5. Defect

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Lily didn't get home that night until the small hours of the morning. This wasn't because of her date with Rick though, not directly. After they'd split the check and gone their separate ways, Lily found she wasn't ready to be alone just yet. She drove awhile and ended up at the Twin Moons Mall.

As far as malls went, the atmosphere of Twin Moons was relatively mellow and low-key. It was something of a stylistic experiment, pushing the time-tested vaporwave aesthetic more toward stained glass and dark wood. This uncanny fusion had apparently missed the mark the mark with customers, leaving half the stores out of business and the whole place feeling like a ghost town. But that suited Lily just fine. All she wanted was a safe place to walk.

Sometimes taking the right-hand path and sometimes the left, Lily walked the length of the second floor many times over, losing herself in an audiobook reading of A Scanner Darkly, by Phil Dick. She had everything she needed: entertainment, exercise, vending machines, and enough security camera coverage to ward off all but the most brazen criminals.

Then out of nowhere came the strangest sensation. From the corner of her eye, Lily glimpsed what she took to be her own shadow keeping pace with her on the opposite walkway, across the gap in the floor. That's not possible, she thought with a shudder. It's just another shopper. But when she glanced discreetly over, it really was only a disembodied shadow, a faint person-shaped depression in the light. When she looked directly at it, the spectre faded quickly out of existence. Then for a few seconds afterward, she could almost see the whole mall full of phantom shoppers, just walking back and forth like she had been.

No, that had to be her eyes playing tricks on her. Or her lenses. The place was empty. Lily tried to put the whole experience down to a combination of fatigue and boredom, but the sight had been too unnerving to brush it off so easily. After a few minutes of searching around for unusual shadows, she told herself it had been a fluke, probably some transient glitch in Second Sight.

Or maybe the mall was haunted. The idea was laughable, but it caught Lily off guard, and a prickly wave rose up the back of her neck. She removed her smartlenses, and the Twin Moons Mall descended into drab, depressing reality. It was time to go home.

The next morning, she had the urge to ask around at work and see if anyone there had had a similar experience, but she didn't dare admit to what she'd seen—not until she was sure it had come from the lenses and not her own unsteady imagination. She decided to go SIA-free for a while. If she had another strange experience entirely on her own, then she'd know she was crazy, and she'd have the good sense to keep quiet about it.

She almost made it through an entire day this way, but sure enough, Zahra Morgenstern stopped by her desk with a friendly reminder that ongoing participation in their flagship product was in no way optional. "We've got to eat our own dog food, you know? If our own team members don't believe in Second Sight, then how can we ask the rest of the world to put their faith in us?"

Lily got the message loud and clear: Keep your lenses in or find another job.

It wasn't until the following week that Lily got some external corroboration of her experience. She was trying out a new cafe—and trying not to admit to herself that she was really just avoiding Rick—when a news report on one of the muted TVs caught her eye. It was right there in the closed captioning: "Following a recent firmware update, many Second Sight users have begun reporting unexplainable visions of shadowy human figures. These anomalies are usually short-lived, lasting only a few seconds, but some have been reported to persist for up to five minutes."

Endless debate ensued as to the nature of these anomalies—or "ghosts," as they came to be called. The most widely accepted theory, soon presented as scientific consensus, held that they were hyperdimensional entities, previously undetected but physically present nonetheless.

As one talking head put it: "They're not human, but they're not exactly alien either. They've probably been with us from the beginning; we just haven't had a reliable means of detecting them until now. There might be any number of these ghosts just walking around, minding their own business, and we'd never know it because our perception is limited to this three-dimensional plane. Picture our known universe as a very thin sheet of paper." He waved a blank sheet around with his left hand and twirled his right index finger randomly. Then he brought his finger to the paper and pinned it down on his desk. "We're not the ones in control here. How could we be? We can't even see beyond the thickness of one sheet!"

So that's it, huh? Ghosts are real; they're just not... ghosts. Lily found this theory a little hard to swallow. What about the simple explanation that there was something wrong with Second Sight? It might be malfunctioning, showing afterimages or glitchy predictive programming. Triclave's technology was cutting edge, but was was it really so groundbreaking as to reveal these hidden people for the first time in human history? These ghosts or angels or demons or aliens or whatever they were... All this time, all we needed was the right contact lens?

It would seem so, yes.

The months that followed saw a nonstop flood of supporting evidence from all corners of the scientific world. Ghost hunting—complete with EMF meters and EVP recorders—became the new prestige hobby of America's youth, unironically embraced by the same self-satisfied cognoscenti who continued to scoff at UFOs and Bigfoot and religion in all its forms. A handful of stubborn contrarians still questioned the official explanation, but they were routinely mocked and ridiculed by the masses. These ghost-denying skeptics were the new tinfoil underclass.

The physical existence of hyperdimensional ghosts became even harder to refute when people started dying—or more accurately, when a tentative link was established between ghost hunting and a rise in heart attacks. The message was the same, no matter the channel: "Avoid physical contact with any and all spectral anomalies. Preliminary reports indicate a greater-than-chance likelihood of concomitant disruption in cardiac function."

It was all very convincing. But there was a nagging voice in Lily's head that still didn't buy it. That's just too good for business. Wear Second Sight at all times, or you may just drop dead. A wry laugh escaped her throat.

"What's funny?" asked Nigel Connor, looking for the answer on Lily's computer screen.

"Oh, it's just... Business is booming, you know? And I'm still not sure the damn things are safe."

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