Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Fourteen

Another day, another hyperspace jump. However, this time some things have changed. In all my three years of being out in space as a privateer, I never thought I'd run into my old boss on some innocent-looking starport terminal building. I certainly didn't bank on letting him come on board my ship so he could hitch a ride with me into Alliance territory!

I couldn't help but chuckle as a line from an old book I once read crossed my mind: "I see from all our instruments that we have a couple of hitchhikers aboard. Hello, wherever you are. I just want to make it perfectly clear that you're not at all welcome!"

Well, although it was true that the now ex-Rear Admiral John Bailey was not on my list of favorite people, I didn't have any plans to throw him out the airlock or read any poetry at him... not that I've ever written any poetry to begin with... But, that's beside the point!

The Hooded Fang was nearing the end of the long witch-space tunnel. Its eerie blue and white light swirled about in a vast ethereal dance casting strange all sorts of shadows throughout the cockpit. The skin of my hands was also glowing slightly, as though I was sitting in front of a big black light. In a few seconds, the tunnel would open into darkness and the Fang would emerge into another one of those Frontier systems which lay on the border between the Federation of Sol and the Alliance of Independent Systems.

However, there was something special about this particular Frontier system and, had I thought about it, I would've re-plotted my route. As it was, I hit the hyperspace trigger as soon as we lifted high enough to be clear of New America's atmosphere, not even realizing just where we were going.

Normally, it would've been fine and there wouldn't be any trouble. There was simply the question of one former Federal Navy flag officer going AWOL just a few short days before. It's doubtful that anyone here heard of his recent disappearance, but as I watched the hyperspace lights fade into the darkness of known space and felt the ship shudder as we careened into the Eta Cassiopea system, I knew that neither I nor my passenger would want to be here when the news finally arrived.

I watched as Isis turned and accelerated my ship into the heart of the Federal Navy home system. The twin suns twinkled away, billions of kilometers in the distance as I tried to work out just how to break the information about our location to my new passenger...

* * * * *

Robert Bailey was having the time of his life, lounging back in one of the big armchairs in the living area and watching the Tri-D shows that were downloaded along with the latest news journals.

I figured that he ought to know just what was going on.

He didn't seem to take it too badly, of course his skin managed to turn into one of the most effervescent shades of white I had ever seen, almost as though we were still in Witch Space! Also, I noticed a rather peculiar twitch that I didn't realize he had. At least one of my personal theories was proven true at that moment: Even stone-faced Federal Navy flag officers had their moments of unavoidable terror. At least he didn't try to take a swing at me. I explained that it wasn't on purpose and that I'd laid in my course long before I even knew I'd be meeting up with him. Still, the fact was that I should've checked our destination before hitting the hyperspace trigger. Well, was too late now!

* * * * *

The Fang had come out of hyperspace right between the two stars which made up the binary system. Circling Eta Cassiopea A was an enormous gas giant called Between that would have served us well as a place to get fuel in order to avoid docking or landing and possibly meeting trouble at the hands of Federal Navy personnel. However, when I checked what we had in the internal fuel tank versus whatever hydrogen we had left over in the cargo bay from the hyperspace jump, there was simply not enough fuel to get us there at anything slower than a month's time. By then, the Navy would surely have found us... or mistaken us for a stray target hulk and blasted us out of existence! Seeing as both of these possibilities would likely end in much discomfort and/or discontinued existence, we had to think of something else.

That left only one option: A docking at Angus Manwaring, over the planet Feynman: The primary Naval base.

"Gee, Admiral, you want a blindfold before we dock? Just in case?"

Bailey didn't laugh, but he didn't seem to get agitated... at least, not any more than he already was. In fact, he seemed to be contemplating something as he sat in the newly-installed co-pilot's seat. I had no idea what he was working out, but he seemed to be very much absorbed. After a moment, he blinked, then looked over at me with his famous poker face and spoke.

"You're assuming they already know I've defected."

Now that sounds like the Rob Bailey I remember from the good ol' days, when he was out there himself directing the fleet actions! I was surprised at my reaction to this simple statement. I found myself remembering a time when our jobs in the Navy really were to serve and protect. I remembered being out there when Admiral Bailey held the rank of Captain and he commanded our task force and ordered our maneuvers from his personal flagship... a Boa class star cruiser, if I remember right... We all believed in the Federal cause and we all did our damndest to carry out our orders... Maybe it was simply my youthful idealism I was remembering, yet I couldn't keep from grinning in anticipation of the idea he was about to share, "All right, what's the plan?"

