Day 723

There are two Possibilities. One; humans have given up after a nuclear war killed half the planet, in return, those without money either succumb to the trash or sort it. Two; humans have abandoned Earth, took to their spaceships and gone on the journey to their new planet.

Thea Alderson has a reluctant foot in each one, tasked with the notion of slowly losing her mind in the first, and an invisible, intergalactic foe in the second.

One thing is clear, however; when humanity is involved, nothing is ever easy.

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1. Half Functional

 

Chapter One – Half functional

Possibility One

 

Thea blamed time for her abrupt wakening; it forced her away from startling orange numbers and into the pre-dawn blueness of morning. To her admissions only, she had too much sleep, her brother had too little and time had done her a favour.

She turned away from bizarre whispers into the warm bed of routine. Every morning was the exact same as the one before it; breakfast, check on Joshua in the workshop, trail down to the shed and collect her wheelbarrow, shovel and gloves. Then meet on the porch and stare into the growing light instead of at her brother. Finally, they always had the following exchange;

“Have a nice day at work,” Joshua offered to his sister.

“I hope you have a breakthrough today,” Thea replied to her brother.

Thea knew what her brother did from there; retreating exhaustedly to his bedroom for the first time in over twenty hours. He had the life of a mechanic, an inventor set in his ways, ways so cemented that not even Thea could re-wire them.

But enough about her brother, she had to be concerned about her business more than anything else. She trekked down the path to the Gar Piles and there she would sort until the sunset. She had the life of a Picker, sorting out the accumulated filth that humans had left when they gave up. War and disease had bred inactivity and Earth had transformed from an artists muse to a child’s exaggerated nightmare.

She enjoyed her job more than most, fascinated by the process of separating the useful from the useless, taking equipment home to either be traded for Ric-coin or used in the workshop. She found beauty in the Gar Piles, which was vastly unusual; to her, the Piles were like a butterfly, towering wings of trash with a body of sorted, clear earth where flowers could finally blossom. It definitely wasn’t Richer City; the reflecting metal of polished skyscrapers and otherworldly architecture, but one day, if enough Ric-coin was built up she and Joshua would move into a room there.

Joshua always twisted his face up at that dream of hers, his nose scrunching in a way that put a cruel film over his features whenever the idea was proposed. His face did not change however when the notion of his own city was mentioned. But life didn’t always fall on the right side of the coin. Her father’s familiar saying caused a pang in her chest and she dampened it by immersing herself in the city of trash, endless bags and valuables stacked upon one another like Cosco had been hit by the apocalypse.

Another woman sat balanced on her haunches as she sorted through items, muttering eagerly to herself in odd ramblings. A thick scarf, big enough to hide her face if needed, was wrapped around her neck and her hair fell raggedly, cut sharp with either a razor or a knife but still hanging limply near her shoulders. She wore grey overalls, issued and recycled for days on end, which matched the sooty smears on her fingers, the cuticles cut down to stumps by nervous lips.

Thea said hello, but the woman didn’t gesture that she had heard. The Picker life was not for everyone, Thea supposed, and most of them gave up on Day 723, a week short of two full years of sorting and scavenging.

Thea was the ultimate exception, working for just shy over five years, and she didn’t mind the lack of spontaneity. She was almost the exact opposite of her older brother who preferred spontaneity over boredom and new ideas fuelled from caffeine delusions rather than inactivity.

The siblings were two different peas in the same pod, and they were all they had left. In fact, the most startling similarity between them was their buzzcuts and their wardrobes made up nearly entirely of overalls.

Thea shook her head and began on what she nicknamed Sector Twenty-four. She had personally organised the Gar Piles into hexagonal pieces, sticking to a certain part until it was cleared and sorted. It made it easier. The piles were also made up of fifty per cent half decomposing bio-waste, thirty per cent of clothes and personal valuables, nineteen per cent of technology and the rare one per cent of hazardous material.

All the latter category – weapons, radioactive substances and explosives, had to be reported to the Richer’s Refusal to do meant fines or persecution under the Richer’s decree. They were the rulers of their new society, only because of their money and their fast thinking for re-inventing and re-valuing finances.

Gloved licked lines of irritation into the skin of her elbows, but she was used to it, and she compartmentalised it and moved on. Thea tutted and split trash bags with a flick of a knife, unsettling the mountain of items as she did so. Her Wristband, one of her father’s inventions and which held all information about herself and her surroundings, beeped as it identified the contents of the bag.

The woman scuttled nearer to Thea as the morning wore on. Thea watched her as she cracked open her lunch box. The woman looked determined, looking for a specific product, and occasionally her eyes would dart to Thea’s position leaning on a broken car before quickly darting back. The woman did not stop, not for a break at least, until she gave up her search and picked her way back through the Sectors, leaving the butterfly-shaped Gar Piles when Thea finished her short hiatus.

She steadily immersed herself back into the job, categorizing her search; computer parts, a car battery, an assortment of wires, cogs and screws. One bag had a high frequency of technology, shoved into canvas instead of the normal black plastic. It had been at the back, packed tightly among slimy food and other useless waste like it was a sardine in a can. It didn’t get her attention at first, it was the usual things she would take back for Joshua to use, but then she found the box.

It sat innocuously despite its metal and dirt encrusted appearance. It had no locks, only one openable side which was welded shit with a neat line of grey. There used to be a sticker, some kind of identifier, but time had worn it away into sticky dregs.

