Have you ever heard the story of The Ugly Duckling? There was once a duckling so different from all the other ducklings around him that everyone laughed and pointed and made him ashamed even to be alone. His little life was one big chunk of misery until the day he looked around and discovered that he wasn't a duckling but a swan, and was far more beautiful and graceful than all those who had laughed at him so long. At that point he was supposed to live happily ever after, but that was the storyteller's opinion. If he'd asked the swan, the answer wouldn't have been quite that simple.
That deeply philosophical thought came to me along with my third drink, hardly an excessive number and certainly not for what those drinks consisted of, but I'd never been much of a drinker. Three was about two beyond my usual limit, but the festive atmosphere in the liner's decorated and brightly lit lounge had depressed me to the point of saying to hell with limits. I was going home, wasn't I, and not just going but invited? If that didn't call for a celebration, nothing did.
"Excuse me, but I'm afraid I just can't stand it any longer," a pleasant baritone voice said, causing me to look up. He was dressed in formal black and red, just as all the male liner passengers were, dark-haired and dark-eyed and very good-looking. The smile he gave me was an interested one, but I'd seen the same thing too many times before.
"I suppose I'm now supposed to ask what it is you can't stand any longer," I responded, looking up at him where he stood with very little enthusiasm. "A better idea would be for you to find someone else to play guessing games with."
"What I can't stand any longer is seeing a woman as beautiful as you sitting alone at a table," he said, pretending he hadn't heard anything else I'd said. "I've also asked the captain to introduce us, so there won't be any misunderstandings. I'm Quentin Darborough, and no beautiful woman has ever been sorry to be in my company. The captain will be over in a minute to explain just what that means."
"Tell him not to bother," I said with almost as much exasperation as I was feeling, raising my drink to sip from it. "Quentin Darborough, age twenty-seven, Chairman and guiding light of Mine Corporation, the proud parent of exactly twenty-seven subsidiary corporations, all run through the genius of the Mine Corp founder, the same Quentin Darborough. Tons of money and enough power to make gods drool, single and fanatically determined to stay that way, a devoted fan of the one-night stand. One of the seven most influential people in the Fourmin Cluster, and will be for another standard year plus some weeks. After that he'd better start practicing standing in free food lines. He's going to need to know how."
"I don't think I recognize the source of the end of that otherwise accurate bio sketch," Darborough said with a laugh of true amusement, pulling out one of the unoccupied chairs at my table and sitting down. "I'd appreciate your telling me where it came from so I can visit its author about a year and a half from now and laugh in his face."
"You'd have to laugh in her face," I said, disliking the way his eyes kept moving over me. "The author of the quote is Regan Edolin, founder and guiding light of Ugly Duckling Enterprises. And as long as the laughter doesn't turn hysterical or maudlin, feel free."
"Regan Edolin," he repeated, no longer quite as amused as he had been, his dark eyes finally looking for more than cleavage. "Ugly Duckling took over its fifteenth failing corporation last year, and another year or so should see it totally out of the red, just like all the others. But you can't be Regan Edolin, word is she's a much older woman. Next to you, even I look like a grizzled veteran."
"You point up your age with an acquisition for every year you've lived, I play my age down," I shrugged. "Being a young genius is fine if you're male, deadly to business if you're female. I don't believe in doing things that are bad for business."
"So everyone in the Cluster has noticed," he said with another delighted laugh, leaning back to let a waiter put a drink in front of him. "Of those seven most influential people you just mentioned, you must be number eight by now."
"Nine," I corrected, "but I'm in no hurry. And don't you think you're making yourself a little too comfortable for someone who's about to leave?"
"My dear girl, I wouldn't think of leaving," he grinned, raising his glass without looking at it. "I was attracted earlier, but now I'm absolutely enthralled. I've never before met such a beautiful woman who was also almost my equal in business. If you really are Regan Edolin."
