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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

A Handful of Glass, a Sky without Stars

Damien Walters Grintalis lives in Maryland with her husband and two rescued pit bulls. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and others. She is an Associate Editor of the Hugo Award-winning magazine, Electric Velocipede, a staff writer with BooklifeNow, and her debut novel, Ink, will be released in December 2012 by Samhain Horror. You can follow her on Twitter @dwgrintalis.

This is Damien Walters Grintalis' fourth story to appear in Daily Science Fiction.

Mia held her wrist up to the security panel outside the pharmaceutical club and waited while her identification and prescription were verified. A light on the panel flashed twice. The airlock doors opened. She closed her eyes as the doors slid shut behind her and the airwash kicked on, stripping the pollutants from her skin and clothing. It finished with a high-pitched beep and a rush of cool air. She tugged off her breathing mask. Another door opened, revealing a small, dark lobby and a guard with shoulders nearly the width of her apartment's front door.
She'd offer him a smile, but inside, she was Empty. It would take too much energy to fake.
She extended her arm, wrist up. The guard double-checked her information with a portable scanner. A hostess, her anorectic absence of curves accented by a form-fitting dress, led her through another door into the club itself, a wide room of dim lighting, plush seating, and dark papered walls. Classical music played overhead, something sad and mournful and filled with violins, muffling the sound of splintering glass. Although it was still early in the evening, patrons filled nearly every sofa and chair. Traces of scent hovered in the air--aromatic tobacco, cologne, ripe fruit, ink, and paper.
A few minutes after Mia took the proffered seat, another waitress approached her table and scanned the chip in her wrist again. Though it was all but impossible for an Impure to sneak past the security guards, government regulations and the insurance companies dictated the multiple checks.
The waitress returned to Mia's table with a padded box in her hands. The dozen spheres within, each the size of a small orange, gleamed with secret fire. Inside the glass, colors swirled--sapphire, a red so deep it was almost black, pale champagne gold, dark green laced with lighter strands, lavender. Mia ran her hand over the tops, her palm skimming the surfaces. The colors intensified in response to her touch. She indicated her choice with the tap of one finger, and the waitress removed it from the box with a gloved hand.
Mia cupped the glass in her palms; the golden vapor inside spun clockwise. Perhaps it was silly, taking the time to pick. Most people grabbed either their favorite color or something to match their outfits. In truth, it didn't matter. Behind the glamour, the contents were the same.
The waitress brought over a goblet of wine, the purple-red liquid filled almost to the rim, and a small vial of pale powder. Mia sprinkled the contents of the vial into the wine. The powder, also prescription, was used to counteract some of the side effects of the Break.
Mia lounged back in her chair, listening to the music while the sphere warmed against her skin. The breaker, jutting up from the middle of the table, was an elegant twist of wrought iron with dagger shaped edges blooming from the top like petals. As always, a shiver raced up and down her spine as she held the sphere to the breaker and gave a tiny tap. Glass shattered down to the table. The scent of jasmine and gardenia filled the air.
The gold hung on the edge of the breaker like a drop of rain. She leaned over the table, opened her mouth slightly, and inhaled. A thin ribbon of gold unwound from the top; the end slipped between her lips, filling her mouth with a taste like honey laced with lemon, the taste, like the scents, an additive to enhance the experience. A pretty façade to camouflage the truth.
The rest of the gold uncoiled, floating in the air like an apple peeled in one long strip. She inhaled until nothing remained but a lingering trace of flowers and leaned back against the cushions.
A dark haired man, handsome in a boyish way, sat down on the chair across from her, broke open his sphere, and inhaled its contents through his nose.
Mia closed her eyes, feeling the subtle shift inside, a warmth settling deep within. The Break took over:
…A gentle touch, soft whispers, a kind smile.
…The sharp snap of bone, white-bright pain shuddering beneath the skin, high-pitched cries of alarm, fading grey beneath the pain.
…Laughter bubbling up, rising hard and fast, too much to hold in.
…Harsh words, the hard stone of hurt, hot, swollen eyes, the taste of tears.
…A chill of anticipation, lips touching, skin prickling with inner heat.
…Shadows and grey, an unexpected movement seen from the corner of the eye, breath caught in the throat, pulse racing.
…Bodies entwined, spine arching, a knot of pleasure pulling tighter and tighter, releasing into shaking and liquid warmth.
