Expert Voices

'Catalyst' (US 2014): Book Excerpt

Catalyst book cover, genetic engineering
(Image credit: Penguin/Kathy Dawson Books)

Penguin/Kathy Dawson Books contributed this excerpt to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights


California Senator Alexander Milford is Dead at 64 9.6.2151 (States News Press) — Alexander Milford, Senator from the State of California for twenty years, died Sunday morning.

Senator Milford had been diagnosed with cancer only three days before his death, after passing a health screening one month earlier. Test results have strongly suggested a biological attack, and a subsequent homicide investigation has been opened.

"Preliminary reports show that foreign, altered DNA was found in the senator's tissue samples," said Dr. Meerhoven, Chief Pathologist at Sacramento's state hospital. "Every cell type in his body had become cancerous." 

Senator Milford spent the last few years of his life rallying against HGM 2098, which outlaws genetic manipulation of human DNA. While not a direct proponent of the practice of genetic manipulation, his concern was for the human results of such experimentation. Others, however, have strongly disagreed.

"Human DNA must remain pure," said Dr. Meerhoven, a vocal advocate for HGM 2098. "Those carryingg aberrant DNA—who are capable of poisoning the gene pool as they did with Senator Milford—cannot be allowed to exist. We will find the source of this altered DNA. We will find this person and others like them. And we will purge them to protect our society."

State lawmakers are already pushing for amendments to strengthen the law, calling for mandatory population screening to prevent possible deaths. Quarantines are already being prepared in every State. 

"There will be no judge or jury. By federal law, anyone with artificially altered DNA should not, and cannot, exist," said a U.S. marshall at a CDC press conference. 

Many elected officials are now having their own blood tested for signs of the abnormal DNA. Thousands of citizens across the States have lined up at local clinics for testing, and orders for CompuDocs CancerClean screening programs have risen exponentially. 

Chapter 1

Alone is a four-letter word.

Of course, no one in our crazy makeshift family at Carus House will ever admit this, especially while setting up for our nightly slumber party. 

"Hex, get your Bomb Bed out of my corner." Vera is stomping around our common room, a blur of gesticulating green arms. Blankets and pillows are piled everywhere. 

"Stop calling it that." Hex pushes his bedding back against the glass wall. He likes to sleep with his four arms splayed out, so he laid an extra mattress across the top of another and piled on countless pillows, giving it a mushroom-​cloud shape. Hence "the Bomb Bed." It's also a convenient reference to the fact that Hex gets bomb-​tastically gassy after dinner from Vera's fiber-rich meals. 

"Anyway, you don't even need to sleep in here. The temperature in your room is perfect," he says, dodging a swipe of her green hand. Vera and her skin-embedded chloroplasts thrive in warmer temperatures, yet she loudly complains about her hot room anyway. But she just doesn't want to be alone. Same as the rest of us.

Since we lost Cy over a year ago, everyone finds all sorts of reasons to be in each other's presence, as if the world and our fear are cramming us closer every day. Dyl doesn't complain when I insist on brushing her hair before bed. For a whole hour. It's a miracle she has any hair left. And I say nothing when she and Ana sit reading on the floor by me, each leaning on one of my legs, fixing me in place while I work on my e-tablet. My legs get all hot and claustrophobic when they do that, but I can't bring myself to tell them. 

We've been sleeping in the common room because the environmental controls have stopped working in parts of Carus House. Our home is growing decrepit, in bits and pieces. Wilbert, who had all the know-how for fixing things, went back to Aureus. And after our battle in the junkyards last year, we lost access to parts and equipment anyway. Even before the assassination of her senator uncle, Marka's allowances outside Carus were limited. Were it not for Vera's wicked gardening skills, we'd have gone hungry a long time ago. Even so, there's a clock ticking down in Carus. We can feel it in our bones.

The common room is one of the only rooms left that doesn't feel like Antarctica or the Sahara all the time. We could spread out to different corners of the room. It's big enough. But instead, we end up sleeping like a big egg yolk in the middle, within arm's reach of one another. 

