Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Twenty Nine

"Mark... Mark... where are you?" The feminine voice calling to me was extremely familiar and seemed to surround me like the thick black fog that I was standing in.

"Mark..."

A beam of light appeared out of nowhere, shining down like a powerful stage lamp, and into it a figure emerged. She was wearing a set of coveralls very much like my usual flight suit and the light shone down on her soft facial features and blonde hair. There could be no mistaking who she was.

"Terri," I heard myself call, though my voice sounded like a whisper.

"Mark, come back to me..." Terri's arms were outstretched and her expression imploring.

"Terri," I replied, taking a step forward. My feet felt very heavy and with each step it became increasingly difficult to move.

Terri had taken a few steps toward me as well. By the time I couldn't move my legs anymore, she and I were standing about two meters apart. I reached out, desperately trying to take her hand.

"You don't love me anymore, do you?" She said, her expression sad.

"That's not true," I tried to shout. Again, my voice had almost lost its power completely.

She seemed to understand me because she took another step toward me and reached her hand out. I leaned forward as far as I could while keeping my feet firmly on the ground. I had no idea what would happen to my legs if I fell over, so I knew to be careful.

Our fingertips touched and Terri came closer to me, letting me draw her in. We looked at each other as a chime rang across the spotlit fog. She opened her mouth to speak but the words that I heard did not match the movements of her lips and the voice she used was very masculine voice.

"Mark, you're needed on the bridge."

Needless to say, I was rather shocked and all I could say was, "Terri, are you okay?"

Terri began to fade away, the spotlight over us vanished, and the fog subsided. The chime sounded again and the male voice said.

"Mark, Mr. Weaver needs you on the bridge right away."

I blinked and found myself looking up at the ceiling of my small cabin aboard the Crimson Arrow. The image of my girlfriend was still in my mind, but then a third chime interrupted my reverie and a more exasperated Steve Mandrake spoke to me.

"Mark, are you even awake!?"

Annoyed, I hit the intercom stud next to my bed, "I am now."

"Oh, sorry to have to bug you, but Mr. Weaver says it's important."

I sighed. For the past week, we'd been trying to solve the mystery of the murder/suicide of Mitchell Williams. It was slow going. There were lots of leads, unfortunately they all managed to give us the same answers: Nobody was aware of anything until they heard and/or saw Williams hit the pavement. Weaver, with his apparently unlimited energy reserve, had kept this investigation going around the clock, working in conjunction with the GalCop Police headquarters located in Arcology One. The problem with working with a guy who could stay up all hours was the fact that he seemed to forget that some of us actually required sleep. I'd been awakened at least three times in as many days and it was really grating on me.

Oh well, I thought, He's technically your boss right now, so it'd be better to just do what he wants. You'll be home soon enough.

I hit the intercom stud again and said, "I'll be up in a minute."

"Right-o," answered Steve.

I sat up and staggered over to the tiny closet beside the little shower and toilet facility that had been crammed into the executive officer's cabin.

At least Weaver had been gracious enough to give me my own room, I mused as I struggled into a clean flight suit. I grabbed myself a cup of coffee from the tiny auto-processor across from my bed and staggered out into the dimness of the Crimson Arrow's artificial night. I crossed the anteroom between the Captain and First Officer cabins and the bridge. At the touch of the correct stud, the iris hatchway spiraled open and I stepped through.

I stood just on the other side of the hatchway and took a sip of coffee as I peered through the two huge V shaped windows that dominated the forward half of the room. Outside, in the vast landing bay of TerraCorp I, small work craft and remote controlled repair bots flitted between hundreds of other parked spacecraft. I saw rows of GalCop security craft as well as a few Cobra I's, Vipers, and various other ships that were still in use today back in civilized space.

I swallowed some more coffee and strode over to the communications station. Max Weaver was leaning over the shoulder of a very tired looking Steve Mandrake and looking as though he was about to dive right into the small screen set into the face of the console. He looked up at me and his expression brightened.

"Mark! Glad you could make it."

