Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Nine

Of all the things I've done in my career as a starpilot, I've got to say that the one thing I never tire of is making a manual planetary approach. I know, what I just spouted out sounds like techie talk. I even cringe at it myself, but honestly, there's simply nothing like it in the universe!

* * * * *

I was hurtling toward the last planet in the Luyten 780-6 system. The set speed indicator told me I was still moving at quite a clip: over three hundred kilometers per second, when the planet began filling the cockpit window.

It took about a full hour for me to slow all the way down to a safe speed, but I knew it was worth it to reduce my velocity.

Suddenly, the navigation computer sprang back to life. The small outpost whose coordinates had been fed into Isis' navigation circuits finally registered on my heads-up display. It showed as a tiny point of light, enclosed by a green box. The range counter beside it was also counting down at a furious pace.

I slowed my Cobra III class trader, instructing the engines to cut off when my forward speed reached a reasonable ten thousand klicks per hour. Sure, to most folks who haven't ever been in space, that seems like suicidal velocity, but to us professional spacers, that isn't even a slow crawl!

Once I had ordered in the velocity change, I aimed the nose of the Fang right at the tiny rebel base. This had the effect of bringing my bottom thruster as well as my retros into play, which would increase my rate of deceleration. It also activated my main thruster, which began pushing me in the new direction.

For all intents and purposes, my descent was going to resemble the curve of a ski jump ramp. One thing I had on my side was the fact that because this planet was so small, its gravity was negliible. I didn't need to worry about its invisible hands reaching up and trying to dash me against a mountain if I saw the need to switch my engines off. Not that I actually planned on doing that, but I wasn't exactly sure how I was going to land and knowing when to shut the engines down would play a big part in that.

However, I was putting the cart before the horse. I still had to get close enough to the base to make the landing and I was also approaching at a very high forty five thousand klicks per hour! The world was getting awfully big in the window and I knew I'd have to alter my vector if I didn't want to be crunched into dust.

It was a textbook solution to a textbook problem. The retros on any ship were usually less than half as powerful as the main engines. I flipped the Fang so that she was facing away from the planet. The engine computer still knew I wanted to slow down to ten thousand klicks per hour. Well, I decided to come to a dead stop instead and keyed in the new instruction. Again, there was another shudder throughout the ship as the main drive came on, full force.

I watched as the velocity indicator began counting down.

35,000... 32,000... 29,000... 21,000... 17,000... 12,000...

At seven thousand kilometers per hour, the altitude counter snapped on. Instinctively, I pushed forward on the stick to give the Fang some momentum in a direction other than straight down. I watched as the distance between the Fang and that big ball of rock and raw ore below shrank rapidly.

56,000 meters... 47,000 meters.... 39,000...

Moments later, the altimeter registered thirty three thousand meters and the velocity gauge showed three thousand kilometers per hour, and I breathed a sigh of relief as the crosshairs which indicated the Fang's direction of travel climbed back into my heads-up display. I finally knew I could relax as I was no longer heading for a rendezvous with igneous rock on the surface of an airless world.

I pointed my ship back toward the planet and noted with satisfaction that I was still moving in the direction of the outpost. I decided not to increase speed as the mountains looming around me were pretty tall and I didn't like the idea of crashing into one of them, especially after all I've been through. I had a burning desire to find out just what I'd gotten into for someone to come after me with three heavy-hitting fighting ships.

The recent combat I'd been in reminded me that I also needed some repairs. Hopefully, whomever I was supposed to meet would be able to take care of that request. I didn't even want to see the exterior view of the ship. I knew that there was probably a nice big slash or two along my wing.

I couldn't for the life of me make the connection at the time, but all of a sudden I found myself thinking of Jeannie Dreyfuss. That's awfully strange, I thought, where'd she come from? I normally don't waste time worrying about stuff like that, but for some reason, I had trouble shaking her off.

* * * * *

I looked out at the complex spreading out before me. It sure looked a lot bigger in person than I thought it would. I wondered who could've built such a structure without attracting any unwanted attention. I'm sure the police would've had to know something about it! Who knows, maybe they simply wanted to stay out of trouble, or maybe they were in on the whole thing. I had a feeling that there was much more to this than met the eye... and it was begining to get very interesting to me.

I was cruising very low over the rocky planet's surface and moving at well below the speed of sound when my communications console beeped. I turned and regarded the message display.

