ORION’S STAR appeared motionless in space above Nova-3. It was in a low orbit 100-miles above the surface to facilitate the number of shuttle runs needed to unload its vast cargo. Harry Salem was hungry and tired. He had not slept well. Despite everything, his biological clock was still 8-hours off from local time. He had also recently endured the poking and prodding of the quarantine doctors as they examined him in order to decide if he were healthy enough to descend to the planet’s surface. In the back of his mind, he understood the necessity. In a closed environment such as a domed city, any illness, viral or bacterial could have a devastating effect on the captive population. It would be like a bomb going off in a crowded room. But he was still a member of the Directorate. His ID should have been enough to have given him a free pass from their intrusive instruments. Harry couldn’t wait to get back home.
Once given clearance by the doctors, Harry made sure that his belongings were assigned a space on the passenger shuttle. The last thing he wanted was to be separated from his luggage. He was anxious to get out of his tight fitting pressure suit and put on some comfortable clothes. Unconsciously, he reached up to his chest and pulled the fabric away from is body, but it snapped back into place the moment he let it go. With his luggage secured, he went and stood in line with the other passengers awaiting permission to leave the STAR.
Jane Somerset stepped up behind him. “Get ready to see something special,” she said. “It’s a sight you’ll never forget.”
“Think so?” Harry asked.
“I know so. I’ve seen Earth Prime from space with its endless man-made structures. I’ve seen Emerson-5 with its planet-wide swaths of green. I’ve seen a half a dozen other worlds but nothing in the galaxy compares to what you are about to see here on Magnum-4.”
Harry snorted. He was too tired and uncomfortable not to be rude. And he didn’t care. He couldn’t think of anything that he could see that would impress him. Harry followed the others through the airlock and into the passenger shuttle. Most of the travelers found seats near the front including the beautiful, black-haired girl and Parker Huntington. However, a few, newcomers to Magnum-4, including a late arriving Mark Chapman, walked to the back of the shuttle and stood in the clear bubble that gave them an unobstructed view of the planet beneath them.
Harry looked down and was dumbstruck. Below him, the red-ore stretched out to all points of the compass in an endless sea of wealth. He had expected to see a patch-work of red-ore patterns on the surface interspersed with other kinds of mineral deposits not an entire planet covered with it. He had assumed that Fitz-Porter’s jibe about the red-ore running all the way to the planet’s core had been nothing more than a joke. But now, looking out over the seemingly endless supply of the most sought after commodity in the known universe, Harry Salem couldn’t begin to compute the economic destruction to the fabric of the five corporate entities that controlled the warp and woof of human occupied space if this much product were allowed to flood the market. He immediately recognized that in the right hands, Magnum-4 could become the new power base in a galactic empire. Harrison Hill had been right. Lydia Thompson was planning something so off the scale that no one who hadn’t seen Magnum-4 with their own eyes could even believe it possible.
In the low geosynchronous orbit, Harry had a full 360-degree view of the planet beneath his feet. The domed city of Nova-3 and the six mining domes were directly beneath him.There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and in the reflected rays of the sun, the domes shimmered like blood stone jewels in a geometric setting.
“It’s a jungle down there.” Jane Somerset had waited for the full effect of the planet to hit him.
“I see the domes and the red-ore,” Harry said. “Where’s the jungle?”
“Nova-3,” Jane said. “The terraformers planted things with lots of chlorophyll. The plants absorb the carbon dioxide that the environmental unit misses and they give off added oxygen that perfumes the air. The environmental unit is in the center of the dome. The factory generates the power to the LifeSheild and the city and scrubs the air. The air circulates clockwise on even days and counter-clockwise on odd days. Inside the dome, the temperature hovers right around a humid 85-degrees Fahrenheit and the planners allow it to rain every day for a couple of hours after sundown.”
“Jane, he doesn’t care about our over-sized terrarium,” Fitz-Porter said. Harry had not heard him approach, but there was also no reason to suppose him to be some place that Jane Somerset was not. “As Jane told you last night, there are five mining companies,” Fitz-Porter said. “You can see them at the end of the transit tubes coming out of the main dome. Each mining company has its own dome with its own terraforming facility. The domes are set far enough away from the city that in the event of a catastrophic failure of some kind only the dome affected will be lost and not the whole complex.”
“You said the domes don’t interconnect,” Harry said.
“That’s right,” Fitz-Porter answered. “The mining domes only connect with Nova-3, not with each other. Each company handles its own shipping from launch sites adjacent to their domes. All shipments, on and off planet, are scheduled through the Central Transportation Office located in the main dome. Nothing is grown or made on the planet. Everything has to be imported. All waste is recycled and used by the terraformers. There is water, though. It’s brought up from deep wells under the city. Remember your Earth Prime history? Think of oil. Water seems to have collected here in the same way.”
“Isn’t all that prohibitively expensive? How do the workers manage to live?” Harry asked.
“Quite comfortably,” Fitz-Porter said. “Unlike on Earth Prime where the corporations issue script to pay for labor, here on Magnum-4 everything is free.”
“How can that possibly work? What about hoarding?” Harry asked.
“Who would want to hoard anything when everything is replaceable?” Fitz-Porter countered. “Individuals send their supply requests to their respective mine headquarters. Headquarters send the collated requests to Central Clearing. Central processes the requests and orders accordingly. The supplies are shipped in and sent to the each mining company’s store. The individual laborers come in and take what they want. The mine pays for it. Everyone is happy.”
