Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Thirty-Four

The seven of us stood there, watching the quivering form of Louis Smart, still clamped into the memory scanner chair. Inspector Wynn stepped away from the control console and approached the recycling engineer.

"How about we take this from the beginning?"

Smart managed to regain some of his composure. He took a few labored breaths, cleared his throat and then spoke in a hoarse voice.

"Mitch... Mitch Williams and I had been talking about what that bastard Frank Best had been doing with all my personnel requests. Apparently, the asshole never even read 'em, he just threw 'em out! Williams kept telling me that Best never mentioned anything I'd sent about my need for more people in the recycling plants down in the aft sector. All Best cared about was that his own turf and his boss's turf was clean and odor free and everyone else could go screw themselves!"

The Recycling engineer smacked his open palm on the metal arm of the chair.

"So, what'd you do?" asked Max Weaver, "Go to his apartment with a Slip-Stay rifle?"

Smart nodded, "Yeah. I figured if I could make him understand what life was like down in my sector, he'd see reason and order Best to send me more people."

"But your plan backfired, didn't it?" This, much to everyone's surprise, came from Hank Middlewell.

"Well... in a manner of speaking..." The restrained man gave a shuddering breath, then continued, "I signed the rifle out and broke into Williams' apartment. He came back from the Bridge and I was waiting in an alcove out of sight of the door. Mitch went and opened the window and then, at that moment, I figured I had him cornered because... well... either he'd have to attack me or jump out a seventeen story window.

"I approached him when he had his back turned. Then, when he turned around, I fired a tiny burst of gumshoe grease on the floor in front of him. Heck, it was just a warning shot. I figured he could've just stepped right over it! But, he took a step toward me..." Smart shuddered, probably from remembering what happened next. When he spoke again, his words sounded slightly strangled.

"He put his foot right into the puddle and he slipped. I couldn't believe it! One moment he was standing there, the next, he was leaning back with his arms and one leg flailing around. I dropped the grease gun and ran to help him, but by the time I got there... Oh... Oh, it was too late..." He gave a sob and shook his head.

A few moments passed where nothing was said. Then Weaver regarded me for a moment, returned his attention to the prisoner, and asked, "Smart, what happened to that rifle when you picked it up?"

Smart let out a sort of explosive chuckle and said, "I actually slipped on my way to pick it up. I guess it discharged a full burst when it hit the floor."

The old miner nodded and whispered to me, "That explains what put you in the hospital. A full discharge of grease doesn't evaporate for a while, but that little spot right by the window was gone when we got there."

I nodded, "Yeah, that makes sense now."

"And then you set up that fake message to make it look like Best committed the crime?" Hank asked.

"Yeah, and I had one of my friends in the armory alter the sign-out sheet to make it look like Best signed the rifle out."

After another pause, Inspector Wynn stepped up and unclamped Smart's arms and legs from the interrogation chair and reapplied his set of immobilizer cuffs.

"Louis Smart, you are hereby charged with the involuntary manslaughter of CEO Mitchell Williams, illegal use of police equipment, and conspiracy. Do you have anything further to add?"

Smart gave little chuckle and then, with a small smile, said, "No, Inspector. That about covers everything."

Wynn gave a signal to the large silent guards who were, at this time, flanking the door. The two big men grasped Smart by his arms, lifted him up, and led him out of the memory scanner room. As soon as the door shut, Wynn gave an enormous sigh.

"I really thought I was gonna have to scan the bastard."

"Would it really have fried his mind?" Asked Hank.

Wynn glanced at the ceiling for a moment, then looked back at the cargo broker and replied, "Probably." He gave a wry grin and added, "It hasn't been used in a long time."

* * * * *

The next week marked the trial of TerraCorp I vs. Louis Smart. Naturally, based on his own confessions, he was pronounced guilty. Now, the problem was the fact that, since he hadn't committed the crime of murder, he couldn't be executed by being tossed out into space. Unfortunately, due to the incredibly low crime level throughout the ship, the holding cells were one of the other things Frank Best found it necessary to remove personnel from.

Oh, yeah, Frank Best... I have to say I've never seen a more relieved human being in my life. When he found out what actually happened, however, his mood went from relief to white-faced anger in the blink of an eye. Then, as suddenly as it came, the rage receded and Best returned to his slightly aloof demeanor.

"Well, I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised," he finally said, when he had completely regained his composure, "The boy has no head for politics. None whatsoever."

Now it was my turn to show white-faced anger, but I kept my cool until everyone went their separate ways. I think the maintenance folks managed to repair the access panel I kicked, but it took a while.

