Glasslands

The war ended twenty years before I was born.

It was mostly chemical, with a few notable nuclear exceptions. History books say what happened in Nevada was a strategic strike to incapacitate a shuttle launch and retrieval site at Area 51. Back then, the explanation might have been important. As far as anybody’s concerned now that part of the continental break has always been the Glasslands.

My parents came from what were called the UZ, Uncontaminated Zones. Despite the Glasslands, most of what had been the United States was redesignated UZ. They hadn’t suffered direct physical effects of the chemical wars, and genetically they were as clean as modern science could test for. Elated, they had children.

Two out of three, it ain’t bad.

The condition is called Osteogenisis imperfecta, but it didn’t come on like it used to, back when a rare handful of kids were born with it. I was born with healthy strong bones. They only turned to glass when I was fifteen. Gymnastics practice went from joy to hell in the space of one stuck landing. Stuck, and then shattered.

Degenerative, the doctors said. It would get worse as I aged. They could do nothing except apologize. Maybe in ten years, they said. Maybe in thirty. They wouldn’t meet my mother’s eyes when they said it, though, much less my own, and I understood why.

I wasn’t going to live that long. My bones were melting, even with me in a wheelchair and avoiding the stress of impact. I would dissolve from the inside out, legacy of a war that had re-shaped the world.

When Maxine Lakewell, mistress of the Lakewell Foundation for Humanity, came knocking, my parents heard her out. Everyone knew her story; that she’d lost family in the chemical wars, and had thrown the remnants of her multinational empire’s proceeds into the Foundation, making it the sole beneficiary. What developments had been made in treating survivors and victims were in large part thanks to Lakewell. I’d seen her in broadcasts, but they didn’t prepare me for her petite size or the tired smile she never showed on television. Maxine Lakewell was supposed to be larger than life. I was a little disappointed in her, before she started talking.

Cold sleep technology had been bandied around since the early days of space travel, even before. People still told horror stories about great creators and wealthy eccentrics whose heads were frozen in vaults, awaiting the day that technology caught up with the determination to live forever. The chemical wars had pushed that tech farther than ever before, and Maxine held the patents. They were ready to begin human trials, if they could find the volunteers.

I had nothing to lose. Five years of living in the cage my body had become, my strength vanishing, or indefinite sleep, with a hope of waking to a world that could offer me a cure.

At seventeen, I lay down in a long egg-shaped coffin cushioned with water pillows, and closed my eyes.

A hundred years later, I was awakened with a kiss.

#

The cold kiss of a hypodermic needle bit into my skin, astonishing me with awareness of pain. My eyes opened, an unnatural feeling, and white flooded my vision. For an instant I thought I’d gone blind, brilliance all wrong after so many years of sleep. Sound washed through me, mechanical whispers different from the incessant silence and disturbing dreams that had haunted my sleep. I was warm, floating, and very calm; calm enough to recognize the state must be induced. Drugs, then, and though a part of me was outraged, the larger part let heart-pounding anger slip away. Cold sleep necessitated chemical inductions; there was no reason waking from it would be natural.

“Wren.” A shadow came into the brightness and slowly resolved into a man’s features, his smile generous and his dark eyes filled with confidence and warmth. Barely a man, even: he looked hardly older than I was. Hardly older than I’d been, once upon a time. I had no idea of my age, anymore: my thoughts were foreign, heavy with a precision that felt unnatural to me. But maybe they had changed after my diagnosis, and it was only their long silence that made them seem badly fitted. I’d been playful when I was little, but I couldn’t remember playing or lightness of heart since the day–The Day–at the gym. “Welcome back to the world, Wren.”

“Wuh-rehn.” My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, to the back of my throat, turning even my own name into an awkward thick sound.

My dark-haired doctor’s smile deepened. “You remember who you are, how you got here? Good. You’ve undergone treatment while you’ve slept, Wren. You’re so much stronger now, your bones no longer fragile.”

Elation boiled through me, burning away the stupor that enfolded me. My fingers flexed, swift sure motion that said my body was my own. For two years it hadn’t been: for two years it had been only a prison. My eyes turned hot, tension binding my throat. Profound sympathy slid over my doctor’s face. He cupped a hand behind my head, helping me to sit. Muscles played in my stomach, in my back, muscles that I thought would be weak and useless from sleep. Instead they felt strong; I felt strong, and so the first minutes of my waking were spent in heaving sobs, my shoulders trembling with relief and gratitude.

