Marc couldn’t have been any happier in his elected position as Personal Service Professional at the Waffle House on Courtland Street. Sure, human service wasn’t often requested by customers, so he spent most of his nights leaned back against the wall with his high-tops on the counter, watching the Feeds. But on the rare occasion that customers requested that they be served by a living, breathing human being, Marc Winter was ready to go.
He’d been at this position for nearly thirty years — long enough for his hair to go from black, to grey, to gone. His ebon scalp shined almost as brightly as the smile perpetually stamped across his face, which forced the tips of his thick grey moustache to turn up jauntily at the edges. Marc had plenty to smile about. His granddaughter had just been accepted into the Imagen Advanced Training Academy, the exact week his daughter had graduated from the same illustrious institution – the first person in the family to do so, despite her late entry. Neither would have been able to go if not for his years of Superior Grade performance at the Waffle House. Being one of the few living recipients of a pre-MilSec Purple Heart didn’t hurt, nor did his impeccable service record for his enlistment during the Second Civil War. But even wartime heroics against the terrorists and separatists weren’t enough to guarantee entry to such an exclusive educational track at his social level. And that was why he chose to work. S-Grade in a chosen job was a sure ticket to success.
And he didn’t mind the labor. As jobs went, this one was pretty easy, and came with the perk of always being up to date on NewsFeed. But his daddy had raised him right. He never took something for nothing. “Even if every citizen had a right to guaranteed income from Imagen,” his father had lectured, “A real man works for his wage. Get up, get out, and get something.” Even if that something meant sitting on a stool at a counter endlessly smiling at anyone who came in, hoping in vain that they may actually want you to serve them. No matter what, it sure beat living off the Imagen dole.
And that’s why he liked Regina and Reginald Todd and their weird friend Tad. The twins and Tad had been coming into the Waffle House on Courtland and drinking bottomless cups of coffee every weekend for nearly four years. Marc loved those three kids. He knew them to be good kids. Most kids, when they reached the age of thirteen and the curfews and limits on drugs lifted, went crazy for a little while. They’d hit the Subs for booze and pills and got all that wandering out of their system. The Todd twins and Tad, though, just stuck to the classics: sugary syrup on their pecan waffles and good ol’ fashioned black caffeine.
The kids sat at the corner table every Saturday and Sunday from midnight until dawn discussing everything and anything from social issues and history to animation. Occasionally, they would bring in a bag full of dice and some paper with grid lines on it and make maps for their GURPS tabletop role-playing game.
This time, however, they were late. Really late. It was nearly five in the morning when they finally came traipsing in, jittery as hell, with their hoods pulled over their heads. It didn’t take a genius to see that they’d been up to no good.
They didn’t even ask J.A.Q.i to send “Marc the Man” over to get them their coffee. It was fine though, Marc didn’t take offense. It was just an oversight. It’d happened before. The kids came in all hot and heavy in discussion about history or politics or art or WarFeed and got distracted. He didn’t worry about such slights, because he knew they’d want him to serve them even if they forgot to ask. What did have him worried, however, was the fact that he couldn’t get any of the three to look up at him when he sauntered up to their table.
“Kids?” Marc asked softly for the third time. “You okay?”
“We’re fine,” Reggie said, face buried behind his hands. “Coffees.”
“Well, okay,” Marc said slowly. “Three black coffees coming right – oh wait! Looky here! They’re already in front of ya!” He gestured with his tray toward the three steaming mugs he’d placed before them.
Regina looked up from a nest of raven-black hair. Her bright-red face was streaked black with mascara and green with what looked like paint. Her hands were the same shade of green. She looked past her brother who was sitting slumped beside her and managed to lock her ice-blue eyes on Marc. The second she saw the concern in the gentle old man’s face, she broke into heart-wrenching sobs.
“Sweetheart!” Marc said in dismay. “What’s got you shook? All three y’all look like you saw a ghost!”
“The walls…” Tad said from his side of the table with a shudder. “The walls aren’t working! THEY AREN’T WORKING! We almost DIED because the damn WALLS AREN’T WORKING!”
“Cool it!” Reggie barked as he banged the table, startling Tad and causing Regina to plop her face back into the pile of her arms.
“Okay, what the hell is going on?” Marc said. “This ain’t you! This ain’t none of you!”
Reggie was still refusing to look at Marc. He gestured limply at the screen on the wall across from where they sat.
Marc looked over to see NewsFeed coverage of Marlowe’s thorough annihilation of over a hundred United American State Army soldiers. Amanda Stokes was at the helm, viciously condemning the horror Marlowe had just perpetrated and blaming her for starting a “wave of insubordination, depravity, and social violence across Atlanta and across the nation.”
“J.A.Q.i, switch on audio to NewsFeed,” Marc said aloud. The delightful country twang of Waffle House’s background music faded, and the audio from NewsFeed rose.
“Unbelievable is right!” Stokes sneered as her face shrank to a small window in the bottom-left corner of the screen, highlighting the drone footage of Marlowe Kana kicking the helmet off of one soldier’s head and into the groin of another. “This is disgusting! Our soldiers aren’t even shooting at her, and she proceeds to treat them like rag dolls! I can’t believe we are airing this…this…travesty of justice! Bobby, can we cut this? Can we please stop giving airtime to this felon? ”
“No,” a voice was heard saying off-screen.
“No? NO!?!” Amanda barked. “This is MY show! Cut it!”
More mumbling from off-camera and then a muffled, “I can’t. Order from Imagen is for full-spectrum.”
