[Translation to Earth English, ca 2018-2030 complete. Normalization to period-speak at eighty-seven percent. Unit of measurements conversion: pounds, feet and inches.]
The night air was cool and crisp. An exciting hint of warmth wafted over me, signaling spring had arrived. I felt alive—and I was determined to stay that way.
Someone was following me, and I couldn’t shake him or her. Using my 360-view I zoomed in trying to pick my pursuer out of the crowd. He was staying back, using a tall group of people as cover, and that was making it difficult to see him.
Quietly I said, “Riley, drop some microrecs. Let’s get a look at this guy or gal.” His shape and movement was male, but shape-changing clothing and training could help hide one’s gender.
A chipper female voice replied, “I’ll send up some flyers and skimmers to play it safe, chief.”
A holding cell in the sole of my shoe dropped several tiny translucent gnat-sized devices that scattered, gliding upward to position themselves on walls or flying off to act as scouts. The shopping zone’s colorful carnival-like atmosphere made spotting him and any of his potential colleagues difficult at best.
It wasn’t so lucky for me. Good hiding spots were difficult to find in the vibrant retail zone. Megacities like Heavensport are designed to eliminate any visual or physical blockages that might slow the flow of pedestrian traffic.
“Are there any parks or attractions nearby that I can use to disappear?” I asked in a hushed voice.
An unexpected movement off to my right caused me to stop in surprise. A beautiful twelve-foot-tall blonde woman in a shimmering blue low-cut dress slipped out of the crystalline wall to stand in front of me. With a joyous smile she gracefully bent over to hold out a beverage, and her soft fresh scent wafted over me. With bubbling emotion, she began telling me how much she and all her girlfriends loved the drink and how I would, too. The bottle wasn’t the only thing that was prominent and being promoted.
“Block direct realviews connections,” I said, averting my eyes to the side so not to stare. The siren of marketing vanished. “Boy, some of these ads are like booby-traps — ah, that was unintentional.”
Riley sniggered. “But apropos. I have to say, I liked her dress. — As to the parks, they have some planned for this year, but for now, this zone is rather empty. There’s a stand of trees up ahead, some lifts and off-branching secondary streets, nothing useful. Oh, a friendly reminder, you don’t have to whisper; I have an audio phase blanket in place. No one can hear us.”
“I know. I just don’t want to look too weird.”
She giggled. “Don’t worry. 87.59% of the people are talking to friends remotely or to their personal assistants. Not talking will make you look weird ... well, weirder.”
“Citywide or just in this zone?”
“Are we talking about your weirdness level or the numbers of people talking? There were 768.238 million people living in Heavensport. Some of them are sleeping.”
I sighed. One upped by an electronic assistant. Normally Riley’s perky and quirky personality was appealing; right now it was a bit too much as this situation was escalating far too fast. Something wasn’t right.
“Call me warned. — For brevity’s sake, round up to whole numbers, ok? Oh, and dial back your humor settings by four. I am getting tense. If I can’t shake this guy, it could get serious and fast. Let’s see the feed of him.” I stopped outside an electronics store along the way feigning interest in a selection of emotion broadcasting robo-wings.
The microrecs encrypted signal showed an average-looking young man with broad shoulders dressed in muted gray and blue. He was standing up on his toes, attempting to find where I had disappeared into the crowd.
“If he really wanted to blend in, he should have worn a vidshirt, robo-wings or at least a few logos. We can send him some later as a nice jail warming gift. — Package the feed and send it by backchannels to our home system. We don’t want to alert him. Have them run some data sets on it and back it up in case this goes bad,” I said.
“Will do. Wait—” Riley’s voice rose and her words were sharp. “He is running some kind of broad scan. I just got a deeply covered micro spike. I can’t tell what he is doing. All I know is it’s not a normal kind of scan.”
This was bad; it was time to disappear. Spotting a recessed entry way leading to private apartments above the main street, I scurried to stand to the side of the double poly-lucent entry doors.
I said, “Let’s do a full ID reset; skip all false personas and all the women. Choose someone at random that we have never used before; one who’s from far away but where it is plausible they could be here.”
A slight pull across my face told me I had taken on a new identity. My Zentrozi outfit had changed texture and filled out all over giving me a thicker, stockier shape. My clothes were a ramped orange and white color with sets of animated logos for some products that I had never heard of before.
With a sharp tone Riley asked, “You got a problem with women?”
“No. But I do have a problem with my gender choice becoming the primary focus of the newsblaster’s reporting if I live through this encounter.” That would be awful, almost as bad as this coming attack was shaping up to be. My stomach jumped and I found it harder to swallow as my nerves continued to rise.
Cool wet drops struck my forehead and cheek. Jerking in panic, I wiped it away with the sleeve of my coat, fearing it was a chemical or biological attack.
