Chapter 24

The Emperor's Regatta

Organising the visit to Breaker Two required some creative thinking because there were three distinct groups involved: Rix’s Ferals boys, the children of the Ferals Training Squadron and their families, and the people who used the facilities and services at Breaker Two. In many cases the FTS kids also fell into the last group.

The emperor wanted to talk with all of the Ferals boys, but he also wanted to meet a representative selection of each of the other groups so that he could gain an understanding of what life was like for the indentured workers and their families. He also hoped to get their thoughts about the direction the government should take.

We had already decided to use the yacht race as an excuse to involve the Ferals boys, so it seemed logical to coordinate the other two groups around that as well.

The FTS families were actually easiest to organise. We simply invited them to lunch at Breaker Two immediately following the race. We just didn’t tell them that the emperor and empress would be joining them. The venue would be the as yet unused conference room because we needed to keep the cafeteria open for the public. The lunch would be followed by a relaxed forum where the families would be encouraged to have their say.

Kashuba and Masoko helped Rix to plan an early-evening tour of Breaker Two for the emperor and empress. That would lead into an informal meal with the Ferals boys, following which the emperor would conduct a question and answer session.

Getting the third group together wasn’t as difficult as I had thought it would be. A few months earlier Rix had come up with the idea of providing free entertainment during Sunday lunch and this had proved to be a hit. It had become a community social occasion, and people had begun booking in several days ahead. Our idea was for the emperor to conduct a forum after lunch on a Sunday. In the end we chose the day following the regatta.

* * *

With the planning group coordinating everything, arrangements for the yacht race fell into place nicely. It was a bit rushed, but we got it done. Marcus commented jokingly that he might hand over future royal events for us to organise. “I have never seen a plan come together so quickly!” he said.

We renamed the event The Emperor’s Regatta. With the IG’s help we beefed up security measures at Breaker Two and the FTS dock, and arranged a modest amount of publicity in the local area. (We didn’t want to be accused afterwards of trying to keep it a secret, but neither did we want the whole city in attendance.) Hoping to make the regatta an annual event, we had a perpetual trophy made, and the emperor agreed to present it to the winner. We also had prizes for the winner and the contestants who placed second and third.

The day of the regatta dawned bright and sunny and it soon became obvious that we had underestimated the level of interest. It seemed that everyone in the local area had heard of Breaker Two and FTS and had taken them into their hearts. I guess we had actually known that for some time. What we didn’t realise was how enthusiastically they had done so.

The regatta was open to FTS members and to members of the yacht club. It was to be sailed from our dock to the yacht club’s headquarters and back again, with the winner the first to cross the finish line at our jetty. The shores of both coves, and the shoreline between, were packed with people long before the start time.

We had organised a launch to ferry the emperor and empress around the course so that they could view the contest from close quarters. They would dock at our jetty at the end of the race, and present the trophy and prizes as soon as the results were known.

Marcus and Julia, accompanied by Darm, were ushered aboard the launch a few minutes before the race start time. Rix and I joined them, along with several other HI people. The FTS and yacht club commodores and other officials were already aboard.

The empress sounded the horn to start the regatta, and more than forty young sailors caught the breeze and set off at a fast pace. The launch followed the route, far enough out in the bay to avoid interfering. As I had been the first time I saw the young kids racing, I was mightily impressed. One of the FTS kids was first to round the buoy that marked the turning point. As she headed back towards Breaker Two, everyone on the launch was cheering her madly—even the leaders from the yacht club.

When I gave their commodore a quizzical look he said, quietly, “This is a special occasion for both your kids and ours, but we suspect it’s more so for yours, so we will be just as happy if one of your kids wins as we would be if it was one of ours. This is a cooperative venture, after all.”

I gave him a double thumbs up and a huge grin. There was no doubt we had hit gold when we teamed up with his club.

The lead changed several times in the next few minutes. The return leg was slower because the contestants had to tack often to catch the wind. The finish line was between two buoys set slightly offshore from our dock. From the launch, a little further out on the water, it looked like two boats had crossed the line at the same time.

