UReCA: The NCHC Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity 2020 Edition
The Geneticist’s Daughter
Rhode Island, USA
The jaw opened.
“At last,” Dr. Malthuse Viscerate breathed, stumbling away from the surgical table as the assembled fossil took its second breath of life.
“Stay back, Peyton,” he said to the little girl standing on the other side. She had her chin resting on the edge, eyes wide under her uneven bangs. Her butterfly scar cast a permanently flushed shadow across her nose and cheeks.
The aquilops fossil stretched in a feline manner. It had been the smallest one they could find for him at the museum, barely a foot and a half long.
Together they watched the fossil shake its horned skull.
Dr. Viscerate looked to his six year old daughter for approval. “It is just a skeleton now, but I have a friend coming to visit.”
“Will they make it furry?”
He winked at her. “If you want it to be furry.”
He admired the aquilops once more as it waddled around the table, mouth haphazardly opening to flick a tongue it did not have yet. At last, he had successfully completed the sequence. For five years, Dr. Viscerate had been studying semi-resurrection genetics: weaving living DNA into fossilized DNA to bring organisms back to life.
He was trying to be proactive in the field; species were dying. The extinction of the bees in 2047 was what triggered his active response and obsession.
This was the first promising result of his experiments.
Glancing at Peyton and her butterfly scar, he tried to think of the possibilities the aquilops had just unlocked to ease the nag of the sacrifices its resurrection had required.
Dr. Stece arrived the next day.
“Are you going to grow him a new skin?” Peyton asked, watching the cell biologist measure the aquilops. It sat eerily still beneath his device, almost as if it had reverted back to its inanimate status.
Dr. Stece wrote down a pair of numbers regarding area space. “I’ll have to find some organs first,” he said to her. “Can’t have it running around banging its empty head off the walls.”
“Him,” she corrected even as she giggled at his image.
“Hmm,” was the only other comment he gave her as he went back to measuring. Before Dr. Stece left that evening, Peyton handed him a picture. Graphite smudges were
visible on the sides of her palm. “I decided I don’t want fur,” she declared.
The cell biologist looked at the drawing. It was a child’s rendition of the aquilops head—cat eye sockets and lizard snout.
“Those are scales,” she said, pointing to the jagged circles.
“And what is this?” Dr. Stece mused, gesturing to the darker shading in the middle. Peyton beamed up at him. “That’s a butterfly scar. Like mine.”
Dr. Stece almost called Dr. Viscerate when he returned to his home. He wanted to tell his friend that he worried about Peyton. She was attached to this semi-resurrected fossil, giving it pronouns and asking him to give it flaws like her own.
As it turned out, Dr. Viscerate called him first.
“What happened?” Dr. Stece calmly repeated in the midst of Malthuse’s breathless rambling.
“The sequence must have had a glitch—”
Dr. Stece rubbed his eyes. He just wanted to sleep off his jet lag. “Where is it?” “I have it on the surgical table but listen, it’s in pieces.”
“You have mentioned that many times already. Where’s Peyton?”
There was a pause on the other end of the phone, as if Dr. Viscerate was confused he would be asked about the other actual living thing in his lab. “I think she’s upstairs in her room. I came down to check on it and it fell apart before my eyes!”
“I warned you, the DNA is too old. The code itself went extinct.” “But the DNA I mixed with it was fresh!”
Dr. Stece winced at the outburst. “How fresh?”
“A year after she was born. I’ve been keeping the rods frozen.” “Ethics, Malthuse,” Dr. Stece groaned.
There was no remorse in his friend’s voice. “Don’t code me. What is one life for the population of an entire species?”
“You should only say that when it is your life being traded for all the others.”
The phone was silent for a moment. It sounded as if Dr. Viscerate was setting something up. “If you want to fight over ethics,” he said, voice muffled as he moved around, “then tell me, how is your son Dex doing?”
Dr. Stece did not reply.
“Nothing to say about ethics there?” Dr. Viscerate prompted. “You can grow entire exoskeletons but you cannot grow him a new heart, can you?”
