art by Seth Alan Bareiss
A Handful of Glass, a Sky without Stars
by Damien Walters Grintalis
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.