The Sunday forum was a lively affair, although it began quietly enough. We had decided to make it as normal a Sunday afternoon as possible so, whereas the Ferals would have usually put up bright, colourful posters announcing who was providing the free entertainment that day, they simply produced a black and white number with a silhouette of a head and the caption, ‘Surprise Guest Speaker’. I don’t think any of the diners actually noticed anything out of the ordinary until I stood to introduce the emperor and empress. Rix usually made the announcements but this time he was rather nervous and I eventually caved in to his repeated requests for me to do it.
There was a sudden hush in the room when I got up to speak.
“Hi, everyone. I hope you’re enjoying your meal. I apologise for the break in transmission, but Rix asked me to do the honours today. I promise you’ll have him back next week!” There were a few chuckles.
Looking around the cafeteria I recognised only a few faces. “I don’t know most of you, so I’m assuming that most of you don’t know me. I’m Echo Menier, head of Help Incorporated, the organisation behind Breaker Two.
“I guess you noticed that the posters publicising today’s entertainment were a little different. Don’t worry, I’m not the surprise speaker!” A few more chuckles. “I’m here to introduce him and explain why he’s here. You’re probably pretty well aware of what we do at Breaker Two, but there is someone here today who wants to get your perspective on that; someone who is disappointed that government programs have failed to help the people who most need help; someone who knows only too well that government policy has failed in crucial areas. He wants to hear what you have to say.
“What we plan to do is make this an open forum. Our guest speaker will explain what he’s hoping to achieve this afternoon, and then we’ll give the floor to anyone who wishes to contribute to the discussion. Whether you speak or not is up to you. We would like to hear from you, but we won’t think you’re rude if you just want to listen. We won’t think you’re being rude, either, if you decide you would rather leave.
“Please let me set out a couple of rules. First, we want to give everyone here a chance to have their say, so please be patient. Second, please be respectful of others when they are speaking.” I smiled. “Rix and I will try to keep order, and we’ll also be watching for anyone who wishes to speak, so just catch our eye and we’ll make sure you get your turn.
“Please allow me to introduce His Excellency, the Emperor.”
There was a sudden loud murmur of voices, but they quietened when Marcus rose to his feet.
“Hi, everyone,” he began. “First, I want to apologise that you’re going to miss out on the usual entertainment this afternoon. When I asked Echo if he could arrange a way for Julia and me to meet with people from the local community, this is what he proposed. I hope you won’t hold that against him.
“Echo gave a good summary of my reasons for wanting to meet with you, so I won’t repeat those. I would like to add that I sincerely want to hear what you think. I want to know what life is like for you here in this part of the federation. You can be as negative or critical as you like, and I promise I will listen. You may speak freely without fear that anything you say will be used against you.” He smiled. “Of course, if you have anything positive to say I’ll be happy to hear that.”
Everyone in the room chuckled.
“To get things going I’ll ask a question. Well, two questions, actually. How is life for you right now? And what do I need to do to make it better?”
Rix and I were scanning the diners, watching for anyone who wished to speak. Nothing happened at first. Looking around the room I thought everyone looked stunned. People at a few tables were talking quietly among themselves. After a few moments a man near me raised his hand and I gave him the floor.
“Er, Your Excellency, er…”
“Please, there’s no need to be formal,” the emperor said, “if we have to observe protocol we probably won’t achieve anything.” He smiled, and indicated that the man had the floor.
“O-okay,” the man started, tentatively. “Um, I think the worst part of life for us around here is indentured labour.”
There was a hum of agreement.
“Indenture is supposed to be preparation for full artisanship, but the way the employers work the system, no one ever advances. We are stuck at the lowest level, indentured for life.”
“Yeah,” said another man, when Rix gave him the nod. “And it’s just about impossible to get ahead when ‘pay’ rates are so low and our job ‘contracts’ are skewed in favour of the employers.” He punctuated his words with air quotes.
The first man spoke again. “The help we get here at Breaker Two is greatly appreciated. But, the thing is, that help wouldn’t be necessary if we were paid enough to live on. And the job contracts are so crap that the employers pretty much ignore them anyway.” He paused, then added, “Pity help us, though, if we ignore a single clause!”
