Chapter 2: Steering Committee Rallies

Camille’s true feelings lay safely hidden as she strode down the hallway toward the conference room. Her flawlessly maintained veneer of confidence carefully hid her true feelings. She had not become one of the world’s richest and most influential women by coddling weak emotions, and certainly not by allowing them to be detected on the rare occasion that they did dog her. After 6,000 years of practice, her veneer was so perfect that even Stan would only detect her real feelings if he bothered to use his link-related abilities.

She preferred that he not discover her secret; she wasn’t in the mood for a reprimand today. Nevertheless, she knew he would never pass it along if he did, not because of brotherly affection or friendship, but for self-preservation. In a building full of rivals, their positions were only secure as long as they stood together. Or appeared to, at least.

Camille’s passing was generally marked by polite nods, deferential greetings, and even the occasional bow. Today, however, those who knew her best scurried out of her way and became invisible, for her eyes currently matched the color of her gray business suit. But she rather liked such a reaction. Much better that her employees should think she was angry than that they should know how worried she was.

Her inner critic added, Or should guess the truth: that you’re downright scared.

The word startled her and caused her to slip. She caught herself from falling and then stopped to cast an accusing glare at the green tiles under her feet.

“I’m so sorry, ma’am,” said the closest secretary. Picking up her phone, she added, “I’ll have housekeeping come right up and clean the slippery spot.”

Camille nodded. She took one careful step sideways—away from the perfectly clean floor—before continuing on her way.

When she entered the conference room, the men scrambled to their feet in respect and the pre-meeting chatter stopped. Camille was accustomed to such treatment, especially in this building. But today, as she looked around the room at the assembled members of the Steering Committee, an unwelcome realization hit her: They’re all dying. Their destiny wouldn’t ordinarily concern her; in this case, however, her fate was bound up with theirs.

“Be seated, gentlemen,” she said. Turning to the front of the room where one executive was connecting his computer to the projector, she asked, “Is all ready, Darren?”

“Yes, ma’am. I added the other slide we discussed.”

“Excellent.” At least that portion of the meeting should go well. She had been watching Darren for some time and had just promoted him a month ago. He was a gifted public speaker and well versed in this research. He should do well at his assignment: presenting the basic problem.

©iStock.com/Peshkova

©iStock.com/Peshkova

Seeing that her brother hadn’t yet arrived, Camille strode to the floor-to-ceiling window to gaze down on Manhattan. She knew when her brother arrived, not by the hush that fell over the room, but through the link. The same sense also alerted her that he was already annoyed and impatient. That meant that she would not only need to bring this group around, but would have to control the great Stanley L. Moden in a foul mood too. Were there any other miracles that need performing today?

She turned from the window to take her seat on Stan’s right. He murmured, “You reviewed the slides?”

“I have. All is ready.” She carefully avoided his eyes. By now, Stan would have brought his worries under control. He had a plan, and he had supreme confidence in his ability to convince the others to follow it. He would consider her lingering doubts to be a sign of weakness. And he hated weakness even more than she did.

Although Stan did not reply, she could feel his eyes on her bowed head as she reviewed some data. When she said no more, she felt a wave of frustration emanate from him and wondered why. Perhaps he had not yet shaken off the friendly feelings induced by their mind-link yesterday.

Or … he was looking for an excuse to reprimand her.

Well, good luck, elder brother. I won’t be giving you the chance. Not today.

Stan called the meeting to order, and clicked through the routine items. “Now, let’s turn to the most important matter on our agenda. Darren will present the basic problem for us.” He motioned Darren to the lectern.

“Y-y-yes, sir,” Darren said.

Camille’s eyes narrowed. Darren had never stuttered before. And he’d picked today to let his nerves get away from him? In front of Stan, no less? Not that he would be the first to lose his composure in her brother’s presence. He could have that effect on people.

Darren proceeded to the lectern, but then he just stood there, shuffling and reshuffling his notes. Camille felt Stan’s annoyance growing and hazarded a glance at him. The pinkish scar that traced part of his left cheekbone was turning a brighter color of red.

When Darren finally began, he ruined his promising future in one sentence: “The effects of the Viv fruit are deteriorating at a dangerous rate, Mister Moden, and—”

Even a stranger would have known something had gone very wrong. A loud silence descended on the room, and most of the executives simultaneously snatched their coffee cups from the table.

