Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Twenty Two

Mitch Williams sat in shock. For a moment, he wasn't able to do anything other than blink his eyes and look at the top of his big desk. Then, he spoke.

"So, these aliens, they've been wiped out?"

Maximillian Weaver took a breath, then answered, "No, thank God. Unfortunately, they're even further away from us than Alioth is and, unless you know how to cause another mis-jump I doubt we'd be able to return in time to complete our original mission."

Williams sighed, "Then I suppose it's a lost cause."

Weaver looked up, "Oh, not at all. My team delivered their part of the vaccine, so if the other science teams were able to add in their components, someone should be able to take care of it."

"Yes, but what about getting it there? Polaris is quite a long way away from the Core Systems."

Weaver smiled slightly and lowered his gaze, "I imagine they'll figure something out."

Williams gave Weaver a look that conveyed his full knowledge of the fact that at least one important facet of the truth was being hidden. Yet, he didn't press the issue. He simply sat back, regarded both of us, and then spoke.

"Well, as long as you're here, we don't have all that much to offer in the way of hospitality, but I'm certain there should be no problem in allowing you to remain with us as we make the journey back to Sol. I imagine by the time we return this INRA organization will have long forgotten about you."

That announcement got my attention. He still didn't know about the secret of the Crimson Arrow's powerful new military drive. We'd be able to return to our home system in less than a hundredth of the time it would take the great space factory we were sitting in. I had no idea just how Weaver planned to give us a way out of here unless he mentioned our little trump card.

"I was hoping we'd be able to take some of you with us. We plan to return home to Alioth and our engine will take us their a good deal faster than yours," Weaver commented.

Williams spread his hands and conceded. "I imagine your right. Remember we spent the better part of our journey traveling at just below light speed until we managed to fix the hyperdrive coils. An extra year of travel time is nothing to us."

I spoke up, "I still think it's incredible that it took you three centuries to fix your engine."

Williams smiled broadly and replied, "Let me guess, you've never seen a space dredger before."

I had to submit to honesty at that point, "True, I haven't. I've just heard about 'em."

The CEO continued, "Well, I can definitely say from personal experience that, unless you've lived on one for the better part of your life, you have no way of knowing just how big this ship really is. Not only that, but, apart from the incredible size difference, we also don't have such things as interchangeable drive coils. We had to build a new one from scratch." He then stood up and walked around his desk saying, "Come on with me and I'll show you what I'm talking about."

Weaver and I glanced at each other, then stood and followed the tall gentleman out of the office.

* * * * *

"Well, what do you think?" Williams gestured toward the transparisteel wall of the observation room.

I was simply astonished. Never before had I witnessed such a marvel of stardrive engineering. All I could say was, "That's incredible."

"Yes, it's very impressive," Weaver commented.

On the other side of the window was a monolithic structure: A vast metal shaft at least fifty meters in diameter and over five hundred meters in height. At its top was a large silver sphere that crackled with electrical energy and sent wisps of lightning into what looked like a huge steel spring that was wound around it. The whole setup looked for all the world like either a giant electromagnet or like something you'd see in the laboratory of a mad scientist, though it was thousands of times larger!

They scratch-built this thing with no outside assistance? Well, now I can see why it'd take them three hundred years to build it, I thought as I let my eyes traverse the length of the new drive coil.

"Scavenging for the necessary materials was the hard part," Williams mentioned, "Moving at less than light speed meant that you could measure lifetimes by the number of new star systems a person got to visit. Some of the more lucky folks lived long enough to see us through ten separate system-wide mining operations. One of the advantages of being closer to the galactic core is the fact that stars are packed much tighter than they are back in our home sectors."

I nodded, then asked, "What about the smaller ships you're carrying in your hangars? Couldn't they hop off to other systems as scouts?"

Williams shook his head, "We don't need to do that. Any ship that's small enough not to be used for mining operations is assigned escort duty. Besides, all the small ships we carry are sub-light. That way they can either hold more mining machines or more weapons."

"Mining machines aren't that big, are they?" I asked, trying to figure out just why on Earth Williams wouldn't want at least some of his crew to have a faster way home.

