Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Four

What was I thinking? You don't stop an assassination-in-progress! You mind your own business and stay the heck out of trouble! People that interfere with assassinations become secondary targets, if the Police don't decide to blow holes into them for attempted murder. Regulations are strictly-enforced in orbit space. Pilots firing on each other in the vicinity of a space station or in a planet's airspace are felons attempting to commit murder. Fines are high and if you don't pay, you die. So, this brings me back to the original question... what the hell was I thinking? I don't know, I only knew that a lot of people were going to die if I didn't do something about this. Maybe even the whole station might be destroyed. Stations are easy to build and whoever is paying for the assassination might actually be a rival company who wants to eliminate all of the higher-ups at WBD&S and is using Mr. Weaver's name as a cover for "the entire partnership." It's more than likely that all four of them will be at this big party... Actually, it was quite a brilliant plan! If I was back on the circuit... I shook my head. Let's think about how we were going to prevent this atrocity.

I knew that trying to pick off the assassins would not be a good idea. Whoever took the contract had to have a ship that was far tougher than the Gray Wolf. I reasoned that perhaps the best course of action would be to send a message to the traffic control warning them about the assassination attempt. Then they'd be able to scramble their police ships. I imagine the assassins wouldn't be interested in opening fire if they saw the Vipers already in wait. (I know I wouldn't!) However, if they were packing something like a Plasma Accelerator on their ship, then it wouldn't really matter how many police ships were waiting to stop them, they'd be toast after one shot! So many possibilities and not enough time to come up with a foolproof strategy to cover them all! I'll radio the traffic control, then I may just have to make a personal house call on Mr. Dreyfuss's birthday gala! During the trip through hyperspace, I took some time to polish up the gold on my good flight suit... the one that always impresses the ladies!

* * * * *

I had no time to lose, if I was going to arrive at the time of the party, I had to rely on some rather unorthodox flying. I had to have complete control of the ship, rather than make use of the autopilot. I used the navigation computer to locate Boston Base, then had the autopilot aim my nose in the right direction. As soon as that was done, I disengaged the autopilot and kicked the thrusters on to their full 18Gs. I was pretty sure I had enough fuel to do what I intended. If I didn't, I'd find myself floating out the other side of the system, probably never to be recovered, unless my velocity was slow enough.

* * * * *

Eight hours later, I was rocketing toward Birminghamworld at over 7,000 kilometers per second. I looked down at the fuel indicator, which registered a tank that was about 3/4 full. Normally, the autopilot would have leveled off my acceleration and prepared to engage the retros. However, if I was going to get there in time for the party, I knew I had to let the main engine keep firing at its full thrust. If we survived this, I was definitely prepared to bring the Gray Wolf into the shipyard for an engine servicing...

* * * * *

Six more hours later, I awoke from a deep sleep to find that the Gray Wolf was moving at an unbelievable 10,000 kilometers per second! At this speed, ships have been known to get scarred by micrometeorites. Slowing down was not an option, I had to keep moving. I thought about switching off the drive for safety's sake, but if I was to get there and have time to actually warn anybody... I decided to let the ship continue its crazy acceleration.

I headed back into the living area and dialed up some more coffee. While it was brewing, I opened up the ship's locker. I pulled out a small black leather case. I stared at the gleaming box for a long time, pondering an idea. There were a lot of memories associated with that case, unfortunately, many of them were memories that could turn stomachs. I actually considered breaking the tight vacuum seal... Nah, don't worry about it, I thought, I'm going to a party, not a thieves' den. I put the case back into the locker and sealed the small compartment and laughed to myself as I headed back up to the cockpit, Of course, it is a corporate executives' party. So, maybe I am going to a thieves' den after all!

* * * * *

Racing through the cosmos at over 16,000 kilometers per second is quite a wild ride. It was about 2:00 in the morning on May 15th, 3250 when I shut off the Gray Wolf's powerful engine and consulted the navigation computer. Yup, that tiny little dot in the middle of my viewport was Birminghamworld. With this in mind, I turned on the rear view display screen and activated the manual helm. I pushed the control stick to the left and watched as the view of the tiny planet slid across the cockpit windshield and came to rest in the middle of the rear view display. Good, I thought, A simple textbook maneuver from the old days of space travel. I re-locked the controls and hit the engine switch. The powerful interplanetary drive system sprang back to life, now firing to reduce the Gray Wolf's incredible velocity. I knew I had to resort to this rather unorthodox strategy as the ship was moving far too fast for the retros to be able to slow her down in time. At this rate of deceleration, I predicted that I'd be moving just slow enough to be able to get in line with the space station in a matter of a few hours.