The judges conferred with the two commodores after we docked. They called Rix and me over, as well as a couple of the yacht club’s officials. “It was very close,” the yacht club’s commodore said. “There was only about a metre between the two boats. The first one over the line was one of the yacht club boys. The other one was the FTS girl who led out from the turn.”

“So, it’s a clear win for your club,” I said, wondering why he was telling me this.

“Yes, but it’s so close…” he said, “We,” he added, indicating himself and the FTS commodore, “feel that they both deserve the trophy.”

“Sir, it might have been close, but your guy won.”

“I agree,” Rix said. “We don’t want no concessions. It’s a competition, and I want our kids to learn that they won’t always win. Coming in second is just as prestigious when you’ve given it your best shot. In any case, winning isn’t everything. How you run the race is just as important, and our girl Shelley ran a great race. I wouldn’t be surprised if she stoked the competitive edge that saw your boy put in an extra effort so that he won.”

Wow! Where did that come from? I’d never known Rix to be so decisive… or eloquent… or use such big words!

Rix turned to the FTS commodore, who looked chastened.

“I’m sorry, Rix,” he said, quietly. “We thought it was so close that Shelley deserved to share the glory, but I take your point.” He looked over at his counterpart. “It looks like it’s your boy, commodore.”

By the time we finished talking, the contestants were all ashore. They, and the crowd, were waiting to see who would be awarded the cup for winning the first Emperor’s Regatta. As head of Help Incorporated, the official sponsor of FTS, I had been asked to announce the results and to introduce the emperor and empress. I moved to the microphone, hoping I looked presentable after being out on the bay in the launch. The whole event was being filmed by DöhmCorp’s media unit.

“Your Excellencies,” (I gave a little bow to the emperor and empress, knowing that Darm would give me grief for laying it on a bit thick) “commodores,” (I nodded towards the leaders of the two squadrons) “ladies and gentlemen,” (I waved to the crowd of onlookers) “and contestants,” (I grinned at the boys and girls assembled in front of me), “what an exciting race!” There was a cheer from the crowd. The kids in front of me looked chuffed.

“It was a close finish. There was only a metre between the first two to cross the line!” That brought a collective intake of breath, and excited glances between the contestants.

“Would Shelley, Brad and Joa please come forward?” Rix stepped up with the third place prize and handed it to the emperor.

“Joa finished in third place, only a few seconds behind the winner.” Joa was an FTS member. He was a small black boy whose family had suffered terrible prejudice and who were barely making ends meet. They regularly ate at the Breaker Two cafeteria. I’d met the whole family and I knew that his participation in the sailing activities was one of the bright spots in their world. I was so proud of him as I shook his hand—but not half as proud as he was, judging by the look on his face.

The emperor stepped forward and shook Joa’s hand. I was betting that the little guy wouldn’t wash his hand for a week. I scanned the crowd, wondering if his parents were there to see his big moment. They were. His mum was crying, but his dad was wearing a broad smile. I gave them a grin of my own. They waved to acknowledge me as Joa accepted his prize and rejoined the other contestants.

I took the microphone again. “Shelley came in second, but that’s not the whole story. From the turn at the halfway mark she led the field for several minutes. The lead swapped between her and Brad a couple of times, but Brad snuck to the front at the last minute and just beat her. Because there was so little in it, I’m going to ask the emperor and empress to present their prizes together.”

Rix had been ready with the second prize, but quickly handed it to me and then grabbed the one for the winner.

The emperor and empress shook hands with both kids, and then handed over their respective prizes. They spoke briefly with the two kids, and then stepped back.

Rix handed the trophy to the emperor, who moved to the microphone. He said a few words about how exciting it was to watch the race from the water, and how he had thought the result was a dead heat. “Brad, I am pleased to award you the winner’s cup for the inaugural Emperor’s Regatta. Because it is a perpetual trophy you only get to keep it until the next regatta, but I hope you will enjoy it and treasure it in the meantime.” With that he shook Brad’s hand and presented the cup to him.

