Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Part Six: The Return

Chapter Thirty-Five

"Three Elections in as many weeks. Incredible!" Maximillian Weaver paced around the crew room of the Crimson Arrow.

"I'm just glad that everything's finally over with!" remarked a very exasperated Hank Middlewell.

"Well, at least we got to see how they handle that sort of thing," It was all I could think of to add to the discussion.

"True, Mark. But, I tell you that's one thing I'll be very glad to eradicate as of next month." Weaver replied.

"If they still want to be put under your wing." I said.

Weaver stopped in his tracks and looked at me, his expression less than pleased. I knew that I'd just reminded the executive about a rather unpleasant fact. At the end of the past three weeks, Frank Best, a very political man who had been opposed to the merger of TerraCorp with WBD&S, had been elected to succeed the late Mitch Williams as the CEO of the fledgling TerraCorp company.

Two other elections also had been held. The office of Recycling and Waste Management had been filled by a woman, Renee Graveson. She hailed from Arcology Six, located amidships on the starboard side of the great factory ship. A young man, Derek Norwood from Arcology Four, won the post of Vice President in charge of Personnel and Stores.

The new Vice Presidents seemed to show promise. It was Frank Best and his idea of political power that worried Max Weaver. The rest of us, however, really didn't care at all. To be honest, all the rest of us really wanted to do was set foot on some real soil. After all of the problems we had been plunged into: a murder investigation, an escaped convict, political armwaving aboard a starship, not to mention the fact that we'd been flying through deep space for over nine months without once setting foot on a planet, nobody much cared about Weaver's big plans for the space dredger called TerraCorp I.

Perhaps that was a bit unfair, but there it was. The six of us who made up the working crew of the prototype Python Mark II class star cruiser Crimson Arrow wanted to get home. Fortunately, nobody was talking about doing anything contrary to what Weaver wanted.

Still, there was that little thought in the back of my mind that said, We're in range now... if Jenny got the drive working right again, all we'd have to do is undock and hit the hyperdrive. We'd be home in a week!

* * * * *

"Mr. Weaver, sir?" I stepped into the spacious captain's cabin that Weaver had claimed as his own. Weaver was sitting at his desk, staring out at a simulated starscape that covered an entire wall. He took a deep breath and turned toward me.

"C'mon in, Mark." The older man gave a beckoning gesture. I stepped past the threshold and the door slid shut behind me.

"Have a seat," he said, gesturing toward another chair next to his desk. The cabin was nice, but not up to the usual standard that Weaver seemed to live. In fact, after seeing Max Weaver's home with its high vaulted ceiling, the enormous Panther class freighter, which served as his personal luxury yacht, and the secret asteroid complex he had helped to fund out of his own pocket, he seemed very out of place here in a shipboard cabin that seemed so tawdry in comparison. What surprised me even more was that I hadn't even noticed this until now. Of course, up until recently, we all had been kept so busy we'd hardly had a chance to sit down and really look around at where we were!

I sat down in the small office chair aside the desk and faced the company executive, noting that he was not holding one of his famous cigars. In fact, I didn't even see an ashtray on the desk.

Weaver gave me a look that seemed to penetrate like an X-ray and I knew he had to be sizing me up. They say that there are no secrets on a starship, though I really couldn't say whether or not that was true as the Crimson Arrow was the first multi-person-crewed ship I'd ever worked on. If it was true, then Weaver had to know how the rest of us felt about this entire situation with the space dredger. Therefore, his next sentence didn't really come as much of a surprise.

"Mark, I just wanted to get some input from you."

I shrugged, "Okay, what's up?"

Weaver looked out at the image of the stars sliding by, then back at me. He breathed heavily, then asked, "How would you say the rest of our crew is holding up?"

I took a moment to think about how I wanted to break the official news to him, but my mouth seemed to want to work independently, "I think that we're all really tired of just sitting here. We've been stuck here on a space dredger for almost a year, granted, we're on our way home, but we're now at a point where we could use the Arrow's hyperdrive to take us right to Alioth if we wanted. I guess the boredom is starting to get to us."

Weaver gave a toothy grin and said, "And in space, no one should ever be bored."

