My Other Car is a Spaceship - Excerpt (part 2)
© Mark Terence Chapman
CHAPTER TWO (Cont'd)
Kalen toggled the radio. “Unidentified craft on a vector to Earth. This is Captain Kalen Jeffries of the Merchants’ Unity ship Adventurer. You have entered embargoed space. Turn around immediately or be fired upon. Repeat, leave this system or be fired upon. You have ten seconds to comply.”
“The bandit is powering up weapons. Estimated eight seconds to full power.”
“So he’s not running,” Kalen observed. “Very well, let’s try a full burst broadside. Firing APCs, now!”
Kalen unleashed hellish energy upon the marauder, firing all four antiproton cannons.
The enemy ship jinked left and evaded one of the blasts. The others splashed harmlessly off his shields.
“Incoming!” Kalen called out. “Two quems. Initiating evasive maneuvers. Everyone hang on. This could get rough. The ship doesn’t react as well with manual controls.”
The ship bucked and spiraled as Kalen attempted to elude the shield-seeking quark-enhanced missiles, or quems. One missed; the other hit. Adventurer shook from the impact. Before Kalen could respond, the bogey fired APCs at the weakened spot in the shield.
“Rotating ship and reinforcing shield. Firing slugs!” Kalen winced. “Not even close.”
The marauder, evidently detecting the power surge to the mass driver, had pirouetted out of the path of the superdense MD slugs and returned fire with more quems.
“Two can play that game. Take that!” Kalen fired two quems of his own, followed by a second salvo. But distracted by his offensive moves, he wasn’t quick enough on defense. Both enemy missiles detonated within meters of Adventurer’s shields. The explosions severely weakened the shield on the port side amidships and breached the shield on the forward starboard quarter. The pirate followed up with blasts from its twin APCs, pounding at the hull where the shield had failed.
Adventurer rocked with the force of the blows. Alarms sounded.
Kalen called out, “Damage crews to decks three and five, section Blue Four!”
He followed up via his implant with mental commands to the repairbots to head to the same areas. He spun the ship, to make it harder for the marauder to target the damaged areas. Of course, that also made it more difficult for him to accurately return fire.
A closer scan of the bogey showed that its shields were weakened as well, due to multiple quem strikes from Adventurer. “Let’s see how you like it!” Kalen hit the marauder with more APC blasts. He was rewarded with the sight of atmosphere jetting from a ragged cavity near the stern, accompanied by a spray of debris.
“Yeah! Direct hit—and significant damage!” Hal reported. “His engine readings are erratic.”
“Captain!” a voice came over the intercom. “Type-26 missile detected. It’s locked on and coming fast!”
“Damn! How does a ship that small carry missiles that large? Armory,” he yelled into the intercom, “deploy missile countermeasures, now!”
The ship heeled over and then back as Kalen did his best to evade the energy-seeking missile.
“The missile’s still locked on!” Hal shouted.
The projectile continuted to close the gap. Kalen tried changing speed and direction at random. Despite his efforts, the missile grew ever closer.
“Impact in eight seconds, Captain!” Hal shouted.
“I…can’t…seem…” Kalen called out through gritted teeth, “to stay out of its way. Crew, brace for impact!”
He continued to whipsaw the ship in random directions, hoping to make the missile slip by them. He couldn’t spare the attention to fire back.
“No good, Captain. Impact in three…two…one…”
The ship shuddered and the lights flickered. Hal scanned his console for damage alerts. “No damage.”
“No damage?” Kalen repeated, brows furrowed. “That doesn’t make any sense!” He paused to mop his forehead with the back of his jumpsuit sleeve.
“A Type-26 packs a pretty big punch. What happened?”
“I think I know,” Hal offered. “Look at the main screen.” He pointed his chin at the image of the pirate ship. “He’s hightailing it.”
“Damn. It was just a dummy, a diversion to keep us busy while he escaped. Very clever, how he made it radiate the energy signature of a 26.”
“Uh-oh.” Hal frowned. “Now what?”
The bogey ejected sixty-four objects behind it, in clusters of sixteen, directly in Adventurer’s path. The objects, interlinked by graviton beams, fired up small engines and spread out to cover an area more than 1,600 kilometers square.
“What the hell are those?”
Kalen replied, “He’s dumped a net of gee mines dead ahead. If you get caught by one, it’s like stepping in glue. No big deal as long as we know they’re there, but it’ll slow us down going around them.”
“Wait. The bogey’s engaging its star drive, or whatever you call it. He’ll be gone in seconds if his engine holds together. Are we going to pursue?”
Kalen shook his head. “It’s called a hyperflight drive. And I doubt he’ll be back. Also, we’ll have to clean up all those mines; we can’t leave them for the locals to trip over some day. Besides, our mission is to stand watch over Earth, and we have some damage of our own to take care of before the next pirate comes calling.”
“Roger that.” Then Hal had a thought. “Speaking of the locals, what about the fireworks show? What if some astronomer happened to be scanning this section of the sky? Wouldn’t that give away the whole “is there anyone out there” mystery?”
