Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Sixteen

"You folks may want to strap yourselves in." The man sitting in the center seat cast a quick glance over his shoulder as Terri Lane, Max Weaver, and I entered the huge control room of the Weaver's Dream. It was just as I remembered it, though the level of activity was much higher as all seven of the crew positions were occupied.

Taking the suggestion seriously, Weaver sat down in the only vacant seat and pulled its security harness over himself.

He called to the man in the center seat, "Rick, get us the hell out of here!"

Commander Rick Sterling nodded and calmly replied, "I'm working on it, sir."

Terri and I merely glanced at each other and smirked. I thought, If this is truly the same ship I piloted less than a month ago, then seatbelts on this ship are just a sick joke! I noticed that the white patch of ice that marred my new companion's shoulder had melted some, but where ice had been there was now a raw red burn.

Beyond the enormous transparisteel bubble window, which stretched from one side of the bridge to the other, I saw the huge docking bay elevator door slide upward. There was another slight jolt as the ship was brought out into the airless main docking bay entrance.

"Let's just hope we're gone by the time your admiral figures out how to get your old ship out of its berth," said Weaver, looking up at me.

My old ship. I knew it was true, but I was still slightly saddened by the fact everything I ever owned was being left behind.

Well, I thought, at least I still have my life, which is quite a bit more important than a few sets of coveralls. I looked down at the weapon in my hand. And I still have my trusty hand laser! I stuck the silver pistol into a large zippered pocket at my right hip.

The hum of the freighter's mighty engine rose above the other telltale noises on the bridge as Angus Manwaring's outer docking bay hatchway opened, displaying the relatively peaceful scene of the orbit space above the planet Feynman.

"Helm, all ahead full," Sterling ordered.

"All ahead full, aye," reported the woman at the helm, "Eight gees forward thrust."

I didn't even brace myself for the acceleration as there was no need to. There was a very slight push as the Weaver's Dream edged itself forward. The sides of the docking bay entrance swept by and in seconds we were on our own, floating freely among the stars once again.

Unfortunately, we had no time to enjoy the view. Commander Sterling stood up from his seat, approached his helmsman (or, rather helmswoman).

"Has the next jump been plotted?"

The middle aged and rugged-looking lady glanced down at her starmap display.

"All set to go."

Sterling nodded, "Good. I want us in Witch Space as soon as we're clear of the station."

"Aye, sir,"

A few minutes passed, during which I became a little more tense, waiting to hear the report of our being attacked by the Fang. I wasn't quite sure how Bailey had gotten into my case, but I was sure it involved getting back aboard my ship by cracking the Fang's airlock security system.

He must've gone back to the ship, gotten my pistol, and hidden it within easy reach in the docking tunnel. They don't allow weapons beyond the station hub on Naval bases... unless he had a security scrambler for a weapon scanner too! I shook my head. It didn't matter how he managed it, I lost my ship and a good deal of money with it. I was going to have to do something to get it back.

"Entering hyperspace, Commander." The helmsman reported.

A loud whine resounded from deep within the bowels of the ship while the starfield outside the bridge window suddenly swirled around itself until it became a vast white tunnel filled with blue lightning streaks.

Weaver released his security harness, reached into his burgundy suit jacket, drew out a fresh cigar, lit it, and stood up.

"Well, we've got three weeks to relax before we get to New Rossyth. I'll set you two up in one of the spare passenger cabins." He looked at Terri, took note of the burn patch on her shoulder and commented, "The Medical Bay is halfway down the main corridor, then turn right. First hatch on the left"

I glanced up at Terri. The fact that Weaver had made an assumption about us rooming together was not good and I've known it to completely destroy any chance that I may have had with a woman. However, Terri didn't seem shaken at all. She was still looking out the window, though I knew she had heard everything. Her expression looked far from taken aback. In fact, she looked... amused.

"Sounds good," I mentioned quietly as the older man strode past me toward the bridge door.

The door slid shut behind the corporate executive and Terri faced me, still smiling in that particular way.

