Read The Precipice Online

Authors: Ben Bova

The Precipice (48 page)

Humphries nodded here and there, saying hello and making small talk as he made his way past the sideboard toward Pancho. He
glanced once out the long window above the sideboard and seemed almost to wince at the view of the sea out there. Then he
turned and came toward Pancho. Stopping a meter or so in front of her, Humphries looked Pancho up and down, the expression
on his face pretty close to a sneer.

“Do you honestly think we're going to allow a roughneck grease monkey to have a seat on this board?”

Suppressing an urge to punch him out, Pancho said tightly, “We'll see purty soon, won't we?”

“We certainly will.”

He was wearing his lifts, Pancho saw; still, Humphries was several centimeters shorter than she.

“What puzzles me,” she said looking down into his ice-gray eyes, “is how they can allow a convicted murderer t' stay on the
board.”

“I wasn't convicted of murder!” Humphries snapped, keeping his voice low.

Pancho made a small shrug. ‘They found you guilty of causin' Dan Randolph's death, didn't they?”

“I pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. That was the deal my lawyers set up for me.”

“Selene's court was way too easy on you. I would've hanged you. And not by the neck, either.”

“They made me divest my holdings in Starpower!” he snarled. “Made me turn over my one-third to them!”

“And Astro,” Pancho corrected. “You can still make money off Dan's dead body outta the profits Astro's gonna be pullin' in.”

“And they exiled me! Threw me out of Selene. Forbade me from returning for twenty years.” He glanced over his shoulder at
the view of the sea through the long sweeping window like a man looking back at something chasing him.

“You got off light,” said Pancho. “Dr. Cardenas got a life sentence. She'll never be allowed to work in her own nanolab again.”

“She was just as responsible for his death as I was. And so are you, for that matter.”

“Me?”

“You were the captain of the vessel. You could have turned back once you realized the radiation shield was failing.”

“Thanks to you.”

Humphries smirked at her. “If Randolph had brought a proper medical man aboard, if he hadn't taken the ship before the IAA
approved the flight—”

“That's right,” Pancho growled, “blame the victim for the crime.”

“You didn't even freeze him once he died. You didn't even try to.”

“Wouldn't have done any good,” Pancho said. “We couldn't've got his core temperature down quick enough.”

They had thought about it, she and Mandy and Fuchs. They had even considered putting Dan's body into a space-suit and dunking
him into one of the fuel tanks. But a quick calculation showed the cryogenic fuel would be used up by the time they reached
the Moon and Dan's body would thaw before they could transfer him to a proper dewar.

Humphries smiled slyly. “Or maybe you
wanted
him dead, so you could inherit from him?”

Pancho had her right fist cocked before she realized it. Humphries threw his hands up and scuttled several steps back from
her. Everything stopped. The board room went absolutely quiet. All faces turned toward them.

With a deep, deliberate breath, Pancho put her hand down. Humphries straightened up, looking sheepish. The other directors
turned back to their own conversations, trying to pretend that nothing had happened.

Scowling angrily, Humphries walked away from her. Pancho saw that most of the directors moved out of his way as he approached
the sideboard. As if they didn't want to be close enough to touch him or even have him breathe on them.

“I think we'd better start the meeting,” said a petite red-haired woman in a forest-green skirted suit.

The directors went to the long polished table in the middle of the room and began to take their chairs. Pancho watched uncertainly
for a moment, then saw that two chairs were unoccupied: one at the head of the table and another at its foot. Remembering
her childhood bible classes, she took the lowest chair. The redhead sat to the right of the empty chair at the table's head;
Humphries sat opposite her, his back to the window.

Everyone looked around, as if wondering what to do next. The redhead slowly got to her feet.

“For those of you who don't know me,” she said, looking down the table toward Pancho, “my name is Harriet O'Banian. As vice-chair
for the board, I guess I'll have to run this meeting until a new chairperson is elected.”

They all nodded. Pancho saw that a small display screen was built into the gleaming surface of the table in front of each
place. It showed an abbreviated agenda.

“I'm going to dispense with the usual formalities,” O'Banian said, “and proceed directly to—”

“May I interrupt?” Humphries asked, holding up his hand like a schoolboy.

O'Banian murmured, “Of course.”

Rising to his feet, Humphries said earnestly, “I wasn't able to attend the emergency meeting of the board that was called
when news of Dan Randolph's unfortunate death was revealed.”

Unfortunate? Pancho snarled inwardly.

“You all know that his death was partially my own fault. I played too rough, and I've seen the consequences. Please believe
me, I never wanted to have Dan die.”

The hell you didn't, Pancho said to herself. Looking along the table, though, she was shocked at the sympathetic expressions
on many of the directors' faces.

