The staccato gunfire startled him, echoing along crumbling brick walls, fading into silence.
"...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..."
A sideways flick of his forefinger muted the sound from the holo projection hanging just in front of him. There was a light pressure against the finger, as if pushing against a lever.
Torbin continued to monitor a dozen news channels nearly simultaneously, periodically changing the volumes, or pausing some to concentrate on others. At times the movements of his hands and fingers were merely a blur. Accompanying each gesture was a tactile response that changed depending on the purpose of the action.
A pulsing hum in his ear indicated an incoming communication request. Marking a few segments for later viewing, he switched the images off with a quick, downward hand flip. His index and middle fingers slid to the right, and a holo image appeared.
"Hey! Are we meeting for lunch today?" The warm voice came from a young woman. She appeared to be Torbin’s age, although she was nearly a decade older. A teal knee-length tunic, bound at her slender waist with a loop of white fabric, stood out clearly from the earth tones in her apartment. Toeless sandals with loops around the ankle and over the foot completed her look.
"Yes, Nell. Can I call you about it later?"
"Ok, but can we meet downtown this time?"
"Uh huh. I need to get going."
"Until later then." Tanielle's bright green eyes searched his as she raised her right palm. Her image vanished when he cut the projection off.
Torbin sighed. I don’t know why she can’t just leave me alone sometimes. Doesn’t she know how important my work is?
He donned a slate gray outfit with a bluish tint made from a single piece of stretchable cotton. Over this he added a light sleeveless jacket that adhered snugly to the underlying suit. The jacket, covered in microsensors and imbedded with nanites, could change temperature and emit 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.
Making his way towards the door, a velvety female voice in his ear reminded of his schedule. As part of the worldwide information grid the AI monitored each citizen's daily life and stored all of their personal data.
When he exited his apartment the AI turned off the lighting, adjusted the room temperature, and released a swarm of waste removal nanites that 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.
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 a million residents it was one of the larger cities of the world of the 23rd century.
Torbin ordered a ride to work by using a quick series of finger motions. Within a minute a small 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 and verbally gave it his destination. The instant he was secure the vehicle accelerated using powerful micro bursts of air, cushioning it off the ground. The small car wove 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.
Bright orange marbles pelted the ground. Jumping over pieces of torn sheet metal and broken concrete, the man dressed in rags zigzagged to avoid the blasts. Small dust clouds erupted wherever the balls of energy hit, and he could hear the snapping sounds of static electricity.
Diving through an open chain-link gate, he landed face down in rubble, wincing when his right knee smacked against a sharp rock jutting up from the pile. An egg-shaped tracker bot hovered briefly just outside the fence until the gate closed and locked. It sped off with a soft whirring from the small propellers encircling its lower body, satisfied that the quarry was safely confined. Controlled by a minimal AI that fell well within government restrictions on thinking machines, the bot 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.
John stood slowly, brushing bits of gravel from his beard and shoulder length hair. Behind, a tin sign hanging over the gate squeaked, flapping in the breeze. It read "Neurots Only".
It was late autumn, but the hot air was thick with humidity. John was sweating heavily. Now limping, he pulled a small, soft object from his backpack, then walked towards a shelter. One arm behind his back, he opened the loose hanging door of the ramshackle building. A draft blew through gaps in the walls, and the thin wood planks shuddered. Dirt and debris pelted the exterior.
A little girl who had been playing alone glanced in his direction, and scampered over. She giggled, trying to reach behind her father. He teased her until she let out a happy yelp, then pulled his arm around. Caroline gasped, and covered her mouth with two cupped fists. The smile in his eyes 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 fuss with the doll’s clothing, trying to brush away the stains and hide the holes in the faded fabric. Giving his daughter's red hair a tousle, he headed towards the commons area.
An argument was taking place. Mark was already there, leaning against a wall. John paused to listen, and caught Mark's attention at the same time.
"We've got to defend ourselves!" shouted one of the group.
Some seemed agitated. Others shuffled nervously.
"What's going on?" John asked in an even tone, brushing past the outer circle gathered closely together in the small 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 to John.
A man of few words, he reached into a pocket and pulled out a tattered piece of paper, yellowed with age.
"What's that?" Mark asked.
"A photo of one of my ancestors."
Mark walked over to get a closer look at what appeared to be the smudged portrait of a young woman. She stood outdoors next to a wooden sign, on which was carved "Grand Canyon National Park". John turned the photo over and written on the back was a date: "July 14, 1997".
"We've got rights," said John calmly, addressing the crowd. He held the photo up. "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. John handed the photo to Mark to pass around.
"This proves nothing!" shouted Gavin. It was the same man John had first heard upon entering the room. "No one in their right mind would believe the damned golems would ever consider giving us equal status!"
John looked disapprovingly at Gavin. "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 you're in charge!"
Gavin glared at John, who stood still. He noticed the red marks around Gavin's wrists, indicating the use 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 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 group voiced their agreement.
John paused to let the chatter die down. "Let's put it to a vote." He requested that hands be raised. A majority were in favor of the attempt, 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 and several others moved to the edge of the room and began their own discussion.
Mark and John walked out of the room together. The two friends hugged each other before John excused himself to put Caroline to bed. He crouched down to meet his daughter at eye level, and she thrust both arms out to show him the doll in two pieces.
"Sweetheart, what happened?"
Caroline's look told him that the immediate concern was the repair of the doll. Non-citizens, however, were not allowed to possess sharp objects like needles.
"Daddy knows someone that can fix this, but first he needs to go into the city. 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. He carried her to the children's sleeping area, and tucked blankets around her as she lay on the cot. Humming her favorite lullaby as she fell asleep, he kissed her forehead and whispered that he would see her the next day.