Weber, carried only by the wind, alighted on the steeple of the Königkirche, still the highest point in the Free and Hanseatic City of Elbemund.

Dusk was coming, but it was still possible to see clearly what was going on in the streets below. The Red Spartakists had erected barricades out of trolley-cars and whatever else they could find for blocks surrounding the Königkirche and were firing from positions behind them and in many of the old row-houses along the Kaiserstraße. Men of the Freikorps apposed them, many still wearing their old uniforms from the front, though Weber saw veterans and sailors in uniform among the Spartakists as well, fighting with red armbands and the weapons they’d borne into four years of slaughter. The cracks of rifles and pistols were broken up by the staccato coughs of Spandaus or the new machine-pistols.

Men of the Reichswehr could be made out by their stahlhelms painted with bright republican colors. They wore gas masks and manned heavy artillery batteries which they fired in support of the Freikorps, and assault brigades moved with precision to ourflank the Spartakists. But in places the Freikorps were attacking the Reichswehr; Weber saw at least one artillery battery cleared out by a man with a machine pistol and turned back on its previous owners. Künstler had been right; the Freikorps were only siding with the Republic out of convenience, and they clearly saw the heavy weaponry as a great prize that could be used once the Red Spartakists were cast down. They probably had starry-eyed notions of driving onto Berlin and shelling President Ebert out of his office and installing His Majesty Wilhelm in the smoking crater that resulted.

Air raid sirens rang over it all, a pall of noise to go with the smoke, and in the distance the neon and thumping jazz of Rotlicht could still be perceived. Weber, slumped against a gargoyle, wept bitterly at the sights, the sounds, and the scents from below. He had to get out of Elbemund, to go further than he had before, to hide and remove himself from the violent conflagration working its way across the city.

He had only begun to toy with the idea when a far-off buzzing attracted his attention. Noisy specks were incoming on the horizon; after a moment, Weber saw that it was a formation of Fokker D.VII fighter planes. They bore the bright-colored cockades of the Entente, but from newsreels and posters Weber recognized that the pilots wore German gear. The formation broke apart as he watched; a group made a strafing run on Spartakist positions and several went down in flames, riddled with heavy machine gun bullets from the Reds or the Freikorps.

The remainder zeroed in on the Königkirche. Weber had been spotted, and he barely had time to move before the gargoyle on which he’d been leaning was shattered by incendiary bullets.

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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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“Go to this address,” Gane had said, sliding a handwritten card across the table. “The firm of Washdry & Fold handles all my important business, and they’ll take care of you.”

Mina had taken the card with quite a bit of suspicion, but Gane seemed forthright enough. When the people at that number didn’t pick up, she had gone down to see them personally.

When she arrived, though, Mina was greeted by a bright orange awning over a storefront that buzzed with neon:

THE FIRM Dry Cleaners
Since 1988
Wash Dry & Fold

Mina crumpled the card, flung it into the gutter, and raised a fist to the heavens.