Genetic engineering of human embryos prior to implantation had become a mature science—carefully regulated, the tools well characterized and virtually free of the off-target effects so often encountered in the early days. Likewise, tests for diagnosing fetal defects later in development, after implantation in the womb, had been available for decades. But once a defect was detected, there was still no way to safely alter a fetus in the womb. James was convinced that by using NANs, faulty genes could be reengineered in utero. Gene-treatable diseases like cystic fibrosis could be eradicated.
But there were hurdles to overcome, both technical and political. This was a technology that might prove dangerous in the wrong hands; the University of Illinois had soon been forced to hand over all license to the federal government, and Fort Detrick, a Maryland facility northeast of D.C., held the bulk of it in strict confidence.
He missed California. He missed Berkeley. Every day, he had to remind himself that coming to Atlanta had been the right thing to do. The Center for Gene Therapy at Emory was the only public institution that had been allowed access to NANs.
In the waiting room, he slouched into a seat near the boarding gate. He'd once been a spry, athletic farm boy, the captain of his high school baseball team. But he'd let himself go—his straight spine curved forward from years of hovering over laboratory benches, his keen eyes weakened from staring into microscopes and computer screens. His mother would fret over his health, he knew, plying him with plates of spiced lentils and rice. He could taste them already.
James looked around. At this early hour, most of the seats were empty. In front of him a young mother, her baby asleep in a carrier on the floor, cradled a small GameGirl remote console in her lap. Ignoring her own child, she seemed to be playing at feeding the alien baby whose wide green face appeared openmouthed on her screen. By the window an elderly man sat munching a ProteoBar.
James jumped at the feel of a buzz at his wrist—a return message from DOD.
No reschedule. Someone will meet you.
—General Jos. Blankenship, U.S. Army
He looked up to see a man in a plain gray suit stationed by the gate. The man's thick neck rose out of his collar, his chin tilting upward in an almost imperceptible nod. Removing his ocular, James glanced to his right. His arm flinched reflexively from a light tap on his shoulder.
James's mind went blank. "Yes?" he croaked.
"I'm sorry, Dr. Said. But the Pentagon requires your presence."
"What?" James stared at the young man, his crisp dark uniform and glossy black shoes.
"I'll need you to accompany me to Langley, ASAP. I'm sorry. We'll have your airline tickets reimbursed."
"Don't worry, sir. We'll get you there in no time." Latching a white-gloved hand around James's arm, the officer guided him to a security exit and down a set of stairs, through a door and out into daylight. A few steps away, the man in the gray suit was already waiting, holding open the back door of a black limousine, ushering James inside.
"Taken care of."
His heart forming a fist in his chest, James wedged his body deep into the leather seat. He placed his right hand protectively over his left wrist, guarding the phone—his one remaining link to the world outside the limo. At least they hadn't confiscated it. "What's going on? Why are you detaining me?"
The young officer offered him a wry grin as he climbed into the front seat. "They'll fill you in at Langley, sir." He pushed a few buttons on the dash, and James could feel the pressure of a smooth acceleration. "Just sit back and relax."
The young man reached out to activate a transceiver on the car's center console. "Subject en route," he assured someone on the other end. "Expect arrival ten hundred hours."
"We've got a jet lined up. Just sit tight."
Outside the tinted window, the black tarmac sped by. James held up his wrist, punched on his phone, and whispered a short message: "Amani Said. Message: Sorry, Mom. Won't be home. Something came up. Tell Dad not to worry. Send."
His voice shaking, he added a second thought. "If you don't hear from me in two days, call Mr. Wheelan." Silently, he prayed that his message would go through.