Cheating Fate

approx 7800 words

“Ebenezer! That’s outrageous! Even for you. You can’t be serious!”

My nephew called me Ebenezer only when he was in the throes of one of his morality attacks. He’d been having a lot of those lately, so it was a good thing Neville ran the Moreland Foundation and not the family business—which he had a disconcerting tendency to call Scrooge, Incorporated.

“Get real, Nevvy.” Even with oxygen tubes taped to my nostrils, my voice wheezed out of my throat. “You want me to die?”

“Of course not! But there’s got to be some other way. A liver transplant. Dialysis. Something!”

“Oh sure,” I wheezed. “Maybe leeches?” I glared at him. “While my telomeres—dwindle away...? Such a comforting—thought.”

“There must be some other way of keeping you alive until your next clone is ready.”

“Doctor Hellar—calculated—alternatives—Rani’s my best shot—best match—gene pool—brain case—all of it.”

“But she’s only seventeen! If Doc Hellar is right about your prognosis, you’re condemning her to a life of no more than two years max!”

“Not necessarily—her brain’s got—all young telomeres—better chance than mine—keep my body alive.”

“That’s a long shot and you know it. What you’re doing, it’s not fair to her.”

“Oh, come on!” I wheezed. “You’ve never heard—free will...? It’s her choice.”

“People who live in that kind of poverty don’t have a lot of choice. You come along dangling all that money in front of her nose—she’s likely to think she can buy her way out of anything.”

I shrugged. “Maybe she can—young are optimists—maybe she’ll succeed—where I...”

But I had banished the word failure from my vocabulary three clones ago. If I couldn’t make it to clone number four, my days on this earth would be chopped shorter than those pesky telomeres on the ends of my genes that were blocking mitosis, causing cell death, and generally making my body fall apart at the seams.

“Besides,” I added. “I’m not—heartless reprobate—we’ve taken—tissue samples—started clone—for her—all she has to do—last three years—take my clone—then get hers—”

“Uncle Bennie! This is insane. Even you can’t cheat fate.”

“No...? Watch me.”

I pulled back the knob on my wheelchair, then swiveled it and myself to the right and out the door toward the pool. Doctor Hellar also said that exercise—what I could manage of it, anyway—was key to a successful body transplant. I wasn’t about to let some spat with my nephew interrupt my schedule.

*  *  * 

Hank Walker, my security chief, brought the holovid to my office first thing the next morning. Nevvy was so predictable. It wouldn’t occur to him to wire his own house—so he hadn’t imagined I would wire mine. The timestamp hovering above my right hand said he’d gone straight to Rani Kidde after I’d left for the pool.

Those timestamps were a touch of genius. Their unbreakable coding was the cornerstone of Moreland Technologies—courtesy of Jimi Foxxe, my first ghetto-reclamation project. Soon after I’d moved into my second clone, my IT chief had caught Jimi hacking into our secure databases, and dragged him kicking and screaming into my offices.

Jimi’s mother had wanted to name him Wiley—she’d died at his birth and wiser heads had prevailed, but the moniker would have been apt. That day in my office, Jimi had quickly grasped the notion that he was between a rock and a hard place. He’d made the obvious choice and come on board—the first of some half dozen ghetto brats to prefer the light of opportunity to the darkness of their current circumstances.

My other reclaimees had proven...disappointing, but Jimi’s work had gotten me dozens of patents, and he had long since replaced his mentor as my VP of R&D. In fact, he’d designed the system I used to wire my house. As unbreakable as the timestamp above my wrist, the system was a huge money maker with governments and security outfits all the way from Mercury to Ganymede.

Rani was perched in a window alcove, looking out over the gardens, as I watched Nevvy come into her room. She was wearing one of the new dresses I’d bought for her: pale yellow flowers against the lovely maple-syrup color of her skin. She turned her head and gazed at him with those calm amber eyes.

“Jeeves says you wanna talk with me?” Rani said.

“You can’t let Uncle Bennie do this,” Nevvy began. “The money’s not worth it.”

Rani smiled. “What d’you know ‘bout money? Ever had none?”

“No,” Nevvy admitted. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t understand—”

“Course it does. Goin’ to sleep hungry. Watchin’ brothers and sisters die of curable diseases. Ever done that?”

“No,” Nevvy admitted again.

Neville’s parents had died in a car crash when he was a baby. I’d raised him, taken care of him ever since. That was pretty much all Nevvy knew about death.

“There’s got to be some other way,” Nevvy said. “Let me help you. Get you a job or a scholarship or business loan. Something. You’ll die if you do this.”

Rani ran one hand down her arm—still thin but already plumping up. Stronger than before. And smooth. So young. I couldn’t remember what it was like to have skin like that on my own arms. My clones—even at their youngest—came out of the vats some sixty years old, the age I’d been when cloning transplantology first became feasible. Even Nevvy’s clones started out at thirty—and he was only on his second. He had no notion what it was like to use up bodies every twenty-odd years like I did.

