Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Twenty Eight

I was spinning lazily around in circles, looking up at a sky full of stars and gigantic spotlights. The powerful lamps were enough to blind most anyone and so I simply decided to turn over and look at the ground over which I was floating. I saw streets and tiny vehicles slowly crawling around like ants around an anthill. I felt myself drifting closer and watched as details began to resolve. There was a vague dark patch right beneath me. I couldn't see too much, but whatever it was, it wasn't just my own shadow. It had substance.

Suddenly, I felt something snap and I began rushing toward that figure awfully fast. My breathing was very labored as I felt the air being sucked out of my lungs. The dark shape expanded rapidly as did the pavement upon which it was lying. I then saw the outline of a figure in a long coat. Its arms and legs were spreadeagled and... what was it lying in? Was that... blood...? Yes, that was it! In another second I was about to land right on top of him and add my own crimson mess to the little crater the body was lying in! I wondered if I would feel anything...

Just before what I knew would have been a rather nasty impact, I became aware of a soft humming. My ears must have instructed my mind to divert power from my eyes because the awful scene of impending death faded away into total blackness. I also became aware of a feeling of extreme nausea. My stomach felt like it wanted desperately to expel something, but I had no idea what it could have been.

"You're awake!" I heard a female voice say.

The nausea gripped me and all I could say was, "I thin' I'm 'onna me sig..."

"Well, here then," the voice said as I felt something cold and plastic jammed into the right side of my face.

How terrible! I thought. And where the hell am I? I wondered.

I had no idea what was going on. All I knew was that I was lying on something soft and that my face was uncomfortably pressed against the cold plastic edge of something else. I also was too well aware of the somersaults my stomach was doing. I knew that opening my eyes would be a very bad idea at this stage. I simply lay there, taking small gentle breaths and trying to keep myself from moving too much.

I don't remember how long I remained like that, I just remember that at one point I decided I felt well enough to try looking around. I twisted my stiff neck away from the hard plastic edge my face was stuck against and felt some new pains shoot through my muscles. I then remained in my new position for another few minutes before deciding it was time to open my eyes. I slowly lifted my eyelids and was rewarded with a spectacle of white walls, flourescent lights.

I turned my head slightly, further examining my surroundings and felt very terrible heaving in my stomach. My hand weakly grabbed the little banana shaped plastic basin from my pillow and I managed to lift it to my face just before I spewed forth something yellowish and awful smelling. It burned terribly as it came up and that wasn't the worst of it. Seeing this disgusting spectacle only made matters worse and a second set of heaves wracked my body. It was a few minutes later that I had managed to calm down. All the spasms I had had also jerked my body upright as I found myself in a reclined sitting position. I then realized that my back was still up against my mattress. The nurse must have elevated the bed to help me with my... sickness...

Still feeling very weak-stomached, I looked away from the half-full basin under my chin and tried to focus my attention on a pair of shadowy figures beyond the doorway to the room I was lying in. One of them appeared to turn their head in my direction, then turned back to the other figure. There was some muffled chatter I couldn't decipher before the two figures split up. The one who had been watching me walked toward the doorway. The person stepped out of the shadowy corridor and into the bright lighting of my room and I could see that it was a female nurse with short black hair, full lips, and long shapely legs. She came over to my bedside, checked something behind me that I couldn't even be bothered to look at and then looked at me. I hadn't moved from the position I was in and it only began to register how ridiculous I must have looked, holding a barf basin in my hands and practically using it to prop my chin up.

"Oh dear, looks like you need another one," she said in an upper alto voice.

I breathed with relief and gave a weak, "Yeah," I even managed to give a slight nod. I thought I was doing much better, but then my stomach knotted again and I gasped, "Hurry."

The nurse was very fast, she reached into a nearby cupboard, produced another banana shaped basin and, with one hand, held it right in front of the one I was holding. With her other hand, she took my used basin and I transferred my grip to the empty plastic container. As she turned to dispose of my recent mess, something inside me must have wanted to make the nurse's kind gesture prove to be useful because, almost immediately, the knots in my stomach released, I felt my guts heave, and some new color was added to the fresh basin in my hands.

This continued for about half an hour. In that time, I had gone through two more basins. However, with each vomiting episode, I began to feel my strength returning. I didn't think that I'd be quite myself for several days, but maybe tomorrow I'd be able to walk.

