Anchora — Volume VII
Stories 61 to 70 of the sci-fi/cyberpunk flash fiction anthology
Agh listened. A lonely drop of water dripped from a rusty pipe and traveled down the height of the dark corridor to find a black puddle. The ventilation system hummed above, carrying spores from the multiple fungi species covering the humid tiles to the world outside. The artillery bot’s actuators droned faintly around the corner while it rolled down the corridor.
Agh fiddled with the laser dagger, absent-mindedly observing the gentle wave of the blade’s edge. He switched the laser on and pointed the butt of the dagger to the palm of his hand, a vivid cyan dot shining on the fingerless glove.
That color used to be beautiful, but some days everything was shades of gray. In those days, wearing the purple jacket was stupid, the faux leather he had once fallen in love with now singing an ode to empty appearances.
The laser quickly cut through the glove and reached his hand.
If he kept going, would he find anything inside? Would he find pain? Sadness? Anger? Or would he find cogs of just another part in the intricate machine that was this city? A machine without purpose, without reason to be, pushed forward in time in a meaningless chain of cause and consequence.
He turned off the laser and watched the tiny dot of skin and fat boil. He closed his hand, firmly holding the pain in his palm, not letting it escape him. Maybe the universe was a mindless machine and he was just another moving part in the mechanism, but he was damn good at it.
He snuck a small mirror beyond the corner and aimed the laser at a few vital cables on the bot’s back, cutting power to its actuators processing core, making it freeze.
“Stop,” the bot ordered, unable to move, unable to shoot. “You’re trespassing!”
Agh walked past the bot and patted it.
“Chill, buddy. You did your part.”
My heart is, health-wise, fine — it’s been fine for almost two hundred years — but, apparently, I’m still prone to the effects of heartbreak. I thought I had learned to deal with it, I sure have had enough time to develop a system.
It’s the same every time: they cry and I move on. But this time I’m the one sitting on an uncomfortable make-believe chair, staring at empty teal walls, talking to a virtual shrink.
As it seems, being the richest person in the world can afford you practical immortality, but it won’t save you from the trickery of the heart. My money allows me to create realities, expose lies and conceal truths. But there is one truth I simply can’t conceal from myself, it doesn’t matter how hard I try or how much money I throw at it: I miss her.
“You know what I don’t understand, Agh?” Maya cleaned smudges of blood off her stun baton while standing in her best authority pose.
Agh shook his head, holding a bleeding nose, crumpled in a corner between a dumpster and a dark brick wall.
“Why do you keep doing this shit?” she asked. “Why don’t you get a job? A real one. Heck, you could even become Atlanta Security! You have some impressive moves. But it’s like you enjoy being arrested. Don’t you like to be free?”
Agh guffawed until he started coughing and he had to hug his injured ribs. “Free,” he said, one eye on her, the other one closed, swollen. “That’s cute. Do you think we are free? Do you think you’re free?”
“More than you are.”
“Maya, Maya, Maya…” He shook his head. “In this world, there are the ones who own shit and the ones who are owned. The second group will never be as free as the first. You work for Atlanta, so you know to which group you belong.” He took his hand to his swollen eye.
She rolled her eyes. “How Marxist. Tell me, what do you own?”
“I’m sure you love giving me a weekly beating for a living,” he said and she nodded with a smile, “but they still tell you when you can beat me up, what to wear while you do it, and when you should stop. I might not own much, but I do own my time, and what is life if not the limited time we have in this stupid fucking world?”
Agh was a disaster, covered in bruises, hiding probably-broken ribs under that stupid purple jacket, but, for the smallest of moments, it sounded like he had a point.
“Whoever owns your time,” he said, “also owns your life.”
She stared at him in silence for a long while, then she looked up at the dark sky through the maze of tall buildings — the tallest of them bearing the brilliant logo of Atlanta Incorporated.
A dark drizzle gently danced down the night sky and landed on her face. The stun baton rested on her hands, and the thin droplets covered her red uniform while Agh twitched in pain in the darkness.
She stored the baton away and walked out in the drizzle, leaving Agh behind. He laughed and coughed.
