One more battle nearly won.
Cody Graham leaned back in the shotgun seat of the two-person ATV, tired but psyched following an afternoon spent roving the thriving grasslands of Project Site 270. "It feels so good to get out of the office!"
She glanced at Ben Whitman, hunched under his Green Stomp cap as he worked the ATV up the slope. The kid was smiling. Enough of a smile that Cody caught a flash of teeth. She congratulated herself. It was the most expressive response she'd managed to wring out of nineteen-year-old Ben. Not that he was unfriendly, or even shy. Just a bit reserved. Nervous, maybe, in the presence of the big-shot boss.
"You've done a great job here," she added, as the ATV ploughed a path through waist-high grasses.
"You keep saying that."
"Oh, and you do a great self-check. Nice, clean toxin smears."
"Oh, thanks. Clean pee. My speciality."
Cody laughed. For six months Ben had been Green Stomp's only full-time employee at 270. Cleanup at the hazardous waste site was nearing completion. Staff activity had been reduced to a daily round of detailed soil assays, with the occasional application of a spray or injection of nutrient-fortified bacteria to areas where microbial activity had declined. The bacteria worked to break down toxic molecules into safe and simple carbon groupsfood for less exotic microbes serving as natural decomposers within the soil. An inspection tour of 270 by the federal oversight officer was scheduled in three weeks, so Cody had set up a tour of her own in advance of that, to look for any outstanding problems. She hadn't found any. Green Stomp would close out 270 as a showcase project.
Ben's hands tightened on the wheel as the ATV bounced upslope to the project office: a green-gold, wind-engineered tent anchored to an elevated platform. The graceful tent was a huge step above the ugly mobile trailers Cody had used eleven years ago when she and her partners tackled their first bioremediation project. Using both natural and genetically-tailored soil bacteria, along with select plants, they had set out to clean a hazardous waste site contaminated with perchloroethylene.
PCE was a commonand carcinogenicindustrial chemical. For many years it was believed that no microbe could break it down to harmless components. Then, in 1997, researchers unveiled a new bacterium found in the sludge of an abandoned sewage plant that could do just that. Genetic tailoring modified the strain to work in dry land environments, and since then thousands of polluted sites had been restored.
"You know," Ben said, his voice strained and his knuckles showing white as he gripped the wheel, "when 270 closes down, I'm going to be out of a job."
Cody's smile broadened. "That's the second reason I came down here. I wanted to talk to you about that."
· · · · ·
While Ben prepped his soil samples for mailing to Green Stomp's central lab, Cody laid claim to the administrator's office. With a cup of fresh coffee in hand, she leaned back in the chair, kicking her feet up on the empty desk top. The office looked out on the lush grassland of the project site. She could see the trail taken by the ATV, andhazed by distanceshe could just glimpse the glittering surface of the Missouri River through gaps in the broken levee.
Three years ago Project Site 270 had been farm countryprime farm country, at least when spring flooding was minimal and the levees held. In the spring of '09 the levees gave way. Floodwaters destroyed the freshly-planted crop, at the same time spreading sewage, spilled petroleum products and the hazardous waste from illegal dumping across the fertile land. It had happened many times before, but in '09 a new ingredient was added. Under the pressure of rust and water, several abandoned storage tanks cracked, leaking a grim cocktail of restricted pesticides into the muddy aftermath of the flood. The disaster went undiscovered for weeks, until wildlife started turning up dead.
Cody scowled as a doe emerged from a windbreak of poplars to the north. Animals were reservoirs of fat-soluble pesticides; the stuff concentrated in their tissues as they ate contaminated plants. Fences had been built to keep deer off the project site. Traps had been laid to contain smaller species that could not be fenced out. But no containment system was perfect. "Yo, Ben!" she called. "Looks like you've got a breach in the fence."
He appeared from the direction of the lunch room, a steaming cup of coffee in hand. "That doe again?"
"It's a doe."
He looked out the window. "I think she's getting in at the foot of the bluff by the river. I swear she hangs out there and waits until the motion sensors are switched off."
"Can you remove her today?"
"Sure. Before I go home."
Until the land was certified clean, Green Stomp's contract called for all large wildlife to be expelled.
Cody nodded at a chair on the other side of the desk. "Have a seat, Ben. We need to talk about your future."
"Then I've got one?"
He looked so anxious Cody had to smile. It was scary to be out of a job. Unemployment benefits didn't last long. No one starved, of course. You could crunch government crackers until the next millennium and never run short of nutrients thanks to the new mondo-wheats. But it wasn't fun. "Sit down," Cody urged again, and this time Ben sat, cradling his coffee cup in his hands, staring at the steam that curled up from its black surface.
"Your supervisor speaks highly of you," Cody said. "Six months working alone, and you haven't missed a day or screwed up a sample."