Some interminable time passed before I felt the touch of my doctor’s hand on my shoulder. He said my name again, rueful with compassion. “I’m sorry, but there’s something I need to ask you to do.”

I flinched out of my self-absorption, flames heating my face. “Sorry, sir. What is it?” Sir came from nowhere. My parents had taught me manners, not a military response to a superior officer.

“It’s understandable, under the circumstances. Wren, I need you to look at me.” He guided my chin around, bringing my gaze to his. “The Foundation’s hope was you could be awakened within a few decades of your initial sleep. I’m afraid it’s been longer than that. It’s been a full century, Wren, and some things have changed. There are parts of the continent where generations after yours can’t go. Your generation has certain markers, genetic anomalies and radiation exposures that are unique. We need to send you to the Glasslands, Wren, because no one else can enter there.”

#

Sunset washed over the Glasslands like molten gold, spilling down ripples and rivulets of sand forever turned to pure glaring ice. Classroom memories flooded back to me, the devastation of the ecology, the climate changes wrought by hundreds of acres pounded to glass. Not everything, of course: jagged red rocks still burst out of the sand-gone-glass, but nothing could live there anymore. Daylight refracted too viciously to support life, even if anything could eke survival out of earth turned clear and hard. They said the desert could look like a glacier’s tongue, blue and rich with depth, when the sun’s angle softened enough to let the sky reflect.

My mind played those memories over and over, and wouldn’t let me linger on the scale of time I’d spent in cold sleep. Wouldn’t let me question the Foundation’s need, even when my thoughts tried to collect details from the contract I’d signed, a hundred years ago. I had my distant past and my immediate goal, and the things in between were slippery.

Slippery as the glass under my feet should be. I had been outfitted with sleek tight-fitting clothes, so light they barely seemed to be there, and rubber-based shoes and gloves that gripped the glass like a baby at its mother’s breast.

Not my thoughts. I didn’t recognize them, didn’t recognize the too-adult turn of phrase or the relentless forward motion they insisted on. I couldn’t dwell on it, alien aspect whisking away even as I stretched to recognize it. The Foundation’s desperate need, its fear and its reliance on me welled up, and an exhaustive whisper of gratitude from deep inside me, one that said I was glad to do what my saviors asked.

The world had changed while I slept. The UZ had fallen into squabbling independent states, any federal authority overwhelmed by too many dead, too much sickness, and whole continents of broken earth where the chemical wars’ redistribution of geography broke apart what were once cohesive land masses. Pockets of humanity still survived, many of them ruled by men and women who had taken on ancient Spanish titles: they called themselves dons, lords, and where they ruled, they ruled with iron fists. Civilization was a thing of the past, though to my memory it had been staggering and alive only a day or two ago.

A handful of madmen had gone beneath the Glasslands, searching not for a way to keep humanity alive, but to poison it forever and let the earth start anew. Twice, the Foundation had repelled nanotechnological attacks; attacks that would have spelled death for me and everyone else who slept with me. We were corrupt, already damaged goods, and needed never wake again.

One day and a hundred years earlier, I’d accepted that I was dying. I might have forgiven a man, even a madman, who condemned me to death in hopes of letting the world begin again.

But one day and one hundred years ago, my family had gone in to cold sleep with me, and their only crime was not wanting to lose their daughter and their sister to time. For them, and for the foundation that had saved me, I would do anything.

It took less time than I thought it should to race across the glass desert, to find the coordinates I’d been given. My bones were strong now, but I still carried the fresh imprint of the chemical wars in my body, and those markers were claimed to be the key to open the Glasslands gates. A palmprint against clear earth, nothing more, and then the waiting.

Not so much of that, though: a bone-grinding rumble broke the seal of smooth earth and opened a pathway into darkness. There were no sentries, no vocal challenges; they were certain of their genetic password, certain that any who bore those century-old marks belonged to their cabal, and that outsiders would never know where to begin looking in the first place. It was late, past midnight, and what rebels waited beneath the glass sky did so in their beds, asleep and confident.