They were both sitting in a lotus pose, facing each other. The forest was silent, tuned out, non-existent. There was only the shaman with his head covered by a large piece of purple cloth that wrapped loosely around his neck, and Daisy with her naked body of pale plastic and chromed metal.
He took a deep breath and she followed suit.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
She unconsciously used the complex system of motors on her face to create folds on her forehead, puzzled. “I’m breathing.”
“No.” He held an index finger up. “I’m human. I’m breathing. You’re a machine. What are you doing?”
“Oh, I…” The folds on her forehead grew deeper, more expressive. “I… am breathing! You breathe because you need oxygen to do chemistry inside your body. My body does chemistry too, and the air also serves to cool the system and… Ugh!” She gave up on the lotus pose. “It’s so hard!”
“Relax,” the shaman said in a calm voice. “What is hard?”
“Being a robot! A ‘bot’, an android. I’m trapped inside this body, and whenever people see it they already come up with assumptions and prejudices about what I am and what I’m not. No one in the world can understand what it is like to be me! And it’s so… desperately lonely.” The shaman nodded but Daisy kept going. “I am breathing! Just because my breathing isn’t like yours it doesn’t mean I don’t experience breathing the same way you do.”
“But that’s where you’re wrong.” He held his finger up again. “You can’t say you experience breathing the same I do because you don’t know how I experience it. In fact, no one does. You’re right: the human experience is, indeed, desperately lonely. I guess that’s why we so desperately want to share it with others.”
A few leaves dropped from the canopy above and danced around the shaman. Daisy nodded.
The shaman smiled, his face all wrinkles. “I guess you are more human than we all expected, after all.”
Hello, Miss Atlanta.
I hope you enjoy the champagne accompanying this message. I’m sure you’re livid that your personal bot brought you the most expensive champagne you own without your request, but don’t get mad at it: you’re not the only one who controls it.
I’m writing because I felt personally attacked when I accessed your classified systems — which gave me quite more trouble than usual — and learned that most of the data has been moved. Are you trying to hide something, Betty?
Most people in Argon think the value of your precious little city is in the menacingly tall buildings, and the trams overflowing with bots and people, and the neon gas inside the brilliant signs, but you know as much as I do that they’re wrong. We know the value of Argon is in the data. Whoever controls the data, controls the city.
Now, I understand you, as the legal owner of the city, have reasons to believe you control the data. Let me assure you: you don’t.
You might be allowed in the largest number of systems in Argon, but I can get into twice as many — no permission required. You live in marketing and bureaucracy and pompous speeches (sorry for taking your place for a second on this last one), but I live in the code. I am the code. You can try to block me out — both physically and virtually — but I always get where I want.
For now, celebrate your temporary victory by enjoying this champagne. (I’ve made sure your bot didn’t tamper with the contents of the bottle.)
I haven’t kept my side of the promise. He kept his side for all these years — even when I didn’t want him to — without ever complaining. But I… I didn’t know what I was doing. I still don’t.
I still remember sitting here years ago, the same waterfall, the same birds, the same orange sun going down, over and over. Everything looked exactly the same as it does now. I guess simulations are very good at staying the same. Or, rather, they’re good at doing what we want them to do. I’m very bad at that.
I wanted to come back here for years, but I never did. I wanted to stop hurting him, but I never did that either. And I wanted to keep my promise, to protect him.
I guess it’s fair. If I were the one to die he would still be here, and he would be the one suffering again. This way, his suffering is over, and it’s my turn now. That’s fair.
When I look down at the bottom of this waterfall, I’m terrified by the height, even in this simulated world. I can’t imagine the amount of courage it took him to face this kind of height in the real world.
The only thing now that is different from all those years ago is I’m the only one enjoying the view, alone with the sun and the waterfall and the birds. But, somehow, just by being here, I feel him with me, as if I was taken back to that first time. I guess it’s a good thing simulations are so good at staying the same, after all. This way I get to enjoy the sunset over and over and over.
“Guard the buggy,” Jax had told Maya, as if they weren’t the only living creatures for miles. The horizon line danced in the heat of the desert like a snake charmed by the sweet melody of some magical flute, blurring the limits between land and sky.
A thin line of sweat ran down the side of her forehead as she watched him bring the water, her back against the side of the buggy, her arms crossed, gun in hand. She could be carrying one of the two massive containers he had tied to the ends of a bough and strapped over his shoulder, but it was clear: he didn’t trust her.
