Read the opening chapters of Eternal Life.
A novel by Leigh Turner
Chimeric Brain Mouse Speaks Out: ‘I WANT MY BABIES TO BE HUMAN BEINGS!’ – National Enquirer 2086
Jake Parker was on his way to re-possess a stolen lifetime when his best friend Ed Torres, and Ed’s wife Abigail, briefly became parents.
A nurse propped open the window of Ed and Abigail’s suite at the Hughes Procreation Center in Santa Monica “to help baby breathe”. The new-born infant’s cries mingled with the reggae from the nearby Feeding Frenzy milk bar and the whispering of the breeze in the palm trees.
Senior Obstetrician Dr Alan Beasdale 100 handed the fresh-chipped baby to Abigail.
‘Is your husband OK?’ Beasdale said. ‘He seems distracted.’
Abigail peered up at the medic. Beyond the mask, she saw only his blue eyes and a fringe of dark hair so thick it looked unnatural.
‘He’ll be OK when Jake gets here,’ she said. ‘They can escape for a beer.’ She nuzzled the baby’s cheek. ‘For an hour, anyhow.’
The new father stared out of the window.
‘This fellow Jake a friend of yours?’ the obstetrician said.
‘Jake is a Biotime enforcement agent. Like me.’ Ed frowned at Abigail and the baby as though puzzled by their presence. ‘He’s chasing down a Termination Contract. Dangerous job.’
‘I would love to meet him.’ Beasdale’s smile left no wrinkles anywhere on his face. ‘But I have another delivery at 12.30. Will you excuse me?’
‘Sure.’ Abigail beckoned to Ed, who had yet to hold the baby. ‘Come and sit down, sugar.’ She patted the sheets and smiled as the doctor closed the door behind him. ‘Let’s all get to know each other.’
Northbound on the crumbling concrete of I-405, Jake clenched his teeth and cranked up the music.
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
more full of joy!
Yeah, right. Today, being full of joy was Ed’s job. Jake faced life expectancy reduction, or worse. The pulse tracker on his bracelet blinked red.
Before heading to Hughes, Jake must put Time-expired Jennifer on the slab. What if the Termination hit a problem?
Jake’s Albuquerque Cheyenne Classic, like every other vehicle on the highway, was in safe drive auto, locked at forty miles per hour behind the Nagasaki Commemoration up front. He eyed the Korean car’s smooth lines. Time-expired Jennifer drove one, as it happened. But not for much longer.
The Chattanooga Life Exchange Foundation (“CLEF – your key to a better life”) had contacted Jake about the case. A man with a moustache and dark-rimmed glasses had materialised, leaning forward over a desk that materialised with him.
‘Baker 109, CLEF, Chattanooga,’ the recorded holo had opened.
He described a routine case. A cash-poor woman, biological age fifty-five, thirty years life expectancy in hand, had decided to cash in her assets.
‘So,’ Baker 109 had said, biting the end off each word, ‘she takes out a generous Termination Contract with us here in Chattanooga and becomes, for the first time in her life, rich enough to live in style. Which she does, with gusto. Nothing wrong with that.’ He had coughed and wiped his moustache with a handkerchief.
‘However. Following much indulgence in moon-gazing, fancy vacations and so forth, she meets the usual younger man, who says, as young men do – ’ Baker had coughed again and read from a screen on his desk ‘ – beautiful mother, please don’t leave me. I’ll hide you away in a little house in the big city, and we’ll make love ‘til the day we die.’ Baker had smiled. ‘Mr Parker, we’d like you to enforce the Termination Contract.’
The Cheyenne slowed for the Beverly Hills turn-off. The streets grew wider. Houses retreated beyond swathes of shrubs and lawns.
Were Time-expired Jennifer and her boyfriend waiting to ambush him? Jake’s chest tightened. He turned to face the back of the car.
He would observe the house for an extra fifteen minutes, to reduce the risks of entry. Then he would repossess Jennifer’s lifetime, collect evidence, and drive to Santa Monica to join Ed and Abigail. Jake punched the Birth Channel on his bracelet, leaving the music playing.
…All men become brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings
The Central Authority had introduced the Birth Channel to encourage reproduction by publicising the joys of childbirth. The programmers had trouble finding content. Today, Abigail Torres was the only birth on-air. She sat in bed, cradling the child in her arms. Ed stood nearby, shoulders hunched. A display showed a readout from the baby’s bracelet and spine implant: the heart beat pow, pow, pow, firm and strong.
Jake smiled. Soon, he would share Ed and Abigail’s big day. But first, he must bring to justice a woman trying to steal something of immense value: her own life.
The Cheyenne coasted to a halt. Jake took a deep breath and switched to the Crime Channel. Time for him to broadcast.
