The shopping district was crowded on a Sunday afternoon, and Vivian Watanabe was out running errands with her sixteen-year-old, Cass. Together they wove through throngs of shoppers wearing customized skins or the generic default. Vivian wasn’t fond of Generics—they fell into that uncanny valley between a nondescript human and a silver android. Cold and impersonal, plus it was hard to keep track of who you’ve interacted with. Which was the point, she supposed. Personal connections and privacy were often at odds.
“This neighborhood is creepy,” Cass said, waving their arm at the crowd around them. “Rich people have flawless skins.”
“Back in the old days it was make-up and plastic surgery and designer clothes. Overlays aren’t much different.” Vivian wasn’t wearing an overlay. It’d been Cass’s idea, and they’d convinced Vivian to do it as an exercise in challenging societal norms.
Walking around without an overlay felt simultaneously scandalous, exhilarating, and deeply unsettling. But this was the safest of neighborhoods—luxury apartments mixed with boutiques and cafés, everything monitored and patrolled. Truth be told, she couldn’t afford to shop here, but it was nearly Cass’s birthday, and Vivian knew they’d love a box of Van Gogh candy from The Art of Chocolate. The store’s specialty was masterpieces of brightly colored sugar, hand-painted onto rectangles of dark chocolate. Cass was quite the young artist, and their room had prints of sunflowers and starry nights plastered all over the walls as inspiration.
It was still five hours to curfew, so they took their time wandering amongst the shops. Illusions Formalwear had a window display of outlandish gowns—brightly colored silks, sparkling sequins, even a dress made entirely of brass gears. All of them would look stunning on Brooke. Clothes shopping was easier for her wife, even the overlays. Vivian wasn’t tall enough to wear the best looks, and digital tailoring was a lot of money for often mediocre results. Inside Illusions, customers wore impeccable clothes and flawless faces. Vivian wondered what they looked like without their overlays. Personal Implanted Perception chips made everything pretty, but it was hard to know what was real.
An ad bot popped up next to Cass. Except for its sudden appearance out of nowhere, it was indistinguishable from an actual human wearing a Generic overlay. “Upgrade your experience with the new V17 Perceptech microchip. PIPs are mandatory, but luxury is a choice.”
“Fuck off, bot.” Cass flipped it off and simultaneously shot some code at it to make it disappear without repeating its message.
“Language!” Vivian hissed. She glanced around nervously. “Someone might be listening. And hacking adbots is a rules violation.”
“We can’t cower in fear because someone might be listening,” Cass said, their voice uncomfortably loud.
“I’m not having this discussion,” Vivian said firmly. “Not out here.”
“Fine. You hang out with these creepy fancy-skins. I’m going home.”
Cass stormed off before Vivian could say anything.
Vivian ducked into a café to collect herself. Inside it was warm and smelled like coffee and freshly baked pastries. Most of the tables were full, and people mostly projected Generics rather than expensive customized skins. Or maybe the café had filled the tables with bots to look busier.
One of the Generics flickered out.
It didn’t completely vanish the way adbots did, but it darkened into shadow, all the details lost. Her PIP told her someone was there, but she no longer saw even the plain silver form of a Generic. She tapped at her temple. It was an old habit that Cass poked fun at. Vivian was old enough to be accustomed to reality filters built into glasses, back before PIPs took over the market and ran everything else out of business. She’d been one of the last holdouts with glasses, refusing an implant until access to even the most basic resources no longer supported externals. Sighing, she lowered her hand and sent a service query.
The reply was swift—nothing was wrong with her PIP. Appended after the basic diagnostic report there were links to an assortment of relevant news feeds. She scanned the headlines. Bardo Phillips of ZimCorp Launches Experimental Shadow Prison Program. After a test period, the public would vote on whether or not to implement it. There were hundreds of articles describing the new tech and touting its advantages over traditional physical prisons. Cheap, effective, and safe, the news feeds repeated endlessly.
Vivian didn’t feel safe. She was wearing her true face, and only a few feet away was a shadow prisoner—a Shade, the newsfeeds said they were called—and who knew what crimes the Shade had committed? That featureless black form could be anyone. It could have done anything. The Shade approached people seemingly at random, trying to talk to them. It was heading her way. Vivian didn’t want trouble. She walked away briskly and adjusted her privacy settings to project a Generic to anyone who wasn’t a known contact.
