Designing Assassins

As I stepped out of the exfoliating shower, my hair freshly shorn and all the dead skin scrubbed away, I tightly closed the steel door and locked it. After testing the door, making certain that nothing could escape, I pressed the ‘on’ button. I heard the furnaces below the shower start up and felt the burst of flame heat the floor underneath my toes. It was a nice, comforting heat.

I carefully put on my clothes, making certain that everything was tight, snug, and perfect. A breathing mask went over my face along with a plastic hood that covered the rest of my head and zipped perfectly onto my shirt.   Before heading out for work, I peeked in the mirror and made certain there were no brows or eyelashes left for someone to take advantage of. Satisfied that the shower had done its job, I heaved a great sigh and walked out of the bathroom, closing another steel door behind me. I pressed the ‘on’ button and felt the soothing heat of the flames on the other side.

I picked up my backpack on my way out the door, wishing that I’d found the time to eat breakfast. It was too late now, though, and I would just have to make do until I returned home in the evening. I turned around and closed the steel door, shutting the valve on it tight, and pressed the ‘on’ button. I left, comforted by my knowledge that 15 minutes of intense UV radiation would cover any traces of genes that I could have possibly left behind.

“Good morning,” my neighbor called over her fence. She waved, the fingers in her gloved hand wiggling about. The wrinkling around her eyes gave away her smile, despite the mask covering her mouth, and so I smiled in return. I breathed deeply, taking in the glorious day before heading to the bus stop.

The usual workers crowded close as they waited for their bus at the stop. I had, many times, considered conversing with these people, but it would have been such a risk to do so. I found it better to keep my head down, be unassuming. One never knew what could anger a person into hiring a genome hustler.

I didn’t stay alone for too long. Herb, the man I willingly share my cubicle at work with, sauntered forth. He carried a small cup with him, steam rolling out the top. Even through my mask, I could smell it was coffee. Eyes turned to him as other bystanders realized what Herb was doing. I couldn’t associate with him, not if he was going to act this way, but I also didn’t want to let my friend do something so careless.

I pulled Herb close to me, nearly causing him to spill his coffee. “Herb, what do you think you’re doing?!” I shot my glances around, trying to see who was listening to us.

He looked back to me with unconcerned eyes. “It’s just a cup of coffee. I’m not going to drink it, I’m just… Come on, Cal, aren’t you tired of living in a bubble?”

“Of course I’m tired of living in a bubble – I’m just not quite tired of living yet! Now dump out that coffee and incinerate the cup if you know what’s good for you.”

Herb stared at his coffee then poured it on the ground. Other people at the stop grabbed some cotton swabs from their bags and stared at the wet grass, circling the waste like vultures while Herb put the cup in a pocket on his pants.

“Don’t worry,” Herb told the people watching him, “I didn’t drink any. You’re not going to get my genes out of that even if you try.”

It didn’t stop them. They swarmed upon the dumped coffee, rubbing the grass down with cotton swabs and immediately storing them in tubes full of PCR solution. What a waste of money; no one would dump their good genes on the ground like that. Even the best nanobot assassin designers and genome hustlers wouldn’t be able to find the weaknesses in Herb’s genetic code from this source.

“This whole world must be crazy,” Herb mumbled, the bus stopping just in front of us. He stepped in, putting a few coins in the fare-box before I did. We gripped the straps on the ceiling to hold ourselves steady, all of the seats currently being occupied, while the other riders at the stop finished gathering some spilled coffee and got on their ride to the city.

“Idiots,” I said, pointing to a man who shoved a few coins in the box. “Someone’s going to end up with a few soil bacteria and sell e. coli DNA thinking it’s human genes. The idiot who buys it will get mad and try to target them in retaliation, so don’t feel bad about this. You’ll be the winner here in the long run.” The bus lurched forward, the engine in the back roaring as we rolled away.

Herb was silent. He was brooding over something, but I wasn’t sure what. He was always somewhat dark, despondent, upset with the status quo, but he should know there was nothing he could do about it. He needed to suck it up and move on.

“They treat it like some sort of sick game,” Herb finally said, quietly. “They treat human lives like some sort of goal to be won or lost. Don’t they realize that this is about life and death, not just useless internet points?”

“Of course they do.” It was nearly a lie; some rich people would make an assassination nanobot and release it for as little as internet points. Still, I offered proof, “If people didn’t realize or care, we’d have their genome by now and they’d be dead in a few days. Everyone has enemies, Herb, enemies who are willing to pay real money for access to a genome of a living person.”

Herb sighed. “I suppose it doesn’t matter.”

I looked away from Herb. He was being so depressing today.

We remained quiet for the rest of the ride. A public place like the bus wasn’t where one would have conversations about enemies and genome-mining assassins.

As the bus stopped and we shuffled out, I was careful to watch who was around me. Any sharp object that could puncture my clothes was a potential danger, after all. One small cell, a few rounds of PCR with the right primers, and poof! Someone would take my genome and design a molecular assassin that would kill me.

Once safe and walking together to work, Herb opened his mouth, “I have a favor to ask of you, Cal. A big favor.”

“Name it,” I said, walking a bit faster. “I’ve got you covered.”

