Glass Domes, Zella Faye Blanche’s debut novel, is a psychological thriller following an unnamed scientist through the creation and dissemination of a disease that becomes a pandemic. It uncannily parallels current day events and gives a glimpse into an alternate world where millions will die and it all comes down to one team to fight for the cure.
I was a good child. I was a good student. I was a good scientist. No, I was a great scientist. I never meant to kill anyone. All I ever wanted to know if brains could be made bigger.
And now it’s too late. It’s out there, somewhere, somehow, killing too many, killing too few. I don’t know if I should be proud or guilty. I don’t know if I want to help. I mean, I should help, right? Destroy my legacy before it destroys my world?
Edited by Julia A. Weber & Melissa Frain.
Chapter 1: The Vial
It was a beautiful day. I remember that because terrible things always happen on beautiful days. The sun was out, the sky was blue, a few clouds drifted here and there. The air was hot, heavy, and humid, but that was normal for July in Chicago.
I hummed as I made my way down Ellis Avenue on my way to Mansueto Library, where I had taken to doing some extracurricular research since my return to Chicago nearly two years ago after that incident. I shuddered as I thought about that time and hoped nothing too horrible would come from my experiments. Nothing had happened yet, but that didn’t mean nothing would.
Being back in Chicago was strange. I hadn’t wanted to come back at first. I felt as though I had failed the city, my home. My mind had been an absolute wreck, not yet able to comprehend the destruction that I may have caused. It was only after months of wandering around aimlessly, living out of my car all across the United States with no news, that I was able to settle the queasiness in my stomach and come home.
I had lived a cautious existence since then, finding a tiny studio in the South Side of Chicago, living off my savings, halfheartedly trying to find a job and pull my life together, but mostly wandering around my old campus and wondering where it all went wrong.
Slowly, I was able to forgive myself for my actions. I had lost the last of my experiment nearly two years ago, and not a peep nor squeak had surfaced from any source that I could find, scientific or otherwise. And so I fully believed that my experiment had either been a complete failure or had the life snuffed out of it. Either way, I was happy and ready to start actually becoming a functional member of society once again.
I wiped my brow, sweaty from the oppressive heat, and made my way up the steps to the giant cement prison that everyone affectionately called the Reg.
A rush of welcome cold air swept across me as I entered the library. Even in the summer, most of the tables remained occupied and the low hum of chatter filled the air. I took the path off to the left, a long, dully lit hallway that led to my favorite place in the whole world: the beautiful glass dome that served as both a large underground library and a small, aboveground study space.
White noise enveloped me as I stepped through the sliding glass doors.
Here, no one was really talking. The constant drone of the white noise was only interrupted by papers shuffling or the occasional cough. This was a place for quiet reflection and, of course, exam cramming.
I have many cherished memories from my time in this glass dome, and the University of Chicago in general. Many of them did involve watching sunrises from the Regenstein Library after spending all night there having an existential crisis. I spent many late-night hours down in the A-level, frantically finishing problem sets and research papers when I was momentarily done with my crisis, then coming back to Mansueto in the morning and flipping through pages and pages of thick tomes, trying to find obscure statistics and translate chemistry into English. But there were also better moments. Competing with friends and strangers alike to see who could drink the most coffee before daybreak while cramming for finals, watching squirrels race across the treetops from Eckhart Library, chanting and cheering with my house at midnight for the list release to the greatest scavenger hunt in the world.
I found a spot along the edge of the dome, under the sun. Here, I could pretend to enjoy the weather even though I hated the outdoors on most days.
I settled down, pulled my laptop out of its bag, and waited for it to turn on
I pulled up the New York Times, perusing the news as I prepared to start looking for open positions. So far, it felt like a productive day and I was determined to fill out at least ten job applications to really get the job hunt going.
And then, halfway down the front page, a headline grabbed my attention: “Seven Dead from Mysterious Illness.” I thought nothing of it when I first clicked on the article. I was always interested in finding new diseases, seeing how they changed and developed. After all, my Ph. D. had been centered on pathology and disease, especially in regards to the cranium. Cranial diseases had held my fascination for years.
It had all begun at the University of Chicago. The required humanities and social science classes flummoxed me and I struggled with the constant reading and writing. Stepping into my biology classes was a relief. Here, at last, I could understand what was going on when the professor discussed neurons and gray matter. And here, in the midst of my introductory biology class, I became drawn to the brain and how it controls the rest of the body. And how fragile it is. Any little damage could change everything, from personalities to muscle control to memories. One would think that everything possible would be done to protect the brain since it is the entire basis of our functioning as people. It was, and still is, amazing how easily the brain can be damaged not only through physical impact, but also through chemical compounds.
