Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Nineteen

The eggheads in the astro universities and space research centers tell us that Witch Space, better known as hyperspace, is a very complex series of extra-dimensional tunnels linking just about every point in the known universe. Supposedly it's like a bunch of one-way mag-lev tracks in space. Well, you can imagine that, even with all the safety precautions they have, those mag-lev trains that frequent between the cities of most populated worlds are still prone to accidents and equipment failures. Now, in the 33rd Century, a train derailing or getting switched the wrong way is an extremely rare thing: a one-in-a-billion chance¼ but it still happens.

The same is true with hyperdrives. About 99% of all ships that enter Witch Space these days come out safely on the other end of the tunnel. However, those are ships with proven engines that hadn't had to practically smash their way out of a base under a nuclear attack! To be honest, I wasn't really surprised that it happened, but it was horrifying nonetheless. A hyperspace mis-jump was the starship equivelant of a train hitting a track switch but being switched onto the wrong path. A derailing? Well... I don't want to even think about that!

The really terrible thing about a mis-jump is that you have absolutely no idea where you'll end up! Sometimes you may reappear in normal space half a light year from where you started. Those folks are usually the lucky ones. Others never return. Sometimes, during the Thargoid war, the aliens' ships would "hover" in Witch Space and pounce on unsuspecting human craft and even whole fleets would disappear as a result! Very few pilots made it out of those ambushes alive, but you can bet that those that did had significantly upped combat ratings as a result! We have no idea how the Thargoids managed to do it, but there it was. Perhaps Weaver, in sealing some kind of pact with the insects, would learn that secret.

The thought that we could be the victims of a Thargoid Witch Space ambush was extremely chilling, though we all knew it to be very unlikely. No, with their race slowly dying out many thousands of light years away, the idea of them being up to their old tricks was damn near impossible. However, that only eliminated one potential result of our mis-jump. The other results were categorized by distance figures, many of which were extremely grim. The fact that we were working on an experimental engine only made matters worse. The distance we would be carried away from our intended target would likely be much farther than the distance most ships with normal drives would be taken.

Unfortunately, all any of us aboard the Crimson Arrow could do was wait until we returned back to normal space to find out how far off course we went. I would say that that particular hyperspace jump was the worst week of my entire life. The waiting was almost unbearable. The seven of us who made up the makeshift crew of the prototype Python Mark II were about ready to climb the walls. It did not bode well at all for making good first impressions!

I suppose I could only equate my own feelings to what I imagine those of the proverbial innocent man whose been convicted of a crime would be. The judge is busy deciding on a sentence and all we can do is accept it, no matter what it is, despite the fact that we did nothing at all to warrant it. We just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I had a couple of friends from home in that very situation and it sucked for all of us! Two really close buddies of mine got 20-year sentences for some piece of crap scumbag's wrong doing! They never did catch the rat bastards who really did it either. However, some new evidence did eventually turn up that acquitted my mates. At least they were free to go and that, at the time, was enough justice for me, though my pals sure wanted to settle the score! I don't remember how, but I did manage to talk 'em out of trying to get revenge.

I remember it was just after all that went down that I applied for Military service. Now that I think about it, I wonder if what happened to them had anything to do with my decision...?

Jenny Rayburn, the engineer, was having an even worse time of things than I was. I was the pilot, the guy responsible for keeping us pointed in the right direction, but she was the one responsible for looking after the prototype engine. Jenny was one of the lead scientists from Weaver's research team who helped design the Class 4 military drive. If anyone should have known what was going to happen when we turned it on, it was her. Unfortunately, she had no idea and now, all she could do was sit and brood, watching the readouts at her bridge station. We'd have to wait until we emerged from hyperspace before she could open the engine up to find out what went wrong.

Meanwhile, Steve Mandrake, the communications tech was able to spend the week pacing the crew area on the Mid Deck like a caged cat. There was absolutely nothing for the guy to do and it was really eating away at him. Actually, most of us were feeling that way to some degree. A ship pretty much runs itself while flying through Witch Space, even during a mis-jump. Games of Checkers, Chess (2-D and 3-D), Bumper Pool, a tiny video arcade, and various holo movies, journals and novels served as semi-effective diversions. It was all any of us could do to distract our attention from the fear that hung in the air like a poison tainting the ship's air system, but sometimes it simply didn't help.

