It was my sixteenth birthday. I planned to have a small celebration with my palace family, and friends from HI and DöhmCorp, but it did not work out that way.
I got out of bed shortly after 8 am and went into my bathroom. I used the toilet and then had a nice long, hot shower. I dressed and went into my study and switched on my computer to check for messages. All of that was normal. That was my morning routine, and it had been for most of the time I had lived in the palace. What happened next, however, was far from routine.
My communicator beeped. It was Errol. “Echo, I have received another message.”
Whoa! Errol had not received any messages since I had taken over at DöhmCorp, and neither had anyone else.
“Oh. What did it say?”
“Well, it’s rather cryptic, but it says, ‘Request Lucien Döhm presence Peninsula House immediately.’ Does that make any sense to you?”
“Uh, sort of. Peninsula House is a place my parents owned, way up north. It’s one of the properties listed in the documents we retrieved from my chip. I should have visited it by now, but every time I thought about going something happened and I never got there. I don’t suppose you know anything about the message… like, where it came from?”
“No, sorry. It’s like all the others. I was blocked as soon as I tried to trace it.”
“Hmm,” I said, with a sigh. “Well, it looks like I’m heading to the peninsula.”
“Echo, be careful.”
“Thanks, Errol, I will. As far as I know the house is empty, though, so there shouldn’t be any danger. I’ll have my escort so I should be safe. I’ll just have to get the emperor’s approval.”
“Please keep me informed.”
“I will. Thanks for letting me know.”
We ended the call and I went across to see if Darm was out of bed. He was, so I told him about the message. “Can you fly me up there, please?”
“Sure, we can ask Father at breakfast.”
* * *
“So, you think this house is unoccupied?” the emperor asked after we had him told the story.
“Yes, Marcus. It showed on the properties list as ‘In Use’ and I assumed that meant by my parents since it was one of their personal assets.”
He nodded. “That is a reasonable assumption. Look, we had best do this right. Let me get a reconnaissance flight up there first. If everything looks right you can go, but I want you to take a fighter escort in case of trouble.”
An hour later the results of the recce flight were in. We were looking at images of the house, which was located right on the tip of a forested peninsula. There appeared to be no road to it, but there was a small grassy area which could serve as a landing pad. Interestingly, the recce flight had been challenged to identify itself and state its purpose. When the flight commander replied, the response was, “That is acceptable. Please proceed.”
The escort had been alerted and was awaiting the emperor’s instructions. Satisfied with the recce, he gave the go-ahead. Fifteen minutes later we were on our way.
* * *
“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” I asked. The peninsula below us was covered in trees and seemed to go on forever.
Darm looked at his instruments. “Yes, we are right on course for the coordinates I set before we left.”
“Well, I can’t see the end of the peninsula, let alone the house.”
Suddenly, the cabin communicator came alive. “Please state your name and business.”
Darm nodded to me.
“This is Lucien Döhm. I received a request to visit Peninsula House. I am accompanied by Crown Prince Darmian, who is also my pilot, and an imperial guard fighter escort.”
“Acknowledged,” came the reply. “Please reduce speed to 50 knots. Keep your present course and await further instructions. One of your escort craft may land first, if you wish, for security reasons.”
I looked to Darm, who nodded that he had heard. “Thank you, that is understood,” I said. Darm checked that the flight commander had heard the instructions.
Darm and I looked at each other. What were we getting into? If we had visited on an earlier occasion, as I had intended, we would have expected to simply fly to the property and land. As far as I knew there was no one in residence, and I had an electronic key card, retrieved from one of the safety deposit boxes many months earlier, which I believed would allow us entry to the building.
“Fly out to sea. Reduce speed to 20 knots. Turn 120 degrees,” the communicator instructed. Darm and the other pilots followed each directive.
“Wow, look at that!” I exclaimed. In front of us a large white building, set on top of the cliff at the end of the peninsula, had come into view. Now that we were out over the ocean it was obvious why I hadn’t been able to see the house as we flew up the peninsula—it was tucked into a fold of the clifftop. Even from our vantage point a little above it I could see only the facade.
