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Perseus Spur

Perseus Spur

Perseus Spur 12


  My brother Daniel said, "Let me make one comment for the record. While I concur with Simon's decision to oppose the Galapharma tender offer at this time, I'm increasingly concerned by certain adverse factors that are seriously devaluing Rampart Starcorp. I intend to discuss these factors in detail at our next general board meeting in six months' time."

  Silence greeted this announcement, which sounded almost like a threat.

  Simon appeared unperturbed. "Are there any other comments ... for the record?" When no one spoke, he continued. "The second order of business involves my intention to create a new executive position, Vice President for Special Projects, and hire my son Asahel to fill it. I so move and open the matter to discussion."

  The chagrin and disapprobation vibes were palpable. Even Dan gave me the fish-eye.

  "I want you to know," Simon went on doggedly, "that I intend to take Asahel into my lull confidence regarding Rampart's affairs—most especially including Eve's disappearance and the Galapharma offer—from this day forward. I need his advice and I'll bring him into this Starcorp one way or another, whether he likes it or not. Or you do!"

  Thora Scranton had been whispering into the mike of her computer during the minidiatribe. Now she said, "I think this will enhance our decision-making on the Chairman's motion."

  Suddenly the screen at my place produced a slow-scrolling precis of my curriculum vitae, including the infamous New York Times article and picture of me. Everybody else got the same data and their eyes dropped to the displays. Scranton gave me a tiny apologetic shrug. She was a woman of ample figure whose plain, intelligent face was framed by ash-blond hair.

  Simon was unruffled. "Thank you, Thora. I should have thought of that myself."

  The CV gave only a brief account of my career and professional triumphs but detailed my inglorious downfall in excruciating detail. It concluded with my voluntary exile to K-L and application for full-time resident status.

  Leonidas Dunne spoke up in an easy, silken tone. The Chief Technical Officer had a ski-jump nose that reminded me of the classic comedian Bob Hope, and a pointy-toothed smile like a debonair alligator. "Hardly the usual sort of job resume, is it? I presume our Chairman has his reasons for proposing that Asahel Frost join us... though I can't imagine what they might be, unless we have a sudden need for a disenfranchised White Hunter with an allergy to shave-gel."

  Cousin Zed laughed appreciatively and so did Gianliborio Rivello. The implication of alliance wasn't lost on me.

  Simon said, "I'd like Asahel to tell us about the two recent attempts on his life, and his opinion about who might have been responsible for them."

  That got their attention.

  Aunt Emma gave a little cry of shock and distress. The Gang of Three exchanged enigmatic glances. Dan's face registered a smidgen of fraternal concern. The others waited expectantly as I took my time responding, removing my mirror shades, shrugging off my hunting coat, tipping my chair back, and crossing my snake-booted feet.

  "First," I said, "I want you to know that the only reason I'm here today is because Simon insisted. I had no idea he intended to nominate me vice president for whatever-it-is, and I certainly don't want the job. I do intend to investigate the disappearance of Eve Frost, using methods of my own."

  "I think that's an excellent idea," said Abul Hadi unexpectedly. "Schneider's inquiry certainly hasn't produced any results."

  Zed bridled. "That's unfair, Yasser. Ollie's done the best he could, given the restraints we were forced to—"

  "Asahel has the floor," Simon said, cutting him off. The Rampart President subsided. His features were stiff with indignation.

  I continued. "The canned biography of me in the computer doesn't talk about the kind of life I've led since I was expelled from the Commerce Secretariat. Let me tell you about it. At first, I drank myself into oblivion. Whenever I managed to come up for air I thought about committing suicide, but I just didn't have the guts. The only people who cared whether I lived or died were a few Throwaway friends on Kedge-Lockaby ... and my big sister Eve. When we were kids, Eve was the one who always took care of me. Wiped my nose and fixed my scraped knees. Swatted me and cussed me out when I misbehaved. Made me learn how to swim properly after I nearly drowned and she had to save my life. Took me camping and cross-country skiing in the North Woods when the family lived in the Toronto house. Taught me to ride a horse and prospect for minerals on our ranch in Arizona.

