When my date smiles at me from across the table, I find myself looking into the face of a ghost. Her blonde hair isn’t quite a match, but her cheeks dimple in just the right places, and her blue eyes sparkle like precious gems. Like missed opportunities.
It’s been a nice evening. For someone who spends almost all their time shut away in their rooms, I’m surprised just how charming I can be. Then again, I suppose I’ve had practice. Conversation flows easily. It’s only in those moments, when the ghost is at the surface, that I find myself lost for words.
My throat tightens. She’s perfect.
As the server clears our mains, I try to let her down gently.
I take a breath. “I have to be honest. I thought I was ready to date again, but I’m still not over my last relationship.”
She can’t hide a flash of hurt, of disappointment. I flinch. It’s not her fault. From her perspective, the date has gone well. There would have been dessert, even coffee, just to drag things out a little longer. A walk home. And maybe a lot more than that. If I were someone else. If it weren’t for the ghost. If it weren’t for seeing that look in those eyes.
“I just feel like we weren’t finished,” I blurt. “That we’ve got more to say to each another.”
There’s so much more I want to say. I want to beg her to forgive me for all the wrongs I did to someone else.
“Well, I hope you work it out.” She sighs, necks the last of her wine, collects her things. “We’ve all been there, right?” She’s trying for cool, patient, but the exasperation at another wasted evening shows.
Her lipstick’s left a lover’s mark on the rim of her wine glass. I swab the edge before the waiter clears the table and zip it into a bio-bag.
The swab goes into the jury-rigged Gene Synth with a single thread of flame-red hair from the fireproof box under my bed. Genetic sequences spider across the screen, one familiar, one new. Red fibrils weave through their helices, marking the grip of SecuGen.
When people realised just how messed up things could get with commodified genetic manipulation available to the masses, well-to-do parents across the country began to gene-lock their children. Not everyone, of course – there were the idealists: ‘genetic information wants to be free’ – which always sounded ridiculous to me – plus those who just plain couldn’t afford it. But most people had seen enough news clips to internalise the visceral, existential wrongness of what could happen if bad actors had unfettered access to your family’s genetic sequence. And for them, there was SecuGEN – a small, manufactured mutation slipped into the genetic sequence in utero, ready to implode in response to any attempted replication. Cancer as copy protection.
I execute the program, pitting my latest code against the traps lurking in each sample. It’s a brute-force procedure. SecuGEN is scorched earth; its job is to make a sample non-viable, erupting from within like a screaming match. You can’t put something back together when it’s that far gone. You can’t take back the things that you said.
SecuGEN entwines every strand of DNA. It’s impossible to burn it out or shut it off – it’s made itself a part of those genes every bit as much as sparkling blue eyes or cheek dimples or a complete inability to forgive someone no matter what they do or say.
I take a different approach. I try to sculpt the corruption, corralling it into certain parts of the genetic structure. By itself, it’d still do more than enough damage to make the sequence unviable for replication The trick was to apply a matched sample. Another set of DNA, damaged in complementary ways, making each the other’s mirror.
That’s how things are supposed to be: two damaged halves – incomplete, imperfect – coming together to form a unified whole. Undoing the awful, pernicious thing that would otherwise have rotted it all from within. It’s taken me some time to get it right – to find a code sequence that stood a chance against SecuGEN. But even now, there’s an art mixed into the science, and there are no sure things. A viable composite can still fail at the growth stage.
I drum my fingers, waiting for the sequence to finish executing. Sometimes, people step out of your life before you’re done with them. They leave you with things unsaid, things for which you can’t apologise. They leave you with ghosts. It’s hard to live with ghosts.
The Gene Synth breaks down and combines the samples in the way prescribed by my code sequence. I transfer the resultant material to the EctoGen. The IVG machine is the standard commercial model. For all the heavy regulation of genetic engineering tech, the Ectos remain a big seller. It sucks the genetic proto-goop down greedily and prints a tiny cluster of quickening cells. It has begun.
She’s growing well, her tiny body curled up within the great metal crucible. This stage is the most nerve-racking, though I haven’t had a gestation failure for some time. Practice has evolved my craft.
This stage can’t be rushed. We can grow an infant to maturity in a matter of weeks with accelerants and hormones, but only by building on good foundations. Prenatal development still takes the full term.
It’s an agonising wait. It always is. I keep my head down. I avoid the world as far as possible. I fight down my paranoia every time the doorbell chimes, expecting it to be followed by boots and battering rams.
I don’t look at her face. It’s too early for features to emerge, but I’ve developed my superstitions. Every time I feel the urge to look, I close my eyes. She’ll be at term soon, ready for the next stage. A few weeks in the Hypertrophic Incubator. Then I’ll see if my ghost gets to live.
I keep her face turned away until she reaches two weeks in acceleration. That’s eighteen years in real-growth terms. Then, I have the machine rotate the sac that envelops her. Fast-growth nutrient fluid sloshes as it moves.
Failure usually shows itself first in the face. I like to shield myself from that possibility, for a while. Maintain the illusion that it’s working, that what’s becoming in the corner of my basement is all her, something perfect, whose arrival is assured. I’m Orpheus, leading Eurydice from the Underworld. To look is to invite failure.
The machine finishes its rotation, and I look upon the face of a ghost. She’s younger than I ever knew her, but she’s the image of herself. She’s perfect. My legs give way. “It’s me,” I want to say. “I’m sorry.” But she still has another two weeks before she’ll be ready, and even when she emerges, she will never have met me. This is supposed to be a fresh start, not a confession.
The thought of corruption setting in now – now that she’s turned out perfect – makes me want to just shut off the machine. To fail through choice, rather than suffer through the waiting, the obsessive examination for encroaching rot.
The thought of success terrifies me even more. The enormity of the sin I have committed. The giddy jubilation of my own cleverness.
The thought of being able to see love in those eyes again.
I lock the basement door behind me, leaving her to grow in the dark.
The corruption starts above her right eye, a tell-tale black mark of degrading flesh poisoned at the genetic level. SecuGEN, proud and defiant, unravelling my work yet again. I have failed.
She had three days left. She’s a nebulous thirty and looks as she did when we first met, that gentle smile on her face like she’s politely acknowledging a bad joke. If I stand by the far wall, I can pretend that it’s her lying there, sleeping. That the black mark is just a shadow and not her unmaking.
I hold vigil over the days that follow, but it’s already over. The rot spreads, defiling her skin, spoiling her flesh. It liquefies her in the sac until, by the next day, my ghost is gone, her genes still locked to me.
Despair, again. I would have thought I’d have grown used to it by now. But I cannot rest. I cannot grieve. The work is not done.
Non-consensual replication is illegal. Trying to break SecuGen is illegal. Recombination is highly illegal. The authorities wouldn’t care about my reasons. Even identity thieves and pornographers making celebrity skin flicks face mandatory life sentences when they go as far as gene-hacking.
I dig a hole in my garden under the cover of night and bury the remains of my ghost. She only lived once, but she has died many times. I have buried her many times.
On the day she would have come to term, I take the fireproof box from under my bed. Inside is a single red hair, the last piece I have of her.
One more chance to make it right.
I grab my phone and begin swiping, hunting for ghosts.