I shared my campsite that night with an older woman. She was in her mid-50s, her hair completely gray, and tanned by the sun. Her eyes were light green and seemed to be even lighter against all the black she wore. She had crows’ feet at the corners of her eyes and a warmer smile than the artificial heater we defrosted by. She had been walking on the road at night when I pulled up behind her.
“Thank God you stopped.” She said. “I’m always very worried when I’m by myself at night. I’m sure I look like a very easy target.” The large hunter’s knife in her pocket proved her to be just the opposite.
She clearly knew how to use it too – the rabbit I caught in the woods before she found me was skinned, gutted and roasting on a spit before I even had time to think.
It wasn’t long before we were talking about the days before. Usually the people her age called them the ‘good old days’, for obvious reasons – sure, nuclear destruction was hanging over their heads every day, the economy was so horrible that it was almost impossible to live, and weather around the world started to go haywire. Of course, there was so much more than that, but compared to the lives many of the older generation lived now…it was still better. There was clean, running water most of the time. They had a warm place to sleep. Food that was actually nutritious. Generation Z had it all.
But this lady didn’t refer to that time as the ‘good old days’. This, to her, was her good old days. The golden age of her life. She wasn’t struggling for food, she said, because she always knew where to go to find it. Fresh water. Safer places to sleep.
So I asked her why she was so miserable in the time before. And how she came to be so free in this time, now. And well, I’m sure you know the drill by now.
– – – – –
I was late. Again.
It wasn’t unusual. The trains were shit. Complete and utter shit. I was stuck on my schedule from when I had my car. But when the tires blew, and the engine blew, and basically everything else blew, I had to bring my car into the shop. Despite me not having any money to pay for it. But, you know, life finds a way.
The office building I worked in was gray. Gray brick outside, white and gray offices inside. It was your generic office scenario. I sold some athletic shit for a company whose name I don’t remember. It was twenty years ago. As long as the pants we sold made your ass look really good, we stayed in the black.
My boss found me in my office typing away. And his face wasn’t happy. But what was I supposed to do? I lived two hours away. That was where I could find affordable housing, decent produce, and a relatively safe neighborhood. But what did it matter to him? I was part of the generation that didn’t matter.
He couldn’t fire me. He knew he couldn’t. And so he bit his tongue, and kept quiet. And waited for me to make a misstep – to make an overly sexual comment, to spread too much office gossip, to toe out of line and give him a reason to report me to HR or a higher up. But I saw him, and his eagle eyes, and I knew. This office wasn’t about making the best sales, or employee of the month. It was about navigating the waters of office politics. Be the best cog in the machine. Just like the office on the floor above us. And the office on the floor below us.
And this monotony wasn’t anything new. Assembly lines had been around for over a hundred years. As soon as we realized that we could just hire a person to put one cog in a Ford car for their entire life, then we realized that we could just make the person that cog.
Of course I was going to say I longed for something different. Who doesn’t? You always long to have that corner office. Be the CEO. Rise above that ‘cog in the machine’ mentality. But see, the thing is, we aren’t. We never are. That mentality is just an extension of the society we live in. And that idea is just an extension of the world around us. See, the world sees us the same way. We’re just another part of the ecosystem. The reason why there was a global food shortage was because bees went extinct. They were the main pollinator for most of the world’s food. That was the ecological niche they filled. Not even robotic bees were able to take over the ecological niche they fulfilled.
I think it was on that day that I asked, “What niche do we fulfill, then?”
It’s kind of easy to see where evolution went with us. We weren’t meant to be a top predator. We were meant to be in the middle. We lived in packs. Used some tools. We could take down large herbivores, but then carnivores could take us down.
But then we grew up. We got smarter. And we hunted smarter.
So I think that’s where we went wrong – we became more than just the cogs in the machine. We became a machine. All of us. I was chuckling to myself in my office. Too poor to pay the repair costs on my car. Too poor to buy food. Unable to get to work on time. Thank God the whole office was soundproof, because I don’t know if I could have done anything else in that situation. Apart from jumping out the 34th story, which I strongly considered.
I was still high as shit from the night before. I was so fucking high. That was probably the last time I would be that high.
