Somewhere in the blackness a videophone rang. Through force of will, Silas brought the glowing face of the clock radio into focus: 3:07 a.m. His heart beat a little faster.
Was it ever good news at 3:07 a.m.?
He fumbled for the light near his bedside, sliding his hand up to the switch, wondering who could be calling this late. Suddenly, he knew¾the lab. The light was nearly as blinding as the darkness, but by squinting he found the phone, being careful to hit the voice-only button.
“Hello,” he croaked.
“Dr. Williams?” The voice coming through the speaker was young and male. He didn’t recognize it.
“Yes,” Silas answered.
“Dr. Nelson had me call. You’ll want to come down to the compound.”
“What’s happened?” He sat up straighter in bed, swinging his feet to the carpet.
“The surrogate went into labor.”
“What? When?” It was still too soon. All the models had predicted a ten-month gestation.
“Two hours ago. The surrogate is in bad shape. They can’t delay it.”
Silas tried to clear his head, think rationally. “The medical team?”
“The surgeons are being assembled now.”
Silas ran his fingers slowly through his mop of salt and pepper curls. He checked the pile of dirty clothes lying on the floor next to his bed and snagged a shirt that looked a little less wrinkled than its brethren. Above all else, he considered himself to be an adaptable man. “How long do I have?”
“Half hour, maybe less.”
“Thanks, I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” Silas clicked the phone off. For better or worse, it had begun.
The night was cool for Southern California, and Silas drove with the windows down, enjoying the way the wind swirled around the cab of the Courser 617. The air was damp, tinged with a coming thunderstorm. Eagerness pressed him faster. He took the ramp to Highway 5 at seventy miles per hour, smiling at the way the car grabbed the curve. So many times as a youth he’d dreamed of owning a car such as this. Tonight his indulgence seemed prophetic; he needed every one of those thoroughbreds galloping beneath the low, sleek hood.
As he merged onto the mostly empty interstate, he punched it, watching the speedometer climb to just over a hundred and five. The radio blared something he didn’t recognize—-rhythmic and frenzied, almost primeval, it matched his mood perfectly. His anxiety built with his proximity to the lab.
Over the years he had become accustomed to the occasional midnight dash to the lab, but it had never been like this, with so many unknowns. A vision of Evan Chandler’s grossly jowled face entered his mind, and he felt a rush of anger. He couldn’t really blame Chandler. You couldn’t ask a snake not to be a snake. It was the members of the Olympic Commission who should have known better.
He switched lanes to avoid a minitram, his speed never dropping below 95mph. His dark eyes glanced into the rear view, scouting for a patrol. The ticket itself wouldn’t bother him. He was exempt from any fine levied by local authorities while on his way to and from the lab, but the time it would cost to explain himself would be the real expense. All clear. He pushed the gas pedal to the floor. Minutes later, he hit his brakes, down shifted to third, and cut across two lanes to catch his exit. He was now out of the city proper, and into the suburbs of San Bernardino.
Silas passed the brightly lit main entrance of Five Rings Laboratories without taking his foot off the gas. He didn’t have time for the main entrance, the winding drive. Instead he veered left at the access road, whipping past the chain link that crowded the gravel. At the corner, he spun the wheel and hooked another left, decelerating as he neared the rear gate. He flashed his badge to the armed guard, and the iron bars swung inward just in time to save his paint job.
The lab grounds were vast and park-like—-a sprawling technological foodweb of small, interconnected campuses, three and four story structures sharing space with stands of old growth. Glass and brick and trees. A semi-circle of buildings crouched in conference around a small man-made pond.
He followed his headlights to a building at the west end of the complex and skidded to a stop in his assigned parking spot.
He was surprised to see Dr. Nelson standing there to greet him—a short, squat form cast in fluorescent lighting. “You were right. Twenty minutes exactly,” Dr. Nelson said.
Silas groaned as he extricated himself from the vehicle. “One of the advantages of owning a sports car,” he said and stretched his stiff back as he got to his feet.
A nervous smile crept to the corner of Nelson’s mouth. “Yeah, well I can see the disadvantage. Someone your size should really consider a bigger car.”
“You sound like my chiropractor.” Silas knew things weren't going well upstairs; Nelson wasn’t one for quips. In fact, Silas couldn’t recall ever seeing the man smile. His stomach tightened a notch.
They made their way to the elevators and Nelson pushed the button for the third floor.
“So where do things stand?” Silas asked.
“It’s anesthetized, and the surgical team should be ready any minute.”
“Not good. The old girl is worn out, just skin and bones. Even the caloric load we’ve been pushing hasn’t been enough. The fetus is doing okay though. Still has a good strong heartbeat. The sonogram shows it’s roughly the size of a full term calf, so I don’t think there should be anything tricky about the surgery.”