She scanned the neighborhood and noticed a handful of other Shades. Were all these people criminals before the new system was implemented, or were they being thrown into shadow for newly committed crimes? Vivian’s chest tightened, her panic rising. The Art of Chocolate was on the far side of the shopping district, and she couldn’t shake the notion that the shadows were spreading, contagious. It was a ridiculous thought, but instead of pushing her way through the crowd, Vivian stood trembling in the middle of the sidewalk.
She could get Cass something else for their birthday—maybe tickets to the latest immersive movie, Genbu: Guardian of the North. Critics on the feeds were raving about the underwater fight sequences, especially the [SPOILER ALERT] realistic sensation of nearly drowning during the climax. Cass had been begging to go, and maybe they were old enough for the graphic content after all.
Vivian hurried out of the shopping district, back to the less crowded residential area, home to Brooke and Cass.
Cass was locked away in their room, listening to cyberpunk rock that was supposed to be censored for explicit lyrics. Hopefully they were also doing their homework. Brooke was in the kitchen attempting to program a flavor overlay for Nutri-soup #6. “I’m surprised you’re back already, Vivs. You were so excited about the shopping, and when Cass came back in a huff I figured you’d take some extra time to cool off. Were the chocolates too expensive?”
“I didn’t make it to the chocolatier. There’s a new prison program, and instead of sending people to jail they get . . . filtered out.” Vivian dipped a spoon into the partially programmed soup and grimaced at the muddy taste. “It was upsetting to see, actually.”
Brooke paused for a moment and scanned the news feeds.
“Shadow prisons. What will they think of next?” Brooke laughed. Her voice was light and unbothered, and she tapped at the kitchen interface buttons, trying to get the soup right. “Although . . . If the experiment works, maybe I’ll sign up to be a Shadowkeeper; you know, to help keep the family safe.”
Her voice never lost its cheerful tone, but Brooke was obviously worried for Cass, who’d never had much regard for rules. Even so, signing up to be a Shadowkeeper, one of the guards in an experimental prison program? Vivian hated the idea. Brooke would constantly be tempted to try to take the system down from the inside. It’d be better to lay low, try to not attract attention. They could keep Cass out of trouble without being part of the system . . . probably.
“Soup’s ready,” Brooke called, her voice loud in hopes of overpowering Cass’s music.
Cass emerged from their room, now dressed head to toe in black except for the silver buckles on their combat boots. Almost as if they were a Shade, except that their skin was pale and their hair was bright blue.
“No shoes in the house.” Vivian said.
“They’re brand new. Completely clean! I’m breaking them in.” Cass sniffed at the pot of soup and wrinkled their nose. “But whatever. I’m going out to see Auntie Yang. She’s organizing a protest for this shadow prison bullshit. And she’ll have actual food.”
“Language,” Vivian said automatically. Auntie Yang lived in the next apartment complex over, an emeritus professor in the Computer Sciences department and Auntie to everyone on the block. She grew heirloom vegetables on the roof of her building and bribed the landlord with garlic eggplant and spicy pickled green beans to keep from being reported.
Brooke asked, “What about curfew?”
Cass shrugged and went out the door without answering.
• • • •
Anxiety gnawed at Vivian’s brain. She couldn’t stop worrying about Cass, even now that they were safely back from Auntie Yang’s. On her bedside table there was a miniature painting of sunflowers, framed, a Mother’s Day gift that Cass made for her. The room was dimly lit from the streetlights outside, and the painting was beautiful even without enough light to bring out the vibrant yellows. Cass had so much potential, and if they were thrown into shade, it would all be wasted. Vivian stared at the painting for a long time, trying to figure out what to do, how to help. Hours passed before she finally fell asleep. By the time she hauled herself out of bed, Brooke had already left for work.
“You have to talk her out of it,” Cass said without preamble.
“Sorry, what?” Vivian didn’t function well before coffee, which Brooke usually made before leaving for work.
Cass saw her staring at the kitchen console and gave an exasperated sigh. “Glitchballs, Mom. You’re hopeless, you know that, right?”
“I can do this perfectly well once I’ve had coffee,” Vivian said. “Or sleep. One or the other.”
