Comments, as always, welcome.
“I’m afraid it looks bad,” the doctor said. “We did the best we could, but…”
Alexander Carmichael II barely heard her. The stasis tube in the centre of the room held his attention; he couldn’t look away from its ominous presence. There was a click and the blue light faded away, revealing a man wearing one of his father’s tailored suits. His father’s head was gone, the neck ending in a bloody stump. They’d beheaded him after they’d killed him. He felt his gorge rise and turned away, suddenly uncaring about showing weakness in front of the doctor, or his companions. His father…his father hadn’t deserved to die like that, not at the hands of men unworthy to even look at him. His father…
Bill – his bodyguard – sounded unaffected by the sight. “His head is missing,” he said, causing Alexander to scowl at him. Pointing out the obvious wasn’t his bodyguard’s normal way of talking. “I don’t suppose there’s any hope…”
“We checked,” the doctor said, briskly. She was a middle-aged woman, perhaps the best doctor in the entire sector. His father had sponsored hundreds of young children from the Rubicon Sector, paying for their education in the Core Worlds. Most of them returned to the sector with skills they couldn’t have developed along the Rim, where the Empire’s influence slowly faded out into the interstellar night. “I’m afraid that there’s no chance they took his head as a hostage. The disintegrated brain matter matches his DNA.”
“They wanted to destroy his neural network,” Bill said. The bodyguard sounded troubled. “I think there’s something odd about this whole…”
“Of course there’s something odd about it,” Alexander snarled. “My father is dead!”
He stared down at the body, remembering the times when he and his father had played together, back when he’d been a small child. And then he’d grown up and found that he hardly needed to work, not when his father had given him the largest trust fund in the sector. It had been easy to attract female companionship and enjoy himself, even though his father had clearly disapproved. What did the son of the richest man in the sector have to prove, even to his father?
Alexander Carmichael I hadn’t been an easy man to love. As a young man, he’d inherited an old broken-down freighter from his parents. By the time he’d reached thirty, that single interstellar freighter – not even jump-capable – had become ten starships, serving the worlds of the Rubicon Sector and even reaching towards the Core Worlds. Seventy years of near-constant growth had followed, turning Carmichael Enterprises into the biggest employer in several thousand light years. Millions of people – humans and aliens – had worked, directly or indirectly, for his father. Alexander hadn’t ever understood why his father had disapproved of his lifestyle, not until it had been far too late. His father had watched his son wasting his life.
And now he was dead. It was too late even to say goodbye.
He turned back to the stasis tube, staring down at his father’s headless body. “What happened?”
The doctor hesitated. “There are limits to how much we can disclose…”
Alexander clenched his fists. Doctor Claiborne wouldn’t have had the chance to become a doctor without his father, let alone serve as his personal physician. “You will tell me everything you know,” he said, icily, “or I will personally see to it that your next position is on an independent asteroid along the Rim.”
He barely heard Bill’s sharp intake of breath. He’d surprised himself. But his father was dead…
“The ship was attacked and boarded by pirates,” the doctor said, finally. “They ransacked the ship and killed the entire crew, including your father. The Imperial Navy recovered the hulk twenty hours ago, drifting at the edge of the system. They brought the body back to Fuller’s World.”
Alexander nodded. His father had refused to headquarter his growing corporation on Rubicon, the Sector Capital. Instead, he’d based his headquarters on Fuller’s World, a world that had grown populous on his father’s largess. It wasn’t a decision that had sat well with some of the people who ruled the Empire, but they hadn’t been able to object. And the Imperial Navy had even provided a pair of destroyers to protect the system. It hadn’t saved his father’s life.
“Thank you,” he said. It struck him that he should apologise, perhaps try to ensure that the doctor got a prize assignment somewhere in the sector, but he refused to speak aloud. His father was dead. “Please…reseal the body. My father…”
“She knows what she’s doing,” Bill said, seriously. “It’s time we left her to her work.”
Honey met them outside, her normally bouncy face grim. Alexander hadn’t called her, but he wasn’t surprised to see her, not when she and Bill spent half of their lives trying to control and direct him – for his own good, of course. Honey was a combination of personal assistant, lawyer and concubine, something he found a little embarrassing. His father had chosen his girlfriend! But then, most girls who knew who he was wanted his money and the social cachet that came with his name, not Alexander himself. Honey might be bought and paid for, but at least it was honest.