I chuckled, "That's rule #1 as far as I'm concerned."

Weaver rapped his knuckles on the desk once and said, "And a good rule it is too. Keeping busy saves you from getting an urge to go and do something really stupid," his smile suddenly faded and he then said in a very serious tone, "Believe me, I know."

Now it was my turn to size Weaver up. What did I really know about him? I knew he was a partner in a very powerful mining company. I knew he had some kind of inside information on the Thargoid Invasion. Immediately, a picture formed in my mind. A bald man wearing the uniform of a Federal Navy Rear Admiral pressing the snout of a hand laser against the throat of a lovely woman is distracted by the appearance of Max Weaver. Rather than keep cool and maintain the control over his hostage, the Admiral gives it all up in order to gun the presumably innocent man down! Why? The question burned inside me and I finally decided it was time to learn a little more. I decided to take the subtle approach.

"So, did you just do asteroid mining for a living?" I asked.

"Oh no," Weaver answered. I watched as he fumbled around inside his maroon jacket. He pulled out what was unmistakably a cigar case and opened it. He extracted a fat roll of tobacco leaves and then opened a drawer under the desk, produced an ashtray and a lighter. A few seconds later, the Max Weaver I knew was sitting before me, smoking and looking as relaxed as ever. He then continued speaking.

"No, I started off doing pretty much what most folks do: I traded." This answer disappointed me, mainly because I had figured on Weaver being a former military man.

After taking another drag from his cigar, he continued, "I traded for about two years. I spent a good deal of time doing the Lave to Zaonce run and made lots of money," He then cracked a wry grin and said, "Then, I got bored and did something stupid."

"What was that?" I asked.

"Well, the Thargoid Invasion was in high gear at the time and I figured it was time to go and 'do my bit for King and Country'. I enlisted in the service and requested to be put into this special joint task force that was formed specifically to counter the invasion."

I immediately put two and two together on that one and said, "The INRA?"

Weaver nodded, "Yep. The Intergalactic Navy Research Arm," he then chortled softly and said, "It's a good thing people just remember the acronym, because that original name's pretty hard to take seriously. It makes it sound like we were nothing but a bunch of eggheads trying to improve engine technology or something... but you only laughed at it once, that's for sure. The INRA was made up of the best of the best: Pilots from the Federation, Empire, and even the independent systems. We had our own rank structure, chain of command, training grounds, you name it! Of course, you had to first join the Federal or Imperial military, then you'd get transferred into the INRA. I guess you could say I was a Fed, like you, but just for a few weeks." The executive smiled, took a drag from his cigar, and continued.

"I ended up selling my Salamander trading ship and bought the best fighter I could find: a Krait. I armed it to the teeth and joined an INRA training squadron made up entirely of the same ship." I watched as Weaver seemed to enter a pleasant dreamlike state. "Ah, what a sight it was... Six Kraits all painted black and red, just like the colors of our uniforms, flying in an arrowhead formation and executing maneuvers that people in the service today wouldn't have any idea how to do!" He shook himself, looked at me, ashed out his cigar, and continued. I sat there, hanging off his every word.

"Well, I got stationed on the front lines of course, right in the middle of everything. My wing commander was Captain-Lieutenant Sam Desmond. God, he was a great pilot and a hell of a commander! He really put us through our paces and nobody got any free rides but I'm sure that we were one of the reasons that battle line was pushed forward."

Wow! I thought, This guy's painting the picture of a classic "War Hero!" I kept silent, however, as Max Weaver continued to tell his story.

"Actually, I met Sam at the same time I met an old... acquaintance of yours."

My eyes widened as I realized that a missing link was about to be added. Weaver grinned, figuring I had made the realization, and said, "Yeah, Rob Bailey. He was working with the special weapons team at the time I joined up. Arrogant little prick, I guess he never really changed: always considering enlisted men to be inferior to him. I came into the wing as a Corporal so he and I had some personality clashes right from the start. Heck, he tried to break my hand when we first met!

