Have you been putting on some weight?

183 -1122.

On Regina, while Ghaer, Nicolai, and Mikie are otherwise occupied (in freezers or sunning themselves on the beaches of Jenghe - whichever explanation you prefer), Corina continues to try and "normalize" the affairs of the planet. That's "normal" within the meaning on Regina.

Regarding the mining rights that had been signed over to SternMetal by the late General Ramirez, Corina finally receives word that Gehardt Stern has gotten her message and is available for a meeting. When Stern arrives at Corina's office for their meeting, he sweeps her up into a bear hug and kisses her. What an interesting way of beginning contract negotiations.

Corina: "I asked you to come here because of the mining contract with Ramirez. How dare you strip mine my planet."

Stern: "Well, you weren't around and it didn't seem as though you'd be coming back to this planet. Mining is my business you know. I have a contract that gives me the mining rights, signed by the planetary government."

Corina: That's nothing I can't cancel.

Stern: All that paperwork stuff is kind of meaningless anyway, I have my machines ready to roll and I don't think that Ling Standard has the fire power to stop me.

Corina: Those Imperial Naval ships in orbit do.

Stern: You think that those naval vessels are going to get involved in a mega corporation dispute?

Corina: No. This isn't a mega corporation dispute. Ling Standard has nothing to do with this. This is about MY planet and YOUR contract. I don't think I actually need to invalidate your contract by decree, when it was signed the day, actually the afternoon, that Ramirez was murdered. It wouldn't even take a Martel to get this contract broken.

Stern: That's what I love about you, that fire. You've still got it. Actually it looks like you've finally put on some weight; it looks good on you. I like a strong woman. You just don't back away from a fight. Marry me. We'd be great together.

Corina: Actually, I'm already married.

Stern: Leave with me and we can fix that. We understand one another.

Corina: Yes, we're alike, which is precisely why we should never get married. Our marriage would make corporate wars look peaceful. We're both used to running the show-

Stern: Now I don't mind if the woman drives sometimes. You leave the mining operations to me and I'll leave the politics to you.

Corina: No. It would never work. It would ruin our relationship. How many other people can you threaten with a corporate war and have them call your bluff?

Stern: Well if you change your mind, you just let me know.

Corina: As far as the mine goes, what's there?

Stern: Beryllium copper and some rare earths; it's a rich vein 5 miles wide and 250 miles long that seems to run pretty deep.

Corina: I might be persuaded to honor the mining rights if I could be assured that you'd return the land to a sound ecological state.

Stern: We could make it the most scenic canyon on the planet. Of course that would be expensive. But the mining project would create a lot of jobs for your people. Probably 5,000 good paying jobs for say, at least five years.

Corina: I'm not sure that we're that hard up for jobs with the new naval base going in.

Stern: Yeah, but I'd be hiring on planet people. They just have to be able to read and follow instructions; we'd train them ourselves. The naval grey beards on Rhylanor have it in for the Regina union guys. They haven't forgotten or forgiven the lynching of the naval crewmen in the riot just after the formation of the neutral zone. They plan to hire as little local help as possible, using "lack of adequate security clearance" as a way to keep Regina workers off the project. I'll not only employ local miners, I'll build a town for them and ore loading facilities Downport. Just think of all the other jobs that will be added at the port to handle the additional shipping.

Corina: Well Gehardt, I'm inclined to let you do this mining, with adequate guarantees, but don't roll your machines yet. I'll have a new contract drawn up - with the new government, before you start.

Stern: What about Black? He's not going to be happy about this. Do you want me to get rid of him?

Corina: I don't think that parking an ore carrier on his head would be a good solution. He wants what's best for Regina. I think if we can reach an agreement, he will accept it.

Stern: I think that would be a wise move for everyone concerned. Just think of the potential effects on the Regina Stock Market if the new planetary government were to start nullifying existing contracts. It could be ugly.

Corina: When's the next grav ball game and what's the wager?

Stern: It's in a couple of weeks. My team was holding back last time, so bet whatever you plan to lose. A pair of Stern tattoos might be nice, especially if one's in a place you wouldn't normally see it.

Corina: And what if I win?

Stern: I'll stand in the center of the stadium and sing the Ling company anthem.

Corina: That doesn't sound permanent enough.

Stern: OK, then I won't strip mine your planet.

Corina: Funny. I'll have to think about the terms of the wager this time.

Stern: Well, you just let me know. I better get out of here before someone starts to think something's going on between us that isn't. See you later.

A short time after Stern departs, Black arrives at Corina's office. He asks: "Are you putting on weight? Well it looks good on you; you kind of glow." He then asks if Corina's seen Stern; she says yes, that they discussed the mining contract and employment prospects on Regina. Black hands a photo to Corina: it's a picture taken in her office of Stern kissing her, obviously taken that morning. Corina replies "Nice lens work". Black states that his men were just making sure that she was safe, because Black has invested a lot of time and effort getting her to accept this job. He doesn't want anything to happen to her, because she "holds the limelight so well". She states that she will need a crack security team since she plans to do a large number of public and crowd appearances over the next couple of months. Black states that this will be no problem. He will also introduce her to a couple of her team, so that she will feel more secure seeing them, but assures Corina that they will be just the first layer of security around her. He states that he will be sending someone over to have her fitted for more armor. This will be in consultation with her dressmaker of course.