“I’m sorry about your father,” Honey said. Bill beckoned them both forward into a private room, his head turning from side to side as he checked it for traps or surveillance devices. “He was a very good man.”
“I know,” Alexander said. He’d barely known his father, not really. There were thousands of people who’d known him better than his only – acknowledged, at least – son. The thought was a bitter one. His father should have had another hundred years left in him before he died, passing the corporation to Alexander. He’d thought that there would be time to mend his relationship with his father. “I…”
Bill had finished checking the room, pulling the hatch closed to block out all sound – and outside surveillance probes. Interstellar corporations could afford the best security, something that was desperately needed when they spied on their competitors constantly, looking for weaknesses they could exploit. His father had been a past master at winning every last scrap of advantage from a contract – and leaving the other party convinced that it was the winner. Alexander knew that he didn’t have his father’s flair, let alone his experience.
“Your father was assassinated,” Bill said, flatly. Alexander’s head jerked up. He hadn’t even considered the possibility. “Someone targeted him specifically.”
Alexander stared at him. “Who…?”
Honey’s question was more practical. “How do you know that?”
“I’ve accessed the read the report the Imperial navy crew filed when they boarded the ship,” Bill said. Alexander hadn’t even thought about their report. He cursed himself for the oversight as he activated his neural network and downloaded a copy for himself. Bill’s training would allow him to absorb it almost instantly. Alexander would take longer to read it thoroughly. “There are a number of oddities about the whole incident.”
He ticked them off on his finger as he spoke. “First, your father was almost certainly worth more to them in ransom than in anything else,” he said. “They could have taken him alive and sent you a finger to prove he was still alive – and demanded billions of credits in exchange for his safe return. But they killed him. Why? Second, I’ve seen the remains left behind after pirates hit helpless freighters and they are almost always nightmarish. The crews – the women in particular – are abused horrifically before they are killed. But here…there’s no evidence that any of the crewwomen were raped before they were murdered. There’s also no forensic evidence that might lead to their capture in the future. And finally…they took care to disintegrate your father’s head, destroying whatever files he had stored in his implants.”
Bill looked up at Alexander, his face dark. “It was a planned assassination,” he said, flatly. “Your father was deliberately killed.”
Alexander shivered, despite himself. “Who…?”
“Your father had a great many enemies,” Honey reminded him. “One or more of them could have outfitted a private starship and manned it with a crew of mercenaries. They would carry out their mission and then withdraw into interstellar space.”
“It could have been anyone,” Bill said. “What do you want to do?”
“Find them,” Alexander snarled. “Find them and kill them.”
“The Imperial Navy will do all they can,” Bill said. “You can’t hope to find them on your own.”
“But I’m not on my own,” Alexander said. Cold ice was burning through his soul. His father had left him his entire corporate empire. Millions of employees, hundreds of commercial starships; interests in a thousand different star systems… He’d never given much thought to money as anything other than a means of influence, but now…he could use his father’s money to find his father’s killers. “I have my father’s corporation.”
Honey winced. “The Board may wish to dispute that with you, Alex,” she said. She only called him Alex when she wanted him to pay attention. All of a sudden, Alexander wished that he’d paid more attention to the monthly briefings before attaching his secure e-certificate to the files. His father had kept most of the reins of power firmly in his own two hands, but there was a Board of Direction, composed of lesser shareholders. “They’ve already called a meeting for 1430.”
“That was quick,” Bill observed, sardonically. The bodyguard’s surprisingly ugly face – ugly, in a universe where anyone could afford cosmetic surgery to become a god or goddess – twisted. “You want to bet that one or more of the Board was working with the killers?”
“Or merely had a source in the local Imperial Navy office,” Honey countered. “If they’d been caught paying to have the Chairman assassinated…”
Alexander shook his head. “I’m going to use the power and influence my father left me to ensure that his killers are utterly destroyed,” he said. He meant every word. “And if the Board doesn’t like it, they can go fuck themselves.”
“Then you may wish to consider your strategy for the meeting,” Honey said. “Telling them that you intend to invest in such a venture will not please them. And believe me; they can make life hard for you.”
“You’re not your father,” Honey snapped. “You have a great deal of power; more, I think, than you fully understand. But your father commanded their fear as well as their respect.”
