Thomas fumbled with the bottle of tequila, and it dropped to the hardwood floor of his home with a clink but did not shatter. He left it where it had landed, not bothering to lift it up - it was empty anyways- just as he hadn’t bothered to clean up the empty beer cans that had piled up for the last couple of days around his living room sofa. The clock told him it was already afternoon, but the drawn curtains permitted only light strong enough to penetrate the white cloth, so the room was dim at best. His head felt like it was splitting in half and his throat was sandpaper rubbing against itself. Grabbing tight hold of the armrest he pulled himself up from the cushions, kicking aside some cans lying at his feet. Massaging his temples, he made for the large, glass-doored cabinet that used to proudly display his many medals, ribbons and cups from his racing victories, but the prizes had been pushed aside a long time ago to make room for bottles of liquor. He had used to sometimes raise a glass in front of this shrine to his breakneck youth, but as time passed, he would more often drink for oblivion instead of remembrance, eventually just leaving the drinks on the shelves until more room was taken by half-filled bottles than trophies. Even the poor illumination of the room was like spears of light in his eyes, so he barely parted his eyelids in his search for more drink, opting instead to lift and shake the glass containers to find one that still held some of the balm that would make his problems disappear for a few hours at a time. But he had done a thorough job earlier, so even when he turned the bottles bottoms-up he could get just single drops to his mouth. His grasping hand found the handle of the knife that had belonged to his friend Owen, a knife he kept there as a memento of what had happened when he had tried to fight. He felt its clean metal, once again reminding himself that his temper had to be like the blade: cool, sheathed and stored among other things of the past.

He finally peeked through his lids, seeing his image reflected from a golden cup that still commanded the most visible spot in the closet. The image of his face was stretched out, but he could still tell his hair was a mess and his stubble of a beard—which he had shaved last before the crash—was stained with spittle and possibly worse. He couldn’t quite tell from the warped image, but his cheeks seemed to have hollowed in a bit, his eyes sunk deeper into his head as if he had lost noticeable weight in just a few days. His grey t-shirt and sweatpants hung loosely on him, but they had been quite large to begin with.

Can’t keep going on like this,” he thought, getting a tall glass of water from his kitchen. He sat back on the sofa, accidentally nudging the coffee table so even more cans fell to the floor. The wall-mounted TV opposite of him turned on, showing an image of him standing on the victor’s podium in his racing overalls. After a double take, he realized the news was covering the crash and apparently dug up his past in the process. He grimaced, lifting the junk food wrappings and old magazines on the table to find the mouse whose jump must have roused the display out of the screensaver. He found it as the slide changed, now showing an image of the crash site that had been had taken a couple days earlier. In the corporeal world so little, just some burn marks, remained of the other driver, the true victim of the crash as he reminded himself, but in the virtual realm the landscape was an active memorial which was shown on the program as part of the landscape. Thousands of people had left their condolences, posted images and stories about the dead man. Anyone with smartglasses opening his eyes to the virtual world could even have talked to the man’s virtual avatar, standing on the spot of the accident, who would have answered in the victim’s manner, as it had learned some of his most obvious characteristics through years of following his communication with other people, and could now bring some comfort to grieving loved ones. Thomas had thought of going but as only had a smartphone, he could only have conversed with the AI with a text-based chat program. He also reminded himself that the program was rudimentary and could only say things the original had himself written online or said on video so it could not tell him what he wanted to know, namely whether the driver blamed him for his death.

It’s just a trick, no more real than horoscope readings or oracles, manipulation to take advantage of those blinded by sorrow,” he thought. “It won’t bring me absolution.”

The slide changed again, now displaying a picture of him and Naomi, taken a long time ago, both of them smiling. Without a warning a memory resurfaced, an argument which had recurred many times between them, one that had never been properly resolved and as such often spun in his mind.

You always blame everything on AI and Ampere,” she had said that time, as he had refilled his glass with bourbon, making a show of ignoring her. “The world is changing, and what others consider a wind of change carrying them into a brighter future is to you a violent gale blowing your house down.”

