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Author Topic: THE RECEIVER (YA dystopia: The Giver meets I, Robot meets 1984)  (Read 163 times)

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« on: April 12, 2018, 03:02:15 PM »

Chapter One: Klanker

I wake with the phantom flavor of spinal fluid in my mouth.

My tongue wiggles around like a sightless worm, as if that will get rid of the taste. The next sensation is the one that tells me where I am and why I’m here: a sharp pain in my lower back. I roll onto my stomach and make a sound like a dying animal, tears springing to my eyes. I can’t remember anything except screaming and my spine cracking like a glow stick.

I sit up and look around, images flashing back to me now. The gray-haired oldie in her wheeled chair; the way her spine was curved like a shepherd’s hook; the warble in her voice when we discussed payment. I press my hands to my back, but the area is still too tender to touch. She wasn’t kidding when she said her pain was a seven out of ten. Not as bad as childbirth but worse than a cleanly broken bone. I grab the nearest edge of furniture and slowly pull myself into a standing position, breathing in deep through my nose and exhaling through my mouth. Focusing on this, I stand here for some measure of time, holding onto a chest of drawers for support, waiting for the initial shock to subside. I go to take a step and pain shoots down my spine. If my legs weren’t metal I know I’d feel it all the way down to the soles of my feet like a zap of electricity. A fresh of wave of tears hits me anyway just as there’s a soft rap on the door.

I scoop up the five match boxes, pouch of dried pears, and spice cubes from the coffee table and shove all this into my pack, frantically scanning for the nearest exit. The next room has a single window. I limp to the gossamer curtains, move them aside and see that it leads to an alley between this building and its neighbor.
The knock comes again.

Using the old lady’s moth-eaten mattress as a stepstool, I push open the window, swing my prosthetic legs over the sill, and drop onto the cracked cement below, not bothering to shut it behind me.

In the alleyway, a scruffy cat mews crossly and dashes out from behind a dumpster a small band of children are pilfering through. I don’t pause to see if they have any marks; any kids out on their own, during the day or the night, only spell trouble. I move as quickly as my body will allow, which isn’t very. To my right, at the alley’s dead end, half a dozen men and women are gathered in a loose circle, egging on two men in the center, both of which are shirtless and covered in blood. Somehow, I make it to the end of the alley, where traffic flows up and down Ninth Avenue. People walk and cabs crawl, every face covered with some form of mask, bandana, scarf, or rag, the vehicles spluttering down the four-lane road. Indistinct shouting can be heard from an open-air market somewhere nearby. A fire blazes in an overturned car.

Down the street, the line of Receivers waiting to take pain for the same old obsolete gadgets from the upper city still hugs the gritty Clinic building, its windows boarded-up to prevent looting. It looks no different from most structures despite the business done inside, like a giant concrete cinderblock slowly being eaten by vines. Great nets of creeping ivy blanket the crumbling buildings for hundreds of square blocks like a mass of green electrical cords connecting a bank of supercomputers. Where the vines stop serves as the line of demarcation where the glacial water finally peaked three decades ago. The crumbling corner shops and abandoned office buildings of Lower sit desolate and unchanging, save for the wild tendrils that slowly creep in around them. The drone of the dehumidifiers never fades to softer than a growling hum. Tuneless and low-bellied, their song is constant. Like an ocean wave never cresting. They hang off the sides of every building in Lower. Giant gray rings, behemoths of white noise. Sometimes it sounds like being trapped inside a clothes dryer. Other times, it seems as if all the Lower district is groaning. There is no escape from it. Unless you’re unlucky enough to live in the Outer city.

On particularly calm nights out near the perimeter of the city, where it’s impossible to tell where the city ends and the swamps, and eventually the ocean, begins, I think I can hear the earth speaking, her voice never more than a whisper. But what she says is always clear. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who can hear her, or at least the only one listening. I’m taking it all back, she says. Everything that was mine from the beginning. The land you smothered with concrete and caged with steel. The oceans you turned black. The sky you filled with poison. The species you killed. No more birds in the air. No more monkeys in the trees. No more fish in the streams. She laments and we can do nothing. What’s done is done.
Thousands of feet above the lower cities, the hulking skyrises of Upper enfeeble everything at their feet. Glass exoskeletons have been built on top of the tallest skyscrapers. I can just make out the thin, silver vein of the skyway, a ribbon of silk in the sky. The midday sun lines up just right so that a pinprick of light gleams off the edge, creating the illusion of two suns. Long, shiny pods whisk by on its monorails. Everything glitters.

