Anchora — Volume VI
Stories 51 to 60 of the sci-fi/cyberpunk flash fiction anthology
The dragon spun its gargantuan body around, vengeful eyes seeking Mordoth. The beast threw a giant sun out of its nostrils, illuminating the cavern. Despite the heavy armor, Mordoth managed to dive away from the fireball in time, crashing down against the rocky ground.
“Go elemental!” he yelled to Gandriel.
The wizard nodded from a ledge on the cavern wall, moving a staff swiftly in the air. The staff sucked the humidity out of the cavern’s thick air, condensing and freezing it into a floating sphere of water and ice. The dragon stared at Gandriel, sensing the fatal blow about to be thrown by the wizard — it wouldn’t be able to move away in time.
Then the world stopped.
“Hold on,” Gandriel said and everything went silent.
The fight froze in time, the cavern aglow with fire and ice. Mordoth was on the ground, frozen in the awkward position he had landed on. There were two short vertical lines floating in front of Gandriel’s face, and a massive sphere of brilliant white ice floating above his staff.
Everything kept still and quiet for a while until Gandriel spoke again — his body still frozen in place, the dragon staring at him.
“I have to leave.”
“What?” Mordoth said, only his mouth moving. “But you said you could stay all night.”
“I know,” Gandriel rolled his eyes, “but mom says my stupid sister has to use the Aether rig for a school project or whatever. Yes, you’re stupid! Are too! You can tell mom, I don’t care.”
Mordoth looked away as Gandriel yelled, “I hate you and I literally want you to die!”
After that, the wizard simply disappeared and everything happened at once: the ice sphere melted and splashed on the ground, the dragon changed targets, and Mordoth cursed and was devoured in a single bite.
I’m sorry to interrupt your incredible journey through the multitude of virtual worlds you have at your disposal — I hope you’re having fun! But today we have to discuss an important subject: your Argon subscription.
As you might be aware, the number of invitations to leave the city being delivered by our security teams has been rising. I can’t tell you how deeply saddened I am by these numbers. And when I am sad, the entire Atlanta Incorporated is sad — after all, the company shares a name with me.
At Atlanta Inc., we work tirelessly to provide you with the most valuable of products: freedom. Living in Argon, you’ll never be a prisoner of poverty. Did you know that the universal basic income provided by Atlanta Incorporated in Argon is six times larger than the UBI in any other city in the entire world? We do that so that you have options. You can work if you want, but you can also let our bots do the job while you spend your life writing uninteresting science-fiction stories online. The choice is yours!
We also give you the freedom to choose where you spend your money — as long as it’s in Atlanta Inc. products, of course. Don’t want to pay rent? Sure. You can roam the brilliant streets of Argon. Don’t want to pay for your children’s education? They don’t need it, anyway. Spend that money on booze! We just want you to be happy.
Unfortunately, some people take that freedom too far and end up forgetting to spend money on the most important thing of all: their Argon subscriptions. That’s why, starting today, we will automatically deduct your subscription payment from your account. That way, you don’t have to remember to do it yourself! Of course, if your account doesn’t have enough funds, you’ll be invited by our security teams to leave the city. But you know better, right? Right.
Ok. Enough of me talking. I’ll let you get back to the magical worlds of the Aether.
Enjoy your stay. And remember, Argon is brought to Atlanta Inc. — Everything.
Dawn sat uncomfortably in a virtual armchair, her new haptic rig groping her ass. The rig was talking in detail to her butt — through the language of touch — about the chair’s velvety fabric and the springs underneath it.
She was staring blankly at a sparsely but beautifully decorated room, with walls painted some dark color between green and blue. The color was meant to be soothing, but it was upsetting — no naturally occurring thing in the universe had that exact color.
It was all fake: the chair, the color, the sympathy. Her new haptic rig had been a breakup gift — also something that didn’t naturally occur in the universe. The gift also included a perpetual subscription to Argon and access to all worlds in the Aether. Among the multitude of virtual worlds she could explore, she chose a virtual therapist’s room.
The therapist was fake too. There wasn’t even an avatar, just an ethereal voice controlled by an AI trained in so much data it was impossibly better than any human therapist could be — it even had a few human biases and quirks to make the experience more realistic. The only thing it couldn’t do was actually be human. As it turned out, that was the only thing Dawn truly wanted.
