Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Fifteen

I remember taking several minutes to engage the lady bartender in some sort of intelligent conversation... Things like "Where 'ya from?" "You been here long?" "You get off work soon?" That sort of stuff. At least I think that's what I asked... I don't remember her looking at me strange, certainly not as though I said anything particularly off... I think I kept her amused, particularly with the last question. I don't remember her actually answering that one, but then again, she must have!

* * * * *

I awoke to find myself walking down one of the many corridors of Angus Manwaring. The drinks were starting to wear off, but I was still heavily discomposed. I looked around at the walls as they swept by and started twirling around!

"Woah, don't do that!" I said to myself, "Eyes forward!"

"You sure you're ok?" asked a very feminine voice beside me. I allowed my eyes to wander to my right, toward the source of the voice. Sure enough, I was either being graciously escorted back to the Fang, which I certainly hoped was not the case, or I'd somehow managed to talk this girl into going back to her place after her early evening shift at the bar had ended.

Oh damn! What's her name!? Damn... damn... damn? No, that's not it... It doesn't feel right... Focus your eyes forward and try to think... There's nothing more embarrassing than not remembering the name of a girl who you're supposedly going to spend some "quality time" with! Though at least I have a chance to remember before everything's been said and done! Think!

"I'm fine," I said out loud as I took a few steps forward. "The gin's wearin' off, I think." My speech seemed a bit relaxed still, but at least I understood what I was saying. Of course, I knew that didn't mean anything.

The bartender, whose name was still eluding me, replied, "Well that's good. I've seen lots of Navy types in there, but I hadn't met one crazy enough to do four shots of that stuff! Let alone almost all at once!"

The hallway had finally stopped doing its nauseating dance and I felt my steps becoming a little more regular. She kept easy pace beside and just ahead of me and I was enjoying letting my stride fall just slightly behind her so I could make use of my peripheral vision. I knew that focusing on the distant wall that marked the end of the corridor was going to be necessary until more of the tainted Jell-O shots wore off.

"So, Terri, you were sayin' earlier about being a trader's daughter?" Terri! That was it! I was very grateful for the brief moment of lucidity which allowed me to remember.

Terri responded with a sort of wistful air, "Yeah, well, there isn't too much to tell. Dad was commander of an old Lynx carrier and worked for various companies taking their stuff to different places. He always got the safe routes, so we knew he'd be okay. The pay was so good that he was able to buy his own ship after just a few years!"

This interested me, I'd not heard much about the folks who flew the big bulk carriers. All I knew is that the ships themselves were large and not to be messed with. In fact, the only thing bigger than a bulk carrier was one of those giant factory ships called space dredgers and nobody'd seen them in over a hundred years, since just before the beginning of the Thargoid war.

"So, what happened then?" I said with startling coherence, considering how I was feeling.

Terri shrugged and said, "Well, he took us with him and I spent seven years learning how to run loaders and forklifts, and mix drinks."

A real working woman is what we have here! I thought, smiling to myself. I imagined the expressions on the dock workers' faces when they saw a heavy cargo loader being driven by the angel who walked beside me. Of course, she's just an angel on the outside! Much different from... say... Michelle Stryker, the rich girl who married Senator John Stryker of Ross 154... Different from even Jeannie Dreyfuss...

Another thought struck me, "What made you want to leave?"

My conversational companion looked at me for a moment, smiled slightly and replied, "Well, I was having a pretty decent time until Dad decided to head on out to Reidquat."

Ohhhhh... I thought, having a very good idea where she was headed with this story.

"The mob there wanted someone to haul their stuff around the Frontier sectors, especially to Lave and Reorte. We were having some trouble with the economic recession in 3247 and needed the money. They were offering him more than enough to clear up a couple little debts he had and what they gave us to move was all legit... at first.

"Then they started giving him what they called 'special' assignments. Mostly drugs with some gun running thrown in occasionally."

I'd heard this story a couple of times before and could just imagine how nice it had to feel, bringing in all that money. The Reidquat pirate mob was ruthless, deadly, but extremely rich and they spared no expense to keep their members' pockets full. But woe betide the man, or family, who decided they'd had enough of the mobster's life!

