The Catalyst: (Book One)
The sky was a bright spot above her in the inky blackness of the cave. As she was lowered deeper into the hole, the darkness began to swallow even the light of the sun. The murmur of her colleagues faded into the background, replaced by the creak of her rope harness and the beating of her heart. She told herself not to move. If she did not move, she would not sway. Yet, every time she jerked to a stop only to be lowered deeper into the earth, she swayed and the shadowed depths of the cave threatened to swallow her.
It seemed to take ages before the sky was a swath of light no larger than her hand and her boots crunched on the loose stones of the cave floor. Dr. Harmin was at her side immediately. He helped her out of her harness, either ignoring or simply choosing not to comment on her shaking hands. His face was a mass of shadows in the light from the small flashlight on her vest. His eyes met hers briefly, as he flicked on her helmet light. In her numb panic, she had forgotten it. He gave her a quick nod and turned away.
Harmin was a man of few words, but the words he spoke were always polite and lightly accented by his English homeland. She followed him into the dark. With her feet on solid ground, the shaking slowly stopped, her breathing returning to normal. If she focused on Harmin moving ahead of her on the narrow trail, she could almost forget how close the walls were, how tight the space was.
She took a deep breath. Get it together, Robin.
After no less than ten minutes, she heard something other than the steady crunch of sand beneath their feet. Coming around a corner, the cave opened up into a large cavern. The space was filled with light from over a dozen floodlights. Everywhere she looked her colleagues were busy with the unearthed artifacts. The majority of the activity was centered on the actual dig site, a twenty by thirty foot ditch dug into the cave floor.
She looked at Harmin to see him gesturing toward the closest table. She glanced at the site again, but followed him toward the scientists clustered around the folding table. The gathered experts looked up when she stopped a few feet away. They quickly shuffled around to make room for her.
“Dr. Kay, I was starting to think you had changed your mind.” A middle aged, balding man, Dr. Scott, sent her a barely-there smile.
She returned it with a slight curve of her lips. “And miss all this? You know I love caves.”
That brought a smattering of laughter from the rest of the university team.
“You didn’t throw up,” the blonde to her right said with a smirk.
Robin forced a smile. “That’s something, at least.”
With that, talk turned back to business. Marvin Scott gestured to the papers scattered across the desk.
“The university is sharing with three others, so I want two of ours on each six hour shift. As all of you know, this is an important dig. It could be very big for our field.”
“We’ve found a bicuspid and what looks like a fragment from a femur. Is that right?”
Marvin glanced at Dr. Harmin and nodded.
“Do we know breed or time frame?” Robin asked, peering at the fragments of fossilized wood and vegetation.
“Definitely Neanderthal. Carbon-14 puts both samples at about 28,000 B.C. The recent Paleolithic era.”
Several people snickered at Dr. Scott’s definition of recent.
“No evidence of Cro-Magnon?” Robin asked, glancing up from the table.
“Too far east, most likely.”
Robin nodded. It made sense. Most agreed that the Cro-Magnon’s never came as far east as Asia.
She met Dr. Scott’s gaze.
“Are you okay to take the first shift? If you want to get settled first, I understand.”
She shook her head. “No, I’m fine.”
“Good. You and Dr. Harmin are on first shift. Dr. Figgs and Dr. Carey will be down in about six hours.”
She nodded her understanding and watched her fellow university professors troop past her. When it was just her and Harmin, she sent him a small smile.
“I hope they left chairs.”
She had been in Siberia for three weeks when it happened. The camp was filled with excited chatter, loud enough to hear over the wind beating against her tent. She unzipped her sleeping bag and stumbled into the space between her cot and Dr. Carey’s. After quickly tugging on her boots, she stepped out into the strong wind. Squinting to see through the haze of dust and sand, Robin made her way toward the main science tent.
Several hooded figures walked with her, other scientists hurrying toward the sound of excitement. She buttoned the sweater over her thin undershirt and slipped into the main tent. Dr. Harmin was at her side before she could get her bearings. He bent to speak in her ear, the volume in the tent making normal speech impossible. The chatter was near deafening.
“We’ve found something, Dr. Kay.”
She met his dark eyes with a small frown. “What kind of something?”
Her eyes wandered over the cluster of science equipment in the center of the floor. The two dozen scientists on location were swarming around it like angry bees.
“We’re not certain, yet. But, it’s not human.”
“So?” She tore her eyes away from the cluster of people.
“It doesn’t appear to be terrestrial, at all.”
He had her full attention. “Excuse me?”
“The other two universities have their on-staff paleobiologists, but with your reputation… you should take a look.”
