From the observation deck on the incoming freighter, Harry Salem watched the ship approach the frontier planet, Emerson-5. The space around the planet was a hornet’s nest of activity. Several freighters were positioned in geosynchronous orbits with loading shuttles hovering around them, each one awaiting its turn at one of the docking ports. As one shuttle finished loading, it detached itself and began the controlled descent to the surface beneath. Above the north and south poles, construction crews worked on the skeletons of several multi-ship space stations.
Harry stared at the planet and was amazed by the colors and textures. This was not a place covered with man-made structures like Earth Prime. This was a place with open spaces, large swaths of green punctuated by seemingly isolated-cities. The cities themselves seemed restrained as if they had been allowed to expand to a certain point and no farther. Harry wondered if Earth Prime had once looked like this.
Harry’s destination was the free city of Gamma-2 and since he was anxious to get off the shuttle, he took the first craft he could to the surface. He left orders for his luggage to follow him. He wanted to feel the ground beneath his feet, to feel real gravity tugging at his flesh not the artificial gravity of the space ship. But most of all, he wanted to get out of the pressure suit and take a real shower and eat some real food. But first, he must follow Directorate protocol. He needed to meet with someone named Harrison Hill. Harry checked his PCD and pulled up the file on Hill. He read it thoroughly.
Harrison Hill was waiting for him on the other side of Decontamination. Hill was ten years older than Harry. He was the Directorate District Manager which made him the Directorate’s highest authority on Emerson-5. Harry looked at him and tried to hide the distain he felt. Hill was dressed in a common laborer’s tunic. He wore the badge of his office inconspicuously over his heart.
“Welcome to Gamma-2, Mr. Salem” he said extending his hand.
“Thank you,” Harry answered shaking hands with him. Harry winced. He was used to the soft squeeze that the Directorate executives used among themselves. Hill’s handshake was sharp and swift and firm.
“How are things on Earth Prime?” Hill asked.
“Different,” Harry said looking around him. He was impressed by the open skies, something he couldn’t see clearly from ground level on Earth Prime.
“I trust you’ve had a comfortable journey, so far?” Hill asked taking Harry by the arm and escorting him through the terminal to a waiting corporate personnel carrier.
Harry climbed in and settled himself in one of the soft chairs. Hill climbed in and sat across from him. The doors closed and the vehicle began moving slowly along the crowded street. Hill leaned over and pushed a button near Harry’s left arm. A cabinet door slid back revealing a wealth of bottled beverages. Harry chose simple water.
“Is this your first trip to the frontier?” Hill asked.
“First and last, I hope,” Harry said taking a sip.
“Travel not your cup of tea?” Hill asked.
“It was boring… abjectly, soul-wrenching, boring,” Harry confessed. “There was nothing to do. Twelve days of nothing. I mean, you can only watch so many holoshows.”
Hill laughed. “I remember my first trip out here. I felt exactly the same as you.”
Harry put his water down. “Then why do you stay here? I’ve read your file. You’re not the usual sort whom the Directorate buries on an outer planet. You’ve been offered post after post back on Earth Prime and each time you’re up for promotion, you refuse. Say ‘no’ often enough and the powers-that-be will stop asking.”
“God, I hope so,” Hill said.
“You mean you want to stay here?” Harry asked incredulously.
Hill smiled. “You’re not ready to hear my answer to that question yet. First, I have been ordered to show you around.”
“Ordered? By whom?”
“By Lydia Thompson, herself,” Hill said.
“Out here we don’t hold to formalities and when Lydia speaks, her word is law. So sit back and enjoy.”
Hill took Harry all around Gamma-2 and Harry was impressed. It was so vastly different from Earth Prime. There was light and air at ground level. The sky was not hidden by massively tall buildings. In every section of the city, people milled about buying and selling fresh produce. There were flowers of all shades and colors, fruits of various sizes, even fresh meat. The people at ground level looked healthier than their counterparts on Earth Prime, as dirty, but even the dirt looked different. It didn’t look as sterile.
While they drove around, Hill opened a cabinet next to him and took out a cigar. He cut it and lit it. Harry stared in disbelief. On Earth Prime only the executives in their lofty towers ever dared to break the tobacco embargo and then only behind locked doors and only in the presence of their peers.
“That’s…” Harry began nodding towards the cigar in Hill’s fingers.
“… quite illegal on Earth Prime,” Hill said. “Would you like one?”
“I don’t know if I should,” Harry said not wanting to reveal that he had never had one.
“Don’t worry. Out here, no one will think less of you if you indulge,” Hill said. “You might like these.” He reached into the cabinet and took out a container which he extended towards Harry. “They are made from naturally grown Iana leaf.”
“Iana leaf?” Harry took a cigar.
“It’s not your usual warehouse grown product. It’s naturally grown in the out of doors under real sunshine and watered by real rain. When it’s harvested, the leaves are put into huge containers and crushed down until all the juice is extracted from them. Then the juice is poured back on to the crushed leaves and the leaves are then repacked into wooden hogsheads. The hogsheads are then buried in the ground for the equivalent of two earth years. The crushed leaves are allowed to marinate in their own juices and absorb the minerals that leach in through the wood. After two years, the leaves are removed and dried and rolled into the magnificent smoking tube you hold in your hand.” Hill took the cigar from Harry’s hand, snipped the end with a cutting tool that he also took from the cabinet then handed the prepared cigar back to him. Harry lit up. “Don’t inhale,” Hill added.