A long sigh loosed itself from Dr. Stece’s chest. “Listen, Malthuse. Your experiment failed. I can still send over the formula for the skin and if you put the skeleton back together you might be able to use my growth sequence with the original.”
“It has to be human,” the geneticist countered.
“No,” Dr. Stece snapped, “It doesn’t. I’ve been telling you that since you started this. You’re going to kill her.”
“I’m going to recreate the world.” The phone line clicked.
Peyton shuffled down the stairs to her father’s lab. Pushing the door open, she saw him at work on the surgical table.
“Is he okay?”
Dr. Viscerate barely heard her. She dragged a stool over to his side and sat.
Feet swinging idly, she handed him instruments from the tray while he pieced the aquilops back together.
When they finished, she caressed one of the aquilops’s horns. “Are you going to try again?”
He blinked at her in astonishment, as if he hadn’t noticed her presence the entire time. Then he cleared his throat. “Peyton, get out of the lab. This is not a place for children.”
Her face fell, butterfly scar reddening. But she hopped down from the stool and left. Dr. Viscerate sighed as he stared down at yet another failed experiment.
Then he went to the freezer and pulled out another rod of Peyton’s DNA.
The only warning before the avalanche was a sharp crack, like a remnant of thunder from the rains the night before. Peyton’s head snapped up, squinting for the source of the great roar echoing among the cliffs where she hunted. She detected the tumultuous snowball of rock mere seconds before it swallowed the path she’d been crouched on. Clinging to a muddy outcropping, she waited for the thick debris to settle before calling out, “Harry?”
The wind carried her voice out and down the cliff’s side, but a cough, followed by a masculine reply, came from above: “What triggered it?”
Peyton loosed a breath of relief and dropped from her last-second haven. She picked up her tools that hadn’t been buried or taken by the tumbling mass of rock and pulled herself up to where her companion had also taken quick refuge from the avalanche.
“I’m not sure,” she admitted, packing her chisels and brushes in the front pocket of her satchel. She checked the two carefully wrapped bundles tucked in the main pocket before slinging the strap across her body.
As Harry cleaned his mud splattered SMRT glasses with his sleeve, his wrist beeped. Peyton glanced at the flash of the turquoise holographic message that lit up before returning his skin to its olive complexion. “Dr. Malthuse needs me back in the lab,” he announced.
Peyton patted her satchel. “I’ll come with and drop these off.”
Harry laughed. “He won’t let you in the lab looking like that.”
She could feel the layers of dust and mud covering her. Her dark hair was tangled with clumps of clay. She had been digging around the cliff side since the storm ended early that morning, not wanting to risk the wet ground hardening again and limiting the depths she could search. It didn’t matter how she appeared though, he wouldn’t let her in the lab at all. She’d tried too many times before.
Shrugging off the thought as they headed toward the towers of civilization in the distance, she said, “Then he doesn’t get his fossils.”
By the time Peyton was done bathing, the AXIOM system in the apartment had alerted her professors that she wouldn’t be in class tonight. She braided her hair in a loose single plait and treated her almost faded butterfly rash scar with the cream Harry had created as part of his graduate research in epidemiology.
Wearing checkered pajama pants and a turtleneck, she padded into the median living space she shared with her father. Peyton put on her SMRT glasses and after blinking through her schedule, she asked the AXI to pull up the physics lesson she’d missed in lieu of checking the cliffs.
“Good afternoon Ms. Viscerate,” a unisex voice said from the glasses, “were you ill this morning? Section 417 had an excellent lecture about the possibilities of teleportation.”
“Doctor P93, my interest is in time travel, not teleportation. You know that.” Peyton blinked and the SMRT glasses pulled up where her notes ended; the last time she had attended this class was three weeks ago. “Tell me about wormholes.”
“Ms. Viscerate, wormholes are not listed on the syllabus.” “That’s why I need you to tell me about them.”
“I am sorry Ms. Viscerate, that subject is beyond my programmed knowledge. Perhaps next semester, Doctor P94 will be able to answer your questions.”