"Cobra DM-085, this is Baker Outpost One. You are cleared for landing in docking bay three."

That was a surprise. Evidently, someone knew I was coming. Either the person who sent the message to the ship was simply expecting my arrival, or they were tipped off by one of the two groups of ships I ran into. I found myself hoping that it was the police group who notified them. If it was the pirates who attacked me...

I hit the send key and replied, "Roger Outpost One. Initiating landing maneuvers."

I looked down at the large steel flat-topped pyramid which enclosed the main landing pad. Lights flashed on the guidance tower above it and around the silo perimeter as the top slowly spiralled open, like an enormous version of a starship's iris hatch.

I maneuvered the Hooded Fang above the opening, using my eye and the navigation beacon to gauge the distance. Once, I had to switch to the exterior view in order to line up more precisely with the silo. I flinched at the sight of a missing wingtip and the deep black gashes and char marks along the port flank. I was still venting some gas too, indicated by the occasional puff of ion smoke billowing out from the damaged section.

Once I had killed my forward velocity, I was finally hovering in a stable position over the landing pad of a previously unknown research base: A research base whose existence I probably wouldn't have even cared about before I decided to buy myself a new ship.

This is it, I thought, If you wanna pull out, this is your last chance!

I don't know how long I kept hovering over the gaping maw of the landing silo. I wondered if this was perhaps going to be my last night alive.

Well, if they think I'm gonna check out without a fight, they've got another thing coming!

I had guessed that I was finally committing myself and, to make sure, I hit the landing gear button and the engine shutoff switch. The hum of the Fang's ventral thruster was replaced by the whine of extending wheels and the altimeter began counting down very slowly. I knew the planet's gravity would be all I needed to make a gentle touchdown, so I decided to let Mr. Newton handle the landing while I headed down to my cabin.

* * * * *

Again, I wasn't sure exactly who I'd be meeting, but I knew I needed to be prepared. For the second time in a month, I reached into my personal locker and pulled out a vacuum sealed black leather case and placed it on my cot.

I didn't even bat an eyelash as I opened up my flight suit and devested myself of its upper half. I reached into my locker and pulled out a set of leather straps resembling a harness and slipped it over my shoulders and around my chest. It fit perfectly, as usual, nice and snug yet still giving me room to breathe.

I turned back to the leather case and pressed my thumb against the security sensor. There was a hiss as air pressure was restored to the inside of the rigid satchel and it popped open. I grinned at the brightly-polished sliver which gleamed back at me, even in the reduced lighting of the sleeping cabin.

Hello again, old friend. Did you miss me?

I knew even the best laser pistols couldn't read thoughts, although there were some out there with voice chips and tiny processors that actually talked now! Still, I couldn't help but get a bit sentimental over this part of my past which I had tried to lock away forever. However, regardless of the fact that the pistol was still very comfortable to grip and that it slid easily into my shoulder holster, I still knew in my heart that things were different.

I could feel my face growing taught as I remembered the myriad ships and crews who expired under the power of my laser.

No more would Mark Pritchard be known as a professional assassin.

No more would people be talking about how Mark Pritchard was, "the last thing an Imperial spy sees before meeting Saint Peter."

I remembered how much the Navy Admiralty wanted me to stay on with them. I was offered another promotion, extra ribbons for my jacket, and lots of money.

I knew I already had more than enough of those things, even the money. Yet, there was nothing they could do that would bring back Governor Quinn's two little girls whom I saw turn into charred corpses when I blasted their daddy's ship at point blank range...

Or Imperial Lord Bane's wife and newborn son... and he was heading out to a peace conference!

That got me thinking... How many times was peace between the Federation and Empire prevented by men like me on both sides? How many times did I serve to cause strife, rather than end it?

I knew I had bought all of those propaganda myths that we were doing the right thing for the security of the Federation. We all did, believing that we were making a difference for the betterment of Earth and for the continued security of member planets. I wonder how many Imperial soldiers heard the same thing too. I also wondered if any of them had second thoughts.

I felt tears streaming down my face. Well, that's over and done with!

There was a jolt which brought me back to the present. I blinked away the rest of my pain and zipped my flight suit closed.