“Hear, hear!” came a loud chorus of voices from around the cafeteria.
The emperor spoke up. “Can you give me specific examples of crap contracts?”
“I can go home and get mine,” another man said. “I live almost next door.” He got up and left the room when Marcus thanked him.
For the next ten minutes people all over the cafeteria called out examples of contract clauses that placed onerous burdens on the worker, but left the employer free of almost all responsibility. The man who had left returned and handed the emperor a thick sheaf of papers.
There was silence while Marcus leafed through it quickly, several times stopping to read more closely. Surprise registered on his face, and then shock. He looked at the man, who was still standing in front of him. “Is this a standard contract?”
“I think so, yes.”
“May I have a copy made, please?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Thank you.” Marcus looked over to Rix, who nodded, took the contract and handed it to one of his boys.
“He’ll scan it and bring it back in a few minutes,” Rix told the man, who nodded his thanks and resumed his seat.
A woman at the back of the room caught my eye and I indicated that she should speak. When she rose to her feet I was amazed. She had to be nearly two metres tall! She was also solidly built. Man, I thought, I wouldn’t like to get on her wrong side!
“I find it hard to believe,” she began in a strong voice, “that you were not aware of the true nature of these contracts. In fact, they are not really contracts. They would be more accurately described as licences to exploit workers.” She looked straight at the emperor. “How could you not have known?”
Marcus looked chastened. “I guess the honest answer is that I was not paying enough attention.”
There was a burst of ironic laughter. “That much is obvious!” someone called out, angrily.
I was worried that the atmosphere was getting heated. There were IG members placed strategically in the room, scattered among the diners, so I didn’t expect things to get out of hand, but I didn’t want people getting so hot under the collar that they lost the ability to take part in an amicable discussion.
Suddenly I had one of my brilliant ideas. I held up my hand and asked for quiet. “I’ve found with Help Incorporated that the best way to resolve problems is to talk about them.”
There was another burst of laughter. I grinned. “Yep, I know it sounds like a cop-out, or just another way to ignore the problem, but it actually has worked for us. Rix will tell you that, and I’m sure the emperor will confirm that he’s seen me make it work in several situations. Rather than believe us, though, why not give it a try?”
“Yeah, right! How?” came a disbelieving voice from a table in the middle of the room.
“You’re just a kid!” someone else cried.
“Yes, but I’m a kid who gets things done!” I replied. That was a knee-jerk response, and it sounded egotistical. I prepared myself to be shouted down as just another rich kid throwing money around, so I was surprised when another voice spoke up from the back of the room. I couldn’t see the person but the voice sounded familiar.
“I can vouch for that! Haven’t you people heard of the kid who owns DöhmCorp? The one who set up Help Incorporated because he wanted to right the wrongs DöhmCorp had committed? The one who took on Amy King in a live interview and ran rings around her?”
There were murmurs as people around the room apparently connected the dots and realised that Echo Menier was actually Lucien Döhm. The question was, would that make the situation better or worse? I looked around and saw that the IG personnel were alert and ready to act if they were needed. I let out the breath I didn’t realise I’d been holding.
“Come on, folks,” the voice continued, “give him a chance. DöhmCorp is one of the most successful companies in the federation. And, you’ve surely seen how successful Help Incorporated is. After all, you’ve all enjoyed a free meal here today. How about listening to him?”
I still couldn’t see who was speaking, and I feared the antagonistic tone of the lady’s voice would escalate the feeling in the room.
I was about to move to try to see her when the emperor spoke. He was looking to the back where the mystery voice had come from. He held up his hands to stop the hubbub that had arisen. “Please, could we have some quiet? I don’t want this forum to devolve into a judgement on DöhmCorp and Echo. Miss, would you like to come up to the front and introduce yourself? Would you tell us why you have so radically changed your mind about Echo?”
What on earth was he talking about? I was startled when a young woman stood and began to make her way towards the emperor. Good grief! There was no mistaking that red hair. It was Amy King!
