From the author: Augmented reality goggles can cover the smoke from the nearby fires, but it can't change the tempers that burn bright.
Before she left her apartment Sasha adjusted her goggles from augmented reality to night vision, put on her security jacket and grabbed her maroon filtration scarf. She briefly glanced at the mirror, long enough to make sure she looked okay, and then gazed through her front door’s peephole to check that no one was there before she undid the locks. She shut the door quickly and locked it again, with both a key and a voice-protected password.
She walked down the dimly lit apartment hallway. It was a relatively nice building. There was dark blue carpet that smelled like shampoo and elevators that never smelled like urine. Well, they usually didn’t smell like urine, and when they did they were cleaned rather quickly. Sasha knew she was safe, but she hurried down the hallway wishing that she didn’t have to leave.
The night vision lit the hallway in a strange green tint that Sasha figured she should be used to by now. She wrapped the scarf around her head, making sure it completely covered her mouth and nose, and opened the door to go outside.
The heat hit her before she saw the smoke. She had checked the feed before she left but the reality was worse than she imagined. The fires were on the hills outside of the city, a hundred miles away, but the plumes of smoke hung low and covered the ground like a dirty cloud. Sasha resisted the urge to set her goggles to her favorite augmented reality, where everything looked like it was part of a children’s magical fairy tale. Instead she continued to keep night vision on and tried not to look toward the hills.
The subway was only two blocks away, and the few people waiting on the platform stood far apart from each other. A teenager giggled sporadically, obviously watching a movie on his goggles. An older man moved his mouth behind a fashionable clear mask, but Sasha didn’t hear him say anything. She felt a pang of envy. The man must have had the latest phone technology that reads muscle movements to prevent people from overhearing conversations. Despite the fact that she had a decent salary as a data processor, it wasn’t enough to let her buy every new technology update.
When the subway arrived it was half empty and Sasha sat in a row by herself. After five stops she got off the train as a large bearded man boarded, knocking into her and making her stumble to the side. Sasha shrank back. Her security jacket was thick enough to protect her from most bullets, so she told herself that it had to be thick enough to protect her from this man. She mentally repeated that mantra again and again as she walked off the subway and down the platform without looking back. After she heard the rumble of the train leaving she glanced behind her and saw the man hadn’t followed her. She told herself she hadn’t been worried and he was just clumsy.
Sasha touched one of the buttons on the side of her goggles to see the time. She still had ten minutes before she was supposed to meet Tina at the restaurant. She hurried down three more streets, the few people out were walking quickly, trying to get out of the heat and darkness.
The restaurant was brightly lit and had large windows showing customers laughing and chatting. Sasha ducked inside and took off her goggles and scarf as security did a quick screening. As she waited to be cleared she glanced around the restaurant for Tina. She wasn’t here yet, but there were plenty of tables open. She passed the checkpoint and headed over to a table beside a window that had a nice view of the street outside.
A curly haired woman whose sky-blue goggles and surgical mask matched her dress sat in the booth across from Sasha. When the waiter brought her a glass of milk the woman didn’t bother to take off the mask. Instead, she placed the straw underneath the mask and sipped as she stared at whatever her goggles were showing.
Sasha put her goggles back on and glanced at the clock again. Tina was seven minutes late.
A young woman with braided black hair and gray goggles strapped to the top of her head slid into the seat across from Sasha. Sasha took off her goggles and smiled at Tina.
"Thanks for meeting me," Tina said with a bright smile.
"No problem," Sasha lied.
"I just needed a friend tonight. I’m so glad you could come. It’s so good to see you. I just needed to see you."
"Fred left me," she answered with a shake of her head and a smile.
Sasha frowned sympathetically. "I’m sorry."
"He’s an asshole. He found someone else. They met online and started talking. They finally met in real life today for brunch and by lunch he called to tell me it was over."
"Five months and he didn’t even bother to break it off in person."
"He’s a jerk."
Tina continued to describe what happened, pausing at moments when she expected Sasha to interrupt with supportive comments. Sasha obliged, alternating between concern and agreement. After a few minutes it was obvious Tina was on some serious uppers. She couldn’t stop smiling, and she laughed hysterically at her own jokes.
Their food and wine arrived and Tina ate while talking, spraying bits of half-chewed sandwich across the table. Sasha tried to discreetly shield her bowl of potato soup with her hands from the mess Tina was making.
"Can you believe he was talking about us moving in together while he was talking to her?"
"No!" Sasha responded with what she hoped was the proper amount of outrage while wondering exactly what upper Tina was on. Tina’s pupils were dilated and her hands shook slightly. But no matter what she was on, she couldn’t spend the rest of the night alone—at least not until she was sober. Sasha wished she could put on her goggles so she could check the feed to see if any of Tina’s friends were online and would take over this responsibility. But politeness and concern that Tina would take it the wrong way made her resist the urge.
