Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Thirty-Nine

"So, what do you folks think?" I put the back of my seat up to face my friends sitting around the low table. I took my shades off and regarded my colleagues.

"Well, we're supposed to wait here until he brings the ship back," Steve Mandrake, now resplendent in what was still known as a Hawaiian shirt, took a sip from the very large martini in his hand, set the glass down, brushed his hand dry across his khaki shorts, and readjusted his sunglasses.

Jenny had finally decided to take what some would call full advantage of the hotel's rooftop garden. Today she'd decided to strip down to a newly-purchased string bikini and catch some sun. Now, however, she had taken a short break from the rays and wrapped a satin robe around herself as she stood beside her chair. She regarded Steve and replied, "I don't know about you but even though it's been a week, I'm getting tired of just waiting."

"Oh, I don't know," This came from Hank who was also busy trying to achieve something akin to a "professional" tan. "I may be feeling a little of the old 'space itch' but c'mon, we just got here! The boss knows what he's doing. Let's give him some time."

Jenny gave a chortle, "Well, I'm not surprised to hear you say that, what with the time you spend up here." She gave him a very sarcastic grin, "Y'know, Hank, a few more days out in the sun like this and you'll either be charbroiled or the next Mr. Alliance!"

Hank raised an eyebrow, and grinned back "Now that second part, I could live with! Gee, Jenny, now that you're starting to live it up a bit more, maybe we could get you ready to be Miss Alliance!"

She leaned toward him slightly, looking defiant and answered, "Not a chance, sweetie."

"Awwwww..." Hank replied in mock disappointment.

"I don't know, guys," Mike Taurence, dressed in a casual blue polo shirt and white slacks, sipped his Wiccan Ale and continued, "I think that maybe we should go on back out. I mean, hey, it won't hurt to help Mr. Weaver. Not only that but there's that whole INRA thing to worry about. You think they're just gonna let him show up and announce just who was behind the whole Thargoid disappearance?"

"That's exactly what I'm thinking," Jenny put in, gesturing toward her assistant approvingly.

"Maybe wait another week and we could talk about it again?" Terri, whose attire was very similar to Jenny's, though minus the satin robe, lay in the sun chair beside me.

"No, we need to decide now," Sarah replied firmly. She squeezed more sun screen onto her hand and rubbed it into the back of Mike's neck as she replaced the bottle into the pocket of her cutoff shorts. She then wiped her hands off on her small black tank top and sat down in her new boyfriend's lap.

A light breeze swept through the high garden and around us as we sat in silence for a moment. I watched as a Argentian Swallow tried to land on the edge of the rooftop. A gentle hum sounded and the bird was rebounded away by the invisible force shield that surrounded the summit of the four-hundred-meter-high building. The shield took strong wind currents and dampened them into gentle breezes and also acted like an invisible rubber wall, preventing anyone from falling (or jumping) over the side. As I continued to stare, I saw the bird nose its way up the side of the shield until it reached the field's ten-meter-high top edge, flapped over it, and finally settled in for a landing by the three-tiered fountain in the center of the garden.

Returning my attention to more important matters, I sighed, knowing the time had come for me to play captain and make a decision again. This was a job I was slowly becoming accustomed to.

"All right," I began, "It looks like we have two votes in favor, two votes against, and two who haven't decided. Well, I think that Jenny and Mike have made a good point and maybe we should go and see what kind of help we can give to the TerraCorp folks."

At this, I heard Hank give a groan of disappointment. I continued on.

"So, let's get Jurgenson on the line and tell him to prep the Arrow. That'll probably take a day or two, especially as they took the entire engine apart. Give 'em a couple days to put things together and then we'll set up an intercept with the dredger."

Jenny and Mike gave a satisfied nods, Sarah shrugged, Steve raised his open hand in a "whatever" gesture, and Hank gave a sigh.

"All right," The cargo master finally said.

