Back when I took over the Army one of the biggest issues we had was with the invisible cars. The city infrastructure was evaporating and so you had all these broken crosswalk monitors and no one really inclined to fix them because they were a little busy trying to make sure, like, the fire department hadn’t quit yet. On top of that it was kind of even hard to tell which crosswalks were broken and which people were just suicidal, I mean, every day you’d see another person wander out into the road and BAM, invisible slam!, thrown back to the curb where they apparently belonged. Except now dead. And you never really knew if that was because they didn’t know the car was coming or because they did.
I got tired of watching it so I started assigning some of the younger waiters to the worst corners and arming them with these mail-order sensors that came on keychains. We had this map with all of the bad crosswalks plotted out and a schedule with ranks rotating in short shifts. It was the toughest kind of work, I mean nothing flashy and very little at all to do with the Smuggling, plus on top of that it was such a public operation. You’d see the posted waiters on the street corners just chainsmoking in kitchen whites, trying to look like this was just another five-hour break.
One day I was out for bagels and I saw one of the stationed waiters arguing with this older woman who wanted to cross the street. He was showing her his sensor, telling her if she just waited thirty more seconds she wouldn’t get turfed by a sports model with a ride so clean the driver never felt your body thumping by.
My waiter was young, uniformed to the diner corps. He was animated when he talked but the old woman was stern. She’d been through worse, and she hated his doubt. I strode up like I meant to cross as well, then took out my own sensor and whistled at the reading.
“Got a bruiser coming through here in a second,” I said.
“Let me see that,” said the old woman. I handed her the sensor and she looked at it over the rims of her glasses.
“I told you, ma’am–” said the waiter.
“Hush up,” she said.
The waiter hadn’t recognized me. A lot of them wouldn’t. We watched my sensor together. At just the right moment I licked my finger and held it to the air. The car went by as the sensor squealed and I nodded.
“Can’t even feel a breeze,” I said.
“Hmph,” she said, and then added something pejorative under her breath. The waiter laughed and I looked at him. His smile cooled as the woman crossed away from us.
“Ma’am,” said the waiter, all in a hush.
“At ease,” I said. I pulled a bagel from the paper bag and extended it to him.
“I have two hours left,” he said.
“Come on,” I said.
He took the bagel. It was poppy and still warm.
“The best,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Scott,” he said.
“Your first name?” I said.
“Did you want the last?” he asked.
“First is better,” I said. “You were right.”
“Do you…need anything?” he asked.
“You mean Transmit?” I said. “Nah. I was just out for a walk. Saw the woman giving you a hard time.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I guess I could have been better. People still make their own choices, though.”
“Sure,” I said. “We’re not stopping that.”
“People do what they want. If they want to keep walking,” he said. He looked me straight on like he was proving the point: “I would have stopped her, though. I mean, I know my job.”
“That’s good,” I said.
Scott took a bite of the bagel. They were the best. I wanted one myself but standing there with him also seemed pretty important. There were so many waiters at that point. The whole paper bag was warm in my arms.
“Can I ask–”
“Anything,” he said.
I didn’t like that very much, but this was getting important:
“You have family?” I asked.
Scott looked very closely at the poppy seeds. All over, the best. He was still looking at them while he talked.
“Dad is dead,” he said. “Mom’s in camp. Sister’s a cop-dealer. Have some other family, don’t know them very well. I love them, though. I even love my sister.”
“Hear from your Mom?” I said, knowing no.
“She wasn’t talking when they took her,” he said.
“That happened a lot,” I said.
“Only to her, to me,” he said, but so quietly–an accident, a Transmit. I looked away but we were both embarrassed.
“Shit,” he said, out loud. “I mean, sorry. Ma’am.”
“Forget it,” I said.
We were quiet a moment. A bus we could see rolled by. I wondered if I should just go, but I hated how broken the conversation felt.
“Can I ask you something?” said Scott.
“For a minute,” I said.
“Do you have family?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“That’s it?” he said.
“It’s a good bagel, right?” I said, firm. I wasn’t talking to him about my family.
“Yeah,” he said.
Across the street there was a teenager. She had a sensor of her own. Like twins, Scott and I pulled out our own sensors and glanced down. There was an SUV headed one way, two blocks out, and a sedan turning at the corner. I looked back up and the teenager was still staring at her sensor. This was the time to drop the bagels, I knew. Maybe it requires being a teenage girl yourself, but there’s a certain sort of concentration that can only lead to bad choices, and it was showing all over her face. I touched Scott’s arm, a jump-Transmit. He looked at me, at the bagel, at the sensor, at the bag of bagels in my arm, and I heard him think about his mother, which was when I was sure it wasn’t going to go well.
I yelled a string of curses, the bagels hit the gutter, and I ran as fast as I could, tackling the teenager mid-step. The sedan clipped my Jansport, knocking it clear off as I fell forward onto the teenager. Her shoulders hit the pavement, saving her head while she yelled and scratched at me, junkie stuff. I covered her ears while the SUV roared behind us, taking Scott and his bagel, all our sensors squealing.