“Ah—what is this stuff?” I cried out.
“It is called rain. You need to relax, boss. Your pulse rate punched 180, and that’s not good. There are no abnormal trace elements or other dangers present. I apologize, I thought you knew it was coming.”
The tension almost made me laugh. It was just rain. The entryway, combined with my facial reconstructor and my intense concentration, had blocked the initial wet patter from my notice. A light drizzle was falling from the sky.
With a hiss, the rain increased to become a substantial downpour over much of the street. The shoppers reacted with squeals and muted complaints; some ran for shelter under the covered center autowalk people-mover lanes or ducked into stores. I was pleased to see some were laughing and dancing with joy in the warm rain. Sonic umbrellas began erupting like shimmering gossamer bells of bright and joyous colors.
Calm and clear, Riley said, “Heads up. A guy is coming out of the doors behind you.”
Adrenaline flowing, I crouched forward, coiled, prepared to strike. The entrance door slid open, and a strong, middle-aged man of about eighty years of age stepped out. He took a halting step and eyed me warily. Confronted with the heavy rain and my presence, he stepped to the side to give me a wider berth.
“He is safe. No ill intent or weapons of any kind,” said Riley, her voice low and gentle, as not to cause me to jump.
I gave the man the once-over. You don’t have to have weapons to be deadly.
The man’s face was pinched, pale and sour. His spring-green and yellow outfit was liberally splashed with a variety of animated logos for products and sports teams. Based on the size and numbers of patches, he had an affinity for the Slashers robo-ball team and Fruity-Yum-Yum drink. His allegiances were all displayed. He wasn’t any different than the groups of young hooligans that I saw parading about the streets. I am sure he would be offended by that comparison. On his shoulder sat a grumpy, twelve-inch tall, red robo-dragon. His robo-pet stared at me with its eyes narrowed, trying to look tough. I glared back, and it snorted out a bacon-scented puff of steam from its nose. Oh, yeah, like the scent of bacon makes you seem tougher. It just makes me hungry.
So that the man could see and hear me speak, I keyed my tiny knuckle switch to open exterior communications. “Sorry, you took me by surprise. Some rain, huh?”
Invisible to everyone else, Riley pulled up the rain forecast on my whole-head projected data-sphere. The street map showed an overlay of micro-weather patterns. These showers would last another seventeen minutes with the heaviest of the precipitation in the next four minutes. Irritated with the distraction, I gave a sharp side-glance to kill the information that was blocking my peripheral view.
The man just stared at me, and he didn’t respond. He was not as friendly as I would have imagined for someone wearing an outfit sporting bright Fruity-Yum-Yum logos. The man tapped his shoulder, deploying his sonic umbrella, and stepped out into the downpour. He glanced back at me as he joined the flowing masses. I watched as the diverted rain created the faintest bell-shaped outline, shimmering yellow and green, around him and his robo-dragon. The droplets fell to the cushioned, reflexive sidewalk where they disappeared.
I said, “Well, that didn’t go well. I don’t think he is going to invite me to any pool parties this summer.”
Riley laughed. “Maybe you should work on your witty banter.”
“I’ll get right on that.” My stomach growled. I was thinking about bacon. Stupid dragon.
My nerves were rising. The idea of taking the door leading to the apartments was tempting. This would put me in narrow hallways, away from most of the pedestrian traffic, and that would make me even more vulnerable. I needed to find a location where I could control the outcome, or better yet, a police station. No, he would just fade into the crowds and come after me some other time when I wasn’t expecting him. As much as I didn’t want to face it, I had to let this play out tonight.
“Should we call in a couple of teams to help us, boss?”
That sounded wonderful. I wanted to hand this problem off to others, but I couldn’t.
“No. It is too late. A team couldn’t get here in time, and if our tracker caught on, he might be forced to attack out here where more people could get hurt. I made this mess; I have to make sure no one else has to pay for it.” That sounded more heroic than I felt. “Deploy my umbrella.”
A bright flash of citrus-colored lights swirled about me like a tropical fruit market had exploded. Panicking, I almost shut it down. No one who was trying to hide would even think about deploying such a bright and vibrant umbrella—and that is exactly why I chose to keep it. As a confirmation, a woman walked past me with her sonic umbrella displaying a video of a beautiful, laughing couple dressed in bright swimwear, running hand-in-hand down a pristine white beach. Hovering above the brilliant bright blue sky of her sonic umbrella were the words, I wish I was here! Me too, I agreed.
Sonic umbrellas splashed up all over the busy street. It was now a sea of shimmering, vibrant, and colorful patterns. I blended in nicely as I dove in to join the stream of pedestrians.
“Where is he, Riley?” I said, scanning my 360-view’s zoom of the street behind me.
