Dan Well’s Extreme Makeover—available November 15th—is a satirical new suspense about a health and beauty company that accidentally develops a hand lotion that can overwrite your DNA.
Lyle Fontanelle is the chief scientist for NewYew, a health and beauty company experimenting with a new, anti-aging hand lotion. As more and more anomalies crop up in testing, Lyle realizes that the lotion’s formula has somehow gone horribly wrong. It is actively overwriting the DNA of anyone who uses it, turning them into physical clones of someone else. Lyle wants to destroy the formula, but NewYew thinks it might be the greatest beauty product ever designed—and the world’s governments think it’s the greatest weapon. Please enjoy this excerpt.
Thursday, March 22
NewYew headquarters, Manhattan
267 DAYS TO THE END OF THE WORLD
“The yew,” said Carl Montgomery, “is a majestic tree.” He wheezed with the effort of speaking, and paused to take a slow, deep breath from his oxygen tank. “Yggdrasil was a yew,” he said, “the tree that holds up the world.”
They were gathered in an opulent conference room: Carl, the CEO of NewYew, Inc., and all of his executive staff. Lyle Fontanelle, the chief scientist, was always surprised at the sheer ostentatious luxury in this part of the building: the offices had been constructed and furnished in the early days of the company when business was booming, orders were rolling in, and Carl used to say that “people are dying to give us their money!” This was technically true: their sole product at the time had been paclitaxel, a chemotherapy drug, and their customers were all cancer patients. That had been before Lyle was hired, but Carl had often confided to him that the secret to his success had been the ability to treat cancer without curing it: “Sell a cure for something,” he would say, “and you’ve destroyed your own market; sell a treatment, and you’ve gained a customer for life.” Given that his customers’ lives depended quite literally on the treatment he sold them, Carl’s philosophy had been remarkably accurate.
Lyle liked to tell himself that he would not have worked for NewYew during those days—that he would not, when confronted with fabulous wealth, compromise his principles. He was not a mercenary. He was a scientist.
NewYew’s fortunes had changed in the 1990s, when scientists developed a way to synthesize paclitaxel without the need to harvest its namesake tree, the Pacific yew. A simple, unrestricted process meant that more companies could manufacture it; more manufacturers meant wider availability and lower prices; good access and low prices meant that more patients could use it. The patients were happy, the doctors were happy, even the environmentalists were happy because the Pacific yew was no longer in danger.
Carl Montgomery had not been happy.
Without a monopoly to sustain it, NewYew suffered a huge financial hit and was forced to rebuild itself; they had the equipment and the infrastructure to manufacture consumer chemicals, so they simply repurposed them from chemotherapy to cosmetics. They recruited Lyle, an up-and-coming chemist from Avon, and got to work. The only real difference, as far as Carl was concerned, was that now his lobby portraits were supermodels instead of little bald children—so if anything, the offices looked even nicer than before.
As with most evolutions, this one had produced a number of vestigial appendages—holdovers from the old company that didn’t really apply anymore, such as the name of the company and the tagline “The Healing Power of Yew™.” Carl even went so far as to insist that the Pacific yew be included in their cosmetics formulas, though his executives fought him on it every time. On the morning of March 22, Lyle Fontanelle rolled his eyes and prepared to have the argument again.
“Yggdrasil was an ash,” said Lyle. “I looked it up.”
“And we can’t use yew in a hand lotion,” said the lawyer, a man named Sunny Frye. His real name was Sun-He, and he was Korean; Lyle had been working in makeup for so long, he could pinpoint a face’s origin with uncanny accuracy. Sunny continued patiently: “The yew tree has no moisturizing or antiaging properties whatsoever. We’ve gone over this before. It adds nothing to the product.”