I asked, "Then he wanted out and they killed him for it?"

Her expression was grim and she nodded silently, not wanting to look at me.

"Well, you got out, it looks like."

Terri sighed, "Yes, my brother and I got out, but not my parents. They came after us and destroyed our ship. My brother and I got put into the escape pod and made it ok, but..."

Ouch! I thought.

"So you came here because you figured you'd be safe at a naval base?"

Terri looked at me and asked, "Can you think of a better idea?"

"Not at all."

"Of course, there's always a chance that they could find me here and I'd have to get out. I've got some money, but not enough for a ship with any kind of hyperdrive. Hell, I maybe have enough to buy a Lifter, but that's about it."

I chuckled to myself, imagining a tiny little Lifter with no hyperspace engine in it trying to outrun a ship like the Fang.

"Well, here we are," said my lovely escort and slid her keycard into a slot beside a small sliding door. The door opened with a quiet hiss and Terri stepped through.

"Come on in," she said. Immediately, I did so, thinking, You don't have to tell me twice!

At that moment, standing in the entryway to her small two-room apartment, a thought struck me. I didn't know if it was the drinks that did it, or if it was my lust, or something else I couldn't identify, but my vocal chords sprang into action and my mouth moved to form some words.

"You know, I'm heading up to Alioth and I'm sure the folks I'm going to see could use an experienced cargo handler! Why don't you come with us?"

Terri turned toward me, a very skeptical expression on her face, "You're still drunk."

"That's beside the point," Again, I felt as though I was in a little less control than I would have liked and was very surprised to hear myself blurt that out.

"I hardly know you. You're nice and all and yeah, I could use a change of scenery, but how do I know I could ever trust you? For all I know, you could be a mobster come to sell me into slavery!"

"If you thought that, why did you invite me back to your place?"

She stopped and pondered the question. I had a very good point. Maybe she was feeling a little lonely after what sounded like three years on the Navy base, or maybe she wasn't all that bright. Maybe it was both.

Nevertheless, I felt I had my foot in the door, now to keep trying, "Look, I can only give you my word that I don't work for pirates. Actually, I'm to avoid getting snuffed by some pirates myself. Me and a former Navy... colleague... of mine are going to Alioth to meet up with some business associates. I guarantee you'll be safe. Besides, you'll be putting even more light years between yourself and Reidquat. I don't think the mob's ever sent anyone as far as Alliance space."

"You're a Navy flyer?" she asked with what looked like a hopeful gleam in her eyes.

"Well, I used to be. I quit three years ago and became a trader. There's more to it than that, but you have the general idea."

Terri stood there for a moment, the spotlights in her room giving her pale skin and blonde hair a pleasant touch of effervescence. In the next moment, she looked down at the floor, shook her head and smiled to herself.

"I must be crazy," she said as she walked over to a closet and pulled out a set of small shoulder bags...

* * * * *

Ten minutes later, I was very sober, though still walking carefully, due to the added burden of a set of shoulder bags. I wasn't carrying much: the years of shipboard living had taught Terri Lane to pack lightly. I was a little bit disappointed in the fact that we only stayed at her place for ten minutes: Long enough for her to pack the contents of her room into the luggage we were carrying. I guess she really was sick of this place after all!

I told her we needed to head back to the bar so that we could meet up with Rob Bailey, who hopefully had his pockets full of appropriated information on the INRA. If he hadn't managed to find anything, at least we'd be going back to a ship with full fuel tanks.

We arrived at the entrance to the bar. It was still open though the lights were dim. I checked my watch.

Nineteen-hundred hours on the nose! He should be here by now. I headed on in.

Sure enough, sitting at a table a good distance away from the ring-shaped bar was a man in a Navy blue jacket sporting gold braid and a load of ribbons. I waved to him and he looked up, immediately vacated his chair, and came to the door.

"I thought the plan was that you would wait for me here," Bailey said, his tone quite serious.

I shrugged, "Well, we just picked up another passenger who needs to get to Alioth."

Bailey gave Terri a once over, probably noting that she hadn't changed out of her form fitting and somewhat revealing work clothes. I managed to keep from laughing, despite my thinking This is probably the first time in a long while that he's ever left his office!

