Rose put the couple’s order in a few boxes and sealed them shut. No corrosive particles, pollutants, and pathogens were getting inside on her watch. There was no pride left in the world, but she was proud to offer clean food. It was 2040, after all. Pollutants that liquefied lungs and thickened blood traveled on the winds outside, so she checked the boxes twice.
She didn’t want to accidentally murder someone, even if she never found out about it.
Next, she donned her suit and helmet, catching a glimpse of herself in the hermetically sealed windows of the cafe. I look like a macabre astronaut, she thought. Her suit, skintight and originally white, had been pink that morning, indicating that she was one update behind. Now, her suit turned a soft mauve color, filling her with despair. Two updates behind. Some pathogens could get through. Her outdated system wouldn’t recognize them as a threat to neutralize.
I should just take off my helmet out there. End it all. She shook her head. Who would feed Teto then?
As a child, she’d actually wanted to become an astronaut.
“The Earth is dying, little one, and we will die with it,” her mother had said back then. “There will be no other planets for humans.”
Rose wanted another planet, a lush green one with a blue sky. She wanted to see rain. She dreamed of flowers.
Her mother died before the Earth did though, in the strange sandstorm of 2038. Her father had passed during the cyclone of 2030. Rose, however, kept going. She kept working their diner, and kept her suit up-to-date. Someone, after all, had to feed Teto, the cat her mother left behind.
The Last Diner was sealed shut on all sides. As usual, she walked through the pressurized vestibule to ensure it stayed clean. Rose figured she would have made a terrible astronaut. She hated going outside, hated that she had to wear a special suit just to be safe from the air. Yet, it was the outside itself that bothered her the most. The desert, the sand, the ever shifting dunes, the constant orange sky. The City where her small apartment waited seemed impossibly far away, the lights hidden in the perpetual orange gloom.
She tore her eyes away from the orange horizon, looking for the couple. They were sitting on one of the stone tables far away from the entrance. They wore suits and helmets, but they were dark purple. Her skin crawled. How many updates had they missed? Three? Five? They should have been dead by now.
Wading through the ankle deep sand, she placed the boxes on the table before the couple. Her interface popped up on her helmet, showing her the payment transaction. Two more updates for me, she thought, buying them immediately. Her interface wallpaper got superimposed over the world, and for a moment, the couple was sitting in a lush garden of roses.
“So, are we gonna do it?” said the woman. The voice was garbled through Rose’s helmet speakers. More updates she didn’t have, and worse, she’d forgotten about this one. At least her health did not depend on it.
“Hell, yes,” the man said, sounding like a demon from Hell.
It was then that Rose remembered the allergens in the food. It was protocol to inform customers about them. She opened her mouth, but a loud hiss interrupted made her stop. The couple removed their helmets in unison, putting them on the table. Another hiss as they opened the boxes. Assholes. Contaminating my food.
“See, I knew they were lying,” the woman said, reaching into her box for a cinnamon roll. She went at it fast. “There…no pollutants…air,” she said with her mouth full, her voice further garbled by the wind.
“I know,” the man said. “Merry Christmas!” He smiled, breathing in deeply.
Rose could only stare. She had always had her own doubts, but… her desire to remove her helmet outside had nothing to do with proving the government wrong. In fact, she counted on them being right. She just wanted to be with her family again. Yet, the couple was here, breathing, eating, outside in the open air. She reached for her own helmet.
But then the screaming began. The woman was choking, her face turning bright red, then a strange plum color as she struggled to breathe. Rose reached for her as she fell on the sand. Her interface had no idea what she could do, but it did call 911 for her. The man was still screaming, falling down on his knees next to them. The woman’s hand pawed at a pocket on her right leg. Rose thought it was weird; her suit had no pockets.
The woman’s throat was swelling, her breathing nothing but strange wheezes. Rose held her as she convulsed, coughing and sputtering, until finally, she was still. To her left, the man had fallen down, his hands on his chest, his face inches from the woman’s foot as if he, too, had tried to get to her. Rose had barely noticed when he’d stopped screaming.
On her knees, numb, Rose looked around, expecting blood, but there were only the two bodies with glassy eyes. Yet another pair of victims lost to the air. She squinted and saw a thick pen with a green cap sticking out of the sand next to the woman’s thigh. She must have been trying to get it. Rose would never understand why.
She gazed at the desert. She still couldn’t see her City in the distance, couldn’t see her empty apartment. She still felt utterly alone. She didn’t even have a Christmas tree.
But, Teto still needed food. So, as she stood up, she checked her helmet twice. She didn’t want to accidentally murder herself, even if she never found out about it.
I’m a former film academy student, who didn’t graduate because they closed the school. Currently working as a freelance writer. Proud owner of two poodles and a tabby cat. Yes, they’re best of friends. Predominantly in love with science fiction and fantasy, and fascinated by flash fiction.Verce Arsovska