Neon light flared off the wet pavements. Cars sped past, tires hissing through the spray. An old man weaved erratically through pedestrians streaming past him. Everything was just a coloured smear through his eyes. His drug fogged brain struggled to cope with staying upright. A suited man slammed into him… sent him spinning into a store doorway. “Watch out asshole.” The old man stared back at him, eyes vacant, pupils like pinpricks in the passing headlights. Electrodes dangled from wires around his neck, he wore a rumpled tracksuit top, and surgical scrubs as pants. His feet bare and bleeding. Eyes searching for something. A car pulled up alongside him. The rear window slid down. He stared at someone inside, a moment of recognition flickered in his eyes and…PHUTT! A spray of blood as a hole mushroomed in his forehead. The impact knocked him backwards, his body crumpling to the ground as the car accelerated away.
Detective Nik Sanders stared at the body bathed in the antiseptic lights of the morgue. Arnold H.T Bickerstaff, former CEO of Anadyn Electronics, a company worth as much as Apple before computers were rendered obsolete by neural implants. He looked at the small pile of personal possessions on a steel table behind him. An electronic tag etched with the name Electro Cortex Industries. A wrapper from an “own label” nutrition bar from the MegaMart food chain; a five dollar bill and an electronic key pass. His partner Julie Hardwick stood next to him. “Wasn’t he already dead?” Sanders nodded. This wasn’t just a homicide they were investigating, as far as everybody knew Arnold Bickerstaff had died five years earlier.
He’d been one of the first recipients of the Electro Cortex brainmap system. As science progressed the very rich had moved on from plastic surgery and botox to full body swaps. The brainmap system transferred the entire brain map of the donor into a new and usually much younger recipient. Now the rich could choose from a selection of recipients online and use neural patterning to imprint their brain map onto them.
There’d been opposition of course, the church saw it as an ethical travesty and open to gross misuse. The general public saw it as just another way to divide the poor from the obscenely rich by enabling off the shelf immortality. But as history continued to repeat itself, the church was bought off and governmental coffers were soothed with huge donations to the relevant political parties. Test cases were allowed. The donors; seriously ill or dying billionaires, were scanned and uploaded into the vast servers out at the Mojave Air and Spaceport. Once the recipient had been checked and the transfer was complete the donor was given a dignified end of life release program. With time it became accepted practice for the rich. Detective Sanders stared at the recently deceased body of the billionaire and wondered what he was getting into.
They followed the black ribbon of highway 58 across flat white sands, heading towards the high-tech village that was the Mojave air and spaceport. Vast steel hangers loomed out of the heat haze as they drew nearer. Julie took a swig from a flask of orange juice and offered it to Sanders. He shook his head. “You should hydrate, it’s going to be like the devil’s armpit when we get out of the car.” Sanders smiled at the bluntness of his partner, a straight talking Texan. She’d been working together long enough to know his ways, but that didn’t stop her trying. He wasn’t into the whole hydrate craze. He’d always believed you just drank when you were thirsty. “I’m alright. Just not looking forwards to telling the widow her husband died…again.”
Julie smiled. “I’m with you there. Let’s hope we come up with some answers before we have to ask her the questions.”They came to a halt alongside the security gate in front of the main complex. Sanders looked over at the entrance to Virgin Galactic, now one of the leading companies in space travel and at the forefront of the Martian space race. The face of Richard Branson their iconic leader, smiled down at him from one of the walls of the main headquarter buildings. Sanders wondered how long it would be before he walked over to the Electro Cortex building for an immortality fix. The guard waved them through and they pulled up next to the glass entrance that led through a leafy atrium into the reception area.
A slogan greeted them above the receptionist’s desk. “Live as long as you think…think as long as you live.” Sanders shrugged as the glass doors hissed open. “I hate slogans.” Julie smiled. “You hate everything.” Sanders moved up to the desk. He showed his badge to the pretty young receptionist. She looked up at him with her vivid yellow eyes. Variable color contact lenses were the latest thing amongst the well-healed young. Dialing in the iris color for the day had picked up where nail polishes left off. She handed him an electronic key pass. “Round to the left, take the main travelator and follow the signs to Dr Borg’s office.” Sanders took the card and nodded.
They headed down the long corridor to the multi-laned travelators that whisked staff and visitors through the huge complex. The travelator clacked through the glass tubes leading them through rooms packed with servers. Julie looked at the pass Sanders held. “Same as the one we found on Bickerstaff.” He nodded. They stepped off the travelator and walked across a waiting area towards the doctor’s office. The door opened before they could knock. A tall man with sharp, birdlike eyes ushered them in.
