Prose Header

Trade Secrets

by Luke Jackson

Part 1 and part 2
appear in this issue .

* * *

Isaiah could hear his mom vacuuming in the other room, the machine making a low thrumming noise, as he played his newest VR video game in the living room. He was Garth Frome, well-muscled patriot and intergalactic hero, dealing death to the insectoid aliens who sought to subjugate Earth. His hand cannon boomed, and another alien fell flaming through the Earth night sky.

Right on time, Dad walked in, loosening his tie and taking off his cufflinks.

“Daddy!” he cried, dropping his VR visor and running to wrap himself around Dad’s legs. He hoped that Dad brought him some sweets today.

“Hi son,” Dad said distractedly, with a small smile.

“How was your day?” Mom cried from the other room.

“Those damn genetically engineered,” Dad started.

Isaiah abruptly let go of Dad’s leg. With a wrenching feeling, he realized that he was not six years old, and that this was not Dad. This was a day many, many years ago, before the bad times when Dad was wired.

After that, Dad had not been Dad: his body had been possessed by a different soul, one petty and belligerent, given to screaming loudly at Mom, the kids, even the walls. He clearly remembered Dad’s face, no longer warm and kind, grown red, bloated and enraged, purplish veins standing out on his neck as he screamed constantly about absolutely nothing.

Eventually, Dad’s personality had dissolved into a blank fury without object or meaning, his body constantly wracked by seizures. Then he disappeared.

In Dad’s absence, he was diagnosed with a short circuit resulting from malpractice. But the medical compound had teams of lawyers, the E.L.’s had just initiated absolute tort reform, and besides, Dad was not there to provide any evidence. Their claims were summarily dismissed.

They said the technology was much better now, and foolproof.

“I don’t want you here,” he said up to the confused face of his Dad’s doppelganger. He couldn’t deal with the pain that would come in the following years, again.

Now it was night, and he was sitting at an outdoor restaurant table set along a beach shore. The furnishings were made of newly cut wood, and Tiki lamps danced in the background. Tropical pop music tinkled merrily from microscopic speakers. He could hear young people playing and laughing out in the black crashing waves of the night beach.

“I apologize for that,” said a large, affable man dressed in a Hawaiian t-shirt and shorts, for some reason sitting next to him at his table. “We only want you to be comfortable, Isaiah.”

Isaiah’s mind felt muddled; he felt like he was both five and anxious for candy from Dad, and also a forty-five year old bachelor living in the Void. He shook his head, trying to clear it.

“Quit these games,” he said to the man, growing angry.

“I can’t,” the man said, spreading his fingers. “We have been preserved for eons. We have no bodies. These ‘games’ are all we have. And it takes considerable energy for us to manifest, even in dream.” He took a sip from a brightly colored drink with a miniature umbrella in it. “Besides, you saw our original forms just now, and it appeared to distress you.”

Isaiah struggled to think back, before the blackness, and remembered the death-drone with horror.

“No, not a death-drone,” the man chuckled. “One of the ‘NuGens,’ as you call them, who had risen to the highest levels, and sought to reconstruct himself as one of us.” The man shrugged. “Or at least, what we used to be, before we went beyond-body.” Isaiah felt nauseous, thinking that that creature that accosted him used to be human.

“What do you want from me?” Isaiah asked at last.

“Only to understand,” the man replied, his friendly face growing serious. “As you’ve probably noticed, we have few Regulars working with us, and you were one of the more successful. We’ve always wanted to bring more of you onto our team, as it were,” he said.

“Where is the problem?” he continued, his large blue eyes sparkling in the flames of the Tiki lamps. “We have provided well for you here, much better than the living situation on Earth. All of the amenities of the Void are available to you, and there is no limit to what you can achieve here,” he said in a breathless rush.

“Some things are off limits,” he reminded the Void man.

“Indeed,” the man said, sighing deeply.

“’Information should be free,’” Isaiah said, turning the E.L. mantra back on him.

“Indeed it should be,” the man continued. “But I doubt if the general public is interested in the underlying structure of the Void station — the power, the plumbing. I mean, sir, you knew we were taking the power. Didn’t you think we would use it?” The man smiled with a furrowed brow, giving him a strange expression. “A knowing and conscious exchange, a quid pro quo transaction. It’s as the Void have always done.” Even though the dream creature must be ancient, he looked blank, confused.

“I probably did know,” Isaiah admitted. “But it’s not right to take away people’s lives.”

“Again, you misunderstand,” the man said, clearly frustrated. “We are not taking; they are giving.”

“I don’t think they would, if they knew,” Isaiah said, even though many still would, for a chance at immortality. “And even if they did, it’s just not right.”

“Mmmm,” the man said, nodding to himself. “Moral absolutism, first principles. Despite all we know, despite the multiplicity of cultures even here on earth, let alone among the star systems we have seen.” He shook his head. “You have the making of a T.S. man. No wonder you rejected enhancement and immortality.

“Are you your brother’s keeper?” he asked abruptly, apparently referring to the extremist Regular group Brothers’ Keepers, identified as either terrorists or freedom fighters depending on one’s media source.

“No,” Isaiah said quickly, shaking his head, still not sure if the Void man was referring to the insurgent group or the ancient expression. The man eyed him for a while, grown colder, seeming to evaluate him.

“Just like all the other Regulars,” he said, shaking his head in wonderment. “You just don’t get it. Contaminated by species and class consciousness, cutting yourself off from all of the wonders available to you here.”

“I just don’t trust you,” Isaiah interrupted hotly.

“Indeed. You don’t get how your instinctual reactions are mere amalgams of genetic predispositions and societal influences. Your father cursed the NuGens, so you don’t feel comfortable around them. In fact, your hostility to us may be a byproduct of your fiercely humanist video games. Your entire psyche, your entire soul, your entire life-all byproducts. This we know, and we know far, far more than you.”

