It was New Year’s Eve and, for once, Christine Salter had the dress and the plans. True, you would expect the director of genetic development at the New York Medical Center, a position of professional power in the age of the Conglomerates, to be a popular woman and a woman with a full schedule. The director had the year end to wrap up; she had to reel in the budget; she had a lot of product to process, rank, categorize, and deliver to their expecting mothers. And Christine had a number of adults to process besides.
Under Dr. Christine Salter’s direction, Genetic Development had changed from being a cost sieve to become the division that led all others in the medical center in productivity, fame, and profit. People wanted to go there to create, or re-create, the infant they wanted, or to enroll in a newly developing program that would enable a person to re-create him- or herself through genetic manipulation. Which traits of theirs would they like to develop, which eliminate? Soon it would be possible to act on this personal improvement initiative. There was a waiting list of patients for the medical center’s programs, and these lists represented future growth and revenues. Dr. Salter was determined to retain the premier position for her division, even though lately she had begun to feel uncomfortable about some of the decisions she was being forced to make.
As soon as Christine thought about that, she thought about Gabriel, and that led to thoughts of her dress and what might happen between them during the evening ahead.
She looked down at the year-end report she was compiling on the “the Pool.” The division of genetic development was nicknamed the Pool by those who worked at the center, a term that referred to the department’s work in improving the gene pool of their clients. Through the procedure of genetic contouring, a process at which Christine and her team excelled, those who could afford the expense, and who came from the correct demographic groups, could now design, or redesign, their basic genetic structure and adjust their offspring’s appearance and behavior before birth. It was possible to select the characteristics of one’s children. The Pool worked to provide the child you had always dreamed of and one who could contribute to the state, but Christine’s own special initiative had been the division’s new process whereby genetic manipulation would be extended to adults. In the interest of self-improvement, less desirable existing genes could be replaced with more desirable ones. “Why not be skinny and bright?” was the line they were working on to market the campaign. These were trickier, more complicated operations, with so far untested results, but that hadn’t stopped the Conglomerates from enrolling. At the moment, the procedure was available to only an elite few, but Christine believed it would soon roll out to a large segment of the party. This new initiative would increase profits, the Conglomerate way.
Babies were still the Pool’s core business, however, and the source of the revenue stream at year’s end. Not only were babies from the Pool marketed to be smarter, healthier, and more productive members of the economy. They were designed to be individuals who would add to the nation’s resources through their efficient, productive use of the resources left—a generation that would develop innovative alternatives and not further deplete those resources, as their fathers and their fathers’ fathers had done before them. Contouring babies was just the beginning, the higher end of this cleansing policy. The Coots and the Dyscards were at the other end of the scale, people who only sucked the system dry. But they were an entirely different matter and one that was not part of Christine’s life or responsibilities, and so she preferred not to think about them at the moment. And, anyway, it was New Year’s Eve, and Christine had the dress and the plans; she had a date with Gabriel Cruz.
She looked back at her year-end report. The Pool had improved productivity by introducing a standardized, automated approach to genetic manipulation. What their clients wanted was a more intelligent, more attractive, more resilient child—in short, a better offspring than they thought they could produce on their own. Though the clients might think they wanted a choice, when it came down to it, they all wanted pretty much the same things in their children. Dr. Salter’s department had designed a genetic template whereby a gene was split, altered, and fused with a preprogrammed outcome that implanted the genetic adjustment into the product. And while all designs were in effect standardized, the doctor was in control of the process and could offer exclusivity of design for an appropriate price, thereby increasing the program’s profit. Genetic Development had implemented these changes, along with a reduction in workforce, in a streamlined approach to the process.
Christine turned back to the performance reviews. She printed them out and began to study them further. Some of the findings were unsettling, no doubt about it. She didn’t want to draw attention to them, or to the information she had uncovered. This year the department of genetic development had conceived and processed 11,753 babies for their customers, a pretty good number. It was higher than last year—it had to be—but this number exceeded their goal by a double-digit percentage.
Christine opened the folder she had placed beneath the stack of reviews. She frowned. She had noticed something in the numbers before and she hadn’t been able to brush it aside. She looked again carefully at the center’s overall statistics. Gross volume was up, that was true. They had produced an increase of 17 percent above the previous year. Still, while they had delivered more perfect babies, their overall success rate was dropping. With the increase in patient volume, there was also an increase in fees associated with settlements paid to disgruntled consumers.
She looked down at her folder, and her frown deepened. Statistics on the number of babies born with defects—or, more precisely, where for some reason the contouring process had not taken effect, babies that had been born not to the parents’ specifications but with deficiencies ranging from crooked teeth to a lack of interest in competitive skills—those numbers had increased in the past year to a disproportionate percentage.
Christine ran her fingers down the spreadsheet, studied the overall statistics, and made notes. She uncovered the sheet with the statistical breakdown by employee. And there it was, all in the numbers—what she had been vaguely aware of and had feared. Gabriel Cruz, her best employee, a man she was half in love with, and one with whom she had a date this evening, was responsible for a significant number of the flawed products. Too great a number, in fact.
Christine shut the folder, tapped her fingers on the desk. It was late in the afternoon; even at this prestigious medical center, many people had already gone home to get ready for New Year’s Eve, or had gone away for the holidays. The silence in the center felt strange. Christine thought about her dress, Gabriel, her plans, and she decided to go home herself. She locked the papers in her desk and hoped she could lock her concerns away along with the incriminating news.