She moved aside and let Cass program the coffee. It came out sweeter than when Brooke made it, with orange and cinnamon notes that were unusual but not unpleasant. She hadn’t realized that Cass drank coffee, but clearly they must if they could conjure up something this complex on no notice whatsoever. “Thank you. What were you saying earlier?”
“Mum has it in her head that she should join up and be a Shadowkeeper, and you have to talk her out of it.” Cass made themself a cup of coffee. “She’s trying to protect me, but the whole thing is terrifying. The PIP monopoly. Shadow prisons. News feeds are touting this stuff like it’s useful tech, but we’re in a world of trouble and even Auntie Yang has no idea how we stop it.”
Vivian’s hand flew to her temple to remove the glasses that weren’t there. Weren’t ever there anymore, and therefore could never be removed. Cass had no sense of caution; they were reckless.
A Generic adbot appeared in an empty seat at their table. “ZimCorp is hiring! Shadowkeepers serve society by keeping our citizens safe. Good pay and full benefits, sign up now!”
The adbot repeated its message twice more, then disappeared. Vivian wished for the millionth time that they could afford a household ad-blocker. The targeted ZimCorp ad was unnerving. Advertisers knew they were talking about the new prison tech, or at least the algorithms did. “Maybe Brooke is right. Maybe you need the protection.”
Cass glared at her, gulped down their coffee, and stormed back to their room.
“Just be careful,” Vivian said, knowing that Cass couldn’t hear her.
Twenty minutes later, Vivian had to leave for work and Cass still hadn’t left for school. She weighed her options. Talking to Cass would make her late for work and probably wouldn’t help. Letting Cass cool off on their own meant Vivian would be on time, but Cass probably wouldn’t go to school and they were racking up absences.
She hated not knowing what to do. All the options felt like she was failing her child.
With one last glance at Cass’s closed door, Vivian went to work.
• • • •
The first applicant of the day wore a Generic to the appointment and had only filled out half the forms. Vivian wanted to give out aid packages, but there were so many rules and people didn’t seem to understand how the system worked.
“I’m sorry, but if you don’t fill out all the forms, there’s nothing I can do.” Vivian said. She really was sorry. “Do you need help with the forms? We have interns for that—”
“No.” The Generic’s voice was calm, as they always were. Blank. Featureless.
“It sometimes helps,” Vivian added, “to show who you are. I mean, officially it doesn’t matter, and I can’t do anything without the forms, but people are more sympathetic to individuals.”
“Why would I trust you with that kind of information?” The Generic shook their head and walked out.
Vivian went to the break room and programmed herself a cup of coffee. She should have paid better attention to what Cass had programmed—this coffee was fine but not as good as what she’d had this morning. She pinged home to see if Cass had gone to school, and was pleasantly surprised when the apartment reported that Cass left only slightly later than the usual time.
Her good mood evaporated when she saw her next client. There, in her office, was a Shade. Unbidden, the fear and panic from the shopping district returned. She forced herself to breathe. There was something off about the Shades, something that made her edgy and uncomfortable. The Generic default overlay at least had monotone silver features and a perpetually calm expression. Shades were featureless voids, inhuman.
Vivian frowned. There were a lot of crimes, and many of them were relatively benign. Cass commonly violated a number of lesser rules—curfew, school attendance, restricted media. Vivian didn’t know what the threshold was for throwing people into shadow, and the news feeds were reporting that violent criminals who posed a threat to the public were “kept out of circulation,” whatever that meant. This was someone who needed help, and she would try to help them. She pulled up the forms and was dismayed to find that most of the fields were inaccessible. Not blank, but blacked out.
“There’s a problem with your paperwork . . .” Vivian paused, trying to pull up a name, but that was one of the inaccessible fields. “I’m sorry, I can’t even pull your name off the forms. I can’t give you aid based on what I have here.”
“It’s never been a problem before,” the Shade said in a gravelly baritone. “I’ve been coming in for weeks. The aid package is what keeps my family from starving while I try to get a job—not that I’ll ever get a job now.”
Coming in for weeks. This was someone that she knew, someone who had been in her office before, as a Generic or maybe with their own face. She studied the Shade, but it was utterly featureless. “Who are you?”
“I’m . . .”
