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The Marvelous Creatures We Become

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If I had to give a summary of the past year, I wouldn’t say it was terribly interesting. At first it had been a great time, a rediscovery of everything we’d forgotten during six months of isolation. That was probably part of it too, the we. The three of us had been basically inseparable for a few weeks, when we first returned to the UK. That had been before we were seeing any therapists, and the idea of giving up the only shoulders we had to cry on was utterly repulsive. 

So we’d scrounged up the cash--along with a sizable payout from the Planet Savers production company--and spent it on staying together for those first weeks, journeying between our various homes and occasionally renting hotel rooms when it turned out (for example) that Miranda’s parents didn’t have enough spare room for a pair of rather antisocial teenagers they’d never met. It didn’t matter; every familiar experience felt precious. We took to grocery stores, warm beds, and protective family the way that a half-drowned person takes their first gulps of air. 

And then it had been the end of those weeks. The cash didn’t run out, but our parents’ patience did. We met one last time, in a parking garage underneath my parents’ apartment, and exchanged our contact information. A final, halting embrace--which Arnie had been the first to back out of--and they were gone.

I returned to my studies, such as they were. I’d missed a sizable chunk of my last semester, and the first few weeks of the next, so it took a fair bit of work to catch up. There was an announcement, the day I returned, that everyone was to make me feel as welcome as possible. This was, of course, the quickest possible way to make me feel unwelcome. It must’ve been nice for everyone else, though, considering that they’d probably spent at least a portion of those six months thinking I was dead. 

I had too. 

Once I’d dug myself out from under an avalanche of sympathy, though, I settled in quite well. My old friends were still there, and I still excelled in maths and biology, even if I had to excuse myself when the teacher gave her presentation on the “new frontier of transgenics”. But I still felt tense every morning, before I’d checked that all my limbs were still in the right places and that I was sleeping in my old loft, not a hospital bed. I went through three therapists before I gave up on resolving that tension, though I kept going to the last one; it helped to have someone I could be at least partly honest with. 

Which is what brought me to where I was, almost exactly one year after I’d checked out of the hotel room in Quito. Specifically, stooped over a pottery wheel, trying desperately to tame a wily chunk of stoneware clay. My hands wobbled as it writhed against my attempts to push it to the center of the wheel, or else tore off sizable bits of the piece if I pressed too hard. This was not my wheelhouse, which was entirely the point. It was something new, which had seemed a lot more contemplative and precise when I’d seen skilled artists doing it. I didn’t dare to look up from my work at any of the other people in the shop, for fear that some of them would qualify as skilled artisans.

 Instead I braced my elbows against the splash guard of the pottery wheel and tried again. It beat against my hands, but as I worked it up into a thin cone the undulation of the surface gradually slowed. With as much pressure as I dared to use, I pressed down into the top of the cone, forcing it down into a fat cylinder that was, at last, perfectly centered on the wheel. Feeling a bit cocky, I wetted my hands again and cupped the clay between them, then dug my thumbs down in, pulling at it to form the walls of a bowl.

Then my phone rang and my hand twitched, forcing a wobbling ripple into the layer of clay between my fingers. I tore my hands away from the wheel and my foot away from the pedal, but by that point the prospective bowl looked more like a swirl of taffy. Wiping my hands on my apron, I fumbled my phone out of my pocket and checked the caller ID: my mother. Well, at least my project hadn’t been ruined by a telemarketer. 

I got up, motioning to the instructor that I needed to answer the call. She nodded, not that she could’ve kept me, and let me pass. A few of the other students gave me annoyed looks as I stepped out into the car park. Once the door to the studio had shut behind me, I took the call. 

“Semi?” she asked, before I could greet her. There was an edge of tension to her voice, and it seemed to slip through the speaker into me as well. 

“Hi, Mom. What’s the matter?” 

“There’s an American woman here, asking for you. She says she’s some kind of...” There was some muffled conversation on the other side, and I heard the rumble of my father’s voice. “Medical researcher? I don’t know how that’s relevant to you.”