“The surgery isn’t what I’m worried about.”
“Yeah, I know. We’re ready with an incubator just in case.”
Silas followed Nelson around a corner and down another long hallway. They stopped at a glass door, and Nelson slid his identification card into the console slot. There were a series of beeps, then a digitized, feminine voice: “Clearance accepted, you may enter.”
The view room was long, narrow and crowded. It was an enclosed balcony that overhung a surgical suite, and most of the people were gazing into the chamber below through a row of windows that ran along the left wall.
At the far end of the packed room, a tall man with a shaggy mane of blond hair noticed them. “Come in, come in,” Benjamin said with a wave. At twenty-six he was the youngest man working on the project. A prodigy funneled from the eastern cytology schools, he described himself as a man who knew his way around an oocyte. Silas had taken an instant liking to him when they’d met more than a year ago.
“You’re just in time for the fun,” Benjamin said. “I thought for sure they wouldn’t be able to drag you out of bed.”
“Three hours sleep is all any man needs in a thirty-six hour period.” He grabbed Benjamin’s outstretched hand and gave it a firm shake. “What’s the status of our little friend?”
“As you can see,” Benjamin gestured toward the window. “Things have progressed a little faster than we expected. The surrogate turned the corner from distressed to dying in the last hour, and it’s triggered contractions. As far as we can tell, it may still be a little early, but since you can’t sail a sinking ship…” Benjamin pulled a cigar from the inside pocket of his lab coat and held it out to Silas. “It looks like our little gladiator is going to have a birthday.”
Silas took the cigar, smiling against his best efforts. “Thanks.” He turned and stepped toward the glass. The cow was on its side on a large stainless steel table, surrounded by a team of doctors and nurses. The surgeons huddled around their patient, only their eyes and foreheads visible above sterile masks.
“It should be any time now,” Benjamin said.
Silas turned to face him. “Anything new on the sonogram visuals?”
Benjamin shook his head and pushed his glasses up his long, thin nose. For the first time his face lost its optimistic glow. “We did another series, but we haven’t been able to glean any additional information.”
“And those structures we talked about?”
“Still can’t identify them. Not that people haven’t had a field day coming up with ideas.”
“I hate going into this blind.”
“Believe me, I know,” Benjamin’s voice soured. “But the Olympic Commission didn't exactly leave you with a lot of room for maneuvering, did they? The fat bastard isn’t even a biologist for Christ’s sake. If things go wrong, it won’t be on your head."
"You really believe that?"
"No, I guess I don't.”
“Then you’re wise beyond your years.”
“Still, one way or the other, Evan Chandler is going to have a lot of explaining to do.”
“I don’t think he’s that worried,” Silas said softly. “I don’t see him here, do you?”
The scientists stood crowded against the glass, transfixed by the scene unfolding beneath them. Inside the white stricture of lights, a scalpel blinked stainless steel. The cow lay motionless on its left side as it was opened from sternum to pelvis in one slow, smooth cut. Gloved hands insinuated themselves into its abdomen, gently separating layers of tissue, reaching deep. Silas felt his heart thumping in his chest. The hands disappeared entirely, then the arms up to the elbows. Assistants used huge, curved tongs to stretch the incision wide.
The surgeon shifted his weight. His shoulder strained. Silas imagined the man’s teeth gritting with effort beneath the micro-pore mask as he rummaged around in the bovine’s innards. What did he feel? A final pull and it was over. The white smocked physician slowly pulled a dark, dripping mass away as a nurse moved in to cut the umbilical cord. Faintly, a sporadic beeping in the background changed to a steady tone as the cow flat-lined. The medical team ignored it, moving to focus their energies on the newborn.
The first surgeon put the bloody shape on the table under the lamps and began wiping it down with a sponge and warm water, while another doctor peeled away the dense layers of fibrous glop that still clung to it.
The surgeon’s voice sounded over the speakers in the view room from a microphone in his mask. “The fetus is dark . . . still covered by the embryonic sack . . . thick, fibrous texture; I’m tearing it away.”
Silas’s face was nearly pushed against the glass trying to get a better look over the doctor’s shoulder. For a moment he caught a glimpse of the newborn, but then the medical team shifted around their patient and he could see nothing. The sound of the doctor’s breathing filled the view room.
“This . . . interesting . . .I’m not sure. . .” the doctor’s voice trailed off in the speakers.
Suddenly, a shrill cry split Silas’s ears, silencing the excited background chatter. The cry was strange, like nothing he’d ever heard before.
The doctors stepped back from the wailing newborn one by one, opening a gap, allowing Silas his first real glimpse.
His mouth dropped open.