“So don’t use very much,” said Carl, virtually motionless in his chair. It was an overstuffed office chair of soft black leather, blending deliciously with the rich brown mahogany of the conference table, and Carl rarely ever moved from it—or, truth be told, in it. He was seventy-nine years old, long past retirement age, and in Lyle’s opinion he had no business trying to run the company. On the other hand, Lyle had to admit that the alternative was probably worse: the next in line of succession for the position of CEO was the company president, Jeffrey Montgomery. He was Carl’s son, and almost willfully useless.
Carl sat unmoving in his chair. “We don’t need to use very much yew, just enough to put it on the label.”
The room full of executives sighed as politely as they could. There were four of them (not counting Jeffrey, who was playing games on his phone in the corner): the vice president of Finance, the vice president of Marketing, the chief legal counsel and, of course, the chief scientist. Lyle had long harbored the secret dream of changing his business cards to say “chief science officer,” but for nearly ten years and counting he’d been too afraid to actually do it. He wasn’t sure which was scarier—being mocked for the Star Trek reference, or realizing that nobody cared what it said on his business cards.
Carl plunged onward, feebly waving a wrinkled hand for emphasis. “The yew is a glorious tree, and our customers associate it with health! We treated cancer for thirty-five years with the yew tree, can’t we leverage that somehow?”
“It would be a brilliant marketing move,” said Kerry White, leaning forward eagerly. He had been hired as vice president of Marketing only a few months previously, so this conversation was relatively new to him. “Think of the commercials: ‘The company that saved your life is going to save your skin.’”
“We ran that campaign four years ago,” said the VP of Finance, a skeletal woman named Cynthia Mummer. “It didn’t play.”
“It didn’t play,” said Carl, “because we didn’t have yew in the products!”
“Okay,” said Lyle, “can we…” He wanted to show off his newest idea, and struggled to find a good segue. “Can we make it a pun?”
“A pun?” asked Kerry. “That’s your contribution?”
“Our whole company name is already a pun,” said Cynthia.
“But I mean a pun on what Carl just said,” said Lyle. “That we have yew in the products. ‘You’ in the products.”
“We know what a pun is,” said Cynthia.
“Just let him explain it,” said Sunny. Lyle was grateful and indignant at the same time: he needed Sunny’s support every time in these meetings, but he didn’t want to need it. Why couldn’t they let him stand up for himself?
“I’ve been researching some biomimetic technologies,” said Lyle, “and I have something I want to—”
“What’s biomimetics?” asked Kerry.
“Bio-mimicry,” said Lyle. “It’s like a smart product, that can adapt itself to match your body.”
Cynthia nodded. “We have biomimetic lipids in our teen skin care line. It’s one of our best sellers.”
“Oh yeah,” said Kerry, “my wife loves that lotion.”
“Your wife uses teen lotion?” asked Cynthia.
“If you’ve been researching biomimetics,” Carl growled, “what have you got? We don’t pay you to sit on your butt all day—that’s why we have Jeffrey. You we pay for research and development. So: have you developed anything?”
“Actually I do have something I’d like to show you,” said Lyle, lifting up his briefcase to set it on the table. “It’s the burn cream we’ve talked about before—it’s, ah, showing some interesting promise as an antiaging lotion. It’s not ready for the public yet, by any means, but the early results are promising and I want to dedicate a bigger piece of the budget to following it up.”
“Why do we need a burn cream?” asked Cynthia icily. As CFO, she would have the strongest say in whether or not he got any more funding. Lyle swallowed nervously and opened his briefcase.
“It’s not really a burn cream,” said Lyle, pulling out a folder and a stack of glossy photos. “The technology comes from a burn cream, from some medical research published a few years ago, but like I said I think we have some pretty neat options for using it in cosmetics, in antiaging especially. The key component is plasmids.”
“Oh,” shouted Jeffrey, “like in that game!”
“No,” said Lyle, “like in the bacteria.”
“You’re putting bacteria in a hand lotion?” asked Kerry. “I know there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but that’s pushing the limit.”
