Chapter 11

The Agreement

I wanted to arrive a little early so that Kashuba and the others didn’t have to hang around waiting. Fearful of a repeat of my first visit to Döhm HQ, I had forewarned the staff that the Breaker kids would be arriving, but I couldn’t help wondering whether they would actually turn up.

“Relax! They will be here,” Darm told me for the umpteenth time. He was tired of my pacing the paved area in front of the main entrance. Finally a gaggle of young people appeared around the corner and I calmed down. It looked like the whole pack had come!

“You’re here!” I blurted out, in my relief.

“Of course! Did you think we wouldn’t come?” Rey replied.

Darm laughed. “You have no idea! He’s been pacing back and forth, getting more anxious every minute.”

“Well, we are feeling a little apprehensive, too,” Kashuba said, casting his eye over the impressive granite facade of the building with its paved forecourt. “We have never been in a place like this before.”

His confession made me feel bad. I had been so wrapped up in my own worry that they would renege that I hadn’t considered how they would be feeling. “Oh, crikey! I’m sorry, Kashuba, I never gave a thought to how you would feel about coming here. Come on, let’s go in and get it over with.”

I led them all into the foyer, where the security guys were waiting to issue the kids with visitor ID bracelets. Fortunately I had told them that they would require sixteen bracelets if all of the pack came. They needed fifteen.

“You must have left one person at home,” I said.

“Yes,” said Masoko, “we didn’t want to leave the place unguarded, so Robbie volunteered to stay.”

Errol had been informed of our arrival and just as the last ID was fitted, a lift dinged and Errol, Riccardo and Antonia emerged.

I shook hands with them and then introduced Kashuba. I could see he was impressed that the executives had taken the trouble to leave their offices to greet him and the other kids. Anticipating that the whole pack might attend, I had dreamed up a plan that I hoped would break the ice and bring everyone closer together. I just hoped it wouldn’t be too much of a shock.

“Let’s complete the introductions when we get upstairs,” I said, trying to get them moving.

Errol flashed me a surprised look, but nodded, and shepherded the group towards the lift bank.

I loved the design of our headquarters building. It was a hollow triangle, with offices on all three sides and a void in the centre. On the ground floor, the foyer took up most of one side and it led directly into the central space. The twentieth storey was an observation deck devoid of offices. On the inside it had a balcony on every side so that you could look all the way down to the floor at ground level. A glass bridge ran between two of the balconies so that you could walk out over the void and look directly down to the foyer twenty storeys below. With its transparent floor the bridge made you feel like you were suspended in space. That was fitting, I guess, considering DöhmCorp’s involvement in space travel. The outside walls of the observation deck were floor-to-ceiling windows that gave impressive views over the city in every direction, and comfortable seats were arranged to form conversation areas. The next floor up housed the cafeteria and some shops, the one above that consisted entirely of conference rooms, and above that was the executive floor.

I was expecting us to take a lift up to the boardroom on the top floor, but Errol had a surprise of his own. He took us to the lift that stopped at the observation deck. “I thought it would be good to start with some refreshments,” he whispered in my ear, “so we’re going to the cafeteria, but I thought they might like to take in the views first.”

I noticed some heads turned skyward, looking up into the void in amazement. I wasn’t surprised, because it really was an impressive sight. I wondered what they would think when they discovered the bridge.

“Blimey!” Rey exclaimed when he stepped out of the lift and realised he could see right through the building to the city beyond.

The kids wandered around the whole floor, excited to be viewing the city from a different perspective. They quickly pointed out various sights, and it wasn’t long before I heard Cris’s voice above the hubbub. “There it is!”

“Where?” asked a sceptical voice.

“There, you bonehead!”

I looked over just in time to see Alden, one of the older boys, cuff the back of Cris’s head. Walking over to them, I asked, “What are you looking at, guys?”

“Humph,” Alden said, “bright eyes here reckons he can see Breaker headquarters.”

