Danielle: Part III
Two and a half years after the accident
She found him in the Op-Center, sitting on one of the counters at the edge of the room, his legs dangling over the side as he kept an eye on the translucent plastic curtain of the infirmary his parents had set up. Inside, his cousin, still sick from whatever Vlad had done to her, slept.
"Hey, stranger." Sam joined Danny at the counter and pulled herself up to sit beside him, swinging her feet in rhythm with his. "Haven't seen you since school let out on Friday." It was Sunday afternoon.
He nodded as he slid over to make room for her. "Yeah. I've been spending all my time here with Danielle."
"I kinda figured." Sam looked over to the wall of curtains, through which she could just make out the hazy form of the black-haired girl sleeping peacefully in her hospital bed. "How's she doing?"
"Better. My mom thinks she'll be able to get up and start doing stuff within the next couple of days."
"And the ghost powers?"
Danny's resigned look turned a bit darker, and he shrugged. "Not sure. Mom doesn't think she'll ever be able to full-on go ghost, but she might be able to use limited powers in human form, like I can. There's really no way to know for sure until she's well enough to try it."
Sam chewed on her lip as she considered this. "Is it gonna be weird, having another kid with ghost powers coming to live with you?"
His face darkened further. "She should've been here all along."
"Danny…" Sam sighed, reaching over to put a hand on his shoulder. "What happened to her is not your fault."
"No. But she's my responsibility, and I let her down."
"You said that about Valerie, too, when Vlad and the Fright Knight kicked her around during the whole Pariah Dark thing. You cannot keep blaming yourself every time Vlad does something sick and twisted just because he's your enemy."
"That isn't what I mean, Sam. This isn't about Vlad. It's about Dani." He looked towards where the young girl was sleeping. "I… I should've been looking out for her."
"Danny, I know she's your cousin—"
"She's not my cousin." He turned to look at her, his eyes searching, as if trying to gauge her response.
Sam just frowned, a little confused. "She's not?"
"No. I…" He winced. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you and Tucker, but it… it just didn't seem fair to her. She deserves to have her own life, her own identity, and since she's the one who said she was my cousin, it seemed best to just leave it at that. But…" He turned away, looking towards Danielle once more. "She's not my cousin. She's… something else, only… not who I thought she was all this time, either, or even who she thinks she is. My mom and dad did some DNA tests on her, and… it's kind of huge, Sam. Like, getting-ghost-powers huge. It… it changes everything—my whole life, my priorities, everything—in a really major way, and I haven't even completely been able to wrap my mind around it yet. That's why I've been kind of avoiding everyone the past couple of days, because I've needed some time to process what my parents found out. But I'm kinda glad you came over, because you… you need to know about all this, even if I haven't figured out yet how to tell you. I…" He faced her again, his eyes meeting hers, and her stomach took an uneasy dip at how serious he looked. "You put up with so much weirdness to be with me."
"I don't put up with it, Danny. I love it. I love you."
"I love you, too." For just a moment, his face softened, but then it was gone and the grave look was back. "That's why I need to tell you everything. Just you. For now. I…" He looked down at his feet dangling above the floor. "I'll tell Tucker eventually. Probably even soon. And Valerie, too. But for now, I'm only ready to tell you."
Her stomach took another dip, and she found herself unnerved by his reticence to share whatever this was with Tucker. "Okay, I like a creepy story introduction as much as the next goth, but you're kinda starting to scare me here. What about Danielle could possibly change your whole life? I know she has ghost powers like yours and everything—"
"It's not the ghost powers. It's who she is." He took a deep breath, and Sam realized that beneath the solemnity, he was really nervous. "Remember when she first showed up, and Vlad nabbed me, and you guys had to come rescue me at his place in Colorado?" She nodded, and he continued. "He was working on a cloning project then. Those ghosts that attacked right before then, at the mini golf course and at school—they were all a part of it. And… and so was Danielle."
Sam's brow furrowed. "A cloning project? Who was he—?" And then she knew, before she even finished asking the question, and she gasped. "Vlad was trying to clone you?"
He nodded, his lips pressed together.
"I…" She had no idea what to say. "That's just… so… wrong."
