By D Thomas Minton | December, 2009
Herakles Duncan forced himself to breathe again. His vision slowly cleared as the cocktail of the latest synthetic analgesics and substance P inhibitors dulled the pain tearing at his body.
Marcus placed a reassuring hand on his elbow. The pressure was light, not apt to cause a sub-dermal hemorrhage.
Good man, that Marcus.
Marcus had been Duncan's trusted legal advisor and confidant from the beginning. Now he would be there when he began again.
Duncan dabbed his face with a silk handkerchief. Around his eyes. Under his chin. Down the side of his neck. No blood on the delicate silk, so no fissures this time. In the recent weeks, his cellular degeneration had started to affect his skin, causing what his doctors called "dermal sloughing." Three times in the past day, Duncan had needed liquid bandage to close oozing fissures that had opened on his face and neck.
So dying painfully wasn't enough, he thought. Was he destined to also leave an unsightly corpse?
Duncan dismissed the thought. He would not let it happen.
Across the table, Dr. Guala Rei frowned at him.
"The pain is nothing," Duncan said with a dismissive wave. "Continue."
Rei's frown transformed into a hesitant smile. He shifted his hands, leaving moist prints on the table top and continued exactly where he had left off. "The transmigration procedure is not without risks."
Once again, Duncan's inability to place Rei's accent bothered him. Up until a year ago, he had been able to decipher with ease the hidden meaning behind subtle facial movements or wayward glances. He had been able to read vocal intonations like a personal dossier. No man could lie to him, cheat him, or manipulate him. His talent had made him the most powerful man in the solar system.
But his condition had nearly deprived him of his talent. What was once effortless now required focus and work. At least it had the unexpected benefit of distracting him from the pain of his degenerating body.
"What we do here on the Zagarus is not sanctioned by the Earth-Lunar government or the Mars Confederacy. Therefore, discretion is required."
Duncan watched the doctor's lips curve around the flat vowels and slightly clipped terminal ts. Not a Clarke Station accent, where Rei had done his training at a top medical school. Nor Shackleton City, Duncan decided. Rei had been dismissed from his internship at Shackleton's prestigious medical facility for performing an unauthorized--some insisted, unethical--experimental procedure on a terminally ill patient.
The patient had lived, and Rei had vanished. To Duncan's frustration, not even his prodigious resources had been able to find a trace of Rei's whereabouts during his self-enforced exile.
Eleven years later, Rei had resurfaced with the Zagarus, a state of the art interplanetary frigate, complete with a Herakles Systems Bussard ramjet, and a suite of advanced, if ethically-challenged, medical techniques.
Perhaps he had picked up the unusual intonations during the missing time. That meant something unusual. Duncan's interest piqued at the challenge.
"There is a chance the procedure will fail--"
Duncan raised a hand, the doctor's speech patterns momentarily forgotten. He couldn't abide talk of failure--talking about it led to it. "I understand the risks."
The muscles along the edge of Rei's jawbone twitched.
Duncan took pleasure in Rei's annoyance. Obviously, the doctor was unaccustomed to being interrupted, but Duncan suspected he would say nothing. Not to Herakles Duncan.
"My method, modified from Harlock and Singh, reproduces the cellular neurotransmitter pathways of your cerebral cortex within the brain of the recipient. We use lentiviruses engineered within your own brain to insert strings of self-replicating RNA into the targeted cerebral neurons in the recipient..."
Yes...yes, Duncan had it now. The subtle intervocalic tapping on the double ts in the neurotransmitter, along with the other vocal inflections, suggested time spent among the renegade--Duncan preferred apolitical--prospecting stations in Jupiter's Himalian moons. Their remoteness allowed them to operate beyond Earth and Mars regulations, and the mining was lucrative enough to provide the capital necessary for a facility like the Zagarus.
"...once activated, the RNA will stimulate the production of intracellular bio-nanites that will reconfigure the cellular membrane receptors and cascade chains, as well as recode targeted sections of the recipient's DNA. In essence, we are going to rewire the recipient's brain to identically match--"
Rei's eyebrows collapsed into a frown.
Duncan realized he was smiling and chided himself. He hadn't seized a stranglehold on ramjet and atmospheric recycler production by giving away any advantage, no matter how small. In business, it was survival of the fittest, and Herakles Duncan had repeatedly relegated his competitors to the garbage heap of evolutionary failures.