“Ever’body dies,” she said. “Mister Moreland—he said I’ll have the best doctors. They’ll do all they can to see I make it those three years ‘til his clone is ready. Then it’s only five more ‘til mine’s ready too. And once I’m back in my own body...” She rubbed her arm again—“it’ll be a lotta years before I need that next clone.”

“Look, Rani, I want to believe you’ll make it that first three years, but the odds are against you. It’s not fair to ask you—”

“Fair!” Rani came up off the window seat, eyes glittering like fire opals. “Ain’t nothin’ fair ‘bout watchin’ your family die ‘cause they got no money. This way, they all taken care of. They all got fine long futures now—thanks to Mister Moreland settin’ up the Kidde Family Trust—and it’s all on account of me. I made this happen. Me. So don’t you go spoilin’ it.”

Nevvy squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his temples like he had a headache. “Rani, I hate to say this about my own uncle—but what if he’s lying to you?” He opened his eyes again and gazed at her intently. “This medical advice you’re getting—it’s from his own doctor. What if it’s wrong?”

Rani shrugged. “Rich men lie. It’s what they do. Besides, if it ain’t me movin’ into his shoes, it’ll be somebody else. May as well be me.”

“I can’t let you die—”

“Hey, it’s cool of you to worry ‘bout me. But it’s okay. I know what I’m doin’.”

Nevvy shook his head. “You’re too young. You don’t know what you’re risking. I can’t let him do this to you.”

“You can’t stop it neither.” She gazed back out the window. “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

Nevvy’s hands balled up, but he turned and left the room without saying another word.

If I knew Neville—and after all these decades, I was pretty sure I did—he wasn’t finished with this. I wondered what scheme my nephew would come up with next.

*  *  *

I didn’t have long to wait. Two days later, my attorney was served with notice of a civil suit challenging the validity of my wardship contract with Rani Kidde.

Virtual reality had made vast improvements in court schedules since my youth. We met the very next day in cyberspace—with the usual lie-detector hookups plus protections against bugs and spyware. All surrounded by a Moreland Technologies firewall—once again courtesy of Jimi Foxxe—that made a medieval fortress look like fluff.

Your mind controlled your actions and appearance in cyberspace, so I strolled into the courtroom dressed in a suit of nubbly Shantung silk in a sooty grey. Diamond cufflinks sparkled at my wrists. I was amused to see Nevvy wearing a jumpsuit of faded blue denim—clearly hoping to sway the dozen jurors to his side of the argument by portraying himself as “a man of the people.”

The courtroom was vintage Perry Mason—mahogany paneling, tall windows, and a swing gate between the courtroom proper and the spectator benches. Rani and her family sat among the benches behind Nevvy and myself. I counted eight of them, ranging from a youngster whose image kept wobbling between ten-year-old spindly and the Hulk on steroids, to a crone whose hair looked like a skein of yarn the cat had played with.

The judge, a bland-faced hologram in the usual black robes behind a high desk at the front of the room, banged his gavel and said, “This trial into the matter of Moreland versus Moreland is hereby called to order.”

Nevvy’s lawyer—a man named Crandall sporting a peach-colored ice cream suit and handlebar mustache—rose and addressed the judge. “Your honor, we ask that this contract of wardship be declared null and void. We present the birth certificate of Rani Kidde—showing clearly that she is only seventeen, a minor. She is not legally competent to make such an agreement or sign such a contract.”

Crandall handed Rani’s birth certificate to the clerk and sat back down beside Nevvy. The judge took the certificate from the clerk, looked it over, then nodded and handed it back. “You may continue.”

My lawyer rose. Sandy Bothingham was a shark of the first order, and had been my lawyer for two clones now.

“The defense calls Zenda Sadira Jarita Darice Kidde.”

Rani’s mother blipped to the stand, swore to her name and relationship to Rani, and sat.

“Do you recognize this paper?” Sandy asked her, picking up a clipped set of sheets from his case and displaying them before her.

“Why yes. That’s the contract I signed makin’ Rani his heir.” And she smiled at me. I smiled back.

“You mean this man—” Sandy asked, pointing at me “—Ebenezer Moreland?”

“Why, yes. That’s him.”

“And can you tell the court why you agreed to transfer your guardianship of Rani Kidde to Mr. Moreland?”

“Well, sure. It was in her best interests and all. Mister Moreland, he told us he’d take good care of her and she’d get all his money when he died. I couldn’t hardly do nothin’ like that for her. I mean, Mister Moreland, he’s a rich man. And me, my family, we’re...not rich at all.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Kidde. Oh, and can you tell us when you were born?”

“When I...? Why Mister Bothingham, I wuddun’ve thought you would ask me such a rude question.”

“Can you assure us then, that you are older than twenty-one and competent to sign legal contracts?”