A Neon-Glo blue Nagasaki stood in the driveway of 137 South Clark. All polished up and maybe now someplace to go. In the yard, dusty artificial bushes and flowers rose from the dirt, a mix called Tropical Medley. Only the super-rich had time for a real garden these days. The tab scanner in Jake’s bracelet showed no sign of life. The house must be data-shielded – or empty.
What lay within?
Jake sat motionless outside the house where Time-expired Jennifer had sought refuge. Minutes ticked by.
At last, the red light on his pulse tracker blinked out. Jake flexed his fingers, activated the holo on his lapel, and opened the car door. Now to show the world what happened when the law caught up with a couple of Biotime criminals.
EXTREME SUFFERING JUSTIFIES EXTREME MEASURES – One Life Army atrocity verification code
Sue Phu looked out at the rain and sighed. Three days into her confinement and still no sign of a break in the weather. From her front door the Mekong stretched, shimmering in the downpour. What kind of welcome was this for the new baby? Between her breasts a drop of sweat rolled down, a cool tickle melting into warmth where her swollen belly rose against the fabric. She yelled to her daughter.
‘Last Chance! Is the water still hot?’
‘Come and try it.’
Last Chance crouched over an open fire in the corner of the hut, steam rising from a cauldron. She had helped deliver two of her mother’s children. The first time, the water had been too cold and Sue Phu had nearly died. Water-borne hepatitis, the man in the boat said when he came for the baby. He even entered the house, wearing a suit with cylinders on the back. He took a blood sample and examined Sue Phu, his gloved hands holding back her eyelids so far Last Chance worried her mother’s eyeballs might fall out.
The man had left lucky charms after that, to help keep Sue Phu and Last Chance healthy. They had glass bottles full of powder to sprinkle in the hut; pills to swallow before and after the stud-boys came; and red pellets that fizzed and boiled in the river water Sue Phu and Last Chance drank when the bottles they bought from the supply boat ran out.
Sue Phu stepped inside the hut, touching the smooth metal box over the door for luck. The man in the boat brought one whenever a woman in the village bled for the first time. A black dish on the roof stored up the sun and shone it out during the night, from a glass eye on the front. The man in the boat said the box helped him know if Sue Phu needed anything.
The man in the boat never bargained. The prices he paid kept falling. Sue Phu had even imagined keeping the new baby, if it was a girl. But how else to earn the tokens she needed to eat? The man in the boat supplied for free the stud-boys to make her pregnant. No other men ever came, or any other people at all.
Not since the time of Sue Phu’s great-grandmother had men lived in the village. No-one knew what had happened to them. Some said the Americans had killed them when they lost the great war, long ago. Others said a virus had killed the men and left the women. That had been when the aeroplanes stopped flying, and jungle grew back across the country.
Younger women said men had never existed in the village. How could they, when the man in the boat took every male child away with him? The man in the boat, when people dared to ask him, smiled and said nothing.
Two days later, the rain stopped and Sue Phu delivered with the help of Last Chance a yelling, healthy baby boy. Last Chance said the new baby cried so loud the man in the boat would hear. Sue Phu cradled the infant and smiled. The first four babies she had sold had all been girls. Holding on to Last Chance, her fifth, had been an act of superstitious folly, as though such a demonstration might persuade the gods of her indifference. Penury had been averted only by the fascination the child exerted on the rest of the village: women had crowded in, taking turns holding the infant and bringing small gifts of food. But the gods paid scant attention: Sue Phu went on to produce four more baby girls, one after another.
A few days after each birth, the man in the boat visited, examined the baby, and bowed to Sue Phu, his right hand flat against his heart. That meant good news. He gave Sue Phu a small case of dollar tokens wrapped in a pink ribbon – for a girl – and left, with the baby. He paid less for a girl than for a boy. This time it would be different.
The boat came as Sue Phu nursed the child outside her front door. She knew the roar of the engines, rising to a scream as the boat hit a patch of open water then dropping to a burble as it toiled between the river houses, vulnerable on their bamboo stilts. The man in the boat looked after the women of the village. He had an interest in them, for sure. She held the child to her breast.
The boat stopped in front of the house, rolling in the dark, calm water. Last Chance peered round the door. The vessel, longer than any two houses in the village and streaked with the rain of a hundred summers, fascinated the women. Life would cease without it. Yet dread tinged its attraction.
When Last Chance misbehaved, Sue Phu threatened to sell her to the man in the boat. In fact, he had several times offered Sue Phu a cash payment in return for taking her daughter on board. He told her that as Last Chance grew older, the price would be less; and that when the girl first bled, it would fall to nil. Sue Phu always refused.
