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The Kevorkian Principle

September 14, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Kevorkian Principle

Aiden squeezed his eyes shut and leaned back from his screen.  The LCD had shut off, and he now had a mandatory break, complete with ergonomic stretches and focusing his eyes on faraway objects.

As he stood, his gaze fell across the top of the cube farm where his desk sat to the executive offices.  He shook his head and began his stretches.  He couldn’t afford to lose this job.  He should count himself lucky.  A data entry position in successful corporate offices was the envy of many of his friends and family.

“Hey, Assface.  You really shouldn’t stare at the exec. offices like that.  People will think you’re a gunner.  Gunners get fired.”

Aiden jerked his eyes away from the doors and focused on his 6’ 5” blond haired, blue-eyed coworker.

“Morning, Cooper.”

“Morning, yourself, jackass,” Cooper grinned wryly.  Cooper always thought a wry grin removed all sting from name calling.

“I’m no gunner, Coop.  I just…”

“You just think you’re smarter than everyone and you should be in there instead of out here.  What, with your master’s and PhD.  Well, join the crowd.”

Aiden sighed.  “I know Coop. I-”

Both of their phones beeped and their LCDs turned back on.  Voracious databases yawned open.

“Break time’s over, Chief.  Hey, don’t you have a doctor’s appointment today?”

This bit of small talk as they returned to their desks was allowed, but frowned upon.

“Sure do.  Cancer results came back positive.  It’s so nice to know you care enough to remember.”

“Well, hell, take your half-day and go recoup.  But you better not miss tomorrow’s softball game, asshole.”  Cooper smiled and disappeared, gopher-like, into his cube.

“Thanks,” Aiden said as he sat down.  He refocused on his screen and resumed transferring information from one of the numerous three-inch binders on his desk into the appropriate fields in the database.

Forty-five minutes later a dialog box appeared on Aiden’s screen.  He pondered ‘dialog’ might be overstating it.  He never felt particularly engaged in discourse by these pop-up menus.  ‘Monolog’ box was a better fit.

“Aiden Jacobson logged off. Doctor’s appointment for MEDICAL PRIVACY REDACTION in thirty minutes.”

After thirty seconds, his screen shut off.

Aiden stood and walked through the cube neighborhood.  He said no goodbyes.  No one was on break, and management strongly discouraged non-break chit-chat.  Every person sat erect, stared at a screen, and entered data as efficiently and quickly as possible.

Seated at the receptionist desk, Kara beamed at him as he approached.  He marveled again at her pale skin, bright green eyes, and red hair.  Her parents had been artists.

“Hey, Kara.”

“Aiden. You have a half-day I see.  Everything OK? Not that you should tell me.”

“Nothing big.  You having a good day of answering calls and texts?”

“You know me.  When I start to get down on the job, I remind myself that until answered, any given call could be the one telling me I’ve won the Lottery.”  She smiled and then waved, as she bent to the beeping of an incoming text.  The client would expect an immediate response.  One of these days, he’d have to ask her out.  He hoped she won the Lottery. She had some spectacular thoughts on quantum mechanics.

He walked outside.  His phone beeped acknowledgement of departing work.  As he walked down the Houston sidewalk, electric cars whipped silently past.  Their autopilots all synched and networked to ensure no collisions or traffic jams.  People in the seats chatted or, more probably, watches movies and played games.

Aiden passed a work crew.  They had set up a sand blaster, and it scoured years of old soot and grime from the side of a building.  He wondered how many post-secondary degrees the group of three workers held.  Three, assuredly.  Six?  Nine?

He reflected upon the policies and actions that had gotten them here.  Zealous deregulation in the early two thousands played a role.  No government oversight had existed.  No one had noticed.  Frequent concerns over privacy, particularly medical privacy, played its part as well.  Even if someone had kept oversight, they wouldn’t have had permission from most to observe anything.  Obviously, the 2015 FDA approval of genetic alteration of a fetus was vital.

