© by Gary Morton, (9,000 words)
I wanted to go over the evidence one more time so I stepped into the shade of a hybrid elm and put on my home glasses. The enhanced mode lit up on my retina after an iris check and I viewed a shot of a real action and death scene taken by a surveillance chain in Toronto.
Gargantuan oaks towered on the grounds of a brownstone-fronted mansion. The impressive structure dominated the visible stretch of an isolated waterfront road. The video sequence registered as an emergency situation - an ear-splitting siren wailed and vehicle spinners flashed red. Numerous uniformed police were advancing on the road as they attempted to take out a rogue security robot.
A blue-jacketed squad moved up close to the heavy metal front fence on the property. Hot beams smoked from their modified Taurus lasers. Asphalt ripped and liquefied, and then a fire hydrant shattered. Flaming fragments of steel flew up with the water geyser. Some of the beams connected with the robot and sparks showered like red rain as the silver beast did a tumble in the ditch by the mansion's front gate.
It appeared to be down so the men held their fire. Barrel cores smoked and glowed with blue light, the officers in charge exchanged a few serious words.
They began to advance again. Then the robot suddenly brightened with an energy boost and shot up on jets. Caught by surprise the defenders began to duck and pull back.
Raising a wing-like weapons arm the robot fired multiple energy projectiles. Charges that lit the area like lightning flashes, every one hitting a human target with such accuracy and force that body armor immediately disintegrated … the combined impact releasing a powerful upward suction that sent a fiery wave of blood, torn limbs and burning metal skyward.
A rain of carnage replaced living men on the ground. Yellow scan beams swept from the robot's oval eyes. Then in an instant, it turned and shot over the gate. Using its weapons arm again, it blasted through the mansion wall and headed inside.
Rubble sizzled beneath its hot heavy feet. Entering a dining room it unleashed a spray of bullets from a fist nozzle causing blood to erupt on the backs of two fleeing guards. Glass and furniture shattered as it made its way to the office of Daniel Wendler, one the world's most powerful men.
Daniel looked rather young for a person 205 years old. And he was young enough physically to put up a fight. He knew the robot was coming and the moment it burst through the wall he hit it with a blast from his matter disrupter … a distorted flash that struck like a wide fist, sending the robot tumbling back into a hurricane of crumbling wood, steel and concrete.
Escaping through a rear panel Daniel ran with Olympic speed down a shining tubular escape corridor, hoping to make it to one of his helicopters. But that didn't happen. Unscratched, the silver robot shook off debris as it rose. It quickly jetted in behind Daniel and unleashed a gas projectile that traced him and exploded on contact with his skin.
When the blue fumes cleared, the final scene was of Daniel, pinned against a wall as the robot released a whirring surgical appendage and proceeded to open his chest. With computerized precision, it began to cut out vital organs and delicately place them in a special container that opened in its armored stomach. There was an expression of absolute warped terror on Daniel's face. Yet the murderous operation was textbook clean.
I removed the home glasses and scratched my moist temple. Warm summer winds were rustling the elms in the park. Cumulus clouds sailed in the blue sky and higher up the mist was feathering out in angel trails. In a better world I would've been having thoughts as pure as the sunlight dappling the rich beds of grass. In this one I had to consider evil men and their motives.
The mass media covered Daniel Wendler's sudden death. Reporters called it death by misadventure, saying he'd fallen from a rooftop patio. The real details I got from his youngest daughter, Janine Wendler. She didn't want to leave the matter hidden and buried, though the rest of the family did.
Janine arrived at my luxury office and apartment on South Rosedale Ave as an off the street customer. A beautiful kid, age thirty-two, she had flowing blond curls, a permanent tan, a lot of money and not much common sense. Her eyes were big and beautiful jewels in their innocence. I could see that she'd grown up in a pink security bubble of parental protection and had no idea of how dirty the real world could be. At least she hadn't before her father's death.
In a world of near total surveillance and expensive hybrid cops for hire, she wanted to employ me. And that seemed ridiculous since I'm a fully human specialist named Jack Michaels who takes alternative approaches to all cases. Meaning that once modern surveillance fails to find a person they hire me and I try to use my head to solve things.
“Your father is dead,” I told her. “He's not missing.”
Her distant blue eyes conveyed sadness and hidden romance. She caught me napping when she said. “His organs are missing and I want you to find them.”
“Ah,” I said. “He was a longevity selection wasn't he? Was it grave robbers or organized crime?”
She told me about the surveillance video and the robot attack that the media had not reported. She noted that she had already gone the more expensive route. A number of professional agents had taken the case. All had failed and they had clammed up completely, refusing to talk to her at all. Janine was left with the one clue she'd started with. All of his life her father had thought that a core group of fossils in the Longevity Club, those over three hundred years old, were pretty much in control of the planet, its corporations and nations. Now they knew there had to be someone else in control; a lone person who had total authority and rarely used it. He was hidden and he killed and stole organs from even the most powerful people on Earth when he was in the mood to do so.
“So it's organized crime of the deadliest sort,” I said. “Why would I take such a case? I'm just your average private detective. How could I even try to find and defeat the most powerful person on the planet?”
“I heard that you take cases no one else can solve?”
“Yes, but that's not cases too violent and superior for anyone else. How far did these guys you hired get before they were silenced?”
