After breakfast Darm took me to his study, a large room with book-lined walls, and a floor-to-ceiling window that looked out to the same courtyard I had seen from his bedroom. A large desk was set diagonally across one corner, with two visitors’ chairs in front of it. In the opposite corner was a comfortable sitting area with a couch and two reclining armchairs. The desk was clear except for a computer screen and a scarlet folder.
Darm told me to take a seat in one of the recliners, then said to the computer, “Call. Procurator.”
A couple of seconds later I heard the procurator’s deep voice.
“Darm! How are you today? And how is Echo?”
“We’re both fine, thanks, Adam. Look, we’re in my study and I’m about to explain everything to Echo. I’m sure we will need to see you when we’re through here, though. Will you be free later? Do I need to give you time to prepare?”
“Nothing to prepare, really, so just let me know when you’re on the way and I will be ready for you.”
“Thank you, Adam. End.”
Darm picked up the folder and took a seat in the other recliner. He looked over at me. “Adam is my guardian when my parents are out of the palace. I needed to let him know what we were doing.”
“Echo, I drew the short straw. With my parents away, Adam and I discussed the best way to fill you in on everything that has happened. In the end we felt that you might be more comfortable if I did it.” He gave a long sigh. “I’m sorry, but this is probably going to be hard for you. Some of what I have to tell you is pretty distressing.” When he looked at me again his face wore a sad expression.
“This…” he tapped the crimson folder, now sitting on his lap, “more or less documents your life, pieced together from IG investigations over the last couple of years, and from publicly available information. It includes your birth record, as well as those of your parents and grandparents, and your parents’ marriage record. We think your parents were murdered and, until you were kidnapped, we thought you must have died with them. We also believe that the Döhm Corporation has been kept running even though it should have been wound up on the death of your parents.
“There’s a lot more information in computer files, but I printed out the most important documents so it would be easier to follow the story without needing to constantly look things up.
“There are gaps in our knowledge, but this is what we believe happened…”
Over the next several hours, interrupted only for toilet breaks and a meal, Darm told me the real story of my life. It took such a long time because I kept asking questions and Darm often needed to find files on the computer. That was actually easier than it sounds—all Darm had to do was say, “File,” then tell the computer what he wanted, and it would pop up on the screen—but it still added to the time it took to get through the story. He printed out a few additional pages as we went along. Despite predictions of the paperless office dating back to the beginning of the digital era, many decades later we still found printed material useful.
My father, Lukas Döhm, was a direct descendant of old Donte. My mother, Rosalie Robert, was a descendant of a family related to Empress Julia, Darm’s mother, which made Darm and me distant relatives. Neither of my parents had siblings.
Twenty-one years before I was born, my grandfather, Agen, took over as head of the Döhm Corporation, or DöhmCorp, as it is usually known. My father was then seven years old. Agen ran the company until he died suddenly eighteen years later, so at the age of twenty-five my father took on the huge responsibility of running the corporation. He did so alone until he married my mother three years later. Company rules allowed that spouses could be business partners if they wished, so after their marriage my parents shared the responsibility. By all accounts, skimpy as those were, the two of them made an awesome team, as a couple and as parents (I came along just over a year after they married), as well as in the corporate world, although they somehow managed to keep their private lives completely separate from their roles in the company, and the public knew very little about them. In that respect they were only following the pattern set by previous generations. As my history class’s study of the dynasty had shown, the family had always shunned the limelight and maintained an exceptionally low public profile.
A couple of years into my parents’ marriage they faced a moral dilemma. About five years before Agen died, DöhmCorp had entered a particularly aggressive period. Over a period of several years it had taken over numerous smaller businesses, spread throughout the federation. While there was no suggestion of illegality or anything improper, many of those businesses were closed down, putting thousands of people out of work. The company helped them by funding income support payments for each worker for five years, or until they were able to find employment, whichever came first.
Unfortunately, the businesses that were closed were most often located in areas where there were limited jobs available. Those who were not able to find work, and who could not afford to relocate to another area where there were more opportunities, floundered when their five years’ income support ceased. The federation provided safety net funds, administered by regional governors, that should have allowed out-of-work families to have their basic needs met. People complained that these funds were woefully inadequate, or didn’t seem to be getting to the people who needed them, but no one ever satisfactorily explained why that was, and no one ever did anything to rectify the situation. In our city that led to a huge social problem, of which the scallies were a part.
My parents apparently decided that they needed to do something about that. The company had met its legal obligations, but they believed it had a moral responsibility to act. They began research to see how the company could help. Then they disappeared.
Several years later the emperor began hearing rumours of corruption. It was said that regional officials were skimming off money from the federal safety net accounts. While those few were living the high life, thousands of families were suffering. Nothing had ever been done about the corruption because federal officials colluded with those in the regions to hide what was happening.
