High above Mars in a small space station, two men met in the boardroom of Offworld Mining Corporation.  The older of the two, Stringfellow, sat in a treadchair, too weak from cancer to stand.  The younger man was a job candidate–handsome, twenty-three, fresh from Earth, and terrified.

The room was dark, with only an egg-shaped viewing window to shine light into the room. Two words pulsed on a black plasma screen, “Launch Scenario.”

Stringfellow knew the boy was afraid, could see it in the way his eyes darted to the screen.  You could do it, son, he thought, it’s your scenario, just tap the screen.

“I can’t,” the young man blurted out.  “I can’t ruin the lives of all those people.” He threw the haptic gloves used to control the plasma screen onto Stringfellow’s desk. “I’m the wrong man for this job.”

“Yes,” Stringfellow said, “I can see that you are.”  Not that he was a bad man. He had the same principles that Stringfellow himself shared.  Of all the candidates, this one was the most like Stringfellow.

The candidate screwed up his face and leaned over the desk.  Spittle flew from his mouth when he shouted.  “When I get back to the shuttle, I’m sending a transcript of this meeting to every digimedia outlet on the net.  You can’t destroy a hundred thousand people so that your corporation can improve its profit margin.”

“It was fake,” Stringfellow said, watching the candidate’s face closely.


“The scenario was a test to see if you would press the button.  You didn’t, and I’m glad to see that you are not devoid of compassion.”

The candidate deflated like a popped balloon.  “This means I get the job?”



“Horatio,” Stringfellow called to his aide over the intercom, “the interview is finished.”

A hatch slid open, and a gaunt man in an OMC uniform strode into the room. While Stringfellow shook hands with the candidate, Horatio stepped behind the candidate and stuck a memnodart into his neck.  The man jerked at the prick of the needle and then relaxed, a dull smile on his face.  He stood like a floppy statue.

“He wouldn’t push the button,” Stringfellow said.

Horatio nodded and led the candidate out of another hatch. A few minutes later, he returned empty-handed.  “His memory is being altered by the medics, sir.”

“Check their work, Horatio.  The last thing the corporation needs is for one of these boys to return to Earth with his memory intact.”

“None of them could pull the trigger,” he said, discouraged.  Six out of six candidates had failed the final test.

Horatio nodded.  “No, sir.”

Stringfellow began to despair that his plan had failed and that there would be no heir to take his place after all.  The last man’s scenario wasn’t bad—just too small scale to really benefit OMC. He was smart enough, first in his class at MIT and one of the brightest minds in the field of nanoengineering.  His expertise certainly would have aided in the corporation’s terraforming operation.  But OMC didn’t need another ethical scientist at it helm.  He himself had ridden that horse as far as it could go.

“Shall I send for the next candidate?”  Horatio said.

“Give me a few minutes to look over his dossier.”  Stringfellow turned his attention to the last file on his desk.  “Double-check the simulation program to make sure it’s been reloaded correctly.  We’ve got a military man coming next.”

“Have the simulations been incorrectly run, sir?”

“No, no, nothing of the sort.  Double-check, though.  It never hurts to be sure.  Measure twice, cut once.”  Back on Earth when he was a boy, it was had been of his father’s favorite sayings.

Horatio bowed out of the room, closing the hatch behind himself.  Good man, Horatio, the last of his breed on Mars. Knew when to keep his mouth shut about the affairs of the corporation. Only he and Stringfellow knew the full truth about the candidates. All seven of them were the sons of John C. Stringfellow, although none of them knew that.

Twenty-three years earlier, Stringfellow had made a birth arrangement with seven women on Earth, seven special women from a variety of backgrounds. They were scattered all over the globe, the only trait they shared being an excellent physique and a giftedness in their chosen professions.  Among them were a chemist, a physician, two engineers, an artist, a CEO, a high-ranking government official, and a former soldier. Their sons were the sons of John Stringfellow of the Offworld Mining Corporation.  None of mother knew this, of course.  The identity of the father was kept top secret.

Stringfellow thumbed through the printouts in the manila folder.  He was a throwback, he admitted, a man who enjoyed the touch of paper over a touch screen.  He was also one of the only men on Mars who could afford paper.  Organic material was a commodity in high demand.  What was it the first candidate had said?  Mars’ future is in its dung.

His first son was right, of course.  The recycling of human waster was just one of the thousands of projects big and small that OMC was using to complete the terraforming of Mars.  It didn’t take a genius to come up with a dung pile theory, and what he really need was a genius, one of the rarest kind, a mix of business smarts, bureaucratic efficiency, and vision.

