Most people don’t appreciate time. Their precious routines make time seem like nothing more or less than a light breeze skimming the roofs of their houses: unnoticeable, unassuming, uninteresting. It comes, it goes, it leaves them behind until, like a long-extinct leaf, it blows them away with it. Time is nothing to most people.
But Drafters are not most people.
Two weeks to a Drafter is like slicing away pieces of cake. The more you slice, the less there is left–but as you digest those slices… you realize you’ve taken more than you can handle.
Armin left the bathroom, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He wondered if maybe the chemicals had caused him to feel so ill. Murf, too, said he’d not been feeling his best, though he tended to get headaches. He said it happened every time he looked at his wife playing with little Boston, and he thought that maybe, just maybe, that would be the last time he’d ever see them. Maybe, just maybe, something would malfunction, or he wouldn’t close the tram properly and chemicals would leak into his own house, or maybe…. and then he’d get a headache.
Thoughts like that usually preceded Armin’s nausea. As if the damn chemicals weren’t bad enough, this mental pollution was enough to make Armin go crazy.
He sat his computer. Turned it on. Heaved a sigh. Looked out at the still-dark sky. 4:15 AM, and he was wide awake. Disrupting his perfectly normal sleep schedule (bedtime at two and waking at noon) was possibly the worst thing that Drafting had stolen from him.
Though, to be fair, it had given him at least something (even if Armin would never admit it aloud).
He was on his profile when he stopped, mouth dry, staring at his newest friend request: Preema Jennings. Her large green eyes made up half of her profile picture, which was all sexy stare, pouty lip, and sneaky peek down her t-shirt. The request came with the message: I’d love to see if you’re as brave as you pretend to be.
He accepted her friend request and replied: How can I show you that I am? I’m open to suggestions.
Send. Never before had a girl like that talked to him… that was enough to make him feel wide awake even at this ridiculous hour.
Five o’ clock came quietly and quickly, and Armin had just finished writing a new status (Wonder if I’ll ever get to drive the tram. Move over, Hem-V, and check out my stunts!), when the sirens alerted him that Murf was, again, at his door.
Not even a few minutes into it, and already his safety suit was chaffing. Murf seemed to be feeling the same way, because he greeted Armin with, “You’d think with all the technology we’ve got, we’d be able to wear something that didn’t make us so damn sore.”
“Ready to get started?”
“Whenever you are.”
And with that, the day, like every day before it, began.
“You ain’t got no right to complain, kid.”
“I have as much right as you.”
“Oh no. No, no, no, no, no.” He and Murf were taking their fifteen minute lunch break (though they used the term “break” very loosely). Murf referred to it as their “daily dance with death.” They had to eat, but couldn’t do so without taking off their helmets. Somehow, one less layer of protection made the tram walls (though inches thick and fully shielded against the chemicals) seem paper thin. “I’ve seen those cocky posts of yours.”
“They’re not as genuine–”
“Oh, I figured that out from day one. The way you talked, I was thinkin’, you must be one of those smart-alecky losers. But you’re just some awkward dork.”
Armin glared at him. “I’m not a dork.”
“I get top points in the regimens!”
“It’s cute you think the regimens make you strong. Kid, they’re just the Governance’s way of making sure your heart stays interested in keepin’ you alive.”
“I’m not cute, either.”
Another snort. “You’re young and dumb, will you grant me that much?”
“Then you’re stupid, too. That’s what I mean by you ain’t got no right to complain.”
Murf took another bite of the dried ham he’d brought with him; Armin was eating some pureed vegetables between crackers–all original recipes of the Governance’s ration packages. After a long chew, Murf swallowed and said, “You’ve got one person to think about, kid, and that’s you. There’s no one else in your house, no one depending on you to be a father and a husband. You know what it’s like growin’ up without a father?”
“Yeah… well… sort of.”
Murf surveyed him for moment, then shook his head. “Yeah, well, that’s not what I want for Boston. And it’s not what I want for my wife either. I married her, and that’s a life commitment, and by that, I mean her life, not mine. I always figured it was the husband’s duty to live longer. Not like I want her to die, or anything. I’m just sayin’, like, if we’d both live to a hundred”–he smiled here; ages like that were only appropriate in fairy tales–“and we were both feeble and sick, I’d make sure I’d stay alive just a little longer to make sure she’d never have to feel the sadness of losing the person she loved, so that she’d never have to be lonely. I’ll take bein’ lonely; I’ll be okay. I’ll take the burden… that’s what men do.”
