about 4,900 words
My watch buzzes and I know what's about to happen before it does: the cute little blonde hippie is about to burn her mouth on her Summer Squash Chai tea--or Llama Bing-Bong-Oolong or Thundery Jasmine Mountain Meadows or whatever cruelty-free tea vegan girls like her drink--and then she'll dump it all over her lap and her laptop, burning herself and ruining her computer.
Then? She'll cry about it. Not sniffles and tears like you'd expect from a pretty girl like her, but an ugly cry, all red-faced and snorty. Like she ran out of Patchouli and her girlfriend Julie dumped her on the same day.
That is, until I ask the barista for two ice cubes, set them in a plastic coffee cup lid, and place them on the table next to her computer.
She glances at them and says, "Um, no thanks."
Not what I expected, but I smile anyway, big and friendly. "It's for your tea. So you won't burn your mouth."
She sneers like I just offered her a fresh turd.
I say, "You don't know it yet, but you'll thank me later."
"Uh, no. No thank you." She grabs her tea, blows the steam off the top and takes a sip, not like the deep absentminded gulp she was about to take, but dainty. So dainty I'm surprised she doesn't extend her pinky.
She sets the cup back on the table and says, "I prefer my tea very hot."
The blonde follows that with a fake smile, maintaining eye contact while she rotates her laptop so I can't see the screen.
I say, "I don't want to look at your screen. Just didn't want you to burn yourself, that's all."
She focuses on her typing. I stand there, waiting for her to say something else. After a few seconds, I realize that she said everything she's going to say.
She could care less that I just stopped her from burning her mouth and ruining her laptop.
"You're welcome," I say.
Unable to stop herself, she glances up, then quickly back to her computer. What's she writing that's so important? I bet it's a blog post about the best way to braid armpit hair.
Maybe she's blogging about "the incident" at the coffee shop. My neck burns as I imagine what she's writing. I can almost hear her voice in my head, as if she were reading her blog aloud.
"Oh. My. God. Today, this creepy heteronormative guy tried to put ice in my tea and get a look at my computer screen. As if his gross cologne isn't already oppressing me enough. Gag."
I shake my head. I mean, I guess she didn't know what was coming like I did, but still. When somebody does you a favor, you should thank them.
I say, "It's Drakkar, by the way."
"Huh?" she says.
"Dan." says the barista behind the counter. "I've got an Americano for Dan?"
The barista snaps me out of my anger spiral and I take a deep breath. Maybe I should give the girl a break. Here I am getting all worked up because she didn't thank me for something she didn't know I saved her from. And maybe her blog is none of my business.
I wave. "That's me." I take a deep breath, leave the blonde to her bloggery, and go get my coffee.
That's when the precog amplifier tells me the barista is about to do something he'll regret. Well, not exactly. Exactly what happens is my watch vibrates and I feel a creeping sense of unease.
The amplifier takes all the input from my senses and runs it through the prototype processor I invented andimplanted in the back of my neck. A little side project of mine.
The processor hyper-powers my sixth sense to show me what's coming almost a minute before it happens. And the great thing is, everyone has that sixth sense.
When you know the tattooed kid on the subway is going to mug you before he does, so you wait for the next subway car instead of getting on the one with him? That's it.
When you suddenly think of your Mom, and then out of the blue, she calls? That's it.
Or, when you get that sudden feeling the black fellow walking on the crosswalk is thinking about carjacking you, so you tell your car to jump the curb and just drive as fast as it can? That's the sixth sense.
You know, the weird premonitions that turn out to be true. Only, mine is better.
The light scent of vanilla latte mixes with the deeper smell of chocolate mocha. An undercurrent of permanent marker follows, and then I notice two frat guys in pastel shirts talking on their phones by the counter.
I feel the churn of indecision, the shame of a mistake, and finally the slap of a public rebuke.
All this input mingles and overlaps in the amplifier until I decipher what's about to happen.
The barista will serve the guy in the pink shirt's drink to the fellow in sky blue, instead of whatever he ordered. I can't see far enough into the future to anticipate everything that's going to happen, but I do know the fellow in sky blue won't like it.
I start to say something, then decide against it. Instead, I tap the button on my wristwatch twice and power down the amplifier. And I wait.
Since it's just a mixed-up drink and nobody's in danger, this can serve as a control, telling me how accurate the amplifier can be when I don't intervene.
The barista says, "Matthew? Got a drink for Matthew?"
Still on his phone, Matthew grabs his cup and takes a sip. He immediately turns and spits it on the floor, spattering coffee onto the other man's pants.
Matthew says, "Oh God. Soy!"