Ben looked up. He pushed his cap back on his head. "She said to talk to you about continuing with the company."
"Good advice. Are you willing to move?"
He frowned over that. Cody suspected he'd spent his whole life here, along the river. "Sure. I guess. Like to where?"
Cody looked up at the ceiling. She pursed her lips. "Say
to Belize? Or Sierra Leone. Maybe even Siberia?"
A look of despair came over Ben's face. Cody slipped her feet off the desk, immediately sorry. "I'm joking! We're just a little company, strictly North American. The biggest adventure you could expect is the wilds of Pennsylvania."
"I'll take it," Ben said, with painful solemnity. "I'm not the smartest guy around, but I know how to work. I don't get bored. I don't slack."
"I don't hire grunt labor," Cody told him, "for anything more than short term. You'd have to be willing to go back to school. If things work out, Green Stomp could eventually sponsor you for an online degree."
Again he stared at the steaming cup clenched in his white-knuckled hand. "I never did too good in school."
"Want to try again?"
He raised his eyes to look at her. She saw fear there, and hunger. A fierce hunger.
Say yes, she urged him silently.
Ben was a smart kid. That was easy to tell after working with him only one afternoon, but it was equally obvious someone had been carping in his ear all his life that he was basically a dumb shit who would never amount to anything. It was hard to counter that early life influence.
"How much school?" he asked.
Cody grinned wickedly. She had spent her own formative years in a private boarding school, as a charity case on a corporate scholarship, seeing her mother only on rare weekends. Those had been the hardest years of her life, but receiving the scholarship to attend Prescott Academy had also been her biggest break. She bore no sympathy for anyone out to shirk an education. "Oh, ten or fifteen years of college should do it for you, Ben."
His lips twitched in a ghost of a smile. "At entry-level wages?"
"Pay commensurate with experience. Say yes, Ben."
He nodded slowly. "Okay then. Yes."
· · · · ·
Cody had made Green Stomp's reputation by tackling the toughest, dirtiest jobs she could find. The harder the challenge, the more she liked it. Kicking apart toxic "nonbiodegradable" molecules was a physical thrill. In her mind, it was the same as kicking down the mental walls that fenced people in. Like the one that said kids from bad neighborhoods couldn't make it in life. Kick. Or the one that said technology must eventually lead to apocalypse, whether through war, engineered disease, overpopulation, or pollution. Kick. Cody had seen a lot of tough problems, but she hadn't seen the end of the world yet. Look hard enough, and problems could provide their own solutions. Green Stomp already held several patents on specialized strains of bacteria recovered from heavily polluted sites.
She tapped her data glove, waking up the portal standing open on the desk. The collapsible monitor had a display the size of an eight-by-twelve-inch piece of paper. It was a quarter inch thick, and when not in use, it could be folded into thirds and slipped into a briefcase. Now it stood open, leaning back on a T-shaped foot. "Hark, link to Jobsite."
The portal opened a cellular connection to Cody's server. Seconds later the screen came to life with an image of Jobsite's bioremediation lobby.
Cody turned the portal around so Ben could see. "Green Stomp gets about a third of our projects through Global Shear. You've heard of them? No? A multinational. We sold them a twenty percent share of Green Stomp in exchange for expansion capital, so they like to drop business in our direction. Plus I interned there, and several execs know and love me." She grinned.
Ben's smile was fleeting as he puzzled over the lobby architecture.
"Anyway," Cody went on, "another third of our projects represent repeat business from satisfied clients. We're grateful for that, of course, but let me tell you a secret. The most interesting jobs come off the public link. Go ahead. Scroll through the list. Check it out."
The portal was keyed to Cody's voice. It didn't know Ben, so instead of speaking to it, he leaned forward, tentatively pressing the manual keys on the frame. "Do you ever get scared?" he asked, as his gaze flicked over the listings. "Do you ever worry you'll poison yourself?"
Cody leaned back in her chair, feeling her chest pull tight. "It's something you always have to keep in mind."
In fact, she'd already poisoned herself. Somehow, early in her career, she'd screwed up and a toxin had gotten into her blood, into her flesh, into the growing embryo in her womb. She'd been so careful at home: no alcohol, no coffee, no soda, no drugs. It hadn't mattered. When the pregnancy was terminated, Cody felt a chip of her soul flushed out along with her daughter. "These things happen," the doctor had assured her, but Cody needed to know why. She went looking for a causative eventand she found it when a bioassay of her own liver tissue revealed PCP contaminationthe prime pollutant on every job site she'd worked the previous two years.
"Didn't you say you grew up on the west coast?" Ben asked, his pale cheeks aglow in the portal's light. "A place called Victoria Glen?"
"Well, guess what? It's on the job list."
Cody turned the portal back around, and frowned.