The year is 2211, and the world has changed. After more than a century of warming the climate stabilized in the early 2100's, but sea levels had risen to cover much of the planet as the ice caps melted. The largest significant land masses remaining above water were in the central regions of South America, Africa, and Asia, essentially making them island continents. Much of North America was obliterated by a supermassive earthquake in the Midwest and huge volcanic explosions along the western edge of the continent. Europe, Australia, and Japan were destroyed by natural disaster, war, or both.
The world's population had been decimated, and the rapidly and dramatically changing environmental pressures acted as a catalyst for evolution which was catapulted into a kind of overdrive that was later called Sporadic Bursting. Long dormant groups of genes were re-activated and began working together in unison, building on and enhancing a set of characteristics that were first observed in the mid-20th century. Scientists referred to that time as the beginning of the Hartmann Era based on a scrap of recovered radio broadcast in which voices are heard discussing autism and attention deficit disorders as possible evolutionary advantages rather than pathologies.
Much of the electronically stored information from the 20th century was wiped out by e-bombs, but paper documents stored in sealed underground containment facilities remained largely untouched. Down one of these buried vaults a metal container was found with the inscription "N. Tesla" etched on the outside. It held highly detailed engineering designs, one of which described the harnessing of lightning bolts into small pellets of spherical energy. Another revealed a method for broadcasting a worldwide energy supply and information grid through the atmosphere. It was the use of ideas like these that enabled 22nd century society to regroup and, slowly at first, begin to rebuild itself.
By the beginning of the 23rd century human civilization was rebounding at an accelerating rate. A loose world-wide government was in place for the three major landmasses known as continent-states. Large scale war was virtually unknown, and small conflicts were soon resolved. Lifespans were commonly expected to exceed 100, with most people staying mentally active and maintaining a youthful appearance for most of their lives. The only exceptions to this were small groups of a genetically stunted population who were deemed to be ill-suited for survival in this altered landscape. For the majority of the population poverty and disease were much more limited than in earlier times, and only a few major illnesses were known to bring on early death. Mankind had what appeared to be a bright future in this burgeoning utopia.
Torbin awoke to the sound of gunfire. The staccato bursts echoed along the walls of brick buildings, and faded into silence. This was city fighting, a skirmish that would not last long.
"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 his left index finger Torbin made a sideways flicking motion in the air which muted the sound coming from the holographic projection hanging in the room a meter away from his bed. He could feel a light pressure against his finger as he did this, as if it were pushing against a lever. The news program continued to cover the battle for a few seconds, and then switched to the day's weather forecast.
Torbin yawned and threw back the covers from his bed. His body was slim and athletic, and appeared younger than his 20 years would suggest. He sat up and paused briefly to rub his eyes, and then swung his legs over the side of the bed. He had woken up earlier, and then slept fitfully until the televised alarm clock turned on. He was still a little groggy.
Once he was up he went to the kitchen, and as he walked the holo projection followed him, adjusting its position at every moment in order to give him the best viewing angle, but without intersecting with any of the walls or furniture. The kitchen's layout was minimal and held only a table, chairs, and a cabinet in the corner with an exterior made from maple. He used voice commands to order his morning meal which was dispensed within a few seconds. The cabinet's hatch opened as the cup, bowl, and utensils were formed by a gel dispenser which rapidly created the items and poured the quickly cooked food contents into them once the gel hardened. The food supplies, as well as the gel, were stored out of sight along storage sections in the wall which could be refilled from outside by the local grocery delivery, and which also held cooling and heating spaces for the groceries.
Torbin took his breakfast and stepping over to the table he set the meal down on its smooth porcelain top. The gentle curves and rounded edges of the table gave it the look of a flat well-worn stone from a river bed. As he ate he monitored many news channels at the same time, periodically changing the volumes or pausing some channels to concentrate on others. At times the movements of his hand and fingers were merely a blur. With each gesture he could feel a slight resistance which changed depending on the purpose of the action. After he finished eating he marked a few of the video segments for later viewing and switched the projection off with a quick downward motion of his index finger. He placed the dishes into the recycle unit where they would be liquefied back into gel to be purified and used again, and Torbin left the dining area.
A low, pulsing hum in his ear indicated that there was an incoming communication available. Torbin made a quick motion to the right with his index and middle fingers held together and a holo image appeared in front of him.