“I can! It’s right there,” Cris said, pointing.

Alden shook his head.

I laughed at the pair of them. “Actually, you can see just a corner of the building from here,” I said. “The rest of it is hidden by that red smokestack. You can see more from my office upstairs, though.”

“Told ya!” Cris said to Alden. “That’s exactly where I was looking.”

More of the boys crowded around us as Cris proudly pointed out the Breaker building.

Errol stayed close to the three leaders, answering their questions. The younger kids were talking excitedly, plying Riccardo, Antonia and me with questions. I understood their wonder because I was almost as awed as the kids were. None of this had been part of my life until a few months earlier. I well remembered how I had felt when Riccardo included the observation deck the day he showed Darm and me around. While Kashuba, Masoko and Rey were more subdued, I suspected they were just as excited about seeing everything from this different viewpoint. The building was not open to the public, so only DöhmCorp staff normally had the privilege of seeing the city from the deck.

After everyone had settled down Errol took us to the spiral staircase that led up to the cafeteria. There we had a wide choice of treats and drinks, and the kids tucked in enthusiastically when they were told to help themselves. Not long after we arrived in the cafeteria the other two senior execs came into the room and began to mingle. As I looked around the room I realised that Errol had done exactly the right thing. Gone was the fearfulness Kashuba had alluded to when we met outside. He and the others were relaxed, and chatting amiably with the Döhm executives, who seemed delighted to be mixing with the kids. Everyone was smiling, and I even heard some laughter as the kids and executives got to know each other.

I managed to catch Maria Prabha and asked her if we could have the signing in the cafeteria rather than the boardroom. I thought that would be less intimidating. She agreed, and immediately called the legal team and asked them to bring the documents down to us. I don’t think anyone but Maria and me noticed when a staff member entered the room and handed her a folder and three small boxes.

When I felt that enough time had elapsed, I asked Errol if I could say a few words, and explained that I wanted to invite the Breaker kids to tell their own stories. “I haven’t mentioned anything to them, so I don’t know how they’ll react, but I thought they might see it as an opportunity to show how crappy life has been for them.”

He was doubtful that the kids would want to speak. He thought it worth trying, though, so I called out, “Hey, everyone! Find a chair and sit down—near the table if you like, so that you can reach the food!” That got a few chuckles, but everyone found a place, and I was happy that kids and executives were dotted around the table, not separated into ‘us vs them’ groups.

“Has everyone met everyone else?” Heads swivelled as each person checked whether they had. There were lots of nods and murmurs of agreement. I took a deep breath. I caught Kashuba’s eye. “Kashuba, I didn’t mention this because I didn’t want to frighten anyone, but I would like to invite all of you to tell your stories.” Kashuba tensed, and I heard a few gasps.

I looked around, taking in the whole group. “Don’t worry, you don’t have to. I don’t want to put you on the spot or ask you to do something you’re not happy doing. The reason I’m asking is that I think you all have a contribution to make to our understanding of the scallies packs and how we can help you. I’ve asked Kashuba to help set up a consultative panel, and I’m sure he’s told you about that.” Most of the boys nodded. “The panel will be an important part of the assistance we give you, and your experiences as scallies will influence what the panel does. What I have in mind here today, though, is something much more personal. I want the executives to understand your lives, and I think you can help them do that by telling them your stories. Please, take a few moments to think about it. If there are no takers we’ll go on to the signing of the agreement. After all, that’s the reason we’re here.”

Kashuba was looking daggers at me and Masoko was trying to calm him. Rey was deep in thought. Some of the other kids were talking quietly.

I was surprised when Tyras stood up.

