Chapter 10

We Meet Again

Ten days had passed since our meeting with the Breaker scallies. As each day passed with no word from them I became more and more despondent. It was looking like Kashuba and the others had decided not to accept my offer of help. I was about ready to bypass Breaker and try to contact other scallies groups.

Then, one morning, when I was in the palace library doing research for a school assignment, Kashuba called me. I was ecstatic.

Excited, I rushed to tell Darm, who was working in his study. “Kashuba wants to meet again!”

Darm grinned and held up his hand for a high-five. “That’s excellent news.”

We arranged the meeting for the following Sunday, and took Elk with us. This time I was only a little nervous when I rapped on the big door. We went through the same challenge and response, but with a different pass phrase, and this time we weren’t searched. Darm and I were both carrying backpacks and our personal communicators.

Elk went off with Tyras and Cris, while Darm and I met with Kashuba, Masoko and Rey. Because it was a cool day they took us into what they called the library, where there was a round table with four chairs arranged around it. I had taken some soft drinks and a homemade chocolate cake as a kind of thank you for their agreeing to see us again, and set those on the table as Masoko invited us to sit. All three thanked me for the refreshments.

Kashuba began.

“We have had much discussion since our first meeting with you. Masoko and Rey and I talked at length after you left, and then we talked to the rest of our group. We all agree that we would like to leave this lifestyle, but we do not agree on a way to do that. We all agree that we need help but we do not agree on what form that help should take. We have many questions.”

He stopped momentarily, apparently deep in thought. The pause lengthened and it seemed an age before he began to speak again.

“Perhaps it would be more accurate to say we had many questions. You took us completely by surprise. Never before had anyone tried to approach us to talk to us, let alone wanted to help us. Masoko, Rey and I, because we actually spoke with you, believed you to be sincere. The others weren’t convinced. A couple of the boys even thought your approach was a trick to take away what little we had. So, we did some research. We found that DöhmCorp bought this property recently. Lukas and Rosalie Döhm did disappear and were presumed to have died, but Lucien has apparently not been seen in public since their disappearance.

“We have lived here for more than three years. In that time we have never seen any attempt to clear the land or maintain the buildings. There has never even been any indication that anyone actually owns it, even since Döhm bought it. No one, as far as we know, has visited the site. We wonder why. This must be a valuable piece of real estate, yet nothing has been done with it for years. The buildings are falling into disrepair and the land is being overtaken with weeds.

“So, there were only three things we could be sure of. The first was that DöhmCorp owns this place, so we knew you were telling us the truth on that. The second was that several boys were kidnapped from the orphanage, and one was held when the others were released. Again, that was truthful, but we had no names so we could not be sure you were one of those boys. Both of those pieces of information were publicly available, so your knowledge of them did not actually prove anything. The third thing was that your friend Darm was actually Crown Prince Darmian.”

Darm looked at me and grinned, giving me a thumbs up. I laughed. The others looked startled.

“Sorry for laughing,” I said. “Darm is not often recognised, and he likes it that way. He wouldn’t let me tell you who he really was because he came here with me as my friend, not as the prince. I laughed because I reckoned you would suss him out pretty quickly, anyway, and I was right.”

“Yes,” said Darm. “I didn’t intend to deceive you, but I hate being recognised in public and I’m much more comfortable if people think I’m just another kid.”

Rey chuckled. “Well, I reckon we would have freaked out if we had known, so no problem. We haven’t told the others, and we won’t unless you say it’s okay.”

“I don’t mind if you tell them, but I hope they treat me as a friend,” Darm replied. “Now that you guys know, though, there is something I should tell you. My father is aware of the problem the corruption caused, and he wants to do something about it. The federal income support money has begun flowing again, so people should be receiving help by now. Properties and money were seized from the corrupt officials, but no decision has been taken yet on how to make the best use of those assets—nor will one be taken until my father has consulted the people affected by the corruption so that he can get their input. I think he would like to meet you guys, too, so that he can understand your point of view. He agrees with what Echo is doing, and he wants to support that, so he will be keeping up to date with whatever you and Echo decide to do, as well.”

The three Breaker kids exchanged glances.

“Well, that is more than we expected,” Kashuba said. “And I think you have gone some way to answering the biggest question we have.” He turned to me, “That is whether you are really Lucien Döhm, and therefore the owner of DöhmCorp. We have not been able to verify that, but the fact that you hang around with the crown prince helps!”

“How can I convince you that I am Lucien?”

