Jaxina Botterbur was 1.2 trillion credits richer this week than last week, but she was neither ecstatic nor celebrating the prospect of a life of luxury. In fact, if she hadn't been standing in front of an unpleasant little man from the government, she would have been behind locked doors crying her eyes out.
"Times are changing, miss." The unpleasant little man smiled disingenuously in an attempt to be less unpleasant. The effort backfired thoroughly. "The United Coalition has given you fair warning of its ruling"
"Fair warning!" Jaxina's slender body shook as she restrained herself from choking the man with his own suit collar. "My father passed away just last week, leaving me his entire company and all of his property to manage. No one said anything to me about some government takeover!"
"Perhaps you should check your father's business correspondence." The man fussed with his collar as if subconsciously feeling what she wanted to do to him. "We notified him weeks ago."
"Perhaps you didn't hear me!" Jaxina's fists trembled at her sides. "My father . . . just died."
"Leaving you in possession of one of the largest mega-thruster manufacturing companies in known space." For all his reaction, she might as well have told him that the weather was unseasonably pleasant. Actually, that may have gained more reaction, given that the moon they were on, Temptura, had no weather. "Hence why we"
"The largest," Jaxina corrected sharply. "And any decent person would have expressed at least a moment of sympathy at the news of a recent death."
"Of course we are sorry for your loss." The man didn't even have the courtesy to make the lie convincing. "However, the matter at hand is an important one."
Jaxina gave up trying to squeeze any human decency out of the unpleasant little man. She had a better chance of wringing milk out of a chicken. "So you think you can waltz into my daddy's office and lay claim to his life's work?"
"That's an extreme exaggeration." He actually had the gall to sound reproachful. "We are just installing an oversight division within your corporate structure. As BottCo is one of the largest"
"The largest." Jaxina's voice turned to ice.
"mega-thruster manufacturers in known space, the United Coalition feels government supervision is a necessary prudency." The man cleared his throat importantly. "Given the size of BottCo, its market, and its revenue, it is in the people's best interests to ensure that it is properly regulated and safeguarded from failure."
"Failure?" Jaxina stabbed the man with a gaze that made him tug at his collar again. "Did you really just praise and slander BottCo's revenues in one breath? Since when has BottCo ever showed signs of failing? My daddy created this industry, and BottCo has been the unshakable industry leader ever since! BottCo has never once spent more than it earned in the same year, something which the United Coalition hasn't once achieved. You people have some nerve thinking you are even qualified to oversee a business!"
The unpleasant little man acted as if she had said nothing at all. "As you are an upstanding citizen, I know you will wish to comply with the ruling for the good of all. Here is the necessary paperwork for you to review and sign."
He handed her a single sheet of paper, and for a moment she was stunned. For such an action to require only one page of legalese, that one page must be incredibly efficient, a trait she had never seen attributed to any effort of the government. Then she saw it was only a receipt certifying that she had received parts one through four of a shipment.
As if on cue, the office door opened, and a postal worker ushered in a hover cart laden with four fat boxes. He heaved them one by one onto the floor next to the desk, each box thudding solidly onto of the next.
Jaxina stared at the boxes, paralyzed as she tried to estimate how many pages they contained.
"Good day, miss." The absurdity of the comment hung heavy in the air long after the unpleasant little man vacated the office.
Jaxina rubbed her face. Her father's death, the funeral, the burdensome process of assuming the company, and now this. A lesser woman would have crumbled by this point, but that gave her no solace.
She slumped into her father's chair. What would he have done?
This thought reminded her that the man had told her to check her father's business correspondence. As loathe as she was to do anything the man suggested, she was curious. If her father had received warning of this, perhaps he had already been doing something about it. It wasn't like him to ignore a threat to his company.
She pressed her thumb against the glass surface of the desk. It confirmed her thumbprint, and then it glowed to life, displaying everything her father had last been working on. With a gentle tap of her finger, she pulled up his message center and scanned over the last few weeks of his communications.
It took her a while to find, but there it was. An unobtrusive notice sent from the United Coalition's Economic Stability Control Board. The UCESCB announced that a certain ruling had been reached concerning BottCo, and it included assorted official-looking numbers referring to various confusing legal codes. She tried to read several of them, but every time she examined them, they seemed to evade actual meaning. They could have been interpreted countless ways, each contradicting the last.
