Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Ten

I strode down the long access tunnel, which led from the hatch of the Hooded Fang to the lobby of Baker Outpost.

Millions of thoughts were pouring through my head. The most important of which was realizing that I had no idea what was going on anymore. At least during my ten-year stint as a Federal killing machine, I still knew what was going on, even if it was a slanted perspective.

Arriving in the lobby, I saw a ring of brown leather couches surrounding a bare wooden table. Several people were lounging around and talking as I approached the group.

One of the men looked up at me, unsure of who I was and what I was doing. I saw the logo of the W.B.D.& S. Corporation on the shoulder of his navy blue jumpsuit along with another piece of insignia that I couldn't identify. Most company outfits are generally rather plain and nobody tends to decorate them, so I found myself somewhat curious as to what that other patch meant.

"What's up, stranger?" The man spoke in a gruff voice, typical of someone who'd been a rock hermit for many years.

"I was just wondering about that other patch on your arm," I answered simply.

The man glanced down at his sleeve and smirked, "Oh yeah, that. Hell, I'd been here so long I'd forgotten it was something special. It's just a symbol for the research station here."

Now I was definitely interested. "Research station? I take it you folks come up with new ideas for mining machines?"

The rest of the group chortled and the man with the patches snickered before answering, "Yeah, you could say that."

Do you know that feeling you get after you ask a question that just sounds either really stupid or really funny to everyone else in the room and it's because they all know something you don't? Well, I almost got it, before I took a deep breath and started again.

"Okay, so what do you do here?"

"Who wants to know?" The other man had slid off of the arm of the couch he was sitting on and took a couple of steps toward me.

"My name's Pritchard. I got a coded message that you folks here needed a shipment of weapons to support some sort of resistance that's being run from this base."

The man in the navy blue jumpsuit did a double take.

"A resistance?" At this the spokesman and the crowd clustered around the table erupted into laughter. After a moment, things calmed down and the gentleman continued, "Well, it ain't a resistance yet, but you never know!"

I stood there, taking it all in. Obviously, I'm missing something very important here, I thought.

The speaker extended his hand, "Name's Jim Billings. I suppose you're waiting to see the boss."

I took his hand and shook it, replying, "Mark Pritchard, and yes, actually I am waiting for Mr. Weaver."

"Well, he'll explain stuff a lot better than I can. Just realize that you're probably not gonna be living the life you're used to anymore."

Now it was my turn to laugh, "Well, all things considered, I could probably do with a bit of a job change."

The laughter had completely died down when Max Weaver made his entrance. Between the fingers of his right hand was a smoldering cigar. Man! He must be a nicotine freak or something! You don't see many of them these days!

"Mark! I'm sorry I'm a little late, I got held up taking care of some last minute items." The company executive gestured toward Billings, "I take it you're givin' our new guest the lowdown, Jim?"

Jim Billings looked at me and then back at his boss, "Well, actually, I figured you should do that, but we're helpin' him feel more at home."

"That's good, though I don't know how much longer this place actually will be home."

"I heard that, sir."

"Well, c'mon with me to my office, Mark. I'm sure you've got loads of questions."

"You got that right," was all I could manage to say.

Weaver turned and headed back down the large corridor into the bowels of the station. Naturally, I followed a few steps behind.

* * * * *

"So, Mark, did Jim tell you anything about what we do here?"

"He said this is a research station, and that you're not researching how to improve on your MB4 machine."

Weaver chuckled, took a puff of his cigar and replied, "True. We're not here to improve on our mining machines. Besides, they do just fine."

We walked slowly down what looked like the main corridor of the station. I don't know exactly how far we'd gone, but it seemed like at least half a kilometer.

"So what are you researching here and why do you need weapons?"

"Well, let me answer that by asking you what do you know about the Thargoids?"

Woah! Now this is starting to get freaky!I was pretty shocked by this seemingly off the wall question. However, I obliged.

"I know that they're the first aliens we've ever discovered and that was because they were trying to invade our space. We fought a huge war with them at the start of the Fourth Millennium. It looked like they were kicking our butts, but then they suddenly disappeared."

Maximillian Weaver nodded and took another puff off of his long cigar.

"Yeah, that's about right."

"Okay, so what's the deal?"

"What if I was to tell you that the Thargoids are actually a peaceful race and that we fired first?"

I thought about it for a moment, "Well, after my time in the service, I can definitely say that accidents do happen. You hear about the showdown at Beta Hydri?"

"You were in that?" Weaver regarded me with a surprised expression.

"Yeah. It was a hell of a fight."