They then discuss Stern's mining offer and his information regarding the naval construction. Initially Black volunteers to let some well known eco-terrorists loose to vandalize the mining equiptment and be "found dead". When Corina states that she thinks that's a bit much, Black offers to just turn the eco-terrorists loose, point them in the right direction and let them think that the vandalism is their own idea. Corina states that she's sure that Black would have no problem in persuading the eco-terrorists to do so, but persuading Stern not to go through with the project would be much more difficult. Corina also points out that they don't know how many mega-corportion "problems" Ramirez created for them. At least with Stern they may be able to reach a satisfactory compromise, which may not be the case with another company.

Black states that Ramirez's killer did not leave so much as a hair or a skin flake at the scene. The killer might also have cleaned out Ramirez's copies of paperwork detailing such businesss transactions before leaving. It was probably someone professional, possibly from off planet; also possibly in the employ of a mega-corporation, since professionals don't come cheaply. Black says "it was a job I would have been proud of myself".

Black wants to know how Regina can guarantee that Stern will not abandon the mining project part way through and never actually perform the promised post-mining restoration? Croina explains that it's simple: you estimate how much the restoration will cost and then prorate it for how much earth they will be moving. They you make them pay as they go along. Either a straight out tax on the earth moved, or a requirement to place the funds in an escrow account until they are needed for the restoration. Then if the project is abandoned half way through, "half" the funds are already available for the cleanup. Black agrees that with the proper safe guards, a mining agreement with Stern would be the best course of action. Especially since Ramirez might still have had more mega-corporation "irons in the fire".

Black wonders how the funds will be split? Corina replies that she wasn't planning on "splitting" any of the funds, she was planning on using them to fix the planet, but that if Black requires a percentage, she needs to know how much. Mr. Black states that she had misunderstood him, he was merely enquiring how the escrow funds were to be invested: stocks, corporate bonds, government bonds, etc. He went on to say that he has no real need for more money personally because his stock and art portfolios have done so well over the years. He states that he has actually not drawn his salary as the Director of Regina Security for a number of years, becuse he just doesn't need the money. Corina replied "some jobs you just do for fun".

Black then states that he had been rather successful in handling Duke Norris' portfolio for him and would be willing to do the same for Corina. Black sometimes "comes into the possession of certain information with which a profit may be made in the market" during the course of his work. Corina states that this probably isn't "insider trading" since Black is the quintessential "outsider". Corina would invest her annual official salary, Black would manage the funds, and she would receive an income of approximately one mega credit per year. Black states that this is more than adequate to actually pay all those hidden little expenses that being Duchess entails; like paying the salary for the Ducal Palace Guards. It's one of those old planetary customs that these guards are paid by the ruling house personally, not out of the planetary budget. Corina can see the logic of that.

Black enquires as to whether Corina is a fan of Percival, an artist well known for his religious art, who died recently. Corina states that she was familiar with his work. Black says that he had recently acquired a large number of Percival's private collection of personal erotic works. Corina states that she would like to see them some time (merely a polite response). Percival's religious works, such as the painting of "Christ in the Garden", are so well known that even people who don't recognise the name would recognise many of his works. In fact, Corina's secretary, Cindy, has a copy of one of Percival's religious works on her wall in the outer office.

Black then goes on to invite Corina to the opera. He is desperately seeking a companion that might enjoy the experience and actually be able to discuss the performance in an intelligent manner, as opposed to his sister, who hates it - even when she does go. Black suggests that perhaps Christine and Jack could get together and watch grav ball or something while he and Corina are at the opera. Corina states that although she's not sure that Jack enjoys the opera, his many years of security work have left him with a high boredom threshold, so he's usually willing to go. The idea of leaving Jack and Christine alone together is not very appealing to Corina - let alone to Jack, on many levels, given Christine's mental state and their previous interaction (gun fight). Black says that he will inform Corina's secretary of the opera date and time and he departs.

Later that afternoon a package arrives for Corina at the office. It's 9 feet wide, 6 feet tall , about 6 inches thick and wrapped in a brown cover. When Corina opens it with the assistance of her secretary, Cindy, they discover a large, flamboyent and very graphically detailed erotic painting - in the style of Percival. It's got small intricately detailed nudes and satyrs in every position and perversion that you can imagine ( as well as many that you couldn't before you saw them with you own eyes). Corina's reaction is "Uh oh. I know who this came from. What can I do with it? I've got to hang it somewhere. It's probably valuable now too. Bugger ." Cindy is entranced in the way that a person is watching a train wreck. She clearly recognises Percival's style if not his content. Corina recovers the painting and makes arrangements to loan it to the Regina Museum of Art for placement in their permanent collection with a plaque reflecting that it is "on loan from an anonymous collector". I'm sure it will be a stunning revelation in the art world. It will probably break attendance records for the museum too. It will probably even create an enormous popular demand for Percival's "erotic works"; Black assurredly has cornered the market on those. At least she won't have to look at the painting. What a brilliant partnership they have.