“Not only guys. There were female agents and the best. I've spent ten million gold backed dollars on this so far. Agents last about a month then they duck out or disappear. I have a collection of their files as they worked them.”
“I don't want any contaminated files. They'd be set to lead me to dead ends. Tell you what. I'll take the case. Payment has to be in laundered cash duplicates straight into my hands. All other transactions can be traced. I want you to make sure you mention that I wouldn't take the case and then hire one of the top hundred security firms as suckers to draw heat. If there is a big shot behind this deal, he'll probably be good enough to have me followed. Just because you were here. But I won't be doing anything suspicious that they will be able to see. The deal is I tell you who it is and that is all. I give you the name. That's if I can do that. Your idea of one person controlling the world seems farfetched. I've never really thought about it. But whether it's a bunch of them in control or one of them, it doesn't make much difference here on the ground, does it?'
She didn't reply to the question. Her eyes widened in amazement and she leaned forward like she was going to kiss me. “Do you really think you can trace the person?”
“I do,” I said. “But the part I don't get is why you want to bother. Your father was very old. Didn't he live long enough?”
“He wasn't old to me. I only knew him for my short life. And the person who killed him is a vampire of some sort, using my father's treated organs to prolong his life.”
“True,” I said. “It's also true that many people think the entire Longevity Club is a clan of vampires. You can't live longer than one hundred and twenty years without doing things that are unethical.”
Janine left a first impression that lingered like priceless perfume and I thought about her often during the short investigation. I didn't know anyone else I could describe as innocent and I found myself dreaming of her as a fantasy lover.
When I say short investigation, I mean that it took me less than a week to find the one old man controlling the world. I found him because no one with any brains had ever looked for him before. All systems in society were under his control and set to hide him and that’s how I found him. I looked for the black hole in all information systems and found a supernova that was still flaring. His name was Bill Gates and he was nearly 600 years old. He had to be one of the original members of the Longevity Club; he wasn't the listed historical founder but a hidden and unlisted member that the others in current high society did not know about. Meaning he was back there in the past and part of the original conspiracy that led to our invisible and mostly benevolent world government.
I drove over and picked up Janine in a public electric car. She emerged surrounded by guards and when the scan of my vehicle was complete she walked over. Her short summer dress revealed her long tanned legs. Overall, she looked hypnotically beautiful. She was at the young age where a woman beatifies her clothes and the world around her, not the other way around as happens in later years.
Guards were not allowed to come with us or follow us. The security person was to be me. She got in, gave me a skeptical glance and her first words were, “So you've given up, too. I suppose that's what you want to tell me?
“I want to tell you that I’ve solved the case,” I said as I pulled out.
“Really. Then who is it and how did you do it?”
“You sound skeptical. It isn't anyone you've heard of and the how of it was by not using surveillance. I'm like you in a way. Any other woman would be wearing and relying on a lot of devices for security and communications. You just wear a summer dress. My office and this car are the same. This is the cheapest vehicle around because it lacks a connection to any surveillance net or any communication device period. Your agents went to work trying to track the man who controls the worldwide surveillance net by using it. So of course he found them before they found him.”
Her smile melted to confusion. “But how could you find someone without using surveillance?”
A flow of prismatic shadows swept the highway. I glanced at her and her glittering eyes softened and connected with mine. She drew closer and put a gentle hand on my shoulder. The wind rushed and swept her silky hair up, and with the silent electric engine it was easy to find my heart filled with love. This was a beautiful young woman in a world of old fakers and disgusting grave robbing vampires. She didn't know it but I did; I'd do anything for her and the dream of genuine love. A dream lost long ago. An older detective and she'd likely be dead. But I’m not up there yet and it's a laugh to think I ever will be. The chances of me living to old age … well … they amount to about zero. I told her the details as I drove.
“I found him because of his absence. The Earth is mapped by satellites and security systems and what I did was go back to the oldest records in existence in a moldering photographic collection taken more than five centuries ago. I pieced together the Earth of yesterday, ran a comparison with the magnificent maps of today and found one area of four square miles on the old maps that does not exist on any new map. Another ancient capsule record showed that a man named Bill Gates bought that property more than 500 years ago. History records him as the richest man in the world at that time. He donated to his own charity foundation and put in other large sums for research into aging. He died of liver cancer in the first World Transition Year. Died on paper. My guess is that he's still alive and if you want to find your father's organs they are probably inside him.”
She frowned. “So this beast is much older than my father was.”
“Yes. And a quick study tells us something. The Longevity Club appears to be a pyramid. Your father as a younger member was allowed to find or develop better organs for transplant, and then the oldest member took those organs so he could live longer. They may have been preying on one another for quite some time. I doubt Gates is the only one who does it. It just happens that he is the kingpin. And if the others even know of him, they wouldn't be able to find him. Gates has set himself up as a sort of quiet and kind world dictator as he still does a lot for the poorest people on the planet. He allows others to think they run the world and are making history, yet he really controls the surveillance net and likely eliminates anyone whose politics he doesn't like.”
“Where does he live?” she said. I could see her grinding her teeth.
“The hidden location I mentioned is just outside Toronto. It's not too far from you and we're almost there now. You can look at the place but that is all. I'm telling you that the case is over. We don't have the power to accuse or harm this man. No one does. We'd simply disappear. It's best to accept that your father was part of the club of world power. The cards finally came up against him. He knew the game he was playing.”