I shrugged, "Well, it sounded like this was pretty important."

The older man nodded, "I think you're quite right," and pointed at the screen, "have a look."

I squinted at the display and watched as green colored characters resolved themselves into normal English text. Apparently we were looking at some kind of message information, though the text of the message was hidden from view.

"Well, what do you think?" Weaver asked after a moment.

I was confused and said so, "What do you mean, what do I think?"

Weaver gestured at the screen, "Doesn't make sense, does it?"

I had to agree that it didn't make sense, but I had a feeling that what I was confused about and what he was talking about were two different things.

"Well, to begin with, what am I looking at?"

The corporate executive looked over at me with an expression of surprise, "You mean to tell me that they never taught you about message addresses in the Navy? That was something I learned a great deal about..." His expression suddenly darkened and he faltered a moment, "way back... in the day," he finished.

I looked at my de-facto boss and saw a somber side of him that I never realized was there. Oh sure, I know that everyone has their own issues, but Weaver'd done a good job of masking his behind his jovial demeanor and sense of humor. Still seeing I was a bit confused, he took a breath and said, "This is the copy of the message Williams sent to Frank Best before he was found dead."

Understanding what was going on now, I returned my attention to the message display and looked at it carefully. I examined the routing address and read aloud.

"LDSmart.Commode.Recycler. KPStevens.Plaza.Arco3. MAWilliams.Forest.Arco1. FRBest.Plaza.Arco3."

Wait a minute! I thought... Then, aloud, "What's with those first two addresses? Didn't Williams just send his message directly to Best?"

Weaver shook his head, "That's what we thought, at first. Now, I don't know what to think."

I reread the addresses.

"Well, I know who most of those people are, who's 'KPStevens'?"

"I don't know, must be someone working for Frank Best. They've got the same address."

I thought about it for a moment and reached a conclusion, "It doesn't make any sense."

The older man nodded, "Exactly my point."

"So what do we do?"

"Maybe we should schedule a meeting with Louis Smart..."

* * * * *

"So, do they still serve steaks like this back in Human space, Commander?" Louis Smart paused in his cutting and gave a little nod toward the very thick steak, which was still giving off little puffs of steam as it sat amongst a garish arrangement of broccoli, carrots, peas, corn, a baked potato, and asparagus shoots.

I finished swallowing a very large amount of finely cooked meat before answering, "Oh yeah. Auto-processors are one thing that even spacers like me are glad about!"

"Auto-processors, Commander? I don't quite understand." The thin man in centuries-old business clothing waved a fork in the universal gesture of inviting elaboration.

"Well," I began, "ships and stations and even homes have automatic food processors that take any kind of recycled matter and can rearrange its atoms to make it into really awesome meals. They're programmed with the menus of over a hundred restaurants so you could even have a different meal every day for a year!" I never realized how much I really appreciated the auto-processor. I suppose it was something of the luxuries afforded us 33rd Century citizens that I was able to cling to even while exiled in deep space on a seven hundred year old flying factory.

Weaver snorted once and started into his pork chop muttering, "It ain't the same as real beef, Mark. C'mon, you've been in the Navy for how long?"

My stomach knotted at the prolongation of the white lie about my still being active in the Federal service. I answered, "Long enough," not really wanting to carry on the minor deception..

"Well, apparently not, if you still think auto-processor food is good stuff," the mining company man replied, "Maybe you need to pay a visit to Kelsow's. It's a family owned place on Argent's Claim and when you've eaten there, I'm sure you'll be able to tell the difference then."

I sighed, thinking that perhaps he was right. After all, I'd been out of the Navy for four years, but, apart from visiting the bars, was still living as though shipboard life was all there was. "Maybe I should."

* * * * *

"...and that brings me to my next question." By the time desert was served, Weaver had managed to bring the conversation around to the real reason for our dinner appointment. The older man took a sip of coffee and a puff from his cigar and then continued, "Did you get along well with your... ex CEO?"