The emperor decided to bide his time. His reasoning was that acting immediately would snare some of the corrupt officials, but at that point no one knew how many people were involved. By waiting, and continuing to investigate, he hoped to learn how far the rot had set in. Once sure of that, he would act to flush out the whole federal system. Unfortunately, that meant that people would continue to suffer in the meantime, but he hoped the purge would not be long in coming.
He set up a new top secret team to investigate the corrupt officials and infiltrate their administrations. The team, part of the imperial guard, had no official title but quickly became known internally as Investigation and Infiltration, or iSquared, usually abbreviated to i2. It was staffed by hand-picked officers. Over the course of two years, with the cooperation of trusted federal officials, i2 members were appointed to strategic positions within the corrupt administrations. They reported directly to their real superiors and gradually the full extent of the corruption became clear. The sting worked so well that some i2 members even ended up taking a cut of the skimmed funds, with their corrupt colleagues being unaware of their true identities. That money was placed into a trust fund to be distributed at the end of the operation. The end was fast approaching. The imperial guard planned to act against the corrupt officials within a few days.
So, where did I come into all of this?
During the i2 investigation it was discovered that my parents, in seeking to find a way for DöhmCorp to address the social problems, had caught wind of the corruption. Acting independently of DöhmCorp, and apparently fearing that those in power in the federation were also bent, they had engaged their own investigator. There was no evidence that the corrupt activity was linked to DöhmCorp in any way, but it seemed to have raised my parents’ ire. I was immediately able to understand that. I had always possessed an innate sense of right and wrong and what was morally acceptable. As Darm related the tale I began to feel that I’d inherited that trait from my parents.
The investigator was very discreet, as well as very thorough, and his enquiries should have gone undetected by his targets. Unfortunately, he was exposed by his business partner, who was close to one of the corrupt officials. The investigator died suddenly, ostensibly of a heart attack, and his associate expunged all traces of his work from the firm’s records.
The IG believed that some of the corrupt officials, alerted by the investigator’s partner, made a decision to eliminate my parents, thus removing the source of the investigation. According to the guard, the spacecraft in which my parents were travelling disappeared as the result of an ‘accident’ arranged by the corrupt officials. It was thought that it had exploded in space, killing my parents and the crew.
Here the tale took a turn. It seemed that my parents had suspected they were in danger. Before they placed me in the child care centre that day they had made arrangements for my future should they not return to collect me. I was to be taken to the orphanage, which was nearby. Although a trust would pay all of my costs I was to be treated no differently from any of the other children. The IG believed that this strategy was intended to make me inconspicuous, and it seemed to have worked well for more than ten years.
Following my parents’ assumed deaths there had been a subtle change in DöhmCorp’s management.
Company policy, set in virtual stone by legal instruments drawn up by Donte Döhm, dictated that ownership and control of the company passed from generation to generation of the family. Should an owner die childless, or if all children died before the parent, the company had to be wound up and sold off by a team of legal and business administrators—either intact or piecemeal, whichever saw the best return—and the proceeds were to be donated to charity. Each generation’s owner was required to draw up a will which, in conjunction with the legal instruments, would determine what happened when that owner died. The will had to name the owner’s heir or heirs, nominate a team of administrators, and include a list of charities and benevolent organisations to use in the event the corporation needed to be wound up. It also had to appoint a guardian to care for and advise the heir or heirs should they be aged less than sixteen years when they inherited the company. To ensure the information in the will was current it was to be reviewed, and revised if necessary, every two years.
With my parents presumed to be dead, the company secretary, in accordance with company procedures, took over as de facto owner until the terms of my parents’ wills could be fulfilled. As far as anyone knew Lucien Döhm had inherited the company and business went on as usual. Due to the famous Döhm reticence and the very young age of the new owner no one questioned the succession. It was only after my kidnapping, when it became apparent that I was Lucien Döhm, that questions were asked. In effect Lucien Döhm had ceased to exist, so the company should have been wound up. Obviously it had not been, but why not? What had happened at DöhmCorp?
There was evidence that corrupt officials had intended to involve DöhmCorp in their scheme by blackmailing the secretary. It was not known what (if anything) they held over the secretary, and there was nothing to indicate that they had actually acted to involve him or DöhmCorp.
The emperor had ordered an examination of Döhm affairs to see if any crime had been committed. That was done surreptitiously so no one at DöhmCorp became aware that there were suspicions about the succession. That meant the investigation was not as thorough as an official one would have been, but it nevertheless led the IG to the conclusion that the secretary had, for reasons so far unknown, substituted another boy for me. That contravened Donte’s succession regime, and probably constituted a crime against the Döhm family or the company, or both. The IG had completed its examination of DöhmCorp a short time before I was kidnapped, and, although the investigation had not turned up any evidence that the secretary or DöhmCorp were involved in the corruption, the guard was planning to detain the company secretary and would question him in an effort to work out what had happened.