“So that's it and it ends. People like you will just accept that the world is run by a hidden dictator and do nothing about it?”
“The public accepted that Toronto was run by your father, and they did nothing about it.”
“But that was different. He let people exercise democratic control over their local communities through vibrant community events.”
“Gates does the same thing. He's been lurking in the background all these hundreds of years. Only stepping in when one of the powers he put in place gets out of control. Who knows, maybe without him the world would have blown up or died in an ecology disaster long ago? Consider the complex political and community mosaic he's been constructing. He's been the hidden god of this millennium and anyone who would want to get rid of him should consider that Gates may have already decided who or what will succeed him. He killed your father but if it had been the other way around your father would've killed him. In any case, no one lives forever and that's what justice is. Someday maybe utopia will come and we'll all truly be equal. For now you're a young woman and you should live your life without trying to tangle with the world's most powerful man. Accept it and you'll be happy.”
She looked at me with icy eyes and said nothing. When I looked up I realized that we were almost at the Gates mansion and pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. “That's it,” I said. “This is as close as I want to get.”
The mansion stood in a natural setting that lent it a degree of invisibility. Any fortifications or security it had were part of that invisibility - surrounding swamps of robot crocodiles, the shimmer of force fields, guard walls and posts, armed men, robot sentries - none were present. Tall firs and poplars obscured much of the structure. A wall of polished stone with neatly recessed windows rose some distance behind a simple brushed stone wall.
Garages and sheds squatted on the periphery but there weren't any stables or special servants' quarters. A sports car parked inside the gate was the only vehicle outdoors. In general design the mansion was a rejection of all things that could be called artsy or ornate. Balconies on the higher floors were sturdy and square. A gently sloping tiled roof crowned the place.
A small rainbow beyond the peak indicated the presence of a fountain at the rear. Forest receded to the horizon … the whole place being about two square kilometers.
It looked like the residence of a wealthy and powerful person, though not as opulent as what one would expect from Gates. I knew there was much more to it than its surface appearance. In spite of the open design there would be a camouflaged security system we could not hope to challenge.
Janine's face was about as cheerful as the darkness in the ditches on the country highways leading back to the city. She didn't speak and her inner volcano appeared to be settling, enough so that her mood lifted as we got into town. We had a marvelous lunch on the patio of an Italian restaurant. My jokes on longevity got her giggling and her father's casket seemed finally closed. We ordered a liquid desert and it loosened her tongue enough that she revealed some of what she planned to do now that she held power in Toronto.
I felt good about myself and felt certain that the case had reached its natural conclusion. Being a practical sort, I invited Janine to return to the office with me to calculate payment, and when we got there I found a letter from Bill Gates on my desk.
Congratulations to you, Janine.
I knew Jack Michaels would find me if anyone could. But I really must correct you on this situation. I did not kill your father. James Stockward is the villain who did that, and he also put the idea of looking for me in your mind, as he guessed that I existed and wanted someone to locate me.
Stockward has now passed on.
Due to circumstances, I'll need the services of Mr. Michaels. You'll want the full details on your father, so be back at my place this evening.
Sunset clouds formed a speckled fan in the western sky and though the Gates mansion seemed much larger close up it had a simple appeal and did not seem all that sinister. My sense of perception and state of relaxation had not entered Janine. Nerves jangled, she pulled close to me and gripped my arm as we drove through the gate. I'd had a hard time convincing her that Gates wasn't luring us here to carve us up.
The man who led us inside was a plasti-grow cross between a butler and a guard. His name was Mr. Windows and his facial expressions and tone of voice were odd like he wasn't quite human and not a known type of android either. On my scales, he registered as unknown but incredibly smart and perceptive. With Gates as the client he wasn't unexpected. We entered a suddenly appearing side door and followed him down a long dim hall to a large home theatre neatly outfitted with enough couches and chairs to seat a small crowd. The room was empty and the invisible electronics were turned off. It smelled fresher than springtime. The large semicircular screen was the type that could segment into many smaller units, act as one large screen or beam holographic images to a central stage. Part of it held a hidden door that no one but me would see. Mr. Windows told us to sit and wait for Mr. Gates, and then he disappeared through it.
Five minutes later Bill Gates appeared. He came alone and he arrived through the broad south doors in a wheel chair that was also a super intelligent robo appliance. The slight distortion of a force shield created a faint soap bubble around him, yet I could see him clearly. He was a strange and ugly man - so alien that at first I wasn't sure he really was a man. His steel gray hair transplant had been jelled back in rippled waves, and his face hung like a yellowing leather mask. Liver spots decorated his forehead and an emaciated neck rose from his snow-white shirt. Cloth slippers and baggy trousers covered his fragile feet and legs. Gates' right hand was about as rough and crusty as tree bark and he was using it to adjust an absurd pair of glasses. They were reading spectacles of the sort people hadn't used for centuries. His intense eyes floated behind the lenses.
I glanced at Janine, noting a glimmer of spite in her eyes.
“Sit down, sit down,” Gates said as his chair rolled up to us. “You'll make me uncomfortable.”
We did sit in the theatre chairs, and I felt Janine shifting restlessly and huffing beside me as Gates continued to introduce himself. His ancient features gained a degree of human warmth as he spoke, making him far less frightening in my eyes. I thought that perhaps he was only a danger to people who threatened his survival.