"Hmmm... started by someone, nobody knows just whom, discharging a twenty megawatt beam laser into the hull of a passing civilian freighter." Weaver sounded like he was quoting the official Federal Navy action report, "The Impies claim the Feds fired on the civilian and so they responded to it and the Feds maintain that they were defending themselves when an Impies launched an unprovoked attack on them."

I sighed, remembering the catastrophe. Many lives and ships were lost on that fateful day in 3247. I remember it well especially because I resigned from official military service the following week.

Weaver resumed the discussion, "So, we both agree that wars can be started because of accidents."

"So it would seem."

"Well, what if I were to tell you certain elements in both our governments knew the Thargoids existed almost a hundred years before the invasion started?"

"It wouldn't surprise me. We have intelligence gathering stations and listening posts located on other side of the Independent Alliance."

"Yes, that's true too. Everything was going well and nobody was hurting anybody in those days. The Frontier colonies were growing and the Alliance was just getting organized and then what happens?"

"The invasion?"

"More like a retaliation from a pre-meditated strike."

I stopped dead in my tracks and faced Mr. Weaver, my voice quivered as I asked "Wha-What do you mean, 'premeditated?' W-w-why?"

"You answered your own question a moment ago."

Wait a minute here! It couldn't be... I still knew I had to ask, "The Alliance?"

Weaver nodded gravely, "You got it." He resumed his stride, now at a slightly faster pace. I hurried to keep up.

"But what was wrong with the Alliance?"

"Nothing."

This is getting ridiculous.

"So then, what's the deal!?"

"The Feds and the Impies didn't want another major interstellar power out there that they'd eventually have to deal with. You know that there's more officially independent systems out there than those controlled by the Federation and Empire combined."

"Yeah, so?"

"So, what if all of those independent systems banded together to form an alliance?"

"What? They're just a loose confederation. They're only working together to strengthen their economies! Besides, it's only the systems closer to the galactic core!"

"Yeah, but the Feds and the Impies didn't know that at the time, did they?"

"So, who started the trouble with the Thargoids?"

"Both of 'em!"

"What!? They haven't cooperated in over seven hundred years!"

"Sure, politically, morally, and ethically, they're totally different animals. Neither of them could move against the new Alliance or risk another war. Not only that, but you can bet that the other side would quickly jump in for a colossal gangbang!"

"So, they needed to do some sort of covert war?"

"Well, they at least needed to keep an eye on them."

This is getting bigger and bigger as it goes! I can't believe it! However, I knew I was being drawn into it... whatever it was.

I asked, "So how'd the Feds and the Impies keep an eye on the Alliance?"

"They created a special joint task force. Top of the line ships and equipment, a huge budget, and special military bases and research stations."

"It didn't last, did it?"

"That's what everyone thought at first, but, it did last."

"Wait a second if it did, we'd all know about it."

"Well, do you know what they called it?"

"No, what?"

"The Intergalactic Naval Research Arm."

And the hits just keep on coming! The INRA was known throughout the Federation and the Empire for being some sort of mysterious organization, almost like a syndicate. Everyone knew it existed, but nobody knew just what it did. What everybody did know was that INRA folks weren't to be messed with and anyone who crossed them turned up missing or dead. When I thought about it, I did remember noticing that whenever some articles concerning the Thargoids popped up in the journals, there'd always be some mention of the INRA soon after.

Heck, they even made a popular Tri-D show about it, though everyone gets the impression that the INRA was nothing like what was being portrayed by the media!

We arrived at a large steel door. Weaver manipulated the controls and the thick hatch slid upward. We stepped through and into a huge room with white walls, floor, and ceiling. Technicians scurried about carrying clipboards, bright silver canisters, and working extensive sets of sensors, scopes, and viewscreens.

"This is our main lab." Weaver headed up toward one of the screens, examined the readouts carefully and commented, "Once we deliver this stuff to New Rossyth, the INRA's gonna get quite a surprise!"

"What is that?" I asked, looking at the screens. God, I feel like an Englishman trying to understand the lyrics to a German song played backwards!

"It's part of the reason the Thargoids are gonna want to cooperate with the Alliance."

Despite my confusion, I thought I was starting to see the picture... though it was still very out of focus, "Did the INRA do something to the Thargoids?"

Weaver abruptly turned toward me and gave a toothy grin, "You're catching on, Mark! Good!"

Great, I'm catching on! But what exactly am I catching on to?

* * * * *

"So, you're saying that the INRA started the war with the Thargoids in order to get them to invade Alliance space?" I sat back in the comfortable lounge chair in front of a long mahogany desk in Max Weaver's makeshift office.

"That's it exactly." Weaver had put out the remnants of his cigar in a nearby ashtray and produced another one from a small compartment inside his desk.

