Echo. Part 49

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In a somber, pained tone, he laid it out, explaining that he might be wrong on some of the details, but here is what we think: You may already have heard a rumor that we are connected to the Dark Times. There may be some truth to it. If so, it was through a misjudgment, and certainly with no intent to cause harm. I have no detailed explanation because I simply don't know precisely what happened, but we were here, in this planetary system, when the catastrophe occurred.

"I know," he said, "that if it's true that we, in any way, allowed the event to happen, or possibly even caused caused it, there is nothing I can say that will excuse that. The critical thing for the moment is to be aware that we will do all in our power to assist you as you have assisted us." it, there is nothing I can say that will excuse that. The critical thing for the moment is to be aware that we will do all in our power to assist you as you have assisted us."

A few went up and shook his hand. A few, probably unsure what he'd implied, remained in their seats. Most simply filed out of the hall.

When it was finally over, he embraced me. "How you doing?" he said.

"Okay." I don't know if I'd ever had more respect for the guy. "You didn't have to say anything."



"They were going to find out eventually. Best for it to happen now. I didn't want them to remember us later as having lied to them."

"You did good."

A middle-aged couple told us that Rikki was their daughter and how proud they were of her.

Other people came our way, staring at us. "Were you saying you killed everybody?" a woman asked. "An entire world?"

And an old man with tears in his eyes: "What were you trying to do tonight? Just say you're sorry and walk away?"

And a young woman, probably no more than twenty: "You two," she said, "are pathetic."

Then Viscenda was there. "Keep in mind," she said, "that Alex and Chase didn't do do it. No more than it. No more than you you did." did."

Although it was just after noon, Alex and I were both asleep when the call came in. " "Belle-Marie, this is StarCorps. Please respond." Belle, of course, wasn't functioning. Belle, of course, wasn't functioning.

I used the link to open a channel. "StarCorps, this is Chase Kolpath. Do you read me?"

Static.

Then: "Belle-Marie, are you there?"

They were too far out. We needed Belle to relay the signal.

As things turned out, Audree and Robin, riding a leased vehicle with a rented pilot and a friend of Robin's who happened to be an MD, got there first. They were, they said, glad to see us.

That night, Viscenda threw a party for everybody.

FORTY-FIVE.

Truly evil persons do not recognize their own malevolence. They perceive themselves as generous, good-hearted, friendly sorts, who sometimes have to resort to unpleasant tactics for the general betterment of society. Even the historical monsters seem to have had no second thoughts about the damage they were causing. It was that way with Hitler and Oliver Moresby, just as it was with the Greer Avenue Strangler.

-Tao Min-wa, History and the Moral Imperative "He's here."

"Okay, Chase. Let him wait a few minutes. I'll be down shortly."

I wasn't looking forward to this.

The outer door opened, and I heard Jacob's voice: "Please come in, Mr. Korminov." "Please come in, Mr. Korminov."

"Thank you."

"Just go into the conference room. On your right. Ms. Kolpath will be with you momentarily."

"My appointment is with Mr. Benedict."

"He knows you're in the building, sir. Please just go in and have a seat."

I heard him come into the hallway, heard him moving around in the conference room. I was looking out the window, watching a couple of goopers goopers chase each other across the garden and up a tree, but my mind was a thousand light-years away. Finally, I turned back to the exhibition schedule on which I'd been working. Let him sit in there for the rest of the afternoon as far as I was concerned. And that had been what Alex wanted. But the truth was that I really needed to see the guy. So in the end, several minutes ahead of schedule, I marched in. He was sitting there, casually, on the sofa, one leg crossed over the other, reading chase each other across the garden and up a tree, but my mind was a thousand light-years away. Finally, I turned back to the exhibition schedule on which I'd been working. Let him sit in there for the rest of the afternoon as far as I was concerned. And that had been what Alex wanted. But the truth was that I really needed to see the guy. So in the end, several minutes ahead of schedule, I marched in. He was sitting there, casually, on the sofa, one leg crossed over the other, reading The Antiquarian The Antiquarian, looking for all the world like a decent human being. He turned the magazine off and smiled pleasantly as I entered. "Good morning, Chase." Ever the gentleman, he got up. "I'm glad to see you're back safely from your trip. Did you find anything of interest?"

He asked it with such sincerity, with such innocence, that I was taken aback. I'd expected him to be at least mildly nervous. Or defensive. Something.