"Well, free fuel for the Fang shouldn't be too difficult to get. However, if it's information about the INRA activities against the Thargoids that you want... I'll need to break out the blues again and you'll need to keep out of sight."

I nodded, "That shouldn't be a problem. I'm a trader now, remember? I'll just hang out in the club. They've still got one on Angus, right?"

Bailey looked at me as though the collar on my flight suit sprouted feathers.

"Things haven't changed that much, Pritchard. What'd you figure? You leave and all of a sudden they have to close down the Navy Seal? You weren't their only customer, you know! But watch yourself, it still gets a little rough sometimes."

I almost burst out laughing. After all I've been through... especially in bars... At least I had a good feeling the INRA wouldn't come looking for me on a Federal Navy base. As to what Bailey planned on doing... well, hacking was never my thing, but I was not about to underestimate anyone's talents. Let alone those of a former Navy flag officer!

* * * * *

"Hooded Fang, you are cleared for docking in bay fourteen." The voice of Angus Manwaring's traffic control system cut out with a crackle of static and the gigantic fortress' docking bay doors slid open. A chill went up my spine as my eyes traversed the whole monstrous structure that now dominated my cockpit window.

Angus Manwaring was the primary orbital base station in the system. It was a monolithic aggregation of huge living modules, cargo containers, docking facilities, and, of course, weapon turrets the likes of which would not be seen on any starship in known space! Manwaring was a formidable sight, commanding respect even at a range of over a hundred clicks! At the range necessary to gain docking clearance, which was a little under five kilometers, one could not help but feel awe that humankind could build such a thing as this... and then feel a little nervous about what could happen if one of those big weapon turrets happened to point in your direction and discharge some energy.

If Bailey was nervous, he wasn't showing it. He simply sat in the co-pilot's seat looking straight ahead, maintaining that same almost annoying poker face of his. I wondered if that was something he had to practice on his own or if he had to take a course in appearing emotionless before rising to the flag ranks, or if he was promoted due to being blessed with a visage that could simply render itself completely without expression. I figured it had to be job training, One doesn't look like that without practicing it... or being forced to do it... after having to cover up the scars caused by so much killing...

The sides of the big entrance tunnel slid around the wedge shape of the Fang as she coasted in at just under ten klicks per hour. There was a slight bump as the ship's thick landing wheels made contact with the docking bay deck plates. Seconds later, the ship rolled itself to a halt and the conveyor immediately sprang to life, pulling my craft into the cavernous elevator at the other end of the docking bay. Minutes later, the Fang was deposited into Berth Fourteen, deep inside the Naval base.

"Well, I'll see what I can arrange for you," said Bailey as he rose from his seat, dressed once again in his crisp dark blue Navy uniform and holding his white cap under his right arm. His brass was well polished and his decorations all in place and in the right order... not that they were ever anything other than that before... but there are times when you take notice of these things a little more than usual.

I nodded, "Well, you have my comm channel if you need me. I don't imagine we'll ever be out of range."

"If that were to happen, it's likely I'm not on the station anymore and on my way to a penal colony. So, don't worry about that."

"Right, when should I expect you?"

Bailey shook his head, "I have no idea. The refueling operation is what I'll take care of first. Then I'll head on down to the Special Services wing and see what I can dig up. Though I won't make any promises. Remember that once we lost positive control, the INRA were officially disavowed by both the Federation and the Empire. I might not find so much as business card."

I sighed, "Well, just see what you can find and I'll meet you in the bar."

"Right." With that, Bailey and I headed for the ship's airlock.

We took the main lift down into the gigantic station's gravity zone and parted company when the former Naval officer, who was doing a very good job of impersonating an active duty Rear Admiral, stepped off the lift at Administration Level Seventeen. I certainly hoped he knew what he was doing.

* * * * *

I walked into the ever-famous Navy Seal Tavern in search of something to calm my jittery nerves. For some reason I was feeling very tense and I had to find something that would keep my stomach from jumping up into my sinus cavity.

Perhaps it was the fact that events were now firmly out of my control that bothered me so much. Or it could be that my old boss had some trick up his sleeve that could get me in trouble as some sort of revenge for the bruises to his ego and his body that my dramatic resignation may have left him. Anything could be happening up on those Administration levels and I wanted to know what it was. However, that was a moot point because civilian personnel were not permitted access to the Admin levels... In fact, now that I thought about it, civilians were quite restricted as to where they could go on this station! Fortunately, the Navy Seal wasn't one of those off-limits places. There were some other clubs here that were "military personnel only," but even during my ten years of service I generally kept out of those. I figured it was nice to see a few "real" people from time to time.