Hauling myself quickly up the ladder, I returned to the cockpit in time to see the landing silo hatch seal itself far above. I sat back down in the pilot's seat as the ship jolted again. This time, it was in response to the automatic docking system which rolled the Fang into a large elevator, similar to the one on Boston Base. A few seconds later and I was nestled into my assigned berth.

I wasn't sure how far below ground I was, but I had a feeling that if whomever wanted those weapons didn't intend to let me go, I'd either have to think of something clever, or I'd be here for an awfully long time!

* * * * *

After finally getting the opportunity to do something I absolutely love about flying: a powerdive to a planet's surface, I then got the opportunity to do something I completely despise: waiting.

Sure, maybe I'm a bit of an impatient guy, even with our modern technology making it possible to flip a human being across light years of space in a matter of hours, make all your meals exactly to your liking, and communicate simultaneously with all the members of your entire extended family no matter where they are in the universe.

It all boils down to people needing to do something with their time. Being alone and sitting idlly has never been one of mankind's strong suits. Sure, there are some who can do it and I envy them. I just don't think I've ever been able to simply sit down somewhere and literally do nothing for five minutes, let alone for a few hours!

"When are they going to make up their minds and talk to me?" I asked the air.

I didn't expect a response, but I was still not very surprised when Isis decided to snap into communication mode.

"I do not understand the question, Mark."

"I wasn't asking to you, Isis."

"I'm terribly sorry," she replied and fell silent.

Oh that sweet voice of hers! I found myself thinking, Too bad it was attached to an immobile slab of microcircuits and power cells rather than a real woman!

I shook my head. Don't start flirting with the computer, Mark. That's not a good idea.

However, I was still grateful for the "company," and I figured a little chat with Isis wouldn't hurt anything.

"Hey Isis?"

"Yes, Mark?"

"I was just wondering, do you have any memories of the previous owner of this ship?"

"Unfortunately, I do not."

I sighed, knowing that she had spoken the truth. Everyone knew that ship computers had all their memory engrams associated with a previous owner wiped when the vessel was sold back to the shipyard. Still, if someone screwed up at the shipyard, it would have helped me gain a few insights into what I was doing here.

I decided to change tack, "You can access the flight recorder, right?"

"Of course I can."

The one thing that couldn't be tampered with was the ship's Black Box, which was located somewhere pretty hard to reach in order to keep folks from messing with it.

"Within the last six months, how many times has the Fang visited this installation?"

"None, Mark."

That gave me a shock, "Wait a minute, this ship's never been here at all?"

"That is correct."

"Then what the hell...?"

My question was interrupted by the chirp of the communcations console. I keyed the receive button and watched the display screen.

The image on the screen quickly resolved itself into a familiar face and I very nearly fell out of my chair.

"Hello Mark! Glad to see you made it!" Max Weaver, dressed in his casual turtleneck shirt and sport jacket, leaned back in his seat and grinned. I could see the little puffs of smoke coming from below the field of vision.

I searched frantically for something to say, but all I could do was stare dumbly at the image of the powerful company executive.

The man raised his eyebrows and raised his hands in a gesture of mock innocence, "What? What? Didn't I say I'd have something for you to do that'd be worth your while?"

At this point, the synapses which connected my brain to my larynx and lips had finally resumed working, though I still sounded pretty shaken.

"Uh...."

"Why don't you come on out so we can talk in person?"

"Okay," was all I found I could say. I wasn't sure why I was feeling so out of it. After all, I'd been involved in some pretty strange stuff in my day, this shouldn't have phased me so much. Yet, there it was. I felt like a wasted piece of jelly sitting there in my pilot's seat.

"Meet me in the lobby," The man on the other side of the screen gave a wink and the image went black. I stood up hesitantly, as though my body was moving on an autopilot of its own.

The thoughts were pouring through my head as I made my way to the equipment level and the main airlock:

Sure, with all that power, Weaver had to be a kind of guy who had eyes and ears everywhere, particularly on Boston Base! Heck, he may have even been able to figure out what ship I was buying for myself. Tapping into my comm system, sure he probably had guys who could do that too.

But why the disguises? A message meant for someone named Cole instead of for me? The cops can't be bothered with monitoring every single transmission that passes through the relay system. Also, there's the question of the message coming from somewhere within the Barnard's system, rather than from somewhere else.

God, this is shaping up to be a good episode of The INRA Files!

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eight

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