Shadows, Part 1

Adrick unclasped his lens, whipping it free of his face. His heart rate, resting low just moments before, spiked. The flexible band came away easily, draping down across his shoulder. Adrick blinked.

Nothing. His loft was empty. The stark light, filtered to a pure white by the translucent shades pulled over his windows, illuminated the box-like space, given definition only by the objects he kept there.

He could have sworn he had seen someone standing there behind his documents, lurking in the corner of the room. It had startled him so much that his first compulsion had been to take the lens off, rather than sweep his view clean with a gesture.

Adrick took a deep breath, leaning back in his chair. He found he had unconsciously tensed and leaned forward. The muscles of his back and abdomen had clenched. The padded chair, bowl-shaped overall but with curves and valleys formed to make it especially ergonomic, was a wonder for long-term comfort when reclining, but it was difficult to get out of when the time came.

He’d never thought of this before, but he felt vulnerable, suddenly, in that chair. If someone was in his apartment and came upon him by surprise, how would he fight back? It was difficult sometimes to get enough leverage to lift himself from the chair without interference. The thought of someone pinning him there brought his heart rate, which had just begun to decrease, back up.

Adrick opened his eyes to take a lens-free look around the room. It looked even more austere than normal without the digital objects he’d come to accept as a part of the space. Without his lens-enhanced view, the walls were a blank white, with no art pieces hanging upon them, of his design or others. The floor was a pale, cheap hardwood with a light stain, which was easy to keep clean if aesthetically unpleasant.

He didn’t need real objects to decorate. The stuff in the digital realm seemed as real to him, most of the time, as everything else — at least, until he peeled the lens away from his face. Or until someone visited who didn’t have one, and they reminded him, purposefully or not, of how blank his “real” apartment was.

Luckily, that was rare. According to one article he’d read, less than 1% of people his age went around without a lens. There was just too much convenience and advantage to be had by wearing one. The only demographic in which they didn’t see widespread use was people in his grandparents’ generation, and even then, almost 65% of people from that generation owned a lens system even if they didn’t wear it at all times.

Since their introduction, the lenses had slowly incorporated themselves into society. The original, bulky units, which were relatively low-powered and not nearly as well designed, hadn’t taken off immediately, but refinements to the power systems and capabilities of the lenses had made them indispensable. They had replaced not only cellular phones, but the bulky computers of the past. Many people had even gotten rid of their televisions, using simulated screens in their living spaces if they felt the need for them at all.

With his hands still shaking, Adrick brought his lens back across his eyes and snapped it into place. He couldn’t imagine his life without the convenience of the device. The flexible lens covered his eyes, held in place by a lightweight band across the back of his head, which also supported the spiral-shaped audio outputs in his ears. Their design allowed him to hear the outside world with clarity while still receiving high-quality sound from the lens system.

The only other bulk was optional: a small black rectangle, which Adrick kept in his pocket. It provided the system with additional processing power and a large amount of personal storage, which he told himself he’d needed for work, though he more often used it for games.

Since he had the storage already, he’d decided to start using the lens’s recording function to keep track of his day-to-day activities. He’d wondered, when he’d first gotten the system, about its usefulness. Just last week, however, he’d watched a news report about a woman whose assailant had been captured because he’d failed to consider the fact that her lens might be recording. That had been enough to convince him to start using it.

With the lens in place, the apartment became what Adrick considered his real home. The walls shifted from white to a soft grey. The floors became a rich, almost marbled hardwood, polished in places so that the swirls of the grain took on a golden sheen. Paintings now adorned the walls, giving the space a sense of life it lacked without the digital layer.

Adrick cleared his project away with a swipe of his hand. The haptic gloves pushed against his fingertips, giving him the feeling he had moved something physical. They were another luxury he’d indulged in. They weren’t necessary to the function of of the system as a whole, but they did make the altered reality of the lens more immersive.

With a few gestures, Adrick called up the recording of the last several minutes. It could show him either a recording of the unaltered world outside of his lens, or what he had seen through the lens. First, he watched the video of reality. It was quite boring. Dust motes danced in the window-light, the only motion in the loft.