"So, are you gonna introduce me to Max Weaver sometime? Or do I have to do it myself?"

I let my head fall into my hand and hid my face for a moment. "Sorry," was all I managed to say in response.

The former Navy Seal bartender chuckled, "Oh, I'm sure you'll do it before too long," she took my other arm and I immediately looked back up, placed my other hand over hers, and began to lead her toward the exit. As the door slid aside for us, Terri made another inquiry.

"So, how the heck did you get on good terms with a company president?"

I looked at her and replied, "Well, it's a long story."

She grinned and said, "You think three weeks will be enough time to tell it?"

I smiled back, "Maybe. It could take a little longer."

"Somehow, that doesn't surprise me."

I changed the subject, "Well, let's get you down to the 'doc."

She glanced at her shoulder, then back over at me with what I could definitely say was a flirtatious gaze, "Oh, I figured you'd just just take care of it yourself."

"Well, I still need to get you some burn gel."

"Ah, yes... That would be a good idea..."

* * * * *

"Attention! Attention! Now exiting hyperspace! All crew to their posts!"

The baritone voice of Rock, the ship's computer, awoke me from my slumber. I checked the clock imbedded in the wall.

Oh-Six-Forty-Five? God! Why can't we come out of Witch Space in the afternoon?

I sat up feeling a little woozy. Beside me, on the right side of the double bed, Terri stirred slightly and let out a little moan. Her eyelids fluttered as she mumbled into the darkness of our passenger cabin.

"Why can't we come out of Witch Space in the afternoon?"

I brushed her hair back from her face and stroked her shoulder once, replying.

"Yeah, tell me about it."

I looked at her again. Sure enough, the burn gel had completely erased the red patch on her shoulder and returned her skin to the soft pale smoothness that it was.

Nevertheless, I turned away from her and let my legs fall to the floor. The carpet was very soft and thick: Good for walking on, sitting on, and many other interesting and enjoyable activities!

I strode to the walk-in closet on what ended up being my side of the room. Everything on the ship was a luxury well beyond what I was used to. From the spacious walk-in closets in the crew and passenger cabins to the multiple three-meter holo screens in the recreation center (which was definitely more than just a rec room), the ship radiated its three-and-a-half-million-credit expense inside and out!

Gee, let's wear something different today! I chuckled to myself as I pulled an olive drab flight suit off of the hanger it resided on... right next to seven other olive drab flight suits! Mr. Weaver made sure that Terri and I at least had some sort of wardrobe while we were on board. Unfortunately, anything more fancy than utility coveralls would have to wait until we reached Alioth, which was fine by me. It didn't even seem to bother Terri all that much, who was one of those few people who seemed to look great in anything she wore... at least, in my opinion.

I turned my attention back to getting ready to face the universe.

Let's see: Dresser drawer open. New set of boxers and T-shirt. Head for shower.

I took a long moment to enjoy the extra added luxury of the real water shower with its built in Jacuzzi tub. At this rate, I'm gonna be so spoiled when I get myself a new ship! I thought to myself. However, I didn't care. I stopped the shower, sat down, and let the water jets of the big tub spray massaging streams all over me. When Terri joined me a few minutes later, I was caring about nothing at all...

* * * * *

"Well, welcome back to the land of the living, Mark!" Maximillian Weaver had opted for a different color suit for today. Lucky bastard, I thought. At least he's still got all of his clothes! Some may not have recognized him for a moment. Though, despite the fact that Weaver had selected a dark blue jacket instead of his usual red one, he was still lightly holding onto a long brown Cuban cigar and that meant he was still Max Weaver as far as I was concerned.

Terri and I, looking like fraternal twins with the way we were dressed, stepped up to join the wealthy executive.

"Good morning to you, sir." I said with a nod.

Weaver directed his attention toward my companion.

"Terri, good to see you too. How are you?"

Terri smiled pleasantly at the older man and shrugged, "Doing ok, I guess. I mean, how can anyone not do ok on this ship?"

Weaver puffed his cigar and grinned.

"Yeah, I had her outfitted with that very idea in mind."

