Short fiction published in Painted Words 2017.
At the back of an antique shop where marbles were sold, two for ten million dollars, Junior lay in silence. The old man’s bedroom, small, cramped and altogether unbefitting of someone of Junior’s character, was separated from the shop by only a paper-thin wooden panel. Junior was a man whose ageing body needed sleep – but a customer setting foot inside his nephew’s store always awakened him.
“OK, I can do those two for nine million – but no less; these things are relics,” said shopkeeper Lewis. “Anything retro – anything you can pick up and literally hold in your hands – has its price.”
The two small boys gazing up at him convulsed with excitement, before exchanging bright-eyed glances and holding out their fingers. They were utterly oblivious to their own peculiarities; children almost never entered Lewis’s shop. Not anymore. These two were the first he had seen in years.
“So, half from each of you?”
“Yes, please, sir,” one boy replied.
Lewis stretched out his hands and, like God creating Adam, met the tip of the two boys’ forefingers with his own. It had become normal not to feel any exchange of static electricity in these types of transactions – such was the sophistication of the technology. Lewis noticed the familiar sensation of the purchase being approved – a subtle click in his frontal lobe – and he handed over the marbles. The boys were out the door, bounding towards the teleportation stop, in a flash.
“Credit to them for actually getting out of their padded bedrooms,” Lewis said. “You don’t see that much anymore.”
Junior, through the paper-thin wall, laughed at the thought of boys buying marbles; it was ridiculous in an age where kids and – even more so – adults had everything inside their fingertips. The old man’s younger days traipsed back into his mind like obsolete beasts of burden and his laughter soon turned to pensive reflection. These days, Junior pondered, most boys are inside playing virtual reality games in their own heads. Seldom few were sprawled out on the footpaths outside their homes – like Junior himself had once been – flicking marbles across uneven surfaces, often at speeds that precluded any hope of a result. “Old-fashioned” such boys were called. But to Junior, the kid thing of pushing the boundaries, testing one’s strength to see how much one had, was better than any of the virtual contests and victories offered by technology.
The old times were distant now, even to Junior’s mind. Kids nowadays had strength of mind in abundance – e.g. the ability to teleport themselves home – and near immortality. Few would be aware of the childhood Junior had lived, much less be capable of understanding it. Even so, today’s children, the old man had observed, were more fearful than those of his generation – they could teleport themselves, but they rarely left home. Children today were much too fearful of physical exertion, lest it lead to some kind of violent collision.
The explanation for this fear of movement was simple: Eternagen™, the wonder product, had guaranteed people near immortality, but not absolute immortality; despite the hype. The ability to live for an eternity still seemed some way off. Eternagen™ had stopped people ageing. In the blink of an eye, the global aged-care crisis had vanished – the elderly and their strung-out middle-aged carers had been given a new lease of life; ageing had become a mere bad memory in the collective unconscious of a species of beautiful 25-year-olds.
Junior, like Lewis, saw few kids these days. The ‘No Child’ policies had worked – everyone knew the Tech Giants’ slogan “It’s One-for-One” – which translated to “Have a Child and We Kill You”. It sickened Junior to think that as long as corruption at the highest-level thwarted efforts to colonise other planets, such a policy remained somewhat necessary. There were, however, always exceptions for the wealthy, and these two kids in the shop doubtless had parents high up in one of the Tech Giants.
Occasionally, announcements would beam into the data receptor in Junior’s frontal lobe. The crippling spectre of death was cast upon him. A faceless community representative would, coldly, deliver the anomalous news that someone had “not made it to Eternity”. The cause of death was never disclosed and such events were still rare, though Junior was sure they happened more often than the Tech Giants admitted.
“We are blessed – more than any other generation – because we post-humans are proud to be the first to never have to die. Eternagen™ has bestowed on us the gift of everlasting life.”
That was the standard opening line from the anonymous Tech Giant lackey who made these regular announcements, Junior noted.
“When it comes to illness, disease, ageing, we’re indestructible – we have Eternagen™,” the voice would continue. “As we all know, that privilege comes with great responsibility. Yes, we’ve stopped earthquakes, floods and tsunamis. True, we’ve taken cars off the roads and planes out of the skies and replaced them with a much more efficient mode of transport: teleportation. And granted, we’ve ended the wars. The promise of eternal life has removed these dangers. We’re moving towards perfection, the utopia our forefathers promised. But we must remember that a final step remains to be taken. Sometimes gravity and velocity thwart us at unexpected moments. This is one of them. Sometimes we are forced to bow down to the inherent evil of nature – though we will soon become its supreme master, because we have Eternagen™.