The pain and drugs were no excuse for his lapse. In recent weeks, the drugs had become less effective, forcing him to ever higher dosages. He needed to be cognizant of his dose and the potential effects. Duncan adjusted his painkillers via his medication wristband.
Rei's left eyebrow arched into an inverted v. "if all goes well, you walk away with a brand new body. For the recipient--"
"That's not my concern. I want to know what happens to this body."
"As part of your contract, you've signed your body over to us, provided the procedure goes as planned--"
Most men would have missed the way Rei's left eye twitched, but not Duncan. For the briefest of moments, the doctor broke eye contact.
"--we'll conduct an autopsy. Understanding the effect on the donor's cerebral tissue will help us improve our macrophage engineering for other applications."
Few things rankled Duncan more than dishonesty from his business associates. What was Rei hiding? Before he could say anything, however, one of Rei's assistants entered and cleared his throat.
Rei rose quickly. "I'm sorry to cut this short, Mr. Duncan, but I need to verify the final equipment calibrations. If you will excuse me." Without waiting for a response, Rei departed.
"Did you see his eyes, Marcus; the way he moved his hands? He's hiding something."
"The procedure works, sir."
"I know, Marcus. I know. That was not an indictment of you."
Marcus had spent hundreds of hours tracing electronic money transfers, bribing officials, and tracking cryptic leads through ghetto warrens and executive lounges. Rei's previous clients had been discrete, but even discretion had its price.
"But he is hiding something, and I will get answers."
"We should use this time to conclude your half of the transaction." Marcus placed a metal briefcase on the table and entered the security code into its touchpad. With a hiss of escaping air, the case popped open.
Marcus removed a single sheet of bio-electric polymer and a stylus.
Duncan reviewed the transfer document a final time. He extended his hand.
"This is risky, sir," Marcus said, withholding the stylus. "Not legal. If the Earth-Luna authorities find out, they will invalidate the asset transfer. Herakles Systems will be lost."
Duncan studied Marcus' angular features, but like any lawyer worth his fee, they were inscrutable. On any other man, Duncan would have been concerned, but not Marcus.
Marcus had brokered his first purchase of a used recycler, which Duncan had rebuilt himself and sold for a small profit. It had taken five years slaving in that decrepit shop in a poorly-shielded warren of Clarke City to scrape together enough money to buy a small production facility in a better sector of the city. Five years of radiation damage to his DNA that eventually manifested itself in his current degenerative condition.
Marcus had been there the entire time. He had earned Duncan's trust.
"I urge you to reconsider a contingency plan."
Duncan felt his heart rise. "I will not leave him anything."
"He is your son."
"He is no son of mine."
Marcus fell silent.
Duncan fumed. He did not understand Marcus' insistence on willing ownership of Herakles Systems to Bertram. The man was a failure. He possessed none of the superior traits necessary to succeed in the competitive world of interplanetary business. Bertram had proven as much when he had failed to wrest control of Herakles Systems from Duncan because he did not want to destitute his old pop, so Duncan had crushed him like the inferior organism that he was.
"I would rather auction off Herakles Systems to the highest bidder than will it to him. Give me the stylus."
Marcus placed the stylus in Duncan's outstretched hand. He gently closed the fingers around it.
Duncan scrawled his signature on one of the lines at the bottom of the transfer document. It was barely legible anymore--a jagged scrawl of indeterminate shape and form, not the bold, decisive-yet-artful shape of a man who had risen above his meager beginnings.
Duncan put the pen on the table. His arms and shoulders felt heavy. "Marcus, this procedure cannot fail."
Marcus said nothing as he placed the signed transfer document back into the briefcase. He spun the touchpad to face Duncan. "Your key."
Duncan entered his personal twenty-six character key. The briefcase clicked audibly as its internal defenses activated. If anyone attempted to open it without his key, the briefcase's contents would be destroyed by an electromagnetic pulse.
Duncan pushed himself to his feet. The pressure of his weight on his cane had ruptured subcutaneous blood vessels, leaving his left hand purple and swollen. He hobbled to a large mirror on the wall and deactivated the polarized glass, revealing a view window into the adjoining room where Rei and two assistants clustered around a metal box bristling with silicon tubes and wire leads.
Marcus joined him.
"You think this is murder," Duncan said.
"It's not my place."
"Since when does a lawyer have a conscience?"
"Your survival will cost Jared Turnbull his life."
