Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Part Four: The Secret of the Crimson Arrow

Chapter Seventeen

"Any particular reason you think a lifter is something worth showing me?" I asked as we climbed into the tiny cockpit of what had to be one of the worst examples of a spacecraft ever built by the human race.

"Indulge me, will you please?" Weaver asked, looking slightly annoyed.

I sighed and shrugged, "Well, I don't really have much choice, now do I?"

I sat down in the right hand acceleration couch behind the bubble canopy and sealed my hatch.

Lifters were the workhorses of space, yet they were so small they could never mount a hyperspace drive. Hundreds of years of design improvements on the military cargo helicopter directly resulted in this little craft: Rotors were replaced with thrusters and the helicopter's long fish-like body was squashed and spread out like a duralium canvas which supported three rectangular cargo pods. The cockpit, which stuck out like a transparent pimple, was cramped and had no airlock. The iris hatches that let into either side of the little control chamber were all that stood between the ship's occupants and the hard vacuum of deep space. Normally, the operator of a lifter wore a space suit, just in case of a loss in pressure.

Maximillian Weaver took no such precautions and that concerned me more than a little bit! Unfortunately, I didn't have much time to voice my opinion as the elder man threw the engine switch before even strapping himself in. The flimsy vehicle shuddered with the vibrations of the interplanetary drive as Weaver closed his side of the pressure bubble. There was a hiss as fresh atmosphere filled the space around us.

"Where are we going, anyway?" I asked, trying to come up with as many justifications as I could for the old miner launching us into space as unprotected as we were.

"You'll see," was all he said as he pushed the throttle forward.

There was an abrupt lurch and I was pulled down into my seat as the tiny secondary landing pad fell away beneath us. A glance at Mr. Weaver revealed that he was in deep concentration and, with the lack of flight controls on my side of the cockpit, I felt it best not to disturb him. The man in the business suit pressed a few more switches, pulled back on the control stick slightly and sent us climbing up toward the clouds.

At this rate, I may as well just enjoy the ride, I thought as I watched the surface of Argent's Claim recede beneath us.

* * * * *

We ascended through layers of thick cloud cover, through an ever-thinning atmosphere until the view outside finally faded from light blue to black filled with pinpoints of white. The planet was slowly dwindling behind us, though right now it still filled the entire rear view screen.

The ship creaked and I reflexively grabbed the arms of my seat. I suppose my idea was to try and wrap the acceleration couch around my body, for all the good it would've done. It was a futile gesture that only served to make Mr. Weaver a little more nervous. I guess being in a ship with no airlock and not having a spacesuit was really bothering me. I did my best to relax, but I just couldn't make myself do it completely. At least I had my breathing under control.

"So, where are we going, anyway?" I finally managed to ask.

"Not too far away. A little chunk of rock, just outside the radiation belts of Alioth 4."

I nodded, "You mean the fourth moon?"

"No, that's on the far side of the planet. It'd take a week to get there in this thing." Weaver replied, not saying any more.

"I see," was all I could say back.

* * * * *

It took four hours at maximum acceleration to enter into the orbit of a large asteroidal body whose size and composition could've labeled it a moon. Why it wasn't listed on the system chart was actually not too much of a surprise to me. A planet as enormous as Alioth 4 had to have more than just four moons. In fact, it made sense to me that it would have more than twenty or thirty! The charts simply picked out the large populated satellites. Yet, for being a lifeless chunk of rock, it was still an impressive sight.

The little world circled in an elliptical orbit just between the orbits of Argent's Claim and Wicca's World which kept it very safely hidden away. I had no doubt that some people had set up a mining operation and then discovered that its strategic position made it prime real estate for a hidden base of sorts. Weaver and his corporation must have jumped on it in a heartbeat.

Within minutes, Weaver had cut our velocity down to only a few thousand klicks per hour and we watched in silence as the moon expanded before us. Then, the older man switched one of his screens over to the navigation map. I watched as he rotated the display, searching feverishly for something. He must've found it as I watched him hit a few keys on his control board and then sat back in his seat. My stomach turned slightly as the view outside spun and then righted itself as the lifter, now on autopilot, began maneuvering us toward our actual destination.

* * * * *

The sides of the landing bay slid around us and there was a jolt as the lifter set down on the landing pad. There was a vibration as the rumbling of heavy machinery thundered across the hangar followed by a loud clang which announced the sealing of the landing bay. A loud hiss made itself audible and, as I watched, the exterior pressure indicator climbed until its needle came to rest in the very center of the green "habitable" zone.

"Well, here we are," announced Maximillian Weaver as he hit the controls for his hatch.