Riley pulled up the feed from one of my microrecs that had taken shelter under the sonic rain-shield, which was now covering the center autowalk that divided the street. The man appeared agitated as he wove his way through the dawdling crowds who had come to ride the moving sidewalk while they waited for the rain to stop.
“He has the electronics to follow me, yet he isn’t carrying a sonic umbrella. Maybe Mom didn’t get up to dress him this morning.”
“Step left, chief. You are about to collide with a—”
Even with a quick step left, I still brushed the arm of a man who was animatedly speaking and gesturing as he walked against the flow of pedestrian traffic. He had no umbrella either.
He stopped and turned to me with a deep, exaggerated frown, making sure I knew that he was offended. In a loud voice, he said, “Hold on, some idiot just bumped into me.”
I’m the idiot? You have tens of thousands of people coming at you. Maybe that should be a little hint that it’s you who is in the wrong lane.
Not looking to add a fight to my troubles, I held up a hand to wave my apologies. He glared a moment longer. Satisfied that I was suitably contrite, he continued, still talking and walking against the flow of foot traffic.
Riley said, “Quick update: That guy you bumped just got pulled over by a traffic control unit. He’s cranked about it. Ooh, he is getting a ticket.”
“Got it.” I searched ahead, seeking any options. “I am going to focus on walking; keep me informed with what my tail is doing, and minimize any updates on any other non-pertinent details.”
Riley was calmer in her delivery. “Sorry. I thought that news would be calming. The guy tracking you is still on course to intersect. He is 120 yards back and closing.”
“How is he tracking me?” I asked, slipping past a roiling swarm of noisy, wet teens who were all dressed in black. If they had sonic umbrellas, no one was using them.
“I have no clue, boss. I have gone through the system several times. I’m sending out the appropriate electronic chatter so as not to create a walking hole. This is whole thing is weird.”
“I should just go back and ask him. I’m sure he is nice.” I scanned the street ahead looking for something to use to my advantage.
Riley snorted. “Funny. Should we try a sending out a few rolling copies of you?”
“No, if he can track me after the reset, he is not going to be fooled by a few realview ghosts of me.” I glanced down past my orange pants at my brown and orange shoes. The color and tread pattern had changed with the ID reset. “Do you think he’s running a thermal detector and a trace pattern algorithm to detect my path?” I picked up my pace.
“I would have to run some obvious scans as a test. Did you want me to give it a try?” asked Riley.
“No. It’s not worth the chance of alerting him. I’m not ready.”
Everything was just pointless guessing. Whatever he was doing, it was effective, and I was out of time.
Riley said, “Pulling a full ID reset probably alerted him.”
It was difficult not to turn around and just look at him. “I am hoping he thinks this is just part of my paranoia and that I do resets every few hours. How many minutes until he intersects me?”
“At his current pace, about two minutes and twenty seconds; less if he runs.”
I prayed that the micro street cleaners and the rain would help scrub the ground, confusing my path even more. This had to end quickly. In a half hour, this zone might add another fifty to eighty thousand more people. There was no good outcome with that.
To make this work, I had to lead him, without him knowing it, to a location away from the public, somewhere I could let this play out to my best advantage, if there was still any advantage to be found.
Calling this area a shopping zone was more a marketing term than an exact delineation. At street level, a few restaurants were predictably shuffled between every six or so shops that sold goods and clothing. Far above and below, however, were hundreds of layers of apartments, restaurants, grocery stores, recreation areas and shops, all intermixed and dispersed.
A small clothing shop called Man Overboard! drew my eyes. Ha! That was sickly ironic; I was thrashing about trying to survive.
A realview projection of a tall, fresh, young woman with long sand-colored hair and dressed in an orange bikini leaned out from a railing four feet above me. “Ahoy, Morrelle!” She waved to me with youthful vigor, happy to see me. “Come on in, we are having a sale on some fantastic summer clothes that would be perfect for you.” My projected data-sphere informed me that Morrelle was my sponged ID’s first name.
In front of me, two separate groups of young guys and girls were entering the shop. I shook my head and looked down the street for a better location. The realview promotion ended abruptly with my broken gaze.
Riley said, “I let that promo through as you seemed interested in that location. I hope that is okay?”
“It’s okay.” The rain was lessening. I could see from my monitor that the microrecs were having difficulty keeping up as each drop of rain was bigger than they were. “Drop two more microrecs at thirty-yard intervals,” I said.
“Will do—he’s picking up speed, boss.”
A short distance away I saw a narrow hallway leading to a public restroom. “How big is the restroom?”
“Small. Forty stalls.”
This wasn’t optimal, but it would have to do. Moving in at clip, I said, “Find me an exit or something I can use against this guy.”