“Well of course I am. I’m her mother, aren’t I? I couldn’t hardly be a child, now could I?”

Sandy then called Rani to the stand and asked if she had any objections to becoming my ward.

“No, sir,” she assured him.

“Do you understand what it means, becoming his ward?”

“Mister Moreland explained it all real careful-like to me. He’ll be makin’ all the decisions for my upbringin’ and welfare. And when he dies, I’ll inherit his holdin’s.” Her smile lit the courtroom like the sun after a rainstorm.

Of course, it wasn’t quite so simple as that. I’d set up the family trusts before my first clone in such a way that even I couldn’t divert the monies. I was supported in style for the rest of my life, as was Nevvy. Half the remaining profits were invested in the Moreland Foundation, and the other half went to build Moreland Technologies. When I died, my “allowance” reverted back to Moreland Technologies, and the same for Nevvy with the Moreland Foundation. I hadn’t mentioned this small detail to Rani, but then it wouldn’t matter, since she would be the one inside this rotting carcass, not me. The important thing was managerial control of my company, which I would be signing over to Rani’s body just before the transplant—and of course activating the arrangements for the Kidde Family Trust as soon as I woke up in her body.

We rested our case at two o’clock. At four, Jeeves came to inform me that the jury was back. Within moments, the principals and interested parties all returned to cyberspace. Once Nevvy and myself and our lawyers were present, the judge blipped in behind his desk, banged his gavel and brought the courtroom to order.

“Have you reached a verdict?” the judge asked.

The foreman rose and said, “We have, your honor. Finding for the defendant, Ebenezer Moreland.”

The Kiddes applauded and hugged one another. Nevvy’s attorney rose and asked for a polling of the jury. Ten of the twelve confirmed the verdict—three more than the needed majority since this was a civil suit. Feeling pleased, I strolled over to his table.

“Nice try, Nevvy.” I held out my hand. “No hard feelings.”

Nevvy crossed his arms with a hard gleam to his eyes and ignored my hand. “This isn’t over.”

I shrugged, having expected no less.

Two days later, Doctor Hellar popped into my office cyberspace the moment I acknowledged his call. Then his eyes flickered about the room. “Are you sure it’s safe? No bugs?”

I assured him that my security used the most up-to-date coding from Moreland Technologies. Jimi was still the best in the world at making unbreakable firewalls.

“Something’s come up,” Hellar said then.

Nevvy, I thought—and I was right.

“He’s threatening to get my license revoked if we proceed as planned,” Hellar said.

“He’s bluffing.”

“You can’t be sure. I never should have agreed to do this. It’s so far off the scale it’s insane. Rani’s a citizen, not a clone. And she’s below the age of consent besides. I can’t count the number of statutes I’d be breaking—”

“Nobody’s going to find out. I’m coaching her how to behave like me—and she’s a quick study. The only people on my staff who’re close enough to guess, they’re...well-paid. And about to take early retirement. I really shouldn’t have told Nevvy, but if he’d accused her of supplanting me...that could’ve gotten ugly. Really ugly.”

“All he has to do is accuse us—”

“He won’t.”

“How can you be so sure?” Hellar asked.

I paused for a moment, watching the tension build on his face. “I know where his skeletons are buried. Just like I know about yours.”

Hellar went utterly still in that cyberspace way of not letting his real reactions show. I smiled, imagining the way his skin would have paled with fear. I’d seen it once. When I’d told him what I knew about Lizbet and how she had died.

Of course, Nevvy didn’t have any real skeletons, not in that sense anyway. But Hellar didn’t need to know that.

“After the transplant,” I said, “the first thing I’ll do is make sure the package is returned to its hiding place. You’ll be safe.”

Hellar rolled his eyes. “Safe.”

“Safe,” I repeated, with all the confidence I could project into my cyberspace self. “Don’t worry about Nevvy. I’ll handle him.”

*  *  *

I wasn’t about to trust Neville’s cyberspace—and he wasn’t likely to answer a call to mine. That left arranging a body meet. So I hired Randerson, Inc. to make an appointment with the Moreland Foundation and insist upon meeting with Nevvy face to face.

My nephew wasn’t surprised when I steered myself through the doorway into the conference room. His security guards had no doubt warned him when I signed the register downstairs.

“That will do,” I wheezed at Dick Randerson. “Appreciate—your services—discretion—whole nine yards—you’ll get payment—first thing in morning.”

He nodded at me, then to Nevvy, and left.

“Changed your mind about Rani?” Nevvy asked me.

“What do you know—about poverty?” I replied.

Nevvy blinked. Looked at me all wide-eyed. “What does that matter? She’s entitled to a full life—”

“She’ll get it—full life—I guarantee it—and the money—as my heir.”

“If you die.”

“When I die.”

