Radiation, the last breath of unstable atoms, spilled no blood as it passed through flesh and bone, but it was murder on DNA. For humans, DNA damage spelled nausea, headache, cancer, death. Lynn’s genetically engineered diatoms, too small to have organs that would fail, simply died. They fell to the bottoms of their flasks in browning drifts, too toxic to decompose.
Lynn was invited to give a research-in-progress talk, twenty-five minutes plus questions. Usually she presented to her peers in bioremediation, but the genetics department wanted to show off their interdisciplinary spirit. She worked on DNA, they worked on DNA, so here she was to teach disease researchers about the long legacy of nuclear waste.
The postdoc who spoke before her studied DNA repair in cancer. His work probed a cell’s memory for damage and documented the notes it took to mark hitches and skips in the genome. The data portion of his talk was dominated by dense maps of histone annotations, presented too quickly for Lynn to follow, flashing through unfamiliar acronyms; he said H4K20ub like the name of a friend.
Lynn didn’t want to follow him. Her presentation was half background information, written tantalizingly but without much data. Most of the rest was work her colleagues had completed. Designing custom ion channels was beyond her abilities. So was the tweak to the diatoms’ life cycles which forced them to root themselves as adults instead of swimming from birth to death. All she had done was try and fail to keep them alive for a little longer.
Sitting in the front row of the auditorium, laser pointer in hand, watching the postdoc (Lynn had already forgotten his name) finish his last handful of data slides, Lynn thought of all the people who walked out of their lives. Nobody could stop her if she stood up, walked out the door, and took a bus to the train station. She could go to a strange city with a strange hotel and stay in a room with a boxy television and a hot plate and sachets of instant coffee that sat by the sink.
Instead she crept carefully from her seat, whispering her excuse. “Restroom,” she said, under her breath, to no one. She passed the bathrooms and left the building without even pausing to decide.
Through the revolving doors was a small flower bed bounded by a knee-high brick wall. Lynn sat gingerly on it and waited for her fear of consequences to return. A handful of people smoked by a grey service door. Lynn couldn’t hear their words but by their tone they were worried. Everyone was worried. Between the foot of the low wall and the easement a determined weed fanned across the concrete. It had fat, fleshy leaves, faintly rimmed with the same red that colored its stems. Lynn bent and traced the edge of a leaf, because it was so perfect and alive. It felt taut and cold, like the surface of a green agate cabochon.
Lynn sat on the wall for a long time, until she was late for her talk.
“Uh, Lynn?” the genetics chair asked, standing awkwardly just outside the revolving door. “You’re late for your talk.”
Lynn pulled the corners of her mouth up and crinkled her eyes in an apologetic smile. “Stomach bug—thought it was over—and I needed some fresh air,” she explained, then wiped her mouth with the back of her wrist for verisimilitude.
The chair sagged with relief, back on familiar ground. “Do you want to reschedule your talk?”
“I can do it,” Lynn said, and stood up.
Later, at Aashray’s art opening, Lynn stood in front of a six-foot-long canvas encrusted with red rhinestones from edge to edge. The title was “One Ruby,” printed in unassuming font on a tag affixed to the wall with a single pin. The focused gallery lights winked across the gems and hit the pinhead: a field of stars, plus one.
Aashray had done an interview with the New York Times about his work. Lynn read it in between choosing papers for journal club. Aashray said he was commenting on exploitative mining practices and the oxymoron of ethically sourced gemstones. As long as people want “real” gemstones, the kind dug out of the earth instead of made in a lab, economies will be disrupted, labor will be exploited, and people are going to die in mines, he told the reporter. She understood that part, but not the following discussion on color field paintings and Damien Hirst.
Lynn had visited Aashray while he made the piece at his gem cutting studio. It was a concrete-floored room cramped with machinery, canvas, and the powerful smell of glue. She had moved empty takeout containers aside and sat on the cot in the corner to watch Aashray grind facets using a diamond grit wheel. “It’s a joke,” he said, holding up the stone. “There will be one ruby.” Looking at the finished product, Lynn couldn’t find the genuine stone. She supposed that was the point.
Sidling up beside her in the gallery, Aashray leaned his shoulder against Lynn’s. He raised his eyebrows; so, what do you think?
“There’s no maker’s mark on these,” Lynn said, trying to be acute, to guess part of the art before Aashray explained it to her.
The corners of Aashray’s mouth tightened. He looked at his piece, then leaned forward to blow a piece of studio dust from between the rhinestones. It stuck, and he flicked it away with a fingernail.
