Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Part One: The Gray Wolf

Chapter One

Sirocco Station! Not much to see here, unless you like frozen landscapes and purple skies. I never could get used to that purple sky mixed in with those off-color ice floes and that sun doesn't do much for the eyes either. Well, I don't come from a system with a red sun, so I guess it makes sense that I don't like it much. The transparisteel domes which cover the buildings of the city sparkle beneath the sun and protect the hundred-thousand-or-so inhabitants, mostly ice fishermen, some miners, and the usual administrators, from the harsh environment outside.

Sirocco Station was considered by many to be "an accident waiting to happen" due to the fact that Merlin's ice floes were ever-changing and there was always the possibility of an air pocket, hidden deep underneath the city, to rise suddenly and explode. They say that the party that scouted the surface of the planet found no such danger in the area which they zoned as being the best location for a starport... but that was over six hundred years ago. The ice floes have changed positions noticeably in the time since the frozen outpost was built and now nobody seems sure how much longer the city's "lucky streak" will last.

I really shouldn't have been worrying about this. After all, I only just touched down here to fill up my little cargo hold. In a few hours, I'd be off and kicking back as I read through the latest issues of the Federation Times and the Frontier News. I always enjoy the time I spend in hyperspace. Some folks don't like it at all, finding it to be tedious. Those are the same folks who suddenly decide that ferrying cargo ain't all it's cracked up to be, buy themselves a nice laser to fill up their cargo space, then go get their heads sizzled in half trying to take out pirates in the Frontier region. This leads me to my number-one rule of thumb, "In space, no one should ever be bored." Sure it sounds silly, but hey, I'm still alive, aren't I?

I set the Gray Wolf down in the second landing berth. Lucky this system doesn't see too much traffic! Sirocco Station only has two landing pads. I guess the builders figured that not enough folks would be arriving here for them to need one of those big six-pad facilities. Well, in six hundred years, it's been true. I guess Merlin Ice Fish appeal to a limited crowd. Well, it didn't matter to me, as long as I got some decent credits from the folks who do like 'em! I didn't plan on carrying too much, mostly because the Gray Wolf was never designed to carry that much to begin with! After all was said and done with the outfitting, I only had thirteen tons of carrying capacity left, and four of that was being used up by fuel!

Some folks go for the idea of owning huge ships like those Panther class clippers with cargo bays the size of a Mega Ball arena! These are the same folks that don't care much about raping whole planets for all they have and then having the nerve to act all surprised when they find out that the entire civilization was wiped out for lack of bare essentials. Not that I think that ever really happened, but stories do float around. Now, with that said, I still wished my hold was a little bigger than what it was, but I still didn't mind carrying small loads.

Nine tons of Merlin Ice Fish should bring in a pretty tidy profit, if you know where to bring 'em. That's the problem with folks these days, they figure that they'll just read the basic information on a star system when they plan their route. They don't go in deeper, looking to see what little quirks the locals have. Now, I know that people who are trying to make themselves a quick buck so they can afford that extra five megawatt laser or that extra shield generator figure that those details don't matter. But what they don't realize is that those little details are what a really good trader can use to make his money without having to pilot a ship the size of Manhattan Island! No, they don't really make ships that big anymore. They once did, but that's a different story altogether.

The computer gave a little beep signaling that the nine tons of Animal Meat (which was, of course, the generic term for Merlin Ice Fish) had been loaded. I figured that this would be just another milk run. The folks who ran the Boston Base in the Barnard system seemed to have quite a craving for the goodies I was carrying and word had it that they'd pay a pretty credit for so much as one ton of it. Now, multiply that by nine... and we'll see if you start drooling as much as I did when I figured it out!

So, the plan was quite a simple one: I take off in my big gray flying box, spend a few days catching up on the latest goings-on, drop off my goodies with some rich guy's fourteen-year-old porter, stroll the streets of Boston Base, sample the local cuisine, pick up some robot parts to bring to Old Earth, and still leave about two thousand credits richer. It was that easy... or so I thought. In the 33rd Century, you really shouldn't take anything for granted. Including your own life.

* * * * *

It was a relatively beautiful morning on May 9th, 3250 A.D. when I requested departure clearance from Sirocco Station Control. I say "relatively beautiful" because, as I said before, I really can't stand all that green and purple scenery. It just seems... fake for some reason... like it's some really bad pastel drawing with a pair of big city domes thrown in for a splash of extra color. I was very glad to be leaving it behind me... and loathing the fact that I'd be coming back to it in about a month's time! However, I pushed that out of my mind as I was given the "green light" for liftoff.

