by Erica L. Satifka
Erica L. Satifka’s work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Lightspeed‘s Queers Destroy Science Fiction special issue. When not writing, she works as a freelance editor and writing instructor. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her spouse Rob and three needy cats. Visit her online at ericasatifka.com.
Bam. Bam. Bam. I throw on my tattered blue bathrobe and hobble to the door. “Hold your horses, I’m coming.”
It’s the New Woman across the hall. Julie, she calls herself. She gets nervous if she doesn’t check in on me at least every other day, and I don’t blame her. I’m an old, old woman now. “How are you feeling today, Mrs. Delacorte?”
I sigh. “Can’t complain. Want to come in for some coffee?”
Of course she does. Julie’s kind can get nutrients from anything on this ruined Technicolor world of ours, but when given the option, they’ll always pick traditional food over Styrofoam and concrete. They’re bred that way, both to fit in with real humans and to, in some way, continue our legacy.
Earth’s dead. The neon crazy-quilt of the atmosphere sees to that. If you’re staying here, you’d better be okay with living behind a six-inch layer of reinforced glass. It’s no wonder that so many humans choose to emigrate to the extee colonies, even with all the hardships involved.
Homo synthetica – New People – were engineered as a way to keep Earth occupied, to prevent our cities and infrastructure from falling into disuse as they ever so slowly clean up the planet. They eat our toxic waste, they take in our destroyed atmosphere and breathe out a pleasant oxygen-nitrogen mix. Just being in the same room with Julie improves the air quality of my tiny refuge.
“I hope I didn’t disturb you last night. I invited some friends from class, and you know how those late-night bull sessions go.”
“Not a problem. I had a few of my own.” I was only an adjunct professor in my day, but Julie’s got it in her mind that I was some great biologist. As if I, myself, were the creator of Homo synthetica. I don’t even know my ribosomes from my chromosomes anymore.
“Let’s get some sun in here,” she says, going to the window. The sky is flat neon green today, with wisps of pink which I think are some sort of cloud formation. It’s garish, but brighter. “Do you have those books I wanted to borrow?”
I point toward the bookshelf. “On top. I’d get them, but my shoulder hurts.” Hers never will.
“Thanks,” Julie says, blowing off a layer of dust. “I’ll have them back by Friday.”
“No rush. I’m not reading them.”
The New Woman clasps the books to her chest. “Oh, but you should. Here, why don’t you let me log into the university datanet? There’s some great articles on there about ocean reclamation.”
But I remain seated in my rocker. “I’m not interested in that stuff. I’m just an old woman enjoying her retirement. Keep the books.”
Julie turns, smiling sadly. “I’ll use the books, then bring them back. Thank you, Mrs. Delacorte.”
The door latches behind the New Woman. Using my cane, I pull the shades. I don’t want to be reminded of what’s behind them.
“Mrs. Delacorte?” I don’t have to open the door to know Julie is behind it, but I do. “I brought your books back.” Atop the stack of hardcovers is a miniature plastic bonsai tree. It’s made from the same material as Homo synthetica skin, and like New People, they scrub the environment of toxins passively, 24/7.
“I told you to keep them.” I take the heavy biology textbooks from her, nearly falling from the weight. But the New Woman, oblivious, carries the tree to the window.
“Those were just the supplemental materials I needed.” Before I can stop her, she’s pulled up the shades. A thick purple cloud lumbers like a mammoth across my field of vision. From the look of it, it’s a “brain fogger,” a combination of airborne lead and mercury residue from the old electric car factory in the next county over. I feel myself tearing up, and almost immediately, Julie’s at my side with a tissue.
“There, there. Don’t worry, Mrs. Delacorte. We’ll save Earth.”
No you won’t, Julie. Because why would you? Homo synthetica was created especially for life on this poisoned planet, and once the last of us are dead or emigrated you’ll be its rightful owners. You’ll get tired of cleaning up for your absent creators and just live.
Besides, if you clean it all up and then invite us back, we’ll just oppress you. Even knowing you as I do, I still don’t think you’re human, Julie. I’d recycle you in a moment if it would bring back my two sons who died from environmental poisoning, or my daughter back from the extee colony.
But I don’t tell her this. Not Julie the New Woman with her wide-set green eyes and blonde hair, who checks up on me every other day like I was her grandmother. Julie, who will never be a grandmother, who will go on like this forever until she wears out and is replaced by another Homo synthetica from another vat. “I’ll be all right. Just help me over to my chair.”
“Let me get you something to eat.” She heads for the kitchenette.
“No, really, it’s okay.” But she’s already gone, and my voice is so weak. I stare out the window at the purple cloud that would kill me but won’t touch a single blonde hair on the New Woman’s head, then start to rock, feeling the vibrations right down to fragile bones.
“Real Plastic Trees” first appeared in the anthology Spark: A Creative Anthology, published by the Empire & Great Jones Creative Arts Foundation, January 2014.