Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Thirty-Three

"Look, this is all a big misunderstanding," Louis Smart said for what had to have been the fiftieth time. The rest of us had just about heard enough of this, but nobody was prepared to let him go.

Similar to our questioning of Kevin Stevens, the four of us from the Crimson Arrow, plus Inspector Wynn and Smart were crowded into a small room. Hank Middlewell, Jenny Rayburn, and I stood behind Weaver and Wynn, who were seated on one side of a small table. Smart, who had made a fast and full recovery in the care of the medical technicians, was wearing immoblilizer cuffs and sitting opposite the rest of us. A recording machine, built into the table, was activated and taking down everything that was said on our side of the closed door.

"Mister Smart, sir," Inspector Wynn was getting understandably irritated with his suspect's lack of cooperation. He continued, "All the evidence that originally pointed toward Frank Best now points directly at you." Despite feeling tired, most of us nodded in silent agreement with Wynn's announcement. We'd been sweating it out in the interrogation room for the last hour hoping that Smart would finally make it easy on himself. Unfortunately, the Vice President of Recycling and Waste Management had remained quite obstinate.

"We have a Slip-Stay rifle, supposedly signed out by Frank Best, found in your possession. We have a network node manager, whom you threatened into cooperation, writing a complicated program to forward a message sent from your personal mailbox. Not only that, but we also have you committing the first case of resisting arrest that TerraCorp I has seen in over thirty years!" Wynn slammed his open hand on the table to punctuate that particular revelation and then leaned back in his seat with an expression that, to me, showed nothing but overwhelming self-confidence. He truly believed he had the right person and, although nobody ever actually said so, I knew the rest of us agreed with that assessment.

Smart sat there for a long moment, unable to move due to the cuffs paralyzing all of his limbs. He stared blankly at a point on the wall and, still, said nothing. Anyone could tell he was under some kind of stress, though, due to his heavy rhythmic breathing. Nevertheless, he kept silent.

Wynn ran his fingers through his short hair and studied the prisoner for another moment. Then, he spoke very quietly and with such an emotionless tone that even I shuddered.

"Very well, Mister Smart, if that's the way you want it." He then stood up and walked over to the door.

What's he doing? I wondered, watching him exit the room, his thick soled boots clomping loudly on the deck. I remembered the Inspector making a threat to Kevin Stevens about being able to get the truth out of him whether he cooperated or not. I saw Weaver turn toward the rest of us and, for a second, our eyes locked. Even without his giving a slight shrug, I could tell the old miner was as in the dark about things as I was.

A few minutes passed, during which Louis Smart still kept staring at the wall and breathing heavily. The door opened and two large GalCop officers strode in, followed by Inspector Wynn. The senior police officer gave a nod and the strong men each took one of his arms and then lifted the executive out of his seat. At this point, Smart was sweating profusely and his voice quivered as he spoke his first words that were anything other than a denial of his involvement in this apparently elaborate plot against the late Mitchell Williams.

"You're out of your mind, Wynn! My defending officers will have you skinned for this!"

What the hell is happening here!? I was now getting more than a bit concerned and I saw Weaver glancing between Wynn and Smart with raised eyebrows. All I could think was, My God! They're not going to torture him, are they?

"Mr. Smart, you've been given your opportunity to come forward with information and you know full well that nobody on this ship is above GalCop law. Now, you leave us no choice but to get the information we require our way. I should probably point out to you that, as of right now, you're at least facing charges for obstruction of justice," Wynn stepped right up to Smart who was, again, refusing to look at anyone and added, "but you know there'll be more on your record than just that."

Wynn jerked his head in the direction of the door. The officers supporting Smart appeared to understand the signal as they pushed out into the hallway. All of us regarded the GalCop Inspector with various expressions of bewilderment and concern. Wynn looked at all of us for a moment and then, without saying a word, turned and followed the procession down the corridor.

"C'mon," Weaver spoke very quietly and made his way out the door with the rest of us in close pursuit.

* * * * *

The four of us from the Crimson Arrow followed Wynn down the hallway.

I heard Hank whisper, presumably to Jenny, "What do you think they're gonna do to him?"

"I have no idea," Jenny responded in what sounded like a worried tone of voice. Maybe it was just my imagination making her sound worried. I know I sure was.

The two large GalCop officers holding the paralyzed form of Louis Smart turned right into a side chamber.

"Hold on a second! Where are you taking me? What are you doing?" The panicked voice of the TerraCorp Vice President could be heard down the hallway before the door to the room slammed shut. There was a chirp signaling the activation of an electronic lock.

"Oh my God!" I breathed, aware that everyone else had just said the same thing. We all rushed up to the door and clustered around it, listening. Unfortunately, we could hear nothing on the other side, whether it was pleasant conversation or, as we were dreading, the sound of a man screaming. We stood there, not daring to breathe in case we missed something, for what felt like an eternity, before Wynn's voice cut across to us, jarring my teeth.

"You're gonna want to come with me, folks." The Inspector stood there with his hands folded behind him, looking like nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

I don't know what it was, maybe it was Wynn's demeanor that did it, but a fuse in my brain blew and I found myself taking several steps toward the GalCop officer.

"What are they doing to him in there!?" I shouted and jerked my thumb behind me, indicating the locked door.

"Nothing you need to worry about, Commander Pritchard," Wynn's voice became cold as the blackness of space.

"Are you torturing him?" Asked a very exasperated Jenny Rayburn who, judging by the volume of her voice, must've also stepped toward the Inspector.

Wynn gave a small sigh of annoyance and rolled his eyes to the ceiling, "No, Miss Rayburn, we're not torturing him. We're not going to torture him." He suddenly seemed to throw all professional courtesy to the wind because his next few statements were delivered at an angry shout. "What do you people think we are!?" We may have some customs that are a few centuries out of date, but I don't think the GalCop ever used torture on its prisoners! We certainly don't do that now!"