In the middle of the night, I sacrifice sleep to simply watch them, hugging my arms to myself. Savoring the hours we have together. I watch Hex and Vera hold hands all night long. Ana curls into Dyl's arms, even though Ana's the tall one. It pains me that Cy can't witness this sweet evolution of our family. 

Marka, the only adult at Carus, sleeps at the center of our human galaxy. She takes turns resting with her hand on Hex's ankle or Ana's wrist, as if afraid they'll disappear before dawn. Last night, when her blind search for my hand came up empty, she found me sitting against the glass wall.

She came over and started combing her fingers through my frizzled hair. I'd have stayed there in silence for hours, but Marka knows when I'm playing chicken. She always knows.

"You miss Cy," she whispered, matter-of-fact.

"I'm fine."

Marka wrapped her arms around me. "You're a lousy liar." 

And that's when I cried. 

No one brings him up anymore, and I don't talk about him. I don't want to be a downer, so every day I wear my plastic happiness like a suffocating, form-fitted skin with no cracks. 

It's been over a year since he sacrificed himself to Aureus, so that they'd let Dyl go and take him instead. Aureus is like the opposite of Carus House: Instead of being a safehouse, it's an exploitation factory—if you are traited. They'd mistakenly abducted my sister looking for my valuable longevity trait, but wouldn't let her go for free. The price was Cy. His regeneration trait is as valuable as mine.

Cy's scent was gradually swept out by the vents, replaced by the unlovely, sticky air of the State of Neia. I used to burrow my nose into his worn-out shirts, knowing that every breath I took whisked him away. 

"Earth to Zel!" Vera hollers at me, snapping me out of my reverie. 

I realize I've been sitting at the common room table, staring into space like a neurodrug junkie. I was supposed to help Hex and Vera rearrange the bedding, but they've stopped fighting and it's all done already. 

"I'm so sorry, what?" I say blankly.

"What is with you, Quahog? Dyl's been calling you. Didn't you hear?" Vera's using her pet name for me. She thinks it's adorable to compare me and my longevity trait with a clam that can live over four hundred years. Truth is, I try to forget I even have a longevity trait. Because it will mean that I'll outlive everyone I love.

"Zelia, I said, can you come to the lab please?" Dyl speaks to me through the walls, the transmission crackling with static. These days she's in the lab all the time, without me. Her virtual professor, a ringer for Marka, has stepped in to teach Dyl when I haven't had the time.

Hex has lifted Vera off the floor with her legs bicycling helplessly in the air. She's squealing and laughing, trying to escape his masterful hugging technique. 

"It's no use. You shall never defeat me!" he yells triumphantly.

"All right! You win, insect." Her face is that brownish color that shows she's blushing through her green skin. I know the make-out session is about to happen, so I scurry out of the room, protective of their time together. 

I head for the door. Before I exit, something catches my arm. It's like a soft hand, but no one is there. It's Ana, Cy's sister. I'm used to her ghostly touch from afar by now. Usually, she'll also whisper in my ear from another floor entirely, but this time she says nothing.

Maybe she's with Marka in her bedroom. Lately Marka's been focused on the holographic screen in her room, absorbing every detail about her uncle's death. Senator Milford brought her to safety and built Carus House for her. He thought she was a gift to the world and deserved to live, and fought HGM 2098 in public. And now he's gone.

We've all taken turns bringing her food because she's losing weight from stress. The silence in that room has been frightening, bigger than the room and Carus itself. We know she's not just in mourning. 

Ever since I took Marka's bionic-smell-enhancing pills last year, I've had a lingering, watered-down sense about people I hadn't had before. Dad had warned me about long-term side effects of pharmaceuticals, and Marka's scent trait in pill form was no ordinary drug. Now when she's nearby, I can faintly detect a sharp, metallic scent. Fear.

The transport is humid and warm, and it gets stuck on the third floor, though Dyl's lab is on the fourth. I curse and kick the walls. Another casualty of the failing muscle and sinew of Carus. After a lot of huffing and two broken nails, I pry open the circuit board and override the door locks, then take the stairs to the lab. 

