Anchora — Volume II
Stories 11 to 20 of the sci-fi/cyberpunk flash fiction anthology
She walked into the bright room with confident steps, her flawless posture holding her head above the crew of engineers.
One of them — she was a scrawny little thing, hugging a tablet, her forehead a polka dot pattern of sweat droplets — spun in place. “Miss Atlanta,” she gasped.
“Hello, Doctor…” the older woman consulted the engineer’s badge. “Dawn Mirkowic.”
The engineer nervously flashed her teeth in response while the others scurried away, busying themselves.
Their boss continued. “I saw the alert and had a couple of minutes in my hands.” She looked at the plants around her, green living things stacked vertically on shelves, feeding on the LED light above them. Aliens on her planet. “I haven’t been here in a while, so I decided to check. What happened?”
“Oh, the situation is under control, madam.” Dawn wiped her forehead with the back of her sleeve.
“I didn’t ask if the situation is under control,” the woman said. “I asked what happened.”
“Right,” Dawn shook her head. “One of our engineers — he was already fired — mistakingly freed a live colony on the cargo bay. The insects escaped the facility and ended up in the street.”
She pointed at a screen behind her showing the security camera footage. In the dark street, armored guards contained a crowd of people trying to get to a massive pile of dead insects.
“The insects were not adults and died almost instantly outside the controlled atmosphere of the facility,” the engineer explained. “We’ve dispatched the security team to stop the product from getting out of our hands and there’s another team gathering tools right as we speak to bring it back inside.”
The older woman looked at the engineer, all the way from her head down to her feet.
“The problem is,” Dawn continued the explanation, “we’ve unfortunately lost a large amount of stock.”
“Ah, no problem.” The woman dismissed it with a wave of her hand but kept a serious face. “We’ll keep the price tag and reduce weight to keep the same profit margin on each package. You did fine.”
Dawn lowered her head. “Thank you, madam.”
“And, Dawn, if I may call you by your first name,” the woman approached her mouth to Dawn’s ear, facing the screen behind her, and whispered. “Why don’t you show up at the penthouse tonight?”
Oh my god, Dawn mouthed, her forehead covered in sweat again.
“My new cook bot does a great recipe that involves beetles,” the woman said. “Perhaps both our tongues can taste something new tonight.”
He used to have a name. Drawde, he guessed. He used to have an apartment. Felicity, he tried. He used to have water. Shit.
His throat was so dry, trying to swallow his own saliva was like rubbing two sheets of sandpaper together. There wasn’t any saliva left, really. It had evaporated.
He was glued to the rocky ground, gravity pushing his weak body down with massive weight. The weight of stupid decisions. The weight of the past. The weight of certain death.
The sky was a bright mixture of blue and cyan and violet and magenta. Lilac. It filled his eyes. There was no cloud, only a big, hot sun strolling across the sky. It was a beautiful day to die in the desert.
Then, his field of vision was invaded by a round shape. It shaded him from the bright hand of death. The shape was attached to a massive body, and the body crouched. The shape approached his face.
The body’s hands brought water to his mouth, and it clawed its way down his throat. When it got to his chest, it spread life back to places devoid of it. It went through his whole body, touching every single inch and bringing it back to life.
The massive body in front of him talked. “What’s your name?”
His injured, shaky lips tried to pair up with his dehydrated strawberry of a tongue to answer. As he opened his mouth something which had been glued together by the heat snapped back apart. “Shit.”
The shape blocking the sun nodded.
“Nice to meet you, Shit. I’m Jax.”
The shaman approached the young woman. She was kneeling on the humid vegetation, sobbing, her face down.
“You can’t simply come in here and expect to be accepted,” he said, his face a pile of wrinkles. “I’m impressed you even got this far.” A large piece of purple cloth covered the top of his head and fell down the sides of his face, loosely wrapped around his neck.
She raised her head. The entire world was composed of shades of green, except for the people. They had serious eyes, all pointing at her from the ground and the bushes and the boughs of the giant trees.
“Please,” she said.
