The call I had been dreading for decades finally came at 3:45 in the afternoon. The butler messaged me, saying that our master wanted me to come up to the penthouse and say goodbye. Grabbing my medical bag — more from habit than any hope my friend would let me use my skills to save his life, I took the private elevator up some 90 floors. I stepped out into the palatial home of Jacob Anderson, one of the most powerful oligarchs who ruled the Solar System and the greatest philanthropist humanity had ever known. The view out the floor-to-ceiling windows was breath-taking, although — except for the other Oligarchs’ sky towers — much of Central City was hidden beneath a broken layer of clouds. I ignored the spectacular vista as I rushed to the master bedroom.
The two bodyguards stepped aside, and the ornate doors swung open, granting me entry into the sanctum sanctorum in which Jacob Anderson had been confined the last eleven years. The guard closed and locked the doors behind me.
“Greetings, Simon,” the master said, greeting me informally. His voice, once strong and commanding, was barely more than a hoarse whisper. “I am glad you could make it before I leave on life’s last great adventure.”
“Jacob, please. There’s still time,” I argued, shocked at the yellow cast of his skin and the whites of his eyes. Clearly, his liver failure was considerably worse than it had been just three days earlier. “I could scan you into a mind vault in less than ten minutes and have you into a new clone in time for dinner. You could be young and healthy again.”
“Simon, you know I vowed never to use that damned technology again.”
I could never understand Jacob’s aversion to mind transfer. The vast majority of the system’s population would do anything to be able to afford the technology, even if it weren’t restricted to members of the ruling Oligarchy. He had played a pivotal role in funding the development of the mind transfer technology well over three hundred years ago, and like the other Oligarchs, he had used it to greatly extend his life. But ever since his wife and my predecessor were killed in an assassination attempt some seventy years ago, he had obstinately refused to use it again.
“But why, Jacob?” I asked, frustrated by the dying man’s cursed stubbornness. “Why? There is so much good you could still do.”
“I know, Simon, God knows I know. But misusing the technology to endlessly extend their lives is how the Oligarchs gained and maintain their stranglehold over the citizens of the System. I can hardly work to restrict its use if I use it myself. Besides, we all must atone for our sins. Even me.”
“What are you talking about? What sins? No one has done more for the citizens of the System than you have. Hell, you’ve done far more than all the other Oligarchs combined a dozen times over. And with you gone, who will protect the citizens from exploitation. Things will revert to the way they were before…”
I pause, afraid I had crossed an uncrossable line. Everyone knew that before his wife had been murdered, Jacob had been one of the worst of the Oligarchs. He had been greedy and ruthless, murdering with impunity anyone in his way as he climbed to the top over the ruins of other mid-level Oligarchs. Mentioning that period of his life had resulted in the immediate firing or disappearance of more than one member of Jacob’s staff.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, involuntarily taking a step backwards. “I meant no offense.”
“Don’t worry, Simon,” he said with a sad smile. “I’m not offended. Facing one’s imminent death has allowed me to put my past into perspective. Which reminds me of why I called you here even though I still won’t let you save my life.”
Jacob paused to catch his breath. In the complete silence of the room, I heard the faint crackling sound signifying pneumonia. Nervously glancing at his lips and the beds of his fingernails, I saw the bluish tint of cyanosis due to a lack of sufficient oxygen.
“My not letting you save my life has been very frustrating to you,” he said. “Now that I’ve reached my end, I feel I can finally give you the explanation you earned. It’s too late now for my secret to hurt me, and besides, I need you to do one last job for me, something I’m no longer able to do myself. Will you do one last thing for me, Simon?”
“Of course, Jacob. Anything.”
“Okay, Simon. Grab a chair and sit down. I’m going to tell you a secret, one that only two others known. And it is a secret only I tell.”
I took the chair from his desk and sat down close enough to hold his hand when the time came.
“As you nearly said yourself, I used to be like all the other Oligarchs. Before I liquidated them, I had extensive businesses not only on Earth, but also on the Moon, Mars, and several of the larger asteroids.”
I nodded. That much was known to everyone.
“To maintain control, I needed to frequently visit my properties, factories, and other facilities. That naturally meant downloading my mind into a mind vault and then transmitting the associated software and data by radio to one of my off-planet facilities. On Mars or the Moon, my mind would be uploaded into one of my clones, while out in the Belt, it would be uploaded into a more robust and practical robotic body.”
So far, that was no different from how the other Oligarchs managed their holdings. When, I wondered, would he tell me something that wasn’t common knowledge?
“Back in those days, I thought I could do whatever I wanted. I drank, partied, and had far more mistresses than I can remember. I was Jacob Anderson, and I didn’t care who knew what I did or who I hurt.”
I suspected as much, given the public behavior of the other Oligarchs and the rumors I heard before taking the job as Jacob’s private physician.
“That included my wife, Lilith. I thought that to keep the lifestyle I’d given her, she would put up with whatever I did. And I made sure she knew I’d cut her off the second she betrayed me with another man.”
Jacob coughed weakly and the rattle in his lungs grew clearer. After a few seconds, he continued. “Regardless, I hadn’t realized just how much I’d hurt her pride and, more importantly, just how far she’d go to get her revenge. I didn’t know she had been seduced by Robert Franklin, the poor, but ambitious, fourth son of a mid-level Oligarch. Knowing he would never inherit his father’s empire, he came up with a scheme to delete my mind once it had been received back on Earth and have his own mind downloaded into my body. That way, he could steal my identity, take over my businesses, and live my life with my wife.”