"I see..." was all he managed to say.

I decided to change the subject before he could ask about where she was going to be sleeping.

"So, did you find anything?"

Bailey raised an eyebrow, "This is hardly the place to be discussing that sort of thing, isn't it?"

"Fine, let's get back to the ship and get out of here."

We headed down the hallway toward the main lifts.

* * * * *

The large elevator car ascended into the null-G zone of Angus Manwaring and the three of us floated out into the docking bay access tunnel. The large tube ran all the way around the hub of the station. Spaced evenly around the outer wall, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel, were smaller tunnels giving access to the individual ship berths. The Fang's berth was at the farthest point from the lift shaft. Making use of various handholds scattered about the tunnel, we pulled ourselves along.

I looked back at my two passengers. Terri was having little trouble negotiating the weightless environment and I was having no trouble watching her as she gracefully pulled herself from handhold to handhold. Bailey was also moving with ease through the tunnel, the result of many years of experience in the service.

A few moments later and the extendable access tube leading to the airlock of the Hooded Fang was visible. I scurried forward, ready to dart down into the passage when Bailey called up to us.

"That's enough, hang on a second." He sounded out of breath, which surprised me. It shouldn't take that much effort to float your way through a weightless environment.

I turned and saw him sit back against the inner wall of the docking ring. When I saw him bring his right hand up, there was a glint of silver in it.

"Oh my God!" I shouted and pushed Terri away as a bright blue-white laser beam cut a deadly swath across the side of the tunnel, missing the both of us by no more than a centimeter.

It cut into one of the shoulder bags I was carrying, setting it aflame. I felt the heat of the burning clothes and whipped the bag from around my neck, trying to aim it at the man with the hand laser. The beam appeared again and it sizzled the air and dazzled my eyes for a split second before cutting out. Not bothering to waste time to see if I distracted Bailey, I pushed myself further along the curving tunnel. I didn't look back to see if Terri was following, though I hoped that Bailey's interest was more in getting rid of me, for whatever reason, than killing an innocent civilian.

I pulled myself along the handrails as quickly as possible. I could feel the adrenaline surging through my veins, giving me the strength I needed to haul my body around the curving tunnel and out of the range of the hand laser that I knew belonged to me. How Bailey had managed to break into my security case was a mystery to me, until I thought about it:

He's an INRA agent! The members of the Intergalactic Naval Research Arm were given extremely high-tech equipment and I'd be a fool to think that lock picking and security countering tools were not among them. I suddenly found myself wondering if he had set the whole thing up on Kohl base. Sending two agents after me didn't work, so maybe he needed to get my attention somehow. Trying to pull twenty thousand credits out of my account would surely be enough to make anyone come to see him if enough money was being wrongfully drawn out of my account. Maybe it's revenge for causing his demotion? You'll never know now and there's no point in worrying about it. Time to work out how to stay alive!

The first instinct I had was to get back onto the lift, however I knew that the doors wouldn't close fast enough and there wasn't enough room to dodge a hand laser. I pulled myself further down the corridor, bumped into something metal, and continued on. For some reason, I couldn't help but look back at what I had brushed against and noticed that an old hand-held fire extinguisher was attached to the inner wall of the docking bay tunnel. It was small, but should have enough CO2 in it to serve as a distraction. Perhaps if I aimed it right I could blind my assailant, maybe even suffocate him with a burst of freezing gas down his windpipe! In order for it to work, though, I would have to get fairly close to him, not only because of the limited range of the extinguisher, but due to the curve of the passageway we were floating around in.

The red and black canister slid easily out of its wall bracket and I clutched it to my chest while hunkering down behind the curve of the tunnel. In the Zero-G environment, it was easy to lie with my stomach against the curved inner wall and the effect was as though I were lying just below the crest of a hill. In either case, the reason for doing this was the same: To protect myself from enemy fire. Of course, on this particular "hill" I knew I had to keep watch behind me as well. I needed to find myself a place where I didn't have to worry about defending myself from two different angles. If Terri found a way to make it around to me it would have made things much easier. However, I had no idea where she was. I couldn't hear anything except the hum of the life support machinery and florescent wall and ceiling lights.

