Harry and Hill partied ’til dawn. Hill took Harry to a series of clubs each one more exotic to the young traveler than the one before. If there were anything like them on Earth Prime, Harry had never seen them. Even if he had known about them, Harry wasn’t sure that he would ever have gone to one. For a young man in his position, it simply would not be done, not that he was a prude or anything like that. He had had his fair share of holo, cyber, and real sexual experiences. However, he had never been in a room where several, beautiful, naked women danced or spun from rings or twisted their bodies into unimaginable human knots.
At dawn, Hill broke off their partying to take Harry out to watch the sunrise. Harry had never seen a sun rise from ground level before. He was totally unprepared for the colors generated in an unpolluted atmosphere.
“Well, what do you think?” Hill asked as he smoked a cigar and they stood at the edge of the city overlooking a field of golden grain that stretched all the way to the horizon.
“I can’t think,” Harry answered.
Hill smiled. “We’re cutting things pretty close. The freighter for Magnum-4 leaves in a couple of hours. Miss this one and you’ll have to wait another 24 days for the next one. I suggest we pick up whatever it is that Lydia wants and get you packed and ready to go.”
They climbed back into the CPC and Hill ordered the driver to take them to the secure storage facility. The building was located in the northwest part of the city. At first sight, Harry was not impressed. All he saw was a smallish, one-storied block of a building surrounded by 25-yards of open lawn on either side. The lawn itself was surrounded by short, squat barriers that would prevent anyone from driving a vehicle up to the building.
“What about some kind of flying craft?” Harry asked as he and Hill discussed the building’s security.
“Anything flying close would be hit by an electromagnetic pulse killing the engine and forcing it to crash,” Hill explained. “I don’t even think that the mainframe of the Directorate has as an elaborate defensive system.”
They walked the only path to the front door. Harry punched in the first of the security codes that came with Lydia’s message. The door opened. They stepped into a small cubicle and the door closed behind them. Harry’s skin tingled.
“We’re being scanned for weapons and electronic devices,” Hill said. “When the sweepers deem that we are clean, we’ll be allowed to proceed.”
The tingling stopped. A door opened at the back of the cubicle. Hill lead Harry through. A gnomish man with pale skin sat at a desk in front a bank of numbered elevators. Harry had never seen anyone who looked like him before. He almost looked like an alien, but Harry knew that aliens did not exist.
“Your destination,” the little man asked. Harry read the number off his PCD. The little man extended a small box towards him. “Thumb print please,” he said. Harry rolled his thumb across the top of the box. The little man looked at a screen embedded in the top of his desk. “I see that you are not the original purchaser of the storage unit.”
“No,” Harry said. “I’ve been instructed to retrieve its contents and transport them to Magnum-4.”
“Do you have an authorization code for me?” the little man asked.
Harry consulted his PCD and read off a 15-digit number.
“Proceed to elevator 7. The door will open and you will enter. Push the down button. The elevator will stop at sub-level 75. You will get off and proceed to your right. The safety deposit box you are looking for is about 12 paces on your left and at about eye level. The instructions for opening it are on the box.”
Harry and Hill followed the gnome’s instructions. The elevator had only one button. Harry pushed it and they descended so quickly that it reminded Harry of a shuttle re-entering the atmosphere. As they were descending, Harry turned to Hill. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone who looked like him.”
“You wouldn’t have,” Hill said. “His parents were exposed to radiation releasing a handful of recessive genes. On Earth Prime he would have been aborted. Out here, well, let’s just say that he pulls his weight and that’s all that matters.”
When they reached their destination, the door opened. Harry stepped out and found himself in a long corridor filled with secure storage boxes from floor to ceiling.
“There are a lot of storage boxes,” Harry commented.
“People come from all over corporation space to hide things here,” Hill said. “It’s one of the reasons that Emerson-5 is still a free planet. There are too many secrets here to be considered safe under any one corporation’s banner.”
Harry walked down the corridor and found the box he was looking for. He followed the instructions and opened it. The box contained an old book sealed with a thumb lock. Harry held it up for Hill to see. “What the Hell?”
Hill took it from him and turned it around in his hands. “I’m guessing that what we have here is an old commerce raider’s log,” he said.
“What?In written form?” Harry took it back.
“I wouldn’t try to open it,” Hill said. “It’s probably booby trapped in some way.”
“I don’t understand,” Harry said.
Hill shook his head and smiled. “Commerce raiders are funny people,” he began. “They can be blood thirsty and ruthless on the one hand and as prissy as the most terra-bound accountant on the other. Raiders operate on a share basis. Every member of the crew gets a share of the spoils as does the captain and the people who funded the raid to begin with. Because of that, all spoils are meticulously documented to insure that all parties get their fair shares.”