Unshaven, dark rings under his eyes and wearing rumpled clothing, it looked like he’d been sleeping in his office. He bustled round making them making coffee. “I’m having one anyway…so” He worked the expresso machine with deft movements. “How can I help you Detective Sanders? We don’t get many Detectives up here, and certainly none from homicide.”
Sanders waited until Dr. Borg had handed them their coffees. “We’re investigating the death of Arnold Bickerstaff.” Dr. Borg took a sip of coffee. “Er, I’m not sure what you mean? Arnold Bickerstaff was a client of ours and an early adopter of the mind transference system. I’m not sure how much you know about how our system works but a key factor is our end of life release programme.” He paused, Sanders nodded. “I understand. So as far as your concerned Mr Bickerstaff died five years ago.”
Dr Borg rubbed his chin. “We like to call it release.” Julie gave Sanders the look. He was apt to say the wrong thing when people tried to foist their new fangled buzzwords onto him. Sanders bit back his comment and pressed on. He held up a picture of Bickerstaff taken in the morgue. “Is that Arnold Bickerstaff?”
The Doctor looked at it. Cleared his throat. “I can’t be sure, we have a lot of clients. Sanders looked at Julie, she nodded. “Really? How many billionaires do you have as clients?” The Doctor looked confused. “All of our clients are billionaires.” He paused, as if what he was about to say was obvious. “The process is not without cost.” Sanders leaned forward. “Do you have any idea how a man could go through the…release process, only to wind up dead five years later with a bullet in his brain?”
They headed through L.A as the cooling sun started to sink behind the mirrored office blocks filling the car with reflected light as they peeled off the freeway. “What are you going to do when we get there?” Julie looked over at Sanders. “Just ask them some questions.
There’s something screwy about this. Dr. Borg was hiding something, I don’t know what it was, but maybe the Bickerstaffs will give me some answers.” Julie stretched, tried to get comfortable. It had been a long drive and the inadequate air-con hadn’t done her mood any good at all. “I’ve always thought the whole thing was kinda’ weird. You live with somebody for twenty years and then they die and come back in the body of a younger man with a face you’ve never seen before.” Sanders glanced at the sat nav as it guided them through the suburbs towards a gated McMansion.
“Are you saying you won’t want the face and body of a women twenty years younger when you get older.” Julie laughed. “Shit yeah, doesn’t stop it being creepy though.” Sanders shrugged. “I guess people were saying that about the first boob job back in the day.” He pulled the car up beside the intercom and flashed his badge at a recessed camera. The gates slide open and they headed up the long drive. “Remember to go easy on her. She may have watched him die already but hearing someone blew a hole in his head a few days ago isn’t going to make her feel great.”
Sanders looked around at the immaculately tended lawns, the hissing sprinklers and the deep blue of the swimming pool. He hated coming to these places. It reminded him that the gulf between rich and poor had never been wider; and he was definitely on the wrong side of that gulf. They crunched to a halt on the spotless gravel beside the imposing front door.
“Don’t worry, I’ll tread lightly.” He flicked a smile at Julie as they climbed out into the dank heat of the day. He rang the bell next to the door and waited.
A maid opened the door and they showed her their badges. She led them through a lounge the size of a tennis court and told them to sit while she fetched Mrs Bickerstaff. Sanders watched the maid pad away down the corridor. Sanders scanned the immaculate beige carpet and the L shaped sofas strewn around the giant room. “Feels like someone bought their soul from a style catalogue.” Julie smiled. “Maybe that’s why she’s able to cope with her husband’s mind in a designer body.”
Mrs Bickerstaff appeared at the door to the sitting room. Immaculate in a cream linen trouser suit, jewellery glinted from her neck and wrists and her hair was styled to perfection. She stretched out a hand. “Detective Sanders?” He shook her hand. It was cool and firm. She nodded to Julie. “Sorry to keep you waiting, how can I help?” Sanders placed his computer tablet on the coffee table in front of him. “Thank you for seeing us Mrs Bickerstaff, this is not exactly a routine case. “ She cocked an eye. “That sounds ominous detective, I’m sure you’ve seen pretty much everything there is to see in your job.”