"Good morning, Mr. Korminov," I said. "Alex will be down in a minute."

The smile grew wider. "You didn't answer my question."

"Yes," I said. "In fact, we did find a few things." I tried to harden my voice. To make it clear my answer was an accusation. But he wouldn't bite.

"Excellent," he said. "I'm delighted to hear it. Your message implied that there was a discovery that has something to do with me me? Do I have that right?"

"You could probably say that. Alex will explain."

"You don't seem to want to give me a direct answer."

"Not at the moment," I said.

"I see." He folded his hands. "Has this anything to do with-?" It was as far as he got before we heard footsteps on the stairs. His eyes shifted to the doorway, but somehow I held his attention. "Where did you go, Chase?"

"I was under the impression you knew."

"No. How would I I know?" know?"

I smiled. Glanced out at the tree branches, which were swaying in a chill wind. "Well, I'm sure Alex will want to tell you all about it."

He sighed, the victim of small-minded people, and turned away to watch the door open. Alex came in with a neutral look on his naturally amiable features. "Good to see you, Alex." Korminov extended his hand. "I understand you have news of some sort for me. How've you been?"

Alex ignored the gesture. He glanced at me and propped the crutches against a table. (The doctors had assured him he'd be healed in another two or three days.) "I've been well, thank you."

"Glad to hear it. Hurt your leg?"

"Nothing serious." He lowered himself into a chair. Korminov's attention was now focused exclusively on him. It was as if I'd left the room.

"I hate to rush you, Alex, but I am am busy. Your message said you had something of importance to show me." busy. Your message said you had something of importance to show me."

"Indeed I do, Walter. Chase, would you-?"

I retrieved the box and set it down on a table beside Korminov. He looked at it and frowned. "What is it?"

"Take a look."

He opened it and looked down at a blaster. The frown deepened. He didn't touch it. "Is this a joke of some sort?"

"It belonged," said Alex, "to one of Petra Salyeva's hired thugs. It's all that's left of either of them."

"Petra Who Who?"

"Salyeva."

"You'll have to enlighten me." He sounded puzzled.

Alex's eyes reflected contempt. "Really?"

Korminov cleared his throat. Looked toward me. Looked away again. "Can we talk about this somewhere that's a little more private?"

"I don't think you want to irritate her, Walter. She hasn't been in a good mood since we got home."

"Got home from where?"

"Twenty-eight years ago, your people watched an asteroid go down on a living world. They might have stopped it, but they didn't. They just stood by."

Korminov held up both hands. "Look-"

"They had no malicious intent. It was pure carelessness. But there was a civilization down there. Millions of people died. Almost the entire global population."

"No," he said. "That's not possible, Alex. Had something like that happened, I would have known."

"You knew, Walter. You knew knew-"

"It's not so."

"You knew there'd been a fight between Rachel Bannister and Hal Cavallero. It happened immediately after she'd returned from the tour. It was a planetary system that Cavallero had cleared. Afterward, they both quit. And you'd like me to believe you never knew why? Never asked asked why?" why?"

"That's correct. I didn't know. I thought they were just having a personal squabble. That it was a romance gone wrong. Those things happen. My God, Alex, if I'd had any idea-"

"Why don't we stop the nonsense, Walter? Rachel would have gone to you when she got back. It's the first thing she'd have done."

"That's guesswork."

"Not really. I got to know a good bit about her. She was not shy. When she returned, she didn't know the extent of the damage that had been caused. But she knew there were cities on the ground. You told her to forget it. Just put it out of her mind. Nobody would ever know, right? You satisfied yourself that Cavallero wouldn't say anything. Maybe paid him off, although I doubt you needed to. He didn't even want to think about what he'd done, did he? Then you stopped the tours to Echo."

"You can't prove any of this, Alex."

"No. Probably not. I can't prove you hired that idiot bushwhacker to eliminate us either. But I don't see that it matters. You were the guy in charge. Either your company caused an incalculable amount of damage, killed millions of people, and you didn't notice. Which makes you the dumbest CEO in history. Or you were were aware and wilfully hid the facts. That would probably make it criminal." Alex shook his head. "Walter, it's been twenty-eight years. Dust clouds were thrown up into the atmosphere. The climate collapsed. People couldn't grow food anymore. The vast majority of them died. Had you acted when you had the opportunity, a lot of them, millions of them, could have been saved." aware and wilfully hid the facts. That would probably make it criminal." Alex shook his head. "Walter, it's been twenty-eight years. Dust clouds were thrown up into the atmosphere. The climate collapsed. People couldn't grow food anymore. The vast majority of them died. Had you acted when you had the opportunity, a lot of them, millions of them, could have been saved."

