“Double Spiral”

Read a new short story about genetic testing, privacy, and profit.

Workers in a lab examining the DNA in a human head
Franco Zacharzewski

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.

She was lucky.

Lucky, and then unlucky, and then lucky again, she thought, guiltily, seeing this child on the subway.

It was obvious, instantly. The shape of his head. The low-set mouth. The boy’s mother turned toward Rada and she looked away, not wanting to be caught staring.

Instead, she stared at a video advertisement, shampoo, all the while thinking …

That child. That mother. That could have been her.

30 years ago

Rada was 8 when she spit in the tube.

It was Christmas. The whole family did it, sitting around the table, on the count of three, 1 … 2 … they spit into those tiny glass vials, all five of them, screwed on the lids, then dug right into the mashed potatoes. That order of events—everyone drooling into these vessels then immediately eating dinner—seemed a bit gross to her now, in retrospect.

LyfeCode was always offering steep holiday discounts. Fourth of July Fire Sale or, for Christmas, “Unwrap the Real You!” That’s what they’d done, at a two-for-one special. They’d only needed five. They used the sixth on the dog, for fun.

The Rush family results were as expected. South Asian on both sides. Nary a splash of Germanic or African or Native American heritage. But Rada loved it, even at that age, seeing her propensity for sleeping late and dust mite allergies and hypertension (whatever that was). She’d pondered the slogan on the lid of the box: “What Makes You YOU?” To know everything about someone without knowing anything about them? It was magic. And it planted a dream, for her, of someday being that kind of magician.

That Christmas lived like a snow globe in her mind. A picture-perfect image soon after shaken into chaos. Within months, the family’s restaurant failed. Her brothers began to flounder. Their father disappeared. So Rada clung to that promise of magic. All through primary school and into secondary: science fairs and scholarships, stitching a path straight into the preeminent program for Biochemistry & Molecular Medicine. It was highly competitive—a feeder for the LyfeCode R&D branch. Her dream was finally within reach.

Then everything changed.

15 years later

She remembered screaming, but not much else.

It wasn’t the bad kind. The opposite, in fact. Jubilation. The sort that follows risqué punch lines or a third round of shots.

He’d grabbed her hand and pulled her away from the mob. Her palm was ice-cold, from the cocktail. He’d made a remark and squeezed tighter, to warm her, but she drew it away, then slid it over his shoulder to stun the back of his neck.

He flinched in shock. She grinned, daring.

Without missing a beat, he pressed his drink to her cheek and they stood there for a moment, icing each other, until they cracked into a fit of laughter.

It was a great party. Rich kids’ birthdays always were. But he wasn’t there for Toni’s birthday. He’d come with his own group, and they’d spotted each other through the swarm of people, across the room. Things slowed down.

It was those eyes of his. Or maybe it was the fourth mai tai.

Toni kept ordering, round after round. Bar tabs don’t matter, Rada realized, when your mother chairs the LyfeCode executive board, when her tenure as strategic adviser practically mints money. So Rada threw back the drink, licked the sting off her lips, and let him lead her away.

She remembered his eyes, but not his name. She’d told him hers—three times. “Rada!” shouted over the pounding bass.

It had been a stressful week, so his jokes seemed funnier than they should have. His flood of compliments fed a craving she hadn’t known was there. She’d been so consumed by finals, plus everything in the news that suddenly felt like her direct responsibility.

It was horrifying. K5. It had a name now. She shoved it all into a little corner of her mind, blotted it out, long enough to let her relax, just for tonight.

And then there she was, making out in a nightclub bathroom. She caught an angle of herself in the mirror. Not exactly the picture that comes to mind for a biochem grad student.

She tried to explain it to him (she remembered that much), earlier, over the music as they pinballed around the dance floor. “DNA!” she finally shouted. He did something with exotic antiques. Automobiles, maybe? It was so loud … she cared as much about automobiles as he did about manipulating genetic markers.

The memory melted. A serene blur, punctured by these divots of clarity. Him gripping her hair. Her mouth on his shoulder. Those eyes.

