Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Forty

The star system of Uszaa was one of the least-populated systems in Human space. It was listed officially as a frontier mining colony. In truth, it was a very dangerous place to live. It had once been given a classification as being an anarchic system. The truth was, there was no government there because there simply weren't enough permanent settlers to make a government worthwhile. There were two registered settlements in the system, one on each of the two planets that could at least be walked on. Naturally, these underground towns sported all the necessary facilities for star travelers, including repair and refueling services. These elements, coupled with the lack of real government and law enforcement agencies meant that Uszaa was a prime location for pirates and bounty hunters to work from. Unfortunately it was very difficult to tell a pirate from a bounty hunter in the blackness of space, particularly when they're screaming in for an attack run and so the adage of "laser first, talk second" was the rule of thumb, no matter who you were.

The Crimson Arrow emerged from the ghostly tunnel of hyperspace, her powerful retro thrusters firing to slow us down. As soon as we reappeared in normal space, we put ourselves onto an unofficial yellow alert. We were expecting the pirates who frequent the system to be ready to pounce on a fat target like a Python class star cruiser, but they didn't know that the Arrow was a new breed of ship: Faster, more maneuverable, and armed to the teeth.

I took a look into the holographic scanner display and, seeing no blips on the scope, turned to Steve.

"All right, Steve. Send the message," I ordered.

"You got it," the communications tech replied as he worked his console.

A week ago, after we had hyperspaced out of Alliance territory, Steve used the hyperspace relay network to send a broadcast to TerraCorp I. It was a very difficult move to make, but a few hours after sending the directed signal, we were rewarded with a short visual message from Max Weaver himself. He was surprised we were trying to find him, but was glad we were making the effort. Between puffs on one of his ubiquitous cigars, he quickly explained his intentions and the route that had been planned for the ship.

Before making his jump to cross the Dumbell Nebula and into human occupied space, Weaver had decided that Uszaa was the only star system within TerraCorp I's hyperspace range that could be used as a place to refuel. After our boss gave us his ETA in the Uszaa system, (fifteen hundred hours on February 21st, 3251) the crew of the Arrow made plans to hyperspace into the system and rendezvous with the giant space factory.

Now, we were all very much on our toes. Pirates had a tendency to ambush new arrivals and, in a place like Uszaa, the scant Interpol forces that patrol the system tend to stick by the populated planets and not waste time out on the fringes. We knew that the dredger should have arrived about three hours before us and that any pirate who had a brain would probably not want to tangle with it. I imagined that Weaver had to have a hair trigger finger when it came to this place, after all, he grew up on the planet Lave, a planet not very far away from the Uszaa system. I'm sure he knew to keep his shields up and his weapons loaded and, considering that TerraCorp I was armed with the early version of the plasma accelerator, he was not likely to run into any trouble he couldn't handle.

We, on the other hand, were a very different matter. Pythons are tough ships, and our Python Mark II was even tougher, but a small fleet of well-piloted pirate fighters could still turn us into a duralium version of Swiss cheese! The minutes ticked by while we waited for the signal that would indicate TerraCorp I's location.

Unfortunately, the alert klaxon sounded first.

"We've got five contacts!" I called out as I pulled on my security harness. I gazed into the scanner and watched the four green and one white blips as they approached. They charged toward us in a ramshackle formation as we sat there, not moving at all, relative to the system's orange star.

Knowing that I should at least present our quarry with a moving target, I hit the engine switch and then pressed down on the side thruster control. Our ship slewed to port as the five enemy vessels opened fire. As we sped past the pirate fleet, I could just make out four wing-shaped Sidewinder fighters and an immense Griffin freighter whose hull resembled a deadly iron fist. I had no doubt that that Griffin would be firing a very powerful laser... or four! The fighters were each packing one megawatt beam lasers; standard fare for craft their size and, fortunately, not as powerful as the new 20 megawatt beam laser that Hans Jurgenson had ordered installed into our nose instead of the original 4 megawatt weapon.

Normally, this would have been almost academic: 20 megawatt beam laser meets the hull of a Sidewinder fighter... Sidewinder fighter goes "boom" in about five seconds. The problem was that there were four of them to contend with as well as that great big Griffin. Since the big ship was the greatest threat, I knew that eliminating it first would be to my advantage.

I swung the nose of the Crimson Arrow through an arc of fifty degrees to starboard and ten degrees upward and was rewarded with the sight of the fifteen hundred ton vessel bearing down on us. She was holding her fire, but I knew she had to have a laser at least as nasty as ours and I really didn't feel like seeing just how powerful it actually was! I twitched the control yoke, lining up my sight and squeezed the laser trigger.

