Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Part Three: Intermezzo

Chapter Twelve

Some say the Groombridge 34 system is just another tourist trap. Well, they're right, I happen to agree with that sentiment. Unfortunately I maxed out my hyperdrive range and needed to get fuel. Skimming the gas giant was what I had in mind. I figured I could wait for a less-manicured landing site, despite the fact that, after four days in witch space, I was getting pretty anxious for some time on my feet.

I knew that the Weaver's Dream and her escorts would be fine. If they were smart, all of those ships had taken completely separate routes to get to Alioth. This would keep any INRA assassins busy trying to locate Max Weaver and his team of scientists. Hopefully, there would be some protection that they'd be meeting along the way to fend off any attackers.

Anyway, that was out of my hands. My job was simply to meet Max Weaver at New Rossyth, and that was exactly what I planned to do. In the meantime, I needed to get some fuel into the Hooded Fang before she became little more than a freely falling wedge of machine parts.

Isis switched into navigation mode, and I had her lay in a course for the system's largest gas giant. The course still took me fairly close to the habitable planet called New America, so if I changed my mind, it wouldn't be too much trouble to make a landing at Kohl Base. Why a very German sounding city name would be situated on a planet called New America is a mystery to me. It's almost as though the settlers who founded the place were trying to be ironic! Well, since I didn't live back in 2452, I have no idea!

I just knew I'd rather avoid getting completely cheesed to death with all the ratty gift shops mixed in with the local scenery!

* * * * *

The alert siren went off, and I scrambled up to the cockpit, leaving the tri-D to play the latest episode of Jameson: Frontier Defender to empty air.

"Isis, what's up?"

"Unidentified contacts on intercept course."

"Okay, switch to battle mode."

The thruster control indicator on my console was replaced by icons showing the full weapons loadout of my trusty Cobra class starship.

I looked down at the scanner. Sure enough, two orange colored blips had winked into existence from astern and above me. I didn't know if they belonged to the INRA or if they were just random pirates who were just looking to perforate and pillage. Either way, I wasn't taking any chances.

I shut off my main thruster, allowing the ship to drift freely through the cosmos at over three thousand klicks per second, and I swung the nose around to face the first bogey.

The Asp class ship opened fire with a bright orange beam laser as soon as I had faced her. I let fly with my own laser beam, but the pilot of this ship was pretty smart and lightly dodged out of the way. I kept the beam going and rotated my nose upward just slightly. This had the effect of opening a small gouge into the bottom of the Asp's hull. I watched as gasses vented and the pilot attempted to correct his own firing position. However, it was too late. Another long burst from my laser impaled the assassin, punching right through the flat body of his ship.

The Asp broke apart, sending debris flying in all directions as the incoming missile siren gave a whoop, jarring my teeth for a moment. Instinctively, I hit the ECM button and watched as a smaller explosion appeared about ten meters from my cockpit windshield!

"Jesus, that was close!" I exclaimed as I sighted in on a Harris class heavy fighter.

I fired my laser and it passed the target a little high. I rotated my nose downward to catch it but then I found myself on the receiving end of a four megawatt beam laser! My defensive shield held for a moment before the beam punched through and began a deadly dance on the Fang's outer hull. I hit the top thruster to push myself downward and away from the glowing lance. However, it tracked me in the same way that I had followed his wingman.

Alarms went off and sparks flew as Isis began giving me damage reports.

"Top thruster damaged. ECM System damaged. Shield generator damaged. Fuel Scoop damaged."

"Dammit!" I began sweating like crazy and felt the adrenaline pumping into my veins. I pulled back on the stick and hit the reverse thruster, using the same maneuver I had employed in my tangle with the Imperial Courier on my way to Baker Outpost.

The Harris class ship was still in pursuit, but at least I had gotten away from that laser she was carrying! My hull integrity registered forty five percent. Another half second of that ferocious cutting and I wouldn't be making it to Alioth... at least not in one piece!