Adrick paused the feed as the view jolted and twisted downward. That was when he had thought he’d seen someone standing in the corner, next to the window. The video showed nothing, though in his mind’s eye he could picture a human figure, dark as though cast in shadow despite the room thoroughly illuminated nature.

He scrolled the video back in time, paused it, and panned the view around. The cameras recorded outside of his peripheral, taking in a roughly 270-degree field of view. Still, he saw nothing. Adrick frowned, because even though he felt relief, the visual memory of what he had seen was strong, if muddled: he couldn’t picture any of the features of the person he swore he saw, only the impression of the fact that they’d been there.

With some settings changed, he replayed the video of the last few minutes. This time, it showed what his lens had been displaying for him at the time. He wondered if he’d left his lens open to exterior projections. Perhaps someone to whom he’d given the proper permissions had projected something into his space as a prank.

But, no, it just showed an average, boring scene: Adrick drawing with his digital pen, with passages from the book for which he was creating illustrations floating around the sides of his field of view. In the video, in fact, the space where he’d sworn he had seen a human figure was covered by one of the passages from the book.

For safety, the lens automatically shifted the opacity of its display when it thought it might be covering up something important in the real world, such as a moving object or a person. It would show that in the recording, but no such thing happened. From the recorded perspective, Adrick simply worked along as normal, then suddenly jolted and pulled the lens from his face.

Perhaps he had simply imagined the shadow. He was, after all, working on far too little sleep. His deadline for the illustrations for the novel was fast approaching, and the pressure had begun to build within him — which meant, for him, that he was becoming increasingly desperate to find a way to have fun and relax, despite the fact that every moment he spent playing a game or reading for leisure only served to increase the pressure further.

The result was that he ended up spending every daylight hour working upon the illustrations, and then several of the hours he should have been sleeping playing games. He had even set his lens to give him the illusion of morning to noon daylight stretched out far into the evening, as he’d read online that this help trick the body into maintaining its energy level.

That, and copious amounts of coffee, had done the trick — sort of. When he thought about it, he still felt the ache of fatigue in the corners of his brain. He tried not to think about it. That only got him so far.

With a grunt, Adrick pushed and pulled himself up out of his chair. He needed a break from work, mentally and physically. He would get himself a snack, then lie down to nap for awhile so that he could continue to work. He couldn’t be productive if he was tired and hungry, and anyway, he wouldn’t be doing his best work if he had to force himself.

The chair he used for working was comfortable enough to sleep in, but he never allowed himself to sleep there, since that would only serve to develop bad habits. Instead, after eating a sandwich and some chips, he laid down in his bed.

The bedroom was the largest illusory alteration to his loft. In reality, the entire space only had one separate room: the bathroom. Well, if you didn’t count the closets, which Adrick did not. In the lens-enhanced version of his living space, his bedroom had its own walls, painted a cool, calming blue. The walls were fake, as was the window, which displayed an image of the night sky. The inside of the room, as seen through his lens, had the dim cast of late evening.

Adrick left his lens on when he laid down. It was comfortable enough to wear while sleeping; it has been designed as such. He could even wear it in the shower, if he chose, but he found that to be unsanitary. He wanted to wash the places where it rested against his skin and hair, even if it did have antimicrobial properties.

The headset played calming white noise, a mix of breeze blowing across his ears and the gentle lap of waves on an ocean shore. The system would track his sleep cycle and awaken him at just the right time so that he felt energized after the nap, rather than groggy or unrested. Sleep claimed him swiftly.

He awoke neither to a simulated, room-specific sunrise nor to the soft alarm the system used when that failed to awaken him. Instead the room was cast in the blackness of night, with a darker blackness leaning over his bed, staring down at him.

Adrick screamed. His arms attempted to flail upward, but his own sheets, tangled around him, prevented them. The figure, visible only as a shadow in the dim light, fled. In the dark, Adrick could hardly make out its movements. It seemed to glide across the floor. Its shape was unquestionably human, though, as it opened the door and disappeared through it.

