USGS Bee Monitoring and Inventory Lab

Worker Bees Cannot Leave

Constantly having to upgrade your genetic code can be overwhelming.

I haven’t been feeling myself lately. For the past month, I’ve been grappling with insomnia that culminates in exhaustion and a peaceful surrender to deep and unsatisfying sleep. Nightmares are altogether another issue.

I’ve been in bed for 16 hours now. Again. My mind is scrambled and my body is heavy; getting out of bed in the morning is a battle of epic proportions. Sluggish. I shut off my alarm clock and reach for the moleskin notebook on my nightstand. I’ve begun writing little haikus throughout the day. Writing is really the only productive act I do anymore:

Worker bees can leave
Even drones can fly away
The queen is their slave

I put down the notebook and check my phone. Ah, the first message is from sweet Bianca. I haven’t heard from her in a long time. She’s the only other person who understands, which must be why she doesn’t speak to me anymore.

We recently had an unsuccessful attempt at a romance, but that relationship slowly degenerated into a close and oftentimes volatile friendship—or, as she said, the relationship “evolved.” Still, she’s an important person in my life. And this isn’t the time to lose friends.

“John, I don’t think it’s going to work out between us. I always feel depressed after we talk. Have you restarted your upgrades? I don’t think the answer is getting off the treatment. Please understand the upgrades are a part of us now. We shouldn’t run away from who we have become. I hope you get better but don’t bother contacting me until you get back on the upgrades and back to the person who I remember you are.”

Delete. Sigh.

Bianca is gorgeous, intelligent, witty, charming, vindictive, manipulative, ambitious, and calculating. I met her in the waiting room at the Genecast Institute on a cold November day. She was looking coy while reading a magazine on genetic therapy. Her appearance betrayed her ambition. Her long dark auburn hair was splayed along her porcelain skin.

I write another haiku.

Without just one nest
A bird can call the world home
Life is your career

In the early days, genetic enhancement was dismissed as just a passing fad. Soon after, a number of companies commercialized the equipment and could easily replace genes, especially the ones that nature never gave you: a year-round tan, a better metabolism, sharper intelligence. The technology was originally intended to cure diseases—and cure them it did—but eventually it filtered down to what the media called ‘genetic markers.’ A change to a gene here, a deletion there, a little bit left in then passed on to the next generation, then more changes added to that. The changes were cumulative and, before we knew it, the visible signs started appearing. Society started changing.

I write another haiku.

A tiger can smile
A snake will say it loves you
Lies make us evil

I finally get out of bed. Per my service agreement, I have to check in with my personal Genecast diagnostic reader every morning. If my levels are low, a “helpful” Genecast counselor will inquire about my status.
“Genetic enhancement levels are low for the 28th straight day. Is there a problem with your service?”
“No, everything is fine, I just haven’t had time to get my upgrade.”

“We can contact your work for authorization to take leave to attend your level upgrades.”

“No, that is not necessary, my health is fine.”

“As you are well aware, per your service agreement, if you miss your genetic upgrade for 30 straight days you run the risk of putting your account in jeopardy.”

“Yes, I am aware.”

“Moreover, you are putting the genetic commons at risk by not upgrading. You are affecting the entire community.”

“I am aware of the details of my contract.”

“After 60 days without a service upgrade, your workplace will be notified of your genetic abandonment and you will become an at-will employee without any of the legal protection the Genecast service has provided you.”

“I am aware.”

“We here at Genecast hope we can help you fulfill your potential. Thank you.”
I write a few more lines before leaving:

The fox howls at night
Trumpet of win over
A dewy-eyed rabbit

USGS Bee Monitoring and Inventory Lab
USGS Bee Monitoring and Inventory Lab

I walk past my coworkers who stare at me; they are well aware I’ve been off my upgrades. My boss is waiting for me. He slaps a piece of paper down on my desk. It’s a haiku.

I guess I was still half asleep when I left the original in the copy machine.

He seems angry. “Is this yours? You don’t get paid to abuse the copy machine. You just had a week off, and the work is piling up. Have you finished the reports on genetic tax incentives yet”?

“I am working on them.”

“John, what’s come over you? You’ve been missing deadlines and your work has been haphazard lately, to say the least.”

“I’m fine.”

I shuffled out of the office. I need a smoke. I need a break. I need to get my head on straight.

My boss sends me home. Sleep isn’t an option. The only option is to reclaim my old life back. My parents would be disappointed; I was once the poster boy for gene therapy. I can’t let this all go to waste .
I walk to the train, my footsteps clattering down the dark, empty corridor. When someone gets on at the next stop, I open my eyes wide. Only the under-casts get on late at night, on their way home from the late shift at the recycling factory. They climb out of the night into the light of the wagon and I see a man so exhausted from his day that he is nothing more than a ghost in clothes. There hasn’t been any feeling of intimacy in his mind and body for a long time. Only some words stolen from those who, deemed a burden for the genetic commons, had to be recycled like we used to do with toxic waste.

In his eyes he carries the darkness of his faith, but for me there is still some hope.
I surrender.

“Genecast?…I want to make a payment.”

Paul Skallas is a civil rights lawyer interested in healthcare technology and society, working in Washington, D.C.

Eleonore Pauwels is a researcher with the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has written on genomics and society for The New York Times, Nature, Scientific American, Slate, and The Guardian.