Preview The First Chapter of Primordium

Chapter One: Pridapt Incorporated

It was a monster. I knew that much. Why else would they be hiding it? So I thought every morning as I walked past the only laboratory door my keycard would not open. Four years I had been working at Pridapt Incorporated, with unfettered access to all the research labs except for the one behind the steel gray doors of the East Wing. Of course, it was not unreasonable of them to keep secrets; research facilities always do—novel ideas, patented techniques and formulas. I was merely a part-time lab assistant after all, hired at thirteen thanks to my mother, one of Pridapt’s PhD researchers. But I worked on every other project; why not this one? They could trust me. I wouldn’t have told anyone. Besides, whom would I have told? It’s not like I went out much. I loved working there, running experiments in the lab, seeing science in action. I would never have jeopardized my employment there. But rules were rules, I supposed. I satisfied my frustration that morning, as I did every morning, by fantasizing about the horrific thing that must be lying there hidden from view.

“Morning, Noah,” one of my mother’s coworkers called out to me, ending my monstrous fantasy.

“Morning, Dr. Dave,” I returned with a smile. I had known Dr. Dave Bernstein for as long as I could remember. When I was a small boy, hanging on to my mother’s lab coat, he would crouch down to my level and speak to me. What I recall most vividly, was the way his forehead would crunch up into a stack of little folds every time he smiled at me. It’s how I knew he was in a good mood. If he ever looked at me with a smooth forehead, I knew something was wrong. Next to my mother, he was my key mentor, having taught me most of the skills I used in the lab. He was in his fifties, married, with two grown daughters. I was like the son he’d never had and he, the father I’d never known.

Despite having barred me from the East Wing, Pridapt was good to me; everyone accepted me. They were brilliant, some with doctorates in multiple fields, but they always talked to me as if I were a colleague. Sometimes they forgot about the knowledge gap between us, going on and on with their technical jargon until my glazed look reminded them that I was only seventeen. Youth was one of my greatest assets, my mother often told me. Despite their brilliance, Pridapt researchers were clueless about social media and mass marketing. Having always sold their ideas to foundations, other PhDs, lawyers, or CEOs, they’d all but forgotten how regular people think. Walking into the auditorium, I looked up at the banner hanging from the ceiling and smiled.

Destroyed by Man – Restored by Man

That was all me—that catchy slogan—that was my idea. Just a lab tech and a kid, I had come up with the showcase slogan for one of the world’s largest biomedical research companies. Across the expanse of seats, I saw my mother beaming at me. She pointed to the banner and gave me a thumbs-up, her steel-blue eyes shining beside her dark-brown hair. Appearing so youthful, people often mistook her for my older sister. She was only thirty-seven, having adopted me when she was twenty. I'd heard bits and pieces of my story over the years: how she had arranged a private adoption from my birth mother, a child herself, abandoned by my father before I was born. I have no memories of it, of course. Never thought much about it either, except when others brought it up. It's good to talk about such things, I suppose, to put them to rest; but it can work both ways. High school had been difficult for me, socially and academically. My mother had homeschooled me through eighth grade, and while I never had any trouble understanding the schoolwork she taught me, I had a terrible time with the multiple choice tests I was given in school. I still have a hard time with them, and with all standardized tests. Apparently, I read too much into the questions or “over-think” them, as my mother would say. After nearly failing two classes, the school recommended that I receive counseling. During one of those sessions, my guidance counselor asked me a lot of questions about my “father issues.” I liked the sound of that phrase, and from that day on, it became my excuse for everything. “I never knew my father,” was all I had to say. It worked like a charm until I made the mistake one day of using it on my stand-in father, Dave.

“Don’t give me that crap,” he snapped back. “You make your own way in this world, good or bad.”

I tried to remember that comment whenever I was tempted to fall back on my old excuses, which unfortunately was pretty often. In Dave, I saw my future goals in a nutshell: a scientific researcher, a steady career, family, respect. What else was there? It was getting there that was the problem. My standardized test scores still had a way to go, but with help from my mother and Dave, they were getting better. All in all, I had good people in my life, and I was lucky to be working at Pridapt.

So this day was a big day for the company. We were announcing the results of ten years of research to reporters who had flocked to the Northern California complex from as far away as New York and Dallas. I wouldn’t be making any presentations, but it was my slogan, and I had coached Dave on how to pitch the news to the crowd. He was the lead presenter, and I was as excited as if it were I making the speech. What he would announce that day would shake up the entire scientific community, and I couldn’t wait to see it.

“We’re a bit early, huh?” a voice from behind me asked. I turned to see a bearded young man with long, curly blond hair, wearing a flannel shirt, jeans, and hiking boots. His eyes darted back and forth behind his round, wire-rimmed glasses.

“It doesn’t start for another hour,” I explained. “Are you a reporter?”