I unbuckled my security harness, keyed open the hatch on my side of the cockpit, and stood up through it, taking in the view of the landing bay. I took the opportunity to take my first deep breath in a while. The air was definitely fresh but smelled of a ventilating unit. I climbed down the small retractable ladder below the hatch and came to rest on solid ground. I looked up at the tiny interplanetary vehicle that brought me here, it didn't look too much worse for wear. Though I still planned to ask Weaver if we could return to Argent's Claim in something a little more... safe...

"C'mon Mark! You're gonna love this," Weaver beckoned me to follow him through an airlock at the far end of the landing bay. I fell in step just behind him and we headed forward through the airlock and into the secret base.

* * * * *

I followed Mr. Weaver through a maze of corridors. As we walked, I couldn't help but notice that we seemed to be heading downward. Curious, I decided to ask him about this.

"Yes, we are, in fact. Most of this installation is hidden well below the surface of the moon. I don't suppose I need to remind you that this is a secret installation that only a few people in the whole known universe are aware of." The older man gave me a cocky sort of grin, "So you should feel privileged."

I chuckled back, "Gotcha."

The hallways had become narrower and much more sterile-feeling. I was beginning to get a bit nervous, but Max Weaver seemed to know exactly where he was going. I wasn't sure why he was in such a hurry. After all, if this installation was so secret, it'd be rather difficult for the INRA to have discovered it.

Perhaps they have, though. You can never be too sure where the INRA are concerned, I thought as we approached a very heavy looking steel hatch. Weaver turned to me and spoke.

"Mark, what you're about to see is considered Top Secret. I only hope that our pals in the INRA haven't found out about it and infiltrated us yet."

I nodded, understanding. My second exposure to some Top Secret information since I left the Navy, I thought, yet after all the secret information I had been exposed to during my time in the service, my hands were still shaking slightly.

Weaver inserted his ID card into the security lock next to the hatch and then entered in a combination code of some sort. There was a loud clank and a hiss as the pressure door unlocked and slowly slid open. Beyond was a huge chamber, brightly lit and very clean. Weaver stepped through the open door and beckoned for me to follow. He then turned and gestured out into the expanse of the room.

"This is it," the older man announced with a grin.

I turned and looked. The sight that greeted my eyes was not exactly an awesome one. I was expecting something a little more impressive than the Python class Star Cruiser that sat idly in the middle of the brightly-lit hangar. I'd seen ships like this before. However, after all I'd recently been through, the one lesson I remember getting force-fed was "Never judge a book by its cover." Well, one thing I can say that this particular "cover" wasn't exactly pathetic looking either! The sleek arrowhead shape of the Python's crimson colored hull stretched over a hundred meters in length. Various communication and detection equipment could be seen protruding through openings in the thick duralium skin.

My eyes caressed every line and curve of the secret ship. I began to wonder what the big deal was.

Maybe it's the hull polish. I have yet to see a Python with as fresh a paint job as that one!

The Python was an old design and, for many decades, a favorite of many traders and bounty hunters. Aside from serving the trading community as the fastest large freighter of its day, the Python recalled a time when starships were built with simple geometric shapes in mind. No fancy curves were found on the ships made before the year 2900. All were working craft, ruggedly built and able to take all kinds of punishment. The design of the ship sitting before me was even older than that! Yet it survived to the present, despite its increasing rarity which was a clear indication of declining popularity. Personally, I like Pythons and I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one around here who believes that if a thing works, there's no need to change it.

But why'd Weaver bring me down to see this? And why the hell is it Top Secret? The questions were whirling around in my head when Mr. Weaver stepped beside me and explained.

"I know what you're thinking, 'A pretty run-of-the-mill Python Freighter.' Well, let me introduce you to the Crimson Arrow. The only ship of its kind... for the time being." Weaver gestured to the great red spike sitting on its enormous wire frame landing skids.

I turned toward my host, "Well, what is it then? I mean, it looks well equipped: A nice ship to have before trading up to a Puma or a Griffin."

Weaver gave me one of his toothy grins, "That's good, Mark! I'm glad you asked me that... and not because you want to know more about it."

I managed to put two and two together at this point, "Okay, you said it's the only ship of its kind. So, it's not really a Python then, is it?"

Weaver looked back up at the secret ship, then back at me and shrugged, "Well... call it a Python Mark II, if you want to get technical." He strode forward into the vast black shadow beneath the ship.