“Sorry, boss, there’s no back exit.”
Most communal restrooms are designed to move traffic through them. Why was this one different?
“Launch a realview projector at the entrance of the hallway. Have it cast a faint sheen of dirt and decay over it. That will send people elsewhere.” The city was clean and bright; people were not used to seeing areas that looked unkempt, especially when it came to public restrooms.
In front of me, the unisex bathroom door opened, and a young woman walked out leading a toddler. My gut dropped. I stepped to the side, giving them more room.
Stopping outside the bathroom I asked Riley, “Are there more people in there? If so, we may have to abort. This could get messy.”
Riley replied, “The bathroom is empty and the dirt projectors are working. People are turning away.”
“Send microrecs near the door so we can get better overall situational awareness.” This was good news. This meant I had more flexibility in making my tactical decisions.
The bathroom was a long bright white rectangle with forty floor-to-ceiling stalls on one side. On the opposite wall were the cleaning and drying stations. The space was indeed small as community bathrooms go. The curved-front, frosted stalls all lit up a bright green color, indicating they were free for occupancy.
Riley said, “He is about fifty yards away and headed to the bathroom hallway. Shall I send out a distress beacon now?”
“Hold off. It is too early. He will either disappear or talk his way out of trouble with the police.”
You can’t have someone arrested just for following you; you must prove conclusively “imminent intent to cause harm,” and that is notoriously difficult to do even under the best circumstances.
His intent was clear. I was wearing some of the most sophisticated gear on the planet, and I had enacted a complete persona change, yet in mere minutes he had somehow found me and was moving in on my location. That showed some impressive equipment and skills. This guy would have no problem evading the police or giving a convincing cover story to secure his release.
Preparing for the worst, I made some deductions about equipment and countermeasures that he might deploy. From the neckband of my facial reconstructor, I launched two modified spectrum flash charges and two more microrecs. I watched the tiny translucent specs fly off and disappear from view. They were hiding in strategic locations about the room to best cover the event. Using two of my “crazy bomb” flash charges was overkill, but this was no time to skimp. Pacing the floor from the entryway to the back wall, I sprayed a healthy mist of UV-activated Mega-Slik from the micro-misting nozzles hidden in my shoe pads.
Still fearful of discovery, and mostly for my own comfort, I whispered, “Can you hack the second stall from the door to make it appear that I am in it?”
“Done. There were minimal protocols protecting it.”
The stall was now a soft orange-yellow color. I was thankful this wasn’t one of those strange translucent models where you could see a person inside it.
“Use the realview projectors on one of the stores near us to send these feeds to one of our external pods, and alert Curtis. The projectors shouldn’t be too hard to hack if you avoid the payment system.”
“I’m on it. You just relax and get hidden.”
Relax? That was like saying, “There is someone here to kill you. Do you want some coffee or a muffin while you wait?” No, thanks, I am eating my stomach at the moment.
I chose and entered a cubicle that was seven doors down from the decoy stall. Sitting down, I looked about the small, enclosed space. There was a hand-washing and drying station on the wall to the right.
I said, “Raise my shielding to the highest level. Make my stall match all the empty ones so when he comes in, all he sees is the decoy stall as occupied. Is this clear?”
As my stall went dark, I leaned forward, steadying my breath, watching the microrec feeds, waiting anxiously for what was coming.
Riley spoke softly as not to scare me. “He is placing a projector on the entranceway—it’s a sign that says, ‘Closed for remodeling.’”
He was prepping the area to limit potential witnesses and those he might have to kill. The man moved briskly into the hallway.
Riley said, “No one is working with him. He’s alone.”
This meant he was good at his job, and that didn’t bode well for my survival if I messed up in any way. My heart was pounding and my mouth was dry.
What if he pulled out a grenade launcher and poked it in through the door and fired off a few rounds? I would be toast, that’s what. They wouldn’t be able to hide that as a simple mugging gone bad. I hoped that mattered.
After saying a quick prayer, I said, “Send off an ILD to the police.”
On the feed, I watched the man jerk, taking a halting half-step as if he had been punched in the chest. He knew I had called in an Imminent-Life-in-Danger emergency. Faced with his plans unraveling, he didn’t run away, he ran towards the bathroom.
The police would arrive too late to help. It was all on me to stop and secure him until the police came. Any mistakes now could be fatal.
The man paused outside the bathroom door. There was a flick of his right wrist and something long, thin, and black appeared in his right hand. It was not a grenade launcher. My nerves were rising as I waited, trying not to breathe loudly.
It was starting.
David Grunwell is an author, Creative Director, UX designer, and technologist who lives in Ohio with his lovely wife and daughter.
David is fascinated with how technology and culture shape each other. The Fall of Heaven is David’s first published novel.