"Hey! Are we meeting for lunch today?" The warm voice came from a young woman who appeared to be the same age as Torbin, even though 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 her in her apartment. Toeless sandals with loops around the ankle and over the foot completed her look.
"Yes, Nell," Torbin replied as he continued walking. "Can I call you about it later?"
"Ok. Can we meet downtown this time?" Tanielle continued.
"Uh huh. I need to get going."
"Until later then." Tanielle's bright green eyes expressed an unsatisfied yearning as she raised her right palm towards Torbin, and then her image vanished as he turned the projection off.
Torbin washed up quickly in the bathroom and then walked to the dressing area. When he spoke the commands to bring out a selection of his daily clothing a tall mahogany panel slid back and a robotic rack extended. He chose a slate gray outfit with a bluish tint that was made from a single piece of stretchable cotton, into which he stepped and pulled up over his arms. Over this he added a light sleeveless jacket of purple taupe which contained several pockets and adhered snugly to the underlying suit. The jacket was covered in microsensors and imbedded with nanites which could adjust the jacket's temperature and emit a variety of mild, pleasant odors on command. It could pulsate at various frequencies for a massaging effect, and could be set to tighten or loosen around the body. On his feet he wore slip-on shoes made from rubberized gel and lined with matted fleece.
As he checked his appearance in a mirror Torbin's rounded facial features were softly shadowed by the diffuse lighting. Satisfied, he made his way towards the door when he was reminded of his schedule that day by a velvety female voice as it spoke in his ear. As part of the worldwide information grid this AI monitored each citizen's daily life and stored all of their personal data. The broadcast network was accessed through microscopic implants which were inserted shortly after birth behind the ears, beside the eyes, and under the skin on each fingertip. Those in the fingers could be used to interact with external devices both real and virtual, as well as monitor internal vital signs. They even contained a self-defense mechanism that could be activated in case of emergencies.
As Torbin exited his apartment the AI turned off the lighting, adjusted the room temperature, and released a swarm of waste removal nanites which spilled out onto the floor and counter tops of the eating and bathing areas. He stepped into the pneumatic elevator and descended to the ground floor.
Standing outside his apartment building Torbin could view one of the many parks which wound between the architecture of the city. Starlings darted among the treetops, and the air was fresh with the smell of morning dew mixed with a faint sweetness from a variety of flowering plants. The silvery metal sheen of the skyline turned copper as it reflected the auburn rays of the rising sun, and the sparse sounds of a waking city filled his ears.
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 and now encompassed much of the surrounding countryside. With nearly one million residents it was one of the larger cities of the world.
Torbin ordered a ride to his place of work by using a quick series of finger motions, and within a minute a small single-seat shuttle pod whisked up to 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. As he entered the vehicle he verbally gave it his destination, and the instant he was secure inside it the vehicle accelerated using powerful micro bursts of air, which also cushioned it off the ground. The small car, powered with the electricity from a walnut-sized fuel cell that extracted hydrogen and oxygen from the atmosphere, didn't seem to follow any path that had been constructed for mobile units. Instead it nimbly wove in-between buildings, among other vehicles, and around citizens, occasionally rising a few centimeters to pass over the tops of low-lying obstacles as it disappeared into the distance.
Bright orange spheres the size of marbles pelted the ground around his feet as a man dressed in rags ran along the debris strewn ground. Small clouds of dust 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 and broken concrete as he dodged back and forth to avoid the blasts that whizzed past him.
He dove through an opened chain-link gate which closed and locked behind him, and landed face down in the rubble. His right knee smacked against a sharp rock that jutted up from the pile, and he winced in pain. The egg-shaped tracker bot hovered briefly just outside the fence, and then sped off with a low purring sound from the small propellers that encircled its lower body, apparently satisfied that its quarry was safely confined. The bot, controlled by a minimal AI which 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 got up John brushed bits of gravel from his beard and shoulder length hair. Behind him he could hear the squeak of a metal sign hanging over the gate as it flapped in the breeze. It read "Neurots Only".