Ana is in her pajamas, perched on a stool with a lit Bunsen burner before her. The yellow-and-blue flame wobbles when I approach.

I'm making beasts, Ana says in my head, waving her hands at a collection of tiny glass animals spread out in a menagerie. Dragons, unicorns, and mermaids, among other things. They aren't perfect. Pointy glass juts out from odd angles of each one. Only if you blur your eyes can you see the creature it's meant to be.

Dyl walks over, all gangly in a pair of shorts and faded T-shirt topped with an oversized lab coat. Her hands come to rest on her hips. I hang my arm around her shoulder and she leans into me. I love when she does that.

"We only have so many pipettes, Ana. Really. I need them," she chides.

I need them, Ana says in our heads. This is part of her trait. She can make us hear her without uttering a word. Though whether she's echoing or arguing now, it's hard to tell. The thin glass pipette is like a transparent straw with a tiny narrow end. She holds it over the Bunsen burner with a flameproof glove until a section of glass glows orange, then bends the softened section at an extreme angle and repeats the process. When she's done, she's got a prickly glass ball that resembles a sea urchin. After it cools, she presents it to me on a bare, outstretched palm.

Be careful. If you breathe, it breaks.

"It's pretty Ana, but don't—"

Ana squeezes the urchin and cries out like a stepped-on kitten.

"Oh Ana!" Dyl rushes to her side to pluck the glass figurine out of her hand while I survey the damage. Luckily there's no broken glass embedded in her palm, but the cut is deep. Dyl hastily places the urchin on the table, but she's not careful. It skitters with a squeak and there's a tinkle of broken glass.

Ana pouts. It died.

Dyl retrieves a first aid kit from a drawer and I get to work cleaning the cut. When I wash away the blood, the wound seems far less deep than before. I blink several times. Huh. I guess the blood made it seem worse than it really is. Ana stares forlornly at the sprinkle of glass shards on the floor.

She is a wonder, even now. And a worry. Ana can make the kraken out of glass but doesn't have the sense not to impale herself on it. 

It was beautiful, she says wistfully.

"Just because it's beautiful doesn't mean it can't hurt you," I say.

But I loved it.

Love is no guarantee of safety either, I want to say. I think of Dad. His lies, how he experimented on my mother, how she chose freedom over family and, in the giddiness of her new life, forgot her annual vaccine packet. Now she's dead. Dad was responsible for the creation of children destined to be nothing but raw material for Aureus products. Marka thinks there might be a hundred of us, in total, scattered around the States. Some in safe houses, some in not-so-safe houses. But no one knows for sure, except for Dad. And he's gone. 

Sometimes I hate myself for missing him, for missing his love. That is, if he loved me at all.

Once she's bandaged up, Ana starts reading a holo book. A much safer endeavor than playing with fire and glass. I tilt my head to scan the book title. Fine's Advanced Applied Mathematics. Relaxing stuff.

"So . . . why did you ask me to come?" I ask Dyl.

"Oh. I just missed you. How are your med school lessons going?" 

I shrug. "At a glacial pace." After Cy left, I took up the medical duties at Carus. Marka said someone had to take over his job. Since I was getting way too depressed rereading Dyl's poetry book and obsessing over Aureus's latest move, Marka put her foot down. Do something constructive, or else. 

"Um. So how are you?" I ask guiltily, realizing that I haven't asked in a while.

Dyl brightens and shoves her hands into her pockets. "The Ana research is going well. My holoprof helped me isolate the protein she sheds in her skin. It's pharmacologically active. I think the only people affected are ones she's been around. Even at a distance."

"Really," I say, but I'm staring out the window at the darkening twilight of the city. The agriplane looms like a dull, chalky blue ceiling above the buildings. Tons of crops are grown up there in Neia and the Dakotas, away from the more toxic soil on earth. Directly in my line of sight is the building I climbed over to the day I lost Cy. 

"Yeah. And what's more, it's exclusively for hearing her voice and touch, that's it. Not taste. That's good, right?"

