Anchora — Volume V
Stories 41 to 50 of the sci-fi/cyberpunk flash fiction anthology
Jax kicked the 3D-printed door open. “You here.”
Maya peeked into the bowels of the now-ancient building. “What’s this?”
“Living pods,” his hoarse voice explained. “From the first settlements.”
“I know what it is,” she crossed her arms. “I meant… is this your plan? Are we a couple now?”
“No. Separate pods. I’m there.” He pointed to another building. There were six of them, tall solitary cocoons in the rocky desert, basalt walls built by explorer robots ages ago, marked with sparse mirrored rhombuses. “Not a couple,” he said. “A tribe. A band.”
“A band of two.”
“We’ll find our people,” he grunted.
“Look, Jax,” she scratched her head, her legs tired, her body aching. “I appreciate you saving me from those weirdos in the woods, but there is no ‘our people,’ there’s no ‘we’.”
He turned his back to her and took a deep breath. A breeze swept the fine dust of the wasteland and threw it against the brown curved walls. “People need people.” He didn’t look at her. “Stay.”
As he walked to his pod, she thought she could hear the wind carrying a hoarse “please,” barely a hum. She shook her head, arms akimbo. “You’re gonna regret this, girl.” She went inside to examine her new home.
The aggressive colors were melting and mixing in Agh’s eyes, the world a blur of cyan and pink. When it got to this point, the gargantuan screens, the neon signs that screamed colors into his eyes, the stupidly bright holograms, they all merged into a cacophony of visual stimuli.
He blinked his sleep-deprived eyes, trying to bring the bounty board into focus. Time for the next job. Now. Otherwise, he would fall again into the nauseating spiral that would ultimately bring him to the realization — the memory — of how much he hated this world.
He picked the first thing that would pay a fair buck for his troubles and unpocketed one of the tiny black capsules from his purple jacket. He put it in the metallic indentation on his forearm and the tiny mechanism shot the substance into his bloodstream.
The pathway of dopamine receptors in his brain lit up like the massive highways of some forgotten world. A tasty dose of adrenaline pushed him into movement. The colors came into focus, his vision sharp, his body ready. He was one with the lights.
He shoved his hands into his pockets and disappeared in the colorful night, a purple dot traveling the rainbow streets of this neon-washed world.
Dawn’s hands hugged a warm cup of tea — a delicious blend of herbs, no caffeine — as she looked through the curved window that covered the entire wall. Down there, a paradoxical view: how could the neon signs and bright ads make Argon so dark?
Behind her, lying on a tall mattress, the most powerful woman in the entire city, her naked body wrapped in a black silk robe. Dawn was wearing the same kind of robe, the impossible texture caressing her skin.
She was already in love with all of it. The feeling of the warm, black wooden floor against the soles of the bare feet; The crimson wall behind the bed; The hidden lines of warm light that backlit everything, showering the room in a soft glow; The dark, sleek furniture; The silky perfume in the air.
She couldn’t, though. She shouldn’t let herself fall in love. Not with the woman who literally owned the city. This was not, obviously, a serious thing. Enjoy the night, girl, she told herself as she admired the view, property of Atlanta Incorporated. But don’t fool yourself.
“Dr. Mirkowic,” Miss Atlanta called and Dawn’s legs melted. She loved that she called her “doctor”.
She turned to see the most powerful human being on the planet, her short, silver hair contrasting perfectly with the black of the robe, her body framed by the bed that seemed to float on a thin line of orange light. “Yes, ma’am?”
“Come to bed, darling.”
How could she not fool herself? “As you wish, Miss Atlanta.”
“Got him,” Maya said into the comms channel, her knee pressing against the back of Agh’s neck.
“Maya,” he spat and scraped his chin against the coarse pavement. “I didn’t realize it was you. This stupid red uniform makes you guys look all the fucking same.”
He laughed and she twisted his arm into an awkward angle making him wince. “Shut up. Where is the injector?”
“She’s all work today, guys,” he announced to the dark alley’s nonexistent crowd. “No time to catch up? It’s been a while since you last gave me a beating.”
“It’s been a while since you’ve last been sloppy,” she smirked. “Where did you get the injector?”
“I’m unaware of any injectors, officer,” he groaned. “But I believe a stranger may have put a device in my jacket’s left pocket when I left the subway.”
Reaching into the pocket, her fingers touched a cold cube and the world hid behind a wall of noise. A high-pitched sound pierced into her brain like an army of needles and she clawed at her helmet in a desperate attempt to tear her ears out of her head. She was suddenly alone on the pavement, barely able to open her eyes.
In front of her, a harmless little cube stared with indifference. Battling through the sonic agony, she conjured enough strength to punch the cube. She missed. Tried again. And again. Blind attempts while a million daggers stabbed her brain through her ears. With bleeding fingers, she finally managed to hit the cube, smashing it into a little pile of tiny circuits.
