#1 Adema the Teacher
“The illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” — Alvin Toffler
Adema lingered before the glass wall overlooking the blinking city from a flat in uptown C—. Glass flats crammed side by side lit up with notifications for miles on end. Adema marveled as chats flashed across walls and text scrolled rapidly up before blinking away. Mojis of all kinds rotflol’d, smh’d, dropped their jaws and rolled their eyes at one another. CutieCook17’s live broadcast loomed above the flat on the corner of 1st and 76th—Adema considered tuning in but then noticed the single Waymo winding through the streets toward the edge of the city. Who could be going somewhere? Adema tried to remember the last time leaving the house. The only people who went places were the illiterates—the ones who did the jobs synths wouldn’t do and who worked for paper. There weren’t very many of those people left after the cleansing. Adema watched the car maneuver through the streets until it could no longer be seen.
A blue light flashed through the apartment, announcing the start of the next class and the end of the 10-minute lunch break. Adema sighed and threw a crumpled up wrapper into the waste bin next to the kitchen counter. The glass wall populated with thumbnails, first showing placeholder people, then actual students. Freshmen. Darth Vader appeared in slot 6B. Adema scrolled through the attendance list and found the student’s name. “Tommy Larkins, no filters please.”
“Fuck you,” the student jeered.
Adema started toward the slot. The vader mask vanished, revealing a grungy brown-haired boy who probably hadn’t gotten up from his virtual reality games in days. Adema stopped. The student had complied, but as Adema turned a new filter slid into place—Adema’s face. The students laughed. Adema sighed and muted the student, blocked his video, and proceeded to deliver the lesson.
“Teacher, have you seen this?” a student interrupted. Her screen filled with a video from a police drone—clearly hacked. The drone and six others surrounded an illiterate outside a tech junk yard. He knelt on the dusty ground, hands behind his head. Nothing indicated that he’d been scavenging for parts—maybe he’d only gotten too close to the yard. Nonetheless, the drones fired and six seconds later, the man was dead.
“Damn! That was at least a hundred rounds!” another student laughed.
Adema’s heart skipped a beat—but quickly, the teacher dismissed the video. “Children, please stand for gym class.”
The students grumbled. “Do we have to stand?” complained one.
“Why can’t we sit?” asked another.
Adema ignored them and played the fitness video—another ten-minute break while the students exercised. Adema’s thoughts returned to the Waymo from earlier. Where did it go?
Only one third of the students returned after the break. Adema sighed. Only one third of the pay. Class ended. Clink, clink, clink. 30 units plunked into Adema’s virtual wallet, making 70 units total—enough to pay the Net bill and to order food for dinner. At this rate, she wouldn’t make rent.
That evening, she called her sister. Zealia’s face was still dripping with sweat from one of her virtual fitness classes. “Adema,” she greeted her sister. “Why didn’t you come to my morning power cycle? You could have fit it in before your classes.”
In the background, the clinks into Zelia’s wallet were constant.
“Ehn, could you mute that?” Adema complained. She answered her sister’s question. “I was too tired.”
The clinking stopped.
“Adema,” Zelia scolded, “you need the energy. Your students won’t come back to that dreary face of yours. Come to class tomorrow. It will do you good.”
“We’ll see, Zelia.”
Zelia let it go, and Adema knew it did not really matter. Her sister had plenty of clients. She thought again about the Waymo. “Zelia, why don’t I come visit you?” she said.
Zelia did not hesitate to decline. “Ade, I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she replied. She made up some excuse, but Adema had already stopped listening. Of course Zealia would say no. They hadn’t seen each other since school. No one saw anyone anymore.
“Hellooo?” Zealia said. “Are you going to the protest, or no?”
#bandwithbandwidth was airing later that night, but Adema thought about the 70 units in her wallet. “No, I have to teach night school,” she said.
“Didn’t you make enough money today?”
“I only had 120 students in class today.”
“Adema, how many times do I keep telling you? You’re a good teacher. You have to advertise better,” her sister scolded. “Otherwise—”
A little scream rang out from somewhere inside her house, cutting her off. Adema perked up. “Is that Kai?” she asked. “Can I see him?”
Zelia’s screen split in two and Adema could see her young nephew practicing karate in his room. She wondered what he felt and smelled like, and if she would ever get to hold him before he got too big.
Zelia’s face filled the screen again. “Listen, I have to go,” she said. “Ade, work on your ads, okay?”
“Okay, Z,” Adema responded. “I—”
But Zelia was gone.
A drone carrying takeout whizzed past Adema’s window, reminding her that she wanted dinner. As she scrolled through the options on her touch pad and considered their prices, she thought about the 20 units that would be left in her wallet after she paid her net bill. It would be enough to rent a cab.
Fifteen minutes later, she stood on the curb outside her building, on an empty and darkening street. A Waymo rolled to a stop in front of her. “Where to?” an automated voice asked.
On the way, the cab drove past a crumbling brick building with blackened windows. The school Adema and Zelia attended as children. The car deposited her on the outskirts of the city, where the ruins began, and Adema walked forward, into The Past.
#2 Max in The Past
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.’
#3 Amo the Lost Man
As dust swirled around him, Amo pulled his rickety wagon over the rugged landscape of The Past. The only sound for miles was the squeak of his wagon, which he knew better than to take outside without oiling first. But Amo was too aggravated that day to care. He didn’t think about the drones that were out hunting or about other humans who could be lurking out in the dust. He was too bothered by the unfairness of his plight: how a man who did everything right could end up in a place so wrong.
