The Prodigy

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Chapter 3

Dr. Morehouse, the head of the genetic engineering laboratory, leads our group to the fourth-floor conference room. I had met Dr. Morehouse at a genetics conference at Berkeley. Dr. Morehouse did his postdoctoral work at Berkeley and then spent time at Hopkins in Maryland. Early in his career he had developed computer algorithms to determine genetic responses to chemotherapy treatment. It had revolutionized the treatment of cancer and turned the most serious cancers, particularly pancreatic, brain and lung cancer into chronic diseases. He then began work on the genes for apoptosis and their application to neuroregeneration. His research was unsuccessful in prolonging general lifespan but had revolutionized the science of beauty. His work successfully reversed skin aging, and more importantly, it had made a fortune for the Institute. It is rumored that Dr. Morehouse is not pleased that history will consider his greatest contribution in science to be in the field of aesthetics. However, no one had ever directly heard him say this. Dr. Morehouse is rather close-lipped and his personality appears to be blank. Whether this is because he has no personality or just likes to appear inscrutable remains difficult to decipher.

Dr. Morehouse first takes us on a tour of the laboratory. I hate to admit it, but I am impressed. The equipment is a technical marvel and all state of the art. The conference room is elegant. What I find really surprising is the lounge created for our lab group. The decorators had included massaging recliners, docking stations for our personal computers, a dining room table, leather couches and a fully stocked sub zero refrigerator. The colors are soft and muted. I surmise that the institute decorators consulted with a psychoanalyst who suggested an inviting environment to reduce the stress levels. Unfortunately, it seems a waste. I can’t imagine any highly ambitious scientist lounging during a workday.

At the conclusion of the tour, Dr. Morehouse invites us to sit down in the conference room. He speaks clearly and efficiently as he explains basic lab protocol at the Institute and a description of our beginning assignments. It is all quite standard and we will initially be performing grunt work. After three weeks, we will each receive a formal assessment and then be given our first assignment.

As Dr. Morehouse concludes the meeting, two representatives from human resources enter the room. It all seems to be perfectly scripted. Each of the five recruits present are handed a binder of documents that are color coded and tabbed. I feel as if I am signing my life away in nondisclosure agreements. The signing makes me nervous but asking to review the documents with a lawyer would likely raise a red flag. I feel the need to remain accommodating, as my mom advised. After all of us are finished, we are escorted to the Institute cafeteria. Unbelievably, our human resource escort actually starts to describe food preparation. Apparently, every meal is prepared to exact standards of approved caloric, fat, carbohydrate and protein intake. Nothing seems to be left unregulated at the Institute. I begin to wonder what choices are actually left to each employee.

Josh asks the escort in a deadpan voice, “Will you come to our rooms and make sure we get an adequate amount of sleep?” The question just flies over the head of the woman from human resources. Sadly, she completely misses the sarcasm and replies that there is a doctor available at the Institute if anyone has sleeping issues. I try to suppress a smirk.

Josh catches my eye and winks. “Just be thankful that you can still choose your own clothes and underwear,” he whispers in my ear.

“Did your mother have such stringent rules growing up?” I ask. Immediately I remember my mother’s warning from the previous night and want to kick myself.

Josh laughs. “She would have regulated everything if my father hadn’t talked her out of it. Was your mom big on rules?”

“No, my mom is more of a free spirit. She is big on nutrition and exercise, but she just made it part of our lifestyle rather than setting up arbitrary rules.”

“Your eyes light up when you talk about your mom. It must be nice to feel so close to you family. So you must be a true California free spirit?”

“No. I am just a girl who spent the first 17 years of her life studying. How did you know I lived in California?”

“Isn’t it obvious that you have been hand-picked to be my mother’s new golden child? She is thrilled with your research and constantly talks about her new vision for the Institute with you as the main attraction of her master plan. You will be her next Dr. Morehouse. Don’t worry. I’m not jealous. I am glad there is someone else to divert her attention.” He stands in front of what looks like ice cream dispensers. “You want some frozen yogurt?”

“Well, nice to know there is not too much pressure for me to perform.” I answer sarcastically.

“Sorry, I was as tactless as my mother just then. Here take a bowl. It is great yogurt even if it has been preordained as suitable for our young, brilliant minds.” Josh flashes a megawatt smile in my direction. His smile is dangerous.

“Just as long as I am not branded a rebel for choosing something beyond a plate of vegetables.” I instantly groan inwardly. I did it again. My first day and the chairwoman will now learn that “her star” recruit has been criticizing her Institute’s grand nutrition plan.

