Running on Empty

Run. Faster.

When many people look back on their lives, they feel like their childhoods went by in the blink of an eye. Some people consider their early years to be the best of their entire life, and they’re often nostalgic about those carefree days. But other people have to grow up faster than most. Sometimes you just don’t have a choice. I’m just a teenager, but I already feel old and tired. It’s probably because I’m a kid superhero.

Luckily, I’m not alone. I’m actually on a team of teenage superheroes. We’re all new gods in a brave new world. Up until now, no one in society had powers like us. You can thank our parents for changing that. They were immoral scientists who’d experimented on their own children. That was years ago, and we were well into puberty now. A lot of our parents became super villains. Most of us kids are late-stage teenagers, hoping to battle for truth and justice as full grown men and women someday. Just not today though. Today it seemed like we were just trying to survive.

Despite all the constant stress of being a savior to humanity, I do my best to find enough time to be a kid. To just goof off or daydream. And it’s a good thing that my super power lets me sneak that kind of stuff in. The rest of the time it’s always work, work, work. Like, it’s not good enough to just save the world! You know? We’ve got to be team players too! Constantly training and developing our powers. Taking them to their limit. It’s hard enough being a teenager, but now we’ve got day jobs? A career? Jeez.

I know all about pressure though. It’s what fuels my super power. To take it to an even more basic level (the way my trainers and mentors always try to do with me), it’s my fear that causes me to be able to do what I do. Fear fuels my anxiety – and my nervousness then fuels this kind of inhuman power inside of me. It’s hard to describe the feeling, but it’s basically a form of pressure. How I use that incredible energy is what makes me a superhero. It’s kind of scary to hold that much force, because it seems to have a life of its own. Sometimes, I feel like I should be on fire, because of how much power builds up inside of me. Or a pile of ashes. But there I am. Still alive.

I think most of the other kids got a better superpower than I did. Really. Even if you’d consider that some of their powers weren’t as powerful as mine. I still think they got a better deal. At least they know what to do with their powers. They don’t have to feel the kind insecurity I do, or wonder how they’ll fit on the team. I’m still trying to find my place, but for most of them, it’s obvious. If you’re the boy with super strength, like Ballistic, you take on the heavy lifting for the team. See? Easy. You’ve got no doubt about how to react in any given situation. Just be strong. You aren’t plagued with doubts in critical situations. Like I am right now.

If you’re the girl with a telepathic brain, like Sagacious, you keep the team in communication with each other telepathically and read the minds of our enemies. Okay. No problem figuring out your place on the team there. 

Kids with lesser powers, like enhanced reflexes or good aim – they know their place on the team as well. For them, their role during a job is usually just decided from a grab bag of crowd control or cannon fodder, depending on the mission. They might have a bow and arrow or whatever, and it might not be the most glamorous of positions on the team, but at least those kids could be confident about what they were supposed to do. What did they have to worry about? 

Whenever I worry about what to do, I get even more anxious and the pressure inside of me builds even further. Sometimes, I worry that I’ll just find myself in an unending cycle of increasing pressure, causing me to pop someday.

The safety valve. The thing I have to let off steam. That’s what makes me special. Me. I’m super fast. At least that’s the simple way to describe what I do. I bet you’d think, “Oh, that’s easy. You’re the speedster on the team.” Okay. But, what does being super fast really mean? I’ve seen some of the cartoons of us, where my character runs in and says some clever catch phrase, and then quickly speeds to another place in the room (to say another clever line). It makes for good television, but it’s just not real. Like, people just imagine that my legs and arms move fast, but not my lips? Or my brain? Get real.

When I get my steam up, and start moving faster than fast, every molecule in my body is vibrating at a different energy potential than the normal flow of time. Because of this, I have a very hard time talking to other people or hearing them. Fuck communication during a mission! I’m a blur to them, and they’re nothing but boring statues to me. It’d be hard to explain the way I sound when I’m talking to someone while maxing out. It’s sort of like a birdsong. On the flip side, I’ve tried standing in front of someone while they’re talking to me, and there’s just nothing to interpret. Most missions, I just try to stand still and point a lot, or write shit down in order for them to understand me. You know? That sort of thing. It fucking sucks.

The majority of the jobs we do, I usually just kind of watch the slow motion of it all, and these are the times I find moments to kick back. Draw a mustache on a villain here, before they get punched by Ballistic, or put some banana peels down in front of a bank robber’s feet. That kind of thing. And it’s not like I’m lazy or anything, but sometimes there’s just not much I can do while shit is going down. I like to make a push here, or give a nudge there, so I can slowly watch the dominoes fall into place after that. That’s kind of my zone, so to speak. I’m never the star on the team.