I pulled my safety harness a bit tighter and checked all of the gauges on my panel. Green lights shone all across the board, so I grasped the control stick with one hand and, with the other, I hit the engine toggle switch. There was a "ping" noise and I felt the ship rock and sway a bit as her vertical thrusters pushed her up and away from the landing pad. The thrusters automatically cut out after raising the ship about three hundred meters over the starport. Pressing a second switch retracted the landing gear. There was a whine from astern and below as the thin legs which ended in multiple wheels folded themselves neatly and slid into their appropriate recesses in the hull. I pulled back on the control stick, aiming the nose of my craft heavenward and punched the accelerator ahead. The ground immediately began to recede behind and below as the Gray Wolf rocketed away from the planet Merlin using her full 18Gs of thrust. Good! I thought Let's get outta here as fast as we can! I smiled, thinking This is the life!

* * * * *

Hyperspace was pretty much what I figured it would be. Three days of sitting back and catching copies of the local news. Most of the articles were actually between two and fourteen days old, but I always save my journal reading for Witch Space... mainly because of my little "Rule Number One." I swear, the day I get bored flying between the stars is the day someone's gonna have a laser with my name on it! Call it paranoia if you want to, I call it being realistic. Besides, what good's carrying nine tons of valuable Merlin Ice Fish if you're not around to spend the money you're gonna get off of it?

On day three, the alarm sounded, waking me from a rather pleasant dream of watching Sirocco Station sink beneath the ice floes on Merlin. (I'm sure you can tell I really hate that place!) I grabbed one of my many green flight suits and ambled up to the water closet. For a one-man trading ship, the Gray Wolf was everything a man like me needed... and that included the small living space. Of course, if I was one of those fools who decided to take my sweetheart with me, I'm sure it would have been rather cramped. Well, I didn't even have a sweetheart at the time, so that was a moot point to begin with! I scrubbed up, then stepped into my flight suit and zippered it. Then, I walked over to the auto-processor and dialed up a breakfast bar and a cup of mocha java. The breakfast bar was all right. Fortunately the auto-processor randomly selects the flavor so that I'm not eating the same damn thing every single morning. The java was, of course, most welcome to my taste buds, my stomach, and my nerves. Three out of three for the coffee, I thought, as usual! I dialed another cup of coffee and made my way through the small connecting hatchway into the cockpit.

The cockpit was small, but not cramped. Adder class ships have a decent bridge which, again, was designed for efficiency and to be used by a single person. The high-backed acceleration couch was quite comfortable, yet not so comfortable that you'd find yourself falling asleep in it. That can be rather dangerous, especially if you're flying in the Frontier regions. I could swear that most of the morons that get picked off by pirates were flying while off in dreamland somewhere... probably due to feeling bored with looking out the window!

I sat down in the pilot's seat, stuck my coffee mug in the mug clamp built into the armrest of the chair, and waited. I generally try to avoid looking out the window at this point. Watching that tunnel of blue and white "witch-light" flashing by is generally pretty disorienting and plays some pretty nasty tricks on your eyes. Besides, I knew it'd be gone in a few short minutes anyway. The navigation console sounded another "ping" noise and the Gray Wolf raced out of the ghostly tunnel and back into the inky blackness of real space. Traversing a distance of over five light years in only three days wasn't too bad as far as I was concerned. I've traveled farther and faster before, but that was a while ago. I activated the navigation computer and instructed it to aim the ship at the Boston Base. I was very grateful that I had a navigation computer on my ship. Trying to single out the right planet and then locate an orbiting space station using the system map display is a real pain in the neck and I was more interested in getting there, rather than trying to figure out exactly where "there" was. I sat back, sipped my coffee, and watched as the autopilot swung the nose of the ship around to face Barnard's Star.

The illuminated disc in front of my ship was another dim red sun which provided light to eight planets. Being so dim, Barnard was only capable of keeping the inner two planets at any livable temperature, though neither of those planets had atmospheres that people could breathe. You could say it's pretty ironic that, even with the sun keeping those planets nice and warm, you still couldn't live on 'em! Well, the colonists who first came here figured on that, so they resorted to living underground. There was a time when subterranean cities and domed metropolises were things that we only read about in science fiction novels, but here in the 33rd Century, they're quite a common sight. In fact, in these times, a world that's capable of supporting life the way Earth or Achenar does is a rare find. They say that the Federation and Imperial governments will offer a substantial reward to any explorer who finds a planet like that. I'd thought about seeing what I could find... but the Frontier region was quite a long distance away and... well... I'd made more money sticking around close to home. Maybe someday I'd leave the safe regions, though.

The population of Barnard's Star grossed over a five million, and I was aiming my ship for the most densly-populated settlement. Boston Base, a big space station orbiting a planet called Birminghamworld, was rather crowded. Almost every walk of life inhabited that place, from the scum of the universe to the affluent, snobbish millionaires whose partnerships in the great mining companies made them more than simple public figures. To many of the system's dwellers, they were the most important men and women in the universe... Now, I wouldn't go telling that to the Federation President or the Emperor Duval, but, in this little corner of nowhere, you could easily understand their significance. For me, though, the only significance they held was the fact that they wanted the exotic goodies I had in my hold. That was all the reason I needed to pay them a visit. In fact, I'd say it was the only reason I would have to pay them a visit! That visit, however, was still three days of real space travel away.