Every parent wants an attractive, intelligent, driven child.  It was so obvious in hindsight.  The rich had been able to afford gene-alt, and the banks had merrily loaned middle-class families enough to bridge the gap.  Why should parents wait to take out student loans for a child who might succeed, when you can take out a loan to ensure your child earns a quality scholarship? It made perfect sense.  Thus, Gen PhD, or Gen-Alt, was born.

Aiden liked to go further back for the true precipitating cause, though: the US G.I. bill of 1944.  Before that, a college education had been rare.  After that, an entire generation of men had earned a degree.  In a decade, a bachelor’s went from being prestigious to being table stakes in the job market.  By 2020, the same had happened to master’s degrees.

Now, you couldn’t throw a stone on a city street without hitting multiple PhDs.  Everyone was overqualified for almost everything.  An entire generation of Type-A, overachieving, PhD holders descended on the jobs market, and the market had no ability to correct.  Adam’s Smith’s ‘Invisible Hand’ had been outflanked.  The government established the Jobs Lottery in 2035. The best minds argued there was no better way to decide who got what positions.

Aiden’s thoughts turned, inevitably, to the untouched: those whose parents had been too poor, too religious, or too technophobic for gene-alt.  Zones, definitively not ‘camps’ or ‘reservations’, sprang into being, mostly in fly-over states.  They were entirely voluntary, but, eventually, almost all of the untouched moved there.  They had little in common with their genetically ‘perfect’ cousins. Not even discussions of football were comfortable in mixed company.  Gene-alts eventually brought up Clausewitz, Nietzsche, or some such, and the untouched just wanted to yell about ‘dumb refs’ and second guess play calls after they failed.

The Zones were comfortable enough, from what he read on the ‘net.  Untouched farmed, built factories, kept shops, and had genetically diverse babies.  No one revolted, which is the best historical gauge for the happiness of second-class citizens.

Aiden stopped at a crosswalk and waited; he noticed the man next to him starred openly.  Aiden turned to ask the slightly overweight man if he needed something, and then noticed he stood only 5’ 11”.  His height alone would have told Aiden this was an untouched, but the man was also staring at Aiden’s visage.  Aiden gathered he looked like a movie star to the untouched.  Though, Aiden’s contemporaries would have described his face as ‘plain’.  Not knowing what to say, Aiden waited uncomfortably for the crosswalk to change.  When it did, he strode quickly across the street, outpacing the sight-seer.

By the time Aiden reached the hospital, the double impact of Houston’s high humidity and summer time temperatures in the high 90s ensured he was covered in sweat.   He didn’t mind.  A hot, humid walk reminded him he could have drawn a job as a leaf blower or highway maintenance worker.  Things could almost always get worse.

The bright shining edifice of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center loomed over him.  Oh.  Right.  He had cancer.  He glanced at his phone.  Five minutes early.  His phone would note that.  If he got here early too often, the system back at work would react accordingly and adjust his scheduled time off.  He’d have to remember to mosey a bit more next time.

The blackened automatic revolving doors sensed his approach and began turning.  Once inside, the cold air blasted him and turned his sweat into pinpricks of ice.  No amount of research on temperature acclimation or discussion of energy consumption could stop a Houstonian, even multiple PhD Houstonians, from turning the A/C on full blast in August.  It was cultural.

The marble-tiled floors gleamed in the afternoon sun.  A Roomba made its way across the floor, as a jumper-clad janitor supervised.  Maybe the little robot cleaned and supervised the janitor.

The elevator dinged in anticipation of Aiden’s approach.  The building’s network, in constant communication with his phone, knew where he was and where he needed to go.  He entered the mirrored interior of the elevator, and it carried him to the appropriate floor.

Aiden walked down the hallway to his doctor’s office, opened the door, and entered the waiting room.  The room had blue iris carpet, surely picked for its calming and reassuring properties.  The furniture was all spring green colored cloth.  The psychological impact of the décor likely mattered much more when M. D. Anderson was a place where people came to languish as their bodies destroyed themselves.