The fifth son had vision.  He was a MBA from Harvard, a Rhodes Scholar, and a meteoric climber in the corporate world.  He would have made a great ally.  But he lacked the intestinal fortitude to push the button.  No guts, no glory for Mars.  Too bad that Stringfellow would never see him again.  Good looking kid, too.

Maybe this last one would be better.  Maybe.  He had his doubts, something that he couldn’t put his finger on.

Stringfellow eased away from the desk, steering his treadchair toward the small observation window.  The smaller of Mars’ moons, Phobos, dominated the viewing portal.  Mars was nowhere to be seen, but Stringfellow knew by glancing back at the multiple plasma screens behind his desk that all was not well at home.  Production in the mines was falling slowly but steadily. The behemoth furnaces that dotted the high terrain around the poles were nowhere near capacity, and quotas were being missed.  How would they ever pump enough CO2 and CFCs into the atmosphere in time to make the deadline?  The Board of Directors would be calling him on the carpet, the stupid bastards forgetting as usual that he was the CEO, President, and Chair of the Board all rolled into one.  He was too old to run OMC now, they whispered behind his back when they were in their “secure” pods.

Ha, no pod on Mars was secure if he didn’t want it to be.  Bunch of useless coyotes, the whole lot of them, waiting for him to die, thinking there was no heir to the man who had almost single-handedly established OMC.  It was the most powerful corporation in the solar system.  More powerful than the European Union Incorporated, greater in military might than the last elected government left on Earth, Indo-China.

Well, he had a surprise for them.  There were seven heirs.  Seven sons, all groomed to take his place, and by the end of the day, Lord willing, he would roll into the annual stockholders meeting and announce that his son, John C. Stringfellow, Junior, was on the map.  Thinking of the slack-jawed looks on their faces kept him going through the day.  That and an hourly dose of fifteen different meds that were auto-injected into his system from a MedPak.

Horatio buzzed the office, which tore him away from his brooding.  They had kept the last candidate waiting ten minutes now.

“Is he impatient, Horatio?”

“No, Mr. Stringfellow,” Horatio’s voice answered back.  “He is sitting at attention, staring straight ahead at the plastic ferns.”

“Well, he’s either a good soldier or a frustrated horticulturalist.  Send him in.”

As soon as the hatch slid open, Stringfellow knew he had a good soldier on hand.  Dressed in the navy blue and white dress uniform of the United Corporations of America, he stood as straight as a razor, and his shoulders were as wide as the handle of a sledgehammer.

“Major Helles to see you Mr. Stringfellow.”  Horatio again bowed out and shut them up together in the small office.

Helles stepped forward and offered his hand.  It was fine-boned and smaller than Stringfellow had imagined it would be.  Much smaller than the other candidates’ had been.  It was remarkable, he thought as he returned the shake, how different his sons all looked. They varied in weight, height, and of course, personality.  He had planned it that way when the mothers were selected.  Helles was taller than the others, but far more angular, with a sharp chin and high cheekbones.  He looked more like his mother’s side of the family.

“Good to meet you, sir,” Helles said.  “I’ve read a great deal about you.”

“I’ve done a good bit of reading up on you, too.”

“Yes, sir.  That would be appropriate.”

Helles’ voice was almost flat, noting a void of emotion.  Stringfellow wasn’t sure if he was still playing the part of the good soldier, or if he was really that rigid.  You never knew with these military types.  They were the best at wearing the mask, keeping the enemy from reading their faces.  His mother was rigid like that, he recalled, the one time they had met, during the interview before the implantation of the fertilized egg.  Stringfellow had insisted on meeting the mothers of his sons, although he was always disguised.  It seemed more, what? Human?

Helles was still standing erect, not quite at attention, as Stringfellow rolled past him to the desk.  He waved for Helles to sit, a motion that Helles either ignored or did not notice.

“Please, Major, have a seat. You’re making me nervous.”

“Yes, Mr. Stringfellow.”  He sidestepped fluidly sat, still rigid.

“Lighten up, son, this isn’t a dress parade.”

Helles relaxed noticeably, He crossed his legs and even managed a small smile.  “Of course, Mr. Stringfellow.  Forgive my lack of civilian manners, it’s been a very long time since I had the pleasure of time off duty, and as you know the UCA Army is very demanding of its junior officers.  That, and I have to admit to a bit of, well, apprehension, at meeting a person of your high stature.”

