“Zero in Babel”

Read a new short story about DIY genetic editing for keeping up with high school trends.

Girls with genetically designed eyes looking down on a girl with non-biohacked eyes.
Syan Rose

Each month, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives—publishes a story on a theme. The theme for July–September 2019: health.

Since the start of school in September, everyone who mattered in the social hierarchy of ninth grade at Babel North High, not including the boys, had acquired purple, petaled eyes.

Everyone blinked their flower eyes at each other in the hallways between classes, a firefly code that those without the cosmedit could still understand, and the message they transmitted ran: I am beautiful. You are beautiful. We are beautiful.

Imogen was not beautiful. Imogen had brown skin, a wide and stubby nose, and hair that went arid to oily from one class to the next, but worst of all, Imogen still had the crayon-brown eyes that she had been born with.

“I can’t go back to school,” she told her parents every morning, and every morning they smiled, patted her head, and shoved her up the steps of the electric bus. And that was that.

“I made a petition,” she told her parents.

“You don’t have enough signatures,” her father said.

She went away and came back. “I have fifty signatures.”

“I’m pretty sure those are forged,” her father said.

“We just don’t have the money,” her mother said. “You know about Mamu Arslan.”

Imogen said, “Then let me get a job.”

“Absolutely not,” her father said. “It’ll distract you from school.”

“Work will teach me to appreciate school. And having a job will teach me responsibility.”

“We can’t drive you,” her mother said. “There’s only one car.”

“I’ll take the bus.”

“If you want the edit that much—”

“I do,” Imogen said.

Months later, after interminable hours rinsing forks, folding napkins, and loading the industrial dishwasher at La Rosa after school, her parents booked Imogen an appointment at the clinic.

The doctor loaded an ampoule of custom, noncommunicable viruses into the barrel of a syringe, tipped Imogen’s head back as she squinted against the lights, and injected a droplet into each of her irises.

She blinked through tears at the small mirror on the wall. Her eyes were still brown.

“That’s it?” she said.

“That’s it,” the doctor said, stripping the gloves from her hands. “You should see pigment expression in two weeks or so.”

“Two weeks!?” Imogen said.

Every morning afterward, she checked her eyes in the bathroom mirror, holding her eyelids open. It wasn’t until the last day of winter break that purple began to speckle her brown irises.

She danced barefoot on the bathroom tile in her cat pajamas.

“Look,” she said at breakfast, widening her eyes. “They’re beautiful!”

“Your eyes were already beautiful,” her mother said. “You had your naano’s eyes.”

Her father said, “If you don’t like them, I hear the colors get patchy at six months and fade completely in a year.”

“Are you kidding? I want to keep these forever!”

“For what we paid,” her father said, “I don’t blame you.”

“For what I paid,” Imogen said.

“This is a good lesson,” her mother said. “A job at your age teaches responsibility.”

“That’s what I said.”

“And it seems like you’re finally excited about school,” her father said.

“That’s what—never mind.”

January in Babel, Washington, was always dreary. But the next morning, despite the cold, gray rain, Imogen floated light as a jellyfish into class.

“Morning, Beth,” she sang, slipping into her seat.

Today, the glowing orange overscreen was warm as a hug. Today, the names and patterns etched into her melamine desk felt like a flower garden under her fingertips. Today, purple-eyed Imogen felt generous even toward Beth.

Then Beth swiveled in her chair, and the world stuttered and spun.

For the irises of Beth’s eyes, which had been plum-purple and five-petaled before winter break, were now a brilliant silver, and sharply squared.

And Beth smiled a small smile that was not at all kind, shook her head, and turned back to the overscreen.

By lunchtime, the extent of the catastrophe was clear. The girls who had started the school year with purple eyes had all gone silver over winter break or, if they couldn’t afford silver, to concentric rings of peacock blue. Even Dana, who cheated off Imogen in algebra in exchange for curly fries at lunch, whose father mopped floors in a factory, showed spots of blue in her irises.

“Had to ask my mom to return my Christmas presents,” Dana said. “That’s the only way I could get the edit. Your family doesn’t celebrate, right? Too bad.”

“How did you know?” Imogen said. “How did everyone know?”

“You know how it is. I heard Joy say she was going blue, Joy heard it from Xiaomei, Xiaomei heard it from Puja … ”

“Of course,” Imogen said.

In gym class, where they changed out of sweaters and turtlenecks into T-shirts and shorts, Imogen discovered a final tragedy.