Julie leaned forward. “When did you last see your husband Mrs Bickerstaff?” She frowned. “About half an hour ago, we just came from lunch with friends. He’s gone for a jog around the grounds and a swim…he likes to burn off whatever he’s just eaten…I can never understand that” Sanders swivelled the tablet to face her. “I don’t mean your present husband Mrs Bickerstaff, I mean Arnold Bickerstaff.” He tapped the screen and it filled with a picture of Mr Bickerstaff’s body in the morgue. A swathe of linen tastefully covered the gaping hole in his temple. Her hand flew to her mouth. Eyes wide with shock. “My God…who is that?”
Sanders and Julie looked at each other. “Isn’t this your husband?” She leaned closer to look at the screen. “I don’t know, he looks so…old.” Sanders shut the tablet off. “Well he would be five years older than when you last saw him, so…” He trailed off. Julie continued. “He was shot by an unknown assailant earlier today. We have no explanation as to why he was killed, or in fact why he was still alive.” Mrs Bickerstaff looked stunned. A man appeared in the doorway to the room. He wore jogging pants and a white cut off T-Shirt that showed his taut physique. Something glinted from one of his ears. He wiped his brow with a white hand towel. “What’s going on darling?” He spoke with a faint Spanish accent.
Sanders stood up. “I’m Detective Sanders, your wife is helping us with some of our questions.” Mrs Bickerstaff went over to him and he placed a proprietary arm around her. “Oh Matt, they say they found Arnold…someone shot him this morning.” Matt led her back to the sofa and sat her down. “I don’t understand…he, I, my body that is, died five years ago…after the transference, I was “released”. Sanders looked at him. This was definitely the strangest homicide he’d ever been involved with. Sitting there, talking to a man with the mind of his older self who’s body he’d just seen in the morgue. He had a feeling it was going to get a lot more bizarre before the day was over.
“Detective?” Matt’s voice snapped him out of his reverie. “I don’t see how we can help you.” Sanders looked into Matt’s deep blue eyes, his flawless complexion and his gym-honed body gave him an almost inhuman perfection. He involuntarily sucked in his stomach as he addressed him. “Well, to be honest we’re just feeling our way here Mr Bickerstaff…” Matt leant forwards and fixed Sanders with his calm blue eyes “Just call me Matt, it’ll be easier for everyone I think.”
He squeezed Mrs Bickerstaff’s hand and she looked up at him. Sanders continued. “Thank you…Matt. Okay, just for the record, you were one of the first recipients of the Electro Cortex transference procedure…is that correct?” Matt spoke quickly as if rehearsed. “Yes. I had an advanced case of motor neuron disease, incurable; I only had months to live.
When I was offered the chance to mind map into a willing donor I took it. I discussed it with Sarah and she agreed that we really had nothing to lose. The procedure was flawless. One moment I was a sick dying old man, and the next I opened my eyes and I was Matt.” He looked at Mr’s Bickerstaff. “I have my health back and I get to live life with my beautiful wife all over again.”
Julie shot Sanders the “look” and studied the radiant couple. There was no denying it seemed a perfect situation. Everyone was a winner. She turned to Matt. “So you saw yourself…I mean Arnold, released”? Matt nodded. “I held his hand, it was only his body by then, he felt no pain and wasn’t aware of who I was. It was an incredibly moving moment.” Mrs Bickerstaff dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. Sanders addressed Matt. “Is there anyway that the release could have been reversible?” Matt shook his head.
“No, I saw the readouts, everyone of them was a flatline.” Sanders cleared his throat. Flicked a finger over the touchscreen of his tablet. “As Arnold Bickerstaff you were responsible for the introduction of neural computer implants; an industry that made you a billionaire. And yet you’ve never gone back into that side of the business, even though you have the perfect combination of an old head on young shoulders. Don’t you miss being involved with technology?
I mean you invented the use of silicon photonics and pioneered the biological interface that allowed you to completely revolutionise the field of computing.” Matt stared at him like a rabbit caught in headlights. “I er…” Sanders looked down, then continued. “You developed a new storage medium…what was it called?” Matt looked at him, a thin sheen of sweat gleamed on his top lip. “I don’t see what this has to…” Sanders snapped his finger. “Memristor…that was it, resistors with memory.”
He felt Julie digging her fingers into his knee hidden by the coffee table in front of them. But he kept going. “You invented reprogrammable integrated circuits that could do the work of eight chips on the fly…you were even working on a twenty level chip…it had a cute name what was it now…er, help me here…” He clapped his hands “The Needle” that was it, something to do with nano technology.” Mrs Bickerstaff stared at him as if he was mad. Pools of sweat had collected under Matt’s armpits. Julie was looking at Sanders in confusion.