“So it's Jack Michaels,” Gates said. “At last we meet. I know all about you of course. Being a man of the past myself, I couldn't resist following the career of a man who solves cases using the old techniques.”
“That's great,” I said. “It certainly cheers me whenever I find one of those rare people who can appreciate my work.”
“Yes, of course,” Gates said. “And we also have the lovely Janine, grieving over the loss of her father. I wish I had such a devoted daughter to weep when I die. As I said in the note, James Stockward was behind that murder. Since he has now passed on, justice has been done.”
“Not fully,” Janine said. “I don't want this Stockward man buried with my father's organs inside him. I want them removed and returned.”
“Of course. An oversight on my part. I'll see that it's done immediately.”
“There seems to be some conflict among the elderly these days,” I said. “My assumption would be that Stockward was also very old?”
“He was older than you think. James Stockward and Mac Chan were the only two men older than I. They are both dead. I don't know if you uncovered much of my background while looking me up. But you'll need to know a fair bit of it before we move on with the case. As you have probably already guessed I am hiring you to extend my life. It's a job that I think only you can do and it doesn't involve anything unethical.”
“Just what does it involve?”
“Hundreds of years ago I worked my way up in computer languages and operating systems and became the richest man on the old planet. That was before the planet became the multi orb system of Earth, the Moon and the Space Station Belt. In those days of barbarians and businessmen I had the higher qualities of compassion, honesty and integrity that others lacked. I shared my secrets with the world and as I grew older I bought heavily into research on the aged and hit the jackpot. The initial discoveries allowed a human life to be extended by at least fifty years. I did not test the new science on myself. Stockward and Chan, two of my contemporaries, were the first to have their lives extended. They never knew that I was the controlling force behind it all, and I let them live in ignorance. Ten years after they were treated, I extended my own life. Stockward and Chan lived on and I allowed them and the Longevity Club they created to be the driving forces of the new science. As the centuries passed every breakthrough of theirs was taken by me and used to extend my life. Most of my personal time was spent managing the planet and the growth to space and the moon. I have completely controlled pretty much everything since the New Planetary Years.”
“I suppose working to keep the military savages out of wars took up a good two hundred years of your time,” I said.
“The space empire made war too dangerous and unprofitable. We had to war for peace. And yes, it has been a busy life. Greedy people are always at work by the thousands attempting to destroy the planet and the rest of us with it. I have been a strong defender of public rights.”
“It wasn't only you,” Janine said. “My father and many others did a lot of work, too.”
“I do like to flatter myself. You are correct. It takes more than one person or even a longevity club to run a world. Your father did an excellent job or I wouldn't have allowed him to remain in power in my home area of Toronto. I deleted the lives of those who did not do an excellent job and this really brings us to the Longevity Club. Stockward and Chan had the same thoughts as me. They wanted to control the world through others and needed special people who would live longer to do it. They created the longevity selections, used them to control the planet, and they also lived as ghouls, stealing the organs developed by others to prolong their own lives. In the end the superior technology was always mine. I never had to rob a living man of his organs like they did. Problem is we've come up against a new barrier.”
“This is interesting.” I said. “It's also well over my head. I can solve puzzles, but surpassing the world's best doctors and scientists would not be possible.”
Gates cleared his throat. “I don't need medical skills. This is some type of death mechanism or century timed bug of the human mind that does not allow any human being to live beyond six hundred years of age. It killed Chan first and it got Stockward a year later. Since I followed them closely I detected it happening. The murder of Janine's father by Stockward was an attempt by him to strengthen his vital organs so he could fight this death bug.”
“So I guess we now know that strengthened organs aren't the key,” I said.
“That's correct. I think a certain type of intelligence or knowledge may be the key so I'm hiring you to do special surveillance work.”
“How would I do that?”
“Both Chan and Stockward had their bodies preserved and kept alive. It is their minds or living personality that died. I have Chan's remains. Stockward's are held at his estate, which is like a fortress. I will recover them for my use and so Janine can reclaim her father's organs. These remains are what you must investigate. Over the last fifty years my labs developed chemistry that allows a human agent to mesh with another person's brain and share that person's life and memories. It's a human networking deal. I want you to enter Chan's life, go to the point of his death and return with a detailed surveillance report, outlining what killed him.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Why me, and would such a report stop the mechanism?”
“There isn't any traceable physical or chemical agent causing death. It's psychological or spiritual. I'm choosing you because others have tried, but they didn't make it back out of Chan's mind alive. I believe you have the ability to find a way out and then give me information on how to beat this death bug. It's my last chance really. My birthday is a few days off and the mechanism is certain to set in. Payment for doing the job is anything you want in goods or cash, within reason. And my generosity is nearly unlimited.”
Gates' job offer horrified Janine and when we were alone she hit me with a long serious talk. Her number one fear seemed to be that I would remain alive as a vegetable, trapped in the mind of one of the horrible men who killed her father. Janine also didn't trust Gates at all and suspected that he could be planning to steal parts of my brain.
In spite of her objections I took the job and since Gates' time was quickly running out we stayed at the mansion. One day of preparations sharpened my mind and body then my mission conducting surveillance on the preserved mind of Mac Chan began.
