On Salasar
rating: +25+x

It was dark and hot and there was thunder outside, where it belonged. The bar was a red-brick building with small, winding rooms and a sign outside painted to look like neon. Inside was dirty and cold, coolant stains crawling the walls and a busted sushi conveyor serving poorly as a bar. One wall was just cubbies holding rows of black state drives. It was a dive.

The barman looked at me. ‘On Salasar it rains hot lead,’ he said. I took a drink. It drank like air but kicked halfway down, like it changed its mind. Any taste it had was overwritten by the hot, bloody stinging which traced patterns on my tongue and cheeks. Stim drink. I hated the stuff. I took another drink.

The barman nodded conspiratorially. ‘Hot lead,’ he said. ‘No lie. Droplets big as your fist.’

I looked up and grinned. ‘That’s not so big.’ He grinned back. His lips were cheap and synthetic, and he looked like someone who looked tough but didn’t want to. His smile was weak and uncertain, and at odds with the long russet scar that pulled his forehead in a kind of permanent scowl.

‘No lie, honest. Droplets big as your head. Hot lead.’

I put the drink down and tilted my head. ‘Alright,’ I said, ‘I’ll bite. Why’s it raining metal?’ The barman just smiled, absently smearing a glass with a damp rag. I pushed a small bill across the table. His smile widened, exposing cracks in his silicone lips. His teeth were awful but his breath smelled pleasantly of hot ginger.

‘Testing,’ he said. ‘What else they do on Salasar?’

‘Testing what?’ I said.

‘Travel. Faster than anything else. Faster even than light. They found a way.’

I nodded. I said ‘They keep trying that, don’t they.’ I was lying. They don’t – nobody does. It’s a pipe dream, a fool’s game. The science, if you can call it that, never checks out. I took another drink and pretended for a moment it did. ‘How’d they manage it?’

He shook his head. ‘Not for me to say, no. I don’t give away secrets, not me. Very confidential. But I’ll tell you it went very bad, very very bad indeed. And now the people of Salasar are boiling alive.’

I nodded, the stim drink swimming in my ears. ‘Makes sense. Only, I didn’t think anyone lived on Salasar. Dead station since its sponsor went under, I thought.’

The grin again, and the warm cloud of ginger. ‘You think wrong. People live everywhere, like rats. You wipe them out, no, ten years later children playing in the streets again. They bury into their little holes, and now, not even god get them out. Not even hot lead.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘I do a lot of thinking. I was bound to be wrong eventually. How’d you hear about it?’

An implicit call, and a tacit agreement. The request for sources, that signal in the dark that you were willing, for a little while and a little less money, to believe their stories. The barman caught it, and I saw his left eye flare up a little and dim, like a firework in his skull. He put the glass back on the shelf and shuffled through a door at the back. I leant back and waited, staring at the ceiling. A fluorescent purple strip stared back.

The bar was a dive, but a good one, with the history to back it up. It used to cater to travellers blowing in off the Portland Ridge, moving north to escape the summer or south to flee the storms. At one point there’d been a city here, but over time the population drew in closer and closer to the centre – now it was just a smear of ancient waste bunched up around the three skyscrapers that held the city’s state banks. One had fallen not long after it was built, caught short by cut corners and a failing market. The other two were still squat grey monoliths, their mirrored windows now dusted with ash and smog, the lettering around the top too worn and blackened to read.

Last year, the bar had had a dozen regulars, crawling from their homes and workplaces to drink and be merry and forget the troubles of the world. Last month, it was half that. Yesterday saw the death of two of the remaining three – brothers, laid low by a storm which tore through half the neighbourhood. Now it was me and a spattering of fly-by-night travellers, here to steal half an hour of solace and maybe an ashtray while they’re at it. When I left – and I would leave, eventually – the bar would die. The barman would move on to some other town, one less scarred by time, and the building would find new owners in either nomads or roaches. It wouldn’t be missed.

I watched the violet lights flicker, crawling like maggots as the stim rippled the back of my retina. The thunder rolled outside, deep and spiteful. I steeled myself and took another drink.

The bar was symptomatic. The city was sick, terminally sick. The fires and blackouts were proof enough of that. They amounted to an urban death rattle, a last hacking breath of activity before the end. Clearing out the sticklers, the ones who pulled their curtains shut against storms and acid rain and cried out in the night for the old days.

It was a story being told all over. Different characters, different settings, but the same tried-and-tested plot. I wondered where the people were going, which towns were picking up the slack. Did they die on the road, searching for a safe-haven always just out of reach? Or did they make it, in the end? I knew most of the old cities were gone, long gone, but some had stuck around just long enough to fall. Miami was the largest and the last, ‘til it sank beneath the coastline in a slick of oil and neon. Austin clung on, ‘til it burned. The ice lines took Anchorage, and the years took Fort Wayne. And eventually, I knew, the rains would take Salem.