She didn’t know, but I did, and it sent a chill down my spine. “I don’t either, Mom.” Lying to her and Dad was a skill I’d been forced to cultivate over the past year. “What’s she asking for?”

“That’s just it! She won’t tell us what she wants, other than to talk to you about some kind of ‘research opportunity’.” Another voice butted in, harder to discern over the telephone line. “Yeah, I’m talking to her right now. Hm? Oh, apparently she’s with the National Institutes of Health.” We both recognized that name, and my mother’s voice slipped back toward the delicate lilt it usually was.

“Can you put her on the line?” I asked.

 “Of course.”

There was a shuffling sound as the receiver changed hands, and then: “Hello, Semirah! I’m Doctor Elizabeth Dalton, but you can just call me Liz. Do you have a minute to talk?” Her voice was nothing like my mother’s. Every word dripped with emotion, intensified by a southern drawl I’d only really heard on television before then.

“I was in the middle of something, but it can wait.” I could feel the eyes of the people inside boring into me through the glass-paneled door of the studio.I tried to ignore them. 

“Great! I wanted to speak to you about a study I’m leading, examining the various reactions that young people have to extreme trauma, and the incredible resilience of the teenage mind.” My grip on the phone tightened, but I didn’t respond. Probably just a coincidence that this American doctor sounded so much like Doctor Franklin in that moment. “Yours seemed like an ideal case to examine closer, since you and your friends had such a unique experience on that island.” 

“No thanks,” I replied. 

She waited a little bit before responding, probably to give me time to clarify. I had no intention of doing that. “I understand your hesitation, Semirah. How about you take some time to think on it? I really am excited for the chance to work with you and the other survivors of that wreck; my schedule’s clear for the rest of the week.” There was a nervous crack as she first spoke, though it faded back into her normal honey-sweet drawl after a few words. 

“I’m not interested in talking to you about my time on the island.” There was a twist of familiar fear in my gut as I spoke; I already knew she wouldn’t listen. Unlike on the island, though, she had no recourse if I refused to participate. I was a free woman, and she was under the watchful eyes of my parents. “You might as well move on to Arnie or Miranda now.” 

“I guess so, huh? Well, I’ll still give you some time to reconsider, while you finish up whatever you’re doing. Call me greedy, but I’d like to appreciate your parents’ hospitality a bit more. I guess I’m only human .” She laughed, a bubbly sound that soured in my ears. “And I imagine they’d be interested to learn more about my research. I’ve got a lot of information here about your specific case.”

Icy fear ran through my veins, but I refused to allow it out in my voice. “You do that, Liz.” I fumbled my phone away from my ear, already trying to hang up. 

“Bye, Semirah. See you soon!” she replied, and then I cut the call and stuffed the phone in my pocket. Everyone inside looked up as I rushed in, not even bothering to shut the door behind me. As I began gathering my various things from the worktable the teacher asked me what was wrong. 

I looked up for just a moment as I threw my satchel over one shoulder. “Family emergency.” It wasn’t a lie, as such; but in this case the one having the emergency was me; it merely involved my family.  The instructor accepted that; she’d probably noticed the flush in my cheeks and the fact that I looked about as stressed as I really was. It might have upset her when I left without picking up my clay from the wheel, but I wasn’t around to find out. 

Half a minute later, I was in my brother’s car, gripping the wheel like it was my only lifeline, which it might just have been. Pulling out of the parking lot, I tried not to panic. Liz knew something about the island, but she might’ve just figured out that we were kept there against our will, or that we’d been involved in Doctor Franklin’s death. Arnie and Miranda probably wouldn’t appreciate an accusation of manslaughter, but it was better than having to explain to my parents the real reason I was so careful to stay off the water last summer. 