  Later on, when my life fell apart, Eve hatched a kindly little scheme that she thought might snap me out of my alcoholic depression. She bought me a boat, a sport submersible. The thing fascinated me, gave me a new interest in living. I sobered up, just as Eve hoped I would. After a while I was able to earn a living as a guide for scuba divers and underwater fishermen. Kedge-Lockaby is a nice freesoil planet. All I asked was to be left in peace there, living in a shack in the islands and skippering my sub. Instead, Galapharma AC sent a thug to murder me... because of Rampart."

  A storm of questions erupted. Simon called for order and I went on.

  "The first attempt on my life failed out of sheer bad luck." I gave them a sketchy account of the sea-toad incident, which left Zed and his buddies covertly smirking. "The second try, which involved marooning me on a comet, seemed to have succeeded. So the hatchet man sent Simon a little obituary announcement, crowing over it."

  "Look at your screens," my father said, tapping a few pads. "Here's the message I received."The mocking bit of doggerel appeared, along with the directions for finding my body.

  "A comet?" Aunt Emma wailed. "In outer space"? Oh, Asa!"

  I smiled at her. "A friend rescued me."

  Thora Scranton said, "This message seems to link your apparent death with the disappearance of Eve Frost. But there's no hint that Galapharma is responsible. Do you have any concrete evidence to support that allegation?"

  "Yes. The proofs are circumstantial, but convincing. I don't intend to discuss them here today. I'm working to identify the would-be killer and confirm the Gala connection, and I'm pursuing other lines of inquiry as well."

  "What are they?" asked Gianliborio Rivello.

  I shook my head.

  "The board has a right to know!" The director turned to my father. "If you insist on hiring him—"

  Simon said, "He'll report directly to me, Gianni. And I'll decide what to tell the board."

  Rivello sat back, glowering.

  Cousin Zed addressed me in a studied neutral tone. "I'm rather surprised that this assassin would have targeted you in an apparent attempt to pressure Simon. After all, your father did disavow you publicly. I assumed that the two of you were permanently estranged."

  "Well, you've been wrong before, Zared," Simon said. His smile was unashamedly foxy. "For instance—when you assumed Ethan would leave his entire stake to you, so we'd be forced to accept you as CEO."

  Zed's voice remained controlled. "It's a position I've earned, and one I expect to fill in the future. But I'll remind you that we didn't come here today to debate my executive abilities. The point at issue is whether Rampart should entrust a sensitive and potentially damaging investigation to an outsider—a man who forfeited the public trust and disgraced the family name, a self-confessed alcoholic and mental basket case who may have fabricated these alleged attempts on his life for twisted reasons of his own. The Chairman is justifiably anxious about Galapharma's renewed pressure and the disappearance of his daughter. I suggest that he may not be in position to judge this situation objectively—"

  Simon let out an angry curse, but before he could deliver a riposte, Dunne and Rivello chimed in with their own disparaging estimates of my character. A shouting match ensued, with Eckert and Abul Hadi calling vainly for calm and fair play while Aunt Emma moaned and Thora Scranton watched with clinical fascination.

  I tuned out, considering a new and intriguing aspect of the overall situation.

  I had heard rumors, prior to my personal debacle, that the dying President and CEO of Rampart bel
ieved that his oldest son was too unimaginative to take over the helm of the Star-corp. "Number-crunching nerd" and "not a lick of fire in his belly" were among the choicer pejoratives Ethan Frost was supposed to have used to describe the hapless Zared. Those personal deficiencies were acceptable in a Chief Operating Officer and even in a President—but not in the prime mover of an interstellar corporation.

  According to the complex Starcorp bylaws, the CEO of Rampart (unlike lesser officers) was confirmed by a vote among stakeholders—one share, one vote. Almost from the beginning the three majority quarterstakes were held by Ethan, Simon, and my mother Katje Vanderpost, who had inherited them from her brother Dirk, the third Rampart founder, who had died in 2186. The fourth quarter was held by the thousands of small stakeholders and administered by Thora Scranton. In order to prevent his oldest son's succession, Ethan had willed his wife Emma only half his stake. The other half went to Simon, ensuring his control of the corporation when my mother voted with him, as she always did, in spite of their divorce.