Where would I walk to? And where the hell am I? I thought. The image of falling crept back into my mind and I fought the urge to throw up again. I at least knew that my dream was very significant.

"Looks like someone's here to see you," the nurse said. I looked back up at the door and saw that, sure enough, two people, a man and a woman, were standing at the door. The man was wearing a crimson sport jacket over a black turtleneck shirt and khaki pants. The woman was dressed in a dark green flight suit, similar to the one I saw hanging on the wall. More things began to fall into place... but... who?

"Hiya, Mark," the man in the jacket said, "Glad to see you're finally awake."

The woman didn't say much and her smile seemed strained as though it was at least slightly forced.

Then I remembered...

"Max," I sighed, feeling very relieved. The man's smile widened to show even more teeth. I looked at the woman and said, "Jenny." Immediately, her smile became much more genuine.

The two of them eagerly strode over to my bed. Jenny seemed desperate to reach me and I suddenly realized how very desheveled she looked. Her hair was not only out of its professional tight bun, but completely in disarray, spilling randomly down her back and over her shoulders. Her flight suit zipper was open down to her waist, revealing her gray t-shirt underneath which clung to her athletic frame. She strode right up to the left side of my bed and gently pulled my head to her chest, something I knew I didn't mind at all, and then she started to sob.

"We were so worried," she managed to get out, "They told us you might have lost your memory."

Well, I thought, I still don't know if I can prove them wrong. Just as soon as I had thought that sentence, I immediately knew I had to ask a question.

"What happened at Williams' apartment?"

Weaver, standing on the right side of my bed, gave a great exhalation and put his hand on my shoulder. He then spoke softly, "You tripped over a fresh spray of Gumshoe Grease and just about landed right on your head."

"Excuse me, sir," The nurse was speaking in a somewhat stern voice, "but I think Mister Pritchard's had enough excitement for one day. Maybe you could talk about those things when he's fully recovered."

I knew I had to step in here. Even though there was nothing I wanted more than to feel Jenny's soft but firm breast against my face, I raised my head up and gently pushed her back just enough for me to see the nurse and said, "No no, nurse. It's okay. I'm all right."

The nurse didn't seem too convinced, because her reply was wary, "Well, I think we'll leave that diagnosis to the doctor. He's going to want to run a few tests. In the meantime, your mental health is our primary concern. At least you seem to have some of your memory intact."

Jenny hadn't completely let go of my head and I didn't especially feel the need to ask her to do so. As soon as no further words between the nurse and I were uttered, she stepped back up and I felt my head pressed against the engineer's warm body again. I could also feel her tears dripping down into my hair. I didn't think I had further need of a barf basin and the one I was currently holding was empty. I let it drop to the bed and put my arms around Jenny's waist and started massaging her lower back. I guess I have to confess that I was milking this for all I could, no pun intended. Besides, it was doubtful this opportunity would ever crop up again. Not only that, but a part of me hoped that it wouldn't.

It'd suck if I had to crack my skull every time I wanted some attention from a woman! I thought.

"I'm gonna go grab a cup of coffee and I'll be back in a minute," Weaver said, probably thinking Jenny and I should be alone for a moment or two, though probably more for the sake of the sympathetic engineer than for mine. "Jenny, you want anything?" He asked. I felt her shake her head no and I heard steps which had to be Weaver leaving the room.

I took several deep breaths, enjoying something that had to have been similar to what I experienced not long after I was born... though I couldn't remember that far back. Jenny didn't seem in a hurry to let me go either, so we just clung to each other for a while and I felt a wave of peace descend upon the both of us as though we had reached another, more intimate level in our friendship. I also realized I was smiling broadly. Well, hey, I'm only human. I thought.

I whispered into the very small gap between my face and her breast, "So, what happened to you? You disappeared on us."

This seemed to generate a whole new deluge of sobs from the engineer and she pulled me even tighter to her, almost as though she wanted to smother me. I could still breathe, however and something made me respond in a similar fashion, pulling her right onto the bed and just about into my lap. At this point, she was practically laying right on top of me and didn't seem to notice.

"I'm sorry I left you," she whispered as she cried, "I just didn't know how to deal with..." I felt her shudder violently and I stroked her back a bit more firmly.

"It's okay," I replied, understanding completely. The vision of Mitchell Williams lying face down in the pavement in front of his apartment building hung in my mind. Fortunately, it didn't make me sick to think about it anymore, probably due to the amount of experience I've had dealing with situations like that... Or causing situations like that... I thought and gave a little shudder of my own. Jenny then responded by running her fingers through my hair.

