Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Twenty Seven

"Ah, don't worry about that too much, Mark," Max Weaver slapped me on my shoulder as we stepped out into the engine room of the Crimson Arrow, "Frank Best might be a pig's ass when it comes to dealing with change but he'll realize that it's all for the good of everyone."

Before us, the great experimental engine hummed with its enormous power held in check. Across the room, monitoring some readouts, was Jenny Rayburn, dressed in her utilitarian olive drab flight suit and with her long hair tied up in a bun. She made a few notes on the clipboard she had balanced on her arm and tucked up just beneath her moderate chest.

"How's it going?" the executive called to her.

Jenny didn't look up from her notes when she answered, "Same as always. Just noting the figures for the folks when we get back."

Something in the back of my mind said She said "when" and not "if." At least she's got a positive attitude about us returning home!

Weaver puffed once on his cigar and replied, "Good idea. I'm sure the folks at New Rossyth will be interested to find out how well we recovered from a mis-jump."

"Without a doubt," she commented.

Weaver took another drag off his cigar, brushed something off his crimson jacket, and asked, "Well, is there anything you need right now?"

She finally looked up from her work and regarded the two of us with a sarcastic, almost devilish, grin and replied, "Well, now that you mention it..."

I started to chuckle. Weaver simply grinned and said, "Jenny, you know my policies on fraternizing with employees."

She gave a sigh of what I hoped was mock disappointment and said, "Oh, ok. I wouldn't want to see your reputation go down the tubes. Not after what 'Mister Loose-Lip' said last week." Jenny gestured toward me and I felt my face get warm.

Weaver switched into serious mode, pulled the cigar from his mouth, and said, "Hey, I was already saying to Mark that that's nothing to worry about."

She walked over to us and, to my surprise, stepped behind me, put her arm around my waist, and rested her chin on my shoulder, saying, this time in a mock soothing tone "I was just kidding. I know our distinguished pilot just couldn't help himself. He hadn't had anything to drink at all, so how can you blame him?"

Weaver laughed out loud and patted my unoccupied shoulder saying, "Don't let this lady get under your skin, Mark."

Now it was my turn, "Oh, just because she has these huge mood swings about every month or so? That doesn't bother me."

"It better not, mister," The young woman stage-whispered into my ear in a particularly sultry voice, "or you'll find yourself walking back home!"

"Ooooh... Was that a threat?" I asked with innocent air.

She replied in that same provocative voice, "No, it was a promise. And don't you forget it."

"I'd be careful, Mark. Don't let her get under your skin, but be careful. She could send us to the other side of the galaxy if she felt like it," the older man chuckled.

"Maybe then you'd break your policy of 'fraternizing' with the employees, being caught out in the middle of nowhere with just the six of us."

Weaver puffed his cigar again and answered, "So that was your plan the whole time, wasn't it? Sabotage the new engine and fling us out here to see if I'd break my morals,"

"Well, of course," she replied, bringing the hand she had around my waist up to my chest and saying, "but that's okay. At least I have one boy toy for when I'm bored. I'll just have to try harder next time we plot a hyperspace jump."

"You and Sara must consider yourselves the luckiest ladies in space right now."

"Well, no, you see, we have to make sure we give you guys the best service lest you run off and find some poor innocent little girl aboard TerraCorp."

"I can only assure you, dear lady," the executive declared with a bow, "that if I were less than a moral employer, you would have my undying loyalty."

To any unaccustomed observer, the display that we were acting out would have either raised a few eyebrows, questions, or even some other things, but it was just becoming more and more commonplace among the seven of us who crewed the experimental Python Mark II. At this point, nobody even batted an eyelash at it. Though, I noticed Hank Middlewell get slightly edgy whenever Jenny flirted with any of the rest of us. This was the furthest I'd ever seen Jenny go with this particular game, not that I minded, but I couldn't help but wonder if she was feeling a bit of cabin fever and all the frustrations that went along with it. Still, feeling her soft bosom against my back and hearing her sultry whispering voice right in my ear was a very enjoyable experience. In fact, it was fortunate that Max Weaver was standing in front of me, keeping me... grounded... as it were. Had Sara, the assistant engineer, actually been present or if it was just Jenny and I flirting, I would have had to sit down by now!

Jenny sure knows how to give a guy blue balls! I thought.

A loud bell tone interrupted our laughing threesome and Weaver's hand immediately went to the communications panel next to the hatch.

"Yes?" He asked, still grinning like a maniac.