Anyway, despite Bailey's bad attitude, we all really kicked some serious ass out on the front! Of course, we had our losses and we had to keep bringing in new pilots to replace 'em. That's how Ron Dreyfuss and I started working together. He and I actually met on Boston Base while I was waiting to ship out. I told him about my going off to fight the war and he was sick and tired of following in his father's footsteps, working for a mining company, so he ditched home and joined the INRA too. I guess either he must've found out where I was and requested an assignment with my wing, or it was just dumb luck that he got sent to us."

"Really!?" was all I could say in response.

"Completely true," Weaver said, "In fact, you're gonna get a chance to ask Ronnie about it soon enough."

I blinked a couple of times, now feeling a bit confused, "What do you mean?"

Weaver exhaled a cloud of dark smoke toward the air recycler and then regarded me silently for a second. Then, he answered.

"I'm going to ask that you take the Arrow here and everyone else back to Boston Base."

It took what felt like forever for the words to register properly. When I fully comprehended what he said, I still couldn't speak because I was completely dumbfounded. I had a feeling that an executive as successful as Weaver had to have a very sensitive finger on the pulse of his employees, yet I wouldn't figure on him being willing to strand himself aboard a strange starship, even one he was about to own in a couple of months! Not only that, but with Frank Best running things, I had to worry about Weaver's safety. It was true that I wasn't exactly here of my own free will and that, had things gone the way I had expected, I'd have left Weaver and his gang back on Argent's Claim, waited for Terri to return with the Weaver's Dream, and gone back to trading on the safe routes around the Sol and Barnard systems, hopefully with a bigger and better ship purchased with the generous reward Weaver would've given me for helping him to escape the INRA. Unfortunately, here I was, spending the better part of a year in the close quarters of a modified Python freighter resting in the hangar of a giant factory ship full of antiquated technology and political games the likes of which had never been seen even in the Federation Congress!

I didn't say all of this, however. All my mouth and voice managed to articulate was, "What?"

"I think that was pretty understandable, Mark. You and the others want to get back home. Fine. I can handle things here: Officer briefings and stuff to get TerraCorp I ready for the change of ownership. You folks don't need to be here for that, however I do need you to deliver some messages for me to the other three partners back on Boston Base. You do that, then take everyone back to Alioth and wait for us there. We'll be about ten weeks behind you, so you'll all have plenty of time to rest and recuperate before I'll need your help again."

I was still in quite a state of shock, but I was also more than willing to agree with Weaver's plan. I had one last question for him, however.

"Do you actually have a specific plan for this space dredger?"

The older man sat back a little more and answered, "Yes, Mark, I do. Remember what I said about setting up trade with the Thargoids once we manage to get that virus cure over to them?"

I nodded, remembering Weaver's "I'm a businessman" speech quite well.

The executive continued, "Well, this huge factory is gonna stack the deck in my favor. I'm planning on turning it into a trading station. That should keep my business interests satisfied and also let Frank Best have the degree of autonomy that he's been wanting... more or less." Seeing my puzzled expression prompted him to explain, "Oh yeah, Best still wants to see this ship remain completely independent of any other human intervention. Unfortunately, the contract between myself and the old CEO is still on record... I made sure that was done as soon as we signed it... and Best knows that as long as that contract's on file, TerraCorp's remaining assets are still bound to WBD&S of Barnard's Star.

Anyway, once we get this ship up to spec, technologically speaking, we'll send her out about halfway between Alioth and the Thargoid homeworld. That'll make it humanity's first trading post with the aliens." "Well, I hope Frank Best sees things your way and doesn't try something like a mutiny." I said.

"He won't, if he knows what's good for him." Weaver's face formed a formidable frown and he added, "I've got the goods on him and if he wants to play politics, I'm ready to beat him at his own game."

He looked at me again, blinked and shook his head as if bringing himself back into the present, and said, "Well, anyway, Mark. I'll have all my belongings transferred to quarters on the dredger and you'll be free to go in a day's time. I'll have the folks here hold off on the hyperspace jump until you're clear."

I was unable to contain the sheer joy I felt and I knew I radiated it as I said, "Thank you so much."

Weaver smiled back and said, "You folks have definitely earned your vacation time. Who am I to stand in the way of your exit?" Both of us burst out laughing.

* * * * *

"Crimson Arrow, you are cleared for launch," The voice of TerraCorp I docking control crackled through the speaker on Steve Mandrake's communication's console. A moment later, the voice added, "Docking bay doors opening now."