"A Python Mark II?" I was very intrigued. I'd never had the opportunity to fly one of these big ships, though I loved what they looked like. They certainly looked much more impressive than those Skeet class heavy traders and they were a heck of a lot faster than the ponderous Lanner class freighters. I knew that there were some bounty hunters that made a pretty sweet living in one of these, though the lack of turrets gave them more than a little bit of a blind spot. To top it off, 10Gs was pretty fast for a dedicated freighter, but they didn't exactly turn on a dime to get into any kind of firing position. I guess you could say that, compared to the ships of today, the Python was simply a very middle of the road kind of ship.

Too much mediocrity is what's killing its popularity, I thought.

"Yeah, she's been outfitted with the latest in military technology," Weaver reached up and patted the well polished hull plates, "I'll bet you didn't know it, but the Alliance isn't exactly defenseless."

"Well, they don't have any kind of a real navy either." I was concerned as to where this was going. Maybe they've finally decided to arm themselves, I thought.

"True. They don't. At least, not yet. Forming an actual navy requires lots of time and huge amounts of manpower, not to mention money! However, what the Alliance does have is some wealthy businessmen who want to keep their investments safe."

Again, this was simple to understand. "You included," I commented.

Weaver looked back over at me and replied, "Well... I'm still a Federation citizen, however, some of the folks I deal with are members of the Alliance. After all, when you're a partner in one of the biggest mining companies in known space, you're bound to catch the eye of other... political bodies."

"Yeah, I could understand that," I then began to realize just how much business sense this man had. Making this realization caused something else to grab my attention.

"Wait a second, then does that mean that other corporations have secret bases like this one?" I asked.

Weaver didn't even take time to ponder my question, "Not exactly, a single company couldn't afford to maintain something like this. Bases like this one are very expensive and draining on resources. Actually, in the long run, it's almost as bad as maintaining corporate police forces in our mining systems! This sort of setup could be called..." I saw him stop in his tracks and watched as his expression became thoughtful as he searched for the right words. Finally, he said, "A mutual investment by several corporations to protect business interests."

"Kinda like your 'investment' to help the Thargoids?"

Weaver grinned again and gave a slight shrug, "Something like that, yeah."

The older man turned and strode toward a large hatchway further down the length of the great tapered hull. He pressed a nearby touch panel and the hatch spiraled open with a loud hiss. A ramp extended itself and Weaver motioned for me to follow.

"Come on in, Mark. Let me show you what it's all about."

Cautiously, though I knew I was perfectly safe, I edged toward the entrance of the great ship. I stepped up the metal ramp and into the airlock.

"This is the portside personnel airlock," Weaver commented. He pressed another touch pad on the wall. The ramp retracted itself into a space beneath the deck plates and the outer airlock door resealed itself with a clank. Ahead, another iris hatchway hissed open and Weaver stepped through, entering a long corridor.

"This is the aft corridor of the Mid deck," the corporate executive spoke as we made our way down the hall, our footfalls against the deck plates ringing about the confined space. Upon reaching another iris hatchway in the right wall, Weaver stopped and keyed the door open.

Beyond the hatch was a massive piece of equipment, undoubtedly the ship's main engine. However, it was nothing like any ordinary drive system. It was quietly humming to itself and Weaver was also regarding it with interest.

"Class four military drive," the older man explained gesturing toward the monolithic device, "The first and only one of its kind... for the moment."

I was astounded. Military engines were very expensive and difficult to produce! Yet, they were much more efficient and considerably smaller than civilian engines, which meant that the extra free space was available for more combat equipment, cargo space, or even passenger cabins if you were that desperate for company. The only problem with military drives was that they were restricted to small ships. You rarely saw anything bigger than an Asp with a military engine in it. The fact that they had developed a military drive large enough to be used in a Python class Star Cruiser was simply unbelievable!

I looked at the engine again, then back at Max Weaver. He seemed very proud of the invention and I completely understood why as it was his hard-earned money that had made it a reality!

A thought struck me, "Wait a minute, though. Don't Pythons need at least a Class 5 engine if they wanted to go any farther than a stone's throw away?"

Weaver returned his gaze to me and said, "What? Oh no, that's one of the great things about this!" He took a few steps forward and took in the readouts that decorated the engine monitoring and control consoles. "This engine's meant to be used in ships much bigger than this one. We chose a Python to be the test bed because it was the smallest ship that our techies said would be safe to stick it in!"

Shock after shock! I was taken aback once again. An engine that could only be safely tested in something as large as a Python was more than just a formidable piece of equipment! Also, having the precision and speed of a military drive made it a real dangerous piece of equipment if it were to fall into the wrong hands. If the Federation or Empire managed to get their hands on it, the balance of power in the galaxy would be radically shifted. Thank God that the Alliance had elected to stay out of their blood feud!

I asked, "So, what's the range on this thing then?"

