Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Eight

It was going to take Isis over three hours to decrypt the message. During that time, I figured I could do something more useful with my time than just sitting around and waiting.

I headed down from the bridge and began another tour of the Hooded Fang.

As ships went, she was quite a step up from the Gray Wolf! First off, she had not one, but two levels of living space. The bridge was all on its own and had quite a nice view. Though, all I could see now was the docking bay wall covered with all sorts of little billboards.

The actual living level was practically a one-bedroom apartment! It had a living room with reclining lazy chairs and a holovid screen. Along the left wall was a small kitchenette, complete with miniature sink, ice box, and autochef. To the right was a water closet with a nice sized real water shower as well as the other essentials. Behind the living room was a small connecting doorway which led into the bunking area. The ship was able to carry two people and therefore had two sleeping berths. I had arbitrarily chosen the one on the starboard wall and left the other one folded into its recess.

Below the living level was the cargo and equipment bay: nice, spacious, and empty. The sound of my footfalls reverberated throughout the compartment. I still had to do a good deal of outfitting to get the Fang up to par, so some of that wide open space would soon be filled up by important equipment like a beam laser, ECM system, autopilot, scanner, and some other odds and ends.

Having finished my little inspection, I climbed back up the access ladder and into the living level.

* * * * *

The sound of the communications console chime immediately brought my attention away from the episode of Columbus Station, 0,0,0 that I was watching. I sprang from the comfortable armchair I had been sitting in and dragged myself up the access ladder and into the cockpit. I sat down in the pilot's seat, turned it toward the communications console and hit the computer access key.

Immediately, I was greeted once again by the silky voice of Isis, "Hello, Mark. The transmission has been successfully decrypted."

"Terrific. Let's see it." I settled back into the seat and focussed my attention on the console's display screen.

The display screen lit up, characters chased each other across the flat surface and then resolved themselves into the image of a face. I blinked a couple of times to make sure I wasn't seeing thing. I studied the visage carefully trying to memorize every line and curve.

"Cole, it's Floyd," The owner of the face spoke in a gruff voice, "Make sure you lock down the goods before you ship out. The customs officials have been snooping around and we don't want them getting wind of our little... assistance."

I sat back in my seat, still intently gazing at the image on the screen. What have I just stumbled across here?

Floyd continued, "The next shipment's all ready to go and you'll only need to deliver it to the way station. You've got the coordinates included with this message. Naturally, the originals'll be destroyed once they're locked into your nav computer.

"Timing is crucial on this mission. We need those weapons and we need them now! The resistance is starting to crumble and we stand the chance of losing everything within the next week unless you show up! Good luck, Cole and we'll see you soon."

The screen immediately went blank. At that moment, Isis spoke up, "Mark, the navigation system's been accessed and a destination has just been locked in."

That got my attention. Whoever sent that message had found a way to write a program which would worm data into my ship's navigation system! That was not only illegal, but very dangerous!

"Can you log it out and select a new destination?"

There was a pause, which really worried me, computers shouldn't have to hesitate before replying.

"Yes, I can."

That made me feel a little better. I sat back again and considered the possibilities.

I could easily ignore this guy and just go about my business. Or, I could actually see what this rebel and his people are all about. I was very surprised that I was actually thinking about this, but perhaps the three years I spent hauling cargo was enough to let me in on the fact that I really did want to be back on the front lines, even if it was something as dangerous as gun running.

Well, you're in a perfect position to do it, I thought, Nobody would suspect it'd be you, a former Federal hero... Well, maybe hero was overdoing it. In any case, I finally made up my mind and accessed the Federal shipyards to begin outfitting the Fang.

When it was all over, six hours had passed and the Fang had been transformed from a big empty shell with an engine into a mean warship able to fight off most any attacker. All the new equipment cost me another large chunk of change, but it was well worth it.

Looks like Mark Pritchard is about to go back on the circuit!

* * * * *

Of all the systems in the galaxy that had been charted, many of them were given actual names like Sol, Barnard's Star, Gateway, Achernar, and so on. Some stars were only given designation numbers like AC 13435. However, as time passed and colonists began spreading out, some of those numbered systems were eventually given names, like Lave, Zaonce, and Tionisla.

I had just hyperspaced into a system which had yet to be given a true name and, therefore, was still known only by its designation: Luyten 780-6.

