Lydia Thompson sat back and indulged her senses in the competing aromas that surrounded her. There was the ever present fragrance of the bougainvillea-like flowers that permeated the air inside the LifeShield, only on this night it was juxtaposed to the sharp, acrid odor of the cigars smoked by five of the men who controlled the mining interest on Magnum-4. They were all assembled in Seth Thomas’s garden in the owners’ district of Nova-3. It was hardly neutral ground, but Lydia enjoyed bearding the tiger in his own den. Thomas, Allen, Greene, Bradshaw and Mather were all hard men, made hard by enterprising lives they had chosen. She knew that it took strong men to wrestle the wealth from the ground of a planet and control the crews that manned the mining machines.
But Thomas’ garden was the perfect spot. That’s why Lydia had suggested it for the meeting. Had she been on Earth Prime, she would have held the meeting in her lofty offices in the Directorate Towers, miles above the ground. They would have been totally intimidated in her hermetically sealed aerie in which she controlled everything including the amount of oxygen they breathed in. But she didn’t want that. She wasn’t negotiating for Directorate rights. She was negotiating for hers despite what the others might think. Let them think my back is up against the wall, not theirs, she thought. But she didn’t have to worry about her back. Quincey had that. His dark form stood motionless off to her right casting an ominous shadow in the soft light of the garden lanterns which hung above their heads.
Lydia looked up and smiled. The night could almost be called romantic. The scrubbers were circulating the air in a counter clockwise direction creating the gentlest of breezes. Magnum-4 did not have a moon and above them the magnified starlight refracted its lacy pattern through the great arc of the dome. All she needed was the music.But what kind, she wondered. Something soft, perhaps even melancholy. Off to her left, the five men stood in a tight group with their heads close together. Their voices were low and murmuring. Every now and again, one of them would pick his head up and look over at her. She smiled and allowed them to talk themselves into her position at their own pace. There was no hurry. She would be ready when they were.
Seth Thomas nodded with the others then broke away from the group and walked up to Lydia. Lydia watched him approach. He was a small man, stocky with bowed legs. She saw Thomas’ eyes quickly dart to Quincey in the shadows behind her. “So you’re saying that the Directorate has no intentions towards our planet,” he said.
“No, what I’m saying is that the Directorate is not concerned with you, as yet,” Lydia corrected.
“But the red-ore?” Ethan Allen asked from his position a few yards away.
Lydia turned to him. He was another small man only unlike Thomas, Allen was thin, almost wraith-like. She assumed that he was suffering from some kind of lung ailment. “The red-ore is not a problem,” Lydia said.
“But our planet is red-ore practically from its surface right down to its nickel core,” Allen said.
“It’s not the amount of ore you have,” Lydia said.“It’s your ability to export it which puts you in a very enviable position.”
“How so?” Thomas asked.
Despite their entrepreneurial acumen, Lydia smiled at their business naivety. “Gentlemen,” she said standing up and walking towards their little group. “You currently pose no threat to the Directorate. You might if you had this planet cocooned with space stations and were shipping the red-ore in vast quantities. But you aren’t. You are shipping it in limited quantities thus maintaining its relative value within the Directorate economic system. No matter which way the value of the Directorate currency fluctuates, your red-ore remains the bellwether commodity against system wide inflation or deflation. Look what you’ve done here already. By limiting the amount of red-ore you export, you have built a virtual paradise. Everyone’s needs are met. All they have to do is ask and it appears on the next in-bound freighter. You also control your population by allowing only those with specific jobs access to your limited living space...”
“But what’s to stop Earth Prime from sending one of their Space Cavs here?” Mather interrupted. He was the tall man standing at the back of the others.
Good, Lydia thought. The questions are going in the right direction. “Nothing,” Lydia answered aloud. “But why would they?”
“Isn’t red-ore reason enough?” Allen asked.
“No it isn’t,” Lydia answered. “Technically, this is Directorate territory. The cone of space delineated for Directorate control extends in this direction. But the Directorate has already made the decision not to cross the void, but hug the sides of the nebula in order to get to the other side. They see no point in controlling a vacuum. Other corporations cannot interfere in Directorate business nor do they have the mandate to do so. As long as you maintain your current shipping level, the Directorate will simply ignore you. As long as the Directorate ignores you, the other corporations will do likewise.”