She shrugged, ignoring her buzzing curiosity, and placed it in her useful pile. When she looked up the hour had crept on faster than she had anticipated and her back popped when she stood. Carefully she took the useless piles to the incinerator, metal crunching as she filtered them items in, grinding them to a pulp before they fell into the flames. The Incinerators were lit for several hours, never during the whole night, and she watched as smoke punched into the air with a careless finality.

Half of the useful pile went to the Trading Centres, which she labelled with her name, and they would be categorized and turned into Ric-coin when they were recycled or sold.

The other half went home to Joshua.

He was awake when she got there, in the workshop with a plate of forgotten sandwiches on the sideboard.

He tinkered with a robot, half of its chassis left bare in its barrel-like frame, it had two eyes, like gas lights, and its small head swivelled her way when she entered.

Half functional; a breakthrough then.

“Why is seven minus three always four when there are only three numbers in between three and seven,” the robot asked from the counter, angling its head to the side. Almost human-like as well if you subtracted the philosophical inaccuracy.

“Don’t mind Jarvis, he’s a bit of a kooky model,” her brother chided, tweaking with the vocal cords of the robot. No machine would ever be as great as Exe, who was capable of anything mental but incapable of most physical movements. He existed in the back of the shop, hooked up to the wires that kept his processing accurate and was the prime example of what their father had been capable of.

“Calling him Jarvis is an insult to the comic books in my room,” Thea said as she noticed Joshua’s bloody knuckles that never seemed to fully heal. She swiped the plate closer to him and was pleased when his oil-coated fingers eagerly reached for it. She had to take care of him somehow.

“Jarvis will be brilliant when I am finished with him. He’s got some human characteristics, it’s just plugging in the useful ones. He’s programmed to learn as well,” Joshua seemed excited, his voice higher in pitch than it usually was as he stuck his tongue out in concentration. The robot on the counter swung its legs in an infantile shoulder before shutting its gaslights and falling silent.

“Does that make you a Dad?” Thea joked and ducked when a bolt was thrown over Joshua’s shoulder, “You should eat more, parenthood is quite demanding.”

Joshua paused, putting down the wrench he held as he looked at her, “Eating the bare minimum is a character trait of the Alderson’s, practice what you preach dear sister.”

He scrutinised her petite and bony figure with the gaze of a concerned sibling, one which she had down to the minutest twitch.

They didn’t eat as well as they should because they were too occupied with finding their place in the world, working until they were drained and exhausted.

“I’m the one that provides you with both hearty cooked meals and parts, remember that,” she warned, wagging her finger at him and swiping the beat-up box from the wheelbarrow as she went past.

“You have my undying gratitude,” he called out and she heard rifling, scraping parts as he looked through the additions to his hoard.

Out the back of the workshop, in the thin and draughty corridor that connected the house with what was technically their outhouse, lay Exe.

His eyes swallowed her as she leaned against the door that Joshua never touched. The robot craved company, reaching out and coming to attention whenever anyone came in and he had programmed emotions that mimicked his inventor; parental and guiding. Exe had what could be considered a human skull for a head, smooth, white metal scrunched to form the cranium and the eye sockets, leading down to a nasal cavity. It cut off dramatically at what should have been the jaw – the maxilla and mandible, her father had said, the ever-keen surgeon turned inventor – descending into wires and a smooth column segmented into a metal spine. Soon the wires wrapped around the metal casing of his body, plates arranged into an endless casing of rib-like formations that only ended into two long pipes.

An A had been stamped into his temporal bone and his name – Exe, humorously named for being an openable file containing a programme – had been etched into his collarbone.

“I am pleased to see you, Miss Thea,” he said, computerized voice sincere even if it had been a while since Thea had come down to his room.

She nodded to him, sitting cross-legged on the cold floor. She regaled her day to him, sharing the news of the new woman in the Gar Piles and finally presenting the box to him.

“It appears to be storing something,” he told her, and she narrowed her eyes. The weight of it hadn’t give anything away and nothing rattled when she shook it on purpose.

“Can you tell what it is, density, shape?” she asked, moving the box from hand to hand before placing it in front of Exe’s sensors.

A whir echoed in the room, “Unfortunately Miss Thea, I cannot. My programming does not advance that far ahead.”

Exe, despite the fact he was the only AI their father built, was the most humanoid and majestic of his creations. Joshua tried to replicate the results, but his downfall was his refusal to go anywhere near the robot.

For her, Exe was a comfort, routine to her now due to being implemented in her childhood and she was more than happy to visit him, to be the company he so needed. Joshua, however, became duller whenever he was around Exe – and he had stopped visiting a week after the funeral – as though a wasp had landed on his person and drained all the colour from his cheeks as it left.

Exe, although he had done nothing and was always pleasant to Joshua, was a chasm in Joshua’s chest, a line of pain that would never fix itself.

“That’s okay Exe, you already know more than me,” Thea stood and turned before thinking better of it, “Keep the box safe for me, will you? And if you learn anything more you can tell me.”

She didn’t want Joshua getting his hands on it and ruining it before she could even figure out what it was. The safest place for it was with the robot.

“It would be a pleasure, Miss Thea,” Exe chimed, and she tucked it in the space between his back and the wall full of sockets and wires. He would always be able to sense anything that was in the room with him or connected to his interface, and on the rare chance, Joshua would enter the room he would not find it.

“I’ll come to see you tomorrow, I promise,” she whispered, and she never broke her promises. She swore she saw the robot get a chink in his eye sockets that hadn’t been there before her words.

“Whatever is best for you Miss Thea, you know that you are always welcome.”

She gulped and finally left the room. For all the comfort Exe brought her, he also reminded her of the dangers of the world, and what it was capable of when it came to nice people.

But enough about robots and curious objects; she had dinner to make. 

 

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