Peyton sighed and removed her SMRT glasses. She didn’t want to wait another semester to learn the quantum physics necessary to create and use a wormhole or T-cylinder. She’d already waited three years just to get into the lab program in Charmouth.
Her father had gotten into the lab program, as its director, and she spent her time on the cliffs of Lyme Regis waiting for an invitation to participate in his research, which never came.
Her classes bored her. PH 417. MA 300. BI 348. A little bit of history and English for her mother’s sake. Most of the subjects and levels she’d already excelled in before she graduated from secondary school, thanks to her own readings and by observing Dr. Malthuse Viscerate himself. The education system, despite its “developments” in the 2040s, was limited when it came to handling the latest descendent of the Viscerate geniuses.
Since she’d already told her professors she wouldn’t be in class tonight, she picked up the paperback she’d left on the coffee table last night after the storm woke her. The Doctors like P93 who had replaced physical professors in 2041 might not be able to answer her questions, but books, their advancements peaking nearly eighty years ago, never failed to satisfy her curiosities for a few hours. Even when all she did was re-read the same ones.
Halfway through the paperback for the fourteenth time, her wrist beeped. The turquoise hologram message flashed for six seconds before it was gone.
What are you doing? It was from Harry.
Peyton dogeared her page before putting on her SMRT glasses to reply: Reading Mary Anning’s biography.
The SMRT glasses played an audio message of his chuckle followed by her wrist flaring with a single word: Again?
What else am I supposed to do? I ditched all day. Her biology class was gathering in two minutes. They could talk about synthetic technology without her.
Are you even still enrolled?
Peyton shrugged, knowing that the SMRT glasses would send a video of the motion. Almost a full minute passed before Harry replied again: Come to the lab.
She waited but he sent nothing else. Why the lab? Dr. Malthuse rarely permitted her an invitation there. And if he did she never stepped past the door. She checked but had no messages from her father.
Peyton wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to go to the lab. She quickly changed into jeans and her only pair of vintage tennis shoes that weren’t muddy from various escapades at the cliffs. Leaving her SMRT glasses on the coffee table next to the paperback, she left the apartment.
Dr. Malthuse’s lab was located in the basement of the fifth civilization tower, called the M tower. There were five of them total built for the Charmouth academic population, the highest reaching up to one hundred floors. The first two towers, A and X, housed all of the students, professors, and guest researchers. Towers I and O were for the classrooms. Hardly anyone else outside of the institution resided in the Charmouth and Lyme Regis area, save for a few stubborn tourist locations run by families who had lived there since Mary Anning had actually been alive.
Peyton scanned her thumbprint at the entrance to tower M. An AXIOM system offered assistance to her destination but she ignored the voices in the ceiling and walls and descended the closest flight of stairs.
Her thumbprint could get her into any of the towers as long as she was enrolled in the institution. But she was limited to the classrooms and labs on her registered schedule.
On the negative first floor, there was only one room. A label that read “Dr. Malthuse G. Viscerate” was posted next to the door, almost like one might see outside an office. Except this office was barred and quadruple locked. Peyton hesitated before knocking. The sound echoed down the rest of the too brightly lit hallway. A mixture of chills and nerves settled in her stomach. Thankfully, the AXIOM system couldn’t be programmed belowground yet.
She couldn’t hear anyone behind the door and after waiting at least five minutes, she wished she had brought her SMRT glasses with to tell Harry she was here.
Finally, one of the locks thumped heavily, making Peyton jump. The other three locks followed and the bars retracted. A pair of brown eyes behind clear goggles appeared.
“Took you long enough,” Harry beamed, locking the door behind her. He handed her a white lab coat, goggles, and boots she could step into while still wearing her own shoes. Protocol gear so one didn’t drag anything in, or out, of the labs.
“I’ve been standing outside for at least ten minutes,” she protested, following him into the lab as she adjusted her goggles. She hated wearing them in the same manner she hated wearing the SMRT glasses; she’d needed actual glasses when she was a child, before she participated in the Prescription Prevention Surgeries in 2074 that perfected everyone’s eyesight with lens layering metamorphosis instead of lasers. The prototype for the SMRT contacts debuted soon and she wasn’t sure how eager she was to put something in her eyes again after the PPS.