I hurried through their caves and ice-colored bunkers in silence and certainty. A download and a virus; in a hundred years, the means of obtaining and destroying data hadn’t changed as much as my dreams had imagined they would. Only the computer itself had changed, and when I came to it my mind went numb with awe.

They had begun, of course, to store data on crystals when I was a child. Layered and beautiful, all that silicon grown instead of built. Computers themselves, though, were still largely the things they’d been before the chemical wars: boxy and overheating, dependent on fans and chips.

The rebel mainframe looked to have grown from the earth itself, glimmering with a life born of datastreams and numbers. Color, which could not have been necessary, danced through it like the aurora, ripples of information making visible washes of pinks and greens as it flowed between processors. I watched its patterns, mesmerized, for far too long, and only reluctantly remembered my duty when color faded to white for a little while.

It was that delay, I think, that betrayed me, though the virus itself may have set off the alarms. I was back to the surface before it happened, running for the distant Glasslands boundaries, but had not gotten nearly far enough. Shots rang out, scarring the glass around me. Silver exploded in the air, puffs of dangerous glitter that could cut my lungs if I breathed it, that could scratch my eyes if I blinked it in. I dove, tucking my body in a long slim line, and appreciated for the first time the uniform I’d been given. Soft, almost frictionless, it let me slide along the rippled smooth earth a far greater distance than I ought to have gone. Then my fingertips gripped, giving me purchase to rise to my feet and run again, slim legs churning tirelessly.

A vehicle roared out of the white desert floor, rushing me. Intellect became instinct, overriding wisdom. I turned toward the machine–not a tank; that was too unwieldy, but more than just an armored truck. Gunners leaned out its windows, targeting me.

Targeting, and missing, as I broke into a full run. Faster than any dash for the vault, faster than I could ever remember moving before. Racing toward the oversized truck, confusing both the driver and the thinking part of my mind alike.

A gorgeous, graceful flip into oncoming traffic landed me on its hood. Momentum slammed my shoulder through the windshield. My fingers grasped, made a fist, dragged the driver free. A heartbeat later he died beneath the wheels of his own vehicle. There was nothing in the glass desert for it to hit: I let it slow and drive itself as I seized the passenger.

He was a soldier, strong-jawed, grim-faced, ready to do what was necessary. I saw it in his eyes and in his gear; saw it in the black reflection of glass all around us: death was here, and we would do its dance.

I moved again with a speed I didn’t know I had; a speed the soldier didn’t expect. His head twisted too far to the side, though the blow had seemed almost innocuous to me. I left him there, more intent on the remaining rebels in the vehicle than in disposing of the body. An acrid scent followed me into the truck’s back half; the scent of spilled urine, death’s final indignity.

Two more men died in the next few seconds, but the third was quicker than I expected, and in an inconceivably brief moment between his compatriot’s last breath and my next action, he slammed the butt of his gun into my hand.

My fingers, fragile bones that they were, shattered under the impact. Not broke, but shattered, the same world-oblitering pain of my childhood. Bone would leak out through sliced flesh and torn skin if I dared look, but the roiling terror in my belly wouldn’t let me. Nor would the pain: the Glasslands themselves might have awakened and raised themselves to be razors in my body, wiping out thought with gut-clenching screams. I reached past agony to fulfill my mission, to destroy this man who had broken me, but not then and not later could I remember how.

I returned to the Glasslands’ border in the truck, my vision as white and blind as it had been when I first awakened from sleep. The warrior in me, the part I barely knew, made it happen; the girl gymnast, the child I’d been, kept screaming as she drove, her ruined hand clutched against her breast.

My dark-eyed doctor offered apologies, so much like the men and women of a lifetime ago. Apologies that the restorative sleep hadn’t maintained its hold on my deteriorating genetic code, but accolades for the mission I’d completed. The nanotechnology I’d retrieved would help the Foundation develop new treatments, treatments that might help me and my generation; the crystalline computer I’d destroyed would set the Glasslands rebels back years, perhaps decades, in their pursuit of finishing off what remained of the ruined human race.

And now my cold coffin is calling me. Another dream, another decade, and maybe I’ll be strong enough to fight this war, this world, on my own.