…A slick surface, legs sliding out, hands outstretched, falling down.
…Warm hands holding close, skin pressed to skin.
…Clenched fists, voices rising up and up and up.
…Fragile steps, aching movements, the world turned to blur and mute confusion.
…Daggers of pain digging in hard and fast, a pulsing beat, a wordless, guttural cry.
…Empty. A vast pit of nothing. The absolute absence of sensation, yet a sensation in and of itself. A profound deprivation.
And then it was gone.
With a cry, Mia opened her eyes and exhaled a small cloud of gold dust motes. They hovered in the air around her face then winked out, one by one.
Well and truly gone.
For the now.
Slowly, the club's muted din crept back into her consciousness. The music, the intoxicating smells left behind by the Break, and a mix of sweat, exhilaration, and contentment from the patrons who were finished. In truth, Break was a misnomer. It didn't shatter them. It made them whole, even if only a temporary fix. Lab-created emotions were better than none at all.
But the Break could only give so much. If used more than once a week, suicide was a certainty, yet without it, society couldn't function.
Mia took several deep breaths, wiped the sweat from her brow, and took a large gulp of wine.
She felt human. She felt real.
"Intense?" the dark haired man asked.
She smiled. A real smile, not a mirror construct. "Very."
He lifted his half-empty glass. "To your mental health."
"And to yours."
Two sofas over, a young girl, the traces of babyfat still on her cheeks, inhaled, then clamped her hands over her mouth and lurched to her feet, bolting for the restroom.
Everyone vomited the first time. Everyone.
On the bus ride home, Mia rested her head back against the seat. The interior of the bus was papered with signs, all of which read Break. Stay Healthy. Stay Alive. And in small print: Brought to you by Dartwell Pharmaceutical.
Outside the windows, buildings passed by in a blur of brick and concrete. In the old city, streets had been choked with barely moving vehicles, the sidewalks with a sea of moving flesh. No one walked the streets now if they didn't have to. Even though the war was a faded story in history's pages, the air still bore the scars. Purifiers ran non-stop to strip away the pollution and toxins, but the results would not be seen by her generation or the next.
Before the war, the city had held darkness, too, albeit of a different sort: Strangers lurking in shadows, preying on anyone at any time. People sleeping in doorways, huddled against the cold. Or so she'd read.
The bus slowed, approaching a stop, and passed a cleaning crew, their red coveralls an advertisement for the tragedy. Mia averted her eyes from the still wet bloodstains on the pavement and felt the sting of tears. She hoped it wasn't someone she knew. Several other passengers gasped and she heard soft sobs from someone in the very back, muffled behind her breathing mask.
Once home, safe inside the filtered air of her shoebox-sized apartment, she tossed her breathing mask on the counter and took her vitamins. Like the Break, they were prescription; unlike it, they were approved for home use.
She sat on her bed with her legs tucked up underneath and took deep breaths in and out. Warmth clung to the corners of her mind like a soft blanket. Filling her up. Keeping her safe.
She laughed, a high-pitched, childlike sound, smiled, stretching the grin as wide as she could, then frowned, then threw her head back and laughed. The memory of the bloodstains on the pavement surfaced, and she choked back a sob. She wished they'd find some way to keep them from happening. There had to be a way. Tears spilled down her cheeks. She wrapped her arms around herself and rocked slowly back and forth, caught up in grief and sorrow, yet grateful she could feel anything at all.
The coffee shop was packed, every table filled, every employee moving to and fro, taking and filling orders. The hushed tones of conversation were punctuated with laughter. Mia pulled off her breathing mask as she passed through the airwash and took her place in line. When she stepped up to the counter, the barista gave her a smile. Mia offered the same in return.
With coffee in hand and mask replaced, she left the shop behind and crossed the street. A small sign next to the ID scanner outside the indoor park read No Impure. And over the airlock entrance, a quote from the first post-war President: We do not give up. We will salvage what is left of our country. We will make the air breathable again. We will keep our people safe and heal our wounds.
She stripped off her mask once inside. Smooth pseudoglass walls rose up into a high, arched ceiling; holographic images of a blue sky with fluffy white clouds, trees in full bloom, and flowering bushes played across the slick surface.
Drawing inspiration from pre-war style parks, there were park benches, a meandering path that wound its way round a small lake, and tree sculptures complete with roughened bark on their trunks and paper-thin leaves. A hint of roses kissed the air. An artificial scent, but pleasing nonetheless. The grass was real, however. She sat down on a bench, kicked off her shoes, and nudged her toes into the green.
