Prose Header

Trade Secrets

by Luke Jackson

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

“Of course not, but that is not your concern,” Shush continued. “The player was an unwired Regular and would have died eventually. His only chance of immortality was through Void machines.” Shush sighed with disdain. “Your actions almost stole that chance from him.

“Your employment history has been satisfactory thus far, but acts have consequences. Therefore, we have decided to issue an official, public sanction,” Shush continued. “If you interfere with play without cause again, we will be forced to terminate your employment here, and return you to Earth.” Shush’s boyish face was cold and blank as he spoke. Isaiah couldn’t help but notice that Shush said “we” with relish, as it lumped Shush with his Void superiors. He wondered how far Shush was from getting completely beyond-body, like the Void.

“I understand,” Isaiah said, his adam’s apple throbbing in his throat. He shouldn’t have let personal feelings interfere with the casino’s business. He realized now that he had been stupid, and had been taking this job for granted lately. While he missed Earth, he was well aware that it was a world of dire poverty, a daily struggle just to survive. “It won’t happen again.”

“I certainly hope not,” Shush said as Isaiah returned to the floor. Isaiah could feel Shush’s huge, inhuman blue eyes boring into his back.

“Isaiah,” Shush called out again. Isaiah turned to see that Shush’s cherubic cheeks pulled down into a frown. “I can’t emphasize how important your getting wired is. We’re all part of a grand experiment here at Void Hozomeen,” he said, gesturing expansively with his small hands, “and things would be easier if you were on board. More Void are on the way, they’re looking for inside people to move up. Maybe you could make floor manager at one of the new ones.

“What, are you a Kantian, is your body sacred?” Shush laughed.

Isaiah gave one of his trademark nod-shrugs, bit his tongue until it hurt, and kept walking.

* * *

Isaiah was up late that night, scrolling through the holographic filters for news of Earth. There were thousands of filters available, each with its own perspective and packaging of current events; the myth of objectivity had died almost a century ago. He usually read the Existential Libertarianist, the safe Void-approved filter. Now he was perusing the ones leaning more towards the Regulars, ones that supported the Traditional Statist party on Earth below.

Isaiah hoped that the Void didn’t screen his media choices, but he also felt that he might be returning to Earth pretty soon. He would not be getting wired.

He thought he heard a tapping at his coffin door, barely discernible through the racket the visiting Regulars made around here, their drunken hoots and altercations echoing through the living quarter catacombs. At first, he brushed it off, thinking it was the clattering of a neighbor, but the rapping became more insistent.

“Hold on,” he said, putting on his bathrobe; he knew that body-covering wasn’t necessary here, but it made him feel more comfortable.

Right before he gestured the door open, he had a frightening thought: maybe the Void had detected his illicit filter choice, and had sent someone immediately to reprimand him. He hesitated for a moment, steeled himself, then made a wiping gesture with his hand. He breathed a deep sigh of relief when it was only Kitten, meekly crouched at his door, its amber slit eyes looking up at him from under long brown hair. He must be getting paranoid.

“I’m not in the mood,” he told it, preparing to wipe his hand backwards and shut the door. He had overused drones in his youth, and now their mechanical ecstasies held little appeal for him.

“Needs talk,” it said in the muddled protolanguage of the drones. He was briefly surprised; most pleasure models were not capable of speech. Its eyes were so wide and forlorn, its full lips puckered downward, that he gestured it inside.

“What can I do for you?” he asked it impatiently, trying to rearrange his spartan furniture so that both of them could fit in his coffin.

“Regulars need help,” it said cryptically. Now that it wasn’t in the sex-kitten role, it seemed gripped by a blank fear.

“You’re going to help me?” Isaiah asked. “I already said I’m okay,” he began, trying to wave it off. Kitten then reached into a flesh pocket near its thigh, and his thoughts began flashing: it could be a death-drone in the guise of a pleasure-drone, one of the most common assassination ruses. But who would want him dead? Could the Void really be so angry about his choice of filters and refusal to get wired?

He was relieved when it pulled out a miniature projector and pushed the button, revealing a glowing, three-dimensional grid map of Void Hozomeen in the space between them. It was all there: the endless casinos, clubs and bars, the VR chambers, the NuGen private communities, ranging from Victorian enclaves to dens of hedonism, the university where young NuGens were indoctrinated into the Void, even the basic power and plumbing systems.

“How did you get a hold of this?” he asked. It might be smarter than he thought. Even though drones were not sentient enough for legal entity status, they were always coming out with newer, more advanced models.

“Power,” Kitten breathed into the hologram, illuminating the power grid in dark red. The power lines connected the casino machines to the heavily guarded and secure Void chambers near the axis, off limits to all humans, but strangely, the pulsing movement was away from the machines, toward the chambers.

“What does it mean?” he asked the drone. “How is this going to help the Regulars?”

“Drones care,” it said to him, flashing a sweet smile that seemed too knowing for a drone. “Bye bye,” it then said, and made for the door.

“Wait! I don’t understand,” he said to its back.

“Information is free,” it said abruptly, waving its hands around at the walls now in a frenetic, paranoid gesture. “Must go,” it mewled. Its long feline fingers, covered in patterns of black and white fur, scratched at his door.

“Okay,” he said softly to himself, completely confused. He wished that its creators had designed more human mental faculties, so it could explain this to him. For all he knew, its drone mind was having some kind of malfunction and he was witnessing its breakdown. He waved a hand; its patterned tail writhed through the door, and was gone.

He stared at the pulsing schematic map in the center of his coffin, at a complete loss. He briefly thought of contacting the Octopus about his wayward drones, but stared more closely at the power lines. It looked like power was being drained from the players and used, somehow, near-axis. But how?