The emperor spoke again. “I have learned to respect Echo’s views, and I’ve learned to listen to him. In a short time, by talking to and listening to the people he wanted to help, he has been able to achieve more than I could have hoped to get done in several years. And he has done that without the ‘benefit’ of legions of public servants or people with grandiose titles. That’s the reason Julia and I are here this afternoon. We wanted to try doing things Echo’s way.”
He turned to Amy. “Miss King,” he said, gently, “I’m sorry to put you on the spot, but what you have said today rather contrasts with what you seemed to think about Echo and DöhmCorp when you did that famous interview.”
The aggression in the atmosphere seemed to have dissipated. Every eye was on the journalist and you could have heard a pin drop. Amy blushed. Wow! I never expected to see that!
She sighed. “I’d been trying to interview someone from DöhmCorp for weeks. They refused every request. When they finally relented, all they had to offer was some kid. I was hopping mad! I went to Breaker One that night expecting to meet some upstart, smart-alec fourteen-year-old, but he wasn’t there—or, at least, no one would let me talk to him. All they would say was that he would arrive in time for the interview. That made me madder than ever. Echo Menier was introduced as a spokesperson for Breaker and he offered to show me around the building. I didn’t know who he was. I thought he was one of the Breaker scallies.
“Echo, who I’ve since discovered is thoughtful and insightful, seemed to realise how upset I was and he sat me down to have a cup of tea and a chat before the interview. I was angry, aggressive and loud. Echo was calm and relaxed, and spoke with me quietly. In the space of a few minutes he sussed out the underlying cause of a personal problem I was trying to deal with, and he gave me some advice.
“I remained in the dark until a few seconds before the interview went live, and I was livid that he had outsmarted me.” She smiled. “Later—much later—I realised that had he let me know who he really was earlier the interview would have taken a different turn and might well have failed completely. As it turned out it was one of the highest-rating programs the network has ever broadcast. That realisation led me to believe that Echo is a smart kid, one who does things his own way, and who is usually right. As for the advice he gave me, well, I didn’t take much notice of what he said because he was just a kid but he turned out to be right about that, too.”
She looked over at me and to Rix, then turned to the emperor. “I’m sorry to have gate-crashed your forum. I’d heard about the Saturday night dinners and Sunday lunches, and I was curious to see what they were like, so I talked my way in here today. I had no idea the surprise guest speaker was you, Your Excellency. Then, when someone made that ‘just a kid’ comment my heart took over and I just had to speak up.” She blushed again, paused, then said to the diners, “You’ve heard how the emperor respects Echo, and the advice he gave me has had a huge impact on my life. I think you should listen to him. He’s not just any kid.”
Amy nodded to me, thanked Marcus, and returned to her seat.
The feeling in the cafeteria changed after that. My suggestion of a working group made up of local people and a couple of staff from the palace secretariat was accepted by the diners and the emperor, and the rest of the discussion centred around how to set it up and make it work. In essence, it would be similar to the consultative panel that we had set up when we first began working with the Breaker scallies.
It was late in the afternoon by the time we broke up. I went looking for Amy King to thank her for defending me, and found her chatting with the tall lady who had castigated the emperor. Before I could open my mouth she grabbed me in a hug and thanked me for helping her to see the truth. Given my past experience of Ms King (although she had been helpful in finding Abi and Ben I hadn’t seen or heard from her since that time) I was flabbergasted, which she found hilarious.
“Ha! Now you know what it’s like to be taken by surprise,” she said.
I laughed with her. “Touché.”
“Echo,” she said, gesturing to the tall lady, “this is Angela Haasch. She works as an employee advocate for a non-profit organisation that has been trying to improve conditions for indentured workers. You’ve given her hopes a boost today.”
We said hello and shook hands. Angela was so tall I had to stand back a bit so that I didn’t need to crane my neck to see her face.
She said, “Echo, I’ve been enrolled in the meals program here for several months. I live nearby to be close to the people I’m trying to help, and my organisation can’t pay me much, so I was grateful when someone told me about Breaker Two. I wasn’t aware of the other projects you are running, though, and I somehow missed the famous interview, so I didn’t know much about Help Incorporated and I didn’t realise how much you have done through HI. Amy has been filling me in. She’s a big fan of yours!”