"Right." I'm still staring at the building. The last time I tracked Aureus, they were in Arla, what used to be Arkansas and Louisiana. The patents for Cy's quick-healing elixirs had been emerging regularly, followed by the products hitting the shelves. The other products, like Accelerated Teggwear—thick, armor-like skin that can now be grown in a day—or ForEverDay—Wilbert's elixir that lets you stay awake for days without harmful effects (if you don't mind daytime dreaming)—they're still on shelves everywhere. The only reason they're not directly illegal themselves is that they don't alter the user's DNA. 

It's ironic the way people scramble to buy these products, and yet are so quick to decry HGM 2098. They have no idea that these products come from us—the traited, the genetically manipulated. The illegal.

But in the last month, no new products have come out of Aureus. They've disappeared. Which means Cy has disappeared. 

". . . because it would be bad if we tasted what she might dream about. Like wasabi-flavored scorpions."

"I'd eat that," Hex says, sailing in through the doorway with a cookie in each hand.

"Eat what?" I ask, totally out of it.

"You"—Dyl points a pipette at me—"aren't even listening to me. And you"—she points it at Hex—"are not allowed to eat in the lab! You'll get radioisotopes in your food!"

Hex hides two cookie-laden hands behind his back and shoves the other two in his mouth. "Who faid I waff eating anyffink?" He ambles over to me. "Marka wanfs to talk wiff you."

"Why didn't she call me herself?"

He swallows and picks a piece of raisin out of his teeth. "She says you don't respond to her calls.

I've been avoiding her since last night's cryfest, but tuck away the truth and smile brightly. "Oh. The wall coms must be worse off than last week." 

Hex points to the door. We make our way down the stairs to the first floor of Carus, which is the ninety-fifth floor of our building. Marka's bedroom is insufferably hot. I don't know how she can bear it.

She sits on her bed in a tank top and shorts, her sleek pixie cut revealing delicate cheekbones and concerned eyes. Vera's beside her, nibbling her fingernails. Also not a good sign. With this much floor space, she's usually in some joint-twisting yoga pose. 

"What's going on?" I ask.

"You're right on time. It's starting."

On the holographic wall screen, a woman stands behind a podium. She's got a lab coat on and wears glasses. Only people who don't trust technology wear glasses. 

"The recent attack on Senator Milford was a wake-up call to the illegal and unregulated genomic crimes in the States. We have located several sources of tainted DNA produced in direct violation of HGM 2098." She stands aside and holo photos appear beside her. 

The first photo shows a dead toddler boy with eerie grayish skin. He has no eyes, just plain, bald skin over where the sockets would be. The press corps gasps collectively. The photo is replaced by a baby-sized lump beneath a white sheet. A fuzzy halo of brown hair peeks out from the top. A plastic-gloved hand reaches toward the body and tugs the white sheet away. 

The baby is a dull, dead green. He could be Vera's baby brother. Or son, someday. 

My stomach folds in on itself and I touch the wall, steadying myself. The press corps buzzes with frantic exclamations of horror. 

Vera's face is frozen, but only for a second. Something horrible takes hold behind her eyes, widens, explodes. She bolts off the bed and out the door. Hex runs after her, his face harshly carved with concern. I can hear Vera hyperventilating as Hex murmurs to her in the hallway. Marka switches off the holo screen.

"Oh my god," I say, my hand shaking over my mouth. "They killed those children."

Marka's face is all grief, but there are no tears. Maybe she saves them for later, when no one can see, like I do. "I could have rescued some of them," she says. "New Horizons hasn't let me adopt anyone in a year." 

New Horizons is where Dyl and I ended up last year after our father died. It's where Marka found us; an insider from New Horizons would call her whenever abnormal blood tests came up with new residents. 

"No, Marka." We're all thinking it, so I might as well say it out loud. "It's not your fault. It's mine."

"Zelia, it's not that—" 

"It's okay," I whisper. "You don't have to make me feel better."

