Murder Beyond The Milky Way

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Chapter Fourteen

Harry brought up the tail end of their little group as they followed Quincey and Lydia out of the loading area and into the dome proper. There were no porters, and Harry was forced to carry his own bags. He considered it a total imposition, hardly the way civilized people acted. As Harry entered the dome, a wave of hot, humid, fetid air hit him and he suddenly couldn’t breathe. His diaphragm wouldn’t work. It was as if something had suddenly turned off his ability to suck in air. He panicked, dropped his bags and started to look around wildly.

Suddenly, Quincey was holding him by the shoulders and shaking him. “Look at me… look at me,” Quincey ordered.

Wide-eyed with fear, Harry stared at Quincey. Quincey gave him a short, sharp punch to the mid-section. Harry doubled over slightly and fell onto Quincey’s shoulder as the punch forced the air out of his lungs.

“Now, breathe in slowly,” Quincey ordered. “That’s it. Short breaths.”

Harry gagged. The air was heavy and filled with so many sweet and floral aromas that his brain couldn’t register them all. “What… just… happened?” he asked weakly.

“Your first breath of dome air,” Quincey explained. “It has that effect on some people. It’s a combination of artificial air manufactured in the central terraforming plant and the real thing made from all the plant photosynthesis and composting taking place around us. Your body’s not used to it. It will take a couple of seconds for your brain to realize that you are not being poisoned. You’ll be okay.” Quincey gave Harry a pat on the shoulder and then led the little group to a waiting private cable-car.

Harry followed feeling light-headed and slightly intoxicated. He had not been expecting this. No one had told him. He assumed that breathing in one of the controlled environments on Magnum-4 would be like breathing every where else. But it wasn’t. Even now, he felt like he was struggling to take in air, and he hated appearing weak in front of the others.

To Harry, the private cable-car that awaited them at the transportation hub looked like the personnel carrier that he had ridden around Emerson-5 in, however, this one did not have an engine. It did, however, have two hook-like objects that extended from the bottom of the car into a continuous slot in the road. “What is that?” Harry asked, not all together sure that he wanted to ride in it.

“It’s a cable-car. In Nova-3, you either ride in one of these or you walk,” Fitz-Porter said.

“I wouldn’t advise walking until you’ve acclimated a little bit more,” Lydia said. She climbed in and took a seat. Once settled, she opened one of the cupboards next to her and fetched a container of water.

“When the domed city was being designed,” Fitz-Porter explained, “the engineers felt that it would be inadvisable to have any kind of personal vehicle propulsion systems that would emit any kind of pollutants into the air. They also felt the need to prohibit most kinds of personal vehicles due to space limitations. So they went back to an ancient form of propulsion. Embedded in the roadways, cables circle the city in each of the living sections. One cable rotates clockwise and the other counterclockwise. The cables are always in motion. The operator merely engages a grip that catches the cable and then the car is pulled around to the desired location where the operator releases the grip and the cable-car coasts to a stop. It’s archaic, but it’s simple and it works out here.”

The gripman stowed Harry’s gear in a storage bay beneath the passenger compartment then took his place at the controls. Harry climbed into the car and found a seat next to Lydia. Fitz-Porter and Jane sat across from him and Quincey sat on the other side of Lydia. The air inside the PCC was heavy and humid. Harry sat back and closed his eyes. He didn’t like what he was getting himself into. Ostensibly, as he understood it, his job was to convince Lydia to return to Earth Prime or abdicate her position. He wasn’t sure how this murder and the red-ore would complicate matters, but he knew they would. He opened his eyes and looked over at Jane Somerset. She looked ill. Her face was white and she held Fitz-Porter’s hands as if they were some kind of locking pin that kept her securely fixed to her seat.

“What are the authorities doing about Jane’s father’s death?” Harry asked not knowing what else to say.

“We are the authorities,” Lydia said coldly.

Harry saw Fitz-Porter stiffen.“What do you mean ‘you are the authorities’?” he asked.

“The Vigilance Committee has given Quincey a free hand in finding Steve’s killer,” Lydia said.

“Vigilance Committee?” Harry asked.

“It’s a star chamber that has absolute authority in all matters of law here on Magnum-4,” Fitz-Porter said. “Their word is life or death.”

“That’s barbaric,” Harry said.

“It works out here. We have no moon to turn into a penal colony or any terraforming space to accommodate those who cannot or will not fit in.” Fitz-Porter turned to Quincey. “What have you discovered, so far?”

Quincey brought them up to speed. Then, he said, “Jane, I hate to be so blunt but do you know anyone who would have wanted your father dead?”

“No one,” Jane said.“Father was a well respected man who had the ear of the mine owners. They frequently came to him for advice. It was nothing to come home and find one or two of them having cigars on the back patio or to find them in the kitchen watching him cook with all that antique equipment.” When she finished, Fitz-Porter patted her hand, then held on to her more tightly.

“What would the mine owners want with a commerce raider?” Harry asked. Suddenly, the car became silent. Harry looked from face to face. He remembered an old adage about looks killing. “Have I said something wrong?” he asked.