* * * * *

"So, there I was, heading over fifteen thousand clicks per second toward Boston Base, just prayin' like hell that I could get there in time," I held my hand flat and gave the universal "flying really fast" gesture to make my meaning clear.

"You see, this was the part of the story I never heard," Weaver said as he tapped his cigar into an nearby ashtray and grinned.

The seven crewmembers of the Crimson Arrow all sat together in the common room, exchanging stories. We'd already heard from Sarah, Jenny, and Hank, and now it was my turn. I figured I'd tell the story of my rescue of our boss, the multibillionaire Maximillian Weaver, from the clutches of death at the hands of a faceless INRA assassin.

Jenny looked at me the way a mother looks at a child who just proposed to bungy jump from the roof of her house and said, "And you did this with no autopilot?"

I nodded, "That's right. The autopilot would've just gotten in the way. I needed complete control to make this work."

The engineer shook her head disapprovingly, "Dangerous, Mark. Really dangerous."

"Anyway," I continued, ignoring that statement, "at that time I swung the tail of the ship around a full one-eighty, and hit the engines again."

"Wow! An old-school rendezvous maneuver!" Exclaimed Hank, "God, those haven't been done in... must be at least a couple hundred years!"

"Well, I bet they've been done, just nobody talks about 'em much," Steve Mandrake put in.

At that moment, the communications panel beeped. Steve, being the man in charge of that facet of ship ops, stood up and answered it.

"Crimson Arrow, Mandrake here."

The low voice of John Wynn reverberated around the room.

"Hi Steve, this is Inspector Wynn. Is Max Weaver there, by any chance?"

"I'm right here, Inspector," Weaver said, still reclining in his seat in front of the square coffee table, "What's going on?"

"Louis Smart escaped from custody."

"What!?" came a chorus of astonished voices. We all jumped out of our seats. To an outside observer, it had to have been a pretty funny sight... if the circumstances were a little less serious.

"Any idea where he went to?" asked Weaver.

Oh no, I thought, Not another investigation!

"Yeah, we know exactly where he is," Wynn answered. It was impossible for me to conceal my sigh of relief.

"Well, are you sending in one of your Active Response Teams?"

"Don't need to."

"Well then, what's going on here?"

"Smart ejected himself into deep space without a suit."

"Wait a minute here, you're saying you executed him?"

"No, he escaped. He was fleeing from a response team and sealed himself in an airlock. I guess he figured he'd be spaced for this offense anyway, so he just opened the outer hatch and blew away into space."

There was a long silence, during which I thought, My God! Another dead executive! And how the hell could he have escaped!?"

Weaver spoke slowly again, "So... why come to me?"

"I just figured you should know, seeing as your investigation was what brought him in."

"I see. How'd he escape?"

I smiled, glad that Weaver was as concerned about that as I was.

For a moment, there was a silence, then Wynn spoke again, "They were holing him up in his apartment under guard. Someone had used gumshoe grease on a section of corridor and the guards fell in it. Smart managed to get his cuffs off and then he escaped. We had a response team close by and they immediately began pursuit."

"Any idea who planted that grease puddle?"

"No. Far lot of good it did Smart, though."

"No kidding." Weaver chuckled, "Whoever it was must be feeling pretty bad about it now!"

"I guess so. Well, that's all the news from here. Just thought you should know about it."

"Well, thanks very much." Weaver sat back down.

"Anytime. Take care." There was a soft chirp indicating a terminated connection.

For a moment we all looked at each other, then, one by one, we resumed our seats around the table. I figured Weaver would have something to say, but he didn't. He also didn't seem to be paying us much attention either and the silence was rather awkward.

Then, the elder mining executive raised his head and eyes and regarded all of us.

"Well, I guess that's that."

I nodded and so did some of the others in our crew. After another long pause, a thought struck me and I figured I'd voice it.

"You know, I wonder when the CEO election is going to be over."

Weaver looked back down at the cigar he had apparently forgotten about and took a drag off of it. After releasing a cloud of brownish gray smoke toward the atmosphere recycler, he replied.

"They said it'd take two weeks to tally everything up."

"Wow. I figured any kind of election, even on a ship, would only take a day."

"Well, I thought so too, but there's a whole lot of procedures they have to do and they also want to give time for every member of the crew to cast their vote."

"Another thing to get rid of, once we bring this ship back home," remarked Hank.

"You got that right," Weaver replied, his voice suddenly coarse. He took another drag from his cigar. He then looked around the table and said, "So, Mark, what happened after you made your so-called 'textbook turnaround maneuver'?"

Immediately, the mood seemed to lighten and, although I was a bit hesitant at first, I went back to telling the crew my story.

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Three

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