Though the assassination happened a month ago, the media has been swarming with panic over the existence of altered DNA. Until now, altered DNA has been "an issue" and a "credible threat," rather than real walking, talking people who might sneeze mutant DNA in your face. Today's news conference is epic, in the worst way. 

The day that news bulletin came out about the assassination, I wanted to die. The elixir I made was meant to turn regular DNA into the kind I had, the kind that might never degrade and might allow people to live forever. But when we tested it on Wilbert's guinea pig, Callie, she'd erupted in horrible tumors within hours. It ended up causing cancerous cells that grew out of control until she was dead. SunAj, Aureus's two-faced leader, had mentioned weaponizing my elixir. But when Dyl and I returned to Carus, I forgot about my trait-in-a-bottle that failed. In the blur of losing Cy, it was an afterthought.

"Somehow, the elixir I made got into the bloodstream of your uncle, Marka. I am responsible for his death, and we all know it." I've told her countless times already how sorry I am, but she's brushed the apologies away like errant table crumbs. 

Marka moves over to touch my arm. Her nose does that tipping-in-the air thing she does when she's reading my scent signatures. I wonder what a murderess smells like. Blood, maybe. She opens her mouth to say something, when Hex and Vera return. They both look shaky and wrung-out.

"Are we going to talk?" Hex says. "We need to start planning, like, a month ago."

"Plan what?" I ask. 

"Our evacuation," Marka says quietly. "My contact in New Horizons warned me that the police have been poking around their database. They'll decrypt my uncle's personal records. We can't stay here for much longer."

I take a huge breath after the dizziness sets in. My Ondine's curse. I put my necklace on quickly. The black box pendant dangles at my throat, triggering an implant within me to make my lungs expand and contract. It pushes and pulls my chest wall in that odd artificial way I don't like. Once my fuzzy brain gets enough oxygen, I start talking again.

"How long do we have?"

"I don't know, but we can't wait for someone to knock down our door. We'll prepare as fast as we can, and get out of here."

"Where can we go?" Vera asks.

"There's a safe house in Chicago."

"Okay," Hex says, two of his four arms crossed, the other two waving about. "I'll grow some fake F-TIDs. Every fingertip-ID is registered, but we can generate some black-market ones in a pinch. I have enough of that retinoic acid growth medium to make one for everyone. Vera, you get our provisions ready. Something that will keep for weeks, high protein and carb stuff. We need to load up more ethanol to run the chars. Dyl needs to destroy our DNA samples in the labs. We may even need to torch the rooms, to get rid of any lingering evidence. And Zel, you get medical kits ready to take on the road. Everyone's gotta pack their own clothes and disguises."

Vera, Marka, and I gape at him. 

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A small squeak issues from Vera's unbelieving mouth. "Since when did you become so . . . responsible?

Hex reddens. "Is that a problem?"

"Hells, no. It's hot!" she coos. I smile and Marka laughs quietly, when a feathery hand touches the back of my neck. I grab at it, but the wispy feeling goes away.

I cannot . . . It's the faintest whisper. 

It's not Ana. I know Ana's voice inside my head, and this wasn't hers. I spin around, but no one looks at me like I'm crazy. Hex and Vera quickly separate, startled.

. . . This place . . . 

"Holy crap. That sounded like Cy. Did you hear that?" he says.

I freeze, waving my hands at him to be quiet. But the touch that's not Ana's, and the voice—they're both gone. 

"I heard it too," Vera says. 

We all look around, confused at Cy's voice in our midst, when a loud pounding echoes from the main door upstairs. 

We all freeze. No one ever knocks on our door. No one.

Thump, thump, thump.

My heart jumps a mile. Cy!

"He's here! He's back!" I scream. I tear out the door and up the stairs. I can't see where I'm going, all I can think is, it's really happening. He's really back! Marka, Vera, and Hex follow me, barely able to catch up. As soon as we careen into the common room, tripping over the piles of pillows on the floor, a voice yells from behind the door.

"Open this door!"

We all freeze, the excitement on our faces melting instantly. 

It's not Cy's voice.

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