We were instructed to land on the grassy area we had seen in the recce images. The escort flight commander landed first and we waited until he gave the all clear. Darm landed next, and then the second escort. The third craft stayed in the air as a precaution.
“Proceed up the path to the main entrance,” the voice told us. Darm shut down our zimmer and popped the doors open. We climbed out.
“Wow! It smells different here.”
“That’s the sea air,” Darm told me. “You always get that near the ocean.” He took a deep breath. “Oh, I love that smell!”
The path led through a well-kept garden. There were lots of wildflowers and the smell was almost intoxicating. It was obvious that someone was taking care of the property.
We came to a set of wide stairs that led up to the imposing facade, in the centre of which was a high archway. We went through into a marble floored vestibule. On the far side was a solid-looking wooden door. As we approached it a voice said, “Welcome to Peninsula House, Master Lucien. Do you have a key card?”
I held up the card I had retrieved from the safety deposit box. “Yes.”
“Please place it in the slot to the right of the door.”
I did so and the card disappeared from view. A few seconds later it popped out again.
“Please retrieve your key card. You may enter.” The wooden door opened silently.
I took the card and the flight commander, Darm and I went through the doorway; the other guard member remained in the vestibule. The door closed behind us. We were in a small room with another door in front of us. The floor was a checkerboard of black and white tiles, except for one right in the centre of the room. That one was red.
“Well, we’re in, but this could be a gas chamber,” Darm commented.
There was a chuckle from somewhere. It sounded like it was all around us. “You are not in any danger,” the same voice said. “However, I need to examine your credentials. Master Lucien, please stand on the red tile.”
I did as instructed. There was a click from above us and a tiny drone appeared.
“Please stand still while you are scanned,” the voice instructed.
The drone, which, like the one we had used to scout out Breaker, looked for all the world like a bee, first examined my face then dropped lower and did a circuit around my body. It withdrew as abruptly as it had appeared. I watched as it flew into a cavity in the ceiling and a small door slid shut. The door was concealed so well that once it closed I could not see any evidence of it.
A few more seconds passed. “Thank you, Master Lucien,” the voice said, Your identity is confirmed. Please allow His Imperial Highness to take your place.”
I moved aside and Darm stood on the red tile.
“Your Highness, please stand still while you are scanned.”
Darm did as asked and the drone reappeared. It did a circuit around his body and then hovered in front of him.
“Your Highness, please hold up your right wrist… thank you, now your left wrist…” The drone hovered in front of Darm’s wrists in turn momentarily, then returned to its hiding place.
After a few more seconds the voice spoke again. “Thank you, Your Highness. Your identity is confirmed.”
The procedure was repeated for the flight commander. “Thank you, Captain Haar. Your identity is also confirmed.” The captain looked astonished.
The door in front of us slid open. “Gentlemen, please enter. I would be grateful if you could go to the first door on the right.”
We did as asked and found ourselves in a room that reminded me of the library in an eighteenth century English stately home that I’d seen in a history book.
“Master Lucien, I am sure you are wondering why you have been summoned here.”
“Yes,” I replied.
“And perhaps you are wondering who I am…”
“Perhaps,” I said, tongue firmly in my cheek.
The voice chuckled. “I am Demi, an artificial intelligence created by your parents to manage their interests and to interact with the DöhmCorp information network. My name is an acronym for Döhm Experimental Management Interface. I also have the means to tap into other networks, which is why I was able to confirm the identities of your companions. Your parents in their wisdom limited my abilities, however. They built in numerous safeguards so that, while I have the ability to think and to make decisions, there are limits to what I can do. I cannot think outside certain parameters, for example, so I cannot create anything; if I could robots might take over the world, and we couldn’t have that, could we?”
I gave an nervous laugh. Long before my time robots were seen as the way to the future, the solution to a lot of the world’s problems. Many people, however, had been uneasy about their rise, chary of rogue intelligent robots without restrictions that might take matters into their own hands. It was deemed impossible to build into a robot the innate morality or conscience that human beings possessed. That line of thought won out and robots now had limited abilities and uses.
