Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Eighteen

I shut my eyes in anticipation of what I knew would be a brilliant flash of sun-bright illumination as I fought to keep the Arrow steady. I then realized that I was making a dangerous gamble and allowed myself to look at my surroundings once again. Fortunately, the flare shielding covering the dual windshields above and before me managed to keep the hellish glare of the nuclear explosion from blinding the other members of the bridge crew and I. Hopefully that shielding covered every window on the ship! Otherwise, we'd have some people in desperate need of medical attention if they ever wanted to be able to see where they were walking ever again!

We burst from the mouth of the launch tunnel and into a scene rivaled only by the apocalypse itself! Great mushroom clouds filled the blackness of space above the hidden complex and, through the carnage I could see many Viper class police ships scouring around, taking potshots at other craft: Asps and Cobras they looked like.

I angled the Crimson Arrow downward to give us an even better view. The devastation was horrific! Nothing would ever be able to walk, let alone live on this little moon without wearing a radiation suit! It was a surprise to me that the entire asteroid didn't split in half with all the bombardment. Nuclear missiles were designed to take out large orbital defense satellites and even whole orbital cities if the need arose! Judging by the number of billowing clouds that surrounded us, it looked like no fewer than seven nukes had been fired. I hit the rear view, but found that the rear camera was very inconveniently mounted right above the engine exhaust. All I could see was the blue-white plume of the ship's powerful main thruster in action.

I brought my attention back to the bridge window as the communications circuit crackled and a familiar menacing voice announced, "Bet you didn't expect to see us again, did you?"

Damn, it's Rob Bailey! I reflexively gritted my teeth and tightened my grip on the steering yoke. Where is he? I'll cut him to pieces! I thought as my eyes scanned the horizon.

I looked down at the main scanner display, hoping to see him hanging somewhere within easy reach. Unfortunately, there were so many ships on the display that locating the Hooded Fang, which I was sure he was flying, was like searching for one specific needle in a stack of needles. The cluster of little red and orange dots on the scanner seemed to be thinning out, but there wasn't one object I could single out as being my former ship.

Suddenly a very strange thought appeared in my mind. I wonder how Isis took my disappearance? Of course, I knew that was a rather pointless concern. Ship's computers are programmed to respond to any human crew. Besides, Bailey had to have reset the security systems to accept his voice print. It was just a fleeting thought anyway, and I quickly returned my attention to the task at hand.

Our shields had reached full strength and our mighty engine continued to spit out its seemingly impossible acceleration. I brought the Arrow's nose up to make our ascent away from the radioactive carnage of the hidden moon. The altimeter reading spun like a dervish until, at a height of fifty klicks, it simply disappeared from my holographic heads-up display. I checked the scanner again. There were many more red blips than orange ones now, which, to me appeared to be the corporate police force doing a successful mopping-up of the INRA attackers. Perhaps Bailey had been vanquished. My teeth set themselves again at the thought... I guess after the trouble he caused me, I wanted to be the one to take his life!

Well, after going through all that at Eta Cassiopea, who wouldn't!?

It was with a great deal of effort that I pried my mind away from thoughts of hate and revenge and focused on getting the Crimson Arrow to safety. Behind me, I heard Max Weaver stir in the Commander's chair.

"Steve, get in touch with New Rossyth. Tell 'em what's going on and let 'em know we're coming in."

"Right-o," responded a higher and tinnier sounding male voice.

"Mark, I think you know where we're going."

"Not a problem," I said and keyed New Rossyth into the navigation computer, "Looks like we'll be there in under two hours."

"Nice, isn't it?"

A gentle lurching of the ship kept me from responding. I looked down at the scanner, a bright orange blip had maneuvered into our six-o'clock position and the lurch was in reaction to a hit from a shipboard laser. The shield strength display was giving a wonderful impression of the floor indicator in a plummeting lift car.

Glancing at the rear viewscreen still revealed very little. I saw the engine exhaust and a bright red lance of light cutting a swath across the defensive screen.

I hit the engine switch and silence filled the cabin, which was broken only by the occasional rumbling of further hits on our shield. We coasted up and away from the moon designated as Alioth 4f at a speed just under sixty thousand klicks per hour, which, in terms of the universe and space flight, was pretty slow!

The communication circuit crackled and the menacing voice of a former Federal Navy admiral boomed across the bridge, "C'mon Max! You're makin' it way too easy for me! So, you honestly think you can get that crate to do anything worthwhile? Or will you finally admit that you've got your head up your ass?"

I didn't turn around to see his reaction, but I thought I could feel the older man's blood beginning to boil.

I chuckled to myself and asked, "We don't happen to have a rear laser, do we?"

"No," replied Weaver in a low rumbling voice. Clearly, he was really pissed off.

I glanced at the shield indicator, which showed that our defensive strength was reduced to thirty-five percent. I took in a deep breath, sighed and said, "Well, there's only one thing we can do."

"Be my guest," he answered and I heard him settle back in his seat, anticipating what we both knew the next move would be.

