Here's the first two chapters of The Catalyst. The story is written in four parts, the first two in "Book One" and the last two in "Book Two". The last two parts should be out around mid 2015, after the third book of the Dems Trilogy.
“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
- J. Robert Oppenheimer
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?
“A metacarpal.” 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 in the tent. 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 cataloged 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.