Demi continued. “I merely interpret the information I receive and act according to the instructions built into my systems. It was impossible to foresee every situation that might arise, so there are blind spots in my intelligence. There are simply no instructions covering certain situations, and should one of those situations arise I do not know what to do.
“One of those situations came up a little over twelve years ago when your parents suddenly stopped communicating with me. While I was programmed to act in a certain way if that happened, I was not able to do anything more than that. I was not able to ascertain why your parents had stopped communicating with me, for example.”
I glanced at Darm and the captain. Like me, they were listening intently.
“I continued to carry out the commands I had been given. I monitored the state of DöhmCorp against parameters I had been given, and issued directives to make corrections as necessary.”
That was a shock. “It was you? The mysterious instructions the secretary received were from you?”
“Yes, they were from me, although no one at DöhmCorp knows of my existence. Those directives were acted upon and DöhmCorp, according to my parameters, remained healthy. I was programmed to issue them until your parents reestablished communication with me or until you emerged as head of DöhmCorp. If neither of those events transpired I would continue to monitor and issue instructions as necessary.
“On 21 March 2166 I detected that the chip embedded in your breast was scanned by the imperial guard laboratory, and I was subsequently able to ascertain that you became active in DöhmCorp. That being so I ceased issuing directives, although I continued to monitor DöhmCorp’s activities and its health.”
I was amazed that this… this thing had apparently been watching every move I made. That was scary! I silently thanked my parents for building in safeguards and limiting its abilities.
“So, why am I here?” I asked.
“Master Lucien, today is your sixteenth birthday. That caused a file to be flagged in my system. That file relates to your parents.”
Whoa! Where were we going here?
“The file is marked for your attention, and it requires your attendance here. That is all I am able to tell you at present. If you will go over to the screen on the desk I will open the file for you.”
The desk was set across one corner of the room. I went over and sat in the huge chair behind it. The chair was so plush I almost disappeared into it. The screen on the desk came to life with DEMI appearing in large letters in the centre. That faded after a few seconds and it was replaced by a text file. I began to read.
TO: LUCIEN DOHM
FROM: LUKAS AND ROSALIE DOHM
DATE: MONDAY 09 JUNE 2156
Dear Lucien (or perhaps you will prefer to be called Echo)
We are deeply sorry that we have caused you pain. The fact that you are reading this means that we have failed you, and that must have involved pain. You have, however, attained your sixteenth birthday and that is some achievement! Please believe us when we tell you that, no matter what has happened to cause us to fail you, we love you more than anything else we have in the world. We hope that the precautions we have taken will be sufficient to allow you to piece together what has happened to us, if you do not already know that.
We believe we have made enemies, and it is possible that they will try to harm us. Since you are reading this it is likely that they managed to do so.
This was mega weird. My mother and father were speaking to me from beyond the grave. Now I understood how Errol felt when he believed the messages he was receiving were coming from them.
I took a deep breath and kept reading.
Demi may have information of interest to you, but not in a form that he can interpret. Please bear with us as we help you to retrieve it. Demi will respond to spoken commands, or you can type commands on the keyboard.
First, ask Demi to bring up the folder SCHEDULE and the file TODAY. Simply say clearly, ‘Schedule. Today.’ or type the words on the keyboard. When you have the file on the screen, touch the ‘Details’ link at the bottom of the page.
I decided to try the spoken method. “Demi, this file is a letter from my parents to me. They say that you have information for me that is not in a form that you can interpret, and they give me commands that will enable you to retrieve it for me.”
“Understood, Master Lucien.”
I took a deep breath. “Okay, here goes. Schedule. Today.”
The letter from my parents moved to one side of the screen and another file opened. It looked like a page from a paper diary. The date at the top was Thursday 12 Aug 2156. The entry read ‘Official visit to Region Ten. Leave 0900, return 1800, lunch with Governor.’
Region Ten was almost on the other side of the globe. To get there and back, let alone to complete any business, in a day would require space travel. I touched the ‘Details’ link. Another file opened. This one had an hour-by-hour timetable for the day. It began with ‘Drop Lucien at centre’ and included an hour’s travel time each way to and from Region Ten. It even included the name of the spaceship and its captain. The thing that caught my eye, however, was the note that the trip would be the maiden flight of a new type of craft. ‘Eager to check out new escape module’, a further note added.