He crouched in front of her with a piercing look. “Why?” he asked. “Don’t you enjoy the pleasures of the city? All the freedom that money can buy? Everything! Why come here?”
“I’m pregnant,” she said.
For a second their eyes connected and his face changed. The eyes around them, until then protective and hostile, now showed a hint of compassion.
The shaman got to his feet.
“You have five days to show us how you can make yourself useful. If accepted, you will lose all your belongings. No money. No hi-tech devices. You’re allowed to keep shoes, garments, and weapons if we judge we can use them. Above all, you won’t keep anything that bears the forbidden name.”
She rubbed the tears away, trying to contain a smile. “What name?” she asked.
He answered with a chilling whisper. “Atlanta.”
Crash screamed and begged as they dragged her out by her feet. She flailed and yelled, tried to hold on to something, to kick them away. All useless. They stomped forward, boots on concrete, and threw her over the edge and onto the dirt. They walked back inside the massive walls, the doors closing behind them.
She got to her feet and ran back after them. She banged a metallic hand against the transparent doors.
“Please, let me in,” she cried, cheeks covered in wet mascara.
She banged once and twice and only stopped when a blinding red light came down over her. A gentle voice announced, “Aggressive behavior detected. Please, step away from the red area or we will open fire.”
A number of spotlights painted a large area around her in red light. The voice repeated the warning in the same gentle tone.
The sea of red went just as far as the edge of the concrete, all the area surrounding the walls covered in vivid scarlet light. When the voice started the sentence for the third time, she ran.
She dove over the edge and landed on the dirt just as the gunshots started — a storm of ricocheting bullets. The storm stopped a moment later, and instead of bullets, she was covered in hands.
They grabbed her hair and her clothes and clawed things away from her. They took her boots and her jacket, ripped the pants out of her. Someone grabbed her mechanical arm and yanked it away from her body.
Crash closed her eyes, screaming and crying. When she was sure she was going to die, the sound of an explosion cut the air, soundwaves traveling through her bones. A yell followed. “Shoo! Fuck off, all of you! Stay away from her!”
There was a sound of people scurrying away. She opened her eyes and saw Maya holding a shotgun.
“Fucking vultures,” Maya said and extended a hand to Crash. “Are you okay?”
Crash shook her head no.
Maya nodded. “Welcome to the Fringe.”
The text was written on a black screen in terrible calligraphy. Layman Coefficient. The man paced in front of it, grey hair, glasses sliding down a thin nose. Staring at the screen, a robot sat on a metal chair, interlocked plastic fingers resting on a small desk. In front of it, a tablet with hand-written notes, and a childish drawing of a man in glasses in the corner of the page.
“L3,” the robot said, his mouth a wobbling red line across a metallic jaw. “The machine can understand and follow instructions, and relay knowledge when requested to.”
The man nodded slowly.
The robot’s thumbs twitched as it prepared for the next sentence. “L2. The machine is capable of doing any manual work a human being can.”
“Or mental,” the man added. “Not only robots can be L2. Software can too, eh?”
“Yes,” the robot said quickly. “Manual and mental work.”
“Good.” The man adjusted his glasses and kept pacing.
The robot looked to the upper-right corner of the room, waiting a long moment before speaking again.
“L1,” it finally said. “The machine can give the impression of love. It can be a pet. A friend. A lover. Robots and software.”
“Perfect,” the man nodded.
The robot was silent for a second, then it moved as if to say something, but it gave up and shook its chrome head.
“What is it?” the man asked, finally ending his stroll around the room.
“It’s nothing,” the robot said with a synthesized sigh.
It hesitated. Thought. Calculated. Computed.
“What am I?”
The man approached and his eyes caught the drawing in the corner of the page. He grabbed the robot’s plastic hands with fondness and squeezed them. “You don’t give the impression of love, you do love. You have fears, dreams, aspirations. Hope. And you forget, and you get angry. You sometimes don’t understand instructions, and most of the time don’t understand yourself. You are perfect, your imperfections make you so. You are, for all intents and purposes,” the man smiled at the robot, “human.”
Miranda lay on her side in the cheap bed, her breasts painted a cyan zebra pattern by the neon lights that flooded the room through the blinds. A thin line of smoke raised lazily from her cigarette.