I took aim at my assailant, who was lightly weaving in my direction. I knew I needed a break. I let loose with a missile and watched as the ship surrounded itself with the ECM field. Fortunately, my Navy Grade missile was unaffected and it flew straight and true into the hull of the enemy vessel where it exploded.

I was very surprised to see that the larger ship wasn't vaporized. But I knew that she was probably very seriously damaged: spinning out of control, trailing escaping oxygen and other gasses. I hit the main thruster and accelerated toward the drifter while lining her up in my laser sights. Some may call this unsportsmanlike, but I call it putting a bastard out of his misery. I fired my laser and carved right into the pirate ship's engine section, then shielded my eyes from the resulting explosion.

* * * * *

They don't make automatic repair units for ships the size of a Cobra Mark III. They also haven't figured out how to repair or replace vital ship systems while in flight. Without a fuel scoop, I knew a course correction and a landing was going to be in order.

I instructed Isis to lay in a new course for Kohl Base on the planet of New America. The Fang shuddered as her still-functional interplanetary drive spat forth 20Gs of thruster power. I estimated it would take me about eight hours to get there. Isis didn't say anything about herself taking damage and, since computers don't lie or withhold the truth (at least, not in reality) I trusted that she'd be able to get me and my crippled ship to safety.

* * * * *

The Fang rested silently on her three long landing legs as I stalked off and into the starport lobby. The weather was pleasant: The sky was blue with small white clouds drifting high above the treeline. The air was sweet and filled with the scents of nature and a light breeze drifted across the tarmac. Yet, beneath all of this picture-perfect scenery, I could feel the materialism in the air.

In spite of that slightly greasy feeling about the place, I still felt the need to step out of my flying apartment and pay a personal visit to the shipyards. I couldn't say exactly why I felt so compelled to leave the ship: Perhaps it was because it looked like such a nice day and I needed some real fresh air, or maybe because the bright landscape around the starport looked so appealing that I had to make sure it was real. In any event, I strode across the network of landing pads which ringed the starport terminal and entered the tall control building.

* * * * *

The Space Bar was an odd looking little establishment. Obviously it was meant as a kind of joke. A way of poking fun at starpilots and computer specialists alike. The long narrow building had walls that tapered inward slightly as they rose twelve meters overhead. The roof appeared to be flat and smooth. I saw it as I made my descent to the starport, I just hadn't figured on it being a tavern. Now, when I saw what it was called, I couldn't help but laugh out loud. Yep, the cheesiness had officially started!

I stepped through the large front door and into a darkness splattered by bright strobes and different colored stage lights. A big mural of a stylized computer keyboard dominated the far wall below the DJ Booth and, of course, the space bar was given an added touch of sparkling gold paint and the words "Space Bar" scrawled out in cursive over the top of it. The lights all pointed at the large wooden dance floor in front of the mural. It didn't take long for me to notice that hanging over the polished floor was a big, though ancient, disco ball. It was a good meter in diameter. Good thing the ceiling was four meters high, or there'd be problems if you actually wanted to get down on that floor!

However, I had other ideas as to how to spend my time. A smaller version of that sparkling sphere hung from the ceiling over the bar. Good, I thought, Making sure the customers know just where to go! I sighed, tried to avoid gritting my teeth, and made my way up to the long wooden counter.

I sat down on a leather padded stool, rested my elbows on the bar, pulled out my credit card, and inserted it into the card slot. The bartender regarded me with an odd look.

"Planning on spending the whole day here or something?" he asked in a rumbling basso voice.

I sighed again and glanced around at the scenery, hoping I'd missed something that might have brought the place up a few notches on my decency scale. Finding nothing, I replied, "Well, not if I can help it, but then, you never know."

The bartender chuckled, "I hear that. Well, what can I get ya?"

"I don't know. What's good around here?"

