ABOOKWITHBEA EXCLUSIVE: Being by J. Kowallis

BEING

The acerbic smell of gasoline fumes seeped through the cracked windows. Martin turned the key in the car’s ignition and the rumbling engine cut out. He looked at himself in the visor mirror. Circles of dark exhaustion painted the skin beneath his eyes. The last couple years had sucked the color from the hair at his temples, streaking gray back into his dark hair. He was only forty-one. He wasn’t ready for middle-age yet, no matter how many times his one-nighters told him it looked “distinguished” when he chatted them up at the Blue Coyote bar. He swore under his breath and shoved the visor up towards the ceiling.

A grumble burst from his thin lips and he pulled out his e-cig and a new cartridge. He’d need the nicotine fix to get through the rest of the day. Gentry always told him smoking would kill him, and forced him to the e-cigs. He guffawed. Ironic for her to say, considering her life ended over a few hundred dollar bills.

He grabbed his keys, pushing the thought from his mind, and placed the e-cig between his lips before he stepped out. The balmy Arizona sun beat down on him. It was only eight in the morning—in the middle of March. One of the many reasons he hated the damn state. He couldn’t go back to D.C., though. Not anymore.

He stuffed the keys in his business slacks and slung the sport coat over his shoulder. When he reached the door, sweat was already pouring down his face. After entering the correct five number code, the print scanner ran over his thumb. The loud snap of the lock releasing to let him know he was approved, and he pushed the door open. He ran the keycard connected to the lanyard at his hip through the card reader at the next door. The door automatically slid open and he tromped in–the heels of his leather shoes clap, clap, clapping on the tile.

“Good morning, Director Lobb,” Cheri smiled from the receptionist desk. Her shirt had an extra button unfastened, a faint dip of cleavage visible. Martin’s eyes lingered there for a moment before he looked up at her.

“Cheri,” he nodded, with a smile, the e-cig hanging from his mouth. He pulled it out and walked over to her desk. “I heard we got a refrigerated package in today.”

“Yes. Dr. Dryer was here when it came. He said to tell you that they’re all ready for you.”

“Wonderful.”

Martin stuck the cig back in his mouth and inhaled. The nicotine calmed his nerves, the thrilling wave of virtual drugs filling his lungs. Inside his office, he hung up his sport coat and traded it for the lab jacket hanging on the peg. Just where he’d left it the night before after hours of research, cheap Chinese take-out, and impatiently waiting for the package that should have arrived twenty-four hours ago.

After setting the e-cig on his desk, he entered the private elevator behind his desk and straightened the blue silk tie around his neck.

Moments later, the door opened and he walked into an air-locked chamber. Using his keycard once more, he walked into the lab. Two assistants buzzed by him, chatting about the repercussions of cell fission.

Dr. Charles Dryer, a man who’d just celebrated his forty-fourth birthday, didn’t look a day over thirty-five. His dark skin was smooth as butter, with piercing dark eyes. Charles nodded to his assistant and looked up.

“Ah, Martin. You’re here. I want to introduce you to Ethan Folland. He’s a grad student from ASU.”

Martin reached over to shake the young boy’s hand. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-one. An eye patch covered his left eye. “What happened to your eye, kid?”

“High School sporting accident, Director. Baseball.” Ethan pressed a resigned smile.

“I know a man who works for the CIA. He’s developing a line of prosthetics. I should introduce you two. His name’s George Chilton, out of New York. Goes by Dr. George.”

Charles cleared his throat. “What we were just discussing, Martin, was the use of the control DNA in the embryos.”

“Sorry, Charles. We got those samples in this morning, right?”

“Yes,” Charles nodded. “We have the donors listed here.” He handed Martin a clipboard with three sheets of white paper. The donors, with their respective DNA traits and strengths were listed numerically.

“Do we have names for these people? Did we run security profiles?” Martin said, not lifting his eyes from the letters and statistical data.

“Already done, Director,” Ethan chimed in. “If you want to take a look at them, they’re waiting on the big screen over at the end of the lab.”

