Second chance

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
505,
Page:
448
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/505448a
Published online

A secure future.

The waitress brings me a glass of carrot juice. She notices that I'm wearing gloves even though it's the middle of summer, but she just shrugs and leaves. Too young to recognize me, I guess. Or maybe she's still embarrassed by how I got kicked out of the game.

I sip the juice through a straw. On the jumbo-sized TV hanging over the bar, they're showing the Red Sox–Yankees game.

A new player steps into the batter's box.

JACEY

“Look at that stance. It's like watching a historical film,” the colour analyst says. “Gives you the shivers.”

Herman Ruth settles in, his six-foot-two, 180-pound frame filling the super-hi-def view. He's in prime shape. I'm sure the Red Sox training staff watch his diet like hawks.

“What do you think about the court decision?” asks the play-by-play announcer.

“I think they got it right. I don't see how they can stop him from playing. It's not his fault that he's cloned from Babe Ruth, you know? The kid just loves the game. Maybe he'll have a better record than even the original.”

“And you think the small fine is fair?”

“Yeah, I think so. Look, the Red Sox didn't force the kid. They cloned him and found a loving family to adopt him. They didn't tell him who he was and left him alone for 18 years. Then they show up and offer him a job playing a game he loves. I just wish they hadn't disturbed the original Babe Ruth's grave.”

“What about the family's objections?”

“Like the court said, your family doesn't own you. You gotta give it to the Red Sox for coming up with this trick to make up for that debacle of a trade a century ago. A second chance for the Sox and the Babe!”

Ruth swings and there's the solid crack of wood on leather. He stands there for a fraction of a second, watching the ball sail on its inevitable trajectory out of the ball park. Then his face breaks into that famous grin, and he begins the trot around the bases.

I get up and pocket the straw. I take out some cash with my gloved hands and leave it on the table.

I've been voted the AL MVP three times. All-Star more than a dozen times. I would have had the all-time home-run record. I could have been a great, no, the greatest, player in history.

I won't leave any of my cells behind.

****

“Let me introduce you to Doctor Danzer,” my agent Scott says. “She's as good a scientist as I am an agent.” I haven't seen Scott in years. In fact, he's been avoiding my calls ever since my disgrace.

I shake the woman's hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

“I was a fan,” she says. I note the past tense.

“Of all my clients,” Scott says in a tone that suggests we're still buddies, “you're the first to bring up the intellectual-property angle. It's brilliant. Once we get the protection in place, we'll sell the cloning rights to the highest bidder.”

I harrumph non-committally. He's practically rubbing his hands because I finally found another way to make money for him. A second chance.

“We can't patent your genome, after the Supreme Court said naturally occurring genes can't be patented. We can't copyright it either, as copyright requires a threshold of 'original expression' that's nonfunctional. But I found Doctor Danzer here to help us.”

“Directed methylation,” she says, and looks at me expectantly.

Scott and I wait politely. But she is apparently finished.

“Doc, you gotta explain more,” Scott pleads. “We're not PhDs here.”

She sighs. “It's really very simple. As a person develops from a fertilized egg, the DNA gets small bits of hydrocarbons attached to it in a process called methylation, part of gene-expression regulation. It's one of the main ways that the cells in your tissues are different from stem cells.”

“How does this help you provide that bit of 'originality' to my genes?” I prod.

“I've invented a technique that will add methyl groups to your DNA in a specific, targeted way. I'll focus on the non-coding segments of your DNA to minimize the possibility of side effects. To make the copyright office really happy, we can use binary code to etch some message into your genes based on the positions of the methyl groups.”

“I'll write you a poem.”

“That will do. Then we can copyright the whole methylated genome. Since demethylation of somatic cells during cloning tends to be incomplete, if they try to clone you, some of the artificial methylation will survive into the clone.”

“Thus infringing my copyright.” I'm catching on. “But what if they're willing to pay the damages?”

“Ha!” Scott slaps my back. “This is where it becomes genius. By registering the copyright, we can get statutory damages. How many cells are in a human body, doctor?”

“About a hundred trillion.”

“At the minimum statutory damage rate of $750 per copy, that's ... many times the national debt. Who can afford to clone you without authorization?”

I can see Scott is already planning on spending his commission.

****

“You sure about this?” I ask.

“As sure as anything involving epigenetics,” Doctor Danzer says. I asked her to stay after Scott left. “I can direct the methylation process in such a way that cloned embryos will not develop properly. You won't be able to sell your copyright at all.”

“That'll be perfect,” I said. “Thank you, doctor.”

“You could have been great,” she says.

I shrug.

I don't just want to control my genes for the rest of my life plus 70 years. I want to make sure that there will never be another me in the world, no copies that may excel the original. Call me vain if you want. I may have made my mistakes, but I want to be the only me in the history of the Universe.

No second chances.

Notes

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  1. Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction. For more about him and his work, visit http://kenliu.name or follow @kyliu99.

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