"Roger, control," came Steve's reply from behind me. The hum of the Arrow's powerful prototype engine resounded throughout the bridge for the first time in nine months. After living on the ship for so long, but not with a running engine, the sound of the class 4 military drive powering up was music to my ears. To my surprise, I found myself blinking back a few tears.

I guess I really wanted my freedom back! I thought.

"Engine power at 100 percent," called Jenny from the engineering console.

"Right. Activating thrusters," I reported and pressed the long-forgotten engine switch.

There was a shudder as the long-unused thrusters came on line. Looking out the big front window, I watched as the floor of the docking bay dropped away. Ahead was the expanding rectangle of the opening docking bay doors. A quick burst from the main thruster edged our ship toward the vast metal-framed inkwell. Keeping the steering yoke steady, I gave a few short bursts from the Arrow's top thruster. Moments later, Jenny, Hank, Steve, and I watched as the sides of TerraCorp I's huge docking bay entrance swept up and around us.

The light level on the bridge immediately diminished as our ship slowly fell into the star studded cosmos and it took me a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the lack of illumination. The Arrow continued her descent into nothingness with the enormous bulk of the space dredger still filling the upper half of the vista. Suddenly, the great flying factory leapt ahead into the infinite beyond, vanishing into the flashing red and orange disk of a hyperspace entry cloud. The sight of such a huge vehicle making the transit into Witch Space took my breath away. It had to be the same for everyone on the bridge because nobody said a word for quite some time.

I finally regained my powers of speech and asked, "Jenny, is that engine of yours ready for a hyperspace jump?"

Jenny took a moment to check her readings before replying, "Yep. All systems go."

"All right then," I said as I activated the navigation computer. I slid the view outward, away from the galactic core from where we had been traveling. The navigation display glided toward the outer spiral arm until I had it focused on the bright giant star of Alioth. The computer registered a distance of over two hundred light years between ourselves and that great ball of burning gas, yet the report gave no indication that the system was out of range, as it would be for a ship equipped with any other kind of engine. In fact, the accompanying message stated that it would require the use of sixteen tons of fuel to make the trip. That was nothing to worry about either as we had about three times as much fuel in our cargo hold, which was lucky. The Crimson Arrow, being powered by a military engine, required fuel that was a combination of hydrogen infused with plutonium. I have no idea just how or why the system works the way it does. All I knew was it was very fortunate that Weaver made sure the Arrow had its cargo bay filled to maximum capacity with military fuel as the raw hydrogen that powered TerraCorp I's drives was quite incompatible.

It was very tempting to lock right onto that big blue star, but I had a job to do for the man who so generously gave us the use of his experimental ship. I slid the view down and slightly to the right. Within seconds, I had targeted the red sun known as Barnard's Star. Again, fuel consumption was no problem. I only hoped that Jenny and her team's repairs on the hyperdrive would hold out long enough for us to make these two trips!

"Okay, folks, here we go," I said as I reached over and pressed the hyperspace trigger, feeling every muscle in my body tense up as soon as the button clicked. The last time we had activated the hyperdrive, the Arrow was accidentally flipped over a thousand light years toward the galactic core. Jenny was able to explain what had happened as being a result of our fighting our way out of a nuclear attack on the Arrow's hangar back at Weaver's secret research base. This time, we were leaving under peaceful conditions, though the engine hadn't been used in quite a long time. In the brief second we had between existing in real space and making the transit, I found myself saying a quick prayer that things would finally go according to plan.

There was a jolt that pressed me into my seat as the Arrow careened ahead. Outside, the starfield shifted and began twisting around like water being sucked into a drain until it formed the ghostly white tunnel of hyperspace. No alarms sounded, warning us of a mis-jump. No reports came in from Jenny saying that the engine was giving out. I suddenly realized that I was clutching the steering yoke with something like a death grip. I doubted that even a person with a crowbar could've pried my fingers loose at that moment. Finally, I decided that no unpleasant surprises were going to happen, released the yoke, and let myself slump back into my seat.

We're finally going home! I thought, closing my eyes and heaving a heavy sigh of relief.

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Four

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