Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Forty- Three

"Coming up on hyperspace exit," The senior helmsman reported from his station at the front of TerraCorp I's main control pit. On the viewscreen, if one cared to watch, the ghostly tunnel of "witch space" cast its mind-numbing display as the giant factory ship plummeted toward the penultimate stop on her journey to the Alioth system.

I watched as the old-fashioned LED clock counted the seconds down. Far behind me and seated in the Commander's high chair, far above the rest of the work stations, Weaver lounged in a very relaxed pose. A small smile curled the corners of his mouth upward and, as was usual, a lightly smoldering cigar was held gingerly between the thumb and fingers of his right hand. Seeing that my attention was on him, the older and richer man gave me a wink, accompanied by a small "thumbs-up" gesture with his free left hand. I grinned myself and gave a little nod just as the man at the awkward steering controls began counting down.

"Hyperspace exit in five... four... three... two... one!"

There was no need for him to do anything other than report the time down to our reappearance in normal space. When the walls of the witch space tunnel flashed aside, the stocky man simply rested his hand on the steering bar as the great ship's computer engaged massive retro rockets to slow us down. To the right of the primary helm station, a middle-aged woman gazed into the large screen that dominated her console, pressed a couple of controls, then looked back at Weaver.

"We've arrived on the outer edge of the Oltiqu system," she reported.

What the hell!? I thought, knowing that everyone had to see me do a double-take at her report. Glancing around in a near-panic I saw the other twenty members of the "pit crew" working at or monitoring their consoles with various unconcerned expressions. I looked over at Weaver, hoping I didn't look as panicked as I felt. Weaver regarded me for a moment, then stood up, descended from his command station, and casually strode up to the forward control console. Upon reaching the navigator's station he looked into her map display and spoke calmly.

"You're gonna need to update your charts, Miss Blake," the woman turned her head to look up at the man in charge. He gave a small smirk and continued, "For the last couple of decades, we've called this place 'Gateway.'"

She nodded and replied, "Not a problem." She gave a small shrug and then added, "Either way, we're one jump away from the Alioth system."

Weaver gave another small grin, nodded, and returned to his post, slapping my shoulder blades as he walked by. Considering that I didn't grow up in this area of space, I didn't give myself too much of a mental kick for forgetting about that little name change.

Upon sitting himself in his seat, Weaver called out, "Let's get the fuel shuttles ready to go. I'm itching to see the look on good ol' Mic's face when we pull into orbit!" He then looked down at me and said, "Mark, you're gonna supervise again?"

I nodded, "Yep. No problem."

* * * * *

Hand in hand, Terri and I made our way toward the boarding tube. The blonde woman looked over at me and smiled warmly.

"You're glad to see him but still need to do some solo flying once in a while, eh?"

I looked back at her and, as was always the case, felt the butterflies in my stomach before answering, "Well, old habits are hard to break," lowering my voice a little, I then added, "Actually, I was hoping that we could do this flight ourselves..."

Terri giggled, embracing my whole arm. She leaned against me and turned her voice into a sultry whisper, "Too bad this ship of ours needs seven, huh?"

I sighed, "I wanted to take out one of their service ships, but they seem convinced that I'd crash 'em into the docking bay door or something."

A deep male voice made itself heard, "Well, Mark, you did fly the Arrow practically through a nuclear explosion."

I turned, smiling because I knew who'd made the comment, "Well, Mike, it wasn't like I had much of a choice in that asteroid tunnel!"

Terri released me and I met the African-descended engineer in two strides. He offered his brand new right arm and we shook hands as he answered, "A technicality if I ever heard one!"

My left hand gripped his healed right shoulder. The doctors in the sick bay, despite having outdated medical machinery, had done a fantastic job of bringing Mike back from a state of near death.

"Damn good to see you, Mike!" I intoned. Then, seeing he too was not alone, I nodded to his companion, "Hey, Sarah." She returned the gesture, smiling at me.

Seeing Mike alive and quite well brought a question to my mind, "Mike, if you're here, where's Jenny?"

The black skinned man looked past me. Taking his cue, I turned and saw Jenny Rayburn, her pretty face returned to its original state and her body bearing no signs of having been burned and savagely cut by an exploding bridge console.

At that moment, the sound of loud and fast-moving footfalls resounded through the boarding tube and Steve Mandrake appeared at the hatch. Behind him stood a slightly bewildered looking Hank Williams. Upon seeing us, the cargo handler blinked a couple of times and then cleared his throat.

"Oh, there you are!" He gave an almost nervous glance at the rest of us while saying, "Well, are we going?"

* * * * *

"Refuelling Shuttle Seven, you're cleared to approach and off-load. See you in a few," Steve switched off the comm system, sighed, and turned his chair toward us. "Y'know, I still can't quite figure out why they want us to take charge of the refuelling procedures. I mean, they have a perfectly capable control staff on the ship."

"Who knows," I said as I paced between the Commander's chair and my own helm console. The truth was that I also found it slightly odd that Weaver wanted the Arrow to act as a supervisor to what had to be routine fueling operations. The traffic controllers on TerraCorp I had to be capable to directing this kind of activity. "Maybe Weaver just wants to let us stretch our legs once in a while... or something."

"Maybe," Steve answered, then turned back to his console as the incoming message alert sounded for the twentieth time. "Crimson Arrow here."

As the communications tech handled the traffic requests, I returned my attention to the big window that gave the bridge what I still thought was quite a stunning view of space. The enormous gas giant of Gateway 6 dominated the vista. Its multicolored rings a dazzling band that stretched across huge world. The position we were in allowed us to watch the refuelling shuttles as they dove into the thick upper layer of hydrogen clouds, procure the raw gas, ascend from the fog, and speed off toward the vast bulk of their mothership. TerraCorp I had taken position about a five hundred kilometers away from the planet, her retro rockets were clearly visible as they fired once in a while to keep the whole enormous factory vessel from succumbing to the unforgiving force of a gas giant's powerful gravity well.

A light flickered across the exterior of the fifty kilometer starship. As I watched, I found it amazing that I was actually looking at the stuff of legends. Space dredgers were craft that nobody in their right mind would use anymore. They recalled a time when Humanity was very much unaware of the fact that resources, even outside of our home system, were not in infinite supply. When fully operational, TerraCorp I would be able to consume the mineral wealth of entire planets and her crew would still be looking for more places to rape before they could begin working on whatever project their presence was required for.

Still, I thought, I'm grateful to whatever forces in the universe are out there for getting a chance to see this. Another light flickered across the surface of the corporate craft and, as if to punctuate my final thought, her mighty main engine ignited.

It took me a moment to register what was happening. Even Steve's surprised shout didn't revive me until I realized She shouldn't be moving right now, should she?

Suddenly, everything fell into place in my mind. Finally understanding what was going on, I gasped, then threw myself into the pilot's seat. I slammed the steering column around and brought the big ship into the center of the main window.

"TerraCorp I, TerraCorp I, this is Crimson Arrow. Please respond!" The desperate sound of Steve's voice reverberating around the bridge was the only thing that would give any bystander a hint that trouble was afoot. I slammed my hand down on the engine switch, bringing our own powerful drive on line, and pushed the throttle all the way forward. I checked the navigation plot and found that, sure enough, the dredger was accelerating wildly past us. Another calculation based on orientation and trajectory confirmed something that made my blood run cold:

The dredger was going to slam right into Gateway 6's rings and there was nothing we could do to stop it!

Chapter Forty-Two

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