Of course I was lying, but I’d had decades of practice in fooling ordinary monitors. Even if Nevvy himself wasn’t chipped out, the room itself would be wired. It was a conference room, after all, with the usual provisions for taking minutes.

Nevvy stared at me, then rose. “The doctors say you’ll be dead within two years. The money’s not going to be any use to her then, is it? When she’s dead too.”

“Don’t be absurd—no reason to think—she’ll die so soon—she’s young—strong—got a lifetime—ahead of her.”

I reached into my breast pocket and took out the holovid I’d made of Rani’s life in the shacks. “You care—about her.” I handed the ‘vid to him. “Here—take a look—her life—what it’ll be—without the money—without me—you want that—for her?”

Nevvy turned the ‘vid around in his fingers, staring at it.

“Take a look—all I ask—then call me—okay?”

Nevvy nodded. “All right, I’ll look at the damn thing. But don’t expect it to change my mind!”

I didn’t. The purpose was to soften him up for Rani’s visit, later that same day. Jimi had inserted a tiny worm that told me when Nevvy activated the ‘vid. Jeeves sent Rani on her way immediately.

Cyberspace is good, but it can’t match the impact of pheromones and the warmth of real touch. And when Nevvy’s guards told him she was there in his lobby? I knew he wouldn’t refuse to see her. Of course we’d chipped her out before she went. Rani replayed it for me when she got back. The visual was jerky, but the audio was clear.

“You’ve always been real kind to me,” Rani started out. “I want you to know how ‘ppreciative I am. Always will be. But you’ve got to stop this. You want me to live, right?”

“Of course, Rani. That’s the whole point of this—”

She took his hand, put it on her forearm. “Squeeze,” she told him.

I couldn’t see if he obeyed her.

“Feel that?” she asked. “It’s more than skin an’ bones, right?”

Nevvy nodded, tucked both hands behind his elbows.

“A month ago, that’s all it was. Just skin—an’ bones.” She paused. The scene shifted as she looked down and pointed to several places on her arm. “See those?”

I knew she was talking about the scars. She had dozens of them all over her body.

“Them’s rat bites. A year back, one of Denny’s got infected. Nothin’ we could do. He was only five. We couldn’ even afford to bury him. Had to sell his body for fertilizer.”

“But—there’s free care for children—”

The scene swiveled. Rani must have been shaking her head.

“Sure. Clinic was free. But medicine costs money, no matter what. It was that or feed the other kids.” She paused. “You ever eat garbage, Mister Neville? Rotten fruit? Stinkin’ meat?”

Nevvy shook his head.

“Well then. You don’t know, do you? What it’s like. What you wanna send me back to.”

We’d rehearsed this, so I knew she was sliding her hand up his arm.

“Don’t send me back there, okay? Please?”

“Rani, we’ve been over this. I’ll help you. Get you a job. A business loan. Something.”

The scene went all blurry, so Rani must have gotten tears rising in her eyes.

“Just don’t stop it, okay? That’s all I’m askin’. Please. It’s not just for me. So I can help out my family.”

“You can’t help your family if you die.”

“I’m not gonna die. Trust me t’ know what’s best fer me and mine. I can’t help my family if the wardship don’t go through—”

The scene shifted downward. Rani’s hands grasped Nevvy’s hand, held it.

“You understand, don’t you?” Rani asked, gazing up into his eyes again. “I’m beggin’ you. Just don’t stop it.”

Nevvy closed his eyes, then pulled away. “All right, all right. I won’t stop you.”

I smiled, then reached out and flicked off the playback.

“Good work, Rani,” I wheezed. “Here—” I handed her a G-note. “Bonus. Go celebrate.”

She grinned and took the note, then whirled and scampered out.

*  *  *

I signed the documents handing control of Moreland Technologies to Rani on a Tuesday morning, just before they gave me the happy juice to get ready for surgery. Sandy Bothingham wasn’t convinced I was ready to retire, and thought it was crazy to give control to Rani instead of Neville.

“You know nothing of her,” Sandy protested. “Nothing!”

That’s exactly what my senior staff had said on the day I told them I was facing surgery—lung/heart/liver transplant being the cover story—and that I planned to retire afterwards and hand over the reins to new management.

“Want to spend—my last days—on the beach—watching sunsets,” I’d wheezed at my staff then and at Sandy now. “She’s smart—deserving—reminds me of me—when I was young—sure—she made mistakes—little wild—behind her now—give her a chance—you’ll see.”

Sandy slid the signed papers back into his briefcase, and the nurse slid an IV needle into my arm.

On every other transplant into a new clone, Nevvy had been there at my side, wishing me well. Now ... everything was different. As the drug dripped into my arm and the world slipped away, I wondered if Nevvy would ever wish me well again.

I woke hours later. The ceiling was dimly ablaze with light and the room smelled faintly of antiseptic. I wiggled my fingers ... curled my toes ... turned my head. The movement was scant inches and everything was pretty numb—but I had to see, had to know. I willed my hand to rise. Up up up I demanded of it. Sent my eyes down down down ...