“What’s—”

“Subdermal pigmentation,” Dana said. “Isn’t it pretty? I couldn’t afford it. My sister says it blew up her college last year.”

Silver swirls and curls and arabesques chased up and down the arms of the girls with silver eyes. They glimmered, luminous as moons, as they set and spiked volleyballs over the net. Imogen, staring, took a ball to the nose.

Later, between classes, Imogen ducked into a bathroom. Her purple eyes, glorious yesterday, were red and watery with tears.

A toilet flushed. Vicky emerged.

“You OK?” Vicky said.

“Perfect.”

“Because you don’t look OK.”

“I look fine.”

“If you ask me, we’re not meant to edit our genes. That’s like overwriting nature. Like correcting God.”

“Not now, Vicky,” Imogen said, and fled.

I write this essay for the far future, so that those who come after will understand. So much of our worldview is constrained by present experience. Out of context, what I did might seem horrific. But I assure you that it is otherwise. I majored in philosophy and graduated with distinction, and everything that I have undertaken I considered deeply for a long time.

After the U.N. proclaimed the end of disease in 2053, thanks to gene drives and in vitro gene editing, I thought, like everybody else, that we had arrived at the best of all possible worlds.
Suffering became rare and luxurious. Cancer was history, cystic fibrosis a boogeyman, Ehlers-Danlos a frightening fairy tale. Every fetus could be loaded with DNA sequences producing antivenins, antibodies, and deodorants before birth; every human organ could be grown in pigs for transplant; almost every disease could now be managed, if not cured.

We modified life to correct for our excesses. Despite the massive and irreversible loss of biodiversity, at the last minute we swerved from the brink of climate disaster. Edited fish produced enzymes that dissolved plastics and cleaned polluted waters. Edited crops sequestered methane and carbon dioxide. To reduce consumption and establish a zero-growth economy, the standard professional workweek was set at twenty-one hours. Some lower-income earners chose to keep their long days, but they must be excused on the grounds of ignorance.

We had built for ourselves a paradise, and in this paradise we stagnated. No great problems presented themselves; no dying population pled for a cure. Adults and children alike disappeared into virtual worlds, online lives, alcohol, and drugs, replacing livers and other pieces when necessary, with no great inconvenience to anyone but the donor pigs.

We were finally free: free to waste our lives, to disconnect, to choose trifles over substance.

Our world without suffering, it turned out, was a world without meaning.

“Imogen, your homework?”

Imogen peeled her forehead off her desk, squinted at Mr. O’Connor and the void in the class filelist he was pointing to, and scraped through her own screen. The dinner shift at La Rosa had run long, and she hadn’t come home until well past ten. But she had completed the assigned problems before bed, yawning and nodding off over the kitchen table. She had saved it, hadn’t she? Where was the file?

“It’s not the first time you forgot,” Mr. O’Connor said. “If you’re going to succeed in life, you have to be responsible.”

Imogen felt her cheeks flush hot.

Beth said, “Uploading mine, Mr. O’Connor.”

Mr. O’Connor said, “Imogen, you could ask Beth to remind you about the homework.”

“I’d love to help,” Beth said.

“Great,” Imogen said.

“You should say thank you,” Mr. O’Connor said. “Beth, that’s really kind of you. Go on, Imogen.”

“Thanks.”

“Imogen,” Mr. O’Connor said.

“Thank you, Beth.”

Imogen’s face was still incandescent when she sat down for her world history test. The questions floated in orange light over her desk. The Ottoman Empire began in … its rulers were … and meanwhile, in China, whole continents away …

Her classmates traced out their answers in orange sparks.

Imogen reached into her memory and found no answers at all.

Pratik accosted her afterward, smashing his cowlick back.

“That test, huh?” he said. “I think it went back two generations and recombined my grandparents’ DNA.”

Imogen said, “How about you eat my results before my parents see them?”

“Only if you do the same to mine.”

“I’m so glad to see you,” she said. “It’s been a day from hell.”

“Oh,” he said. “Really?”

“Yeah.” She gestured at herself. “Notice anything?”

“New haircut? Glasses?”

Pratik.”

“I can’t tell. You look great. That party at Max’s—”

“Yeah, you invited me. Next Friday. I said I was going.”

“Well. Max says he doesn’t want you to come. His girlfriend says it’d be awkward. Girls are weird like that.”

“Fabulous,” Imogen said. “Exquisite. Absolutely unsurpassable.”

“Don’t be like that,” Pratik said.

