Today's Reading

JAMES SAID REMOVED his wrist phone ocular from his right eye, tucking it into its plastic case. He peeled his flex-phone from his wrist, then undid his belt and loaded it along with his shoes and jacket onto the conveyor. Eyes focused straight ahead toward the optical scanner, he shuffled past the cordon of airport inspection bots, their thin white arms moving efficiently over every portion of his anatomy.

Urgent. Confidential. When it came to communications from the military, he'd learned to gloss over terms that he'd once found alarming. Still, he couldn't help but steal a glance around the security area, thoroughly expecting a man in military blues to materialize. Blankenship. Where had he heard that name?

He ran his fingers over his chin. That morning he'd shaved close, exposing the dark birthmark just below the jaw—the place where his mother told him Allah had kissed him on the day he was born. Did his looks betray him? He thought not. Born in California on the fourth of July, his every habit scrupulously secular, he was as American as he could be. He possessed his mother's light-skinned coloring, her father's tall stature. Yet somehow the moment he set foot in an airport, he felt like the enemy. Though the infamous 9/11 attacks had preceded his own birth by thirteen years, the London Intifada of 2030 and the suicide bombings at Reagan Airport in 2041 kept alive a healthy suspicion of anyone resembling a Muslim in the West.

As the last of the bots offered him a green light, he gathered up his belongings, then pressed his thumb to the keypad on the door leading out to the gates. In the bright light and bustle of the concourse, he slid the ocular back into his eye and secured the phone on his wrist. Blinking three times to reconnect the two devices, he pressed "reply" on the phone's control panel and murmured into it. "Flying to California for the holidays. Must reschedule after January 5. Please provide agenda."

Head down, he hurried past colorful displays filled with beautiful faces, all calling him by name. "James," they crooned, "have you tried our brave new ExoTea flavors? Queeze-Ease for those high-altitude jitters? The new Dormo In-Flight Iso-Helmet?" He hated the way these new phones broadcast his identity, but such was the price of connectivity in public spaces.

In line at the coffee stand, he refreshed his phone feed. He smiled at the sight of his mother's name.

The harvest is in. We are ready for the New Year. When will you arrive?

Swiping the phone's small screen with a long index finger, he located his airline reservation and tacked it onto a reply.

"See attached," he dictated. "Tell Dad not to worry about picking me up. I'll catch an autocab. Can't wait to see you."

He scrolled through his mail, filing his engagements in the online calendar:

- Faculty Luncheon. Jan. 8.
- Graduate Seminar, Dept. of Cell & Developmental Biology. Topics due Jan. 15.
- Annual Conference on Genetic Engineering: New Frontiers, New Regulations. Jan. 25.

James frowned. He didn't always attend the annual conference, but this year it would be in Atlanta, just a few blocks from his Emory laboratory. He'd been invited to talk about his work engineering genes within the human body, this time with the goal of curing cystic fibrosis in the unborn fetus. But these government-sponsored conferences tended to focus less on the science than on the policy—including the ever-shifting landscape of government control over the novel material that made his work possible.

Over a decade before, scientists at the University of Illinois had developed a type of nanoparticulate DNA called nucleic acid nanostructures—NANs, for short. Unlike native, linear DNA, these small spherical forms of synthetic DNA could easily penetrate a human cell membrane on their own. Once inside the cell, they could insert themselves into the host DNA to modify targeted genes. The possibilities seemed endless—cures not only for genetic abnormalities but also for a whole host of previously intractable cancers. From the moment that James, then a graduate student in cell biology at Berkeley, had first learned about NANs, he'd been bent on getting his hands on the material that might make his dreams a reality.

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