Weaver seemed to understand completely. Seeing I was a looking for more of an explanation, he turned to me and spoke, "Well, you see, Mark. These folks are working with tools handed down from mid Twenty-Eighth Century."

"Yes, I understand that," I didn't need to be told the obvious.

The older man continued, "Right, but mining machines back in those days were absolutely huge. Hell, I remember hearing about how you could only carry one or maybe two in a ship the size of a Python!"

Williams chimed in from behind me, "Well, fortunately, we have been able to make a few modifications of our own. After a few years of tinkering, we managed to jury rig a machine small enough that we can put two in a ship the size of a Transporter. However, there'd be no room for a hyperspace drive.

Weaver nodded and added, "And the hyperdrives that these folks built are a good deal larger than the ones we use now."

"I'd imagine so," I agreed, though I still didn't quite understand and said so, "But still, what about their Vipers? I mean, they didn't have to rip out their hyperdrives in order to fit decent weapons on them!"

Williams gave us his own expression of total confusion mixed in with amazement and I had a feeling I just said something really stupid.

Weaver smiled and then gave me a tap on the chest with the back of his hand, "Mark, don't you remember your Galactic History lessons? Back in the 2800's, ships like Vipers and Sidewinders were too small to fit hyperdrives. Don't you remember when the Cobra III was first released?

"Not really. I only remember the Earth Information Wars."

"Oh great, a voyeur wannabe!" Weaver rolled his eyes to the ceiling in mock disapproval. He then resumed his lecture, "Well, it gobbled up gas like a black hole and only took you seven light years on a full tank!" He looked up at Williams, then back at me and remarked, "My grandfather used to own one before Kruger and Irrikon got their acts together and finally produced some better engines for the big ships."

"Ok, so you're saying that anything smaller than a Cobra didn't have a hyperdrive?" I couldn't believe it. I guess being around modern technology all my life kept me from appreciating just what our ancestors had to go through to get from point A to point B.

"Well, not exactly, but close enough."

Williams waved his hands for a moment to get our attention, "Well, anyway, I just wanted to let you see our big project."

"It's damned impressive, sir," Weaver replied.

"Thank you. I ended up taking over the CEO position just before they finished installing it, which was another major headache without a drydock facility."

"I can imagine!"

"Now, we've been making a beeline for the Sol system in the hope that we'd be able to return to civilization, such as it is."

Weaver sighed, "Well, I'm sorry to say that you probably won't find it all that different from what you've heard about from your ancestors. In the core systems, space is as busy now as the highways on old Earth."

Williams looked at me and I nodded in agreement, adding, "In a few years, we might actually have to have traffic controllers!"

Weaver continued, "True, but profits are still up and I imagine you'd be able to stay in business as soon as you re-register yourself with the Federal Business Bureau."

Williams blinked a few times, then asked, "What happened to the GalCop?" He then shook his head, remembering, "Oh, I that's right. Kaput." He let out a dejected sigh.

Weaver shrugged, then exchanged a glance with me. I shrugged back. Well, I guess someone had to tell them eventually, I thought.

Despite the fact that I grew up in a galaxy without a cooperative government, I did manage to see just how disturbing a radical change from relative peace between nations to unmediated tension could be. I remember my grandfather telling me about those hard times and how it took several decades for the news of the GalCop's dissolution to make its way around populated space. During that time, all was chaos and it was during that time that the Thargoid Invasion had begun. Knowing what I knew then, I couldn't help but wonder if the cause of the invasion was actually a last-ditch attempt by the INRA to take over all of human territory and not just to squash a fledgling Independent Alliance.

* * * * *

"What's on your mind?" I asked, breaking the silence that grew between Max Weaver and I while we headed back toward TerraCorp I's main hangar.

"I'm not sure, yet," he replied quietly, "But I have a few ideas I need to work out."

"Okay," I responded, nodding once, not too sure of what to think. I had a feeling that Weaver wanted to find some way to turn the current situation to his advantage. For all I knew, he could've been calculating just how he could bring this last remaining vestige of the bankrupt TerraCorp under the wing of his powerful mining company. Unfortunately, I didn't know how to read minds, so all I could do was wait patiently while the older man conjured up his scheme.

Chapter Twenty Three

Chapter Twenty One

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