Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Thirty

Steve Mandrake and I strode along a narrow corridor deep in the bowels of Arcology Four. The lighting was dim and the hum of the space dredger's giant engines reverberated everywhere. I checked the directions I received from TerraCorp I's central computer and glanced at the junction we were headed toward.

"What's it say?" Steve asked.

I checked the directions before replying, "Well, it says we turn left at this junction and then we'll come to a security door. Someone on the other side'll have to buzz us in."

Steve nodded, "Okay."

We turned left at the junction and, sure enough, less than five meters ahead was a thick door with a window set into its upper half. A small control panel containing a card slot and a small keypad was set into the wall just to the right of the door. Looking through the window revealed a desk with a woman in GalCop blue seated behind it. I looked back at the keypad and saw a button marked "Talk". I pressed it and spoke into what I hoped was a microphone situated next to the console.

"Hello?" Sure it wasn't much to go on, but I had to start somewhere.

"Can I help you?" replied a low female voice.

"Yes," I said, "We're here to speak with a Mr. Harry Flanagan, the network supervisor. We work for Max Weaver."

"One moment," The GalCop officer responded.

There was a pause, during which Steve and I glanced at each other hoping that our unscheduled appointment would be acceptable enough to let us in.

A hiss rose into the corridor and the heavy security door slid into the ceiling. Steve and I stepped through and the door quickly closed behind us. We went up to the reception desk where the GalCop security officer sat. Her blue uniform shone almost iridescently under the light. You could tell she'd been an officer for a while. The twin gold bars of a captain adorned her shirt's raised collar and the shield shaped badge, though polished, still didn't shine quite as brightly as a new one would. Also, her left sleeve was decorated by a row of four gold slashes. Her face, with its slightly roughened features, was the face of someone who'd probably lived a very rugged life before joining the GalCop.

Either that or the training she went through was brutal, I thought, Definitely not someone I'd want to piss off... Or maybe... I choked off my thoughts remembering the dream I had not long ago.

The officer perused us for a moment, her expression giving nothing away, then opened a large book sitting on the counter of the desk.

"Sign in, please," She said "please" but the tone of her voice was nowhere near cordial. Actually, she almost sounded bored.

I took the pen and signed myself in, then passed the writing implement to Steve who immediately added his unique scrawl to the page.

The police captain sighed and said, "You can take a seat over there." She gestured toward a small group of padded couches clustered around a small table and added, "And Mr. Flanagan should be with you shortly," She ended her statement with a smile that seemed somewhat genuine.

I returned the expression and so did Steve before he said, "Sounds good." We then strode over toward the couches and sat down facing the table as our ears registered the receptionist muttering some words into the intercom panel.

"Well, what do you think?" I asked, merely in the spirit of making conversation.

"Pretty tough looking lady," Steve murmured and I chuckled.

"That's not quite what I was talking about, but yeah, she is."

"Not quite what you were talking about? I see you checking out all the girls everywhere we go."

Well, I guess he's got me there, I thought. "Hey, I'm only human," was all I could answer with.

"Maybe you'd like to chill out on showing your humanity once in a while."

I sighed, "That might be a good idea, actually."

The sound of approaching footsteps put an end to our little conversation. I turned and saw a middle-aged man with blond hair and dressed in a dark-orange-ish business suit come walking toward us.

"Mr. Mandrake? Mr. Pritchard?" He asked. His voice was baritone and had a bit of a breathy quality to it. Steve and I stood up. The man in the business suit extended his hand, saying, "I'm Harry Flanagan."

We each shook the man's hand, exchanging pleasantries. He glanced at us again and then gestured toward a set of glass doors off to the far right of the reception desk.

"Well, shall we head on in?"

"Of course. Lead on," I said.

Flanagan began making his way toward the doors and Steve and I exchanged a glance before following.

* * * * *

"So, you can see here, this is the actual network node that services all of Arco Four," Flanagan gestured toward the bank of heavy looking computer consoles surrounding a very thick mass of conduit that seemed to grow out of the floor like a huge artificial tree. The wiring stretched up to the ceiling and fanned out, further enhancing the plastic tree image. The TerraCorp employee had his arms folded across his chest as he looked toward his charge with a feeling of pride.