Disgusted, she gave up. She knew the legalese was written to be intentionally confusing, so that lawyers and politicians could make it mean whatever suited their purposes at the time.
She searched the messages her father had sent after that, but he had neither replied to it nor mentioned the notice to anyone. Instead, the bulk of his attention seemed to be upon the latest design of mega-thruster and the results of the prototype tests. In all fairness, the design and results were considerably more interesting than legalese, but still, a few clues as to how he had intended to deal with the matter would have been nice.
When she finally broke away from her father's messages, thinking that fetching a cup of coffee might give her bedraggled soul new life, she looked up to find just such a steaming cup in the middle of the doorway.
More accurately, it was being held by the pale hands of Belldori, her father's secretary. Peering anxiously over the top of her head stood Toff, BottCo's operations manager. Belldori cleared her throat nervously. "Coffee, Miss Botterbur?"
"Please! Yes. Thank you." Jaxina took the cup wearily when Belldori stepped in to place it lightly upon the desk. She sipped at it gratefully, letting her mind focus upon the warmth and flavor of the drink for a moment.
When she looked up, Belldori and Toff were still standing there. She waited expectantly.
"Is it true?" Belldori whispered. "The ruling . . . ?"
"Companies never survive oversight divisions," Toff added. "Sooner or later, the extra expense and red tape drives the morale and profits right out of the best of companies. Then, when the companies are failing, the UCESCB uses the opportunity to 'save' them with a generous loan, under the agreement that the UCESCB has all but full control and ownership. It'll ruin us!"
"What will we do?" Belldori wrung her hands, which were becoming even more pale, if possible.
Jaxina stared back at them unhappily. She had no words of hope to give. What's more, she felt her burdens bear even more heavily upon her shoulders. BottCo employed more than a thousand peoplemost of the population of the tiny moon. They all depended upon her, even the residents of Temptura who weren't directly employed by BottCo relied upon her, as their own stores and services would be put out of business if BottCo's employees packed up and sought work elsewhere.
"What's all this?" Belldori broke the uncomfortable silence, pointing to the boxes.
"About a year's worth of work," Jaxina estimated with a sigh. "UCESCB paperwork for me to sign."
Belldori's face fell, and Toff grimaced, but the secretary put on a brave smile. "I'll help you go through it, Miss Botterbur. I'm good at paperwork. I'll tab everywhere you need to sign, so it'll go faster."
"Thanks, but I can't just sign everything blindly. I have to look over every sheet. I don't trust a word of it." The cup in Jaxina's hands rattled against the glass desktop, and she realized her hands were clenched so hard around the cup that she was about to break it. She forced her grip to ease up.
"I'll help with that," Toff offered quickly. "As operations manager, I need to know what's in those documents more than anyone else here. I'll call in Harding, too. He's BottCo's corporate lawyer, and your dad trusted him to make sense of everything like this."
"Thanks." Jaxina smiled appreciatively. She still saw no hope in the situation, but it helped to have friends shouldering the burden with her.
. . .
"Iblankhereby agree to the aforementioned conditions . . ." Jaxina read from one document that Belldori had tagged for signing. "I do not agree!"
"But you have no choice but to sign them. Is there no end to this garbage?" Belldori sighed despairingly. Jaxina couldn't blame the hapless secretary for complaining. They were all crowded around her father's desk in the most comfortable chairs they could find, but they were still tired and stiff from sitting there for the last seven hours.
Belldori squinted at another form as if it were giving her a headache. "What are they even saying? I can't read this gibberish."
"Here, let me see. Harding can't get here until next week, but I have some understanding of legalese." Toff took the paper, reaching over the growing clutter of disposable coffee cups that littered the desk. He pointed at the top of the page. "See here? It is a waiver for damages incurred."
Belldori chewed at the ends of her hair, frowning. It wasn't a normal habit for the crisply kempt woman. It had developed halfway through the day. Again, Jaxina couldn't blame her. Toff had taken to tapping his fingers on the desk, and Jaxina had nibbled her own fingernails into a state that would have given a manicurist nightmares.
Toff noticed Belldori staring at one word in particular. "Indemnify means that we can't hold them liable for this following part, 'damages of a financial nature or any other nature resulting from or perceived to be resulting from actions of the UCESCB Oversight Division during the course of their duties.' Gee, that's reassuring."
Belldori blinked at him. "What's that all mean?"
Jaxina smacked her fist against the desk. "It means when they undermine our business and profits, we can't hold them responsible!"
