Harry “Eggs” Benedict had a problem. He was dying, he knew that, but that in itself, wasn’t his problem. His problem was what to do with his enormous wealth, earned in the cut-throat world of news galacticasting. Sixty years he’d been in the business, and now owned no less than seven of the galaxy’s most successful news stations. He was absurdly rich, but had never spent much money, being always too busy earning it. He had fallen into the trap of believing his own PR: thinking that he was immortal, having certainly never truly accepted the fact that he might one day die, he had never made a will,and now here he was, flat on his back in a hospital bed, staring at an array of screens that displayed in zig-zag lines, wavy lines and coloured bar charts the irrefutable evidence of his ebbing life force. If he died intestate, Harry realised, the taxman would get his billions. On the other hand, he had but one surviving relative, his great nephew, Sebastian. Sebastian!
Harry silently cursed his late lamented sister Agnes for marrying into the Wormbender family, an improbable tribe of ne’er-do-wells. He had invited his nephew Cornelius to join him in the serious, exciting and above all lucrative world of the news media, but to no avail. He had nurtured hopes, all through Sebastian’s childhood and adolescence, that his great-nephew would follow in his footsteps, but Sebastian remained doggedly determined to pursue a career in the performing arts. The performing arts, by all that’s wonderful! The media mogul sighed, wondering if it might not be better after all if the taxman did get his wealth.
Sebastian Wormbender had last been heard of doing some sort of one-man-show in the poorer quarters of the megalopolis. Harry wondered what the boy would do if he suddenly found himself hugely wealthy. He smiled. The smile swiftly turned into a rictus of pain as the coils of mortality constricted him more tightly. He looked at the ever-diminishing peaks and waves on the screen at his side and knew that his time was at hand. Whatever Sebastian did with the loot - and Harry hoped, most sincerely, that he would see the light and invest it in something sensible at least - whatever he did with it, Harry realised he would not be around to see it, and would consequently be spared that particular anguish.
Clearly, Harry reckoned, anything, anything, was better than leaving it to the taxman. Even leaving it to Sebastian was better than that! But should he insert some clause into his will stipulating that the money be used sensibly?
A sudden stabbing pain went through his chest, sending the VDUs into apoplexy. They calmed themselves quickly, but the green lines on the screen had sunk from mountains indicative of rude health to mere molehills. Time was running out fast.
Harry picked up the digital assistant from the bedside table and began dictating his last will and testament. He was still clutching it when the monitoring device let out an ear-piercing beep. The nurse rushed in to find him with his head on the pillow and a beatific smile on his face. The green lines on the VDUs cruised unerringly across the screens. Harry “Eggs” Benedict had joined his ancestors.
Sebastian Wormbender was at the climax of his act. He was balanced on one hand on the tiny platform on top of a slender telescopic monopod, some thirty feet above the crowd gathered in the Whitechapel Piazza. This position afforded him a peculiar view of the drones of the megalopolis, of whom his regular audience consisted. It was a good crowd, and the donations in the begging bowl provided an excellent supplement to the meagre grants his performance brought him from the Arts Department.
It was from this vantage point that he observed the approach of a sleek silver-grey aircar from between two condemned office buildings. It settled onto the flagstones of the piazza just beyond the edge of the crowd, silently and without fuss, as if not wishing to draw attention to itself.
At the touch of a small control on his platform, Sebastian lowered his monopod to the ground, amidst loud applause. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you!” he called loudly over the din. “Thank you very much! I will be appearing at the People’s Palace next week. I hope to see you there!”
The crowd dispersed, diverging around the aircar and reuniting behind it. Sebastian began gathering his props, eyeing the aircar with some curiosity. It had grey glass that made it impossible to tell how many people were inside.
When the last of the crowd had gone, the side panel slid open. A figure leaned out. “Mr. Wormbender? Could I have a moment of your time, please?” Sebastian approached the aircar warily. The only occupant was a man in his thirties, sleek, dressed in an expensive grey business suit. He matched the car perfectly, and made a sharp contrast with Sebastian in his rainbow-coloured leotard.