Tina drank most of the bottle of wine, gesturing wildly. Even after the food was gone she looked like she didn’t want to go anywhere. When Tina excused herself to use the bathroom, Sasha asked the server for the tab. When Tina returned, she ignored the tab and kept talking. Sasha tried not to be resentful as she paid the full amount. Her friend wasn’t herself tonight.
The server asked if they wanted a cab. Sasha looked at Tina’s smile and dilated pupils.
"Yes please," Sasha said. She turned to Tina. "Do you mind if I go home with you? I think there may be fumigations in my neighborhood tonight."
Tina could have looked at the feed to see if that was true, but instead she just nodded, her eyes shining too brightly.
The cab arrived as Sasha put on her goggles and scarf. Sasha glanced at Tina and was surprised that Tina hadn’t brought anything to block the ash. Sasha sighed and practically pushed her into the back of cab, nodding sympathetically when Tina coughed a few times.
The cab driver turned around and looked at them through the bulletproof plastic, "Well, ladies?"
Sasha quickly looked up on her goggles where Tina lived and gave him the address.
The night sky was still illuminated orange by the distant fires, but the smoke covered the moon and stars, making it seem like the whole world was only lit by flickering candlelight.
Tina slouched against her seat, then pulled a pill out of her pocket and swallowed it before Sasha had time to react.
"Shit! Tina, what did you take?"
Tina didn’t say anything, though her smile got wider. With a sigh Sasha leaned over and rummaged through Tina’s jacket pockets. She felt both an intimacy and intrusion as she patted her friend down. She pulled out Tina’s ID, credit cards, keys, lipstick and finally three pills. She took the pills and put them in her own pocket. Tina didn’t react.
Why bother with Tina? They had gone to school together and they both hated the same type of people and liked the same type of music. That had seemed like enough to stay friends then, but was it enough to justify this hassle?
The cab pulled up to an off-white, three-story building that was getting more off-off-white by the day. Sasha got out of the cab and Tina meekly followed, her grin not even changing when she saw that three men on the street were watching them.
Sasha gave the cab a large tip with the instruction to stay until they got inside the building. This was turning into an expensive night. As Tina fumbled with her keys and the security codes, Sasha was startled but pleased to see the cab had stayed. Finally Tina opened the door and Sasha hurried them inside, shut the door tightly after them and double checked the lock.
"Stop being so paranoid, Sasha. We’re fine."
"We’ll be fine once we’re inside your apartment and you’re sober," Sasha replied as she grabbed Tina’s elbow and led her down the hallway.
"Screw you!" Tina yelled and pulled herself away.
"Let’s just get inside your apartment."
"Why? I’m fine right here. Besides I don’t want to go anywhere with you. I remember that you stole my shit."
Sasha glanced around to see if anyone was coming out of their apartment to see who was yelling. They were alone.
"You shouldn’t have any more tonight."
"Okay, mom," Tina said in a dismissive and sarcastic voice that made Sasha clench her hands and try to remember that Tina was her friend. Tina continued, "I’m staying right here. But I think you should go away and die. You’re nothing to me. You’re like bug, a small, ugly bug. You’re a locust. I’m not letting you into my place, you little paranoid shit-for-brains."
Tina swayed and smiled while Sasha shook her head at the insults.
"I don’t care about you enough to deal with the crap. Try not to slit your wrists when you crash."
Sasha turned on her heels and walked out the door she had so carefully closed. The cab was already gone. She walked quickly and angrily down the street for a few minutes until she realized she had left a drugged and sad friend alone. Plus she didn’t know where she was. Without breaking her stride she first looked up her location then mapped out a walking route to the nearest subway stop. Three-fourths of a mile. She kept the night vision on, but turned on a limited augmented reality, just enough that the route she should take looked like a yellow brick road. The familiar image made Sasha confident that it didn’t matter that she didn’t know where she was; she would be home soon enough.
Then she went online and messaged a few of Tina’s close friends. "Tina and I had a fight and she kicked me out but she shouldn’t be alone tonight. Can you go over? She’s on some kind of upper."
Sasha mumbled to herself, "I did more for you then you deserve, you bitch."
The heat seemed to get worse as she walked and she wished her jacket had a cooling system. The fires still raged in the distance, creating a beautiful horizon if you didn’t know what you were looking at.
Sasha turned off the main drag and pulled her jacket closer to her. She resisted the urge to play music or turn on a more intense augmented reality, she knew she should pay attention to her surroundings if she wanted to get home safely.
As she walked across the quiet street she saw a woman and man confronting each other, with the woman clutching his arms until the man pushed her away. He turned and started to walk towards Sasha, but he moved slowly as if he was hurt.
The woman called out, "He’s here!"
A small crowd gathered around a man, a mob that emerged from the few people who had braved the streets. They must have been her friends. Their goggles and scarves hid their faces, making them all look the same.
Sasha backed away, wondering why the woman shouted and why people would surround what looked like a normal man. But instead of joining them or running away, Sasha stood still.
The man wasn’t wearing goggles and had short black hair that looked like a military haircut. He held out his hands and said something, but Sasha was too far away to hear. She backed away further, ensuring she couldn’t hear the rest of the exchange.