I had just stepped in front of the mic again when Brad leaned over to Shelley and said something. She gave him a surprised look, then took one side of the cup in her free hand and the two of them held it above their heads.

There was a roar from the crowd, and the two kids beamed.

“Well, that concludes the first ever Emperor’s Regatta! Congratulations to all of the participants for making it a great occasion. Thank you all for coming and supporting the kids, and please come again next year, when the yacht club will host the event.”

I gave Brad and Shelley my personal congratulations, adding, “That was a nice gesture, Brad, allowing Shelley to share the glory.”

He gave a little laugh. “Well, if I had been a second or two slower on the last couple of tacks, Shelley would be the one taking home the cup. She deserved it as much as I did.” He turned to her. “Rematch next year?”

With a huge, cheeky grin, she said, “Yep, and may the best girl win!”

We all laughed, then they went off to look for their families.

I found Joa and his parents and gave the small boy a hug. “Congratulations, Joa. You did your family proud.”

That earned me a hug from his mum. “Thank you, Echo,” she said quietly, “Joa loves the training squadron, and we are proud of him, but you and Breaker Two made it possible.”

“Well, that’s what we’re here for,” I said. “The whole point of Breaker Two is to help people, and I’m happy that we’ve been able to help you guys.”

I found that they had accepted the invitation to lunch, so we walked up to the building together, chatting as we went.

* * *

The FTS kids and their parents didn’t realise at first that the emperor and empress were in the room with them. They were too busy getting their food and finding somewhere to sit.

I was standing near one family’s table when I heard a familiar voice ask, “Is this seat taken?”

I turned around in time to see the father do a double take and stammer, “Er, n-no, er, Your Excellency.”

The emperor put his plate down and held out his hand. “I’m Marcus,” he said. That small gesture seemed to calm the man’s nerves, and soon the whole family was chatting with their ruler.

Looking around the room I saw that Julia had found a seat at another family’s table and they were all talking animatedly. Kashuba, Masoko and Rix had also found families to chat with. I thought Darm had disappeared until I spotted him sitting with Joa’s family, sharing a laugh. I’d invited Yoso, too, thinking he would enjoy the day out. When I looked around for him I saw that he was deep in conversation with a couple of the Ferals boys.

I was reflecting on the progress we had made through Help Incorporated—and feeling pretty pleased—when there was a tap on my shoulder and a voice said, “Excuse me, you’re Echo aren’t you?”

I turned around. “Yes, that would be me.” I didn’t recognise the lady standing in front of me, so I smiled, and added, “How can I help you?”

“My name is Helen. When I saw you at the microphone earlier I wondered who you were since I hadn’t seen you around before. I happened to walk up from the dock with one of the Ferals trainers, and asked him who you were. He said, ‘Oh, that’s The Boss.’ Then he laughed, and told me that Rix gave you that name because you’re head of HI. I said, ‘You’re kidding, right?’ I wasn’t expecting someone so young to be in charge. He assured me he wasn’t joking, and took me to Rix, who explained that you own DöhmCorp and you set up HI.

“My family first became involved here when my son happened to find out about the training squadron and the meals program. I don’t know where we would be now if that opportunity hadn’t come along when it did. The kids were on a short road to nowhere, and I’m reasonably sure they both would have ended up in jail. The training squadron gave them a new interest and a new purpose, and they found a whole new set of friends. And, not only that, your free meals and all the other things you do here have helped my whole family. The kids hardly miss any school now, they come here to do their homework, and the tutors have helped them to catch up on the work they missed when they were wagging school. Seeing the kids doing well has given my husband and me a new lease of life. We have hope now, whereas before we just couldn’t see the future holding anything good at all.” She paused, her eyes glistening. “I ju–” She took a deep breath. “I just wanted to thank you.”