Annoyingly, the route back home was well-ingrained in my mind, which left me free to think as I drove. How was my family reacting, if Liz was telling them the whole truth? My brother would almost certainly be jealous, which was a blessing compared to my mother. She’d be disgusted by my transformation, but hide it behind a layer of kindness and consideration. As for my father… well, he might accept it, or he might insist that Something Be Done about the fact that I still had fish DNA in my cells.

All too soon, I was pulling into the carport outside my home. The other car was parked next to me, and out in the street was a third; probably Liz’s rental. It was sleek, unassuming, and about three times more expensive than both of our vehicles put together. I suppose being an American doctor did have some perks. 

Stepping out of the car, I made my way to the front door of our little townhouse. Usually I would’ve rushed inside, eager to be away from prying eyes and also the rain, but it was mostly clear today and all the scrutiny was inside. My hand sat on the doorknob for a long few seconds before I gulped down my fear and pushed it open. 

From the next room, I heard my mother saying “Semi, you’re home early!” as I kicked off my shoes and stuck them next to the others on the rack. I returned the greeting, and she replied “Come sit with us,” she asked, and I ran the numbers in my head. It seemed like they weren’t angry, so Liz must not have told them anything yet. Of course, my mother was somewhat inscrutable when she was mad, but my father wouldn’t have taken any accusations of his daughter being a fish sitting down, and he was sitting down, perched next to my mother on the couch like a pale, gangly storm cloud. A platter of oatmeal raisin cookies sat on the coffee table, along with some glasses and a pitcher of hibiscus tea. My mother smiled as I walked in, and I couldn’t help but smile back. 

That smile only lasted until I turned, though. Liz was sitting on the loveseat across from my parents, leaning back at a relaxed angle and twiddling her thumbs in her lap. She didn’t look at all like I’d expected. For one thing, she was rail-thin, with what little I could see of her past her bone-white suit jacket being corded with muscle and essentially free of fat. Her hair was the color of straw, carefully marshalled back into a single thick ponytail that spilled over the couch and down the other side. By her hairline, a few stray locks had gotten free, making her look surprisingly disheveled. The deep bags under her eyes didn’t help. 

But no matter how she looked, I knew she was Liz, and she knew exactly what had happened to me. Her eyes were already picking me apart, running up and down my body in a hunt for any interesting mutilations I’d endured. I’d never been so grateful to be wearing a turtleneck; it covered the scars on my neck where my gills had fused shut. I inclined my head toward her, hoping my hair would cover my missing earlobes. 

There was a long silence as I took my seat. Liz smiled, and I didn’t smile back. Her eyes held some kind of emotion, but I couldn’t identify it at all. It was a little relieving to see any care at all in her, given how similar her words were to Doctor Franklin’s. Taking a deep breath, I began: “Well, I’m here now. What did you want to ask me?” While she thought of an answer, I took a cookie from the plate on the table between us. 

She steepled her fingers. “It’s like I said earlier; I want to do some studies on you and the other two Planet Savers survivors, specifically focused on the psychological effects of traumas like you endured.”  After giving me some time to reply, and realizing that I was just going to keep chewing on the cookie, she continued. “I understand that you don't want to discuss these issues with me, or anyone who you’ve just met, but it’d probably just be an interview. If you want to volunteer for the longer-term study, I can cover the airfare back to my research hospital in Georgia, along with housing for a week or two of behavioral and social trials. But that’s all super-optional.”

“Why would I want to do that, though? It seems like it’d just be a lot of stress, and cause more trouble with my issues. I doubt my therapist would approve.” I didn’t actually mind the idea so much. Getting to spend a week with Miranda would be its own reward, and a week with Arnie wouldn’t completely nullify that.  But I also knew that she knew more than she was letting on, and the idea of willingly entering a research hospital made my brain scream out that this was a VERY BAD IDEA.

“If you don’t want to do it, then don’t.” She took her glass from the table and sipped a measure of the dark red tea. When she set it down, the condensation had mirrored  the outlines of her fingerprints on the glass. “I’m not going to force you to do anything you don’t want to,” she lied. 