"Sir, Mr. Weaver!" It was Steve Mandrake, the communications officer, judging by the tone of his voice, he certainly sounded excited.

Weaver, still seeimg jovial repeated, "Yes?" and then added, "What is it, Steve?"

"Sir! The Security Chief just called! Mitch Williams is dead!"

"WHAT!?" the three of us cried out in unison. Jenny instantly released her grip on me and I lost any trace of memory that she was clutching me to begin with.

"That's what they said, sir! CEO Williams has been reported dead outside his personal apartment building in Arcology One!"

The three of us bolted through the door and Weaver shouted, "We'll be right there! Tell the Chief to have one of his guys meet us at the gangway and take us to the scene!"

Steve's voice followed us through the corridor, utilizing one of the many innovative personal communication options installed on all modern spacecraft, "He's already thought of that. He sent Inspector Wynn to meet you and Mark."

"I'm going too." Jenny announced.

"We don't need more representatives, Jenny." Weaver retorted.

"I don't care. This is important and I want to see what's going on."

We arrived at the starboard airlock. Weaver keyed the hatch open and replied, "All right, but just stay out of trouble."

"Don't talk to me like that! I'm not your eighteen-year-old daughter!" Jenny was proving to be full of surprises! Not many people go from being sexually provocative to righteously indignant in such a short span of time. Of course major emergencies like the one we were about to deal with didn't happen often either... fortunately.

Despite the hatch being open, Weaver stopped in his tracks. He turned regarded the engineer, sighed and gave a silent chuckle.

"True, you're not." He then indicated the open hatch, saying, "Let's go."

I had a feeling that Jenny reminded him in many ways of a certain eighteen-year-old whom I had the opportunity to meet. I remember him describing Jeannette Dreyfuss as practically being his niece.

God! It feels like that was a lifetime ago! I thought as I ran through the airlock and out onto the gangway.

* * * * *

The GalCop officer who led us through the twisted bowels of the mighty space dredger introduced himself as Inspector John Wynn, then darted off in the direction of the personnel transport tubes. After a ride through the tunnels that felt like a lifetime of waiting, we stepped out into the lush greenery and vast open space of Arcology One, located at the very forward end of the enormous factory ship. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to stand and breathe in the sweet scented air and gaze at the lovely natural wonders that had been preserved. We followed the man in the bright blue uniform with the solid gold shield across streets and plazas until we finally reached the foot of a very tall building. The great seal of TerraCorp could be seen as a huge flag hanging down above the main door. The building seemed so tall it could have touched the underside of the great transparisteel dome which protected the inhabitants from the cold vacuum outside.

A very large crowd had gathered around the main doors of the building. Inspector Wynn pushed himself through the ring of spectators and ushered the three of us from the Crimson Arrow ahead of him. The sight that greeted my eyes was enough to make any hardened space veteran feel very weak-kneed.

A concrete walkway led up to the big double doors of the Presidential Apartments. At the far end of this walkway was a fresh depression. The stone slabs had actually given way from the shock of a sudden and forceful impact. Lying face-down in the depression were the remnants of a man in a long khaki coat. His arms and legs were spreadeagled as though he were attempting to float like a lotus on the thick red sea that filled the depression. I didn't even want to think about prying up the flattened head to make sure of who it was. Apparently, the GalCop officers had run their DNA scans on the pool of blood in order to determine who was lying before us.

Jenny, kept her hand over her mouth and turned away from the carnage. I have to admit, I was ready to see death, even in the face of someone I had been reasonably well acquainted with. Yet, seeing this sort of traumatic end to a person's life was the last thing I expected to see.

I looked over at Max Weaver. His face was very grave indeed, but he didn't take his eyes off the corpse. It was almost as though he was attempting to will Mitch Williams back to life, or at least levitate his body from the debris it was lying in. For a brief moment, I almost wanted a chance to read his mind to find out what a man in his shoes would be thinking about. He turned his head to look at me for a moment, then returned his attention to the grisly scene.

When he spoke, it was very quietly.

"Well, I'd say we don't have to inquire about cause of death."

I shook my head and tried to put some kind of humor on the situation, "No, I'd agree it was pavement poisoning."

Weaver didn't laugh, nor did he chastise me for my "Assassin's humor." He simply nodded slowly and continued.

"What we need to figure out now is..."

"Who and why," I said, finishing what I knew his thought to be.

Weaver nodded again, then looked up at Inspector Wynn who was watching a pair of sergeants draw a chalk outline around the body in the time-honored tradition of forensic examination.