I figured a place like that would be ideal to set up a resistance of some sort. Systems which have yet to be named were, generally, systems with a very low population and probably no central government. In short, they were stars which just happened to be inside the Federation's borders which served little purpose other than acting as a place for prospectors to attempt to strike it rich through mining, or as a place for a wanted man to take refuge from the rest of the civilized galaxy.

Some of the major companies set up pre-fabed bases on one of the more habitable worlds to provide the prospectors with a place to refuel and off-load their cargo. However, everyone knew that the companies would do more than just that to assure themselves of regular ore shipments.

Sometimes, companies would offer big discounts on services to repeat visitors. That was more effective and kept the miners very happy. However, there were those companies who felt it more economical to take advantage of the locals by deliberately reducing the price of any ores that the miners would bring them or by really jacking up the price of fuel, mining equipment, or whatever.

In any case, it was set up so that you had to keep working and, in the end you barely made enough money to survive.

Not only that, but some of the really nasty companies would set up extortion rings run by the local underground. If you didn't pay these people for "protection," then some unmarked ship might show up and cause a little "accident" at your dig.

Now, supposedly, this was something that the Federal Better Business Bureau really cracked down on, especially in the mid 2700s when frontier colonizing was in the middle of a major leap forward. Yet, you still had to wonder why so many small to mid-time prospectors with decent ships and perfect credit would go into a corporate-owned system and then never be heard from again.

Granted, I know some folks actually liked living that way, but I still had my suspicions.

So, I had just hyperspaced right into one of these so-called "company systems," and was making a beeline toward a tiny planet on the very edge of the sun's gravity well.

I had checked the system data just before hitting the jump switch and, sure enough, whoever had set up this "resistance" was no dummy.

It had to be a very small outpost with next to no nutrino emmissions, which is why my navigation computer wouldn't be able to pick it up unless someone else gave me exact coordinates. Well, exact coordinates is what I had and I let the autopilot do all the necessary work on this trip. I knew Isis would alert me if something was wrong.

* * * * *

I didn't expect to make a trip of over 12 AUs (that's 1,152 million kilometers, in case you didn't know!) through a veritable anarchic system without a little excitement. Sure enough, I wasn't going to be disappointed.

Isis sounded the alert klaxxon and I raced up to the cockpit in time to see three red blips on my scanner. The color of those radar points meant that they were medium sized ships, a little smaller than the Fang and they were definitely heading in on an intercept vector.

I tried very hard not to think about just what those ships could be. Of the myriad vessels that plied the spacelanes I knew that, out of the three or four types that left red radar blips, I could very easily be having a shooting match with police Vipers. I shuddered and tightened my grip on the control stick. My other hand hovered over the manual thruster controls, ready to make that first evasive manuever.

It takes time to match velocities with a ship moving at over five thousand klicks per second and these three bogies were moving quite deliberately.

I keyed into the combat computer and selected the lead ship in the formation. Sure enough, it was a Viper. However, I still knew I had to wait. There were lots of Vipers out there owned by civilians. I needed to actually see the blue stripes on their wedge-shaped bodies before I could be completely sure... and even then...

The communications console chirped and a message displayed itself on a tiny screen below my scanner.

"This is MineCorp Police Patrol Ship 732 to Cobra DM-058, state the nature of your business."

This was an easy question to answer, I hit the send key and replied, "I'm heading out to the outer system to do some prospecting." I figured that was simple enough and it told the story.

There was a pause, during which time the three bogies had closed the distance between us by a few kilometers and were matching velocities.

This was not a good sign as far as I was concerned. I knew that if they got much closer, the chances of me evading a first shot would be slim to none.

A shooting match at less than 2 kilometers was point blank range for all intents and purposes! However, I still refused to make the first shot.

I knew I had a decent shield set up, but that didn't necessarily mean I'd be able to deal with three attackers all at once! Yet, I still waited in silence...

As a result, the beep from the communications console was so loud it almost made me jump out of my seat! I quickly read the display screen.

"Cobra DM-058, you are cleared to proceed to destination."

As soon as the message cleared from my screen, I saw the three arrowhead shaped Vipers, all bearing the blue and white stripes of the Federal Stellar Police, begin to peel off.