I needed to while away the time while the Gray Wolf piloted herself across several billion kilometers of space and into the gravity well of Birminghamworld. More journal reading helped to pass the hours and, now that I was out of hyperspace, I could use the communication relays to send some messages to friends who lived nearby. Maybe, if I was lucky, I'd be receiving a few messages back. It's tough being a lone-wolf trader, you hardly ever see your friends and, unless you have a ship that requires a crew, real conversations with someone are damn near impossible! Maybe I needed to get a bigger ship with a larger crew requirement. I had the money to do it too, just a couple more milk runs like this one and I'd have the dough to upgrade to something like a fully-loaded Cobra or an Asp class ship will everything I could possibly need. Who knows, maybe when I upgraded, I'd also have a girlfriend who would be able to handle a starship just as well as... well... you know what I mean!

* * * * *

About a day and a half into the trip to Birminghamworld, the Gray Wolf was beginning to slow herself down. Cruising at well over six thousand kilometers per second is quite fast and the autopilot had to slow the ship down to more manageable velocities. It was at this time that ships were rather vulnerable to pirate attacks and my ship was no exception. I kept my eye open for the slightest signs of trouble. The scanner showed no sign of anything at this time, but I still kept glancing at it, just in case. Then, it happened:

Two blips appeared on the disc-shaped hologram in front of the window. I immediately used my targeting computer to lock onto one of them and waited as I watched the range counter which displayed the diminishing distance between us. I kept my finger ready on the laser button, but, as a rule of thumb, would only fire if fired upon. I switched off the autopilot and rested my other hand on the manual engine controls. There was an eerie silence as my ship coasted through the blackness at breakneck speed, pursued by two enlarging points of light. Either they were pirates come to shoot me up and steal my cargo, or they were merchants like myself on their way insystem, but something told me that, with they way they were accelerating toward my ship, they were more likely to be unfriendly.

I didn't count on them actually managing to nail me with their first shot. Whoever was piloting the lead ship had to have had a really high combat rating. I was sitting with my hand ready to hit the side thrusters as the range counter registered less than 5 kilometers between us when, suddenly, I saw a bright red beam extend out from that tiny point of light far ahead and carve a two-meter gash into my cargo hold! I was surprised, having no idea that that was going to happen! Most pirates don't open fire until they were within two kilometers! I reflexively hit the bottom thruster and pushed the Gray Wolf off of the laser skewer before it could do more harm. My computer registered a hull breach and the loss of two tons of animal meats. The second ship opened up with a bright orange beam of laser light!

Great, I thought! A joker with a four megawatter laser to contend with now too! I hit the accelerator and slid past my opponents. I knew they'd be turning around to try and finish me off, but they didn't figure on the fact that Mark Pritchard is not someone to cross when he's angry and determined! The "incoming" alarm sounded, registering an incoming homing missile, fired from the first ace who gouged the hole in my belly. That was easy enough to deal with: A touch of a small button brought the ECM system to life and the missile detonated before it even crossed a third of the space between us. I yanked back on the control stick and spun the ship around to face the two oncoming pirates. They had just rotated themselves into a firing position of their own and began nudging themselves toward me. I hit my reverse thruster to keep a decent amount of room between us. I carefully aimed my nose at the guy with the heavier laser. I squeezed the trigger and let loose with a laser lance of my own. Smoke and escaping oxygen billowed out of the side of the enemy ship where my laser penetrated its hull. The fighter had time for one desperate missile launch before my second shot sliced through its engine. My ECM came back on, destroying the enemy missile as the pirate ship detonated into a blossoming display of flying chunks of glowing metal and escaping atmosphere.

The remaining pirate, the one who had started this whole affair didn't even get a bead on me as I sliced up his friend. I begin to think maybe he just had a lucky shot on me earlier and was now feeling ever-so-confident about himself, which, of course, was a big mistake. I swung the Gray Wolf around and pointed her at my adversary. I waited for the right moment and, when the pirate ship, another Adder class trader, crossed my laser sights, I hit the trigger and watched as my beam made a large incision completely down the length of the ship. Two small bursts later and the pirate was doing a very good impression of Barnard's Star, though much smaller, of course!

My communication console beeped. I looked over at the tiny display screen to see a message from the Elite Federation notifying me that I just became three hundred credits richer! Apparently, both of those pirates had bounties on their heads and I, being the "bounty hunter" who ended their little careers, was the lucky recipient. I figured that it was just compensation for the two tons of Ice Fish that they managed to ruin on me, not to mention however much it would cost to patch up the hole they drilled into my cargo bay...

Chapter Two

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