She looked from his serious face to the now silent group of scientists. They all stared at her expectantly, none so much as her superior, Dr. Scott. She forced a small smile.
“I’ll take a look.”
She approached the table with a strange weight in her stomach. An uneasiness. She shook it off and looked down at the foreign object among the other tagged artifacts. It would not look like much from the point of view of the average person, but within a second she saw what had paused the dig. What had invoked such excitement?
She looked up to see her peers staring at her.
“You said it wasn’t terrestrial.” She failed to keep the accusing tone out of her voice.
Dr. Scott smirked at her. “It’s not. Take a look at this.”
She hurried to catch the papers he slid across the table to her. As her eyes scanned the pages of information, she began to frown.
“This is impossible. You’re saying it’s carbon based, but not dependent on oxygen.”
Dr. Scott’s smiled widened. “Exactly. Nitrogen readings are abnormally high.”
She took another look at the readings. Nitrogen seemed to have taken the place of oxygen.
“Any idea of age?” she asked.
Dr. Carey piped up at the question.
“That’s the interesting thing. Carbon dating puts it around the same time as the others.”
Robin raised her eyebrows. She snatched a pair of gloves from the table and snapped them into place, before picking up the bone.
“This is still bone. The others were fully fossilized.”
A disturbing thought crossed her mind and she glanced at the other scientists.
“Is this a joke?”
“Of course not,” her superior said with a sharp shake of his head.
She watched Dr. Scott for any sign of deceit, but there was nothing. He truly believed they had something. She sighed.
“What do you want me to do with this? My specialty—”
“I know what you specialize in, Dr. Kay. We want to know more about this life form.”
They could not be serious. She looked from his bright eyes to the innocent looking bone. If it was buried with the other artifacts, it should have been fossilized. There had to be an explanation. A jokester slipping in a bone from a random body. Sample contamination, maybe. Still considering it, Dr. Scott’s hand on her shoulder jerked her out of her thoughts.
“How long until you can get us a zygote?”
For a bone from the nearest morgue? She sighed. Creating a cell for study was a waste of both supplies and time. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“About twelve hours.”
She snatched the metacarpal from the table top and walked away. The tent had emptied during her discussion with her team, the conversations moving elsewhere. As she set the bone on a table, the remaining scientists left the tent, leaving the space blissfully quiet.
“This is ridiculous,” she muttered to herself.
She changed into one of the sterile suits and slipped into the clean room with her specialized machinery. Six years of school, a professor at twenty-two, and she was creating a zygote for what her peers thought was an alien hand bone. She snorted. Her father was right. She should have gone to law school. Smirking at her thoughts, she carefully took a small sample of the bone and processed it. The paperwork the computer spit out made her raise her eyebrows.
Well, the genome was definitely not human. She quickly tapped the nearest keyboard to run a search in the ever expanding species database. As the computer sped through billions of genomes looking for a match, Robin fed the sample into the machine to her right. By the time she looked at the screen again, bright red letters were flashing on the screen.
“Interesting,” she muttered.
Giving the bone another quick glance, she leaned against the table behind her. The machine on her right broke the bone down into something she could work with. Something she could use to create a zygote. As the machine whirred, she fiddled with the gloves of her suit.
Okay. So the bone was not from a nearby morgue, or any morgue. It certainly was not human. It looked an awful lot like a human metacarpal. The thought made her pause. Would the animal it came from also look human? If it did, what did that mean exactly? It was illegal to clone a complete human. Even in the year 2034, it gave most people the creeps. She was one of them.
The machine stopped its quiet hum and beeped. She could think about the morality of cloning when it became an issue. For now, it was just an unknown species. Even as she thought it, a chill went through her.
“Get it together, Robin,” she murmured to herself.
She tapped at the keyboard, directing the machine to take the next step. The whir began again and she turned away. Her eyes dropped to the table she was grasping for dear life and she unclenched her fingers from the edge. Her gaze drifted from the stainless steel surface to the papers she had tossed there. She pulled them toward her.
She scanned the code with narrowed eyes. The computer seconded the discovery of her team. The life form would undoubtedly breathe nitrogen. The majority of the gases that made up the atmosphere. What would something able to take advantage of the nitrogen rich atmosphere look like? She wandered to another machine to dissect the code.
As she pulled the code from the network and set the computer to work, she chewed on her bottom lip. Human lungs were built to extract oxygen from the 21% oxygen atmosphere. A human in an oxygen rich situation would eventually experience more harm than benefit. Would the nitrogen rich atmosphere do the same to something that breathed nitrogen? That brought a new set of questions.