Martin nodded. “I do.” He followed Charles and Ethan through the busy lab and into a smaller meeting room. A large hi-definition screen was mounted to the wall with the U.S. government seal spinning slowly in the center.

He reached over and picked up the remote control and pressed the home button. The screen saver disappeared and up came a list of files. Martin moved through random reports, opening up each name. A picture, medical files, and a selection of other data appeared on the screen under each one. He selected the fifth one down, and the image of a Caucasian woman came on the screen. College student. He looked through the data and stopped.

“No, not this one. She’s got breast cancer in her family.”

“With all due respect, Comrade, we received two hundred samples today. Most of them are going to have cancer in their family lines,” Charles stated at his side.

“Not in this project.” Martin turned and glared at the doctor. “I said ‘perfect’ was what I wanted. Perfect is what I will have. We need two. Just two.”

Charles’ eyebrows raised and he sighed. “In that case,” he reached out his hand, “may I?”

Martin handed him the remote. If Charles had already had it narrowed down, this process would be much easier.

“There were only four donors out of the two hundred in the program without prior family illnesses. This includes diabetes, cardiac events, cancers, mental illness, and a host of other ailments. Many claimed that was the case, but just four of those sampled had blood work that stated otherwise.”

Charles pushed several buttons and four profiles appeared on the screen. Three males. One female. None of them were entirely exceptional. Normal jobs, clean records.

“What about him?” Martin motioned towards the third man. “Michael Lewis Naylor.”

The file opened. A man with piercing blue eyes, a soft demeanor, and receding hairline looked back at them. A thirty-seven year old family man with a wife and three kids. The oldest, a boy. Age seven. A girl, age three. And the youngest, a boy. Two months.

Martin’s thoughts shifted back, receding into his memories. Before he could get far—far enough to see his wife and daughter, but not far enough to feel the pain—he stopped himself and cleared his mind.

The donor, Mr. Naylor was struggling financially—which would explain why he volunteered for the paid program. Healthy. Decent IQ.

Martin scanned through the rest of the information. “I like him. I think he and the female are the right choices.”

A rap on the glass door pulled his attention away from the picture looking back at him. An assistant waited patiently until Charles opened the door. “What is it, Mr. Benning?”

“Director Lobb, Dr. Dryer, you wanted to be notified when the eggs were ready?”

Martin smiled. “Of course. I want to be a part of each step.” This was what they’d been trying for. Years of study, of trial and error, and it was finally coming together. He and Charles glanced triumphantly at one another. With the control DNA selected, the eggs prepared, and their sperm waiting in turn, his dream, his work, his life . . . was becoming a reality.

He left the room first, following the lab assistant across the wide room. “Explain to me how far along in the process you are,” he said to Charles at his side.

“As you know, each of these eggs is already modified with the enhanced DNA originally found within the egg. The enhanced abilities we’re hoping for are going to be dictated by the sperm, like gender used to be, so we won’t know what abilities present themselves until the embryos mature into children. In fact, like most people’s talents and inclinations, there’s a good possibility, that it make take years for their powers to fully mature.”

Martin nodded. “And compatibility?”

“Like puzzle pieces. Fit to precision.” Charles smiled. “So, now that the eggs are ready, and the control donors selected, we’ve got the right building blocks. The control DNA will be laced in with the corresponding egg and sperm DNAs to ensure links, and then we’ll be able to fertilize the eggs.”

“Right here, Director,” Ethan said, stepping in front of the two men. He motioned towards two glass vials resting beside a small machine and computer screen. “You’ll be able to watch the process on the monitor to your left.”

Ethan pulled a flat screen from the wall, pointing it in the direction of the men. On the screen, they could see a solitary egg, just waiting for them. Waiting to become what it was made for. Martin felt a swell of excitement in his chest. They were doing something special. Something that would change the world as they knew it. And he was humbled to think that it all started with him.

“Would you like us to narrate the process?” Ethan asked.

“No thank you, Mr. Folland, I know how genetics work.” Martin smiled at him and looked back at the screen.

