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Jessica’s Monster


Timothy F. Connolly

Copyright © 2018 Timothy F Connolly

All rights reserved.

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Nature has no compassion. Nature accepts no excuses.

The only punishment it knows is death.

—Eric Hoffer


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47


Rain thrummed the cracked windshield of the copper-colored Mini Cooper as it weaved between slower cars along Exposition Boulevard. Most drivers knew enough to take it slow during a spring deluge, the kind Texas’ Hill Country residents were wise not to taunt. But Alicia Kelley had no such inhibitions. After years of practice, she considered herself a better driver than most even when her blood-alcohol level wasn’t well north of .08; though the plentiful dings decorating a car she’d received only two years ago for her nineteenth birthday would attest otherwise. In the passenger seat, a tall girl with tawny hair and the sinewy shoulders of an athlete stiff-armed the dashboard.

“Slow down!”

“Don’t tell me how to drive!”

“You can’t run away from this Alicia! I saw you; I know what you did! You’re supposed to be my friend!”

“Don’t lecture me about friendship. You’ve never spent a Saturday night alone unless you were in the library working on your next ‘A’ paper!”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“You know what I’m talking about,” Alicia slurred. “You’ve never had to take second place for anything in your life! Well, who’s the loser now?”

The tall girl fell silent. Staring across to where her best friend had been, only a malignant resentment glanced back; so overpowering it seemed to turn the smaller girl’s brown eyes to black. Alicia felt an immediate pang of shame at the sound of her own words; a sudden urge to see herself washed down a muddy culvert with the rainwater. Instead she stomped the accelerator, swinging out to pass a lumbering food truck — white light filled their car… No! It was the only thought her passenger could form as Alicia yanked the wheel to the left and their car was enveloped in brilliance; shards of glass tumbling languidly before the tall girl’s eyes as her awareness drifted unbound… And then there was nothing.


Jessica McCallum was hiding behind a dumpster taking a luxurious drag on her American Spirit Ultra-Light when her name echoed from the conference room’s speaker system. She twisted the butt under the toe of her black pump and, girded by a fresh dose of nicotine, slipped back through the exit door she’d shimmed open with her conference program, slowing her roll near the dais to appear every bit the confident executive as she took the podium. The nicotine did its job; Jessica felt reasonably confident she could get through her 20-minute presentation without vomiting.

Standing a slender five-foot-four with auburn hair and wide-set hazel eyes, she was an attractive if unimposing presence beneath the earth-green logo of Norvaldo Industries. Which was exactly the brand image the company had cultivated: your friend and partner on the journey to a renewed and more abundant planet. But more than the other photogenic pharmaceutical executives in attendance, Jessica’s command of her field imbued her with a gravitas beyond the title of “Research Director” embossed in 11pt. Nexa font on her ivory business cards. As she began rolling through her slides, she was relieved to see the audience of transplant surgeons and hospital administrators appearing to follow along rather than checking their phones or envisioning the waiting buffet of Alaskan crab and wild-caught salmon (complete with an open bar sponsored by Norvaldo).

“It’s generally agreed that a common ancestor of both plants and animals lived around 1.6 billion years ago,” Jessica narrated, clicking to a slide showing a digital rendering of what such a creature might have looked like: blob-like with an inchoate cellular structure. “It was a single-celled organism, neither plant nor animal itself, commonly referred to by the acronym ‘LUA’ or ‘LUCA’; meaning, last universal common ancestor. But even as plants and animals evolved separately into multi-celled organisms, many of their basic cellular processes remained homologous. In fact, plants and animals are still more closely related to one another than about ninety percent of all life on earth. Both plants and animals are eukaryotes, meaning they use virtually the same enzymes to replicate their DNA. They both have nuclei and linear chromosomes, as well as mitochondria, internal membranes and vacuoles. Both plant and animal cells undergo meiosis, mitosis, and sexual reproduction.”

She clicked through another slide. “The obvious difference between plants and animals is plants’ ability to photosynthesize. But this difference is really fairly superficial. Plants can photosynthesize because they possess chloroplasts, which are the descendants of endosymbiotic cyanobacteria. But as part of the animal kingdom, we human beings have endosymbionts as well; for instance, the mitochondria which power our cells were originally bacterial endosymbionts. It could have all come down to a few random mutations that the ancestors of plants happened to inherit an endosymbiont that could photosynthesize, while ours did not.”