Kalen shrugged. “It couldn’t be helped. Let’s hope no one noticed.”
He enabled the intercom. “Well done, everyone. Stand down from alert and make repairs. Oh, and dispatch a recovery team for those mines.”
The pirate ship disappeared in a starburst as it triggered its hyperflight drive. In an instant, the sky was empty.
“I understand using the mines to slow us down, but why fire at us when we gave him the opportunity to leave unharmed?”
“Who knows?” Kalen replied. “Maybe he was afraid we’d try to follow him back to his base.” He sighed. “See? This is why we need a trained pilot with a neural interface to fly Adventurer.”
He shook his head with a grimace. “A ship that size shouldn’t have given us any trouble at all.”
“Maybe not,” Hal said, “but you did manage to drive it off. That has to count for something.”
“Yes, we chased it away, but there are far bigger pirate ships around, with crews of over a hundred. This was a minnow. What happens if we meet a shark before you finish your training? There’s no way I could fight off one of those.
“That’s why we need you. We don’t have anyone else who can do the job.”
Talk about understatements. If Hal doesn’t work out, we’re in big trouble. We have to find some way to defend this system until our relief arrives. The people down there may not realize what’s going on, but it’s still my job to protect them.
I have to get Hal up to speed, and fast.
* * * *
Once he was certain the raider was gone and not planning to double back, Kalen turned over command to a subordinate and led Hal to a small suite of rooms just off the bridge.
“I’m sorry to rush you,” Kalen said, “but we can’t afford to wait any longer. The fact that Earth has been visited by two pirates so close together means its location is no longer hidden. We need to hurry up and get you trained.” He smiled. “I think you’ll find it quite an experience.”
Hal returned the smile. “I guess I’ve been retired long enough. Someone has to teach those pirates the meaning of No Trespassing. They can’t just come in here and steal anything they want.”
He hitched up his shorts. “They’re about to find out there’s a new sheriff in town.”
Kalen smiled again. “I’m very glad to hear you say that.” He gestured to take in the expanse of the suite. “These will be your quarters. In battle, you’ll operate the ship from the bridge, but the rest of the time you can do what you need from in here if you wish.”
Hal scanned the small room. Other than a bed, he saw nothing but bare walls. He raised his eyebrows. Kalen caught the implied question.
“Don’t worry, I’ll show you later how to access the other rooms and the hidden compartments. There’s some shipboard attire and toiletries in there for you. For now, just lie on the bed and close your eyes. Hal did as instructed. “Now, focus on the itch.”
Hal was about to point out that nothing itched, and then he became aware of a growing sensation on his arm—his third arm. His eyes shot open, to see Kalen grinning at him.
“What…what—?” The words wouldn’t come.
“What you’re feeling is input from one of the ship’s external sensors, one that monitors the temperature of part of the outer hull. Your brain doesn’t yet know how to interpret that signal, so it’s trying to use familiar frames of reference. The longer you work at it, the better your brain will become at understanding the new input. Within two weeks you should have complete control of the entire ship. Now, let’s try it again. Focus on the sensation. Your mind will gradually begin to make the proper associations with the specific ship functions.”
Hal nodded his understanding. Immediately, a spot on his fourth arm began to itch, alerting him to a problem with the galley garbage recycler. Then a twinge behind the knee of his fifth leg identified a balky x-ray sensor on Adventurer’s port side. A burning sensation on the third right earlobe on his second head pointed to a stuck valve in the aft crew shower. A pinprick on the seventh finger of his fifth hand indicated a malfunctioning thermistor in the galley on deck nine. Each unique spot on his virtual body represented a particular problem in a specific location of the ship.
This is just too weird for words! I’d swear I actually have several arms and legs. He opened his eyes and the illusion vanished. “What’s actually happening when I think I’m moving my phantom limbs?”
“At the moment, nothing. I have the interface set for input-only. Once you’ve mastered the techniques necessary for fine control, you’ll be able to set the yield or intensity of each weapon we have, vary the interior temperature of the ship, set course and engage the hyperflight drive—in short, you’ll be able to do everything needed to operate the ship except cook breakfast.”
Hal shook his head in wonder. “Incredible. And I can do all that from here in bed?”
Kalen nodded. “Or anywhere else on the ship. Your wireless link has a range of nearly a kilometer. As I said before, in a battle situation, you’d probably want to be on the bridge to make it easier to coordinate with the other crewmembers; but strictly speaking, you don’t have to be there. Sometimes I think the real reason for having the pilot on the bridge is so the rest of the crew can actually see someone flying the ship.
Hal grinned. “Makes sense. So now what?”
“For now, we keep doing what we’re doing. I’ll introduce new input little by little, and you’ll work on identifying the source of the signals and how to respond to them. Eventually you’ll be able to monitor and manage thousands of sensors and controls throughout the ship without conscious thought.”
Hal whistled. “Sounds like fun. I guess we’d better get to work.”
He shifted his position with a determined look and let his eyes go out of focus.