Now that I was more or less part of the imperial family and resident in the palace, the emperor ordered that I be given an identification chip that would give me access to the palace complex and to the family apartments. He also ordered that I be accompanied by an IG security detail if I left the palace.
A technician from the IG laboratory was summoned. He brought a computing device that recorded vital details about me, including a reference number that matched a file the IG had created about me in the palace’s ID system. The device wrote that information to a microchip so that it could be read by palace scanners. The chip was then embedded in the inside of my right wrist using a small device that fired the tiny chip under my skin. That hurt briefly, but it was long enough to bring back a flood of memories.
“Yowie!” I yelped.
Darm, who had been watching the technician work, looked up sharply. “What’s wrong?”
“That’s the pain I remembered when we were talking about my birthmark. And it’s brought back another memory. I was lying on a table. My mother was there and she was holding my hand, telling me there would be pain for a few seconds. She told me to close my eyes, then I felt something touch me, right where the birthmark is, and I felt the same pain I felt just now. But I remember it as being more intense, and lasting for longer.”
I looked at Darm and his father, a sudden realisation hitting me. “I must have a chip in my chest!”
The emperor (I still couldn’t get used to thinking of him as Marcus) turned to the technician. “Can your device read chips, as well as encode them?”
“No, sir, as a security precaution recorders can only encode chips. I’ll have to contact my supervisor and he’ll need to send in a specialist scanning team.”
The emperor gave the order, and fifteen minutes later that technician had departed and two others had replaced him. The emperor told them what we suspected and the two techs went to work. They explained that in normal use a chip is read by a scanner which simply compares the information contained in the chip with that contained in a database. If the system finds a match the person is cleared for entry or whatever. In this case we needed to know if there was actually a chip in my body, and if there was, we wanted to know what was recorded on it. We also needed to be able to decode whatever that was.
The techs unpacked a machine that looked exactly like an ancient laptop computer. They took a sensor on a lead, attached it to the machine and, asking me to stand still, waved the sensor over my right breast. The machine began beeping crazily. ‘ERROR 543i’ flashed on the screen in big red letters.
“Whoa!” the lead technician exclaimed.
“What is it?” the emperor asked.
“Well, sir, um, there’s definitely a chip there, but we can’t read it with this machine. I’ll have to call my superior for advice. I haven’t come across that error message before.”
“Very well, please do that.”
The technician spoke into his personal communicator. After he had explained the situation he listened for a few moments, then said “Error 543i,” and waited. A few minutes passed before his face took on a very surprised look. “Yes, sir,” he said, then ended the call.
He looked at me as if he couldn’t work out whether I was real or a hologram, and turned to the emperor. “Sir… uh… the director requests that you and this young man attend the laboratory immediately. He says it’s extremely important.”
The emperor turned to me. “Is this okay with you, Echo? We now know there is a chip, but do you want to take the next step?”
I sighed. “Well, I’ll have to know sometime. We might as well get it over with.”
“Right, then. Lead the way, son,” Marcus said to the technician.
The laboratory director and a manager were waiting for us in the reception area. “I’m sorry we had to drag you down here, Your Excellency,” the director said, after introductions, “but I’ll explain directly.”
He escorted us to a secure part of the laboratory building, and to a small conference room. The emperor, Darm (who had insisted he wasn’t being left out of whatever was happening) and I had been accompanied from the family apartments by an IG detail. Three of the guards remained outside the room and the other three entered with us.
Once we were inside the room the director asked us to be seated, offered us drinks, and began his explanation. “The error code our technicians reported relates to a very rare chip. Three of them were manufactured to order just over ten years ago, and were implanted into three individuals. The order was a normal commercial transaction; the only thing unusual about it was the amount of information the customer required to be encoded on the chips. Our contract with the customer required biennial updates to the information, but none of those were performed because the customer never contacted us to have them done.
“The customer was Lukas Döhm, the owner of Döhm Corporation. The chips were implanted into Lukas himself, his wife, Rosalie, and their young son, Lucien.”