* * * * *

I was sitting on a long and comfortable couch in the crew room with my legs up on a coffee table and losing myself in the pages of an electronic novel. The door slide open and I looked up as Harvey Middlewell, better known as Hank, walked in and sat down on another couch next to the one I was occupying. Hank was a cargo handler who'd worked as a broker for a privateer crew before signing on with Weaver's little team, so his job and talents didn't even come to being important unless we were landed or docked and transferring goods. I kinda felt sorry for the guy: there was very little chance that we would actually need any of his services during this unexpected trip. Still, you never know, I thought to myself. If we come out into Thargoid space, maybe he'd run the negotiations¼

"Hey," I said.

"Hey," he replied, looking miserable as ever.

"How're you holding up?" I asked politely.

Hank shrugged and ran a hand through his close-cropped brown hair, "As good as I can. Nobody needs a penny pinching cargo jock when you're lost in space."

I sighed and decided not even to pretend I disagreed, "True. At least you get to chill out, like you're on a vacation or something."

The younger man shook his head, "Man, I can't stand havin' nothing to do!"

"Well, you're not the only one who's cooling his heels right now."

The door hissed open again and this time it was a woman who stepped through to join us. Like the rest of us, she was dressed in the typical olive green spacer coveralls. Hank looked up and smiled at her.

"Hi," he said.

Jenny looked back down at him and replied, "Hi." Her expression was grim as she sat herself- more like collapsed- into a leather armchair facing the two couches we were occupying. She heaved a heavy sigh, put her feet up on the coffee table next to mine and spent a moment studying her black leather utility boots.

I finally decided to put my novel pad down and attempt to engage in conversation. After all, there was a good chance we'd be working together for a long time. I regarded the newcomer and, yeah, I could say I was a bit concerned. She still looked professional and all with her long brown hair tied up in a bun and her flight suit zipped up to what one would call "regulation standards," though it was never closed all the way to the collar. The very bleak look she was giving her feet hadn't left her face for over two days. That, to me, was not a good thing at all.

"Anything exciting happening back there?" I asked her, giving a gesture with my head toward the rear hatch. I was referring to the engine room where the two other members of her team were practically living, despite the fact that all they could do at this stage was sit and let the engine tick away the hours of our hyperspace transit.

Jenny gave an ironic chuckle and said, "Yeah, right. Mike's gone over the transit data for the hundredth time and Sara's been checking the engine schematics trying to see if we missed anything. Meanwhile all we can do is sit and wait 'til we come out of hyperspace before we can actually open the sucker up and see what's really going on in there." The brilliant young engineer sighed again. Everyone on the ship could see that this whole mis-jump thing was really bothering her more than the rest of the crew for a number of reasons.

"You know it wasn't the design that was the problem," I said.

The engineer looked back up at me and replied, "No, I really don't know that yet. But it's a possibility."

"The pilot's right, Jenny," Hank spoke softly and gently as he leaned forward over the coffee table, trying to get a little closer to her, "it's not your fault."

Jenny cocked her head and gave Hank a look of incredulity.

"How the hell would you know? You're a cargo broker, for Christ's sake!" She then returned to examining the lacing of her boots.

Hank suddenly became much more intense and gently gripped Jenny's left leg just above the top of her boot.

"I know how money works and I know the ol' man wouldn't have thrown all that cash in your lap if it wasn't gonna work."

A silence hovered in the air for a moment and I could feel tension begin to mount.

"Besides, nobody knew we were gonna have to blast our way out of a nuclear strike," I added.

The tension became very thick and I was afraid Jenny was about to give some nasty retort or a self-incriminating statement. Jenny looked up at me, then looked over at Hank and sighed once more. This time, however, with that exhalation, everything seemed to relax with her.

"Well, we're still gonna have to pull it all apart as soon as we're out of Witch Space," she said.

"I'd imagine so," I remarked and stretched out a little more.

The door in the aft wall slid aside once again and a man in a burgundy sport coat, black turtleneck shirt, and brown pants stepped through. A fresh cigar was burning in his hand and giving off tiny wisps of charcoal smoke.