There were many potential studies on the brain that interested me. The effect of repeated concussions, such as those sustained by football players. The effect of addictive substances such as alcohol or cocaine. But I found myself especially drawn to the long-term effects that diseases leave behind. Many, like the flu or common colds, come and go, leaving no obvious scars. People get sick, they recover, and they have no everlasting symptoms. Then there are other diseases that even when people recover, they may suffer side effects for the rest of their lives. For instance, a small percentage of meningitis survivors will suffer debilitating side effects such as memory loss and lack of concentration or speech or sight problems. Imagine being in perfect health and suddenly never again being able to recall what was for dinner the previous night.
These ideas became the foundation of the rest of my life.
I scanned the article with mild interest, knowing I wouldn’t get any in-depth information from a paper meant for laymen, but it would be enough to know if I wanted to learn more about this mysterious illness.
Ethan Browning, age 26, it began, is the first known victim of this illness….
His brain was expanded to enormous proportions…
I stopped, my heart freezing mid pump, and I felt the air whoosh out of me, leaving me tumbling like a leaf in a hurricane.
I read the line again. His brain was expanded to enormous proportions…
And I read it again as I reached forward to touch my computer screen as if to wipe the sentence from existence. But I could do nothing. The words stayed on the screen, growing bigger and bigger and taunting me. You thought I was gone? the disease sneered at me. Think again, asshole!
His brain was expanded to enormous proportions…poking out of his nostrils and ear canals… Doctors don’t know… Other six, including Browning’s mother… Doctors don’t know…enormous proportions…ENORMOUS PROPORTIONS.
I slammed my laptop screen shut, drawing irked glances from some of the other library occupants, and hoped I wasn’t going to have a panic attack right there and then. I drew in ragged breaths. After a few minutes, my heart managed to still itself to a reasonable rate, still thumping painfully, but not hard enough for me to see spots behind my eyes anymore. My hands stopped shaking so much, and I stared at the top of my laptop with trepidation. I didn’t want to open it again, didn’t want to see those horrific words staring at me, taunting me, proving what a horrible person I was.
But I opened it anyway, cracking it open just a bit, and when no monsters jumped out at me, pushed it open all the way. The New York Times article stared back at me, exactly where it had been. Enormous proportions, it threw in my face.
I slowly read the rest of the article, forcing down the bile that had fought its way up. I wondered if this was the disease that I had created. I wondered if this was the disease that had consumed my life for so long, the one I hoped was nothing more than a figment of my imagination. I had even destroyed all my notes and books from that time period, wanting to erase it from the annals of time.
But here it was, staring back at me, smug in its survival instincts. Smug that it had survived even though I had wanted it gone so badly.
I read the article again, and a small tendril of pride crept up, wrapped itself around my heart, clung tightly. It worked, the pride said. It worked, and you really are a great scientist! The greatest!
Another tendril, stronger, of guilt, wound its way around the pride, around my heart, squeezed, suffocated, told me what a terrible person I was for even creating the blasphemy, for daring to manipulate nature.
But I had destroyed it, destroyed every last bit of it—except for that one last vial I had kept for testing, of course, but even that was lost. Vanished into thin air at the last place it could have been. And that had been two years ago, impossibly long for it to have survived all this time without causing any casualties until recently.
My mind raced a million miles an hour with no thoughts. Each thought zoomed by into focus for a clear second, but before I could grab onto it, it sped off to be replaced by another half-formed thought for another mere second.
I switched from delirious excitement that I was right, that I had succeeded, to disgust that I was on the path to killing so many more than seven people. That was quickly replaced with vindictiveness, that these seven people would no longer pollute the world with their likely vile existences. And then a brief moment of sorrow for their families. Then ecstasy again for having created this magnificent thing. Then fear for being found out. Then a determination to make this bacteria even better, and an abject horror that I would even want to make this thing more deadly than it already was.
But maybe, a teeny little thought bubble piped up, maybe it’s not even mine. Everything swirled and whizzed inside of me until I felt sick, sicker than I had ever been.
I tried to take a deep breath, and looked up at the glass dome that arched protectively around me, safe, comforting, suffocating. My vision blurred. I had to leave, but my legs refused to obey me. My arms shook, hands clutching the edges of the table, and I took deep, shuddering, gasping breaths. Too loud. Too attention grabbing. I could feel the stares of the few other occupants in the room. I vaguely hoped one of them would come over to me, ask me if something was wrong, help me out of the room. But in typical University of Chicago fashion, they all just passive-aggressively glared at me, hoping I would take the hint to just stop disturbing them.
It’s not yours, I told myself firmly to try to get myself under control. But what if it is? another part of me whispered. The argument continued. I felt frozen in place, just involuntarily shaking and staring at that godforsaken article.
After a few minutes of shaking and glaring and emotional turmoil, I finally managed to shut the laptop screen once again. The silence was welcoming to the other patrons, and one by one, they stopped staring at me and returned to their own study materials, forgetting their irritation at me in moments in their quest to understand the intricate philosophies of Machiavelli or Descartes.
Again, I attempted standing. My legs wobbled under me, and I leaned forward onto the table, putting my weight onto my shaky arms as I heaved myself upward, and then promptly fell onto the floor with a crash as my chair scraped out from under me. Immediately, I felt the passive-aggressive glares of the other occupants. One of them even stood up with a huff and stormed out of the room, off to find a quieter place to delve into the life of the mind.