“How can you be sure that I’m really Lucien?” I asked Darm. The whole story seemed fantastical to me, and I was having trouble believing that I was the heir to the Döhm empire.
“Oh, that’s easy. You have a very distinctive birthmark on your right breast. There’s an image of it in your—Lucien’s—birth record, and it’s described in your—Echo’s—records at the orphanage. I saw it when I undressed you yesterday. It’s definitely the same mark. There’s no doubt that Lucien and Echo are the same person.”
I nodded. I did have a birthmark. It was a purplish colour and it looked like a splash of spilt paint. Kids at the orphanage had teased me about it and told me I was deformed.
Talking about my birthmark sparked something in my memory, but it wouldn’t come into focus. There was just a vague memory of lying on a table and a machine buzzing. I remembered a sharp pain, though. I shuddered.
“How did you find me, then? And why were you even looking for me?”
“When you and the other boys were kidnapped there was a media frenzy. But what really caught our attention was that all the others were soon released. That rang alarm bells. Why were seven kids taken but only one held? What was special about that kid? My father sequestered your records and photos of you from the orphanage and that was when the birthmark popped out at us. The federal registry ran a search and we realised who you were.” Darm paused to take a drink.
“My father ordered the imperial guard to find you, but they weren’t getting anywhere. It was pure coincidence that I spotted you. I was cruising along doing a routine patrol when I saw the skyrover crash. It was really strange—it looked like it deliberately flew into the building—so I went down to take a closer look. I saw you jump out and start running, and wondered what you were running from. On an impulse I turned on the camera. It got a good shot of your face, and the facial recognition scanner confirmed that it was you.”
“You took long enough to pick me up,” I scolded. “The scallies were gaining on me and I was almost knackered.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. I had to get permission to grab you, and that took a few seconds. I wasn’t part of any of the teams looking for you.”
Remembering the incident brought a feeling of relief. I gave Darm a grin. “Hey, I was only stirring. I’m just glad you got to me before the scallies did.” I had a sudden thought. “How is that you get to scoot around in a zimmer and wear the imperial guard uniform, anyway?”
“Oh, that’s part of my training. I have to be ready to take my father’s place when the time comes. I get to train with the guard and learn to pilot aerial craft… all sorts of stuff.” He grimaced. “Of, course, I have to keep up with my schoolwork, too, and that’s a real bummer after you’ve been out zipping around in a zimmer.”
I chuckled at the alliteration. “Oh, the hardship!”
Darm laughed. “Just wait till you take over the corporation,” he said, knowingly, “then you’ll understand what it’s like.” He poked out his tongue, then, suddenly serious, added, “Your birthmark will get you in to your rightful place, but it won’t help you run the thing!”
The vague memory that popped up when we were talking about my birthmark was still floating around in my mind. Frustratingly, it wouldn’t crystallise, so I asked another question.
“What I can’t understand is why I was kidnapped. Who were those guys? Why did they think my parents were still alive? And why were they so desperate to find my old home?” I threw up my hands. “It just doesn’t seem to make sense.”
It didn’t make any more sense when we talked it through.
Did the kidnappers get the wrong kid? That didn’t seem likely, since it was the fact that they released the others and held me that led the IG to question who I was, which in turn led to their finding out my true identity.
The procurator didn’t seem to have any answers, either, when Darm took me to meet with him later. He told me the pilot of the skyrover should be well enough to be interrogated the following day and that we should know more after that.
All we really did in that meeting was recap what Darm had told me, so that the procurator could be sure that I had understood everything. He did tell me that my reinstatement as head of the corporation would have to wait until the secretary had been arrested, and that wouldn’t be for another day or two. The secretary’s arrest was to be coordinated with action against the corrupt officials throughout the federation, on the off-chance that there actually was a link between his actions and the corruption. The IG was not taking any risks.
The whole thing would be a huge undertaking, and a logistical nightmare, but the procurator seemed confident that everything was coming together according to schedule and that the emperor would soon be able to give the go-ahead. The operation had been so intricately planned that he was certain it would take place quickly and smoothly. The corrupt officials would all be arrested in simultaneous raids on their offices or homes. In a parallel operation the company secretary would be arrested at his home.
At some stage during the discussion I remembered the orphanage. “The staff and the other kids must be wondering if I am okay.”
The procurator assured me that the director had been informed of my rescue. “She thinks you’re helping with our enquiries,” he told me.
By then I was dragging my feet, so Darm called a halt to the meeting. Back in his apartment he made me lie down on his bed and I was out like a light. When I woke again it was to a gentle shaking of my shoulder.
“It’s almost time for dinner, Echo.”
I moaned. “Oh, this bed is so comfortable. Do I have to get up?”
Darm chuckled. “Only if you want to eat.”
“Ugh, that’s so unfair!” I complained. “That’s no choice!”
I struggled into a sitting position, and Darm helped me into the bathroom where I freshened up. “Okay, where’s the food? I’m starving.”
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