"That's not fair!" Belldori pouted, visibly unsettled.
"Since when has the United Coalition ever been fair?" Toff muttered softly. He patted her hand, then caught himself and pulled his hand away awkwardly.
"Iblankagree to hold harmless . . ." Ignoring the sudden color in Belldori's previously pale cheeks, Jaxina had grabbed another form and read from it aloud. She caught up a third. "Iblankfully agree to cooperate with . . ."
Toff noticed her sudden interest and agitation. "What is it, Miss Botterbur?"
"They want me to agree to all of this!" Jaxina waved at the stacks of paper.
"Well, yes. That is the point of it." Toff frowned.
"Those slimy snots!" Jaxina brushed paper and empty cups aside so she could access her father's computer. She pulled up the notice of the UCESCB ruling and read it again. "The United Coalition's Economic Stability Control Board, out of concern forblah, blahdoes rule with the following codesblah, blahthat BottCo receive special attention from the department in chargeblah, blah. Ha!"
Toff and Belldori stared at her as if she were crazy. Maybe it had something to do with the caffeine-driven, predatory grin on Jaxina's face.
. . .
"I'm returning your papers," Jaxina told the unpleasant little man when he reappeared several days later.
He said nothing for a moment, glancing between her and the four boxes. "That was . . . fast."
"I had plenty of time to look them over to my satisfaction." Jaxina shrugged indifferently. "I figured you'd want them back as soon as possible."
"Yes, of course. . . ." The man suspiciously opened the top boxes and rifled through a few papers. "These aren't signed."
"As I said, I looked them over. I signed all the agreement forms I was willing to agree with." Jaxina sat back, crossing her arms. "Which was none of them."
"But, you have to sign them!" The man puffed up his chest angrily. "The United Coalition made a ruling and you have to comply!"
"I am complying with the ruling." Jaxina pulled up the notice yet again and read it to him word for word. She shrugged again. "This just says BottCo must receive special attention. The codes cited here say the United Coalition has the right to advise large companies on their business handlings when deemed necessary by the UCESCB. Nothing about the installation of an oversight division. All this paperwork? It is asking me to agree. I have to sign it before it can take effect, and since I don't agree, that would be lying to the Coalition."
"But" The little man wheezed indignantly. "That's not You can't do that!"
"I know." Jaxina nodded gravely, intentionally misunderstanding him. She widened her eyes in mock horror. "Isn't that something tantamount to perjury? I wouldn't dare sign my name to an untrue statement."
"You have to sign these documents!"
"It doesn't say that anywhere." Jaxina made a show of looking over the notice again. "Nope. But we are willing to 'receive special attention'. Would you like a tour? Perhaps our quarterly earnings? Our last press release?"
She stood up and held the door open for him. She leaned into the reception office outside. "Belldori, would you have someone deliver these boxes to the UCESCB right away?"
"Of course, Miss Botterbur." Belldori's large green eyes peered anxiously inside Jaxina's office, as if she had expected the unpleasant little man to have eaten Jaxina alive by that time.
"I wouldn't want to keep them waiting." Jaxina ushered the man out. "Really, I do suggest the last press release. Our latest mega-thruster is phenomenal, if I do say so myself. The shipping barge manufacturers won't be able to make a barge big enough to make our thrusters even work hard. One thruster could propel three superbarges without even trying!"
Jaxina waved cheerily as the man stalked out of the reception area. She turned to wink at Belldori and noticed that Toff had appeared from somewhere. Both of them stared at her with something like awe.
. . .
In the following two weeks, Jaxina was surprised to find how quickly word of her standing up to the United Coalition spread through the ranks of BottCo's employees. She suspected Toff and Belldori were at the bottom of the stories, some of which were a little exaggerated.
She had sent the unpleasant little man packing, but she had not threatened to choke him with his suit collar, even if she had wanted to. She had sent the paperwork back unsigned, but she had not sent it with a letter that invoked age-old words of freedom and justice and the general air of "you'll never take us alive". Some of the stories were so good, she wished she'd thought of doing some of the things described.
Regardless, everyone smiled at her in the hallways and in the labs. No matter how busy the mechanics were laboring or the engineers were calculating, they all seemed to have the time to greet her cheerily and bid her a good day. It pleased her. She had been stressed, grieving, and backed into a corner, but she had come out on top. She had been able to do something for all these people that had helped make BottCo the best in the business. Her father, she was certain, would be proud of her.