“Don’t be a fool, Amo.”
Sometimes he could hear her voice—a woman he might have loved once. Tisha. Was that her name? It had to have been Tisha.
She had been something special. She saw everything coming before anyone else did. Tried to warn them, and him. “Don’t be a fool, Amo,” she’d say. “Rules weren’t meant to help nobody.”
“I did everything I was supposed to,” Amo grumbled as he pressed forward, into the sandy blizzard of The Past.
“Rules are for poor people,” Tisha taunted. “Rules are meant to keep them that way.”
He could hear her in the wind, flitting about. Floating away.
“Not fair I don’t get to go,” Amo grumbled.
“You’re a fool, Amo.”
“Shut up!” His voice tore into the wind and echoed through the dust. The echoes reminded him that Tisha was long gone. He was alone.
Or so he thought.
“You lost, buddy?”
As the echo of Amo’s outburst faded, a man emerged from the dust. He wasn’t wearing a mask and goggles like Amo. He wore nice clothes and sported a full head of hair, unlike Amo’s, which had bald spots from picking. The man stepped closer, looking around as he did. There was something strange about the way he moved. Something calculated.
“You live around here?” he asked.
It was a question nobody like Amo wanted to hear from the likes of the man standing before him—a question that typically preceded a round of bullets.
It was at this moment that Amo remembered one of his brother’s rules: Don’t go out without me.
Max looked out for Amo, and if Amo concentrated hard enough, he could remember a time when that was the other way around. But Amo didn’t like to concentrate too hard, so he just found it easier to do whatever Max said.
Max said not to go to the city, so Amo didn’t go.
But just because Amo did most things Max told him to didn’t mean that he had to be happy about it. He’d wanted very badly to go to the city. So, that morning he had defied his brother by committing a lesser offense—going scavenging alone.
Now, he gripped the handle of his wagon. A moment of clarity revealed the possibility to him that Max might find him dead beside it.
That would destroy him.
But the strange man just laughed. “Relax, guy,” he said. “I don’t bite.” He eyed Amo’s wagon and flashed a calculating smile. “You’ll find some really cool stuff back that way,” he advised, pointing behind himself with his thumb. “Better hurry.”
With that, he disappeared back into the fog. Amo swallowed a lump in his throat and wondered what the hell a man like that was doing out in The Past.
No matter. Amo was alive.
He thought about going back to the warehouse, where he and Max were crashing that week, but the promise of whatever treasures the man had seen was too tempting. Maybe he’d find some nice trinkets from the before times. He’d keep some for himself and give the rest to Max to trade in the Market, and then maybe Max wouldn’t be too angry with him.
The Market. That was another place Max didn’t want Amo to go.
Amo had to show his brother he wasn’t completely useless.
He pressed on, scanning the ground for glittering bits of metal, or anything else interesting.
A few hours went by before he realized that he’d gone too far. He hadn’t even noticed the way the dust began to settle, the way the daylight went from brown to almost white. He didn’t realize until, by chance, he looked up and saw it. The city.
Amo took a step back. That wasn’t possible, he thought. He hadn’t even passed the junkyard. How had he reached the city?
But then he realized it must be a different part, that the city must have curved around The Past, somehow. That meant it had grown. It didn’t make sense for a city to grow with fewer people to inhabit it. Amo’s heart yearned. He wanted to know what they’d done to it.
But it was getting late. Amo reluctantly turned around and went back to the warehouse.
Max was not there.
Amo knew his brother would be steaming mad when he got home. He rifled through the contents of his wagon and pulled out a book—the one Max read every night. He set it on Max’s cot, hoping it would appease him when he returned. He didn’t want Max to be upset with him.
He curled up on his own cot and squeezed his eyes shut. His dreams that night were peaceful. As bad as things were, he always slept alright.
The next morning, Max still hadn’t returned. The book sat on his cot, untouched. After much hesitation, Amo left it and took his wagon out to scavenge again.
It was a pretense.
Where he really went was back to the border of the city, quickening his step to save time. He knew it would be more visible in the morning light, when the dust was not as heavy. He wouldn’t get too close, he promised himself, and he almost honored that agreement. But when he arrived back at the city’s border, he saw the most curious thing.
At the city’s edge, stood a woman. He could tell she was Enlightened by the smoothness of her reddish brown skin, untouched by dust, and the shine of her dark hair. Behind her a car shrank back into the city.
Their eyes locked. Amo stumbled backward, ready to run. But she called out to him. “Wait,” she pleaded.
He did. What little sense he had left betrayed him. He waited for her to approach.
She was beautiful, like Tisha, with a bush full of hair and strong, dark features.
“What’s you name?” she asked.
He cleared his throat. “Amo, Ma’am,” he said.
She hesitated. “I’m Adema,” she introduced herself. She smiled. Amo got so lost in that smile, he didn’t hear the buzz of the drone speeding toward them. Adema’s eyes grew wide. A gasp parted her lips. When Amo finally caught on, he turned to run, but the drone dropped into his path.
“Halt,” it blared. “You’re both under arrest!” Why it didn’t shoot him dead right then, unregistered as he was, Amo couldn’t fathom.