“I stopped signing them,” he said.
“January. I still use archival-quality material but, you know, what’s the point? Why make anything to last right now?”
It hurt to see Aashray dimmed. He played an irreverent nihilist for the art critics, but in private he was brightly proud of his work. He wanted people to see it and think; not about him, about their own feelings. Still, Lynn couldn’t help seeing Aashray. The gallery danced on the line between artificial and genuine, and still it was luminous.
Lynn had always wanted to be more like him: brighter, more daring, less married to the plodding struggle of scientific progress. The world was hard enough without dulling that wish.
Across the room, Aashray’s boyfriend chatted amidst pedestals displaying precious gems carved to look like cheap glass. He looked good, thinner, in a soft button down and khakis. She wishes she hadn’t thought that. She wouldn’t have said it to him, but still—it was a terrible thing even to notice.
“How’s Ryan?” she asked softly.
Aashray held up a finger to put off the question. A woman wearing bright purple lipstick came to kiss him on both cheeks, congratulatory. He draped an arm across her shoulder and whispered in her ear, pointing slyly to someone at the back of the gallery.
“Sorry,” Aashray said when the woman left, headed the way he had pointed. “Matchmaking opportunity. Ryan says the chemo isn’t too bad, but you know how he is. Has to be butch for me.”
“Do you think it’s because …” Lynn trailed off, failing to articulate the new risk factors as of January. More radiation, more damage to DNA, more cancer.
“No. He has the, ah, braka-two thing. We used to joke it was a good way to get insurance to pay for his top surgery.”
Lynn took his hand. He squeezed back, tight enough that his rings pressed into her fingers. His gaze fixed on Ryan, soft with concern. Ryan caught him and grimaced, then shot a stop worrying expression across the room.
Aashray dropped Lynn’s hand. “Go look at my art, bitch!” he said. “I need you to tell me how magnificent it is, one piece at a time.”
“It’s a great show, Aashray, you don’t need me to tell you that.”
To their left, Aashray’s agent conferred with a sleek woman in a black suit with a brooch (a beetle, made of jet) pinned to her lapel. Lynn’s housemates and their queer activist friends raised champagne flutes and took selfies in front of crystal pavé backdrops. A couple off the street paused in the doorway, unsure if they were welcome inside. After a moment, the draw of the gallery opening overcame their trepidation, and they crossed the threshold.
“I can bring you some summaries of recent BRCA2 research, if you like,” Lynn said. “There’s some fresh studies still locked behind paywalls.”
“I’d appreciate that,” Aashray said, politely sidestepping the expectation that she wouldn’t have time to gather the papers, and he wouldn’t have time to read them.
Lynn’s laboratory smelled like sulfur and low tide. Her hands worked to set up new flasks of algae amidst the ambient sounds of science: the chime of bottles rattled by a nearby machine’s vibration, the bubbling of air stones agitating growing cultures, and behind it all a layered orchestra of whirrs and alarm beeps, like the hiss of anxious thoughts. She left the overhead light off as she scooped aquarium salt and silicic acid into fresh water, illuminated instead from the elbows down by LEDs hung low over rows of flasks.
The diatom algae in the culture room were so heavily genetically modified she wasn’t sure they remained the same species. Under the microscope they looked the same as the ocean-born algae they derived from—their silica shells could have added to the same white-sand beaches—but they bore dozens of new genes, human-engineered ion pumps for plutonium and uranium expressed alongside the more natural channels.
In the hard light, glass skeletons glinted within green flasks.
The last time the Department of Energy enriched uranium on a grand scale, it created the Hanford Site: fields of vats running decades past their expiration dates and a fifteen billion dollar vitrification plant that was perpetually five years from completion. Now the government was digging pits for radioactive sludge on riverbanks and outside poor rural towns from coast to coast.
Lynn grew her diatoms in clean salt water, and then, when she had enough of them, moved them to a lead-lined box and added a toxic mix of uranium and plutonium oxides. The diatoms drew up the radioactive chemicals and settled onto a pumice stone suspended in the middle of the flask to form a bottle-green colony: like coral, except instead of using calcium, the diatoms made reefs of glass. The dangerous waste would be trapped in a glassy prison, safe to bury underground while it wore through its millennia-long half-life.
The startup Lynn collaborated with viewed the new nuclear program as a bitter blessing. They calculated that by the time their waste-eating diatoms were fully functional, there would be a surfeit of government contracts for cheap radioactive cleanup.