They weren’t green and they weren’t brown. Somewhere in between. She knew exactly why. Exactly how. She’d studied that piece of the genome. She smiled to herself as he hoisted her onto the sink.

At first, Rada couldn’t figure out why Toni had befriended her. Rada suspected some mix of pity and charity, that she’d picked the financial aid poster child as a gesture of noblesse oblige.

A woman dancing while DNA plays music.
Franco Zacharzewski

But a few weeks into the semester, her suspicions evaporated. Toni was simply friendly, and equally devoted to their pursuit of magic. And she was generous, in the ways that mattered.

When Rada divulged that she had no holiday plans, no longer having a home to go home to, Toni practically dragged her out of the dorms. Two hours later, her private AV deposited them both at the Herrick family home. Rada tried not to gape. Half fortress, half palace, Toni introduced it as “the house that saliva built,” with her self-aware smirk.

And her mother.

They couldn’t find her at first. Toni called out when they entered. Her voice echoed. Marble. Concrete. An atrium.

Rada followed through the labyrinthine hallway as Toni poked her head into room after room. Finally, she stepped into one. And there she was, seated on a sleek chrome device, legs fighting against a paddle wheel encased in water, her gaze held captive by the ePaper in hand.

Toni winked at Rada then crept up on her mother and plucked the bud from her ear. She shrieked, then toppled off the seat, dropping the ePaper in shock.

That’s when Rada caught her first glimpse of it, there on the floor. Dense text and a photo: a toddler, his face abnormally proportioned. K5, as the world would know it within a year.

Toni’s mother snapped it up then shook her head, smiling. She hugged her daughter, folded the ePaper under her arm, and extended a hand to Rada, “Welcome, dear. I’m Val.”

At dinner, Val sat at the head of the table, like a conductor, effortlessly guiding her guests through a conversational symphony. From tennis to origami to improving digestive tolerance of overfluoridated groundwater stores.

To Rada, “Val” had always been Dr. Valerie Herrick, two-time Copley Medal winner and LyfeCode evangelist, but now here she was, looking exactly like she did in the press photos. Rada kept glancing at the way she held her fork. Even that seemed somehow elite.

Val asked a million questions. Made you feel important—seen. She swirled her wine and looked right at Rada, “And after you graduate?”

Toni gave a knowing grin, as though she’d set this all up.

Rada wrestled her timidity and let the dream crackle out of her throat.

After dessert, the AV dropped Rada back at the dorms with a bag of leftovers and a start date for an internship.

It had been two months since Toni’s birthday, which, for Rada, felt half as long as the small eternity spent sitting in this bathroom, waiting for the test result:

A pink plus sign on a digital screen, tilted against the rim of a glass, its sensor tip in a quarter inch of urine. The plus symbol had faded in slowly. Annoying, she thought. The mode of delivery had changed but the design hadn’t. What a strange place for nostalgia …

Rada always loathed the term “miracle baby.” Extremely low percentage wasn’t “a miracle.” It was unlikely. Extremely unlikely, she’d always been told, and yet …

She looked at that plus sign and thought about those green-brown eyes. They weren’t inheritable. Not with her deep brown irises in the mix. That, she knew, but there was so much she didn’t. She thought about which of his traits might dominate hers. She thought about which shared silent traits the child might express.

She thought about K5.

What had been a few rare cases, popping up in far-flung corners of the country, too disparate to connect, became far less rare. Birth defects. Severe structural and functional abnormalities. And it was everywhere.

Rada and her classmates tracked it more closely than most, of course, devouring every scientific journal or study the day it was published. It practically reframed the purpose of their program. From Rada’s perspective, almost as terrifying as K5 itself was the volume of panic-inducing misinformation spreading across the social networks … fueling the 24-hour news cycle … it was a mess.

Her brother had called her, as always, in the middle of the night. His voice went a pitch higher, the way it did when he needed a favor, or when he was in one of his panics. Tonight, it was both.

She plugged an ear and stepped out of the dorm, sharply whispering for him to calm down.