I took a deep breath, steadied myself, and gently pushed myself away from the inner wall of the ring tunnel. I floated down the hallway with my arms out in front of me, looking for all the world like a superhero flying through the stratosphere above a great urban city. If Terri's in trouble right now, maybe the hero image'll actually be real!

Reaching out with my still free right hand, I grabbed a handhold situated just inside one of the access tubes leading down to a ship's berth. I pulled myself inside the small tunnel and waited, my hands shaking slightly as I pulled the safety pin from the extinguisher's spray handle. I pointed the wide plastic snout of my makeshift weapon into the hallway and pressed myself against the carpeted wall, ready to blast whoever floated by with a white cloud of supercooled poisonous gas.

A shadow danced across my field of vision and I raised the red cylinder. I knew I'd have only one shot at this and I had to make it count. I saw a hand appear right in front of my face followed by a bare arm and I knew right away that it was not the traitorous Admiral Bailey who was the owner of the arm. However, I couldn't let her alert my assailant to her presence. Still holding the fire extinguisher with my right hand, As soon as her head cleared the hatchway, I reached past her with my left arm and quickly cupped my hand over her mouth. Naturally, she drew in a quick breath as if making ready to scream, but just before she could emit so much as a muffled yelp, I whispered in her ear.

"Shhhhhhh... It's Mark, don't scream."

It took an agonizing second for it to register with her, then she relaxed and I let my hand drop. She let out a sigh of relief and began to maneuver around me into the access tube.

"I don't think so!" shouted an all too familiar voice as a powerful arm grabbed Terri around the waist from behind and pulled her back against the inner wall of the main docking tunnel. The lovely bartender gave a high pitched yelp and I tried to grab her flailing hands but only succeeded in brushing her fingertips as she dragged away from me. I made ready to leap in pursuit when the polished silver of my hand laser appeared and was pressed against the side of her pale neck. My legs dropped from their position on the wall.

Robert Bailey, INRA agent and former Federal Navy Admiral, regarded me with a cold gaze from over Terri's right shoulder. I could see a great deal of sweat dripping down the older man's face and onto his dark blue uniform jacket.

"It's too bad it had to end like this, Pritchard." Bailey glanced briefly at his hostage then back at me, a gesture that I knew was for my benefit: A signal stating that he had no intention of allowing either of us to live.

"Let her go, she doesn't have anything to do with this." I said. My mind was racing.

How the hell are we going to get out of this!? Think! Keep him talking in the meantime!

Bailey paused to consider this while keeping the hand laser firmly pressed against Terri's neck. Terri, after all the trouble she had been through, seemed to remain calm. She was hyperventilating just slightly, but her expression seemed relatively placid, if not just slightly anxious.

I suppose she's been in situations like this before, poor girl.

"I tell you what, Mark. How about I kill you first? That way you won't have to watch me cut her head off with your laser," he raised his eyebrows and continued, "which is exactly what I'm gonna do, by the way." He was speaking matter of fact and I knew it. A man in his profession would have no problem with decapitating a person.

You bastard! I thought, but refrained from saying it.

"C'mon sir, she hardly even knows who you are."

"I can't take that chance, now can I? Besides, I can't want to leave any witnesses to your... disappearance."

It struck me rather odd that he'd say something like that while floating in the middle of one of the more public areas of the base, despite the fact that nobody but us were currently occupying the tunnel. In fact, several things had struck me as odd about this whole situation! I let it go. Best not to piss him off and see just how serious he is. I knew he'd terminate Terri's life at the slightest provocation and I was determined to prevent it. Even if it makes this the last day I'd ever see a pretty face like hers again.

What the hell are you thinking!? A loud and desperate voice in my head was shouting, Whatever happened to looking out for Number One!? First you go off on some crusade to save Max Weaver, whom you only knew from his name being mentioned in the news so much and now you're ready to throw everything away to save some... some... At that moment another voice, much stronger and speaking from somewhere in my heart took the responsibility of finishing the sentence.

...Some innocent person who deserves better than this...

The voice in my head spoke again, People would say you're in love, Mister Pritchard...

Another voice somewhere else decided to make its opinion known, She's hot as hell, isn't she?

