THE SALT LINE
by HOLLY GODDARD JONES
Decades ago, a particularly virulent tick invaded the United States causing a nation-wide epidemic that divided the Old Republic into factions deeper than the Civil War. Most of the survivors retreated behind quarantined barriers in several geographically defined Zones. Each of these zones devised some method of limiting tick infestations; some more successfully than others. The most secure and safe zone is the Atlantic Zone; rich in resources and power left over from the Old Republic – safe behind the “Salt Line” – a chemically burned area extending several kilometers beyond the guarded perimeter “Wall.”
“A pregnant miner tick releases a numbing agent, which allows her to work without detection. By the time you feel the itching, [she] has settled in place, laid her eggs and died. In a matter of hours the ticks spread through the body, mature and erupt through the skin creating an unbearable itch. The bites can be survived but 45% of female miner ticks carry Shreve’s disease that spreads rapidly, causes total paralysis and death in a matter of days.”
– OLE Training Course
The pervasive miner ticks are bit players here. Their lethal presence a source of existential anxiety. They are pawns in a much greater threat – domination and greed by the seedier side of human nature.
Four years ago, a private enterprise, Outer Limits Excursions (OLE), began offering expensive three-week guided trips into the Out-Of-Zone. Some of their clients are enticed by stories of the purple mountains majesty and the abandoned history and culture of the past. Others are seeking the nefarious pleasures unobtainable in the highly regulated Atlantic zone but provided by the Out-Of-Zoners – free spirits choosing to live free of rules and regulations and chancing Shreve’s in the castoff world.
For personal safety, OLE excursions require each client to undergo a regimented three-week training program in survival skills. When ready, they will leave the Zone in a protective SecondSkin microsuit, -given a “Stamp”, an intense burner much like an old fashioned car cigarette lighter used to fry embedded ticks – and assigned a partner who must stay as close as a conjoined twin.
It’s September and the OLE brochure promises a once-in-a-lifetime view of the mountains in colorful foliage and visits to the remnants of the Old Republic way of life. The training is over – the van has pulled away from the Salt Line – the emptiness- the vast isolation ahead overwhelms them.
Among the 12 clients are a popular jazz musician and his girlfriend, a young techno entrepreneur, and a middle-aged housewife; each with a hidden agenda and a specific purpose for being there other than viewing the scenery.
At this point background stories of key characters have been defined. The clients have been together for three weeks and have established friendships – or at least allies – and enemies among themselves.
A couple of days into the adventure the startled passengers are kidnapped at gunpoint by their guide and force marched to a rustic commune in the Blue Ridge Mountains known as Ruby City. What looked like a three-week sightseeing tour now has turned violent – one of the passengers was shot – two have had been bitten by miner tics – and the future of the remaining passengers looks ominous.
June proceeded to shake the hand of each of her captives. . . When Marta’s turn came . . . [June] fixed her hazel eyes on Marta’s demanding contact. ‘You look tired’, she said. ‘That trek is a bit much for women our age. I do apologize.’
‘The trek was fine’, Marta managed to say. ‘The treatment we received wasn’t’
‘I’m afraid that prisoners of war don’t often get the red carpet rolled out.’
‘What war?’, Marta asked.
Buckle up . . . things are about to take off. And no one is who they seem. And no one’s future is guaranteed.