The bright yellow beam spat from the nose of our ship and impacted on the Griffin's powerful shield. The spherical barrier of energy glowed red as our weapon's destructive fire was absorbed, all the while draining the shield's effectiveness. Then, the Griffin decided to open fire. I shouted in panic and ignited the retro rocket and starboard thruster as the bright blue glow of a small plasma accelerator lanced across space. It struck our shield for a moment, bringing its protective level down to less than thirty percent in the space of two seconds. Then, the Arrow shook slightly as two of the Sidewinders opened fire with their lighter weapons.

Still ignoring the beam lasers of the little craft, I tried to edge the Arrow around the larger ship. When I brought our nose around again into a firing position, a turret on the freighter's upper body, this one armed with a twenty megawatt beam laser, let loose with its own yellow energy lance. The Arrow gave a shudder as the rest of our shield energy was mercilessly drained away.

I squeezed my firing trigger as the overhead lights flickered. The smaller ships had managed to penetrate our defenses and were now beginning to carve into our hull. I also saw the effectiveness of our own weapons as a trail of thick black ion smoke poured from the side of the Griffin. Still, we were taking damage. Klaxon alarms sounded, more lights flickered. I heard a pop and sizzle and a voice that sounded like Jenny's cry out, followed immediately by a nonsensical shout from Steve.

Wrenching the control column around to the right again, I faced my incoming attackers who were now firing en masse. The four red and one yellow streaks of laser light might have been considered a pretty light show if you didn't think about what it represented. My thoughts, however, were focused on finding a way to distance myself from the dazzling display. I pressed the retro thruster control and was rewarded with a brief sputter from the small twin jets.

A mechanical voice announced, "Retro thrusters damaged, Atmospheric shielding damaged, Autopilot damaged."

"Oh, man!" was all I could say as the phalanx of pirate craft closed in. Concerned about my friends on the bridge, I called out, "Is everyone okay!?"

A chorus of "Yeah"s was enough for me to relax slightly and continue fighting.

Looking at the status display, I saw that our shield generators had been given enough respite to begin recharging our defenses. The shield indicator registered twenty-five percent effectiveness and rising.

Grinning to myself, I lined up on the Griffin again and fired. The beam carved its way up the side of the heavy vessel, igniting its onboard fuel supply. A second later and the pirate flagship had blossomed into a bright orange ball of flame and superheated metals. The Sidewinders dodged out of the way of the enormous blast and began firing into my shield as the former pirate's explosion burned itself out.

I jerked the steering control to bring one of the slim wedge-shaped vessels into my crosshairs and fired. The tiny craft fired its bottom thruster and skidded out of the way. I gritted my teeth and tried again. This time, he hit his top thruster and flew below my laser strike. The Arrow shuddered again as our shield energy dropped to zero. The enemy beam lasers began burning through hull plating, cables, and into the body of the ship.

Having no missiles installed, all I could do was use my laser to try and fend them off. I brought the pirate fighter back into focus and, before he could sideslip out of the way, managed to skewer him dead center and force his early retirement.

"Starboard thruster damaged, two shield generators destroyed," the computer announced.

I zeroed in on another Sidewinder and evaporated it into cosmic dust as its two remaining companions began making another attack run. Their laser shots slammed right through the minimal shielding that had been restored and struck the upper starboard side of the Arrow's long pointed nose. I didn't exactly see what had happened, but the walls and ceiling around me reflected a flash of light and a small explosion rocked the control center. Something hard smacked my chair and bounced against my right arm. Pain shot through my nerves as I heard a loud and agonized scream come from Jenny. The sound of Steve shouting her name only confirmed my worst fears, but I didn't look back. I didn't want to see what had happened to her, but I swore I'd avenge her. Biting back my own agony, I took aim at one of the two incoming craft and fired. My shot glanced across his port wing, ripping a hole through it, but not destroying the ship.

Feeling a terrible surge of fury rushing through me, I slammed the main thruster into gear and aimed the hundred-meter-long Crimson Arrow directly at the damaged enemy craft. All I could see was the pirate Sidewinder framed in the red haze of my own single-minded hatred. I braced for the impact as the Arrow's nose pierced the body of the small fighter. Our Python class vessel shook as the lighter craft exploded all around us, debris raining against our weakened hull and hot plasma licking at the scrapes and gouges already there.

Ha! You don't feel so cocky now, do you!? I mentally shouted at my vanquished foe. The rush of adrenaline accompanied by the elation I felt drove me to pursue my last attacker. I swung the nose of the Arrow around again and faced the last Sidewinder. Already, I could see that its pilot was realizing he'd probably end up just like his former companions if he stuck around. His aft end was facing me and the blue plume of smoke ejecting from his single engine nozzle indicated to me that he was putting all twenty-three gees of acceleration into his escape maneuver. Still, he couldn't outrun a well-placed laser shot. I set my crosshairs right into the middle of that engine plume and, gritting my teeth, squeezed the trigger.

