Max had a wife and son. Both were dead—killed off during the cleansing of ’71. He lived in the ruins outside C—, with a woman he slept with and his brother, Amo, who had lost his wits. The woman rarely spoke and was hardly around. At present, she had ventured off to find illiterate work in the city. Usually, she worked the sludge. Max knew it would only be a matter of time before she caught something that would kill them both.
But that was the risk illiterates took.
Max feared the city, but Amo always begged him to go. “C’mon, man let’s go. Let’s at least see what they did with it,” he rambled that evening. They were squatting in an abandoned warehouse, sitting by the portable heater Max had bartered for at the Market in downtown Old C—, where he went once a month for supplies. He was angry that night thinking about what would happen to Amo when he and that woman were both dead and Amo was all alone. Amo was going to go to that city and get himself killed, if the residual toxicity of The Past didn’t kill him first.
“Amo, shut up,” he snapped. “We ain’t goin’ to that damn city, man.”
Amo looked hurt. He twisted a knot of his blackish-grey hair. He had bald patches from doing that when he felt chastised. “Well, why does she get to go?” he asked. “Why we the ones who have to stay? Why’s that, Max?”
Because that was the deal. She went to town, and Max went to the Market. Two different kinds of dangerous. Besides, she was the one who had the pass to work. The pass to live. But all Max said was, “Don’t worry about it.”
He picked up a book out of the junk wagon—Amo’s wagon of things from ‘the before times,’ as he called them. Normally, Max would read a chapter to Amo each night before they went to sleep. The story was about a woman planning to lead an exodus into space, and Amo loved it. He couldn’t remember that he wrote it, and Max didn’t have the heart to tell him.
Amo had loved the city, back before it edged him out. He had almost been someone there.
That night, Max read to himself instead. He curled up on his cot, spooning himself around the spot where his woman usually slept, and imagining that spot filled with his wife, their little one snuggled between them. He’d tried to read to them, back before it all happened. He would read aloud until his wife silently rolled onto her other side, turning her back to him. She’d never said anything, but he had always known that she preferred one of those digital experience novels—the kind the tekkies (or the ‘enlightened,’ as they called themselves) used.
Technology. Max had never really taken to it, beyond the basics. He didn’t mind the radios, the cellphones, and the televisions—but when the world went online, it left him behind, him and thousands of others. The illiterates of the 21st century. The cleansing didn’t come long after that. Max, Amo, and the woman survived it, along with a few thousand others, but millions were slaughtered.
“The city don’t want us, Amo,” he said, later that night. “It don’t need us. Not like it used to.”
“That girl found work, Max,” Amo reasoned.
Max rolled onto his side. “That work kill people, Amo,” he said. “Ain’t gone kill us, though.” After saying what he knew to be untrue, he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Thankfully, Amo let it go.
Max fell asleep angry, bitter, and terrified, like always, but not until after Amo drifted off.
Waking up to Amo’s empty cot the next morning sent flashes of cold deep into the pit of Max’s stomach. He tossed his weathered blanket aside and called out, “Amo?” He stumbled into a pair of tattered pants. “Amo, come on man. This shit ain’t funny.” The coldness swept through his body, into extremities and to the nape of his neck where the little hairs stood on end. Amo was gone.
Max grabbed his dustcoat and sprinted outside in such a panic that he failed to notice Amo’s missing wagon. Outside, the pollution irritated his eyes, which stung for a while, even after he got his goggles on. In his haste, he had neglected to grab his mask, so he pressed his nose into the crook of his elbow and shielded his face against the wind as he dashed across the deserted wasteland known as The Past.
He regretted being so hard on his brother. Of course Amo didn’t want to live in The Past. Nobody wanted to live there, but the illiterates were trapped. The Enlightened were too paranoid now, too worried that there would be blood if the illiterates were allowed access to their technologies. That’s why they dumped their broken and outdated devices in junkyards with electric fences as high as trees and guarded them with killer drones, and why they sent those drones into The Past to hunt unregistered survivors. That’s why Max, in all his worry and hurry, should have stopped to realize how close he was to the junkyard, why he should have stopped to listen for that telltale buzz of an approaching drone, the same buzz he taught Amo to listen for, why he should have apologized instead of going to bed angry and then taken Amo to see the city himself. Safely.
When Max finally noticed the drone hovering in front of him, there were six more circling around him, lasers pointed at his chest.
Dropping to his knees, putting his hands behind his head, elbows raised, did nothing to save his life. He knew he was a dead man even before the first rounds tore through his flesh. He’d always known he was a dead man, that the end would be something like this.
Max shed one tear and one final thought. ’Damnit, Amo.’