“Uh, I’ll start,” he said. His young boy’s voice was clear, but a little shaky. “I am twelve years old. I have lived on the streets since my parents died when I was ten. They were alcoholics…”

I looked around the room. Everyone, executive and scally alike, was listening intently as Tyras spoke. He told us how, when he was very young, his parents lost their jobs after a big company bought out his father’s employer and sacked everyone. Although both his father and mother were skilled glassblowers, neither was able to find other employment. Their jobs had been exported to another region of the federation and simply didn’t exist any more. Some of the workers banded together and tried to start a new business making glass items that they sold at markets. They hoped to find a distributor who would take them on, but nothing ever worked out. Tyras’s parents were making a little money but not enough to live on. With their income supplemented by social security payments they managed to keep everything together until Tyras was eight or nine. Then his father started drinking heavily and there was never enough money for food. His mother did what she could, but eventually she started drinking as well. For Tyras, that was the beginning of the end. He had to try and find food for the family but it was an almost impossible task for a nine-year-old.

“My father died, passed out drunk, on my tenth birthday. Without him my mother gave up, and she died a few weeks later. My little sister and brother and I were separated. I was put into a home but it was horrible there so I ran away. I was on my own until Masoko found me one day and took me back to Breaker. Since then these guys have been my family. They’ve been great, but it’s also been hard. I don’t know where my sister and brother are, or even if they’re still alive. My best friend, Elk, disappeared last year and I thought he had died. It was really hard without him. I cried myself to sleep every night for a while, until the pain wasn’t so bad any more. Masoko held my hand those nights. Then Echo told us that Elk was still alive and living in an orphanage. At first I didn’t believe it, but Echo and Darm took me to see him.” Tyras stopped to wipe his eyes. “It’s so good to know that Elk is okay. I want all of us to be okay, too, so that is why I voted that we accept Echo’s offer to help.”

Tyras sat down. He happened to be next to Antonia, and she wrapped her arm around his shoulder and hugged him. There was silence for a while as we all took in what Tyras had told us.

Several more boys stood and spoke. Their stories were similar, but each had a unique aspect and each added to the overall picture. I think I was most moved when Rey got up and told us his story. He had been a sensitive and creative child. He had loved telling stories and making up songs. His parents gave him a guitar one Christmas when he was very young, and he had become a good player. Then DöhmCorp took over the company his father worked for and the factory was closed. “We were all right for a while,” he said, “because Döhm paid an allowance for five years. That ran out when I was ten. It was supposed to be replaced by social security payments, but that never happened. My parents started sellin’ stuff. We were evicted from our house and ended up livin’ under a bridge in a shack we built from scrap materials. Someone stole my guitar. Then my dad got sick and didn’t get better. He died and my mum couldn’t handle things on her own. She killed herself, and I was left alone. I was so angry that I didn’t care what happened to me. I beat up anyone that looked at me the wrong way. I stole food and anythin’ else I needed to survive. Then, one day I tried to pick a fight with Kashuba. He refused to react, which confused the hell out of me. Then he confused me even more by invitin’ me to come live with Breaker. That was about three years ago. I had survived on my own for about a year. It was friggin’ awful. It’s better now, but it still ain’t a bed o’ roses. I’m not as angry now.” He looked over at Masoko and smiled. He didn’t smile much, but when he did his whole face lit up. “Masoko has been workin’ on me, tryin’ to get rid o’ the anger. I nearly thumped Echo when I found out he owned DöhmCorp, but Masoko stopped me.” He looked over at me.

I grinned, and said, “Yeah, I was about to dive under the table. But you listened when Masoko told you to.”

He gave me one of his smiles. “And I’m glad I listened, because I think you might just be the way out of this crappy life for all of us!” He sat down.

Kashuba and Masoko stood together and each spoke briefly. Their stories weren’t much different from the others, but theirs had a twist. They had met in the city library when Kashuba made one of his regular visits. They had hit it off immediately, and each began to look forward to their weekly library time. They began meeting at other times as well, and then Masoko found she was pregnant. She was fifteen and Kashuba was sixteen. Masoko’s parents kicked her out so she joined Kashuba in the Breaker hideout. The baby, a girl, was born at full term, but she picked up an infection. Despite their best efforts she died at the age of two months.