When the barman returned he was holding a slim flash-drive, which he stuck into a box beneath the bar. After waiting a couple of moments for the machine to warm up, he pulled up a screen on a long hinged arm and turned it so we could both see.

He stabbed a finger at it and said ‘My brother, he took this photo. He lived on Salasar, for a time. He was there when it started.’

‘When it started raining?’

He shook his head. ‘When it all started,’ he said. ‘The fall.’

I knew what he meant. ‘I don’t know what you mean,’ I said. He grinned.

‘The fall of everything. Collapse. End of the world.’ He stabbed the photo again, his finger leaving a smear of grease on the screen. It was a blurry shot of a shiny chrome arch with a line of figures standing in front of it. People seemed to be celebrating. In the background were trees, and buildings, and the conspicuous lack of horizon you only got on ring stations. ‘My brother was there when it started, right when it started. The team putting scanners into action, he was a part of it. Pride and joy of our family. Our little brother, up in space, going to find a way to live forever.’ The barman rolled his shoulders, metal joints scraping in the meat. ‘He didn’t, of course. He didn’t live. He died before forever, like everyone else. You notice that, Kala?’

I was taken aback. He knew my name. I think – I’d thought – I could count the people who knew that name on the fingers of no hands. The first generation had all passed on, in one way or another. The natural-born ones, who I’d been familiar with in my birth era.

How long had I been living here? How long had we known each other? How many times had I indulged in drink and confessed myself to him? Had he told me his name, on one of those lonely, manufactured nights?

If he noticed my reluctance to answer, he didn’t show it. His face had the clouded look of someone looking through different eyes, in some different time. ‘Yes, you must have noticed it. You’re smart, smarter than me. You must have noticed. You enter solid state, and someone prints you out after months, after years, but it’s all the same life. You stretch it out, stretch it out as thin as ice, as thin as air, but it’s still the same life. And other people, they do it too. Idiots. Idiots thinking they can live forever. Forever, yes, but not living. Idiots like me. Everything gets so thin.’

I put my glass down and stared at him. He was an old man in an old body, not so common these days. Those from the past tended to get here the easy way, scanned and printed, fresh-faced and dumb. If you’re old, you tend to be recent. And if you’re young, you tend to die that way.

He was right. I said nothing. He shook his head and smiled. ‘I get lonely, Kala. Sorry. I digress.’ He jabbed a finger at the screen again, shaking the armature. ‘But my brother, he was smart. Or maybe stupid. He got old the right way, through time. Before I got scanned, he told me, he said he’d do it too, and we’d meet up together. Together, in the future.’

‘But,’ he said, ‘he died. After ten years. Ten years lived without me, in the past. Ten years on Salasar with me down here in solid state. Downloaded. Then he died and nobody was left.’

I tilted forward and slid my empty glass toward him. ‘I thought,’ I said, ‘that there were still people living there.’

He shook his head so abruptly I thought his neck might snap. ‘Nobody left who knew. How to fix things.’ His grin was gone completely now, replaced by steely anger. He thumped the box beneath the bar and the screen changed, flickering between page after page of diagrams and notes.

‘Those are-‘

He cut me off. ‘His. His records. Diaries. Watched it all, knew it all. What would happen.’ The anger faded slightly, weariness creeping into the lines around his eyes. ‘And me, on earth, left behind. To live. Live through the future he knew was coming.’ His prostheses took my glass and began filling it absentmindedly. ‘He abandoned Salasar. They’re burning now. He abandoned me.’

I stayed for hours after that. The barman knew a lot, guessed some, fabricated more than a little. He talked about his brother’s involvement with cryptogenics, and the research station Salasar, and the end of the world. About the station’s other projects – cold fusion, directed energy, faster-than-light travel. About the malfunctions that happened in his brother’s absence, with nobody to keep the prototypes in check. He painted a vivid picture of a tiny world gone to hell, sealed tight beneath a flickering, boiling sky, full of engines spewing hot lead and who knows what else. Thousands living in maintenance tunnels and storage halls, fearful of the machines their forebears created. A dark microcosm of humanity.

The sky was just barely beginning to lighten when I left, waves of pale gold picking out Salem’s many shadows. I stood for a moment adjusting my coat against the heat, trying not to breathe too deeply. A little way down the street, the open front of a repair shop spewed smoke and steam, its contents shaking the neighbourhood with each engine’s guttural roar. It sounded very much, to my ears, like thunder.

I looked to the skies – clouded, but not dark, and sighed softly through my teeth.

It would be a while until the next storm. A few days, at least. Perhaps a fortnight. Maybe a month. Certainly there was no reason to leave today. But then, there never would be.

I turned away from the shop and headed home.

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