“Next thing you’ll say is, you’re dating Beth. That’s the only dingle cherry that could top this shit sundae. Tell me you’re not dating Beth.”

Pratik’s sneakers squeaked. “It’s just a movie. And Max’s party.”

“Jo bhi,” Imogen said. “I hope you flunk.”

At dinnertime, the stove was still cold and empty. Imogen’s mother and father were frowning over a spreadsheet, moving numbers in the air.

“How was your day, meri jaan?” her father said as she walked in.

“Awful. The worst. I’d like to nuke it from orbit.”

“That’s great.”

Her mother said, “I could ask for more hours. We’ve been short-staffed for months—the other nurses would be more than happy—”

“What’s for dinner?” Imogen said.

Her father said, “You’re working yourself to the bone as it is.”

“If your brother’s proteins misfolded … ”

“Nafs, this is a marathon. God willing, Arslan will live for years. But if you get sick, how will we pay for the therapies?”

“You’d think someone would have come up with a cure by now.”

“It’s not genetic,” her father said. “You know that.”

“The statement was rhetorical.”

“I’ll eat whatever’s in the fridge, then,” Imogen said.

“You do that, love,” her mother said.

There was only cold daal, which she’d also eaten for lunch. Imogen closed the fridge and went upstairs to her room.

In the years that followed the end of disease, our best minds devoted themselves to the lucrative field of cosmetic gene editing. Like children, we amused ourselves with body modifications: tails, pointed ears, horns, and colors on nails, skin, and eyes. With health care guaranteed for life, women in particular embraced the monstrous. There’s nothing more unpleasant than walking up to a lady and discovering fish scales, bat wings, and claws.

The pool of attractive women evaporated overnight. As if that wasn’t enough, sterilization became the matter of a single injection. Reproductive rates dropped to lethal lows. But no one cared.

So I developed a cosmedit of my own. Several, to be precise. And in the exon portion of those sequences, I inserted a particular viral payload. If injected, it will spread through the entire body, undoing prenatal immunities, introducing resistances to oncogene therapy, and erasing all other genetic alterations, cosmetic and medical alike.

It’s also designed to be highly contagious.

I uploaded these edits to the same repositories where biohackers drop unapproved, unreviewed cosmedits for free or cheap download. Anyone can copy those sequences. Anyone can order customized RNA. But you’d have to be reckless, foolish, or shallow.

Imogen sat in Babel North’s library, staring at an order form for custom plasmids. Rain plinked through a ceiling leak into a plastic bucket.

“It’s that easy,” Dana said, balling her fist to close the screen. “That’s how my sister did it. No way she could afford her wings otherwise.”

“They don’t look cheap?” Imogen said. “Or fake?”

“They could have. But she was careful. Some of the biohackers out there, they’re as good as scientists. You just have to find the right cosmedit. Everyone on campus is copying her now. But she was first.”

“So—you save the sequence as a text file, send it to a lab—”

“The lab makes it for you, you inject it, boom, done.”

Imogen felt a flutter of hope.

“Did you ever do it?”

“Eh. If I give up Christmas, my parents can buy me two edits a year. That’s all you need to keep up, honestly.” Dana winked one peacock-blue ringed eye. “Two cosmedits, and nobody notices. One, and you fall too far behind—no offense. None, and you’re Vicky.”

“It’s not fair,” Imogen said. “Boys don’t deal with this.”

Dana sniggered. “They do. You just don’t see it if you’re not in the locker room.”

“No.”

“Swear to God. I heard Max’s is green and purple, with spikes. Like a pangolin.”

“On purpose?”

“Spikes, yes. Colors, no. He got his sequence online. So be careful.”

Imogen was careful. She found a sequence for subdermal silver filigree in a repository that had thousands of five-star reviews and a gallery of successful modifications. The downloads for her particular sequence were in the single digits, and no one had left a review, but the coder had contributed a number of other sequences: fur, fangs, nails as hard as teeth.

Next, she looked up Dana’s sister’s plasmid supplier. It had been in business for almost seventy years, serving university and pharmaceutical laboratories. The website promised plasmid aliquots with high concentrations of the chimeric RNA, low endotoxins, and on-site targeting—whatever that meant.

It was easier to understand their pricing menu. What her biohacker described as an effective dose would cost her two weeks’ pay and tips.

“I’m going silver,” she told Dana. “I’d look better in gold, but—it’s like you said. In, or out.”

“Good luck. Don’t worry about Max’s party. Remember his green and purple—”

“You’re going?”

“I don’t do social suicide. Not even for you.”