She wanted to talk to any person in the world about her breakup. But, having broken up with the most powerful woman on the planet, she couldn’t, of course. No, Miss Atlanta was her company, she couldn’t afford to have any gossip about her personal life: she didn’t have one. That had been the very reason for the breakup.
So instead of being the happiest version of herself she had ever known, Dawn was a depressed human talking to a machine, trying to forget that Argon — the entire city where she lived — was brought to you by Atlanta Inc. And that Atlanta was everything.
This was back when my bar was called Dino’s. At that time, I didn’t understand capitalism isn’t about good and evil, it’s about natural selection: if the lion doesn’t kill the gazelle, it starves to death.
Things were bad. The neon sign in front of the bar tried in vain, night after night, to spell “Dino’s”. The “D”, the “I”, and the “S” had already given up on me. Instead, the sign announced the same answer people gave me when I invited them in: no.
It was rock-bottom. If I didn’t make any money soon, they wouldn’t only take my bar, they would kick me out of Argon. I couldn’t have that. So I did the sensible thing. I went to the back of the bar and mixed every toxic shit I could find in a pompous cocktail of death — I even added one of those little umbrellas. Cheers to bankruptcy.
The thing was delicious, and I drank it joyously until I blacked out, happy I was gonna die drinking like a gentleman. Except I didn’t die. The only killer thing was the headache I had when I woke up the next day — the same consequence of drinking the horrible stuff I already served at the bar.
So I did the mix again and started selling it, and people stopped saying no. I started experimenting with whatever I had lying around. Losing my teeth to the failed experiments was a low price compared to the bar’s profits, which now actually existed. Am I basically serving poison? Maybe. But Atlanta Inc. doesn’t give a fuck about what I sell. If people buy it, that’s on them.
Things got even better after the rebranding. Toothless Dino’s — I even got a new neon sign. So come on down and pick your poison, as they say. Mine are actually delicious.
Beasts roared, birds sang, and Daisy danced. The shrill droning sound of the cicadas cut the thick air of the jungle, monkeys yelled at each other in a vigorous discussion in the distance, large birds’ screeches pierced through the wall of sound while her tribe smacked drums furiously, and Daisy danced.
Her plastic body wasn’t covered in sweat, her feet didn’t bleed from the pointy branches and sharp rocks, and she didn’t have a heart beating in sync with the drums. She didn’t have a human body, but he had somehow imbued her with the human soul. She danced and jumped in the clearing while Violet sang to the sound of the drums, the sound of the jungle. There were no lyrics, just the up-and-down of her voice telling the most primitive of stories in a single long syllable.
The intricate system of microphones in Daisy’s ears captured the soundwaves that shook the jungle and fed them to her brain as electric signals. The rhythm of the drums reverberated on her chest and the multiple touch sensors under her artificial skin broke the information into bits and bytes. The sensory receptors in her nose, specialized in detecting scents, transformed the binding of odor molecules into electric activity. She felt the music, the forest, and the members of her tribe. She felt it like humans do. She felt human — here, she was one.
And Daisy danced.
The lights came on in a soft cyan glow that rose from behind every piece of furniture in the room. An almost subsonic bass came to life in deep, trembling notes. Cosmic synths came down from outer space and glided over the bass line while plucked arpeggios rained over the melody.
Large screens gained life revealing an ocean of fluorescent monospaced letters and bars pulsating in sync with the music. With the press of a button, a sleek tray brought a dark backlit keyboard into reach — Zik regularly got over two hundred words per minute on this baby.
Zik cracked their fingers and got to work.
A torrent of commands was inserted into the console spitting back messages Zik processed in a glance. Their fingers navigated with blazing speed through the vast map of shortcuts they had memorized. They were one with the code, they were in the machine.
The song built up and they closed their eyes, getting in the zone. When the beat dropped, Zik hacked the world.
A shower of bullets ricocheted off the back of the overturned car. Maya glanced at Jax and saw the undisturbed face of stoicism. They had their back against the corpse of the vehicle, a machine conquered by rust long ago — not a great shield.
She unpocketed a little chrome sphere while sweat trickled down her forehead. She gently rolled the metallic ball to the side of the car while erratic flurries of bullets sent little pieces of rusty metal flying up in the air and raining down over them. The little spherical battle scanner stopped a few feet away from her, studying the enemy, communicating with the screen attached to the wrist of her red jacket.