Stan jumped to his feet and roared in a British accent, “How dare you!” He slammed his fist, backed by 310 pounds of muscle, onto the conference table, splashing coffee from any cups still there. “I hold doctorates in biochemistry and sociology as well as a JD, and you dare put me on par with yourself by calling me mister?”

“I’m sorry, Doctor Moden,” Darren said quickly. “I—”

“Out!” Stan ordered. “You’re reassigned to the mailroom!”

“Sir, please …”

Camille tuned out Darren’s groveling, knowing his pleas would be useless. Boring too. Besides, she had a more urgent concern. She didn’t need any special link to know how angry Stan was right now. The whole organization knew to stay clear when his accent reappeared. This level of anger wouldn’t be appeased with one victim. It would need another: the individual who promoted Darren. And neither her position as Stan’s partner nor as his sister would protect her.

But Camille had enough to worry about at the moment, and she certainly wasn’t in the mood for any of Stan’s discipline. She needed a fall guy. So as Darren whined, she scanned the two dozen or so faces in the room. It took her only a few moments to identify her chosen whipping boy.

“… plus a month of scrubbing latrines for arguing!” Stan was yelling. “Or I’ll send you to Dr. Desmon for correction, shall I?”

Camille, who had only been half-listening, was suddenly alert. Nothing like a little correction to improve her day.

“No!” Darren exclaimed, his eyes wide. “I mean, no, sir—please. I’ll … I-I’m going.” He quickly gathered his notes and Camille motioned for him to pass them to her. When his fawn-colored eyes, rich in yellow overtones, fell on her, they reminded her of eggs fried sunny-side up, all soft and jiggly. Why hadn’t she noticed that before?

As the door closed behind Darren, Stan sat down and turned his gaze on Camille, who busied herself with Darren’s notes. “Dr. Desmon, who’s responsible for admitting that donkey into this elite group?”

Still avoiding Stan’s gaze, Camille lifted her head only to nod toward an executive farther down the table. “Tony promoted him last month,” she lied smoothly.

Tony’s turquoise eyes widened slightly in surprise, but that didn’t worry Camille. Tony knew how things were done. He would take her punishment now; she would fast-track him to promotion later. Common practice. And she had a very strong inkling that their current Vice President of Marketing wouldn’t last long.

Stan hesitated. “Did you say Tony, Dr. Desmon?”

“Yes, sir,” Camille had returned her gaze to Darren’s notes.

“Dr. Desmon?” he pressed.

Camille stubbornly pretended ignorance. Turning a page, she said, “Yes, sir?”

“Camille,” he growled.

He wasn’t going to let it go, was he? And now he was just getting angrier. There was nothing else to do. She’d have to look at him—giving him unrestricted access to all of her emotions through his link—and take whatever came of it.

If there was any doubt about this, she felt Stan’s best friend, Garrick Sondem, who sat directly across from her, tap her foot with his. A silent warning.

Camille summoned up every ounce of courage, even defiance, in the hope that it would disguise her shameful fear—er, worry. She lifted her gaze to flash Garrick a quick how-dare-you look, and then turned to meet Stan’s piercing emerald eyes.

When she did, an amazing thing happened: Stan … calmed down!

At first, Camille didn’t understand. Stan loathed weakness. He punished weakness. Severely. Yet, even though she knew he was sensing her true mood, he wasn’t angered. He was soothed. As she reevaluated his emotions, she realized she’d only picked up his surface feelings earlier. Her own anxiety had prevented her from probing completely. Now she understood that he was just as worried as she was about the potential for failure at this meeting; furthermore, he felt comforted in knowing that she understood the seriousness of their situation too.

Stan Moden under control; one miracle down.

He turned to Tony. “Tony, was it?” His accent was already fading. Tony would get off easy.

“Yes, sir, Dr. Moden.” Tony bowed his head, his blond curls bobbing, as he pretended remorse. “I’ll be more careful next time.”

“I’m sure you will.” Stan’s chair groaned as he sat back and tapped his steepled fingers together. “You have a vacation to Bermuda planned next month, don’t you?”

Tony lifted his head. “Yes, sir,” he said slowly. An expensive, pre-paid and non-refundable vacation. Tony’s first vacation in eight years.

Stan smirked. “Not anymore.”

Tony’s face fell. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

“You’re welcome,” Stan said. “Now let’s get back to our problem. Dr. Desmon, will you fill in please?”

“Certainly, sir.” Camille strode to the lectern and, like the experienced speaker she was, began confidently. “The effects of the Viv fruit are deteriorating at a dangerous rate, Doctor Moden.”