“Work out a basic agreement with us today, and then, tomorrow, take us to see your legal people so that we can get it written up and signed,” Rey said. “After that we can talk about the details.”

“All right,” I agreed. “What do you want in this agreement?”

“Our priorities are food, shelter and medical care, in that order,” said Kashuba. “We have been able to meet those needs ourselves fairly adequately, but there are limits to our ability to do so. We have to look for food every day because we have no way of storing it so that it does not spoil. We have a good place here, but we have to be constantly alert so that we can keep it. Medical care is not easy for those in the group who don’t have Medicare cards. We could plan better for the future if those needs were taken care of without us having to fight for them every day.”

Masoko continued, “Our way of life is stressful. Last year one of our younger members succumbed to the stress and died of a drug overdose. One of our group is in jail because he was caught stealing food. Kashuba grew up on the streets after his parents drank themselves to death. That experience made him determined to never do alcohol or drugs, and he’s managed to stay away from them. He’s also managed to keep most of our group away from them. That in itself has caused him grief, because not everyone liked or understood what he was doing.

“Kashuba and I want to have a family one day. This is no place to bring up children, though.” She paused to wipe a tear from her eye. “What I am saying is that we need freedom from that stress.”

I turned to Darm. He had already taken out a pad and pen and was ready to write.

“Okay,” I said, marking off each item on my fingers as I spoke. “Reliable food supply. Safe and secure place to live. Medical care for everyone. Legal representation when needed. Help in dealing with drugs and alcohol.” Darm was writing furiously. “What else?” I added.

“Education and jobs would be nice but we have never really managed to find either,” Masoko added. “We do not know of any scallies who have proper jobs. We have heard that odd members of other groups actually attend school but we do not know whether those rumours are true. It is hard for homeless people. No one wants to know you when they find out you live in an abandoned factory. They automatically assume that you are drug addicts and thieves, and that you are unreliable no-hopers.”

Rey spoke up. “As I said at our first meeting, I’m tired of havin’ to live the way we do. Some days I really do wish I could be up in one of those towers in the city.” His face took on a wistful expression. “I would love to be able to make music,” he said. “I have tunes and words running around in my head, but I don’t have a way to make them real. I had a guitar once, but it was stolen. Tyras writes beautiful poetry, and Jack is really good at drawing. So often I’ve wished they could study and learn more, but…” He shrugged his shoulders.

I looked over at Darm. He had finished writing and mouthed, “Keep going.”

“Right, add opportunities for education, which might include vocational or on-the-job training; employment, which might include working for yourselves and getting paid for it; and the opportunity to explore things like music, writing and art.” Darm began writing again.

Kashuba spoke again. “We really want to accept your offer but there are two important things we need to be sure of. First, we need to know that we can trust you. One of the boys thinks you are ‘full of bull’, to use his words. We need to know that you are not, so the agreement must make clear your obligation to us. Second, we want to have the right of veto over any proposed help. We need to know it will actually benefit us and not make us indebted or enslaved to you or anyone else.”

Darm was still writing rapidly.

Rey said, “You talked about a consultative group, to help you make plans. We need to know more about that, and its role also needs to be set out in the agreement.” Darm added that to the list.

“All right,” I said. “I think the consultative panel should include you three as well as any others of your group you think would be good to have.” I chuckled. “Perhaps you could include the guy who thinks I’m full of bull.”

Rey burst out laughing. “Oh, that would make his day! He’s always complainin’ that no one ever asks his opinion.”

Masoko agreed, then added, “Actually he would be a good one to have. He’s a deep thinker and he might just come up with some good ideas. He’s a bit cynical, though, and you would have to overcome that and gain his trust.”

“I’d like to try,” I said, “but I’ll leave it to you guys to appoint the members—as many as you want—but I would like to see all of your group have a say.”

“How would this consultative panel work? Where would it meet, and how often?” Kashuba asked.

I had already given that a lot of thought and I had made some notes. I got them out of my backpack. “It would meet wherever you guys wanted, and as often as needed. I reckon every time we have a meeting we can set the date and time and place for the next one. The panel might have to meet at weekends or in the evening, though, because I have schoolwork most days. That depends on what suits you guys, too. As for how it would work, well, I see you guys bringing ideas to the panel. We would discuss them, and I might add some of my own for you to consider. Then, when we agreed on a plan we would decide who would be responsible for implementing it, and how. I suppose we would need to set a time frame as well. And there would need to be some sort of reporting system so that we could check progress.” I looked around the table. Darm was writing; the other three were thinking. “How does that sound?”