“The people next door—right next door” had one of those kids, he complained. A newborn. Brought it home from the hospital two days ago. He and his wife could hear it crying, if you could call it that. The sound was …

He went silent. She pictured him recoiling.

Rada cupped the mouthpiece, blocking the wind, and walked him through it. The infants were tested, she explained. Their parents, too. It was autosomal recessive, a genetic mutation like Tay-Sachs or sickle cell. But unlike either of those, the K5 carriers had no shared heritage or ethnicity. The mutation seemed entirely random. It appeared to strike all types of people from all types of backgrounds. So, no, the baby next door wouldn’t change anything, she assured him. It wasn’t contagious. It couldn’t be “caught.”

But not everyone was so easily assured.

There was widespread panic. Birth rates plummeted. The pope declared K5 an abomination. Even the pro-lifers weren’t sure where to stand.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had botched the response, as usual. Same as its failed containment of the Trinity Influenza or FEMA’s handling of the Seattle flood walls, the government could hardly keep up with K5. It had practically become the federal modus operandi: fall short and expect the private sector to come to the rescue.

Cue LyfeCode.

A woman falling through a broken DNA strand.
Franco Zacharzewski

The company announced its latest DNA evaluation service: “The most advanced, most accurate, and most convenient K5 mutation screen available.” Free shipping for legacy customers to submit a fresh sample. For everyone else, it tacked on the ancestry analysis at no extra charge.

The kit would arrive in the mail, just as it had for the Rush family Christmas, still looking so cheery and playful, like a Fisher-Price science set. The glass vial in its own little holster, the colorful booklet with illustrations explaining how much saliva you’d need to provide and how to secure the lid. You’d simply scan the QR code, sign the encyclopedic terms of service with a fingerprint to your phone, and drop it in the mail. God knows what you’d consented to …

The ads were everywhere—especially on the dating apps. Swipe left. Swipe left. Then hit them with an image of a K5 child. “Are you a carrier?” And that big red button, “TEST NOW.”

The Valentine’s campaign was a little lighter … a happy couple nuzzling a healthy child, aimed at would-be parents. Peace of mind for $400. Two-fifty with a coupon.

In Rada’s position, even the $250 was a stretch. She considered attempting her own screen in the university’s lab. Enough had been published that she knew where to look. K5 was on chromosome 11. So were a million other things …

Instead, she skipped a few meals, dipped into her emergency savings, and sprang for the kit.

A week after dropping a sample in the mail, her phone beeped.

Rada loaded the report. She was stunned.

She was a carrier.

Everything was cold. The room. The metal stirrups under her heels. Her bare stomach beneath a paper sheet. And soon, she knew, her stomach would be smeared with an even colder coat of gelatinous goop. She’d shiver, and she’d think about how this all started, with­­ her frozen palm pressed to the back of his neck.

As Rada waited for the clinician, she read and reread the fine print on her phone. The voucher was covered in LyfeCode’s flowery branding, despite the gravity of its content.

The company’s “Reproductive Compatibility Screen” couldn’t do much for someone who couldn’t submit testable samples from both parents, for someone who was already pregnant, or, like Rada, for someone facing the quandary of both.

LyfeCode had a solution for that quandary, too, which is how she found herself half-undressed, on her back, staring at the ceiling of this frigid exam room.

After a novel’s worth of financial assistance forms, Rada qualified for subsidized in utero genetic testing. CVS. Chorionic villus sampling. The earliest option available.

It was invasive. Risky. Others in her position had headed straight for the abortion clinic. They’d try again when the partner was screened. When the threat had passed. But Rada couldn’t depend on a second chance. Not when she’d been assured she’d never have a first.

There was a nurse beside her now, holding her hand, pressing the probe to her stomach.

Eyeing the ultrasound, the doctor punctured her skin and slid a spear of a needle into her abdomen.

Rada clenched her teeth and turned her head. Her eyes watered. It hurt like hell.

Two days later, she’d know for sure.

15 years later

The shampoo ad felt her gaze. The model’s eyes turned to meet hers.