"Well, you sure pulled it off!" Terri breathed and clasped her hands together.

"Well, thank you very much. I think so too!" Weaver let out a laugh, puffed on his cigar again, and gestured toward the great bridge window, "Well, this is it: The Alioth system, capital of the Alliance."

A bright yellow sphere, dimmed considerably by the window's flare shielding, hung in space directly ahead. At the distance we were at, a sun the size of the one Earth orbits would have looked no bigger than a pinhead. The star called Alioth was already beach ball sized and we had over twenty billion kilometers to travel before we would be in orbit of Argent's Claim, where the New Rossyth shipyards were located.

I'd traveled across many different star systems, but there's always something about approaching a system with a giant size star. As if the sun in the Sol system wasn't big enough, there were stars out there anywhere from ten to a hundred times as big! Not only that but they could also be anywhere from ten to a hundred times brighter too! Alioth was a very impressive sight, even when seen through flare shielding. Everything about this system was large scale. All of the system's planets were gas giants, the smallest of which was about the size of Jupiter. The moons around several of the planets ranged in size and type from little asteroids drawn in by gravity to actual worlds that rivaled Earth in size and habitability.

I stepped up to the helm and peered at the navigation display. Everything looked right and I estimated that we'd be landing in just under five days.

Suddenly, the alert klaxon sounded.

"Commander, we have multiple contacts on an intercept course!" This came from the man at the tactical post.

Sterling didn't turn his seat. He merely sat there and asked, "What's the range?"

There was a pause before the tactical officer replied, "Looks about a hundred klicks, sir. Still pretty far away."

"That's not that far, Reg. Are the shields in place?"

"Full strength, Commander."

"Good."

Weaver sat down in his seat, the cigar in his hand released a few wisps of dark smoke. He smiled and looked up at us.

"They open fire on us and they'll be toast before they knew they made a mistake."

"I'll bet," was all I managed to say. I walked over to the tactical console and took a look at the scanner display. Four white dots in a diamond formation were making their way toward us. If those ships were hostile, then we were in trouble. The color of those radar blips indicated four ships of considerable mass. Not necessarily as big as the Weaver's Dream, but still quite large. If any one of them carried a plasma accelerator, we'd definitely be hurting.

"You have guys manning your turrets?" I asked the man seated behind the console.

"Not usually. I can control the turrets from here."

"You're gonna need help," I said and headed aft.

Terri watched me and asked, "Where are you going?"

I stopped for a moment, regarded my... girlfriend? Roommate? I still wasn't sure what we were just yet, but that didn't matter right now.

"You ever work a turret gun on your dad's ship?"

Terri blinked once, startled that I answered her with another question. Then she responded, "Uh, yeah. I told you my Dad worked the Reidquat system?"

"Good, c'mon with me then. We're gonna give these guys a hand."

"Okaaaaaay," she replied and, after a moment's hesitation, followed me out the door.

* * * * *

We headed aft along the main corridor, passed by the iris hatch that led down into the recreation center and kept on moving until we reached another wall-mounted ladder with a single iris hatch above and below. The legend on one set of hatch controls read, "Turret #1." The second set was marked, "Turret #2"

"This looks like the place," I said, thumbing the open stud for the floor hatch. "You take the top turret."

Despite the urgency of the situation, Terri took a moment to give me a sultry look and ask, "You mean you want me on top?"

I laughed, "Well, you know..." I said and climbed down through the hatch.

I don't know what I've gotten myself into, I thought, shaking my head and chortling to myself, but I like it! I cast one last glance up at Terri. She smiled and gave a little wave as the hatch spiraled shut.

* * * * *

I clambered down into a very small room, which was almost entirely made up of transparisteel. A small acceleration couch sat in the very middle of the turret and was surrounded by a ring of tightly packed machinery and computer systems. The actual targeting and fire control systems were easy enough to identify as I sat down in the seat and buckled the security harness.

