Hundreds of millions of miles from Earth Prime at the edge of what was known, Lydia Thompson walked along the catwalk that separated the terraformed portion of Magnum-4 from the naked wasteland that lay beyond the LifeShield. She walked slowly, mesmerized by the contrasts that overwhelmed her senses. This was the time of day on the most isolated planet in the explored portion of the galaxy that she loved the most. The sun was setting, casting long plum-colored shadows both inside and outside of the LifeShield. The tropical breeze from the air scrubbers gently rustled the leaves along the tops of the trees.
To her left, sheltered by the massive, transparent, force-field dome, the world around her exploded in a visual symphony of reds, greens and yellows. Hundreds of species of plants that had been imported from the various greenhouse planets around Directorate controlled space to aid in the production of natural oxygen to supplement the O2 produced by the terraforming plant were in bloom. The aromas of the different vegetation wrapped her in a potpourri cloud that many newcomers found oppressive. She inhaled deeply trying to differentiate the aromatic signatures, but at most she could only pick out five or six of her favorites.
In contrast, to her right, beyond the LifeShield, the planet was totally devoid of life. Its undulating plains were a monotone of dark red color, where nothing grew and nothing lived in the toxic atmosphere. Only the black mountains to the southwest with their finger-like spires that rose thousands of feet into the poisoned air offered any contrast to the red-ore that encased this isolated, lonely, little world.
Lydia closed her eyes. The aromas thrilled her and soothed her and reminded her how different this place was from Earth Prime. Inside the dome, the planned city of Nova-3 was a garden compared to her over-populated, over-built, and over-exploited home planet. It was a controlled environment where the people had room to move, work and live; where no one locked their doors; where every need was met.This was an even day and on even days the air scrubbers inside the LifeShield sent a warm breeze counter-clockwise around the edge of the dome. The breeze caught Lydia’s translucent tunic and caressingly pressed it against her body. The fabric’s gossamer touch aroused her.
Lydia Thompson opened her eyes and looked up at the young man who walked beside her. Matt Quincey was strong, handsome and one of the most feared men on the planet. The other members of the Directorate would have been horrified by her association with him. She was old enough to be his great-grandmother, perhaps even his great-great-grandmother. The Youth Treatments had allowed her to maintain the image of an exceedingly good-looking, 40-year old woman. She had asked for a mature swimmer’s body with a flat stomach, strong shoulders and thighs, and long, flowing chestnut hair. When she looked in the mirror, she liked what she saw: a carefully crafted image that over the years allowed her to leave a string of broken hearts across the reaches of explored space. However, she was not so self-absorbed as not to realize that it was not only the loss of her beauty, but also the loss of her money and especially the loss of her power that her lovers mourned.
However Quincey was different. He had shown on several occasions that he could care less about her position with the Directorate. When they met on Emerson-5, opposing members of the Directorate had backed her into a corner. He had come to her aid not knowing who she was and once saved, he had helped her solidify her position by introducing her to her current lover, Steve Somerset. Once she and Steve commenced their relationship, Quincey quietly slipped into the background. But that didn’t stop her from looking him up now and again. She liked talking to him.
This is as far as I go,” Quincey said in his soft baritone. “Steve tends to be jealous when I’m around.”
Lydia laughed.“What is it with the two of you? You both obviously like each other.”
“It has nothing to do with like or dislike. It has to do with propriety.”
“Propriety!? You talk as if I’m Steve’s property.”
“No. It’s a question of friendship. I’ve known Steve a long time. We tend to be competitive.What I’m trying to maintain is the perfect balance that doesn’t trigger a competitive response.”
“Steve’s old enough to be your father.”
“It’s not an age thing. It’s a man thing.”
“It’s a foolish thing.”
“Regardless. This is as far as I go. Say hello to Steve for me. He knows where to find me if and when he needs me.” Quincey leaned down and gave Lydia a brotherly kiss on the cheek. Then, he turned and walked away.
Lydia watched him as he walked back down the catwalk towards the cable-car that would take him back to his home on the inner circle. The sun had set and in the gloaming, the tall, young man looked like a living shadow in the long black coat that draped his body from his squared shoulders down to his black boots. Lydia smiled. There was something very satisfying in having such a young, handsome man pay court to her and treat her with such respect. She smiled at the enigma that was Matt Quincey. Was he paying her the respect for her position and power, or was he treating her that way because of his respect for Steve?
Lydia continued down the catwalk until she came to stairs that descended on to Steve’s estate. Steve was waiting for her at the bottom. He held out his hand to her as she approached. She took it and compared the two men. Quincey was young and lithe; Steve was older and stockier. He was probably two or three times Quincey’s age, but he was as strong and as virile. His black silk shirt and cotton pants were immaculately tailored, hugging his masculine form and showing off his physique to perfection. Then she realized what Quincey had meant by ‘propriety’. Steve was the man that Quincey wanted to become. Steve was rich and strong. He possessed a singular prestige that made him the dominating force on Magnum-4. He had made his mark. Quincey had yet to make his. The old dog can still teach the new dog some old tricks, Lydia thought. As she touched the second stair from the bottom, Steve stepped forward and picked her up in his arms.