He was handsome, 50s, Caucasian, but not for long. In one smooth transition, his jawline softened. The hair grew long and wavy, from gray to dark brown. The skin warmed, pale to baked tawny.

Rada was now gazing into the eyes of a woman much like herself. Not a mirror image, but an idealized version. The model version. Buy this shampoo and maybe

The model’s long, wavy hair moved with the path of the subway car, flowing back behind her as the train sped up … settling on her shoulders as it braked for a bend.

Rada rolled her eyes. They’d been doing this with the ads, lately. Personally, she found it invasive. Insulting, even.

The ad didn’t know it was her looking at it, per se. “Her” connoted a name, a specific identity, a unique private citizen: Rada Rush. Instead, it sensed the proximity of a device (her phone) or a triangulation of devices (her phone plus the blood pressure implant plus the Smart Contacts) associated with a supposedly anonymous profile of biological characteristics: female, South Asian, propensity for hypertension … thinning hair. The worst were the adoption ads. They’d pinpoint a K5 mutation and just assume.

It all amounted to big money, as Rada was reminded each time a paycheck hit her account.

She’d been working at LyfeCode going on 12 years, not counting the internship. She and Toni started together, summer semester, only a week after the CVS procedure, five days since the result, and four since terminating the pregnancy.

Rada had wanted to tell Toni, if only to tell someone, to release the hurricane of emotions raging since the pink plus sign. But the day she’d finally summoned her resolve, she scanned into the lab and instead found Toni folded in half, face red and wet.

Her mother had been on the executive retreat, in Panama that year.

There’d been an accident. One of those recreational submersibles. They were touring the artificial reef being built off the coast. The report cited “Depressurization.” One EVP, three board members … Val.

But Toni showed up the very next day, scanned in, and got right to work on whatever menial task they’d been assigned. And for the first time, Rada wondered if all along, behind her wide white smile and charismatic charm, Toni had been bottling up just as many emotions as she had been.

They rose through the ranks together, though Toni rose faster and higher. That was her nature, her need to step out from under her mother’s shadow, or perhaps to preserve her legacy.

Now, she had a C-level title. An even bigger house. Twins.

Rada had only ever wanted her own R&D unit, one of two dozen under the LyfeCode corporate umbrella, and now that she had it, she didn’t know what more to want. It had been a different company when they’d started.

A man looking up at a woman closing blinds in a DNA strand.
Franco Zacharzewski

After the K5 scare, the LyfeCode database swelled, along with its profits.

Fanning the flames with its “Reproductive Compatibility Screen,” the company captured 60 percent of the U.S. population, directly. The rest didn’t matter. Your paternal aunt or your fourth cousin spit in a tube and that was enough to know everything worth knowing about you.

The ancestry database was a free-for-all. Connect the dots and do what you like with the picture they form. The fallout had many faces.

Rada had spent weeks volunteering for Sen. Drummond’s campaign. He had the presidential race in the bag, it seemed, until oppo research revealed he had a secret daughter. When that didn’t end his bid, the opponent’s team dug deeper, tracing his family tree, grasping for anything—a fourth cousin linked to a terrorist cell, perhaps, or a predisposition for early-onset Alzheimer’s.

His opponent’s lineage wasn’t exactly sterling, either. Rada had looked, eager for an opportunity to level the playing field. But Drummond couldn’t retaliate—not when he was running on a platform of digital privacy rights.

Rada hadn’t been there when it happened, but she had seen it play out on TV, muted in the break room as she and her co-workers made their coffee. The junior technician was showing off photos of her new niece when someone in the room gasped.

She’d caught it from the corner of her eye. Drummond stepped up to the podium then flat-out collapsed. There were no shots. No bullets. No blood. Secret Service swooped in anyway, shielding his body. The crowd turned to chaos.

The FBI apprehended a suspect a few days later. Some nut job with a DIY CRISPR kit. He’d tracked down that illegitimate daughter, stalked her to a bar, and scooped up the shot glass she’d left on a table. It had everything he needed to craft a genetically targeted bioweapon, specific to his genome, lethal only to Drummond or his immediate family.