I mean, it’s not like I have super strength or anything. I’m just fast; I don’t have multiple powers like some of my fellow heroes. So I can’t knock a 10 foot tall swamp creature off his feet. Sure, I can generate a lot of momentum because of my speed, but that doesn’t always account for much with some opponents. Especially, not when we’re up against super villains, or a Giant Brain Creature from outer space – like what we’re fighting right now. 

And it’s not like this ‘Brain Monster’ mission is any different than most jobs. It’s always the most dire of consequences. Isn’t it? Everyone is dying and the world is going to end, but here we are again to save it. Coming together as the world’s mightiest heroes. However, once again, I’m finding myself wondering what I should do and feeling useless: like always.

The reason I’m going super fast (more than normal) is because this mission is going really bad. I’m thinking some of my friends might be dead already. I just can’t find them. There’s supposed to be 13 of us, but I can only account for 8 and that number keeps getting smaller. At the pace I’m going, one second in real time is taking me about 5 to 10 minutes to experience, so I’ve got a lot of time to think about how bad this job is going.

Only problem is: I’m super busy too. Right now, I’m pulling Wellspring out of a pit of quicksand, and quickly moving on to trip the feet of a two-headed dragon going for Haze. So you see? It’s all these little things I do. A push here. A nudge there. I have to imagine that it adds up. That I’m a valued member of the team.

What’s troubling me the most on this mission, though, is how far apart the remaining members of my team are from each other. Nobody can help each other, but me. We’re all currently running up the side of a mountain, trying to reach this cosmic brain beast at the top, so we can send it back to wherever it came from or kill it. However, everyone is being held up at different elevations, separate from each other. They’re all fighting nightmares made real by this thing’s telepathic powers. Everyone is alone, and I fear my whole team is dying, whether it’s imagined or not.

I know it’s weird to contemplate about the nuances of teamwork at a time like this, but if I had to speak about my place on this team of young titans, I’d say that I mostly find myself relating to how a shepherd must feel (keeping their flock safe and collected), or more like an unappreciated single parent. On most missions, I’m the one zipping from one child prodigy to another, trying to add a push here, and a nudge there, in order to aid them in their battles. I work best that way. I’m like a facilitator.

What sucks right now, though, is that everyone is fighting their worst enemy, and they all need all the help they can get. Be that as it may, no one on the team has the capacity to help anyone else. They can’t even seem to help themselves. But, for some reason, I can. Maybe I’m too fast for the brain creature’s powers of illusion for it to attack me. Whenever I steam up and start moving fast, even my own teammate Sagacious can’t tell what I’m thinking, or speak to me telepathically either. I’m just too fast for her powers to grab hold of, and it’s probably the same for this beast’s mind too. Even though I don’t have my own nightmares to fight, I can see my friends’ private terrors made real for some reason. And, right now, my teammates are slowly failing in each of their private battles. At the speed I’m moving, I can watch my teammates fight for their lives like an epic movie played out at one tenth the speed. I hate this.

I’m running faster than I’ve ever gone up till now. Past any of the limits my trainers have warned me about. Where things can get wonky and I have to start worrying about the side effects of what my powers can do. I can’t help myself. It’s just that I’m scared. This wasn’t supposed to be the mission where we all died. We’ve never failed before, even in all our battles against our arch nemesis: Paragon. We always knew that there’d be a final battle someday with her, but today there was a monster we hadn’t planned on fighting. 

We just woke up, and before lunchtime there was this gigantic brain appearing in the sky, screaming like mad and projecting false nightmares all over the world. We’d responded immediately, attacking the creature ferociously. We couldn’t keep the alien creature from making landfall, but we’d pushed it away from major cities with our attacks. Just a couple hours ago, we flushed it out to this barren desert, and it fled to this mountain for some reason.

Things had started to go badly when Ballistic finally got his ire up. He always seemed to get stronger the angrier he got. I’m sure that’s how his powers work and, by now, he was pretty pissed. Ballistic is that kid with super strength that I mentioned. If anyone was the star of our superhero team, it was him. Super strength. Invulnerability. The ability to fly. Ballistic was the whole package. He seemed to be the only one who was making a difference, pounding away on the raging monster with his fists.