“I guess that’s at least something my dad did, then.”
“Your dad not get along with your Mom?”
“My dad doesn’t get along with anyone, really.”
Armin didn’t answer. He took a bit of his crackers, feeling the dry mush roll over his tongue. “Depends what mood I’m in, and what mood he’s in. I mean, he’s my dad.”
“Fair enough,” Murf agreed. “But, like I was sayin’, you don’t understand what kinda burden it is, thinkin’ you might leave the people who need you to stick around. And then, at least at night, you can forget you’re a Drafter. But I’ve got that damn tram outside my door. And it sounds freakin’ crazy, I know, because I can’t see it… but I know it’s there….” Murf trailed off. “It’s a reminder and a threat, and I hate this stupid aluminum can.” He jerked his head around the tram–a funny thing to hate, considering it was the one thing keeping them (and really the entire commune) alive.
“Sounds tough,” Armin agreed.
“I mean, I get it.”
Still no answer, then….
“I’m a selfish son of a bitch, I know that,” Murf said. “I know we need all this… ‘delivery system’ shit.” He raised his eyebrows, quoting the often-mocked Jess. “I know it’s selfish, but, man, it’d be nice if I could just have a break. That’s the worst part of this job. But it’s just me bein’ selfish, really.”
Armin took a swig of his water. “I don’t think you’re selfish.”
Murf blinked, then muttered, “Thank you.”
“Yeah, well, you deserve a break.”
Silence, except for the sound of their chewing. Armin watched Murf; he was paler and thinner than when they had first met. Yes, if there was anyone who deserved a break, it was him.
“Wanna hear a crazy idea?”
“Crazy enough to calm your nerves.”
“There’s crazy, and then there’s impossible.” Murf made to get up, but Armin cut across him, saying:
“What if I took the tram home?”
Murf froze, looking like a video on pause. “What?”
“My house works just like yours–everyone’s house is designed the same way–and you could teach me the controls. Besides, I’ve been wanting to drive–”
“Oh, no–no joy rides!”
“Come on, Murf,” Armin argued, raising an eyebrow. “I thought you had my act figured out.”
A moment’s hesitation–just a moment–and then Murf grabbed Armin by the collar and dragged him to the controls. “Okay, kid, here’s how it works.”
Murf was doubled over in laughter.
Murf howled, holding onto a pile of rations boxes for support.
“You act like your tryin’ to defuse a bomb, not drive a tram!”
“I don’t wanna–”
“Don’t wanna live up that lie on your page?” Murf’s face was red with the effort to hold in his laughter. “Go right on ahead, you’re doin’ a great job!” The laugh broke out, spraying spittle everywhere. Armin glowered in disgust and annoyance, steering towards the next house.
“Okay, okay, I think I’ve got it.”
“Sure… sure you do.” Murf was beginning to calm down. He approached Armin, grabbing onto his shoulder. “And you’ll make sure you’re at my house extra early?”
“Yeah, by four.”
“Good. Don’t want anyone to know we’ve changed up. Doubt the Governance would want to know we’re…uh… amending their ‘delivery system.’”
Armin laughed nervously. “Yeah, they wouldn’t like that.”
There was a long pause as they stared ahead at the endless rows of concrete boxes. The Tram connected to the house, and the two of them could hear the sirens, just barely, through the Tram door.
“Back to work?”
“Yeah,” Armin agreed. “Back to work.”
There was a sick, twisted kind of power that came from controlling a two-ton vehicle. Man versus machine. And in that one, glorious instant, man whooped machine’s ass. Armin turned the steering wheel, still more cautious and hesitant than Murf ever was. But right now, Armin was the brain of this metal behemoth, meandering through the dusky streets, watching as bluish computer lights flickered across closed blinds.
Another turn; he could feel the tram vibrate under him, feel it glide on the straights and clunk on the curves. It was all about him, and his power, and his control.
Control your life, master your world.
Even Drafters, Armin figured, could have that much. That was the one guarantee the Governance promised.
