Salt Plains – End

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Days were for the dead. John spent them peering through windows into the past where shades of people long dead performed for him. Their clothes, rituals, places, feelings: gone. Sometimes he found himself doubting that these things were ever real. Maybe it was just a fever dream, or a cruel joke played on him by some bodiless entity orbiting the planet. He didn’t know,  and it didn’t matter anymore. The films were simply a way to pass the time until the sun sunk below the horizon. It was at night that John lived.

The sun would set and he would drive his car past fields of desolation and waste to the glittering plains, to her. She was always waiting for him there. They would lay on the hood of the still warm vehicle and look up at the sky. They watched satellites streak across the sky and counted the shards of a moon destroyed by a weapon from a war long forgotten. Marina told him stories of her home: great and terrible beasts they hunted in the ancient sea, endless wars with twisted ones that lived in sea caves across the water, a holy cavern where the names of her ancestors were carved. He mentioned only in passing the sleepers that he watched. The tone of his voice told her to ask no more, and she did not. Instead, he told her stories from his films: heroes and villains, romances and comedies, tragedies and fears from the minds of people long dead.

He could see her eyes light up with wonder through the eyeports of her hood every time he wove his tales to her. They were the only thing of value John had to offer this girl from a life alien to him; one who brought him back from waking death, if only temporarily. The first light of the sun would appear and they would separate. Returning to his compound alone was harder each time until John could stand it no longer.

“Come back with me. I can show you some of the films, you can see my home. Just for a bit.”

Her eyes studied him for a moment. Her hand rested on the hilt of her blade.

“You know that I’ll kill you if you try anything?”

“Yes, I know.”

John saw her eyes change behind her hood, she was smiling.

“Alright, I’ll come with you.”

***

John left Marina in the vehicle while he rushed into his living quarters. He shoved dishes and clothes into his storage compartment and set the spare chair in front of the monitors. He grabbed a few dry rations and put them on the table.

Does it smell in here? Would I even know if it smelled? Do I smell? Should have cleaned before you left, you idiot. Too late now, don’t leave her waiting.

John ran to the door and opened it. A hooded figure greeted him there. He yelped and fell backwards into his room

“I got tired of waiting in the car, I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

John got to his feet and nervously rubbed his head.

“Sorry for making you wait. I’m not used to having visitors and…”

“It’s ok.”

“OK, sorry.”

“Stop apologizing”

“Sorry.  I mean…Yes.”

Marina laughed.

“So…do you want to put on the film or should we just stand here and look at each other for the next few hours?”

***

Marina did not care for the horror or action films that John showed her first. “Enough death and violence in my life as it is,” she said. John picked a romantic comedy next. It fared better with his guest, so the two sat there in chairs a few feet apart and sat in silence.

This film was about a handsome and athletic leader who begins to care about an awkward girl in his school who helps him with some academics after school. During the scene where the two leads inadvertently see each other at the local food rationing station John remembered that he too had food, and that he was hungry.

“Hey I have some rations over there, would you like some? The air in here is fine to breath. You can put your hood on the shelf over there”

“I’m fine, John. No, thank you.”

“Really? You must be hungry. I’m starving. Do you not like these dry rations? I have other stuff in the back I can get.”

“NO”

There was anger in her voice, anger and something else.

“I’m sorry, Marina. I didn’t mean to offend you, just thought you were hungry.”

“It’s fine, I just…” She sighed after speaking, then removed her hood. Her silver hair fell upon her shoulders and her pale eyes looked down at the floor. John then saw the reason for her hesitation: a large scar crossed her face from hair line to the bottom of her jaw. The scar was old, and must have been painful.

“This isn’t what you were expecting, is it John?”

Marina reached over to place the hood back on her head,

“No wait, don’t. Leave it off. You just surprised me, that’s all.”

“It’s a memento from a raid when I was a child. I should have told you.”

“That’s not what I meant. I meant you’re…well…you’re beautiful.”

“I look nothing like the girls in your movies, John. I never will. Don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not lying.”

She looked into his face and saw no look of disgust or deceit there.

“Marina?”

“Yes?”

“If I tried to kiss you now, would you cut me apart with your blade?”

“I might. Only one way to find out.”

John leaned in and the alarm on the vital signs monitor went off.

