6. Regression

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"Listen, nobody's saying smartlenses don't work. They're great. I know that better than anybody; believe me. But these ghosts they're giving us... I mean, come on. It's all a sham. Really, nobody knows this better than me. This kind of thing... it's show business, just like pro wrestling. You give the audience a bad guy, you know? Like these ghosts giving people heart attacks. People get scared; they have heart attacks. Get over it! If you're scared of ghosts, don't wear the lenses. I guarantee you'll be fine."

Lily closed the video in disgust. How could anybody seriously be considering this guy for president? Bill "Dumptruck" Dozier. Thirty years ago, he'd been a professional wrestler. Then when his popularity started to fade, he'd slyly transitioned into a perennial media personality. His abrasive, over-the-top style had earned him a loyal fan base, despite—or perhaps because of—the many scandals that dogged him throughout his career. He was a tax cheat, a philanderer, a bigot, a bully... pretty much everything you might expect from a guy named Dumptruck. And now he wanted to be president.

He knows better than anybody, huh? Right, what would I know? I'm just— On the rightmost edge of Lily's vision, a shadow passed through the hallway to her bedroom. A ghost! Despite their prominence in the news lately, Lily hadn't actually seen one since that night in the mall. It was good to know she hadn't just imagined them, that she could still trust her own senses.

Without a moment's hesitation, she ran after the thing, hoping to catch sight of it again before it faded. The bedroom looked completely empty. Not a shadow out of place. She checked under the bed and then peered into her closet. Nothing in there, except— Yes, there was something. Just inside the doorway, a faint shadow sat with its back against the wall, hugging its knees to its chest. It looked so natural sitting there, just as Lily herself had done many times before. It looked right at home, not like any "hyperdimensional entity" she could picture. She'd sooner believe it was...

"Ted?" Her voice wavered as she tried again, a little louder: "Ted?"

There was no reaction from the shadowy figure. It didn't seem to hear her. Maybe there was another world where Lily was the silent shadow, and this ghost was just an ordinary person living his life. And if that were the case, then why couldn't this other person be Ted? In that alternate world, it might have been Lily who died on impact and Ted who woke up a week later in a hospital bed.

On impulse, Lily reached out a hand to caress the side of Ted's face. But as soon as her fingers passed into shadow, a violent panic seized her, and she pulled back involuntarily, like she'd just touched an electric fence. The shadow remained motionless, completely unaffected.

As her heart rate began to slow, gradually returning to normal, Lily remembered Dumptruck Dozier's glib advice: "Don't wear the lenses. I guarantee you'll be fine." This triggered an unwelcome thought: I can test that. Occupational hazard. Still, it might be worth it just to prove that smug asshole wrong. Her reaction to the ghost had not been fear; it was something physical. That thing was real. She'd really touched it.

Still watching the ghost to make sure it didn't go anywhere, Lily pulled out her palmpod and disabled Second Sight. As soon as the lenses deactivated, she realized she hadn't turned on the bedroom lights. She probably hadn't used them in days; you get used to night vision. Hurriedly, she flipped the switch for the closet and saw that the ghost had indeed faded into obscurity. If Mr. Dozier was correct, then what she couldn't see couldn't hurt her, and there'd be no harm in reaching out to touch that empty space where—Youch!!!

There was that same buzzing panic again. Lily's heart fluttered in her chest with disconcerting irregularity. She wanted to say that settled the matter, but there was one more test case she really couldn't ignore: She'd have to actually take her smartlenses out and try to touch the ghost one more time, totally disconnected from the system this time.

As quickly as she could manage, Lily pulled both lenses out of her eyes and reached back toward that empty space where the ghost had been. Her hand trembled as she edged it closer, expecting a shock at any moment. But this time, there was nothing—no sensation at all. She fumbled to get her lenses back in and then blinked repeatedly to start them up. No ghost. It must have already faded away when she reached for it the last time.

Unless... Maybe it was all Second Sight. Was it somehow the smartlenses causing those sudden fits of panic? Had taking them out actually made the ghost go away, or was that just a coincidence? Or had there never been any ghost in the first place, just some kind of hoax put on by Second Sight to sell more units? In one version of events, Second Sight was saving people. In another, it was killing them.

Lily felt like she'd been punched in the stomach. All the air withdrew from her lungs as she fell to the ground in a sobbing, aching heap. This was too much to process all at once. Ted was really, truly gone from this world, no more chasing at shadows. Her company was callously killing its customers, feeding off of an unlucky few to fold many more into itself. And her government was no better. In a total surveillance state, complicity is much more likely than ignorance.

So what did that make Dumptruck Dozier? Some kind of hero of the people? Hell no. He was a straw man in a suit, a walking false flag. Ninety percent of everything he said was crap, and the remaining ten percent was sprinkled in there just to rub his stink on it. The question of whether he himself actually believed the things he said was irrelevant. He was a puppet in a long line of puppets. He played his part just as his so-called opponents were playing theirs.

What a depressing thought: The real game isn't between the two teams on the field. It's between the people sitting in the bleachers and the ones underneath stealing their wallets.

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