Lynn lifted the oldest radioactive culture out of the box and placed it behind a thick plexiglass shield. Eighty-two days and it was starting to fail. Lynn's glass reefs never made it longer than three months before the radiation tore up their DNA faster than the diatoms could fix it.
The cultures always died too early. Lynn touched the hexagonal rad meter clipped to her lapel, ticking toward her maximum monthly cumulative dose. She imagined cutting it open, hiding the sensitive film in her desk drawer, and working without the protection of cumbersome shields and leaden vests. What was the point, when they expected annihilation before the next presidential election? Like clicking on her seatbelt in an already-burning car.
Lynn thought of Ryan, thin at the gallery opening. Courting cancer was disrespectful to him. It was disrespectful to the one million people in N’djamena. She left the meter on.
She picked up a Geiger counter and tested the thin layer of diatoms for radiation, then tested the media it had grown in, for comparison. If the diatoms had scrubbed any dangerous ions from the liquid, the diatom colony would be more radioactive. The difference was slight, as expected. Three months was not enough time; they had to stay alive longer.
When the bombs fell, Lynn wouldn’t be one of the survivalists. She wasn’t cut out for a gritty, every-man-for-himself dystopia. She would die with her friends, wherever she was.
Lynn had lived with her housemates for eleven years, since before she got her PhD. She knew it was strange, pushing thirty-five, for the most important people in her life to be her roommates but—she loved them, even when they were crazy. Maybe she was a little less than fond when they insisted on doing all the dishes with vinegar instead of detergent, or when RJ started homebrewing apple cider vinegar in the laundry room, but still.
She didn’t want to live alone, and she learned from dating briefly that other people wanted more from a relationship than peaceful cohabitation and maybe adopting a dog.
When Lynn got home from lab, RJ was upstairs sleeping, but Kimya was cuddled up on the couch with Ripple, watching the news.
“RJ’s got chili for you in the crock pot. Fair warning: the stuff that looks like potatoes is jicama. Don’t spit it out in surprise, it’s good once you’re used to it,” Kimya said.
Lynn filled a bowl with RJ’s chili, then sat down on the couch with Kimya. Fudge Ripple stretched out her long greyhound legs and yawned, then rearranged herself to flop on both humans.
“What’s happening now?” Lynn asked. She felt scraped empty from cloning an entire 8kb DNA fragment in the past fourteen hours. Her eyes wouldn’t focus long enough to read the chyron.
“Same shit. They're still passing along military propaganda like it's some sort of answer. Which nuclear power is the dumbass who ‘misplaced’ a warhead? Good question, here’s the latest on the five big bombs the DOJ put on a new big submarine!”
Five more bombs meant five more environmental disaster zones the government had no plan to remediate. It was the cold war legacy nuclear waste problem again, but more agonizing because there was no curtain of ignorance to hide behind. Radioactivity was a shiny new mystery in the mid-1900s. They even put it in plates. It had been used to color glassware, and in ceramic glazes. Sometimes the light on the diatom cultures was like looking through sickly yellow uranium glass.
“Did you know fiestaware used to be radioactive?” Lynn said, half to Kimya and half to her bowl of chili. “The red glaze had uranium oxide in it.”
Kimya turned from the TV to peer at Lynn’s face. Lynn dodged her gaze, focusing instead on Ripple’s brindled coat. She couldn’t remember the genetics of dog patterns; it was cats with the inactivated DNA that alternated between black and brown, were dogs different? Yes, surely. “Hey, Factathon, status report,” Kimya said.
“Facts are interesting,” Lynn protested vaguely.
Kimya muted the news and shoved Ripple onto the floor. She scooted round to sit cross-legged on the couch, facing Lynn. “The world’s a shitpile and the news sucks. Are you okay?”
“If I think about anything too much, I get so angry,” Lynn said. She lifted a spoonful of chili halfway to her mouth, was too tired, and set it down again. “I get so angry I think I might die.”
“Yeah,” Kimya said.
Lynn tried again at the chili. She felt so grateful for Kimya’s concern it was embarrassing. Kimya flipped the TV remote in her hands, then clicked the battery cover open and shut. In the careful silence, the only noise was Fudge Ripple’s nails clicking around the kitchen.
“How do you deal with it?” Lynn asked.
“Protest marches. Walking around yelling in the middle of the street by yourself is unhinged. Doing it with a hundred strangers is activism.”
