Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Five

Minutes later, after a quick walk through some corridors and a couple of short elevator rides, I found myself floating effortlessly, like a bubble, in the docking tunnel which led to the hatchway of the ship Weaver's Dream. Being an expert at maneuvering through these gangways, I had no problem pulling myself across the handrails and then swinging down into the gravity zone inside the ship's main airlock. Some of the party guests looked like a ballet company at the first day of practice as they flailed all about in a mass of arms, legs, sport coats and skirts. I chuckled to myself as I turned and headed aboard.

"Reggie Parker, sir, Assistant Chief Engineer," the thin man manning the hatch saluted me sharply and then extended his hand.

"Mark Pritchard," I replied, responding in kind. After I shook his hand, I mentioned, "I guess I'm the acting Commander or at least the acting pilot."

"Yeah. Normally we have a Commander and a pilot on board... well, you'll understand when you get to the bridge."

Something just occurred to me and I had to ask, "By the way, Reggie, what kind of ship is this?"

"It's a Panther."

I gaped. I was expecting a man like Mr. Weaver to use something like an old Python or even an Anaconda, not one of the mammoth Panther class ships! After hearing that announcement, something else suddenly occurred to me, This ship's just a huge cargo hold with big engines! Where the heck are we going to put two hundred party-goers? However, I didn't have time to deal with these details, I had to get everyone off the station before it became the recipient of a whole lot of laser slashes!

I re-composed myself and nodded, "All right, I'd better get on up to the cockpit. Let me know when everyone's on board. We don't have time for pleasantries."

The engineer nodded as I turned and headed through the inner airlock door.

* * * * *

The cockpit was certainly not a cockpit, it was an honest-to-God bridge! I don't think I've ever seen a bigger control deck on a starship! It looked like something you'd see in those science fiction shows about those huge ships that were run like Old Earth naval vessels. Of course, in this day and age, we knew that that just wasn't how things were done in space travel. Computers take care of all the vital functions and humans are just there to make sure nothing goes wrong with the computers... and to tell the ship where to go and how fast to get there.

Everything about this bridge was a direct reflection of the awesome size of the vessel it controlled. I saw seven control seats, each surrounded by a ring of computers and other machinery. I looked around for the pilot's seat and eventually found it: Right at the very forward end of the room, where the view through the giant transparisteel bubble window was unobstructed.

I sat down in the padded acceleration couch, glanced around at the numerous control systems, and had a panic attack. This was a far cry from the simple and easy-to-understand control console of the Gray Wolf! I managed to find the manual controls for the individual thrusters as well as the navigation computer toggle. I also located the engine and autopilot switches. I sure could've used a flight manual right about now! At least I understood how to actually maneuver the ship... though the steering controls looked like they belonged either on a hover cycle or a Federal Military armored vehicle. It certainly wasn't the single small joystick I was used to.

Suddenly, the radio chirped and I heard a voice say, "Okay, sir, we're all set and the hatch is bolted."

I knew it was now or never. I suddenly realized that I needed to communicate with the traffic control or we'd never leave this docking bay! I sprang from the pilot's seat and hurried back toward what I hoped was the communications console. Fortunately, my guess was right and I managed to figure out how to send a request for departure clearance using the unfamiliar controls. There was a jolt as two and a half thousand tons of duralium and transparisteel were set into motion and Weaver's Dream was backed into the docking bay elevator.

The engineers must have been working as I fumbled with the communications console because I started to feel the rumble of a large ship's engine being brought up to power. I sat back down at the helm as the docking bay elevator door slid upward and the ship was ushered forward by the automatic systems. The rumbling of the engines grew more intense as the docking bay outer hatch slid open. I threw the toggle switches for the main thruster and hit the undercarriage control, swinging the auxiliary thrusters aftward.

The communications console chirped and the engineer's voice resounded through the lonely bridge, "Engines up to power, we're all set back here."

Hearing this, I shouted, "Then here we go," and slammed the heavy throttle lever all the way forward. The ship's massive main engine came on and slowly pushed the giant yacht out into the starlit vista. I had braced myself for a massive jolt of acceleration and I was quite disappointed when I saw the drive indicator reach its peak at 8Gs. I found it pretty pathetic. I definitely needed a ship with more thruster power than this! I felt like I was piloting a blimp!

I hit the rear view display and watched the station recede in the distance. That arrowhead-shaped Anaconda class freighter was quite visible and now she had her nose pointed directly at the station. Then, it happened: A bright laser lance shot from the tip of that point and into the side of the space station. There was a small explosion and puffs of smoke poured from the gash in the huge structure.