Pink shirt inspects the coffee on his pants. He pokes Matthew in the shoulder with a finger. "Dude. I just had these dry-cleaned," he says.
The amplifier strikes again.
Matthew holds up his cup. "Conner, there's soy in this drink. And I'm allergic. Very allergic." He grabs a napkin, wipes his tongue, and then spits on the floor.
Conner says, "Bro, relax."
The barista says, "Did you just spit on the floor?"
Matthew glares at him and says, "I'm going to spend the next twelve hours on the toilet. You're lucky I didn't spit on you."
He slides the drink back across the counter. It tips and spills, covering the counter and splashing onto the barista. I wince, feeling a pang of guilt.
No, I remind myself, I can't feel guilty about something I didn't fix. There's only one of me, and only one precog amplifier. I have to master its predictive power.
Sometimes that will mean I can't intervene. But once I have it down, once I've fine-tuned my intervention process? There will be no limit to the good it can and will do.
Imagine surgeons that can foresee unexpected consequences during operations, firefighters who can dodge potential dangers during a rescue, even the complete elimination of terrorist attacks.
One life saved in surgery, a single child rescued from a fire, or even one innocent saved from a pipe bomb is worth a thousand shamed baristas and at least as many hours on the toilet for Matthew.
Matthew says, "I want the manager. Right now."
Of course, in the wrong hands? I shudder to think of how wrong it could go. But, so could any tool that powerful.
My watch vibrates, traffic is picking up and I should leave now to get to work on time.
The barista looks like he's about to cry. He says, "Do you need an epi pen?"
Matthew says, "No, dammit, just get the fu--uuuurrrrhhh," and doubles over.
He scans the coffee shop, points at the bathroom and says, "I'll be in there. She can bring me an extra roll of toilet paper."
Conner covers his face with his hands, obviously embarrassed.
While the rest of the coffee shop watches Matthew sprint for the bathroom, I decide that even though I didn't intervene, I can still do something. I take all the cash in my wallet and drop it into the tip jar.
It's not much, but since the barista suffered the wrath of Matthew for the sake of scientific progress, I figure he deserves a nice surprise at the end of the day.
As I turn to go, I catch the blonde smiling at me out of the corner of my eye.
I turn and make eye contact, thinking that she's decided to finally thank me. She motions towards the bathroom with her head and then rolls her eyes.
Well. At least we can have a laugh at someone else's expense.
After an uneventful day at the lab, I zone out on the treadmill, enjoying the TruGround terrain simulator's root-free path through the woods. With nothing but miles of firm yet forgiving nano-dirt under my feet, my mind wanders. I tap my wristwatch, power up the amplifier and check to see what the next minute holds.
I hear clanking weights, see fat rolls bulging from exercise pants that are one size too small, and hear music pouring from wireless earbuds.
The music mostly masks the heavy breathing of someone not used to exertion, but nothing can cover the wafting tang of a rancid fart. I gag involuntarily. Not that I haven't been guilty of the same sin, but mine certainly don't smell like that. This one's bad enough to overwhelm just out of the bag pine tree air freshener. I take the opportunity to let one of my own slip out. With cover like this, how could I not?
Most of what's coming feels pretty innocuous, that is, until I glance towards the free weights. The bald man on the bench press covered in tribal tattoos is repping more weight than I can lift once.
His muscles stretch his reddening skin. He lifts the weight again and again, bouncing it off his chest at the bottom of each rep. The buzz in the amplifier tells me something's about to go wrong.
I smell the musk of sweat. Nothing you wouldn't expect in a gym. But there's something under it, there's an edge to the scent.
The acrid bite of panic pushes through the dull smell of body odor.
I feel the raised knurling of the barbell against my palms, and then a crushing weight on my chest. I taste bile in the back of my throat and the edges of my vision go black. Then my inner ear does a tumbling dice routine and the world spins around me. This poor, dumb, steroid-swollen meathead is about to have an aneurysm.
I jump off the TruGround and sprint over to the bench, knowing I can save him before it happens. He's halfway through a rep when I get there and grab the bar with both hands.
"Got it," he grunts.
He's already pushing as hard as he can, so I don't have to do much to rack the bar. He lets go and glares up at me.
I start to tell him actually, no, he didn't have it, but think better of it. Instead, I say, "Sorry, just thought you were struggling a little bit."
He sits up and swivels around to face me, his massive shoulders flexing unconsciously. "I said I had it."
I hold up both hands. "My bad."
I feel the stares of the other meatheads around me. I've intruded into their cast-iron kingdom and angered their king. "Just trying to help."