Sasha was just about to hurry away when she saw the man try to push his way through the crowd, but the crowd pushed back harder. He tried to get through once more. A middle-aged man threw a punch, and then others in the crowd followed his lead and started punching and kicking.
The man with no goggles was knocked to the ground and screamed out. No one came over to help and no one left to get help. Without realizing it Sasha took off her goggles, like she did when she was scared during a horror movie and wanted a break.
The man seemed to fall into himself, with his head, arms and legs clasped against his chest. This appeared to make his attackers even angrier and they started to kick him harder. He cried out and tried to cover his head with his hands. His hands became bloody and broken.
He looked across the street to where Sasha was standing, goggles dangling from her hand. He stared at her and opened his mouth as if to call out, but Sasha didn’t hear anything. The men around him pressed in and Sasha could no longer see his face, just a figure lying on the ground.
One of the attackers turned and saw Sasha. His goggles glared with reflected light and his scarf had fallen, showing a mouth half open with gleaming white teeth. The type of face she’d see on the subway. He turned his back to her and rejoined the attack.
She backed away from the mob until her back was to a brick wall. Her fingers grazed against the rough texture and felt the dirt scratch against her fingertips. Sasha tried to stare through the attackers to the man lying on the ground. He wasn’t moving anymore.
The wall provided support and stability and she fell back against it and slid down until she was sitting with her knees pressed against her chest. She leaned her head back against the wall and looked up to the smoke filled sky. There were no stars or moon, just haze. She looked back at the mob and the ongoing attack.
She stared at them as she raised her hands and put on her goggles and activated the augmented reality. Now, instead of humans, there was a group of fairies in the middle of a grassy field circled around an altar. They kicked out in dance moves. She looked down at the ground around her which was now rich fertile dirt with precious gems dotting the landscape. The sky had a full silver moon as well as a golden crescent moon.
The grunts and thuds could still be heard, so Sasha pressed another button that incorporated the kicks into a soft piano and guitar beat. She sat like this until the attack finally stopped. The fairies left two by three, their sparkling wings aloft and fluttering. She felt her legs tingle with tense nerves, ready to run if anyone came near her. No one even glanced at her. The man was no longer portrayed as an altar. He was now a human-sized cartoon style fox. His big eyes were closed and his bushy red tail didn’t move. She thought of going up to him but she pressed her back harder against the wall.
Sasha stared at the altered version of him and moved her hand to the goggles to turn off the augmented reality, but stopped. She didn’t want to see how he really looked. He appeared fine as a cartoon animal. If she left now she wouldn’t have to deal with this. Someone else would eventually come across him and call for help. Maybe he was too far gone for help. But what if he was alive and bleeding out? What if it was someone she knew?
She touched the side of her goggles for the voice activated phone setting and dialed the police, which made the goggles automatically disconnect her from her environment-blocking music. As if switching a flip, instead of music she heard the distant sound of cars and the rumbling of a subway train. The man didn’t make any noise.
"Emergency response. Can I help you?" A high tenor voice rang into Sasha’s ears.
"Please send help," Sasha said softly. Her voice sounded needy and frightened. Sasha realized it sounded that way because she was that way. But her voice also sounded far too loud and she looked around wondering if any of the attackers were close by. She clutched at her jacket and wished again she had the latest voiceless phone technology. "A man was badly beaten, I’m not sure if he’s dead or alive."
"Is he with you?"
Sasha thought of how the police were looking at her coordinates and sending help. All of her data would be displayed and this call would be logged onto her record. She didn’t want that on her record. But if she didn’t call, she was sure he would die, if he wasn’t dead already. She looked around, hoping she was alone while wishing Tina was with her. Drugged or not, Tina would have comforted her. She looked everywhere but at the man who thanks to her goggles looked like a friendly fox.
"Can you stay with him until help arrives?" the voice asked. "If you give us permission to download your feed, we can see his injuries and I can instruct you on how to care for his wounds until help arrives."
"No. I’m not safe. Please make this call anonymous. I have to go. I can’t stay. What if they come back?"
"Are you currently in danger?"
"No. But what if they come back? I have to go. I have to. Please send help. I have to go. Good-bye."
She clicked off the phone and glanced across the way at the man who still looked like a cartoon fox. One of the attackers could come back any moment to finish him off, but thanks to her the police were coming. She had done her duty. She corrected herself: She had done the bare minimum. A good person would nurse him until the police came and a decent person would at least give him the uppers in her pocket to help with the pain. But that would mean she would have to go to him.
She kept the augmented reality on and stood up and turned away from the fox. She walked slowly down the street, the sounds of the night blending into music while the scenery remained cheerful and magical.
A distant shout became part of the rhythm of a fast upbeat song. Sasha found the subway and went home staring out at the illusion around her until she reached her apartment and shut out the world behind her with a twist of a lock.
This story originally appeared in Plasma Frequency Magazine.