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“This used to be Yosemite National Park. We sold it after the Great Global Collapse to repay our debts.”

Tom’s fists clenched. “You mean Wyndham Harks’s debts! The debts those people ran up and stuck on the rest of us.” He’d figured it out seeing that wall of government officials at Wyndham Harks. Their people were in the government. So when Reuben Lloyd bought up other companies, bought fancy rugs, and couldn’t pay his bills—the government he controlled volunteered the public to pay his bills for them. Then when the public went broke, people like Sigurdur Vitol swooped in like vultures and took stuff the public owned, stuff of real value—like this place. Like Yosemite.

Tom shook his head in disgust. Those executives had done that, they’d gotten away with it, and today they marched in Tom and the others and demanded respect from them, like they were actually owed something from them. After taking all this, they wanted even more.

“I hear you’ve had an interesting day,” Elliot remarked.

Tom jerked his head impatiently. “Yeah, I kind of blew it. With Matchett-Reddy, for sure.” He was silent a moment, then had to admit, “And at Epicenter. And at Wyndham Harks. I’m sorry about that mess at Nobridis, by the way. I hope that wasn’t a huge pain for you to fix.”

The last beams of the sun were disappearing over the distant cliffs now. Elliot said quietly, “I’m glad we’re not seeing Obsidian Corp. today. I suppose you had some antics ready for them, too?”

“No need for the visit.” Tom wheeled around and calmly strode from the rock. “Joe Vengerov and I already know each other. We’re not on good terms.”

“Is this funny to you?” There was unexpected heat in Elliot’s voice.

Tom hadn’t realized there was a twisted smile plastered on his face. It was sort of automatic, since Elliot looked a bit angry—so unlike Elliot.

“Come on, man, I know I kind of torpedoed things today—”

“Torpedoed? Tom, this wasn’t a torpedo hit. This was the Hindenburg disaster! There are five CEOs who sponsor Indo-American Combatants, and you have successfully alienated every single one of them, most of them within mere hours of each other! Take Nobridis. It was easy, Tom. It was so easy. All you had to do was bow and leave the room. The prince didn’t even want to speak to any of you. That was all and it would have been done.”

Heat rushed through Tom. “I don’t bow to people! Okay, maybe if I’m about to fight a samurai warrior or a kung fu master, and we’re mutually bowing to show respect for each other, maybe then, but that’s it. No unilateral bowing.”

Elliot groaned. “You have so much pride. I hope that’s a big comfort to you, because that’s the only comfort you’re going to have if you keep this up. You had an advantage after Capitol Summit. People knew you, they knew you were a winner. They wanted to like you. But that advantage means nothing if you plan to go ahead and burn every bridge in front of you. I don’t even pretend to know why you flooded the Beringer Club, but if you thought—”

“Yeah, you don’t know,” Tom cut in. “You know nothing about the Beringer Club. So maybe it’s not your business. Those Dominion Agra guys had it coming. That’s all that matters.”

“Yes, yes, and this Matchett-Reddy executive also had whatever you did to him coming. Tell me this: When Hank Bloombury recognized you, what did you say to him?”

Tom wouldn’t play into his hands. He gazed at the swaying trees far below them, the wind whipping at him through his suit. “Yeah, you’re asking me, but I’ve got this feeling you already know.”

“Yes.” Elliot nodded. “I already know that you taunted him. You had a chance to apologize or do just about anything to try defusing the situation with him, and you chose to make matters infinitely worse. You poured gasoline on the fire. It’s like the way you acted with Karl when we were all hooked into the decagons. You deliberately goaded him. There’s no reason for it. It’s stupid and it’s arrogant and it’s needless, but you keep doing it.”

Tom gave an exasperated growl. “So I should’ve apologized to Hank Bloombury, is that it? Maybe kissed his shoes, while I was at it?”

“When he’s in a position to murder your career? Yes. Yes, you should have. For a start.”

Tom clenched his teeth. “I will never apologize to him. Not to him, not to the Beringer Club people, not to any of them. They all deserved what they got. I won’t give them the satisfaction of even acting like I’m sorry when I’m not.” He remembered Dalton, smugly telling him he could beg for forgiveness on his knees, if he wanted. Bitterness flooded him. “They’d love that.”

Elliot pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Come on, man,” Tom erupted, “how does this sucking-up fest not drive you nuts? You didn’t come from these people. You didn’t scam your way to the top or get born to rich parents and pat yourself on the back for ‘earning’ it. You had a skill, you had a talent, you worked hard and got here for an actual reason. You legitimately achieved everything you have. So how can you stomach treating these people like they’re better than us?”

Elliot threw up his hands. “Because I recognize that this is the way the world works! You may not like these executives, but the fact is, people with honor and integrity, who don’t cheat, lose their wealth and their positions to people who do. That’s why the worst of us become the world’s decision makers. Nothing I can do or say will change that basic fact of life. They shape reality and the rest of us just live in it. So I accept it, and I try to work around it.”

“It’s not right!” For a moment, Tom struggled for the words to capture the burning feeling in his chest, and they came pouring out. “It’s not that these people are thieves. That’s not what bugs me. It’s the fact that they think we should respect them, too. That’s what burns me. This place used to be everyone’s, they stole it for themselves, and they got away with doing it, but they don’t get my goodwill, too. They can’t pay me enough money to pretend I admire them.”

“Fine, then,” Elliot cut in, impatient. “Don’t play the game. Tear yourself apart raging against something you can’t change. Do that, Tom. Then I can tell you what happens next: nothing. Not for you. Those executives won’t care if you destroy yourself. They will never notice if you drop off their radar. Your fate won’t make a single difference to any one of those people. The only person you’re harming here is yourself.”

Tom’s chest tightened. “Then that’s the way it’s gonna be.”

Elliot sighed heavily. “I was going to ask you to do your fly-along with me. I’ve wanted to help, guide you. I see now it would be a waste of my time and energy.”

That stung a bit. Tom shrugged. “No one’s forcing you.” But Elliot seemed so genuinely disappointed in him, like he’d really been invested in Tom doing well, that Tom felt a pang of remorse. “You know, I am sorry. About all this.”

“I am, too.” And then Elliot’s footsteps scuffed away across the rocks.

Tom stayed alone in his somewhat voluntary exile at the edge of the cliff, the light stealing away from the sky. He tried to ignore the sick feeling in his stomach, and told himself over and over again that this was the only way it could’ve gone.

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