Hill was as good as his word. Harry was not prepared for the wealth of new experiences that Hill poured upon him. At first he was resistant to Hill’s enthusiasm. The restaurant was physically beneath anything that Harry would have ever entered on Earth Prime. But the food… the food was indescribable. It was fresh. Harry had never eaten fresh food before. Nothing was grown on Earth Prime anymore. It was all grown, processed and shipped in from farming planets in the Directorate’s control. Granted he received the best of the processed fare, but he had never tasted food that had been in the ground or hanging on a tree only hours before. Things were sweet and sour almost at the same time.
“I hope you like it,” Hill said. “The chef worked over time to arrange a specific array of textures and flavors that he knew you had never had on Earth Prime.”
“Do you eat like this all the time?” Harry asked.
“More than you would think,” Hill said. “And so does everyone else on this planet.”
“You mean this isn’t exclusive for Directorate personnel?”
“Hardly,” Hill laughed. “The average man on the street can buy everything you have on your plate (or had) at any of the local markets. He can take them home and cook them and eat them. That’s one of the perks of living on a producing planet, one that hasn’t been taken over by the Directorate and designated for a specific product.”
“But how do you maintain control or order?” Harry asked.
“You don’t. The natural market forces take care of that,” Hill explained.
Harry shook his head. “But that leads to chaos,” he said.
“Not as often as the Directorate or the other corporations would have you think,” Hill said.
“But isn’t your job to impose Directorate order out here?”
Hill smiled. “It’s part of my job description. But I can assure you that I am very bad at it.”
“Subverting Directorate policy is a punishable offense,” Harry said.
“No… missing your projected quotas or some how messing with the bottom line is the punishable offense,” Hill corrected. “As long as I keep the Directorate in the black, they will leave me alone. And by the time they realize where my loyalties lie, it will be too late. They can replace me, but by then, I will have my own organization up an running and I won’t need them.”
Harry shook his head in disbelief. He was going to have to report what Hill said. He knew that Hill knew that he was going to have to report it. It was as if the man did not care. It was as if Hill were emphasizing what he said earlier about the Directorate not caring about what happened out here.
Suddenly Hill stood up. “There’s someone I want you to meet,” he said stepping away from the table and returning with a tall man in a military uniform. “This is Capt. O’Rourke of the First Space Cavalry. Capt. O’Rourke, Harry Salem of the Directorate, fresh from Earth Prime.”
Capt. O’Rourke stuck out his hand. Harry stood and shook it and winced from the same grip he had first encountered with Hill. “Pleased to meet you, Capt. O’Rourke,” Harry said.
“Sit down, sit down.” Capt. O’Rourke said. “Don’t let me interrupt your dinner.”
“Sit down with us,” Harrison Hill offered.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Capt. O’Rourke said. “Get me another glass, and I’ll even share your wine with you.” Hill laughed and signaled to the waiter. “So what brings a young Directorate executive out to the edge of explored space?”
“Directorate business,” Harry answered diplomatically.
The Captain and Hill laughed. The waiter arrived and Hill poured the Captain a drink.
“He’s been sent out here to try to convince Lydia Thompson to return to Earth Prime,” Hill said. Harry’s eyes opened wide with disbelief.
“You’re going to need a better poker face than that,” the Captain said. “This is good wine.”
“Glad you like it,” Hill said. He turned to Harry. “The Captain here is honor bound to defend all Directorate personnel and therefore is allowed to know any Directorate business that may affect his mission.”
“Protect us from what?” Harry asked.
“Commerce raiders, mostly,” Capt. O’Rourke answered.
“Commerce raiders?” Harry dropped his fork. “I didn’t know there were commerce raiders out here?”
“You wouldn’t,” Hill said pouring himself some more wine. “Raider attacks are not reported as such back on Earth Prime.”
“From what I hear, you’d find them under ‘loss leaders’ on your corporate reports,” Capt. O’Rourke said.
“I’ve seen that line on the spread sheets,” Harry said, “but I always assumed that those were ships lost to meteorite showers or other natural phenomena.”
“Unless a ship sails straight into a sun, there’s virtually nothing that will penetrate a shielded hull,” Hill explained. “The Indies are affected by commerce raiders more than Directorate ships.”
“Why is that?” Harry asked.
“Me, partly,” Capt. O’Rourke explained. “Attack a Directorate ship and you get the First Space Cav on your ass. Attack an Indie ship and I’ll get to it when I can.”
“Are there many commerce raiders out here?” Harry asked.
The Captain looked around the room. “I count half a dozen men that I suspect of raiding having dinner here, right now.”
“Can’t you arrest them, or something?” Harry asked.
“Love to. But without proof, what’s the point. I can’t arrest a man on supposition and out in space, if I find and engage a raider, I don’t stop to pick up the bodies,” the Captain said.
“Oh,” Harry said. He reached for his wine.
“So you’re outbound to lock horns with Lydia Thompson, are you? You should enjoy that. She’s quite a woman,” Capt. O’Rourke said.
“Do you know her?” Harry asked.
“I’ve had the pleasure several times,” Capt. O’Rourke said. “Where are you staying on Magnum-4? I hear that there are no Directorate facilities out there.”
“Lydia invited me to stay with her on the Somerset estate,” Harry said.
“Somerset? Steve Somerset?” Capt. O’Rourke asked.
“Yes. Do you know him?” Harry asked.
“Wish I didn’t,” Capt. O’Rourke said.“I could never prove it, but I’ll bet my career that the First Space Cav tangled with him more than a time or two.”
“And now?” Harry asked.
“He’s retired,” Capt. O’Rourke said putting the word ‘retired’ in vocal quotation marks. The Captain drained his glass. “Well, I’d better be off. Pleasure meeting you, Mr. Salem. Good luck on your dealings with Lydia.” He shook hands with them both and left.
Harry watched him cross the room to the exit. “I’m not sure I like what he said about this Mr. Somerset,” he said when he was sure that the captain was out of earshot.
Hill smirked. “Get used to it. Lydia has been known to surround herself with men who have made their way to the top by stomping on those beneath them. She’s a tough old bitch despite her youth treatments. You had better watch your ass when dealing with her.”
“She wants me to do a favor for her,” Harry said and immediately regretted that he had opened his mouth.
Hill’s fork stopped halfway to his face. “Well, well,” he said. “You’ve never met her and she’s already asking you to do favors for her. I wonder what I missed in your dossier…”
“You read my dossier?”
“As you have read mine.” Hill put his fork down and sat back. “Quick lesson, my young friend… out here it’s worth your life to know who you are dealing with. What kind of favor did she ask for?”
Harry took out his PCD and retrieved Lydia’s message. He showed it to Hill. “She wants me to go to that address and bring her the contents of a safety deposit box.”
“Well, I recognize the address,” Hill said handing the PCD back to Harry. “It’s our most secure depository here on the planet. Force-fields. Electronic shields. You name it. Unless you’ve got a handful of pass codes, you’ll never get passed the armed guards.”
“She gave me everything I need,” Harry said.
“Good. Then, after we finish having our good time, we can go over and you can retrieve whatever it is she wants.”