He paused to take a drink. “Now, given that the Döhms were reportedly killed in a spaceship explosion a few months later, and that they never came back for the info updates, we closed the file and cancelled the contract. We didn’t expect to ever see those chips again.
“Then, today, you, Your Excellency, requested that an implant be scanned. The technicians the lab sent to carry out the request confirmed that there was a chip, but the portable scanner wasn’t capable of reading the chip, which is why it gave the error message. The lead tech had never previously seen that error number, so he did the right thing and called in. You can imagine our surprise when his supervisor entered the number in the database and it returned the ID of a special-order chip that we believed had long been destroyed.
“We requested that you come here for two reasons: first, we needed to be sure of the identity of the person bearing the chip, and second, because the only scanner we have that is capable of reading the chip is located here, and it is not portable.
“Now, I was not director when the chips were implanted, and none of the lab staff who were involved are still working here, but,” he waved a hand towards the manager, “we’ve both looked through the Döhm file quickly and we believe we understand how everything is supposed to work. Please bear with us, however, if this doesn’t go according to plan.”
He turned to me. “Now, Echo, I understand you are the possessor of the chip in question?”
“I’m sorry, but I have to ask this… are you able to verify that you are Lucien Döhm?”
The emperor replied for me. “I am able to do so. The imperial guard has carried out extensive investigations at my request.” He put a hand on my shoulder. “Although he has been known as Echo Menier for the past ten years, this is definitely Lucien Döhm.”
“Thank you, Your Excellency.” He turned to me. “Echo… or should I call you Lucien?”
“Echo, please. I only found out a few days ago that I’m Lucien. I still think of myself as Echo.”
“Thank you. Now, since we’ve already verified that you actually have the chip, I assume you wish to retrieve the information encoded on it?”
The emperor and I looked at each other. He nodded. “I guess that would be the logical thing to do,” I replied. “There’s not much point knowing about it without finding out what’s in there.”
“Very well. Let’s do that, then. I should warn you that this is old technology now, and it won’t be as fast as a modern scanner would be. It should only take a couple of minutes, though, and you won’t feel anything.”
We all moved into the room next door, apparently an old laboratory that was only rarely used. They performed a preliminary scan using a hand-held device attached to a large machine, while I was standing and fully clothed. While the machine confirmed that there was indeed a chip, and identified it correctly, instead of reading the encoded information it popped up a warning that a fixed scanner must be used to read the chip, and that a password was required before reading could commence. It also gave an estimated time of ten minutes to complete the scan.
The director and manager were surprised at the estimated time, as well as troubled. They had not realised a password would be needed. The director went to a computer screen and spoke to it. “Database. File. Lucien Döhm.” He sat in front of the screen, reading for several minutes.
The rest of us waited. The emperor gave me an encouraging pat on the shoulder and started asking about life in the orphanage, probably trying to take my mind off the chip.
The director called the manager over to the screen and they spoke quietly while pointing things out to each other. Eventually there was an “Ah… I missed that,” from the director. He turned to me. “Echo, do you have a tattoo at the implant site?”
I was a bit confused by the question. “Um, well, I have a birthmark there.”
“Ah, that will be it.” He turned back to the screen. “Hmm. I do apologise, Echo, but we’re going to have to scan the birthmark. It seems that it’s also an optical label, and it contains the password in encoded form.”
“We know it is actually a birthmark,” the emperor stated, “so… are you are saying it was altered when the chip was implanted?”
“Yes, that would appear to be the case,” said the director, “but if I’m reading the file correctly, it still looks just like a birthmark. Who would have thought a password could be hidden in plain sight?” He paused, then added, “Oh, we’ll need your date of birth, Echo, to access the password.” He smiled. “They were very cautious; they built in several layers of security.”
They helped me up on to a table that had a machine suspended over it, and got me to lie on my back. The manager explained that the machine above me was the fixed scanner, and that he would lower it after he had read the optical label. I unbuttoned my shirt, exposing the birthmark.
“Ah, there it is,” the director said. “Wow, whoever altered this did an excellent job. It really does not look anything like a code label.”
