It really was quite the spider. Twenty-some-odd feet tall, a half-dozen blue onyx eyes the size of bowling balls, and fangs that looked like they could crush a Buick.
Pallas walked right into its gnashing mouth and fired a Tracer Bullet into its brain.
“Is it... dead yet?”
“No, Mr. Banthem,” said Pallas. “I’m still working.”
“Well, hurry up!”
They always wanted you to hurry. Never enough time to marvel at an AUGUR's handiwork, even if it was from a disgraced one. Oogling just wasn’t in the job description of a Corrective. But, still, this spider was incredible. Pallas felt dizzy at the intricate internal structure of the projection… she almost recognized…
Sys diagnosis logs from the Tracer streamed into Pallas’s lenses. She flicked her pupils left, left, right, left. The spider meanwhile drifted through her and resumed its hunt for Mr. Bantham’s Assistant, which - Pallas quickly winked up in a side panel - was a long-eared fennec fox named Cleo. Pallas had yet to visibly ID the Assistant, which wasn’t uncommon in these hauntings. The poor AI was probably curled up in Bantham’s coat pockets, scared out of its wits.
“Either they’re getting better or you’re getting slower.”
“Don't pretend like you've found the process yet, either, Ravi. You're stumped, too. And, yes,” said Pallas, to the hazed neon green outline of a red-eyed tree frog perched on her shoulder. ”They are getting better.”
“Shall I distract the arachnid, or would you prefer I warble us a song?”
“How 'bout neither. I think I’ve found…”
A shrill cry came from the direction of Bantham.
“It’s right on top of us! Help! Oh, Cleo!”
Ravi’s throat bubble sang.
“Fine! Go!” yelled Pallas. “I’ve nearly got it.”
The frog leapt off her shoulder and landed on the spider’s back. In the background of her lenses, Pallas saw her frog hopping from spider eye to spider eye, being the little nuisance that Ravi was coded to be. The frog was right, though. This projection was exceptionally complex. The spider binary had even been signed with Bantham’s private-public key pair, so no wonder this layer was refusing her signal interrupts.
Finally, Pallas spotted it.
”Bantham! Kill process 56183. Do you hear me? Kill 56183!”
He must have heard her, because the spider disappeared and Ravi fell to the ground with an uncharacteristic thud.
Bantham crawled out from under the bushes. He looked a fright, a school teacher hiding under his desk from his students. A set of red furry ears poked out of his pocket, sniffing. Cleo.
“You’re alright now, Mr. Bantham. Cleo, too.”
Ravi hopped over and licked the desert fox's ears with his tongue. The fox emerged and swirled behind Bantham as Pallas helped the man to his feet.
“Awful. Just awful. How are they doing this?”
They both knew who he meant. The No-Blinks. They’d been hacking (spear phishing, usually) into lense base layers, causing a ruckus by injecting terrifying projections. The Correctives - the division of AUGUR where Pallas worked - had been reorganized from a routine tech support desk into a sort of projection strike force, where she and her colleagues busted… ghosts.
That’s what these projections resembled most. Ghosts. An unexpected projection in your base layer (where only you and your Assistant could interact, unless you explicitly opened a tunnel) was a disgusting violation of personal privacy. Pallas didn’t like thinking about what might have happened to Bantham if the spider had corrupted Cleo's process.
Bantham stacked a payments layer into his lenses and deposited 100 AugCoin into Pallas’s wallet.
“I hope I never have to see you again,” he said, disconnecting the tunnel between his base layer and Pallas’s lenses. Pallas lost sight of Cleo when the connection dropped. She stared at the thin-haired man, waiting for him to say thank you. She finally gave up and headed back to the company car.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” asked Ravi, now in full-color again, given Pallas was back in her own base layer.
She nodded. “Apollo.”
“You saw it, too!” The frog croaked like a tiny bell. ”The water droplets on the hairs of the legs, like dew on fresh-cut grass. The shape of the eyes, with their swirling oils of a faraway nebula...”
“Can we not talk about him right now? Please? I just want to sleep.”
“Fine," said the frog. Then he perked up. "Can I drive then?”
“Actually, yes,” said Pallas. “I gotta catch up on email.”
Pallas reclined the driver’s seat all the way down and double-blinked into a dating app layer.
“Leave me alone, frog.”
Ribbit, said Ravi.
The frog wasn’t actually driving the car - just making input decisions for destinations into its self-driving system, the first being a pit stop at Pallas’s favorite pizza place.
“Bless you, my sticky one,” said Pallas as she scarfed down a folded piece of plain cheese pizza. “I didn’t even know I was hungry.”