Weaver grinned and even chuckled slightly, "That's the thing, Mark. They don't really know yet. The last estimate said it'll max out somewhere around two hundred light years."

I gasped, "Two hundred!? You could jump from Earth right into the heart of the Empire and be gone before anyone ever knew what happened!"

The older man's maniacally happy expression did not falter, "Yeah. But, more importantly it means two to four jumps to get to Thargoid space."

"Are we actually taking this ship into Thargoid space?" A chill ran up my spine. The idea of meeting those insectoids face to face wasn't sitting well with me, especially after hearing how they attacked innocent traders. I shut off that line of thought, thinking, Remember if everything you've heard is true, then they were striking in retaliation to the INRA attacks.

Weaver suddenly became serious again, "Well, that's not quite what we have in mind. After all, we only have an approximation about just where Thargoid space is and that might even be wrong. Still, if push comes to shove, we just might have to pay them a house call. It all depends."

"On what?"

The executive pulled out another of his famous cigars, lit it, and puffed it once, eyeing me as though he was trying to count the hairs that made up my eyebrows. He blew a trail of thick gray smoke and then headed toward the hatchway.

"I'll save answer for later. C'mon, I'll show you the bridge."

* * * * *

The bridge of the Crimson Arrow was not nearly as large as that of the Weaver's Dream, yet I was still impressed with its spaciousness. The most striking feature was the two big V-shaped transparisteel windows that made up most of the forward half of the sloping ceiling. The pilot's seat was nestled directly in front of the larger of the two windows, right on the ship's centerline. It was situated in such a way that whoever was sitting at the helm would still be able to see over the long angular nose of the ship as well as overhead. Out of idle curiosity, I glanced at the flight controls. Once again, the designers felt it necessary to impress upon the pilot just how big the ship was. Standing right in front of the helm console was a full-blown two-handed steering yoke, just like the ones used on old passenger aircraft. At least it wasn't as ridiculous looking as the hovercycle handlebars on Mr. Weaver's yacht!

The Commander's chair was located about two meters behind the pilot's seat and ringed with various display screens and backup control panels. Facing the portside wall was the communications station and to starboard was the Chief Engineer's post.

Not overly crowded yet you're not all by yourself, I thought to myself.

"So, what do you think, Mark?"

I heard myself say, "Actually, I like it."

"Well that's good, 'cause you're gonna be spending most of your time up here." Weaver took a long drag off of his cigar.

I put two and two together on this one, "So you're in need of a Commander again?"

Weaver regarded me with a cool expression. His nostrils vented cigar smoke as if he were a mythical fire-breathing dragon.

At that moment the world began to shake violently!

"Oh shit," Weaver exclaimed in a harsh whisper and staggered back to the communications console.

I stumbled around trying to keep my balance. It was no use, I was about to fall flat on my face unless I could find some sort of support. I managed to grab onto the back of the command chair and hang on for dear life as the chaos around us increased.

My eyes instinctively snapped toward the huge windows that offered a very nice view of the rest of the hangar. Outside the ship, all was confusion. Jumpsuited technicians scurried about, carrying various pieces of equipment. A tall pyramid shaped pile of cargo canisters that I hadn't seen before suddenly toppled over, crushing two innocent bystanders beneath their massive weight. Forklifts and power loaders immediately went to the scene of the carnage.

The earthquake continued and, as I watched, the hangar itself began to come apart. Vast plates of polished silver duralium came loose from the walls and crashed to the floor. One of the forklifts that was busily rescuing blood-drenched victims of the fallen cargo canisters was smashed by a falling light panel from the ceiling.

During all of this, Weaver had been fumbling with the communications board and shouting orders into it for what felt like an eternity. I heard him say, "We're getting out of here! All crew to your posts!"

At this point someone must have hit an alarm button because a loud whooping klaxon sounded throughout the ship. Outside, a warning siren of a different kind could be heard over the din of the total madness transpiring in the hangar.

Antigrav service vehicles skidded into each other below the port flank of the Crimson Arrow, releasing their contents all over the polished floor.

The sound of the door to the bridge opening caught my attention and I watched as two figures dressed in green flight suits raced through the iris hatch.

Weaver's had to shout in order for his voice to be heard above the apocalyptic din.

"Where's Davis!?"

A woman in her mid thirties with mid-length brown hair answered, "He's gone!" and gave a very quick gesture toward the window. I looked out at a hand sticking out from underneath one of the fallen light panels. A deep red river was running out from underneath the fixture, adding itself to the sea of blood, oil, hydraulic fluid, and other liquids that began to collect in a vile multicolored lake in the middle of the hangar floor.