Darm and Captain Haar, whose first name was Dirk, had been waiting patiently. I apologised for ignoring them, and asked them to join me behind the desk. They read the letter from my parents, and then the diary entry. I asked Dirk if he was familiar with the named spaceship. He shook his head. “No. Sorry, Echo. I knew the captain, though. He was an ex-guard pilot. A very good one, too. He was a captain when I was a new recruit and I flew with him on training missions. I knew he left the guard but I didn’t realise he ended up working for DöhmCorp.”
Darm had a suggestion. “Echo, if it was a DöhmCorp craft, Demi might have details of it on file.”
I threw up my hands. “Of course! Thanks, Darm. Demi, do you have a file on DöhmCorp Venturer, please?”
A few seconds passed before yet another file opened on the screen. I had to scroll through several pages of data but I eventually found what I was looking for. Rather than being a small pod big enough to accommodate two or three people, which they would have to enter and then seal closed, the Venturer’s escape module encompassed the whole of the passenger cabin and flight deck. It could be activated by the flight crew, or in the event of an explosion or irrecoverable damage from hostile fire or other mishap, it would deploy automatically.
“So,” I said, thinking aloud, “if the escape module is deployed, what happens next? Does it fly to a preset destination? Does it orbit until someone retrieves it? Can it even fly on its own?”
“At the very least it almost certainly would have servo motors that would allow it to be steered,” Dirk said. “Let’s see if we can find out more.”
I offered him the chair and he sat and began scrolling through the file. “I’m not an engineer,” he said after looking closely at several pages of information, “but this ship looks very sophisticated, and the escape module is more advanced than anything I’ve seen before. If I’m reading the data correctly the module was designed to automatically reenter the atmosphere and land safely. There was a manual override which allowed it to be steered to set up a reentry trajectory, or to place it in orbit.”
I felt defeated. “The diary entry made me wonder if my parents might still be alive. But, if the module saved them from the explosion, why haven’t they turned up somewhere?”
“Yes, whether they came back to earth or went into orbit they should have been picked up quickly. The module had emergency transmitters that should have swung into action even if the main communications channels were disabled. It seems inconceivable that it could have landed without someone noticing it, even if the transmitters all failed. It seems even more unlikely that it could have remained in orbit. There’s too much traffic out there, and too many tracking stations. It surely would have been noticed if it was still there.”
“Are there any other possibilities?” I asked. “Is it possible that the emergency transmitters weren’t activated? Could the module have failed in the explosion? Could it have been picked up by someone hostile to DöhmCorp? What if there was no explosion and the spacecraft was hijacked?”
We looked at each other. Those questions had no answers, except one—that my parents, and everyone else who had been aboard the Venturer, were dead after all.
We seemed to have come to a dead end, until Darm said, “Hang on… was there more information in the letter?”
The Venturer file had taken up the whole screen. I closed it and we read the letter again.
“Oh, dumb!” I said. “I was getting ahead of myself.”
The letter suggested that, if the schedule file did not provide enough information, there might be more in the log file for the same day. There was a link labelled ‘Log’ on the diary page. I touched it and a detailed record of events opened, listed by the time they occurred. As we went through the log it became clear that the outward journey had been uneventful. My parents had inspected a manufacturing facility, lunched with the regional governor, met with DöhmCorp local management, and reboarded the spacecraft for the flight home. The trip had been uneventful until about ten minutes before the craft was due to reenter the atmosphere, when there was a sudden flurry of activity on the flight deck. The log included a transcript of the crew’s conversation:
Engineer: Captain, major fabric malfunction! Disintegration imminent!
Captain: Engage SA, prepare to separate.
Engineer: SA on. Module ready.
The transcript ended abruptly. The whole exchange had taken less than eleven seconds.
“Wow!” said Dirk. “I remember hearing that the craft simply disappeared without giving any indication that anything was wrong. No wonder… they didn’t have time.”
