My Other Car is a Spaceship - Excerpt (part 1)
© Mark Terence Chapman
He wasn’t exaggerating when he called it a grand tour. This is incredible!
Hal had just spent two hours following Kalen from one end of Adventurer to the other, with many stops along the way: from the bridge to environmental systems, from engineering to weapons. The sheer scope of the immense ship continued to amaze Hal.
We’re so proud of the advances we’ve made into space. This ship makes ours look like a broken-down Model T; and the room they have to move around in— He shook his head in amazement. Our ships are like phone booths by comparison.
And the weapons! If they ever decide to invade Earth, we’re doomed.
The thought worried him for a moment, but then he got caught up again in his enthusiasm for the ship.
Holy shit, she’s fast! She can fly to Mars and back before our ships even leave orbit. It makes everything we do seem like a complete waste of effort.
He allowed himself to steep in self-pity for a moment. Then he shook it off.
This is exactly what Kalen meant about cultural contamination. We’re not inferior; we’re merely late to the party.
It can’t hurt to fly this baby for a few months, can it? It won’t change the course of human development. In fact, by defending Earth, maybe I’ll help keep the natural progression of society and technology on its original course.
At least, that’s the theory.
Hal followed Kalen into the medical bay. “Colonel Harold Nellis, I’d like to introduce you to Dr. Chalmis’Noud’Ourien. We all call him Nude for short. Nude, this is our new pilot.” Kalen took a seat in the corner of the room.
Hal suppressed a chuckle at the doctor’s nickname and looked up, and up, and up. He swallowed. “Nude? Nice to meet you. Call me Hal.” The latter remark drew a smirk from Kalen.
“It is my distinct pleasure to meet you, Hal.”
The Chan’Yi was 2.8-meters tall and cadaverously thin. Bipedal, he was generally proportioned like a human, only more stretched out. His face never would have passed for human, even without the bright cobalt hue. His appearance was more horse than human. Wherever his hearing organs were, Hal couldn’t see them. Nude had four digits on each hand, three fingers and an opposable thumb. Despite the nickname, he wore a purple gown that covered him from neck to feet, which were shod in what looked to Hal like size twenty-eleven slippers.
He’s a doctor, so he can’t be starving. This must be his normal appearance. Hal swallowed. This is going to take some getting used to.
“So, Nude, how do we do this? How do I get hooked up to the ship?”
“The procedure is quite simple. I will inject an implant into your brain.”
Hal shrank back a bit. The theory sounded great, but now faced with the actuality, he was having second thoughts. “Whoa. Hold the phone. You mean you’re going to put a little machine in my head? I don’t know about that.” He shivered at the thought.
“Do not worry, Hal. It is painless. In a matter of minutes it will extend sensor tendrils to the appropriate places in your brain.”
“Tendrils? Hey, wait a minute…” Hal blanched at the notion of an alien machine crawling through his brain and taking over his mind.
“Again, there is nothing to worry about. Over the course of the next hour or so, they will interface with all aspects of your conscious and unconscious mind, including the speech centers. This is how I am able to speak your language and many others. The implant also maintains constant wireless contact with all of the ship’s systems. Once you are online, you will have control of all phases of the ship’s functions, from piloting to weapons to environmental systems to maintenance. You will be primarily responsible for piloting and weaponry. We have other people to perform the other functions—life support, ship repairs, food preparation, housekeeping, medical, and so on—but you will have the ability to take over for most of them in an emergency.”
Hal’s eyes widened. The thought of all that capability at his disposal banished the fear of mind control.
He whistled. “That’s a lot to keep track of.”
“It is nothing of which you are not capable, or you would not be here.”
“If you say so. But if there’s only one of me, how am I supposed to run this ship twenty-four hours a day? I have to sleep sometime.”
“True. However, you will find that the effort necessary on your part to maintain station-keeping orbit and other basic tasks will be minimal, and many ship’s functions are automated. Your unconscious mind will quickly learn to monitor Adventurer’s status and perform minor tasks while you sleep. Except during battle conditions and interstellar flight, the ship will require little conscious thought on your part to keep it operating normally. The rest of the time you can spend on training and leisure activities.”
“Interstellar flight.” Hal shook his head in wonder. “I like the sound of that. All right then, let’s do it.”