So, the shell of his wasn’t so thick after all.  Stringfellow flipped open the dossier, turning immediately to the fourth page.  “Seems you make a regular habit of meeting folks in high places, Major.  Here’s a personal commendation from the CEO of the United Corporations of America giving you the Medal of Honor for Valor in the line of duty.  How did that come about?”

“I thwarted an assassination plot.”

“Come again?”  Stringfellow knew the details, of course.  Two rogue Board of Directors, a man and woman who had served in the US Senate before the collapse of the US government, had led a conspiracy to kill the CEO.  Major Helles had gotten wind of it somehow and led a daring raid that left all of the conspirators dead.

“My report is part of my dossier, is it not?”  Helles smiled slightly again.

Now wasn’t he a shrewd bastard.  “Of course, it is Major.  What it leaves out is the details of how you got this inside tip. Mind clearing that up for me?”


“Yes, what?”

“Yes, I mind clearing it up. That information is classified.  It is also unethical for me to reveal the nature of my reconnaissance.  Impractical, as well.  A situation may arise where my sources are needed again.”

That was more like it. Helles had a spine. But what was this man’s breaking point?  “All right, then, let’s forget the chit-chat and get on with business.  You’ve applied, at our invitation, to a high ranking position in the OMC corporate military.”

“Yes, sir.”

“How was that battery of tests they put you through the last couple of days?”

“Taxing, Mr. Stringfellow, but not impossible.”

Not impossible was right.  Stringfellow scanned his results again.  Physically, Helles was not at the top, although he tested out above average in all areas.  In the strategy and organizational tests, though, he far outstripped his half-brothers.

Don’t call them that, Stringfellow told himself, don’t even think it. Those boys will be off the station before the next morning.  He would never see them again.  That’s the way it had to be.  Once the choice was made, there would be only one son left.

On paper, Helles was everything that Stringfellow wanted in an heir.  Ethical, determined, honor-bound.  There was something still bothering him, though, a nagging doubt.

He let the Major stew in his own juices for a few minutes and leafed through the thick dossier.  Here was Helles’ whole live preserved in text and digigraphs.  Doctor’s visits, never been sick a day in his life. No surprise there, since his autoimmune system had been enhanced in vitro.  Excellent grades in school, with a smattering of discipline reports you’d expect from a bright, strong-willed son of a former Navy SEAL.

“Your mother,” Stringfellow said, “tell me about her.”

“She died when I was twelve.  Motorcycle accident.  But you knew that.”

“I’ve seen the accident report, yes.  You must miss her.”

Helles shrugged.  “I will see her in heaven when my time in this world is done.”

“Heaven?  I didn’t know—“

“Didn’t know what, Mr. Stringfellow?”

“That you were a religious man.”

“Certainly.  My mother saw to it that my upbringing was a Christian one.  You expected otherwise?”

There was an edge to Helles’ voice.  Anger, maybe?  No, a hint of surprise.  Not that Stringfellow minded a religious man—Mars was still too much like the old Wild West in America, and the fear of God never hurt anybody.

“Catholic or Protestant?”

Helles unbuttoned the top of his shirt and pulled out a cross on a silver chain.  “Baptist, to be precise.  My mother was born again soon after I came along.”

Well, that explained the nagging doubt.  It was a minor thing, but his radar had picked up on it, hadn’t it? Maybe you haven’t lost your touch, after all, old man.

Here sat the perfect man. This last candidate, this last son, had no obvious flaws.  Add to that, religious convictions, and he might just be the one.  The board would love him, once they got over the shock.  And what a shock it would be.

“Time to cut to the chase, Major Helles.  Tell me why you were brought here.”

Helles uncrossed his legs and leaned forward in the chair.  “Ostensibly, I was here in answer to an opportunity to join the OMC military and become one of its officers.  But hiring one soldier away from another army is rare, even in these days of highest-bidder loyalty.  There is such a thing as honor and duty to one’s corporation, even if another conglomerate offers a higher rank and better benefits.”

He had see through that little façade.  So, Stringfellow reminded himself, had three of the other sons.  “Go on.”

“It stands to reason, then, that the position I’m interviewing for is far more important than I was led to believe.  That shows a need for security and secrecy. You aren’t looking for a colonel to handle your military strategy, are you, Mr. Stringfellow?”

No, of course not.  That much was obvious.  Helles differed from the others in one dramatic way—he cut right to the chase.  It had taken the others over an hour into the interview to spill the beans. Now was a good time to see what the boy was made of.