“The question is, did the escape module survive the breakup?” I wondered. “Do we have any way to know that?”
“And if it did, what happened to it?” Dirk added.
“What is SA?” Darm asked.
“Huh?” I turned to him. “What do you mean?”
He pointed. “There… ‘Engage SA’. And then the engineer turns it on.”
“Oh.” I had been on another wavelength. My mind had glossed over those references because I was concentrating on the module. “I have no idea.”
“Suspended animation?” Dirk suggested. He looked at me. “Can you get that file back, please?”
I asked Demi to reopen the Venturer file. Dirk was still sitting in the chair so he began scrolling through the pages as soon as the file appeared. It took several minutes before he said, “Aha! This might be it.”
Dirk was right. The escape module was capable of placing cabin passengers into a state where their life functions would be slowed, allowing them to remain alive for long periods. It was only to be used in exceptional circumstances, could only be initiated by the captain of the spacecraft, and activation required the agreement of another member of the crew.
“The engineer turned SA on,” Darm said, “but we don’t know if the module actually separated from the ship.”
“Well, from what we read before, the module was designed to separate automatically, without the need for the crew to deploy it,” Dirk said.
“If it did, your parents might be alive,” Darm said. “How do we find them, though?”
I went back to the letter. There appeared to be nothing else that would help us. I leaned on the desk. I felt defeated. There had been a brief glimmer of hope, but that seemed to be extinguished. I looked at Dirk.
He shook his head. “Sorry, Echo, I can’t think of anything that would help. If the module is in orbit somewhere it surely would have been picked up by now… and if it landed… well, likewise.”
“What if it was hidden?” Darm asked.
“Huh?” My friend seemed to be plucking ideas out of the air.
“The guard has stealth fighters, right?” He looked at Dirk, who nodded.
“Well, perhaps the module had… has… the same protection.”
I groaned. “But if it did how would anyone ever ever find it?”
“Hang on…” Darm said. I could almost see wheels turning inside his head. “What if we could locate the people?”
“Wha–” I broke off that thought because another had replaced it. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Echo, your chip transmits your location constantly, right? So, if your parents have the same chips…”
I grabbed Darm and almost crushed him. “Darm, that’s brilliant!”
He brought me back to earth with a thud when he added, “but how far away are they detectable? And what frequency do they transmit on?”
“The IG lab should have that information,” I said. “They made the chips and implanted them.” I chuckled. “We didn’t need to ask them about mine because, when we were getting everything set up for the guard to provide my escort they were testing their own locators when they happened to pick up my signal as well. I think it was on a different frequency to theirs, and there was something odd about it, too.”
Darm called his father and explained what we had discovered. During the course of the following two hours I found out several things.
The first was that my parents definitely had a sense of humour. The ‘something odd’ about my locator signal was that it was disguised to sound like a standard radio broadcast. It played nonstop classical music. My father’s chip used a different frequency and, also disguised, broadcast an ancient comedy program called The Goon Show. My mother apparently had a liking for music from the 1960s because that’s what her chip sent out, on yet another frequency.
The second thing I discovered was that Demi existed in three separate locations: Peninsula House, which was 200 kilometres from DöhmCorp headquarters; Mountain House, built mostly inside a mountain in the Swiss Alps; and Prairie House, situated in an old missile bunker in the Midwest area of what used to be the United States of America. Mountain House and Prairie House were both on the properties list but I had yet to visit them. In fact I had not yet been to any of the overseas properties. Should there be a power failure or equipment breakdown in one location continuity of operation was assured by the other two. Since the interface was seamless, the user would not know which version of Demi they were talking to. Demi could be accessed from any of the houses.
I also found that my parents had stayed in all three houses at various times, although I had no memory of being in any of them.
The emperor had us remain at Peninsula House while the IG tried to track my parents’ chips. Since we were already there and might need more information from Demi he thought it best that we stayed. In any case there wasn’t anything we could do while we waited on the guard.
Darm, Kirk and I made ourselves at home. We found our way around the house and made drinks and a meal in the kitchen. The other two pilots returned to base.