Gates already had the equipment set up in an obscure part of the mansion that was an older appendage with a castle-like feel. Coarse stone blocks created marvelous walls and fake fire from sconces shone on the smooth marbled floors. Incredibly valuable art adorned the walls, but when I tried to touch the frame of a painting, I found it to be a holographic image. Gates informed me that the actual painting was embedded in the substance where it couldn't be stolen.
I looked around in surprise when we entered what Gates called the contact room. It had the airs of a torture chamber with bare walls and some sixteenth century chairs. The contact device was bed-shaped and hard with arm and leg straps. A broad metal hood patterned with raised skulls hung over its end.
I knew the technology in the room would be much more than it seemed. The walls were without a doubt made of a security substance embedded with nano technology in a way to protect the equipment from any disruption or interference from outside surveillance equipment.
Gates wheezed as he wheeled in behind me and I wondered if a new set of lungs were failing - meaning I had doubts about his claim that only the other longevity cases were ghouls.
“It's beautiful isn't it?” he said, referring to the contact machine.
“Perhaps the Marquis de Sade would think so.”
“I suppose you’re put off by the torture chamber appearance. I made it look like a devilish implement because it can kill people. In an instant it can send you to heaven, the madhouse or hell by establishing a link between your mind and another. In this case the other person is dead but the brain has been preserved and forced to function.”
“I can see why you never released this to the public.”
“Far too powerful. It can be made as a tiny portable device. On the market, it would be worse than any other mechanism of human control. Even the preparations you went through and the gown you are wearing are not needed. We did that to prepare you psychologically. I've never allowed much tampering with man in regards to genetics and control. People today have greater resistance to most addictions and mind control. They still learn in the same ways as in the past though at an accelerated rate. Of course, most people rarely use their abilities. You are one of the only people who do. I suppose the bottom line is that the world reflects my taste and I didn't establish myself by using mind control. I made people a little better than even me, but only after the technology to keep me in as the higher power was established.”
“Let's hope you stay in as the higher power,” I said as I climbed onto the contact device. “Because if you don't, then it means I died.”
Mr. Windows helped me into the straps, applied some odorless gel to my temples and a minute later the hood lowered. I felt an electric tickle on my scalp and neck then a visible explosion of irrational thoughts swept me. I came out of it in a state of mind that was confused and distorted, and a moment later I realized that I had connected with the dead man, Chan. A guy his age with multiple brain enhancements existed on the outer limits of the human experience so it took me some time to adapt. When I did I knew everything about him yet could still see myself existing on Gates' cold slab in the distant mansion room. Drool leaked at the corners of my mouth so I kept it in mind that I was in a vulnerable semi epileptic state.
I didn't like Mac Chan or the controlling thrust of his weird thoughts. Conflict rose then vanished as the input accelerated and a wealth of experience rushed through me. I could not comprehend it all and was gagging, grinding my teeth and biting my tongue.
Sunshine burst in with heavenly force and I became a child . . . my life as Chan sweeping by me in a riotous celebration of images and emotions. His joy, anger, fury and tears rose to a peak. This rush hit far stronger than the effects of any intravenous drug yet behind it all I had the ability to grasp that Bill Gates was catapulting me through Chan's life in a matter of instants. I knew he would halt me just before the moment of death so I could discover what had killed Chan.
As Chan's life continued to pour through my mind the overload became nothing but grief. Death surrounded this man. He trusted no one and killed everyone he loved.
It seemed true that the sorrow of men is only laughter to the gods. Being near the end of Chan's life and reflecting on it came across as a cruel joke at best. Just feeling his corrupt personality inside of me was an obscene act of self-flagellation. If Gates had a similar inner nature then a need to control his surroundings would be his driving force. Mac Chan didn't want to let go and die because he didn't want to lose control of the world around him for even a moment.
His final memories were a record of the morning of his birthday. He would reach a new magic age of longevity later that day. Chan didn’t want to celebrate or announce this fact and his mood was sour. Having banished the remnant of his family, he rested alone at his private home, knowing that a light breakfast would arrive in five minutes via sha robot.
Externally the day held beauty like no other recent day in memory. Beyond his bay window a sunrise of mystical beauty rose over the new Temagami River, and his gaze went to it and the crystalline waters. A dreamy state developed in his mind. He had an easy sensation of floating or spiritually moving toward a shifting mask developing in the sunlit haze over distant ripples. Chan for some reason found this appealing and did not resist.
In the vision he went through the ringed mouth of this mist image and entered a hallucinatory realm of eerie shadows and random fire. Meteors exploded and diabolical imagery traced in the sky. Thousands of bodies floated below on gleaming stygian waters. They stretched off as far as the eye could see on the heavy rocking waves. These were bloated corpses, rotting and dripping with licks of greasy slime and blood that shone in the dim light. They floated face-up and were painted with ghastly expressions like they had suffered a great deal of torment before they died. A faint sulfur glow around their eyes gave the impression of a living form of death, like some hellish spiritual force remained to burn in them.
Chan drifted in clouds over this hideous ocean to a bleak shoreline lined with dark fronds. He went through a swamp of reeds and reached a gaping pit of fire that spun like a vortex into the sand. An evil being appeared there in the drifting smoke and his vision turned into a strange conversation on the edge of life and death. Though to Chan this wasn't merely a vision; even in my linked experience it had an uncanny feeling of reality.
Chan's evil friend had a handsome spectral appearance. Dressed as a black hunter, he was a Lucifer of sorts with features that radiated mystical sophistication and power. A blue iris glowed in one eye; the other was mottled. He gestured with an ornate cane at the dark waters as he worked to alter Chan's perceptions of life and death.