Masoko took up the story. “Kashuba and I didn’t plan on getting pregnant, but we were devastated when our little girl died. We want a family, but we cannot risk bringing another child into a world that will very likely kill it. Echo has given us hope for a new life, and that is why we are here today.”

As Kashuba and Masoko sat down I looked around the room. It was apparent that all of the executives had been deeply moved by the testimonies. Not everyone had spoken, but those who had had made a huge impression. Heck, I was choked up, and I’d heard some of the stories before.

The room was silent. Errol stood and pointed to his chest and then his lips, indicating that he wanted to speak. I nodded.

“Guys,” he began, and waited until he had everyone’s attention. “Echo has told me a little about you, including that you have all had pretty rough lives.” He stopped and took a deep breath. “I did not know that he planned to invite you to speak today until just before he did so, and I might have discouraged him had he told me. Having heard what you have shared with us I am very glad that he did ask you, because nothing else could have had the impact that your stories have had on my colleagues and me. Those of you who have spoken, and I would hazard a guess that this also applies to the rest of you, have endured knocks that no kid should have to endure, yet you have survived, and you have shown maturity way beyond your years.

“We all gave our approval when Echo told us he wanted to help you, but I see now that I, at least, had no idea of the depth of the need—nor of the extent of DöhmCorp’s culpability in the current state of affairs. All I can say, and I am sure that I speak for the other executives in this room, is that DöhmCorp will do everything it can to make Echo’s dreams come true.”

There was a chorus of yeses from the other DöhmCorp people.

Errol continued, “One of the things Echo has asked us to do is set up an organisation to administer and distribute the aid DöhmCorp will be providing. Echo will be head of that organisation, with some of us as advisers, but we will need someone to run it. Echo’s wish was that Kashuba be that person. I was dubious, but I can see that I am going to have to learn to respect Echo’s judgement. Kashuba, you have held Breaker together for some years now. You’ve managed to keep the whole group organised, informed, fed and sheltered, and safe. The other scallies packs look up to you and respect you. I can see why, now. It is evident that to achieve all you have, especially in such a hostile environment, you must have drawn on some first-class leadership skills. Kashuba, on behalf of Echo and DöhmCorp I would like to offer you the position of chief executive of Help Incorporated.”

Kashuba looked stunned. Masoko was crying. Even the tough Rey looked amazed. Everyone began talking at once.

Suddenly, I felt myself hauled out of my chair by someone behind me. A pair of arms hugged me and almost expelled all the air from my lungs. “I was the one that said you were full of bull,” a voice whispered in my ear. “I believe you now. Thank you, you won’t regret this.”

When I turned around I found that it was Haza, one of the older boys. He was also one of the biggest, tall and solidly built. He always wore his baseball cap with the peak at the back, and the little of his hair you could see was dark brown. He had a round black stud in each earlobe, and wore a silver chain around his neck. Every time I had seen him he seemed to be wearing the same clothes, which made me wonder if he had any others.

“Hi, Haz,” I said, using his nickname. “What’s up?”

He looked me up and down. “A kid younger than me the owner of DöhmCorp? Yeah, right! Probably some snotty little rich kid wanting to make sport of us scallies! Or trying to ease his conscience because he was so rich. Even if he did want to help us his rich parents would probably veto it. Nah, he’s gotta be full of bull!” He gave a crooked smile. “Then I found out you were like me: you didn’t have any parents and you used to live in an orphanage. I wasn’t convinced, but. I came today because I was dying to tell Kash ‘I warned you’ when we all turned up and you weren’t anywhere in sight. But you were waiting for us. Then, when you brought us into the building, I thought, ‘This is going to be good!’ but you were a step ahead of me again, and the security guys were expecting us and had IDs for all of us. Then the top brass turned up and I began to think maybe you were for real. I told that Riccardo guy when we were downstairs on the observation deck that it was nice of them to provide the money so you could help us, but he said, ‘Oh, no. Echo owns DöhmCorp. We do what we’re told.’ That really took the wind out of my sails. I was blown away, but, when your boss dude said he wanted Kash to run this help thing…”

Haza shook his head. “So, you really do own all this?”