"No, Marcus. His life buys life for every member of his cooperative. This is a win-win for everyone."
"Except Mr. Turnbull."
The two men watched Rei meticulously lay out an array of surgical instruments. After a minute, Marcus said, "It wasn't in the report, but I think you should know. Mr. Turnbull volunteered for the procedure."
"I thought Lydia Station held a lottery."
"They never got that far. Mr. Turnbull volunteered at the shareholder meeting."
Duncan was troubled by this new information. What sort of person volunteered to die? Humans, like all animals, were driven by self-preservation. The fit survived; the weak did not. But only the damaged didn't try.
"Marcus, I want to meet this Turnbull."
Duncan noted with satisfaction that Jared Turnbull looked better in person than he had in the hologram. His lean but well-defined musculature defied his life in low g. Turnbull had obviously conditioned himself for near-Earth gravity, as required by the trade agreement that would supply Lydia Station with a replacement atmospheric recycler in exchange for his body.
Turnbull didn't move.
Duncan ground his teeth. It had been over forty earth-years since any man had dared to be insubordinate. Men feared what they knew he could--and would--do to them.
"Please, Mr. Turnbull, sit down," said Marcus, his tone warm.
Turnbull sat in the same chair that Rei had occupied earlier. For the first time, he looked at Duncan.
Duncan searched for clues behind the glow of youthful skin, the rough shadow of beard, and the intensely blue-grey eyes. Turnbull's gaze was unflinching.
Duncan dismissed it as false bravado. He saw it often in the young and stupid. But there was not a single drop of sweat or tension in his jaw, as if Turnbull was genuinely unafraid.
"Lydia Station is a big place," Duncan said. "With all the names in the lottery, chances are yours would have never been drawn. Why volunteer?"
Jared's eyes jumped from Duncan to Marcus and back again. "It seemed like the right thing to do."
"That's idealistic crap. People don't do something because it's 'the right thing to do.' They do it because they get something from it." Duncan's eyes narrowed. "I've seen your type before. Some misguided notion that you can sacrifice your life for some greater good. You have a hero complex. You think others will revere you for what you've done. This is important to you because your life is pathetic and you have no hope of improving it."
Turnbull started to say something, but stopped. He looked away.
Duncan smiled--his first victory--but he remained silent, letting his words continue to do their work.
Turnbull exhaled loudly. "Lydia Station is founded on the principle of family."
Like many of the asteroid mining cooperatives, Duncan knew that Lydia Station had been founded by a handful of families who had pooled their resources to purchase a habitation module, ore cutters, and a hodge-podge of support equipment. They were low profit endeavors founded on misguided ideals.
"The very idea of a lottery goes against everything we believe. It undermines what we have built."
"So you offer yourself up." Duncan laughed. "Don't you know altruism is a sham? It's simply the strong feeding off the weak."
"I don't expect you to understand family or compassion."
"Family is overrated."
"What do you know about family?"
Duncan knew all he needed to know. He had invested much into his son's education and training hoping that one day he would render Duncan obsolete. That was the natural order. But Bertram was a disappointment, a step backward in the evolutionary progression.
Bertram had shown initial promise. He had seized three companies with superior assets before his twentieth birthday. One of those had been a Herakles Systems R&D subsidiary at Shackleton City. The audacity of the move had angered Duncan at first, especially because it had occurred an earth-day after the facility had made a significant breakthrough in Bussard ramjet technology.
The move was exactly what Duncan would have done.
But following the death of his mother, something changed. Bertram's vacuum cold aggression--a point of pride for Duncan--evaporated. He began to foster partnerships with competitors and voluntarily increased non-monetary compensation for his employees. He entered into technology exchange agreements.
He gave away the ramjet breakthrough.
Success was not achieved through cooperation. You exercised your will on the inferior and seized what you needed to make you stronger.
"In the end, all family does is disappoint you."
"In the end, all you have left is family. I pity anyone who doesn't have that."
"I don't need your pity!" Duncan fought to regain control, but the thought of his outburst only fed back into his anger. Emotions in situations like this were weakness; Duncan had succeeded in life because he did not succumb to weakness. Slowly his shaking hands settled.
"You're an evolutionary loser."
Turnbull smiled. "Funny isn't it?" When Duncan said nothing, Turnbull continued. "This evolutionary loser is about to be the most powerful man--"
Duncan cut him off with a slice of his index finger through the air. "There is only one Herakles Duncan. There will only ever be one Herakles Duncan. You will never be me. I will be you."