“Beware of the bees,” he had said. Why the tone? Why the joke? It didn’t even make sense. Bees in the desert? Jax was an ancient language and Maya was getting tired of being unable to read him.
He put the water on the back without making eye contact with her.
“Jax,” she said, “I’m gonna need you to trust me if you want us to survive together.”
“You didn’t guard the buggy.” He nodded at the front of the car. A dark wasp-like animal the size of a house cat was resting on the windshield, calmly studying it.
Maya pointed the gun without thinking and pulled the trigger. The thing exploded, splattering the buggy with its insides.
“Shouldn’t’ve done that. It’ll attract the hive,” Jax said, grabbing one of the water containers. “Help me clean.”
Reading Jax was hard. Surviving the wilds of Anchora was harder.
My room has become a dark mountain of garbage. At the very top, I slouch on my throne of wrappings of food and drinks and drugs: the supreme king of trash. The small rectangular area I used to call a bed is now a pile of clothes in varying levels of dirtiness — the purple jacket is somewhere in there. I haven’t put the cleaning bots to work in a couple of weeks. Why bother?
The bright street ads piercing through the blinds are all the light this room gets, but I don’t see it. My mind is attached to the simulated worlds of the Aether, the machine feeding me constant visual stimuli, but I don’t see that either. My eyes are closed.
Escaping from this world into the virtual ones kept the voice in my head silent for a while. Now I lost interest in the fake realities, so I gave in to the worlds that the voice creates in the darkness of my mind. The voice isn’t loud, but it’s constant, always there, droning in the background: Why? Why try? Why the effort? Why bother? I’m out of answers.
The first therapy session was yesterday. Zik sent me a coupon. “Agh,” they said, “I need you to go to therapy. I need you to take care of yourself. I need you.”
Stupid Zik. It’s not like I care for them, but I like that they care for me. It made me think of the bounties we collected together: them, the brains in the machine; me, the muscle in the streets. I thought about the green plus sign on the side of the numbers on my account. It felt nice. Maybe that’s what matters, that it feels nice. Maybe that’s the answer to why.
When I look at the empty passenger seat on my side, I remember sitting there a couple of days ago, when the truck driver was still alive. I remember everything very clearly: the hot air of the desert barging in through the window, my short clothes to withstand the heat, and the dirty looks from the driver. I remember well, but I don’t want to.
I don’t want to remember his rough hand on my sweat-covered leg. I don’t want to remember jumping out of the truck in panic. I want to forget him on top of me, the sharp rock my hand found while I tried to claw myself free, and the blood — all that deep red blood, covering him, covering me.
The large woman frowned, the creases on her forehead painted over by the mixture of dark dust and sweat. She took off her protection helmet and crossed her arms.
“Is this the boy?” she asked.
“Yes it is,” the scruffy man said proudly, and he smacked the kid on the back.
The boy scowled, vacant eyes.
“His name is Jax,” the man said. “He’s my finest product. Look at this arm!” The man raised the boy’s hand and poked at his firm bicep. “Look at his abs!” He raised the kid’s shirt to reveal his well-defined musculature. “He’s twelve, for goodness’ sake. Twelve! I gave him some fine genes.” He laughed.
“Sure,” the woman said, her mouth a thin line. “Stamina?”
“Twelve hours of intense labor with barely any food.” The man grinned. “How do you think he got this chiseled?”
The woman studied little Jax as he held an empty gaze, closed fists on his sides, a soul covered in bruises, a raging mind shackled by dark memories.
“Four thousand,” the woman finally said.
“For the finest fruit of my seed?” The man pulled Jax back. “Do you think I don’t know Atlanta pays you a fortune for the stupid rocks you mine all day? You can do better than that.”
The woman guffawed. “For a kid? No, I can’t do better than that.”
They argued over the price but Jax didn’t catch any of it. His mind was screaming inside a dark cave, begging for someone to come unchain him. He couldn’t see the shapes talking money outside, only their monstrous shadows on the wall.
He didn’t hear them getting to a final price. His blank stare pierced through the handshake that sealed the deal, that sealed his fate.