They headed back down the I-58. The desert sand a purple sea in the setting sun. Julie sat tight-lipped. “You could have told me what you were up to.” Sanders shrugged. I hadn’t planned it, but when I saw the new Mr Bickerstaff something seemed wrong.” “So you thought you’d try and wrong foot him on the fly?” Julie wasn’t ready to let it go just yet.” Sanders smiled. “Not entirely, I’d done a bit of research on Arnold Bickerstaff. All that mumbo jumbo technical stuff, I had most of it on my tablet.”
He looked across the Mojave desert. The distant lights of the Spaceport complex glowed in the dusk. “What was it that made you suspicious?” Julie was softening, she couldn’t stay mad at him for long, she found it too interesting watching how his mind worked.
“We’ve visited the last three people to be mind mapped by Electro Cortex, all of them wear in ear audio support.” Julie nodded. “Could be a coincidence.” “Naa” Sanders shook his head. “If you’re a billionaire able to take your pick of recipients why pick one with a hearing problem.” Julie listened. “I don’t think they’re hearing aids, I think they’re communication modules.” Julie frowned. “Communicating with who?” Sanders looked across at her. “When I started talking about the innovations his company brought to the market he didn’t have a clue what I was on about.” Julie snapped her fingers, starting to see what he was getting at.
“You did the same when you questioned the other recipients…and they answered your questions fine.” Sanders nodded. “Yes, but not straight away, it looked like they were thinking about it…” Julie stared at him. “Or being prompted.” They pulled up half a mile from the entrance. Julie took a swig from her ever present orange juice and turned to Sanders. “But for some reason Matt wasn’t getting the prompts?” Sanders looked out towards the spaceport, his face grim. “No.” Julie put her bottle down. “So if Matt wasn’t getting prompts because the original Mr Bickerstaff was dead that would mean…” She trailed off as the significance hit home. Sanders watched as the light from the setting sun outlined the dark silhouettes of the spaceport in blood. He turned to her, his eyes serious. “That the original donors are all still alive.”
Julie rubbed her eyes. She desperately needed sleep, but this case wasn’t going to give it to her anytime soon. “So the recipients are in on it. They’re given some background on how the mind map donors behave and then key memories and anything else they need to know is fed to them through their audio support device by the donors.” Julie looked at him. “But even if they are keeping the donors alive, why would they play along? It doesn’t make sense.” Sanders pulled up a few hundred yards from the main entrance and switched off the engine.
Parked behind some low-lying rocks they were still able to see the gate and the security post while remaining hidden. Sanders popped a piece of gum into his mouth and chewed. He found it helped with his concentration. “What would you do if the person you loved was with someone who could kill them at a moments notice. Julie looked at him. “You think that’s how they’re controlling them?” Sanders shrugged. “That’s something I intend to find out.”
It was dark. The desert was starting to come alive with the sounds of the night. They watched as the security guards changed shift. Julie studied them through binoculars. They’d run through the facts of the case trying to make sense of it, but nothing really added up. If their suspicions were correct they’d stumbled onto a conspiracy that had cheated people out of billions, and resulted in one murder they knew about.
She looked across at Sanders. “After a certain amount of time the recipients wouldn’t have to play catch-up anymore” Sanders nodded. “Yes. And from that point the donor becomes expendable.” Julie put the binoculars down. “That’s why Bickerstaff escaped, he knew his time was up. He was probably trying to get back to his wife and blow the whistle on the whole operation.” Sanders started the car. “The other donors must be in there somewhere. There were a couple of levels Dr. Borg never showed us. He said they were engineering. My guess is that’s where they’re being held.
A truck pulled up to the Spaceport security gates in a cloud of dust. The garish MEGAMART logo on its side. Sanders remembered the wrapper they’d found amongst Bickerstaff’s possessions. That was how Bickerstaff he’d got out and how they planned to get in. Sanders signalled to Julie. “C’mon.”
They raced up to the truck and slipped through a small access door set into the rear of the vehicle. It was pitch black inside and Sanders used his key light to locate a place for them to hide. Once the truck came to a halt. The tail lift came down and the driver started to unload. Once he’d completed his delivery he stowed the pneumatic trolley lift and headed off to get the paperwork signed. They jumped down from the tailgate and jogged to the end of the warehouse before darting through a door marked ENGINEERING SERVICE LEVEL.