I heard the sound of footsteps approaching and, a second later, Max Weaver was standing just behind me.

"I think it would help all of us, sir, if you could explain what your people are doing to him in there," the corporate executive spoke very calmly.

There was a pause, during which Wynn looked around at the four of us. He then said, "I assure you, nobody is being tortured or made to feel any kind of pain in that room. If you want to know where Mr. Smart is going to end up, come with me."

Another long pause followed. Then Wynn nodded at us, turned away, and started back down the hallway. We joined him, walking in silence and still feeling very uneasy.

All right, so nobody's being tortured or made to feel pain in the room that Smart was just taken to. What about in the room that we're heading toward? I thought.

* * * * *

We entered a room that, to all appearances, would have made an excellent substitute for an operating theater. The environment was very sterile and clinical. The major difference between this room and a surgery was the object that was situated in the middle of it.

A large metal armchair dominated the chamber. I knew it was no ordinary armchair for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it seemed designed to accommodate persons who would rather not be sitting in it. Heavy clamps were placed at what appeared to be wrist, ankle, waist, and neck locations. Second, over the top of the headrest was a big spherical machine with a wide hole in the bottom, presumably designed to fit over the subject's head. This machine was connected to a large bank of computers that were ranged along one wall. There were also some other, more familiar medical monitoring devices such as EEGs, EKGs, TKGs, and the like. Screens glowed, readouts flashed, and I still felt uneasy.

Several minutes later, the door opened again and in walked the two blue uniformed GalCop police officers with arms as big as my thigh. They were carrying Louis Smart by his upper arms, as they had been before. Smart, however, had gone through a bit of a change. He had been devested of his rumpled business suit and was now wearing a loose-fitting white jumpsuit made out of what looked like thin vinyl. The immobilizer cuffs were still attached to his upper arms and thighs, rendering all of his limbs incapable of any movement. He looked around the room and, when his gaze came to rest upon the chair, his complexion paled even more than it was before and he began hyperventilating.

"Wait! Stop! What are you doing?" Smart shouted as the guards brought him toward the chair.

I stepped closer to Inspector Wynn and asked, "I suppose it this machine will take Smart's memory and dump it into those computers over there?" I indicated the machinery as I spoke.

Wynn nodded, "Yes, that's what it does."

I took a quick breath. Wynn gave me a curious look, but I decided not to mention anything about memory scanners being banned by all three of the Galactic powers due to the danger of permanent brain damage to the subject. And that was in the 2900s... This machine is at least two hundred years older than that! I thought, trying not to grind my molars like a cow on burstweed. Thinking about the age of the equipment in the room, a curious thought crossed my mind and I decided to voice it, "Have you had to use this thing often?"

The Inspector chuckled, "No, we haven't. Usually just the threat of being put into the scanner is enough to make most anyone come clean. You saw how Stevens took to the idea."

Yeah, that figures. Leak out the news of someone getting brain damage and anyone in their right mind will gladly confess everything!

I just about to ask whether or not he'd actually seen the device in operation, but Wynn had walked out of range for discrete conversation and supervised the guards as they clamped their prisoner into the large metal armchair. Next, while Wynn retrieved his two pairs of immobilizer cuffs, the burly guards lowered the big spherical device, which was mounted on a large mechanical arm, over the Smart's head, as I had suspected they would. Once the sphere had been rested on the crown of the TerraCorp executive's skull, making him look, for all the Galaxy, like a human light bulb, the guards retreated behind the operating console located between the chair and the long row of computers against the right wall.

Smart, at this point, was taking very fast and shallow breaths. All of his former dignity seemed to have left him and he suddenly looked very much like a frightened child. Wynn stepped up to the now-activated control console, adjusted a couple dials, then placed his hand over a large red button which I knew had to be the activation switch.

I looked desperately at Weaver for a moment. There was, of course, a chance that Smart would be all right after the procedure, but I still didn't want to see anyone lose brain cells to a machine; people lose 'em enough already!

"Mr. Smart, it has been noted that you have been unwilling to cooperate with the investigation on your connection with the death of Mitchell Williams. Due to this, as well as the fact that we have probable cause to believe you were involved in the crime itself, under GalCop Police Article 2452-131-B, we are authorized to perform a low level memory scan to glean the information we require. The process will take less than five minutes, but you must be warned of the possibility of permanent brain damage." Wynn's eyes narrowed and he announced, "Consider this your last chance to cooperate."

Apparently, Smart didn't really seem to acknowledge that he was being given one more chance. He was visibly shaking in the manacles holding him to the seat and mumbling very incoherently in a very small and squeaking voice, further adding to my image of him being a frightened child. A moment later, Wynn gave a nod and spoke once again.

"Very well, Mr. Smart. You leave us with no choice."

I had a feeling that, despite all of his threats and cold demeanor, Inspector John Wynn really did not want to press the activate button. I suppose it had to do with the fact that causing brain damage to another human being, even in pursuit of the truth about a horrible tragedy, was a terrible thing in and of itself. I know I'd be having second thoughts as well, though I wonder if a younger Mark Pritchard in the prime of his Federal Military career would have.

And then, we heard a very tiny, squeaking voice drift toward us from the interrogation chair.

"It... it... it was an accident..."

For a long moment, nobody seemed to breathe. We all simply stood and watched Louis Smart, once an argumentative and dignified TerraCorp senior executive now reduced to the most pathetic excuse for a human being we had ever seen, quivering like a lump of jelly as tears fell from his eyes.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Wynn slowly move his hand away from the red activation button.

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Two

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