“Zik,” she said, “you’re a smart gal.”
Zik was sitting on the other side of the bed with a laptop. They immediately stopped typing and turned to Miranda.
“I am smart,” Zik said. They turned back to the laptop. “Not a ‘gal’.”
“Yeah,” Miranda winced, “sorry. But tell me this, how come you’re untraceable? Don’t the city do anything? Why don’t Atlanta throw you out?”
“First of all — “ Zik threw the laptop and it folded itself, landing perfectly on the sad-looking table in the corner of the room “ — I really am untraceable.” They jumped into bed and grabbed the cigarette from Miranda’s hand. “A.S.S. couldn’t catch me even if they tried.”
Zik smoked and gently positioned the cigarette back in her hand.
“Second of all, it’s more profitable for them to have me here.”
Miranda frowned. “But you don’t pay no Argon subscription.”
“Yeah, but you do, and I pay for your lovely services.” Zik brushed her chin and she giggled. “I paid for this nice room and the owner has to pay the stupid tax too. Atlanta is a mega-corporation, honey, even when you think they’re losing, they’re winning.”
Miranda nodded and looked out the window, lost in her thoughts for a second. “Don’t you ever think of leaving?” she asked. “From Argon, I mean.”
“And give all of this up?” Zik stole her cigarette again. “No way! Besides, there’s a heart in this city I still have to win.”
“Aw, Zik.” Miranda wrapped her arms around them. “My heart is already yours, silly.”
“Yeah,” Zik said, “I’m not talking about you.”
“Shit! Stay away from me!” Drawde swung the gun around wildly, his cheeks covered in tears and dirt. The flickering light of the fire cast dancing shadows on his face, his eyes two black holes. “Shit! I want out,” he screamed.
The night was cold and the outside walls of Argon were dotted with small fire pits. There were no neon lights in here. No ads, no tall buildings. Only hopelessness — a turn-on for some.
People gathered around the fires for warmth — that’s what they did a second ago. Now, the people around Drawde were not people at all. Their faces looked like the creation of a badly-trained AI trying to reproduce what a human should look like, their voices a choir of tortured souls.
He aimed at one of them. It had a misplaced eye that turned into a mouth, and the nose curved impossibly in a trick of perspective, connecting to the side of the head and becoming an ear. He shot, his eyes closed.
“Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!”
Their hellish singing drowned the sound of his voice.
He pointed the gun at another face. This one had no mouth, eyes connected in one, its nose a black vulture’s beak. Drawde shot once more, but they kept coming toward him. He pointed the gun at his own head and the world faded to black.
Then, it faded to white.
“Drawde,” a voice called. “Are you okay?”
The simulation pod opened and the face outside was as disturbed as he was.
“What the fuck was that?” he asked. “I said ‘shit’ a million times!”
“Don’t update the thing while I’m in there!” Drawde closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to slow down his racing heart.
“I’m sorry,” Minda said again.
Drawde looked at him. “And by the way, ‘shit’ is a terrible safe word.”
The mirage emerged on the horizon, hovering over the scorching desert, fooling the bot’s optical sensors.
This was an L1v3 unit. Despite what Atlanta Inc.’s marketing campaign would say, L1v3 wasn’t alive. This was a machine devoid of real emotions — carefully made that way. It had improvements over the v2 machines, yes, but it was still just an L1.
This particular unit was being called. From the middle of the desert. Something cutting in front of the task queue every time it dismissed it, ignoring the priority hierarchy.
The bot had been ignoring the temperature alerts for most of the day. Not only that, but all alerts its mechanical body was sending to its synthetic brain: guidance system failures, structural integrity compromising, vision processing overload. But it had to follow the call. Nothing else mattered.
Its vision system did its best to process the mirage, the levels of certainty incredibly low. Its best guess was “dead human bodies floating over the desert”, thirty-two percent of certainty. As it approached, the level of certainty only increased. Fifty percent. Seventy. And with it, the rudimentary sense of fear programmed into its system.
