Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Twenty One

I watched as the gigantic space dredger filled the starfield. Fifty kilometers of duralium, transparisteel, cermacrete, and industrial machinery is quite an awesome sight! One simply can't fathom just how enormous a ship like this was. Even flying slowly beneath it, the human mind isn't able to perceive such vastness! TerraCorp One stretched out into the distance, seemingly forever, forming a veritable ceiling, as we glided ahead, ushered along by the vessel's docking tractor beams. It then struck me just how good Weaver's analogy of the mosquito and elephant was when comparing the Arrow to a space dredger. Though, all things considered, I think Weaver was being generous with saying we were like a mosquito. When watching the factory ship crawl across my field of vision, I got the impression that we were more like a tiny flea to that thing!

No one spoke at all, while we were brought into the landing bay. I don't even remember how much time passed before we saw the entrance. I sat at the helm, trying to pick out details along the underside of the behemoth. Of course, in my current state of mind, I perceived much of what I saw as being weapons. Maybe they were, maybe they weren't. I tried to remain open-minded about the visit we were about to make. Maybe Weaver thought things were going to be all right and I was worrying needlessly. Well, I don't have to explain anymore about what was worrying me.

The space dredger drew nearer and I could now see individual windows and other minute items such as hatches, hull plates (some of which were larger than the hull of our ship!), security craft launch tubes, all kinds of antennae, and weapon turrets. Finally I saw the outline of what could easily have been the docking bay doors of a space station. It was to this place that the Arrow was being pulled. The big doors yawned slowly open and light exploded all around us as though we were in some scene from a old alien abduction video. The Arrow was then drawn upward into the open bay.

The sides of the hatch slipped around us and we entered into a cavernous chamber, at least five times larger than the hangar we took off from a week ago. All manner of vehicles could be seen around us, from the age-old Transporter to a couple Cobra Mark I's. I think I also saw a few Vipers, and maybe even an Anaconda! The ship was definitely packed!

Suddenly, I realized I needed to do something rather important and pressed a switch on my helm console. There was a slight bump and the whine of machinery as the Arrow's skid-like landing gear lowered into position and locked. The docking tractor guided us over to a large area marked with large yellow rectangle. There was another jolt as our ship touched down and then all was silent. Off to the right, I could see something looking a lot like a personnel access tube extend out toward our starboard airlock.

"Well, it looks like they're rolling out the red carpet for us," Weaver said as he watched the tube seal itself against our lower hull.

"I guess so," I answered, still unsure of how to feel about all of this.

I heard the sound of leather being rumpled, which meant that the older man had probably gotten to his feet. When I saw him appear next to me and slap my shoulder, I knew that's exactly what had happened.

"C'mon, Mark. We might as well go and meet our hosts."

"Yeah, sure," I said, and rose from my seat to follow him.

Before we reached the bridge hatch, Weaver stopped and turned to Jenny, who had taken her seat at the engineering station.

"Jenny, I want the engine back together as quickly as you can manage it." He looked around at the others on the bridge and continued, "I want to appear as friendly and cordial as possible, but if things get dicey, I want us to be able to get the hell out of here as fast as possible."

"You think we could escape from here in one piece?" Asked a rather shocked Steve Mandrake.

Weaver took a breath and replied, "Well, I'd like to think so." He then paused, as though wanting to hold back the rest of his thought, but then he relented and finished it, "If we can't, I'd rather have this ship destroyed than let it fall into someone else's hands."

Everyone on the bridge suddenly grew stone-faced, but there was no doubt at all that Mr. Weaver's statement made perfect sense. A hostile force with a fleet of Crimson Arrows would be a threat the likes of which could only be seconded by the Thargoids themselves!

"Alright," the older man tapped my sleeve once, "Let's go."

We strode out of the bridge and into the anteroom which led off to the owner and pilot's cabins and the lift shaft.

I was a little surprised, but not upset when Weaver whispered, "You got your hand laser on you?"

"Always," I replied softly and through clenched teeth.


* * * * *

The outer hatch slid spiraled open and, side by side, Max Weaver and I strode from the confines and safety of the Crimson Arrow and into the long personnel access tube. Our footfalls made dull metallic thuds on the grillwork floor as we headed toward a thick sliding door with a large transparisteel window set into its upper half. Beyond the glass, I could still make out the shapes of human figures, apparently waiting for us. We reached the hatch and it immediately slid up.

Much different from modern shipboard entrances. The age of this ship is already showing, I noted and flexed my fingers once, ready to reach into my slightly open flight suit and grab my hand laser at the first sign of trouble.

The party who had assembled to meet us formed a ready line which reminded me too much of my time back in the Federal Military. As if to labor that point, when I actually looked around, I saw that a good number of the people forming the side parties were in uniform!

Made of reflective royal blue fabric and sporting gold and silver piping, the uniforms served to recall a time long before the Thargoid war. They were not Federal military uniforms either, Mounted on the left breast of each of those blue tunics was a gold shield with a bright silver star on it: The universal symbol of the Galactic Cooperative Police Force. These folks were tough as nails back in their day and served to maintain the peace between the Federation and Empire as well as police occupied star systems in their lethal Viper class patrol ships.