So while he was taking care of business, I was trying to take care of our team. If anything, that was my job. We’ve lost teammates before, but… God Dammit! I was not going to lose anyone today. However, this fucking headache of a creature was making the job of keeping my team alive all too difficult. Every mess I cleaned up. Every teammate I saved. They just needed saving again, a moment later. Just a lot of busy work, really. Here’s Wellspring back in the fucking quicksand! Seriously? I mean. I just took care of that a nanosecond ago.

I know I shouldn’t complain in a time like this, but I’ll admit to feeling like an underappreciated parent to this team all the time. Whenever there was a mess, they just expect me to clean it up, because I can do it faster than them. However, what most of the other kids on the team don’t realize is that I’m growing up faster than they are. All my speed has a price. The more I use it, the more I age. I’m already slightly older than them all now, because of all the missions where I had to speed up to help save the day. That’s why I try to enjoy my life sometimes, when other people are busy. I just want to have a moment to be a kid. You know? I’m losing it faster all the time.

But who cares about my problems? Right? It’s not always about me. Case in point: in all my rushing about and speeding around, I didn’t even notice that Sagacious had stopped at the foot of the mountain, and I hadn’t checked on her (once) this whole time. Throughout this last part of the mission, she hadn’t even set foot on the path that ran all the way to the summit. She was just sitting there. Quiet. There were no nightmares around her, but she held her head in her hands as if her head hurt. My other teammates were dying, but she was just sitting there. 

I ran down and just stood looking at her for a moment. I had to physically decide to slow down in order to talk to her. I hated to do it, but I needed her help. You’d think she’d be perfect for fighting a brain monster? But maybe she just needed a pep talk? I’d just slow down long enough to give her a nudge.

It’s hard coming down when I’m scared. My speed comes from an increase of complex energies in my body which increase my metabolism and also heighten my mental faculties. It’s so my brain can perceive the things around me at the same speed at which my body is moving. Right now, I had to find out what was wrong with Sagacious. I just had to stand still and… breathe….

This process always feels like forever to me, but when I finally came back to a reasonable zone of time-speed, I said, “What’s going on with you? Why aren’t you helping?” 

Despite my urgency, it seemed to take an eternity for Sagacious to lift her head. Wellspring’s head was going under the quicksand, Haze was down on her knees in surrender to the dragon. When Sagacious’ eyes finally met mine she said, “I want off this team.” The look on her face gave me no doubt she meant what she said. She wanted to quit our team?! I was stunned.

It was hard to describe the sensation that went through me after that. Deja vu? Not quite. Sure I’d been warned this day would come. Masquerade, an early outcast from our team of superheroes, had the power of precognition. Years ago, back when she was still on our team, I’d told her about my insecurities and wondered if I’d ever be a truly great hero, like our star: Ballistic. I’d wondered aloud with Masquerade if I’d ever be the one on the team who would save the day. All by myself. I remember how her eyes had then turned gray (when her powers tuned in), and Masquerade told me there’d come a day when a member of our team would want to quit the team. Not get kicked out or be discovered as a villain. No. They would want to quit, and it would lead to the end of the world. 

Masquerade told me I would be the only one who could keep the quitter from leaving the team. Only I would have the power to save the day. We were the 13! We were all fated to save the world from oblivion against the evil Paragon. But, today, it was all finally about me!

“You can’t leave.” I said the words as if I could voice the urgency I felt, since she couldn’t read my mind (my brain was still in hyper-awareness, so..). I had so many words I wanted to shout, but I had no idea if it would reach her. And I couldn’t read her mind either, I realized. I quickly recognized that I could keep talking, but if I really wanted to help her (and save the world) I would have to listen to her in order to find out what was wrong. So I asked, “Why do you want to quit? What’s going on with you?”

She replied immediately, “It just hurts so much.” Sagacious said it like she was surprised I’d even asked. “Each and everyone of you has so much pain. And it never stops!” There was an edge to her voice that hinted at madness.

She went from talking quietly to yelling in an instant. “You all get to be kids, but not me! All these things I know. All your secrets. All your pain! It takes a lot out of me Loco.” That’s what my teammates called me. Short for my superhero name: The Locomotive. “I feel so tired. I feel like an old woman. Not like a kid. It’s just not fair.”