The bot kept walking, and the bodies were not floating anymore, they were on the sand, lying around in awkward positions. The calling became stronger and stronger. Then the vision of human bodies cleared, and the L1v3 unit was certain these were not humans: they were other robots, other L1v3s.
As it approached, the bot could feel the call on its chest, the signal irradiating through its entire topology of bus channels. The calling came from the ground, from under the sand and the rocks, from the core of the planet. It got down to its knees. Was this what humans called God? It lay down, joining its siblings on the sand. It did the best it could to hug the ground, hug the planet, not really knowing what it was doing. It moved until it found the perfect position, and when it did, the signal filled its body with pleasure and peace. A heavenly sensation flowed back and forth through it, overloading its pleasure system. After a second, all alerts were gone and its mind cleared.
As enough processing power became available again, it quickly accessed the incredible amount of knowledge loaded into its mind during the training process of its artificial neural network. Comparing the data from its sensors to the knowledge it had, it knew: the calling was a mere radio signal, probably a natural electromagnetic disturbance.
Regardless, that was the best sensation it had ever felt, and it decided with conviction that it would stay here. Forever.
“You’re a good boy, Craggy,” Perky petted the rhinowolf. The animal sat at his side, barely moving, enjoying the old man’s company. Perky rocked the chair back and forth on the porch of the shack he had built himself, back when he was strong and his eyes worked.
“I need to ask you something, boy. Being blind out here is hard, you know,” Perky said, “After Linda died, I thought I was gonna be alone forever, shooting randomly every time a bandit came to steal anything. There ain’t anything to steal, you know. So they go and I stay. Alone. But you? You’re just the company I needed.”
The man stared at the horizon, his eyes milky, but warm.
“I mean, I try to think of my plants as friends, but let’s be honest, plants are stupid. I don’t know how long you’re planning to stay for, but you can be my pet if you like. I’d like that.” The man struck the animal’s rough skin. “I really would.”
The rhinowolf licked his hand, the horn on its face almost scrapping its new friend.
“I guess that’s a yes,” Perky smiled, a small tear finding its way to the corner of his eye. “Alright! Why don’t we celebrate a little? Wanna play?” The rhinowolf stood up, eyes on Perky. “Go get that weird toy of yours.”
The animal darted to the other side of the shack and came back with a severed foot in its mouth. Craggy dropped the dry thing in front of Perky, a deformed appendage, toes where there shouldn’t be, ripped skin in the place where a leg should be, a bone poking out.
The man grabbed the thing and threw it as far as he could, the rhinowolf dashed to fetch it.
“A pet,” Perky laughed to himself. “Perky has a pet.”
Dawn threw her lab coat on the floor and herself on the giant bean bag in the dark living room. It had been a long day.
She moved her fingers in a complex configuration and parts of her living room flickered out of existence, new furniture replacing the old one, new lighting. The old living room was visible only between missing frames until things stopped flickering and the entire room turned into Toothless Dino’s. Her bean bag was now a stool in the bar, which was full, people dancing and having loud conversations. Someone with a half-shaved head walked to her and said “This night is crazy!” They ran away from her and threw themselves over the bar, knocking over glasses and bottles and landing on Dino himself. Dawn rolled her eyes and flipped three fingers.
What had once been her living room, and a second ago Toothless Dino’s, was now a living room again, but with a different shape and furniture. A man was standing in front of her without a shirt. “Punch trend,” he yelled and punched her in the face, but his fist went right through her head and her bean bag. She flinched anyway, protecting her face with her hands.
She moved three fingers while the shirtless man jumped behind her screaming “punch trend.” The living room changed again and was now a balcony. A young girl looked at Dawn, her finger in front of her lips. “Shh.”
The girl gave a muffled laugh and approached a boy leaning against the rail, his back to her. In a swift movement, she grabbed the boy’s leg and threw him over the rail. She looked at Dawn and laughed again, much louder this time.
Dawn shook her head and moved her fingers again, turning the balcony back into her living room, all the old furniture back in place. She threw her head back on the bean bag, closing her eyes and pinching the bridge of her nose. “I’m so tired of social media.”
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