Under Her Skin
A short tale of transhumanism
It had been her mom’s idea.
Right after doing it herself, she had called her, explaining in detail how the procedure had completely changed her life, making everything easier.
“This is going to be the next big thing, Sara. You have to try it!” she had said over the phone — in a sort of born-again-Christian kind of frenzy.
She was sure everyone was going to want one in about six months. So why not be one of the first? Why not be a pioneer?
And so, there she was, sitting in a bland medical office, about to do something that still appeared to her as both reckless and radical. The only positive note, though, was that at least the man on the other side of the desk looked somewhat competent. He was compiling a digital form with a stylus — his eyes fixed on the tablet, even when he spoke to her.
“Are you taking any meds at the moment?”
“Have you been abroad recently?”
“Well, I’ve been to Vienna for Christmas. Does that count?”
“No,” he smiled kindly. “I meant someplace exotic.“
“That’s fine. These are just routine questions. I already have what I need.”
Then why the hell did you even ask, she thought, annoyed. The doctor finished writing on the tablet and checked some printed papers on his desk.
“Very well. The analysis doesn’t show any possible allergic reaction to the fixative or Leukocyte abnormalities. So, if you are ready, we can — “
“Will it hurt?”
“The implant,” she said with a concerned look. “Is it going to hurt?” She had always been afraid of needles. A silly childhood fear she had never been able to fully overcome.
“No, not really. I’m told it’s just like a small sting.”
She didn’t like that one as a comparison. Sensing her uncertainty, the doctor looked at his watch, impatient for the first time since she had entered his office.
“Look, you don’t have to do it now if you don’t want to. We can move the appointment to next week.”
Sara took a deep breath. She really didn’t want to spend another week overthinking this thing.
“No,” she finally said. “I think I’m ready.”
The next day she was at the bar with Alice. They had been organizing this meeting for weeks. The two women had been friends since university, but at that point in their lives, even meeting for a cup of coffee was becoming a difficult task.
They talked for a while about the usual things — the problems at work, another mutual friend moving abroad, their dating life. Sara, however, had been distracted the whole time, waiting for her friend to notice her novelty.
She had been keeping her right hand on the table like she was trying to show off some new piece of jewelry. She was starting to consider just straight up telling Alice about it when the friend finally noticed.
“What’s that?” she asked, adjusting on her chair to better look at her friend’s hand.
“Uhm, what? This?” said Sara, in a poor effort to be coy. “Just the latest thing in transhumanism, I guess.”
It took almost five full seconds for Alice to realize what she was looking at. Not that the implant was that visible. The only reason she had been able to notice its presence was a small rush between the index and the thumb. Nothing too visible, of course — the red skin was supposed to disappear within a week — but it did emphasize the small silhouette under her skin.
“It is one of those new implants by Volkot. I got chipped yesterday.”
Alice didn’t say anything. Instead, she stared at her friend’s hand, eyes wide open. It wasn’t the reaction Sara was expecting. “You seem upset,” she said.
“I’m surprised, that’s all.”
Sara had told her about her intention before. Her mother had suggested it after getting chipped herself just a few weeks back. Yet, it seemed so out of the ordinary for a person like Sara, usually quite hesitant even towards the most uncomplicated medical procedure.
However, she thought, the presence of the implant itself was not something too strange, all considered. The last two years had witnessed a sudden public interest in subdermal implants. To be honest, at this point, it could have been considered something rather mundane — nothing radical, like the early experimentation of those biohackers in the early 2010s.
Of course, Alice had already read something about the implants herself. The first models were rice-grain-sized, but at the time, they were nothing more than glorified identity cards. The new models, however, were bigger, a half of an inch in length, but they could do basically anything. And in the following five minutes, Sara made sure her friend knew all about it.
“You have no idea of the thing you can do with it. It’s not just about paying the bills or starting your car. Now I can even communicate with my stereo at home and tell it to put on my favorite playlist. Just by thinking about it!”
Alice nodded. “Ok, but how does it work?” she asked.
Sara took the last sip of her coffee, shrugging. “Whatever. Something about a connection with your central nervous system. I mean, it’s not like we know how our smartphone works, anyway. We just use them, and that’s enough.”