Stan chuckled. “Already a more credible presentation.” Laughter peppered the room and relaxed the tension left after the Darren incident.

As Camille presented the problem, a stillness wrought of more ominous emotions than her listeners’ respect for her fell over the group. It remained steady until her summary: “And so, the Viv effects will fail completely”—she swallowed hard, still having trouble with the idea herself—“by approximately 8055 M. E. In other words, we have a half century.”

Bedlam ensued. Panicked executives jumped to their feet, shouting and blaming one another for the problem. Two men started punching each other and others joined in. One woman had her hands around another’s throat. It was all rather unfriendly.

This was exactly what Camille had feared. These people needed to be informed; how else could they deal with the problem? But if they panicked, they would get nothing done.

Garrick, the company’s Director of Security, blew a shrill whistle through his teeth, pulled a gun from his shoulder holster, and swept the room with it. The others instantly quieted. Smoothing down their expensive suits, they retook their seats—some sheepishly, some angrily.

Once the others were seated, Stan silently stood and buttoned his very fine, custom-made jacket. His movements were deliberate and slow, so slow as to be maddening. Still, Camille was unspeakably relieved. Stan had a way with groups, and she was all too ready to let him have this one. She had seen him turn frightened mobs into coordinated, energetic teams—or vice versa, if he preferred.

Jacket buttoned, Stan strolled to the lectern, which she gladly surrendered in favor of a place a few paces to his left. He made a full visual sweep of the quiet room, meeting each pair of eyes in turn before speaking. Those who had reacted to Garrick’s form of control with an element of defiance assumed more cooperative expressions under Stan’s gaze.

At last he spoke. “Thank you, Dr. Sondem.”

Garrick nodded, holstered his gun, and sat down.

“And thank you, Dr. Desmon,” Stan continued, “for an excellent presentation of the facts.” He turned to kiss her on the cheek, which evoked murmurs of approval from the others.

Turning back to the group, Stan said, “Friends, this is nowhere near a lost cause.” He used a calm, confident tone that was settling in itself, even though Camille’s link-sense told her it wasn’t how he felt. “We already have the majority of outlander support. We will overcome Damour! We will regain the island!”

Quiet murmuring began, the tone supportive, and Stan built on this as he told them of their revised Global Strategic Plan. “Maybe we don’t have as much time as we thought,” Stan continued. “But this plan is foolproof. Through our two-pronged approach of company management and entity management, we’ve not only rallied the overwhelming majority of outlanders to our side, but thwarted Damour’s efforts to train new supporters by sabotaging his race. All we need is a little more energy, more manpower. We need those previously trained as agents to reenlist in the management work. We need new applicants to fortify our teams. We need to get out there”—he pointed emphatically to the door—“and light a fire under our apathetic colleagues!”

He leaned forward, both hands on the table. “You in this room are the best, the chosen few. You’re here because you’ve shown yourselves worthy of challenges like this. This is no different from the other problems we’ve been through, and the same plan that’s brought us success in the past will bring us success this time.”

Camille marveled at the energy in the murmuring that followed. As Stan waited for quiet to settle over the group again, he turned to her and whispered in her ear, “We’ll get through this … together.” He winked.

Camille nodded, understanding his intention.

Stan turned back to the quieted group. “Our time is short, our mission clear. Let’s finish this and go home.” He reached for Camille’s hand and lifted it into the air. In unison the siblings exclaimed, “Together!”

Camille couldn’t have hoped for a better reaction. The room exploded with applause and cheers, and then settled in to chant, “To-GE-ther, to-GE-ther, to-GE-ther …”

Well, what do you know? Miracle number two.

Garrick opened the door, allowing the chant to spill out onto the top floor. Those outside the room immediately recognized the old rallying call and took it up, engaging intercoms to send it throughout Desmon Tower to be taken up by thousands more. Within minutes, the whole building seemed to shake with the message, “To-GE-ther, to-GE-ther, to-GE-ther,” and with the promise of victory it embodied.

The minions didn’t yet know what the crisis was, but they were energized to do whatever Stan and Camille needed from them. Over the next few days, the members of the Steering Committee came through like the champions they were and mobilized those underlings into an army of reinforcements for the fight ahead.

Yes, the end was near, but Moden Industries was ready.

Now the rest of the world needed a miracle of their own. Would the other side recognize their danger and rally too?

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