“I think it sounds amazin’,” Rey said. “But what sort of things would the panel discuss? I mean, how much power would it have? Our guys would abandon ship pretty fast if it just meant that we put up ideas and you vetoed them.”

“Ah, I see what you’re saying,” I said. “I agree. It would be no good if you spent time discussing ideas among yourselves only to have them shot down when you took them to the panel.”

Rey and Kashuba nodded.

“So, we need a way to ensure that I am serious about discussing and considering your ideas.”

“Can I say something?” Darm asked.

“Sure,” Kashuba replied.

“I think it would depend to some extent on the ideas. Say you took six ideas to a meeting. If four of them were really crappy or really silly, then Echo would be stupid to accept them. I think the answer is to ensure that you put up good ideas, but be prepared for them to be modified in some way if necessary. There might be very good reasons that something can’t be done, or can’t be done in the way you envisage. And keep in mind that any change Echo suggests might just improve your idea, too. I think you’ll have to trust that Echo is sincere, until you have worked with him for a while and given him a chance to prove that he is.”

“That sounds reasonable,” Kashuba said. “I have another question, though. You say we could have whoever we want of our group on the panel.”

“Yes,” I said. “Even if you had all of you the number wouldn’t be unwieldy.”

“Good, thank you. But who else would be on the panel? Just you and Darm, or people from DöhmCorp as well?”

“Well, I haven’t actually asked Darm, but I hope he’ll agree to join us, if you guys are okay with that.”

They all nodded, including Darm.

“I hadn’t thought of including anyone else from DöhmCorp, because I’m expecting that they will do pretty much what I ask them to do, unless they see problems with it. Now that you’ve asked, though, I guess there might be times when we would need advice from someone at DöhmCorp. Like, we might need legal advice on something, or an architect who can advise on construction plans.”

“All right, I guess we can’t ask for more than that,” Kashuba said. He turned to Masoko and then Rey, and received nods from both. “We would like to give it a try.”

Darm smiled broadly. I was greatly relieved. I asked Darm to read out his list of points to include in the agreement. We clarified several items, and made a couple of minor additions. Eventually we were all satisfied that we had covered all we could. I asked Darm to write out another copy of the list for Breaker and suggested that they have it with them when we met at DöhmCorp so they could check the formal agreement against the list. That way, I hoped, there would not be any misunderstandings or omissions.

That concluded our meeting. I assured them that I would instruct the DöhmCorp legal department to draw up the agreement, and that it would be ready by the following afternoon. We arranged to meet at DöhmCorp at four o’clock. They declined my offer of transport, saying it wasn’t far to the Döhm building, and they were used to getting around on foot. I told them to bring as many of the group as they wanted.

Guidance and Encouragement

First thing the following morning I contacted Errol to let him know that Breaker and I had hammered out the terms of a basic agreement and that I needed the legal document prepared and ready to sign by 4 pm. He asked me to send him an electronic copy of the list Darm had made and he would see that it was done. The legal team buzzed me on my communicator later to clarify some points, and to request additional information. I needed to call Kashuba to get some of that. I confirmed that the document would be ready to sign when the Breaker gang and I arrived.

Darm and I were busy with schoolwork during the morning. He had official business to attend to in the afternoon, so I spent some time alone, thinking about the future. I was determined to help right the wrong that had been done to society through DöhmCorp’s actions and those of the corrupt regional officials, but as I tried to think things through I began to feel overwhelmed. I needed my mentor, so I went in search of the emperor. His personal staff in the secretariat told me he was in a meeting and wouldn’t be available until midafternoon.

I found him in his private study later. His door was open when I arrived there, so I knocked and walked in.

“Echo!” he said when he looked up. “This is a nice surprise.” He chuckled. “It’s a change to see you without Darm.”

I laughed. “I guess I’m feeling more confident now, and Darm is busy with official stuff. Marcus, do you have a few minutes, please? I need your advice.”

“Certainly. I’m just relaxing, catching up on some reading after a long day.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. When would be a good time?”

Now is a good time, Echo. I always have time for my family.”

He stood and opened his arms for a hug. When he released me he said, “Now, let’s sit down and you can tell me what’s on your mind.”

“Well,” I began, “You know how Darm and I have been talking to the scallies pack, Breaker, trying to work out how I can help them?”

“Yes, and Darm tells me you’re signing an agreement with the group this afternoon, which is excellent news.”

