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Trade Secrets

by Luke Jackson

Part 2 and part 3
appear in this issue .
part 1 of 3

Isaiah stared down the luminous umbilical cord which connected the Void to Mount Hozomeen, virtually invisible on the Earth below. Against the vastness of space, the amber cord seemed a tenuous entrail tying him to the planet of his birth, even though he knew that countless people, machines and products were zipping up the seemingly frail strand at that very moment.

He sighed, the familiar feeling of loss creeping over him as he watched the massive blue-green planet that filled the viewing portal. When he had been down there, he had only dreamed of escaping from the conflicts of Earth and rising through that strand; he knew many people toiling below would leap to trade places with him.

Usually, he was satisfied with life in the Void. However, during these rare moments of introspection, he felt that he had lost something intangible and invaluable, that he had never known he had.

Isaiah felt a hand on his shoulder, and tensed involuntarily before he detected a familiar softness in the hand. He turned and saw his friend San Tom, his handsomely chiseled, media-star face burdened by a look of concern.

“Missing home?” San asked, letting go of his shoulder.

Isaiah made a sideways nod-shrug, unwilling to admit to the weight of the feelings that kept him tied to the Earth below. San Tom was a harmless enough figure; his parents had chosen to hard-wire generosity and understanding into his genetic code in an effort to make their ancient, dying beliefs material. However, Isaiah’s ties to Earth could be problematic, up here.

“It is beautiful,” San agreed, nodding to himself. “But I can’t say I miss it, down there. I came up when I was too young. Besides, it’s getting harder for us, from what I hear,” referring to the increased hostilities between Regulars like Isaiah and the genetically engineered NuGens like San Tom.

Isaiah felt himself to be on shaky ground, and said nothing. He could say how he wished to retire to Earth. He could say how he missed its natural beauty, the soft cotton whites of its clouds, the glistening shores of its beaches, the stoic brown-red sculptures of its deserts. But San Tom would not understand these sentiments, so he kept quiet. Besides, San would probably tell him that all of these experiences could be easily replicated through the VR technology of the Void.

“Let’s have a drink,” San offered, gesturing back away from the window into the glittering, cackling casino machines of the Void, pulling him away from the Earth’s gravitational pull.

“Sure,” Isaiah said. He really did appreciate San’s efforts to bond with him, even going so far as to ingest the ancient drugs of the Regulars, even if such empathy were hard-wired into his genetic code.

They walked back through the catacomb layers of the casino, empty machines pleading, cajoling and mocking passerby into entering them, at which time the machines would wrap the player’s scalp and forearms in glittering electric tendrils. Several passerby were playing now, their staring eyes unfocused, their features grown shadowed and emaciated as the machines bled them of their life force.

Isaiah was used to surveying the floors and checking on the players as part of his job in security; it was hard to turn off. Now, he noticed one skeletal figure wired into a machine, the bones clearly standing out against his dead, paper-thin flesh. Clearly a Regular; they excelled at getting themselves into trouble. The player probably only had a round or two left in him, after which he would be expired and incinerated. Despite himself, Isaiah reached out a hand to disengage the machine and free the man.

“You’re not on duty,” San Tom reminded him, with only a slight edge of scolding, as the machine ejected the shivering and twitching player. The man seemed no longer contained by his body, still locked into the mental stratagems of the machine; Isaiah held on to support him.

“Hey!” the player sputtered, dimly recognizing that he was no longer coupled with the game machine. Isaiah was surprised by the fervent energy of the voice, while body containing it was on the brink of death. “I was in the middle of a game! I was going to win that hand, win the bionic enhancements...” the man continued, clawing his way back to the machine. Isaiah let him go.

“A sad case,” San Tom muttered to him as they left the dying man. “But it is his choice to play, a calculated risk-giving up a slight increment of his life force in exchange for a chance at immortality. Not a bad deal,” San said, and Isaiah knew that San believed his words. After all these years in the Void, however, Isaiah was no longer sure that he did.

* * *

They left behind the funereal excitements of the casino and entered the Octopus’ Garden, its entrance indicated by an illuminated writhing octopus dangling a martini glass, still the universal symbol for recreational pharmaceuticals. Inside the Garden, a light show flashed golden and rose globes, illuminated wetly by an artificial misty rain, while Jimi Hendrix’ “One Rainy Wish” played softly in the background. A few NuGens were scattered throughout, generally those of the more eccentric, animalistic body forms; reptilians reclined idly on padded cushions while a few winged simians engaged in heated, too-animated diatribes and discussions.

“This place okay?” San Tom asked Isaiah. “Closer to axis there’s DiFranco’s, a folk-punk venue that neatly captures the historicity of gender struggle. Down a level is the Aphex Twin Experience, which I find a bit too alien and cerebral, and I’ve heard the Void agree,” he joked, referring to the alien manufacturers of this station. Isaiah doubted that the Void enjoyed any human musics.

“No, this is fine. I find the end-of-millenium musics rather interesting,” Isaiah said, sitting on a vinyl bar stool that immediately adjusted to his contours. The Regular bars here, full of drunken tourists, would be an uncomfortable place for a NuGen like San; those places were too much even for Isaiah.

“I’m glad to hear that,” the proprietor said; two of his tentacles scrubbed down the bar with a wet rag, while the others prepared and served various pharmaceuticals. “Here in the Garden, we believe that the end of the last millennium was the defining moment in human pop culture. There will never again be a universally appreciated musical phenomenon like the Beatles,” the Octopus stated summarily.

“Two beers,” San Tom told the Octopus, who arched an eyebrow significantly before whisking out the ancient, dusty bottles. The Octopus’ face seemed to be a perfect recreation of Ringo Starr’s, but sculpted from dark, moist octopus flesh.