He waves dismissively and swings his leg back over the bench, apparently going back for more.
"Sorry," I say, and take a step back towards the treadmill section of the gym. But, I just saved his life, and not only is he not going to thank me, he's being a dick about it.
Then it hits me. Of course. How could I be so stupid? He has no idea. How could he?
Sure, I just saved his life, but he doesn't know I'm a doctor and he certainly has no idea I can see sixty seconds into the future. I should give him a hint.
I turn back and say, "I uh, I noticed your eyelid is drooping a little, are you okay?"
"Buddy," he says, standing up. "I'm fine. Can I get back to my lift?"
"Really. I'm a doctor."
"Great. So am I."
"No really," I say. "I'm a neurologist doing experi--"
He holds up a hand. "Dude, just go."
I put my hands on my hips. "A doctor of what? Flexology?"
He shakes his head, turns and digs something out of the gym bag underneath the bench. He hands me a business card and says, "Listen, call my office and make an appointment if you want to talk through your confidence issues"--he hooks a thumb at the bench--"I've got another set."
The card reads "Morgan Psychiatry, Herbert Morgan, M.D."
"Oh," I say. He is a doctor. Didn't see that coming. He must devote hours to lifting every day to get that big. How could he have time to study, to learn, to even run a practice? It's probably a mail-order doctorate.
A petite woman approaches. She says, "Everything okay, Herbie?"
He turns back towards the bench. "Yeah. Just need to finish my last set."
She shakes her head and says, "Honey, we've got to pick up the kids in twenty minutes."
He sighs and says, "Fine," gathering his bag.
I wander back towards the treadmills in a daze. Was the amplifier wrong, or did my intervention actually save him? And on an unrelated tack, do I have confidence issues?
Back on my treadmill, I think about the tests I've conducted so far, slipping into a steady jog.
Maybe I need to be more careful about how I intervene. Saving the victim of a future misfortune before they've seen it coming has flaws. They resent my intervention because they haven't seen the danger coming.
In both cases the immediate danger was averted. However, the blonde may burn her mouth tomorrow and Herbie's aneurysm may kill him the next time he lifts.
Maybe I should step in only after the subject has had time to see the problem coming. Of course, before they can suffer any consequences.
Do no harm, you know.
My window to intervene shrinks, but instead of being upset, or even fighting my intervention, the subject will be grateful, more likely to cooperate.
That could work.
Chilled air from the produce cooler wafts towards me, raising the hairs on my arm. I shiver. While the produce section of the Grocery Garden offers a great place to test the amplifier, I should have dressed warmer.
I chuckle. I can see the future but can't remember to put on a sweater.
Still, I couldn't think of a better place to spot a slip and fall. The automated produce watering system sends water misting out over the displays (and floor) every five minutes. If you ask me, they should offer a stack of crutches by the onions. Except I've been doing laps around the pomegranates for almost an hour and have yet to see so much as a stumble.
The amplifier works; I know which apple a shopper will pick up before she even considers keeping the doctor away. Problem is, none of the shoppers are considering slipping or falling.
The combination of auto-mopping floorbots shooting out from under the coolers to suck up the condensation, stock boys dutifully placing caution signs over even the smallest spill, and what is evidently non-slip tile reduces the incidence of slippage to zero.
That is, until a small child helps me out.
I smell bananas. My focus immediately shifts to the yellow piles of fruit nearby. I spot a woman in three-hundred-dollar yoga pants that I'd bet have never touched a yoga mat. She pushes an overloaded shopping cart up to the banana display.
She wears a set of diamond earrings as gaudy as her gravity-defying fake breasts. She talks on her phone while making a passable effort to keep up with her son, who I'd guess is around four. I feel the loss of equilibrium that comes the moment your feet leave the ground and hear the brittle crack of bone snapping.
Someone is about to break a bone. Her?
I sidle over towards them, watching out of the corner of my eye. Sure enough, the boy picks an over-ripe banana from the display and places it carefully under the front wheel of her cart.
She says, "I don't care about the market. Sell the lake house." The stacked groceries in the cart block her view, and she's so focused on whatever thing she wants to buy that she rolls the cart over the banana.
Slick fruit ooze squirts out onto the floor. Feeling the resistance, she sighs and stops. She peers around the overloaded cart.
"Joshua, you pick up that banana right now," she says. Then into the phone, "No, not you. It's Joshua. He's acting out again"--she points at Joshua--"now. Pick it up now."
An older woman ambles up behind her, leaning on her self-balancing cane while sniffing and squeezing every apple she can get her hands on. Is she the one about to fall?