I took a moment to remember the proper start up sequence for the weaponry systems and the toggles I had to switch to get manual control. Once I felt I had figured it out, I started pushing buttons and flipping switches. Screens flashed, indicator lights glowed, and the heads up display appeared in its transparent display. I found a small headset hanging from the arm of the chair and put it on, making sure it was connected into the ship's communication circuit. I only hoped that Terri had figured out this stuff for herself.

"Bridge, this is Turret 2. Radio check, over."

A voice responded, though the headset gave it an almost metallic twang.

"Tactical here. We read you. Your girlie just phoned in a second ago and I don't have turret control anymore, so I'd say you both are good to go."

"Good," I said, "What's the deal with those four ships?"

"They're still there, only now they're about twenty-five klicks away. Still no course change. Either they've come by to say 'hi' or they're planning on shooting."

I nodded, "That's about right. You got any ID on them yet?"

"Yeah, looks like two Imperial Explorers and two Boas."

Bringing out the heavy artillery for one last shot at us, are we? I took hold of the aiming controls and used the targeting trak ball to swing the incredibly powerful twenty-five megawatt beam laser around to face the potential threat. It wasn't too difficult to spot the four large vessels in their diamond formation. I chose the lead ship as my target and waited for the signal to commence firing.

The range counter counted down: 10 klicks... 9... 8... 7... 6... 5... 4...

My headset crackled, "Ahoy there, Weaver's Dream! This is Commander Rayburn of the Alioth System Defense Force. It seems certain parties figure you need some company on your way in to New Rossyth."

I heard myself whisper, "I'll be damned!" Fortunately I hadn't keyed into the communications system.

Then came the response of Commander Sterling, "Good to see you folks. Fall right on in."

"Assuming standard escort formation."

I let out a huge sigh of relief. If those ships were planning on fighting, I knew we'd be in some very serious trouble. I saw the squat tube shapes of plasma accelerator snouts protruding from the noses of the two Imperial ships. I had no idea what the Boas were armed with, but it couldn't be anything small, that was for sure. These were true warships, perhaps the only true warships in the Alliance, seeing as they didn't have any kind of formal navy... yet.

I hit a switch to put my voice transmitter into the communications circuit, "Well, Terri, looks like the cavalry's here."

Her voice answered my comment, though it too was slightly distorted by the headset, "Sounds good to me. I'll see you on the rec deck."

"You got it," I replied, then switched off my headset.

I returned control of the turret to the main tactical console, released my security harness, and headed back up the ladder.

* * * * *

The sun was shining brightly on the surface of Argent's Claim as we stepped down the huge landing ramp and into the shadow beneath the great ship Weaver's Dream. I was very surprised to see how much it reminded me of Earth. Of course, when we emerged from underneath the huge yacht, the sight of the huge gas giant around which the planet orbited was all it took to remind me that I was quite a long way from home.

Nevertheless, it was quite a beautiful sight. Very few times had I set foot on an Earthlike world orbiting a gas giant, let alone a gas giant that would have made Jupiter look like a soccer ball by comparison! It hung hugely in the air, defying the imagination, twisting the mind, and making me want to sit down and gibber for a moment.

Instead, I looked up at the spectacle and commented, "And I thought I'd seen everything."

"That is so pretty," breathed Terri, who had attached herself to my right arm.

"Yep, a truly unique sight, I'd say," Max Weaver commented as strode ahead of us out onto the starport tarmac, "They say that this system was settled so late 'cause nobody could find any habitable planets. Nobody ever thought to check out the moons. To think we might have missed this..." He gestured at the vista, then turned back toward us.

Behind us came the whine several hover vehicles in motion. I looked and watched as a small parade of forklifts and loaders passed by, each carrying two or three large hexagonal canisters. I had no idea what was hidden away in those one-ton cargo pods, but I imagined it had to do with the reason for Weaver's flight from Federation territory.

* * * * *

"This is the last one." Terri reported, seated behind the control board of a hover loader.

"Good, that one goes in Group D." Weaver answered, speaking into a hand-held communicator.

