next to the bodies he was unable to save. I can only imagine his fear when he saw everyone’s Deadlines counting down to the same exact moment.
But I have to get to the bottom of this woman’s identity before I decide whether to save her or remain neutral. She is not eating food, so she’s not in danger of poison. At this point, the most likely cause of her death will be a sniper shot. If she’s only four seconds from dying, the gun must already be aimed.
I have thirteen minutes left, and I know how the woman is going to die, but not the direction the sniper is aiming from. I look at the buildings on the sides of the street. Thankfully this city doesn’t have buildings that tall, but I still won’t have time to search every room with an open window.
Could there be a laser? Even when time stops, light photons continue to move, otherwise I’d be completely in dark. And as I look at her face again, I see it: a pale red dot, sitting on her cheek. I stand front of it, placing my face right in the path of the laser, blinking as the flash of red shines in my eye. My eye will heal in a day; a fair trade for knowing the exact window where the sniper is aiming from.
Only eleven minutes left. I have to be exactly in the same position when time resumes as when I suspended it, otherwise I’ll die. So I run fast. Fortunately the hotel door is open, or I would have to break it. I run up four flights of stairs (elevators don’t work in suspended time) and I count the rooms until I arrive at the one whose window is seven from the left.
I walk through the door, which crumbles. It’s not the first time I’ve taken advantage of hyper-fragile matter in suspended time, and I’m more than happy to pay damages to the hotel when this is over.
The sniper is at the window, dressed in plain clothes, with a gun case and ammunition on the bed. With only eight minutes left, I approach him. He is Caucasian, in his thirties, and his Deadline is about four years. I’ve never seen the man’s face. He has a phone out, with an unknown number, and an ear piece. I have no idea who he is calling; I can only imagine him saying “I’ve got her,” as he prepares to loose a bullet into the street below.
I glance into his bag: hundred dollar bills, bound crudely in tape. He’s a hitman; I know the secret agents of this country don’t earn raw money like that. On the bed is a folder; I don’t turn its pages yet for fear of damaging them, but I see a several photos sticking out, dated and with X’s on them.
They are civilians, and some are young children. There is no room for neutrality today, and I breath a sigh of relief, anger, and justice as I stick my fingers in his aimed rifle, crumbling apart the hyper-fragile barrel and scope. When time resumes, he’ll be startled, he’ll scream, probably think he’s gone insane. By then, I’ll be back down by the woman, so I’ll have to run all the way back up here for a good old-fashioned chase scene.
For good measure, I destroy his ammunition, his cash, and his folder of targets. As the papers are ripped to shreds, I see three things that startle me:
A photo of myself next to the photo of the woman. My photo is circled in red ink.
A handwritten note, whose signature I recognize. It’s same man of my species who once tried to derail that train.
A logo on the front of the folder of an eagle with a crown, holding a snake in its talons. I know I’ve seen it before.
But I have no time to dwell on these three things now; I have only three minutes left to be in position, and it took me that amount of time to get up here. After this is all over, after I save the woman and arrest the hitman in real time, I can do more research on that logo. Maybe even uncover something bigger than the hitman: a conspiracy, maybe involving the one of my species who is trying to have this poor woman killed.
I run out the room, down the stairs of the hotel. With forty seconds left, I skid into my original place, breathing hard. As I stand, catching my breath, and waiting for my stopwatch to dwindle to zero, I see a puddle of water directly below the woman who I have just saved. I can’t believe I didn’t notice it before: in the reflection of the puddle I can see slightly up her skirt. On her thigh is a tattoo of a crowned eagle, holding a snake.
I feel a chill come over me. Is this woman connected to the hitman? Do they know each other? If so, why would he be pointing a gun at her?
As my stopwatch approaches zero, I suddenly remember where I first saw that logo: the footage of my friend and the suicide bombing in the Middle-East; one of the legs in the pile of bodies had the same tattoo on the thigh. After I arrest the hitman, I’ll have to ask this woman what’s going on.
My stopwatch is about to hit zero; I am safely in position, and I look at the woman, waiting for her Deadline, still frozen at four seconds, to reset to whatever a normal spy’s life expectancy is.
As time resumes, the noise of the city starts, and people continue their walks, unaware they have been suspended for twenty minutes. Back in the hotel, the hitman is noticing and screaming at his destroyed rifle.
But the woman’s Deadline doesn’t update. It continues from four seconds to three. Her tears resume their roll down her cheeks.
I stare in shock, wondering how the sniper could possibly kill her after I had destroyed his gun. Perhaps there is more than one sniper, to safeguard from a possible counter attack? Or maybe her death will come from a completely different source?
Her Deadline switches from three seconds to two.
The woman jumps, puts her hand up to her earpiece as if someone had shouted in her ear, and starts running– at me. I try to back up, but her momentum knocks me to the ground, as she pulls out what looks like a metal avocado.
Her Deadline turns from two to one just as she pulls out the pin.