Unnaturally evolved eyes now taking in all they could, she marveled at the lab she’d never been in but that Harry told her all about whenever he joined her on the cliffs. They walked by rows of tables like those in her general biology labs. But these were topped with elaborately set up stations for probes, dyes, and PCR tubes. Dr. Malthuse’s genetic experiments. Some of the blocks looked like they were in the process of reading DNA sequences.
Harry briefly gestured to his assigned stations, “Cures in progress for respiratory diseases.”
Next were flat surgical tables. Some had white sheets covering lumps of various sizes. Peyton spotted her two bundles of fossils from this morning on one of the carts with the scalpels.
“Anatomy stations,” Harry commented, looking a little uncomfortable. Peyton wondered how many other students worked in here with her father. Dr. Malthuse rarely talked about the process of his work unless it was successfully completed and published. And even then it was merely an arrogant shrug and an “on to the next experiment” kind of celebration.
They had only travelled about halfway down the length of the lab but Harry turned on his heel and wandered back to the safety of his diseases.
“What about the rest of it?” Peyton asked. A pair of white curtains were half closed next to the anatomy stations. More white curtains were strung up past them. They looked like the old fashioned individual hospital rooms. Or like they were covering something.
Harry looked under a microscope. “You’re not supposed to be down here. I can’t have you poking around the work Dr. Malthuse doesn’t even let me near.”
Peyton put her hands on her hips. “Then why did you tell me to come?”
Her first, and only, friend since she’d arrived at the institution six months ago shrugged and ran a hand through his blond curls. “Honestly, I felt a little bad. You always find the best fossilized DNA sequences for him and he doesn’t even let you in the lab? His success wouldn’t exist without you.”
Peyton felt her face blush, particularly in the pattern of her fading butterfly scar. She never credited herself to her father’s fame. Dr. Malthuse was the first semi-resurrection geneticist to bring species back from their extinction. Not that she had actually seen any of his resurrections. He only gave access to his highest colleagues and conference programs.
She sat down across from Harry at the table where his experiment was set up. “I don’t do the science. I just find things.”
“Of course you do the science,” Harry countered, writing something down in a notebook. “You talked my ear off about wormholes the other day. You’re graduating from a science driven undergrad program in a semester and you’re only seventeen.”
“That’s not his science though,” she said. Her father was just as ignorant as the Doctors when it came to her fascination with time travel. Nor did Dr. Malthuse care much for Mary Anning, even if it was her biography that had gotten Peyton interested in hunting for the fossils her father now requested on a weekly basis.
Harry sat back, lifting his goggles to rub at his eyes. He looked tired. “No. But it’s your science.”
Peyton smiled. He was right. Her father had his lab and while she’d longed for three years to just sit in it as she was right now, she had her cliffs any time she wished.
She sat quietly while Harry finished his observations for the evening. When he was done, they shed their lab clothing and shut off most of the lights.
At the door, Peyton looked once more at the experiments scattered on tables. Intense research that left her alone in the apartment for weeks at a time, but she doubted her father had ever experienced the thrill of an avalanche.
When she turned her back to the lab, there was a gentle roar, like something was mocking her thought and the memory of this morning.
Peyton glanced back. The curtains wavered in a non-existent wind. She thought she heard the sound of claws on metal. Harry shut the door and the locks and bars activated into place.
Peyton woke up before the AXIOM system could tell her to. When she padded into the kitchen, she found her coffee already waiting for her, unsurprising since the AXI personalized and prepared all of their meals for them. What she did find surprising was Dr. Malthuse sitting in the chair across from hers.
Her father sipped from his own mug—the orange tea scent drifted to her. His SMRT glasses never left his face and he tucked his chin to stare at her over the frames now.
“Where were you last night?”
Peyton’s heart thudded and she was grateful her sleeve covered the FitChip embedded in her left wrist that flared as her pulse quickened. She didn’t know how he’d respond to her unauthorized visit to the lab.