She shook her head. “It’s going to take nearly an hour to reach Foresight,” she added. “I think…”
“We’ll take the Sam Gunn,” Alexander said. His father’s yacht was still in orbit around Fuller’s World. If his father had taken his private starship instead of riding on a defenceless freighter…he pushed the thought aside, angrily. “We’ll be there in plenty of time.”
Foresight wasn’t a natural asteroid cluster. Over the years, engineers employed by Alexander Carmichael I had moved seventeen giant asteroids into an independent orbit around the system’s star, using them to create a headquarters for his corporate empire. Three of them spun to produce gravity, serving as homes for the staff who kept the corporation running; the remainder served as industrial production nodes and sources of raw material. It had taken Alexander some time to appreciate the logic behind using the asteroids, rather than Fuller’s World itself as a base, but it made a certain kind of sense. The government on Fuller’s World might eventually start trying to legislate against the corporation.
They’d have to be insane to try, Alexander thought, as he strode into the boardroom. It was the most tightly secure room in the system, at least outside the imperial Navy office on Fuller’s Word. My father’s enterprises turned Fuller’s World into a bastion of productivity – not too bad, given that the original settlers didn’t have a pot to piss in between them. If they annoyed my father…
The thought chilled him. His father had been the unelected monarch of the system; hell, he’d been the most powerful man in the Rubicon Sector. There were richer and more powerful corporations up towards the Core Worlds, but few of them cared to compete along the Rim. If his father – or Alexander himself – had coughed at the wrong time, it could have caused a financial collapse, or worse. He cursed his own stupidity under his breath. If he’d spent more of his childhood learning from his father, rather than rebelling against him, he would be in a much better position to seek revenge on his father’s murderers.
“Alexander,” a low voice said. Li Maxilla was as stunning as he remembered, an oriental woman with long dark hair and a perfect smile. She was also over two hundred years old, he reminded himself sharply, using the most advanced cosmetic and rejuvenation technology to retain her youth. Her climb into the business world had left a number of knives in her partners’ backs, sometimes literally. “I was so sorry to hear about your father.”
Alexander nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Let them think of him as a weakling son, no matter how badly it rankled. It would make their surprise all the more entertaining. Honey had briefed him extensively during the flight to Foresight Asteroid, discussing the members of the Board and their weaknesses. His father had kept them in check, somehow, despite their behaviour within their own corporations. Alexander didn’t understand how he’d mastered his partners.
Khan Garbanzo grunted in agreement. He was a dark swarthy man, given to overindulgence in all parts of his life. Honey had noted that he prided himself on bedding a different girl every night, before pushing his unfortunate victim back into the gutter. Despite modern medicine, it was hard to hide the signs of his lifestyle from casual onlookers. He was only pushing seventy years old, but he looked the oldest person in the chamber.
“He was a great loss,” Rupert Hastings agreed. Like Alexander’s father, Rupert Hastings had crawled up from small beginnings; unlike Alexander’s father, he’d put his company up for sale and invested in other companies as soon as he had secured the money. He had considerable energy, Honey had explained, but he was also remarkably lazy. Hastings wouldn’t jump unless someone prodded him into jumping – and he would always insist on ensuring that there was something below to catch him. “We will all miss him terribly.”
Alexander nodded. “The privacy shield is in place,” he said. His implants reported that all network connections to processors outside the chamber had been cut off. The only processor left in the room was the one his father had installed, years ago. “I believe…”
“I believe that we should consider the issue of electing a new Chairman,” Maxilla said, cutting him off. “Our vested interests require a firm and steady hand at the helm or…”
“There will be no need for such an election,” Alexander assured her, cutting her off as rudely as she had cut him off. “I have secured my inheritance from my father. As the majority stockholder in Carmichael Enterprises, I am the rightful Chairman.”
There was a brief pause as the members of the Board exchanged glances. “I’m afraid a case could be made that you have not yet reached your majority,” Garbanzo grunted, finally. “You are young and Imperial Law clearly states that certain inheritances, particularly those that might cause instability, are to be held in trust until the receiver reaches his fiftieth birthday.”
Alexander looked up at Honey, who smiled. “With all due respect, Master Garbanzo, your citation of Imperial Law is inaccurate,” she said. “There are cases where swift transfer of power has taken place, despite the recipient being under age. In any case, it doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters,” Garbanzo snapped. “Do you have any idea of just how much is at stake?”
