Leaves of Glass
by Laurel Hickey
The roots bed deep into the sand, hollow tubes free from the wind that blows as a constant in the desert where nothing else grows. But the sharp leaves sing in the wind, chime with the sting of sand, the older ones a frosted pink, minute grooves chipped on their surface, fractured bits of crystal to join the clouds that hang against the sky, banking the sun like a red ember and the twin moons like sparks.
* * *
Sequence Start: 519D001
...finally dies. Maybe the pillow does it, he takes so long I put it over his face, don’t press, just smooth the cloth where it’s bunched. I try it myself and I taste the feathers, sucking on that pillow like maybe it’s chicken crystal but it makes me sneeze. So maybe he just dies and it’s not the pillow, only he’s lying there so long with his skin like a corpse with all those wrinkles like I want to try it on like an old leather glove and clap the crystal from the seams...
...cracks on ice frozen snow skate blades hockey ice dust, pink snow...
...he doesn’t listen, make him listen. He’s starting in with that prairie boy routine. Only he’s on the coast, we’re on the coast, sniffing crystal, everybody dying in tiny flakes like a dried spit line in the morning...
...it’s a stew Bess someone’s stirring burning spoon hand melting in the pot...
...those ones are worst, doc, the words hang around the edges of the images, stringing them along like in a dream, holding them in a....
...pillow and press hard. The skin pushes to one side, slumping off the bone, sliding off his face, I can feel it like putty under the lumps of feathers and wet as I slip up against the mattress. The pillow, a dry brown stain and flakes of white that float above it in a haze, I puff it up and I lie down with Alex bursting in me like stars, like cranberries in the pot, like pink popcorn, the crystals melt on my...
Sequence End: 519D001
* * *
“Are we still on tape?” The woman in the white coat. “Good, keep the markers straight, we’ll need full coverage on the repeats as well.”
To the girl in the filter cage: “How you doin’ there, honey?”
“Okay, doc.” Holding the pillow against her chest with both arms clamped tight, she gave a cramped thumbs-up along with a weak smile. Head shaved — in the ghost reflection from the smoke-hued glass, she’s a wire-haired Medusa.
“Take a break while we re-filter for the next run.”
The man took his jacket off and hung it over the console chair. His pale shirt made him float in the half-seen room along with all the white coats.
“Makes my skin crawl just listening to it,” he said. “Are you sure this is safe?”
“Perfectly safe, General. The virus has been tagged for auto-decay, half-life is estimated at five runs. By the time we’re finished, Cassie here will be lucky to get déjà vu from looking at the tapes.”
The man took his cap off, hair stiff cut, sprouting like albino grass. He rubbed at his eyes. “If nothing showed on the first run, what makes you think the next ones will be better?”
“Only a small proportion of each run is vocalized.” Checking the computer screen, she mouse-clicked five times. “Analysis shows fourteen sequences of reproducible quality that have a fifty percent plus probability of Xeno origin, and of those, three have an over ninety percent chance.
“We’ll concentrate on those sequences on the reruns. If they reinforce each other the way they’ve been doing, we’ll just maybe end up with something to add to our collection.”
“When will some kind of report be ready?” the man asked. “Congress is after our asses on this one.”
“I wonder why.” It wasn’t a question. She leaned against the console. “Wild crystal has already spread into the non-vertebrate population. The mutation rate is phenomenal.”
He put his cap back on, staring through the glass, blinking hard as though his eyes hurt. “Does the disease follow the same course as in humans?”
“Close enough. Variable preclinical period, anywhere from a couple of hours to several years, a gradual downhill slide from there as the virus forms crystalline structures in the brain, virtually encoded memories. Finally, total systems failure due to late-stage immune response. The viruses we’re using in the test has been treated to die out before they have a chance to adapt. Cassie gets the full crystal rush but not the disease.”
“You said something about a half-life for the thing. Isn’t there a residual population left that might mutate?”
“The risk is within acceptable parameters.” Moving to the window. “Put down the mug, Cassie. It’s show time.”
* * *
Start Sequence: 519D002
...pillow suck feathers...
That’s just more of the same, sorry, doc, push hard and he just slimes off, in pieces, damn the filters don’t work, the crystals flying like snow in Seattle, I’m drowning, it’s melting on me, so wet...
...the whole landing pod’s covered in it, snow light shining red dust, sparkling, sparkling inside, the filters...
Got a ship sequence, doc, and something else, glass sky and runs of lines, moving in a spiral, pink leaves with tubes in the sand, falling into the sky, flying off...
...little flakes coming off me, see it inside the suit, too much mushroom back in Mexico, flashback, sparkles of light...
...full back sucking on a line in sand, carry...
Sequence End: 519D002
* * *
“What the hell was that?”
“Pre-contact sequences mixed in with garbage. Perhaps direct-line, single-generation filter at most. A memory of a memory. Probably Lt. Goro. Didn’t he last the longest of the original flight crew?”
“Well, we’ve hit pay dirt on this one. If they keep integrating this well, we may actually get something coherent.”
“Will it help?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.” She moved her eyes away from the screen and looked up at him. “You don’t have to be here. You look like hell.” “Feels like an allergy attack. I’ll be fine.”
The computer beeped. “Here we are,” she said, pointing to the screen. “Positive ID on the Xeno sequences.”
Then to the crew: “Double-wire the hookup, we’ll use this next run to program the virtual reality mock-up.”
Walking to the window, knocking on the glass, she gave a smile and a thumbs-up. “Hang in there, Cassie. You’re doin’ just fine.”
* * *
Sequence Start: 519D003
...man in the mirror coughs, cap flying like a dark flake, ku-ku-ku, sound of the scurry feet on crystal grass...
...coming together slowly, graze to integrate, suck frosty leaves to the tubes dry, breath the sound of the chime deep in the sand...
...pillow like a prairie winter, cracked glass of feathers like snow chiming on the dunes, all sand, the towers worn to sand around the moon rises, only two...
...losing it, doc, why’s the sky pink, where’d everything go, clacking on the chime, breaking leaves of glass, grazing too far on the old frost, too many over and over and over and over...
Sequence End: 519D003
* * *
...mirror still there, who’s that, focus past the wire head, white floating flapping. Oh. The wires in the glass bob up and down with the nod.
“Rest a bit. We’ll go down one more time but only when you’re ready.”
She turned from the window to the man by the computer. “Real time run was only seconds, but the analysis shows that there’s lots more under that.”
“Does it give us anything useful?”
“Won’t know for sure until the mock-ups are ready.”
“Well what do you think all that meant?”
She started to laugh, a silvery sound, drawing a flutter of coats in her direction. “Just about what everyone dreams about.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Immortality of course. For all intents and purposes, we are our memories. This virus is designed to integrate, to join with others from the same encoding. Whatever else that scurrying thing was, it must have acted as a vector for the viruses it ate.”
She walked to the window of the cage, staring through the dark glass. “I don’t know, maybe the scurrier became the memory, became the creature that had those memories.”
Tapping on the glass. “Cassie? One more run?”
The man with the pale shirt went ka, ka, ka, folding up like a snowflake on warm wool, crystal snow, everything white...
* * *
The leaves of glass chimed on the crest of the dunes, the outflow winds carrying the sound over the skim of white dust on the water, crystal and salt foam, silver against the blue where the water broke in a wave. The undertow sucked in flakes like snow in a glass ball, and the memories spread out from the shore on the food chain, on scales and shells from the shore, dying in the salt, living half-lives of miles.
Copyright © 2006 by Laurel Hickey