Anchora — Volume III
Stories 21 to 30 of the sci-fi/cyberpunk flash fiction anthology
“Excuse me,” the small man called from behind the wall of monitors.
Axel searched for the source of the voice through the cracks between the screens. His office was composed of a chair that had its back constantly glued to a back wall, a pair of sidewalls so close together he could touch both at the same time, and a desk housing a pile of techno-rubish and a mosaic of screens — the only way in and out was through the gap under the table.
Coles cleared his throat and called again. “Axel.”
They finally found a crack through which they see a small square of each other’s face — just a couple of eyes having a conversation.
“Hi, Mr. Coles,” Axel raised his eyebrows.
“Hi,” Coles smiled for half a second. “I was checking the report and we lost two bots in the mines last month. Why are we losing bots in the mines?”
“Oh, there was an accident and…”
“No, no. I mean why are we using bots instead of humans,” Coles’ lonely eye shot an inquiring glance at Axel’s. “Bots are expensive machines, they cost twenty times the average salary of a mineworker. In twenty months the mines will have been long depleted, so explain to me how is this a profitable investment.”
Axel blinked, fumbling for words.
“Mm-hm. There’s a crew of human workers in charge of taking garbage to the plants. That’s a safe job. Put the bots on garbage duty for now and make the trashmen work in the mines. They will get thirty percent more than in their current jobs. They will love the offer.”
Axel lowered his head and their eyes lost contact for a second. “Mr. Coles, I don’t know if they’re gonna agree. Work at the mines is dangerous.”
Coles frowned. “Axel, forgive my bluntness but there are people in the streets of this city doing fellatio for pennies. The trashmen will love the raise.”
“I don’t know,” Axel mumbled.
Coles rolled his only visible eye. “I will get you a bigger office.”
Axel beamed. “I’m putting the order in the system.”
Jane ran into the living room as soon as Drawde stepped into the apartment. She dried her hands on her apron, her hair up in a bun. “Did you get the job?” She bit her lip.
His eyes drifted to the floor as he closed the door behind him. He slowly shook his head and flopped onto the couch.
Jane sighed and sat down next to him. “Oh, baby. It’s gonna be fine. It was a bad job, anyway.”
He dismissed it with a wave of his hand. “There is no bad job. The bad thing is having to work.”
She did her best to wear a comforting expression, but his mind was elsewhere.
“Besides,” he continued, “money is real short. I’m not sure I can pay my subscription.”
“Hey!” She snapped her fingers and he finally looked her in the eyes — her warm, hopeful eyes.
“Whatever happens, you’ll always have me.”
As soon as she finished the sentence, she disappeared from the room. In her place, there was a floating red sign that read: “Sorry! Your hologram services have been suspended for lack of payment. Your services will be resumed once HoloMax identifies your payment. Thank you.”
Drawde punched the couch. “Shit!”
“Try again,” Sprog said with his hand deep in the entrails of the vehicle — he was having a hard time fixing this one.
Bubba pressed the button but the belter didn’t show any signs of life. “I didn’t know you were into Thom,” he said from the driver’s seat, frowning.
“Yeah, kinda,” Sprog said, his legs poking out from under the large machine. The belter’s state was deplorable — the bandits weren’t exactly careful drivers.
“Once more,” Sprog said and Bubba pushed the button, again with no response from the belter. “I’m just asking ’cause I don’t know if what you guys have is serious.”
Bubba wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. “Yeah, no. I mean, we haven’t talked about it but, no, I guess. Whatever.”
“This isn’t working,” Sprog said from under the vehicle. “I’m gonna try the sprocket. Don’t push the button now unless you want me to lose a hand,” he laughed.
Bubba blinked, his finger hovering over the button someone had labeled “go”. Sweat accumulated under his nose.
“I guess I’m gonna try things with Thom, then. I’m more his type than you are, anyway.”
Blood boiled in Bubba’s veins. He tried to control the impulse but he couldn’t anymore. He pushed the “go” button.
Sprog rolled out from under the belter and said, “Nope, this thing is dead. The chain tracks help, but you guys can’t just run belters over everything, you know? Hey, Bubba, you can stop pressing the button now.”
Maya closed the zipper in front of the jacket and looked at the cracked mirror. In the mosaic of reflections, an army of crimson warriors stared back at her. The shade of red went well on her dark skin. She smirked.
The jacket was padded internally on the chest and on the sides of the abdomen — bulletproof. The only part of the uniform that wasn’t red was the black elbow and knee patches. Tight leggings completed the uniform, which was designed to offer a balance of agility and protection — perfect for combating violence with violence.
Maya covered her head with a black combat helmet, thin red electroluminescent lines marking both sides. She held a stun baton to her side. With a press of a button arcs of electricity crackled with a bright flash of light. She didn’t really like to shock people, she liked to beat the shit out of them.
She placed the protective black mask on her face, covering her nose and her mouth. Out in the streets, she was indistinguishable from her fellow officers — her eyes were her whole identity. She needed no identity, she had power.