Alice gave her a skeptical look. “Sure, but I can always turn my smartphone off whenever I want. What control do you have on that thing?”
“Well,” Sara said smiling, “I guess it’s just how progress works, right? One minute, you are afraid it will take away your life as you know it. The moment later, you ask yourself how you could even live without it”.
She looked at her watch. “Sorry, Alice. I really need to go now. Can I pay for your coffee too?” Her friend nodded. “Sure, thanks.”
Exiting the bar, Sara approached the counter. Without even looking at the man behind it, she moved her hand toward a small proximity sensor. An electronic sound confirmed the payment.
“See?” she said with a big smile. “Not much of a big deal, huh?”
The following week was a continuous experiment for Sara. She was constantly testing the possibilities of the implant, amazed by the thought that she had led her life without it up until that moment. But for every benefit, there was also a caveat, of course. On Wednesday, for example, at the supermarket, the cashier had asked her if she was interested in their under-eye filler. They had some on sale for half the price until next Friday, she had said.
“How do you know I need it?” she had asked, half-jokingly. It was a rhetorical question, obviously. It was their job to offer stuff to clients. The answer, though, had surprised her.
“According to the geolocation of your implant, today you’ve spent a higher amount of time by one of our shops in Sorio street. The filler has just been put on sale there. So, basically, our algorithm is telling us that, based on your implant data, your previous interests, and age, you might probably want to — “
“I mean, it’s just math, you know. But it says that there’s a 65% possibility you’re thinking about buying that article. Cool, isn’t it?”
The cashier was a smiling young woman with blue hair and a weird tattoo on her right wrist. She couldn’t have been more than five years younger than Sara herself.
“I don’t see how this is anything but none of your business.”
“Well,” the girl had said, now suddenly measuring her words. “It’s not that different from the kind of advertising you get from your internet browser.”
For a moment, Sara had remembered her friend’s word at the bar on what control she had over her implant compared to a typical smartphone. She had angrily put the items in the recyclable shopping bag, feeling embarrassed by that sudden awareness.
“This is spying on your clients outside the shops. There’s no other way to call it. And I never gave you my permission for that.”
“I’m sorry you see it that way, Miss, but you probably did. Sharing your data with third parties is one of the options you signed up for during the installation process. You’ve agreed on that.”
But at that point, Sara was already storming out of the shop. But was that true? She had signed many papers that day, but she surely didn’t read all the points that carefully. Had she really agreed to that intrusion on her privacy?
Whatever, she thought. She was going to call the client service maybe during the week. She had no time right now to think about that.
Then, on Friday, something more unsettling happened.
She was leaving work, heading for the car in the parking lot. Her second-hand Fiat was locked, of course, programmed for opening just at her owner’s silent request.
This time, however, the car door didn’t obey Sara’s command. Surprised, she tried a couple of times more, pulling the door hastily.
She desisted only when her smartphone received an alert from her insurance company; CAR NOT INSURED. PLEASE, CONTACT THE CUSTOMER SERVICE FOR MORE INFORMATION.
She sighed. What is this crap now?
On the phone, the customer service wouldn’t tell her much — just that during the last week, their algorithm had put together her data and the ones from other family members, finding a new medical condition that had not been considered before in her insurance plan.
“I can’t tell you more. I’m sorry. But the system is notifying us that there’s a very high risk for an inherited genetic anomaly.”
The voice on the other side of the phone sounded polite but a little repetitive, dull. Sara wondered if it belonged to a human being or a bot. It was becoming more difficult to tell them apart every day.
“I’ve done a lot of medical exams before the installation, believe me.” she insisted. “Nobody told me about any medical condition.”
The man on the other side paused — like he was collecting his thoughts.
“Yes, uhm –”
He totally sounded like a software processing an answer. Fuck, she realized. I am really talking to a freaking robot.
She sighed, feeling suddenly hopeless and alone like she was speaking to an imaginary friend about her real-life problems.
“It’s a little more complicated than that, Miss,” said the ‘person’ on the other side of the phone. “And besides, we are just making a risk analysis for your own benefit. You could feel sick while driving and have an incident. As we are working for your safety, we cannot let that happen. That is why your car is being blocked at the moment.”
She felt a chill running down her spine.
“Are you still there, Miss?”