The guy had been at a fundraiser a few days before. Could’ve been an aerosol spray from the foot of the stage or through the venue’s air vents. Maybe a lotion, if they’d shaken hands. Everything was still being tested.

The backlash was fierce. Congress took action, swiftly passing a genetic privacy act with bipartisan support.

LyfeCode was forced to strip all identifiable information from the public-facing profiles, to hide the names, to bar access to the identities of even those customers who’d willingly opted to share them.

Without exposable P.I.I. (personally identifiable information), the core business was bulldozed—illegal. The ancestry website shut down. The health subscriptions dried up.

Some of Rada’s longtime colleagues submitted their resignations. A preemptive move, assuming the company would fold in on itself.

But at the quarterly shareholder meeting, Toni had a surprise announcement.

A major pivot, refocusing the company entirely with a privacy-first initiative: the LyfeCode Identity Graph.

Holding more than half the population’s genome, LyfeCode had found itself sitting on a gold mine of targeted advertising potential.

The company would merely match a third party’s request to an individual in its database, then share back whatever anonymous biological attribute the advertiser needed to know.

Critics contested this was a violation of the privacy law. But, as the courts held after repeated challenges, so long as the ID verification was performed behind LyfeCode’s own cryptographically secured digital walls, so long as any identifiable traits, alone or in combination, were never distributed beyond the confines of its internal database, the company was in the clear. LyfeCode was free to make millions off an asset no one else possessed or was likely to ever obtain in the new environment: millions upon millions of authenticated profiles, ripe with invaluable data.

Opposite her seat, that K5 child and his mother rode in silence. Above them, the shampoo model winked, and Rada cringed.

Somewhere in the LyfeCode database, her genome was floating around, linked to her name, her device IDs, her address, all attached to a billion biological characteristics. She’d pass by a billboard or take a seat on the subway and trigger a wave of instantaneous digital chatter.

The vacant ad space sensed a nearby device. LyfeCode’s light-speed response matched its ID to Rada’s profile, decoupling her P.I.I. then sending back a package of anonymous attributes—race, cancer risk, skin texture, hair density—sliced up and spit out to advertisers eager to target the right people passing by with the right screen content. And in that same instant, they’d assess “Rada’s” value compared to any other passersby’s, then fling back their bids.

So before her body even hit the subway seat, the winning ad was on the screen.

To know everything about someone without knowing anything about them? It was magic. Sometimes she wanted to buy the shampoo out of deference to the technology.

The subway doors parted with a gasp.

A flood of foot traffic, on board and off. The crowd cleared. The doors closed.

The mother was gone.

The train lurched and accelerated. Rada stared at the empty seat next to the boy, in shock. He could hardly hold his head up on his own. His eyes stared off at nothing in particular. He made a whimpering sound.

No one else seemed to notice. If they did, they tried hard not to. Just another K5 child, surrendered to the urban elements.

The train sped around a turn. The momentum caused the boy to sway. He fell into the seat where his mother had been and lay there, limp, an arm draped over the edge. He blinked a few times, but not often enough.

Rada exhaled hard, crossed the aisle, and sat him up straight. He made another whimper, and then a gurgle. She smoothed his hair then unlocked her phone and began searching for the number to call.

She’d waited with him on the subway platform until the recovery unit arrived. Two women in suits accompanied by a police officer. She walked with them as they carried him up the escalator to the AV, opened the back door marked by the division’s insignia, and strapped him into that special seat. A second strap to hold his head upright.

They’d made Rada provide a sample, right there, to prove he wasn’t hers. It was a QuickTest™, and only a matter of seconds until the hand-held device beeped. Satisfied by the result, the larger woman popped off the disposable sample tube into a public waste basket, thanked Rada for her help, and climbed into the AV.

Once upon a time, the mother would have been tracked down, likely through the LyfeCode website, and arrested. Now, that was impossible.

