Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Thirteen

"Twenty-five thousand credits!? You've gotta be kidding me!" My hand was ready to crush the bill into a tight ball of recycled paper. However, I managed to maintain enough self-control that my hand merely trembled slightly.

"Sorry pal, that's what you owe and you're not leaving 'till you pay it off. Unless you want some extra souveniers in the way of more laser scorches on your way out."

At least he knew that I did stand a fighting chance in the Fang if I wanted to take off without clearance. However, I was interested in keeping my record with the Federal Police as clean as possible. I looked over the statement again.

"Okay, you fixed sixty tons of hull space, replaced the fried thruster, and fixed my ECM, two shield generators, and my fuel scoop."

"Yeah, that's true." The head mechanic looked over the charges as well. I have no idea why this didn't seem to register with him.

"Well, the total of the repairs adds up to fifteen hundred credits. Even according to the bill. So, what's the deal with my total being almost twenty times as much?"

The mechanic looked the bill over again, his eyes moving between the short list of items repaired to the grand total at the bottom. He then checked out the totals a third time. By now it looked as though he was watching for the numbers to revert themselves into a more acceptable charge. Yet, the printed digits resolutely refused to do anything other than display the legend "Cr. 25,000." The mechanic sighed, then returned his attention to me.

"I'm sorry, sir. There must be a mistake, but there's nothing I can do about it. Maybe my supervisor can help, but that doesn't seem likely."

I was furious. Of course, I knew it wasn't necessarily his fault. But charges like this don't happen by accident either. Especially not in a Federal starport!

"Who has access to your credit computer?"

The mechanic gave a look which would suggest that he was watching a hermit crab crawl out of my nose, "What? Who has access? Just the owner and the bankers, same as on every other planet!"

I nodded, "Well, anyone have any reason to want to stiff me out of twenty five grand?"

The mechanic chuckled, "Not unless you've gone and pissed off the boss!"

I thought about that for a moment, running though a mental list. There were more than a few people out there that I knew to keep some distance from. Preferably on the order of several light years. However, the owner of the repair shop at Kohl Base wasn't among them. Especially as I'd never even been here before!

However, the mechanic was waiting for me to swipe my card through his debit machine. I wasn't about to lose that much cash. Sure, I've got loads, but letting someone cross me like that and get away with it... my own sense of honor wouldn't allow it. It would be like a wild Bengal tiger walking away from a human who just bitch-slapped it.

I said, "All right, I'll to talk to your supervisor."

* * * * *

Several minutes later, and several hundred meters off the ground, I was standing in the main lobby of the Federal Shipyards at Kohl Base Executive Offices.

One thing that I hadn't expected was the number of people in uniform. In fact, the only person who wasn't wearing a uniform was me! For some reason, that unnerved me. Sure, I'd known that I was walking into what was, technically, a Federal installation. I just figured that the upper offices would be manned by experienced former grease monkeys, not by clean-shaven and blue-suited Federal Navy officers.

The sergeant at the desk regarded me the way one examines a stain on the wall and tries to figure out whether it's dog piss or marsipan paste. Finally, she spoke.

"Can I help you?"

"Yeah, I'm here to see Mr. Bailey."

"Do you have an appointment?"

"Well, I was sent up here by Robby down in the service station. Does that count?"

My cheerful, happy-go-lucky demeanor failed to lighten the mood of the woman behind the long front desk. In fact, if anything, she seemed to scowl even worse than she had been, which I didn't think was possible until I saw it happen! She glanced down at the computer screen which was set flush into the top of the desk, then looked back up at me. She then returned her attention to the screen, then she looked back up at me again. With the way she kept darting her gaze between the computer screen and my person, it was as if she were a customs agent trying to find some excuse to perform a strip-search on me.

After a few more glances from computer screen to my face, with a couple more nasty scowls thrown in for good measure, I half expected that she was actually going to do it. However, she finally said, "Down the hall, the door all the way at the end."

I sighed with relief.

"Thanks very much," I replied and made a beeline for the indicated hallway.

* * * * *

For some very mysterious reason the name Robert Bailey failed to register in my mind until I saw the plackard on his door. The reason for this was that, until today, I hadn't seen or heard his name without the prefix Vice Admiral immediately preceding it.

Although the effects of the... "Blue" had worn off completely, I still felt a terrible sickening feeling in my stomach. This has a tendancy to happen when I'm confronted with what I know will be a very uncomfortable situation.

When one resigns his commission in a particularly dramatic and aggressive manner, he hopes never again to be forced to face the person who ended up becoming the human coat rack. Sure, throwing my dress jacket at the Admiral may have been a little overkill, but I was pretty upset at the time. Adding the extra tonnage of all of my medals was merely a courtesy detail that I felt would give a little more weight to my point. It must have as Admral Bailey was knocked back into the chair behind his desk.

And now was going to confront the man I "threw it in" at a second time. This time I wanted something back... specifically, twenty thousand credits.

I wasn't sure whether or not to give up and leave quietly until the door slid open. My eyes involuntarily darted back toward the gold and silver sign on the door.

"Rear Admiral Robert Bailey... Wait a minute..." I said to myself.

"Come in!" Boomed a voice from beyond the doorframe.

I took a deep breath and marched on in, hoping I was ready for anything.

The gray-haired man sitting behind the large executive desk didn't look up for a long moment. He was busily scribbling down some notes onto a datapad which he then downloaded into his personal computer.

Sure enough, the name on the door was correct. Visible on his blue suit were the single wide and single narrow stripes of a Federal Navy Rear Admiral. The aggregation of ribbons on his chest had indeed grown since we parted company three years ago. I wondered how many of those decorations were awarded for sending hordes of hired guns into the fray to murder unsuspecting Imperial officials, Alliance idealists, or Federation citizens who rubbed some government official the wrong way.

