7

Harry turned the corner and spotted the crowd gathering in the square outside the city hall. That was his cue to change, and with a silent command to his aug he instantly transformed from his streetwear into the tuxedo Karen had bought from him.

‘Show me how I look,’ he commanded his aug.

Harry stopped and a life-size avatar of himself appeared by his side. He looked good, just like Karen had assured him he would. The black formal suit was offset by a blue cummerbund and pocket square, no doubt offering a hint of what Karen would be wearing tonight.

‘I’ll do,’ he said as he resumed walking towards the crowd. ‘Now, where is she?’ The aug picked up the question and in his vision Harry saw an illuminated route to where Karen was standing.

The assembled guests were the concentration of the city’s most powerful citizens surrounded by the citizenry lucky enough to get an invitation. The politicians, patrons, civil leaders and the rich all gathered only because they knew that others like them would be attending. The event, the unveiling of Yuri’s most recent installation, was secondary.

Harry’s aug led him faithfully, plotting a path through the throng until Karen was in sight. She stood with her colleagues from city hall, some of whom Harry recognised, all mingling just behind the mayor as she greeted people Harry assumed were VIPs.

Karen was wearing a long navy-blue dress with a high collar, the fabric shining over her tall, lean body. Her arms were bare and in her left hand she held a glass of champagne. He stopped as she was in sight and watched her with soft eyes, taking in the sight of her as she effortlessly held the centre of the group conversation.

She turned and caught sight of Harry standing there, an excited first glance fading to a reprimanding scowl. Her lips moved silently as she spoke to her aug.

‘Where have you been,’ Harry heard in his ear from across the square.

‘Fashionably late, dear,’ he replied. She let a smile slip through before regaining control of herself.

‘You’re only fashionable because I dress you. Get yourself over here, they’re starting soon.’

Harry’s aug picked out familiar faces as he weaved through the crowd. It provided names for them, and below each was a summary of their last encounter, a mnemonic trigger which allowed Harry to place the other person into context. With nods and hellos he made his way towards Karen, before gliding up beside her and planting a kiss on her cheek.

‘Hello, darling,’ he said.

‘Hi,’ she replied. ‘Harry, this is Mark, Rachael, Helen, and I think you’ve met Harry.’

‘Ah yeah, that’s right, my namesake. How have you been?’

‘Good,’ the other Harry said. ‘I’m really looking forward to tonight.’

‘Yeah, me too.’ With the minimum social interaction completed, Harry stood back and let the conversation return to its previous flow. While the mayor’s staff discussed the sequence of events for the evening, he remained close to Karen, her hand gliding to his buttock and squeezing as he leant in. This night was going to be good after all.

A drum sounded. The crowd stopped as one and turned towards city hall to see a drummer standing on top of the steps. With his next strike a second drummer flashed into existence from beneath the aug layer. The two struck again simultaneously, and a third appeared, and then again and again, a new drummer being added with each strike until there were eleven standing in a row. They beat their drums in unison, faster now, the tempo building continuously. Spotlights pointed skywards illuminating clouds swirling in blues and greys, the wild perturbations folding unnaturally inwards on themselves. An eye formed at the centre of the building storm.

‘You’re going to love this,’ Karen whispered in his ear.

Lightning crashed into the centre of the drummers. The crowed ducked and covered their ears as the sound hit them, the sudden explosion violently assaulting their senses. Where the lightning had struck there was now a column of smoke. The drums started again, and the people watching stood and returned their gaze to the steps of the city hall, reorienting to their environment and remembering that they were there to see a show.

‘You’re right,’ Harry whispered. ‘I wish I could do that.’ Karen pulled herself in closer.

As Yuri stood from his hunch inside the smoke, the crowd erupted in applause. He stood tall, arms outstretched, his bald head peeking from a black coat studded with coloured crystals. He bowed very slightly to the crowd as the drumming continued, his bulging eyes washing over the guests as he viewed them intensely.

Harry noticed a change in the drummers too. Where there had been men and women there were now human bodies with animal heads. There was a dog, a rooster, a monkey, and a pig that he could see, and others he couldn’t quite make out. They moved as one, swaying with the beat, striking their drums in exaggerated sweeps of their arms.

