Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Thirty-Eight

The blue and green scenery of Argent's Claim expanded below us as the Crimson Arrow made her descent toward the great starport of New Rossyth. The six of us on the bridge couldn't help but become at least a little emotional at the beautiful sight of the skyscrapers, antenna towers, and fusion plants that signified a human civilization of today.

The Arrow was guided by the autopilot not to the standard six-pad landing zone which surrounded New Rossyth's main control tower. Instead, she was pulled off in the direction of a fenced-in compound at the far edge of the starport. On the side of the building was the insignia of Argent Amalgamated Aerodynamics, Inc. In the distance, I could make out the three tall towers which belonged to the same company, thrusting their kilometer-high forms heavenward.

A few minutes later, our Python Mark II class vessel came to rest in front of the big warehouse-looking structure with the AAAI crest on it. Before us, a vast set of doors parted down the middle and slid aside. Hover vehicles sped out from the darkness inside, attached themselves to the Arrow and slowly dragged her within.

We all watched as darkness engulfed us. Soon, our eyes became better adjusted to what was actually just very dim lighting. The ceiling hung at lest two hundred meters above us and the walls had to be half a kilometer apart.

So, this is the famous New Rossyth Shipyards, I thought to myself as a resounding clang from behind indicated that the enormous hangar doors had been resealed. A few moments later and our craft was ushered into a space marked out by a bright yellow painted rectangle. There was a shudder as the service vehicles detached themselves and scurried off toward places unknown.

Finally, I stood up and regarded my shipmates, knowing that none of us really had any idea of what we were supposed to do.

"Well, folks, here we are." I said, deciding to take charge, "I suppose we need to check in with someone and get things ready for the dredger's arrival, but since they won't be here in less than a month or so," I grinned at my own logic, "I'd say we deserve a forty-eight-hour pass!"

"You said it!" Steve shouted from behind me.

"I'm all for that!" added Jenny.

A very energetic chorus of assent followed and I knew I'd made a good decision.

The six of us then made our way from the bridge of the ship toward the yard office complex.

"You know, I'm still having a little bit of trouble believing this," Hans Jurgenson, head of AAAI's Experimental Construction department wiped at his eyes as he contemplated our description of the situation.

We'd spent the past twenty minutes explaining the salient points of the Arrow's engine failure, mis-jump, and then Max Weaver's buyout of the giant TerraCorp I space dredger. Watching Jurgenson as he listened to us, it seemed as though he was getting older by the second. I wondered if that was because it was going to be his responsibility to oversee the retrofitting of the great factory ship once it had been brought into orbit around the planet.

Now that will be quite a sight, I thought and my mind drifted briefly toward an image of a Long Island-sized vehicle pulling into a low parking orbit. It would have to be visible from the surface. Probably scare the hell out of the locals too!

Jurgenson sat back and shrugged, "Well, if Max says he's footing the bill, he's footing the bill. My concern is why the need for all this cloak and dagger crap?"

I sighed, "I thought I'd already explained that. The INRA is not interested in our improving relations with the Thargoids. They'll do everything they can to stop us from pulling this off."

The administrator shook his head, "I remember back when the INRA really was a research organization. To think it'd get this bad..." His fingers drummed on the arm of his big leather armchair for a moment, then he slapped his palm down lightly, saying, "Okay. I'll work out the details about getting an extended orbital permit set up and see what kind of advance work teams we can scare up. The down payment looks good, though I still think it's amazing anyone can throw this much money away at once!"

"Me too," I agreed as we all stood up.

"Just let me know when you folks plan to head out to your rendezvous with him," Jurgenson half-whispered in an almost conspiratorial tone, "I'd like to get a good look at the thing before we start carving it up."

"Sure thing," I had to smirk.

The six of us from the Crimson Arrow stepped out of the small office and into hallway. A few moments later, we passed through the exit checkpoint and were forced to shade our eyes as we became accustomed to the sunlit vista of a lovely midsummer's day on Argent's Claim.

* * * * *

"Terri Lane, please?" I spoke into the video phone as I leaned back in the very comfortable reclining armchair in my 101st floor room at the New Rossyth Hilton. Behind me was the most picturesque view of the vast metropolis and the lush green agricultural fields that money could buy. I was very delighted that the company was willing to put us up in such a fancy place. In fact, all six of us from the Crimson Arrow were being hailed as company heroes, though our official existence was still classified. AAAI and WBD&S felt it best to wait for Max Weaver to resurface "officially" at the same time as the rest of us. That way nobody could argue that we abandoned him to some ungodly fate.

Once he returned, however, we could then announce the successful test of the Class 4 Military Hyperdrive. Although it malfunctioned on its first jump, each subsequent jump was accomplished with the precision that had been expected of it. I had a feeling though that someone would have to put in a warranty clause about operating the engine after flying through a nuclear attack.