Something in the trees cackled. Korminov's eyes were shut. "My God, Alex, we would have helped. Afterward, she went back out there with Tuttle, and they reported everybody dead. It was too late to do anything. And for God's sake, Alex, they were aliens aliens."

"They were people people, Walter. Just like us."

"It's not true. Don't you think this is hard enough without your making it even worse? After Rachel got back to me, we did all the research. There was never never a human settlement on Echo III, never a mission of any kind out there. a human settlement on Echo III, never a mission of any kind out there. Never Never."

"Didn't Tuttle tell you they were human?"

"No."

"That's odd."

"Well, I don't know. He might have said something."

"You still have a copy of his report?"

He nodded.

"Send it to me when you can. I can't see that it helps you, but it will clear Rachel from some of the recrimination. And Cavallero."

"Some?"

"Walter, any of you could have stepped in and helped save those people. All that was necessary-" Alex showed him pictures. Of Viscenda. Of Turam and Seepah. Of Rikki and Barnas. Of a crowded dining room. Of a half dozen kids playing on the riverbank.

Korminov made a strange sound in his throat. "They look look like us. But they're not like us. But they're not us us."

A deadly silence fell across the office. Finally, Alex sighed. "I can't see that it makes much difference."

Walter picked up the blaster. His hand shook. "I know I should have done more. But I was desperate, Alex. It would have brought down everything I stand for."

"What actually do do you stand for, Walter?" you stand for, Walter?"

Slowly he brought the weapon around. Pointed it at Alex. "If I were the kind of person you think I am-" He looked at it. Laid it on the table. "But I'm not, of course. If I were, wouldn't it be foolish to put one of these these in my hands?" He laughed. "I assume you've drained the energy." in my hands?" He laughed. "I assume you've drained the energy."

"Does it matter?"

"No." He stared at the floor. "I would not willingly harm anyone. Surely we can arrange things to keep my name out of it. All we have to do is avoid mentioning the company. That's all I ask. It was a natural event that destroyed Echo III. Had our ship not been there, nothing would have changed. I mean, it's not as if we caused it."

"Rachel knew of the impending collision, didn't she?"

"Yes. She knew the asteroid was going to hit. They all knew. It was the reason we timed the flight the way we did. But we thought it was a sterile world. Cavallero never really did the inspection. He was too busy. Too goddam busy.

"There was no electronic signature, nothing, so he just let it go. He wasn't supposed to do that. Under any circumstances. I'd written the job specifications very clearly." He swallowed and managed to look contrite and indignant at the same time. "So Rachel took her passengers to watch an asteroid strike. That's all it was supposed to be. We did that whenever the opportunity offered. Then Then she saw the cities. But it was too late. She couldn't have turned the asteroid aside without putting her passengers in grave danger. I mean, she saw the cities. But it was too late. She couldn't have turned the asteroid aside without putting her passengers in grave danger. I mean, grave grave. She told me she doubted the ship could have survived. She would literally have had to try to push push the damned thing off course." He stopped, raised his hands in frustration. "Her first duty was to her passengers." the damned thing off course." He stopped, raised his hands in frustration. "Her first duty was to her passengers."

Alex was silent.

"Ever since that day," Korminov continued, "since that moment, she was torn. I don't think she ever had a decent night's sleep again." His lips quivered. "You think I don't know that? I did everything I could for her. But she was relentless. She blamed herself. The woman never got past it." His face was pale. "I didn't pursue the matter because it would have become public. It would have destroyed her. And you want to bring all this out now.

"I'd hoped you'd simply give up on it. I didn't know Tuttle had brought back an artifact. Never Never knew it until you started asking questions. But, Alex, please: Making all this public now does no one any good. You'll destroy Rachel's reputation. And you'll also ruin Cavallero. He hasn't had a very easy time either." He was breathing hard. "I'll make it worth your while." knew it until you started asking questions. But, Alex, please: Making all this public now does no one any good. You'll destroy Rachel's reputation. And you'll also ruin Cavallero. He hasn't had a very easy time either." He was breathing hard. "I'll make it worth your while."

Echo. Part 49

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Echo. Part 49 summary

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