There was a second crash of lightning, and where it struck a staff appeared in Yuri’s hand. The electricity arced along its shaft and washed over Yuri himself, a blue plasma shell shimmering around the shape of his body before cascading down the steps. Yuri struck his staff on the ground with every fourth beat of the drums, booming over the drummers and sending sparks flying, the wide cuffs on his wrists waved with every movement. The wizard was clearly in control of his familiars, their movements on the drums mirroring the master’s own.

Yuri moved his staff in arcs and waves, a serpentine motion focusing the blue plasma in wispy lines that lingered in the air. He moved up and down the front of the hall, between his drummers and the crowd, building up the shape of his creation. He turned with a flourish, a sphere emerging at one end of the snake. At the other, he focused the energy to a point, the animal’s tail, which broke abruptly as he returned to reinforce the rest of his creation. As the body took form he began to move more slowly, stopping in place to add objects to the animal’s torso, painting four legs as if he was working with molten glass. He built wings for his beast; a faint smoky fabric held in place between thicker supporting struts.

Yuri’s creature was a dragon. He stood behind it, visible through its translucent body, holding his staff horizontally in outstretched hands. He bowed his head in whispered prayer, the conjuror willing his creation into being, the faint plasma solidifying as delicate details began to emerge. What was a tubular torso became ridged with horns along the spine. The dragon’s flesh transmuted from a cloud-like consistency into flesh and bone, and scales of blue and green appeared under its belly. Its feet became craggy and clawed, great spikes grew from the beast’s tail, and from its head emerged teeth the length of Harry’s forearm. The wings were fine, membranous leather attached to impossibly long fingers emerging from the dragon’s back, and it stretched them as it came to life.

Yuri’s dragon was complete. It threw back its head in a triumphant roar, flames licking at its teeth, before a fireball erupted and flew off into the night sky. The flame produced no heat, their augs only able to simulate the sights and the sounds of the artwork.

The crowd yelled its approval, cheers and applause for the master artist and his masterpiece.

Harry was with them in their applause.

‘Fly!’ Yuri commanded in a booming voice. His dragon reared up on its hind legs, flapped its wings and leapt into the air.

Every beat of its wings was a full body exertion, and the dragon rose in a rapid spiral above the city hall. Reflections from the ground below bounced off its metallic green-and-blue scales, sparkling against the night sky like stars, outshone only by the flames that periodically left the beast’s fearsome mouth. Once it reached a height above the skyscrapers, it turned and began gliding over the buildings. It continued to climb with the hot currents as it was set free over the city, sending itself into the collective vision of the citizens casting their eyes upwards each time the dragon erupted in a roar.

The crowd cheered again.

‘It’s been let out now,’ Karen said. ‘It has been programmed to fly around the city and perch on the tops of the buildings. For the most part he’ll sleep during the day and come out at night. At this stage we’ve got the exhibition scheduled for a month, but I think that once people get used to it they’ll want the dragon around for good.’

‘It is impressive,’ Harry replied. He leant over and kissed her on the cheek. ‘Thanks for inviting me along.’

‘Yeah, like who else would I bring?’ she said. ‘I’m glad you made it, too.’ She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him.

Harry looked down and saw that Karen was no longer in her long blue dress—she, and everyone around him, were dressed in their greys.

Well, almost everyone. The governor, standing just metres in front of Harry, was still in his tuxedo, and his wife was wearing the long red dress that she’d arrived in. Murmurs began to rise in the crowd as the guests noticed that there was something wrong.

As Harry gazed around him he saw the buildings made from plain concrete, cracked and discoloured, their clean, modern cladding and walls of glass now gone. The trees demarking the square had disappeared, and in their place were concrete posts topped with antennas. New people, previously invisible, appeared as well. Troopers in black armour armed with long rifles lined the front of the city hall and all around the square, the invisibility afforded them by the AugNet now gone.

‘Huh. Is the net is down for you too?’ Harry asked Karen.

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘How?’

‘It shouldn’t be possible. I mean, even when the network signal goes down, our local caches should hold enough objects to at least keep the scenery stable. And we should still be peering our objects with each other. I mean, it happens occasionally, you get an outage in an area, but no one ever notices because we’re all connected in a mesh network, and everyone holds part of the scenery.’ Harry trailed off as he thought. ‘Unless they sent a command to clear the caches to all the people at the same time, but that only happens at night and only when you’re home. And not when the local net goes down. This is odd.’