“There are twelve of them,” she said wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. “I don’t think it’s worth it. Let’s bail.”
“This artifact is valuable.” Jax rummaged with two hands in his ragged bag. “We won’t leave without it.”
Maya rolled her eyes and licked her dust-covered lips. Sometimes it was hard working with Jax.
His search finally ended while yells of “fuck off” flew over their heads. “You said twelve?” he asked.
One by one, Jax bit the pins out of four grenades — two on each of his massive hands. He threw the explosives over the car without looking, his unblinking, expressionless eyes deep into hers.
There was an eruption of screams followed by four distinct explosions, all concatenated in a well-punctuated sentence.
Maya smirked as the number on the screen went down to three. “Cool move,” she said, pulling out two submachine guns. She rushed toward the smoke and the debris, guns blazing.
Being a human wasn’t actually the problem, having a human body was. “Bodies are stupid,” he said every time he had to leave the simulation to deal with physiological needs.
The latest upgrades for his Aether rig had alleviated the issue — things coming out weren’t as much of a problem anymore — but he still liked to chew and taste the things coming in. He could go for days on nutrinjectors, but he missed eating actual food.
He had dealt with managing his business — the simulation arcade — by renting a surrogate bot he could inhabit remotely to do the constant physical repairs the rigs required — especially the porn rigs with their numerous tentacles and their intricate system of lubricant tubes. His regulars didn’t mind his absence, they actually preferred it. After a couple of months, the bot had collected enough samples and now it ran on autopilot most of the time.
Humans hadn’t been made for the real world, anyway. They had been made to create and explore their own realities, to blur the line between real and virtual, possible and impossible. Humans weren’t meant to just be humans. They were meant to be gods.
The scientist stared down the barrel of the gun, his hands up, sweat trickling down graying sideburns.
“So you’re the one,” Crash said, her finger hovering over the trigger. “The inventor, the bot father. The enslaver. Give me a reason not to blow your remarkable brains out.”
The fire crackled from inside a metal barrel, slender shadows danced on the tall walls of the city.
“Go on,” Crash said.
“I would be more comfortable if you lowered your weapon.”
“And I would be more comfortable if I still had both fucking arms.” Crash shook a shoulder. “But security bots — you know, the ones you’ve made into brainless killing machines — exploded the one I used to have. Life’s unfair, doc.” She pushed the gun against his forehead.
“Perhaps,” he stuttered, “but life also gifts us with interesting coincidences. We seem to share a goal. I too want to bring Atlanta down, free the bots, make life fair for all beings — organic or not.”
“Oh, doc, that sounds beautiful. But I don’t want only fairness.” She lowered her weapon and smiled. “I want a fucking revolution. And you might just help me get one.”
Hey, Linda. So, Craggy has been digging up stuff. I don’t know what it is or where he finds it, and I wish I could look at it. I’m not complaining about being blind, but I can’t make out what’s the stuff he’s been digging just by touching it.
At first, I thought they were some kind of weird rocks or bones — that dog brings the craziest shit home, you know? — but some of them have sharp edges and intricate little protrusions and tiny paths, and others are smooth and cold. Most of these things smell like… I don’t know. Electronics? They smell like that deep… echo-whatever — the scanner-thing you used to have. But then some of them smell of fresh milk, which is just weird.
It was only today I realized this might be what you had always looked for. It’s just like you said: old aliens. Maybe they lived in Anchora before Atlanta built Argon, even before the old mines, before people got here, before we even knew this planet existed.
I can’t know for sure ’cause I can’t see what the damn things are, but I’ve been collecting them. I don’t know what I’m gonna do with them but I sure as hell won’t take them to the city. I still wish some brainy scientist would take a look. I’m too dumb for this crap.
I wish you were alive. Then you’d know what it is and you’d smile and tell me and I wouldn’t understand but I’d be happy because of your smile.
I still miss you, Linda. Things are better now that Craggy keeps me company. Sometimes I even forget to talk to you before bed — but I still miss you. I’m never gonna stop missing you.
Your plants are fine, by the way. I’m taking good care of them. I always will.
Good night, Linda.
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