The high-pitched noise turned into a voice screaming in her ear. “Maya, answer me! What’s happening?”
“He’s gone,” she took off her helmet and rubbed her ears. “He had some kind of disruptor thingamajig. Turned my implants into a fucking noise rifle.” She smirked analyzing what was left of the device on the cold pavement. “Clever boy.”
The warrior shoved Shit and he dove head-first onto the sea of green moss and low vegetation, sticks and fallen leaves poking his face. The lean warrior was wearing feathers and fur and pieces of wood tied over her body in a mixture of armor and costume. There were six of them, all in similar garments, but each with unique decorations — all armed with primitive-looking weapons.
The warrior raised her weapon over her head — some kind of stone javelin — and Shit covered his face with his large gorilla forearms.
“Violet, hold,” a digital-sounding voice ordered.
Shit looked up from the ground to see the upside-down figure.
“Shit,” he said. “That’s new.”
Standing tall on top of a moss-covered tree stump, an android held a hand up, her plastic skin covered in the same kind of costume/armor as the others.
“What’s your name, outsider?”
He was still on his back on the ground, looking at an upside-down world where a bot gave orders and asked questions to humans. “Shit’s name is Shit.”
“Fitting,” she stepped down from the stump. “I’m Daisy, nice meeting you, Shit. Tell me, can you carry a message?”
“It depends,” he said. “If it’s real simple, yeah.”
“Oh, it’s a very straight-forward message. No more hunting. Can you tell your friends that?”
“Yes,” he nodded.
“Good. Violet, make sure he doesn’t get lost on his way out. And Shit,” she crouched, her hand going for his face. He closed his eyes and could hear a little stem break right by his ear. When he opened his eyes she was holding a small flower. “In case it isn’t clear, it’s a new age in the forest,” she brought the flower to her nose and smelled its faint perfume. “And Shit is no longer welcome.”
Jax unloaded the barrel from the hand truck with a thud, barely missing a dark smudge — something in an advanced stage of decay.
“Careful,” Dino whispered, his head poking out of his bar’s back door, eyes looking for witnesses down the littered alleyway.
“Thirty gallons of used motor oil.” Jax folded the hand truck into a suitcase-sized mass of metal tubes and hinges.
“You guys drive around a lot, right?,” Dino rubbed his hands. “You know, most drinks get better with age, but mine get better with mileage.” He chuckled and elbowed Jax.
“Don’t touch me,” was the reply.
Dino promptly abandoned the joke and pressed his wrist as if typing on it, a soft glow pulsating under his skin. “Here’s your payment.” He offered his hand.
Jax shook his head. “No implants.” He produced a pen-like device with a glowing screen on its side.
“A pen?” Dino frowned. “Implants are way safer, my friend. What if you lose that thing?”
“What if you lose your arm?” Jax’s eyes were deep into Dino’s in an unblinking, expressionless stare.
“Ah.” Dino swallowed. “Good point.”
He picked the pen and signed his name on the air. As soon as the transaction was completed, Jax clawed the pen out of his hand and walked away without a word, vanishing down the alleyway and into the bright, bustling adjacent street.
“Nice doing business with you too,” Dino mumbled.
He analyzed the precious barrel, tracing the curves with rough fingers, grinning alone in the dark. He tried to move the barrel inside the bar but it didn’t budge. He gave it all he had until he got lightheaded.
Agh and Zik sat opposite each other. On the wall, above their table, a light strip traced the shape of a cannabis leaf, a rainbow of vivid colors floating up in a slow-moving gradient.
“A cannabis cafe?” Zik complained while pulling a screen from their pocket.
“You said somewhere chill to talk,” Agh shrugged. “This is chill.”
“Whatever, listen,” Zik thumb-typed into the screen dextrously. “We gotta help Layman. Atlanta’s dispatched a tier 4 security order a couple of hours ago. He might not even know she wants him dead.”
The screen projected a faint, twitching hologram above the table with a report and a map.
“Two questions,” Agh made a “v” with his fingers. “Who’s Layman, and why do I care?”
“What? Dr. Layman! The guy who invented every bot in this city? He’s an AI legend. You gotta know this stuff!”
Agh shrugged again. “You’re the nerd one here, Zik. What about the second question?”
Zik sighed and pocketed the screen — the hologram vanished, leaving behind a trail of colorful dying voxels. “I can’t pay you right now but…”
“I’m out.” Agh got up but, before he could leave, Zik grabbed his arm.
“Agh,” they said in a weak voice. “We’re all trying to outcon each other on this stupid planet and, honestly? I’m kinda tired. It sucks. I know our relationship is ‘strictly professional’ but…”
“No air quotes, please.”