“Me?” he laughed. “No, National Parks Service. Isaac Dean,” he added, extending his hand to me.

“Noah Bolton,” I replied, shaking his hand or, I should say, letting my hand be shaken by his. To say he was hyperactive wouldn’t do him justice. Energy shot out of him, like static electricity from his flannel shirt. He seemed ready at any instant to pounce on someone or leap onto a zip line to fly across the room.

“Where are you going to sit?” he asked me. “I like to sit right by the podium.”

“I like to hang back a bit,” I countered, “to, you know, get a feel of the crowd.”

“Good thinking, good thinking,” Isaac repeated. “How about right here?”

“Okay,” I agreed. We sat down and talked while the auditorium filled up over the hour. I tried not to stare at his leg which bounced up and down incessantly. As reporters moved by us, Isaac would blurt out an introductory greeting, trying to bring them into our conversation without success. As the two of us talked, I learned a great deal about Isaac. He was twenty-three years old, and had worked for the National Parks Service since graduating from college with an undergraduate degree in environmental studies. It was the Parks Service that had paid his way to this press conference, but that was not his only reason for coming.

“I also do volunteer work for environmental watchdog groups,” he confided. “Word is, there’s something . . .” He stopped cold, peering at me through squinted eyes. “Why are you here, again?” he asked.

“I work here,” I answered, and for the first time in an hour his bouncing leg and darting eyes were still. “You are going to love what you hear,” I assured him.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, listen to this,” I said, pointing to the lectern where Dave was about to begin the first presentation.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “I am Dr. David Bernstein, and I would like to ask you a question.” The murmur of voices faded to silence as the crowd settled in to their seats. “If you had the power to save a species on the verge of extinction, wouldn’t you do it? Then why not save what we have already lost? Why not restore an extinct species?”  

There were sounds of disbelief throughout the auditorium.

“Did he just say what I think he said?” Isaac whispered to me.

“Yes,” quipped a reporter, spinning around to glare at Isaac. “You heard right.”

“There were rumors that Pridapt wanted to introduce modified species into the wild,” Isaac continued. “That’s why we were concerned. But this, this is impossible!” I looked at his face, full of confusion and disbelief, and nodded toward the stage.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Dave continued. “That it’s impossible!”

Right on cue.

“Well, here at Pridapt, we’ve found a way.” The stack of little folds appeared on Dave’s forehead, and smiling, he explained his point, which was the crux of Pridapt’s decade of research. Referring to the image of a stem cell on the screen behind him, he explained how such a cell had the capacity to develop into all the different tissues of the body: bones, muscles, nerves, and organs. Stem cell research had shown that we could now scrape a few skin cells off a person’s arm and revert them to their primordial form–stem cells–which we could then turn into something else, like bone, muscles, nerves, and organs. “What if we did that to an animal species?”

His bold suggestion sent a wave of murmuring throughout the audience.

“Similarities between species provide evidence of common ancestry: primordial forms,” Dave continued. “An animal’s primordium, like a stem cell, would have the capacity to develop into a number of different species. If we revert an adult species to its primordium, like reverting a skin cell to its stem cell, we can then direct it to become something else–a different species.”

“You can’t revert a whole animal,” a voice called out.

“You can,” Dave interrupted, “when it is still one cell!” At this point, Dave came out from behind the lectern and walked to the center of the stage, motioning to an aid behind a curtain. “A fertilized egg is, for a short period of time, a one-celled organism. During that time, if we expose it to the proper stimulants, we can revert it to its primordial form, just as we have done with skin cells.”

“He’s out of his mind,” Isaac said out loud, no longer trying to keep his voice below a whisper. The entire audience was voicing similar doubt when Dave broke through the uproar.

“Look at this cell,” Dave called out, pointing to the screen behind him. “This is a one-celled chicken embryo. Before it began to divide and differentiate, we treated it with the process I have just mentioned, and it became this.” He pointed to a new image of a cell. “While it doesn’t look any different, this cell is fantastically different! It is a bird primordial cell—a cell with the potential to become any number of different birds!”

“Come on,” Isaac whispered. “That’s ridiculous.”

“In 1900,” Dave continued, “due to overhunting, the passenger pigeon became extinct in the wild. Fourteen years later, the last living member of that species died in captivity, never to be seen alive again. Since mankind destroyed them, mankind ought to restore them. Today, I’m here to tell you we have done just that!” A roar of questions and protests rose from the crowd. Over the cacophony, Dave boomed, “You’ve heard the riddle, ‘Which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ Well, the answer is, ‘Neither.’ The primordium came first!”

An aid brought out a small table with a wooden box on it. Dave moved behind the table and reached into the box. Stepping to the side, he held his arms out before him, raised high above his head. Clasped between his palms was a small feathered creature, whose head was whipping from left to right.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Dave announced, “I give you the passenger pigeon!”