Vivian couldn’t hear the name. “What?”
“. . .”
Vivian shook her head.
“No one sees me. Not even my family. No one hears my name.” The voice was unchanged. Calm like a Generic, but lower pitched. Masking the emotion that had to be there. “I just want to take care of my kidlets.”
Kidlets. Vivian had heard that before. It was what Ms. Jenkins called her children. Ms. Jenkins who got laid off for taking too many sick days when she was getting chemo. Vivian studied the forms, but there was absolutely no way to dispense aid based on what was there. That poor family, but what could she do? Without the forms, Vivian could be cast into shade for trying to help, and clearly Ms. Jenkins was no longer eligible. But maybe—
“Hey, John,” Vivian made the call to her receptionist on speakerphone, so the Shade could hear everything. “I’m looking at the schedule and Ms. Jenkins doesn’t have an appointment this week—can you check in with her kids, let them know that if something happened to her they can get help filling out the aid forms for themselves?”
“Um, okay.” John sounded confused by the request, but—while her request was definitely unorthodox—it was not, strictly speaking, against any of the rules.
The Shade stood. “Thank you.”
“I’m sorry that I couldn’t process your request without forms,” Vivian answered, hoping her workaround would go unnoticed.
She was about to tell John to send in the next applicant when she got a call from Brooke. Her wife hated phones and rarely called. Vivian frowned. “Hey. What’s up?”
“Cass is at the place I used to work.”
Brooke had worked a lot of places, and she was clearly trying to talk around something. Vivian considered the options—the mall on the other side of town, an insurance company that got run out of business by ZimCorp, the Economics department on campus. She scanned the news feeds. Massive Protest at Local University Draws Thousands.
“The place with the cherry trees?” Vivian asked. The main quad outside the Economics building was a courtyard lined with trees.
“I have applicants scheduled solid until 4:30. Can’t you duck out and get them?” Vivian couldn’t figure out why Brooke was calling, her schedule was way more flexible.
“I’m midway through application interviews for a new job.”
Vivian didn’t need to ask which job. “Okay, I’ll do it. Love you!”
As she passed the reception desk she called out to John, “Family emergency, reschedule my appointments, so sorry!”
John mumbled something that she couldn’t quite hear, but she’d deal with it later. She had to get to Cass before they got themself thrown into shade.
• • • •
The quad was packed with protestors. Vivian had no idea how to find Cass in the crowd. The area was cordoned off with yellow smart-tape, with the imposing forms of Shadowkeepers patrolling the periphery. There wasn’t a good way to get in, much less out. A group of students waved signs and chanted, “Knowledge is light, light destroys shadows.”
Vivian approached a pair of Keepers. They wore overlays similar to a Generic, but broader and taller—giants that towered over the crowd. They were a lighter shade of silver, perpetuating the same old racist crap that white was good and black was bad even though almost no one wore their true skin in public. But probably most of the Keepers were white. These two were in the middle of a conversation, voices raised so they could hear each other over the chants of the protestors.
“Don’t see why they can’t throw the Shades into the underground. It’s gross down there, but with overlays they can make it look like Main Street, or campus, or whatever. Shades will never know they aren’t running free.”
“Nah. This isn’t for the Shades. They want people to know what happens if they cause trouble. Citizens will toe the line if they’re scared of being erased.”
One of the Keepers turned in her direction. “You can’t be in this area. Classes are cancelled until we get the protestors processed.”
“Yeah,” the other Keeper said. “If we don’t get going on that I’m going to miss the Phoenix vs. Dragon matchup tonight. Blew the last paycheck from my old mall security gig on tickets.” The Keeper headed off toward a checkpoint, where a line of protestors waited to be released from the protest area.
When the remaining Keeper made no move to follow the first, Vivian laughed nervously. “I suppose I should have checked the news feeds before coming in.” She paused for a moment. “You said the protestors are being processed?”
“Joining the protest yourself?” The question had an edge to it.
“No. Definitely no.” Vivian had no idea who was behind the standard-issue form of the Keeper—whether they were old or young, their background, their biases. All she knew was that this person had signed up to be a Keeper in the first hours of the program. It was someone who wanted power, or feared punishment, or was trying to protect their family. She hoped it was the latter. “Okay, here’s the thing. My kid is down there and they’re a good kid but they got caught up with a bad crowd and really all I want is to save them from ruining their life.”
