Gene editing scrambles a family’s connections in this original sci-fi story for NEO.LIFE.
Two days after the CDC travel ban was lifted, Edie Ribas came home to Winters to see her parents.
The self-drive took her past endless fields of wheat and then the Winton Farm’s neat rows of almond trees. She opened the window and breathed in the smell of dung and sun and dust. It could have been the day she left for college, 10 years ago. The only difference was the eerie silence. It sat heavy in her chest as the car came to a halt on the gravelly driveway of her parents’ farm.
She had spent the journey from San Francisco eyeflicking through wiki pages in her iGlasses on how to deal with the Infected, telling herself it was going to be fine. The gene edits in the Altruists’ virus affected everybody slightly differently. Mom and Dad had been a little quiet but more or less normal in their brief holocalls during the quarantine. Still, one thing had stood out of the chorus of contradictory Internet advice.
You couldn’t really tell until you met the Infected in person.
Low fences and trees made the farm into a labyrinth that had been the perfect playground when Edie was growing up. Besides the house, there was a barn, two cottages, and of course the greenhouse. The glamping teepees were later additions for the Airbnb guests drawn to the place’s quirky layout, the Central Valley sun, and her mother’s zoo of mostly unfinished junk metal sculptures. The row of rusty robots by the main entrance were still missing arms and legs.
Edie rang the doorbell. No one answered, but a fierce yapping started behind the door. She smiled. Snow had been a puppy when she’d left, but the sound was achingly familiar.
She bent over and felt beneath a broken pot in the bed of salvia that lined the path to the house. The spare key was still there. Edie unlocked the door. The small, scrappy dog stormed out, did a little dance, and dropped a battered tennis ball at her feet. She scratched his ears, picked up the ball, and went inside.
She made her way through the quiet house, the dog following at her heels. Supposedly the Infected stopped caring about trivialities like house cleaning, but everything was just like she remembered. In the kitchen, the dishes were piled neatly by the sink. A faint metallic clanging in the distance explained her parents’ absence. Mom was working-and she could guess where Dad was. Edie followed the sound through the back door.
She found her mother behind the barn, making a metal tree.
June Ribas’s diminutive frame was almost completely swallowed by an industrial exoskeleton. She used one of the hydraulic frame’s bright yellow claws to hold a giant silvery branch against an oversized anvil while hammering at it with rapid, precise blows. The branch clearly belonged to the larger piece that loomed behind Edie’s mother. It was a mass of interwoven silver tendrils that reached for the sky, at least 20 feet high. Every gleaming surface was embossed with intricate designs: faces, animals, landscapes.
Edie stared at the tree, mouth agape. The tennis ball fell from her hand. She almost didn’t notice that the clanging stopped. June opened the exoskeleton’s latches, stepped out, and took off her goggles. Her brown eyes were ringed with red marks, but the sheen of sweat on her face gave her a healthy glow.
This person looked and sounded like Mom, but did not feel like her.
Edie took an involuntary step back. Mom was a hugger, especially when they hadn’t seen each other for a while, and it always made Edie uncomfortable. But this time June just stood there, face impassive.
June said nothing, only cocked her head to one side. Snow danced at her feet, offering her the ball Edie had dropped. Then it was like something clicked in her head, and a smile appeared on her face.
“Edie,” she said. “Would you like something to drink? I’m sure it was a long drive.”
Edie’s skin crawled. She recalled that people with a neurological condition called Capgras syndrome believed that people in their lives had been replaced by aliens or robots. Now she knew what it was like. This person looked and sounded like Mom, but did not feel like her.
Then she noticed the pale burn marks on June’s tanned arms.
“Mom, did you hurt yourself? What happened?”
Her mother frowned. “Oh, these. Spot welding for the tree. I guess I wasn’t careful.” She held up the smartwatch around her wrist. “But don’t worry. The nice folks from the CDC gave me this. It sounds an alarm if I hurt myself and don’t notice.”
