Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Part Two: The Rebellion and the Hooded Fang

Chapter Seven

The next morning, I found myself sitting in front of my communications console aboard the Gray Wolf. Scoping out the market for a new ship is a lot easier than it was in the old days. Back then, potential buyers actually had to make personal visits to a shipyard and inspect the merchandise first hand. Now, because shipyards were government-owned, the risk of buying a "lemon" didn't exist. I didn't have to worry about discovering that my hyperdrive turned itself into scrap metal halfway to my destination unless I was foolish enough not to give it its annual maintenance check. Even then, that meant I had a year before I needed to worry about that.

I keyed in the contact number for the Federal Shipyards and waited. A second later, my screen lit up and a young and beautiful receptionist appeared. She smiled and said, "Welcome to the Federal Shipyards, Commander!" I smiled back, though I knew that the woman on the other side of the connection was merely an automated greeter. A moment later, the face disappeared and I was shown a list of available options. After perusing the choices, I pressed the number for the "New and Reconditioned Ships Department," and waited for the switchboard to put me through.

The list of available ships was long. If I wanted to, I could've spent hours examining every single craft up for sale and comparing costs. However, I had an idea of what I was looking for: Something fast, maneuverable, big enough to carry stuff in, and not too expensive. I was glad that their sale computer automatically ascertained what sort of ship I already owned and deducted its value from the cost of whatever ship I was looking at. I know how to do math, I just don't like having to calculate big numbers like ship prices in my head.

I had a bit more money in my pocket than you might have believed me to have at the time. Being well-off was always one of my strong suits. I was not the scrounging sort of person, but I also didn't feel any need to live the life of someone like Max Weaver or Ron Dreyfuss, for that matter.

I decided on checking out a Cobra Mark III. Having been out on the spacelanes for many years, I already knew that this sort of ship had everything that someone like me needed. They moved pretty quick, actually pulling a couple of Gs more than my Adder-class Gray Wolf, and were also known to have decent directional thrusters, which were great for dodging incoming fire. They also had enough space inside to carry loads of cargo. Of course, if you weren't into trading, you could fill that empty space with a mean laser or two! To top it all off, a Cobra III sported four missile pylons (three more than my current ship had!) The best thing was that not only was this class of ship almost twice as big as an Adder, it still only needed one person to fly it!

With all this in mind, I decided it was time to make a purchase. I watched as the shipyard took a chunk of money out of my account and the dockyard informed me that my new ship was waiting in Docking Bay Seven.

It didn't take too long to pack up all my personal stuff: Just a few flight suits, some casual clothes, and various small odds and ends. I said a quick farewell to the Gray Wolf and headed out to the docking bay tunnel.

* * * * *

I floated down the long curving tunnel, which wrapped completely around the station's hub, until I arrived at the hatchway to Docking Bay Seven. I keyed open the airlock and floated down the gangway tunnel toward my new ship. Another man in white overalls and wearing a bright red baseball cap was floating beside the entrance hatch to the ship. He handed me my entry key and had me sign the purchase confirmation.

After I scribbled my signature on the electronic pad, he said, "A pleasure doing business with you, sir. If anything's out of order, make sure to call us." Then, the man took back his pad and pushed himself out to the tunnel entrance.

I turned my attention to the duralium hatchway before me, placed my entry key into the slot beside the manual hatch controls and pressed the "open" button. There was hiss and the door slid upward. I let my feet set down on the newly exposed airlock floor and, a second later, felt the force of gravity gripping my boots. My stomach quickly adjusted to the sensation and I strode aboard my new Cobra. I wonder what I'll name this ship... Maybe it'll come to me after I get to know her a little better. Some pilots don't even bother naming their vessels, they just stick with registration numbers, but not me. I figure that if you really want to have a working partnership with your ship, you need to give it a name. Though, sometimes I find myself mulling it over for months before I have one that I'll want painted on the hull. Yet, lately, I've been able to come up with a name in just a day or so... heck I named the Gray Wolf almost right after I bought it!

What do you name a Cobra... besides some other snake name? The thought kept floating around my mind as I began the tour of my new ship...