I chuckled. “That wasn’t always the case.”
Amy smiled. “That’s true, but two things have changed that. One was the advice you gave me before the interview. You were so right it threw me for a loop, but when I embraced it my whole attitude changed. I appreciate that. A lot.”
I nodded. “Thank you for telling me. I don’t think the old Amy King would have, so I have to accept that something has changed. I’m glad I was able to help.”
“You’re right. I probably wouldn’t have bothered to tell anyone that they’d helped me, let alone thanked them for doing so. She looked at the employee advocate. “Take care around this kid, Angela. He has a way of getting to you!”
I laughed. “What was the other thing, Amy?”
“Oh, your passion for Help Incorporated, and the way you handled the interview—not to mention my indignation over the the way you outsmarted me—made me curious, so I went digging for dirt.”
“Don’t worry. I didn’t find any. What I did find was a kid who lost his parents and his very identity. He had nothing until he was fourteen, when he suddenly found he was the Döhm heir. I figured most fourteen-year-olds would have reacted by either fleeing from everything being the heir meant, or becoming completely self-indulgent and living it up. You didn’t do either of those things. You took an altruistic way and put your money to use helping people who weren’t able to help themselves. And you took DöhmCorp along with you.
“I approached a lot of people to find out as much as I could about you as a person. People at Döhm, people at the orphanage where you grew up, people at the palace, people anywhere who’d had dealings with you. A lot of them refused to talk to me, but of those who did, not one had a bad word to say about you. As one Döhm employee said, ‘Echo is a WYSIWYG guy—what you see is what you get. Echo is the real thing’.” She grinned. “After about 50 people told me the same thing I decided I’d best believe them!”
“Well, I came looking for you to thank you for sticking up for me. Things were getting a bit heated, and you changed the atmosphere completely. I think we achieved what the emperor was hoping for, but it was looking a bit dicey until you spoke up, so thank you.”
Angela said, “I’m afraid my comments contributed to the negativity, but I felt betrayed. I couldn’t believe the emperor was ignorant of the way workers are being treated.”
“I don’t think ignorant is exactly the right word,” I said. “I know he has been concerned for a long time that government policies have been failing. That’s why he asked for this forum today—he wanted input from ordinary people rather than the politicians and bureaucrats who normally advise him. I think he’s becoming increasingly aware that they don’t always have the welfare of the people of the federation at heart.”
“You seem to be well-informed,” Angela said.
Amy laughed. “Echo lives in the palace.”
“Really?” Angela looked surprised.
“Yes,” I said. “Just before I found out that I was really Lucien Döhm I was kidnapped from the orphanage. It’s a long story, but I was rescued eventually by Crown Prince Darmian and ended up being cared for in the palace. The emperor and empress have more or less adopted me, and I’m still living there. We chat about stuff over meals, and when the emperor has time he acts as a sounding board for me. He is a good listener. It works both ways—I value his wisdom, and he is always keen to hear what’s happening at HI.”
“So, do you think he really didn’t know about the exploitation of workers?”
“Oh, he knew workers had it tough. I’ve talked to him about some of the stories I’ve heard through Breaker Two. If he hadn’t known he wouldn’t have asked for the forum. But I don’t think he realised how heavily things were stacked against the employees. I didn’t, either, until today.”
I had a thought. “Angela, you mentioned that your organisation can’t pay you much. Does that mean it’s underfunded generally?”
“Oh, yes. We can only go in to bat for a small number of the cases that are brought to us. Unfortunately the only way to get justice in most instances is to take the employer to court, and that can be expensive. Most of the workers themselves can’t afford to pay anything at all, so we have to rely on donations, mostly from charitable trusts and the public. We operate on a shoestring administrative budget, and work from a small office provided by one of our donors. ”
“Are you the only advocacy organisation?”
“There’s a handful of others, but we’re the only one helping indentured workers.”
“What sort of results do you get in the cases you are able to take on? Does life for the worker improve?”
“Well, we don’t always win everything we seek, but we’ve never lost a case. In part that is because, with our limited funds, we only take on cases we think we have a good chance of winning. Almost invariably, life is better for the employee involved.”