“Earlier today,” Stringfellow said, slowly, in a measured tone, the same tone he had used on the other six candidates, “during one of the tests, you created a scenario that would enhance OMC’s value tremendously.  Walk me through that scenario.”

“You have review the results, have you not?”

“Walk me through them, in case I missed anything.”

He had reviewed all of the scenarios, and each was fascinating in its own right.  The Rhodes Scholar had invented a market model that in the wink of an eye would send the earth world markets tumbling, creating a planet-wide depression.  All but the largest Earth corporations would weaken, and OMC with it great cash reserves could acquire them, without the bloodshed of a hostile take over.  It would even solve the emigration problem: all OMC had to do was downsize a country, say the Philippines, and transfer a percentage of its employees to Mars.  But in the end, the scholar failed because he would not push the button that supposedly would set the whole plan into action. He simply could not bring that much hardship to Earth.  It was his home, after all

In fact, the button would have done nothing, except set off a series of programmed digigraphics, a light show to celebrate this success.  Stringfellow had no intention of destroying Earth in order for Mars to profit.  He himself was too weak to make such an order.  That’s why OMC had stagnated, because it needed a CEO who was ruthless enough to put the corporation before himself.

That was the crucible.  Would Helles be able to push the button?  His sense of duty to the corporation might allow it, but what effect would his religious beliefs have?

Stringfellow handed Helles the haptic gloves that controlled the plasma computer screens.  A strategic map of Earth filled the largest screen, and with a flick of the fingers, Stringfellow filled the map with markers.

Helles began. “Here is the current situation of the terran corpo-political world.” He tapped the screen, and Europe and China enlarged, growing out of the map.

Stringfellow marveled at his son’s skill with the gloves.  Far from his own clumsy movements, Helles’ made the screen come alive, looking as if he were a conductor leading an orchestra.  Digigraphs and text flew by so quickly, Stringfellow could hardly see them, much less read them.

“As you know,” Helles said, staring at the plasma screen, “China is the last of the governments left on the planet.  She is a dinosaur, ready to fall into extinction.  The Communist model was never a sound one, and the People’s Republic would have followed the USSR’s demise if it were not for their massive consumer base.”

“Of course.”  China had not followed the other countries in adopting the corporate model, which was never a surprise.  China was always slow to react to the rest of the world.

“However, this dinosaur still represents a significant military threat to both the European Union Inc and the United Corporations of America,”  Hells said. “As you know, when NATO and NAFTA were fused, both corporations unwisely chose to let the free market control their armed forces, which makes them both vulnerable to attack by the Chinese.”

“The Chinese will not attack the EUI and UCA,” Stringfellow answered.  “Who would buy their shoes?”  Although he had seen the scenario earlier, he was still skeptical.  He knew Helles plan was to provoke the Chinese into war. But Beijing had always limited its conquests to border regions.

Helles did not immediately answer. Instead, he made China larger on the screen, focusing on the city of Beijing.  The satellite full-spectrum digigraphs showed large masses that Stringfellow recognized as missile silos.

“Those were not included in your earlier scenario,” Stringfellow said.

“A little wrinkle.  Recon satellites picked these sites up only hours ago.”

Stringfellow did not like this little wrinkle.  “You have access to satellite feeds from Earth?”

“They are from OMC satellites. Your staff provided them.”

Who the Hell authorized that?  Somebody’s head was going to roll. Still, he had to admire Helles’ resourcefulness.  They had tried to keep him hermetically sealed in the station, and he still managed recon.  This was a man to be proud of.

Don’t put the ox before the horse, he chided himself. Helles still had to be willing to push the button.

“Go on, Helles.  Tell me about your wrinkle.”

“It is essentially the same plan, sir.  OMC has been able to breach the security of UCA air defense and infect their core systems using a self-limiting virus.  At any time, we can release a catalyst into their system, which will launch a series of short-range missiles from NATO bases in Indonesia, Japan, and the Ukraine.  The target in Beijing and those silos I marked on the map.  The Chinese will have to react.  They will retaliate against all NATO nations, which will lead to a global wear.  The collateral damage will be significant.”

Stringfellow pinched the bridge of his nose.  What a horrible, horrible scenario, so unspeakable that Helles would never do it.  Across the desk, the Major turned the plasma screen off, placed the haptic gloves neatly the desk, and returned to the chair.

“And this will benefit OMC how?”

“You seem upset, Mr. Stringfellow.  Does my scenario alarm you?”

Isn’t this what you wanted, Johnny, a son capable of decisive action?  A man who lead OMC into the next level of development?  “You call it collateral damage, I call them people.”

