Averone ran his finger over the ink letters of the old Bible, lying open on a stand. The sensation of rough wood grain interrupted by smooth ink always gave him comfort.
The Golden Rule.
He had nothing to feel guilty about.
He looked at his clock. The minute hand slipped to eleven. Eight fifty-five PM.
The sun set later on the 999th floor. Even this late, daylight glinted off the Martian crystal that backed the clock's face.
He had originally intended to make the clock a gift to his wife, Milla. But it was too valuable to keep at home, near his family. He kept it here at the office. His home was his castle; Martian Mining Corporation was his empire.
"You have a visitor," chimed a soft, female voice.
"Show." And before him stood himself. He looked well.
"Matthew. Right on time."
Matthew smiled. "We're always prompt."
"Bring him up!" The hologram vanished. Behind him, the elevator door turned from purple to blue. "Dinner in ten!" That would be just enough time. It was Matthew's last dinner, tonight. He had been programmed to die at ten o'clock, after exactly seven years of service. Or rather, as the doctor had corrected him, "de-activate."
The elevator door slid open.
"Matthew!" Averone gave his clone a bear's embrace. He hadn't laid hands on himself in four years, but he felt as familiar as ever.
"How are you?" Matthew asked.
"Me? Great. And you?"
Matthew should feel good, tonight, Averone thought. There must be no loss of energy, no pain, no inkling of failing health. He would die happily unaware. Averone had ordered their favorite dinner. If all went well, halfway through gobbling his second slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie—they always went for seconds on strawberry-rhubarb—Matthew would collapse, face first into sweet oblivion. He would give himself his dream death.
Matthew walked to the window. "I'm in time for the nine o'clock."
The view from this height was remarkable, because you could see everything from up here, and nothing. It was all too far down. Possibly, in some distant future, there'd be dozens of other buildings this high. For now, it was lonely at the top.
But it provided a perfect view, two minutes before every hour, for one spectacular event. Across the river, a cargo vessel plummeted three quarters of the way down from the atmosphere, and then, exactly level with Averone's window, lit a ball of fire beneath itself, decelerated in a split second from a meteoric fall to a deliberate, two-minute descent to Earth. The object appeared to materialize in a flash. Another trillion-dollar payload, out of thin air.
"Do you remember the beginning?"
"It was only seven years ago."
Averone remembered the moment his clone first opened his eyes. Matthew had been the doctor's secret science project until that moment.
"I hadn't been sure what you would be to me," said Averone. "My son? My brother? My friend?"
When Matthew opened his eyes, that day, he looked straight at Averone. And everything changed.
"Myself. There's no better word for it." He allowed a smile at the corners of his mouth, looked for a smile back. "Everything that's mine is yours."
"How are the boys?" asked Matthew.
His smile faded. Everything except that. "They're fine."
"You're always so worried about the family." Averone became aware of a knot in his stomach. He had seen the first spark of life in those eyes. Tonight, he would see it extinguished.
There was no reason for guilt. Tonight was a sacrifice. He could have let Matthew die anywhere, alone, a forgotten dilemma. But he had chosen something harder. Something Matthew would never even know to thank him for.
A gentle chime, and behind them a door slid open.
"Dinner is served," chirped the computer.
Averone was a company pilot when he flew the first shipment home from Mars. MMC had been seen as an eccentric startup before that first payload. The success of the company was riding on him, and he was confident. He took all his pay in stock options. The moment he landed, those options became the most valuable assets on the planet. He could have bought a mansion on the Moon, but instead, he hired the doctor. He had bigger ambitions.
The first years, before anybody knew, had been exhilarating. They had worked in lock step: one of them home crunching numbers, studying data; the other one across the world, meeting people, coordinating, politicking. People marveled at how one person could accomplish so much so quickly. In only a couple of years, he rose from a company pilot to the CEO of the wealthiest corporation on the planet.
Eventually, his colleagues figured it out. When they came to him, he simply confirmed their accusations. The ones he had climbed over, whom he had outstripped, were outraged. But, what could the Board say? Was he ruthless? Yes. But ruthless is how you conquer a new frontier. There were no rules, and so he had broken none.
Then came all the copycats. It revolted Averone to see how people were willing to treat themselves. When the Manufactured Slavery Act passed, it had been as much a relief to him as to anybody. Averone happily launched Matthew into the most luxurious retirement Earth ever imagined. He gave himself the perfect life, and freedom in every respect.
Averone watched Matthew hungrily eat dinner. The food was perfect. The meat was tender. The veggies had just enough crunch.
"Tell me your craziest night. I want to hear all the fun you've had."
Averone's first reaction, when Matthew awoke and their eyes met, had been one of complete recognition. He had felt an immediate desire to protect his replica, and the thrill of immense opportunities ahead. And then he had noticed his clone's bare hands; no ring, no attachments. For the past seven years, Averone watched enviously as Matthew enjoyed those particular spoils of their success that only befit a bachelor.
"There have been some crazy nights," replied Matthew, and took a large bite of steak.