I used the time to seek more information from Demi. When we walked through the grounds after we landed, it was obvious that someone was doing the gardening. Inside the house, too, everything was spotlessly clean–not what I would have expected if no one had been there for twelve years or more. I asked Demi who maintained the house and its grounds. “I do,” he replied, “although robots do the physical work like cleaning and gardening.” Mountain House and Prairie House also had robotic maintenance staff. Talk of robots triggered a memory from when Arden had said he felt like he was talking to a robot when he requested work on my old home. When I asked about that, Demi confirmed that he handled the maintenance there, too, and that Arden spoke to him whenever he made a request for work to be done on the house.
Finally, there was news. IG scanners had picked up weak signals on the frequencies of my parents’ chips. The signals matched the broadcasts the lab had detailed, and were coming from a huge wilderness area high in the mountains some 400 kilometres inland from the city. A reconnaissance team was despatched to check the source of the transmissions. If it proved to be the escape module, they would assess what was needed to recover it.
The location turned out to be a glacier; the module was buried in a twenty metre thick ribbon of ice. At the emperor’s request I got Demi to print out the escape module specifications so that the guard could determine how to open it. There being no more we could do at Peninsula House, Dirk escorted Darm and me back to the city.
It took the best part of two days to recover the module and get it into a transport craft. It was taken to the IG labs.
I thought I would be excited when I knew the module had been found. Instead I had a feeling of dread and I fell to pieces. Were my parents still alive? If they were, would they be in good health once they were revived? The tension was too much. I shut myself in my suite, trying to remain calm, but I was all at sixes and sevens. I hoped upon hope that my mother and father were in the module, alive and well. That would be exciting. On the other hand it would be scary. They would be virtual strangers to me; what if we didn’t get along? I had managed without them for twelve years; what would it be like to have them back in my life? I was owner of DöhmCorp now. Would they take that away from me? Then there were other possibilities. What if they were not in the module, or if they were dead? How would I handle that? In the end I didn’t know whether I wanted them alive or dead; didn’t know whether I wanted them back or not. I was a mess, and nothing anyone tried helped. I refused to accept progress updates, and told Darm to let me know the end result.
On the third day of my antisocial behaviour Darm got stuck into me. He called me out for being selfish and inconsiderate. “I know it’s your parents, but it’s just as stressful for everyone else involved,” he told me, forcefully. “How do you think the technicians feel? They don’t know what they are going to find in that thing when they open it.” He went on for a while, with me staring openmouthed at him. We had never had cross words between us. And now I had pushed him to this.
I held up a hand. “Stop!” I grabbed him and hugged him, ashamed of my behaviour. “Darm, I’m so sorry. You’re right, I have been in my own little world.” I took a deep breath. “But I’m really scared. I just don’t know what to expect.”
“Well, if you’ll let me tell you what’s going on at the moment you probably won’t be so scared.”
I raised my eyebrows in question. “I don’t know, Darm. Part of me wants to know, but part of me doesn’t.”
Darm smiled. “I can guess how you’re feeling. Just let me say that we should know everything by this time tomorrow.”
I closed my eyes and leaned my head against his shoulder. “Thank you. Sorry I’ve been such a pain.”
He left me alone then, but he had made his point. That evening I ate with the family in the dining room.
The following afternoon Darm and I were left to eat lunch alone after the emperor and empress were called somewhere urgently. I was helping Darm clear the table (we were expected to help, not to leave everything to the staff) and I had just picked up our used plates when the empress came into the room.
“Echo, there’s someone here to see you,” she said, quietly.
I looked up to see a beautiful woman standing in the doorway. I recognised her instantly, but I got such a surprise I dropped the plates. “Mum!”
I ran to her and we hugged. Tears were streaming from my eyes as well as hers.
“Oh, it’s so good to see you!” my mother cried. Then she spoiled it by adding, “and look how you’ve grown!” I had to chuckle. What a typical mother comment!
“What a handsome young man you are,” she said, kissing me on the cheek.