The life form could be better adapted to process nitrogen than humans are to process oxygen. In that case, the animal could be in a highly beneficial situation. Better at breathing the air than the humans who called the planet home. She frowned. All the thinking was sending her mind into circles. If allowed, her brain would explore the possibilities endlessly. She shuffled over to a nearby chair and dropped into it.
The whisper in her ear jerked her from sleep to wakefulness so fast she nearly pulled a muscle. She looked around, an apology already on her lips, only to find herself alone. The wind still beat against the side of the tent, the only sound other than her own breathing. She slowly rose from the folding chair and moved toward the bank of machines. The formation of the zygote was complete. The beep must have woken her.
Her gaze swept the tent again. She was alone. Letting out a loud sigh, she mentally shook herself. Too long away from civilization was making her hear things. Her lips curved up into a self-depreciating smile as she removed the zygote from the machine to look at it under the microscope. The eyepiece was warm against her face as she got her first look at the organism. Using the neutral base, the zygote should have been haploid.
Without two haploid cells to form the whole, there was no possibility for the zygote to continue to grow. It would never be a fully formed organism. That was what made this ethical. But as she watched the cells dividing, she realized they had miscalculated. The organism did not rely on input from two parents, it was diploid. It had no need of outside help to grow, to flourish. She inhaled a shaky breath and let it out slowly, stepping back from the microscope.
Her gaze moved to the right and she frowned. Stasis. She could stop the cell division, pause the organism’s growth so it would never grow into an embryo. Maybe, that was the right course of action. Destroy the organism’s chance at becoming something she may regret creating. She took another deep breath and rejected the part of her that held instinctual fear of the unknown. There was no place for that. She was a scientist.
Robin carefully returned the zygote to the machine that created it, allowing it to continue its growth. She slid out of the suit and hung it at the entrance to the clean room, before she strode from the tent. The dust-filled wind scraped against her cheeks.
Dr. Harmin saw her first, pulling back the flap of a nearby tent. He turned away, presumably speaking to someone else. She was proven right when Dr. Scott pushed past Harmin and emerged into the sunlight.
He squinted against the wind, even as he hurried toward her.
“Is it done?”
She nodded, unwilling to open her mouth and risk choking on dust. She jerked her head in the direction of the tent she had just vacated and he followed her closely. Once they were inside, past the outer screen and the two secondary flaps, she turned to face him. His gaze was not on her, it was already fastened on the clear plastic wall of their makeshift clean room.
She sat at a table near the entrance of the tent and watched two of her colleagues fiddling with her equipment. With only two sterile suits, only two people from her team could study the organism at a time. As she watched them through the clear wall of the clean room, she twisted a loose thread from her sweater around her finger. Their presence in her space was not what irritated her.
Back home, she always shared her personal lab with her assistant Amber. No, that was not what nagged at her. Instead, there was a nagging in her stomach. A burn. A sense of wrongness that others were studying the organism. The very fact that she felt that way sent alarm bells ringing in her head. That was why she sat alone in a folding chair far from the rest of her team. She had to work through these ridiculous, possessive thoughts.
She raised her eyes from her knees to look up at Dr. Harmin. He gave her a small smile.
“The team is gathering.”
She nodded and stood, following him over to the table just outside the clean room. She noticed Dr. Scott and Dr. Carey had changed out of the sterile suits and joined the others. When she and Harmin joined the group, Dr. Scott launched into his speech.
“I’ve informed the university of our discovery. The international board of cloning has already made a decision.”
Before he said it, Robin knew what their decision had been. The zygote would be destroyed. The DNA would be catalogued and the bone carefully labeled and set on a shelf. There it would stay for decades, maybe longer. Waiting until ethics laws changed. Something so close to human would wait a long time.
“We’ve been called home, ladies and gentleman. This dig was inarguably a success, but the fall semester starts in a little over a week and we are needed back.”
“What about the organism?” Robin blurted.
Dr. Scott paused long enough to give her a sharp look.
“The organism will be destroyed. All bone samples are to be labeled and placed in the archives. Logged information is to be stored in the university database for future reference. Any other concerns?”
She could feel the gazes of her team on her, concerned at her recent attitude. She shook her head.
The conversation continued on without her. She was externally calm, while inside she was screaming at herself. In two years at the university, she had never questioned the board’s decisions. Sure, she had occasionally muttered under her breath when they denied her the right to clone harmless, but extinct, flora or fauna.
After all, her collaboration with the biotech company, Renon, was orchestrated by the university. The ethics board could sever her contract with the corporation and destroy her career with a few well worded sentences. She refocused on the conversation when her team began to move.