With their money and Averone's blessing, Matthew had spent his retirement opening up and running the first and biggest casino on the Lunar Strip. He had hosted the hottest concerts, the wildest orgies; drank with every actress, every rock star. Of course, Averone had never been. He was a family man. But, he'd kept up.
"What about that rumor? The one about you and that actress. Lanza ..." He searched for a last name.
Matthew smiled demurely. "She's a good woman. But, you know, actresses and their emotions. We never liked roller coasters."
"I wouldn't have minded a couple wild nights, once I had real money to spend."
"You wouldn't have enjoyed it." Matthew was being sanctimonious. Averone fought the urge to roll his eyes.
"My last memory of Milla, we were fighting," said Matthew. "I forgot one of the boys' birthdays."
"I made it up to the kid. She forgave us."
"She forgave you. In my last memory of her, she's furious at me."
"I saw a picture of you on one of those new whatchamacallits. Rocket sleds. Zipping around the craters. There was a supermodel in the jump seat."
"Another last memory. Galen has his first chance to pitch in an actual game. We've been throwing with him for months. And his first pitch, that beefy kid from Lancaster slugs a homer. We were afraid he would give up."
"His next game he struck out five."
"No, I know. You told me. But did he stick with it?" He was so hopeful.
But it wasn't hope. It was passive aggression, Averone's least favorite quality in himself. "Forget the boys, I want to hear more about you."
The light faded from Matthew's eyes. He glanced around the table. "I would have liked mashed sweet potatoes. With the little pineapple chunks."
Averone hated to think of himself as spoiled. "I'm sorry."
"Is that why you're sorry?"
"Is there something else?"
Matthew smirked. "You're not eating."
"I'm not hungry." The truth was, the knot had turned into a bit of nausea. The smell of insinuation turned his stomach. Exile. It was an ugly mischaracterization of an unfortunate necessity.
"I'm just asking, is he still playing baseball?"
He reminded himself that this was Matthew's last night. He deserved some indulgence. "He's been pitching varsity since his sophomore year."
"Was that so hard?"
He made a mental note to never smirk again. How did his wife put up with such smugness? He glanced at the clock; it still wasn't time for dessert.
"How about a drink?" He stood, strode to a small bar. "I have something you need to try." He poured blue liquid from a slender bottle into two crystal glasses.
"What is it?"
"From Martian lichen. We're calling it 'Mars Malt.'" He took a gulp. He wasn't used to liquor, anymore. He felt the heat spread into his chest.
Matthew sipped, considered. "You know, I've made love to half the starlets in the universe. But, Milla ..."
Averone wondered how Matthew would respond if he told him that it had been at Milla's insistence. She had been terrified by what an estranged clone might do to their family. Or to her. "What if it already happened?" she demanded. He obliged her to save their marriage.
But Matthew didn't need to learn anything new in his remaining minutes. He knew what he needed to know to die peacefully.
Matthew took another sip. "I guess it's as good as I could hope for, for my last drink."
"Last drink?" Averone couldn't stifle a chuckle. It was a funny time for Matthew to declare his sobriety.
"The doctor told me. I'm going to die, tonight."
Averone froze. "The doctor ..." He struggled to gather himself. "That's impossible."
"He told me it would be like a switch. Off."
That was the phrase that the doctor used: an off switch. "If he told you that, why come to dinner?"
"To forgive you." Matthew gave him a pitying look.
It was more than Averone could bear. "Forgive me? For what?"
"I'm not a pet. I'm not a robot. I'm a person. I am you. You made me out of greed. You worked me for three years, and then you banished me, stripped of everything I love. And now you're going to have to look into my eyes, knowing that I know."
It was a catastrophe. "I'm sorry you found out. You weren't supposed to—"
"That's not why you're sorry."
Another surge of anger, this one at Matthew. "I have nothing else to apologize to you for."
Matthew put his drink down. "I'll skip dessert. I'd prefer to die at home." He stood up, walked toward the door.
"Open!" commanded Matthew, and the elevator faded from purple to blue.
"Lock!" commanded Averone, and the elevator snapped to red.
Matthew turned. "Apologize to me. For giving me the memory of an entire life that I can't call my own, and taking away any opportunity to build one I could."
Seven years. Three years of hard work and four years of blissful and absolute freedom. Matthew had experienced everything in that time: every flavor, every smell, the most beautiful places on Earth. And now he smirked at Averone, the superior bastard.
"You can't leave."
Yes, why not? He needed to hear his clone whine one last time about missing his family? He needed to beat himself up one more time? Milla always told him he was too hard on himself. He was sweating; his palms were soaked.
The computer chirped, "Milla is calling—"
"Decline," Averone cut off the computer, a little too quickly.
"I haven't heard her voice in seven years. My sons' voices."
"Everything I did," Averone spoke slowly, "you would have done the same thing. It's inarguable. You can't hold anything against me." The phone taps. The computer surveillance. The men who shadowed him everywhere he went.
"And now I'm going to die without them. They won't even know. You are going to watch yourself die alone, in exile."
"You're not alone. I'm here." Averone felt a lump in his throat.