  Zed had been bitterly disappointed when Simon assumed the role of Chief Executive Officer following Ethan's demise. No doubt Zed hoped that the passing of time would take its toll on the old man and force him to step down. But five years had gone by, Simon was eighty-four and still full of piss and vinegar, and he apparently refused to name his nephew as his corporate heir.

  But if not Zed, then who?

  Certainly not my older brother Daniel, who was even less of a hard-charger than Zed. Dan was a meticulous micro-manager, a grind, a political type who hated the frontier hurly-burly of the Perseus Spur and preferred the electric atmosphere of Toronto, where his wife, Norma Palmer, was a delegate in the Commonwealth Assembly.

  My quiet, mathematically brilliant sister Bethany, who was Assistant Chief Financial Officer, was also unqualified by temperament for the job, as were Ethan's other adult children, a trio of unexceptional individuals who held sinecure executive posts at Rampart Central.

  No, there was only one other Frost family member with the ability to lead the Starcorp and outwit the Concern carnosaur hoping to make a meal of it: Rampart's dynamic First Vice President and Chief Transport and Distribution Officer.

  Eve.

  I froze in my tilted chair, then slowly let its front legs come down to the floor. The ruckus was winding down as the focus of the arguing shifted away from me and toward certain serious management problems Rampart had endured over the past two years, and whether or not Zared's response to them had been effective.

  1 stared at my cousin with fresh interest. He was forty-five, a taller man than his father Ethan had been, with dark chestnut hair. His features were handsome and incisive—a knife-thin nose, prominent cheekbones, a lean, angular chin, and a mouth habitually compressed in a determined line. He was far and away the most intellectually gifted of the Frost offspring, a business prodigy who had apprenticed under the Chief Financial Officer, Gunter Eckert. But Ethan's ultimate assessment of his son's character had been essentially correct. In light of the evidence now being flung about by the wrangling board members, Zared appeared to be overconservative and lacking in the vision and drive that mark an effective galactic entrepreneur.

  Unless he had been deliberately acting against Rampart's best interests.

  I'd never liked Zed. I liked him even less now, as I mulled over some alarming possibilities.

  My brother Dan was saying, "The Ackerman fiasco and the continuing state of paralysis in the Research Division following Yaoshuang Qiu's death are only the latest crises of leadership we've suffered. In my opinion, we also bungled the production breakdown at the genvec plant on Farallon-Zander, the Insap uprising on Osmanthus, the Mendip epizootic, and the RB-4238 contamination flap on Steilacoom. Leaving aside the matter of possibly inadequate executive response—"

  "Nonsense!" Zed snapped.

  Dan continued. "We have to concede that all of these incidents seriously disrupted important lines of production, cut deeply into our earnings, and diminished public confidence in the Starcorp at a time when we'd hoped to expand and push for Concern status... Lately, both Simon and I have begun to wonder whether the disasters were all due to bad luck."

  Rivello's saturnine features were skeptical. "You see some sort of sinister pattern? Some overarching conspiracy instigated by Galapharma, intended to soften up Rampart for a takeover?"

  "I admit I never considered it before," Simon said, "but in the light of Eve's disappearance and the attacks on Asahel, Galapharma involvement in the other events now seems possible—even probable."

  "I'm not convinced." The Marketing Officer shook his head. "The unfortunate events you mentioned can be explained without resorting to wild theorizing. Eve Frost's disappearance is an especially grave matter, but we still have no proof that it was involuntary. I admit I don't know what to make of the alleged attacks on Asahel or the peculiar message you received, but—"

  Gunter Eckert said quietly, "If we can prove to the ICS that Galapharma agents are sabotaging Rampart to devalue it, we can sue the bastards into receivership and grab their assets."

  "That," Simon said, "is exactly what I hope Asahel will help us to do when we make him VP Special Projects. He's had more experience ferreting out Concern shenanigans than Rampart's entire internal security force and legal department put together."