And saw smooth maple-syrup-colored skin. Yes! Hot glee bubbled through my brain. It had worked. I was alive! And going to stay that way.

The next day, they wheeled me to Rani’s room. Her—no, his—head was swathed in bandages. The body that had been mine looked frail and limp. Nevvy was standing by the bedside—and glaring at me.

“How ... he ... do—ing?” I forced the words down my synapses—and was delighted to hear a tremulous alto emerge from my vocal cords.

“Doc Hellar says he will recover.” With just the slightest emphasis on ‘he’.

“Good,” I said—and meant it. I really wasn’t a heartless reprobate. Deep down, I truly hoped Rani would make it.

Jeeves had been instructed to obey Rani as if she were me—which I was, of course, though he didn’t know it. The next day, he drove me to a certain place, wheeled me inside, and left me alone.

Having been through this kind of surgery before, I knew it would be days, maybe weeks before I could move my hands properly. So I wasn’t relying on my hands to perform this next little task.

“Comm ... on,” I said. Each syllable still took a monumental effort. “Ma—ke ... call-ll ... San—dy ... Scr—ram—ble.” And of course I had to disguise that lovely alto. “Vo—ice ... fix-xx.”

Sandy Bothingham’s image appeared, floating in mid air, but my surroundings were dark. He couldn’t see me.

“Pack—ket ... Pass—worrr—rd ... Rain ... in ... Sp—pain ...?”

“Tilts at windmills,” Sandy replied. “Early to rise?”

“Eat—ts ... the ... worrrr—rm.”

“Very good, sir. The packet will be returned to the safety deposit vault.”

So Hellar was safe once more. Until the next time I needed him. And Sandy would also activate the Kidde Family Trust.

I spent the next several weeks totally immersed in physical therapy. Moving. Flexing. Stretching this amazing, supple new body. Reconnecting nerve fibers. Strengthening neural pathways. Uncle Bennie—as I now called Rani—followed in my footsteps. When I was in the pool, he was working the exercise equipment. When I moved to the sauna, I passed him wheeling toward the pool.

With Rani’s youthful stem cells packed around the edges of my sutures, I recovered quickly. Uncle Bennie continued to wheeze, and his color looked worse than curdled whey, even though Rani’s stem cells were packed around his sutures too. But he was recovering, albeit slowly, and I had to admire his tenacity.

Nevvy visited the house often, but never came to see me. I told myself it was better that way—Nevvy obviously devoting himself to his Uncle Bennie’s recovery. Ironic, but useful to the fiction we were all living now.

*  *  *

Ten weeks after the transplant, Uncle Bennie and I went together to my office to ensure that the transfer of power went smoothly with my senior staff.

I pushed his wheelchair into the boardroom. As he introduced me, I was really proud of him. He didn’t forget a single face, and sounded just like me. Of course, the wheezing helped.

“Gentlemen—this is Rani Kidde—taking over reins—new blood.” Then he departed from our script. “Sam—how’s the new baby?”

Sam’s eyebrows rose in surprise. I had never once asked about his family. My policy was to be formal and hands-off with all of my staff. But then Sam grinned. “She’s getting more words every day now. I can’t hardly keep track of them.”

Uncle Bennie nodded. “Best part—watching ‘em grow—stick with it—you hear?” Then he turned to Jimi Foxxe. “That hang glider—win one yet?”

“Uh, yeah.” Jimi straightened in his chair, looked from Uncle Bennie to me and then back. “Just last week.”

Uncle Bennie smiled. “You keep tinkerin’—get to the nationals—you’ll see.”

Jimi grinned. “Yessir. I’ll do that.”

And so it went, around the room. Uncle Bennie must have used Hank’s dossiers to come up with something personal to say with each of them. And of course Hank didn’t know he wasn’t me. The delay was annoying, but no real harm done.

When he’d finished, I slapped my palms together. “Okay, let’s get to work. Sam, my office, ten o’clock. Jimi, eleven. Ginger, let’s do lunch. Ted, one o’clock—bring the blueprints. Noelle at two. And Brad, three.”

The first hint of trouble arrived at 10:05 am.

“Sam, you’re late. Don’t let it happen again.”

His lips thinned into a taut line as he stopped beside the chair where he always sat. Then he lowered his body into the chair. The rest of that hour was like dragging a mule by the short hairs. He answered all my questions but volunteered nothing. It looked like I was going to have to get a new chief financial officer—a task I really didn’t relish. Sam was an integral part of my business. Replacing him would be a nightmare and a half. But if he wasn’t willing to work for a woman, I didn’t have much choice in the matter.