He closed the program and went to brush his teeth and take a shower. Refreshed, he figured he would lay down for a bit and wait for the hammering in his head to pass. But doubts about the last few days and his future whirled in his mind, harrying him like ravenous crows so he had to get up again. Pursued by unanswered questions, he marched to his garage. Flicking the white light switch he stepped into the faintly oil-smelling room. The single, bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling flickered a few times before offering proper illumination. He glanced at the workbench with his watery eyes, hoping to find some half-filled bottle of booze forgotten there, but only wrenches, screwdrivers and other tools lay on the desk. In the corner, a stained rug was bunched up under his large blue toolbox. His car was parked in the driveway, so there was more space than usual. In one corner of the room hung the object he had come here for: a ragged punching bag. He slipped on boxing gloves suspended from their strings on the chains carrying the bag and spread his legs for a firm stance. The first heavy blow that connected with his target sent a shockwave up his neck that shook his brain, his head feeling like the rumbling volcano had just begun erupting, shooting fire and ash in every direction. He gritted his teeth and kept swinging, knowing full well that the pain would pass but the thoughts pecking him had to be sweated out.

Why would anybody kill someone just to frame me? Or were they trying to kill me too?” Neither option seemed likely; what could possibly make him important enough to warrant such malevolent attention? The cars must have been hacked; the always-online surveillance was supposed to prevent outsiders from controlling the vehicles, but no fortress was impregnable. Overtaken vehicles were used in terror attacks, but he dismissed that possibility outright: what kind of a terrorist would strike in a mostly abandoned road? His punches, which had fallen haphazardly at first, started to find their rhythm, a steady one-two combo.

What if I wasn’t even the target?” The pieces of the puzzle seemed to lock in place: it was the other man, the dead man, who had been the mark. He had been taken for a drive to a place with no witnesses and killed from some far-off hacker’s nest, the evidence wiped and burned in the crash. Thomas himself had been just a hapless accomplice. The suspicion of being used by some outside force like a tool reminded him of red lights, the smell of exhaust and a child’s cry. He struck with all his might, the bag thrown back, hitting the wall with a thump. He paused, watching the pendulum swing of the bag.

I need to find out more about the victim,” he thought, slipping off his gloves. “And I know just the virtual ghost to ask.” He climbed the stairs to the second floor and entered his bedroom, the brunt of his headache left behind with his earlier aimlessness. He rummaged in his walk-in closet for a while, opening boxes and moving aside clothes he hadn’t used in years, until he found an old white plastic box the size of a shoebox, rewrapped in its original coverings and all but forgotten. He carried it in is arms and sat on his bed, pulling off the translucent plastic and lifting the lid of the container. Inside, under an instruction manual and a recharging cable, were smartglasses he had received as a gift. He let out a sigh before putting them on, the temples of the eyepiece pressing against the sides of his head before spreading to accommodate him. Plugging the charger to his phone, the lenses came alive, a window popping up and telling him the firmware was being updated. His stomach rumbled and he couldn’t remember if he had eaten in the past few days, so he moved back downstairs to his kitchen and threw some eggs and bacon on a frying pan. The update completed and the next popup informed him the glasses would now synchronize with his phone. Huffing from displeasure, he authorized the task. He knew he was analyzed through the lenses of all the thousands of people wearing the smartglasses wherever they went and had no illusions about the privacy of his phone, but the compelled sharing of personal data still bothered him. It occurred to him that if the people he was trying to find could hack two Ampere cars and leave no trace of their activities then snooping in on his glasses broadcast would be child’s play to them, leaving him at a great disadvantage since they could see him coming. He shook his head, shoving the thought from his mind.

“They could just as well follow me from any of the hundreds, thousands of cameras littered around the city, on the walls, cars and people’s faces. No point in worrying about this one.”