The slide changed again to an image of what looked like a tiny, translucent heart with branching red veins. “So, it wasn’t such a stretch when science began investigating possible methods to incorporate the two. We already know cellulose is biocompatible, having been used successfully in a variety of regenerative applications, such as engineering cartilage and bone tissue, and even wound healing. And as this slide shows, scientists have now found a way to use a spinach leaf to create a living vascular system for replacing damaged heart tissue.”

The slide changed again to an image of a complex molecular chain. “Which is a rather roundabout way of explaining how Norvaldo came to explore the efficacy of Tambustin in treating ischemia in transplants. The initial trial results showed that Tambustin markedly reduced damage even when administered as late as eighteen hours after the ischemic episode.” Jessica heard a murmur move through the crowd, causing her to stand a little taller in her pricey new pumps. “As transplant surgeons, all of you are familiar with the risks of antibody-mediated rejection and delayed-graft function. Both of which are associated with poor long-term survival. Current treatments have mostly been limited to the use of immune suppressing agents… However, clinical trials have shown that because of Tambustin’s unique anti-inflammatory properties, the drug is also effective in preventing these common obstacles to a successful transplant, thereby greatly improving the patient’s long-term prognosis.” The screen reverted to the Norvaldo logo.

“So, at this point, I’d like to open the floor to questions.”

A young woman in the front row shoved her hand into the air. Jessica pointed: “Yes?” The woman stood, and Jessica could see that she looked like an overdressed undergrad: her blonde dreadlocks carefully pinned back in an attempt at corporate respectability, and her mauve pantsuit looked like something she’d borrowed from her mother’s closet. Jessica felt the sinking sensation of having just walked into an ambush.

“So, it’s true that Tambustin was created using a hybrid of human and plant DNA?”

“That’s correct.”

“Can you tell us which plants were used?”

“We used DNA from several different species. The exact sequence is proprietary, of course.”

“Don’t you think patients have a right to know what’s being put into their bodies?”

“They may have that right. But if it’s a question of the right to know versus the ability to go on living; most patients are willing to forgo corporate transparency.”

“That sounds like blackmail.”

Jessica stepped away from the podium, speaking to the young woman with no artifice of authority between them. “As any of the doctors or patient advocates in this room can tell you… In the United States alone, there are over seventy-nine thousand patients currently waiting for an organ transplant. Each month, nearly three thousand more are added to the list. Many of those people will die waiting. When you consider that, as human beings, we share sixty percent of our genome with a banana, it’s not such a radical act to incorporate plant DNA into a treatment that has the potential to save thousands of lives every year.”

“And what about when the worst happens? Like the incident in 2002, when a company called Prodigene failed to take precautions while growing genetically modified maize for the noble purpose of creating a vaccine that prevents diarrhea in pigs? Their negligence allowed for cross-pollination with local crops and resulted in half-a-million bushels having to be destroyed.”

As the dreadlocked girl continued her litany of corporate malfeasance, Jessica noticed a large man in a dark blazer talking into his sleeve at the side of the room. Soon two more men in similar attire appeared at the back. The young woman’s tirade was about to be cut short.

“Well, the rice crop you mentioned was being developed by a different company, so I can’t address their safety measures,” Jessica replied, as the three men began to converge on the young interloper. “But the incident you mentioned happened some years ago, and safety protocols have come a long way. I can tell you that Norvaldo uses secure indoor growing facilities where there’s zero risk of cross-fertilization.”

One of the security men approached the young woman and appeared to ask for her credentials. “I have a right to be here!” she shouted back. Another man moved in and took her arm. “Get the fuck off me!”

“Hey, there’s no need for rough stuff!” Jessica interjected. But the security men soon had the woman’s arms pinned behind her back and were dragging her toward the back door, the same one Jess had been sneaking a shame-puff behind only twenty minutes before.

“People have a right to know what corporations are doing to our food and medicine!” the girl shouted to slack-jawed doctors and pharma representatives as she was dragged out. “Norvaldo has bought off our government! The FDA is a whorehouse!”

