Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Twenty

The Crimson Arrow hung motionless in space over fifteen Astronomical Units from the virtually unknown star listed in the astronomical charts as Ascartequ. Nobody had traveled this far out from human occupied space and the idea of being interstellar pioneers, however unwilling, was actually a thrill to the seven of us who manned the Python Mark II class ship.

Jenny Rayburn was the only person who didn't have the excitement of being in unexplored space on her mind. No one could blame her, however, as she and her engineering specialists spent hours stripping the mighty experimental engine of our ship down to its component parts. It got so cluttered in the engine room at one point that she actually inquired about the possibility of switching off the Arrow's artificial gravity in order to economize on finding places to put things. I think she just wanted to see how the rest of us would react if she went and chose to throw the switch herself. None of us were too keen on the idea, but it wouldn't have killed us either... not unless someone did something really stupid. It would simply have made shipboard living a little more uncomfortable than it already was... which wasn't to say that it was terrible, but it certainly wasn't like being on the Weaver's Dream. I suppose spending over a month on Weaver's Panther class yacht had spoiled me after all!

Fortunately, the crew of the Arrow never once felt themselves falling up from the deck plates. Jenny and her engineers had managed to isolate the problem before it was necessary to execute her emergency space-saving procedure. It turned out that one of the drive coils had been jarred out of alignment. That was the reason why the Arrow was shot into the depths of uncharted space like a pebble misfired from a child's slingshot. Now, I'm no expert here, but from what I remember from my Starpilot Academy basic engineering classes was that the drive coils are responsible for generating the Witch Space field that actually steers the ship into the correct hyperspace tunnel. It's all based on loads of computations generated from the nav computer. Again, I'm sure there's much more to it than that, but there's the extent of my knowledge on the subject. If I didn't think I'd fall asleep during the explanation, I'd have asked Jenny to give me some better details.

Anyhow, the fact was that the coils had been really skewed from all those nuke attacks we had to deal with. I'd place good money on the fact that that one missile that I managed to dodge as it flew into our launching bay on Alioth 4f was the culprit for our mis-jump.

Jenny, Mike, and Sara spent quite a few hours realigning the coil and patching up or replacing various pieces of hardware that had been damaged as a result of the coil failure. During that time, Weaver asked her some very pointed questions pertaining to whether or not we should expect to have to overhaul our engines every time the Arrow was forced into a combat situation. Very fortunately, Jenny was very confident of the fact that that was quite unnecessary. Nuclear missile blasts were on a level that no missile normally used in a dogfight could ever achieve, that included the new MV1 assault missiles that Weaver told us were being developed by the weapons techs in Federation space. We also didn't have to worry about the possibility of nukes being used on us directly. They were slow and ponderous, meant for fixed installations or orbital satellites that didn't have the common sense to dodge out of the way. Still, I thought, there's always the chance of that one desperate lucky shot...

I quickly squashed that thought and decided to focus my attention on other more immediate concerns. Looking down at the navigation plot, I saw a star system, which had been previously unexplored. In fact, the only reason we knew its name was because some automatic space telescope that discovered the star used a random name generation program to create a unique word that, theoretically, humans could pronounce. I guess it was better than assigning catalogue numbers like they did in the old days, but... Ascartequ?

The system had six planets: Two barren, lifeless spheres of rock about the size of Earth took up the two innermost orbits. Out away from them and moving in their own circular paths about the hot yellow sun were three large gas giants, one of which had to have been at least five times the size of Jupiter! The outermost planet was a small frozen sphere of ice a little larger than the planet Mercury. Had we been in desperate need of fuel, and not running on a military drive, we could've approached one of the three huge floating balls of gas and used out fuel scoops to fill up our empty cargo space. Unfortunately, military drives can't be refueled in this way. Starships, on the whole, are far too small to house the treatment plants, consisting of a hydrogen purifier and plutonium injector, which are needed to turn freshly-scooped liquid hydrogen into even more volatile military grade propellant. Heck, there are some space stations that can't devote space for that kind of equipment, so they have to import their fuel!

Fortunately, our new engine was so efficient that it used barely five percent of the total fuel we were carrying. I guess Weaver and Jenny had figured on putting in a maximum fuel load just in case of an emergency. Well, this certainly qualified!

Weaver seemed content so just sit here and wait out the repairs. He lounged in the Commander's chair behind my helm station, puffed on yet another of his cigars, and gazed out through the vast transparisteel bridge windows.

"I tell ya, Mark, you never figure on things like this happening," he spoke as though he were in a dream... which, I guess, was quite possible.

I turned back toward the boss and, out of curiosity, asked, "You've never had a mis-jump before?"

Weaver exhaled another plume of smoke and replied with a wave of his free hand, "Oh, I've had a couple in my day. But they've never been to quite this high a magnitude."

I nodded, understanding, and he took another drag off his cigar and continued, still staring out the window.