Luckily, the hour with Jimi went as smoothly as slipping spy-bots under a doorway, but the lunch with Ginger ... not so well. I’d never thought of her before as nosy. She spent half the time prying into details of Rani’s personal life, and I really didn’t know what to say. I knew the literal answers, of course. Rani had been very frank with me about her past. But revealing them? I discovered that I was even less keen on people knowing Rani’s background than I was about my own.

Finally, I said, “Look, Ginger—I’d rather not discuss this. Let’s just stick to business, all right?”

She shrugged and said, “Fine.” And from then on, things proceeded in a straightforward fashion once more.

Ted was my architect. We had five projects underway at the moment, not the least of which was a new office complex near the center of town, the central spire to be christened the Moreland Tower. Ted happily brought me up to speed on the last two months of challenges and solutions.

Then Noelle arrived at two—and within moments, I had the distinct impression that she was flirting with me! My mouth went dry. My VP of Marketing was a lesbian?

I got through that hour somehow, and then Brad brought more bad news.

“Sam’s bad-mouthing you,” Brad told me. “Telling people you’ve got a poker stuck up your ass. Calling you a power-hungry, arrogant tyrant. Stuff like that.”

After this morning, I wasn’t surprised. But it was still like a kick in the gut.

I flicked my comm open. “Sam. My office. On the double.”

When he arrived, I said, “Sam, you’re fired. Pack up your desk and leave. Now. I’ll have a severance package written up for you. It’ll be generous. But I will—not—tolerate—in-sub-ord-i-na-tion.”

He glared at me, then turned to Brad, his eyes narrowing to slits. “You bastard. I should’ve known you wouldn’t waste any time.”

Brad’s mouth was smirky and his eyes looked smug.

Oh shit! I’d just gone and fired my most trusted right-hand man without making sure the problem wasn’t a nasty piece of office politics.

“Both of you—out! Now. That’s it for today.”

When they were gone, I flicked my comm open once more. “Hank, I just fired Sam DiFiglio. Make sure he takes only what belongs to him on his way out.”

Then I leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes. I was going to have to replace this chair too. The lumbar support felt like a lumpy straw mattress that someone else had been sleeping on.

Over the next week, half the rest of my senior staff resigned. Hank told me that Uncle Bennie had hired Sam—no real surprise there—but when Jimi and Ted and Ginger took the same route, that left me with an ambitious, back-stabbing VP of Strategic Planning, and a VP of Marketing who was more interested in my privates than publicity and a new marketing campaign. Still, I had endured worse setbacks. I would recover from these as well.

Then insult was piled on top of injury when I got the summons to appear in family court.

*  *  *

Incorrigible, the complaint read. Me! Though of course the complaint said Rani Kidde.

I flicked on my comm and called Sandy. Moments later, we were sitting in a meld of his office and mine. I waved the complaint at him. Explained what I needed.

“Sorry, Miss Kidde,” he told me. “I can’t represent you on this. Conflict of interest.”

“Look, Sandy—”

“That’s Mister Bothingham, please—”

“Sandy! The rain in Spain!”

I had never before seen a jaw drop like that. “Oh my God,” he said.

“Yeah, tilts at windmills. And the early bird munches the worm.”

“So it wasn’t a heart-lung-liver transplant like you said, giving you a couple more years ‘til your clone...”

“No.”

I dropped the Rani persona I had practiced so hard for cyberspace. Encased myself in nubbly Shantung silk. Got up and came around my desk. “Sandy, you’ve got to help me on this.”

He shook his head, eyes still wide. Sometimes your reaction in the real world bled through into cyberspace.

“Ben—I’d like to help you. I would. But there’s a problem.”

“Oh?’

He nodded at the complaint. “I’m the one drew that up.”

“What?”

“Yeah. Neville called me. Asked me out to the house for dinner last week. He and ... Rani ...?”

I nodded.

“They said Ben had made a mistake. Trusted in—Rani. But she was—going wild. Defying—Ben. Uncontrollable. They wanted to know what they could do. So I put on my thinking cap.” And then, when I was silent, “Hell, Ben. I thought she was you!”

“We practiced,” I told him. “Gestures. Mannerisms. Habits.”

“Yeah, well it worked. She’s good. I mean, you too. I never would’ve guessed—”

I waved him to silence. No use crying over spilt milk and all that. The problem was what to do now.

“I need your help,” I told him. “Can’t let them win this.”

“No, I see that. But I can’t represent you in court, even if I resign from the case. My signature’s on that damn thing.” He waved toward my desk.

“That’s okay. Don’t resign. We don’t want them to suspect ... In fact, if you stay on you can screw up their case. Just so long as you can advise me now—”

“Sure. Of course. In fact—” his eyes started gleaming “—tell you what. We’ll countersue. Have you declared emancipated.”

“But the wardship—won’t that make it null and void?”

His face fell. “Yeah. And that’ll negate all the other contracts and arrangements giving you control of Moreland Technologies. We’ll just have to refute their evidence. It’s all a tissue of lies, right?”