Duncan pushed himself to his feet and walked over to the view window. He rapped his cane handle on the glass.
"Let's get on with this."
With help from Rei's assistants, Duncan climbed into one of the two beds in the adjoining room. In a flurry of quiet efficiency they attached EKG monitors to his chest, inserted blood chemistry sensors and an array of catheters, and hung nutrient drips. Like a maestro, Rei directed the process from Duncan's side.
Less than two meters away, a third attendant, alone, did the same for Jared Turnbull.
Marcus stood near the door. While his face gave away nothing, Duncan could see the tension in his body. The tendons along the back of his hand became visible as he clenched and relaxed his grip on the briefcase handle.
One of Rei's assistants shaved Duncan's head. A second positioned a fine net of cerebrosondes over his scalp. Duncan's head prickled as a billion nano-sensors embedded into his skull.
Rei checked the fit of the cerebrosondes. "The Parrish-Kronsky-Dahler procedure creates a high-resolution, three-dimensional map of your synaptic and neurotransmitter activity under twenty-seven pre-derived stimuli," said Rei, as he adjusted the net above Duncan's left ear. "The resulting PKD map is better than a fingerprint for establishing identity. As long as the deviation between your baseline PKD map and the one made on the recipient following the transmigration does not exceed a zero point eighty-five percent, everything will be as it should. You will feel a little discomfort, but it will be over before you realize it."
A prickling sensation washed over Duncan's scalp in continuous waves from his forehead to the base of his skull. His vision exploded with novas of light and his hearing distorted as if he had plunged into a pool of water. Duncan gritted his teeth.
The prickling sensation subsided and his vision slowly cleared. Rei congratulated him as he removed the sensor net and handed it to one of his assistants.
Duncan's hands slowly uncurled.
"Are you ready, Mr. Duncan?"
Marcus placed a hand on Rei's shoulder. "If I might have a moment, Dr. Rei."
Marcus leaned over the bed, his cheek stopping next to Duncan's. "There is still time to reconsider," he whispered.
Duncan's mouth pressed into a determined line. "There is nothing to reconsider."
"If this goes poorly, Herakles Systems will be disadvantaged. Think of what that will do to interplanetary commerce. It will take years for things to get right again. What will happen to all those people in the belt and beyond?"
"If they are unable to survive, then they don't deserve to."
Marcus turned away.
Duncan watched him retreat. When Marcus did not turn to look at him, guilt surged through him as if it had been injected into his veins. Duncan saw disappointment in the set of Marcus' shoulders.
Duncan frowned. He wanted to say something, but what was there to say? His emotions confused him. He hadn't felt this way since...
Bertram. It always came back to Bertram. If Marcus was disappointed because he refused to will control of Herakles Systems to Bertram, then to hell with Marcus.
He was Herakles Duncan. Survivor.
"Make this happen."
Rei nodded to one of his assistants.
The drug-induced darkness descended quickly.
Slowly Duncan's disjointed thoughts coalesced into things tangible.
Solidness beneath his back.
Light pressure on his face.
Pain. Pain that seared through his abdomen as if his liver had finally perforated. Pain that sliced through the muscles in his right leg and tore at the joints in his left hand. Pain, like every hair being ripped from its follicle in one violent pull.
Duncan's jaw muscles clenched convulsively. Tears squeezed free from the corners of his eyes.
He reached for his medication bracelet and found it gone. Unable to think clearly, he clawed holes in his wrist where the bracelet should have been.
Duncan forced his ragged breathing into a deliberate pace--in, two, three, four; out, two, three, four... He could overcome pain, because he could overcome anything. He encapsulated the pain and panic into a ball and shoved it into the back of his mind.
A rational, concrete thought formed.
The transmigration had failed.
Duncan's brain raced through scenarios so rapidly he couldn't process them, so he focused on the pain radiating from every cell in his body. The pain, at least, told him he was still alive, and that meant he still had options. Gradually his thoughts cleared again.
Duncan blinked and realized that a sheet covered his face. He pulled it aside and sat up. The room was empty except for his bed and the transmigration equipment. It was quiet except for the deep thrum of the Zagarus that seemed to emanate from every direction. His bracelet wasn't sitting atop any of the equipment or on the floor near his bed.
Movement across the room caught his eye. Through the view window he saw Marcus and Rei in the conference room.
