Bear’s wounds were so great that he could no longer walk, no longer use his weapons. The gobs had assumed him to be dead, a piece of worthless fluff no longer worthy of the slightest consideration now that he had ceased to hack and slash at them. Bear had cannily maintained his silence while they were about, but once they had moved on in pursuit of the girl, he cried out for aid.

It was a risk, to be sure. He might attract more gobs, or something worse. But with his body torn up in battle, there was no other way for him to continue to serve the girl as he had since the day she had come home, when they had met on the playroom floor. His service, and the completion of the Unspoken Promise, was greater than any threat from within or without.

“Hello there, little toy bear.” A silhouette loomed over Bear, the size and shape of a small child, maybe half or less of the girl’s age. “Do you need help?”

“That is correct,” said Bear matter-of-factly. “I have lost my charge, she who is as my sister, she who I have sworn to protect and see through from birth to maturity in a promise unspoken to her parents on the day of her birth.”

“That is an awfully big promise for such a small bear,” said the shadow. “I can carry you for a bit, if you like.”

“That would be most kind of you,” said Bear. “I have no way of repaying your kindness, which makes the gesture all the more noble.”

It wasn’t until the shape picked Bear up that he noted something odd. The child-sized shape’s grip was watery and cold, and the presence of shadow and indistinctness of features did not dissipate with distance or the strength of light. “I hope you don’t think it rude of me to ask,” said Bear, after they had walked for some time, “but what might I call you, and what might you be?”

“I am a shade, and you may call me Shade, for you see I do not remember any other name I might have had,” was the reply. “Long ago, something dreadful happened, and I must wander from the Gobwood to Childhood’s End again and again until I can remember what it was.”

“That seems a terrible punishment for something unremembered,” said Bear in a kindly tone.

“It is not so bad,” replied Shade. “And it is much better with a traveling companion. I try to help others when I can, and the Gobwood is always full of those that need my aid.”

Bear saw the wisdom in this, and did his best to engage Shade in pleasant conversation as they walked. In time, the two came to the edge of a great crag overlooking a forested valley with jagged uplifts in the smokey distance. Atop one of them was the ragged shape of a great pleasure wheel.

“The Great Eye,” whispered Bear.

“Childhood’s End,” said Shade sadly. “The end of my journey, and the beginning of yours.”

Inspired by this image.

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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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