David Brin's STORY TITLE

Insistence of Vision

She's pretty-enough. Plump in that I-don't-give-a-damn kind of way.
     And un-blurred. I can see her. That makes all the difference.
     "Did you just visit the Dodeco Exhibit?" I ask while she drinks from a public fountain.
     Seems a likely guess. Her sleeveless pixelshirt shimmers with geometric shapes that flow and intersect with mani-petaled flowers, shifting red-to-blue and emitting a low audible rhythm to match. She must have image-copied one of the theme works on display in the museum, just up a nearby flight of granite steps, where I glimpse crowds of folks -- both blurred and visible -- visiting the exhibition.
     Wiping her mouth with the back of one hand, she glances up-down across my face, making a visible choice. Answering with a faint smile.
     "Yeah, the deGorneys are farky-impressive. A breakthrough in fractalart."
     Gazing at me without suspicion, she's bare-eyed -- a pair of simple digi-spectacles hang unused from her neck. The aiware looks kinda retro, like granny glasses -- clear augment-lenses glinting in sunlight, here at the edge of Freedom Park. But the key feature is this.
     She's not wearing them. Not at the moment. I have a chance.
     "There's nobody better'n deGornay," I counter, trying the match the with-it tone of her subgeneration. Navigating with a few tooth clicks and blink commands, I've already used my own specs to sift-search, grabbing a conversational tip about neomod art.
     "But I really like Tasselhoff. She's farknotic."
     "You-say?" The girl notches an eyebrow, perhaps suspecting my use of a spec-prompt. After all, we're unevenly-augmented at the moment. I worry she's about to lift her own pair... but no. She continues to stare-bare, cocking her head in mock defiance.
     "You do realize Tasselhoff cheats? She ai-tunes the cadence of her artwork to sync with the viewer's neural wave! Some say it's not even legal."
     Gosh. Bright, educated and passionately opinionated. I am drawn, partly by the danger.
     Several blurs pass nearby, then a visible couple. The man, garbed in penguinlike attire, sidles in to use the drinking fountain. So many people -- it gives me an idea.
     "I agree about the neural cheat, but Tasselhoff does offer a unique... say, it's awful crowded here. Are you walking somewhere? I was strolling by the Park."
     Ambiguous. Whichever way she's heading, that's my direction too.
     Brief hesitation. Her hand touches the granny-glasses. I keep smiling. Please don't. Please don't.
     The hand drops. Eyes remain uncovered, bare-brave, open to the world and just the world.
     She nods. "Sure. I can take the long way. I'm Jayann."
     "Sigismund," I answer. We shake in the new, quasi-roman fashion, more sanitary, hands not contacting hands but lightly squeezing each others' wrists.
     "Sigismund. Really?"
     "Cannot tell a lie." I laugh and so does she, unaware how literal I'm being.
     I can't lie. Or rather, I can. But it's not allowed.
     She doesn't notice what happens next, but I do. As we both turn to leave the Museum steps, I glimpse the penguin-garbed man staring at me through his pair of augmented reality specs. He frowns. Appears to mumble something...
     ...before he and his wife abruptly vanish from clear sight, becoming blurs.

