Change Agent by Daniel Suarez is an exhilarating sci-fi thriller that explores a potential future where CRISPR genetic editing allows the human species to control evolution itself (available April 18, 2017).
On a crowded train platform, Interpol agent Kenneth Durand feels the sting of a needle—and his transformation begins…
In 2045 Kenneth Durand leads Interpol’s most effective team against genetic crime, hunting down black market labs that perform “vanity edits” on human embryos for a price. These illegal procedures augment embryos in ways that are rapidly accelerating human evolution—preying on human-trafficking victims to experiment and advance their technology.
With the worlds of genetic crime and human trafficking converging, Durand and his fellow Interpol agents discover that one figure looms behind it all: Marcus Demang Wyckes, leader of a powerful and sophisticated cartel known as the Huli jing.
But the Huli jing have identified Durand, too. After being forcibly dosed with a radical new change agent, Durand wakes from a coma weeks later to find he’s been genetically transformed into someone else—his most wanted suspect: Wyckes.
Now a fugitive, pursued through the genetic underworld by his former colleagues and the police, Durand is determined to restore his original DNA by locating the source of the mysterious—and highly valuable—change agent. But Durand hasn’t anticipated just how difficult locating his enemy will be. With the technology to genetically edit the living, Wyckes and his Huli jing could be anyone and everyone—and they have plans to undermine identity itself.
“Before we begin, have you any questions about genetic editing, Mr. and Mrs. Cherian?” The counselor took a whopping bite from a vadapav sandwich as he clicked through their file.
The young Mumbai couple exchanged uncertain looks. In their late twenties, well-groomed, and dressed in crisp business casual clothes, they appeared a step above the cramped, dingy, and windowless office around them. Nonetheless here they were. The wife appeared especially ill at ease.
The husband shook his head. “No questions at the moment, no.” He looked to his wife reassuringly. Patted her on the knee.
She spoke up. “How does the procedure work?”
The counselor answered with his mouth full. “Ah, an inquiring mind.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. The husband cut in. “My wife and I are both attorneys. Given the legal status of this enterprise, we were understandably reluctant to research the topic on our own devices.”
“Well then . . .” The counselor finished chewing and wiped his fingers on a crumpled napkin. “I have something that should address your questions.” He noisily rooted around in his desk drawer and in a moment produced a device the size and shape of a paperback book, which he placed on the cluttered desktop between them. When he pressed down on the device it unfolded into a pylon shape—sporting several lenses facing forward and back. It booted up, white light glowing within.
The wife drew stylish mirror glasses from her purse and donned them to shield her eyes. “A glim? You think we’d allow you access to our retinas? This is out—”
“No retinal scanning, I assure you, Mrs. Cherian. Merely a brief in-eye presentation.”
The husband looked to his wife. “They have our DNA, love. Retinas are the least of it.”
“Neelo, I want our embryo transferred back to the clinic.”
“My love, we—”
“This place is a rat hole. A defunct export office by the look of it.”
“All part of the disguise, Mrs. Cherian. We must not attract undue attention from the authorities. But rest assured, our labs are well funded—run by the largest genediting syndicate in the world, Trefoil. None are more sophisticated.”
“My love, remember: they came highly recommended.”
She grabbed her bag as if to go. “Neelo, we are law-abiding people.”
“We’ve discussed this, cherub. Principled positions are admirable, but other parents are doing this. We as well must do everything we can to prepare our son for the world in which he will live.” He gestured to the glim on the table. “Why don’t we watch the presentation and see how we feel afterward?”
She sighed—and reluctantly removed her mirror glasses.
The counselor beamed. “Very good. Please look forward. It will find your retinas in a jiffy.”
In a moment, from their perspective, the air above the desk filled with a highly detailed 3D model of the double helix of DNA. It rotated there, an utterly convincing virtual object—seemingly as real as the desk. Yet the floating DNA existed only as a rich, plenoptic light field projected directly onto their retinas and unseen by anyone not targeted by the glim.
Light field projectors like these had largely replaced physical televisions, computer screens, and mobile OLED displays in the last decade or so. Beaming imagery directly onto a viewer’s retinas instead of spraying photons all over the place had many advantages—authentic augmented reality being one. Environmental sustainability another. Privacy another still.
A female narrator’s voice came to them via a focused acoustic beam. “Initially developed in 2012, CRISPR technology is a search-and-replace tool for modifying DNA—the blueprint of all living things.”
The word “CRISPR” appeared with the letters expanding into full words in turn.
“Shorthand for ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,’ CRISPR derives from a naturally occurring process in bacterial immune systems—and it has been adapted by modern science to permit targeted genetic edits of plant, animal, and human embryos.”
The 3D animation showed a labeled RNA molecule enter the scene.
“The process begins by seeding a ‘guide RNA’ with both a target and a payload genetic sequence . . .”
Labels identified them in turn as they were inserted into the RNA molecule.
“This guide RNA is then injected into an embryonic cell’s nucleus . . .”