I recalled my history classes on the Information Wars and was reminded of the old United Nations of Earth. The GalCo-op bore a striking resemblance to it. After functioning as an arbitrary venue for government heads to meet and discuss the future of the world, the UN became the ruling body on Earth in the late 21st Century. Unfortunately, the GalCo-op was much less popular with the Empire and, once that major government walked out in 3186, many of the smaller multi-world confederacies and leagues followed suit. It was the worst tragedy of the cold war to date and it marked the dissolution of the Galactic Cooperative as well as the possibility of another major shooting war between the two interstellar superpowers.

Despite all of that, I didn't think it prudent to tell all those folks in the side party that they're all officially out of jobs.

At the far end of the side party of GalCo-op policemen and women was a tall thin man wearing a long tan coat with a collared shirt visible underneath. He was flanked by two other gentlemen, each attired in their own versions of the tall man's coat and shirt. It was quite a contrast to Mr. Weaver's dark blue sport jacket, let alone my utilitarian olive drab flight suit!

The tall man and his two acolytes approached us and we met at the halfway point. The tall man spoke first.

"I'm Mitch Williams, CEO of TerraCorp," he spoke with an almost total lack of expression, which gave me a bit of a chill. Or was he still in disbelief that he was talking to a new group of human beings? I imagine being alone in space for so long, albeit surrounded by a very large crew, one gets a feeling of being cut off from civilization.

Weaver didn't seem to mind and simply replied, "I'm Max Weaver, Co-founder and partner in the Weaver, Baker, Dreyfuss, and Stone Mining Corporation of Barnard's Star." He then gestured toward me, "This is Commander Mark Pritchard of the Federation Navy."

I almost winced when the older man gave them my former occupation and I did have a problem with his lying about my rank, despite the fact that "Commander" was still the universal title of a starship owner/operator. I supposed he just wanted it to seem as though I had every right to be present at this meeting due to having a relatively high military rank. Therefore, I simply nodded to them.

"Commander," the tall man replied with a nod of his own. He then turned to Weaver and said, "So, if what my communications officer tells me is true, it seems that the Federation still hasn't managed to expand its interests out this far."

Weaver sighed, "At times like this, I really wish it had. Mis-jumps are not something people tend to enjoy. Especially if they throw you out here," he gestured around the room and added, "Wherever 'here' is."

Williams nodded, "We, too, had a mis-jump."

The man standing at his right continued, "In 2850, we suffered a drive coil failure and it sent us about two thousand light years closer to the galactic center."

I breathed in sharply. Four hundred years ago!

"Perhaps we should sit down and discuss this. I'm sure my people and I have a lot of catching up to do and I imagine you have questions of your own."

Weaver nodded, "I'd say that's an accurate assessment."

"Then, if you gentlemen would care to accompany me," Williams gestured behind him toward an open hatchway in the distance, "we'll talk in my office."

"Very well," Weaver answered.

The tall man turned and stalked toward the hatch, his two assistants behind him. Weaver and I exchanged a glance, then followed.

* * * * *

Weaver sat back in the leather armchair before William's grand work desk and asked, "Have you run across any other ships who've suffered similar mishaps?"

The tall CEO shook his head. "No. Since the mis-jump the only humans we've seen are each other."

"I see," Weaver replied.

I was content to just sit and listen to the exchange of the two corporate equals and perhaps learn something of how the bigwigs dealt with each other.

"I imagine a good deal of things have happened since our... departure," Williams commented.

"That they have, but I need to ask you something first."

"Certainly," Williams spread his hands in an invitational gesture.

"I know anagathics and youth serum can keep people alive for over two hundred years. Heck, I started receiving my treatments a few years ago, but..."

Williams cut him off smiling, "You're wondering just how the TerraCorp has managed to keep its crew members alive and kicking since we disappeared before miracle youth and regeneration drugs were finally proven workable."

Weaver nodded, "Yes."

Williams gave a soft chuckle, "Well, the answer to that question is much simpler than you think. The truth is that most of the current crew are actually sixth-generation descendents of the original TerraCorp I team. There are a few old-timers like Chief Engineer Rodriguez who are fourth generation and some newbies who are eighth, but the fact is we simply turned into our own little star nation here."

The theory was not all that surprising to me, but to see it in reality... Well, it was simply amazing to be aboard a space dredger, so anything about it had to be at least a little surprising!

The TerraCorp CEO continued, "Of course, there were already provisions made for when we performed extended deep space operations, but, naturally, some things had to be changed when we became completely cut off from the rest of society. Very fortunately, we managed to conserve our resources until we could find ways to produce machinery and perishables that we'd need to insure our continued existence."

Weaver raised his eyebrows, "That's quite impressive. A self-contained human city in the stars even more independent than a Frontier space station."

Williams gave a sigh, "Well, I wouldn't call it that. I think of it as a quarter million human beings who decided survival was preferable to the alternative."

Weaver nodded, "Understandable."

The man behind the desk leaned across it toward us, "So, now. What's been happening."

Weaver took a deep breath and then began giving an ad-hoc dissertation on galactic history for the past four hundred years.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty

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