[page break]

I make it to the third story of the vine-choked fire escape, swivel the round window in its frame, and drop into my bedroom. I flip the toggle switch on the wall beside the window and neon blue germicidal light floods the room. I unlatch my thigh pack and strip out of my clothes, dropping everything on the floor where a crooked rainbow, created from a deep fissure in the window’s glass, falls across them. In the small mirror on the wall beside the closet I turn with my back to it and see that coloring the lower half of my back in a purplish-blue bruise the size of a basketball. Maybe it only looks so bad because of the lighting, I think, so I turn the UV light off. But the bruise still looks horrendous.

In the bathroom, I kneel by the bathtub, filled with dirt and blooming with bright red poppies. I pluck one of the pods, fat with seeds, and slice it open with a pocketknife, collecting the contents in a recycled can. I start a small fire in the sink using pinecones and pigeon feathers as kindling. I strike the match and throw it into the flames when the materials catch. Mixing the seeds with water I set them over the fire. While the opium tea boils, I get dressed.

From the closet, I pull a new shirt and shorts off a shelf, then tug Dad’s old boilersuit off the claw rack, step inside and zip myself in. After ten thousand washes and dries out on the line it’s closer to terracotta than the brown it once was and still smeared with bot blood. The Hesler Robotics patch on the left breast pocket is starting to peel. I trace the loose edges with my fingertip, the stitched image of two shaking hands, one human and one robotic. I have more memories of Dad in this suit than out of it and just feeling the material makes me want to get my hands greasy. I cuff the sleeves and push them up to my elbows, then pull the platinum chain out from underneath my layers. Hanging at the end is Dad’s wedding band, a metal sprocket left over from the assembly of his first model droid. I swipe a bandana from a hook by the door, fold it into a triangle, and tie it around my neck. When I check on the tea, it’s ready.

The thick sludge is black and bitter, but the closest thing to bottled happiness I can get to, so I don’t much care that it’s disgusting. I wait for it to cool, chug it down fast, then go to the kitchen for a spoonful of maple syrup as a chaser, though it tastes too much like the tree it came from to help much. I grab my pack from the bedroom, latch it on, and head to the front door.
I ease the door open and poke my head out, glancing up and down the narrow halls. Empty. Creeping outside, I shut the door softly until it clicks into its frame behind me. I pull the bandana up around my nose and mouth and tiptoe toward the back stairwell. Halfway there, I round the corner and freeze the same time as the bleached blonde dreadlocked figure at the opposite end of the hall stops.

“sh**,” I hiss.

Our landlady. Even from this far away, my eyes zero in on the puckered scar on her left cheek, just below her eye, where the tip of a knife once carved four letters into her caramel skin. They spell a word: RIOT. The black and white half mask she usually wears, the one with the jaw of a skeleton hand-painted on it, is nowhere to be seen, exposing her face. Midway between us is the stairwell I was heading toward, the metal door draped with a haz curtain, the pixels shimmering where the hologram glitches. My eyes flick back to her face; her eyes are murderous. She takes a step in my direction and my pulse quickens, hands shaking with a sudden shot of adrenaline. I break into a sprint, heading straight toward her, then bank right, barreling through the DANGER: HAZARDOUS AREA sign. I take the stairs two at a time, wishing I’d taken a double dose of tea, and reach the first landing before I hear her burst through the door behind me. Using my momentum, I vault over the metal railing onto the set of stairs below just as a knife whizzes by my head.

The door to the first-floor entrance is covered in old-fashioned yellow tape that reads CAUTION: BIOHAZARD. I pray it’s not locked as my right shoulder slams into it and I burst through, stumbling across the leaf-strewn ground, nearly losing my balance, then turning back in just enough time to slam the door shut again.