I smiled and nodded, "Good." I felt my right hand being taken and glanced over at Terri. Her expression was one of forlorn concern. All I could do in response was squeeze it back.

* * * * *

"Why do you need to do this, Mark?" Terri immediately turned on me as soon as the glass doors separating our room from the staircase up to the garden had closed. Her tone and demeanor had taken on an air of desperation. I also wondered why she was getting so upset. We got to know each other, yes, in the Biblical sense, over the course of a month of space travel, but then were separated for over ten times that long. Most people I knew would have forgotten about it and found someone new. Terri Lane was certainly not cut from the same cloth. She was also waiting for me to answer, her arms now folded underneath her partially-exposed breasts.

I shrugged, "It's the right thing to do. If it wasn't for him, none of us would be here right now. It just doesn't feel right leaving him be." Part of me was also looking for a better explanation than this. I don't remember ever having an attitude like this before, but then, this was also my first time working as part of a crew instead of being the lone wolf trader.

"I guess I just feel like I owe him, he did save both our lives, you know. Even if it was by accident."

Terri sighed, "I know, I know," Her hands fell and her shoulders slumped as she knew I had made a point, "And I also know he set me up with my job on his ship," the bikini-clad woman stepped toward me and, without hesitation, I enfolded her in my arms.

"I just don't want to lose you again," she whispered over my shoulder.

"Oh, Terri, I don't want to lose you either," I replied, knowing my heart was fully behind my words.

We stood there for a moment, I had a brief image in my mind of a young romantic couple silhouetted in a sunlit doorway and sappy music reaching some kind of climax. Before I could start snickering, Terri's arm around my neck squeezed tighter and I realized that she was quite serious. But then, so was I. I'd meant what I said and now it suddenly felt very wrong to leave her.

I found myself caressing her upper back, my thumb dancing tentatively across the knot of her swimsuit. Knowing she was probably not in that sort of mood, I left the tie alone, but couldn't help from kissing the side of her neck and then her bare right shoulder. She clutched at me even tighter when, suddenly, a thought struck me.

"Hey, why don't you come with us?" I had no idea why I didn't think of this sooner. I also had no idea that Terri had been constricting my windpipe, which made my voice sound slightly strangled.

"What?" She asked, then relaxed her grip, "Oh, sorry."

I pulled back to face her, swallowed once, and said, "Yeah. Anyway, there's room on board for seven people and, well, Weaver's not there, obviously."

Terri smiled very warmly, "You think it'd be all right with everyone else?"

I spread my hands in a cutoff gesture, "Hey, if Mike and Sarah have problems with it, I'll laugh in their faces. As for everyone else, I don't think it'll be a big deal. After all, they seem to like you."

My girlfriend rolled her eyes, "Yeah, especially that Hank character,"

I chuckled, "Yeah, he is quite a character. Ah, he means well."

"I wonder if Jenny realizes he's into her."

"Oh, he's into anything female. And, yes, she does know," I shrugged and said, "She said she had someone, but still..." My voice trailed off and then a truly ridiculous thought entered my mind and I suddenly started laughing out loud.

Terri looked at me with a quizzical grin, "What?"

I couldn't resist, "The rate things seem to be going with couples, maybe we should change the name of the ship! Instead of the Crimson Arrow, maybe it should be something like The Red Light."

It took her a couple of moments to get the pun. I have to admit, it was a bit of a reach, but there it was. A few moments later she was laughing too, "Gee, I could pretend I'm a stewardess. But it sounds like I'll need to get one of these in black leather," she ran a thumb under her bright red bikini top.

I blinked for a moment at the suggestion, and then laughed even harder. "Yes, that's it!" I called out, "Welcome aboard The Great Red Light, the fastest, sexiest, and hardest working ship in the galaxy!"

"Happy hour is every hour, especially in the pilot's cabin!" The tone of her voice and the look she gave me caused more than just my eyes to bulge. I drew her in close again and kissed her firmly.