The Keeper stared at her, a stern expression on its chiseled silver face. “Then you shouldn’t have let your kid show up at a protest. Now are you going to clear out, or do I need to make a note on your record?”
She backed away. Protestors were coming out through the checkpoint now, nearly all of them wearing their own faces. Processing wasn’t automatically casting protestors into shade.
Cass’s record wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t spotless either. Vivian had no idea which offenses counted towards shadow—that information was not available on Search.
The Keeper went to join their companion at the checkpoint.
Vivian took a deep breath. She didn’t want the protest on her record, but she had to go get Cass. She ducked under the yellow smart-tape and walked quickly into the crowd.
The protestors were yelling, louder now that she was in amongst them. The crowd was getting angrier because there wasn’t a way to leave without being processed. No one wore Generics, and Vivian suddenly realized that her own overlay had been stripped away. Being inside the smart-tape barrier changed her privacy options—her actual face was the only thing she was allowed to wear.
She felt vulnerable and exposed. The lack of privacy might make Cass easier to find, but then again, their undercut blue hair wasn’t particularly distinctive in this crowd. Brightly dyed hair, colorful tattoos, and piercings were all quite common. If anything, it was Vivian who stood out with her unaltered gray baseclothes and plain black hair. She hadn’t realized that she’d be unfiltered today, so she hadn’t put much time into her real appearance.
Cass emerged from the crowd. “Fucking glitchballs, Mom! What are you doing here?”
“Language!” She hugged Cass tight, shaking with relief. “The whole point of glitchballs is that you were using it as an alternative to blacklisted words.”
Blacklisted. Would cursing count against Cass on some kind of shadelist?
Vivian tried to call Brooke, but all she got was an access-restricted error message. “The real question isn’t what I’m doing here, it’s what you are doing here. You were supposed to be at school.”
“This is important. We have to stop it before it gets out of control.”
The crowd thinned out as some of the protestors—probably the ones with clean records who were having second thoughts—went out through the checkpoint. The small group who remained were, if anything, louder.
“We need to go.”
“Now. I mean it.”
Across the quad, someone threw a water bottle at one of the Keepers. Chaos erupted. People started running, some towards the altercation, others away from it. Vivian took Cass’s arm and pulled them toward the processing checkpoint. Cass kept turning around to watch what was happening behind them, but didn’t resist.
“You first,” Vivian said when they got to the front of the line. The Keepers were hustling people out of the area as soon as they were processed, and she needed to be here to bail Cass out if there was trouble.
“Hand.” The Keeper said. Cass dutifully held out their hand. The light on the chip reader glowed red.
The Keeper paused for a moment, reading records on Cass’s PIP that Vivian couldn’t see. It was a long pause, and Vivian worried that the list was too long, that her child would be thrown into shade. She thought about what she could say, what arguments might hold weight, but she had no idea who the Keeper was. For all she knew, it might be the one she’d spoken to earlier.
“Watch the demerits. You can go.”
Vivian let out a sigh of relief.
The Keeper waved Cass off. “Get out of here. Don’t make trouble.”
Vivian called after Cass as they walked away. “I’ll meet you at home, go straight there.”
Vivian held out her hand. The light on the chip reader glowed red, exactly as it had for Cass. She laughed nervously. “I was only here to get my child, I was worried about them—”
“Your record shows a report from one John Taylor. Improper dispersal of aid. Entered the protest after the area was taped off. For your offenses, you will be cast into shade.”
“But I was trying to help—”
“You were undermining the system.”
“I need to talk to my wife, she—”
“If you wish to contest your charges, you may request a court appearance.”
Vivian looked down at her hand. It was a featureless dark gray, smoky and nearly black. She was filtered even from herself. The Keepers looked the same as they had before, but everyone else was a Generic Citizen. No individual faces, no other Shades. This wasn’t shadow prison—it was shadow solitary. And for what? All she’d done was try to help someone else’s kids, and then her own.
“Clear out, Shade,” the Keeper said.
Vivian started walking. The campus buildings had no overlays. Instead of charming red brick, everything was unadorned concrete. Nothing looked familiar. What if she got lost and couldn’t get home? She called Brooke and once again got the message that her access was restricted.