“It’s not actual bacteria,” said Lyle, flipping through the folder. “Bacteria is where plasmids come from, but then they take them out and sell them separately.” He found a photocopied page in the folder and held it up, displaying two grainy, black-and-white images of what may or may not have been skin. “This is from a test at Boston University, using plasmids to rebuild burned skin—they go into the cells and accelerate collagen production, so the skin heals faster and more fully.”
“Wait,” said Kerry, excited, “this is like a collagen injection in a lotion? That we can market the hell out of.”
“Then why are you working on a lotion?” asked Carl, “and not a lipstick? Can we do it in a lipstick?”
“Most lipsticks just make your lips look fuller,” said Kerry, “this one would actually make them be fuller. I can see it now—”
“Wait,” said Lyle, “it’s not … it wouldn’t work like that. I mean, we’re not talking magical plastic surgery lips or anything.”
“What are we talking?” asked Sunny.
“It doesn’t enlarge anything,” said Lyle, “but it has the potential to be a pretty amazing wrinkle reducer.”
“Antiaging is huge,” said Cynthia. “The baby boomers are so old they’re children are getting old; we could do a lot with a new wrinkle reducer.”
“It’s a very clever system,” said Lyle, pleased to have their positive attention. “Your skin is primarily composed of collagen, and other proteins, and as you get old your skin stops producing quite so much of it, and that’s what makes it sag and shrivel. The plasmids help you heal from a burn by producing more collagen—or more accurately, by tricking your cells into overproducing it. When you apply it to healthy skin, it creates extra collagen and fills out the sags and wrinkles. Here, I think I have some of our test photos here.…” He riffled through his folder. “Every other antiaging product on the market, from Botox to make-up to everything else, is all just covering the problem, or stretching the problem, or doing something to hide it. But a lotion that directly stimulates your skin cells to build more collagen is actually solving the problem—not just hiding the wrinkles, but reversing them.”
“Rejuvagen!” shouted Kerry. “The first skin care product that actually reverses the aging process, exclusively from NewYew!”
“That’s not bad,” said Carl, pointing an unsteady finger at Kerry.
“Thanks,” said Lyle uncertainly. He found the photo he wanted and placed it on the table. “This is one of our early test subjects. We were testing the healing properties on a small abrasion here, on her cheek, but you can see her whole face pretty well.”
“Wait,” said Sunny cautiously. “You said it goes into the cells? What do you mean by that, exactly?”
“Well, it’s a plasmid,” said Lyle, “so it—”
Carl cut him off. “I don’t care how it works, I care if we can protect it, economically and legally. You say this came from a university study—is the research public domain?”
“The university study was an academic proof of concept,” said Lyle. “The technology is fully public, and the plasmids themselves are pretty common. I ordered these off the shelf from a chemical supply place.”
“But how invasive is it?” asked Sunny. “If it messes with the cells directly we’ll probably have to run it past the FDA, and that could take years. If you think we can really use this, a portion of the budget will have to go toward that.”
“The FDA will never pass it,” said Cynthia sternly, picking up the photocopied page and pointing to the blurry text. “Lyle forgot to mention that this is gene therapy.”
“Gene therapy?” asked Carl.
Sunny laughed. “The FDA has never approved gene therapy in a consumer product, Lyle, why didn’t you tell us up front this was a gene thing?”
“I said it was plasmids,” said Lyle, looking around the room. “What else would I be talking about?”
“Nobody knows what plasmids are,” said Kerry.
“I told you,” said Jeffrey, “they were in that game.”
“A plasmid is a circle of DNA,” said Lyle, ignoring him. “They’re a very small, very efficient way of transcribing genetic information. The one I’m using attaches itself to your DNA to prompt the creation of HSP47, which is a heat-shock protein—”
“This is genetic engineering,” said Sunny, shaking his head. “There’s no way the FDA would even get near it.”
“It’s not exactly a weird technology,” said Lyle defensively. “I told you, I bought these by the case from a lab supplier. They’re everywhere.”
“They’re everywhere in labs,” said Sunny, “not in consumer products. That’s a pretty huge difference.”
