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1000 HOURS: STARCHILD

Jonathan Knox reached into the bassinet, divested of its now-inoperative intravenous tubes and sensor conduits, and enfolded Persephone in a farewell embrace. He stifled a sob. Marianna was already weeping enough for the both of them. Then he beheld his infant daughter one last time. Even in death, her ethereal beauty, so unlike that of a normal newborn, seemed to illuminate the room. He brushed his lips against her cool cheek and strove to memorize her tiny features, knowing that—all too soon—this memory would be the only thing he’d have left of her.

“Goodbye, little one,” he said. “I love you.”

Ringtones jarred Knox awake. He looked around blearily for the cell phone that had interrupted what was—after all—only a dream, albeit a heartbreaking one.

He’d been intending just to rest for a moment when he’d laid his head down on the kitchenette table’s unyielding surface. Evidently, twenty-four hours of sleep deprivation had taken its toll, plunging him into nightmare. Premature nightmare, perhaps, but not by much.

Knox shook the thought off and thumbed the phone on. “Hello? Mycroft?” he whispered, leery of waking Marianna from fitful slumber in the adjoining bedroom.

“Don’t get your hopes up, Jonathan,” Mycroft said without preamble. “But I may have something. A startup that’s published a couple of promising studies on whole genome therapies. Goes by the name of the StarChild Genomics Institute, SGI for short.”

“Never heard of it.”

“That’s just it,” Mycroft said. “Neither had anybody else. Up until six months ago, that is. That’s when StarChild burst on the scene fully formed, like Athena from the brow of Zeus.”

Knox could’ve done without the mythological references, but this was Mycroft, after all.

“Fully formed and very well-funded, I might add,” his friend went on, “judging from the pricey facilities they’ve leased on Washington Square.”

“And you say their research looks promising?”

“To the point where they announced early-stage human trials just a week ago. And, more importantly for present purposes, those trials are focusing on triploidy.”

Knox felt a short-lived surge of hope. Then reality set in again. “I don’t know, Mycroft. I’m no expert, but I have the impression that the kind of therapy you’re talking about takes years to move from the lab to a human trial.”

“Nothing says it didn’t, Jonathan—take years, I mean. I’m assuming the team behind this has been operating in stealth mode for maybe a decade or more.”

“Speaking of which, who is behind this?”

“As to that, there’s not much to go on: Some press coverage of the trial launch itself. That, and the attributions on the research papers themselves, of course—what few of them there are.”

“And what did that tell you?”

“Not a whole lot, I’m afraid. SGI’s CEO turns out to be what you might, with your flair for the melodramatic, call a man of mystery. He's nearly as stealthy as the operation itself. Virtually nothing known about him save a name: Dietrich Schaefer. No biographical sketches, no interviews, no publication history. Not even an archival photo. He styles himself ‘Dr. Schaefer,’ but I can find no record of any academic transcripts or board certifications attesting to that.”

If Mycroft couldn’t find a record, that pretty much meant it didn’t exist.

But Mycroft was still talking. “What’s more, this so-called ‘Dr. Schaefer’ doesn’t seem to have troubled to put in an appearance at the institute he’s supposedly helming—not ever. Even for SGI’s infrequent all-hands staff meetings, Schaefer attends by audio-only teleconference. The man’s a ghost.”

Despite the deadly seriousness of the situation, Knox had to smile. As far as that “ghost” business was concerned, the notoriously sociophobic Mycroft might almost be describing himself.

“That all?”

“No, I had somewhat better luck with SGI’s second-in-command, Lars Nyquist. He, at least, has got a track record, though decidedly of the mixed nuts variety.”

“How so?”

“Well, on the one hand, he’s generally acknowledged to be a brilliant geneticist—an adjunct professor at NYU’s Center for Human Genetics and Genomics. But he’s also something of a pariah in the field, at the very least an embarrassment to his peers. That has to do with his advocacy of some rather unorthodox views on evolution—human evolution, specifically. In a word, Nyquist thinks we’re not done evolving. Not by a long shot.”

“I can’t see what’s so unorthodox about that. Sounds pretty much like standard neo-Darwinism to me.”

“No, no, Jonathan. You’re missing the point. Nyquist is claiming we’re on the brink of some sort of quantum leap in human evolution. In his few papers on the subject, he even calls our species ‘Halfway Humanity,’ though if he’s got a notion of what it would take for us to go the rest of the way, he isn’t saying.”

Interesting, but off-topic. What Knox really wanted to know was, “How did you find them?”

“That’s the strange part. Or at least one of the strange parts. You see, I didn’t find SGI. They found me. They must have set an alert on their Academia.edu account, because they initiated contact as soon as I’d downloaded a paper of theirs from the website.”

This was beginning to resemble a classic honeypot scenario: a snare set for the unwary. Desperate as he was for good news, Knox’s critical faculties were still functioning. And were issuing a well-worn warning: if something sounded too good to be true, it probably was.

“I don’t know, Mycroft. For all that I’d like to believe it, this is beginning to sound kind of dicey to me. I hope you haven’t gotten back to them yet?”

“No, I thought it best to confer with you first.”

“Glad you did. Because, I mean, think about it: An institute, so-called, that’s only been in existence for a matter of months? With a question mark on the org chart where their head honcho is supposed to be, and a dubious—to say the least—character in number two slot? Not to mention that they pounced the minute you jiggled their tripwire? What if it’s all just an elaborate scam?”

“That had occurred to me, Jonathan. But, if so, it’s a rather expensive one. And what would be the motivation?”

“You’ve got me there. Let me think about that. In the meantime, could you check SGI out some more? Preferably without tipping them off?”

“Of course, Jonathan.”

“Great, thanks.” Knox was about to say more when he heard the door to the corridor swing open. “Listen, Mycroft, I have to ring off. We’ve got something going on here.”

That something was a nurse entering the suite and wheeling Persephone’s bassinet in the direction of the door. With Persephone in it.


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Framed