Light-Dependent Reactions
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Excerpts from Interview Log E-46693-12
October 4, 2014 12:57 PM

Interviewer: Geoff C. Taggart, [DATA REDACTED]
Subject: Dr. Chelsea Elliott, researcher (plant specialist)


Taggart: Good afternoon, Dr. Elliott. Please close the door.

(Silence.)

Elliott: Um. Excuse me, but have we met?

Taggart: Please close the door. (Pause. Elliott closes the door.) Thank you. Do have a seat. I'm Geoff Taggart, from Reclassification.

Elliott: Reclass? I'm sorry, I don't —

Taggart: Doctor, you've been briefed on us.

Elliott: Well, yes, but no one here is anomalous. Erin, Thom, and I all cleared quarantine months ago.

Taggart: And you must know why we think that assessment was premature.

(Silence.)

You're not eating, Doctor. The usual post-quarantine surveillance showed us that. Those sunlamps you're buying, too — seasonal-affective disorder doesn't come on that fast. We're not sure how the poisoning incidents relate, though. I was hoping you could clear that up for us.

Elliott: What makes you think I'd —

Taggart: I'm authorized to waive the usual disciplinary actions for failure to report, provided you come clean now.

(Silence.)

Elliott: All right. (smiles ruefully) I suppose I don't exactly have a choice, at this stage.

Taggart: Thank you. I understand this all began with the events of Incident E-31181-A, in February of last year?

Elliott: Yes. I was consulting for [MTF] Theta-Four at the time. Three of us — Erin Moynahan, Thom Saint-Jacques, and I — had been detached to investigate a suspected new anomaly. Everything went fine until I tried to use my hand lens…


"Geiger, check… chem sweep, check… humes, check." Agent Erin Moynahan came to the end of her list and nodded across to her teammates. "I'm calling it stable. We're good to go in."

Chelsea Elliott grinned and bounced a little on the toes of her boots. "Great! Thom, you ready?"

The third member of their little team nodded back at her. "Après-vous."

Together, they struck out into the abandoned and echoing warehouse. Elliott's eyes darted over the floor as they walked, eager for detail. Weathered concrete was none of their specialty; nor was architecture, though they had noticed the huge skylight running the length of the peaked ceiling. The rare February sunshine took on a subtle cast as it poured through, some hint of color Elliott couldn't identify. She'd ask about it later.

Now, she homed straight in on the site they'd tagged from the door — a weary scruff of vegetation, struggling up out of the cracked concrete. It wasn't much, floristically speaking: a few goldenrod stems, some ragged tufts of Kentucky bluegrass, and a dried-up stick that had probably been a silver-maple sapling for two or three years before it kicked the bucket. None of it would've warranted a second glance, if it hadn't been for the weird sheen on the leaves.

She dropped to one knee beside the goldenrods, pulling on a pair of rubber gloves. Not only were they alive and vigorous in the winter chill, they were blue in ways Chelsea's understanding of Solidago biochemistry couldn't account for. When she reached out to examine one of the leaves, it tilted against the sunlight and shimmered in oily seafoam-green.

Chelsea grinned and bent closer. "Oh, this is weird." She pulled out her hand lens, plucking a leaf from the goldenrod and lifting it close to see —

Through the lens, nothing but a blaze of lethal light.


Elliott: I'm told I was conscious most of the way to Medical, but I don't actually remember much.


"Holy shit! What — Backup!" The crackle of a radio. "Get Nu-Thirty in here now! We have a new anomaly, and Elliott's down —"

She was on fire, the alien sun searing through her face, nothing left in her eyes but unnameable colors —

"— I've got her, just move —"

— the world was a rock tumbler, spinning, hurling her against a sky full of stone — it tasted like ice olives acid — a hook in her belly, pulling her inside-out —

"— it's moving! Jensen, get the — Jensen! Fuck! Someone get the —"

— a boulder on her chest and more falling on her, blow after blow, why did they — what did she do? —

"— get us out of here! — seizing again — think they're growing —"

— just make it stop

"— Just go!"


Taggart: And when did you wake completely?

Elliott: They kept me in an induced coma for two weeks at Medical, dealing with the kidney failure. I didn't wake up until they stopped the sedation.

Taggart: And that was when you became aware of your condition?

Elliott: Yeah. E-31181 really did a number on me.