“I see. If you’ve never lost a case I’d say the workers are being bilked. If the courts are repeatedly ruling against employers, clearly the employers are in the wrong. If they are only able to exploit people because there’s no one to advocate for the employees, then we need reform. Is there no oversight of contract negotiations by an independent body? Why are employers getting away with this?”
“There is a body, the Labour Contract Advisory Panel, usually referred to as El-cap, that’s supposed to approve all contracts and it’s also supposed to enforce sanctions—on either side—if contract conditions are breached. In practice, however, it is unable to do its job. It has been underfunded and short-staffed for at least twenty years. In fact, I sometimes wonder if it even tries to carry out its job anymore.
“You’re right, though, when you say that the employers are working the system. As I said, we don’t always win all that we go for, but we do always win.”
“Would you have the means to make a submission to Help Incorporated? We might be able to provide some funding, but we’d need to know how it was being spent.”
“Are you serious?”
“Well, we would be very grateful for any help you could give us. There are so many worthwhile cases that we can’t pursue because we just don’t have the money to take the employers to court, and that’s usually the only way to get them to give anything.”
I took out my communicator. “If you give me your contact details I’ll make sure we send you an application for funding assistance.”
Angela gave me her electronic address. “You should get the paperwork in the next day or so,” I explained. “Send it back as soon as you can, and we’ll be in touch after we receive it. Please contact me if you need more information or you need to clarify anything, and we’ll get it sorted out. Oh, and make sure you indicate how much money you need. I suggest you work out what you reckon you need as a minimum and then double it. We can negotiate from there.
“Now,” I went on, “I think the emperor needs to know what you’ve told me. Would you be willing to talk to him?”
“Ha! Like he’s going to talk to me after the way I slagged him this afternoon.”
“I think you will find he’d be very interested to hear anything you’d like to share,” the emperor’s voice said from behind us.
I introduced Angela and explained that she was an advocate for indentured workers.
“Ah, I see. Perhaps now I understand the motivation for your comments earlier,” Marcus said.
“Your Excellency, please accept my apology for the way I spoke to you.” She sighed. “I allowed my frustration to take over. I should have been more tactful.”
“Not at all,” Marcus responded. “You spoke from the heart, and that’s what we wanted. I needed to hear the truth, no matter how unpalatable it was. I should have followed Echo’s example long ago. It’s becoming apparent that the palace has been kept in the dark by the bureaucracy. The more I speak to people like those here today, the more I find wrong in the federation. I deeply regret that it’s taken me so long to realise that. Now, is a few minutes enough to tell me what you would like to share, or should we schedule a longer meeting?”
I turned away, taking Amy’s arm and pulling her with me. “I think we need to give them space to talk freely,” I said, “and I have something I want to ask you.” We found an empty table and sat down.
“I really appreciate the new Amy King, but is she for real? I can hardly believe you’ve done such an about-face.”
Amy grimaced. “I’m sorry I was such a bitch, Echo.” She placed a hand on mine. “You’re such a sweet kid.” She grinned. “Even if you’re an insufferable smart-alec.” She smiled ruefully. “But I meant every word I said today. You actually are just a really nice kid, as well as a very astute one, and you did give me very wise advice that night we did the interview. Do you remember what you told me?”
“Yeah, I think so. It was something to do with your father.”
“It was. You hit me right in the heart when you picked up on the way my father’s attitude was affecting my life, even though I’d long since left home. I still felt hopeless, and that I had to constantly prove that I was better than he’d always told me I was. You told me I was already good, and that I didn’t need to prove anything. ‘Stop trying to please your father,’ you said, because you doubted he would ever be pleased. Then you added, ‘He has the problem, not you. Just get on with doing your job. The details will take care of themselves.’
“It wasn’t until weeks later that your words properly sank in. By then we’d reunited Tyras with Abi and Ben, and I’d begun talking to anyone I could find who knew you, or had dealings with you. As I said earlier, the more people I talked to the more I began to believe what they said about you. And that led me to revisit what you had said about my father.
