When dinner was over, the captain asked every one to police their own places and take their plates, silverware and glasses to the counter for the mess crew to collect and clean for their next meal. While the passengers did that, one of the crew came out with a large urn-like container and a tray of mugs. He put the container down in the middle of the table. “Coffee,” he announced. “Real coffee.Fresh from the mountain planet associated with Rigel-3.”
“Where in the Hell did you get real coffee?” Parker Huntington asked gruffly.
“Damaged container in the fifth hold,” the crewman replied.
“How much is it going to cost us,” one of the passengers asked.
“You’ve already paid for it,” the captain said. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a bare bones freighter. We are loaded heavy taking supplies to Magnum-4. On the way back, every hold will be packed with red-ore. I think the folks on Magnum-4 can spare a little coffee to insure their cargo will reach the processors safely.”
Everyone laughed. Everyone except Harry Salem. This was not the kind of information that his spread sheets tracked. Suddenly he wondered how legitimate the ORION’S STAR really was. “Do you have much problem with commerce raiders out here?” he asked helping himself to a mug of the dark brew.
The captain snickered. “Not on the outbound trip. We are not carrying anything of value.”
Harry toasted the captain with his coffee. “This is nothing of value?”
“Not compared to what we will be transporting on the return run. That’s when we have to be careful. It’s been known to happen, but for the most part, the Emerson-5 to Magnum-4 run is raider free.”
“Why is that?” Harry asked.
“There’s no place for them to hide,” the captain said. “The space between Emerson-5 and Magnum-4 is the deadest piece of space in this galaxy that you will ever find. We could literally see them coming in more than enough time to make our getaway or retreat to the protection of Magnum-4.”
“Are you telling me that Magnum-4 has the weapons to protect you?” Harry asked.
Several of the men laughed and the young woman who had been sitting next to the captain shook her head.
“What’s so funny?” Harry asked.
“You are,” Miss Somerset said fingering a small, elongated pendent on a chain around her neck.
Harry did not know how to take that. He knew he was being insulted, but he didn’t know how to respond to it.
The man who had been sitting opposite the girl on the other side of the captain poured two mugs of coffee from the dispenser and took one of the mugs over to the girl. He smiled at her as he handed her the mug.
“Thank you, Fitz,” she said taking the mug and inhaling deeply over the dark and aromatic brew.
Fitz turned to Harry. “You’re not from around here, are you?” he asked with a satiric lilt in his voice. Harry looked at him. In his body conforming pressure suit, them an looked perfect. He was a little taller than Harry but he was incredibly well developed. Harry wondered if he were as strong as he looked.
“You can tell?” Harry decided to play along. There was no place for him to go.
“My guess is that you’re from one of the inner planets, perhaps Earth Prime. You look kind of like a bookkeeper,” Fitz said, “so let me clue you in.”
“I’m all ears,” Harry said.
“Magnum-4 doesn’t have any weapons,” Fitz began. “We don’t need them. The red-ore is our defense. No one is going to attack a freighter like this for its inbound cargo. Anyone who would want what we’re carrying would have a better shot taking on a ship closer to one of the producing planets. On the outbound trip loaded with red-ore, all this ship has to do is turn around and race any pursuer back to Magnum-4 and jettison its cargo containers. The red-ore would fall back to the planet surface where it would be re-harvested.”
“The real problem is inside Directorate space proper. A freighter such as this one would be a prime target for a commerce raider or two. But then we have the First Space Cavalry that we can call on if we need them,” the captain said.
“So which mining concern has hired you?” Fitz asked.
“None of them,” Harry said.
“Then what are you doing on board?” the captain asked.
For a moment, Harry thought about telling them that he worked for the Directorate. He would love to see them eat their own shit-eating grins. But at the last minute he said, “Lydia Thomson sent for me. I work for her.” There was absolute silence and everyone’s hands froze in mid motion. Harry smiled but inside he was pumping an arm.Gotcha!
“Do you know Lydia Thompson?” Miss Somerset asked.
“Not personally,” Harry answered. “But I will be staying with her when I get to Nova-3.”
“Then maybe we should get to know each other a little better, since Lydia Thompson is a guest at my house,” Miss Somerset said. She stood up and walked over to Harry. She held out her hand. “My name is Jane Somerset,” she said.