I was rather overwhelmed. I’d had kids from Breaker and the Ferals, and April and her girls, inflating my ego from time to time (I always shrugged off their praise by jokingly telling them not to put me on a pedestal. I just found it hard to accept, and it always made me teary-eyed) but never had anyone outside those groups given me their testimony. I took a deep breath myself.

“Uh, have you eaten yet?” I asked. Neither of us had, so we filled plates and Helen took me to the table where her son and daughter were sitting. Typical kids, they had started without her.

After introductions, I asked Toby and Mery if they had taken part in the regatta.

“No,” Toby said, “neither of us is that good yet.”

Mery chuckled. “We’ve done a bit of racing with others in the squadron, but we would have been way outclassed by the kids in the regatta.”

When I asked how they become involved with FTS, Toby and Mery told me their stories. They weren’t all that different from those I’d heard from the Breaker boys. Unlike them, however, these two still had their parents. Lacking attention and supervision because their father and mother were always working trying to eke out a living for the family, and fed up with having no money to do the things they thought they should be doing, they had rebelled. They had joined gangs where they felt part of something. They spent more days missing school than they did attending, and they began getting into trouble with the law.

Then, one morning, tired and hungry after hanging out with his gang all night, Toby just needed to sneak home and get to bed. He happened to walk past Breaker Two and saw a lot of schoolkids heading into the compound. He stopped one of them.

“‘What’s going on here?’ I asked.

“‘Breakfast,’ the guy answered, then he just kept walking.

“I thought, Breakfast, what’s he talking about? I was intrigued, so I followed him into the building. Then I saw that everyone had vouchers that they were handing in at the cafeteria door. That stopped me, so I turned to leave. I was slumped over, with my eyes to the floor, and I ran into someone.

“I kinda mumbled ‘Sorry’, and began to walk away.

“‘Hey, what’s up dude?’ the other person asked. ‘You look like the sky’s about to fall in.’ He held out his hand and said, ‘I’m Josh, by the way. I live here. Is there some way I can help you?’

“‘Nah, don’t think so,’ I said. I was a bit rude because I was feeling so down in the dumps and he was so cheerful.

“‘Hey, let’s go in and we can shoot for the sky. I’m pretty sure it’s not gonna fall in today.’

“Even though I was feeling so bad, I had to laugh. Josh led me into the cafeteria and told me to find a table while he got breakfast for both of us.

“I’d never met anyone like that kid. He started off by telling me how tough life had been for him. I couldn’t understand how he could be so cheerful about it, until he got to the part where some rich guy had provided a place to live, and free meals, and…”

Helen went to speak. Fearing she was going to correct Toby’s reference to ‘some rich guy’ I shook my head and she stopped.

“I wanted to know how I could get in on this gig,” Toby continued. “I thought everyone was taking advantage of this rich guy, and I was all for that. As far as I was concerned rich people had caused all my family’s problems.” He paused to take a drink. “I couldn’t have been more wrong. I ended up spending the day here. Josh introduced me to Rix and we sat and talked for ages. They explained how this big company had caused all these problems and how it was owned by this kid who wanted to make everything right.

“I wouldn’t believe them at first, but they kept talking. The longer they talked the more convinced I was that they weren’t having me on. In the end they showed me around the whole place. There was a library, there was a study room where kids could do their homework, and there were even tutors to help. There was the free meals program and they showed me how to sign up for that. But the kicker was when they told me about FTS. Oh, man, that sounded good. I was so sick of running with the gang, but I didn’t know any other way.

“‘Don’t tell me,’ I said. ‘It’s free, too?’

“‘Yep,’ said Rix.

“‘But it all sounds too good to be true,’ I said.

“Josh said, ‘Yep.’

“I was confused. I mean, I was only thirteen, but everything I’d learnt told me that if something sounded too good to be true it usually was. Before I left, Rix gave me some forms to take home. He suggested that I get Mum and Dad to fill them in and then bring them back. One was to enrol the whole family in the meals program. The other was to enrol me in FTS. He made it clear that I didn’t need any forms to use the library or study room.”