Except for making me come home early to see her, but I resisted the urge to call her out on that. Saying what had happened would probably get her thrown out of the house, but it would also lead to questions as to what kind of leverage a doctor from America could have over me. Refusing also seemed not to be an option, if my judgements of her were correct. I wrinkled my brow, trying to figure out what the best move was here. Miranda’s advice came to me; I could just pretend to go along with it for now, until I found an out or figured out her plan. Or ended up going to Georgia for a few weeks of boredom, if she really was being honest. That seemed even more impossible than my other options. “Alright.”

My parents gave me two distinct looks; incredulity from my father and a strange sort of acceptance from my mother. Before they could ask my thoughts on the matter, Liz said: “Excellent! There’s just a few forms that you’ll have to fill out; along with Mr. and Mrs. Garson, of course. Assuming we have your approval for Semirah to miss a few classes?” She smiled at my parents, showing shiny teeth that they failed to reflect. 

I thrust my hands out in front of me like I was trying to free myself from something that had just grabbed me in its talons. “Hold on. I didn’t say I would agree to the trip; just the interview. I want to know what I’m getting into.”

Liz sighed, and some of the tension in her face returned. “Fair enough. Would you like to do it now?” There didn’t seem to be any other time, especially if she planned on talking to other people on this trip, so I nodded. “Awesome, I’ll get my things together.” Picking up a plastic case from the couch next to her, she extracted a file folder from inside and started shuffling through to find whatever it was she planned to show me. She looked up for only a moment to say: “Mr and Mrs Garson, I know this is a bit strange but I think Semi would be better off doing this alone. It won’t be more than ten minutes.” 

“If that’s what you think is best,” my mother replied. Her tone was as calm as ever, but it carried an undercurrent of irritation that went right over Liz’s head. “We’ll be in the next room if you need us,” she said, before they left. That warmed my heart a bit. Ever since I’d gotten home, they’d made an effort to make me feel like I wasn’t alone, likely on the advice of their own therapists. 

Finally locating what she’d been looking for, Liz turned back to me with some papers in hand. “Alright, Semirah, let’s get to business.”

I gulped down my fear, or at least tried to. “What do you want from me, Doctor Dalton? I can’t believe you would go through all this trouble just to get a better look at my psychology, and you obviously know what actually happened to us on that island.” 

“Yeah, about that. I’m not actually a psychologist; I have a doctorate in physical medicine, not psychology. With a specialization in genetics, of course; that’s how I found out about you.” She leaned toward me. In a single instant the stress I’d seen earlier overtook her whole demeanor, driving out her confidence to hide in the piercing gaze of her eyes, and the slight smirk still on her lips. The papers in her hand hit the table with a dull plap , and she spread them out like a hand of cards. 

I gasped, realizing that this was not any sort of questionnaire. Instead, these were records, arranged in neat rows by date and interspersed with photographs. They were all photographs of me, in various states: mostly starved and stuck in a cage, examining my gills in front of the mirror, swimming back and forth in the seawater pool. It was strange; I could recognize myself in every image, even the ones where I was completely altered into Semi-the-fish. There were even a few that I saw myself in but didn’t recognize, the weird halfway state that I’d mostly dreamed through, where the outlines of my fingers had still been visible through a thick layer of fish-skin. 

“Where did you get these pictures?” I asked, trying to keep my voice restrained. Despite my efforts, I stood up and pressed my hands down on the table, coming eye-to-eye with Liz. “Are you working for Franklin? For Skinner? What is this?” 

“Semirah, you’re hyperventilating,” she said, returning my outraged stare with a mildly chilly gaze. After a moment, she gathered up the files and set them facedown, so I couldn’t see any of the pictures. “Sit, please, and I’ll explain everything.”

I sat, as far away from her as I could and keeping my feet firmly planted, ready to get out of the room at a moment’s notice. Crossing my arms, I gave her a sharp look.