Before she could decide whether to lie or confess Harry’s invitation, Dr. Malthuse added, “I gave a presentation in your biology class. Your seat was the only one empty.”
She must have missed the class note about a guest speaker when she blinked through her schedule yesterday. Shoulders slumping in relief, Peyton sat down and wrapped her hands around her coffee. Her purple FitChip numbers faded as her heart took up its normal pace again.
“I stayed in to read,” she said.
Dr. Malthuse made a thoughtful sound. “Doctor P93 informed me that you stay in to read often.”
Peyton shrugged. “What did you present?” Her father hadn’t given many classroom presentations at the institution during his entire two decades in Charmouth. Most of his work was for the minds of “equal tiered scientists” only.
“I explained my theory of genus DNA quality versus species quality.” Dr. Malthuse’s dark hair, similar to Peyton’s, covered the tops of his ears. It was due for a cut last week but she knew he’d been more preoccupied with his recent resurrection than his health or appearance. Or her.
“Species, obviously,” she stated.
Dr. Malthuse made a thoughtful sound, finished his tea, and stood. Peyton watched him walk out of the kitchen without another word or glance at her. She didn’t realize how tightly she was gripping her coffee mug until her FitChip beeped once. Blood circulation error, the purple letters flashed for six seconds. Indeed her fingertips were as pale as the porcelain. She forced herself to relax.
So, her seat had been the only one empty last night. Even if she had been there, her father would have looked over her like he just did. She was simply the overly ambitious pupil. He was the scientist, the geneticist.
What if she found something as great as a way to bring the mythical honeybees back from their disappearance in 2047?
Like a wormhole. Or a major fossil, one she hadn’t handed over to Dr. Malthuse yet. There was one place she could go.
The bell chimed as the Tray Geology Museum door closed behind her. Peyton walked right past the front displays of recent extinctions and extractions to where Liam Tray stood behind a counter full of more insects that no longer roamed Lyme Regis.
“Mary’s serpent,” she said by way of greeting.
Liam was an older man, who had been the overseer of TGM with his wife, Liza, for nearly thirty years now. Neither of them wore SMRT glasses or had an AXIOM system installed in the museum or their home where they often invited Peyton for holiday dinners. He squinted at her now, a few more freckles and wrinkles added to his brown face since she’d last seen him.
“Peyton, shouldn’t you be in school?”
“This is for a project,” she lied, impatient even though she had no deadline, just the frustration of being overlooked by her father, by her Doctors, by just about everyone slowly reaching the edge of her internal emotional waterfall. If she had gone to Dr. Malthuse’s lecture last night, she doubted anyone would have noticed their familial connection.
Liam smiled but his warm hazel eyes were wary. “What do you need?” The Trays knew her questionable school record as well as Harry.
“Mary Anning’s plesiosaur. Please,” she added.
Soft steps halted behind Peyton. She turned to see Liza and her red curls holding a duster. The woman looked to her husband and said, “No.”
Liza turned, stalking to a collection to furiously, or fearfully, begin dusting again. Peyton followed after her, Liam squeezing from behind the counter to join.
“Why not?” Peyton stood with her chest square to Liza’s shoulder. Slightly taller, she could see the dust particles that found a new resting place in Liza’s hair.
“No,” Liza repeated, carefully returning a mammal’s foreleg to its display. She never spoke more than a syllable or two since Peyton had known her, for reasons unshared by Liam.
He gently took Liza’s arm now. They made eye contact before Liza stormed away again, this time to one of the back rooms.
Peyton stared after her before turning to Liam. “What did I do? Why is she acting like that?” The Trays always welcomed Peyton’s questions about Mary Anning; the museum they ran was the original one in which Mary had been first recognized.
Liam sighed. “Peyton, we’ve enjoyed your company, but I’ll have to ask you leave now.” He began to shuffle back to the counter.
Liam Tray was the last person who deserved to be lashed out at, but Peyton felt as tense as the moments before an avalanche. She needed something to hold over her father until he realized the jealousy he’d implanted in her. They should have been successful together. Instead, he’d isolated himself, and in doing so, he’d isolated Peyton as well.