As soon as they had used their thrusters to nudge themselves out of my way, they ignited their mighty main engines and rocketed off into the distance.

Of course, If you felt like getting all technical about the physics of space flight, you'd say that they were actually decelerating from my out-system velocity of 5,000 kilometers per second in order to alter their vector to head back into the inner system...

But we'll leave those details for the egg-heads to talk about...

* * * * *

I breathed a hearty sigh of relief when the Vipers finally winked off of my scanner display. Sure, they could just as easily have turned around and re-vectored toward me, but I didn't think they would. I also wondered if I had really run into the police or if those ships were actually commandeered by whomever, or whatever I'd be running into on the far reaches of the system.

I reactivated the autopilot and watched as Isis eased the nose of the Fang back into alignment with the tiny planet far ahead. It was too far to be visible, but the computer said it was there and that was good enough for me.

I could feel a slight vibration as she ran the ship's powerful engines up to their full 20Gs of acceleration and, to my own surprise, I found myself hoping that the inertial compensators wouldn't crap out. Of course, if they did, I wouldn't know anything about it: Twenty gees would simply crunch a person into a mass of jelly and bone fragments in a matter of a second, but I bet it'd really gross out the police force salvage team!

Let's think of something else, shall we? I said to myself, not wanting to delve any further into that unpleasant scenario. I do like living, after all!

* * * * *

Things were running pretty smoothly at this point: the Fang was about halfway through the deceleration leg of the trip and Isis was doing a great job keeping us pointed in the right direction. I knew that I was going to have to take over pretty soon and that I'd need to be as alert as possible.

For this reason, I walked over to the autochef and dialed up a cup of steaming mocha cappuccino. Isis was one smart lady... even for a computer! After just a couple of days, she knew just how much caffene my system needed in order to stay wired. I knew I'd be up and about long enough to perform a high-speed descent to the planet's surface and make a landing. Of course, working for the Navy, I'd learned a great deal about how to execute a proper space-to-surface descent, but still, the cappuccino helped.

Something about this trip gave me a gut feeling that I'd be needing it.

Naturally, it happened when I least expected it...

The alert siren went off as I placed the drained coffee mug into the recycler. I leaped into my pilot's seat and, in one quick motion, pulled the security harness over my shoulders. I locked the waist belt as I glanced at the scanner.

Two bright orange blips and one white one had sprung into existence mere kilometers from my position. The way that they moved gave me every reason to believe that they were moving into attack positions. I shuddered, knowing that if those points of light were representing hostile bogeys, I was going to be in for one hell of a fight!

Isis had already engaged the radar mapper, so all I had to do was select a target. I knew that the biggest problem I was going to face was that white blip. It represented a ship at least twice as big as the Fang, probably even larger! Naturally, the bigger the ship, the bigger the laser it can carry. Something that big could pack a laser which would slice through my shields as though they were nothing thicker than tissue paper! The other two ships, though they outmassed the Fang by a little, would be nothing compared to this big mother!

All these thoughts raced through my head in the space of a second. I knew I was running on reflexes and I simply let my hands do the work they were trained to do. Isis switched the engines off, allowing me maximum maneuverability. In a situation like this, the fact that I was travelling at over three thousand klicks per second toward a planet was irrelevant. However, the fact that the white blip was closing the distance between itself and the Fang, now that was pretty important!

And I'd be a fool if it didn't scare me more than just a little bit!

I saw the brilliant beam of yellow light cut a swath just in front of the cockpit windshield and I immediately hit the retro rockets. The beam quickly receded and I pulled back on the control stick, swinging the nose of my ship up to face the behemoth.

Sure enough, the owner of that twenty megawatt laser was quite a big ship! Imperial Couriers were considered by some to be ultimate ship to own. They were used by bounty hunters, mercenaries, and even some of the bigger pirate clans. Maybe my ideas of what ships should look like were a bit too traditionalist or maybe I'm just a bit too loyal to the Federation for my own good, but you'd never catch me in one.

The fact that I wasn't attracted to this hot-rod looking craft, however, didn't make it any less dangerous!

I zeroed my sight in on her teardrop-shaped main hull and squeezed the firing trigger. The bright red beam of my one megawatt laser lance struck the Courier's spherical force shield and was absorbed. I kept the trigger pulled and watched as my beam depleted the strength of my foe. However, the Courier took this opportunity to turn her massive bulk in the direction of my laser beam and I knew that I had just a few seconds before I'd be running the risk of being carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey!