“My card,” he said superfluously.
The wording that appeared on the card - activated by Sebastian’s body heat - read: Renshaw Platt, Solicitor and Commissioner for oaths, Floor 206, London Wall Tower, Megalopolis Sector One. “What can I do for you, Mr.Platt?”
Mr.Platt beamed. “It’s what I can do for you, Mr.Wormbender.”
A sudden chill breeze brought goose-bumps out on Sebastian’s bare, sweating arms and legs. He shivered. “All right, what can you do for me?”
“Won’t you step inside?” said Mr.Platt, observing the young man’s discomfort. “I have something of great importance to show you.”
Sebastian stepped inside the car. Mr.Platt shut the door and motioned for him to move into the rear compartment. This was sumptuously appointed, and Sebastian felt uncomfortable and out of place.
“Care for a drink?” said Mr.Platt.
“It’s a little early in the day,” said Sebastian suspiciously.
“As you like,” said Mr.Platt with an unctious smile. “Take a seat, anyway.” Sebastian settled onto the couch.
“Were you aware, Mr.Platt began, “that your great-uncle Harry has recently, uh, passed on?”
Great-uncle Harry! Of course! Sebastian felt the penny drop with a loud clang. “I saw the telecast,” he said.
“You were no doubt aware of your great-uncle’s wealth.”
“As rich as Croesus, I gather, but never spent much.” Sebastian was trying to maintain a non-committal stance, though he was becoming more interested.
“Mr.Wormbender,” said Mr.Platt, his smile growing ever wider and his voice becoming ever more unctious, “Did you know that you are the late Mr.Benedict’s only surviving relative?”
Sebastian’s eyes bulged. His brain was suddenly in a scramble to understand the implications of what Mr.Platt was saying. There suddenly seemed to be a blockage in his throat, and Sebastian made a kind of gulping noise.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” he said at last, more to himself than to the solicitor. “Are you trying to tell me what I think you are?”
It seemed as if Mr.Platt’s smile would crack his face in half.
“Congratulations, Mr.Wormbender. You are Mr.Benedict’s sole heir.”
Sebastian’s jaw dropped open. He stared into space. He felt as if he’d been struck by lightning. Mr.Platt dropped a microdisc into the terminal in the corner of the compartment, and great-uncle Harry’s last will and testament appeared on the screen: “This is the last will and testament of Harold Montague Benedict, recorded this, the fourteenth of March, 2121, which, I suspect, will be my dying day. I am of sound mind, but my body is fading fast, so I shall dispense with formalities. As is widely known, I possess a sizeable fortune, and have debated in my mind how best to dispose of it. I have no wish to die intestate, since this would mean that my wealth would merely line the pockets of the growing army of bureaucrats in our esteemed government. I have decided, therefore, to leave my entire estate to my sole surviving relative, my great nephew, Sebastian Wormbender. I had serious doubts about this, as the boy, so I understand, runs some kind of one-man circus. I pondered as to whether I should insert some clause limiting the purposes to which the money may be put, but I decided against it. I can’t imagine that any relative of mine, however distant, could squander such a sum uselessly. [Did you hear that,Sebastian?] I feel my time is at hand. The galaxy will mourn one of its greatest ever media men. Signed HMB 14.3.21.”
After the terminal screen went blank, Sebastian remained staring at it. He said at last: “I think I’ll have that drink now.”
Mr.Platt took the seal off a flask of champagne and poured two glasses. He handed one to Sebastian. “Let me be the first to toast your good fortune,” he said.
Sebastian knocked back the champagne in a single gulp and held up his glass to be refilled.
“We haven’t completed the figures yet,” said Mr.Platt as he poured, but probably in excess of fifty billion credits.”
Sebastian could not conceive of a single human being possessing such an astronomical sum of money. “Fifty...billion...credits?”
Mr.Platt nodded. Sebastian polished off his glass and presented it anew.