“Are you suggesting we limit our mining?” Allen asked.
“No. I’m suggesting you limit your shipping. Mine all you want and warehouse it but trickle it out to the Directorate. That will keep them off guard and out of your hair.”
“Why are you telling us this?” Mather asked. “What do you get out of it?”
“It keeps the Directorate out of my hair,” Lydia said.
It was time to leave. For all intents and purposes, the meeting was over. All the information she wanted the men to have was now in their possession. It would take them some time to assimilate it, argue it out among themselves, and come to the conclusion that she wanted them to come to. But time was on her side.
She signaled for Quincey. He walked up beside her and she took his arm.
“I can’t defend you if you’re holding on to me,” he said quietly.
“I’m in no danger from these men,” Lydia said. “But if I came alone, they would have been too intimidated.”
“So, I’m arm candy,” Quincey said.
“More or less,” Lydia said.
Quincey escorted Lydia through Seth Thomas’ house. She found it considerably more ostentatious than Steve’s but Thomas was trying to impress; Steve was trying to live. The art and the tapestries were over-powering. “Who needs rugs on the walls in this Eden-like climate,” Lydia whispered as they walked through the main room towards the door.
“Maybe he’s trying to recreate the subtle feeling of being underground,” Quincey commented.
“I think you may be right,” Lydia said.
“Did you convince them?” Quincey asked.
“They need to convince themselves,” Lydia said.
Quincey chuckled softly. It was a soft rumble that came from deep within his chest.
Lydia patted his arm. “I have a personal fortune that is practically limitless,” she said. “But it will only matter to them when they have something at risk.”
“The more they risk…”
“The more in my debt they will be,” Lydia said.
They walked down the main entrance way to the private cable-cars parked beside the main gate to Seth Thomas’ compound. Quincey signaled to Lydia’s gripman. The man engaged the cable and brought the car up to the car-mount. The two of them got in and the gripman put the car in motion. Sitting back in the passenger’s settee with Quincey on an ottoman covering her back, Lydia asked, “How’s your ancient history?”
“Pretty bad,” Quincey admitted.
“Diamonds,” Lydia said.
“What do rocks have to do with this?”
“They are rocks now, but once upon a time, they were one of the most precious stones on Earth Prime. Before the mechanized ages, diamonds had to be mined much like red-ore. It was a difficult and dangerous business. But even before the dawn of the mechanized age, the companies that mined the diamonds began to realize that they were not as uncommon as people thought. As they mined more and more of them, they realized that if they put all the diamonds on the market at the same time, their value would plummet. So they put them out little by little. They created the fiction of a limited resource and people paid a high price for them. The average consumer never realized that virtually everybody on the planet had at least one diamond. In the end, the diamond companies flooded the planet with their product without the consumers ever knowing that they had been paying a premium price for something as common as dirt.”
“And on this planet, red-ore IS dirt,” Quincey said.
“Exactly,” Lydia answered. “And if I can control it…”
“You would virtually control the Directorate economy.”
“Let’s say that I could influence it far beyond any degree that the Directorate would be comfortable with… if they knew.”
“Do they know?”
“I think they suspect,” Lydia said. “They have sent an young executive type to try to talk me into going back to Earth Prime. His ship went into orbit earlier this evening. They will clear quarantine and the passengers will be allowed to disembark tomorrow morning.”
“Will you go back?”
“I am not sure that it would be in my best interest to,” Lydia confessed. “But no matter. I will have plenty of time to pull this young man’s chain before I decide my next move.” The cable-car pulled up in front of the main entrance to Steve’s estate and the gripman disengaged the cable and the car coasted to a stop. Quincey got out and held the door for Lydia. As Lydia stepped to the walkway, she turned to Quincey. “By the way, Steve’s daughter is on the same ship. I’ve talked Steve into giving a little party for her. If it won’t upset your sensibilities, it would please me if you would be my guest.”
“I would be delighted,” Quincey said. “I always get a kick out of the way Jane has Steve wrapped around her little finger. I need some new material to tease him over.”