"I remember one time I was heading out from Lave to Reorte and the Ice went about ten light years off course and I ended up in deep space. Very fortunately, I my hyperdrive cut out when I was just a stone's throw away from Zaonce. You can bet I had my buddy check out what went wrong before I left!"

"What did go wrong?" I asked.

"Well, I was young and naive then and I didn't know about the fact that I needed to make regular maintenance checks on my engine."

"Ah," I said, knowing all too well what it's like to have your drive disintegrate on you when you forget to do an annual service on it.

The older man continued, "Cost me an arm and a leg to get the Ice back into working order, but you can bet I never forgot to do my regular engine service after that!"

"Yeah, I can believe that, I replied."

Then the alert klaxon sounded...

I jerked upright in my seat, my eyes instantly darting toward the scanner display. What I saw there squeezed my heart.

"Multiple contacts. Looks like eight or nine under a hundred tons and one over five hundred tons!" I did my best to keep my voice in a businesslike tone, but I simply didn't expect to be caught like this.

Steve, who had decided to join the party on the bridge, spoke in a very panicked tone, "How the hell can that be!? We're out in the middle of nowhere!"

Hank, who was sitting in the seat normally used by the chief engineer, replied, "Well, I bet they're thinking the same thing too."

I heard Weaver take a deep breath, "All right, let's see just who they are. Bring us around to face one of the smaller contacts."

"Right," I answered and twisted the steering yoke hard to starboard.

In my mind's eye, I saw the Arrow fire her tiny maneuvering jets and begin to spin on her vertical axis. Outside the window, the starfield drifted quickly past until a small wedge-shaped spacecraft came into view. The little craft was apparently drifting in much the same way we were, but heading in our direction. I squinted hard at it, trying to figure out just what it was, then toggled the radar mapper for an ID scan. The results came up on my display. "Unknown?" I gaped, desperation fueling my anger, What the hell do you mean "Unknown!?" I ran the ID check a second time and, sure enough, that was the answer.

"What the hell is that?" I heard from behind me, but I was in so much of a shock that I couldn't identify the voice.

"I don't know," I replied, "and neither does the computer."

"What!?" This, I knew, came from Steve. I didn't even bother to reply. Nothing more was said by anyone as we watched the small ship sliding toward us through the void.

I turned as the sound of the bridge hatch grabbed my attention and watched as Jenny darted through the entrance. She looked at us, then at the ship out the window.

"What's going on?" she asked.

"You tell us?" Weaver answered, pondering the unidentified craft.

The ship moving toward us was shaped like a perfect cone. Nobody made ships like those in Human space... at least, not anymore. There was a time when perfect circles were in fashion, but that was ages ago: just before the great shooting war between the Empire and the Federation. Back when the Independent Alliance wasn't even a twinkle in a spacer's eye.

Wait a minute here... I thought. There is something familiar about that ship...

"What's our range to the big target?"

I returned to the present and checked the scanner again before answering, "Looks like about fifty klicks."

"Jenny, how are the repairs going?"

"We're just about done. We only have to put it all back together again and close it up," her voice sounded relaxed and dreamy, as if she were another person mesmerized by the security ship passing through space.

Security ship! That's it! It's a... a... I fought as I tried to remember just what that little craft was supposed to be protecting. Damn it! I gave up and relaxed, allowing my memory to re-engage in its own good time.

I wondered if the executive sitting behind me was thinking along the same lines I was because I heard him say, "Mark, why don't you bring us around to face the big ship?"

"No problem," I answered and pulled back on the yoke and twisted it to the right once again. This time, the ship rotated its nose upward and swung around to the right.

The object we ended up facing caused me to do a number of things, all of which would have been very disastrous if we were in any kind of trouble. My jaw slackened as my hands fell from the steering controls. I settled back into my chair, unable to move or speak. Behind me, I heard a chorus of assorted exclaimations.

"My God!" whispered Maximillian Weaver.

"I don't believe it!" Steve Mandrake exclaimed.

"Oh Wow!" was all Hank Middlewell could say.

I guess Jenny simply sat dumbfounded. I couldn't tell as she was standing a good five meters behind me.

Beyond the bridge window through which we all were staring was a starship, though you wouldn't know it to look at it. The mass indicator registered it as being larger than five hundred tons. Obviously, if ships like this one were commonplace, then mass indicators would be in need of some major recalibration! "Big" was simply not the word to describe it. Panthers were "big". Long Range Cargo Cruisers and Lynx class Bulk Carriers were "Really big". The ship slowly drifting toward us could only be described as... well... It was very difficult to find a word that could fit it into Human perspective. Words like "huge," "enormous," maybe even "colossal!" could work... if we had slightly larger frames of reference. What's even more amazing is that this ship, in all its monstrosity, had, in fact, been built by Humankind. Actually, many ships like this had been built, but they were all but extinct as of the turn of the 31st Century.