The heavy exit door slammed; the room was quiet again.

“Well… any other questions?”


After the obligatory post-conference schmoozing, Jessica was finally free to use the exit door for its intended purpose. Two of the security men approached her and insisted on escorting her to a waiting town car. As soon as they rounded the corner to the street, she understood why. The small group of protestors she had encountered outside the Washington State Convention Center that morning had grown such that it spilled off the sidewalk and clogged traffic down Pike St. One of the blue-blazered men guided her by the shoulder while the other cleared a path through a forest of handmade signs adorned with pithy slogans like, “Phuck Pharming,” “GMO Genocide,” and “Tambustin = Soylent Green?”

Unable to get in her face, someone in the back opted for a Hail Mary, lobbing a half-finished Venti Frappuccino over the crowd — splattering like a mocha Pollack across the Lincoln’s shiny black hood as the security man ducked Jessica into the back seat. The passenger door closed with a reassuring whump, shutting out the jeers outside, and her driver spared no one’s feelings in his determination to reach clear passage, punching the horn and gunning the motor to make it known he would not be impeded. Their car reached the freeway on-ramp and found safety among the thrumming lanes of I-5, headed south to SeaTac Airport.

Jessica sank into the leather seat with a sigh. So, I’m The Man now? Didn’t see that coming. It was a strange fate to contemplate. She, the former goth girl who, on corporate occasions like today, still had to remember to wear long sleeves lest the Einstürzende Neubauten tattoo inside her right arm draw stares. But today’s requisite skirt-and-pumps uniform meant the “Ouroboros” snake circling her ankle was impossible to hide. Fortunately, tattoos on women stopped being threatening years ago; now they were just trashy. Bad taste was forgivable in the corporate world; independent thought was a different matter.

Her phone buzzed and she pulled it from her bag: “Great job! Investors are impressed!”

Jess tapped out a response: “Thanks. Crowd outside, not so much.”

“Don’t mind the haters. Scheduling a meet for your return. Check your calendar.”

She didn’t bother asking how Martin had already gotten the word about her presentation. By now Jessica had come to expect that he was at least a day ahead of everyone else. It had been that way since the rainy afternoon when the phone rang in her lab and she found herself talking with Norvaldo’s Senior Vice President of Research and Development. He invited her up to his office for some one-on-one “career coaching,” and she’d made the trek the next morning with a lingering dread. His office was elegantly decorated with an antique desk and long, gauzy curtains replacing the corporate-issue blinds, giving the space a comforting, almost sensual appeal. And when Martin offered her a seat on his leather Recamier couch, she braced herself for the tried-and-true “I know this great place for (insert trendy ethnic cuisine here).” But to her surprise, he actually did want to know about her career goals. More than that, he wanted to know her, what her dreams were, how she saw herself, what her research meant to her on a personal level.

At thirty-five, she surmised she was probably too old for him anyway. Martin looked to be about fifty, but with his silver temples and bronzed rock-climber physique, he could have passed for a Ralph Lauren model. No one was surprised to see an attractive Asian grad student sharing the front of his Range Rover, or a different girl the following week. With Austin’s burgeoning tech scene drawing more ambitious young women every year, a man of Martin’s status had no reason to cause trouble for himself at work. So Jessica was left wondering, if it wasn’t romance he was after, why the seduction scene? There were others in her division who had made headlines for their research in life extension and other splashy fields. Why her?

“I see something in you,” Martin told her. “I think you could be the one to crack the problem of creating a plant-based vaccine for HIV, malaria, cholera, dozens of life-threatening diseases. With your help, we can create drugs that the poorest countries could license and grow for themselves, eliminating the need for complex manufacturing or refrigeration. Imagine it… you’d be creating a true ‘apple of knowledge.’”

After a pitch like that, it would have felt like turning her back on humanity to demure when Martin offered her the Director position. And the major salary bump didn’t hurt. That meeting had been just over a year ago, and here she was presenting her first new medication to top transplant surgeons from across the country. There was no denying Martin’s polished charm; his salesman-like ability to intuit people’s needs and make himself the solution. But unlike most of them; everything he promised, he delivered.