When she finally woke, they assured her that she would be fine. The light from that anomalous sun-thing had done some damage, but she would recover. They'd taken care of the sunburn while she was under. Her vision was mostly back, and if the colors were still dizzyingly strange, that would clear up too. The seizures hadn't done her any serious harm, and her kidneys were well on the way back to full function. Now, the skin, that might take a little longer to fade…

She lay in the hospital bed, staring at her hands — too-smooth skin the color of pin-cherry bark, mottled with salamander spots in rich teal and feathered all over with tiny bits of chaff like the scales on a sword fern's fiddlehead — and swallowed the laughter trying to claw its way out of her throat.

Before she could even sit up, she was asking for her hand lens back.


Taggart: So your first reaction was curiosity.

Elliott: My first reaction was "if I start laughing now, I'm never going to stop."

Taggart: Oh?

Elliott: It was either get curious or break down entirely.

Taggart: I see. We have the records from your actual quarantine period, of course… After you were released, how long did it take you to discover the anomaly?

Elliott: Just a few days.


Eight weeks.

Eight weeks of quarantine, made bearable only by curiosity, a huge e-book library, and a long string of notebooks. Eight weeks of trying to explore her own altered biology and coming up short, again and again, against the limits of the quarantine itself; eight weeks of frustration and never being able to compare notes with her doctors; eight weeks of explaining to herself, over and over again, why the restrictions were necessary. Eight weeks of watching and waiting, half-afraid she wouldn't recover at all, even if Thom and Erin were fine now. Eight weeks of terrible food, though at least she was never actually hungry, what with her leafy additions providing most of her calorie needs. When her skin finally started turning pink again and shedding its little leaflets, six and a half weeks in, she'd wanted to faint with relief.

She'd gone into quarantine in the dead of winter; she came out in early spring. After eight weeks of bare walls and fluorescent light, walking in shirtsleeves under the April sun made her absolutely giddy. There were a lot of loose ends to sort out at home, but she still took the first possible opportunity for a walk in the woods. She still had a lot of phone calls to make, but she could walk and talk at the same time.

Her cell phone rang as she slipped through the woodlot understory, dodging bare branches. "Hi, Blaire? — Yeah, hi! Good, I'm good! I'm home. — Yeah, all back to normal. They kept me a few extra days to make sure. How've you been?"

She stepped carefully around a patch of cutleaf toothwort. "Oh, good. How's Pip doing? Has she given you any trouble?" Blaire usually took in Chelsea's cat, Pip, when the botanist traveled in summer; it didn't usually last for two months straight, though.

At her friend's answer, Chelsea let out a relieved sigh. "Oh, good. Good. Can I come and pick her up when you get home today? I — Yeah. Thanks so much."

They chatted for a few minutes longer, Chelsea meanwhile moving through the burgeoning woods. The elms had gone to seed already, but she greeted the bloodroot and rue-anemone by name. Something inside her began to settle quietly back into place.

"Yeah, I missed you too." She grinned into the phone, knowing Blaire would hear it in her voice. "Lunch Thursday? — Sounds great. — See you soon!"

They hung up. She paused by a maple sapling, running careful fingers over the soft new leaves nosing out of their buds, before dialing the next number.

"Hey, Jorge, how've you been?" Mayapples on the hillside.

"Sophia! Hi! I owe you a danish." Sharp-lobed hepatica among the rocks.

"Kyle? Yeah, I'm back." A grove full of speckled trout-lilies.

By the time she'd finished her calls, she was brimming with the simple, heady joys of spring and freedom. There was more to do back at home, but she could spare a little longer, couldn't she?

There — a patch of lesser-celandine, bathed in sunlight. She stretched out on the soft, glossy leaves. Just half an hour, just to bask…

* * *

She stirred, blinking sleepily. How long had it been? The sun was still warm on her face, and she lifted a hand to shade her drowsy eyes; with the other, she felt beside her for her bag.

Under her searching fingers, the leaves went crunch.

She sat up, looked around, and stared. The ground around and under her, a meter or more out from where she'd lain, was coated in hoarfrost — a hair-thin coat of sparkling white crystals, impossibly failing to melt in the balmy air. The stuff even clung to her bare arms. It was only slightly cool to the touch, no different from the grass itself, and it crunched between her fingers like fine sand.

Her eyes narrowed. Not sand. A memory surfaced: baking Christmas cookies, rolling little balls of dough in cinnamon and…

"Sugar," she murmured.

The crystal shape was right, from what she could see through her hand lens. It dissolved almost instantly in a drop of water from the bottle in her purse, and the residue left her fingers faintly sticky. No scent… Hesitantly, she put a single grain on the tip of her tongue.

"…Definitely sugar."