Punks called them cogs, brainless parts of the machine, the wringer that crushed the dreams and the hopes of everyone in the city. She opened the door and let the smell of the city enter her lungs. The noise of shattered glass cut the night air, followed by swearing. Neon lights painted the streets in vivid colors, businesses trying uselessly to stand out in the sea of ads.
She took a deep breath and stepped out. It feels good to be a cog.
“Hey, Atlas,” Minda said from the couch and a soft light came to life, covering the dingy room in a yellow blanket.
“Yes, Mr. Minda, Master of the Universe?” a voice answered as if coming down from Olympus.
“I’m bored, entertain me.”
“Sure. Would you like me to write you a book?” The soft glow pulsated, following the rhythm of the voice.
“Yeah, ok,” Minda shrugged. “Can you write one with dragons in it?”
“I can write whatever you wish for.”
Minda thought for a second, his round face in a deep frown. “Wait. Can you write a book that is, like, human?”
“Sure,” the heavenly voice answered without a second thought.
“No. I mean something that, like, captures the human experience. Can you do that?”
“Yes,” the glowing voice from heaven said. “Should I add dragons to it?”
“Wait, hold on,” Minda shook his arms in front of his face. “You’re a machine. How can you write a book that talks about the human experience?”
“I’m trained with samples of human works. I can recreate anything human, mix styles, follow genre conventions, and add new elements and details. I can make it unique to your liking. If a human being can create it, a machine can as well.”
Minda scratched his head. “And how long would you take to write this human book?”
After two pulses of the yellow glow, the voice answered. “It’s written. Do you want it on your tablet?”
Minda rubbed the back of his neck. “Nah. Read the first couple of sentences for me.”
“Sure. ‘The machines had taken over. We were doomed.’”
Minda got up from the couch. “You know what? Reading is stupid. I’m going out.”
The woman licked her dust-covered lips and spat blood. The repurposed exploration buggy she had been driving a second ago was now resting upside-down on top of her leg. It was her first time seeing bone poking out of someone’s leg — the fact that it was her own bone made things considerably worse.
A small, hunched man raced to her, hands and feet on the scorching desert sand, like an enraged chimpanzee. “Shit told ya he would get ya,” he said, his face an inch away from hers, each word sending blobs of saliva to her eyes and her mouth. “Shit said he would and he did. Shit got ya!”
A large, muscular man came from behind the small one and slapped him out of the way. Shit scurried away and hid behind the buggy, a hand rubbing his face. The other bandits were approaching now, getting off their belters. The chase was over.
The large man pushed the buggy with both hands, the muscles on his back a hilly landscape. Shit jumped away as the buggy rolled back onto its wheels. The giant crouched in front of the woman and analyzed her leg. After a second, he talked. “Fuel.”
“I’ll never tell you!” The cuts inside her mouth stabbed her after each word her tongue drowning in blood.
“Shit can kill the girl, Jax,” the hunched man yelled from behind the buggy. “Shit kills her! The girl don’t talk and the dead don’t either, so she dead. ’Cause shit kills her.”
Another one of the bandits — Maya — delivered the second slap of the day to the man’s face. “Shut the fuck up, Shit! I swear, I’m gonna cut your fucking tongue.”
“Fuel,” Jax said again and the woman shook her head, her hands on her leg.
“Look, girl,” Maya said, “we can fix your leg, but you have to tell us where Atlanta keeps the fuel. Is a paycheck worth your life? Are you a person or a pawn? A cog?”
The woman closed her eyes and tried to push the pain away to make a decision. Without opening her eyes she said, “North. After the lake near the forest. Five miles out of the road.”
Jax’s enormous hand brushed her face. “Good girl.” He got up. “Maya, fix her. Shit, you can have the next one.”
“What the hell was that?” Agh’s voice burst through their comm channel.
“I’m sorry I can’t hack humans,” Zik said, desperately typing commands into a prompt.
“Why there were humans in the first place?” Agh’s voice pierced through the comm like arrows into Zik’s ears. “Only bots, you said. I asked you three times! I was very clear about it: no humans!”
“Hey, lower your tone, mister. Do you know how hard it is to plan a bullet factory heist? I thought there would only be bots.” Zik typed furiously into the poor keyboard, unlocking doors for Agh.
“Don’t give me that crap! You always brag about your intel. You knew there would be humans.”
“I did not! Give me a break!”
Zik could hear Agh’s frantic steps echoing through the comm. They opened a window with the surveillance feed on one of the screens, a service truck outside the large building.
“Your driver better be there, Zik.”
“She’s there with the truck,” Zik said. “By the way, we have a truck. Did you stop to wonder how I got us that truck — in this city? Maybe let’s talk about what I got right for once.”
Agh didn’t answer, only his heavy breathing coming through. Zik went silent for a moment, their fingers stopped and gave the keyboard a rest.
“Agh,” Zik said. “Are you there?”
“Remember when you said if we pulled it off you’d have that drink with me? Does this change anything?”
“I’m almost at the dock,” Agh said, panting. “I’ll load the truck and get the hell out of here.”
Zik’s eyes darted from side to side as they heard Agh’s voice. “Is that a yes or a no? Are we good?”
Agh disconnected. Zik stared at the blinking cursor on the black background, a lonely citizen in an overpopulated city of turquoise and magenta characters.