One of the genes the Altruist virus changed in your brain had a silly name, FAAH-OUT. The edited variant made you immune to pain and anxiety. The Altruist pitch was that it reduced human suffering on a global scale, and maybe it did. But it also drowned out something that defined June. All her life, she had had a mild panic disorder. Taking Edie to school had been a major operation. Their holiday luggage had overflowed with clothes, first aid kits, and snack bars.
Being careful was who Mom was.
Edie felt dizzy. She sat down on a rickety camping chair nearby. Suddenly, she regretted not letting Zur come along. Her partner of two years had never met her parents. It was not that Edie was ashamed of them; she simply wanted to keep her worlds separate. With Zur, she wanted to be the Edie she had become in the city.
Zur hadn’t understood. They had begged to come, until Edie got angry, and the two of them had a fight about it. Now she ached for the athletic nonbinary’s grounding presence.
“Mom, how are you feeling?” she asked quietly.
“You know, it’s a bit like after a vipassana retreat. Everything is bright and calm. I used to worry so much about you, your work, those girlfriends you never brought home. When you didn’t call for a while, I got a little frantic. But now I understand you’re all grown up. I don’t have to worry anymore.”
June picked up Snow’s ball and threw it. The small dog dashed after it. “Are you sure I can’t get you anything?”
Edie’s mouth was dry. At least now I know, she thought. One down. One to go.
“Where-where’s Dad?” she asked.
“In the greenhouse. Why don’t you go and get him, and I’ll fix us some lunch?”
Edie hesitated outside the greenhouse. Dad was stubborn enough to continue his family trade of growing vanilla orchids, even with synbio vanilla on the market. It was manufactured using genetically engineered yeast that produced both vanillin and the hundreds of compounds that gave the natural bean its complex flavor-not that Edie could tell.
But what was this new synbio Dad going to be like? There was a pit in her stomach. She had to find out.
With a determined jerk, she opened the greenhouse door. Hot, humid air rushed out. She peeled off her spider silk hoodie, wrapped it around her waist, and closed the door behind her.
The vanilla planifolia orchid grew vertically, and so the greenhouse was full of fake trees. They were mostly drainpipes wrapped with chicken wire and filled with moss, although Dad had also repurposed some of Mom’s unfinished sculptures; spindly limbed robots encrusted with verdant sphagnum, with long vines winding around them. The vines were bare. It was mid-February, and they only bloomed in March. The flowers lasted just a few hours, opening in the morning and shriveling by noon.
The smell of wet earth and moss took Edie back to childhood. This was where she came to find Dad when she wanted to tell him about a book she had read, or to show off a new bot she had coded up on her tablet. He always stopped whatever he was doing and listened quietly. Edie learned to wrap up her story by the time a pained look of incomprehension dawned on his tanned face. Then he told her something in turn, usually about the vanilla orchid: how it evolved before the continents divided, or how it was the most valuable product you could grow in a greenhouse in California since the heat waves ravaged Madagascar and destroyed the world’s supply of the vanilla bean. Then it was her turn to be bored, and eventually Dad sighed, gave up, and went back to work. At first, she didn’t mind just sitting there and watching him in silence. It made her feel safe. But over the years, it got more and more difficult to explain her ideas to him, Dad ran out of vanilla stories, and finally they both stopped trying. The silence became more sullen. It lay between them at the dinner table and during the long drives to school, until she left for college. They had barely spoken in years.
And now, back at the greenhouse, she felt like a hobbit in Mirkwood: lost somewhere she didn’t belong.
Something moved amongst the trees ahead: her father, misting the vines and the fake trees. At 65, Tony Ribas was still lean, but hunched slightly. He was like a zocata vanilla bean in the shape of a man, the ones the growers discarded: dark and dry and curled up.
He stopped, held the misting nozzle up, and looked at Edie.
“Dad,” she said, her voice hoarse. She made her way through the trellises towards him, avoiding the hanging vines. “I came … I came to make sure you were all right. Mom is making lunch.”