Mr. Heart decided to try and end the discussion, That doesn't matter, I'm doing the right thing. Nothing more, nothing less.

Yeah, but you still can't mind some sweet lovin' from her, now would ya?

I didn't speak for a moment, but just watched the scene and assessed the situation. My heart spoke once more, Well... if we could both get out of this alive...

The voice in my head cut in again, But I gotta use my head here.

I had to ask something, "Why'd you wait 'till now to do this? You had plenty of time to get rid of me when we were in hyperspace."

Bailey snorted once and said, "I didn't know my other... associates... wanted to get rid of you. If I pulled that off plus a few other... eliminations, I'd be able to retire in style again."

I guess Angus Manwaring actually does have info on the INRA's activities, I thought. I gripped the fire extinguisher a little tighter.

"I get it. You get rid of a few Thargoid sympathizers and then they'll give you your third star back, is that it?"

The older man shrugged slightly, not moving his weapon, "Well, it's a little more complicated than that, but that's the idea. I figure getting rid of you and using your ship will make things much easier. After all, you said yourself that you pre-plotted the course to wherever it is we're going."

He still doesn't know exactly where Weaver's base is or just what we're doing there! We may have a chance, then... provided I can talk him down.

"Look..." I began.

"Listen!" Bailey cut me off, glaring at me and jabbing the snout of my hand laser a little further into Terri's neck. She gave a little whimper, but still didn't move. Bailey continued, "The only thing I want to hear from you is where you want it," He shook the weapon in his hand slightly for emphasis, "Either that or I can give you a few ideas by demonstrating 'em on our little showgirl here..."

Damn, damn, damn! Time was rapidly running out and there didn't seem to be anything I could do. The admiral was doing an excellent job of using Terri's impressive body as a shield for himself. One wrong move on my part and a quick pull of my hand laser's trigger would produce a pencil-thin beam of white light which would instantly burn its way right through the bartender's neck, cauterizing her windpipe, spinal cord, and carotid artery within seconds. It would probably even leave a few marks on the far wall of the ring shaped docking tunnel after punching out the other side of her throat. I couldn't just launch myself at them because I had let my feet move away from the wall. I would have to bring my feet up and behind me to push off of the wall and with the fact that my pistol had hair trigger, I we're take the chance.

For the first time in my life, I began to know true helplessness. It wasn't what I expected, I figured true helplessness would've been something like me being near death and therefore unable to save someone. It isn't. I was perfectly okay and able to defend myself. The thing that made me helpless was just my happening to be floating in the wrong space of corridor. If only I could bring my legs up to push me off... There's gotta be a way out! It can't end like this, it just CAN'T!

Some say that our fates have been selected for us before we were even born, that we actually have very little free will and that we're all pawns in someone else's big game. Others talk about worshipping some all-powerful and all-knowing God force who resides in some other dimension and manages to influence various forces in our own universe. Still others talk about how we human beings are actually capable of creating our own realities through consistent verbal and mental affirmation, which creates powerful ideas and mental images that our subconscious uses to change the world around us.

I suppose my own beliefs are somewhat of a combination of the "supreme being" idea with the "creating our own reality" idea. I'm sure I've experienced what it feels like to be guided by a higher power, some may call it luck, but I think that there's more to it than that. I also think that I've made a good many decisions on my own as to where my life will go. Well, what happened next was certainly not the result of my making any kind of affirmation. Therefore, whatever this God force is that governs our fates, he, she, or it decided to take charge in what I was ready to believe would be the final moment of Terri's and my life.

Behind me, there was a loud hiss and a clank, which I knew was the sound of the docking tunnel hatchway sliding open. Bailey's eyes widened and I heard a voice that was I was so glad to hear that I couldn't help but draw in a quick breath.

"Mark! Surprise, surprise!" Max Weaver grunted as he pushed himself out of the gravity field of his huge cargo transport and into the weightless air of the access tube. He seemed oblivious of the tense situation at the mouth of the tunnel.

Bailey's expression changed from being somewhat startled and apprehensive to venomous. I supposed that all that anger and scheming had poisoned his thinking because his next move was a big mistake. It was also the sort of move I had been hoping for.