You gotta hand it to her, she knows how to work! After a few hours of touring the very impressive New Rossyth shipyards, Terri began to succumb to the universal boredom that seemed to follow most people around when they're not doing something that requires their full attention. Weaver suggested that she put her years of cargo handling experience to use and had Commander Sterling give her the keys to one of the unused hover loaders.

Despite the fact that my shipboard expertise was limited to piloting and fighting, I followed suit. I figured it couldn't that difficult. I'd driven hover cars before. What I didn't count on was the fact that driving a fully laden hover loader was more difficult then doing a manual landing in the middle of a hurricane! After dropping two loads and denting the cargo canisters, I decided that I should let the real experts handle the work. Needless to say, I felt more than a little humiliated as I stalked back to an observation platform and set it to hover high above everything, and watched.

Terri maneuvered her loader and the canister it carried smoothly into position and set her burden down gently beside a small stack of similar cargo tubes. Once that was done, she backed away turned around and raced across to the other side of the hangar where the rest of the loaders were being recharged. I set my little observation platform to return to ground level, having seen enough.

The lovely blonde haired woman had stepped out of her machine and connected it to the recharge rack when I approached. Weaver was giving her some richly deserved applause.

"Bravo, mademoiselle!" He said.

Terri giggled, gave a small bow, and said, "Thank you very much. I was afraid I was losing my touch."

"Well, I don't see what you were worried about!" The older man replied and took a drag from his cigar. He then said, "You know, I could definitely use someone with your experience."

All right! I thought, I knew if she showed him what she could do...

"Really?" Terri asked, in a way that sounded much more like an eighteen-year-old girl being told she was getting a brand new hover car as a graduation gift than a professional trader being offered a job.

Weaver noticed it too and grinned happily, "Absolutely. You'd be more than welcome on the Dream. We'll set you salary at twenty-five credits a month. How's that?"

Wow! Going all out! Twenty-five credits was quite a high wage to be paying a member of your crew, let alone a cargo handler! I guess he's willing to pay high as long as he gets the best! Just like the Merlin Ice Fish!

"When would I start?" she asked, her pretty eyes shining brightly with the prospect of a new life ahead of her.

Weaver shrugged, "I'd say you just did. We'll simply add the cabin you're in to the crew manifest, so you won't have to move anywhere. Naturally, you'll need to re-register with the Galactic Merchant Marine. I'll put in a couple of good words for ya, so you'll get your certification back in about a day or so."

Terri gleefully bounced on her heels and clapped her hands together. You didn't need to be an expert psychologist to tell she was simply overjoyed.

The businessman continued, "Though, if you plan to get some other clothes for yourself, you'd better get a move on. I've told Commander Sterling to be ready for departure at oh-nine-hundred tomorrow morning."

This surprised me. I turned toward him, "I thought we'd be sticking around longer than that."

Weaver looked back at me, "Well, you and I are sticking around. I gotta send the Dream on ahead to make a couple of special deliveries."

Wait a second... what about... For some very strange reason, Terri and I locked eyes for a moment and I began to feel uneasy, then she returned her attention to her new employer.

"I'll take care of my registration right away."

"Good," The man in the blue suit proffered his hand to his new cargo handler, "Welcome aboard."

"Thank you so much," Terri shook Max Weaver's hand and I began to feel my heart sinking into my stomach.

* * * * *

The day continued onward, the pleasant outdoor vista of Argent's Claim slowly began to change colors from bright blues and greens to darker and richer shades of the same. I knew that this planet could never have nights as dark as the nights on Earth. The enormous sphere of Alioth 4, even in what could be called a quarter phase, cast a great deal reflected sunlight onto its four major moons.

Terri and I took advantage of our free time to visit a nearby shopping center to buy herself some more civilian attire. Flight suits were great, but there were times when they were simply not suitable. By the time we left the mall, I had managed to find myself a set of comfortable synthfiber slacks and a nice silk shirt. I decided to hold off on the bolo tie that the clerk said, "absolutely goes with it." After leaving the service, I was never one for formalwear, but I knew that there was a time and place for it.

