“You have such beautiful hands, for a Normal.”
This was stated in an entirely unabashed manner, so much so that Anou could practically see the young woman's mind struggling desperately to catch up with her mouth.
“Oh, god, I'm so, so sorry, I didn't mean – I just –”
“For a Normal. No, it's alright, I'm used to it, don't make a fuss. Please,” Anou added, and a crooked smile crept over her lined face as she saw the young woman's cheeks flush pink. A delicate, porcelain sort of pink, as delicate as the rest of the woman's refined frame, as the loose strands of flaxen hair, as the rows of etched, navy-blue numbers and letters spidering across her wrist.
It struck Anou as odd that the director of the biodiversity bank was herself genetically engineered. It wasn’t exactly a glamorous job, for someone of such high class. Then again, Anou was herself an exception, a Normal in the GMO division of the FDA. She shrugged. “Yes, I'm used to it. To business, shall we?”
“Of course. You wanted a tour?”
“All right, then. Let's... get going, I guess.” The woman couldn't seem to figure out what to do with her hands, now that she’d set down the trowel she’d been holding, and was fidgeting with the edges of her uniform.
“My name's Verity,” the woman said, hands finally falling still. “Verity Neritson. Ms. Neritson, if you'd rather be formal. What's yours?”
For some reason the young woman blushed again, but soon she recovered and was chattering away like a canary. Anou listened and watched.
As they passed the Citrus House, Anou caught a glimpse of herself in the glare of fractured light. It was immediately obvious she was a Normal, of course. She was short, for one thing. Not petite, or doll-like. Just short, with stubby legs but a normal-sized torso. Her cropped, spiky hair was a dead giveaway as well. Iron-gray, dark like her mulatto skin, both of which had gone out of fashion a century ago.
“Here we are,” Verity announced, and stopped before the Nightshade House. She pressed a thumb against the black lock, and the door slid open. They were enveloped in a cloud of humid, warm air, a relief from the chill outside.
Anou stepped in after a moment’s hesitation. Verity had already hurried deeper into the nethers of the long glass building, hidden from sight by the fog being pumped from pipes set in the ceiling, by row after row of tomato, chile, potato plants, by the spindly metal equipment measuring air moisture, temperature, soil chemical composition.
Anou sighed and trotted after her.
Verity kept up a running monologue as they wandered through the gigantic complex. She spoke of how a tobacco virus had once slain a whole three rows of her favorite seedlings and how best to manage the pH levels of soil for hydrangeas and how a bird had once flown into the Rose House and stayed there, drowsy from the perfumed air and quiet and warmth, until Verity carried it out. Covertly, Anou turned on her watch to record it all. She needed it for the department meeting in a few days; that was why she was here. Yet she found herself enjoying Verity’s narrative, in a way that she hadn’t enjoyed herself during work for a long time.
Right now, Verity was talking about cutworm infestations in her tomato plants and how much it cost to regrow plants from scraps of their tissue if the worms got to them – in fact how much it cost every time pests of any sort got into the plants.
“And I don't mind if you record me saying so.”
Now it was Anou's turn to be disconcerted. “You knew? – I mean…”
Like Anou, Verity simply laughed it off. “Yes, I have a few friends in the agricultural division. They warned me the complex was being considered for defunding, and that I should expect a visit.”
“I didn't expect one so sincere as you, though.”
“Sincere?” Anou was nonplussed, and the weight of the watch – still recording on her wrist – seemed heavier than before.
“Question: when was the first Absalon tulip bred?”
“1780,” Anou replied, mechanically. She’d rather liked seeing that flower, its rich, chestnut-rouge petals, webbed by gold. A broken tulip, Verity had said it was called. She hadn't thought that a plant – a plant! – could elicit emotion in her. But the tragedy of the single, perfect specimen, made beautiful by a “mosaic virus” and doomed by the same, had nearly made a tear come to her eye.
“See? Sincere. You were paying attention.”