The younger man gave a smirk and then said, "Here, try this."

He reached under the bar and lifted up a big drinking glass with an arm that seemed more accustomed to lifting two or three kegs at a time rather than single glasses. I almost wondered if it was an effort for him to keep all that muscle tissue interested in doing its job. Of course, being able to control that arm for fine detailed work such as the lifting of a fragile crystal cup could be just as difficult. It was a mystery to me.

After setting the glass down on the bar, the man then reached for a small bottle containing a dark blue liquid. I had no idea what it was, so I asked him.

The man looked at the full glass, then at me, and shrugged, "It's blue. People seem to like it," then picked up a rag and turned to dust off some corner of the bar I couldn't see.

"Hmmmm..." I said, taking the glass and studying its contents. I sniffed it a couple of times, not sure of what I was checking for. I had a feeling I was giving the impression to the winos sitting next to me that I was about as sure about drinking this as they are about waking up one morning and deciding not to drink! I couldn't detect any familiar alcoholic fragrances, it wasn't rum or vodka or whiskey. It was an odorless slightly thick blue liquid that you could see through if you held it up to the light.

"It's pretty, ain't it?" mentioned one rather sozzled old gentleman sitting on my right.

I kept looking at it as I replied, "Yeah, it is. I just don't know what to make of it."

The elderly man laughed a raucous cackle that would have sent little children running to their mothers.

"Well, neither do we. It's blue and we like it."

I shifted my gaze down to meet the eyes of the emaciated man. He too was staring up at my glass, probably wanting to see what the liquid inside would do to someone like me.

Well, let's find out, shall we? I thought as I gave a cautious sip. It was nice! I was expecting something like a blueberryish taste. This was more like lemonade... with something else thrown in that I couldn't identify. I didn't think it to be poisonous, so I downed the entire glass in three easy gulps.

The old alcoholic beside me nodded and grinned, "That's the way to do it. It gets better as you go along."

"I thought that was pretty good to begin with," I answered, wondering why everything suddenly looked a little out of focus. Wow! What the hell's in this thing!? I thought.

By some interesting coincidence, the bartender had returned. If it was possible, he looked even a little bigger then when I last saw him, or maybe my eyes just felt that they had to work extra hard to bring his stature into clear resolution.

"Want another one, sir?" He asked.

"Sure, fill 'er up again."

The young death match wrestler look-alike nodded, produced the bottle of blue liquid, refilled my glass, hit a switch on the register console, deducting another credit from my account, and returned to whatever he'd been doing.

"This is gonna be a hell of a night," I said, wondering if I had pronounced that sentence properly. Ah well, too late now! I thought, and tossed the drink back.

I looked back down at the bar and was surprised and happy to see that the bartender had anticipated my needs with another full glass of... Blue!

The old man looked over at me and said something to the effect of "Yessir, the third one's the charmer..." but I wasn't completely sure. In fact, I wasn't feeling completely sure of anything at this point. I was even wondering if I was falling off of my stool!

By the time I had finished my third drink, everything was just beautiful. The patterns of light flashing across the room had me mesmerized and it wasn't long before my mind started drifting off into the realms of memory and fantasy.

As if to make the point, to my left was seated a young girl. I knew my mind had to be completely fragged. There's no way that it could have been who I thought it was, but I still couldn't help but say, "Jeannie?"

The woman looked over at me, drank a shot of something I couldn't identify and I felt my throat and face warm up on her behalf! She said, "Hi Mark," and took another shot.

I was completely blown away. How could Jeannie Dreyfuss have gotten all the way out here? Unless she was hitching a ride with her "uncle" and even then, I wouldn't have figured on them coming here.

"What're you doing here?" I asked, not caring about the fact that my lips were doing a great job of tripping over themselves.

She looked at me with a quizzical expression, at least, what I thought was a quizzical expression. I wasn't sure if looking very out of focus was quizzical or if I was just too drunk to see that she was grinning from ear to ear.