A Generic Citizen approached and studied her carefully. “—— ——— —— glitchballs.”
“— what — —— — that —”
“I can’t hear most of what you’re saying, it’s like a radio station gone to static. Cass? Is that you?”
“Follow me.” The Citizen started walking, looking back periodically to make sure Vivian was following.
Everything on the walk was wrong. A nightmare distortion of her neighborhood, a skeleton with the flesh stripped away. None of the apartment buildings had maintained their physical appearance—the paint was faded and peeling, some of the windows were boarded over, the landscaping was overgrown. The sidewalks weren’t crowded, but the few Citizens that were here gave Vivian a wide berth. Their silver faces bore no expression, but she could feel disgust and fear radiating off of them in waves. She stayed close to the Citizen that she really hoped was Cass.
They went into one of the buildings and stopped at a door that looked nothing like her own. The Citizen opened it to reveal a Keeper standing inside. This hadn’t been Cass at all; the whole thing was some kind of trap.
Brooke. Brooke could see her because she was a Keeper. She could hear Brooke for the same reason.
Cass said something Vivian couldn’t hear.
“I don’t have that kind of authority. I can place her under house arrest where at least I control her privileges and filters, but that’s really all I can do. Even that is . . . risky.”
The apartment shifted back to its usual appearance, and Vivian could see Cass and Brooke. She broke down into tears. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Cass started crying, too, black eyeliner streaking down their cheeks. “It’s as much my fault as yours, you came to the protest for me—”
“Pull it together, both of you.” Brooke, ever practical and calm. “We have to find a way to get through this, as a family. No room for mistakes now or it’ll be shadows for all of us.”
“Day after tomorrow I’ll be seventeen, I can sign up to be a Shadowkeeper.”
“Cass.” Vivian shook her head. There had to be some other way.
“If you aren’t a keeper of shadows, you’re probably a Shade,” Cass said, their voice dripping with sarcasm. But the words were true. Anyone who didn’t leap up to defend the system would be consumed by it.
“They’re holding the vote on the shadow prison system tomorrow morning,” Brooke said.
“So soon?” Vivian’s heart lifted. The system would be voted down, she could explain her actions at work, everything would be okay.
“Probably in reaction to the protests,” Cass said. “They don’t want to give the public time to think through the implications. Auntie Yang said there are rumors that anyone who votes the prisons down will be cast into Shade, or put on some kind of watchlist. I’m worried for her. I don’t know if she got out of the protest unprocessed, and her record is sketchy.”
Vivian stayed up all night listening to her wife’s soft snores. Brooke could sleep through anything, it was like a superpower. Meanwhile Vivian couldn’t stop worrying about what would happen if people voted to keep the shadow prisons.
In the morning, Brooke cast her vote and went to work. Cass dutifully got on the bus for school. Soon they would both be Keepers, so however the vote turned out, they’d be safe. Brooke would protect their child.
Vivian paced up and down the hall. House arrest meant she couldn’t go anywhere to distract herself. There was nothing to do but watch the feeds for the results. The news hit shortly after the polls closed at noon.
The margin was slim, but shadow prisons were approved.
Brooke called, but Vivian couldn’t bring herself to answer. She packed a change of clothes, a stack of nutrient bricks, and the few pieces of physical jewelry she owned, in case she needed something to trade. Her backpack was small and there wasn’t much room left, but she put the miniature painting of sunflowers from Cass on top. She needed a reminder of what she was fighting for. That there was still beauty and vibrant color in the world.
She would fight this from the inside.
Vivian was already a Shade—they’d taken everything they could from her. She could hide here in the apartment, or she could go out and try to make a difference somehow. The only way to protect Cass was to take the whole thing down. Vivian took one last look at the apartment, filtered to be beautiful, to hide the deterioration of the reality underneath. Then she crossed the threshold, violating the terms of her house arrest and plunging herself back into shade.
She pulled out Cass’s picture. The filters of her shadow prison recognized the paint and filtered it out, or maybe Cass’s art had been digital all along. Either way, Vivian was not allowed to see the art. All that remained was blank white paper in a simple black frame.
She would have to remember, and fight for the color and beauty that was lost.
Spread the word!