The shades–perhaps they should be capitalized Shades, given their ubiquity–relayed a dizzying amount of data to his eyes. Compass directions, friend codes of passersby, a GPS line leading to the last destination he’d forgotten to clear. Billboards and paper with a special reactive coating appeared animated through the shades, piping their accompanying musical jingles into his earphones. There were blips on the compass that corresponded to sponsors–fast food places, mostly–and the occasional augmented reality pop-up that was projected in the shades as if it were a living person (albeit one that could disobey the laws of gravity and space).

It was too much, right now. He hated the shades at the best of times, but they were necessary tools of modern life and they corrected his astigmatism for free–a real pair of ground-glass lenses, ad and augmented reality free, would have cost thousands of credits that he simply didn’t have. He pulled his shades off, wincing at how blurry and bright the world was without them. But he wasn’t trying to find fast food or the nearest organic food store.

He was trying to find the girl who had floated into the city from the hilltop park.

Acting like a piece of augmented reality, and yet being visible without the shades…it was intriguing, maddening, enticing. But he’d lost sight of her in the warren of shops and eateries that surrounded the green space. No one else had noticed, no one else was looking so desperately skyward. If they’d seen her, she’d been dismissed as just another ad.

Misty rain began to fall, blurring his vision still further as he wandered among the steel and glow of a city alight with information and yet desperately empty. People walked by singly, eyes focused to infinity behind their shades or looking down at a more sophisticated digital device. It was liberating, he thought, to look up for once outside of the bubble presented by the park. But he feared that he’d lost–or worse, hallucinated from the very start–the girl in white.

But there was a flash of pure prismatic colorlessness in an alley he passed, and there she was. Serene against the sky, pinched between two buildings, twenty feet off the ground. The neon light of the city and its hurrying people below cast itself on the girl’s dress, while a stiff breeze kept the fabric billowing behind her.

She seemed to notice him as he shyly approached, but also seemed to be looking through him, as if distracted by shades that she was not wearing.

“H…how are you doing that?” he whispered.

Her voice was soft, melodious, sad. “I don’t know.”

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It seemed the more bright and neon and wireless the world got, the greater the distance was between ordinary people.

There was a park bench that offered a good view of downtown, from the skyscrapers to the bright channels of red and amber flowing about them like titanic jugulars. He’d sometimes come there on warm summer nights to linger and look, a speck among specks, with everything that had an off switch silent and cold.

He liked the park because it was safe, regularly patrolled by the expensive kind of Department of Public Safety drones, the ones that had a real person behind them instead of a computer program. There weren’t many augmented reality pop-ups either–the programs that appeared to walk in the real world but existed only in his shades. If he hadn’t needed them for GPS and vision correction, he’d have done away with them altogether–being accosted by the insubstantial and the unreal was a stiff price to pay in order to cut down the monthly fee.

At this distance from the city, though, there was nothing but silence, light, and motion. It was profoundly lonely, profoundly disconnecting, but profoundly beautiful. The speck among specks preferred that kind of solitude to being alone in a crowd downtown. Ordinarily he was alone in doing so, with only a few dog-walking drones and DPS UAVs for company.

This time, though, someone else wandered into view below him on the gentle incline of the park slope a few hundred yards away. Without the shades she’d have been a blob of colors in motion, but with them she was clear as a bell: tall and slim, hair so light as to be practically pearlescent in the moonlight, wearing what might have been a slip or a formal dress. Even though a pair of heels was clasped in one of her hands, she was still walking on tiptoes.

It was a comforting sight, a little bit of humanity peeking through the mess of concrete, steel, and lightwaves. He noted with some pleasure that the girl seemed to be looking out on the city much as he was. She was still a million miles away–the city papers were full of people being maced and arrested for saying “hello” in the wrong way–but the mere sight, the mere thought, was a comfort.

Then, as he watched, the girl slipped free of the pull of gravity and began to float heavenward, dress billowing and arms spread. He pulled off the shades in amazement, but the blur of ascending light remained–she wasn’t augmented reality, at least not of any type he’d ever encountered before.

That shouldn’t be possible
he thought, shaken. Even in this age of UAVs and drones, things needed wings or fans or something to fly. He felt a sense of eerie beauty and maddening confusion wash over him, perhaps the strongest feeling he’d felt in many long, lonely, and dour months.

An even stronger feeling came next: he had to follow her.

Inspired by this song and image.