There it was again, that crawling Capgras feeling, only worse. Mom had at least gone through the motions. But Dad just stood there, looking at Edie like she was an aphid that had somehow gotten past his fungal biopesticides and was making mayhem in the greenhouse. It wasn’t the kind of comfortable silence they had shared when she was a child. It was absence.
He turned his back to her and continued misting.
Something cracked inside her. She turned and ran, tears in her eyes. She bumped onto the trellises, tore a forearm in a jutting piece of chicken wire, kept running, brushed aside the spear-shaped green leaves. Then she was outside the greenhouse. She ran past the old chicken coop, Snow yapping at her heels. Her legs found an old shortcut to the highway and she kept going, arms pumping.
She didn’t stop until she was at the side of the highway. She leaned on her knees, panting, fighting down the acidic pre-taste of vomit in her mouth.
Then, with shaking hands, she put on her iGlasses and called a car to go home.
Home was the Caterpillar House in the Mission in San Francisco. It was a Painted Lady, an old colorful wooden house she shared with Jorge, Zur, and Innocenta. They had named it for its bright yellow coat of paint.
Edie was still shaky and tired from crying when she got in. Fortunately, she had the house to herself. She slipped off her shoes and dove into the grown-up-sized playpen ball pit they had installed in the airy corner room. The familiar smell of plastic and the massaging pressure of the balls against her back helped a little.
Back here, her parents felt distant. This world was hers. Here, she was the Edie who fed knowledge graphs to AIs, played ukulele in a band, was a soulmate to Zur. People lost their parents to illness and moved on; this was no different. She would survive this.
The off-label gene therapy was originally developed to slow down neurodegeneration in the elderly but gave young brains an even bigger boost.
Her eyes felt hot. She wiped them and hastily put on her iGlasses. Work, she thought. I should do some work. I wasted the whole day.
She held tight onto the thought and checked Workbase. There was a long list of new gig offers. Grateful for the dopamine hit, she started eyeflicking through them, trying to ignore the hollow ache in her chest.
Work had picked up since she got the Bright upgrade. The eponymous startup offered an off-label gene therapy that was originally developed to slow down neurodegeneration in the elderly but gave young brains an even bigger boost. It cost a year’s wages in untraceable crypto-the legality of the whole thing was dubious. Edie could not have afforded it, but Zur knew one of Bright’s founders, and got her a discount. She had visited one of the company’s hidden but well-appointed clinics. An impossibly attractive nurse in a Bright T-shirt had set her up with a robotic IV system that let her self-infuse the treatment-a loophole to get around the FDA.
It had been worth every satoshi. Edie had come back with her mind on fire. Graph architectures that she had struggled with for months suddenly seemed child’s play. She got steady work with ad hoc centaur teams that mixed humans and AIs, acting as a translator between the two. Lately, she had started to lose her edge-pretty much every techie in the city was now a Bright customer-but she had enough repeat business to keep going for a while.
Ironically, the virus that she had pumped into her veins by pressing her thumb against a touchscreen in the Bright clinic was so similar to the virus the Altruists used to spread their gene edits across the world that she had been immune to the Infection. That was why the big cities had barely any Infected. The people who could afford to live there were also the kind of people who got Bright upgrades-which effectively doubled as vaccines. After the Infection, it was the homeless and farmers who had the most cutting-edge genetic enhancements in their brains. There was a certain amount of poetic justice in that.
But of course, no one had asked her parents if they wanted the Altruists’ gifts. The thought made Edie angry, brought her back to the mad rush through the greenhouse, the empty look on her parents’ faces. She closed her eyes and rocked softly. The plastic balls rattled around her.
Somebody slid into the ball pit next to her, and a soft hand touched her cheek. Suddenly the world was full of Zur’s coconut shampoo smell, and strong arms held her tight.
“Hey,” they said.
