Autumn 2007 Volume One Issue Four
Toxicity - Erica Naone
Elsie Jennings wriggled in the hallway adjusting her suit, then knocked on the door.
"Just open it," he shouted from inside. She let herself in. Vannevar Stone lay crammed on a tattered loveseat, his long legs braced against the arm. His skin, the yellow-green and mottled brown of an undernourished plant, glowed faintly in the dim electric light. Antique books and magazines were scattered across the floor like rubbish in the street.
"If this is a bad time..." she began.
"Nonsense. You're from the EPA, correct?"
"From NASA. Environmental division."
"You're just in time to join me for a cigarette. Have a seat."
He gestured toward a spindly chair. Elsie set down her briefcase and sat, staring at the African violet on the end table beside her.
"Thought those were extinct," she said.
He coughed out a laugh. "That's thanks to my famous lawsuit. Remuneration from GreenGene, Inc."
He hauled himself into a sitting position and retrieved a wooden case from under the loveseat. "I like to roll my own cigarettes. Would you like one?"
Elsie cleared her throat. "Mr. Stone, can we talk business?"
"Oh, yes," he said, witheringly. "You want me to become an astronaut."
"Of sorts." She opened the briefcase and retrieved the images her assistant had designed. "I want to talk you about our Martian Forestation project. These trees may seem strange -- "
"Any tree would seem strange today, Miss Jennings."
" -- but they're a real possibility on Mars." Her mind reached for the words she had prepared. "When your parents designed you to be capable of photosynthesis, they were trying to create a sustainable life for mankind. While their dream of saving the earth unfortunately cannot be realized, they did give you the chance to build a new world on Mars, and to save humanity in the process."
She stopped, uncomfortable. He stared at her. "Miss Jennings, if you don't join me for a cigarette, I'm not going to be able to stand your drivel. Think of it as the cost of admission to my life."
He held it out to her and waited. After several moments of staring into his green, bloodshot eyes, she accepted. He lit it for her, and then lit one for himself. She imagined she could see the chloroplasts dying in his skin. His face turned the toxic shade of Everglades water. Elsie ventured a drag and broke into a coughing fit.
"I can't talk to someone who doesn't understand how it feels to breathe in this world," he said loudly, ignoring her coughs. "As a child, I had constant asthma attacks. The doctors in the emergency room didn't know what to do with me, and so my mother would call GreenGene's tech support line. She would wait on hold while I gasped for air. That was how I learned no one cared what happened to me."
"Your mother did."
"You don't have experimental engineering done to your child if you plan to care about it. She accepted the possibility I would die at any moment. Take another puff, will you?"
"I want you to hear me out," Elsie said, after suffering through another bout of coughing. "I've got the research here for you. I think on Mars you would enjoy the best health of your life. It would be a completely engineered environment, pristine and unpolluted. And the other people there -- "
"Would all be greenies -- freaks like me."
"The other people there would all be engineered for environmental sustainability, like you. You're the only people capable of living on the limited supplies the government could send to establish a colony."
"And what you're not saying is that you need me to agree because I'm a leader in the community."
"You would have a chance to -- "
"I didn't live to 50 by letting my heart bleed all over the floor. Do you know, just last week, I was attacked in the street. They tried to set me on fire to see if I would burn like a tree."
An emerald vein grew visible on his forehead. Elsie looked out the window, at the air shimmering with oil. She smoked and waited.
"You really believe what you're saying, don't you?" he said. "You think you can help mankind by convincing me to go. Tell me how you can believe that."
She brushed a lock of brown hair out of her eyes. His tone made her feel young. "I know you'll probably die there," she said quietly. "I'm not trying to hide that from you. But you'll have a chance, and it's the only way we can get the funding to even try to build an off-world colony."
"The government likes the idea of getting rid of us." He put out his cigarette, but she kept hers in her hand.
"They do. But the world is dying. And you're dying. What can it hurt to try to make a new life?"
"Life hurts," he said. "Tell me something. Your parents modify you at all?"
"The basic package. Disease resistant. Lowered tendency to addiction. Nothing extreme."
"No cosmetics? You're a nice-looking woman."
"I'm afraid that's natural."
"Lucky. Sensible parents. Out to help you, not to prove a point. Look, is there some paperwork you want me to sign?"
Elsie opened the briefcase again. He took the papers she handed him, signing his name with a flourish.
"You did a good job talking to me," Vannevar Stone said. There was a little choke in his tone. She cocked her head at him, face calm. "They did tell you," he said after a minute, "that I've poisoned everyone they sent."
"Of course," Elsie said, taking a final puff. "But I'm already dying of tumors caused by toxic air. I'd have been lucky to live long enough to see your launch. How long have I got now?"
"Minutes?" he said.
"Maybe you can spend them telling me what you plan to do with your new world."
- END -
Erica Naone is a student in the Science Writing program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was proud to participate in National Novel Writing Month in 2006. She lives with her husband in Allston, Mass.