Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Thirty-Two

We had marched Kevin Stevens, who was still wearing the arm paralyzing cuffs, into what looked like an abandoned storage room. Conveniently, there was a small table sitting in the middle and a bunch of old plastic chairs. Inspector Wynn had sat his prisoner down on one side of the table and attached another paralysis cuff to Stevens' right thigh, thereby immobilizing the node manager's leg below the knee. It would be almost impossible for Stevens to make any kind of escape now. The whole scene reminded me very much of a typical interrogation room scene taken from any number of holo pictures about espionage.

Max Weaver and the Inspector took seats on the other side of the table. Jenny Rayburn, Hank Middlewell, and I remained standing. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Hank edging himself toward Jenny and couldn't help but give a mental chuckle at the broker's persistence, even in this stressful situation. Wynn cleared his throat and all eyes focused on the trembling man in the immobilizer cuffs.

"All right, Mr. Stevens," the Inspector said, as he leaned forward, rested his elbows on the table and crossed his arms, "Let's take this from the very beginning. What happened on the night Mitch Williams was killed?"

There was silence, during which Stevens' eyes darted around as though searching every corner of the room for some kind of help.

Wynn spoke again, this time in a much sterner tone of voice, "Look, Stevens, you'll make it a lot easier on yourself if you cooperate with us now. What. Happened. To. Mitch. Williams?" His eyes began to narrow.

Stevens shook his head a little, raised his eyebrows, and answered very softly, "I don't know, Inspector."

There was another silence. Wynn's face began to redden as he took a very deep breath. Stevens' eyes began searching the corners of the room.

He looks like he's checking for cameras or microphones, I thought.

Weaver decided to ask a question, "What was the deal with that message you forwarded to Williams and then to Frank Best?"

Stevens let out a sigh, nodded to himself, then looked back up at all of us.

"Louis Smart came to me saying he had a special message he needed forwarded to Mitch Williams and then sent along the network to Frank Best. He asked me to write a program to handle that. I asked him why all the extra trouble. He could simply send the message to both of them on his own without needing anyone to write some silly forwarding program."

"What happened then?" Asked Wynn, who had apparently recovered from nearly exploding at Stevens.

"Well, he then started to get angry and said 'I'm not asking you, I'm telling you to do this for me.' Naturally, I was rather taken aback and he then alluded to the possibility of my having an 'accident' on my way to work. That morning, Williams' death was announced and I just couldn't believe it. I mean nobody's been murdered on this ship before, but I had a gut feeling Smart had a lot to do with it and started to get scared. I just figured I should write the stupid program and just try and forget about it."

At this, Wynn smirked and said in a drawling voice, "But you couldn't, could you? You knew you were aiding and abetting a murderer in covering up his tracks but you were too scared to come to us, right?"

Stevens' eyes grew wider and he said in a surprised voice, "No, actually I did forget it, sir! I had a lot going on during that week to begin with, we'd just done a major system upgrade and we've been working out transfer protocols based on the computer specs your engineer gave us," the computer specialist gave a little nod toward Jenny, who stood motionless with her back against the wall and her legs and arms crossed.

The immobilized man continued, "Anyway, I put it out of my mind and it was only when all of you arrived that I realized I'd forgotten something very important."

Wynn immediately knew what this was and nodded, saying, "Wiping the message record out of the databank."

Stevens gave a slow nod in reply, "Yeah. That was it."

The Inspector chuckled, "Well, Stevens, you might have gotten away with it too, if I hadn't worked in the foyer of Node 1 when I first joined the force."

"Just my luck," the prisoner answered giving a very tiny smile.

Wynn took a deep breath, sat back in his seat, and spoke, "Well, Stevens, you know we're going to have to take you downtown. Don't worry, though, you'll be protected."

Stevens let out what seemed like a sigh of relief.

* * * * *

The journey to the headquarters of Recycling and Waste Management, was a long one. R&WM was a complicated set of disposal, treatment, and recycling facilities located quite a long distance from the more densely populated sectors of the enormous space dredger. I figured the mentality behind putting the bulk of the machinery so far aft had to be akin to the feelings shared by 99% of the human race. Everyone needs waste treatment and recycling facilities, but not many people would be willing to have them in their backyard, so to speak.

