It’s summer in Cape Town and the sky above me is a clock. The dome of the sky is etched with geometric golden filigree, and black hands arch down to gothic numerals rising up between the hills on the horizon. The small hand is pointing at Devil’s Peak, which means it’s approaching six. Only a few more minutes of jogging before I have to go home and start making a supper of Low-Carbonara pasta.
I’ve set my goggles to the ultraviolet spectrum. It makes the flowers on the common far more interesting: They evolved to attract insects that see in UV, according to an info bubble hanging over them. They have patterns and colours that are completely invisible to the naked eye. Not that there are many of those around any more.
I stop on the corner of the common to stretch out, and watch a couple of other joggers running past. Their public information hovers over them: A designer and an artisan baker, salaries in the hundred thousand plus bracket. Libertarian trance fans too, apparently. I wave at them, but they ignore me. Must have their social settings turned off.
I stare at their departing backs, and don’t react in time to a growl from behind me. When I turn, my throat constricts. There’s a creature crossing the street. Clawed legs and a slick black shell. It has a double row of teeth, and mucus runs from its carapace.
It’s an overlay. My anti-mugging app is warning me that someone without goggles is coming. People without goggles can’t be tracked, and so can’t be entirely trusted. My goggles are giving me the shot of terror and adrenaline that I need to run.
Which is exactly what I’m about to do when the monster reaches out a claw.
“I’m sorry,” I say, backing away. I force myself to remember that there’s a human under the image, and put on a smile. “I can’t understand you.”
It waves its claw at me again. As I recoil, I see something glistening in its palm.
“Wazz? Hap. Gob. Bruk,” it growls pitifully.
It’s holding a cracked set of goggles.
I still can’t understand it, and I don’t know why. My goggles can handle all the South African languages, and the top five hundred worldwide. It’s been decades since I haven’t been able to connect with someone.
“Hap,” the creature says again. Its compound eyes glisten with tears.
“Help?” I say. It nods.
I look at the broken goggles in its claw. They’re for extreme immersion and have sound-cancelling earpieces. Whoever wore these would never see or hear the real world. Every word they heard would be mediated by the goggles.
It finally clicks. I’ve heard of serious goggleheads who develop a personalised language, like a verbal shorthand, that’s only understood by them and their own goggles. Whenever the gogglehead talks to another person the goggles translate instantly, so no one notices. These people are fully functioning members of society, with jobs, friends and families, and yet they’re fundamentally alone. Whole cultures with a population of one. Until the goggles break.
I want to stop seeing a monster. There’s a toggle buried somewhere in my settings but it’ll take a while to find it, and right now there’s a profoundly isolated person in front of me.
I tell myself I can do this. I reach up to take off my goggles.
As I unhook them from my ears, I’m already guessing what I’ll see. Black and middle class. Or an overweight teenaged basement dweller. Or an old white lady. Or a Korean pop hipster. An age, a gender, a clothing style, a wealth bracket, and then I’ll know how to react.
The thought calms me down, and I know I can handle this situation. Because in some ways the goggles aren’t coming off at all.
© Sam Wilson, 2014