Imogen rolled her eyes. “I hope the pangolin is worth it.”

In those two weeks, Imogen brought home C’s in algebra and history. Her parents, preoccupied with Mamu Arslan’s treatments, said nothing, if in fact they had even noticed.

Her gym class switched from volleyball to swimming. Slow and dark as a manatee, Imogen watched the other girls glitter like mermaids underwater. Pratik started holding Beth’s hand in the hallways.

When Vicky waved at her in the hall after Spanish, Imogen edged away.

“Want to get lunch?”

“Can’t. Uncoolness is very contagious.”

“I call it courage, actually,” Vicky said.

“What, eating alone?”

“I thought you might have it too.”

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Imogen said. “We’re totally different.”

At last the aliquots arrived in their foam casket. They sat on the porch, waiting for Imogen to come home from school. When she pried off the lid, the dry ice they were packed with smoked like witchcraft.

Imogen hugged the casket to her chest and ran up to her room, a fine white veil of fog falling down the stairs behind her.

“Is that you, Imogen?” her mother said. “Are you home?”

“Yeah,” Imogen said. “Gonna study biology.”

No more questions followed.

The chimeric plasmids had come with plastic auto injectors. Imogen did not need to read through the wads of instructions to know how to load the blue barrel, clamp the blunt tip to her arm, and depress the plunger.

The needle bit like an insect.

She injected her other arm, then each of her legs. Three weeks, the sequence designer had promised. Three weeks to silver filigree under her skin.

Imogen went to bed and dreamed of being beautiful.

So this is my confession to the revival of disease. This year, 2060, I have seeded an epidemic that will restore meaning to human life. My virus will erase all additions and revisions that humanity wrote into its own genome.

I have taken precautions, closed accounts, bypassed every digital record. This essay will be posted at an unknown time by a bot that will obliterate itself immediately after. The essay itself will vanish twenty-four hours after posting.

I can see my Patient Zero now. Blond and vapid, like so many of the women I know. Or a redheaded gold digger: I’ve met a few. Either way, I hope she’ll come to appreciate the priceless gift I’ve given to her. What I’ve made of her. As I write, she is becoming an angel of death. Mother and goddess to a new and dangerous world.

Her name will be immortal. Mine will never be known.

Imogen twirled in the library, arms flashing. “Look!”

Dana chewed her necklace for a moment, then let the gold dinosaur drop from her mouth. “Yeah. I see it.”

“You’re not excited.”

“Everyone’s going gold, Imogen.”

Imogen’s mouth fell open. “What?”

The school librarian glared at them.

“I heard Beth and Puja in the bathroom,” Dana said.

“You’ve got to tell me these things.”

“I’m telling you now.”

“I mean sooner.”

“First off,” Dana said, “You’ll never be on time, unless you’re trying new things yourself. Then nine times out of ten you’ll be wrong. Second of all, none of this shit is life-or-death.”

“Not to you,” Imogen said.

“You need to chill.”

“Is it so bad to want to belong? You take it for granted, it’s practically the air you breathe—”

“Listen,” Dana said. “Get a sequence done.”

“Are you kidding? My parents blew their stacks when they saw this—you think they’d let me keep playing with my genes?”

“I mean diagnosis,” Dana said, “not editing.”

“Why?”

“My sister’s sick. Really sick. She’s coming home from Seattle.”

“So inject some targeted RNA. Make some antibodies.”

“Nothing’s working,” Dana said.

“That can’t be true.”

“They think it’s got to do with the mods she downloaded.”

“You don’t—you can’t be serious.”

“I’ve got to go,” Dana said, looking down at the time on her hand. She didn’t look at Imogen.

When Imogen got home, her parents were sitting in the living room with a biosuited man.

“Dr. Zhang,” he said, smiling through the visor. He offered a gloved hand.

“Mamu Arslan,” Imogen said. “It’s Mamu Arslan, isn’t it? He’s dying.” And her heart dropped into her shoes. She didn’t like or dislike Mamu Arslan much, but no one she’d known had ever died.

“No,” her father said. He looked astonished and fearful, as if he were seeing her, his daughter, her petaled eyes, her ivied arms, her skinny, sprouting, tangling self, for the first time. “Dr. Zhang is here to see you.”

“I’m from the CDC,” Dr. Zhang said. “We’d like to do a blood draw. You downloaded and injected an open-source sequence a few weeks ago, I believe?”

Imogen bit her lip. “Maybe.”

“We think that sequence might have been contaminated.”