Helen took over. “When Toby came home all excited I couldn’t believe it. Where was the sullen kid I’d last seen a couple of days earlier? Well, to cut a long story short, we enrolled in the meals program and signed Toby up for FTS. When Mery saw how much Toby enjoyed the sailing she wanted to join as well. That was all about six months ago.”

“Well, I’m pleased we’ve been able to help,” I said.

Mery looked at me sharply. “We? You mean you have something to do with this place?”

Helen chuckled. “Toby, remember you mentioned the rich guy who wanted to make things right? Well, that was Echo.”

Toby’s mouth dropped open. “But… but…” He closed his eyes for a moment, then shook his head. “Oh, man, I put my foot in it, didn’t I?” He turned to Helen. “Mum, why didn’t you say something? Echo, I’m so sorry. I knew you had something to do with Breaker Two because I’ve seen you around, but I just thought you were one of Rix’s guys.” The poor boy looked distraught.

“Toby, it’s fine. I like to keep out of sight as much as I can. DöhmCorp isn’t into beating its own drum and neither am I. Your mum tapped me on the shoulder before and we had a chat and then we came to your table to eat. You weren’t to know I was that guy, so I’m not offended or anything. Look, I’m just a kid like you. The difference between us is that I have the money to help families like yours, and I love doing that. I’m sure that some people will take advantage of that, but most of the people we’re helping are genuine. You might have felt like taking advantage of the rich guy but your need was real, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, it was. The help we’ve been getting here has made a big difference to all of us—Dad and Mum, and Mery and me.”

“Too right!” Mery said. “I don’t have to go hungry anymore. And FTS is wa-a-ay better than hanging out with a gang.”

Toby looked at me. “So, you’re really the rich kid who owns DöhmCorp?”

I grinned. “Yep, but it wasn’t always that way.” I gave them a brief version of my story.

“Now, the emperor wants to talk to everyone and he would like everyone here to talk to him. Are you guys up for that?” Before they could answer I saw Rix waving to get my attention. I excused myself and made my way over to him. It was time to introduce the emperor and empress and get the afternoon’s business underway.

* * *

Late that night I found Marcus in his study, deep in thought. He looked up when I knocked on the open door.

“Echo! Come in. What can I do for you?”

I hesitated. I didn’t want to interrupt something important, but the emperor had made it clear that he always had time for family, and that, as far as he was concerned, I was family. “I was just wondering how you thought today went. Did we achieve what you wanted?”

“Oh, very much so.” He marked off points on his fingers. “First, the regatta was a great experience. Your planning went off without a hitch, and the event itself was spectacular. Second, Julia and I had some very worthwhile discussions over lunch, and the forum after that was very productive.” He chuckled. “Last, but definitely not least, Rix and his boys provided comic relief as well as much food for thought.”

I laughed. Rix’s Ferals, with their colourful language and endearing mannerisms, had been a hit with the emperor and empress. Their stories of life on the streets were not too different from those of Kashuba’s boys or April’s girls, but the way they told their stories was hilarious. Their pathos, however, was not lost on the royal couple, and they shed more than a few tears that evening.

On the other hand, the Ferals were equally impressed with Marcus and Julia, and there were hugs all round at the end of the night.

“Echo, thank you for allowing Julia and me to visit your Help Incorporated locations, and for organising the visits for us. So far, we’ve achieved much more this way than we could have by going through official channels.”

“Oh, it was my pleasure. I know that Kashuba, Rix and April are all grateful for your interest, and they were more than willing to help. Their groups don’t actually need further help, but they’ve all told me that they hope your research will result in a better deal for others.”

“It will… as long as I can persuade the bureaucrats that there’s a different way to do things.” He shook his head. “I’ve been sitting here, thinking, trying to work out the best way to implement what I think we need to do.” He grinned. “I might need to set bombs under a few departments!”

I chuckled. “I suspect you might have even more reason to think that after tomorrow’s forum.”