There were two voices not far from Armin, but not quite loud enough for him to hear. One was a choked voice, a voice that was trying to squirm its way out of a throat that wasn’t quite big enough to let it. The other was reasonable, steady… and stubbornly refusing to panic.
“You p-promised me n-nothing bad would h-h-happen!”
“Listen, Dav, you need to calm down.”
“Y-you said, and now…now–look in there!”
“Dav… Dav, NO!”
Armin stopped the tram. There were voices, loud voices, as though they were right outside the tram door.
He didn’t know what to do. The whirring of his safety suit told him that he could step out, but… what if it was a Twicken? Then again, what if it wasn’t? Didn’t he have some sort of moral obligation to check?
Technically, he did. But technically people have moral obligations to do a lot of things, and they don’t necessarily do them. A moral obligation was just about as useful as the old flash drives that some people kept as collectibles. The smart thing to do would be to keep going.
“DON’T YOU DARE DIE YET!”
Well, there went the whole ignoring thing.
Armin, moving with as much speed as that clunky safety suit would let him, ran to the door and waited the impatient five seconds for the door to whoosh open. He hesitated for a moment–the first step he would actually take outside, not onto a tram or into a house, but actually outside–but he brushed that thought away, running towards where the voices were still shouting. They were inarticulate now, maybe even in pain. He began to run, his suit fwush, fwushing louder and louder… such a stark contrast to the voices, which were becoming quieter now, more or less just labored breaths.
Or one labored breath.
The first person was dead, no doubt about that. A knife was sticking up out of his chest, precisely at his heart. Armin was reminded, ridiculously, of a toothpick in a sandwich. Blood was pouring out of his chest and….
Armin was going to throw up. It had a smell; there was a smell that came with copious amounts of blood, a fact he had never noticed from the little scrapes he would get while playing, little nothings that his Mom would fix with a bandage.
But this was… was something that belonged on Hem-V. Not here, not in front of him.
Armin’s attention turned to the other. He was not much older than the first (who, Armin realized, was probably only a year or so older than himself), but this one was still alive, hand clutching at the rip made by the knife lodged in the other’s chest. He was lying flat on his back, eyes nothing by mirrors of the stars. His hand was on his stomach, attempting to hold on to something that was literally slipping through his fingers. Armin watched as the blood seeped through the fickle barrier of his hand, watched as he heaved each breath….
Each breath? That wasn’t helping him any! The chemicals would kill him faster than any wound would if he didn’t get inside immediately. Armin shook his head. Now was not the time to be shocked (that would come later); now was the time to do something.
Armin approached the Bleeding Man. He walked right above him, into his desperate line of vision, so that he would know that someone was there to help.
The Bleeding Man’s eyes opened wide, terrified. “No… please no…”
“I’m here to help,” Armin said, and his voice sounded garbled and strange through the helmet.
“Like hell you are!”
And, unbelievably, the Bleeding Man tried to stand. The effort was too much, and he fell over, slipping in the pool where his and the other man’s blood were mixing. His face screwed up in pain, and Armin reached over.
“No… no…” he argued, but there was no strength to back up his protest. Armin tried to lift him, failed, then proceeded to drag him to the nearby tram. He heaved him inside, and the Bleeding Man groaned. How much blood could someone lose without dying?
“Here, uh… let’s… uh…”
“Stop the bleeding… get a cloth or somethin’.”
Armin spun around the tram; there was the dining cloth that Murf had jokingly brought for the lunches. He lunged for it, ripped it apart, and pressed it to the Bleeding Man’s stomach.
“Pressure… here…” he instructed through gritted teeth.
Armin, dizzy and shaking, followed the directions. He applied the pressure, breathing almost as heavily as the man on the floor of the tram. He couldn’t stand here, keeping the blood at bay forever. He wrapped dining cloth, tight, around the Bleeding Man’s waist and made to get up.
“Where are you going?” the Bleeding Man asked weakly. His pale hand reached to apply the pressure that Armin had abandoned.
“I can’t help you any more than that here. We have to get to my house.”
The Bleeding Man didn’t argue, so Armin turned to the controls, started the tram, and began to drive with a shakiness that even Murf wouldn’t have laughed at.
Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021