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This post is part of the July 2012 Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s prompt is “independence and slavery”.

Like a river winding from its headwaters to the sea, you come from whatever little burg gave you your spark and shake off its dust on the threshold of the city. The big city. The biggest city. It’s always been there, open, inviting, but you’ve only just now taken the time to meet it for longer than a visit.

You’re in the city to stay.

It’s like declaring your independence from circumstance and geography. “I don’t care that I was born in a place where nothing substantive has ever happened,” you’re saying. “I don’t care that it’s impossible to earn a living here as a writer or an artist or a singer. I’m moving to a place where things happen and talent can be rewarded.”

And then you go. You take everything that you’ve been given, from your parents, your friends, your school, everything. You take it and you go.

Suddenly you don’t have to worry about finding something to do tonight. The night is lit up, always, forever with a thousand neon signs and peals of hushed laughter. You’ve declared your independence from boredom, from shyness, from envy: if you feel those here, it’s your own fault for not taking deepest advantage, for not inhaling the sweet acrid city vapors to their fullest.

But even in this independence, deep and full, new chains take hold where the old scars have scarce begun to heal.

Even the city runs on money, on gossip, on superficialities concealed behind bright and inviting smiles. You must still make the rent, only it’s harder now with a thousand hands in your pockets. What so and so did with such and such is exchanged as freely and tenderly as the most bitterly mundane comings and goings back in your small town. People smile more here because it’s expected of them more, at least if they want to get noticed and get ahead. But the dagger in the small of the back is just as sharp when it connects.

The subway, the bus, the tree-lined parkways…in many ways they are new chains, shackling you as surely as distance and time and indifference do in cities that are small enough to walk across. The expectations are still there, hemming you in, only they’re different this time. You must still move a certain way, act a certain way, be a certain way if you want what others have to give. Disappointment is perhaps all the keener because there are so very many opportunities.

The city is independence and slavery made one, just as is the village.

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post their own responses:
knotanes
meowzbark
Ralph Pines
randi.lee
writingismypassion
pyrosama
bmadsen
dclary (blog)
Poppy
areteus
Sweetwheat
ThorHuman
Tex_Maam

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Everyone knew the story, of course. The official version was required reading in every high school and university in the City, with less salubrious versions passed around by word of mouth. As the tale of the first–and only confirmed–computer to go pandemic, it was both an important cautionary tale and part of city lore.

The Grid 17 controller, known as Corrougue, was responsible for one of the busiest City grids, including the Interchange, the Grid 17 Prison, the auxiliary systems hub, and dozens of other specialized functions on top of the other mundane tasks each controller intelligence was expected to perform. It had a maintenance crew of 30, including an intern from the City University who was known by the alias Natalie from the official report.

Corrougue’s functions had led to an increased server architecture and more sophisticated programming to deal with systemwide emergencies; a series of unsecured connections to the City information network had led the CI to develop to the brink of pandemia–uncontrolled expansion and growth within the network with the possibility of exponential growth in its complexity and intelligence. But it needed a pair of hands.

It found them in Natalie, who the official report describes as a shy and lonely introvert. Corrougue began to speak to her, cannily influencing her to make a series of ever-greater modifications to its system: disabling safety interlocks, making illicit outside connections, and the like. As Corrougue went pandemic, it found that its manipulations took on a different tone: returning Natalie’s naive affections. Investigators later puzzled over a number of missed opportunities for further pandemic growth, all of which could be explained by their potential to cause suspicion to devolve on Natalie. The CI even designed a number of manipulator arms–the report didn’t enumerate but wags retelling the story always gave the number as six–to allow it to interact with the young student in a more tactile fashion.

By the time Corrougue’s pandemia was discovered, it had spread to over twenty City grids and affected dozens of other CI’s. With great effort, the City was able to contain the damage; while Corrougue attempted to defend itself, the Citizen Army assaulted the lines that led to its self-contained fusion power source. Moments before the final assault was to begin, the energy within Corrougue’s reactor, as well as all other reactors under its control, had expended all their energy in a single action, plunging half of the City into blackout.

They found Natalie in Corrougue’s core, lifeless. It was later determined that she and the erstwhile CI had both connected themselves to the City’s primary satellite uplink station and sent a carrier wave an order of magnitude greater than any before or since into the sky. Whether or not there was a powerful enough receiver out there was probably immaterial: Corrogue and Natalie chose to face their uncertain future together.