"Each one of those wires is connected to the computer terminal of a residence or an office and we manage over fifty thousand of 'em. Not an easy task, but we can handle it."

"I can only hope so," I answered. Truth be told, I was impressed, but then I shook myself. The outdated technology took up much more space than a network node of equal complexity back home. In fact, back in my Navy days, I had run some errands for the manager of a network node at Federal Navy Headquarters. Their setup was half the size of the one run by Harry Flanagan and the Navy node managed over five hundred thousand connections.

"Well, I know that you two didn't come here to ogle at huge clumps of wiring. Your message said you had some questions to ask me." Flanagan figured he'd get right to the point.

"Getting down to business right away," Steve mused.

Flanagan shrugged, "Well, I've got a busy schedule, and I imagine you people have things to do as well."

I broke in, "Yes, Mr. Flanagan, I do have some questions. They're in regards to the mail system."

"Shoot," the man in the suit replied and gave spread his hands in an invitational sort of gesture.

"Well, first of all, if I were to send a message to someone else, say, oh, in Arcology One or Two, who would receive it."

Flanagan blinked as gave me a disbelieving expression that might have made a casual observer think I just asked him to inspect an exterior hull camera in the nude.

He responded as though the answer was obvious, and I knew it was, "Uh, the person you sent it to."

"The message doesn't get relayed through the mail systems of other node managers?" I asked.

"No, it goes through the nodes, but the people in charge don't do anything with them. Only if there's a problem with a transmission does the supervisor have to get involved and those sorts of things are quite rare."

I nodded, thinking, and I'm sure that the network connections for all the senior officers are checked and re-checked on a regular basis. I gave this some more thought and another question entered my mind.

"If I wanted to send a message using someone else's address, would I need to route it through my mailbox to make sure the receiver knew it was from me?"

"No, I don't think so. Unless you didn't enter your own logon code and a friend of yours just happened to be using his mail program. Even then, you wouldn't need to redirect the message through your own mailbox."

This is really getting weird, I thought. Then, another idea struck me and I changed tack.

"Okay, is it at least possible to, say, send a message to one person and then have it automatically forwarded on to someone else?

Flanagan thought about this for a moment, then answered, "Well, technically yes, that's called 'Carrier pigeoning.' The thing is, it's very rarely done because only a few people know how to do it. Whoever was sending the supposed message would have to know a thing or two about how the network node runs as well as a grasp of W language because he'd have to write a special program to make the 'pigeon'."

Now we know what happened... but was it foul play or was Williams in a really big hurry that day... or was it both? The thoughts rolled around in my head and I saw Steve's expression showing a great deal of contemplation.

The beeping of the personal communicator in my pocket caught my attention. I had completely forgotten it was there, though Weaver had insisted that Steve and I both take one from the Arrow's equipment locker. I pulled out the tiny box shaped device and held it in front of my face, trying to remember which bit to press. It was much more sophisticated than the larger hand held communicators from my Navy days. Finally, I brushed my thumb against a winking green indicator light and a tiny hologram generator sprang up from the end of the box.

Seconds later, a little green and white face stared back at me and it took a second for me to register that I was looking at Max Weaver. His face was grave and I knew that could only mean something had just gone very seriously wrong.

"Mark?"

"Yeah, what's going on?" I asked.

"You and Steve need to get back here now. Frank Best has just been arrested by GalCop."

"What!?" I gasped.

"I'll explain when you get back here. Hurry!"

"We're on our way." I announced. I pressed the green light again and the hologram flickered out of existence and the pin-like projector neatly folded itself back into the device.

"Thank you for all your help, Mr. Flanagan," I said, shaking the man's hand briskly. Steve nodded and did likewise, then we both turned and walked for the door as quickly as professional decorum would allow.

"Good luck," the Node Manager called after us.

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Twenty-Nine

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