The transport tube took us through areas of the ship I had never seen before... which, in a way was not all that surprising. At one point, we saw what looked like an enormous field under a dome even larger than the ones covering the arcologies. We could even see cloud formations high up near the ribbed transparisteel canopy.

"What's this?" I asked Inspector Wynn, who was seated across from Weaver, Jenny, Hank and I and flanked by six other members of the GalCop police force.

Wynn cast his gaze outside and answered shortly, "Agridome. Number Twelve, I think. Mostly corn and sweet potatoes. I don't travel back this way enough to know for sure."

To my surprise, Wynn's little statement really impressed upon me just how big TerraCorp I really was. Being in his mid fifties, just beginning to hit middle age, Wynn had lived all his life on the factory ship and he still hadn't seen all that much of it!

"I figured you had to be growing your own fruits and vegetables, but I still can't believe we never even heard of these places," Jenny said as she marveled at the seemingly endless rows of green and yellow plants.

"Well, Miss Rayburn, would you believe that there are some members of the crew who may never see this dome? That's how big this ship is." Wynn smiled at her reaction. She must've just made the same realization I had moments ago.

I looked past the Inspector and into the distance. I could swear I saw what looked like honest-to-God rainfall at the far end of the dome, but before I could get a better look, we were plunged back into relative darkness and it took a few minutes for our eyes to readjust.

The capsule shot down a long twisting passage leading deep into the very bowels of the giant starship. Things seemed to get darker and darker as we sped past the giant engine rooms and downward toward the Recycling section.

Is it my imagination or does the air smell different here? I wondered. I took another cautious sniff. If there was a difference in the quality of the air here, it was very small. I figured my mind had to be playing tricks on me. It's just 'cause we're on our way to the treatment plants.

After what felt like an eternity, the capsule began to slow down. Moments later we stopped in a very dim section of tunnel. When the capsule doors opened, I then decided to give my mind a bit more credit. The stench in the air was indescribable. The only correlation I could think of was back in my Navy days walking into the head after Ensign McNair's chilidog supper made its usual dramatic exit. The problem was, what I was experiencing at this moment was ten times worse. I could hear Hank gagging as we made our way toward a large building set among a monstrous aggregation of tanks and big pipes.

Our large group entered main vestibule of the Office of Recycling and Waste Management and were greeted by the sweetest air we had ever had the privilege of breathing. It could very well have been better quality than the air elsewhere in the ship, but comparing it to what we had just walked through, it was a little slice of heaven.

"So, are we going to talk to the receptionist first, or are we just gonna pay Mr. Smart a visit without an appointment?" Weaver asked the surly Inspector Wynn.

"What do you think, sir?" was his reply.

We all headed right past the front desk, taking little notice of the goggle-eyed expression of the receptionist.

* * * * *

The door to Louis Smart's office slid aside and Inspector Wynn marched right in, followed closely by the four of us from the Crimson Arrow. The Vice President in charge of Recycling and Waste Management was standing behind his long mahogany desk in a high-ceilinged office. The large window behind the desk gave an excellent view of the giant recycling plants and treatment facilities which seemed wrapped in a thick orange-ish haze.

"Well, well, well... the good Inspector John Wynn and Max Weaver, the man pledged to save TerraCorp from the jaws of disaster!" I couldn't tell if Smart was being sarcastic or not. I had a feeling that the sight of a GalCop officer could not mean anything good to him.

Wynn took a few steps toward the desk, followed by Weaver. The rest of us stayed back. If anything were to happen, Wynn could probably handle it. If not, there was Max Weaver, myself, Jenny, and Hank. If that wasn't enough, Wynn's six deputies, dressed in their bright blue and silver uniforms, were waiting outside with fully loaded gumshoe grease rifles and billy clubs.

Smart seemed to notice our grim expressions and his demeanor became a little more serious. He asked, "Well, what can I do for all of you?"

Wynn took another step forward and said, "Mr. Smart, we've just been having a little conversation with an acquaintance of yours: A Kevin Stevens who works in the Arco Three Network Node."

The recycling engineer raised an eyebrow, "Oh? How is he?"

"Not particularly pleased to see us," Weaver answered.