* * * * *

The pirate ship was bearing down on us, I swung the nose of the Hooded Fang up and faced the huge Anaconda class freighter. My laser lance drilled into its spherical force shield with ferocious intensity, but before it could penetrate the screen, the larger craft let loose with a bright yellow laser beam. I watched in horror as the powerful laser carved off huge chunk off of my port side. Immediately, the klaxon alarms whooped and half of my control console glowed with red lights.

I felt a great heaving sensation as the Fang, now looking a lot less like a flying wing and more like a shipwreck, spun out of control. I grabbed the stick and wrenched it around as hard as I could, but the view outside refused to do anything other than its lazy spin. Desperately, I hit the escape pod trigger. Isis, the computer, spoke to me in her feminine voice, "Escape pod damaged and unable to jettison."

I had had it. I pulled off the security harness and scrambled to the space suit locker on the rear wall of the cockpit. Jeannie Dreyfuss spun her seat around to face me. I turned back to look at her and, through the main window, could see the sleek arrowhead shape of the Anaconda. Seeing my attention was distracted, her eyes widened in terror. She followed my gaze, turned toward the spectacle, and screamed as the assassin fired its laser right through the cockpit window...

* * * * *

I jerked awake, nearly hitting my head on the ceiling. Jeannie's blood curdling scream was still echoing around in my head. It must have had quite an effect on me because I could still hear it perfectly clearly... Or was it something else...? Suddenly, I realized what was going on and I leapt off my bunk. I climbed up to the cockpit and sat down in front of the communications console. Sure enough, that piercing wail was the "Incoming transmission" alarm. I made a mental note to get that changed to something a little less soul shattering.

I pressed the "receive" button and watched the small display screen as it flashed and displayed a legend which informed me that the message I was receiving was encrypted and on a secure channel. I blinked a couple of times in surprise. I hadn't told anyone about my new ship. Whoever was sending the message was either doing quite a number of keeping tabs on me (which I doubted very much) or the message was intended for someone else. There was one way to find out.

I hit the "Computer Access" key on the Navigation console and was greeted by the silky voice of Isis.

"Good morning, Mark. I hope you had a restful sleep."

I sat back and sighed, whoever designed these interactive computers definitely knew what they were doing! However, I couldn't afford to stay melted by that soft voice for long. I shook my head and answered, "Yeah, I did. What's the deal with this transmission?"

There was the shortest of pauses before she replied, "It is a Priority One encrypted transmission sent on a secure comm link and directed through a satellite network."

I nodded, then said. "Okay, but there's a problem. I just bought this ship. Is the message meant for me?"

"The message is not directed to any specific individual."

"Let me guess: if it was, the network would have routed it accordingly."

"That is correct."

"And transmissions directed at individuals are easily traceable."

"That is correct, provided the message was sent via the most direct route."

"Are you saying this message is hasn't been sent directly?"

"The signal strength indicates that it was sent from within this system, yet it appears to have been relayed by at least six different relay satellites."

"Hmmmm..." I thought about it for a moment. Most transmissions only needed one or two relays to send it anywhere in the system. Three or four if you were sending around a planet or a moon...But seven... I had a feeling that delving into this message could mean trouble, but I figured that I could use a little more excitement than a bad dream. Aside from not being addressed to anyone in particular and being bounced around the satellite relay network, the other odd thing about the signal was that it was encrypted. I only hoped that whoever previously owned this ship had forgotten to dump their encryption/decryption codes. If they didn't, then trying to decode the message would be about as easy as teaching a dog how to speak Thargoid! Well, at least I knew who could tell me whether or not the message could be decoded.

"Isis, can you decrypt the message?"

"Affirmative. The transmission is encoded using a Federal Military Encryption Code."

I was so surprised I jumped up out of my seat, "Military encryption!?" I shouted.

"That is correct."

The last thing I needed was to deal with the Federal Military again. Ten years of being their "laser for hire" was enough for me! However, before I could get too upset, it occurred to me that the Navy isn't stupid and they send messages to people, not to ships. I felt my curiosity jump up a few more notches. The communication console chirped, signaling a successful message download and I sat back down as Isis began her decryption.

Chapter Eight

Chapter Six

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