Lynn closed her eyes and leaned into the couch. It smelled like dog bed and secondhand pot smoke. “Tell me the latest from Warming World Warriors. Is Brad still being Brad?”
The couch creaked as Kimya stretched out on it, and the weight of Kimya’s feet fell into Lynn’s lap. “There’s a nuclear anti-proliferation march in DC this weekend, and we’re trying to charter a bus, but Brad won’t agree to it unless the bus is eco-friendly and doesn’t run on diesel. Emma—the one you met at the potluck, with the sick scalp tattoo—told him there aren’t any eco-friendly buses we can afford, and then he sent the most condescending email I’ve ever seen explaining that eco-friendly buses do exist, everyone can just pay more for tickets. Then Emma called him a classist fuck and I had to ask her to apologize so Brad would stop being a human diaper rash. So now she’s pissed with me, it’s great.”
“Bradley,” Lynn said, with sympathetic venom.
“I hate Brad so much,” Kimya said dreamily. “I hope he gets piles.”
Kimya sighed. “How about you? Are the GMOs good?”
“Results indicate that radiation is still bad for living things, even GMO things. It’s fine it’s just—hard.”
“Have you thought about taking a break?” Kimya offered the suggestion like a bowl full of water, threatening to spill.
“No! No, I can’t. I like it. I’m happy when things work,” Lynn said. She was okay as long as success still felt good. That was how science worked: it was a difficult and demoralizing until finally one of the pieces broke through and turned into discovery. Each discovery paved the way for more difficult, demoralizing work, and that was—it was fine. “I’m just tired tonight. Besides, what else would I do with this degree?”
“Fuck if I know. What are any of us doing?” Kimya said. “But we got the bus, so, you know, if you want to try being angry in a group. Aashray is bedazzling our protest flags.”
Aashray was surprised, then pleased, when Lynn called him. She had a sheaf of new, just-published behind-the-paywall papers carefully annotated to point out the good bits. They met at a bar, chosen carefully by Aashray for the vegetarian bar food. Lynn was happy to just eat fries, but Aashray had higher standards.
“I am not patient enough for this,” Aashray said, and flopped back against the booth. He lifted one page up and squinted theatrically at it, then let it fall to rest on his chest. “How do people write things this boring—you know this is boring, right?”
Aashray was flouncing as always but underneath he looked tired. He wore concealer under his eyes, a shade too light to be invisible. Taking care of Ryan and his growing artist presence was draining him; the world was draining him.
“You’re patient enough to spend hours polishing gemstones.”
Aashray tsked. “That is my vocation as a craftsman.”
“And you stare at paintings that are all the same color.”
Lynn smiled into her beer as Aashray lifted his expressive hands to defend modern art. “Those are profound,” he insisted. “Abstract expressionism is brave. They discarded all the elements that everyone said were necessary to make art in pursuit of this beautiful, crystalized idea. They’re whole in a way that—you already know this, you baited me! You’re laughing at me. Stop!”
“I rest my case,” Lynn said.
“Don’t be smug, it gives you wrinkles,” Aashray said, narrowing his eyes at her. “Tell me some of your beloved science facts; it’s only fair. How’s the research going?”
“Crummy. Spinning in useless circles. Expending energy. Increasing entropy. Sometimes I feel like I don’t help anything.” Lynn knew she sounded bitter and petulant, but she was on her third beer, and she didn’t have much time to drink these days. If she was drunk, it was okay to complain.
Aashray scraped his fork around the edge of his appetizer plate, the shriek lost in the commotion of the bar. “Do you think being an artist helps anything? I sell rhinestones for thousands of dollars. Sometimes I worry I’ll wake up and realize how shallow it is.”
“It’s not,” Lynn said, pushing earnestness into her voice, willing him to believe her.
“You don’t have to comfort me, come on.”
“I think your art reminds people that there’s still sparkle in the world. Cheap sparkle, expensive sparkle, it all makes people happy. Looking at your art makes me happy, and that helps.”
“That’s …” Aashray rubbed the bridge of his nose, blocking Lynn’s view of his face. “I wish art critics were satisfied with an explanation that simple, but. Thanks.”
Their waitress stopped at the table, light bouncing off the trio of glasses she balanced in one hand. “Happy hour ends in fifteen minutes,” she said, already glancing at her next table.
“We’re fine,” Lynn said.
“So, if I’m vitally important to the joy of the world,” Aashray said dryly. “You have to be as well.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works,” Lynn countered.