Since the corporate pivot and rebrand, Rada’s department had been restructured entirely. She’d spent the first half of her career uncovering predictive health indicators for the subscription base. Now, she and her team were charged with analyzing the behavioral targeting potential of various genetic markers. “LyfeCode: What Makes You YOU.” No more question mark.

For the past few weeks, her unit had been grappling with the expression of olfactory receptors on chromosome 11, how that affected perception of certain scents, and for which segments of the population.

It was a project for a marquee brand partner, the largest coffeehouse chain in Asia. They’d been installing scent circulators in their storefronts. It didn’t even need to smell like coffee, just something aromatically irresistible to the largest percentage of foot traffic.

That day, Rada had gone through the results over and over, but they weren’t lining up. Everything with the boy had made it hard to focus. She hadn’t even noticed the lab had emptied out until her assistant’s stomach growled. Rada laughed and urged him to go home.

She made herself a cup of coffee, then ran the simulation again. The DNA visualizations animated on her monitor, a racing zoom into a rotating double helix. The twisting base pairs flattened into 2D, then zoomed out to reveal a structure like an oblong barcode: chromosome 11. A playful chime indicated it was complete. She scrolled through the results and frowned. Again, the model hadn’t reacted the way they’d predicted.

Rada was beginning to wonder if maybe the problem wasn’t in their calculations but in the test sample itself. She keyed in the profile ID, 29-342, to check if the anonymous subject had any historical samples in the database. If the result was the same on an identical sequence, then she’d know: The error was hers.

She breathed a sigh of relief, finding 29-342’s profile contained another, earlier sample, its file date marked about 25 years ago.

Rada imagined 29-342 wasn’t so different from her. She’d probably gotten an ancestry kit as a birthday gift then resubmitted an additional sample for a K5 screen at the height of the scare. At least that’s what the timeline implied.

Rada double-tapped to render the sample.

The program honked, denying her access.

The file was locked.

It was a dirty little trick he’d shown her.

Rada had been forced to participate in HR’s “new hire mentorship program.” She had no idea what to do with this kid, two decades her junior, so she took him to a nearby pub and let him drone on about his college conquests.

He was an entry-level analyst, the kind of excitable geek who spoke faster and faster with each sip of whiskey. But reading the boredom on Rada’s face, and desperate to impress a superior, he pulled out his tablet and instead prattled on about his secret discovery, demonstrating the loophole right there on his screen.

LyfeCode’s internal permissions architecture ran on biometrics. An eye scan to access this. A fingerprint to open that. But the computer didn’t hold a map of your iris or the stamp of your thumb. It translated those into a seemingly senseless string of 1s and 0s.

Press your fingerprint to the glass, it would scan the pattern, translate it to code, then compare the code to what was stored for a given employee. If it matched, access granted.

The problem was, the code itself wasn’t well secured. The key locker was left unlocked.

By now, it had probably been patched, Rada told herself. She should go home, get some rest. But the locked file gnawed at her. And soon enough, she was exploiting the flaw, replacing the digitized biometrics of Toni’s employee database entry with those from her own, overwriting one heap of code with another. So when she pressed her palm to a scanner, it matched her print to the code now assigned to Toni, and all of Toni’s C-suite permissions unfurled before her. But she’d gone through the trouble for just one.

Rada loaded 29-342’s historical sample into the program and ran the simulation, waited for the chime, then scanned the results. This time, it worked as expected.

The error wasn’t in her calculation. The problem was the sample. The samples should have been identical, but that they weren’t seemed to bother her even more.

She ran a comparison analysis, then pulled the visualizations side by side and zoomed in further, close on the shorter end of the chromosome, 11p, where the discrepancy had been highlighted in red. She squinted, comparing the two, looking for abnormalities like one of those “spot the difference” picture puzzles.

She scrunched her nose.

For a few short steps of the DNA ladders, the visualizations didn’t match. The samples behind them, old and new, were … different. She double-tapped to display the location details.

Her breath leapt out in a blast of disbelief.

It was the K5 mutation.

29-342 was a carrier. Or rather …

… had become a carrier?