He walked up to the nurse at the receptionist desk, who looked up as he approached.

“Aiden Jacobson? 12:15 treatment?” Her faultless smile and tone of voice were a pitch perfect combination of welcome, concern, and assurance. Her beauty lit the air around her.  Her parents had assuredly believed she would grow up and take Hollywood by storm.

“That’s me.”  He acknowledged, as his phone beeped to confirm his arrival.

The nurse placed a LCD panel on the counter in front of him.  “Please, verify your information and place your right index finger on the screen for confirmation and acceptance.” She delivered this without a note of rote or repetition in her voice, as if this were the first time she had ever performed this routine.  Aiden hoped she won the Lottery, as well.  She was good.

He skimmed the information and glanced over the doctor’s EULA.  Nothing major.  Besides, he wanted to be cured, so he had his finger scanned and accepted the terms.  His phone beeped in acknowledgment.

The nurse glanced at the screen.  “Now, now, Mr. Jacobson.  You’re early.” She tsked. “Slow down.   Smell the roses.” She delivered these instructions with a mother’s concern. “If you’ll take a seat, Dr. Landry will be ready shortly.”  She turned her head back to her LCD by means of dismissal.

He sat comfortably in one of the chairs and brought out his phone.  After unlocking it, he opened its browser.  He figured he’d catch up on some news while he waited.

Trade negotiations with China had broken down. Again.  He sighed and rubbed his left temple.  He knew he shouldn’t read international news, but he couldn’t just take solace in ‘top minds’ being in charge of everything.  Their minds were no more ‘top’ than his; nor was his training deficient in any way.  But they won the Lottery, so they had the opportunity to screw up the global economy, while he was stuck with data entry.

A dialog box appeared on his phone.

“Prolonged exposure to stress inducing news can be harmful.  Would you like to stop reading now?

An elevated heart rate going into a treatment was the last thing he needed.  He tapped the slightly glowing “YES”, and put his phone back in his pocket.

“Mr. Jacobson?”

He looked up.  The nurse was at the door ushering him deeper into the office.

“Dr. Landry will see you now.”

Aiden stood and followed her to a clinic room.  He dutifully moved to the high beige table and sat on the crinkling paper.  The nurse smiled warmly and left.

Sarah Landry walked into the room shortly thereafter.  He had known her since kindergarten, and she always struck him as the ‘before’ character in those old Sandra Bullock movies.  Any day now the eyeglass-affecting, ponytailed, tomboy would go through an amazing transformation by way of taking off her glasses and shaking her hair out of a ponytail.  Suddenly, she’d be the beauty her parents had designed.  She’d always fought against that.  Funny she should be one to win the Lottery, performing her designed function.

“Aiden.  How’re you doing?” She asked as she looked at her handheld screen to get the answers it slurped from his phone.

“Oh, pretty good, Doc.  Just a touch of the big ‘C’.  You?”

She grinned distractedly as she read her notes.

“Good.  Good.” She looked up at him. “This says you’ve been running more.”

“Yep. I figured I needed to give my body a bit of help.  It gives me a chance to work off my nervous energy, too.”

“I see. Lots of nervous energy, lately?”

He grunted noncommittally.

She glanced at the screen then back at him. “I notice an elevated heart rate just outside.  What’s up?”

He shook his head. “Just nervous about the procedure, I guess.”

She raised an eyebrow at his lie. “Really? We’ve already gene-sequenced your cancer.  I have here,” she patted her lab coat pocket, “a chemo treatment specifically designed to kill the cells with that DNA strand and no other.  So, are you nervous about the shot in your arm, the mild flu symptoms you’ll experience for the next four to eight hours, or not having cancer in the morning?” She taped her foot with a faux-serious expression on her face.

Aiden chuckled softly, and then sighed.  “Good point.  I…” he lowered his eyes and scratched the back of his head absently, “I was reading the news and getting frustrated.  They’re… I could help.  I know I could help.”