“My real crime,” Humphries went on, “was wanting to run Astro Corporation. And I let that ambition override my common sense.
I saw Dan driving this fine organization into bankruptcy, and I knew that I could do better.”

He stopped, hung his head for a moment. Pancho thought, The sumbitch should've been an actor.

“I'm truly sorry that Dan is dead. I feel a great weight of responsibility for it, even though that is not what I intended.
I'll pay the price for my mistake for the rest of my life.”

Pancho could barely keep herself from throwing something at him. But the other directors seemed calm, accepting.

Humphries wasn't through. “I know we can pull Astro through its current crisis. Despite Dan's unfortunate death, the mission
to the Asteroid Belt was actually a success. Star-power Limited now has rights to two asteroids that are worth several trillion
international dollars on today's commodities markets. And Astro, of course, owns one third of Starpower.”

“One half,” Pancho snapped.

Humphries stared at her for a long, speechless moment. “One half,” he admitted at last. “That's right. Astro now owns half
of Starpower.”

“And Selene owns the other half,” said Pancho.

Humphries bristled. Pancho grinned at him, thinking, I hope you choke on the money you'll be makin'.

Hattie O'Banian broke the tension-filled silence. “Thank you, Mr. Humphries. At this time, before we go on to the regular
agenda, I would like to welcome Ms. Priscilla Lane to the board.”

Pancho watched Humphries raise an eyebrow. Immediately, the oriental woman, sitting across the table from him, said, “Ms.
Lane hasn't yet been elected to the board.”

“I'm sure we can do that by acclamation,” O'Banian said. “After all, Dan specifically—”

“It's customary to vote on a new member,” said a florid-faced man with a full gray beard sitting a few chairs down from Humphries.
“After all, a position on the board isn't hereditary,” the florid man grumbled. He reminded Pancho of Santa Claus, except
that he was nowhere near being jolly. “You can't inherit board membership just because a dying man willed it to you.”

Pancho understood the implication. Cripes, they think I was sleepin' with Dan and that's why he named me to the board.

O'Banian looked displeased. “Very well, then. In that case, I believe we should allow Ms. Lane to say a few words about herself.”

All faces turned toward Pancho. Thinking furiously, she got slowly to her feet.

In her mind she heard Dan telling her,
My personnel people think you're a flake, Poncho. The rap on you is that you ‘re not serious.
She knew that each member of the board had seen her personnel file. Okay, Pancho, she said to herself, time to grow up and
start bein' serious. You're in the big leagues now. You gotta show them your best.

She took a deep breath, then started, “I was just as surprised as any Of you when Dan Randolph said he wanted me to take his
place on this board. I'm an engineer and pilot, not
a banker or a lawyer. But Dan said the board needed some fresh blood, and he picked me. So here I am.”

Surveying the men and women watching her, Pancho went on, “I think I know why Dan wanted me here—and it wasn't for my good
looks, either.”

A few chuckles. O'Banian smiled broadly.

“With all due respect to you, I think this board could use somebody who has some practical experience in Astro's activities.
Dan sure did, but I don't think any of you have been involved in the company's actual operations. I've been flyin' Astro spacecraft
for nearly seven years now. I've been out to the Belt and back. That's where our best chance of makin' real profits lies:
out in the Belt. I know what it takes to get the job done. I think I can help this board to make the right decisions as we
start to tap the resources of all those asteroids. Thank you.”

She sat down. No one applauded. Humphries gave her a hard stare, then swept his eyes along the table, trying to fathom the
opinions of the other directors.

“Oh, one more thing,” Pancho said, without getting up from her chair. “If you do elect me to the board, I intend to vote for
Ms. O'Banian as the new chairman.”

Now Humphries scowled openly.

O'Banian said, “Very well. Let's vote, shall we? All in favor of Ms. Lane, raise your hands.”

Two hours later, as the meeting broke up, Humphries accosted Pancho.

“Well, now you're a board member,” he said “By the margin of two votes.”

“And Ms. O'Banian is the chairman of the board.”

Humphries scoffed, “Do you think that's going to stop me from taking control of Astro?”

“It won't stop you from tryin', I know that.”

“I'll get Astro,” he said firmly. “And Starpower, too, eventually.”

“Maybe,” said Pancho. “And maybe not.”

He laughed at her.

“lissen, Humpy,” Pancho growled. “I don't give a shit how your lawyers wiggled you out of it, you killed Dan Randolph. I'm
gonna make sure that he haunts you for the rest of your natural days.”

“I don't believe in ghosts,” said Humphries.

Now Pancho laughed. “You will, Humpy. You surely will.”

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