Joshua stares at the trophy wife, deciding if he's going to obey. Into the phone, she says, "His mother is dying, Jason."
She listens to the reply and then sets her jaw, angry.
"No, Jason. It's my house and it's my money. I pay you to manage it, so get your thumb out of your ass and sell the house. I don't care if it's for a loss. I'm writing the check to the hospital today."
Interesting; this woman is no man's trophy. Maybe she's an heiress.
She says, "Good. And listen. Don't get so worked up about the cash. I think this new workout-pushup will outsell everything we've ever made."
The not-a-trophy-wife looks around. I feign interest in the nearby apples while still watching out of the corner of my eye.
She reaches down and adjusts her bra. "We've got some internal seams to fix, but after a ten-miler and a kickboxing class? Still comfy. And the grocery store test? I could have a horn growing out of my forehead and there isn't a straight man in this building that would have noticed." She listens to the reply.
She's right; I certainly couldn't tell you what color her eyes are or what kind of shoes she has on.
She turns her attention back to Joshua and says, "Pick. It. Up."
He takes off towards the deli counter. "Cheese! Aunt Sarah, we need cheese!"
Into the phone she says, "I gotta go. Let me know, okay?" and hangs up.
Cursing under her breath, she pushes her cart after Joshua, leaving a trail of smashed banana slime behind. She kicks the crushed banana under the display case and into the floorbot waiting there, jamming it inside its charging bay.
Uh-oh. Grandma's about to break a hip.
I step over towards the woman.
"M'am? Excuse me," I say.
She watches me out of the corner of her eye, shuffling away from me and towards the banana goo.
The sensations from the amplifier intensify, the dry crack of bone rings in my ears. Since I know what's coming, I tap the button on my watch to disable it. At this point it's not giving me new information; it's only distracting me.
She glares at me as if a curly, evil moustache adorns my upper lip.
Smiling, I take a step towards her, attempting to defuse the tension. I reach out a hand and say, "Step this way, Ma'am. You'll thank m--"
Faster than I imagined her capable of moving, she clutches her purse to her side and darts away. She plants her foot in the middle of the slick fruit goo and just as the amplifier predicted, loses her footing. I grab for her arm, trying to catch her.
I miss and grab her purse instead.
Her expression changes from suspicion to naked terror as one foot flies into the air, she flails her arms and lands directly on her left hip. The sickening crack I knew was coming still turns my stomach.
She screams in pain, her shrieking wail filling the produce section. A teenage girl who works at the store runs to her side, a middle-aged shopper abandons his cart and joins her.
"She slipped," I say. Then I realize I'm holding her purse. I accidentally grabbed it as she fell.
The old woman points at me. "That maniac pushed me down and stole my purse!"
I drop the purse on the floor like it's radioactive, shaking my head. "No, I was trying to help, catch you," I say. "I grabbed it by mistake."
The old woman begins to cry. Through her sobs she says, "He pushed me, he pushed me down."
The store employee and shopper look up at me, disgusted.
I back away, both hands in the air. "You don't understand, I was trying to catch her."
I look around for someone who might have seen what actually happened. I find no sympathy on the faces of the other shoppers. Someone shouts, "Call the cops!"
They think I did it, they all think I did it.
Then it hits me, there's no way I can prove otherwise. Even on video, it will look like I pushed her down and stole her purse.
I sprint past the pomegranates, knock over a display of daffodils, and bolt out the door into the night.
"Stop him!" someone shouts after me.
But it's too late. I'm gone.
My heart doesn't slow until my car has driven me halfway home. Once I'm finally able to catch my breath, I close my eyes to contemplate my failure.
This seems to be the first time my attempt to intervene actually caused the accident I was attempting to prevent. That statement offers enough potential paradoxes that even trying to unwrap it gives me a headache.
Is that why the sensation intensified? If the amplifier was trying to tell me I would be responsible for her fall before she fell, what does that say about the unintended consequences of my creation? If using the amplifier actually creates the problem I hope to prevent, will not using it prevent that same problem from ever existing?
Outside the window, streetlights and shops fly by. My car takes me out of the shopping district, heading towards the tunnel that goes under the river and back home. My headlights illuminate an almost empty road, which is fine by me, I need the time to focus.
Perhaps I need to spend more time observing the predictions instead of intervening. Maybe that would help. Planning to do just that, I tap my wristwatch and power up the amplifier.
Absolute chaos overwhelms me.
I hear a crash, the force of an impact jolts me out of my daze, I hear the squeal of screeching tires and smell acrid smoke. Screams fill the air as sirens approach from the distance.