Moments later, the large ship turned, aiming herself right for us and began thrusting in our direction. I was horrified, but I figure that the assassins would have no qualms about shooting up another spaceship. Fortunately, at that moment, the station's main docking hatch re-opened and out zoomed two Viper class patrol ships. The Anaconda had no room to maneuver and her weak main engine, though it put out more Gs than ours, couldn't possibly outrun the police! I watched with satisfaction as the sleek Vipers began slicing up the bigger freighter.

The Anaconda managed one last desperate burst of her mighty 20 megawatt laser, which was absorbed by the Weaver's thick defense shield, before erupting into a bright ball of burning gasses and flying debris.

I thought about that single laser shot and how it would have blown a hole clear through the Gray Wolf if I had tried defending the station "Lone Ranger style". I smiled, knowing that I had done the right thing.

I heard the door to the bridge slide open and a single pair of footsteps clanging on the metal floor, "I just saw the firefight outside. There's gonna be hell to pay for that little stunt," Max Weaver sounded like he was half joking. I knew better.

"Well, you're all safe now, you want me to turn around."

Weaver laughed, "Now? We just cleared the docking bay! Hell no!"

I sighed. Great, now l get to play Captain of the "Love Boat" for the rest of the day! I turned toward the older gentleman, who looked like he managed to find himself a new cigar to puff on... or was that the same one he had at Dreyfuss's apartment?

"Well, it's your ship. Where to?"

"Errrrrrrmmmmm..." The executive walked up to the gigantic window that stretched the width of the bridge, "How about..." He actually looked like he was going to pick a place by looking at the window, rather than by consulting the nav map! He turned back toward me and when I looked back up at him with what had to be a quizzical expression, he couldn't keep from laughing. He strode on back to the helm station, gave me a slap on the shoulder and headed for the door saying, "You pick a place, I trust ya. Something scenic, if you can manage it, but not too far away, I don't think I could stand this party atmosphere for more than a night. You know what I'm sayin'?"

"No problem," I grinned. I looked at the map and said, "I'll take us just over the planet."

"Whatever, Ace," Weaver replied as he went through the door, "just get us there." He quickly poked his head back through the doorway, "And feel free to come on back once in a while! You're still an invited guest."

I looked back at the seemingly-disembodied head, "Thanks."

He gave a little salute with his cigar and disappeared.

* * * * *

I was perfectly content to sit up by myself on the bridge of the Weaver's Dream. In fact, I thought it was pretty exciting: being almost in total control of a ship normally run by a crew of twelve! Granted, there were times when I found it just slightly annoying. When the engineers called up, asking for me to check the status on something, I had to hop up from the helm and run to the communications console to speak to the engineers. Then I had to cross the room to the Chief Engineer's station and check the readouts that the folks down in the bowels of the ship were worried about. I actually adapted quickly and began using a note pad I found to write the readings down. Then, I'd walk back over to the comm station and read the numbers out. They'd give me a "thank you" and then I'd shut off the communicator and sit back down in the pilot's seat.

The last time that happened was over an hour ago and now I had settled back into my seat and contemplated what to do when I got my ship back. I could go on out to the Frontier region. There's lots to see and do out there. Profits are always high and I'll also be able to keep my trigger finger from getting rusty... Wait a minute... What am I thinking about here?

My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the bridge door sliding open. At that moment, I didn't think I was in the mood to deal with drunken party-goers. I was actually happy sitting by myself, listening to the faint hum of the ship's powerful engines, and looking out at the vista of Birminghamworld and the Milky Way. I heard the sound of footsteps coming toward me and stopping right behind my seat. I didn't move and I wasn't sure why. I knew who it had to be, anyone else would've been shouting in some variation of drunk-speak as soon as they came in through the door.

"You must be pretty used to being by yourself, huh?" That voice was angelic! I hadn't heard anything so melodious in a very long time! My heart skipped several beats. If I had been standing, I know my knees would've given out on me. Whoa, Mark! I thought to myself, You really have been a solo pilot for too long!

"Uh... Well... Yeah... I... I guess, maybe..." I really couldn't think of much to say. How can a ship commander with twelve years under his belt explain to an eighteen-year-old schoolgirl what it's like being out in the void? I shook myself back into reality. Cut the condescending crap, Mark! You hated it when your dad's buddies did that to you. Besides, you were even younger when they told you about it and you managed to understand it! That's why you're out here now! Give the girl a chance! I tried again, "Well, I guess I'm used to it, but it can get lonely at times. It's a little hard to explain, but a trader lives a different kind of life." I took the opportunity to turn and look up into her face. Yes, she was still just as beautiful as she was when I first saw her at the party... and now she was standing right next to me!

"It sounds like it can get exciting," she said, looking through the vast bridge window.