She slams her palms against the door, but doesn’t come in after me. She wears no mask.

“You’re gonna pay me one way or another, you little sewer rat!” she yells through the small square window in the door.

I back away slowly, my handkerchief hiding my smile.

“If I don’t get to your sister first,” she adds, stabbing the point of her knife into the glass.

I fight the urge to flip her the bird.

“The Brides of Riot take care of their own,” she says, softer this time. “You best watch your back.”

Reluctantly, she turns and climbs back up the stairs.

The lobby looks like a rainforest. From the patchy sunlight coming in through a few windows, I can make out the coarse vines that clot the floor, braided into thick knots. Fuzzy spores of mold cover the walls and ceiling like a billion black holes in space, interrupted every few feet by white and brown mushrooms growing out of the walls. The unnaturally green glow makes me feel like I’m standing at the bottom of a pond whose surface is laced with algae. Then the stench hits me, seeping through my mask and stinging my eyes. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I see animals that have been trapped inside, their bodies turned inside out. A few cats. A dog. Maybe a possum or some other unfortunate critter. It’s hard to tell from the extent of their decay. All the pearly white carbon of their bones has turned black. The worst is the carcass of a female dog, probably a stray who wandered in to have her pups and couldn’t find her way back out. She’s been here a while, long enough for the earth to start consuming her. I can tell by the roots growing through flesh and fur, green shoots twining themselves around the bones of her ribcage, that she’s been here the longest.

I turn away, willing myself not to throw up, and find the basement exit.

[page break]

Harsh panels of fluorescent light buzz all the way down the narrow basement hallway, illuminating the exposed pipes and ceiling insulation. Up ahead, where the hall widens into a small room that used to serve as a janitorial storage, the ring of a hammer carries on the air, singing out, metal on metal. I reach the end of the passage and there’s Dad, sparks flying from his hammer where it strikes his newest creation standing at attention in the center of the room: a patchwork man of discarded and repurposed metals.

Every inch of the walls and tables are littered with sheets of scrap metal, snake-like vacuum hoses, a table saw with a thousand-tooth blade, dirty glass jars, shelves overflowing with every kind and size of nut and bolt, a snarl of cords all jammed into one power strip, a single solar shingle stuck to the small window in the ceiling and other nameless junk.

The room has no door so I knock on the doorframe. Dad lifts his trifocal visor and his green eyes lock on mine.

“Hey, kiddo,” he says.

I notice one of his hands is wrapped in a grimy cloth, the makeshift bandage greased with blood.

“What happened?” I ask, my eyes narrowed on his injured hand. 

Dad looks down as if noticing the dressing for the first time.

“Oh,” he says dismissively, flexing his fingers, “I ran out of oil.”

“Dad…” I reprimand softly.

“I’ll be fine,” he says. “Just don’t tell Mom.”

I sigh and walk over to the metal man. “He looks a lot different since last week.”

Dad grins, pleased, and wipes his hands on his boilersuit. “Yeah, he does. I just finished the circuitry on his brainchamber. He can respond to commands now.”

“What kinds of commands?”

“Lots of kinds,” Dad says. “He can do just about anything a human can. Maybe even more.” My face must reveal my thoughts, because he continues, “Don’t worry. He’s programmed not do anything bad or hurt anyone. He’ll shut off before that happens. Like robot suicide.”

I nod. “So what’s his name?”

“Oh,” Dad shuffles from one foot to the other. “Um. Well, when he’s finished he’ll be fully responsive. And anthrobotic, meaning—,”

“Human-like,” I summarize.

“Very good. And he’ll have a finished neocortex soon. So he’ll be able to talk. But for now, he’s just…”

“A klanker. Like all the other klankers.”

“No,” Dad considers, pushing up his glasses. “This one is special.”

“Special how?”

He motions me forward. “Come see.”

I step up to the klanker until I’m close enough to touch him, thinking about the words Dad has used, about the things that make this bot different, then put all the words together.

“Frank?” I ask aloud.