“Yes, sir.  They are people,”  Helles said.  “But people are just part of the corporation, and I serve my corporation.  Might a remind you, sir, that as CEO of OMC, you have many times squash movements by the miners to unionize.  Once, as I recall, you had the air supply cut off from a group of wild cat strikers, and that all of them died within hours.”

“Be all my sins, remembered, eh?  Yes, I did those things, and others for worse.”  Stringfellow felt ill.  The meds were already wearing off?  “When I started this colony, Major, it was dream of utopia.  All women and men were created equal, and things were to be run democratically.  But it didn’t last.  It was all an illusion.  Truth is, I was in control all along.  I had the money, the stockholders, and I controlled the mines. It was inevitable that the interests of the corporation came first.  But those things that I did, they wore on me.  Made me tired.  It’s not so easy to make decisions that will leave blood on your hands.”

“’And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand’.”

Stringfellow was not thinking now, just reacting.  He pulled on the gloves and called up the “button” program.  The screen turned black, except for two words in dark yellow, “Launch Scenario.”

“This is the last test, Major.  We have programmed the scenario you created, and it is now.  Will you launch it?”

Stringfellow expected, what, the same obvious hesitation the scholar had shown?  But there would be none of that this time.  Helles reached up and tapped the word, “Launch.”

The black screen flickered, and then thousands of digigraphs poured past in a depiction of the expected results of the scenario.  Earth’s life flashed before Helles’ eyes.  Nuclear explosions, firestorms that swept cities away in a matter of minutes, thousands of starving children picking their way through the rubble of cities all across the world.

It was Dresden on a global scale.

Perfect.  Stringfellow watched Helles’ face for signs of emotion and found nothing but the stoic, tight-lipped response he had already been treated to.  The man was made of stone, just what OMC needed to carry it into the next century.  After twenty plus years of waiting, the plan had finally come to fruition.  He felt the tingle of chill bumps, the same sensation he felt every time an experiment worked.

“Horatio,” he called on the intercom, “please bring your notary seal and digicam into my office.  We need an official witness.  Major, please pull a chair up to my desk.  I would like to offer you the position.”

Horatio came to the desk bearing a digicam to record the conversation and a touch tablet that contained not a job offer, but John Stringfellow’s Last Will and Testament. In a few minutes, he would open a transmission port with his law office on Mars, but not until he dropped the figurative bomb on Major Helles.

He glanced at Helles, still stern and showing no signs of curiosity.  Surely he was holding in a thousand questions.  In the same position, Stringfellow wouldn’t have been able to control himself.  Curiosity had always been his best quality and worst flaw. He paused over the touch pad, eager to write the name of his son into the will, but couldn’t resist the last chance to break the stone wall of Hells’ face.

“Major Helles, tell me about your father.

“He is a brilliant man,” he said without hesitation.

“You mean, was, he died when you were an infant, it says so in your dossier.”

“Yes, of course, was.”

“What if I were to tell you that your father is not the man you thought he was?”

Helles stared straight ahead, his eyes focused on the viewing port. “I would not be surprised.  None of us is the man others think we are.”

It was no good. Helles was taking all the fun out of it. He was a mental bomb shelter. Might as well go on and sign the documents. “Turn on the camera, Horatio.”

“A moment, sir,” Horatio said, “it is time for your MedPak.”

Stringfellow offered a withered forearm, and Horatio injected him. There were track marks up and down the arm from months of these injections. Soon, though, it would be over, and he wouldn’t need the MedPaks anymore.

Using a stylus, Stringfellow wrote in the changes to his will, making John Carter Stringfellow, Junior, his only heir. When he died, Helles would take over a CEO and Chair of Board of Directors.  He hoped it was the right thing to do.

You’re just feeling buyer’s remorse, he told himself. It was a risk, Stringfellow knew, and for a fleeting second he wished that he had done things the simple way—get married, have children, raise them.  But he had never wanted a wife nor children.  OMC was his baby. No, science was his baby, the quest for new knowledge. The last frontier and all that rot.

Horatio witnessed the signing and then notarized it, placing his seal and thumbprint on the pad.  As Stringfellow watched, he sent the document across to the OMC attorneys.  Now, it was official. There was no turning back.

It was time to spill the beans, but suddenly, it didn’t feel like a game anymore. What was he thinking?  This was a man’s life he was about to undo.  The least he could do is act a little less, what, triumphant?