The gigantic vessel hung in the star filled vista, attended by its security craft. Judging by how far away the scanner reported it to be, that ship had to have measured well over fifty kilometers in length. Every centimeter of it smacked of industry and functionalism. The underside of the great factory vessel was fairly smooth, aside from the occasional cavity, which surely had to be the entrance to a hangar bay and some protrusions that served purposes I had no clue about. I knew some of them had to be weapon systems: Probably first-generation plasma accelerators. Heck, the Plasma Laser was first designed to be fitted onto these ships as the ultimate deterrent for interfering with them.

I turned to face Mr. Weaver and, rather than sit in shock, he leaned back grinning and puffed his cigar a few times.

I heard a series of beeping noises coming from a console behind me. It took a second for it to register that I was listening to the "incoming message" signal.

"You gonna answer that, Steve?" Asked Jenny impatiently.

"W-w-what do I say?" Steve obviously hadn't been trained for the "ship-drops-out-of-Witch-Space-in-front-of-a-long-lost-space-dredger" scenario. Well, none of us were, so we were winging it just as much as he was, which only intensified the fact that someone had better do something and, facing a ship like this, lasers and trigger fingers were simply out of the question.

"I dunno..." offered Jenny.

Weaver turned toward the communications technician.

"Just say hello or something. See if they're going our way." Weaver then turned back toward the window.

I heard some toggles being pressed and, a male voice, slightly obscured by static, crackled from the bridge speakers.

"Unidentified Python Cruiser, this is space dredger TerraCorp One. Identify yourself immediately, over."

The voice cut out and a hush settled over everyone on the bridge.

Another toggle was pressed and Steven Mandrake's professional, though slightly shaken, communications officer voice resounded throughout the bridge compartment.

"TerraCorp One, this is the independent freighter "Crimson Arrow, operating out of Alioth, over."

Good call, I thought. Better they believe us to be harmless, rather than an experimental ship. Of course, how the hell could we be any threat to that thing? My eyes wandered over the hull and I noted the myriad towers and pipes covering the dredger's upper half. I knew that this vessel required a crew of well over a hundred thousand to keep in working order. What they were producing was another curiosity. Space dredgers were bought by the megacorporations of the time to be mobile factories. Many companies went bankrupt with the upkeep costs and the ships were broken down and cannibalized for new breeds of space stations. Other corporations, however, managed to keep not just one but several of these ships plying the spacelanes, manufacturing just about every single good imaginable! Dredgers were also among the first exploration ships ever built. They were capable of making hyperspace jumps and, despite the fact that they were understandably slow, they were far from underpowered. To keep their factories and arcology habitats going round the clock, very efficient fusion reactors were a necessity. All in all, the dredgers' equipment was the very best that money could buy, sometimes even exceeding what was considered to be state-of-the-art. No expense was spared, but that was understandable, considering that they were supposed to work independent of any kind of outside assistance. This fact made these self-contained cities into ideal explorers.

And now here we are, face to face with one. I thought, watching a cone-shaped security craft slide past the bridge window.

The speakers crackled to life once again and the same voice made itself heard again.

"Crimson Arrow, please state the nature of your business. Over."

I turned back toward the rest of the bridge in time to see Mr. Weaver shrug at Steve. The communications officer seemed to take this in stride as he shrugged right back, then returned to his console and hit the "send" key.

"We're finishing up some engine repairs and plotting a course back to our home base in the Alioth system. We suffered a mis-jump which threw us all the way out here," Steve gave a wry grin and then asked, "What about yourselves? Over."

There was a pause during which I began to get a bit nervous. Depending on how the dredger's crew might feel about stumbling across strange and potentially dangerous ships, we could suddenly find ourselves sucking vacuum and never even know what hit us.

Finally, the voice returned, still as businesslike as ever.

"CEO Williams is requesting that you dock with us immediately. With your permission, we'll engage tractor beams to bring you aboard."

That definitely got our attention! All of us immediately turned toward our own corporate boss to find out just how he might feel about being dragged aboard a strange ship. Weaver simply sat there, puffing on his cigar, not saying a word. Finally, he returned from wherever it is he was and surveyed his loyal bridge crew. Then he took a breath and spoke.

"Steve, please inform them that we'll stand by for their tractor beams."

Nobody moved following Weaver's instruction. All of us simply couldn't believe he'd surrender himself and his crew over to unknowns so quickly. He looked around, flashed a slightly irritated look and addressed us again.

"What? You think I'm about to say 'no' to something that outmasses us by well over a million percent? It'd be like a mosquito trying to talk down an elephant! Besides, it might simply be a case of a crew looking for some current information. Those dredgers are over three hundred years old, remember." He looked back over at Steve, "So, Mr. Mandrake, if you would, please inform them of our intention to comply with their request."

"Yes, sir," was Steve's reply. He then activated the communications microphone again and said, "TerraCorp One, we're standing by for your tractor beam."

There was a slight jolt which had to have been felt throughout the ship. Looking out the window, we watched the gigantic shape of the biggest astral city any of us had ever seen begin to draw closer.

I sure hope he knows what he's doing, I thought as I tried to get comfortable in my pilot's seat, not quite being able to manage it.

Chapter Twenty One

Chapter Nineteen

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