"So, how's everyone doing?" Max Weaver's demeanor managed to remain upbeat, despite the situation. He stood between Jenny's comfortable armchair and my couch. He took a quick drag off his cigar, turned his head slightly, and blew a trail of visible air in the direction of the room's atmosphere scrubbers.

"Bored," replied Hank Middlewell, now appearing to stare sullenly at the heels of Jenny's boots.

"Bored and scared stiff," Jenny was now also doing an intensive study of her own boots. Anyone could see the guilt she was feeling over the mess we were in, no matter how ridiculous and unjustified her self-criticism was.

Weaver looked down at her, switched his cigar to his other hand, and gently squeezed his Chief Engineer's shoulder. "I've been in tougher scrapes than this one. We'll get out of this all right. We've got a really nice new ship and a hell of a good crew."

Jenny looked up at her employer, "Even though the ship's not working right?"

Weaver dismissed that comment with a wave, "Ah, whatever. It happens. Let's just find out what's wrong and fix it. Then we can get back home."

The young lady in the armchair sighed and nodded. The executive gave her shoulder another squeeze, then strode across the room to the remaining vacant armchair. He sat down in it, letting himself slide down into the leather cushions until his head rested on top of the chair's low back. He then took a very long drag off of his cigar and exhaled a thick stream of pleasantly scented smoke that swirled in the air above the coffee table as it became caught in the convection currents established by the atmosphere scrubbers.

He sat watching as the smoke began to ascent and drift in the direction of the scrubber's intake vent. Then he spoke once more.

"You know, this kinda reminds me of back when I was flying my own mining ship."

"What kind of ship did you have?" This came from Hank.

The older man heaved a sigh, as he recollected his past, "It was an old Salamander. Not a bad looking ship and it definitely did the job! It already had a decent drive in it, but eventually it could take me just about anywhere. I had this friend who used to work for the Imperial Shipyards in Sharoma City."

He settled back further in his seat, drew on his cigar again and stared up at the ceiling as he continued.

"God, he loved working on engines. He made all kinds of modifications to ships: made their drives burn hotter, faster, and more efficient. I asked him if he ever considered designing a new ship from the ground up, but he just wasn't interested. Eventually, though, he set up his own shop in Zaonce and I always set up my route so that I'd pass through that system.

"I'd bring my ship into his shop and he'd let me try out his latest engine mods. Before I knew it, the Ice Rigger was buzzing around like a damn hummingbird!"

I heaved a sigh of my own, not believing much of what I was hearing. I never quite figured Weaver to be that much of a wild adventurer. Messing around with a ship's engine is a damn risky business and, considering the situation we were in at the moment, I felt my beliefs were quite justified!

* * * * *

The alarm sounding throughout the ship jarred me awake at the helm and I watched as the hyperspace tunnel through which we were passing receded behind us. The Arrow shot back into real space and her mighty 9G retros immediately began to fire, slowing the big ship down to a dead stop. Weaver immediately began issuing orders and I suddenly began having flashbacks to my days in the service.

"Mark, get on that nav map and tell us where we are."

"No problem," I replied and immediately keyed into the navigation computer. The star chart appeared and, as usual, the system in which we were located shone brightly in the center of the display. The only problem was the fact that I'd never heard of the system we were in. Apparently, with the exception of its ridiculous sounding name, neither had the computer. I checked the system coordinates and my heart leaped up into my throat. I tried to take a deep breath, but just couldn't do it.

"What's our position, Mark?"

I gulped and spoke, "Well... it looks like we're the first people ever to visit the... Ascartequ system? Coordinates are minus-one-fifty by minus two hundred," I checked the map again, noting the relative density of the stars in this part of the galaxy, "Looks like we're a good deal closer to the galactic core right now."

Max Weaver took this in stride and then asked, "How far to Alioth."

"You'll have to give me a minute on that one," I answered and immediately began plotting a hypothetical course.

"No problem." I heard him turn in his chair before he spoke again, "Jenny, now's your chance to rip that engine apart and find out what's wrong with it."

"I've already been sending messages to my people. We're gonna need to wait a couple of hours for the drive to cool down." she answered.

"Take whatever time you need. I don't imagine anyone'll be looking for us out here."

"That's for sure," she answered.

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Eighteen

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