"I think someone's drunk," she said with a voice that I could have sworn was the same one that serenaded me on the bridge of the Weaver's Dream and in the artificial garden plaza of Boston Base. Of course, being less than myself, I could have sworn that a lot of the illusions wandering around my head were real... even the one about the pink dragon about to toast me to a crisp with its fiery breath!

Immediately, I threw myself out of my stool as a lance of bright flame carved a hole in the side of the bar. My two empty glasses shattered into a million pieces, spraying everyone with glowing shards. The old man sustained a cut above his left eye and he howled in pain. It was not the sort of howl that a person wanted to hear, even in a horror vid, and it jarred my teeth. The woman had also thrown herself to the floor and the bartender, despite the fact that he could likely have wrestled the evil creature to the floor and rip its head off, had dropped down behind the bar.

What the hell was that? Where'd that pink dragon come from? What the hell did I just do? All of these questions spun dizzily around in my mind as another lance of flame whizzed past my ear. I rolled away from the deadly missile and watched as it cut a swath into the floor.

By now, I was dimly aware of sounds like high pitched screaming, shattering glass, and of feet shuffling around. The tables were arranged in a very haphazard fashion and I found one to hide beneath while I got my bearings. The room spun and dived as I made my way to what I hoped was a safe haven from the commotion.

At this point, I was also aware of another struggle going on: My stomach and my inner ear were locked in a violent wrestling match. Each contestant had quite a handicap, between violent racket affecting the ear and some sort of intoxicant affecting the stomach but eventually it was my stomach that won the day. Of course, it was so pleased that it had to announce its victory by throwing its contents in the direction of my ear, obviously trying to taunt the loser. My stomach was quite a poor winner.

Fortunately the roof of my mouth had always been a very good mediator and managed to deflect this unsavory display out to where it wouldn't do any more harm, save for leaving a nasty blue and red mess on the floor under the table.

Unfortunately someone else, who also had the sense to hide under an adjacent table, had a stomach who thought that what I had just done was a pretty neat idea. I could see the other man's turmoil as his stomach had a brief chat with its related inner ear and soon added its own unique contents to the peanut shells, chicken bones, and popcorn kernels which littered the floor of the Space Bar.

Upon seeing this, my brain radioed down a signal to my stomach. After finding out that its victory blast had sparked the idea in someone else, a decision was made for yet another victory celebration. However, being empty, all it could do this time was throw a big nasty-smelling ball of air up toward the sinus cavity. Mr. Roof of Mouth was there to save the day again... and keep the other man entertained, by letting me expel the offensive gas into the smoke-filled air.

The other man's stomach had obviously done enough celebrating because its owner had pulled out something resembling a laser pistol, though his was very tarnished. Whoever the man was, he had to have been forced to use his sidearm many times. How he was going to kill a huge pink dragon with a peashooter like that was beyond me, but he leaned out from under the table and fired.

The sound of a hand-held beam laser firing (actually, it was the sound of the weapon's tiny cooling fan keeping the inner workings of the firing chamber from melting, but that's not important right now) brought me back into something more resembling the world as I knew it.

Where an evil pink dragon once stood, there were two figures crouched behind a table that had been turned on its side to form a barrier between them and the rest of the bar. Holes were being chewed into it by the tiny bright red beam laser wielded by the prone man beside me.

I pulled out my own shining pistol, switched it on, and fired my own blue-white laser stream to add a little extra color and destructive energy to the situation. A hole appeared in the table protecting one of the men and I heard a yelp from behind the barrier. However, I knew better than to trust that. I kept firing until I had cut an large vertical incision through the table and saw a sea of blood running freely out from behind it.

The assailant's partner had probably realized that he was in real trouble now. He popped up from behind the now-useless makeshift barricade and fired his weapon. It wasn't a beam laser: It fired small and fast ball of bright orange flame at me: A plasma pistol! The shot impacted the table I was hiding beneath, blowing a hole into it big enough to jump through and I rolled aside before the table collapsed in on itself.