"Well, that figures," I continued, "I'm sure there's been many instances of people in power starting something they couldn't control."

Weaver nodded and lit the brown roll of tobacco leaves in his hand, "And once again, they didn't know they lost control until it was too late."

"Which brings us to how they disappeared."

"Right." Weaver stood up and hit some keys on the wall. The entire left wall of the office lit up and an image appeared. It was the same image which was being displayed in the laboratory outside.

What I saw displayed was a rotating picture of a molecule. Now I'm not a chemistry freak, but I did realize that this was no ordinary substance.

"As you can see," The older man explained, gesturing at the diagram, "this is no ordinary substance,"

"What is it?"

"It's part of a vaccine."

"For what?"

"One of the Alliance scientists thinks that the Thargoids were infected with some kind of virus."

Before I started to ask the next obvious question, Weaver quickly waved his hand and added, "We don't know what kind of virus it is, but our friends in New Rossyth have come up with lots of possibilities. It could be something that attacks the nervous system, maybe the immune system, maybe even the living machinery that keeps their ships working!"

I remembered reading some journal report in the Universal Scientist that talks about how the Thargoids had living computers on their ships. Now that I thought about it, it seemed that the aliens outclassed us by quite a lot! Whatever put them on their backs had to have been really serious!

One question still remained, "So, why are we trying to help them if they were going sweep right on into the heart of our space?"

Weaver regarded me for a moment, then hit a switch on the wall. The display shifted to reveal a picture of a large green insect. I knew that it was a Thargoid, even though I'd never actually seen one. Next to it, strange characters appeared in vertical columns. Beneath that was the GalSpeak translation.

"Message to leader of Human Alliance, we are prepared to negotiate a truce. Repeat, we are willing to negotiate for a vaccine to the virus which you have infected us with."

My mouth dropped open. I simply couldn't believe it.

"That message was sent six years ago. Every year, the forward outposts on the far side of the Alliance receive this same broadcast. As we've pointed out, those are bases run by the INRA. You beginning to get the picture, Mark?" Weaver's expression was grim.

"The INRA's gonna let them die?"

"So it would seem. If the INRA developed the virus, either they don't know how to stop it, or they don't care to stop it. Either way, it's genocide of an entire race who were apparently living in peace until we showed up."

"Okay, so your folks here are coming up with a cure?"

"Well, we've got part of a possible cure," Weaver switched the screen off and headed back over to his desk, "What we have to do now is get it over to the Alliance labs on New Rossyth. You can believe it won't be easy."

"You think the INRA's going to intervene."

"Let's just say that all the attempts by the New Rossyth folks to gain any information from the INRA about the Thargoids have been met with answers that were... less than pleasant."

I nodded. This is huge! This is bigger than anything I've ever seen in my life, and now I'm in the middle of it!

One last question remained, "Why you?"

"What do you mean?"

"Why'd you get involved?"

"Oh, that," the executive chuckled, leaned back in his seat and took a long leisurely drag from his cigar, "Let's just say that I'm making what I'd like to call a worthwhile investment in my company's future."

I laughed, "So it's business interest that's keeping this little base going?"

"Well, make no mistake about it, Mark. I am a businessman after all. I'll bet even a former military man could imagine the amount of profit that could be hauled from a trade agreement with an alien race. Let alone the potential for technology exchange."

I couldn't resist, "So, when all's said and done, maybe they would be able to improve on your MB4 machine."

Now it was Weaver's turn to laugh out loud, "Well, that and the fact that... well... I sort of owe the INRA for a few things."

A speaker built into the desk chirped. The executive placed his hand on the intercom toggle, "Yes?"

An alarmed voice responded, "Sir, our police patrol's been ambushed! The last message claims a flight of Osprey-X fighters!"

"Heading in our direction?"

"Yes, sir!"

Weaver abruptly stood and headed for the door. Before exiting, he turned to me.

"It looks like we're stepping up our evacuation plans. You can stick around if you want to and help cover us, or you'd better leave now. Just remember if you do help us out, you'll be a marked man."

"Like you? Is that why someone was looking to assassinate you?"

Weaver simply grinned, "Looks like I'm gonna be using those seven years paid vacation that I earned."

I laughed, "Vacation time? Now that's something I could use!"

"Well, for God's sake you'd better get packing!"

I looked over the railing of the balcony, which ringed the main laboratory. Technicians and scientists were still busy working with the equipment, though others seemed to be taking certain tools apart and packing them up.

"Looks like you have more to pack than I do. I guess I'll keep the 'Gestapo' busy while you finish up."

"Good man! We could sure use the help!"

I darted out of the office, then broke into a run, heading for the entrance hatch at the far end of the lab.

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Nine

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