In any case. That realization was about two hours before the first nuke hit in our country. It was on New York City. And, well, that was pretty far away from us. But we were a major city as well, and a pretty important one at that. So it was only a matter of time that it would happen to us too.
I remember the mass panic. The screaming. The fires. The jumping out of windows. I wasn’t sure how, but I was certain that we weren’t going to be hit that day. And so I walked out of that building at 10:47 A.M., surrounded by the stench of fear. I walked down all 34 flights of stairs to the ground floor, and out the door. And I walked all the way home.
The next one hit our city the day after. Not that it mattered to me. I was already out of there, in the back of my neighbor’s SUV with what I thought was all my important possessions in my backpack. Just some clothes, my birth certificate, stuff like that. Turns out, some of the stuff wasn’t as important as I thought. The first time I used the birth certificate was to get into a refugee camp. The second time was when I left. And the last time I used it as kindling in a fire.
It wasn’t long before the United States was lighting up like metal in a microwave. Little pops here and there. Every time you ran into someone you’d hear about another nuke. I’m sure you didn’t though – you were young enough that your parents protected you from that, I’m sure. But I was your age when all this was happening. And I was scared, and I wasn’t as good with a knife then as I am now. I didn’t know how to skin anything, I didn’t know how to kill an animal, I didn’t even know how to start a fire.
That is, until I met Evan. Evan was the macaroni to my cheese. He was the sun to my sky. He took me under his wing – he was in a gang, you see, they lost a lot of people when the cities were destroyed, both in the rioting and in the nukes – and they needed members. So I joined. I learned how to use a knife, I learned how to rob people, I learned how to resell our loot. Became the master of the black market. Drugs, mythical artifacts, people. We never killed anyone. But we did some serious damage. I learned a lot from Evan. Don’t get me wrong – he learned from me too, we had this ‘equivalent exchange’ thing going on. It wasn’t long before I was leading robberies, creating monopolies, a lot of bad shit. But I loved it. I didn’t have to worry about paying bills, I was fucking my boss, I wasn’t a cog in the machine. I was free to leave.
I did leave, after a while. Evan slipped up during one of our missions and got himself killed. I felt like my life was ending. But I’m still here. And to be honest, I became a machine. Every morning I get up, take a drink of water, and begin to walk. I walk until I’ve gone somewhere or my feet become tired. I stop, I eat, I go to sleep.
I see you there, and I see your face. You probably think I’ve done some really bad things. And I have. How much does that make me a bad person, though? How much do I regret it? And does my being a good person hinge on my regretting my actions?
I don’t think I’m a bad person necessarily. I told you of some of the things that I’ve done, but that’s not my entire life choices. The gang took orphaned kids in, we gave them a chance. In my time I’ve set up solar energy and water purification systems in small towns across Appalachia. The fact of the matter is that it’s not up to you to judge me. Honestly, it doesn’t matter. Judgment’s not important when survival of the fittest is what matters most.
Evan wasn’t fit. He was stupid. I was smart, and I was fit. And if it matters, I think you’re fit too.
Maybe that’s what I was after all along. Apathy? A release from the need to be a part of something bigger? Or perhaps it was the fear that the cog I was would never fit in the society that I was born into?
I don’t think it matters. Machines think. Cogs don’t.
– – – – –
I was up for a long time after she told me her story. She was a chaotic thing, like a tornado, her story jumping from place to place so I had a hard time sorting through it all. I was writing in my beaten leather notebook by the dim light of the electric heater. Even when I finished I couldn’t help but think of Evan. She loved him, I think. But she was angry at him, even years after his death.
She didn’t seem like a horrible person, but I definitely did not like her. Sure, she did some good things. But doing good things does not a good person make. And vice versa. I didn’t believe all of the things she told me – I figured she was exaggerating, or covering something up out of shame. Whether she was a sociopath, or just simply lost, was unknown to me. But like she said – it didn’t matter.
The next morning when I woke up the woman was gone. So were her sleeping bag, my heater, and my solar-powered bike. All I had left was the contents of my backpack (my computer, some clothes, three notebooks), my sleeping bag, and a sense of emptiness.