Smart gave a noncommittal sort of gesture and replied, "We've had our rough times, just like any people have, but, on the whole, I'd say we got along."

Weaver nodded and then said, "Just out of curiosity, did you ever have any meetings with him a day or so before he died?"

The Vice President of Recycling and Waste Management drank down some of his own coffee before answering, "As a matter of fact, he did come to see me, but then I had to leave and he said he needed to send an urgent message and wanted to use my terminal. I was in a hurry and so I left him to it."

Well, that ties that one up, I thought, still watching Smart for any signs that could prove he was giving us less than the truth.

"What did you end up talking to him about?" Weaver asked.

Smart glanced at the ceiling, ran his fingers through his thinning brown hair, looked back at us, and replied, "I honestly don't remember a lot of it. I know Mitch was concerned about the fact that since Frank Best seemed to be stalling on implementing some the reforms he was trying to push through, things were getting tied up in staff meetings. Not to mention the fact that Frank's got huge ego and thinks that his way is the only way. Mitch really wanted to get Frank to try to see the situation from the perspective of being CEO."

"And he talks about this sort of stuff with you regularly?"

Smart held up a hand, "Oh no, sir. He usually comes to see me on matters pertaining to my office. I still have less than two thirds of the personnel that I really need to keep everything running at full efficiency and Frank's still trying to hold up all my requests for more hands. I have no idea why he's got it in for me."

Weaver paused for a moment, probably pondering this latest piece of information. Anyone who went to the staff meetings could easily see Smart's side of the story. Best seemed to have a problem with anything Smart said and the fact that the recycling engineer's tendency was to get very defensive under Best's verbal assaults did not make things any easier. It seemed as though Recycling and Waste Management wouldn't be seeing any more approved personnel requests unless Louis Smart or Frank Best were to resign their posts and I knew that solution to be just as unlikely.

The man I worked for broke my train of thoughts by saying, "Do you know who K.P. Stevens is?"

Smart raised an eyebrow, "Kevin Stevens? Yeah, he runs the network node in Arcology Three."

Weaver then asked, "Any particular reason Williams would send the message he wrote in your office to him first?"

The TerraCorp Vice President gave a quizzical look, glanced at the tabletop, then back at us and replied, "None that I could think of..." His gaze darted away again as he pondered something while saying, "unless, perhaps Mitch wanted Kevin to relay the letter to his own personal mail address as well as to Frank's. That way he'd have a copy of it in his own archives."

"Hmph," was all Weaver could say in response.

At that, Smart rolled up the napkin that was resting on his lap and placed it on the table saying, "Well, gentlemen, it's been a pleasant dinner. If you have any further questions, you can contact my office. I trust, however, that I've given you all you need to know." He stood up and Weaver and I followed suit.

Weaver gave a nod, then extended his hand, saying "Yes, I'd say so and thank you for your help."

Smart shook the proffered palm and replied, "Well, for a chance to go out and have a nice meal, how could I refuse?" He then offered his hand to me, "Commander, I hope you'll have a chance to try some land-based cooking soon."

I shook Smart's hand thinking, Great, Smart thinks I'm nothing more than Weaver's little sidekick. Instead of voicing this opinion, however, I simply said, "I hope so too."

With a nod, Smart turned and strode out of the restaurant. Weaver and I sat down again.

"So, what do you think," Weaver asked after sipping more coffee.

"I don't know. There's something wrong with this picture, though." I said.

"You think he's covering his ass about something?"

"I don't think he's telling us the whole truth, that's for sure."

Weaver puffed his cigar and exhaled a cloud of thick smog toward the air processor and answered, "I don't know, but you could have something there. Any ideas?"

"Well, the obvious one," I said, "Find Kevin Stevens and ask him what he did with the message."

Weaver rolled his eyes and nodded, "Yes, that is the obvious thing to do. Anything else?"

A thought struck me, "Maybe find someone else who works a different network node and find out from them about the email system. Then we might have something to check against whatever Stevens tells us."

The older man's eyebrows went up, "Now that is a good idea!"

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Twenty-Eight

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