I was lying on the floor of the bar, out in the open again, but with a clear line of sight. I aimed at my standing opponent and fired. The bright beam of my laser burned its way into the man's chest. He screamed and dropped his weapon. The man who was hiding next to me had also started firing, though his shot was aimed into the man's face. The disarmed man stopped screaming as a small blackened hole appeared between his eyes and he fell to the floor.

Lasers aren't exactly mercy weapons. They were precise, cheap, and easy to use. They burned their way through things, so I knew they were painful. When I bought my weapon, I had very deliberately chosen the most powerful model available. I didn't believe in making my victims suffer, killing was my former profession and I believed that the professional thing to do was keeping the pain to a minimum.

When the carnage had settled, the bartender stepped up to me and said. "Sir, I can't have wanted men in my establishment."

Wanted men? What's he talking about? My mind was still working on adrenaline, though I knew the fight was over. The bartender's statement was very confusing to me. Would the INRA have placed a bounty on my head? Sure, they had time to scan my ship, and the warrant could've made it through the relay network to the various police headquarters by now, but something still didn't seem right about it.

I simply decided to play dumb, "What? Who's wanted?"

The bartender's attention was not focused on me, but on the man with the butterknife of a laser who had finally holstered his weapon and was studying the carnage he helped to create. Sure, he managed to make an assist, and cut a few random holes in a table and I'll bet he's trying to make it look like he did it all himself. Not that I really cared about credit for killing, but I was sick of those people who decided to try and act tough after a fight was over. At least I'd admit that I barfed before I started firing. I wondered if he would.

"Sir, I'm gonna have to ask for you to leave." The bartender stepped toward him.

The smaller man looked up at both of us and smirked.

"I help you out of a jam and now you're kicking me out? That's gratitude for ya!"

Despite the edge of resentment in his voice, he turned and strode out the door.

I watched him go in astonishment.

"Who was that?" I asked.

The bartender sighed, "That's Kam Zetlick. He's a bounty hunter turned to pirate."

"Well, any bounty hunter could be classed as a pirate, depending on who you're talking to."

"True enough, except they say he thought it suitable to laser up some innocent freighter without doing a radar map. His ex-copilot bore witness to the fact that he just kept right on shooting, even after the identity confirmation."

"Hmmmmmm...."

The bartender turned toward me and said, "Don't feel sorry for him, sir. He's racked himself up a bit of a reputation since that one incident."

"I see," I replied.

"By the way, who were those guys?"

"I dunno, I was pretty messed up when they came in." And how they managed to look like a pink dragon was still a mystery to me!

I cautiously walked over to the bisected bar table sitting in a large pool of blood. I hated looking over corpses. Space combat was much... cleaner.

Sure enough, the one man had a deep incision running from neck to waist. I tried not to look at it, and instead, focused on the clothes he was wearing. I saw nothing like a patch or a pin that would have given any clue as to what organization he belonged to. Even most pirate gangs had an emblem of sorts. Whoever this was, he wasn't broadcasting his identity for all to see. That left a few choices, several of which pointed to the INRA.

I held my breath, reached into the man's blood-soaked pants, and removed his wallet. He kept it neat and tidy: A standard starpilot's license, Credit and ID card, and a black plastic card with a magnetic strip on one side and marked with a gold triangle circled by a red ring on the other: The emblem of the Intergalactic Naval Research Arm. When I showed it to the bartender, his tanned skin turned a ghostly white: Something else I hadn't expected to happen.

The other man's wallet held similar credentials. So, the INRA had managed to find me... or maybe it was the other man they were after. Either way, that's two more of them gone the way of the Dodec space station.

I gave the bartender a generous tip and headed out. I figured it'd soon be time to check up on the repairs.

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Eleven

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