Rada located half a dozen more test subjects with historical samples, all predating K5, all unlocked by Toni’s hijacked handprint. They were just as she’d seen on 29-342. And then, later on, she tested her own samples, the first from her childhood Christmas decades ago, showing no sign of the K5 mutation.

She wondered how they’d missed it, the company, everyone. She stared at the mismatched patterns of her own DNA, suppressing the thought clawing out of her mind.

It wasn’t something that would be missed. It was something that would be hidden.

LyfeCode controlled all the historical samples. It controlled the basis for comparison, the research, the journals. Everything published—everything—identified K5 as an embryonic de novo germline mutation: the first of its kind, occurring shortly after fertilization, then replicating with each cell division.

That explained the recessive trait’s appearance in Rada’s generation but not in her parents’. It explained why the mutation wasn’t expressed until recessive carriers started reproducing with one another. But it couldn’t explain an abrupt appearance later in life.

She’d drained another cup of coffee, trying to reason a scenario that could unexplain the obvious. If it wasn’t inherited, the mutation would be localized to specific tissues or regions of cells. Somatic. But K5 was present in the entire body, from the kidney tissues to the hypodermis to the white blood cells swimming around the saliva samples.

It was obvious; K5 was created.

It was Sen. Drummond on a global scale.

It was a bioweapon.

The discovery sent Rada spiraling down Toni’s C-level clearance. She’d spent half the night glued to the terminal, sifting through decades-old memoranda, piecing together threads of executive correspondence: a mistake … confusion … panic … arguments … threats.

Some scientific accidents create penicillin, others unleash an inadvertent bioweapon into regional water supplies.

As she checked out of the lab, her mind was racing. Did Toni know? Had her mother? Had Panama really been an accident? Rada tried to stay calm, to walk slowly. Headquarters was covered in cameras, especially the R&D wing. They could detect abnormalities in behavior.

She yawned at the night guard to prompt his own yawn, shutting his eyes as she pressed her handprint to the exit turnstile, knowing his screen would flash Toni’s face.

It was 3 in the morning. The subway was empty. It made for an eerie ride home, every ad morphing into demigod versions of herself.

Rada’s better instincts told her to pretend she hadn’t found anything. Self-preservation. She knew precisely where in her cells that instinct was coded. She ignored it and, instead, captured photos of the DNA discrepancies, the memos, all with her Smart Contacts, then dropped them to a folder on her phone, which now seemed a hot coal burning in her pocket.

She’d purged her own genome from the database, to buy some time, even knowing it’d trigger an alert. They’d retrace her logs, discover her discovery, and then …

As she rode up the escalator of her station, the women in the ads turned to watch, smiling in silence, like a hallway of haunted portraits.

She wondered how long it would take for her profile deletion to trickle out to all the third parties that purchased permission to target her biology. If the ads could find her, then her location could just as easily trickle its way back up the chain. Reverse each encryption, de-anonymize and re-identify.

Her feet pounded the sidewalk as she emerged from the station. The streets were empty, dark, illuminated only by advertisements that lit up as she plodded past, turning the phone over and over in her jacket pocket. Where to take it? Which of her few contacts at the journals didn’t already answer to LyfeCode?

She rounded the corner to her building, wondering how much of a head start she’d have before all the company’s resources came barreling down on her. The denim advertisement sparkled then dimmed as it fell in her wake, leaving the sidewalk dark once again and drawing Rada’s attention to another light.

She stopped in her tracks.

A window. Fourth floor. Her unit.

Rada’s breath quivered. She gulped, then shook it off. She was being paranoid. She must’ve left it on this morning, by accident. She did that sometimes. She took another step.

The light went off.

Her eyes scanned up and down the block. She could make out the dark outline of an AV at the curb, a few yards from the next intersection.

Her heart rate picked up. In her pocket, her grip tightened around the phone.

Rada turned on her heels and headed back for the station, this time in darkness, the advertisements suddenly blind to her presence.

She pulled her coat tight around her shoulders, stepped onto the escalator, and disappeared below the street.

Read a response essay by Josephine Johnston.

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