I sat there, drinking in the splendor of my victory over overwhelming opposition. It was this kind of flying that had earned me my Elite combat rating and the special gold pilot's wings that adorned my jumpsuit. Destroying five ships whose likely intents were to do the same thing to me filled me with a feeling of elation. Yes, I admit, I felt quite superior and untouchable at that moment. The more reasonable side of my mind was trying to remind my ego that I was lucky. Still, my ego was not quite ready to be put down... until I smelled the unpleasant aroma of scorched electronics. Then, I suddenly remembered Jenny.

Immediately, I threw off my safety harness and sprang to my feet. I turned and the sight that greeted my eyes was enough to make me forget my elation for a long time. The engineering console had been blasted apart. Pieces of it were lying all over the after end of the bridge. Steve was kneeling over a prone figure whose flight suit was covered with darker blotches indicating burns and soaked-up blood. The bridge first aid kit was open, its contents emptied out onto the floor. I raced across to my companions and knelt down opposite the communications tech.

"Jenny," I whispered into her face. Her normally light and smooth skin was now covered with soot from the burning bridge console. Her forehead was cut and bleeding slightly. Blood was also streaming slowly from her nose. Looking over the rest of her body, her arms and hands had suffered horrible burns. In some places, I thought I saw a hint of bone. Blood was oozing from less-charred spots on her chest and shoulders. Her legs were slightly spread and blood was streaming from a deep wound on her right inner thigh. Fortunately, she'd also been rendered unconscious.

Trying to think about what to do for her was very difficult. I could hear her shallow breath and as long as I heard that, I knew she was still alive. The problem was the fact that I knew very little about injuries as serious as hers. I knew burn care cream was far less than what Jenny Rayburn would need if she was to return to the land of the living in any condition like the one she was in before we left Alioth.

My first aid was also somewhat out of practice. I looked at Steve and said, "Anyone here have any real medical training?"

Steve looked at me with a very grave expression and I swallowed, knowing what his answer would likely be. The technician then motioned with his head, indicating our unconscious crewman, "Jenny knew more than the rest of us," He picked up a large square gauze pad as he spoke and applied clotting agent it to it. "Maybe your girlfriend could help. All I've been taught is how to stop serious bleeding." Steve then picked up a small pair of razor scissors and began cutting the right leg of Jenny's charred flight suit. I helped pull away the mangled fabric and watched as Steve stuck the decimeter-wide bandage to the red and purple gash in her thigh.

As soon as the bandage had been applied, Jenny stirred slightly. From her slightly parted lips came a tiny moan as her head turned a few degrees to the right. Then, as though she had used up her strength on that one gesture, her head rolled to the right until I caught it, not wanting her neck to twist far. Feeling more helpless than I ever thought was possible, I leaned close to her once lovely face and placed my ear almost right on her mouth. I was rewarded with a puff of warm air which caressed my face and, to my  surprise, felt tears in my own eyes trickling down. I quickly wiped the drops of water away and looked at Steve.

"Get a status report, Steve. I'll stay with Jenny."

"Sure," Steve, also teary-eyed, replied in a misty voice. He struggled to his feet and I watched him limp over to his console, his hand clutching a wound on his left thigh. He collapsed into his still-functioning control chair and pressed a toggle on the communications board. Leaning forward, he spoke into the shipboard microphone, "All hands, report in. Repeat: All hands, report in, please."

The next voice I heard brought a fresh wave of tears to my eyes, "Terri here, I'm okay." With a feeling of immense pride and joy, I listened to the rest of her report, "I'm in the forward cargo hold. There was a rupture in the upper starboard side cargo door, but I've been patching it up. I should be able to re-pressurize the bay in half an hour or so."

Listening to Terri's voice, I became aware that I was brushing poor Jenny's hair back in a way that would suggest I was dating the engineer instead of Terri. I stopped and looked at Jenny for a moment, then feeling sympathy for her pain, my heart caved in and I resumed lovingly stroking her matted tresses as the speaker switched off.

A moment later, the address system reactivated and a male voice resounded throughout our compartment, "Hank here, I'm okay too... mostly. I think I sprained my wrist. I was trying to hold on to a cargo canister when the hull got breached in the portside aft quarter. I welded a spare duralium plate over the hole and we've already got pressure back. I'll stay down here unless you need me anyplace else."

"Somebody get down here, quick!" Sarah's message came right on the heels of Hank's calm announcement and it jarred my teeth. My fist accidentally clutched at Jenny's hair, pulling it slightly. Fortunately I stopped myself before I yanked too hard.

"Oh, God! Hurry! We're in the engine room!"

I looked up at Steve, knowing what I had to do.

"Steve," I began, but he cut me off.

"I'll stay with her," the heavyset man interrupted. I nodded and quickly made my way through the bridge hatch.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty-One

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