"Inspector Wynn?" Weaver called.

The Inspector turned to face us, "Yes, Mr. Weaver?" he responded, rather politely, I thought, considering the circumstances.

"If there's any assistance you need from myself or any of my crew, please let us know. We'd be more than willing to help out."

The police officer nodded, "Thank you, sir. There may be a few things, but I think we've pretty much established what happened here."

Weaver blinked, then asked, "And what's that?"

The Inspector looked at the building, then back at us, then gave a beckoning motion with his left hand saying, "Come with me." He then turned and strode up the walkway toward the main doors of the apartment complex. Weaver immediately followed. Not being able to find Jenny in the three seconds I spent looking for her, I raced after the two older men.

* * * * *

"Okay, the window's been left open, which would make sense seeing as how he's the only one who lives here. Who knows, that might've been part of his motivation for doin' the deed," Lieutenant Yorick Fritz spoke with a sort of inner city dialect that had definitely come from the Eastern United States on Earth. He appearance recalled the days of the stereotypical "beat cop." He was tall and heavyset, with a stomach that looked as though it received several donuts and cups of coffee every morning.

"Doing what deed, Lieutenant?" Weaver asked.

The portly cop shrugged, "Well, killin' himself, of course." He walked up to the window and examined the manual latch controls.

"You see this?" He indicated the tiny keypad set flush against the wall next to the open glass.

"Yeah," Weaver answered, "What about it?"

"The touchpad reads your fingerprints while you key in, thereby making sure that only an authorized resident of this apartment can... say... open a window that would give a person from the outside access to the interior."

"From thirty stories up?" I asked. "Is that kind of precaution necessary?"

The lieutnant gave a gesture of dismissal, "Ah, I didn't design 'em. I just know why they're there. Personally, I'd only think they'd be useful for the first few floors. Not these top ones."

"Why's that?"

"Well, you might think that this ship's a big politicking ball of cutthroat opportunists, but the people who live here are actually pretty decent folks. Nobody'd ever consider violating another person's privacy or stealing someone's stuff. I mean, this ship's pretty big, but it ain't big enough for someone to get away with somethin' like that. We might be old and outdated, but we still know how to catch crooks. I can say in the twenty years I've been in the GalCop, I've only had to stop drunken parties on holidays from gettin' really outta hand. I still have yet to catch a guy for 'breakin' and enterin'. People just don't do that here."

Weaver raised his eyebrows at the explanation and nodded to himself.

A curious thought entered my mind and I asked, "Did he leave a note?"

Fritz gripped his belt on either side of the buckle, tried to pull his pants over his overstuffed abdomen, looked back up at us, and answered, "Haven't found one yet. But he might've sent somethin' electronically. I've got guys checking the Mainframes to see if he sent any messages recently."

"Let us know if there's anything we can do, to help, Lieutenant." Weaver called to him from inside Williams' bedroom.

I turned toward the window, took a good look at the frame, and found nothing out of the ordinary. I searched the floor right below the windowsill.

I heard Weaver head toward the apartment door. He stopped and said, "C'mon, Mark. There's not much more we can do here. Let's leave this to the experts."

"Right," I said, disappointed that I wouldn't have a chance to practice some of the forensic skills I learned in the Navy. Of course, not having used them much since my leaving, I may have forgotten some things. I sighed, got back to my feet and headed for the door...

...And immediately felt my feet slip right out from under me! It was as though I had stepped from a hardwood floor onto a freshly resurfaced ice rink. My feet sailed over my head and I experienced the sharp thunderclap of hitting the floor very hard...

"Mark? Mark!? Hey! You okay?" I heard a familiar voice off in the distance. It was almost lost in a clutter of sound and light that I couldn't even begin to sort out. For a moment, I felt as though I was lying very comfortably in that wonderful bed aboard Weaver's space yacht. Upon making that analogy, I suddenly managed to draw a connection from that moment to where I was. I was lying on a cold hard floor and Max Weaver was standing over me. It took a while for his voice to blot out all the cacaphony in my mind..

I tried to speak, "Wh-wh-where...?"

"That was a nasty fall you took," I heard Weaver say. I didn't want to try opening my eyes yet, "Just sit tight and we'll have them bring in another ambulance."

At that, I let the noise in my mind take over once again and enjoyed a spectacular display of color, sound, and sensation.

Chapter Twenty Eight

Chapter Twenty Six

Back to Pritchard Home Page


Copyright © Matthew A. Fossa. All Rights Reserved.