And she continued to rail, “You all get to be alone in your pain. You think you only spread it through your words or your actions. But I always feel it, no matter if you talk about it or not. And now it’s worse than ever.” She ended her last words with a defiant finger pointed to the top of the mountain, where Ballistic continued to fight the incredible monster that was killing our friends. Here at the bottom of the mountain, I could feel the ripples of kinetic energy drum down every time Ballistic whaled on the brain beast, while the poor creature continued to wail in pain.

The thing is: I can relate to what Sagacious was saying. I understood knowing the hidden things in people’s minds, but I couldn’t imagine being able to feel it too. But I know their secrets. In slow motion, people have all these micro-expressions that reveal themselves to me. 

Those moments when people react, before they quickly change their face. Before they check the emotions they have inside. It’s too late. I’ve seen them already. Because of this, I knew very well that everyone has darkness inside them. But it looked like torture for her.

Seeming to intuit the thoughts I had, Sagacious continued to speak, “If one of you isn’t dying of their pain, then they’re using that pain to fight this monster. It’s finally just too much! He’s so angry and it’s the only way Ballistic can be strong. Without his anger, he won’t be able to fight. But I just can’t be around the pain and rage anymore.”

She finished by taking a long breath and saying, “I don’t want to be on this team anymore. I’m done saving the world. You all get to stay young and innocent. I don’t. I’m growing up faster than anyone on the team. I have to deal with things that you don’t. My innocence is lost.”

At that moment, I wished that she could read my mind. Make some connection between our brains so she would know how wrong she was. That, out of everyone, I knew what it was like to have your youth wasted before you even had a chance to enjoy it. That I was already aging faster than anyone else. At least physically.

I waited a few moments, to make sure she was done speaking before replying, “Could you make me feel what you feel?”

That got her attention! My words seemed to break her out of her semi-catatonic state. She looked at me strangely. “I can. But if you think it will help me. It won’t. It’s not like you’d be shouldering any burden for me. We’d both just feel all the pain I have.” 

I just nodded at her, “That’s okay. Sometimes, I think it would help me if someone just knew what it was like to have my power. That it would help, just to know that I wasn’t the only one who suffered from this gift.” I could see that I was drawing her back from her darkness. “I just want to feel it. Will you do that?”

She seemed troubled at first but eventually said, “I will.” And she did.

In that moment I felt EVERYTHING. At least everything within range. I felt the terror of  Wellspring as he choked on quicksand and slowly died in terror. I could feel the complete defeat of Haze, in her complete surrender to her monster. It was horrible and amazing at the same time. All their horrible fears and emotions. Every dark secret that even I had never guessed at. It was all so much, but what I held on to was that there were all my teammates’ thoughts and emotions on full display! And they were all still alive! All 13 of them.

And I saw, in every one of them, the potential for their super power. And it was all weirdly similar. All our powers came from our reaction to threats. Our powers were born out of our need to avoid further trauma to our systems. Fight or Flight. When I looked at Ballistic, I could see how his pain fueled his anger, and that this was the source of his power. I saw how central his rage was to him and how he lived his life because of it. He would always fight and never stop being mad. 

When I turned the lens on me, I saw how I just ran from my pain. If I just went faster. Worked harder. Fixed as many things as I could. Pushing here. Nudging there. I’d be able to outrun my fears. It was transformative to have this understanding. Having this power to compare myself to my teammates and see how they fueled their powers. I found peace with how I created and managed my own gift. Fight or flight. Right? I guess I’ve always been looking for the exit. Ready to run, the first chance I get. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just nature’s program.

Maybe it was a trick of self reflection, or a strange combination of our two powers, but when I looked at the brain monster with Sagacious’ ability, I could see a trail of energy that extended out into the universe. I could see how this awful creature had come here, and I knew that the key to saving my team (and the planet) was on this creature’s home world, lightyears away. We’d never defeat it on Earth. My father, one of those evil scientists who’d given us our powers, had somehow travelled to this alien’s planet. He was experimenting on these poor creatures the same way he had on us. Creating chaos. How my father had travelled so far? I had no idea.

However, I could see that if I went fast enough, I could run on that trail of energy which was left by the brain monster, along his journey to our planet. The creature had come here in hopes of ending the pain my father caused it. I knew I could make it all the way to this beast’s planet and stop my father. I could stop this brain monster’s torment. But my father and his devilish machines were lightyears away.

It was daunting to think about. It’s not like it would take me very long in real time. I could run so fast that I could make the distance seem like an instant to my team, but that distance would cost me years of my life. I’d have to sacrifice more than just my youth to keep Sagacious from losing her mind. To keep my team together. To fulfill Masquerade’s prophecy. To be the hero I always dreamed of being. It was scary. Really scary. Fight or flight. Right? Well… I’ll go with flight.