“I would rather be a rebel than one of those insipid fools

working in administration here. Let’s eat with our group over there.” He stops abruptly and looks at me intently. “Analia, don’t worry. I am not reporting what you say to my mother.” I just nod and think “Thank you.”

There are six new recruits assigned to our lab, but only five have shown up the first day. I immediately gravitate to Jacki, a graduate of Yale. Jacki’s graduate work involved modifying vectors used in gene therapy. Jacki ’s work and its success could prove to be integral to the success of my research. But it isn’t just the research angle; I’m drawn to Jacki’s speaking voice. It lilts. Jacki also emanates a preternatural calm.

“I can’t quite place your accent. Where are you from?” I ask Jacki.

“My mother is from Jamaica and my father is from India. So I guess I am a combination of both those accents.” Jacki responds. “Where are you from?”

“I am from California. I have to say, I just love the way you talk. It is so musical.” I look at the boy, or perhaps I should say man, next to Jacki. ”Hi, I am Analia. I am sorry I didn’t catch your name.”

“It’s Kevin.” He looks directly at me. “So they got the genetic superstar here. I was at the conference at Berkeley where you presented your findings a year ago. My whole department was buzzing about your findings. You came with your mother, right?” Kevin speaks abruptly. While not overtly aggressive, his manner is off putting. He is tall and gangly. Most people think nerds are pacifists, but in actuality they can be the most competitive people on earth. A level of unease settles again in my stomach. I also don’t appreciate the reference to my mother.

“I think I remember you. My mom had to drive me because I didn’t have my license yet. But I do now. You did work on retroviral vectors, if I remember correctly. Is anybody here a native New Yorker?”

“I am. I’m Marcus and the most knowledgeable on all things relating to the Big Apple. I will introduce you to the Yankees, Rangers, Giants and Knicks. Broadway. The Met. And anything decadent in between.”

“Slow down Marcus. Analia is still jail bait.” Josh laughs as he says this. I cringe inside and ardently wish at that moment I looked at least five years older. It is still difficult for women to make it in any science field. Being viewed as a little girl only complicates the matter.

“Thanks, Josh. But I won’t be for long. I turn eighteen this summer. I would love to see a baseball game. That’s the Yankees, right? They are the dynasty that has been battling the Red Sox for over a century. I have always wanted to go see a professional baseball game. I used to watch the Cards at Stanford whenever I had time.”

Jacki finishes her meal and turns to me. “So, are you living in the dorms now?”

“No. My mom and I are living on 135th Street. She grew up here and can’t believe how fast the trains are now. Neither can I. I am hoping that I don’t get caught in the doors. The only train I ever rode was the tram in San Francisco. That is more of a tourist thing, of course.” Josh still has his eyes trained on me. It is disconcerting. I ask the group in general. “Where are the rest of you living?”

Josh replies first. “I have an apartment down on 73rd Street. I moved there last year. I wanted some distance from this place. I will probably see you on the subway. Don’t worry, I’ll keep the doors from swallowing you.” Josh grins widely. His overt friendliness is unsettling.

I turn to Jacki. “How about you?”

“I am living on the Upper East Side with my partner. She works for New Age Media. She is a digital print journalist. I am so happy I don’t have to talk science when I get home. I would love to have you over for dinner.”

“Wow, that would be great.” I hope I don’t look too eager.

Kevin looks up. “I am staying in the dorms.” He looks at Josh. “Your mom, the chairwoman, strongly urged me to do so. I’ll do anything to be on the fast track.”

All of a sudden, a bell sounds in the cafeteria. I jump out of my seat and start for the exit. Josh grabs my arm. He asks. “Where are you going?”

“Isn’t that the fire alarm?” I reply.

Josh starts laughing. “No. That is my mother’s idea of efficiency. It is a ten-minute warning that this lunch break is almost over. I know it is pathetic. Using bells to herd brilliant scientists back to their workstations. It is a mutant strain of anal-retentive. My dad and I have been warning her there will be a revolt soon.”

I sit back down. “Are you serious? Are you going to tell me that we are on a potty break schedule as well?” I struggle to keep a straight face and fail abysmally.

“Not yet. If she even considers it, my dad and I will have to sedate her. We should get back. Dr. Morehouse is a decent guy, but he is prompt.” Josh stands up and grabs my tray as well. He winks at me as he walks to the trash.

We return to the lab and the work is interesting enough that the afternoon passes quickly. The rhythms of the lab lull me into feeling more confident. We pack up for the day and start heading to the door. As we round the corner to the elevator, Jenny is waiting at the elevator banks.