At the sound of the name, the bot’s sensors blink, lighting up with the tink tink tink of a fluorescent bulb struggling for juice.

Dad smiles and drapes his arm across my shoulders. “I think he likes it.”

I grab Dad’s hand where it hangs at my shoulder, looking up at him.

“It’s okay,” he assures me. “You can say hi. He can’t speak yet, but let’s see what he does.”

“Hello, Frank,” I say. The bot’s vision sensors drop to me, standing at least two feet below him in height. “Um… my name’s Rho. I’m the daughter of your coder, Nathan.”

Frank’s sensors spin, dim silver-green lights flashing behind his eyes as he takes in this new information.

“He’s the key to everything,” Dad says.

“What do you mean ‘everything’?”

[page break]

The lights that used to illuminate the hallway to Dad’s workshop have all burned out. The bulbs of the string lights connected to the solar shingles in the window have discolored over time, casting the room in a strange golden-red glow, like the light from an angry sunset.

The robot lays on the cluttered worktable, his plating a burnished bronze in the dim light. The table still holds the sprockets that spun loose from his left calf yesterday, among other things. I stand beside his unconscious form, hands on hips, wishing I was leaving the shop instead of coming in for the day. I remove Dad’s old glasses from one of the worktable drawers, put them on, scratch my head, ready to set to work when a knock on the metal grate outside lifts the hairs on the back of my neck.

I walk across the room and slide the narrow window covering aside and a rectangular prism of gray daylight streams into the basement.

It’s Bob.

“Hey, Rhododendron,” he says, crouched down on one knee to peer inside the basement.

“Hey, Bob,” I say, my eyes dropping to the clearly broken Swifferbot in his hands. “I just fixed it last week.”

He just shrugs and offers a dopey smile.

I reach out the window, scoop the bot from his hands, take it over to a rack of tools where I grab an Allen wrench, give a few of the hard-to-get-to hexagonal screws a twist until they’re tight again and hand him back his bot along with the little silver wrench.

Bob tries to hand it back to me, but I wave it away.

“Keep it,” I say.


“I have plenty,” I insist. “Now you can fix it yourself.”

“Thanks, Rho.”

“Anytime,” I say, moving to close the window cover.

“Hey, what’s that?” he asks, pointing at the hunk of junk on the table.

“Um,” I begin, glancing over my shoulder. “Frank.”

“One of your dad’s projects?”

“His only project,” I correct. “I’m gonna find out if there’s any life left in him.” 

Bob wishes me luck, then quickly scampers off. I slide the cover shut and get back to Frank.

My first order of business is to make a sling for his leg. I use a length of boating rope, throwing it over one of the pipes, left over from a time when clean water snaked through the walls of the building, tying it around Frank’s ankle. With it lifted into the air, I remove his kneecap, grab a cassette wrench and set to tinkering.

Some hours later, I’ve blistered by right thumb from sparks from the soldering gun, been squirted in the face with bot blood twice, and have a roaring headache, but Frank’s knees can bend again and some crossed wires deep inside his cortex have been uncrossed and rewired, miraculously, despite using schematics covered in Dad’s greasy prints, the swirls looking like a child’s finger-painting.

I wipe my hands with an already grease-smeared towel thrown over my shoulder, then find a tube of burn cream hiding among the superglue and rub some on my thumb. The corner of Dad’s glasses show me the time and it’s much later than I thought it was. I push them up onto my head and move to the side of the table. I pull back Frank’s eyelids on one of his eyes, holding them open with a pair of forceps.

“Frank?” I say, staring hard into his face, waiting for the lights behind his vision sensors to pop on.

I wait.

“Frank?” I say again, checking his other eye with my fingers.


I can feel the anger rising, my cheeks and hands warming, can hear my breath coming louder through my nostrils. I pull the forceps away from Frank’s face and throw them across the room.
Dad’s voice comes to me now, his voice a whisper on the back of my neck where I’m standing in the same spot as we were years ago.

He’s the key to everything.

“You were wrong, Dad,” I shake my head. “He’s not a key,” I take the towel from my shoulder and wipe my hands one last time, then drop it on the table. “He’s just another broken klanker.”

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