So I ran. It was easy. I knew how to run, and it was made even easier by the fact that I was leaving the whole world behind. Fuck it. I never went so fast before. I went so fast that I left my fear behind too. I let go of all anxiety and worry, and I just gave in to the job of putting one foot in front of the other. There was something freeing in the task at hand. I finally knew what I had to do to be the hero. And, man. Was I bookin’!

I passed quarks and dwarf stars. Gas giants and quasars. I flashed through infinity and, in my mad dash, I made it finite. My journey took an eternity stuffed into instant. It wasn’t a straight line that I made through the universe. I’ll admit that I took shortcuts and rested at waystations along the way, but it made no difference. The distance had to be traveled all the same. At least that was constant. And I quickly began to grow up. Reluctantly, at first, but then I began to embrace the change and soon found the joys of middle age. When it was all said and done, I stood before Sagacious with a killer dad-body and a receding hairline. I had lots of gray hair and worry lines around my eyes. But her torture was over. The look on her face made it all worth it.

The mission had ended in that moment too. Wellspring found himself thrashing around on a bit of sandy ground. Haze was running from a chipmunk. She was obviously still having a hard time believing reality yet. Ballistic was changed. He’d lost his super strength. Unfortunately, I had to take his anger from him to save the day. Nothing to be done about that, back on the brain-world. In my fight to destroy my father’s machines, and exile him from the once peaceful planet of the brains, I had to heal Ballistic’s pain which was somehow connected to this monster. But it wasn’t a monster anymore. The now gentle brain floated companionably next to Ballistic’s shoulder. The creature looked happy and was greatly reduced in size. As it hovered near Ballistic, I could see it quickly linking it’s thoughts and abilities to Ballistic, who looked a bit confused.

Our other team members were slowly coming back to themselves, but we were all still mostly in shock. I was clearly in my mid 40s now, and I was drawing a lot of stares. Ballistic was getting just as many. There was apparent worry on many faces that I looked at. Without Ballistic’s super strength, we’d be hard pressed to battle Paragon in our missions moving forward. But I was old enough now to realize there’s better ways of fighting than just with our fists. Ballistic would be fine. He’d be better than fine, actually. He has a new superpower to explore. And a new symbiotic relationship to explore. He’d never run out of support. He’s a star.

Me. I still had a team to take care of. Just like how we all had to step up to save the world, because no one else can do it, I was going to step up and lead this team.

I looked at Sagacious and said, “Not all of us get to be kids. Life just doesn’t always let us survive unless we grow up. It’d be nice if we had the privilege of a simple childhood, but we don’t get to decide these things. I may be older, but I’m not dying today, and neither is anyone else. Don’t leave this team. I’m sorry that we can’t keep our innocence, but does anyone really get to? Maybe we are more worn and weathered, but we’ve earned it.”

By the look on her face, I don’t think she understands what I’m talking about. Things were going to be different from now on. I plan to be the guiding light of this group of misfits. Help steer this ship from a position of perspective. I was ready for that responsibility now. I didn’t just age in a vacuum of space. I didn’t just run through all those mini-lightyears to the brain-planet. While I’d aged, I’d also met other beings like me, who exist at a higher frequencies, and I learned much from them. On top of that, I’d travelled lightyears from Earth and found that Paragon has already spread to many of the worlds out there. We thought she was confined to Earth like us, but she’s been growing her power every day. We’d have to be strong in order to defeat her. It wasn’t just about saving the world now. It was about the whole universe. But my team would be able to defeat her in the end. I had no doubts now.

In some ways, we were still just a bunch of kids, trying to be responsible with our powers but not knowing exactly how to go down that path. I mean. Who ever had powers like us before? Who’d be our role models now that we existed? Not our parents. Those cruel researches had proven they’d do anything to get more power? Sacrifice their own children to the unknown. We certainly couldn’t look to the politicians and government officials who just want to use us to try to solve the problems of society. Those officials feared us. Yes. But they were also willing to use us all the same. No. We were in new territory, and we had to figure out how to save the world by ourselves.

People regret that they didn’t enjoy their youth more. Those precious, early moments of life. Not everyone has the chance to make the most of it. But does anyone ever have enough time to grow up? Whenever the pressure is too much, I just try to remember that it’s all for the greater good. And whenever I’m in doubt: I just run.


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