“Major Helles,” Stringfellow began slowly. Horatio was still in the office, and he saw no reason to send him out.  It never hurt to have a good man at your side.  “I’m afraid that I have lied to you.  This whole interview was a farce.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You were never under consideration for a position in our military. In fact, son, there isn’t any such position in OMC military.”

“I was aware of that.”

“But you came anyway?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You are a smart young man, Major, a lot smarter than you like to let on, so if you knew that this whole setup was a straw man, why did you come here and go through all the tests and interviews?”

“I wanted to meet you, sir.”

“That’s a lot of trouble to get to meet an old man with cancer, son.”

“True.  But you were not always an old man. Once, you were the young man whose bioengineering skill enabled the rapid terraformation of Mars. To prove your theories were true, you and a few colleagues left Earth with enough fuel and supplies to make it to Mars.  But not enough to make it back.  I admire a man of conviction, sir.”

Stringfellow chuckled.  “You sound like an encyclopedia, son.”

“One should always speak as intelligently as possible.”

Well, he did manage that. Still, it didn’t quite make sense, did it?  If he knew about the interview, what else did he know?  “I’m not exactly as charismatic figure, Major.  I find it hard to believe that you would travel this far just to meet me.”

“There is another reason, sir.”

Now they were getting somewhere. He glanced at Horatio, who was waiting calmly.  “Which is?”

Helles swallowed, making his Adam’s apple bob.  “I wanted to meet my true father.”

Damn, he knew, the boy had outfoxed him.  It was clear now, that’s how he knew about the scenario, that’s why he was never hesitated to launch it.  He had inside information.  “Who told you?  Horatio?”

“Don’t blame him, sir,” Helles said.  “I already knew before I got here.  I’ve known for years, since my mother died.”

“That’s impossible.  Your mother didn’t know a thing about who I really was.”

Helles smiled.  “Mother was a brilliant woman, sir, and a terrific spy, even if I do say so myself.  She saw through the cover story your men used.  She took your money, planned my life, and waited for the day that I would take my place at your side.  It is your destiny, she would say.”

“I seem to have been outflanked,” Stringfellow said.  Now he was the one with a thousand questions but without the energy to ask them. His chest felt as if someone was sitting on it.  He tried to breath and could only cough.

“I was not trying to outmaneuver you, Father, only to become the son you wanted me to be.  When I learned of my true identity, I set out to learn everything about OMC and you, in particular.  Reconnaissance is my specialty.  I know, for example, that I was one of eight eggs that were implanted. Seven of us survived.”

So he knew about the others, too.  Not really a surprise, after all.  He probably knew everything.  They had underestimated this one all along. Pride goeth before the fall, isn’t that what they said?

“Six of my brothers preceded me today, and all six of the them failed your test.  Your man, Horatio, carried each man out to what you assumed was the infirmary.”

“Assumed? Horatio?” What had he done?

Horatio did not answer.  He patted Stringfellow on the shoulder and then turned away, facing the stars that shone through the viewing portal.

“Horatio?  You betrayed me?”  He tried to breathe again and choked on his own breath.

“Not betrayal, Father,” Helles said. “Horatio works for OMC, not you, and he will take whatever steps are necessary to preserve the bottom line.  In fact, Horatio walked the men to the shuttle, where they await launch.  Tragically, they will all perish due to a fuel rod failure.”

“You bastard,” he said in a course whisper.

“Technically accurate, yes, but I am still the son you always wanted.”

No, no, no, he shook his head.  Why couldn’t he breathe?  He clutched his throat, gagging.

“It’s the MedPak, Father, rather, what you thought was a MedPak.  Your body functions are shutting down, and there isn’t much time.  I have so much to show you.”

Stringfellow hacked but could not speak.  Helles seemed farther away, as if his voice were echoing down a mineshaft.

Helles touched the plasma screen.  It awoke with a splash of digigraphs, scenes of missiles hitting Beijing, and more missiles launched from China on NATO targets.  Los Angeles and Tokyo were in flames, and the faces of the screaming victims filled the screen.  He had launched the scenario after all.

What a monster! Stringfellow struggled to speak, but his body was paralyzed.  He could not move, could not speak, could not blink or turn away from the horrific images that flashed across the screens.

“Shh.  It won’t be long now, Father.  The Board of Directors will accept your death without concern, and with your last will in hand, I will assume your position.  With Earth in upheaval, OMC will need a strong hand to guide it.  Thank you, Father, for making me that hand.”

Helles bent down beside the treadchair. He placed a hand on Stringfellow’s eyes and closed them, then leaned in and kissed his cheek. “When you get to heaven, please give Mother my best.”