After a few moments, a throat cleared. The dark haired man from the club stood nearby, a coffee cup in his hand. "May I sit with you?"
"Yes, please do."
"It's nice to see you here. I'm Zachary," he said.
Butterflies fluttered in her stomach and her cheeks grew warm. "Mia."
"So what do you do?"
"I work in Records, data entry. And you?"
"I'm a tech at the Euthanasia Clinic over on Crossford."
"Do you…"
"No, I'm just a prep tech right now. One day, though, as long as I…" He shivered.
She tapped on the bench. "For luck and good health."
A family walked past the bench, heading deeper into the park. The mother and father held hands; the children, four of them with one still in diapers, toddled along in front. The oldest child, a girl with blonde curls, turned and gifted Mia with a bright smile that turned into a string of giggles.
Zachary chuckled under his breath. The family passed out of eyesight and the child's laughter echoed away.
Mia fought the urge to run to the girl's side. To tell her to catch and hold her laughter and keep the memory forever, but it would be cruel. She wouldn't remember, once her body and mind left childhood behind. Time would stamp her body with curves and holes where emotions used to live. Then she'd Break to replace the missing pieces.
Mia brushed away the tears clinging to her lashes. Zachary placed one hand gently on her shoulder, and she leaned into his touch.
She woke in the middle of the night. Zachary slept on his back, with one hand over his head. She kissed his forehead and his lips curled into a smile.
Draping a sheet round her shoulders, she grabbed her breathing mask and headed out into the hallway and to the stairwell. Her bare feet made tiny taps on the stairs as she climbed up.
The door to the roof opened without a sound; the superintendent kept the hinges well oiled. She stopped a few feet away from the edge and tipped her head back. Above, a grey scrap of sky, illuminated by the city lights, covered the city like a dirty blanket. When she was small, her father had told her there were stars in the sky, tiny pinpricks of light shimmering in a velvet dark, hidden behind the pollution. He'd never seen them, but his father had when he was a small boy, before the war.
Maybe one night, the clouds would part for her and prove the words true.
She could not see beyond the city, with its endless rows of windowless buildings, but she knew what lived there. Piles of rubble, tainted earth, and poisoned air.
They were lucky, though. The war had swallowed some countries whole, leaving nothing but a name on a map to indicate they'd ever been there at all. Still other countries fell when the air turned toxic, because their governments had not been as quick to respond to the crisis.
But if they had known what the air would do to their people, would they have even tried to save them?
In the quiet, the air purifiers hummed and purred. One day, the air would be clean and safe. One day, too, so would the people.
She wanted a family. Children. She didn't want to end up a name on a list, a tiny sorrow in a world too Empty to care. She didn't want to have to Break to feel love or kindness.
Or hope.
In the morning, a faint hint of Zachary's sweat, the traces of their lovemaking, and the rumpled sheets were the only signs she'd not been alone. She pressed one hand to the pillow, which still held the impression of his head, and tears slipped down her cheeks.
He hadn't even said goodbye. She held tight to the feeling, all the while knowing it would fade away, no matter how hard she tried to keep it close.
John Karris, Jumper
Derrick Smyth, Hanging
Mia paused, her fingers barely touching her keypad. Hanging. How horrible. Why would anyone do that to themselves? Why didn't they call or go to one of the clinics? Swallowing the lump in the back of her throat, she made the necessary phone calls to verify the information, saved her entries to the database, and sent the updated data to the Reproductive Planning team.
When she left the building, she walked into a small crowd of protestors, waving hand-lettered signs, and shouting the slogans, their words clear without the protection of breathing masks. "Break your habit!" "Our time is done!" A protestor grabbed her arm and swung her around. The smell of his body, a rancid combination of onions and dirty shoes, pushed its way through her mask. She wrenched her arm free and stepped back, away from his glazed eyes, sunken cheeks, and slack jaw.
"The earth is done with us," he said. "We should leave her in peace."
The crowd broke into cheers. Her heart racing, she pushed her way through, one hand on her mask. In the distance, sirens pierced the air. The crowd shouted even louder.