I nodded. “Well, I’ve been thinking. I’m helping Yoso by providing a home for him and by meeting the costs of his art and music tuition, and I’m almost to a point where I’ll be able to help the scallies, but I feel like I should be doing more. Am I being stupid in trying to help people?”

The emperor went into deep thought mode for a few moments. “Echo, I didn’t know your parents well, but they were warm and friendly people, and they were keen to make sure that DöhmCorp was an honest and trustworthy company. They abhorred the ruthlessness of some of the other big corporations, and they were adamant that DöhmCorp would never be like that. They wanted DöhmCorp to be a good employer and to play its part in society. If it made mistakes or caused problems then it should acknowledge its responsibility and put things right. I’m sure they would be delighted with what you’re doing and what you’re hoping to do.”

He went over to his desk and picked up an old-fashioned desk calendar, the type that sat on a little stand with a page per day and you flipped over the page to reveal the next date. “I read this a few days ago.” He went backwards through the days until he found what he was looking for, and turned it to me.

I read out loud, “There is no more noble occupation in the world than to assist another human being—to help someone succeed.” It was a quote from someone called Alan Loy McGinnis.

“I think that’s what you are doing, Echo,” he said as he placed the calendar back on his desk. “In paying for Yoso’s tuition you are helping him to succeed as a painter and musician. In seeking to help the scallies you are giving them the freedom to be who they want to be, so you are helping them to succeed. Yoso has a head start in a way, because he has already been helped by your company, but the scallies have fallen through the cracks. They’ve been forced to live on the fringes of society, fending for themselves. In both cases, though, you are giving them a chance to actualise their potential. The initial help is coming from you, but it requires their response. You are giving them the freedom to choose, but they must act on that. What Yoso or the Breaker kids actually do is up to them. You cannot do the work for them. What you must be careful to do, however, is be faithful! You must keep your promises or they will not trust you.

“So, to answer your question… no, I don’t think you’re being stupid. I think you are being noble.” He smiled at me. “You are doing a good thing, Echo.”

A wave of relief washed over me. “Thank you, Marcus. I guess I just needed some encouragement. When I stop and think about everything it all seems too much. This is all so new to me.”

“Ah, but wanting to help others is not new, is it?”

I looked at him, puzzled.

The emperor chuckled. “I was talking to the director at the orphanage one day, after you were kidnapped and before Darm found you. She told me how you always wanted to help the other kids, even when you were a young child. When someone was sad because they were missing their parents you would cuddle them and let them cry on your shoulder. When someone was hurt you would comfort them. You often helped other kids with their homework. So, you see, helping people is something you do naturally. You have something deep inside that makes you want to help.”

“But where do I draw the line? I know I can’t help everyone, so how do I choose who to help? And what do I do if they don’t want it? Or, even worse, if they take it and then waste it?”

“My advice would be to start small. You are already helping Yoso, and you are about to begin helping Kashuba and his scallies. I would stop there for the moment and see how that goes. I don’t think there will be any problem at all with Yoso. He appreciates what you are doing for him and he will show you that he appreciates it by doing well. From what you and Darm have told me of Kashuba, I think you will be happy with what he and Breaker achieve. My guess is that they will want to succeed, and I will be surprised if they squander the opportunity you’re giving them.

“The federation, by its very nature, cannot act as quickly and responsively as you can, but we are beginning to help the people who were affected by the corruption. As time goes on more and more will be helped. The corruption wasn’t DöhmCorp’s fault, nor its responsibility, so you should not feel obligated to do more than what you are planning at present. I would suggest that you see how Breaker responds, and if that gets off to a good start and looks to be going well, then perhaps you could extend your help to other scallies packs. I have a feeling that they will respond better to another kid helping them than they would to ‘the establishment’ helping them. I imagine they have a certain amount of resentment towards the federation, and one can’t blame them for that.

“Somewhere down the track you might well find a group that rejects your help, or accepts it and then doesn’t take the opportunity to make the most of it. There is not much you can do about that. There’s an old adage that says, ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.’ In your case that means you can give people the opportunity to do things, but you can’t force them to actually do them. If, or when, a person or group rejects or squanders the opportunity you offer I think you will just have to accept that as part of the job. If they are given the opportunity and then don’t take advantage of it, well, it’s their loss, to put it bluntly. It will be discouraging, but you should simply move on and try not to let it bother you.”

I left the emperor’s study in a much better frame of mind. When I got back to my suite Darm was ready to go with me to DöhmCorp headquarters.