“In the event of the courts deciding that my client was underage,” Honey said sweetly, “control over his shares would pass to the duly-appointed trustee, as laid down in the will. I must inform you that Mr Carmichael named his son both the primary heir – and the trustee.”
Her smile widened. “He will be effectively holding the shares in trust for himself,” she added. “There is a wide body of case law that would provide ample precedent for this position. Furthermore, there are terms in the will that provide funds for fighting a series of court cases to ensure that the will was upheld. Indeed, a court case would very likely be thrown out by the judges.”
Alexander held up a hand before Garbanzo could explode with rage. “In any case, I do not intend to make major changes,” he said, firmly. Honey had outlined exactly what they’d agreed to before his father had allowed them onto the Board. They would have a little control over their investments, but there were clauses that his father could have invoked to force them out – if he considered it to be necessary. “I see no reason why the day-to-day running of Carmichael Enterprises should not continue unchanged. I trust that that meets with your approval?”
Li Maxilla smiled. “I can see no objection,” she said. “I think I speak for the majority of the shareholders, however, when I point out that you are young, and you have very limited experience in governing such a vast…range of interests. We would have grounds for a vote of confidence.”
The bitch would never have dared say that to my father, Alexander thought, angrily. How dare she…? He knew perfectly well that she didn’t give two figs for any of the minority stockholders; all she cared about was her own power and place. And if he was forced to buy her out, it would risk destabilising the entire structure. Carmichael Enterprises was designed to be study, with a hundred different sources of revenue, but could it survive a power struggle at the top?
“I do not intend to make any changes to the current structure of the corporation,” Alexander said, as mildly as he could. The bitch could probably read him perfectly. She’d had plenty of time to learn how to read people, after all. “I do, however, intend to use the resources my father left to me to find his killers.”
He studied the Board, wondering if one of them would betray their feelings. But there was nothing, nothing more than calculating eyes. They would wait and see where matters led before trying to unseat him. Despite Honey’s briefing, he was unwilling to risk pushing matters too far. They would know the legalities of the situation far better than he did.
“There are sufficient resources for me to do that using the loose funds my father created,” he continued. “The day-to-day business of Carmichael Enterprises will not be affected. They may even be improved.”
Khan Garbanzo leaned forward, quickly. “Improved?”
“I have been considering the files,” Alexander said. He used his implants to upload a file into the local processor and display it in front of the Board. “Over the past five years, we have lost no less than forty freighters to pirate attacks – and at least nine others to causes unknown. We are not the only corporation to be affected, of course, but proportionally we’re being hit worse than our competitors. My father was forced to raise shipping rates for unescorted freighters within the sector – which, as I’m sure you’re aware, is a major part of our business.”
He shrugged. “Despite considerable effort, my father was unable to convince the Imperial Navy to provide escorts for our ships,” he continued. “The results have been devastating. I think that the minor stockholders would agree with me that something must be done – and if the Imperial Navy won’t do it, we’ll have to do it for ourselves.”
“Perhaps a study could be done,” Rupert Hastings said, slowly. “We could consider the legalities of tackling the pirate problem ourselves.”
“By the time such a study would be finished,” Alexander said, sharply, “we would have lost every ship in our little fleet twice over. The losses are unacceptable and I intend to do something about them. They targeted my father deliberately. Who’s to say that they won’t come after you next?”
He stood up. “I will be heading to Rubicon this evening to discuss matters with Admiral Price-Jones,” he added. “I will ensure that the management levels within this asteroid are assured that it is business as usual. Our efforts to deal with the pirates and extract revenge for my father’s assassination will be handled separately. Thank you for coming.”
Outside, he allowed Honey to drag him into another private room. “You shocked them,” she said, dryly. Alexander grinned. He found it hard to care. “You do realise that one of them might have ties to whoever killed your father?”
“I know,” Alexander said. “I’m hoping that they’ll panic and do something stupid. Otherwise…how will I find the bastards who did the deed?”
Honey snorted. “And what happens if they kill you as well?” She asked, sardonically. “How do you intend to collect your revenge from beyond the grave?”
“Well,” Alexander said, after a moment, “I’ll just have to try and stay alive, won’t I?”