The RNA clamped onto the double helix of DNA, unzipping it.
“. . . where it reads the embryo’s DNA. Wherever a match for the tar- get sequence is found . . .”
The 3D image highlighted a match between the RNA target sequence and a segment of the cell’s DNA.
“. . . a natural cutting protein acts as a molecular scalpel, severing the
DNA chain . . .”
The animation showed the double helix of DNA cut.
“. . . removing the matching segment . . .”
The animation showed it being removed.
“. . . and inserting a copy of the payload DNA in its place.”
The RNA’s payload sequence copied itself into the gap, and the DNA quickly rejoined.
“In this way human embryos may be safely and reliably ‘edited’ in vitro to correct deadly heritable genetic disorders.”
Moving music swelled as the scene dissolved to a life-sized 3D projection of a beautiful but despondent little African girl with cloudy blind eyes. She looked as real as if she sat in the room with them.
“CRISPR-developed cures for cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, sickle-cell anemia, Huntington’s disease, hemophilia, and more have already saved or improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people world- wide . . .”
The scene dissolved into a new image—one of the now smiling girl with clear brown eyes, reaching up to smudge flour onto her mother’s nose. They both laughed and embraced as they made cookies together. “Ending a legacy of suffering and for the first time putting humanity in control of its own genetics.”
The image tilted skyward to show a brightly lit horizon. A new dawn.
“Theoretically there is no limit to the desirable edits CRISPR can perform.”
Dark clouds moved in, obscuring this glowing horizon. Ominous music rumbled.
“However, international law currently prohibits edits beyond those designed to correct a short UN-approved list of genetic disorders. Despite this, our expert researchers have perfected hundreds of highly beneficial CRISPR edits. Edits that increase both the quality and the quantity of human life.”
The music rose as the image ascended, finally bursting through the gray cloud layer into an endless expanse of sunlight beyond. No horizon in sight.
“And unlike other gene therapies, CRISPR edits are heritable— meaning they will be passed down to all future generations of your family line—what’s known as ‘germ line engineering.’ This means your investment today will pay rich dividends for all your child’s descendants.”
The scene transitioned to a life-sized and utterly realistic projection of a healthy five-year-old South Asian boy, who rotated slowly before them.
“For example, a minor edit to a human embryo’s DAF2 gene could add thirty healthy years to a child’s life. A change to BCAT1 could add even more.”
The image of the boy aged to an adult and then beyond until he had a full shock of gray hair—but an otherwise healthy frame. He lifted up a laughing grandchild with ease as they ran toward a zoo exhibit.
The imagery then dissolved to show a young man, studious and attentive in a classroom.
“A change to gene DLG3 can improve memory, while a series of edits within the M1 and M3 gene clusters can substantially increase intelligence.”
The image morphed to the teen wearing a valedictorian cap and gown. He smiled as he took the podium amid applause, ostensibly to address his graduating class.
The imagery shifted to an athletic young woman running on a track against several close competitors.
“A tweak to the MEF2 gene can bestow type II ‘fast-twitch’ muscle fibers . . .”
The young woman outpaced the other sprinters, raising her arms as she burst through the finish tape to cheers.
“. . . increasing physical prowess.”
The imagery resolved again to a double helix of DNA, with segments snipped and replaced here, there, and elsewhere.
“Other even more exciting edits are being developed to meet the demands of our increasingly competitive world. Be sure to ask your genetic counselor for a full list of edits in your price range. No matter which you choose, you’ll be giving your child a timeless gift, one that they will be able to pass down to their own children—the first truly priceless family heirloom.”
The DNA looped as the image zoomed out to soft, inspiring music, transforming into a three-cornered continuous shape.
Text appeared above and below the logo as it pulsed with life:
Evolution by design.
Moments later the virtual logo blinked out of existence as the counselor pressed down on the glim to fold it. He scooped the glim back into his desk drawer. “I trust that answered your questions.”
The husband and wife both looked somewhat dazed at the sudden disappearance of the alternate reality.
The wife was first to recover. “Could such edits be done on an adult person?”
The counselor laughed, putting his sandwich down and clasping his hands. “Now that would be valuable indeed! But alas, no, Mrs. Cherian. Editing the DNA of one cell out of thirty-five trillion would not accomplish much. That’s why these changes need to be made while your child is but a zygote—a single fertilized cell.”
She nodded to herself. “I see.”
“You and I will remain as we are, but your child has no such limitation.” He studied her expression, pausing with the experienced cadence of a true salesman. “Shall we discuss the desired edits for your future son?”
The husband took his wife’s hand. “Are you ready to proceed, my love?”
She visibly struggled with powerful emotions.
The counselor had seen it before. “Mrs. Cherian, all creatures select genetic preferences when they choose a mate. But science now gives you and your husband the ability to adjust your child’s genetics just a bit further—together.”
The husband again placed his hand on her knee. She shook her head. “It seems against Nature.”