I know that not everyone who serves the Federal Navy is an underhanded near-criminal, but I've met very few above the rank of Petty Officer who didn't have some sort of dark side to them and a lust for blood. Yes, that includes myself as well.

Admiral Bailey finally looked up at me... and immediately pushed himself away from his desk, sending his high backed, very expensive looking brown leather chair careening into the opposite wall with a dull thud.

He spluttered for a moment and flailed around for something out of his grasp... probably a hand laser, which I was very glad he didn't find. I was sure he would have shot first and thought about it later.

Finally, probably when he felt there was enough space between himself and me and that his desk effectively prevented me from advancing any closer, he breathed once and finally spoke.

"Well, Lieutenant Pritchard, what can I do for you?"

I was taken aback. His formailty was astounding! I figured someone as well-respected and battle-hardened as Rob Bailey would simply shout a few words and then call up the security guards to escort me out. Perhaps he managed to call them or trip a silent alarm in his panicked display, but I wasn't sure. Until they showed up, it was just us, one-on-one.

I relaxed and replied as cordially as I could.

"Admiral Bailey, I have a problem that I believe only you can solve."

This got a chuckle out of the portly old man. He said, "A problem only I can solve?"

I nodded, "Yes, sir."

"You know, the last thing I expected when I got up today was to see ol' slippery Mark Pritchard back in my office. Least of all, asking me to solve one of his problems!" He threw his head back and laughed out loud.

I will admit, it was pretty funny, especially considering how we parted company so long ago. It was not only funny, but the only thing that I could think of was just how ludicrous it was coming into his office and asking him to do anything for me, least of all give me twenty thousand credits! Maybe I should have crawled through the door.

Before I could say anything like, "Gee, I'm sorry I lost my temper three years ago," or "Let's bury the hatchet," or, "I hope the bruises healed okay," he spoke again.

"You know, that little stunt you pulled really set some people off. Not just me, but quite a few others. They began to wonder just what the hell was going on down in the Covert Ops office. Do you know what happened?" His tone had now changed to fierce anger held in check. His fists clenched and shook slightly. This was more of what I was expecting.

"No, sir. I completely took myself out of the Federal net after I left your office. I figured you'd do that anyway, so why wait?"

"Well, let's just say that not only did I get ten pounds of silver and gold thrown into my face... which did hurt, by the way, but... no let me ask you... Notice anything different about me?"

I sighed. So, the boys upstairs blamed you for my bitter resentment and took away a star. It figures. I suppose they set you up out here to keep you out of their hair until your retirement comes up. In the space of a brief second, I actually began to feel a shred of guilt. In another time and place, I would have been laughing my ass off. We were all just doing our jobs and you just happened to be my commanding officer.

All I could do was say, "I did notice a few things, sir."

The Admiral nodded, glanced at his cuff and said. "That would've been a really nice pension there. Three stars, no worries. You were in line for another stripe yourself, you know?"

I replied, "I heard rumors about it. I didn't care. If I may ask, what made you stay after they practically cashiered you?"

Bailey shrugged, "What else was there? A new line of work? Forget it. I'm a career soldier."

"Even if you're just being relegated to babysitting a starport?"

The Admiral's eyes narrowed into slits, "We don't all get to choose where our paths will go."

Before I could give any kind of argument, Bailey raised his hand and said, "Now, was there something you needed, or did you just come here to swap stories about the good old days?"

I had almost completely forgotten! "Yes, sir. It seems that my account is about to be grossly overcharged for some relatively minor ship repairs. The folks down on the tarmac told me to come up here and talk to you about it."

Admiral Bailey rolled himself back up to his desk and keyed into his personal computer. Within seconds he was accessing the billing records for the starport. Sure enough, there it was: A twenty thousand or so credit overcharge.

Bailey's brow furrowed as he studied the figures.

"Well, rest assured, it wasn't me. I didn't even know you were here until you walked into my office."

I chuckled, "You know, it did occur to me, but not until just before I walked in."

The old man grinned, "Well, let's just see what's happening here..."

* * * * *

Ten minutes later, I was taking the elevator back down the side of the tall starport control building. It had been a simple error that hadn't been caught, or so Admiral Bailey had assured me. Some sort of a typo which the computers didn't correct. Anyway, the problem was solved. I was now paid in full and ready to lift off again.

I did mention to my former CO that I was headed for Alioth. Perhaps in the hope that I'd soon see him there too. After being disgraced the way he had been, it seemed to me that a worthwile thing to do would be to jump ship and head on out to Alliance territory. There, anyone's welcome, provided you didn't cause much trouble.

* * * * *

"Control, this is Hooded Fang, requesting launch clearance." I released the comm switch and waited for the usual "Request granted" speech.

"Attention, Commander, Hooded Fang, The Starport Commander wishes to speak to you."

The little screen above the communications console resolved itself into the image of Rear Admiral Robert Bailey. However, he had devested himself of his Navy jacket and exchanged it for... a flight suit?

"Commander Pritchard, I request permission to come aboard your ship."

At that moment a lot of things happened at the same time: My heart skipped a beat, my jaw began doing all kinds of callisthenics, and my mind spun. This was clearly something I hadn't planned on. Well, I guess we surprised each other today.

I heard myself say, "Permission granted, sir."

The older man on the other side of the screen nodded, "Well, one thing's gonna be different from here on in. You won't have to call me sir anymore. At least, not until the Alliance starts up a Navy and they need a Covert Ops man."

I grinned, "Who knows, anything can happen. Better hurry though, I'm juiced up and ready to get to space."

"I'll be right there!"

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Twelve

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