"We're running out of time, Averone. I know you want forgiveness."
"Tell me you're grateful for how well I treated you."
"Look me in the eye," Matthew demanded, "and tell me I should thank you."
He couldn't. He turned away, walked toward the crimson sky. His whole body was hot.
Why not just let Matthew leave? He wouldn't get far.
A fireball flashed against the darkening horizon. Often, working late at night, watching the cargo vessels descend slowly to Earth was the only thing that reminded him he was still connected to his planet. His family. Who would he be without his family?
"Apologize to me, Averone. For yourself."
He felt the floor shift beneath him. The building occasionally swayed, at this altitude. But this wasn't that. This was guilt.
"Don't carry this with you."
If his family were stripped away, he would be nobody. A stranger.
He cooled his fingers on the window, brushed them across his temples.
"We're almost out of time."
How could the doctor have let his clone know? How could he have been fooled?
What did it matter? If this was guilt, he didn't have the constitution for it.
He turned back to Matthew, faced the accusation.
Matthew beamed. "I forgive you. It's what you said. There's nothing you could have done that I wouldn't do."
There. Easy. The guilt was gone.
Why didn't he feel better?
His eyes moved to the clock. The sinking sun bloodied its face.
There was nothing ...He could have done ...
The clock looked ugly. Suddenly, everything felt ugly.
Matthew looked at him, confused. "What about dessert?"
Of course. The doctor would never have let his clone know.
"You can't leave, can you?" He hadn't come here to forgive Averone. He had come here to switch back.
Matthew put out his hand. "Come on. There's pie. Strawberry—"
"I know what kind of fucking pie it is!"
"I forgave you, Averone."
Averone moved toward Matthew.
"How could you ...You left your family with a clone."
Matthew went pale. And then, once again, that fucking smirk.
"I trusted you to protect them."
"You let another man make love to your wife—"
"I wanted you to feel comfortable. It was my responsibility—"
"Responsibility? You fucked starlets. You made your life a party."
"I hated it. I wanted what I gave you. I wanted to be home."
The room chirped again. "Your wife is calling."
"Did you think I'd let you just slip back into Milla's life?" His voice cracked. His throat was so dry he could barely swallow.
"Sir?" persisted the computer.
"Accept!" Averone croaked. Silence.
"Your wife is on the line, sir," repeated the computer.
His voice was too weak. He scrambled for his drink.
"Decline," said Matthew, his voice strong. "I'll call her back."
The alcohol stung his throat.
"Estimated call back time requested," persisted the computer.
"Accept her call!" A bleached shell of his voice.
"A couple minutes," said Matthew.
A couple minutes. That was all Averone had. "I want to talk to her. Let me talk to her."
"It's unbearable, isn't it? We crave her."
"Don't make me die by myself."
"You're not by yourself. I'm here."
Averone flinched. "I want my family."
"But we both know it wouldn't be best. For Milla and the children."
He felt his last, hot tear burn his chapped cheek, and then his eyes were dry.
"It was supposed to be painless."
"It's not perfect. It's close. You were an early version. I'm sorry."
"It's not humane."
"Still, it's what you said. I wish I could die like you."
"You'll have Milla. You'll have your family," Averone croaked.
"But you'll die with a clean conscience."
Averone looked down, saw that the creases in his hand were cracking. The blood scabbed before he could even bleed. His knees buckled.
Matthew knelt down with him. "You did everything right. You protected your family. All of the bad things, I did."
Averone was just barely able to shake his head.
"No, you're right. I'll die with a clean conscience, too. Because you asked for my forgiveness. Thank you for that."
Averone opened his mouth. But he had no voice left to scream.
"Come here. Die here." Matthew held out his arms.
Averone felt himself fall forward, into his own embrace.
After a moment, the body became stiff. Its skin was taut, scaling.
He lay down his clone as gently as possible. Still, its head cracked off. After a moment, the body turned to dust. The wedding ring clinked to the ground. He picked it up, slipped it on.
He walked over to the table, served himself a slice of pie, scooped some ice cream.
"Call back Milla."
A mild ringing tone filled the room.
"Who is it?" came a whispery, female voice.
A pretty, well-made up face loomed before him.
"Hello, baby," said the face.
"Where's the rest of you?"
"On private," she smiled flirtatiously. "You're keeping me waiting. Aren't you excited to see me?"
"You can't imagine."
Milla pouted. "You've already eaten?"
"We had a going away party for an old colleague."
Averone smiled. The face vanished.
He noticed the Bible lying open on the stand. He ran his fingers over the ancient paper and ink.
It occurred to him that it might be time to amend the Rule. "Do unto others (and yourself) as you would have others (and yourself) do unto you."
"Wire the last payment to the doctor."
"Shall I call for your car?"
Behind him, the purple door changed to blue.
Averone looked out the window of his office. His office. It was finally time to go home. His home.
He took a bite of dessert. Equal parts ice cream, strawberry and rhubarb. The perfect combination of warm and cool, sweet and tart.
It felt good to forgive himself.