“Harry Salem,” Harry said shaking her hand. He smiled subtly at her grip. Even the women shake hands like a man out here, he thought.
“This is John Fitz-Porter,” Jane said nodding towards the man who had served her the coffee. “He works for the mining concern that operates dome #2.”
Fitz-Porter raised his cup in a mock salute.
“Dome two?” Harry asked.
“Do you walk into every adventure this blind?” Jane asked.
Harry shrugged his shoulders.
“It’s a wonder you’re still alive,” Jane said with a laugh. She walked around the table and sat down next to Fitz-Porter. Harry followed. “There are 6 mining concerns operating on Magnum-4,” she began. “Each one operates a separate dome with its own life support facilities.”
“Think of them like mega warehouses where each concern stores its mining tools and harvested red-ore,” Fitz-Porter said.
“Each mining concern employs several thousand people,” Jane said. “Those people live in the main dome, Nova-3. No one is allowed to live in the mining domes. For safety, all the mining domes are far enough below the horizon from Nova-3 so that in the event of an accident they will not affect the city.”
“The mining domes are connected to Nova-3 by pneumatic rail tubes that allow transport vehicles to move the workers to and from the city,” Fitz-Porter said.
“The mining domes themselves are not connected,” Jane added.
“What’s Nova-3 like?” Harry asked.
“You’re going to have to see it to believe it,” Jane said.
“The terraformers earned their keep on that one,” Fitz-Porter said.
“How so?” Harry asked.
“It turns out that when you strip the red-ore of it’s iron and gold and run it through the terraforming process, it yields a particularly nutrient rich by-product that the imported plants have had a field day with,” Fitz-Porter said. “And Jane’s right. You’ll have to see it to believe it.”
Fitz-Porter slipped his arm around Jane’s shoulders in the time honored signal of male possession. Jane leaned back into him and smiled. Harry excused himself and took his coffee back to his cabin. Parker Huntington was waiting for him in the corridor.
As Harry moved to squeeze passed the big man, Huntington held out a beefy palm and stopped Harry in his tracks. “Boy, you’ve got Directorate written all over you,” he said in a low voice making sure that this conversation stayed between the two of them.
“What makes you think so?” Harry asked.
“My eyes and the fact that I’ve been around this part of the galaxy more than once,” Huntington answered. “You walk like your shit don’t stink… like you’re better than anyone else in the room. You don’t learn that except in Directorate controlled schools. You’re one of them that are being groomed for something big.”
“Think so?” Harry asked.
“So’s enough to tell you what I know so as maybe you’d owe me a favor or two down the line,” Huntington said.
Huntington smiled. “ ’Bout 60-years ago I was working a private security gig on a lonely little planet on the border of Directorate and Conglomerate space when a commerce raider drops out of folded space and goes into orbit right above my head. It’d obviously been in a firefight and had taken quite a bit of damage. Since there’d been no broadcasts on the Directorate bands, I figured they’d been running some kind of scam over the border in Conglomerate space and had tangled with either a Conglomerate security flyer or an Earth Prime Space Cav patrol. No skin off my nose. We weren’t processing anything that would be of any value to a raider so I let ’em be.”
“You’re telling me this because?” Harry said.
“I’m telling you this because the captain of that beat up hunk of junk was a dubious character named Steve Somerset, father of that cute little big-eyed girl you was talkin’ to over coffee and at whose house you will be stayin’ at when you get to Nova-3.”
“So what happened?” Harry asked.
“Nothin’,” Huntington answered. “I let him make repairs. He paid me for my time and silence and I watched him fly away. Not long after that, three Conglomerate pursuit ships drop in on me with a lot of questions.”
“What did you tell them?” Harry asked.
“Nothing I could tell ’em. I didn’t know anything. They worked me over pretty good and nosed around to make sure that I wasn’t involved and then they took off after Somerset. That was the last I heard of ’im until years later. I heard the rumor that he was operating out of Magnum-4. Apparently, he had survived those Conglomerate ships. Hell, you couldn’t ask for a better roost. You can see anyone comin’ at you before they even know you’re lookin’ at ’em.”
“Doesn’t seem to be hiding much if he’s hosting someone like Lydia Thompson,” Harry said.
“Sometimes, boy, being in the center of attention is the safest place to be.”