From the look of things, Terri had ended up buying herself a whole new wardrobe! I guess I did too, when I thought about it, but I would've called my collection of garments "just a few sets of civvies." Terri was carrying armloads of bags and small boxes! Naturally, I helped by carrying most of it back to the ship.

* * * * *

As night fell (at least, the locals called it night...) we stepped out into the lush greenery of a manicured industrial park that surrounded the New Rossyth starport. We left the path, which took a straight and narrow course toward the main terminal building and strode out into an enormous and freshly cut lawn. The grass was very thick and soft, almost like the carpets on Mr. Weaver's yacht. Seeing as the world had been terraformed by the colonists, this was no real surprise to me. Though, no matter where it came from, it felt great to sit down in.

We gazed up at the sky, taking in the unfamiliar constellations and the view of the giant world whose gravity held Argent's Claim very securely in its orbit. There was a light breeze and it gently tugged at my silk shirt, causing it alternately to balloon and contract. It felt really nice, truth be told, and I was very glad Terri suggested I buy it. As for my companion, she had changed out of her flight suit into garb more suited to the upwardly mobile and liberal people of Alioth: A form fitting, off-the-shoulder, light blue satin shirt accompanied by the usual ever-so-popular paint-on jeans.

You know, I never quite knew where the term "paint-on jeans" came from, but it sure fit! Why I bring it up is that it really shocked me to hear the shop clerk say to her, "let me guess, you'd like some 'paint-ons' to go with that top..."

"I bet that one's Wicca's World," said Terri from her place right beside me.

I looked and saw a dark spot on the face of the planet above us. I peered for a moment, then realized that I was looking at a shadow. My eyes moved just slightly outward from the shadow and, sure enough, I found a blue and green ball, similar to the world we touched down on.

"Yep, I'd say that's it. You know it?"

Terri looked over at me, her expression one of mild surprise and amusement, "You've never heard of the Wicca Ware Race?"

I let out a sigh, remembering the journal reports, "Oh, that. Yeah. I just never gave it too much thought. I think it's kinda sadistic, setting people up to shoot each out of the sky just to deliver some new rock album."

Terri leaned away from me in a moment of revulsion, "God, you sound like my mother!"

I shrugged, "Sorry. I've been a Navy man for a while and I've seen lots of people get killed. Sometimes I think I've seen too many people get killed." At that moment, I recalled a line from an old 2-D video movie, I've seen enough blood spilt to last >two lifetimes!

Suddenly, all the glee that had brightened Ms. Lane's complexion had gone. Her eyes became cold.

"And do you think you're the only one who's had to deal with that sort of thing? At least you were doing it in the service and it was legal. You couldn't go to jail for it."

Don't bet on it, my pretty. I thought to myself. Trying to be as consoling as I could, I reached up and started rubbing her shoulders.

"Killing is still killing, no matter who you're working for. When I was first serving... right up until my fifth year in, I could look in the mirror and see myself as this daring servant of good and justice. I think that's how we all started... the folks in my graduating class, that is.

"Then, in my fifth year, I became a Sergeant Major..."

Terri gave me an inquisitive look, "I thought you were in the Navy...?"

I nodded, "Yeah, I was. The Federal system's really weird. There's such a huge waiting list to get into the actual Navy that you have to serve in the Army as a sort of probation before getting a Naval commission.

"Anyway, that was when I got my first taste of Covert Ops."

"What was it like?" asked the lovely woman in my lap.

"Well, it was exciting. I did lots of photo recon missions, taking pictures of secret Imperial bases that were scattered everywhere. You wouldn't believe where some of them were! I mean, both governments have listening posts reaching deep into the hearts of the other! I figure we should just forget the war at this point and just tell each other the truth!"

Terri giggled and wriggled her shoulders a bit. I continued my tale.

"Anyway, my orders came through eventually and I got transferred into the Navy. I started off as an ensign and was assigned to the Covert Ops office, cause of my experience in the high risk missions. That was when I met Admiral Bailey."

