I wrote ‘Keeping a Secret’ after doing a bit of research into coding information into human DNA for another project. I’m writing a short story that I would like to submit to the BBC’s Short Story Competition, and I stumbled across this new article.
It was the last line that really brought this story into view. I read that and thought, ‘Damn, that’d make an excellent story.’
053 – Keeping A Secret
“Well now,” the gang leader said. “I think you have some explaining to do.”
Like a shark circling its prey, Dragon Head Liu moved into my field of vision. We were in the only lit part of the warehouse, a circle of light shed by the single bare bulb that showed me little more than the Triad leader’s massive shadow. Other figures waited just beyond the light. I could hear them breathing, moving around. There was some sort of incense burning, sickly-sweet.
I moistened my cracked lips, tasting blood from where his ring had struck me. “I have the information you sent me for.”
“Give it to me.” His voice was deep, heavily accented.
“It’s safe. Secure.”
“Encoded into my skin.” I held my breath. Would they believe me?
The Dragon Head moved to the edge of the light, and I heard whispers being exchanged. I looked around, squinting my eyes against the glare. Motes of dust floated down from the ceiling, high above, to mingle with the detritus on the floor. The chair I was sat on was metal and bolted to the floor, and the rope knotted tightly round my wrists was coarse. The Dragon’s jade-coloured robes were detailed with an exquisite gold serpent, its scales picked out in thread that shimmered in rainbow hues as he gestured. Urban legend held that the embroidery was impregnated with Rainbow Dust, the drug they peddled, and that merely touching his robe was enough to send you spiralling into a drug-fugue. The Dragon Head moved towards me, eclipsing the light again. He folded his arms. “Explain.”
“You said my daughter would be released if I gave you the information,” I said. “Where is she?”
“She is safe. Secure.”
“The information will begin to degrade if you wait much longer, so-“
“Explain!” the Dragon Head growled. “Quickly.”
I shook my head. What did it matter, as long as she was safe? “Oceanic Holding’s labs are impregnable. They check your bags going in. Sweep you for weapons, but also for recording devices. No portable media devices are allowed onsite. The whole place is wired like a Faraday cage. Only internally-linked softscreens work there, and every bit of information going in or coming out is checked by a dumb-AI. Keeping a secret there is easy, but getting one out is almost impossible.
“Luckily, I have a friend in one of the research labs, someone I trust. Bioclay as a storage medium is a thing now. He recalibrated the lasers to encode the information into the top layer of my skin, bonding it with the structure of the DNA on part of my body. You can use the read/write laser on any home holoprojector, and the imaging software will do the rest.”
The Dragon began to circle the chair again. “Which part of your body has the information?”
“Release my daughter and I’ll tell you.”
“You are not in a position to make deals, Mr Corporate Spy. Tell me, or we will skin you and find the information ourselves.”
I looked around desperately, hoping that the PO were going to storm the place, that a lone hero was making his move even now. That was how it happened in the movies. But the holos didn’t put across the stale smell of fear-sweat, or the musty smell of the antagonist’s breath, or the sudden, desperate urge to void my bowels.
“Left arm. It’s at the top of my left arm. There’s a small tattoo of a circle, it’s right under that.”
The Dragon grunted and moved to one side, and I breathed out shakily. Then he was back, the unmistakable shine of a large knife in his hand.
“Wait, what are you doing?” I said, cringing backwards. “I just told you the information is there. Below the tattoo!”
He reached forward, placing a hand on my arm, and began to use the knife to cut around the shoulder stitching of my shirt. The blade cut through the cotton like it wasn’t there, and the shirt arm fluttered to the floor.
“Just here?” the Dragon said, placing the tip of the knife on the tattoo.
“Yes, but you can read it with a laser!” I said, my breath coming in short gasps. “You don’t need to cut it out!” The knife-point slid in, an icy shard of pain. “No!” I shouted, a sudden flash of inspiration striking me. “You might damage the data! Don’t cut it out!”
The Dragon withdrew the knife. “This is true,” he said, moving out of the light again. I slumped against the chair’s back, sobbing in relief. I hadn’t cried since I was in school, but now hot tears ran down my face and I tasted salt as I convulsively licked my lips. Then the Dragon walked back into the light, carrying a meat cleaver. My breath came in tiny gasps as he looked down its length, as though testing it for straightness. “Thank you for the suggestion,” he said, moving forward. As he eclipsed the light, I screamed, drew breath, screamed again and again and again, the sound echoing in the darkness, futile and short-lived.