The manager waved a hand-held, wireless instrument over my chest, and a keypad appeared on a screen. He asked me my birth date, and tapped the numbers as I told him. The screen went blank momentarily and then a single string of characters, @Echo#Menier@, appeared on the screen.
We all laughed. My name had been a clue to the password all along!
The manager returned to me. “Are you ready, Echo?”
“Yes, let’s get it over with,” I replied.
Carefully, he lowered the fixed scanner until it sat firmly on the table. It was shaped like an inverted U, and was wide and high enough that it didn’t actually touch me anywhere.
“Are you comfortable, Echo?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Right, then. Everybody watch the screen. We should begin to see information appear immediately the scan starts.”
He pressed a button above me. A popup on the screen identified the chip and gave the estimated scan time as ten minutes. It recommended checking that a printer with a full supply of A4 paper was attached to the computer and that it was switched on. It also asked for the password. There was no warning about using a fixed scanner; the chip was apparently intelligent enough to determine that a fixed scanner was in use this time. The manager did as suggested and checked the printer. Satisfied that all was ready, he entered the password in the dialogue box and pressed OK. The scanner hummed quietly. For a few seconds nothing else seemed to happen. Then suddenly, scads of information began scrolling up the screen and the printer burst into life.
It seemed to take an age, but eventually the screen stopped scrolling and the single word ‘DONE’ appeared. There was a thick pile of pages in front of the printer.
The manager reached up and switched off the scanner, then lifted it out of the way, and I was able to get down off the table and re-button my shirt. I looked at the pile of paper. “Blimey, was all that stuff inside the chip?”
The manager laughed. “It would seem so.” He picked up the pile, took a large plastic envelope from a cupboard, and placed the bundle of papers inside the envelope. He put a disc in a burner and spoke to the screen. “Current file. Burn.” A few seconds later the burner popped open and the manager took out the disc, placed it in with the papers, and sealed the envelope. He spoke to the screen again. “Current file. Erase.” We all watched as the information scrolled back down the screen until the word ‘DONE’ appeared again. The manager picked up the envelope and handed it to the director, who immediately passed it to me.
“This belongs to you, Echo. We were just the means of retrieving it.”
“Thank you. Is the chip empty now?” I asked him.
“Oh, no. We simply copied the information. We didn’t erase it.”
“But the copied file is now deleted?”
“Yes. We have no record of it now.”
“And if the chip needs to be updated, are you still able to handle that?”
“Yes, this machine can input information as well as retrieve it. If you find you need to change anything, just contact us and we will arrange it for you.” He paused. “We would need to negotiate a new contract, but that’s up to you. Technically we can handle it.”
I nodded. “Thank you, that’s good to know. I think my parents went to all this trouble because of, um, a situation that existed at the time. That has now changed, though, so I don’t see any need to update the information at present.”
The director escorted us back to the foyer, while the manager turned off into another corridor. The emperor, Darm and I, together with the IG detail, headed back to the palace. It was midday, so we went straight to the dining room for lunch.
Julia was waiting for us. I was expecting a round of questions, but she simply said, “I know you’ve had a busy morning. You must be starving. Lunch is ready.”
She had no sooner spoken than the door to the kitchen opened and staff served our meal. The conversation was kept to general topics, although I did ask if I could have help going through the mountain of information the chip had produced.
“Certainly, Echo. We can go to the conference room directly after we’ve finished eating, and we can begin sorting it out,” the emperor said. “I assume it is all related to your family and the corporation, though, so if you would prefer to have someone from the company help you we can arrange that.”
“Father,” Darm began, “Echo doesn’t know anyone at the company yet, and he doesn’t know how far he can trust them, anyway. At least he’s comfortable with us. I think we should help him.”
The emperor nodded, then turned to me. “Would that be satisfactory, Echo? We’ll be happy to help in any way we can, at least until you find your feet and feel that you have everything under control. Even then, of course, please call on us if you need to. As we said yesterday, consider this your home and think of us as your family.”