She looked down at the leaves, all around, up at the sky. Her first real sunshine of the year, just after she'd stopped photosynthesizing, and suddenly there was sugar all over the place?

Despite the balmy April air, she shivered.


Taggart: That sounds conspicuous. I'd expect surveillance to have showed it if you were literally sugar-coating every chair you sat in.

Elliott: Well, it wasn't being deposited very fast — even in direct sunlight, it took a good twenty minutes to build up to anything noticeable. And it's light-dependent, of course, so I can stop most of it just by wearing long sleeves and turtlenecks. Still, I didn't want to bring even that into a lab. Contaminate every sample in the fridge, just by standing near it… (snorts) I might have had to turn myself in right then, if I hadn't figured out how to control it.

Taggart: And how do you do that?

Elliott: Oh, um… (Pause.)

I… (Pause.) You just… (Pause.)

… I actually have no idea how to describe it. The process. Technique. Thing. (gestures vaguely) I'd probably have to study meditation, just for the vocabulary. Or reread Dune. All I can really say is that I learned to keep it in.

Taggart: I see.

Elliott: Soon after that, I realized I didn't need to eat anymore. I'd dealt with that sort of thing during quarantine — you just don't get hungry, as long as you get enough light — and the experience was basically the same. No supernumerary scales this time, though. (Absently:) I still don't know what I'm using for chloroplasts.

Taggart: Was your fasting deliberate, then?

Elliott: (spreads her hands) Sometimes. Sometimes I'd just forget to eat. More often as summer came in. I took supplements in the beginning, to make up for what amounted to a diet of straight sugar.

Taggart: Why the past tense?

Elliott: Well… it's not just a diet of straight sugar.

Taggart: I see. (pause) Go on.

Elliott: (takes a breath) As it turns out, I can basically make any vascular-plant metabolite that I've had in my system. Skin contact, inhalation, ingestion, all fair game, and it doesn't take much. I'm on either a balanced vegetarian diet or a healthy photosynthate intake for a plant of about my mass, I'm not sure which.

Taggart: If I understand correctly —

Elliott: Yeah, if it comes from a plant, I can probably crank it out. Just get me a sample first.

Taggart: (pauses) Does that include aconite?

Elliott: That was how I learned I could do it in the first place.


"Oh, hey, the Aconitum's flowering."

"Sorry, what?"

"The monkshood." Chelsea nodded towards the five-foot-tall potted plant that stretched a proud spike of hooded violet flowers towards the peak of the greenhouse roof. The young man at her heels showed no sign of recognition. "Wolfsbane? Lovely plant, neat history and chemistry, not too hard to grow. Toxic as all get-out, though."

Her visitor — Niels — blinked. "And you keep it out here? No containment?"

"It's not really dangerous unless you eat it, and anyone who comes through here has enough sense not to do that." Chelsea smirked, ruffling one hand through the starburst leaves. "Well, that or get an awful lot of the sap on your skin. I got a few big drops on my hands once — gave me heart palpitations for an hour, but that was it."

"Only heart palpitations?" Niels boggled at her.

"It's not as bad as it sounds."

"Sounds unpleasant enough." He eyed the plant with mistrust. "What's it like if you actually do eat it?"

"Nausea at first, plus the heart palpitations." Chelsea straightened up cheerfully. "Burning in the abdomen. Then tingly numbness, weakness, and worse arrhythmias. Ends in paralysis and death, if you let it get that far."

"Sounds nasty."

"Eh, it's just self-defense." It was still making her stomach roil a little. Odd. Toxicology didn't usually bother her, not in the abstract. "Besides, anything's useful in the right context. This one's only in here because Nathan's group is using it in an antidote. We think it'll be half the key to CCR syndrome." Pseudaconitine was the active ingredient, she remembered — not a big molecule, but it had an intriguingly multi-ringed structure. She could almost picture how the plant would synthesize it…

Her stomach turned again, and she swallowed. I hope that's not the pasta. "Anyway, the colony I wanted you to see is over here."

They struck back out across the greenhouse, weaving between tables full of carefully-labeled experimental flats. They'd almost found their destination when Chelsea's stomach spasmed outright: she doubled up halfway and reflexively clapped a hand to her mouth.

"Whoa! Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I should —" Again. She swallowed back the acid, which only set off a fiery complaint in her belly. "Maybe not. I'm never letting Kyle choose lunch again." This almost feels like —

Nausea. Burning in the abdomen. She stopped dead, just in time to feel her heart skip a beat.

"Oh God." She turned back the way they'd come, one arm wrapped around her middle. "How is this even — augh!"