The counselor spoke softly. “This is the very same process Nature follows to eliminate viral DNA in bacteria. The same process used under the UN’s Treaty on Genetic Modification.”
“Yes, but to cure deadly genetic defects, not to tailor-make a child.” The husband shook his head. “We are not tailoring our child. We are correcting genetic weaknesses. Is not a weak memory fatal to a future doctor or attorney?”
“Where does this sort of thinking lead us, Neelo—eugenics?”
The counselor shook his head slowly. “No, no, Mrs. Cherian. There are three billion letters in the human genome. Most people edit six to twelve—minor edits indeed.”
“Remember, love, what did you say when you saw the Persauds’ little boy? Is that not why we are here?”
She fell silent.
The husband turned to the counselor. “We don’t want many edits, of course.”
“Nor would you need them, Mr. Cherian.” He started tapping at an unseen screen. “But even minor edits can go a long way to help your child in a rapidly evolving world. Some edits are more costly than others, of course, but who can put a price on parental love?”
The husband studied his wife, who was literally wringing her hands, but he spoke to the counselor. “Which edits would you recommend?”
“I always suggest the DAF2 edit. Why not start your child out with up to three decades more of healthy living? So they can be there in your twilight years.” The counselor made some entries on the invisible screen. “How could such a thing be wrong?”
The Cherians exchanged appraising looks.
“Longer life, of course, suggests related edits—LRP5 for extra strong bones, PCSK9 for a greatly reduced risk of heart disease . . .” He clicked unseen UIs.
“The next question is whether you prize intellectual excellence over physical prowess. Heightened intellect requires more complex edits— and is, thus, more costly. You can choose both, of course, budget permitting.” He looked up at the parents.
They stared, frozen by the magnitude of the decision.
“Well, let us see what the Greek ideal—body and mind—would require.” The counselor displayed the price to them.
“That’s more than a year of university, Neelo.”
“But with these edits our boy could very well win a full scholarship.”
“I am uncomfortable with this.”
“Why? Because some government bureaucrat says it’s not allowed? Do you really think the wealthiest families are not doing this, my love?”
She sighed and looked away.
He took her hand again. “We must do it. For our son’s sake—no matter how uncomfortable it makes us.”
Just then they heard a BOOM that caused them all to jump in their seats.
The wife turned. “What was that?”
The counselor was already clicking away at invisible screens. “Oh, my . . . Mr. and Mrs. Cherian, please . . . a moment.”
The wife grabbed her husband’s arm. “What was that, Neelo?”
The husband stood as the counselor did. The sound of running feet and muffled shouts came from the hall. “Speak up, man!”
The counselor motioned for calm. “It would appear that the Brihan- mumbai are raiding this facility.”
“Do not be alarmed. We have made contributions to the appropriate authorities. This is clearly a mix-up. In any event, we have numerous concealed exits for just such a contingency.” He gestured to his office doorway. “If you would please follow me . . .”
The counselor moved quickly out his office door and into a narrow corridor, which was quickly crowding with other couples and their counselors. Some clients shielded their faces from one another with handbags and scarves.
The husband clasped his wife’s hand and followed closely. “This is outrageous.”
“What about our embryo, Neelo?”
The counselor glanced backward. “Not to worry, folks. As I said, we’ll get this mix-up sorted.”
Someone shouted in alarm behind them. The Cherians looked back to see the door at the far end of the hallway kicked in. Police in black body armor poured through, shouting, “Zameen par sab log!”
Someone screamed and the crowd of clients stampeded.
A lab security guard emerged from a side door—pistol in hand.
The police shouted it in unison, “Bandook! Bandook!”—red laser dots clustering on the guard’s chest as he stood slack-jawed. Deafening POPS filled the corridor. Screaming as everyone scattered. The security guard dropped like a bag of cement.
The husband pulled his wife down to the floor alongside him. “Down, love! Get down!”
People ran past them in a panic toward an unseen rear exit—some trampling the husband and wife as he shielded her. “Watch it, damn you!”
The police shouted again, “Zameen par sab log!”
Their counselor was nowhere to be seen. The husband spoke into his wife’s ear. “We must say nothing until we’ve seen counsel, love. I need to phone Anish.”
His wife was silent.
The husband noticed blood on his hand. Panicked, he padded his sides down. “My love, I . . .” And then, finding nothing, he looked to his wife.
A small bullet hole pierced her temple.
“No . . .” He cupped her head. Blood pooled beneath them both, expanding quickly across the cheap, dirty carpet.
He tried to form words—then finally screamed in horror as police approached behind him, guns raised. “No! No!”
He hugged her body close, shrieking in anguish.
The helmeted and armored police tried to pull him from her, but he would not let go.
“My love. No, my love!”
Copyright © 2017 Daniel Suarez.
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Daniel Suarez is the author of the New York Times bestseller Daemon, Freedom™, Kill Decision, and Influx. A former systems consultant to Fortune 1000 companies, his high-tech and sci-fi thrillers focus on technology-driven change. He lives in Los Angeles, California.