“So this is on every Imagen Feed?!?” Amanda said, incredulous. “You know what, Bobby? You’re right. This is unbelievable! Absolutely abhorrent!” Amanda slammed her fists on her desk. “I can’t DO this anymore!” She shrieked. “MK is a traitor, a felon, a violent criminal… just look at this footage! She just set one of our soldiers on fire! That we nurture the celebrity status she so deeply craves, even after being found guilty of betraying our country…betraying us…is downright disgusting. It’s bad enough that she’s considered news, but to be on every network, smashing up MilSec vehicles and soldiers–”
“–Army,” Bobby interrupted from off-camera.
Amanda’s face contorted. “Even worse!” she snarled. “United American State Army isn’t even an hour into its existence and it’s being torn apart by this criminal!”
Marc looked grimly away from the screen. “You kids are upset about MK?” He asked. “I know, I’m upset, too.I always loved watching her Feeds. You know, she came in here once? She sat right over–”
“–No,” Reggie interrupted, finally looking up at Marc. “That.” He pointed back at the screen.
Marc turned to see NewsFeed correspondent Tom Wallace standing in front of the downtown Atlanta precinct of the newly christened United American State Army. He was gesturing with his non-microphone hand toward a huge swatch of green paint vivid against a white marble wall. “If we can zoom out, Mike?” Tom asked his camera drone operator. “Can you pull it back?”
The camera drone eased back and showed Tom standing next to a gigantic, six-foot high exclamation point. The drone pulled back further, as did the mounted spotlight. The light faded, and the screen went black.
“Just a moment,” Tom Wallace said to the audience. “Mike, a few light drones?”
A moment passed. The screen glared all white as five drones activated their mounted spotlights. The iris of the camera drone adjusted and into view loomed a massive, bright-green graffiti tag that read, “#FREEMARLOWE!”
“HA! THAT’S FANTAS–” Marc quickly caught himself. He leaned into the kids and lowered his voice to a whisper. “That’s fantastic! You kids made the NewsFeed with your art!”
“But the walls don’t WORK!” Tad shouted. He was shaking uncontrollably. “They don’t WORK tonight because of all this craziness with Marlowe, and we almost DIED!”
“He’s right!” Regina cried. “They were going to shoot us! I heard the clicking of their triggers.They would have shot us! They’ve never done that before!”
“I don’t understand.” Marc said. “You guys come in here every night after you tag walls. You’ve hit that place before! Why did they decide to come after you tonight? And shooting?”
“The sanitation drones…the self-cleaning walls…” Reggie said. “They all got all messed up in the switch from Milsec to Army, like the guns.”
“The guns? What guns? And what do you mean ‘messed up?’ What is going on?” Marc asked, watching as NewsFeed switched back to clips of Marlowe’s exploits.
“That’s what Private Mitchell said,” Reggie answered. “He usually just lets us tag, because hey, why not? The scrubbers get the walls before anyone even notices, and he’d rather we get the street cred for being the ones who tag MilSec stuff. But tonight, he…he wasn’t…” Reggie broke down in tears.
“Alone,” Tad whispered. “He wasn’t alone. Entire squad…all of them pissed as hell…”
“They pointed their guns at us!” Regina said tearfully. “They shot at us!”
Marc was dumbfounded. He suddenly remembered what it was like just after the war, when he was their age. Being targeted by rampaging, out-of-control separatists for the crime of simply being a young black teenager from the south. He always thought it was so fortunate that these kids were given the means to act out in safe ways – getting a taste of activism with no real risk. And he knew that their tagging had been getting popular, to the point that he had heard of the Todd And Tad Crew even outside of The Waffle House. They got access to targets that other crews didn’t have the balls to go after, mostly because they were good kids who did good work.
But to face their own mortality this violently had suddenly put the fear of God in them. They were finally witnessing the true price of freedom — those who controlled it were without boundary on how to acquire it from you. Even to the point of shooting at a group of teenagers for doing something no one had cared about the day before, simply because it had been decided to suddenly enforce a law that hadn’t been in place since the early 2000’s.
“J.A.Q.i, private booth,” Marc commanded. A bright blue hexagonal matrix danced and rose around the booth where the teenagers sat.
“Listen up now, ‘cause I want you to hear me,” Marc said in a tone of voice he’d not heard come out of his own mouth in nearly fifty years. “Look up at me. Right now.”
It took a while, but eventually, all three teeangers lifted baleful eyes up at Marc.
“Them soldiers is mad. They don’t have control right now. They look like fools, with the thumping MK gave them and now your tag not being scrubbed. They’re reeling. And they’re going to be reacting. Hard.”
The kids stared up at this kindly old man who had served them coffee for years as the smile creases in his face disappeared and his eyes narrowed. “Authority don’t like it when they see how little they have.”
The kids sat up and took deep breaths. “We almost died,” Regina finally said in horrified wonder.
“Almost,” Marc said with a smile and a wink, his former genial demeanor returning. “You want creamer with that coffee?”
Regina chuckled. Tad cracked a smile. Reggie straightened himself, looked up at Marc, and said, “Marc, you ask me that every night.”
“That I do,” he said with a grin.
“And we always say no,” Reggie continued, an obvious note of relief creeping into his voice.
“That you do,” Reggie said. He turned to leave, but then paused. He glanced at the screen on the wall, which was showing dueling, side-by-side panel footage from MK’s fight with the troops on the left, and a wide shot of the #FREEMARLOWE! tag that the Todd and Tad Crew had plastered on the precinct wall.
He looked back at Regina and Reginald Todd and their weird friend Tad. “You don’t always know it when it happens,” Marc said as he turned to leave. “But sometimes, doing what you do changes the world.”
“How does some graffiti that can’t be washed off change the world?” Tad called after him.
“I don’t really know just yet,” Marc Winters said over his shoulder. “But I have a feeling it’s gonna.”