Her father said, “What do you mean, contaminated?”

“Imogen,” her mother said. “What did you do?”

“Nothing illegal,” Dr. Zhang said. “Nothing other kids her age don’t also do. Biohacking’s fairly unregulated.”

“What happened?” Imogen said. “What’s going on?”

Dr. Zhang said, “I don’t think—”

Imogen’s mother said, “She’s old enough to know. She even has a job.”

“All right. We got a call from a Seattle hospital last month. They had a patient with alarmingly unusual symptoms. That patient identified a website from which she had recently downloaded RNA sequences. We isolated her virus, confirmed that the website was its source, and then traced the IP addresses of the other downloads. This all took a long time. Which I regret, and for which I apologize.”

“Why?” Imogen’s father asked.

“Because if Imogen turns out to be our Patient Zero in Babel, she’s been shedding the virus for three weeks now. At school. At home. In many ways, it’s too late.”

Imogen’s mother said, “What do you mean?”

“We’ll explain next steps once we confirm the test results. There’s no reason to worry about anything just yet. We’re trying to avoid panic. Imogen, would you please roll up your sleeve?”

Imogen did, looking away from the needle and the dark future it pulled up.

The entire town of Babel was quarantined. School remained open, to Imogen’s horror, since it was far too late to avoid exposure and infection. While the CDC had avoided releasing names, the quivering compass needle of rumor swung to Imogen immediately. People glared as she passed, and squeaked their desks away from hers in class, and piled jackets and bags into empty chairs when she approached. Dana, who might have behaved otherwise, or might not have, stopped coming to school before it all began.

Imogen had never felt more alone.

She walked to the cafeteria with her lunch of rice and lamb and paused over a chair. “Can I eat with you?”

“Sure,” Vicky said.

“Everyone acts like I’ve got the plague,” Imogen said.

“To be fair—” Vicky said.

The virus swept Babel, Seattle, Washington, and the world, mutating wildly as it spread. Altogether there had been fifty-six Patient Zeros, mostly in countries affluent enough for recreational RNA synthesis.

The revisions, along with a few nasty mutations, undid not only genetically modified immunities but natural ones as well. Every disease believed to be obsolete returned with a vengeance, and the tried-and-true gene therapies lost their effectiveness.

Unlike many, Imogen survived.

By the time Imogen turned twenty-three, the world was an altogether different place.

She sat on a bullet train to D.C., watching her reflection overlaid on the trees blurring by. The bioterrorist who created and distributed the malicious RNA sequences had been apprehended in Brazil, having left a clearer and more traceable trail than he’d thought. She had seen a picture of him in a news report, then promptly forgotten his face and name. There were other names, many names, and many other faces that she wanted to remember.

The train whispered to a stop. A flurry of white petals danced against its windows, and a handful blew into the car when the doors dissolved.

As she strode out of the station, her baggage following behind, a woman wearing gold bangles smiled at her.

“Girl, you have beautiful eyes,” the woman said.

“I do, thank you,” Imogen said. “Comes from my grandmother.”

“Where are you headed?”

“The CDC. I’m doing an internship.”

“You must be smart.”

“These days,” Imogen said, “I’m trying to be brave.”

And she walked on, under the trees shedding white blossoms for leaves, to see what she could learn about the past and future of disease.

A law professor who studies the ethical, legal, and societal dimensions of new technologies responds to E. Lily Yu’s “Zero in Babel.”

Previously in Future Tense Fiction:

Mika Model,” by Paolo Bacigalupi
Mr. Thursday,” by Emily St. John Mandel
The Minnesota Diet,” by Charlie Jane Anders
Mother of Invention,” by Nnedi Okorafor
Domestic Violence,” by Madeline Ashby
No Me Dejas,” by Mark Oshiro
Safe Surrender,” by Meg Elison
A Brief and Fearful Star,” by Carmen Maria Machado
The Starfish Girl,” by Maureen McHugh
When We Were Patched,” by Deji Bryce Olukotun
Lions and Gazelles,” by Hannu Rajaniemi
Burned-Over Territory,” by Lee Konstantinou
Overvalued,” by Mark Stasenko
When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis,” by Annalee Newitz
Thoughts and Prayers, by Ken Liu
Mpendulo: The Answer,” by Nosipho Dumisa
The Arisen,” by Louisa Hall
The Song Between Worlds,” by Indrapramit Das
No Moon and Flat Calm,” by Elizabeth Bear
Space Leek,” by Chen Qiufan

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.