A few moments later, we hadn't parted and my thumb found that knot again. This time, I didn't leave it alone...

* * * * *

"Christ, you people! This is absolutely crazy!" Hans Jurgenson threw down the stack of papers in his hand and stood up, "You honestly want my yard techs to put your ship back together without at least letting them finish gathering the test results!? My God, Meredith Argent'll eat me for breakfast!"

Terri and I exchanged a glance, but said nothing. I stepped forward and said, "Look, Hans, Max Weaver is about to bring in an opportunity for more profit than Alioth, let alone the Alliance, has ever seen! We need give him whatever help could possibly need. If nothing else, someone's going to have to patrol the space around him for INRA ships."

The grumpy old man gave a dejected sigh, "Yes, I can see your point there."

"You know that Weaver will be able to compensate you for the time your team'll be spending on the refit. He's not a cheapskate."

Jurgenson nodded firmly, "Yes, I do know that." He sat back down with a grunt, slapped his open hand down on the stack of papers, and made his decision.

"All right," his tone was the sort a corporate bigshot reserved for making decisions under duress, but was still willing to work, "Give us forty-eight hours and you'll be provisioned and ready to go."

I looked him in the eyes and told him, "Thank you," as sincerely as I could.

"Pritchard, this just better be worth it," he pointed a warning finger at me.

I nodded, "Oh, don't worry. It will."

"No, I am worried about it. But I'll still get you fixed up."

I nodded once more and exited. The crew of the Crimson Arrow followed behind me with a newfound feeling of purpose.

* * * * *

"Crimson Arrow, you're cleared for launch," the voice of New Rossyth System Control sounded from the speaker on Steve's communication console.

"Roger that, SysCon," Steve replied.

I gazed out the big transparisteel bridge window. The starlit vista of Argent's Claim at night greeted my eyes. High overhead, the giant ball of Alioth 4 spun its thick atmosphere of colored gases into their rainbow-like bands. It was a beautiful sight and seeing Terri standing next to my pilot's seat, now dressed in utility coveralls, completed the picture.

Before we launched, we'd had another meeting and it was decided that Terri was more than welcome on board. Steve, Hank, and Mike didn't think Terri's idea of her acting as the stewardess and wearing a leather bikini was a bad one either! It was the responses from the other female personnel that caused us to withdraw the petition. Hank did make the suggestion that all three of them could wear the same uniform, so jealousy wouldn't be an issue. At that point, Jenny presented Miss Lane with a brand new set of olive green coveralls and it took about ten minutes for all of us to stop laughing.

"Well, here we go," I said and pressed the engine switch.

The ground dropped away beneath us and I flicked the landing gear control. The familiar whine of the gear retraction motors transmitted itself to our ears as I pulled back on the control yoke. The view of Alioth 4 now filled the window and I pushed the throttle lever forward. Even to someone accustomed to space travel, there was still that uneasy feeling like I was about to deliberately ram my ship into another planet. Even so, Alioth 4 was over three hundred thousand klicks away and we'd be in hyperspace before we were even fifty thousand meters off the surface of Argent's Claim.

The ship shuddered and then surged ahead as the Class 4 military engine spat its incandescent plasma in a flaming blue cone behind us. I watched the altimeter as the distance between the ship and the planet increased. At twenty thousand meters, a green diode flashed on my console.

"Ready for hyperspace, Mark," Jenny reported from her engineering console.

"All right," I replied and pressed the big hyperspace trigger.

The planet before us swirled like it was being sucked down a drain and then faded into the blue and white lights of Witch Space.

I stood up and took Terri's hand, then glanced at my other friends on the bridge. All of them were showing various amused expressions and I shrugged, "Well, someone find the deck of cards while I show Terri the rest of the ship."

My girlfriend and I then made our way from the bridge to the pilot's cabin. Three days in hyperspace was plenty of time to schedule a tour and neither of us was in any big hurry.

Chapter Forty

Chapter Thirty-Eight

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