"Just wait. It gets way more wrong than that." He flashed a bitter, sardonic grin. "This is Vlad we're talking about. He… I guess he figured if he couldn't get me to be his perfect half-ghost 'son,' he'd make one of his own. Most of them…" Looking a little sick, he paused and took another breath before going on. "Most of them were… messed up. They melted into green goop if I hit 'em with my ghost ray. Danielle… she was the only one who was… real."
Sam's eyes widened. "Wait. You're saying Danielle is a clone? Of you?" She shook her head. "How is that possible? Aren't clones genetic duplicates? You can't have a clone that's a girl!"
He sort of half chuckled. "And that would be why you get better grades in science than I do. I guess I just figured there was some sort of mutation or something. Like how the other clones weren't exactly like me, either, because something got messed up in the process."
She crossed her arms and arched an eyebrow at him. "You'd better not be saying girls are messed-up, mutated versions of boys."
He snorted. "Yeah, so not going there. Although, it turns out there is a kind of genetic disorder where a girl can have XY chromosomes like a boy. My mom tried to explain it to me, but I didn't really follow all of it. Something about a missing gene the Y chromosome is supposed to carry that makes someone a boy."
"And that's what happened to Danielle? She's a clone of you, but without this gene?"
Sighing, he looked down at his lap. "No. Danielle isn't a clone of me. I thought she was, until my parents tested her DNA. She still thinks she is. I… haven't figured out how to tell her the truth yet, about who she really is."
Sam put her hand to her forehead, confused. "Okay, you're losing me here. If she's not your cousin and she's not a clone, then who is she?"
It took him a long time to answer. He sat with his hands clenched together in his lap, watching Danielle sleep through the curtain around her bed, until Sam was beginning to think he wasn't going to answer at all. Then, he lowered his head again and took yet another deep breath, as if steeling himself, before turning back to Sam. "According to my parents, Vlad was interested in a lot of different kinds of genetic experiments in college. While they were obsessed with ghosts and building the prototype ghost portal, he was researching genetic engineering. Cloning was a big part of it, but he was doing more than just cloning. Apparently, one of his big pet projects was trying to use ordinary DNA—from hair or blood or skin cells or whatever—in this process called 'meiosis.' We studied it in ninth grade biology, remember?"
"Sounds vaguely familiar. Refresh my memory."
"Uh… okay, let's see how much I understood from what my mom said. You know DNA is made up of two strands of chromosomes, one from the person's mother and one from their father, right?"
"Okay. So, in cloning, you're just taking the whole DNA and making a duplicate, so that the new DNA is exactly the same as the old one. Then, it's grown into a whole separate person with exactly the same DNA as the host. Like identical twins."
"Yeah, I knew that."
"Well, meiosis is a little different. The DNA duplicates itself, and then each duplicate splits in half to form four separate strands. Only, instead of just having two strands from the mom's side and two strands from your dad's, the strands kind of mix with each other, so that maybe one strand has the mom's hair and the dad's eyes, and another has the dad's height and the mom's brains. So each strand is a unique mixture of chromosomes from both parents."
She wasn't sure where she was going with this, but she nodded again. "Okay. This is starting to sound familiar."
"Each completely unique strand is now half of the chromosomes needed to make a new person. So…" He swallowed. "So it needs to be combined with another strand, from a different… host. A strand that's also gone through meiosis and is a completely unique combination of that person's parents' genes. The two strands get combined, and you have a whole new DNA. A whole new and completely unique person."
Sam frowned as she processed this. "Wait. If we studied this in biology, how is it some advanced genetic thing Vlad would've been into in college?"
"Because it's a normal process, but it only occurs in certain kinds of cells, not just any DNA from hair or whatever. It's…" He looked embarrassed. "It's sexual reproduction, Sam. Without the sex. It's how humans reproduce on a genetic level. The separate strands form the, uh… the 'gametes,' I think my mom called them. The sperm or the eggs. Only, Vlad wanted to do it with any DNA, so he wouldn't need the gametes. He wanted to be able to create his own new person just by taking a strand of hair or something. And… that's what he did. That's who Dani is. He took my DNA and split it and combined it with someone else's, forming a whole new person—Dani. And then he put her through this massive accelerated growth, so that she aged, like, twelve years all at once. She's really only been alive for about two years, even though she's physically about fourteen."
Her eyes widened as she started to realize what he was saying. "He used your DNA to mimic sexual reproduction? But… wouldn't that make Danielle…?"
He nodded. "She's my daughter, Sam."