“Of course you could.  Lots of people could.  Whatever it is, I’m sure they’ll manage.  They’ve got top minds, after all.”

“I don’t need platitudes, Sarah.” He looked her in the eyes. “I’ve grown tired of platitudes and waiting for the Lottery and…” he gestured, “everything.”

“Is that suicidal ideation I hear?” She asked.  The playfulness had gone from her voice and she wore a concerned frown as she made some notes.

“No…” he shook his head.  Then, more forcefully he said, “No. Not at all.  I don’t want to die.  Quite the contrary.  I want to live, but I want to live the life I was designed for, not some endless holding pattern of imminent perfection.”

Sarah placed a hand on his shoulder.

“You know,” he continued, “on the way over I saw an untouched.  I didn’t say ‘hi’ or anything.  I didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable.  I view it as an issue of politeness, but I probably ought to get over myself.” Self-loathing leaked out in his voice.

Sarah stood quietly for a moment, inscrutable.

“Aiden?”

He looked up. Her voice had been hushed.  And careful.

“There… there is an option.  Have you…” her eyes darted to the door; her voice lowered further, “have you considered level four therapy?”

“Rewrite my own DNA?” He asked, nonplussed. “I thought it was illegal on anyone over 5. And dangerous. And only for untouched or gene-alts who had errors crop up.”

“Some of those things are true, and some are more perspective-based opinions.  It is illegal, but I’ve seen a growing number of patients who are… disenfranchised with the current system.”

“‘A growing number of patients’? Sarah, what the hell are you talking about?” He couldn’t believe what he thought he was hearing.

“I think a lot of Gen Alts are tiring of not winning the Lottery.  Of being manual labor for those who do.  Of having the answers, but only having the ‘net to shout their answers out into.  Where they feel it’s either swallowed up in a black hole or bounced around in an echo chamber.  People have come to me.  They ask me for a level four.  It resets them.  I don’t have the resources to do custom gene-alteration, so I just remove it all.  People become the random string of DNA that would have resulted naturally without gene-alt intervention.  They become-”

“Untouched,” he whispered.  Now his eyes darted to the door.  “What are you doing, Sarah?  You’re some twenty first century Kevorkian of the perfect.”

She did not blush at this comparison.

“My planned defense, should it be necessary, are those Kevorkian laws.  Surely, a level four rewrite is ending someone’s life. Putting them out of their misery.  It’s the same thing. Only, a living person walks away from my process.” She paused, and judged his reaction.

He stood from the table.  The exam table sheet stuck to him momentarily.  He moved to look out the window.  He saw the Houston skyline, the Interstate, the perfectly flowing traffic, and nothing.

“Untouched? Where would I go?” He asked over his shoulder.

“I know people who help move untouched into Zones.  There’s one out by Corpus.  They help people… acclimate.”

“But, I’d still be me, right?”

She stood behind him now. “I’ve heard there is difficulty at first.  This isn’t time travel.  You have your memories, your experiences, and your training.  You just,” she paused, “don’t understand much of it anymore.  People say they get over their discomfort, eventually.  The drive to be the absolute best slackens, which makes it easier, I’m told.  The mind is quite elastic.”

He thought of what Cooper would say, other than call him names for missing their softball game.  He thought of Kara, a quantum physicist trapped as a receptionist, continually answering Schrodinger’s phone calls and hoping. He thought of the untouched wandering the streets of Houston; his mouth agape at the everyday splendor of it. He thought of his parents.  They had been teachers.  They worked summers, gave up vacations, and forewent other children, so he could have a better, more perfect, life with limitless potential.

He turned to Sarah Landry and nodded.  She nodded in return and quietly left.  After a while, she returned and motioned him to lie down on the table.  He complied.

She removed a syringe from her lab coat pocket.  “This will cure… everything.”

“Thank you, Sarah.” He smiled up at her.

“Goodbye, Aiden.” She pushed the needle into his vein.

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