So it was that she happened to be sitting behind her father's desk, sipping her morning coffee and in a good mood, when Belldori's voice interrupted her from the intercom.
"Miss Botterbur . . . ?" Belldori's gulp was audible.
Jaxina sat up sharply at the secretary's tone. "What is it?"
"Someone is here to see you." Belldori took a breath before continuing. "It's the man from the UCESCB."
Jaxina's good mood evaporated, leaving only dread in its place. She had thought she'd won this battle. What did he want now? But something made her remember the hero's reputation now surrounding her, and she kept her voice calm and confident for Belldori's benefit. "Send him in."
The unpleasant little man was, if possible, more unpleasant than before. For one thing, he had a triumphant light in his eyes that made Jaxina nervous. Had he found some dusty code that would force her to sign those infernal papers?
"Good day, Miss Botterbur." He sounded as if he thought it was a very good day indeed, which only furthered Jaxina's anxiety.
"Morning," Jaxina answered stiffly, trying to keep her hands from knotting together. "What brings you here? Not more paperwork, I hope."
"In a manner of speaking." He held out a single sheet of paper. "Nothing you have to sign, at any rate."
Jaxina took the paper with misgivings, and when she read the officious document, she leaped out of her chair. "Evicted? You can't 'evict' BottCo! This is our facility and our land!"
"Is that so?" The unpleasant little man shot her his unpleasant little smile. "You have no deeds on file."
Thanks to her father telling her bedtime stories of how BottCo had been founded, Jaxina knew the statement was accurate, and she also knew why. "That's because my daddy settled this moon singlehanded. No one had claimed it before he landed here. It is his, by all rights. He passed everything to me in his will, so every inch of Temptura belongs to me."
"Not according to official records. Anything in Corta's orbit belongs within Corta's territory, and thus belongs to the United Coalition."
Jaxina processed that information with a sinking feeling. Corta was the planet around which Temptura orbited, and the United Coalition was the sole government of said planet and all of its moons. Temptura was the only one to have been settled and developed by a single, private citizenher fathermost likely because it was the smallest of the five moons by far. Being little more than ten miles in diameter, it had no atmosphere, no valuable resources, and it had required the installation of a gravity generator just to make living and working on it possible. Her father had been the only man to see value in the airless rock, and as such, no one had contested his claims.
"So, in fact, BottCo and all inhabitants of Temptura are not authorized to be here. They are, in layman's terms, squatters." The man cleared his throat officiously. "It also means everything built here was built illegally, and all property and profits created therewith will be confiscated."
"Confiscated." Jaxina said the word numbly, not believing what she was hearing. "You can't just 'confiscate' a manufacturing plant that covers three square miles. You can't just 'evict' over one thousand people from their homes and workplaces!"
"I cannot." The man smiled. "But the UCESCB will be sending a taskforce to take control here in one week. Some of the workers will be permitted to stay, and the facility will continue to operateunder our control."
Jaxina clenched her fists and gritted her teeth. This wasn't about deeds or codes or economic stability. This was about power. It was about seizing BottCo, regardless of the excuses necessary to do so. Come to think of it, she had heard rumors of similar things happening to other large companies, but she had always thought them to be exaggerated tales told by bitter and corrupt corporate executives.
She took a deep breath and spitted him with a murderous gaze. "Get. Off. MY. Moon."
"I certainly intend to. My job here is done," the unpleasant little man said smugly. He turned back as he reached the door. "As is, I believe, yours also."
"Get out!" Jaxina snarled, repressing the urge to throw her coffee cup at him. "Belldori! Have security escort this man out. Get Toff in here. And Harding!"
Belldori nodded, shocked, and said nothing as she obeyed.
. . .
Ten minutes later, Jaxina, Toff, Belldori, and Harding crowded her father's office.
"Confiscated?" Belldori flinched at the word, unconsciously drawing closer to Toff in her horror. "They can't do that . . . can they?"
Everyone looked at Harding. The older man pushed his glasses up on his nose. "I'm afraid they can. I wish you had consulted me before you snubbed your nose at the UCESCB."
"You weren't available." Jaxina bit her lip. "If I had, what would you have told me to do?"
"Start a new BottCo on Romera." Romera was a planet in the same solar system but with an entirely different government. "Romera's politics are far friendlier to businesses. That's why UCESCB is trying so hard to take control of so many companies. They don't want those companies moving to Romera."