“But why something as antique as a book?” Harry asked.
“Memory chips can be erased or over-written or damaged in any one of a hundred electromagnetic ways. For some reason, raiders think that hand-written ship’s logs are safer. Old fashioned ink and paper.”
“But you can erase, ink,” Harry said.
“You can bleach the paper and do all kinds of things. But it’s quicker and easier to test to see if the paper has been meddled with than to try to get underneath all the levels of binary code on a memory chip. Commerce raiders and their sponsors are not the most trusting of individuals.”
“What would Lydia want with an old raider’s log?” Harry asked.
“That is a most intriguing question,” Hill said.
Harry closed the box and the two of them returned to the surface. Harry was quiet on the ride back to the hotel.Hill did not intrude on his thoughts.
When they got back to the hotel, Hill held the door for Harry. “Get cleaned up, dressed and packed. I’ll pick you up in a about an hour, earth-time.”
Harry went back to his room. After a night of partying he felt exhausted, but despite himself, he had to admit that he had had fun. It wasn’t the sort of thing that he would have done on Earth Prime, but then he wasn’t on Earth Prime. The rules were different. They were enabling. He didn’t have to look over his shoulder and worry about saying and doing the right thing. Harry smiled. He could get used to this kind of freedom.
Not knowing when he was going to be exposed to hot water, Harry took a long, long shower. He didn’t even think about shutting off the water until his skin had begun to prune. Then, he got out and throwing a towel over his wet shoulder, he stepped into the bedroom. The first thing he saw was a masked figure leaning over his bed. In one hand he held the raider’s log and in the other some kind of weapon. “What the hell… drop that book...” Harry took two steps totally forgetting that he was naked. The hooded figure turned around and shot him. All Harry saw was an explosive, white light at the front end of thing the man held in his hand and simultaneously he felt as if something exploded in his chest. He felt himself flying backwards through the bathroom door propelled by some kind of concussive force. His breath was knocked out of him. He hit the shower door and bounced off it and fell to the floor. He literally saw stars… flashes of lights… white lights… blue lights… red lights. And then he lost consciousness.
Harry dreamed. He was naked running in a field of golden flowers. The dancers from last night were swinging in the air above his head. Everyone was laughing. He stopped running and turned. In the distance he saw the tall Directorate towers reaching into the sky. The tops of the buildings were lost in the clouds. He turned again. The black-haired beauty from the transport ship stood before him shaking her head and smiling. Harry felt embarrassed and looked for something with which to cover himself. In the distance, he heard his name being called. Hill was looking for him. Harry tried to shout to let him know where he was, but he couldn’t breathe. Suddenly he panicked. He couldn’t breathe. He started to thrash around.
“Easy Harry, easy now. Don’t fight it. Relax. Take a slow breath… slowly.” Hill was standing over him. Harry felt Hill’s his arms around his waist as he was slowly raising and lowering him off the floor trying to ease air back into his lungs.
“What happened?” Harry asked weakly.
“You’ve been shot with a stunner,” Hill explained.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Coming out of the bathroom. Man standing over my bed. Book in his hand. White light. Pain.”
Hill released Harry and stood up. “Where was the book?” he asked.
“On my bed,” Harry answered.
Hill walked into the other room. “Well, it’s gone now,” he said.
Harry slowly sat up. His chest burned. “What did he shoot me with?” Harry asked.
“A stun gun. The type that commerce raiders use when boarding ships when they want to be sure to take down the crew without causing a hull breach.”
“Damn it hurts.”
“It’s supposed to. It’s not designed to kill only to incapacitate. You’ll have a nasty bruise for a couple of days but that’s about it.”
“I suppose I should be glad whomever it was didn’t kill me,” Harry said.
“No. Killing you would have been a real bad move,” Hill said.
“Harry… you are a member of the Directorate, albeit a lowly one. However, you still have Directorate status. If anyone killed you, your death would be investigated by the First Space Cavalry. The last thing that any commerce raider wants to have is Captain O’Rourke filling the skies with his warships.”
“What do I do now?” Harry asked.
“Get dressed and make your flight. I’ll investigate from this end. You’ll have to report this to Lydia. It’s more an affront to her that to you. She is a powerful enemy. She’s not going to take kindly to having one of her own shot and robbed.”
“I’m not one of hers. Remember, I’m supposed to bring her back to Earth Prime.”
“You were on a mission that she assigned to you. That makes you hers by default.”
“I don’t suppose there’s anyone here we should report this to?” Harry asked.
“Use your head. The only person who needs to know is out on Magnum-4. You’ll get there practically at the same time any message sent to her from here would. This is the frontier not Earth Prime. Wrap your mind around that or the next time you get shot, you might not get up off the floor, Directorate or no Directorate.”