Chan's vision continued in philosophical complexity as he debated with this being. In one sense it was the classic tale of a deal with the devil and it might have been funny if it weren't of such power and great importance. Beyond being any vivid dream state, it was a total hallucination and it crossed the boundaries of reality.
As I expected, Chan became convinced of his mortality. He bit his lip in long consideration and then bought into the being's alluring offer. He traded earthly life for a guarantee of eternal life as the new ruler of this dark domain. The black demon sealed the agreement with a handshake. He waved his cane and a magnificent flash of lightning followed, killing Chan-------it also slew me.
Thrown to the ocean by incredible force I became one of the corpses floating face-up on the dark salty waters. I suddenly realized what the glow haloing the eyes of the dead had been - morbid communion, wretchedness and decay they shared … suffering beyond all human concepts of agony.
I was damned eternally and then a second flash struck, waking me on the slab in the Gates mansion. The hood of the contact device was rising and Mr. Windows stepped in and used a towel to wipe the drool from my chin.
As I breathed in heavily and expelled air in relief an anxious Gates wheeled up and waited for me to recover enough to speak.
“Chan had a religious vision or experience,” I said to Gates. “During it his mind conjured up an evil being from the depths of his subconscious. In a philosophical deal with this inner Lucifer, he talked himself into accepting death. He agreed to die in exchange for eternal life in a realm of the dead. I believe the key is that he accepted the certainty of human mortality and at that moment his will to live collapsed. The Satan bug kicked in fully and shut off something in his brain so that he died -- if you could genuinely call it death. By keeping his body and brain alive you are also keeping him in a state of torment as his mind is trapped in the hellish place it accepted. This place is populated by billions of dead minds floating in some sea of Hades, and it's horrible beyond belief. I can’t say that it's even real. But it's there. You should know more than me on that subject.”
“Why did you survive when the others didn't?”
“I felt a strong pull to unite with Chan spiritually but it didn't happen because as individuals we were too different. He was alien to me. The others must have identified with Chan to the extent that the Satan bug got triggered in their minds as well. I also guessed that the overpowering vision and the evil being were manifestations of the death mechanism, which gave me an advantage. You will also have that advantage because I returned to tell you about it.”
“Can I beat this? Give me an honest opinion.”
“The first fact I have is interesting. For this virus-like bug to exist there must have been a time on early life-form Earth where humans or other creatures lived beyond six hundred years of age. You will have a similar hallucinatory near death experience. The Satan bug will come and tempt you on your birthday. It will seem completely real, and this ancient nano bug will use all of your inborn intelligence to fool you. When the final moment comes you must adhere to your desire for eternal life here in this reality. Otherwise your conscious mind will die. If you keep your body and brain alive you'll live in a phantom hell. You must come back to consciousness.”
“A deal with the devil,” Gates muttered hoarsely, his face hawkish as he wheeled away. “I am both God and the Devil in this empire.”
“Yes, but my suspicion is that there could be another smaller god with a following devil, maybe long dead or never alive … and this one's programming grew over long centuries of evolution to kill off the Longevity Club and you and anyone over a certain age limit. You could look at it in two ways. The God we believe is dead is killing us off, or an evolutionary mechanism has set the limits on human life. Take your pick. Pride and anger mean nothing in this game … phantom Hades waits for us all.”
Flashbacks of my death and damnation haunted me like a creepy form of possession. I shivered as I walked down the hall and I felt that I had to get out in the sun to shake it off. Stepping out a rear door, I strolled toward the cascading fountain in the backyard. Janine suddenly appeared from behind a sun umbrella, ran up and gave me a hug and a wet kiss. It warmed me immediately, but when I discovered that the next part of my assignment was to aid her - and Mr. Gates - in recovering James Stockward's remains, the sweet kiss went sour.
Being an eccentric person Stockward had left instructions for the mummification of his body inside an invincible pyramid that he'd constructed on his estate. If a non-technological way to get inside this structure existed, I didn't have time to find it. In this recovery, I broke my own rules and used Gates' superior surveillance systems to calculate a timed sequence of pressure points our special robot could use to gain entry to the inner chambers.
Since Janine had a personal stake in this recovery and feared being left alone with Gates, she went along with me and we watched the operation from a luxury command post in one of Gates' air streamed transport planes.
Observing this raid turned out to be a grave error.
Gates had designed the assault operation on the fly. He had a live video feed to us and though he'd briefed us on the pyramid we didn’t know he intended to use an unconscionable level of force to reach it. Before the robotic recovery team went down the charming old codger fried nearly all of Stockward's estate, including two hundred people and some androids and precious animals residing on it. Unbidden tears came to my eyes in response to the mindless and clumsy cruelty.
Defense forces fired back helplessly with smart rockets and beam weapons that failed to dent Gates' gleaming fleet of extermination drones ... once stationed in their assigned spots above the estate the cigar-shaped drones combined their energy weapons to sweep the grounds with disruption rays.
Janine and I stared, charged with surprise and revulsion as the attack turned atmospheric dust into billions of disruptive particles. Reality seemed to tear like paper then residents, tourists and the remaining animals in Stockward's zoo-like compound suddenly expanded and exploded. We saw a few dozen visitors emerge from a dome and become gross bursts of pulp specks, sparkling blood and mist. Flesh bits swarmed in the air like flies and as the sweep continued even the palm trees, vines and topsoil were disrupted and melted to fiery lava.
