Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Three

I left Mr. Weaver's apartment 3,500 credits richer. That made me very happy. What annoyed me was the fact that I was going to have to spend some of it to patch up a 2-meter-long slice in my cargo bay. I never liked having to pay for repairs. I got out of my old business partly because I didn't want to worry about that nonsense anymore. Sometimes I would think about what it might be like to go back on the job. Those were the days: having a tiny little ship with monster engines and a nasty little beam laser in the nose. Well, that was then, this is now.

I headed back up to the inner levels of the gravity zone and then into the starport area. After passing through the security checkpoint, I took the lift back up to the zero-G hub of the station. I floated back aboard the Gray Wolf and sat myself down in the pilot's seat. I keyed into the communications console and connected to the shipyard. I took a quick look at the list of repairs the yard scanner informed me I needed and I ordered the necessary work on my hull, a three-hundred-credit operation. Apparently, my bottom thruster also needed to be fixed. A second button-push emptied my account of another fifty credits. I knew the repairs would be done in short order, certainly well before the cargo handlers would arrive to relieve me of my expensive frozen appetizers. I took the opportunity to catch a quick nap in my tiny cabin.

At 13:30 hours, the alarm sounded, waking me from my pleasant snooze. I quickly freshened up and greeted the cargo handler at precisely 14:00. I toggled the cargo bay doors and watched as an oversized hover-dolly emerged with a stack of seven crates. The communication console beeped and a gruff voice sounded through the speaker.

"Hey, pal, you wanna off-load this rubbish in your cargo bay? It'll cost you 4 credits."

"Yes, thank you." I was quick to free up space for sellable merchandise.

"No problem."

Moments later, the workman returned with his hover truck and ran a mega-vacuum through the cargo hold, removing the charred and shattered remains of two ex-crates of Merlin Ice Fish. (I only hope he threw a few de-odorizing tablets in as well!) A few minutes later, I had a load of new farm machinery ready to transport to Earth as well as the necessary amount of fuel to make the hyperspace jump. I thought about sticking around to catch some of the local sights, but I figured if I've seen one space station, I've seen 'em all... Unless, of course it was one of those new Orbital Cities, now those were a different matter entirely! Well, Boston Base was only a glorified trading post, so I knew the best things to see there were the commodities market and the bar. I didn't feel like having a drink, so I keyed into the communications console and requested launch clearance.

The control tower granted me clearance for departure and the ship shuddered as the automatic hangar control system backed my ship into the enormous launch bay elevator. The gigantic steel door slid down and I waited as the ship was raised to the launch deck. I could hardly comprehend the technology needed to build launch systems like this. This elevator had to be big enough to accommodate ships like the Panther class clipper, whose cargo hold could fit the Gray Wolf twelve times over! There was a loud thud and a hissing noise as the elevator door slid upward once again and the ship rolled into the docking bay. The docking bay hatch slowly raised itself and the Gray Wolf's main thruster automatically came to life, pushing my ship out into the void.

It took me exactly three seconds to locate the Sol system on the star chart and even less time than that to hit the hyperspace trigger. Three days and six light years later, the Gray Wolf emerged from the blue and white Witch Space tunnel into the most heavily populated solar system known to Man. I used my navigation computer and decided that it was time to visit the starport built by the "proper" Earth folk. I leaned back in my seat as the ship swung her nose around and she began accelerating toward the cradle of human civilization, more specifically, the cradle of British civilization: London, England.

* * * * *

"I wander through each charter'd street, where the charter'd Thames doth flow...." I remember hearing those words in a poem. I don't remember who wrote it... and I'm sure he's long dead. I figure he was just another great poet who fell passionately in love with London... or was that Paris... no the Thames is in London, the Seine is in Paris! I remember getting that beaten into my head in grammar school...

Anyway, I'd never gotten a real look at this great city before, so, after off loading my cargo and getting even richer, I took my time walking through the clean streets of the city and watching the locals. For the first time in my life, I was actually seeing the great buildings I heard about in school and on the news. These monumental structures that have withstood the tests of time had very long and distinguished histories, some of which spanned more than 2 millennia! It was weird, but I felt like the city had a life of its own... the people could disappear forever and the city would still be alive. It was like I could hear those voices from our very distant past calling out to us, "Learn from what we have done, and your future will be well-assured." Well, I think maybe they took that a little too seriously when the first Duval, disenchanted with the Federal Government, formed his own Empire which now spans the greater part of a 70 light year sphere right next door to us! Who knows, maybe we had it coming. That was... heck almost a thousand years ago! And things still hadn't calmed down between us. To this day I wonder if anyone remembers what the original dispute was over...

I decided to grab myself a travel guide and then returned to Heathrow Starport. I was just planning on having a short nap aboard ship and then going and checking out the night life. Well, that idea was about to crash and burn before getting two meters off the deck!

As usual, I logged into the communications terminal and watched a friendly face announce, "Welcome to your friendly local Federal relay." The holographic face disappeared and I keyed into the bulletin board. All sorts of jobs were waiting to be picked up. I chuckled to myself when I saw all sorts of "Biographical" and "Retirement" ads. Apparently, assassinations were starting to become popular again. I was beginning to wonder why when I noticed another, similar ad.

"RETIREMENT: Anonymous parties are wishing to see Mr. Weaver of WBD&S stop work permanently. Will pay Cr. 50,000 to experienced pilot upon proof of dispatch."

I felt a coldness squeeze my heart unlike anything I ever felt before. Could this be real? Who would want to ax one of the most generous philanthropists in the Federation? Fifty thousand credits is a lot of money to be spending, even on an assassination! I began to wonder what would make someone have to pay that much to kill off some corporate executive. Suddenly, I heard a voice in the back of my head whispering into my inner ear and I immediately realized the whole plot. The Birthday Party! They're actually paying somebody to slice a hole in a space station! No wonder the ante was so high, whoever it was that did it would have to vanish into the Frontier for a while until the dust settles! Attacking a space station is a Federal offense, punished only by summary execution at the hands of the police patrol ships!

I was about to send a message Barnard's Star when I saw the ad disappear from my computer screen. I blinked and then instinctively whacked the console. Naturally, nothing happened. The messages on the bulletin board shifted up to fill the space left by the "retirement" ad. I knew, with absolute certainty, that the ad disappearing meant that someone actually took the job.

At that moment, a different feeling suddenly welled up inside of me, something that I never thought I would feel. Maybe something out of my past was bothering me. Maybe I just didn't want to see Max Weaver and a room full of innocent civilians turned into vapor and ashes. Or, maybe I just wanted to get on the good side of some powerful company executive. In any case, I found myself requesting launch clearance from Heathrow Traffic Control and, for the first time in a long while, lifting my ship off of the landing pad with nothing but a load of fuel in my cargo hold. The party was supposed to start in four days. I only hoped I would get there in time.

Chapter Four

Chapter Two

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