I could feel Terri shivering, "Was that the guy who almost killed me?" she asked.

I sighed, "Yep. You wouldn't quite figure... Well, now that I think about it, I'm not surprised."

Terri decided to speed my story along.

"So, when did you decide to quit?"

"You ever hear about the incident at Beta Hydri?"

The woman giggled a bit, then asked, "Which one?"

I sighed, "Touche. The most recent one, in 3247."

Terri nodded, "I remember hearing about it in the journals. That was just before my Dad quit working for the mob."

"Well, I was there. Nobody knows just who started it." I shuddered as the very vivid memory of the battle replayed through my mind, "All I remember is seeing this big LRC come by. Then, someone starts shooting... Then a few other folks start shooting, then suddenly there's laser streaks crossing all over the place. It was like something out of a deranged rock concert or something!"

I remembered hearing the voices over the subspace communication circuit.

"What the hell was that!?"

" Who the hell's firing!? We didn't get any orders to fire!!"

"Here they come! Break and attack!"

"WAIT! AAAAAARRRRRRRGH!!!"

"They just nailed Commander Keith!"

"Get those bastards!"

As the sounds of communication chatter filled my mind, I felt Terri settle herself further against me and start stroking my hand.

"What did you do?" she asked.

I returned to the present and shrugged, "Well, I didn't know what to do for a minute. Then, all of a sudden, two Impie couriers show up and decide to start carving into my ship! I did a quick evasive, fired off all my missiles to destroy one of 'em, and then I started dogfighting the other one. God, that was a hell of a fight!"

Visions of watching hundreds of small explosions all across my scanner swam through my mind, accompanied by warnings issued by my ship's computer.

"Starboard thruster damaged, two tons of fuel destroyed, bottom thruster damaged, ECM system damaged, fuel scoop damaged..."

I continued, "All I could do was keep hopping around, but I was pretty beat up so it was like trying to fly a bird with a broken wing. I saw a lot of my squadron mates get cut to pieces... I remember finishing off the other courier... and that was a miracle in and of itself! Then..."

Terri turned slightly to look back at me, I met her gaze and commented, "It was all such a blur. I remember lining up a new destination in my navigation computer. Then, about five minutes later, someone ordered a retreat. I tell ya, I didn't need to be told twice, that's for sure!"

"Then what happened?"

"As soon as we made it back to base, I turned in my uniform. Actually, it was more like I threw it in! Smacked Bailey right in the face with my jacket. I even put all my medals on it just to give it more weight."

Startled, Miss Lane looked at me with an estranged expression, "Wow! I didn't figure on you getting that dramatic!"

I sighed, "Well, I was really pissed off. Maybe it would've happened no matter what, but the fact that we had to retreat and the fact that nobody quite knew just what started it was probably what put me over the edge. Hell, it sounds like nobody knows to this day just what happened!"

Deciding to change the subject, I looked down at Terri's soft complexion and commented, "You know, you don't strike me as someone who's been to hell and back." Before she could start to wonder what I meant by that, I quickly put in with another shrug, "You seem so nice. It's just hard to believe."

My companion let out a sigh, then looked back up into the heavens. I turned slightly and swung my right leg around to her other side. Needing no further cues, Terri leaned back and settled herself into my lap as I started rubbing her shoulders.

I looked into the sky, hoping to find something else to talk about. I figured thirteen years in space ought to make stargazing a pretty easy thing for me to do, despite the fact that I was in unfamiliar territory.

A bright point overhead that suddenly flashed red and then green caught my attention, "I bet that's Gotham."

Terri looked up, settled even further against me, and peered. "Hmmm... Can't quite tell. But it's not moving. Could be one of the other planets... Wait a second, I think it just flashed colors."

"That's what I'm saying. I think it's the space station."

"Well, it would make sense. What was that, the docking lights?" her voice trailed off.

"Maybe. Could just be the running strobes. You know, those 'Hey-jerk-wake-up-before-you-smash-into-us!' lights?"

Terri let out a laugh at that one.