“I could turn my watch off,” Anou muttered, then sighed. Again. “No, I can't. I'm sorry. I'd be out of a job, and… it's a pretty good job, for a Normal.”
Verity's face fell. Anou realized she’d been fingering her wrist, blank, devoid of the genetic trademarks on Verity’s wrists. She switched the subject. “You don't seem worried, for someone who might be out of a job soon, yourself.”
They started to move again, leaving the Nightshade House. Verity angled towards the management building, a tiny cement cube standing in a circle of greenhouses.
“Oh, I knew it was coming for a long time. I drive past the fields every day, you know. Row after row of identical corn plants… drought-resistant, flood-resistant, insect-resistant, self-perpetuating plants. It's beautiful in its own way,” she said, stopping at the door. “In its own way.”
Anou finally dared to ask the question that had been in the back of her mind, ever since she saw Verity digging in the dirt beneath the mint plants. “If you don't mind my asking… how come you're here and not on one of those farms?”
Verity gave her a sidelong glance, her features hardening, mouth stiffening. Then, just as quickly, it blurred into a small, sad curve of a smile. Anou backpedaled, realized she'd stumbled across some deep wound. “I'm sorry, you don't have to – if –”
“It's all right,” Verity said. “My mother, she… liked gardening. With real plants, like these.” She fell silent, then shook her head. “She died when I was twelve. Her genes were perfect, like mine, but… Car crash, freak accident, the autopilot failed. It was a long time ago.” She forced a laugh, but didn’t seem to hear Anou’s muttered condolences.
Verity broke the silence first. “Like I said, it was a long time ago. I just like working with plants, now. And anyway… they needed all this” – Verity waved an arm at the Bio-D complex in its entirety – “to make those fields happen. Snip a gene from the Andean potato plant, for resistance to cold. One from an Arkansas Black apple, for a novelty color. But to do that you have to grow those plants. And now they’ve invented – why wait a million years for nature to rearrange a few nucleotides, when they can just program whatever they need? Why breed a thousand different plants, when all you need is one perfect clone?
“And it’s cheap. You don’t need to hire a botanist to care for them. These plants need care,” she continued, growing passionate. Anou took a step back in spite of herself. “They're not just some GMO weed you can stick in the ground and leave. They still need honeybees, and they get caterpillars and aphids and all the rough edges of life we've ironed out. And that takes money, and that takes time, but who in the world will give you an Absalon tulip, if no one cares?!”
Anou had to choose her words carefully, because the woman looked close to breaking down in tears. As carefully as she always did, when talking to the perfect ones, the designed ones who broke if the world would not bend to their will. “There's nothing I can do to change it,” Anou finally whispered, trying to be gentle. “I can only hand them the numbers, and… and what you said.”
Verity spun on her heels, and slammed the door shut behind her.
A long minute trickled by. Anou, still stunned, tried to make sense of what had just happened and why she, too, felt like crying. A pall of resentment briefly fell over her. Car crash? My parents died from a disease that could’ve been fixed with ten dollars worth of technology, if only… She decided Verity wouldn't come out again.
She started towards the parking lot. She had to drive back to the office. The office, where she'd continue to endure the whispers, the promotions she’d be passed by for, again… continue trying to forget that she’d grow older while the others stayed young, that a thousand hidden diseases lurked in her bones waiting to destroy her, like the cutworms waiting beneath the soil to bring down tomato seedlings.
As she was approaching her car, she heard footsteps behind her.
Anou turned. Verity was standing there, somber, hair in disarray and work suit stained with dirt. Vaguely, Anou noted that with soiled hands, Verity’s skin looked almost the same shade as her own. The woman was clutching a chipped ceramic pot. In the pot, the soil around it still loose, was the Absalon tulip.
Verity said nothing, only pressed it into Anou’s limp hands before leaving the parking lot.
All the way home Anou stared at the tulip, now hers. And the same sunlight that pressed itself against her cheeks, that same sunlight illuminated the gold-shattered petals and made the tulip glow like a flame.
“You have such beautiful hands, for a Normal.”