Written by Auston Habershaw
Photo: © 72soul
It took a lot of doing to find the sign. The chatboards all talked about it, sure, but seeing it was another thing. It wasn’t AR—not part of the cloud, see?—made of actual glass tubes pumped full of actual neon. Something out of a museum. Still, Max looked, flicking his collar up against the driving October rain, trying to see through the pervasive glitz and infinite electric hubbub of the Cloud on a Saturday night in downtown Boston.
The Boston Opera House was hosting some new musical—Dragonslayer, it was called—and a giant neon-green dragon kept flapping over Washington Street, breathing crimson flames everywhere. His arm caught on fire at one point. When he swatted it out—an instinctive reaction, even in AR—suddenly he had a virtual coupon in his hands—20% off admission for kids under 12, valid this weekend only.
What with the dragon, flames, coupons and all, not to mention the forest of little status bubbles floating above the heads of each and every person in Max’s field of view, one little neon sign with one little word was going to be pretty hard to spot. He pressed on anyway, trying to find some empty space in his field of vision, some calm amid the virtual tempest.
Max knew he should probably just take out his eyepiece and earbuds, or maybe just turn off his phone, but that would draw attention—well-dressed guy, nice coat, no profile tags? He already was in anonymous mode—he wasn’t accepting pings, he wasn’t open to chat—going further than that would violate a sort of unspoken etiquette. People had profiles, had statuses floating over their heads at all time, had little RFID chips broadcasting the brands of their clothing and the way they took their coffee—this was the cost of personhood. Throw that off, and you left the herd. You were something other than a person. No thanks, thought Max, I’m taking enough risks here.
Besides, his girlfriend would freak out. His mom would call the cops or something. Even now, in anonymous mode, he was probably weirding out some of his friends. They might think he was sick or depressed or something. Even without their messages popping up in his view, even without their voices whispering in his ears, he could feel the weight of their judgement. What’s the matter with you, Max? Why don’t you have anything to say, dude?
Max took a turn down Summer Street and found himself behind a pair of college students, their school logos gleaming above their left shoulders. Between them floated a virtual battlefield in miniature—mountain ranges, forests, oceans—across which marched legions of tiny war machines lobbing virtual ordnance at each other. The two students had most of their attention on this ghostly landscape, barely noticing the people swerving around them as they ambled along. The side of the board facing Max blinked. JOIN THE BATTLE? It asked.
Max grimaced and stepped through the board.
“Hey!” One of the students grumbled, “Watch it!”
Max toggled a middle-finger emoji and posted it with a flicker of his eyelids—bold, perhaps, but fuck these kids, playing their game in the middle of a pedestrian mall. His ears popped quietly—the sound of an incoming flamewar bouncing off his anonymous filters. He didn’t look back. He kept his eyes up, staring into the rainy gloom.
He slipped past a goth chick, her music set to Public—some Finnish doommetal band with a grindstone industrial beat—and peered past her aura of skulls and harlequin figures down a dark alley. There! There it was!
The sign was a blue bubble with red lettering. It had one word: CONSIDERATION. An arrow pointed downwards to a single unmarked door. No AR tags at all—just a door. Like a service entrance to somewhere.
Max paused. Between him and the door there was nothing—no informational noise, no bright ads, no artificial voice calling his name and asking him if he wanted a new pair of slacks. Just an alley—brick and concrete—and the neon sign above the unmarked door. It was quiet, especially after the goth chick moved off. Max felt as though he had stumbled into the wilderness.
Maybe he had.
Steeling himself, Max walked up to the door, grasped the handle. Like the chatrooms had said, it was always unlocked. Inside was a blank cube of a room, lemon-lime paint on the walls, two folding steel chairs, spotted with rust, another door, just as unremarkable as the first. A barred window in the wall across from him had a single sign beneath it—another real, actual sign—that simply read “No Smoking.” Max wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.
He went to the window, expecting an icon to appear in his field of view allowing him to call for assistance. Nothing appeared. After a second, he cleared his throat. “Uh…hello?”
An old man popped his head into view and eyed Max from beneath a faded Budweiser hat. “The fuck you want?”
Max instinctively changed his status to a confused emoji. The man on the other side of the window had no reaction. It gradually dawned on Max that the man had no AR profile of his own—no tags, no presence, nothing. He was offline. Max took a step back.
The old man leaned his skinny forearms on the desk on the other side of the barred window. “You want in the cage?”
The cage—right! This brought Max back to himself. He nodded. “Uh…yeah. Sure.”
“You got cash?”
Max nodded. He’d been warned about this. He reached into his coat and pulled out two crisp fifty-dollar bills. The lady at the bank had asked him to repeat his request three times before printing them out. Later that day he’d noticed he had a DEA caution in his feed—they were just checking up to make sure he wasn’t buying drugs. This led to a whole lot of questions from his mother and his girlfriend and his roommates that he’d fended off. He didn’t think they’d understand. He wasn’t sure he did.
Max slipped the money through the slot in the window and the old man pushed a button. The other door buzzed open.
“You got twenty minutes, buddy.”
Max opened the door and walked through. It was another cube-room, but this one’s walls were lined with a steel cage—floor and ceiling too. In the middle of the floor was another folding chair. On the wall was an old analog clock that looked to be eight minutes slow.
The door clicked shut behind Max, and the world fell silent. His AR was gone. His phone searched vainly for a signal. His status had vanished. There were no posting boards, no messages, no media streams. Just him.
Max sat down, put his hands behind his head, and let the silence swallow him.
His mind wandered on alone.
Auston Habershaw is an author and English professor living in Boston, MA. A winner of the Writers of the Future Contest, his short fiction been published in Analog, Galaxy’s Edge, Perihelion SF, Escape Pod, and other places. His series of fantasy novels, The Saga of the Redeemed, is available from Harper Voyager. You can find him on the web at aahabershaw.com or follow him on Twitter at @AustonHab. (No, he isn’t a Montreal Canadiens fan; he had no idea that was a thing.)