* * * * *

As soon as the Boston Base traffic control granted my docking clearance, I turned the ship back over to the autopilot and sprang from my seat. I was a little agitated that they took my warning message less than seriously. In fact the words "Ha ha," still rattled around in my head. Thank God I had the self control not to laser the station myself!

I burst into my cabin and pulled out my party suit. I remember the day I was issued this formal ship commander's flight suit, at my graduation from the starpilot's flight school. It was a nice-looking uniform, you just wouldn't see me in it unless I absolutely had to look all formal. Unfortunately, this party was one of those occasions. I knew I stood a better chance of being let in if I at least looked the part. If I were going to Max Weaver's place, I wouldn't have bothered, but I've heard that Mr. Dreyfuss was a stickler for all that protocol that makes most civilians look like they have poles stuck up their butts!

I zippered up the black jumpsuit and looked at myself in the mirror. I thought, God, I look like I'm some kind of yacht captain! The formal "Commander's Suit" was jet black, with only three zippers, the one that kept the thing closed over your body and one for each of the tiny pockets on either side of the chest. The gold trim was rather unnecessary and the four-striped epaulets were just useless unless you actually had a crew that couldn't identify their boss on sight. The only part of this suit that I actually had any pride in was my bright gold starpilot's wings. I had made sure I gave them a very thorough polishing before pinning them on. For an added touch, which would better assure the bouncers that I was someone important, I decided to pin on all of the ribbons which the Federal Military so graciously awarded me. After a little more than ten years of service, I had racked up a number of those shiny little things but I was not proud of the fact that many of the older Federal admirals and generals still knew my name.

I attached the small block of ribbons to my suit, just beneath my wings, making sure they were lined up correctly and that they were all accounted for. I knew I'd be walking into a few of Federal Military buffs... perhaps even a few officers and I needed to make sure I was ship-shape. I despise these formal parties, yet I remember a time when I looked forward to 'em... getting to show off all my decorations and gold to all those Federal higher-ups, some of whom didn't have half as much as I had! Well, people change and so do the times we live in.

The docking alert sounded, indicating that the Gray Wolf had just arrived in the big station's enormous docking bay and had been automatically guided to a berth of her own. I knew that the automatic docking servicer had also deducted the 4 credit landing fee, so I didn't have to worry about that transaction. I quickly zipped the suit completely closed and headed for the airlock.

* * * * *

I found Dreyfuss's apartment, only a few doors down from where Max Weaver lived. Fortunately, everything was still in one piece and airtight security doors didn't barricade off the area. That meant I had arrived in time. The door to the apartment was open and, just outside the entrance to the suite, I found myself standing in a small crowd of civilians dressed in extravagant attire: Satin dinner jackets, sequined cocktail dresses with miniskirts, you name it! If it was a recent fashion statement, it was probably there. It looked like something out of a "Best and Worst Dressed" article you'd find in an issue of the Random Intergalactic Gossip. All the folks present were busy chatting with each other; I didn't even want to begin to guess at what they were talking about. All that nouveau riche talk makes me want to barf. Besides, I wasn't here to make any kind of a social call. I only hoped they'd let me in to talk to Mr. Weaver. I took a deep breath and turned toward the security station in the main entryway. I stuck my chest out and did my best to look like some pompous-ass Federal military officer with something to prove.

The porter at the desk, a very big man who probably could have won a wrestling match with a bull elephant, looked me up and down, sizing me up. He was probably wondering if a man in uniform belonged at this party. Unfortunately, he opened his mouth and began to speak.

"Got your invitation?"

Ho' boy, here we go. I pretended to search my pockets, of course, I came up with nothing. I said, "I can't believe it! I forgot to bring it with me!" I thought it was a pretty convincing display.

"You on the guest list?"

I blinked a couple of times, though I knew this was probably going to happen, "Well... yes... at least, I should be," not exactly the most confident answer, but at least I was being honest. If I was to get in there and warn Mr. Weaver, I should be on the guest list!

"Whadaya mean by 'you should be?'" The bouncer's eyes narrowed.

"I mean..." I simply couldn't think of anything better to say, "I should be on the guest list."

"Well, who the hell are you?"

"Mark Pritchard!" I blinked a few times and the porter's head snapped around as Maximillian Weaver, wearing a bright red dinner jacket and holding a very large and expensive-smelling cigar, stepped into the entryway, "You got my message! I was wondering whether or not the relay would've found you in time."

I stood there, unable to speak. Half of my brain was arguing that this couldn't possibly be real while the other half was praising God and all angels in Heaven. One thing was for sure: This was the last thing I was expecting.

Weaver grinned his big toothy grin and glanced over at the porter, "Is this guy givin' you a hard time, Mark?" Both the porter and I exchanged a glance and a shrug. Weaver slapped the large man on the shoulder "Ah, Jerry here's just a big teddy bear! That's why he gets all the girls!" He laughed and gestured for me to walk past. As I moved through the vestibule, I heard Mr. Weaver exchange a few whispers with the porter before turning to me.