“Yes, I’m the latest generation of the Döhm Family.”

“I’d love to hear how you went from living in an orphanage to this,” Haza said.

I chuckled. “Okay, I’ll tell you some day, but you’ll probably be bored to tears.”

“Nah,” he replied. “People are interesting. I actually like hearing their stories, and I reckon yours must be pretty amazing.” He shook his head again. “I’m really sorry I thought you were… you know…”

“Hey, don’t sweat it. I probably wouldn’t have believed me either.”

Haza grinned and wrapped his arm around my shoulders. “Kash asked me to be on this consultative panel thing, so you and me’ll be seeing a bit of each other!”

I grinned. “I’ll be looking forward to that.”

Errol chose that moment to call us to order so that the signing of the agreement could take place. I had forgotten to tell him that I’d changed the venue, but looking around I realised that Maria must have let him know, because he was standing behind a table where the documents were all set out, ready. Errol called on me to begin the ceremony.

We had already agreed that Kashuba would sign for Breaker, since he was the only one of legal age. Masoko and Rey would sign as witnesses. Errol, as company secretary, would sign on behalf of DöhmCorp. I would sign as a witness because I was too young to sign in my own right. At my request Darm had agreed to sign as a witness, too.

I invited Kashuba, Masoko and Rey to be seated at the table, with a set of papers in front of each of them. I asked them to read through the agreement to ensure that it was what they had approved the day before. Kashuba, blushing, took out of a pocket his copy of the list Darm had made.

When he looked up at me I nodded. “Take your time,” I said quietly. “We need to be sure it’s correct.” I wanted him to be certain that the legal document matched what we had worked out, and I had asked for one of the legal team to be present to answer any queries. Everyone waited while the three read through the documents. They each referred to the handwritten list a few times, and spoke quietly about one particular point. I called the legal guy over and he talked with Kashuba and the others until their questions were answered. From what I heard they were simply unsure of the language used.

“Okay, we are satisfied it is what we agreed to,” Kashuba said, at last.

Errol opened one of the small boxes and took out a silver pen. He handed it to Kashuba and invited him to sign the agreement. He took identical pens from the other boxes and handed one each to Masoko and Rey, inviting them to sign. When they had all done so Errol shuffled the documents twice so that each person signed each set of documents. I noticed that he also shuffled the pens. Then Errol, Darm and I took the Breaker representatives’ places and we each signed the three copies of the documents. When Errol made sure we passed the pens with the papers, I suddenly realised what he was doing.

There was applause as we all acknowledged what was an historic arrangement, one that I hoped would bear fruit in a grand way.

The legal guy placed one copy of the agreement in a stiff DöhmCorp envelope and handed it to me. Errol returned the pens to their boxes and handed one to me.

Standing in front of the table I said, “You might be wondering why we all had to sign three copies of the agreement. As a way of demonstrating our commitment to Breaker through the agreement, I have asked the emperor if he will hold one copy for safekeeping. DöhmCorp will keep another copy, and the other is for Breaker.”

I called Kashuba forward and handed him the envelope. “Kashuba, this is your copy of our agreement.” I handed him the pen in its box. “You probably wondered why Errol shuffled the pens as well as the paperwork. I did, too, until I realised that he was making a symbolic gesture. This pen has on it the fingerprints of everyone who signed the agreement. DöhmCorp and I would like you to have it as a memento of the occasion.” We shook hands.

Kashuba thanked everyone briefly and we shook hands again.

The deed was done! We had taken the first step, but I couldn’t help wondering how long the journey would be.