“Fuck,” he breathed. Pornography surrounded him. She would be here any moment. The design files were corrupt; it was a stupid idea to download bootleg versions. He wrenched his goggles off and stood in the pitch black room. “Artur’s had better be open,” Aleksi thought to himself as he clattered out of the apartment and down the dark concrete stairwell. Tugging the dull brass lobby door open, he instinctively snapped his goggles back over his eyes. The last of the evening light was failing and he’d be running blind without them. A second later, the goggle environment loaded and the passageways of Silicon Valley blinked to life, projecting a digital version of the surroundings an inch from his pupils and restoring his night vision.
The tech region was rapidly expanding, engulfing the nearby California Dark Sky Sanctuary in light. Government measures would have put an end to the 24/7 lifestyle that the city had come to represent. Start-ups did what start-ups do; they pivoted to solve the challenge. Eyewear had been developed by a gaming company to tackle light pollution and now the observatories and tech industry functioned on top of each other. Through the goggles, doors rendered over doors, walls appeared over walls - the city wrapped itself in a second skin. Born of necessity, the technology enabled perpetual daytime. Everybody was hooked. This new digital architecture had to be designed and Aleksi had taken full advantage. However, over time his clients had become more concerned with aesthetics than the practicalities of productivity. The entire city, it’s apartments, offices and citizens could be redesigned from scratch and overlaid on top of themselves, then redesigned to keep up with trends. More money was made designing the digital than physical.

A hastily fastened bomber jacket flapped as Aleksi jogged, furling and unfurling, held in formation by its half-drawn zipper. He hurried through the lower district. Like the Web 1.0, there were no design regulations in the goggle environment. Gaudy facades, vaguely identifiable memes and advertisements flickered to life, appearing momentarily in his path before disintegrating and reappearing mirrored in his wake. In his haste, he had neglected to set his eyewear to incognito, which began vibrating incessantly as he passed kiosks throwing spam and discount offers for interior design skins onto his display. Entering the streets after dusk had begun to feel like drifting through hyper-animated spiderwebs. The imitation daylight was a little bright, so he reduced it slightly by gesturing at the sensor on his goggles. The neon sign of Artur’s burned dimly in the distance, only made visible by the limited real-time render distance of his display, a fluorescent testament to analog advertising. Graphics loaded in around the sign as Aleksi approached, making it harder to locate the closer that he got. Artur flagged him down, standing stooped at a counter picking at a palmful of nuts. “Wadya need this time, ziom?”, he jeered playfully. Artur had known to expect Aleksi the moment he left the apartment by listening in on the conversation between their devices. “I have a client meeting in four minutes and my furniture is corrupt. I’ll take whatever you’ve got.” Artur laughed, “What is it this time? Has an armchair turned into a naked lady again?” He leant in, “You’re gonna have to start paying for legitimate furniture skins eventually.” Aleksi rocked impatiently, “Yes, well until I can afford the design classics I’ll have to settle for fakes. It just happens that recent results have been coming back a little… buggy.” Groups of mischievous black hat hackers had taken to inserting adult material into the root files of replica designs, causing them to spontaneously and uncontrollably morph into smut. Artur prodded at a screen in the counter top. “I only have last seasons models - no classics - and only a couple of user licenses left.” Aleksi winced, “I have three skins on the fritz, but I guess I’ll have to risk it.” An exchange of data and crypto. By the time he had left Artur’s the goggle night time overlay was flickering to life. Now, the concrete arcades of the junk quarter were barely visible beneath beautiful translucent layers colour and code. Sprinting back, occasional gaps offered glimpses into crooked doorways and through dusty windows, archaic components of a city veiled in light.

He arrived back at the apartment with a couple of minutes to spare. Nudging the door shut with his heel, Aleksi fumbled the USB from his pocket and skimmed over to a shelf suspended from the ceiling above a kitchen top. It was hard to see in the darkness. Thick wires fell in tangled strands from a computer, coiling down and returning upwards in parabolic arcs. The haphazard arrangement gave it the appearance of a hanging basket; unnatural nature. Fumbling a knot of cabling apart Aleksi inserted the drive. He fished a tablet out of a drawer and keyed in his details, smearing dust off the screen in narrow trails. Navigating the system, he replaced the corrupt files and began loading the environment. While he waited he took in the space, scanning for anything that might cause issues in the demo. The dark room was bare. A bed and coffee table sat adjacent to each other flanked by the kitchenette and a door leading to a modest bathroom. There were few homely items save for some faded chairs and a stout little refrigerator tethered to the wall by a power cable like some wayward dinghy. Dots necessary for goggle movement tracking covered every surface. This was not luxury, but it was cheap and welcomed by people looking to stay in the city. It didn’t really matter what the physical looked like any more anyway.

The apartment buzzer startled Aleksi. He skidded over to the intercom. “Come on up”. He unlocked the door, leaving it ajar. A few moments later, a woman pushed through. Aleksi noted her t-shirt; the logo-adorned pseudo uniform of tech industry workers. Shaken hands and polite smiles. Smiles were all that were visible since the translucent glass screens covered the upper portions of their faces - the visual displays shading them from the dark. “It’s great to meet you in person,” Aleksi said. “Yes, you too”, the woman smiled. She looked young, maybe twenty years old. Thumbing the strap of her goggles, she recalibrated for the space. “This technology is awesome! I’m sure you’re aware of that already though!” she said. “The augmented design business is certainly booming“, replied Aleksi matter of factly.

“Let’s give it a whirl then,” said the woman. Aleksi held his breath and ran the environment. A thick startup tone boomed from the ten or so immersive speakers, echoing and reverberating around the small room. The space plunged into darkness for a millisecond before blinking into existence again with retina frying clarity. Lights ignited in sequence revealing a garishly patterned apartment. Fake sunlight poured in through the window, painting the decorated floor in rectangular pools. The apartment now overlooked mountains, then faded to a beach scene, then to Paris in summer. Three designer chairs occupied the central space, obscuring the old. The client hadn’t seemed to notice that they were no longer fashionable. Each facet of the room hosted an equally offensive motif, and even the bedsheets had been re-skinned with a nauseating design. The customer is always right. “Oh I love it!”, declared the woman, clapping her hands together. “Brilliant, I’m glad,” replied Aleksi, relieved. “It’s exactly what I wanted, My friends will be so jealous!,” exclaimed the client, grinning wildly, “I’ve wired you the funds, they should be in your account. Thanks for everything. If you don’t mind, I’d like to share this with my followers.” Aleksi paused for a moment as she stared at him expectantly. After a few seconds he got the hint. “Oh! Uh, great, okay. Well it was a pleasure designing for you,” He turned toward the door, waving goodbye to the woman who had already forgotten his presence, lost in sharing her purchase and counting the compliments. As he closed the door behind him, he noticed in the corner of his eye one of the chairs flickering into a pair of breasts before returning to normal. He hastily left the building and hopped into a cab as his night vision began to return. After a few moments the stars in the night sky returned with perfect clarity.

    ©2020 Thomas Wing-Evans