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Ones and Zeroes
A minute in the apocalypse
War never changes.
That's what the poster says. It hangs haphazardly by one corner, its edges curling and ripped. Above the words, a giant silver helmet stares out of the picture, its expression somehow moulded into something passive, yet angry. Like it could kill you on accident, rampage about it, and then go on with life like nothing happened.
The helmet looks human, and maybe it is, under all that metal. But there's nothing human about the tools that surround it, the workshop where it lives. Toothy handsaws, whirring drills, dust and grime in every corner. Somehow, though, it looks comfortable. Lived-in. The tools are cold and useless in the wrong hands, but there, they almost feel homey. Whoever used them knew exactly what they were doing.
I wish I could reach through the picture and grab the helmet. And the tools, and the feeling. We could use them right about now.
My feet scuff the filthy floor, kicking up little clouds of dust and tattered video game boxes. More of those posters cover the ground, along with broken boxes and shards of glass from the front windows. This was one of the first stores to go, when the Rampage happened. People with a crazed look in their eyes bashed down the door, falling over themselves to be the first ones inside. Some came with bags, and grabbed everything they could get their hands on. Others were content to simply have one or two games. It didn't really matter who took what, though. They destroyed everything in the end.
"Ayo, lookit dis!"
My eyes flick to my friend, Nars. We've been traveling the wasteland together for three seasons now. He stands along the back wall, probably scavenging some spare parts or metal we can trade later, when we reach the city. I expect he'll toss me a shelf or a bracket or something, but instead he waves one of those game boxes. Unlike the others, it hasn't been stolen or destroyed.
"Dunno. One of those old things. Looks funny."
He sends it flying, and I catch it one-handed. Then he wiggles his eyebrows at me, and I roll my eyes and study the cover. Nars can't read, so he wouldn't be able to tell me the title anyway. In the picture, a short man in red overalls is caught mid-jump. One fist waves in the sky, a demonstration of power, and the other clutches some kind of weird vegetable. Super Mario Bros 2, it says.
"And?" Nars prods me, impatient as always. "Whatsit say?"
"Super Mario." I don't say the Bros part, because I don't know what that word is. "You see that number?"
He nods. "It's a three."
I want to tell him he's right - he's been working real hard on numbers - but I shake my head. "Two. There's only one hill, and it's right-side up. Threes have two hills, remember? Sideways-like."
Nars nods. I can see the shadows in his eyes. We haven't slept well in two months, and it's starting to get to him. Not learning his numbers is just another way he thinks he's failed. I can't let him believe that. "It's okay, buddy. We'll keep working on it."
Instead of answering, he turns away, pretending to examine the wall again. I should let it go, but I don't. We've said it enough times to know, but I tell him again. "Numbers are hard, man. Everybody's bad at them. Just takes time."
"Yeah. Think about all the stuff you need them for. Money and rations and stuff. You gotta know 'em."
"Not really." I lift a shoulder, half-shrugging. "You just gotta figure 'em out. Not just for everyday stuff, either. If you wanna learn 'em good, you gotta use 'em for something special."
He's still listening. Maybe it's not as bad as I thought. "Dunno. You gotta figure it out. My mam said stuff like letters and numbers like to be special, so you gotta treat 'em special. Like a girl or special guy. Give 'em nice things to count." I always thought she was full of it, but maybe it would help Nars. "Like, the stars. Or flowers, or trees, or bullets, or something."
He snorts. "Bullets? Not nice."
"They are for us. They're important. Keeps us alive. That makes 'em special."
He's quiet for a few seconds. Just when I think he's lost interest in the conversation, he speaks again. "You really think we got this?"
"Numbers? Sure you do. Anybody can learn numbers, man. Just takes time."
"Sure, yeah. That's what I meant."
This time I recognize the hesitation, the way he scratches his ear and avoids my gaze. We're not talking about numbers any more. Somewhere between special things and important things, we changed topics. I think I know where this is going, and I don't want to talk about it.
"It's okay," I say again. "We got this."
He flashes me a small smile. It's the one he reserves for days like this, when we're still alive and have something to eat. When we take a step back and realize we're still breathing, and even though everything in this godforsaken world tries to kill us, we made it through another day.
"I know we do. Still got you, don't I?"
A lump rises in my throat. I duck behind the counter like I found something, drawing my fingers in the dust on the floor. I want to say something, but my voice is stuck somewhere in my chest and I can't force the words out. We've only been traveling together for a few seasons, but it feels like forever. Maybe that's just how time passes in this horrible place. Or maybe we're just good company.
I don't want to keep talking about it.
"Maybe you could start your own business, start selling scraps or something. Then we'll do the alphabet. You know, letters? Once you can read those, you can do anything."
He's quiet again.
"Nars?" I say louder than necessary. "You hearin' me?"
"You're stayin', right?"
My heart sinks. He's not dropping it. This conversation is dangerous. These streets - the people, the wild animals, starvation - they''ll kill you before tomorrow comes. It's not safe to daydream. No promises, no long-term plans. Better to stay here alive than dreaming and dead.
"Somebody's got to teach your letters, don't they?" I say.
I bite my lip hard enough to taste blood. Let it go, Nars. Don't think about it. Just let it go.
I want to lie to him. Sure, of course I'll be there. We're together, you and I. Partners until the end of our days. We'll walk off into the sunset, holding hands and singing a song about how wonderful life is.
My hands curl into fists. That's not how life is in the No Zone.
Too many people promise to stay, then suddenly change their mind. Too many days spent sitting by a fire, waiting for their friendly smile. Too many nights with the wind howling outside, realizing they'll never come home again.
People can't keep promises out here. Brings out the worst in them. Nobody walks here and lives, and they sure as hell don't get back into civilization again.
That's not what Nars believes, though. He grew up with parents, once. People cared about him. Protected him from the harsh realities of the wasteland. He doesn't know how to skin a rabbit, or haggle with the traders, or try water to see if it's drinkable. He doesn't know you can't trust anyone. Not even me.
"What else am I supposed to do?"
It's not an answer, and we both know it. I wait, tracing my finger in the dust on the floor. Maybe he'll drop it. It's dangerous to think this way. Somebody's going to get hurt.
He doesn't say anything. After a few minutes, I notice some empty boxes under the register and paw through them, hoping for some luck. There's nothing. Somebody's already been here, which isn't a surprise.
"You got something to say, Nars, you better spit it out." It comes out harsher than I intended, and I hold my breath, hoping it's enough to discourage him.
"You gonna stay with me?"
Something in my chest squeezes painfully, and I clutch at my heart. He wants it. I can hear it in every word, the way it rolls off his tongue. My own terror reflected behind the words: the fear of dismissal, the wretched plea for companionship. He needs a friend, someone to walk through this hellish landscape with him. Without them, he'd die of loneliness. Possibly even a broken heart.
And I can't do it.
I can't make promises the way other people can. Empty things that don't get filled with actions, they just quit on you and leave you behind. People abandon each other. It's what they do. There's nothing tying them together, no loyalty any more. I know that, but Nars doesn't. He wants to believe in something bigger, needs it to keep going into tomorrow. He uses it as fuel, as a reason to keep going. I'm the ruined one. I don't believe that shit any more. But he does.
I want to make him every empty promise in the world, just to see him smile. But I don't.
I can't burn him. Not like they burned me.
He doesn't say anything more. A few minutes later, we're packed up and moving on. I take one last look at the picture on my way out. A giant helmet, staring me down as we leave. Accusing me. Why won't you protect him, too?
I want to.
But I can't.
(Photo by Cottonbro Studio, Pexels)