Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Eleven

After a few short minutes of racing down corridors and climbing a couple of ladders, I was back in the cockpit of the Hooded Fang. I threw the necessary toggles to seal all hatches and pressurize the main thrusters as I requested launch clearance.

The docking bay conveyor sprang to life and the ship jolted as she was backed into the elevator. Again, I sat patiently as the ship was raised to ground level and the engines of my ship began to hum, indicating the enormous power held in check. The elevator door slid upward and the Fang was ushered out into the takeoff area. Far above, I saw the large iris hatchway cycle open.

I realized then that this was my cue. I hit the engine switch and felt my stomach sink toward the floor as one hundred tons of durallium and transparisteel lifted itself toward the heavens. Another button press tucked the landing gear safely into their storage wells and a pull on the control stick pointed my ship toward the vast blackness.

I couldn't see them yet and they didn't register on my scope, but I knew that they were out there: Ten ships from the INRA, piloted by single-minded assassins. I found it hard to believe such an infamous gang of thugs and pirates was once the brainchild of both the Empire and Federation. However, it didn't surprise me that things had seemed to have gotten out of hand and that the INRA had turned into something completely different from the intelligence gathering organization it was meant to be.

What was the old saying? Absolute power corrupts absolutely? Well, this was certainly proof-positive.

I pushed the throttle lever forward and was pressed gently back into my seat as the Fang's powerful forward engine unleashed twenty gees of acceleration, rocketing me away from the tiny research station.

I activated the system chart which, thanks to a whole bunch of technical innovations that I still can't even begin to guess at, gave an up-to-the-second picture of the contents of the Luyten 780-6 system. This included, planets, moons, asteroids, and any spacecraft with active power signatures. It wasn't too difficult to locate the formation of incoming craft. They were flying very close together in a sort of delta shape and their retro rockets were lit up almost as bright as the distant sun.

I selected the lead ship, which still didn't register on my scanner, and hit the autopilot. There was the briefest of pauses before Isis faced the Fang in the direction of my quarry and reactivated the main thruster. I knew I wouldn't have long to wait. The target indicator on my windshield registered a range of about four hundred klicks. As much as I wanted to, I had no time to juice up on coffee: That range counter was doing a great impression of a floor indicator in an elevator whose cables had just been cut.

At fifty kilometers, the points of pink light began to appear on my scanner display. I killed the engines and waited, watching as the INRA ships drew closer.

This is absolutely insane, I thought as I armed one of my missiles. At least Weaver's people immediately set to work repairing my craft as soon as I had arrived. Either that or the hull integrity indicator was on the blink...

At that moment, a trio of red blips winked into existence in the aft quarter of the scanner. I fought the urge to crane my head around to look behind me, knowing that I'd just be staring at the rear wall. The two sets of blips were quickly closing and I knew that if I didn't do something, I'd be caught in the middle of a crossfire the likes of which I hadn't seen since my Fed Navy days!

The communications console chirped and a message appeared, accompanied by a now-familiar face.

"Pritchard, it's Billings. Hit your retros and fall in with the rest of us. It'd be a shame to lose you so soon after hookin' up with us!"

"Right." I immedately slammed my hand down on the reverse thruster control and felt the Fang tremble slightly as her 7G retros ignited, sending me back toward the Baker Outpost police squadron....

* * * * *

It took about five minutes for me to join the group of corporate police Vipers and then match velocities. Fortunately, I didn't have to make a course correction too, or it would have taken much longer.

The ten tiny fighters from the INRA were bearing down on us almost as soon as I was up to the right speed. At a range of three kilometers, the insect-like ships opened fire.

Even to battle-hardened pilot with ten years of service under his belt, the sight of not one, not three, but TEN laser beams coming for you is pretty scary! We were outnumbered more than two to one. Sure, I'd fought and won against tougher odds than that, but that was flying solo. Now I have teammates to worry about and, if I wasn't careful, I could just as easily bore a laser slash into one of them instead of my intended target!

I swung the nose of the Fang toward one of the enemy Osprey X class fighters and squeezed the firing trigger.

Ospreys are nimble little ships, but even they zig when they should've zagged and, when they make a mistake in the face of a beam laser, they seldom get a chance to recover. This one was no exception and it erupted into a ball of flame and debris.

The Fang jolted and I hit the side thrusters to avoid getting pelted by another INRA laser. I faced another target which was weaving up and down, trying to anticipate my next move and firing its red colored laser all the while.

I waited until we were so close I could almost see the ship's pilot in the cockpit dome before I fired.

Having dispatched another enemy, I rotated my ship toward a cluster of objects indicated on my scanner. Sure enough, the rest of the INRA ships were being given a real run for their money, despite the fact that the Vipers were almost three times as large and, therefore three times easier to hit!

They had manage to score some hits on my comrades in arms. One of the police ships was trailing ion smoke from her aft quarter, where the delta shaped body was widest.

I hit the main thruster and nudged myself into the fray. Two of the other INRA ships turned toward me. One released a missile and I hit the ECM switch, only to find the missile unaffected. The tiny object sped toward me, ready to deliver a rather painful message. My shields were pretty strong, but I was not ready to see if they could actually withstand a blast from a Navy-grade assault missile.

"Hoboy!" I said aloud, "Here we go!" and I slammed on the main engines. The Fang sped past the oncoming dealer of death, and careened through the thick of the battle, narrowly missing three different collisions with friends and foes alike. After passing through the hornets' nest, I hit the rear view and grinned as another INRA fighter bit the dust.

Killed by your own missile! HA!

The comm panel chirped again and the voice of Max Weaver resonated throughout the cockpit.

"Nice job buying us time. We're taking off now."

I knew I couldn't see it, but I could picture the huge cargo ship Weaver's Dream making a very slow but determined ascent from the planet's surface.

Another INRA Osprey was bearing down on me. It's beam laser licked my shield for a moment before I turned my craft around and blasted the annoying flea out of existence. In the distance I saw the three Vipers from the research base mopping up the rest of the assassins.

I accelerated back toward the battle and had time to assist Jim Billings in making his third kill before Weaver made his next announcement.

"We're hyperspacing now. You know where to meet us!"

As soon as that message went out. I saw three glowing red disks appear in the place of the three police ships, indicating that they had followed Weaver's lead. It would have been nice if they had at least given me course to set. Of course, when I thought about it, I knew that nobody could've had such a thing. In order to keep the INRA from tracking us, we all had to follow different routes. Naturally, they were supposed to end at the same place: The Alioth System.

I switched on my navigation computer and selected what I thought would be a good place to make a first jump. I then sat back and hit the hyperdrive switch.

The starfield shifted, pinpoints of light red-shifted as they sped past and then spun wildly until they formed a bright multicolored tunnel.

I stood up and headed for the ladder to the living deck, ready to kick back and relax for a couple of days.

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Ten

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