Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Thirty-Seven

"Well, everyone, I believe the appropriate words are 'Lucy, I'm home!'" I said as the Crimson Arrow plummeted from the shimmering hyperspace tunnel out into the star-studded blackness of the Alioth system.

 Jenny Rayburn gave a chuckle from her place at the engineering console and then spoke, "I can't believe you just said that, Mark! After all we've been through!" Even though her remarks sounded scolding, I could still hear the smile in her voice.

"Hey, I guess that's the Mark we've all come to know and love," reported Hank Middlewell. "Personally, all I can say is 'Thank God!" I heard him leap up from the commander's chair and stride a few paces over to my console. He spoke again as he stood beside my station, "So, what's the next move?"

I gave the cargo master a brief glance before attending to the navigation console. "The next move is to plot a course for Argent's Claim and let the computer bring us in."

His muted reflection in the navigation screen nodded in acknowledgement.

True to my word, I gave the command to the Arrow's autopilot and the ship swung her vast bulk through an arc of fifty degrees. Through the big main windows I could see the giant star of Alioth. Thank God for the light filtration features in the transparisteel windows or I'd have gone blind right then. The big disk of the star was dimmed to a shade of bright gray, but the reflection of its light off of the spiked nose of our craft was still dazzling. I turned my gaze back to the computer, blinked a few times to try and clear the spots from my vision, and read the distance counter.

"Looks like we'll be there in a day and a half, guys," I announced. At that moment, as though my voice had triggered it, there was a slight jolt and a vibration ran through the bridge as our powerful military engine lit off and vented its awe-inspiring thrust into the vacuum behind us.

"At least we'll be home soon," Hank commented, "I've just about gotten sick of card games."

"You said it!" Jenny agreed with an air of exasperation.

Truth to tell, I had just about had my fill of card games too.

* * * * *

Several hours, two meals, and a few journal articles later, I lounged back in the comfortable commander's seat at the center of the Arrow's bridge. Jenny and Steve had retired to the recreation room along with Hank. At the moment, the only sounds that permeated the air of the bridge were the occasional beeps and chirps from the four consoles and the soft hum of the main engine.

I leaned back as far as I could and let my eyes close. Slowly, I felt myself begin to drift off. I suppose it could be no surprise then that the alert klaxon began blaring. I jerked out of my reverie, threw myself forward, stumbled, nearly landing on my face, staggered, and then fell back into the pilot's seat. I activated the targeting computer as the bridge hatch opened. I heard the clanging sound of utility boots on the steel deck as Jenny and Steve entered.

"What's up, Mark?" Steve called.

I looked down at the scanner and reported, "Single contact, about twenty tons, range about five clicks and closing." After my announcement, I deactivated the autopilot and twisted the steering yoke to the left, bringing the nose of the Arrow around to face the target. Moments later, the shape of a sleek fighter craft could be seen through the big forward window. It bore the shape of one of the Empire's brand new Osprey-X class fighters: top of the line, fast, and very deadly. Fortunately, the designers of the Crimson Arrow had been using their brains when they put her together and remembered to install a few shield generators.

"What're you gonna do?" Asked Jenny.

My response was immediate, "Wait and see what happens."

"Uh, Mark, is that such a good idea?" Steve inquired.

After working with this crew for about nine months, I felt they deserved no less than an honest answer. I found myself saying, "I don't know, Steve, but that's what we're gonna do. Besides, we have a decent shield that should be able to stand up to whatever that guy's got."

As if to punctuate my statement, a thin line of red laser light spat from the nose of the fighter and struck the invisible shell of our shield. I watched as the shield indicator dropped to ninety percent in a matter of a few seconds. While that was happening, I lined the annoying gnat of a fighter up in my own laser sights and depressed the trigger. From the spiky beak of our ship emerged an orange laser beam, four times as powerful as the one manipulated by the Osprey-X. Still, the enemy ship was nimble and lightly dodged out of the way as it drew closer. As it came nearer, I noticed the markings on one of its wings: A golden pyramid encircled by a red ring.

An INRA patrol ship! Damn! I thought, Does that mean that they knew we were here? I turned the Arrow ever so slightly to bring the fighter back into my sights and fired. Our four megawatt beam laser mercilessly carved one of its double wings right off and, not long after, the ship detonated in a big cloud of burning debris.

"That ship was INRA, wasn't it?" Steve asked.

"Looked like it," I replied.

"Just when I thought we were out of the frying pan," the communications officer commented.

I sighed and answered, "Oh no, Steve. We're not out of the frying pan... yet. Let's just hope that was a routine patrol and not someone sent to look specifically for us."

I glanced at the scanner again and, seeing no other close contacts, reset the autopilot and let go of the control column.

* * * * *

"I think it's just incredible that we finally made it," Jenny said as she stepped up to stand beside me and look out the window. Outside, the beautiful blue and green world of Argent's Claim expanded to fill all of space below the long nose of our craft. The great metropolises glimmered and shone like diamond and glass flakes in the sand.

At that moment, something caused me to turn around and give an order to Steve.

"Steve, let the others know we're on final approach to New Rossyth and invite them up."

Steve smiled and nodded, then hit a switch on his panel and spoke softly into his microphone.

A few minutes after I had returned my attention to the view, I heard the whine and hiss of the bridge hatch opening and the shuffle and scraping of booted feet as the remaining four members of our crew joined us.

I don't know exactly how long we all stayed in place, not moving or speaking. Even though the engine was still on and humming quietly and the four bridge stations were making their little beeps and chirps, I still swear you could hear a pin drop. I was aware at that moment that I was hardly even breathing, as though one loud breath would wake me from this dream of approaching a civilized human planet.

Suddenly, a chime sounded and a voice spoke, "Attention unidentified freighter, this is New Rossyth Traffic Control, please identify yourself and your intentions."

There was silence for a moment during which I figured Steve was collecting himself. Then, I heard him activate his microphone and reply, "This is Python freighter Crimson Arrow out of New Rossyth. We request landing clearance and automatic landing control."

A pause of several minutes followed Steve's announcement. I began to wonder if registries were being checked or if someone from Max Weaver's secret organization was suddenly barging in to call the shots. Regardless of what was happening on the surface, the soft chime sang again and the voice of traffic control crackled through the speakers, "Crimson Arrow, you are cleared to land. Automatic control initiating now. Enjoy the ride and welcome back home."

I knew Steve had to be grinning like a goon when he said, "Thank you very much, control. Crimson Arrow out."

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Six

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