At Charles’ notification, Ethan looked into the dual microscope for a moment before turning to the computer at his left. He pulled up the correct sample number from the control donors and popped a needle into the bottle to retrieve the sperm. He then inserted them into the system, and plunged the liquid out. A small second screen on the monitor showed the progress of the DNA mapping in the computer system, extracting the pre-set traits and categorizing them for use.

What would have taken months just two years ago would be finished in under five minutes. Ethan stuck a new small needle into a second slot attached to the machine and extracted a small amount of blue fluid.

“Which donor was this? The male or the female?” Martin asked.

“This . . .” Ethan said as he walked back over to the egg under the microscope, “was donor five-twenty-three.”

Martin turned to find the clipboard, which Charles was already holding out for him. He flipped through the pages, running his finger down the list. “Ah,” he muttered when he saw the last name. Naylor. The family man.

Ethan injected half of the blue liquid into the petri dish with the egg, and the rest, he inserted into a tall glass vial of semen. It was the tie. The connection that would make the perfect compatibility. The vial had a single last name around it. “Lobb.” So it was his own. Ethan set the needle down and picked up the vial. He swirled it around like a fine wine, mixing the sperm and the control DNA.

The most brilliant part about the sequencing . . . it was like a good marinade: it just needed time to sit. Soak and assimilate. He left the others behind with a quick mutter and, headed for his office. It would be hours before the egg would be ready to accept fertilization. The work that waited for him was tedious. With each booming tick of the clock, the hours went by like molasses on the winter street of D.C.  By nightfall, he’d forgotten what he was even supposed to be doing.  Intelligence reports. It didn’t matter. Not tonight.

His desk phone rang, and his finger leapt for the conference call button. “Charles?”

“It’s ready, Comrade.”

He didn’t need a second invitation. Martin put on his lab coat once more and rode the elevator down. The keycard swiped and he pressed against the glass door, sure that it wasn’t opening fast enough.

“Director,” Ethan smiled in greeting.

Martin took his place where he could see the flat screen well. He couldn’t miss this. Not the fertilization of the first two embryos. His own children, in a way. Two vials of semen. Two Petri dishes.

He nodded to Ethan to start. Up on the screen the first egg rested in the liquid around it. The brilliant young assistant, doing the job of a geneticist twice his age, inserted a hair-like biopsy needle into the first vial of semen, the one labeled “Lobb” that had just been combined with the control DNA. The fine needle appeared on the side of the screen and Martin looked back up to the egg under the high-powered microscope. The needle, controlled by the equipment that had made all this possible, a technological advance birthed from Lobb’s own mind. It was simple, really. The speed of the process, the design of the biopsy needle . . . it had to be perfect. Something no human was capable of.

The sharp tip gently inserted itself under the thin membrane of the egg. A small selection of semen swam inside and the needle slid out of view. After Ethan set the Petri dish to the side, one of the other five lab assistants retrieved it, taking it away.

“Was that one for the waiting surrogate?” Martin asked.

Charles nodded. “You’re sure the cryogenic freeze won’t kill the other three embryos once they’re fertilized?”

“I’m sure of it.” Lobb turned.  “I wouldn’t risk it unless I was sure.”

Ethan began work on the second egg marinating in the cool blue DNA.  He slipped a new needle into the second vial of semen. A different label, “Masters,” was printed across the side. Martin nodded. The Vice President.

As the process was repeated, the fertilized egg was moved off to the side. A third assistant approached to grab the dish, and Martin held up his hand. The girl backed off and waited while Martin moved toward the dish on the cleanly polished countertop.

“I can’t believe it,” he whispered. “Years of study, and it’s finally happening.” He hunched down near the dish, just to get closer. To feel a part of this moment. “You’re the beginning of something great,” he hushed, as if it were already his child. “Something I’ve only ever dreamed about.”

Martin reached out and spun the dish slightly to the left so the label appeared on the side. The name for each of the subjects had been pre-determined at the very start of the project—even before the genders had been determined.

REGINALD. Beside it, a pink dot.

“Reginald,” he whispered, realizing the comic irony of the name. “Reggie. My sweet Princess. We’re going to change the world. You are the answer. The perfect . . . being.”

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