On the boat a door opened and the man came out, blinking in the sunshine. His long fair hair cascaded over his shoulders; a sarong bound his muscular waist. His left breast bore a tattoo of a white bird. He wore a smooth black band on his wrist. The man in the boat had visited the village forever. Yet he looked younger than Sue Phu.
‘Good morning, Sue Phu,’ he said. ‘I hear you got something good for me.’
Sue Phu nodded from her waiting place. The man spoke softly, his face warm with friendship. Yet something about him chilled her. Not his smile, the corners of his mouth twitching when he caught her glance. Nor his walk and posture, humble compared with the strutting of the boat crew – short, hard men who spoke a language she did not understand. Rather, his eyes gazed at her from a place far away, where Sue Phu’s life had no more meaning than the scurrying of an ant on the forest floor.
Many years ago, after a glass of rice wine, Sue Phu’s mother had told her why the boat crew were angry.
‘They are not like the stud-boys. They are smooth down there.’ Sue Phu’s mother had touched herself between the legs. ‘There is nothing hanging down. Or sticking up. It is the price they pay. It makes them irritable.’
‘Price?’ Sue Phu had frowned. ‘What price?’
‘The price of freedom. They want to ride on the boat, they pay. So they cannot bother us. Simple.’
‘But what if they do not want to ride on the boat?’
Sue Phu’s mother had gathered her up and kissed her on the forehead. ‘I do not know. Maybe one day you can ask the man in the boat.’
But Sue Phu had never dared.
The ritual began. Standing in the boat, the man took from one of his grim-faced crew a package sealed in plastic. He tore it open to extract a white tray with high sides and a fabric lining. He placed the tray on the cane matting at the edge of the platform and stepped back.
‘May I see the baby, Sue Phu?’ the man in the boat asked.
The tiny boy cried. Sue Phu did not kiss or comfort him. It was too late for that. She laid the infant in the tray and knelt back. A fat tear welled up on the baby’s cheek and trickled down, but she suppressed the urge to wipe it away. She knelt, expressionless, her hands folded in her lap, as the man tickled the baby’s toes, examined its eyes, and, using a disposable syringe, extracted a sample of blood. The baby yelled lustily. Sue Phu bit her lip as the crewman took the blood inside, slamming the door behind him.
Everyone said they tested the blood to check that the father was one of the stud-boys. If the results came out wrong, the man in the boat would take the child but pay nothing. Sue Phu did not remember this happening. How could it, with no other men in the village? But they always took blood into the boat before passing any baby fit for dollars.
The door stayed closed. The man in the boat sat in a chair at the stern, gazing at the river, ignoring Sue Phu and the baby. Sue Phu willed the door to open. The panel carried a painted image, faded by rain and sunshine: a severed hand, pierced by a knife. A lizard ran out from the house onto the floor matting and stopped dead, its eyes rotating as it tried to decide whether to stay frozen or run away. Further down the riverbank, beneath the overhanging trees, something splashed into the water.
At last the boat door opened and the crewman emerged. He said a few words in his guttural tongue. The man in the boat stood, and gazed at the river. As if he had all the time in the world. He turned to Sue Phu and placed his right hand flat over his heart.
His palm covered the white bird.
‘It’s a deal,’ the man in the boat said.
Sue Phu blinked. Her eyes filled with tears. Eight times before, the man had taken her baby. It never got any easier. Behind her, a whoop rang out. Last Chance jumped around and yelled. Two pregnant women peeked from the doorway of the next hut.
‘You done it, new baby,’ shrieked Last Chance. ‘You done it.’
In his tray, the baby cried.
The man in the boat stepped forward and looked down at the child. ‘Say goodbye?’ he said to Sue Phu.
Sue Phu shook her head. She had no baby.
The man addressed the child. ‘Say goodbye to your momma, kid.’ He placed a package, tied with a blue ribbon, on the cane matting. ‘This is for you, Sue Phu.’
The infant sobbed, reaching out a tiny hand like a gesture of farewell.
At the rear of the boat, a crewman grunted and lifted a pack of groceries onto the far end of the platform that surrounded the house. He sprayed down his hands and returned below deck.
‘We’re grateful for all your good work,’ the man in the boat said to Sue Phu. ‘If you are thinking of having another child, I remind you that with eight already in our care plus little number nine here, you only need one more to retire and receive a regular payment for the rest of your life. You can leave all the work to Last Chance.’
‘You bring the stud-boys,’ Sue Phu said. ‘I will be waiting.’
‘We will be back. As soon as we think you’re ready.’ The man picked up the tray. The boat slipped its moorings and moved out into the channel. Sue Phu heard the baby crying as the man opened the door and went inside. Then the door closed, and the crying was gone.
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