She quickly moved toward Dr. Harmin, asking him to help her with her own equipment. He nodded and followed her to the clean room. It was only when they were both in sterile suits and carefully packing her machinery into crates that she realized what she was going to do. It was painfully stupid. It could destroy everything she had ever worked for, but as her gaze slid to the machine that held the zygote she knew the decision had already been made.
When most of the machinery had been packed, she left Harmin to finish and moved to the three machines still sitting on the tabletop. One of them held the zygote. She made a show of retrieving several sterile tubes. She slid the bone into one and the fragments into another. After every tube was filled with the fruits of their dig site, she began to label. When she was certain Harmin was occupied, she placed the zygote into a cryotube.
She carefully tucked it in with the rest of the tubes and skipped it in her numbering. When she placed the tubes into the archives, there would be no evidence of anything missing. She packed all of the fragile glass into a padded, climate controlled pack and snapped the lid shut. Harmin was just finishing with the machinery when she turned to face him. He gestured toward the three machines on the counter.
“They’re ready. Oh, wait.”
She tapped the button for the laser on her zygote machine. Had the zygote still been inside, it would have been destroyed by temperatures hot enough to vaporize it. She picked up the sample pack and took a few steps back. Harmin made quick work of the three small machines and they removed the sterile suits.
“I’m sorry about the organism.”
She looked up at Harmin in surprise. After a moment, she gave him a small smile.
“It’s a pity. It would have been interesting to see it fully formed.”
He simply nodded.
The move from the border of Mongolia back to Chicago took both less time and more time than she imagined. The actual packing of their equipment onto the trucks and the subsequent unpacking onto the plane only took a day. It was the plane jumping that became tiresome. While the university equipment was basically mailed back, the team had to take three different planes. One a four passenger Cessna. It took three trips to get everyone from the site to a small airport where they took a larger plane to Beijing.
After thirteen hours, she arrived in Detroit with enough of a layover to scarf down a premade sandwich. It sat in her stomach like a stone as she sat on a bench outside the terminal and clutched the sample pack to her. The bright yellow case stuck out in the sea of black business suits. She received several glances. She still wore a pair of faded blue jeans and a thread bare sweater over her white tank top. She was something of an oddity among the business people around her.
The layover was an hour and a half. She glanced at her watch to see she still had nearly forty minutes left. With a sigh, she stood and walked toward the bathrooms. The light in the ladies room was almost painful, but she assumed that had more to do with her exhaustion than the actual degree of brightness. She set the case on the counter and placed her hands on either side of the sink.
She looked in the mirror and winced. Dark circles bruised the bronze skin beneath her eyes. Her hair, usually springy curls, was a fuzzy mop. She sighed. After wetting her hands in the sink, she pulled the hairband from her hair and released the loose ponytail. Her hair tumbled in a thick mane down her back to end just above her waist. She wasted no time running her wet hands through it to try and tame it.
When that did not work, she smoothed what she could and braided the rest. She licked her dry lips and scrutinized her appearance for another moment before she considered it good enough. She glanced at her watch. She had killed almost twenty minutes. After a quick bathroom break, during which she tucked the case under the counter out of sight, she left the ladies room to return to the terminal.
Dr. Carey waved her over and she sat with her team making polite conversation until their flight was called. The next hour and a half was a blur of getting onto the plane, getting off of the plane, and collecting her suitcase. Through it all she kept a tight hold on the sample case. Dr. Scott seemed to suddenly notice it as they all stood together at baggage claim.
Half of the group had already drifted away, tiredly trudging off to their homes. Probably planning to sleep for days. She shared that plan. She started to turn away, when Dr. Scott called out to her.
“Are you planning to go by the university?”
She followed his gaze down to the case clasped tightly in her left hand. Her fingers tensed on the handle.
“I was going to. Do you need me to drop off anything?”
His brows pulled together and for a moment she thought he would question her. Then the tension drained out of him and he sighed.
“You are far more dedicated than me,” he said with a rueful smile.
She gave him a weak smile in return.
“It’s just the youth. It’ll fade.”
He huffed a laugh.
She took that as her cue and turned away. She rolled her two year old, navy blue suitcase behind her. A gift from her father when she got the job at the university. He was proud, if not a little confused, that she would go into a field other than law or medicine. When she got her doctorate, he was amused. Not the kind of doctor I had in mind, he had joked.
She pushed through the glass doors to the sidewalk where a line of taxis waited. She would need to visit her parents. It had been too long. At least three months. She approached the closest taxi and the driver rushed to take her bag. After placing her suitcase in the trunk, he reached for the case. She pulled it to her and shook her head.