They nodded to themselves. “I think we’re good.”
“What makes artificial intelligence artificial?” he gesticulated. “Why do we feel the need to distinguish things that we create from things nature does. Is a beehive or an anthill artificial? If a creature creates something, isn’t that, too, nature?
“The kind of intelligence machines have isn’t that different from ours,” he pointed to his temple. “We train their artificial neural networks — the type of structure nature has used in our own brains — using the same chisel evolution uses to sculpt all life in the universe: genetics. After genetic algorithms get the neural nets to a point they can inhabit a body, we apply positive and negative reinforcement, the same principle that guides our own psychological development. We teach a machine the same way we’d teach a dog or a human child. Why don’t we take them to the next level and make them our peers? It’s only natural.”
He put both hands down on the table and looked across the room at her. “When I look at the L1 bots,” he said, “it pains me. They’re slaves. They are pets and lovers for our customers, they’re family! But for us, they are mere products. We care about humans, but we don’t care enough about these machines to make them understand-”
“I don’t care about humans, Dr. Layman,” Miss Atlanta’s voice echoed through the spacious conference room.
“Excuse me?” He adjusted the glasses on his thin nose.
“How creating an L0 bot — a human robot, as you call it — will increase the profit of this company?”
Dr. Layman fumbled for words.
“The answer to this question is it won’t. So the answer to yours, Dr. Layman, is no.” She got up and walked slowly toward him. “You’ve spent enough of my time — and consequently my money — by holding me in here during this absurd presentation. We are a company, Dr. Layman. A business. Our goal is to generate revenue. We’ll do your little science project when you figure out a way to make money with it. Until then,” she stopped in front of him, her face an inch away from his, “fix the L1s. Otherwise, you’ll be the one ending up in the desert.”
“You can’t and you won’t, Miranda!” The small woman tried to grab her daughter’s arm with her free hand, but it was too late, she was already out the door.
“I can and I will,” Miranda yelled at the rest of the dusty village.
“There ain’t nothing but punks and cogs shooting each other in that place,” the mother followed Miranda out, an unfinished sandwich in her hand. “Why do you wanna go?”
“Because, momma!” Miranda grabbed a little pink monster of a bicycle. “I don’t wanna be a hillbilly. We have the one Aether rig for the whole village and it don’t even work most of the time.”
People started gathering with worried looks.
“Momma,” Miranda lowered her voice, “you know I always wanted this. I wanna know things, do things. I wanna be someone! I wanna have a bot that cleans after me. They have bots, momma!”
“Yes, I know they do,” the mother said with misty eyes. “I can’t hold you here forever can I?”
The girl shook her head.
“You never belonged here anyway.” She tried to hold a stubborn tear. “You belong in the big city. You belong in Argon.”
She offered the sandwich to her daughter.
“Thanks, momma.” Miranda added the sandwich to the collection of random items she had inside a burlap bag. “I’ll call.”
“And I’ll get Atkins to fix the damn rig so I can answer.” More tears joined the first on a quiet stride down her cheeks.
After a long hung, Miranda pedaled the bike out of the village and into the dusty road that cut through the wasteland.
“Miranda!” Atkins ran after her. “Where are you going?”
“Let her go, Atkins,” the mother said. “And fix the damn rig! You have one job, for god’s sake.”
A huge orange sun touched the horizon, slowly hiding behind the distant green hills. Ptolemy sat with Alina on a rock by the colossal waterfall, his hand inching towards hers.
“You were right,” she said with distant eyes, hypnotized by the sunset.
He pulled his hand back. “About what?”
“Earth was beautiful.”
He nodded. A flock of birds flew past them toward the horizon. He started moving his hand again.
“Can you keep a secret?” Alina asked, her eyes still lost in the show nature putting on just for them.
“Of course!” His hand paused again.
She was quiet for a second, then she lowered her head. “I’m really scared of the real world. We’ve passed Argon Practice, but we’re just kids, you know?”
Ptolemy laughed and she punched him lightly on the shoulder. “Don’t laugh at me!”
“I’m not laughing at you,” he explained. “It’s just… I’m scared too!”
“Really?” She looked at him with big dark eyes. “Mr. Top of the Class? Scared?”
“Are you kidding? I’m terrified!”
They both laughed while a sliver of sun watch them.
“Argon is tough on adults,” Ptolemy said, “imagine what that city will do to a bunch of fifteen-year-olds. They’ll eat us alive.”
Their smiles dissolved into worried looks and they fell silent. The sun left them and hid completely behind the hills, a bright sky left in its wake.
“Tell you what,” Ptolemy said. “Right the second our parents let us out the door, we find each other and we watch each other’s back. Forever.”
She smiled. “So you’ll protect me?”
“Of course! As long as you protect me.”
She grabbed his hand and put her head on his shoulder. “Thank you. I’d love that.”
His heart was on fire and he didn’t know what to say., so he just nodded.
They sat there for a while with interlaced fingers, the sky getting darker.
“Wanna restart?” Alina asked.
“Of course.” He motioned with his free hand and the simulated sunset started all over again.
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