I felt rather overwhelmed, again. Here was the supreme ruler putting himself out for an orphan who, until just days before, had been a nobody. I felt my eyes becoming moist. “Th-thank you, Marcus. Darm is right. I have no idea who to rely on at this stage, so I would be very grateful if you had time to help.”
Julia touched my hand. “Echo,” she said, gently, “We will make time.”
I nodded. “Thank you, I really appreciate everything you’re doing for me.”
After lunch they took me to the conference room. I opened the envelope and took out the contents. I put the disc to one side and put the printed pages on the table in front of me. The pile was a good four centimetres high. I groaned. “Crikey, this will take forever.”
“How about we divide the pages up?” Julia suggested. “They’re surely in some sort of order, so it shouldn’t be too hard to sort them into sections or topics.”
That sounded like a great idea, so I divided the pile in half and then each of those piles in half again, and handed one to each of the others. It turned out that the pages had been printed in reverse order, and the way I’d divided them I ended up with the start of the file.
The very first page was a cover sheet. There were several headings:
Born 2152, Son of Lukas and Rosalie Döhm
== & ==
EXPECTATIONS AND PROJECTIONS
Well, that explained what the document was about. The second page was a table of contents, and listed the sections of the document under two main headings: ‘Lucien Döhm’, and ‘Döhm Corporation’.
When the emperor saw the table of contents he suggested that we make copies of it so that we could have one each. “Then,” he said, “we will each be able to see what we’re supposed to have and how it should be organised.”
The rest of us waited while Darm went off to make copies. When he returned we began again, and soon had the pages sorted into sections. We ended up with two piles of pages. There was a thin one comprised of sections about me, and a much fatter one with all the sections relating to the corporation.
There were about forty pages of information about me. They included genealogical data that proved who I was (that was brief, since I was a direct descendant of Donte), details of properties my parents owned, a list of personal bank accounts in my and my parents’ names, together with their locations, and information on how to access safety deposit boxes at various banks.
The rest of the mountain of papers was about the corporation, organised into several sections. There were copies of the legal instruments drawn up by Donte, copies of my parents’ wills, a summary of the state of the company as at the date the information was collated (June 2156), projections as to how the company was expected to perform over the following ten years, and a long series of papers detailing my parents’ vision and expectations for the company. Finally, there was a list of all (then) current bank accounts operated by the company, and details of how to access backup copies of all of the legal documents.
“Wow!” said Darm when we had everything sorted out. “It looks like you have everything you need to know about everything!”
His father chuckled. “It does look that way, doesn’t it?” He turned to me. “Echo, it’s not my place to advise you, but might I suggest you seek legal and business expertise to help you analyse and interpret these documents? I’m thinking that you will need to verify that the properties and bank accounts and safety deposit boxes on the personal list still exist and that you actually own them. As for the company stuff, well, much of that is past history or projections that are probably no longer current. You will need to verify the bank accounts, though, and probably have someone compare them with those that exist today.”
“Yes, I think you’re right, sir… er, Marcus. Do you have anyone in mind? As Darm said before, I really don’t know yet who I can trust.”
The Emperor looked at me, deep in thought.
“Father, could–” Darm stopped abruptly when his father held up a hand.
Julia looked at her husband, smiled, and whispered to me, “It’s best to leave him be when he’s thinking. I’ll get us a snack and something to drink.” Darm and I looked at each other and must have had the same thought. We both pounced on the pages labelled with my name.
“Let’s go through these,” he whispered. I nodded, and we sat side by side at the table.
I picked up the first page, which was my genealogy. “Not much to see here,” I said, quietly. “It’s pretty much the same as the stuff you showed me the other day, except that it goes back to Donte.”
“Yes… next page.”
I turned the sheet over. The next one began a long list of properties. They seemed to include offices and factories as well as houses. The commercial properties, as well as some of the homes, were noted as ‘Tenanted’. A home in the city and three others in places I’d never heard of had the note ‘In use’ beside them. The final one was listed as ‘Institution’. I looked at the address, and nearly passed out. I was glad I was sitting down.