“Should be no problem making your 6:15 flight,” the driver said over his shoulder.

“Thanks, I appreciate you rescuing me from my fans.”

“All part of the job,” he smiled to her in the rearview.

The tires of the town car hummed soothingly in the fast lane as Jess scrolled through her messages, searching… But Luke was not there.


It was after 10 p.m. when Jessica pulled her rollaway bag to the curb at Austin-Bergstrom Airport, then made the trek through the sticky Texas night to short-term parking. She shoved the rollaway into the back of her Porsche Cayenne and climbed in front, cranking the air-conditioning and sitting back to inhale the scent of new leather; an aroma that, after a lifetime of driving used Toyotas and Volvos, was still an indulgence for her senses.

She made it to Hyde Park in time for a late dinner of leftover lasagna, accompanied by a generous pour of pinot, and then another. She filled a water pitcher and made the rounds watering her favorite Moth Orchids before landing on the couch. She roamed the channels absently, finally glancing at the unused dining room where she had self-consciously averted her gazes since arriving home. Piled there in the corner were a dusty miter saw, a pair of worn-out size eleven work boots, some old blues LPs and a dented red toolbox. Jessica took a swig of pinot, then sat staring at her phone. Finally she reached for it…

“Your stuff is still here if you want to pick it up.”

She put the phone down and reached for the remote again. In a few minutes the phone chimed and she snatched it from the coffee table.


“Might as well. I’m back in town for now.”


She hustled her plate and empty wine glass to the kitchen, then hauled her suitcase to the bedroom and returned to straighten the cushions on her new couch. She went for symmetry first, then decided it looked forced and tossed them carelessly instead. After repeating the process with the matching club chair, she retreated to the back patio for another Ultra-Light. When she was down to the filter the doorbell rang and she snuffed the butt, slowing her pace in the front hall so her footfalls would convey no sign of excitement.

She opened the door to find Luke standing under the porch light, black helmet in hand, stubble-cheeked, clad in paint-splattered Levis, threadbare t-shirt and old steel-toe boots with a patch of chrome shining through the road-singed leather. He looked so carelessly, shabbily handsome, he could have been modeling a line of “loser chic” fashions in a GQ spread. But Jess knew better. Luke rolled out of bed that way; no one told him anything.

“Doctor McCallum,” he said with a smirk.

“You never get tired of that; do you?” Jess motioned him inside.

“How could I? The only doctors I’ve met were stitching me up in the ER.”

“Right, but I’m not that kind of doctor; remember?”

“True, you’re the mad scientist kind. Which is much cooler.” Luke set his motorcycle helmet on the hall table and followed Jess into the living room.

“I’ve got a few Shiners in the fridge, if you’ll allow me to be a proper hostess.”

“Sure.” Jessica went off for the beer and Luke looked around, taking in the new furnishings. “I like how you finished the place.”

“Thanks!” she called back.

“Like Martha Stewart busted a nut,” he muttered.

Jess returned with a Shiner Bock for Luke and a pinot refill for herself. Luke raised his beer to her and they drank. He turned to see his belongings stacked in the corner, like huddled street urchins hoping for a friendly glance from passersby. “I didn’t know where else to put all of it,” Jess said. “Not a lot of closet space in these old houses.”

“My fault for leaving it behind.” They stood there like cheating spouses at a cocktail party. Luke looked at his feet. “You got the floors refinished. Looks like you’ve taken a big step up from associate researcher.”

“It would be hard not to.”

“So that boss of yours… You still the teacher’s pet?”

“Seems that way.”

“And still no ‘drinks at my place?’”

“A man of Martin’s position doesn’t fish off the company pier. He can do better.”

“I doubt that.”

Their eyes met momentarily; it was long enough. Luke turned again to look at the miter saw, work boots, toolbox, LPs and assorted junk. “You know, I’m pretty sure I can’t carry all that on my bike.”

Ten minutes later their clothes were scattered across the bedroom floor and Jessica was bent over her neatly made queen bed, the cotton comforter damp against her cheek as Luke cupped her breast, savoring the heat of her body against his. “You’re a bad little scientist; aren’t you?”