The appearance of a familiar face framed by disheveled blonde hair brought me back to the present and I immediately felt my heart beat a good deal faster. The woman looked at me for a few moments, then peered into the screen as though trying to examine me through a microscope.

I couldn't help it. I leaned back in my seat, grinning like a goon, and said, "Hi, honey! I'm back."

Terri regarded me open-mouthed and, much to my surprise, I could see her eyes starting to mist over. Woah! I thought, I think she's upset.

"Where..." She stammered, then asked, "Where are you?"

Surprised by her reaction, my eyes wide open, I gestured toward the room around me, "New Rossyth Hilton," I forced myself to act casual again, "Weaver's boys managed to fix me up pretty nicely. Room 101-45. Got a nice view from up here. Maybe you could come up and see for yourself."

"How long have you been there?" Terri had managed to get herself under control and wiped at her eyes.

"Just a few hours. I wanted to get settled in before I called. I was lucky you're still working on Weaver's yacht or I'd have had no idea how to find you."

"Well, where were you!?" She was starting to get upset and I didn't want to tell her anything before I'd had a chance to hold her close again.

"Come on over," I implored, "I'm here and we can talk about it. It's a long story and I want you hear it."

She sniffed once, then said, "Okay. I'll be right over."

I smiled very warmly, "Great!"

The videophone flicked off and I immediately got up out of my seat and began making sure that the room was in order.

Terri had certainly kept her word. About fifteen minutes after we spoke, the door buzzer sounded and I knew it could only be one person.

I opened the door and was greeted by the same lovely young woman I'd left almost a year ago. It was almost as though no time had passed. She was dressed in her olive drab flight suit, her hair tied back up in its professional bun, and almost no makeup on her face.

She stood there for a moment sizing me up and then lashed out with her right arm. Instinctively, I grabbed it before her hand could strike my face and said, "It wasn't my fault, Terri!"

"You son of a bitch!" She shouted, tears streaming from her eyes, "You left me all alone for almost a year! What about your promise that I'd be safe!?"

Oh boy, I thought and tried to keep myself cool in the face of her irrationality.

"You were safe, Terri." I said as calmly as I could,  "Max got you a job on his ship and you were just fine!"

"Oh, and how was I supposed to know that!? First, I find out that Weaver's missing and then... then..." The anger was beginning to transform into grief as her shoulders began to shake. She clenched her free fist tighter and continued in a broken voice, "Then they tell me you went off with him to some base," I saw the tears flowing faster now as she finished her sentence, "and that it got blown up and you never came back!" she burst into tears as fell forward into me. I released her arm and drew her in.

I don't even remember how long we just stood there in our lovers' embrace, her clinging to me as though I was about to disappear at a moment's notice.

"I'm sorry," I whispered into her hair. Despite the fact that I didn't know what to be sorry about, it's all I could think to say. I tried adding more, "Well, the INRA probably wouldn't have wasted time trying to get those pirates back on you again."

She sniffed into my shoulder and said, "I didn't care about that. I was worried about you!"

"Me!?" I shouted in surprise. I'd figured we'd both thought our time together was no more than a fling. Heck, I'd called her up just on a whim, hoping she might be single and... willing.

"You were the first person who was really good to me," the young cargo worker clutched at my shirt and I felt her short fingernails dig into my back. "I just... just... I..." She faltered and just squeezed my shirt tighter. In fact, she was starting to pinch my skin and it hurt. Still, I wasn't about to push her away because I started to feel something stronger than lust well up inside my heart.

"What it it?" I asked gently.

"Mark, I... I love you! I want to stay with you! I never thought I'd feel this way about anyone until you were gone!"

Her hand unclenched and released my shirt and the skin she'd been pulling on. I let out a quick breath of relief as my heart went into maximum overdrive. I didn't think I'd ever hear a woman tell me she loved me. Spacers tend to live different kinds of lives than most civilians. They jump from one port to another, get a little action when and where they can, and then move on. If something works up to the point of a commitment, either they join your crew or you retire and settle down. I wasn't ready to retire and I'd been so used to being a lone pilot that the idea of having to take care of someone else was a bit scary. At the same time, I don't remember ever having feelings for any woman like the feelings I had for Terri Lane. My heart was so full of joy that it seemed about to burst right out of my chest! I pulled her in tighter and massaged her back.

"I missed you too, Terri," It was difficult to admit, partly because I wasn't sure I believed it, but I managed to say it. Immediately after letting the words out, I knew it was true and my heart swelled up even further.

I don't quite remember who started the more intimate events that followed, but it was Terri who kicked the door shut. Needless to say, we were otherwise occupied for several hours. By the time we actually started saying things other than, "Oh God, I missed you," and, "I love you," the sun had set and the gorgeous multicolored splendor of Alioth's enormous fourth planet illuminated the sky above.

The luxurious room I'd been given had its own Jacuzzi tub and Terri and I sat in it, enjoying the bubbling water and each other as I explained just where I'd gone off to for ten months.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Thirty-Seven

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