“Thank you. I’m sorry that I shocked you so much, but you had to know I was telling the truth. This is an important matter, and I really, really need your help. And that of your friends, of course.” She paused, pursing her lips. “See, I’ve made a pretty big mistake. Several, in fact, and while that’s not your fault I think you might be the only ones capable of helping to resolve it, on account of the terrible, terrible things you experience during your isolation on that island.”

At least she wasn’t trying to convince me that Franklin or Skinner were actually good people. Fom the tone of her voice, though, she seemed to think that the terror was being a fish, not being a fish in a tank with a mad scientist who loved to tap the metaphorical glass. I hadn’t minded being a fish that much. It was peaceful. “I’m glad you think so, but I don’t want to help you. Solve your own problems, and I’ll deal with mine.”

“Lives are at stake. Three of them.”  She shuddered, and avoided my gaze. “Look, here’s the truth: I’m a medical researcher, affiliated with the NIH. I’ve always been working in cutting-edge genomics, so when I got a call from Doctor Skinner last year, offering me the ability to completely reshape the human genome with a somatic-cell alteration? I took that offer.” 

“So what, you decided to make more transgenics?” I spat. Before, I’d mostly been scared, but now I was genuinely outraged. “What for? Space exploration? Or was it just to line your own pockets?”

“I didn’t intend to make any transgenics!” she shouted, and then sighed deeply. “Do you realize what happened to you, in that lab? Like, on a cellular level?” 

After a moment, I admitted that I didn’t.

“Allow me to explain. Franklin’s process didn’t just change you, it rebuilt you. From the ground up, every cell regenerated. Even those in the brain, and the eyes, where in a normal human they’d never change. Which is why you now have 20/20 vision, and you haven’t gotten any scars since you got back from the island. Other than, er…”she trailed off, waving at my neck.

The traces of my gill arches were pale shiny ridges that slashed from one side of my neck to the other. My parents had once asked where they’d come from; I’d said they were from an injury I’d gotten in the crash. Ignoring the fact that cuts across my throat like them would have definitely killed me, it was a good excuse. “Other than these” I said. 

“Yes, those,” she said, and restarted her speech before the truth had time to sink in. “Anyway, it basically gave your organs a refresh, and created millions of pluripotent stem cells stored in your bone marrow--the kind that can become anything. Franklin intended for those to let you shift between human and ‘enhanced’ form.” The quotation marks she traced out in the air were a clear enough indicator of what she thought about the term. “But for a human--a normal human, I mean--they also give an incredible healing ability. He predicted that you’d be able to regenerate portions of lost tissue, maybe even whole fingers and toes!”

Something clicked in my head. “So you want to use us for medical purposes? That’s noble.” I struggled not to sound sarcastic; it really was a noble intention, even if she clearly wasn’t qualified to do that sort of experimentation.

Her eyes suddenly fell to stare down at her feet. “Not quite,” she muttered,. “I wanted to use Franklin’s data, but remove the part where you, you know…”

“Turn into a mutant person-animal.”

“Yeah. I excised all but the most important DNA fragments, reducing the formula to it’s default level. It worked amazingly on my test animals; after a short ‘pupation’ period their bodies were regenerated, and they had the same healing ability as you. And you have to believe me, there were no side effects; it seemed like a miracle cure!” She took a breath, setting her hands on the table as if to steady herself. “So I called some of my contacts on the clinical side of things and found patients who didn’t have anywhere else to turn: cancers, degenerative diseases, the lot.”

Well, at least she hadn’t started with kidnapping. But it still seemed dubious. “Is that ethical? Promising to cure people when the establishment said they’d die?”

“Ethical? I saved their lives. Three people, Semirah, three people just about your age who would be dead today if not for Franklin’s research and my implementation. Not to mention you three, the trailblazers.” My face must have contorted into a truly horrific grimace, because she cut herself off and waited for my response.

My hands felt cold and clammy. I wanted to scream at her, or run to my parents and show them what was happening, but something held me back. “You already used it? On three kids?” I mumbled, feeling like the room was too small and far, far too vast at the same time. 