Good man, Marcus. He was already assessing Duncan's options with Rei.
He needed his medication bracelet. He wasn't sure how much longer he could check the pain.
Duncan pushed himself to his feet. The pain almost buckled his knees, but he caught himself on the edge of the bed. Each shuffling step was agony, but he kept his eyes locked on the door's access pad. His palm scraped painfully across the reader. The door didn't open. He tried again with the same non-response.
Duncan looked through the window. If he could get their attention--
In the adjoining room, Jared Turnbull sad hunched over the table. Next to him, the metal case sat open and empty. Marcus leaned over his shoulder and watched as Turnbull signed the transfer document.
Rei must have tricked him. And Turnbull, too. It explained the doctor's evasiveness and Turnbull's irrational willingness to sacrifice himself--all that talk about family and doing the "right thing." But Turnbull could not have gotten the transfer document out of the case without Duncan's personal key code. Unless--
Marcus would not betray him. Not Marcus, the man he trusted more than his own family. Yet the proof was before him.
Duncan's disbelief turned into anger. He punched the window glass leaving a bloody print on it and momentarily blacked out from the pain. When he recovered, he was curled in a fetal position on the floor cradling his bloodied right hand like a stillborn infant.
The door cycled open.
Rei entered, followed by Marcus and Turnbull. Duncan rolled into a sitting position against the wall.
"You assured me he would not awaken." Marcus pushed Rei aside and edged towards Duncan, as if approaching a wild animal.
"Marcus, what is this?"
"It's the only way forward." He smiled reassuringly, his hands moving in a calm-down motion.
For the first time, Duncan read Marcus like any other man. The false smile, to hide his deceit. The calming hands to lure Duncan into--
Duncan's feet slid on the floor, trying to gain traction. The skin between the toes had fissured, leaving his soles slick with blood. They finally gripped, and he skittered away from the three men until he could go no further. The walls had closed in from two sides. He was in a corner.
"You won't get away with this, you son-of-a-bitch!"
Marcus followed him across the floor. He squatted a half meter in front of him. "But I will, sir. You will see to that."
Turnbull moved up behind Marcus and placed a hand on his shoulder. "You should have told me, Marcus."
Duncan stared at Turnbull's face with growing fascination. Jared Turnbull had changed, there was no denying that. His jaw clenched, forming a hard angular chin. His brow had pulled down, his irises shaded to a darker grey, more like steel than morning mist. Yet there was still something in there that was, unmistakably, Jared Turnbull.
"It's the only way, sir," Marcus said, angling his head slightly as if speaking to Turnbull, but his eyes were still firmly fixed on Duncan. "You are still Herakles Duncan, the most powerful and feared man in the universe. Only now, thanks to Dr. Rei's recombinant procedure, you have Jared Turnbull's compassion and humanity."
"Why?" Duncan asked.
"You've achieved everything you can. You control nearly all interplanetary commerce. You control the fate of our entire species, but you're capable of only doing what is best for Herakles Duncan. You only take, and, in the process, you destroy. We need compassion now; we need to work together if we're to take that next step. You are not capable of that."
Turnbull rubbed his stubbly chin as he paced the floor behind Marcus. "Yes, Marcus, I am beginning to see the new possibilities."
"Bertram," Duncan hissed. "That is why you wanted Bertram."
Duncan tried to lunge for Marcus' throat, but he crumpled to the floor in pain. He could barely focus on the other men in the room through the ringing in his ears and the magnesium flares that seared his vision.
"You are an evolutionary dead end," Marcus said. "Think of this as your next step towards the pinnacle of evolutionary perfection."
Duncan lay on the floor, curled in a ball. He started to laugh, quietly at first, but then louder until his body convulsed. It hurt so much to laugh, but Duncan couldn't help himself. Marcus spoke of compassion and cooperation, but he had only succeeded by taking what he needed from Duncan.
Duncan raised his chin to Marcus in salute.
"What are we going to do with him?" asked Turnbull.
Marcus put an arm around Turnbull's shoulder and steered him towards the exit. "Dr. Rei will take care of him. He won't suffer much longer."
Turnbull pushed against Marcus' arm, stopping at the door and looking back.
Rei inched closer to Duncan with a raised syringe. Over the doctor's shoulder Duncan could see Turnbull's concerned face.
Duncan shook his head, disgusted. "There is, and only ever will be, one Herakles Duncan."