It was late Fall but the warm air was thick with humidity and John was sweating heavily. Now limping a little, he pulled a small soft object from his backpack as he walked towards the shelter. He opened the loose hanging door of the ramshackle building with his left arm and put his right arm behind his back. As he entered a hot draft blew through gaps in the walls, and the thin metal sheets shuddered each time the wind outside picked up. John could hear dirt and debris pelting the exterior. After he walked a few steps a little girl playing alone to one side glanced in his direction, and then scampered over to him. She giggled as she tried to reach behind her father's back to grab what he held there. He teased her a little causing her to let out a happy yelp, and then slowly pulled his arm around in front of him. As he held out his hand Caroline gasped and covered her mouth with both of her cupped fists. She glanced up into her father's eyes and the smile in them told her it was alright to take the gift.
John, a man of 30 years or so but with the worn and weathered face of someone much older, grinned broadly as he watched her for a little while. The battered cloth doll hung limply in the girl's hands as she fussed with its clothing, trying to brush away the stains and hide the holes in the faded fabric. John headed towards the commons area, giving his daughter's red hair a tousle as he left her to play.
An argument was taking place as John entered the adjoining room. Mark was already there, leaning against a wall. John paused to listen, and caught Mark's eye at the same time. The two exchanged knowing glances.
"We've got to defend ourselves!" shouted one of the group.
"Yahhh!" came several replies. Some in the crowd seemed agitated, their faces distorted with anger.
"What's going on?" John asked in an even tone as he brushed past the outer circle of people gathered closely together in the small room.
"The overseer's got extra bots on patrol, and there's talk of limiting food rations even more and making curfew an hour earlier," explained Mark. They others turned their attention to John, and seemed to be looking to him for an answer.
John, not a man of many words, reached into a pocket inside his jacket and pulled out a small tattered piece of paper which had turned yellow with age.
"What's that?" Mark asked.
"It's a photo of one of my ancestors," John replied.
Mark walked over to get a closer look. Slightly shorter than John, who was average height, he needed to lean in to see the picture clearly. On it was what appeared to be the smudged portrait of a young woman. She stood outdoors next to a sign that read "Grand Canyon National Park". John turned the photo over and written on the back was a date, which read "July 14, 1997".
"We've got rights," said John calmly as he addressed the group and 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 that we come from common stock."
A murmur swept through the crowd, and John handed the photo to Mark who passed it around to the others.
"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 that the damned golems would ever consider giving us equal status!"
John looked disapprovingly at Gavin, and said "I've asked you not to use that term, Gavin. 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 you're in charge!"
Gavin glared at John, and seemed ready for a fight. John was a well-built man who had the look of someone who could defend himself, and he showed no fear. He noticed the red marks around Gavin's wrists which indicated the use of restraining straps and suspected that it had been Gavin who had lead a small armed group into the Buffer Zone overnight. He ignored the remark and spoke to the group again.
"Mark and I have a contact in the city who can get us a talk chit that will give us 5 minutes to speak before the 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 defiantly. "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 members of the grouped voiced their agreement with Gavin.
John paused to let the chatter die down, and then said "Let's put it to a vote." The rest agreed and John requested that hands be raised for those who sided with him, and then for those who agreed with Gavin. A majority were in favor of the attempt to present their case before the city representatives, and the decision was accepted with only minor grumbling.
"It's agreed," John announced. "Mark and I will submit our request this evening and with luck we'll stand before the committee tomorrow."
The group dispersed with no further debate. Gavin was obviously unhappy with the outcome, and he and several others moved to the edge of the room and began their own discussion.
Mark and John walked out of the room together, and the two friends hugged each other warmly before John excused himself to put Caroline to bed. As he crouched down to meet his daughter at eye level she thrust both arms out to show him her doll, which was now in two pieces. Her brown eyes watered and she began to let out a high pitched moan that continued until John took the torn cloth pieces from her outstretched arms.
"Sweetheart, what happened?"
Caroline's look told him that the immediate concern was the repair of the doll. Since non-citizens were not allowed to possess sharp objects, including needles, John told her "Daddy knows someone that can fix this for us, but first he needs to go into the city, and then he'll bring your baby back. Ok?"
The little girl's firm nod ended the matter, and John whisked Caroline up from the floor and carried her to the children's sleeping area. He tucked the blankets around her as she lay on the cot, and hummed her favorite lullaby as she fell asleep. He kissed her on the forehead and whispered that he would see her the next day.