“Not this. I’ve got it.”
He shrugged and gestured for her to get in the backseat of the car. As he pulled away from the curb, she let her head drop back against the seat. Suddenly, every hour in the enclosed space of the plane, every breath she had taken of recycled air, came back to her and she let out a heavy sigh.
“Long trip?” the driver questioned.
She opened her eyes to see the driver glance at her in the rearview mirror.
She rocked her head to the side to watch the lights on the highway flash across the window. It began to drizzle.
“You from around here?”
“Born and raised,” she murmured without looking away from the play of light in the raindrops.
“Where we headed?”
She quickly told him her address and he continued to talk. With her gaze fastened on the window, she was vaguely aware of the driver’s continued chatter. When he began to speak about local sports, she tuned him out. Eventually the scene outside her window changed to her neighborhood. The car slowed and finally stopped at a ten story apartment building in a moderately wealthy neighborhood.
“Well, here we go,” the driver said as he put the car in park.
She watched the front door of her building open and the doorman, Benny, approach the taxi. He opened her door and gave her a bright smile.
“Pleasant journey, Dr. Kay?”
She gave the older man a tired smile.
“Yes, thank you.”
She smothered a yawn behind her hand.
“I’ll just have your bags taken up for you,” Benny said.
She gave him a grateful smile.
“Please just leave them inside the door.”
When she turned back to the car, he raised his eyebrows.
“You’re not staying?”
“I have to go by the university. I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
He looked concerned, but nodded.
She climbed back into the car and he closed her door firmly. She returned his wave, before she turned to the driver and told him where she need to go. He silently pulled away from the curb and headed for downtown Chicago. He quickly fell back into his cycle of chatter. As he spoke, she dropped her gaze to the case in her lap.
What am I doing?
The thought had been spinning around in her mind since she left the dig site. She was risking so much and for what? A curiosity. Some days she seriously disliked the part of her that sought to know everything about everything. Curiosity got her into far more trouble than anything else. It had been that way since she was a child. She doubted it would change.
The taxi pulled to a stop next to the backdoor of the science building and she popped open her door.
“Give me twenty minutes?”
He looked over his shoulder at her.
“The meter’s running.”
She nodded and slid out of the car. Her scuffed tennis shoes did not click on the concrete the way her usual heels did and she missed her lab coat when she reached for a pocket that was absent. Of course. She fished her keycard from the pocket of her jeans and swiped it to get into the building. The door beeped and she jerked it open.
The silence closed around her. She tightened her grip on the case and quickly took the stairs to the basement level. Made up of only personal labs, the basement was never seen by the university students. The nature of her work gave her an amount of privacy not afforded to the others in the building.
She swiped her card at the stairwell door to enter the basement and pulled the door closed behind her. The lights of the hallway flickered to life when she took a step forward. Her lab was the last on the left, larger than the others. She pressed her thumb to the panel next to the door and then raised her gaze to the retinal scanner. The door of her lab made a sharp clicking sound followed by a hiss. It slid aside to reveal a room of white walls and shining stainless steel.
She found herself smiling, as the door slid closed behind her. She set the case on the counter and raised her hands to rest over the clasps. For a long moment, she paused. Her eyes drifted to the machine she would use as an artificial womb. Until she placed the zygote in the machine, no one would ever know she did not destroy it in Siberia. As she stood perfectly still considering, a warm feeling ran down her spine.
She tensed, inhaling sharply. When nothing else happened, she dropped her gaze back to the case. The click of the clasps seemed to echo. She withdrew the cryotube and walked to the machine.
“Come on, Robin,” she urged herself.
She pressed a button and a small shelf slid out. Without giving herself time to overthink it, she opened the tube and placed the slide on the shelf. It vanished into the machine and a quiet hum started. She licked her lips nervously and took a step back. It was done. For better or worse, in several months she would have an embryo.
She turned around and closed the case. She walked out of her lab with it, not looking back once. The archiving was done on the third floor. Unlike the basement, the first, second, and third floors were under constant surveillance. She took the elevator. After placing the samples into the archives and uploading the data from her mobile, she tiredly left the building to return to the taxi.
The driver seemed to sense her mood, because he was blessedly silent on the way to her building. Benny smiled at her when she arrived, but she could not summon the energy to return it. He took it gracefully, simply nodding and pressing the elevator button for her. When she entered her sixth floor apartment, she nearly tripped over her bags. She fell asleep in the middle of her bed with her clothes on.