“Show me the bones,” she said, planting her palms on the glass countertop.
Liam narrowed his eyes. They looked more brown than green, like the cliffs “I cannot.” “Why?”
He leaned over the counter until they were nose to nose. “He already took them.”
Peyton marched back toward the civilization towers. The weather in Lyme Regis and Charmouth was grey but she didn’t feel any excitement about an incoming rainfall or fossil hunting. Her mind could only focus on a hurt within her as deep as she sometimes had to dig in order to uncover a full fossil sequence. Harry had said her father’s work was only due to her findings. Had Dr. Malthuse ever made his own, and not told her? If what Liam said was true, he’d done much worse. Anger flushed her skin, outlining the butterfly scar first, as Peyton stormed into the apartment.
The AXIOM system stayed quiet as she stepped first on a chair and then the counter to reach on top of the cabinets in the kitchen. Her hands glided over the dusty wood before she found the handle and carefully brought the briefcase back down with her. Carrying the briefcase to the table in median living space, she apologized to Harry in her mind. The latches clicked open easily.
Four months ago, she swore she’d never use the contents within. But when she swiped a piece of Harry’s blonde curls, she knew she was lying; she wouldn’t have copied the DNA code at all if she hadn’t intended to use it. Keeping the glove close to her chest without smudging the imprint, she haphazardly kicked the briefcase under the couch and shut the apartment door behind her.
The apartment’s AXIOM stayed silent as it watched her leave.
Tower M’s AXIOM system offered assistance once again, and again Peyton ignored it and plunged into the basement level. Her hand shook as she slid the glove on and held it up to the security system.
A heartbeat passed.
The locks opened so loudly that Peyton thought her father or Harry would hear from wherever they were and come running. But no one came down the too bright hallway and she stepped into the lab.
She didn’t put on the coat or glasses or boots. She walked past the genetic and anatomy tables. Her bundle of fossils no longer sat where they had the other day.
Her FitChip flared with a purple alert as she approached the section Harry had been too nervous to go past. With the DNA glove still on her hand, Peyton reached out toward the white fabric that wavered as if an invisible breath constantly disturbed it. Her fingers brushed the edge.
The curtains flung open.
Peyton jumped backward at the hot rush of air that swept past her, making her eyes water and her hair tangle. When she looked back up, the room was just an empty cavernous space. The other curtains she’d seen when Harry invited her were not hanging anymore. She slowly walked into the space, letting the initial white barrier return to a fabric blockade behind her once more.
As Peyton walked, she saw rectangular outlines of dust on the ground.
“Something was here,” she murmured to herself. She had glimpsed the white covered holding compartments before.
Other patterns of unidentifiable prints also disturbed the dust.
What had her father been holding?
Peyton’s foot slipped. She caught herself and looked down at the hazard. A manilla folder, which she’d never seen before, lay among the dust and markings.
Crouching, she flipped it over. Three paper clipped packets fell to the ground. Her eyes skimmed the first one. It looked like a profile.
Subject: Dex Stece
DOB: January 20, 2068
DOE: June 01, 2078
Fossil: Ichthyosaur, pterosaur
Notes scribbled in her father’s handwriting were all over the page, but she’d never learned how to read his cursive scrawl so she moved on to the next file.
Subject: Alissum and Amelia Tray
DOB: November 5, 2072
DOE: June 01, 2078
Post-diagnosis: Color blindness and severe skin allergy
Something didn’t feel quite right. These were young subjects. And Peyton had never heard Liam or Liza talk about any family; they were the last generation of Trays as far as she knew.
The last paper clipped file read:
Subject: Peyton Viscerate
DOB: May 31, 2070
DOE: June 01, 2071
Her hands were shaking and she could feel her face paling, particularly in the shape of the scar across her nose that even Harry’s epidemiology research couldn’t heal.
From where she crouched, a hot breath moistened her neck. Peyton let the papers scatter as they fell to the floor. She looked over her shoulder.
Mary Anning’s plesiosaur fossil from the Tray museum stared back.
It had a butterfly scar.