"YOU!" was the last coherent word I ever heard my former boss say as he brought the hand laser to bear on Maximillian Weaver. I brought my feet up to a very specific place on the wall of the spoke-like access tube. Bailey leveled my weapon and took grim aim.

"No!" I shouted and pushed myself away from the carpeted wall and into the ring shaped main docking bay tunnel. I held the fire extinguisher as far ahead of me as I could and let fly with a great burst of white gas which filled the air between Bailey and his new target. It also touched Bailey's face and he yelled as he felt the extreme cold of the carbon dioxide vapor hitting his skin. Terri shrieked as the gas hit her bare shoulder.

The one mistake I made was in forgetting the fact that even free-floating fire extinguishers still obeyed the laws of physics. Without being able to brace myself properly, the extinguisher was now acting like a miniature thruster and it sent me careening right back the way I came. My back struck the corner which marked where the access tube ended and I groaned as the shock of my impact radiated out from my spine into all of my limbs. My eyes had closed and I experienced a lightning bolt followed by a thunderclap as the back of my head smacked the wall.

Feeling very dazed, I opened my eyes and watched as Terri threw herself free of Bailey's faltering grasp and as my laser flew from his hand. Gathering what little strength I had, I weakly pushed myself in the direction of my silver hand laser, which, fortunately had not been fired once during the hostage situation. I reached out and plucked the shining artifact out of the air as Bailey fought to brush away the cloud of white smoke.

Terri was no more than a meter away from me, padding her way along the wall. A white stain of sorts covered her shoulder and the skin around it had turned slightly red from secondary freezer burns. I reached out, took her hand, and pulled her into the small access tube. Weaver had the good sense to return to the gravity zone of his ship and see what transpired. He suddenly shouted at me.

"Mark! Get out of there!"

I looked up in time to see the INRA agent, whose face now bore a resemblance to that of the unmasked Phantom of the Opera, reach into his ice-splotched jacket, and pull another shining weapon from a shoulder holster. I drew in a deep breath, very nearly threw Terri toward the open hatchway of the Weaver's Dream, and, using a nearby handhold as a brace, launched myself down the tunnel. My head was spinning, but I knew I'd be feeling a good deal worse than that if Bailey managed to get his weapon charged up before that thick shipboard hatch was safely closed. I didn't look back but merely anticipated what would be a rather nasty fall once I entered the gravity zone. I watched as Terri gracefully floated in through the hatchway, crossed the red-outlined perimeter of the ship's gravity field, and dropped like a stone to the deck. Weaver helped her up and pushed her aside as best he could before I arrived in much the same manner. The difference was that the corporate executive, instead of helping me to my feet, slammed his hand on the hatch controls. There was a hiss and the thick duralium barrier slid down.

Immediately following the clank of the hatch locking itself down, there was a loud noise like a grenade exploding. The small window in the outer airlock door blew out, showering the three of us with hot shards. Terri screamed and dropped into a protective crouch, Weaver dove for cover, and I, who was already on the floor, merely kept my head down.

"Get inside!" Shouted the older man and Terri, who was closest to the inner airlock door, scrambled through. Weaver followed close behind as another explosion shook the room, this time sending sparks flying. I knew Bailey was aiming for the window he blew out. The only comfort I had was in knowing he wouldn't be able to come any closer. Plasma pistols have much more kick than fire extinguishers and so he needed to stay braced against the wall at the end of the access tube. That and the fact that the burns across his face had to be giving him some kind of distraction.

As soon as the owner of the enormous Panther class ship had made it out of the airlock, I crawled furiously forward. It took less than three seconds for me to exit the small room, but it felt like much longer! I reached up and closed the inner hatch. Another ball of plasma erupted into the outer hatch and the ship shook very slightly. I knew we were safe here. Weaver stood up, brushed himself off, and hit the intercom switch.

"Commander, get us out of here, now!"

"Yes, sir!" came an enthusiastic though businesslike male voice from the speaker.

Mere seconds later, as I helped the lovely Terri Lane back to her feet, there was a shudder which I knew was the ship being pulled slowly into the docking bay elevator.

"C'mon, let's get up to the bridge." Weaver turned and headed down the corridor toward a nearby access ladder.

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Fourteen

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