"Well, come on in! The party's just getting warmed up." His voice seemed a touch loud for the thick atmosphere. He continued to speak as we headed through the small hallway which led to the living room. "By the way, those five crates of Ice Fish were gone in record time! I've never seen so many people so anxious to get their hands on fourths!"

Actually, I was quite pleased to see that they went over so well, "Wow, that's terrific, sir! I've never had Merlin Ice Fish before, but it sounds like they're quite good!"

We entered the living room: another very spacious, high-ceilinged room with a thick carpet. (Though this carpet was cream-colored instead of dark red.) There were people everywhere, mainly clustered in small groups between three and seven. All I could think of when I looked around the room was that this was the stereotypical rich man's party. Everyone was very formally dressed, conversations blended together into a dull murmur over cheesy background music. This definitely wasn't for me.

I looked anxiously through the huge floor-to-ceiling window that dominated the far wall, trying to see if there was anything hovering outside that looked lethal or like it could have a laser cannon mounted on it. Fortunately, all I saw was a star-filled spacescape gliding by as the station slowly rotated.

Weaver continued the conversation, "Oh they sure are and I wanted to let you know how much I appreciated your bringing me all of it, so I figured I'd have ol' Ronnie over here sneak you onto the guest list." Weaver gestured to a stout man wearing a dark blue business suit with a red boutonniere. You could tell he had already had a few drinks as his face was slightly flushed, tie was loosened and collar unbuttoned. The man walked over to us and extended his hand to me.

"Ron Dreyfuss," he said in a rumbling basso voice, "So you're the man responsible for bringing us that shipment of hors d'oeuvre?"

I shook his hand and smiled, "That's right, sir." What a limp handshake the guy had! At least Weaver had a good grip! Ron Dreyfuss was shaping up more and more to be the 'typical' snobby aristocrat. Watching him glance at his fingernails and flick invisible dust specks off of them clenched it even further. I didn't have time to start my "let's poke fun at snobs" game as I needed to tell Weaver... and probably Dreyfuss too about the assassination attempt. I had no idea when the would-be murderers would show up, but I had to move fast.

I turned to Mr. Weaver and cleared my throat, "Listen, Mr. Weaver?"

He turned his attention back to me, "Yeah, Mark," Suddenly, his gaze shot past my shoulder and toward someone who had to be standing behind me. He waved his arm in the air, grinning like a maniac and said to me, "Could you excuse me for just one moment?"

Before I could reply with, "well, not really," he had darted around me. I turned around to see where he was going.

It wasn't too hard to figure it out... at least, I would probably have gone to the same place, had the circumstances not been so urgent. I certainly didn't see her before and I would've known if I had. She was just a few centimeters shorter than me and carried herself with the dignity and poise of a rich man's daughter. I also figured she was probably just as spoiled as one too. Well, spoiled or not, she was definitely a feast for the eyes! I did another of my multiple blinks and let my eyes traverse every centimeter of her gorgeous figure, all the way up to her beautiful face with large blue eyes and long blonde hair which flowed down below her shoulders in a big golden sheet. Yep, she was a princess all right and the silky party dress only served to enhance the impression... and, as I've been saying, I was quite impressed!

Mr. Weaver walked straight up to her and took her hand. I sighed, knowing that this would take a while. I tried not to stare at her, but, being alone in space for all this time, one has tendancies to forget certain social graces. Sensing my gaze, the girl shot a glare back at me that would have burned holes in my uniform if it was any more intense. Instinctively, I turned my head and suddenly pretended to be examining the chandelier. Damn it! I did it again! I cursed myself for acting like some insecure sex-crazed maniac. Now, I knew I'd have to wait for him to finish his little tete-a-tete with the princess before I could go warn him. I felt like time was slowing down just to make the wait that much more agonizing.

After what seemed like an eternity, Max Weaver kissed the lovely young maiden's hand and began walking back over to me. I turned to face him, noticing that the girl hadn't moved and was now watching me. I did my best to avoid her gaze as Mr. Weaver approached. I looked back out the window and I could swear I saw something out there besides the usual starry panorama.

"Now, Mark, I'm sorry for leaving you like that, that's Dreyfuss's daughter and she just got accepted at Harvard. I had to give my congratulations, she's practically my niece." Lucky him! I don't think any of my younger relatives were that beautiful! "So," he resumed, "what's on your mind."