“I’m so bad…” she moaned.

“You hate peer review; don’t you?”

“I hate those fuckers. Uh… Harder!”

“And that dandified boss of yours… You wanna tell him where to shove his hair gel.”

Jess glanced over her shoulder, breathing hard. “Let’s just play the hits tonight; okay?”

“Right. I’m running out of material.”

“Just pull my hair and fuck me like a creep!”

“I can do that.”

And he did. Driving hard until Jess arched her back and Luke felt her body tense. He picked up the rhythm, letting go as she did; the two of them collapsing in a glossy tangle. “Holy shit…” Jess panted.

“I have never been so glad to own a motorcycle,” Luke concurred.


Jess was already done up in skirt and heels again when Luke wandered barefoot from the bedroom. Sunlight streamed through the live oak outside the picture window, across the hardwood floor to where she stood with a mug watching the news.


“Same to you, doctor.” Luke wandered to the pot and poured a cup.

“Looks like we’re in for a real Texas flood tonight,” she said, watching as the TV weatherman spread his arms like gaping jaws to encompass the storm front heading down from the Midwest.

Luke joined her in front of the big wall-mounted Sony. “Guess I better get the buckets set up in my kitchen.” He took a seat on the couch but Jess remained standing. The weatherman finished his shtick and the news rolled into commercials for Zyrtec, Cialis, Lunesta… “It’s a good thing we already broke up,” he said finally. “Otherwise, this might be awkward.”

“I’ve got an early meeting. You remember how to lock up; right?”

“I think so.” He glanced at his belongings piled in their lonely corner. “You know, my bike really is my only set of wheels.”

“You can borrow my car next time,” Jess said, carrying her cup to the sink.

“Next time?”

“Come back Friday. I’ll be around.” She took her car keys and phone from the counter and returned to the living room.

“Friday,” Luke repeated.


“You know, when Friday comes, I’ll still be paying my rent with a guitar and a paint sprayer.”

“This isn’t…”

“I know what this isn’t, doctor,” he finished. “So, the security code is still Darwin’s birthday?”


“And when is that again?”

“Two, twelve, O-nine.”

“Got it. You better get going. The future won’t make itself.”

Jess stood there, looking like she wanted to say something.

“It’s alright, doc,” Luke said gently.

She smiled sheepishly, then turned for the door.

Sprinklers misted the acre of lawn fronting Norvaldo’s glass-walled corporate suites as Jess parked her Cayenne in the visitor lot. Climbing the steps to the main entrance, she reached for her ID badge and swiped the reader on her way in. The security guard looked up from his copy of the Austin American-Statesman. “Mornin,’ doctor.”

“Good morning, Reggie. Looks like we might need plywood on the windows tonight, huh?”

“My wife already has the candles out. We’re going Goth.”

“Let me know if you need some decorating tips. I’m an old pro with black paint.”

“Will do. You have a good day now!” he called after her.

Distracted by his conversation with Jess, the guard failed to notice that the employee following her into the building — a bearded young man dressed in the standard techie uniform of skinny jeans, Chuck Taylors, messenger bag and unnecessary hoodie — was wearing an expired temp-worker’s ID lanyard. By the time he did look, the young man was halfway past the guard desk and the Norvaldo logo on his ID was all that registered.

“You guys still working on that server upgrade?” the guard called after him.

“All night, by the look of things.”

“Let’s hope the lights stay on, huh?”

“Or not. I could use a break.”

“I hear that!”

The temp worker waved over his shoulder and turned right down the hall leading to the IT wing.

Jessica stepped off the elevator at the sixth floor. Martin’s assistant Rachael was at her desk with a latte cooling next to her Mac. She looked to be about twenty-five, with slender limbs and a wardrobe that seemed beyond an assistant’s pay grade. It made Jess wonder if Rachael and Martin were… But that was none of her business; right? Of course not.

“Good morning, Jessica. I’ll let Martin know you’re here.”

“Thank you.”

Jess took a seat and scrolled her phone as Rachael spoke softly into her headset: “Martin, Jessica is here for your nine ‘o clock.” She looked up, “You can go on in.”