She then stopped suddenly and relaxed her grip on my head. I took that as a cue to look up into her face. I felt my face immediately begin to cool off in the fresh air of the room as Jenny sat up straight and we studied each other. Jenny's face was streaked with tears and there was now a dark stain on her exposed t-shirt at a spot right between her breasts, most likely from my head sweating profusely from being held there. She must've been thinking about that "newborn baby" analogy too because when she looked down at the darker splotch and then back up at me, she burst into laughter and, not being able to help myself, so did I. We sat there laughing and looking at each other for a while, though not completely letting go of each other either.

"Well, that's a bit better," said the voice of Max Weaver. Jenny turned and I looked over her shoulder to see the executive walking through the doorway and holding a large white cup in his right hand that was belching a good deal of steam.

I took a breath, still not quite able to pry my eyes from the woman sitting on my bed, "Okay, so I slipped on some... what did you call it?"

"Gumshoe Grease," Weaver answered, taking a seat in a chair on the same side of the bed Jenny was sitting on. "That's just the nickname for it. They also call it 'Slip-Stay.' Geez, all that time being a professional Navy man and you've never heard of Slip-Stay? Or maybe you don't have all your memory back yet?"

I thought about it for a minute. I was sure I'd never heard of Slip-Stay and so I said, "You're gonna have to explain it to me."

"Well, cops in the core systems used to use it before hand stunners came out. It's a liquidy kind of frictionless plastic that instantly hardens when it hits something solid. It was a great way to catch crooks, but well, you know, it makes this big puddle that anyone can slip on and so as soon as stunners became cheap and workable, the public demanded that the cops switch over. Can't say I blame 'em, I wouldn't want to spend a day walking around the city and then suddenly ending up on my ass."

"Makes sense," I mused.

Weaver continued, "Well, we figure someone must've sprayed the floor in front of Williams' open window with the stuff, then he probably walked into it and slipped out the window."

"Or someone might have pushed him onto it," I thought out loud.

Weaver nodded, "Yes, that's possible too. That Lieutenant Fritz guy got in touch and said they found what looks like a suicide note. They've sent a copy to me through Steve and it's waiting back at the ship. We haven't been back there since you took that fall."

I had to ask, "Do you think he killed himself?"

Weaver's answer was immediate, "I really don't think so."

"So, now we're going to take on a murder investigation?" The thought of becoming a private eye on a space dredger made what was left of my stomach sink toward the floor. I looked into Jenny's face and saw her expression was probably as grim as mine.

"Well, we're just going to help the police here out. I'm sure they'll be able to solve the case... if there even is a case to solve... Or maybe I misjudged ol' Mitch Williams and he really was a fragile egg just one poke short of cracking." Weaver took a sip of his hot coffee and then added, "But, like I said, I seriously doubt it."

Jenny brought up something that made my stomach sink even lower, "I wonder how the staff meetings are going to go now."

Weaver blinked with surprise as though he honestly hadn't even thought about it... or had forgotten about it and Jenny brought it back into the forefront of his mind. To top it off, I think I actually saw him shudder...

* * * * *

"My dear friend Frank, I'm writing this letter to you to convey my deep concern for the future of what's left of our little company. I've been very worried lately about just how an old and outdated ship such as ours can be quickly modified and adapted to meet the demands of the current century. I know you've always been a supporter of the idea of never actually rejoining any company and remaining an independent colony on the Frontier but I still think that joining Mr. Weaver's mining company gives us the best opportunity for success. I know you'll understand someday, if not now.

"Unfortunately the stress from carrying the burden of such a huge decision has been weighing heavily on me lately and I have no idea how much longer I'll be able to deal with it if we cannot cooperate and set aside our differences. As it is, I've been considering some things that I doubt any sane man in my position would even think about. In truth, I'm begging for your help and your support. Your department is the second most powerful on the ship and anything that you need, you know you can get. Even though our ideas on the future of TerraCorp have always been conflicting, I implore you to make sure that the ship makes it to Alioth and that a meeting takes place with representatives of Weaver's company.

"Perhaps we could discuss the matter further sometime soon, but I know that your schedule is damn near impossible to deal with. God be with you.