Without even knowing it, I found myself thinking about just what a thrill the last twelve years of my life have been. The next thing I knew, I was spewing it out at the little princess, "Oh it sure is! There are so many places to go... and we've only explored about ten percent of the Galaxy! So, you have your choice of either staying here in the Core Systems and trading goods, or you can go off into the Frontier region. Heck, if your ship's big enough, you can install a mining machine and find some uncharted rock nobody's ever gonna bother and... who knows, you might be bringing home some gold or even diamonds! You just need to make sure you have something to do while you're in hyperspace. Sitting alone in the Witch Tunnel for days with nothing to do can get on lots of peoples' nerves."

The young girl walked around the pilot's console and up to the transparisteel wall. She looked at me, then back out the window and sighed, "I never could understand why people would actually want to throw their lives away like that."

That gave me a nasty knock! I thought this was going to be the classic, "Sheltered-girl-looking-for-adventure" scenario. Well, I just got "monkey wrenched," I thought.

She stammered, her eyes darting between me and the window, then turned and headed back toward the door, "Well, have fun," she said.

Though I knew she just blurted out something she didn't mean and was leaving because she was embarrassed by it, a defensive, "I will," was all I could manage to reply with.

* * * * *

At about twenty-three-hundred hours, I finally decided to pay a visit to the rest of the ship... mainly because I needed to see for myself how two hundred people were being entertained on a huge cargo ferry. I knew that you could stick loads of passenger cabins in these ships, but I knew that two hundred people was far over the limit. All right, I'll admit that I may have wanted to see young Miss Dreyfuss again.

I activated the autopilot, instructing it to hold our position next to the planet, got up from behind the big helm console, and exited the bridge. I strode along a long hallway, which I believed ran the length of the ship. I figured this would be the best place to start looking around, so I listened for sounds of merry-making. Two hundred people could definitely make a good deal of noise. Either that or I'd pass by someone who could point me in the right direction.

I headed further down the corridor, listening carefully. I couldn't believe how empty the place felt. Eventually, my ears became so well adjusted to the silence that the hum of the engines began dominating my auditory sense and I felt like the deep vibrations from below were making my teeth rattle. I shook my head, knowing that this was my mind playing games with me, took a few breaths and resumed my stride.

A few meters ahead, I saw a large circular hatch in the floor. The written legend indicated that this opening led down to the main cargo bay. On the wall were three control studs. I pressed the one marked "open," and stood back. What followed was a wall speaker emitting a series of "ping" noises, the gray plate spiraling open like a giant camera shutter, and me grabbing my ears as the combined torrent of hundreds of deafening conversations mixed in with some light music shot out from the under the hatchway. I staggered back, grabbed for the ladder mounted into the wall, and felt my feet slip out from under me. I fell, desperately reaching for the ladder. Thank God I managed to get a grip on one of the rungs! My feet flailed about beneath the hatch, searching for the rest of the ladder. Where the hell is it, my mind screamed. I knew I didn't want to look down, that floor had to be more than five meters below and a fall from that height... well... I didn't want to think about it! I took a deep breath to calm down and began pulling myself back up through the hatch when I suddenly heard another "ping" noise coming from the wall speaker. I knew what that meant and I also knew that I was in a position for a closing iris hatchway to cut me right in half. I liked having my legs... and I also liked living! I had no idea what to do, but that hatch was slowly starting to close. We're going up!

I pulled myself up, grabbed for the next rung, and pulled harder. I had thought that iris hatchways were designed not to close if something was still in them... It figures that this one would have to be on the blink! I hauled myself up another twelve centimeters and even pulled my right foot out of the hatchway! My left foot was still below deck and I could feel the hatchway constricting around it, "This is gonna hurt!" I braced for the pain of what I knew would be the equivalent of an amputation with very dull and slow moving Guillotine blade. My adrenaline was up when I felt the pinch and I was ready for the crunch when the hatch suddenly stopped. I looked down, wondering if I was imagining things. What I saw was my leg, completely encompassed by the iris hatch and immobilized. There was no blood or signs of mangled flesh, though if that hatch so much as twitched, I'd be screaming my head off. I heard the "ping" noise one more time and, mercifully, the hatch slid back into its recess in the floor.

I pulled my foot out of the hole and sat down off to the side of the hatchway. I checked my leg to make sure there wasn't any permanent damage. The hatch had left a mark, but I knew that would go away pretty quick. I looked back down into what was obviously the party room. Looking back up at me was the lovely face of Dreyfuss's daughter. Still wearing her somewhat contemptuous expression, she was standing by a control panel which, even from my vantage point, bore a striking resemblance to the hatch controls I had used moments ago. She pressed a different control and the ladder which I had been hanging onto slid downward through the hatchway until it reached the carpeted floor ... only three meters below. She smiled, turned, and strode away. I found myself mesmorized by her once again and, before I knew it, I was heading down the ladder and into the crowd.

Chapter Six

Chapter Four

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