More than anything else, the assault taught us what sort of monster Bill Gates could be. Life and death were concepts he applied only to himself. He'd become a mega psychopath in his dealings with other human beings, treating them like objects that were to be molded or destroyed according to his wishes.
By the time our robot emerged with the remains, Janine could only shake and weep. She didn't care about her father's organs any more.
She trembled like a leaf as she held me and at that moment the name Gates became a trigger for loathing in my mind. The old man didn't have any humanity or class left. He was a combined organs thing and had forgotten his earlier humanity to somehow live on after his human soul had already died. It told me that the soul existed somehow and without it we were monsters. Gates was a monster organ bank with a withered brain that would commit any crime to live on. He was biology not humanity.
Hating Gates didn't stop me from doing my job. He was after all a counterfeit man who could pay any price and he wanted more work from me. I prepared for contact with Stockward's brain and planned to look at his memories to see if he really had killed Janine's father.
When contact was made I found that James Stockward's life bore no resemblance to Mac Chan's. He was more like an ancient human curiosity shop or a man who'd lived an endless great adventure. A collection of eccentricities, he had been to every hidden and cobwebby corner of the earth, space stations and the moon. His brain probably deserved permanent preservation as an offbeat history of the last centuries. It would be an invaluable resource for people like me who need obscure facts at times.
Stockward viewed himself as an immortal investigator who must always be around to discover and document the unknown or the unusual. His unwavering belief in himself and his personal powers existed as a testament to the longevity of human pride in a set personality. In spite of his faults, he existed as a rare person who could transform routine into a pattern of colorful activity and never get bored as he lived on forever. Stockward was everything from a chef to an artist … he cooked himself a different breakfast every day.
Stockward ran somewhat ahead of Gates in physical prowess and that had helped him pass the first assault of the death bug. Perhaps his eccentricities had really got him through.
In his time, he had explored practically every occult location on earth and had collected nearly every rare object available. When the visions of Hades took him his dialogue was with the snake god Set. James Stockward studied Set's flowing appendages and calmly turned down the offer of immortality as ruler of a mysterious world. He simply figured he'd get there in due time and at present there were always things to be explored and explained on earth and in the stars.
The second test of the doom bug came during his birthday … and though Stockward had easily walked out of hell that didn't stop him from blundering into heaven.
James Stockward didn't actually believe in heaven or hell. God and the devil were all fantasy to him. But since the bug could turn fantasy into reality that didn’t matter. Heaven found a form that Stockward could believe - the great adventure.
A pleasant daydream lulled him into the hallucinatory state, and though he had not left his chair in reality, he believed he had rose and walked into a field and in doing so had discovered the most incredible artifact.
It gleamed with silver metal and raised hieroglyphics. James stared with amazement at the view through the opening. A gossamer substance worked to blur a fantastic scene of jeweled turrets. Believing he'd discovered the entrance to some mythical Valhalla, he stepped through an arch.
On the other side a rope bridge led into a strange city that he knew would be rich with treasure, mysteries and perhaps even living residents. At the city gates, he found an inscription written in a language from ancient Mesopotamia. The opening lines notified all who would enter that they would have to recite and abide by the written incantation of the mystic city.
Stockward did that readily and without thinking. He did halt when he came to the last line, which gave the city claim over his soul. Then after biting his tongue he read it aloud, the gates opened and he entered . . . and never returned.
Victory belonged to the death bug because the ultimate in mysticism and adventure exists in the human imagination. In one aspect Stockward still lived. As long as machinery kept his body and brain alive he was inside somewhere, lost in a never-ending hallucination in a heavenly city.
He had chosen heaven over mortal life. The same would be possible for Gates and I told him so.
“Heaven,” Gates spat as he wrinkled his discolored forehead. “I couldn't stand a minute of any version of it. And if James Stockward is trapped in there you can count me out.”
Bill Gates' birthday sailed in with weather fit for a god of light … though my suspicions were that Gates was more properly a prince of worldly darkness and deceit. I believed he would relish the thought of ruling the unseen like Lucifer or angels, so it didn't seem likely that he could get over any spiritual hurdles. Perhaps the old snake had about a 100 to 1 chance and perhaps he had smarts I didn't know about.
Janine and I remained at the mansion, but were suddenly awakened and banished to the rock garden at dawn. Gates' android butler, Mr. Windows was to be the only person attending to him during his ordeal. Gates didn't trust any human being near him during such a moment of weakness.
The pure morning air carried fragrant scents of blooms and pines and we inhaled deeply as we slowly drank cappuccino on a deck. Farther off through the foliage the river waters were still and glacial blue and we could see the sun rising through thin mist.
I found Janine to be beautiful in the morning light so though we talked about Gates my thoughts were on her.
“Gates may live forever but he'll sure never be young again,” I said.
“The man is obscene. He's tarnished my memories of my father. He's also proven that immortality can be bought and stolen. No one should have done that.”
“If he's bought it then it was at a high price. His health sucks. Imagine what his sex life must be like.”
“Please don't make me think about it or I’ll be ill. I really hope the old bastard dies.”
“I hope so, too. He's prolonging the misery and suffering he brings, and we have to fear what he'll do to us if he lives.”