***

John did not explain to her what the alarm meant or what he had to go do. He only asked that she stay in his quarters. He would be back soon, he said, and they could finish the movie. She was not pleased, but she agreed to his terms. She would wait.

Transference had completed on an older man. John had briefly known him while he was awake. He had been a kindly old man and was one of the sleepers he liked to talk to the most. That was before, though. Back before he had someone else to talk to, someone waiting for him now. John loaded the container onto the cart for disposal.

In his haste he had forgotten to put on his protective equipment. The blowing dust stung his eyes and the scorching sun burned the back of his neck. He could not see, but he did not need to. John had walked this path many times. He arrived at disposal and loaded the tube above the vat. John took one last look at the husk of the old man and released the trap door. It slid into the vat and was gone.

John took the container down from the platform and turned towards the door. Then he saw her there in the doorway. He could tell from the disgust and confusion in her eyes that she had seen him. She had seen what he did, what he has always done. She knew.

“You need to take me home.”

***

She didn’t say a word to him in the car as they drove. She just stared out the window at the sunset, her back turned to him. John didn’t know what to say to her. He wasn’t sure she would listen to him even if he did.

Hello. My name is John and my job is to melt down the bodies of my people in a giant vat of acid like common garbage when a computer determines  they are of no use anymore.

They arrived and she jumped out of the car and began walking across the salt crusted ground. John got out and called after her.

“Marina, please wait.”

She stopped, but did not turn to face him. Then she spoke:

“Who was that man, John?”

“Just a man I barely knew a long time ago. His soul had completed transference and the body was no longer needed. I was just disposing of it. I didn’t mean for you to see that.”

“We celebrate the lives of our dead, John. We carve their names in the holy rock and return their ashes to the sea. We don’t discard them like trash.”

“They aren’t dead. They’re in a satellite orbiting the planet right n-”

“They’re dead, John. They just don’t know it yet. Or maybe they do? I don’t know. I don’t care. That place is death. I’m not going back. You shouldn’t go back either.”

“I have to go back.They are my people. I have to make sure transference completes.”

“Why? You owe them nothing. They left you to clean up the mess they left behind in their selfish pursuit. Come with me. Please John. You don’t belong there.”

“I…I can’t. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry too. Goodbye John.”

He watched her walk into the night until she was only a speck on the horizon. Then, she was gone.

***

John took his time driving home. He followed the coast for a while, taking roads he was not familiar with. It all looked the same. The white emptiness of the plains on one side and dust on the other. The blasted earth was ugly in the light of the sun.

Most of the daylight was spent when he finally returned home.There were three more transference completions waiting when John returned to the compound. He silenced the alarm on the monitor and switched it off. Disposal could wait, they weren’t going anywhere. He sat down in one of the empty chairs and stared at the screen in front of him. It was paused on a scene towards the end of the film they had been watching. She never got to finish it. She never would. John resumed the film.

The handsome protagonist stood on the screen staring at the sports ball in his hands. It was the biggest play of the game, of the season, of his whole life. Everyone was counting on him. This was who he was, where he was supposed to be. Then he saw her. Their eyes met, and she turned away to leave. He looked over at his teammates waiting for him, then dropped the ball and walked off the field.

I’m sorry guys. I’ve gotta go.

John turned off the screen and sat in silence. He looked over at the empty seat beside him. Then he grabbed his gear and headed for the door.

***

He arrived at the plains at the edge of twilight. She wasn’t there. He hadn’t expected her to be, not yet. John opened the rear compartment and searched through the spare vehicle components and tools until he found what he was looking for: a bottle of accelerant and an old combustible flare.

You know if you do this there’s no going back, right?

I know.

John opened the accelerant and poured it out over the interior and exterior of the car. He stood a good distance back from the car and lit the flare. He admired the bright red chemical fire in his hand for a moment, then threw it. Orange and read flames illuminated the night sky. John could feel the heat through his mask. He wondered if the satellite passing overhead could see the fire below. Didn’t matter if they did, it wasn’t for them.

She’ll see this and she’ll know. She’ll come.

If she doesn’t, you’ll die.

She will. I know she will.

Why are you so sure?

Everything I’ve ever done can’t just be for nothing. I can’t believe that, not anymore.

And if it is?

…She’ll be here.

John walked over to the edge of the salt plains and sat on what was once the shore.

Then he waited.

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