Weaver didn't seem to miss a beat, "All right, Mark, get in the pilot's seat!"

I didn't even think. I shouted, "Right!" and stumbled toward the forward end of the bridge.

Suddenly, the universe jumped and spun in a mind-boggling explosion of noise and light. I felt myself thrown into the air, which was filled with the startled cries of the other members of the bridge crew.

Just when I thought I was about to land on the floor, there was a very loud crash and I was thrown back the other way. I hit the deck very hard and felt all kinds of pain shooting through me, though I was so badly shaken that it wasn't localized. I just knew I hurt and... and I was bleeding too! I saw drops of my own lifeblood on the floor. It wasn't much but it served to tell me that all was not right.

Nevertheless, the trained soldier in me knew what I had to do.

I crawled along the floor until I hit something solid. Painfully glancing up, I saw that it was the base of the pilot's station. Amid the thundering of the shattered secret complex, the blaring alarms and desperate shouts by Max Weaver to get us out of here, I slowly climbed up and into the thickly padded acceleration couch.

The last thing I was concerned with was the fact that I was, once again, going to have to guess my way through the launch sequence. Fortunately, the controls were actually very understandable. I hit what I hoped was the engine switch and was rewarded with the appearance of several green lights on the main control board. Accompanying this, and adding itself to the sounds of Hell on Earth, was the faint scream of a very powerful starship engine coming to life.

Another mighty force accompanied this time by the distinct sound of an explosion rocked the hangar and I quickly grabbed the security harness and locked it over my body before I could be thrown against the bridge window.

I heard the woman, who had taken a seat at the Chief Engineer's station, speak up again, "Engine up to power! Let's GO!"

Weaver shouted, "Get us outta here, Mark!"

At moment something occurred to me.

"Somebody open the hangar!" I shouted.

Almost in response to my command, a deafening explosion shook the badly damaged hangar complex. Above us, the ceiling of the huge room buckled inward and tongues of flame began to lick through the cracks in what appeared to be a large iris hatch.

Oh God! I thought, This is gonna be rough!

The corporate executive Maximillian Weaver must have figured out what was happening as well because he shouted an order to the engineer.

"Get the shields up!!"

"Working on it!" the woman replied. For a moment I imagined her scrambling all over her control board hitting necessary toggles and switches. This was my first time working on a ship with an actual bridge crew, so I had no idea what to expect.

Moments later an indicator which I hadn't noticed until now began a steady climb from 0.0% to 26.8%. At that moment, an explosion from above blew the big iris hatch out like a metallic flower opening up its petals and discharging a ball of deadly searing pollen.

Immediately, I thumbed the toggle for the liftoff thrusters and felt the Crimson Arrow surge upward on a jet of blue flame. I depressed the landing gear switch, bringing in the long pair of skids that supported the whole monolithic vessel on the ground.

When I glanced up at the rest of the hangar, I could see that the effects from the latest attack were still being felt. Sparks flew from everywhere and the ceiling around the hatchway had cracked. More light fixtures fell all over the place and I almost pissed my pants when a very large and heavy-looking piece of metal dropped right above the bridge window. Very fortunately, it struck the shield and was melted into its component atoms by the protective energy bubble before any harm could be done.

"You're gonna have to use the hatch. It's the only way out of here!" Shouted Weaver, knowing full well that that was where the attacks were coming from.

Well, if you wanted excitement, here it is! I thought and pulled back on the steering yoke, aiming the giant arrowhead shaped craft toward the newly created hole in the ceiling. I couldn't help but notice that some places around the rim of the shattered hatch were still glowing red with heat. Nevertheless, I knew what I had to do. I slammed the throttle lever all the way forward and the great ship surged ahead, rocketing upward at an impressive sixteen gees.

Wow! I didn't think Pythons could ever move like this! I thought as we ascended through the debris filled launch tunnel. Suddenly, I noticed something small and dart shaped hanging in the air directly ahead. It was shooting straight toward us like a giant size bullet. I twisted the steering yoke to the right and pulled back until the control column was practically in my lap. The Crimson Arrow twisted sharply around, her nose grazing the side of the launch tunnel, and the deadly missile flashed beneath us. Another twist of the yoke and a push forward brought the heavy bulk of our prototype Python Mark II class starship back into a more acceptable trajectory. The tiny messenger of destruction, whose deadly explosive charge we managed to avoid, screamed through the air like a banshee, leaving behind a long smoke trail as it careened into the exposed hangar below.

Moments later there was another violent earthquake and I fought to keep the Arrow from brushing up against the sides of the long tunnel as a force gripped the great ship and threw us heavenward as though we were little more than a toy discarded by an angry child.

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Sixteen

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