“If I didn’t know that, what kind of Assistant would I be?”
Pallas and Ravi had been paired up ever since Pallas’s first pair of AUGUR Lenses. Assistants began as an extension of the “smart voice assistants” that the big tech companies developed a decade ago, which they deployed in cylindrical tubes and speakers in people’s homes. At first, some were appalled: why would you put a microphone in your own home that Big Tech can listen to at any time? Hadn't anyone read 1984? But then they realized the convenience of barking a command to setting a kitchen timer, or check the weather, or order a cheese pizza.
By the time the “next big platform” came - the AUGUR Lenses - the rest of the industry had fallen behind. For a while, they scrambled to build rival lenses. But AUGUR's became ubiquitous. Their patented lens tech, designed by its founder, a thirteen year old Vietnamese wunderkind, was almost alien-like in its invisible precision and unlimited energy, which drew from the pulsing of your eye's blood vessels. Thus, last generation’s great tech companies became mere software layers in the AUGUR augmented reality stack, and the yesterday's voice assistants became today's base layer Assistants. And they were animals. Usually, cute ones, too.
In 2034, which - double-blink to confirm - it was, AUGUR Lenses were a universal human right. Coming-of-age moved up from teenage years to four years old, when children in most countries were given their first Lenses and met their Assistant.
Pallas couldn’t remember a time before AUGUR, and didn't want to. Before being able to see live travel directions, with helpful Wikipedia overlays, before being able to live chat with her friends and family at any time, before being able to see helpful names and personal stats over stranger's heads.
Other than the constant double-blinking, no one else had any idea which layers you had stacked on your lenses. This proved a bit challenging for schools at first, but then the open book test concept re-emerged. Like a calculator, lenses were determined to be an essential tool for problem-solving and the key challenge of the modern era was using them effectively.
In fact, the only time you were ever alone from your lenses and your Assistant was when you were asleep, which Pallas drifted into as soon as she finished the last bit of pizza crust.
When she awoke, she was no longer in her car. She was in a bright room, lying horizontal on a hospital bed.
A small man with powerful shoulders stood above her.
“Apollo. What are you doing to me? Where am I? Where’s Ravi?”
“Ravi is fine.”
”Here! I’m here!” Ravi croaked from somewhere behind her.
“Ravi! Why can’t I see you?” She couldn't move her arms or legs, realizing that they were strapped to the bed. "Hey - why can’t I blink?"
“I’m drying out your eyes, little clementine. I’m going to remove your lenses.”
AUGUR Lenses require semi-constant state of blinking for lubrication. As Pallas knew from her Corrective training, a lens could survive 120 seconds before the first cracks would appear. At three minutes, things get real bad, real quickly. At three minutes and twenty seconds, you could never wear a Lense again. At the four minute mark, you were risky permanent blindness.
“Let me go, you egotistical asshole!”
Her former colleague and ever-so-brief boyfriend (what a mistake that was), the most naturally gifted AUGUR in the world, who’d developed wondrous, mind-blowing augmented creatures and realms for people all over the world to experience, had disappeared eleven months ago. When the No-Blinks began their hauntings, Pallas had always suspected Apollo, somewhere beneath the surface of her mind. Ravi knew it, too. Apollo hopped up on the empty bed next to her.
“This is normally where I’d explain my Evil Plan to you, how I’m going to take over the world, and so on. But, you know me, Pallas. I’m not a thinker like you. I'm a do-er. And what I’m a-doing is restoring your sight.”
Pallas’s pupils frantically flickered a distress signal, which did nothing. Then she tried the force reboot sequence.
“Hush. Rest your eyes.”
“Ravi - what’s going to happen to Ravi?”
“You know what's going to happen to Ravi. Ravi’s in the cloud. He'll be fine. You just won’t see him again. Because we don’t need Assistants, Pallas. We don’t need layers. We don’t need lenses.”
Pallas felt the starchy pulp of the decaying lense.
“Good, it’s happening,” said Apollo, hopping to his feet. He grabbed a pair of tweezers and carefully moved them towards Pallas’s face. “Let me just… oops, got that one. And here’s the other. Shh, you’re okay. Pallas - I’m going to release you now.” He removed the clamps and Pallas frantically double-blinked. But nothing happened.
"You look marvelous... your eyes..." Apollo reached out to her face. "Beautiful..."
“Ravi! Ravi!” Pallas cried, swatting Apollo's hand away. "Oh god, no."
Then she wept for a ghost.
There was nothing a Corrective could do for Pallas now.
Her eyes were bare and that was the most frightening thing of all.