Adrick had no idea what time it was. That was the disadvantage of simulating times of day with the lens — it could be very disorienting. He felt as though he’d been asleep for hours. Even the view through the doorway didn’t tell him much, since he’d programmed the lens to show the “hallway” outside of his simulated bedroom as reflecting the time of day in the bedroom when seen from inside.

He cast his sheets aside as swiftly as he could, kicking them violent off of his legs. His bare skin met the cool air — he’d taken his pants off for the nap. He didn’t care, though. This time he knew he’d seen someone in his bedroom.

The figure had taken the bedroom door, which meant it must be wearing a lens. If the person had never seen his apartment without a lens on, they might not know that the bedroom wasn’t real. It had been incorporated seamlessly into the space. Adrick, however, knew the walls weren’t actually there. He walked right through them, out into the open living space of the loft.

The lens didn’t like that, of course. The visual process of stepping through the wall was odd, but the programmers had obviously prepared for it. A lattice of rainbow lines spread across his vision as he passed through, dissolving the wall temporarily and revealing the still-sunlit loft.

It was empty. Adrick ran to his kitchen space, delineated only by the counter that partitioned it from the living room and the table that marked his dining area. It was the only place someone could hide from sight from where Adrick had left the bedroom. Nobody was there.

Adrick grabbed a kitchen knife from the counter. Breathing hard, he went to the bathroom. The door was open, as he’d left it earlier, and the shower curtain drawn back. Empty. Adrick even opened the linen closet, though it was full of shelves and towels. Nobody could hide in there.

That left only the closets — the one in his bedroom, the one next to the kitchen that he used as a pantry, and the one by the door where he kept his shoes and coats. He hadn’t heard a door open or close, but he had to check anyway. He checked the pantry and the coat closet first, his heart hammering away every time his hand made contact with a handle, and his grip tightening upon the knife. Nothing.

He checked the bedroom closet last, because he’d seen the person leave the bedroom, hadn’t he? He supposed they could have slipped back in as he’d exited. Adrick pressed a button on the side of his lens. He didn’t unclasp it, but he did move it up onto his forehead. It was the easiest way to see through the walls and light up the bedroom without having to go through several pages of prompts, and the lens would keep recording, too.

The walls disappeared, showing his “bedroom” for what it was: just another corner of the loft. His unmade bed pressed against the wall next to his dresser. The closet door, like he remembered leaving it, was open, slid back into its pocket. Still, he approached it. He pushed his clothes aside with his free hand.

He should have felt relief when he discovered nothing but hanging shirts, but instead, his tension rose. He slipped the lens back over his eyes, then turned up the lights in the bedroom to match those of the rest of the house. Then he checked the front door. Locked, of course, and the interface — accessed through his lens — showed the last time anyone had come or gone through it. It hadn’t been opened since Adrick went out for dinner last night.

He hadn’t been eased awake by his lens system. Maybe he’d imagined the shadowy figure standing over him — maybe it had been the last few seconds of a dream, indistinguishable from reality. He sat down at the dining table to check the recording.

The lens recorded even while he slept, though a small icon in the corner, which looked like a closed eye, showed that he hadn’t been awake. As before, when the moment came that he had seen someone in the room, the camera jolted upward. His head turned toward the door, watching — nothing. The door didn’t open, as he’d remembered. From the recording, it seemed as though he was reacting to nothing.

It must have been a dream, then, brought too close to reality by his lack of restful sleep. Still… Still, the icon at the edge of the recording, which told whether he’d been awake or asleep? It showed that he’d been awake when he’d seen the shadow. He’d been sleeping until he remembered awakening to see someone looking down at him from above his bed.

A chill passed through Adrick. He rubbed his arms, trying to bring warmth to his body, but he failed. He had no reason to think that what he’d seen was anything but a dream, except for how real it had felt in the moment.

Adrick grabbed a blanket and returned to his bowl-shaped chair. He had to finish his illustrations, regardless of what he’d seen. Tonight, he would make sure he went to bed at a reasonable time. Maybe, with some more sleep, he would have a clearer mind tomorrow.

6 thoughts on “Shadows, Part 1

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