Edie opened her eyes. “Hey,” she said. “Listen, I’m sorry about-”
“Don’t worry about it, baby. How was it?”
Edie let out a shuddering sigh. Then she pressed her face against Zur’s shoulder, and the tears flooded out.
“It’s all right,” they whispered. “You are home now.”
“It was like they were different people,” Edie said. Like always after a good cry, she felt empty and light. Outside, a blood orange sun peeked through the evening mist that flowed over the city’s hills. “I didn’t even stay for lunch.”
“That bad, huh?”
“It’s not funny.”
“Of course not. Sorry.”
“It’s fucked up,” Edie said. “I hope they catch those bastards. They had no right to do what they did.”
“Maybe not,” Zur said, in a strangely flat voice. “I mean, it sounds awful about your parents. But it hasn’t all been bad news about the Infection. The fighting in Indonesia stopped.”
Edie stiffened. “Maybe they stopped fighting because they all turned into zombie robots.”
“I don’t think it works like that. Or what about this homeless kid in the Haight? She’s doing really amazing mixed reality art. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Edie twisted out of Zur’s arms, almost stumbled in the sea of balls and managed to wrench herself into a sitting position.
“You can’t be serious. Are you on their side?” What was wrong with Zur? Sure, they liked to play the contrarian, but could they not see this wasn’t the time?
“Girl, like the man said, I’m not on anyone’s side, just because no one is really on my side.” Zur sniffed. It was hard to be angry at them with the sunset on their face like that, glinting off their dark metal earrings and countless piercings. “The Altruists may be dicks, but they have some pretty good bioengineers.”
“Tell that to my parents.”
“And what exactly,” Zur said very quietly, “was wrong with your parents?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“High pain tolerance, low anxiety, increased creativity, not much time for social niceties?”
Edie said nothing.
“You said they were different people,” Zur said. “Maybe. But people change. How much time have you spent with your parents lately? How much of it was the virus and how much was just life?”
“Jesus,” Edie said. There was a weight on her chest. She scrambled out of the ball pit. “I really don’t need this right now, Z. I really don’t.”
“I just think you should be fair to them, is all.”
“Fair? What’s fair about bioterrorists scrambling your fucking brain?”
“What’s fair about life? This is exactly why I wanted to come with you, to help you understand what happened to them.”
The anger made Edie feel like cold crystal, brittle and emotionless.
“And what is it exactly,” she said in a trembling voice, “that makes you an authority on my parents?”
“Shit.” Zur massaged their temples. “I’m sorry, okay? This is coming out all wrong. Listen, E, they are still your parents. I know it’s easier to be angry and treat them like they are dead, but they are not. It might be harder to get through to them, but they are the same people underneath, trust me. You just need to find a way to talk to them.”
“And how the fuck do you know that?”
Zur took a deep breath. “Because I got Infected. A few months before we met.”
Edie stared at them blankly.
“Remember Jason?” Zur said. “Cofounder of Bright? We used to date. Before the company took off, he spent a lot of time just messing around with synbio. He’s not an Altruist, but he’s really into biological self-actualization. One day he downloaded the sequence for the beta version of the Altruist virus, from one of those censorship-proof darkchain sites, and made a batch of it. I volunteered to try it.”
Zur sighed. “I know, not smart. But I was in a bad place, hurting, and looking for a big change. And it worked well enough. At first, though, it was like being wrapped in wool, detached from everything. I kind of just ignored people if they annoyed me. But I was still me, E.
“It took me a while to figure it out, but in fact, I was more like me. I was braver. Stronger. Maybe it wasn’t just the gene edits, but realizing that I had the stones to try them in the first place. But afterwards, I changed a lot of things. Got rid of my birthname. Moved in here. And then I met you.”
They held out a pleading hand towards Edie.
“You got through my shell, back then. I wanted to come with you to see your parents because … if I could help you see they were fine, it would be easier to tell you about me.”
“Easier,” Edie said coldly. “That’s right. You’ve made everything much easier. Have a good night.”