Hugging her, with her arms around me, I suddenly realised how much I had missed her. Years of pent-up emotion came to the surface and I bawled my eyes out. We stood there for what seemed ages, simply holding each other. Then I realised that she was alone. I stood back and looked at her. “Um… where’s Dad?”
A look of pain crossed her face. “He didn’t make it, son, I’m sorry. His heart failed during resuscitation.”
“Oh.” I was still on an emotional roller coaster. I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. One minute I had my mother back, the next I’d lost my dad, again.
* * *
The next days are a blur in my memory. I had good days and bad days, good hours and bad hours. A lot of the time I felt like I was at a concert where each instrument of the orchestra was playing a different work.
My mother was a pillar of strength, but she was grieving, too… for her husband, naturally, but also for the years she had lost as I was growing up. We had a private interment for my father, attended by a handful of invited guests. A memorial service two days later was well attended.
The Venturer’s three crew members were found on the flight deck, also in suspended animation. Two of them survived resuscitation. Sadly, the captain didn’t. His family, however, were grateful that they finally knew what had happened and could lay him to rest. They held a memorial service which my mother and I attended.
* * *
It seemed incredible that my mother had been missing for twelve years, yet once resuscitated was pretty much as she had been when she disappeared. Suspended animation had slowed down her vital processes so much that she had aged only a few months. One thing that struck us as amusing was that she was still thirty years old, with a sixteen-year-old son.
Since Yoso was living in our house, the emperor and empress invited my mum to stay in the palace. She occupied a suite near mine and we spent hours together catching up. Perhaps the best thing was that the bonds that had been forged when I was young had not been broken. I fact, in some ways it seemed that we took up where we had left off when my parents didn’t return from that trip. She was able to answer questions that had bothered me. One was why was I left in day care under an assumed name and not at home with a babysitter? That was easy: they had feared I would be kidnapped if I was left at home. They thought I would be safer hidden in plain view but under a different name. Why hadn’t they arranged for someone to collect me, then, if something happened to them? They had: the orphanage was part of their plan, but it was intended to be a temporary measure. Unfortunately several things went wrong and backup plans they believed they had put in place had failed, leaving me stranded.
I was keen to find out whether I had done the right thing in establishing Help Incorporated, but there was so much to do. My mother needed to reestablish relationships at DöhmCorp, and in other areas of her life. In fact, it seemed she had to almost start over again, but without her husband.
The Döhm executives were saddened that my father had died, but were overjoyed to have my mother back. Although I had been in control for less than two years they all gave glowing reports of my leadership and my achievements. I was acutely embarrassed, but incredibly proud.
Once things had slowed down and life got more back to normal, I was able to sit down with Errol and Mum and tell her all about HI. I was fairly sure she would approve, but there was a niggling doubt in the back of my mind. I wanted Errol there so that he could fill in anything I missed, and explain anything I had difficulty with. I was glad I had included him, because he was enthusiastic in his endorsement of HI and all we had achieved through it.
As it turned out I had no cause for concern. My mother was excited by the whole concept, and delighted that I had taken up the mantle and run with it.
She hugged me tightly. “I am so proud of you Lucien!” She knew most people called me Echo, but she couldn’t quite get used to the idea, although she was touched that I had chosen to keep the name. “And you’ve done all this in two years?”
“He has,” Errol said. “He has had help, but Echo came up with the concept of kids helping kids, and they themselves have made most of the decisions that have resulted in HI as it is today.” He smiled. “We at DöhmCorp are tremendously proud of what they have accomplished.”
“You’ve done a lot more than we hoped to achieve,” my mother said. “We had little idea how to go about it. All we knew was that we had to do something. You guys have managed so much in such a short time! You must take me on a tour so I can meet Kashuba and Rix and April, and all the others. They sound like interesting characters.”
“Oh, they are,” Errol said, “and they are skilled and capable characters. Without them and the other leaders we would not have been able to achieve anywhere near what we have. And the overarching factor has been Echo’s passion for HI. His leadership, his enthusiasm, his ideas…” His voice faded; he was choking up. He put his arm around my shoulders and gave me a sideways hug. “Without this guy it wouldn’t have happened at all. We’re all immensely proud of him!”