Niels was on the phone to Medical before her knees hit the floor.


Elliott: I'd given myself a sublethal dose, it turned out, but only just. Lucky for me, everyone assumed I'd actually handled [Researcher] Nathan [Fisk]'s Aconitum and somehow poisoned myself that way.

Taggart: If the only plant involved hadn't been so carefully monitored, we might have thought the same thing.

Elliott: It's a little insulting, really. I know full well how to handle these things safely.

Taggart: So you'd rather be insulted than contained.

Elliott: (pauses) Wouldn't you?

Taggart: Hmm. (pages through a dossier)

(Silence.)

I believe that will be all, then, Dr. Elliott. (begins putting papers back in briefcase) Unless there's any other information you'd like to volunteer? Any dimensions to your anomaly that we haven't covered?

Elliott: Not that I'm aware of. Yet. I suppose I'll keep you posted. (pauses) May I… well, I know it's not the usual practice, but perhaps as a final professional courtesy…

Taggart: Yes?

Elliott: May I see my proposed containment procedures?

Taggart: (pauses, surprised) You're not going into containment, Doctor.

Elliott: What?

Taggart: Your condition is classified 5/2108/E-46693. You technically aren't cleared to know about any of it, but this is something of an unusual case. Since you don't appear to be an immediate danger to yourself or others, my orders are to take your deposition and let you continue your work. You aren't a danger to yourself or others, are you?

Elliott: Well, no, not with the metabolites under control — but I, I don't understand.

Taggart: You're a valued Foundation researcher, Dr. Elliott —

Elliott: That's not —

Taggart: — and in this particular case, the Council has decided not to remove you from your position unless and until it becomes necessary. I'll add this interview to the information on review, and you'll be notified of their conclusion in due time. In the meantime, please, carry on.

Do remember that this entire phenomenon is classified, though. You're not to discuss it with anyone, and if you must refer to it at all, use its designation. E-46693.

Elliott: Standard opsec, yes — but —

Taggart: Try to eat more, too. Some of your colleagues are getting concerned, and that's a security risk. (closes briefcase, stands) I'll schedule another meeting with you once the Council has decided what to do with your case.

Elliott: Of course —

Taggart: Thank you for your time, Doctor. Enjoy the rest of your day.

END LOG



March 31st, 2015
1:04 PM

Chelsea Elliott finishes reading and looks up, numb with dread, at the man called Taggart. "Yes, I remember," she manages.

"Good." His calm smile doesn't so much as flicker. She'd forgotten just how disconcerting the man can be. "Is there anything you would like to add? Anything that's arisen in the meantime?"

She shakes her head. "It hasn't — hasn't much changed. I've been suppressing it, mostly."

"Hmm. Is that perfume you're wearing, then?"

Damn his nose. She closes her eyes. "Santalum spicatum and Rosa damascena, wood and flower volatiles respectively." Distantly she marvels at how level her voice still is. "My colleagues have quite enjoyed my new essential-oil hobby. No one — no one's had any reason to think I'm not distilling them at home. Besides, spending photosynthate this way leaves me hungry enough to eat."

The silence stretches out, pulling Chelsea's nerves with it. She shifts in her seat and sets the interview log down, too delicately, on the edge of her desk. (It's the wrong side of her desk again. This man must enjoy displacing her to her own visitor's chair.) Finally she can't hold her tongue any longer: "Have they decided, then?"

He gives a noncommittal hum, twirling the delicate stem of her string-of-pearls vine around his forefinger. "You could say that. Ultimately, though, it'll be your choice."

Her flash of irritable skepticism surprises her, but she manages to restrain the snort. "My choice?" she asks, forcing her tone to stay polite. "What are my options, exactly?"

The corner of his mouth ticks upward. "On the one hand, you may elect to go into containment. Your conditions will be humane, of course, but you'll be an SCP object, designated and treated accordingly."

A lead brick presses down on her lungs. She's seen fragments of the containment procedures they'd apply. Imprisoned for life, never again seeing the sun — she can't. She can't.

"Or?" She forces it out on a whisper.

Instead of replying immediately, he pushes a neatly-bound dossier across the desk towards her. She opens it and begins to read.

"Have a look. Command is prepared to retain you in your current position, on condition that you accept reassignment to this project."

This is…

This is insane. This is brilliant. She'd have given her right arm to be part of this, once upon a time.

This is no choice at all.

She looks up at him over the dossier and nods. "I'll do it."

His smile deepens, and he extends a steady hand for her to shake. "We were hoping you'd say that.

"Welcome to MTF Alpha-Nine."

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