It was never clear who was making these announcements, but they always stopped Junior in his tracks.
The old man remembered the first time he had heard Eternagen’s jingle beamed into his frontal lobe.
Eternagen™ for you and me,
The one-way street to eternity,
A life of freedom for the strong and clever,
Eternagen™ — it’s the start of forever.
At the time, Junior, then known simply as Brodie, had been living as a normal 23-year-old. His work as an agronomist had exiled him to a small shack in a remote country where he’d been documenting the effects of waste from teleportation chip production on soil and plants. Few of his contemporaries had been as dedicated to exposing the link between the waste and the decimation of a multitude of species dependent upon the land. Even at that time it had been a risky business criticising teleportation technologies – those pushing Eternagen™ used teleportation as much as anyone. Creating technology-driven medicine that gave a person the ability to remain a fit 25-year-old for ever required a range of other advanced technologies and legal changes. Old-age and illness weren’t the only things that killed people, and those behind Eternagen™ had known that they also needed to wipe out every other type of death to achieve their goal: immortality at any cost.
Junior, wearing overalls and a fisherman’s beanie to ward off the icy breeze, had been on his knees rummaging in the soil when he’d first heard the jingle. It was catchy and he’d liked it; then he’d realised what the message really meant.
“It’s going to have all sort of consequences. All sorts.”
What would it mean for everyone to be able to live forever? What would it mean for all people to be able to reach twenty-five and know, beyond all doubt, that, henceforth, their bodies would never age one little bit. Junior’s mind had skipped straight to the potential catastrophic fallout of such a utopia. He’d visualised the consolidation of power among the corrupt Tech Giants once their owners realised they could live forever. They’d control the minds of their brainwashed 25-year-old customers who, once given enough technological comforts to instantly gratify their shallow, material desires, would relinquish their free-will to the Tech Giants.
The future, to Junior, appeared as an endless stream in everyone’s frontal lobes of divisive, repugnant opinion about which Tech Giant was most divine, Then there would be the vacuous virtual reality TV shows in which every viewer would be a star. What’s more, everyone would be subjected to endless self-help videos about “the best ways to live”, while seated in empty rooms enduring technology upgrade after upgrade. Perhaps they would occasionally look in the mirror, aware that teleportation could take them anywhere, but most would choose to stay firmly put. Even back then Junior had realised that Eternagen™ would lead to the most chilling forms of totalitarianism imaginable.
“That ain’t a world I want to live in,” he remembers thinking at the time.
Cecil and Victor stood outside the antique toyshop gazing in amazement at what they held in their hands.
“They’re real marples,” Cecil said to his slightly older friend.
“They’re called ‘mar-bles’, you idiot. My grandfather flashed a virtual one to my frontal lobe when I told him we were teleporting ourselves down here; I hope real ones are just as much fun to play with. Oh, I still can’t believe how cheap they were!”
“You ready to go home?” Cecil said. “I’ll give the blink.”
Victor shook his head. He wasn’t yet ready to alert the Teleportation Authority of the boys’ intention to return home, even though they were standing ready at a teleportation stop. (No one was allowed to teleport from inside a building, lest it lead to home invasions, shop break-ins and human trafficking.) The older boy had other ideas on how they should spend their rare time out alone.
“Well, since we’re here, how about we find Junior?”
“No, let’s just go home,” Cecil said, flinching.
Junior. The Ageing Man. The man who had willingly chosen not to live forever. Yes, the feeble-minded, crazy, decrepit old fool who actually wanted to be human. Cecil nearly dry-retched thinking of those wrinkles and that supernatural snow white, thinning hair on that pasty, flaking scalp.
“Why is he like that, Dad? Why does he look like a ghost?” Cecil asked his father later that night after waking in fright from a nightmare about Junior.
“Well, you know, son, everyone was like that once,” Cecil’s father said, stroking the boy on his forehead.
“Even you?” Cecil asked, sobbing.
“I meant that everyone used to grow into that. I was lucky I was the age I was when Eternagen™ came. Otherwise, that man you saw in your dream: well, that would have been me.”
“You wouldn’t have looked normal? You would have been like a ghost?”
“I would have grown into that, eventually. We all would have. It was called ‘ageing’.”
Cecil shook his head. He didn’t get it.
“But no one grows once they are grown up, Dad. That’s the start of forever, right?”