"I'll get the captain to introduce us," I offered, then flinched as the music got momentarily louder just before a burst of raucous laughter. "And I'm not your equal in business, I'm your superior. When you come to laugh a year and a half from now, try remembering where you heard that first."
"You really are delightful," he said with almost pure condescension, leaning forward to rest his forearms on the table, his grin still going strong. "You seem to know exactly what I have and what I've done, but you still persist in seeing me as ruined in little more than a year. You can't possibly substantiate such an absurd claim."
"If I couldn't substantiate it, I wouldn't have said it," I told him, taking another swallow of my drink in an attempt to forget how fast that liner was moving, how fast we were leaving Fourmin Cluster and getting closer to - "I did some research on you about two years ago, when it looked like we might be going after the same leaky boat. I couldn't have outbid you if you were seriously interested in the acquisition, so I had to make you disinterested. Letting you know they were going down did that, but you didn't know about it before I passed along the word."
"Of course I knew," he said, but suddenly the grin was no longer with him. "I was just trying to decide whether to go after it anyway. It certainly had the potential of being a moneymaker, which you proved as soon as you took it over. That string of plants must have made the fastest recovery in Cluster history."
"Only because they fit into a previously prepared place among my existing holdings," I said, finding that all the partying going on around us was really beginning to get on my nerves. "You didn't have a place like that for them, but that wasn't your major concern. You were looking for a twenty-sixth acquisition for your twenty-sixth birthday, and time was running short. You couldn't let the occasion go by any more than you can do it this year, for number twenty-eight. At this point less than half of your holdings are pulling their own weight, and the ones that are are loaded down trying to carry the others. Since there's nothing really good available in the Cluster right now that's worth buying but you'll be buying anyway, and since you've always boasted that your self-confidence is so great that your personal fortune backs every one of your business interests - and it does, I checked - I give you until year twenty-nine before it all collapses out from under you."
"You really think you have it all figured out," he growled, his dark eyes burning bright, his knuckles white around the glass he held. "I've enjoyed making my point, but I'm not stupid. There doesn't have to be a twenty-eighth acquisition."
"If there isn't, you can look for the collapse in about eight months instead of a year and some," I answered, definitely feeling more than uncomfortable in the very warm lounge. "Key-officer confidence is the only thing holding it all together now, and without a new yearly acquisition that confidence evaporates. They'll all be gone so fast anyone standing in a doorway will be trampled, and that will be that."
"You're saying I'm trapped," he rasped, swallowing half his drink in a single gulp, his handsome face pale, his eyes on the table between us. "If you know so much, how do I get out of it?"
"You pay Ugly Duckling to bail you out," I said, wondering why I was beginning to feel dizzy. "I worked it out two years ago, just for fun, and the details are all in my office file. It will cost you, but you'll still have enough left afterward to start counting again - if you decide to be that stupid."
He stared at me wordlessly for a long minute, finished his drink in a second swallow, then left the table without another word. In his unseeing haste he jostled the captain, who had been almost to the table, and didn't stop when he was called by the man he'd invited over to introduce him. The captain stared after him until he was gone from sight, then completed the trip to my table while shaking his head.
"I don't understand why he didn't stop," the captain complained, puzzled and more than a little annoyed. "He was the one who asked me to come over here."
"I think he changed his mind about wanting to meet me," I said, trying to decide whether drinking more of my drink would make me cooler or warmer. "I'm not really very popular with men, you know."
"Nonsense, Your Highness, you're a very beautiful woman," he protested, sounding slightly scandalized. "Every man on this ship would be over here in a flash, if they could find the nerve."
"And then they would be gone just as fast," I said, dunking one finger into the drink to see if it was warm or cold. "I don't get along with men, and I don't get along with women. That just leaves business associates, and if they didn't enjoy making money so much, they wouldn't be around long either. And I thought I told you not to call me that."
"Forgive me, Your ah - Regan," he said, suddenly sounding strange but very gentle. "That is what you asked me to call you?"