“Wouldn't he have killed us already if he wanted that?”
“He may not be in a rational state of mind due to fear of death. At present he doesn't fear me because he knows I'm too smart to kill him. The reason being that only Gates knows the system of world control he has set up. The world economy could collapse if he dies without arranging a transition of power.”
“Did he say anything at all about a transition in the event of his death?”
“He refused to discuss it. Says it would prepare him psychologically for death and he can't beat the death bug by doing that.”
Finished with our coffee we strolled through the dense vine-laden garden. I put my arm around her as we reached the riverbank. We watched the water flow slowly past the stony shore and decided that there was more to life than biting our nails and worrying about an ancient sleazebag. Gates' time of birth was around one p.m. so we drove off for breakfast and a day in the countryside, setting our mental clocks for a two p.m. return.
Our morning ended up becoming a romantic interlude that practically flew by. We made love in deep grass beside a tumbled boathouse and in this passage I'll let the reader insert a favorite paragraph from the latest crop of fiction romances. Perhaps she morphed into a female tigress and ripped me to shreds with her sexual skill and aggression. Maybe I became a super stud, grew over-the-shoulder hair and made brutal love to her. Then again, it could've been a simple scene of steamy passion and tasty body fluids or an act of frightened love as the end of the world loomed over us.
Feeling relieved and a lot less haunted, we cruised back through the mansion gate at two p.m. The clouds above resembled still angel hair and I hoped they were an omen of Gates' demise. Mr. Windows showed immediately, hurrying out to meet us. His expression was rather cold. He opened the doors for us but remained strangely silent.
“So what's the news?” I said, looking at him squarely.
“You are to view a message from Mr. Gates.”
I looked at Janine and she winked and smiled softly. “I take it this means that nasty devil bug has killed Mr. Gates?”
“Not at all,” Mr. Windows said. “He physically survived his ordeal with the bug.”
A curtain of silence fell as we followed Mr. Windows inside. “This doesn't look good,” I whispered as we went down the hall. “The old bugger won't even meet us face to face now.”
We were led to the same big guest theatre we'd been in when we first arrived at the mansion. Feeling suddenly weary and heavy I sat down. Janine practically fell to a chair beside me and we watched apprehensively as Mr. Windows busied himself preparing the equipment.
I studied him carefully as he worked, finding that he didn't appear human at all now. He wore no facial expressions or hints of emotion -- just a sort of pointless leaden mask for a face. I supposed that Gates could have altered his programming for the day, emptying him of all traces of humanity.
It wasn't long before the image engines powered up and Gates suddenly appeared on the view platform as a huge holographic image. The old codger was lying in bed and the magnification highlighted his ghastly features. A few suspenseful moments passed then his bluish lips moved. Like Mr. Windows, he seemed devoid of emotion. His eyes remained blank and dead as he spoke.
“I've made it,” Gates said. “This is the greatest human accomplishment since man set foot on the moon. What was it they said back then? Oh yes. One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Yet this time the price is high. In winning I've discovered what the death bug really is. Nothing less than that old ghost in the machine called the human soul. Heaven and hell really have been in us all along. They create our belief systems and give us a reason to live.
So in resisting, I've won but I'm also an empty shell as I did not retain my soul. Feelings and memories of my former self hover above me like a cloud and I cannot reclaim them fully because in killing my spirit I killed the core of the old Bill Gates. This is bitterness and misery but it is bearable and temporary because I believe that I can claim another man's soul and gain a spiritual recharge that will carry me on for a thousand years. My equipment has registered the exact brain energy pattern that the bug destroys.
I have chosen you, Jack. You will die while in mental contact with me and the equipment will transfer your vital energy into my brain. It will be the first soul transplant so to speak. You will live on as the divine energy engine driving my cerebral life.”
I heard Janine gasp beside me and on the screen; I could see Gates looking to his side at someone unseen. “Why are you here?” Gates was saying. “I said no one was to enter. Get out. Get out now!”
Mr. Windows suddenly appeared at Gates' bedside. His face emotionless, he held a pillow in his hands. Gates continued to yell at him, but Mr. Windows didn't retreat. Instead, he lurched forward, threw the pillow across Gates' face and held it there as he kicked, struggled, suffocated and died.
Then the platform went blank. The message was over and the expressionless Mr. Windows stood before us.
“Why did you kill him?” I said.
“I am an android. Mr. Gates programmed me to destroy all imposters. In his recorded statement, Mr. Gates' body admits truthfully, according to my lie detection system, that it does not have Mr. Gates' soul. This Mr. Gates was somehow an imposter so I killed him.”
“I see,” I said. “A Mr. Windows bug and not the Satan bug killed him. Or better said, the software worked smoothly for once. So what happens now?”
“Mr. Gates chose you as the person to clear up his affairs in the event of his death. I will now show the message outlining just how to arrange it so the world runs without Mr. Gates at the helm.”
“Show it, by all means,” I said.
Janine was smiling, her eyes sparkling. “Perhaps a woman should run the world this time.”
“Don't even think about it,” I said. “You'll get wrinkles and a craving for fresh organs if you do.”
She winked and I kissed her, knowing that a new world was on the menu … a bigger world and moon system of the imagination, where we could thank an unseen God who wasn’t Bill Gates and a bunch of old men.
---- the end -----