“Good grief,” I said quietly, my heart thumping in my chest.
“What’s the matter?” Darm asked.
I pointed to the last property on the list. “It’s the orphanage!”
“Well, you won’t need to verify that one, then,” Darm said, with a deadpan expression.
I couldn’t help it. I burst out laughing.
Darm tried to hush me but that only made me laugh harder.
Julia came rushing in. “What’s–”
The look on her face set me off again. All I could do was point to the entry on the list.
“He just found out that he owns the orphanage,” Darm explained.
Julia looked stunned. “Oh, the irony!” She knelt beside me and put her arm around my shoulder. “Oh, Echo, I’m so sorry. That must be a shock.”
I managed to calm myself. “I’m sorry I startled you,” I said, “but Darm made me laugh.”
Julia gave Darm a stern look. He threw up both hands in a gesture of surrender. “Sorry, Echo,” he said, “but it was the obvious thing to say. Mother is right, though, it must have been rather a shock.” He explained to Julia what he had said to me.
The emperor, who had just tuned into the conversation, chuckled. “Well, you have to give it to him, he is right.”
I grinned. “Well, he’s right as of a couple of weeks ago,” I said. “It was still there then!” I shook my head. “Crikey… to think that I lived there for ten years and all the time I actually owned it! Boy am I going to make some changes there!”
“Well, that might depend on whether you own the property or the business,” the emperor said.
“Oh, that’s a good point. I don’t know… it’s just listed as ‘Institution’.” A thought came to mind and I started laughing again.
“What now?” Darm asked.
“I just… my parents… they must have had a sense of humour to arrange for me to live incognito in a place I owned.”
The Emperor chuckled again. “Well, it’s good that you can see the funny side of the situation. Now… to answer your question from before. I’ve been thinking–”
Darm rolled his eyes. “That much was obvious!” He ducked as his mother pretended to clip his ear.
“I’ve been thinking,” his father repeated, louder, trying to sound annoyed at the interruption, “that we could get palace staff to go through the documents with you. They have the means to make any necessary enquiries on your behalf.”
“Oh, that would be great, thank you!”
“Let me make a call,” the emperor said, “and then I’ll take you down to the secretariat.”
The emperor introduced me to the legal services manager and the financial controller and told them that they were at my disposal for as long as it took to interpret and verify all appropriate information in the documents. They set us up in an unused office in the secretariat and we began work the following day, after I had completed my schoolwork.
I made property the priority. Within a few hours, thanks to the federation’s central property register, we had confirmed that all of the properties still existed and that ownership was still in my parents’ names. They were all mine now, since I was the sole heir.
The bank accounts would take longer, as many of them were in overseas financial centres and we would need to contact each bank separately. We tackled the local accounts and safety deposit boxes at the same time, since they involved the same banks. We were quickly able to verify those, however, and the accounts showed that I had more money than I could possibly spend in a lifetime. I decided I could wait to inspect the boxes, since the documentation listed what they contained (mostly property deeds and electronic key cards for the relevant properties). It also indicated that my chip would give me access to the boxes.
I decided that we could wait to verify the overseas accounts, and we turned our attention to the documents relating to the corporation.
The legal team was able to ascertain that the instruments drawn up by Donte were still in effect, and that my parents’ wills were legal and enforceable. The wills made it clear beyond doubt that I had inherited the Döhm Corporation upon my parents’ deaths and that I was the sole present owner of the corporation! One question remained. How should I actually take control?
By all appearances the company was functioning normally, despite the arrest of the secretary.
The time had come, however, when I needed to make myself known and to assert my authority. Under the terms of my parents’ wills the company secretary was named as my mentor and guardian, an indication that my father and mother had trusted him. He was to remain guardian until I reached the age of sixteen years. In exceptional circumstances—for example, if he predeceased me or became incapable of acting as guardian—I could appoint an advisory board who would then become my mentors and guardians. The board members were to be paid consulting fees at the going rate, and I would need the company’s senior executives to approve my choices.