“You know nothing,” Isaiah retorted, blood rushing to his neck, careless in the grip of dream. “For all your big brains, you are all lost. You are all parasites, feeding off of us.”

“I’m not even going to bother responding to that absurd sentiment,” the man said after a moment, drawing back in on himself and appearing to warp slightly around the edges. “For every species, the survival instinct is paramount, and we must do what we must to survive, just as you must breathe air and ingest food. And I doubt if your forge agreements with the species that you survive off of. You can’t even forge agreement among yourselves.

“You are wholly subject to your lower reptilian brain,” the man continued in a fierce monotone, shaking his head. “It appears we must either repackage our message to appeal to the primitive Regular tastes, or perhaps merely take you all by force through our E.L. agents on Earth. I would prefer the latter. Either way, you and your anachronistic ideologies are doomed.

“Obviously, you are hereby terminated pursuant to the terms of our employment agreement.”

The man snapped his fingers, and appeared to be addressing someone else, someone invisible.

“Manifesting for him is a waste of our time and resources,” he said. “Return him to Earth. Let him provide keep for his billions of starving brothers there. We will not give him the satisfaction of killing him.”

Isaiah felt that the young people in the ocean were now gathered behind him; they silently grabbed onto his limbs, pulling him out to sea and submerging him, ignoring his cries. His body became numb in the ice-cold blackness of the ocean water, and his lungs began to burn as he struggled for air.

* * *

Isaiah dumped his duffel bag, containing all of his worldly belongings, on the thin cot in his new coffin. It had been a chore coming back through the vanguard of overly inquisitive regulators occupying Mount Hozomeen. He had been packed among the drained and shadowed Regulars returning to Earth, acutely feeling their excesses in the Void. The regulators had spent hours unnecessarily poring over his paperwork and inspecting his few belongings, then there was the long monorail ride to Flagstaff. He was tired, and glad to be in his new assigned quarters.

Isaiah’s new earthbound coffin was about half the size of his Void one, but that was probably for the best-he didn’t have enough possessions to fill up any empty space.

There was a soft knock on the door. He first waved his hand, but when the door didn’t move, he used the knob.

It was a Regular, about his height but somewhat younger. He had the bronzed skin and wiry muscle typical of the earthbound Regulars. His black hair was in the old style, shaved bald along the sides of the scalp, long on top. He wore a shredded tank top reading “Karaoke Hero” in large, colorful letters, and a chain was clipped between his eyelid and earlobe.

“Hi,” the man said in the deep drawl affected by the Regulars here in the bustling, multilevel metropolis of Flagstaff. “I’m your neighbor, Ezekiel, but you can call me Zeke. Thought I’d stop by, say ‘Hi.’”

“Hi. Isaiah. Nice to meet you,” Isaiah said, shaking Zeke’s strong, calloused hand. Zeke’s other dangling hand held a beer bottle.

“You want one?” Zeke asked, gesturing towards his beer.

“Sure,” Isaiah said. He followed Zeke to his coffin next door. Isaiah was struck by how warm his space was, with several green, leafy plants and pictures of Zeke and friends. A woman, her hair styled in the same manner as Zeke’s but wearing a long, sleeveless hand-woven dress, rested on the cot, plucking at an acoustic guitar.

“Hi, I’m Isaiah,” he repeated to the woman as Zeke handed him a bottle, then clinked their beers together.

“Cheers, brother,” Zeke said; it was strange to be called “brother” after so long in the Void. Isaiah took a long pull on the beer, savoring the cold bite on his tongue.

“Nancy,” the woman replied.

“Nancy and I work up at the Canyon, removing all the casinos, hotels and other garbage littering the slopes from the days of the E.L. regime. It’s good work, if you’re interested,” Zeke offered.

“I might be,” Isaiah replied, glad to have at least one option to consider for his future.

“You play?” he asked Nancy after a moment, nodding at the instrument.

“Oh, not well,” she said, blushing slightly. Isaiah noted that she had a tattoo on her upper right bicep: “T.S” in large block letters.

“Don’t let her fool you,” Zeke said. “She gets paid to play on weekends down at Finnegan’s. Play something, baby,” he said to her, taking a slug from his beer.

Nancy started playing a wistful lament, full of hope and longing, sounding like a novel blend of Irish folk and country music. Isaiah listened, nodding his head, letting the music wash over and move him. He was firmly rooted to the ground, and was grateful for the feeling; he hadn’t felt this way for a long, long time. And he remembered thinking that nobody was making music anymore.

When the song was over, Zeke got him another beer.

“So where you from?” Zeke asked, leaning back against his short kitchen counter.

“The Void,” Isaiah replied, the words catching in his throat. Both Zeke and Nancy seemed to become more alert.

“How’d you like it there?” Nancy asked with acute interest.

“Let me tell you about the Void,” Isaiah started. It seemed that Zeke and Nancy tensed somewhat when he said that, but maybe he was imagining things. He tried to continue, but his voice stalled in his throat. He wasn’t sure what there was to tell, really. Strange, since he had thought there was so much to say, just a moment ago.

“Nothing to say?” Zeke asked with a strange smile. “Don’t worry, happens a lot with returnees. At least you didn’t rant how great it was up there, and then choke up as to why you came back.

“Makes you wonder what’s going on up there,” Zeke continued, looking skyward with a mix of wonderment and fear.

“Me too,” Isaiah forced out, his mind momentarily empty. He gripped the neck of his bottle hard, but was sure of at least one thing: he would like it better, down here.

Copyright © 2006 by Luke Jackson

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