Edie ignored Zur and marched out. She went to her room, locked the door and lay down on her bed. She stared at the ancient stains in the ceiling, trying to see patterns, like she sometimes did before falling asleep: flowers, animals, faces. But now they were just dark marks, and made no sense at all.
After a while, Edie gave up on sleep. Her temples pounded with fatigue. She was thirsty, but did not want to risk a chance encounter with Zur in the kitchen.
She pressed a pillow against her face. This was unbearable. It would never work between them after this. The only option was to move out in the morning. To an Airbnb first, and then somewhere else, somewhere far away.
She got out of bed, put the lights on and started packing, hands shaking, full of nervous energy. These days, she usually slept in the bigger bedroom she shared with Zur, and the clothes she actually wore were all there. But at the back of a wardrobe in this room, there were two large plastic boxes full of old clothes and knickknacks.
One held a bunch of soft toys her mother had packed for her when she went to Stanford. She had never been able to bring herself to throw them away. She looked at the misshapen toy cow her mother had made herself, felt a lump in her throat, and quickly closed the box.
The other box was jam-packed with old college clothes, jeans that were too tight, tacky organic display T-shirts. That was what she had to work with. She folded a few of them on the bed.
At the bottom of the box was a small leather pouch, with a thong so you could hang it around your neck like a talisman. Edie’s father had given it to her on the day she left for college.
She picked it up. Something rustled inside.
Dad had found the description in a book about ancient Aztec traditions. The mixture of herbs inside the talisman protected a traveler who was starting a journey. The most important ingredient was called tlilxochitl, a vine with pale yellow flowers and black seedpods. Vanilla. The pods inside this pouch were special. Dad had missed them during harvesting, and they had ripened and cured on the vine for three months. They were frosted in crystallized vanillin.
In spite of the distance between them, Dad had still wanted her to stay safe.
Edie opened the pouch’s drawstrings, lifted it to her nose and took a deep breath. The vanilla should have been intoxicating. But as always, she could only smell leather and air.
When Edie was 6, after an afternoon in the greenhouse with Dad, she had gone to her mother and asked why she couldn’t smell vanilla. Was there something wrong with her?
Mom sat her down at the kitchen table and explained, in simple words, drawing diagrams. Both June and Tony carried a mutation in a gene called HBB, and had mild anemia. When they had decided to have children, they had realized it was a terrible dice roll: their kids could inherit one of the mutations, both of them, or neither one of them. On average, one in four children would be fine, two in four would suffer from anemia. And the unlucky one in four would have beta thalassemia, a horrific condition that would kill them before the age of 20, with a monstrous spleen 15 times larger than normal and malformed jaw and teeth.
Edie’s parents didn’t want to roll the dice. They went to an IVF clinic in Mexico that used something called a base editor to fix genetic diseases in the germline-it was a molecular machine that could change DNA one base pair at a time. And that was all Tony and June needed: a one-letter change, the doctor told them. June read some of the scientific literature and was reassured that the base editor was much safer and more precise than the media-hyped CRISPR of her youth.
It seemed like everything worked. The clinic checked the edited genome of the embryo they chose, and everything seemed fine-except for one off-target edit in a neighboring gene.
In an olfactory receptor that detected vanillin.
Edie closed the pouch. Her parents had not asked for her opinion on the dice roll. She could not blame them: Why would they not choose a healthy baby over one with anemia and vampire teeth? And yet, sometimes she had wondered if she could have endured a few transfusions if it meant she could taste the farm’s first batch of ice cream every summer; understand the source of the passion in her father’s voice when he told stories about vanilla.
She looked at her life lying in piles around her and was tired of being angry.
Zur was right. Edie had closed her parents out. She had told herself it was because they could not understand her new life, that it was natural that they drifted apart. But maybe the truth was something else. Not talking to them preserved the Mom and Dad she remembered, like dried vanilla pods in a jar. Maybe what had allowed her to grow and change was the knowledge that they would always love her, no matter who she became.