Herb sighed and waited for a passerby to walk away. He eyed the woman carefully, as did I. She was wearing clear plastic clothes, obviously someone who made themselves as pretty as possible to attract genome donors.

“Get a load of that,” I said once she was past us. I gave her a quick glance, looking over my shoulder as I kept walking to work. “It’s amazing people still fall for genome hustlers that obvious.”

“Not that amazing. You know, you’re one of the lucky ones – you don’t care about ladies or procreation or none of that. It’s the rest of us that’s got to take a risk somehow.”

I rolled my eyes. “Either way, everyone should know not to trust their genome to anyone. If I were concerned with having a genetic legacy, I’d find a way to store a secret sample that would be released to some lucky lady after I die.”

Herb put his hands in his pockets and shuffled forward. “That’s a sad prospect, Cal. You would be alone your whole life.”

I patted Cal on the top of his backpack. “But at least I’ll be alive. Stop sweating it – just tell yourself that you’ll have a kid after you die. Get a nice liquid nitrogen canister, fill up some sample vials, bury it, and just enjoy your time alive. You won’t have to be afraid of women killing you to keep their children safe.”

Herb shook his head. “I hate how they do that.”

“Makes sense, though. If an enemy gets the father’s genome, the kid’s genome may have the same weakness to be exploited. Kill the father while you’re still the sole recipient of his genome, get rid of his presence, and your kid has one less way for its genome to be mined. It only makes sense, Herb, from an evolutionary stance.”

“It’s just not fair, though.”

“What, you think you’re the first person to figure this out? Come on, Herb. Get a grip. Take today off. Call in sick, go get a canister, fill it with-“

“You don’t understand, Cal. I’m not going to get a nitrogen canister, I’m going to ask Polly if she wants a genetic sample. I… I can’t risk someone finding a canister filled with genetic information, not if I’m going to have a real kid while I’m still alive.”

I blinked a few times at Herb, stopping in my tracks. He stopped too, breathing heavily as he looked at me.

“Have you taken leave of your senses?” I asked.

“I love Polly,” Herb argued. “I think she’ll be a great candidate, possibly even stay in touch with me after she uses my sample. I… I think she’s trustworthy.”

“Yeah. Trustworthy.” I chuckled and crossed my arms. “Tell me that after she’s had your kid – oh, wait, you can’t because you’ll be dead.”

Herb appeared to have taken offense. His eyes tightened and his brows furrowed. “At least she doesn’t dress up or act like a genome hustler. I think she’s trustworthy. I don’t think she’ll sell my weaknesses, but…”

I rolled my eyes. “You have reservations, yet you’re still going to go through with it, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” Herb said, “Yeah Cal, I am. Look, I trust her, but I worry that she’ll feel threatened by the weakness I present to her child. She’s a good person and wouldn’t kill me unless it was to protect someone else. I think I’ve come up with a backup plan to keep myself safe, though. I just need your help.”

I shook my head. “Shouldn’t do it, whatever it is,” I said.

Herb put his hands on my shoulders. “I’m going to ask her, but I’m also going to tell her that you have a copy of my genome. I’ll tell her that if she designs a genome assassin that kills me, you are authorized to publish my genome and make a genome assassin that will kill her kid. Would you… I trust you, Cal. Would you keep my genome safe for me?”

I shook my head and backed away as Herb proffered a small sample vial. “This is a dumb idea, Herb. Trusting a woman enough to give her a sample while still distrusting her enough that you’ve got to have a form of retaliation is stupid. Let’s just back out of this before someone – namely you – gets hurt.”

Herb pushed the vial forward. “Come on, Cal.” He begged with wide eyes, open palm. “I trust you, Cal. You’re my best bet here.”

I held up my hand to take the vial but stopped short. “You sure, Herb? You sure you don’t want to just trust her, perhaps do a mutual genome exchange type thing?”

“I’m sure,” Herb said. He shoved the vial into my hand and sighed with relief. I took the vial, shoving it into one of my pockets.

“It’s your funeral,” I said, shrugging, “But I’ll take it.”

Herb smiled. “Thank you, Cal. Thank you.”

We walked into the offices, both of us hushing quickly as we did so. No one could hear that I had a sample of Herb’s active genome in my pocket – they’d come get it, mine it for weaknesses, design a molecular assassin, and sell it on the internet. I couldn’t let that happen.

I was the one Herb had given his sample to – I was going to be the one to make that profit.

I sat down at my desk and booted up my computer along with the thermocycler and sequencer attached to it. Herb’s genome would be mined by noon, the assassin designed by evening. All I’d have to do then was sit back, wait for money to come in, and release the molecules to do their work.

Hey, I’d told him it was a bad idea.

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6 thoughts on “Designing Assassins

  1. H.R.R. — This story got my mind buzzing and I wrote a 100-word follow-up to it. I hope you don’t mind. I’ve published it to my site witha link to your story. Thank you. — Tom

  2. Pingback: Twisted Strand – Eagle Canyon

    1. Checking it out now! Glad I could be an inspiration – this story is actually based on a far-flung application of one of my former research projects (which failed, we may all be glad to know).

      1. Yeah. I worked on mechanical parts of a nanobot. It didn’t work, but I know why. Things like this are possible, but I glossed over the difficulties of initial mass transfer or delivery.

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