I nodded. “It has to be. The only thing I’ve done since the surgery is recover and work.”

“Okay, then. Don’t request a jury trial. Ask for a human judge—he’ll see the whole thing is bogus.”

*  *  *

In court the next day, I demanded a continuance until I could retain a lawyer and apprise him of the facts. Sandy recommended a friend of his named Dale Hartley. I met with him two days later, and we accepted a court date the following Monday.

Soon after the judge gaveled the court into session, Sandy called a string of witnesses who swore to my behavior over the past six weeks. Shoplifting. Grand theft auto. Fights and orgies. The witnesses not only sounded believable, the lie-monitor stayed green.

Sandy’s questions had opened the door to a full cross-examination. Dale grilled them, but nothing shook loose. Rani’s smile told me they had somehow managed an end run around the question of when she had done these things.

When our turn came, Dale called various members of my staff to the witness stand, all testifying to my workaholic nature.

Nevvy’s lawyer Crandall—now in lilac-colored seersucker with wide lapels below that handlebar mustache—rose to challenge each witness. All but three of our meetings had occurred in cyberspace, so my witnesses were forced to admit that I could have been anywhere. Most of my alibis went down the tube right there.

Then Crandall confronted Brad—my VP of Strategic Planning—with evidence that he had embezzled funds at a previous job, and implied that I was blackmailing him to testify for me. Brad got so nervous that the lie-monitor flickered and shuddered into yellow and orange. He finally clammed up and took the Fifth, which finished Thursday’s testimony.

At our conference that night, Dale said he wanted to put me on the stand next, and then rest our case. “If you don’t testify—” Dale shook his head. “It won’t look good. The judge’ll think you’re hiding something.”

And he’d be right, I thought. Only it wasn’t grand theft auto and orgies.

I shifted through the possibilities. The trickiest part was that first question—please state your full name for the court. Sure it was possible to fool even the best lie-detector equipment. Hell, with Jimi Foxxe’s help I’d been practicing lies for half a century now. But to bet my life on it? Normally, I never gambled on anything, and of course Nevvy knew that. It was the linch pin of their strategy. But if they won? I’d be locked up in some looney-bin ward until my twenty-first birthday—and dead broke on the day I got out. As for Moreland Technologies, it would be lost to me forever.

“All right,” I said. “Do it.”

*  *  *

I spent that night in my self-hypnosis chamber, something I’d done more than a few times before. But this session was crucial. Tomorrow morning on the stand, my answers had to be rock-solid.

After I raised my right hand and swore that the testimony I was about to give was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, I sat and faced the courtroom.

I sailed through the part about my name. Even stumbled a moment on my address, which was plausible for someone who had recently moved and could barely believe her good fortune.

Dale rose. “Please tell the court what you’ve been doing these past several weeks.”

“After my brain surgery, Uncle Bennie wanted to retire, and he asked me to take over at Moreland Technologies. It didn’t go well. Four of his closest assistants resigned, but two are left and I’ve been working day and night to rectify the situation. I don’t have time for the kind of high-jinks that Neville and Uncle Bennie say I’ve been doing.” And I folded my hands in my lap and looked up at the judge like innocence personified.

“And your brain surgery. Why was that necessary?”

“There was—Doctor Hellar said it was like a cloud on the scan. Some kind of tumor.” The lie-detection monitor stayed so green it was like I’d had it wired that way.

“It had to come out,” I continued. “So we took it out. Doctor Hellar says I made a full recovery.”

Dale asked for details of what I’d been doing on the occasions when other witnesses claimed I’d been indulging in a crime spree. I consulted my PTM—which the judge said could not be entered into evidence since the data was too easily modified, but he allowed me to use it to refresh my memory. I gave the whens and whats of various meetings, and described what had happened in each of them, including references to specific events occuring on each of those days.

I was feeling pretty good about my testimony until Sandy rose and strolled over to me. The lie-monitor flickered briefly into the chartreuse range, then steadied back down at lime-green.

“Can you explain why Ebenezer Moreland would ask you—an inexperienced teenager—to take over his family business?” Sandy asked.

Sandy and I had known this question would be on the judge’s mind. It was the purple elephant in the middle of the room that had to be silenced. So I’d instructed Dale not to object—even though it called for the worst kind of crude speculation on my part.

“Well, I suppose it’s like he said at the meeting where he announced it to his staff. That he wanted fresh blood for his company. A new point of view.” Which technically wasn’t a lie. Fresh blood was pumping through my brain, and I certainly had a new perspective on life. But I banished those thoughts to the cyberdump where they belonged.

“If that’s the case,” Sandy continued, “why would he now accuse you of this openly defiant and incorrigible, even criminal behavior—unless it was true?”

“Objection,” Dale called out. “Calls for a conclusion by the witness.”

“I’ll allow it,” the judge said.