Nevertheless, I still kept my laser on target and watched as it finally punched through the Courier's powerful shield and struck the hull. Ionized gas started pouring out of the gash I cut into the Imperial vessel. I watched as my scanner registered hull breaches and integrity loss on my target.

That was when the other two ships decided to open fire.

The Fang lurched downward and to the right. I struggled to maintain control of my craft, but I was forced out of my firing position. Fortunately, I was thrown away from the Courier, rather than directly in front of her laser sights. I was actually surprised that her two wingmen didn't think to try that tactic.

Well, rather than dwelling on topics like how the enemy could better finish me off, I decided to get my bearings. The beam that hit my ship caused my shields to drop over sixty percent. I knew that they weren't all that strong to begin with, but I was still very surprised.

Suddenly, space was lit up again by a pair of crisscrossing orange laser beams. I spun the Fang in the direction of one of the attackers and let them have it. The Constrictor class ship which I had sighted had no shield generators, so my laser beam punched directly into her hull. It was over in less than three seconds and she didn't even have time to get another shot off before being turned into a cloud of flying scrap metal and burning hydrogen and oxygen gas.

Satisfied that I had dispatched an enemy, I located the other smaller attack ship and brought the Fang into a new firing position.

Then all was chaos.

I felt the Fang heave mightily to port, again throwing my aim off. My front window became obsured by a vast cloud of ion smoke and escaping oxygen. The alert sirens went off and Isis began making announcements.

"Hull breached. Two tons of hydrogen fuel destroyed." The voice of Isis was calm and cool, though she was reporting information that spelled disaster, "Autopilot damaged. Left thruster damaged. Radar mapper damaged. Hull integrity at forty seven percent."

I really didn't need to hear all of that. It didn't help my nerves at all, especially as I could see the bright yellow laser beam from the Courier bearing back toward me to finish the job it had started. I hit the reverse thruster and managed to avoid its lethal sweep.

Enough is enough here! I thought to myself as I brought the Fang back in line with the Imperial ship. I saw that it too had taken a similar posture, but I refused to flip out. Instead, I squeezed the firing trigger and watched as my laser smacked into its partially-regenerated force shield.

The Courier answered back with her heavier weapon and I angled upward and used my retros to push me backward and beneath the larger craft. This maneuver gave me a better target aspect as well as respite from the much deadlier armament she was packing. I aimed and fired once more, this time penetrating the enemy ship's shield and drilling a little hole into the aft quarter of her hull. Her powerful drive blew out, gutting her from stem to stern and there was a bright flash of light which I knew was her many tons of fuel going up in smoke. The pirate vessel exploded, showering the Fang with glittering fragments and I blinked a few times to try and clear the spots out of my eyes.

Before the hydrogen-fueled flame had completely been absorbed by the airless environment outside, the Fang lurched again. This time, however, the enemy ship had only managed to strike a glancing blow which my recharged shield absorbed with no trouble.

I slammed on my main thruster which rocketed me away from my assailant. Once I felt that I had gained enough distance, I pushed the control stick to the left, bringing the nose of my ship around to face another Constrictor class trader. I used my auto targetter to lock onto the receding vessel and let fly with a navy surplus missile. As the missile cruised away, I watched as the Constrictor surrounded itself with the blue-white lightning of an ECM field. Unfortunately for him, the missile I fired was impervious to those types of countermeasures and, moments later, space was again lit up by the flare of another vanquished pirate ship.

I sat back in my seat and breathed a heavy sigh of relief. That had been too close for comfort, I thought, Thank God for my Navy reflexes!

I swung the nose of my ship back toward the barren planet which was now a naked-eye object and activated the autopilot. However, the flight controls refused to switch over from manual. I cursed when I remembered Isis's damage report, indicating the loss of the autopilot.

I wasn't really all that worried. I trusted myself and I knew everything was all right again. And yet, even though I was leaning back in my seat and letting the tension drain from my body, I still found myself unable to relax completely.

At that moment, another thought struck me, Was it really Navy reflexes... or was it the cappuccino?

Chapter Nine

Chapter Seven

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