"If they're so concerned about businesses leaving, maybe they should change their laws!" Toff grumbled.
"That's not how governments think, I'm afraid." Harding sighed.
"Doesn't matter." Jaxina dropped into her chair and rubbed her face. "I looked over the financials. Daddy didn't leave me much in terms of money. Enough for me to live on, yes, but not enough for me to start BottCo all over again."
"He put almost all the profits back into the company." Harding nodded. "Which is why I would have advised that you dissolve BottCo, the facilities, and the property. You would have taken a loss, but you could have gotten enough money to start over."
"Dissolve BottCo?" Belldori shuddered, and Toff patted her shoulder.
"Dissolve BottCo?" Jaxina demanded.
"It would have worked." Harding shrugged. "You could have retained all of the employees who were willing to relocate. Granted, we would have had to start a little smaller than we started, but we would have been able to rebuild quickly in the more favorable climate of Romera."
"I see." Jaxina frowned. She saw the logic, but the idea of dissolving BottCo grated on her.
"However," Harding pointed out, "dissolving is no longer an option, what with the UCESCB coming to take over."
Jaxina hunched over the desk. "Then what do you suggest?"
"Take what money your father did leave you, find an investor on Romera, and start from scratch. As long as our best engineers are willing to come with you, you should be able to find someone willing to take a chance on you."
"But what about the rest of us?" Belldori cried. "This is our home. BottCo is our family! You can't just leave us behind, to work for these nasty UCESCB people!"
Jaxina lifted her head and glared at Harding. "You're asking me to accept defeat and let the UCESCB take everything Daddy ever worked for! He left it all to me, not for my happinessclearly!but rather because he trusted me to look after it. He wouldn't have given up so easily!"
"Well, Miss Botterbur, you asked for my counsel, and you have it." Harding didn't look any more pleased than she did. "The fact is, the laws do state that everything within Corta's orbit is their territory, and there is no official documentation that Temptura belongs to any private entity. We have no case. I'm sorry."
Jaxina held her head in her hands. It just didn't make sense. Why hadn't her father showed any signs of working on a solution to this mess? He had known this was coming, but he had stubbornly refused to be dislodged from his work.
She sighed and flipped through the plans for the latest prototype. The design was truly a feat of engineering. She had toured the fabrication shop to inspect the actual thing in person. Eight of it had been produced for testing, testing that had yielded incredible results. It would revolutionize the shipping industry. And now, it belonged to the UCESCB, where it would get trapped in a sea of red tape and poor business practice. It might never see the light of day.
She scanned over her father's messages for the thousandth time, trying to find hope, a clue, anything.
Then she sat bolt upright. "Harding, I have some business documents for you to work on. UCESCB isn't getting a thing."
"What about us?" Toff asked on behalf of himself and Belldori. "Is there anything we can do to help?"
Jaxina noticed how close Belldori was standing to Toff, and she smiled. "Yes. Take the rest of the day off. Go get some coffee together or something and have a nice time. Tomorrow, we have serious work to do."
"But what about BottCo?" Belldori asked. "What's going to happen?"
Jaxina shooed them out with a wave of her hand. "Get out of here. I have some calculations to run."
. . .
A week later, Jaxina, Toff, Belldori, and Harding sat around a Tempturan café table, eating lunch.
"How are things coming along?" Jaxina asked Harding.
"Very well. Very very well. I'd say more than a few shipping companies were impressed by our demonstration of the latest mega-thruster model."
"I've been flooded with messages requesting more information!" Belldori piped up happily. She suddenly looked worried. "Won't the UCESCB be awful ticked, though?"
"I'm sure they will!" Harding admitted, and then explained, "But the laws are specific. They only have jurisdiction over territory within Corta's orbit. They can't touch us."
"I just wish I had been there to see the faces of that UCESCB taskforce when they showed up to take over Temptura and found nothing but empty space." Toff grinned. "Corta's news couldn't stop babbling about how Temptura went from full moon to new moon overnight."
"Romera's news couldn't stop babbling about a new moon, either." Belldori giggled. "Think they'll let us stay?"
Harding nodded. "All I have to do is work out a few agreements with Romera and work up about a thousand transfers of citizenship."
"With all the excitement our new mega-thrusters have generated? I don't think we'll have any trouble." Jaxina winked. "I think our new slogan should be: Forget MountainsWe Move Moons!"