The staccato bursts echoed amongst the walls of an abandoned city, fading into 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 flick of his forefinger, Torbin muted the sound from the holographic projection hanging just in front of him. With it came a light pressure against the finger, as if pushing a lever.
He continued to monitor a dozen other 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. 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, continuing to walk. "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 as 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 micro-bots and covered in sensors, the jacket could adjust it's temperature, emit a variety of mild, pleasant odors, pulsate at various frequencies for a massaging effect, and would 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 and stored all of their personal data. As he exited his apartment the AI turned off the lighting, adjusted the room temperature, and released a swarm of waste removal micro-bots that spilled out onto the floor and counter-tops of the eating and bathing areas. He stepped into a 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 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. Shortly 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 vehicle accelerated using powerful bursts of compressed air that also cushioned it off the ground. It wove nimbly in-between buildings, among other vehicles, and 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, and small clouds of dust popped up wherever the balls of energy hit. 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.
Diving through an open chain-link gate which locked behind him, he landed face down in rubble, wincing as his right knee smacked against a sharp rock jutting from the pile. An egg-shaped tracker bot hovered briefly just outside the fence, a soft whir coming from the small propellers encircling its lower body. It sped off, apparently satisfied 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 stood 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 autumn, but the warm air was thick with humidity. John was sweating heavily. 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, tucking one 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 picked up. John could hear dirt and debris pelting the exterior.
A little girl playing alone glanced in his direction, then scampered over. She giggled, trying to reach behind her father's back to grab what he held there. He teased her a little, and she let out a happy yelp. Slowly, he pulled his arm around in front of him. Caroline gasped and covered her mouth with two cupped fists. Then the smile in her father's 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 play with the battered cloth doll. It 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. Giving his daughter's red hair a tousle, he left her to play and headed towards the commons area.
An argument was taking place as John entered the adjoining room. Mark was already there, leaning against a wall. John paused to listen, catching Mark's eye at the same time. The two exchanged knowing glances.
"We've got to defend ourselves!" shouted one of the group.
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 of people gathered together in the small room.
"The overseer's got extra bots on patrol. There's talk of limiting food rations even more, and making curfew an hour earlier," explained Mark. The others turned their attention to John. They seemed to be looking to him for an answer.
John, not a man of many words, reached into a pocket inside his jacket. He pulled out a small tattered piece of paper that had turned yellow with age.
"What's that?" Mark asked.
"It's a photo of one of my ancestors."
Mark walked over to get a closer look. Slightly shorter than John, 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 wooden sign, which 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," said 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 that we come from common stock."
A murmur swept through the crowd. John handed the photo to Mark to pass 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 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 you're in charge!"
Gavin glared at John, and seemed ready for a fight. John stood still. He was a well-built man, and had the look of someone who could defend himself. Having noticed the red marks around Gavin's wrists, which indicated the use of restraining straps, he suspected that it had been Gavin who had lead a small armed group into the Buffer Zone overnight. 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 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 group voiced their agreement with Gavin.
John paused to let the chatter die down. "Let's put it to a vote." He requested that hands be raised for those who sided with him, and then for those siding 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 large 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. Non-citizens, however, were not allowed to possess sharp objects, including needles.
"Daddy knows someone that can fix this for us, 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. 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, humming her favorite lullaby as she fell asleep. Kissing her forehead, he whispered that he would see her the next day.