Nude gestured to one of the slabs that served as beds. Hal hopped on and found that it was much more comfortable than it looked, automatically conforming to his shape. Nude pressed a small handheld device to Hal’s temple. He felt an icy sensation that lasted but an instant and then was gone.
Hal rubbed the area, which was tender, but only just. He braced himself. “Okay, whatever you’re gonna do next, I’m ready.”
“We are done.”
“That’s it?” Hal relaxed. “That was fast.”
“The procedure is entirely painless. You may sense a sort of tickling or itching as the implant goes to work. The sensation is purely imaginary; there are no pain sensors in the human brain. What you will feel is your brain attempting to make sense of the new signals it is receiving. Do not worry. This is all a normal part of the integration process. Within an hour, your consciousness will have expanded to take in the whole of the ship. I am told it is quite an enlightening experience.”
Hal nodded his understanding. Then a moment later, “Say, Doc, Kalen tells me that this assignment will last several months and then I can return to my normal life. I take it this procedure is reversible. You can take the implant back out of me, right?”
“Remove it? Dear me, no. It is part of your being for the rest of your life.” When Nude saw Hal sit up in alarm, he continued. “Do not worry. Once you are removed from this ship, the implant will no longer serve a purpose and can be deactivated. You will suffer no long-term effects from its use.”
“Oh.” Hal lay back on the slab, not exactly pleased at the idea of thousands of tiny spider-web-like tendrils extending throughout his brain. What if the implant woke up somehow and ran amok? He momentarily pictured it waving its tendrils and screaming, ‘Exterminate! Exterminate!’ before shoving the thought forcefully from his mind.
“I guess that’ll have to do. Now what?”
“For the moment, just lie back and let the implant do its work. I will monitor your condition; however, I do not expect any complications.”
Nude hesitated for a second, then looked to Kalen.
The human answered, “In a very small percentage of implants, the patient’s brain chemistry is incompatible with the device and rejects it.”
“Rejects it? Um, just for grins, what happens to the patient if the implant is rejected?”
“Moderate to severe brain damage, potentially death.”
At Hal’s horrified expression, Nude jumped in. “Do not worry. I am reasonably certain that will not be the case here.”
“Reasonably certain?” Hal swallowed hard. “I hope you’re right.”
He pictured Carol standing over his grave. Would she cry? “I suppose it’s too late to back out now.”
Kalen rose to leave. “I’ll come back when the doctor says you’re fit for duty. In the meantime, just relax and let the implant do its job.”
What have I gotten myself into?
As Hal lay there, trying not to worry about his brain turning to mush, he had time to think about what would happen back home when he didn’t return right away. The newspapers would pile up, as would the mail. The mortgage would default and his utilities would be cut off for nonpayment. Bernie Carver, an old friend, probably would be the first to notice his absence. He and Hal tended to talk several times a week. Soon, Bernie or someone else would grow suspicious and report Hal missing. Then he’d have a problem explaining his absence when he returned, months later.
He sat up. “Excuse me, Nude, I need to contact some friends back home so they don’t worry about me. There are also some financial matters.”
“You can speak with Kalen when you are done here, but I would not worry. He is quite good at tying up loose ends of that sort. For now, just lie back and try not to think so much. If you clear your mind and are receptive, the implant can finish its job that much more quickly and you can be on your way.
“Easy for you to say, doc. You’re not the one wondering whether he’ll have a mind left after he clears it.”
Nude’s mouth formed what Hal guessed was a smile. He glanced at the sensor readings on his handheld. “Have no fear on that account. The implant is already integrating with your mind. If you stop talking for a moment and relax your attention, you should be able to feel something by now.”
Hal’s eyebrows shot up. I don’t feel anything at all. I guess these alien doctors don’t know everyth—
He felt something, deep inside his skull, like the beginning of an itch. It wasn’t quite to the point of discomfort—more like the memory of an itch. It was such a fascinating phenomenon that Hal focused his concentration on it for several minutes. Soon, he noticed other places where the sensation made itself known. Dozens of such “itch points” appeared inside his head, grew in intensity until he wanted to scratch like mad, and then gradually diminished until none were left.
“Hal, the process is complete.”
Hal opened his eyes to the face of a giant blue horse leaning over him. He almost jumped, before remembering where he was and why.