“I’ll let you know when.” Quincey held the front gate for her and she passed through. Lydia stepped through then turned around. “I’ll be fine from here on,” she said. “Why don’t you take the cable-car. It will save you from walking to where ever you are going.”
“Thanks, I’ll do that.” Quincey allowed the gate to close between them before he turned and re-entered the vehicle. Lydia almost felt like waving.
She watched him drive away then turned and started walking down the long path to Steve’s front door. It was dark. The canopy of lush greenery hid the stars forcing her to walk down a mottled corridor filled with the fragrant aromas that she had come to associate with a word that she thought she would never use again: home.
Lydia liked approaching the house from this angle. Steve had designed his front gardens to hide the residence from all visitors until they were at the exact distance when their eyes would suddenly be filled with the vista of the house framed by a portion of the dome like a shimmering halo. At night the revelation was even more stunning: the house, the stars, the dome all combined to present an image of power, mastery, witha touch of the ethereal. It was designed to take your breath away and it did hers… only on this night for the wrong reason.
Lydia stopped at the edge of the garden. The house was dark. The effect wasthe opposite from the one that Lydia had expected. It was as if there were a hole in the starlight. She crossed the front lawn and climbed the steps to the front door. It was unlocked. She opened it. “Steve?” she called out. A silence she had never experienced answered her. The air was thick and heavy and warm. It took her a moment to realize that the house scrubbers weren’t running. Now, she knew that something was terribly wrong. Steve always kept his scrubbers running. “Steve?” she called out again, only this time with a little more force and a touch of desperation.
She crossed the entrance hall to the far wall and felt for the light panel. She found it and engaged the main switches. Nothing happened. She triggered the emergency lights and the house was suddenly filled with a low level red glow from recessed fixtures hidden along the edges of the ceiling. She looked around. Nothing appeared out of place or broken. She saw exactly what she expected to see and despite the semblance of normality, the house felt strangely empty.
Lydia walked down to the living room. Everything appeared exactly as she left it. She walked around and checked the other rooms. She even went up stairs. It was the same. She returned to the living room. Steve was not in the house. She wondered if the lack of electricity was the reason for his absence. She walked over to his cigar cabinet, the most obvious place that he would have left a note for her, but there was none. She turned to leave when a faint aroma caught her attention. She turned. The door to the back patio was open.
The aroma bothered her. It triggered sudden memories of Earth Prime and not good ones. She remembered being at the street level and having to travel under the perpetual shroud of wet smog that clung to the lower stories of the Directorate buildings like the mold on an old piece of fruit. She stepped outside. The smell was stronger only here there was fecal edge to it like a backed up sewer. She followed her nose to the opposite side of the patio near the steps that led to the ground level. There was a dark mass on the ground where the smell was the strongest. She descended the stairs. The mass took on a crumpled human shape. Fear surged through her. She caught her breath and had to force herself to breathe. There was a stench that rose from the body. Lydia had seen and smelt death before. It was the kind of memory that no amount of Youth Treatments could erase.
Lydia knelt next to the body. He was laying face down on the ground. She rolled him over. She had to use two hands. His dead weight was almost too much for her. On his back, his eyes were open and staring at the night sky. Lydia looked at his chest and pulled away suddenly. His shirt was stained black with his blood where it had leached from a long, jagged wound. Someone had shoved a blade-like object into his belly and had ripped up into his heart. A powerful stench arose from the gaping wound.
Lydia stood up and backed away. Fear and sorrow fought for supremacy in her emotions. She sobbed loudly then stifled it by covering her mouth with her right forearm. She breathed deeply through her nose to regain control. When she was sure that she was once again master of herself, she reached into her tunic pocket for her PCD and called Quincey.
He answered quickly. “Is there a problem?” he asked.
“Get back here,” she whispered. “Steve’s been murdered.”
“I’m on my way,” Quincey answered. “Have you called the authorities?”
“I’ll take care of it. Where are you?”
“At the bottom of the patio stairs in the back garden,” she answered.
“Go inside. Sit down and wait. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” He terminated the call.
Lydia numbly did as she was told. She climbed the stairs, crossed the back patio and re-entered the house. She sat down on the sofa and crossed her hands primly in her lap and waited.It was the hardest thing she had ever had to do.