  "Your son has been discredited," Leonidas Dunne pointed out. "Reduced to legal nonentity. Evidence gathered by a Throwaway would be inadmissible in a Commonwealth court of law."

  "Leo, you're making the mistake a lot of folks do," Simon retorted, "assuming that once a person's citizenship is revoked, there's no recourse. Most of the time there isn't, because Starcorps and Concerns won't employ a Throwaway.

  Why should they, when there are thousands of unemployed citizens vying for every job? But exceptions have been made, Throwaways have been hired for good and sufficient reason, and I intend to make one of those exceptions here and now."

  Emma Bradbury looked thunderstruck. "I think I understand! If we hire Asa—"

  Daniel Frost finished the thought. "As a salaried employee of an Interstellar Corporation, he would be automatically reenfranchised as a citizen of the Commonwealth of Human Worlds."

  My reputation, however, would still stink from one end of the Milky Way to the other. In hiring me, Simon would be putting his own integrity on the line, and that of Rampart as well. Zed smacked his palm onto the computer display before him. "I can't believe you're serious! This crazy message Simon received could be the work of some madman with a personal grudge. Or it could have been sent by Asa himself. Our business reversals can all be explained without blaming some shadowy conspiracy instigated by Galapharma. Eve's disappearance is troubling, but I say that any investigation of it should proceed under the direction of our Vice President for Confidential Services. It's ridiculous to assume that an outsider could do a better job than Ollie Schneider."

  "Are you calling me ridiculous?" Simon inquired ominously.

  "Of course not. But I don't think you've thought this thing through, either. How do we know where Asa's loyalties lie? Can we be certain he'll act in Rampart's best interests—or will he be a loose cannon, following some half-assed agenda of his own? He was convicted of falsifying data, failing to protect the life of a witness in his custody, and perjury, for God's sake!"

  "It was a setup," I said quietly. "And I intend to prove that, too—after I find Eve."

  Simon said to me, "Then you will accept the post?"

  I paused, ready to refuse again; but the logic of acceptance was inescapable. As an insider I could make use of Rampart's immense resources, compel cooperation from employees who might have knowledge of my sister's fate. Operating on my own, even with the help of Mimo and his useful underworld associates, I'd have to claw my way uphill with my fingernails, fending off Zed and his minions at every turn as well as sidestepping Galapharma's cutthroats.

  And maybe the Haluk as well. I asked Simon, "Will you give me carte blanche i
f 1 agree to undertake the investigation?"

  "Yes."

  "And I report only to you?"

  "Yes."

  "Then I'll accept if the board approves."

  Simon said, "To repeat: I move that Asahel Frost be appointed Vice President for Special Projects, with his first brief being a confidential inquiry into the disappearance of Eve Frost."

  My brother Dan said, "I second the motion and call for a show of hands. All in favor?"

  Simon and Dan promptly voted for me, and after a moment's bemused hesitation, so did Gunter Eckert and Yasser Abul Hadi. 1 choked back a groan of disappointment. Well, I'd stick with Plan A after all and go it alone.

  Dan said, "Those opposed?"

  Zed muttered, "This is a travesty." His hand shot up. Aunt Emma, sending an apologetic moue my way, voted with her son. Dunne and Rivello made it a foursome. They all looked expectantly at Thora Scranton.

  She said, "I abstain, lacking sufficient data to make an informed decision."

  "A stalemate?" I exclaimed in disbelief.

  Simon said calmly, "In the case of a tie vote I invoke Clause 17b of the Rampart Corporate Bylaws. I hold the proxies of absent board members Katje Vanderpost and Eve Frost, and I cast their votes in favor of the motion and declare it carried."

  "My acceptance," I said, before anyone else could speak, "is absolutely conditional upon confidentiality. The members of this board must agree to keep my true identity secret until I choose to reveal it. I won't have a galactic media circus impeding my work."

  Simon said, "Is there any member who has a problem with this?"

  Dan broke the smoldering silence. "Mr. Chairman, we're ready for the next order of business. It involves personal reports on the Eve Frost investigation from the Vice President for Confidential Services and the Chief of Fleet Security."