"Yours very sincerely, Mitchell Williams, CEO, TerraCorp."

Weaver looked up from the screen on Steve Mandrake's console and said, "You call that a suicide note?"

I certainly had expected something much more... blatant than that and I said so.

The older man nodded, "Exactly. I don't know what the Fritz guy was talking about. If nothing else, it could even establish the fact that he really was murdered!"

"Who knows," I said.

"Well, if the police doesn't want to have to do the work, maybe we'll just have to figure it out ourselves."

Weaver instructed Steve to print out a hard copy of the message.

* * * * *

"This meeting of the TerraCorp I staff will now come to order," Frank Best had seemed to have done a great job of taking control of the disorganized meeting situation. I couldn't help but eye him rather suspiciously. Based on the conversation I'd had with him two weeks ago in the restaurant and the last few lines of Williams' last letter to anyone, I figured it'd be easy to label him a prime suspect, but something about that just didn't feel quite right. My memory was still a little foggy, but I knew that I didn't like the director of... of... Personnel and Stores? Yeah that was it! I didn't like him very much.

I watched him resume his seat and I wondered if the reason something held me back from wanting to accuse him outright of setting Mitch Williams up for his horrible fall was the fact that he pointedly refused to take the seat at the head of the meeting table, where Williams normally sat.

In fact, nobody even seemed to consider taking that particular chair... It was like we were holding a meeting with an invisible man. Well, I imagine that some of the people may well have believed that Williams was with us in spirit.

Louis Smart, of Recycling and Waste Management, who was also acting as secretary for the meeting, read the old minutes in his droning tenor voice.

"First item for discussion is the course to be plotted for our next hyperspace jump. The staff found in favor of hyperspacing to Rolnari instead of Barsteq due to Rolnari's contents of mineral rich worlds which would be useful to us if anything should go wrong with our drive coils."

I suppressed a chuckle. These guys still don't quite realize that if a drive coil malfunctions again, another mis-jump will occur and the ship will be flung God knows where! Still, I figured I'd let them have their illusions.

Everyone around the table nodded and Smart continued.

"This leaves us with three choices of where to go next. Jajuror, a system with two suns, fifteen planets, seven of them gas giants. Perwin, with one sun, four planets, none of them gas giants. Finally, there's Greeshku, with one sun and seven planets, two of which are gas giants."

"Well, it seems rather obvious to me. I'd say Jajuror is the place to go," said Emily Howard, Vice President in Charge of Resource Gathering.

Frank Best kept his expression grim and shrugged as he said, "I don't see it that way. A binary system means that we'll come out of hyperspace quite a long way away from any planets."

"We always come out of hyperspace far away from the planets... that's protection from the gravity well of the singularity," the woman retorted.

"Yes, we know you've studied physics, Emily," Best answered and Howard's face darkened. The VP of Personnel and Stores continued, "So then I'm surprised you hadn't figured that two singularities in close proximity would generate an even stronger gravity field. It would only make sense for us to come out of hyperspace much further from any planetary orbits."

"Yeah, and the last thing we need to do is use up fuel we don't need to burn in getting to the nearest gas giant," added Tim Mulligan of Shipboard Operations.

Best gave an approving nod, "Exactly. Therefore I think our best bet is to visit Greeshku. Seven planets, two gas giants, and the possibility of mineral resources should we need them."

Emily sat there, looking rather unhappy that her "brilliant" plan was rejected... rather harshly... by her peers. She wasn't alone in having that sort of thing happen to her. Over the past few months, everyone, including the late Mitchell Williams, had seen ideas and proposals violently thrown off the table during the staff meetings.

Louis Smart looked up from his notes and queried, "So then it sounds like we're heading to Greeshku?" He glanced around at the other faces and, seeing no objections, scribbled some words down and regarded everyone again.

"Well, now that that's been settled, we have a much more important matter to discuss."

I had a feeling I knew what Smart was going to begin discussing and, especially in my current frame of mind... which was still a bit shaky... I wished I could've left the room. I braced myself for the inevitable.

"We need to begin the process of electing a new Chief Executive Officer."

Everyone around the table groaned. It was as though they were being forced to acknowledge the fact that Williams was gone forever and that life had to go on without him. Then, I realized that perhaps I was giving the staff a bit too much credit in the compassion department and they simply didn't want to get bogged down in procedures.

Either way... I knew it was going to be long afternoon...

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Twenty-Seven

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