“But your Honor—”

“There’s no jury here to get confused about the difference between evidence and opinions,” the judge said. “If you think I’m confused by it, you can take that argument to an appeals court.” He turned to me. “So, why is your guardian accusing you of behavior you say you haven’t done?”

“I don’t know,” I told him. Though I certainly had my suspicions. “I suppose Uncle Bennie must have changed his mind about me taking over his business. I mean, look at him. He’s old. Probably changes his mind between tying one shoelace and the next.”

The judge’s lips twitched, but then he looked at Uncle Bennie—who was wearing my favorite nubbly silk Shantung—and went somber-faced once more. “Continue,” the judge told Sandy.

“Your Honor?” I said. “If I could speak freely?”

He nodded.

“Those four people who left the firm, they went to work for him. So he must think I’m ruining his business and he’s got to take it back. I mean, it’s what I would do if I was in his shoes.” Which was true enough. “After all, Moreland Technologies funds the Moreland Family Trust, which pays his expenses. If Uncle Bennie’s afraid there’s not going to be any profits ...” I let the implication hang in the air: It’s all about money. Which of course it was.

I glanced over at Neville and Uncle Bennie. Rage spluttered through my veins for a moment, that the ungrateful little bitch would stab me in the back like this, and that my nephew would stand at her side instead of mine.

The lie-detector fluttered chartreuse again, and I squelched the thought. There would be time enough for revenge later on, after the trial. And now, in my new body, I had an entire vista of later on to indulge in. I immersed myself back into the Rani persona I had built so carefully these past weeks, and smiled at them.

But then I looked at the judge, and my heart lurched. He was frowning. Damn! I would have to play my trump card after all, something Sandy and I had hoped would not be necessary.

“Your honor?” I said. “I’d be willing to submit to a spacial-memory scan to prove I’ve never been to any of the places in question over these past several weeks. In fact, I’ve never been to any of those places ever—and I certainly haven’t been indulging in any orgies! I’ve been recovering from surgery and running a business—not going around stealing cars and screwing people.”

I knew this had to work. Rani’s body—now mine—had apparently gone to those places and done those things, but my brain had not. So there would be no telltale flickers of recognition when they took me there for the first time.

Sandy was silent—after all, this was our ace in the hole—but Crandall rose to his feet at the plaintiff’s table. “Objection! Memory scan technology has not been accepted as reliable evidence by the courts.”

Dale stood as well. “Fingerprints and DNA evidence were both considered unreliable when they were first introduced.” He then offered the names of five expert witnesses who were prepared to testify on our behalf.

Uncle Bennie tugged on Crandall’s sleeve, then whispered in his ear. Crandall looked troubled, but said, “We withdraw the objection, your Honor—with the stipulation that the same technology be used as the ones in the clinical trials and published literature.”

“Agreed,” Dale said.

“Then let’s proceed,” the judge said.

*  *  *

It took about thirty minutes to obtain the equipment and set it up. As they wheeled the scanner box into my office, I recognized the logo on its side: the twin-peaked mountains of Moreland Technologies that I’d made famous from Mercury to Ganymede.

Yes! I thought, knowing I was about to be vindicated. There’s no way they can do an end run around this. Jimi Foxxe had made it hacker-proof.

Then I remembered the courtroom. Jimi Foxxe sitting in the spectator stands just behind Uncle Bennie and Neville. All three of them grinning at me—Foxxe with the same pleased gleam he’d had right after Rani told him to keep on tinkering and he’d get to the hang-gliding nationals after all.

Tinkering!

I started screaming at Dale to object—but it was too late. We had already agreed to this farce.

It took every ounce of concentration I had to maintain my Rani persona in the cyberspace courtroom as the technicians placed the scanner equipment around my skull and drove me to the places I said I’d never been to before. In less than two hours, the scans condemned me as a liar, the judge pronounced his verdict, and the constables seized my arms and dragged me off to juvie hall.

I sat on the bunk that would be my home for the next four years and stared at my surroundings. Pink walls. Chipped green furniture. Two bunk beds on each side of the room. Wire mesh covering the window between them.

It could have been worse. If the Rani persona had flickered, revealed who I really was, I’d have been locked in a jail cell for life. As it was—in three and a half years I would be an adult, out of this mesh cage and able to start over.

I wondered if Uncle Bennie would still be alive when I got out. My only consolation was knowing that Rani had to spend the rest of her life in my clones. Stealing the best of my staff like that—winning them over—it had been a smart move. The words she had said that day in my office reverberated through my mind. A personal touch, that’s what she had done.

“Kidde!”

That meant me. I went to the door.

“Visitor.”

The guard led me down corridors and through locked checkpoints to a long row of cubicles with twinned tables and microphones separated by glass. Neville was sitting there, staring up at me.

A personal touch, I reminded myself. If Rani could do it, I could learn. I put a smile on my face, sat down opposite my nephew, and adjusted the microphone.

“Hello, Nevvy.”

 


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