The Ampere logo, a stylized arc of electricity between two antennas whose tips met, forming the letter A, appeared in the middle of his vision and faded away to be replaced by a message bidding him welcome to the smartglass tutorial. He didn’t have a control glove, so he used the touchpad of his phone to control the pointer on the screen. The tutorial begun walking him through the functions of the glasses step-by-step. Following its instructions, he looked around, swiveling his head from right to left in a deliberate motion. Points of interest the algorithms picked up were highlighted in blue boxes, indicating he could get more info out of them. To try it out, he stared at the box surrounding his cooking breakfast and blinked to activate it, eyeing the suggested content. ‘Simple breakfast recipes for single men’ and ’10 easy ways to lower your chances of coronary artery disease’ were the first two results that appeared before he closed the window. The meal didn’t seem that appealing anymore, but he spooned it onto his plate anyways.

I had almost forgotten how it steers you, constantly influences how you see everything,” he thought as he forked the food into his mouth. “No wonder people don’t think for themselves these days, with the programs telling you what to see from childhood.” He turned down a chance to take share a picture of his meal with his contacts and put the plate and utensils to the dishwasher, which, as the glasses informed him, wasn’t up to par on energy efficiency. Just as he was taking them off his face—the test drive had gone on long enough, he thought—his phone begun buzzing and an image of Naomi from his contacts folder popped up, with green and red phone icons to accept or decline the incoming call. He blinked, surprised, which let the call through. He quickly tucked the earpiece from its port in the temple arm of the glasses and pushed it into his ear.

“Thomas? Are you there?”

“Yeah, must be some connection issues,” he answered hastily, glad they weren’t on a video call. “How are you?”

“I’m fine, a notification just popped up on my end telling me that you’re signed in to the smartglass system and I wanted to be the first to congratulate you, good to see that gift of ours is finally getting some use.”

“I’m just testing it,” he said, wondering what else the system was sharing about him without his knowledge.

“I’m glad you’re getting on with the times, it does you no good looking at the world through lenses of bitter nostalgia goggles, maybe these ones will show you the better sides of the age.”

He hummed and hoped she took it for agreement. “Maybe.”

“So,” she said after a short silence. “What else have you been up to?”

“You know, doing stuff around the house, cleaning my shelves, keeping in shape, planning my next move.”

“Good to hear you’re keeping busy.”

“So how is the shop?” He changed the subject.

She hesitated for a moment, the faint sound of smacking lips barely audible.

“I guess you don’t know,” she said tentatively, “but High Gear is under police investigation for the time being.”

“What?” he blurted.

“They say the safety of the merchandize needs to be ascertained by a professional, and they can’t say when one will be available. We can’t do any business until then. They say it is due to all the recent tragedies involving cars of our type.”

He was stunned. “This can’t be legal, if we miss one more payment we’ll lose the shop.”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure it’ll all work out,” she said, trying and failing to mask her worry under optimistic cheer.

“It will work out once we challenge this at court. Don’t worry, I will handle it.”

“Jack doesn’t want any more bad publicity on us than we already have. The public sentiment is not exactly on our side in this case. We’ll be there at the shop answering the police’s questions as well making sure they don’t break anything, and it would be for the best if you kept your distance for the time being.”

“Screw the public sentiment,” he thought but stayed silent.

“But there is one thing you could help me with,” she added quickly when he did not immediately answer. “I think Jason has fallen in with his old gang again.”

“You want me to get him back? Why me?”

“Even if he does not show it, he respects you. Besides, imagine how the others would think about him if I showed up. They would think his mother came to get him home for dinner! He would be so cross with me.”

“I’ll do it. Do you know where I could find him?”

“I’ll send you the location where they usually hang. Thanks, I knew I could count on you!”

“Bye.” He disconnected the call, putting the glasses to his pocket. His investigation into the accident would have to wait.

Good thing I’m not in a real hurry,” he thought. “The dead aren’t going anywhere and what’s on the internet can never be taken off, and this guy is both. Besides, I’m retired. I should have all the time in the world.”


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