“I remembered how I’d felt about you, a young kid, running DöhmCorp and Help Incorporated. Then I remembered your passion for HI and your sincerity when you spoke about wanting to right past wrongs. One evening I was sitting in my living room trying to think things through when I just burst into tears. Here was this uppity fourteen-year-old, who was anything but uppity, who went from having nothing to having everything, who was only interested in helping others. He seemed so confident, so certain that he was doing the right thing. He didn’t even need to think about it, he just did it. And he was very good at persuading others to go along with him. Why was I such a wreck? Why was I so angry? What did this kid have that I didn’t?
“That was when your words about my father came tumbling back into my mind. Suddenly I knew you were right. I was good at my job. There wasn’t any need to prove anything to anyone, especially my father. Then I remembered something else you said that night. You were talking about my attitude to kids. You said, ‘Kids are very capable. I’ve seen kids who have amazing abilities. I think you need to stop viewing kids through your father’s eyes. Let the kids speak for themselves.’
“That made me remember all the people I’d asked about you. A lot of them were kids and young adults, and some of those were filling very responsible positions. I decided I would take your advice and let the kids speak for themselves. When I did, it was like a weight was taken from my shoulders. I began to see kids as people, not annoyances. I began to notice their achievements. I discovered that there are a lot of very capable kids in this city.
“Take HI, for example. It’s pretty much run by kids in whom you have placed a lot of trust, and that’s paid off in spades. Look at Rix. As far as I’ve been able to see he was rather erratic before you got him involved with HI and gave him responsibility. If I’d been the head of HI there’s no way I would have trusted him, but you did—and look at him now. He’s running Breaker Two very competently and, in the process, helping a lot of others.
“So that’s why I spoke up today. I’ve seen the proof that your way works. When that id– er, person, said ‘But you’re just a kid!’ it stuck in my craw.” She paused and poured a glass of water from a jug on the table. “I assumed the people using the services here at Breaker Two would all know who you were, but a few of the comments showed that some people had no idea. I’m sorry if I outed you when you were trying to keep a low profile. I know you’re not one for blowing your own trumpet.” She grinned. “And I understand why, now. It’s a much more effective way to work, and you achieve more.”
I stood, and pulled Amy to her feet. She was smaller than me so it was easy to wrap her in my arms and give her a bear hug. “Thank you, Amy. I feel privileged that you shared all that with me. And I’m really happy that we’ve come to an understanding.”
As I let her go she surprised me with a kiss on the cheek. “Echo, I hope you never change. Just keep being you… please?”
I lost it. I threw back my head and laughed. Seeing the startled look on Amy’s face made me laugh harder. Eventually, I was able to say, “I don’t think there’s any chance that I’ll ever change. I’m just me. The emperor calls it ‘being natural’. It causes me to put my foot in it in a major way every now and then. It’s very embarrassing, but no one seems to mind too much.”
It was Amy’s turn to laugh. “I’m sure no one will mind at all if it means you stay as you are, Echo.”
I extracted from her a promise that she would keep quiet about the emperor’s visit to Breaker Two. Marcus had not specifically requested that, but I believed that the fewer people who knew about it the better. I had no doubt that if certain elements within the bureaucracy caught wind that the emperor was holding discussions with the plebs they would go into action to stymie what he was trying to achieve. Fortunately Amy saw the wisdom of what I was asking.
* * *
On the way back to the palace I asked Marcus if the courts kept records of past proceedings.
“Yes, each court publishes details of every case that comes before it. That includes transcripts unless there’s a legal reason for withholding those. Why do you ask?”
“Well, I told Angela Haasch that HI would consider providing funding for her advocacy organisation. She told me they don’t win every point they contest, but she said they have never lost a case. I’d like to check them out before I commit to anything, so I was thinking that reviewing their court cases would be a good way of learning about the sort of work they do and how they tackle it.”
“That seems wise, Echo,” the emperor agreed.
“I’ve just realised that it might help you, too, Marcus. If employers have been losing every case Angela brings against them, the court records would provide you with a summary of the kinds of things the employers have been doing to exploit workers.”
The emperor grinned. “I’ll get the secretariat on to it first thing tomorrow. I’ll see that they give HI a copy of whatever they find.”
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