I felt myself blushing. My mother chuckled. “Oh, Errol, you’ve embarrassed the poor boy. He’s so much like his father… he’ll get a complex if we keep praising him.”
Errol laughed. “Oh, you got that right. Some days after Echo’s been here in a meeting with us I’ve looked at the other execs and we’ve all had to shake our heads. It’s uncanny how much like Lukas he is.”
“Uh, guys…” I said. “I’m here, you know!”
Mother and I took our time going around the HI facilities. I wanted her to meet as many of the kids and their leaders as we could manage. At Breaker One, Haza made a point of telling Mum how much he appreciated me. He told her the rich-young-kid-full-of-bull story, and explained how he’d been forced to change his opinion. He went on to describe how much life had changed for him and the other kids, and ended by saying, “Echo rescued us and gave our lives back to us. He is special to all of us and we love him to bits.” Mum had tears in her eyes when she gave him a hug.
Rey had much the same things to say. He recounted the story of his anger at our first meeting, when he found out that I owned DöhmCorp. “Echo looked a bit worried for a while there, but my attitude didn’t put him off,” he told my mother.
We encountered the same sentiments at Breaker Two, when Josh told how he was one of the scallies who chased me when the skyrover crashed. “Echo still wanted to help us, even though we’d done some bad stuff,” he said. “He’s a good guy!”
At Sullivan O’Keefe House, April had to relate the tale of our buying a house specially for the Wolfgirls. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I was wondering what we would have to do in payment, but Echo turned out to be genuine, and he didn’t expect anything in return. I put him through the mill before I was ready to concede that, though.”
“And he didn’t bat an eyelid!” Arai said. “He just kept trying to find a way to help us.”
It seemed that everywhere we went my mother was regaled with tales of my merit. Fortunately, they were usually tempered with good-humoured examples of my putting my big foot in it. That produced much laughter, and prompted my mother—every time—to declare, “Oh, that sounds just like his father.” It was embarrassing, but I didn’t have the heart to try to stop her. Emotions were still raw for both of us, and I think it was comforting for Mum that I was so much like my father. I found it oddly comforting, too, because it allowed me to feel like I was getting to know my dad a little better. On one occasion Mum even said, “Lucien, I hope you never stop being natural,” which resulted in howls of laughter from everyone within earshot.
In the end, my mother declared that HI was everything she and my father had envisaged, and much more. She was intrigued with the way I had allowed the scallies and other groups to set their own agendas and, to a large extent, allowed them to determine their own futures.
“I don’t think it would have even occurred to us to do it that way,” she told me. “And yet it’s been such a spectacular success. Oh, Lucien, Dad would be so proud of you!”
I stopped to think. Yes, HI’s approach had been wildly successful… but it had just happened. That wasn’t exactly the way I planned it because I didn’t actually have a plan. When I recalled Darm’s and my first meeting with Kashuba, Rey and Masoko, I remembered that I had changed tack part of the way through. I began asking for their input, and the HI modus operandi had developed from that. If I was honest, it had come about by accident, really.
Mum and I approached my father’s grave.
It was about six months since we had buried him, and I wanted to say goodbye.
I shed a tear for the years Dad and I had missed out on, but I was ready. I spoke in a whisper. “Goodbye, Dad. I’ll see you again one day, and we can make up for those lost years.” I turned to my mother and hugged her. “Thanks for coming with me. I’m right now. We can go if you’re ready.”
We turned and began to walk towards the cemetery gate. Mum slipped her arm through mine. We smiled at each other.
We had dealt with the past. It was not forgotten—it was, after all, part of us—but it was now firmly where it belonged. The future—a new life—lay ahead and we would face it together.
Copyright © 2020 Alien Son
Writing Dynasty was hard work, spread over more than four years, on and off. Now that it’s complete and posted I feel rather like I’ve lost an essential part of myself. It is great to have it done, though.
Three people helped immensely in bringing the story to completion. I want to thank them for all their hard work and their patience. They spent a lot of time reading, making suggestions, and pointing out problems. Their work is greatly appreciated!
~ Alien Son