“You’re being a hypocrite, Dr. Murray,” Aashray said. “Your biology projects have to have a little shine on them.”
Lynn recalled the bottle-green of her failing diatom colony. She pulled up a photograph of the small, lumpy glass reef made of glued-together silica cell walls and handed her phone to Aashray.
“This is beautiful,” Aashray said. “What do you call it?”
“Biological sequestration and vitrification. When we’re finished you should be able to drop a colony of these into a vat of contaminated liquid and they’ll suck the radiation out of it. We’re making the vultures of the nuclear age.”
Aashray pinched at the screen to zoom, head bent over the picture. “Not the nerd shit, the lovely gem thing,” he said.
“Diatom colonies, I guess? The strain name is L-063.”
Aashray looked at Lynn, serious. “You could cut this into jewelry.”
Lynn snatched her phone away as if it was itself dangerous. “Not that one! It’s radioactive.”
Aashray laughed at her, and she pocketed her phone sheepishly. “Are there non-radioactive ones?” he asked.
“Yes, of course—larger and prettier than this one, actually. The radiation makes them sterile after a few generations; the colonies actually doing cleanup die after a couple months.”
“They die sorting out our mess? That’s sad,” Aashray said, thoughtful. Lynn wondered if he understood the magnitude of tragedy on the microbial level. It would take hundreds of years, a thousand generations of diatoms living and dying in radioactive tar, before all the toxic isotopes in the Hanford Site would be encased in glass.
“That’s what my project is about, specifically,” Lynn admitted. “I try to help them survive. So far it isn’t working but … I want to give them tools to repair DNA, so they can fix themselves.”
“Cheers to fixing anything,” Aashray said, and raised his glass.
In the backyard behind the house, Lynn and Kimya shared a tiny garden in the square of soil beside their concrete patio. Lynn held a black garbage bag open for Kimya as she shoveled up dirt. It was Friday evening before the march; the patio lights had already attracted a pattering of nighttime insects.
The anti-proliferation marchers would each bring with them thirty pounds of earth, in duffel bags and backpacks, and carry it to the national mall and quietly dump it on the grass, until security dragged them away or they had deposited two hundred thousand pounds of dirt: one pound for every person killed by the nuclear strike in Chad.
“Want me to dig you a bag?” Kimya asked, leaning her crossed wrists on the shovel handle.
“I don’t know,” Lynn said. She stared up at the bluing sky, looking for bats. “Aren’t you scared of getting arrested?”
Kimya laughed. “What? Come on, nobody’ll arrest you.”
“I don’t know any of the chants.”
“They’re not hard to learn. That’s the point of them,” Kimya said.
“I …” Lynn trailed off, hunting for another excuse.
“Just tell me you don’t want to find the time to go and I’ll stop pushing you,” Kimya said in her organizer voice, the one she used on the phone to make it hard for volunteers to say no.
Lynn had seen a city rendered flat and grey by nuclear ash in photographs snapped by aerial drones. She’d seen giant vats made from steel and concrete, filled with white blooms of crystal in dark liquid, photographed by robots checking for leaks. The news called them century problems—ones nobody would live to see solved.
“I wish I wanted to,” Lynn said.
“But you don’t,” Kimya said. “That’s all you have to say.”
“Call and tell me about it after?” Lynn asked. “I’ll be in lab all day.”
“You work too damn hard, Lynn,” Kimya said softly. She set the shovel against the fence and then knocked her shoes against the edge of the patio to shake off loose dirt. “We should be done around two.”
When Lynn got to lab, the nanopore sequencer greeted her with a steady beep, ready with a new genome assembly. She saw, in the thousands of base pairs, that the diatoms had taken up the DNA she’d crafted for them. They would have more repair workers for when the radiation shredded their DNA, and they wouldn’t give up and die before the breaks were fixed.
Kimya called while Lynn checked a cardboard box for radioactive spots before it could be recycled. The acoustics and reception on the other side of the line were bad: Kimya said it had started to rain as soon as the protest broke up, and she was holed up in a Starbucks with a dozen other marchers. Outside, several tons of illegally deposited earth softened into mud.
Tomorrow, she would set up a radioactive culture with the new diatoms and seal them away in a lead-lined box. Then she would wait, and see if she’d grown something that would last.
Lynn held the phone in one hand, and her Geiger counter loosely in the other. The counter chirped at her side, detecting natural background radiation and, from the window, sunlight.