For the last few New Year’s Eves, Christine had worked, covering the overnight shift for the Pool. She had never really minded. She liked her work, and it kept her distracted from the fact that she wasn’t seeing anyone and her family wasn’t close. But this year Gabriel had invited her to a party. She had been so surprised that he had had to ask her twice. The second time he had given Christine a chance to catch her breath, and then she had accepted. The attraction between them had become more and more obvious. She liked him, and she liked the way he made her feel. He was funny, and unlike a lot of people, he looked into her eyes when she spoke. Sometimes he even made her forget that she was director of genetic development at the New York Medical Center, as he had when she had accepted his invitation. Christine knew it was highly inappropriate, and she had never dated a coworker before, never mind someone who reported to her, but she had found herself saying yes anyway.
As a doctor, Gabriel Cruz had made a name for himself before he had come to the med center. He was smart, clearly, but Christine also recognized that, at times, he was even smarter than she was. She hadn’t often found that to be true with men. Cruz was Latin and lean, he moved like a cat, and Christine hadn’t found that in many other men either. He had become indispensable to her, even though some of the things that he said to her seemed close to being politically incorrect.
But when Gabriel worked, he focused, no matter the distraction. He was a master technician, with faultless hand-eye coordination and a statistician’s interest in breaking down data. But it was his talent with people that had especially impressed Christine. He seemed to be a natural administrator who could get his peers as well as the support staff behind him, supporting his decisions, following his direction and goals. The productivity that had resulted with Gabriel’s addition to her staff couldn’t be denied.
Christine stood by the elevator bank and stared at the elevator button. What was taking so long? She tapped her feet, folded and unfolded her arms. She wanted to get to the lobby and away from the center.
When Christine had joined the New York Medical Center, she had agreed to work to achieve the standards and contributions required by the Conglomerates. Christine had never been concerned about either before. The elevator came and she got in.
As the old elevator began its descent, Christine ran over the numbers again in her head, trying to determine what needed to be implemented to improve the performance of her group. She thought of the political seas she would have to navigate in order to sail out of the Pool and into open waters. If Christine thought about it, she could not recall a time when at least part of her mind and most of her energy had not been occupied with getting ahead and with being the boss.
Christine blew the hair out of her face as she looked up at the camera in the corner of the elevator. That brought her back to just where she was.
You would think that by now she would have been used to it. The Conglomerates were everywhere; they were always watching everything—or you should assume they were. But today the constant security eye made Christine feel on edge. Everything live all the time, live transmissions, live feeds, live action, live reads. Christine hadn’t voiced her objections because to some degree she had been aware that she was working for the Conglomerates and benefiting from the association. She had joined them and had experienced firsthand just how deep the Conglomerate desire for control went. It had been Christine who had come up with the idea to upgrade the existing surveillance system, equipping the cameras with scanners and adding a corresponding chip to the employees’ I.D. badges. An employee’s location and movement were monitored using that I.D. badge, allowing the system to match an employee’s actual location to where the employee was supposed to be. Christine saw it as an efficient use of the security system and a means of controlling movement within the facility, minimizing the risk of corporate espionage and internal theft. But med center employees resented it and claimed it was an invasion of privacy; management deemed it the right of the facility, adopting the monitoring technology at all buildings throughout the government system.
When Christine told Gabriel of the innovation, Gabriel made a comment about “1984” that Christine didn’t understand. She asked him what he was talking about.
“It’s a book,” Gabriel said, and Christine was immediately transported back to her grandparents’ house in Staten Island.
That house had been filled with books. Both her grandparents had loved to read. Now people only read from a screen, and a small one at that. Her grandmother Patsy had been reading all the time, “steamy stories” she had called them. Books, another reason Christine liked Gabriel Cruz. She recognized, just then, a change in her attitude. She found herself resenting the fact that she was on view now, was always on view, and subject to scrutiny. Did this discomfort have to do with those unsettling statistics about her department, with Gabriel, and with her instincts to hide the statistics? She was almost afraid to wonder.
Dr. Christine Salter had not been the only one to read and research the disturbing figures on Gabriel Cruz. When Christine had printed out the spreadsheets, to avoid drawing attention to the discrepancy by viewing it online, the printer had stored, read, and—as the machine was programmed to red-flag specific words or patterns—forwarded the file to security. The security officers were even now researching Christine’s findings, and had alerted the authorities to these alarming trends.
The administration of the Health and Human Services Corporation found the statistics unsettling as well. Equally unsettling was that they had not heard about them from their star, Christine Salter. They wondered why. Was she involved in Gabriel’s activities, as well as with the man? If Salter was complicit, how deep did this insurrection go? Something had to be done. Insubordination would not be tolerated; it threatened the core of the system. Also, the Conglomerates could not afford to have this revenue stream compromised. Dr. Salter was important, for now. Cruz, on the other hand, could be replaced, after he answered some questions. The office of the chairman of the Conglomerate party was brought into the loop. They wanted Cruz in custody.
As the elevator descended, two agents on loan from the National Security Council were driving a Con Ed utility van up First Avenue. They stopped at Thirtieth Street and set up shop across from the New York Medical Center. The agents were dressed like Con Ed workers in coveralls and hard hats. The white utility van’s overhead caution light spun around while the four-way lights flashed. The agents put up the orange protective gate and put reflective cones around the manhole. One agent remained in the van while the other removed the manhole cover, took out an orange caution flag, slapped it out twice, and tied it to the protective gate.
“It’s too cold to go down into that hole,” the agent said to his partner. “I’m waiting in the van too.”
The other agent, at his station inside the van, activated the surveillance system in silence, ignoring his partner. He’d been with this guy only a day and already he’d had enough. Luckily, before his partner could get back into the van, he saw Christine Salter’s image pop up on the monitor.
Excerpted from The Age of the Conglomerates by Thomas Nevins. Copyright © 2008 by Thomas Nevins. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.