Suddenly alert, I scan the road around me, searching every intersection for some clue as to what's coming and how I can possibly prevent it. This is more than a chance to stop an old woman from breaking her hip, lives are at stake.
Most of the nearby drivers are obviously on auto-drive, watching their phones or video chatting. Since auto-drive accidents are as common as spontaneous combustion, I can rule those cars out.
What about pedestrians? If one were to trip into the street, an auto-driver might swerve to avoid them, causing a chain reaction. But, I see no pedestrians out this evening.
I close my eyes and focus on the sensations pouring from the amplifier, searching for some clue, more information that might help me prevent what's coming.
Blue lights flash through the smoke. The coppery smell of blood fills my nose. The cool steel of a gun barrel chills my temple.
A gun barrel against my temple? My life is at stake. My pulse quickens and my hands start to shake. At the same time, my car slows perceptibly, detecting an accident ahead.
A young woman stands on the side of the road just past the twisted wreckage of her car. It looks like she sideswiped the plasti-crete barrier at high speed and continued steering into it as she slowed. Deep gouges extend down the barrier from where the smoking car sits, stinking bits of rubber litter the road.
She cries, holding a swaddled baby in her arms.
I direct the car to stop behind hers and call emergency services. I grab the first aid kit I keep in my glove box and jump out to help.
"Ma'am, are you okay?" I say.
She nods, sobbing. She babbles, "I lost it, I lost control. And then I drove into it to stop. The barrier"--she points at the gouges--"but the window shattered, and the car died, and I couldn't, I can't call for help. And my son, he's hurt, and he's bleeding. The glass from the win--"
"It's okay," I say, holding up a hand. "I called emergency services. The ambulance and police will be here in no time."
I realize what I just said.
The police, here in no time. I called the police while fleeing the scene of an attempted robbery and assault.
She says, "Can you help him? Do you have any bandages in there?" She points at the first aid kit. "His head is bleeding."
She comes around the car and stands in my car's headlights, holding out her child. Blood soaks his blanket. She holds out the baby.
"Please, help him."
Sirens wail in the distance. I'm not that far from the grocery store, and my description must have gone out to the police by now.
The baby screams.
His mother cries.
I think about the amplified vision, the feeling of steel against my temple. Then I look at her son, crying, bloody.
I can't leave them.
Pointing to the hood of my car, I start laying out first aid materials. "Set him there, so I can see."
She lays the crying boy on the hood and gently pulls back the blanket. A cut runs down the right side of his head. It's not as bad as it looks, that area just bleeds heavily.
"I'm going to put a clean bandage on it until the ambulance gets here, just to slow the bleeding."
I hear the sirens getting closer.
"We'll need to keep pressure on it for a few minutes to slow the bleeding. Press here."
She extends her hand. It shakes like a jackhammer.
"I'll hurt him," she says.
I apply gentle pressure and say, "Just calm down. You can do it."
She steps back and shakes her head. "I can't. I don't want to hurt him again."
Her son cries louder as I pick him up and apply gentle pressure to the wound.
"Shhhh," I say. "It'll be okay. Just got to get this bleeding stopped."
Headlights sweep across her face and the blue lights of a police car tint the scene. "Ma'am," I say. "If you could just come over here."
"The ambulance," she says, pointing. "It's here." The ambulance's strobing reds signal its arrival. I hear footsteps approaching.
Blue lights shine through smoke. The coppery smell of blood fills my nose. The cool steel of a gun barrel chills my temple.
"Sir," the officer says. I'm going to ask you to hand the child to the EMT standing behind you.
The woman says, "No, officer, he's fine, he's helping. He helped me."
The officer says, "This man is wanted in connection with an aggravated assault and attempted robbery, Ma'am."
"It's okay," I say. "I'm giving the child to the EMT." I turn and carefully hand the boy to the waiting man. "There's a laceration above his right ear. I applied pressure with a sterile bandage."
The EMT nods and takes the child.
The police officer says, "Sir, place both hands on your head. Slowly."
I do. Moments later, I sit handcuffed in the back of the officer's car.
People in the passing cars crane their necks to get a look at me. They probably all assume the worst, that I'm some kind of thug, a dangerous criminal. They see the blue lights and me sitting in the back seat and they stick me into a neat little box.
The EMTs are loading the mother into the back of the ambulance when she stops and asks the police officer a question. He considers it for a moment, then nods.
He steps over to the police car and opens the door a crack.
She approaches and says, "I just wanted to thank you. They told me what you did before. But still. Thank you."
Her gratitude feels good. And I can take comfort knowing that at least she gets it. Even if she's the only one.
I smile. "You're welcome."