Zik sighed. “You’re the closest thing I have to a friend. The guy is my hero and they’re gonna kill him. Could you help me? Please?”
Agh saw something in Zik’s face that seemed to never have been there before. Vulnerability. Honesty.
“Alright,” Agh shoved his hands into his pockets. “I’ll make him untrackable, it’s the best I can do.”
Zik got up and hugged him. “Thank you,” their head buried in Agh’s chest.
“Alright, chill,” he pushed them back. “You owe me one.”
“Of course! Free hacking services, redeemable any time.”
“And you pay for my order,” he tapped on the table. “I better go now. Keep me posted through the comm.” He walked away and Zik sat down, pulling back the screen.
Agh stopped at the door. “Enjoy my brownie.”
Zik mouthed, “I fucking love you.”
There was a small forest of antennas in the distance — thin, vertical lines like the upside-down rusty nails in the coffin that was the wastelands. The hot breeze carried in it the faint smell of lifelessness. Rock and sand and steel were the only inhabitants of this forsaken side of Anchora.
He stood there, mind as empty as the desert around him, chains still hanging from his wrists. He was free now. Free to roam the inhospitable land by himself. Free to look for something he would never find. Free to pick a fight with death and lose. Free to become part of the bleak landscape, a decomposing body, alone in the wastelands.
He asked himself why he kept bothering to fight the universe, but he didn’t have a good answer. Nothing, it seemed, had ever wanted him alive. So why should he?
A lonely white cloud covered the blazing sun, instantly lowering the temperature. He raised his head and closed his eyes, feeling the warm breeze caress him, fine grains of sand brushing his face, the desert whispering faintly into his ear.
He stared at the antennas beyond the thin cloud of dust that danced and twirled up in the air. That should be him: standing tall and strong in the desert, against all odds. With a family of rusty people, made of steel, made to survive the ages and the weather and the relentless harshness of the world. A tribe. A band.
He nodded a subtle “thank you” to the cloud and marched toward the antennas — toward his future.
Crash hugged him with all her strength, tears flowing down her cheeks in dark streams. He stood there, unmoving, indifferent to her pain, staring blankly at the wall. The music box was still playing on the floor, her black mascara raining over it.
A couple of years ago, in that same room, she had told him she didn’t dance. He insisted she had to — she had to allow herself to be more human. He turned the music on and grabbed her hand, moving around awkwardly in silly jumps and expansive gestures. She laughed, she danced. She felt alive. Human.
The music box played a fairytale version of that song with magical metallic sounds. It was his gift for their anniversary. A little machine, with a single program built into it, but such a perfect execution that it could carry her away from the world where it was just a metal box with unfeeling gears and springs, and into a world where feelings were concrete things that touched her heart with velvet fingers and made her consciousness dance, floating in pure bliss.
She knew it was all a program, designed to satisfy her in every aspect, but what difference did it make? It was real. Their love was real. What did it matter if the love came from gears instead of a beating heart?
He was a lease. She knew that, without payment, they would take him away from her — Atlanta Inc. didn’t fuck around. But she thought she could hide him, protect him. She didn’t think they could reset him to factory settings.
He walked away and she melted into a pool of dark tears, and the music box plucked the last notes of their song.
Miranda bounced up and down on the passenger seat as the sixteen-wheeler sped through the collection of holes the driver called a road, a trail of dust following them.
“So…” Silence made her uncomfortable. “This is a big truck. Does it fit in the streets of Argon?”
“You’ve never been, huh?” The driver was wearing a dark leather jacket with only one arm — too warm for the heat of the wastelands.
She shook her head.
“Argon doesn’t have streets, kid. Not like you’re imagining. Nobody has cars there — why would they? That’s stupid.”
Miranda already regretted having started a conversation. She tried to make herself smaller on the worn leather of her seat.
“There are subways hobos call home on a never-ending ride around the city. There are trams with separate carts for service bots and people — though they all smell of pee, somehow. And sidewalks with ads so bright they can blind you — trust me, that’s why I have barely any vision left. There are dark sidewalks too, but you’ll wanna stay away from those.”
He cleared his throat and swallowed something. Miranda looked beyond the empty horizon, questioning a few decisions.
“In Argon, people walk, kid — except when you’re disabled and too poor for prosthetics.” He knocked on one of his thighs and a hollow tin sound filled the cabin. “Some people prefer to not walk at all. They spend their days in pods and rigs — in the Aether — relishing the fake reality they pay a moronic amount to enjoy. It’s all fake, anyway: things in the ads, the sense of safety, friendships, happiness… none of it is real.”
He coughed and spat an obscene amount of mucus out the window. Then he rubbed his lips with the back of his hand and smirked at her. “The real world sucks, anyway. You’re gonna love it in there.”
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