Smart shrugged, "Well, I would suspect that one does feel a degree of apprehension when confronted by any law enforcement official."

"Mmm, particularly if they know they've got something to hide from us," The Inspector commented.

The TerraCorp executive gave an annoyed sort of sigh, "And so what does this have to do with me, sir? I'm a very busy man and don't have time to play games."

Wynn decided to get on with it, "Mr. Stevens has told us about a certain message you sent to him. He said you demanded that he write a rather complicated little program that would forward the message to the late Mitch Williams and then, from there, forward it to the mailbox of Frank Best."

Smart's demeanor became one of detached coldness, "I believe I already explained that to Mr. Weaver, sir. Mr. Williams, God rest his soul, came here to speak with me and wanted to send a special message to Mr. Best. He was in a hurry and I happened to be logged into the mail system. He sent the message to himself so he could then forward it on to Frank. I've been very clear about this."

Weaver stepped forward and said, "And that was almost believable, Louis. The problem was, my friend Mark and I made a very interesting discovery," he gestured in my direction.

Smart gave a tight-lipped grin and said, "I'm sure you'll tell me what this discovery is,"

"Yeah," Weaver agreed, "this supposed message from Williams reached his own mailbox and then was sent on to Frank Best about five minutes after Williams was found dead on the sidewalk."

The recycling engineer blinked and his little grin melted away. There was a long pause, after which Smart answered with, "I see."

Suddenly, there was something in his hands. Wynn threw up his arm and yelled, "FREEZE!" but it was too late. Smart had raised his weapon and let loose with a burst of frictionless liquid plastic. A split second later, there was a big glistening puddle on the floor directly in front of Wynn and the rest of us and Smart was bolting for another door on the opposite end of the long office. His footfalls echoed as he ran.

By the time it would take us to get around the puddle of Slip-Stay, Smart would have managed to escape. In one quick motion, which surprised me, considering how out of practice I was, I had drawn my hand laser. I saw that Wynn had drawn a weapon of his own, at a glance, it looked like a tiny water pistol. I focused my attention on the retreating man's legs and squeezed the trigger.

Unfortunately, my loss of skill with my hand laser decided to rear its ugly head at this point and my beam only managed to graze Smart's right foot as he leapt over the shining puddle of fresh Slip-Stay that Inspector Wynn had so expertly aimed.

"After him!" Shouted Weaver as he ran around what had to have been the outline of the resurfaced floor and plunged into pursuit. For the rest of us, it was very slow going at first because all of us were very worried about sticking a foot onto a frictionless spot on the floor and having to be hospitalized again. Fortunately, we managed to escape unscathed, though I did see Jenny almost lose it as her foot must've wandered into Smart's puddle for one step. We all raced out of the room after Smart and Weaver.

* * * * *

Wynn, being a GalCop officer still in his prime (though he had to be nearing the end of it by now), managed to get ahead of Weaver as we pursued the fugitive Louis Smart.

He must be guilty as all hell. I thought as I gave myself an extra kick of speed. Being a former Navy man, I was not used to running this far to get anywhere. That's the problem with living on small starships, you hardly have to run more than fifty meters to get anywhere, even on big converted Deep Space Freighters that served as capital ships for both the Federation and Imperial navies. I knew it had to be sheer obsession that made my legs want to keep moving. The blood was hammering in my ears, though.

We raced past the closed doors of many offices. At one point, a door opened and Wynn very nearly collided with someone who had to be an intern by how young he looked. Fortunately, the boy was only pushed against the wall by the police officer and he watched open-mouthed as the rest of us shot past him. Ahead, I saw the tiny figure of Louis Smart head off to the left and into another large corridor. The five of us in pursuit followed. Smart approached what looked like the end of a staircase and, for a moment, I thought he was going to try jumping. He was crazy, in my opinion, to be running from the law but I guess not crazy enough to try a daredevil stunt like a leap from a four-meter-high platform onto a hard tile floor. Smart hesitated for a moment before beginning his descent and, in that moment, I saw my window of opportunity.

Despite my previous failure to hit and without even fully realizing what I was doing, I extended my hand laser. I felt as though I was in a dream as I aimed for the retreating man's legs. I watched, feeling completely detached from everything, as Inspector Wynn let loose with a blast of his Slip-Stay pistol. In that instant, I squeezed the trigger of my hand laser.