He kissed her very un-brotherly like on the lips and set her on the ground. She returned his kiss with equal passion fully enjoying the feel of his hard body against hers.
“How was dinner?” he asked.He held out his arm and she took it and he led her back up the trail through the verdant jungle to the great rambling house fashioned out of native Magnum-4 red-ore and set on a man-made hill. He liked to stand on the back veranda and look at the lush greenery beneath his feet and across the top of the vegetation to the sterile vista outside the LifeShield.
“Dinner with Quincey is always delicious,” she answered.
“I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
“May I ask a question?”
“You’re not jealous of him, are you?”
“No. How could I be? After all, he’s the reason that the two of us are together.”
“But he makes it a point to turn around before he gets to the entrance to your catwalk,” Lydia said.
“No. He makes it a point not to come on to my territory uninvited. It’s a sign of respect.”
“He called it ‘propriety’.”
Lydia looked at Steve with wonder. He was barely a third of her age, yet he had chosen to stop taking Youth Treatments. He had dark brown hair, but he had allowed his temples to remain white and had kept some of the laugh lines around his eyes. He was deep-chested and muscular, a bear to Quincey’s panther. Lydia smiled. She liked the fact that the bear had wanted to remain a bear and let the world see who and what he was.
For a moment, Lydia felt like a young girl again and was over-whelmed by it all… by Steve, by Magnum-4, by the house. In the dark, the house’s native stone shimmered in the starlight. The beauty was almost too much to take in. Trees with crimson flowers surrounded the raised veranda casting purple shadows through which she had to ascend the stairs to the house proper. The stairs were flanked by green bushes covered in yellow rose-like flowers. What would her associates back on Earth Prime think of her living in this garden? This was definitely not the life style that they would have expected her to adopt. If they expect me to retire to Terra One or Two, they’ll have a long wait, that’s for sure, Lydia thought as Steve escorted her up the stairs and across the veranda. As she thought about her business associates, the young girl feeling passed and once again she was Lydia Thompson, Third Prime of the Directorate Elite.
They reached the door at the side of the house that led directly into the living-room. The door was set into a wall of clear Plexilum. Steve opened the door for her and they stepped inside. She was immediately greeted by the scentless flavor of the scrubbed air, cooled to 72° and infused with a touch more oxygen that the air of the dome. They crossed the polished floor, also made from the native red-ore and covered with an expensive carpet hand-made by the alpaca herders on one of the Directorate controlled worlds. They sat down on the sofa, cradled by its down-stuffed cushions and throw pillows. Lydia hugged one of the soft pillows to her breast and smiled. There was a subtle opulence to Steve’s home that would be the envy of any Directorate Prime executive.
Steve reached into his pocket and removed Lydia’s personal communications device which she had purposely left behind. “Harrison dispatched a ship into broadcast range. You received a personal blip while you were out,” he said. “Harrison said that the ship would hold position for you to answer.”
“Who’s it from?” Lydia asked.
“Don’t know. It was flagged ‘personal’,” he answered.
“Sweetheart, we have no secrets.” She took the communicator from his hand and opened the message. She read it and started laughing. “You are not going to believe this,” she said.
“What is it?”
“It’s the Directorate. Apparently, the Directorate is very upset with what I have been doing and they are sending someone to come fetch me.”
“Who are they sending?”
“Someone named Harry Salem. One of my contacts sent me his dossier.”
Steve smiled. “Do you want to see him? I could arrange for him to be denied access to Magnum-4. The landing official owes me a favor or two.”
“No. When he arrives, let him land.” She began to read the file. After a few minutes she suddenly snickered. “Can we put him up here?”
“Why would you want to?”
“According to this file, this young fellow has never been off Earth Prime. Believe me, I know the type. He has some unique skills therefore he’s been sheltered, and coddled and protected all his life. He probably has been so immersed in ‘civilization’ and the Directorate’s business that life out here on the frontier will be incomprehensible to him.”
“He’ll be a fish-out-of-water before his ship ever clears the Earth Prime solar system.”
“Seriously. You don’t understand the Directorate, what it means to have that kind of power and position. This young man will have had his whole life planned out for him. They will expect him to toe the corporate line. He has been sent to all the ‘right’ schools where could associate with all the ‘right’ people. He will have been assigned a place in the Directorate hierarchy. Not at the top. The Directorate still insists that you prove yourself. However, if you are strong and resourceful, you rise to the top. If not, they farm you out to one of the relay planets where you live out your days as a local administrator. Failure is not tolerated. This is a test for him. They obviously see some kind of potential in him. His rise in the Directorate depends on whether or not he can get me to return or abdicate.”
“Then, he is sure to fail,” Steve said.
“It will be fun to watch,” Lydia said.
“Lydia, you have a mean streak.” Steve laughed.
“Yes, I do.” Lydia laughed with him.