If I wanted constant pomp and circumstance, I would've joined the Impie Fleet! I thought to myself as I stepped up toward the big ring-shaped bar in the center the pub.

"Hey sweetie, what'll ya have?" An extremely pretty young bartender with shoulder length blonde hair that was tied back, soft facial features, and very smooth-looking pale skin smiled pleasantly at me as I sat down on a vacant stool.

I thought for a moment, then asked in a half-serious tone, "You folks don't happen to have any 'blue' do ya?"

She gave me a sort of sympathetic look and replied, "We sure don't. Haven't had that stuff here in ages." What surprised me was the fact that she seemed to know what I was talking about.

"Hmmmm..." was all I could say. I thought for a moment, then asked for something I hadn't had in a long time, "How about some Arcturan Mega-Gin?"

She grinned and said, "It's happy hour so you can get two cubes for the price of one."

I smiled right back, nodded and answered, "Sounds good to me."

The bartender reached beneath the wooden shelf over which I was leaning. I watched her for a moment, then turned my attention to the rest of the tavern. Things were still relatively quiet, apparently happy hour had just started. Some more people began filtering in from the corridor outside.

"Here ya go," The bartender placed two shot glasses, each containing a reflective copper colored gelatinous cube, in front of me. I stuck my credit card into the automatic cashier slot next to me and hit the debit key, making sure to put in a three-credit tip.

"Thank you very much, I really appreciate it." she said when she confirmed my payment a moment later.

I nodded, said, "You're welcome," raising the first shotglass to her slightly, then I swallowed the cube of Arcturan toxins. It was just like any other Jell-O shot, though the taste of it was slightly metallic. Arcturan Mega-Gin, apart from being extremely strong alcohol, also contains assorted "goodies" (like benzine, according to some of the rumors) which are meant to add to the... experience.. of the drink. However, I knew the stuff, even if I hadn't had a cube since I left the Navy, and it was much easier to handle then the "blue" I was served at Kohl Base less than a week ago.

One shot later and I was content to just sit for a few moments with my head propped up against one hand and watch a miniature holovision that was floating about a meter to the left of my seat. When I looked back into the center of the "drunk ring," the bartender was busy serving someone else, giving me a moment to watch her in action... Like the paint-on jeans... and the halter's a really nice touch too!

As difficult as it was, I pried my eyes away and looked back at the holographic television and tried to lose myself in its virtual reality. However, the thought that I was still very much in the dark about Admiral Bailey's infiltration of the administration offices far above left me very much concerned. The two very stiff shots with their hundred-or-so-proof alcohol laced with other elements failed to do their job, which was to make the nagging feeling I had go away.

Something's wrong with this picture. You know it. I thought to myself. Fortunately, the bartender had returned and brought me out of my dark thoughts with her very presence.

"Another couple o' shots for ya?" She asked in her bright and cheery demeanor.

"Sure," I said, smiling back up at her and not thinking. You'd better take it easy, pal. I heard my conscience say. Remember what happened last time? However, I had a feeling I wouldn't be running into any pink dragons while I was here... still... I had to keep my eyes open. Though right now they were quite open and noticing that my gracious hostess' black halter top was cut just low enough... If I didn't have somewhere to be... I found myself thinking as I tried very hard not to stare. The Arcturan Mega-Gin was definitely taking control of some of the more base urges that most every man has. It was also winning the fight... not that I was doing too much to resist it! Besides, Bailey might take hours to get all the info we need!

After swallowing one more shot of metallic gold colored gelatin, I suddenly discovered that my rather vivid imagination was, once again, working overtime. One part of it was now occupied with the vision of doing something rather explicit and tiring with the bartender that would involve the use of my cabin back aboard the Fang. The other part of my creative center conjured up a 3-D movie of Rob Bailey, busily downloading all the data he could find on the INRA, a meter-high stack of data cards standing next to him.

Meanwhile, some other anonymous part of my mind was saying, And you still have one more shot to go! Maybe you should chill out for a second... I actually thought about it for a moment, then heard another much louder voice in my head say, Nah, you've got plenty of time. Besides, Isis could always get you out of the dock if you were too drunk to fly... Unless you thought you could trust ol' Bailey to do it!

I picked up the tiny drinking vessel. It glittered beneath the spotlights that illuminated the "drunk ring" as I brought it up to my lips. I sensed eyes on me and turned my head. The bartender had stopped wiping the countertop and regarded me with an expression that, at that moment and in my present condition, looked to me like the sort of expression a friendly-feeling woman wore just before letting her clothes fall to the floor.

I smiled back and tipped the shot toward my palate. It was tangy, it was strong, but I managed to keep from gagging...

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Thirteen

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