The pencil thin beam of blue-white light sizzled just past Inspector Wynn's left hip and struck Louis Smart's right leg. I watched the laser chew through his pant leg and into his flesh. Blood poured from the burn hole just as a glistening puddle of expertly-aimed slip-stay, materialized right in front of him. Smart shrieked in pain, his high-pitched voice ringing in our ears and reverberating around the room as he careened onto the fresh puddle of frictionless plastic. There was no way he was going to avoid it and we all watched as Smart's legs tried to move in two completely different directions at once, then shot right out from under him. There was the loud thud of a body hitting the floor accompanied by a loud crunch and a new scream, which I knew had to be the announcement of a badly broken bone. Then, we watched as the executive began rolling below our line of sight, one arm flailing to find a purchase of some kind. There was a sound of a man screaming, punctuated by thuds and thumps that ended abruptly.

By the time we reached the top of the steps, carefully avoiding the area that Wynn had sprayed, we saw the prone form of Louis Smart on a landing, halfway down the four-meter staircase. He was moaning weakly and we saw a deep red puddle begin forming beneath him as we made our way down. There was a nasty scar on the back of his right thigh, where my laser beam had drilled him. His right arm was bent at a rather unnatural angle and I saw another bleeding gash. This one had a piece of white bone protruding from it, however.

Wynn fired a last burst of from his pistol at the floor between the staircase and the exit doors and pressed something attached to the epaulet on his left shoulder and spoke into it.

"Suspect down, we need a medivac unit, stat."

There was a crackle and a voice then answered, "Roger, Inspector, dispatching now."

Wynn bent down and extended a hand holding an immobilizer cuff.

"WAIT!" Screamed the injured executive. Wynn ignored him and, instead, wrapped the thin electronic collar around Smart's still-good left arm. At the touch of a button, the arm flopped down and struck the floor as though it were a dead fish.

"Mr. Smart, you have the right to remain silent. If you give up the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you in a Corporate Court of Investigation. You have the right to a defending officer. If you cannot choose one of your own, an officer will be appointed by the office of Internal Affairs. Do you understand these rights as I have read them to you, sir?"

Smart gave an exasperated breath and said, "Yeah, but..."

Before he could say anything else, the sound of a door opening and the shuffling of many feet could be heard. I turned and saw a group of four people dressed in white come charging into the foyer. They were carrying a curved aluminum stretcher that floated ahead of them. One of the medical technicians had the bad luck of walking across the puddle of Slip-Stay that was sprayed on the floor between the stairs and the door. He gave a loud, "Whoops!" and I watched as his arms and legs pinwheeled around as he careened forward. His leg then stepped on what had to have been normal floor because he stopped flailing around and immediately fell forward. Much to my own surprise, however, he didn't slam face first onto the tiles. Instead, he managed to catch himself with one hand and, in a move that completely defied my mind, flipped himself over in an impressive gymnastic cartwheel, and landed solidly on his feet. Then, as though none of this happened, he continued on toward us. Seeing that all four of us from the Arrow were staring at him, the tech shrugged.

"Happens sometimes," he said nonchalantly, then proceeded to help the three other medtechs in lifting the prone form of Louis Smart onto the stretcher. The arrested man gave a grunt of pain as he was placed into the curved aluminum tray. Then, two of the techs gave him an injection of something into Smart's broken arm as Wynn removed the paralysis cuff from his left arm. The techs then proceeded to manupulate the fractured limb. There was an unpleasant crunching sound as the arm was reset and the bone brought back underneath the skin, but Smart didn't so much as wince, though he didn't watch what was happening either. The arm was then bound securely in linen which immediately solidified, forming a cast.

A second later, the arrested man was strapped down using old-fashioned Velcro straps and then the stretcher was raised off the ground. It floated in front of us, and a curious thought crossed my mind about Smart looking like the victim of a demonic possession. I chuckled, thinking.

Well, if he really did kill Mitch Williams, maybe that's not far too from the truth!

Preceded by the four medical techs, each with a hand on the stretcher, we all made our way toward the exit and a waiting hover truck.

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-One

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