"God, it's amazing just how stupid some flyers are!" she exclaimed, still laughing. She then looked up at me and quickly added, "no you're not one of them."

I let out a mock sigh of relief, "Well, thank you. That's good to know." I brushed my fingers through her blonde hair that she had let out of its usual braid before leaving her cabin.

Terri continued, "I mean, I've even seen the cops smash into each other! Even before they manage to clear a docking bay entrance!"

"Yeah, I guess their launching systems were made by the lowest bidder."

"Or whoever came up with their emergency procedures manual was the lowest bidder!"

A very funny thought popped into my head that I just had to let out. It was hard to do so, however, because I started laughing like crazy.

"I wonder if some of the guys who fire on stations are old vets trying to prove a point! I can see 'em sitting there: The let off one shot to graze the station and sound the alarm, then they watch the fireworks coming from the docking bay saying, 'Figure it out, guys! One ship at a time!'"

Terri looked up at me again, this time her expression showing a kind of disgusted awe combined with amusement, "And you say the Wicca Race is sadistic?"

I looked back down at her, "Well, I didn't say I'd be the one doing the shooting, did I?"

We exchanged a laugh for a moment, then there was a peaceful silence between us as we continued to watch the heavens.

As the moments passed, I knew I had to ask her something, I put it off for as long as I could until I knew my mind was reaching the point of being a pressure cooker about to explode.

"Terri, now that you have this job and it looks like I'm going to be staying here, do you think we'd ever see each other again?"

She sighed and reached up, took my hands from her bare shoulders and pulled my arms around her, right beneath her breasts.

"I don't know," she said, "You know what it's like being a trader, you do what you can to see people you know when you're in port, but sometimes you just can't do it."

"Yeah," was all I could say. I rested my chin on her shoulder and closed my eyes, trying to savor the moment. I had a feeling I knew what she was trying to say and I didn't like the prospect of cutting this relationship off. I don't normally get all that attached to someone, but when I do, it's quite a bond and it always hurts to break it. Some folks can do it just fine, I just can't. Maybe I'm too much of a sentimentalist for my own good!

* * * * *

"Well... looks like you're all set to go." I said, regarding the woman standing beside me, then looking out across the tarmac at the Weaver's Dream as she stood ready for liftoff.

Terri Lane was now dressed in another olive drab flight suit, though this one sported a nice leather name badge and epaulets with two gold stripes on them. She shrugged and giggled, "Yeah, I guess so."

"Try to keep in touch, if you can." I felt I said that just a little too desperately. Who knows, maybe I was desperate. After the three weeks we had together, maybe any man would feel like this!

"I thought that was my line," commented Terri with sarcastic air.

That got a laugh out of both of us.

"Well, I'm sure you'll have a lot of fun... and getting paid for it can't be too bad either!"

Terri grinned, "Yeah, I'm excited to be back in space again and I don't think I could've asked for a better ship!"

We looked at each other for a long moment. Neither of us seemed to know what to say. I had lots of things to tell her, but I feared most of them involved my own selfish desires. Fortunately, the sound of the enormous yacht's engine rumbling to life made itself heard, terminating my line of thought.

"Well?" I said, gesturing toward the ship.

Terri gave a shrug and said, "Well? I guess this is it."

"Yeah."

I was not about to simply let her walk off without any sort of real good-bye and I think she was anticipating it when I stepped right up to her...

As soon as we parted I knew very well just how much I was going to miss her. Nothing more was said between us. We exchanged a brief wave, then she turned and headed out to the mighty Panther class ship. A few minutes later, I watched as the enormous yacht lifted from the landing pad, engines ablaze, and began its long climb toward the heavens.

I hand thumped me between the shoulder blades and I was jarred from my sentimental reverie by a familiar voice.

"I know how you feel. Don't worry too much, I can't go anywhere without them, so they'll be back eventually."

I sighed, "We can only hope."

Max Weaver regarded me, slapped my shoulder again, and said, "Well, Mark, either way, I'm not gonna let you stand here and brood all afternoon. C'mon, I got something to show you..."

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Fifteen

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