Now that was completely unexpected. Not only was it totally inconsistent with the official story of what happened, but it was also very challenging technically and highly illegal to download one person’s mind into another person’s body or clone.
“There was only one problem Franklin and Lilith had to solve,” Jacob continued. “Neither of them knew how to use the mind transfer equipment, so they needed an accomplice to do the dirty work. Specifically, they needed your predecessor, Dr. Johnathon Schwan, to do the actual transfer.
“Needing a reason for Dr. Schwan to go along with their scheme, Franklin talked my wife into seducing him. Keeping Franklin’s existence a secret, Lilith would convince my doctor she loved him, and they could share my wealth once he deleted me, and he downloaded himself into my body. But once Schwan set up the transfer, Franklin intended to kill Schwan, so he would be the one who was downloaded into my body.
“I took a while, but Lilith was persistent, and eventually, she convinced Dr. Schwan that I deserved to die. And Franklin and Lilith almost managed to pull it off. Unfortunately for them, Schwan overheard my wife bragging to her lover how she had totally fooled him.
“Knowing Franklin meant to kill him, Dr. Schwan took one of my guns and accosted the bastard when he arrived. Initially, Schwan only meant to foil Franklin’s plot and hold him until I arrived. But knowing I would kill him, Franklin tried to wrestle the gun away from Schwan. The two struggled, the gun went off, and Franklin was dead.
“Dr. Schwan panicked. Unsure of who I would believe, him or my darling wife, and knowing she had betrayed him once, he drugged her and downloaded her mind into an empty mind vault. From there, things rapidly spiraled out of control. He felt he had no choice but to go ahead with the plot.
“Now, Simon,” Jacob continued, “this is where my tale gets interesting. Dr. Schwan needed a story to explain what happened, one that wouldn’t get him executed for killing an Oligarch, even if he was only a fourth son who would never amount to much. First, Schwan shot and killed Lilith’s body with the same gun he’d used to kill Franklin. With his DNA and fingerprints on the gun, the security service would conclude my doctor had assassinated both Lilith and Franklin. Then Schwan downloaded his mind into my body before using another one of my guns to kill his original body. Certainly, no one would dare question Jacob Anderson’s story that he’d killed the assassin in self-defense. All Schwan had to do was to destroy my mind when the radio transmission containing it arrived back from Mars.”
“Clever,” I said. “But there’s one thing I don’t understand. How did you prevent Dr. Schwan from killing you and taking your place?”
“That’s just it, Simon. I didn’t. You see, Dr. Schwan downloaded my mind, or should I say Jacob Anderson’s mind, into a second mind vault. He took over Anderson’s business empire and turned it into the greatest philanthropic foundation the System has ever seen.”
“You’re not Jacob Anderson. You’re Johnathon Schwan!” I could barely believe the man I had known for decades, the celebrated philanthropist, was an impostor and a murderer.
“Correct, the Oligarch Jacob Anderson has actually been Dr. Schwan ever since that terrible night when I killed Franklin and killed both Lilith’s body and my own.”
“But then what happened to Jacob and Lilith Anderson?” I asked. “You said you downloaded their minds into mind vaults. Did you kill them, too?”
“God, no.” Dr. Schwan chuckled. “Jacob and Lilith Anderson were absolutely terrible human beings, unworthy of their vast wealth and the near immortality it bought. They deserved a much more fitting punishment for their sins. Now, will you keep your word and fulfill my dying wish? It’s nothing, really. Nothing I wouldn’t do myself if I could.”
“Yes,” I answered, terrified of what the man I thought I knew would ask of me. But I had given my word to a friend I had known for decades and the greatest philanthropist of the era.
“Do you see that box over on the mantle?”
“Bring it over. Place it under my right hand so I can press my thumb on the sensor on top.”
I did as the old man asked.
Once the box had sampled Jacob’s DNA and verified his identity, the lid popped open to reveal two mind vaults and the small, nuclear-powered battery that powered them.
“Those, Simon, are Jacob and Lilith Anderson. I’ve had them wired together so that for the last seventy years, they have been forced to listen to each other’s thoughts. For all that time, I’ve kept them imprisoned in their own little Hell with only each other to torment. I also had them connected to a microphone and camera hidden in the front of the box. Thus, I’ve given them no choice but to observe me living Jacob’s life and liquidating his empire to undo as much as I could of the damage and injustice he and the other Oligarchs have done. By now, I’ve no doubt their frustration, hatred, and powerless rage have driven them hopelessly insane.”
“Oh, my God,” I whispered, realizing the extent and magnitude of the living Hell to which my friend had damned them.
“Now hold the box up in front of me.”
I did as he told me.
“Jacob and Lilith,” he said, staring straight into the box’s camera. “By unlocking the box, I’ve started a five-minute timer. It was programmed so you, and only you, can hear it counting down. When it reaches zero, an electrical surge will fry the circuitry of your mind vaults. So you see, after all these years, I’m finally setting you free. All three of us will die today.”
A few minutes later, I heard a faint buzzing and thin streams of smoke rose from the mind vaults. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening sitting with my friend, and I held his hand as he peacefully drifted away.
© 2021 by Donald Firesmith