"Certainly," I agreed with a firm headshake, my finger still in the glass. "Why shouldn't you call me Regan? That's my name."
"Of course it is," he said, taking the glass away and putting one hand under my elbow to help me to my feet. "And now, Regan, I'd like the honor of escorting you back to your cabin. It looks like you've had enough partying for tonight."
"You think I'm drunk, don't you?" I asked straight out, looking into his square, fortyish face. "You think I'm drunk and that I ought to go to bed."
"No, no, nothing like that," he assured me, his brown eyes smiling as he began leading me through the music and the revelers. "You looked a bit tired, so I thought you might want to turn in early. If you lie down for a while and then decide you're not that tired after all, you can just come right back here."
"I am tired," I agreed, holding his arm against the oddly rippling deck. "But I've been tired for a long time and sleep won't help. Did I tell you I'm going home?"
"To Plateau, yes," he said with another smile, patting my hand. "The Haldyne Cluster is developing very quickly, and Plateau must be the most important planet in it. You must be very excited to know we'll be there in less than four more days."
Four more days. I pushed away from the captain to leave him standing and staring in the middle of the lounge, ran to my cabin, then stood with my back against the closed door, thinking about throwing up. If I'd really been drunk I would have thrown up, but probably not from the drinking. The light had naturally come on automatically as soon as I'd stepped through the door, showing me the beautiful, expensively decorated VIP cabin. All cream and baby blue it was, with silver fixtures and knick-knacks, thick carpeting, wide, graceful bed, wrap-around vanity mirror, private bath. It was what was taking me home after all those years, and not liking it was stupid.
No more than a minute's worth of standing convinced me that I really wasn't feeling very well, so I left the door and went over to sit on the vanity bench. The mirror immediately glowed with warm, flattering light, clearly showing me the face I hadn't particularly wanted to see.
"You're an imbecile," I told that face, letting it see the disgust I felt. "It's been twelve years, and they made it very clear then that they wanted no part of you. You swore you'd never set foot on that world again, but the minute they crook a finger you go running."
I thought about it, the face answered defensively, a reaction it rarely felt and never showed. It was really beautiful, that face, with a clear golden complexion, blue-green hazel eyes, and a wealth of golden hair surrounding it all that had that special highlight of red, flaming the gold. That hair was the trademark of Plateau female nobility, a sex-linked characteristic they shared only with one another - along with other sex-linked characteristics.
"Sure you thought about it," I said, daring that other face to meet my eyes. "Maybe even for as long as an hour."
It never takes me long to make decisions, she said with that same defensive air, then raised her regal, too-beautiful head. Besides, why shouldn't I grab the opportunity to show off a little? I haven't done too badly for someone who wasn't good enough to be accepted among them.
Not good enough. I stared at that face for another moment then buried my own face in my arms, remembering the time as though it were only days ago. I had just celebrated my twelfth birthday, feeling all grown up and every inch the princess that I was. My father was a prince and I was a princess, and my family was one of those who owned and ran Plateau. Life was beautiful and wonderful - until the results came back from the twelve-year-old tests I'd taken. Every female member of Plateau nobility showed her talent by age twelve, or never showed it at all. The test results said I didn't have a trace of talent, not even the hint of something useless but amusing, a total lack that was very unusual but not unheard of. My sisters laughed until they cried, my brothers snickered and ignored me, my mother became even more concerned with pampering her beauty than she had been, and my father - the man who had had so many glowing plans for my future - suddenly became too busy even to speak to me. Two days later I was told - by my father's personal secretary - that I was being sent away to school, a school that was on another world in another Cluster. It was an excellent school, the man had told me, and I would be very happy there.
I'd spent the next six years at that wonderful school, doggedly slogging through a most peculiar hell. The vast majority of the students there were from very wealthy families, but I was a princess and my family shared ownership of an entire world. I discovered that the first six or seven girls who became my best friends did so for no other reason than the prestige of the position, and then I stopped having best friends - or friends of any sort. After a while the boys started lining up, drooling and waving their family fortunes in my face. That made me even more popular with the girls, who either tried to hang around to be in the direct path of the herd, or who avoided me completely to eliminate the competition. I made it very clear that I wanted nothing to do with any of the groups, then went back to concentrating on the campaign I was waging.