“That’s probably true, with increased fragmentation of tastes and styles,” San Tom finally nodded, acknowledging the Octopus’ prior comment.

“Does it ever seem to you that no new musics or genres are coming out?” Isaiah asked, sipping at the flat, too-aged beer. “All of the theme bars on the Void generally historicize musics at the turn of the millennium. Where are the new musics?”

“It’s a sign of the times,” the Octopus said, his Ringo face crinkling into an affable smile. “My parents were extreme Beatles fans, virtually zealots, and birthed me in this body. I chafed in this skin, and adopted a generic body throughout most of my young adulthood, trying to conform to my surroundings and rebel against their fandom. But you can’t escape your roots, and here I am,” the Octopus said as his tentacles whisked away empty packages and vials.

I glanced over at San Tom, thinking how he too was imprinted by the beliefs of his fathers.

“In my humble opinion, humanity will never again be so united. From what I hear now, music itself is expiring as an art form,” the Octopus continued, setting out new beers for them. “The kids now are into world-building, designing whole planets and societies from the ground up, which are then emulated in Void chambers.

“I suppose they design new musics for their societies too, but that’s just a small part of their creation. Just another way in which Void technologies have changed things since our time, grandpa,” the Octopus said to Isaiah in a friendly, slightly sad way, going to help another customer with a complicated pharmaceutical request. The Octopus was being tongue-in-cheek; his parents’ fandom dated him as much, much older than Isaiah.

“I guess the times they are a-changin’,” San Tom said wryly to Isaiah.

“They certainly are,” Isaiah replied, taking another pull from his beer.

Across the bar, Isaiah noticed a gorgeous NuGen for the first time: her light brown hair was long and flowing, her corneas were yellow-green slits like a cat’s, her nude body was an hourglass inscribed with Celtic designs. He couldn’t stop looking at her, and when she met his gaze, her full lips broke into a broad, welcoming grin. He smiled back.

If he was wired, he could instantaneously pull up all of her statistics and public information. But sometimes, it was more exciting going in blind.

He began walking around the bar to meet this interesting woman, but before he could get around the curve of the bar, she seemed to have lost all interest in him. She was licking her lips and gazing into the eyes of the Octopus, who began encircling her naked limbs with his oily, black-green tentacles, laughing heartily. Isaiah hoped to return to his spot at the bar unnoticed, but the Octopus’ strangely bulging eyes trapped him before he could escape.

“Aha! This is Kitten, one of my pleasure-drones,” the Octopus said, his tentacles squirming around the drone’s nubile flesh. “Would you like her?”

“I was just going to use the restroom,” Isaiah lied with a red face, and kept walking, trying to ignore the drone’s rapturous beauty. He had hoped for conversation with a human woman, some sort of emotional connection, but had been fooled by a drone. Either he was getting older, or the drones were getting better. Probably both.

“I’m going to hit the bag. I have an early shift tomorrow,” he told San when he returned.

“That’s too bad. Take things as they come,” San nodded, the programmed empathy inscribed on his face.

Sometimes it seemed to Isaiah that the sweeping tide of progress had stranded him here in the Void, different and alone among the teeming populace.

* * *

Isaiah had to work the floor early that morning, before the sun broke over the side of the Earth, illuminating the globe with vibrant color. But nobody cared, because few looked out the portals; daybreak was virtually irrelevant in the Void, and only held meaning for Regulars chained to the twenty-four hour cycle like him.

Isaiah was dismayed to see that Shush Yaz was the on-duty manager, the worst type of NuGen, a “Richie Rich,” as the Regulars called them. His blond hair was slicked down onto his disproportionately large head, his preternaturally youthful face gave no sign of age, his small body was weak and plump, and he wore the trademark garish bow tie. His body was designed to send a message: he was on board with the Void’s program, desperate to expand his cranium size to Void levels and uninterested in this temporary physical body. Even his name was Void, not human.

“Isaiah,” Shush called out across the floor. “Could you come here a sec?” Here was a drawback to not being wired-you could only be summoned by voice, and then the whole world knew.

“Sure thing,” Isaiah called back, his stomach sinking. He usually avoided Richie Riches at all costs; he couldn’t help but see them as striving sycophants, who wouldn’t hesitate to destroy him to advance their own careers. He had seen it happen before.

He momentarily wondered if he had done something stupid last night, after drinks. Hangovers, the physiological consequences of drinking, had been eradicated, but not the other consequences of drunken stupidity. Maybe the NuGens were smarter, sticking with the newer mind-enhancing, stimulating pharmaceuticals instead.

“Templar Yaz,” Isaiah said, addressing him by his honorific and bowing as he approached.

“If you were wired, these things would be so much easier,” Shush sighed. Shush was seated on his plush raised dais, which allowed him a panoramic view of hundreds of Regulars sacrificing themselves to the Void in various multicolored games, their twitches either excitement or death throes. Security guards like Isaiah were summoned only when their spasms started interfering with others’ play. Shush fondled an intricate stress-relief system made of wires and jeweled lozenges with his pudgy fingers, one that served as more of a status symbol in actuality.

Shush was silent, and Isaiah shrugged noncommittally. He didn’t want to get into the specifics of why he refused to let surgeons invade his body and rewire his neural and musculoskeletal systems to Void specifications, even if it meant immortality. He didn’t need that sort of afterlife.

“Ahhhm yes,” Shush continued when Isaiah did not speak. “It has come to our attention that you pulled a player from a machine mid-game. That player’s experience here in the Void was negatively affected, and he lodged a formal complaint.”

“Is that player still alive?” Isaiah asked, genuinely curious.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by Luke Jackson

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