Staccato bursts echoed among crumbling brick walls, then faded to silence.
"Freaking neurots," he grumbled.
"...a small band of renegades escaped the quarantine area this morning and managed to make it into the Buffer Zone. They carried ancient projectile weapons, but were quickly apprehended before they could enter the city. No citizens of Shore were harmed..."
With a sideways finger flick, Torbin muted the holographic projection hanging just in front of him. There was a light pressure against the finger, as if pushing a lever.
He continued to monitor a dozen news channels nearly simultaneously, periodically changing the volumes, or pausing some to concentrate on others. The movements of his hands and fingers were merely a blur. He felt vibrations, textures. Images coalesced, to be stored...somewhere. There was little distinction between mind and global library.
A pulsing hum in his ear indicated an incoming communication request. He marked a few of the segments for later viewing, then switched the images off with a quick, downward hand flip. His index and middle fingers slid to the right. A holo image appeared.
"Hey! Are we meeting for lunch today?" The warm voice came from a young woman who appeared to be the same age as Torbin, although she was nearly a decade older. Her teal knee-length tunic, bound at her slender waist with a loop of white fabric, stood out clearly from the earth tones behind in her apartment. Toe-less sandals with loops around the ankle completed her look.
"Yes, Nell," Torbin replied. "I'll call you about it later."
"Okay, but can we meet downtown this time?"
"Uh huh. I need to get going."
"Later then." Tanielle's bright green eyes searched his. She raised her right palm. Her image vanished as he turned the projection off.
Checking his appearance in a mirror, Torbin's rounded facial features were softly shadowed by the diffuse lighting. He donned a slate gray outfit made from a single piece of stretchable cotton, then pulled on a sleeveless jacket that adhered snugly to the underlying suit. Embedded with microbots, covered in sensors, the jacket could adjust its temperature, emit a variety of mild, pleasant odors, pulsate at various frequencies for a massaging effect, even loosen or tighten based on readings from the sensors.
He was making his way towards the door when a voice reminded him of the day's schedule. As part of the worldwide information grid, the AI monitored each citizen's daily life, recording all personal data. He exited, while behind the AI turned off lighting, lowered air circulation. It released a swarm of waste removal microbots that spilled onto surfaces where bacteria colonies were about to gorge on the remains of his morning meal.
He stepped into a pneumatic elevator that descended to the ground floor.
The sprawling city of Shore, located in the southern regions of the Chiyan continent-state, had originally been constructed along river banks at an intersection of two major waterways. It rapidly outgrew its design, now encompassing much of the surrounding countryside. With nearly one million residents it was one of the larger cities of the world.
Torbin ordered a ride using a quick series of finger motions. Shortly a single-seat shuttle pod whisked up beside him. As a post-graduate student working on a project backed by the Chiyan coalition, he was granted free access to the city's transportation system. He entered the vehicle, verbal commands logging in his destination. The vehicle accelerated using powerful bursts of compressed air that also cushioned it off the ground. It wove nimbly in-between buildings, among other vehicles, around citizens, occasionally rising a few centimeters to pass over the tops of low-lying obstacles.
A man dressed in rags ran along the debris-strewn ground. Bright orange spheres the size of marbles pelted the ground near his feet. Small dirt clouds popped up wherever the balls of energy hit, and the man could hear the snapping sounds of static electricity. He jumped over pieces of torn sheet metal or broken concrete as he zigzagged to avoid the blasts.
Diving through an open chain-link gate that locked behind him, he landed face down in rubble. He winced when his knee smacked against a sharp rock jutting from the pile. An egg-shaped tracker bot hovered briefly just outside the fence, a whir whispering from the propellers that encircled its lower body. It sped off, apparently satisfied the quarry was safely confined. The bot, controlled by a minimal AI that fell well within government restrictions on thinking machines, had tailed John and a cohort as they were returning from an area forbidden to non-citizens. John had managed to create a diversion that allowed Mark to get away and return to the quarantine area through a separate entrance.
As he stood, John brushed bits of gravel from his beard and shoulder length hair. From overhead came the squeak of a metal sign, swinging loosely over the gate, that read "Neurots Only".