* * *

Isaiah pressed his body through the narrow aluminum shaft, struggling to see through the mesh grilles below him. He was cloaked head to toe in the soft black pseudovelvet of a biosign-suppressor suit, which he had recently obtained from San Tom.

He had been drinking with San Tom back at the Garden, again. Above the bar, the E.L. filtercasters had been in the process of explaining that genetic engineering was the ultimate realization of human potential, allowing escape from the vagaries of random natural selection. They had pointed to the ancient philosophers Herrnstein and Murray, who had documented the interrelationship between genetics, IQ, and economics-now the interplay of the three elements had been set free and was completely unfettered. Isaiah edged closer to San.

“I know this is a strange request, but would you be able to get your hands on a suppressor suit?” Isaiah had asked, hoping that his words were masked by the intellectualized chest-thumping of the filtercasters. San Tom had eyed him warily, frowning.

“Why would you want one of those? That’s military equipment.”

“Well,” Isaiah had replied, expecting this. “I know you won’t understand this, and I don’t expect you to, but we Regulars value privacy in some things. I would be much more comfortable if I could get off the grid completely, in my own coffin bed...” he had said, letting his words hang, pretending to be embarrassed and apologetic. It had felt wrong to lie to San, but he knew that the NuGens had access that Regulars like him didn’t.

“But information should be free. You know the E.L. philosophy of total transparency,” San had said.

“I know, I know,” Isaiah had replied. “I’ve been trying to get over my Regular hang-ups, I really have. But I feel that this will ease me into the transition, somewhat, until I’m comfortable with total transparency.”

San Tom’s forehead had furrowed. Isaiah had been appealing to him as a friend, but San must also have known that military hardware was forbidden to Regulars in the Void. The Regular customers were boisterous and embittered against the E.L. Party and the Void enough; if they were armed, the station might very well explode in a conflagration of civil war.

“Alright,” San had said, patting Isaiah on the back, but his brow still furrowed. “I’m doing this as a friend, to help you out here. But it does go against everything I believe in. Nobody is here to judge you. Don’t you listen to the E.L. filter?” he had asked, gesturing to the above-bar display.

“Sure I do,” Isaiah had said, visibly relaxing. “Every day. It’s just a major change for me, and I have to gradually rid myself of these archaic taboos. I really do appreciate it, San,” he had said, meaning it.

“I just hope this doesn’t come back to me,” San had replied glumly, fingering the neck of his bottle.

Now Isaiah found himself garbed in the black-market suppressor suit, covered head to toe like some ninja from an ancient kung-fu movie, writhing into the forbidden inner sanctums of the Void. These fortified near-axis regions were not designed for humans, so he had to contort his body into strange, often painful positions to squeeze through; he should have done more flex-training in the gyms.

When he closed his eyes, he saw the pulsing red power lines of the Void grid map. If he was wired, he could have loaded the schematics directly into his mind, but he took comfort in knowing that his imagination was powerful enough to replicate such abilities. He concentrated on the glowing destination of the power, and sought to work his way in that general direction through the maze of aluminum tunnels. It was slow going, and uncomfortable.

If he remembered correctly, he was directly above his destination now. However, when he pressed his face against the mesh grille to see outside of the shaft, he only saw a soft blue glow and heard a distant humming.

He briefly considered turning around and struggling back through the maze of shafts, but realized that he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t forget what he knew and return to the routine of being a security guard. He had to know how that power was being used.

Isaiah unscrewed the mesh grille plate with his small utiliknife, set it aside, and squeezed his body through the small hole, the malleable suppressor-suit protecting his body from scrapes and bruises. He dangled from the shaft in space, looking at the blank grayness and dim blue glow of the vast chamber, before letting go and falling about thirty feet to the floor. Pain flared through his shins and heels, even through the shock-absorbent heels of the suit, and he couldn’t help letting out a quiet yelp of pain.

Crouched on the ground now, he looked up to see what appeared to be countless organs suspended in massive vats, emanating a soft blue energy. The organs were huge, purplish-green, and craggy, jutting forward like forbidding coral reefs, and he knew they were not human. He realized that they must be brains, but they were not the comforting pink curlicues of smaller human ones.

Up and along the walls, the identical brains were stacked endlessly, as far as his eyes could see. In this vast chamber alone, there must be thousands of them. He wondered how many there were in the entire station.

Isaiah wiped the frosty glass of a nearby vat, staring through his smudge mark to stare at the sharp purple contours of the cerebrum. Where the spinal cord should have been, there were only gleaming electrical tendrils, thin wires relaying information to and from the mind, a thicker red cord bringing power.

At last he knew from his own eyes, even if he had suspected it before. The Void were feeding on people. As the awareness dawned, he wanted only to get out of there, to return not to his Void coffin, but to Earth. He suddenly missed his true home, with a stabbing pang.

Abruptly a hand grabbed him around the throat, from behind. He had been at his most alert, but hadn’t even sensed anything approaching him. He tried to cry out, but the strong hand throttled his voice and his air as it lifted him and turned him around.

He was face to face with a death-drone. Its eyes were rheumy blank slits, without lens or cornea, its facial flesh was featureless and seemed charred by fire. Isaiah knew that the death-drones were bred to be repulsive, in order to disconcert enemies in close combat. He punched its deformed face with all his strength, but the only result was intense pain in his right hand; the face seemed to be made of rock.

The creature opened its mouth of tiny fangs, revealing a thick, round black tongue that split at the end into slimy, squirming subparts, inching towards Isaiah’s face. Despite himself, he tried to scream again, and failed, kicking his feet violently. The death-drone ignored his weak attacks.

Just before the black tongue made contact with Isaiah’s face, the death-drone pushed a hidden, tender part of his neck, and he instantly lost consciousness.

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2006 by Luke Jackson

Home Page