I lay on the floor for a moment, looking up at the dome over my head. It felt smaller than it did when I first entered. I felt dizzy looking up at the metal lattice and had to close my eyes for a bit. When I opened them, I was still alone, the sky had brightened a little bit, and I no longer felt so shaky.
I hauled myself up and glanced up at the time, barely registering that only a couple minutes had passed since I first fell on the floor. Most of the occupants were still studiously ignoring my existence. Some of them glanced at me every now and then, wondering if they should get up and offer help. No one else was, though, so it must be okay to leave me alone. When I caught some of their eyes, they quickly busied themselves again with their own notes, embarrassed to be caught staring.
I brushed past them, all of them, not needing to look back to sense the relief that followed my departure.
I made my way outdoors and slowly stumbled to my small studio apartment that suited my needs perfectly. There wasn’t even enough space to make visitors feel comfortable, so I had a perfect excuse to never be social. Not that I really had anyone to socialize with, anyway.
I collapsed onto my bed when I walked in, idly realizing that I had long ago stopped trying to keep my studio squeaky clean. When I had first started living on my own, I relished in being able to throw my bag on the floor when I walked in rather than placing it on the designated hook. Back then, the bag had stayed on the floor for maybe five seconds before I heard my mother screeching at me to pick it back up. Sometimes, her voice seemed so real that I had to check in every closet and dark corner to make sure she wasn’t hiding somewhere or hadn’t installed a security camera to watch my every move.
Finally, though, her voice diminished and now my home stood triumphant, a satisfying, cluttered mess. I couldn’t even walk in a straight line from one location to another. I smiled every time I saw it, my victory in this war against her.
I hadn’t spoken to her in months, not since she had attempted to “drop by” for a visit. She thought I was still living in New York, and had gone to my old apartment, likely to introduce me to a slew of marriage prospects, only to find that I had moved out without telling her. She had called me, furious, beginning what I could tell would be an hours-long rant, and I had simply hung up on her. I had other things to deal with than her being irate and self-centered. She had called back immediately and left a series of voicemails, each angrier than the last.
She had called me almost daily since, trying to find out where I lived and to bully me into marriage and children. Like letting my apartment become a mess though, I soon trained myself to ignore the constant calls and belligerent messages.
As if on cue, my phone starting ringing. I didn’t have to check caller ID. I knew it was her. She was the only one who ever called. I let it go to voicemail and went back to thinking about my disease and the victims.
My emotional rollercoaster had eased itself and now I was mostly just curious. Who were these seven people who had died? Where had they contracted this disease? I knew I had lost it somewhere in the Reyon labs, the last place I worked in New York City, so where did it go after? Were these seven people connected in any way?
My curiosity dissolved into an overwhelming sense of guilt. Of course this was my fault.
But how could I be sure that it was mine? I had no evidence. Maybe someone else had the same idea and this was theirs. It had been years since I had left New York anyway. The hopeful part of me wondered if a little vial of bacteria could even survive that long unprotected. The cynical part of me shot back that of course it could, what a stupid question.
Still, I felt the urge, the overwhelming desire, to do something, to try to track down the very first victim of the disease. I thought if only I could trace the path of the little vial, I would be able to stop it. I rolled over and started up my computer, intending to find out everything I could about the first seven.
Browning, who they were calling patient zero, was in finance. Not a chance that he was anywhere near Reyon. His mother was a stay-at-home mom, so not her either. Patient number three was an ex-con, so maybe he could have been in the Bronx area. Then again, he had been imprisoned for rape, so he probably deserved to die.
Patient four was in economic consulting, patient five was also in finance, so maybe she knew Ethan, patient six was a painter, patient seven was a Broadway dancer. The authorities had concluded that apart from the Brownings, all patients were unconnected. And none of them were in pharmaceutical research or scientific research in general, so the disease, if it was mine, must have infected someone else first. Maybe Taylor. I kind of hoped it was Taylor, actually. They would deserve it, being so demanding and stupid and completely irrational most of the time. Their behavior was truly erratic and bizarre, almost as if they operated on a different plane.
Should I tell the appropriate authorities what I knew? That would be helpful, but how would they track down a little glass vial, which would by now surely be shattered into little bits? And how would I even prove that I made the disease? All my notes were destroyed. Even if they did believe me, they would probably just lock me up somewhere, and I didn’t want to go to prison. I’d be more useful outside of it. If this was the disease that I had created, then I should be able to make a cure too. I knew its secrets.
The only problem was, though, that I had never tested the disease. It was almost certainly not the same disease any longer. Idly, I wondered how long it had taken to mutate into what it was now and what kinds of mutations it had gone through. I wondered if I might be able to get a small sample of this disease, for scientific inquiries of course.
And somewhere deep in the back of my mind, my fear grew that I was already infected and had one foot out the door.
But really, was this even mine? Did I have any responsibility over it?