Harry may have been a snob and lived his life for others to see and approve, but he was not a hedonist. He rarely did things for his own personal pleasure. As the aroma and flavors of the burning weed caressed his senses, Harry recognized this for what it truly was… a foray into pure, 100% self-indulgence. His eyes widened in disbelief.
“It would be another 10 years before you rose high enough in the Directorate on Earth Prime before ‘they’ would allow you to try one of these,” Hill said. “You wondered why I refuse any appointment that would take me back... Hell, man,look around you. What do you see?” The question was not rhetorical.
Harry looked out of the vehicle. “I see people. I see buildings. I see other vehicles…”
“I see …colors. I see sky… I see clouds…”
“What don’t you see?” Hill asked leaning in conspiratorially.
“I don’t see Earth Prime,” Harry said.
“Bravo.” Hill said sitting back in his chair.
“You’ve had this conversation before,” Harry said.
“Once upon a time, I sat in your place. It was on another planet and under different circumstances, but the results were the same,” Hill said.
Harry looked at him questioningly.
“I want you to look at this,” Hill said removing a remote control from the side of his chair. He pushed a series of buttons and a holographic galactic map emerged towards the front of the passenger compartment. “The Directorate’s designated cone of space with point of origin at Earth Prime is highlighted. Compare it to the other Corporations allotments and what do you see?” Hill pushed a button on the remote and the map began rotating on its horizontal axis. “Do you see it?”
Harry smoked his cigar and studied the map. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be looking for. The galaxy had been divided up between the five great corporations. He looked at the other corporations’ designated spaces and saw their cones extend out to envelop a seemingly endless progression of stars with all their potential planets and moons out to the edge of the spiral arm of the galaxy. Theoretically, those lines extended out into the vacuum encompassing unreachable galaxies as far as the mind of man could conceive. Then he looked at the Directorate’s space. There was something different. He looked closer. Then he saw the gap.
“Oh, my God,” he said.
Hill smiled. “Lydia Thompson was the first one to see it,” he said. He zoomed in on Emerson-5. “Everyone else was looking too close to home to see it. They were too intent on developing the possible planets and moons in this sector.” Hill pointed towards the area between Earth Prime and Emerson-5. No one ever gave a thought to this other side.” He pointed to a star-filled region of space on the other side of the gap in the map.
“The star must have been a hypergiant,” Harry said, “to have cleared that much space when it went supernova.”
“Except for a few isolated stars that is one huge piece of empty space and right there, about a third of the way across, you have one small sun with a single planet, Magnum-4. It takes 8 earth days at maximum speed to reach it from here. From there, it takes 30 more earth days to get to the nearest star on the other side. And that’s straight-line trajectory.”
“Which makes Emerson-5 the natural hub for all traffic to the other side of the void.” Harry sat back.
“And while the whole Directorate sits hidebound in their skytowers, Emerson-5 will become the new Earth, the new hub, the new focus of all exploration and supply and anyone already here will be in place ready to take control of a whole new enterprise.”
“A new corporation?” Harry asked. “There hasn’t been a new corporation in nearly a millennium.”
“That’s a long time to someone who has not had a Youth Treatment or two,” Hill said.
“And what if I went back to Earth Prime and told them what you’ve said?”
“They wouldn’t believe you. It’s not part of their corporate plan. Even now, they are not authorizing company ships to head into the void. They are supposed to hug its sides. At that rate, it will take 190 earth days of maximum speed to reach where the independents could reach now in 38. The Directorate thinks of flow in only one direction: towards them. By the time it realizes its mistake, the Indies will be in a position to declare for their own corporation. And with a new corporation based here in Emerson-5, we won’t have any need for Earth Prime.”
“A new Earth Prime?”
“Hundreds of millions of years ago, Earth Prime was filled with animals called dinosaurs. Some of them were so big that they needed a second brain just to let the back end of the creature know what the front end was doing…”
“And you see Emerson-5 as Earth Prime’s second brain?”
“If the Directorate wants to colonize that arm of the galaxy it has to be. Look at the map. Everything in our parsec funnels down to this point. It’s the natural launching pad for the next generation of exploration and exploitation… and whoever is set up here is primed to amass wealth of inconceivable proportions.”
“And Lydia Thompson has something to do with this?”
Harrison Hill sat back in his chair and smiled. “Why do you think she is out here?” he asked. “Back on Earth Prime, she would be just another one of the members of an exclusive club. Her ideas on the Directorate could be voted down if a handful of others disagreed with her. But out here, she is a world to herself. You cast your lot in with her and you’ll own the Directorate before you’re through.”
The CPC came to a stop and Harry looked out the window. “Where are we?” he asked.
“The Directorate’s private hotel. I’ve had your luggage sent up to a suite on the top floor. Normally, you would be assigned a set of rooms on the 5th floor as befitting your status, but Lydia said to put you on top.” Hill leaned over and handed Harry a pass card.
“This will get you through the front door and into your room. Get showered and cleaned up. I’ll pick you up in two hours.”
“Where are we going?” Harry asked.
“Emerson-5 is still a free planet. Even those budding space stations you saw being built when you assumed orbit are Indie owned. The Directorate is still treating this place as a way station. They are still concentrating on these two arms along the void.” He pointed to the areas on the holomap.“ And… since this is a free planet, I’m going to show you the time of your life.”