After a while he spoke again. ‘Aug, are you online? Can you see Karen?’

‘Yes, Harry, I am working properly. I have peer connectivity with other local augmentors but there is no network connectivity.’

‘And the cache?’

‘Cleared in response to a network command.’

He was right first guess.

‘It’s ok,’ he said to Karen, ‘Looks like it’s an outage of some sort. A weird one, but nothing too out of the ordinary. Our augs aren’t damaged from what I can see.’

‘Might be normal for you, you do this for a living.’ Karen curled into his shoulder and Harry put his arm around her. ‘Kind of a downer after the night we were having.’

‘Yeah, I suppose it is.’ He looked up to see people in the crowd pointing at the city hall. Letters appeared, drawn in red, dripping down the front of the now unadorned façade of the civic building.

Look upon your leaders and see them as they really are.

It was an intentional attack on the net.

The crowd turned back to the governor and his wife who had so far escaped scrutiny. Standing out in their obscenely lavish real clothes among the citizens in their austere, rationed greys, the assembled masses forgot about the unprecedented outage and focused instead on those who hadn’t reverted to their issued clothing when the net went down. The singer Lili was still dressed in the black leather skirt and torn top she’d been wearing all night. There was an industrialist in a fashionable beige suit, a state politician in a smart black dress, a model in what looked like a yellow plastic triangular tent. In all, Harry estimated that one in twenty of the guests had been dressed in real clothes under the aug layer.

‘Scab!’ one of the guests near Harry called. ‘You cheating shits!’ said another.

Mayor Myers ran over to Karen. Like most of the crowd she was wearing her greys.

‘I had no idea the abuses were this widespread,’ she said. ‘Nothing good is going to come of this. These people, they’re going to tear them apart.’

‘This might an opportunity,’ Karen said. ‘From what I can see you’re the most senior person here who is obeying the law. If we can get their attention, separate the wasteful few from the rest of us, assure people they’ll be prosecuted, you can make that run for governor next term.’

That’s my girl, Harry thought.

‘Well, he’s not getting re-elected after this. Ok, Karen, Mark, Helen, with me. Maybe the front of the hall?’

‘I think that’d be best,’ Karen replied. She passed her clutch to Harry as the mayor and her staffers bolted to the front of the hall.

It was then that Harry saw her. Standing in the middle of the road well outside the city square, perhaps a hundred metres from where Harry stood, was a single woman wearing an issued grey smock. From the distance Harry could see that she was maybe twenty-five, with long blond curls, standing with her arms extended, palms facing forward to the crowd. Her eyes appeared to be closed, as if she were dreaming her way through the ordeal.

She snapped her head towards Harry and opened her eyes. The woman drew her right index finger to her lips in a gesture that insisted that he keep their shared secret, before she disappeared in a puff of smoke.

‘Aug, record the last thirty seconds,’ he said.

‘I’m sorry, Harry, recording is not available. It has been turned off for this location due to the presence of security forces.’

‘Shit. Ok, clear all objects currently stored, use my Cernet emergency authorisation override. She must have sent through a mask when she disappeared, that smoke was certainly not real. Keep an unaugmented view until I say otherwise.’

The aug complied. When he looked back, the woman was gone. He turned his head back to the city hall, the words painted on the building’s exterior had disappeared as well.

‘Well, that didn’t work. Ok, turn it back on. Log the authorisation when we get connected again, I shouldn’t have any trouble justifying it given the circumstance.’ His aug complied. The net was still down, but the letters on the hall returned, no doubt forwarded to him through one of his neighbours’ augentors.

‘Please, everyone, can I have your attention!’ Mayor Myers yelled from the steps of the city hall. Parts of the crowd turned towards her. ‘Everyone, we need to stay calm. I want all the people in greys to move to my left, towards Liberation Street, and assemble there. Separate from the criminals in their wasteful clothes. When the aug comes back on we need to be able to tell who is who.’