They followed a corridor lined with wiring conduits and water pipes to a door marked Engineering access – 1. Sanders looked at Julie. “Okay, no heroics. We get our evidence and we’re outta here.” Julie checked her gun and slid the safety catch off. “Fine by me. But if you’d let me speak to Captain Lucas we could have gone in with a whole division and air support.” Sanders shook his head. “Great idea, but the last time I got backup involved it turned out that a major drugs cartel was just some kids playing around with sherbet powder in a warehouse. Julie smiled.
“That was unfair, school kids role playing drug dealers was the last thing I would have guessed.” Sanders smiled grimly. “Lucas threatened to bust me down to traffic for wasting department resources. I don’t intend to go down that route again. That guys got a mean streak and he’s always had it in for me.” Julie gave him a thin smile. “I love it when you show me your paranoid side.” Sanders pulled the key pass from his pocket and swiped it across the lock. “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t make me wrong.” The light pulsed from red to green. The door hummed open.
The room covered the entire floor and was bathed in a soft purple hue. Sanders looked at the glittering specks of dandruff on his shoulders. Whispered to Julie. “Ultraviolet light, must be something to do with keeping the area sterile.” They stared down at the eerie scene beneath them. Thousands of high-tech beds with built in monitoring services covered the floor down below. HOSPIS, drug delivery robots, whirred between the beds checking on medication and fluids.
But what was really weird was the sound. An echoing murmur that seemed to swirl around the space like a low wind. It came from the patients, if that was what they were as they mumbled into their lip mics. The men and women were wired to machines that monitored their vital signs…tubes carried waste out and nutrients in. Julie shook her head in disbelief.
“They’re keeping them alive, like zombies in a twentieth century call centre.” Sanders nodded. “Yes, except they’re not being paid to make the calls.” They barely heard the soft click of the guns that appeared behind them. Dr. Borg stood with two guards, weapons levelled. Sanders glared at Borg. “I’d advise you to put your weapons down. My Captain is fully aware of this operation and is waiting with backup for my signal.” A figure appeared in the doorway.
A familiar voice rang out “We both know that’s not true.” Sanders stiffened “Captain?” Captain Lucas shook his head. “You always did go out on a limb Sanders. You never were a team player.” He smiled. “Did you really think it was a coincidence that the Birkenstaff case ended up in your lap? And what a lucky break the contents of his pockets led you out here. I think the nutrient bar wrapper was a nice touch. You should try them they’re really quite delicious.”
Sanders lunged at him. A guard slammed him to the ground with a gun butt to the head. Blood ran from a nasty gash on his head. Sanders slowly got back up “What the hell are you doing here?” Dr. Borg smiled. “I think you have a good idea. After all, we went to a lot of trouble to ensure that you would turn up here tonight.” The cold realisation hit Sanders in the gut. “We’ve created an industry that makes billions of dollars giving people the immortality they can afford.”
Julie stared at him. “But it’s not immortality is it?” The Doctor shrugged. “The wives with their younger, better looking surrogate husbands are happy enough…besides, you’re missing the big picture.” Two figures appeared behind the Doctor. “The first phase is merely to accumulate enough capital to fund the main plan…” Julie looked at the two figures behind him. Her blood turned to ice. “My God…”
Dr. Borg nodded. “Yes, quite the likeness aren’t they?” Julie stared at the mirror image of Sanders and herself that stood in front of her. If it wasn’t for their blank staring faces they would have been perfect. “Robots?” The Doctor smiled. “I prefer the term replacements.” Sanders wiped blood from his eyes. “So this whole setup is just to make enough money to construct your replacements…but why?” The Doctor looked down at the thousands of captive donors below.
“Why go to war to destroy whole civilizations, slaughter millions of people, all just to enslave a reluctant population, when you can just replace the people that control the country. The people that make the decisions” He looked at them. “The people who enforce the law.”
Sanders shook his head. “You’re mad if you think this will work.” Dr Borg signalled to the guards. “I prefer the term visionary. I already have thousands of billionaires with no choice but to do my bidding, and now I have two members of the police force. Julie struggled against the guards “You may have us, but what makes you think we’ll help your puppets to fool anybody?” The Doctor gave a thin smile. “Because you have a daughter and Sanders has a mother…take them away.”
The guards dragged the detectives out into the corridor. Dr. Borg turned to the two waiting robots. “You two follow me, we’ve got to update your facial variation software, you look like a couple of zombies.”