How do I tell a man this could be his last night alive and make it sound believeable? I took a brief moment to come up with the right words, but all that came out was, "We have to get these people out of here, now!" Fortunately, my voice was a whisper. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the lovely Miss Dreyfuss cock her head, as though she was trying to hear. Of course she was! If a stranger, wearing a weird looking outfit comes into your home and starts whispering things to someone you know like your own family, wouldn't you be curious?

Weaver took it well, he blinked, then shook his head in disbelief, "What? Mark we haven't even started the dance music yet!"

He obviously hadn't figured it out, so I took a deep breath. Before I spoke, I definitely saw something out there beyond the transparisteel window. The lovely Dreyfuss girl must have followed my eyes, because she turned around all of a sudden and began watching the starfield.

"Sir, someone put out a contract on your head," Better not waste time now and get right to it, I thought.

"On my head?" His eyes shifted up as if he was trying to see if someone actually pasted a piece of paper to his forehead.

"Yes. Someone's paying fifty thousand credits to have you killed here at this party tonight!" My voice had grown above a whisper and I saw an older gentleman briefly glance at us.

Weaver took a moment to digest this. When he spoke, the words came out very slowly, "And you're saying that one of the guests is the assassin?" He slowly turned his head and started eyeing each of the other guests in the room.

"I don't know. I have a hunch, however, that whoever it is is going to try to blow up the whole party."

As soon as I said it, I realized how ridiculous it sounded and Weaver let out a laugh and then looked at me with a big sarcastic grin, "Now how the hell are they gonna do that?"

I saw the shadowy shape outside the window again and I pointed. Dreyfuss's daughter had moved a few steps toward the window and was now intensely peering out into the blackness.

Weaver turned and gaped. Good, he's figured it out, I thought, thank God!

"So what do we do?" His voice dropped to an intense whisper.

"I had a thought that they might just try and blow up the station. A big ship with a plasma accelerator could do that."

He blinked, then calmly turned toward me. His voice carried an obvious inflection of urgency as he said, "We need to get these people out of here."

I spoke very calmly, "My thoughts exactly, sir."

He patted my right arm and then hurried over to Dreyfuss. I watched the two of them as they became engrossed in an intense discussion while Dreyfuss's lovely angel turned back toward me.

I couldn't help it, I couldn't bear to see such a beautiful girl turned into ashes! I gave a signal telling her to make for the door while I mouthed the words, "we're leaving." I figured that was a pretty understandable signal, one even a student going to Harvard would understand. All she did was look at me as if I suddenly sprouted a third arm. It figures... I thought.

I felt another strong hand grab my arm and Dreyfuss spoke to me very softly.

"We're going to move the party onto Max's private yacht, but he can only reach five of the crewmembers. All of them are engineers and no pilots. Can you fly his ship?"

Wow! Mark Pritchard really comes to the rescue tonight! I heard myself say "No problem."

"Good," Dreyfuss turned and walked up to the big window and whispered something into his daughter's ear. She looked at him with a very pouty expression and her father's face grew stern. He whispered something else to her and she slowly nodded and strode off into a side doorway, disappearing into the room beyond.

Dreyfuss nodded to Weaver who cleared his throat and boomed, "Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, can I have your attention please?" The music faded out and all eyes turned toward the thin man in the red dinner jacket whose cigar still smoked between his right thumb and forefinger. "We're about ready to start the dance music, but I figured that, since this is Ronnie's fifty-third birthday," A little scattered applause followed this announcement, "I figure why not move the dancing part of tonights festivities onto my yacht? That way, the fifty-third party I hold on the Weaver's Dream will be my best friend's fifty-third birthday party!"

At this announcement, polite cheers went up as the shadow beyond the window began to sharpen. I looked anxiously at Mr. Weaver and Mr. Dreyfuss. Max finished his monologue with, "So, let's all just put our drinks and plates down and head on out to the docking bay right now!" The man marched quickly out the door, followed by an entourage who got caught up in the moment. The man's a decent speaker! I thought as I watched them go.

The shape outside the window began to resolve itself into the image of a sleek Anaconda class freighter. However, if that ship was what I thought it was, there would be no cargo in her hold tonight. The ship was a good distance away, at least six or so kilometers and I hoped that they would decide to move in closer before firing. I clung to the notion that this was a precision operation and that they weren't just going to fry all of Boston Base.

At that moment, I saw the slim shape of Dreyfuss's daughter emerge from the side chamber, now wearing an almost-transparent jacket over her white cocktail dress. She glanced at me with those gorgeous eyes and a slight frown. She didn't seem pleased that the party was leaving. I smiled at her and shrugged, but she still refused to lighten-up. Well, that's just too bad, little miss. We're trying to save your life, here!

That Anaconda class ship was now edging toward the window, I could see it slowly turning its nose to face the station. I bolted for the door, hoping for a moment that the pouting college girl would take the hint.

Chapter Five

Chapter Three

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