There was a grumbling agreement as part of the mass moved as instructed. Some of the clothed tried to follow but were shoved away by the majority, their high social status instantly forgotten in the face of their offences against austerity. To dress up in the real was a wasteful indulgence, a misuse of precious resources for the thrill of elevating themselves above the masses. The social contract of augmented society was predicated on equal access to scarce physical resources, wealth only displayed by being painted in information on top of the unadorned surface below.

‘Police, you men in uniform, surround the criminals, I want them arrested,’ the mayor said.

The police moved in but didn’t face the offending elites. Instead they faced outwards, guarding the clothed people against the angry mob. Armoured cars appeared from nearby streets, responding to the emergency, and stopped just outside the encircled group. The protected people climbed in rapidly and the troops took position on the outside, rifles held towards the crowd in a defiant warning.

The people were having none of it. They yelled at the cars and ran towards them, only realising the futility of their actions as the vehicles roared away.

Harry saw the mayor talking to Karen from the top of the stairs. She turned to the crowd and spoke again.

‘People, please, my fellow citizens, can I please have your attention.’ Only a few turned. ‘Everyone, I need you to listen, I guarantee that they will face justice.’

‘Silence!’ Yuri boomed. The crowd turned to the artist, unnoticed since the launch of his creation. Even in his greys, his tall, gangly figure and bald head marked him as distinct, the wizard persona more a product of his intense aspect than any informational staff and robe. ‘Listen to your leader,’ he commanded.

Mayor Myers nodded to the artist in a silent thank you. He stood aside as she stepped forward, transforming in seconds to her polished political persona.

‘My fellow citizens, we have witnessed two unprecedented crimes this evening. The first is the disruption to the AugNet and defacement of our city hall. The AugNet is a vital piece of infrastructure, essential for the delivery of food and clothing and entertainment to all the people living in this city. Whoever has committed this act of terrorism will be brought to justice, I assure you. This city will not tolerate disruption to our way of life, especially during a celebration as joyous as this one.’

As she spoke, objects began to flicker back into existence. The graffiti on the town hall gave way to the reappearance of the marble façade, colour returning to the streets as the information flowed through the network that connected the augmentors in the people’s heads. Clothing appeared again, Harry’s tuxedo flashing back into existence, a brief look towards Karen confirming the return to normality when he saw her blue dress. Everything was back where it should be.

The crowd cheered. The dragon swept overhead, its roar transformed from terrorising to triumphant as it added to the sound of the crowd. The revellers increased in volume to match their new mascot.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, Yuri’s dragon. Step up again, Yuri, we want to celebrate your work and express our appreciation, even if your night was interrupted.’

Yuri stepped forward gracefully and nodded his head slightly towards the crowd again. They cheered the artist as he stepped back into the shadows.

‘I want you all to look for the dragon every night. And when you do, I want you to remember what happened tonight.’

Harry noticed that the crowd was increasing. With the AugNet back up people were gathering around the city hall. His own vision indicated dozens of messages from associates who knew he was at the event tonight. He dismissed them with a glance.

‘I want you to remember this night every night until we have justice,’ she continued. ‘And I’m not just talking about those who brought down the network tonight. No, there was a second crime committed here, and you were all witnesses to it.’

The crowd roared in anger.

‘Yes, be angry. You saw them, I saw them. Politicians, entertainers, sports people, the rich, all flouting our most fundamental prohibitions. They blatantly, in public of all places, bore the objects of excess and inequality in the belief that they could pass right by us, protected by their special access to the net. I for one won’t tolerate it.

‘I say this to you, my fellow citizens. The dragon will fly this city as a reminder, as a symbol, until those who transgressed against you are brought to justice. We know their names, we who witnessed their crimes, and we will remember what they have done. They will make excuses and deny they were here and insist that they are misunderstood. But we witnessed them, and we need to hold them accountable to the people!’

The crowd erupted again. The mayor made her way down the steps and into the crowd, her people now, and shook hands and hugged her constituents, all worked up with the emotion of the night.

As they passed nearby, Karen flashed a smile Harry’s way. She skipped over and hugged him enthusiastically.

‘Well done,’ he whispered in her ear. She broke the embrace but took his hand, leading him behind her as she followed the mayor through the jubilant crowd.