“Steve Somerset was not a commerce raider in the normal sense of the term,” Lydia said. “He was operating under strict orders from the Directorate to disrupt certain types of shipping in the adjoining parsec controlled by one of our rivals. He was actually operating under my orders, although he did not know it.”

“And you were going to tell me this... when?” Quincey asked.

Lydia reached out and touched Quincey’s arm. “There was a lot more to my relationship with Steve than anyone knew. Even he didn’t know the full extent of it.”

“Regardless of whom he was working for, don’t you think he made an enemy or two along the way?” Harry asked.

“I’m sure he did,” Lydia said. “That’s why he retired out here to Magnum-4.”

“Hiding more likely,” Harry said. Since everyone was already mad at him, he saw no reason to be subtle. After all, he was only making the logical assumption from his conversation with Huntington on the STAR.

“Hardly hiding,” Fitz-Porter said. “Everyone knew that he was here. He even allowed his daughter to go off world to whatever planet she wanted to visit.”

“I’ve been told that hiding in plain sight is very effective,” Harry said.

“That’s enough,” Lydia ordered. “There’s no point in talking about something about which you have no knowledge.”

Harry opened his mouth to rebut her, but her tone of voice was too imperial and he immediately recognized the Directorate language of an order. He changed the subject. “I have more bad news for you,” he said.

“And what would that be?” she asked.

“That item you asked me to acquire on Emerson-5 was stolen from me and I got shot by some kind of stun gun in the process.”

“I never asked you to retrieve anything for me on Emerson-5,” Lydia said.

“Of course you did,” Harry said. “I still have the message on my PCD.”

Lydia and Quincey traded glances. “Let me see it,” Quincey ordered and held out his hand.

Harry didn’t move.

“Give it to him,” Lydia ordered.

Harry reached into the inner pocket of his tunic. “It came in as a coded message while I was in transit from Earth Prime to Emerson-5. I had it transferred to my PCD after decrypting it in the Purser’s office.” He keyed in his passwords then gave the device to Quincey.

Quincey found the message. “He’s right. It says it’s from you.” He held Harry’s PCD towards Lydia.

She read it. “That’s impossible,” she said. “I never sent that message.” Lydia removed her own personal communications device from an interior fold of her tunic and punched in her security codes. She looked through her outgoing messages. “I don’t understand it. It’s here,” she said after a moment.

“You’re sure you never sent it?” Quincey asked.

“Positive,” Lydia answered. “The only one I sent Mr. Salem was the one inviting him to stay at Steve’s place.”

“Check to see if there are any other messages that you don’t recognize,” Quincey said.

Lydia found one other message she had not sent.

“Did you ever leave this where Steve might have used it?”

“Why would he want to use my PCD? He had one of his own,” Lydia said.

“Yes… but what if he didn’t want the messages traced back to him?” Quincey asked. “You’re Directorate. No one would dare question anything you were sending.” Quincey turned to Harry. “What was it you were supposed to retrieve?”

“A book,” Harry said.

“What kind of book?” Quincey asked.

“Harrison Hill, who was with me when we opened the sealed container, said that it might be a ship’s log of some kind.”

“Not digital.”

“No. Hand written.”

Quincey scrolled down Lydia’s message log, highlighted the file she had previously indicated, then touched Lydia’s PCD to his. “I’ve transferred the message. I’ll follow up on it after we drop you off.”

“I guess you’ll have to drop me off at a Directorate Hotel,” Harry said.

“No. You’ll be staying with me as planned,” Lydia said. “Anyway, there’s no such thing as a Directorate facility here, and you don’t have the proper work papers to allow you to stay in any of Nova-3 guest housing.”

“I have an ID that says Directorate on it. That should be paper work enough to allow me to stay where ever I want,” Harry said.

“This is an independent planet,” Fitz-Porter said. “Your Directorate ID is no good out here. If you don’t stay with them, you’ll starve to death.”

“Excuse me?” Harry said.

“Quincey, explain the facts of life to this young man,” Lydia said.

Quincey turned to Harry. “This is a don’t work/don’t eat planet.”

“Yeah, Fitz-Porter here was trying to explain it to me on the STAR,” Harry said. “But, I still don’t see how it works.”

“That’s because you’ve never been off of Earth Prime with all its government sponsored entitlements. Here, it’s the other way around. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. Simple as that. Everyone here works for one of the mines or the terraforming plant or the local infrastructure boards. Except for one notable exception, there is no personal owner ship of property. Each mine has a housing allotment based on the number of people working for it. Those people live in the mine designated areas. Everything is provide for. When you are hungry, you go down to the company store and present your work card and take what you need. Whatever is consumed is replenished. Whatever is wanted is requested. The red-ore freighters bring in our supplies and take the ore out in payment.”

“And since I’m technically working for Lydia...”

“You’ll stay where I tell you to stay for as long as I allow you to remain on this planet,” Lydia said. “That is... if you like eating,”

“It appears that I have no other choice,” Harry said.

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