“Good. May I suggest setting up an appointment for Monday afternoon? The data from your implant is indicating 6:30 p.m. as the best hour for you, given your working shift and the distance from our offices in relation to traff — “
She ended the call; that was way too much to handle. She started walking, not sure what to do next. In her 32 years of life, she had learned that walking alone was the only thing that could help her make decisions when facing hard times.
The prospect of a fatal illness — or something capable of making her lose control of her car while driving — had scared her senseless. And for sure, the fact that it had been probably revealed to her by a machine hadn’t helped her digest the news either.
She had been walking for forty minutes when she realized that she was close to her doctor’s office — the same that had chipped her. Well, who can you trust if not your family doctor? She took the phone from her purse and looked for the number.
“Thanks for seeing me on short notice.”
“You sounded preoccupied,” he said, shaking her hand. “Are you having trouble with the implant?”
“You could say that, yeah.”
She told him about the blocked car and the answer she had from the insurance company. He listened carefully, interrupting her now and then to ask specific questions. Once she finished, he took his tablet to access her data. It took him just a couple of minutes to give her the answer she was craving for.
“I think I know what your problem is,” he said. “And it has to do with your mother, actually.”
“Yes. It seems like she has signs of methylation on a promoter for endothelial nitric-oxide synthase.”
That didn’t help her at all.
“I’m sorry, she has what now?”
“Well, as you know, our DNA has regulatory sequences in it. Some are needed for the development of certain organic structures, like in this case the vascular endothelium.”
She nodded slowly but still didn’t seem too convinced by the explanation.
“Uhm, it’s a layer of cells on the internal surface of the blood vessels.”
“So, in short, an alteration of this particular regulatory sequence usually means a higher risk of developing cerebral arteriovenous malformations.”
The doctor paused, waiting for her to process the new information. But Sara was already growing tired of all that cryptic medical jargon.
“Ok, fine!” she said abruptly. “I get it. It’s a latent medical condition. But why wasn’t this apparent the last time my mother had a checkup?”
“It’s not that easy to detect,” he said, suddenly a little defensive. “The point is that she has it, but we still don’t know if you do. So this may take some time.”
“You said it’s hereditary.”
“Yeah, but –”
“Can’t you just ask the implant or something?”
“Sara, the point is that you might have it, and therefore precaution needs to be taken from now on.”
She got up from the chair and started walking around the room, her hands firmly on her hips.
The doctor was now telling her something about the fact that methylation was a particular kind of mutation — one that could be developed years into one’s life. Therefore, it wasn’t clear yet whether her mother had passed it to her or not. But at that moment, Sara was not listening to him anymore.
“What are we risking?” she asked.
“Worst case scenario: a stroke while driving.”
Well, that explained the sudden preoccupation of the insurance company, she thought.
“Best case scenario?”
He shrugged. “Nothing. You go on with your life. Even if you have it, there isn’t much we can do.”
She felt a mix of rage and frustration. “I wish I’d never agreed on implanting that damn thing.”
“Why? You just found out something important about your health,” he said calmly. “It might have saved your life.”
She looked at him, skeptical. “Or it might have ruined it.”
He shrugged. “I guess it’s always the case with new technologies. Advantages and disadvantages, all the same. But keep this in mind: the illness risk has always been with you — even long before the implant’s commercialization. But now, well, now you know.”
“Yes, I know I could die at any moment!”
He smiled, leaning back on his chair. “Well, don’t we all?”
When she arrived at the cinema, the sun had already set an hour ago. Alice was waiting for her near the entrance. She gave her a concerned look. “You look terrible. What happened?”
“I think I need a drink, Alice.”
The friend nodded—no need for more questions.
They started to walk, looking for a bar downtown. “I’m sorry. I really couldn’t sit through a whole movie tonight.”
Alice shrugged. “Nevermind. I’ve heard it’s not even that good. Besides, I wanted to show you something anyway.”
Sara gave her friend a questioning look. Alice smiled. “You were right the other day, you know? It really changes your life.”
Oh God no, she thought. Sara was going to say something, but Alice was already proudly showing her the back of her right hand. There was nothing remarkable about it, aside from the small silhouette barely visible under her skin, between the index and the thumb.
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