“I believe that we have exceptional circumstances,” one of the legal guys said after he had explained the provisions in the instruments. “So, you are entitled to appoint a board.” He smiled. “You decide who you want and I’ll draw up the legal papers to make it happen.”
I was getting along well with the people who were helping me wade through the documents the chip had coughed up. They were friendly and helpful, as well as competent and efficient. What’s more, they didn’t treat me like a kid. I appreciated that, and decided that I would ask the legal services manager and the financial controller if they would be willing to serve on the board. It needed to have three members, so I settled on the emperor or the procurator as the other member—provided one of them was willing and available. I decided to talk to the emperor first. I caught him after dinner that evening.
I told him about the advisory board and who I had in mind to appoint to it. He agreed that the two secretariat staff would be excellent choices, and gave his permission. (As part of his staff they would not normally be permitted to take outside positions.) When I came to my choice for the third board member he said, “Echo, I’m honoured that you feel I would be suitable in that role, but I think it would be better if I remained as a friend and perhaps a parent-figure rather than as a business advisor. Adam would be a good choice, though. I’m happy to allow him to take on that role if he is willing to do so.”
The procurator, after his initial surprise when I asked him the next day, was willing. So, too, were the secretariat guys. All three declined payment, however, saying they would feel like they were taking advantage of me in doing so.
We had our first board meeting that afternoon. I recruited Darm to provide moral support from someone my own age, and he ended up being given the task of recording the discussions and decisions made during our meetings. The first topic for discussion was how I should approach my takeover of the company.
“I think you should just march in there and announce who you are, then watch what happens,” Darm said. “You know… shock and awe.”
The procurator laughed. “Shock and awe? Where did you get that from?”
“Oh, it was a term used in some old war a couple of centuries ago. I read about it in one of my history texts. The theory was that the shock of a surprise invasion would awe the enemy and they would give up without a fight.”
The legal guy said, “Well, Darm makes a good point. It would be wise to watch the reactions when the senior execs find out they have a new boss.”
“Yes, but just marching in there might not be the best way to do it,” said the financial controller.
The procurator nodded. “Perhaps there is a way to both surprise them and watch for their reactions. I’m thinking a round-table meeting between us and the senior execs might work, but we would need a good reason to get them to meet with us.”
I had a thought. “How would it be if you contacted them to say the emperor is thinking of bringing in some new law and that you need feedback before it’s introduced?”
“That would work,” the procurator said, nodding his head. “It would work even better if we summoned them here. Then they would be out of their comfort zone and we could control what they brought into the secretariat.”
We tossed more ideas and thoughts around, and came up with a workable plan with a feasible background story. The beauty of it was that even a company the size of DöhmCorp would jump when the procurator’s office spoke. The venue was chosen carefully. It was a conference room in the palace, where security could be tighter and the temporary confiscation of personal communicators, other electronic devices, and even paper notebooks would not be questioned. We didn’t want to risk anyone making calls to the outside, or recording anything that took place in the meeting.
Each attendee would be given a temporary palace ID wristband which would surreptitiously record heartbeat, respiration rate and perspiration level. The meeting would be recorded by vision and sound technicians, and each executive would have a camera and sound pickup dedicated to them. Any one of them identified as a potential risk would be detained immediately for questioning by IG interrogators. We didn’t want to take a chance on their being free to warn anyone either within or outside the company about what was taking place. In retrospect it was probably overkill, but at the time we did not know who we could trust.
The procurator’s office contacted the corporation and set up a conference for the following day. The heads of the corporation’s four main departments would attend. Together with the secretary these four made up the senior management team. They made the big decisions and set policy. Although each of these managers had a nominal title, in reality they shared the workload, with work being allocated by task rather than by department. The procurator and the secretariat guys told me that it was a different way to divide the workload and that it made for a surprisingly effective and lean hierarchy, not at all top-heavy. By contrast, they said, other large companies had senior executives for every conceivable function and paid them huge salary packages.
“There must be something special about DöhmCorp,” the procurator said, “that the senior managers stay with the company when they could earn more elsewhere.”
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