Jessica stood and smoothed her skirt, then stepped through the tinted glass door leading into Martin’s office. The high ceiling and narrow, north-facing windows gave the space a cool light, and Martin’s studied arrangement of art nouveau and craftsman furnishings imparted a deliberate mingling of imagination and workman-like focus. He set his earpiece on the desk as Jessica entered, greeting her with open arms and a smile that could disarm a suicide bomber.

“There’s my girl…” He put an arm around her shoulder and squeezed gently, carefully skirting the limits of “appropriate” contact between coworkers. “Your first presentation and you knocked it out of the park!”

“Tambustin was the star. Our team did a great job bringing it to trial.”

“Don’t sell yourself short. Your research made it all possible. It’s only fair you should take a bow. We’ve already received approvals for phase-three trials because of you.”

“Well, I’d ask for a promotion, but I just got one.”

“Which brings us to the reason for this morning’s meeting…” Martin reached into his desk drawer and grabbed the keys to his Range Rover. “Take a ride with me, doctor.”


Driving west out of Austin, Martin took them along a narrow two-lane blacktop skirting the Balcones Canyonlands Wildlife Refuge; through rolling hills covered with ashe juniper, shin oak and meadows splashed with Texas bluebonnets. At a small sign marked “Pumping Station 9,” he turned his Range Rover down a dirt road and followed it for half a mile. Cresting a small hill, they descended into a glen where a concrete structure the size of a modest ranch house shaded under a canopy of oaks. As Martin pulled up to the building, Jessica instinctively covered her nose. “Whoa!”

“It’s one of our off-grid facilities,” said Martin. “Disguising it as a sewage treatment station helps keep the looky-loos away. The aroma’s a nice touch, don’t you think?”

“Very realistic. How do they…”

“There are mist ports hidden in the walls. Norvaldo’s chemists are quite inventive, as you know.” Martin took a small remote fob from the car’s console and pointed it at the structure. A weather-beaten garage door clanked up and they drove into the shadowed space. Instead of a garage, they found themselves on a ramp that turned steeply clockwise, descending to a parking level holding a dozen vehicles with space for more.

“I feel like a secret agent,” Jess said, marveling at the hidden space.

“You should. Very few people have access to this facility. As of today, you’re one of them.” They parked and Martin led them toward an elevator where he scanned his badge, which opened a hidden facial-recognition panel. “See for yourself.”

Jess stood before the screen, smiling as the elevator doors parted in welcome. “If only my phone could open doors too.” They stepped into a gleaming stainless-steel elevator car and immediately began to descend. She judged they went down about five stories before the doors opened again.

The two of them emerged from the elevator into a white-walled cleanroom with fans whirring beneath the grated floor. Martin went to a glass cabinet and removed two clean suits. They pulled the suits over their clothes, then slipped white booties over their shoes and walked to an air-shower at the end of the room. The combination of air jets blowing at 7,000 feet-per-minute and the pressure differential between the entrance and exit served to dislodge any particulate matter, drawing it through the grates to a HEPA filtration system. Martin led Jess to a heavy door with a large glass portal, beyond which appeared to be a dimly lit antechamber. He pressed a lever and the door opened with a sound like twisting a pickle jar.

Following Martin, Jess stepped through the door and craned her neck at the sight before her… It was no antechamber; she was inside a limestone cavern that extended about one hundred yards side-to-side and nearly twice that length to the back wall. Growing from the cave floor as far as she could see were tall rows of ripening corn. Racks of full-spectrum lights hung from the cave roof, showering perfectly balanced photon nourishment onto the crop below.

“How did you…”

“Find this place? There are limestone caves like this all over the Texas Hill Country. They formed naturally during the last ice age. This one was used as a quarry a hundred years ago. It was a toxic mess when the company leased the land from the state. Norvaldo funded the habitat restoration up above. In return, Texas agreed ‘not to impede business growth.’”


“No inspections.” Martin led them along a grated metal walkway that bordered the expansive soil box containing the cornfields. He gestured to the stalks reaching hungrily toward the lights above. “This corn contains a DNA hybrid we’re developing as a replacement for blood plasma — cytokines, anticoagulants, immunoglobulins — imagine the market share for that!”

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