Surely she owed them as much.
They are the same people underneath, Zur had said. You just need to find a way to talk to them.
To do that, maybe she had to change again, just a little bit.
Edie hung the talisman around her neck. Then she unlocked her door, walked quietly through the house, and knocked on the master bedroom door, heart pounding.
Zur opened it. Their eyes were filled with a mixture of hurt and relief.
“I’m sorry,” Edie said. She took Zur’s hand. “I don’t care if you are Infected or not. You are you. You are a part of me. And you were right about everything.”
Zur sniffed. “Thank you,” they said quietly.
Edie took a deep breath. “I know this is a lot to ask,” she said, “but I need two big favors. Is there any way you could ask Jason and Bright to make a virus with one custom edit?”
Zur frowned. “He still owes me a few. I was practically Bright’s poster child, back in the day. What’s the other favor? Code up an all-powerful AGI that serves only you?”
Edie shook her head.
“I would like it very much,” she said, “if you came with me to meet my parents.”
Three weeks later, Edie was in Winters again, with Snow barking furiously behind the front door. But this time she held Zur’s large hand in her own.
“It looks like a nice place to grow up,” Zur said. They looked a little nervous and had dressed up, in slacks, boots, and a half-cape.
Edie smiled weakly. She was on immunosuppressants, and the probiotic regimen to tolerize her body to the virus infusions had left her with a seemingly permanent stomachache. But today, that didn’t matter. The March sun was warm on her back, and she felt light.
Her mother opened the door. Edie knew to expect the slow, alien look this time, and took a deep breath.
“Hi, Mom,” she said. “This is Zur. I am in love with them.”
“How do you do,” Zur said, in a slightly choked voice.
Very slowly, a smile spread across June’s face.
“I am very pleased to meet you,” she said.
After the three of them had tea in the kitchen, Zur leaned over to Edie. “You go and see your dad,” they said quietly. “I’ve got this.”
The orchids in the greenhouse were in full bloom. The vines were ablaze with pale yellow, white, and green blossoms, larger and brighter than any Dad had ever coaxed out of his vines before. She breathed in the faintly spicy, cinnamon smell.
Her father was hand-pollinating the flowers, gently opening the side of the flower with a thin stick and pressing the anther sac and the stigma together with a thumb and a forefinger, an extreme look of concentration on his face.
He looked up, frowning, and for a long, wordless moment, Edie wanted to run again.
Then she held up the pouch around her neck, opened it and breathed in the smell of the vine-cured beans.
“I don’t really know how to describe it,” she said. “Maybe like honey and hay. Or butterscotch. Flowers.”
He looked at her, a question in his dark brown eyes.
“I got it fixed,” Edie said. “Just one letter. But it makes all the difference.” She smelled the pouch again. “It’s warm, a bit like wood. And old books!”
“It’s the lignin in the paper,” her father said slowly. “It gets oxidized over time.” He squinted at Edie. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“I know. I wanted to.”
Dad looked down at the flower in his hands. He was quiet for a long time, and for a moment, Edie wondered if he had forgotten she was there. But then he spoke.
“I could never explain it to you before,” he said, “but the best thing about vanilla are the memories.” His eyes grew distant. “It was 29 years ago. Your mother and I were driving back from the clinic in Mexico and stopped at a gas station close to the border. It was a hot day, and the station sold ice cream, just one flavor, plain vanilla. We sat on the hood of the car and ate the cones, and knew that soon we would be home. And that you were on your way.”
He finished pollinating the flower and picked up another one. “Anyway. Maybe you can make your own vanilla memories now.”
“I will. Would you like to help me?” Edie asked. “There is someone in the kitchen I would like you to meet.”
Hannu wrote this story based on scenarios devised at a NEO.LIFE workshop on the future of Homo sapiens. For a peek at how that went, watch the video below.
Originally published at https://neo.life on May 23, 2019.