Josh looks at her and grins. “Jenny, did the chairwoman send

you to escort us to the front door.” His comment clearly upsets her.

“Come on, Joshua. That is not in my job description.” Jenny turns towards me. “Dr. Lucas has asked me to inform you that she would like you to attend the opening of the satellite facility at Rosewood next week. It will be on Thursday and you will leave from here with the chairwoman and her entourage. I will give you the details in a memo closer to the date.” Jenny turns and leaves.

“What is Rosewood?” I ask the group. All of a sudden, I feel very alone standing in this group. They are all staring at me.

Kevin snickers. “You don’t know? Your work created it.”

“Easy there, Kevin. I don’t think she knows about Rosewood.” Josh answers evenly. Kevin abruptly turns and heads to the stairs. His movements are so jarring; he does not even have to speak to convey his feelings. I can’t understand why he is so angry with me.

“What is it I don’t know?” I breathe evenly and struggle to remain poised. Jacki looks sympathetic and Josh concerned.

After a pregnant moment of silence, Josh answers. “Rosewood is a newly-formed detention center. All current and former people charged or convicted of political treason or white-collar crimes are now housed there. They are being tested for the variants of the PPZ gene and all the data generated is being loaded into a giant database.”

This makes no sense. Why would they be looking for the PPZ gene in this population? I can’t understand the logic but decide to tread carefully and keep quiet. We descend in the elevator. At the door, I say goodnight in the lobby to Jacki and Marcus. Then I grab Josh by the arm and pull him gently back.

“Please explain to me what is going on at Rosewood,” I plead quietly with Josh. I probably shouldn’t be asking Josh for the answer, but he is the most forthcoming. It is just too discomfiting not knowing. My intuition tells me that Josh and his mother have their own issues.

“Let’s step outside.” He directs me to the large patio off the atrium facing the Hudson River. “There are government officials who are using your research to push their own agendas. They are actually making requests for future research avenues. Almost everyone here knows about it and knows that is why my mother heavily recruited you.” Josh replies.

“I never intended for my research to be used politically, although I know that the PPZ gene could be used for police work to a certain extent because of its nature. How can they incarcerate someone at a detention center before they have been convicted? It is rather a slippery slope. The purpose of my research was to identify the gene in order to modify behavior, if necessary. It is not a dominant gene. There may be other genetic variants at play in any individual with criminal behavior. It was not intended for punitive action.”

“What you intended with your research and how it is being used are two totally different things. You do realize that whatever research you conduct here is under the proprietary control of the Institute?”

I look at him sharply. “And your last name is Lucas.”

Josh gives me a strange look. “Now who is being judgmental? Yes, my last name is Lucas and I am my mother’s son. But I don’t necessarily think like her or have her beliefs. I think you are more than just a girl with a brilliant mind. You seem to have depth. Maybe you should give me a chance.”

I consider what he is saying. He could just be a great actor and there is no possible way I can trust him. However, Josh has been helpful in explaining the myriad idiosyncrasies of this place. I will just have to be careful with him.

“I am sorry. You’re right. I will keep an open mind. Are you invited to this Rosewood opening? I would like to have someone there that I know,” I reply.

Josh smiles. “I was and I intended to talk my way out of it. If you want, I can go and be your buffer.”

“No, you don’t have to. I have been in intimidating situations before and I can manage,” I reply.

“I am pretty sure you can, too. But, we are a team now.” Josh makes a goofy face at me and I laugh.

I feel a hand on my elbow and breathe a sigh of relief when I see it is my mother. I feel like I have been under constant evaluation throughout the day and it is exhausting. “Hi, Mom. It is good to see you. This is Josh Lucas. Josh, this is my mom, Branna Christiansen”.

“It is nice to meet you Josh. Are you Katherine Lucas’s son”?

“I am. Please don’t hold that against me.’ Josh answers with a wink in my direction.

Mom laughs. “I won’t. Why would you say such a thing?”

“Obviously, you haven’t been here that long or you wouldn’t ask. I can see where Analia gets her looks and charm. It is very nice to meet you.” Josh looks at me. “I will see you tomorrow.” With that, Josh turns and walks back into the atrium.

“He is quite charming. Is he in your lab?” I just nod. Mom hooks her hand around my elbow and steers me through the front doors and out towards the train. “We’ll talk about it later. Let’s make this train and we’ll get your keys done on the way home. Are you up for some exercise tonight?”

I groan in response. “That’s just terrific.” The day is just going from bad to worse.

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