“If everything is free, how do the mining companies compel their laborers to work?” Harry asked.
“It’s simple,” Fitz-Porter explained. “There’s one rule down there that’s never broken:you don’t work; you don’t eat. You can’t access any supplies at all unless your work card is stamped and up to date.”
“And that applies to everyone?”
Harry turned to Jane Somerset. “What do you do down there?”
“I don’t have to do anything,” she said sweetly and left it at that.
Harry turned back to the planet. “What’s that?” he asked pointing to a black scar running for several hundred miles southwest of the city.
“That’s an outcropping of black silicon,” Fitz-Porter said. “It’s the planet’s only mountain range. No one knows how deep the stone runs, but it rises 10 to 15,000 feet from the floor of the red-ore. Some of our more daring miners use the finger-like outcroppings to Finney.”
“What’s ‘Finney’?” Harry asked.
“Finneying is controlled flight wearing a special wing-suit,” Jane explained. “The Finneyers use the outcropping of silicon like stationary pylons to maneuver around.”
“Sounds like a good way to get killed,” Harry said.
“What would be the thrill of doing it if someone didn’t?” Fitz-Porter asked.
“But the atmosphere outside the dome is toxic,” Harry said. “How do the Finneyers survive?”
“They hold their breath,” Fitz-Porter said.
“Oh, Fitz… stop teasing him,” Jane said laughing. “The flyers go up in sealed helicopters and jump out wearing their flight suits with a re-breather. That gives them about 20 minutes to make their jump, fly their pattern and land before they need to get a fresh shot of O2 in their air bag.”
“Have you ever done it?” Harry asked.
“I wanted to, but my father wouldn’t hear of it.”
Fitz-Porter leaned in and gave Jane a quick hug. She looked at him with a sly smile, and Harry sensed that things were being unsaid that Jane’s father would seriously be upset about.
The shuttle disengaged from the side of the STAR and began it’s descent. As they dropped, Harry felt himself getting lighter.
Fitz-Porter nodded towards some foot straps located on the deck beneath the hand bar by the observation window. “Hook your feet into them other wise you’ll be floating all over the cabin.”
Harry did as he was told and experienced several minutes of weightlessness. During that time, he kept his eyes fixed on the main dome. Before the craft engaged its braking engines and slowed before coming to a full stop on the surface about a half a mile away from the main dome, Harry got his first good look at Nova-3. Inside the dome, Harry saw a city built in a series of concentric circles, each circle of human habitation sandwiched by two other circles of green twice the size of the built up portions. Harry could see that the green circles were not the cultivated swards of Emerson-5, but lush strips of jungle-like growth that had been allowed to proliferate without restraint right up to the border of the living space.
Once they were on the ground, because they had landed so far away from the main dome, Harry wondered how they were going to get there when all of a sudden, the shuttle craft began to crawl along the ground on treads. The craft worked its way across the gently rolling terrain until it moved into a docking area at the base of the Life Shield.
Looking up, Harry noticedseveral faces staring down at them from an observation area inside the dome proper. “Is that our welcoming committee?” he asked nodding up towards them.
Jane Somerset looked up, and Harry heard her gasp.
Harry turned to her and saw a look of alarm in her eyes.“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“It’s Quincey and Lydia,” she said.“Father would never send Quincey to get me unless something was terribly wrong.” She reached over and gripped Fitz-Porter’s arm. “Fitz, I’m frightened.”
Harry didn’t know which one of heads belonged to Quincey, but he did know which one belonged to Lydia Thompson. “So that’s Lydia Thompson?” Harry said. “Hmmm... I don’t know… I expected her to seem… more imposing.” No one paid him any attention.
The airlock engaged and the passengers disembarked. Jane was in such a rush that she pushed herself to the front of the line with Harry and Fitz-Porter following as best they could. Lydia and Quincey were waiting for her on the loading platform and as the rest of the passengers surged around them, Jane asked, “Where’s father?”
Quincey looked around and stepped forward. He took her by the elbow. “Perhaps we should take this where it’s more private.”
“No. I want to know now. Where’s my father?”
“He’s dead,” Lydia Thompson said. “He was murdered last night while you were in quarantine.” Everyone turned to her and froze. Even some of the disembarking passengers were caught up short by the strength and power in her voice. “There’s no sugar coating this,” she continued. “Someone came to the house last night and killed him with some kind of shard off the silicon peaks out there.”
“Oh, God,” Jane said slumping back into Fitz-Porter’s arms. “Who did it?”
“That’s what I’m going to find out,” Quincey said in a tone of voice that left nothing to the imagination as to what would happen to Steve’s killer when he found him.
“Let’s get your things and go back to the house,” Lydia said. Quincey, Jane and Fitz-Porter immediately moved off. Harry remained fix to where he was, totally unsure of what to do. Lydia turned to him. “Are you coming or not?”
“You know me?” he asked.
“Of course I know you, Mr. Salem.” Lydia said. “You don’t think the Directorate would send someone to ‘fetch’ me and I don’t have a complete dossier on him?”
“Um….” Harry was at a loss for words.
“Come along, Mr. Salem. There are no bugs here for your open mouth to catch, and you just may be of more use to me than I had originally anticipated.”