Walking together now, Jayann and I are chatting and flirting amiably. Our path skirts the edge of Freedom Park. Babbling inanely about trends in art, we stay to the right as joggers pound along, most of them visible but some blurred. Just vague clouds of color -- Collision-Avoidance Yellow -- that even my damned-limited specs can see. I hear them all, of course -- barefoot or shod, blurred or un-blurred -- pounding along the trail, panting like their ancestors, hunting across primeval savannah.
     I offer a comparison of deGornay to Kavanaugh, deliberately naive, so she'll lecture for a while as we skirt a realm of leafy lanes. Specs don't work in there. No augmentations at all. That's why it's Freedom Park. Few would expect to find a cursed creature like me right here at the edge of what -- for me -- is dangerous ground. And that's why I come.
     To my left the nearby street and city roar with stimulus, both real and virtual, every building overlaid with meta-data or uber-info. I can fine-tune my specs to an extent. Omit adverts, for example. Though my tools are limited, even primitive. And half the buildings are just solid blocks of prison gray to me.
     My walls.
     No matter, I'm concentrating on what Jayann says. Actually, it's very interesting! Her art-enthusiasm is catching. Even a bit endearing. Mostly listening, I only have to comment now and then.
     Soon, I hear piping voices and glance back, stepping aside for a cluster of maybe twenty child-sized blurs -- little clouds of chatter, giggles and gossip, pitter-pattering along the gravel. Shepherded by two adults -- one of them a clot of vagueness, the other unedited and brave. Visible as a lanky-dark young man -- my specs even reveal an ID-tag -- his name and public profile.
     Wow. Just like in better times, before the change. Before I lost the power that everyone around me takes for granted.
     Godlike omniscience.
     "Well, I have get back to work," Jayann says. "I'll shortcut through here." She indicates a tree-lined path, clearly inviting me to come along.
     "What do you do?" I ask, diverting the subject, I take two steps, following her. Already there's a drop in spec resolution. I daren't go much farther.
     "I work in sales. But studying art history so I can teach. You?"
     "Used to teach. Now I help a public service agency."
     "Volunteer work? That's farky and sweet." She smiles. Though backing down the path, she's starting to grow fuzzy. I'd better talk fast.
     "But I manage to come here -- to the park and Museum -- every Tuesday, same time, like clockwork."
     And there it is. Totally lame and stunningly old-fashioned, but maybe that will intrigue her.
     It even seems so! She grins.
     "Okay, Mister Mysterious Sigismund. Maybe I'll bump into you again, some Tuesday."
     I sigh inwardly. It's all I could hope for. A chance.
     Then hope crashes. She grabs her specs.
     "Wait. Just to be sure, let me drop-filters and give you my --"
     "Say, is that a bed of gladiolas? This early?" I ask, purposely stepping past Jayann, walking down the path, counting steps and memorizing it as best I can. The Park's e-interference grows more intense. Then, abruptly, my specs cut off completely. I'm blind. But it's worth it if she follows. If that prevents her from looking at me through augmented reality.
     I keep walking, several more paces, toward the memorized flower bed. Bending over, I take off the now-useless aiware, pretending to look. Without specs, I'm even more blind-not even static, just blackness. But I chatter on, as if able to see bare-eyed, hoping she followed me down here, where specs don't work.
     "You know, they remind me of that deGornay --"
     A pair of fists hammer my back, then a hard-driven foot slams into my knee from behind, sending me tumbling, crashing into the shrubbery. Pain mixes with humiliated disappointment. And even worse...
     ... my specs are gone! grope for them.
     "How dare you!" She continues screaming. "You... you liar!"
     My left hand probes among the crumpled flowers, searching.
     "I... I never lied, Jayann."
     "What were you planning? To get all my info, my address, to break in and murder me?"
     "My crimes weren't violent. Look them up. Please, Jayann...."
     "Don't you dare speak my name! What are you doing?"
     "My specs. Please help me find them. Without them..."
     "You mean these?" A rustling sound. Turning toward it.
     "I can't see without them."
     "So I've heard," her voice drips with irony and anger. "Instead of prison, take convicts and blind them. Let 'em only see what special specs deliver to the brain. No possible victims, or children, or anyone who chooses not to let a criminal watch them."
     "Yes, but --"
     "You stole from me that right!"
     Against better judgment, I argue.
     "You could have looked... with specs... seen my warning marks..."
     She howls incoherent fury and I know it was not wise to argue. I may not have lied, but I did divert attention. Used flirtation and charm. Acted like a regular man. I envision her there on the path, clutching my specs, shaking them. "I ought to smash these!"
     "Please give them to me, Jayann... and guide me back to the street. I'll never bother you again, I swear...."
     Probably, she's a fine person, under normal circumstances. I try to sympathize with her sense of betrayal. But the rage that pummels into me seems extreme, for a social offense... charming a young woman into talking to me, bare-eyed, for a while. Mea culpa, I would pay for it. But did I deserve a pounding with fists? Her demeaning shouts?
     A crunching sound. My specs, getting smashed. And God knows what's next.
     Making a best-guess, I run. Gravel stays underfoot for eight good steps, then gives way to grass, so I correct, meeting path again...
     ...before tripping over someone's outstretched leg and sprawling face-first. My chin stings and I spit dust. "Jayann.... I'm sorry!"
     "Not half as sorry as you're --"
     I leap up, stagger forward again. There was a gentle slope down from the street, I recall. And now I hear the panting of joggers. Traffic sounds beyond. With that bearing, I run again.
     No more hope of getting my specs back or reporting for work. My sole thought is to reach the sidewalk... then just sit down at the curb, pathetic and still. A harmless blind man. Word will reach my probation officer. Ellie will come get me. Lecture me. Berate me. Possibly impose punishment. Though it's all recorded and I swear, I don't think I committed any actual --
     Traffic noise is louder. Joggers curse as they weave around me. How I wish I could see even blurs.
     Someone plants a hand against my back and shoves. Stumbling off an unseen curb, I hear brakes squeal. Then deeper darkness falls.

* * * * *

Eventually, all kinds of pain grow dull. Lying in a hospital bed, still blind while docs rewire some new prison spectacles around skull damage, I listen as Ellie explains about how lucky I am. What a fool I was. How close I came to breaking several rules and lengthening my sentence. To losing my life.
     "I know. People over-react when they spec you're a felon. Too many blur themselves automatically. You feel like a pariah. So, would you prefer some awful prison cell? The savagery of prison life? At least now you can work. Pay taxes. Live among us."
     That makes me laugh, rattling several broken bones.
     "Among you. Right. Among the blurs."
     She lets that bitter comment sit a while, then asks.
     "Why, with so little time left on your sentence... why take such chances?"
     How to answer, except with a shrug. Was Robinson Crusoe ever lonelier than I feel, here in the big city, imprisoned by electronic disdain?
     Ellie takes silence as my answer. Then she tells me the final outcome of the fateful afternoon at Freedom Park.

* * * * *

Months later, I see her at the steps of the museum. Jayann sits a few steps up from where we met. It's winter and her garb is much less gay. Despite a thick sweater, I can tell she's lost weight.
     I slip on my newest specs -- bought only last week. Super-farky, they supply a wealth of information. Godlike tsunamis of it. Nametags under every face that passes by, and more if I simply blink and ask for it. The basic right of any free citizen.
     Under her name, flaring red:

attempted 3rd degree murder

     I am tempted to feel guilty. My thoughtless, desperate, well-intended flirtations led to this.
     But then, did I... would anyone... deserve what she tried to do to me that day? In a fit of offended pride?
     The other temptation, to feel triumph over her defeat, is one that I quash, with shame. As she should have quashed her temper, that day.
     As my own punishment chastened me -- perhaps made me better -- will she learn as well? Life can be harsh. Still, things are better now than long ago. There are second chances. There is second sight.
     She looks around, seeming (except for those virtual scarlet letters) like a regular, attractive young woman, taking in the sun and breeze, though with a melancholy sigh. Her spec-mediated gaze passes over me...
     ...then onward. For of course, to her, I'm just another blur.
     I turn, leaning on my cane, to leave. Only then, glancing at the information rich calendar within my virtuality, I realize.
     It's Tuesday.