The ORION’S STAR was a commercial freighter with room for only a dozen or so passengers. Harry was forced to share a stateroom with two other men and a common dining area which serviced both the passengers and the crew of five. Harry felt strangled in his form fitting pressure suit. He lay uncomfortably on his bunk and wondered how he was going to pass the time. There were absolutely no amenities that catered to him. There was no holovision; no lounge; no observation deck. There were no people of his class and station to socialize with. It was either his room or the less appealing dining room/galley.
“So what takes you out to Magnum-4?” The question came from one of his roommates who was also lounging on his bunk hardly a step away from Harry’s. The two of them were alone. Their third bunkmate had not as yet shown up to claim his berth.
“Business,” Harry answered coolly.
“Of course it’s business,” the other said, “but what I mean is what kind of business? I’m a mining engineer. I was just wondering if you were one, too.”
Harry looked over at the other fellow. He was a young man, about Harry’s age, tall, if the relationship of his feet to the end of the bunk was any indication, and thin. He had long, ratty brown hair and even his pressure suit looked a little unkempt. Harry pegged him for someone who had graduated near the bottom of his class in engineering school. Had he graduated at the top, the Directorate would have scarfed him up. Had he graduated in the middle of his class one of the other licensed companies in the Directorate’s control area would have found him. Heading out to the ends of known space was an act of desperation.
“No,” Harry said. “Why would you think that?” He raised himself up on one arm and looked across the way.
“Well, there’s very little call for anything else and the powers-that-be won’t let just anyone travel out there. The terraforming hasn’t proceeded far enough along to allow any kind of mass migration.”
“Do you think there will be one, mass migration, that is?” Harry asked. He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go there in the first place, regardless what Hill had told him.
“It only stands to reason... because of the red-ore,” the man said. “The only thing keeping people away is the planet’s toxic atmosphere. If you don’t live in the main dome, you don’t live.”
Harry knew how precious the red-ore was. It was a mixture of iron and gold. Iron converted to steel was still a basic commodity for building on every planet and in the space program. Since ships were built in space, weight was no longer a factor eliminating the need for exotic metals and gold was a staple for space travel because of its conductivity and cold welding properties in zero gravity. From his own spreadsheets on Earth Prime, he knew the movement of all basic metals into and out of the Directorate territories. He knew that a steady stream of red-ore was coming in from one of the outer planets controlled by the Indies and he began to wonder if his “Lydia” assignment was more of a fact finding mission than a rescue one.
Suddenly the loudspeaker in their quarters barked, “All passengers please assemble in the dining hall for their mid-day meal.”
“That’s great,” the other man said. “I didn’t get a chance to fill up before I boarded.” He sat up quickly and jumped off his berth. When Harry didn’t move, the young man turned to him and said, “It’s kind of first come first served on a freighter like this, if you know what I mean.”
Harry didn’t. He was used to having his food reserved for him in whatever amounts he wanted.
Grumbling to himself, Harry climbed out of bed and followed his roommate out into the corridor. They walked down from the passengers’ quarters to the mess hall ducking bulkheads every dozen steps or so. Harry recognized sliding pressure doors in each bulkhead. The ORION’S STAR was so compartmentalized that if something breached its outer hull, the section around the hole could be sealed off with minimal loss of personnel. I still wouldn’t like to be between any two bulkheads that sealed, Harry thought. Having his blood boil did not seem a particularly easy way to die.
When Harry got to the mess hall, he noticed two things: first, there was a line for the food with no one to serve it to him and secondly the third person in line was that stunningly beautiful girl with the black hair he had seen on his trip from Earth Prime to Emerson-5. Harry stopped in the doorway to watch her. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. It seemed even blacker than it had before, if that were possible. She held her plate like she had the reading pad. He half expected her to float down the line. She turned and smiled to the man behind her, a craggy faced older man with large hands and thick fingers. Her smile was enchanting.
Harry watched as each person walked down the line with a plate and helped themselves to whatever they wanted. He had never seen such a thing. It was almost beneath his dignity as a Directorate executive, albeit a lower one, to serve himself. However, with his stomach growling, Harry found a clean plate and stepped to the end of the line. As he crossed the mess hall, the girl with the black hair crossed in front of him without looking at him.
Harry filled his plate with various things that looked and smelled edible then took his plate and looked for a place to sit. The head of the table was open, but when he set his plate down there, a good looking young woman with large brown eyes and brown hair done up in a kind of twist said, “That’s the captain’s chair. Not a good idea to take his seat.”
“What happens if I do?” Harry asked.
A calm, almost feminine voice behind him said, “Then I’ll have two of my crew toss you in an airlock and shoot you out into space minus your pressure suit and be happy to watch you implode in the vacuum.”
Harry turned. The captain was a small man. His head didn’t even reach the top of Harry’s shoulder. But Harry quickly recognized the look of authority and voice of command. He stepped back quickly from the chair.
“And besides, if you take my seat, then I won’t be able to sit next to the beautiful Miss Somerset.”
“Thank you, captain,” Miss Somerset said. She looked at Harry and smiled a knowing smile. “Sitting next to you is one of the most sought after pleasures of this trip.”
“Then I guess I’ll take my food and find another place to sit,” Harry said.
“You do that,” the captain said.
Harry walked down to the middle of the table and found a place next to his engineer roommate. The young fellow stuck out his hand and said, “We never got around to introducing ourselves. I’m Mark Chapman.” They shook hands. The hard grip, Harry was coming to realize, was the standard fare this far from Earth Prime. Using his fork to point, Mark said under his breath, “That’s our other roommate, Parker Huntington.” He indicated a heavy set, bull of a man who was sitting at the other end of the table next to the young woman with the black hair. “He’s famous. He has the reputation of being some kind of freelance law enforcement officer. Been at it now for almost two lifetimes. I figure now that the colony is getting bigger, they’ve probably seen the need for some kind of law and order.”
Harry nodded and wondered what all the other people were doing there? From everything he had learned so far, one thing was certain: no one traveled to Magnum-4 for pleasure.