“Let me see your test results,” said Cynthia, looking at the photos. Lyle slid his folder across the table, but Sunny shook his head.
“The tests don’t matter,” said Sunny. “It could be the most effective antiaging product in the world and we still wouldn’t be able to sell it.”
“But it is,” said Cynthia, looking up from the file. She was smiling, but Lyle thought it looked surprisingly predatory.“The most effective antiaging product in the world. Look at his notes in the margin: ‘A seventy-six percent reduction in deep wrinkles. Complete reversal of fine lines. Full results in two weeks, visible results in a matter of days.’” She looked at Carl. “This is a gold mine.”
“It’s a gold mine we can’t touch,” Sunny insisted. “At least not without another ten years of FDA testing. Seriously, Lyle, we shouldn’t even have been testing this without good legal coverage.”
“The subjects all signed the release forms,” said Lyle, “and I passed them all on to you.”
“But you didn’t tell me they were for genetic engineering!” said Sunny. “What if something goes wrong?”
“Now ease up a bit,” said Carl, leaning forward. The others in the room stopped and looked at him—Carl never leaned forward unless he had something very important to say. “If this lotion is as good as Cynthia says, what are our options?”
“With gene therapy?” asked Sunny. “Nothing. Wait ten years for FDA approval, or scrap it and reformulate.”
“How closely did you look at this photo?” said Cynthia, placing it back in the center of the table. Everyone leaned in to examine it.
“Cute,” said Kerry. “Is this a teen product?”
“That’s a forty-three-year-old woman,” said Cynthia, “after just three weeks of treatment. With a face like that she could get picked up by a pedophile.”
The room was silent. Carl stared at the photo. “Lyle,” he said slowly, “are these results typical?”
Lyle couldn’t help but smile. “The woman in that photo had a fairly youthful face to begin with—there’s more going on there than just our lotion—but yes, in general, that level of wrinkle reduction is typical of our test cases. I’ve had several of them call back to ask if they could get more. This product has the potential to be a best seller like we haven’t seen since … paclitaxel, really. Everyone’s going to want this.”
Carl stared at the table in front of him frowning in thought. At last he spoke, without looking up. “Sunny, you’re going to find a way for us to sell this.”
“If you do,” said Carl, “I will personally buy you a Caribbean island, and I will do it with the loose change this product puts under my couch cushions.”
Sunny paused. “It could be huge … but only if there’s a way to make it work legally.”
“Find a way.” Carl looked at Kerry. “I want a name, I want commercials, I want bottle designs, I want everything.”
“Absolutely,” said Kerry.
“And you,” said Carl, pointing a yellowed finger at Lyle. “I want this in production by next week.”
“Not a full run,” said Carl, “we don’t even have a bottle yet. But I want sample runs and stability tests. Call Jerry at the plant and set it up.”
Lyle grimaced. “I have one more test scheduled for next week, but … yeah, I can probably get it done. Two weeks would be better.”
Cynthia raised an eyebrow. “You’ve tested everything from litmus to rats to human skin. What else do you need?”
“I’m still refining the formula,” said Lyle. “The woman in the photo is from batch 14E, and the newest is 14G. The tweaks were minor, though, and one test ought to do it. It’s already scheduled through HR: adult males, eighteen to forty-five.”
“Skin care for men is the next big thing,” said Kerry.
“None as big as this,” said Carl. “Run your test, Lyle—I want this product guaranteed for every gender, every age, every race, every everything. If you’ve got skin, you’re a customer.” He folded his frail hands and stared at the executives sternly. “A lotion that literally makes your skin younger—and does so this effectively—has the potential to be the biggest cosmetic breakthrough since breast implants, and with a wider appeal. I want a bottle of this lotion in the hands of every man, woman, and child in the country—I want women to bathe in it, and I want schoolgirls to feel old if they don’t use it. Am I clear?”
The executives nodded.
“Good,” said Carl. “Let’s go change the world.”
Copyright © 2016 by Dan Wells
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