“What happened? I was concentrating on the sensations. Did I fall asleep?”
“You have been in a state of deep unconsciousness for more than an hour. The implant has completed its task. You are now ready for duty. How do you feel?”
Hal shrugged. “Same as usual. Aren’t I supposed to be able to feel/see/hear—or whatever—the ship’s functions?”
Nude nodded. “You will, once the neural connection is activated. Kalen will instruct you. He should be here shortly.”
The captain picked that moment to arrive.
“Perfect timing,” Nude acknowledged with a nod. “I was just telling our patient that he is all yours.”
“Excellent work as always, doctor. Hal, please follow me.” Kalen’s voice was not cheerful. “It’s time we attend to that pirate.”
Kalen Jeffries turned and exited through the doorway that opened ahead of him. Hal followed him out into the corridor and moments later through the doorway to the bridge. They were greeted by bedlam. People scurried to and fro, looking worried. Various images, charts and diagrams appeared and shifted on workstation viewscreens. The main viewscreen, however, continued to show a single image—some sort of spacecraft.
Captain Jeffries walked to his command chair and sat. “That ship you see up there,” he gestured to the giant central viewscreen, “is the pirate. He’ll be within firing range in…” he consulted the viewscreen built into the armrest of his chair, “just over eleven minutes.”
“You can stop him, can’t you?”
“Ordinarily, with a pilot plugged into the system, yes. It’s only a small ship, with little shielding and moderate weaponry. Still, without a pilot I’m forced to operate the ship manually. That’s a big disadvantage already in terms of reaction time. Worse, I’ve had no experience flying manually in actual battle conditions. Unfortunately, he arrived before we could get you trained.”
“I’ve got the implant in me now. There must be something I can do to help. If I can’t fly this thing, maybe I can fire a weapon.”
Kalen shook his head, no. “Without training, there’s really not much you can do. Despite the neural interface, it still takes weeks of practice to learn how all the ship’s systems work and for your reactions to be automatic. At this point, you’d be more dangerous than helpful. We have people who can handle the defensive weapons temporarily, and I’ll be flying the ship and firing the offensive weapons.
“I won’t do as well as you will after training, however. I’ve got the same neural interface, but not your hypertasking ability. Still, the pirate ship is small. With any luck, I’ll be able to fend him off without getting us killed.”
“Surely there’s something I can do.”
Kalen thought for a moment. “All right. Take the pilot’s couch and monitor the energy signatures of the raider. I’ll show you what to look for. Certain energy spikes will tell you when he’s getting ready to fire his weapons. That should give us a few seconds warning and would be one less thing for me to have to pay attention to. Maybe it’ll be enough.”
“I’m on it.” Hal sat on the pilot’s couch, which tilted back and extended somewhat like an easy chair, and Kalen activated the auxiliary viewscreen in the armrest. It was rarely used, due to the neural interface all pilots have, but Adventurer had backup systems for everything.
Kalen displayed sensor readings on Hal’s viewscreen. “Look for these specific patterns. They’ll indicate power surges in his laser and antiproton cannon systems. Let me know as soon as you see one within twenty percent of these thresholds.”
Hal pored over his sensor readings and waited for the bogey to get within weapons range. He took a quick glance at Kalen and wished he hadn’t.
Captain Jeffries was sweating.
Hal swallowed and focused on his sensor readings. Less than nine minutes to weapons range.
* * * *
Kalen was more worried than he let on.
He may be smaller than we are, but he’s got the instantaneous reaction time of a neural interface. I hope that’s not too big an advantage to overcome.
His grip on the armrest tightened. He made a conscious effort to loosen his fingers, and then cracked his knuckles loudly. It’s important for the crew to see that the captain is relaxed and unworried—even if he’s not.
It’s almost time.
“We’re coming up on maximum weapons range, Captain,” Hal reported. “There’s no indication that he’s seen us. His weapon signatures are still registering in idle mode.”
“Very good.” Kalen signaled Conflict Alert, sounding the klaxon and raising the shields.
“I’ll fire a warning shot across his bow,” Kalen said to Hal. “Let’s see if we can scare him off, shall we?” Kalen punched some settings into his console. “Firing APC burst at minimum-power…now!”
“That got his attention. His shields just went up.” (CONTINUED)