It was late autumn, but the warm air was thick with humidity. John sweated heavily. Limping, he pulled a small, soft object from his backpack. He walked towards a shelter, one arm tucked behind his back. As he entered, a hot draft blew through gaps in the walls. The thin metal sheets shuddered each time the wind picked up, the exterior pelted with debris.
A little girl playing alone glanced in his direction, then scampered over. She giggled, trying to reach behind him. He teased her, and she let out a happy yelp. Slowly, he pulled his arm around. Caroline gasped, covering her mouth with two cupped fists.
The smile in her father's eyes told her it was alright to take the gift.
John, a man of thirty years or so but with the worn and weathered face of someone much older, grinned broadly as he watched her play with the battered cloth doll. It hung limply in her hands. She fussed with its clothing, trying to brush away the stains and hide the holes in the faded fabric. Giving his daughter's red hair a tousle, he left her to play. He headed towards the commons area.
An argument was taking place. Mark was there, leaning against the wall. John paused to listen, catching Mark's eye.
"We've got to defend ourselves!" came a shout.
Some in the crowd seemed agitated. Others shuffled nervously.
"What's going on?" John asked in an even tone. He brushed past the outer circle gathered together in the cramped room.
"The overseer's got extra bots on patrol," Mark explained. "There's talk of limiting food rations even more, and making curfew an hour earlier." The others turned their attention to John.
Not a man of many words, he reached into a pocket, pulling out a tattered, yellowed scrap of paper.
"What's that?" Mark asked.
"A photo of one of my ancestors."
Mark walked over. Shorter than John, he needed to lean in to see the picture clearly. On it was the smudged portrait of a young woman. She stood outdoors next to a wooden sign that was carved with the words "Grand Canyon National Park". John turned the photo over. Written on the back was a date: "July 14, 1997".
"We've got rights," stated John, calmly addressing the crowd. He held up the photo for them to see. "I found this, along with historical documents, in a grotto just north of here. There are records there, proof we come from common stock."
A murmur swept through the crowd. John handed the photo to Mark to pass around.
"This proves nothing!" shouted Gavin, the same man whom John had first heard as he entered the room. "No one in their right mind would believe the damned golems would ever consider giving us equal status."
John looked at Gavin disapprovingly. "I've asked you not to use that term. We don't need name calling to make things worse. And the kids can hear you-"
"Oh, hell," Gavin spat back. "Let them listen. What difference does it make? They're gonna grow up with no chance for a better future as long as we listen to you!"
Gavin glared at John, and seemed ready for a fight. John stood still. He was well-built, and had the look of someone who could defend himself. He noticed red marks around Gavin's wrists, a sign of restraining straps. Ignoring Gavin’s remark, John again spoke to the group.
"Mark and I have a contact in the city who can get us a talk chit that will give us five minutes to speak before city representatives. Our contact can also get us visitor passes and transport for the day. We plan on putting the request through tonight."
"And just what will you tell them?" countered Gavin. "That you found some ancient garbage in a hole somewhere? And that it amounts to undeniable evidence of our shared heritage? Do you really think the repatriation committee will turn over a century of legislation and enforcement policies based on scraps of paper?"
Several others voiced their agreement.
John paused to let the chatter die down. "Let's put it to a vote." He requested hands be raised for those in favor, and those opposed. A majority were in favor.
"Then we're agreed," John announced. "Mark and I will submit our request this evening. With any luck we'll stand before the committee tomorrow."
The group dispersed with no further debate. Gavin and several men moved to the edge of the room where they began their own discussion.
Mark and John left the room together. The two friends hugged warmly before John excused himself to put Caroline to bed. As he crouched down she thrust both arms out to show him her doll, now in two pieces. Her eyes watered, and she let out a high pitched moan that continued until he took the pieces.
"Sweetheart, what happened?"
Caroline's stoic stance made clear the immediate concern was repairing the doll, but non-citizens, John knew, were not allowed to possess sharp objects, including needles.
"Daddy knows someone that can fix this, but first he needs to go into the city. Then he'll bring your baby back. Okay?"
The little girl's firm nod ended the matter. John whisked Caroline up from the floor to carry her into the children's sleeping area. He tucked her in with blankets, humming her favorite lullaby while she fell asleep. Kissing her forehead, he promised he would see her the next day.