This short story was originally published on richardholliday.co.uk on April 9th 2014.
by Richard Holliday
The concourse of the Panopticon heaved under the footfall of a hundred thousand anonymous travellers. Each moved silently through the grand transit station that evening, silently worming their way toward the trains and trams bound for final destinations across the distant country. Each mind was pre-occupied with the journey ahead and none realised how important that evening, in that very location, was for the history of humankind.
Across the rain-soaked city, four masked men clambered into a beat-up van and left, heading like so many others toward the Panopticon. They had no final destination though – theirs was the Panopticon. One checked the news on a tablet computer, humming with assent and a second later placing the tablet back into the rucksack which was lazily thrown into the back of the van.
The tablet was replaceable. They had one chance to enact their plan and this was it.
For several years, Sensus Life Sciences had been trialling passive gene therapy with the hope of eliminating congenital diseases that plagued humanity. This was the magnum opus of genetic science – to rid humanity of ailments and afflictions that existed purely because of a person’s genes. How cruel to suffer a disease purely for being oneself – and having chromosomes in a certain sequence. If any one group of people could possibly be described as doomed from birth, it would be those with these conditions. Alzheimers, the slow burner that waited until a person had lived a lifetime before burning it away. Down Syndrome too – one of a number of odious conditions that affected the brain and robbing the sufferer of their humanity due to it’s very composition. Even hereditary heart disease, liver failure, diabetes… these all waited in a person’s very genes for the opportune moment to strike the host person down, forming a cruel fate that waited like a time bomb in a man’s very essence. These were inheritances that no-one wanted but had eluded eradication for centuries and millennia.
From the beginning of the twenty-first century gene therapy – a process of injecting modified genes to compensate for missing ones in the DNA – aimed to alleviate the symptoms of these conditions and make life more comfortable, but the hidden dangers remained ingrained and latent. As a company built around the industry of ‘life sciences’, eliminating the root causes of these conditions was their proclaimed goal. CEO David Watson had seen his parents wither at the hands of dementia and his brother suffer at the hand of Downs – the fact he could do nothing to help them inspired his work to rid the world of both diseases. There had to be a better way to administer the therapy and one such method had proved very elusive until… recently.
Across the city a similar delegation made their way to the Panopticon – leaving the Sensus Life Sciences compound in a limousine that weaved through heavy road traffic towards the glass-and-concrete edifice that was a gateway toward the rest of the country beyond the city. Inside a briefcase carried inside the limousine was Sensus’s purported saviour for the doomed – a machine that would selectively alter the chromosomes in the DNA of a patient to remove the latent predilection for hereditary illness. Better than an injection of genetic material, this machine could perform wholesale radioactive recalibration of the genes in every cell in the human body simultaneously. The technology was bulky when constructed, and expensive; however, the demand would be insatiable with an ageing population. Miniaturisation would soon shrink these Therapy Suites and economies of scale would shrink the cost. Every hospital and clinic in the land – and across seven continents – could very soon erase genetic legacies at the push of a button.
With the press release made that afternoon by David Watson himself the blueprints would be transferred to a factory out of state for construction. Sensus realised the commercial interest would be unprecedented and extraordinary – thus the blueprints were transferred to a single data disc and the servers at Sensus headquarters incinerated.
Suddenly this one limousine was the most valuable on the planet – for different reasons to some.
The rusted van ground through the heavy traffic. It was a rainy December and the congested streets were worse than usual – many people eager to get home along through-ways designed a hundred years ago for a fraction of the traffic. It was nearly Christmas, too; warm fires and warm company waited at dwellings across the city. The driver of the van was on a schedule – to intercept one vehicle in this massive haystack. To the vast majority this vehicle was completely innocuous and anonymous, but to the crew of this van at least, it’s value was priceless.
Sensus had researched the gene therapy technology with altruistic intentions that could, incidentally, make them a lot of money. The ability to reconfigure and ‘purify’ a person’s genes and rid them of certain ‘characteristics’ appealed to more than those in the medical field. Religious fundamentalists could use a Therapy Suite in the dank basement of a temple to ‘cure the heathen’ of sinful characteristics. Racial supremacists too would find a Therapy Suite invaluable for indoctrination and implementation of a technological ‘ethnic cleansing’ would be child’s play.
And there were some concerned, too, that this technology was too much like science playing God. An oxymoron of universal scope indeed. Was changing a person’s chromosomes to cure them of an illness they didn’t yet have – but potentially may contract – removing some of their very humanity? Was removing these natural possibilities that made life unique removing a part of what it meant to be human? This was the ultimate ambitions preventative medicine, but was humanity really ready as a society and equipped to handle its own destiny in such deep and base ways?
People continued clattering across the marble floor of the Panopticon, oblivious to the ethical impasse forming on three sides. The Sensus delegation arrived to the south; the van of fundamentalist mercenaries to the west and the government regulator to the east.
Standing at the entrance, the Sensus representative looked down at the briefcase. The soaked hat drooped and fell to reveal David Watson himself handling the briefcase. This was a briefcase that would change humanity. A twinge of angst coursed through his bloodstream. Was humanity ready? Was he the man to deliver humanity into a new epoch?
A trashcan stood directly in front of the Panopticon entrance.
With a sigh and slump of shoulders, the he took a step forward. Humanity joined him – followed by a sense of purity.
© Richard Holliday, 2014