My campaign was very simple, and had been born out of the desperation of a twelve-year-old child. I had decided at the start to work very hard at that school, to be so good that my family would be proud of me again and want me back. I spent most of my waking hours studying and completing assignments, preparing extra credit reports, doing research, and very little else. My plan worked in that I graduated from that school at the top of my class, so far at the top that no one else even came close. I lived for the day of the graduation exercises, having been told that a ticket had been reserved from those allotted to me, absolutely certain that it was my father who would come. He would then listen to how wonderfully I had done, would look at me with pride shining in his eyes, and then would take me home.
It was, of course, my father's secretary who came, who bowed to me when it was all over, congratulated me, then told me that I had earned a vacation. I was to take as much time as I liked, years, in fact, to travel around the Clusters and see everything there was to see. A very large allowance had been supplied for that purpose, and if I ran short I was to send for more. The man had been gone for hours before it came to me that I hadn't said a single word to him, but speaking hadn't been necessary to get his message. They still didn't want me at home, and I wasn't to try going back.
I'd spent a few days just floating around, seeing no one, doing nothing, then it occurred to me that I had a life to get on with. My project at school hadn't accomplished what I'd wanted it to, but it had shown me that I did indeed have talent, even if it wasn't the sort of talent my family valued. The business world was an incomprehensible cloud of mystery to most people, but I'd found that it was composed entirely of patterns, very clear patterns if you knew enough to look in the right places for them. No business or industry existed on its own, and if you followed the pattern from one end to the other, you could even tell that the shortage of wheat on Sendgo in the Graffis Cluster would raise the production of cotton on Teldin in the Fourmin Cluster. Corporate association and interlocking was even easier, especially if no more than a single Cluster was involved. The other Clusters had to be watched, of course, but diddling in a single one was child's play.
I took my "allowance," used it as base capital, increased it quickly by taking advantage of my knowledge of patterns, then set about picking up failing businesses and making them viable. It was the "Ugly Duckling" members of each industry that I wanted, that I bought for almost nothing then fitted into a pattern of my own, and that was what I had called my parent operation, Ugly Duckling Enterprises. Everyone thought it referred to my leaky-boat acquisitions, the only sort of business I touched; I was the only one who knew better.
I raised my head from my arms with a sigh, looking at myself again in the mirror. A year ago I had returned my "allowance" to its source, plus appropriate interest, and hadn't heard a word. Then, less than a week ago, I'd gotten a letter telling me I was needed at home. Needed. And at home. I hadn't seen my father's signature in a long time and the scrawl hadn't been easy to make out, but his name had been typed right under the scrawl, the letters neat and very easy to read. My first impulse had been to have my senior secretary type a short, "Thank you for your recent communication, however " to go out over her signature rather than mine, but I'd discovered I couldn't do it. If he had used any other word than "needed" I would have had the thing filed away for future sneering at, but that was a word I couldn't ignore. I'd sat staring at the expensive gold stationery for a very long time, and then I'd told my travel people to get me on the first liner to the Haldyne Cluster. They'd done their job and there I was, four days away from "home."
"I'm going to ask," I told my reflection, ignoring the fancy party dress it had put on to get into the spirit of the lounge party. "I'm going to stand in front of him and ask straight out why it took him twelve years to remember I was alive. And if I don't like the answer, I'm going to turn around and walk out of there and never even think about them again."
Sure you will, my reflection answered, the beautiful face looking years younger than it was, another Plateau-female trait. Why don't you go to bed now and get some sleep?
"Best idea I've heard yet," I muttered, struggling to my feet to the accompaniment of the vanity lights dimming. Turning my back left my reflection behind, but not in the sort of permanent way I would have preferred.