I simply nodded and pressed the manual control for the main thruster. The Crimson Arrow trembled just slightly as her mighty interplanetary drive spat forth its several hundred thousand kilos of thrust. The image of the bobbing and weaving Cobra III class ship, which I knew for certain was the ship I had once been the proud owner of, receded into the distance.

The bridge speakers crackled again and the menacing voice of Rob Bailey made itself audible throughout the compartment once again.

"Oh that's good, Max! Running might be the best option. Never mind the fact that this little baby I picked up could fly rings around your 'brick,' but I guess you could get lucky. Just like you got lucky at Lallande, right?"

I knew what he was doing. Fortunately Bailey must've been discounting the fact that someone else would be at the helm of Weaver's ship. Either that, or he figured Weaver would be making a mistake of some kind. Behind me I heard a sound that vaguely resembled the growling of a very large and very angry Doberman, ready to maul an unseen intruder.

I don't need to know about this Lallande business, but if Bailey thinks we're running away, he ain't seen nothin' yet!

Our sudden burst of acceleration had, in fact, opened up the range a bit. Now all that remained on my scope was the bright orange blip of the commandeered Hooded Fang. Deciding that the moment was right, I released the thruster control and pulled back on the yoke. Immediately, the Arrow flipped itself around to face our pursuer.

"Okay, so you wanna joust with me now! Bring it on!"

You got it! I thought and centered in on my target. I depressed the firing trigger and watched as a bright orange beam let loose from the pointed nose of our Python class ship and into the spherical force bubble of the Fang's defensive shield. However, my former craft's shield didn't last for too long. When I had stuck in the three shield generators, I hadn't counted on them being a totally impenetrable screen. They were simply there to buy me time to get out of the way of enemy fire. Unfortunately for the traitorous Rob Bailey, his vector was headed right for us and as a result, he wound up impaling himself on the Arrow's laser beam. I watched as the radar mapper ticked down the hull integrity of my stolen ship.

Just when I had prepared myself to see the flash of an exploding Cobra Mark III, the ship suddenly vanished from existence and was replaced by the apparition of huge glowing red and orange concentric discs, hovering silently in the vacuum outside the window. Knowing full well what had just happened, I gritted my teeth and smacked the arm of my chair.

Bastard! I thought.

"Damn it." I heard Weaver say. He then raised his voice and asked, "Can you get a trace on him?"

I toggled the hyperspace cloud analyzer and made my report, "He's heading for Tiethay and should be there in about five days."

There was a long pause while Weaver contemplated a couple of possibilities. At least, that's what I figured he was doing. With our prototype engine, provided it was working right, we'd be able to follow the Fang's route to Tiethay and arrive days ahead of our quarry! That'd put us in a perfect position to pounce on him when he emerged from hyperspace. However, this was a prototype ship with an untested engine! I imagine that Weaver had complete faith in his scientists, but transferring the idea from numbers and drawings on paper and actually building something always carried the risk of some unseen flaw. Not only that, but something could've been thrown off kilter by the pounding we took in our escape from the hidden factory-lab on Alioth 4f.

I sat back and watched the little moon drift slowly away from us. The Arrow was coasting backward at about sixty thousand klicks per hour, little more than crawling along while Max Weaver sat in his command chair and considered his options. After what seemed like an eternity, the owner of the Crimson Arrow spoke again.

"Jenny, how much fuel are we carrying?"

The woman in the engineer's seat spoke up, "Sixty-five tons."

Weaver didn't even hesitate, "Steve, get back on the horn to New Rossyth. Tell 'em we're gonna test the new engine."

"All right!" came an excited shout from the far end of the bridge.

"Mark, plot in a pursuit course," Weaver commanded.

I couldn't help but give a vengeful grin as I responded, "You got it." Within seconds I had called up the navigation map, selected the unremarkable system of Tiethay and locked it into the hyperspace course selector.

"Jump route plotted..." I looked over my shoulder and simply couldn't resist,

"Commander!"

Weaver gave a laugh, lit another cigar, took a long drag and exhaled a cloud of smoke into the bridge. Then, he sat up straight in his command chair, pulled down on his sport jacket to smooth it out and stared briefly out the bridge window, mocking the far-away visionary look of so many of those tri-D space adventure heroes. I tried not to laugh as, without looking back down at me, the older man raised his arm with his index finger extended as though ready to give a cue to an orchestra. Knowing that he was counting on me to make the effect complete, I held my hand over the hyperspace trigger. Weaver then brought his hand down in the universal "go" signal and spoke a brief sentence.

"Hit it."

My hand slammed down on the large blue button and the Arrow surged forward into a swirling tunnel of eerie lights.

At that moment the klaxon alarm sounded throughout the bridge. I immediately turned myself back toward my control console and the sight that greeted me chilled me to the bone.

"Mis-jump warning!" I shouted back.

"WHAT!?" I heard a shuffle and the sound of feet hitting the deck as Weaver bolted over to stand beside me. "What do you mean?" he asked in an exasperated voice, but then took in the readings for himself and gasped, "Oh my God!"

The readings clearly indicated that the witch space tunnel we were flying through was certainly not the one we had intended to enter. All we could do was sit and gape at the display as our experimental ship careened through the void toward an unknown destination.

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Seventeen

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