“Yes,” she replied, nearly as quiet. There was a pleading look to her eyes, one I’d never seen in Doctor Franklin’s. “It was a horrible mistake. The retroviral treatment was designed for humans, not animals, which means it has… unique effects on us. I excised the nonhuman segments, but that didn’t matter for non-human animals. They were capable of substituting with their own DNA and surviving the pupation period. But if I'd done a trial on a primate I would’ve… well, I would have avoided the side effects my trial population’s suffering.“

“Which are?” I asked, wishing I didn’t have to. If only Miranda were here, to ask all the questions and press Dalton for the truth instead of being terrified by the sight of her. 

Liz gulped, looking nauseous. I recoiled as she leaned down towards the table, but blessedly the only things coming out of her mouth were words.  “Without the non-human segments, the patients are stuck in a pupation phase. They’re comatose, thank god, but their organs… well, the body isn’t built to survive stress like that. Everything is breaking down and regenerating constantly, and getting just a bit worse every time. I’ve cured their cancers and their degenerative diseases, but in a few weeks there won’t be anything left of them but tumors.”

Now I felt like throwing up, or maybe throwing a punch. Realistically, of course, being reminded of the Island made me want to crawl into bed and feel safe under the covers. Especially now, realizing that if not for Franklin’s sick genius I’d probably be a blob of meat preserved in a jar somewhere.  

She looked at me for a long time, then blinked and set her mouth in a grim line. “Which brings us to the present. I’m a fast worker, but I’m not fast enough to re-engineer Franklin’s magnum opus in a month. So I need sources of DNA; copies of the retroviral treatment stored in living cells. And it so happens that you three are the only people in the world that have that.” 

“So…” I asked, unable to form the words. 

“So I need your help, and more importantly your bone marrow.” She paused for a moment. “Sorry, that’s kinda rude. I think your input will be invaluable if we are to succeed; after all, you’ve been through what one of these kids might be going through. That’s why I need you to come with me, back to my lab in the US, and stay for a few weeks while I resolve this. I can’t keep you there, of course, but…”

I saw the seatbelt light flickering on again, somewhere in the back of my head. No going back now. “I’ll do it,” I said, before I could think again. “For them.” 

“I’m glad we’ve got the same reasons, then. Your parents don’t need to know this, I think you’ll agree. I’ve got all the paperwork here for them to sign, allowing you to go with me for the research study.” Shuffling around her materials, she retrieved a thin stack of waivers. For a moment she rifled through her pocket, looking for a pen, then she paused and looked up at me. “Are you okay, Semirah? You look sick.”

I blinked. Dalton continued to knock me off balance, but at least she was trying to be nice about it. “N-no, not really. I sort of thought I was done with this.”

She stretched out a hand toward my shoulder and I shied away. After a moment, she pulled back as well. “I’m afraid not. The transgenic material is permanently encoded into your DNA. In fact, according to my research it can be reactivated, though I don’t intend to try that unless things become truly dire.” 

“Its not that .” I said, not mentioning the dreams I’d had. Reactivating my fish body didn’t sound too bad, honestly, especially if Miranda was there (and my parents weren’t ). Maybe we could swim together; or maybe that was just another dream. “It’s the part where I get dragged into a genetic laboratory against my will, by someone who thinks they’re doing the right thing but just ends up causing harm.”

“Is that…” she mumbled, looking downcast. Then she set her jaw, stilling the wobble in her voice. “I assure you, Semirah. I’m not like Doctor Franklin, and this lab will be wholly above-board. You have nothing to worry about.” It was a reassuring sentiment, but I didn’t believe a word of it. 

Still, what choice did I have? I wasn’t a total pushover anymore, but I also wasn’t the kind of person who could murder three people through stubbornness. “Alright,” I said.

Dalton smiled at me and stood, picking up the papers as she headed toward the door. “Glad to hear it. Once we get these filled out, we can go get your friends.”