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Kill Switch

A. P. Howell has worked as a data wrangler, archivist, ice cream scooper, and webmaster, not necessarily in that order, and has sold stories to Corvid Queen and the anthology XVIII. She lives with a delightful pair of kids, a sweet spouse, and a dog who hates groundhogs. She does her part to make the sun rise as part of a Morris dance side. Her website is aphowell.com, and she sometimes tweets into the void @APHowell.

We call it a "kill switch," but it's more complicated than that.
That's the history of genetics right there. Applying chosen labels to half-understood phenomena of infinite biological and social complexity. Identifying "morons" with IQ tests and knowledge of their national origin. Diagnosing parental infidelity with tongue rolling and Punnett Squares. Cataloging the genetic disorders more prevalent in suspect populations. Describing "cancer genes" indicating susceptibility to narrow bands of cancers afflicting elites. The entire concept of a "gene" as a discrete entity.
The "gene" doesn't exist, and neither does the "kill switch." But we have a consensual illusion about what a gene is, a metaphor that has allowed scientists to conceptualize complicated aspects of biology. A metaphor that has allowed for the creation of scientific literature and tools and therapies. A gene might not really exist, but we can still manipulate what we call a gene, a kind of sympathetic magic performed with enzymes and molecular scissors. We can slice out a "cancer gene" or tune the "eye color gene." Automation and expertise combine to make these things comprehensible and achievable.
The same is true of a kill switch. It's not a single change. There's no word for "death" spelled in unholy combinations of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs. It is instead a constellation of changes, technically unique to the individual. Nature is good at creating things that are technically unique but quite predictable: we are all snowflakes. Humans are good at creating automation to solve 80% of problems. Getting the rest of the way there is a matter of expertise--magic, until we've been doing it for a while, at which point it becomes art and then, eventually, a matter of procedure and technical training.
Born a generation earlier, I would have been a wizard.
Perhaps that is an overstatement. A generation earlier, the highly specialized training was available to only a limited number of people at the most elite institutions. As expertise trickles outward, the prestige leaches out. Wizardry becomes sleight-of-hand and card tricks. You can build a career that way, but it's not the same thing.
That bothered me a lot when I was young and wanted to work on cutting edge projects, around the time that I realized my thesis program was less about generating a contribution to the field and more about providing labor for a third-tier institution. It bothered me less when I was a little older, when I did the math and realized that doing mostly rote work paid better than many jobs. If I wasn't going to be a wizard, then I'd at least start booking my act at decent venues.
Years of doing my job competently, quietly upgrading genomes, anonymously putting in hours, asking for no recognition beyond the regular deposits in my bank account. I was like the good fairy at the christening, dispensing gifts and improving the lives of those I would never know. Dispensing gifts to their descendants.
And, like the bad fairy at the christening, implanting kill switches. Things which would surely never be used. Or only used in extremity. Only used for the greater good. A carry-over from earlier experimental protocols, a means of limiting the damage of mad science gone awry. Not something meant to impose social control or encode oppression.
It is so easy to forget the people represented by those genes--people with hopes and dreams, lofty aspirations and mundane concerns. So easy to forget the people behind the deposits--people with goals and plans, personal interests, and questionable intent.
Some training, a demonstration of basic skills, decent compensation. Utterly banal.
That's the history of evil right there.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, January 20th, 2020

Author Comments

This story began a couple years ago as a Twitter thread inspired by a graphics program. One of the program's functions was "Clone Variant," a copy allowing you to edit the same image in multiple ways. That got me thinking about more science fictional clones, who would implement variations, and why they would be desirable. I never did tweet the thread, but I worked on expanding it into a longer story about oppression, eugenics, class formation, and resistance. My initial drafts left me cold, so instead I tried the more focused, first person vignette you've just read.

- A. P. Howell
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