They were the Impure. They refused to Break, claiming it against the laws of nature and a way for the government to control its people, yet even they could not fight the Empty. They turned to cheap, inferior drugs made in their dirty labs. Natural preventatives, they claimed. The man's face had been anything but natural. Their drugs didn't help; they simply turned them into lunatics, all laughter and tears and rage and hurt, all rushing in at the same time, a chaotic soup of emotions with no context and no control. And though the toxic air made their condition worse, they refused the protection of breathing masks.
Fools, all of them.
She broke free from the crowd and quickened her steps, checking over her shoulder until she knew she was safe.
She stepped off the bus outside her building to find the superintendent standing with his hands on his hips, glaring at the graffiti someone had painted on the brick. The words, messily scrawled in bright red paint, read: Breakers Don't Care.
She frowned. The stupid Impure couldn't be satisfied with protests, which, while unpleasant, were still legal. No, they had to deface property, too.
The superintendent lifted a spray bottle, and the words ran down like ruby tears.
Authorities were called in to handle another protest today, this one in Center Square.
Mia watched as the news footage showed a large crowd of people, none with breathing masks.
The protest was led by former Dartwell researcher, Thomas Lassiter. He claimed that Dartwell had developed a vaccine against the Empty, but refused to release it to the public. The protest was broken up without injury and Lassiter, among others, was taken into police custody. A spokesperson from Dartwell vehemently denied his claim.
Mia turned off the viewer with a shake of her head. If Dartwell had discovered a vaccine, of course they'd release it. Lassiter was simply a disgruntled ex-employee trying to make trouble. Her hands curled into fists and she clenched her jaw.
They wouldn't force anyone to live this way if there was a cure. It would be monstrous. She stared down at her fists; the anger dripped away, like red letters on brick. She tried to grab hold, but it wouldn't stay.
Lassiter should have made his announcement on a Monday, when everyone was full enough to care. She forced a laugh, the sound nothing more than a pitiful choke.
Before she left for work, she stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, curving her lips up into the facsimile of a smile.
She blinked at her reflection. A mask blinked back.
She thought of Zachary and the way his lips felt against hers. A slow warmth coiled in her abdomen, and the corners of her lips curved up again. She nodded. Good, she still had that at least.
For now.
Perhaps she should fast for a few days. Sometimes a quick shift in weight helped the effects of the Break linger a little longer.
When her building quieted for the night, she crept up to the roof and sat with her legs dangling over the edge. She summoned up images of stars hanging in the sky and practiced laughing behind her breathing mask.
Silence hung heavy over the long line at the coffee shop. Doctors encouraged them to talk and interact when the Break wore off, but no matter how many times Mia reminded herself to do so, it never seemed important.
Melody King, Jumper
Zachary Hanson, Euthanasia
She wondered if he was the Zachary she'd met. A shame, his laughter had sounded so genuine.
A broken, twisted body lay on the pavement outside the building next to hers, the head an unrecognizable lump of bloody mush. Wrinkling her nose against the smell, she stepped over a splatter of red so as not to track the mess into her building. Several others did the same, their eyes blank above their breathing masks. A van pulled up to the curb, and several men in red coveralls stepped out to clean it up.
She'd see the name on her list next week, no doubt.
In the morning, after she brushed her teeth, she made faces in the mirror. A smile. A frown. A grimace. She practiced laughing, her voice echoing off the tiles. She bent her head forward, her nose almost touching the glass, and searched for something, anything, within her eyes.
A group of Impure were standing near the club's entrance, their arms locked together, chanting. Some were laughing; others were crying as they sang. "The Break won't cure you, there is no cure. Nothing can save you, we can't be saved."
Mia shook her head and held her wrist up to the security panel. If they truly wanted to leave the earth in peace, they should all simply pick the highest building and be done with it.
Inside the club, the scents surrounded her with their promise of warmth. Inside her own skin, the Empty waited to be filled. Soon she'd feel again.
When she arrived home, she climbed to the roof of her building and stood under the ruined sky, swaying back and forth, keeping time with the hum of the air purifiers.
The air tasted of hurt and despair. Her father had been wrong. Nothing lived behind the clouds. Nothing at all.
She wanted to be angry, to rage against the world for its cruelty, but she didn't have enough anger inside. The Break didn't give enough. If only she could hold all the tiny scraps and keep them inside. If only she was allowed to care enough to make a difference.
Tears blurred her vision. She wiped them away and held out her hands, the moisture glittering on her fingertips. As the city lights caught and danced within the drops, she held her breath, wrapped in false sorrow, holding tight to the illusion of stars.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 26th, 2012
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